Aft-Launched Missiles: Ace Combat Fiction, or Russian Fact?
Updated: Jan 24
Ace Combat Zero, mission 6, Diapason: you’ve just liberated the Ustian capital of Directus. Ready for your victory lap, your celebration is rapidly cut short by a pair of bogies. A pair of Belkan Air Force Su-37 Flankers of the aptly-named “Gelb” squadron. You rush to engage at close-range. Their maneuvers are familiar to you—in Ace Combat these super maneuverable fighters are always helmed by pilots too eager to exploit post-stall maneuvers, slowing into a “Cobra” to force an overshoot or slipping into a Bell to drop a missile on the pursuer. Besides, just two bandits? You feel confident having faced five-on-one odds in a previous life—this is a cakewalk. You draw no quarter in your pursuit and drag the first Su-37 into your HUD. But just before you fire, your radar warning receiver catches alight. You quickly scan the skies, but the only other bandit is being hogtied by your buddy. Ground forces have cleared surface-to-air missiles on the ground. The light becomes a solid tone. You look forward just in time to catch the smoke of a launch from the fighter you are pursuing. In a split-second comes the impact of the missile against your airframe, and you go down in a ball of flames.
What kind of fake Ace Combat skullduggery is that? Aft launched missiles? Seriously? Were they so desperate to make the game a challenge that they had to resort to something so outlandish?
Well… let’s back up a bit. If you’ve been following the Ace Combat series since the PlayStation 1, you might have come to the conclusion that this was a callback to an old fight. The final mission of Ace Combat 2 featured a ZOE fighter that did the same trick: the ADF-01. This was its signature move before it was given a laser weapon for its reintroduction as the Falken in Ace Combat 5. But you would be forgiven if you said that Ace Combat Zero and the Su-37 was a really strange game, and a peculiar aircraft to make such a callback with. Despite it all, it still belongs in the realm of fiction.
The 2006 release of Ace Combat Zero had been during an explosion of information and interest in advanced fighters breaking cover all over the world. The Americans were on the cusp of initial operating capability with the F-22A Raptor and had just revealed the EMD configuration of the F-35. The Eurosphere was ramping up production of its delta-canards, and the Russian Federation was well into a recovery of its post-Soviet economic slump. With this came a rapid re-organization and rush to redevelop aging Soviet equipment.
In professional circles, the F-22 was rightfully seen as a fighter aircraft second-to-none. A king of many roles, it seemed like there was no other fighter that could best it on the horizon. But on the internet, with a young and budding community of aviation enthusiasts, there seemed to be room for debate. A dump of information became quickly accessible about Russian fighters, and a host of unusual and interesting details about their MFI programs came with it. Three fighters stood out at the time: The Su-47 Berkut, the MiG-1.42/1.44, and the Su-27M.
For years known in the west as the “Super Flanker,” the Su-27M was developed into a number of different technology demonstrators, the most famous of which is the Su-37—also known as Su-27M Bort 911, the yellow and brown splinter-painted fighter dazzled press and enthusiasts at airshows, demonstrating the pinnacle of what was termed “super maneuverability” or the ability to continue in controlled flight post-stall. The most famous of these maneuvers remains the “kulbit” or “Super Cobra,” where the Su-37 would execute a flat-planed somersault in mid-air. With this maneuver, a new appreciation for older fighter designs developed, and a new debate started raging amongst those new aviation enthusiasts: “F-22 vs. Su-37: Who would win?”
These debates have since died down, but it still occurs to the present from time-to-time. Today it might seem sort of silly with what we now know about the Su-37. Though perhaps more combat capable than western prototypes, it was at its heart a tech demonstrator. With its outdated proto-PESA radar, Soviet-era electronics, and redlined AL-37FU engines, it was never meant to be anything more. The loss of the prototype in 2002 terminated the program. But why make a more combat-capable fighter if not to expect it to enter production? That seemed to be Sukhoi’s question—it’s why they pushed for the Su-35 and Su-37 designations for their uprated Flankers to begin with. But Russia had other plans for these fighters. Rather than evaluating the airframes for their own merits, instead, they used them and their at-the-time advanced avionics to experiment with novel ideas to keep their air fleets relevant.
The Su-37 acted as the ideal flying laboratory. An advanced, but relatively inexpensive and familiar airframe to equip any number of prototype weapon systems in its enormous internal volume. There were reports that the aircraft’s rear-stinger was reconfigured as a Kevlar-constructed radome, and a small fire-control radar was held within. But such a radar would have been too small to serve the purpose for detection. Russian radar technology was still several years behind the west, and AESAs were not yet available, so radar warning detection or IFF was unlikely. So why perform such a modification?
There were reports of a new Russian missile: An R-73 that could be mounted on either rotating gimbles or fixed backward on wing pylons, which could be used to attack pursuing aircraft. This seemed outlandish, but there was photographic evidence to go along with it. The previous reports of a rear-facing radar would bring new credence to both claims. It would fit snugly in with Russian missile engagement doctrine, launching both a radar-guided and infrared-guided missile per salvo against an enemy deploying countermeasures to increase the chances of impact. Evidence that the system would ever be used with the R-27 does not appear easy to come by, but it is possible that the radar could have been used to hand off guidance to the semi-active radar receivers in these older designs to perform such a feat.
But it was hard to deny that the rear-firing R-73 was a real system. Though appearing to hold a new designation of R-73R, it is difficult to determine whether it was truly a new model or merely a new designation. Being a short-range infrared platform capable of firing at ranges as close as 1 km and as far as 13 km, it shares the specifications of its host platform almost identically. It has a mass of 115 kg, measures 3.2 meters in length, 0.17 meters in diameter, with a 0.404 meter wingspan.
The R-73R is equipped with the advanced seeker head of the R-73M, mounted on a gimbal enabling a 60° to -60° search cone. When it acquires the target, a loud buzz is generated as a notification for the pilot (typical of IR missiles), and the pilot is ready to fire. The pilot presses the release button, and the missile ignites its booster, at first, the missile airspeed is slower than the launcher aircraft. It accelerates and matches the speed of the aircraft, and finally, it turns in pursuit of the target at a higher speed than the launcher aircraft. The combat loadout of these missiles was only theoretical; we can’t be sure how many would be equipped per aircraft, or if it would be used as a standard air-to-air loadout.
With the perfection of off-boresight maneuvering and automatic target handoff, the interest in a rear-firing missile faded away. Modern missiles from NATO and the CIS now have the ability to engage to the rear using advanced motors and missile approach and warning sensors. They can effectively fire at the merge and expect a kill without having to turn their aircraft.
This leads into a logical realization: in 2006, the fight over Directus in Ace Combat Zero might have felt like you were hit with a slap to the face—a fictional weapon meant to make a fight harder with a stupid AI. But it reasons that even a generic representation of modern air combat would make such a game mechanic nearly universal. Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction.
About the Author
T.J. "Millie" Archer
Life-long realist and aviation enthusiast. Once the co-founding Administrator of the Electrosphere.info English Ace Combat Database. In the present day he is freelance, roving the internet in search of the latest aviation news and entertainment.