Procurement Opportunities – Surveillance and Sovereignty Patrol
– April 2011
On the Chopping Block: 'Near New' Battlefield Surveillance Aircraft
A Case for Canadian Forces
Sentinels – Part 2: BACN Comms Node
A Modest Proposal by Stephen Daly,
Ed: Due to a deficit-fighting austerity program, the UK intends to
retire its small fleet of five Canadian-made Sentinel reconnaissance aircraft. Stephen Daly argues that
Canada should take advantage of this opportunity to purchase one the most sophisticated airborne ground surveillance
platforms. Sentinels have been in RAF service for less than five years (the final aircraft became operational
last year – the same year that the type deployed to Afghanistan)
How would Sentinels serve Canada? In Part 1:
Northern Sentinel, Mr. Daly described the various roles – both domestic and foreign
– that Canadian Forces Sentinels could play. In Part 2:
Sentinel Sidekick, Stephen Daly lays out the argument for an expanded fleet of CF Global
Express airframes – specifically the new Battlefield Airborne Communication Node.
BACN is a truly 21st Century 'platform'. As an 'airborne communication node', BACN offers the potential to provide
full digitial connectivity – from making the disparate NATO and US military datalinks intelligible to all
users to creating realtime links between military personnel and civilians on the ground. Then there's the potentially
life-saving connectivity BACN can make available in the aftermath of disasters. As Mr. Daly put it: "BACN
represents portable voice/data infrastructure that can deploy at high speed." This is impressive technology that matches
Canadian foreign policy goals well. So, ... do we do it or just keep talking about it ?
One Potential Sentinel Sidekick – A Side of Canadian BACN for the
In Part 1: Northern Sentinel we discussed other potential
Canadian 'running mates' for the Sentinel R1. The most obvious is using the same Bombardier Global
Express airframe in its original intended role of executive jet to expand the Government aerial fleet – the
goal being to complement smaller Transport Canada-owned Challenger bizjets while sparing the aging Canadian Forces fleet of larger Airbus CC-150 Polaris in use to fly
Federal officials about.
A Side of Canadian BACN? ... Expanding the Global Express Fleet and the CF's Repetoire
Another potential candidate for an expanded and diversified Canadian Global Express fleet is called BACN
for the Battlefield Airborne Communication Node. BACN, now flying as a demonstrator,  outwardly appears
very similar to the Sentinel R1 (indeed it differs only in its antennae fits). Internally, the situation is
quite different. BACN's electronics are adapted to maintaining battlefield data links
– a minor role for Sentinel R1s is BACN's raison d'être.
BACN's role is to tie together all of the disparate tactical networks into one coherent whole. Voice and data links
cover the spectrum of NATO waveforms. BACN's onboard computers receive tactical information on one datalink,
translate it into other user's required data format and then rebroadcast the data. If translating isn't
required, using BACN's height advantage and powerful transmitters, simply rebroadcasting the signal can
BACN also features a satellite transmission capability (the antenna is in that upper 'bulge' ) allowing data to be
shared with distant command centres. WiFi networking is available via the 802.11b standard, as is connectivity to
commercial cellphones. On the battlefield, BACN ensures that forces share the same tactical picture, reducing the chance
of 'fratricide'. Such connectivity allows direct conversations between secure military radios and any
commercial cellphones. Thus, for one example, Libyan irregulars could be in contact with NATO pilots.
BACN's biggest impact, though, might come in disaster relief. One of the first 'casualties' of most disasters
is the information infrastructure which pins modern society together. This is especially true in developing countries
where there is often little redundancy and a growing reliance on cellphones. BACN represents portable voice/data
infrastructure that can deploy at high speed. BACN cannot replace all communications infrastructure that
is disrupted or damaged but BACN can tie the relief forces to each other, to victims, and the outside
BACN would also be valuable when responding to major accidents or incidents in the High Arctic. Much of that area lacks
the voice/data infrastructure the rest of the country takes for granted (relying heavily upon satellite phones).
BACN could respond to any serious airline accident or shipping incident by connecting the area directly to
southern command centres.
So, How does BACN fare in the Canada First Defence Strategy's Six Core Missions?
"1. Conduct daily domestic and continental operations, including in the Arctic and
Here BACN is weak. There are everyday tasks BACN could perform in the Arctic but these are not CF core tasks.
One useful Arctic role might be acting as a Medical Communication Relay. BACN could provide a link between Northern
medical personnel and the specialists in the south, ranging from voice, data, and diagnostic images to performing
"2. Support a major international event in Canada, such as the 2010 Olympics."
"3. Respond to a major terrorist attack."
"4. Support civilian authorities during a crisis in Canada such as a natural disaster"
BACN's ability to connect first-responders with military forces would be equally valuable in major international
events, or in the event of a terrorist strike or large-scale natural disasters.
"5. Lead and/or conduct a major international operation for an extended period"
BACN's unique ability to tie forces – regardless of nationality – together and with distant
command centres would be a notable asset to Canadian command of any foreign operation.
"6. Deploy forces in response to crises elsewhere in the world for shorter periods"
The Global Express airframe's range and high speed means that BACN could offer a rapid response to
emergent situations during their critical, early hours. Communications helps the commanders at all levels more fully
understand the situation and develop quick responses.
Summing Up – CF Battlefield Surveillance, Communications Nodes, and Global
Sentinel and BACN both have significant contributions they can make to the Canada First Defence
Strategy. Whether in domestic or international roles, they are platforms well suited to Canada's needs.
Although the proposal is to purchase five 'near new' Sentinel R1s from Britain, neither battlefield
surveillance nor BACN's communications node capabilities would come cheap. Canadians must assess what price they're
willing to pay for sovereignty patrols in the Arctic, domestic security, international cooperation and response to
There has been a tendency in recent years for Canada to approach military procurement as the simple replacement of
equipment that has worn out or is past its conceptual best-before date. In other cases, defence planners tried
to 'future gaze' to match anticipated operational requirements. Neither approach has borne much fruit. While
true that Sentinel could match some existing missions, this proposal is more about suggesting to Canadian
politicians that it is the responsibility of Parliament to assign the Canadian Forces suitable
roles and then purchase the required equipment. In times of fiscal restraint, this means our Parliamentarians
must also direct defence procurement spending into areas that will satisfy Canadian foreign policy goals with the
least waste. Made-in-Canada Sentinel and BACN will both fit that bill.
 Northrop Grumman has received a USAF contract to buy three more Global Express for conversion
to BACN platforms. Two other BACN sets are to be installed on RQ-4B Global Hawk UAVs. A condition of this
Joint Urgent Operational Need contract is that the BACN carriers – Global Express and RQ-4Bs – be
ready for "sustained deployment through 2015".