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       Hawx (2009), p.3

           Tom Clancy
 
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  As he turned onto the taxiway after a perfect touchdown, Troy noticed two other U. S. Air Force F-16Cs parked near a pair of Hellenic Air Force F-16Cs, which were marked with the red and blue shield of the 115th Combat Wing, the main Greek unit based at Souda. The American Falcons had 95th Reconnaissance Squadron insignia--the bucking mule on a blue disk was a relic of the squadron's heritage as a bomber squadron in World War II--but their tail numbers were not ones that he had seen around Lakenheath since he had arrived.

  "Welcome to scenic Souda, Captain." The man in the garrison cap with the bronze oak leaf on it smiled.

  Troy had raised his canopy and was removing his helmet when Major Russ Smith of the 95th approached his aircraft. He was surprised to have the commander of the squadron's Falcon Force come out to meet him, but pleased that Smith seemed to be in such a good mood.

  Troy forgot for a moment that in the military, good news is usually followed by bad news.

  "Wish I could say you have time to enjoy the scenery, Loensch, but Falcon Force will deploy at 1300 hours . . . today. Don't worry about unpacking your gear. Briefing in twenty minutes in Ops. See you then."

  With that, Smith had turned and was headed back to the Detachment Operations shack adjacent to the nearest hangar.

  The twenty minutes proved long enough for a pit stop and for Troy to find the vending machines to get a soda and a candy bar.

  Stepping away from the soda machine, however, he came abruptly and unexpectedly face-to-face with his past.

  It was Hal Coughlin, also now sporting captain's bars and wearing a flight suit.

  It was Hal who broke the ice.

  "Hello, Troy," he said, hesitantly extending his hand. The two men had not seen each other since that night in the Colville National Forest.

  "Hal," Troy said, shaking Coughlin's hand. "Long time, y'know . . ."

  "Yeah . . . long . . . long time."

  "What are you doing here?" Troy asked.

  "I'm with the 95th. Just reassigned. I was at Luke with the 425th, y'know ... just got reassigned . . . what about you?"

  "I've been with ISR for a year or so, and with the 95th for a month or so," Troy acknowledged.

  With the "what's-ups" out of the way, the two men just stared at each other awkwardly.

  This time, Troy broke the ice.

  "I shoulda called you . . . y'know . . . after ..

  "For a long time, I thought about what I woulda said if you had . . . but I haven't thought about it for a long time."

  "I woulda said . . . I shoulda said . . . that I fucked up, Hal."

  "When I was thinking about it . . . lying on my fuckin' back in the hospital, I went back and forth between thinking you were an asshole and thinking that I was a wimp."

  "What did you decide?" Troy asked.

  "I still haven't."

  The awkward moment of unresolved tension seemed to last an hour.

  This time, the ice was broken by Captain Jenna Munrough.

  "Loensch," she said loudly as she entered the hallway. "What are you doing here?"

  "I was just asked that," he explained, nodding at the 95th Squadron patch on her shoulder. "I guess I'm doing the same thing as you are."

  As she glared at him across folded arms, Troy could sense that the anger in her eyes had not diminished, even after nearly two years.

  "Guess that means that we all have the same briefing . . . about now," Hal said, walking away.

  Inside the briefing room, Major Smith had his laptop plugged into a slim projector. The first image cast on the wall was a map of Sudan. Troy noticed that among the several people in the room, the only three in flight suits were Hal, Jenna, and himself

  "As you know, the United States has had combat forces in Sudan since the beginning of the year in support of government forces fighting the Al-Qinamah rebels backed by Eritrea," Smith droned in a description that sounded as though it had been lifted straight from a briefing paper. This was, after all, a briefing. Troy shrugged.

  "Joint Task Force Sudan has been operating out of Atbara, about three hundred clicks northeast of Khartoum," the major said, pointing to a spot on the map next to a squiggly blue line that Troy guessed was probably the Nile River. "The air component of the JTF is the 334th Air Expeditionary Wing . . . commander is General Raymond Harris. . . . Falcon Force . . . the three of you . . . will be attached to the 334th under his direct command."

