Grand Forks Air Force Base on short list for tanker mission

Grand Forks Herald

By Brandi Jewitt. June 23, 2016

Grand Forks Air Force Base is among five finalists the U.S. Air Force is considering for a new refueling tanker mission.

That mission isn’t the only one local and state leaders are pushing for, with U.S. Sens. Heidi Heitkamp and John Hoeven asking the base also be considered for surveillance missions in the Arctic region.

The Thursday announcement is welcomed by the local Base Realignment Impact Committee, which acts as an advocate for Grand Forks Air Force Base.

“It’s wonderful news and a testament to the hard work of a lot of people in the community,” BRIC Coordinator Tom Ford said. “We still have a ways to go, but it’s great news to be announced as a finalist.”

The base’s northern location is touted by officials as ideal for both refueling and Arctic missions because it would have short deployment routes for overseas missions. The four other finalists are Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington state, Travis Air Force Base in California and Joint Base McGuire-Dix in New Jersey.

“Adding a tanker base to the north central part of the country creates more options for the Air Force without the loss of refueling capacity in other parts of the country,” Hoeven said in a statement Thursday.

Minimal modifications at the base also would be needed to accommodate the KC-46A tankers as prior refueling missions have been hosted by the base.

That’s an advantage Grand Forks has over other locations in the running that would need to make more extensive infrastructure changes to host the aircraft, supporters say.

The last KC-135 Stratotanker from the refueling mission hosted by Grand Forks Air Force Base left in 2010. The base had been home to the 319th Refueling Wing in some capacity since 1963.

Grand Forks has since hosted missions for unmanned aircraft, also referred to as remotely piloted aircraft, involving the Global Hawk, Predator and Reaper aircraft models.

“When we lost the KC-135s and they brought in the RPAs, obviously some modifications for hangars were made to house those,” Ford said. “If we are lucky enough to get the KC-46As, the Global Hawks and the Predators aren’t going anywhere so it’s natural they’d have to add some extra infrastructure to house the extra aircraft.”

The base’s current unmanned missions are a key factor in it securing another tanker mission or hosting Arctic unmanned operations, Ford added, noting the Air Force is paying more attention to the Arctic.

The Air Force recently picked Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska, as the recipient of two F-35 fighter jet squadrons. The presence of that program and others could require additional arctic support in the form of refueling tankers.

“Having an RPA mission and having a focus on the Arctic does help our case for tankers missions,” Ford said.

Both Heitkamp and Hoeven say they have invited Gen. Lori Robinson, who oversees the U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, to visit Grand Forks Air Force Base and see its capability for Arctic missions.

“Gen. Robinson will hopefully visit Grand Forks to see for herself what we’ve built so far in terms of one-of-a-kind public-private partnerships and better understand the great potential Grand Forks offers,” Heitkamp said in a statement Thursday, referring in part to Grand Sky aviation business park currently under construction at the base.

The U.S. Northern Command is a military group overseen by the U.S. Department of Defense while the North American Aerospace Defense Command is composed of officials from the United States and Canada. Both provide support and protection for their respective areas of operation.