Grand Forks AFB: Powered by Airmen and fueled by innovation

  • Published
  • By Col. Lawrence Spinetta
  • 69th Reconnaissance Group commander
"The story of the Air Force is a story of innovation," observes the Air Force Vision. "Airmen, using their unique perspective, have long stood for and pioneered innovative ways to win the fight while shaping the future."

Indeed, a culture of innovation is the reason why the United States Air Force remains the world's greatest air force. Airmen are constantly looking for smarter ways of doing business. Often, that means adopting new technologies.

The Air Force owes its existence to a specific machine, the manned airplane. However, it has demonstrated, perhaps more than any other service, a willingness to embrace technological change.

In the 1950s, at a time when the manned nuclear bomber was king, the fourth Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Thomas D. White, raised the intercontinental ballistic missile to the top of the USAF's research and development priority list, ushering our service into the space and missile era. He did so despite recalcitrance from some officers who thought that missiles and other unmanned vehicles were not a good fit for our core mission and thus had no place in our service.

Recalling that decision in a 2009 speech to the Air Force Historical Foundation, Gen. Norton Schwartz, the 19th Chief of Staff, noted, "History, in all its aspects - good and bad - informs our efforts today. We [must] seek to learn from our shortcomings and to avoid them in the future; but, the storied history of the United States Air Force suggests that much of what we have done are things that we do want to repeat."

Schwartz continued, "We are at another one of those points of inflection. Now, it is clear that we must reconsider the relationship between people, machines, and the air."

Over the last decade, remotely piloted aircraft have experienced exponential growth supporting our war fighters in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere around the world. The trend line is unmistakable... the Air Force will increasingly become an unmanned aviation service.

"In the next 20-30 years," predicts Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the current Chief of Staff, "[RPAs] are going to explode. It's going to be exciting to watch, and our Air Force has to be in the lead because we'll know the best way to use them. Innovation is what we're all about."

To echo General Welsh's words, it's an exciting time to be part of Team Grand Forks because you all are helping to define the future of airpower and the future of our Service. Grand Forks AFB is helping to lead an unmanned revolution in airpower. Accordingly, Warriors of the North arguably have the most important job in the Air Force.

Every day, the men and women of Grand Forks AFB, home of the RQ-4 Global Hawk, fly and support combat missions that circle the globe, providing critical strategic intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance to six combatant commands. Aptly named, the Global Hawk's unmatched range and endurance enables it fly nearly half the circumference of the earth without refueling.

Unmanned aircraft technology coupled with satellite technology permits remote split operations, which means Airmen fly those missions from home station. We project airpower while minimizing vulnerability, a strategist's dream.

Grand Forks is also home to two other unmanned platforms. Customs and Border Protection flies the MQ-9 Reaper using it to surveil our northern border, and the Fargo Air National Guard operates the MQ-1B Predator locally to train its aircrew to fly combat.

Our base's new mission statement says it all: "Team Grand Forks...Focused on Innovation, Enabling Victory!"