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       Hawx (2009), p.6

           Tom Clancy
 
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  After all the months of internal antagonism, it was beginning to seem as though the three pilots of Falcon Force had finally reached the point where they could function as a team.

  Chapter 11

  Joint Task Force Sudan Compound, Khartoum

  "WHY THE HELL CAN'T WE?" GENERAL RAYMOND Harris demanded. "Why the hell not?"

  "Because it's Eritrea, that's why," the man in the suit said angrily.

  Harris had been sparring with the man from the State Department--an under-undersecretary of some sort--practically since the conference began.

  "I don't know why I bothered to come down here from Atbara, if I'm just going to be told what my guys can't do."

  There were a dozen people in the room, including the JTF commander and his staff, as well as the CIA reconnaissance interpreters who had sifted through all the data that Falcon Force had collected over the Dahlak Archipelago.

  Essentially, Falcon Force had found what it had been sent to find--a good overview of the what and how of arms trafficking through the islands. The purpose of the meeting was for JTF Sudan to figure out what to do about it. Harris was present because attacking the traffickers with JTF assets would fall to his 334th Air Expeditionary Wing. The man from the State Department was there--pretty much as Harris had pegged it--to tell the JTF what it could not do.

  "General, let me put it as clearly as I can," he said in a patronizing tone. "This, these islands, are part of Eritrea. The UN mandate says we are not to bomb Eritrea, which is technically neutral in this conflict. May I remind you that we had to do big-time, very big-time, damage control a few weeks back when your joyriding jet jockeys shot down a third of the Eritrean Air Force."

  "Technically neutral, my ass," Harris replied. "Begging your pardon for my choice of words, I take exception to the undersecretary's characterization of a country where Al-Qinamah has command posts, a country through which Al-Qinamah is hauling weapons and ammo that are being used to target American troops."

  "That's why I used the word technically," the man said, loosening his tie.

  "And one more thing," Harris said, having sensed that the man was momentarily on the defensive. "My aircrews were not on a joyride, they were not out there looking to attack somebody. They were shot at first. . . ."

  "Enough," interrupted the JTF Sudan commander, the three-star who was Harris's boss. "Both of you have made it abundantly clear where you stand on this thing. Now, let's figure out what we can do, and decide what we will do to stop this crap from getting from those islands onto the mainland."

  "If I might interject," one of the CIA analysts interjected.

  "Please do," the JTF commander said, happy to have a fresh voice shoehorn its way into the dialogue.

  "The rules of engagement prohibit attacking Eritrean surface targets unless a JTF asset is fired upon," the analyst said. Everyone nodded. This was a well-known given fact.

  "We're also prohibited from attacking the Iranian ships that deliver the hardware."

  "We certainly wouldn't want to offend the poor Iranians," Harris said sarcastically.

  "But there is nothing to stop us from attacking extra-national ships in these waters," the CIA man continued. "Thanks to the data we have now, thanks to the 334th, we know that the barges go in and out from Dhuladhiya Island. There's miles of water between there and the mainland."

  "That's territorial water, Eritrean territorial--" the State Department man interjected.

  "Under the UN resolution on piracy," the analyst retorted. "I think we are not prohibited from attacking extranational vessels engaged in--"

  "Then I think we have our work cut out for us," the JTF commander said, happy to have a plausible resolution to the problem. Turning to Harris, he asked, "When can you . . . ?"

  "The 334th will have 16s armed and ready to go by this afternoon," Harris asserted happily. "But it's probably best to go at night; they're not used to us flying at night, and that's when they're more likely to be at sea with their garbage scows . . . I'll have an attack plan by the end of the day."

  "I'll have to run this past State," the under-undersecretary said cautiously. Things were suddenly moving fast, and he did not like being out of control.

  "Do you want me to look up the pertinent resolution number?" asked the CIA man.

  Chapter 12

  Atbara Airport, Sudan

  TROY LOENSCH HAD A RARE AND UNEXPECTED DAY off.

