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The Air War Intensifies
Military commands all over the world were determined to wrest back control of the skies from the aliens. Since the German attack on Poland in 1939, no country has won a war in the face of enemy air superiority, no major offensive has succeeded against an opponent who controlled the air, and no defence has sustained itself against an enemy who had air superiority. Conversely, no state has lost a war while it maintained air superiority, and attainment of air superiority consistently has been a prelude to military victory. The high commands of most nations knew this, and made greater efforts in developing countermeasures to combat the alien threat. X-Com's success in shooting down two scout class UFOs encouraged and gave hope to air commands everywhere. Drawing from the lessons learnt by “Monk” Kanamin, air forces ceased using guided missile systems and went back to old school dogfighting. Advanced fighters which excelled in BVR (Beyond Visual Range) air combat were replaced by ageing craft which had proven their worth in classic “furballs”. Planes like the F-15 and the F-16 were stripped down of any redundant systems, and had their gun ammunition capacity greatly expanded. The double advantage of using older fighters was that they were purposely built to fight in WVR (Within Visual Range) combat, and they were significantly cheaper. For the price of one F-35 (estimated to be more than $180 million per aircraft) one could get six F-15s (roughly $30 million per aircraft) or nine F-16s (roughly $20 million per aircraft). An ongoing debate raged over the role of stealth fighters, and as to whether or not they could be detected by the UFOs. The discussion was abruptly cut short when modified American F-35s off the west coast of the US launched several experimental missiles at a UFO contact north of Los Angeles. The missiles spiralled uselessly into the sea, and the contact, seemingly enraged by the interference, immediately made a bee line towards the F-35s and shot one of them down, decisively ending the debate.
The aliens' ability to strike anywhere in the world gave them the initiative against any defence humanity could muster. At cruising speeds of almost Mach 2, even the Skyranger would take roughly 10 hours to get to a hotspot on the other side of world. Time was of the essence, especially with something like the chryssalids which had the ability to multiply exponentially. Many units patterned on the X-Com model sprang up all over the world - some were counter-terrorist units re-purposed into alien fighting groups, and others were built from scratch. In the US alien fighting was placed under the umbrella of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), and soon Delta and SEAL teams were deploying all over America in response to landings and abductions. In Europe the NATO Very High Readiness Joint Task Force became responsible for responding to alien incursions in western Europe. All over the world airborne assault units were being constituted or re-purposed to do one thing - to respond rapidly to alien landings and to contain the threat lest a situation similar to what happened in Ogbomosho occur.
The changes implemented by global air forces paid immediate dividends. The first pilot credited with a UFO kill was Chinese pilot Bao Wu, who engaged a scout class UFO with his Chengdu J-10 and shot it down with his Gsh-23 autocannon near the Vietnamese border on 17 April 2016. His feat was celebrated and feted by the Chinese, and he became a global hero to the general public, who were unaware of the two kills scored by X-Com earlier in March. Monk's achievement as the first ever fighter pilot to score a UFO kill would not be revealed until many years after the war. He took his relegation in the history books with good humour, despite constant ribbing from his fellow pilots and an attempt to change his call sign to “No Kill”. In the war's aftermath fellow pilot “Grounder” Tanner stated, “Not only did Monk get the first UFO kill ever – he also did it with an F-35, which is terrible in a furball. Back then the F-35 didn't even have a proper gun system – our cannons were jury-rigged by Chief Shen, and jammed all the time. We had enough ammunition for about – I don't know – about five seconds of firing. But Monk was a badass. He lined up that bogey, and put it down with ammo to spare. He was the best pilot I'd ever seen.”
Grounder's comments reflected the X-Com pilots' general discontent with the F-35. The most expensive fighter jet ever developed, the F-35 was plagued with problems long before the UFO threat became public. Cost overruns, doubts about its effectiveness and constant delays hampered the project, and its greatest strength, its ability to fire missiles from BVR and escape without detection, was completely ineffective against the extra-terrestrials. The most damning criticism came from the pilots themselves. Once they realised that dogfighting was the key to shooting down the enemy the X-Com pilots had no hesitation in requesting the F-22, which along with the Russian SU-35 and European Typhoon, was arguably the best dogfighter of that era. No fighter could keep up with a UFO when it decided to accelerate away, but for reasons unknown scout UFOs, perhaps intent on their own mysterious missions, would hover around an area despite the presence of fighter craft and give pilots every chance to shoot it down. Guided missile weapon system rarely ever worked against the aliens, meaning that the only way to shoot down a UFO was to close in and engage it with guns. Without the aid of radar pilot skill became tremendously important, with each pilot having to rely on their own judgement to lead the target accurately to score decisive hits. In spite of these disadvantages human forces world-wide were able to score three kills in the month of April, taking the total of UFOs shot down to seven. X-Com accounted for four of this overall total, but it came at a terrible cost. X-Com's fourth kill, UFO-11, destroyed one F-35 piloted by "Skipper" Darwin and badly damaged the planes of "Zeke" Gibson and "Q-Tip" Murphy. Skipper's body was never recovered. The cost was similarly prohibitive for other air forces all around the world - every UFO shot down was done at the cost of roughly twenty terrestrial aircraft.
