We Chew The Fat About BACN With Program Boss And Airman Who Used It In Combat

The high-flying Battlefield Airborne Communications Node is one of the most dynamic but misunderstood systems in the USAF’s inventory.

byTyler Rogoway|
Afghanistan photo


The Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) is a high-flying universal translator and rebroadcasting system of sorts that has provided game-changing effects in challenging war zones like Afghanistan. Yet the relatively tiny BACN aircraft force remains somewhat misunderstood and largely unappreciated. The War Zone aims to change that. 

We had a wide-ranging and eye-opening discussion with the BACN program's head honcho over at Hanscom AFB, Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Helfrich, as well as an experienced Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) Weapons Officer who has used BACN successfully in combat, Captain Dennis Seay. We learned what BACN really can and can't do, how its capabilities are applied to real-life combat situations, and where the program is heading in the near future, as well as a ton of other insights into just how valuable this system is to warfighters on the ground and in the air.

The Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, better known as BACN:

Lt Col Helfrich: BACN is essentially a set of airborne radios and data link terminals that fly on two different aircraft types, but those terminals include SADL—Situational Awareness Data Link—and Link 16. Then for the radios, there’s a UHF as well as SATCOM. Then we also have common data link downlink capability, which is a high bandwidth way to pass information.

The whole BACN system is flown airborne on the E-11 aircraft, and then also on the EQ-4B aircraft. A little more about those aircraft is that the E-11 is a commercial derivative aircraft [BD-700 Global Express] that has been modified. Then the EQ-4B is a version of the Global Hawk.

The EQ-4B BACN Global Hawk., U.S. Air Force photo/Greg L. Davis

A high demand, low density asset:

Lt Col Helfrich: We have seven aircraft [four E-11s and three EQ-4Bs] and we’re flying essentially two 24/7 orbits, every day around the clock. Last year alone, we flew 21,000 combat flight hours over 1,500 combat missions and supported about 7,000 combat strikes in theater. That was just last year.

On the E-11 side, first off we have very good maintainers that keep the aircraft up and flying. The BD-700—the E-11s—have been a good platform for us, but we average about eight times as much [flight time] as other non-military BD-700s. It’s been a very good platform, but we’ve definitely pushed it, or we’ve been the fleet leader with the E-11s.

E-11 Global Express BACN aircraft., Photo by Capt. Keenan Kunst

The Global Hawk, again, we have tremendous maintainers on the ground keeping those flying. Another point, we have those three EQ-4Bs, and with just those three aircraft, we fly over half of all Global Hawk flight hours.

We work hand in hand with the Global Hawk program office because they are an integral part of BACN being successful. We talk to them all the time. I talk to my counterpart there routinely.

Capability differences between the E-11 and EQ-4B BACN platforms:

Lt Col Helfrich: I don’t want to get in exact specifics, but the flight time for the Global Hawks is significantly longer than the Global Expresses, which allows you more on-orbit time with the Global Hawks. Additionally, the Global Hawks fly their orbits at higher altitudes.The E-11s still fly at very high altitude as well. Now, that’s really the differences in the airframe. The interesting thing to note is when it comes to the payload, they’re almost identical between the two platforms.

The E-11A that has a "canoe" on the bottom and a "teardrop" on the top is aircraft tail #9001, which is affectionately referred to as "Snowball." 9001 was the first E-11A fielded with the BACN payload, and it was also the BD-700 test aircraft. The "canoe" and "teardrop" do not contain any additional equipment or provide any additional capability, they are left over from previous flight test efforts.

BACN's genesis and NASA's WB-57 Canberra High Altitude Research Aircraft:

Lt Col Helfrich: The WB-57 was first deployed in 2008. There were 50 operational missions flown in Afghanistan with the WB-57. It's now

used basically as a test platform, because the E-11A, EQ-4B aircraft and BACN are so highly in demand that we can't pull aircraft out of

theatre to do the testing of the upgrades or modifications to the system. We use the WB-57 as a surrogate for platforms that provide BACN in theatre.

WB-57 BACN testbed while transiting through Rota, Spain., Petty Officer 2nd Class Travis Alston

How BACN differs from other airborne communications "gateways" such as the ROBE system that can be installed on the KC-135R:

Lt Col Helfrich: In general, the different systems that are out there are complementary. I’m not the expert on ROBE, but I can tell you it is what you would call an opportunistic capability because it does fly on the KC-135s, and their primary mission is air refueling. The BACN is a dedicated asset. How they’re used is quite a bit different.

The modular Roll-On Beyond Line of Sight Enhancement system that can be deployed aboard KC-135s provides data link translator capabilities and range extension for data link networks, but does not have the flexibility or communications gateway capabilities of BACN., Staff Sgt. Nathan Gallahan)

The so called "Einstein Box" gateway being tested on the U-2S Dragon Lady and BACN:

That’s an area that I’m not an expert on. What I can tell you is that that was flown as a demonstration. As far as I’m aware, there’s no plans to operationally use the U-2s as a gateway.

