U.S. Air Force leaders point to small drones as one of the top threats now faced in combat. The military site tasked with taking this challenge head-on is the Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota. CBN News traveled there to get an up-close look.
Russia’s war on Ukraine is bringing drone warfare front and center, showcasing how these unmanned aerial vehicles are used for surveillance and combat.
For example, footage reportedly released by Ukrainian special forces appears to show a drone destroying a Russian armored vehicle and tank.
Then there’s actually drone-on-drone combat. Another video depicts a drone dogfight, reportedly involving equipment used for surveillance by Ukrainian and Russian armed forces.
And it’s not just in the air. Other footage shows what appears to be a Ukrainian sea drone attacking a Russian tanker ship in the Black Sea.
‘Counter that Threat’
At North Dakota’s Grand Forks Air Force Base, they’re not taking the use of drones lightly. The 319th Reconnaissance Wing small UAS program is the first in Air Combat Command to utilize such a program with operators from multiple units.
“You don’t have to go far to go look at what’s happening around the world, right. It is no secret what our adversaries are doing with these things,” Capt. Matthew Crowell, vice chairman for sUAS Operations, told CBN News.
“These things can be weaponized, and they can be used to hurt people and things, and unfortunately, what that means is we as the Department of Defense in the United States Air Force have to go out there and counter that threat,” he said.
One drone that airmen train on is the quadcopter-style Skydio X2D. The security forces unit employs it to defend the base through perimeter scans or identifying threats from the sky. That function can also transfer to overseas bases.
“That goes even beyond into the deployed missions that we serve, right, where our commanders are constantly under threat from the outside of the wire threat,” Crowell said. “Those threats are immediately answered by this type of technology.”
Senior Airman Tavi Effron operates the drone and says it’s “pretty impressive what they can do.”
“For instance, maybe active shooters. They’re locating an individual in that aspect to get eyes on, so somebody else who is in part of that mission control can see what’s going on and maybe redirect us in ways that we didn’t think on the ground could be done,” he explained.
Crowell says they also use it for aircraft recovery training, and if required, could fly it to survey a crash site.
Members of the Aircraft Maintenance Unit gave CBN News a demo of the Skydio X2D.
“So I’m going to get a little bit of altitude here to get away from things, change over to my Waypoint Mission, and then I’ll just hit ‘play’, and then the aircraft does what it’s already told to do,” said AMU flight chief Master Sgt. Matthew Roberts as he demonstrated the capabilities of the drone.
Roberts says using a system like this to survey and assess damages saves time, money and resources.
“It eliminates a lot of boots on the ground in a sense to, to do what we need to in a short time and capture what we need to without expending a lot of resources ahead of time to make the job and the mission happen quickly and safely,” he said.
World’s Largest Drone
There are actually two active duty military missions involving unmanned aerial systems operating at Grand Forks Air Force Base. In addition to the Skydio, another unit operates what’s called the RQ-4, or Global Hawk.
It’s the world’s largest drone. The 348th Reconnaissance Squadron flies the Global Hawk at Grand Forks Air Force Base. The long-endurance aircraft can reach extremely high altitudes of 50- to 60,000 feet.
Captain Mark Cochrane remotely pilots the large-scale system that provides global day or night intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
“The RQ-4 Global Hawk is a premier intelligence asset that is one of the only assets that’s capable of giving such a long collection time without needing aerial refueling, and I feel like that’s its biggest bring to any kind of AOR or combatant commander,” he told CBN News.
‘Life and Death Consequences’
Brad Bowman, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, calls these drone systems “fundamentally important” to the U.S. military.
“We really are, unfortunately, continue to be in an arms race against adversaries that are building drones,” he explained to CBN News. “Obviously, Russia has drones; they’re working with Iran on their drones. China is a major developer and exporter of drones.”
“The country that has the most advanced drones, the right quantity of drones and employs them effectively – it’s going to have life and death consequences on the battlefield,” he continued.
And airmen at the Grand Forks Air Force Base are fully aware, describing this tech as a game changer in a time of war and another way Americans can feel safe.