Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Advanced Fighter Control Wing #313
United States Army
Southern Theatre of Operations Command (S-TOC-AFCW- #313)
Major Paul Garson was behind his desk, catching up on some important technical bulletins, when a distinctly unwelcome knock came at the door. He was about to call out, ‘enter’ when his door popped open and Captain Jeremy Timmermans stuck his head, neck and a shoulder in around the jamb.
“It’s urgent, Major.” The deep, rumbling voice of his second-in-command broke into his peace and quiet, and then Jeremy, Captain Timmermans, was gone.
It wasn’t that the captain wasn’t the total professional soldier, in fact he was very much so, but he was also very young in Garson’s eyes. What might constitute an emergency could be anything from an airman feeling ill, to a request for transfer, or worse, a visiting general. That notion had him up and out of his desk with alacrity. He grabbed his jacket off the coat-rack and followed Timmermans with a measured haste befitting his status. He saw the other go into a door just yards away.
The captain was stooped over at the back of Lieutenant Richard Bell’s combat booth.
“What’s up?” The combat centre was barely ten metres away and straight ahead from his office door.
He was just doing up the last button.
“It’s one of them enemy fighters again, sir.” The lieutenant reported. “He’s climbing up to the south, he’s going to try to get into the sun.”
Bell hit a blue button on the right-hand control stick, speaking clearly and succinctly.
“Red Tail Two; keep coming along at four thousand.” The major heard two clicks over the booth’s audio monitors. “He should be port, thirty-five degrees, level.”
They heard two more clicks from Red Tail Two. The senior pair of officers looked at each other in anticipation.
“Captain? Another fighter?”
“Yes sir. This is their third attempt to shoot down our reconnaissance birds this month.”
The clipped and dry bass voice of Captain Timmermans was impressive in its professional simplicity. The enemy was trying to interfere with tactical support missions to their troops in the field, and this involved putting bombs and guns on target. These also needed to be on time, in the event of an attack or, ‘a measured response,’ or it had to be on-demand, and give quick and reliable service in the event of an emergency call-up by hard-pressed ground troops.
Timmermans stood at ease with hands clasped in front of him, patiently still while Garson reviewed the basic situation.
"Okay.” Garson watched impassively.
Then came a tight, happy little smile.
“Carry on.” He had a certain grim relish, and then he turned to lean in and monitor Bell’s progress.
All in all, this took priority over the photo op. An interesting puzzle for all concerned. With the enemy flying in the sun, it dazzled their weapons-system’s sensors to a certain degree.
“They’re also getting a little better.” Garson spoke in a flat tone. “Lieutenant?”
“That’s right, sir.” Lieutenant Bell agreed in a quick aside over his shoulder.
Somehow the enemy had to navigate these things, intercept a target, and then maneuver them in three dimensions in order to attack that moving target. Not bad for illiterate, gun-toting jungle tribesmen. Not bad at all. Of course, you couldn’t believe all your own propaganda.
“Bell's our best.” Timmermans’ reminder was unnecessary. “Remember, he almost made fighter training.”
“Bad heart.” Bell’s body English reeked of a supreme confidence.
There was a contempt as he smoothly maneuvered his bird, that Garson didn’t personally share.
Bell rolled in and powered up, a virtuoso performance. Bell only had about three hundred forty hours on these birds. Most of that was in training.
Garson watched as Bell began to maneuver to meet the attack head-on, his reconnaissance sortie momentarily taking second priority. The major was practically hanging on the left corner of the back of Bell’s combat armchair, with Timmermans on the right side.
“Are we certain there’s no one flying that thing?” The Major had never been sure. “I’ve got Corps on the phone all day long asking that question.”
“That’s a tough call.” The captain agreed. “Bell, and especially Lieutenant Novakowski; say they’re either running some dumb little program, or their remote pilots have maybe even worse visibility or field of view than we do. With all due respect, et cetera, that’s actually kind of hard to visualize. Right, lieutenant?”
“Shut up sirs.” The lieutenant and the senior men fell silent.
There was a little whiff of something, perhaps tension in the atmosphere, perhaps adrenalin-induced sudden sweats, as the lieutenant spoke up again.
“They may just be badly trained, sirs.”
The senior officers looked at each other for a moment, eyebrows raised. Bell knew more about actual combat flying than either one of them. That much they both sort of admitted privately, with a look exchanged quickly between them.
“Coming around, I’m climbing to meet the threat, he’s in the sun. Where’s my wingman?”
“Four kilos south, four thousand.” The air crackled with reports from Red Tail Two. “Holding south, coming to your twenty. I’m hot. Over.”
