A good contact of mine spotted the innovative, and arguably more relevant than ever, Scaled Composites Agile Responsive Effective Support (ARES) demonstrator taxing out of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s “Vulcan Air” Hangar at Boeing Field last week. There is not doubt that Mr. Allen is a huge aviation aficionado, owning virtually every corporate aircraft one can think of, from Global Expresses to Twin Otters on the fixed wing side and MD-800 Explorers to S-76s in the helicopter category, along with military relics including F-5B, ME109, and even a MiG-29. Still, seeing one of Scaled Composites most interesting testbeds emerge from that hangar is puzzling.
ARES was designed as a concept demonstrator for a down and dirty, extremely cheap and accurate close air support platform for the US Army. Although it never went into production, its concept is really more relevant today, and especially over the last decade, than when it was originally tested (around 1990). Today, multiple manufacturers are trying to come up with similar concepts, including Textron/Cessna’s new Scorpion, although none pack a GAU-12 25mm cannon internally like the ARES. With the new line of laser guided rockets and subscale guided munitions hitting the fleet now, we can wonder in awe just how deadly of a CAS provider this little jet could have been in the past, and especially, could be today. If you read this website, you are fully aware of how bad we could have used ARES, or a platform similar to it, over the last decade plus of close air support focused air combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead the USAF opted to fly the wings off (literally) of their fast jet and heavy bomber fleets at incredible operational and opportunity cost. Every USAF community wanted a piece of those wars, and it cost the tax payer billions in the process. Fighting men living in mud huts and carrying AK-47s with an F-15E or a B-1B, for over a decade, may be the epitome of stupid and highlights the rigidity of the USAF’s fast jet culture and is just another symptom of a highly diseased Pentagon overall.
Since its successful testing as a close air support platform, ARES has gone on to star in one of the schlocky Iron Eagle sequels as well as doing some very important testbed work. Although nothing is for certain, the aircraft may have been involved with advanced UAV testing, as its composite structure, size and jet propulsion, amongst other qualities, are incredibly similar to aircraft like the RQ-170 Sentinel, and in this authors mind specifically the RQ-170. In fact the diminutive ARES has been spotted sporting a large satcom “hump” on its spine and a massive planar like enclosure fused to its lower fuselage, most likely used for communication node and/or radar testing. The aircraft was painted white with a black area was below its nose, possibly to mimic a UAV’s optical sensor turret. In all, the unique machine has now logged almost 300 hours of testing, not bad considering it was built as a cheap one-off proof of concept demonstrator. Why it is now hanging out in the Vulcan hangar at KBFI is a mystery unto itself. Maybe Allen wants to purchase it for his museum, or maybe there is some unique testing he is looking to do. Considering the man has funded large portions of SETI for years and years, along with winning the Ansari X-Prize with Rutan and starting a new space launch company with one-another, this would not be outside of his heavily diversified wheelhouse…
More on the ARES concept from the “father” of the design himself: