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Grand Forks Herald May 14, 2005

Will Hawk fly in?

By Stephen J. Lee

Grand Forks Air Force Base was on the closure list at the Pentagon as recently as two weeks ago, but an Eleventh hour meeting with the Air Force's top officers appears to have changed minds to keep it open, according to North Dakota's top-ranking political officers.

One reason appears to be a potential new mission for the base: unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

The particular UAV mentioned is the Global Hawk.

U.S. Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, and Rep. Earl Pomeroy, all Democrats, joined with Gov. John Hoeven, a Republican, in a meeting April 28 in Washington with the Air Force's top brass.

"Our sense was that Grand Forks was on the list for closure and that really we got them to take another look," Hoeven said Friday in an interview with the Herald.

Conrad agreed, telling the Herald that at the April 28 meeting, he used a map to point out graphically that Grand Forks was the last major Air Force base along the Canadian border going east until the Massachusetts state line.

Hoeven added, "We made several points very aggressively, one of which was that if you look at the location of the Air Force bases, they are on the coasts and in the South. They have really reduced any presence in the north-central part of the country, and they need to maintain a presence in this part of the country."

Conrad and Hoeven also said their group emphasized to Air Force officials that a new homeland security bill includes money - added in by Conrad - to develop unmanned aerial vehicles to patrol the Canadian border.

The UAVs could be the same kinds used by the Air Force in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In the "Justification" portion of its list of recommended closures and realignments released Friday, the Pentagon said "Grand Forks is one of the last remaining active military installations in the region."

And, while ranking lowest in military value of any tanker base, Grand Forks "of Northern Tier bases ... ranked highest in military value for the UAV mission."

That language, Conrad said, sure seemed to echo the arguments he, Hoeven and others mounted April 28.

Assured mission

Friday, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper assured Conrad that he's committed to getting a UAV mission at the Grand Forks base, and that the Global Hawk is a likely candidate.

Conrad said the whole area of UAVs is where a large chunk of federal research and development dollars are going to be going for years to come, meaning the upside potential for the Grand Forks base is good.

There are several types of UAVs used for reconnaissance, traveling thousands of miles without a human aboard, shooting live video from 12 miles high, returning and landing all by remote control and computer programming.

Last year, Conrad added into the Intelligence Reform Bill passed in December the "Smart Border" project, which would base a new program of UAV research and development in Grand Forks to provide a new kind of border surveillance.

It's all part of the stepped-up stateside security needed since 9-11, he said.

The idea behind the project is to use sensors, cameras and unmanned aircraft to keep a closer eye on the border.

The Smart Border project would involve UND, North Dakota State University, Hewlett-Packard and Computer Sciences Corp.

Having the same kind of aircraft stationed with the Air Force just outside Grand Forks seems like a natural fit, Conrad and Hoeven said.

The potential of a Pentagon UAV mission here is big, Conrad and Hoeven said.

Conrad said that UAV technology is going to attract major research and development funding for years to come, and that Grand Forks is in an excellent position to become a major center for such work.

Hoeven said, "This is a growth area for the Air Force, and we want to be in a growing business."

He and Conrad and others linked UND and the Smart Border project to the idea of UAVs at the base in their pitch to Air Force officials, Hoeven said.

"Absolutely, we talked about UND's aviation program, and the NASA flying laboratory and also about training helicopter pilots and other things going on out at UND's aerospace program. And our 'airspace initiative,' that that's why they would have room over North Dakota to conduct these operations."

The airspace initiative, being studied by the Air National Guard, aims at letting the Pentagon make more and better use of the skies over North Dakota for testing and maneuvers.

Many questions

One defense analyst says that while that all makes sense, there are many questions still unanswered about where the Global Hawk might be positioned and whether the Pentagon will work closely with the Department of Homeland Security.

"I think this is a preview of coming attractions, in that I don't think exactly what that will be doing has been very well defined yet," said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org. "There's been a lot of talk of using the Global Hawk for border control, but I haven't seen too much really laid out in detail."

Given the long-range capability of the Global Hawk and other UAVs, Pike said, "It's not evident to me why you would need a base in the middle of the border rather than just being able to do it from the four corners."

However, the Grand Forks Border Patrol office is in charge of a region stretching from Montana to Michigan, Conrad has pointed out in explaining the Smart Border project, making it a logical point for the new technology.

UAVs, and especially the Global Hawk, are popular all over the Air Force as the coming thing, said Loren Thompson, defense analyst with the Lexington Institute in Washington. Which makes him wonder, too, how and why the decisions are being made as to where to locate them.

The Air Force plans to have about 50 Global Hawks within a few years. The home base is Beale Air Force Base near Sacramento, Calif.

The first Global Hawks already have been used in war in the Middle East, giving commanders a live video of battlefields from 65,000 feet in the air for hours at a time. They are piloted by Air Force pilots at a computer keyboard in a room somewhere, usually hundreds if not thousands of miles away. The aircraft can fly for up to 40 hours or more, covering 14,000 miles.

"I was just talking to the commander of the Pacific Air Force this last weekend and he is looking forward to when the Global Hawks are deployed in Guam," Thompson said.

Hoeven said the presence of the Air National Guard in the state is part of the planning for the new UAV mission at Grand Forks.

Touting the burgeoning cooperation and potential for "crew augmentation" between the Air National Guard and the Air Force in the state also seemed to ring some bells in Washington, Hoeven said.

While the Air Guard wing in Fargo will remain there under the current BRAC proposal, Grand Forks also will get additional Air Guard presence, still to be defined, Hoeven said. But the UAV mission would involve a joint Air Force and Air Guard operation, he said.



Copyright 2005, Grand Forks Herald