Category Archives: Wargaming

Jousting in the Dark with Flashlights

As I’ve related before in these pages, I am a casual flight-simulation enthusiast.  In my youth I was a much more devoted aficionado (if not a particularly skilled one), and I spent many happy hours flying (mostly one-way) virtual sorties into scarily dense integrated air defense networks.  But these days, I lack the time and proficiency to survive in that kind of unwelcoming environment, and so I satisfy myself with the prosaic tasks of practicing touch-and-goes, failing at in-flight refueling, and occasionally sparring with computer-controlled enemies at a skill level just low enough to make me the conquering hero.  Another oak leaf cluster for my Distinguished Flying Cross?  Why thank you, don’t mind if I do, you can paint the MiG silhouette right over there, that’s right Iceman, I am dangerous.  (Hey, don’t judge me.)

There I was in the blue F-16, trying to jump a partially-anesthetized, unarmed A-4E in a level turn...and, er, I wind up botching the end game with way too much closure. What looks like a tidy little displacement roll on the tape was really a frenzied attempt to avoid a mid-air collision.

However, it’s interesting after all these years to see how current technology is employed by serious simulator fans who have stuck with the hobby.  There are several different layers of simulation complexity.  The first is mastering the control and management of your own aircraft, which is a nontrivial exercise in the era of 700+ page “game manuals.”  (I am stuck at this level.)  The second is basic combat against a computer-controlled aircraft, the so-called “1-v-1” engagement.  This raises the complexity substantially, as weapons systems and tactics and all of the nastiness of an opponent come into play.  The third level is multiplying the number of aircraft in play, which adds the element of multi-tasking under stress.  And the fourth adds human players into the mix, which increases the chaos by an order of magnitude.

The “fourth-level” organized scenarios that are flown by serious devotees of the hobby are fascinating.  While there is plenty to read in the open literature about Basic Fighter Maneuvers, there is not a lot about how a large air battle involving fourth-generation fighters equipped with missiles of the AMRAAM generation would play out tactically (the seminal open-source work on the subject, Robert Shaw’s Fighter Combat: Tactics and Maneuvering, was published in 1985).  These are the intriguing parts of the mission that Lex could not show us on his helmet-cam — and for good reason, for there lie secrets upon which lives may one day depend.

But within the boundaries of what is publicly known, the experiences of the hardcore simulator crowd provide some fuel for thought.  Not so much as a predictive device — but rather, to get the “feel” of the thing, and in particular how tomorrow’s fighter pilot (or UCAV operator) will need to quickly synthesize all kinds of fragmentary information in a very short time to detect, identify, engage, kill, and withdraw.  If these games are any indication, it will be confusing, fast, violent, and curiously cerebral.

The Youtube video above is a recording of an air-to-air encounter during a Falcon 4.0 airfield strike, flown by a four-ship of F-16s over a simulated Korean peninsula.  (Or, more properly, flown by four civilian hobbyists over the Internet, at least one of whom has melodramatic tastes in background music.)  In this setup, they have no airborne radar controller with a God’s-eye view of the battlespace warning them of incoming threats.  Instead, they have to rely on their own radar warning equipment, their awareness of each other’s position, and the onboard data networking equipment that allows them to construct a common picture of what’s going on.  But they have to work to build that situational awareness, based on little half-second blips and buzzes that pulse on their threat receivers, and there is no time to spare, since modern missiles have the speed and range to kill virtually anything that can be detected, very quickly.  Compared to the WWII experience, it seems strangely abstract.

This second video is taken from a mission analysis tape (mimicking the military’s TACTS/ACMI systems, most current flight simulators have some kind of “flight recorder” capability that allows the mission to be carefully dissected afterward — this is an attractive little presentation package called TacView).  Here we see some of the consequences of chaos, when an F-15 takes a missile shot — and while his intended target exits the missile envelope, a friendly F-15 wanders into it.  With modern fighter aircraft being as agile as they are, and modern missiles having the range, kinematics, and “semi-smart” acquisition mechanics that they do, and everything happening fast fast fast…stuff can happen.

