When a U.S. Air Force jet crashed on January 27 on a remote plain south of Kabul, killing at least two crew members, it was initially described by the governor of Afghanistan’s Ghazni Province as a civilian passenger plane.
Since then, international media have variously described it as a “modified private business jet,” a “spy plane,” an “electronic surveillance” aircraft, and a hub for “WiFi in the sky.”
So what exactly was the role of the Canadian-built Bombardier E-11A aircraft that crashed some 150 kilometers from the Afghan capital?
Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Virginia-based aviation consultancy Teal Group, tells RFE/RL that the plane was much more significant than an ordinary surveillance or communications aircraft.
It was one of just four Bombardier E-11As that were purchased by the U.S. Air Force and “outfitted with a suite of signals intelligence and signals transfer capabilities” known as the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN), Aboulafia says.
The BACN is a multimillion-dollar communications system that translates and relays real-time battlefield communications between ground troops and aircraft used by the U.S.-led international coalition forces in Afghanistan.
It is able to relay voice communications, video, photographic images, and other data between aircraft and ground troops that are often using different types of communications networks.
Aboulafia says that made the E-11A a “very high-value asset” that would have performed “command-and-control battle management” functions as well as communication, electronic warfare tasks, and surveillance.
From an altitude high above the range of any Taliban weaponry, Aboulafia says the E-11A would have carried out “a combination of battle-management functions, communications functions, and a little bit of signals intelligence — which does involve some surveillance.”
“Basically, ‘WiFi in the sky’ is one way of looking at it,” he says. “But when you are a signals intelligence plane, there are a whole host of applications for that.”
Designed to fly at an altitude “way above 40,000 feet,” Aboulafia says the E-11A is not a go-to plane for monitoring Taliban radio or cell phone communications.
He says that task would usually be carried out by smaller planes that conduct “lower-level signals monitoring,” including turbo-propeller aircraft.
Aboulafia says it is unclear whether the plane burned because of the crash or if one of its crew members engaged a self-destruct mechanism after the landing to ensure that the high-tech equipment would not fall into the hands of Taliban fighters, several of whom were near the scene shortly after the crash.
But he said it would be a top priority for the Pentagon to prevent the BACN system from being transferred to Iran or Russia, where jamming mechanisms could then be developed to disable its vital battlefield communication links between U.S. ground troops and their command centers.
Two burned bodies are seen in the video footage near the wreckage. The Pentagon said on January 28 that helicopter-borne U.S. forces recovered those remains and the plane’s flight recorder a few hours after the crash. In a statement, the U.S. Defense Department added that those U.S. forces also destroyed the remnants of the aircraft.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said on January 28 that Taliban fighters on the ground counted six bodies at the site of the crash.
Unidentified U.S. officials initially were quoted as saying the plane was carrying fewer than five people when it crashed. Later, U.S. military officials said the entire crew consisted of the two people who were killed and retrieved.
منبع: Radio Free Europe
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