Ace Combat: Ikaros in the Sky
Unofficial English Translation
Technical Research Headquarters Joint Test and Evaluation Squadron
Officially the “Ministry of Defense Technical Research Headquarters Integrated Equipment Laboratory Aircraft Technology Research Division Joint Test and Evaluation Squadron”. A special organization under the Ministry of Defense Technical Research Headquarters that performs research on the use of an Advanced Support Fighter and aerial escort ships to strengthen Japan’s defense capabilities in coastal waters. Made up of temporarily deployed personnel from the Japanese Air Self Defense Force and Maritime Self Defense Force.
A test pilot for the ASF-X Shinden II. His rank is Captain.
As Mishima’s adjunct, he is the best source of information in the squadron.
A test pilot for the ASF-X Shinden II. His rank is First Lieutenant.
He is a top notch pilot as well as a talented programmer.
The one responsible for the ASF-X Shinden IIs development and planning. His rank is Major General.
Commanding officer of the Joint Test and Evaluation Squadron. His rank is Major.
Supervisor of the ASF-X Shinden II development. A bureaucrat equivalent to a section manager in the Ministry of Defense.
A professor participating in the Advanced Unmanned Reconnaissance Aircraft “Q-X” Program. He developed a new control system for the Q-X.
The protagonist for this story. Her rank is Second Lieutenant. She is a test pilot for the ASF-X Shinden II. The youngest member of the Joint Test and Evaluation Squadron and a genius who trusts her instincts when flying.
She serves as a fighter pilot in the Japan Air Self Defense Force and participates in the ASF program as a key member of the squadron flying Shinden IIs, which when completed will be operated off of escort ships.
A test pilot of the ASF-X Shinden II. His rank is Second Lieutenant. Despite his shadowy appearance, he is an accomplished F-15J driver.
He joined in the middle of the ASF program, but is a talented pilot who operates his plane using logical thinking.
He was in the same 306th Tactical Fighter Squadron with Nagase in the past and was acquainted with her, but for whatever reason, that details of their history remains unclear.
Shoji Kawamori’s Rough Design
An early draft of the Shinden II. Among other things, a forward swept wing with variable geometry wings and images of its actuation shows that even at this stage, the concept for the Shinden II was being finalized.
Advanced Support Fighter
ASF-X Shinden II
A state-of-the-art support fighter currently under development that will be operated by the Japanese Self Defense Forces. By changing its shape, it exhibits flight stability in all kinds of speed regimes, boasting versatility in anti-ship attacks in territorial waters, counter attacks against landing forces, close air support in mountainous defensive battles, and operations where the front lines are in constant movement. The variable geometry forward swept wing allows high maneuverability and excels in close range fights, while the unique vertical arrangement of the 2 engines allow for STOVL operations. Nicknamed the “Shinden II.”
Country of development: Japan/Taiga Heavy Industries
Overall Length: 19.5m
Overall Width: 14.0m
Overall Height: 3.56m
Front weapon bays: Short range air-to-air missiles x4
Underwing pylons: Long range air-to-air missiles x6 or 70mm rocket pods x4
Rear weapon bays: Anti-ship guided missiles x2
Everything in front was blue. Clear blue sky above and a dark blue ocean below. Both nothing more but vast expanses of blue. The horizon stretched out for miles in every direction.
“This is Edge, I found the target. Awaiting orders.”
“Acknowledged. Begin the test straight away.”
Ensign Kei Nagase decided not to follow those orders.
“Okay, I’ll fly over once to confirm the target, then I’ll fly back and begin the test.”
There was a brief pause.
“Understood, begin the test as soon as you’ve confirmed the target.”
Flight control didn’t agree with what Kei was going to do but they had no reason to stop her.
Prototype model 1, “Zero One” flew over the target’s location.
The target was an orange balloon, 3 meters in diameter. Easily visible from afar. The balloon was attached to a GPS transponder buoy. The orange balloon was just there for decoration. It didn’t matter if the rocket hit the target or not. The real test was the firing of the rocket. The buoy was just there to display the center of the testing area and there were no restrictions from where the rocket was to be fired.
This test was just being done to provide data to the engineers. There were no real targets here to test Nagase’s skill.
Nagase pressed the control panel’s button once, and then turned the optical sensors and the multi-sensor display on. The console’s panel lit up and the central MFD activated. She quickly swapped its contents to the right MFD, which previously showed navigation data."
This was done since the central MFD was below the switch panel and was hard to view while flying." On the right MFD, there was a map of the sea below which was being picked up by the aircraft’s optical sensors.
In the future, the Shinden II will have a EOTS (Electro Optical Targeting System) installed, but Zero One's optical sensor is a provisional one and only functions as a FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared Radar
Zero One was originally designed to be an aerodynamic testing machine so it wasn’t initially fitted with these kinds of sensors. However, the authorities began using Zero One as test-bed for all kinds of equipment. Thanks to them, the current Zero One is equipped with radar and an optical system. There is no FCS (Fire Control System) installed... officially.
Nagase flipped the multi-function display switch, and a display showing the sea below appeared with a white circle targeting the area below. An angry voice coming from flight control shouted, “Edge! What are you doing?!”
Zero One’s multi-function display and heads up display were being monitored by flight control.
“I’m going to use the sensors to locate the target below,” Nagase replied.
“What are you up to?” Flight control responded.
“I’m just using a custom-made application to improve the display,” Nagase said.
"What do you mean there is no danger?!"
Suddenly, a different voice cut in over the flight control's voice. It was the commander of the test pilot’s group, Major Mishima.
“You installed your own custom application, how can you say there's no danger?”
“It’s made by Wannabe, there's no danger,” Nagase replied.
ASF-X comes installed with a standard regulating computer, but this application allowed additional functions to be added to the system easily. The custom application that Nagase installed was programmed by a fellow test pilot Oose, call sign Wannabe".
This application displays the course and timing required for a rocket to hit its target. The regulating computer is strict and without permission, it was only possible to run simple programs that changed how information was displayed.".
A real FCS would display targeting information on the HUD directly in front of the canopy, but since one is not installed, sensor data can only be displayed on the MSD.
The program Oose created simply analyzes the video data from the FLIR and adds a simple marker on the MSD to hit the target. It's nothing compared to a proper FCS, but Oose claimed it should be better than the targeting systems used on jet fighters from the 1950s. For Nagase, someone that has no knowledge of targeting systems from that era, she couldn't tell if that was true or not.
“I can't approve of this. You will be punished for this,” Mishima said.
Nagase smiled to herself.
“Mishima said that he can't approve, but he never said to stop using the application. He said I’ll be punished, but he didn’t say I wouldn’t be forgiven,” Nagase smirked to herself.
Mishima is on the side of the pilots. That's why she liked him
“This is Edge. I'm going to fly back over to the target and begin the test.”
Zero One gracefully spun around and headed in the opposite direction.
ASF-X was designed to be an acrobat of the skies.
Due to its use of a forward swept main wing (among other things), static stability should be negative, but in reality, it is unusually stable in flight. Its response to turns and side slips is extremely good as well. The handling is so good Nagase and the test pilots sometimes feel its not challenging enough.
Nagase zoomed in on her multi-function display and located the target. The MFD is a color display, but since it was showing infrared data, the balloon did not appear orange.
Nagase had a bad feeling. Orange is usually used as a warning color when signaling to aircraft. If something orange is being displayed as grey on the aircraft's monitoring systems, there's a chance the pilot could make a mistake.
Nagase used her finger to mark the target on the display.
A cross symbol appeared over the balloon. A circle also appeared and started to line itself up with the cross. If the custom application works properly, then the rocket should be fired as soon as the circle lines up over the cross. This should ensure a direct hit.
If the flight speed and current wind conditions don’t change then there should be no problems. However the circle kept swaying side to side even though the aircraft was flying steadily.
There seems to be something wrong with the data.
This is Edge. I've fired half of the rockets on the first pass. Will turn around and fire the remaining.
The plan was to take two passes to fire anyway.
“Understood. Begin the test now.”
It seems like flight control has given up and didn’t object to this plan.
This test was only being performed to observe the effect of launching a rocket off the craft. So, it doesn’t really matter where or how it's being fired from.
If the ASF-X were to carry out a ground attack, it automatically goes into improved mobility mode, and maintaining a low flight speed becomes easier to pull off. However, in this test the rocket will be fired from normal, level flight. Of course the rocket won't hit.
The circle on the multi-function display overlapped with the cross.
The aircraft shook a little, but apart from that everything went as expected. A little change in flight sensitivity was expected due to losing the weight of the rocket, but there wasn’t much change. Firing only one rocket wouldn’t have made much difference to the overall weight of the aircraft.
The rocket shot off towards the target leaving a white trail behind it and plunged into the sea. The rocket was just a dummy and had no explosives but the force it hit the water with caused a pillar of water to rise upwards fairly high.
The accuracy of the simple reticle was surprisingly good.. The rocket only missed the target by about 30 meters. Nagase turned the aircraft around for another run. The white circle on the display started to inch towards the cross again. Nagase took the previous missed shot into consideration and lined up her sights for another shot at the target. There is no swaying in Zero One's flight. This time even with a crude sight aiming should be no issue.
Nagase felt a satisfying shudder as the rocket left the aircraft and headed towards the target. This time it should definitely hit. However, soon after the rocket was fired, something went wrong.
Zero One’s nose suddenly started to point downwards and the entire aircraft began descending towards the water. Nagase desperately pulled back on the flight stick, but the aircraft continued falling.
The aircraft was losing altitude rapidly. The aircraft was already fairly low so it could carry out the rocket testing, but now the ocean began to get even closer. The built-in control systems of the aircraft detected the loss in altitude and began displaying warnings and alerts.
The only problem was with the control surfaces. Maybe there’s another way to stop the aircraft's descent. Nagase turned to the control panel and removed some flight restrictions. Nagase changed the direction of thrust deflection nozzle to counter the fall which started to help level out the aircraft and the descent began to stop. It was working. The aircraft became horizontal again and stopped falling.
“This is Edge. Did you see what just happened?!”
“Yes, we saw. Zero One, return to base immediately.”
The flight control staff determined that the cause of the problem was because of the loss in weight when the rocket was fired. After the rocket was fired, the flight system had a miscalculation with adjusting to the new weight of the aircraft.
If the aircraft can stabilize itself, then there should be no more problems. Nagase pretended to change her flight course, and then started to search for the target on the water again. However, there was no sign of the orange balloon on the water’s surface.
Her mouth naturally curls into a smile.
Nagase still hadn’t realized that the dummy rocket had made a direct hit on the buoy that was below the orange balloon. The buoy was dispensable, but it could have been recovered and reused if unharmed. Nagase's target practice had resulted in loss for the country.
However, Mishima's "punishment" and the near crash had left Nagase's mind due to her "victory" and she flew home satisfied.
Second Lieutenant Asano Wataru watched closely with his eyes fixed on the horizon as Zero One was flying in towards the base. It was his first time seeing the ASF-X flying in person. Upon arriving at the destination point, however, Zero One passed right through where the base was. After circling around the base for a while, the aircraft had finally started the approach to land.
I wonder if that’s Nagase with her unnecessary way of having fun.
As a familiar name of a pilot came across his mind, Asano’s lips curled upwards. It had been a while since the last time he had been amused like this. Thanks to the ruckus before the approach, Asano had managed to see the body of Zero One quite clearly. Although he had seen the aircraft in pictures and on television, it looked much different when he saw it in person.
Isn’t that one hell of a good-looking aircraft?
And it surely was an unconventional and unique aircraft. The wings were composed of three parts – front, main and rear wings. The low-lift variable geometry front wings would not only allow Zero One to perform acrobatic maneuvers with short take-off and landing (STOL) capability but also effectively push back the airflow separation point away from the surface of main wings, reducing stalls and turbulence.
The forward-swept main wings would help Zero One to roll and reduce air resistance in the transonic flight swiftly. And they’d also increase the stall limit during low-speed flight. The variable geometry wingtips would provide a great deal of controllability to the pilot to adjust aerodynamics of the aircraft when needed. The rear wings, which were also variable geometry, functioned as both the horizontal and vertical stabilizers. Zero One was a twin-engine fighter aircraft. But the configuration of each engine was different from the standard. Also, they were mounted separately- one on the top and the other on the bottom. Both the unusual engine arrangement and thrust-vectoring nozzles were the secrets behind the aircraft’s outstanding maneuverability and the STOL performance. And of course, this was not to overshadow the aircraft’s state-of-the-art ventilation design and engine cooling system. Finally, the stealth capability of Zero One was the cherry on top that remarks the lengths of research and care that had been put into the aircraft.
The design greedily incorporated many contradictory abilities in every part of the aircraft but gave off a sense of mystery and composure.
The ASF-X is a demonstrator for the Advanced Support Fighter (ASF) program and will serve as the prototype to the F-3, which will be developed in the near future for the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force and Maritime Self-Defense Force. In reality, the F-3 is the ASF in and of itself, since it was determined that trialing the ASF-X as a dedicated flight testing craft ahead of the actual F-3 would expedite development.
When that happens, the ASF-X would have a good shot at earning the title of the greatest jet fighter of all time. While having these thoughts in mind, he heard the high-pitched whine of the ASF-X as it increased thrust on approach. Asano wondered if the ASF-X could show him a whole new world of flying.
The ASF-X’s stall speed was comparatively low for being a supersonic aircraft. This was proven both in the computer simulation and field test. And as mentioned, the ASF-X was an excellent STOL aircraft. If the variable geometry wings were used effectively, flying at an unbelievably low-speed was possible. However, the aircraft was coming in at a rather high approach speed. In any case, it was not acceptable to expose the one-and-only test aircraft to risks for no reason. In addition, the ASF-X was capable of performing a vertical landing in theory since the F-3 aircraft that JMSDF had requested were supposed to be able to take off from a short runway and land vertically.
From time to time, Nagase would have the urge take a larger approach angle than commanded and decelerate quicker, shortening the landing distance, but never followed through. She knew that she would never be forgiven if she did so.
Nevertheless, Zero One came to a full-stop leaving just over 1000 meters on the runway. The runway was 3000 meters long for safety measures. Following the marshaling signals, she taxied a few hundred meters to the apron near the hangar. When Nagase saw a towing tractor approaching from the corner of her eye, she stopped the engine and opened up the canopy. She took her helmet off and ran through her hair using both of her hands. Inside of the helmet was always hot and steamy, no matter how much technology had improved. An aircraft maintenance technician jumped off from the towing tractor and hooked up a ladder.
“Nice work, Nagase.”
The technician lowered his voice slightly.
“Did anything happen? Mishima is pissed.”
“Well… just a minor thing.”
Nagase started to walk towards the barracks while keeping an eye on the towing tractor pulling Zero One into the hangar. She had noticed someone was on the roof of the barracks. It looked like someone she knew, but he was gone before she could tell who it was.
The next generation support fighter, F-3 was the beacon of hope that would level the playing field between Japan and other neighboring countries whose military power was growing rapidly with advanced technology.
The highest level of modern science and military technology were brought into the development. The F-3 is a complete multirole fighter: a supersonic cruiser that can promptly arrive at any battlefield, a powerful anti-aircraft missile platform, an unmatched dogfighter, an anti-ship/anti-ground craft that can rout landing forces, and a STOVL craft that can operate from aircraft carriers and front-line airfields.
In addition, the F-3 could not only complete multiple missions in a single sortie, but also change its role, either at short notice or during the mission. The F-3 was given the name of swing-role fighter to emphasize its versatility. The F-3 support fighter was the epitome of military technology in Japan.
When the development plan for the F-3 was announced, however, some officials snorted in disbelief at how utterly absurd the idea was. In life, in general, and in aircraft manufacturing in particular, a decision was needed to be made in order to pick and choose what needed to be prioritized. But the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) desperately needed a versatile jet fighter that could do the unthinkable.
The history of the 21st century was progressing towards the rise of new superpowers.
The Republic’s military threats were no longer a possibility but a reality. The Republic had declared their interests in expanding the nation’s influence across the globe. Furthermore, the Republic would no longer follow the existing international agreements, which they claimed were made to oppress the Republic by the Western countries. Borderlines and international policies started to lose their meanings due to the Republic’s military prowess. The Republic demanded the entry of foreign ships to be regulated on its own exclusive economic zones, against the backdrop of rapidly strengthening military and political power.
Furthermore, the Republic started to call the nearby sea of their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) as coastal waters and claimed ownership, causing territorial disputes against neighboring countries. It caused an international backlash against the Republic, but to them, the "coastal waters" was recognized as part of their territory.
Despite making that statement unofficially, some radical military officers took a step even further and said that the entirety of the peacekeeping missions of the Western Pacific Ocean should be assigned to the Republic only. Newspapers in the Republic also declared neighboring countries should not be allowed to have air or naval power or aggressive governments that could intimidate the Republic. Political and military experts expected this to become the Republic's official view soon.
Meanwhile, the United States, the self-proclaimed police of the world, did not accept the Republic's claims, and continued activities in its "coastal waters." However, the neighboring countries still needed to demonstrate their willingness to protect their autonomy and territories.
It became necessary to increase deterrence to prevent the Republic from engaging in military ventures.
For a country whose neighbor was a dangerous nation, it became imperative to recover its deterrence capabilities, which had been deteriorating for 20 years due to an economic crisis. There was no spare time to plan and carry out a balanced strengthening of defenses.
While the F-3 could be an interim solution for now - like a bandage to an open cut - a long-term solution was needed.
That was when Taiga Heavy Industries came to the rescue. Taiga Heavy Industries was a medium-sized aircraft manufacturer that utilized composites and made unique business jets. The fact that one of Taiga Heavy Industries' independently developed plans included a military design allowed for the ASF program to make great progress, and they became the driving force for the program. From years of making business jets, Taiga Heavy Industries had accumulated expertise and know-how in aircraft development which helped in shortening the duration of the time of the next generation support fighter.
Nagase's career as a fighter pilot ran parallel to ASF program. Nagase decided to become a jet pilot around the time when the ministry of defense announced the ASF program.
Nagase had joined the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) betting on rumors that an aircraft carrier disguised as an escort destroyer was in development after she learned that the JASDF did not employ women as fighter pilots.
