KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — There is an aircraft that is so unique, you can only find it in one place – not even the pilots who fly the aircraft can touch it until they are deployed to this specific location.
All of the Air Force’s E-11A aircraft with the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node payload are assigned to the 430th Expeditionary Electronic Combat Squadron and operate solely out of Kandahar Airfield.
BACN “is like Wi-Fi in the sky,” explained Capt. Jacob Breth, 430th EECS pilot.
The BACN was developed in direct response to communication shortfalls during Operation Red Wings, a joint U.S. military mission in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, in 2005. The operation became well known following the success of the book and subsequent movie “Lone Survivor” by Marcus Luttrell, a former Navy SEAL and the only surviving member of the mission.
Due to Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain and lack of existing communication infrastructure, serious communication challenges prevented the four-man SEAL patrol from effectively establishing contact with their combat operations center, leaving them vulnerable to the attacks that claimed the lives of 19 special operations forces service members.
The BACN works to ensure a consistent and effective form of communication in nearly any location or environment, significantly reducing the possibility of communication failure and increasing the rate of mission success. The payload, or package of sensors carried on the E-11A, allows command and control to get in contact with the troops on the ground, and vice versa, to enable mission accomplishment, Breth said.
Breth, a C-130J Super Hercules pilot deployed from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, like all other pilots assigned to fly the E-11A aircraft, flew it for the first time while deployed.
“The training for the E-11A is about a month in the simulator,” Breth said. “Then we have about a week of in-theater indoctrination training.”
Breth added the high-fidelity flight simulator made flying the plane like second nature, and he quickly adapted to the differences between flying the commercial airliner and his typical cargo aircraft.
While the pilots help keep troops safe on the ground, Master Sgt. Jason Muehl, 430th EECS Quality Assurance evaluator, ensures the safety of the pilots through thorough aircraft inspections.
“What we are doing out there is important,” Muehl said. “Our contractors are the ones doing the maintenance work to keep the planes flying, and I just ensure they are doing things correctly to keep our mission going and the troop’s safe out there.”
Since arriving in Afghanistan nine years ago, the BACN weapons system has become well-regarded by ground and air assets, Breth said. While he and his team are highly respected by others at Kandahar, Breth is just happy with what he deems a “traditional deployment.”
“The most rewarding part of my job is knowing we are providing a service for the heroes on the ground and in the air,” Breth said. “We are just doing our small part to aid in the war effort.”
The 430th EECS is a geographically separated unit of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing headquartered at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.