Network-centric warfare airborne military communications links approved for deployment

Aug. 1, 2009
Analog-to-digital converter and digital-to-analog converter designers struggle to keep pace with an RF spectrum burdened with wireless PDA users, broadband Internet surfers, traditional radio communications–and an enemy that detonates roadside bombs with cell phones and garage door openers.

By John Keller

HANSCOM AFB, Mass.–U.S. Air Force officials are planning to switch an airborne military communications networking link from prototype stage to deployment, which will provide a tactical gateway that links fighting forces in the field that are using dissimilar tactical network technology in network-centric warfare operations.

The military networking gateway for network-centric operations is the Northrop Grumman Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN). The Air Force awarded Northrop Grumman a $276.3 million contract in late June to provide for rapid fielding and support of the BACN system.

The contract, from the Air Force Electronic Systems Center at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., is assigned to the Northrop Grumman Defense Mission Systems segment in San Diego, which developed BACN as part of the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) Interim Gateway Program for network-centric systems.

Northrop Grumman will install the BACN system in three Bombardier BD-700 Global Express regional jet aircraft for immediate fielding, and will install the BACN system on two RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 20 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for sustained deployment through 2015.

BACN performs several roles, chief among them is a tactical network gateway that links different military networks to enable fighting forces in the field to communicate digitally, as well as a military satellite communications relay that enables widely separated ground and sea forces to communicate via satellite.

The networking gateway enables dissimilar military networks to communicate–even though these networks may operate on different radio frequencies or with different message sets–such as the LINK 16 Joint Tactical Information Distribution System, the Situation Airborne Data Link (SADL), and the Integrated Broadcast System (IBS).

Part of the BACN system is a forward tactical server that enables separate military networks to share data over secure and open Internet connections through the Internet Protocol. BACN also enables military, civil, and commercial communications across dissimilar networks–including UHF and VHF radios, cell phones, or 802.11 wireless computer networks.

Essentially, the BACN system has the capability to enable a soldier on the ground to use a cell phone to text message jet fighter and bomber pilots operating in his area.

Deploying the BACN system fills an urgent and compelling requirement for enhanced communications capability for the global war on terror–particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan–which the Obama Administration refers to as “overseas contingency operations.”

The BACN system fills a military communications and networking need that was created in the wake of retirements earlier this decade of airborne systems, such as the EC-235 communications aircraft and the Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center, otherwise known as the ABCCC.

For the BACN system, Northrop Grumman engineers are using an aerospace-networking payload they developed that has Internet protocol-based radios, a gateway manager, software-defined radios, and the Advanced Information Architecture (AIA).

Northrop Grumman engineers have tested this payload aboard a NASA WB-57 high-altitude aircraft.

Just last year, Northrop Grumman officials demonstrated this technology when they downloaded and distributed sensor information from an F-22 Raptor jet fighter to F-15 and F-16 aircraft.

The F-22 was using a low-probability-of-intercept Intra-Flight Data Link (IFDL)–an isolated channel that can be received only by other F-22s–while the other aircraft were using the Link 16 network.

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