Excerpt

PRIMARY TARGET ã
by Joe Weber

A December, 1999 Release from
Penguin Putnam Publishing

TEHRAN

Dressed in a long dark cloak and white turban, Bassam Shakhar entered the austere chambers of his closely guarded office complex in the heart of the city.  The thickly bearded multimillionaire, his lips barely covering his protruding teeth, was a fierce defender of the hard-line clergy.  When the power struggle between Iran’s moderate president and the conservatives turned ugly, Shakhar had prodded agents from the Intelligence Ministry to assassinate over a dozen dissident writers and politicians.

Without looking directly at the Russian politician, Shakhar raised his arm and motioned for Yegor Pavlinsky to take a seat on the opposite side of the conference table.  Pavlinsky quietly sat down and folded his hands on the table.

Shakhar, an intractable and humorless man with a permanently furrowed brow, stiffened ever so slightly before he sat.  His pinched eyes were deep brown, and when he became irritated or excited the right one tended to turn inward.  A dangerous and unpredictable man, Shakhar’s complex character reflected generous portions of aggression, grandiosity, paranoia, and narcissism.  The combination of traits was accentuated by a total lack of conscience.

Muffled sounds of jeers and shouts from Shakhar’s growing league of followers permeated the building.  “Death to the Americans!” the crowd of Islamic militants chanted while they burned a dozen U.S. flags.  “Death to the enemies of Islam!”  Acting on the orders of Shakhar, the fanatical throngs of anti-American militants were creating factional violence not seen since the revolution in 1979.

Additional devoted followers, estimated at 17,000 and rapidly growing, were venomously protesting against America in various countries, including Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Kenya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, Sudan, Libya, Bosnia, Yemen, Egypt, the Philippines, Chechnya, and Malaysia.

Bassam Shakhar, one of the masterminds behind a series of terrorist bombings and hero to legions of Islamic fundamentalists, was a strong advocate of using terrorism to drive the United States military out of Saudi Arabia and the entire Persian Gulf region.  To expedite his ambitious plans, the murderous psychopath had developed a growing infrastructure to train and indoctrinate hard-core terrorists, including a sizable cadre of “throwaway agents” known as suicide bombers.

A powerful figure in Iran, Shakhar had openly and loudly declared that the United States was “the enemy of the Islamic Republic” and called for the Iranian leadership to reject any dialogue with Washington.  He had gone on to explain that “talks or relations with the United States would have no benefit for the Iranian people.”  He had concluded his bitter remarks by reminding his vast audience about the 1988 shootdown of an Iranian jetliner by a U.S. Navy cruiser, then blamed Washington for another incident in which 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days.

Determined to bring America to its knees, Shakhar later used state-run radio and television, along with major newspapers, to declare a personal jihad against U.S. military personnel in the Gulf region.  Three weeks after his announcement, he and members of the Iranian secret police planned and supervised a car bombing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that killed 6 American advisers to the Saudi National Guard.

Emboldened by the results of the Riyadh attack, Shakhar provided financial backing to the terrorists who bombed the barracks building in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, that killed 19 members of the U.S. Air Force and wounded 386 servicemen.

While the Pentagon was shifting U.S. air operations from Dhahran to other bases with better security, Shakhar continued to use the conservative newspaper Islamic Republic (Jomhuri Islami) to threaten U.S. military forces and their commander in chief.  Using the London-based newspapers Asharq Al-Awsat and al-Hayat, and newspapers in Egypt, Libya, the Philippines, Italy, and Jordan, Shakhar urged Arab leaders to unite in a jihad against the “master of the world.”

Undeterred by the "Great Satan's" power projection in the Gulf, Bassam Shakhar was eager to take his personal war to the shores of the United States.  In an interview broadcast live by CNN, the international financier boldly promised to use his vast resources to terrorize the heartland of America if all U.S. military forces were not withdrawn from the Arabian Peninsula.  Shakhar ended the interview by calling the American president a coward and a bully.  His vituperative rhetoric panicked conservative emirs, crown princes, kings, and sheiks in the Middle East.

With the CIA-based Counter Terrorism Center tracking a number of his terrorist cells, Shakhar became enraged when one of his deputies suggested that Shakhar’s satellite telephone calls were being monitored by U.S. reconnaissance spacecraft.

Five weeks later, with the approval of his consultative council (majlis al shura) Shakhar supported another major terrorist organization in their bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, that killed more than 250 people.  On the heels of the bombing, Saddam Hussein sent word that he would back Shakhar with money and weapons to terrorize the U.S. military.