Nagase, who joined the JMSDF, was qualified to operate a fixed-wing aircraft at first. But soon after, she had switched to a helicopter pilot program with the 211th Naval Air Training Squadron at Kanoya Air Station instead of a fixed-wing squadron.
This was because aircraft carriers were likely to carry STOVL aircraft and operating helicopters could be useful in operating VL (Vertical Landing) aircraft.
Nagase thought that learning how to operate helicopters would give her a better chance of being a jet fighter pilot, rather than fixed-wing anti-submarine warfare training.
Before long, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces officially announced the construction of the aircraft carrier.
Nagase was chosen as a candidate for an aircrew member, as expected, and dispatched to the fighter unit of the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) to become a jet fighter pilot.
Assigned to the "Golden Eagles" of the 6th Air Wing, 306th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Komatsu Air Base, she received the most rigorous training as a pilot on the F-15J while also performing missions as a helicopter search and rescue pilot.
Although no official announcement had been made, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force had decided that the F-3 would be a STOVL aircraft at that point and was looking for a supersonic fighter pilot who could also fly a helicopter.
After completing the pilot training with the Golden Eagles, Nagase was then transferred to the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force and was assigned to the newly formed 19th Task Force to get more scrambling experience. Shortly after, she was selected as a test pilot of the ASF-X.
Her official status was: Member of the Joint Test and Evaluation Squadron, affiliated with the Ministry of Defense Technical Research and Development Institute Integrated Equipment Laboratory Aircraft Technology Research Division.
Only a handful of the nation’s most talented pilots were drafted into the squadron.
Nagase had come a long way to become one of the best pilots in the nation, to be involved in the development of what could be the greatest jet fighter of all time.
Due to the incident during the rocket launcher test, the flight concluded earlier than expected, but the debriefing occurred as scheduled.
That was because time was required for Nagase and Oose to run to the end of the 3000 meter-long runway two times as punishment. There were more accomplices, but the two kept their mouths shut. Meanwhile, Nagase's "target practice" was treated officially as part of the actual test.
Mishima seemed to have great influence over the authorities, despite his rank of Major.
Mishima was strictly a supervisor of test pilots in the Joint Test Evaluation Squadron and was not supposed to participate in test flights in principle.
But Mishima was also an active pilot and was the first pilot to fly the ASF-X.
Mishima was also the flying instructor who trained Nagase to be a jet fighter pilot.
He was very much qualified to be the leader of the test pilots.
And of course, Mishima’s skills as a pilot were not the only reason why Nagase and the other pilots respected him. He was tough but fair enough to let go of some of the mischievous behavior. And above all, he was the type of person that you can count on in an emergency. That was why Mishima was highly-regarded by test pilots and other officers. After a quick summary of the experiment that had taken place that day, Nagase explained the problem she had during the test flight at the debriefing. Then the technicians presented the preliminary findings of their investigation on the accident. A question and answer session followed promptly.
“While we do believe that we are dealing with a minor issue, for now, there’s a possibility that things could have turned into to an irreversible accident, had the altitude of the flight or how Nagase had dealt with the problem been any different. Simple misses that could lead to a crash will not be tolerated. As explained earlier, thorough maintenance inspections are needed to identify the cause of the issue. Thus, tomorrow’s flight is canceled. Debriefing is now over. You are dismissed.”
Major Mishima, the lead officer of the Joint Test Flying Evaluation Squadron, had wrapped up the debriefing session. As Nagase and the others stood up to leave, he called out to Sonoda as if he remembered something.
“Come with me, Sonoda. I’ll introduce you to Second Lieutenant Asano.”
When Nagase heard the name, she wondered if Asano was the person she saw earlier on the roof. Previously there had been talks of a new test pilot joining Joint Testing and Evaluation Squadron. This new pilot that was expected to start today was Asano. Nagase had worked with him before when they were both in the Golden Eagles at Komatsu.
Nagase was an odd member in the Golden Eagles, the 306th Tactical Fighter Squadron, since she had been dispatched from the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force. So, she was not particularly friendly with anybody, including Asano, but she had some conversations with him since they both flew the F-15.
Walking out of the debriefing room, Nagase - who was deep in thought trying to recall who Asano was - was stopped by Oose.
“Nagase, who is this Asano guy? You have worked with him before, right?”
“Words travel fast, huh?”
“Don’t be silly. Transfers are announced in advance. Surely you knew that Asano was the one coming?”
“Well, I guess so. Asano was assigned to the Golden Eagles, the 306th Tactical Fighter Squadron, three months after I had been assigned. So I guess you can say that he’s a ‘junior’ to me if you will. He was a solid pilot if I recall correctly.”
“Huh, is that so?”
“Why, you have any interests in him?”
“No, uh… how do I say this… it’s just that I have never heard of him up until now.”
It was obvious that there could only be so many jet fighter pilots in Japan. And in that small world, those with talent and competence to be chosen as a test pilot for a next-generation jet fighter would be well-known. Nagase, Ose and Sonoda, all three of them knew and heard of each other before they were drafted in this team to work together.
Nagase found it strange now that Ose had pointed it out.
“Well, I guess I’ll get to know him when I meet him. I think he’ll be introduced at the end of the day.”
Oose was still skeptical, but if their superiors recognized Asano as a test pilot, it didn't matter if he was famous or not.
“Yeah, it really has been a while since the last time I saw him.”
Nagase and Oose parted ways, both deep in thought of their own.
Asano was introduced at the end of the day. Currently, the Joint Test and Evaluation Squadron only had one craft in Zero One, and test pilots were few in number. Additionally, since it was a mixed force made up of members in the JASDF and JMSDF, typical relations between the ranks were largely unrecognized. However, Sonoda, who had the highest rank of captain in the squadron, more or less served as the overall leader.
“Let me introduce you to Second Lieutenant Asano Wataru. He’s been transferred to join us from the Internal Bureau. His specialty is…”
Sonoda paused Asano’s introduction to take a peek at the papers that he had in his hand.
“Flying is his specialty, it seems. No kidding for someone who’ll be a test pilot in our squadron.”
Looking at Asano who was standing up with his back straight, Sonoda continued the introduction.
“Welcome to the Joint Test Flying Evaluation Squadron. Second Lieutenant Asano, introduce yourself now.”
When his name was called, Asano took a step forward and started his self-introduction.
“Second Lieutenant Asano Wataru, joining the Joint Test and Evaluation Squadron as of today. Don’t really have any hobbies in particular. Pleasure to meet you all.”
Specialty is flying. Doesn’t have a hobby. Ha! Does that mean flying is all he ever really thinks about in his head?
Nagase saw that Oose was scoffing in disbelief, but she was thinking about something else instead.
The Internal Bureau of the Ministry of Defense was full of civilian bureaucrats whose main task was supporting the Minister of Defense with paperwork. Asano had a short career as a pilot if he had been transferred to the internal bureau right after flying the F-15 at Komatsu. No matter how you see it, he was under qualified to be drafted as a test pilot. Nagase raised her hand up with this question she had.
“What did you do at the Internal Bureau?”
“When I was there, the Bureau and a civilian publisher were making a PR piece for a periodical. So I assisted in the coverage of the land, sea and air forces.”
Nagase had a feeling that Asano knew this question was coming. She sensed it from how he answered her question.
“Well, that’s fine. Feel free to ask me questions if you need help.”
Oose had a bitter smile on his face because Nagase made such a patronizing comment to Asano who was clearly much older than her.
Nagase was a prodigy with extraordinary talents in flying who was also very young. Both Sonoda and Ose had highly-regarded her skills as a pilot. She was a valuable pilot to the JSDF since she could fly both jet fighters and helicopters. On the other hand, even someone like Nagase would not have been drafted to the Joint Test Flying Evaluation Squadron, had she not been able to fly helicopters. Having too short of a career and being too young was the reason. But Asano was a junior to Nagase – even if that’s only three months - and there was even a period of time when he took a break from flying completely.
It didn’t make sense for someone like Asano who had no career to be drafted as a test pilot of the ASF-X. So it seemed like Nagase wanted to belittle Asano for that reason. Although Asano was much older than Nagase, he was still considered young in the world of pilots. There is no doubt that Asano had something that was outstanding to become a test pilot. Perhaps he was another prodigy pilot like Nagase. There was a time when Oose, too, had pride in his talents. Now he thought of himself as an old veteran who managed to remain on the battlefield thanks to the expertise he’d accumulated and the skills he honed up over the years. He viewed himself this way even more so after he’d met Nagase. If another young talented prodigy appeared, he would feel overwhelmed. This time, Oose raised his hand to ask a question to Sonoda.
“When will Second Lieutenant Asano be flying?”
“Right away. As soon as Zero One’s maintenance inspection is finished, Asano will be the first one to fly.”
Hearing that, Nagase objected immediately.
“The ASF-X is a special jet fighter that’s much different from other aircraft. Wouldn’t it be better for him to watch us fly first?”
“That won’t be necessary.”
Mishima had entered the room before anyone had noticed. Then he continued on with what he was saying while swaying his hand to discourage people from standing up to attention.
“Second Lieutenant Asano has completed the simulation training at the Nyutabaru base. I have made the decision after seeing the results of the simulation training and seeing him flying the T-4 and the F-15. I would like to have Second Lieutenant Asano fly the ASF-X as soon as possible.”
Nagase and other test pilots had done the simulation training, but the simulation was not very helpful quite frankly. The behavior of the craft reproduced by the simulator is not completely accurate to the real thing. In addition, it is actually simulating the supposed behavior of the production model F-3, and not the ASF-X currently being used.
However, the pilots could not disobey Mishima's decision. Nagase was not satisfied, but Oose whispered into her ear.
“Well, only those with talents can survive in the world of pilots. Why don’t we see how competent this guy is first?”
Asano was scheduled to fly three days after the maintenance inspection had identified the root cause and repairs were made.
“Are you sure you’ll be okay?”
At the apron, Nagase asked Asano who began the pre-flight external check of Zero One. The last time she saw him flying was when they were in the Golden Eagles and what he did afterward was completely irrelevant to what he’s about to do now. So she was unsure about his competency.
“Thanks, but don’t worry. I have read the test reports of the ASF-X, and I am absolutely confident Zero One will have no problem.”
Asano said this without looking in Nagase's direction and then concentrated on Zero One's inspection.
“In any case, please take good care of Zero One.”
Resisting the urge to tell him that she was more uneasy about him than the aircraft, Nagase headed towards the T-4.
The purpose of today’s flight was two-fold: have Asano get used to Zero One and test ride Zero One after the investigation. The T-4 that Nagase will be flying will be the chaser of the test flight, and Oose and Sonoda will monitor them from the flight center.
Nagase, who began taxiing first in the T-4, saw Asano boarding Zero One in her mirror and pouted.
Asano didn't open up to anyone.
Even at the welcome party that the maintenance crew hosted, Asano did not actively engage in any of the conversations but simply smiled and spoke only when he had to.
Nagase hated how Asano behaved as if he was skillfully avoiding attention. He’d talked to nobody. All he was doing was pretending to have conversations. Perhaps he thought there was no need to talk to anybody. Asano knew enough about how to operate the ASF from the start – in fact, he knew very well. So there wasn’t much that Nagase and other pilots had to teach him.
Take-off clearance was given from the control tower, and Nagase commenced to take-off. Nagase was taking-off first. Usually, there would be more than one chaser aircraft to follow the ASF-X, but Nagase was the only chaser today because Asano was only doing some basic maneuvers. It was Asano’s turn after Nagase had taken off.
“Aster, you are cleared for take–off.”
Asano’s callsign was called.
"This is Aster, taking off."
After clearance was given from the control tower, Asano commenced take-off. Nagase was watching his take-off in midair. It was flawless, but that was not enough to prove his skills. It was just an indicator that Asano wasn’t a complete novice. The ASF-X’s flight control system was programmed to assist with take-off and landing for the most part, so it wouldn’t have made much difference who was sitting in the cockpit. After taking off, Zero One circled the base twice and started the approach and landed.
"Aster, any problems with take-off and landing operations?"
Mishima asked this instead of the control tower operator.
“No issues found with the take-off and landing. Requesting permission for the steering test. Requesting permission for the steering test.”
Zero One manually taxied to the take-off point on the runway, and after receiving permission from flight control, took off again. This time, it performed figure-eights over the base and repeated climbing and descending maneuvers. Afterward, it landed again. The real test was about to begin when he had taken off for the third time.
After the take-off, Zero One headed east, leading Nagase's chase plane to the designated test-flight airspace. In the third test, Asano was to test Zero One’s maneuverability but had the discretion as to which maneuvers to perform – much like how figure skaters could choose the jumps and spins they’ll perform. And because it was Asano’s first test flight, he was limited to perform only the maneuvers that Nagase and other test pilots had performed before.
Asano had accelerated to gain altitude with Zero One. The T-4 was a subsonic aircraft with excellent climbing capability, so Nagase was able to follow without much difficulty. Asano soon reached the altitude of 6,000 meters.
“This is Aster, will perform a barrel roll to the right maintaining current speed vector.”
"Confirmed Aster's barrel roll intentions. Edge, take position diagonally in front and film it from a safe distance."
“Edge will position on the front left of Aster.”
Asano rolled Zero One to the right while pitching up. A barrel roll is an aerial maneuver in which an airplane makes a complete rotation on both its longitudinal and lateral axes, maintaining its original direction while following a helical path. It is a basic maneuver that is not difficult, but if not controlled well, one would not be able to maintain altitude and lose speed. After each roll, Asano increased the roll rate, and slowly performed 3 barrel rolls. He then rolled three times in the other direction quickly. Unlike a regular roll, the craft changed position to the left every rotation. It was like a car chase scene in a movie where the car would roll in the mid-air then land on the next lane, only to carry on with driving like nothing had happened. It seemed as if there was a hard floor in the sky where Asano was flying.
Nagase, who had been observing Zero One's movement from the chaser, was impressed by Asano's skill. Though stick inputs were electronically controlled on Zero One, it did not mean one's personal flying style would be obscured when performing basic maneuvers. The pilot's technique would be evident even with the aid of a computer. One could easily determine a pilot's competence from even relatively easy maneuvers.
Asano then continued the test flight by performing some more basic maneuvers, including the split S and Chandelle among other maneuvers. He moved swiftly and smoothly in all the maneuvers he had performed. And above all, he was moving fast. There wasn’t any unnecessary movement in his flight. In fact, it was hard to believe that this was his first time flying the ASF-X when he was flying this swiftly. Being appointed a test pilot, it was obvious his flying was good, but Asano's ability was beyond Nagase's expectations.
At the debriefing, the footage of Asano’s test flight that Nagase took from the T-4 was shown to the test pilots. Asano’s flight was still impressive even when it was seen in a video. Even the harsh Mishima did not criticize him but rather gave commentary as if he was giving a technical explanation of the maneuvers.
Nagase gave a compliment to Asano.
“Not bad at all! It sure didn’t look like it was your first time flying the ASF-X, Asano.”
“Yeah, Asano. Can you share how you came to understand the ASF-X so thoroughly when the only experience you had was with the incomplete computer simulation?”
Asano answered when Mishima asked.
“I placed emphasis on trying to understand the ASF-X's flight control system during simulator training. Then I read reports on how the simulation was different from the actual ASF-X and watched footage of test flights that other test pilots had taken.”
Nagase was taken back when hearing his answer. Asano's answer was equivalent to saying "I can use it because I saw it being used." Including aircraft, the operation of vehicles required the repetition of training to drill those skills into their bodies.
“What was your impression flying the real thing?”
“It was much more responsive than I had thought. I was able to perform maneuvers exactly how I wanted to perform. And the fly-by-light flight control system and the autopilot system, in general, was much smarter than I had imagined. If anything, the response from the aircraft was too "flat," and I couldn't grasp the craft's tendencies or limits.”
“We’ll have Asano try out the ASF-X’s limitations in the near future. Zero One is a special test aircraft, so it wasn't designed to give feedback on flight conditions to the pilot intuitively. Taiga Heavy Industries should have been accumulating flight data, so the second prototype should have these capabilities. Based on the results of the second prototype, Zero One should be updated accordingly.”
Mishima looked at Nagase and other pilots as if he’s asking if they had anything to add.
“As I explained in the briefing, Zero One will be inspected thoroughly. Tomorrow, all test pilots will have the day off. The test flight the day after tomorrow will be performed by Sonoda and Oose. The chasers will be Nagase in the T-4 with two Northern Air Defense Force T-4s from Misawa Air Base.”
Asano raised his hand.
“Is there any possibility that I will be flying?”
“Not for the day after tomorrow. You will be in the control center as support for the test flights. In a situation where pilots need to be switched, Nagase will be the one to do so, and the two Misawa T-4s will be chasers. Come see me if you have any questions on the test plans. If not, you are dismissed.”
Oose stood up first and looked towards the other pilots.
“Anyone down for Karaoke?”
There were few pilots who drank a lot these days due to scrutiny for incidents involving alcohol.
Pilots were prohibited from drinking alcohol 24 hours prior to flying, and alcohol testing was part of a pre-check procedure. Nowadays, if a pilot is detected of alcohol even if they drank more than 24 hours in advance, they would be grounded as part of an investigation and disciplinary measure. Because of that, karaoke was the go-to place to unwind for pilots in an occasion like this.
“Asano, why don’t you come and join us? Let me see if you are as gifted in singing as you are in flying.”
Asano swayed his hands.
“Thanks, but I’ll pass.”
“Ok. Maybe next time.”
Nagase frowned at Asano’s back, seeing him walking alone back to his room.
Sonoda saw her face and tapped on the shoulder.
“Maybe he's tone-deaf. Let him be.”
However, Asano never joined for karaoke afterward.
Seven days after his first flight in the ASF-X, Asano broke Nagase's record of time spent climbing to 9000 meters.
