US Senator John Thune’s Weekly Column: Airspace Expansion Approval Essential to Maintaining Military Readiness

Airspace Expansion Approval Essential to Maintaining Military Readiness
By Senator John Thune

John_Thune,_official_portrait,_111th_CongressOver the past 15 years, the United States has enjoyed air dominance in every combat operation in which we have engaged. This level of air superiority allows our troops on the ground to operate with a level of confidence that would otherwise be impossible.

Today, in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, whether fighting against ISIS, al Qaeda, or Taliban elements, the skill and experience of those in the air is essential to the survival and success of those on the ground. In modern combat scenarios, munitions dropped from above are often guided by line-of-site laser targeting from a sniper pod mounted on the underside of the aircraft. The ability of pilot and crew members to operate together over mountainous terrain while maintaining eyes on the target is essential for these weapons to be used in a high intensity, combat environment. What is also incredible is that after one aircraft has dropped a munition, they can hand off control of this munition to another aircraft, which will then guide it to its target. This type of seamless integration can only be achieved by extensive training, incorporating multiple aircraft operating over landscape that simulates the combat environment.

Until recently, the ability of B-1 crews based at Ellsworth Air Force Base to train together over landscape that simulates our operations in the Middle East has been limited. However, this week I was pleased to announce that the Federal Aviation Administration signed off on the Air Force’s Record of Decision on the expansion of the Powder River Training Complex (PRTC), finalizing nine years of work by the Air Force to expand PRTC airspace over South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming.

The expanded PRTC will be divided into four quadrants, with each quadrant providing essential elements needed for the success of the overall training range. Specifically, PR-1 over Montana offers pilots and crews the ability to train over terrain that simulates the topographical characteristics pilots and crews will encounter in combat. This expansion will allow for multiple B-1s from Ellsworth to train together at home and permit large force exercises for up to 10 days per year, bringing together aircraft from all across the country to train in South Dakota and adjoining states with no live fire ever used during the training missions.

Prior to this expansion, only 46 percent of B-1 training missions out of Ellsworth could take place in the Powder River Training Complex. Now that the FAA has approved the expansion, 85 percent of training flights can take place locally. For South Dakota, the ability of our B-1s to train closer to home will potentially save Ellsworth $23 million per year, and will provide the Air Force with one of its best training resources.

By allowing our aircrews to maintain the highest level of readiness, the Air Force’s expansion of the PRTC will ensure that our air crews continue to have the tools, resources, and experiences needed to continue to be the best in the world. I’m proud of the vital role Ellsworth continues to play in protecting and preserving America’s freedom at home and abroad, and look forward to this expansion contributing to these efforts long into the future.


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