By Jahara ‘FRANKY’ Matisek, Ph.D.
Estimated Time to Read: 16 minutes
Abstract: Communications are an important element of any military operation. A lack of infrastructure and rough terrain have hindered U.S. military operations in Afghanistan (2001-Present) and Iraq (2003-Present). The difficulties encountered in both countries initially led to several different ad hoc solutions for overcoming poor communications. Eventually a long-term solution emerged, known as BACN (Battlefield Airborne Communications Node) with two dedicated platforms, an E-11A and EQ-4B. This article provides new insights on the BACN program and its history, and considers the importance of E-11s providing BACN for future multi-domain warfighting environments. Finally, it encourages new ways of thinking on how to operate in a contested environment, proposing a “BACN-mesh” concept as a way of overcoming such a vulnerability with an adversary jamming the electromagnetic spectrum.
Precise and secure communications are the sinews of good decision-making on the battlefield. This has been true since the fire signals of the Peloponnesian War. Good communication evolved from the telegraph to the contemporary use of satellites. Timely and reliable communications are decisive factors in wars. Communication is a key enabler and force enhancer for increasing the lethality of the warfighter, and crucial to enabling the command and control of forces, though it is often given secondary consideration.
Freedom of communication and access to data and information is an element of multi-domain operations that the U.S. Armed Forces has frequently taken for granted, to their peril. For instance, the capture of two U.S. Navy riverine boats in 2016 that strayed into Iranian waters occurred because the crew was unable to determine their position due to a loss of GPS signal and were unable to navigate with a compass. Elsewhere, jamming has become increasingly common in the contested Syrian region, as a proliferation of anti-access tools have enabled a host of state and non-state actors to interfere with communications and GPS signals. Outside of Syria, Russian actions in Georgia and eastern Ukraine have proven how proficient they and their proxy forces are in using specific jamming devices to degrade and disrupt lines of communication.
Problems with line-of-sight (LOS) communications that the Athenians struggled with are similar to the LOS problems that American troops face in counterinsurgency (COIN) operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan, where high terrain degrades LOS communication. This LOS problem was most prominent during the tragic 2005 “Lone Survivor” incident (Operation Red Wings). Besides poor planning, difficulty in communicating with headquarters led to the loss of 20 U.S. military personnel. LOS communication problems are resolved by placing communications relays on high ground, such as mountaintops or in space. Resolving LOS issues by launching a satellite into space is a possibility, but this solution is constrained by costs and the basics of orbital mechanics. Increasingly congested orbital planes, limited bandwidth, and physics hinder the number of satellites that can be placed in orbit for a certain region. Few satellites can be specifically dedicated to support an area of military operations away from the equator, leading to communications gaps and other vulnerabilities. Due to the limiting factors of geosynchronous orbiting satellites, sub-orbital options emerged as more viable options of overcoming LOS communications issues in Afghanistan. There, in a combined warfighting environment, one such option arose to enable interoperability between the various nations and services: The Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN).
BACN is a system of computer processors and communication equipment currently installed on the EQ-4B and E-11A aircraft. These aircraft, once reaching a high-altitude orbit, provide an airborne platform that enables persistent and responsive combat network capability for voice and data. In its most simple form, one could think of the BACN mission as “Wi-Fi in the sky.” BACN provides a suite of services, such as passive communication relays and “phone patches” to those needing secure communication. Additionally, the BACN payload ensures commanders have on-demand information of the air picture of Afghanistan. It connects air forces with ground forces, ensuring that ground forces operating with a 5-watt hand-held radio can communicate with command and control facilities thousands of miles away. Most importantly, the BACN “bridges” different communication sources and receivers through a tactical datalink (TDL), enabling the joint force for optimized multi-domain warfare operations. For example, such specific “bridging” includes the taking of one waveform transmission and transforming it into another waveform to be re-transmitted (i.e. 5-watt radio call being converted into a secure voice over IP phone call). Finally, BACN provides clarity to warfighters, reduces the fog of war, and acts as a “universal translator” in support of jointness.
This article ‘fills the gaps’ on the history of the BACN program, as information on the program is scattered, technical, and sometimes incorrect. It describes how the BACN mission came to be, its current status, and what the future holds. Moreover, it describes how BACN is the glue of multi-domain operations, preventing critical gaps in command and control. Understanding the BACN mission and its contemporary relevance is important as the war in Afghanistan is potentially nearing its end, making the future unknown for how BACN will be utilized. While the inner workings and specific tasks of the BACN payload are classified, this article broadly shows how it integrates into multi-domain war fighting, highlighting how the BACN mission might evolve due to budget constraints and the implications of great power competition with China and Russia.
