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       Hawx (2009), p.11

           Tom Clancy
 
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  "Still no action," Preston confirmed.

  "Guess we scared 'em off." Troy laughed.

  "I only wish," Harris said, shaking his head. "We got word from a guy who knows a guy that they're shopping for air-to-air missiles."

  "Told ya," Troy said, looking at Preston.

  At that moment, Joe's cell phone rang.

  "Turcios, what's up? . . . There are?" Joe asked. "Okay, give us a window of five."

  "Speak of the devil," he said, closing his phone.

  The two pilots were already on their ladders.

  The Zapatistas had crossed the border about a hundred kilometers east of the previous incursion and were attacking a Guatemalan army post. This time Preston was flying as Firehawk One, while Troy flew behind and to his left. On their radar they saw two aircraft orbiting a common point, occasionally breaking into the center of the circle to attack. There was other traffic on the radarscope, but it was well away from the action.

  On their previous mission, the Americans had seen plumes of black smoke just as they made visual contact with the aircraft. This time, though, they watched them break off their attack and climb out quickly. These pilots had been paying attention to their own radar and were not taken off guard. Knowing that they were outclassed by the F-16s, they were taking their Su-25s and heading for the border.

  "They're running," Troy said impatiently. He had been sitting on his ass for ten days doing nothing, and the thought of these targets getting away was more than he could bear.

  Taking the lead, Preston banked left and accelerated. Troy followed, eager to overtake the fleeing Frogfeet. Though the Su-25 is essentially a slow-moving bomb truck, its twin Tumansky R-195 turbojets gave it considerable power in a pinch, and these two pilots felt pinched.

  "I think we're close enough," Troy suggested after two long minutes of pursuit. As Firehawk Two, he had to follow Preston's lead in launching an attack, and he was recommending that now was the time to take that first shot.

  "Firehawk Two, I wanna get closer . . . don't wanna miss."

  Troy impatiently moved his thumb above the trigger. If Preston wouldn't, he would.

  "Fox Two," Preston announced, just as Troy was about to fire.

  The two Su-25s broke hard, left and right.

  The contrail from Preston's Sidewinder followed the aircraft that broke right.

  For a second the two hard-turning objects looked like they would merge, but the Frogfoot turned harder and the Sidewinder slid by.

  Troy broke left to follow the other Frogfoot and jammed his throttle forward.

  "Fox Two," Troy said, finally taking the opportunity to thumb the trigger.

  The Su-25 had been turning hard, the idea being to outmaneuver any missile launched by his pursuer--the same tactic that had worked for his wingman. However, the turn also eventually bled off momentum, slowing the aircraft ever so slightly.

  The slight reduction in velocity meant that Troy's Sidewinder did not lose its lock on the target.

  "I've been made," Troy heard Preston say just as he watched the Frogfoot explode. "Taking fire."

  Where was he? How did he let the other Su-25 get behind him?

  Troy put his F-16 into a four-G turn and scanned the sky for Preston.

  "Firehawk One, I'm on it," Troy promised. He wasn't, not yet, but he would be and he wanted Preston to know that he was coming.

  A patch of sky a couple of miles distant was filled with the streaks and dashes of tracer rounds.

  Just as Troy was wondering how the other pilot had managed to let a Frogfoot outmaneuver him, he saw the Su-25 that Preston had missed with his first shot. The one that was now diving on him was a third enemy fighter, and one that both of them had missed. It had been flying a CAP high above the other two, expressly for this purpose, to attack anyone who attacked them.

  He was going after the F-16, with his GSh-30 cannon blazing. Designed for the Frogfoot's ground attack role, the two-barreled automatic cannon was a formidable gun. Preston was rolling and dodging, trying to stay out of the stream of thirty-millimeter shells that it was pouring out at a rate of fifty rounds per second.

  With its altitude advantage, the Frogfoot had Preston like a cat with its paw on a mouse.

  Even though the F-16 had a far better thrust-toweight ratio than a Frogfoot, Troy knew that he did not have time to try to get above the Su-25, so he maneuvered in below and behind.

  It was a dangerous place from which to fire a Sidewinder.

