It is early in the twenty-first century.
The Texas Defense Force has just met with the representatives of the Russian Federation, and has been granted the right to produce arms and material for themselves in Russian territory and with the cooperation of the Russian defense industry. All for a price-- financial and political; that the Russian government will no doubt exact. A deserted factory town at the foothills of the Ural Mountains now will be Ground Zero for the TDF's fledgling aircraft production program.
Success is not guaranteed. It is in the hands of a few good men and women to make it work. But the longest journey begins with a single step. And this journey is no exception.
The old van crunched into yet another pothole and the men in the van grunted despairingly as they absorbed the shock. The absorbers on the van certainly weren’t cutting it.John Schweer raised an eyebrow and looked sideways at Brigadier General Ron McKenna, who was one of the few of his miserable fellow travelers that he knew well enough to have a casual conversation with. “I’m too old to be doing this crap.”
McKenna looked back at him. “That was going to be my line, but I’d save it. It’s like they say in the SEALS; the only easy day was yesterday. I have a bad feeling that we’ll be thinking that a lot here.”
Schweer nodded. McKenna was a quiet officer and one of the few of them to actually have any military rank referenced; it was largely paper, as they didn’t yet have a Texas Defense Force worthy of the name for him to be a general in. But despite his placid exterior, the man had no tolerance for nonsense and spoke straight from the shoulder. A former U.S. Air Force colonel, he’d insisted upon his recruitment that he never be promoted higher than brigadier if he was made a general. Schweer had never figured out why that was, and he hadn’t pushed the matter. McKenna was on board, and that was all anyone cared about.
The van bumped over the next rise. A bus that wasn’t in much better shape, and that held the rest of their team and their equipment, hesitantly rolled up behind them. The road that they had spent the last twenty minutes on was a two lane track of broken asphalt that had last been maintained sometime before the Soviet Union collapsed; and at the end of this road was their prize—an old Soviet factory town that had at one time produced jet fighter aircraft. Specifically, the SU-27 Flanker; the granddaddy design of the Sukhois that they were going to produce for Texas. They were hoping to re-start the factory; leaner, meaner, and newer.
Hoping. Their Russian driver gestured and pointed. “There. You see?”
They saw. Schweer’s insides constricted. McKenna whistled.
The flattest piece of ground in the area was taken up by a landing strip; now choked up with weeds. On the hill surrounding the place was what had been the town for the workers and their families. The entire operation had been self-contained. Having been vetted by the KGB as politically reliable, the hundreds of workers in the plant and their hundreds more wives, sons, husbands, and daughters had worked, learned, played, shopped, slept, and gotten medical care in one location. Out here in the wilderness at the foothills of the Ural Mountains, this had been the only civilization around. For security reasons, the KGB had seen to it. Further beyond the factory town were, supposedly, reinforced bunkers that were able to contain hundreds of manufactured planes; safe from the prying eyes of U.S. capitalist running dog spy satellites and perhaps the odd nuclear airburst. It was this isolated location and the facilities that could hide hundreds of their planes that had made this location so attractive.
Which was good, because otherwise the place looked like it had already been in a nuclear war, and lost.
Schweer saw many of the town’s dormitory-style buildings were falling apart and had collapsed roofs. He could barely make out the hulking, angular roofs of the plant, that was to the northeast of the main town slightly and linked to the airstrip by an amazingly level wide road. This had been clearly to allow the planes to roll straight from the factory to the flight line for testing, and even fly away to yet another facility or base.
He smiled to the Russian driver. It was important to be positive and maintain a good air with their Russian hosts. “Very good. Onward?”
The man had had way too much nicotine, and far too few trips to the dentist. “Yes, we go right away.”
Schweer hadn’t needed to examine the buildings of the town up close to see that they weren’t worth messing with. The water plant for the town was broken and the buildings, which would have suffered mightily with no maintenance even in a country like the U.S., were good for little more than firewood.
McKenna had read his mind. “I say we cordon the town off. Don’t even bother going into it. We can build better facilities for our people right near the site. Maybe lay some guard posts in and around the air strip and the track to it, but keep it low key.”
