Preparations underway will make Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota the first main operating base and training center for the U.S. Air Force’s next-generation long-range bomber.
The December 2022 unveiling of the B-21 Raider at a California production facility will be long remembered 1,000 miles away at Ellsworth Air Force Base (AFB) in South Dakota.
That is where work is underway to create a home for this new, advanced member of the Air Force’s Long Range Strike Bomber program.
The B-21 is a stealth intercontinental strategic bomber capable of delivering both conventional and thermonuclear weapons anywhere in the world at any time. Expected to become operational in 2026, it is slated to replace the B-1B Lancer program currently based at Ellsworth AFB.
Preparing an active base to house a first-of-its-kind aircraft can be akin to performing heart surgery on a patient who is still walking around, says Andy Mashek, who is serving as the Burns & McDonnell program manager for this effort, known in the military as a beddown. Burns & McDonnell is providing planning, design and construction administration services in support of this mission.
“If the B-21 were an existing aircraft, we would know the precise location and maintenance requirements of every component in it,” Mashek says. “But the B-21 represents a completely new air platform, and Ellsworth will be getting the first ones off the shelf. We are planning for an airframe that had yet to be built.”
Planning was further complicated by the active B-1B mission at Ellsworth AFB, adds Mark Rivers, a regional practice manager who is leading B-21 projects for Burns & McDonnell: “This assignment required a mix of site and facility demolition, renovation and redevelopment — all of which would need to be completed without disrupting the current mission. The aircraft’s security requirements added extra layers of complexity.”
More than 60 base facilities, some up to 70 years old, will be impacted by the B-21’s arrival.
Although there are no manuals yet on how to design a B-21 hangar or infrastructure, Burns & McDonnell had the next best thing: firsthand experience in preparing military bases to support a new strategic mission. Over the past 30 years, the firm has planned and designed beddown missions for Air Force installations worldwide, supporting such aircraft as the F-16, F-22, F-35, C-17, AC-130J and KC-46A.
“Our institutional knowledge of beddowns enables us to think three steps ahead,” Mashek says. “We know where hurdles are likely to arise and how to keep them from stubbing everyone’s toes. On an aircraft like the B-21, even a flat tire can have national security implications.”
To mitigate risks, all parties responsible for anything leading up to a B-21’s flight participated in the planning of support facilities.
“Because of the complex nature of the assignment, we wanted as many people to meet in-person as possible,” Rivers says.
Despite the bulk of the planning work being completed during the peak of COVID-19 in 2020, the planning team got its wish. Meetings included up to 60 people on-site, with an additional 20 to 40 people attending via telephone. Regular attendees included representatives of the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, Ellsworth Program Integration Office, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, Global Strike Command, Base Civil Engineer and B-21 Program Integration Office, including aircraft maintenance mechanics and representatives from the ongoing B-1B mission.
Coordinating among all these parties, the team programmed and planned more than $1 billion in projects to be implemented over a decade. Early work included evaluating proposed facility locations, incorporating site and utility capacity, and conducting stormwater analysis for the build-out. Extensive field investigation and structural modeling enabled the team to identify existing facilities that could be repurposed for the new bomber, helping to save taxpayer dollars.
In addition to fully detailed renderings of facilities’ interiors and exteriors, participants used 3D laser scanning and virtual reality tools to visualize project components as plans progressed.
“Anyone could put on a headset and see the changes for themselves,” Rivers says.
Since completing the master plan, the team has designed and provided construction administration services for aircraft hangars and other facilities, airfields, and infrastructure and utility projects valued at more than $500 million, roughly half of the construction planned. A combination of civil, environmental, industrial, process, mechanical, electrical, architecture, cybersecurity, physical security, communications, geotechnical, fire protection and commissioning professionals had invested more than 100,000 work hours in the B-21 beddown before the end of 2022.
Although Ellsworth AFB will serve as the first operating base and training center for the B-21, two other Air Force bases ultimately will house the B-21 as well: Whiteman in Missouri and Dyess in Texas. Burns & McDonnell is performing master planning and programming in anticipation of the B-21’s arrival at those bases.
“The master planning, design and construction performed at Ellsworth AFB now sets the standard for the decadelong, mission-critical work that lies ahead,” Mashek says. “We’re creating world-class facilities worthy of an aircraft vital to our national security.”