Space Development Agency, ND elected officials celebrate basing of Test and Checkout Center

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. BreeAnn Sachs
  • 319th Reconnaissance Wing Public Affairs

Nearly one year after the announcement of Grand Forks AFB’s selection for Space Development Agency’s first Ground Operations and Integration Center, SDA continues to expand their local footprint.

Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota, followed by Dr. Derek Tournear, the director of SDA, announced SDA’s satellite Test and Checkout Center will be co-located with Operations Center North during a ceremony Aug. 7, 2023, here. 

“This goes to making us a hub of innovation between our military and our defense industry for the near-peer competition,” said Hoeven. “We’re part of the vanguard that’s taking form. We have to make sure that (our service members) have the technological advantage, and that’s what Dr. Tournear does. He makes sure that our country is always ahead and not just for the safety of our country but for safety globally.”

The TCC will test the operational features and functionality of satellites before they’re transferred to Operations Center North or Operations Center South, at Redstone Arsenal, located in Huntsville, Alabama. Operations Center North is expected to be on-line in 2024, and the TCC is expected to be on-line in 2026.

In Sept. of 2024, the first wartime capability is expected to be functional, and SDA is projected to launch new satellites monthly to ensure new Tranches, constellations of hundreds of space vehicles, are replaced every two years. 

The TCC ensures this launch schedule can be adhered to without interrupting the wartime operations of the space vehicles already in orbit.

“This is where we will onboard all the new satellites before launch, during launch and after launch until they’re ready to be blessed as operational,” said Tournear. “Essentially, the keys for these satellites will leave this building and be sent over to building 542 (Operations Center North) where they’ll be flown and made operational. If there’s a problem with the satellite you take it back to the Test and Checkout Center, they troubleshoot it and get it to where it’s operational and send it back.”

Approximately 250 U.S. Space Force, civilian employee and contract personnel are expected to work between the TCC and Operations Center North when they’re at full functionality. The TCC brings an additional $13 million to the $30 million previously allocated for the facilities’ construction. 

“There’s a lot of UAS systems in North Dakota, they’re kind of the leader of how that’s done here at Grand Forks AFB and again just down the street at Fargo.” said Tournear. “In addition to that, in town there’s a university dedicated to developing all of the technology that makes automation possible so you can actually fly those systems. We wanted to make sure that wherever SDA went we were tied more closely to that tactical user, because that’s who our customers are, that’s who we service.”

Tournear said his selection of Grand Forks AFB for Operations Center North and the TCC was also based on a previous observation of real-time problem solving and innovation by RQ-4B Global Hawk Block 40 aircrew and the North Spark Defense Laboratory. 

“Coming up with solutions in real-time, that’s the semper citius mindset,” said Tournear. “Semper citius is the SDA motto which means always faster. That’s the mentality, that’s the culture that we want to propagate throughout SDA and that matches what we do.”

SDA, now a direct reporting unit to the U.S. Space Force, is providing the framework for the Joint All Domain Command and Control infrastructure and the U.S. Air Force’s contribution, the Advanced Battle Management System through the development and deployment of the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture composed of hundreds of space vehicles in low-Earth orbit.

“The only reason we put any capabilities in space is to affect terrestrial fights,” said Tournear. “I can’t imagine a future conflict that would not involve space. Space is how we do our command and control, it’s how we provide our information to troops in theater, it’s how we get information back from theater to the decision makers that are back in the states and it’s how we tie all of our systems together.”

On April 2, 2023, SDA successfully launched Tranche 0, the first 10 satellites that will comprise the PWSA Transport and Tracking Layers. 

“The two missions we are going to provide, the two main capabilities are in these two layers,” said Tournear. “The transport layer – data transport, low-latency communications, that’s the backbone to tie all of these systems together. In simple terms, we will be able to tie every sensor to every shooter as rapidly as possible.”

The Transport Layer will demonstrate low-latency communication links providing warfighters a means to pass wideband tactical data to and from the ground and the constellation, send and receive wideband data from space-based infrastructure outside the Transport Layer and connect in-theater user terminals to ground segments and external mission partners.

The Tracking Layer will demonstrate missile warning, tracking and targeting capabilities for advanced missiles in flight and beyond-line-of-sight targeting for time-sensitive targets or mobile targets.

“These hypersonic glide vehicles you hear about in the news, that Russia is developing and China is developing, and they keep claiming they’ll be able to penetrate our defenses and we won’t be able to target them,” said Tournear. “That’s the point of the SDA tracking layer, to detect, track, and calculate a fire control solution on those advanced weapons in flight, and send that down directly to an interceptor so we can take out the target.”

Tranche 1, is scheduled for launch in Sept. 2024 and will provide the first warfighting capability enabling global communications access, delivering reliable, regional encrypted connectivity to warfighters and providing beyond line of sight targeting, missile warning and tracking capabilities and Battle Management Command, Control and Communications for mission data processing and exploitation. 

Tranche 2, scheduled for launch in Fiscal Year 2027, begins the 2-year spiral cycle and will both replenish and enhance the Tranche 1 capabilities through an increase of space vehicles and the introduction of new capabilities like additional tactical data links and/or new waveforms. 

Operations Center North and the TCC are two additional ways the 319th Reconnaissance Wing is actively contributing to JADC2 and ABMS. 

The construction for these facilities follows the addition of the E-11A Battlefield Airborne Communication Node mission, operated by the 18th Airborne Command and Control Squadron at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, who provide a versatile and mobile means of exchanging information from multiple air, ground, and maritime sources, including host nation, joint and coalition forces. 

Additionally, the existing 319th Communications Squadron High Frequency Global Communications System transmits and monitors signals globally with the ability to penetrate oceans, pass through hurricane walls, and transmit in severely degraded and hostile environments. 

The 319th Operations Group operates and maintains the RQ-4, a high altitude, long endurance intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft providing decision makers and warfighters moving target indicator and synthetic aperture radar imagery and intelligence. The 319th OG also oversees the maintenance and operations of PAC1 and EUR3, two Satellite Communications relay sites providing connectivity between joint, manned, unmanned and airborne ISR assets and tactical edge information interoperability across Combatant Commands.  

The 319th RW mission extends into air, cyber, land, sea domains, and now has a stronger presence in the domain of space allowing for interservice, interagency, joint, coalition and ally force integration to help achieve operational and strategic objectives in a multi-domain environment.