Ace Combat Stealth Missiles: Historical Inspiration, Real World Technology
Updated: Jan 2
Even the most unconventional and outright sci-fi elements of the Ace Combat series often have connections to real-world aircraft, weaponry, concepts, and projects. Airborne aircraft carriers, aft firing missiles, and forward-swept swing wings are all known for being seen in Ace Combat, but their design and presentation are drawn from influences in our past, present and future. One of the more recent and briefly intriguing examples of this came in the form of "stealth missiles".
Following its release, the next three years of downloadable content for Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown (2019) has primarily been made up of new aircraft liveries, emblems, and a dozen or so new aircraft added to the game's roster. The inclusion of three new missions is the most significant addition to the game's post-release content. In it, new villains, challenges, and weapons were introduced. Amid a rather elaborate plot by a rogue super submarine crew, two enemy ace pilots enter the equation.
Known as Mimic Squadron, this brazen brother-sister pair of pilots appears on the battlefield, confusing friend and foe. Their shadowy mission is to assassinate the player's character while in the middle of a combat operation. Piloting a pair of Su-47 Berkut, Mimic Squadron appears in two missions with World War II dazzle paint-inspired liveries, painted on false canopies, various types of electronic countermeasures, and stealth missiles.
It's no secret that stealthy, low observable (LO) weapons are becoming vital weapons for the real-world battlefields of the future. Because of the constantly progressing detection and interception abilities of anti-aircraft defense systems, early warning radar, and generation 4+ combat aircraft, the need for weapons capable of negating detection and striking hard-to-reach targets has rapidly increased in the past few years. But the types of weapons that currently receive LO designs are cruise missiles, glide bombs, and similar standoff munitions. It is larger, slower, often subsonic weapons that are susceptible to surface-to-air missiles, infrared or radar-guided point defenses, and high-speed fighter aircraft capable of running them down. But the missiles that Mimic uses are not of this type, but of a type not seen in modern real-world air forces.
During the events of "Anchorhead Raid", the second Ace Combat 7 downloadable content mission, Mimic Squadron ambushes the player and their wingmen with stealth air-to-air missiles (AAMs). As combat begins between both flights of aircraft, it's observed that the AAMs do not trigger constant missile warning alerts. It is only until the missile is moments away from impact that it initiates the familiar warning tone within the player aircraft's radar warning receiver.
Throughout the Ace Combat series, any guided missile fired at the player prompts missile warnings from the moment it is launched. Audible beeps from a radar warning receiver indicate how close a missile is to the player's aircraft. The more frequent and faster the beeps are, the closer the missile is. Knowing this, the dogfight against Mimic Squadron develops into a rare type of battle where the player is unsure of exactly when enemy missiles are inbound unless they see it fired visually or wait for the missile to get close enough. As far as Ace Combat is concerned, referring to these as stealth missiles isn't necessarily incorrect by its own standard.
In the real world, the concept of a low observable air-to-air missile isn't unheard of. How they are presented in Ace Combat is similar to one of the few publicly known military research programs on this subject. Have Dash I (1985-1988) and Have Dash II (1990-1992) were United States Air Force programs that looked into creating a new generation of stealthy long-ranged AAMs. The defining feature of these test missiles was their trapezoidal asymmetrical flat-bottom design that used a radar-absorbing graphite composite fuselage which was also resistant to the high temperatures of hypersonic speeds. Their speed and minimized radar cross-section would reduce how soon an aircraft's radar warning sensors could detect the incoming missile. There is a finite amount of information about them available on the world wide web with hard to find physical publications listed as sources.
Though missiles were actually tested, these programs ended with no clear or reliable publicly accessible information about their results. But the fact that fourth and fifth-generation aircraft have not carried low observable AAMs since the program's end may be the answer we seek.
Collection of media about Have Dash.
While the design inspiration and parts of Mimic's stealth AAMs' functionality can most likely be traced to Have Dash, the final missing piece does not lay in programs of old. It is instead in a well-founded set of technology that has been around for decades. The ability to launch missiles at the player without immediate warnings can be attributed to a Track While Scan radar mode.
In short: unlike Range While Search radar modes which acquire the radar to maintain a "hard lock" to guide a missile onto a hostile aircraft, Track While Scan is capable of passively tracking targets and providing steering information for active radar homing missiles while they are in flight. This allows the onboard radar of the active radar homing missile to remain offline until it is close enough to the hostile aircraft to activate the missile's own radar and pursue the target without further support needed from the launch aircraft's radar. This minimizes the time that the hostile aircraft has to react to the unexpected new threat. A missile could be within 15 nautical miles of its target without that target knowing it will be in danger seconds later.
Looking back, it's sort of a shame to see such an unusual addition to the Ace Combat series only be used in a single instance. The incorporation of some historical military aviation concepts and technologies players would only encounter in flight simulators has proven once again to be an eyebrow-raising challenge for flight arcade players. It's curveballs like these that make for memorable gameplay moments. Here's to hoping the stealth AAM of Ace Combat 7 doesn't wither away in the next installment of the series like the aft firing missiles of Ace Combat Zero did.
About the Writer
Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza
Co-founder of Skyward Flight Media. After founding Electrosphere.info, the first English Ace Combat database, he has been involved in creating flight game-related websites, communities, and events since 2005. He explores past and present flight games and simulators with his extensive collection of game consoles and computers. Read Staff Profile.