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South Dakota's Ellsworth AFB to stay open
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Ellsworth is home to half the nation's fleet of B-1 bombers. The Pentagon proposed moving those planes to Dyess AFB in Texas, which currently houses the other half of the fleet. (Photo courtesy of Ellsworth Air Force Base)
The federal base-closing commission voted Friday to keep Ellsworth Air Force Base open. The Base Realignment and Closure Commission, also known as BRAC, rejected the Pentagon's recommendation to close South Dakota's second-largest employer. South Dakota's congressional delegation aggressively lobbied the independent commission. They claimed the Pentagon's estimates of billions of dollars in savings were too high.

Moorhead, Minn. — The importance of the Ellsworth Air Force base on South Dakota's economy can't be understated. The base employs some 4,000 people, and its economic impact is estimated at $278 million. It's a staggering number, but that money argument didn't sway BRAC commissioners. They say it's the base's role in national security that won it a reprieve.

Ellsworth is home to 29 B-1 bombers, about half the nation's fleet. In making their case against closing the base, the delegation argued it didn't make sense to assign all the bombers to one facility.

U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., says commissioners agreed, voting 8-1 to keep Ellsworth open. He says the case was made on merit, not politics.

"It's the high quality of the work at Ellsworth Air Force Base. We had a quality product to sell," said Johnson. "Secondly, the BRAC commission deserves a lot of commendation for approaching this issue from a very independent point of view. They were open to the merits of our arguments and we need to commend them for that."

Johnson says the delegation successfully disputed the Pentagon's argument that closing Ellsworth would save nearly $2 billion over 20 years. In fact, South Dakota officials say it would have cost $19 million to relocate the B-1 bomber fleet to Texas.

(We will) look at some military construction projects that we can continue to enhance the value of that base so we can BRAC-proof it for the future.
- U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.

U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., says the decision is great news for the state. But Thune cautions the future of the base is not secure, and says the delegation will begin work immediately to improve the base.

"(We will) look at some military construction projects that we can continue to enhance the value of that base, so we can BRAC-proof it for the future," Thune said. "There are going to be other BRAC rounds, we don't know when, whether it's five years, seven years, 10 years. They're going to come back and try and take another bite at this apple."

Base supporters agree with Thune's assessment. Bruce Rampelberg, chair of the Ellsworth Task Force, says the task force will assist in efforts to expand and add new missions to the base.

The base began operating during World War II. Rampelberg says Ellsworth's long history will be helpful.

"Ellsworth used to be a super wing, in the early 1990s," Rampelbery said. "Actually, there were four wings out there at Ellsworth Air Force Base, which is one of the reasons why it has such a strategic military value now. We've demonstrated in the past that we have the capacity and the ability to handle more than one mission."

Members of South Dakota's congressional delegation made a point to stress how hard they worked together to save the base. Still, the vote is seen by many as a major political victory for Sen. Thune, who defeated Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle in the November 2004 election.

Thune argued in last year's campaign that his close ties to President Bush would help save Ellsworth. The president appeared to stay out of the process, leaving many to speculate that the base near Rapid City would be closed.

Thune says he hasn't spoken recently with the president. He says the base will remain open because the congressional delegation worked as a unit.

"Obviously this is a victory for South Dakota, all of South Dakota," Thune said. "I said this earlier and I mean it. I don't care whether you're a Republican or a Democrat or how you voted in the last election. People realized there are some issues that transcend politics, and this is one of them."

The announcement triggered a celebration in Rapid City. If the base had closed, the region would be faced with the loss of 4,000 jobs. Ten percent of the people in Rapid City have some connection to Ellsworth Air Force Base. For now there is a sense of a relief in the state, as work begins to secure the long term future of the air base.