Mercenarial Economics: The Entrepreneurs of Ace Combat
The metagame of Ace Combat provides the player the ability to upgrade their aircraft, weapons, and at times their aircraft performance by spending a form of in-game currency. Sometimes called “credits” or “MRP’s”, this currency is earned through the completion of missions and the destruction of enemy material in the form of aircraft, ground vehicles, ships, and buildings. From the perspective of the player, these credits do not represent an accurate price reputation in a reality where modern fighter aircraft are worth more than their weight in gold (reference document by Defense Aerospace). Metagame aside, the economic implications of this currency and trade system combined with the prevalence of well-equipped mercenary organizations on Strangereal (the original, fictional world of Ace Combat) paint an unrealistically rosy perspective for weapons and personnel sales in this comparatively high-quality-of-life world. Put simply, war is good for business. Ace Combat is a poster-child for this proto-dystopian corporate-conflict fiction. Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere firmly established the existence of the megacorps General Resource Ltd. and Neucom Inc. and their dominance over the civil governments across continental USEA. The representation of their dominance is projected in their war material. Neucom with their R-series aircraft, and General Resource with their COFFIN-equipped contemporary designs, and both their willingness to use them against one another. The culmination of Ace Combat 3 and these megacorps is well chronicled. The release of Ace Combat 7 further cements the fated timeline of the series with the introduction of the General Resource Guardian Mercenaries in Operation: Sighthound. The decisions to represent Ace Combat as a universe ripe for modern-day knights for hire does so much to motivate the player to fly and fight without introducing controversial geopolitics. It also provides a unique experience for this strange, real world that you are expected to indulge in. Especially at the time of their release, these hyper-powered mercenary groups and payouts for the destruction of rival militaries felt solidified in fiction. But is there more realism to this fictional representation then there seems? For much of history, mercenaries were a fact of war and highly sought after for any conflict. Standing armies as we know them today were rare—armies were raised and fought for conflicts that arose. As the imperial age gave way to the formation of the nation-state in the last half of the 19th century and the solidification of the total war posture of nations following World War I, the need for mercenaries dwindled, and modern rules of engagement forbade their treatment as lawful combatants, discouraging their use—at least in official capacity. This grey area of mercenary work is what forms the basis of the representation we see in game, particularly with aircraft. The United States was a well-known supplier of personnel of all combat professions, even in those that it had little experience in, like combat pilots. In fact, the United States first taste of air combat was in a volunteer capacity with the La Fayette Escadrille in 1916. These pilots built a positive reputation for the perception of the United States otherwise weak air corps. (reference article from The Centanaire). Their fight represented the glamour of air combat to the United States, despite their unofficial capacity. The experience the returned to their home nation jump started the meek U.S. Army Air Corps and started its formation into what would become a world-class organization by the 1940’s. The United States mirrored this support for Allied nations during the events leading up to World War II. Once again exhibiting isolationism, the United States officially kept its national forces out of the conflicts across the oceans. However its actions spoke a different language. The Lend-Lease program for Europe and the embargo of supplies required by the conquests of the Japanese Empire spoke volumes for who the United States was supporting. But the government also provided a secretive program for the deployment of American volunteers to the Chinese mainland. This American Volunteer Group was provided the same provisions as national flyers, but with a further benefit: A monthly stipend of $750 and a bounty of $500 for every Japanese aircraft destroyed in the air or on the ground. (Daniel Ford, Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941–1942, HarperCollins 2007, pp.44–45) Adjusted for inflation in the year 2020, this translates to a generous sum of over $13,500 per month and over $9000 for every Japanese aircraft destroyed. This provided the potential for some rather wealthy Flying Tigers. It is at this point that we see that the fame and fortune of combat pilots in Ace Combat don’t seem quite as fantastic as initially believed. Perhaps the best analog to these early war guns-for-hire is the mercenaries hired by the Ustio government during the Belkan War chronicled in Ace Combat Zero. The player decision to fight for the extremes of hard cash or noble notoriety in its representation of the Mercenary-Soldier-Knight system isn’t just a modest allegory to chivalry, but perhaps also a play on the volunteer roles of Western pilots on the forefront of aviation. During the 1950’s and 1960’s Africa served as a hotbed of mercenary activity. The post-colonial era saw uprisings of independence across the old European territories. This independence could not be achieved by peaceful means, however. Whether they were groups marginalized and brutalized, or wealthy landowners declaring self-sufficiency, these groups knew that their lack of military equipment and trained forces meant that they needed to seek experience and arms from those that may not see loyalty for an ideology, but rather can be bought with a promise of adventure. As warlords and colonialists fought for dominance, the border lines of the African continent shifted. There is perhaps no more recognizable group of soldiers of fortune