“Jackhammer, Spear One Three, One Four checking in, AR complete in Dakota at flight level two three zero requesting clearance to Tango Delta four five for fragged tasking with Knife Zero One.”
We had just come off our first tanker of the day, a large three engined KC-10, the equivalent of a DC-10 used by commercial airlines, replenishing our fuel tanks after the hour long transit from the ship into Afghanistan. Our air wing had been conducting these missions for a little over a week, but even in that short span of time, we were beginning to get a feel for the lay of the land.
Over the primary radio came an unusually urgent reply from the British female who was directing air traffic in the southern portion of Afghanistan that afternoon. Female controllers are always mesmerizing to listen to, especially the ones with exotic accents. Perhaps this is planned – I think we take in what they say and actually respond to it better than a male's voice. This may be why all the emergency voices within the cockpit – “Engine Fire, Engine Fire” “Bingo, Bingo” – are women’s. Anyway:
“Spear One Three, you have been re-tasked to support TIC Echo Mike in Tango Foxtrot Three Five, contact your JTAC, callsign Orion Four, on Indigo Seven Four. Elevator to flight level two one zero for your transit en route.”
A troops in contact situation had arisen, and as a result, the Joint Tactical Air Controller on the ground had requested immediate close air support to assist him in combating local Taliban and insurgent forces. As we looked on our chart, it appeared that the killbox we were directed to, Tango Foxtrot three five, was right on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Only in exceptional circumstances were we authorized to violate the red line drawn on the map.
My heartbeat hastened, and the first thing that popped into my head, much to my surprise as to its vehemence, was “those damn Taliban bastards…” I was leading a flight of two F/A-18 Super Hornets into combat for the first time, with the skipper of our squadron and our training officer on my wing, both evaluating my performance and preparing to help the guys on the ground if need be.
This was certainly not what we had been briefed about, nor was it in an area we were then familiar with. A relatively benign overwatch scenario near Kabul had morphed into a possible kinetic situation with live fire being exchanged between combatants near a politically sensitive international border. I had to take a deep breath as I quickly ran through the procedures for employing the weapons on board, should it come to that.
Ten minutes later, we checked in with Orion Four on our encrypted frequency. We passed him our check-in information, and got the following reply:
“Spear One Three, One Four roger that. This is what we have going on here. About fifteen mikes ago we had a mortar round fired on our position. The suspected target escaped on foot about one and a half clicks into Pakistan into what appears to be a cave. We need you to sanitize the opening and let us know what you see. You are NOT, I repeat, NOT authorized to engage in Pakistan at this time.”
Part of me was relieved as the situation had deescalated somewhat, but the adrenaline was still coursing from the urgency in the voice of the previous controller. Spring-loaded to bring overpowering firepower at one moment, at the next expected to wait while we figured out the situation and took a step back from rash decisions. This would be a tricky nut to crack. Welcome to Afghanistan.
A few days before we started flying combat sorties, our skipper and Air Wing Commander (CAG) spoke to all the aviators. Nearly a year in training for these few months ahead, it was time for the pep talk. They were pretty short and to the point, but a few things stuck out.
Our Skipper: “Final release of weapons lies with you in the cockpit. When it comes down to it, neither me nor CAG will be in a position to tell you what to do. You will be responsible for ensuring proper hostile intent and identification has been met. You have been trained to make the right decisions, and we trust you. Now go execute.”
CAG: “There are two reasons why we do this and have prepared for this day for over a year. The first is that we have the honor of defending our country and fighting alongside the men and women on the ground who are keeping the people back home safe. Secondly, we do this because each and every day we get to see if we have what it takes, if we meet the standards expected of us. If the trust placed in our judgment and tactical proficiency is indeed deserved. Prove you have what it takes.”
The day began early with the mass brief. A quick update of weather up the Boulevard, our transit route into Afghanistan, and then in country. A tactical update with current operations ongoing in Afghanistan, followed by discussions of what each element of two aircraft was tasked to accomplish that day. Political and cultural descriptions sprinkled throughout, giving context to the missions. Lessons learned from the previous days, and things to watch out for today.
We then broke off into our various sections. The flow was pretty standard: an hour and fifteen minute transit from our carrier operating area to the south of Afghanistan, hit an Air Force refueling platform, provide close air support for an element on the ground for about 45 minutes, hit another tanker, go back for another 45 minute period of CAS, hit our third and final tanker, then make our way back to the ship. All told, over six hours in the air.
