We’re going back in,” Halifax said. “Target identification.” He had called a meeting in the trailer to brief Rodriguez and O’Hare and get their thoughts on how to execute the mission he’d been given.
“What targets?” O’Hare asked.
“Gambell,” Halifax said. “We know the civilian hostages at Savoonga are being held in the radar station cantonment at Savoonga. Don’t ask me how we know, probably SigInt. But we don’t know where they’re being held in Gambell.” He saw the look on Bunny’s face. “I know, it’s where we lost those Fantoms. They got lucky, but this time we know what we’re up against.”
“Don’t we have satellite coverage now?” Rodriguez asked.
“Thick cloud down to 1,000 feet for today and expected into the next week,” Halifax said. “We have synthetic aperture radar coverage but they want to triangulate what they have. Plus Ivan is trying to blind our satellites with ground based lasers.”
“They can do that? I didn’t know they had the capability,” Rodriguez said, surprised.
“Me either. Seems they had a few surprises up their sleeves. Satellites are functioning at 1/3 optimal I’m told, but they can relay the signals from our birds if we can sneak them in there.”
“They’re trying to confuse our infra-red?”
“Yes. As well as the laser interference, Russians have lit fires all over both Savoonga and Gambell, probably just smudge pots, to mask the heat signatures of their emplacements and any buildings they’re using. You’ll go in tonight with recon pods, low-light, infrared and SAR. There are nearly 200 people in Gambell, they must be using some sort of heat to keep them warm. If nothing else you can identify those smudge pots and decoy fires and we’ll locate the captives by process of elimination.”
“We are 24 hours out from the deadline we gave the Russians to withdraw,” O’Hare said. “Is there any sign they are packing up and bugging out? SigInt, air traffic, that kind of thing?”
“I haven’t been advised. But if they are, you get a Fantom over Gambell, we should be able to see it. Primary objective though is to identify the location of the hostages at Gambell.”
“We’re going to send in a Seal Team, try to get the hostages out before we hit the Russian positions?” Rodriguez asked.
Halifax shook his head, “I haven’t been told, and probably wouldn’t be. But I’d doubt it. By the time we get the intel back to ANR, it would probably be too late and in any case, there are hundreds of Russian regular troops on that island with some heavy duty air cover. It’s not like a Seal Team can just buzz in there in their helos, take out a few jihadis and save the day.”
“Speaking of which, I’m going to need someone to pull that air cover away somehow,” Bunny said. “We got in underneath them last time while they were distracted. We try the same this time, and I’m going to get swatted from above again, and that’s assuming I can blow through any Verba or ship based anti-air coverage.”
Halifax smiled a grim smile, “Oh, I can promise you they’ll be distracted.”
After the tense first 24 hours of the takeover of Saint Lawrence Island, during which Bondarev had flown three sorties with his men, the last few days had been surprisingly quiet. US aircraft had kept to their coastline, respecting the Russian imposed no-go zone, even though it crossed into US airspace. As far as they were aware, there had also been no US recon flights over the island since the first intrusion, in which the Americans had lost two of their UAVs. Bondarev wasn’t naive, he knew the Americans would have satellite coverage and may have managed to sneak one of their smaller recon UAVs in under his nose.
American recon UAVs weren’t his big concern. His real worry was if they managed to get a flight of UCAVs in under his fighter and radar screen. Six of the small Fantom fighters, loaded with the new US
Small Advanced Capabilities Missile, nicknamed CUDA, could bring down an entire squadron of his Su-57s if they were lucky. He had argued with General Lukin about even putting piloted aircraft at risk in the air over the Bering Strait once the initial need was past, but Lukin had turned it around and pointed out to Bondarev that his Okhotnik drones were still missing trained pilots and system operators and it would be at least another two weeks before crews moved from other units could fill the gap.
