27 September 2006

Badgers and Bucanners and Bears...(Pt 3)

Window covers down, overhead hatch in and all harnesses locked, the crew was ready. Bluetail 602 went into tension, the throttles against their stops, the aircraft mercilessly shaking. In an instant, they were down the catapult and airborne.

As the wheels were coming up, Bird exclaimed “Hey look, we’ve got a visitor...” Straining against his straps and the binding of the anti-exposure suite the lieutenant looked to his right and aft through his tiny window. There, briefly, he caught it. The unmistakable silver and grey of a Badger C-Mod who had obviously found the carrier and was now trailing the E-2...

“Well, so much for EMCON Alpha” he thought...

“OK, let’s button up, bring the radar on and see what’s out there…”

“Flight, CICO. Skip the EMCON departure, let’s head straight to station. While we’re at it, let’s start saving gas, I’ve got a feeling we’re going to be out here for a while”

Freed from the requirement to stay low until the EMCON departure point was reached, the E-2 sprung towards the low ceiling, pulling the Badger with it.

Their seats turned to face their radar scopes, the three back-enders (“moles” in the parlance) went about setting up their displays for their respective missions – the ACO and RO on a smaller scale as they began corralling the aircraft they were to control, the CICO on a 250 nm scale to get the “big picture.” The Combat Information Center (CIC) of the E-2 was a long ways from the cramped quarters of the Grumman TBM-3W Avenger, the first carrier-based AEW aircraft which first flew 37 years ago. Now, three operators shared somewhat tight quarters in place of the one, but with access to the most sophisticated array of equipment at their command that had ever been seen in an AEW aircraft up to that time.

The heart of the Hawkeye the young lieutenant was flying, lay in a series of computers and digital processing – everything from radar to other emitters and even own ship’s navigation was converted to digital signals, processed by the main computer and displayed as special symbols on the operator’s displays. Whereas in the past, a grease pencil and straightedge was used to track targets and run intercepts, now the system generated symbology was associated (at the operator’s selection) with raw radar video or synthetically generated video. With the right set-up, the CICO could take in all that was occurring throughout the area of the battle group and beyond, and through a digital data link, pass that picture back to the ships of his and the other battle groups.

“Strike, 602, proceeding to Alpha One. 602 is Charlie Alpha” Bluetail 602 was reporting mission capable and outbound to its assigned AEW orbit point, well out from the battle group center and oriented in the direction of the greater of two threats, the expected raids coming from the northeast.

Reaching operating altitude, the pilots set the Hawkeye slightly nose up to provide the best radar picture. In the back the complexity of that picture was becoming very evident – both on the operator’s displays and over the several radios being used.

“602, 601 meet me tactical covered” The off-going E-2 was asking 601 to come up secure on the squadron’s “tactical” frequency (used for coordinating between aircraft of the same squadron).

Selecting one of the 5 UHF radios available, the CICO flipped up the cipher switch and pressed the foot transmit switch. Waiting for the synchronization tone, or beep, the CICO passes 601 is up.

“One from two here’s what we’ve got. We’re at Exercise Red and Tight. Station 1C has Tap 100 and 103; 3C has Tap 104 and Dakota 202. 5C has Dakota 205 and 207. All are 2/2/2 and state tiger. Devils 100 and 105 are on 9B – 105 is lead nose. Cupcake 04 is enroute to 9B as Texaco. 11B has Eagle 211 and 212, state tiger. Harriers should be up shortly, they’ll fill 10A. PDS is heavy between 010 and 040. The Bears each have a Waldo or Clinch keeping company.”

As the pass-down was being completed between the CICOs in the two E-2s, the ACO and RO were completing their respective handoffs of the controlled fighters. From the pass down he knew the force was expecting a raid and that weapons status was ‘tight’, that there were 6 x F-14s airborne (which *had* to be some kind of record this at sea period), all carrying a load out of 2 AIM-7F Sparrows, 2 x AIM-9L Sidewinders and 2 x AIM-54A Phoenix. All were manning CAP stations 150 nm out from the reference point, which today just happened to be centered amongst the three carrier BG’s. Additionally, 4 x F-4s were manning stations further to the south and closer in. One of them was without radar (“lead nose”). Sea Harriers, on their first operational deployment, would be checking in shortly from the HMS Hermes – they would fill a single CAP station at 50 nm from the reference point. Tankers were in the air with one, an A-6 from VA-65 with buddy stores, under E-2 control and enroute to the thirsty VF-74 F-4s from FID on station 9B. The three Bears each had an A-7, carrying a pair of AIM-9’s, as their escorts. Yeah, it was looking busy – and that didn’t include the S-3’s, A-6’s and A-7’s from IKE and FID doing ASUW and ASW ops under FID’s E-2’s control plus a couple of Norwegian P-3s, the ever present helos, everyone squawking IFF and all bent on their own mission.

“OK Duck, I think we’re set – I’m switching to Alpha Whiskey”

“Got it Willie – see you on deck” Duck was the OPS O and a bonafide old school guy. He had flown AEW versions of the A-1, the E-1B or “Fudd” (a throwback to when it was known as the WF1 under the old nomenclature system) and even AEW Gannet’s off the Hermes when she was a real carrier with real aircraft (Phantoms and Buccaneers).

