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Operation Eastern Watch

By Lt Neptune 872nd 

It was the afternoon 26th of May 2013 Chonju, Korea. As I stepped out the maintenance hangar a light breeze swept the fumes of jet fuel in my face. Some fair weather clouds were scattered across the blue skies. The view of four armed F-16’s lined up on the apron and two more roaring past in the background, taking-off,  gave me a strange sensations in my chest. A mix of pride and healthy stress. The two guys who just departed were Slack and Netstat. Redneck and Hotdog would follow us with a 30 minute delay. The Wing commander, Caddie, was assigned to be my wingman. It would have made sense to have him as flight lead, but I was more current on Close Air Support missions. This was also a great opportunity for me to demonstrate a new gadget we had been working on.

Caddie stepped out the door behind me, helmet bag in one hand, Nav-bag in the other.

“I’m still skeptic about these two Tablet-PC’s I’m carrying around Nep. How is this going to help us really?”
“You’ll see Caddie. It’s little more than just another tablet-PC.”

We crossed the apron and approached our aircraft. I shook hands with the crew chief.

“Hi Chief. She looks fine today!”
“Serviced and ready to go sir!”

I went over the Pre-flight checklist before climbing into the cockpit. My F-16 was loaded with a pair of AGM-65D’s. A bit unusual for the mission, taken  the targets we were about to face. But we’ll see how it is going to work out. This aircraft was initially prepared for an Interdiction mission but got assigned to me, and my mission last minute.
Everything looked good so I climbed up the ladder, into the cockpit and the crew chief helped me strap in. I pull a Tablet-PC having a “Pace blade” logo in one of the corners. I strapped it to my left leg instead of a the checklist and my kneeboard with prepared CAS 9-line plates on the right. I pulled a cellphone size box with a short antenna from my Nav-bag and connected it to the Tablet-PC using a USB cable. There is no way to store this new gadget in the F-16’s cockpit but a few inch of Velcro tape instantly solves that. So I attached it to my headrest  just over my left shoulder. The cable ran past my hip, then up to the box so it wouldn’t be in the way. This would allow me to receive ROVER data from other aircraft, UAV’s or ground sensors. This should improve everyone’s situational awareness and de-clutter the communications.  I switched on the Tablet-PC which instantly gave me a digital checklist. I continued the startup procedure.

Our squadron, the 874th from the 87th Fighter Wing “Stray dogs” is assigned to provide Close Air Support to help out a unit called “Crossroad 30”. Crazy as it sounds…the target grid location is the ARP (Aerodrome Reference Point) of Kunsan airbase.
This is my second tour in Korea. The first time was straight forward: An all-out war between the north and the south. We were Striking targets deep behind enemy lines, bombing columns of vehicles using cluster bombs and blasting Russian made aircraft like Migs and Sukhois in air combat. Now everything was different. The whole peninsula is torn by war and in chaos. It seemed like the enemy changed every 2 weeks since the 3 months I’ve been here. Looking at Korea’s history, it was starting to look a lot like what Korea was several hundred years Before Christ.
A strong group of insurgents calling themselves the ‘Paekche’ managed to take control of Kunsan Airbase over 72 hours ago. The Paekche fight for a free and peacefully Korea. Aiming on the area which was the kingdom of Paekche in ancient history.
Taskforce Crossroad consist out of several motorized infantry companies and are assigned to retake the airbase. We are going to help them in their efforts.

At the briefed taxi time I signaled the crew chief to remove the chocks and followed his martialing directions. Soon me and Caddie arrived at the ORP point.
I put the backs of my hands against the canopy above my head, signaling the ground crew it’s safe to approach the aircraft. They checked everything and gave a thumbs up. I did my Pre-takeoff checks and titled my tape:

“Neptune…Hammer1 two-ship…mission number 1013...26th of May 12:55…I’m carrying two AGM-65 Delta’s, two external tanks and two AIM-9X missiles. we are assigned CAS on Kunsan Airbase with Crossroad 30”

I looked over at Caddie and soon he gave me a thumb up, indicating he was ready to go. We had four minutes before the planned Take-off time so I signaled him we would wait for two more minutes before line-up, by simply putting two fingers up.
Little more than two minutes later we were lined up on the runway. I did a quick line-up check and signaled Caddie for an engine run-up. I pressed the toe-brakes and move the throttle forward about an inch bringing the RPM to 80%. Everything looked good. I checked over my shoulder, and Caddie gave me an exaggerated head nod, indicated he was good to go.
I released the toe brakes and throttled smoothly into full After Burned. My aircraft rocketed down the runway and soon we were cruising southwest at 25.000ft with Caddie in a Fighting wing formation.

