Chapter Five-

Cleared Hot

Less than five hours later the Aces were once again among the clouds. Having launched from Miho Air Base in eastern Japan under the cover of darkness the four craft headed southeast to meet up with an American-built but Japanese-flown KC-767 aerial refueling aircraft over the yellow sea, escorted by Japanese F-15J Eagles because the rendezvous took place less than 100 miles off the North Korean coast.

The South Koreans were also taking part in the CAP (Combat Air Patrol) with their upgraded two-seater F-15K Slam Eagles, as well as the diminutive but well armed KF-16 Fighting Falcons. The Japanese had setup AWACs radar coverage over the entire northern Korean peninsula with their state-of-the-art E-767 Early Warning aircraft (which used the same large twin engine airliner base airplane as the KC-767s, except with a huge radar saucer on top), and these provided a comprehensive and detailed look at not only the enemy forces, but the friendlies as well.

Bushido was amazed at the size of the latter, as displayed on his radar screen.

"Look at all the friendlies!" he exclaimed, looking at the display.

"Shows what happens when terrorists get their hands on nuclear arms." Rapier pointed out.

"You mean try to. That's why we're here." Slingshot intervened.

"Amen to that, Slingshot." Torque agreed.

Two minutes later they reached the Initial Point (IP), or the start point of the actual mission. The IP for Operation Aces (as the mission was hastily named) was twenty miles off the coast of the Democratic Republic of North Korea, in line with the mouth of the Taedong River. The DPRK's ancient capital city, Pyongyang, was built on this river, and the Aces would use the mountains on either side of the wide but winding waterway to conceal themselves from radar until they were over the city and its airbase (which now housed the nuclear warheads acquired by Al-Qaida).

"Aces, go cloak and turn music on." Torque ordered, switching on his Raptor's active stealth. Slingshot and Rapier also turned their aircraft's high-power jammers on as the entire flight of four turned off their craft's exterior navigation lights. Now they were invisible not only to radar, but to the eyes as well. Torque then gave the mission-start order:

"Aces lead to flight. Execute, execute, execute."

Each airplane rolled almost upside down and dove towards the shimmering sea.

All four fighters went supersonic in the dive at the same time, a massive double boom echoing across the water. 100 miles away on the George Washington's 4.5 acre flight deck Renegade heard the sonic boom, and wondered what it was (none of that ship's fighters were airborne) as she strapped into a brand-new F/A-18E.

At one mile above the water the four fighters pulled up steeply, settling down at three stories above the water. Streaking past a small island and over a short dam Aces flight entered the mile-wide Taedong river canyon.

The fighters followed the contours of the river, swinging around a hairpin and then going single-file as the river narrowed to 2000ft, approaching the city. Rapier's Typhoon was first, and behind that came Slingshot's Tomcat, Bushido's Eagle, and finally Torque's Raptor.

After two more turns the city appeared in front of them, a few skyscrapers lit up and numerous 10 story tall buildings surrounding them much like a city a little smaller than Chicago. As the river turned right going into the city Rapier and then the rest of Team Aces pulled up rapidly to 500ft, exiting the river canyon and flying over the western part of the city. They shot over the buildings with less than 400ft of clearance, blasting past the 1000ft tall Ryugyong Hotel (by far the tallest building in North Korea).

Bushido blinked as he noticed he had to look up to see the highest part of the cone-shaped building, but then focused back on his radar to look for MiGs. The target (a low warehouse-like building next to a runway on the airfield) now came into view.

Rapier was the first one to speak.

"Aces 1-3, skies are clear for the drop."

"Aces 1-4 confirms." Bushido said next.

"Aces 1-2, same here." Slingshot finished.

"Copy, tally target. Opening bay doors." Torque acknowledged.

Instead of carrying weapons on the wings the Raptor keeps them inside the trapezoidal fuselage for better aerodynamics and stealth. There are three bays, a small bay for a sidewinder on either side and a single large bay underneath for carrying six AMRAAMs. But when shutter doors opened on the main bay there were only two AMRAAMs, one on either side of the cavity- and replacing the four missiles in the center were four small bombs double-stacked four a total of eight. This was the Raptor's alternate load for Air-to-Ground (or "Air-to-Mud", as fighter pilots like to say) missions, comprising the normal two sidewinders in the side bays, a reduced number of AMRAAMs, and eight GPS-guided Small Diameter Bombs.