Possible future BACN platforms:

Lt Col Helfrich: We’ve considered several different platforms, and several were considered before we landed on the E-11 and the Global Hawk. None have been more fully fleshed out because the BACN modification is pretty extensive. As you would expect with so much communications gear, there are lots of antennas and apertures, which require modification to the aircraft.

Basically, at this time the E-11 and EQ-4, that is the way. If you’re going to add more, that’s probably where they’re going to be added, in those types of platforms. Currently, we’re not looking at any platforms other than the E-11 and the EQ-4B.

BACN over the battlefield:

Captain Dennis Seay: From the TACP [Tactical Air Control Party] and JTAC [Joint Terminal Attack Controller] perspective our responsibility is to direct air power or direct close air support onto targets. With that, me being on the ground probably the main thing or the most important thing to me is communication. Not only with the aircraft that are attached to me, but with my headquarters or operations center.

What BACN does overhead for me is it allows me more opportunities or more available options to talk to both of those people. Number one, with terrain issues in Afghanistan, sometimes it could be hard talking to airplanes that are 10 or 15 miles away. Depending on where you are, it could be much closer, so I have much more limited range.

Joint Terminal Attack Controllers are modern day Forward Air Controllers that can call in a wide array of firepower often times while under fire. ,  Senior Airman Kevin Tanenbaum

With BACN, their capabilities, it allows me to use them as a "retrans." Essentially, I talk on my radio, BACN automatically retrans it, and it extends my line-of-sight communications to the aircraft or to the operations center that I’m responsible to. Number one for me is it increases my ability to talk long range.

Number two is time. Time if often essential for me and to set up a satellite antenna to talk back to the operations center is difficult sometimes. It takes time. Sometimes I don’t have that, say, five minutes that it takes to set up an antenna. Instead of me stopping and setting up that antenna, if I have a BACN bridge in place, I talk to BACN on a line-of-sight frequency. They do the automatic transmission into, let’s say for instance, a SATCOM frequency or a telephone, and talk back to the operations center without me having to stop and ask the enemy to stop shooting at me.

The difference between having and not having BACN overhead:

Captain Dennis Seay: I’d say, number one, the biggest difference is knowing that they’re there. I don’t think that our community on the JTAC side is as educated as we should be to know what BACN can do and when it’s available. By knowing what BACN can do, during my last appointment for example, we were able to solve quite a bit of problems.

I’d say the majority of the problems for the JTAC or the guy on the ground has to do with range and communication. With something that can increase my range dramatically, and allow me to communicate, my life is much easier no matter what.

If they can take that problem off the table, then I think the limits are boundless. As far as when I get into a situation where I need to save people or if I need to strike this target, if I don’t have communications, we’re in trouble. Having this in place, if it can help or I don’t want to say guarantee, by if it could improve my comms capability, my life and my job just got way better.

One of many times when BACN solved a major battlefield communications problem:

Captain Dennis Seay: My last deployment was early last year, so February of ’16, and F-16s were there. I was the wing's weapons officer at Bagram. The F-16s were the primary fixed wing strike platform in the country. One of the problems when I first got there as the wings weapons officer was to try to figure out why the F-16 wasn’t employing or wasn’t involved as much as they should be, given their capability and all the things we know the F-16 can do.

One of the root causes we got down to was communication. Communication, again, once we dug into it and tried to figure out what they were doing, the F-16s were primarily using SATCOM due to range restrictions and the terrain in Afghanistan. They were using SATCOM to talk back to the operations center, which is exactly what they should be doing. It was the right decision to use that frequency or that band. But when they’re in certain positions, certain banks, certain turns impeding antenna position, it was hurting their SATCOM transmission. A lot of times during strikes, they were not able to talk.

F-16CJ high over Afghanistan. ,  Staff Sgt. Matthew B. Fredericks

At that point, we tried to figure out what we could do to fix it. Again, we made some contacts and talked to the BACN guys that were in Afghanistan, and ended up getting down to what can we do to get these F-16s to better employ. One of things was to employ BACN and use the UHF frequencies from the F-16 to allow line-of-sight, which worked great because their antenna placements are way better. They have multiple antenna ports, so it allowed the F-16 to output UHF on line-of-sight frequencies. Then the BACN would take it in, and translate it to whatever output we wanted.

For a couple of examples, we outputted to UHF if the line-of-sight frequencies worked. We took BACN and translated it to a phone. Actually, they were in the operations center talking to the F-16s on the phone via the F-16’s UHF upload into BACN. We solved it a number of ways, but I think without BACN, we’d still be running into the SATCOM/UHF problem or the line-of-sight problems, the unique problems that Afghanistan promotes or produces with its terrain and range restrictions.

