“Air Force One” Jet Reemerges With Upgraded Communications For World Trip

On Friday both of the 89th Airlift Wing’s VC-25As, the 747-200s that often fly the President around under the callsign Air Force One, sat side-by-side at Andrews AFB, ready to carry the Trump White House on its first big trip overseas. If you looked especially close, you may have noticed that one of the iconic jets had a slightly different silhouette than the other—a somewhat unusual instance for the pair of aircraft that often appear identical.

The change is because VC-25 tail number 29000—it’s sister ship is tail number 28000—just came back from a deep overhaul and depot maintenance period. It is during those intensive servicing stretches that new capabilities and upgrades are often added to the ultra high profile 747s. In 29000’s case, it looks as if these upgrades included a major communications enhancement—one suspiciously similar to an upgrade we have recently seen on another of America’s sensitive flying command posts. 

Both VC-25As on the roll and Andrews, marking the start of the President’s eight day trip abroad. Also a great comparison of the two jets., AP

29000 now features two bulbous satellite communications (SATCOM) “humps” atop its spine. The USAF two VC-25As were born with far more aerials than commercial 747s due their unique communications requirements, and more have been steadily added over their nearly 30 years of service. But the reemergence of 29000 marks the first time “bubble” style SATCOM installations have flown atop the VC-25A. 

Of course the VC-25A’s older cousin, the USAF’s E-4B National Airborne Operations Center, has featured a massive satellite communications antenna fairing since it got its “B” designation back in 1979. That rounded structure houses the aircraft steerable super-high-frequency and extremely high frequency satellite communications antennas. The domes recently fitted aboard VC-25 29000 are far smaller, but still immediately noticeable.

E-4B NAOC. Beyond’s its large SATCOM “hump,” other smaller SATCOM domes and flat SATCOM fairings spot the spine of the E-4B, USAF

America’s E-6B Mercury aircraft, that serve in the multi-function survivable command post role and are capable of remotely ordering the launch of America’s ballistic missiles should the call come, also received a similar outfit as VC-25A 29000 recently. The project was fairly high profile, with the USAF putting out a press release highlighting the Mercury’s new communications enhancements and the testing that was done to clear them for operational use. And the E-6B, like the E-4B, has also already had a big satellite communications dome atop its spine for decades, but just months ago it also received a smaller one—as well as protrusions on its belly—as part of the upgrade. 

Orion’s GII testbed is thought to have been the main development platform for MR-TCDL.  , Airwolfhound-Flickr Commons

These new humps were to house the antennas for the new Multi-Role Tactical Common Data Link (MR-TCDL). The system is a highly versatile high-speed connectivity node that can push all types of data over vast distances. For the E-6B, the MR-TCDL includes two Ku band line-of-sight channels and one Ka satellite communications channel. The line of sight systems, which are mounted on the belly of the jet, are primarily used for connecting with ground communications entry points and to work as relay receivers for communications happening on the earth’s surface below.

Upgraded E-6B with MR-TCDL antennas domes seen atop the jet just behind the wing’s trailing edge and on its belly below., DoD

MR-TCDL has been fielded aboard the USAF’s shy but invaluable Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) E-11 aircraft. In battlefields like Afghanistan it has allowed troops on the ground to communicate clearly with command elements far away while in mountainous terrain, to relay high-definition video, and to send all sorts of other data from the battlefield to “customers” around the globe in real time. 

Further testing has also proven that the system can be just as relevant over a disaster zone as it is over a battlefield. Working as a flying wireless router and server of sorts—an MR-TCDL capable aircraft equipped with both the Ka band satellite array and the Ku band line-of-sight antennas can provide communications for ground elements operating where traditional communications infrastructure has been destroyed and satellite telephone circuits are overloaded.

Northrop Grumman, the system’s manufacture, describes this capability as such:

Re-establishing communications is one of the most critical components not only of disaster relief efforts but also homeland security, irregular warfare and defense operations,” said Claude Hashem, Northrop Grumman vice president and deputy general manager of the company’s Network Communications Systems business. “With this MR-TCDL wireless demonstration, we’ve just validated the ability to restore the use and combination of video teleconferencing and cellular phone capabilities across an extensive array of Internet and communication platforms that can be easily transported and set up with minimal effort.

“To demonstrate MR-TCDL’s capabilities, Northrop Grumman created a simulated disaster site with inoperable communications systems along with a command center, other wide area networks and telephone end users. The company then set up a mobile wireless kit that provided video teleconferencing, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), chat and mobile phone capabilities restoring communications to the disaster site via the high-capacity MR-TCDL, a system built by L-3 Communications Systems-West, Salt Lake City.

This demonstration was accomplished by MR-TCDL’s unique ability to perform as a true joint aerial layered network by providing real-time networking connectivity at rates greater than 200 megabits per second via ground, airborne and satellite networks. We were able to demonstrate this using many of today’s popular communications platforms, including iPads, iPhones and Skype,” Hashem said.

The MR-TCDL system proved it could reach more disadvantaged users with limited or no data access and increase the rate of speed at which data is exchanged between the end users of a transportable ground entry point to restore high-bandwidth communications during disaster relief efforts.

An aircraft acting as Air Force One wouldn’t need the ability to work as a communications relay but it could use the “top end” of the same system for independent military-grade high-speed satellite connectivity anywhere in the world, and especially during emergencies. It is possible, if not probable that this is exactly what these new humps are, and they closely mach those mounted on the E-6B. Even C-32As, the 757s used often as Air Force Two and even Air Force One, and to haul around other government heavyweights from time-to-time, have been coming out of depot with a similar communications enhancements, although with just one dome instead of two. 

