“Thunder 42, Knife 11, standby for new tasking,” the secure radio hissed and crackled to life. It was the voice of the British Joint Tactical Air Controller (JTAC) whom he had been working with for the last two hours.
“Knife 11, Thunder 42, go ahead,” he replied, stuffing his water bottle back in his helmet bag. He had been airborne in his F-16 for over four hours, having refueled three times. It was the standard mission in the new Iraq. Takeoff, check in with the JTAC, stare at dirt through the targeting pod for an hour, hit a tanker, check back in with the next JTAC at the next tasking, wash, rinse, and repeat, until the mission window ended six hours later and it was time to land. Not quite as glamorous as the early days of the war where everyone cleaned off their weapons racks on every sortie.
But Captain Cal “Spectre” Martin had never seen that Iraq. It was his second deployment, and despite his air medal, he had always managed to bring his bombs home. He had come close to dropping bombs many times over his thirty combat sorties, usually arriving just as the hostilities were dying down or being called off because the locals had taken care of the problem already. The price of success, he thought.
It was a new Iraq. In late 2008, the United States and Iraqi governments came to terms on a Status of Forces agreement. This agreement defined the withdrawal of coalition forces from major Iraqi cities, and laid the foundation for their eventual troop drawdown. It also required warrants for searches of any homes and buildings not related to combat. It was the first step of the United States government handing back the keys of Iraq to the Iraqi people.
As a result of this new agreement, however, the rules of engagement for coalition forces became more restrictive. No longer could a JTAC designate a target for destruction based on enemy activity. Search warrants had to be acquired. Iraqi police had to be notified. The remaining airpower, F-16s doing twenty four hour patrols over predesignated areas, was relegated to searching for suspicious activity through their advanced targeting pods.
And Spectre had been doing just that. He had checked in with Knife 11 to look for suspicious activity – people placing Improvised Explosive Devices on known supply routes mostly. He was number two in a flight of two, separated by thirty miles working with two different JTACs – standard ops with fewer jets to patrol the skies these days.
“Thunder 42, we have a TIC at MSR NOLA, convoy requests immediate support, contact Whiskey 80 on Green 10, how copy?” the JTAC responded in his thick British accent.
He had heard it several times before on his first deployment – TIC, or Troops In Contact, was the magic acronym indicating friendly forces were currently engaging hostiles. Under the current ROE, it was the only way airborne weapons employment was authorized. After hours of lethargy, it was the only phrase that got his blood pumping. Someone on the ground was in trouble, and he was the cavalry. It was his first time hearing it on this tour, and he just hoped he could get there in time to make a difference.
“Thunder 42 copies all, will contact Whiskey 80 on Green 10, copy troops in contact,” Spectre replied in an unshakably cool, calm tone despite the adrenaline now coursing through his veins.
“Cleared off, and happy hunting,” the Brit replied.
He checked the cheater card on his kneeboard for the frequency called Green 10 and typed it in the up front control of the F-16. He typed in the coordinates for the center point of MSR NOLA, the codename for the main highway westbound out of Basra. During daylight hours, it would serve as a busy highway for civilian and military traffic, but now at 0200 and with a curfew in effect, it would only be used by the military and those looking for a fight.
Of course, Spectre knew they weren’t really looking for a fight. The people still fighting in Iraq were terrorists. They were looking to create fear and panic, and disrupt the progress of rebuilding Iraq. They wanted the infidels out of their land, so they could create a strict Islamic regime with which to oppress the Iraqi people. They were cowards who couldn’t win a head on fight with even the budding Iraqi Security Forces. So instead, they played the asymmetric warfare game: ambush the vulnerable convoy with IEDs, harass the American bases with Indirect Fire attacks, and kill the women and children of those who sought to make their country better. It was all part of the desperate last stand of a defeated group.
With his sophisticated Embedded GPS/INS navigation system now directing him to the hot zone, Spectre sped to the area at nearly 500 knots. He knew in these situations time could mean the difference between life and death for the guys on the ground. They were the real reason things were going so well in Iraq, and he wasn’t about to let the cowards they were facing get in a sucker punch.
He keyed his auxiliary radio to contact his flight lead. Despite having flown most of the mission alone, he was still the wingman, and his flight lead would be the ultimate decision maker. He needed to get the information to his flight lead as quickly as possible so their firepower would be available to the convoy in trouble.
“Thunder 41, 42 on Aux,” he said, indicating that he was calling his flight lead on their secondary radio.
“Go ahead Spectre,” he replied. Major Brett “Pounder” Van Pelt was an experienced Instructor Pilot (IP) and flight lead. He had been to Iraq three times prior. He had seen the transition firsthand from the “Wild West” to the restricted “look but don’t touch” mindset.
“We’ve got a TIC at MSR NOLA, I’m inbound to contact Whiskey 80 on Green 10.”
