Inside the Army’s newest spy plane
Already watching over Ukraine, Leidos’ ARTEMIS is part of the service’s growing fleet of contractor-owned intelligence aircraft.
From a distance, the all-white business jet parked neatly in a hangar underneath a giant American flag looks a lot like the other sleek, luxurious private planes arriving and departing from this Virginia airport. But inside, this plane is far more working class.
The cabin, full of server racks, looks more like an IT closet than an executive aircraft. The seats are cloth and two computer consoles are connected to a dozen or so antennas protruding from the plane’s belly.
To the U.S. Army, this plane—or something like it—is a ticket to the future of warfare, built to monitor the complex communications of an adversary nation-state from standoff distance, rather than the simpler chatter of insurgents right below.
Called ARTEMIS, the plane uses its antennas and computers to intercept and decipher enemy communications. The aircraft itself is made by Bombardier, but the specialized modifications are made by Virginia-based defense and technology firm Leidos.
“These [planes] can see very far when operating at 40,000 feet,” Mike Chagnon, deputy group president of Leidos Defense Group, said in an interview.
It’s the second Challenger 650 that Leidos has modified like this for the Army as part of a technology demonstration. L3Harris Technologies are also developing similar business jet intelligence planes, which it calls ARES.
The Leidos and L3Harris planes are helping the Army figure out its long-term plans for new, high-flying intelligence planes, an effort called High Accuracy Detection and Exploitation System or HADES. Those planes will replace the turboprops heavily used to survey the battlefields over Iraq and Afghanistan for insurgents and roadside bombs.
“They want a multi-layer sensing capabilities from space to mud,” Chagnon said. “This is the airborne layer.”
Defense One was invited to see the Leidos aircraft shortly before it was put under the Army’s control and agreed not to share the location of the plane's home base. The extra aircraft will allow the Army to deploy to different locations or participate in more exercises and experiments, Chagnon said.
In November 2021, the first ARTEMIS aircraft was pulled from an Army exercise in the United States and deployed to Europe to be part of the NATO effort to monitor Russian forces near the Ukraine border. Over 10 days, the plane flew from Arizona to Virginia where it received some upgrades before flying to Europe, Chagnon said.
“It really hasn’t been home since,” he said.
As of Dec. 1, the first plane has flown more than 370 missions, racking up more than 3,200 flight hours for combatant commanders around the world, Leidos CEO Roger Krone said at the small turnover ceremony in the hangar.
“You're flying basically in...a mow-the-lawn-type pattern for 10 hours [and] you're collecting massive amounts of data,” Chagnon said.
The deployed aircraft flies an average of six days per week for nine to 10 hours per day, Chagnon said. The planes are unarmed and don’t fly in so-called “contested” airspace that’s defended by surface-to-air missiles and fighter jets.
“We're not going into the contested environment,” he said. “We're looking inside a contested environment from an altitude and a standoff, whereas our counterinsurgency aircraft were flying in, just looking down, in an uncontested environment.”
As much as the aircraft represents a new generation of conflict, it could also represent a new way of buying weapons.
The planes are owned, operated, and maintained by Leidos employees, not the Army. But, through satellites, Army officials stateside are able to connect to the plane’s sensors remotely, Chagnon said. The Army essentially pays Leidos a by-the-hour fee.
“It benefits the government and it benefits the country,” Chagnon said. “We're responsible for keeping the aircraft in the air. And they [the Army] no longer have to have that long logistics tail, which is sometimes the most expensive part of a government program.
“They can turn the spigot off on these anytime they want,” he continued. “So, we're incentivized to continue to innovate on these [planes and] make them more useful, and…find as many efficiencies as we can to keep the mission-capability rate high. The first ARTEMIS plane took Leidos about 18 months, from concept to delivery, and the second is on track to be delivered ahead of schedule in just five months from contract signing, Krone said.
Krone, several times, noted that the company and the Army had put “skin in the game” to be able to buy and convert the business jets into militarized intelligence planes.
“This delivery is the culmination of a lot of really hard work [and] a lot of sharing of the risk,” he said.
The technology is open, so different types of sensors made by different companies can be installed. Some of the sensors are government-owned, others purchased by Leidos.
Leidos has also purchased two larger Bombardier Global 6500 aircraft that it intends to convert into intelligence planes for another Army spy-jet competition called ATHENA-R. It’s competing against an L3Harris and MAG Aerospace team and Sierra Nevada. Those companies are also offering modified Global 6500 aircraft. ATHENA-R aircraft will also be owned and operated by contractors and will be a bridge to the HADES program.
For Leidos, a government contractor better known for its IT and government services, ARTEMIS represents efforts to diversify its portfolio. In 2020, the company purchased Alabama-based Dynetics, a company that specializes in directed energy, space, drone, and hypersonic technology.
“We are a people company,” Krone said. “This is very unusual” that “there's something I can point to.”