  "Doesn't he have any other recon?" Troy asked. It was unusual for a wing not to have tactical reconnaissance assets.

  "Your job is to get the recon that the strategic planners need to plan beyond tomorrow," Smith replied. "Harris can use the recon he has now for strike assessment and so forth."

  The image on the screen changed to a Google Earth aerial view of a city with a river snaking through it. In one corner, the pilots could easily make out the runways of an airport.

  "The Atbara Airport here has a 5,905-foot runway," Smith continued. "Harris has got F-16s operating out of here, flying strike missions in Sudan, and C-130s hauling personnel from Khartoum to fields closer to where the action is along the Eritrea border. Technically, the UN mandate won't allow combat ops inside Eritrea, but that apparently doesn't apply to recon flights. Your job is to fly into Eritrean airspace to gather intel."

  "Does that mean we can't shoot back if they shoot at us?" Jenna asked. Because she had grown up in rural Arkansas, shooting was second nature for her.

  "Fire only when fired upon." Smith nodded. "That's the basic rule of engagement here. Fire only to defend yourself."

  "We have to let them shoot first?" Jenna pressed. "That's what's in the rules of engagement here," Smith confirmed.

  "But--" Jenna started to say.

  "You are flying recon missions, not combat missions. Our rules of engagement preclude offensive operations in Eritrean airspace."

  "What if somebody gets shot down while playing this game?" Jenna asked.

  "If you get shot down, we can prove from your reconnaissance gear that you were not on an offensive mission," Smith said in an ominous tone.

  Chapter 6Atbara Airport, Sudan

  "FUCKIN' DUST IS EVERYWHERE," SAID A DISEMBODIED, half-asleep voice in the darkness.

  Coughing sounds came from various corners of the darkness, and another voice angrily admonished the first voice to "Shut the fuck up and go back to sleep!"

  Troy had awakened coughing the grit and phlegm out of his throat. He rolled over on the cot and took a breath. Again, the dust flooded into his mouth and nostrils, again causing him to gag. He opened his eyes to the stinging crud and wiped his forehead. Instead of sweat, it felt like mud.

  The three F-16Cs of Falcon Force had arrived at dusk. The pilots had reported to General Harris's command post, but he was in the field, so they went to base operations to scrounge temporary quarters. Having flown all the way from Lakenheath to Souda, and from Souda to Atbara yesterday, Troy had been exhausted, so he took the cot in the tent to which he had been assigned, and just crashed.

  Now it was nearly 0500, and he was awake. He couldn't possibly nod off again without hosing the dust off his face. He had two hours before Harris's operational daily briefing, so he decided to try to find a shower and get something to eat.

  Finding a shower turned out to be a joke. The base was so new that such amenities didn't exist here yet. However, Troy was able to find water to wash the dust from his hands and face. The "officers' mess," with its lukewarm powdered eggs and cold hash from a can, was a bit like a Boy Scout camp gone terribly wrong, but Troy did manage to get fed.

  Atbara Expeditionary Air Base was a sprawling, hastily assembled tent city across the runway from the main buildings of the Atbara Airport. Two C-17s were landing as Troy finished his plate of reconstituted eggs. It was always amazing to see such high-tech equipment in such a primitive context, but outsiders more technologically savvy than the locals had been waging war in Sudan since Lord Kitchener beat the Mandist Army out here in 1898--or since the pharaohs battled
the Nubians in these shifting gravel hills thousands of years before that.

  When he had flown in yesterday, Troy had seen no paved roads until he was well into final approach, and out beyond the perimeter wire, a few guys in turbans riding along on donkeys could have been a blast from centuries past.

  The briefing, in a large room in the general's command post, was another incongruous display of the latest gadgetry in the primeval landscape. Live, subtly changing satellite photos were displayed on two large screens, and between them was a screen with an animated situation map of Sudan and Eritrea. It was similar to the map that Major Smith had shown them the day before in Souda, but much more detailed. The word Classified appeared at the bottom of the screen.

