A report in the national magazine Foreign Policy indicates the Air Force is considering significantly scaling back its Global Hawk program. The news raises questions about the future of the Global Hawk mission, an unmanned surveillance aircraft whose mission is headquartered at Grand Forks Air Force Base and helps bolster the regional economy.
The report cites anonymous “current and former U.S. defense officials,” who indicate that the Air Force might “retire” up to 21 of 35 RQ Global Hawk aircraft as it pivots to new defense needs against Russia and China. In a statement to the magazine, the Air Force neither confirmed nor denied those plans.
“The Air Force continues to refine its budget submission,” an Air Force spokesperson told Foreign Policy. “We don’t expect details to be available until the president’s budget is submitted to Congress in February 2020.”
Lea Greene, the public affairs chief at Grand Forks Air Force Base, said in an email that the budgetary decisions affecting the future of the RQ-4 mission are “are made well above our level.” Greene pointed out, though, that the 21 aircraft described in the Foreign Policy report are “Block 30” aircraft — a specific kind of RQ-4 model — that are housed at Beale Air Force Base in California.
“Here on base, we are responsible for 10 Block 40 aircraft which are maintained, launched, flown and recovered by airmen assigned to Grand Forks,” Greene said.
Tom Ford is the director of administration for Grand Forks County, and leads many of the community’s advocacy efforts to maintain and boost the base’s local economic impact. He said he’s heard multiple rumors about the future of the RQ-40 — including that the entire fleet will be cut, or that only specific models, like the Block 20 and Block 30, will be retired.
“We’re aware,” Ford said. “Right now, I probably know as much as you do on it.”
Ford added that local officials had already planned to visit high-ranking Air Force officials next month Virginia, where they’ll have the opportunity to advocate on the base’s behalf with top commanders.
North Dakota’s elected officials are also monitoring military budgeting decisions closely. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said in a phone interview that he had spoken with Gen. James M. Holmes, who heads Air Combat Command, and who told the senator that the Air Force is reviewing its resources and no decision has been made.
“I emphasized the importance of the Global Hawk mission and he agreed — it’s a very important mission,” Hoeven said. He also pointed out that the Air Force is routinely updating its fleet.
“The people in Grand Forks are doing exactly what they should do, which is continue to support the mission and the base,” Hoeven added. “The actual aircraft numbers and models may evolve over time, as technologies are improved and developed, and we want to be a part of that.”
Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., also pointed out that the possibility the aircraft could be retired is, at this point, “speculation.” But he referred to a $30 billion figure, widely reported in recent months, that the Air Force would like to spend on new initiatives.
“I’m trying to do everything I can to keep the Global Hawk in play,” Cramer said in a telephone interview with the Herald, “because I think it’s an important aircraft. But you have to take these things seriously. $30 billion isn’t going to fall out of the sky — we’re going to have to take it out of the sky.”
Brandon Vervelde, a spokesman for Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., also noted the importance of the RQ-4 mission, and said “we are actively monitoring the situation and will continue to advocate for Grand Forks’ integral role in both military and civilian unmanned aerial systems.”
Ford said that, at this point, the future of the mission is very likely a question of politics.
“At this point, we have to wait and see what happens,” he said. “It’s very difficult to predict what could happen right now.”