At Space Force facility in N.D., UND and Space Force talk partnership

Discussions bode well for UND’s participation in Space Force’s University Partnership Program, leaders say

The eight-story-tall radar at the Cavalier Air Force Station operated by the U.S. Space Force’s 10th Space Warning Squadron can track hundreds of objects in space. U.S. Air Force photo.

Stepping inside the 10th Space Warning Squadron (SWS) radar site near Cavalier, N.D., is like simultaneously visiting a Cold War era museum and getting an inside look at a military facility with a crucial national security mission.

In May, a group of 10 UND faculty members not only got to see the inner workings of the Cavalier Air Force Station’s (AFS) massive eight-story concrete structure, which supports a powerful octagon-shaped phased-array radar, but also discussed possibilities for research and workforce development collaborations between the University and the U.S. Space Force.

Delta 4 U.S. Space Force patch

“It’s a great opportunity for potential partnerships between UND and Cavalier Air Force Station,” said Robert Kraus, dean of UND Aerospace. “Between our Space Studies program and all the players we had with us today – the College of Aerospace, the College of Engineering & Mines, the College of Arts & Sciences and Air Force ROTC – we have potential connections to do research that could help them and also provide workforce development.”

Lt. Col. Ryan Durand, commander of the 10th SWS, which operates and maintains the facility, said it was the first time the unit has explored ideas with UND that could prove mutually beneficial.

Getting in on the ground floor

“It’s an opportunity to be able to understand where the University is going, where the Space Force is going and trying to collaborate and work together,” he said. “It’s just like bringing industry into the Space Force as we’ve become the new digital force. It’s creating these partnerships that have to start somewhere, and this is the ground floor.”

Maj. James Franciere, the operations flight commander for UND’s Air Force ROTC program and a Space Force service member, organized the faculty visit. He noted that the University has been actively involved in building relationships with the Space Force, as illustrated by recent visits to UND by Gen. John Raymond, Chief of Space Operations for the U.S. Space Force, and Gen. James Dickinson, commander of the U.S. Space Command.

Ten UND faculty members visited the Cavalier Air Force Station last month to discuss potential research and workforce development opportunities. Standing from left to right in the top row are: Mark Askelson, Bradly Rundquist, Capt. Matthew Rosenfeldt with NDSU Air Force ROTC, Mark Hoffmann, Ryan Adams, Lt. Col. Ryan Durano, Robert Kraus and Brian Tande. In the second row are Pablo De Leon, Maj. Justin Jones, Maj. James Franciere, Sherry Fieber-Beyer and Elizabeth Bjerke. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

“As UND continues to grow its space-related education and research programs, having this facility in our region is a huge opportunity for our faculty and students,” said Brian Tande, dean of the College of Engineering & Mines. “We also hope to partner with them to provide programs that meet the educational needs of the Space Force and the people stationed in Cavalier.”

The Space Force is the newest branch of the armed forces, established in December 2019 within the U.S. Air Force. However, the Cavalier AFS has been in service since 1975 when it was built as part of the U.S Army Stanley R. Mickelson Safeguard Complex. Its anti-ballistic missiles were designed to protect the Air Force’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) fields in North Dakota from hostile ICBM attacks.

Primary mission unchanged

10th Space Warning Squadron patch

Although the complex closed in 1976 under the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty (SALT), the Cavalier AFS remains in service because of its ability to track hundreds of objects in low-earth orbit traveling at 17,500 miles per hour or greater. Of greatest concern are thermonuclear reentry vehicles from ICBMs coming over the Arctic.

“The threat is still there,” said Maj. Justin Jones, operations officer for the 10th SWS. “It hasn’t gone away.”

Fifteen miles south of the Canadian border and 15 miles west of Cavalier, the radar base is the only isolated stateside installation in the Air Force. The 10th SWS operates the Perimeter Acquisition Radar Attack Characterization System (PARCS) with the mission of watching for sea-launched and intercontinental ballistic missiles aimed at North America. It also provides data on space launches and orbiting objects for the Space Surveillance Network.

The spotless, well-maintained interior of the facility could be described as strictly military and totally utilitarian. Nostalgic posters scattered around the facility date back to a time when good-natured cajoling for safety in the workplace was the norm. The design and architecture – including massive equipment mounted on giant shock absorbers – harken back to a time in U.S. history when the possibility of a nuclear attack was a daily reality.

While iconic entertainment shares similar themes of exploration and discovery with Cavalier AFS’s space surveillance mission, the serious nature of the radar’s primary missile warning mission wasn’t lost on anyone.

“I was quite impressed by the facility and the importance of the work that they do,” Tande said. “They play a critical role in our national security and that role will only become more important as the number of objects orbiting the Earth continues to increase.”

UND faculty members touring the radar facility at the Cavalier Air Force Station were briefed by personnel with the 10th  Space Warning Squadron, which operates the facility. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

Durand noted that because of the remoteness of the Cavalier AFS, the ability for officers and enlisted personnel to work with UND toward earning their bachelor’s and advanced degrees could be seen as a benefit.

Training for the new generation

“It’s the new generation coming up that’s going to advance Space Force and take it to the next level,” he said. “That’s why I’m encouraged to start working with the University because they are going to be the future of Space Force.”

Franciere said this bodes well for UND because in May, it was selected as one of 10 universities nationwide to participate in the University Partnership Program with the Space Force.

Kraus pointed out that space-based careers extend beyond the military and government because of expansion in the private sector with companies such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin.

“Even as you look at the commercial satellite imagery business where you can go on the internet and buy satellite images, someone’s controlling those satellites and it’s not the government,” he said “There is a very large business opportunity, and we’re only going to see it increase.”

Jones found the UND faculty visit worthwhile and a good starting point for future partnerships.

“If UND has students or faculty members working on programs in the physics, science or technology areas with ideas based on enhancing the capabilities of our hardware and software, we’re certainly open to them,” he said. “We want a partnership to maximize what we have and make sure we’re pushing the limits and doing everything we can do.”

UND faculty visiting the Cavalier Air Force Station in addition to Kraus, Tande and Franciere included: Bradley Rundquist, dean of Arts & Sciences;  Elizabeth Bjerke, associate dean Aerospace; Mark Askelson, executive director, Research Institute for Autonomous Systems; Pablo De Leon, chair, Department of Space Studies; Sherry Fieber-Beyer, assistant professor of space studies; Mark Hoffmann, associate dean for research, College of Arts & Sciences; and Ryan Adams, chair, School of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science.