LAST EDITED ON Dec-07-08 AT 12:15 PM (EST)
excerpt from Get the Girl, Kill the Baddies (And Save the Entire Planet): 100 Years as a Galactic Do-Gooder
Benjamin D. Hutchins
Wedge Defense Press: 2092
Chapter 5: That's Great, But...
Without a doubt, the biggest pain in my ass in the first decade of the 21st century was figuring out what to do with the Air Force.
A little background is, perhaps, in order. In the middle of 2005, almost six years after First Contact with Salusia, the U.S. Congress decided that military responsibility for the suddenly widened frontier of space should be removed from the Air Force, the branch of service traditionally tasked with looking after space defense matters, and handed to the Navy. The rationale there was something to the effect of "Starships are ships, ships belong to the Navy, QED," but I think it had a bit more to do with the chairman of the Senate Committee on Interstellar Defense being an ex-sailor.
Anyway, that interesting maneuver stripped the Air Force of its responsibilities beyond Earth's atmosphere, which, with Earth's viewpoint exponentially widening in the aftermath of Contact, transformed it overnight from the country's most influential armed force to its least, and to say that it royally pissed off the Air Force brass would be to understate the point somewhat.
I don't know who initially had the idea - maybe the general himself, maybe a member of his staff - but in June of that year, Zoner and I found ourselves taking a phone call from the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, General John P. Jumper. General Jumper explained that he'd just stormed out of a meeting of the Joint Chiefs, having declared that if the United States government no longer had a use for its one and only Air Force, he was sure someone would be happy to have them. Us, for instance. How about it?
We were dumbfounded. Our first instinct was to suspect the caller was a member of the WDF - probably Mark Luchini - messing with us. There was just enough plausibility in it to make me wonder, though. We knew the thing with Congress and the Air Force had really happened, and we'd heard through the grapevine that the brass was pretty pissed about it. And I wasn't sure Haywire could pull off a Texan accent, or keep a straight voice long enough to make a stunt like this work.
All this ran through my head and Zoner's at about the same speed, and we silently agreed that we might as well play along. After all, if it was legit, an opportunity like that doesn't come along every day. We told our caller we were definitely interested, but would have to get back to him as to whether we'd be able to take him up on his most generous offer.
Then Zoner made a cordial signoff, hung up the phone, turned to me, and asked, "How did Haywire get Caller ID to say he was calling from the Pentagon?"
"That's a very good question," I said. "Eve, how did Haywire get Caller ID to say he was calling from the Pentagon?"
"He didn't," Eve replied promptly. "That call really did originate from the Pentagon."
Zoner blinked at me. "How did Haywire get into the Pentagon?" he asked.
"That's a very good question," I said.
Of course, we subsequently found out that our caller really had been General John P. Jumper, and that he was quite serious about offering us the USAF's services. Which left us with a bit of a poser:
There's an old saying that you don't look a gift horse in the mouth - meaning you shouldn't complain about stuff you got for free - which is fine, but supposing someone gave you 330,000 horses. The SDF-17 is a big damn ship, make no mistake, but not that big. Even if we let the 101st go back to regular service with the RSN, which we weren't eager to do, we'd only have had space for, at most, a tenth of the USAF's personnel before we started overcrowding the ship and reducing her effectiveness (to say nothing of comfort). It would require an enormous feat of logistics and management to find places for so many people to be, never mind things for them to do.
On the other hand, hey, free air force.
Except, of course, that it couldn't possibly be that simple. After we got back in touch with General Jumper and told him that, while many details would obviously have to be worked out, on the whole we thought we'd very much like to take him up on his offer, word got back to Congress and the shit really hit the fan. They might not have wanted to make use of the Air Force in space, but that didn't mean they were prepared to just give it away. Not without some sort of process. Not without hearings.
Zoner, naturally, ducked the Congressional hearings, telling me, "You're my executive officer - execute." To be fair, he was spending most of each day in conference with Lord F and our various allies working out where to put all these people, but still, I was less than entirely thrilled. Still, I put on my best uniform and went to Earth, appearing before a hastily assembled joint subcommittee that was, to my keen disappointment, not called the Joint Subcommittee on Giving Away the Air Force.
