The Air Force plans to build and eventually operate over 100 of the stealth bombers, which are capable of launching nuclear strikes around the globe. U.S. Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds said they heard from the Air Force Wednesday that it has officially designated Ellsworth the bomber's main operating base.
Thune said the planes will eventually be housed at several Air Force bases, including locations in Texas and Missouri. However, Ellsworth was selected by the Air Force to house the bomber's training program and first squadron, Thune said.
The announcement represents an economic boon for the western part of South Dakota, with the bomber expected to potentially double the size of the base's personnel by bringing 3,000 more service members, Thune said. Construction projects for bomber hangars and other facilities are also expected. It currently hosts two squadrons that operate B-1 bombers, which are expected to eventually be phased out of military use.
"It's a once in a generation, historic opportunity for South Dakota," Thune said, adding that it will ensure Ellsworth remains a vital part of the nation's military.
The base, located near Rapid City, is already one of the largest employers in the state. According to a 2017 estimate, it had an annual economic impact of over $350 million.
Ellsworth faced the possibility of closure in 2005 when it was briefly put on the Pentagon's list of military bases that should be closed or relocated. But since then, South Dakota politicians have worked to keep it on the shortlist of sites for the B-21 bomber. The Air Force had announced in March 2019 that it was leaning towards the base as the location to develop its B-21 Raider program.
Rounds credited West River communities for rallying to make sure the base stayed open. He added the development would create a ripple effect of construction for schools, infrastructure, and housing.
The Republican senators emphasized that it will be an important piece of the United State's military rivalry with both Russia and China. The bomber is expected to have a range long enough to attack targets on other continents.
"It will let (China) know that we can reach out and touch them should they misbehave," Rounds said.
However, the bomber is not expected to be flying over the Black Hills until 2027, and many of the details of the aircraft, currently being developed by Virginia-based Northrop Grumman, remain unknown or classified.
Rounds was briefed several weeks ago on the project and said that so far it was "on time and on budget."