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Kevin Bonham, Forum News Service, Published March 22 2014

Spared: Pentagon budget spares N.D. Air Force units, Air Guard

GRAND FORKS - The Pentagon’s proposed budget cuts should spare Air Force bases in Grand Forks and Minot, along with the North Dakota Air National Guard, according to officials familiar with the issue.

The state National Guard says its army units remain threatened, however.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last month proposed the removal of nearly 500 aircraft nationwide over the next five years, including entire fleets, such as the A-10 Thunderbolt II and U-2, from bases across the country.

Under the plan, Grand Forks Air Force Base will neither gain nor lose any of its RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aircraft. Minot Air Force Base, home to B-52H bombers and Minuteman III nuclear missiles, will see little if any impact.

“Obviously, we’re pleased with the way it’s going,” said Josh Carter, military legislative assistant for Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. “It will have to be vetted, but it’s a good place to start from.”

The budget cuts also would have little immediate impact on the Fargo-based Air National Guard’s 119th Wing, which hosts nine MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft. The guard unit is slated to see improved versions of those aircraft.

All of which contrasts with the potential fate of the North Dakota Army National Guard.

Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk, the adjutant general, said a week ago the guard may have to cut troop strength by as much as 8.8 percent, or 250 to 300 soldiers.

The Pentagon is calling for a 20,000-soldier reduction, from 355,000 to 335,000, throughout the Armed Forces.

Grand Forks Air Force Base currently has about 1,500 military members and about 300 government-funded civilian employees. Minot Air Force Base has about 5,600 military members and 500 government-funded civilian employees.

The North Dakota National Guard has about 4,400 members, including about 3,400 in the Army Guard and 1,000 in the Air Guard.

About face

A total of 12 Global Hawks are assigned to the Grand Forks base, according to Staff Sgt. David Dobrydney, a spokesman with the 319th Air Base Wing, the base’s host unit.

A tenant unit, the 69th Reconnaissance Group, piloted a Block 40 Global Hawk into its first wartime mission last September. The Block 40 is the latest variant of the aircraft.

The Pentagon previously had recommended keeping the 50-year-old U-2, a manned reconnaissance aircraft, and retiring the Global Hawks, Hagel said in his budget address in late February.

However, the military has been able to reduce the Global Hawk’s operating costs, he said, describing it as a better high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, with greater range and endurance than the U-2.

“The latest budget proposal was interesting because it represents a reversal of the direction the Air Force was heading,” Carter said.

Newer drones

In the meantime, the 119th Wing, based at Hector Field in Fargo, is scheduled to transition from Predators to the newer, more sophisticated MQ-9 Reapers, according to spokesman Senior Master Sgt. David Lipp.

“Nothing is firm. We are planning for that,” he said, perhaps over the next two to three years.

Both the Predator and Reaper are armed unmanned aircraft with surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

While most of the 119th’s Predators are based in Fargo, two are assigned to its security squadron in Minot, where they provide security for missile silos.

The wing also operates a Predator launch-and-recovery training area at the Grand Forks base.

“The Predator should be in pretty good shape,” Carter said. “As the Air Force transitions from the Predator to the Reaper, the North Dakota Air National Guard is in line to make that jump.”

Grand Forks Air Force Base also hosts U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Predator aircraft.