U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) today discussed yesterday’s announcement from the U.S. Air Force that Ellsworth Air Force Base in western South Dakota has been officially named Main Operating Base 1 for the future B-21 bomber. This designation not only means that Ellsworth will be the first base to host the B-21 Raider, but that it will also host the formal training unit and the first operational squadron. Thune also discussed the importance of this decision, considering that Ellsworth was put on the chopping block 16 years ago. Thune emphasized the all-hands effort from the congressional delegation and community leaders to save Ellsworth from closure and the work that has been done since to bring the B-21s to the base.
Full text of Sen. Thune’s speech below (as prepared for delivery):
“Mr. President, last night, the Air Force announced some historic news for South Dakota.
“And today I am proud to share that Ellsworth Air Force Base in western South Dakota has been officially named Main Operating Base 1 for the future B-21 bomber – “Home of the Raider.”
“This designation not only means that Ellsworth will be the first base to host the B-21 Raider, but that it will also host the formal training unit and the first operational squadron.
“Those who have heard me talk about the importance of this decision likely know the outlook for the base wasn’t so rosy 16 years ago.
“I had just arrived here in the Senate in 2005 when Ellsworth was placed on the Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, list that May.
“It was an all-hands effort by the congressional delegation and Ellsworth and state and community leaders to make the case to the Bush administration and the BRAC Commission to remove Ellsworth from the closure list.
“Many thought South Dakota might not have the clout to make this stand – that we didn’t wield enough influence.
“We were only given about 12 percent odds of pulling through.
“But we were determined that we weren’t going to lose Ellsworth.
“We started by challenging the cost-savings assumptions of the BRAC Commission – which began to unravel under scrutiny – and we proved that it would actually cost money to close Ellsworth.
“We also pressed the commissioners not to put all our eggs in one basket when it came to our nation’s security interests, highlighting the organizational risks of consolidating all of our B-1s at one location.
“The outlook was grim, but we stood our ground and won the day.
“And we were removed from the BRAC list that August.
“But we didn’t stop there.
“We got right to work on building up the base so that we would never again find ourselves in the same position.
“In 2007, we saw the Air Force Financial Services Center open at Ellsworth.
“2011 saw the arrival of the 89th Attack Squadron, and its command and control stations for MQ-9 Reapers.
“And in 2015 a decade-long mission paid off with the quadrupling of the training air space for the base.
“The Powder River Training Complex is now the largest training air space in the continental United States and can be used for large-force exercises that draw combat aircraft from across the country.
“And it’s well-suited for B-21 training.
“This is just one of the efforts we undertook to put Ellsworth in the best position possible to secure this new mission.
“And it is wonderful to see it pay off with yesterday’s announcement.
“Mr. President, I know that while South Dakota is celebrating today, others are disappointed in this decision.
“For those who were seeking to have Main Operating Base 1 in their states, but will now follow Ellsworth in the sequencing and wait a little longer for the B-21 mission to arrive, know this:
“My support for the B-21 enterprise will not lessen because we are at this milestone.
“As I said, we argued 16 years ago that the United States should not put all its eggs in one basket when it comes to strategic assets.
“I stand by that reasoning to this day.
“And under the current bomber road map, every bomber base will keep a bomber mission well into the future.
“The stealth B-21 will eventually replace our B-1s and stealth B-2s at bases around the country.
“Meanwhile, our fleet of B-52s will be given new, modern engines through a service life extension program.
“All of our bomber bases, which have played and continue to play an essential role in our national security, will continue to do so.
“Long-range strike will remain a team effort.
“Mr. President, the core of our military strength is our men and women in uniform.
“They have volunteered to lay down their lives if necessary in the service of our nation, and it is incumbent on us here in Congress to do our part to ensure they have the tools they need to succeed in their missions.
“The B-21 is an essential part of that equation.
“I’ll remind my colleagues that the United States is one of only three countries in the world that operate a strategic bomber.
“The other two countries are Russia and China, and they’re both working to develop their own next-generation bombers.
“We can’t afford to cede any ground.
“The B-21 is scheduled to take its first flight in 2022 and should enter service around 2027.
“It will replace our aging B-1s, which have been a proven workhorse over the last several decades, as well as two squadrons of B-2s.
“But our small bomber fleet is growing smaller.
“Seventeen of the most structurally fatigued B-1s are being retired this year – which has actually permitted maintainers to concentrate resources on the remaining aircraft.
“Flight hours are up, and the B-1 has been a key component of the new bomber task force missions.
“But that doesn’t mean a smaller bomber force is sustainable in the long run without reinvestment and modernization.
“And our national security requires that the B-21 program move full speed ahead.
“Fortunately, public reports indicate the B-21 program is on-budget and on-time.
“‘B-21 speeds to IOC,’ or initial operating capacity, reads a headline from June 3.
“In an interview, Air Force Global Strike Commander General Timothy Ray detailed the agile and adaptive B-21 development process.
“He noted that adding certain capabilities to the bombers could take one-tenth of the time it has for previous airframes.
“The ability to incrementally add new capabilities and upgrades, instead of being forced to make wholesale block upgrades, should keep B-21 development moving quickly.
“And Congress can do its part by providing stable funding for the B-21.
“And now, with the record of decision for Main Operating Base 1 signed, we also need to start in earnest on the investments necessary to prepare Ellsworth for the B-21.
“We can now get to work building the high-end maintenance facilities for the B-21’s stealth coating, training and operations buildings for the new missions, and a secure weapons facility for the nuclear mission.
“Mr. President, Ellsworth has come a long way since it was placed on the chopping block 16 years ago.
“I’m grateful to the Air Force for this decision and the hard work by so many to get us to today.
“From BRAC to B-21.
“I’m humbled to have been part of this effort, and I remain steadfast in my support for the mission and the men and women of the 28th Bomb Wing.
“I can’t wait to get to work on this new chapter of Ellsworth’s story.”