2nd Place Finisher
By Michael Barretta
DF-26B ballistic missiles split the sky with their hypersonic screams. Guam Killers rained down and Andersen Air Force Base burned. Greasy, black smoke, illuminated by bright flashes of primary detonations, billowed violently into the sky. War was loud, very loud, thought Lieutenant Andrew Cohen as he strapped into the right seat of Bone Daddy, a B-1B Sea Control Bomber. He was first to the aircraft and had hit the alert button at the base of nose gear to start the engines before climbing up to the cockpit.
Cohen opened his NATOPS pocket checklist. His hands shook and he couldn’t stop them. This wasn’t a fight. This was straight up murder from the sky and any second now a thousand-pound high-explosive warhead was going to detonate fifty feet above him and the overpressure would flatten him to a thin paste of jelly before his synapses could fire. Patriot and THAAD missiles arced skyward, leading long vaporous contrails. Bursts of light illuminated the high cumulus clouds gathering in the early dawn.
Second wave incoming.
He stared for several impossibly long seconds at his NATOPS checklist as if it was written in some strange, foreign language. An explosion rocked his aircraft and bits of Andersen Air Force base pelted the fuselage.
Bone Daddy’s aircraft commander, Lieutenant Commander David Ross, was lost somewhere in the burning base; Cohen didn’t think he would show. AW1 Patrick Lenihan, Bone Daddy’s Offensive Weapon System Operator, appeared. The man’s face was scorched red and his barely within regulations hair was burned to tight ashen curls.
“Sir, if we don’t get out of here, we are going to die.”
“I know. We need…”
“Sir, no one else is coming. They are all dead.”
“Okay.” Cohen advanced the throttles and the four F101 engines spooled up from idle. The aircraft lurched forward and he steered it off the alert strip onto runway Six Left. “Get up here and strap in.”
Lenihan sat and strapped himself into the left seat as the aircraft rolled. On the runway, Cohen advanced the throttles to their stops, full afterburner. Bone Daddy surged as all four afterburners lit.
The second wave impacted.
Debris rained down. Pieces of runway. Pieces of buildings. Pieces of people. The nose dropped off a buckled slab of upheaved runway. Cohen thought of Air France’s Concorde trailing fire when kicked-up debris ruptured a fuel cell. Airspeed built and the nose broke ground. The Air Force’s B-21 Raider hangars exploded and rivers of burning JP-8 fuel flowed across the runway.
The main mounts slipped free and he sucked the gear up, flying through fire. He pushed the nose over for airspeed. 360 knots. Wings swept back 25 degrees. The jet was heavy with 16 AGM-158D Long Range Anti-Ship missiles in the mid and aft bays and an auxiliary fuel tank in the forward.
The smartest thing Cohen could do was get away from ground zero.
His wife lived at ground zero. Rachael taught third grade at the DoD school.
The ground plummeted away as he escaped over Pati Point, the cliffs at the end of the runway. He leveled at 350 feet, 540 knots, wings swept full aft, above a sea slick with morning light. He banked left and rolled out heading 360. He didn’t really know why, it just made intuitive sense. His heart pounded. He just took off without a plan. He locked eyes with Lenihan and saw his own terror reflected back.
An immense flash of light lit up the area behind the aircraft.
“Did they nuke us?” asked Lenihan.
“I don’t know.”
Despite its capabilities, the Air Force didn’t want the B-1B. No matter how sexy a Cold War killer it was, without stealth, its ability to penetrate highly contested airspace came under increasing doubt, besides it was just a bit too long in the tooth, a money sponge sucking up resources for new hardware. The Air Force didn’t want the Navy to have it either. Bombing was firmly within the realm of Air Force mission sets and who needed the competition; besides, the Navy had their P-8 Poseidons to prowl the oceans.
Oddly enough, the Navy was in violent agreement and did not wish to take custody of the aging platform. Not only were they expensive, but philosophically, operating the B-1B was de facto proof that aircraft carriers were vulnerable to shore-based bombers firing standoff weapons, and the Air Force did not need any help making that argument. But a shipbuilding program crippled by persistent economic recession, a suspicious shipyard fire that scrapped the USS Abraham Lincoln, and the cancelation of USS Doris Miller meant that the Navy had a power projection problem in the Pacific ocean.
