Robins Air Force Base recently brought home its first E-11A airborne communications relay plane, a major step toward overhauling the Georgia base’s slate of combat jobs.
The jet’s April 24 arrival brings Robins closer to the start of flying at its new 18th Airborne Command and Control Squadron, created in February as the U.S.-based hub of the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node fleet. The base formally announced its arrival in a press release Thursday.
BACN is one of four missions set to replace the retiring fleet of E-8C Joint STARS ground target tracking planes at Robins over the next several years.
The aircraft — a fleet of Bombardier Global 6000 business jets built by Learjet and outfitted with a suite of military antennas and radios by Northrop Grumman — relay information between military aircraft and ground troops that are too far apart to contact each other directly.
“We basically extend the range of a lot of communication systems, be they radio or data link, and then we allow people that have different types of radios and data links to be able to communicate with each other that otherwise would not be able to,” squadron commander Lt. Col. Scott Sevigny said in the release.
The squadron plans to employ nine BACN aircraft and nearly 300 active duty airmen. It reports to the 319th Reconnaissance Wing at Grand Forks AFB, North Dakota, the Air Force said in 2021. It aims to be fully operational by fiscal 2027.
All nine planes will be based out of Robins and then deploy as the 430th Expeditionary Electronic Communications Squadron at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. BACN planes are typically in such high demand that they used Kandahar Airfield as their home base until the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021.
The Air Force owns six BACN aircraft and plans to grow to a fleet of nine by the end of 2025. It has received half of the six jets it purchased under a $465 million contract with Learjet in 2021.
BACN payloads, which also fly on the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone, were created in response to the communication failures that led to the deaths of three U.S. Navy SEALs during “Operation Red Wings” in Afghanistan in 2005.
The relay aircraft offer the crucial ability to direct troops on the ground in areas with dangerous terrain and little other communications infrastructure, ensuring that American service members can successfully finish their missions and get out alive.
That mission can put BACN pilots in harm’s way, too. In 2020, two airmen died in a crash landing while trying to set down their damaged, gliding E-11A in Taliban-controlled territory in eastern Afghanistan. An Air Force investigation concluded that a broken fan blade caused one engine to fail, prompting the pilots to shut off the other engine.
In addition to BACN, the Air Force plans to set up another command-and-control squadron, a group focused on electromagnetic spectrum warfare, and an office to handle the Air Force’s acquisition of future communications technologies known as the Advanced Battle Management System.
The units are seen as more resilient and relevant in future wars — particularly, in a possible conflict between the U.S. and China — than the service’s fleet of 16 five-decade-old Joint STARS planes.
“We are heading into a new era that will set up our warfighters for success against adversaries,” base commander Col. Lindsay Droz said in the release. “BACN’s arrival at Robins is just the beginning of many other mission milestones coming to this installation.”
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.