First Move

Fiction Contest Week

By Dylan Phillips-Levine and Trevor Phillips-Levine

Near future. Crimean Peninsula.

“White pawn to D-4. Your move, Danil,” said Gregori.

I know his next move—he’s so predictable. Colonel Gregori’s personality showed itself on the chess board. He always opened with the Queen’s Gambit. Colonel Gregori and I began playing chess together when we served in Syria, flying the aging Sukhoi-24 Fencer. She was a fearsome aircraft and even more frightening to fly as of late. She had a checkered safety record, and the turbojets from the 60’s and variable swept wings had a nasty tendency to disintegrate. Only two weeks ago, one broke apart mid-flight, although both pilots ejected safely; the former humbling Russian aerospace engineers, and the latter a testament to Russian rocket scientists—the best rocket scientists in the world.

I moved my pawn to D-5 with my left hand, countering in an equally predictable move. “Your move, Gregori,” I responded. I always enjoyed chess. It’s a game of perfect information with no secrets or chance. The predictable opening choreography gives way to entropy and chaos as the game unfolds.

Before moving his chess piece, the secure telephone broke the silence and his concentration. Gregori picked up the phone and responded, “Yes, sir.”

He then told me, “Danil, our squadron has been tapped to fly a high priority mission, straight from Moscow. It’s called Operation Sovremenny Voyna.

High priority mission, cryptic language, and old aircraft—”about the Russian standard,” I thought to myself. “If you didn’t want to play, you could have just told me,” I said half-heartedly.

“I’m serious, Danil. Our game will have to wait. I need to brief you and the aircrew for a flight. Call the wardroom for the mission briefing.”

“Yes, sir,” I replied.

In the ready room, Gregori pulled out his issued laptop, courtesy of the Main Intelligence Directorate—in my native tongue, Glavnoye Razvedyvatelnoye Upravlenie, or GRU for short. In it, he opened the classified presentation and began his brief.

“Gentlemen, our squadron has been selected for Operation Sovremenny Voyna. A British warship exited the Bosporus Strait into the Black Sea yesterday. The GRU believes that the HMS Daring, a Type 45 guided missile destroyer, entered the Black Sea with explicit orders to violate Russian territorial waters around Crimea in an operation that Western countries call ‘Freedom of Navigation Operations,’ or FONOPS. A year earlier, her sistership, the HMS Defender, conducted a similar territorial violation while transiting under the guise of ‘innocent passage.’ Our mission this time is to stop the British warship if they violate our sovereign waters under the same guise of ‘innocent passage.’”

I remembered the HMS Defender’s “innocent passage” last year; I flew as the aircraft commander. The situation escalated to the point where my SU-24 dropped 4 x OFAB 250kg bombs in its path after repeated warnings from violating Russia’s sovereign territorial waters. However, despite the bombs, she refused to alter course. Since then, the West brazenly increased their FONOPs and “innocent passage” transits.

Eight hours later, Gregori placed us on immediate alert to be ready to launch at a moment’s notice. He informed me and the aircrew that the intelligence was right. I could have predicted that; it is always the same opening move by the West. After hurriedly donning my flight gear, I scrambled to my aircraft and strapped into the left ejection seat of my Fencer with my copilot strapped in the right seat. To our left sat another Fencer, our wingman. Once strapped in, the ground crew connected the hot fuel lines to ensure our aircraft would be topped off with fuel when given permission to launch. I rocked my left hand back and forth, signaling our wingman to start the engines; the four turbo jets of both aircraft whined as they spooled up and then howled through the airfield as we waited for the call to launch. The noise is deafening, even inside the aircraft with my helmet on.

My wingman and I are the centerpiece of this operation. Moscow tasked us to remind the West that Russian sovereignty is unquestionable and that their warships off the Crimean coast snubbed this very notion. I coyly said to my copilot to make small chat, “How would the West feel if we sailed a warship loaded with missiles through the Florida Keys?”

He didn’t respond. Russian aerospace engineers supposedly designed the instrument panel to reduce stress by making it light blue, but the sea of switches and analog instruments with Cyrillic letters and numbers contrasted against the light blue panel were anything but stress reducing. Nonetheless, my co-pilot cross-checked his instruments again to keep his mind focused. Although he had conducted drills like this before and dropped the bombs with me in the path of the Defender last year, this time was different. This time, our flight profile would be higher than normal, within the radar horizon of the enemy vessel. It ran counter to the tactics we trained for. They wanted us to be seen.

I looked back at my watch and let out a soft sigh, muffled by the oxygen mask hanging by my left cheek. I muttered under my breath at the realization we had been idling for two hours. I can’t help but feel sorry for our ground crew. They’ve been waiting outside for hours to disconnect the hot fuel lines and marshal us since we got the alert call.

“Our ground crew must be deaf by now,” I joked with my co-pilot to break the monotony.

“What?” The co-pilot said as he cracked a smile and then went back to scanning his instruments. He began to check the armament system again.

“Don’t,” I replied. “You’ve already checked it.”

“Yes, sir,” he replied.

I quipped back, “Relax, it’ll be just like last time, only this time, different.”

He smirked back at me.

His uneasiness was then broken as the encrypted radio crackled to life, “Fencer 818 and flight, this is Tower, cleared to launch. Initial vector 210 for 85 kilometers. Check in secure when airborne.” Operation Sovremenny Voyna was a go.

“Fencer 818 and flight, Roger,” I replied.

We clipped our oxygen masks into place as the copilot eased the throttle up. During the engine run up, our wingman’s pilot signaled a thumbs up signifying all systems normal and ready for takeoff. I returned the signal and released the brakes. Our section of SU-24s barreled down the runway in full afterburner and then we turned southward over the water.