Modern Russian air war doctrine called for the use of piloted aircraft for critical operations. While Russia had matched the US in the capabilities of its piloted fighters and weapons, it had chosen a different strategy on drones than the USA. The winning designers at Sukhoi had successfully argued that Russia needed a UCAV optimized for air-to-ground operations to match the capabilities of the US Fantom, and given the limitations of the Okhotnik platform that meant two crew sitting in a trailer on the ground – a pilot and a systems officer. The US however was more advanced in terms of combat AI, meaning that a lot of the tasks of the traditional systems officer could be handed off to on-board AI, freeing the US pilot to both direct the drones and target weapons in near real time.
Combat experience in the Middle East had shown that Russian human-crewed fighters had a higher kill to loss ratio than American unmanned fighters. But America had dramatically increased its use of armed drones much earlier than Russia and had run into exactly the same problems as Bondarev was faced with now around crew availability. That had forced a major change in US drone doctrine and the requirements issued for the competition to design the platform that would become the Fantom, had included the capability for ‘autonomous AI’ capability in combat and an ability to ‘slave’ the Fantom to any compatible NATO system so that one pilot could fly up to six UCAVs at a time - their now infamous ‘hex’. Once the bugs had been ironed out of this system, and faced with both a resurgent Russia and assertive China, America had put its energy into optimizing drone pilot training and aircraft production capacity, so that it could field enough pilots and drones to support it’s ‘two-front’ doctrine: the ability to fight a major war in two theatres at the same time, just as it had done in World War II.
Bondarev and his men had only seen American drones in small numbers over Turkey and Syria though, and even then, usually only the unarmed reconnaissance version, the Fury. NATO air forces in the region had not been armed with the latest US frontline UCAVs and the US had not been willing to commit, and risk losing, its much hyped Fantom. The Russian pilots assured themselves it was because the pilotless robot planes were not the threat the US made them out to be, and they were afraid to lose face by committing them against battle-hardened Russian fighter squadrons.
All of this was going through Bondarev’s mind as his squadron wheeled through the sky in the narrow air corridor between Saint Lawrence island and the Alaskan mainland. Yes, he could have stayed warm and safe on the ground in Lavrentiya, but he was the kind of commander who liked to fly the front himself. He wasn’t so vain as to think himself irreplaceable. If he died up here, there were a hundred men able and more than willing to take his place.
His eyes flicked across the threats on his HUD without alarm, as the situation had not changed greatly since day one of the operation. The US was moving a huge number of aircraft into Eielson and Elmendorf-Richardson air bases and had mobilized its national guard to protect those bases and the population centers of Fairbanks, and Anchorage. Centers which Bondarev knew Russia had no designs on. It was the Yukon River basin Russia was interested in, and so they would be drawing a red line across the state of Alaska from Fort Yukon in the North East to Bethel in the South West.
If all out nuclear war did not erupt (and that was a big ‘if’ in Bondarev’s book), the US was expected to focus on fortifying its population centers against an attack that would not come. Nome would be taken - Russia needed some geopolitical leverage after all, and would need an administrative capital in its new Yukon territory. But to the outside world, it should look exactly like Russia had kept its word. Its stated intention in the attack on the US would be that it simply wanted to create a buffer zone, a demilitarized area between Russia and the USA - a response that had been forced on it by rampant US aggression in the Bering Strait.
By the time the US realized that it had been deprived of 14% of its freshwater supply, it would be too late.
To Bondarev, what had seemed like a suicidal gambit a week ago, was suddenly looking like it might, just possibly, pay off. Confusion clearly reigned in Washington about how to respond to the Russian intervention. NATO was crippled by an indecisive EU, not interested in going to war over a ‘minor freedom of navigation dispute’. The US military was being held in check by an administration that was full of bluster, but no bite.
“Gold 1 from Gold Command, vector 045 degrees, altitude 35,000 please, we have business for you,” he heard as the voice of his A-100 air controller broke his reverie. At that moment he cursed his overconfidence, knowing it had almost certainly jinxed him. “Patching through data now,” the AWACS aircraft said. “Vectoring all available support to your sector.”
