Canada’s Bombardier smells the BACN


I can’t tell you what the future holds for the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN). It’s history has been surprisingly controversial inside the US Department of Defense. It is championed by one sector of the US Air Force (ie, the AFC2ISR Center) but seemingly opposed by other sectors in the acquisition establishment.

I’ve written about the program intermittently since it played a starring role at the 2006 Joint Expeditionary Forces Experiment (JEFX), but lost track of it about a year ago. At the time, Northrop planned to transition the BACN payload from the NASA WB-57 testbed to a Gulfstream G550.

Twelve months later, BACN has re-appeared in the news, thanks to another starring turn at the 2008 JEFX event. But somehow the airframe was switched from the G550 to the Bombardier Global Express XRS.

I wrote about Bombardier’s coup for this week’s issue of Flight International. It’s still unclear precisely how the events unfolded, but you can be sure this won’t be the last time we hear about the Global Express as a candidate for the US military. 

Global Express emerges as leading candidate for USAF communications relay role

By Stephen Trimble

The US Air Force is close to launching a new airborne system thatcan serve as a bridge between disparate datalinks and introduce the Lockheed Martin F-22 fighter to the battlefield network.

The Bombardier Global Express XRS business jet, meanwhile, has emerged as a surprise, leading candidate for the so-called objective gateway increment 1 programme.

If accepted, the objective gateway would become the first militaryrole in the US inventory for the Canadian-built business jet, but thesecond worldwide. The UK Ministry of Defence is already a customer,with the Global Express the surveillance platform for its RaytheonSystems-delivered Airborne Stand-Off Radar system (pictured below).

© Raytheon Systems

The US Air Force is in the final stages of evaluating itsacquisition strategy for the airborne platform’s payload, but theprogramme is likely to build on a Northrop Grumman prototype system called the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN).

“We believe that BACN is the foundation for what is commonly knownin the [US Department of Defense] as objective gateway increment one,”says Claude Hashem, a Northrop vice-president for airbornecommunications. Hashem says that Northrop understands that USAF andsenior DoD officials have recently reached an agreement to moveforward, and that the USAF is nearing its final selection.

Northrop’s mission systems sector developed BACN to serve multiplefunctions. Primarily, it connects platforms and people in the air andon the ground who currently use radios that cannot talk with each otherfor security or technical reasons.

For example, the stealthy F-22is not equipped with a radio or datalink that can talk with any otheraircraft type. BACN is designed to fill this void with the ability toreceive the F-22′s intraflight datalink (IFDL), alow-probability-of-intercept channel reserved for transmissions onlywith other F-22s (below).

© US Air Force

BACN is able to receive the IFDL transmission, and translate thesignal into waveforms than can be linked to radios on board the Boeing F-15,for example. In an extreme case, the system could even link an F-22pilot to a soldier on the ground via a mobile phone signal.

Northrop showed off the F-22′s new status as a “network node” inApril during a series of airborne and ground technology demonstrationscalled the Joint Forces Experiment 2008.

The next step for the programme will depend on how the USAF approaches the acquisition strategy for objective gateway increment one.

Northrop expects the USAF to select the BACN software suite as thecore of the objective gateway system, but the ideal platform remains amystery. As the USAF has already paid to integrate BACN with the GlobalExpress, choosing that aircraft would likely be the service’s cheapestand fastest option, Hashem says.

Alternatively, the prototype BACN system could be fielded in combatoperations today if the USAF decides it is needed immediately, he adds.

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