Sun 3 Jul 2005
0805 - The ship is finally stabilized alongside the oiler, 160 feet. The squadron commanding officer checks her forward and aft drift from ideal with small RPM adjustments in 2 rev increments. Half-degree rudder orders are given as well, to keep the abeam distance within tolerances. On the decks of the oiler, stolid crewmen in hard hats and life jackets wait patiently, while far below aux conn, in the carrier’s refueling sponsons, gunner’s mates stand ready with M-14 rifles. With the Captain’s approval, the rifles crack and monkey’s fists fly over to the oiler, trailing shot lines behind them. These are quickly brought to hand aboard the oiler, stout messenger lines affixed and the combination sent back to the carrier. After two iterations of this exchange, the high-tension span wires are tautly spread between the two ships, and the refueling rigs can be sent over to the awaiting receptacles aboard the carrier. Soon, the ship is taking on fuel - jet fuel, to keep the air wing in the fight.
The hardest part is now done, and now all can breathe more freely again in aux conn. While the risk of collision or rig damage still exists, good seamanship will keep that risk manageable.
Down in Ready Room Three, an FA-18 squadron executive officer is putting the finishing touches on his flight brief, a powerpoint presentation. Momentarily, he wonders how anyone ever got anything done in the Navy, in an era before powerpoint and email. He vaguely remembers seeing strike briefs presented on overhead projections and butcher block paper, of reading teletype feeds and standard naval record messages - in actual print! - it seems a wildly quaint notion, so very 10 years ago.
He’s the air wing lead for the noon close air support launch, eight strike fighters going up country in four two-ship packages to designated interdiction boxes. It will be a long flight, and probably a boring one these days. The XO was in these waters two years ago as a senior department head and remembers well the heady days of the air campaign for OIF - preparing and briefing and flying and fighting and landing and going airborne again, collapsing at the end of the day exhausted into his rack and starting over again the next day. Each day running into the next and every day requiring an almost inhuman perfection to ensure that only the right targets are struck, that no weapons land inside the No Fire Areas or too close to friendlies on the ground, themselves moving at an unheard of pace as they race across a nearly featureless terrain attempting to close with and destroy a foe who only rarely seems to show a willingness to stand and fight, but mostly rather fades away, leaving behind empty trenches, fortifications, even uniforms.
It’s not like that now, this CAS mission is “on call,” just in case the troops on the ground gain contact with a force they cannot instantly overcome. His job is to ensure that they don’t trip all over each other coming or going from the mission, that everyone understands their procedures checking into the air refueling tanker track, checking in through the Deep Air Support Center (DASC) and if called upon, over to the Forward AIr Controller, or FAC. Most likely they’ll never do much more than hold with the DASC until they’re nearly out of gas, race to the tanker for another top off, and then hold some more. Eventually it will be time to come home, and all they’ll have to show for the mission is a mild, temporary stiffness in their legs and back, and another four hours of flight time and a day trap in the log book. Could be worse.
0900 - The morning flag meeting commences with the admiral at the head of the table, and his ‘band of brothers” arrayed on either side. These warfare commanders will inform their boss of their special concerns and mitigations for the next 24, 48 and 72 hours. They work together, but there are only so many resources available, and sometimes one or more of them will find himself overextended or under-suppported - he will have to take on risk, in other words. He owes it to the admiral to inform him where he’s taking that risk, and how he intends to mitigate it. The boss may disagree, and ask that resources be re-allocated.
The Captain being trapped in aux conn for the refueling, the ship’s operations officer sits in his chair. He will answer any questions put directly to him, but will offer no opinions of his own. Only the Captain speaks for the Captain.
Up above, at 20,000 feet, the E-2C mission commander polls his crew in the “tunnel,” where the command and control work of the Hawkeye gets done. Their altitude allows the strike group to extend their “eyes” hundreds of miles beyond what could be attained by shipboard sensors alone. They open up the interior of Iran, to the east, an interior that would ordinarily be cast in the radar shadow of the Zagros mountain range. They have insight into the air support picture over Iraq. They identify and track the large and the small, both in flight and on the surface of the Arabian Gulf. Unknown surface contacts are highlighted to the Sea Combat Commander aboard the carrier, who will then dedicate rotary wing assets to classify and ID the vessels thus found. Unknown air contacts are sent to the Air Defense Commander aboard the cruiser, who will evaluate them as either threat or non-threat, executing his pre-planned responses appropriately to the classification.
In the E-2, the mission commander is satisfied. Everyone seems to be on top of their roles and the mission is going smoothly. He’s in good comms with the flagship and air defense cruiser, and the datalinks are maintaining good fidelity and latency. He checks his watch: One hour until recovery. He rocks back in his chair, stretches his arms and yawns. It will be good to take a nap, when they get done. Maybe after chow. Nothing like a “chow induced loss of consciousness.”
Just aft of him the Air Control Officer cocks his head quizzically as a bit of banana-shaped radar video appears off to the east, over the Zagros. It is in a place where air targets would not be customarily found. He re-checks his air route overlay on the radar as the antenna sweeps around again, leaving behind its ghostly trace. No, no air routes over there. He waits again for the antenna to come around - nothing: The target has faded. The ACO purses his lips, adjusts his radar gains, and waits another sweep - nothing, again. A false contact perhaps. But… there it is again. And again. He rolls his cursors over the display, using his trackball on the console and tags the target video, eyes narrowing. One more sweep and he’ll have target velocity. His eyes widen in surprise as the computer grinds to its conclusion. He reaches his hand up to place the boom mic closer to his lips, and sends his right foot stabbing towards the transmit pedal of his UHF radio.