He looked down at the threat screen in his cockpit and took a deep breath. The AWACs aircraft was sending through data from ground and air based long range radar sources. The screen showed huge formations of aircraft forming up over Eielson and Elmendorf-Richardson. The numbers beside the swirling vortex of icons indicated he was looking at two elements of at least 50 aircraft in strength, each.
“Gold 2 to Gold leader,” his wingman called, a slight note of panic in his voice. “Are you seeing this?”
“Roger Gold 2, stand by.” His first reaction was that it didn’t make sense. This had all the hallmarks of the prelude to a major attack, but there were still nearly 24 hours until the US mandated deadline for Russian troop withdrawal from Saint Lawrence. Were they trying to take Russia by surprise, by moving early? It was hard to see what the tactical advantage would be, and there would certainly be no political advantage. It would only serve to confirm how hawkish and erratic the US leadership was. But if this was the ‘fire and fury’ that the US had promised, surely Bondarev would have already received warning that the US had scrambled elements of its strategic bomber force?
Of course, if the US Stealth Bombers had sortied from Guam several hours ago, they may not yet have been detected.
Perhaps it was just a feint, to test Russian readiness in advance of the real attack. Or a PR stunt, intended to reassure a restive US media and public that its armed forces were ready for action. He checked his watch. It was 0200 at night in Alaska, which made it 0600 in Washington. That made sense - perhaps this was just smoke and mirrors, timed to make the morning TV shows on the US East coast. He watched carefully as the circling icons over Eielson and Elmendorf-Richardson coalesced into a single ‘aluminum cloud’ of at least 100 aircraft that no stealth systems in the world could disguise.
Definitely a PR stunt or feint. Multiple smaller attacks would have been much more effective.
The Russian C3I system throwing data onto Bondarev’s screens sorted the electronic signature and radar returns it was getting from the enemy formation and assigned different icons to each aircraft type to let its pilots know what they were looking at. As his eyes scanned the screen, a chill went over him.
The huge enemy formation comprised almost exclusively aircraft with the designation F-47.
Fantoms. These were not National Guard units. As one, they began moving toward Saint Lawrence Island.
This was no feint.
If Dave was cold before, he was both cold, and tired now. They’d retired to the tank to warm up, eat and get some rest. Perri had cleaned the barrel of his rifle. He was still annoyed he hadn’t been able to zero the new sight on his Winchester, and he hadn’t been able to find any army surplus armor piercing rounds in the loot they’d taken from the general store. On the other hand, they had hundreds of steel tipped 180 grain magnum rounds with anti-fouling coating, and even at a couple of hundred yards range he was sure they would slice through the aluminum carport roof without trouble. The steel tipped, copper jacketed Winchester rounds were popular for hunting reindeer stags – anything less risked not being able to penetrate the animal’s thick skull, and the less confident hunters could aim at the shoulder or haunches; the steel tip letting the bullet slice through the thick hide while the copper jacket and lead core would spread on impact and shatter a leg or hip joint.
It also left a smaller entry hole in the valuable reindeer hide.
A little metal on metal probably wouldn’t hurt for his upcoming ‘hunt’, as he was trying to trigger an explosion in the ammo inside the carport. He wanted some friction or sparks to set the ammo off. He was pretty sure that even without having zeroed his rifle, he’d be able to hit something as big as a carport roof with his new precision guided scope. Hell just using iron sights, he could plug a seal in the head from a hundred yards as it was coming up for air, and that in a raging blizzard, so he had no excuses for missing a stationary carport.
Dave had tried to argue he wasn’t even needed on the trip. But Perri had insisted he need to come along to keep an eye out for Russian patrols. Perri wanted to be sure there were no foot or vehicle patrols near the dump when he set it off. He was pretty sure any buildings near the ammo dump were empty now, with all the residents being held at the school a few hundred yards away, but he didn’t want to accidentally kill any Russian soldiers and give them an excuse to retaliate against the townsfolk.
Not yet, anyway.