The UHF radio was silent. Totally different from what it was two years ago. Five more minutes before we would check in with Crossroad 30. We were in a holding pattern over the contact point called ‘Bar’. As I rolled out of the inbound turn of the holding I checked over my shoulder and saw Caddie getting pretty close to me. Closer than we briefed. He was clearly seeing me though, no doubt. I kept looking at him, wondering what he was up to. He formed up close on my left side. He tapped on the side of his helmet with his index finger, followed by a slashing gesture along his throat. He meant he has problems with his radio. I tried to contact him, signaling him asking if he could hear me. The response was a thumb down. SOP tell us, with combat missions to abort the non-comms aircraft if the fight still has to start. Especially with a mission like this, Communication is critical. I waved my hand horizontally dismissing him, indicating him to break formation and thus return to base.
That was a bummer. It would have been great to demonstrate the wing commander our new gadget and this means Crossroad would only get a single F-16 with two Maverick missiles.
I punched in the VHF frequency via my upfront controls for Crossroad field-HQ. 133.150. I paused for a few seconds to hear if there was any activity. Then keyed my radio.

“Crossroad 30, Hammer1 with you.”
There was silence for a few seconds. Then right before I wanted to repeat my call:
“Hammer1, Crossroad 30, Authenticate Charlie Golf”

“Hammer1, comes back Hotel…Authenticate India Lima.”
“Crossroad 30 comes back Romeo. Continue check-in.”
“Hammer1, Mission number 1013, Single F-16 block 50, Holding over CP Bar 25.000ft, Two times AGM-65 Delta, EO IR and ROVER capable, 35 minutes play time. Abort code Bravo Alpha”
“Copy Hammer 1, we still have aircraft operating in area Nicky contact Windmill75 on 349.00”
“Hammer1, switching to 349.00”

I punched in the frequency in my UHF radio using the upfront controls and as soon as I hit the enter button I could hear Slack’s voice calling “Splash”. I look over to my left where Kunsan should be in a distance so I could maybe see his bomb explode. But there were to many clouds between me and him. And the haze didn’t help either.
Soon after the Controller gave a BDA (Battle Damage Assessment) on the effect of his weapon, he called his flight would return to base. I figured it would spare time not to wait until Slack and his wingman would have left the area so I keyed my radio:

“Windmill75. Hammer1”
“Hammer1, Windmill75 authenticate bravo alpha”
“Hammer1 coms back echo. Authenticate India lima”
“Windmill75, Romeo…Hammer1 we received your check-in. Are you familiar with update One?”
“Affirm, Hammer1”
“Roger, Cossroad 30 now has units inside the perimeter of the airbase. Enemy rocket fire seized after previous strikes. Insurgents are regrouping in the centre and south of the airbase. Clouds are scattered at 15.000ft with a few layer at 16.000, winds are calm. Final control authority by Windmill75 How copy?”
“Hammer1 copies all. Final control by Windmill 75”
“Roger Hammer1, when you are cleared to proceed into Nicky via entry north. Report when contact or visual on the target area.
“Cleared into Nicky, Wilco on contact or visual…I’m descending to 15.000ft”

I flipped my override mode switch on my throttle from inboard to the centre, giving me the Air-to-Ground master mode. Since it would take some time before I would actually start shooting, I now powered up my AGM-65 missiles. Now I pushed my DMS (Display management Switch) on my control stick to the right bringing up the display of my targeting pod. I could already see the airbase by the infrared image it gave me. But I waited to call the controller until I was fully ready to continue to talk to him. I descended past some towering clouds, one of my favorite sights to see. Under the cloud layer I leveled off. My altitude indicator showed 14.700ft. Fine with me. With the anti aircraft guns and shoulder fired missiles I should be safe above 10.000ft.
The image of my targeting pod showed the north end of Kunsan’s runway. When I switched to Day-TV mode I clearly saw the large 18 painted on the asphalt.
I rolled my F-16 over to the left, putting the airbase on my right side, then started to orbit at around 10 miles. I pushed my TMS switch on my stick forward, Geographically stabilizing my targeting pod’s camera. I was ready…

“Hammer1, established in a 10 mile wheel, Sensor set.”
“Roger, confirm you are transmitting on ROVER with 6212?”
“Then Windmill75 is hollow.”