However, those records are not part of official trials, but something used in the inner circle of the Joint Test and Evaluation Squadron, and the process was different. The record was measured by the time it took for one to climb from cruising flight at 3000 meters to 9000 meters. It was performed as part of the flight characteristics test, but since it gave an easy to understand measure of performance, the test pilots had a tendency to compete for the best time. Of course, competing and losing was frustrating. Nagase’s teeth clenched when saw Asano breaking her record from the control tower. The fact that Asano set a new record was not the only reason why she was infuriated. It was before radar, and other parts have been equipped to Zero One when Nagase had set her record. Which means Zero One was much lighter when she had set her record. There were times when others had broken her record and vice versa. But to think that her record was broken by Asano when he was disadvantaged with Zero One being much heavier than before – now that’s what was infuriating her.
“Excellent Immelmann turn. Really pushing the performance of the ASF-X.”
First, Asano accelerated to Mach 1.4 in level flight and using the kinetic energy, zoom climbed. While climbing, he pulled back on the stick and performed a wide 180-degree loop. The instant he reached the top, he quickly rolled 180 degrees to regain level flight conditions, and re-accelerated to supersonic speeds.
Repeating the process three times, Asano smoothly achieved level flight at 9000 meters. By zoom climbing instead of climbing at a constant angle, it avoided energy loss. Aircraft were designed to have better efficiency when the nose of the airplane was pointing upward. As such, efficient flight is achieved by not pitching down but pitching up as much as possible.
When pitching up in high speed repetitively, however, the airplane had the tendency to do a vertical loop. To balance that off, doing an Immelmann turn by half-looping and rolling at the apex to get back to horizontal flight was much more efficient than flying straight ahead upward. But this required tremendous precision in techniques. To start off, the Immelmann turn often stalled the aircraft; it was difficult to do even when there was excess reserve energy. From this event, Nagase recognized Asano had a high degree of control over Zero One.
As infuriating as it was, Nagase could not climb the way Asano had climbed- not in that level of efficiency at least. She knew this about herself because she had flown Zero One a lot more than Asano. By setting a new time record, Asano had clearly outperformed her.
One day, I’ll surpass him. Nagase swore to herself that she would break his record one day.
As if opposing her intentions, Asano had been setting various new records before Nagase could break the time-to-climb record. He had mastered every maneuver the ASF-X was capable of, and even acrobatic maneuvers never attempted in the plane. Nagase began feeling impatient.
“Major, Nagase is clearly stressed out.”
“Challenges are good, but perhaps this was too much for her to take.”
Sonoda smiled bitterly monitoring Nagase’s flight sitting next to Mishima.
Thanks to technological advances, video captured by the chase cameras could be viewed even in the flight control center. Looking at Zero One's video feed, it was evident that Nagase was violently attempting maneuvers.
Nagase had put in the same maneuver Asano had performed into her flight plan. The maneuver was called a "Kulbit" which involved pitching up, and flipping backward once without changing altitude too much, all while maintaining forward momentum. The maneuver that involved pitching up to near vertical orientation and pitching back down to level flight was called a "Cobra." Nagase and others have performed the Cobra before, but Asano had done it as well. The Cobra and Kulbit are maneuvers that purposefully use pitch up induced "deep stalls" and recovery behavior.
Having the capability to perform these meant that the plane excelled in recovering from unexpected stalls and post stall maneuvers. To put it simply, it was a hard aircraft to crash.
It is difficult to say whether these characteristics are useful in actual combat, but it is safe to say aircraft that have the ability to perform Cobras and Kulbits would be superior to those which cannot.
As planned, Nagase first performed two Cobras and then proceeded into two Kulbits. However, on the second Kulbit attempt, Zero One flipped backward two times.
“Edge, what the hell was that?”
“This is Edge. I had a little too much momentum.”
“DON’T BE RIDICULOUS!”
It was very obvious that she did it on purpose.
When performing a Kulbiit, the nose of the aircraft is not pointed in the direction of motion until it is back to level flight, and intake of air to the engine is decreased, resulting in lowered thrust and at worst, engine failure. If an engine failure occurred during a stall, it would promptly lead to a crash. After performing the first Kulbit, there is a sharp drop in engine power, so the second Kulbit becomes much more difficult to perform. As such, performing two Kulbits in a row is called double Kulbit which was a completely different maneuver.
Mishima sighed and grabbed his seat after scolding Nagase. But then, he looked amused with a smile on his face when he sat down.
“Although I didn’t point out during the debriefing yesterday, Asano was performing the Cobra and the Kulbit only using the variable geometry wings. Nagase would have a tantrum if I tell her that they are not that difficult if she uses thrust vectoring.”
“Yeah, I can’t imagine how angry she’d be.”
It was still a difficult maneuver to perform nonetheless. But that'd make it relatively easier. Nagase seemed frustrated at being overtaken by Asano, but she's probably not thinking how the rest of us thinks about her skills, Sonoda thought. It would be lying if he said he wasn't jealous of Nagase's talent. But being older than her, Sonoda saw Nagase as more of a junior who he had high expectations for, rather than a rival. Sonoda found it amusing how desperately Nagase was trying to be better than Asano. There wasn't a time when any of our skills made Nagase this desperate he thought. Asano was a good stimulus for Nagase after all.
Mishima carried a cell phone for official business. There were two types of calls he got from the phone – the emergency calls that he must answer and others. Because there is the possibility of emergency calls, he was issued one, but even for Mishima's high rank, he rarely gets those calls. He also didn't give his number to those who wouldn't understand a true emergency. The call he got was not an emergency, but it was from someone he should answer to.
“Yes, Major General.”
“How’s Asano doing?”
“Although he could socialize better with other members of the team, he’s doing well overall. While it’s still too early to come to a conclusion, he’s very compatible with the ASF-X. Perhaps, he might be more talented than Nagase.”
“Please take care of his social aspects too. Asano is a talented pilot, but it would be a shame if that’s all he ever becomes when he has the potential to be much more than that”
There was no need to tell Mishima that; Asano was one of the pupils that Mishima taught himself.
“I'm counting on you.”
The gear was heavy. Asano never knew that his ragged gasps of air were this jarring. The helmet was completely useless. The bright sunlight was dazzling in his eyes despite the goggles. His eyes hurt because of the sun and droplets of sweat got into his eyes. He couldn’t wipe his eyes because his hands were full.
Just a little more, don’t give up. Just a little bit more.
When he just made it to the entrance of the base, he had heard this merciless voice from his earphone.
“No, Asano! You won’t make it!”
It can’t be.
“Our base will be bombarded any minute! Hide in the shade somewhere! There's no other option!”
He forcefully changed his position and clung to the cliff-like wall of the base. Then he climbed the wall face towards the back side of the base.
The gear is heavy.
When Asano opened his eyes, it was pitch dark. Unlike that time he kept seeing in his dream.
Despite the lack of heat, his body was covered with sweat - just like that time.
The dream took Asano back to that time, and he remembered every little detail. It was impossible to forget. How many times did he have that nightmare? Asano laughed at himself with self-loathing wondering how he’d managed to continue to be a pilot when he’s broken like this- waking up in the middle of the night.
Then he thought it was the opposite. Because he spends nervous days as a pilot and is tired every day, he can sleep soundly without nightmares. Today, he was not tired since the test flight was canceled.
After doing a double take to confirm that he had more than 30 hours before his flight, he grabbed a bottle of gin from the shelf and started drinking from the bottle. He couldn’t sleep sober, and he needed his sleep.
I am alive; therefore I sleep. I have nightmares because I am alive. I’ve survived, and I was saved.
Wrong! - he thought to himself.
I was not saved. He put both of his hands across his face.
I can’t fly anymore.
The alarm indicating that an enemy radar was tracking him kept beeping. His wingman disappeared somewhere from the skirmish earlier.
Being chased, the pilot in the F-2A desperately rotated the rudder fully to the right and pitched up. The F-2’s right wing stalled, and the craft swung itself to the right. He quickly applied the rudder in the reverse direction, but in a near-tailspin condition, the aircraft rotated one and a half times. He was on the brink of fully stalling.
He continued evading until he was just about to crash and the warning alarm finally ceased.
To recover from the stall and to create separation from the aggressor, he made a right turn and dove.
As he was diving with huge momentum, the alarm suddenly sounded again. Quickly glancing at the rearview mirror, he saw that the silhouette of the enemy aircraft had drawn in closer.
How did it pursue me through the spiral dive’s trajectory?
While turning sharply it can’t fire missiles, but he would crash into the ground if he kept this up.
“Pimp, I can’t shake him off, help me!”
“Flatterer, where’s the aggressor? I can’t see him!”
The F-2 stopped turning to dive and gain speed, then started climbing. The whole time, the warning kept ringing, and right after he started climbing, the warning sound changed to indicate a lock on was established.
“It’s no use. I’m done for!”
Lieutenant Colonel Shimon, who was monitoring the transmissions shook his head.
“...how could this happen!”
“The second fighter has been shot down. The current score is 14 to 2.”
To Shimon, the operator’s voice seemed to be coming from far away.
Leaning against the wall of the control room and watching Lieutenant Colonel Shimon’s panic, a man in black sunglasses and beard stepped forward. He called out to Shimon with a lighthearted laugh.
“An hour has passed. We’ve seen its capabilities, and though it's earlier than planned, would you like to adjourn soon?”
Shimon turned to face him and had an angry facial expression.
The rumor spread quickly, and Nagase in the Joint Test and Evaluation Squadron heard about it.
“Old Man, is that real?”
“I don’t know the details. Sonoda was talking about it. I was acting busy, so I couldn’t hear well. I thought Second Lieutenant Nagase would know something about it, so I called out to you.”
Nagase and Oose looked at each other. This was the first time they heard about it.
The old man working at the mess hall frowned. Members of the supply platoon in charge of the mess hall were still proud members of the Joint Defense Force. Calling Nagase “Second Lieutenant” was a roundabout way of protesting her calling him “Old Man,” but Nagase’s mind was preoccupied with the news and didn’t notice.
After eating, the two found Sonoda in the break room to ask about the validity of the rumor.
“The Q-X won against the F-2?”
“The kill ratio is 7 to 1.”
“That can’t be…”
Nagase was shocked.
The Q-X is an unmanned aircraft currently being developed by the Air Development and Test Wing of the JASDF. Its basic role is reconnaissance, but it is also able to be armed with weapons and is being developed as a multirole craft capable of carrying out attacks. Even though it is an unmanned craft, it is installed with a turbofan engine and capable of supersonic flight and brazenly installed with a phased array radar.
Considerations for equipping air-to-air missiles were present from the very beginning of development, but in a test, it was dealt a crushing defeat against F-2s in a mock dogfight just last year.
Since the three second-generation prototypes that were created had favorable flight tests, the feasibility of loading air-to-air missiles was tested in Dissimilar Aircraft Combat Testing (DACT) against the F-2 support fighter. The result was a complete loss for the Q-X, and even after changing conditions and re-evaluating multiple times, the Q-X would be annihilated quickly, unable to shoot down a single F-2.
Even with radar and air-to-air missiles, it responded sluggishly, and with only a narrow field of view due to its remote operation, they were not even threats to the pilot operated fighter jets.
However, not being able to hit anything became quite a problem. It was somewhat capable of aerial dogfighting, but the developers would not be forgiven if all it could do was evade when being chased as it had been doing up to that point.
That was one year ago.
Afterward, the Q-X received revisions to its airframe design and remote control system, and the third-generation prototypes were produced.
With its supersonic capability and phase array radar, it seemed like it had some luxurious specifications, but the Q-X differed from the unmanned aircraft of the United States by being designed as a cheap, expendable craft from the beginning. Emphasis was placed on the affordability of the cost and manufacturing, and one of the goals during development was the ability for the Q-X to be mass-produced in a short amount of time at low cost.
For that reason, the prototypes were built without much reservation. In reality, the prototypes were quite cheap and production time was also short.
Gather large numbers at low cost, and if shot down, supplement them by manufacturing more. That was the mindset behind the Q-X.
It was thought that if the Q-X were intercepted by a fighter, it would be satisfactory as long as one survived out of many to complete its mission. The air-to-air missiles were only equipped to increase the mission success rate just a little bit higher.
Nobody was expecting it to win against an expensive F-2.
“With the ASF-X, it probably would be higher than 7 to 1, but with drones...”
Nagase tilted her head in thought.
“Maybe the Q-X played some kind of trick?”
“Even then, 7 to 1 is harsh. There’s no excuse that can justify that.”
Oose didn’t seem to accept the results either, but he continued to explain.
“The Q-X is by nature, a highly maneuverable aircraft. It’s a CCV (Control Configured Vehicle) with special ailerons, and since it’s a drone, it can pull maneuvers that have unnatural g-forces with no problem. It’s also small and has a high degree of stealth. If we simply look at its performance as an aircraft, it’s no surprise that it is superior to the F-2 which is from a different generation.“
“But there’s no way it’s 7 to 1.”
“That’s the thing. That kind of success is not something surprise attacks using stealth, and blind firing missiles can achieve. However, the fact that the Q-X can beat the F-2 in a dogfight is something I can’t accept. The Q-X is planned for possible export to the States  and use all over the globe. Regardless of its distance from the base, guidance will be controlled by utilizing a satellite network, so just from time-lags using this network, it should make aerial dogfighting impossible.“
Even at its closest distance, a satellite orbits at a trajectory of about 200 kilometers from the ground, and at the minimum, there would be a few milliseconds of time lag that cannot be avoided. The Q-X’s systems use the network deployed by a brand new GPS satellite at an altitude of 20,000 kilometers, so it required a minimum of a few tenths of a second for the transmission of a control input to be recognized by the craft.
The Q-X was not supposed to be suited for dogfights where the difference between victory and defeat was determined within a blink of an eye.
“If it’s to be believed, it has to be the enhanced stealth capabilities. I’m interested to see if the radar on the ASF-X can detect it.”
“Well, it doesn’t really concern us. Since it’s being developed at the same time as the ASF, it may seem like a rival project, but its purpose is entirely different. It has no relevance to our development efforts.”
Oose’s information was accurate, but his guesses were completely wrong.
Replacing the sextant used by ships all over the world, the GPS was originally developed and implemented for military use.
Even after public civilian use was approved, there was a time where selective availability was used, intentionally degrading the accuracy of it. GPS was too effective, and caution had to be taken against its use by terrorists or hostile factions.
Conversely, using GPS meant surveillance via GPS, and those who wanted to avoid that are developing independent positioning satellite programs such as “Galileo” in the EU and “GLONASS” in Russia.
As an important feature of GPS satellites, multiple craft are needed to cover the entire Earth constantly. That is because, for positioning, signals from a minimum of four GPS satellites are required. In general, the satellites are arranged so that they meet this requirement in all regions of the Earth. This collection of GPS satellites that wraps around the entirety of the Earth represents the satellite network.
To utilize this global reach, the United States added the capability for a military communications system in their new GPS satellites. As a secretive cross-national effort, the JASDF was allowed to use the new satellites for their transmission capabilities on the Q-X program. The States offer the satellites, and the JASDF develops the practical technology; it is a mutual military technology cooperative. Technologies developed in the Q-X program would be offered to the States, and it was decided that depending on its performance, the Q-X itself would be used in the US military.
First, with the leadership of the JASDF, a transmission hub was created on the International Space Station to focus on directing optimal communication channels of the continually moving GPS satellites. Due to this, the GPS satellite network which was in medium Earth orbit was optimized, and time lags due to distance or switching from one satellite to another were suppressed within a fixed time.
However, this was not enough. As the Q-X gained high maneuverability, the time lags began to pose a significant problem.
In a sense, the Q-X as an aircraft was too high performing.
Designed as a CCV, the Q-X has mobility surpassing those of current fighter jets, so original plans to remotely operate them were impractical. Even without time lags, performing complicated maneuvers remotely would not be easy.
The Air Development and Test Wing increased the performance of the Q-X’s onboard computer and attempted to cover up its weaknesses by improving its autonomous control system. However, there were limits with the control system software, and even with modern high-performance computers, the Q-X’s autonomous control was not satisfactory.
In addition, enhancing the autonomous controls meant that the craft no longer responded precisely to the controls of the operator. Considerations were made for halting the use of the GPS satellites to increase responsiveness, but that was clearly a case of getting one’s priorities backward.
The Q-X’s autonomous control enhancements were at their limit, and the network’s capabilities were also at their limit, leaving improvements to the piloting controls as the only option.
The Air Development and Test Wing found a solution to that.
The one responsible for the ASF-X’s development was Major General Sato. Formally, an emphasis was placed on one’s standing at the site in the development program.
However, the true leader of the ASF-X program is not Major General Sato.
That is because, unfortunately, the world is run by money. In reality, Zaitsu, who was a bureaucrat supervising the budget, had more input than Major General Sato. Above him was another bureaucrat in charge of the budget of the entire country.
“I want the ASF-X to do DACT (Dissimilar Aircraft Combat Testing).”
“Yes, I want it done immediately.”
This was not the first time Zaitsu has made an unreasonable demand, but this was harsher than before. In the first place, there was only one prototype ASF-X craft for use in aerodynamics testing and had no way of performing DACT or any kind of aerial combat. The ASF-X deployed to the Joint Test and Evaluation Squadron was produced for test purposes only, and is not a prototype for the F-3 Advanced Support Fighter. It is a test craft, and not meant for combat.
However, he was not the type of person who would listen to talk about this being impossible. Ignoring their concerns, it seemed like due to political convenience, they had already decided to have a demonstration in which the ASF-X’s fighting capability would be shown off in a mock dogfight.
The thought that immediately came up was the recent mock fight that the Q-X participated in. The Q-X did it, so have the ASF-X do it too, that was likely the mindset behind the intentions.
I’ll just have to choose my words carefully and stall for time in a roundabout manner. Sato and Zaitsu had known each other for a long time, so Sato had gotten used to this.
“The ASF-X has not completed any tests directly related to combat. Plus we only have one craft for testing, and there are concerns of putting it in danger in a mock aerial combat situation. By some unlikely event it gets damaged, it’ll be a hindrance to development efforts.”
Zaitsu let out a huge sigh.
“I know Zero One has already performed firing tests of weapons. Also, you might not be aware, but Taiga Heavy Industries will be rolling out the full-spec Zero Two in a few days, ahead of schedule. With two prototypes they can form an element and mock fights, simulating a real battle will be possible. There’s no problem.”
