The US Air Force (USAF) has awarded Northrop Grumman a USD39.9 million contract to convert an additional RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) into the EQ-4B Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) configuration.
The contract, which was announced by the Department of Defense (DoD) on 3 May, covers BACN payload modification, integration, and installation onto the EQ-4B, and is scheduled to be complete by 2 May 2018.
In February, the USAF disclosed that it had an "urgent" need to increase its BACN capability with an additional Global Hawk UAV to add to the three already fielded. In addition to the unmanned Global Hawks, the USAF also employs four modified manned E-11A Bombardier regional jets in the BACN role. To date, the Global Hawk BACN fleet has amassed over 1,700 combat missions, while the Bombardiers have flown more than 8,300.
The BACN system is designed to increase the range of voice communications for ground forces in mountainous terrain by relaying the signal over an extended distance. It can also act as a bridge between frequencies, allowing a convoy commander on a frequency-limited radio to talk with a supporting close air support asset on a different frequency.
Developed during Operation 'Enduring Freedom' in Afghanistan and first fielded in 2010, the BACN now flies four to five combat missions every day in support of US and allied ground forces in various theatres in the Middle East. It is this increased operational tempo coupled with the disparate communications systems fitted to the different aircraft types currently engaged in operations that has driven the need for an additional BACN platform, to bring the total fleet up to eight BACN-equipped aircraft.
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