AFIT alum Lt Col Timothy Helfrich (M.S. Aeronautical Engineering, 2006, Distinguished Graduate) works to equip aircraft with Battlefield Airborne Communications Nodes.
BACN goes global after delivering CENTCOM comms for 9 years
By Benjamin Newell, 66th Air Base Group Public Affairs / Published May 01, 2018
HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – The people who manage the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node want to keep a sense of urgency as the system transitions from Joint Urgent Operational Need to Program of Record.
Making BACN a program of record is a way to formalize requirements and set up a predictable budget. The change happened officially March 30. For a system that has proved its value to warfighters for nearly a decade, becoming a POR means the program office here can bring better communications to any theater, while performing training, experimentation and testing to make the system more effective and user-friendly.
“Everything we knew about acquisition … we were not doing at the beginning,” said Kevin Fong, a BACN systems engineer who recalled the program’s early days as a JUON in the summer of 2009. “We put the contractor to work, but there was no statement of work. They were just building, right away, and we were building the structure of the office, and determining responsibilities between the force provider, the program office and combatant commanders at the same time.”
After more than six years of combat in Afghanistan, it became clear that mountains prevented effective communications that troops rely on to plan and execute operations. In short, when troops in U.S. Central Command needed to talk, their phones and radios were often ineffective. Within a few months of a deployment order, a BACN prototype changed everything for communications in CENTCOM.
Once BACN came online in the fall of 2008, feedback from the field was immediate; CENTCOM commanders wanted more BACN, which provided warfighters with reliable communications during real life-and-death battlefield dramas.
Because BACN was an urgent need from Central Command, it could only be used in that theater. As a program of record, it’ll be accessible during exercises and in operational testing stateside.
The requests for more BACN-equipped aircraft have not let up in the intervening years. Today there are fleets of aircraft and remotely piloted aircrafts equipped with BACN.
“We’ve been constantly analyzing the size of the fleets, and building the best schedules to maximize coverage since day one,” said Lt. Col. Tim Helfrich, BACN’s materiel leader. “We have a small team that weighs aircraft downtime and operational needs against coverage requests. Every BACN-equipped aircraft is always in theater.”
The life cycle cost estimate for BACN is more than $4.7 billion through 2031. This sum funds the program’s transition to a program of record, as well as Operations and Maintenance. One year of BACN coverage to date has cost approximately $250 million, though in-house O&M costs may reduce this in the future.