Schweer nodded. “Let’s put one twist on it, though. If we have any large warehouses down there that are unused,” he scratched his lip as he realized he was getting way ahead of himself,” maybe build those facilities in one of those? It’d minimize their profile from the air. At some point, someone is going to start looking at this place again.”
“I’m not sure that will help. Consider all of the materials we will have to bring in here to build planes; also logistics for the work force. It’s going to be pretty obvious something is going on at some level.”
They were just now walking through the parted doors of the mammoth main assembly building.
They had been told that the tooling for the Flanker jets was all here, and had been crated and preserved when the factory had closed down. Despite the years of storage, it should all be good once they broke it out of the packaging and got the Cosmoline or whatever off of it. Schweer had a dread premonition, but—
The crates were there, all right—and the roof of the factory was thankfully intact. Otherwise, years of water gushing down could have easily turned the best tooling in the world into rust. It appeared that this place had been far enough off of the beaten path to withstand the looting and thieves that had made off with so much of the former Soviet Empire’s military goodies.
There were thirty-five men with them; mostly engineers who knew a heck of a lot more about aircraft and factories than him or McKenna put together. Schweer looked back at them. They were all staying in a group; looking left and right, and speaking quietly among themselves. Several tapped on tablet computers and one was messing with an item that looked like a laser range finder.
“Gentlemen, at this point, me and the General are going to step back. We don’t want to be in the way and I can’t see how we wouldn’t be. You tell us how we can help, if at all.”
One of the men smiled. “Can you cook?”
Schweer paused. “Well, I ain’t no Betty Crocker, but years of living out in the field in the Army taught me a couple of things.”A man with glasses raised his hand. “Ah, sir… do you know how to put a tent up? I tried messing with mine last night and I haven’t a clue. I’ve never used one in my life.”
Schweer gaped. This genius who could figure out how to fabricate jet planes didn’t know about tents?
“Ah… yes, sir. I am also certified in that task.”
The first man, who was the leader of the boffins, smiled. “Honestly, if you all could set up our camp and get us going on chow, we’d be happy as hens. We have a bunch of geek stuff to do in here to begin to get this factory figured out.”
McKenna laughed. Schweer smiled. “Well, certainly. Come on, General, let’s get our guys a campsite they’ll be proud to hide from the wind and water in. Given that we are losing daylight, we probably should break out the lighting first.”
Schweer and McKenna had finally found the case that contained the five eight-man tents, following their procurement of the lights for the engineers. They also found a strip of bare earth that was suitable for tent stakes, and had their shelters erected just about in time for them to catch the last rays of twilight. They turned on several electric lanterns and for the next hour they finished their setup in a pool of soft white light; an island of normalcy in this industrial wasteland of old, mountainous buildings around them. Periodically, a glimmer of light would peek out from the high windows or doorway of the main assembly building. Schweer had no idea what they were doing in there and he frankly didn’t want to go looking.
“Got some chemlights here. I am going to make a trail from the building to here. We have a few holes and some rusty metal crap lying around. All it takes is one wrong step and one of our valuable engineers needs a tetanus shot and a trip to the hospital.”
Schweer nodded. “Good initiative. I think I’ll break out the cooking gear. I hereby designate this here last fly we put up to be the dining facility. All we have are some stools for people to sit on, but they’ll do for now.”
McKenna nodded as he popped the first chemlight on. “And I christen our new base Camp Flanker!”From somewhere—Schweer had no idea where that was—McKenna had found a small triangular shaped piece of white plastic and had put it up on a stick in front of the tents. “Camp Flanker” was on the plastic with a badly drawn SU-series fighter. He paused and considered for a moment that an overflying US satellite might be able to read the banner. But then, he relented. He needed to remember that having a bit of tolerance, and allowing some levity, might be essential to morale in the coming days. It was like McKenna had said, also; from all of the activity here, it was likely someone would be able to figure out the place was no longer closed if they looked. “So be it, General, Camp Flanker is open for business.”
