For Colonel Jimmy Baker, USAF, there was no doubt that the F-22B Raptor was the sexiest fighter plane made by human hands. The Stealth Air Superiority Fighter's electronics had been upgraded from the F-22A that Baker had first flown, but for him it was still the same plane that had helped him and his pilots beat the ever loving shit out the PMC that had dared attack his nation. Now that that major conflict was over, there was still the problem of another, even larger conflict: World War III.
For political reasons that remained lost to Baker, the United States was now involved in a three-way war with the European Federation and the Russians. The War had started out well, as Baker recalled the successful sabotage of the EF's oil refineries by the United States' Joint Strike Force (his cousin, Sandy Baker, was flying the A-20 Razorback, the ground-attack version of the F-22, in support of the JSF). Now, the Euros had evidently decided that they had large enough balls to attempt an invasion of the American East Coast…specifically, Washington, DC.
Baker bristled at the very thought of Euros on home turf. A successful invasion of the US hadn't occurred since the War of 1812, more than two hundred years ago. That wouldn't change, as long as Baker could help it.
Baker's fighter was one of only four F-22s available in the area, since much of the USAF's F-22 fleet had taken a hit during the conflict with the PMCs. That meant that there were only seventy of the planes available to fly in the whole United States, and the rest were grounded with repairs. Former President Barack Obama had come under fire recently for limiting the number of Raptors, but his rather sensible response was that there had been no way for him to have foreseen another world war. The air defense of Washington was now primarily the responsibility of the Navy's F-35 Lightning IIs. Baker's mission was to divide his squad among air and ground targets.
"Reaper Lead, be advised, two bogies headed your way," said the operator of the AWACS quarterbacking the mission. Baker didn't acknowledge.
His F-22 did, in its own way. Within a few seconds the long range radar detected two blips headed towards the counter-attack being delivered by Colonel Jerome Taylor of the JSF's 35th Airborne. That had to mean that the two bogies were Eurofighter Hailstorms, the ground-attack version of the Eurofighter Typhoon. They were slow, which mean that they'd be easy kills.
Once Baker crossed within seventy-five miles, the range of the AIM-120D AMRAAM, he armed both missiles. The fighter's advanced computer locked onto both targets. "Fox Three, Fox Three, two missiles away," Baker said.
The two Hailstorms didn't react for a second, but then both broke off a bombing run that would have been sure to stop the 35th's momentum to try and evade the AMRAAMs. They did not, and Baker was now a double-ace, having bagged his ninth and tenth kill of his career. The previous eight had been a mix of MiGs and Sukhoi fighters belonging to the now-defunct Artemis Corporation.
Over the ocean, the Navy's single-engine pukes in their 35s (Baker thought of them as budget Raptors) were doing pretty well for flying fish, wrecking the Euros' fighters and bombers. The EF naval force that had supported the invasion was being surrounded and its ships were being sunk one by one by air attack, cruise missiles and sub-based torpedoes. For Baker, it meant that the two kills he had today were likely to be his last. Low on fuel, he made the decision to return to Andrews Air Force Base and left the job of killing the Euro crunchies on the ground to the A-20 drivers.
Master Chief Petty Officer Oliver Webb clutched his SCAR-A1 rifle tightly. A quick check confirmed that Sergeant Fred Harris and Sergeant Olivia Burke, his only two remaining squadmates, were with him. His squad had been decimated by an artillery strike, and he had no idea where the rest of Specter Company was. He'd managed to gather a few others from other companies. Sergeant Jimmy Cruz and Master Sergeant Harry Kowalski were from Killshot, and they, too had been separated from their parent company by an artillery strike. Corporal Jeffrey Wu was a Pioneer from Rachet, the last of his company. The twelve or so that had survived besides him had been evacuated, but Wu had insisted on staying behind since he was still capable of fighting. Webb was glad of Wu's presence, since the man packed an AT5CQ "Boomer" Rocket Launcher.
The rag-tag group of five Ghosts riflemen and one Pioneer engineer moved through the rubble of Washington DC. They were hunting for Euros, the men of the European Federation Enforcer Corp, which was the Euro's bastardized version of the JSF. Despite the disdain most JSF warriors felt for the EFEC, it couldn't be denied that the Euros' riflemen, the Kommandos, were competent bastards. Their armor was very fast, but that also meant that their armor was weaker than most, which also meant that any EFEC vehicle unlucky enough to catch Wu's attention would be Boomer bait.
