Air Force awards $145.4M to keep BACN flying

Global Hawk UAV

The unmanned Global Hawk can act as a high-altitude communications node.

The Air Force has awarded Northrop Grumman a maximum $145.4 million contract modification in support of a system that lets unmanned Global Hawks act as around-the-clock communications nodes for joint forces in the field.

Under the roughly one-year modification, Northrop will provide payload operations and support for the Battlefield Airborne Communication Node Joint Urgent Operational Need (BACN JUON), which works on multiple frequencies and can connect otherwise incompatible communications systems. It allows, for example, a soldier on the ground to speak to an airborne pilot via a cell phone.

The military saw the need for something like BACN because the mountainous terrain in places like Afghanistan could block line-of-sight communications, leaving units in the field with only a partial picture of an operation, Northrop notes.  

In 2009, the Air Force awarded the company an urgent-need contract for the system, which was first demonstrated in 2006. Northrop developed and installed BACN first in the manned E-11A aircraft (at the time known as the BD-700) in nine months. Last November, the E-11A passed 5,000 total combat missions with BACN.

It was also integrated into the EQ-4B Global Hawk, units of which can stay in the air 24/7, supplying a constant node for battlefield communications, including voice, video, data and imagery. BACN’s Airborne Executive Processor (AEP), which is controlled from a ground station, provides a persistent translator and gateway that is radio- and platform-independent and works with all supported communications systems, Northrop said.

Last year, the Air Combat Command said response from units in the field on BACN was very positive. "We receive so many comments from the field telling us how BACN is helping them accomplish their missions," said Jennifer Gould, BACN’s deputy program manager.

One comment from a task force leader said BACN “was absolutely indispensable in the execution of (our) mission ... as fundamental as ammunition and chow."

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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