The US Air Force has deployed the first of three Bombardier Global Express XRS business jets leased since November to serve as advanced communication relays.
The activity was confirmed with a $270 million contract award to Northrop Grumman to integrate the battlefield airborne communications node (BACN) node on the platforms.
Northrop is also working to install the same payload on two RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 20 unmanned air vehicles, scheduled to enter service after 2011.
The USAF plans to operate the "interim" BACN system for at least six years before transitioning to using an unspecified "objective gateway" platform after 2015, it says. BAE Systems and Northrop are contenders for the future requirement.
The BACN system uses software to translate incompatible waveforms, such as the airborne Link 16 network and the ground-based enhanced precision location reporting system.
In 2008, Northrop said it had demonstrated that BACN could even connect the air force's Lockheed Martin F-22 to the airborne data network, by translating the stealth fighter's intra-flight datalink into waveforms that could be received by other aircraft, such as its Boeing E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System platforms.