The Cutting Edge 18

The Cutting Edge
Chapter 18 Draft (03/27/08)

Brigadier Amid Farouk watched his column rolling from the racetrack grounds up to strength and on time. The Division’s heavy armor and much of its transport was still back on Earth. The brought with them on the transport ships a dozen lightly armored combat vehicles, their motorized artillery and air defense, a few command and staff cars and twenty light trucks. The bulk of his 2600 troops rode in vehicles supplied, taken from was closer to it, Mizar’s Army. The rest traveled in 15 buses pulled out of city service in Unity.

Amid’s first task was to pin down the Cardoman units stationed along the main highway, beyond the artillery range of the two bases outside Unity and the one at Camry. To do this he needed to move his anti-air close enough that he could keep the Cardoman shuttles beyond the battle area. To that purpose he sent the missile launchers, covered by his light armor in front, and moving at twice the 30 kph the rest of the column was going to maintain.

The focus of the Brigadier’s interest lay 270 kilometers away, where the network of roads leading from the coast narrowed down to one highway and continued across the continent. What he needed first was sensor coverage of Cardoman airspace. For now they were out of range of the infidel’s heavy 155’s, but likewise, they were beyond the range of the batteries at Unity. Extreme range for such a device was 200 kilometers. Tactically half of that was much better. The reason was counter battery fire, tracking the projectiles back to their source and destroying the field pieces.

Sensor interference, primarily radar jamming gear made it nearly impossible to track the fired rounds until they were well away from the guns. The most sophisticated rounds could change their trajectory in flight disguising where they were fired from. But if this course change was made immediately after the shell left the gun then the correction needed to hit the target was so large that range suffered accordingly.

Farouk, riding in the back of his van like command car had men maintaining communications with all of his units and General Gomaa in Unity at Army HQ. He was two hours and 50 kilometers on his way when notified about the detection of a hyper signature from a ship entering the system. Fifteen minutes later he beamed when word came in that it was one of their battle cruisers, the Reza Gholam, three days from orbit. Even a lightly armed military transport was more than a shuttle could deal with. Adding to it the system pickets and the Cardoman’s Saratoga was in very deep hole.

This portion of the march was going as scripted; he watched his own display while his aide checked boxes on the time line. The units out in front were halted and four of their own 155’s deployed covering the renewed advance of the radar and anti-air. Those four guns would pick up and leap in front at the advanced units next halt. It would keep coverage continuous and make it risky for the enemy to open fire at long range.

Brigadier Farouk spent a moment talking to his intel officer asking him about anything new.

“There was some kind of minor disturbance in Unity after we left, an small scale attack on the city jail but the reports say it failed miserably and a couple of those responsible have already been captured.”

They will be spilling their guts shortly, Farouk thought to himself.

“We have to get out of here now,” Ibrahim told Stillwell.

“You don’t need to worry, those men, even if they are captured won’t talk.”

“Unless they have the drugs and conditioning Gaza and I have—believe me—they will talk. Gaza, take Najib out for exercise. If you can find a new stable for her, if not find someone to buy her no questions asked. She’s not as famous as Alahambra so I doubt any of the Colonel’s men recognized her, but when the Calps come here for an inspection they would place her with us almost at once. I had never met any of your men before and lightly disguised as we were I do not think they could pull us from a lineup. In that I could be wrong.”

“I am going to our safe house and Colonel you had best get out of town at once. Can you do that?”

“I should be able to manage. There’s a ship waiting to take me down the coast this afternoon, even if the Calps are checking I can blend in with the crew and if they are looking closely enough I can hide somewhere on the vessel until we leave port.”

“Go there before they have a chance to tighten security on the docks. If you can take the other three that survived and take them with you, if not get them hidden in town until they can get out. Good luck to you Colonel.”

“Gaza if I am not at the safe house when you get there I will be in the coffee shop around the corner. I will see you later.”

The pictures sent down by the Sara showed the two-hour progress of Farouk’s column, Cpl Irving, number two gun director asked Sgt Manners, “The advance unit is setting up their arty. We have them at extreme range. What do you think Sgt?”

