You don’t go to North Yorkshire for the social life. Maybe it’s the relentless overcast and cold rain. Or maybe it’s the fact that the sheep outnumber the locals. But the natives won’t speak to you unless you sport a flat cap, wear Wellies and have a whippet by your side.
I was in Yorkshire because that is where the National Security Agency has its largest signals intelligence operation outside of Fort Meade. I am NOT violating any national secrets by telling you that. All you have to do is drive past RAF Menwith Hill. And the 30 white domes, that look like somebody is conducting a mass hot air balloon launch, will give you a clue.
I was in Yorkshire as part of my assignment for the NSA. They download the SIGINT for Afghanistan at Menwith. But, it is a long reach from Kandahar, up to the satellites and then down again to our U.K. installation. So you have to go back and forth between the two places if you want to be absolutely certain that your information hasn’t been messed with.
The absolute integrity of our data feeds is important. That’s because the media is everywhere and it covers everything. And you can get some very bad press, if you inadvertently tuck a Hellfire-Romeo into a Tango’s back pocket while innocent civilians are standing nearby. So, the NSA keeps some poor schmuck permanently on station in the Sandbox.
You can’t ask one of the grunts to do it. They are there to light-up the natives, not analyze 40 gigahertz signals. So, SIGINT has to be done by someone with my particular set of skills.
I am a Grey Fox, which is a Jay-Sock code name for a fully weaponized geek. I have the ability to shoot you. But at the same time, I am anything but heroic. That’s what the OTHER people are there for.
Me? I do whatever it takes to stay out of harm’s way.
The Jarheads I am billeted with are either too unimaginative or too stupid to grasp the concept of their own grisly death. I guess that’s why we call them “bullet catchers.”
But then again, they’re kids. I am a little older and a whole lot wiser. And so, if there’s a call to do anything ill-advised I am ALWAYS at the back of the line.
Fortunately, nobody sees me for what I really am - which is a totally non-aggressive geek. Everybody thinks of me as some kind of swashbuckling, latter-day, electronic beau sabreur.
That is strictly a misperception on their part. I am much bigger than average. And my craggy good-looks leave people with the impression that I am the essence of stalwart courage.
Which just goes to show you that appearances can be deceiving.
You can forget about all of the Hooorahhh bullshit that you hear from the Marines. The only reason why I was in that third world shithole was to make sure that the U.S.’s Ka Band transmissions are secure.
And my only aim was to keep my precious hide intact while I was doing it. So if one of the Devil-Dogs wants to do something brave, I am more than happy to stand aside and let him do it.
Of course, the data feeds are two way communications. So I am in Yorkshire just as often as I am in The ‘Stan. And since, Yorkshire is as cold and rainy, as Kandahar is hot and dusty, it is safe to say that my luck in work venues universally sucks.
It’s a complex system. The Hellfire-armed Predators and Reapers are flown out of Creech AFB in Nevada, which is the other leg of the triangle. It’s all satellite enabled. And it is one of those 21st Century phenomena that have shaped the modern battlespace into something that Sun Tzu, or Von Clausewitz wouldn’t recognize.
Signals intelligence is geek work. But the part of my duty that takes place in Afghanistan can also get you killed.
Your untimely death might be the cost of doing business in downtown Kabul. But the odds go infinitely higher when you start exploring in-country, which is something that I occasionally and very unwillingly have to do.
The Air Force doesn’t deign to fly into the nooks and crannies of the surrounding mountains. And that creates some pretty big holes in our electronic intelligence net. So the only way to get good SIGINT is to patrol on foot in those mountain gaps.
And, there is nothing like climbing a narrow mountain trail with 80 pounds of electronic gear on your back to make you rethink your career goals. Especially if you are in a dangerous place like Helmand Province.
We had been dropped by Chinook to patrol from Lashkar Gah toward Marjah. I was there with a platoon from the Fifth Marines. We were just starting to enter a little mountain plateau, when all hell broke loose.
There were 30 of us and a whole lot more of the bad guys. I really wasn’t in a position to count. Since I was too busy diving behind a rock. Still, I didn’t have to be a tactical genius to figure out that we were in deep kimchi.