  If the heat-seeking missile missed the Sukhoi, it would be headed straight toward the heat of Preston's F-16.

  Fortunately, the Firehawk pilots caught a break.

  The weather over Peter' that day was mostly clear, but the rolling, twisting chase had rolled and twisted toward a line of cumulus that was starting to form. Preston ducked into a cloud, and the Frogfoot pilot pulled back slightly. He had been firing on the F-16 visually, not using his radar, and this was a reflex reaction as he looked around for his prey.

  Rapidly overtaking the Su-25, which was now in level flight, Troy fired his second Sidewinder. The distance was short, and the missile was much faster than the Zapatista aircraft.

  Troy was dodging pieces of Frogfoot six seconds later.

  He stood the F-16 on its tail and grabbed at the altitude he figured to be necessary if other bandits appeared.

  Rolling out at nearly ten thousand feet, he checked his radarscope.

  The original Frogfoot, which Preston had missed with his first shot, had escaped across the border into Mexico. Troy thought of giving chase, but realized he had shot both his Sidewinders.

  Far below, Preston was climbing out of the cloud tops.

  There were no other aircraft anywhere to be seen, either visually or on radar. The score was Firehawk two, Zapatistas zero, but the game was not over.

  Over the Peten Jungle, Guatemala

  "FIREHAWK ONE," TROY SAID, WATCHING ANDY PRESton's F-16 running westward through the cloud tops below. "Shall we call it a day?"

  "Roger that, Firehawk Two," Preston replied. "I'm making a slow ninety-degree turn here."

  By the way he described his turn, Troy knew that something was wrong. In the spirit of keeping their communications to a minimum, he would not have explained the details of any problem that he might be having. The airwaves have prying ears.

  As Troy took his own bird down to Preston's level, he could see that a few of the thirty-millimeter rounds fired by the Sukhoi had connected. None of the hits had been sufficient to knock down the plane, but a punctured left aileron had "potential disaster" written all over it. The sight of the damaged F-16 reminded Troy of that morning over Eritrea when he was watching Jenna's F-16 just before it went down.

  "I'm with you," Troy said, pulling in next to the other aircraft and snapping off a friendly salute. He had appreciated a similar offer when his own aircraft had been riddled with gunfire.

  Despite some close calls when the marginally controllable aircraft was hit by turbulence, they made it home. When Preston asked the tower for permission to land, there was no other traffic in the area, so he decided to keep a low profile and not declare an emergency. If he crashed, his would be the only day ruined.

  "You got one of my airplanes into a fender bender, I see," Raymond Harris said as he greeted the two Firehawk pilots at the hangar. The shorter chain of command within Firehawk meant that he was much closer to the budget discussions than he had been in the U. S. Air Force.

  "Two planes got home," Preston said as Harris walked beneath the wing to investigate the damage.

  "And two pilots," Troy added.

  "We'll have to fly in a repair crew and some parts from the States before we can fly this one again," Harris said, shaking his head in disgust.

  "The damage cost the Zaps a lot more . . . cost them two Su-25s," Preston said defensively.

  "The Su-25 is an attack plane, not a fighter," Harris said. "You ought to able to outfly and outshoot an Su-25 in a dogfight when you're flying an F-16.
"

  "We did," Troy interjected. "We left two of their 'air force' smoldering in the Peten rain forest, and we left both F-16s parked in this hangar."

  "For that I'm grateful," Harris said in a conciliatory tone as he emerged from beneath the wing. "Tell me all about it."

  "We engaged two, as we had on the previous mission," Preston began. "The first one evaded my Sidewinder, but Loensch nailed his."

  Preston wanted to say something about Troy's overeagerness in urging him to take a shot too soon, but so much had happened since--including his coming to Preston's defense moments ago--that he chose to let his feelings about the earlier incident slide.

  "There was a third one flying CAP that jumped us using guns," Troy interjected. "That's where the damage came in."

  "Loensch got him," Preston said, giving credit to his wingman. "But by that time, the lone survivor was well into Mexico."

  "I didn't pursue him because I was out of missiles and I didn't want to have to chase him back to his home turf in order to get close enough to engage him with my gun," Troy explained. "Besides, the other plane in my element that day had been battle-damaged."

