One of two Scaled Composites Model 401 “Son of Ares” stealth jets was spotted landing at Mojave Air and Space Port recently equipped with a still curious, but now familiar, ventral pod fitted under the forward fuselage. A whimsical depiction of a shark with what appears to be a laser strapped to its head – a reference to a well-known scene from the 1997 Mike Myers spy comedy Austin Powers – indicates that it is related to any directed energy system. That’s exactly what The war zonewho first reported on this change almost two years ago to the date, had previously postulated, as you can read more about here.
twitter user @Task_Force23 took the photos of the aircraft, which has US civil registration number N401XP and was using the call sign “Scat 71” at the time, on October 16 and was kind enough to share them with us. An L-39 Albatros jet trainer belonging to Gauntlet Aerospace, with N number N25PX, was observed flying close to N401XP, likely acting as a fighter aircraft or as part of a test itself.
The most immediately eye-catching addition to the N401XP is the “sharks with creepy laser beams attached to their heads” artwork on the belly pod. Scaled Composites, a famous cutting-edge aerospace design company that is currently a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman, is well known for adding ironic markings to its aircraft.
The art on the belly pod of the N401XP is undoubtedly a reference to the scene in the clip below from the 1997 film Austin Powers.
In fact, the nickname “Sons of Ares” for these jets – which are also nicknamed Phobos and Deimos, the sons of Ares, the god of war, in Greek mythology – is a reference to the Agile Responsive experience. Effective Support (ARES) which was confirmed by a “World’s Greatest Dad” graphic that was spotted on the older aircraft in 2018, as you can read more about here. At various times, the ARES jet, which Scaled Composites continues to use for testing purposes, was also seen with a “Chemtrail Tank” label mocking this conspiracy theory and a satellite communications dome above the fuselage painted to look like R2-D2, the fan-favorite droid from the Star Wars franchise.
The pod seen yesterday on N401XP appears more or less unchanged since it was first spotted on this aircraft in October 2020. It still features a wide intake binding front, two small antennas, one black and one white, below and a large exhaust pipe at the rear, which is angled downwards.
In addition to the laser shark pattern painted on the side, there is now also a warning label which reads “JET BLAST – DANGER” with an arrow pointing towards the exhaust nozzle. This suggests that the exhaust system is attached to some Auxiliary Power Unit (APU), but there are other possibilities as well.
Although the new photos we have of the N401XP from October 16 don’t give a clear look at the right side of the pod, a bottom view clearly shows that an opening that was present two years ago is still there too.
The N401XP otherwise appears to be largely the same configuration, at least outwardly, as it was two years ago, including a prominent “hump” or “bulge” under the fuselage just behind the ventral pod. The aircraft notably gained two additional antennas on either side of the underside of the nose. At least one of these new antennas, along with another that was seen on the aircraft in 2020, is attached to a clearly demarcated section of the nose.
From the photos we have two years ago, it’s unclear if that “severed” nose was also present on the jet.
Beyond the now clear connection of some sort to a laser-directed energy system, it remains unclear how the belly pod is designed to function. The pod could potentially contain a laser itself – although it’s unclear where the emitter might go. A likely possibility is that the laser could be aimed out of the opening on the right side. The pod and what is buried in the aircraft bays overhead could contain an APU used to independently power the laser. So that would be a setup where the air intake is up front, the exhaust is down the back, and possibly a transmitter that fires off the side, with the APU buried in the bay at the -above. It would be a remarkably compact and intriguing setup, although how the high thermal loads that high-powered lasers are associated with would be handled is unclear.
Then again we might just see components related to a tertiary transmitter system which should also be installed elsewhere in the aircraft such as where the pilot is now in an unmanned variant (hence and even more directly the sharks of Dr. Evil’ with lasers on his head’ reminder). The jet may never carry the laser itself either, the artwork on the pod being merely a reference to the aircraft being used in some way in support of research related to the laser. Although that seems less likely due to the highly customized install we’re now seeing two years after it first appeared. And such a laser could even be linked to a sensor, not a laser weapon to crush hostile targets, for example.
The two Scaled Composites Model 401s themselves were first developed to demonstrate various advanced, fast and inexpensive design and manufacturing techniques, as well as to serve as demonstration support aircraft for undisclosed programs. They have since been used for various testing purposes. In this role, the planes are regularly seen reconfigured for different tasks and have often been seen on flight-tracking apps working in concert with the company’s top-flight Proteus testbed jet.
“After the initial performance envelope expansion, both aircraft are performing payload development testing for a wide variety of customers,” according to the Scaled Composites website. “The aircraft is capable of integrating a diverse range of payload systems with over 80 cubic feet of internal payload volume and up to 2,000 pounds of payload capacity.”
At this time, it is unclear whether or not Northrop Grumman plans to release the Model 401, or variants or derivatives thereof, for general sale in any configuration. However, it seems very likely that this could be the case considering that last year the company showed reporters a mockup of an unmanned version – it’s unclear if this merely mirrored the unmanned setup of the standard design or a new drone variant – as well as an entirely new drone derivative, known as the Model 437. You can read more about these developments here.
The Model 401 has features that could be very beneficial for any laser application. Its high dihedral wings would provide any payload installed under the fuselage with a superior field of view to the horizon from horizon to horizon without having to tilt.
The underlying aircraft design is good for being able to loiter in a particular area at low speeds for long periods of time, while also being able to transit to and from a specific point at higher jet speeds. An uncrewed configuration would eliminate any mission length limitations a human pilot might impose, and potentially bring other unique capabilities to the global mix.
There are certainly various laser and potentially laser-related development efforts that the N401XP could support in this configuration with the underbelly pod. Despite obstacles encountered over the years, the US Air Force, in particular, has a number of active programs focused on the development of aircraft-mounted lasers for use as offensive and defensive weapons.
There is, of course, still no confirmed link between the N401XP in the belly pod configuration and any of these programs, or any other airborne directed energy weapon efforts.
As The war zone noted in 2020, whatever the purpose of the laser system fitted to the N401XP, it could also be related to work on protective capabilities against such directed energy weapons. Not too long ago, one of the Son of Ares jets was spotted with a mirror-like coating. Mirror-like finishes have now appeared in several forms on Air Force stealth F-22 Raptors, F-35A Joint Strike Fighters and F-117A Nighthawks, as well as US Navy F-35Cs – all belong to the testing and evaluation of these services. communities – as you can read more about here.
It’s possible that the belly capsule seen on the N401XP is also related to something completely different. And yes, it could be a misdirection or even a reference to our previous article, although that seems highly unlikely. Still, at least when taken at face value, adding pods to the underside of the jet is even more likely to have something to do with lasers now than before.
Over time, the Model 401s will likely prove more crucial to the future of air combat than most would have anticipated, and they may even spawn production aircraft, laser-equipped or not.
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