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Ellsworth officially selected as first base for B-21 Raider stealth bomber
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Ellsworth officially selected as first base for B-21 Raider stealth bomber

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B 21

The Global Strike Command's artist's rendering of the new B-21 Raider at an aircraft hangar on Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City.

U.S. Sens. Mike Rounds and John Thune announced Wednesday that Ellsworth Air Force Base will officially be the Air Force’s first base to receive the new B-21 Raider stealth bomber.

During a call Wednesday afternoon with Air Force Global Strike Commander Gen. Timothy Ray, Rounds said he was informed that Ellsworth has been officially designated as the main base of the B-21.

“I am pleased that the U.S. Air Force has officially selected Ellsworth Air Force Base as the first home of the B-21 Raider bomber,” Rounds said. “This landmark decision makes certain that South Dakota will continue to play a critical role in our national defense."

Thune told the Journal on Wednesday the announcement was a huge step for South Dakota. Ellsworth is not only the first base to host the B-21, but it will also host the formal training unit and the first operational squadron.

"This is really a slam-dunk. We hit the trifecta with this," Thune said. "It's been in the works for a long time. It's hard to believe that 16 years ago the base was the verge of being closed, and now here we are celebrating something that is going to secure the future of (Ellsworth), but it will enhance and expand the role that it plays in national security and the enormous impact it will have on Rapid City, the Black Hills and the entire region."

Sen. John Thune speaks about the B-21 announcement for Ellsworth AFB.

U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson said he was pleased with the selection of Ellsworth AFB to be the home of the B-21.

“This has been a long journey,” Johnson said. “We’ve felt good about our progress over the last few years, but now we can say without any hedging or hesitation: Our nation’s first B-21 bombers will call Ellsworth home.”

Thune and Rounds worked simultaneously to remove Ellsworth AFB from the Base Realignment and Closure list in 2005 — Thune in the Senate and Rounds as governor.

In 2006, Rounds led a legislative effort to establish the South Dakota Ellsworth Development Authority to help secure the base, and Thune worked toward having the Air Force place the consolidated Financial Services Center at Ellsworth.

When the B-21 program was announced in 2014, the two senators began advocating for the selection of Ellsworth as the key base for the stealth aircraft.

The B-21 will eventually replace the B-1 and B-2 bomber aircrafts. Both Ellsworth and Dyess Air Force Base in Texas were being considered to host Main Operating Base 1, B-21 operational squadrons, a formal training unit and a weapons generation facility.

A Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the base was released in August and notes that both Ellsworth and Dyess are similar in size, and facility installation would have similar environmental impacts.

Wednesday's decision solidified Ellsworth AFB as the official host.

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"The selection of Ellsworth is a testament to the hard work of our Air Force personnel on the ground at Ellsworth and the communities of Box Elder and Rapid City that have worked hard to improve the long-term suitability of the base for this new state-of-the-art aircraft," Rounds said.

With the B-21 base established at Ellsworth, aircraft operations would increase by up to 15.8% and total flight operations would increase by 41.1% at the Powder River Training Complex. There will also be about 7,700 military members, spouses and children at the base.

The Powder River Training Complex overlies large portions of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. It allows aircrews to plan realistic training scenarios directly applicable to current operations and potential future conflict.

Thune said the Powder River Training Complex was a key part of the Air Force's decision to locate the B-21 fleet at Ellsworth AFB.

"We quadrupled the size of that, increased its capabilities. That was a 10 year process... I think that was key to this (decision)," Thune said.

Thune said the mission will result in 582 indirect jobs and $23,878,400 in economic activity in Rapid City and Box Elder. Approximately 4.3 million square feet of new construction and 1.7 million square feet of renovation will be conducted over the next several years in preparation for the B-21 mission.

The record of decision formally enables the Air Force to proceed with planning and contracting for the military construction activity, which will progress alongside the active B-1 mission, Thune said.

Box Elder, the Douglas School District, Pennington County and the surrounding communities are preparing for the arrival of the airmen and their families.

The Douglas School Board approved a 20-acre purchase in September to add a new elementary school in anticipation of the base's growth and eventually expects to add a high school for 1,400 students and three new elementary schools with 500 students each.

The South Dakota Ellsworth Development Authority approved a $12.6 million recreation center planned to be completed in 2022 in Box Elder in anticipation of the base. The center will be built along Liberty Boulevard.

Rounds said some of the funding for infrastructure needs in Box Elder for the base expansion is likely to come from federal appropriations.

"We are just in the middle of the appropriations process right now for the next fiscal year. I know there are requests out there for assistance for particular projects, specifically in (the Box Elder area) that would be impacting the roads in Box Elder," Rounds said. "Normally, that would be considered state or local in nature, but I know we just got a request that I looked at today requesting some federal funding as well."

Thune said the pre-construction work at Ellsworth will begin perhaps as early as this summer.

"We know what some of the needs are and obviously, there will have to be a significant amount of investment," Thune said. "The difference between the B-21 and the B-1 is the nuclear capability of the B-21. That will take some additional construction and facilities that you wouldn't need for a conventional mission."

Rounds said some of the facility and security needs at Ellsworth will take into consideration the nuclear strike capability of the B-21.

"There will be some (security protocols) in place because the B-21 will be a nuclear-capable platform. That means the weapons construction systems that are put in place will have their own special security requirements," Rounds said. "Those facilities will have to be constructed, completed. Naturally, there is additional security anytime you have nuclear weapons capability in the area."

Contact Nathan Thompson at nathan.thompson@rapidcityjournal.com.

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