1st Officer Ping Xi Liu

6TH NAVY FIGHTER DIVISION

PLANAF – Jiangong

1530R hours 16 June 2028CE

LONGTIAN AIR BASE. EAST CHINA. 

There is calm. There is peace.

Then my eyes open, and I’m still alive.

“You’re a legend already.” they said when I arrived back in port days ago. Jiangong is in port to the north, her hull damaged by American torpedoes. They limped us away during the attack, our leaders probably wondering how the American submarines managed to sneak so far past our defensive lines. Was it luck? Or was it underwater superiority? 

They won’t tell us. 

The first island chain is ours

We had their ships running in defense, their aircraft struggling to hold us back, and their homeland seething. Taiwan should have been ours by now. 

But here we are two weeks later, sitting in the briefing room, backs straight, shoulders raised, and minds ready. The commanders enter, their neatly pressed uniforms holding stark against the chaos in the world.  

The Americans are losing. 

Twenty-two days into the war and they are in retreat, trying desperately to watch their backs as they retreat to Guam. Not that there is much left of it, their Anderson Air Base pummeled by hypersonics for days now. 

I’m with a new Regiment, the 34th, assigned to a squadron of J-15s pulled away from the carriers. I got seven more kills in six days, specializing in large enemy tankers and transport aircraft. The Party celebrated this with a battle award, quickly transitioning me into a newer model J-11D that I had only seen in training. It’s fantastic. Even the Russians are helping us with avionics expertise. We are ‘all hands on deck’ now, the Party pulling together as many strike support aircraft as possible. 

We must hold the airspace. The Americans and Taiwainese are fighting back, Shao Xiao (Major) Zhen explaining to us that they have somehow managed to hold us to a stalemate over the Taiwan Strait. 

They are using their F-16s to great effect, some likely housing Americans judging by intercepted transmissions and Chinese Intelligence reports. During our initial assault on their upper west coast, they inflicted heavy losses on us. The Party won’t admit me, but Zhen is incredibly honest with us. 

Our mission is textbook SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defense). Taipei, Taoyuan, and Hsinchu City. They are heavily fortified with their Sky Sword and American Patriot missile batteries. Our people say they are mobile, and the Taiwanese are hugely effective in moving them around. 

But Zhen thinks it’s more:

Obviously the Americans are at play, using their navy ships and AWACS to help pick off our offensive forces. Taiwan should have been defeated by now, but we cannot reach their mountainside airbases. Zhen shows us reports of US Navy ships running patrols east of Taiwan, their defensive line stabilizing as they set up their wonderful combat logistics. Reports say that dozens of our H-6 bombers were taken out by American SM-2 and SM-6 missiles.

“From their naval ships, sir?” I asked. 

“Yes.” he nods. “Apparently they can fire them over the island and into the Strait. No warnings. No tones until the last minute.”

My god. 

He doesn’t say it, but I know that’s the fear. Once they have the logistics arranged, they’ll begin their war footing. 

“We have seen nothing yet.” Zhen says sternly. “They are holding back, likely regrouping for a definitive counter assault. Don’t mistake their timidity for weakness. China has bloodied their noses, but they will be back. They are testing us. Testing our resolve. And today we continue the spearhead into Taiwan’s air defense. Are you ready?”

We shout together, “YES SIR!”

“ARE YOU READY?”

“YES SIR!”

So I’m on the tarmac as the rain clears, my chest tight as I try to control my breathing. I watch a group of J-10s rolling past in the taxiway, each pilot saluting as they roll by, their PL-15s hanging beneath their wings. We wish each other the best of luck. One China. One resolve. One solution. 

“Second squadron,” says our controller, “on deck!”

That’s us. I’m engines up, all systems ready. 

Ten minutes later we’re rolling, the thunder cracks of the J-10s booming as they blast away to the east. We take off in twos, wingmen in trail formation, our Chinese Flankers lifting into the sky and back into battle. 

We split at 4.5 kilometers altitude. Two of us head north, two to the south, and me, our flight lead, goes high and fast. As a newly minted Flight Leader, I force the directness in my voice. 

