By lex, on January 15th, 2011
So, there I was reading Dave “Bio” Baranek’s excellent Topgun Days – a first person narrative of the glory days of Tomcat Aviation at Naval Air Station Miramar – when I got to his chapter on the Electronic Warfare range embedded within the NAS China Lake restricted area. And: I thought it’d be better to share my Echo Range story before reading his chapter. To avoid the potential plagiary that might be in it.
First, let us dispense with the necessary militaria: “Echo Whiskey” is the phonetic for EW, which in turn stands for “electronic warfare.” Thus is the Echo Whiskey range reduced to the Echo Range, and what great good fun it is, for those who hope, some day, that they might get shot at.
The first US Navy shootdown by a surface to air missile system occurred in 1965, and it was – to say the least – an unwelcome surprise. Wisely, the Navy made significant investments in counter-missile technologies such as active jammers, aluminum chaff clouds to deceive enemy radars, and cockpit radar warning receivers (RWR). In trained hands, the combination of timely warning, aggressive maneuvering and countermeasures vastly reduced the threat. The Echo Range was all about training those hands. Through the use of simulated threat emitters, tracking cameras and recorded radar display systems, the console pros from China Lake were able to present graphic evidence to cocky strike and strike fighter pilots of their own mortality. Seeing yourself in a targeting crosshair has a way of making even knuckle-dragging fighter pilots contemplative. This is, as you should know by now, no mean feat.
Range time wasn’t cheap, so I didn’t spend more than one sortie on the EW range as a junior officer. My flight lead at the time wasn’t the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, so I can’t say I got much out of it. We trolled through our own little SAM alley at maybe 300 knots – dreadfully slow – and more or less level at 10,000. For the range operators, it must have felt like clubbing baby seals. All I remember was that after a tentative, probing “beep” in my headset from my RWR, the azimuth display exploded in a dazzling array of threat indicators, hard lights lit up on the dashboard, and a constant, high intensity ringing in my ears told me that I’d better start doing some of that pilot sh!t unless I wanted to join the infantry.
My next operational tour was in Japan, where the forward deployed air wing didn’t have access to all that gucci stateside gear, and compensated by flying 40 hours a month. After that, I received orders to TOPGUN, which is where I finally got a real appreciation of the Echo Range.
Somebody told me once that a single SEAL platoon will fire more training rounds in a month than the entire Marine Corps will shoot in a year. I don’t know if that’s true, but the example is illustrative. TOPGUN was similarly a no-holds barred institution, the kind of place where a 95% effort wasn’t good enough and real resources were allocated to making the Navy’s finest a whole lot better. Put it this way, using the SEAL example: I expended more chaff and flares in one nine-week class at the Navy Fighter Weapons School than I did in the rest of my flying career combined.
The Echo Range is embedded in the high desert south of Death Valley. There are vast plains framed by cragged mountain ranges; the landscape is as sere and inhospitable as the surface of the moon. The TOPGUN Echo Range mission consisted of a four-ship, self-escort strike on a target in the heavily defended valley. A pair of adversary FA-18s, flown by TOPGUN instructors, hid themselves behind mountains, waiting to pounce on the unwary. We flew a pre-determined route twice, once at a relatively low altitude – around 1000 feet above ground level – and a second time at LOW altitude: 200 feet above the ground, sometimes a little less.
You typically had higher situational awareness in the higher run since, 1) air-to-air radar auto gain thresholds were superior when further from the ground, and 2) less cockpit time was spent on terrain avoidance. Unfortunately, the SA that you had was that you were getting hammered. Sure, you were more likely to spot a bandit visually or on radar when you weren’t devouring the seat cushion through the alternate portal. But the SAM operators had a field day, and you had to bob and weave like a welterweight in the ring with Mike Tyson just to stay alive.
When you’re 200 feet above the ground you’re pretty hard to target with a ground-mounted radar in mountainous terrain because you’ve either got one of two things going for you. The first is direct terrain masking, an impenetrable mountain between yourself and the emitter. The second is indirect terrain masking, which occurs when you’ve got a radar reflective mountain on your other side, away from the emitter. Depending on the type of threat system, your own radar reflectivity can be lost in the return of the massively reflective mountain, whose signal saturates the radar receiver.
The problem with zorching around at 200 feet and 500 knots or so is that you’re never more than 3 seconds from dying. Not “I just shot you with a pretend SAM” dying. Actual obliteration. A instantly blooming fireball, followed rapidly by co-mingled flesh, titanium and graphite epoxy spread out over a considerable distance. At steep angles of bank, such as those used when evading a bandit or performing a missile break, that margin is further reduced. The hard math of low altitude training means that the vast majority of your cockpit time is spent transfixed by the view forward in your head’s up display, with just a little bit of time spent on everything else: formation keeping, radar management, weapons system status, fuel monitoring, radar warning receiver, navigation and communication.
It was more fun than a bag full of girls, while simultaneously riveting in the kind of way familiar to motorcycle riders who wonder if they’ve taken a turn too fast. And while the SAM operators pretty much left you alone, the bandits could really get in your knickers if at least a part of your three seconds wasn’t spent checking your wingman’s six, and hoping he was checking yours.
If everything went well, your RWR would be silent apart from the occasional beep, and you’d catch the bandit visually as he took aim on your wingie. Then it would be “five miles to target,” a hard jink into the vertical, a forearm blow to the expendables dispenser, a reversal to final attack parameters even as your headset exploded in to high frequency alarms.
At which point, of course, the target looming closer in your HUD, you’d be on government time.