The Air Force has awarded Northrop Grumman a contract to outfit two more E-11A Bombardier business jets with the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) system. The service already operates three such aircraft, which are used to improve tactical communications for joint and coalition forces.
The work will be performed under a $3.6 billion indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract awarded by the Air Force to Northrop Grumman in January 2021. The company will provide the BACN payload as well as integrate it with the aircraft. Bombardier Defense is providing aircraft under a separate $464.8 million contract awarded in June 2021.
The Air Force wants to transition all its BACN payloads onto Bombardier Global Express 6000/BD-700 aircraft. Some of the extant BACN fleet are EQ-4B Global Hawk autonomous uncrewed aircraft, also built by Northrop Grumman, which the Air Force wants to retire. Fiscal year 2021 budget plans called for one new E-11 BACN to be added to the fleet every year for six years; nine aircraft in total are budgeted.
The existing BACN aircraft have amassed some 200,000 operational hours as a “key command and control facilitator supporting airdrops, personnel recovery, convoy, humanitarian assistance and close air support operations,” Northrop Grumman said in a press release.
In Afghanistan, the aircraft were tapped to provide better communications between air and ground units in mountainous terrain, where signal quality was poor or frequently interrupted. The BACN aircraft have also been used as a “gateway” allowing F-35 and F-22 fighters—the data systems of which are not compatible—to share information; and as a beyond-line-of-sight communications relay. The BACN fleet is sometimes referred to by the sobriquet “wifi in the sky.”
“Our battle-tested family of gateway systems improves mission effectiveness and provides the secure and connective tissue between systems and sensors for joint warfighters across space, air, land and sea domains,” said Kevin Berkowitz, Northrop Grumman’s director of network solutions.
The January 2021 contract also provides for Northrop Grumman to develop new BACN capabilities and integrate them on the fleet. That contract also covers ground stations or controls; support gear; and operation of system integration labs.
The BACN payload is being modified for fourth- to fifth-generation fighters to share data via the gateway. It will have an upgraded GPS system to function in a higher-threat environment; Link 16; advanced navigation and performance improvements; and reliability enhancements. Other upgrades will be made to the aircraft’s self-protection and survivability suite.