In the E-2, the ACO updates his track video and speaks into his boom mike, “Hobo 404, group Baltimore 195, 20, low, track west, bogey. Hot Dog red at 20 miles”

Turning back into the threat, the lieutenant snaps his visor down against the sun well-risen in the east. He selects his Sidewinder missile, hears the raspy growl of an uncooled seeker head, switches the coolant on, hears the growl fade to a reptilian hiss. He changes missile mode to AIM-120, the advanced, medium range air-to-air missile. He turns his HUD tape on and selects the master armament control switch to “arm.” He arms his chaff and flare dispenser. Whatever happens in the next few minutes, he will be prepared. And he will by God have it on tape. “Leads’ fenced,” he says on the aux radio, prodding his wingman to complete his own combat checklist, and to report it complete.

“Standby,” replies the wingman.

“Two’s fenced,” she finally replies. “No alibis.”

Good for her, the lieutenant thinks, a “full-up” combat system. Good for the both of us.

He runs his cursors out on his radar display, bumping the range out to 80 nautical mile scale. There, there’s “Baltimore,” the Bushehr bulls-eye, or geographic reference point the controller has been using. Still outside radar range on the Iranian target, he can nevertheless get a sense of where it is in space: A vital concern, with Iranian territorial airspace (Hot Dog “Red”) only 20 nm away. Wouldn’t do to find oneself on the wrong side of that line. Be a quick trip from the hero’s podium to the woodshed. Too close: “Cold right, go,” on the Aux radio.

On the execute command “go,” he runs the throttles up to military power, making a level, constant airspeed turn, two, two-and-a-half g’s maybe. He looks through his HUD to see his wingman matching the turn in angle and altitude. Makes a quick nodding gesture in his mask, one quick, satisfied stab of the chin. Calls, “Hobos are cold” on Prime radio, the E-2 ACO’s freq. He checks his radar warning receiver - nothing. Good.

In the E-2’s darkened tunnel, the ACO nods in agreement: Good call. Another few miles and he would have had to step in and turn the fighters away from the Hot Dog line. Always better when they figure it out themselves. He checks the target video: Still hot to the strike group. Now also hot to the interposing fighters. Still out of range to attack either.

In Combat, the third class operations specialist moves to his final warning: “…Alter your course immediately or be subject to U.S. defensive measures.”

The lieutenant checks his position, gets an update from the E-2, waits a moment. A moment more. Now: “Hot right, go. Check tapes on, master arm.” Back into the threat, now on collision bearing - check left a bit - get up sun, cool the intercept, slow it down, slow it down. Sensors checked, radar, RWR. There: Contact. Sanitize: Only one, looks like only one. Lock: 500 knots and low! “Ramp it down, quick-quick.” He flips his jet inverted and descends rapidly from 20,000 feet to 9,000 - don’t want to be trying to find this guy looking through the radome - always easier to get a tally-ho looking up. Checks right three o’clock, good: She’s still there, holding on. Good.

ACO: “Hobos, BRA 105, 18, low, hot, bogey. VID”

The lieutenant checks the bearing, range and altitude(BRA) of his target - confirmed: “Judy.” Got it, got it: Judy. Hush. “Deploy.”

Wingman: “Two.” She eases out, eases back, setting up for the visual identification.

Lieutenant: “Twelve miles, hot, naked.”

Wingman: “Two’s naked.” Neither of them targeted yet with an air-to-air radar. Good.

All throughout the strike group, eyes close and ears strain to catch each almost mechanical note of this exchange, ears attuned to the hidden weight of the words and tension in the voices. Which elevates immediately to a new and higher octave with: “Two’s spiked, nose.”

In the lead aircraft, the lieutenant’s jaw clenches, bares his teeth in his mask: Hard - He is closing on what is now very apparently an Iranian fighter at the rate of a mile every three seconds. He weighs the space left to him to maneuver, the time before a missile could reach his wingman, the rules of engagement. His actions in the next few moments might affect the fate of his wingman, the fleet, nations. He is 27 years old.