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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington, D.C.) Marcus Luttrell was the “lone survivor” who fought to the end as 19 of his fellow SEALs died fending off hundreds if not thousands of Taliban during the now well-known “Operation Red Wings” in 2005.

Many are likely familiar with Marcus' story as it was told in the famous “Lone Survivor” movie. A lesser known, and extremely impactful development following this American tragedy, which in part resulted from communications failures, is that the incident inspired a massive and immediate Pentagon move to develop new technology. 

U.S. Navy SEALs Marcus Luttrell

Navy SEALs of Operation Red Wings, with Luttrell being the third from the right.

Under Fire

As the story describes, U.S. Navy SEALs wound up trapped by thousands of Taliban after being unable to achieve radio communications connectivity from isolated mountainous positions in the Kunar Province in Afghanistan. 

Not surprisingly, the event led to an urgent Pentagon request for technologies capable of establishing and maintaining communications connectivity in austere, mountainous forward locations. 

Battlefield Airborne Comms Node (BACN)

The Pentagon wound up working with Northrop Grumman to engineer an aerial communications relay called Battlefield Airborne Comms Node (BACN), a technical gateway system integrated onto Block 20 Global Hawk drones and E-11A fixed wing surveillance planes. 

“BACN “is like Wi-Fi in the sky,” explained U.S. Air Force Capt. Jacob Breth, 430th EECS pilot, in a 2018 Air Force news report on the arrival of BACN. 

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The Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN)

The Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) combined with Global Hawk

As a gateway payload technology, the BACN technical suite is able to receive and transmit otherwise separate or disconnected communications pathways, such as RF data links, in an interoperable way due to common, modular technical standards. 

An incoming RF signal, for example, can be received, processed and transmitted to connect otherwise disparate “nodes” potentially isolated or cut off in warzones. As an aerial platform, BACN can adjust its location and cover a wide sphere of territory to ensure that dismounted or forward-deployed troops remain connected with the best and most recent intelligence data.

Throughout the many years of its existence, BACN has now achieved 200,000 combat flight hours since its combat debut in 2008. 

“BACN has been used for missions such as airdrop, convoy, humanitarian assistance, close-air support and theater air control systems operations,” a Northrop Grumman statement said. 

Operating from as many as four Block 20 Air Force Global Hawk drones, BACN has been upgraded numerous times throughout the years of its developmental trajectory, to include efforts to enhance data rates by 10 times and integrate new automation software. 

These are the kinds of enhancements which could make the Block 20 Global Hawk essential to emerging programs such as the Pentagon’s Joint All Domain Command and Control effort to establish a multi-domain, multi-node “mesh” network across a wide area of operations. The concept is to not only greatly decrease sensor to shooter time, but also maintain real-time intelligence connectivity across the force and build in redundancy. 

Another Global Hawk attribute, developers say, is endurance, as the drone can stay in the air for up to 30 hours at a time. 

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.