Speaking in whispered tones on a secure frequency, the Joint Terminal Air Controller, or JTAC, had only requested one JDAM on a single coordinate set. The wingman had more than half expected the Squadron XO to deliver the weapon himself – opportunities to drop were not particularly regular these days, and rank had its privileges, after all. So he had been initially surprised when his flight lead had designated him to be the man to release the weapon that “Assassin” had asked for. The wingman was grateful for the opportunity to prove himself, but most of all, he was nervous that he might make some critical mistake, especially in front of the XO – an exacting and demanding flight lead. With a grimace, the wingman remembered the parting words his lead had given the assembled crowd as he dismissed them from the mass brief: “Flawless execution is the minimum standard.”
Hard words to live up to, for just as in Vince Lombardi’s description of the forward pass, there were many ways for the thing in itself to go wrong, and only one way for it to go right. Even the smallest of errors in transcribing the coordinates over the radio from the note card on his kneeboard into the aircraft’s upfront control keypad could have gross effects on the weapon’s accuracy. A miss could in turn put friendly lives on the ground at risk, either indirectly or directly. Indirectly, the mission would be a failure if the weapon missed the fragged target – they would not have supported the troops on the ground. Far worse than the indirect failure would be a direct failure, with the weapon landing on near or on the friendlies themselves. Although the wingman had never before dropped a weapon in anger, far less a “smart bomb,” he was aware from ready room discussions that in a time-sensitive target mission, he would have no idea exactly what aimpoint was being struck until the weapon detonated – and no control over the JDAM whatsoever, once it had been released from his wing.
For that reason, the wingman and his flight lead had gone over the combat checklist twice, and triple-checked the provided coordinates, with each man checking his readout against the other’s, and both against the JTAC. In the JTAC’s whispered urgency, and the strain in the XO’s voice as they completed the combat checklist again, the wingman sensed the pressure he was under double, and then redouble again. His mouth went dry, and doubt perched suddenly upon his shoulder, whispering in his ear, but the wingman had already learned to cope with that particular demon – like most aviators, he was skilled at compartmentalization – and closed his doubts up within a protective psychic box. He would have time for doubt after the mission.
They were holding at a timing control point, awaiting final clearance from the JTAC to commence the attack run. The wingman had no idea what was causing the delay, but appreciated it – it allowed him to try and catch back up with the jet. He was of course curious, but loathe to ask the XO for his opinions – extraneous comms were considered very bad form in the FA-18 community, especially in a tactical environment.
Since he was to drop the weapon, the XO had passed him the formation lead, and the wingman enjoyed the rare pleasure of navigating with reference to the world, and not to his flight lead’s wingtip. To reduce his cockpit loading he had even enabled the autopilot, and unheard of luxury for a junior aviator, whose first mission priority was always, “Fly your jet positively. Do not hit your lead.”
They were 15 miles away from the target area, two minutes or less once they received the go code: “Rollout.” Momentarily, the wingman wondered why they had to use codewords on a secure freq, but like the demon doubt, he put that in a separate box, to examine later, when his leisure permitted. He could see the target area in his forward looking infrared (FLIR) pod: It appeared to be an undifferentiated semi-urban area, much like many others they flew over every day, relatively small and running along a river bank whose name the wingman knew he was supposed to know, but which at the moment entirely escaped him. The sun was still middling high in the afternoon west, with good shadowing effects on the ground, and good thermal variety in the FLIR – if they got the go code, and if he hadn’t screwed something up, and if he had the camera on (his eyes flicked up for at least the 10th time to confirm that the green “Camera On” annunciator light was illuminated) he should get some pretty good video.
The prime radio crackled to the sound of Assassin’s whispered voice, saying: “Rollout, rollout, rollout,” adding, “good hunting.” At these words the wingman’s heart leapt in his throat. Having turned 90 degrees left past the attack heading, he momentarily quibbled over continuing the turn the long way around, 270 degrees to final attack, but rejected the temptation – time sensitive meant as soon as possible. Best to suck it up and go the short way. He hit the paddle switch on the stick to secure the autopilot, take command of the jet and reverse the turn.
On final attack heading he breathed a short, almost obscene prayer, “Lord, don’t let me screw this up,” while completing the final step in his combat checklist: Master Armament Switch – Arm. The weapon would now release at the touch of his thumb on the stick mounted release consent button, the “pickle. It would even attempt to guide, if it could – but no, he was still out of kinematic range, and it would never do. As a precaution, he slid his thumb down the stick, and away from the release, even as the miles clicked down.