"Weapons release." Torque said as the bombs fell from the bay.

Due to the Raptor's active stealth the North Korean's SAM radars couldn't even see the bombs to fire on them, and even if they could the bombs were so low that by the time the missiles intercepted them they would have already hit the ground.

As the bombs fell Aces flight started to make a u-turn, and just as they were halfway through this the first bomb hit the warehouse dead-on.

The SDBs are designed to penetrate up to six feet of solid reinforced concrete, so breaking through the two-inch thick steel roof was like going through tissue paper.

The explosion was about the size of a large fighter, blasting the roof off that section of the building as the next bomb impacted. In a relentlessly efficient pattern each section of the long low building was destroyed with eight Small Diameter Bombs.

When the Aces passed back over the airfield all that was left of the building was the rough outline of its foundation, the inside torched and cratered beyond recognition.

"Aces 1-1, splash." Torque said with satisfaction.

"Good kill!" Rapier agreed as the flight returned to single file formation, headed for the river. Unusually for a ground attack mission, they went out the same way they came in, rising up to 5000ft after leaving the Taedong and then starting the trip back to Miho. But as soon as they started to turn south the George Washington's E-2 Hawkeye came over the radio.

"Aces flight, new picture. We've just received word from CIA that a small 727 airliner left the airbase you just bombed. It has the first shipment of nuclear warheads onboard, the last remnant of the material stored at the base. The plane is headed for Chinese airspace and we don't have the clearance to knock it down after it crosses the border. You're the closest flight we have up, so splash that plane before it gets to the border!"

"Copy, we'll head him off at the pass." Torque replied, now a bit tense.

"Aces, push it up and go Supersonic, we got a plane to catch." he said to his team, all of them "lighting the candle" on their afterburners.

As the four craft once again went past the speed of sound numerous MiG-29s started showing up on their radars, rising from bases near the city and coast.

"Are you seeing all those MiGs?" Rapier asked.

"Looks like trouble. Whoa…" Torque said, looking at his radar screen.

More than twenty MiG-29S Fulcrums had just lifted off from the bases near the city in less than three minutes, and they were headed for the Aces and already between them and the terrorist's Boeing 727.

"We don't even have time to deal with these blokes…" Rapier said in tense annoyance.

"Yes, it looks like the 727 we're chasing is only eight or nine minutes from the border, and now these Fulcrums can see us on IRST." Slingshot agreed.

And, all the pilots knew, it was a much easier to shoot down a Fulcrum at BVR than in a turning dogfight. And if the Aces did get into a turning fight they would have no chance at catching the 727, even at supersonic speed. Then Torque remembered the Nimitz class aircraft carrier George Washington cruising less than 100 miles away from them, and its complement of 18 Super Hornets.

"This is Aces 1-1, are there any Navy Super Hornets out there? We're about to get into a massive furball out here." he said to the airwaves. The reply came quickly.

"This is Patriot lead from the USS George Washington. I've got three Super Bugs in tow and we all got slammers hangin' from the wings. Burners are on and we'll be within AMRAAM range in 30 seconds."

What surprised Bushido was that it was a female voice, something his country's air force didn't have in fighters yet. It was actually Renegade talking, and she was eager to avenge Vapor.

"I'm very glad to hear that Patriot. Let's rock n' roll." Torque responded.

The "Super Bugs" shot in from the west, pinning the Fulcrums against the coast while the Aces started gaining altitude.

Then the battle began. At a range of sixty miles the Super Bugs ripple-fired their AIM-120D AMRAAM missiles off of their wings, sending 24 "slammers" towards the fleet of MiG-29s who only just learned of the F/A-18Es presence.

As the missiles streaked in at over four times the speed of sound several Japanese and South Korean fighters also joined in fight- which was about 20 seconds away from becoming a massacre.

