Battlefield Airborne Communications Node
The Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) is an airborne communications relay and gateway system hosted on a variety of aircraft that provides flexible radio connectivity across the battlespace for airborne and surface operators. BACN enables real-time information flow between similar and dissimilar tactical data link and voice systems through relay, bridging, and data translation in line of sight and beyond line of sight situations. By acting as a translation proxy between dissimilar communications systems, it allows interoperability without modification to the individual platforms' systems. While many of the interoperability problems were due to aging systems, there has been a special problem with stealth aircraft such as the F-22 Raptor, which, in the interest of security, could only communicate with other aircraft of its type.
Because of its flexible deployment options and ability to operate at high altitudes, BACN can enable air and surface forces to overcome communications difficulties caused by complex mountainous terrain and range while performing as a key node for tactical networks. BACN provides decision-makers at all operational echelons with critical information and increases situational awareness by correlating tactical and operational air and ground pictures. For example, an Army unit on the ground currently sees a different picture than an aircrew, but with BACN, both can see the same picture.
Individual tactical data links are just a part of the larger tactical data link network, encompassing tactical data links, common data links, and weapon data links.
BACN provides a communications relay and gateway. Flying at extremely high altitudes allows real-time information exchanges between different tactical data link systems.
An example would be an B-1 WSO communicating via BACN with special operations forces allowing them to call directly to the cockpit for targeting information in beyond line of sight range situations. This is a tremendous gain in mission effectiveness when troops are operating in mountainous, or other areas where line-of-sight is difficult or makes the mission more risky.
Interoperability between airborne networking waveforms has been a persistent challenge. The solution was a 'universal translator' to move data from one network to another. The first concepts used lessons learned from ROBE, a pallet of equipment on a transport aircraft. (ROBE is Roll-On Beyond line of sight Equipment) In 2005, the USAF's AFC2ISRC and ESC created BACN as a technology demonstrator to provide interlink between aircraft in a single battle area. The four key principles were
- radio agnostic - it would support a variety of communication protocols
- platform agnostic - BACN could be mounted on a variety of aircraft
- un-tethered - unlike previous repeaters, which were hung from floating areostats, BACN has the ability to move within the battlespace
- Knowledge-based intelligence - the ability to sense waveform characteristics of sender and receiver and automatically route traffic
BACN was successfully demonstrated in Joint Expeditionary Force eXperiment (JEFX) 2006 and JEFX 2008 and selected for field deployment.
Getting critical air support to troops in contact with the enemy supports our troops on the ground, as well as in the air.
This project is not just limited to combat operations. We provided the World Food convoy commander with “comms-on-the-move.” This capability allows convoys to stay in continuous contact with air support and around command channels in the complex, adverse terrain, mitigating exposure to attacks- they no longer needed to halt to establish communications.
The BACN prototype was originally developed and tested in 2005 - 2008 on the NASA WB-57 high altitude test aircraft during Joint Expeditionary Force Experiments and other experimentation venues. These last two flying B-57s continue to be used for this mission in Afghanistan.
BACN was deployed on a test platform Bombardier BD-700 and originally designated as the RC-700A under the reconnaissance classification. The aircraft was later re-designated as the E-11A under the special electronics installation category. The BD-700 was selected due to its high service ceiling and flight duration. These flight characteristics are critical in providing unified datalink and voice networks in the mountainous terrain encountered in the current theater of operations. Additional E-11As have been deployed to increase availability and flexibility. These have been used in operations in Afghanistan.
BACN payloads have also been developed, installed, and operated on special variant EQ-4B Global Hawk aircraft to provide unmanned long endurance high altitude communications coverage. The combination of BACN payloads on E-11A and EQ-4 aircraft gives planners and operators flexibility to adapt to mission needs and increase coverage in the battlespace to near 24/7 operations.
Northrop Grumman is also developing BACN pods that can be temporarily mounted to various other aircraft.
Other High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) platforms are also being considered for use with BACN.
The QDR's effects on the DoD were widespread. In retrospect, the performance of the Armed Services in Enduring and Iraqi Freedom tend to prove that the QDR got it right. The rapid liquidation of the Taliban and Iraqi forces during Blitzkrieg like advances shows that though significantly leaner than the force that fought in Desert Storm, the American military still retains a decisive and lethal force. However, it is now clear that the services need to re-think their approach to net centric warfare and command, control, communications for the future. This will likely include any necessary changes to force structure to support the full spectrum of operations expected. The September 11 Terrorist Attacks, the Katrina Hurricane disaster, and the ongoing counter insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan show where many communications seams exist both in the DoD and in other governmental functions to include intelligence, law enforcement, and emergency response. This became apparent soon after the September 11, 2001, attacks, when President Bush became irritated with Air Force One's inability to provide a live video feed to news organizations in the hours after the hijackings and subsequent atrocities committed by the terrorists.
