DENVER — The U.S. Army will choose who is to integrate its long-range, high-speed spy plane this summer, a major step in its effort to overhaul existing fixed-wing aircraft that perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, according to service officials in charge of the program.

The service plans to retire roughly 70 aircraft — its entire ISR fleet — as it brings on the High Accuracy Detection and Exploitation System, or HADES, that will be able to rapidly deploy and provide deep-sensing capabilities.

For the first time, the Army is using a large-cabin business jet — the Bombardier Global 6500 — to serve as the airframe for the spy plane. The service awarded Bombardier a contract in December for one aircraft, with an option to buy two more over a three-year period.

Competitors expect the Army to choose the team that will integrate sensors onto the business jet around late June or early July. An L3Harris Technologies, MAG Aerospace and Leidos team is competing against Sierra Nevada Corp. All four companies are involved in ISR fixed-wing prototype efforts with the Army.

What are the Army’s choices?

The Army has spent more than five years assessing ISR fixed-wing prototypes using high-speed jets to inform the HADES program. It began with the deployment of Artemis — or Airborne Reconnaissance and Target Exploitation Multi-mission System — which has flown in the European theater near the Ukrainian border.

The Army in 2019 awarded a contract to HII, and the company subsequently awarded a contract to Leidos to build Artemis using a Bombardier Challenger 650 jet.

Then the service deployed Ares — or Airborne Reconnaissance and Electronic Warfare System — to the Pacific region in April 2022. The Army awarded a contract to Alion Science and Technology, which is now owned by HII. Alion awarded a subcontract to L3Harris in November 2020 to build and fly the aircraft. Ares is based on a Bombardier Global Express 6500 jet.

Combined, Artemis and Ares have flown more than 1,000 sorties, according to Andrew Evans, who leads the Army’s ISR Task Force. They fly roughly 10-hour missions and average 20 sorties a month, he added.

The Army is also preparing to take on four more prototypes that will inform the requirements for the HADES program. The service chose a pair of companies to deliver two jets each with spy technologies to advance long-range targeting plans.

MAG Aerospace and L3Harris will outfit a Global 6500 with ISR sensors for the Army’s radar-focused Athena-R effort.

And Sierra Nevada is providing its RAPCON-X, based on a converted Bombardier business jet, for the service’s singals intelligence-focused Athena-S project.

The president of L3Harris’ ISR division, Jason Lambert, told Defense News at the AAAA conference that the team won its contract in March 2023, began integration in September 2023 when it received the aircraft and held its first flight in February. Since then the aircraft has flown 40 performance handling and quality flights, as well as collected more than 600 data points with a 100% success rate, Lambert said.

“The pilots came back and said it flies just like a Global 6500, despite the fact that we [have] these different outer-mold line changes on it,” he noted. This includes adding a 29-foot-long pod to the bottom of the plane.

The service will receive the two aircraft in the third quarter of 2024 — one in July and another in September, Lambert said. For L3Harris’ HADES submission, the aircraft will be 90% common with Athena-R, he added.

The company expects the service to award a contract for the second HADES prototype about six months after the first. The contract for the third — a production-representative prototype — will follow with a longer time gap in between so the Army can collect data from deployments involving the first HADES prototypes.

Why now?

The Army recognized it would need new piloted, fixed-wing ISR assets to carry out its missions in complex environments — “something that flies much farther, much faster and much higher,” Andrew Evans, the Army’s ISR Task Force director, said.

Using 70 “very capable” Beechcraft King Air and De Havilland Canada Dash-8 aircraft, the Army, “has done some enormous and powerful work in support of the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan” Evans said during the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual conference this month. But the existing fleet won’t be able to fulfill long-range missions off the coast of China — which the U.S. government considers its top threat — “or really almost any other place in the world if you’re talking about extended geographic ranges with limited basing and access,” Evans added.

“So HADES provides our solution to that, but we have to do it affordably,” Evans noted.

Once the Army picks a team to integrate sensors onto the jet, the process will take 18 months before the aircraft can deploy for a user assessment, the Army estimated. That assessment moves the aircraft from a controlled test environment in the United States to operational environments “to really stress test your systems and figure out what’s working and what’s not,” Evans said.

The Army will deploy HADES for a limited period of time and then start building more aircraft as the early prototype remains deployed, he added.

The service plans to field 14 HADES aircraft by 2035, according to a slide Maj. Gen. Wally Rugen, the director of Army aviation, displayed during a speech at the AAAA conference.

While industry officials said they anticipate the Army will continue to award the same team subsequent contracts to build all of the HADES aircraft, Evans noted that “the guidance to our acquisition teammates was to ensure that we give ourselves as much flexibility as possible in the process.”

What has the service learned?

The Army’s strategy to overhaul its fixed-wing ISR fleet is a unique approach, Evans said, because the service asked industry to provide flight-ready prototypes, rather than select a team to build a system according to specifications. This was meant to help the Army quickly learn while it fills a capability gap.

Indeed, these prototypes are helping the service understand how sensors can keep up with a jet flying higher and at faster speeds, Dennis Teefy, the Army’s project manager for sensors and aerial intelligence within Program Executive Office Intelligence, Electronic Warfare and Sensors, said at the AAAA event.

The Army is currently working through how it refines processing, exploitation and dissemination of an enormous amount of data coming from the platform’s sensors, he added.

“How do we deal with all that volume of data? How do we transport that data across the comms network down to where it needs to go?” Teefy said, noting there are opportunities for industry to continue work on these areas and help the Army figure out how best to move data across the battlefield.

The prototypes already flying have also taught the Army a great deal about adapting sensor needs using a modular, open-system architecture, according to the service’s program manager for fixed-wing aircraft, Col. Joseph Minor.

“It’s different in every [environment] that we operate in, so to be able to change sensors quickly, to be able to adapt, especially on a globally deployable platform, much lower numbers is critical,” Minor said at the AAAA event. “When you are talking about a much smaller number of aircraft that are globally deployed, you’ve got to be able to make those changes on the fly.”

Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.

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