As tensions mounted in the Gulf region, the American president reinforced his commitment to “dual containment” of the “pariah” states, Iraq and Iran.  He delivered a stern warning to both countries; U.S. forces were going to keep them in check, and the U.S. military was going to maintain a long-term presence in the Arabian deserts and Persian Gulf waters.

_______

Listening to the muffled chants from the militants in the street, Yegor Pavlinsky kept his gaze level and his expression pleasantly gentle.  Get straight to the point.  “Our countries could greatly benefit if we could collectively take advantage of the opportunities in the Gulf region.”

Motionless and frowning, Bassam Shakhar quietly stared at the center of Pavlinsky’s forehead.

“Unfortunately,” Pavlinsky went on, “the presence of the U.S. military is having an adverse effect on the economy of both our countries.  From our previous conversations, it is my understanding that you have been working on a plan to drive the Americans out of the region.”

“Is your country,” Shakhar began slowly, “prepared to assist me with my assault on America?”

Pavlinsky quietly nodded, then looked straight into the dark, sunken eyes of the terrorist leader.  “Yes, in any way we can, covertly, of course,” he quickly added.  This is the opportunity we have been waiting for. 

“At the request of your government,” Pavlinsky went on, “we are sending fighter tactics instructor pilots to enhance the skills of your pilots.  Additional scientists and engineers will be arriving soon to help with the missile development program, and we’ve had a number of experts helping to train your submarine crews.  If there is anything we can do to help facilitate the removal of U.S. forces from the region, we stand ready to provide assistance.”

“What about nuclear warheads?” Shakhar abruptly asked.  “Without the warheads, everything else is useless.”

In silence, the two men stared at each other.

“I have made arrangements for the nuclear warheads to be delivered to you,” Pavlinsky answered, suppressing an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.  “Working together, we can drive the Americans from the region.”  

Shakhar’s jaw clenched and the iris of his right eye began to drift toward his nose.  “It is my destiny,” he said boldly as he shifted his bovine gaze to the crowds in the street, then back to Pavlinsky.  “To be subservient to the infidels is to be not a man.”

Shakhar remained impassive.  “It is time to give President Macklin an ultimatum, a deadline for removing his military forces from the Islamic world.  I will issue the deadline soon.  If the president refuses to cooperate,” Shakhar said in a scratchy voice, “he will become my primary target.  I will have him assassinated.”

Amazed at the visceral hatred in Shakhar’s voice, Yegor Pavlinsky remained expressionless.

OVER THE GULF OF OMAN

After extending the Tomcat’s refueling probe, Commander Garner Stockwell inched the throttles forward as he carefully maneuvered the sinister-looking F-14 closer to the KC-10 tanker.  With his eyes riveted on the refueling hose and drogue, Stockwell concentrated on flying while his radar intercept officer, Lieutenant Alan “Skeeter” Jeffcoat, scanned the skies for other traffic.

After stabilizing the airplane behind the drogue, Stockwell eased the sleek fighter toward the basket.  Adding a touch of power, the commanding officer of the VF-32 “Swordsmen” gently guided the airplane forward until the probe smoothly plugged into the refueling receptacle.  Once the nozzle was mated with the drogue, Stockwell carefully maintained his position directly behind the tanker.

“You’re takin’ gas,” the sergeant in the boom operator’s station radioed in his deep whiskey voice.

“That’s what we like to hear,” Stockwell drawled.

Commander,” an urgent voice interrupted, “this is Major Labrowski.”

Instinctively, Stockwell and Jeffcoat tensed.  Labrowski was the aircraft commander of the KC-10 Extender.

"What’s up, Ski?”

“Sir, the AWACS that was scheduled to rendezvous with you just had an engine problem,” Labrowski said, then paused to listen to an air traffic controller who was communicating with the Boeing E-3 AWACS crew.  “They’re headed back to the base, and the spare bird won’t be up for another thirty to forth-five minutes.”

Shit! Stockwell swore to himself.  This mission is a White House priority, a request directly from the president.  I sure as hell don’t want to be the one who scrubs it.  “Stand by.”

“Roger.”

With the SR-71 Blackbird downed by a line-item veto, and the venerable U-2 “Dragon Ladies” temporarily grounded after a mysterious crash, the carrier-based F-14 Tomcat had been called on to provide war-ready strategic reconnaissance for the White House and the Pentagon.      
Countering the effects of the turbulent air, Stockwell deftly worked the control stick while he quickly analyzed the situation.  Although the Airborne Warning and Control aircraft wouldn’t be available to provide advance notice of hostile aircraft and missiles, Stockwell remained confident about flying over the denied area.