Boeing lobbyists, Congress, and a dusted-off RAND study forced the matter and twelve B-1B Lancers were regenerated from Davis-Monthan’s Type 1000 storage and bailed to the U.S. Navy. Six were based in Japan, six in Guam.
Only one would make it to the fight.
“What are we doing?” asked Lenihan.
“I don’t know yet.” Cohen had a digital copy of yesterday’s intel brief on his secure tablet with the last known positions of the three Chinese Carrier Strike Groups. Very unusual for all three to be at sea at the same time. The Chinese had claimed it was an exercise.
He rotated through Guam center, tower, and ground frequencies. Dead air. The frequencies for Guam International Airport were also quiet. No sense in taking out one airfield and leaving the other.
“Lenny, you are gonna have to run both defense and offense. Load up the ESM library so we can see who is out here with us.”
“We’re only half a crew and we don’t have orders,” said Lenihan.
“We will just do our jobs,” said Cohen. “Best we can.”
Lenihan looked hesitant but finally said, “I’m on it.” He left the cockpit to take his position at the Offensive Weapon Systems Operator’s station behind the cockpit.
Calmer now, Cohen took the time to organize his cockpit and back himself up with his NATOPS checklist. What did he know?
GPS and SATCOM systems were down. Earth’s orbit was probably a tumbling satellite graveyard. No way to get confirmation or authorization. Bone Daddy’s inertial navigation system was upgraded with the new MAGNAV system so he knew where he was in the world. He flew undamaged over a blue Pacific Ocean darted with sunlight after a horrific ballistic missile attack that destroyed Andersen. With the aux tank in the forward bay, he had nine hours of fuel, enough for Taiwan and back. Bone Daddy was alone and loaded for a sea denial mission.
Time to deny the sea.
“Library is loaded. I’m getting hits. Nothing military. Commercial navigation radars. Developing passive tracks,” said Lenihan over the ICS.
“Okay, thanks,” said Cohen.
Cohen thought of his wife and how scared she must be. If she was still alive. He went there, indulging his inner darkness. How screwed up the world must be for her to be a casualty before him. “Find me something Chinese and military to shoot at.”
Airman Morales’s head throbbed and blood ran into his eyes from a gash across his forehead. He felt scalped. He scooped pulverized concrete debris with the front loader’s bucket and as it rolled forward a blackened human torso tumbled into view. Intestines spooled out from the ruptured body and the remains fell out of sight. Between the broken-up dead and the toxic smoke, the smell was atrocious, and with the tropical heat, the stench would only get worse. He stopped and vomited between his legs.
“What the hell are you doing?” yelled Master Sergeant Grady.
“Master Sergeant, there’s people in the…”
“No. We don’t have time. Fill those holes in the runway. Just do it.”
Morales nodded. If a man with third degree burns and half a uniform gave you orders, you followed. Besides, he was the only one within sight that had his shit together.
“There is a bird out there, Morales. It needs to come home,” explained the Master Sergeant.
How could you tell? thought Morales. Cratered runways. Flattened buildings. Blasted aircraft. Fires burned everywhere and no one was putting them out. It was like a malignant god had reached down and stirred the Earth. Everything was chaos except for the Master Sergeant. Morales wiped his sour mouth and nodded in affirmation. His head pounded. Smoke stung his eyes.
Nothing easier than filling holes and there were more than enough to keep him busy.
The front loader’s engine drowned out the screams of the nearly dead.
“I got something. Someone broke EMCON,” said Lenihan. “A single hit on a Type 348 fire control radar associated with 37 millimeter close-in weapon system. Mounted on multiple classes of Chinese warships. Bears 002, indefinite range. It lasted about 15 seconds.”
“Okay turning to. Keep me updated.” He flew hands on at 1500 feet above the Pacific. BARALT hold on. RADALT hold off. Unlikely that radar altimeter emissions would travel far enough for detection, but before a few hours ago, missiles raining down on Guam were also considered unlikely. He was much calmer. The routine demands of flying focused his mind. Let the training win.