BACN as a concept
BACN has been a controversial program within the DoD. This is caused by a number of issues including the personality clashes between the service people who conceived the project back in late 2004 and the traditional acquisition bureaucracy. This was particularly true between requirements developers at the former Air Force Command and Control Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance Center at Langley AFB, Virginia and their acquisition partners at the Electronic Systems Center (ESC) at Hanscom AFB, Massachusetts, part of Air Force Materiel Command.
BACN divides military planners and acquisition bureaucrats on two main fronts. First, how will an "Airborne Network" evolve beyond the existing tactical data links on today's platforms. Second, the BACN effort presupposes that the capability will initially be "outsourced" to commercial companies that will provide an "airborne network" as a service to the DOD for the foreseeable future.
The evolution of airborne networking
With few exceptions, today's military aircraft, in any service, are not networked. While many platforms have implemented tactical data links that allow some measure of collaboration between flights of aircraft, very little information is passed between command and control elements and attack aircraft at the tactical edge. Since 2001, the DoD has made significant progress in "linking" platforms together. This would include some degree of cross service interoperability but within common groupings like ground attack aircraft and fighters. USAF F-15s and US Navy F/A-18s can link together using Link 16 and share some limited information between flights like target data, fuel and weapons status. On the other hand, USAF bombers like the B-52 and B-1 are not equipped with data links and cannot interoperate with either F-15s and F/A-18s. Furthermore, half the USAF fighter force based in the Air National Guard (ANG) are equipped with Situational Awareness Data Link (SADL) gear that cannot interoperate with Link 16 unless there is a "gateway" which has radios for both data links, and a computer system that can interconnect them and translate the data. While the deployment of data links to fighter aircraft has aided flights of aircraft to coordinate their attacks locally, these systems are constrained by line of sight and cannot reach command and control centers that are often hundreds, if not thousands, of miles distant from where the fighting is taking place. While the USAF has taken the lead to field "gateways" that can handle both connecting dissimilar links and relaying data over satellite back and forth to connect command and control to the tactical edge, the platform that carries the gateway is more often than not dedicated to another mission (like air refueling) that consumes limited resources and sub-optimizes some other critical theater activity.
There are unfortunately bigger problems with linking aircraft together with data links. While ground attack aircraft are increasingly linked, they cannot interoperate with attack helicopters or ground forces with any service. In an age where there is zero tolerance for even a single "friendly fire" death, attack aircraft from either the Navy or the Air Force use the same sensors to prevent fratricide that were used in World War I—their eyeballs.
Late in the last decade of the Twentieth Century, defense planners began to think beyond simply "linking" forces to "networking" them and fundamentally changing the information model at the tactical edge from one that required a priori knowledge of required information to employ forces, or "push" model, to one in which the information required was globally available and could be "pulled" as required by warfighters engaged in combat. This new model came to be known as "Network Centric Warfare (NCW)."
The drive towards NCW began in earnest with the arrival of the Bush Administration. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld drove a transformation of the DoD so that it would be capable of meeting the needs of the 21st century. This DoD-sanctioned technology push became the perfect incubator for pursuing a networked force. On Rumsfeld's recommendation, President Bush appointed a number of industry leaders to key positions within the DoD that brought with them their experience in the technology revolution that exploded in the 1990s.
- "Raptors in the Net: Raptors, Vipers share sensor data for the first time", Defense Industry Update, May 2008 http://defense-update.com/features/2008/may08/F22_datalink_gateway.htm
- Northrop Grumman Airborne Communications System Wins Award for Outstanding Industry Achievement
- "Why Are the Most Vital Aircraft in the USAF Arsenal Owned by NASA?"
- "U.S. airborne communication plane could be tracked on the Web for 9 hours during air strike that killed Taliban leaders in Afghanistan."
- "Two More Global Hawks to Receive BACN Coms Gateways." Defense Update, 1 February 2012.
- "It's the data stupid."
- "Joint Aerial Layer Network Vision Moves Toward Reality."
- "Colonel discusses vision of joint aerial layer network."
- "Air Force aerial layer networking concept to enhance warfighter connectivity."
- "All U.S. Aircraft Could Talk to Each Other, Someday."