I don’t assert that these commercial entertainment products will predict the outcome of future air battles.  (Even assuming that flight simulations get the performance details within the ballpark, I think they still have a platform bias that undermodels operational-strategic capabilities which can change the battlefield fundamentals.)  But I do think that they do a more creditable job at capturing the flavor of that battlefield than a lot of other media, which rely too heavily on accounts of past air wars that are receding in relevance.

And if nothing else, these mission accounts are very entertaining for an old computer game player to watch.  They can be my wingmen anytime, no I can be theirs.  Er.  Well, something like that, anyway.

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Wargame: Libya 1984 – The Strike Leader’s View

Part II — executing the plan.

MISSION COMMANDER’S NARRATIVE

-TRANSCRIPT BEGINS-

In early 1984 I was a fighter division lead in VF-14, one of two F-14 squadrons embarked in USS Independence. We had just cycled out of operations off Beirut and were looking forward to an expected liberty period at the end of the month, but all of that was cancelled when we got the call for Libya. I was on the first CAP to intercept a Libyan Fitter on that cruise — the pictures that my RIO took got published in Jane’s later that year.

I was surprised to hear that I was going to lead the carrier’s first strike into Libya. This was about ten years before the F-14 community got “strike religion,” and at the time, no F-14 squadrons had any real attack training. We were pure air-to-air; “moving mud” was left to the bubbas in the A-6 and A-7 squadrons. But CAG Ops (an old buddy from VF-1) told me that I was the most experienced available pilot, and by Vice Admiral Verssen’s directive that made me the strike lead. “The magic number is 8,” he told me after handing over the mission folder. “You need 8 hits. Ten Mavericks, no less.”

I chose “Farmboy” and his RIO to accompany me in the escort element. The A-6 squadron assigned three crews led by “Bug”, “Dingo”, and “Extra.” Everybody had an average amount of experience, except for me (a skilled lieutenant commander) and Extra, who was on his first tour and still green. Maintenance managed to get enough working jets on short notice and the ordies got everything loaded.

CAMELOT 104 (Kermit): F-14A, 4 x AIM-9, 1 x AIM-54
CAMELOT 103 (Farmboy): F-14A, 2 x AIM-7, 2 x AIM-9, 1 x AIM-54
THUNDER 502 (Bug): A-6E, 4 x AGM-65 Maverick, 1 x ECM pod
THUNDER 510 (Dingo): A-6E, 4 x AGM-65 Maverick, 1 x ECM pod
THUNDER 506 (Extra): A-6E, 4 x AGM-65 Maverick, 1 x ECM pod

The launch and form-up went smoothly and we headed south toward the Libyan coast. On the inbound leg we ran into BAD WEATHER, which forced us to dog-leg around the storm area. As a result, we all were stressed going in (+1) and would be approaching the SA-11 from the west instead of the south.

Worse, the poor weather conditions degraded our bombing accuracy from high altitude (-2), making it harder to get 8 hits with 10 Mavericks. Bug asked if we still wanted to shoot two of his Mavericks at the SAM site, or put all of them on the primary target to make up for the degraded conditions. Being a fighter guy, I had no clue — but as the nominal strike leader I had to make an executive decision, which in retrospect was really a weaselly compromise: we’d shoot only one Maverick at the SA-11, allocate the remaining 11 Mavericks to the primary target, and hope for the best. Already the thin margins on this raid were causing our underwear to show.

There wasn’t a lot of time to dwell on that, as the Libyan Arab Air force had come up to play. The fighter controllers called a total of four bandits: a Mirage III and a MiG-25 directly ahead of us in the western approaches, a MiG-21 in the north, and a MiG-23 in the south. There wasn’t anything overhead the target at the moment. This was back in my comfort zone, and I began to feel better about the way the mission was going — my escort section could handle four bandits.

As we crossed into the standoff approach zone, the controllers called PRE-STRIKE, and informed us that a “friendly mission” (they didn’t say what) had just hit one of the air defense sites in the central target area. My RIO asked which one — there were two sites in the center, an SA-6 and an SA-10. At our flight profile, only the SA-10 posed a danger to us. They told us to wait one. The large raindrops pelting the canopy almost sounded like dice rolling on a car roof.

