At a mile, with three seconds left to go until the merge, the lieutenant knows that he is unobserved – no way that the Phantom pilot would allow a threat down there at his belly without checking into him to neutralize the merge – he’ll have 90 degrees advantage by the time he crosses the Phantom’s six o’clock. Perfect.
He starts an “early turn,” before the merge has even happened, up in the vertical behind the F-4. At 90 degrees nose high, looking back through his canopy at the Phantom exhaust pipes and with his airspeed bleeding away in the HUD, the lieutenant realizes his mistake and screams with anger into his O2 mask: His nose-high conversion turn has cost him too much energy, he has gotten slow. He will get slower still before he has completed his turn and is in trail of the F-4. The F-4 is a faster jet: Not only will he never catch up to him, but the F-4 will catch up to his wingman, placing her at risk- the lieutenant recovers to the horizon at 250 knots and sees the fast moving Phantom turn again from an identifiable aircraft into a receding speck on the horizon. In training he could simulate a missile launch from here and win the day. But he isn’t in training, this is really happening, and he hasn’t got the ROE.
He is out of position, and the physics cannot be overcome.
On the carrier’s flight deck, yellow-shirted flight deck directors stand idly by airplanes packed inboard of the landing area, clear of the foul lines. The yellow shirts are at the pinnacle of achievement for an aviation bosun’s mate – each of them is The Man. He gives orders to pilots, orders the officers must follow. He works day after day in one of the most dangerous environments imaginable, one full of great noise, apparent confusion, and great forces acting in trembling opposition. They collectively know that they are a brotherhood, like many others in the military, an elite: The flight deck elite. They also know that no other 22-year old people in the world routinely has so much responsibility for lives and lucre. They are all of them young, tall and tubular. They are also entirely self-confident, well-trained, almost arrogant – they seem to casual observers to be the rough equivalent of modern-day gunslingers.
Although each aircraft has its wheels chocked, and is tied down with chains at three points, each one also has a tow bar hooked up ready for instant use, once the jet is “broken down,” released from chocks and chains. The 3 1/2 acre flight deck is divided into three zones, Fly One on the bow, Fly Two amidships and Fly Three aft. Across the deck the low growl of tow tractors starting, gunning engines to an animal scream, then idling before shutting down alternates from zone to zone. Apart from that, there is a deceptive quiet, a fraudulent listlessness. While feigning a kind of tropical malaise in the rising summer heat, all are a tip-toe: They are awaiting the recovery of the alert launch, so that they can go to work spotting aircraft for the 1200 go. It will be a rigorous challenge to move the twenty-odd aircraft in an hour’s time, especially moving them on the cramped real estate of an aircraft carrier at sea – they will be moving multiple aircraft in different directions, and moving them very close to one another in passing. The aircraft must not touch – a touch is called a “crunch,” and the aircraft is down until rigorously inspected. There is nothing worse for a yellow shirt than to be directing an aircraft in a crunch.
In combat, the third class operations specialist scans his scope once more for new threats. Seeing nothing but the engagement joined to the east, of which he is no longer any part, he pushes back into his chair and away from his console with a weary, amused detachment. He has done his bit and stood his watch. He gets relieved in thirty minutes and is simultaneously both ferociously hungry and brutally tired. He can’t remember when he didn’t feel that way. He can’t imagine a time in the future when he won’t. When he’s on watch, he thinks of his rack. When he’s asleep, his dreams are filled with this radar scope.
In the War Room, the morning flag meeting has broken up, with many of the principals going into TFCC to watch the air picture develop – the wheel has been spun, the ball is in motion, and some unknowable result is a-borning. They hope that the training they have had is sufficient, that the guidance they have given is adequate. Mostly, they quietly hope that everything works out. They are aware that despite their seniority, experience and position, that so much is now beyond their control. Commanders, captains and admiral – all have become unwilling spectators to an unfolding drama.
At 10,000 feet, five miles behind the Iranian Phantom, 18 miles behind his wingman, 50 miles from the carrier, the lieutenant’s brain is on fire. He must do something. He must not do the wrong thing. There is very little to distinguish between the two, and none of this was in his training. Except for this: He is a fighter pilot, and naval aviator. Since the mere mechanical skills of flying can be taught to anyone in time (they are broadly known, in fact, as “monkey skills”) he has been selected not so much for what he has learned as how quickly he has learned it, how quickly he can adapt to changing circumstances. He is also at a curious, almost magical intersection of his profession: A place where his increasing store of professional experience intersects at a peak with the declining advantages of youth: aggressiveness, perfect vision, flawless reflexes and unassailable self-confidence. As his brain races, he realizes that he is out of the training and experiential box, and that the solution will necessarily be unorthodox.
It never occurs to him that there is not a solution.
He selects the AIM-120 AMRAAM (advanced, medium range air-to-air missile) on his weapons control switch, and takes a single target track on the radar – all radar energy is focused on the receding F-4. He is still in range for a shot, although the range to target is still opening: That will not do. He rams the throttles up to maximum afterburner, what he thinks of as “max grunt,” and bunts the nose to gain airspeed. He knows that he must, at least, stop the bleeding. His finger caresses the trigger, eyes flickering on the shoot-light flashing on the canopy bow. It would be so easy…
But no – he can’t, not yet. The rules of engagement. Lawyer’s twaddle, he thinks, cursing silently. Still…
Suddenly inspired, he changes weapons mode to the AIM-7 Sparrow, and waits for the radar to automatically change to accommodate the older missile’s guidance requirements. It does not, and he is momentarily non-plussed before remembering: the armament system is armed, but he’s not carrying any AIM-7s. Just AIM-120 and AIM-9 Sidewinders. The system won’t force a missile mode not required by the aircraft’s loadout. He groans, mentally slaps himself on the forehead, reaches up and safes the jet. He selects the simulation mode on the armament system and once again selects Sparrow: Yes.
He prays that the Phantom is equipped with a radar warning receiver. He cannot remember from his intelligence briefs if it is. He curses himself for not remembering, vows that he will learn from this, remembers Sun Tzu:
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
Do something, daddy. Do it, he prays. Do it now.
He is rewarded: The Phantom jock turns forty degrees left, no more: He’s checking his six o’clock, aware now of a potential threat, “spiked at six.” The lieutenant can imagine the narrowing eyes of the Iranian crew, pilot and weapons officer, heads straining over their left shoulders as they attempt to evaluate this new information, give it context. But the lieutenant is unsatisfied: Forty degrees is not enough. At this range, forty degrees won’t make it happen. He strokes the throttle-mounted expendables switch, thumbing out an IR decoy, a flare. He hopes it draws their attention to him. He hopes it looks like a missile launch. He hopes he has done the right thing…