HILL AIR FORCE BASE — The Air Force’s approval of an enormous bombing range over the Northern Plains will reduce the number of sorties sent to the Utah Test and Training Range, but will have little impact beyond that, defense officials said earlier this month.
The Air Force approved a proposal earlier this week to expand the Powder River Training Complex over the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming. The plan will now be forwarded to the Federal Aviation Administration, and if the FAA approves the proposal, it would more than triple the training range’s airspace, making it the largest over the continental United States — a title currently held by the UTTR.
South Dakota U.S. Sen. John Thune said the expanded airspace would improve national security as B-1 bombers from Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota and B-52 bombers from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota would use the airspace for training that resembles combat missions.
Thune also said the Air Force estimates that the expanded training airspace could save Ellsworth $23 million a year in fuel costs by reducing the number of sorties now being sent to Utah and Nevada for exercises. The Air Force has provided no information on costs associated with the expansion, including potential damages.
Hill Air Force Base spokesman Rich Essary said the approval of the new expansion would not affect any UTTR personnel or the overall scope of the mission currently being performed at the Utah range.
With a footprint of 2,675 square miles of ground space and over 19,000 square miles of air space, the UTTR is home to an assortment of training and testing missions for the Air Force, Army, Marines and even international forces.
Essary and the office of Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch say the Northern Plain range expansion won’t affect a proposal to expand the UTTR.
The Air Force is looking to expand the UTTR in eight select areas, which total about 700,000 acres in the rural areas of Box Elder, Juab and Tooele counties and sit just outside of the current range boundary. The lands would ultimately be acquired by the Air Force and the Department of Defense.
Proponents say the areas would work as buffer zones to guard against encroachment from communities through natural expansion and allow the DOD to better test the F-22 Raptor, which receives all of its maintenance at Hill Air Force Base, and the F-35 Lightning, which is scheduled to begin operation at Hill in September.
The expansion would also allow for better testing for weapons systems like long-range strike bombers, and other hypersonic weapons.
“The needs these two bases are fulfilling are complementary, but different,” said Hatch’s press secretary, Matt Whitlock. “This expansion should not have any effect on the UTTR expansion plan.”
Whitlock said the logic behind the Powder River expansion — improved national security capabilities, reduced Department of Defense costs, and accommodating new and future weapon systems — holds true for the UTTR expansion as well.