GRAND FORKS — An announcement by the U.S. Air Force on Wednesday to locate a new air refueling mission at a base in Kansas instead of Grand Forks wasn’t surprising at all to John Marshall, a Grand Forks attorney who has been involved in several base realignment and closure rounds over the past 25 years.
“It’s exactly what I had been told and what I expected to have happened,” Marshall said.
Grand Forks Air Force Base was one of four finalists named in January to be the active-duty main operating base for the KC-46A flying tanker. McConnell Air Force Base at Wichita, Kan., was ultimately chosen to host the tanker aircraft in 2016, and a base at Altus, Okla., was chosen to host a new training mission for the KC-46A.
The decision comes after years of attempts by base officials and political leaders pushing for the selection, emphasizing the infrastructure of Grand Forks’ base and its previous experience with the KC-135 refueling tanker.
Col. Paul Bauman, who assumed leadership of the base last week, said he’s pleased the base was chosen as one of the first candidates in the first round.
“I think that alone speaks very well of the base,” he said. “The fact that we weren’t selected as the preferred option is something we maybe would have liked, but we’re still happy.”
U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who met with a high-ranking Air Force official in April over the selection, said the announcement was disappointing but she didn’t pin all of her hopes on this round.
She said that she believes Kansas’ location “smack dab in the middle of the country” appealed to the Air Force.
“We think that in the next go-around, we can make the case that North Dakota is also in the center of the country, east to west,” she said.
She said the Air Force remains very interested in the Grand Forks base, which scored “very, very high in this process,” she said.
However, Grand Forks is not entirely out of the picture yet.
It’s still one of two alternate candidates for a subsequent round of tanker base selections, which will take place no later than fall 2015, and Marshall said he thinks they’ll have their “best opportunity” then.
Marshall has also served on the Air Force Chief of Staff Civic Leaders Group, which advises the senior leaders of the Air Force.
Grand Forks was a strong competitor because of the condition of the base, past experience with a KC-135 Stratotanker mission for about 50 years and the strong community support for it, said Marshall and Bauman.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Heitkamp, along with Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and Gov. Jack Dalrymple issued a statement saying they will continue to try to bring in a tanker mission to the base.
“We are working to build a dynamic unmanned aerial systems community in Grand Forks centered on the air base’s UAS mission,” Hoeven said. “That makes sense not only because UAS represent the future of aviation, but also because we are committed to making Grand Forks the premiere northern tier air base in the nation.”
He said that holding that position will put the base in the running for a tanker base mission in the next round of site selections, as well as for the selection of one of six Federal Aviation Administration pilot programs designed to integrate UAS into the National Airspace System.
Hoeven serves as a member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs.
“It’s ready for it,” said Marshall. “I think we just have to look toward the future and be positive about that.”