Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight
RAPID CITY — The Air Force will spend $1.5 billion on 35 construction projects to accommodate new bomber planes at a base near Rapid City, according to the base commander.
Nine projects are underway, said Col. Derek Oakley, who leads the 28th Bomb Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base. He spoke Friday to the Black Hills Forum and Press Club.
“If you see an airman downtown, pat them on the back and tell them you’ve got their back, because they’re tired,” Oakley said. “There’s a lot going on right now at Ellsworth.”
The construction is for B-21 Raiders, which are under development by Northrop Grumman and are expected to arrive at Ellsworth sometime this decade.
The number of people connected to the base is expected to grow along with the facilities. Oakley said the base’s current population of military personnel, spouses, children, civilian workers and contractors is 7,728. That’s projected to grow over the next two decades by more than 4,000 people, to 11,792.
Ellsworth currently hosts B-1 bombers, which were developed in the 1970s. Ellsworth also hosts a squadron that remotely pilots MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft.
B-1s from Ellsworth were heavily used against Islamic terror groups in Iraq and Syria. A previous Ellsworth commander, Gentry Boswell, now a brigadier general, told the Press Club in November 2015 that Ellsworth B-1s had dropped 5,000 bombs on Islamic State targets so far that year alone.
The B-1s will be phased out as B-21s are built and placed in operation. The first B-21 test flight was earlier this month in Palmdale, California, just prior to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit with President Joe Biden near San Francisco.
Oakley said the B-21 is being developed with China’s growing military in mind.
“While we were spending 20 years fighting in the Middle East, we were not paying attention to the growth that was happening in the Indo-Pacific region, and particularly with China,” Oakley said. “China is now a peer competitor.”
Ellsworth will be the first of several bases to receive B-21s. The Air Force plans to buy at least 100 at a cost up to about $700 million apiece.