Bummer again. The guy I was talking to on the ground has a handheld display where he could, if everything worked, see my targeting pod images live on as a full motion video. Hollow means he wasn’t receiving the video feed. It would have helped us a lot with getting my targeting pod on the intended target. We now had to do it the old fashioned way.

“Hammer1, is looking at the north end of runway north to south orientated and I have some vehicles just north of the overrun.”
“Roger Hammer1, Are you ready to copy 9-line?”
“This will be a type two control. IP Whiskey, 080, 9 miles, 3 feet, BRDM in a tree line, position by talkon, No marks, friendlies 300 meters north, Egress in the wheel how copy?”
“Hammer1, IP Echo 80, 9 miles, 3 feet, BRDM in a tree line, by talkon, Friendlies 300 meters north, into the wheel.”
“Good read back. Say when ready for talkon.”
“Roger, the vehicles north of the overrun are friendlies. There is a road running west to east past the overrun…”
“Hammer1, contact”
“Roger…follow the road east, after 30 meter it crosses the taxiway. Then splits north and south, with a tree line on the east side”
“Hammer1, Contact”
“Follow the road south. Then after about 200 meters there is an intersection”
“Hammer1, Contact”
“The BRDM is in the tree line just north of that road!”

This is where confusion and assumption caught me. I didn’t see anything in my display which remotely looked like a vehicle. I slewed my camera north along the road and tree line. Then I saw a bright white spot in the infrared image. I thought I found it! But when I switch to Day-TV mode, I could immediately tell it was a NATO Bushmaster. I just wasted I lot of time! And I could clearly see some impacts of small arms fire around the vehicle. These guys were in a heavy gunfight.
I felt sorry but I had to tell him I was just looking at a friendly position.

“Hammer1 contact on a Bushmaster, pointed east, stationary”
“These are friendlies!”

A pause…he must have been cursing. I could feel the frustration coming up as well. I still had my little gadget attached to my leg. I should be able to receive ROVER images from THEM if they had some means of remote sensors. So I keyed my radio.

“Hammer1 is ROVER receiving capable. Do you have anything to show me?”
“Roger Hammer1! Standby we will launch a Raven!”

I could hear the excitement and relief in his voice at the same time. I pushed the function button on my Tablet-PC giving me a black screen. If everything goes well I should soon see the Raven’s drone camera image.
Two minutes later the screen started to flash and show static. Something was happening. Then short after I saw the live images of the tiny aircraft’s camera, wobbling in the wind. I could immediately see the runway and the tree line we had been looking at before.

“Hammer1, Good handshake!”
“Roger Hammer1, Windmill75 is bringing the drone in position.”

I  could see the airbase was in rubble. The control tower looked like a chuck on Dutch hole-cheese. Then the camera started to pan. Looking at the intersection. And there I saw the BRDM, smartly positioned under the trees close to a building. That’s why I couldn’t see it! I knew immediately where to slew my camera to.  The BRDM is a small armored Russian made vehicle. This one seemed to have a high caliber gun on top. A few seconds later I had my targeting pod on that location.

“I have contact BRDM-2 in the tree line, 15 meters east of the intersection!”
“Roger! That BRDM your target. Final attack heading 080 plus minus twenty, Single Maverick, Report in for clearance.”
“080 plus minus twenty, Single maverick, Wilco when in”

Without delay I snapped my F-16 in a tight turn towards Whiskey. A predefined point in the west of the target area. We lost valuable time already and I had fuel to spare…so I pushed my throttle all the way into full after burned. Even flying at 95% of the speed of sound I seemed to take ages to get to point Whiskey. I pushed my DMS button to the left with my thumb, bringing up a black WPN screen on my left Multi Function Display. I then uncaged one of the missiles, pressing the knob on top of my throttle. Instantly I got an Infrared image of the missile’s camera on the screen.
I marked my targeting pod position and selected the mark as a steering point. The Missile was in PRE mode, slaving the missile’s camera to the selected steering point.
I approached point Whiskey, so I rolled 90degrees of bank and turned toward the target. I rolled out and saw the BRDM showing clearly in the crosshair of the missile.

“Hammer1, In! 078 One missile ready, Flight time 30”
“Hammer1, you are cleared hot!”
“Roger Hammer1, In hot!”

Everything looked good…then the moment I pressed the pickle button to fire the missile, the little cross in the centre of the display seemed to blink for a moment. A split second later the missile rocketed from my left wing with a big roar. This wasn’t good. The blinking cross means the missile lost its locked.

“Hammer1, Rifle!”

