Air Force’s prized BACN networking jets now operate over the Mediterranean

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Starting on October 22 and just today, October 31, US Air Force support aircraft, including signals intelligence aircraft, aerial tankers and airborne communications relays, flew into eastern the Mediterranean, off Lebanon near the Syrian coast. This is the first time we know that the E-11A Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, or BACN, aircraft has flown in its characteristic orbits outside of its previous operational work areas in the Middle East – primarily Iraq, the United States. Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.

BACN tracking on October 31, 2022. (Flightradar24)

Normally seen over Iraq and originally based in Afghanistan, the E-11A acts as a bridge between disparate communication networks, including between different aircraft and other platforms, creating an “active network on the battlefield. The BACN is also often used to provide a link between forces on the ground and forces in the air, overcoming line-of-sight obstacles like high ground. He can also transmit much of what he receives to other places in the theater and around the world. We’ve covered BACN in depth with those who run and use it in the past war zone characteristic.

Due to the fact that the planes are based so close to their areas of operations, it is very rare to see them in the Mediterranean or in Europe for anything other than the long transit to the United States. The most recent example of an E-11A leaving the Persian Gulf was in mid-september when E-11A 11-9355 flew from its base in the United Arab Emirates to the United States for service. According to open source flight trackers, there were E-11A flights departing Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia on October 22, 23 and 27 which performed orbital flights both near the western and eastern borders. Syria, but the aircraft in question were not in the air at the same time.

It is possible that these BACN aircraft are supporting an exercise near F-22 Raptors which are forward deployed to Naval Support Activity (NSA) Souda Bay, a key US Navy installation on the Greek island of Crete. A press release issued by the General Staff of the Hellenic National Defense said that four F-22s from the 90th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron and two KC-135 Stratotankers arrived in Souda Bay on October 20 as part of an “Agile Combat Employment” or ACE exercise. . The press release contains a photograph of a KC-135R registration 62-3502, which has been tracked in the same area as the E-11A since the start of the exercise.

F-22 at NSA Souda Bay. (Greek military)

KC-135 62-3502 at NSA Souda Bay. (Greek military)

Souda Bay is a common staging area for US fighters en route to the Persian Gulf and for other missions and training exercises in the region, but sightings of the F-22 there are rare. The F-22 Raptors participating in this exercise were originally part of the group of F-22s sent from Alaska to Łask Air Base, Poland in August, which is covered in more detail here.

There have also very recently been exercises involving RAF Typhoons and other allies out of Crete, in which F-22s and other US aircraft, including BACN, may very well be involved.

The E-11A has the ability to bridge the gap between the F-22’s datalink and those of other platforms, a feature it lacked until recently. The F-22 uses a unique data link known as an Intra-Flight Data Link (IFDL), which only allows Raptors to send and receive with other Raptors. IFDL uses a low probability intercept steering (LPI) architecture designed to be nearly undetectable by an enemy, but this has drawbacks. The F-22’s IFDL recently gained the ability to transmit over the much easier-to-detect Link 16 omnidirectional data link waveform used by the majority of US platforms, with operational testing ending in late 2021 and the fleet being upgraded from March 2022. .

In a recent interview with The war zoneMaj. Kevin Autrey, the F-22 Senior Operational Test Pilot at 422 Test and Evaluation Squadron, discussed this key feature of the Agile Raptor Capability Upgrade Release 1 (R1) (RACR):

“We went live with R1 – we completed our operational testing in the fall of 2021. Right now we’re ahead of R2 and we’re about to start testing R3 this summer. The first operational squadron jets have already started receiving the R1 upgrades. One of the main differences between the jets that are pre-RACR and those that are now upgraded to R1 is the addition of an open system architecture and a Multifunctional Information Distribution System-Joint (MIDS-JTRS) terminal. Tactical Radio System) which finally allows the Raptor to fully utilize the standard Link 16 data link protocol, including the transmission of the Raptor’s data link “picture”. Throughout its lifetime, the Raptor has, with few exceptions, been able to share the valuable data it collects only with other F-22s.

Along with developing this long-awaited upgrade, the Air Force also tested several ways to bridge this data link gap between the F-22 and other platforms.

According to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the BACN system is now equipped with Northrop Grumman’s “Freedom 550” radio, which serves, among other things, as a connectivity layer between the F-22’s IFDL and other systems. Communication. In December 2020, a Kratos XQ-58A drone was carrying a communications payload as part of an Air Force exercise, allowing the F-22 and F-35 to transmit data between them, the drone acting as a bridge between them. In addition to Northrop Grumman’s Freedom 550 offering to facilitate communication between the F-22 and other platforms, Lockheed Martin tested its Hydra payload aboard a U-2 Dragon Lady in May 2021, which tested an ability to translate the F-22’s IFDL to the F-35’s Multi-Function Advanced Data Link (MADL).

F-22, XQ-58 and F-35 fly in formation during the data link bridge demonstration. (USAF)

Of course, the possibility of BACN supporting F-22 operations in the eastern Mediterranean is only one possibility. BACN could work in this area for a wide variety of reasons. These include the aforementioned training with allies, including nearby Israel, or supporting other nearby operations, which could include those in the air, sea and land, and all of them at once. Russia’s key naval base in Tartus, Syria is very close, as is its main air base there. Israel also regularly operates in this area for strikes in Syria, often rushing into Lebanon for ranged ordnance strikes. Special operations are also potentially active in this area and the naval situation is also tense, as are drone threats from Iranian-backed proxy forces aimed at Israel.

It makes sense for BACN to expand its operations now that the fleet is in a state of flux. On September 15, the first new E-11A was delivered to the Air Force under a June 2021 contract to field six new airframes. This contract will increase the E-11A fleet from its current three to nine, a necessary increase after the retirement of the Global Hawk-based BACN EQ-4Bs last year. Based on the newest Bombardier Global 6500, these new E-11s will update an aging fleet. Existing E-11As are based on earlier versions of the Global Express family, including the BD-700 and Global 6000 types. You can read all about USAF plans to upgrade and expand the E-11 fleet in our latest report.

The first new E-11 being delivered. (Bomber)

The Air Force announced in 2021 that BACNs would be transferred to a new unit in the 319th Reconnaissance Wing to be established at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia from the 430th Expeditionary Electronic Combat Squadron, currently based in Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates. The decision to move the E-11As to the United States indicates an increased focus on theaters other than the Middle East.

When the Air Force announced that the new E-11As would be stationed at Robins, Acting Secretary of the Air Force John P. Roth said:

“As the Air Force looks to the future, we expect to be challenged around the world by China and Russia. These threats require new solutions, which includes divesting platforms legacy such as JSTARS. However, our intention is to capitalize on the existing expertise of the Robins team as we bring in these new missions. These missions will play a critical role in how we achieve decision superiority in all areas. »

Establishing a presence in Robins will allow the E-11As to support future operations in other regions beyond the Middle East or Europe, such as the Pacific, for example, allowing faster communication between air, land and sea assets.

Either way, what is clear is that BACN is definitely expanding its operations into new theaters as the United States shifts away from counterinsurgency operations in the Middle East toward states peers and diverse coalition operations around the world.

We have contacted the USAF for more information on this apparent expansion of the BACN mission area.

Contact the editor: [email protected]

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