“Copy, go check in with the JTAC, I’m on my way, don’t do anything without me,” Pounder replied sternly. He was a fast burner in the F-16 community, having served as an operational test pilot testing the latest and greatest weapons for the active duty before joining the reserves. Just prior to the deployment he was even selected as the alternate to go to the coveted Air Force Fighter Weapons School by the Air Force Reserve Command. Pounder was going places.
The convoy was over 50 miles away, but Spectre arrived on scene in just over five minutes. He checked in with the JTAC, callsign Whiskey 80, who gave him the on scene situation. A small convoy had been moving food and medical supplies along MSR NOLA from Basrah to a village near Zubayr when an IED exploded, wounding two Iraqi soldiers and severely damaging one of their HUMVEEs.
“Requesting armed overwatch while we move the wounded to the MRAP and repair the HUMVEE, go with Fighter to FAC,” the excited voice said over the secure radio. It was Whiskey 80, the American JTAC in the convoy. He sounded young – couldn’t be older than 21, Spectre thought. What a shame, not even old enough to drink legally in America, but old enough to have people try to blow him up.
“Roger, we’ve got one F-16 with one on the way, each jet with two by GBU-12, two by GBU-38, and five hundred-fifty rounds of 20 millimeter, thirty minutes of playtime. Understand armed overwatch, confirm you’re strobing?” he asked, repeating the instructions and giving the fighter to FAC brief, an abbreviated way for pilots to give Forward Air Controllers on the ground their weapons loadout and time on station. Tonight each jet was loaded out with two 500lb GBU-12 Laser Guided Bombs, two 500lb GBU-38 GPS guided bombs, and 550 rounds in the 20MM Vulcan cannon sitting over his left shoulder.
“We are now,” Whiskey 80 replied, indicating that he had turned on his Infrared Strobe to mark their position.
Spectre took his Night Vision Goggles out of their case and attached them to his helmet. He had been flying all night with them off. He hated them. Unless there was some tactical importance to wearing them, he avoided it at all costs – they just gave him a headache. If there were ever a time of tactical importance, it was now. After a quick scan, he quickly picked up the bright strobe flashing amongst the headlights on the highway. He picked out six vehicles, and then slewed his Litening II Advanced Targeting Pod to their position.
Using the Forward Looking Infrared mode of his targeting pod, he could easily make out the vehicles. The first two were HUMVEEs, followed by three MRAPS – the Army’s armored fighting vehicle designed to withstand IED attacks and ambushes, and one HUMVEE at the rear. The black and white pod image wasn’t very clear at that altitude, but it appeared that the rear vehicle was the damaged one.
After confirming the JTAC’s position, he began scanning the nearby area for threats. He put the jet in a 45 degree bank, right hand turn and set the autopilot to hold that turn so he could focus on the ground. The right hand “wheel” as it was called kept the F-16 in an orbit over the target area, keeping the targeting pod that was mounted on the right chin mount from being masked by the fuselage.
Pounder checked in just as he got settled into his search. “Do you hear me on secure?” he asked on aux.
“Negative, I’m talking to the JTAC now,” Spectre replied.
“I can’t hear shit, what’s going on?” Pounder demanded.
When he was a Lieutenant, Spectre never appreciated Pounder’s attitude, but now it was just flat out annoying. A situation was developing on the ground and for whatever reason Pounder couldn’t get his hands in it, so he was being short.
“There’s a disabled vehicle and wounded, we’re tasked with Armed Overwatch. I’ll pass you the coordinates on the datalink, but so far nothing is happening,” he said, trying not to show his irritation.
“Sounds like Iraqi standard – hurry up and do nothing. Well I’m almost at Tanker Bingo, so we’ll have to yo-yo, think you can handle it by yourself?” Pounder asked. He was nearing the preplanned fuel state to discontinue whatever tactical operations they were conducting so they could make the tanker or go home with enough fuel to land safely. With yo-yo operations, Spectre would stay on station alone until Pounder could get fuel on a tanker and make it back. Once back, they would complete a hand off and Spectre would head to the tanker alone, ensuring a fighter would always be overhead.
“I’ve still got 20 minutes until Bingo, I can handle it,” Spectre replied.
“Fine, but don’t do anything without me. I’ll be back in 20 minutes.”
Spectre acknowledged and continued with his search. He knew the rules. Ever since a young wingman nearly hit friendlies on a drop while his flight lead was at a tanker, the reigning Operations Group Commander had decreed that no aircraft would drop as a singleton, no matter what the situation. Flight leads were not supposed to leave their wingmen alone on station, but given the situation, Spectre wasn’t about to argue and leave these guys alone on the side of a highway in the wee hours of the morning.
