The U.S. Air Force's Powder River Training Complex, 35,000 square miles of air space in the western Dakotas, southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming where military flight crews train, is expanding — not in area, but with higher maximum altitudes.
Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota said for a few days each year flight crews will now be able to fly missions at up to 52,000 feet over 28,000 square miles of the complex.
The higher maximum altitude, double the current 26,000-foot ceiling in place, allows the military’s detection-evading stealth aircraft — including the B-2 Spirit bomber, F-35 Lightning fighter-bomber and F-22 Raptor fighter — to fly at normal operating altitudes.
“What we want to practice is using our stealth aircraft to avoid the most powerful and capable radars systems,” Rounds said Thursday in a phone interview. “The way you do that is by practicing in an area that not only you can fly at the height you normally would, you can also coordinate with (non-stealth) aircraft, because they have to work together.”
Rounds said the higher-altitude ceilings would be used for training exercises only for a couple of hours each day over a 10- to 15-day period each year. Commercial passenger air traffic would be restricted at those times.
Commercial airliners generally operate at altitudes between 28,000 and 35,000 feet. Training exercises would be scheduled to avoid peak times of commercial air traffic, he said.
“It should mean minimal impact to commercial air traffic,” Rounds said.
Rounds said the new higher altitudes will be used for an exercise scheduled in mid-October for the Powder River complex.
The higher maximum altitudes will be necessary, he said, once the U.S. Air Force and Ellsworth Air Force Base begin the expected transition to a new strategic bomber, the B-21 Raider, beginning in 2023.
Ellsworth is one of three bases designated to receive the new bomber, which will eventually replace the current B-1B Lancer and B-2.
Rounds said the expansion makes the Powder River complex, already the largest air training complex in the continental U.S., even more vital and helps Ellsworth increase its value to the military 13 years after a Pentagon Base Realignment and Closure commission targeted the base for closure.
“This is a game-changer for Ellsworth in terms of its stability,” Rounds said. “This basically ensures that Ellsworth isn’t going to go anyplace for at least another 50 to 75 years.”