The E-11A is a U.S. Air Force aircraft that provides unparalleled communications capabilities for coalition forces on the ground and aircraft in the air. Often referred to as the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, or BACN, this aircraft extends the range of communications channels and enables better communications between units. (Capt. Keenan Kunst/US Air Force)

WASHINGTON: The U.S. Air Force on Tuesday awarded Learjet a contract worth up to $465 million for the Bombardier Global 6000 business jet, which will be converted into an E-11A aircraft for relaying between platforms that typically cannot share information data.

The contract calls for an immediate $70 million payment for the Global 6000, the first of a possible total of six aircraft. Once retrofitted with Northrop Grumman’s Battlefield Airborne Communications Node payload, the aircraft will become the E-11A.

The Air Force requested $63 million for the E-11 program in fiscal 2021 to procure the first aircraft. As part of its FY22 budget request unveiled last week, the service asked for $124 million for two more E-11s.

BACN payloads provide relaying, bridging and data conversion for platforms that cannot communicate, either because they use different voice and data link systems or are separated by mountains or other terrain that prevents reliable connectivity.

Air Force BACN acquisition chief Elizabeth Rosa said in a press release that the new E-11A aircraft will expand the existing fleet and enable the Air Force to “respond rapidly to the operational needs of combatant commanders worldwide.”

Currently, the US Air Force maintains seven aircraft with BACN payloads. After an E-11 crashed in Afghanistan in January 2020, the service is left with only three E-11As — piloted by two pilots. It also operates four EQ-4B Global Hawk UAVs equipped with BACN payloads.

Last year, as part of the FY21 budget, the service sought to retire a total of 24 Global Hawks, including EQ-4B aircraft. The U.S. Congress ultimately rejected the proposal.

At the time, the Air Force said it expected to purchase five E-11As to offset the divestment of the EQ-4B.

Work on the contract is expected to be completed by May 2026, according to the contract announcement.

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