Peeking into the cockpits of Americans headed to war

One city provides a human tale of modern warfare - and a reminder of

By the time the sun rose over the tall Carolina pines Wednesday morning, two dozen F-16 Falcons were streaking east for an appointment with Serbian missile batteries.

One by one, as Shaw Air Force Base's fighter planes taxied past their commander, Col. Dan Darnell, pilots balled their fists and pumped them in a "Rocky" pose, completing a familiar air warrior salute.

For the four squadrons of F-16s here - 40 percent of the Air Force's Fighting Falcons that target surface-to-air missiles - the journey is a bittersweet moment. Since the Gulf War ended, few military units in the world have been as busy as Shaw's 20th Fighter Wing.

The city of Sumter, its pilots and residents, provide a personal view of American lives affected by the war in Kosovo - spurred on by increasing NATO involvement - at the same time hinting at how thinly stretched the US military is.

Equipped with high speed antiradiation missiles (HARMs), the Fighting Falcons' job is to run interference for attack planes entering hostile airspace and destroy surface-to-air missiles (SAMs).

Because of the proliferation of SAMs in countries like Iraq and Yugoslavia, planes from the 20th are in constant demand. "We're ready and well-prepared," Colonel Darnell says stoically on launch morning.

Seldom are all four Shaw squadrons at home. One of the two headed to Aviano Air Base in Italy, returned from duty patrolling the Iraqi no-fly zones just two months ago. The squadron canceled a war-game exercise in Las Vegas to head to the Balkans.

The Shaw jets join several hundred US planes headed to Europe to bolster the air war. Many experienced Air Force officers are glad NATO commanders are ramping up hardware and attacks. Though few will say it publicly, many believe air power's reputation has been diminished by the tentative, three-week bombing campaign in Kosovo that is a shadow of the Gulf War.

"The fact that we are putting more resources into Kosovo, I think folks came to the realization that we'll come back and do what we should have done before," says Col. Jet Jernigan, an Air National Guard F-16 pilot and Gulf War veteran.

UNTIL NATO flies "1,000 sorties a day for 30 days," Colonel Jernigan says, it's unfair to conclude that air power alone can't turn the tide in Kosovo.

However, the departure of 24 HARM shooters from this base is a sure sign that NATO is about to conduct vigorous, around-the-clock bombing, Darnell says.

The jets are a kind of high-tech insurance. Having honed their skills in Iraq and on simulation ranges, their job is tightly focused: Home in on an enemy-targeting radar and fire a HARM at any SAM tracking friendly aircraft.

Capt. Lou Foley, who just left Shaw's 79th Fighter Squadron to join an Air Guard F-16 unit, is glad his former mates are joining a real shooting war. For years, Captain Foley notes, they deployed repeatedly to the Middle East for mostly uneventful rotations over Iraq's no-fly zones.

"They are chomping at the bit, I have no doubt," he says. "For eight years, they've been deploying, going to Saudi Arabia, and not getting to do anything."

Around Sumter, feelings about the growing air war are not quite as positive. Many residents openly state their concerns about the war in Kosovo, pointing to the Vietnam-like language that seems to permeate this conflict.

Jim Harvey, a local veterinarian and Air Force retiree, says terms like "escalate" and "gradualism" grate on him. "I'm starting to hear some of the same arguments I heard during Vietnam," he says, recalling bitter memories of being labeled a "baby burner" while in college ROTC.

Mr. Harvey believes that if NATO was determined to use military force against the Serbs, the time to build up forces was weeks ago, not now. The air war should have been punishing from the start, he says, envisioning a "quagmire" if ground troops go in to fight.

Nancy Long, who owns a local flower shop, doesn't understand why the US - as personified by the busy nearby air base - must "be the world's protectors" all the time. Like others in town she supports the troops, but is depressed by the war.

The familiar blast of jet engines Wednesday reminded her that friends and customers were headed to battle.

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