Once again, they’d navigated their way around the nesting Auklets. Finding their previous position in the dark hadn’t proved as easy as he thought, but eventually Dave spotted the two upright stones they had hidden behind while scouting out the town, and using them for reference they scrambled up the side of the bluff to give themselves about another twenty feet in vertical distance, without adding too much to the lateral.
“What about the flash from the barrel?” Dave asked. “Won’t it be like a big old strobe light saying hey, up here, come up here and kill us?!”
Perri looked up at the sky. The cloud had come in thick and low, and Dave was right, it was a dark night, with only a faint diffuse glow from the moon making its way through.
“Maybe,” Perri agreed. “If anyone is looking in exactly this direction at exactly the right time. I’m going to put ten rounds into that building as quickly as I can, then we’ll run for it. Nothing blows up, then they’ll arrive tomorrow morning and wonder who the hell used their ammo dump for target practice and maybe we at least put some holes in some of their missiles.” He smiled, teeth white in the dark night, “But if that shed goes up, I don’t think they’ll be looking up here amongst the rocks and birdsh*t for the reason. They’ll probably think it was a cruise missile or something.”
He sounded completely confident, but Dave wasn’t buying it. “Yeah, right. We are so
going to die tonight.”
During the Cold War, lone sorties by strategic bombers or surveillance aircraft from both sides of the Bering Strait had ‘strayed’ into opposition airspace and provoked a response. Sometimes deliberately, to test enemy capabilities and response times, other times innocently, due to navigation failures. As the newly reinvigorated Russian air force had shown in the Middle East that it was more than a match for its old foe, it had also begun to be more brazen in its provocations in the Pacific Far East, more than once resulting in the US threatening to shoot down wayward Russian aircraft, though they never had, and Russia had not chosen to push them that far.
Never though, had one side put so much air power into the Pacific Far East theatre as the US was doing right now.
Bondarev’s eyes flicked from his tactical display to his instruments to the night sky around him in a constant circle. His HUD was showing that two other squadrons from his 6983rd Air Force Base were forming up as ordered, above and beside him. But this still gave him only 54 aircraft to nearly double that number of US fighters. The A-100 AI was still designating the bulk of the approaching aircraft as American F-47 UCAVs, flying out front like a silicon shield - no doubt armed with the newest CUDA missiles - with piloted F-35s behind them, probably carrying the AIM 140 LREW or long range engagement weapon which was too large to fit into the drones weapons bays.
Against these his 54 Sukhois were each armed with two long range and four short range missiles, but only about a third of them were carrying the new KM-77 phased array missile because Operation LOSOS had come in the middle of an upgrade cycle. The KM-77 had a slightly greater range than the CUDA, otherwise they were an even match. Not for the first time, he regretted Lukin’s direct order not to field his Okhotniks. It would have been advantageous to be able to put his own drones out in front of his piloted aircraft to meet the incoming US armada.
In any case, they might be about to see how the vaunted American Fantom performed in air-to-air combat against a real flesh and blood enemy. And they would know in about 30 seconds as the American force reached AMRAAM range.
“Gold Control to Gold Leader: enemy aircraft approaching stand-off missile range in five, four
…” the A-100 AWACs announced. The first test would be to see whether this was a direct attack. If it was, the
US F-35s could launch long range air-to-ground missiles aimed at targets on Saint Lawrence from within Alaskan airspace, and then turn around and flee under the protection of the cloud of drones surrounding them.
“Silver leader to Gold leader, Silver airborne and en-route,” he heard a voice say over the radio. Having seen the size and apparent intent of the US attacking force, he had scrambled the 36 remaining Sukhois and Mig-41s he had at readiness in Lavrentiya. It had taken them a precious 20 minutes to get airborne and formed up. Too slow. Someone would have to get their butt kicked for that. They wouldn’t be able to climb to altitude in time for the coming engagement.
“Roger Silver leader, vector zero three zero, NOE please. Passive arrays only. Take your targeting from the data net,” Bondarev ordered. He would use his reserves as a surprise attack force, hoping if he kept them down at wave top level the enemy aircraft wouldn’t know they were there until their missiles started tracking. “Gold leader out.”