  There were about fifty people in the room, and seating for just the first three dozen early arrivals. There were officers, including pilots and navigators, and enlisted personnel, mainly loadmasters from the transport aircraft. Troy stood in a place near the back of the room and noticed Hal Coughlin standing in the opposite corner. He thought he saw Jenna Munrough seated in the second row. A young captain stood on a raised platform before the group and explained the daily situation, told of the strike package that had gone out at 0400, reported the results, and pointed out enemy positions on the animated map. Finally, it was time for the star of the show to take the stage.

  General Harris was a bear of a man, with close-cropped hair and a ruddy complexion.

  "Bastards are on the move," he began, wasting no time getting to the subject. "They hit the UN troops here, there, and there yesterday. We hit 'em at 1800 yesterday and at 0400 this morning. Initial reports of the strike pack that came back from this morning's hit-and-run shows a concentration here, with supply lines running up here. Those of you who I briefed for the 0900 package will hit them here."

  The general used his laser pointer like a light saber to stab the here to which he referred.

  "The distance is short," he explained, looking at the pilots who had been assigned the 0900 sortie. "You won't need extra fuel, so double up on JDAMs and blow the shit out of those bastards."

  He sucked a mouthful of tepid water from a plastic bottle and looked out into the crowd.

  "I'm looking for mules," he said, scanning the shoulder patches of the assembled pilots for the insignia of the 95th Reconnaissance Squadron. "There's one. Did you come alone, Captain?"

  "They're in the back, sir," Jenna Munrough confirmed.

  "Good, I'm glad y'all didn't oversleep. See me after class, we need to talk."

  With that, Harris turned to a mission overview for the C-130 crews, whose difficult mission for the day would be flying into Khartoum to pick up a UN regiment and haul them into a makeshift field that was only about three kilometers from the shooting. Troy had always been glad not to have wound up flying transports. Flying into harm's way was one thing--landing and taking off there was another thing.

  "Let's get down to business," Harris said, eyeing the three pilots from the 95th who had moved down to the front of the room when the rest of the personnel had moved out to go to work.

  "This is Eritrea," he said, changing the image on the screen. "This is the source of all our migraines. This is the snakepit the Al-Qinamah rebels crawl out of . . . and this is the snakepit that the Al-Qinamah bastards crawl back into. We can't hit 'em there . . . same old drill, y'know."

  The three pilots from the 95th nodded. It had indeed been the same in numerous wars into which the United States had been pulled through the years. The bad guys had a safe haven--a safe snakepit in Harris's lexicon--where they could hide, untouched by American bombs or bullets, and where they could plan attacks against American troops or their allies.

  "We got some wiggle room, though." Harris nodded. "The UN resolution has okayed recon flights over Eritrea . . . which is obviously where you come in. I have birds that conduct photorecon over Eritrea, but I need Sigint. That's why they sent you. Only ISR has the gear that can capture signals intel the way we need it captured."

  "I wouldn't have thought these guys were that sophisticated, sir," Hal replied.

  "That's what we all thought initially, but we thought wrong," Harris replied. "These bastards may look like a bunch of bush bunnies running around in makeshift uniforms, but they got people who are running some pretty complicated covert channels."

  Harris proceeded to explain their mission for the day, and for the coming days. They were to enter Eritrean airspace at various points along its vaguely defined border with Sudan, from different and random directions each day.

  The three Falcon Force pilots walked to their birds separately, a team in name only. They would work together because they were professionals, not because they were comrades. After their shared experience in the Colville, Hal and Troy could share no camaraderie, only awkwardness. Though she had reamed Troy for what he had done, Jenna kept her distance from both. She had her own agenda to fulfill. Like so many female pilots tasked with flying combat missions, she was single-minded in her determination to prove herself at least an equal to those of the traditional combat pilot gender.

  Hal, by virtue of his having logged slightly more time in an F-16, was designated as flight leader, and he took off first. Once they were airborne over the desert east of Atbara, Troy and Jenna tucked their Falcons into an echelon formation off his right wing.

  Troy sat back in his cockpit and relaxed. It was all very orderly, just like many of the training missions that he had flown in an F-16, but today would be different. Unlike the training flights, and unlike all of his missions in an EC-32, today he would be over territory where people really might be shooting at him.

