Air Force uses jets for long-range communications on battlefields

New system will provide almost round-the-clock radio communications over a battlefield from an altitude of 40,000 feet.

It's a truism of radio communication that the higher the antenna, the longer the range. The Air Force is deploying a system that in essence erects a radio antenna 40,000 feet above a combat zone to boost battlefield communications.

The Battlefield Airborne Communications Node program includes a range of tactical communications systems installed in a BD-700 business jet manufactured by Bombardier of Canada.

The Air Force deployed its first BD-700 in December 2008 as part of the BACN program (pronounced bacon) to the U.S. Central Command, which manages operations in Afghanistan. The service plans to acquire two more BD-700s in 2010, said Lt. Col. Karen Platt, an Air Force spokeswoman.

Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff, has put a priority on the dispatch of a BACN aircraft to Afghanistan, and the BACN system is his No. 1 project on the Air Force's unfunded requirements list in its fiscal 2010 budget, Platt said.

The 2009 war supplemental appropriations bill making its way through Congress contains $61 million to buy two BD-700 aircraft. The Senate Appropriations Committee also urged the Air Force to use fiscal 2009 funds to start outfitting unmanned Global Hawk aircraft with BACN communications suite.

The Air Force should deploy one BACN-equipped aircraft to CENTCOM within six months and another within eight months after the bill is signed by President Obama, the committee said in its report.

When BACN equipment is installed on the Global Hawk, it will provide almost round-the-clock radio communications over a battlefield from an altitude of 40,000 feet.

The system serves as a long-range communications relay platform that can, for example, allow a convoy commander on the ground who is operating on one radio frequency communicate with a pilot who is operating on a different frequency through a computer controlled bridge in the sky called a gateway manager.

The system includes Tactical Digital Information Link radios to transmit data between aircraft, VHF AM and FM voice radios for grounds forces, situational awareness data links for ground troops, and satellite communications systems.

BACN, whether it is installed on a BD-700 business jet or a Global Hawk, is controlled from a ground station. A payload operator uses the gateway manager to select and tune the airborne radios.

Northrop Grumman Corp., which is developing BACN, could not provide a comment by deadline. But it said last May that the gateway computer uses Northrop-developed software that provides translation services between incompatible radios. The translation enables real-time information exchanges among many military and commercial communications systems.

BACN is an update of the Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center originally developed in the 1960s. The center was housed in a capsule on a turboprop C-130 aircraft.