“SA-6,” came back the reply. Of course.

Time began to accelerate. It was time to shoot the Phoenix missiles at long range. Farmboy and I sorted the bandits; I decided to take the highest threat, the MiG-25 in the west, while he would loft his big missile at the MiG-23 in the south. Thirty seconds later there were two sparkles on the horizon as both bandits came apart under the heavy warheads.

Into the over-target phase. Horizon scan — I’m the only fast pilot but dammit I took only AIM-9s and all of the bandits are out of range, pass the lead to Farmboy, who has two AIM-7s and some situational awareness, and he shoots both Sparrow missiles at the Mirage on the nose — first goes wild, but the second kills, unload and extend, here we go…

And then the SA-11 in the western approach comes up on the RWR and locks on to Bug — it will shoot first, before Bug can loose the single Maverick that we agreed upon. Fast warble, it’s locked on…Bug switches on his ECM pod and elects not to evade, in order to conserve stress for the attack run…and a jagged Soviet-made projectile arcs up…cuts through the pod jamming like it was nothing…and tears off Bug’s left wing…

Chutes and beepers, as Bug and his BN get out of the jet and the wreck of THUNDER 502 falls to earth, with its precious unused load of 4 Maverick missiles.

The SA-10 in the center engages Dingo, who remarkably chooses not to evade, but the missile goes ballistic. And then, before we can do much more than to call the SAR forces to launch a rescue mission for the crew of 502, we press into the western pre-approach zone. The controllers call the single surviving MiG-21 moving toward us, and this time he’s inside Sidewinder range — I unload everything on him and he goes down in a blossom of flame. But then the SA-11 is back on the air and shoots at Farmboy; I see a flash out to the starboard quarter and see my wingman’s jet showered in fragments, damaged. But airworthy.

And now we’re in the firing envelope, and the two remaining A-6s ripple-fire their eight Mavericks at the tank column, half-hidden in the misty clag. Dingo’s four missiles arc up and score 3 hits, while Extra’s weapons only manage a single hit. 3 + 1 is 4. 4 hits. 4 is less than 8. We don’t have 8. We came all this way, lost an airplane and maybe a crew, and we didn’t make 8…

And then I remembered time returning to normal. We egressed back to the west at best speed and ended the over-the-target phase early. On the way out we drew SAM VEHICLES, and it was my turn to get shot at for +1 stress (Dingo had the same experience).

The only good news of the day was that the combat search-and-rescue studs managed to grab Bug and his bombardier-navigator while the Libyan army closed in (although there was an SH-3 with a number of 7.62mm holes in it that night on the hangar deck). The A-6 crew was ok but, understandably, very shaken by the experience.

The debrief was grim.

-TRANSCRIPT ENDS-

PRIMARY TARGET HITS: 4 (FAIL, -1 PENALTY)
AIR-TO-AIR KILLS: 4
AIRCRAFT LOST: 1
AIRCRAFT DAMAGED: 1
VPs: -2

CREW CONDITION:
Kermit: Shaken (5)
Farmboy: Shaken (7)
Bug: Shaken (9)
Dingo: OK (3)
Extra: Shaken (4)

