B-21 program welcomed by the very community that supported Ellsworth AFB for decades
The community came together Friday morning in a rare convergence of local, state, and congressional leaders as they officially recognized the B-21 raider as part of western South Dakota’s future.
The ballroom in the Alex Johnson in downtown Rapid City, filled up with all those in support of the new bomber program that will make its first stop at Ellsworth Air Force Base. Ellsworth AFB will house the training squadron and an operational squadron.
Scott Landguth, executive director of the Ellsworth Development Authority, introduced a number of elected officials and the 28th Bomb Wing Commander, to speak in front of an audience who has supported Ellsworth for decades.
“It’s hard to overstate the impact of team on this,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson. “Nobody let political party, local versus state, state versus federal, get in the way… Day in and day out for 14 years, the team stayed focused on getting the right thing done for Ellsworth. It has paid off.”
On August 25, 2005, Ellsworth AFB was removed from the Base Realignment and Closure list, setting forth a chain of events that would lead to the announcement of the B-21 Raider coming to Ellsworth AFB just over a decade later.
State leaders pushed for funding of the Ellsworth Development Authority, which aims to keep the area around the base in top shape to support the mission. In support of that mission, comes support from the community.
South Dakota and Ellsworth AFB are already planning for growth. An influx of hundreds of airmen and hundreds more of their family members means working to meet the needs associated with it.
“There’s land around the area that needs to be clear, around the runways for them to do their missions,” said Gov. Kristi Noem. “They’ll continue to build out that buffer zone around the base but beyond that, we’ve got some housing needs that we’ll have to address, which we have a plan for.”
$1.8 million dollars was approved in South Dakota’s state budget this year, matched with federal dollars, to allow for those improvements at Ellsworth and the surrounding community. But eyes look to next year where infrastructure funds will be factored in.
“The fiscal year 20-21 budget is the one we’ll start the construction on the security out here for thermonuclear weapons security and for the types of hangars we’ll have to have,” said Sen. Mike Rounds.
Col. John Edwards, 28th Bomb Wing Commander, says making sure the base is ready for the families and not just the B-21, will be considered over the coming years. “Whether it’s housing, childcare, or other needs that are that strong foundation to ensure we can get the mission done in the future years,” said Edwards.
Getting the mission done also means allowing training operations to continue and keep up with the demands of newer aircraft. The Powder River Training Complex is the largest training airspace in the continental United States and has proven crucial to the value of Ellsworth AFB. Hitting new heights and expanding over portions of South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming over the past few years has been a goal of Sen. John Thune to ensure that value.
“What we would like to see is higher altitude to bring in a lot of our fifth generation aircraft like the F-22 and F-35 to train with the B-1 and future B-21,” said Edwards. “We’d also like to just say thank you to all the ranchers, to the Native American Tribes, and the folks that own the land below the Powder River Training Complex that support our access to it because it does play a key roll in making sure Ellsworth AFB is ready and lethal.”
Local cities are also preparing for the boom.
“We’re going to be getting a lot of advice from national contractors who have been through base expansions like this before and can advise us on the best path forward,” said Mayor Steve Allender.
As for local funds, Allender says funding a growing population before they contribute to the tax base will be a win-able challenge.
“We’re a sales tax economy so the more people that are here, the more sales that are made,” said Allender. “The more sales that are made, the more our economy grows and we’re all going to benefit, I think.”
Sen. John Thune says he visited Douglas Schools in Box Elder about a month ago. “They’re already at capacity,” said Thune. “The federal government is going to do what it can to help.”
The Air Force says the B-21 will be rolled out in the mid-2020’s. The B-21 passed design review in December 2018 and now, the Air Force is conducting the research and development process to create the tools needed to train airmen in every aspect of the stealth bomber.
The Raider will have both conventional and nuclear capabilities but beyond that, not much else is known about the long-range stealth bomber. The timeline is vague but the B-21 is not that far off.
“I’ve had some opportunities that other people have not had in regards to the B-21,” said Sen. Rounds. “When the time is right and folks get the opportunity to see what this new platform is, I don’t think there will be anyone who will not be impressed.”
There are still a few more hurdles to jump before the B-21 can land at Ellsworth.
The Environment Protection Agency needs to release an Environmental Impact Statement, allowing for infrastructure growth and final base decisions.
“The Environmental Impact Statement is something like any major project that you have to undertake,” said Thune. “That will start soon and we think it’ll go well.”
Tackling local challenges is one thing, but keeping bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for the B-21 program is another.
“I think it’s pretty accepted,” said Thune. “We fought in the last decade advocating for the bomber… If the Air Force is making decisions about how we’re going to defend the country into the next several decades, there is no question that this long range strike capability is going to be critical to that.”
As for any other future challenges the B-21 Raider and western South Dakota may face, leaders are confident there’s no hill they can’t climb.
“In South Dakota, hills don’t bother us,” said Rounds.