Switching frequencies on his UHF, the CICO placed his call to Alpha Whiskey, checking in as Tango One and settled into the search routine. Out here, in a blue water environment, the APS-125 was in its best element. The sea state made for some clutter, but it was addressed with some minor adjustments to the sensitivity controls located between him and the RO. “It may be digital processing,” he thought, “but there is still room for ‘fine tuning.’ ” Selecting the front end again on the ICS, he called the flight deck:

“Flight, CICO”

The ICS positions for pilot and co-pilot lit up. “Go CICO”

“Barrier’s in the system, let’s make the barrier legs 020 and 180. I want the 020 leg at 60 miles and the 180 leg 40 from barrier center. We’ll start with flat turns, but if it gets to be a problem with the autopilot again, give me quick turns. How’s the weather look at this altitude?”

“We’re running just above a layer, it’s clear above to about 32 or 33K”

“OK, let’s go up to 27. Keep me updated on the gas -- our area is pretty clear for now. That Badger is off harassing the rest of the fleet now...”

“Copy all” At that the pilot’s and co-pilot’s ICS light flicked off and the routine of the mission began.

Watching his scope, the CICO was noticing a cluster of ESM hits on a line of bearing of about 030 from ownship. No radar hits along those LOBs, yet, but the bad guys had to be getting ready to come out o the woodwork…

There, about 200 nm from the Hawkeye, a faint trace, almost like a fingernail clipping. One sweep, its there. Next sweep, nothing. Nudging the ACO, the CICO pointed out the location using an intercom mark to flash the suspect area on the ACOs scope. “Hey Bird, looks like there might be something here – keep an eye peeled and start running your CAP outbound legs that way.”

There, again, a stronger return, tracking south/southwest; coming around Norway. About that moment the system placed symbology on the track. “Hooking” it with his light pen, he readout the track information on the smaller rectangular CRT below the main display unit. The unknown air’s track was at 21,000 ft, heading 243 degrees at 300 knots. No IFF – he checked Mode IV just in case – no dice there either. With the track still hooked, he assigned a track number – 1201; and enabled it for reporting on Link-11.

“Whiskey, Tango One, new Tango One track 1201 red 035 tac 214, single, medium, fast. Investigating with Station 1C.” He added the last as he saw the pairing lines appear from the ACO’s assignment of Tap 100 and 103 via Link 4.

“Tango One, Alpha Whiskey, roger, Station 1C, out.” Came the reply from the Force AAWC.

Again, about 10 miles or so behind the track there was another small sliver of video. Again, the system picked up the track. Designating and reporting it via the link, the CICO made another report to AW. Selecting the ACO’s radio from his control panel (he could listen in and talk on up to 5 UHF and 2 HF radios – monitoring more than one, especially when things got busy, was an art form in itself and separated the good CICOs from the merely competent), the CICO listened to the intercept as it developed. For now it was quiet since both Tomcats were running on two-way Link 4.

When it worked, or wasn’t being jammed, the great thing about Link 4 with F-14s was the info flow going to and coming back from the Tomcats. The entire intercept could be run without a single voice comm between the Hawkeye and the Tomcats, as it was now. The Taprooms clearly had a radar lock on the target and were driving into the intercept. Looking down at the other stations, he could see the other pairs of fighters were starting to “cheat” north as his ACO was keeping their situational awareness up, again via Link 4.

Looking back at the first contact the system was now starting to breakout another track – looks like two with the second in trail. Almost immediately, one of the F-14 pairing lines jumped to the new track.

“Whiskey, Tango One, Track 1201 now flight of two, trail formation, continuing with station 1C. Covering Track 1202 with 3C.”

The ESM was going nuts, and more radar traces were appearing along the same LOB. Each was picked up by the system, reported on the link and by voice. By now he was counting over 20 tracks, all headed in roughly the same direction – towards the battle group. Stations 3C and 5C were fully engaged at this point.

Farther to the east, another track, identified as “friend/air” suddenly lost its IFF code and began tracking west to a spot north and east of the battle group… The lack of available interceptors to investigate this track was troubling – the F-14s were all engaged with the Badgers and the F-4s were resetting to cover any leakers. All the A-7s airborne were either with the Bears, sitting tanker duty, or overhead as last ditch interceptors. None of the surface shooters were in a position to cover with birds (missiles) either. Figuring this might be the beginning of the Orange Air (exercise) raid scheduled for later, he wasn’t as worried as he was with the real world developments up North. Still, it was a matter of concern:

“Alpha Whiskey, Alpha Romeo, Tango One. Tango One recommends launching all available alert. Multiple bogeys inbound. Break, track 1231 now non-squawker, negative Mode 4, investigating with 9B. Setting station 9B with 11B”

“Alpha Whiskey, Alpha Romeo, this is Alpha Bravo – launch alert 5 and 10” In the background of the embarked flag’s voice call (‘Alpha Bravo’) the CICO could hear the gonging of the ‘General Quarters’ alarm. The ESM system lit up as air search and fire control radars from the fleet came on line the fleet was coming to a heightened state of battle readiness…

“602, 100. 100 and 103 tied on. Bogeys are Charlie Mods with one centerline”

The first tracks had just been ID’d as more Badger Charlie Mods, each with a single AS-2.

“602, Dakota. Dakota and Tap are tied on to two Badger Golfs each with one Kingfish (AS-6).”

As the fighters were finishing their reports, suddenly the CICO noticed a large smudge of video starting to appear, almost like someone with a grease pencil was furiously scribbling a line pointed toward the battle group. Soon another appeared then a third. Crap, he thought, someone was deploying chaff…

To Be Continued