LESSONS LEARNED/ADMIRAL’S FINDINGS

  • A major contributing factor to the failure of the mission was the distance to the target, which required the A-6s to surrender a total of 9 weight points to external fuel tanks rather than additional Maverick missiles. However, there were ample special option points available to assign priority tanking, eliminating the need for drop tanks and by extension the weight penalty. The net effect of this action would have been to add the firepower equivalent of one more bomber.
  • The unexpected bad weather was an unfortunate turn of events. The strike leader had a choice to continue with the high-altitude approach, go in at low altitude to negate the effects of cloud/haze on weapon accuracy, or abort the whole mission. His decision to continue was justifiable, and in particular he was probably right not to change to a low-altitude approach at the last minute while already en route. However, having decided to continue, he should have been aware that he was now operating at the barest minimum margin of error — a 20% reduction in weapons effectiveness essentially meant that all three A-6s had to deliver their ordnance on target.
  • The failure by Bug and Dingo to evade against the missile threat was foolhardy, and in the former case was the proximate cause for mission failure (not to mention the loss of a very expensive aircraft). It is true that the chances of a SAM hit are generally low, and even lower when an ECM pod is in operation (as was the case here). But the bad weather allowed absolutely no margin for error. Every measure should have been taken to avoid the loss of any A-6s — the stress cost was clearly worth it.
  • At the moment that THUNDER 502 was lost, failure of the mission became probable. Strike leader had the choice to abort at this point, which would have spared the strike package further exposure to SAM fire. However, given that the A-6s would arrive in range on the next turn and that they still carried 8 Mavericks, his decision to continue was justifiable.
  • CAG Ops notes that a contributing cause of the mission failure can be traced back to the absence of multirole jets in the air wing. A-6s are not air-to-air capable, while F-14s are not air-to-ground capable. Yet there was still a robust air threat and a significant primary target that needed more bombs than could be reasonably carried by only 3 A-6s. The need to assign dedicated aircraft for both missions while having only 5 sorties available made this impossible. This calls into question the wisdom of Navair’s historical commitment to single-role specialized aircraft in the air wing.
  • Admiral directs CAG Ops to either (a) identify the message traffic where CAG Ops was requested to provide his personal opinion on Navair procurement practices in the middle of a shooting war, or (b) close his O-4 mouth.
  • Admiral’s conference at 1845; CAG, CAG Ops, and VA and VF squadron COs and OPSOs required to attend. Given the dismal outcome of this morning’s Navy strike there is talk of giving all deep interdiction missions to Italy-based USAFE forces. Stand by for a beating.

Wargame:  Hornet Leader:  Carrier Air Operations, designed by Dan Verssen (DVG Games, 2010).

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Wargame: Libya 1984 – The Planner’s View

This is a narrative from another wargame I played last year.  It comes in two parts:  the first describes the decisions made in the setup phase, and the second covers the execution of my best-laid plans.

– TRANSCRIPT BEGINS –

Operation Santa Fe Trail kicked off on the day after St. Patrick’s Day, 1984, ten days after the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Rome. At the time I was CAG operations officer for Carrier Air Wing 6, embarked in USS Independence (CV 62). It had already been an eventful deployment, with jets from Indy flying combat missions over Lebanon in December (in fact my boss had been shot down and rescued during one of those raids). But the Marines had been withdrawn in February, and by early March we had withdrawn into the central Med for a NATO exercise. On the day of the embassy bombing the exercise was cancelled, and by the morning of the 9th we were on station just north of the Gulf of Sidra. We got the warning order for possible airstrikes into Libya on the 12th, and the final execution order late on the 16th.

The initial mission was a critical strike against a tank formation (target folder #12), far to the south. The problem was that the air plan only gave me 5 jets to do it with. The air spies told me that enemy fighter activity was expected to be high (up to 2 MiGs in each approach area, and 2 more on the target), which meant that I needed to send fighters. CVW-6 had no F/A-18s, so fighters meant F-14s, and I couldn’t see any way to do it with fewer than two of them. That left only three jets available as bombers. Given the distances involved, I gave the mission to the A-6 squadron, who had the range and payload to put enough ordnance on target with the fewest number of airplanes.

WEAPONEERING

A few words about strike planning. Indy had three full squadrons of dedicated bombers, and given this overall lethality potential, it may seem to be a simple thing to blow up a target. Don’t be fooled — most targets can be remarkably hard to destroy. Every target has some minimum number of warhead “hits” that will be required to destroy it. In the case of target folder #12, the magic number was eight. Everything that went into the planning process was designed to achieve only one goal: to make sure that our three A-6E Intruders were able to inflict at least eight solid hits on Khaddafi’s favorite tank regiment.

The tanks themselves were a dispersed target, which made some weapons less effective against them than others. “Rockeyes or Mavs,” the gunner from VA-176 recommended immediately, noting that the best weapons in Indy‘s magazine for dispersed targets were Mk 20 Rockeye cluster bombs and AGM-65 Maverick missiles. I selected the Mavericks, because they had an additional +3 against vehicles and could be launched at a distance.