“I think we fire when Bledsoe says we fire. I also think they out gun us by 2 to 1, so at this kind of range any thing we fire will have no maneuver left when it gets out there. Bledsoe’s got a direct line to the Major and the Major’s got a direct line to God, so don’t sweat it. We’re gonna’ see, but I think we will hold fire for a while, probably be noon before the flag drops.”

The six Cardoman field pieces were spread in an arched line, each one separated by a hundred meters from its nearest neighbor. With the help of Ben Morgan’s Charlie Company shallow pits had been dug, just large enough to contain the 155’s along with enough ammo to supply them for about fifteen minutes at the maximum rate of sustained fire, ninety rounds. Each gun had a gun director in case the auto aimers went on the fritz and two loaders to feed her. There wasn’t any high ground to speak of for 500 kilometers and of course no time or materials to build structurally reinforced gun pits.

“You seem might calm this morning Lieutenant,” Manners said after making his way to where Bledsoe had set his command post two hundred meters to the rear and on the northern end of the arc.

“I just look that way Gunny. I’m looking for a stone unturned and can’t find one. You have any further suggestions?”

“Not really, in a few hours when my hindsight kicks in ask again. This is close to the worst kind of terrain for an arty battery. Too flat, I wish we had some mobile guns too. Then we could move between rounds. I sure hope the new jamming and terminal defense gear works as advertised.”

“You and me both. I want you to go to the other end of the line and work with the terminal defense team. Keep em steady and on task. I think we still have a couple of hours to go.”

Jasper Newmish and one platoon of B Company were eight kilometers deep into the hundred thousand hectare marsh that boarder the trans-continental highway starting at a point just beyond where Farouk’s lead elements were stopped. From that position and then for another 60 K’s it was the constraint causing the road to swing gradually southward before correcting its direction where the marshland ended.. This time of year there wasn’t much flow through the reeds and grasses, so the freestanding water was stagnant in the places where even marsh grass refused to grow, and the insects were hungry. They buzzed around but their local issue repellent worked as advertised.

With Newmish were two men from the area that Stillwell’s people had turned up. They claimed to know the paths one could walk without sinking into the muck. Hard to believe anyone could find their way around in here but the locals had gotten them this far.

Both men augmented their farming income by hunting a medium sized eel, medium sized for this marsh meant less than four meters long, with a hide that when treated made an exceptionally attractive leather for use in luxury goods. Newmish didn’t want the men with him. He feared they would slow the platoon down. But after a day of scouting locations on their own, using maps and position data the locals supplied, led to a day of floundering around in the mire, he called them in for a talk.

“Gentlemen, your maps are Bullcrap!”

“Well Sir,” Nate Galen the younger and more talkative of the two said, “You see the dry places kinda’ change from season to season and year to year. If you been there enough before, walked it enough, then you can look around and figure out even if the path is covered by water, if it’s gonna’ be firm at any given time. It’s what I tried to tell Cpl. Avery when he asked for them.”

“Both of you come with us when we try again tomorrow, because unless we can operate in the marsh we are all wasting out time here.”

Jasper was convinced the men did know what they were talking about and he split the platoon into two squads, Sgt John Higgins leading the other in order to spread them out and make detection more difficult. They hoped to reach the ambush site after Farouk’s forward scouting units had already passed and certified the section of road the where they would mount their attack. Timing was crucial but with drones being virtually usable by either side due to electronic interference corrupting sensors and an occasional shoot down, the Sara’s orbital view gave them all the information they needed.

From beyond the scouting units detection range they waited and when the road was temporarily clear the got in close and set up their positions. Stretched out and submerged in fetid water 50 meters off the road with only breathing tubes and a small visual periscope feeding their goggles showing above the surface. Their weapons waterproofing was getting a test but this was something they were designed for. Both of the guides were well back from the road, untrained and too important to risk, they would be needed in order to get 1st Platoon Bravo Company out of the marsh when the time came.

Sensing a leak in his skintight under garment, Jasper couldn’t help but pray the locally supplied anti-snake repellent worked as good as the insect variety.

