…the Air Control Officer cocks his head quizzically as a bit of banana-shaped radar video appears off to the east, over the Zagros. It is in a place where air targets would not be customarily found. He re-checks his air route overlay on the radar as the antenna sweeps around again, leaving behind its ghostly trace. No, no air routes over there. He waits again for the antenna to come around – nothing: The target has faded. The ACO purses his lips, adjusts his radar gains, and waits another sweep – nothing, again. A false contact perhaps. But… there it is again. And again. He rolls his cursors over the display, using his trackball on the console and tags the target video, eyes narrowing. One more sweep and he’ll have target velocity. His eyes widen in surprise as the computer grinds to its conclusion. He reaches his hand up to place the boom mic closer to his lips, and sends his right foot stabbing towards the transmit pedal of his UHF radio…
“Alpha Whiskey, this is Tango. Designate track number 2536 at Baltimore 125, 30, estimate low, track west. Speed 500 knots, negative IFF. Probable Iranian TACAIR, point of origin unknown, suspect Shiraz.”
This bit of radio traffic, and the data link symbology which accompanies it, hits the sea below like a lightning bolt, and spreads like an electric web around the strike group:
> In CDC, the third class operations specialist grunts in surprise, energized suddenly from the steady-state flat-line of a do-nothing watch to an almost instantaneous state of poised readiness. He validates the data link symbol injected by the E-2, forwarding it to the tactical displays in front of the ship’s Tactical Action Officer. To emphasize his point, he talks tersely to the TAO on internal comms. The TAO quickly assimilates the picture, queries the watch standers over in the Electronic Warfare module and reaches for a phone…
> On each ship capable of air defense, the cruiser and the Arleigh Burke-class DDGs, watchful eyes flicker to a point in space 30 nautical miles southeast of Bushehr (code named “Baltimore,” on this day). Because of the radar shadowing, only the E-2 has actual radar awareness of the threat – everyone else depends upon his data linked track.
> Aboard the Ticonderoga-class cruiser, the CO is summoned to Combat Information Center – CIC – and in terse words from the Force Tactical Action Officer, apprised of the situation. The cruiser CO is “Whiskey,” the strike group’s designated air defense commander. He looks at the linked target, measures the distance from its location to the carrier, the high value unit, centerpiece of the force and his only reason for existence. He does some quick mental time/distance math, how quickly a threat might be in weapons release range and examines his options: At this hour of the day, he has no airborne fighter assets. His only resources are strapped on the carrier’s deck, 5 miles to his southwest. He is aware that the carrier is in the midst of an at sea refueling. He knows that calling for the alert to launch will raise hell over there, and interrupt that refueling, and maybe foul the deck for the mid-day close air support launch. He knows that men on the ground will be counting on that CAS launch. But those concerns are for the carrier CO and strike group commander to concern themselves with. He is the air defense commander – he has his responsibilities, and if necessary for the greater good, he is willing to be over-ruled. He picks up a red phone, and speaks on the encrypted satellite command net known as Strike Group Command: “Alpha Romeo, Alpha Whiskey – launch the alert fighters.”
> Aboard the carrier, the CO picks the phone up in Aux Conn. He weighs the TAO’s words, weighs their position alongside, weighs the amount of fuel he has already taken on. Weighs the number of days until the next opportunity to come alongside the oiler. He checks the winds, hopefully. But no. Twenty degrees to port – no chance to launch the alert while still connected to the oiler. Twenty degrees would be a mere nothing in ordinary times, when free to maneuver, but it would be a lifetime while connected and turning together in half degree increments, engines surging forward and back to stabilized the different turning radii. No. He purses his lips, raises his head and shakes it slightly. No, it would never do. The decision is made, even before the admiral can call from TFCC. The Captain turns to the conning officer and says lightly, as if unconcerned, “Emergency break-away. Do it.”
> In Flight Deck Control, where rests a scale model of the flight deck, with miniature aircraft planforms on every spot an actual aircraft resides, the Aircraft Handling Officer, known throughout the ship as the “Handler,” swears urgently, passionately. He enlisted as a Sailor nearly 30 years ago. He was selected from among his peers to be commissioned as an officer of the line. He has grown up moving aircraft upon the hideously expensive real estate of an aircraft carrier deck. He knows where each one goes without interfering with the others, how to get fuel to it, how to get ordnance to it, how to get it down on the deck edge elevators to the hangar deck for sustained maintenance, where he can spread wings for missile checks, where the fire fighting gear goes, and a thousand other pieces of critically important knowledge that no one else, not the Captain, not the Air Boss, for whom he works, can replicate. The Handler is, quite literally, irreplaceable.
And he is pissed.
The wing stopped flying last night at 2330. His yellow shirts got done putting the jets in place for tomorrow’s refueling, with starboard side jets pushed well inboard, to prevent interfering with the refueling rigs. This also included spotting the alerts and all of this went down at 0200. On four hours sleep, a quarter of them came back to the roof at sunrise to help the fighter crews set the alert. When the word gets passed over the loudspeaker to launch the alert, these last come alive like zombies from their several places of respite, and dash with staggered steps to their launch stations.
Things aren’t so simple for the Handler. In his mind, he’s already past the launch, and thinking about the recovery. He’s thinking about having to recover an alert fighter, and maybe its tanker, an hour and a half later. Just prior to the scheduled CAS launch. Knowing that would be the first launch of the day, with all the aircraft in the wing (save one, alas!) on deck, he would have loved some space on the angle deck to spot for the launch. But with a recovering fighter, a good post-refueling deck spot is an impossibility. This will be a horrible snarl, 90 minutes later, but there’s nothing he can do.
> Down on deck, in the alert fighter, the lieutenant is sound asleep and dreaming of that Irish girl in Hong Kong, thinking of the things he might have said, instead of that which he did, wondering, in his dream like fugue, if it might have made a difference. He hears a thumping sound, and in his dream, he transmutes its meaning, smiling lasciviously. But the sound continues, grows, will not be denied. He awakens abruptly to the sound of a plane captain thumping on the side of his fuselage, screaming at him, “Sir, sir! – We’re launching the alert! You’re a go!”
He snaps awake, and curses. Looks over to his prospective wingman, another alert pilot from a sister squadron, already spinning his auxiliary power unit. Cursing again, he signals his plane captain to clear underneath, and cranks his own APU. He will not be beaten airborne.
> In CDC, the third class operations specialist picks up his gouge card, and reads the first warning on Military Air Distress, a frequency that all tactical aircraft are required to monitor: “Unidentified aircraft 30 miles southeast of Bushehr, speed 500 knots, heading 250: You are approaching U.S. naval warships operating in international waters. Your identity is unknown, your intentions are unclear. Request you alter course to the south to maintain a safe distance.”