Author's Note: This is a 'little' thing I started as an exercise to break my writer's block. As you can tell, it's not really very 'little' anymore. I'm sure I'm not alone in being fascinated with modern jet fighters and aerial combat, both air-to-air and air-to-ground. I'm sure I got things wrong, but this chapter is my 'best attempt.' The first few thousand words are a bit of a history lesson, written as engagingly as I could manage, on a particularly unique and specialist branch of the US Air Force.

This is basically a 'Sam Carter, Fighter Pilot' story that was intended to be an interlude chapter during one of my other stories, Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum. SVPPB is now pretty much abandoned while I focus on other stuff. This chapter is now complete, and I'm throwing it up online for you to enjoy while I try to finish off Khaveyrim and the next chapter of Per Ardua ad Astra.

I drew heavy inspiration from Lt Col. Dan 'Two Dogs' Hampton's memoir 'Viper Pilot: A Memoir of Air Combat,' which is, in my opinion, is one of the most engaging modern military combat memoirs around. According to his publisher's bio, Hampton "flew 151 combat missions during his twenty years in the USAF (1986-2006). For his service in the Iraq War, Kosovo conflict, and first Gulf War, Col. Hampton received four Distinguished Flying Crosses with Valor, a Purple Heart, eight Air Medals with Valor, five Meritorious Service Medals, and numerous other citations," and received multiple Air Force academic and professional awards for pioneering innovative new combat tactics and technology. I'm pretty sure he knows what he's talking about, so I'm basically shamelessly riffing off his autobiography, mostly placing Carter in the position of his wingman with a few made-up scenes thrown in as well.

This story is based in part on actual events and persons. In parts events, characters and timelines have been changed for dramatic purposes. Certain characters, locations and other elements may be composites, or entirely fictitious.

"When I took over my wing [in Vietnam], the big talk wasn't about the MIG's, but about the SAM's ... I'd seen enemy planes before, but those damn SAM's were something else. When I saw my first one, there were a few seconds of sheer panic, because that's a most impressive sight to see that thing coming at you. You feel like a fish about to be harpooned. There's something terribly personal about the SAM; it means to kill you and I'll tell you right now, it rearranges your priorities ... We had been told to keep our eyes on them and not to take any evasive move too soon, because they were heat-seeking and they, too would correct, so I waited until it was almost on me and then I rolled to the right and it went on by. It was awe inspiring ... The truth is you never do get used to the SAM's; I had about two hundred fifty shot at me and the last one was as inspiring as the first. Sure I got cagey, and I was able to wait longer and longer, but I never got overconfident. I mean, if you're one or two seconds too slow, you've had the schnitzel."

Brigadier General Robin Olds, USAF.

It is a truth universally acknowledged in the modern military that there are few jobs more dangerous than that of the Wild Weasels.

Since man first took to the sky for the purpose of warfare, others have been trying to shoot him down. As flight technology improved, from hot-air observation balloons to plywood biplanes to monoplanes to jet fighters, so too have the means to bring them down to Earth prematurely. However, these defences were rarely very sophisticated, nor were the bombers they were primarily aimed at sophisticated enough to do much more than endure it.

It took until the Vietnam War for this to change.

In the early 1960s, the North Vietnamese knew they could win a war against the South by itself. The problem was the South's support from the United States, in the form of hardware and several thousand 'advisors' who trained them to use it. The North's strategy was, therefore, one of insurgency and attrition: wearing down the political willpower of distant, disconnected and distracted Washington administrations that were frequently dealing with a myriad of other issues. They had done the same to the French in the 1950s, and it seemed to be working; by 1963, President Kennedy had even publicly stated that he was considering pulling out of Vietnam. Whether or not this would have happened is not known; JFK was assassinated before he could act on it.

The rest, as they say, is history.

JFK's successor Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) did not pull out of Vietnam – in fact, he did the opposite and doubled-down. Following the manufactured Gulf of Tonkin "incident" of August 1964 that served as casus belli, American air forces began what is now recognised as an impressive but strategically ineffective air campaign involving a mixture of tactical strikes and sustained saturation bombing – this series of operations (specifically FLAMING DART, ROLLING THUNDER and ARC LIGHT) are well known, and form a significant part of the popular historical view of Vietnam.

An estimated seven million tonnes of high explosive ordnance were dropped on Vietnam and the border areas of Cambodia and Laos throughout the rest of the war. For comparison, only 2.7 million were dropped in the entirety of World War Two, about 1.5 of them on Germany alone.

General Curtis LeMay, Chief of Staff of the USAF, explicated this extremely 'nuanced' strategy thusly: "They've got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression, or we're going to bomb them back into the Stone Age." LBJ also sent in ground forces – some 200,000 US soldiers were deployed to Vietnam by the end of 1965. But American strategists believed air power would be the key; North Vietnam had no countermeasure to the massed US bomber formations, who, it was believed, would be able to roam enemy airspace nearly unmolested.

From the North's point of view, their strategy – wear the USA down until they no longer want to fight – was still working and, like all insurgencies, time was on their side … but it wouldn't be worth it if they were bombed into the Stone Age by the end of the war. They turned to their Communist allies for aid; primarily the USSR, and imported enormous amounts of Soviet hardware with accompanying 'volunteer advisors' who were only too happy to have the opportunity to get live combat data on the performance of their weapons and kill Americans. It was a win-win from the Russian point of view.

This hardware included modern anti-aircraft (AA) guns and surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems.

The efficiency of these systems was made brutally clear on July 24, 1965. Captain Ross Fobair and his front-seater, Captain Richard Keirn, a WWII veteran, were performing a routine escort mission, known as a 'MiG Sweep,' flying their F-4C Phantom to guard F-105 Thunderchiefs as they targeted a munitions factory at Kang Chi. They were, essentially, looking for trouble; the MiGs would be forced to engage the Phantoms in a dogfight to protect themselves, allowing the Thunderchiefs to drop their bombs unopposed, and also allowing the Phantom pilots the opportunity to get a few air-to-air kills on their tally to become aces.

Win-win for them, or so they thought.

Instead, trouble found them. About forty miles north-east of Hanoi, with no warning and in poor visibility, a radar-guided SA-2 missile flashed up out of the foggy clouds beneath their formation and cut their F-4 Phantom in half.

The SA-2 missile is thirty-five feet long and more than two feet in diameter, with a maximum engagement altitude of 80,000 feet – it is basically an explosive-laden, 2.2-ton telephone pole capable of reaching three times the speed of sound. The same system had been used to shoot down two U-2 spy planes in the years before: on May 1, 1960, the USSR launched eight missiles at Captain Francis Gary Powers' U-2 over Sverdlovsk. Powers spent two years in a gulag, but was eventually exchanged; his U-2 crashed, relatively intact, allowing the USSR to expose the USA's 'off-course weather plane' cover-up.

Major Rudolph Anderson hadn't been so lucky. He was killed over Cuba in October 1962 by an SA-2 that completely shattered his U-2, and the incident nearly ignited a nuclear war. Although both shoot-downs were publically known, due to the fact that they involved spy-planes the CIA and Air Force hadn't released enough information for the frontline USAF pilots to be aware of how much danger they were in.

Over Vietnam on that foggy July day, Keirn managed to eject as the burning F-4 spun through the clouds. He spent seven and a half years in the 'Hanoi Hilton' prison camp. It was not his first time as a PoW: he had spent nine months in Stalag Luft 1 during the Second World War after his bomber was shot down over Germany. Fobair was MIA, presumed killed. His remains were recovered from a remote part of the North Vietnamese jungle by his family thirty-two years later.

They were only the first. With the deployment of the SA-2 and other systems, USAF, Navy and USMC aircraft loss rates mounted sharply. Within two weeks, the Air Force was unsurprisingly seeking a counter-measure to the new anti-air threat. They needed a hunter; one that that could seek out, track, and kill the most dangerous kind of prey around. They called it Project WEASEL, after the fierce and relentless little carnivore that follows its prey into their own burrows to catch them.

Project WEASEL's solution wasn't perfect. In fact, it was downright suicidal. USAF scientists developed a crude aircraft-mounted radar warning receiver that could provide a compass bearing to the radar sites, and could – theoretically – detect when a missile was in the air and tracking on them (because the type and frequency of the radar beam changed when in targeting mode). It was experimental, only lab-tested, and sure as hell not ready for combat. But they were losing aircraft every day, and it was the only available option.

But a pilot couldn't both fly the aircraft and work these complex new pieces of technology. It was retrofitted onto a two-seat plane – the F-100F Super Sabre jet trainer – so the pilot could be accompanied by an Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) who would track the sites and help the pilot find the enemy so they could be engaged.

The Air Force already had top fighter pilots, and WEASEL was of sufficient importance they had the pick of them. Fighter pilots are a universally cocky breed, endowed with an absolute belief in their own invincibility and skill; to outsiders, this is perceived as extreme arrogance, but it is frankly a necessary and not entirely unjustified attitude without which no sane human being would ever strap themselves into a mechanically imperfect supersonic dart, laden with high-explosive and flammable fuel and put it in situations that involve other people shooting at it a lot.

This particular breed of individuals regard high-speed, high-stakes jet combat as the ultimate challenge, so being told they would be killing the despised SAM sites who were slaughtering their comrades only increased their desire to get into this fight.

But the Air Force had never put EWOs into fighters before; they were a bomber speciality, so they had to be pulled out of the B-52 crews. When Project WEASEL's training phase began in October 1965, the EWOs … didn't really get it. They weren't cocky fighter pilots; they were technical specialists, thinking men used to the somewhat slower pace of bomber missions. Almost immediately, one of them asked what the hell they were there for.

They were told they would lead the strike packages into North Vietnam, to hunt and kill the SAM sites. One particularly on-the-ball EWO pointed out that, due to the uncertain prototype equipment, the almost total lack of intelligence as to the whereabouts of the SAM sites, and the thickness of the jungle, locating them would be nigh-impossible.

He was told that … well … (*awkward shrug from the briefing officer*) the only way to locate a SAM with absolute certainty was to allow the SAM to shoot at its target. Then, (*now trying to put a positive spin on it*) so long as the aircraft survived, they would then know the location of the site.

Perhaps that should be rephrased. So long as the target of a high-speed, radar-guided missile specifically designed to kill American aircraft survived, they would then know the location of the site. Which, in all likelihood, would still be shooting missiles at them and would be surrounded by anti-aircraft guns.

The response of EWO Captain Jack Donovan was completely in character for a highly educated engineer learning he was to act as bait for a deadly enemy weapons system. Here it is, word-for-word: "You want me to fly in the back of a tiny little jet with a crazy fighter pilot who thinks he's invincible, home in on a SAM site in North Vietnam, and shoot it before it shoots me? YOU GOTTA BE SHITTIN' ME!"

This phrase really sums up the entire idea in one very neat package. This is probably why the acronym 'YGBSM' features on many Wild Weasel squadron patches. Ironically, Donovan was himself part of the first Air Force crew to score a SAM kill that December, a few days before Christmas 1965.

The Weasel's first missions in anger were far from universally successful, however. The whole process was at first essentially trial and error, and 'error,' meant death or capture. After forty-five days of operations, they had scored nine successful SAM kills … but only had one aircraft left, with the crews having taken staggering fifty per cent casualties in less than two months, amongst the highest casualty rates of any Military Occupational Specialty in the entire Vietnam War.

