CORRECTED-Panel spares South Dakota air base, senator relieved
(Corrects number in third paragraph)
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A military panel on Friday voted to
keep open South Dakota’s Ellsworth Air Base, a decision that
overturned a Pentagon recommendation and spared the state’s
Republican senator a major political defeat.
The decision to preserve the base for the Cold War-era B-1
bomber was a victory for Sen. John Thune, a freshman Republican
who beat former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle last
November based on his claims that he would be better placed to
save the facility.
The base is the second-largest employer in the largely
rural state of 750,000 residents.
“This is a great day for South Dakota, but we think it’s a
great day for America,” Thune told reporters immediately after
the decision by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission.
Thune had told voters last year that his Republican Party
connections to President George W. Bush would help protect the
base, but he was shocked to learn on May 13 that Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had put Ellsworth on the closure
Thune said he spent more time with base commissioners in
the last three months than with his family to persuade them
that it was a mistake to close Ellsworth. He also moved to
distance himself from the White House, which had recruited him
to seek the Senate set.
In the first round of base closings in a decade, the
Pentagon aims to save tens of billions of dollars over two
decades and reshape its forces to face new and emerging
threats. Its proposed cuts affected more than 840 facilities
and called for 26,000 net job losses.
In the commission’s third straight day of deliberations
over the fate of those facilities, it did not appear to be
ready to grant New Mexico’s Cannon Air Force Base a similar
reprieve. The base, with 2,824 jobs, is slated to close and
send its F-16 fighter jets to other bases.
The panel defeated a motion to keep Cannon open by ordering
the Air Force to move training jets there. It will continue
deliberations on the base on Friday afternoon.
In the Ellsworth decision, the Air Force had wanted to
consolidate its 67-plane B-1 fleet at a single airstrip, Dyess
Air Force Base in Texas. The supersonic bombers were developed
in the 1970s for nuclear strikes, but have been converted to
deliver conventional weapons, which they did in Iraq.
But the nine-member panel voted 8-1 to keep Ellsworth open,
citing a lack of meaningful cost savings if its 24 bombers were
moved to Dyess, coupled with a larger-than-estimated economic
impact on its home community of Rapid City.
The Air Force had counted the transfer of people to other
bases as a cost savings, but commissioners had disputed those,
saying that the move would actually add costs, citing a per
hour B-1 operating costs of $23,754 from Ellsworth and $31,519
at Dyess, due to longer traveling distances to training ranges.
“We have no savings and we’re essentially moving the
airplanes from one very very good base to another very very
good base.” said commissioner Harold Gehman, a retired Navy
Commissioners also said legal challenges that threaten
training ranges in Texas were a factor in the decision. Land
owners have alleged that bombers screaming overhead at 300 feet
on training runs create too much noise and wake turbulence, a
problem not experienced in South Dakota.