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Ellsworth Air Force Base begins construction for B-21 bomber plane

Col. Joseph Sheffield, commander at Ellsworth Air Force Base, discusses the B-21 Bomber at a conference in Rapid City.
Arielle Zionts
/
SDPB
Col. Joseph Sheffield, commander at Ellsworth Air Force Base, discusses the B-21 Bomber at a conference in Rapid City.

Construction for the new B-21 bomber plane is taking flight at Ellsworth Air Force Base.

"The construction is really going in full force this year," said Base Commander Col. Joseph Sheffield.

The projects are expected to cost just under $1 billion, Sheffield said.

The pending arrival of the B-21 in the mid 2020s is also expected to bring in thousands of new residents, construction projects and economic growth across the Black Hills.

Northrop Grumman is building 100 of the new bombers.

Each plane costs $550 million — for a total of $55 billion according to James Kowalski, vice president of government relations.

Kowalski, a former general with the Air Force, said the bombers can fly long distances, evade detection through stealth technology, and drop traditional and nuclear bombs.

They can also quickly sync and adapt to new weapons, technology and parts.

"It's an open architecture and what I mean by that is you can very quickly upgrade and update," Kowalski said.

He said six B-21s are in production and one is already in testing.

The planes will be stationed at multiple bases but Ellsworth will host the training program and be home to the first B-21 planes and squadron.

The base expects to begin six construction projects this year, Sheffield said.

The first project is a new hangar for the B-21s. Construction will begin in a few months after an old hangar is demolished, Sheffield said.

The base will also construct buildings for training, maintenance and a flight simulator. New housing is expected on and off base.

Sheffield said the base is hoping to save money by repurposing, rearranging and expanding support facilities, such as dining areas.

The Air Force may also build a Weapons Generation Facility capable of storing and maintaining nuclear weapons, according to the Environmental Impact Statement.

The yellow boxes are proposed sites for the new Weapons Generation Facility at Ellsworth Air Force Base.
B-21 Environmental Impact Statemen
The yellow boxes are proposed sites for the new Weapons Generation Facility at Ellsworth Air Force Base.

Sheffield said there are currently about 5,600 service members, family members and civilian workers connected to the base.

The population at the base and surrounding communities should temporarily grow during the construction period, Sheffield said.

He said the permanent population is expected to grow by 3,000 to 5,000 people, once the B-21s arrive.

Kowalski and Sheffield are two of the speakers at the Black Hills Defense & Industry Symposium this week in Rapid City.

Military, business, technology and education leaders are discussing the new construction at the base, status of the B-21s, and South Dakota companies in the military and national security fields. Other topics include university research and how colleges are preparing students to work in the industry.

The event is also hosting sessions about the Air Force and South Dakota Mines studying and cleaning up PFAS chemicals that can impact drinking water safety at the base and nearby town of Box Elder.

 Research posters from South Dakota Mines
Arielle Zionts
/
SDPB
Research posters from South Dakota Mines

"There's a lot of really important things that are happening in the Black Hills that support defense in many different ways," said Lynn Kendall, community relations director at the Ellsworth Development Authority. "From the mission at Ellsworth to Camp Rapid (National Guard) to the emerging technologies related to the defense industry."

Kendall said construction companies and universities also play a key role by providing research and preparing students for the workforce.

Arielle Zionts, rural health care correspondent, is based in South Dakota. She primarily covers South Dakota and its neighboring states and tribal nations. Arielle previously worked at South Dakota Public Broadcasting, where she reported on business and economic development.
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