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Western South Dakota air force base will be first to receive B-21 nuclear bombers

Rendering of a B-21 bomber. Submitted photo

RAPID CITY, S.D. — Ellsworth Air Force Base will be the sole training center and first site to receive the new B-21 bomber, which will be capable of launching thermonuclear weapons.

The next-generation bomber, also called the Raider, will bring "hundreds" of new airmen, support personnel and their families as well as a building boom to the Rapid City area once construction begins in Fiscal Year 2021, Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds said Wednesday, March 27, of the Air Force's announcement.

The planes are expected to arrive in the mid-2020s, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in a press release.

I'm "absolutely thrilled," Thune said. "It will mean nothing but good news for the economy of the Black Hills."

In 2005, Ellsworth was briefly added to the Base Realignment and Closure list, the Pentagon's list of military bases that should be closed or relocated. Since then, the area has taken a number of steps to keep the base open and ultimately to be the first site to host the B-21, which Rounds said would cost an average of $564 million in 2016 dollars.

"It's been quite a ride. We've gone from BRAC to the B-21" in a short time, Thune said.

Rounds compared the economic impact of the decision to the opening of the Sanford Lab in Lead and Citibank's move to Sioux Falls in the 1980s.

"This is a major, major event for the community," Rounds said.

Ellsworth, Dyess Air Force Base in Texas and Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri had been chosen in May as the three sites to receive the new bombers, but the decision to make Ellsworth the first to receive them and the sole training site wasn't announced until Wednesday.

At least 100 of the B-21 planes, designed by Northrop Grumman, are being built, Rounds said. He said the number of planes heading to Ellsworth and the timing of their arrival is classified.

But no matter how many planes the base receives, Ellsworth will need to prepare infrastructure, such as hangars, training areas and facilities to store the thermonuclear weapons, according to Rounds and Thune. Security will also need to be upgraded at the base.

"Obviously, that has a ripple effect throughout the entire economy," Thune said.

The area will need to expand its housing, schools and utilities, the senators said. Some of the jobs will be technical, high-paying ones, Rounds said.

"Do you want the good news or the good news?" Thune said Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson asked when she informed him about the decision.

In 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration approved a plan to expand the Powder River Training Complex, located northwest of Rapid City over the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming. The move nearly quadrupled the training airspace to span about 35,000 square miles, making it the largest training airspace over the continental United States.

Ellsworth was chosen because it has the space and facilities "to accommodate B-21 and B-1 missions simultaneously at the lowest cost and with the least operational impact," the Air Force said in a press release.

The Air Force was also attracted to Ellsworth due to more intangible benefits such as the reputation of the base's leadership and crew and the healthy relationship between Ellsworth and the community, Rounds and Thune said.

"A huge amount of this is because of the local support for that base," Rounds said.

The Air Force said the B-1 and B-2 bombers will be incrementally retired as B-21s are delivered.

“We are designing the B-21 Raider to replace our aging bombers as a long-range, highly-survivable aircraft capable of carrying mixed conventional and nuclear payloads, to strike any target worldwide,” Gen. David Goldfein, Air Force chief of staff, said in a news release.

The B-21 modernizes the Air Force, Thune said. The next-generation stealth bombers will fly faster and farther than comparable existing jets, with the ability to accurately strike targets from very long distances. He called their nuclear capability an "important deterrent."

"It's designed with an eye toward the threats of the future," he said.