It had only taken Schweer about five minutes to get the propane field stoves on the aluminum tables along with the water jugs (filled before departure—they would have to check on safe local water sources) and plastic crates of dehydrated foods and other utensils positioned. His arms ached but the physical labor meant little to a man who had endured Ranger School and the Special Forces “Q” course back in the day.
So here it begins, he thought. The General Secretary of the Texas Defense Force—kicking his operation off by trying to set up a camp kitchen in the middle of nowhere in Russia.
They had a long way to go, indeed.
The Russian driver and his assistant started their creaky van up and rolled through the decaying gate again: once, a death line one would have never crossed without the clearance of an Interior Ministry guard, and now, the decaying corpse of a time of Soviet industrial glory. The bus was already gone; the driver intent on traversing the nasty roadway while there was still some daylight to work with. He smiled and looked in the rear view mirror. “Crazy Americans.”
He had not been told their purpose in going to the decrepit location, and had not asked. All he knew was, if they were going to do anything in that place, they would have to be miracle workers.
The engineers had been inside of the main assembly building for almost three hours before Schweer finally couldn’t take the suspense any more and went to check on them. It had taken all of that time just to do a basic walk through and survey of the structure. It was hundreds of meters long.
“The SU-series fighters are extremely complex. Much of the smaller part assemblies are done in the side shops, and then they are brought into the main line as the aircraft frame is moved down. However, the plane has changed a lot from the original. This factory built the original SU-27. The SU-30 and 37 that we will build here is effectively a new airplane. Aside from the frame and control surfaces and some basic parts and systems, the entire plane is newer. And, the tooling designed to carry out some of the processes is obsolete here. We have plans to use some composites in the airframe to increase durability and reduce weight and radar signature, for instance. The original Flanker was an iron bird, that was designed about the same time as the F-15. So we are having to look hard at what items of tooling need to be replaced or upgraded.”
The man was tapping on a computer tablet as he talked to Schweer. Two bright lights popped on overhead and lit up the cavernous building. They had had to run their own lines and generators.
Schweer stepped over a piece of decayed cable. “Not too many nasty surprises, I hope.”
“So-so. We knew we were in for a challenge. The Russian plans and tables for what was here were pretty accurate. We came in with a strong basic plan on how we were going to set the line up. We are now having to tweak it for what we find. We also knew that certain items, such as the electrical systems here, were probably going to have to be completely replaced but we didn’t know for sure till we looked. Right now I am sending messages to our staging areas in Alaska and confirming the final load outs for our transport planes that will be taking off in several hours, and landing here tomorrow morning.”
“Good deal. Well, the camp is ready to go when you all are ready to call it a night.”
The engineers trickled in to the camp, finally, and Schweer and McKenna had hot soup ready and waiting for them. Cots were laid out in the tents, and everyone dozed off quickly. The Russians had left no guards with them, but had spotted them two AK-74 rifles and some magazines as a just-in-case.
McKenna examined the Russian rattlematics. “If we need these things out here, we’re in real trouble. I guess you and I are security.”
“We’ll be fine. I’m a light sleeper, anyway. And I don’t think anyone will bother us out here. Hell, only a few people in the world know we’re here at all.”
“Maybe the odd Siberian tiger.”
“Yeah, or the odd Russian bear. Not sure I’d want to shoot either one with one of these peashooters. Might just make them mad.”
They decided to take turns sitting up around the dining tent till morning rose. Schweer knew that he and McKenna were basically here for political purposes. Morning would bring visitors from the Russian government, as well as their first full day of operations.
Dawn rose with a hard yellow glare, and the engineers took their time getting out of their bunks and greeting the chilly Russian morning. Schweer and McKenna had added a good sized fire pit to the camp before they had left with a small crew towards the massive runway and tarmac.
The area was detailed for any debris that could blow a tire or get sucked into an engine. They had commandeered one of the empty buses for transportation and had found a few items that needed to go away. By 0900, Schweer and McKenna were standing tall at the tarmac, waiting.
