Center for Strategic Communication

A WB-57F taking off. Photo: via David Cenciotti

A WB-57F taking off. Photo: via David Cenciotti

They’re 49 years old, ugly and owned by NASA, not the Pentagon. But two modified WB-57F Canberras are now among America’s most important warplanes. With anonymous-looking white paint jobs, the Canberras have been taking turns deploying to Afghanistan carrying a high-tech new radio translator designed to connect pretty much any fighter, bomber, spy plane and ground radio to, well, pretty much any other fighter, bomber, spy plane and ground radio. That makes the former Air Force reconnaissance planes, originally transferred to the space agency for science missions, essential hubs of the American-led war effort.

With the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node system, or BACN, the WB-57s act as Star Trek-style universal translators, passing data between planes and troops and finally bringing to life the Pentagon’s decades-old dream of speedy, information-propelled, networked warfare. “It orbits high up and basically receives various platforms’ datalink data, then translates all that data and redistributes it in a fused manner back to different platforms in the operating area,” Aviationintel’s Tyler Rogoway told ace aerospace blogger David Cenciotti.

“BACN bridges the gaps,” manufacturer Northrop Grumman boasted.

The old NASA recon planes — the only two of their kind not yet consigned to museums — aren’t the only gap-fillers. Since 2005 the Air Force has slowly been assembling its own hodgepodge fleet of BACN planes. And yes, that’s pronounced “bacon.” In addition to the two NASA WB-57Fs, the Air Force possesses three EQ-4B Global Hawk drones fitted with the radio translator plus four similarly equipped E-11A Bombardier business jets, the most recent of which was handed over on Thursday.

The different planes boast varying speeds, ranges and payloads, but what they have in common is the ability to fly very high for hours at a time, lending their electronic receivers and transmitters the maximum possible coverage. NASA’s old WB-57s might even be the highest-flying of the lot, with a top altitude of around 70,000 feet, high enough that the pilots have to wear pressure suits.

It costs no less than $100 million a year to keep the BACN planes flying. They split their time between tests and war games in the U.S. and overseas deployments, with occasional down time to tweak their systems. The WB-57Fs are frequent visitors to Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. There’s also apparently at least one E-11 in Afghanistan at any given time. The EQ-4s have been spotted in Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, where one crashed last year, and in the United Arab Emirates, apparently helping translate for F-22s temporarily based there to deter Iran.

It’s hard to over-state the importance of the BACN jets. Owing to sporadic funding and technical hurdles, the Air Force — to say nothing of the rest of the military — has never managed to get all its weapons to speak the same electronic language. The flying branch had hoped to replace most of its frontline aircraft with an all-stealth fleet using just one special datalink. But that hope died years ago, and today the Air Force uses no fewer than seven different types of digital links — a “dog’s breakfast of different datalinks,” is how Lt. Gen. William Lord put it last year.

Newer F-16s use one version of Link 16 and older ones another; A-10s and F-15s also each use different editions of Link 16 that aren’t always compatible. F-22s are the worst offenders, using the Intra-Flight Data Link that allows it connect only to other F-22s. Add the Army, Navy and Marines — oh, and allied militaries, as well — and the confusion only grows.

Since the early 2000s the Pentagon has made several attempts to tear down this electronic Tower of Babel. BACN, co-developed by the Air Force, Northrop and NASA — hence the space agency’s continued involvement — is the one that worked the best. It’s the only deployed system that can sort through much of the radio garble, translating message formats back and forth to get warplanes communicating with each other and with troops on the ground. It’s networked warfare in a single box, albeit an improvised one.

And that’s how net-centric warfare is finally becoming a reality across the U.S. military, 14 years after two officers coined the term and nearly a decade since the Iraq war proved the concept’s flaws.The grand, over-arching systems such as the Army’s Jitters radio and the Air Force’s all-stealth datalink have collapsed under their own weight. From the wreckage, the Army is cobbling together a network of upgraded radios and combat smartphones. And NASA and the Air Force have their sometimes-ancient BACN jets with their universal translators, orbiting over war zones making sure everybody can talk to each other.