Communication junction boxes

Bob Archer provides an overview of the US Air Force fleet of E-11 Battlefield Airborne Communications Node aircraft, some of which have transited the UK this summer

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E-11A 11-9001 landing at Mildenhall on September 3, showing the various external system fairings. Anzhelika Archer

BASED ON the Bombardier BD-700 Global Express airframe, the US Air Force E-11A looks like a large business jet. It’s not. It’s a special mission aircraft in every sense. Four E-11s were ordered by the US Air Force for the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) role, beginning in June 2009.

Node by name, node by nature

As its name suggests, the E-11 is a node that conducts airborne communications relay of important messages between a variety of assets ranging from a command post to an individual soldier using a mobile phone, providing access to messages and extending their range.

The aircraft’s BACN systems also translate communications that would otherwise be incomprehensible between different receivers’ dissimilar systems. High-flying aircraft are ideal for operations in Afghanistan where the mountainous terrain hampers line-of-sight messaging. Military communication and data exists in a range of formats, including voice, imagery, video and digital messages, using waveforms from all state-of-theart data links presently in use.

A US Air Force release of October 2013, stated that the BACN programme began as an advanced concept technology demonstration in 2006 to meet the challenges associated with operating in mountainous regions [specifically Afghanistan] with limited line-of-sight, and that the first BACN-installed E-11 was fielded in 2008. The system has the capability to relay voice, video, imagery and data between warfighters both in the air and on the ground connecting those who may be operating on different networks, and is installed on both E-11A aircraft and EQ-4B unmanned aerial vehicles.

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E-11A 12-9506, the fourth aircraft, taxing at Mildenhall in June 2018. Bob Archer

This is not just a regular BD- 700, but also an aircraft modified and fitted with many a system not found in its business jet cousins. The systems integrator is Northrop Grumman Defense Missions Systems Inc.

The Air Force release also described the E-11 as a Life Cycle Management Center airborne weapon system. A statement made after the fourth BACNequipped E-11A, made its debut at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia on September 18, 2013. At the time of the fourth E-11’s delivery, Major William Holl, BACN programme manager at the time said: “BACN is critical to battlefield operations because it allows constant communication to occur beyond line-of-sight in steep terrain.”

Major Holl also stated that with the fourth E-11 aircraft, the 430th Expeditionary Electronic Combat Squadron would be able to enhance its capability of providing 24/7 coverage to warfighters regardless if they are operating from an airborne platform or on the ground. Quoting a soldier [serving in Aghanistan] Holl said: “Soldiers were able to communicate over a broad range due to the E-11, which otherwise would have been unachievable. Without the E-11, communication would have been far less reliable and very well may have changed the successful outcome of this mission.”

Provisional squadron

All four E-11 aircraft are permanently stationed at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, assigned to the 430th Expeditionary Electronic Combat Squadron, one of nine squadrons in the 451st Expeditionary Operations Group. E-11s are the only manned aircraft permanently stationed at Kandahar; other types, including the A-10C, KC-135 and HH-60G, are all deployed from units based in the United States.

Provisional in status, the 430th EECS is under day-to-day control of US Air Force Central Command, although each aircraft now wears the emblem of Air Combat Command on the fin. The E-11s spend time at Wichita, Kansas, during their periods of maintenance in the United States.

Initially, the E-11s performed operations wearing civilian identities, but switched to military serials during the second half of 2011. No external military insignia or identity was applied, with a thin black and blue cheat line, enabling the aircraft to blend in when operating from civilian airports, or in sensitive areas with a degree of anonymity. However, this recently changed, with low-visibility US national insignia applied to the engine cowling.

Configuration

The first E-11A, serial number 11- 9001 (c/n 9001) was fitted with the Northrop Grumman relay system housed in a large fairing mounted beneath the forward fuselage. Just aft of the cockpit is an oval fairing containing a satellite communications link. To aid stability, a pair of strakes have been installed under the rear fuselage. The remaining three E-11s 11-9355 (c/n 9355), 11-9358 (c/n 9358) and 12-9506 (c/n 9506) do not have these external features, instead relying on miniaturised equipment housed internally. Various blade antennas are attached to the underside of all four aircraft, along with small T-shaped satellite links. Differences in configurations would suggest two differing versions of the BACN role.

The first E-11A 11-9001 returned to Afghanistan during early September 2018, transiting Mildenhall on September 3. During June, the fourth aircraft 12-9506, and in late July the third aircraft 11-9355 flew a similar routing.

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E-11A 11-9355 lacking national insignia on a visit to Mildenhall in April 2015; this aircraft also arrived at the Suffolk base on July 21 this year. Bob Archer