Operation Hail Storm

Brett Arquette

Operation Hail Storm

Dedicated to my Mother

Lois Duncan

All my skills as a writer are ensconced in her DNA.

North Korea ― Hills of Kangdong

Forty miles north and east of Pyongyang, nestled high in the bushy hills and just one mile from the esteemed leader’s residence, was a plush and opulent estate. Thirty-nine hundred square-feet, five bedrooms, three baths, as well as an open patio that looked out over a generous sized pool; not exactly the definition of a mansion in western terms, but in a country where 2.5 million of its impoverished citizens had starved to death, it was still considered pretty damn nice.

The previous owner of the white single-level modern dwelling had been General Hyon Yong-chun. At one point in time, Hyon Yong-chun was a senior North Korean military officer. He was the Workers' Party of Korea politician who formerly served as Defense Minister. Retirement, as it pertains to many North Korean politicians, is iffy at best. The General’s retirement from his prestigious appointment was not all that rewarding, considering the fact that he was removed from his post and executed in 2015. No gold watch. No party.

The next resident of the castle on the hill, as the locals called it, lasted eight more years until he was forced into early retirement by a bullet to his brain.

The total length of the newest landlord’s current political term was as yet unknown, as was the duration of his breathing privileges. Many people wanted to kill the current Minister of the People’s Armed Forces, Kim Yong Chang. Many people in his own country would have liked to slit his throat because they were jealous over his quick and unjust rise to power. Many high-ranking thugs in communist countries, those who felt they had been cheated during Chang’s bargaining for nuclear refinement tools and machines, would have liked to see him under a thick layer of dirt as well. And still, further away, dots across the globe, many military specialists wanted Kim Yong Chang dead just because the world would be a safer place. And who in their right mind wouldn’t want that?

“Look at the pretty bird,” one of Kim Yong Chang’s girlfriends called out from a recumbent position on her raft in the pool. She pointed up into the perfect clear blue sky at the large bird circling overhead.

Kim Yong Chang was a major player in the race for North Korea to become a nuclear power. More to the point, a nuclear threat. For years, Chang had managed the extraction of uranium from the mine at Pyongsan. He had been instrumental in creating the concentrate pilot plant located in the northern part of the country at Pakchon. It was at this installation that the raw uranium was converted to yellowcake, a milled uranium oxide that could be enriched for use in nuclear bombs. Surprisingly, those foreigners who wanted Chang dead didn’t care about any of that. North Korea already had a nuclear bomb, so that cat was out of the bag and nothing less than turning North Korea into an open vast smoking pit would put the cat back into said bag. What scared countries located on the other side of the globe was the possibility of North Korea placing their nuclear bomb on the end of a long-range missile. Up to this point, North Korea did not possess that type technology. It would seem in this day and age that anyone could create a nuclear bomb, but missile technology was complicated. Damn near rocket science. Kim Yong Chang was in charge of North Korea’s program to entice talented rocket scientists to build his country enough missiles to become a major power. A major threat. A major pain in the ass for anyone who didn’t live in North Korea.

“Oh, I see it,” another of Kim Yong Chang’s girlfriends said. “Is it an Eagle? I think it’s an Eagle!”

There are approximately twenty-one species of birds of prey that make their home in North Korea. On this clear summer morning, a Golden Eagle floated on the updrafts high above the castle on the hill. With a wing span of seven feet, the majestic bird was the size of a small drone aircraft. In fact, it just happened to be a small drone aircraft. Up to ten feet away, it would have been difficult for any casual observer to recognize that the feathery contraption was not a real bird. Every surface of the machine had been meticulously covered with synthetic feathers, each one mimicking the correct coarseness, color and weight of the actual Golden Eagle. The frame on which the feathers were attached was made from thin carbon fiber, just ridged enough to contain and support the weight of the electric motors and actuators that moved the bird’s wings and control surfaces. The drone’s wings were a marvel of engineering, their onboard computers reticulating and bending the wings at whatever angle was necessary to catch a thermal and to stay aloft. The bird’s head looked just like the real-deal with the exception that each of the eagle’s eyes was an individual high-definition camera. One eye was just the plain old run-of-the-mill fifty-thousand dollar camera, but the other eye, the other camera contained night-vision features and a plethora of ground tracking optics.