The two officers hovering at the back of the combat booth were now listening on headsets, and watching the three major screens and a couple of smaller side-view ones. Garson kept looking at the displays, for Bell didn’t always tell them what he was doing when he flipped over a mechanical switch or clicked on an icon on his tactical screens. The two green dots representing Red Tail One and Red Tail Two crept inexorably towards the slightly larger red dot of the bogey, an ancient word that still had validity. With their stealthy materials and radar-deflecting surfaces, both their own craft and the enemy’s were difficult radar targets. Their planes showed up well on the tactical screens due to their IFF, ‘International Friend or Foe,’ transponders. The enemy’s perhaps a little less so, making it tough to maneuver against them.
At times like this, in the absence of a rear-view camera, waiting was a kind of anguish, but that was why Bell was climbing, maneuvering left and right for reasons best known to himself. Garson realized he was just stalling, killing time while Red Tail Two got in position…suddenly the enemy blip sped up, according to the readout numbers.
“He’s coming down, coming down now.” Bell spoke clearly for Red Tail Two’s benefit.
He wrenched the plane around to meet the attack.
The glowing hot ball of the sun, bleeding huge streamers of electronic flare across the screens, loomed up suddenly. The two senior officers watched in sick fascination as Bell flew the machine far outside of its design parameters. The things were surprisingly strong, and so far no one had pulled the wings off of one. Originally the Pelicans, a robotic-drone and remotely-piloted series of aircraft, had been developed for sea-borne missions; launched and recovered from small craft. They were meant for a light ground-attack and surveillance role, short-range interdictions over a friendly border, as in the case of the situation along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, or even up into Canada, if things went bad up there too. Too lightly-built to survive in a high-technology, conventional warfare environment, the drones were really meant to stealthily penetrate undefended aerial environments. They were seen as perfect for anti-guerilla or anti-insurgency operations. They were cheap to make and cheap to run…
But this new war, this war against insurgents in the rain-soaked and mountainous jungles of the southern hemisphere, meant that old weapons must be adapted anew. The full-sized, manned aircraft were simply too expensive to operate this far from their dedicated bases in the Homeland. At the price of a hundred and fifty million a copy these days, perhaps the fighter jocks, the ‘real’ pilots, had priced themselves out of the marketplace. Garson had the luxury of an inactive overview, and had often marveled at just how quickly the most bizarre sequence of thoughts could go through one’s head in combat…one’s life really did flash in front of one’s eyes from time to time.
Bell put the sun directly ahead of his machine, pushing full power to the pair of small jet engines, and then he pulled back slightly on the stick. A rapid-fire growling noise assaulted their ears as Garson and Timmermans winced in shock.
“He’s gotta be there…” Bell muttered in the headphones. “Ugh!”
Suddenly both men were hooting and hollering as a dark blotch of smoke, and little chunks of what had been the enemy machine fluttered and spun past the camera view out of the front of Bell’s Pelican. Garson marveled at the young fellow’s eyesight. He hadn’t even seen the thing coming. He felt the sudden urge to let something loose.
“Wow! You got ’em, boy!” Garson yelled, overloading the audio circuits in a howl of feedback.
“Red Tail Two coming in now, I’m watching your tail, over.” The firm but youthful voice on the headset was calm as a cucumber. “I got a picture, Captain. It’s a confirmed kill for the big three-thirteen, over! Yee-ha-ha-ha!”
There was yelling and shouting all up and down the long hallway in the bunker, coming from the booth where Red Tail Two was operating. As usual, there would be a gaggle of backseat drivers, either training or simply spectators. Major Garson found Captain Timmermans’ sober grey eyes holding his own for a moment, a grin of sheer, unrepentant glee evident on the other man’s features.
Garson cracked a grin of his own at that point, and the two men exchanged a spontaneous high-five, their palms slapping together resoundingly.
“I’ll get you a case of beer and two days leave for that, Bell.” The Major might have spoken too soon.
The view screens lurched alarmingly in a great slewing arc and both officers found themselves irrationally clutching on to the seat-back for dear life.
“Break, break, break right.” There came a sudden call as the adrenalin rush came back with a vengeance.
Garson was aware of Timmermans’ heavy breathing in the earphones.
“He’s got a friend!” Red Tail Two blasted everyone’s ears with a high-pitched squeal, as Bell was trying to talk at the same time. “I’m on him, too far back, coming around to your right again, do a one-eighty! Turn right! Do it!”
“Red Tail One coming around.” Bell shut up abruptly.
There were two seconds of silence, as the officers watched, enthralled by the horizon sloping up and off to the right as the aircraft came around. The slight curve of the Earth was visible, even at this relatively low altitude, and the dark and forbidding forest down below looked like heaps of wet spinach.
Bell was pulling a lot of gees; then he let up and unloaded the airframe. He seemed to wait for an eternity of time, but it couldn’t have been more than two seconds…
“Pull your nose up, power up, I’m bringing him around…” Bell and Red Tail Two chattered back and forth.