The Tomcat carried the latest technology in Electronic Counter Measures equipment.  Recently released from the “black world,” the highly sophisticated defensive system could electronically jam enemy early-warning radars and missile sites, making it almost impossible to obtain a firing solution on the TARPS-equipped fighter.

The Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Pod System with a digital imagery (DI) camera would image the targets and transmit the information to the Joint Task Force, Southwest Asia headquarters in Saudi Arabia for positive identification and analysis.  Forty minutes later, the president of the United States and his secretary of defense would have the recce photographs in their hands.

The near real-time imagery of the TARPS-equipped Tomcats expanded the reconnaissance role of the F-14 during crisis situations.  The aircraft delivered aerial photos so incredibly clear you could read street signs and license plates.  Although “national systems,” Pentagonese for spy satellites and intelligence gathering aircraft such as the U-2 and Rivet Joint, were excellent platforms for gathering vital information, they occasionally malfunctioned or were not in a proper position to spy.

When time is critical, a call to an aircraft carrier in the vicinity of a potential target allows the president the luxury of assessing the threat in a matter of minutes or hours.  In addition, with aerial refueling, the manned Tomcat could provide increased flexibility for the commander in chief and his military advisers.

“I appreciate the heads-up,” Stockwell said flatly.  “We’re going to press on with the mission.”

“Understand you’re going to continue?”

“That’s affirm.”

A short pause followed.

“Ah, Roger.”

Skeeter Jeffcoat keyed the intercom.  “Skipper, the place is crawling with missiles and fighters.  Are you sure you don’t want to abort?”

Stockwell hesitated a few seconds.  I don’t want to screw this up with the whole air wing watching.  “Normally, I’d go home, but this mission is a White House priority.  I’m goin’ for it, unless you’re uncomfortable.”

The seasoned naval flight officer faltered a few moments before he answered.  “I’d be lying if I said I don’t have some reservations, but if you want to march on, I’m game.”

“Then let’s do it.”

“Yessir.”

Piece of cake
, Stockwell told himself as he played the controls and watched the hose and basket.  The delicate ballet continued while Jeffcoat monitored the sky.  Approaching a full load of fuel, Stockwell’s throttles began creeping forward.

“Time for an adjustment,” he said to himself.

Flying as smoothly as possible, Stockwell added power to maintain the proper refueling position.  He counted the seconds until the F-14 was full, then keyed his radio. “Thanks for the drink.”

“Anytime, sir.”

Darting a final look at the boom operator’s station, Stockwell disconnected the probe and eased the Tomcat aft and down from the KC-10.  Clear of the tanker, he retracted the probe and pushed the throttles into minimum afterburner.  Long, white-hot flames belched from the turbofans as the multi-role fighter raced away from the tanker and rapidly climbed toward the bright midday sun.

The previous day, Stockwell and Jeffcoat had flown the same route to capture their primary targets in the long shadows of early morning.  Now, after another request from the president, they would be photographing the sites with the hot midday sun directly overhead.

Passing 36,000 feet, Stockwell advanced the throttles to maximum afterburner to rapidly build airspeed for the final climb.

Ascending through 43,000 feet, Jeffcoat prepared to engage the Defensive system.  “Ready for the DEF gear?”

"Shoot her the juice.”

"You got it.”

Jeffcoat energized the state-of-the-art system and the Tomcat immediately experienced a power surge that momentarily caused the enunciator panel in the cockpit to light up like a Christmas tree.

“Ho-leeee shit,” Stockwell exclaimed as he fought to calm his nerves.  “What the hell is going on back there?”

"Sorry, boss.”  Jeffcoat quickly turned off the faulty system.  “The DEF gear went haywire.”

“Jesus,” Stockwell muttered as he sucked in a breath of oxygen.  “My heart won’t take another shot like that.”

“I’ve got it secured.”

“Yeah, forget it,” Stockwell sighed, feeling the effects of the adrenaline rush.  “The damn thing only works on training flights.”

The demon named Fear had slipped out of Stockwell’s subconscious, taunting him, coiling around him like a boa constrictor, squeezing tighter and tighter until the fear was so palpable that he had trouble swallowing.  The snarling, hissing distraction possessed the power to erase a pilot’s judgment and skill.  During his long career, Stockwell had successfully conquered the demon many times.

“What do’ya think, skipper?” Jeffcoat asked with a trace of anxiety in his voice.  “Press on, or get out of town.”

Stockwell stared at the horizon while he fought the impulse to cancel the mission and return to the carrier.  Maybe we should abort, or wait for another AWACS.  He considered the knowns and unknowns.  If we loiter and wait for the AWACS, we’ll have to refuel again.  The timing will be off because the sun won’t be directly overhead.