“I think it is an Eagle,” the woman floating in the pool agreed.

By design, the bird’s mouth was always open. Gliding a thousand feet in the air, that distinction from a real Eagle was negligible and no one on the ground would notice. The Golden Eagle’s mouth had to remain open. The gaping mouth was the air intake that sucked in oxygen to fuel the solid rocket booster that ran down the core of the machine. Most birds are wizards at sensing thermals and updrafts that are caused by the uneven heating of the ground below. Eagles fly into thermals, using them to conserve energy while migrating or looking for prey. Once inside the thermal, they stop flapping but keep their wings extended. Their tail feathers open like fans and tapered feathers on the wing’s edges spread apart; both actions enhance airflow. Without flapping its wings, an eagle will slowly descend, but inside the thermal, the rate of descent is slower as the lighter hotter air pushes up vertically. Staying aloft requires forward motion, even when riding thermals. In order to remain inside a thermal column, the eagle will navigate in circular paths, steering with its tail and wings. Thus they create lazy circles in the sky. Eventually, however, the bird must have some means of propulsion to regain altitude before repeating the process.

Both of the women on the ground watched the elegant bird fly circles above them.

The women below would be surprised to know that the bird circling over the home of Kim Yong Chang had to every so often burn a solid rocket pellet. Anatomically, around where the bird’s heart would be located, a mechanism loaded a rocket pellet into a burn chamber. The mechanism operated in a similar manner as a bullet would be loaded into a chambered gun. To fire the rocket, a tiny glow plug started the chemical ignition and after a thirty-second burn, a new pellet would be cocked into the rocket. Then, maybe hours later, another burn cycle would take place. The unique and tiny rocket engine wasted some of its propulsion energy by dissipating its noise through baffles. At the operating height in which the drone maneuvered, onlookers from the ground heard nothing at all. The propellant burned clean and left no tell-tale visual signature in the sky.

“Do you see the Eagle, Kim?”

Kim Yong Chang was seated at an outside patio table in his backyard, eating a grapefruit that had been sectioned for him by one of his two personal servants. A girlfriend was sitting across from him, a young pretty Asian a fraction of his age, picking at a fluffy croissant. Kim Yong Chang was a thin man, black hair that was considered long in his country, and he was dressed in a casual black button-up shirt and matching black pants. At thirty-five years of age, he was young for his position in the North Korean cabinet, which made him even less popular with the older officers and politicians who wanted his job.

“Look Kim. The Eagle is right there.” The attractive woman across the table from him pointed up into the sky.

Kim Yong Chang finished his grapefruit, took a sip of coffee and checked his phone, making no attempt to look at the bird.

The current bird, with the unimaginative code name of Eagles, had been on station for more than three days. Depending on the weather and thermals, the drone held enough rocket pellets to stay on target for up to one hundred hours. With no way to take flight without human intervention, the rocket propelled glider had to be dropped from a drone at the beginning of its mission or slung off a ship and flown in on its own power. Depending on support logistics, flying the bird to its target from hundreds of miles away on its own power, dramatically reduced it’s time on station. When leaving its target, the drone could either fly out of the region on its own rocket power, or the remaining rocket pellets in its chest cavity could be remotely detonated, turning the half-million-dollar reconnaissance machine into nothing but feathery bits and colorful pieces.

The drone’s outstretched wings made imperceptible corrections, as the eagle’s head turned from the left to the right. The five computers inside the mechanical creature worked in concert to maintain lift and correct for weight shifts as its head moved from side to side. The bird’s head dropped a few millimeters ...