Sierra Nevada banking on new RAPCON-X plane for Army’s future ISR aircraft

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Reporters toured a “representation” of Sierra Nevada Corp.’s RAPCON-X plane on Aug. 24, 2022 in Hagerstown, Md. (Sierra Nevada Corp.)

HAGERSTOWN, Md. — As the Army considers how to replace its aging fixed-wing ISR fleet, Sierra Nevada Corp. believes it has already found the answer in its new RAPCON-X aircraft design. And the company plans to go all in, investing $200 million of internal funding to build two prototypes by January 2024, according to company executives. 

The Army is currently evaluating whether to move forward with a program of record for a High Accuracy Detection and Exploitation System (HADES) aircraft, a jet-powered airplane that will replace the aging Beechcraft RC-12 Guardrail as the service’s premier fixed-wing platform for the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission.

Sierra Nevada Corp. intends to be ready with its solution should that happen, said Tim Harper, senior director of business development for SNC’s Mission Solutions and Technologies division. Harper’s comments came during a Wednesday trip to the company’s facilities in Hagerstown, Md., where reporters toured a “representative” version of the RAPCON-X.

Work on the RAPCON-X aircraft started a year ago, “in an effort to build something that the Army and DoD need before they need it,” he said.

“The way we designed it is going to be rapidly configurable,” Harper said. “Instead of being tied down to a specific system, and then the Army changes something… and they’ve got to come back and it takes a year or so to redesign it, we can get in and change it on the fly.”

The RAPCON-X starts with a commercial Bombardier Global 6500 business jet, which SNC then shapes to be able to accommodate a radar and signals intelligence package of the customer’s choosing. The military-specific modifications are all developed using model-based systems engineering with an open architecture design meant to accommodate whatever sensor the user needs to accomplish the mission.

The illustrative model Breaking Defense and others explored was a Bombardier-owned Global 6500 configured for testing, with wiring visible and much of its interiors dismantled. Toward the rear of the plane sat mockups of four mission stations and a computing station for the mission commander, though Harper noted that they were not representative of the mission stations that will be installed in the prototype aircraft. And while not set up inside the model aircraft on Wednesday, the future RAPCON-X prototypes will also be equipped with berthing quarters to allow crew rest during long missions, a galley and lavatories.

“We’re in the middle of engineering; that’s nearing completion,” said Tim Owings, executive vice president, Mission Solutions and Technologies. “We’ve already ordered parts, long lead items. We’ve bought two jets, so those are already procured.”

The first Global 6500 to be turned into a prototype is slated to be delivered to SNC in October, after which it will “go direct into paint and we’ll start integration,” Harper said. The second plane will arrive in December, and flight tests will begin next summer.

According to an SNC fact sheet, the RAPCON-X will have an endurance of about 14 hours, a range of more than 6,000 nautical miles and will operate at altitudes in excess of 45,000 feet.

Beyond the US market, SNC is investigating the prospect for international sales, as well as providing contractor-owned, contractor-operated ISR services for countries who cannot procure their own aircraft, Harper said. All told, the company believes there is a market for sales of upwards of 20 RAPCON-X aircraft.

Army Takes Steps Forward on HADES

The timeline, for the Army at least, is somewhat up in the air. In an interview with FedScoop in June, Dennis Teefy, the Army’s lead official for the HADES program, declined to specify when the service could award future HADES contracts or begin fielding technology.

But despite the silence from Army leadership, the service appears to be intensifying several efforts that could feed into a HADES program of record. Most recently, on Aug 23, the service released a request for information for three HADES prototypes to be built with government-furnished aircraft and sensors.

The Army is seeking industry feedback about the cost and schedule for two different integration approaches currently under consideration, the RFI states. Under one option, the government would provide a “green aircraft” straight off a commercial production line, which the company would have to shape to add an underbelly radar and ELINT sensor “cheeks.” The other option involves providing the contractor a commercial derivative aircraft where the airframe has already been altered to allow radar and sensor integration.

“HADES Prototyping will constitute two systems with different sensing systems,” the Army said in its RFI. “Once integrated and tested, a user assessment will be conducted during 6 months of operational use conducting real world missions. Systems will be able to perform those missions at the start of the operational assessment.”

The Army has also begun work on sensor prototypes that could eventually outfit the HADES aircraft. In June 2021, the Army awarded Raytheon and L3Harris contracts for “phase one” of a Multi-Domain Sensing System to develop, build and demonstrate electronic intelligence (ELINT) and communications intelligence (COMINT) sensor prototypes. Future phases of the effort will involve further develop the sensor package and prepare it for integration on the HADES aircraft.

At the same time, the service is continuing flights of two testbed aircraft — Leidos’ ARTEMIS aircraft and the Ares system from L3Harris — which could inform requirements for HADES. Ares  deployed to the Indo-Pacific on April 18 has logged 130 flight hours doing local missions as of mid-May, Defense News reported in June.

Meanwhile, ARTEMIS grabbed headlines in the weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when the plane was frequently seen flying in Polish airspace, where its sensors could peek into Belarus and as well as Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave.





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