Maybe we should have seen it coming? Fractured domestic stability, strengthening Taiwanese independence movements, and an aging Xi Jinping under threat of losing power necessitated a big win against an external enemy. Seems like today was the day.
They flew on.
“I got another hit. X band, KLJ-7A off of FC-31 fighters. Multiple hits. Hostile and friendly. The world’s gone active. Something big is going on. Multiple surface search and fire control radars bear 006.”
Once opposing forces had found each other, the battlespace lit up with electromagnetic energy. No sense in being quiet once discovered. Kinetics followed. DF-17 hypersonic missiles launched from H-6N bombers slalomed out of the sky and were met with directed energy fire from Constellation-class frigates. Aegis-guided SM-3 interceptors slammed into DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missiles. Deep penetrating F-35 Lightnings parsed the battlespace to millimeter fidelity. Radars and countermeasures went dark as weapons systems delivered concrete results. Ships burned. Wingless aircraft tumbled from the sky.
But that was none of his concern.
The AN/ALG-161C electronic support measures system classified targets down to the hull numbers and he had a good idea which hulls needed destroying.
“Lenny, do you have anything for me?” asked Cohen.
“I do. I’ve got Link 16 off a Triton. We are participating,” said Lenihan.
The mission panel display electronically sketched out the largest sea battle since World War II in abstract symbology. Three Chinese and two American carrier strike groups had committed to destroying each other. The Kennedy and Ford had engaged the Liaoning, Shandong, and the newer type-003 Carrier, Chairman Mao Zedong.
“Let’s get into the fight,” said Cohen. Now that he knew where he was going and who to shoot at, he descended to 500 feet and accelerated.
“Targets designated,” said Lenihan. “Platform.”
Cohen leveled the wings. Hit the pre-arm/release switch. He opened the bays and added power to maintain airspeed.
No need to get specific with AGM-158D’s. Their evil little minds had already tapped into the open architecture of the Offensive Weapon Suite and they had a pretty good idea of their role in the matter. The weapons collaborated and decided upon a course of action to defeat the shotgun destroyers flanking the Chinese carriers. They presented the plan to the aircraft commander as if he could come up with something better.
“Contacts inbound. FC-31s. We’re about to be engaged!” said Lenihan. “Am I cleared?”
“Cleared for release,” said Cohen.
One-by-one, the AGM’s fell into the slipstream. Wings snapped open like switchblades and engines ignited. Transition to cruise.
Lenihan called the deployment. “One of sixteen away. Two of sixteen away.”
The sixth missile malfunctioned when one wing failed to extend. The motor ignited and the missile corkscrewed into the sea.
The first AGM’s out the door throttled back and waited for their siblings to catch up. The weapons formed and swarmed, splitting into three flights of five. Each calculated to travel 200 nautical miles and arrive on target within milliseconds of each other.
“Sixteen of sixteen away, cleared to maneuver,” said Lenihan.
Cohen closed the weapon bay doors and threw the aircraft into a hard ninety-degree knife edge turn. His little piece of the war was over. He pushed the nose down, aiming for 200 feet, hoping to get lost in the wave clutter. He firewalled the throttles. Nothing in the inventory flew better low-level than a Bone.
FC-31s closed, and his defensive systems could feel the tickle of KLJ-7A radars burning through Lenihan’s jamming. The KLJ-7A radar guided two PL-12s, China’s AIM-120 equivalent, until the missile activated its own terminal guidance radar.
“Two PL-12s. Active. Stinger’s hot,” said Lenihan. “Platform.”
Cohen had a choice. Attempt to defeat the missiles with maneuver and conventional jamming or go wings level and let Stinger, the 90-kilowatt laser pod mounted to Bone Daddy’s empennage, work its sci-fi magic.
Well, he couldn’t pull 39 g’s to evade and the missile had a home-on-jam attack mode. “Platform,” he acknowledged.
The laser fired, indicated only by an alert on his panel. He held his breath and waited for the missiles to shred his aircraft.