C-32A’s new satcom dome (above ‘UNITED’). Other upgrades include a HUD, enhanced vision system and new interior., Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images

Interestingly, the President took VC-25A 28000 to Saudi Arabia, even though the upgraded jet, which certainly has many other refreshed features as well as new communications, also flew on the trip. It is customary to take both VC-25As on multi-stop overseas flights, along with an armada of other aircraft like C-32s, C-40s, C-37s, E-4Bs, as well as the shadowy C-20C that is never far from the President when he travels. This list doesn’t even include the dozens C-17 and C-5 transport flights required to preposition and return home the Presidential motorcade and the VH-3D and VH-60N helicopters of HMX-1 that are needed at each stop. And yes, the helicopters are always there, whether they are used or not.

As far as communications go, if both jets were flying together, the President and his staff could probably make use of 29000’s enhanced communications during an emergency even if they were flying on 28000. Data-linked information can like be “pushed” from one VC-25A to the other VC-25A nearby and then sent around the globe using either of the aircraft’s SATCOM systems.  

The Ka band has become increasingly popular for SATCOM purposes for a number of reasons. These include the band’s inherent reliability, its resilience to jamming and bad weather environments, the tiny sized and weight requirements for antenna (roughly one quarter the size required by other popular bands), and its flexibility—being able to support ground, air and sea applications and to carry all sorts of data at very high speeds. Also, the latest Ka band SATCOM satellites, with the military’s Wideband Global SATCOM constellation being the pioneer of sorts, uses directed beams for connectivity, not far less effective wide area coverage, which means data transfer is much more reliable and way faster. It is said that just one WGS satellite has more bandwidth than all the other satellites in the Defense Satellite Communications System combined. That is precisely why Wideband Global SATCOM systems will steadily augment and then replace many of the military’s aging Satellite Communications System Phase III, Milstar, UHF and other communications satellites.

The domed installations seen on the VC-25A, C-32A, and E-4B, and the description of the MR-TCDL’s satellite connectivity capabilities in particular, seem remarkably similar to those now being developed in the commercial world for Immersat’s Global Xpress network of satellites. It also uses the Ka band and is optimized for moving vehicle applications. 

Honeywell’s Jetwave Ka band satcom installation has been approved for 757s, like the C-32A and can use Global Xpress., Honeywell

Past Ku band aircraft satellite communications systems were designed to adapt to the limitations of existing satellite data networks that were not intended for quickly moving “customers.” Global Xpress, which has four satellites in orbit, was built from the ground up with aircraft and other moving vehicles in mind, so installations on vehicles can be tailored to the system to get the very most out of it. It is said to deliver ground-like bandwidth and data transfer speeds. Viasat also has similar capabilities with tailored applications for the US military available and in use.

It is likely that the Pentagon is using the same hardware architecture to access both military and emerging commercial Ku band satellites. That way it can use commercial satellites for everyday SATCOM communications, and then switch to its network of highly secure Global Wideband SATCOM satellites for classified and sensitive data transfer. It is possible that the DoD even has leased discreet capacity on these new commercial satellites for secure SATCOM connectivity. 

Ever since the communications frustrations of 9/11, the White House Communications Agency and the Pentagon have worked especially hard to leverage the latest technologies to keep the President and their cabinet in the loop at all times, and especially when POTUS is cocooned at 40,000 feet within the fuselage of Air Force One. The arrival of the latest and greatest data-link technology on the VC-25A fleet shortly after it appeared on another key command and control asset is not a coincidence. Similar Ka band SATCOM domes will surely pop up on other aircraft associated with continuity of government and strategic command and control, such as the E-4B, C-20C, and eventually even C-37s and C-40s that serve other key players in the National Command Authority, the military, and the federal government.

In fact, it’s possible the E-4B actually got some sort of similar upgrade before the E-6B. The aircraft has been sporting two line-of-sight data-link antenna protrusions on its belly for about half a decade now. This could be “the bottom half” of MR-TCDL suite that takes advantage of the the E-4’s different satellite links for moving data from below to around the world. Or it could have the full MR-TCDL suite, we just don’t know. 

Considering the E-4B can be tasked to the Pentagon as well as FEMA, having the ability to provide communications relay duties over a disaster are—manmade or otherwise—would probably be a high priority for these jets. Paired with aerial refueling, they could stay on station for the a couple days following a major catastrophe. Not just that, but they could provide worldwide connectivity for whoever is onboard, or possibly for a command post very nearby, while sitting on the ground. 

Regardless, a pair of multi-role Ku band SATCOM arrays is a nearly perfect communications tool for Air Force One. It can give its passengers high-speed internet and voice over IP access on a daily basis, while also being able to be used to transfer sensitive information and command and control purposes during a crises.

While President Trump’s first trip overseas is historic on many levels, it interesting to know that one of the two VC-25As supporting the mission is connected to the world like a Presidential aircraft has never been before. 

The USAF twin VC-25s about to fly together to Saudi Arabia., AP

Contact the author: tyler@thedrive.com

Tyler Rogoway


Tyler's passion is the study of military technology, strategy, and foreign policy and he has fostered a dominant voice on those topics in the defense media space. He was the creator of the hugely popular defense site Foxtrot Alpha before developing The War Zone.