The reason for the high casualties wasn't simply the mission – killing SAMs, which was hard enough – but the duration of the missions as well. SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defence) missions required the Weasels to enter a SAM-zone prior to the Strike Package (the main bomber formation), suppress or destroy the enemy defences, and remain on station to keep the SAM batteries heads' down throughout the rest of the mission until the last aircraft of the strike package had departed. This frequently meant remaining near to or within the SAM's engagement zone for as much as six to ten hours and gave rise to the Weasels' adoption of the old 'First in, Last out' motto as their own formal one.

But the Weasels adapted and overcame the problems. The Super Sabre aircraft, highly unsuitable for this mission, were quickly replaced with modified two-seat F-105F Thunderchiefs. Known as 'Thuds' for the distinctive sound they made on landing, the F-105s were reliable, battle-proven fighter-bombers that were the workhorses of the USAF in Vietnam. The F-variants, with their specialised SAM detection gear, were armed with a new 'Shrike' anti-radiation missile that would home in on the radiation from enemy radars. The Weasels squadron received whatever they needed to get the mission done because the Air Force took the SAM threat very, very seriously. It was taking a massive toll on aircraft and crew – in 1966, 103 of the 126 Thunderchiefs lost in that year alone were brought down by ground fire, mostly missiles. It had become a deadly race of innovation; one side would implement some new tactic or weapon, which would quickly be countered by the other. Then the countermeasure would have to be countered, and so on.

In the broader picture, the civilian armchair generals (*cough* Robert McNamara *cough*) in Washington that ran American strategy had dreamed up a truly genius idea known as 'graduated escalation' – based on the theory that if they slowly increased the pressure on the North via bombing while ground forces held the line in the South, it would make Ho Chi Minh realise the futility of fighting against the 'world's greatest military,' and surrender before any more damage was done to his country.

The operative word in this strategy being 'slow.'

All that 'slow'-ness did was give the North more time to repair and relocate vital infrastructure away from areas under bomber attack, import more equipment from the USSR, and study US weapons and tactics to better counter them. It gave them – and the Russian tech specialists who fed back data to Moscow on SAM performance – every opportunity to learn how to improve their missiles.

Unsurprisingly, graduated escalation did not work and is probably one of the main reasons Vietnam became such a bloody mess. At the strategic level, global broadcast of the North's strong resistance broke the enduring post-WWII myth of American military invincibility, and destroyed the political careers of McNamara and Johnson, whose amateurish, ham-handed meddling in military tactics and grand strategy that they had no training in cost the lives of tens of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodian civilians.

After Johnson bowed out of the election in '68, Richard Nixon was elected specifically on a platform of bringing Vietnam to an end – 'peace with honour,' as his slogan went. Whatever their considerable faults, Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were pretty good strategists by comparison to LBJ and MacNamara, and they were determined to bring the war to a reasonably US-favourable end by any and all means.

Their idea was essentially the same as 'Graduated Escalation' – force the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table through strategic bombing – but instead of doing it slowly, Nixon and Kissinger did so far more intensely. North Vietnam was now under constant attack, and often particularly heavy raids against high-profile targets (many of which had been deemed too 'diplomatically sensitive' and had never been hit before, such as the capital of Hanoi itself or the port of Ha-Long Bay) were timed to coincide with other, broader diplomatic initiatives towards establishing a détente with China and Russia, in a system known as 'Triangular Diplomacy'. The aim was to ratchet up the pressure on the North Vietnamese both tactically, (with military force), and strategically, (by inducing the North's key Communist allies to reduce their support for the war). China and the USSR were now benefiting in other areas from positive relationships with the USA, such as increased trade in luxury goods, and would wish to avoid jeopardising those benefits by continuing to support or encourage North Vietnamese resistance.

However, the point of view of the USAF aircrews was of course much narrower than the broad strokes of grand strategy and diplomacy. Their perception was much simpler; from 1969 onwards every target of any strategic import in North Vietnam was fair game – every bridge, every factory, every port, every train line, every military base, every government centre – everything. By 1971, the Weasels (now flying modified F-4C Phantoms since mid-1970) were busier than ever, with each crew flying as many as four sorties a day.

The bombing strategy was eventually successful in its intended purpose – to force the North back to the negotiating table, which finally happened over the winter of 1972-3. In the broader picture again, however, the American people were tired of Vietnam, and Nixon's credibility and that of his 'peace with honour' policy were in the process of being irrevocably tarnished by the Watergate Scandal. In early 1973, possibly in a bid to generate some good publicity for Nixon, American regular combat forces pulled out of the theatre, thus throwing the corrupt, undemocratic, and largely incompetent to boot the Republic of South Vietnam to the northern wolves. This was touted as the achievement of 'peace with honour,' but few saw it that way.

With the US withdrawal also came the Wild Weasels. There had never been very many Weasel crews, but they brought with them two Medals of Honor, innumerable Air Force and Distinguished Flying Crosses, and the ironclad respect of the rest of the American armed forces.

Not with them were the forty-two pilots and EWOs lost either killed, captured or missing over enemy airspace in their seven years in the thick of it.

The Weasels had carved their niche in military affairs and had conducted their little corner of a brutal, unpleasant and largely operationally insignificant war with a professionalism, dedication and courage that marked them as a true elite. They had put themselves in harm's way more often, for longer periods of time than any other type of aircrew – and they were still needed. The Vietnam War was over, but SAMs were now being supplied by Russia and China to any country that would buy them. If America ever wanted to use airpower over enemy territory again, they would have to remove the SAM threat first.

Never again would America go to war without the Wild Weasels.

All Aces, No Jokers

"… I belong to a group of men who fly alone. There is only one seat in the cockpit of a fighter airplane; there is no space allotted for another pilot to tune the radios into the weather or make the calls to air traffic control centres or to help with emergency procedures or call off the airspeed down final approach. There is no one else to break the solitude of a long cross-country flight. There is no one else to make decisions. I do everything myself, from engine start to engine shutdown. In a war I will face alone the missiles and the flak and the small-arms fire over the frontlines. If I die, I will die alone."

Richard David Bach, 'Stranger to the Ground' (1963)
Before being an author, Bach was an F-84 Thunderstreak pilot.

Iraq, Earth – 19 March 2003

0430 Time Zone Charlie, 20 miles SW of Baghdad

"This is Hawk Four, SAM in the air, SA-2 west-bound from Baghdad!"

BEEP … … … BEEP … … … BEEP …

The threat receiver continued to beep at her, an audible reminder of the electromagnetic eyes of several SPOON REST search radars of the Iraqi defence network that were probing the airspace in their direction. Another flight had already gone a bit too close, and had been engaged.

"Kestrel Four, tally two SA-3's, eastbound out of Baghdad, defending."


"Hawk Four, SA-2 launch from West Baghdad, tracking west as well. Looks like it came from just north of the airport."

"Hawk One copies all, multiple SAM launches, Baghdad." The calm, professional voice of Sam's squadron commander, Colonel Steve 'Bear-Man' Berman cut through the excited combat chatter. It had an instant pacifying effect on the eager, somewhat panicky aviators in the air around him – for many of them, herself included, this was their first true combat sortie. It was Berman's one hundred and sixty-first combat sortie, and he sounded like it was just another day at the office.

I'm glad someone's calm up here. I'm sure as hell not. Sam was both intensely glad and extremely terrified that Colonel Berman had picked her to be his wing(wo)man for this sortie, the squadron's first in this war. Glad because he was supremely experienced – he had flown combat missions against Saddam in 1991, against the short lived United Islamic Republic here in Iraq again in '95, against China in '98, in the Balkans in '99 and in Afghanistan in 2002 – and this experience would keep her rookie ass alive. Terrified – well, this was self-explanatory: there were people shooting at her; but also because the Colonel would have to write her annual evaluation at some point in the next few months and screwing-up-by-the-numbers on her first combat sortie in full view of her CO would be a really good way to prematurely end her barely-off-the-ground career.

And that would be a shame because she'd only been a combat-rated pilot for eleven months, and First Lieutenant Samantha 'Astro' Carter (PhD) liked being in the Air Force and really, really liked being a fighter pilot.

Particularly an F-16 Viper pilot. Although it was officially called the 'Fighting Falcon,' no one who actually had anything to do with F-16s called them anything other than 'Vipers.' This was partly because the F-16 looked a bit like a hooded cobra from the front, and partly because 'Fighting Falcon' was an awkward mouthful of a name, but mostly because the pilots of the first squadron it was deployed to thought it resembled the Viper spacecraft from Battlestar Galactica.

And she got to fly them. Sam's inner nerd particularly exalted in this fact.

A series of fast clicks sounded as the flight leaders acknowledged non-verbally.

"No visual on those SAMs, anyone got a pos?" someone asked, without giving his call sign.

"This is Hawk One, all callsigns identify your chatter," Colonel Berman tersely reminded the wayward pilot who had not done so. "SAMs are still westbound and eastbound from the city, as before. Kestrel Flight heads up, SA-3's coming your way."

"Kestrel One copies, defending."

Carter couldn't see why the unidentified pilot couldn't see the SAM. The missile plumes were clearly visible dots of white-red streaking up into the mostly cloudless night sky.

Well, they would be if she weren't wearing night vision goggles, which turned everything to a fuzzy grey-green, in which the missiles were more like white fireflies – much easier to see than they were in the day.

Baghdad was defended primarily by a mixture of older SA-2 'GUIDELINE' and SA-3 'GOA' systems, with a scattering of more modern SA-6 'GAINFUL' thrown in as well as many, many anti-air artillery pieces. Both of the first two systems were Vietnam-vintage, but there were a lot of them, and they could still kill you. The two missiles also had very different attack profiles. The SA-2s ascended straight up to 80,000 feet via an auxiliary solid-fuel booster rocket like a miniature shuttle launch, before tipping over and coming down on their targets at blistering velocities from above. At the top of the arc, the booster burned out and was detached; the primary motor then took over, a liquid-fuel rocket which had a much lower visual signature and, if it was pointed at you, was damn near invisible unless you were really on the ball with your visual scanning. In contrast, SA-3s and -6s came up at you from below faster, with better guidance and tighter turning than the SA-2, making much harder to shake, but had shorter range, making it easier to turn and outrun them.

Sam looked up, tracking the glow-worm flickering across the sky that was the deadly SA-2's exhaust. She was to the south-west of the city; it was unlikely the SA-3s she'd just heard Kestrel call out were targeted on her. That made the SA-2 the primary threat to her flight.

"Hawk One for Hawk Two, SA-2 one o'clock high, stand by."

"Hawk Two, uh, visual," Carter replied.

Hawk One was about two miles ahead and slightly to the left of her nosecone. The squadron nearly exclusively used a loose formation, essentially putting the wingmen on a two-mile string behind their leads, giving them both room to manoeuvre freely. This loose formation was aided by modern technology – data-links, modern radars and networked battle management software meant it was easier than ever before to keep track each other while carrying out their various assignments.

In a SEAD mission like tonight's – the first mission of any tactical aircraft in the invasion – all they wanted to do for now was probe the enemy's defences. To do this, the squadron's twelve aircraft had broken up into their normal four-aircraft flights, also known as four-ships, with two up front using the call signs Hawk and Kestrel, and in reserve to the south. Each four-ship broke into two pairs and handled different tasks. One pair would charge in to provoke a reaction from the enemy while the others hung back. When the first pair was engaged and went evasive, they would mark the SAM site's location. The elimination of the SAM site was not required at this stage; all they were doing was building a map of the enemy defences. Once it was complete in a few days' time, the hammer would fall.