“Why me?” he quietly asked himself, then allowed a thin smile to crease his face.  “Skeeter, the president is waiting.  I’m committed, unless you’re dead set against it.”

Jeffcoat took a deep breath and slowly let it out.  “We can hack it, sir.”  Just concentrate on the mission.

With their pulse rates winding down, the two men remained quiet while the F-14 climbed through 54,400 feet, then accelerated to the “speed of heat” and leveled off at 54,000 feet.  High above most of the other air traffic traversing the busy Gulf of Oman, the Mach 2.34 Tomcat was back in its environment.  In less than fifteen minutes, they would be photographing the first of two recently constructed missile sites along the coast of Iran.  

Spacecraft imagery and electronic data indicated the new launch pads were equipped with Shahab-3 and Shahab-4 missiles. According to dissidents in Tehran, the Shahab-3 could deliver 1650 pounds of explosives over 860 miles, allowing Iran to inflict severe damage to Jerusalem and to U.S. forces at bases in Turkey, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.  A few Shahab-3s carrying anthrax could easily kill the majority of American troops in the Gulf region.  More powerful, the Shahab-4 had the range to hit cities in Egypt.

With the assistance of Russian, North Korean, and Chinese engineers and technicians, a third generation of Iranian ballistic missiles was being manufactured at Hemat Missile Industries, which contains a production facility thirty feet underground.

The news had caused a mad scramble at the Pentagon, and frayed nerves at the White House and the State Department.  Capable of reaching Paris or London, the state-of-the-art missiles were equipped with thermonuclear warheads. 

Other Chinese and Russian advisers headquartered at the Shahid Bagheri Industrial Group in Tehran were in the final stages of developing a 6300-mile missile that could strike Washington, D.C., and New York City.  The Iranian weapons of choice for the U.S. were terrorists to disperse anthrax, followed days later by missiles with thermonuclear warheads.

Jeffcoat punched the play button on the small portable CD player he had modified to plug into his helmet.  A few seconds later, the greatest hits of Hank Williams filtered through his earpads.  Jeffcoat adjusted the volume while he listened to “Hey, Good Lookin’,” then glanced at the horizon and tilted his head back.

The bluish dome of sky turned dark blue as his gaze traveled higher.  Far below the spy plane, the sky was powder blue and filled with fluffy white clouds that resembled puffs of cotton candy randomly scattered about.

After studying the curvature of the earth for a few moments, Jeffcoat turned his attention to his instruments in an attempt to ease his growing anxiety.  The increased pressure to accomplish this particular mission was subtle, but it was there.  Jeffcoat closed his eyes and sighed.  First the AWACS, now the DEF gear.  What next?  He unconsciously tapped his foot to the beat of the music.  We’re hangin’ it out on this pass.

Mulling over the possibility of being attacked by the Iranians, Jeffcoat finally shrugged off his concern.  He keyed his intercom.  “What do’ya think, skipper, is the commander in chief about ready to teach the big shots in Tehran a lesson?”

“I wouldn’t bet against it,” Stockwell quietly chuckled.  “Giving us a deadline to have out troops out of Sandland wasn’t a stroke of diplomatic genius.”

“Yeah,” Jeffcoat said, “and now they’re threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz if we don’t get out by the deadline.”

“It may come down to a shoot out.”  Stockwell paused while he glanced at the Persian Gulf and the coast of Iran.  “They’re sure as hell flaunting their muscle,  trying to intimidate us.”

“Not a smart idea,” Jeffcoat declared.

“True, but you have to remember who you’re dealing with.”  Stockwell made a slight heading adjustment.  “After watching Bassam Shakhar threaten us on CNN, the president may want to give him and Tehran a demonstration of who really runs the show in the Gulf region.”

Skeeter nodded in agreement.  “Yeah, it might get real noisy down there before too long.”

Real noisy,” Stockwell said with conviction.  “And then real quiet.”

“Like Stone Age quiet,” Jeffcoat suggested.

“Yeah, something like that.”

Skeeter closed his eyes and sighed while the lyrics of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” floated lightly and smoothly through his headphones.  “Wake me up if we get lost.”

“You’ll be the first to know.”

Stockwell pointed the Tomcat toward the initial point of the photo run, then made a sweeping left turn to align the aircraft with the desired track to be photographed.  Traveling at twenty-six miles a minute, there was no room for miscalculation or pilot error.

Feeling a sudden chill race down his spine, Stockwell scanned the curvature of the horizon and thought briefly about Francis Gary Powers and the U-2 Affair.  I wonder what he was thinking when the missile hit him, must’uv been a major ‘OH, SHIT!’ for sure.

