BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- Called “as essential to mission success as bullets,” the E-11A Battlefield Airborne Communications Node flew its 10,000th sortie Feb. 24, 2017 at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, since arriving in Afghanistan eight years ago.
The 430th Expeditionary Electronic Squadron operating out of Kandahar is the only unit in the U.S. Air Force that operates the E-11A with the BACN payload. It was created to fulfill what is called a joint urgent operational need, when it was identified that the terrain of Afghanistan posed serious communication challenges.
A task force was created and given twelve months to make the system work.
In response, a Bombardier Global Express, designated by the Air Force as the E-11A, was outfitted with a BACN payload to provide communications range extension and communications and data link bridging.
“When you talk about trying to command and control assets in maritime, air, ground, space or cyberspace domains you have to have some way to connect all of those domains together,” said Lt. Col. James Peterson, 430th EECS commander. “When you bring BACN into that environment, it is the connective tissue that allows you to talk throughout those domains and communicate effectively throughout those domains.”
The aircraft and its payload were sent to Kandahar in 2008 with a contingent of hand-selected test pilots.
“It was somebody’s wild idea that became a good idea, that then became an idea that we couldn’t live without in this country, in this terrain and in this conflict,” said Lt. Col. Chris, 430th EECS pilot.
The BACN weapons system was proven so effective, it was also used to modify the RQ-4B Global Hawk to become the EQ-4B, operating out of Ali Al Salem Air Base, Kuwait.
Chris was a member of the initial team of test pilots sent to Afghanistan to set up the 430th EECS. Here now on his second tour with the unit, he flew the very first E-11A for the BACN’s 10,000th sortie.
“The beginnings of the program are vastly different from where they are now,” Chris said about the unit’s humble start.
He and his fellow pilots arrived to Kandahar before the aircraft and without an operations center. They were given a breakroom in the air traffic control tower, which was itself a makeshift building of stacked shipping containers.
“The first arrival was pretty inglorious,” Chris said laughingly. “We were exploring all aspects of starting a unit with two card tables and four computers and evolving it to 24/7, 365 and now, 10,000 missions.”
Returning to the unit eight years later, he says the change is remarkable.
“The ingenuity and open-mindedness of people coming from their different units and communities and bringing the best of each one…it’s amazing how well its worked and continues to work over the last 8 years,” Chris said.
Since the E-11A is the only aircraft of its kind in the Air Force, the unit borrows pilots – all volunteers – from other airframes. The 430th takes bomber- and heavy-aircraft pilots and trains them on simulators before sending them to Kandahar.
Each 430th EECS pilot flies an E-11A for the first time on a combat mission.
“Pilots are volunteering to come out here and that just goes to show what a great aircraft it is to fly and what a great mission it is to execute,” said Peterson, who is traditionally a B-1 Lancer pilot. “I’m doing what I’ve wanted to do since childhood. I’ve had a great career and this squadron is no exception. It’s a great aircraft and an important mission.”
According to the 430th, feedback from units benefitting from the system has been overwhelmingly positive, calling it a “game changer,” and drastically changing tactics used by units on the ground and in the air.
Chris recalled one particular reaction from an A-10 Thunderbolt pilot who had been deployed during the introduction of the system when he met an E-11A pilot on his flight home.
“This fighter pilot who’d been dropping bombs and shooting guns and doing all kinds of harm on the enemy for four months, was ecstatic that he was getting to talk to one of the BACN guys, because it had changed the way he fought the war so much and made him and his unit so much more effective,” said Chris.
(Some last names have been removed for security purposes.)