By Sen. John Thune
Ellsworth Air Force Base and the Powder River Training Complex (PRTC) are national assets, and I was glad to have been at the base to see the latest large force exercise firsthand and thank our men and women in uniform for what they continue to do for the state and nation. It’s a good reminder that my 13-year fight for Ellsworth has been worth it, and, for me at least, it’s one that will never end.
Ellsworth is a fixture in the Black Hills, and it has been for quite some time. The base’s history is well-known to South Dakotans who’ve lived and worked in the surrounding area, and its importance to our state and nation continues to grow stronger by the day.
Ellsworth is the second largest employer in South Dakota and is a massive contributor to the state’s economy. It’s currently home to the 28th Bomb Wing’s two B-1B Lancer combat squadrons and the MQ-9 Reaper 89th Attack Squadron, and it serves as the gateway to the expanded PRTC, the largest training airspace in the continental United States. And, as the Air Force and Department of Defense (DoD) seek to modernize our military to win fights in contested airspace around the globe, the base is well-positioned for future growth, including being home to part of the nation’s future B-21 fleet.
While there’s no question Ellsworth has cemented its place in West River and our broader national security strategy, the base we currently know and love almost never materialized. It has required a worthwhile fight of its own, and I remain determined to protect this national asset. Without Ellsworth, the nation would be without one of its most strategic military installations, and our national security would be worse for it.
I recognize the tremendous value the base and its airmen provide, which is why I’ve always made them a priority. In May 2005, when I was a newly elected senator and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Ellsworth found itself on the DoD’s Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) list. My top priority at the time was to ensure Ellsworth’s name was removed from that list as soon as possible.
I wasn’t going to have the base close on my watch, so less than one year into my Senate service, I was standing face-to-face with the commission responsible for Ellsworth’s future. I argued my case for why it would be a mistake to shut it down, and I argued with all I had.
On August 26, 2005, Ellsworth was removed from the closure list. Failure would have meant permanently shuttering the base’s doors and runways. But even in this victory, I’ve remained committed to the base and its airmen and have sought to secure subsequent milestones to ensure Ellsworth’s future in West River continues.
In the years since our BRAC fight, I spent nearly a decade pushing for the expansion of the PRTC, and in 2015, as chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which oversees our nation’s aviation system, including the Federal Aviation Administration, I was able to help secure the expansion.
Recently, again through my work as chairman of the Commerce Committee, I was able to help Ellsworth and the PRTC expand upward via altitude waivers, permitting training missions to fly up to 52,000 feet – an attitude nearly twice as high as they had previously been allowed to fly.
As a result of the PRTC’s expansion, both in square miles and altitude, Ellsworth can continue to host aircraft and airmen from around the country for critical large force exercises that will help them properly simulate extended detection ranges and capabilities to counter modern threats, keeping them at the forefront of the world’s military prowess. I believe these optimized training conditions will prove instrumental in preparing our fifth generation aircraft, including the B-21, for future fights in contested airspace.
Again, I’m fortunate to have been able to visit the base in person and get a front-row seat to this latest training mission. Ellsworth’s airmen are the best of the best, and this latest exercise proved it once again.