Saturday, April 19, 2014
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South Dakotans want Pentagon to keep Ellsworth open
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Local, state and national officials testified before members of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission in Rapid City. They want to keep Ellsworth Air Force Base open despite a recommendation from the commission to shut the facility down. Ellsworth is home to about half the nation's B-1 bomber fleet. (MPR Photo/Cara Hetland)
Three members of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission were in western South Dakota Tuesday for a two-hour public hearing. The commissioners listened to testimony and toured Ellsworth Air Force Base, home to about half the Air Force's B-1 bomber fleet and one of 33 bases on the Defense Department list of facilities slated to close.

Rapid City, S.D. — About 7,000 people filled the Rapid City Arena to make the case why Ellsworth Air Force Base should remain open. Even though the general public could not testify at the hearing, many members of the public turned out to show support for the base.

The two-hour hearing was patriotic, forceful and at times emotional. Each member of the South Dakota delegation spoke for a few minutes to discredit the process by which the Pentagon made the decision to close Ellsworth.

Congress authorized the Base Realignment and Closure commission and laid out eight criteria for the Pentagon to follow in determining which bases to shut down. South Dakota's delegation found fault with six of the criteria.

We're looking at a mountain to climb ... but this is a state where people look at a mountain and they carve it.
- S.D. Gov. Mike Rounds

Surprise testimony came in the form of a video by a retired four-star general. Gen. John Michael Loh was the senior commander of the combat fleet that included all of the nation's bombers and fighter jets.

Loh gave a history of the B-1 and spoke of its strategic importance to the Air Force, saying the Pentagon's proposal to put all of the nation's 67 B-1 bombers at one Air Force base in Texas violates a long-standing policy. Traditionally, he said, no more than half of the fleet was supposed to be stationed at any one base.

"It's a recipe for unmanageable congestion and never-ending chaos that spells inefficiency, waste, and degraded operational readiness for the B-1s," Loh said.

Loh also questioned the wisdom of putting all of the bombers at one base with one runway. He said it makes the bombers vulnerable to terrorist attacks and bad weather.

South Dakota officials said the Pentagon failed to consider that Ellsworth ranks higher in operational readiness than most Air Force bases. Base Realignment and Closure Commissioner Samuel Skinner questioned that rating and asked for more information, telling reporters that information is important in choosing which bases should stay open.

"I think the facility and the space they operate in plays a role in readiness," Skinner said. "I want to understand that. Because if readiness is impacted negatively by the space they operate in or is affected positively by the space they operate in we ought to know that."

"The Pentagon gives Ellsworth one of its highest scores for a tanker mission, a significantly higher ranking than the three bases that will actually bed tankers under the Pentagon's plan," U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., told the commissioners.

South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds, speaking as Commander-in-Chief of the South Dakota Army and Air National Guards, said he wants the commission to keep two military bases open for the B-1 fleet. Still, Gob. Rounds said he believes getting the commission to remove Ellsworth from the closure list is an uphill climb.

"We understand that," Rounds explained. "We're looking at a mountain in front of us to climb. But in this state, mountains don't scare us. This is a state where people look at a mountain and they carve it. Not just a little bit, but the whole thing."

The nine-member Base Realignment and Closure Commission is holding public hearings around the country. It takes the vote of five members remove a base from the closure list. In years past, about 10 percent of the bases that were initially recommended to close remained open. One commission member says he expects a larger percentage to remain open this time. The commission submits its final proposal to the president in September.

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