Nominally, the mighty A-6E Intruder can carry 12 weight points; at 2 weight points per Maverick missile, that translated to 6 missiles for each Intruder. However, because of the distance to the target, the need for external fuel tanks reduced the per-aircraft ordnance capacity to 9 weight points. That meant only 4 Mavericks for each of the three A-6s, for an aggregate payload of 12 Mavericks.

Would it be enough? A Maverick missile, when employed against dispersed vehicles, had an attack value of 4/7. That meant that we would expect 30% of missiles fired to produce one hit and 40% to produce two hits. The successful delivery of all 12 Mavericks would theoretically produce 13.2 hits, more than enough to meet our magic number of 8 hits.

But note this: our many exploding eggs would come in only a few baskets. Each A-6 would carry one-third of the total payload. If one A-6 were to abort, jettison its payload, or otherwise not make it to the target, then the remaining pair of bombers would only have 8 Mavericks between them. This would produce a theoretical hit value of 8.8 — still enough, but only just barely. Luck that was only slightly worse-than-average would doom the mission. With only three bombers, there just wasn’t a lot of margin.

AIR DEFENSES

That wasn’t all. “There will be some shooting,” CAG’s air spy told me earnestly. It turns out that the target was surrounded by a number of air defense systems, including an SA-8A in the north approach, an SA-6 in the west approach, a ZSU-23-4 to the east, an SA-11 to the south, and an SA-6 and an SA-10 in the central target area. The good news was that nearly all of those systems were capable only against low-altitude targets. If we sent the package in at high altitude, they should be able to avoid all of the air defenses except for two: the southern SA-11 and the central SA-10.

What to do about those missile sites? We had no dedicated SEAD aircraft in this package — the only weapons that were capable against ground targets were the Mavericks carried by the A-6s. Every Maverick that was used against a SAM site would be one less Maverick working toward those magic 8 hits. But both the SA-11 and the SA-10 were very capable systems, with a long range and a high attack value. Simply ignoring them raised the risk that one or more A-6s would be damaged or shot down, which also would cause the mission to fail. So the question became: should the A-6s allocate any of their 12 Mavericks toward air defense suppression (and if so, how many)?

Against an SA-10 or an SA-11, the Maverick had an attack value of 7 (substantially less lethal than it was against tanks). This meant that it would take roughly 2 Mavericks to kill a SAM site, or 4 Mavericks to kill both. But as we saw from our earlier weaponeering calculations, removing 4 Mavericks from the primary target simply didn’t leave enough ordnance to guarantee the destruction of the tanks. And if the tanks couldn’t be destroyed, there wasn’t any point in launching the mission at all. But leaving these two modern SAM sites to chew up the strike package didn’t seem like a viable alternative either.

The compromise I finally made was to allocate 2 Mavericks to be employed at the strike leader’s discretion against the air defenses, leaving 10 Mavericks for the tanks (which seemed to provide an acceptable overkill margin). With some luck, one of the SAM sites might be silenced. Since intel viewed the SA-11 in the south as being slightly more dangerous than the SA-10, it became the default target. Since there was a very high likelihood that at least one SAM would survive, I rounded out each A-6’s remaining weight point with an ECM pod.

The other twist was that both SAM sites had a range of 3, which basically allowed both of them to reach all the way to the standoff approach areas, which meant that there really would be no avoiding them. Mavericks only had a range of 2, which mean that the package would be outranged at the extreme end of the envelope. But the SA-11 was offset by one zone in the southern approach area, only 2 zones away from the southern standoff zones. This disposition negated its range advantage — when the A-6s entered the map in the south, they would immediately be in Maverick range.

MIGS

We didn’t know much about enemy fighter activity, except that it would be relatively heavy — a maximum of 10 fighters, 8 in the approach zones and 2 over the target. The accompanying fighter CAP had an adjusted payload of 5 weight points, enough for 10 missiles between them. I loaded more AIM-9s than AIM-7s, since the AIM-7s had a minimum range restriction and couldn’t be used at range 0. For the final weight point, I spent two SO points and loaded one long-range AIM-54 Phoenix missile each.