“I got ‘im! Break right.” Bell had acquired the target, and again came that rattling-buzzing note of the weapons-system gun-noise, completely artificial but a necessary part of the pilot’s feedback.
The two officers watched as a tiny black silhouette, a delta-winged fighter of small dimensions, wobbled and wavered in the gun-sights. A low, moaning, warbling note was now sounding in the headphones. The thing just popped up out of the edge of the screens, literally coming out of nowhere, and again Garson cursed the limited visibility from these aircraft.
His subordinate caught himself, with a kind of guilty look.
Captain Timmermans reached up, switched channels on his headset, and stepped back out into the hallway for a moment. Garson watched the action, and then after a minute or so, Timmermans came back. Garson lifted up the earpiece, as Jeremy bent close.
“Reconnaissance Team Two reports no opposition.” Garson nodded in acknowledgement.
Number Two seemed to have a total grip on his demeanor again, as Garson gave him a nod of approval. Bell was having trouble getting a strong radar-type missile-lock on the tiny, ever-shifting profile of the machine, and all the heat came from the back. Reports from ‘Red Tail Two,’ indicated that he couldn’t turn tight enough to get off an infra-red missile shot or use his guns either.
Somehow this fighter got away, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Bell had missed his one opportunity, and in sheer flying terms, it got more technical all of a sudden. Bell and his partner were attempting to cooperate in their attempts to attack the enemy fighter. While their tactics had turned the tables somewhat, neither was getting the chance to take a good visual shot with their cannons. As Bell had been saying lately, these aircraft were not really designed to operate in three dimensions, as in the, ‘vertical element.’ Yet this was where Bell seemed to excel, diving down from above, and swooping away quickly as his wingman focused on covering Bell’s backside from enemy attacks. Garson watched Red Tail Two break up several attempts to attack Bell.
They kept trying, with both pilots continuing an expletive-ridden commentary that Garson was finding amusing in some objective fashion. The stress of the remote combat was audible in the voices of the two pilots, perhaps less so in Captain Timmermans’ occasional short comments and suggestions. But Timmermans didn’t have to fly the planes. While the photo operation looked to be scrubbed, they were still gathering valuable intelligence. Garson was aware of a grudging respect for whoever had programmed, or whoever was flying, these little black drone fighters.
They were fast, and maneuverable, and while so far, they had been lightly-armed, clearly they had a lot of potential for development. Whether or not the enemy would be able to build them in sufficient numbers to seriously disrupt operations, remained to be seen. In the meantime, anything they could learn about the enemy machines was useful.
Technical Sergeant De Wayne Leckie was right there all of a sudden, proffering cigars, but Garson waved him off.
"I’ll put them in your office.” The sergeant mouthed the words quietly and exaggeratedly, and Garson gave him a quick nod and grin of gratitude.
“He’s diving away.” Bell and Major Garson patted him on the shoulder in proud congratulations. “I can’t catch that guy in a dive.”
“Okay, check your fuel.” Captain Timmermans took over mission control again. “Both you guys, check fuel, check fuel.”
“Red Tail Two, we’re going home at two thousand, we have fuel for busters.” Bell’s calm, cool voice came, and Garson marveled at the physical and emotional resilience of the young.
“We have a replacement reconnaissance team orbiting just outside the zone.” Captain Timmermans explained for the Major.
Garson nodded his understanding.
‘Busters,’ meant full-throttle all the way, in the unique parlance of what was rapidly becoming a crack drone-fighter squadron. The boys and girls of this squadron were cooking up their own lingo, and it spoke well for morale and the squadron’s esprit de corps. With Billy Novakowski’s almost accidental kill two weeks ago, and now with Bell looking pretty hot, they might even have the first fighter-drone-ace in the history of the world on hand. And even though it was all remote-control, and there was no real blood-letting, the stress of battle, the sharp mental edge required in the cut, thrust, slash and parry of aerial combat was real enough.
The toll it took was real enough.
Under his shirt, Major Garson’s armpits were soaking with sweat, and he didn’t actually have to fly the darned things.
Science fiction, according to Robert J. Sawyer, is about the near-term, because trying to predict what the world will be like in five thousand years is very difficult. But I think this scenario will certainly happen within twenty years, because aircraft can prowl where ground based missile systems are passive. Flying radio control combat, I could see my buddy’s plane from the ground. Yet in this video, we see just how hard it is to line up another aircraft for a gun or missile shot, and the enemy plane is in our sights for very brief snatches of time—roughly analogous to the sort of situational awareness and maneuverings in the story.
Photos: Top: Wiki, Public Domain, Centre, author photo, bottom, David Monniaux, Wiki Commons 3.0 (Detail.)