If Zaitsu says “There’s no problem,” there is no going back.
However, this was still impossible.
The first ASF-X Zero One is being used to test how installing weapons below the wing, opening/closing of the weapons bays, and launching of missiles and bombs affects flight and stealth; it is different from regular firing tests. It’s not even fitted with a FCS (Fire Control System).
Even if a full-spec aircraft is rolled out, it’s still a prototype. The equipment loaded onto the plane are still things that need to be tested, and suddenly conducting a mock fight was out of the question. In addition, even if they are called the ASF-X, Zero One is a CTOL (Conventional Take-off and Landing) model, while Zero Two was made as a STOVL model. There are quite a few differences between the two, and though they look identical physically and on paper, experts say they are completely different.
Naturally, forming an element with these two could not be recommended.
“Can you at least give us some time to test the second plane briefly? Also time for formation flight training.”
Zaitsu said “Hmm” while in a pose suggesting he was actually thinking.
“Zero Two has STOVL capabilities, and pilots will need training. Alright. But don’t expect a month or two months for that. I have my position to uphold you know.”
He was finally able to get a month’s time, but his mind felt heavy when he thought about how he was going to explain this absurd plan and command the development team.
Major General Sato’s workplace was in the main building of the Ministry of Defense in the Ichigaya region of Shinjuku (in Tokyo), and he rarely shows his face to members of the Joint Test and Evaluation Squadron. However, for this case, giving orders while not meeting Major Mishima directly likely will not go well.
Sato stopped Zaitsu, who was getting up.
“Wait. I apologize, but there’s one more thing I need to confirm.”
“Tell me which squadron the Joint Test and Evaluation Squadron will be training with.”
Zaitsu finally realized he had not informed him of the opponent in the mock dogfight.
“The Air Development and Test Wing. We will have the ASF-X win over the Q-X.”
“We’re going to do it between two prototypes still under development!?”
Major General Mishima’s facial expression completely changed. Zaitsu faltered, as he had never seen Sato’s face look so grim.
“Is there a problem?”
“There’s a huge problem. If two prototypes still under development are competing directly against each other, doesn’t that mean there are circumstances related to the life or death of one of the development programs?”
“Well aren’t you a good thinker. That’s exactly right.”
Major General Sato’s expression got even grimmer.
“Did you know about the DACT between the Q-X and F-2 that was done a few days ago? The result was a complete victory for the Q-X. This has become a huge problem.”
Sato didn’t raise any questions, so Zaitsu continued.
“Think about it. This is proof that the Q-X can be used as a fighter. There’s no way other fighters won’t be affected.”
“You’re not saying that the ASF-X will be discarded and the Q-X will be adopted as the Advanced Support Fighter right?”
Thinking that he understood Sato’s thoughts, Zaitsu broke into a laugh. At first, he was hesitant because he didn’t understand why Sato started going angry. Zaitsu didn’t comprehend the military significance or professional sense of duty of having a state-of-the-art fighter jet. Unable to understand the values other people held, Zaitsu just assumed that Sato was afraid to lose his position.
“Don’t worry. It hasn’t gone that far. The ASF-X program is a huge project. It’ll never be canceled.”
To Zaitsu, what was important was not the ASF-X, but the ASF-X as a project. Even if the ASF-X was garbage, he would not abandon it in the slightest. He would give the “garbage” a purpose for existing and keep things moving.
“However, if the Q-X can be used as a support fighter, there likely will be talks of adopting it in some fighter air wings. It’s incredibly cheap, and large numbers can be accumulated. There wouldn’t be any pilot deaths due to accidents. Deaths are seeds of trouble. In that case, there’s no doubt that that will affect procurement for the F-3. In an industry with casualties, 100 or 200 won’t be enough. We need to prove now that the ASF-X is much more useful than Q-X.”
“That’s a dangerous bridge to cross. Frankly speaking, the ASF-X is not in a condition to fight. Putting out an incomplete plane will instead end in showing off the Q-X’s capability.”
This time, Zaitsu’s tone got harsh.
“We can’t have that kind of excuse. This is a challenge from the Q-X project. If you refuse, your honor will be ruined. Win at all costs.”
Moving to level flight from a supersonic dive, Zero One transitioned to supercruise mode.
In the T-4, Sonoda watched as Zero One extended its distance in a blink of an eye. There was no use for a chaser given this situation. In the JASDF, the only plane that could follow the ASF-X in supercruise even for a little bit was the F-15J.
The aerial photography will be continued by Asano and Oose’s T-4s, who are waiting up ahead.
During high-speed cruise, the wingtips on the main wing fold down 45 degrees, substantially decreasing the main wing area and thus reducing air resistance. Doing so lowers yaw stability, so the rear stabilizers change its cant angle to balance it.
The optimal angles for the wingtips and the vertical stabilizers were determined from a computer simulation, but their effectiveness couldn’t be properly determined unless the plane actually flew. There are always problems that arise when actually flying, and that is what the Joint Test and Evaluation Squadron is for.
There are no simple fixes however since the main and rear wings are constantly moving. Obviously, flight characteristics before and after changing the wing angles are not the same. The ASF-X with its complicated variable-geometry wing system experiences great changes in flight characteristics every time the wings move.
Depending on the variable-geometry wings’ conditions, altitude, and speed, the controls feel remarkably different... at least they should.
In reality, the computer corrects everything smoothly, and no matter how the settings are changed for the main wings and vertical stabilizers, one can’t feel much of a difference in control characteristics from maneuvering. To put it in extreme terms, the ASF-X changes direction by the exact amount of stick input and changes speed by the precise amount of throttle input.
Generally, it is easier to deal with a plane whose sense of control changes little with varying flight conditions. For that reason, aircraft have had different kinds of ways of achieving that in the past.
For example, the Navy Type 0 carrier fighter (aka the Zero), the main fighter for the Japanese Navy in World War II, purposefully used materials with strong elasticity in the control cables. When there was strong wind pressure against the control surfaces, the cables extended, allowing the control surface to move less than the stick input. Doing so made it difficult for the stick effectiveness to change even at high speeds.
However, if the control characteristics are “flat” as Asano pointed out, it is hard to determine the limits of the aircraft. A mechanism that would give feedback if a maneuver that pushes the limits is attempted would likely be implemented in the near future. The mechanism should change the controls so that near the limits, the flight stick and throttle would get heavier, making it hard to move them.
However, this kind of feedback system does not indicate the actual flight conditions, and instead, the computer indicates what the designers determined as optimal. It will not give feedback for controls deemed acceptable. As long as the computer can determine stable flight can be achieved, the response of the flight stick likely would remain flat.
Even if a part of a wing breaks off on the ASF-X, there is a chance the pilot wouldn’t even notice if they are in normal level flight.
The test pilots felt that the plane had no resistance, and left something to be desired when controlling it.
Sonoda, who had experience flying small reciprocating engine craft, even felt unpleasant in the ASF-X. For small propeller planes, one could feel a difference in the response of the controls even from putting a large sticker on the wing.
However, the young Nagase joyfully flies the ASF-X. Asano, like Nagase, also handled the ASF-X better than Sonoda.
You guys are certainly a new generation of pilots, he thought.
Sonoda wasn’t even fully used to flying single-engined propeller planes but felt unease as a pilot of the jet age. If he were a pilot around the time of the Second World War, that feeling would undoubtedly be natural. Even more in the past, using speedometers and altimeters for pilots who flew feeling the raw wind hit their faces would likely have been uneasy as well.
Like a certain ancestor said, “The flow of the river never ceases, but it is not the original water that flows there (Houjouki).” 
Thinking this, Sonoda felt the urge to sigh.
“I’m getting old.”
“Descente, couldn’t copy, repeat!”
Hearing the operator’s worried voice, Sonoda realized he spoke out loud.
“Sorry, just talking to myself.”
He heard the operator sigh in relief.
What would Nagase’s generation of fighter pilots be like? Will they sit in front of a monitor and fly fighter jets gripping a controller? He remembered the sight of trainees absorbed in playing the TV game Ace Combat during breaks.
With four Q-Xs lined up inside the hangar, it was a little ominous.
That was because the low-visibility paint scheme with its dark blue top surface resembling the ocean and the blue-gray underside was an appropriate color for the Q-X, which resembled a dragon spreading its wings in the dim lighting.
It is small compared to a manned fighter jet, but it’s about the size for a light aircraft. It had long wings, so it looked bigger depending on the direction one viewed it from.
The designers of the Q-X are working on a bold aerodynamic design that takes a different direction than the ASF-X. From just looking at the airframe which has a wingspan double the overall length of the craft, one might not believe that it is a supersonic plane.
Another important point is that the airframe is small. The various forces that act on an aircraft change with its size, but the material used in the airframe is the same throughout, so there are design advantages and disadvantages depending on size.
And the fact that pilots don’t ride in it indicated the last aspect of its bold design.
Though the hangar was dark, Togura, still in his black sunglasses, stroked his beard with his left hand and pointed out the farthest craft to Sagi with his cane.
“The additional one that was produced to meet the demands of wanting a flight of four craft has just been completed. It’s scheduled to start flight tests starting tomorrow.”
“Do we have enough operators?”
“For a formation of four, Kelley can take care of it himself with no problem. From my analysis, even with our current controls, a formation flight of 16 craft is possible. But in cases where we go over four craft, it would be good to increase controls just in case.”
“But with four craft assembled, it’s a magnificent view. I’m looking forward to when these are mass produced, and all of them are lined up.”
Togura turned around to face Sagi and leaned on his cane.
“I will say this, the third-generation prototypes, for the time being, are derived from the second-generation design. The mass-produced ones won’t be so cheap.”
The mass-production capability is a merit of the Q-X. They should be cheap Sagi thought, but there was no need to make Togura mad, who was explaining in a good mood. Plus what Togura meant by “cheap” was probably not about procurement costs.
But then again, having a procurement item that would move vast amounts of money would give them greater influence. For Sagi, the fact that procurement cost of the Q-X going up just based on its capabilities should be something to welcome.
“Well, I’m not an expert on aircraft design, so I only work on some details. But the third-generation is ugly. Something should be done about it.”
That’s right. Togura’s Ph.D. is in systems engineering and not in aerodynamics.
However, ever since Togura participated in the project last year, the Q-X underwent a drastic change. For Sagi, supervisor of the Ministry of Defense Q-X Project, it was a stroke of luck.
It all started with Togura, a visiting professor at a national university, selling a new aircraft control system he invented through connections with one of the development team staff. After the complete defeat against the F-2s in the mock dogfight, the Air Development and Test Wing who were pressured to revise the system jumped onto Togura’s proposal.
After that Togura had input in everything.
From just glancing at the Q-X’s design and development plans, Togura pointed out areas of improvement. The things he pointed out were startlingly appropriate, and the prototype’s capabilities and productiveness drastically improved.
However, even so, the most significant improvement came from the modification of the control system.
The control system Togura invented was unprecedented.
One could even say it was a revolutionary system that completely changed the concept of controlling an aircraft.
With a ground-breaking control system and autonomous control improvements working together, the Q-X evolved from a long-range reconnaissance craft with attacking capability to a sophisticated support fighter.
Its capabilities were more than enough to push Sagi’s ambitions even further.
“After the second ASF-X is completed, its planned to have a mock aerial fight with the Q-X. How confident are you?”
Togura straightened his back.
“The ASF-X is no doubt a good fighter jet, but in the end, it’s just another plane like the F-2. The dogfight capable Q-X’s strategic merit is already confirmed. The next-generation control system’s development will certainly continue and live on.”
“No, I’m asking can it win against the ASF-X in a two vs. 2 or 4 vs. two showdown? That’s the question.”
Togura had a strange expression on his face and peered into Sagi’s face.
“If it can’t win with the same numbers, double it, and if it still can’t win, throw in quadruple the amount. That’s the kind of aircraft the Q-X is.”
“You don’t understand. This is a battle to determine whether the ASF-X or Q-X is stronger as a fighter. If we can’t at least win four vs. 2, we can’t surpass the ASF-X.”
Sagi’s aim was to seize the budget from the ASF-X program.
Those with larger budgets have more substantial influence and authority. Currently, Zaitsu is the head of the massive ASF-X project, and the path to vice-minister of the Ministry of Defense heavily favors him.
With the introduction of Togura, a chance to change this relationship of power emerged.
“If the format of the mock fight is the same against the time with the F-2s, the Q-X should be able to win against the ASF-X with the same numbers. We have developed a tactic to take advantage of the Q-X’s maneuverability which is completely different from previous fighters. Those who do not know this and try to combat it with existing tactics will be at a disadvantage. It is something that cannot be easily covered with one’s performance.”
After answering with a dumbfounded face, Togura faced the other way.
“Do you have confidence?”
“I do. But that kind of victory has no meaning. If you really want to compare the Q-X and ASF-X, you’ll need to first remove the junk from the ASF-X and replace it with a control system equal to the Q-X’s.”
“Fragile pilots who can’t react instantly.”
Togura turned back and answered.
Four years ago, with the success of the FFRS (Flying Forward Reconnaissance System), an improved model of the JSDF’s remote controlled observation system, the JASDF solidified a plan aiming to distinguish its next-generation unmanned recon craft from the FFRS. This new craft would able to cruise for long distances and have a high degree of versatility. The Q-X was devised for that plan.
As a project, it was a small one that couldn’t even be compared to the ASF project. Even now the differences in budgets differed by two digits compared to the ASF program. However, those involved in development had burning with ambition. Perhaps a little too much.
The Q-X is capable of supersonic flight due to its low-bypass turbofan engine, and at the same time, had a highly efficient design utilizing a long wingspan with high aspect ratio. To put it one way, it was a contradictory design that looked like it was trying to incorporate two recon craft with vastly different top speeds, but due to advancements in material science and its unmanned nature, it was able to be realized by making it smaller.
To give it high maneuverability, it was decided that the wings would be of a movable type from the middle of the wing to the wingtip like the ASF-X, but the two looked vastly different.
Most likely, the designers became reckless from the degree of freedom allowed by the design requirement of not being a manned craft. The finished prototype had a rather grotesque appearance, yet possessed unbelievably acrobatic mobility. From its looks, it was hard to believe it had a high degree of stealth.
With an incomplete control system and extreme mobility, the first generation Q-X was hard to control, and in the end, all three prototypes were lost in accidents.
However, there was no doubt that the Q-X’s performance was unprecedented, and second generation prototypes were made using the experience gained from the first generation. The Q-X’s design was radical and innovative, but the airframe was configured and built using proven, existing methods, so it was possible to produce the prototypes in a short amount of time at low cost.
With the installation of a stable self-flight technology, the second generation prototype achieved great success.
Until it was tested against fighter jets in aerial combat.
Though it had superior mobility, that alone did not make it useful in aerial combat.
The Q-X had superior stealth as well, and it was expected to achieve a good combat record with state-of-the-art anti-air missiles that “would hit no matter where you aimed it.” However, that was very wrong. There was a definite difference between the combat capabilities of a manned fighter and an unmanned drone.
In any case, unmanned military craft have a long history comparable to military aircraft itself.
15 years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight, the United States completed construction of the “Kettering Bug” a prototype unmanned aircraft for military use during the First World War in 1918. The Kettering Bug  carried a 180 pound (82 kilogram) bomb, and using a rather sophisticated automatic control for the time, would fly to the target area and explode (It would later be misleadingly called an “aerial torpedo”).
The Kettering Bug project ended without being used in the actual conflict, but this kind of unmanned aircraft evolved into cruise missiles and saw practical use. In the Second World War, the jet-powered Fieseler Fi 103 saw mass use.
However, instead of just entering a target zone and exploding, an unmanned craft that would keep flying and perform reconnaissance required a much more complex control system, and it took a long time for these to become practical. Similarly, even when missiles that could shoot down other aircraft became available, it was not easy to create an unmanned aircraft that could unilaterally shoot down enemy craft.
That’s because, for reconnaissance or combat, there was a need for “decision making” capability.
The problem was either having the drone make decisions remotely, or making them part of the system itself. The second-generation Q-X’s mistake was that it downplayed the importance of decision making in aerial combat and relied too much on the capability of anti-air missiles.
The problem with decision making via remote control could be placed on the issues with commanding the drones.
Each Q-X is an advanced system, but each craft is isolated due to limits in transmission speed. Minutely controlling each plane was not possible with the existing remote operation technology. Like how a subordinate officer commanding troops within hearing range is different from a senior officer commanding a unit via transmissions, giving commands are different depending on the scope.
The problem was how to convey the information gathered by the Q-X to the operator and how to reflect the operator’s decision to the Q-X’s movement.
That was all solved by Togura’s genius.
Systems engineering was still a relatively new science in modern society.
Nowadays, everything is getting more complicated, and as each discipline specializes in more narrow fields, there was a need to link all the different fields together. The method in which everything was dealt comprehensively as a single system began being researched professionally.
For example, it has become essential for business plans to mathematically optimize all aspects through operations research. In another instance, due to the birth of the field of cybernetics, the concept of feedback became beyond the scope of engineering and is being applied in all fields. Management of systems have become necessary for society in all areas, and even in Japan, scholars with PhDs for research into reliability analysis of systems have emerged.
Togura is a researcher of artificial intelligence, but instead of doing investigative research on hardware and software, he committed himself to research on one whole thing as a system.
And looking at the progress of electronics engineering, medical science, and biology of the same generation, he gave up trying to develop “intelligence” in his generation.
Togura’s research was not on intelligence itself but moved to focus on what a system managed by intelligence looked like and how it would look if it were to be artificially managed. And then, a poorly performing robot caught his eye and tried to sell his control system.
That poorly performing robot was the Q-X.
Togura used his unique way of thinking from his field of study to overwhelm and dominate the staff of the Air Development and Test Wing.
Now, the Q-X was practically his.
The second model ASF-X “Zero Two” was delivered to the Joint Test and Evaluation Squadron using sea and land routes.
Contrary to the first model, instead of spending a year flight testing at Taiga Heavy Industries before delivery to the JASDF, the second model only spent two months in flight testing. The selling point of the second model was its STOVL capability, but that was left for the Self-Defense Force to test and evaluate. It was completely opposite from the first model, which was developed with no involvement from the Ministry of Defense.
