Qayyarah Airfield West
30 Miles South of Mosul, Iraq
2 Days Earlier
“Alright, gents, we got the call,” the man said, standing in front of their makeshift briefing room. It was an assortment of folding chairs in front of a white sheet being used as a projector screen. The dusty room had wooden raised floors and stucco walls. They had been using it as their operations center since arriving in country two days prior.
Spectre took his seat in one of the front folding chairs as the other dozen men gathered around. They were a mix of special operators with full beards in desert tactical clothing and clean shaven pilots in tan flight suits with shoulder holsters supporting their issued M9 9MM handguns.
The man waited for everyone to sit down as he quickly reviewed his notes. Although Charles “Ironman” Steele was nearly fifty-five years old, he didn’t look a day over forty. He had spent most of his career flying F/A-18s for the Navy, with a brief tour embedded with the SEALS as an Air Liaison Officer and embedded Joint Terminal Attack Controller. Despite being the director of the organization and spending most of his time behind a desk or mission-planning computer, Ironman was still able to keep up with even the most lethal operators of the group.
He was in charge of an elite group called Project Archangel. Comprised of former pilots and Special Operations Forces members from all services, Ironman reported directly to the Secretary of Defense. Officially, they were Department of Defense contractors. Unofficially, they were the SECDEF’s go-to unit when the President needed plausible deniability in matters involving delicate foreign relations. Specializing in self-sustained surgical strike and counterterrorism operations, the group could be deployed anywhere in the world without a need for U.S. Military air or ground support.
In fact, Project Archangel was best known for its ability to provide its own Close Air Support and Airborne Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance. With a fleet of Embraer A-29 Super Tucanos, MH-6 Little Bird Helicopters, UH-60 Blackhawk Helicopters, Pilatus PC-12s configured as U-28s, and MQ-9 Reaper Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Project Archangel employed some of the best combat pilots in the world.
A former F-16 pilot, Spectre had been hired by Project Archangel a year prior. Ironman approached him at the funeral of Spectre’s ex-fiancée after he and his friends infiltrated an abandoned air base in Cuba and recovered an F-16 that had fallen into the wrong hands. Six months later, Spectre found himself in the cockpit again, flying the A-29 Super Tucano after completing a rigorous training program. The group required all pilots to receive comprehensive armed and unarmed combat training before beginning the aircraft checkout. Despite Spectre’s black belt in Krav Maga, an Israeli fighting system, he was required to demonstrate proficiency in the same tactics and techniques as the former Special Operations Forces operators.
“As you know, five days ago, a team of U.N. Chemical Weapons Experts was captured by Syrian Opposition Forces along with the Sarin and VX gas canisters they were attempting to destroy,” Ironman said as he advanced the PowerPoint slide on his laptop.
Spectre remembered all too well the gruesome images of the four team members – three men and one woman – being tortured and killed by supposed “Freedom Fighters” of the Al Nusra Front. The video had been broadcast by Al Jazeera hours after it had been uploaded. In it, the rebels accused the inspectors and international community of taking the side of a despotic ruler who had used those same chemical weapons on his own people. They vowed to take the weapons themselves to fully ensure they could never be used again.
The problem with that, in the eyes of the United States Intelligence Community, was that it was widely believed that the Syrians had never used chemical weapons against their own people. The Opposition Forces, infiltrated by Al Nusra and Al Qaeda, had used them in an attempt to draw the United States into another regional conflict – this time against the Syrian government.
Knowing the U.S. didn’t have the stomach for putting boots on the ground in another drawn out regime change, the leaders of the Al Nusra Front would use American and coalition airpower as its own air arm. Once the regime toppled, they would be able to install a more sectarian, Islamic government as they had done in Egypt and Libya.
“This morning, we managed to locate the four transport vehicles just north of Al Hasakah in Syria. This is a stronghold of Al Nusra and Syrian Opposition Forces. We believe that the weapons will be transferred tomorrow to separate transport vehicles and be distributed throughout the region. HUMINT sources also suggest that some of those weapons will be smuggled into Iraq and Turkey for use against the U.S. Embassy.” He advanced past slides showing possible routes through Syria.
“Tonight, we will secure the weapons,” Ironman said, pausing as he advanced to the next slide. The screen had changed from a black and white aerial surveillance photo of truck transports to an image of an Arab man with a thick, dark beard. “And our secondary objective will be to capture this man, Tarik Al-Usra. He’s a mid-level commander of the Al Nusra front in this region. Questions so far?”
