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Ellsworth in South Dakota on military base closure list
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Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld proposes closing 33 major military bases around the country, as well as scores of smaller ones. (Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images)
South Dakota's Ellsworth Air Force Base was among 180 military bases recommended for closure by the Pentagon Friday. Lawmakers from Maine to Hawaii will now start lobbying to keep their bases open. Many say the base closings will cripple the communities around them and weaken national security. The military says nearly $50 billion will be saved if the bases are closed.

Washington D.C. — According to the Pentagon, base closings are about efficiency, not politics. Most Americans say it's good to save money -- they just don't want their base closed.

Ellsworth Air Force base is home to half of the nation's B1-B bombers. The rest are at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas. The Defense Department wants to consolidate all of the bombers to that Texas base. It's a move that doesn't make much sense to South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds.

"It is a shock to me that we find ourselves placing our B1 bombers, which have become the mainstay of the Air Force's delivery systems, in one location in the United States," said Rounds. "The last time something like that happened was Pearl Harbor."

Rounds says that argument alone should be enough to keep Ellsworth open. But if that doesn't work....

"On the economic side, we have a tough time understanding why any state would be expected to lose its second largest employer," Rounds said.

About 5,000 people are employed at Ellsworth, and about 1,000 of those are civilian jobs. An Air Force study last year estimated the annual economic impact of Ellsworth at $278 million, including its $161 million annual payroll. The Pentagon says politics didn't play into the decision to close Ellsworth or any other base. Political scientist Bill Richardson of the University of South Dakota says, by the looks of the list that's true.

"If you look at the closings, as a nation, boy the pain has been spread out tremendously," says Richardson. "And there are a lot of senators with a whole lot more time in place who were ineffective in preventing their home bases from being affected."

Richardson says now is when we'll see politics enter the picture. Right now the congressional delegation in South Dakota is united against the closure. Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson and Republican Sen. John Thune held a joint press conference, and they were joined by the rest of the state's top political leaders.

Thune says the Pentagon made a bad decision, and was "dead wrong" in wanting to close Ellsworth.

"We've made lots of improvements in infrastructure. We've got uncongested airspace, we've got no encroachments. We have so many things to commend this base in terms of military value," said Thune. "If you look at the criteria the loss spells out in terms of military value, in my view Ellsworth stacks up very well."

Thune and Johnson say next week, a detailed explanation based on the Pentagon's criteria will be released. From that they can determine their best arguments in lobbying the Base Closure Commission, which can change the list. Sen. Johnson says it'll take the votes of five of the nine commissioners to keep Ellsworth open.

"I don't understate how difficult it is to get a base off the list once on the list, but it can be done," said Johnson. "We are going to do everything we can collectively as a delegation, working with the governor and all of the interested parties here, working collectively within our power to get Ellsworth off that list."

Johnson has invited the nine-member commission to South Dakota to hold hearings in Rapid City and to tour Ellsworth Air Force Base. Johnson says it's important for them to see firsthand the kind of impact closing the base will have.

Gov. Mike Rounds announced the creation of two new positions in his office. One will coordinate lobbying efforts to keep the base open. The other, to work on a parallel track, will prepare for dealing with the economic consequences should the base be closed, and for finding a new use for the air force base.