How the Harsh Afghan Terrain Forced Communications Innovations
While the E-11 mission may appear mysterious to some, such as the Iranians accusing the platform of supporting CIA operations against them, the BACN mission is a joint venture between Air Combat Command (ACC) of the U.S. Air Force and Northrup-Grumman (NG). ACC funds the BACN mission system (aircraft and payload) and tasks pilots from across the USAF (e.g., bombers, mobility, etc.) to fly them. NG holds the contract, providing personnel for aircraft maintenance and operations and BACN payload sustainment.
The joint venture between ACC and NG supports the overall mission of overcoming LOS communication issues, and other problems associated with conducting a war in a joint environment. Moreover, as Afghanistan lacks the necessary infrastructure (e.g. radar, repeater towers, etc.) needed for real-time communication and situational awareness of aircraft in Afghanistan, BACN resolves this by electronically tying in the datalink footprint of the northern and southern battlespaces to create a more continuous picture for controllers and commanders to view.
The first innovation in trying to overcome LOS to distribute information and seamlessly communicate in Afghanistan occurred in October 2002. A simplistic communication system meant to overcome Afghan LOS issues was installed on KC-135RTs from McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas. These tanker aircraft were outfitted with ROBE (Roll-On Beyond line-of-sight Enhancement) providing rudimentary BACN and TDL capabilities. ROBE-equipped aircraft were quickly deployed to Manas Air Base, Kyrgyzstan and began flying missions in Afghanistan to link battlespace users. However, this ad hoc approach to communications issues in Afghanistan was not enough to facilitate seamless communications. Due to resource constraints, launching a KC-135 just for communications purposes, instead of using it for its primary purpose of refueling coalition aircraft, was untenable in the long term.
In Iraq, LOS problems in conjunction the limited radio range of convoys resulted in ambushed ground convoys struggling to effectively coordinate for help. The problem of ambushed convoys in Iraq became so dire that by 2006, U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) was tasked to deploy E-6Bs to provide communication relays. This led to the installation of a Joint Airborne Communications Suite (JACS) on each deployed E-6B. Such efforts paid off immediately as ambushed convoys were able to immediately call for assistance and relay their precise location, ensuring air support could quickly respond. This capability ‘hardened’ convoys so much so that insurgents significant reduced attacks, leading to the E-6B deployment mission ending in late 2009.
Prior to developing a requirement for a dedicated communications relay aircraft, the BACN mission started with the NASA High Altitude Research Program. A NASA-owned WB-57 aircraft was already flying research missions in Afghanistan, and had additional payload space. NG worked with NASA to add a small BACN payload to the WB-57 to evaluate its effectiveness on communications in Afghanistan. This initial BACN testing proved highly successful, helping relay communications to different battlespace users throughout the country. This test spurred interest in the BACN project, especially as ground forces struggled with LOS and other issues in requesting support for troops in contact (TICs), close air support (CAS), and other urgent reasons.
The first Global Express to carry the BACN payload came into service in 2009 when the 451st Tactical Airborne Gateway (451 TAG) unit was established at a deployed location in Afghanistan. Built in 1999, this first E-11A was the former Bombardier Global Express prototype. The British purchased it in 2004 and flew it for years of testing in various Sentinel R1 electronic intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. The U.S. Air Force purchased the aircraft in 2009 and began flying it as a BACN platform almost immediately thereafter. It is still an “experimental” aircraft, retaining numerous vestigial radome pods from its time in the Sentinel program, increasing drag and fuel burn. Owing to its experimental origins, it lacks insulation, which led pilots to adoringly nickname her “Snowball,” as the flight deck becomes freezing cold once established in a high-altitude orbit.
In 2010, the BACN mission in Afghanistan was augmented by an additional four EQ-4s (nicknamed “The Robots”), though one crashed near Jalalabad in 2011. These aircraft provided the ability to operate in contested environments. The EQ-4s later proved important in augmenting communications for U.S. and coalition forces in the Iraq-Syria theatre against the Islamic State (2014-Present). Two more E-11s (nicknamed “The Twins”) arrived in 2010 and the final E-11 (“Vision”) was delivered in 2013, helping the 451 TAG provide continuous BACN operations in Afghanistan. In 2013 the 451 TAG became the 430th Expeditionary Electronic Combat Squadron (430 EECS). With so much BACN capability available, one E-11 in 2014 was temporarily dedicated to military operations outside of Afghanistan, supporting communication relays in northern Iraq and East Africa.