Formally, the second model will belong to the JASDF, but in reality, it is a carrier-borne test craft for the JMSDF.
As the only JMSDF pilot in the Joint Test and Evaluation Squadron, Nagase thought that the second plane was her own. Additionally, the only ones with related vertical take-off and landing experience were Nagase and Asano, who were qualified helicopter pilots.
Nagase, who planned on hogging the second craft was shocked when she heard that Asano was capable of flying helicopters.
There was no doubt that during their time at the 306th Squadron at Komatsu, Asano could not fly a helicopter. It was a mystery how he acquired that kind of skill all of a sudden.
As the sun was setting and it was getting dim, Nagase climbed to the rooftop of the barracks and noticed someone was already there.
Asano turned around and waved then returned his gaze to the sky.
“Are you looking at the stars?”
“Is that training for your eyesight by any chance?”
Asano had a slightly surprised expression, and asked back.
“No, I just thought I would look at the stars. Why did you think it was training?”
“Because a book I read said that fighter pilots in the past would look at the sky during the day and find stars as training to improve visual acuity.”
“Are you doing that Nagase?”
Even after persisting for over a month, Nagase could not locate any stars before the sun started setting.
“Right now I only do it at night. I haven’t given up during the day though. It’s just I got bored looking at the blue sky.”
“There are no landmarks during the day, so you need knowledge and preparation.”
In other words, Asano possesses that knowledge. To Nagase, that was a little annoying.
The sky quickly turned dark as the two talked.
Nagase pointed to a section of the sky.
“That constellation is Orion, right? Do you know about it? There are 3 dim stars in the middle of the rectangular arrangement of stars.”
“You mean Orion’s Sword? The middle star isn’t a star, but the Great Orion Nebula M42. It is the brightest diffuse nebula in the entire sky.”
Being told it was the “brightest,” Nagase felt as if her great discovery was made trivial.
“You say it’s the brightest, but that’s only among nebulae, right?”
“That’s exactly right. M42 in Orion’s Sword and Iota Orionis have a magnitude of 3 , but there are lots of brighter stars within the constellation so it’s not surprising that they don’t stand out.”
“It’s hard to even see magnitude 3 stars in Japan!”
“If you’re going to search for dimmer stars, you should use a constellation chart. Looking for those without knowing their locations is difficult.”
“I don’t want to hear all these things from a guy who’s just gazing at them blankly.”
Nagase was irritated, but also relieved. That was because she learned that Asano had enough emotion to be able to make someone irritated.
Whether he knew Nagase’s thoughts or not, Asano stopped gazing at the sky and frowned at his wristwatch.
Asano pointed to the southwest corner of the sky.
Nagase focused her eyes and thought the sky was still bright, a luminous dot appeared. It was moving to the northeast. After passing overhead, the dot disappeared.
“It’s...not a shooting star, right?”
“It’s ISS-II, the current International Space Station.”
Even Nagase was slightly moved.
“I didn’t know it looked that bright.”
“Only when it can be seen. Due to some conditions, It’s more common for it to be invisible to the naked eye even if it passes overhead. Just then it passed beyond the horizon, so you couldn’t see it right?”
After saying this, Asano started walking towards the stairs, leaving Nagase behind.
Startled by the sudden harsh tone, Asano stopped and turned around.
“Let’s have a contest with the Shinden II.”
Asano’s mouth opened in confusion.
“What are you saying?”
“Zero Two is delivered and we have two aircraft. During the mock dogfight, let’s find out who is more skilled at fighting in the ASF-X.”
“That would be meaningless. Didn’t the engineers at Taiga Heavy Industries say that Zero Two and Zero One are different? Either way, they’re test craft. Even in a mock fight, there’s no point.”
“Are you trying to run away?”
“I’m just saying it’s pointless. They probably won’t let two of their precious test craft to fly at the same time.”
Asano started walking towards the stairs.
“I won’t let you escape.”
In contrast to Asano’s prediction, the simultaneous flight of Zero Two and Zero One commenced immediately.
That was because the ASF-X was the optimal chaser for aerial recording of the ASF-X in supersonic flight.
At least, that was the explanation given and training for formation flying of the two aircraft began.
“This is Edge. Aster, if you have surplus fuel, you wanna have some fun on the way back?”
Back then, in the age where test flights were done with more leeway, it was said that test pilots would engage in unauthorized secret mock fights unbeknownst to the control tower.
However, it was not Asano but Mishima that answered to Nagase’s invitation.
“Edge, I’ll allow you to participate in war games in the near future, so have patience for today.”
Oose, who was monitoring things in the control center, was taken aback when he heard Mishima’s words.
“You’re going to authorize the mock fight!?”
Oose crossed his arms and tilted his head.
“Speaking of which, ever since Zero Two was delivered, Nagase and Asano’s number of flights have increased. Were you planning on them doing the mock fight from the beginning?”
“Yes, that’s right. But the goal is not for them to compete with each other. A need to swiftly train an element came up. Sorry, but Nagase and Asano are the first string pilots, while you and Sonoda are the second string.”
“What does this all mean?”
Astonishingly, Mishima lowered his shoulders.
“I’ll probably have to explain this during today’s debriefing. This is Nagase’s fault. To tell you the truth, as a request from headquarters, it’s been decided that we’ll be facing the Q-X in a mock fight. And we don’t have a lot of time.”
“The Q-X has experience with numerous mock fights. It’s even won against the F-2 just recently. What we have are test aircraft for the ASF program, at least for now. It can’t even be called incomplete.”
If it was an order, there was a chance to raise a valid reason and veto it. What Oose brought up is a splendid reason. But since the task is unreasonable, it was presented as a “request.”
However, this “request” likely did not give the Joint Test and Evaluation Squadron a choice.
“I looked into it a little bit, but there are those involved in the Q-X that have antagonistic feelings for the ASF program. If we refuse, it would likely result in more trouble.”
A grimace would have been appropriate, but the two found themselves smiling.
“If it’s Nagase, she might be able to do something.”
“And Asano is participating too.”
Zero Two’s formation flight training with Zero One was hastened and done carefully.
The STOVL-type Zero Two had a much lighter airframe than Zero One, and had numerous limits placed on it that Zero One lacked. Despite this, it has more equipment focusing on armament and is actually heavier than Zero One. Additionally, its aerodynamic characteristics are identical, and operation is quite troublesome.
As the test pilots and engineering staff used Zero Two, they began to think the majority of the limits were excessive precautions, but to prove that, a sufficient amount of flight data was required. For the time being, they had to abide by those limits.
Zero Two had another aspect that made it hard to operate.
The new FBL (fly-by-light) limits were set up to feedback directly to the flight control system, but this was inadequate and messed with the pilot’s senses and feel for the controls. It was understandable since it was a prototype, but among the squadron members who had high expectations for Zero Two, it was especially disappointing.
Nagase and the others wrote plenty of complaint reports and sent them to Taiga Heavy Industries as feedback to show their disappointment.
There was one other thing that made Nagase irritated on a personal basis.
Asano flew Zero Two matter-of-factly like he was flying Zero One, as if there weren’t any differences or problems.
“That’s so weird. Does he have a computer inside his head?”
One evening, Nagase finally raised the question in the break room.
“Well, Asano himself has too flat of a response, and probably can’t determine the ASF-X’s performance.”
Sonoda agreed while grinning. Sonoda was among those who couldn’t get used to Zero Two, but looking at things objectively, he felt Nagase wasn’t on his or Oose’s side, but on Asano’s side in terms of ability.
It was just that, from looking at Nagase herself or her flying, the way she exerted herself became evident. She had too much pointless movement, and that was something that shouldn’t be praised.
On the other hand, one could not determine the degree of difficulty or the different conditions based on Asano’s flying. He always had a sour expression, and his flying was consistently stable. There was no variation. From this, one had no idea if Zero Two was good or bad.
However, this monotony was not entirely a terrible thing.
Originally, the ASF-X’s flight restriction system was created using computer calculations of predicted aerodynamic data. This was not entirely complete so flying was unstable, but whenever Asano piloted it, it became stable for whatever reason.
In other words, Asano was correcting errors in the computer’s flight model in real time during flight. Asano’s skills might be beyond that of the computer.
Right at that time, Asano appeared.
“Asano, how are you controlling it?
“What do you mean?”
“How can you fly Zero Two the same way as Zero One?”
Asano’s face indicated he was getting even more confused.
“Zero One and Zero Two’s flight characteristics are basically the same. That’s why I fly them the same way.”
“They’re nothing alike! You have to deal with feedback on Zero Two.
“Oh, the instant I realized it was incomplete I ignored it.”
Hearing this, Oose smacked his fist against his hand.
“I see now. There’s quite a lot of force on the flight stick, but you do pretty well.”
Nagase’s brow furrowed.
“Hey, don’t be the only one understanding everything. I don’t get anything he just said.”
Nodding, Oose began his explanation.
“Zero Two’s feedback to the flight control system is indicated by the weight or responsiveness of the flight stick and throttle lever. The relationship between the input from the flight stick and response of the aircraft hasn’t changed from Zero One. Moving 1 centimeter on the flight stick on Zero One and moving 1 cm on the stick for Zero Two will get you the same result. The only thing different is how hard it is to move the flight stick.”
Nagase and Sonoda’s mouths were wide open.
Nagase asked Asano further.
“If you realized that, isn’t it worth it telling everyone else immediately? Did you not realize we were having trouble with it?”
Asano frowned and answered.
“Whether you realized it or not, you should have known from the beginning that the control system feedback mechanism only acts to prevent you from putting undue stress on the airframe. In reality, you guys have been filing reports that the flight stick is hard to move only when making subtle movements.”
Making subtle movements could be reworded to say that, for a small input, there would be a large response and movement from the aircraft. The feedback system indicated this by the weight, or response of the flight stick.
Nagase’s annoyance then turned to Taiga Heavy Industries.
“Are you dumb? What’s the point of having the controls be a nuisance when making subtle movements? There’s no point in having feedback unless you can fly without making subtle movements. It’s no good.”
This time, it was Asano’s turn to be surprised.
“That’s right. It’s bad to have feedback that responds the same way to both subtle movements and dangerous controls. I shouldn’t have ignored it and passed it off as incomplete.”
Sonoda felt as if he understood Asano’s flaw.
Asano was clever and too adaptable. Due to his quick response to different situations, he couldn’t properly identify problems.
Realizing that Zero Two can be flown exactly like Zero One by ignoring the tendencies of the flight stick and throttle, the three other pilots’ operation substantially improved. The pilots of the Joint Test and Evaluation Squadron are the best of the best. They adapted to Zero Two which imparted a complicated response on the flight stick just like how they adapted to Zero One, which had no such response on the stick.
Controlling the plane in this way, it became apparent that response to the flight stick from the preset limit was excessive for the most part. Learning this, Nagase and Oose gleefully wrote these complaints in their reports.
After basic performance testing of Zero Two was finished, Zero One and Zero Two were stripped of armament and were ferried away by test pilots from Taiga Heavy Industries.
Once overall inspections of the two ASF-X craft are performed, Zero One was planned to get the same FCS as Zero Two among other upgrades to remodel it into a full-spec CTOL model.
“Related to this, a rather troublesome problem emerges.”
Mishima had a sour expression as he was announcing this.
“Both craft will be installed with an improved control system. This includes feedback on inputs to the flight stick that Nagase proposed.”
Oose raised his hand and asked a question.
“In other words, does this mean the control characteristics of the aircraft will change? Kind of like how the previous Zero Two had heavy stick input, but with other changes.”
Nagase had a dissatisfied face.
“That’s annoying, especially now.”
“Don’t say that, development is all about adjusting things to create an easy to use system.”
Mishima cleared his throat and cautioned to everyone.
“Unfortunately, it’s not as reasonable as Sonoda says. Two weeks from now, basically 5 days after the two craft come back, we have to get accustomed to combat formations.”
The assembled pilots and engineers became agitated all at once.
“In other words, in two weeks we’re going to be going up against the Q-X in the mock fight in craft with different control characteristics?”
Mishima nodded silently to Sonoda’s question. This was a problem before the ASF-X could be fully completed.
This time Asano raised his hand.
“Whatever the circumstances, these conditions are poor. This is unnatural.”
“We know that.”
“Does Taiga Heavy Industries know about the mock fight?”
Mishima replied “obviously” but his expression changed. That was because he remembered he was revealing that a manager of Taiga Heavy Industries that came for a meeting was requested by the JASDF to shorten the time for the inspections without explanation.
There was no doubt that the inspection period was shortened to accommodate the mock fight against the Q-X. The guy from Taiga Heavy Industries didn’t know about the mock fight.
Why was that?
There might be an opportunity to negotiate with Taiga Heavy Industries.
“Regarding the control system, we’ll talk with Taiga Heavy Industries. For now, we’ll commence training for the mock fight using the T-4s. If the Air Development and Test Wing are cooperative, we might be able to add data on the Q-X to the ASF-X simulator and train that way. Time is limited, but let’s do what we can.”
Elements were formed and training on formation flying and combat maneuvers using T-4s commenced.
Nagase, who wanted to compete against Asano seemed upset, but the squadron was divided into 2 teams of Nagase/Asano and Sonoda/Oose.
All four were superb pilots, and there were no problems in formation flight as long they were in T-4s.
Mishima never said that the better team would participate in the mock fight. He made it clear in advance that Nagase and Asano would be sent in the mock fight, and he instructed Sonoda and Oose’s team to research the Q-X on the premise that they would act as aggressors.
However, there was one problem remaining due to division of teams.
Nagase and Asano had excellent skills in controlling their aircraft, but their careers as fighter pilots were short and lacked experience in mock fights. Nagase was in the 19th Task Force which had such a tough reputation that it was called “Jyu-ku,” but had no experience with DACT.
It seemed a little late, but Mishima needed to confirm their combat senses.
And finally, Nagase was going to have her long-awaited mock fight against Asano.
“Is it alright to let Nagase and Asano fight each other all of a sudden?”
Sonoda frankly expressed his question from his briefing chair.
“I think it would have been a good idea to let one of us with more experience in mock fights practice with them at least once, that way they would be more used to it.”
But there’s nothing that could be done now if one of them wanted to fly in the mock fight. If someone did, it would be like taking a complaint to Mishima.
In response, Mishima explained that it was a “mock fight for the mock fight” in the T-4s.
“The main goal of this is to get Nagase and Asano mentally prepared to be responsive in a mock fight. By getting experience flying against an opponent, they’ll surely learn a thing or two about each other.”
Nagase was determined to teach Asano a lesson.
The T-4 was purely a trainer craft and had no weaponry. There is no need for weapons in a mock fight, but without a FCS, a genuine mock fight simulating the use of weapons cannot be conducted. Instead, they will play a game of tag in planes. Both are “it” and the one who spends the most time staying behind the other wins.
Aerial combat is colloquially called a “dogfight,” and this stems from its comparison to two dogs chasing each other’s tails in a brawl. Nagase and Asano’s mock fight in the T-4 is just a traditional “fight between dogs.”
In modern air combat, it is not guaranteed that one would not lose if the enemy can’t get behind them, but for comparison of skill between pilots, it is appropriate.
The four T-4s took off, with Nagase and Asano as the mock fight combatants and Oose and Sonoda in charge of filming.
Mishima trusted the skills of the four pilots and set up some minimum restrictions to prevent dangerous actions, but declared that they could do pretty much anything they wanted. Even though an exercise airspace was set up, getting flight permission was likely not simple.
As the mock fight commenced, Nagase and Asano began accelerating nearly parallel to each other.
Neither one tried to decelerate. Even if it would get them behind the other, slowing down and turning towards them would allow the other to shake the opponent off.
Get the upper hand with energy. This was established in the jet age as a fundamental part of aerial combat.
Precisely convert between kinetic and potential energy so that the total energy of the aircraft is not lost.
Dive to accelerate quickly. Climb when decelerating, to accumulate altitude for re-acceleration. These were tactics performed without much awareness since aerial combat began in the First World War. When the jet age arrived and the energy that aircraft possessed increased, it became crucial to fly with energy in mind.
A pilot who doesn’t understand the fundamental rule of having more energy often makes maneuvers that loses both altitude and speed at the same time. In this way, the fighter jet with no energy is taken advantage of by the enemy.
Nagase knew this fundamental rule, but had no patience.
She increased altitude and decelerated even though she still had room to accelerate, and tried to get on Asano’s tail.
Asano instead lowered his altitude and made a wide turn, maintaining the momentum from the acceleration, and climbed to get on Nagase’s rear. Then, Nagase looped up and changed direction.
However, Nagase lost sight of Asano through this complicated series of maneuvers.
To regain visual, she tried to keep Asano out of the plane’s blind spots, but it did not go well. Even though the canopy is transparent, if the target goes right above one’s head, it becomes hard to track.
Whether he knew Nagase lost sight of him or not, this time Asano turned sharply to get in front of Nagase, then pulled up to decelerate, moving to Nagase’s rear.
Mishima’s voice came on the radio.
“Edge, Aster is on your tail. If you can’t shake him off, you lose.”
Looking to the rear, Asano was closing in a short distance away.
Nagase tried to shake Asano off by turning left and right, but it didn’t go well. Asano was reading Nagase’s movements and by turning shallowly, avoided losing too much kinetic energy.
“Edge, that’s enough. Today was a preliminary test. All of you, return to base.”
Nagase was so frustrated that she cracked some teeth from biting too hard.
Dominance in aerial combat is determined by seizing the chance in an instant. Nagase did not continue losing.
Nagase and Asano played “tag” eight times and Nagase got behind Asano twice. She lost four times and the remaining two were a draw.
However, among her four losses, she technically shook off her pursuer.
Nagase felt the wing stall slightly during a turn with unreasonable angle of attack, so she pitched up while rolling to put the T-4 into a super stall, quickly losing speed and shaking off Asano by performing this stunt. However, after returning to base, she was scolded by Mishima.
That was because what Nagase pulled off was an absurd maneuver not even recommended for the most advanced aircraft, and was extremely dangerous for the T-4.
