We’ll soon know if we need a ‘Plan B’

We'll soon know if we need a 'Plan B' by the Plain Talk We South Dakotans are walking on eggshells this week.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is scheduled to drop a bomb Friday (a poor choice of words, we know). He�s expected to announce a new round of military base closures.

Ellsworth Air Force Base, nestled in our Black Hills, may be on that list.

Ellsworth, along with several other military bases across the country, are being reviewed in a process called BRAC.

BRAC is an acronym which stands for base realignment and closure. It is the process, according to the Department of Defense, that has previously been used to reorganize the military�s infrastructure to more efficiently and effectively support its forces, increase operational readiness and facilitate new ways of doing business.

In other words, it�s the federal government�s way to make our military leaner, meaner and more efficient.

History, particularly the post-World War II era, has been kind to both Ellsworth and the state.

On Jan. 2, 1942, the U.S. War Department established Rapid City Army Air Base as a training location for B-17 Flying Fortress crews. The field temporarily shut down in the late 1940s, but was reopened in 1947 and declared a �permanent installation� in late 1948.

In a span of nearly six decades, Ellsworth�s mission has changed several times. It�s been home to B-29s, the B-36 Peacemaker, and in the 1950s, the B-52 Stratofortress as part of the Cold War�s Strategic Air Command.

Today, it is home to the B-1 bomber.

Our Congressional delegation and Gov. Mike Rounds have been busy in Washington, DC this week, trying their best to convince officials that Ellsworth should be spared from the chopping block.

Rounds notes that Ellsworth currently is South Dakota�s second largest employer. In itself, it is the sixth largest community in the state.

Should it close, the economic impact would be, no doubt, substantial, not only in the Black Hills region, but across the state.

The temptation will be to continue to fight tooth and nail to keep Ellsworth open. But if Friday�s announcement bears bad news for the base, the wisest thing to do, experts say, is to stop lobbying and begin something else altogether � planning for life after the installation is gone.

From Colorado plains to Indiana cornfields, history suggests that communities have suffered less when they have been willing to let go and move forward � in many cases coming up with new plans for the site even before the base closing list is finalized.

�The process should really begin on Friday,� says Tim Ford, executive director of the Association for Defense Communities in Washington. Communities on the list �need to start putting together a Plan B.�

Should Ellsworth be on Friday�s list, we wouldn�t be surprised to see some finger pointing going on. It�s been suggested on more than one occassion that the air base�s fate will be a true test of whether Sen. John Thune truly has the president�s ear.

It�s unfortunate that the base realignment process has turned into a red hot political issue. We need to remember that it wasn�t the style or effectiveness of South Dakota�s politicians in the 1940s that brought us Ellsworth.

The base, frankly, was a gift to us, thanks to WWII and the Cold War that followed.

If Ellsworth isn�t mentioned Friday, it will be because Defense Department officials believe it still has merit. Anyone who thinks the Pentagon will determine that the base no longer fits in the scheme of our national defense strategy, but will keep it open because of our politicians� begging, has another think coming.

The number of closings on Rumsfeld�s list could be significant, although they can be easily justified: Since the end of the Cold War, the number of armed forces personnel has dropped by about 40 percent, while the number of bases has dropped by just 20 percent.

Constituents and lawmakers who feel that shutting bases will hurt more than help ought to focus on the revenue-generating possibilities for bases that have outlived their current usefulness.

Community recovery following a base closing obviously isn�t quick, or easy. But for both the military and communities, thoughtful strategies can be well worth the effort in the longer term.

The Vermillion Plain Talk editorials reflect the opinion of Plain Talk editor David Lias. You may contact him at david.lias@plaintalk.net

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