“Second Squadron!” I say. “You heard control. Some thirteen enemies to our east, turning west around the tip of Taiwan. F-16s. I expect them to turn hot and commit to us.” 

Then GCI will likely vector Third and Fourth Squadron J-10s to cover us. My thinking is to pull further north from here, forcing them to stay close to their island in fear of our J-20s and J-57s raining PL-15s on them. 

We outnumber them. 

This should be cake. 

But why isn’t it? Why isn’t war ever as easy as the simulations? I fought this battle time and time again, working with the trainers, solidifying our plans and backup plans, wrapping my entire career as a combat pilot around the Party’s ultimate goal of taking Taiwan. 

But they do something different each time we meet. 

The threat of phantom SM-6 missiles in the back of my mind keeps me from holding high altitude for too long. That’s for the J-20s, but our stealth fighters waste PL-15s just to watch the F-16s dip down into the mountains and evade. We must have fired a hundred of them, only to watch them fly away into oblivion, the ROCAF pilots dodging them like The Matrix

High altitude and high speed only work with a dumb enemy. 

And here we are crossing through the clouds, descending through two kilometers, two or three missiles wasted and fighting the urge to run against the radar warning’s shrilling tone. 

But I press, locking up an enemy and firing a PL-15, watching it stream away an arc upwards. I bank left and crank, holding the gee, grunting as I reverse into the opposite direction. 

I can’t decide which is worse:

Close in merges are almost guaranteed death, and so far the closest I got was a 5 kilometer engagement with a ROCAF F-CK-1. We offset at the last moment to prepare the merge, but he was out of missiles. He had to be, my fighter’s honor tainted when I blindly fired a heatseeker that blew him to pieces head on. Beyond visual range engagements are nerve wracking for the opposite reason. 

It’s that I know I might die, but I can’t see it.

I can’t see the missile gliding through the air until it explodes. I can’t dodge without a radar warning tone, and Zhen’s warnings of silent missiles shooting over the island to kill our planes leaves me quivering in my seat. 

I see this guy locked on my radar. I see the radar warning tone going crazy trying to deal with so many contacts that neither it or I can tell what’s happening. This is war, an aerial battle dealing with at least a hundred aircraft over the Strait. 

“I have a large radar contact!” says my wingman. “0-6-5 at 240 kilometers.”

AWACS. 

“Push high and take him!” I radio, still fighting the controls. 

“What about you!” 

“I have this covered! Get the AWACS!”

I’m still defending, but I can’t point my nose away just yet. I have to keep the radar guiding my PL-15 long enough to give it a chance! I squint across the horizon to see it, my palms sweating, my hand shivering in indecision. I can see Taiwan. I can see the island, the pillars of smoke rising from our attacks—but I have to ignore the bait. I can’t go any further! 

Am I fighting a real target, or am I just falling for bait?

They have been rumored to spoof us, feeding us fake targets, or at worse simple AI drones to confuse us. On radar we can’t distinguish between real and fake. I see an ample RCS and I lock it. I get a vector, altitude, and airspeed. Most that I’ve encountered operate like real fighters would. 

I have ten kills total. Ten! 

But were they real

On day one, did I waste my R-37 on a dud aircraft? 

Are the Taiwanese and Americans really painting old civilian aircraft to decoy us? Is my wingman shooting at a real AWACS, or is it an old Boeing 767 brought from Southwest Airlines and painted grey? 

“In range!” he says. “Annnnnd, missile away! Missile away! Two missiles away!”

But he is forced to turn defensive by a missile warning, breaking his lock and thus the critical guidance. There is a chance they might hit, but now it’s much lower. 

Then I see an explosion in the distance. Did I get another kill? 

Was it? Another one?

I check my radar. He’s gone. He’s GONE!

“Kill! I have a kill!” I radio, turning away from the island, pushing the engines back to full power. “Regressing to fallback position. Status?”

We’re all still here. Fighting. Surviving. 

Quickly becoming masters of aerial war. 

