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.

“Pump,” he commands his wingman on the Aux radio. The radio no one but them is listening in on. He’s about to get outside the box, and he doesn’t want anyone else to know.

“Say again?”

“Pump - do it,” He insists.

Hesitantly (no time to waste!) she replies, “Two. YO-YO.”

YO-YO - you’re on your own - no kidding. That’s the whole point, the lieutenant thinks. He watches as his wingman commences a hard slice turn away from him, away from the threat, back to the west. The point is to be on my own - not only will this prevent you from being shot, if that’s the other guy’s intention, you’ll capture his full attention. When I do my stern conversion on him, we’ll see what he’s got on his mind, and what he’s made of.

“Ten miles - you better run hard,” he adds.

“Two’s cold - spiked at six. I’ve got it firewalled,” she adds. Full afterburner. Ah, well. There is a tanker airborne.

Confusion breaks water and displays its ugly head on board the E-2, the air defense cruiser and the aircraft carrier as the radar presentation changes strangely. What had been a proper two-ship of fighters running an intercept on an Iranian bogey is now one aircraft hot to the threat, itself still inbound, and an additional, previously unobserved bogey between the fighter and the strike group - two groups have become three: Who could that new group hot to the strike group be? The cruiser reacts first, with the TAO designating the new threat track number 2537, and assigning a weapons cover order. Time/distance calculations, weapons release ranges, grimaces and “what the hells” all the way around until the E-2 ACO hooks the track and verifies friendly interrogation codes. A collective sigh of relief until the realization sets in: “They’ve split up - he’s alone.”

Alone - it’s never a good thing to be alone in air combat. In a part of himself that he will not allow to speak just yet, the lieutenant knows that by sending his wingman away he has broken a cardinal rule of fighter aviation - the two-ship section is the basic fighting element, never to be divided. And yet, he also knows that one of the first heroes of the continental Navy, John Paul Jones once said, “He who will not risk, cannot win.” With the seconds clicking away, and with his section occupying one of the hated gray areas in the rules of engagement, with no clear guidance on the legal use of force, and a not-friendly-but-not-quite-hostile political situation, he could not in the time available to him think of a better way to protect his wingman, the strike group and himself from second-guessing. Which he knew would come anyway.

He bunts the fighter’s nose to build more separation in the vertical - he wants turning room and he’d like nothing better than to execute that turn from below the threat’s belly, where he will not be observed. He sees a speck on the horizon, engines smoking badly - almost certainly a Phantom, he thinks, smiling in his oxygen mask. A fast jet, the F-4, but antiquated when compared to modern fighters and not very maneuverable - it’ll be like clubbing baby seals. Originally US manufactured, and delivered in the time of the Shah, he wonders how the Iranians have kept them flying all these years. With all that smoke, it will be no challenge maintaining tally-ho, maintaining sight. He breaks his radar lock - with Iranian fighter still locked on to his wingman, he’ll have no situational awareness to anyone else. No use in warning him, if he’s got any radar warning gear of his own. The lieutenant scans his own receiver - still naked. Five miles. Now four - yes a Phantom - definitely a Phantom, the wing anhedral gives it away, the muscular fuselage. Three.

At a mile, with three seconds left to go until the merge, the lieutenant knows that he is unobserved - no way that the Phantom pilot would allow a threat down there at his belly without checking into him to neutralize the merge - he’ll have 90 degrees advantage by the time he crosses the Phantom’s six o’clock. Perfect.

He starts an “early turn,” before the merge has even happened, up in the vertical behind the F-4. At 90 degrees nose high, looking back through his canopy at the Phantom exhaust pipes and with his airspeed bleeding away in the HUD, the lieutenant realizes his mistake and screams with anger into his O2 mask: His nose-high conversion turn has cost him too much energy, he has gotten slow. He will get slower still before he has completed his turn and is in trail of the F-4. The F-4 is a faster jet: Not only will he never catch up to him, but the F-4 will catch up to his wingman, placing her at risk- the lieutenant recovers to the horizon at 250 knots and sees the fast moving Phantom turn again from an identifiable aircraft into a receding speck on the horizon. In training he could simulate a missile launch from here and win the day. But he isn’t in training, this is really happening, and he hasn’t got the ROE.

He is out of position, and the physics cannot be overcome.

(To be continued)