While chatter between the US Air Force is spoken exclusively in English, communications between their aircrafts’ electronic systems is more akin to the United Nations cafeteria — a “dog’s breakfast of different datalinks,” according to Lt. Gen. William Lord. Since the numerous competing defence contractors tasked with building military aircraft often install contradicting and incompatible systems, the USAF employs a pair of legacy NASA fliers to act as battlefield interpreters.
Tactical Data Links are communications standards that allow US and NATO forces to interact over radio waves or cable. But since there are no less than seven such links in use today, there’s no real guarantee the equipment in the F-16 you’re flying will play nice with the equipment in nearby F-22s, A-10s, or other F-16s with the upgraded version of your data link. And that’s just within the Air Force. The Army, Navy, and Marines all use their own data links as well.
In order to keep its fleet of aircraft coordinated, regardless of what electronic language the individual planes speak, the USAF relies on a pair of 50-year old WB-57F Canberras, the last two planes of their kind still flying, to act as airborne network gateways. These are quite possibly the two most important planes in the entire Air Force.
Numbered 926 and 928, these two planes have been flying high-altitude research missions for NASA since the space agency picked them up from the Air Force in the early 1960s. In their 50 years of scientific service, these two Canberras have recorded on hurricanes and radiation’s impact on cloud formation, generated atmospheric data and analysed the birth of tropical storms. And with the installation of an electronic Babel Fish in its nose, 926 and 928 allow all American forces within range to speak with any and all other nearby American troops.
The Canberra twins are based at Ellington Field, Texas, but operate worldwide for both scientific and military Spec Ops. Based on the Martin B-57 Canberra, the WB-57 was originally a twin jet engine tactical bomber — the first US jet bomber to ever see combat — and reconnaissance aircraft that served from 1953 until its retirement in 1983. The pair of WB-57F still in service are mid-wing, long-range aircraft measuring 20.7 metres long, 6.09 metres tall, with a 37.1 metre wingspan. Their 18.2 kilometres operational ceiling, 4000-kilometre range, and 6.5 hour endurance make them ideal as high-altitude data collection and observation platforms.
The Canberra is typically packed with observation gear, research equipment, scientific instruments, HDTV and infrared cameras. However, when it is being employed over battlefields, the WB-57F carries a belly-full of BACN (Battlefield Airborne Communication Node) — yes, that’s pronounced “bacon”.
The BACN acts almost like a universal cell tower, relaying and transcoding communications between any two American radio systems within range. As Aviation Intel’s Tyler Rogoway explains,
It [the WB-57F] orbits high up and basically receives various datalink platform’s date [sic], then translates all that data and redistributes it in a fused manner back to different platforms in the operating area. For instance, guard F-16s equipped with SADL could receive LINK 16 info, and even the Raptor’s fighter data link could could rebroadcast in LINK16/MIDS/SADL language etc via BACN. It is the biggest force multiplier out there.
The BACN system costs $US100 million annually to keep airborne, however the Canberras’ continued success (and continued deployment) in Afghanistan has prompted the USAF to expand the number of platforms carrying BACN systems. Since 2005, the fleet has grown to include three EQ-4B Global Hawk drones and four E-11A Bombardier business jets.
Business jets, science planes, and bacon — the backbone of American air superiority.