While the B-21 bomber under development by the Air Force garnered many of the headlines during Col. John Edwards’ tenure as commander of Ellsworth Air Force Base, he quietly presided over a transformation in the combat role of the base’s nearly 40-year-old fleet of B-1s.
Edwards is leaving Ellsworth Air Force Base this week to work in Air Force headquarters at the Pentagon. He spent almost two years at the base near Rapid City. On Thursday, he handed the reins of Ellsworth over to Col. David Doss during a change of command ceremony at the base.
During Edwards' leadership of the base, B-1B Lancer bombers from Ellsworth conducted the first combat use of a weapon known as an Extended Range Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile. Two B-1s fired the missiles in April 2018 against chemical weapons capabilities in Syria.
Additionally, in June 2018, Ellsworth was chosen as the first base to train with the AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile.
Edwards, in a Wednesday interview with local media, said the new missiles are changing the identity of B-1s, which have traditionally been used as close-air support for ground forces.
“We’ve seen that shift with a little bit more emphasis in what we call the 'standoff strike role,' where we fire these really long-distance missiles against an enemy, whether it’s a ship, whether it’s a weapons of mass destruction facility, or whether it’s a headquarters building,” Edwards said. “And we do that because these weapons reduce the risk to our air crews. Our air crews don’t have to fly as close to a lot of these targets, which are heavily defended oftentimes.”
The Air Force is developing B-21 bombers that could be flying by the mid-2020s, and the B-1s will be phased out sometime after that. Until then, Edwards said, the new missiles and missions for the B-1s should make their final years exciting.
The next person to command the B-1s at Ellsworth, Doss, was most recently vice commander at Dyess, another B-1 Air Force base in Texas. From 1998 to 2002, Doss was a member of the 37th Bomb Squadron at Ellsworth.
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Edwards said he has known Doss for 26 years, since they went through ROTC field training in Texas.
“He and his family are going to bring this wing up to a new level,” Edwards said. “I have full confidence in him.”
Edwards, who grew up in Hawaii, had oversight of 27 B-1 bombers and a combined 3,700 military and civilian personnel at Ellsworth. The base also has a drone unit and a large training airspace.
Edwards came to Ellsworth in August 2017 after commanding the 479th Flying Training Group in Pensacola, Fla.
Under his leadership, Ellsworth distinguished itself by winning 186 awards, including the 2018 Brigadier General Frederick W. Castle Award for the best bomb wing in the Air Force.
Edwards also faced problems, including two temporary groundings of B-1s because of safety concerns, and revelations about the contamination of water wells around Ellsworth by a type of firefighting foam formerly used on the base.
Ellsworth’s B-1s were deployed abroad twice during Edwards’ time at the base — to Guam, where they engaged in a show of force designed to deter aggression by North Korea, and to the Middle East, where they destroyed a reported 544 targets in campaigns against terrorism and the Islamic state group.
“It’s been a real blast,” Edwards said of his stay at Ellsworth. “I’ll miss the area, we’ll definitely miss the Black Hills, we’ll miss flying the B-1, but most of all we’ll just miss being with the airmen, their families and taking care of them.”