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02-03-03, 08:04 AM
"Silver Eagles"

Sharpen Their Claws

By Ross W. Simpson

"Gentlemen! Today's target is the 26th Tank Division headquarters," said the briefer aboard America's newest Nimitz-class, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75), as he pointed to the latest satellite imagery on the computerized briefing board.

"Intel indicates there are MiG-29s in the area, and you can expect MANPADS [shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles] in the area, but we can't rule out the presence of SA-6s and SA-9s," said Navy Lieutenant Commander Jim "Doogie" Conway, the "Swordmen's" strike leader from the F-14 squadron, Fighter Squadron (VF) 32, aboard HST.

Intelligence also reported increased movement of enemy chemical vehicles, suggesting the likelihood of chemical weapons being used against friendly forces.

Marine Lieutenant Colonel Gregg W. Brinegar, commanding officer of Marine Fighter/Attack Squadron (VMFA) 115, sat in the front row in Ready Room 10 and quietly looked over his kneeboard card review and pointed out a couple of discrepancies in the game plan.

By now, you're probably thinking we are talking about Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction. That might be the case, but the name of the country has been changed.

The fictional scenario played out in Ready Room 10 aboard HST involved a devastating air strike against imaginary forces of a country called "Korona." That country's ground forces had unleashed artillery strikes into the neighboring country of "Kartuna."

The 26th Tank Division headquarters in Korona was actually a giant bull's-eye on the ground at the Dare County Military Range near Cherry Point, N.C. The eight strikers were made up of Marine F/A-18 Hornets from VMFA-115, the "Silver Eagles," and Navy Strike Fighter squadrons VFA-37, the "Ragin' Bulls," and VFA-105, the "Gunslingers."

The two flights of four strike aircraft were scheduled to attack the tank headquarters in two waves, about four miles apart, at medium-range altitudes.

After the last aircraft came off the target, the pilot would call "Jeremy," a signal that it was "Miller Time," or time to head back to the aircraft tankers, a KC-135 and KC-10, to get some gas for the return trip to HST.

This was more than just another military exercise to LtCol Brinegar and his buddies. It's "show prep" for a possible attack on Iraq in the coming months. Brinegar believes his Marines are ready to answer a 9-1-1 call from their Commander in Chief.

"Squeeze," as Brinegar is known to the Silver Eagles, was the alternate lead on that day's strike mission. He has almost 20 years under his belt and brought to the fictitious fight a wealth of experience for "nuggets," or new pilots, like Captain Jose "Cuervo" Fierro, who joined the Silver Eagles a month before the joint task force exercise. "I tell guys like Cuervo to rely on their training, because we fight like we train," said Brinegar.

Before the briefing, the "skipper" sat down with Leatherneck and discussed what possibly lies over the horizon for him and his squadron.

A lot has changed since the Gulf War in 1991. Iraq no longer can field the 1 million men it once claimed to have under arms. And its air defense capability constantly is being destroyed by air strikes. However, Brinegar said one thing has not changed: the Iraqis' belligerence in the face of overwhelming military superiority. For reasons known only to Saddam Hussein, Iraqi gunners continue to open fire on Marine, Navy, Air Force and coalition aircraft on a regular basis.

If push comes to shove in the coming weeks or months, Brinegar and three other veterans of Operation Southern Watch (1994-95) will go to the battlefield with a greater knowledge of the terrain, tactics and special targets.

"A picture is worth a thousand words," said Brinegar, "and the more pictures you see, the better prepared you are if you have to go there again."

LtCol Mark G. "Puck" Mykleby, the executive officer of VMFA-115, has seen his share of pictures up close and personal. He participated in Southern Watch in 1998 and is ready to drop the hammer on Hussein's head if necessary.

"We work for Team Green," said Mykleby, a Top Gun graduate. Strike missions are the bread and butter of Marine squadrons like the Silver Eagles, and there's nothing they'd rather do than provide close air support missions for fellow Marines who may march into Baghdad.

"That gives us the most job satisfaction," said Mykleby, "helping our ground brethren out. That's what Marine aviators live for. Those are our buddies and friends.