The other pair had their own duties, namely: watching their air-to-air radars for enemy jets; playing decoy by flying in an arc around the edge of the SAM's engagement zone, thus splitting the enemy's attention between themselves and the attacking aircraft; and suppression, which meant volleying off HARM anti-radiation missiles that would track in on a SAM batteries' radar emissions to force them to shut down. Hopefully, the HARM's would hit something; from the comments of the more experienced pilots, Sam wasn't hopeful. Colonel Berman had been particularly sceptical.

"I've fired thirty-two of these things in combat," he'd said in the briefing, "and I haven't a fucking clue if they actually hit anything. For all I know, all they hit was some poor schmuck in the same general ZIP code as the target radar who turned on his cell phone at the wrong moment. Air Combat Command and CENTCOM seem to think HARMs are the be-all and end-all of Weaselling, but they're wrong – HARM's are useful, but they're only a temporary solution. The enemy just switches their radars off and they usually live to fight another day. And on that day, whomever they shoot at might not be so lucky. If you want to kill SAMs properly, you do it the old fashioned way. You get a fix on them, get down in the weeds and rain bombs, rockets, missiles and cannon down on their heads. But for today, because CENT-AF has got their heads up their asses, we will be firing HARMs, and only HARMs. Maybe tomorrow we'll be allowed to actually do something useful."

Each four-ship flight had a 'combat box' to fly in. If an invisible line had been drawn North-South through Baghdad, Hawk had the west and Kestrel the east. The zone was additionally broken up by altitude – the first pair in the flight operated in the 10-20,000 feet block, and the third and fourth aircraft were in the 20-30,000 block.

Well … that was the plan. The enemy also had a vote in that plan, of course, as represented by the two-ton chunk of high explosive now entering their airspace at very high speed.

Fortunately, Weasels were used to their plans going to hell. Their kind of warfare wasn't the neat, all-planned-out-in-advance kind of strike packages that normal fighter-bomber squadrons executed. SEAD missions had to be flexible and adaptable – they didn't normally know where the SAMs would be until they fired. To shoot back, the F-16s would normally be carrying a wide variety of HARMs, Maverick air-to-surface missiles and cluster bombs to react to unexpected threats or opportunities, as well as their in-built 20mm cannon. However, today their load-out was HARM-heavy, as the Colonel had noted, because whichever staff officers at CENT-AF planned the airpower component of the invasion had apparently not bothered to ask the Weasels themselves how they should do their job.

At present, satellite imagery and other intelligence had located roughly half of the Iraqi SAM sites. The others were camouflaged, or worse, road-mobile. Which meant they could be right below them, and they wouldn't know where until the enemy turned their radars on.

The thing Sam was looking out for now was the 'flaming donut' – the glow of the liquid-fuel rocket surrounding the black dot of the missile, like a very, very tiny solar eclipse. It was a good thing to be aware of because it meant the missile was pointed straight at you.

Which this particular missile now was.


The threat receiver went crazy, its tinny wailing indicating either her or the Colonel's F-16 had been locked up – 'spiked' – by the SA-2 battery's FAN SONG fire control radar. The detection gear wasn't precise enough to know which of them was the target yet; it could only tell them that the FAN SONG had lit up their whole sector with very unfriendly radio waves.

"Hawk Two, spiked, SA-2 west of Baghdad."

"Evade, Hawk Two. Break. Hawk One, defending, SA-2, West Baghdad, heading one-eight-zero. Break. Hawk Four, slapshot SA-2, bearing zero-one-zero, acknowledge."

"Hawk Two, defending, SA-2 West Baghdad, heading one-niner-zero."

"Hawk Four copies slapshot, bearing zero-one-zero."

The 'defending' brevity code meant they were evading a missile, and would a) be pumping out countermeasures and b) manoeuvring at high speed along the designated compass heading, so stay the hell out of our way. 'Slapshot' was an order for Hawk Four, presently not being targeted, to fire a HARM missile to suppress the enemy battery.

The F-16's cockpit was explicitly designed to make it easier for the pilot to execute and maintain control during high G manoeuvres. It utilised a 'hands-on-throttle-and-stick' or HOTAS design where all relevant controls for manoeuvring, weapons and engine management were located, as it sounded like, on the throttle and the joystick. This meant so that the pilot didn't have to move their hands much, if at all, to reach said controls while under high G. Part of this HOTAS layout was a 'side-stick', where the control joystick was built into the right armrest of her ejector seat rather than between her knees, which would have been hard to reach in the F-16's cockpit – the seat was reclined at a 30 degree angle, again to aid the pilots' resistance to high-G manoeuvres.

At night, evasive manoeuvres were generally much less extreme because it was very easy to loose spatial awareness when wearing NVGs. An additional problem in such manoeuvres was G-force, which played havoc with the human circulatory system. Negative Gs pushed blood to the head – which after about 3Gs would cause her eyes to pop – and positive Gs pushed blood to the legs – which after about 8 or 9Gs would cause her black out from lack of blood in the brain.

This was resisted with a G-suit, which worked by inflating air-filled bladders around her legs during high-G manoeuvres, thereby stopping blood from flowing into her legs and away from her brain. This only worked against positive Gs; for obvious reasons, the skull could not be compressed, and putting pressure on the neck was also known as 'strangling.'

So when Colonel Berman called 'evade,' all Sam did was twitch her wrist to the right, then back.

The result was instantaneous. The F-16 rolled inverted and swept downwards in a tight 5-G split-S manoeuvre. The reason for the inversion was that it changed the g-forces acting on her from negative to positive, which her body could withstand better. She kept her eyes on the Head Up Display's horizon lines and on a light on the ground she could see out to the left. It wouldn't do anyone but the enemy any good to evade a SAM only to plough her thirty million dollar aircraft into the ground from losing spatial awareness.

As she performed the split-S, her left hand flicked a number of buttons in quick succession. First was the activation switch of the Electronic Countermeasure (ECM) pod, which would transmit interference on the same frequency as the targeting radar; then the switch for the AN/ALE-50 decoy, a pod mounted under the fuselage which would eject a small radar-reflecting aerodynamic kite on a wire tether to trail a hundred metres behind the aircraft; and then started hitting the larger chaff button with the back of her hand, pumping out bundles of radar-reflecting foil to further confuse the enemy radar.

The other pilots hadn't been idle either.

"Hawk Four, Magnum, SA-2, Baghdad." That meant Four had loosed off a HARM missile - the brevity code for which was 'Magnum' – at the SA-2 site.

Sam held the stick back until she'd levelled out and looked around, searching for the Colonel; she was the wingman, after all, she was supposed to stay on that two-mile string. She didn't find him. "Hawk Two is blind at angels one five, heading one-eight-niner." 'Blind,' unsurprisingly, meant 'I cannot see you.'

"Hawk One for Hawk Two, turn south and stay above angels one seven," the colonel replied immediately.

Sam pulled up until the altimeter read 17,100 feet, banking left twenty degrees.

The threat receiver wailed again. The readout from the radar detection pod very helpfully said, 'UNKNOWN SOURCE.'

Fucking great, that's so fucking helpful, you piece of built-by-the-lowest-bidder-piece-of-crap-

Parallel to her internal monologue, she announced, as calmly as she could manage, "Hawk Two, defending, unknown, heading zero-nine-zero." She banked hard left and up, gaining altitude to stay above the 17,000-foot ceiling set by the colonel and continuing the turn until she was pointing east.

"Hawk One, Magnum, SA-3, Baghdad." That was the colonel, watching her back. There were so many radars and missiles lighting up that trying to identify any exact positions beyond 'Baghdad' would take too much time.

Sam began a series of 5-G barrel rolls, hitting the chaff button at each half-revolution. She continued that for three complete turns until the threat tone abruptly stopped – spooked by the inbound HARM, maybe? She levelled out again and swept back around to the south, pinging the colonel's aircraft with a data-link request. Receiving an updated position and heading in response, she estimated an intercept vector and turned towards him.

"Good flying, Astro." The Colonel transmitted to her on the intra-flight channel as his F-16 slid past her wingtip a minute later, looking her aircraft over for shrapnel damage. She did the same for his. "Your decoy still back there?"

"Err …" Sam checked her countermeasures screen. The screen was flashing 'NO DECOY.' "Negative."

The Colonel chuckled. "Congratulations. You've just had your first brush with death. Your decoy got shot away, probably by that SA-2."

"Oh." Automatically, Sam hit the decoy button again to deploy another. "Streaming a duck." Her hands worked the controls automatically, but her mind – normally a very, very busy place – had frozen up for a second or two. I nearly got killed. If it got that close it had a fifty-fifty chance of hitting me instead of the decoy. Any missile that killed a decoy probably could have had the angle to hit the aircraft – they were only a hundred metres apart, after all.

The Colonel's F-16 banked away. She noticed one of his missile rails was empty; the HARM he'd fired to save her ass. "Back into the lion's den, Astro."

She broke out of the freeze, concentrating on flying. "Copy that."

A few minutes later, they were fifteen miles out again and arcing north-west around the city.

"Hawk Two," Berman transmitted, "take the NVGs off for a few moments. This is going to be something to remember."

Sam did so and looked down at the city. As she watched, each neighbourhood went dark, one by one, and the fires of war replaced the lights of the city.

Searchlights waved across the sky. Streams of anti-aircraft fire from nearly a thousand gun barrels soared upwards, like glowing beads on strings being flailed around the heavens in a pulsating, multicolour web of blue, green, red and yellow. Darkened streets and plazas were momentarily illuminated by the rocket exhausts of enormous ex-Warsaw Pact SAMs lifting off. It was possible to tell where the city limits of Baghdad were simply by the sources of the fire.

The Iraqi guns weren't actually hitting anything. No jets were over the city or even within ten miles of it, so the streams of tracers were mostly wasted aggro fire – Iraqi soldiers being a) pissed off at the Americans that roamed their airspace at will, and, more likely b) wanting to look busy in front of their officers.

Then muted, mustard-yellow-orange flashes began popping all across the city, which very briefly changed to red before fading into the darkness. Like a wave, they started in the south and marched rapidly northwards in a broad line.

"Hawk One, this is Two … what the hell were those?" Sam asked as she flipped the NVGs down again. The Kodak moment was over.

"Cruise missiles. Tomahawks from the Navy, fired from cruisers in the Gulf."

The cruise missile strikes continued for several minutes. The threat receivers beeped occasionally, but nothing came their way; other aircraft were not so lucky, ducking and diving from SAMs on the far side of the city. None were shot down, as the radar systems were being heavily suppressed by HARMs from other jets. The anti-aircraft fire slackened off for a while – not surprising, as the air-defence network command centres were undoubtedly on the cruise missile target list – but then intensified, even wilder for the lack of central command.

"Hawk Four, defending SA-2, Baghdad, heading two-seven-zero at angels twenty-five!"

"Hawk Two," the Colonel snapped, "Snapshot, SA-2, bearing zero-three-zero. Egress low and south-west."

"Hawk Two, copy."