I pulled my jet back up close to the cloud layer while counting down the seconds. After 30 seconds I expected, or hoped, to have my targeting pod’s image filled with a bright explosion…but nothing. I rolled back into my 10 mile orbit looking over my right shoulder, hoping to see thick black smoke coming from the position of the BRDM. Nothing…and there was too much smoke scattered around the airbase to see where my missile did hit. A shiver caught me…I hope the missile didn’t hit any of our guys.

“Hammer1, Windmill75. We observer a projectile impacting west of the runway. No hits!”
I replied. But I cursed to myself. Why didn’t I take just a few seconds extra to make sure it was locked all right!? Morron! I just wasted a valuable missile.
“Hammer1, cleared re-attack same target and restrictions. Report In for clearance”
“Hammer1, Wilco”

Again I snapped toward Whiskey, blazing afterburner. Close to the speed of sound. I was going to do it right this time. After a minute flight which seemed like an hour I rolled in again, uncaged my second and thus last missile. There I saw the BRDM again. But the cross was flashing. No lock. And the cross started to drift to the bottom left. Puzzled I lowered the nose. 10 degrees…20 degrees. I retarted the throttle. By now the cross was all the way to the lower left corner. “Son of a bitch!” I cursed to myself. The bitch’in Betty gives me an altitude warning “Altitude Altitude”. Meaning I was in the range of enemy anti-aircraft guns. I pull up my jet and immediately return to whiskey again.

“Hammer1, off dry off dry.”
“Roger, Hammer1…say reason for dry run?”
“Hammer1, unable lock. Going around for another pass”
“Roger Hammer1. Be advised you have 3 more minutes playtime.”
“Missile will be off the rail in 2 minutes and 50 seconds!”

Of course I couldn’t guarantee that but I was determined to get that BRDM, He’s not going to get away with it on my watch!
Soon I was back on whiskey. I rolled back in again. But the same phenomena appeared. “Damn it!” I yelled in my mask. What I did then was either heroic or stupid…
I pushed my nose over to a 30 degree dive, putting the general area of the BRDM in my Heads up display. I switch from PRE to BOR mode for my missile, slaving the missile’s camera to my Flight Path marker. This means I had to physically dive straight to it, and kind of aim it manually. I saw the BRDM in the screen again. The Bitch’in Betty screamed ‘Altitude Altitude’.

“Hammer1 in hot 070 One missile ready flight time….ten seconds!”
“Hammer1 clear hot”

I was too busy flying and aiming to give him any response. I could imagine the insurgents on the ground saw me coming at them. They would empty their automatic rifle magazines in my general direction. Would one of them be lucky enough to hit me?
I retarded my throttle. I heard the wind violently roaring around my canopy, as I rocketed down in a 30 degree dive. I pressed the TMS button up, The missile locked up. My heart was pounding. I waited for a moment. At that point it felt like two seconds. In reality it wasn’t more than half a second. I pressed the pickle button and after the roar of the launched missile pulled my jet up. I didn’t want to end up like a smoking hole in the ground.

“Hammer1 Rifle!”

The controller kind of interrupted me: “SAM launch flares flares!”
My already pounding heart stopped for a moment and an extra burst of adrenaline rushed through my veins. I was only at 1500ft. Rolled 100 degrees to my left side, idled the throttle and pressed my the EWS button on the stick with my thumb, pumping out a burst of six flares. “Chaff, Flare” the Bitch’in betty said in my earphone. Was in a tight turn close to 5 G’s squeezing my cheeks together, flexing my stomach muscle, breathing…I buzzed across a pair of friendly bushmasters. I could easily see the soldiers standing next to it, I was so low! I rolled my F-16 straight up again and pulling it to the sky. I looked over my shoulder. No missile. And otherwise I would have been dead by now. A pushed the throttle forward to full after burner and rocketed into the blue, through the clouds.

“Hammer1, Target destroyed!”
Finally some good news!
“Roger, Hammer1 is Dakota.”
“Cleared RTB, egress east 20.000”

I flew east and returned to base. In the meanwhile I heard Redneck checking in with the controller. It took me a minute to relax again and for my heart rate to go down.

Half an hour later I was back on the apron, and my canopy winding open. The crew chief put the ladder up and came to help me.

“Welcome back sir. Had some fun out there?”
“I wouldn’t call it fun…but I wrecked one of their vehicles!”
“Good job sir. Did that Tablet work for you?”
“Yes…actually. It kept me and the controller from wasting more time than we already had waste.”