In total we have five more kills. My wingman watches as his large target still flies away, turning back over the island. I climb steady back to 10 kilometers. I should have enough fuel for this, but I want to take another shot. 

Our squadron coordinates with some of the J-10s, splitting our altitudes and vectors, making it hard for the ROCAF and Americans to cover their DCA (Defensive Counter Air) strategy. I’m sitting near Mach 1.8, pushing as hard as I can, hearing a cheery transmission from J-20 dispatched to take care of my target. 

“I got it!” I tell him. 

“After you!” he says back. 

I have my jammer on, and radar off. Electro optical on, tracking his heat signature as he loiters somewhere between 4 and 5 kilometers altitude. We jointly spoof them, trying to jam their Link 16. GCI and my squad relay further directions, and finally, at the optimal range, I switch back on the radar and lock it up.

160 kilometers. It’ll be a tough shot. 

I call, “Missile away!” 

The aircraft shutters, the huge missile dropping away, its rocket motor igniting as it bursts forward and up into the sky. 

“Turn away!” says GCI. “Turn away!”

I hold my heading, resisting the urge to pull away. My missile needs help. I have to guide it to target, at least until the final phase where its radar kicks on. 

Radar warning goes solid again, shrilling away at my ears, raising goosebumps on my skin, taking away my breath. They’ve found me. They know I’m a threat now, up here high and fast, aiming for their prized target. 

Then the flight computer starts yelling. 

Missile! Missile! 

Missile! Missile!

They fired a SAM. I can’t tell if it’s in the terminal phase or just launching. 

“Turn away, flight lead!” says one of my men. “Turn away!”

“I have to help it track!”

Missile! Missile! 

Missile! Missile!

Another separate warning. Then another. I have two more inbound, two from fighter jets. But where?! I see no one up here at this altitude! Who the hell fired this!

Twelve seconds until terminal phase. 

Just twelve seconds. 

And then I hear my wingman say, “Sir, I’ve got your right trail, 3 kilomters back! I’ll cover you!”

“No!” I shout looking back, seeing his contrails in the sky. “No you can’t! Turn back!” 

“No, sir!”

The large target drops off my radar. 

GCI confirms, “Target down! Target down!” 

I roll and pull hard on the stick, fighting as my vision blurs, the g-forces pushing my organs into mush. When I feel my brain leaving me, I release pressure on the stick, watching the water below fill the entire viewspace in front of me. I’m in a shrap dive, rolling the wings over, pulling hard again, hoping that this isn’t the moment I die. 

Wait. 

What is that?

Down below me. Is that a—it can’t be—an American stealth? A F-35? He’s pitched up! I see a rocket motor! Oh, it’s a missile!

It’s arching this way!

Missile! Missile! 

Missile! Missile!

I angle down and relax the stick, dropping chaff as I continue falling through 4 kilometers altitude, rotating into meet him halfway through his arc. 

An American stealth jet, merging with me, over the Strait of Taiwan. Zhen was right. The Americans aren’t backing away from this. I pushed too far, and now I’m caught.

An American stealth jet, merging with me, over the Strait of Taiwan. Zhen was right. The Americans aren’t backing away from this. I pushed too far, and now I’m caught. 

The next few minutes devolve. GCI tries to vector us out, but we’re surrounded by enemies. My sixth wing scores a kill on an F-16. My fourth wing hits two other F-CK-1s, splitting their offense in two. 

They flew in to cover me, like true warriors. 

I’m sorry, guys. I wanted our mission to mean something. 

And now I’m responsible for our deaths. 

We’re fighting through the cloud tops, the water vapor obscuring our view as it trades between open blue sky, endless grey, and then the war in the sea below. I see explosions. Pieces of aircraft breaking apart around me. 

Above me. Below me. In front of me. 

I hear screams in the radios. I’ve lost three men, all from that F-35 I couldn’t lock.

Close quarters with a F-16 now. I have angles on him. I just need to get my nose around, but—FLARE! FLARE!

GOD! That barely missed me! 

Another one streaks by behind me. I bank towards him, losing track of my target. If I could just get one of them in front of me! I just need a firing solution!

