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…
Back aboard the carrier, the squadron executive officer begins the mass brief for the 1200 close air support mission. Each strike fighter squadron will provide two of their fighters, armed with a mixed load of laser guided bombs and all-weather joint direct attack munitions for the CAS mission. The XO is the overall mission commander for the Navy package – his job is to get the gaggle organized once airborne and expeditiously through the air refueling process. Once complete with their pre-mission tanking, and en route to their holding points in Iraq, they’ll be talking to the US Marine Corps Deep Air Support Center, or DASC. If there are any troops in contact within the DASC’s battle space, the fighters will be handed off for close control by Forward Air Controllers, or FACs.
After the roll call, the XO gives the assembled aviators a brief pep talk: “This is probably going to be a routine bore-ex, right up until the moment where it’s the most interesting, and maybe most important thing you’ll ever do. If your services are requested, there’s a very good chance that good people on the ground are in it up to their eyeballs, and maybe some of them are dying. Trust me when I tell you that they wouldn’t be calling for you unless they really needed you, and when they really need you, you really need to be there for them. The Marines aren’t much given to sending invitations to their parties, so if and when you do get invited to come and join their fight, I want you to come hard and fast and I want you to bring a case of the ass. What the Marines have on demand is arty, 105′s mostly. You and I could each of us carry a couple of 105 shells in our arms. But you’ll be bringing much more than 105′s – you’ll be bringing at least 500 pounds of high explosive wrapped in precisely targeted steel. You can change the problem for the better by being timely and accurate. Remember: By definition, close air support is within the fire support coordination line, and danger close to friendlies. Positively identify your targets. You must be cleared hot by the FAC. Do not make a bad situation worse. Speed, gentlemen. Speed and violence.”
He doesn’t get much of a reaction out of the assembled crews. One or two nod their heads, the rest are quiet, still inside their own heads. They know the mission, and how important it is. They want the meat. He delivers: “OK, the launch sequence plan has the Aces airborne first, followed by the Hobos, then the Fists and then the Kestrels. Join at assigned altitudes on the kneeboard card by twos prior to pushing out to the tanker. Boom freq is three-oh-five dot one-five in prime and I want everyone up on air wing common on aux until we push off the tanker. Be 1000 feet below the tanker altitude by 10 miles – I don’t want to see any more buffoonery in front of the Air Force – anybody plays the fool in the rendezvous circle, and by God I’ll send you back to the ship…”
This is of course an empty threat – no one is going back to the ship today before going to their holding points, and awaiting events on the ground. He knows this perfectly well, as do the rest of the assembled aviators. But the purpose has been satisfied: The XO wants the small things done right – he knows that if the small things are well executed, the large things tend to fall into place. He continues the brief…
Meanwhile, in the air to the east, the lieutenant’s wingman is still racing back towards cap in max grunt, with the wind-stream howling around her canopy when she hears her lead call, “Two come back in, I need you!” She deselects afterburner to execute the turn more efficiently, sets her head back against the head rest in preparation for what is to come, reaches deep inside to tighten the muscles of her legs and abdomen and rolls the jet up on its left wing. She then buries the stick in her lap – the g-forces hit her like a falling safe and press her body down into the ejection seat. As the lights begin to dim at the peripheries, she re-tightens her lower body muscles again, forcing the blood back up into her torso where her heart can get it to her brain, to her eyes. She grunts gutturally and repeatedly into her mask, as she has been taught, keeping the blood that has been forced into her head from draining away. Her nerve endings howl at the familiar pain of a high-g turn, she feels as though she’s drowning as fluid seeps into her lungs, and she gasps to gain air between the grunts. It is a sensation as familiar to the fighter pilot as sunrise to a swan, and as welcome. She pitches back into the fight with the blood singing in her veins, wondering what has happened since her lead sent her clear of the fight.
A few moments before, the lieutenant had wondered what he could do to get the Iranian Phantom to turn around, turn away from his wingman, turn away from the ship. The flare he’d launched had seemed an inspiration – from a distance, the light and smoke might approximate the visual signature of a missile launch, especially when combined with his weapons system lock-on. He is gratified by the sight of the F-4 in planform, as the Iranian turns to honor the threat. But as the F-4 continues its turn, back to the east, back towards him, he blinks three times rapidly, thinking, calculating: “Only five miles away. He’ll be nose-on to me by three miles. Nose on, thinking that he has been shot at. By me. He’ll probably shoot back if he can. I still don’t have the ROE, and shooting him now will be very hard to explain.” These thoughts run through his head like computations in a computer until the unwelcome result is announced: “I’m screwed.”
He clenches his teeth as the Iranian comes nose on – he awaits the sound of his radar warning receiver, knows that it will escalate from a concerned “beep” to a screaming alarm in mere moments if the Phantom gets a missile lock-on. The distance between them will be very close to the F-4′s minimum range. This could go either way, everything balanced on a razor’s edge. The lieutenant thinks, “If he shoots me, I die. If he’s inside min range, once we close I can easily handle him.” Upon a moment’s reflection, he calls his wingman back into the fight, just in case. The throttles are already parked in the northwest quadrant, delivering full combat rated power, so the lieutenant urges his fighter forward with small thrusts of his hips like a horseman, trying to close the distance. He looks at his armament panel, sees that he is still in simulation mode, reaches up and re-arms the jet:
“There,” he thinks. “If I’m going to have to die today, at least I’ll have company.”