,” the air controller continued to count down the range to possible standoff munitions launch. Bondarev had his eyes fixed to the threat display, listening for the warning tones indicating enemy air-to-ground missiles were on their way. The KM-77 was also an efficient cruise missile killer and he knew the pilots fielding it would be prepared to switch their targeting from the US aircraft to US missiles if they appeared. But the board stayed clear, there were no tones.
“Gold squadrons, hold station,” Bondarev ordered his pilots. On his HUD he saw that while they might not have fired any missiles, the US armada was still boring straight for Saint Lawrence. “Flight control, ROE update please?”
“ROE unchanged Gold leader,” the controller replied. “You are free to fire if US aircraft cross the no-fly perimeter.”
Bondarev cursed under his breath. Their rules of engagement hadn’t changed since day one of Operation LOSOS. They were hemmed in behind an invisible line in the sky, giving the US fighters a clear tactical advantage because they could choose the time and place of their attack.
“Enemy aircraft approaching US LREW range in ten, nine, eight
…” the controller stated, unnecessarily. His pilots would soon be within range of the US long range air-to-air missiles. So be it.
They might get the first missiles away, but they would not go unanswered.
“Gold aircraft, lock up targets but hold your fire,” Bondarev told his pilots. “Keep your heads people. Anyone who fires without my express order will be court martialed.”
Once again, the missile threat warnings stayed silent, but the US aircraft pushed forward, hitting the Alaskan coast now. They would be on top of Bondarev and his men within minutes. Could it be they were going to try to overfly Saint Lawrence, just to test Russian resolve? To prove they were masters of their own skies still?
“Gold Control, requesting permission to engage with K-77s before enemy aircraft reach CUDA missile range. Please advise.”
Tactically, the US full frontal attack was insane. Dozens of their aircraft would be swatted from the sky within minutes if Bondarev was the first to engage. Could they be that stupid?
Stupid like an Arctic fox perhaps. Politically, it wasn’t so crazy. Let Russia be the aggressor. Force them onto the diplomatic back foot. Create the rationale for a major assault to retake Saint Lawrence on the basis of Russia invading and then shooting down American aircraft over American soil? Maybe that explained why the bulk of the approaching force were politically expendable drones.
“Gold Leader, we have orders from General Lukin directly,” the voice of the A-100 controller said. “Only if US fighters cross the no-fly perimeter, are you free to engage, repeat, you cannot fire until the perimeter is breached.”
“Gold Control, if we wait that long, we will be within CUDA range,” Bondarev said. “We will have no tactical advantage. That may be exactly what they are trying to achieve.”
The voice that came back was stone cold, and Bondarev recognized it immediately. He should have known General Lukin would be monitoring comms and he flinched as the man broke in on the radio traffic, “Are your orders unclear Gold leader?”
“No sir, perfectly clear. Gold leader out.” Bondarev hammered the perspex over his head in frustration. It was a typical political compromise. His life and the life of his men put in the balance so that politicians or diplomats could claim a moral high ground, before abandoning it completely. “Gold and Silver flight leaders, keep your targets locked, await my order.”
Bondarev rolled his shoulders in the tight confines of his cockpit, and flexed his fingers. He had a feeling the dying was about to begin.
Perri sighted down onto the town below.
It was damn dark. The glowing display in the scope showed very little wind, but a surprising amount of elevation if he was going to put any rounds through the roof of the car park below. He had to check what the scope was telling him against his own instincts. The copper clad bullets were heavier than the polymer tipped varmint rounds he usually used, but would the bullets really drop that much over this distance? He’d had to input the rifle and ammo type into the scope manually - had he screwed it up?
He cleared the target and put the small glowing red pipper over the dark black rectangle that was the carport roof, and pushed the button near his trigger again. It showed the range as 230 yards, wind at about 3 feet a second from the northwest, but the cross hairs telling him where to aim were way over the roof. It felt to him like he would be shooting way over the target.