Fuel! Fuel! Fuel!

No! I have to get home. I have to. 

Explosion to my high left. That was my target! My wingman got him! 

“Kill! Kill!” he shouts. Then, “Gaaaah!” 

I see his J-11 erupt into flames, the wing separating, the aircraft pirouetting into a tumble as it spews a trail of fire. Then I see his canopy shoot away, his seat flying into the atmosphere, then his parachute deploy as he heads down. 

Bullets stream over my head. 

My fixation gave the other F-16 a fire solution. I rotate and jink, flipping, pulling, trying to get him off me. But now I’m slow, the thrust vectoring engines fighting to push me upward as I lift the nose, hoping to force and overshoot. 

But this pilot sees it coming. 

The F-16 hangs back. I see it pull lead, its nose rising slightly in slow motion. 

This is it. 

This is where my luck has run dry.

I see flashes from its cannon muzzle, then the sounds of bullets streaming by me, missing by millimeters, their track holding steady as my J-11 pitches upward, showcasing its large planform and wing straight to the enemy. 

My critical mistake. 

There is nothing I can do as more rounds tear through the skin of the fuselage, piercing holes into the number two engine and right wing. 

Engine Two Fire! Engine Two Fire!

Hydraulic System Malfunction!

My J-11 banks heavily to the right. The flight controls are jammed, my shaking of the stick doing nothing to control the gradual arc towards the sea below me. As the right engine dies, the problem worsens. I throttle back the left engine, trying the rudder to stabilize, but I can’t avoid the flat spin. 

Negative gee grows stronger. I’m in free fall. 

I see the control surfaces struggling to correct, the panic setting in as I drift lower. The HUD and instruments go black, the warnings silent as the systems die. 

Mid tumble, I see my foe rocket past me, banked to show off its little planform, the markings of its fuselage and wings showing the clear USAF markings. 

It’s not a rumor. The Americans are here. 

Time to eject. 

. . . Or at least that’s how it likely looked from your view, my friend. I didn’t know you for more than four days, but you were loyal to our cause. You protected me as I pressed forward like a fool. I got the big target kill, but at the expense of Chinese pilots. 

You kept the F-16s from jumping me. You joined me in the dogfight, switching targets in classic 2v2. You never left my side, even when I told you to.

And now as I run back home, radar off, I kill the unsuspecting F-35 that took three of my men with my last heat seeker. Pieces of his stealth aircraft tumble into the ocean. No chute. He had to be dead on impact, the warhead punching little holes into his body. 

I picture him screaming just like me. 

I picture the tears in his eyes at this last moment just like me, wondering why we’re here. Wondering why we wanted war. Wondering why we talked so big and strong, never realizing the true horror of what we both walked into. 

This is war. 

Just death and very little honor.

On approach to Longtian Air Base, I finally start to breathe again. I wipe away tears from my eyes, the snot from my nose, swallowing the phlegm in my parched throat. The touchdown is perfect. 

Back home they praise me. I get another award.

Second Squadron took six enemy aircraft down, one of them presumably a high value AWACS target. All dead comrades receive full posthumous recognition. They are heroes of the Communist Party.  

We looked our enemy in the eyes and stood tall. 

At least that’s what they said. I salute, holding my tears, waiting for my next scramble, my soul withering away, dying more and more with each passing day. 

Farewell my friends. 

My mistake has cost your lives.

Then I am awake again. I hear klaxons blaring. 

“Enemy attack! Enemy attack! Enemy attack!”

“Air raid! Air raid! Air raid!”

But I’m not surprised anymore. One of my old American friends used to say something from a prominent old song, “There ain’t no rest for the wicked. Till we close our eyes for good.”

Touche. Now it’s back to war. 

Stay tuned for Episode 8!

This is a work of fiction. All characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are creations stemming from the author’s imagination. Any events and locations are used fictitiously.

Copyright © 2021 Bryan James Williams

Artwork developed and flown in DCS World, and stylized by me

Tac Maps are created by me in CMANO – Edited in Photoshop © Matrix Games

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