In the era of the 24-hour news cycle and instant gratification, it’s important to remember that some good things still take time. On June 9, South Dakota scored a historic, once-in-a-generation win when the U.S. Air Force signed a record of decision to formally designate Ellsworth Air Force Base in Box Elder as Main Operating Base 1—the first home of the B-21 stealth bomber. I couldn’t be prouder to welcome this mission in the years ahead and am eager to start the transformation of the base to prepare for the formal training unit and the first operational squadron for the Raider.
The record of decision will set off a flurry of activity at the base over the next several years to build high-end maintenance facilities for the B-21’s stealth coating, training and operations buildings, and a secure weapons facility to support the nuclear mission. Hundreds of millions of dollars of military construction will be invested in Ellsworth in anticipation of the mission, which will preserve America’s global military reach in the high-end fight, and it will support a projected 7,700 airmen, spouses, and dependents at Ellsworth, with a total end-state increase of 3,147 individuals. We are fortunate the nation has entrusted South Dakota to host this mission.
This consequential decision for the Air Force and the state of South Dakota is all the more momentous when you consider how close we came to not having an Air Force base West River at all. Ellsworth was on the ropes 16 years ago. The base was placed on the Department of Defense’s Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) list just months after I arrived to the Senate in 2005. When the bad news broke that May, I immediately went to work, joined by the community and other elected officials. We dug in, put up a fight, and convinced the BRAC commission that Ellsworth was a vital national security asset and that moving the B-1 fleet from Ellsworth would actually cost money. We also made the case that the U.S. military shouldn’t put all its eggs in one basket—that it shouldn’t consolidate all of its strategic assets in one location. By August, Ellsworth was removed from the closure list, and it’s fair to say we kept our sleeves rolled up ever since, seeking every opportunity to strengthen Ellsworth’s role in our national security with the aim of getting this very news.
One of the most transformative steps taken was the decades-long effort to quadruple the local training airspace, the Powder River Training Complex (PRTC). The PRTC 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. Advanced aircraft need larger training space, and the PRTC gave us an edge in winning the B-21 mission.
Ellsworth went from imminent closure to now being on the cutting edge of America’s national security and strategic deterrence. It’s been a team effort, from the local communities in Box Elder and Rapid City, to state partners like the Ellsworth Development Authority, and strong relationships with the base and Air Force leaders. And it couldn’t have happened without keeping an unwavering focus on it for 16 years – an almost unthinkable time horizon by today’s standards.
But sometimes you have to play the long game. And in being patient and strategic, we’ve shared some great wins together: saving the historic Hot Springs VA to preserve regional care for America’s veterans; securing a future for the former Homestake gold mine as a state-of-the-art physics lab in Lead; and connecting rural communities across the state with broadband and the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System. And now, cementing Ellsworth Air Force Base’s legacy in our national security and South Dakota’s economy for decades to come.
I’m grateful to the Air Force for this decision and the hard work by so many to get us to today. I remain steadfast in my support for the mission and the men and women of the 28th Bomb Wing, who have put Ellsworth on the map, and I am thrilled for this B-21 announcement, which will keep it there.
John Thune represents South Dakota in the U.S. Senate.