Sam flicked the aircraft up on the right wing and throttled back momentarily, pulling her jet around behind Hawk One's tail until she was levelled out and pointed at the city. She checked the Master Arm was on, selected HARM in the weapons list, and adjusted course slightly to point the jet, and the missile, down the target bearing. She acquired the launch site – a bright spot in the night-vision, still glowing from the missile's rocket exhaust – and put the big cross that had now appeared in the middle of the HUD onto the target before thumbing the pickle button. Just before pressing it she closed one eye, just as had been drilled into them time after time after time in F-16 combat training at Luke AFB.

"Hawk Two, Magnum, SA-2."

The whole jet shook as the 355-kilo missile leapt off the rail, the glowing solid-fuel motor lighting up the whole cockpit with orange fire for a second as it accelerated to Mach 2.

And that was her first ever shot fired in combat.

That thought didn't occur to her until later, however. Sam was already moving, rolling and pulling her F-16 down into another split S, trading altitude for speed and reversing direction. A flash like a missile being fired would attract attention in the night sky. Halfway through the half-loop, she shoved the throttle forward to military power – the highest possible throttle setting short of using afterburners, which a) would, like the missile, be visible to the Iraqis, and b) drink fuel like fighter pilots drink alcohol.

Good thing she had, for the missile launch had attracted attention. The sky above her – at the altitude she had fired the missile from – was soon pockmarked with brief flashes of orange as several of the larger-calibre, altitude-fused triple-A pieces – 100mm and above – found the range.

Not that she was there anymore, of course, as she was already skimming five thousand feet lower and a mile to the south-west, opening the range at slightly below the speed of sound. But despite the fact they had quite literally missed by a mile, when considering their average level of accuracy around the rest of the city, those Iraqi gunners were practically Davy Crockett.

Iraq, Earth – 23rd March 2003 - Four days later

2330 Time Zone Charlie, 120 miles SW of Baghdad

"Gold One for Hawk One."

"Gold One, Hawk One," Berman replied. He sounded like he was grinning. "That who I think it is?"

"Who the hell else would it be, Bear-Man?" Gold One replied, a strong Scottish accent colouring his voice. "No one else in the whole Coalition air forces are crazy enough to fly with you lunatics."

Sam had no idea what the real name of the RAF pilot actually was – British pilots didn't really use personal call signs like the USAF – and no-one would transmit real names over the radio – but he was clearly a friend of Berman's. From the mission briefing, she did know that Gold One was the leader of the two flights of RAF Tornado GR4s of No. 9 Squadron, based at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait who were joining them for this mission. No. 9 Sqn and No. 31 Sqn – who were attacking the other side of Baghdad tonight to provide a distraction – were the RAF's SEAD-specialists squadrons much like the Wild Weasels, referred to as 'Pathfinders' in British terminology – they had worked with her own Gamblers in the Balkans.

Ali Al Salem was much closer to the action than Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, where the 77th were based. Hawk Flight and the other 77th Squadron flights had been flying north for over an hour already to reach the rendezvous point.

Tonight's mission was going to be a stone-cold bitch. Iraqi MiGs flying out of Baghdad International and other more northern bases had been harrying Coalition aircraft and poking their noses south towards the ground forces for the past few days. The invasion forces had sustained no losses yet and the MiGs had been quickly chased off by the F15s with several losses, but the Iraqi planes were still a nuisance even if they were only capable of flying during the day. Cruise missile strikes had apparently not been successful in knocking out the hardened concrete shelters they used to protect themselves on the ground, so tonight's strike package would deliver a more final blow.

The RAF planes would be on suppression, firing ALARM anti-radiation missiles. Similar in purpose to the American HARMs, the ALARM missiles had some unique features that made them particularly suitable for tonight's mission.

The F-16s of the 77th, armed with AGM-65 Maverick missiles (no, it was not named for Tom Cruise's character) and CBU-87 cluster bombs would then close with and destroy AAA and SAM sites around and inside the perimeter of the airport, which was about fifteen miles south-west of Baghdad. This would require some very low-level precision flying, because although the previous few days of strikes had severely degraded the Iraqi air defence, it was by no means toothless; another two squadrons were tasked to keep them busy elsewhere and continue the steady attrition of the Iraqi's dwindling supply of anti-aircraft systems.

Finally, with the airspace secured and defences suppressed or neutralised, four F-15E Strike Eagles of the USAF 335th Fighter Squadron would hit the shelters with GBU-28 bunker-busters, guided by the Tornados with TIALD laser designator pods. They didn't want to do too much damage to the facility as a whole, but just enough to put it out of action until the Coalition reached Baghdad. One of the USAF's 'Red Horse' construction battalions had already been detailed to repair the damage once the airport was taken, which they should manage in a matter of days once it was secured on the ground. This would allow efficient air-lift resupply of forward units advancing north from Baghdad.

It was complex, with a lot of moving parts. Something was probably going to go wrong, but 'adapt and overcome' was one of the Weasels' core principles.

"I must say you Yanks seem to be having all the fun tonight." Gold One complained.

"Stop bitching, Gold One." was Berman's unsympathetic response, before any of the other Americans could respond. "Besides, you're only complaining to save face. You don't actually want to play tag at low altitude with the Baghdad defence grid, do you? In your two-seat, twin-engine swing-wing monsters that reflect enough radar to be as visible as the Hindenburg on a sunny day?"

Gold One laughed. "Yeah, good point, actually. Rather you than me."

"It's what we're here for," Berman replied.

They began the same way they did each night – testing the waters. But tonight, it was a bit more dangerous for both sides.

"Hawk Three, defending, SA-6. Main terminal."

The new danger for the American jets were a handful of SA-6 missile systems. The SA-6s were much more modern and deadlier than the older SA-2 and -3 systems the F-16s been duking it out with for the past few days. Iraq had purchased their air-defence equipment almost entirely from the Soviet Union, and they used the old USSR doctrine as well. Fixed SA-2 and -3 sites protected key strategic areas, like military bases and cities, while the road-mobile SA-6s (NATO reporting name 'GAINFUL,') filled the gaps in between, as they could quickly 'shoot-and-scoot' to avoid being fixed and destroyed. Due to being designed fifteen years after the others, they had had much more capable missiles and radars than their fixed-position counterparts.

Fortunately, most of Iraq's SA-6s had been destroyed during the war with the United Islamic Republic seven years before, as they had been sent south with the UIR armies attacking Saudi Arabia only to be viciously and humiliatingly hammered into submission in less than a week by a hastily-assembled mix of American, Saudi and Kuwaiti forces that been outnumbered five-to-one by the attackers. The U.S. military had taken particular pride in that victory, as the vast majority of U.S. forces had been affected by the UIR's Ebola bio-warfare attack and were quarantined within their bases, unable to be deployed. The only three uncontaminated units (the 11th Armoured Cavalry Regiment and a National Guard regiment which had been safe out in the wilderness of the National Training Centre in the Mojave Desert, along with the 10th ACR which had been deployed to Israel to train with the IDF) had came, seen and conquered by kicking the UIR in the teeth with minimal casualties in return, bulldozing a devastating swathe through the better part of two entire UIR Army Corps which had outnumbered them three-to-one while the Saudis and Kuwaitis rounded up the rest.

For the Iraqi's, the danger came from the British ALARM missiles. They were such an unusual weapon the American pilots had a special brief about it before tonight's mission. Its US equivalent, the HARM, had a 'remember' function so that even if the enemy SAM site turned off their radars to avoid being hit, the HARM would do its best to home in on where it remembered the enemy radar being. It was a useful ability but was not especially accurate. The philosophy behind the HARM was speed – get to the target before the radar was turned off – but this rarely worked.

The ALARM's design philosophy was more about accuracy. When they had been designing the ALARM (Air Launched Anti-Radiation Missile), the Brits had given their missile a unique 'loiter' capability as well. The missile itself was also much smaller and lighter than the enormous HARMs, meaning many of them could be carried on one airframe. Each Tornado – admittedly a much larger aircraft than an F-16 – could carry nine ALARMs, but an F-16 could only carry four HARMs.

The eight RAF Tornados had fired half their ALARM loadout – thirty-six missiles – from a range of fifty miles, tracking in on the distant emissions of the Baghdad air-defence radars.

Fifteen miles out, the missiles were detected and, with no aircraft to shoot at, the radar operators followed their counter-HARM procedures and shut down for a few minutes to let the missiles expend themselves before turning back on.

When the enemy radars shut down, instead of trying to home in on vague, distant target bearings like the HARM, the ALARMs altered course to climb steeply upwards into the night sky. When they reached an altitude of 40,000 feet – seven miles – directly over the programmed target area, they shut down their rocket motors and deployed parachutes. The missile bodies hung vertically underneath so that the sensors in their nosecones were pointed straight down at Baghdad, watching and waiting.

So, when Hawk Three had metaphorically dipped his toe in the water near the airport, the Iraqis had probably heard his engine. One battery commander turned his radar back on and targeted Hawk Three, hoping to get lucky and claim the bounty that had been announced for anyone who shot down an American jet.

It wasn't going to be his night. A trio of the British missiles, now having floated down to twenty-four thousand feet – four and a half miles – above the airport immediately acquired the radar, cut their parachute cords, ignited their secondary rocket motors and came screaming down out of the starry night at 1,600 miles per hour. At that range and speed, it would take them ten seconds to reach the target.

The SA-6 commander had (as per doctrine when facing American HARMs) moved his battery's 'STRAIGHT FLUSH' radar vehicle after shutting it down. If he had been facing that particular missile, this would have been a sensible precaution. After five seconds of transmitting he detected the ALARMs coming down from on high, he probably realised he wasn't being attacked by the Americans, and that moving the radar wouldn't actually matter one bit.

Nonetheless, probably praying for a miracle, he shut the radar down again immediately.

Too late. Once their second rocket fired, ALARMs had expended their parachutes and thus had no 'loiter' ability remaining. Now – just like a HARM – they 'remembered' where the radar had been, except unlike the HARMs, they had started their attack from point blank range and therefore had a much more accurate bearing on their target.

Five seconds later, one of them slammed directly into the tracked radar, while the other two detonated within ten metres. The hatches and weld seams of the thin-skinned vehicle bulged outwards in a muted orange fireball, launching the square board-shaped radar up and out in several disintegrating pieces.

The explosion woke the rest of the air defence sites around the airport, bringing the rest of them to life. Safe in the knowledge that a HARM missile would have safely expended itself by now, and assuming they were under direct attack from aircraft, they all lit up their radars to respond.

The ALARMs executed their expressly designed purpose. In rapid succession explosions blossomed all around the airport as SA-2, -3 and ZSU-23-4 'Shilka' radar-guided gun vehicles – nicknamed 'Zooces' – were destroyed by the barely-if-at-all-detected missiles.

Not all of the defences were decisively destroyed. Some of the guns were more primitive, not using radars, or the ALARMs missed. Still, since none of the Iraqi missiles used active homing – i.e. carrying radars in the missile itself – any SA-2 or -3 battery without radar guidance was like a blind man trying to compete in a 1000 yard sniper competition with a two-shot derringer: completely ineffective.

Above this chaos, the first of the eight F-16s of Kestrel and Vulture Flights bored in on target about a minute later, their attack runs crisscrossing different parts of the airport where enemy fixed batteries had been located. A fixed SAM battery wasn't just one vehicle, but an enormous collection of about sixty: logistics trucks carrying missile reloads, radar spares, supplies and transport for the crew, and so on and so forth. These vehicles would be spread out over a large area – a typical SA-2 site, for example, would have six missile launch rails a hundred metres apart in a hexagonal pattern around the two radar vehicles in the middle.