Contemporary BACN Operations
The E-11 fleet received its official major weapons system designation in 2011. Despite having an “E” prefix, the E-11 does not conduct electronic warfare, collect intelligence, conduct surveillance, or perform reconnaissance.
The closest description of the aircraft might be its labeling as a C3 platform, though this is not entirely accurate as the E-11 is crewed by two pilots who do not actively conduct any command and control. The E-11 has software and hardware that relays communications from a high orbit to overcome LOS issues between aircraft and ground-based agencies. Hence, the E-11 is the sinew of Command, Control, Communication, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR), enabling multi-domain operations to facilitate rapid targeting and precision. The “bridging” provided by the E-11 means that the BACN payload takes one waveform transmission and seamlessly re-transmits it to be sent out as another waveform, i.e., 5w radio call turned into a secure voice over IP phone call.
As best described by an F-35 pilot, “our aircraft isn’t really meant to do COIN-CAS,” especially in LOS-restrictive environments such as Afghanistan. This is where the E-11 shines most. Some aircraft, such as the F-35 and F/A-18, do not have SATCOM radios; hence, they struggle with securely communicating with ground personnel that are trying to coordinate CAS via SATCOM. In such a situation, the BACN payload on the E-11 (and sometimes the EQ-4) ensures that this problem is resolved through onboard translators that securely relay communications between both. Moreover, it provides an instantaneous “bridge” to operation centers that provide and collect real-time intelligence to make targeting decisions for striking enemy positions. Because of the BACN, intelligence and targeting specialists that are over the horizon, can be integrated into the conversation so that authority to strike can be made quickly. In other cases, a JTAC (Joint Terminal Air Controller) at an operations center, reviewing multiple sources of intelligence, can direct the aircraft to strike a specific target. It is best to think of the E-11 and EQ-4 as being low-orbit communication relay satellites, an orbiting “cellphone tower” if you will.
The two BACN platforms, the EQ-4 and E-11, bring different capabilities. The EQ-4 has the advantage of long sortie duration (approximately 30 hours), whereas E-11s have a flight time of nine to 14 hours. However, due its slow speed and the difficulty of re-tasking the EQ-4, it is good at supporting persistent operations in a localized area. EQ-4s also cannot operate when there is severe space atmospherics and/or poor weather, e.g. thunderstorms, icing, etc., reducing its flexibility.
The E-11 can adapt to a rapidly changing battlefield or adverse weather conditions, being able to quickly change an orbit and transition expeditiously to another location for urgent purposes. This capability to support time-sensitive situations, such as personnel recovery (PR), high-value target (HVT), TIC, and CAS missions. Additionally, an E-11 pilot can provide a manual “radio patch” by relaying radio calls between different users on UHF and/or VHF.
Over the Horizon: BACN after Afghanistan
The drawdown of U.S. and coalition military missions in Afghanistan and Iraq leaves the long-term prospects of the BACN program in question, especially in context great power competition. The 14-month peace agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban will result in most U.S. forces withdrawing by May 2021. Hence, there will be a need to reposition the 430 EECS. This will require re-thinking how BACN is integrated into multi-domain warfighting to compete against China and Russia or to support warfighters combatting violent non-state actors in peripheral regions. The E-11 can only operate in airspace where air dominance is assured, and China and Russia have invested heavily in anti-access and anti-denial (A2/AD) technology, creating larger air defense zones around their territories. The E-11’s lack of self-defense systems increases its vulnerability if it were to operate in Eastern Europe or South China Sea area.
Additional uncertainty of the BACN program’s future results from several events. First, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) Fiscal Year 2021 outlines the divesture of the three remaining BACN-equipped EQ-4s on 1 October 2020. Hence, EQ-4s will no longer provide BACN coverage to U.S. and coalitional forces in Iraq and Syria, which increases BACN vulnerabilities in Afghanistan when E-11s are unable to support due to maintenance issues. Second, the tragic crash of an E-11 in January 2020 reduced the E-11 fleet to three aircraft. While this may seem minor, the BACN program was organized and designed under the premise of providing continuous 24/7 BACN coverage 365 days a year. With three aircraft available, this has strained the ability of E-11s to maintain such a readiness posture, and while the NDAA authorized the purchase of five additional E-11s, the arrival of the first of these aircraft will likely not occur until 2021 or later. Worse, due to the COVID-19 pandemic straining defense budgets, the acquisitions process will likely be further delayed.