“Thunder 42, this is Whiskey 80, we are taking fire!” the JTAC screamed. His voice was cracking. Spectre could hear gunfire in the background. His eyes snapped back to his targeting pod. He could see the friendly troops hiding behind the vehicles on the road. Zooming out of the pod, he picked up two trucks on the other side of the road with several combatants in the back. He couldn’t tell what kind of weapons they were holding, but they appeared to be shooting.
“Thunder 42, Whiskey 80, we have troops in contact, danger close, standby for 9 line,” he screamed once again. More shots could be heard in the background. They were under heavy fire. The 9 line served as a way for the Forward Air Controller to pass target information in a Close Air Support situation.
Spectre hesitated. He had strict marching orders from Pounder and the rules of engagement – don’t do anything solo. He could see the friendlies taking heavy fire on the ground. They didn’t have the firepower to hold the enemy combatants off by themselves for long, and he had no idea when Pounder would be back. He didn’t have time to wait.
“Thunder 42 ready to copy 9 line,” he replied. Fuck it. He was there to protect the troops on the ground, not watch them die while he sat idly by with his hands tied by ridiculous rules to cover some general’s ass
. The JTAC screamed the information to him, “Request you strafe these fuckers NOW! We’re taking heavy fire and they are advancing on our position!”
He had all the information he needed. With the proximity of the enemy to the friendlies, the fragments from the bombs would potentially injure them. He had to be surgical, and the 20 mm was his choice. Loaded with High Explosive Incendiary rounds, the bullets would disable any vehicles and rain fire upon the cowards who had ambushed the convoy.
He called up the strafe pipper in the Head Up Display and set the aircraft systems up for his strafe pass. He would make his roll in parallel to the friendlies so as not to shoot over them or toward them.
His adrenaline was now full throttle. Despite that, he remained focus. He rolled in, establishing a 30 degree nose low dive using the pitch ladders and flight path marker in his HUD. He set the gun cross at the top of the HUD on the target. It was the first truck.
“Thunder 42, in hot from the east, tally target, visual friendlies,” he said, his still-calm voice masking the fear and excitement he was feeling.
“You’re cleared hot!” the JTAC replied, indicating he was cleared to expend ordnance on the target.
He steadied the boresight cross on the truck as the gun pipper symbology rose to meet the target. The pipper in the F-16 gave a constantly computed indication of where the bullets would go at any given time. It was commonly referred to as the “death dot” because where you shot, death would follow.
As he reached the preplanned range with the pipper on the truck, he squeezed the trigger. The jet vibrated with a metallic rattle as the Vulcan cannon spat 100 rounds per second. He held the trigger for three seconds, then released the trigger and began a 5G recovery from the dive.
For what seemed like hours, there was quiet on the radio. He reestablished his right hand wheel and picked up the target again in the targeting pod. He could make out very little as the dust settled from where he hit.
“Good hits! Good hits!” the JTAC exclaimed, “You’re cleared immediate reattack on the second truck, you’re cleared hot!”
Spectre picked up the second truck visually through his Night Vision Gogggles, it was now speeding westbound towards the front of the convoy.
“Confirm the truck is moving to your position,” Spectre asked, trying to slow things down so as not to get too rushed and make a mistake.
“That’s affirm, he just, oh shit!” the reply was cut off. Spectre’s heart sank. He saw the glowing streak of something large and hot shooting from the truck in his FLIR. He knew it immediately. It was an RPG. He watched as the second HUMVEE in the convoy was rocked by the explosion and the targeting pod image washed out.
The situation had gone from bad to worse. The radio was silent. He watched helplessly as the truck that had fired the RPG turned back away from the convoy to dig in and continue its assault. He was already risking it, but without a FAC on the ground, he could not shoot.
“Help!” a scream came over the radio.
“Say again,” Spectre asked, hoping it was the JTAC.
“This is the MRAP commander, we are under heavy fire with several casualties, our JTAC is down, request Emergency CAS, my initials are Hotel Sierra!”
Emergency Close Air Support was the most difficult CAS scenario . It referred to a situation in which a fighter provided support with a ground controller who was not a qualified air controller. Someone with no prior training would be guiding bombs and bullets from fighters onto nearby targets. The rules of engagement allowed it, but only at the discretion of the operator in the air, and only in the direst of situations because of the risk of friendly fire.
He called the MRAP commander back. Time to go to work. He confirmed that no personnel or vehicles had moved from the highway. The second truck was still the target.
He picked up the second truck visually and rolled in just like the first time, establishing a 30 degree dive and putting the boresight cross on the truck.
“Thunder 42, in hot from the west,” he said, hoping his new controller would respond.
“Do it! Take them out!” the MRAP commander exclaimed.
He exhaled a bit. At least he had positive contact with someone. Once in range, he put the pipper on the truck and squeezed the trigger for two seconds. The bullets spat from the trusty 20mm just has they had done before until the gun was empty
Just as he began his recovery from the attack, he heard “Abort, abort, abort!” It was the call reserved for discontinuing the attack.
His heart sank.