Air base expansion project reaches decision stage

By Sarah Pridgeon

 

A Final Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed airspace expansion for the Powder River Training Complex at Ellsworth Air Force Base will be available to the public from November 28. The project will see modifications and expansion of the Special Use Airspace that overlies parts of Wyoming, as well as portions of Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota.

The expansion is intended to support realistic combat training. It will be used by aircrews from Ellsworth and Minot Air Force bases.

According to the FEIS, the airspace currently incorporates only the northern half of the county. The proposed modifications include two new zones.

The western zone, known as Gateway West, stretches from east of the South Dakota border, around 25 miles east of Belle Fourche, to the western border of Crook County. Through this proposal, airspace over almost the entire county would be incorporated into the Powder River Training Complex.

The training space needs to be large, says the Air Force, because crews must train to the full spectrum of operations, from counter-insurgency operations to major combat. The current training area was designed for Cold War mission models and can only support around 45 percent of modern sorties, while the expanded version would support almost 85 percent.

The training area is around one tenth the size of Afghanistan, where the Air Force has developed its counter-insurgency tactics, techniques and procedures. The new size would allow aircrews to receive a mission, move rapidly to the location and then find, fix, track and simulate engaging a target.

Meanwhile, during major combat, enemy air defense systems can detect Air Force aircraft from over 100 miles away. The expanded training complex will support realistic scenarios that represent modern defense systems.

According to the Air Force, expanding the training complex will therefore cut down on wasted time and wear and tear on the aircraft through travel to other locations, such as Utah or Nevada. Aircrews will gain increased combat readiness valued at around $23 million per year by flying in the local training areas, allowing more crews to get more training with the same number of authorized flight hours.

The FEIS addresses the numerous comments that the Air Force received during the public review period, as well as recorded comments from 19 public hearings. Input was also received from affected Native American tribes, State Historical Preservation Offices, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

This input was used to mitigate potential impacts on people and the environment beneath the airspace. The proposed alternatives were modified accordingly.

The Air Force expects to sign a Record of Decision at least 30 days after the FEIS is published in the Federal Register. This will be its final action, after which the Federal Aviation Administration will review the FEIS and issue its own Record of Decision.

These two records represent the final step before the Air Force publishes the charts and procedures that allow military aviators to use the Powder River Training Complex. The FEIS is available online at www.ellsworth.af.mil/prtc.asp.