As the cadre of E-11 pilots are only temporary, filling a deployed billet, the question remains if an E-11 schoolhouse will ever be stood up. As it stands, creating an E-11 pilot is an iterative process: being selected for deployment; then sent to a civilian school to learn how to fly a Global Express (BD-700); deploying to fly the E-11 variant of the Global Express; and finally, upgrading from copilot to instructor or evaluator pilot during the deployment. At some point, ACC needs to consider the long-term, and if there is any value to standing-up a formal flying training unit, with Snowball as the trainer for creating more E-11 pilots. However, the Air Force already has a fleet of C-37 aircraft (Gulfstream 500s) and plans to upgrade the current EC-130 Compass Call aircraft to EC-37s. This makes an additional fleet of E-11s a suspect decision, for both pilot training and logistics, as the BACN payload could be just as easily added to a C-37, since a Gulfstream 500 has similar Global Express performance capabilities.
Continued doctrinal commitments to multi-domain operations and the commander’s need for reliable and secure communications, and a real-time picture of the battlespace, makes the BACN platform crucial. Leaders must find innovative ways to incorporate the BACN platform (and BACN construct) into joint warfighting to enhance the effectiveness of individual air, ground and space assets in multi-domain operations by ensuring seamless connectivity. This is vital because increasing numbers of aircraft, such as the F-22 and F-35, and other systems are becoming dependent on network-centric warfare, which requires on-demand connectivity that BACN enables seamlessly.
However, in the era of great power competition, air dominance cannot be assumed. The air domain will likely be contested and will require aircraft upgrades to the E-11 fleet. This could include the addition of defensive capabilities, e.g., LAIRCM, defensive countermeasures, etc. Such upgrades and the ability to operate in areas without ground support BACN stations to augment E-11 relays would necessitate the addition of two more crewmembers: a BACN payload operator and electronic warfare officer (EWO). Increasing the size of the crew to four and defensive systems would increase E-11 survivability and make it an important element of any strike package. The E-11A provides ample payload space and has relatively low-operating costs, not to mention the ability to be serviced at almost any major airport in the world. With upgrades and the adding of sensors, the E-11 could become a sleek electronic warfare platform, enabling E-11s to have an active role in C4ISR, while replacing bigger and more expensive, aging aircraft with large crews, e.g., EC-130s, JSTARs, etc.
Alternative BACN platform options exist. Some testing has been done with smart node pods, essentially a BACN-light payload, which could be affixed to an aircraft with hardpoints, i.e., fighters, bombers, drones, etc. This could be a way of disseminating and enabling basic BACN “bridging” connectivity and TDL services to warfighters throughout the battlespace, without the costs associated with a dedicated BACN platform. For instance, in the Pacific Ocean, communications can be difficult due to the “tyranny of distance” and limited ground communication infrastructure. Such an approach could provide a “BACN-mesh” for enabling a real-time battlespace picture, proving especially useful in areas where a near-peer adversary may be successful in localized jamming and contesting the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS). A BACN-mesh of various aircraft utilizing smart node pods would prove difficult to an adversary attempting to deny use of the EMS. A BACN-mesh would create a complex, impregnable, and mutually reinforcing communication network with multiple relay nodes.
Thus, while the U.S. military has been accustomed to operating in an uncontested environment, i.e., Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, etc., military leaders should carefully consider how dependent their contemporary warfighting doctrine is on real-time communications and connectivity. BACN, be it on an E-11 or a smart node pod attached to a B-52, will be a vital element of ensuring situational awareness in any future military operations.
Lt Col Jahara ‘FRANKY’ Matisek, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Military and Strategic Studies, U.S. Air Force Academy, and a Non-Resident Fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is currently deployed to Afghanistan as a 430 EECS E-11 BACN instructor pilot. He specifically thanks Lt Col Aaron “Griff” Griffith, Lt Col James “T-Pain” Hayes, Lt Col Joshua “Quagmire” Schecht, Mr. Brian Berckmann, and Mr. Christopher ‘Kit’ McCormick for providing their insights on the BACN program.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government. This article has been cleared for release (PA#: USAFA-DF-2020-245) by Public Affairs at the U.S. Air Force Academy.