Ellsworth was down by a handful of points with seconds remaining in the first round of the 2005 BRAC when Senators John Thune and Tim Johnson combined for a buzzer beater, sending South Dakota’s major military base into overtime.
At least for the moment, the region had dodged a crippling economic disaster. The worrisome implications, however, were clear.
Sen. Majority Leader Tom Daschle had worked behind the scenes during much of the 1990s to keep Ellsworth off the initial BRAC (Base Realignment And Closure Commission) lists that followed the end of the Cold War.
By 2005, Ellsworth was clearly vulnerable. Without a drastic turnaround, future BRAC rounds would continue targeting Ellsworth, and a bomb would ultimately land. Schools, housing, Main Street and others would struggle for decades in the shadows of a mothballed government installation.
South Dakota and regional leaders spent little time hand-wringing. They teamed up to rebuild the Ellsworth program, plug its holes and expand nearby training facilities. Then-Governor Mike Rounds sprung into action and created the South Dakota Ellsworth Development Authority.
Ten years after Ellsworth narrowly survived its close call — led by Sen. John Thune — the Air Force expanded its nearby Powder River Training Complex to 35,000-square miles, making it the largest training airspace in the continental United States.
Largely because Ellsworth sits on Powder River’s doorstep, the Air Force announced last year the base would be one of three to receive the new B-21 Raider, the next-generation stealth, long-range, nuclear capable, heavy bomber.
Securing the new stealth bomber meant the addition of nuclear weapons storage facilities, hangars and housing, more good jobs and longtime security for the base. Ellsworth, which first opened as Rapid City Army Air Base in 1942, would easily greet a second century of military service.
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Rapid City had reached the Final Four — actually three — Dyess, Texas, and Whiteman, Missouri, the other B1-B bases, were still in the mix for B-21 pre-eminence.
Wednesday, the Air Force named Ellsworth the winner of both the first planes and the B-21 training facility. Dyess was named home to the B-21 test squadron and weapons training site. Somebody had to be runner up.
To be first in line for the bomber named after the Doolittle Raiders of World War II is a big honor, but securing the B-21 training facility sweetens the successes of recent years. The training facility will bring even more airmen and entice additional good civilian jobs. It further ensures Ellsworth will be roaring when Rapid City’s census tops 100,000 and accelerates toward 150,000.
Initial base construction for the B-21 will start in 2021. The plane — valued at well upward of a half billion dollars each — is already well into development. The first bombers to roll off the Northrop Grumman factory floor should begin taking their place alongside Ellsworth’s B1-Bs in 2025. Production will then ramp up to complete the initial order of 100 planes over roughly the next decade. Eventually, the B-21 will replace other Air Force heavy bombers, including the B1-Bs.
Frankly, Rapid City needed this break, which will help make this potential jewel city on the edge of the Black Hills into a diamond worthy of its natural setting.
Many deserve thanks. We offer a hearty well done for the bipartisan efforts of Senators Thune, Daschle, Johnson and Mike Rounds. Thanks are also due to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, former president of South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. Additional thanks are due to state government and to the Ellsworth Development Authority, which has worked to make sure land around the Ellsworth flight path is clear of housing and other incompatible uses.
Lastly, thanks are due to the people of Rapid City and Box Elder, who made Ellsworth the preferred location of Air Force B1-B personnel because of the quality of life offered here and the great community support. Take a bow.