The alien response to the renewed air offensive was decisive. In late April a new type of contact was spotted in the skies above the world. It was superficially similar to the alien scout ship in size and appearance, but ensuing events proved that it was vastly superior in armament, manoeuvrability and aggression. These craft were dubbed "fighters" and they lived up to their name, aggressively engaging and destroying any craft in their vicinity. No terrestrial fighter could stand against them, and squadrons of aircraft foolish enough to try were soon blazing wrecks falling from the sky. On 19 April 2016 X-Com tracked the largest UFO contact ever seen to date (UFO-9). It was easily double the size of a modern aircraft carrier, and its entry into Japanese air space precipitated a massive response from the Japanese government. Squadrons of F-15s from the Japanese Air Self-Defence Forces were scrambled for a second time to engage the massive craft. The US Seventh Fleet also scrambled several F-15s to support the air strike, but it was to no avail. Missiles failed to hit their mark, and attempts to close into gun range were punished by massive plasma barrages which obliterated several brave but luckless pilots. The surviving pilots were ordered to withdraw, and all Japan could do was watch helplessly as the alien battleship traversed their air space before finally heading out over the Pacific Ocean.
In addition to the losses incurred by air forces all over the globe, the aliens also began methodically destroying the new satellites launched into orbit by US and China. Emboldened by the success of X-Com's first satellite, US and China attempted to restore their orbital networks with launches in March and April. Whatever hopes both superpowers harboured soon faded into ashes when these satellites were located and destroyed by alien fighter craft. Even X-Com's vaunted stealth satellites were not immune to the alien's riposte, but it seemed that the stealth systems at least gave the satellites a fighting chance. If a UFO was detected the satellite would fire its manoeuvring rockets to displace to a new location, and then go into silent running mode, essentially shutting down all its systems while it glided to a new location in the sky. Satellite XCS-1 over Japan successfully avoided a marauding fighter using this countermeasure, but the newly launched satellite over India (XCS-2) had no such luck due to the sloppiness of ground control, which failed to react in time. The Indian satellite was destroyed by the aliens, leaving XCS-1 as the lone active satellite in orbit around the Earth. Due to the fates of the newly launched satellites Force Commander Iwata was understandably hesitant about launching X-Com's third satellite, but after intensive talks with the UN Secretary-General, the US President and the Japanese Prime Minister it was agreed that the risk was acceptable. XCS-3 was launched from Vanderberg Air Force Base in the US, and it took station over mainland China. X-Com's request for a squadron of F-22s was also granted by the US. Despite federal legislation prohibiting the export of the fighter, most of the X-Com air wing was composed of American pilots under the jurisdiction of the US Seventh Fleet, and thus never left American command and control. President Obama cut off vocal Republican opposition to the transfer with the statement: "The pilots are American. They answer to American commanders. If the UN wants to use our planes, they ask us, and if we think it's prudent, we will order our pilots to go on the missions. If we don't, they don't. So what's the problem?" In addition Obama circumvented a study commissioned by the US House of Representatives by proposing the immediate resumption of F-22 production, and also tabled a bill repealing the Obey Amendment in the Department of Defence Appropriations Act 1998, which banned the sale and export of the F-22 to foreign governments. Obama's proposal to both restart the production of F-22s and to make the craft available to foreign nations was a complete turn around from his actions in 2009, in which the Democrats were responsible for cutting $1.75 billion in defence spending earmarked for the continued production of the Raptor. When asked about the about face, Obama replied sardonically: "As far as I can recall, the Earth wasn't being invaded by aliens in 2009."
The increased aggressiveness of alien air patrols was accompanied by a commensurate increase in alien forces on the ground. Counter-alien groups all around the world reported an increasing number of aliens during their ground missions. The ubiquitous sectoids were now being accompanied by the floaters first seen in Ogbomosho. The chryssalid was the most feared alien species for obvious reasons, but they were not sighted again for the remainder of April. Instead human defenders ran into increasing numbers of sectoids, outsiders, drones and floaters. The floaters were more capable combatants than the sectoids due to their speed and manoeuvrability, and their ability to fly. They required expert marksmanship to bring down, and could plague a landing site for days after the UFO which brought it to Earth either escaped or was secured by human ground forces. There were also some troubling reports of some kind of terrifying hidden alien “stalker” which strangled its victims. To date no one had seen one these “stalkers”, but anywhere the aliens went there were increasing numbers of victims found dead and asphyxiated, with their wind pipes crushed. As with the floaters, these murders could persist long after the UFO was gone, and they provoked terrible feelings of dread in civilian populations. Finally Delta Force commandoes reported encountering a hitherto un-encountered species of alien during a UFO recovery in New Mexico. This alien was reportedly a heavily armed biped wearing powered armour of some sort, but no more details were forthcoming from an unusually tight-lipped JSOC spokesman.
April would prove to be the high water mark of the global air war in 2016. It would not be until the following year that human air forces would be able to effectively challenge the visitors in the air thanks to breakthroughs made by Dr. Moira Vahlen and Dr. Hongo Marazuki. As the months wore on UFO contacts became more heavily armed and aggressive, and by mid-2016 most air forces around the world ceased trying to intercept and shoot down the visitors. Even the introduction of F-22 fighters in the X-Com air wing did nothing to improve the kill ratio against extra-terrestrial craft, although it did improve the survivability rate of the pilots who flew them. All humanity could do now was to maintain a network of counter-alien ground units on high alert, and respond to landings and abductions as timely as possible. It was a passive reactive response which handed all the initiative to the aliens, but it was also the only thing the humans could do in the face of the aliens' total air superiority.