FARGO, N.D. (AP) — An Air Force installation in North Dakota has been trying to find its niche since its mission was changed a few years ago from refueling tankers to unmanned aircraft. Its focus might one day be at the top of the world.
The state's two U.S. senators have been promoting the idea of an Arctic mission for the Grand Forks Air Force Base, which is located about 90 miles from the border with Canada. The 319th Air Base Wing now focuses on the launch, recovery and maintenance of drones, which would be preferred over manned missions in the hostile northernmost conditions.
Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, dean at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, said the North Dakota base should be part of a team effort to help the country gain a presence in the Arctic region.
"Maintaining peace and stability and open access to the Arctic is in everybody's best interest," Deptula said. "Grand Forks is a logical focal point in the northern United States that provides the access and the infrastructure that is already available and operating."
The Grand Forks base is home to three unmanned aircraft models, including the RQ-4 Global Hawk. The Global Hawk is considered particularly valuable because it can conduct long-range missions, fly at 60,000 feet and roam in a particular area for 24 hours or more.
The base also shares space and a runway with the nation's first unmanned aircraft tech park, Grand Sky, which has major defense contractors and drone makers Northrop Grumman and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. It's likely that the U.S. will need help from the private sector to further its Arctic plans.
"I believe there is an inherent public-private partnership to that mission," Grand Sky Development Co. President Thomas Swoyer Jr. said.
Deptula said "robust aerospace intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities" are needed in the Arctic to help maintain open access to resources, facilitate the structure for commercial transit, ensure that resources are being legally extracted, and deter any adversary from taking hostile action.
The region is "becoming of greater interest to nations that quite frankly don't have our best interests at heart," Deptula said, citing Russia and China.
Nations across the world have been laying claim in the last few years to Arctic resources, including oil, natural gas, minerals and fisheries. Last month Russia unveiled what it called the world's biggest nuclear-powered icebreaker, to be used for hauling natural gas from its Arctic terminal.
U.S. Sens. John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota are trying to persuade Air Force Gen. Lori Robinson, who oversees the U.S Northern Command and the North American Defense Command, to visit the North Dakota base.
"The Arctic is increasingly important to our nation's security, and I believe the Global Hawk can help our military prepare to meet the objective of increasing our awareness of activity in this region," Hoeven said.