The road ahead for GF AFB

It looks like this week is turning into the week of Col. John Michel. I had a Q&A with the man in the paper today — it was going to run Sunday, but I felt I needed more info — and will have a story about his "state of the base" address in the paper tomorrow. On Friday, I’ll be attending his change of command ceremony in which he relinquishes power to Col. Donald Shaffer.

Besides sheer coincidence, there are some good reasons for our wall-to-wall coverage.

First, probably more than any other base commander I’ve met, he’s been exceptionally involved in civilian affairs. Other commanders had the tanker wing to manage, but Col. Michel is overseeing the dissolution of the wing and his response has been to partner with the community to get more civilian users on base. This is good for the community — more jobs — and for the Air Force — relevance for underutilized bases.

The colonel has the perfect personality for the outreach effort. He’s over-the-top gregarious, which many of us didn’t think was real when we first met the guy, and extremely energetic. He is like the living embodiment of caffeine. (It’s like a Chuck Norris joke: Does Col. Michel drink caffeine? No. He is caffeine.)

Second, his promotion to executive officer at Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., puts him in an incredible position of influence within the command. He will be assistant to the four-star that runs the joint. And, as you know, AMC owns Grand Forks Air Force Base. It’s nice that Col. Michel is making a point of telling everyone he’ll keep an eye on Grand Forks from Scott AFB.

Some local community leaders are already speculating he’ll get his own star in a year and a half, a prospect they find extremely appealing. That’s having friends in high places, I’d say.

On the other hand, as the colonel’s said, the community has friends in high places, too, and that would be our rather powerful Congressional delegation.

Big ideas

I’m especially interested in the colonel’s vision for economic development as that’s one of the big reasons this community loves the base so much. We’re conservative North Dakotans and we dig the military in general, that’s true. But we dig it more when it brings federal dollars into our economy. And it’s brought more than $500 million in construction over the past several years.

I think it’s helpful to divide the vision into several sections:

  • Missions we’ll have: The only one we know is for sure right now is the unmanned aircraft mission. We’re getting Predators and Global Hawks and they’ll be Block 40 hawks, which will have the most advanced radar among the Air Force’s unmanned recon aircraft. The mission would be significantly enhanced if we can open our airspace up to unmanned aircraft since it would be the only airspace of its kind in the United States. The FAA is working on that and we’re supposed to hear something this summer.
  • Support businesses that connect to that mission: Col. Michel talked about the "pipeline" for supporting unmanned aircraft, by which he means everything from schools to train pilots and mechanics, to computer programmers, to R&D. UND’s working on some of that. Northland Community and Technical College is working on it as well. No doubt NDSU is engaged. The goal is to be a one-stop shop for all things involving unmanned aircraft and offer our goods and services to the world, the world being our military and the military of our allies.

Overtime, as the rest of U.S. airspace is opened to unmanned aircraft, the civilian unmanned aircraft sector will blossom and Grand Forks will be in a good position already with its services to military unmanned aircraft. (You wanna know something crazy? The Japanese are already using unmanned helicopters to spray their rice fields and they’re working on autonomous unmanned helicopters for disaster response. So somebody’s already doing it instead of us, meaning there’s a model we can emulate.)

  • Missions we might have: There’s much work being done to bring tankers back to Grand Forks. We don’t know if we’ll get the so-called KC-X or not, but we’re trying. That could mean the return of a lot of airmen. We’re losing our last squadron of KC-135 tankers, a dozen aircraft in all, Oct. 10, 2010, according to the timeline in Col. Michel’s PowerPoint this morning.

Col. Michel talked this morning about competing to be the home of the noncommissioned officer academy, which means lots of people rotating through the base, and the new MC-12s. MC-12s are Beechcraft King Air equipped with the same sensors as unmanned aircraft. It sounds like they exist because manufacturers aren’t making unmanned aircraft fast enough, so the Pentagon took existing aircraft and bolted new gear on them. If that’s the case, Grand Forks would be a natural home because of the common mission and possibly gear. The MC-12 mission would also mean more people.

The big competitive advantage in getting new missions, as the colonel said, is having great infrastructure, uncluttered airspace and lots of community support. Obviously, having the first two helps the mission. Weirdly enough, Grand Forks Air Force Base is even refurbishing the old bomb dump — used to be home to B-52s and B-1Bs — just in case. We’re only expecting recon aircraft and, if KC-X comes here, cargo and tanker aircraft. So when Col. Michel says he’s upgrading infrastructure, he means everything.

The third advantage is partly political and partly a matter of economics.The Air Force can’t fund all the quality-of-life programs it wants to, but the community can. The Air Force can’t lobby for missions or funding, but the community can.

That’s the framework I’ve absorbed from talking with Col. Michel. Given that the base will continue to transition out of the tanker mission and into the unmanned mission, I think it’d be logical to think that his successor, Col. Shaffer, would want to continue using the same framework.

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One Response to The road ahead for GF AFB

  1. Avatar of Joe Greenwood says:

    Col. Michel rocks!