U.S. Senator John Thune (R-SD) (L) and U.S. Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) watch as the Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) votes to save Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, August 26, 2005 in Arlington, Virginia. The 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission is an independent entity that will submit its findings and recommendations to U.S. President George W. Bush by September 8, 2005.

(Aug. 26, 2005 - Source: Mark Wilson/Getty Images News)

Dyess AFB Airspace Issue

Ellsworth AFB was outscored by Dyess AFB using the Air Force scoring criteria for bomber bases by a mere 6 points.   It became clear very early when reviewing the Air Force analytical documents that scoring of airspace training ranges was critical and heavily weighted when the comparisons were made between Ellsworth and Dyess training areas.   The Air Force asserted that Dyess AFB possessed available training areas better and over twice the size of the Powder River Training Complex used by Ellsworth AFB. 

What the Air Force did not reveal in their BRAC analysis nor included in their scoring of Dyess,  vis-a-vis, Ellsworth AFB, was the fact that use of the Dyess’ primary Lancer MOA training area and its instrument route IR- 178 were the subject of a lawsuit and currently operating under a restrictive court order limiting both Dyess’ low-level flying altitude and the total number or sorties that could be flown.

Thanks to a call received by Senator Thune’s office from a plaintiff in the ongoing Texas litigation case, a huge opportunity opened to challenge both the Air Force’s validity in scoring the respective ranges (or omission thereof) and the feasibility of doubling the number of B-1Bs at Dyess  when the future of the base’s training capacity was in question. From this, yet additional questions arose on the accuracy of distance flown from Dyess AFB to its nearest training areas and differences in long-term fuel costs when flying to weapons drop ranges in Nevada or Utah , when compared to Ellsworth AFB.

As the documents show, these questions led to a long and very contested series of battles with the Air Force to persuade the Commission that the Air Force had committed a critical error in its analysis.

Final Cost/Savings Argument and BRAC Commission Decision

On August 26, 2005 the full BRAC Commission met in a public hearing to decide the fate of Ellsworth AFB and a number of other bases.   The Commission’s lead analyst responsible for evaluating the DoD recommendation to close Ellsworth would make a formal presentation of his findings, followed by a vote of the nine Commissioners to approve DoD’s recommendation, or overturn it.     Using charts and slides, LT Col Art Beauchamp summarized the basis of Air Force’s closure recommendation.   He included arguments, evidence and conclusions  submitted by Senator Thune’s office that asserted that DoD had underestimated costs to close the base and that savings would be virtually non-existent.   In presenting his own findings, LT Col Beauchamp acknowledged that in closing Ellsworth AFB, the Air Force would reap zero savings and in the end cost the Air Force $20 million.  His findings also acknowledged that the ongoing litigation and court-ordered limitations impacting the Texas training range and low level route cast serious doubts over the Air Force’s ability to consolidate additional B-1Bs at Dyess AFB and the wisdom of doing so.   The Commission voted to reverse the Air Force closure recommendation by a vote of 8-1.  

In comparing the final cost/savings paper presented by Senator Thune a few days prior to the final Commission hearing with the Commission staff briefing, you will confirm that a number of arguments were clearly on target.

The South Dakota Ellsworth Development Authority was created by the South Dakota Legislature in 2009.  It is specifically empowered to take those actions necessary to enhance the base, to form partnership arrangements with the Air Force that create efficiencies,  reduce costs and improve the quality of life for base personnel.  Importantly, the Authority was created out of lessons learned from the BRAC experience and a recognition of the fact that past formulas proved insufficient to keep Ellsworth AFB off the closure list in 2005.  SDEDA is dedicated to working hand-in-hand with the Air Force to ensure that Ellsworth AFB becomes one of the nation’s premier airbases and remains open for many decades to come.

Arguments Presented to the Commission

The real battle to remove Ellsworth AFB from the closure list was the difficult job of convincing the Commission that DoD and Air Force analysis, cost calculations and estimated savings were flawed.  Most of this process was not public nor achieved in one decisive argument or presentation.   It was a long road.  Particularly so when BRAC Commissions had a historical track record of being predisposed in favor of accepting DoD recommendations, as evidenced by their mere 12% reversal rate.     

