WASHINGTON — With two demonstrator aircraft logging hundreds of hours in the European and Pacific theaters, the U.S. Army is closing in on a replacement for its aging Guardrail turboprop aircraft that provides intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance with a faster, more capable jet.
The service has significant obsolescence problems with its current fleet of Cold War-era Guardrail Common Sensor ISR aircraft deployed in both South Korea and Europe. The Army has reached a point where it is pulling parts from the boneyard to keep the aircraft operational.
The Army is expected to soon decide on whether to move forward with a program it is calling HADES, or the High Accuracy Detection and Exploitation System.
“The prototype initiative and program scope are still pre-decisional with Army senior leaders,” Army spokesperson Ellen Lovett told Defense News in an emailed statement. “Because aerial ISR is an important part of integrated deterrence, we are proceeding in a methodical, resource-balanced manner to ensure we deliver the right capability.”
The service has not publicly announced plans to move forward on the program, but Army Secretary Christine Wormuth and Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville recently told Congress that fixed-wing ISR remains an important organic capability and that HADES would bring more capability to the force.
One lawmaker at a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing asked the Army why it is pursuing its own fixed-wing ISR programs rather than letting the Air Force take on the entire mission.
“Our view is that we have some unique requirements that are distinct from the Air Force, and HADES is something, I think, that we need in terms of looking at our future ISR requirements,” Wormuth replied.
Replacing Guardrail is important, McConville added at the same hearing, because “as we take a look at the future, because of their range and speed and what we see as the threat, we see them as probably, in some situations, they are not the best aircraft to do that, which leads us to why we’re taking a look at HADES.”
According to fiscal 2023 budget documents, the Army plans to begin a prototype acquisition and demonstration phase for HADES in the second quarter of that fiscal year. A prototype would undergo qualification, testing and evaluation beginning in the second quarter of FY24 through the second quarter of FY26, followed by a military user assessment ending in the fourth quarter of FY28.
For the Army to determine what HADES might look like, it is flying two demonstrator aircraft in order to “fly before we buy, so to speak,” McConville said, “to get the requirements right, to make sure it’s providing that capability.”
Artemis — or Aerial Reconnaissance and Targeting Exploitation Multi-Mission Intelligence System — has flown in the European theater for more than a year and has logged more than 2,000 flight hours and counting, Col. James DeBoer, the Army’s project manager for fixed-wing aircraft, told Defense News in a recent interview. Artemis did deploy to the Pacific prior to its European tour for a short period.
The Army awarded a contract to HII, and the company awarded a subcontract to Leidos in November 2019 to build Artemis using a Bombardier Challenger 650 jet.
The plane participated in Defender Europe, a division-sized exercise designed to test the service’s ability to deliver a force from the U.S. to Europe. Artemis has continued to deploy to operational areas throughout the continent.
The other demonstrator aircraft, dubbed Ares — or Airborne Reconnaissance and Electronic Warfare System — deployed to the Pacific on April 18 and had so far flown roughly 130 hours in support of local missions as of mid-May, DeBoer said.
The Army is testing the Airborne Reconnaissance and Electronic Warfare System, or ARES for short. (U.S. Army)
The Army awarded a contract to Alion Science and Technology, which is now owned by HII. Alion awarded a subcontract to L3Harris Technologies in November 2020 to build and fly the aircraft. Ares is based on a Bombardier Global Express 6500 jet.
The service has employed a method to rapidly upgrade and change out sensor packages on the aircraft without losing much demonstration time in theater, DeBoer said. For instance, Artemis returned stateside for upgrades three times, with the last trip taking 29 days, he explained, while the first two upgrade periods took several months.
“We had pre-worked everything, so [Artemis] came in, the engineering work was done, was brought in, did the upgrades and then verifications, and then it went out very quickly,” he noted, “which for aircraft modifications, that’s a very, very short time period.”
Ares is a bigger platform than Artemis, DeBoer said, and it provides the Army longer ranges and higher altitudes — key capabilities for the Pacific region. According to unclassified data, the aircraft has a 5,500-mile range and can fly at 51,000 feet for about 12.5 hours.
A larger aircraft also means payloads can be larger, more powerful and more capable, and electrical generation on the aircraft is greater, DeBoer said.
The sensor packages on Artemis and Ares differ, but both have electronic, communications and signals intelligence sensors.
The demonstrators are answering questions for the Army, including how easy it is to integrate sensors onto a platform, perform electrical work and swap sensors out, and it’s revealing information about their respective performance. For now, according to DeBoer, the Army will continue to fly the demonstrator aircraft and continue learning “until we have HADES that are ready to come out. But obviously that’s a crystal ball; that may change as the world changes.”
From the deployments, the Army has seen advantages of being able to detect and identify things from greater altitudes at farther ranges, DeBoer said. While the mission is the same as Guardrail, Artemis has collected “a significant increase in the number of target data” with better operational readiness rates, DeBoer said.
For example, a component failed on Artemis and it was faster to fly the aircraft back to the U.S., fix it, test it and fly it back than to ship the part to Europe, DeBoer said.
“It’s a completely different way of thinking. I do think that it will allow us to be much more responsive for the Army combatant commanders in the [combatant commands] as we move forward, so we’re seeing a lot of advantages to this,” he said.
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 in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts from Kenyon College.