Cluster bombs were ideal weapons to attack such widely dispersed targets. The CBU-87 'Combined Effects Munition' carried 202 sub-munitions that, dependent on the altitude dropped from and the settings input by the pilot, could cover any area from 20x20 up to 120x240 metres. The sub-munitions themselves – yellow cylinders twenty centimetres long by six across – had a combined shaped charge, fragmentation and incendiary effect, designed to be used against formations of massed Soviet armour. The SAM vehicles weren't tanks, for all that they looked like it; they weren't armoured, making them and their sensitive radars and crews even more vulnerable to the fragments and blast effects.

The eight F-16s that had just executed their attack runs – not including Sam – had done so from the south and south-east. They punched to full power and turned away from Baghdad just ten miles off to the right, with all its very, very hostile guns and missiles, dropping down to scrape the desert shrubs in order to loose themselves in the 'clutter.'

Radars are imperfect instruments and detect the ground as well, and things like hills, buildings or even moving cars mess up their picture of the battlespace. Human radar operators cannot hope to process all that information on one screen, so filters are set to remove things that are moving below a certain speed or altitude. In addition to this, hills and ridges provide radar 'shadows' behind which the beams cannot reach. By getting low enough the F-16s could get below the filter settings and stay in the 'shadows,' avoiding consistent detection … while being extremely mindful of the old pilot's saying: "you can only ever tie the record for the lowest flight."

The F-16s were chased by some desultory fire from the surviving AAA systems, and a couple of SA-3s guided by radars that had survived the destruction. Those SAMs were engaged by a second salvo of ALARMs from the Tornados once again, forcing them to shut down or be destroyed.

Gold One, acting as Battle Manager, had been noting down the source of the surviving triple-A fire around the airport, using his targeting pod's powerful infrared camera and laser rangefinder to generate the GPS coordinates of each. Data-linking these targets to the other aircraft, he rattled off a set of bearings and speeds for them to come in at so they transited over the target area a few seconds apart. After the colonel, it was her turn.

"Hawk Two, come in bearing one-zero-zero, target triple-A, position bullseye four, six o'clock. Secondary target triple-A, position bullseye six, ten o'clock."

"Hawk Two copies all, attacking."

About twenty seconds later, as she barrelled in towards the airport, Sam focused on the bombsight in her HUD. She placed the CCIP (Continuously Computed Impact Point) over the muzzle flashes of a trio of ZPU-4 guns on the near side of the perimeter and pickled off a cluster bomb. The aircraft jerked as the tiny impulse charge kicked it off the rail and she jinked right to avoid their tracers.

Straightening up, Sam pulled up slightly to gain altitude and lined up on another brace of ZPUs on the far side of the airport. Again, she put the pipper over the muzzle flashes even as their tracers reached up to swat her from the sky, pickled off another bomb and banked hard left, putting the aircraft up on the wing and screaming over the main terminal building so low she probably shattered the windows in the control tower.

Too close. Waaay too close. Sam remembered, belatedly, to breathe.

"Hawk Two, were you checking in baggage or something?" Gold One transmitted. "Hawk Eight," he continued without pausing, "come in on bearing one-one-five, target Zooce, position bullseye two, ten o'clock, secondary target Frogfoot on parking apron, position bullseye one, one o'clock."

"Eight copies, vector zero-one-five, time on target forty seconds."

They weren't done yet. A few moments later, as Sam regrouped with the other Hawks to the north-west, the aircraft from the first wave were already zooming back across. Having expended their cluster bombs, and with the enemy defence in disarray, the Weasels were now hunting with more precision.

Squirts of cannon fire bisected any parked aircraft not in shelters, while infra-red guided Maverick missiles streaked down to obliterate any remaining gun or missile systems. As each aircraft turned in, Gold One identified a pair of targets along a single bearing for them to engage in one pass. Once Hawk Eight turned in, the gap between attack runs was only about ten seconds, and Gold One didn't mess it up even once. It was one of the slickest pieces of airborne command and control Sam had ever seen, and having trained with the 77th for nearly eighteen months – some of whose pilots, like Berman, had done Weasel missions in F-16s in no less than five different wars – the bar on that was set pretty high.

"Hawk Two, come in on bearing one-six-three, target Zooce, position bullseye two six o'clock, target Urals, moving left to right, position dead on bullseye one."

"Hawk Two, copy bearing one-six-three, time on target ten seconds."

Sam reefed into a hard right turn, selected Maverick and acquired a Shilka in the thermal sight displayed just above her knee, the four-muzzle flashes blazing in the infrared spectrum as it fired at the F-16 which had just made its run. The fire appeared to be rather less accurate than the ZSU-23-4 was really capable of; if they had twigged that they were literally under a canopy of ALARMs tonight (the existence and general capabilities of which were not classified) they might have kept their radar off and tried to engage manually.

"Hawk Two, Rifle Zooce." She fired the 'fire-and-forget' weapon from two miles out, the missile streaking off into the night as she slid the F-16 slightly left and lining the gun up on a pair of moving Ural trucks. "Hawk Two, guns guns guns."

The three-second burst of high-explosive shells tore the canvas-sided vehicles to shreds, and she banked away to the south-west again, with one Maverick and two hundred rounds of 20mm remaining.

The destruction was not complete, but it was devastating. There were no radars transmitting from the airport. A few gun sites had escaped the firestorm but had unsurprisingly gone silent anyway. No one wanted to attract the attention of the Americans now that there was no anonymity in numbers. Burning vehicles littered the sandy desert around the concrete runways, and pillars of drifting, roiling black smoke obscured the view of much of the airport.

One by one, a quartet of F-15Es boomed in from the south, climbing to five thousand feet and burning in towards the airfield at full mil power. Three miles short of their targets they abruptly jerked into a sudden climb and released their ordnance on the upward curve. Called a pop-up attack, the manoeuvre used the aircraft's momentum to 'loft' the unpowered, laser-guided GBU-28 bombs in a ballistic arc towards their target without the F-15 having to directly overfly the area.

With the orbiting Tornadoes laser-designating the targets, each Eagle executed two attack runs, dropping two weapons on each before booming away south. One by one, the sixteen hardened shelters vanished in brief, muted flashes of orange as the 5,000lb bombs obliterated them, leaving behind small secondary fires from burning fuel and ammunition. The coalition jets turned away from the destruction they had wrought, running south-west atlow level out into the desert before climbing to cruising altitude and altering course to home. Behind them, the Baghdad defences continued to lash the skies above with hundreds of thousands of tracers, shooting impotently at targets that had never been above the city at any point during the mission anyway.

Saudi Arabia, Earth – 24th March 2003 (the following morning)

0530 Time Zone Charlie, Prince Sultan Air Base, 70 miles SE of Riyadh

The invasion had now been underway for several days. Having forced their way through the defences on the Rumalia oil field, the primary ground combat elements of the invasion ground forces had split up. The British 7th Armoured had turned east, and had just reached the outskirts of Basra and were launching probing attacks into the heavily-defended city, one of Iraq's most important commercial and cultural centres. The US 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions battled north towards Nasiriyah, a strategic crossing point over the Euphrates River. The US Army's 3rd Infantry Division had entirely bypassed the main area of fighting, moving off the road network out into the rough terrain of the Western Desert to swing around the Iraqi flank and advance north towards Baghdad.

When their wing landed at Prince Sultan Air Base (PSAB) in Saudi Arabia, Sam taxied to the shelter and ran through the shutdown procedures, her hands working the controls on autopilot. As the bubble canopy rose upwards, she unclipped her oxygen mask and grimaced at the temperature. When she'd taken off for the attack on the airport it had been late afternoon and 28° Celsius, about average for March at PSAB. It was now approaching dawn and 15° Celsius, making her glad that their deployment would end in May, before the peak temperatures in June-July, where the average temperature would reach a sweltering 42°C - double the average summer temperatures of her Californian hometown of Santa Maria – and the record high here was a lethal 53°C.

The crew chief, Staff Sergeant Vega, placed a ladder against the fuselage and climbed up to the cockpit. She could just about see his grin behind the light of the headtorch he wore.

"Good flight, ma'am?"

"Hell yes, chief."

His grin changed to a mock-reproving frown. "Didn't ding my baby?"

Sam shook her head with appropriate seriousness. "Hell no, chief."

She had a good working relationship with the ground crews, mostly because she was suitably sympathetic as to the enormous amount of work they did for her benefit. A minority of, but still far too many pilots – particularly fighter pilots – treated their aircraft's enlisted caretakers with an unpleasantly callous and superior attitude. While it was true that a fighter pilot had much to be cocky about considering the complexity and danger of the job they did, disparaging the people who actually enabled them to do that job was, to her mind, moronic.

The maintenance crews almost always worked long hours, and dependant on the urgency of the missions, those hours only got longer. In peacetime, when the aircraft weren't flying every day, the crews did roughly eight to ten hour days. Now they were at war, sleep was now an optional extra that the Air Force wasn't paying them for. Regardless of wartime, they did their work in any conditions, from the freezing cold of Antarctica's McMurdo Station to the scorching heat here in Saudi, for low pay, with tens of millions of dollars' worth of equipment – not to mention the pilots' lives – on their heads if they did something wrong … and then, after they'd slaved away for hours and hours keeping 'their babies' in tip-top working order like the thoroughbreds they were, some arrogant, jackass officer – the last of those three probably being the worst insult, to their minds – showed up and got all the credit and glamour for taking it into combat.

"Well, I suppose that'll have to do." He climbed down, yelling at one of his airmen to pull up the auxiliary power trailer. Sam unplugged her helmet's various cables and lifted it off, running a hand through her sweat-soaked ash blonde hair, worn short in a pixie cut. Air Force hair regulations for women required long hair be worn bound up above the collar; while that might be fine in an office, with the long hours she spent wearing a flight helmet keeping long hair was an unnecessary hassle.

"Yo, Astro!"

Sam looked up to see Lieutenant Nathan Ackerman bounce into the shelter, followed by Captain Cameron Mitchell. Mitchell's callsign was 'Shaft' ('Camshaft,' get it? Dayumm, pilots thought they were funny). Nathan's was 'Beagle,' partly because of his eager personality, but mostly because on one of his first landings in a T-37 'Tweet' trainer aircraft he bounced several times down the runway, 'like an overexcited beagle puppy' to quote his instructor.

All nugget pilots normally got named something at least a bit off-colour – usually referencing either some … unfortunate physical attribute, or some sort of mishap during their early training, like Nathan's, because everyone had done something wrong at some point. This first nickname usually lasted until they either did something heroic enough to be assigned an appropriately impressive callsign … or did something sufficiently moronic enough (or were enough of an asshole) to be assigned an even worse one. Mitchell's would probably remain the same through his entire career, purely because it was a penis joke.

Sam was infinitely glad her Astrophysics PhD and combat training scores had been impressive enough to gain her the name 'Astro' and to avert being assigned a similarly embarrassing callsign. She'd nearly gotten 'Princess' because her father was a Major General in the Joint Staff, currently the Vice Director for Operations.