As this was only my third mission, I was still trying to figure out a routine in order to ensure I wasn’t forgetting anything when we finally walked to start up our jets. I ran through everything in my mind. ID card and dog tags. Check out a 9mm Sig from the squadron duty officer with associated ammo. Check out my blood chit and evasion maps. Review my game plan if I for some reason had to eject; if I get captured, if I get rescued. Check for an extra survival radio battery. Grab a few Cliff Bars and Piddle Paks. Fill up my water bottle. Get a seat pad. Fuel card and T-handle from maintenance in case we have to divert. Night vision goggles with bracket, just in case we get extended into the night hours. Products the Ground Liaison Officer had given us for each JTAC we were fragged to support that day. Smartpack with answers to nearly everything that may arise in flight. My flight bag was stuffed – I wasn’t sure it would all fit into the cockpit.
I’ve found there is a strange sense of comfort in the snugness associated with strapping into these airplanes. All our survival gear hugging tightly and perfectly fitted to our heads and torsos. Four leg straps, two lap belts, two shoulder harnesses keeping us immobile within the ejection seat. Publications and maps and the necessities for survival stuffed into the cranny just to the right of the seat. During primary flight training, I remember some of the flight instructors who originally flew large airplanes with spacious cockpits brag about their luxuries. I liked having nowhere to move – it was as if the airplane was now a direct extension of my body. A 59,000 pound hunk of metal to be manipulated by a mere 200 pound man. Forty thousand pounds of raw and untamed thrust to be harnessed by mere fingertips and neural synapses. Talk about leverage.
Once we were started, we taxied to the catapult, awaiting the official launch to commence. All of our systems worked as advertised, the check-in with our wingman was uneventful, and we were a full up round. We waited for twenty minutes in silence doing nothing. Hurry up and wait.
I snapped out of a brief daydream to the yellow shirt on my right waving his hands, indicating I need to taxi forward to bring the launch bar into the catapult shuttle. He looked to his right, then his left, then shot his right arm out. Tension.
Throttles mil. Launch bar up, light is out. Flaps full, indicating full. Engine instruments look good, nozzles look good, hyd pressure looks good. Stick forward… aft…left…right…rudders full left…full right. I’m good to go. “I’m set in the back.” Look out to the left, the Shooter pumps his fist into the air three times. Throttles full afterburner. A deafening roar fills my ears, even encased behind the thick glass bubble of the canopy and double hearing protection. I give a snappy salute to the Shooter. He salutes back and touches his left hand to the deck while kneeling down. My right hand grabs the handle on the canopy bow in front of me, my left arm locked keeping the throttles at their maximum setting. A quick breath in, waiting in the instant before the impulse takes effect.
We are plastered to the seat. Instantly you know it’s a good cat shot and we’re going flying. A 59,000 lbs, asym 3 combat shot is simply astounding. Nothing in the world is like it. Your head pressed back against the headrest such that you cannot even move it. Planes and people and flight deck blurs as your vision constricts to the soda straw in front of you. Accelerating from 0 to nearly 200 miles per hour in 2 seconds. Finally released from the acceleration and free of the deck, it takes a moment to come out of the haze, but you do, take a quick check turn to the left, bring the gear and flaps up, and accelerate to 300 knots at 500 feet.
“Spear One Three, One Four you are clear to join.” The Air Boss comes over Tower’s frequency and informs us our wingman has been launched in tandem with us, and is a few hundred feet to our right. There sits a sleek grey jet skimming the blue water on a bright day, slowly snuggling up on my wing. I’m reminded of why I do this.
After those few moments of sheer adrenaline and exhilaration, the next hour is remarkable for its lack of anything remarkable. So too is the land we soon find ourselves flying over.
Pakistan is absolutely desolate. I’ve flown over the expanses of the Western United States, passing over the deserts of New Mexico and rocky vacuum of West Texas, but this is something else entirely. It is the visual definition of godforsaken -- endless sand amidst dark gray rock outcroppings, no water, no greenery. There are washes aplenty where in the rainy season it appears rivers flow, but not now. There are a few oases of civilization, but even these are mere dots of black in a sea of dust. A constant haze layers just...sits over the entire region, and the only time you are out of it is when flying above 20,000 feet. It’s like being over a different planet.
The demarcation between Pakistan and Afghanistan is only on our political maps. The landscape shows no mention of a “border.” One endless sea of barren soil gives way to the next. But psychologically – psychologically there is a shift that takes place. I’m over the Line. This is no longer a training mission over the desert of Nevada, but an incursion into another sovereign nation. Our bombs are real. Our decisions have consequences. There are people who would love to shoot me down.
“Orion Four, Spear One Three is sensor on that target. Looks to be a cave entrance with surrounding buildings, no movers seen. Confirm coordinate Seventy-Three Delta, Golf Quebec, 9-4-5-2, 2-6-1-3.”
