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Grand Forks Air Force Base to lead future intelligence surveillance reconnaissance missions

The plan includes expanding the number of operational units under the command of the 319th Reconnaissance Wing that are involved in next-generation missions.

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U.S. Senators Kevin Cramer and John Hoeven announce during a press conference at Grand Forks City Hall that the Grand Forks Air Force Base is poised to host future ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaisance) that will keep GFAFB in a central position for future USAF ISR plans. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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Grand Forks Air Force Base has been selected to develop and train crews in support of future intelligence surveillance reconnaissance missions.

The announcement came Thursday afternoon, Aug. 26, from the U.S. Air Force at a meeting with city, military and political leaders at Grand Forks City Hall, and means Grand Forks Air Force Base will play a central role in the U.S. Air Force's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance efforts in the future.

"Grand Forks Air Force Base will be one of the Air Force's premier locations for Air Force intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions for years to come," said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., kicking off the announcement.

Hoeven and Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., were joined by Mayor Brandon Bochenski, Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, UND President Andrew Armacost, members of the Grand Forks County Commission and members of Grand Forks region Base Retention and Investment Committee (BRIC), which advocates for the base and region to the U.S. Air Force.

In total, about 15 people met in the City Council chambers to hear the announcement, followed by a discussion about the ISR mission.

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"There's no other place that does it like we do in Grand Forks," Armacost said in congratulating Hoeven and Cramer at a roundtable discussion following the announcement of GFAFB's newest mission.

Specifically, the Air Force plans to "conduct infrastructure planning in 2022 for construction and renovation projects at Grand Forks Air Force Base, projected to begin in 2023."

The plan, approved by Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, will "provide the construction and renovations necessary to enable the 319th Reconnaissance Wing to develop and train crews in support of future intelligence surveillance reconnaissance missions," according to an Air Force release that was distributed at the same time local leaders met to announce the news.

The Air Force is restructuring its ISR capabilities to meet national defense priorities.

"We’re excited to provide vital strategic capabilities to the Joint force," said Col. Timothy Curry, commander of the 319th Reconnaissance Wing. "Grand Forks Air Force Base will remain central to the Air Force core ISR mission today and in the future.”

The Air Force plans to budget for construction and renovation projects to occur during 2023-2026 to support future 319th RW missions.

The plan includes expanding the number of operational units under the command of the 319th RW that are involved in next-generation missions, such as E-11 Battlefield Airborne Control Node aircraft mission at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., starting in 2022 and a second geographically separated unit in the future.

As these new missions take shape, Grand Forks’ 319th RW will continue to operate RQ-4 Block 40 aircraft through the late 2020s, the Air Force press release said.

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In addition to operating unmanned Block 40 Global Hawk aircraft, GFAFB remotely operates the Block 30 program, a fleet of about 20 older Global Hawks stationed at Beale Air Force Base in California. That mission will be phased out, which frees up about $2.2 billion for the Air Force to modernize its ISR capabilities.

Hoeven and Cramer had previously pushed back on allowing the Air Force to divest itself of the Block 30 fleet -- a significant part of GFAFB’s mission -- until there was a plan put in place to further develop ISR capabilities.

“That's really what today's announcement is all about, in terms of Grand Forks being a big player in the future of ISR for the Air Force,” said Hoeven, who led off announcing the developments during Thursday's meeting at City Hall.

Hoeven likened GFAFB to the hub of a wheel, from which project five “spokes.” Those spokes include the current Block 40 mission, a future ISR mission, a low-earth-orbit satellite program being developed by the U.S. Space Development agency, Customs and Border Protection and the Northern Plains UAS Test Site. All of those entities, Hoeven said, function off of similar assets, and bode well for GFAFB’s future.

“If you remember one time we were running on fumes, we barely had one mission,” said Hoeven. “Now we have actually five different core businesses if you will, revolving around the hub of the Grand Forks Air Force Base.”

When asked about how a future ISR mission will impact the personnel level of GFAFB, Hoeven said he could not answer in specifics. But, he said, “it will be growth.”

Cramer congratulated local leadership and said the announcement to expand operations at GFAFB was a credit to the community.

“What the Air Force is announcing today is really a testament to the leadership in this community, at this base,” Cramer said.

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Armacost, at a roundtable discussion following the announcement, said he learned recently that GFAFB has been designated as a federal research lab. That designation allows for “novel arrangements” between GFAFD, UND and industry, by easing “cumbersome contract management” needed to facilitate those arrangements.

“Federal research labs allow you to make agreements that allow personnel, equipment to be shared more readily and more easily,” Armacost said.

Related Topics: GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
Adam Kurtz is the community editor for the Grand Forks Herald. He covers higher education and other topics in Grand Forks County and the city.

Kurtz joined the Herald in July 2019. He covered business and county government topics before covering higher education and some military topics.

Tips and story ideas are welcome. Get in touch with him at akurtz@gfherald.com, or DM at @ByAdamKurtz.

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