Highly Specialized Air Force E-11A Communications Aircraft Crashes And Burns In Afghanistan (Updated)

The aircraft is one of just four the service operates to provide critical data fusion and communications relay capabilities.

Twitter video capture

Details are still limited, but pictures and video footage circulating on social media shows that a U.S. Air Force E-11A Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, or BACN, aircraft has crashed in Afghanistan. The exact circumstances surrounding the incident and the fate of the crew remain unknown.

The aircraft reportedly came down in the Dih Yak district of Afghanistan's Ghazni province at around 1:10 PM local time, Arif Noori, a spokesperson for the provincial government, told The Associated Press. Noori did not identify the aircraft or its owner and there were initial reports that an airliner from Ariana Afghan Airlines, the country's flag carrier, was involved. Ariana had already denied those reports by the time the pictures and video footage, which clearly shows the burned-out fuselage of an E-11A, as well as a corresponding serial number on its tail, 11-9358, emerged. 

"U.S. Central Command is aware of the reports of a U.S. aircraft crash in Afghanistan," Major Beth Riordan, a spokesperson for U.S. Central Command, said in a statement, according to various outlets. "We are currently monitoring the situation and will provide additional information when possible."

The Taliban, who are in control of Dih Yak, have claimed they shot down the aircraft and that it killed everyone on board, including "high-ranking CIA officers." There is nothing to substantiate any of these assertions and, despite the group's insistence, the E-11A is not an intelligence-gathering aircraft.

The Air Force has a total of four E-11As, including the one that has now crashed. These planes are based on the Bombardier BD-700 Global Express business jet, which are forward-deployed in Afghanistan assigned to the 430th Expeditionary Electronic Combat Squadron at Kandahar Airfield. 

These aircraft carry the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) payload, which allows them to act as highly specialized aerial communications nodes that can rapidly shift information to and from a wide variety of airborne platforms and forces on the ground. There are also three EQ-4B Global Hawk drones that carry the BACN package. 

The small number of BACN platforms makes them the very definition of a high-value, but low-density asset. You can read more in detail about all of these manned and unmanned aircraft and their obscure, but critical missions in this past War Zone feature.

The loss of the E-11A comes amid a surge in airstrikes against the Taliban, even as the U.S. government works to negotiate a peace deal with the group, which could include American troop withdrawals. U.S. military aircraft employed approximately 7,423 munitions – a total that includes both bombs and missiles – during operations in Afghanistan in 2019, the highest such figure since 2011, according to U.S. Air Forces Central Command. This follows a trend dating back to at least 2018, when American aircraft employed 7,362 munitions.

BACN has been an instrumental part of thousands of strikes already, including 7,000 in 2016 alone, according to figures the U.S. Air Force provided The War Zone with three years ago. On Feb. 14, 2017, one of the service's E-11As flew the 10,000th BACN sortie in Afghanistan.

We will continue to update this story as more information becomes available.

UPDATE: 11:35am EST

Fox News has now reported that there were five individuals on board the E-11A at the time of the incident, according to U.S. officials, but it remains unclear if there were any survivors. Those same officials have denied the Taliban's claims that the group shot down the plane.

UPDATE: 11:55am EST

General David Goldfein, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, has now publicly confirmed that the E-11A did crash in Afghanistan, but has not yet offered any details on the circumstances surrounding the event.

It is possible that the aircraft may have been attempting to make an emergency landing and it definitely skid across the ground before coming to its final resting point. While there is no evidence that the Taliban shot the aircraft down, it would have been exposed to attacks from that group after the crash. 

Additional and graphic pictures reportedly from the crash site show what appears to be a badly burned body of one of the crew members. There are also pictures circulating online showing two bodies covered in blankets.

UPDATE: 1:05pm EST

U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) has now also confirmed the E-11A crash and denied that the Taliban shot it down. There are still no details on the cause of the mishap and the fate of all of the crew members.

UPDATE: 1:45pm EST

The Taliban claim that they have secured the crash site and are searching for two possible survivors of the crash. There have no further updates from the U.S. government about the incident or the status of the aircraft's crew.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com