A fighter's speed and local high terrain can cause major ground to air communication issues without BACN:

They’re moving fast, so the windows to give clearance are shorter than they are with a slower aircraft. The speed of the aircraft amplifies the lack of communications a little bit. Otherwise, it was a simple communication problem that once we solved, F-16s were doing well after that. BACN eliminated a lot of frustrations. It allowed us to basically employ more and to allow the F-16s to get involved more, for sure.

One of the times when BACN could have solved major battlefield communications problems if it were overhead:

Captain Dennis Seay: I used BACN successfully on my last deployment, but a couple of deployments ago when we were departing Iraq—it was the last combat patrol out of Iraq. The tactical problem was getting thousands of vehicles from Baghdad back to Kuwait.

How did we do that? We spent a couple of weeks trying to figure this thing out. Problem was communication. Problem was range. Problem was coverage, and end result, it came out to be a very heavy lift with a lot of risk involved. At the brigade level, I had a number of JTACs. The total I used for this mission was six or seven. Let’s call it six.

I had to place six JTACs throughout different bases from Baghdad all the way to Kuwait that would basically hand off these series of convoys as they traveled from north to south. The JTACs had to travel there, get in place, figure out the area of operations where they were, do all the terrain mapping and terrain analysis, and cover convoys as they moved through their battlespace.

JTACs give an A-10 a visual thanks during training.,  Senior Airman Kevin Tanenbaum

Now, I think what I know about BACN as of the past couple of years, if I did have BACN, and if I did have an orbit above those convoys, I would have been able to cover them with much less effort. I don’t want to say keep them safer because we did a good job getting them out, but it would have decreased the amount of effort and the amount of risk as we moved the Army from Baghdad to Kuwait.

It would have ended up being less JTACs on the ground for sure. It would have been less travel and risk of moving helicopters and moving JTACs around. It would have been less aircraft because I had to have aircraft talking to JTACs just in case things happened. If I had had BACN overhead as a relay, it would have helped that as well.

How a fighter pilot's "picture" of the battlespace and general situational awareness changes when BACN is present:

Lt Col Helfrich: BACN really does two functions. One really has to do with voice communications and Captain Seay has some great examples of that, and the other one is having to do with data link interoperability.

Older F-16s have what’s called SADL [Situational Awareness Data Link], and newer F-16s and many other aircraft have Link 16. BACN has the ability to basically automatically translate between the two data link systems and between those networks. We can push all the information from an A-10 or an older F-16 that has SADL, and push it to an F-15 or a newer F-16 or even an F-18, making sure that they have the largest amount of data for the situation they’re entering.

Captain Dennis Seay: As part of the data link communications it also does range extension and unification. Essentially a unification of networks... You can push out and receive that information before you even enter the battle space. You’ll receive not only a more complete data picture, but you receive it earlier to prepare you for your operation.

Lt Col Helfrich: If the information is going to Link 16 or SADL, it can be range extended or it can be translated. It doesn’t necessarily matter what platform is pushing information to that network.

Link 16 information is primarily displayed on a situational display in an aircraft's cockpit, in some cases the info can also be displayed in a pilot's helmet mounted display. An active net provided by BACN not only offers far better transmission coverage but also provides "fused" information from other platforms using different data link modems and waveforms, like SADL. , BAE Systems

(Authors note: basically the system collects disparate data link waveform transmissions, such as SADL and Link 16, and then fuses all the information into a common picture and rebroadcasts it out to all those assets in their unique waveforms. Think of it as a flying universal translator for tactical data link systems. This allows for various weapons systems (fighters, sensor aircraft, ships, and even ground systems) with different data links to see a common tactical "picture" at the same time instead of just seeing information from systems with their same type of data link terminal installed and that are within line of sight. Because of its high operating altitude station, BACN also creates an "active net" over the battlefield that can connect forces beyond line of site. For instance, with BACN airborne, a fighter aircraft will likely remain connected via data link even when they are at low altitude and outside line of sight of other similar data link equipped platforms. It also extends the range of data link networks over large swathes of the battlefield.)

BACN's ability to connect 4th generations fighters with 5th generation fighters and other stealth assets that use proprietary data links, like the F-35's stealthy MADL data link system:

Lt Col Helfrich: Currently, BACN doesn’t have the right type of radios to communicate, or the data link terminals, to communicate with the fifth-gen aircraft. Theoretically, there would be a lot of synergy there by having a fifth-generation to fourth-generation gateway on BACN, but there has not been a requirement to date that’s been validated for us to go do that.