As we passed through 3,000 feet, our analog radar warning receiver started going off. S band radar on 3 gigahertz. I tell my copilot, “There she is.”

Passing through 5,000 feet, we turned on our search radar. Protocol required us to ensure that the automatic identification system (AIS) matched radar returns. AIS spoofing has become commonplace in recent years. My copilot manually plotted the bearing line and radar with a grease pencil on his side-cockpit window. Instead of investing in sensor fusion, the Kremlin thought the budget was best spent elsewhere. Why spend millions on sensor fusion when a flick of wrist with a pencil and a sharp mind would do? Well, that and because our defense budget had been diverted to manufacturing nuclear-tipped torpedoes.

The bearing lines matched up with the lone radar blip on our scope; under normal circumstances, there would be multiple radar blips and bearing lines as our Navy and Coast Guard vessels escorted and sometimes shouldered enemy warships away from our coastline. But not this time. The ship was by itself.

After picking up the lone British warship with our surface search radar, I gave the signal to my wingman to commence his approach.

With the wave of my hand, I detached the other SU-24. I watched her bank away and descend towards the British warship.

With our wingman racing towards the British warship, my co-pilot started transmitting in his best English on VHF Channel 16, also known as Bridge to Bridge:

“British warship, you have been repeatedly warned and are in violation of international law. You must immediately leave the territorial sea of the Russian Federation. You broke the rules of innocent passage. I am authorized to strike. The Russian Federation does not bear responsibility if your vessel is damaged or destroyed.”

The aircrafts’ radios broadcasted the warship’s response:

“This is British Warship Delta THREE TWO, we are conducting innocent passage. We have the right to do so in accordance with international rule and the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea. Your actions are unsafe, unprofessional, and endanger my vessel. Are you threatening me? Over.”

My co-pilot looked at me with unease after the response. I answered his uneasy silence and responded, “Let our wingman carry out his maneuvers first and see if that changes anything.”

We watched as the other Su-24 made two mock dive-bomb attacks followed by a low altitude cut across the bow.

Immediately following the maneuvers, the British warship broadcasted:

“Attention Russian military aircraft, your maneuvers are unsafe and present a hazard to responsible and safe lawful navigation. Your hostile, unsafe, and unprofessional actions are being recorded. Over.”

My co-pilot replied with his canned response, “British warship, you are in Russian territorial waters. Leave now or we will strike. This is your final warning.”

Once more, the British responded with their scripted line:

“This is British Warship Delta THREE-TWO, we are conducting innocent passage. We have the right to do so in accordance with international rule and the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea. Over.”

I always hated it when they say, “Over.” Fine, have it your way. I keyed up the secure radio and relayed, “Sir, negative response. Awaiting orders.”

After a pause of several seconds, the encrypted radio message came through: “Vonya, Vonya, Vonya.” A codeword authorizing weapon release from Moscow.

Vonya,” I replied.

I then radioed my wingman, “Break off, RTB at best speed. Advise when feet dry.”

I looked at my co-pilot and said, “Arm the weapon.”

“Yes, sir,” my copilot replied.

I banked my aircraft hard to the right and selected the afterburner, starting a steep climb back to the north, away from the ship. For this operation to be successful, I needed the British to watch on radar and see what happened next. At 80 km from the British warship, I turned the aircraft back around to the south. After my copilot once again confirmed the lone radar blip as the British warship through AIS, radar scope, and bearing line convergence, I pressed the weapon release switch.

My plane made a slight lurch as 1,400 pounds fell away from the aircraft. The Kh-31 antiship cruise missile rocket motor ignited and accelerated to Mach 3.5 in a dive towards the coastline. At that moment my radar warning receiver lit up my cockpit like a Christmas tree.

I immediately rolled the aircraft onto her back, placed the variable wing sweep to 69 degrees to minimize aerodynamic drag, selected full afterburner, and pulled hard to accelerate to the deck to hide in the ground clutter and avoid any return fire from the Daring. I remember being intently focused on my instruments. As I approached maximum velocity, the wing sweep indicator and engine instruments started to oscillate. I held my breath hoping that the oscillations would only be transitory. The radar warning receiver was still lit up and alarming as the aircraft began to buffet. Then, the aircraft began to pitch up violently as warning lights illuminated in the cockpit. I fought to regain control.

My co-pilot might have said something about “smoke” or a “missile,” but I don’t remember. The last thing I remember was pulling the ejection handle. I couldn’t tell whether Russian aerospace engineering or a missile from the Defender caused my aircraft to disintegrate. But that didn’t matter.

As I fell to the sea below, dangling from my parachute, I silently thanked the Russian rocket scientists who designed my ejection seat for saving my life, even if some of my body parts were numb and in pain. I tried to move my left hand to unclip my oxygen mask but couldn’t. My arm hung lifeless. After going through a rolodex of all the cliché things in my life, my mind wandered back to the events that unfolded earlier that day in the ready room that caused this chaos. I thought back to the chess game Gregori and I had played earlier—the game of perfect information. The opening moves are always so predictable. White pawn to D-4, black pawn to D-5. The British sailed through our territorial seas and we, in turn, launched to intercept them. But now, entropic chaos. Missiles had been exchanged, my aircraft destroyed, and my copilot was nowhere to be seen. Just before I impacted the Black Sea below, I couldn’t help but wonder, “what’s the next move?”

Lieutenant Commander Dylan “Joose” Phillips-Levine is a naval aviator and serves with a tactical air control squadron. You can find him on Twitter at @JooseBoludo.

Lieutenant Commander Trevor Phillips-Levine is a naval aviator and serves as a department head in a strike fighter squadron. You can find him on Twitter @TPLevine85.

Featured Image: “HMS DARING – Royal Navy Type 45 Air Defence Destroyer,” by MagicCGIStudies via ArtStation.

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