There was a rumbling. Schweer recognized the drone of the venerable C-130 that he had heard so many times before. But there were also a series of contrails converging here at high altitude. And behind them—
McKenna looked over at him. “I am counting forty jets coming in. Are they coming here? All of ‘em?”
Schweer was about to answer when a Russian MI-8 “Hip” transport chopper came clattering overhead and set down right in the middle of the runway, about two hundred yards from them. Men jumped out wearing unfamiliar camouflage patterns—they looked like German Flectarn-- and carrying what looked like M-16s. The chopper idled there, thrumming away, as another one appeared and sat down near the first one.
One of the men ran towards them and then slowed, walking up. Schweer found the display a little unnerving despite himself. Who were these guys? He saw a strange patch on the shoulder of the man—subdued.
“Air control, sir. Are you all Generals Schweer and McKenna?”
Schweer passed on correcting him on his title. “That’s us.” He shook hands with the man and took the opportunity to take a closer look at his shoulder patch. He couldn’t see every detail with a quick glance but it had a Bowie knife in the center and “TDF” on the top in a small rocker with a larger rocker below, that contained Latin words.
“We have sixty airplanes coming in here. They are to be on the ground very quickly. Has the runway been detailed?”
McKenna spoke up. “You bet. Everything in the checklist is finished.”
The man nodded. “Okay. Our people are setting in their equipment and we are going to clear the tarmac for the aircraft. All you guys really have to do is sit back and watch the show.”
The choppers lifted off and flew away, and silence returned. Briefly. The droning was getting louder.
The first C-130, a heavy four engine model, touched down and rolled to meet the large road linking the airfield facilities to the plant. The tail gate dropped and two vehicles and trailers rolled out of the back, and made for the plant. And then there were more C-130s and other cargo planes. Several of the man’s companions rolled across the tarmac on motorbikes, which Schweer hadn’t initially noticed, and soon the transport planes were forming a line of taxiing aircraft, spilling trailers and trucks and groups of men with backpacks onto the road. The air controllers were then moving the transports to a corner of the airfield and shutting them down.
“Boy, oh boy.”
McKenna nodded. “Can they cook or can’t they?”
Beyond the plant, there had been two cement cliffs in the side of the hill with huge steel doors; two each in the middle of each façade. They stretched almost fifty feet in the air and were about a hundred feet in width. The doors were thick and each must have weighed several hundred tons. It had taken the engineers two hours just to loosen the hinges and enable them to open. Schweer shook his head and marveled once again at the fanaticism that must have prompted the Soviet Union to build facilities like this. The doors could withstand a nearby nuclear blast.
The doors were open now.
The caverns inside were a time capsule; one more hilarious oddity in this nether-world created by Communist fanatics at war with the entire planet and, often, each other. They didn’t have measurements on them, but the huge shelter underground and in the hillside was over a mile of concrete and steel, stretching down hundreds of feet on highway-size ramps. It had been intended to park huge air wings of fighters and bombers, or divisions of armored vehicles, safely away while nuclear fire raged outside; waiting for the moment when the embers and radiation finally abated and the New Communist Man could emerge with New Communist Tanks and Planes to finish up making what was left of the world into a Worker’s Paradise. Or something.
The purpose of the facility had died with the Soviet Union, and it might have been left to the sands of time without the appearance of the Texas Defense Force and their impossible project. An impossible project had found an impossible facility to assist it.
“Okay, here we are.”
The Honda 4-wheelers looked crazily out of place. Red and white. Or perhaps, they blended right in.
Schweer and McKenna shared one of the noisy little ATVs as they zoomed through the doors and entered the chasms and their darkness; the only light being that which came from the outside world and the headlights on the growling little machines. McKenna was driving and Schweer was riding as a passenger on one. Schweer shook his head grimly. He supposed he would look back at this and laugh, someday. On second thought—hell, no.
The ATV ahead of them came to a halt, illuminating another level ahead of it with the lights. “Here!”