My chief interrogator, the chairman of the committee, was a senior senator from one of the southeastern states, straight out of central casting: silver-haired, expansively polite, and utterly without mercy, with an accent I could just barely understand. By the end of the first day, I knew that he and the ferret-faced Congresswoman from somewhere in the Midwest were going to be my chief nemeses in this thing. He was clearly incredulous that we were even having this conversation, while she apparently drew most of her satisfaction in life from insisting on fine points of order.
By the fifth day, we'd covered every point of contention at least four times, and the circularity of the proceedings was plain to everyone present. Some members of the press had actually not shown up for Day 5, presumably convinced that dying of old age would be more exciting. I'd been on my best behavior the whole time, thinking in the back of my mind that we should have sent Haywire - the negotiations would have been much shorter, but also much more fun to watch the tapes of later on - but after lunch it suddenly dawned on me what I had to do to break the cycle and maybe get the thing done.
So, instead of answering the next question (which was from the ferret lady), I addressed the chairman directly:
"Senator Cornpone [not his real name], let's get down to brass tacks. How much?"
For a moment, there was only silence. Rep. Ferret was even too startled to object to my flagrant disregard of the rules of order. Senator Cornpone raised one bushy silver eyebrow, regarded me for a long moment without speaking, and then said, slowly and in his most majestically chicken-fried tone,
"Mista Hutchins, is this committeh t'unnerSTAN that y'all are proposin' ta BAAH one of this countreh's AHHMED FOAHCES?"
"Well... yes, Senator, that is essentially correct."
Senator Cornpone stared at me for a few seconds, then relaxed in his chair, folded his hands across his middle, and smiled.
"Wayahl. Now you're fahn'ly talkin' mah language."
So the Air Force ended up not quite being free, but we did still get a pretty good deal on it. I talked them down a little from the figure Sen. Cornpone initially named, on account of it was used, and we had the whole thing ironed out by dinnertime. Zoner had to sign a bunch of stuff in which he promised not to use the Air Force against the United States, which, well, fair enough; in the unlikely event that we found ourselves having to take out the U.S. government, we'd do it without them.
We didn't end up having to find places for the entire 330,000-person complement of the Air Force, of course. A lot of them weren't interested in leaving Earth, and others were, but weren't comfortable doing so in what was effectively an outer-space foreign legion. As part of the transition, the Navy offered to take qualified pilots from the Air Force and train them on the new space equipment, and some Air Force pilots (grudgingly, one expects) took them up on that. Many more chose to retire or leave the service altogether. We ended up with about 100,000.
The people we did get, though, were a credit to any uniform. They tended to be the younger, more adventurous members of the service, though there was also a hard core of noncoms and staff officers who saw the whole thing as an opportunity or a bold strategic move. We cycled them through the SDF-17 in large groups, orienting them to the WDF's way of doing things and giving them one more chance to get out and go back, no questions asked, if they didn't find that it suited them. After that training period, they went on to a fleet of new ships, some built by our own Utopia shipyards, some bought from Corellian or Salusian yards, as we built our new acquisition into a semi-autonomous force in its own right.
We decided to do that - build a new force alongside the main WDF rather than absorb our new acquisitions directly into the WDF's own force structure - mainly to simplify administration, and to try and deflect accusations that the WDF was "expansionist", which had cropped up when we commissioned our second main-force capital ship, WDF Righteous Indignation, some time earlier. The new outfit would adopt a charter based on the WDF's, and would ultimately be answerable to our top brass (i.e. Zoner), but it would have its own staff, its own structure, and strike its own deals with prospective employers. And, to our considerable amusement, it would still be named "the United States Air Force", someone on Earth having carelessly omitted to trademark the name in the United Galactica.