If the recording of the T-4 ignoring aerodynamics and spinning round and round without regards to the direction of travel was shown without explanation, it would only be seen as an aircraft on its way to a crash.
Nagase and Asano’s eighth mock fight ended in a draw.
“As of today’s flight, we will conclude mock fights using the T-4. It seems both Nagase and Asano gained the ability to respond properly in a mock fight.”
Mishima noticed Nagase’s was grasping her fists.
“Nagase, are you frustrated that you have more losses than wins?”
“I said this before, but the mock fight in the T-4 is not a competition to see who is better. It’s for you guys to get accustomed to the flying format of the mock fight. It is very different from actual combat. You can think of the score as secondary and something for fun.”
Being told it was for fun, it was even more frustrating for Nagase.
“Playtime is over. Tomorrow, the ASF-X will return.”
It has only been a week since they were returned to Taiga Heavy Industries.
“Isn’t it ahead of schedule?”
“When we talked about the mock fight against the Q-X, they agreed to our unreasonable demands. You better meet expectations.”
When Mishima contacted Taiga Heavy Industries, he found out that the manager acting as liaison for the Joint Test and Evaluation Squadron did not know about the mock fight with the Q-X.
This was unthinkable.
Surprised, the manager asked the business, and he found out that the majority of Taiga Heavy Industries’ departments were aware of the mock fight, and he was even more surprised.
There was a lot of information that had to do with defense secrets in the ASF-X development, but due to the annoyance of preserving these secrets communication between related divisions was poor. The cause of the confusion was from discrepancies in communication.
The ASF-Xs that came back from Taiga Heavy Industries were completed such that even Nagase and the others were content.
The control system that had many worried had changes held to moderate levels, and was adjusted to be similar to that of Zero One, which most pilots were used to. It was an adjustment made with the realization that the mock fight was coming up soon.
Per request of the Ministry of Defense, the FCS and FBL had new simulators for mock fight use.
This was not something provided solely for the mock fight against the Q-X, but a system heavily invested by the Ministry of Defense for development and training purposes of new aircraft including the ASF-X.
The simulator interferes with the FCS and sends the status of equipped weapons to the control center, and combining the flight data from the transponder, the large computer in the control center recreates the trajectory of missiles or bombs in a virtual space. It is set up to determine direct hits of weapons with incredibly precise detail.
That’s not all. If the ASF-X is determined to have been hit, it calculates which parts have been damaged and the extent of the damage, and will interfere with the FBL system to realistically give feedback to the controls. Of course, it won’t simulate aerodynamic changes due to the blast damage, but it made it possible to recreate damages like failure of control surfaces and other abnormal conditions with very little danger.
Unfortunately, there were no spare F-2s that could be used for testing, and not including pure experimental craft, the ASF-X will be the first to have this system installed.
Taiga Heavy Industries was against installing a system that would interfere with the controls, but the Ministry of Defense were confident in it and were determined to have it trialed on the ASF-X at any cost. If it is proven to be practical on the ASF-X, it could be installed on Japan Defense Force aircraft deployed now or in the future. It would surely increase effectiveness of combat training by an unprecedented amount in the future.
When the ASF-X came back, Nagase was hopeful for a mock fight against Asano in the ASF-X, but it wasn’t allowed since there wasn’t enough training time due to the fight with the Q-X coming up.
Even test flight schedules for continued development were postponed so that Nagase and Asano could have special training.
To increase their proficiency, flights in the ASF-X were restricted to Nagase and Asano. Oose and Sonoda only flew the ASF-X when the other two had the day off.
Zero One and Zero Two, though called the ASF-X, were made as different types of aircraft. Though unusual, Mishima assigned Nagase and Asano a plane to improve their skills in a short amount of time.
Zero One went to Asano, who was in the JASDF, and Zero Two went to Nagase, who was in the JMSDF. Mishima then demanded that they get accustomed to their respective control capabilities.
“Major Mishima, how’s the preparation for the mock fight?”
“As you can see, there’s too little time, Major General. If you’re referring to the time given to us, both the planes and pilots are doing quite well. Zero Two hasn’t shown any troubles that a prototype would. It’s hard to imagine that it’s the first STOVL type given its performance”
“Sorry to be a nuisance, but this coming mock fight is proving to be troublesome. Due to the circumstances, if the ASF-X loses shamefully the development program itself could be disrupted.”
“Since we have no data on how the Q-X flies, we can’t come up with a counter. But even in our current situation, if the opponent is an F-2 or F-15J, I would tell you not to worry.”
“That’s great. But don’t push too hard. There are no replacements for the planes or pilots.”
“I’ve heard from rumors that the Q-X program is doing quite favorably. I wouldn’t think it’ll affect either side that much if they win or lose.”
“But there’s a guy among the enemy we can’t show any weaknesses to.”
“The enemy... huh”
“If we lose, we’ll discuss things when we lose. Just in case, I’ve been making preparations on our end. You should make the safety of the planes and pilots the top priority. If trouble arises for any of them, it’ll disrupt development.”
In Japan, live weapons testing on the mainland was unthinkable.
The group from the Air Development and Test Wing who got on the rooftop of a building at the airbase was reminded how vast the United States was.
There was no place in Japan where the surrounding terrain stretched flat all the way to the horizon on all 360 degrees. Looking closely, the west was not a horizon but a mountain range, but since it was far away, it looked like the horizon.
“Isn’t this place a little dangerous?”
“There is the possibility of something falling on top of us, but this is the best place.”
The officer from the US by the handrail pointed and yelled, “They’re taking off!”
People from both countries assembled around the officer, bunching up on the railing, and looked down at the runway.
On the runway were four Q-Xs lined up with their engines on. Most of them mistook them taxiing from the apron to the runway and lining up as them taking off.
As the officers from the USAF watched with interest, they started to take off in order with the front one taking lead.
“Are they doing that all autonomously?”
The staff of the Air Development and Test Wing answered amiably to the question raised by the high-ranking USAF officer.
“Control of the Q-X is all semi-autonomous. The order and timing of take-off is set by the operator, but minute adjustments of the engine and controls are determined autonomously.”
“So, everything is still done as commanded”
After all four took off and assembled in the air, they made a formation that looked like a diamond with one of its vertices pointed forward. It looks rather ordinary, but creating this formation in jet aircraft is surprisingly difficult. The distance between each craft was very small, and one could tell that the Q-X’s control was extremely remarkable just from watching them.
The Q-Xs, still in diamond formation, performed a turn and vertical loop. Their magnificent flight more than compensated for its grotesque look.
Cheers were heard from the Americans.
“Acrobatic flights in formation are also possible, but displaying that is not the goal for today, so let’s move on to the actual show.”
“Yes. Our operator must be getting impatient.”
A fighter jet started diving rapidly in the air.
It is an unmanned target craft used by the US forces.
It was an older fighter jet converted for remote control, and though it didn’t compare to newer fighter jets, it was a real aircraft that saw frontline combat in the past.
“Our operator is eager to make everyone cry. Please give it your best and try to not cry. And with that, let’s begin.”
The moment General McMillan announced the start of the exercise, the target craft lit up its engines and activated the augmenter (a mechanism to increase thrust, the so-called afterburner). The target craft, now with increased thrust, broke the sound barrier almost immediately.
Due to its conversion to a drone, it has lost some unnecessary equipment and is lighter, with surprisingly good maneuverability.
“It’ll last only 10 minutes. You’re not going to employ a pathetic tactic of waiting until it runs of fuel, are you?”
“And are you really sure we’re allowed to use live weapons?”
“Of course! In reality, our guys are really more interested in Japan’s anti-air missiles than the Q-X.”
“Well, you’re going to be disappointed then”
It was Togura who suddenly barged into the conversation.
General McMillan was startled when he saw Togura, but soon regained his friendly attitude.
“What do you mean that I’ll be disappointed?”
“Hmm. I ordered Kelley…, the Q-X operator that he didn’t need to use the air-to-air missiles.”
While they were talking the Q-Xs climbed rapidly, still in diamond formation, and gained altitude so that they couldn’t be seen by the naked eye. At high altitude, they scattered in four directions and dove straight down, entering supersonic flight.
The Q-Xs performed an unnatural maneuver around 2000 meters to move into level flight, and then activated afterburners. The Q-Xs engine is a typical turbofan engine, so it is not capable of supersonic flight without it.
Flying supersonically at low altitude, the drones closed in on each other trailing white smoke rings. Precisely speaking, the four Q-Xs surrounded the unmanned target craft.
Even though they were all supersonic, the Q-X was quite a bit faster and was winning with overwhelmingly superior maneuverability.
It was mostly meaningless that the target plane was supersonic against the Q-X. The Q-X would not give the target any time to evade, and within the span of a few seconds, they would pass through the top and bottom of the target from four different directions at supersonic speed.
Hit with four shockwaves in rapid succession, the target craft slid sideways and lost altitude, but just barely regained its stance.
However, it was no longer supersonic.
“Hmm. That takes a great deal of skill.”
Togura seemed genuinely impressed that the target craft did not crash.
Before anyone realized it, the Q-Xs assembled in the front of the target craft and after spreading out, two craft from each side charged head-on at the target craft. The Q-Xs fired 12.7mm machine gun rounds between each other and sprayed the target. The direction of their attack was considered so that the stream of fire would not be pointed at the base, but no one noticed.
The reason that the target craft took fire from all four craft was not from the fact that airframe could last that long, but from the fact that it was faster to attack it than to wait for it to crash.
The target craft trailed black smoke as it crashed into the desert.
By the time the observers looked up to the sky, the Q-X were already flying in diamond formation over the base, making a wide turn and drawing a large circle.
General McMillan had cold sweat running over his forehead.
“...excellent, so I should be telling you. Was that really semi-autonomous?”
Togura also looked at the Q-X in the sky.
“It’ll likely be fully automatic in the future. But unfortunately, that kind of high-performance electronics don’t exist yet. The reality is that currently, our ‘brain’ is just a lump of protein sitting there, unable to utilize its full potential. It went as expected, but compared to the mock fight against the F-2, today’s drone wasn’t responsive at all. The capability of manned planes is formidable.”
General McMillan hoped that would remain true for eternity.
At the same time, he found it hard to believe that a human was controlling those maneuvers. If a pilot was onboard, there was no way they could move like that.
“The response was also fast. That’s fast for a satellite network!”
“Yes. This was also a demonstration of the network’s capabilities. The Q-X operator is in Japan.”
When Togura said that, the Americans became agitated.
The United States partially developed this terrifying control system. The satellite network required for control was the same one provided by the US.
The Q-X was an unofficial two country joint venture. If the Department of Defense is satisfied with the performance, the Q-X could even be used by the US. As long as they saw today’s demonstration and no critical problems are hidden, the bureaucrats would jump on obtaining the Q-X.
However, General McMillan had some doubts and fears of using this drone for his country’s air force.
Officially, multiple copies of the video footage of the fight between the Q-X and unmanned target craft were made, and were placed under strict safekeeping.
But due to the work of a traitor during the copying process, an additional copy of the footage was made without the others’ knowledge. This was put under the control of someone who swore allegiance to a different country’s government, and was taken out of the country.
The Q-X’s fighting capability was met with a huge reaction in that person’s country.
That was because that country’s ideology stipulated that society did not depend on the capability of a single person, so a system that didn’t rely on humans was ideal. And they favored strong things.
However, they were unhappy about one thing about the Q-X.
That was because it was not owned by their country.
Air Combat Training, which simulates actual combat, is abbreviated as ACT.
By adding D for dissimilar, it becomes DACT and all of a sudden, the training becomes much more lively. That’s because in real combat, “the enemy” flies aircraft different from one’s allies.
ACT within the same squadron is prone to developing patterns, but by training with other squadrons using different types of jets, a squadron’s proficiency drastically improves.
This is a big paradox.
In order to assess the skills of pilots, it needs to be done by comparing them on relatively equal conditions. If the type of plane they go against are different, it is very far from being equal.
In reality, DACT is conducted with particular assumptions and strict rules in place, so oftentimes the results do not match that of actual combat. In many training exercises, practice craft have “shot down” state-of-the-art fighter jets.
The F-15 has left a formidable record of shooting down over 100 aircraft in actual combat, with one or two damaged and “maybe” shot down. However, its performance in DACT is not so one-sided. Clearly, it is not rare to lose to a lower performing fighter jet.
In actual combat, one would look for the most advantageous conditions possible, and then begin attacking. It can be said that the ability to achieve those conditions themselves is a measure of performance for a fighter jet. However, conducting training exercises under these conditions are seldom required.
DACT occasionally puts lower ranking planes in advantageous conditions intentionally, and those involved learn that in those conditions, even lower-tier aircraft can be a large threat.
Understanding that victory during DACT is not proof of one’s superiority in reality is necessary.
It is only a “training simulating a real fight” meant for increasing pilot skill. One must not forget that though it may look like it, they are not in real combat.
Even fighter jets are created with certain kinds of assumptions in mind, and is rare for those assumptions to yield the exact same aircraft.
Therefore, no matter how “equal conditions” are proposed, it is impossible to be equally fair for all the different kinds of aircraft, and those conditions chosen as the fairest are often far from reality.
Determining a fighter jet’s merits through DACT is fundamentally impossible.
However, when a plane’s merits could not be determined and it needed to be compared, DACT was an extremely easy to understand measure for comparison.
“Did the canopy change?”
Regarding Zero Two, Nagase noticed that the tint of the canopy was different than before from looking at the windscreen.
“I guess you didn’t get the message yet. It’s a new material that absorbs electromagnetic waves well. It’ll improve stealth properties.”
“Don’t do weird things since the fight is coming up.”
“I didn’t put this on you know. But it’s a serious fight. The engineers probably wanted to implement anything that would be advantageous.”
“...It’s a little odd.”
The mechanic forced a bitter smile and left the ramp.
The canopies of fighter jets are made of organic glass such as acrylic or polycarbonate, and is permeable to not only light, but to invisible electromagnetic waves. This presents the danger of electromagnetic waves bouncing around the inside of the cockpit and being detected by radar. In the case of fighter jets where good visibility is emphasized for combat, a large proportion of the airframe is taken up by the canopy, and electromagnetic waves that are reflected from the pilot’s seat cannot be ignored.
Therefore, stealth aircraft have gold deposition coating, since gold is a good conductor, to absorb those electromagnetic waves.
Since the ASF-X’s canopy shape is yet to be finalized, it should have been coated with a metal cheaper than gold. There were many unconfirmed rumors about what materials would be eventually used, from a room-temperature superconductor currently being developed by Taiga Heavy Industries, or a transparent organic conductive material.
Whatever the case, it seems like this canopy incorporates technology and materials that have better stealth characteristics than the pre-existing one.
Nagase thought that this level of color change wouldn’t hinder practical use and decided to accept it. Even if she wanted to change it now, a replacement wouldn’t make it in time.
After she confirmed that the mechanic left, Nagase began checks on the aircraft using reserve power.
Taking part in DACT, Nagase’s emotions were scattered in pieces.
Her emotions wouldn’t calm down since she couldn’t stop thinking about the match against Asano. Nagase believed that the mock fight with the T-4 that concluded with her losing more than winning was “inconclusive.”
Even in today’s combat exercise against the Q-X, she couldn’t make up her mind on whether to have the objective be shooting down the Q-X itself or win against Asano by shooting down more Q-Xs.
Nagase slapped her cheeks to motivate herself.
Let’s just focus on winning against the Q-X.
It’s not an opponent that can be beat in battle if one’s emotional condition is scattered.
In the data delivered by the Air Development and Test Wing to the Joint Test and Evaluation Squadron, there was a flight characteristic of the Q-X that was a little hard to believe recorded on it.
The ASF-X has outstanding maneuverability, but the Q-X is superior to the ASF-X at subsonic speeds. At supersonic speeds, it was thought that the ASF-X was superior, but it seemed like the Q-X was using a variety of special stall maneuvers to cover its deficiencies at those speeds. In the mock fight against the F-2, it evaded most of the attacks the F-2s made at supersonic speeds.
In the end, the Q-X’s movement was too unique and didn’t fit within the common knowledge of conventional fighter aircraft.
Previously, it was predicted that even high-performance jet aircraft would struggle with shooting down military craft like submarine patrol planes that fly at low speeds, and it could be said that the Q-X was an example of the difficulty of combat with dissimilar aircraft.
The Q-X’s attack/evasion maneuvers are based on the operator’s judgment of threats and each craft moves autonomously/automatically in response. It was assessed that the crushing defeat against the F-2’s the previous year was due to the method of control and imperfect automatic evasion maneuvers, but those flaws seems to have been mostly overcome.
Its evasion capabilities were considerably high, and the Air Development and Test Wing concluded that it was impossible to shoot down the Q-X with older generation anti-aircraft missiles still operated by third world countries, as long as that they did not deliberately launch a saturated attack. Considering that the Q-X could be built at the same level of cost as a slightly more advanced SAM, it would be a serious problem for a country facing the Q-X as an enemy.
On the other hand, it seemed that ifs attack capabilities were relatively normal, at least from what has been confirmed. However, it looked like the Q-X could at least attack the F-2s without having any difficulty.
In the attacks against the unmanned target during the test in the United States, it deliberately showed a different attack method, but apparently it was a demonstration performed due to the opponent’s low evasion capability. In the mock fight against the F-2, it performed orthodox attack methods of chasing the enemy and attacking after securing an advantageous position. However, it would close in and attack dangerously, so the evasion measures that could be taken by the F-2s were limited.
Overall, from what could be determined from the data, the Q-X’s evasion capabilities were superior to its attack capabilities.
This assessment made it a little complicated for today’s mock fight.
The ASF-X would be equipped with new air-to-air missiles currently in development. But since hits by missiles are determined by the simulator for the mock fight, accurate verdicts cannot be made for a new missile whose evaluation has not been finalized.
As a result of discussion, the fight would be done with the assumption that existing missiles would be equipped on it. These would be inferior to the predicted performance of the new missiles. The Q-X would also be equipped with these existing missiles, but these were originally considered for use on the Q-X, so it could be said that this was a disadvantage to the ASF-X.
In proper DACT, the goal is to have the crew gain plenty of experience in aerial combat against planes with different characteristics, and use those to devise superior tactics in a fight between the different performing aircraft. DACT is rarely done to determine the relative merits of different aircraft themselves.
