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Video Above: Air War in 2050-  A Warrior Maven exclusive interview with US Air Force Maj. Gen. & Commander of the Air Force Research Lab, Heather Pringle

By Kris Osborn, President, Center for Military Modernization

(Washington D.C.) Foreign adversary air defenses continue to reach breakthrough ranges, target processing speeds, multi-frequency detection and high-fidelity radar tracking, a threat circumstance which continues to drive the US military services to continuously upgrade and refine high-altitude, long-range surveillance.

Surveillance Aircraft

While helicopters and medium-to-low flying drones will always remain critical to maneuvering ground troops in more permissive or less contested environment, where the US operates with air superiority, the Department of Defense has identified a growing need for higher-altitude, longer-range, yet more precise fixed-wing ISR to identify and counter threat air defenses. Therefore, the Army is immersed in a multi-year process to replace its existing Beechcraft King Air RC 12X Guardrail Common Sensor and other surveillance aircraft with a longer range, higher-flying jet-derived Bombardier 6500 ISR platform.

Video Above: Lieutenant General, Thomas Todd - Chief Innovation Officer of Army Futures Command sits down for an exclusive interview with Kris Osborn.

These new, fixed-wing surveillance platforms, upgraded with high-resolution, long-range multi-functional sensors and radar systems, can now detect much smaller threat objects from farther distances with great image fidelity. These advancements are being capitalized upon by the U.S. Army through its Army Theater Level High-Altitude Expeditionary Next Airborne ISR Radar. (ATHENA-R) and the follow on Program of Record (POR) High-Accuracy Detection and Exploitation System (HADES) program. HADES is described by the Army as a multi-intelligence payload that can find targets by eavesdropping on electronic communications signals, then identify them in any weather with a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and ground moving target indicators (MTI).

“MTI is a moving target indicator, which will provide Army intelligence units with a high-resolution track allowing them to see and track movements and images at great distances. ATHENA will provide this capability in a long range, sophisticated radar to complement the signal collection sensors on the platform,” Patrick Biddinger, Program Manager for ATHENA at MAG Aerospace, told Warrior in an interview.

Slated to be awarded in FY2023, ATHENA is the bridge to the HADES POR and quickly provides four or more Jet ISR platforms to support Army Combatant Commander requirements. Industry competitors seeking to pursue ATHENA include Raytheon, Leidos, and the MAG Aerospace-L3 Harris team.

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“During operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has been using medium-altitude turboprop aircraft that have an endurance of anywhere from six to eight hours. The Army has recognized moving forward that it has to advance its technology, endurance, and range in order to meet near-peer adversary capabilities. In order to accomplish this, they need a platform that's capable of high altitudes, long mission durations, and has the ability to stand off from threat environments while being able to look deep with sensing and collection technology,” Patrick Biddinger, Program Manager for ATHENA, MAG Aerospace, told Warrior in an interview.

Biddinger, a 26-year Navy veteran and manager of surveillance systems and programs, explained that lower-altitude turboprop King Air planes simply cannot operate in a high-threat major power adversary combat environment as he outlined their partnership with L3Harris for this high-tech jet with next-generation sensing.

“It is critical for the Army to move to this next generation platform. The Air Force and Navy have been operating more capable platforms for quite some time. Benefits of using a business jet in addition to range and altitude include a smaller deployed footprint when conducting operations, reduced logistics, staffing, and maintenance requirements to sustain. ” Biddinger said.

“Our choice of the Bombardier Global Express 6500 jet will bring much needed capability, and it is equipped with the latest sensing and data-processing computer technology to execute highly-accurate surveillance and target identification missions at stand-off ranges - greatly improving the surveillance capability for the Army and the combatant commands.” Biddinger said.

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“The combatant commands will have a collection platform capable of a minimum of 45,000 feet and 10 to 12 hours of endurance with the Global Express 6500. The real benefit of ATHENA as a bridging strategy is that using it is a demonstrator testbed will result in having at least 85% solution for HADES, the program of record, when it comes on-line in five to six years.” Biddenger explained. “The MAG L3 Harris solution is based on the U.S. Army Airborne Reconnaissance and Electronic Warfare System (ARES) platform, which is the Global Express platform designed, integrated and fielded by our partner, L3Harris, and is currently operating in INDOPACOM for the Army- this significantly reduces risk on ATHENA and expedites the path to HADES for the Army.”

The introduction of the MAG/L3Harris ATHENA solution will introduce a new sphere of tactical possibilities given the pace of advancing sensor, targeting and multi-domain networking technology. The ATHENA platform can used to relay target specifics to lower-altitude attack drones or even send real-time data to stealth fighter jets and bombers regarding the location of enemy air defenses. The B-2, for example, is now being equipped with a new sensor called the Defensive Management System intended to counter advanced air defenses by simply identifying their location and averting or “flying around” them. Certainly, the MAG/L3Harris ATHENA offering can be in a position to securely “network” data of great relevance to enemy air defenses and ground targets with a B-2, F-35 or drone platform. It is within the realm of the possible that ATHENA may provide secure data link technology and transport layer mechanisms to deliver intelligence such as enemy troop movements or target specifics to maneuvering ground forces. This ability to gather, process and transmit time-sensitive combat data from stand-off ranges greatly supports the Pentagon’s Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) effort to enable dispersed, cross-domain, disaggregated combat formations to share time-sensitive data across the force in multiple transport layer formats in real time. 

Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.