FARGO — After 14 years of carrying out nonstop missions around the world, the 119th Wing of the North Dakota Air National Guard based out of Hector International Airport will get a new operations center and access to 16 new unmanned aircraft called Reapers.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., recently helped secure $108 million in federal funds to buy the 16 MQ-9 Reapers, which are known as Block 5 models, for the U.S. Air Force. The 119th Wing, also known as the Happy Hooligans, currently flies a slightly older version, the Block 1 model. The new Reapers are expected to be used by airmen in Fargo, but the aircraft will not be stationed here.
Reapers, which were predated by MQ-1 Predators, are remotely piloted aircraft known as drones that are used for hunting down terrorists, pinpointing hot spots during wildfires, among other uses. They’re equipped with powerful cameras and lasers for range-finding and to designate targets for guided missiles.
“We need those aircraft here with the kinds of missions we’re doing,” Hoeven said during a news conference Monday, May 3. “For the defense of our country.”
Lt. Gen. Michael Loh, leader of the Air National Guard, traveled from Washington, D.C., to tour the current facility, and he spoke at the news conference with Hoeven and Maj. Gen. Alan Dohrmann, leader of the North Dakota National Guard.
“I had to come up and see it myself in order to see all the innovative ways that this unit is getting after for the priorities of our nation and for our national defense,” Loh said. “Not a single day off in 14 years. Every holiday, when other people are out there enjoying themselves, they’ve been on missions for the United States of America. That’s a pretty impressive record."
Currently, four MQ-9 Reapers are being used locally for training and other Reapers are deployed overseas, said Capt. Jeremiah Colbert of the 119th Wing.
Officials would not answer questions about specific missions, but Loh said the Happy Hooligans have taken part in missions in places such as Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Africa.
Dohrmann said the North Dakota National Guard has not only been manning overseas operations, but they have also been involved in fighting wildfires and have more than 110,000 people-days of supporting COVID-19 testing sites.
“I probably could produce data, although this is biased on my part, but I bet this is the best Reaper unit in the United States Air Force,” Dohrmann said. “Just the level of innovation and ingenuity, the ability to look into the future, identify problems, find solutions and work with the joint team to implement those solutions. I’ll put this unit up against anyone."
Hoeven also helped procure $17.5 million from this year’s national appropriations budget for the 119th Wing's new facility. Construction is set to start this fall and finish by 2023.
“We’re not getting additional personnel, it’s just we need a technological upgrade. It’s getting to the point where it’s going to become obsolete at some point, so we need to get a new facility built so we can continue to do this for another 15 years, or 20,” Colbert said.
Air National Guardsmen haven't been able to access federal tuition assistance and GI Bill programs at the same time, Hoeven said, but he hopes to change current laws so that they can get better financial assistance for higher learning.
“Everything is so high tech now. We’re not only coordinating with everything on the ground, but have to communicate with satellites,” Hoeven said. “Our guardsmen have to have access to those benefits as that education is absolutely critical.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly described the 119th Wing's connection to the 16 new Reaper aircraft. The new Reapers are expected to be used by airmen in Fargo, but the aircraft will belong to the U.S. Air Force and will not be stationed here. Also incorrect was the Reaper model currently used by the wing. It uses the Block 1 model.