Ironman looked around the room with his usual intense stare and furrowed brow. To anyone that hadn’t worked with him, Ironman was an intimidating hardass. His shaved head and general lack of neck made him look like an NFL linebacker. However, to everyone that had known and worked for him, Ironman was a great leader who cared for his people with a huge soft side for his two daughters back home.
“Shorty will be the mission commander tonight. The floor is yours,” Ironman said as he nodded forward and took his seat in the front row.
Spectre chuckled to himself as Jake “Shorty” Roberts stood. At 6’4”, the man was anything but short. He had spent most of his military career flying MH-6 “Little Bird” helicopters and UH-60 Blackhawks for the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. Known by most as the “Nightstalkers,” they were the Army’s most elite helicopter unit, flying missions around the world in support of Special Forces and made famous by the movie Blackhawk Down in which a UH-60 was shot down during the Battle of Mogadishu.
“Thanks, Ironman,” Shorty said as he took his place at the front of the room. He stroked his bushy “deployment stache” as he set up his notes. “Our expected launch time is 0100 local tonight. Weather reports clear skies and no significant weather forecasted. We will launch in two waves. Wave One will be two Little Birds, each with two four man teams of operators, callsign Chariot 11 and 12.”
Spectre took notes on his kneeboard card as Shorty went through the lineup. It was his second deployment with the team and his first time back in Iraq since he had been grounded by the Air Force after an Emergency Close Air Support mission in the F-16.
Six years prior, he and his flight lead had been retasked to support a Troops In Contact scenario with a convoy that had been ambushed. After the Joint Terminal Attack Controller was killed, Spectre was forced to provide Close Air Support to the convoy using an unqualified controller while his flight lead was refueling with the tanker. He had saved many lives, but the violation of the Rules of Engagement set by the deployed Operations Group Commander at the time cost him his career.
“Coach” Louhan grounded him and sent him home after sending a damning e-mail to the Chief of the Air Force Reserve Command. The result was a reassignment to a non-flying billet and a pledge that Spectre would never fly an AFRC aircraft again. Instead, Spectre resigned and found employment in a gun store while his fiancée continued flying with his former squadron, the 39th Fighter Squadron “Gators.”
It was only mildly satisfying to Spectre that Coach was most likely rotting in some Federal Prison, having been convicted of selling secrets and sensitive information to a Cuban Intelligence agent. The man deserved much worse than a country club prison. He had cost Spectre his career and his relationship with his fiancée.
“Wave Two will take off when Wave One reaches our makeshift Forward Operating Base near the Syrian Border. This should give the two Little Birds time to refuel before entering hostile airspace. Wave Two will consist of a Super Tucano, callsign Venom 21, and a PC-12, callsign Magic 31,” Shorty said as he clicked through more slides.
“Spectre, you’ll be solo on this one as Venom 21,” Shorty said, nodding to Spectre. Spectre nodded as he continued to scribble notes. The A-29 was a two seat turboprop light attack aircraft. For more complex missions or missions requiring surveillance, another pilot would often act as a sensor operator in the back to allow the pilot to focus on flying and keeping his eyes out of the cockpit and on the objective. Spectre didn’t mind going solo though. He had spent most of his career as a single seat fighter pilot doing all the aviating, navigating, and communicating by himself. He was used to it.
“Once Chariot flight has refueled, Venom 21 will escort them into Syrian airspace at low altitude. Magic 31 will sniff ahead for any surface to air threats, and if necessary, provide Electronic Attack against the Syrian Air Defense. Latest intel reports the Eastern Region is down, so it should not be a factor, and the Pilatus can focus on confirming the location of the chemical weapons using onboard sensors.”
“What about manpads?” Spectre asked, referring to man portable shoulder fired surface to air missiles.
“Our ingress route is clear and it’s in a fairly isolated area. Plus, we have the element of surprise. Should be fairly low threat.”
Spectre continued taking notes. He didn’t like trusting that one of the most advanced Integrated Air Defense Systems in the world was inoperative during a civil war. The Syrians were equipped with some of the latest in advanced Russian Surface to Air Missile Technology, and the rebel fighters even had American Stinger surface to air missiles, provided earlier in the war by the CIA.
The good news, however, was that even if the Intel analysts were wrong and the Eastern Sector was still working, their Pilatus had an impressive electronics and jamming suite that could handle even the most advanced IADS. The only thing the Pilatus couldn’t do was protect Spectre and the other aircraft from the Stingers, but each aircraft had its own robust self-protection suite with flares designed specifically to defend against manpad threats.