(As an aside, in 2053 the United Nations hired the USAF to help an overstretched UN Space Command - the main constituent of which was, of course, the U.S. Navy - defend the Solar system against pirate incursions. Ah, if only Senator Cornpone had lived to see that day.)
Fig. A Service roundel of the U.S. Air Force, 2006-present
As part of the deal, we also received a lot of the Air Force's equipment. Much of it we didn't have much use for, and either sold off or donated to military museums around the galaxy. Among the things we kept were the first-generation transatmospheric aircraft the USAF had been in the process of gearing up with when the axe fell.
Supposedly, the cost of the parallel space-equipment programs for the Air Force and Navy was one of the motivating factors in Congress's decision to ground the Air Force in the first place. In fact it was quite an expensive proposition to redesign and retrofit existing aircraft, to say nothing of retooling new production, to operate in what we now call "the full aerospace mode". Of the two forces, though, the Air Force actually had a bit of a head start. Where the Navy was redesigning existing equipment and embarking on a huge retrofitting program, the Air Force had been in the process of developing a new front-line fighter when Contact changed the picture. The engineers at Lockheed and Northrop had to hit the pause button on the process and absorb all the new information coming their way, but once they had done that, they had a lot less work to do to make the F-22 and F-23 into capable first-generation starfighters.
Most of that work was done by the time we came along, leaving us with only the conversion work necessary to make the two fighters work with the starships we were commissioning to carry them - which is a lot less work than figuring out how to make an airframe work as a spaceframe. Our newly inherited vendors had already done that part. The only really tricky bit was finding a new name for the F-22, since we already had a Salusian-built fixed-configuration fighter in our inventory called "Raptor". And another one called "Rapier", which was the Air Force's second choice. We ended up calling it "Lightning II" after Lockheed's famous World War II fighter, the P-38 Lightning. This had the bonus benefit of annoying the Navy, who had been going to call their new starfighter under development that. They eventually wound up canceling the SF-35 anyway and developing the Cosmo Hornet instead.
By 2008, we had rotated most of the Lightning and Black Widow squadrons through orientation and sent them off to their new postings... and then things started getting weird.
I was in my office on Prometheus, conducting a strategic continental defense simulation - okay, I was playing Missile Command - when Daver stuck his head in the door and said, "The Air Force 75th Fighter Squadron is here to see you."
I paused the game and gave him a curious look. "What, you mean Major Campbell?"
Daver shook his head. "No... all of them."
I blinked. "Uh... I'll be right out."
I had been thinking that 16 pilots wouldn't fit in my office, but that would've been the least of my problems. When I reached the hangar deck where Eight-Ball Squadron's Valkyries were parked, I saw that Daver had literally meant all of them. Every member of the 75th, from Major Kim Campbell to the most junior airmen in the headquarters staff, was assembled out there in a great curious crowd. It reminded me a little of those ads for Salusia Galactic Telecom - "It's the network."
"Major," I said, returning Campbell's salute (not a thing we insisted on in the WDF, but a lot of the Air Force people felt more comfortable with it). "What's up?"
"We got our orders to report for orientation," she said, "but there was nothing in them about our aircraft."
This was a little bit awkward, as Zoner and I hadn't actually figured out what to do about their aircraft yet. The 75th was an A-10 squadron, and unlike, say, the F-22, converting the A-10 into a starfighter was a dubious proposition.
Mind you, we both liked the A-10. We'd both been fans for years, since long before we ever got into the space hero business. I had one of those Blackbird neon-schematic T-shirts depicting one, a survivor from my college days. Hell, the computer in my office still had the old A-10 Tank Killer game on it.
The thing about it was, the A-10 Thunderbolt II (not that its pilots ever called it that; to them it was always the Warthog) was not only primitive, it was vehemently primitive. It had control surfaces operated with cables and big ol' air-breathing turbofans, wings straighter than Coyle's Narrow Path, and electronics from the early transistor era, when "Solid State" was still something you put on the front of a radio to impress people. Wonderful as my retro-loving soul thought that was, what possible use could the Wedge Defense Force (or a Wholly Owned Subsidiary thereof) have for such a thing?
