Sierra Nevada lands contract for second variant of Athena spy plane

Known as Athena-S, the effort is a bridge capability for the Army's High Accuracy Detection and Exploitation System (HADES) program.
The RAPCON-X concept (Sierra Nevada Corp. image)

The Army has tapped Sierra Nevada Corp. to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions — an effort that will be key in informing the service’s broader high-altitude ISR modernization projects.

SNC received the award for the second phase of the Army Theater-Level High-Altitude Expeditionary Next Airborne Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (Athena-S) on Sept. 28, acting program executive officer for Army Aviation Rodney Davis told reporters Tuesday during a roundtable at the annual AUSA conference.

Davis did not disclose the contract amount during the roundtable. But an Army spokesperson told DefenseScoop on Wednesday that the initial $10 million was awarded as part of a five-year deal with a $554 million value, for an ATHENA-S services contract.

After initiating the program in 2022, the Army has since split the Athena effort into two phases — Athena-R, which focuses on long-range radars, and Athena-S, which will demonstrate signals intelligence capabilities. The service announced in August that an industry team led by MAG Aerospace and L3Harris received an award for the first variant.


Davis noted during the roundtable that the contracts are for “ISR as a service,” meaning industry will own the aircraft demonstrators and conduct their missions. He estimated that it’s likely to take “at least a year” before SNC will be able to start flying Athena-S missions.

“We’ve got to get the first equipment in formation and then start integrating that onto the aircraft,” he said. “They’re incentivized to get it done as soon as possible [and to] start performing that service.”

For Athena-S, the contractor is providing its RAPCON-X platform — a Bombardier Global 6500 aircraft modified for military operations with a suite of signals intelligence systems and radars. The company beat out Leidos and L3Harris, who announced in July that the companies were teaming up to pursue the second phase of the program.

“ATHENA-S will be a missionized, high-speed, and near-peer optimized aerial sensor solution, capable of globally deployable operations, and will fill urgent A-ISR capabilities gaps to enable Army and Joint Forces to compete in Multi-Domain Operations,” the Army spokesperson told DefenseScoop.

Both Athena variants are technology demonstrators for the future radars and sensors part of the Army’s High Accuracy Detection and Exploitation System (HADES) program, which is set to replace the service’s legacy Beechcraft RC-12 Guardrail airborne signals intelligence platform. The service is eyeing fleet of business jets equipped with signals intelligence, electronic intelligence and communications intelligence sensors that are able to conduct ISR from mid-tier altitudes up to the stratosphere.


“In terms of HADES, it really is a bridge and it is informing us,” Davis said. 

Athena is just one of several ongoing feeder efforts paving the way for HADES. Others include the Airborne Reconnaissance Targeting Exploitation Mission Intelligence System (Artemis) and the Airborne Reconnaissance and Electronic Warfare System (ARES). Both of these tech demonstrators have already begun flying missions in multiple theaters, according to the service.

The HADES program is one part of the overall Army effort dubbed Multi-Domain Sensing System (MDSS). This family of systems aims to modernize the service’s aerial intelligence systems, platforms and sensors to make them more effective against a near-peer adversary and will include high-altitude balloons, jets, fixed-wing solar gliders or fixed-wing solar systems.

Updated on Oct. 11, 2023, at 11:20 AM: This story has been updated to include additional Athena-S contract details and comment from an Army spokesperson.

Mikayla Easley

Written by Mikayla Easley

Mikayla Easley reports on the Pentagon’s acquisition and use of emerging technologies. Prior to joining DefenseScoop, she covered national security and the defense industry for National Defense Magazine. She received a BA in Russian language and literature from the University of Michigan and a MA in journalism from the University of Missouri. You can follow her on Twitter @MikaylaEasley

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