It was a long, involved and extremely intense process to train to be a fighter pilot, and thus far Sam had done the entirety of it with Nathan. They'd been in the same Class and cadet squadron at the Air Force Academy in Colorado for four years, and then done Undergraduate Pilot Training at Vance AFB, Oklahoma, lasting another year. Upon graduation, they had been told they would be trained on the F-16, and so from UPT they had gone to Lead-In Fighter Training at Holloman AFB, New Mexico for three months, then SERE training at Fairchild AFB in Washington State for another two months, then finally F-16 Replacement Pilot Training at Luke AFB, Arizona. The odds had been pretty astronomical (ha) that they'd be posted to the same operational squadron (there were nearly fifty F-16 squadrons, after all) but it had happened anyway.

The two of them had been with the 77th for eighteen months so far, having joined the squadron just a few months before 9/11 turned their whole world upside down and President Kealty declared the 'Global War on Terror.'

As the Taliban had not possessed advanced air defences, Operation ENDURING FREEDOM had not required the Wild Weasels' skills, so Sam and Nathan's first tour had instead been Operation NORTHERN WATCH at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey between July and September 2002, enforcing the no-fly zone over Mosul and Irbil north of the 36th Parallel. That had been just before the most recent WMD crisis had blown up, and they had seen no combat; it had been entirely routine. Now, six months later, they were back in the Middle East but instead of patrolling the northern border they were kicking in the southern door.

"Hey, Nathan, Cam." The two of them had been flying as Hawk Four and Three, respectively. Mitchell was one of the squadron's 'Instructor Pilots' and their normal flight commander, along with another slightly more junior captain as deputy. Captain Kawasumi had unfortunately broken his leg in a motorcycle accident just before deployment and they had yet to receive a replacement, so the Colonel had decided to make their flight his semi-permanent home on the Squadron Roster, so as to avoid disrupting the arrangements of the rest of the squadron.

That meant he led both the flight and the squadron when in the air, while Mitchell handled all the routine administration that was the rest of the job of being a flight leader. Sam knew Cam was chafing somewhat under the arrangement; being stuck with the paperwork while not having the responsibilities and the 'fun parts' of the job he was trained for was grating on him. On the other hand, flying with the Colonel was a training experience in and of itself; Sam had learned more about leadership in the air in three days' worth of combat flying with Berman than in her seven-and-a-half years in the Air Force so far. Mitchell seemed to think the same.

"Any problems?" Mitchell asked. Sam shook her head.

"Nope." She stood, manoeuvring her way out of the cockpit down the ladder. When she reached the bottom, Vega handed Sam her squadron and Stars and Stripes patches, which she slapped onto the Velcro patches on her shoulders - they flew without them over enemy airspace. "Those ALARMs are top-notch, as our Limey cousins would say. I hope when the Pentagon procures a replacement for the HARMs they have something like that loiter system."

"Don't hold out too much of that hope," Mitchell grumbled. "With that moron the administration installed as SecAF, and the budget cutbacks, we're lucky to get any training hours at all, let alone new weapons."

The headlights of a HMMWV slowed to a halt outside the shelter in a squeal of brakes. While Sam hung back to exchange a few post-flight words with Staff Vega, the other two walked out to it, joined by the Colonel who hopped out of the passenger's seat. When Sam in turn approached the vehicle, Berman, Cam and Nathan were grim-faced, a far cry from the usual post-mission euphoria all of them felt regardless of rank, having cheated death for another day. Colonel Berman was a hulking six-foot-three, shaven-headed former USAF Academy line-backer who could only barely fit his helmet in under the canopy – his callsign, 'Bear-Man,' was a very literal description – and she was used to him looming over her own slightly above-average five-seven height. Tall people were at a disadvantage in modern fighter jets – G-forces had a stronger effect on them, as the blood had more uncompressible volume to move into away from the brain (i.e. that the G-suit couldn't prevent), making them quicker to black out under high-G than a short person.

Berman didn't ever seem phased by it, though. He was exactly the kind of person who would just grit his teeth and tell gravity to take a hike.

"Priority message from AF-CENTCOM," Bear-Man growled before any of them could speak. Sam had never seen him so utterly livid. "An hour ago a US Army Patriot air-defence battery near Ali Al Salem Air Base engaged and destroyed a returning RAF Tornado. Search and rescue is underway in the hope they ejected, but they probably didn't."

Sam's post-mission high dissipated instantly. Most of the Coalition pilots were actually more scared of their own MIM-104 PATRIOT (Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept On Target – yes, they had picked the acronym before the actual name) batteries than the Iraqi SA- series missiles that were actually supposed to be shooting at them.

"Anyone we know, sir?"

The PATRIOT was, on paper, a lethally fast, long-ranged and very accurate radar-missile combo, but in order to achieve this 'effectiveness' it was a heavily automated system. This was supposed to speed up engagement times but instead resulted in frequent and repeated mistakes, as the command software was plagued by persistent bugs and the crews were often inadequately trained on the immensely complex systems. The PATRIOTs frequently misidentified friendly aircraft as hostile weapons or aircraft and locked onto them as if to fire, resulting in frantic calls to the battle managers in the AWACs to get the battery in question to cease and desist. It had frankly only been a matter of time until a more deadly accident occurred.

"Yeah." Berman exhaled. "Someone I know. Or knew. It was Gold One … fucking hell. That man survived a hundred combat sorties in three warzones and he gets blown out of the sky by us. Jesus Christ. Let's go, I need to make some calls. And get a drink."

A few hours later at the post-mission debrief, Berman's final words were blunt and uncompromising.

"I'm not going to post this on the squadron board, but you can consider it a new, entirely unofficial SOP. If you get locked up over airspace likely being scanned by PATRIOTS, you have both my and the Wing commander's sanction to fire back with a HARM. The radar vehicles of our own systems are remote operated, meaning that even if you hit it – which is far from a sure thing with a HARM anyway – you won't kill any of our boys and girls. But your thirty-million dollar aircraft and your four-million dollar-trained backsides are more valuable to the Air Force than a malfunctioning piece of Army equipment, so your task is to survive regardless of who is shooting at you. Dismissed."

(See author's note).

"Of all my accomplishments I may have achieved during the war, I am proudest of the fact that I never lost a wingman. […] It was my view that no kill was worth the life of a wingman. . . . Pilots in my unit who lost wingmen on this basis were prohibited from leading [a section]. They were made to fly as wingman, instead [...] The wingman is absolutely indispensable. I look after the wingman. The wingman looks after me. It's another set of eyes protecting you. That's the defensive part. Offensively, it gives you a lot more firepower. We work together. We fight together. The wingman knows what his responsibilities are, and knows what mine are. Wars are not won by individuals. They're won by teams."

Colonel Erich 'Bubi' Hartmann, Luftwaffe (1922-1993)

Known as 'The Black Devil' to the Soviets, Hartmann was the most successful fighter ace in the history of aerial warfare scoring 352 victories (345 Soviet, 7 American). In 1,404 wartime combat missions, not one single time was he forced shot down or otherwise forced down due to enemy action. The fourteen times he was forced to crash-land were due to mechanical failure or damage received from colliding with the parts of enemy planes he had just shot down. After the war he was falsely convicted of war crimes in an effort to force him to serve in the East German Air Force, and spent ten years in various gulags. Upon his release he immediately joined the West German Bundeswehr and served until 1970.

Iraq, Earth – 24 March 2003

1715 Time Zone Charlie, Nasiriyah – 225 miles Southeast of Baghdad

Thirty minutes earlier …

"All callsigns, all callsigns, this is Cyclops on Guard for Emergency Close Air Support. Any CAS-capable flights report to Cyclops on INDIGO SEVEN for tasking; say again, any CAS-capable flights report to Cyclops on INDIGO SEVEN for tasking. Emergency CAS mission in progress. Cyclops out."

Now …


Sam ignored the warning light flashing on her console. She was at Bingo fuel – the minimum required to reach a refuelling point – and under some very, very ironclad USAF regulations, she was supposed to be heading back to base or to find an aerial tanker right now. The Air Force became rather annoyed when one of their pilots destroyed a thirty million dollar aircraft because they forgot to top up the tank.

But the war would not wait for regulations. Part of Task Force TARAWA, specifically the 2nd Light Armoured Reconnaissance Battalion, the lead element of Regimental Combat Team 1, had run in trouble north of Nasiriyah. They had pushed through the city to the far side and, low on ammo, set up a perimeter to await for resupply the following morning … only to almost immediately be set upon by Republican Guard reinforcements outnumbering them six-to-one coming south from the city of Kut. The rest of the Task Force was either bogged down in urban fighting in the city itself or dealing with numerous small guerrilla attacks along the supply line. The attacks hadn't caused much damage, but the traffic jam was enormous, with most of the Division's vehicles completely stationary along a nearly twenty-mile stretch running south of Nasiriyah.

To cap it all, a massive sandstorm was just sweeping in from the northeast, which the Iraqis probably timed their attack to coincide with as it would, eventually, ground the US aircraft. However, although far from ideal, with the right engine filters it was possible to fly in a sandstorm … for as long as the filters were unclogged … and as long as one had fuel, because mid-air refuelling was impossible under such conditions.

Sam was circling in the upper levels of the storm, flying on instruments as the dull brown muck around her had reduced visibility to almost zero. Their mission files hadn't even had the INDIGO SEVEN frequency – the colour-number code was a shorthand used to prevent saying the actual frequency on the unencrypted channels in case the Iraqis were listening, which it was known they were able to do – so Colonel Berman was somewhere below her, flying down through the maelstrom to find 2nd Marines' position and get through to the airstrike controller, callsign Chieftain, on the general channel. In the storm, however, radio reception was sub-optimal, to say the least.

"Hawk Two [shsksh] One … …. state … over?"

"Hawk One, Two, say again, over."

This time it came through better. "Hawk Two, Hawk One [shsksh] give fuel state, over."

"Two is at bingo."

"Ah … same here, Two. Need to … … another attack run. … you to head south, find a tanker to fuel up. Bring … north if …. can, and stay with him … find you … using channel Victor Five."

"Two copies." Sam hesitated for a long moment; was she really going to just leave her wingman in the middle of a storm? But then again, this was the CO who, she had been repeatedly told by every veteran pilot in the squadron, knew his shit and wouldn't be messing around. He knew what he was doing. "Contact on Victor Five. On my way, over."

"Roger that. I need to re-attack. Go get the tanker. Hawk One Out."

Sam punched the throttle up to cruising speed and climbed to 20,000 feet, into the thinner upper layers of the dusty maelstrom. She had two thousand pounds of fuel left; just about enough to reach the DOG TRACK aerial refuelling point. The Colonel must have about the same; after doing another attack run he sure as hell wouldn't have enough to even reach the emergency airstrips on the Kuwaiti border, let alone the tankers over Saudi Arabia. She flipped through her mission file for the frequencies for Cyclops and the tankers … callsign Tendon Three-One, frequency Cobalt Three. Who to contact first?

She briefly hesitated again to think it through; the AWACs crews could be your best friends or your worst nightmares. On the one hand they were the metaphorical gods of the entire region, able to see anything that flew for hundreds of miles around and the large crew on board were in charge of managing the bigger picture to ensure all the Coalition's airpower got where it needed to go in time to save friendly lives on the ground and in the air. On the other hand, they could also be annoyingly, pedantically bureaucratic and were sometimes so isolated behind their radar screens and regulation-ordered world from the battle at hand that they made some pretty stupid decisions. It wouldn't be beyond them to order the tanker to stay where it was if she called them first, and then the Colonel would be up shit creek without a paddle. Or even a boat, after his fuel ran out.

