Air Force Doubles Down On E-11A BACN Communications Jets With Plans To Triple Fleet Size

The E-11As are in high demand, but there are so few of them, pilots may not have even seen one before jumping into the cockpit of one downrange.

An E-11A BACN aircraft.
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The U.S. Air Force is in talks to buy another E-11A Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, or BACN, aircraft, the first of six that it hopes to acquire over the next five years. These highly specialized communications aircraft are in such high demand that all of the existing operational examples had historically been forward deployed in Afghanistan, where one of them crashed after suffering an engine failure just over a year ago. In recent months, however, they appear to have shifted the focus of their operations to the Persian Gulf region.

The 66th Air Base Group's Public Affairs Office disclosed that the BACN program office – both of which are situated at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts – was in the process of negotiating a contract for a new E-11A aircraft on Feb. 5, 2021. This followed the award of a $3.6 billion contract to Northrop Grumman to sustain and otherwise support these BACN aircraft, as well as the fleet of EQ-4B Global Hawk drones that also carry this communications payload. At present, the Air Force has three E-11As and four EQ-4Bs. 

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An E-11A BACN aircraft.

"BACN is a critical tool that commanders know they can rely on," Andy Manvell, the Deputy Branch Chief of the BACN program, said in a statement. “They know that they might not be able to establish communications without it. It is a very important tool and it has definitely helped save lives. Just imagine if you had someone shooting at you and there was no support. BACN helps to ensure that support arrives."

The E-11As are derived from the Bombardier BD-700 business jet. The BACN payload that they carry is an extremely robust communications gateway that can rapidly send and receive data transmitted through various waveforms to and from a wide array of aerial platforms, as well as forces on the ground. In addition to being able to "translate" between various different communications and data sharing systems, these aircraft have been vital communications relay nodes in Afghanistan, where the country's mountainous terrain limits the reach of line-of-sight links.

All three of the Air Force's current fleet of E-11As – which have the serial numbers 11-9001, 11-9335, and 12-9506 – are assigned to the 430th Expeditionary Electronic Combat Squadron, which, at least as of late last year, was based at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. However, starting sometime around October 2020, online flight tracking indicated that the aircraft moved to Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and began conducting regular sorties over the Persian Gulf. The reasons for this shift is unclear.

Regardless, it's important to note that the aircraft do make trips back to the United States from time to time for more intensive maintenance and other work. Two of the aircraft, with the serial numbers 11-9001 and 12-9506, appear to have swapped places just recently, with the former jet returning to the United States, while the latter headed to Al Dhafra.

The E-11As are the textbook definition of a very high-value, but extremely low-density asset. In 2016 alone, the Air Force said that this small fleet of aircraft support 7,000 airstrikes in Afghanistan, and the type flew its 10,000th sortie the following year. You can read more about these aircraft, as well as the BACN program, and how these aircraft are employed as a whole, in this past War Zone feature.

There are so few BACN aircraft that their crews are made up of volunteers from across the Air Force who may not have ever seen one of the jets before they climb into the cockpit of one at a deployed location. The standard procedure is for pilots headed for the 430th Expeditionary Electronic Combat Squadron to receive a month of simulator training, before heading downrange for "in-theater indoctrination training."

When one of the E-11As, with the serial number 11-9358, crashed in Afghanistan on Jan. 27, 2020, it was actually on an operational sortie that was also serving as a qualification flight for the copilot. Both the aircraft's pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Voss, and the copilot, Captain Ryan Phaneuf, were tragically killed in the incident.

A subsequent investigation determined that the plane's left engine had failed after a turbine blade broke off inside. This was then compounded by the crew's decision to shut down the right engine, as well. Failed attempts to restart the right engine, along with a decision to attempt to return to Kandahar rather than divert to a closer airstrip, appear to have sealed the aircraft's fate. 

It's unclear why the crew shut down the right engine, though the Air Force's report speculated they may have been concerned it had suffered damage, too. Why that engine would not then restart is also not exactly clear, but this might have been linked to a total loss of electric power on board. There were indications from the wreckage that the crew had attempted to use the aircraft's Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) to get the right engine going again. Investigators were hampered in their own work due to the fact that the digital flight data recorder had stopped working after the aircraft's primary electric generators cut out from loss of power from the engines.

Whatever the exact circumstances of the accident, The loss of 11-9358, representing 25 percent of the E-11A fleet, was certainly significant and it's not surprising that the Air Force is looking to buy a replacement, as well as additional examples. It's not clear whether the six planned additional E-11As that the Air Force wants to buy will be operated on top of the existing trio, which have now all been flying in this role for around a decade, or will in part replace those jets.

While the possibility seems remote, even if the Air Force ultimately replaced the three E-11As it has now, fielding six aircraft by 2026 would still double the size of the fleet. Having more BACN-equipped aircraft in total can only help reduce the strain on the individual planes and make it easier to rotate them out for more intensive maintenance and upgrades, as well as potentially deploy them to other regions, as desired. The extra aircraft would provide additional capacity to actually train and do development work stateside, as well.

In addition, the Air Force is also planning on retiring its entire fleet of EQ-4Bs, meaning the additional E-11As could be called upon to help fill the gap left by the retirement of those drones in the near term. The service's eventual goal is to replace those unmanned platforms with an entirely new communications gateway under development under the gatewayONE portion of its Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) program. You can read more about gatewayONE and the platforms that might carry it in this past War Zone piece.

No matter what, as it stands now, it seems likely that the bulk of the E-11A fleet will continue to operate primarily over the Middle East or Afghanistan. President Donald Trump's Administration had overseen a significant drawdown of American forces in that country and was actively pursuing a peace deal with the Taliban, which held the promise of paving the way for all U.S. forces to leave after nearly two decades of conflict. This might help explain the movement of the existing jets to Al Dhafra last year.

However, President Joe Biden's new administration has said the Afghan militant group has not met its initial obligations under an initial agreement signed last year and negotiations now seem to be, at best, stalled. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a Congressional watchdog, said in its most recent quarterly report, covering October to December 2020, that U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan had actually increased compared to the previous quarter, despite the focus shifting entirely to defensive sorties to protect Afghan government forces.

As it stands now, the Air Force hopes to formally sign the contract to buy its next E-11A in March, with the goal of having that aircraft delivered in June. Depending on how long it takes to get the plane fully configured for the BACN mission, it could be headed straight to Afghanistan soon afterward.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com