The target, they had been told, called for only one weapon. A JDAM, to be precise, the wingman thought, and chuckled to himself: To be precise.
All that they were told about the target was its location – a location that had been plotted very precisely, whose position had been checked by dozens of people in several different decision cells. A target whose location was known down to the last meter in a three-axis representation, whose existence on a common spheroid was known down to the last hundredth of a second.
Nothing at all more than that were they told – nothing at all more than was necessary. This was not to be an LGB strike, one in which the strike fighter pilot was importuned to know his target utterly, to be one with its ontology. They would not be required to fall in love with it, to in fact, love it to death. This was not to be the mission of a pilot, but rather that of an engineer: Their role was less than a warrior’s, but they told themselves, more than an assassin’s.
They were required to precisely enter the accurate coordinates, navigate efficiently to the delivery basket and consent to release the weapon. After that, the bomb itself would wake up from a deep, deep sleep as it had been instructed to do, long ago, by its makers. Once awake it would seek counsel from those it had been advised to trust, a constellation of geostationary satellites whose job it was each of them to stare at their part of the earth like lidless sentinels, and to communicate with each other on the results of their observations. Based on their collective wisdom, the bomb would seek a mate, a pairing, a union devoutly to be wished. In that union the bomb would find its true meaning, and in finding that meaning, perish utterly, taking with it the object of its desire. The bomb itself was more than love: It was consumption.
Upon receiving the tasking order, it was with an almost electric shock that the wingman heard his XO say, “You’ve got the dot, I’ll back you up.” The wingman had expected the XO to take the mission himself, but instead, he had delegated it downwards, to his own unworthy self. Upon reflection, the wingman had to admit that it made a kind of sense: Alone in the squadron, the wingman had not yet, himself, been blooded.
Two months earlier he had finished the FA-18 Fleet Replacement Squadron, and looked forward to joining a line squadron. This would be the culmination of a dream he had barely dared to breathe aloud, the final step into a storied brotherhood. He hoped to join some group of pilots preparing themselves for deployment over the weeks and months ahead, a chance to learn the trade before being fed to the wolves.
He had performed very well in the FRS, so well in fact that the not-entirely unwelcome specter of being stationed overseas in the forward-deployed air wing in Japan loomed large for a time. That is, up until the point where one of the senior lieutenants in his current squadron had lost his nerve, and gave in.
Curiously, it was not spoken of, the kind of open secret that pilots avoid speaking of in the superstitious fear that “naming calls.” Insofar as the wingman understood the issues, he sympathized, but could not entirely understand: Apparently the lieutenant had witnessed one of his classmates die during training a few years back and his own confidence had been badly shaken. Later, he had himself struggled to successfully land aboard the carrier at night. Having at last overcome that hurdle by a combination of a dint of sheer determination and his CO’s decision to schedule him for night landings night after night until he “figured it out,” the lieutenant had gradually improved. Until, that is, he suffered a major landing gear malfunction which had brought him back to land aboard ship in no-divert conditions using the barricade, a device not dissimilar to a tennis net, rather than the customary arresting gear. That had been the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back: The sight of that net webbing running up over his airframe and canopy, restricting his options to escape, to even emergency egress had been that little bit too much for a man who was already merely going through the motions. He had gone below, gone directly to his stateroom and once there, removed his wings from his khaki uniform. Walking further aft to the ready room, he had sought out and eventually encountered his squadron CO in the passageway. Wordlessly, the lieutenant passed the CO his wings of gold. The CO understanding his meaning at once the lieutenant’s, nodded sadly asking only, “Are you sure?”
The lieutenant had been sure. When he nodded yes, the wheels of fate ground to a halt and locked in place, and nothing could change the facts as they now were – a fleet fighter squadron was heading to a war zone one man short of its full compliment.
The wingman had been diverted from his orders to a squadron only starting its training cycle to the one already sent forward, where the needs of the service predominated. It was, for a junior pilot, an intimidating proposition: In the squadron he would join out there on the tip of the spear, every other pilot was senior to him. Far worse was this – they had all them at least seen combat in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Three out of the department heads had fought as well in the ’91 scrap, and the CO had fought in Bosnia. The wingman had known full well that he was to join a squadron that had fought together, drank together, slept together and yes, even bled together for years.
They were a team. He would be joining them, but he would not, as yet, be of them. Nevertheless, he must go. The ship had sailed three weeks earlier. His plane tickets took him to squadron, at that moment engaged in a port visit. His tickets took him to Hong Kong.