  "These guys were pretty damned good," Preston said. "A lot better than you'd expect of some guys who are used to living in jungles."

  "Like I said earlier . . . I don't think you'll find too many native Zaps among the people who are flying those Sukhois." Harris smiled.

  "Who in the hell are they?" Preston asked. "Who is this other PMC?"

  "We found out that's a European outfit," Harris said in a matter-of-fact way. "They're called Svartvand BV."

  "I knew that the aircraft were bought on the open market," Troy said. "But it still amazes me that the Zapatistas can afford to hire professionals to fly 'em."

  "There's a lot of money in marijuana." Harris shrugged. "Follow the money . . . just like it was with the Taliban and opium in Afghanistan."

  "The Zaps make enough selling weed?" Preston asked.

  "They've always made money protecting the growers," Harris explained. "The growers sell to the cartels and the cartels have the money to buy the weapons and hire the hired guns. It's complicated, but if you follow the money, it all makes sense."

  "Why are they attacking the Guatemalans, then?" Troy asked.

  "Because it's in the interest of the guys with the money to keep the Guatemalan army out of the Chiapas pot fields and get control of the Peter' pot fields. Pot knows no borders. It grows as well in Peten as it does in Chiapas. They also like to control governments of smaller countries . . . and Central American governments are so ripe for influence. Y'know, forty, fifty years ago, it was the Communists who wanted to control all these places. Before that it was the banana companies. It's been like this for years."

  "These guys that the Zaps hired," Troy asked, "where did they hire the pilots that we've been flying against?"

  "On the international market." Harris smiled. "There are guys just like you two all over the world who used to fly jets in some air force or other who want to get back into action. There's probably quite a few Russians . . . a Brit or two . . . there may even be some Americans. The guy who put the holes into that F-16 may have flown F-16s once upon a time."

  Chapter 26

  Mundo Maya Airport, Santa Elena, Guatemala

  "INTEL SHOWS THAT THE ZAPS ARE DOWN TO JUST one Frogfoot," Joe Turcios said, placing an aerial photo on his desk for Troy and Andy to examine. "As you can see, there's only one parked here in this picture."

  Troy picked it up and studied it. The single Su-25 was parked in a clearing in a jungle. There were a few buildings and a long runway camouflaged to look like a straight stretch of crudely paved country road. In fact, the more he looked at it, the more it looked as though the thing being used as a runway really was a straight stretch of crudely paved country road.

  "How do you know this is current?" Troy asked. "I thought these Google Earth images were usually weeks or months old."

  "The Google Earth ones are." Turcios grinned. "I downloaded these from a SPOT satellite less than an hour ago."

  "How . . . ?"

  "Don't ask."

  "Okay, then how do we know that they don't have more Su-25s parked in the woods? The jungle is really thick around there. You could park a jetliner in there and it wouldn't show up in a SPOT image."

  "Good question," Joe acknowledged, opening a drawer in his desk. "It's a calculated conclusion, based on these."

  He fanned out a selection of photos of the same place, with dates written in the corners.

  "These pictures were taken over the past few weeks. You see in the earliest picture that they hadn't cleared the brush from the runway areas. Then there's cleared brush and then two Sukhois arrive. Eventually there are four. Some pictures show three, but those correspond with dates we know that they had one out flying."

  "What about the fifth?" Troy asked.

  "The contacts that General Harris has in France told him that Svartvand approached a broker there about getting a single Frogfoot. We thought at the time that they were replacing one that had been lost in an accident, but we now know that there were five flying at once."

  They compared a picture of the clandestine airfield with five Sukhois to the image that was hours old.

  "What you see is what you get," Turcios said. "It doesn't seem that they ever made any effort to hide any of their jets. Just like you, they thought the Google Earth picture was months old. Now they're down to just one."

  "So are we," Troy reminded him, nodding toward the hangar. "Until those parts get here from Texas, our squadron strength stands at one."

  "Doesn't stop us from running a solo mission," Joe said. "General Harris wants to finish this operation sooner rather than later. This deployment is costing X millions of dollars a day, even without the price of fuel. And Firehawk is on a fixed-bid contract."

