For more than 10 years the Air Force has relied on a unique communications technology to overcome geographic challenges and keep warfighters connected across Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain. Now the service is considering expanding the use of the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) payload to other areas where communications may be difficult.
“A lot of people thought BACN would go away if we pulled out of Afghanistan. Now BACN is so popular, particularly with our ground users, that the Air Force is looking to move it to the base budget, to give it long-term sustainability,” said Lt. Col. Daniel E. Scherdt, commander of the 430th expeditionary electronic combat squadron at Kandahar airfield in Afghanistan.
The Air Force uses E-11A aircraft to deploy BACN, described by some as Wi-Fi in the sky. A combined communications relay and gateway system, the node helps to ensure that isolated warfighters aren’t cut off from others in the chain of command. The Air Force also uses the Global Hawk to carry BACN as well.
“When they are far away from their primary locations in Kandahar and Bagram, BACN can fly in the middle and bridge those networks together,” said Maj. Chad Su’e, a contracting officer.
Developed by Northrup Grumman, the communications tool serves to elevate comms signals above mountains. It also acts as a translator of sorts, to ensure diverse military data sources can communicate with each other.
“We have a lot of off-the-shelf military secure radios, we have the data links, and we have proprietary software that is able to integrate those radios and those data links together,” Scherdt said. “It’s almost disarmingly simple.”
Despite its simplicity, or perhaps because of it, BACN has become a preferred tool in the Afghan theater, operating 24/7 year-round.
“We are out there all the time trying to extend the range of communications so that forces on the ground will be able to talk. It may be mountainous terrain or it may just be commanders trying to talk to troops beyond line of site,” Scherdt said.
While in the air, the node can deliver pervasive command and control support. “Even if there is not an active operation going on, we are still flying,” Su’e said. “There are always military aircraft flying over Afghan, there are always communications needs, either in urban areas or in the remote areas where the communications don’t reach.”
That connectivity allows the Air Force to respond to fighters in distress who otherwise might have been outside the reach of ordinary radio signals. “When someone has a downed aircraft, their communications will be limited, they may not be able to reach someone 50 miles away,” Su’e said. “But with BACN overhead we can extend those communications so the survivor on the ground can talk directly to that rescue helicopter.”
The system gained attention in October 2018 when Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Smiley was shot in a Taliban attack in Kandahar. “BACN was flying right over Kandahar City and they were able to get medivac and a quick reaction force out there immediately,” Scherdt said. Without the airborne comms system, “there would have been significant delays.”
Incidents like this have helped to make the payload a focal point of Air Force planning efforts. “On almost a weekly basis I receive feedback from a senior leader praising this capability. BACN is being noticed and it’s appreciated,” Scherdt said.
Now the Kandahar team is exploring ways to make the node more effective and versatile, with an eye toward wider deployment across the Air Force.
Right now, when the payload flies, the system is remotely operated by a ground team using a digital communications protocol. “That means you have to be within range of the ground site,” Su’e said. “So we are thinking about ways to have multiple sites and to establish those sites quicker, so that we can have greater coverage. That’s something we are looking at for the future: the logistical footprint and how we can get things shipped to these sites most effectively.”