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Federal budget cuts could endanger RQ-4 drones; no changes planned at Grand Forks base, but leaders still wary

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A view of the visitors gate at the Grand Forks Air Force Base. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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President Donald Trump on Monday announced a budget that could eliminate 24 RQ-4 drones from its fleet, in a potential blow to a far-ranging surveillance mission headquartered at Grand Forks Air Force Base — though not one that would affect day-to-day operations at the base itself.

Svetlana Bilenkina, an Air Force spokeswoman based at the Pentagon, said the 24 aircraft proposed for retirement are of a model not regularly housed at Grand Forks.

"Therefore, there will be no changes (in Grand Forks) associated with this move," she said in an email to the Herald, adding that the "Block 40" model housed at Grand Forks Air Force base is expected to be sustained and modernized.

As of early December, the base houses 10 "Block 40" models of the RQ-4 drone, per a local Air Force spokeswoman.

The proposed changes, part of a $740.5 billion defense budget released by President Trump's administration, are all but certain to be part of an intense political battle over government-wide funding that will play out in coming months. It's not yet clear how deep any eventual cuts would be to the RQ-4 program, if they happen at all.

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Besides the RQ-4 aircraft, 44 A-10 attack planes and 17 B-1 bombers are proposed for retirement, according to D.C.-based newspaper The Hill.

The proposals confirm a broader departmental commitment to reorienting the military toward Russia and China — a move that could leave less room for the RQ-4 mission. But given the pace of change within the Department of Defense, it's yet unclear what the future holds for Grand Forks Air Force Base.

"I wouldn't think that any of this threatens (Grand Forks), certainly in the short run," Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said in a phone interview on Monday, adding that Grand Forks is well-poised for the future, given both the location of the base and the likely future of the U.S. military.

Cramer also said that he wouldn't "take anything for granted," though, and indicated his interest in maintaining the Air Force's number of RQ-4 drones.

The budget's release sets the stage for a political fight over the RQ-4 program's future. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., commended investments in Trump's border wall, but raised concerns elsewhere.

"While the budget continues efforts to rebuild our nation’s military, we don’t agree with the proposed reduction in funding for our nation’s intelligence gathering missions," Hoeven said in the statement. "As a member of the Senate Defense Appropriations Committee, I’ll continue working with my colleagues and Air Force leaders to ensure that these vital assets are properly funded."

Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., also voiced opposition to cuts to the RQ-4 program.

“I appreciate the Administration’s investment in our military. However, I do not support divesting the RQ-4 Global Hawks, which provide critical reconnaissance capabilities that are integral to national security both currently and in the future,” he said in an emailed statement. “The air base in Grand Forks is the easternmost base on our northern border and as such provides significant strategic leadership advantages for the Air Force.”

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The Herald reported on the future of the RQ-4 program in December, amid national speculation that the program could be rolled back in coming months. Local officials at the time were still unclear what the practical effects of any changes would be, though today's announcement helps confirm earlier reports of a strategic shift within the Department of Defense.

"The Pentagon’s challenge … is to invest in building next-generation systems that can penetrate Chinese and Russian defenses — the new B-21 stealth bomber, hypersonic missiles, and others," the magazine Foreign Policy reported in November. "But to do so, the department needs cash. So, the Pentagon, led by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, has embarked on an effort to review legacy programs to see which ones it can live without."

As news of the new defense budget broke, Grand Forks City Administrator Todd Feland said that key leaders from the city — including Mayor Mike Brown, local Economic Development Corporation CEO Keith Lund and top base-community relations official Tom Ford — all were in San Antonio, Texas, holding scheduled meetings with Air Force officials.

Those officials were unable to be reached prior to the Herald's print deadline. But Feland said he's confident the area is well-positioned for both the RQ-4 mission and the Air Force missions of the future.

"I still think Grand Forks Air Force Base is a great location. We're a reconnaissance base, and we're going to be home to the global hawk for some time," Feland said. "As we all should suspect, there's going to be new technology, new weapon systems that are going to be coming out, and we want to make sure that we're prepared for the next thing."

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