Ben Morgan’s C Company was loaded on farm trucks borrowed from loyalist living a five hours drive away. Now they were stopped ten kilometers up an unpaved road that intersected the main route some thirty-five kilometers further inland from where B Company would spring the trap. It the thing went as planned they would head for the road and do whatever damage they could.

They were a half an hour from the ambush point, in a forested section with no farms or farmers nearby to notice or reveal their location. Two kilometers on either side of the parked trucks, the Company was a couple hundred yards into the woods in case the trucks were targeted. They placed out guards to halt and detain any traffic that might come their way. To this point, there had been none, a couple of hours to go but it was looking like they were unsuspected and unnoticed.

Melbourne’s A Company had the job of sealing off any attempt by Farouk’s column to simply overpower their opposition and continue down to the road net intersection. She needed to drive the scouts back before they had a chance to see how few troops were actually opposing them. One of her platoons would handle that part of the mission the rest of the company was the reserve dug in to delay chase in the case a full-scale retreat became necessary.

Ramseyer’s Brits in battalion strength were well to the south preparing an attack on a smaller Calp force at Idlers Cove one of the coastal cities handling a small fraction of the local trade. It was outside the range of the 155’s in Unity and would make a good location for his own men and also as an anchor for further movement towards the Capital.

Newmish’s 2nd platoon was with Major Calvert, unlikely to be involved with the days fighting but ready to go in whatever direction might be needed. The optical links the Saratoga continued to relay kept Wes in contact with the developing situation. He spent a few minutes dealing with the latest news concerning the Calp battle cruiser while things were still slow on the ground.

“Ok, that makes sense, have the shuttles head towards them. The Calps have enough low air defense and we won’t bomb from orbit anyway. Make sure the shuttle crews know that they are not to take any risks whatsoever. If we need to evacuate they are all we have. What is the latest on the ships position and track?”

Jamie had that information packaged and ready to go but gave Calvert her analysis about what she thought it meant.

“The Captain of the Reza found out from the guard ships about our being here. Too early for word to have gotten to Earth so this must be a routine run probably planned to check on progress. He will shape a course so the pickets come in with him, that’s the reason for the slow down, they’d never match his velocity.”

“Two questions come to mind Jamie. How long till they become a threat to the Saratoga?”

“Because of the pickets slowing him down—almost a week. The Reza could become bold and decide to come in alone and be here in a couple of days. I expect there is going to be some conversation with General Gomaa and I expect when the final decision gets made it will call for caution. The second question Major?”

“Will she fight.”

“The plan to split apart the infidels seems to be working well Aqeed and now we have detected one of our ships arriving in system. A G-4, that ship must be the Reza Gholam one of our latest and on schedule to check on us. Tell me about the commotion in town this morning. Does it affect us?”

“A botched attempt to free some of our political prisoners General, not many involved, fewer than ten, and we captured two of those while they fled. Interrogation, I am sure you understand, needed to be conducted, and information extracted at once. Both men refused to cooperate to their detriment. We learned enough concerning the operational details that we have a few locations to inspect and other to keep watch on, but the only name to emerge, was that of Ramses Stillwell, he actually took part in the raid we believe is in the City.”

“Very good, finding Stillwell is a job for internal security, I want you to oversee it, but let Captain Hojjat handle the details as he see fit. For yourself, I would like you to take charge of the communication link to the Reza. Send her the complete details of our situation and make sure she gets here as soon as possible. Once we neutralize the Cardoman ship in orbit the rest becomes easy.”

“It shall be as Allah wills.”

Brigadier Farouk, slightly ahead of his column, inspected the six guns deployed and ready to fire. He ordered the other six to proceed as planned and set themselves up another fifty kilometers down the road. When they were in place this group and its air defenses would leapfrog ahead. A smooth operation that had slipped only minutes behind the timetable. He had his command car pull well off the road and waited for the rest of his troops to catch up with him.

The optical tube coupled to Jasper Newmish’s goggles was picking up the signal from the Saratoga showing the first of the Calp guns passing by his submerged squad. They were strung out in line almost 400 meters separating one from another. A reaction force led at the front and the missile launchers held down the rear. This group was wider spread now than when they began moving. His men would only be able to target four of them instead of all six. Newmish made the decision to let the reaction force and the first three guns go by and take out the last three and the air defenses if he was able. It would be up to Bledsoe and his artillery to knock out the guns he was letting pass.