For those of you who have never had the pleasure; the movies don’t come close to portraying what it is really like to be shot at.
The gunfire is just background noise. What you are painfully aware of is the vicious “viiiiiiping” sound of the near misses as they whiz past you. Or the surprisingly emphatic “cracks!!” as they hit whatever you are hiding behind.
The 7.62 millimeter slugs from an AK-47 are a lot bigger and slower than the 5.56 millimeter bullets that we fire. And they sound like a freight train as they pass. I was hearing a lot of that as I shed my pack and fired up the satellite link.
The good news was that the Hajis had jumped us before we had gotten into their kill-box. So we had. adequate cover. And we have come a long way from the short range field radios of the Vietnam days. So, I could have talked to my sainted mother at that particular moment thanks to the satellites.
But instead of my sweet old mom, I was talking to the short-tempered AirBoss in Kandahar. Air support in the ‘Stan is a lot like booking an Uber. You don’t know what you are going to get until it shows up.
What we got that day, was like looking under the Christmas tree and finding a pony. They sent us a C130U “Spooky II”, instead of the F16s that I expected. That was a nice surprise because the jet jockeys can be a little casual when they are dropping shit around you.
Spookies are flying weapons platforms built on the big, old, slow moving C-130 cargo plane. And the precision of its 105 millimeter air-cannon and the 30 millimeter GAU23A Gatling’s brought a quick and emphatic end to the engagement.
I never found out whether the Hajis were Taliban fighters, or just one of the local bandit gangs. I DO know there were a whole lot less of them after the Spooky appeared. Later on, I remember walking past two sandals that were just lying there by the side of the trail. The former owner was a vaporized ring of gore around them.
The odd thing was that the sandals themselves were completely undisturbed - positioned exactly as the owner had been standing when he was air-burst by the 105mm round. And those lonely sandals perfectly illustrated the consequences of combat with a technologically advanced foe like us.
That also more-or-less sums up 21st Century asymmetric warfare. The war we were fighting doesn’t involve any of the desperate conditions of the World War I trenches, or the mass destruction of the monumental battles of World War II. In fact, my average Tuesday morning might involve an hour long firefight followed by a helicopter ride back home for a nice lunch.
But the single thing that we DO have in common with all of the soldiers from all of those other wars was the prospect of our imminent demise. So, you either develop a thick skin, or you go nuts.
I rotated back to the U.K. three weeks later. It was a C130 hop into RAF Waddington.
The Hercules doesn’t feature sexy flight attendants, complimentary drinks, or reclining seats; just an unshaven and slightly smelly E-7 Loadmaster. I couldn’t sleep much anyhow since the four turbo props made the twenty hours in the air feel like I was sitting in blender.
Then I rented a car and drove the two hours from Lincoln to Harrogate. I did that as a private citizen.
I am actually a Captain with the 742nd Military Intelligence Battalion, based at Fort Meade. Going incognito wasn’t an espionage thing. NSA just likes to be the “No Such Agency”.
That was also the reason why I checked into the White Hart Hotel in nearby Harrogate instead of the transient BOQ on base. I had the usual debriefing meetings at Menwith Hill the following morning, which was a Thursday. Then I took weekend leave to go down to London.
The trip from Harrogate to King’s Cross took three hours. I booked the early afternoon express so there were relatively few stops. And I was at my usual cheap west-end hotel by dinner time.
I was going to meet Rinaldi at our normal spot. Rinaldi is a few years older than me. And he’s a doctor in his day-job. He is stationed with the Brits’ 256th Field Hospital. That outfit might be based in the City of London. But I met him in Afghanistan.
The 256th isn’t anything out of MAS*H. It’s more like a reserve unit. Nevertheless, they rotate it in and out of The ‘Stan because of shortages in the army medical services. And the fact that they need to deploy reserve units like the 256th perfectly illustrates how the whole cluster-fuck works.
Rinaldi is about as far opposite me as you can get. He is five-ten, compact, very good looking, urbane and deliciously witty; while I am tall, Viking looking, a little over-muscled and the best you can say is that I am not too embarrassing in public.
.... There is more of this story ...