  He wasn't scared. His emotions varied between a sense of unreality and an adrenaline-fueled excitement. Ever since he had been bounced off the fighter track and shunted into ISR, he had imagined that he would never get a chance to fly a fighter into combat. Today, all that changed. He caught himself worrying that he might not get shot at.

  A few minutes later, Hal called the initial point and all three F-16s banked left and dropped to one thousand feet. As briefed, they separated to a distance of about a kilometer to provide greater triangulation on the electronic whispers they scooped into the AN/APY-77 and AN/ASD-83 surveillance pods that hung on pylons beneath their wings. Troy didn't understand exactly how those things worked, but that wasn't his job. His job was to get them where they needed to be in order to do their jobs, then flick the switch.

  As the concrete-colored desert flashed beneath him, Troy kept his eyes on the horizon and on the countdown clock that told him when the flight had passed into Eritrean airspace. The little LED stopped at triple zero, and he engaged the surveillance gear. That was it. There was nothing else to do but fly the mission as briefed, making a series of coordinated turns until the flight path took him back to Atbara.

  The Eritrean desert looked identical to the Sudanese desert--an endless sea of rolling hills, an occasional deep gully or canyon, and rarely any sign of habitation. What villages there were flashed by in an instant. Anyone below would not hear the fast-moving, low-flying Falcons until they had passed.

  Hal led them into a slight left turn at the appointed moment and dropped to five hundred feet. The large town of Barentu was straight ahead. The turbulence stirred up at the lower altitude rocked the aircraft as they passed over the rooftops.

  Hal was first and Jenna second.

  About half a kilometer off his right wing, Troy saw a flash out of the corner of his eye. Someone down there was firing tracers, probably from an AK-47 or some such infantry weapon. They missed by a wide margin. It's very hard to hit an airplane at five hundred feet and nearly five hundred miles per hour with an AK-47 and little or no warning.

  Suddenly, it was over. The F-16s were back over the open desert, making the series of turns that would take them back to Atbara.

  As they climbed back up to a higher altitude with less turbulence, Troy realized how tightly he had been gripping the stick to control the aircraft at low level.
He relaxed a bit and thought back to that thirty-second pass over Barentu.

  Was that all there was to it?

  This is a piece of cake.

  Then he remembered the tracer rounds.

  It was the first time in his flying career that somebody had been shooting at him for real. He guessed that it would not be the last.

  Chapter 7

  Denakil Desert, Eritrea

  EMERGENCY EVACUATION?

  In the six weeks that Troy Loensch and the other ISR pilots had been attached to Task Force Sudan, enemy strength and enemy brazenness had increased, and now even the sprawling base at the Atbara Airport was in danger of being overrun by Al-Qinamah rebel forces.

  Despite American air support, the Al-Qinamah had beaten Sudanese and UN troops in several key battles. There was even some doubt as to whether the UN could protect Khartoum itself from being sacked by the AlQinamah. At Atbara, the Task Force was formulating an emergency evacuation plan.

  As Falcon Flight streaked across the border for the second mission of the day over Al-Qinamah--controlled Eritrea, Troy realized how tenuous things had become. On their earlier couple of dozen missions, the war had seemed so abstract. For pilots of fast reconnaissance aircraft, small-arms fire was a negligible threat. Then the bad guys had imported ZSU-23 antiaircraft guns. Last week, there were reports of surface-to-air missiles. This morning, as Falcon Flight was exiting their briefing, they heard that an F-16 on a strike mission had been hit. There was no word yet on the pilot.

  "Those bastards," General Raymond Harris growled out, using his favorite word for the Al-Qinamah, and a word that he also often used to describe the American and UN bureaucrats.

  "Bastards sit in air-conditioned offices and tell us how to fight a war . . . then they tie one hand behind our backs . . . while Al-Qinamah is punching back with two. Those pinheads are so damned skittish that we're gonna `escalate' this damned war. If they bothered to take a look at what's really going on out here, they'd see that this damned thing has already escalated, and that it's not us but the Al-Qinamah bastards who did the escalating!"

 
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