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Grand Forks must brand itself as a Global Hawk base, commander says

Col. Benjamin Spencer, commander of Grand Forks Air Force Base, speaks Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, at the Ramada Inn in Grand Forks as he presents the State of the Base address to community leaders. (April Baumgarten/Grand Forks Herald)

Col. Benjamin Spencer feels the classification of Grand Forks Air Force Base finally matches up with its mission and operations.

As the base's commander, he and other officers there have to find a way to communicate to the community, soldiers and the rest of the country exactly what the 319th Air Base Wing is: a Global Hawk base in a Global Hawk community.

"I don't think we talk about it enough to our airmen, I don't think we talk about it enough to you," Spencer said. "We have to work harder to bring that mission to airmen," he said. "We have to work harder to bring that mission to you all. This today is a big Step 1 for us all."

The message was part of Spencer's State of the Base address to local leaders and service members Tuesday at the Ramada Inn in Grand Forks. He highlighted the base's annual economic impact of approximately $252.3 million and the history of the wing, noting its mission has changed multiple times since it was founded in 1955.

"There are some out there that think Grand Forks is an old Cold War ... base," Spencer said. "There have been a lot of change at Grand Forks. Most bases haven't seen this range of missions on their bases."

The base developed from its original mission of fighter interception during the Cold War to a bomber and tanker base. Bombers and tankers have disappeared at the base over the years, with the tanker mission ending in 2005.

Since then, the base's mission has shifted toward unmanned aircraft development. In 2011, it received its Global Hawk mission. The UAS surveillance technology can fly more than 34 hours on a single tank of fuel and up to 12,300 nautical miles at up to 60,000 feet in the air, said Chief Master Sgt. Brian Thomas, command chief of the 319th.

New mission

The most significant change at the base this year was its change in June from Air Mobility Command, a mission it held for 26 years, to Air Combat Command, which better highlights the base's Global Hawk operations of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, Spencer said.

"We were always a base that was mismatched with AMC after the tankers left," he said.

The base needs to understand where it has been and what its future is, but it also needs to focus on the present and what it is now, Spencer said. Thomas reiterated from top brass with the Air Combat Command that Global Hawks are part of the future of the Air Force. Pilots at Grand Forks are operating UAS sometimes halfway across the world, he added.

"We are also the only wing in the United States that is globally engaged in conflict from this base, of all of the wings in the United States Air Force," Thomas said. "We have aircraft flying all over the globe 365 days a year 24/7.

"We're doing 95 percent of our flying not here at Grand Forks Air Force Base."

The base is in the process of rebranding itself not only as a Global Hawk base but as one that highlights Grand Forks and the surrounding area, Spencer said. He joked that an introductory video showed service members in Grand Forks wearing old uniforms operating aircraft that hadn't been at the base in years. He also said the video looks like it was shot in the winter.

"We don't need to advertise that it snows here. Everyone knows it snows in North Dakota," he said as the crowd laughed. "Let's focus on some other things that are great about Grand Forks."

The base shot a shorter video that depicts scenes from the other three seasons in Grand Forks. It also is working with the local Chamber to promote the "Way Cooler Than You Think" campaign, which is aimed at attracting potential residents to the area.

It was easier to connect community members with manned aircraft compared to Global Hawks, Spencer said, but he wants people to automatically think of Grand Forks as a Global Hawk base.

He thanked Grand Forks for being open and supportive of the base, adding the community plays a key role in recruitment and retention.

"I know in my heart that no matter what mission comes to this base, the community and community leaders will support that mission," he said.

The base is home to 1,600 active duty service members, 1,500 family members, 400 civilian employees and 134 specialists, Spencer said.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers business and political stories. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family continues to raise 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 the Dickinson 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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