Whichever is the case, there shouldn’t be negotiations regarding which side gets superior combat conditions before any training is done.
However, just for today, there was a white-hot negotiation of conditions. That was because everyone knew the results of the combat exercise would have a huge impact on both development programs.
Major General Sato thought it was misguided to have those results as a premise for DACT, but there was nothing he could do. He didn’t know if it was consolation or not, but it seemed like the staff on the Q-X side were worried as well.
There were people involved in the Q-X from the Air Development and Test Wing in the control center. There were also bureaucrats from the central government office and Cabinet Office visiting, so it felt a little crowded.
Disregarding people from the Cabinet Office and Ministry of Education, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), the fact that so many bureaucrats from the Ministry of Finance were coming in indicated issues with the mock fight.
“Professor Togura, are preparations for the Q-X ready?”
“There are no problems. I have no issue moving forward with your conditions.”
Togura responded with a faint smile like he always did. His black sunglasses were quite dark, and it was hard to determine the expression of his eyes in the room.
Like he said, there were no problems, and Togura didn’t make a single fine adjustment to the Q-X during preparations. Objectively speaking, it could be said that the Q-X’s completeness as a system had become quite high.
If it wouldn’t have any effects on the ASF-X program, it is a project that one would definitely want completed.
“If we wait too long, it’ll probably be troublesome for Kelley, who is already on standby. Let’s hurry up the preparations for the ASF-X.”
“It’s fine. Even now, the Q-X is capable of a maximum flight time of 20 hours and we have equipment prepared so that there wouldn’t be a need to exchange operators within that time.”
As he was saying this, Togura hit a glass fiber box the size of a large table with his cane. Togura hit it quite hard, so Sato was startled.
“You’re pretty reckless hitting that. Isn’t Kelley still in there?”
“There’s no problem. The case is built sturdily.”
That’s not the problem, thought Sato. Inside this box-like thing was the Q-X operator Kelley, who had been wearing a special suit. It also bothered him that Togura said the operators are “exchanged” instead of “alternated.”
Kelley was an assistant that Togura brought over from university. Sato had met him twice or so, and he was a bright, handsome young man.
Noticing Sato’s worried look, Togura continued to explain.
“Don’t worry. This case really is sturdy and we’ve considered the operator’s protection. Quite unfortunately due to circumstances in the schedule, the other operators’ training hasn’t progressed as much as Kelley.”
Sato was genuinely worried that if this man could train many operators to the same level, he would perform experiments that would sacrifice Kelley.
The Q-X’s control system is an apparatus called a quasi-panesthesia interface, and sends information to the operator. Using specialized goggles and earphones, the operator’s sense of sight and hearing is cut off from the outside and receives only information about the Q-X’s flight.
Inside the case where Kelley is in, the volume of the electronic machinery for connecting to the communication device for controlling is not very big, and most of the volume is devoted to isolating the interior from external stimuli. Even from hitting the case like before, the operator should not be able to feel anything.
Most of the operator’s commands are performed by a thought-input system that determines the operator’s intentions by detecting changes in brain waves, cerebral blood flow, and myoelectric potential. Due to technological limitations, the information received is quick but often lacks detail, so a data glove that detects finger movements and a voice-activated interface was used as an auxiliary input.
It may seem all of these are absurd technologies, but as an accomplishment of research continuing from the 20th century, these are actually used everywhere in research institutions for real research today. The excellence of the Q-X’s control system lies in the method of integrating all of the different interfaces and its usage.
Togura began research on this system as a way of remotely controlling robots.
However, at that time with the budget and technology available to Togura, he wasn’t sure how many years it would have taken for this research, so Togura decided to advance research towards making a simple system rather than robots. That would lead to the current Q-X’s aircraft control system.
Most control systems for high performance drones have the operators fly from the point of view of a pilot. Togura’s systems was the opposite and the operators fly the Q-X from an exterior viewpoint. However instead of looking up from the ground, the operator throws away their body, flying freely through the battlefield, and commands the Q-X from a bird’s-eye view.
This kind of point-of-view cannot be practically held by a commander.
The newest weapon systems have sensor fusion functionality built in, where data collected by existing weapons on the battlefield are managed in a unified manner, and provides information that can be used to create an overhead view of the battlefield to commanders and combatants. However, even with systems like this, it is impossible to completely be able to overlook a battlefield.
That is because a pilot is preoccupied with the control of their own aircraft, and along with the commander in the rear, must first focus much of their attention to the environment around themselves.
Togura’s system first and foremost cuts off humans from their environment in which they exist. That does not mean they become aircraft themselves. Rather, it was made a point to provide the ultimate “objective view” within the realm of technological possibility.
It was obvious to anyone that there would be problems in a system that cuts off a human from themselves, but since Kelley was an example of its success, there wasn’t much attention given to the problematic side of things.
“Edge, take off now.”
Unexpectedly for Nagase, Mishima had designated her as the element leader, regardless of the results of the mock fight in the T-4.
Normally, a veteran is assigned as the lead while a rookie is assigned as the wingman. Nagase’s record as a fighter pilot was slightly longer, but Nagase herself acknowledged the fact that it wasn’t enough for her to be recognized as a veteran.
Following Nagase’s Zero Two, Asano’s Zero One took off and circled above the base a few times.
Looking around, a formation of two Q-Xs were flying slightly above them. Seeing the Q-X, Nagase got the impression that “they looked like toys.” Being considerably smaller than the ASF-X, the Q-X looked like a miniature model, and looked like it was constructed rather crudely compared to a normal fighter jet.
Two T-4s acting as chasers took off.
After the chasers formed up, the six unmanned and manned planes headed towards the test airspace. Four chasers of the Northern Defense Force from Misawa Airbase also headed towards the test airspace.
After arriving at the designated airspace, the ASF-X and Q-X separated to the north and south and opened the distance between each other.
The showdown between each the two was in the style of a Western duel , where they initially start out of range of each other, then can close in and start shooting whenever they liked afterward.
Support from AWACS or use of long-range missiles were not allowed. The Q-X cannot be equipped with long-range air-to-air missiles, and it hasn’t been fitted with an AWACS connection in its system yet. Accordingly, it could be said that this rule was a restriction that gave the Q-X an advantage.
“This is Aster, I’ve lost two aggressors from my radar.”
“This is Edge, I’ve lost the aggressors.”
From a place far from the operators, Major General Sato asked the staff of the Air Development and Test Wing.
“How’s your side doing?”
“Umm, I can’t… Professor Togura. Is it alright if we confirm?”
Togura had no signs of opposing, and instructed the flight operator to announce the status on the Q-X side.
It was slightly weird since Kelley, the one who would be responding, was in the same room. However, it was set up so that the only way to get in touch with Kelley was through the communication system.
“This is Kelley, Q-1, Q-2 have already lost two ASF-Xs.”
There was a slight commotion in the control room.
The Q-X should be superior in terms of stealth characteristics, but the radar performance is considerably better on the ASF-X.
“Let’s get started.”
Sato’s declaration was transmitted immediately to all pilots in the air and to Kelley, and the mock fight commenced.
Nagase silently started to gain altitude. Asano followed.
This was a tactic that was decided in advance.
Fundamentally, the ASF-X has the advantage in maneuverability at higher altitudes.
However, the Q-X performs maneuvers ignoring loads and dangers from accelerating, so they had to be careful no matter the altitude.
There was no conclusion made on if it would be better to obey the basics and fight together as an element, or have each plane fight separately. It’s a question of whether to keep formation in a fight between high performance aircraft at point-blank range where cannon attacks become effective. That kind of fighting rarely happens in the first place.
However, it is a good question to think about in today’s mock fight.
In the mock fight against the Q-X, the shot-down rate was higher for the wingman than the lead in the F-2.
The pilots chosen are always the best in the squadron, so it can’t be due to the lower skill of the wingman.
It’s likely that due to the enemy and allies having such high maneuverability, the wingman would be at a disadvantage as he tries to fly and follow their leader.
It is believed that the Q-X’s combat method is to have the one closest to the enemy acts as the attacker while the remaining one acts as support. Even against an element or flight controlled by humans, the roles are switched depending on the situation, but since the Q-X is unmanned and all of them are the same, a single operator controlling it can make quick decisions regarding switching of roles.
“Kelley, if you find the aggressors, I request that you announce it.”
“This is Kelley, will report as soon as the ASF-X is detected. However, since the chasers occasionally enters my field of view, there might be cases where the reports may be delayed.”
Mishima tilted his neck.
“What did that mean?”
Togura answered his question.
“The conditions of the mock fight are bad. Since the transponder information from the chasers haven’t been given to the Q-X, so signs of aircraft detected by the Q-X’s optical system have to be determined if they are hostile or not. This time, we know the only enemy is the ASF-X with the T-4s as chasers, so it’s helpful that this can be determined semi-autonomously.”
Mishima was genuinely impressed that the chasers surrounding the airspace can be detected by the optical system from such a distance. The ASF-X which are flying much closer should be easier to spot, and will likely be found soon.
To human pilots, this might be unexpected, but the Q-X’s passive optical system detection capabilities are excellent. That is because unlike the human eye, it can freely switch between a wide-angle and zoomed-in view.
In reality, the cameras on the chasers use information sent by transponders to film the four aircraft flying in the airspace with precision. The Q-X’s optical sensor is not inferior to the chaser’s cameras.
The operator, who overlooks the battlefield rather than viewing from a pilot’s line of sight, is aware of the field of view switching and is not confused by it.
“This is Kelley, I have found one ASF-X.”
Since the mock fight is conducted so that each element is left alone without support, information received at the control center cannot be communicated to Nagase.
Nagase and Asano silently searched the surrounding sky for signs of the enemy.
As living beings, the two could not see the chasers that were far away. This time around, the short viewing distance was acting in the favor of the humans. Nagase saw something move slightly in her field of view, and she responded quickly.
The Q-Xs which detected Nagase and Asano earlier was at a higher altitude.
However, it had not regained the speed it lost in gaining that altitude. With both sides on relatively equal terms, the fight began.
“This is Edge, they’re closing in from the front. Will start attacking.”
The two elements ran into each other head-on.
Both sides fired air-to-air missiles in the virtual realm while passing each other.
Nagase and Asano barrel-rolled quickly shaking off and evading the missile to the left and right. On the other hand, the Q-Xs performed a high yo-yo and low yo-yo, trading airspeed and altitude to evade the missiles vertically. The missiles deviated from the direction of its respective target.
The state of the fight was recreated on the control center’s large screen, supplemented with the missile paths in the virtual space. The display utilizing sensor fusion technology was quite stable, but to those who were unaccustomed to seeing unedited footage momentarily did not know what was going on. However, those with even the smallest bit of knowledge of the situation could not hide their amazement of the four aircraft managing to evade the air-to-air missiles.
“They passed head-on, so the relative velocity was too high. There was no time for the missiles to correct their trajectories.”
Sato commented this, but everyone knew that the situation wasn’t easy enough to be put into words.
“Even so, that’s impressive, dodging all of them.”
An operator monitoring the virtual space of the mock fight simulator corrected Sato’s remarks.
“Right before passing each other, Q-1 fired its guns. Zero Two has been hit.”
The observers started getting noisy.
“The damage on Zero Two is on a part of its electrical system. It has no effect on maneuverability.”
Nagase’s cockpit didn’t display any signs of being hit. No one realized that this was actually the result of recreating the damage done from being hit. Nagase was continuing to fly without knowing about the damage state of her aircraft.
After confirming the missile deviated, Nagase performed an Immelmann Turn to change direction 170 degrees. Having separated horizontally, Asano performed a Split-S, where he changed direction 170 degrees by looping downwards into level flight. Roughly speaking, Nagase emphasized efficiency, while Asano emphasized airspeed.
Meanwhile, the Q-X maximized thrust without going into afterburner and was changing direction with all its might.
Supplementing airspeed with thrust and continuing to turn without slowing down is called a sustained turn.
Sustained turn ability is an important characteristic of aircraft, but when comparing sustained turn rates, there is not a big difference between fighters from the Second World War and new state-of-the-art fighters today. Of course, this is not due to aircraft dynamics or engine designs not progressing. It is because state-of-the-art fighters are much faster, and if they turn at the same rate, it would result in too high of a g-force.
Machines are made sturdy corresponding to its performance, but the same cannot be said about pilots. The pilot would not survive if they recklessly turned at high speeds to match the engine performance. Therefore, state-of-the-art fighters cannot continue turning at their maximum sustained turn rates. It’s no use having an ability that can’t be used, so pointlessly high turn abilities are have been abandoned at the design level.
The pilot-less Q-X was designed to have a sustained turn rate that would not even compare to a manned aircraft. As an obvious result, the Q-X had changed course before Nagase and Asano finished changing direction and were beginning to climb.
Nagase already knew about the difference in turning ability from the beginning, but she noticed another problematic point that was already known. In the first evasive maneuver, Nagase and Asano had become separated, but the Q-Xs have recovered their formation. The teamwork on the Q-Xs formation is good since it is managed by one operator.
The ASF-X was clearly superior in acceleration and top speed in level flight, but it is difficult to gain an advantage in aerial combat with these characteristics. No matter how much faster the ASF-X is, it’s not as fast as an air-to-air missile, so showing the back to the enemy was foolish.
“Edge, this is Aster, I’ll close in and draw in the aggressors. Get behind me.”
Asano’s Zero One, having shortened the distance between the Q-Xs first, climbed while turning and provoked them.
I’m the element leader, Nagase thought, but there was no time to change plans.
The Q-Xs fell for Asano’s provocation, and both began chasing Zero One from behind. Nagase tracked the three aircraft’s movements with her eyes and attempted to turn onto the Q-X’s rear.
However, Nagase’s movement was sensed by the Q-Xs. The Q-X can search in many directions simultaneously with the many camera eyes installed on it. Plus, it barely has any blind spots. The operator could search without putting effort in, and overlooked only the results in a stereoscopic view.
Kelley announced that the Q-Xs had acquired both Zero One and Zero Two in the flight center, so Mishima and Sato followed the events of the mock fight in cold sweat.
“Magnificent. These two have far superior intuition and skill than any pilot we fought so far!”
These words of praise came from Togura.
“You’re pretty relaxed, Professor Togura.”
“I’m not that relaxed anymore. However, with this kind of formidable enemy, it’ll likely aid in identifying weaknesses of the Q-X. This will help in planning more complete tactics.”
Togura was serious.
“In this situation, Kelley will likely try to shoot down Zero One and Zero Two at the same time. But that is probably a mistake. In a one vs. one engagement, the pilots of the ASF-X have quite the advantage.”
The instant Nagase got on a course to pursue the Q-Xs, one of them suddenly changed direction 180 degrees while maintaining level flight. After changing direction, it pitched down and climbed. It was extremely unnatural, but that was because inertial forces were still dominant, and it was flying in a direction opposite to where the nose was pointing.
Nagase saw one Q-X slow down and close in, and fired an air-to-air missile. The relative velocity was smaller than before, so she hoped it would hit, but the Q-X evaded the missile as if it was straddling it. It wasn’t the newest model, but the field of view of the seeker on the air-to-air missile is quite large. However, if it misses completely, it would lose track of the target as one would expect.
Nagase clicked her tongue. That was because if she were a little closer, the missile could have exploded using its proximity fuse and damaged it, instead of going for a direct hit.
Acting faster than Zero Two and the Q-X passing each other, Nagase tried to get on the Q-X’s rear by rolling upwards and turning, but it didn’t go well. The Q-X which had unnaturally pointed its tail in the direction of travel was making movements that went against Nagase’s instincts, and didn’t allow Nagase to get on its tail.
But Nagase also didn’t let the Q-X get on her tail.
In the middle of this intense aerial combat, Nagase remembered her mock fight with Asano. It’s all right, this thing isn’t as formidable as Asano.
“This is Kelley, I have lost the ASF-X that was being pursued.”
Disregarding the dogfight with Zero Two, something was not right about losing sight of Zero One that was being chased aggressively.
Sagi approached Togura and asked quietly in a soft voice.
“Togura, what’s going on?”
“I don’t know. The Q-X’s optical sensors scans its field of view at cycles of less than 0.5 seconds, so it could theoretically lose something if it flies out of its view during that time.”
“Then, that’s what happened!”
Togura looked at Sagi’s face.
“That is quite unlikely. The reason why this theoretically predicted event was left alone was because it was believed that this situation would never happen. The Q-X is set up so that when the opponent is moving swiftly, it would narrow its field of view and not allow it to lose track of the enemy. It’s unthinkable that the Q-X which is capable of evading missiles would lose a slow moving manned aircraft.”
However in reality, there are instances where the Q-X’s eyes, which never loses track of fast-moving missiles, can lose track of slow-moving manned planes.
When monitoring the entire sky at a high-resolution, the amount of data that has to be processed is quite large. The Q-X relieves some of the stress by not looking at areas where there are no changes. More specifically, it scans within its field of view and does not continue to analyze areas where the changes were small. In other words, it doesn’t look at things that are moving below a certain speed.
Then, since the operator is looking at the virtual three-dimensional view created from information when the Q-X was properly looking at the target, they no longer are capable of grasping the correct situation. After taking caution and looking properly, it realized it was looking at empty space where an aircraft used to be.
As a matter of fact, animals including humans only look at things that are moving and changing. Over ninety percent of the information used to create virtual images viewed by the human brain come not from the past and not the most current view. It was a rational image processing technology that was inevitably acquired from the evolution process.
Asano, who had predicted this from the capacity of the satellite circuits, moved as slow as possible until the Q-X closed the distance. Determining the speeds at which they could escape from the Q-X was a shot in the dark, but Asano was able to successfully outwit the Q-X.
Once it loses track, one aircraft did not have enough eyes to track the target. However, the other craft was at the mercy of the ASF-X’s capabilities and maneuvers that pushed Nagase’s physical body and reflexes to their limits.
It was a mistake for Kelley to split between the two aircraft. In this situation, there was no margin to re-gather the two Q-Xs.
The operator monitoring the virtual space of the mock fight simulator continued to announce the situation of the fight as it unfolded.
