Weakly, almost unreadable, “Roger 21, we’ve got hostiles danger close, almost on us – do you have any 20 mike-mike?” The JTAC is asking for twenty-millimeter cannon, the XO thinks, eyebrows lifting. The bad guys must be close aboard indeed… What is that ripping sound in the background? Static? Something else?
“Hammer 21, that’s affirm, 500 rounds each 20 mike-mike.”
“Roger 21, stand by for nine line…”
Endless turns on CAP, unrelieved khaki brown below, the distant horizon obscured by a dirty, sullen haze. Over to the west, the sun crawls lazily down towards the haze layer, just that tiniest degree lower with each successive turn. Nothing to break the monotony but the repetitive sound of his own breathing in the O2 mask, the very occasional radio communication to his wingman as they come to the end of an orbit and reverse course. On each turn, the engine instruments, fuel quantity and fuel transfer systems are checked and verified in the green with such long-accustomed force of habit that the thing itself is automatic, unremarkable. Out of the turn the squadron XO looks to his right three o’clock wearily, almost hoping to see his wingman out of position. If only to have something to talk about, something to say besides, “In place right, go.” But no: The young man is exactly where he is supposed to be, in perfect formation, as silently focused as a bird dog on point. He had, the XO admitted to himself, done very well in his first hot mission, very well indeed. He might just do.
Speaking in whispered tones on a secure frequency, the Joint Terminal Air Controller, or JTAC, had only requested one JDAM on a single coordinate set. The wingman had more than half expected the Squadron XO to deliver the weapon himself – opportunities to drop were not particularly regular these days, and rank had its privileges, after all. So he had been initially surprised when his flight lead had designated him to be the man to release the weapon that “Assassin” had asked for. The wingman was grateful for the opportunity to prove himself, but most of all, he was nervous that he might make some critical mistake, especially in front of the XO – an exacting and demanding flight lead. With a grimace, the wingman remembered the parting words his lead had given the assembled crowd as he dismissed them from the mass brief: “Flawless execution is the minimum standard.”
The wingman had never been to a place like Hong Kong before, and he had to admit in sober retrospect that it had intimidated the hell out of him. He had grown up in central Nebraska, at home on the Great Plains and prairies, used to the horizon stretching out before him like a modestly attractive but compliant lover. So accustomed was he to undifferentiated vistas leaping out at him uninterrupted for great distances that the first time he had gone to sea and looked out across the limitless span of waters, he had felt immediately at home in spite of the fact that he was very far from Kearney. Flying an FA-18 at high altitude, the views were also was familiar to him, as the whole world seemed to shrink into a two-dimensional planisphere, one of homely and familiar proportions.
The target, they had been told, called for only one weapon. A JDAM, to be precise, the wingman thought, and chuckled to himself: To be precise.
All that they were told about the target was its location – a location that had been plotted very precisely, whose position had been checked by dozens of people in several different decision cells. A target whose location was known down to the last meter in a three-axis representation, whose existence on a common spheroid was known down to the last hundredth of a second.
Nothing at all more than that were they told – nothing at all more than was necessary. This was not to be an LGB strike, one in which the strike fighter pilot was importuned to know his target utterly, to be one with its ontology. They would not be required to fall in love with it, to in fact, love it to death. This was not to be the mission of a pilot, but rather that of an engineer: Their role was less than a warrior’s, but they told themselves, more than an assassin’s.
…behind the vault-like doors of the carrier intelligence center, or CVIC, a first class intelligence specialist monitoring a chat room in the Multi-Source Integration cell reads a few lines of text and sits bolt upright. “Sir,” he says, calling to one of the targeteers, “I think you’d better have a look at this.”
The targeteer, an intelligence officer with the rank of lieutenant lets out a low whistle, beckons for a runner, “We need to convene the TST cell.” He then picks up a red radio handset, keys the mike and says, “COPS, MSI – stand by for words on a time sensitive target.”
The ball starts falling towards the center but it’s moving too fast, he’s going to shoot through the glideslope, he can hear the LSO key the mike, and he knows that “Paddles” is going to scream for “POWER” so before that can even happen he plugs the throttle into blower (just a bit? a bit more? how’s that?) and when the LSO finally does call “POWER!” on the radio what seems like an eternity later the pilot mentally shrugs, thinks to himself, you bet, that’s all I’ve got and there’s nothing at all left over, and he feels strangely calm knowing that he’s done what he can do and there’s no card left to play. The ball sags below the datum lights and he hears the LSO key the mike again…
“Should be good to go for a recovery at…” the JG pauses, running the math again in his head, rechecking the performance charts – got to keep in mind that he’s dirty: gear and flaps down will increase fuel consumption, “No more than 45 minutes or so, to be on the safe side. Put him on deck with three-point-oh.”
“Three point oh? Doesn’t give him much of a margin for error!”
“That’s about the max he could make an attempt with, as hot as it is. Any more than that and he won’t have single-engine wave-off capability. It’ll be tight no matter what.”
“Man,” the Air Boss exclaims, “This just keeps getting better and better.” He turns and picks up a phone again, buzzes the Captain.
Time to turn, he thinks – this is as far as we should go. Time to head back north. “In place right, go.” An automatic check of his fuel state, engine instruments, radar warning receiver. Another turn on CAP, the boredom setting in. His wingman returns him his previous favor, and locks the XO up as his nose comes round, setting off his radar warning gear. “Buddy spike, six,” the XO says automatically. He rocks himself gently in his ejection seat, fore and aft. Trying to stay alert. Trying to stay ready.
Little bit of afterburner – WHOA! He fights a sudden, uncommanded lift of the nose, like a boat rising to meet a wave, a nervous, drifting yaw to the right, the screaming “WHEEEEE” of the stall warning tone. He bunts the stick forward, hard – no gentle caress this, but a panic pulse, a video game move. In the sudden switch to almost 0 g, he floats in the seat straps while he reaches out with his left leg to stab with fear-augmented strength on the left rudder. She lifts again, hesitates, settles – the stall tone goes from a constant scream to abbreviated bursts. These slow, they stop. Almost lost her there, dummy! Got to be careful when you’re slow and single engine – asymmetric thrust in burner can put you out of limits. And you’re still high, so there’s less lift. Trade altitude for airspeed. Lower the nose; let’s pick up some knots.
“Two, be advised: I can’t maintain altitude. I’m going down.”