Air Force’s Prized BACN Networking Jets Now Operating Over The Mediterranean

After years of proving themselves supporting counter-insurgency ops in the Middle East, the E-11 fleet is growing as are its operating areas.

byAmelia Smith, The War Zone staff| PUBLISHED Oct 31, 2022 6:27 PM
Air Force’s Prized BACN Networking Jets Now Operating Over The Mediterranean
USAF/Senior Airman Jacob B. Wrightsman
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Beginning on October 22 and as recently as today, October 31, U.S. Air Force support aircraft, including signals intelligence aircraft, aerial refueling tankers, and airborne communications relays, have flown in the eastern Mediterranean, off Lebanon near the Syrian coast. This is the first time we know of that the E-11A Battlefield Airborne Communications Node aircraft, or BACN, has flown its characteristic orbits outside of its previous operational working areas in the middle east — primarily Iraq, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia.

BACN's track on October 31st, 2022. (Flightradar24)

Normally seen over Iraq and originally based out of Afghanistan, the E-11A serves as a gateway between disparate communications networks, notably between different aircraft and other platforms, creating an ‘active network’ over the battlefield. 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 terrain. It can also relay much of what it receives to other locales around the theater and the globe. We covered BACN in-depth with those that manage it and use it in this past War Zone feature.

Due to the aircraft being based so close to their areas of operation, it is very rare to see them in the Mediterranean or Europe for anything other than the long transit back to the U.S. The most recent instance 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 U.S. for service. According to open-source flight trackers, there were E-11A flights out of Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia on October 22, 23, and 27 that flew orbital patterns both near the western and eastern borders of Syria, but the aircraft in question were not in the air at the same times. 

It is possible that these BACN aircraft are supporting a nearby exercise of F-22 Raptors that are forward deployed to Naval Support Activity (NSA) Souda Bay, a key U.S. Navy installation on the Greek island of Crete. A press release published by the Hellenic National Defense General Staff stated that four F-22s from the 90th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron and two KC-135 Stratotankers arrived at Souda Bay on October 20 as part of an “Agile Combat Employment,” or ACE, exercise. Included in the press release is a photograph of a KC-135R with registration number 62-3502, which has been tracked in the same area as the E-11A since the beginning 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 U.S. fighters on the way to the Persian Gulf and for other missions and training exercises in the region, but it is rare to see the F-22 there. The F-22 Raptors participating in this exercise were initially 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 been exercises involving RAF Typhoons and other allies out of Crete very recently, as well, in which the F-22s and other U.S. aircraft, including BACN, could very well be involved.

The E-11A has the capability to bridge the gap between the F-22’s datalink and those of other platforms, a function it has lacked until recently. The F-22 uses a unique datalink known as Intra-Flight Data Link (IFDL), which only allows Raptors to send and receive with other Raptors. IFDL uses low-probability intercept (LPI) direction architecture designed to be nearly undetectable by an enemy, but this comes with downsides. The F-22’s IFDL recently gained the ability to transmit on the much easier-to-detect omni-directional Link 16 datalink waveform used by a majority of U.S. platforms, with operational testing finishing in late 2021 and the fleet being upgraded as of March 2022.

In a recent interview with The War Zone, Maj. Kevin Autrey, the lead F-22 operational test pilot at the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron discussed this key feature of the Raptor Agile Capability Upgrade Release (RACR) Release 1 (R1):

“We have fielded R1 – we completed our operational testing in the fall of 2021. Right now we are full steam ahead with R2 and about to begin testing R3 this summer. The first jets in operational squadrons have already started receiving the R1 upgrades. One of the major differences between 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 Tactical Radio System (MIDS-JTRS) terminal that finally enables the Raptor to fully use the standard Link 16 datalink protocol, including transmitting the Raptor’s datalink ‘picture.’ For its entire service life, the Raptor has, with a few exceptions, only been able to share the precious data it collects with other F-22s.”

Alongside the development of this long-awaited upgrade, the Air Force has also tested multiple ways to bridge this datalink 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 as, among other things, a connectivity layer between the F-22’s IFDL and other communication systems. In December 2020, a Kratos XQ-58A drone carried a communications payload as part of an Air Force exercise, enabling the F-22 and F-35 to pass data between them with the drone serving as a bridge in between. In addition to Northrop Grumman’s Freedom 550 offering for facilitating communication between the F-22 and other platforms, Lockheed Martin tested their Hydra payload aboard a U-2 Dragon Lady in May 2021, which tested a capability to translate the F-22’s IFDL to the F-35’s Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL).

F-22, XQ-58, and F-35 fly in formation during datalink gateway demonstration. (USAF)

Of course, the possibility of BACN supporting F-22 operations in the eastern Mediterranean is just one possibility. BACN could be working in that area for a wide variety of reasons. These include the aforementioned training with allies, including nearby Israel, or supporting other operations in the vicinity, which could include those in the air, sea, and land, and all at once. Russia’s key naval base in Tartus, Syria is very close by, as is its master air base in that country. Israel operates regularly in this area for strikes into Syria too, often racing over Lebanon for standoff munitions strikes. Special operations are also potentially active in this area and the naval picture is also tense, as are threats from drones launched by Iranian-backed proxy forces launched toward Israel. 

It makes sense we are seeing BACN expand its operations now as the fleet is in a state of flux. On September 15, the first new E-11A was delivered to the Air Force as part of a June 2021 contract to deliver six new airframes into service. This contract will increase the fleet of E-11As from its current three to nine, a needed increase after the retirement of the Global Hawk-based EQ-4B BACNs last year. Based on the newer Bombardier Global 6500, these new E-11s will update an aging fleet. The existing E-11As are based on earlier versions of the Global Express family, including BD-700s and Global 6000 types. You can read all about the USAF's plans to upgrade and expand the E-11 fleet in this past report of ours.

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

The Air Force announced in 2021 that the BACNs will be transferred to a new 319th Reconnaissance Wing unit that will be established at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia from the 430th Expeditionary Electronic Combat Squadron, currently based at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates. The move shifting the E-11As back stateside 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, then-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. Those threats require new solutions, which means divesting legacy platforms like the JSTARS. However, our intent is to capitalize on the existing expertise at Team Robins as we bring on these new missions. These missions will play a vital role in how we achieve decision superiority across all domains.”

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

Regardless, what is clear is that BACN is definitely expanding its operations in new theaters as the U.S. pivots away from counter-insurgency operations in the Middle East toward peer state and diversified coalition operations around the globe.

We have reached out to the USAF for more information on this apparent expansion of the BACN's mission area.

Contact the editor: tyler@thedrive.com

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