Early in the Commission review, a number of communities or states facing base closures or realignment had the opportunity to present their case in a public hearing before a visiting group of Commissioners.   This allowed Congressional, state and local delegations to make statements as to the importance of the base, the negative impact and why the base should survive.   These public hearings and usually a base tour served as a kick-off event for the more substantive exchanges that would follow.   Likewise, Rapid City hosted three Commissioners and several staffers on June 21, 2005.    For Ellsworth AFB, the substantive exchanges began in the days immediately thereafter and intensified through the next two months.

The interchange of information was primarily performed via daily email exchanges of hard data, questions, arguments and counter-arguments between Commission staff analysts, Air Force staff and Senator Thune’s office.    This was in addition to the numerous calls, letters, data package drop-offs  and meetings arranged between Senator Thune and  BRAC Commissioners .   A number of topic areas were selected  to expose incorrect analysis or omissions by the Air Force, including contradictions in stated national security policy e.g. protection of vital assets; consolidation of B-1B bombers at one base; non-existent personnel savings; operational & logistical inefficiencies ; miscalculations and incorrect measurements of base infrastructure; absent military construction (milcon) relocation cost; underestimated environmental cleanup costs;  economic impact on the local community;  incomplete calculation of post-consolidation aircraft fuel consumption; and failure to report and score the impact of Texas training airspace litigation on Dyess AFB training capacity.

The documents below provide only a small sample of the daily email exchanges, memorandum and letters sent to the Commission and the Air Force in the course of defending Ellsworth AFB.  Intermingled in the documents are a number of sample Inquiry Responses by the Air Force forwarded through the official BRAC clearinghouse to the BRAC Commission.   Many of these were in response to issues and questions submitted by Senator Thune’s office.   They provide a clear picture of the depth of detail that was involved in the competing arguments and the extent to which seemingly insignificant discrepancies in DoD’s cost or savings estimates added-up to eventually shift the balance in Ellsworth’s favor.

The Legislative Front

Shortly after DoD’s 2005 BRAC recommendations were released, Senator Thune introduced a bill on the floor of the Senate to delay the BRAC round until after certain conditions were met. Senator Johnson along with fifteen other Senators co-sponsored the bill. This included delaying implementation until substantially all major combat units had returned from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.   It also included a requirement that the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) due for release sometime in 2006, first be reviewed and its recommendations considered before any BRAC recommendations could be executed.    The bill gained an impressive amount of support within the Senate and spawned a duplicate bill in the House of Representatives pushed by Representative Herseth.   

Importantly, even if chances of passage were remote, the bill offered Senator Thune and other members opposed to the BRAC’s timing or in danger of losing a base, another platform from which to present their arguments - not only for the Senate body or the general public, but for the Commission that paid close attention to the ongoing debates that raged over various BRAC issues.    Chief among these was the question of whether it was wise to close bases and put additional strain on the services, its personnel  and their families at the same time the country was engaged in two costly conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It became clear that Senator John Warner (R-VA), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and supporter of DoD’s closure recommendations, would block Thune’s bill in his committee.  Therefore, when the FY06 Defense Authorization bill came before the full Senate for consideration, Senator Thune offered his bill as an amendment.  The amendment created such a spirited debate that Chairman Warner,  had to pull the Defense bill from the Senate floor.   The Defense Authorization bill did not return to the floor until after the BRAC Commission had rendered its final decisions.

The Battle to Save Ellsworth

On May 13, 2005 the Department of Defense released its much anticipated BRAC recommendations to close 33 major bases and realign another 29.   South Dakota’s Ellsworth AFB was on the list recommended for closure after 64 years of exemplary service to the country.   The B-1Bs belonging to the 28th Bomb Wing were slated to be transferred to Dyess AFB in Texas where the nation’s entire fleet of operational B-1B aircraft would be consolidated in one place.

