1) BACN provides a Tactical Data Link (TDL) "gateway" which allows dissimilar military links (either links that work in different radio frequency bands, or different message sets, or both). Examples include LINK 16, the Situation Airborne Data Link (SADL) and the Integrated Broadcast System (IBS). Through BACN's tactical data link gateway, users of these three systems can share information and form a common tactical picture.
2) BACN provides a Forward Tactical Server (FTS) that allows an Internet Protocol based networking capability. With the FTS, bespoke military networks can interface and share content across both secure and open internet connections.
3) BACN provides the capability to "cross-band" military, civilian and commercial communications systems so that air, land, and sea based forces can actually talk across dissimilar networks. This includes UHF/VHF radios... both secure and non-secure... first responder radios (sheriff, fire, police, other agency), and commercial cellular systems.
4) BACN allows "disadvantaged" users (soldiers on foot, or platforms without advanced communications systems) an affordable pathway to connect via secure or non-secure media with inexpensive devices. This includes cellular phones, existing narrow band radios, or even an airborne 802.11 networking capability.
BACN was initially installed onto a NASA flown, WB-57aircraft. In June 2006, the USAF funded a transition of the BACN capability to a business jet aircraft. Later that year, the USAF funded the expansion of the BACN program to include up to six business jet aircraft with BACN functionality. In August 2007, Under a contract to MELE Associates, Inc. the BACN payload flew for the first time on a Bombardier Global Express aircraft. In the Spring of 2008, the USAF will fly both the WB-57 aircraft and the business jet variant at the Joint Expeditionary Force eXperiment (JEFX) at Nellis AFB, NV.
These actions were driven by cost issues as the United States became enamored with the idea of a "Peace Dividend" at the end of the Cold War. Between 1991 and 2001, the USAF lost approximately a third of its force structure and began a process to restructure its existing assets against what became the Quadrennial Defense Review published in 1997. These cuts did not begin or end with communications aircraft, rather they were the result wide-scale mission changes within the Department of Defense (DOD).
For example, during the Cold War, continuous airborne alert missions, code named Looking Glass, were flown on dedicated EC-135 aircraft from February 3, 1961 until July 24, 1990. As the Cold War waned, maintaining fleets of aircraft postured for prosecuting a nuclear war, were hard to justify in the face of congressional scrutiny. Missions particularly hard hit were those where the services overlapped missions. For example, the ABCCC mission directly supported the US Army and coordinated Close Air Support missions between air and ground forces. The question became: Should the US Army share the investment burden for maintaining and modernizing the fleet of aging C-130E aircraft, the oldest such aircraft in the USAF inventory? With the US Army trying to defend large investments in attack helicopters and the Air Force trying avoid re capitalizing the fleet of ABCCC aircraft, the mission just died in the seams even though it was heavily sought after in theaters until the decision was made to send it to the bone yard in May 2002 (the system retired completely by the end of fiscal year 2002) and transfer its mission between the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and the Joint Surveillance Attack Radar System (Joint STARS).
BACN divides military planners and acquisition bureaucrats on two main fronts. First, how will an "Airborne Network" evolve beyond the existing tactical data links on today's platforms. Second, the BACN effort presupposes that the capability will initially be "outsourced" to commercial companies that will provide an "airborne network" as a service to the DOD for the foreseeable future.
There are unfortunately bigger problems with linking aircraft together with data links. While ground attack aircraft are increasing linked, they cannot interoperate with attack helicopters or ground forces with any service. In an age where there is zero tolerance for even a single "friendly fire" death, attack aircraft from either the Navy or the Air Force use the same sensors to prevent fratricide that were used in World War I -- their eyeballs.
Late in the last decade of the Twentieth Century, defense planners began to think beyond simply "linking" forces to "networking" them and fundamentally changing the information model at the tactical edge from one that required a priori knowledge of required information to employ forces, or "push" model, to one in which the information required was globally available and could be "pulled" as required by warfighters engaged in combat. This new model came to be known as "Network Centric Warfare (NCW)."
The drive towards NCW began in earnest with the arrival of the Bush Administration. The new Defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, drive to transform the DoD to meet the needs of the 21st century became the perfect incubator for pursuing a networked force. On Rumsfeld's recommendation, President Bush appointed a number of industry leaders to key position within the DoD that brought with them their experience in the technology revolution that exploded in the 1990s.