However, while the Euros were definitely losing the naval battle to the far superior US Navy, they'd managed to stop the 35th's advance temporarily by crashing their communications. It had to be an enemy AWACS, which, unknown to Webb and his group, was being hunted for by USAF F-22s and F-35s. That was why the soldiers of Mob Squad (as Cruz had jokingly named the group) had no idea where their parent units were. For Webb, it didn't make a difference. Euros were on US soil, and he was going to hunt them.
Burke was on point, darting from one piece of rubble to the next, a talent which had led to her call-sign "Mongoose". She held up her hand in the universal gesture for 'danger ahead'. Mob Squad quickly found shelter in an abandoned bakery, hiding behind the counter.
Webb peeked over the edge to see what it was that Burke had spotted, but the rumble told him before he saw it. A single Panther 1A3 rumbled down the street, turret traversing left and right. Webb's spine chilled and he got down. The EFEC's Panther tank was a very formidable beast, and in the short time that it had taken for the JSF to get acquainted with it, it had garnered a very scary reputation.
Wu wasn't disturbed at all. In fact, he smiled. The APE-1A2 exoskeleton the Pioneer wore helped him heft his Boomer as if it was a paper weight. "Boomer time," Wu whispered.
"No," said Webb. "We don't know whether the bastard's got a sniper looking out for him. And their sniper rifles might be able to penetrate your armor."
Wu looked crestfallen, but didn't argue. Pioneers were pretty slow moving because of the weight they carried, and the Battle of Copenhagen had showed that they were vulnerable to snipers.
Burke opened the counter's door to peer through the glass of the display case. She stole a quick glance at the bakery items still there. "Oh, what I'd give for a brownie…" She trailed off, watching the Panther come back. The tank maneuvered into a position facing east, towards the EFEC landing beach. It backed up into another store, crushing the brick wall, until only the tip of the barrel could be seen. "Ah ha! The son of a bitch is waiting in ambush. He's waiting for one of our tanks to pass."
"So he can shoot it in the ass," Webb nodded. He couldn't let that happen, could he? But the enemy tank was not in the best position for Wu to kill it. There had to be a way to coax it out.
"Contact," said Kowalski, who was looking west for any sign of friendly units. "Friendly tank, coming up."
Webb crawled over to where Kowalski was and looked for himself. A US Army M1A2 Abrams was rumbling up the street, turret traversing left and right, searching for targets. The Abrams was a good tank, but it wasn't as good as the newer M5A2 Schwarzkopf, and not a match for the Panther in a one-on-one engagement. "We have to warn him," said Webb. "Squad, stay here."
"Wait!" said Sergeant Harris, but Webb ignored him.
Webb boldly walked out into the street, waving at the Abrams. The position of the Panther meant that the enemy tank couldn't see him, but the Abrams definitely could. It came to a stop, and the tank commander opened the hatch. "What the…what the hell is a Ghost doing here?" the man demanded.
"There's an ambush," Webb began.
Oberfeldwebel (Master Sergeant) Christian Weber peered through the scope of his JO-2 Sniper Rifle. He had been watching the enemy Abrams roll down the street, reporting its presence to the Panther tank that had deposited him next to the building he was in only minutes before. The Panther was in an optimal position to shoot the American in the arschloch. The destruction of the vaunted Abrams was doubtless going to be pleasing, Weber had thought.
And then the Amerikaner soldier had waltzed right in front of the Abrams and waved it down to a halt. Weber had cursed quietly to himself, saying things that would have shocked his orthodox Christian father. A few seconds later, and the American would have been looking at a smoldering pile of scrap. Now the ambush was ruined, and Weber, as much as he wanted to, couldn't shoot the soldier for fear of giving away his position. A sniper doesn't waste ammo on a simple foot-soldier.
But then the enemy tank commander had popped up.
A quick glance confirmed that this man was a captain. That would be a prize, Weber was sure. If he managed to shoot the man, it would be his highest-ranking kill for him in the war so far. He decided it was worth the risk. He aimed, exhaled…
"What?" asked the tank commander.
"A Panther is waiting just round the corner," said Webb, pointing.
The tank commander leaned forward, trying to see what Webb was pointing at, realizing seconds later that leaning over saved his life.
Webb recognized the report of the sniper rifle, and so did the tank commander, who dived back into his hatch faster than a rabbit. Webb dashed behind the tank, the vehicle providing him cover.
Weber cursed. Bad luck, bad fucking luck. The kill had been a sure one, but Fate had saved the enemy's life. It wouldn't have been so bad it he'd been able to get the soldier who'd ruined everything, but the Amerikaner had wisely gone for cover behind the tank, and Weber's second shot had missed. Seconds later, he realized that he shouldn't have taken the second shot.
The Abram's turret swiveled and fired. Weber couldn't even blink before the collapsing rubble killed him. His rifle flew from his grip as he died, flipping end over end.
