When the no-fly zones were first instituted following Saddam’s brutal suppression of the Shia in the south, Navy and Air Force fighters filled the counter-air lanes more or less continuously – a needlessly wearing pace of operations, especially after 1992 when the Iraqi Air Force stopped tempting fate by trolling around below the 32nd parallel. By the late 90′s, operations had become routinized, almost to a fault, with large force packages of anywhere between 8 and 20 aircraft assembling for fixed lengths known and “vul windows” and then returning either to airbases in Saudi or back to the aircraft carrier(s) at sea in the Arabian Gulf.
At first we used to have two dedicated lanes of defensive counter-air (DCA), plus a strike package of four to eight jets milling about in the middle supported by at least one EA-6B Prowler for electronic warfare support. To that Prowler would also typically be attached a two-ship of FA-18′s in close escort, while an E-2 patrolled just south of the Iraqi border to provide long range radar search and command and control. Bucket brigades of S-3′s came off mission searching the northern gulf for oil smugglers long enough to bring gas to thirsty mid-cycle fighters in Kuwait, while lumbering USAF tankers filled air refueling tracks in the gulf and KSA as well. In time we dispensed with the dedicated DCA almost entirely, since – apart from the closely protected Prowler – all of the TACAIR in country had a robust self-defense capability.
In the weeks and months immediately following Operation Desert Fox, above and beyond emplacing surface-to-air missile batteries in the southern No-Fly zone, Saddam had taken to randomly launching a fighter or two at the end of each vul window. They would trail the exiting force packages out of “the box” in order to give Saddam the propaganda victory of claiming that his invincible air force had once again chased away the “cowardly ravens” of the coalition. Much thought and no small amount of jet gas was spent pondering ways to catch these bandits in their poaching across the line, but to no avail – the MiG launches were not frequent enough to justify a level of effort operation, and having no real tactical or strategic impact were ignored by the heavies.
But not by us, we few, we happy few, we band of box hoppers. We avidly devoured the after action reports of these sorties with glittering eyes, imagining. Visualizing the tactics that would put us in position to shoot. Seeing the kill.
The things that follow you may find off-putting – peaceful souls will recoil from the bloodlust, and there will be many who disagree with the merits of my argument. I will draw distinctions, always an unpopular course – and I will speak around the notion of an elite.
We do not often talk of these things in the service. Indeed, the national spirit rebels against soi disant “elites,” but the sentiments are nevertheless authentic. Even those who disagree my conclusions will have to concede that – accurate or not – these are the perspectives of those inside the fighter community.
It is not my intent to antagonize, offend, nor even to persuade. My wish is simply to inform. This is, in fact, how many of us feel.
No one finds himself in a fighter by accident – for those who fly them, they are the pinnacle of professional achievement and the very top of a dramatically narrowing pyramid. It’s no mean feat to get commissioned, physically, morally or academically – there were 10,000 applicants for my class at USNA, 3500 or so were “qualified” for admission, the top 2,000 or so were offered positions, 1300 showed up to swear the oath, and just over a thousand of us graduated. The competition is just as fierce in the other commissioning routes.
Once you hit the fleet, getting into flight school is competitive, based on performance and physical qualification, with many ways to fall off the tracks along the way. Of my entering academy class, over half wanted to fly. By the time we’d graduated about 300 still wanted to and were physically qualified – there were 200 billets available. The others did something else.
Leaving primary flight school, perhaps a third of each cohort selects for the jet pipeline, sometimes less. The rest go the maritime route (props) or select to helicopters. There were about 35 students in my primary class – on the first day of class, when asked, “Who wants jet?” all but one of us put his hand up. Six months later only half did, and just eight of us were selected for the jet pipeline.
Once in jets, the competition and winnowing steepens – you’re young, you’re hard charging, aggressive – you want it all. So does everyone else. When everybody wants something – whether it’s a juicy set of orders to a great job or location, or whether it’s a seat in high tech fighter, the Navy has a simple way of deciding who to choose: Performance. I was up against 25 other guys when the time came for seat selection, all of us were “selectively retained graduates” – in the top third of our jet pipeline class when winged, and kept back as instructors for students who were in some cases only a few months behind us in the pipeline. Of those 25 who had finished in the top one-third of their jet class, eight of us got fighters and 5 of us got Hornets. Two of those eight were dead within a year.
Others in the naval service claim that fighter pilots have a reputation for arrogance. Fighter pilots generally concede the point, arguing that even if that reputation was true, that at least it was honestly earned. I don’t want to overstate the point: It’s safe to say that not everybody wants to serve, and of those that serve not everyone wants to fly, and not everyone who wants to fly wants to fly jets, and not everyone who flies jets wants to fly fighters. But even given all that, it’s also safe to say that everybody that flies fighters wants to be there. And I think I’m safe in saying that everyone who has ever flown a fighter wants an aerial kill.
Few, I think, have ever wanted one as much as I. I can scarcely believe that anyone might ever have wanted one more.
(To be continued…)