One of the rarest visitors to the 2021 Dubai Airshow is the U.S. Air Force’s E-11A, a highly modified Bombardier Global 6000 business jet that operates in the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) role. The aircraft acts as a link that can overcome line-of-sight communications issues caused by mountainous terrain and other obstacles.
Described as a “Wi-Fi in the sky” system and developed as an urgent solution to problems encountered in Afghanistan, a BACN payload first flew aboard a NASA WB-57 high-altitude testbed. It was subsequently tested, and then fielded, in a Global 6000, the business jet selected for its 51,000-foot maximum altitude and 12-hour endurance. Three more Globals were outfitted with the system. A BACN payload was also fitted into five Northrop Grumman EQ-4B high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned air vehicles. The UAVs have deployed lately during Operation Inherent Resolve over Iraq and Syria.
The BACN provides a bridge between numerous users employing various types of occasionally incompatible communication systems. A typical application would involve linking ground forces with a close-support aircraft in difficult terrain, allowing the passage of critical voice and data between the two without relying on satellite communications.
Originally designated RC-700 in its test phase, the BACN-equipped Global 6000 was redesignated as the E-11A. The Air Force assigned four aircraft to the 451st Tactical Airborne Gateway, later re-styled as the 430th Expeditionary Electronic Combat Squadron and operated from Kandahar in Afghanistan from 2010 until the U.S. withdrawal, after which they moved their theater operating base to Al Dhafra in Abu Dhabi. Engine failure resulted in the loss of one aircraft over Afghanistan in January 2020, and one of the EQ-4Bs was also lost.
In June the U.S. Air Force awarded a contract to Bombardier for another Global 6000 as an attrition replacement, with up to five more to be bought as part of an indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract to join the current three-aircraft fleet. The aircraft will be fitted out in Wichita, Kansas, and have cabin interiors installed in Tucson, Arizona, where they will also be painted. Days before the order announcement, the Air Force said that it would base a squadron of E-11As at Robins AFB in Georgia, as that base begins the phaseout of its current E-8 J-STARS fleet.