Grand Forks team takes small UAS program to new heights

  • Published
  • By Lea Greene
  • 319th Reconnaissance Wing Public Affairs

The news clip from Ukraine begins with an aerial view of a car, the tires kicking up dust clouds as it speeds down the road. A small white dot hovers above the car, racing to keep up with the erratic driver. Before the viewer can blink, something drops perfectly into the open sunroof and the car explodes. The white dot, now visible as an off-the-shelf commercial drone, was weaponized with a hand grenade. In the high-stakes war in Ukraine low-tech, small unmanned aerial systems (UAS) are being used not only for surveillance, but attack.

U.S. Air Force leaders say small drones are now one of the top threats faced in combat environments. The airmen of Grand Forks Air Force Base are meeting this threat through innovation, forward thinking and embodying what it means to be ‘combat ready.’

On March 21, 2023, the 319th Reconnaissance Wing small UAS (sUAS) program became the first in Air Combat Command to employ a sUAS program with operators from multiple units across the wing. 

The inaugural flight was conducted by Tech. Sgt. Ryan Karrar, non-commissioned officer in charge of crash recovery for the 319th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, who represented 18 months of work by the Grand Forks AFB sUAS working group and the beginning of a new era in the wing’s aviation. 

“Doing our homework and having patience have been key while breaking new ground,” said Danielle MacNaughton, airspace manager for the 319th Operations Support Squadron. “Studying the Air Force Manual 11-502 and coordinating with both our major command and the Air Force Special Operations Command to preview our products before final submission has helped speed the process up as much as possible.” 

Together, the working group studied various federal regulations to create and file the concept of operations, letters of authorization and program oversight requirements needed to carve a pathway to a base-wide flying program. 

The program’s intent is to rapidly deploy small commercial drones for threat surveillance and deterrence, and future applications not yet explored.  

“We are always training to defeat future unknown threats; the small UAS flying program offers huge amounts of flexibility to core mission sets,” said Capt. Matthew Crowell, the 319th OSS director of staff and vice chair for the Grand Forks AFB sUAS working group. “For example, the 319th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron is going to use flying as a part of their disaster recovery team in the event of an aircraft crash and the 319th Security Forces Squadron will use it to enhance their force protection.”

Military installations are traditionally no-fly zones for commercial drones, as current Department of Defense regulations prevent anyone from operating small unmanned systems above installations or within military airspace. 

This milestone achievement opens the door to future advancements in sUAS application and technology installations across the Air Force and DoD. The capabilities of small, unmanned aircraft provide improved surveillance capabilities, enhanced situational awareness and the ability to integrate new career specialties to the Air Force’s aviation mission.

“We're asking our airmen to do something incredible here, which is to fly an aerial vehicle in potentially congested airspace while being under air traffic control just like a normal pilot would be,” said Crowell. “There are no current limitations on who can do this. I could take, an airman straight out of basic training or technical school and put them through this training and make them operators. That is multi-capable in the truest sense.”

Producing sUAS certified pilots from multiple career specialties ensures no matter where airmen are in the world, if they encounter a small commercial drone threat, they will know it’s capabilities and how to respond.

“I’m excited to see the airmen’s ideas on how they can enhance their combat capability and new ways to achieve their mission,” said Lt. Col. Chris Warms, the 319th OSS director of operations and chairman of the small UAS working group. “From an operations support perspective, I’m excited to see the interaction between our air traffic controllers and how they will operate with security forces and maintenance. This is going to be a phenomenal baseline going forward.”

Grand Forks AFB has a long tradition of being the UAS Center of Excellence!  The integration of manned and unmanned aircraft from University of North Dakota’s pilot training program to Grand Sky’s commercial small UAS efforts, to Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4 Range Hawk hypersonic testing, to General Atomics MQ-9 commercial and joint United Kingdom training, and Customs and Boarder Protection’s MQ-9, ScanEagle, and Helicopter mission operations showcase cutting edge technology but even more critical is integrating all aircraft into the National Airspace.