Ellsworth’s appearance on the closure list was not a great surprise.    The base had reportedly been under early consideration for closure by the Department of Defense (DoD) prior to the 1995 BRAC round.   By 2005, Ellsworth was a one-mission base, having lost a series of valued missions over the previous decades.   These included a tanker refueling mission, heavy bombers (B-52s), a Tactics & Training Wing, a strategic (ICBM) missile wing, and an Air Force Reserve Officer training school.  Though the Air Force had invested millions in base infrastructure over the years, it was still encumbered with excess capacity and a number of empty buildings.    The Air Force estimated it could reap savings of over $1.8 billion with the closure of Ellsworth AFB.   The impact of closing the base upon the local community and the state would be devastating.  

The BRAC closure list set into motion an intense battle to save the base.   Any hope of removing a base from the closure list required states and communities to present their arguments before the independent  Base Realignment & Closure Commission.  The task was to convince the Commissioners that DoD’s selection process substantially deviated from the Congressionally approved criteria or its underlying analysis was flawed.   This was no small task.   At the time of the 2005 BRAC, states and impacted communities had only a 12% chance of overturning a closure recommendation based upon past BRAC rounds.

The South Dakota Congressional delegation, the Governor and overall state community stood together to do whatever it could to save the base.   Senator Thune was newly elected but had campaigned that he would fight to save the base if it were selected for closure, as did his opponent Senator Tom Daschle.  Accordingly, Senator Thune’s office took the lead role as the State’s designated interface with the Commission and would spend the next three months presenting arguments and supporting evidence to make the case that DoD’s recommendation should be overturned.    

The fight to save Ellsworth AFB was not won through political favors , party cronyism or backroom winks and nods.   It was won by aggressively challenging the Pentagon’s analysis and conclusions regarding  both projected costs to close  Ellsworth AFB  and the department’s estimated savings.  The sample documents below tell that story.

Battle Won!!!

BRAC Roll Out / Criteria

BRAC and the potential end of Ellsworth AFB arrived on May 13, 2005.    Authorization for this BRAC round had been approved by Congress as an amendment to the Defense Base Closure & Realignment Act of 1990.   Congress also directed DoD to submit for their review and approval the basic criteria to be used to arrive at recommendations for closures or realignments.   The evaluation process began in 2004, with the department’s “Final Selection Criteria” provided to each of the military services.   For the 2005 BRAC round, the scoring emphasis would concentrate heavily on “military value.”

Military Value 


(1) The current and future mission capabilities and the impact on operational readiness of the total force of the Department of Defense, including the impact on joint war fighting, training, and readiness. 

(2) The availability and condition of land, facilities, and associated airspace (including training areas suitable for maneuver by ground, naval, or air forces throughout a diversity of climate and terrain areas and staging areas for the use of the Armed Forces in homeland defense missions) at both existing and potential receiving locations.

 (3) The ability to accommodate contingency, mobilization, surge, and future total force requirements at both existing and potential receiving locations to support operations and training.

 (4) The cost of operations and the manpower implications.

Other Considerations 

(5) The extent and timing of potential costs and savings, including the number of years, beginning with the date of completion of the closure or realignment, for the savings to exceed the costs.

(6) The economic impact on existing communities in the vicinity of military installations. 

(7) The ability of the infrastructure of both the existing and potential receiving communities to support forces, missions, and personnel.

(8) The environmental impact, including the impact of costs related to potential environmental restoration, waste management, and environmental compliance activities. 

The Air Force simultaneously issued their BRAC report providing its service specific criteria, recommendations, supporting data and scoring analysis.

States and communities having a base selected for closure were now faced with a monumental task to formulate a defensive strategy within a short period of time.   Also, when DoD submitted its recommendations to the Commission, it submitted thousands of deliberative documents and supporting data analysis for its recommendations.   This material was to be made available for Congressional review, as well as, by states and communities to prepare their arguments on behalf of their bases.   Unfortunately, initial delays in making much of this material available and the declassification process made the task more difficult.

These documents only represent samples drawn from Senator Thune’s files, as well as, the 2005 BRAC Commission achieves.  They were selected from hundreds of documents and emails generated  during that three month period relating to Ellsworth AFB.   Readers may want to also search and browse the BRAC Commission archives at http://www.brac.gov/DocSearch2005.aspx using the keyword “Ellsworth.”

Gov. Rounds - Rep. Herseth - Sen. Johnson - Sen. Thune

Final BRAC hearing and deliberation/vote on Ellsworth

South Dakota

Ellsworth Development Authority