“That’s a good read back Spear One Three, copy that entrance and no movers. Request you search around that area a report back anything suspicious.”
We kept our orbit flowing, skirting the border as close as we could stand without actually going over it. Once again the lay of the land gave no indication that there were different countries. Villages and paths flowed across the dotted black line on our moving map within the cockpit, and outside one mountain gave way to another valley. This was quintessential tribal land, the people and cultures not restricted by international agreements but rather centuries and even millennia of intermarriage and caravans of trade. Here we were, acutely cognizant over a line in the sand, adhering to it while the mostly neutral, and likely hostile, peoples below bore more allegiance to their village elder than either Islamabad, Kabul or NATO Frameworks.
Our enemies and adversaries, after eight years of running and hiding and causing havoc, know how to exploit these political requirements. My WSO, callsign Creature, and I ruminated as we monitored on the fact that the cave this insurgent escaped into likely had numerous exits far from this entrance we were glommed onto. These guys aren’t stupid. Tunneling and underground networks have been used against us to great effect in the past, Korea and Vietnam being the most notable. Run to where we can’t get them after a quick strike. They say in war, never accept a fair fight. Insurgents know this better than anybody.
Three missions in, and we had stumbled upon the classic difficulty of a war such as the one we face in Afghanistan. We are forced to respond to hostile situations rather than shape them to our advantage. Our superior firepower arrived too late to catch fleeing and savvy perpetrators. That and the fact that superior firepower doesn’t really matter in the long run. The bad guys look like civilians. The civilians are suspected of being bad guys. In either situation, months of hard earned trust can be lost from a misplaced perception leading to a misplaced weapon.
A few days later I was supporting a British JTAC, perhaps the most professional I have ever worked with. As we returned from our mid-cycle refueling, we got word from him that they had taken fire from five insurgents who had escaped into a wooded region next to a canal. He was revved up, the normally calm descriptions giving way to a bit of stress and faint sounds of gunfire in the background. We got our sensors into the suspected target area, immediately finding a “hot-spot” with our infrared sensor and what looked to be people running back and forth between it and a building. Artillery fire had been launched into the region; perhaps this was a round that hit something. The JTAC followed with interest. Our suspicions were high, we were ready to go kinetic if need be.
Soon though, things didn’t add up. There were these hot spots all over the place. As the sun set, little red specks popped up outside our cockpit on the darkening land. It turned out they were camp fires. Our suspicions were unfounded. Later on the transit home, in the hour of nothing but straight and level fight, we discussed this within our two man crew. The running could have been kids playing as they are wont to do around campfires everywhere. How do you balance the benign with the threatening? A similar situation a few days ago: one of the guys in our squadron was watching a convoy of Army vehicles transit down a road when all of a sudden one of them exploded as an IED detonated underneath it. Asymmetry at its most poignant.
After spending less than two hours in comms with the Brit, and knowing nothing but his tactical callsign, a bond and kinship was developed that I cannot explain. The protector and protected, seeking to accomplish the near impossible and quell a home-grown insurgency so that security can be maintained for countrymen halfway around the world, many of whom will never understand what is occurring on their behalf. He mentioned he is headed home in a few days after seven months on the ground, glad to be returning to the UK. What I wouldn’t give to spend an evening in some London pub trading stories with him.
It is bitterly ironic that the Twenty-First Century sanitized war of technology (Shock and Awe, Network Centric Warfare, etc) we were promised by strategists and politicians and military industrialists has instead given way to one where a culture far inferior to our own with respect to economics and development is in many ways neutralizing the greatest military power the world has ever known. The War of Necessity is the one we have no idea how to win.
But we are trying. In an upheaval of the Rules of War, it’s a good day when we return back to the ship with all of our weapons unexpended. It means that the troops on the ground had no need to bring a rain of fire from above. In that particular region, on that particular day, the strategy of pacifying a restive population and winning their trust has been accomplished, even if but for a moment. Success is not measured by the number of “kinetic events,” but rather the lack thereof. The easily exploitable political requirements we operate under are, interestingly, the very policies that stand the best chance of defeating this wily foe.
Despite the ambiguities, it’s good to finally be doing something that has been for me over five years in the making. When I’m not flying over the beach, I look on the scheduling board to see when I next get to go. When I’m flying over the beach, there is deep satisfaction in what we are doing, even if the long run portends uncertainty.
So while the debate rages in Washington, and our military and political leaders fight over what should be allocated and who should be supplemented, we fly our daily missions dealing with the ambiguity that nearly incapacitates democracies. Seeing if we measure up to what is expected of us. It is all we can do.
New Website: disruptivethinkers.org
4 years ago