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The Associated Press June 4, 2006

Dakotas may battle it out over UAVs

By Mary Clare Jalonick

WASHINGTON - A fight is brewing between North Dakota and South Dakota over a futuristic military mission that could help save the states' Air Force bases.

North Dakota's Grand Forks Air Force Base and South Dakota's Ellsworth Air Force Base were barely spared in last year's round of base closings. And now both Cold War-era bases are aiming to avoid the next round by competing for the same mission - unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, called Global Hawk.

Members of North Dakota's congressional delegation say they have been told by the Air Force the mission would be theirs. Grand Forks was kept open last year with the understanding that several UAVs, including the Global Hawk, would be coming to the base over the next decade.

Not so fast, say South Dakotans.

"Everyone wants one," said Pat McElgunn, who has led community efforts to save Ellsworth. "Our objective is to go for the Global Hawk."

McElgunn, along with South Dakota's congressional delegation, has emphasized that Ellsworth was one of several leading contenders to receive Global Hawk in 2001, when the first planes were designated for Beale Air Force Base in California. Grand Forks was not a finalist for that mission.

McElgunn said Ellsworth is competitive with Grand Forks in hangar space, quality of life and weather.

"When you have a new technology come in, everyone wants it," McElgunn said. "They consider it to be cutting edge. And therefore if they are on the cutting edge, then they are going to extend their life expectancy."

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said, "Everyone is competing for future mission operations, and in most cases it's unmanned. We are in discussions on an almost daily basis at the staff level on that."

Global Hawk, one of several types of UAVs, is a surveillance drone that can survey large geographic areas with pinpoint accuracy and relay those images to battlefield commanders. Now stationed at Beale Air Force Base in California, the Air Force says the drones have provided commanders with thousands of images in Operation Enduring Freedom.

John Pike, a defense analyst and director of GlobalSecurity.org, a military policy think tank in Alexandria, Va., says that both Grand Forks and Ellsworth, with their wide open spaces and availability of flight space, could be ideal for a UAV mission.

"The fundamental argument is there's a low density of general aviation and a reduced hazard of collision," he said.

Like other Northern tier bases that were strategically important during the Cold War, Ellsworth and Grand Forks have lost several missions over the years. Both were home to nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, which were later decommissioned or moved to other bases. Now Ellsworth is home to a small fleet of B-1 bombers and Grand Forks is losing its main mission of air refueling tankers.

North Dakota officials say Air Force officials have told them the Global Hawk will come to their base in the next few years, along with another UAV called Predator. Now that Ellsworth advocates have made it known they are interested, Grand Forks officials have stepped up their efforts to ensure the Global Hawk's arrival.

"We had to get back in and keep Grand Forks in the forefront," said attorney John Marshall, who heads the Grand Forks Council on Military Relations.

He said Grand Forks has many of the same assets that Ellsworth has, in addition to the University of North Dakota's aerospace science center.

"We have the best of everything up here, and the Air Force has said we have met the criteria," Marshall said.

Dyke Weatherington, deputy for the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Planning Task Force at the Pentagon, said the skies are crowded in California, where Global Hawk is now based.

"North Dakota would potentially have less of those issues, but it may have other issues like weather issues," he said. "You have to balance all of those basing aspects."

Weatherington said he could not comment on future UAV placements, but said that where the planes go will strongly depend on the specific missions they are given.

It is unclear what those missions would be or when a decision will be made. Air Force officials did not return calls for comment.

Warren Wenz, an attorney who lobbies for Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Mont., said competition for new missions is tough among all the old Cold War bases, which have similar characteristics. Malmstrom still has ICBMs, but is expected to lose some of them over the next decade.

"We missile bases, the last few years, have had an understanding that we won't eat each other until they force us to," said Wenz. "The Air Force and the military are being stressed by folks like us wanting new missions."

Still, he said, "If there's a hint that there's anything that's going to come here, we'll go after it very aggressively."

Copyright 2006, Associated Press