Ellsworth lands mission for new Air Force bomber

ELLSWORTH AFB, S.D. (KEVN) - It’s official! Ellsworth Air Force Base lands the new B-21 bomber.

At first, it will be a new B-21 training and operational squadron alongside the current two B-1 operational squadrons. Ellsworth will also be the first of three bases to have an operational B-21 squadron.

The Air Force stated Ellsworth will bed down the new bomber first because the base has the existing infrastructure to accommodate B-21 and B-1 operations at the same time.

“This is a huge opportunity for the Air Force and a huge opportunity for South Dakota,” Sen. John Thune said. “We’ve known for some time what a wonderful asset Ellsworth Air Force Base is. We’ve worked to expand the availability of training range there, and it’s now become indispensable to the Air Force.”

That’s good news for the economy around the base and Rapid City. The base (with a population of more than 10,000 military, dependents and civilian employees) has an economic impact of about $359 million a year.

Twice the base was threatened with being closed, putting the region’s economy in jeopardy. In 1995 it was reportedly on an early list for that year’s round of military closures. It was once again threatened with closure in 2005; saved at the last minute when the Base Realignment and Closure Committee overruled the military’s decision to close Ellsworth.

Before making the final decision, the Air Force performed site surveys to determine what bases would get a share of the estimated 100 B-21s to be built at a cost of $550 million each. Besides Ellsworth, the bomber will be deployed to Dyess AFB, Texas and Whiteman AFB, Mo.

Once enough B-21s are operational, the B-1s and B-2s will be retired. When that happens depends on production and delivery schedules of the B-21. The Air Force wants to have some B-21s in service sometime during the mid-2020s; with planned full retirement of B-1 and B-2 bombers for 2040.

Unanswered questions at this time include when will Ellsworth get the bomber; how many will there be, and will there be additional airmen assigned to handle the new weapon system?

As for the B-52, the Air Force plans on keeping the venerable bomber around through 2050, according to the Air Force Global Strike Command.

B-21 basing: Known for some time

While the announcement confirms once and for all the immediate future of Ellsworth, there were hints as far back as 2017 that it would be a home for the Air Force’s next-generation bomber.

In September 2017, the Air Force chief of staff said if a base already has a bomber (read B-1 or B-52) , it would be likely the new bomber would be based there. Ellsworth, with two squadrons of B-1 Lancer bombers, was a prime target for the B-21. That was still the case in February of last year: Air Force to base B-21s at Ellsworth AFB. A third confirmation came in May 2018 from then-Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, who said the current bomber bases are best suited for the B-21.

What was the holdup on making it “official?” The Air Force has to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and other regulatory and planning processes.

The B-21 Name

The B-21 is officially nicknamed the Raider, a name familiar to World War II generations and military enthusiasts.

Remember the Doolittle Raiders? It was the group that first bombed Japan after the U.S. was propelled into the war.

The raiders launched their B-25 Mitchell medium bombers from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet on April 18, 1942, striking Tokyo. This caused the Japanese to recall combat forces for home defense; as well as boosting morale among Americans and U.S. allies.

Ellsworth already has ties to the World War II Doolittle Raiders. The base’s 34th Bomb Squadron was one of three squadrons in that raid.