“Splash two. Targets down,” said Lenihan.
“Amen,” said Cohen.
Runway Six Left looked like a dirt strip, but it was far better than Six Right. A bulldozer pushed the wreckage of a bat-winged B-21. The aircraft had hit a crater at near takeoff speed and had disintegrated into a spray of toxic, composite fire. Somewhere in that tangled, smoldering mass were the remains of two pilots. Someone would look later.
The Master Sergeant had impressed the walking wounded into working parties, and they groomed Six Left with shovels, rakes, brooms, and bare hands. It was like a zombie FOD walkdown, but he took what he could get. What was he supposed to do? The damn runways were his and until someone came along and told him to stop, he would do what he was supposed to do, keep it flat and smooth. Someone’s pickup truck arrived with bags of concrete acquired from out in town. They dumped the bags on the top of the tamped down rubble to fill in the gaps. If they could get some water, they could make a surface that might not tear the gear right out from under an aircraft. Maybe the Marines were right. Vertical was the way to go.
He stood on a filled 30-foot crater and knew it was someone’s grave.
Cohen ran on fumes with engine number three shut down for high turbine temperature. He identified Guam by the smear of smoke marring the horizon. No one answered the radio.
He bypassed Andersen and marked on top Guam international. No one challenged him. Guam International still burned and the airfield looked like the surface of the moon, but the area around the airport looked intact. Thank God for precision weapons.
Lenihan stood and peered through the windscreen “It’s still there.”
“Hard to sink an island.”
“They sure tried.”
Cohen flashed the wings over his house. If Rachael was alive, she would look up and see a B-1B with Jack Skellington nose art, and she would know he was okay. He tried to pick out his house through the smoke and summer haze, but he couldn’t.
“She’s okay,” said Lenihan.
“I know,” said Cohen, but he really didn’t.
They overflew Andersen , entering a wide overhead pattern mindful of his one engine out. People and construction equipment scattered from runway Six Left. It looked rough, but he didn’t think his aircraft would drop into a crater. He extended his downwind and turned to final. Full forward sweep.
The main mounts touched down and chirped. He held the nose, bleeding off airspeed. The aircraft shuddered over the rough patches but didn’t sink in. When all three were on the ground, he deployed spoilers and brakes that threw him into his straps. The aircraft roller-coastered over the filled craters but it stayed straight and dirty-side down. He laid on the wheel brakes hard.
God bless whoever filled those holes. He steered off the last taxiway and dead-ended at a smoldering pile of debris.
Fatigue swamped him, running right through his body like a train. He felt like he could sleep right here in his seat, the seat that still had the ejection seat pin in place.
He pulled the throttles to off, not bothering with the shutdown checks or starting the APUs, His cockpit faded to dark under protest. His NATOPS was around here somewhere.
“I have to go find Rachael.”
“I’ll go with you.”
Commander Martha Fluckey, Commanding Officer of the USS Barb, a Block V Virginia-class submarine, had the wounded and unescorted Mao Zedong, the sole surviving Chinese carrier, in her sights. The carrier had taken three AGM-158D hits from a lone B-1B coming at her from an unexpected direction. The ship’s island was a twisted steel stump and the hangar deck was a burned-out cave. It wasn’t fighting, but it still floated.
That was her problem to deal with.
She felt the thump of four Mk-48 torpedoes leaving her tubes. She waited and listened.
Her sonarman turned and nodded. All four, thousand-pound warheads had detonated on target.
The drone burst the ocean’s surface and streaked towards the mortally- wounded carrier.
She vectored the drone’s BDA to the boat’s display panels.
She and her crew watched in silence. Such a high-definition spectacle seemed more like a Hollywood special effect than a military victory. Tons of water poured into the carrier’s hull. It rolled in a sudden catastrophic upset pitching debris and men over the sides. Such a monstrous thing to witness.
“Send message. Scratch one flat top.”
Mike Barretta Is a naval aviator having flown the SH-60B helicopter on multiple deployments. He currently works for a defense contractor as a maintenance test pilot.
Featured Image: “concept for Boeing- B-1 bomber” by James Vaughan via Artstation.