Almost time, NOW! He sent the one word message in the clear and on all and raising himself out of the knee high water pulled the caps from the end of his missile tube and aimed at the gun and mobile field transporter to his left. Lock on was instantaneous and before the Calps had a chance to do more than begin to speed up at the order from in front, the first of his three round magazine struck it’s aim point and the transport burst into flame.

His men were firing all up and down the line. The three 155mm guns were damaged beyond repair almost at once, and Jasper ordered all unfired munitions from his end of the line be sent in the direction of the vehicles in the anti-air squadron. As near as he could tell two were hit and out of action but the other four had gotten jammers on line that were spoofing the small shoulder fired missiles circuitry. Fire from his position might overload the jamming gear and let a few more of those closer in get a kill.

Forty-five seconds later it was all over for his men. The Calps at the front had begun to slow down to stop and reverse course. In a moment would be turned around and lobbing truck mounted mortar rounds in his direction.

“We’ve done what we came for! Let’s get out now while we’re still in one piece.”

The mortar fire from the Calp reaction team, even without direct targeting or spotting data was deadly accurate. Six members of B Company died and another five wounded before they were out of range.

“Long range artillery from the Cardoman fire base,” the news arrived on the heels of first reports and views of the attack on their advanced team. Amid Farouk snapped put his orders.

“Our long range AA to provide what intercept we are able, have our artillery set up and open fire, there is no time for them to get any closer. Short range anti-air will provide cover for the rest of us. Let’s find out how fast we can move. We can reach them in little more than half an hour Allah willing that might be soon enough.”

“Incoming 155’s was all the Major leading the Calp forward element needed to here before ordering his own three surviving guns to set up and return fire. His one remaining long-range missile launch radar caught the first flight while it was two and a half minutes out. Two of the shorter range 25mm rapid fire close in defensive guns were fully operational. He waited to see the first interceptor fired then went back to directing the men already in the swamp bordering the road and in pursuit of the people responsible for the wholesale carnage around him. The fact that he might be considered ultimately responsible had already entered his mind.

All three of his own big guns were in action when the measured fire from short range 25mm’s signaled the Cardoman first rounds were only seconds away.

“We are getting return fire from three guns Sir, no indication they have our true location spotted yet.”

“Continue firing,” Bledsoe said, “We’ll just have to rely on our jamming to keep any sensor loaded rounds from reporting back accurately. Maximum rate, split fire to cover the tubes and the rest of the column.”

The time factors involved in a long range artillery duel made it somewhat similar to a battle in space. But compressed by a factor of twenty, and without the mobility to get out of range.

“No point in holding any longer Basil.” Calvert’s was watching the battle taking place to the north of him, his screen updating every few seconds and felt no need to intercede “You and your men are released for action.”

“Tally Ho, and away we go, on to Idlers Cove.”

The Brit’s special weapons section had two terrain hugging cruise missiles launch controllers. Each little more than a two-meter rail with some plug-in connectors to upload target information, arm, and initiate the launch. They were range limited to a hundred kilometers, and slow, but without air cover to detect their IR, they were invisible to anything but radar or line of flight sonic sensing. Ramseyer’s spoken “Tally Ho,” sent two, then a minute later two more and then a final two on their way. The target, the Calp heavy guns seven flight minutes away.

The Calp security sweeps and patrolling around the coastal city had little or no support from the local population, smuggling being a part time occupation of so many. The Brits managed to move a company sized unit six kilometers north of the town and two six-man mortar teams closer in. Shortly after Ramseyer began his move, the mortars fired into the main Calp camp straddling the road leading into the interior. A few dozen rounds and then a rapid pull back.

The defending troops, dug in properly, reacted to the fire at once, and not much damage was caused. But the surprise created confusion, and instead of paying full attention to the road he guarded, Ramseyer’s only avenue of rapid approach. The camp commander wasted time and effort chasing after the mortar teams that were running away as fast as they could and taking Calps with them away from the city. This was a poor tactical decision, though only two of the twelve mortar team members survived to reflect upon that fact.

