Scaled Composites' Stealthy Test Jet Now Flying With Possible Laser Weapon Modifications

One of the Model 401 demonstrators is now outfitted with a peculiar ventral pod that has a huge air intake and its own exhaust.

Steve Lee

Some of the most mysterious aircraft that are flying in plain sight today are the Model 401 "Son of Ares" jets from famed cutting-edge aerospace design firm Scaled Composites. The twin stealthy aircraft, nicknamed Phobos and Deimos—you can read all about their lineage and their namesakes in these past War Zone exclusives—have been very busy in recent months. They have been working with a wide variety of aircraft, including the company's high-flying Proteus test jet. One has been flying out of Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, with a photographer capturing the aircraft covered in mirrors as part of some sort of a bizarre test. Now, one of the two Son of Ares jet has been photographed landing at its birthplace of Mojave Air and Space Port with a puzzling and very prominent new modification to its belly.

The photos come to us from Steve Lee, an aviation photographer from Santa Clarita, California with a background in aerospace engineering. He was at Mojave on October 23rd, 2020, when the Model 401 with the U.S. civil registration code N401XP came swooping in while turning final to land at its home base. As you can see in the images below, the aircraft now has a strange new ventral enclosure modification that includes what appears to be a large air-intake arrangement under the nose. It seems that there exists a large radiator-like array inside this intake. A square hole only on one side of the faceted enclosure appears to be where something will be mounted and the structure itself appears to be open to the rear. Some sort of an exhaust pipe is sticking out of the aircraft itself towards the back of the pod-like addition. There is a large ventral bulge in the aircraft's skin behind the pod and there are aero tufts that work to visualize airflow along the rest of the aircraft's lower-rear fuselage. 

It's also worth noting that the Son of Ares jet was being chased by a Sabreliner when the photographs were taken. 

Steve Lee
Steve Lee
Steve Lee
Steve Lee
Steve Lee
Steve Lee
Steve Lee
Steve Lee
Steve Lee

 

Steve Lee

It isn't clear exactly what the major modifications are for, but the potential existence of a large radiator and exhaust, as well as an aperture, points to the possibility that N401XP will operate as a directed energy (laser) testbed in the near future. The previous work that these jets did with Proteus, another unique Scaled Composites aircraft that was packing a strange pod with similar side-mounted apertures at the time, as well as the mirrored-coated test flight of one of the demonstrators, further suggests that the airframes may serve at least partially as some kind of airborne directed energy testbeds. 

As we noted not long after the Model 401s first appeared, the dihedral on their wings (upswept design) gives extra line of sight to the horizon while banking to systems mounted below. This could be beneficial for directed energy applications, as well as surveillance ones. But above all else, the pod's features, especially what appears to be extreme cooling capabilities and an auxiliary exhaust, together with an aperture to mount a laser beam pointer/director, even one with a narrow field of view, seems to add up. The power generation requirements and especially the cooling needed to effectively field such a system represent major challenges. This is why such a huge radiator system placed directly in the stream of onrushing air and a separate power generation source, as the arrangement on the Model 401 suggests, makes sense, although this evidence is anything but conclusive at this time. 

There are a number of airborne laser programs underway currently, including the Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) Advanced Technology Demonstration program. A number of companies are working on this program with the Air Force Research Laboratory, including Northrop Grumman, which is developing its beam control system and the enclosure for the system. All of that has to be small and light-weight enough to fit inside a pod that a tactical aircraft can carry. SHiELD is a defensive system primarily aimed at shooting down incoming missiles that target the host aircraft or others in its vicinity. The ambitious initiative has seen some delays as of late, with the demonstration pushed back two years to 2023. One can see how the concept and the timeline line up with what we are seeing on the Model 401, especially since Northrop Grumman owns Scaled Composites. 

Still, it isn't hard proof that this is the program related to this new installation. In addition, it was thought that SHiELD would feature a podded system a fighter could carry. This arrangement is custom to the Model 401, but it could be an R&D effort attempting to downscale technologies so that they can be crammed into a pod eventually. 

Another ongoing program of record is an initiative to mount a 60-kilowatt laser on an AC-130 gunship by 2022. This program, which is helmed by the Air Force Special Operations Command, and with the Navy also playing a critical role, is likely the nearest real airborne laser capability in the works. The program's relation to the Navy would line up with Son of Ares demonstrator's connections to that service and the form factor of the installation shown in the images above would easily fit on an AC-130 gunship. Still, as with SHiELD, we just don't know for certain if these new modifications are related to that specific program. It is odd that a readily available C-130 wouldn't be used for a system destined for that aircraft type. In fact, this is exactly what was done in the past. 

There are other potential airborne laser programs, including those related to countering ballistic missiles during their boost phase for missile defense, which would make sense, as well. But those efforts have apparently hit major snags as of late and their future, at least in the near-term, seems in doubt. Much of the issue has to do with the standoff range and power and beam-forming requirements needed to bring down a missile from a relevant distance. But if a stealthy aircraft was used, maybe it could get far closer to a potential target, which would help alleviate these issues. The side-mounted port on the enclosure would make sense for engaging targets over longer ranges from known locales, such as ballistic missiles. The Missile Defense Agency was looking for an unmanned asset to fly a demonstrator laser for this application nearly four years ago. Maybe they ended up ordering the Son of Ares jets, or at least employed them as surrogates for a stealthy medium-altitude, medium-endurance unmanned aircraft that such a system could be installed on in the future.

It is also entirely possible that this modification has nothing to do with directed energy, as well, but we are at a loss as to what else it would be related to do. 

If the Son of Ares jets are indeed tasked with ushering in a new era in airborne directed energy capabilities, their existence would be far more historic than previously understood.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below. 

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com