Fighting Smarter With Smarter Weapons

The number of so-called "smart weapons" has increased since the Gulf War. Nearly all of the weapons Marines will drop in the next war are joint direct attack munitions. JDAMs, as they are called, are 2,000-pound, satellite-guided bombs. Some of them are capable of penetrating underground command and control centers. Hornets like the ones Brinegar and Mykleby fly also can carry joint standoff weapons, which scatter hundreds of lethal bomblets on a battlefield. JSOWs are deadly against light armor and infantry.

"Based on the way we have trained at Fallon in Nevada, on the Caribbean island of Vieques off the coast of Puerto Rico and here at JTFEX [Joint Task Force Exercise], we can kill what we aim at with global positioning satellite coordinates," said Brinegar.

"I may have been smart seven years ago when I flew Southern Watch, but I'm a lot smarter this time," he added. And he doesn't hesitate to pass along some of that wisdom to 14 other new guys in his squadron who want to know what they can expect if they go "feet dry" over Iraq.

"I'm excited about getting a chance to execute some of the training I've had," said Capt Harry F. "Crash" Thomas Jr., who earned his call sign by wrecking everything he's driven except a Hornet.

"I was an accident waiting to happen before coming into the Corps," said Thomas, laughing, as he watched an upgraded
A-plus model Hornet from his squadron catch the number-two wire and come to a screeching halt about 230 feet down the well-worn flight deck.

JTFEX 03-1 was Thomas' first joint task force exercise. He said it gave him and other new guys in the Silver Eagles valuable insight into how to deal with problems in joint operations with allies.

If Iraq failed to comply with a strict new resolution unanimously approved by the U.N. Security Council a couple of days after the joint exercise ended, and President George W. Bush ordered the Truman Battle Group to join the Abraham Lincoln Battle Group in the northern Arabian Sea, Marine Capt Matthew R. "Tumbleweed" McInerney said he was confident he and his mates could conquer any challenge that they might confront in the skies over Iraq.

"But we don't think very hard about how the geopolitical situation is playing out," confessed McInerney. "We're just concerned about executing the nuts and bolts part of our job, not how we fit into the big picture," he said.

McInerney also flies an A-model, F/A-18 Hornet, an all-weather fighter/attack aircraft that has an upgraded avionics suite in it. In addition to carrying a variety of ordnance under its wings, the Hornet also is equipped with an M61A1/A2 Vulcan 20 mm cannon. Hornets are workhorses. One Hornet carrying JDAMs now can do the work of several Hornets that carried dumb bombs during Desert Storm.

The Marine Corps, and for that matter the Air Force and Navy, must knock on wood. The U.S. Armed Forces have flown tens of thousands of combat sorties over no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq since 1991 without the loss of a single aircraft or crewmember—a credit to the men and women who work around the clock to keep the aircraft mechanically fit.

Gunnery Sergeant Michael W. Magin is a power line division chief for VFMA-115 aboard HST. He supervises 10 to 12 Marines from different shops who work together through the night in the hangar bay while aviators like McInerney sleep soundly in their staterooms. They work 12- to 14-hour shifts, seven days a week, but Magin and GySgt Daniel J. "Dan" Caviness, ordnance chief for the Silver Eagles, never hear any of their people complain about the hard work or long hours. They're volunteers. They are where they want to be and take pride in their work.

"Gunnys" such as Magin and Caviness are outspoken when it comes to Saddam Hussein. Asked if he believes the Iraqi president has outlived his usefulness on this planet, Magin just smiled and said, "Yes. His time is up."

As for who has bragging rights when it comes to dropping bombs, Caviness claimed his squadron dropped more ordnance than the other three Navy squadrons combined during the joint exercise.

Caviness is confident the Silver Eagles have the right pilots and the right weapons to bring about regime change in Iraq if war breaks out.

"We have better weapons than we had during the Gulf War," said Caviness, "and our aircrews have proved they can put the bombs on target."

Asked what he'd do if he saw a Hornet coming his way, Caviness said he'd run and hide.

"The Iraqis already have had a taste of what we can do to them with our new, improved weapons," said Caviness, "and I'm sure they [the average ground-pounder] won't be too happy if we come back over there."

There is also an air of confidence among Marine aviators in HST, but no arrogance. Although few of them actually have been shot at over the no-fly zones, they still have great respect for Iraqi air defenses.

Young aviators such as McInerney are confident they'll be rescued if they have to eject over enemy territory for mechanical or other reasons. They have practiced those kinds of scenarios at Fallon in Nevada where the desert terrain is similar to that in Iraq, barren and desolate.