The area around the camp was tableland flat, with farmland beside the road and a line of orchards irrigated by Cove creek to the south. The creek, a fair sized year round stream, provided the city’s water before feeding into the bay. The cruise missiles followed the creek’s twisting course staying barely above the water and below ground level. The first two were seen by the Calp sensor tower that survived the mortar barrage as soon as they popped out of the streambed and turned toward the camp. Defensive fire came at once.

The first missile was destroyed but the second made it to the sensor tower and the base was blind. The two follow-ups took out the 155’s and the last two went for targets of opportunity. In this case the com center and a vehicle storage yard. The Brit’s flanking on the north cut off escape if the Calps tried running to Unity, Ramseyer had his own guns fire a few rounds then radioed the base commander an offer of honorable surrender.

Gunny Manners saw on his screen the tracks of the rounds from Brigadier Farouk’s rearward guns spreading out after leaving their barrels. They were going to land short, but it was either stop their own fire, or let the sensor heads see them and give a good position to the three remaining guns of the nearer force. No choice really and Lt Bledsoe said to keep firing at maximum rate but eliminate the initial dogleg to save more maneuvering energy for the end of the flight. It was a good call as two of the guns were destroyed in a span of twenty seconds.

By that time all three of the guns had switched fire to the Card’s true position and there was a lot of ordnance in the air with a lot of maneuver delta remaining. A near miss by one of their interceptor round, and the shock wave caused an unpredictable course change, there was not out enough time for his AA to react to the final maneuver and the shell struck dead center of Cpl. Irving’s number 2 gun.

Irving had hired into the Seventh on Ophia. The Gunny buried the flood of memories and continued with his job. “Not one more damn shell gets through!”

With five to one odds now in their favor, the last Calp 155 was destroyed before the Calp forward force leader could call for it to stand down in hopes the action might save his remaining troops. Without communications enabling a request for surrender, and Major Calvert saying nothing to slow them down, Bledsoe kept up his fire until there was nothing left to aim at.

“Stop your fire,’ Farouk ordered back to his own artillery. “Call a halt and then get me Colonel Rehman,” he said to his aide.

The two men walked a short distance from the Brigadier’s command car out of earshot from any of the other members of his staff. “Through no fault of our own, Abdul we seem to have a very large problem now. We can creep ahead giving the Cardoman’s time to do as they wish, or we can rush blindly on into near certain destruction. Unless you can suggest another course of action, I am going to talk with General Gomaa and suggest we continue, but very slowly. We will thus force them to continue to protect against our threat and inhibit them from taking the initiative.”

“When the Reza Gholam runs off the Cardoman ship we can easily finish up. Would you offer a different course of action Colonel?”

Rehman knew exactly what Farouk was doing. Spreading the blame if this new plan, marching blindly forward under his remaining anti-air, were to fail. But Rehman had come to learn that Farouk was no fool in either military matters or political infighting. If he could learn to control his lust for gambling, he would continue his rise to the top. In truth, the current situation could be put directly on General Gomaa’s doorstep. It was his staff intelligence and planning that drove this mission plan, and he would be looking for a way to keep going without admitting any mistakes in the original.

“I agree completely Brigadier and would consider it a favor if you would mention to General Gomaa how much I wish to continue, just as you suggest, so as not to give the Infidel a moments rest.”

“Very good Abdul, I shall speak with the General directly.”

“So I regret General, that the bold stroke you so masterfully painted for us cannot be followed up with the speed we had hoped for, Even so with a deliberate continuation I think the ultimate success will cast great credit on all of us.”

General Gomaa, not in shock, but in anger at the loss of Idlers Cove and the initial failure of Farouk’s column, had the presence of mind to accept the spin Farouk was putting on the situation. “Yes Amid, now we will have to do it the hard way, at least to the Reza is here. I have total confidence in your continuing as you suggest. For a time caution is called for so take no risks without certain gain.”

After signing off Farouk reminded himself, that a risk with certain gain was hardly a risk at all.