Damn. He’d rushed it. He should have been patient, should have hiked up into the rocks up on the bluff, out of earshot of the town, fired a bunch of test rounds with the new ammo and the new scope until he was satisfied he had it zeroed.
Damn damn damn.
“What’s the matter?” Dave asked him. “Shoot already! Let’s get out of here.”
Perri bet on his instincts. He was the best damn shot in Gambell, he knew that. He had a sense, a feeling for wind and elevation, for the movement of his target. He had a way of knowing just when a seal or whale was going to breach, when a bird was going to dip right or left. And right now what the scope was telling him - the windage felt right, but the elevation didn’t.
He took a breath and held it.
He steadied the crosshairs just above the outer lip of the roof. If he saw his shots hitting the sandbags, he could correct.
OK Perri. Ten shots, as fast you can pull the trigger, or until the damn carport blows up.
And then run like hell.
“Every Russian aircraft in the sky over Saint Lawrence just lit their burners and headed east,” Bunny said, visor down, nestled behind her VR screens inside the trailer. “Care to share why Sir?”
“Well, you’re going to see it on the morning news anyway,” Halifax said. “The media name for it is Operation Resolve. The idea is to show the Russians just what will happen tomorrow if they don’t start withdrawing.”
“Whatever it is, it’s giving us clear air over Gambell,” Rodriguez noted. The late night launch of their two recon Fantoms had been a routine affair, and she’d been locked in the command trailer with Halifax and O’Hare for nearly an hour as Bunny got her one of her drones into position to make a run over the target while the other stayed in reserve. Satellite synthetic aperture radar images had shown a lot of hardware lining the side of the landing strip, and intelligence analysis had identified at least four Verba sites, two bracketing Gambell and two bracketing the facility at Savoonga. The way the Verbas had engaged outside optical range showed they were fully networked, pulling targeting data from AWACS, satellite and aircraft overhead, but Rodriguez had a feeling their crews would be looking east right now, because whatever ‘Operation Resolve’ was, something big was brewing there.
The imaging also showed concentrations of vehicle traffic in a couple of places in the township, one that had been identified as the ‘town hall’ and was speculated to be a military command post, and the other identified as the John Ampangalook Memorial High School. If the 200 plus townsfolk were being held anywhere, it was probably there, but the telltale heat bloom that would come from a mass of people packed into the school buildings there was being confused by a number of other heat sources burning in an around the school and the outskirts of town. This was what Bunny had to investigate. It was possible Russian troops were torching houses to drive people out, more likely they had just lit fuel oil ‘smudge pots’ to confuse infra-red imaging.
Bunny’s Fantoms were carrying no weapons except guns this time. In the load bay were dedicated reconnaissance pods that sported a suite of low light, infrared and radar imaging capabilities. If she could just get one good run the length of Gambell, they would get a wealth of data. If she could get two, they might have a real chance of identifying where those hostages were being held so that they had a chance of surviving the coming metal storm. There was another ‘if’. She had to hope that the enemy was still relying on simple portable ground to air missile defenses or radar targeted ship based missiles on Saint Lawrence, not the kind that could pick up her radar or electronic emissions and home on those. It was a big ‘if’.
“Starting ingress,” Bunny said. She had a suite of recon flight routines at her fingertips, leaving the AI to run the surveillance systems using a low-level full spectrum target ID algorithm that directed it to both map the entire target area at wide angle, and zoom in to try to identify military equipment and targets based on their physical or ELINT properties. “No nosy Sukhois around,” she observed, “Thankyou Operation Resolve.”
“Gold leader to Gold flight commanders, prepare to… hold! Safe your weapons, repeat, safe your weapons!” Bondarev nearly yelled into his mike.
He had just gotten a report from both his AWACS aircraft and the ground based air defense commander that the enemy armada would be crossing the no-fly perimeter any second. He had been straining his eyes, looking for any telltale light or exhaust trail to show on the horizon, while flicking back and forth between his instruments and the threat display showing the mass of icons that was the American aircraft headed straight for him and his fighters. He had six missiles, and a target locked for each of them. He knew his pilots would also have their targets designated, the offensive assault distributed across all of his aircraft so that every US plane had at least two or three missiles allocated to it, arrowing at it from various angles, both high and low.