  It was the first time since he was grounded that he had time to himself. It was the first such time in weeks without it being overshadowed by a reprimand. The 334th Operations Center was abuzz with the upcoming action in the Dhuladhiya Channel. Harris had all the F-16 crews who flew strike missions pulled into a big briefing, and this left Falcon Force sidelined for the next forty-eight hours. They were, as people say in recon circles, snoopers, not shooters.

  He thought about calling home, but it was the middle of the night in California. He thought about reacting to his status as not a shooter by going to the primitive Atbara 0-Club and shooting pool, but decided to go shoot some hoops instead. He realized only as he started scrimmaging with a couple of other guys that he had unconsciously made the decision to play a team sport rather than a solo sport.

  What had come over him? Had the self-centered asshole become a team player?

  For Troy, the realization that Falcon Force had melded into a team had come on the same day that he had first gotten an inkling that his teammates, Jenna Munrough and Hal Coughlin, were more than teammates. Why hadn't he seen it earlier? He guessed that either they had done a very good job concealing their "special relationship" or it had only just started.

  Once again, he was the outsider in the small group of three--not that he really wanted to be a third party in a three-way relationship of that kind.

  As far as his relationship with Coughlin and Munrough as pilots went, Dhuladhiya had been the turning point, although the turn had begun over the desert north of Al Qadarif. When he'd gotten his fuel tank punctured, they had stayed with him. There was little they could do for him, but they had stayed with him.

  Then, Dhuladhiya. It was a place name that none of them had ever heard until that morning when the mission was briefed. Troy didn't have to double back to provide the coverage that Jenna could not--but he had, and he did so immediately. It wasn't that he had done her a huge personal favor, but he had displayed the action of a team player.

  It was new for him. In football, wide receivers don't really have to be team players. They catch what the quarterback throws, but other than that, they don't have to be team players. Their job is to run, catch and run. They don't have to do for others. They have other people blocking for them. Their job is not to worry about covering for a teammate whose AN/AKR-13 craps out.

  Today, out on the court--which was just a dusty patch of asphalt with a pair of mismatched hoops--he found himself passing as much as he was shooting.

  Why not?

  He was as good as he was, and he was not the best player on the asphalt. He was better than most, though not as good as the new guy with the short, blond Mohawk. The guy was good, he knew it, and Troy had no interest in proving he wasn't.

  "This a boy's game, or can a girl play?"

  Troy turned; it was Jenna Munrough. He almost didn't recognize her in shorts and shades rather than a green flight suit.

  Someone passed the ball; Troy caught it, dribbled once, and snapped it off to Jenna.

  She caught it and shot it in with almost a single motion. One of the other players grunted his approval as it went in.

  The guy with the short, blond Mohawk got the rebound and slammed the ball through the hoop.

  This time, Jenna was under the hoop.

  She scooped up the rebound as one of the guys grabbed and missed.

  She passed it to Troy.

  He found himself wanting, more than ever in this game, to make this shot. What was it about boys and girls that makes a guy want--no, need--to make the shot while the girl is watching?
>
  The ball bounced off the rim and Mohawk reached for the rebound.

  Suddenly, Jenna was between him and the ball.

  As he leaped up and came down empty, she shot up and slam-dunked the ball.

  Troy seized the rebound and scored, and suddenly the two Falcon Force teammates were teammates on the dusty patch of desert.

  jenna missed her next three shots in a row, but Troy scored two. This was not to say that anyone was really keeping score as Troy and Jenna scrimmaged against three other players. Ultimately, the trio of others probably outscored the two Falcons, but everyone played well. Jenna startled the guys with her skill at first, but soon they were treating her not as a girl in a boys' game, but as just another player to be guarded.

  When it was finally over, and as everyone shook hands and said "Good game," it was Troy's turn for a surprise.

  "Buy y'all a beer?" Jenna asked as she wiped the sweat from her face with the T-shirt she had been wearing over her tank top.

  "Umm . . . thanks . . . but I got some stuff I gotta take care of . . . Rain check?"

  He had no "stuff." He did have an aversion to this sort of camaraderie with a teammate--a female teammate--especially one with whom his relations had, until very recently, not been good.

  There had long since ceased to be a gender gap on the court, but the ritual of "having a beer" meant something completely different when two people were from opposite. Sides of that gap. Beyond that was Troy's sense of that "something" that apparently existed between Jenna and Hal.

