HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, MASS. -- Over the course of two days in early December 2016, coalition forces struck and destroyed a fleet of 188 transport trucks in Syria used to support the Islamic State’s illicit oil operation.
Success during airstrikes like those done on Dec. 8-9 require effective communication across multiple generations of aircraft and command and control networks.
Aircraft must communicate among themselves, sometimes using different data languages altogether. American Airmen must work with coalition and joint partners. Computers must share information across multiple locations, sometimes in austere locations -- all inside of a war zone where communications may be degraded.
“We at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center are often pretty far removed from combat. However, that doesn’t diminish the effect we have on the fight,” said Lt. Col. Timothy Helfrich, a materiel leader who oversees quick reaction capabilities for communication systems. “When that strike happened, and went public, I knew my people had a direct impact on the battlefield. They helped get those bombs to their targets.”
Helfrich and his deputy, Jennifer Gould, shepherd urgent requests through the acquisition process at the behest of combatant commanders who see capability gaps that must be bridged quickly, in order to maintain combat effectiveness.
“We have a year, sometimes less, to accomplish a process that normally can take years,” said Gould. “Even though we are authorized to streamline the acquisition of these capabilities, that doesn’t solve all our problems. There are other programs competing out there for the same limited resources.”
In the December strike on the ISIL oil trucks, aircraft communicated using a technology in existence for less than a decade. Helfrich, a prior flight test engineer with combat experience in the C-130, remembers how ground troops used to communicate to headquarters.
“My job, for a while, was to literally play the telephone game during combat,” said Helfrich. “A convoy would pick up his radio, say what he needed to say, I would read it back to him, and then forward that message to their headquarters. It was precise work, and the potential for human error was a factor.”
Helfrich’s office now provides support to the Battlefield Airborne Communication Node, or BACN. Coalition forces use BACN during combat, removing human error from communication relays. BACN was used during the oil truck strike, and post-battle reports said crystal clear communication enabled success.
“We know our warfighters can’t miss a beat in combat, so we try to keep up with that in our day-to-day acquisition process,” said Gould. “Even if I’m not paying attention to the news, I usually assume something we saw in this office was used today in combat.”