LOADOUT

TARGET FOLDER 12: ENEMY TANK FORMATION (PRIMARY, VEHICLE, DISPERSED, -1 VP PENALTY)

A-6E: 4 x AGM-65 Maverick, 1 x ECM pod
A-6E: 4 x AGM-65 Maverick, 1 x ECM pod
A-6E: 4 x AGM-65 Maverick, 1 x ECM pod
F-14A: 2 x AIM-7, 2 x AIM-9, 1 x AIM-54
F-14A: 4 x AIM-9, 1 x AIM-54

The CAG ops strike cell wrote it up at 2:30 in the morning and passed it down to the squadrons. As it happened, my old cruise roommate “Kermit” was tapped to be the strike leader on this mission. I’ll let him pick up the story from here…

-TRANSCRIPT ENDS-

Wargame:  Hornet Leader:  Carrier Air Operations, designed by Dan Verssen (DVG Games, 2010).

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Tampa on the Rails

And now for something completely different…

Board games have become unfashionable in a console-computer-tablet-mobile gaming world, but there are some things that a sprawling map on a table can show you which history books and retina displays cannot.  This is a reposted account of a short solitaire game that I played some years ago.  The theme may have some appeal to readers here.

432nd TRW, Udorn RTAFB – August 1967

“This route sucks,” says Captain Hodges, our flight lead.

Looking at the map, it’s hard to disagree. We will be entering North Vietnamese airspace at Entry Point A, almost directly on top of the MiG base at Yen Bai (the superspies assured us that the MiGs wouldn’t be flying today), then stupidly following the northwest railroad line for a good seventy-plus miles all the way into downtown Hanoi, with our final turn point literally within sight of the Paul Doumer bridge.

As if going into Route Pack 6 wasn’t bad enough, we will be doing it alone, unarmed, and unafraid. Well, at least two out of those three. This is a reconnaissance package, and unlike the big strikes we’ve been running over the last few weeks, we won’t have any MiGCAP escorts, Wild Weasels, or even standoff jammers. In fact, the only American combat aircraft airborne over North Vietnam at the time of our sortie will be us, a sorry pair of Phantoms running bare naked along a predictable flight path leading into the best-defended airspace in the world. At medium altitude (which is necessary for the reconnaissance cameras to function properly) we are almost guaranteed to be tracked from start to finish, and we can’t even make any radical maneuvers (stupid cameras).

We launch at 08:55, after picking up the weather brief — some patchy haze on the deck, but nothing to really worry about. Our callsign for the day is Tampa, two RF-4Cs that have been completely stripped clean of ordnance for speed. Hodges and his WSO Callison are in the lead, while I am flying #2. My backseater is a new guy named Deeks, who’s never been downtown before and thinks the whole idea is just absolutely fantastic.

We tank just short of the Laotian border and cross into the Red River Valley at medium altitude, zorching along at a brisk pace. Callison calls a spike from the early warning radar almost immediately, and I think briefly about what we must look like to the enemy radar operators. Then the whole sky erupts in black and red.

10:00 local (turn 1)

“Tampa, heavy flak, three o’clock. From the airfield.”

“That’s not heavy, Two, it can’t touch us,” growls Hodges. “Stay tucked in and look for the railhead.” I’m not so sure. The medium battery at Yen Bai shoots at us continuously for nearly a full minute, beating shockwaves into the clouds. But we come through okay, and about two or three miles north of the runway I can see the railhead that marks our photo entry point. From here on out we will be on rails, following the train all the way downtown.

“What airfield? Are they really shooting at us?”

“Zip it, Deeks. And get the photo package running.”

10:01 local (turn 2)

We run out from the Yen Bai AAA umbrella at a ground speed of about 600 miles/hour, leaving the flak behind and snapping 35 frames/second of high-resolution film. At our turn point Hodges calls for a 30-degree turn to the left — the most radical maneuver we can make without disturbing the cameras — and we find ourselves pointed toward Phu Tho.

“SAM warning, twelve o’clock!”

“Search mode, no acquire. Might be a dummy. Tampa, hold course, keep it coming.”