  "Rain check." Jenna smiled broadly as though her suggestion had been far less complicated than what Troy had read into it. "See you at the briefing in the morning."

  With that, she was gone.

  As he picked up his gear, Troy noticed his watch. It was still too early to phone California, but by the time he finished his shower, he figured that his mother would probably be up.

  Nobody was home when he called home, so Troy decided to phone his father at work. "Office Tech, this is Carl."

  "Hi, Dad, what's up?"

  "Troy . . . is that you? Good to hear you. Where are you?"

  "Sunny Sudan. Actually, the sun's down, but it's still Sudan," Troy said. His father seemed to be in a good mood. After the usual exchange over what time it was, Troy asked his father about how business was.

  "Little slow," Carl said. "Y'know, ups and downs, but everybody still needs paper . . . and ink for those damned computer printers. You have to spend more on the damned ink than you do for the printers. . . . What are you doing? Are you flying much?"

  "Most days. Had a day off 'cause they've got a big thing going that doesn't involve us . . . can't talk about it."

  "Yeah . . . I understand," Carl said. "When you comin' home?"

  "Can't say. You know these open-ended enlistments. Used to be that there were tours of duty, y'know. Now, nobody knows. It will be a while."

  "Take care of yourself."

  "I will."

  Troy signed off with the usual niceties and tried his mother. Still nobody home. She didn't like carrying her cell phone.

  He started dialing Cassie's cell phone, stopped after the 310, hesitated, and dialed again.

  "Hey," Cassie said, sounding distracted.

  "Hey, babe, it's Troy."

  "Wow, hey . . . what's up?" Cassie said after a pause. "Just thought I'd give you a call."

  "Cool . . . that's great," she said, sounding distracted. "What time is it over there?"

  As he answered, he could hear her telling someone that she was talking to Troy.

  "Where you at?" he asked. "Who you with there?" "Yolanda and Trina, everybody's in the office today. . . .

  Yolanda wants to know what you're doing over there." "Flying jets." That was the simplest way to describe it. "Yolanda says 'cool,' wants to know when you're gonna give her a ride in one."

  "Tell her if she shows up here, I'll try to squeeze her in."

  "You gonna squeeze me in, big guy?" Cassie asked. "You know it, girl."

  "When you comin' home?"

  "I don't know . . . this thing keeps dragging on." "What's going on that it's taking so long?"

  "Endless supply of bad guys, I guess . . . can't say more than that. . . . I sure am looking forward to . . y'know . . . getting back there and squeezing you in and . . ."

  "Me too, big guy," Cassie interrupted hurriedly. "Listen, I gotta run. Talk to you soon . . . love you lots." Troy was about to reply in kind, but Cassie had already hung up.

  Chapter 13

  Atbara Airport, Sudan

  "DIDN'T THINK WE WERE ON FOR THE DHULADHIYA mission," Jenna drawled as she caught up to her Falcon Force teammates heading for a rare late-evening briefing. "Thought it was a strike mission. I thought I was a snooper, not a shooter."

  "I heard that Harris wants us to snoop on the shooters," Hal said. "I guess we'll fly in right after they shoot, and snoop on what's left."

  "At least we had a day and a half and a good night's sleep," Troy Loensch added. He was walking behind them slightly, keeping an eye open for the kind of groping that he expected was going on between them, but saw none. Groping? Maybe he was reading too much into it. She had, after all, merely patted him--even if it was on his ass.

  They arrived in the briefing room, finding it unusually full. The forty-eight hours of downtime had become thirty-six hours, and now it was over--before the second of the two good nights of sleep for which they had hoped.

  The strike mission was due to launch at 0300 so that they would be over the target in the predawn darkness. Indeed, Harris had decided to have Falcon Force fly a poststrike assessment package.

  The 334th Air Expeditionary Wing planning staff, standing in the front of the room, looked exhausted. They had pulled an all-nighter and had been working all the next day. After they unveiled their master plan, they could all sleep--while the aircrews went to work.