He checked the HUD carefully, turned slightly to the left to null the errors displayed by the azimuth steering line, watched the countdown timer step down towards zero, towards release. All thoughts of doubt, of the XO watching him from close aboard on the starboard wing, of people on the ground below vanished as the wingman became immersed in his mission, drowning in his attack symbology – this was something he had never done before, he had done this a thousand times. Everything seemed to suddenly slip as the sense of being on top of the situation ran away from him, his breathing ragged in the oxygen mask, the miles-to-go counter ticking away like seconds, the seconds-to-go counter an almost unreadable blur until he barely got his thumb into position as the weapons computer calculated and displayed the “In Range” cue on his HUD, followed by the timer dropping to zero. The wingman pressed the pickle, was momentarily startled by the “TOK!” sound, the right wing springing up as the cartridge-actuated devices fired on the bomb rack, shoving the JDAM off the wing with a shudder as 1000 pounds of high explosive ordnance fell blindly, questing, looking for a home. The guidance system of the JDAM quickly queried a constellation of satellites arcing through the sky overhead, each of them perfectly aware of their own positions. These evaluated the request they received, recognized the sender and instantly answered. From this combination of lightning answers to urgent questions, the JDAM’s processor went quietly to work, sending signals to the control section – do this, and we can go home, it said. Now that. A bit more this way. The control section was not equipped to judge the rightness or wrongness of these requests. It was obligated to comply.
No opportunity now for the wingman to call for some time. No possibility of a do-over. Everyone was committed, in the air and on the ground, and the weapon was on its way. And it was only now, now that nothing could be taken back that the wingman felt the demon doubt jump out again from his box and perch back upon his shoulder, demanding of him if he had thought of everything, if he had followed the checklist, if he had considered the consequences. The wingman was no veteran by any means, but even he had put one and one together and realized that the man on the ground was whispering because he had to, which undoubtedly put him danger close to a set of coordinates towards which a 1000 pound JDAM was falling, bringing all classes of hell along with it. I wonder where the bomb is going, he asked himself, and looked at his FLIR display – Oh, it’s a building of some kind. I wonder, the wingman asked himself, who is in the building. I wonder how many they are, in there. He looked at his HUD, where the time-to-go counter had turned to a time-to-impact counter: Five seconds.
Mesmerized by his FLIR display, the wingman thought, four seconds. In four seconds I will know. Three. Two. One. Now.
The FLIR display bloomed suddenly, just beneath his aiming diamond as the energy released by the 1000-pound weapon changed the display gains and signal-to-noise ratios on the display, darkening the surrounding terrain. The FLIR slowly re-compensated as the indifferent desert absorbed the fading heat. It is done – I did it.
But what did I do?
He rocked up on his left wing, looked down upon the ground below – there: A sullen, grey-brown smoke cloud curling into the afternoon sky. Where was their feedback? Why was it so quiet? Why was the JTAC not on the radio? Too much time had passed! What have I done?
The prime radio crackled again, interrupting his fevered, racing thoughts: “That was a shack Navy! Good effects! Great effects!” the JTAC speaking now in a normal voice, evidently satisfied, clearly relieved. “Thanks fellas, you’re cleared back to Icepack.”
The wingman felt a burden leave his shoulders that he hadn’t even been aware was pressing down upon him, allowed himself to breathe again, without knowing quite when he had stopped. The aux radio spoke to him, startlingly loud, “Two, leads at your right five, half a mile,”
“Two, visual,” he replied automatically.
“Roger, lead right – in place right go.”
“Two, lead right,” he acknowledged, falling back into his accustomed role.
“Rog. Let’s ah, let’s shift Silver-2 on prime,” the lead instructed. The wingman consulted his kneeboard card – “Silver-2/DASC/305.8″ He listened as the XO checked them back in with the Marine Expeditionary Force Direct Air Support Center, felt himself start to tremble a bit, the adrenaline leaving his body as they headed back to their previous CAP station, back in the MEF’s battle space. He found that his mouth was still dry on the second turn on CAP, pulled a water bottle out of his g-suit pocket, took a sip, followed it up with a swallow, felt a little better. On their third turn on station, he screwed his courage up, keyed the aux radio, spoke to his lead, “Sir – any idea what that was all about?”
“I haven’t got a clue,” the XO admitted, adding, “In place right, go.”
Back to business. Watching the lead’s belly as he lagged him through the turn, the wingman was left to his own private thoughts. He knew that he had crossed over some kind of line. He sensed that it was the kind of line you could only cross over in one direction. As his lead rolled out on the new heading, he adjusted his throttles back slightly to maintain position, checked his fuel state, turned the mirror on his canopy bow down to see the empty bomb rack where a few minutes before he had carried a 1000 pound bomb.
For the first time since he started flight school he realized that combat was real for him, that it was not something just for other men. He felt a strange exultation mixed with an even stranger ambivalence, a combination he could not entirely place in context – automatically, he tried to put it in a box, to look at later, but the feelings refused.
He reflected that he had in some way joined the ranks of those who dealt in violence, in a way that hadn’t been true before. There was a before and an after to what had just happened. It hadn’t taken very long to cross, the line between them, and it hadn’t been very hard. But this was now in the land of after, and there was no going back to before.
He wondered, not for the last time, what exactly all of this meant. He wondered whom he’d ever be able to ask.
“In place right, go.”
(To be continued...)