Analysis: The Standard Missile in Ace Combat
If we could distill Ace Combat to a singular, recognizable trait, what would it be? Silent protagonists? A constructed world of unrealistic air power? A signature console exclusive? Whittling away at this to arrive at that singular eyebrow-raising realization is difficult, but picture yourself playing this game for the first time. Maybe you were a veteran of air combat simulators, or maybe it was your first foray into the unfriendly skies, but I’ll bet the first surprise that caught you was that number “60” flanked by the silhouettes of Sidewinders.
The “Ace Combat Loadout” is infamous amongst video games. Even casual players can’t help but poke fun at the idea of a real-world aircraft holding bottomless magazines of complex computerized homing rockets. Yet that it still only the first half of the incredulity of these magic spears: they possess the ability to hit targets in the air—or on the ground--with equal precision and power, limited only by a reload rate of two missiles per salvo.
Such a weapon in reality would represent a holy grail of tactical and logistical pursuit. Technological innovation has never quite achieved this goal. But what self-respecting military-industrial complex would let such a theoretical achievement stop them?
Often depicted in-game as a NATO-standard advanced, longer-ranged Sidewinder or CIS-aligned extra-lightweight and shorter-ranged R-60, the STDM seems like a simple enough concept in its primary role of air-to-air combat. These missiles were built for true visual-range fire-and-forget engagements, and at that they excel. Until recently, a maximum-range of five miles could be expected, with a very short burn time and the ability to hit a target maneuvering well above a human-sustainable g-limit. Improvements to these missiles in reality have since diverged what semblance of accurate representation they may have shared to their virtual counterparts, but with this base performance in mind, we can start to build out and see where these weapons re-converge into an ideal reality.
The Sidewinder itself went through several incremental improvements—the AIM-9M and AIM-9X both being the most recognizable in the modern day, but the advancement of this platform and construction of these new models left quite a few of the obsolete older models in inventory, including the unique AIM-9C radar-guided variant of the Sidewinder. Between 1986 and 1990, it was decided to reuse these airframes and components to rebuild the missile into an air-to-ground, anti-radiation missile known as the AGM-122 Sidearm.
The compatibility advantages should be clear; the missile could be mounted on the same platforms and the same racks with the same weight-penalty as the AIM-9, granting a short-range anti-surface capability to fighters and helicopters already wired for the Sidewinder. Though not as effective as dedicated anti-radiation missiles like the AGM-88 HARM, the idea was popular and effective enough to propose another batch of remanufactured missiles under the designation AIM-122B. This proposal was not realized. The lessons achieved by this device were however not forgotten.
The AIM-9X was a revolution in the Sidewinder family. It is in fact so different in operation and construction that it holds the Sidewinder legacy in name only—even its base-airframe functions differently than its previous family. Beyond its thrust-vectored exhaust and re-evaluation of control surface deflection to the front-mounted airfoils, the AIM-9X does away with its old analog guidance system and replaces it with a modular, reprogrammable digital array. This allows the missile to be updated with new target info, including new infrared signature data, better filtering algorithms, advanced image recognition and processing, and as a consequence, the capability for a new mission profile: light ground attack. In 2009 a successful test was accomplished with a USAF F-15C attacking and destroying a small cigar boat using a reprogrammed AIM-9X. Bellow you can see an example of the off-boresight capabilities of the missile, which only aided in its new impromptu air to ground role.
No hardware modification was required, and unlike the Sidearm, its air combat capability is unaltered. The missile retained its warhead and detonation system, limiting it to unhardened targets. A true force multiplier, the demonstration has opened up new avenues of capability for platforms once solely regarded as air-to-air only, though whether this option was adapted by the USAF remains in limbo.
But there’s still a desire to increase the capacity of the fighter. In the past five years there has been interest in the “missile truck” concept, which loads a heavy fighter with a slew of long-range missiles. The F-15C 2020 and F-15X are recent examples of this concept, theoretically being able to mount and fire up to 22 AMRAAM’s in a single sortie. However this is unique to specific platforms, using legacy equipment. The future requires something smaller, faster, universal—and ideally something that can increase the carrying capacity of stealth-capable platforms with internal bays.
The Lockheed Martin SACM, marketed as “Cuda”, aims to offer this capability. The F-35 itself is projected to carry up to twelve of these missiles. Changes include pure thrust-vector control for reduced drag and precision to perform hit-to-kill on maneuvering targets. It seems like a previous feature is missing from this system—the ability to engage ground targets. Upon a service requirement stemming from the JDRADM, DARPA decided to redevelop this concept into the T3 program, producing a missile that combines the abilities of the air-to-air AIM-120, and the air-to-surface AGM-88 HARM.
The future points to an abundance of firepower, and yet another eerie convergence. What may come off as unexpected is the superposition of the real with the meta; A simple, silly observation that makes the Ace Combat concept function as a game, pursued as a tactical trump card for next-generation air combat—from the air, to the air, and to the ground.
About the Author
T.J. "Millie" Archer
T.J. "Millie" Archer is 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.