The Aces were about a mile above the MiGs when the Hornet's wave of missiles impacted. Many bright points of light from one direction converged on a section of sky perhaps a mile in diameter- and then several massive explosions lit up the night. Trails of flame and smoke appeared suddenly and then spiraled away, like matches being lit and blown out.

As the North Koreans were annihilated The Aces pressed the attack on the 727 as it came into range.

"Fox-3, Fox-3!" Torque exclaimed, dropping his two slammers from the main bay.

The missiles took off, but then four more aircraft appeared on radar followed by the blinding of the entire team's radars except for Torque's Raptor (whose more advanced 5th generation fighter sensors held up to the jamming).

"We've got enemy music, looks like those Flankers from earlier." Slingshot said, looking at his radar screen. The leader of the team spoke next:

"Yeah, your guy's slammers are pretty much useless in this environment. And they have active stealth. This might get ugly. Aces, switch to heatseekers." Torque ordered, knowing that radar guided missiles might as well be rocks with rocket motors on them when faced with high-power jamming or active stealth.

The missiles Torque's Raptor fired, however, were being guided by the F-22's radar instead of their own, making them much more robust against jamming. But not against being intercepted.

Suddenly both missiles were swatted from the sky by R-73 missiles, and then Torque's Raptor's Missile Approach Warning System (MAWS) went off, meaning that missiles had been fired at them.

"ACES, BREAK!" he shouted as the missile exhausts came into view.

Each of the four craft was yanked into a high-performance turn in a different direction, with mixed results.

Slingshot's Tomcat would not have made it without its thrust vectoring, just barely pitching up fast enough to skim over the incoming missile.

Rapier was the first to react to Torque's order, jinking left while popping flares. He managed to evade the missile, and was the first to regain his bearings.

Torque easily evaded the missile aimed at him, the main reason being his Raptor's stealth only let the missile get the faintest inferred signature (can't hit what you can't see).

Bushido was not so lucky. He jinked right, but the missile out-turned his F-15 and struck the right engine dead center, knocking it out and throwing shrapnel into the right wing and left engine.

His airplane went into a violent right-side roll with the right wing pierced in several places by high-speed debris from the engine, which was now trailing flame, thick black smoke, and jet fuel.

"I'M HIT! I'M HIT!" he shouted, making what was obvious to his team known to everyone in the area, including Patriot flight. Renegade was the next one to speak:

"We need a SAR chopper ASAP!" she said, leading the now multinational aerial cavalry charge towards the new enemies. But because of the Su-35's active stealth the AMRAAMs on the Eagles, Hornets, and Falcons headed for the fight would be useless- forcing a massive turning dogfight.

A dogfight had already ensued between the Aces and the four "Super" Flankers.

A Flanker had targeted the rolling Bushido, and was swinging in behind to score the first ever kill on an F-15 Eagle. The enemy pilot saw the flame and trail of jet fuel and thought one 30mm cannon round should to the trick- no matter how tough the Eagle was. What he didn't see was the EF2000 coming in behind him in the dive, covering Bushido.

"Shido', you've got trouble!" Rapier called, swinging into position 500ft behind the Flanker and locking him up. But the moment Rapier had a firing solution –and half a moment before he fired- the Flanker suddenly started a Cobra maneuver.

The Flanker's pilot heard the blaring "enemy lock" warning and decided to surprise his attacker.

"NOT AGAIN YOU DON'T!" Rapier thought, switching on his guns. It turned out that the Flanker pilot was the one who was surprised. Rapier yanked his airbrakes and pulled up harshly, flying directly towards the now mid-Cobra Flanker. He then double tapped the fire button and pulled long on the trigger, letting loose with not only several huge 27mm cannon rounds but two AIM-9X sidewinders- which obliterated the Su-35 just before the Eurofighter passed through what was left of it (soda can size debris).

"Splash one!" Rapier exclaimed.

"Nice fireworks Rapier- but we're not done yet." Torque chided, barrel-rolling over the top of a Flanker to get behind it (the Flanker's pilot was distracted by the obliteration of his wingman).

This Flanker also tried to pull a Cobra to get the advantage, but Torque matched the move perfectly, and just before both airplanes returned to normal flight the F-22's M61 cannon blew this second Flanker-E out of the sky. Then Torque quickly switched focus.

