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Grand Forks Air Force Base in line to own Global Hawk mission

Fourteen years after Grand Forks Air Force Base lost its last mission, the base soon may be responsible for operations dealing with the Global Hawk--the high-flying, unmanned reconnaissance aircraft that fly globally to collect data for the Air F...

Crew chiefs from the 69th Maintenance Squadron at the Grand Forks Air Force Base perform routine maintenance on a RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned military aircraft Tuesday. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Fourteen years after Grand Forks Air Force Base lost its last mission, the base soon may be responsible for operations dealing with the Global Hawk-the high-flying, unmanned reconnaissance aircraft that fly globally to collect data for the Air Force.

It's a substantial move that officials in the community say should further ease concerns that the base will close in the foreseeable future.

The Air Force is considering a redesignation of the 319th Air Base Wing to a reconnaissance wing, Grand Forks Air Force Base confirmed late Tuesday afternoon. The confirmation came after several Air Force boosters in Grand Forks said the change is imminent.

The move would "align the flying mission resident at Grand Forks AFB with the base's host wing and its installation support functions," the base said in response to the Herald's questions Tuesday. "The details of this potential change are still being worked out and we will share more information once finalized if we decide to pursue that option."

Community leaders are excited.


"We went from losing our tankers in 2005 and not having a mission to, come June 28, 2019, owning the entire Global Hawk mission, Air Force-wide," said Tom Ford, coordinator for the Grand Forks Base Retention and Investment Committee.

Also in June, the base will welcome a new commander, whose name is not yet announced.

If the redesignation becomes official, Air Force personnel operating Global Hawk aircraft across the globe-including those who work in Guam, Japan, Italy and Beale Air Force Base in California-will report to the Grand Forks commander.

"Most people thought of Grand Forks as a local base, and in many ways it was," said Bruce Gjovig, another BRIC member and a civil leader for Grand Forks Air Force Base with the U.S. Air Force. "What this really means is now, we're becoming a global base. The Grand Forks Air Force Base now will have detachments."

"We don't have to live in fear anymore of the 'Are we going to lose our base?' question," Ford said. "With Grand Forks Air Force Base owning the mission, the future for our base is very bright."

The base has been familiar with Global Hawk since 2005, when then-U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad briefly mentioned moving the mission here, shortly before the U.S. Air Force ultimately moved the base's KC-135 Stratotanker mission to McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas.

Instead of giving Grand Forks the mission, Air Force officials used GFAFB as a detachment of the Beale base, which has, and still momentarily owns, the Global Hawk mission.

As far as Ford knows, Beale won't be losing any people.


"They'll still have iron on the runway. They'll still have pilots there," Ford said.

The first Global Hawk arrived to Grand Forks in 2011. Three years later, the community broke ground on Grand Sky, a UAS-specific aviation park currently hosting major defense contractors Northrop Grumman and General Atomics. Community leaders say the commercial UAS presence at the base has helped prove the base's importance to the federal government, and therefore has eased worries about base closure.

Northrop Grumman is the company responsible for the Global Hawk.

"What we're doing at Grand Sky is very symbiotic with the mission at Grand Forks Air Force Base," said Ford.

"Our goal is to have an Air Force base for several decades to come, and each of these moves has a small impact on that," said Barry Wilfahrt, president of the local Chamber of Commerce and a member of the BRIC committee.

Owning the Air Force's Global Hawk mission won't have in immediate economic impact on the community surrounding the base.

"It won't immediately mean additional personnel at Grand Forks and Grand Forks Air Force Base, but I think over time it probably will," said Grand Forks City Council President Dana Sande, who represents the council on BRIC. "I anticipate we'll see a lot of high-ranking officials, in the military as well as in the government, coming to Grand Forks, as well as other businesses that want to do work with Northrup Grumman."

Wilfahrt said more personnel could eventually come with future opportunities in cybersecurity, as well as in intelligence, survey and reconnaissance efforts.


"Where are those additional opportunities to grow in this ISR mission space? And potentially bring in additional cyber or ISR-type missions to Grand Forks, that's where you would potentially get some additional personnel," he said.

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