  "Who flies?" Troy asked.

  "You do. The general wants you to head up there and destroy the single Sukhoi on the ground."

  "With what ordnance?"

  "We don't have any air-to-ground missiles, but we did bring in a stock of JDAMs," Turcios explained. "You also have your cannon. One strafing pass and a couple of bombs ought to do it."

  "What about air defenses?" Troy asked. "Can I expect any Triple-A . . . or SAMs?"

  "I've studied these pictures myself, and there's no sign of SAMs. Wouldn't be surprised if they have thought about it, and I'm sure that they'll be thinking about it a whole lot tonight."

  "What's to stop them from using this base again?" Preston asked. "They could bring in more jets and this thing could go through the same cycle. Harris would have to send us back down here for a million dollars, or whatever, a day."

  "That's a good question." Turcios nodded. "The answer is that DefenseCo is going in there to sabotage it after you shoot it up."

  "Who's DefenseCo?" Troy asked.

  "They're the PMC that's handling ground ops up on the border between Peten and Chiapas."

  "Why can't they go in there now and blow up the Frogfoot on the ground?" Preston asked.

  "It's not in their contract," Turcios said, as if this were understood.

  "How many PMCs are there in this part of the world?" Troy asked. "Seems like every time I turn around, there's another PMC popping up."

  "There are three on this side," Turcios said thoughtfully. "And there's at least two on the other side . . . that we know about. That doesn't count the contractors who are handling logistics."

  AN HOUR LATER, TROY WAS AIRBORNE OVER THE PETEN jungle in the lone Firehawk F-16. There was some low cumulus off to the west as a rainstorm moved into the area, but otherwise the sky was clear. He carried two five-hundred-pound GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munition smart bombs on his underwing pylons, either of which would total the lone Svartvand Frogfoot.

  Troy's mission was to depart Mundo Maya on a commercial aircraft heading and altitude so as not to appear conspicuous on radar, fly to the closest point on this flight path to the ta
rget, drop to a thousand feet, and conduct his bomb run. This latter action, Turcios and Harris had calculated, would take the F-16 about six minutes. It was unlikely, though still possible, that the Su-25 could be scrambled fast enough to be airborne before the bombs hit.

  At the appointed time, Troy rolled the F-16 into a dive, leveled out at his strike altitude, and accelerated toward the coordinates of the patch of Chiapas where Svartvand parked its airplane.

  The anticipation made the six minutes seem longer than they were, but finally, Troy could see the straight line in the jungle that marked the runway. He adjusted his heading slightly to line up on the runway and engaged his targeting device.

  The straight strip in the jungle pointed straight to the cluster of buildings at the end of the runway like an arrow drawn on a map with a ruler and a wide-tip marker.

  He grew closer and closer. At any moment now, he expected to see the familiar profile of the stubby-winged Frogfoot parked in this area.

  "C'mon ... c'mon," he whispered with impatience. "Where . . . ?"

  Suddenly there was a pinging sound.

  This couldn't be!

  He had been made.

  The Su-25 wasn't there. It was airborne--and it was targeting him.

  Seconds later, Troy was over the target--or what was to have been the target.

  He released the two JDAMs as planned. They would hopefully do some damage to the base, and they were of no use to him now. In fact, their weight and drag would seriously degrade the maneuverability of the F-16, whose role had abruptly changed from bomber to fighter--a fighter fighting for its life.

  He hadn't seen the Frogfoot on his radarscope because it had been playing Troy's own game: flying low, hugging the ground to conceal itself in the ground clutter.

  Somehow, its pilot had taken off undetected before Troy arrived.

  How?

  That did not matter now.

  The pinging had stopped. The same ground clutter that had hidden the Frogfoot had interrupted its missile lock.

  For Troy, this was two pieces of good news rolled into one pleasing, but momentary, package.

  Having had his foe lose his lock-on was good in itself, but this illustrated the better news that his foe was armed with semiactive radar homing missiles, rather than infrared heat-seekers--like Troy's Sidewinders. The Vympel R-60 Aphid air-to-air missiles often carried by Su-25s could be configured either way, and this Su-25 was flying with infrared Aphids.

 
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