Drones may make double impact in GFThe Grand Forks, N.D., region’s growing unmanned aircraft industry just might be the biggest lure — besides Grand Forks Air Force Base itself — in the base’s efforts to land a new air refueling mission.
By: Kevin Bonham, Forum News Service, The Jamestown Sun
The Grand Forks, N.D., region’s growing unmanned aircraft industry just might be the biggest lure — besides Grand Forks Air Force Base itself — in the base’s efforts to land a new air refueling mission.
A federal survey team will visit the base late this month to assess its potential to serve as the active-duty main operating base for the new KC-46A flying tanker.
Local and state officials are highlighting the base’s many assets, including its previous history with flying tankers, the new mission with the RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aircraft system, and the cluster of unmanned aircraft businesses and schools that have emerged nearby.
“The UAS has tremendous value, tremendous opportunity,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. “But it also enhances Grand Forks for a possible tanker base down the line. As long as we have a robust UAS mission, it keeps us in the game in the long run.”
Klaus Thiessen, a member of the Base Realignment Impact Committee, which seeks to bring more UAS activities to the area, said, “We’ve been told that by strengthening the UAS component at the base, all the time being aware to not threaten the tanker mission at all, it actually can benefit, because it makes the base more valuable to the U.S. Air Force.
“They’re sort of locked together to some degree, but our ultimate goal is not to threaten the tanker mission.”
The Grand Forks base is one of four finalists announced in January to be the active-duty main operating base for the KC-46A. The others are: McConnell Air Force Base, Wichita, Kan.; Altus (Okla.) Air Force Base; and Fairchild Air Force Base, Spokane, Wash.
“It’s a fierce competition to get the tanker mission,” Hoeven said.
Altus and McConnell also are finalists to become the formal training base for the KC-46A. If one of them wins that mission, that base will be dropped from the list of finalists for main operating base, according to Hoeven.
Five other bases are competing to host the Air National Guard’s KC-46A unit.
The survey team will assess each of the finalists on operational and training requirements, potential impacts to existing missions, housing, infrastructure, and manpower. The team also will develop cost estimates for bringing the KC-46A to each base.
The Air Force is scheduled to announce its preferred and reasonable alternatives for the sites by June. Then, it will begin environmental impact studies and make final decisions in spring 2014. The current schedule calls for the new fleet to be ready by 2017.
Hoeven and others lobbying for Grand Forks cite the base’s 50-year history with the KC-135 Stratotanker before the base transitioned in 2011 to the Global Hawk aircraft.
The KC-46As, developed from the Boeing 767 passenger jet, will replace the Air Force’s ancient KC-135s, which are variants of the 707 passenger jet.
Hoeven said the replacement of the KC-135 fleet is a top priority for the Air Force.
“It’s going to happen,” he said. “It could be slowed down because of funding. But they all will get replaced.”
Hoeven and John Marshall, a Grand Forks attorney who has been involved in several base realignment and closure rounds over the past 25 years, have met individually with several top Air Force officials in recent weeks and months to make the case for Grand Forks.
“In my heart of hearts, we’re going to get them,” said Marshall, who, since 2010, has served on the Air Force Chief of Staff Civic Leaders Group, which advises the secretary of the Air Force and other senior officials.
Hoeven and Marshall tout the growing unmanned aircraft industry, not only at the base, but around the region as a major asset.
Besides the Global Hawk, the base also hosts U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s RQ-9B Predator, an unmanned aircraft used to patrol the northern border, and part of the North Dakota Air National Guard’s 119th Wing, based in Fargo, which flies the MQ-1B Predator.
“The Grand Forks Air Force Base is the only place in the U.S. where both major platforms — Global Hawk and Predators — operate,” said Bruce Gjovig, director of the Center for Innovation at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.
UND hosts the Unmanned Aircraft System Center of Excellence and was the first university to offer a four-year degree in UAS studies.
Northland Community and Technical College, in nearby Thief River Falls, Minn., has a UAS aircraft maintenance technology program, and is developing a UAS systems analysis program.
Grand Forks County, along with the local Base Realignment Impact Committee, is seeking to lease base land from the Air Force for a UAS campus to be used both by public and private groups.
North Dakota also is vying to become one of Federal Aviation Administration’s six initial test sites for integrating unmanned aircraft with manned aircraft in the national airspace.
“This is about innovation, companies and jobs,” Gjovig said. “It is about UAS being used to monitor crops in agriculture, and monitor pipelines and transmission lines of energy. These industries in North Dakota are chomping at the bit to use this technology to reduce costs and do a better job.”