We know that there is a surface-to-air missile battalion — or at least what looks like one — emplaced next to the railroad line north of Phu Tho. In fact, in order to get the photos, we will be overflying it. We just hope that with our new noise jamming suite we can avoid being acquired long enough to evade any shots.

“Negative dummy, SAM at twelve o’clock is active. That should be Site Kilo. Range twenty.”

“What SAM? Are they shooting at us?”

“Deeks shut up.”

10:02 local (turn 3)

“Heads up, light flak.” It was the Phu Tho garrison, putting up a halfhearted barrage for the passersby. Clearly they didn’t think that they were the targets for today.

“Kilo still in search mode. Range 10 miles.”

“Hey guys shouldn’t we turn or something? We’re headed up the nose of that SAM site.”

“Deeks–”

The radar warning receiver stops twittering and starts to warble. Callison: “Site Kilo has got us, partial acquisition. Range 10 miles. Tampa, check jammers on.”

10:03 local (turn 4)

More flak. At medium height, it’s unlikely that the light antiaircraft guns will hit us. But it’s unnerving nonetheless.

“SAM launch!”

“I see it, smoke trail, twelve o’clock!” We turn into a shallow defensive maneuver, enough to test the missile — which is launching on a partial acquisition and has a low chance of guiding anyway — but not enough to spoil the photo run. “No-threat, no-threat, it’s a miss!”

“I think I see the site,” says Deeks in a voice of wonder. We have covered the distance in thirty seconds and are directly overhead the SA-2 battalion that launched on us.

“New SAM site active, eleven o’clock. That should be Site Sierra, range 15. Now in search.”

“Site Kilo just went to full acquisition,” says Deeks excitedly. “He’s got us. Think he’ll shoot again?”

“Site Sierra has partial acquisition,” warns Callison. “Get ready for another launch.”

“Tampa flight, into burner now!”

10:04 local (turn 5)

A clean RF-4C at medium altitude in stage 5 afterburner can move at 15 miles per minute, which comes to 900 miles per hour, or roughly Mach 1.8. This is all well and good, except when you’re pointed toward the thing that’s trying to kill you, in which case it doesn’t make you feel all that much better. But we have to follow our route to get the pictures, and Hodges is trying to minimize our exposure by getting in and out of firing radius as quickly as possible.

“SAM launch!” Another turn, gingerly executed, and the SA-2 fails to guide on us again. At about the same moment, the air is battered by light AAA, fired out of Viet Tri and Vinh Yen. We streak in and out of their range in less than twenty seconds, and in ten more are nearly on top of Site Sierra. In another minute we will be outside the range of that site’s missiles as well.

“Pop-up threat, new SAM site, 10 o’clock! Search mode.”

“Where is it?” asks Hodges abruptly.

“Can’t tell exactly, medium signal. Probably about 20 miles away, maybe west of Phuc Yen. Still in search.” This is getting complicated. We have two SAM sites with full radar locks on us, and a third that is looking.

“Tampa, new SAM site has a partial acquire. Stand by for launch.”

10:05 local (turn 6)

Medium guns open up on us again, but I don’t think that any of us really notice because the new SAM site launches on us at that same moment. The North Vietnamese SAM crews are not shy on the trigger, willing to launch on partial radar acquisitions despite the lower chance to hit us. Another lucky miss, but as we blaze over Phuc Yen we run into a horrific barrage of both light and medium AAA, the latter from the garrison guarding the MiG base to the north.

Again, we are lucky to come through unscathed. We’re still moving along at the speed of heat, unwilling to slow down now. The outskirts of western Hanoi are just up ahead. I glance at the fuel gauge — we have only about three minutes of afterburner left.

“Site Sierra and the new site have just dropped back into search — they’ve lost us. Site Kilo still has a partial lock.” We are rapidly leaving the SAM sites we previously encountered behind.

“Is that it?” asks Deeks hopefully.

But downtown Hanoi is ringed with SAM sites, and we know that there is at least one SA-2 battalion just south of Duc Noi. The intelligence shop called it Site Foxtrot. For a moment I think that we might sail past without waking them up.

