In a typical private airport, Leidos’ Artemis II would look unremarkable compared to the other business jets on the tarmac. But the Bombardier Challenger 650’s inauspicious white exterior disguises an interior not of luxury seating and woodwork, but server racks, advanced avionics and computer consoles. Instead of ferrying executives and high-net-worth individuals to distant cities, Artemis uses its antennas and computers to decipher enemy communications from 40,000 feet. The business jet was an off-the-shelf Challenger but the interior was a high-tech array designed by defense and technology firm Leidos.
According to Defenseone.com, the first Artemis (there are now two) has already seen action in the Ukraine War, making use of the aircraft’s ability to fly at high altitudes for long ranges. “These [planes] can see very far when operating at 40,000 feet,” Mike Chagnon, deputy group president of Leidos Defense Group, told the website. The concept behind this spy plane is very different from listening to enemy chatter on the battleground, and instead allows the military to monitor sophisticated communications from hostile nation-states at a safe distance.
In the last year, Artemis 1 has flown more than 370 missions to monitor Russian forces near the Ukraine border. “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 business jet flew an average of six days per week.
The unarmed 650s don’t fly in “contested” airspace so can avoid hostile fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles. Instead, they use altitude and long-distance monitoring equipment to collect data.
Leidos has a second Challenger 650 in Virginia that has also been modified for the US Army as a technology demonstrator. L3Harris Technologies is also developing similar business jet intelligence aircraft called ARES.
The aircraft are taking part in the US Army’s High Accuracy Detection and Exploitation System (HADES), a strategy for gathering high-flying intelligence. The idea is to replace the current turboprops that were used in the Afghanistan and Iraqi conflicts searching for roadside bombs and insurgents with a more advanced, less vulnerable aircraft technology. “They want multi-layer sensing capabilities from space to mud,” Chagnon told Defenseone.com. “This is the airborne layer.”
Leidos owns and operates the aircraft, but the Army is able to connect to the plane’s sensors via satellite to glean intelligence. Essentially, it is renting the airplanes by the hour since there is no long-term contract. “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.”
Leidos has also purchased two larger Bombardier Global 6500 aircraft that it intends to convert into spy planes for another Army competition called ATHENA-R. Its competitor L3Harris, working with MAG Aerospace team and Sierra Nevada, is also converting Global 6500s for the same spy-jet competition.
Airframe manufacturers like Dassault, Gulfstream, Embraer and others have long had relationships with militaries around the world. Bombardier opened its Defense operations at its former Learjet headquarters in Wichita, Kansas.
The company delivered a modified Global 6000 business jet to the US Air Force in a special-mission configuration to the its Battlefield Airborne Communications Node program. Last month, it began preparing another Global 6000 for the German armed forces. This will also be used to collect and analyze military signals from radar and radio systems.