They had taken about five minutes to go all of the way to the bottom on this side. And sitting there were fifty SU-30 frames—packed up tight and high and dry, where they had been left. They had been the last ones produced when the factory closed; frozen in time from when the last of the tooling was packed up and the place had been shuttered. They would be the start of the project.
Schweer pulled out his Gladius light and shined it over the nearest one. “Thought the SU-37 had canards on it. Near the cockpit.”
McKenna nodded. “Yeah. These are recent enough builds that we can use them, but they aren’t going to have the high-alpha capability of the ’37. They at least had the newer composites in these. We’ll do these first ones up and then switch to building entirely new frames for the first super-Crane builds.”
They had finally adjourned back to the real world, riding the little ATVs out. Schweer didn’t mind admitting that he’d found the storage facility creepy as hell. He had to wonder if the many ghosts that had been created by the meat grinder of the Soviet state were haunting places like this—watching them come in and take the places and tools that had been in the hands of their masters and use them for their own ends in a very different attempt to remake the world. Would they approve?
They were back at the factory. Schweer caught his breath.
The entire landscape was a beehive of activity. Another plane was landing in the distance, but everywhere he looked, the place was being remade. A small skidloader shoved debris into a pile while men went over the roof of the huge assembly building; looking for flaws. Several trailers with huge skids of machinery Schweer didn’t recognize were going in one side of the building. They went inside to see that everyone had masks and air packs on. Surfaces were being pressure-washed and sandblasted. Strange slicks of unknown chemicals were being vacuumed up and paint and insulation was being sprayed over freshly scoured surfaces. They were waved back. They didn’t need any urging.
“Come on, y’all!!”
Schweer looked to see a very jovial and obese man grinning ear to ear and waving them towards a huge mobile trailer. He nodded to McKenna and they went over to him.
“Y’all’re gonna catch your death in there! Come on into my office here and I’ll show you something, for real!”
Schweer raised an eyebrow. The man instantly reminded him of many of the civilian contractors he’d dealt with in his active duty days who oftentimes hadn’t been all they were cracked up to be. And, many of the know-it-alls at the university he taught at, too. Not good. He willed himself to keep an open mind. After all, these men and women around him were all they had. The fate of Texas was in their hands—literally.
Schweer smiled and shook the man’s hand graciously. McKenna followed suit.
“Ralph Withington. I’m heading up this project here. This here trailer is going to be the nerve center for the central part of this assembly line. All of these fine gentlemen here are prepping it up—getting the machinery ready to roll, but everything will be seen to finally in here.”
The door shut and they were in another world. Four full banks of computer consoles and desks filled the space, with a restroom and snack area at the far end of the trailer, and another desk with an oversized chair at the front of it. Withington smiled again. “That there’s my seat—in case y’all were wondering.”
Schweer hoped that this very friendly and hopefully smart gentleman didn’t drop dead of health problems in the middle of the project, but passed on saying anything. “So, this whole factory is going to be run from this trailer?”
“Nope, just the main line. The frames are going to be put together at the front end; some of the parts will be metallic and others will be of various composites. Once the frame is good, it will move into the main line for fitting out. These side bays will assemble and quality-test the components before they come out to the main line to be mated up. They will have their own house QCs and then hand the parts off to whatever section of the main team. The radar will be one of the last items to be added, and the radar will actually be manufactured in Texas and sent in here for final mounting up. The IRSTs will be new builds here in Russia.”*****
Withington had given them a walking tour around the trailer—showing each of the consoles and their various functions. Most of the functions on them related to testing and quality control. Then they had gone up to the front desk again.
“Let me tell you all about my baby—the SU-37. Once we get the SU-30 frames down below fitted out, we will be switching to full rate production of the SU-37 and spare parts for the aircraft as well. We will store most everything we build here, following test flights. So, we will have one team responsible for building, one for testing, and one for storage. It’s a trick to take a fully functional airplane after you build it up and then store it for ten or more years. It requires a whole separate set of engineering tasks.”
