Scaled Composites' Mysterious Demonstrator Jets Spotted Working With High Flying Proteus | World Defense

Scaled Composites' Mysterious Demonstrator Jets Spotted Working With High Flying Proteus

mtime7

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Scaled Composites' Mysterious Demonstrator Jets Spotted Working With High-Flying Proteus
The highly unique aircraft flew between China Lake and Mojave Air and Space Port in what appears to have been an aerial test.
BY TYLER ROGOWAYJUNE 10, 2020
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Scaled Composites' mysterious Model 401 demonstrators flew together yesterday along with the company's Proteus high-altitude test platform in what appears to have been some sort of test operation not far from their home base at Mojave Air and Space Port. The flight was captured from the ground by one of our readers, aerospace enthusiast Hans Friedel.

According to Hans, on June 9th, 2020, the following occurred:
"I noticed on ADSB-Exchange that the Northrop/Rutan Proteus was flying an irregular pattern out over Lake Isabella. There was also a Northrop/Rutan Model 401 circling around the Ridgecrest/China Lake area. Both the Proteus and Model 401 were circling around 24,000 feet... Around noon, the Proteus and the Model 401 joined up over lake Isabella and flew in my direction towards Mojave. I pulled over to see if I could see them and to my surprise both Model 401s were in formation with the Proteus high overhead... I don't think there are any photos of any of these planes together in formation.


When I looked closer at ADSB, I noticed that the two 401s had been there all along, flying identical paths in formation. I'm wondering if the 401s were involved in some sort of loyal wingman test. The Proteus and at least one 401 recovered to Mojave Air and Space Port - not sure if both did."

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Proteus first flew in 1998 and has since become one of the legendary aerospace design and manufacturing firm's most successful vehicles. It has been used to prove many technologies and concepts of operation, with its ability to carry outsized payloads in central gondola-like pods to high altitudes—up to 65,000 feet—for the better part of a day. These payloads have included everything from rockets, to NASA scientific payloads, to dummy bombs, to the Global Hawk's newest radar system. Proteus' design also influenced the company's 'White Knight' mothership aircraft that haul their suborbital manned spaceships up tens of thousands of feet for launch. Proteus, which hit is 1,000th flight back in 2017, is one of kind, with no other examples of the test platform ever being built.

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The Model 401, also known internally as 'Son Of Ares,' is far more of a mystery. While their existence has not been a secret and they do fly and operate in the open, their exact purpose and even who they were built for remains unknown. The War Zone has kept maybe the closest eye on this intriguing program and we have been able to discover some informationabout the aircraft and its unique lineage, but an overall idea of the program and its objectives remains a question mark.

Last we wrote about the Model 401, it was headed to NAS Patuxent River for some sort of trials. We later received indications that this visit was likely to test the stealthy design's radar cross-section in laboratory-like conditions. Although not 'very low observable' in nature, the design has well-established low-observable features that definitely reduce its radar and infrared signature. Being built from composite materials only helps in terms of the type's radar profile when viewed from different aspects and at various wavelengths.




There has been some speculation as to what these aircraft are meant to do, especially in terms of being possible surrogates for unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) or that they may even be optionally manned themselves. Some sort of loitering reconnaissance platform and light attack role has also been floated. The design has large ventral bays that could hold sensor turrets and other systems and their wings are canted upward providing a better line-of-sight to the horizon while orbiting over an area.
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So, with all this in mind, Hans's comment about a possible loyal wingman test isn't without its merits. A similar concept was envisioned using a version of Proteus as a central player over a decade ago as part of what eventually was coined in the press as the Hunter-Killer unmanned aircraft project. A militarized and strictly unmanned variant of Proteus, known as the Model 395, was eyed to be procured in conjunction with that program's goals.

With the B-21 Raider coming online in the not so distant future, an aircraft that is primed to work as a centralized command and control and networking platform for swarms of unmanned combat air vehicles, using Proteus and the Model 401 demonstrators to test the building blocks of such a capability, and the communications architecture that will underpin it, would make sense. The B-21 will likely have a high operational ceiling that will give it long line-of-sight connectivity, something that Proteus could emulate in follow-on testing as the B-21 works towards its first flight. It's also worth noting that the Scaled Composites is owned by Northrop Grumman, the manufacturer of the B-21 Raider.

If the two types were indeed working together, as they seem to have been, a sensor Proteus was carrying could have been tested against the low-observable Model 401s. The Global Hawk's new Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP) radar, which has been tested extensively on Proteus, has a latent air-to-air capability that hasn't been developed, but that could be changing especially as low-observable threats are proliferating around the globe. There are plenty of other larger airborne sensors in development that would need flight trials, including the B-21's future radar system.

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Proteus with MR-RTIP radar system that is now flying on the Block 40 Global Hawk.
As such, the Model 401s may be used as flying low radar cross-section targets in a similar manner as to how the retired F-117s have been used, working as something of a flying control variable to benchmark sensor systems. Of course, this very well could be just one of their uses and not even their primary reason for existing. And maybe they were up to something totally different, we just don't know. For instance, there are plenty of initiatives ongoing in the artificial intelligence-infused air combat space alone that will need surrogate aircraft. An optionally manned one may be highly attractive at least for some of those tests.
Like so many of Scaled Composites' unique designs, the Model 401 aircraft could have multiple purposes, some of which will emerge as time goes on and technology moves forward. In fact, that is the story of their namesake, Ares, which started life as a gun-toting very light battlefield interdiction demonstrator and went on to work in many developmental roles, including acting as an unmanned aircraft surrogate and more.

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Ares early in its career as a gun-slinging close air support demonstrator and later as a surrogate testbed.
We formally inquired about the Model 401 as recently as last month, but nothing more about the program was released to us. With both demonstrators hard at work, maybe we will find out more about them in the not so distant future. We will certainly keep an eye out for future missions with Son of Ares flying in conjunction with Proteus, as well.
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Mysterious Stealthy Test Jet Now Flying With Possible Laser Weapon Modifications​

One of Scaled Composites' Model 401 demonstrators is now flying with a highly peculiar ventral pod that has a huge air intake and its own exhaust.​

BYTYLER ROGOWAYOCTOBER 27, 2020
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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.

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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 laseron 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: [email protected]
 
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