than those of the now-defunct Executive Outcomes. Executive Outcomes was primarily formed from special operations forces from the defunct South African Special Forces following the end of the South-African border wars in 1989. Though established as trainers of Angolan military personnel, their activity expanded to direct confrontation with UNITA forces following disputed election results three years later. Their reputation was sealed with a quick and decisive victory against UNITA forces, brokering a peace deal and facilitating displacement of their forces with UN peacekeeping troops. Three years later the group engaged in combat against RUF forces in Sierra Leone who had gained control of diamond fields and held them for arms deals against the legitimate national government. Executive Outcomes again rapidly forced capitulation of hostilities and brought the group to talks. (The New Mercenaries and the Privatization of Conflict Archived 7 January, 2016 at the Wayback Machine Thomas K. Adams. Parameters, Summer 1999). During this war Executive Outcomes employed comparatively advanced heavy equipment, including the use of Soviet-era T-72 tanks and a privately owned-and-operated Mi-24 gunship. This equipment was provided to them by Iblis Air, which themselves also had access to MiG-23 and -27 fixed wing aircraft armed with air-to-ground munitions. Executive Outcomes was forced out of the conflict after peace talks and replaced again with peacekeepers, which were not effective in maintaining the ceasefire. Executive Outcomes demonstrated a relatively new concept of professional army for hire. The effectiveness of this company not only demonstrated an effective augment of national forces, but also the ability to win wars independently. In Air Combat and Ace Combat 2 this is exemplified with the Special Tactical Fighter Squadron Scarface—a government on the brink of disaster reaching out to well-trained mercenaries with their own equipment in a desperate bid to win back their territory. There’s merit in the thought that this representation of mercenary activity in-game is not a coincidence. The mercenary activities by groups like Executive Outcomes in Africa were regularly demonstrating the ability of a well-equipped but small force driven by a desire for wealth and manifest to be able to defeat in short time significantly larger national forces of the day. There is something of an unsettling “seediness” associated with the modern-day private military corporations that represent a significant chunk of armed security around the world. Whether this reputation is deserved is perhaps up for debate, but business suits and combat vests makes for strange yet effective bedfellows. However this combination is far from a novel paring. Companies and corporations have held their own private security divisions since their development, and what may have been configured as a requirement for the protection of trading vessels and caravans grew into its own lucrative stream of income for those so well equipped. The contemporary view of mercenaries meets this juncture with groups like the well-known Blackwater (now Academi following several reorganizations). But in just the last few years has a glut of surplus equipment provided the ability for legitimate companies to via for contracts assisting national air forces in combat training. It is in these companies that the line between suits and soldiers blur. Perhaps these companies do not use the weapons of war their equipment was initially equipped for, but they are displacing what were once tightly cherished national logistics lines, and not in small numbers. In fact, in the case of companies like American-based Draken International there is a maintained force of combat aircraft totally nearly 100-strong, outpacing the size of the air forces of majority of the world’s nations. And they are not alone: Air USA recently secured the purchase of over 40 ex-Australian F/A-18 Hornets. What makes these unique is they were purchased as is, weapons, avionics, and all with no plans for demilitarization (reference article from the Drive). To add further, these companies are not just lapping up older equipment—Air USA’s Hawk trainers are equipped with EL-2052 radars and are the only privately owned adversary aircraft equipped with AESA radars in the world. The vast sums of money available in private sectors and the United States government’s willingness to cede partial control of air combat training and logistics operations to civilian sectors represents an almost eerie bridge to the corpocracy represented in Ace Combat 3. Large defense contractors like Northrop Grumman are not unwilling to participate in this industry, with groups like Vinnel Corporation having once been lodged firmly under their umbrella of control. It has become far from unfathomable that this alliance of enterprise and defense will be checked. Neucom Inc. and General Resource Ltd., corporations once believed to be improbable during a time of anti-trust litigation and crackdowns on cartels and oligopolies now seems an inevitability in our world’s new order of private security in the name of cost savings. Ace Combat once may have been a glimpse into a different reality than our own, but in recent years the geopolitical structure of our world has shifted drastically. Dreams of private glory and gold once thought over with the establishment of boundaries and treaties had only been tempered for a short time before rebounding in ways reminiscent of eras long past. Trillion dollar companies with vast cash reserves and the acceleration of an unpredicted form of globalization and asymmetrical warfare has fostered the growth of new supranational organizations with a discerning eye for the future of inter-state security. But if we were to be honest with ourselves, there is perhaps little different. The clear blue skies—a link from past to future—forever stays the same. Yesteryear’s Dutch East India Company is today’s Saudi Aramaco, just as Ace Combat's Grunder Industries paved the way for their General Resource. 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.