They’re 49 years old, ugly and owned by NASA, not the Pentagon. But two modified WB-57F Canberras are now among America’s most important warplanes. With anonymous-looking white paint jobs, the Canberras have been taking turns deploying to Afghanistan carrying a high-tech new radio translator designed to connect pretty much any fighter, bomber, spy plane and ground radio to, well, pretty much any other fighter, bomber spy plane and ground radio. That makes the former Air Force reconnaissance planes, originally transferred to the space agency for science missions, essential hubs of the American-led war effort.
With the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node system, or BACN, the WB-57s act as Star Trek-style universal translators, passing data between planes and troops and finally bringing to life the Pentagon’s decades-old dream of speedy, information-propelled, networked warfare. “It orbits high up and basically receives various platform’s datalink data, then translates all that data and redistributes it in a fused manner back to different platforms in the operating area,” Aviationintel‘s Tyler Rogoway told ace aerospace blogger David Cenciotti.
“BACN bridges the gaps,” manufacturer Northrop Grumman boasted.
The old NASA recon planes — the only two of their kind not yet consigned to museums — aren’t the only gap-fillers. Since 2005 the Air Force has slowly been assembling it own hodgepodge fleet of BACN planes. And yes, that’s pronounced “bacon.” In addition to the two NASA WB-57Fs, the Air Force possesses three EQ-4B Global Hawk drones fitted with the radio translator plus four similarly-equipped E-11A Bombardier business jets, the most recent of which was handed over on Thursday.
The different planes boast varying speeds, ranges and payloads, but what they have in common is the ability to fly very high for hours at a time, lending their electronic receivers and transmitters the maximum possible coverage. NASA’s old WB-57s might even be the highest-flying of the lot, with a top altitude of around 70,000 feet, high enough that the pilots have to wear pressure suits.