Date: August 7, 2023 | Outlet: Grand Forks Herald | By: Korrie Wenzel
GRAND FORKS — Sen. John Hoeven said the expansion of Space Development Agency operations at Grand Forks Air Force Base will put North Dakota “at the center of U.S. military operations” in the coming years.
Hoeven, R-N.D., and others spoke Monday during an event at the base, at which it was announced that the Space Development Agency will place a 25,000-square-foot Satellite Test and Checkout Center at GFAFB, in support of the SDA’s low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite mission.
When completed in 2026, the Test and Checkout Center will conduct operations for SDA satellites. It’s described in a news release from Hoeven’s office as “the backbone for all U.S. military communications.”
The announcement noted that the mission also includes operations centers at GFAFB — announced last year — and at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, but the tone of Monday’s ceremony focused on the impact the latest project will have at the base, as well as in the community.
“We have the finest military in the world. No one else is even close. Yes, China has a lot of weapons and a lot of people. Russia is a major adversary and they have a lot of weapons, and there are others,” Hoeven told the audience. “No one brings all of that together like the United States does — meaning, the most advanced weaponry, the most professional all-volunteer force, and a force that has been in combat for 20 years. It’s an unbelievable military that we have. But we have got to make sure they always have the technological advantage. That’s what (this mission) does.”
Also speaking at Monday’s announcement were SDA Director Derek Tournear, Mayor Brandon Bochenski, UND President Andrew Armacost and Col. Timothy Monroe, commander of Grand Forks Air Force Base.
Tournear commended Monroe and the base for the collaboration that brought the facility to Grand Forks, and also explained why Grand Forks was chosen. The unmanned aerial system mission already in place at the base — and the region’s ties to that industry — make it a good fit, he said.
“We wanted to make sure that wherever SDA went, we were tied more closely to that tactical user because those are who our customers are. They are the ones who are going to be fighting the fight,” he said.
Grand Forks Air Force Base is deeply entrenched in remotely operated missions. UND’s reputation in aerospace played a role, too, he said.
“It’s an obvious fit when you look at it from the outside,” Tournear said.
He referenced the Latin phrase “semper citius” — the SDA motto, which means “always faster.” All of the amenities at the base, in Grand Forks and in the region can help achieve that motto, he said.
Tournear said the base’s northern location helps, too, since satellite technology — specifically communications infrastructure, such as antennas — is more effective when placed closer to the poles.
The mission will not launch satellites, but “we are going to fly the satellites out of here,” Tournear said. The two main capabilities of the mission will be data transport/communications and missile tracking.
Grand Forks stands out, he said, because of its support for the military.
“Not only at the air base, but community-wide … all of the support that the community gives for the Space Development Agency and the military at large. That is critical, because that is the support that enables us to know that if we need something from the community, we know the community will stand up and help us,” Tournear said. “We’ve seen it with the University of North Dakota — President Armacost has really helped to provide for us support and to help us with a training pipeline. That is one of the things we count on and one of the things that makes me so happy to come to Grand Forks.”
He commended the community’s “patriotism, pragmatism and just the ability to get things done.”
Hoeven, in his role on the Senate Defense Appropriations Committee, worked to secure $18 million for the operations centers in Grand Forks and Alabama, $4 million to push construction of the Test and Checkout Center and $8 million in funding to come in 2024 and 2025.
The Grand Forks facility will have the capability to employ up to 240 people.
Funding is only a small portion of it, Hoeven said Monday.
“This space network is critically important, and we have to beat the competition, like the Chinese. So we are actually providing more funding for this sooner,” he said.
The project’s placement in Grand Forks has been in the works since 2020, when Tournear first visited the city and base during the midst of the COVID pandemic.
“Basically, that’s when we decided … within a matter of two months, that this is where we’re going to do our ops center,” he said. “In the spring of 2021, we said, ‘OK, let’s start making this happen.’ We pushed forward from there.”
Hoeven said the announcement “demonstrates SDA’s long-term commitment to its operations” at GFAFB.
“Together with Director Tournear, we’ve worked to secure $30 million in construction funding for the mission’s facilities, as well as $325 million to support its ongoing operations,” he said. “The LEO satellite mission places North Dakota at the center of U.S. military operations.”
It was just a decade or two ago that Grand Forks residents were scurrying to convince the federal government to keep the base open. In the years since, the base’s mission has changed to UAS, and collaborative efforts with UND and Grand Sky — a nearby commercial UAS business park — have strengthened the bond between the community and the Air Force.
Monday’s announcement adds even more connectivity, Mayor Bochenski said, recalling a visit by Gen. Charles Brown Jr. in 2021. Brown, Bochenski said, called GFAFB a “base of the future.”
“We’re very fortunate. I think the base is in better shape than it has been in the last 15 years,” he said. “When your base is being talked about as a base of the future, I think that gives you confidence. But as a community, we’re never going to stop supporting and we’re never going to take our feet off the gas.”
Bochenski called the SDA announcement a “win-win.”
“The tremendous amount of pride that the community feels when there are more defense assets and more defense investments in the community is phenomenal,” he said.