"Bushido, you ok?" he asked the man in the stricken F-15.

Any other fighter would have been blown to bits, but after punching his last remaining engine to the max Bushido had managed to get his heavily damaged Eagle back under control. His words came in scattered pants:

"Yeah… I'm leveled out… and RTB."

"Copy. Slingshot, makes sure he gets home." Torque ordered.

"Roger that. Follow me back Shido'." Slingshot said.

"Shido" thought it was a weird time for a new nickname but figured he was lucky to be alive in the first place.

"Copy, RTB." he confirmed. The two fighters (now in formation) turned towards Japan.

Now only two Flankers remained: one trying to catch Torque, and one closing on Rapier and Bushido- unbeknownst to them. Torque had lit his afterburners to chase down the 727, and Rapier was swinging around to cover him.

But the last two Su-35s still had their active stealth, and Torque and the Flanker chasing him had already left Rapier so far behind his Sidewinders didn't have the range to catch up. But that wasn't the Aces' only problem.

The second Sukhoi was now only a few hundred feet behind Slingshot and Bushido- and they still didn't see him.

Suddenly a missile warning sounded in both airplanes as two R-73's hurtled off the Sukhoi's under wing launch rails. Immediately Slingshot glanced up and saw the missiles coming in. A quarter second later he flipped a switch and swiftly yanked the stick as far back as he could pull it. The custom Tomcat's Thrust Vectoring engine nozzles pitched up and the entire airplane seemed to snap into a backflip. Three quarters of a second later the Cat' was halfway through the flip and pointed at the incoming missiles, which the airplane automatically locked onto. The moment after the lock-on tone reached Slingshot's ears he pushed the fire button and two AIM-9X Sidewinders left the F-14E at the same time, impacting the incoming R-73s a quarter second later. Then Slingshot pushed the stick forward to slow the backflip (which also had the same air-brake effect as a Cobra maneuver) and timed it so that the attacking Su-35 was directly under the Tomcat's nose when it was pointing straight down. Slingshot pulled the trigger and both of the F-14E's M61 Gatling cannons showered the center of the Sukhoi with rounds. As the Tomcat finished its flip the solid double streams of rounds reached the cockpit, and the Flanker's canopy was visibly splashed with blood before shattering.

The wrecked Sukhoi then folded like a closing book down the centerline, exploding as the wings clapped together. What had been a state-of-the-art fighter jet

three seconds before was now less valuable than the pile of rubble at Ground Zero.

"What was that?" Bushido asked, not entirely sure of what just happened.

Slingshot pulled alongside him.

"Swatting a fly." the Israeli answered.

Meanwhile Torque was almost in Sidewinder range of the 727, which was now only two minutes from the border.

Rapier and his fast but not nearly fast enough Eurofighter had been totally left behind, leaving the American alone.

But F-22 pilots had always trained under the assumption they would be outnumbered 10 to 1 anyway, so Torque was not that worried about the single Su-35 breathing down his neck. Actually, it was pretty far from breathing down his neck: the F-22's unbelievable acceleration to twice the speed of sound ensured that even the

AL-41F equipped Su-35 had no chance of catching up.

Torque watched the radar display between his legs.

"Ten miles- AIM-9 range." he thought, passing the threshold.

He locked up the 727, popping a Sidewinder out of either bay on the sides of the jet. The missiles tracked beautifully towards the defenseless airliner's engines (a hard turn would just rip the non-military airliner to pieces at this speed), but only two seconds before impact a single R-77 radar guided missile shot past Torque's Raptor at mach 4.5 and detonated just between the Sidewinders, causing both to explode just far enough away from the Boeing that the terrorist-flown airliner was unharmed.

The first thought that crossed Torque's mind after the initial surprise of the missiles interception was "That guy behind me is a lucky moron ain't he?", but then he regained focus, realizing that the only valid weapon he had left was his cannon. He would need to get right behind the airliner and hit it with his M61- not the easiest proposition, but the only good one. He pulled up into a steep loop to lose the several hundred MPH of overtake speed he had on the 727, ending up right behind it when he pulled out of the loop. The aircraft were so high up now that they could see the sun peeking over the horizon, even though it hadn't rose on the ground yet.