If that gave him any confidence, then the knowledge that the enemy had nearly a quarter as many missiles again targeting the Russian aircraft took that away. There would be very few aircraft left flying a few minutes from now.
But why hadn’t they engaged at long distance missile range? What were they waiting for?
Bondarev got his answer just before he ordered his fighters to engage. In one smooth movement, as it crossed the Alaskan coast into the waters of the Bering Strait, the US force split into two, half swinging north, and the other half swinging south.
They were no longer approaching Saint Lawrence. And they were still outside the Russian no-fly perimeter.
Bondarev quickly split his own force, suspecting that was exactly what the US planners were trying to force him to do, but he had no other option. Within moments he had 27 aircraft flying parallel to and about twenty miles apart from 50 US fighters headed north, and the other 27 tracking the US southern group, with the 36 aircraft of his Silver battalion staying low in the clutter of the Saint Lawrence landscape.
He told his flight commanders to stay alert. There was still a chance this was just a pincer movement, and the US force would swing toward Saint Lawrence again to slam shut the jaws of the pincer. His eyes flicked frantically from threat to threat on his HUD, his fingers hovering over the missile launch buttons on his stick.
But then the US fighters turned away, back toward Alaska. One group set up a lower racetrack circuit along the coast to the south, the other took a high cover position, but also set up a race track position along the north coast. Bondarev let out a huge breath, and ordered his people to do mirror the American positions to the north and south of Saint Lawrence.
He moved his thumb away from the firing button for his weapons. “Gold leader to Gold and Silver commanders, weapons safe, but stay alert. Gold, do you see any other enemy air activity? Could this be a decoy for an attack from another quarter?”
“Gold Control to Gold leader, the board is clear,” the air commander replied. “The enemy force did not cross the no-fly perimeter. It looks like they are just rattling their sabers.”
“Roger that, Gold leader out,” Bondarev said. Roger that
. If this was sabre rattling, he could only imagine what tomorrow would bring, when the US deadline ran out.
“OK, they’re around the corner at the next block now,” Dave said. He’d been following a jeep that was making a regular circuit of the town, waiting for it to get well clear of the ammo dump. There were no foot soldiers near the dump that he could see, and no lights in any of the nearby houses.
Perri ignored the guidance of the digital scope, settled the crosshairs on furthers edge of the carport roof, took a breath, waited for the small trembling circular motion of his gun barrel to steady itself, and then squeezed the trigger. The report from the Winchester sounded impossibly loud in the still night air, and caromed off the rocks around them. But before it had even registered, Perri worked the bolt and fired again, and again.
Down in the dark, he saw a spark.
“Holy hell!” Bunny exclaimed as the surveillance feed from the Fantom that had just started its run over Gambell flared bright white. In an instant, it looked like she had lost both low-light and infra-red camera coverage, and was suddenly flying blind. She quickly ordered the drone to level out, and saw with relief it was responding to inputs. She wasn’t showing a missile launch. It hadn’t been hit.
“Laser jamming?” Halifax asked.
“I don’t think…” Bunny muttered. She flicked her fingers across her keyboard. The drone should have passed the airstrip by now and be making its run over Gambell harbor. She reached for a small toggle and taking back control of the drone’s low-light camera she swung it around, seeing the greenwhite flare fade and some solid imagery emerge again. As she pointed the camera toward the drone’s starboard aft quarter it became clear what had happened.
“Explosion, down in the township,” Bunny said pointing at a screen above her head. “Big mother. Look at that cloud. Showing secondaries too.”
Rodriguez and Halifax leaned forward. On the 2D screen they could see a small mushroom shaped cloud rising over a brightly burning building at the edge of the town. Smaller explosions within the building seemed to send phosphorescent arcs of smoke out in all directions, starting other fires.
“Operation Resolve?” Rodriguez asked? “That looks like a cruise missile strike. Is that what we were supposed to record?”