  There was an air of excitement in the room, the anxious excitement born of the anticipation of a larger-thanusual mission. After the conference at Joint Task Force headquarters, General Harris was anxious to prove that his airpower could do the job, and he was making it a maximum effort.

  There were two fighter/ground attack squadrons assigned to the 334th. Between them, they could muster thirty-four F-16s. In normal operations, some of these were routinely reconfigured from carrying ordnance to flying reconnaissance missions such as poststrike assessment. Tonight, he wanted all of them carrying weapons.

  This left the three Falcon Force ISR birds as the only F-16s available for snooping, and they got the job.

  On the screen were images that Troy had brought back of Dhuladhiya. Overlaying these were circles and arrows that indicated where the barges carrying weapons would be. In a satellite image less than six hours old, a freighter labeled as Iranian by the intel analysts could be seen unloading crates onto a barge near an inlet on the island. This was the smoking gun--or rather the guns that would be smoking as soon as the bad guys could get them within range of UN or U. S. personnel.

  "FALCON ONE, CLEAR FOR RUNWAY TWO-NINER."

  Troy breathed a sigh of relief. Hal was now taxiing toward Atbara's runway. Next, it would be Jenna's turn, and finally his. After an hour of sitting in their cockpits watching the strike package take off--tongue after tongue of flaming turbofan engines--it would be good to get moving.

  They flew the same flight plan as they had on their earlier reconnaissance of the Dahlak Archipelago. This time, though, the distance ahead of them was filled with the winking red lights of the strike aircraft.

  An hour later, as they descended to the flight level for the attack, Troy could hear the voices in his headset of pilots far ahead as they began to drop ordnance.

  There were some excited boasts as hits were reported on barges. The GBU-32 JDAM smart bomb was deadly accurate, and it was also just plain deadly.

  Suddenly the tone of the chatter changed.

  "Aspen Four . . . taking ground fire."

  "Maple
One . . . I see tracers at two o'clock . . . one o'clock."

  "Aspen One . . . I got tracers at eleven . . . everywhere!" "Think I see a SAM . . . Ponderosa Two . . . SAM incoming . . ."

  "Mayday . . . repeat . . . mayday . . ."

  "This is Ponderosa One . . . we are egressing over Eritrea and walking into a wall of SAMs."

  "We got SAMs coming off that damned island too!" "Aspen Four looks like he got hit . . ."

  "Aspen Four, this is Aspen One, can you read me . . .

  come on, talk to me . . . Aspen flight . . . climb to . . ." "Mayday . . . this is Maple Four . . . I'm hit!"

  The lump rose in Troy's throat. In the distance, he could see the carnage, a sky full of explosions and white hot streaks of SAMs climbing through the darkness. The American F-16s had raced into the target area in close formation and were too close to take evasive action without risking in-flight collisions. They had to just grit their teeth and plow though it.

  "Why?" Jenna said out loud. "How?"

  "Somebody got tipped we were coming," Troy snarled angrily.

  "Roger that, Falcon Three," Hal said, trying to remain calm. "Climb to ten thousand and maintain heading."

  The surface-to-air missiles were fused for the altitude at which the bombers had been flying. Hal figured that Falcon Force could still complete its mission at a higher, safer altitude.

  As they came across Dhuladhiya, the ground and sea beneath them were on fire with burning ships and the tracers and streaks from SAMs targeting airplanes.

  In the distance, Troy could see the unmistakable plume of a burning aircraft falling to earth.

  "Wish we were carrying HARMs on this flight," Hal said. The planners had taken the calculated risk of loading the attackers for strikes on boats and barges. Nobody had anticipated surface-to-air missiles, certainly not so many. Indeed, there had been no sign of them in the recon data brought back by Falcon Force.

  The flight plan for their return called for the American aircraft to cross onto the African mainland by way of the narrow, lightly populated strip of Eritrea that led into the Denakil Depression where Troy and Jenna had earlier tangled with the Eritrean MiGs. Unfortunately, as soon as they made landfall, the aircraft came under attack from a second defensive line of surface-to-air missiles. The strike commander had ordered the aircraft to scatter, but not before at least three, and possibly more, had been hit.

 
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