Torque could see the outline of the 727 easily and comfortably lined up the shot.

Suddenly a warning came on saying the Raptor's heat signature had been detected. Torque craned his neck to look over his shoulder, and sure enough there was a large fighter jet hanging in the sky a few hundred feet behind him.

"He HAD to detect me now!" Torque thought, punching the Raptor into a loop before the Flanker could lock on. But the Su-35 managed to keep up with the much faster Raptor through the loop, and the two craft entered a weaving, diving, looping chase.

Now time was practically up, the terrorist's 727 less than 60 seconds from the border. The fighters of the South Korean Air Force, Japanese Air Self-Defense Force, and U.S. Navy were nearly within firing range of their Sidewinders, but were still too far out to knock down the airliner. Rapier had now caught up and was in AIM-9X range, but he had no AIM-9Xs left.

Torque ran through his options.

"I'm out of missiles… I'll need to line the guy up to blast him with guns, and that's suicide because of this mean looking Flanker-E behind me… I could slip behind this Su and blow him away, but then the 727 would get away… Do I have to ram the 727?"

Just then a stream of 30mm cannon tracers flew past his cockpit as the Raptor went through a turn, jolting Torque before giving him an idea.

"Someone does have to ram him, but that doesn't mean that someone has to be me,"

He thought, swinging back around towards the airliner.

The Flanker followed, the two craft catching up to and then rising above the airliner. The Flanker punched on its afterburners to keep up with the Raptor, and actually closed the distance to only 200ft. Torque turned the Raptor upside down, identified the 727's red wingtip lights, and dove downwards.

The Flanker followed closely, spewing 30mm cannon rounds at the hard-to-see F-22. Torque put the Raptor into a barrel roll, ending with the canopy facing in the direction of the airliner below them.

And now the finale of Operation Aces began.

The Raptor and Flanker headed straight down, increasing speed steadily. The terrorist's 727 was headed straight for the Chinese border –only five miles away now- at 0.8 times the speed of sound directly in the path of the two twin-engined fighters.

The fighter pilots both saw the small airliner (still twice the size of the fighters) and punched the engines, Torque trying to pass in front of it and the Flanker-E pilot trying to keep up with Torque.

The Raptor immediately left the Su-35 in its jetwash, rocketing downward.

The Sukhoi's pilot saw the Raptor accelerate ahead, and lit his afterburners to try and catch him. He saw the Raptor's advance seemingly be soaked up by the nearly 40000 pounds of thrust provided by the AL-41F. But his next sight would be his last.

He saw a white streak in his peripheral vision and looked up to see the nose of the 727 only 50ft away from his canopy.

By the next moment the 727 had done to the Flanker what an SUV would do to a parked compact car. The nose of the airliner smashed through the fighter like a 90-MPH baseball through a window, annihilating the Boeing's cockpit and instantly killing its occupants as the fractured Flanker's fuselage went up in a fireball. The only part of the house-sized Flanker that survived in pieces larger than a car door was the cockpit, and that now housed a semi-conscious pilot.

As the man ejected the practically nose-less 727 pitched up only a mile from the border, and then spiraled down. With all the Su-35's down (and with them their intense jamming) radar guided missiles could be guided again, and the multinational task force of F/A-18E Super Hornets, different types of F-15 Eagles, KF-16 Fighting Falcons, and Rapier's EF2000 used them to great effect, obliterating what was left of the 727 with more than 30 individual missiles.

Torque got over the radio.

"This is Aces lead, Grandslam, repeat Grandslam. The good guys won this one. We couldn't have done it without you Patriot, and the same to every other fighter jock out there!"

Renegade was next.

"We aim to please Aces, but you guys are the real heroes here. Great flyin' and fightin' with you. Patriot flight is RTB."

Over the next month the Aces got to have some down time in Japan while doing some testing on 5th-genaration fighters for the Japanese Self Defense Force, and returned to active duty at Tonopah after that time. Their "special" activities have been classified for the sake of National Security, and their kills attributed to freak accidents or crashes in official documents. For a true special-ops group does not pride itself on what makes the news, but what doesn't.