“Q-2 has been shot down from cannon fire by Zero Two.”
“Zero One has fired an air-to-air missile with LOAL . We cannot detect Q-1.”
“Q-1 has been shot down by Zero One’s air-to-air missile.”
Several involved in the ASF-X program gave a round of applause in the flight center.
However, Major General Sato kept in mind that the events in the second half were all according to Togura’s predictions and felt slightly threatened.
Togura was able to grasp the tactical problems of the Q-X before the conclusion of the fight. If fought again, they probably would not be able to win in the same way. That man is the true enemy of the ASF-X, no to all manned fighter jets, he thought.
The showdown between manned and unmanned aircraft that will decide the future of fighter jets will likely continue for a long time.
“This is Edge. I haven’t had enough. Requesting permission to “play” with Aster.”
Instead of the operator, Mishima answered.
“Edge, don’t be stupid and return quickly!”
“That’s too bad. Aster you think so too right?”
“This is Aster, will return to base promptly.”
The sound of Nagase’s stifled laughing could be heard from the speaker.
Mishima frowned, but most of the observers in the flight center laughed.
Zero Two also obediently got on the return course, but it wasn’t exactly straight. The aircraft was being flung around left and right as if it was drunk.
It was obvious that she was elated in getting a victory in her first DACT experience.
Flying behind Nagase, Asano watched with a bitter smile, but changed to a straight face when he saw a blip appear on Zero One’s radar.
“Edge, I’ve detected a flock of birds on the radar. It’ll be good if you also switch your radar on.”
Since it was fighting against stealth aircraft during the mock fight, the ASF-X had stopped giving off electromagnetic exposure by turning the active radar off. Nagase’s Zero Two was still flying in that condition.
“This is Edge, turning on radar.”
Nagase operated the button on the front panel in front of her. But the active radar wouldn’t turn on.
She pushed the button again, but it still wouldn’t turn on.
“This is Edge, the radar won’t turn on.”
This time, the operator from the control center transmitted.
“Edge, do you know the cause of why it won’t turn on?”
Nagase pressed a button, and the MFD on the right side of the console showed the Flight Data Display with check items.
She followed the procedure and checks each one, but the cause is still unknown.
“This is Edge, I’ve cleared basic checks but the cause is still unclear. The FDD shows that there are no problems with the radar.”
“Edge, we’ve confirmed that the fault cause is unknown. Return to base promptly.”
As she was trying to answer, Nagase saw a black dot approaching directly in front of her.
There was a loud noise and Nagase momentarily lost consciousness.
After regaining consciousness after a few seconds, she realized Zero Two’s canopy was smashed to pieces. The sound from the wind blowing into the canopy surrounded Nagase.
A part of the helmet visor was cracked, and the view from both eyes were stained red.
Was it a bird strike?
Even so, it was impossible for the canopy of a fighter jet to get damaged from hitting a bird. However, currently there was no canopy.
Slowly, the redness in her vision got darker and it became harder to see in front of her.
“Mayday, mayday! This is Edge, the canopy has been demolished from a bird strike.”
“Edge, Edge. Report the damage other than the canopy.”
“Visibility is down. I can’t read the display from the HUD or MFD.”
“Edge, is there any pain?”
“There is no pain.”
The celebratory mood of the Joint Test and Evaluation Squadron members in the control center blew away.
“Major Mishima, the ASF-X should have a system for coordinated formation flying built in that make remote control possible. Could we rescue her that way?”
“It is built in, but currently the command system is not complete, so it’s impossible to guide it in from the ground.”
“How about from Zero One?”
“Theoretically it’s possible, but there isn’t control software on it.”
The only way was to have Asano give guidance and have Nagase fly herself.
Asano accelerated Zero One and flew alongside Zero Two, verifying the aircraft’s condition.
“Edge, Edge. This is Aster. I can’t confirm any damage other than the canopy.”
Asano looked at Nagase across the shattered canopy. He could see that the helmet and arm area of the flight suit was stained red.
“Edge, are you gripping the flight stick?”
“This is Edge. Of course, Asano.”
From the fact that Nagase didn’t call Asano by his callsign, Asano felt that Nagase was quite damaged mentally.
“Edge, let’s look at the ISS-II again.”
Those in the flight center couldn’t understand the meaning, but the one involved trusted Asano’s judgment.
“Aster, did you mean to say something romantic? Hurry up and get to work.”
Asano’s laugh could be heard in the transmission.
“Edge. I’m going to work. Your course and altitude are roughly matching up. Continue flight as is.”
“This is Edge, will continue to fly as is.”
Though Nagase was injured to the point her vision was almost gone, she was fully aware and was able to arrive over the airbase without problem from Asano’s guidance.
If it was an airplane from the 20th century, landing would demand a high level of skill, but that is not so true on current aircraft. In all airports where jet aircraft might pass through, ILS (Instrument Landing System) is installed so that it is possible to land safely even with very little visibility.
However, one must be able to see the console in order to perform an instrument landing.
“Aster, control is monitoring what Zero Two’s HSD (Horizontal Status Display) is showing, and will transfer it to Zero One. Display it on the appropriate MFD.”
The ASF-X’s HSD can be shown arbitrarily on any MFD, and shows not only the horizontal status, but also the bearing, map, and all other information required for navigation. If the equipment on the airfield side of things are adequate, it is possible to land without looking outside the cockpit and the HSD alone (in theory).
The readings on the HSD can be called out by the control tower, but Mishima decided that it would be better to have Asano guide it in, since he was flying next to Nagase.
“Edge, follow my guidance and go into approach. I’ll read out the HSD.”
“This is Edge, hurry up and tell me Zero Two’s heading, altitude, and distance from the runway. I’ll land with my eyes closed and ears sealed.”
Nagase’s words weren’t meant to be conceited.
Without Asano ever giving directions to correct the flight path, Nagase safely landed Zero Two.
It was found out that the cause of the radar malfunction was due to the control center not stopping the mock fight simulator. The radar wasn’t damaged, but was just simulating the fact that it was destroyed.
Zero One and Zero Two had no damage that would impair flight, so nobody realized that the simulator was forgotten to be turned off until after landing and inspections.
The bigger problem was with the canopy. There weren’t any problems in the canopy’s destruction test, which was built using the same process design-wise, and shouldn’t have broken from bird strikes.
There was a high possibility of defects in the manufacturing process creating a stress concentration, but since there weren’t much actual ones left, it was difficult to confirm this. If it was a defect in the manufacturing, it is a huge problem. If not, there were possibilities that the cause came from the processing method to make it stealthier or the new material used.
In any event, there was no choice but to halt ASF-X flights for a while.
“Hey Nagase. Is living in the hospital pleasant?”
Sonoda entered the room and teased while watching Nagase lift her upper body from the bed.
“If they tell me it’s okay to leave the bed, I won’t forgive you.”
Oose, who was already visiting her, burst out in laughter.
In reality, there was no reason for her to have her sleep in the bed. She was ordered to stay in bed by Mishima until the results of the complete examination was released.
Nagase had no injuries whatsoever. Since there was the possibility of impairment on facial nerves from flying without a canopy for an extended period of time, she was hospitalized and thoroughly examined just in case.
The wreckage of the bird had hit the head directly, and if she wasn’t wearing a helmet, it likely would have been instant death. However, the FH-1SS2 flight helmet created exclusively for the ASF-X was sturdy, and Nagase had no injuries, only losing consciousness for an instant.
After being released from the hospital, X-rays of her head were taken, her EEG  was taken, and finally an MRI was used to measure her head tomography, but all were problem-free.
Her vision was obstructed because the blood from the bird crashing got in her eyes.
Of course, there were dangers of going blind due to that, so careful treatment and rigorous testing were performed, but it was confirmed that there was no damage that would remain.
Even Asano came and visited.
“When’s the next time the ISS-II will be visible?”
Asano showed a grin.
“Unfortunately, it’ll be about two months. We might not be able to see it around that time since we’ll be busy.”
“I’ll see it!”
“Da Xiao, an exercise took place with the Q-X and ASF-X, and it seems the Q-X was defeated.”
This was unfortunate news to Da Xiao, who was enthusiastic about the Q-X.
“What kinds of conditions were in place during the exercise?”
“It was just a 2 vs. 2 showdown without any special conditions.”
“Was the Q-X actually shot down?”
“There’s no way those cowards would use live weapons in exercises. They call it training for actual combat, but it’s the same as always.”
He stuck out his pointer finger of his right hand held it out like a gun, pointing it towards the window.
“Bang, you’re dead!”
Da Xiao burst into laughter.
“It’s an exercise with firm regulations so that there is no danger. It’s different from an actual fight where one’s life is at stake.”
“Even so, I guess the ASF-X has that kind of performance.”
“Those guys seem to have evaluated it as such. Afterwards, I will wait for a detailed report.”
The Q-X’s advantages cannot be measured from exercises alone. In actual combat, there would likely be pilots who value their lives, and would not be able to fight as bold as the drones. Those were the thoughts of Da Xiao.
To put it simply, no matter what new information was received, Da Xiao’s obsession with the Q-X did not change.
The Republic had been developing and implementing different kinds of orthodox fighter aircraft, but it was also keen on developing secret weapons.
Much effort had been put towards unmanned aircraft in particular, from toy-like remote control craft to full-scale bomber aircraft, and so many varieties are being developed that the Republic’s military could barely grasp all of it. Each and every one was called “a revolutionary high-performance aircraft,” but there was only a few that could actually be useful.
Da Xiao himself was a participant in the development of these unmanned aircraft, and was proud of the ones he completed, believing that they were pretty good. However, while searching for information on other countries’ unmanned aircraft for reference, the Q-X caught his attention in particular.
First, it was unusual that a single operator could operate multiple aircraft.
Other drones that could be operated by less people than there were aircraft were all either independent or entirely autonomous, and their selling point was that they had the ability to accomplish missions without instructions from the operator. However, the Q-X was the opposite and emphasized the fact that it was semi-autonomous, with the aircraft under real-time control of the operator.
Da Xiao was fascinated by this.
But its number one appeal was the fact that it triumphed against a fighter jet in current use during a mock fight. Strength is justice.
The Q-X had the attention of many people other than Da Xiao in the Republic’s military.
The Q-X was the first large-scale project to utilize the newest GPS satellite network, and is a valuable example of the network’s abilities and usage methods. If the Q-X’s abilities become known, it will be possible to learn the network’s capabilities.
The Republic had detected that a network hub was installed on the ISS-II and unsuccessfully attempted to send a spy to the station itself. However, due to this, the Republic desired data regarding the new GPS satellite network more and more.
Eventually, when it was confirmed that the Q-X had the ability to win against older generation fighter jets, those involved in the Republic trembled with fear. If a cheap, highly productive fighter-bomber like the Q-X was mass produced, the power balance in the area, which the Republic dominated, would finally change.
Da Xiao began looking for ways to acquire the Q-X and damage its’ development plans even further.
There was a need to at least create a setback for the Q-X.
There was even consideration for the assassination of key members for development, but was abandoned since suitable assassins could not be prepared.
The alternative policy solidified quickly.
After all, Da Xiao not only wanted to create a setback for the Q-X, but to make it their own as well. It could be said that the potential strategy was already decided from the beginning.
It didn’t take long for Da Xiao’s fundamental policy of looting data and hardware to take shape.
Looking at the results, the mock fight with the ASF-X and Q-X brought good outcomes for both programs.
The ASF program was able to spread the impression that it was progressing smoothly, and interruptions from all sorts of places decreased. Rather, the Ministry of Defense was busy trying to calm the excessively optimistic talks that this was equivalent to having the Advanced Support Fighter already complete.
On the other hand, even though the Q-X lost to the ASF-X, it succeeded in showing off its high performance, distinguishing itself against existing unmanned aircraft and impressing government officials. In the end, the preconceived notions of outsiders against unmanned aircraft changed for the better, and the Q-X was rated sufficiently high. The high rating was shared outside of the country as well, and those in the Q-X program were told that people in the United States were requesting if they could participate directly in development plans.
Those on the Q-X project seemed satisfied with their current state, and there were no bothersome voices calling for a rematch.
Additionally, whether it was from her belligerence being satisfied from the fight against the Q-X, or her being more careful after the accident, Nagase stopped being obsessed over the mock fight between Asano.
Thanks to this, the Joint Test and Evaluation Squadron could focus on normal test flights. Zero One and Zero Two demonstrated stable performance without failures, and tests continued without any problems.
Development was a little worrisome since it seemed to progress too quickly, but no one could deny that the ASF-X was made well in every sense of the word.
Nagase and the other test pilots spent every day with plenty of leeway.
Nagase pressed down on the accelerator with the clutch removed, and checked health of the engine.
Just by listening to the sound, she could tell the 250-cc engine in her beloved motorcycle was operating smoothly. To be sure, she looked at the revolution counter and saw that it was stable at good revolutions.
Every time Nagase looked at the revolution counter, she had the habit of wondering why people in society called it a tachometer and felt disgusted. The “tacho” in tachometer means “speed,” and is American English. People from England properly call it a rev-counter.
As a fighter pilot, one would think that she has a broadminded personality, but Nagase was surprisingly fussy about some things.
Satisfied with her maintenance, Nagase put the tools back and closed the toolbox.
“You’re pretty skilled”
A mechanic who had been watching Nagase repair the bike praised her.
“I can’t fix planes, but I’m experienced with this baby.”
The aging mechanic laughed hearing the young Nagase talk about experience, but was serious about Nagase’s good maintenance.
The motorcycle was one hobby Nagase enjoyed by herself.
Of course, she liked riding it, but the time spent quietly maintaining it like this was something she didn’t dislike either. When riding, she preferred riding alone silently and hated doing it in groups.
“Aren’t you going to ride it?”
“Well, we’re not allowed to go outside today.”
“Our mechanics who love motorcycles ride them at the reserve runway. Why don’t you join them and ride a little?”
Nagase hesitated. She even had a small urge to ride her bike. But, there was a delicate distance between pilots and mechanics, so there was reluctance to mix in with the mechanics and ride motorcycles.
“I liked it when I was young. I’ll go with you, so go join them.”
Nagase decided to accept the veteran mechanic’s kindness.
Nagase joined their group and starting riding down the runway after she greeted them.
After a while, Nagase really started riding with the mechanics. There was a different kind of fun when riding with others and racing them than riding alone.
Asano blankly watched Nagase and the mechanics ride back and forth on the reserve runway through the barrack windows. Asano had few hobbies, and in his free time, did nothing while listening to music. Otherwise, he would drink alcohol. Occasionally he would do some weight training.
In fact, Asano used to ride motorbikes in the past. In his college years, he was in a private bike club and would participate in grass races held during the weekend. Asano always finished first no matter the race, and was even invited to go pro. If he had normal feelings, Asano would have probably become a professional bike racer at that point. ...But reality was different.
Asano realized that at some point, he was no longer content with the speed. He noticed that he was not satisfied no matter how much he opened the throttle.
From then on, he sought for speed as if he were a dried throat seeking water.
Faster, faster than anyone else.
As a result, Asano eventually got into an accident. At the final stage of the race, he slipped when going around the last corner and was tossed up high into the air. Luckily, he didn’t have any major injuries, but Asano felt an indescribable sensation of freedom while floating in the air. Asano realized that his desire could be found not on the ground, but in the air. In the end, Asano stopped riding motorcycles after the accident.
His place was not here, but in the sky.
In the spring of the following year, there was the sight of Asano enlisting in the JASDF as a flight executive candidate.
“Faster than anyone, farther than anyone, huh”
Asano was looking at Nagase, who was laughing with the mechanics around their bikes.
It seemed like she was someone who was going to awaken the past that he was hiding.
Asano quietly closed the curtains in the room.
“I’ll ask again. Do you really want to do this with these rules?”
The red-faced young man standing in front of A Xi hit his left palm with the right fist near his chest, emphasizing that he was motivated.
“I have no intention to do it anymore with these lenient rules. I’m a real fighter pilot. If the instructors deny these rules, they automatically lose. We’ll all laugh at them. You’re no longer an instructor or fighter pilot.”
A Xi shrugged.
The young man was commended as an ace-level pilot at his former squadron, and had become quite the egotist. It would have been fine if he realized that he was average in this squadron where talent was gathered, but he was a stereotypical moron who got into an argument with the instructors before he noticed this.
“Then sign this document. Roughly speaking, it says these rules were proposed by you and you’ll take responsibility no matter the outcome.”
“Aren’t the instructors going to take responsibility?”
“They have no intention to. In reality, everything is as you requested. It even says in here that I proposed to revise the rules for safety, but you rejected them.”
A Xi looked back at the high-level officer standing behind him.
“Commander, you’re a witness as well. We’ll have you sign this with us.”
The commander was shivering slightly.
“A Xi, you have the option to not do the duel. There is an obligation for accepting the challenge.”
A Xi twisted his lips while scratching his chin.
You spineless man. How many fighter aircraft were lost due to this commander’s indecisiveness?
“No there isn’t. Plus, it’ not a duel, but training for a mock fight. If I’m not mistaken, duels should be prohibited by law. The rules may be stupid, but I’m an instructor who respects a student’s independence. To continue my job as an instructor, I can’t refuse. You heard what he said right?”
A Xi had the slightest bit of hope that by giving responsibility to the commander, he would try to stop this match.
But in the end, the commander signed the document.
The rule was sudden death, and the first one whose plane got hit would lose. Determination of hits would not done through lock-ons by the FCS, but through verification of actual impacts.
For the autocannon, colored resin rounds used for shooting practice were used, while the missiles were those used for target practice where the warheads were replaced with ballast instead of explosives. In both cases, if it hit a critical part, it would be disastrous.
In Western countries, all those involved would be arrested on accounts of attempted murder before the duel started. Even before that, the taxpayers would likely complain loudly.
Two fighter jets with the same armament were prepared.
The planes the pilots would be flying in were determined by a coin toss, and the two began preparations for launch. Though the challenger started his take-off run first, A Xi began his take-off run before the other fully took off.
Confirming the challenger was climbing and heading to the east, A Xi temporarily set his course to the west.
Before long, flight control announced the beginning of the exercise.