Webb saw the JO-2 clatter to the street, and saw that his suspicion about snipers had indeed been right. "Good night, Euro scumbag," he said. Then he turned around to see that Cruz had followed him out and was watching the rubble with satisfaction.
"Hey Chief, look," Cruz said. "French Fries!" He laughed as if he'd said the best joke ever.
"Not all Euros are French, Jimmy," said Webb. "Might've been Cooked Kraut for all we know."
Jimmy howled at that one, proving that he had a bad sense of humor. Then he peeked round the corner. "Oh shit, man, here he comes…"
The Panther crew had obviously seen the sniper getting killed, and decided not to wait for the Abrams. It crunched its way out of its hole, turning to go down the street. Considering Euro technology and training, it was very likely that the Panther would get off the first shot and possibly disable the Abrams, if not kill it. Remembering that the strength of American tanks is range, the Abrams commander told Webb and Cruz to move so he could back up.
The Panther was just too quick. Before the Abrams had gotten far, the Panther was already there. The Abrams fired first, testament to the training of US tank crews, but the HEAT round missed, and Webb waited for the Abrams to die.
Webb opened his eyes to see the Abrams still intact and the Panther smoking, and realized he'd forgotten about Wu. The Pioneer had put a rocket right into the turret of the Euro tank, and the turret couldn't traverse.
The Abrams commander quickly took advantage of this welcome development. Another HEAT round was fired, this time on target. The round must've hit a sweet spot, because the turret flew up into the air in what the Army called a "catastrophic kill", crashing back down on the ruined chassis of the Panther.
'Mob Squad' and two soldiers from the Abrams approached the Panther's wreckage, rifles up and ready, but it was already apparent to Webb that none of the Euros had survived. A piece of uniform, burnt and blood-stained, caught Cruz's eye, and he looked at the nametag.
" 'Foch'," Cruz read. "Looks like this one is definitely a box of French Fries."
"Yee-haw!" whooped one of the Abrams crewmen. "You Euros see that?" he shouted in the general direction of the EFEC camp. "Y'all try to mess with us, y'all end up like these fellers here!"
"Mob Squad!" Harris shouted, showing that Cruz had won at least one convert. "Nice shooting there, Wu."
"Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy," said Wu dismissively, although he wore a very elated expression. "Those Euro douche-bags didn't have a chance. Not when a rocket hits them, and especially not if a fucking Abrams steals my kill."
The Abrams commander laughed at that, sitting atop his tank. "You're welcome. Ah, what the hell. Beers on me."
Wu narrowed his eyes. "Free?"
Wu shrugged. "I guess that settles that," he said.
Just then, Webb's COM crackled, telling him also that the Air Force had splashed the enemy AWACS. "Heads up. Friendlies coming up."
The rumble told Webb it was another tank, but it was the infantry that appeared first. Ghosts, to be exact. They were escorting four M5A2 Schwarzkopf tanks. The Abrams paled in comparison to its more robust successor, but the Schwarzkopf was a lot more expensive, and that meant that it was a JSF-exclusive tank, which also meant that the Abrams still had a future with the Army and the Marine Corp.
One of the infantry men looked at Mob Squad. "Kowalski? Cruz? Man, I thought you two were dead."
"Captain?" Cruz asked, eyes widening with wonder.
"Of course I am," the man said irritably. "Thank god you're alive. Sorry about your squad."
Cruz looked down, having no snappy reply for once.
Webb saluted. "Master Chief Petty Officer Oliver Webb, sir. Specter Company."
"Specter?" the captain repeated. "Specter? You guys are supposed to be on the other side of town! How the hell did you get here?"
"No fucking clue, sir. A lot of smoke, and that damn jamming. I guess we owe the Air Force for that one."
"I guess," the captain agreed. "You guys can come with us. We're closing in on the EFEC landing zone. The battle's over, gentlemen. Washington DC is still ours, and the Stars and Stripes still fly on US soil."
"Oorah," said Harris, a former Marine.
"Oorah," the captain echoed. Harris smiled as he saw a brother Marine.
"Force Recon, sir?"
"Yep. Best time of my life until General Mitchell thought of this Joint Strike Force thing. For an Army puke, he ain't bad."
"Hey!" said the Abrams commander. "Watch what you say 'bout the Army, jarhead!"
The captain waved back good naturedly as the infantry/tank column advanced. The Abrams disappeared as it drove off to find its parent unit, never to be seen again by Webb or any other Mob Squad member.
Webb, for his part, was elated. The Euros had made a gamble and lost, and the first major battle of World War Three was an American victory. But he wondered what was next, and who would eventually win the war. Right now, it looked like it could go any way.