They're 49 years old, ugly and owned by NASA, not the Pentagon. But two modified WB-57F Canberras are now among America's most important warplanes. With anonymous-looking white paint jobs, the Canberras have been taking turns deploying to Afghanistan carrying a high-tech new radio translator designed to connect pretty much any fighter, bomber, spy plane and ground radio to, well, pretty much any other fighter, bomber, spy plane and ground radio. That makes the former Air Force reconnaissance planes, originally transferred to the space agency for science missions, essential hubs of the American-led war effort.
With the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node system, or BACN, the WB-57s act as Star Trek-style universal translators, passing data between planes and troops and finally bringing to life the Pentagon's decades-old dream of speedy, information-propelled, networked warfare. "It orbits high up and basically receives various platforms' datalink data, then translates all that data and redistributes it in a fused manner back to different platforms in the operating area," Aviationintel's Tyler Rogoway told ace aerospace blogger David Cenciotti.