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Air Force may center Global Hawk mission at Grand Forks base

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, April 30. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS — 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 Tuesday, April 30.

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, of Grand Forks, a member of the Air Force’s Civic Leaders Program. “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 Grand Forks 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.

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.