I didn't say any of that out loud to Major Campbell, of course. She was a decorated combat veteran who had nearly gotten her Hog shot out from under her during the Post-Contact Wars and, like all good combat pilots, believed that the aircraft she flew was the best ever made. We all do that; it's in the blood. The late Donald Lopez - a veteran of the 75th in World War II - once wrote that a pilot assigned to fly a manhole cover would stand up before long and say nothing ever flew better, and he was absolutely right. I didn't want to hurt her feelings by saying the WDF didn't have a use for her beloved Warthog right in front of everyone in the squadron, but I thought it, and she knew I did.
What I said was, "Well... we haven't quite worked out what to do about - "
"Commander," Campbell interrupted me, "let us demonstrate for you why you need the Warthog."
In the movie, if there ever is one, the actor playing me will say something urbane and witty here. Actually, all I said was, "Uh... okay."
Major Campbell asked for six weeks to prepare her squadron for the demonstration, which would be held on Zeta Cygni II, near the WDF Academy's Destroid proving ground. I gave her eight, because the SDF-17's patrol route would take us through the home system for resupply and maintenance then anyway, and off she and her crew went.
Over the next few weeks, I caught the occasional glimpse into what the 75th was up to, mostly in the form of materials requisitions and memos from the technical staff. One of my pilots actually managed to get a look at their work in progress, observing some techs at work in one of the hangar bays for a couple of minutes before they spotted him and shooed him out.
"I don't know what to make of it," Max Sterling admitted when I grilled him about what he'd seen. "I mean, I think I understand what they're doing, but... " He shook his head. "Major Campbell's either a genius or out of her mind, I'm not sure which. One thing's for sure, though. The demonstration's going to be interesting."
When demonstration day came, I still had no real idea what was going on. The 75th covered their tracks well, and there were no further slips like the one that let Max get a peek at what they were doing. All I knew when Zoner and I arrived at the Destroid range was that they'd put the whole thing together with the connivance of the Armored Corps.
Lt. Frank Parker, the squadron's intel officer, greeted us when we arrived at the reviewing stand, which was where we usually watched combat maneuvers and the like from. He told us Major Campbell would be unable to join us because she was leading the demonstration.
For a few minutes, nothing much happened. This was usual; there was always a bit of a wait when we observed regular Destroid maneuvers, too, while they found their way into position. Eventually, a column of ground forces appeared, moving eastward across the proving ground in front of us: armor, infantry, a covering force of medium and heavy Destroids. They were painted in the dull grey that customarily signified the opposing force in one of our war games.
With a suddenness that always thrilled me, whether in war games or the real thing, a 101st Cav orbital drop strike force descended on the armored column. The 'Mechs arrived first, in their sky-blue and black 101st livery - Tomahawks, mostly, and Spartans, jettisoning their retropacks as they grounded and immediately engaged the opfor's Destroids. The Valkyries and armor dropships came immediately after them, along with a meteor-shower of Orbital Drop Shock Trooper infantry pods.
The defenders were good, though, and on the ball. They regrouped and counterstruck while the attacking force was at its most vulnerable, with the 'Mechs not quite organized, the ODSTs still getting out of their pods, and the tanks just starting to disembark from their transports. The Valkyries tried to provide air cover and run interference for the dropships, but they had their hands full with opfor fixed air assets that arrived moments later, streaking in from the west, no doubt summoned by an emergency transmission from the Grey Team command tank. Grey Team Destroids knocked out one 101st armor carrier, then another. A promising OD assault was on the verge of collapsing into an embarrassing rout.
Well, I'll tell you what. Since that day I've served over eight further decades as a front-line Veritech Fighter pilot, with occasional side trips into Destroids, starship combat, and even tanks, and I have still never seen anything quite like what happened next. Almost as suddenly as the original 101st orbital drop strike, 16 aircraft dove out of the sun and into the fray... aircraft like no one had ever seen.