Checking his instruments, Stockwell tried to quell his uneasiness.  I hope we slide through this without becoming the center of an international incident.

During the previous two days, Tehran had repeatedly threatened to shoot down the reconnaissance planes if the “provocative acts” continued.  To bolster their declaration, Iranian fighter planes equipped with the latest generation of Russian-made air-to-air missiles were patrolling the skies.  The heated threats from members of the Supreme Council for National Defense were being shown of MSNBC and CNN against a backdrop of Iranian fighter pilots manning their planes and preparing for takeoff.

Stockwell breathed deeply, enjoying the cool oxygen.  Well, God never loved a coward.  “Are you ready, Skeeter?”

Jeffcoat hit the pause button on the CD.  “Skipper, I was born ready.”

“We’re goin’ for it,” Stockwell said with a tinge of apprehension in his voice.  “Keep me honest.”

“I won’t even blink.”

Twenty seconds later, they blasted over the southern coast of Iran.  Flying at a speed of 1,560 mph, they were thundering over hostile territory at an altitude in excess of ten miles.  Time seemed to expand as the minutes slowly passed.  With their survival instincts keyed to a high degree of intensity, Stockwell and Jeffcoat concentrated on flying a flawless pass over the missile sites.

“That’s one down and one to go,” Stockwell declared as they flew over Bandar-e Abbas.

“I feel like we’re swimming in molasses,” Jeffcoat commented in a hollow voice.

“I’ve got the throttles two-blocked.”  Stockwell’s voice reflected a display of false bravado.

“It still isn’t fast enough for me,” Jeffcoat said, then counted the time until the TARPS recon pod began documenting the missile site at Bushehr.

“Uh-oh,” Jeffcoat said as the radar warning receiver began to bleep.  “Someone’s painting us, no shit.”

“We’re about through,” Stockwell observed in a soothing voice.  “Another thirty seconds and it’s Miller time.”

Jeffcoat’s heart stuck in his throat as the time slowly passed.  This ain’t good.

“That’s it,” Stockwell said boldly.

Twenty-three minutes after the fuel-thirsty F-14 started the recce sweep over Bandar-e Abbas and Bushehr, Stockwell began a shallow left turn to coast out over the Persian Gulf.

“They’re still on us,” Jeffcoat said in a tense voice.  “Now, ah, it’s intermittent, but someone’s tracking us.”

"Okay Skeeter,” Stockwell said as he forced himself to relax, “you can start breathing again.”

“Yeah, that’s a wrap.”  Jeffcoat punched the play  button on his CD player an instant before the Tomcat exploded in a horrendous yellow-orange fireball.  Rendered semi-conscious by the violent blast, Stockwell and Jeffcoat sagged in their ejection seats while the F-14 shed the right wing and right engine, then broke in half and exploded a second time.  The twisted and scorched remains of the fighter tumbled out of the sky, trailing flames and blazing jet fuel.

HIGH ABOVE THE PERSIAN GULF

Easing the throttles out of afterburner, Iranian Air Force Major Ali Akbar Muhammud gently banked his Soviet-built MiG-29 Fulcrum as he and his wingman rapidly descended from 52,000 feet.  Muhammud’s first missile had malfunctioned and gone ballistic, but his second missile had destroyed one of the Great Satan’s reconnaissance planes.

Smiling with unbridled satisfaction, he glanced at his wingman.  Although the Iranian Air Force had greatly increased the number of aircraft patrolling their borders, Muhammud’s flight was the first to make contact with the “hostile” recce planes.  A few primary radar returns on an air traffic controller’s screen had made the difference.  It had given the MiG pilots a basic heading to intercept the intruders.

After descending to 2,300 feet, Muhammud leveled off and watched the fuselage of the Tomcat plunge into the Persian Gulf.  Scanning the hazy sky for parachutes, the MiG flew a sweeping circle around the impact area as more debris splashed into the water.  Unable to spot any sign of the downed crew, Muhammud and his wingman added power and banked toward their base at Shiraz.

En route to the airfield, Muhammud recalled the emotional pep talk their squadron commander had given the pilots.  The infidels are going to have to face reality; the Islamic Republic of Iran will no longer tolerate the intrusive acts fomented by the president of the “capital of global arrogance.”  Today marks the emergence of a different, more powerful, more determined Iran.

Muhammud swelled with pride, knowing that he was the first of Iran’s elite fighter pilots to strike a deadly blow to the Americans.  

COPYRIGHT © 1999 by Joe Weber
Primary
Target