Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN)

Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN)

The Battlefield Airborne Communications Node ("BACN") is a military prototype for a remotely accessed, high altitude, and tactically oriented communications and networking node intended for use on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Initiated in December 2004, it has four main components:

1) BACN provides a Tactical Data Link (TDL) "gateway" which allows dissimilar military links (either links that work in different radio frequency bands, or different message sets, or both). Examples include LINK 16, the Situation Airborne Data Link (SADL) and the Integrated Broadcast System (IBS). Through BACN's tactical data link gateway, users of these three systems can share information and form a common tactical picture.

2) BACN provides a Forward Tactical Server (FTS) that allows an Internet Protocol based networking capability. With the FTS, bespoke military networks can interface and share content across both secure and open internet connections.

3) BACN provides the capability to "cross-band" military, civilian and commercial communications systems so that air, land, and sea based forces can actually talk across dissimilar networks. This includes UHF/VHF radios... both secure and non-secure... first responder radios (sheriff, fire, police, other agency), and commercial cellular systems.

4) BACN allows "disadvantaged" users (soldiers on foot, or platforms without advanced communications systems) an affordable pathway to connect via secure or non-secure media with inexpensive devices. This includes cellular phones, existing narrow band radios, or even an airborne 802.11 networking capability.

BACN was initially installed onto a NASA flown, WB-57aircraft. In June 2006, the USAF funded a transition of the BACN capability to a business jet aircraft. Later that year, the USAF funded the expansion of the BACN program to include up to six business jet aircraft with BACN functionality. In August 2007, Under a contract to MELE Associates, Inc. the BACN payload flew for the first time on a Bombardier Global Express aircraft. In the Spring of 2008, the USAF will fly both the WB-57 aircraft and the business jet variant at the Joint Expeditionary Force eXperiment (JEFX) at Nellis AFB, NV.


Just after Desert Storm, the US Air Force began to retire their entire fleet of dedicated communications aircraft. While these consisted primarily of variants of the Boeing EC-135, the USAF also retired its fleet of EC-18s (Boeing 707 variants), and the Airborne Battlefield Command & Control Centers (ABCCC) flown in the back of a C-130E.

These actions were driven by cost issues as the United States became enamored with the idea of a "Peace Dividend" at the end of the Cold War. Between 1991 and 2001, the USAF lost approximately a third of its force structure and began a process to restructure its existing assets against what became the Quadrennial Defense Review published in 1997. These cuts did not begin or end with communications aircraft, rather they were the result wide-scale mission changes within the Department of Defense (DOD).

For example, during the Cold War, continuous airborne alert missions, code named "Looking Glass", were flown on dedicated EC-135 aircraft from February 3, 1961 until July 24, 1990. As the Cold War waned, maintaining fleets of aircraft postured for prosecuting a nuclear war, were hard to justify in the face of congressional scrutiny. Missions particularly hard hit were those where the services overlapped missions. For example, the ABCCC mission [] directly supported the US Army and coordinated Close Air Support missions between air and ground forces. The question became: "Should the US Army share the investment burden for maintaining and modernizing the fleet of aging C-130E aircraft, the oldest such aircraft in the USAF inventory?" With the US Army trying to defend large investments in attack helicopters and the Air Force trying avoid re capitalizing the fleet of ABCCC aircraft, the mission just died in the seams even though it was heavily sought after in theaters until the decision was made to send it to the bone yard in May 2002 (the system retired completely by the end of fiscal year 2002) and transfer its mission between the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and the Joint Surveillance Attack Radar System (Joint STARS).

Problems emerge

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's now clear that the services need to re-think its 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 early on 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 tragic events [ [ NORAD ] ] .

BACN as a concept

BACN is 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 within Air Force Material Command (AFMC). This was particularly true between personnel stationed with 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.

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 USN F-18s can link together using LINK 16 and share some limited information between flights like target data, fuel and weapons status. Sadly, USAF bombers like the B-52 and B-1 are not equipped with data links and cannot interoperate with either F-15s and F-18s. Furthermore, half the USAF fighter force based in the ANG are equipped with data link gear that cannot interoperate with LINK 16 unless another platform carries a device called a "gateway" that carries both data links on-board with a computer system that can interconnect them. 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 elements that are often hundreds of miles, 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 increasing 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. The new Defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, drive to transform the DoD to meet the needs of the 21st century became the perfect incubator for pursuing a networked force. On Rumsfeld's recommendation, President Bush appointed a number of industry leaders to key position within the DoD that brought with them their experience in the technology revolution that exploded in the 1990s.


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