"Righteous", the Gen 5+ Testbed Ace Combat Barely Knew
Updated: Mar 30
The most underused and now long forgotten aircraft from the universe of Ace Combat: Assault Horizon may be a testbed aircraft nicknamed Righteous. This heavily modified aircraft is only found in the prequel novel for the game, "The Last Ace" written by Jim DeFelice. This article is written using a copy of the original transcript provided to us by the author. We would like to thank the author for sending us the book for writing this article and future articles related to it.
Before he saw combat in East Africa, United States Air Force Colonel William Bishop flew high in the skies of Nevada, USA. This introductory setting is far removed from the explosive opening missions of Ace Combat: Assault Horizon. After serving in two conflicts overseas, Bishop would be a test pilot part of a United States Air Force (USAF) research program based at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.
This aircraft is the core of a military research program created to define the development path of the United States Air Force aircraft technology in the future. The goal of the program was to make progress towards developing sixth and possibly seventh generation combat aircraft. Though still under development in the modern-day portion of "The Last Ace," its description of performance increases and extended capabilities push it into what could be considered a generation 5+ aircraft. It is described as a streamlined and lengthened F-22 Raptor. Visibly longer in comparison to the mass-produced F-22A found in the United States Air Force and United States National Guard air squadrons. Hardware modifications included longer wings and more powerful engines than those found in the F-22A. Increase in maximum service ceiling, overall speed and maneuverability are noted, alongside extensive upgrades in software and computer systems. Modifications to internal systems are not specified in detail. Righteous could also deploy a version of the AIM-120 AMRAAM, known as the AIM-120C-9. An improvement over the C-7 models employed by the real-world F-22A Raptors and F-35 Lightning IIs. The personal assessment from Colonel Bishop was that Righteous was a "work in progress," "fast and maneuverable and deadly" but not completely invincible. Depending on the situation another F-22 might be able to challenge this modified aircraft assuming the pilot was skilled.
Important Aircraft Choice
Rather than using an existing experimental aircraft, a well-known prototype or creating a new fictional design, the author chose a real world, operational 5th generation fighter that has been mass produced. Having this book tied to the Ace Combat franchise would allow the author to be liberal regarding aircraft selection. An existing fictional aircraft created by Project Aces, the game's development team, or a completely new original design could have been used. Ace Combat is known for its super fighter aircraft capable of carrying energy weapons, designed with up to four engines, 360 degree view enclosed cockpits - heck, even fighter sized aircraft with onboard defense systems capable of shooting down incoming missiles.
But the choice by Jim DeFelice to use the F-22A Raptor, even if modified, keeps the story within the realm of the real-world setting Ace Combat: Assault Horizon utilized. It was the right choice for the prequel novel to the game.
During the test flight detailed in The Last Ace, William Bishop flies in the cockpit of this unique F-22 acting as more of a backup system than a pilot. While cruising at 30,000 feet, Bishop turns over control of the aircraft to operators at testbed command in Nellis Air Force Base. The operators flew the aircraft up to 40,000 feet in preparation for a mock air battle. Shortly before the battle began, Righteous was given full control over the entire aircraft. The defining feature of this aircraft is its abilities to operate without a human pilot at its controls. It can be flown through remote control, similar to other military Unmanned Air Systems (UAS) like the RQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper or allowed to operate autonomously. The test program that Righteous embodies is presented in a way that echoes the ongoing discussions about fully autonomous aircraft on the battlefield. In the real world, the mystique surrounding military controlled UAS dissipated long ago. Surveillance and combat footage of drones in Middle East have proliferated television and the worldwide web for decades now. Rather than asking if it is possible, the questions surrounding autonomous unmanned combat aircraft now lean towards ethics in war, technological limitations, and its overall value in combat. Being able to fly a combat aircraft on missions deemed too dangerous to send human pilots is often a leading argument in favor of ideas like Righteous. Saving lives while destroying the enemy is a positive selling point. However, even at the time of the book's publishing and the writing of this article, fully autonomous combat aircraft able to identify and attack their own targets remain in the conceptual and testing stages.
In the novel, the mock air battle pitted Righteous against two F-16 Fighting Falcons, four F-35 Lightning IIs and one RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned surveillance aircraft. The F-35s acted as a strike package with the support of the Global Hawk capable of detecting stealth aircraft with ELINT sensors. With no input from its pilot or ground-based operators, Righteous aggressively prioritized targets and formed a strategy that even Bishop thought was somewhat arrogant. The aircraft elected to strike the F-16 escorts of the Global Hawk first, rather than stealthily destroy the surveillance aircraft. Within minutes half of the enemy force was defeated. During the engagement, Righteous unexpectedly opened its weapon bay doors. For a few moments, both the control team and Bishop questioned the purpose of this, thinking it was a flaw. Bishop perceived this as the F-22 challenging its adversaries to attack by exposing itself to their radars. Though this first flight test ended in a flight emergency that demanded human control to recover from, Righteous was still able to defeat the Global Hawk and two F-16Cs before beginning interception of the F-35s. During the mock battle, Righteous handled all aspects of air combat without a single input from a human controller or pilot, while defeating other manned aircraft. Even with the inflight emergency, these results show the effectiveness of the autonomous flight functions and most likely would merit further testing after this incident.
The novel ends with Colonel Bishop electing to take a transfer to an international task force in East Africa that was already in combat against rebel ground and air forces. While Bishop's story would continue, the story of this aircraft would end with the novel. With no official image of the aircraft available and it not being seen or mentioned in the game, we can only imagine what it may have looked like. Now that the franchise has refocused itself on its own original universe with the imminent release of Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown, Righteous has faded to the background of Ace Combat lore history. Likely to never be seen or used in any future works, as it is tied to the failed reboot of the Ace Combat franchise in 2011.
About the Writer
Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza
Co-founder of Skyward Flight Media. A lifelong aviation enthusiast with a special interest in flight simulators and games. After founding Electrosphere.info, the first English Ace Combat database, he has been involved in creating aviation related websites, communities, and events since 2005. He continues to explore past and present flight games and sims with his extensive collection of game consoles and computers. | Twitter | Discord: RibbonBlue#8870 |