Similar to MADL, we don’t have a terminal onboard BACN now that would communicate with the F-22's data link. Again, you could see why theoretically there might be some synergy there with our gateway and that kind of gateway.

The first E-11A, affectionally referred to as "Snowball" due to its dorsal SATCOM dome and ventral "canoe" enclosure, gets airborne for another mission over Afghanistan., U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Katherine Spessa

The need for more BACN aircraft:

Lt Col Helfrich: What I can tell you is the BACN fleet has expanded over the years. It started off with one aircraft, one E-11, and we now have four E-11s and three Block 20 Global Hawks that are equipped with BACN. We are in the middle right now of modifying a fourth Block 20 Global Hawk with BACN. We are expanding the fleet.

Captain Dennis Seay: I’ll tell you, from the user perspective, there’s a lot of things. The BACN program is CENTCOM [Central Command] only. It limits our ability to train. It limits our ability to become familiar with this asset, and essentially limits the ability or limits the use that the JTACs will get out of BACN.

The same way we’re having trouble with every other piece of equipment that is primarily deployed, if we don’t get a chance to train with it, it won’t be part of our habit pattern. If we’re learning when we get in-country or if we’re trying to figure it out when we get in-country, essentially it’s too late. If the question is, would we like to have it at home to train? The answer from JTAC community as a whole would be a resounding yes. We would love to have it home to train.

One of just three EQ-4Bs in the USAF's inventory seen being towed at an air base in the Middle East., U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Marie Brown)

BACN's global transmission range:

Captain Dennis Seay: It can take whatever frequency in, and send whatever frequency out. SATCOM is an available output for them, so theoretically they can talk worldwide using satellite communication.

The system's ability to retransmit streaming video:

Lt Col Helfrich: There is the bandwidth over certain communication forms that we could send video. That has not been a function that we employed on BACN.

BACN's supporting unmanned players flying over the battlefield:

Lt Col Helfrich: I would say that we can support and have supported UAVs. I would say the preponderance would be related to close air support.

Captain Dennis Seay: I think the point is that BACN is a facilitator for anything Link 16 or SADL. Anything that the Air Force builds that is Link 16 or SADL capable, BACN will be able to improve their capabilities. I think that’s the point.

BACN continues to evolve:

Lt Col Helfrich: We have a few things that we’re doing right now, the one I’ve already mentioned is the modification of another Global Hawk to make it BACN capable. That will assist with capacity. Additionally, on our E-11s, which are the commercial derivative aircraft, we are working to add IFF [Identification Friend of Foe] capability, as well as eventually moving to a military GPS to make the system more standard for the military.

We are transitioning from, if you’re familiar with the MIDS-LVT to the MIDS-JTRS radios, which gives significant increase in capability. Additionally, we are transitioning from the ARC210 gen fours to the generation fives, and then eventually generation six, which again, provides more capability for voice communications.

Inside the E-11A's cockpit., U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Katherine Spessa

Captain Dennis Seay: Going to your point about where it’s going in the future, I think BACN is doing what it does with Link 16 and SADL, but on the JTAC or the employment side of things, JTACs in the next year to two years should be a lot better off in a digital-aided CAS [Close Air Support] world. As far as Link 16 radio capable, a program is in place that allows us [JTACs] to get into the Link 16 infrastructure. 

What that will do for the close air support community is basically put us in there. We’ll see all airplanes in the link, to include your RPAs [Remotely Piloted Vehicles], to include BACN, to include every other Link 16 capable aircraft. It provides over-the-horizon type of communication, so the F-16 that’s coming to support me in a troops-in-contact situation, I can see him when he turns his aircraft onto the runway. As to BACN, will they interact with these people, or will they help? The answer is if they are Link 16 and SADL capable, BACN will help them for sure.

That digs in just a little bit to your contested operations environment where we know that voice communications is going to be a problem. When you move to a digital system, I can push a button, and send a nine line, or I can push a button and tell these guys where I am. Like I said earlier, I really have two jobs. I need to keep friendlies safe, and destroy the bad guy, so if I can push a button and tell the F-16, or A-10, or whatever aircraft where I am, and then I could push another button, and he can push another button and see where the enemy is, we’re winning.

What a JTAC would like to see in BACN's future:

Captain Dennis Seay: I would say video is especially important now in the COIN [Counter Insurgency] environment where CDE (Collateral Damage Estimation) is such a concern. Video retransmission is a big deal.

If it did have video capability, that would be big for the ground fight and the ground user. Otherwise, voice, and then the link or data link architecture is good for us right now.

A huge thanks to Lt Col Helfrich and Captain Seay for giving us such a unique insight into BACN and its capabilities. And a very special thanks to Benjamin Newell and his Hanscom AFB public affairs team for making this piece possible.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com