Stealthy ‘Son Of Ares’ Jet Seen Covered In Mirrors During Mysterious Test Flights

In a follow-up to our most recent article on a number of strange tests that have been ongoing high above the Mojave Desert involving three of Scaled Composites’ experimental aircraft and a host of other players from the U.S. military and NASA, we now have exclusive new images showing one of the mysterious Model 401 ‘Son of Ares’ jets flying while covered in a mirror-like coating. The images were taken on June 13th, a few days after our initial report on the testing, and they offer new insights and prompt new questions as to what the twin stealthy experimental jets and their high-flying Proteus cousin have been up to.

Make sure to read our latest piece on these peculiar test flights linked here and below for proper context and background information.

The images show a large portion of what is likely the Model 401 registered as N401XD—its twin is registered as N401XP—substantially mirrored over with dark coatings covering much of the remaining surfaces. It looks like some primer paint or another coating exists around the canopy bow and the leading edges of the dorsal jet air intake. It is unclear if the aircraft has the same application on both sides. This is undoubtedly one incredibly bizarre-looking treatment on an already alien-looking aircraft. The photographer who took the photos said the extremely bright glint coming from its fuselage made the aircraft very visible.

So, the question is, why mirror over a large portion a jet for a test? We can’t answer that definitively, but we have some ideas. 

One of the sci-fi-looking Model 401 ‘Son of Ares’ jets during testing in April of 2018. Note the very different skin treatment at the time as well as the nose instrumentation. The two aircraft now have a cleaner and stealthier configuration. , Matt Hartman/

The first would be to support laser testing. The Pentagon has a slew of directed energy efforts ongoing, including those in the air-to-air realm. Considering where the treatment is situated on the aircraft, the latter would seem like the most likely application. The pod hung under Proteus for the tests appears to have two large dark lenses and one smaller one that could be indicative of cameras needed to record a laser test. They are fixed and facing directly to the side of the aircraft, so recording another aircraft would make sense here especially considering that the Model 401 jets and Proteus have been flying at around the same altitude, but offset laterally to varying distances. 

Hans Friedel 
Hans Friedel 

The pod does have a large sliding door on the bottom, a feature that is usually associated with electro-optical systems. As to whether it holds a directed energy turret is unknown, but we do know that the demonstrators were flying with a NASA F-15D recently that was carrying an unusual pod that looks similar to one that may hold a laser system (see below). 

Regardless of what aircraft could have been toting the laser, getting an idea of how much laser energy is reflected by different aircraft coatings under real-world conditions could be very beneficial. Said laser doesn’t have to be some very high-power system capable of damaging the target it is being fired at, either, and that would be counterproductive, anyway.

An age of tactical aircraft being equipped with lasers for defensive and eventually offensive purposes is on the horizon. The Air Force has its own Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) program that is underway and there are surely others. Adversaries are not sitting still in this regard either. It makes sense that when you develop any new disruptive measure, you also invest in exploring countermeasures to it for refining the system you have, as well as the tactics behind it. Doing so would result in a more capable and resilient weapon and would also provide key data in regards to how to defend against a similar capability. 

Having coatings and surface treatments that can reflect laser energy, thus decreasing the range and increasing the dwell-time needed for a laser system to be able to damage an aircraft is a worthy, if not outright necessary endeavor. The potential benefits for manned and unmanned aircraft that may confront directed energy threats in the future are clear, but this will be even more important for cruise missiles and lower-flying drones that could face such a capability much sooner. 

This would also fit with the odd markings we saw on the other Model 401 demonstrator, which included reflective coatings on different parts of the aircraft. 

The other Model 401 now wears a new gray coating with strange patches applied below the cockpit and on its tail. These patches reflected light in odd ways in the photos we have seen of them., Hans Friedel 

So, would mirroring a flying object, or applying other exotic reflective surface treatments, help defend them against directed energy attacks? Maybe that is exactly what testers are working on with Proteus, the Model 401 demonstrators, and the other players that have been so active in the area over the last two weeks. 

The other thought we had is that this could be part of an ongoing test of infrared sensors, quite possibly infrared search and track (IRST) systems that are going to be fielded very soon within the Air Force and Navy. By using different coatings, including one that is blindingly effective, it could push the sensor to its limits and could help uncover hardware flaws and software issues that could occur in a real-world environment with the system. 

A mirrored aircraft, in particular, may prove to be a unique challenge for these systems, and flying one alongside an exact copy of that aircraft without the treatment could provide a control variable to test against. The two Model 401s have been flying together for much of the testing that has occurred, according to flight tracking software. This would also help explain Proteus’ pod with the dark optical windows, which would house the infrared sensors, as well as the reason for other aircraft to take part in these tests, including F-117s, which have a reduced infrared signature not commonly found on combat aircraft. 

Once again, these are just a couple of possibilities. Testing these odd reflective coatings, including a mirror-like covering, on these aircraft could be for another reason altogether. What is clear is that charcoal and mirrored-over ‘Son of Ares’ jet would be one heck of a sight to behold close-up. Maybe one day we will get photos of what this aircraft looked like with such an exotic application to its skin. 

Also, this would explain why one of the demonstrators is flying out of Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake instead of Mojave Air and Space Port as a mirrored alien-looking test aircraft would draw a ton of attention there. 

Finally, the question of is this aircraft even manned is bound to come up. Since the Model 401s first emerged, there has been speculation that they may be optionally manned. Depending on how invasive and dangerous these tests are would dictate what measures would be taken to either protect the pilot or not have them present at all if the aircraft is truly capable of unmanned operations, which we have no proof of at this time. Still, Scaled Composites is very capable of realizing such a capability, so it is possible. At this time it is safe to assume it is manned, but that could change as more information comes available. 

We will continue to update this story over the next 24 hours if more information comes available. 

Author’s note: A huge thanks to @Wamoyanu for the photos.

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Tyler Rogoway


Tyler’s passion is the study of military technology, strategy, and foreign policy and he has fostered a dominant voice on those topics in the defense media space. He was the creator of the hugely popular defense site Foxtrot Alpha before developing The War Zone.