The Pilatus PC-12 was a single engine turboprop civilian aircraft. For Project Archangel, it was a workhorse. With advanced sensors and intelligence gathering equipment, it was a self-contained spy plane, but it also included advanced jamming Electronic Attack pods that could jam even the newest in Active Electronically Scanned Array radar technology. And to top it off, it could even land on unimproved airstrips and drop off or pick up operators from the field. It was a jack-of-all-trades.
“Once the Pilatus has confirmed the location of the weapons, code word ‘MaryJane,’ the Little Birds will drop off the two teams to visually confirm serial numbers and destroy the weapons. Venom 21, you’ll transition to armed overwatch while Chariot 11 and 12 hold to the east. Once the weapons are accounted for and destroyed, expect a hot extract and exfil as the Syrian Rebel fighters wake up and realize what’s going on. But we should not be in country for more than thirty minutes from the moment we cross the border. Any questions?”
“What’s the EPA for this mission?” a voice behind Spectre asked. He didn’t have to turn around to recognize the voice of Joe Carpenter, his long time friend and former Air Force JTAC. He had known Carpenter since college, but the two had gone their separate ways since. Spectre had opted to find a job flying fighters for the Air Force Reserve while Carpenter had joined the Army and became an Army Ranger. Years later, Carpenter transferred to the Air Force, where he became a JTAC while searching for a more aviation-oriented career.
Along with close friend, Marcus Anderson, and an up and coming Air Force Office of Special Investigations Special Agent, Carpenter had helped Spectre assault the Cuban Air Base and steal back the missing F-16 while rescuing his fiancée. And when Spectre was asked to join Project Archangel, Spectre made his acceptance contingent upon bringing Carpenter along as a JTAC. Carpenter couldn’t refuse the generous pay and high-speed missions using the latest technology.
“The Evasion Plan of Action is fairly standard,” Shorty replied. “Avoid populated areas, lines of communication, and contact with indigenous personnel. Proceed east to the desert and find a hole-up site where you can establish communication. If able to establish comms, we’ll work a pickup plan with on-scene assets. If unable, make your way to the border. We’ll find you and work out a Combat Search and Rescue.”
“And if captured?” Carpenter pressed.
“The Syrian Opposition Forces are comprised of factions friendly to Al Qaeda and Al Nusra forces. You saw what they did to the U.N. inspectors. I know it’s not what you want to hear, but don’t get captured. Any other questions?”
Shorty waited as pilots and operators around the room shook their heads.
“Alright then, let’s roll,” Shorty said as he closed the laptop and grabbed his files.
As the pilots and operators grabbed their mission materials and shuffled out of the small room, Spectre was stopped by Carpenter.
“Hey, Cal, wait up a second,” he said, pulling Spectre to the side as the others cleared out of the room.
“What’s up, Joe?”
“Are you going to be ok man?” Carpenter asked. His brown eyes showed the concern of a long time friend and colleague.
“We’ve done this before, Joe. I’ll be fine,” Spectre replied. It was his second deployment as a pilot with Project Archangel since completing his indoctrination and training. Before going to Iraq, he had spent most of the last month in the Horn of Africa chasing down Somali pirates and disrupting Al Qaeda training camps flying both the A-29 and PC-12.
“I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about Iraq. I’m talking about what happened in Basra,” Carpenter pressed.
Spectre paused for a minute. His deployments to Iraq had haunted him for years after leaving the Air Force to work for his long time friend and Krav Maga sparring partner Marcus Anderson in his gun store in Florida City, FL. The recurring nightmares only got worse after his fiancée went missing in an F-16 during a routine training exercise. He just kept reliving the career changing moments over and over, as if his mind were stuck searching for answers for why his life had changed so suddenly. His last deployment to Iraq had changed him forever.
“This is different,” he replied, shaking off the nightmares. “I’m different.”
Carpenter looked Spectre over for a minute. At just over six feet tall, Spectre was just barely taller than Carpenter was, and except for his lighter brown hair and sky blue eyes, Spectre could have easily passed for Carpenter’s brother.
“Alright man. If you say you’re good, I believe you. Just let me know if you need to talk. I don’t think the boss brought beer into this country, but I’ll buy you a Rip-It.”
“Thanks, brother,” Spectre replied as the two exchanged a fist bump.