“With respect Sir, we should have been briefed,” Bunny said, turning her drone out to sea. “Target identification and bomb damage assessment, those are two completely different missions.”
“I wasn’t…” Halifax was stammering.
Rodriguez got the distinct idea that he had no idea what had just happened.
“Holy hell!” Dave yelled, at almost the same time as Bunny O’Hare, 200 miles away. He hadn’t counted, but it seemed to be on about the sixth or eighth shot from Perri, just as Dave was deciding nothing was going to happen, that the Russian ammo bunker exploded in incandescent white light.
“Run!” Perri yelled, scrambling to his feet. “We have to get down among the rocks before anyone looks up here.”
The light from the burning pyre that had once been the sandbagged carport was as bright as a dozen stadium lights. It threw crazy, dancing shadows over the slope of the bluff and the noise and light sent hundreds of Auklets squawking into the night in fright. Perri found himself running through a cloud of birds in what felt like the strobe from a night club light show.
They came to the edge of a group of rocks, with a large open patch of ground ahead of them. Dave would have kept running, but Perri grabbed his jacket by the shoulder and pulled him down. “Wait, let’s see if it’s safe.” He looked down toward the town.
Soldiers had spilled out of the town hall. He should have realized that’s where the bulk of them would be. Some jeeps were moving cautiously toward the ammo dump. Other soldiers were spilling out of the school, surrounding it, maybe worried about a breakout? Or with something else in mind.
No one seemed to be headed towards them.
“OK, let’s go,” Perri said, getting to his feet again.
“We did it!” Dave was saying. “We actually did it!”
“Celebrate when we’re back in the tank,” Perri grunted.
Right then, he saw a missile lift off from an emplacement beside the airstrip and arc away towards the sea, aimed at some unknown target.
“Missile launch!” Bunny reported. “Not tracking. They’re firing blind. I won’t jam unless they get a lock.”
“Are we the only aircraft in the target area?” Rodriguez asked Halifax, “Or are there others we aren’t seeing?”
“As far as I know, we are the only unit over Gambell,” he said vehemently. “No one told me anything about a missile strike. We have set up patrols over the Alaskan Coast, that’s Operation Resolve. Not specifically to give us cover, but that’s why our mission was timed now, while the Russian CAP was pulled east in a hurry.”
“Beginning second pass,” Bunny said. “We aren’t going to get a third.”
Halifax reached for a comms handset, “Make the pass and then get to safe distance and hold. I’m going to try to get some clarity on this.”
At that moment, a voice came over the trailer loudspeaker, “NCTAMS this is ANR. We are showing one or more ground to air missile launches or major explosions near Gambell. Can you confirm?” Rodriguez and Bunny stole a no sh*t Sherlock glance at each other, and left Halifax to respond.
“Gold Control to Gold leader, we have reports of a ground strike on an ammunition dump at Gambell,” the AWACS controller said in Bondarev’s ear. “Air defense command at Gambell has reported returns from at least one aircraft in the area, probably stealth, but they cannot get a lock. We are assessing the situation, you are to prepare to engage the US airborne force over Bering Strait on our order. Standby. Gold Control out.”
“Hold position please Gold and Silver flight leaders,” Bondarev said with calm dread. “Weapons free. Prepare to engage US aircraft on my mark.” Please
, he said to himself. Please let us fire first.
As they scrambled down the slope at the outskirts of town toward the safety of their underground bunker, Perri saw another missile lift off from one of the small warships in the harbor and speed out to sea. The Russians were shooting at something, but what? Whatever it was, it made it less likely they suspected a kid with a Winchester had blown up their ammo dump, and Perri was glad about that.
“OK, down down down,” Dave said urgently as he hauled open the trapdoor to the tank and waved at Perri to jump in.
Feet on the rungs, Perri took one last ground level look at the boiling white column of smoke rising up over Gambell. Sh*t just got real
, he thought to himself.
(C) 2018 Fred ‘Heinkill’ Williams. To be continued...