Basrah, Iraq
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.
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
      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. 
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
      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. 
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”
      “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
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.
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.
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
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
checked in just as he got settled into his search.  “Do you hear me on secure?” he asked on aux.
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
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
      “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.”
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. 
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.
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.
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.
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. 
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.
42, in hot from the east, tally target, visual friendlies,” he said, his
still-calm voice masking the fear and excitement he was feeling. 
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!”
picked up the second truck visually through his Night Vision Gogggles, it was
now speeding westbound towards the front of the convoy. 
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.
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. 
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
      “Help!” a
scream came over the radio.
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!”
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
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