Callison: “SAM warning, two o’clock, very strong signal. Probable Site Foxtrot, range 5.”

10:06 local (turn 7)

We are in the last and most dangerous leg of the photo route, following the rail line through its terminus in west Hanoi. Hodges still has the flight moving at maximum speed to evade the heavier guns that are in the downtown area. Just as we are about to exit the gun envelope of the Phuc Yen AAA concentration, something bad happens — one moment we are zipping along and the next moment the air around us ruptures with a thunderclap and we bounce out of formation. An 85mm round has come up and exploded just behind us; miraculously neither of our F-4s is damaged — a hair-close near-miss. Quite literally the extra speed (which produces a -2 modifier to the AAA damage roll that negates the effect of the hit, just barely) has saved us.

A fast 37mm battery puts up a light barrage around us, as we thunder over the last three miles of rail line…two…one…and camera off!

“Tampa flight, in place ninety left…go!”

Coming off the end of our route, we scream around in a hard left break, a crushing pull to ninety degrees off and away from downtown Hanoi. It’s the maximum performance turn that we can make at our high speed and it costs us an extra movement point (while the guns continue to shoot at us arcing overhead). But ten seconds later it’s all worth it, as we run outside their maximum range at Mach 1.8 and the sky suddenly falls silent. We are drenched in sweat and our arms and legs pulse with adrenaline and an electric sense of immortality.

“Okay, Tampa, nice job, let’s keep it tucked in close and hit the egress point.” Hodges seems almost human now.

But we’re not done.

“SAM warning, eight o’clock!”

It’s Site Foxtrot, finally come to life, range 10 miles and opening.

10:07 local (turn 8)

I had expected to get the call to come out of burner, but once we get the search signal from the SAM site, Hodges decides to push the motors to the firewall. We know that the SAM operators will shoot immediately on a partial acquisition, and at our range and aspect Site Foxtrot will probably have us in less than a minute. That means that a missile will be in the air in the next 70 seconds or so…unless we are already out of the envelope by then. We keep the burners going and open the range at a rate of 2.5 miles every ten seconds.

Hodges reports that we’ve been partially reacquired by two of the SAM sites that we encountered coming in to the target area. Three surface-to-air missile sites are now aimed at our retreating backs, though by now we have all deduced that other SAM batteries have not had a chance to reload. It’s Site Foxtrot that’s the real threat.

“Site Foxtrot has a full acquisition! Stand by for launch!”

10:08 local (turn 9)

But the missile launch never comes. At the precise moment that SAM Site Foxtrot achieves its radar acquisition, we are at a distance of 20 miles. Its first opportunity to shoot comes immediately after our next impulse of movement, when we are 22.5 miles away — 9 hexes, or one hex beyond the maximum kinematic range of an SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missile. We have beat the SAM site by a matter of seconds. By the next SAM acquisition phase, we have further opened the range to 35 miles, which is beyond the sight of Site Foxtrot’s radar. We simply disappear from the radar scope of the only site that is still able to fire on us.

And that finishes the mission. We disengage the afterburner (having consumed all of our emergency fuel reserve), turn to the southwest, sidestep the medium AAA concentrations around the Thai Nguyen steel foundry, and exit Route Pack 6 at Egress Point C for the tanker. We recover safely at Udorn about an hour later.

The mission is a success — our wild nine-minute ride under fire gives us satisfactory photos of the rail line, which is enough to meet the intel shop’s insatiable thirst for pictures. We suffer no damage, despite flying through light and medium AAA concentrations for more than a third of the entire route.

Deeks is delighted. “When do we go back?”

TAMPA (2 x RF-4C) – AFTER-ACTION REPORT

TOTAL AAA ENCOUNTERS: 21
LIGHT AAA: 12
MEDIUM AAA: 9 (1 NEAR-MISS)

TOTAL SAMS FIRED: 3

PHOTORECONNAISSANCE: 26/29 hexes successfully photographed (90% – success)

Wargame:  Downtown:  The Air War Over Hanoi 1965 – 1972, designed by Lee Brimmicombe-Wood (GMT Games, 2004).

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