February 1, 2012
Contract Award: Northrop Grumman to provide its Battlefield Airborne Communications Node for two U.S. Air Force Global Hawks
As announced in a recent press release, the U.S. Air Force has awarded Northrop Grumman a $47.2 million contract for the purchase and integration of two more Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) payloads on two existing Block 20 Global Hawk aircraft.
After the BACN payloads have been integrated on the Block 20 Global Hawks, the aircraft will be designated as USAF EQ-4B unmanned systems, providing long endurance and high persistence gateway capabilities.
In theater operations, mountainous terrain inhibited line-of-sight communications; diverse weapon systems were unable to communicate with each other; each operating unit could see only a limited set of the complete picture. BACN bridges the gaps between those systems, enabling essential situational awareness from small ground units in contact up to the highest command levels.
BACN is a high-altitude, airborne communications and information gateway system that maintains operational communications support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The persistent connectivity that BACN provides improves situational awareness and enables better coordination between forward-edge warfighters and commanders. BACN bridges and extends voice communications and battlespace awareness information from numerous sources using a suite of computers and radio systems.
BACN’s Airborne Executive Processor (AEP) enables a persistent Gateway in the sky that receives, bridges, and distributes communication among all participants in a battle. BACN’s AEP provides translator and gateway interfaces among all supported communications systems, and forwards knowledge-based intelligence information to the Global Information Grid. By controlling the AEP via a ground station, BACN becomes radio agnostic, platform agnostic, and un-tethered.
"The addition of two more BACN systems on Global Hawks will decisively enhance the required 24/7 gateway capability," said Claude Hashem, vice president of the network communications systems business at Northrop Grumman's Information Systems sector. "The EQ-4B unmanned systems will continue to provide long endurance and unsurpassed communications persistence to our warfighters."
"This latest award continues the BACN program tradition of delivering new capability on compressed timelines that meets the operational needs," said Steve Zell, Northrop Grumman BACN program director.
BACN is not a new idea for the air force. Nine years ago, realizing that every aerial battlefield in the past few decades has featured several KC-135 tankers circling, waiting to refuel a thirsty warplane, the U.S. Air Force gave the tankers an additional job. By adding a few hundred kilograms of electronics mounted on a cargo pallet, which KC-135s are equipped to handle, the tanker was turned into a node in an aerial communications network. This solved the problem of how to connect warplanes to the battlefield when those planes do not have satellite communications capability. The system, called ROBE (Roll-On Beyond-line-of-sight Enhancement) was particularly useful in a mountainous area like Afghanistan.
Based on the lessons learned achieved with ROBE, in 2005 the U.S. Air Force introduced the BACN as a technology demonstrator to provide interlink between aircraft in a single battle area. Northrop Grumman was the prime contractor for the development, fielding and maintenance of the BACN system. The company was awarded the first BACN contract in April 2005 by the U.S. Air Force Electronic Systems Center, Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass.
The BACN program has received a number of accolades over the past year. U.S. DoD and the National Defense Industrial Association selected the BACN Joint Urgent Operational Need program to receive one of the Top 5 DoD Program Awards, which are given annually for excellence in systems engineering. BACN also was honored with the Weapon Systems Award from the Order of Daedalians, a national fraternity of military pilots, and the 2010 Network Centric Warfare Award for Outstanding Achievement from a Defense Industry Partner, by the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement.
During the last three years, U.S. Air Force has been using business jets (the 44 ton BD 700) and specially equipped RQ-4B Global Hawk UAVs to act as communications relay stations over Afghanistan by using the BACN equipment. This allowed ground troops to not only talk to others farther away, but also enables ground troops to quickly connect with warplanes overhead.
References: Northrop Grumman (1,2), Strategypage (3), SpaceWar (4)