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Threat of Air Force base closing off the table for now

A Global Hawk watches over the gathered crowd of airmen and local dignitaries gathered to watch a Thursday, June 15, 2017, realignment ceremony -- transferring the command structure for many personnel on Grand Forks Air Force Base -- from Air Mobility Command to Air Combat Command.(Herald photo/Sam Easter)

Grand Forks Air Force Base appears to be safe from another round of base reviews after the process was left out of recent legislation.

But North Dakota needs to continue its strategy to make the base irreplaceable, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said.

The U.S. Senate passed the National Defense Authorization Act with amendments on Monday. What was not included in the act was the authorization of a Base Realignment and Closure round, known as BRAC.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., led a proposal to draft legislation that would require the Pentagon to compile a list of potential base closures and realignments to be submitted to Congress by fall 2019. With the backing of the Pentagon, McCain said he had enough support for the legislation.

The last BRAC round was in 2005, when Grand Forks Air Force Base was slated to close, said Tom Ford, government relations administrator for Grand Forks County and chairman of the county's Base Realignment Impact Committee. Leaders worked to convince the Pentagon to realign the base's focus from tanker missions to unmanned aircraft development.

"We got a mission that is a future mission rather than a legacy mission, a mission that is a growth area," said Hoeven, who at the time was North Dakota's governor.

He pointed to Grand Sky, the country's first unmanned aircraft technology park, where UAS can be tested.

The Pentagon has pushed for a BRAC round several times since then, but Congress was more receptive to the idea this time than in previous years, Ford said. The McCain amendment would have eliminated an independent commission that tends to limit political influence from larger states, Ford added. North Dakota and Grand Forks would have had to do a lot of work to convince Congress to keep the base open, he said.

"Nothing can completely eliminate politics, but it is a good shield against politics," he said of the independent commission.

With roughly 4,100 military and civilian personnel, the base has a $252.3 million economic impact in the region, according to its 2016 impact statement.

Congress as a whole doesn't desire to conduct a BRAC round, Hoeven said. The process is disruptive and costs more money in the short term without any guarantees it will save money in the long term, he added.

Both Hoeven and Ford agreed a BRAC round is off the table this year and in 2018 as Congress members prepare for the midterm election. However, Ford believes momentum is building and is still possible in future years.

North Dakota needs to make its bases irreplaceable, meaning the work they do can't be replicated in other states, Hoeven said.

In other words, Grand Forks Air Force Base must become a "one-of-a-kind" location for military work.

"In a BRAC, there's a lot of competition for other places wanting to take over your mission," he said. "The key for us is to continue to develop our capabilities at Grand Forks Air Force Base."

McCain's office did not return requests for comment.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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