"Tendon Three-One, this is Hawk Two on Cobalt Three."


"Tendon Three-One, this is Hawk Two on Cobalt Three."

"Tendon Three-One, this is Hawk Two on Cobalt Three."

"Hawk Two, this is Cyclops. Sitrep."

Ah shit. So much for that plan.

"Cyclops. Hawk Two is at fuel state two-point-zero, heading south to find a tanker. Request to bring tanker Tendon Three One north across the border to refuel Hawk One, over."

"Hawk Two, why the hell is your fuel so low? And where is Hawk One, over!"

"Hawk One is providing Emergency CAS to callsign Chieftain and Task Force Tarawa. He is at bingo fuel and needs the tanker to come north."

"Hawk Two, why didn't Hawk One divert at bingo?"

Sam forced herself to relax her increasingly angry deathgrip on the controls. Maybe he hadn't heard the 'Emergency CAS' bit. Emergency Close Air Support essentially meant, "Drop fucking everything and get here now!" It was pretty unambiguous. Sure, technically the colonel should have diverted at bingo, but considering that ground attack jets pretty much existed to support troops on the ground, ignoring such a call when a unit was about to be overrun was utterly unacceptable when it was within anyone's power to provide that support.

Unfortunately, as she had feared, the AWAC's battle managers were locked into their neat little fantasy world where everything ran like clockwork, plans always went according to schedule and nothing ever went wrong.

"Say again, Hawk One is providing emergency close air support to Tarawa, over."

A new voice, speaking with a strong Southern twang broke into the circuit. "Cyclops, this is Tendon Three-One. We're happy to go north if the Hawks need us, over." Sam closed her eyes and issued a silent thanks to the ballsy tanker pilot. He was, after all, essentially flying a massive flammable bomb that would likely ignite at the slightest damage; taking it over enemy airspace was well above and beyond his normal duty. Tankers were expensive and fragile strategic assets that were in near-constant demand; the Air Force did not send them into risky areas, period.

"Negative, Three-One," Cyclops snapped. "Hold position. Hawk One will have to make his way to the forward divert fields in Kuwait. Hawk Two, tank up at Three-One and RTB, out."

Sam grit her teeth to prevent herself from saying something she'd probably regret. She was not going to RTB – return to base. She was debating how to argue the point when Cyclops came back on.

"Ahhh … Hawk Two, Tendon Three-One, this is Cyclops, ignore my last. Say again, ignore last orders. Hawk Two, tank up at Three-One and stand by for further orders, out."

"Three-One copies. Hawk One, we are on DOG TRACK TWO, grid Sierra Uniform seven-two-eight-niner, current headin' two-six-five at angels twenty-two, speed three-zero-zero."

Sam did some quick calculations in her head, working out what the bearing from her aircraft to his was and set her radar to sweep that part of the sky. When a big fat blip appeared, she breathed a lot easier.

You know that old joke about how hedgehogs mate? Carefully.

Sam thought that was a pretty good description of aerial refuelling, particularly in an F-16. The massive dark grey belly of the KC-10 'Extender' filled the canopy as she edged towards it. She eased up behind it into the pre-contact position – twenty-feet from the tip of the boom and once cleared to approach, she inched forward very slowly until it seemed the boom was about to shatter the canopy … then it vanished over her head and the KC-10 boom operator's signal lights indicated they had finessed the long tube into the air-refuelling door behind the cockpit.

Yes, this would normally be the point for a good innuendo, but Sam really couldn't think of one right now.

In peacetime, there would have been a lot of back-and-forth to coordinate; in war, there was none, as it was known the Iraqis had some reasonably sophisticated SIGINT intercept capabilities.

Sam matched speed with the tanker and waited. If there was a mechanical problem with the transfer systems in either aircraft, she was not quite entirely screwed – she might make one of the recovery airfields on the Saudi border – but the Colonel would be.

Then came the gentle push as the fuel started to gush through into her tanks, and another light lit up on the tanker's belly.

"Good afternoon, ma'am," announced the boom operator through the hard-line built into the boom, apparently pre-warned by his pilot that their customer was female; also, probably warned to keep the 'insertion' and 'penetration' jokes to himself. Sam couldn't' have cared less; humour was humour, and a few years in the male-dominated fighter pilot community had left her with a thick skin and a … broadly defined sense of humour, so to speak. "Welcome to the Tendon Thirty-One gas station. Will this be leaded or unleaded?"

Sam laughed, but didn't actually relax. She was now physically connected to a flying bomb that was transferring flammable fuel to her aircraft – a hard buffet of wind, uncorrected for, might destroy them both. "Got premium?"

"You bet ma'am. We'll change the oil too. Can't do anything about the tyres from here," the airman joked. "What was your fuel state?"

"About zero point eight." Eight hundred pounds of fuel – pretty much 'flying on fumes.'

He whistled. "Jesus. Well, you'll be taking on about ten thou. Take about ninety seconds."

Sam was still taking on fuel when Cyclops came back on.

"Hawk Two, Tendon Three-One, this is Cyclops, message, over."

"Cyclops, Hawk Two, go ahead, over."

"Cyclops, Tendon Three-One, go ahead, over."

"Hawk Two, Tendon Three-One, Jeremiah Actual directs that you proceed north to kill-box Three-Three November to meet Hawk One. Acknowledge, over."

Sam closed her eyes and offered a silent prayer to any deities that were listening, and to Jeremiah Actual, whoever that was. "Hawk One acknowledges, proceed north with Tendon to kill-box Three-Three November, over." 33N was about half-way between here and Nasiriyah, which should be more than enough for the Colonel. She wouldn't be surprised if he met them on the way north before they even reached the position. And another prayer for Jeremiah, whoever that was who had the clout to save their asses.

"Tendon Three-One, proceed north with Hawk Two to Three-Three November, over."

"Affirmative all. Cyclops out."

"Hawk Two, this is Three-One. I ain't got a map of the killboxes, y'know, being a flying gas station and all, so I sure hope you know where you're goin', over."

"Affirmative, Three-One. Turn to bearing zero-zero-five, go to mil power and maintain present altitude."

"Hawk One, this is Hawk Two on Victor Five."

"Hawk One, this is Two on Victor Five."

"Hawk One, this is Two on Victor Five."

"Hawk Two, this is Hawk One on Victor Five. Send traffic."

Sam breathed a heavy sigh of relief.

"One, Two is at grid Sierra Uniform seven-five niner-eight, angels twenty-two, speed three-five-five with tanker in tow."

"Hawk One has radar contact. I'm off your nose, forty miles at angels twenty."

Sam slewed her radar around to scan in front and slightly down. A blip appeared, with an accompanying IFF tag.

"Two has contact. Tanker is Tendon Three-One on Cobalt Three."


On Cobalt Three; "Tendon Three-One, this is Hawk One."

"Loud and clear, Hawk. We're northbound at twenty-two …"

"Hawk One has radar contact and visual."

"Copy that. Startin' a right-hand turn back to the border."

"Negative. Maintain course. I don't have the gas to catch up. Fuel state is point five."

"Tendon copies. We'll come to you."

Fifteen minutes later, the Colonel's aircraft slid away from the tanker, fully topped up. His wing racks still had a pair of Mavericks hanging off them, but the faring around the cannon muzzle was black with burnt carbon. Sam wasn't quite sure why he'd been firing so many cannon shells and not the very potent Mavericks, but she'd ask later.

But by the time they reached the border, they had a new problem. Although the upper levels of the storm were reasonably clear, the leading edges were well ahead of them and had already covered most of the Arabian subcontinent. All major military and civilian airports in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the Emirates were down to zero-zero conditions – zero ceiling, zero visibility – with crosswinds gusting from thirty to fifty knots. Basically, "don't land here, you'll die," was the general message. Tendon Three-One had been diverted all the way to Diego Garcia – a tiny little island naval base in the middle of the Indian Ocean – but that was three thousand miles away and even the tanker didn't have enough fuel to get both itself and the two F-16s there.

The Colonel picked Ali Al-Salem in Kuwait – the only airfield reporting to Cyclops anything better than zero-zero. Then he discovered the mission pack (the file put together by the Ops Room planners, which was supposed to contain all radio codes, airfield data and other relevant information for every conceivable emergency) did not have an instrument approach for Ali al-Salem. Considering the pack had also omitted the 'Indigo Seven' frequency for Chieftain as well, (who, as a regimental-level Joint Terminal Attack Controller, most certainly should have been in it) it was becoming clear that somebody, somewhere had fucked up big time and, in this case, just might result in their deaths.

There was a solution to this however. The Colonel intended to fly down through the storm - again - hopefully without flying right into the ground (which was currently the same colour as the sky), and physically locate the end of the airfield's runway. As he overflew it, he would set a GPS mark on the navigation system, recording his exact GPS coordinates so they both had a point to aim at.

However, even as they turned towards Ali al-Salem, Cyclops came back on the air. There were another eight F-16s still airborne trying to find a place to land, and Colonel Berman was the Alpha mission commander and the most senior officer still airborne … which made them his problem.

Fortunately, the Colonel was up to the task, although Sam could easily imagine the creative swearwords that were probably being spoken in his cockpit when the mic was off. Within a few minutes, their now ten-strong flight – all assigned impromptu 'Hawk' callsigns for simplicity – were moving to positions above a point on the junction of the Saudi-Iraqi-Kuwaiti border nicknamed 'CUSTOMS HOUSE,' on an west-east line above the storm with thousand-foot altitude gaps between each pair. The lowest pair were the ones with the lowest fuel state, and so on continuing upwards, meaning that once the airfield was marked the most in-danger aircraft would peel off to land first without transiting through the others' altitude blocks.

It was a tense wait. Sam stayed locked to Hawk One on radar for a few minutes but lost him in the storm clutter. After that, there was nothing to do but hold and hope.

Ten minutes later …

"All Hawks, stand by to copy. Christmas Tree, Christmas Tree, over." Sam breathed a sigh of relief – certainly not the first on this mission – and flicked on her external nav and landing lights. The Colonel rattled off a series of instructions; he'd essentially written his own instrument approach to the airfield.

"All Hawks, approach in flight order from Customs House. Two minutes between flights and two miles between aircraft. Outbound heading is zero-eight-zero at two-fifty knots. Hold this until the final approach fix at ten miles and three thousand feet for runway three-zero left. Approach heading is three-zero-zero from final approach fix. At ten miles slow to one-eight-zero with gear down and intercept the glide slope inbound. Slow to final approach speed at three miles, land past the mark and call full stop with Ali Tower. All Hawks acknowledge."

"Hawk Two, acknowledged."

The other Hawks followed suit, with no questions. All of them were from different squadrons with different specialities to their own, but were trained in the basics in exactly the same way. It was good to fly with professionals.

"Ali Tower, Hawk One. Flight of ten will commence approach in three minutes. We'll need a follow-me truck. Confirm transient office has been notified."

"Hawk, Ali Tower. Confirmed and affirmative all," an American voice responded. "Good luck."

"Roger Ali Tower. Hawk One to Hawk One flight, pushing."

Sam turned to fall in two miles behind the Colonel as they passed over checkpoint CUSTOMS HOUSE at 250 knots, descending through nineteen thousand feet into the brown sludge below.