He pulled up a series of schematics on his screen. “We will have a couple of trainers—two seat versions—of the SU-30 and 37. Most will be single seat. Each plane will weigh in at a bit over 37,000 pounds empty, will be about fifty feet wide, seventy feet long, and twenty-one feet high. The engines on not only the SU-37 but on our SU-30 builds here will be the newest AL-41 Saturn turbofan; two per plane with dry thrust in the 44,000 pound range. They will supercruise and have enough steam to catch anything else anyone is flying in the fighter or bomber class. They will be able to lift the plane just shy of a 75,000 pound total takeoff weight. They will be fully multirole and will be able to carry air to air and air to surface ordnance. So, the Texas Defense Force will start off with a good multirole heavy fighter able to run with the Eagles or F-22.”
McKenna looked at the display critically. “What about radar signature?”
Withington nodded. “That is a concern—and it is being addressed. Even I have not been told exactly how, but it is my understanding that some new technology is being considered that can be retrofitted onto these airframes, to significantly lower their radar cross sections. Even so, the only airplane flying that will be able to match up against this bird will be the F-22. No one else—not Europe nor China, is going to be flying anything close.”
Schweer decided to hold his tongue. Sure, they’ll retrofit some exotic new technology onto the thing—that’s the intuitive answer when you are talking about flying against the world’s best plane with one that’s ultimately missed its time. Perhaps reading his mind, Withington pointed to a map nearby.
“Everyone seems to be certain that the U.S. is going to want to make some kind of trouble when Texas goes. I’m just an Aggie engineer, but I am far from convinced. People forget—this world is a huge place. Given the liabilities Texas has with such a large border with the U.S., and considering how many in the political Left would probably love to not have to worry about Texas standing in the way of all of their great ideas for running America, I lay odds that they may just tell us—go ahead and go! And then I guess there will be a lot of disoriented people. But that won’t mean that these planes will have no mission. We have sea routes to protect. We will have a huge chunk of airspace to protect. We will have a host of nations like Venezuela, Cuba, and Mexico that will probably not be so friendly—at least, the cartels and game players in Mexico will not. We could wind up in a Mideast war easily, what with so many in Texas wanting to support Israel. No, gentlemen—like I say, just the Aggie letting his mind run here, but I think we have to be more ready to work with the U.S. than anything.”
McKenna nodded. “You may be right. I hope you are. No one wants military trouble with the U.S.”
“Lots of people up North would just as soon our whole ‘nother country would keep to itself. They may welcome the gesture.”
Schweer pointed to the radar schematic. “What can you tell us about the radar? Seems like it is probably the most important single piece of this airplane.”
Their guide nodded. “Sure ‘nuff. The radar is a Zhuk-Phazotron active electronically scanned array radar with swappable modules and upgradeable processors. We estimate that by the time these planes actually fly anywhere, the radar technology we have will have advanced considerably from the point we are at now, and we want to be able to put the absolute bleeding edge stuff on board. So, only a certain number of the components are being put into the system with simpler stand-ins for now. The radars will be what we call “warm” designs, so that we can make them “hot” with the newest stuff just before they become operational. I can tell you that our model has some dedicated shifters that operate in some frequency ranges very unfriendly to most stealth aircraft, that can interrogate suspicious contacts. Also, the newer IRSTS that we are going to be fitting onto these planes should be able to effectively track stealthy contacts. You all might know that acquisition of the contact is the biggest problem with an IRST versus tracking it. Lots of sky to look in.”
Schweer looked at McKenna, who nodded slowly. He nodded when McKenna seemed good with it. He had a general idea, but only a general one, of what the man was talking about. But what seemed clear enough was that the planes the Texas Defense Force was going to be producing would be able to eat up any but the very best in the world, and even those best planes would be a close contest. Hopefully, their appearance would be enough to see a peaceful transition in Texas from U.S. Federal control to state sovereignty. He stared at the pixels on the computer screen of the Texas Defense Force’s future main heavy fighter.
McKenna spoke. “I hope they never have to fire a shot in anger.”
Schweer nodded. He’d taken the words right out of his mouth.