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.”
A hundred miles to the north, the squadron XO checks his close air support package through a series of control frequencies: Kuwait Air Traffic, the USAF AWACS and finally to the Direct Air Support Center, or DASC. The DASC splits his package up, sending one two-ship well north and under the control of the Army’s Air Support Operations Center, or ASOC. The second two-ship is vectored well to the west, almost to the border with Syria, while the XO’s two-ship is tasked to orbit just west of Baghdad itself, while a two-ship of Air National Guard F-16s patrol the skies over the capital itself. They are Syracuse guardsmen – the XO recognizes their callsigns – and he grudgingly acknowledges that when it comes to the art of CAS, there are no better artists than these specialists from upstate New York. In general, the regular forces owe no special regard to the weekend warriors of the Air National Guard. The Syracuse guys are the exception which proves the rule.
The XO expects the DASC to resent the fact that the Navy has checked in with two less fighters than they had been “fragged” for, due to the 304 fiasco, but the controller takes the news with philosophical equanimity. The southern kill box will have to go unfilled, he admits – but the south has been quiet for weeks on end. Even so, he asks XO to bias his orbits to the south, just in case.
Theirs is an “on call” mission – no offensive operations are in progress on the ground today, so each two-ship is assigned a geographic area of responsibility. They are on contract to provide fixed wing air support within moments if there is a “troops in contact” situation, what the controllers will call a “TIC.” The XO weighs the odds of seeing any action today, and frowning slightly behind his mask, assesses them as slim: The US Marine Corps is a proud organization of fighters, hard men who go as eagerly towards the sound of gunfire as starving people would move towards a banquet table. They join the clash of arms with a brand of savage joy that has dismayed their foes throughout the country’s history. If he would dare criticize those with dusty boots from the sterile safety of his air conditioned fighter, the XO might object that the Marines were perhaps a shade too hesitant in issuing invitations for others to join their fights. With resignation, he accepts the likelihood that the only way that they’ll be called upon for support today is in the highly unlikely situation of a situation the Marines cannot handle, a truly desperate struggle – an ambush perhaps. Alternatively, he thinks, brightening – perhaps the enemy will be found holed up in a building, a stronghold too well-fortified for them to be conveniently dislodged. He sighs: Not likely, and prepares himself fore a long and boring patrol.
He checks his right three o’clock to see that his young wingman is in perfect combat spread, and nods, professionally satisfied. That young man will do well. “In place right, go.” He starts a gentle, arcing turn to the south. The sun moves from his right shoulder to his left, and the only sounds around him, apart from the ever-present moan of the GE F404 engines, is the hoarse rattle of his own breathing in the rubber oxygen mask. Engine instrument scan: Everything in the green. He reaches up and disconnects the bayonet fitting connecting his O2 mask to the right side of his helmet, letting it dangle. As he does so, he simultaneously secures the oxygen flow switch, and double checks cabin pressurization – it wouldn’t do to go to sleep up here, and wake up dead, he thinks. Still, it’s a long flight, and the sweat from the mid-day launch is only now drying up. A little comfort couldn’t hurt.
Half way through his turn, and out of deeply ingrained habit – most of all the desire to let no opportunity for training to go unharvested – the XO double checks that the armament system is safe, and then switches the weapons system from long range air search to a close-in dogfight mode of the AIM-9 Sidewinder, just as his fighter’s nose approaches his wingman’s tail. The radar autolocks, and his wingman chirps, “Buddy spike, six.” The XO hears the familiar raspy growl turn quickly to a passionate scream as the seeker head drags past his wingman’s tailpipes and then locks on to the heat signature. He smiles a bit, thinks to himself “Fox 2, set up another.” Again, out of habit the XO cranes his head around and looks back between his cantilevered vertical tails to check his own six o’clock. After you shoot, he thinks – that’s when you get shot. You’ve been fixated on your target. You’ve been predictable for an eternity – maybe even 20 seconds. You must always check six after a shot: All clear. He knew that it would be. He also knew that maybe it wouldn’t always be. He knew from the time that he was a brand new nugget, just joining the line, that in time this habit of checking six after taking a shot might some day pay off. That eventually he might look back over his shoulder to find that there would be a bandit, camped in his six, preparing to take a shot of his own. He knew that he’d only have to be right once, to make the habit worthwhile. This is a kind of discipline, he reflects, not for the first time. This is how you survive.
In a conventional conflict CAS is designed to support offensive operations or defensive fortifications in close proximity to friendly forces. By definition, CAS occurs within the fire support coordination line, or FSCL, a line drawn out beyond the furthest line of expected advance for friendly forces. Their actual position at any given time marks the “FLOT” or forward line of own troops. A JTAC, or joint terminal air controller – someone on the ground – must coordinate all fires between the FLOT and FSCL. To do his job properly, the JTAC will have eyes on both the targets and the attack assets, whether artillery, rotary wing aviation or fixed wing attack. He will coordinate between them – no air support in the dive run while arty is incoming.
But there is no call for fire yet, and the fighters will remain under the control of the DASC until their services are requested. Only then, and only if required, will they flow to the JTAC, hands moving a rapid dance, throttles coming up to the stops, airframes humming as the speed builds up. Weapons armed and awaiting only release consent, the blood singing in their veins as they ready their machines to be the avenging angels they were made to be, that they were meant to be: Angels which bring down death and destruction with whirlwind speed and shocking violence, with everything in a state of electric tension, screaming for release.
But not yet, not quite yet. Maybe not at all, today. This is not a conventional conflict, anymore. It had been when the XO was here last, with battle lines, however fluid and rapidly shifting. Fixed targets too, SAM sites and barracks, bridges and headquarters buildings. Juicy targets to hammer away at from above, by men who have learned everything about them, who have learned to love them, yea, to love them even to destruction.
Now however, it is unconventional warfare – there are no battle lines, friendly troops are everywhere and striking the enemy, once they are found, requires the competing, even adversarial characteristics of both lightning speed and incredible precision. An attacks, or series of attacks, could come from any direction, and the fighters must be able to instantly respond – and importantly, with both friendlies and neutrals in close proximity, when they unleash hell upon the waiting ground below, they have to get it exactly right. To err may well be human, the XO reflects, but there is no room for it here. No room for it now.
He looks down from his lofty perch at the undifferentiated khaki brown below, broken here and there by ancient settlements pushing up like rotted teeth from among the marshes and along the riverbanks. He cannot imagine what it must be like, to be down there – to be in it. To be a part of it. A part of him is envious, not knowing. Ah, well: The road not taken.
He checks his digital moving map display, on the console between his legs. Off to his left is Iran, no very great distance to the east, and from this height, indistinguishable from Iraq. 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.