Exactly two minutes later: "Hawk Three flight, pushing." Right on time, the next pair had begun their approach. It was nice to work with professionals.

By the time the next flight called in, Sam was fourteen miles from Ali and two miles from the turn onto final approach. At twelve miles she began the left turn onto three-zero-zero. At ten miles she pulled the lever next to her left knee to lower the landing gear, causing the large light that made up the handle's grip to light up red (not for nothing was it known as 'the Tomato') and an audible warning tone to start pinging in her ear. The aircraft slowed abruptly, and Sam retracted the speed brakes and increased power to stay steady at 180 knots. "Hawk Two, ten miles, gear down."

At eight miles, a little horizontal bar in her HUD began to flutter lower and lower, while another vertical bar held steady. The first indicated the glide slope to follow down to Mother Earth, and the latter was the heading to the nav point to follow. Sam double-checked it against the actual compass in the cockpit to be sure, and then checked the little blip on the air-to-air radar that was Colonel Berman.

At five miles, she still couldn't see a damned thing but swirling dust.

"Ali, Hawk One is three miles, gear down, low approach. All other Hawks will full-stop. Hawk One will land last." The colonel was going to go low over the runway but not actually land, to double-check his calculations and be able to wave everyone off if he'd been wrong the first time, or to escort any aircraft down which had instrument trouble or missed the approach.

So in other words, she would be first on the ground.

"Hawks, Ali Tower, wind is gusting forty knots right to left."

"Hawk Two is three miles, gear down, full stop."

"Hawk Two you are cleared to land."

The nose of Sam's F16 was angled almost thirty degrees off its actual direction of travel from the wind, bouncing all over the place. At one mile, she was dead on the nav line, passing through two hundred feet. Focusing every iota of concentration on the ground before her, Sam risked a glance to check the distance counter: 0.1, nearly over the end of the runway. And then, a light!

With shocking suddenness out of the murk she spotted runway lights, thick white lines and a large '30L' as it flashed under the nose. Sam's hands danced over the controls, bringing the throttle back, punching open the speed brakes and dropping the nose another few degrees. It surely only took a few seconds for the fighter to slam heavily to the ground, but it had felt like she had been staring at that strip of concrete for an eternity.

"Hawk Two, taxi to the end of the runway and hold next to the follow-me for the rest of your flight. Welcome back to the ground."

"Hawk Two copies, Ali Tower."

Rolling slowly to the turnoff, Sam closed the speed brakes and made sure the ejector seat was on 'safe.' Once the rest of the flight and Colonel Berman had landed, they followed the orange lights of the follow-me car at a painfully slow crawl through the sandblaster wind that, from the inside of the cockpit, looked like someone was standing outside spraying brown foam over the glass.

The car led them to a line glowing wands in the gunk; crew chiefs, braving the horrendous conditions to see their jets in safe. Sam taxied to and stopped at the furthest set of wands, and watched through the haze as the ten other F-16s rolled to a stop to her left.

"All Hawks," the colonel said, "check your safeties, tapes off, secure your classified materials. Let's not screw up the easy stuff now the hard part's over."

Iraq, Earth – 25 March 2003

1500 Time Zone Charlie, Saudi Arabia - Prince Sultan Air Base

Ali Al-Salem's base commander rolled out the metaphorical red carpet for the stray pack of F-16s which had wound up on his patch. He kept the chow hall open late - and boy, did hot food taste like manna from heaven after ten hours in the hot seat - and showed up the following morning with a stack of towels, shampoo and razors for them that he'd purchased from the base exchange at his own expense. The airmen here were a forward rearming/refuelling team composed of F-16 mechanics from the squadrons based at Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base, deeper south into Kuwait. It was a pretty bare-bones field by Air Force standards and one of the runways was unusable, but they had the fuel, weapons, spare parts and trained technicians to get the jets refuelled, rearmed and checked out to fly again the following morning.

Good thing too, because the war hadn't stopped just because she and the Colonel were away from the front. The Marines had held onto their bridgehead by their fingernails after the Colonel's strafing run had gutted the main Republican Guard column attacking them. Iraqi forces were doggedly contesting every other chokepoint and urban area along the frontline. More reinforcements were coming south, using the bad weather to conceal their movements and run the gauntlet of Coalition air attacks like the Nazis did in the Battle of the Bulge. But P-51s didn't have thermal vision, and the Coalition jets did. The weather was still crap, but it wasn't quite as bad as the day before, so US and British ground-attack jets still had orders to get their asses north and shoot at everything that moved north of the Marine's Nasiriyah bridgehead.

That afternoon they landed at PSAB once again, to find a few surprises waiting for them.

First, the Colonel had been grounded. This had prompted the loudest, angriest "WHAT THE FUUUUCK!" that Sam had ever heard, and she'd been in her own F-16's shelter nearly a hundred metres away.

Apparently some bureaucrat Colonel in the Air Expeditionary Wing operations office whose understanding of ground attack missions had clearly come off the back of a cereal box had read the mission report Berman had submitted from Ali al-Salem, noted that he'd gone below the 10,000 foot altitude limit for normal combat operations (that they were allowed to violate only when required to for a specific mission, like the attack on Baghdad International) and given orders to ground Berman. Apparently, this had set off a relatively major bureaucratic shit-storm as a number of other senior officers who were combat pilots and Patchwearers - graduates of the USAF Fighter Weapons School - found out about it and had a collective aneurysm from sheer rage. This had eventually been escalated to the Coalition Air Forces Component Commander, a four star, who had hauled the unfortunate Ops colonel into his office for a royal chewing out; what one of their British colleagues in the base chow hall described as "a meeting without tea or biscuits." Berman had been un-grounded within ten hours, before they had even taken off from Ali al-Saleem that morning, but the Wing Commander had wanted to see the look on his face when told he'd been grounded, so that part had been left out.

The second surprise didn't rear its head until the following day, on the morning of the 26th. Halfway through the daily briefing, one of the ops staff came in and handed Berman a note. He stared at it for several seconds, then grunted angrily. "Jim, rework the flight plan without Carter."

"Sir?" Sam protested, confused.

"Apparently you've been transferred. There's a Major Samuels in Ops with TDY orders. Wait one while I go talk to him."

Sam looked at Mitchell, seated next to her giving her a questioning look. "I have no idea."

"Done anything wrong recently?"

Sam snorted. "Nothing the colonel wasn't also in the thick of." There were some chuckles from the pilots at her reference to her and the colonel's adventures of the past two days.

Berman could be heard in the corridor outside returned, arguing with the mysterious Major Samuels probably. "Why is Space Command stealing one of my pilots?"

"I'm sorry sir but that's classified," Samuels didn't sound particularly remorseful. In fact he sounded a little bored. Without even seeing him Sam pegged him as a career staff officer, whose natural home was the corridors of the Pentagon D and E rings. Time would tell if he was the good sort who got shit done or the other kind who was entirely focused on their own career.

Berman stepped into the door and waved her out of her seat into the corridor and handed her the transfer orders. Samuels turned out to be a medium height, relatively stocky man with thinning blonde hair. The orders, as she read through them, seemed entirely ordinary apart from the classification level, which was - ha - astronomical: Top Secret SI-1894 - PYRAMID, some Sensitive Compartmented Information code tag she had no reason to recognise.

She pointed to that line but the squadron commander shrugged. "Major, can this wait until tomorrow. We're about to launch a major strike in support of the invasion, I need Carter in the air, she's my wingman."

"Sorry sir," Samuels said again, "The Captain is needed in Colorado immediately. The transfer was authorised directly by the Secretary of the Air Force and by Major General West."

"The Secretary?" Berman said, deflating. "Shit. Sorry, Carter, no idea how to stop this. Looks like you're getting off this tour bus of Iraq."

"Hopefully I'll be back before you know it, sir," Sam said with a forced lightness she didn't really feel. TDY orders could easily turn into permanent ones. This probably wasn't a flying post; it might end up being end of her piloting career.

"I'll do what I can do get this fuckup unfucked, Carter, but there's not much I can do with some O-4 here to drag you off in person, or with this classification level, or these signatures. It's above even my paygrade. I'll throw it up the chain. Call your old man too, he might have better luck."

In short order, with barely any time to pack let alone say goodbye to Mitchell, Nathan and her other squadron friends and colleagues, Sam and Major Samuels were aboard a C-22B USAF transport taking off from PSAB with a scattering of military personnel and contractors heading back to the States for whatever reasons. It was empty enough that there was no-one within three rows of where Sam and Samuels had sat.

"Is there anything you can tell me, sir, or is this not secure enough?" Sam asked quietly.

Samuels looked around and shrugged. "Technically not, but it's good enough. Just don't say anything out loud as you read this." He opened his briefcase and pulled out a manilla file liberally marked with red 'Classified' stamps. The header read:



A/N: On March 23rd 2003, an RAF Tornado was shot down by a US Army MIM-104 PATRIOT battery on the Kuwaiti border, killing Flight Lieutenant David Rhys Williams and Flight Lieutenant Kevin Main of No. 9 Squadron RAF, after an already-known software glitch in the PATRIOT's radar system erroneously identified their aircraft as an incoming enemy anti-radiation missile. Initial reports suggested that the Tornado's IFF was turned off, but the official inquest found it probably was broadcasting the correct IFF, although there was no way to be sure. The inquest also found that the battery crew were not even close to adequately trained on the system, had no reliable communications with their command and control centre only a kilometre away (which was staffed by more experienced operators who probably would have known better), and had essentially panicked and fired without verifying their target, despite being several hundred miles from the nearest combat area.

A week later a USN F/A-18C piloted by LT Nathan D. White was also shot down by a PATRIOT, after the same glitch reoccurred. The Navy was understandably more than a little pissed off.

On March 24, the day after the first blue-on-blue, an F-16 pilot over south-central Iraq was locked up by an 'unknown radar,' and, not knowing if it was an Iraqi or a Coalition radar, returned fire, destroying the PATRIOT's remotely operated radar dish with a HARM (none of the PATRIOT crew were harmed). The Air Force insists he didn't know either way, but a number of anonymous F-16 pilots told RAND Corp. researchers after the war that the Air Force was collectively so frustrated with the PATRIOT system they had received very unofficial sanction to shoot back if they had suspected or even known it was a friendly radar.

Colonel Hampton's memoir records a similar incident, fortunately without victims, in the Gulf War over ten years earlier, indicating this was not a new problem for the vaunted PATRIOT system.

(Source: 'War is Boring' blog, Article: 'That Time an Air Force F-16 and an Army Missile Battery Fought Each Other,' July 2014. Various other sources including the RAND Corporation, the Guardian, The Telegraph and the New York Times).

Author's Note: Hi, I'm not dead. I'm sorry I keep having to say that in lieu of actually updating any of my main stories. I've been super busy these last three years with a postgrad degree (War and Contemporary Conflict), and doing a post-graduate qualification in law to become a solicitor (my backup plan) while working part time and ALSO while also applying to the Royal Navy as a Warfare Officer (Plan A!). I'm expecting to enter the Royal Navy officer college in Dartmouth this September (or January if not September), so if I don't manage to publish the final chapter of Khaveyrim or the next chapter of Per Ardua by then, that's what has happened. I promise I'm doing my best but writing is very much a secondary priority to pretty much everything else in my life these last few years.