They were the 75th's A-10s, all right, but they hadn't come from an airfield nearby. I'd made sure of that, not because I expected Campbell to pull a stunt, but because I knew she'd want me to be absolutely sure she hadn't. No A-10 had been anywhere on Zeta Cygni when this demonstration began; they were all up on the Wayward Son - well, Prometheus, if you want to be particular - with their wheels chocked.
Before my eyes, a squadron of straight-winged planes with air-breathing turbofan engines had just made a drop from orbit to provide close air support for a strike force dispatched from the same mothership. And in the moments before they took off their coats and started punching, I saw how they'd done it, and what Max had meant when he said he couldn't decide whether their plan was genius or madness.
That the aircraft had been retrofitted with deflector shield generators was obvious. They'd never have survived atmospheric entry without them. That alone took brass balls the size of cantaloupes; even hardened spacers hesitate to attempt planetfall in a ship that has to have its shields up to avoid Cosmonaut Flambé. But it was their solution to the "air-breathing turbofans" problem that really earned them the genius-or-madness trophy.
Like an ODST, each Hog had a backpack on.
Some maniacal genius of a mechanic had "requisitioned" 32 of the dorsal boosters commonly found in pairs adorning the backs of Super Valkyries, built some adapter collars, mated their thrust nozzles to the intakes of the A-10s' engines, and presumably done a lot of creative replumbing on the inside. Like scuba divers, the Hogs breathed from tanks on their backs on the way down.
Now that they were down where the action was, the A-10s jettisoned their aqualungs and attended to business. Leaving the Valkyries to handle the Grey Team's own aircraft, the Hogs turned their attention to the Destroids.
What followed was an embarrassing rout, all right, but not for the 101st. Some other maniacal genius had worked out how to mount the WDF's standard Hedgehog ground-attack missiles on the pylons originally meant for Hellfires, but neither the missiles nor the Touchdown gravity bombs they also carried were the stars of the show. With quick, precise, brutal efficiency, the A-10s of the 75th demonstrated that, even against the state-of-the-art remote-controlled Destroids of the Grey Team, the only weapon they really needed to bring to this fight was the one wedged into the grinning shark's teeth painted on their noses.
Zoner and I were also great fans of the Avenger autocannon, of course; Zoner had even "borrowed" the design to serve as the main gun of his personal runabout, the WarpZone. We knew quite well that, even in a galaxy full of phased and encapsulated plasma weapons, lasers, particle beam cannons, and Reflex missiles, it still packed a serious punch. Just how serious, though, we had never really understood until that afternoon.
Four minutes later, it was all over but the fires from the Grey Team's wreckage.
Zoner and I turned and looked at each other.
"Yeah," he said. "We need that."
Brilliant though it was, the "aqualung" modification to the A-10s was only a stopgap, something put together to enable the aircraft to participate in the demonstration and show us that it still had what the modern galactic battlefield required. Thus impressed, we threw some more formal engineering resources at the problem, and within a year or so, Armory Division had a model (A-10D) with proper transatmospheric engine capabilities ready for service. Other forces started showing an interest, and the ride is far from over. We're now two further revisions along, and the Royal Salusian Marine Corps, in particular, will buy F-model Hogs faster than Armory Division can crank them out.
There are aerospacecraft with heavier weapons out there today; there are more versatile ones; certainly there are faster ones. But to do that one job, to boom down from orbit in formation with the Destroids and the tank carriers and the ODSTs, and rip great smoking holes the enemy while our guys get themselves sorted out and ready to fight... there's still nothing better. There are alternatives that can make a bigger hole, but those are primarily strike vehicles. They're too fast to be as good as the Hog at close air support - and, as 101st Cav and Armored Corps troopers have told me more than once, when you're down on the ground with shit blowing up all around you, close air support is all you care about.
We rotated the rest of the Air Force's A-10 squadrons through orientation, got them in D-models, and attached them to USAF vessels that would be working closely with Salusian ground attack forces. The partnership went down in history as one of the galaxy's great team-ups.
As for Major Campbell and the 75th? After that demonstration, we kept them for ourselves.