By Captain Patrick Schalk, USMC
The tearing scream of jet engines did not even cause Sergeant Jade Smith to flinch. After years of watching the drones pass over contested island territories, they were all well-equipped to hide from the drones’ sensors in the jungle. That could be through wearing infrared defeating clothing, and some neat tricks she’d developed herself. In true Marine fashion, she would rather shoot the drones down, but that would probably give away her observation post and the five other Reconnaissance Marines in her team. Their mission was to watch for fleet movements through the narrow straits to the north and radio the information back to a strike group 500 miles east. Satellites far above earth would have once provided the data in seconds, but like so many capabilities and conveniences of the past decade, they were gone too. Only the geostationary satellites orbiting over controlled territory survived, and even those were occasionally shot down if the interceptors did not reach the incoming projectile in time. Once a ship-based laser targeted a satellite but in was sunk before any damage could be done.
As a result, old manuals were opened once more and updated to reflect current technology, and Marines were detailed to nearly every ship in the fleet to act as a quick reaction force in the world’s contested waters. This was how Marines once thrived, as naval infantry, as the country’s force in readiness, not as a bastardized second land army searching for a purpose. Providing small elements, scattered over large areas, able to concentrate quickly, hit hard and fast, and hold the door open long enough for the Army and Navy to take over, was the new or maybe old mission set.
Sergeant Smith smiled despite the adverse conditions of her domain. Her island was thick with humidity and nearly impenetrable jungle, and she would likely be elsewhere in another week, but this was her mission. If her team shot down the drone, the compromise would not go well. The nearest support from her platoon was another six-man team ten miles away on another island. As she returned from visiting the two Marines on watch and gave the pass phrase to enter their team’s hide site, Corporal Dick Rodgers threw a cell phone to her.
“Captain is on the phone,” the Corporal said calmly without getting up from his position by the unused radios.
Sergeant Smith frowned. Normally, the Platoon Sergeant, Gunnery Sergeant Adams, made calls to his teams. She wondered where he was but answered, “Yes, Ma’am.”
Corporal Rodgers and his companions Corporal Jessica Wainwright and Lance Corporal Ben Nicholson continued to discuss the team’s Standard Operating Procedures for compromise and link up. They would eventually have to leave their little island, and it was unlikely the locals were not going to be helpful in the process. Normally, Sergeant Smith engaged the local populations for supplies and intelligence, but this particular island was well inside the claimed enemy territory. In a bizarre scene better suited for a movie, the team glided in on a moonless light, travelling nearly 20km under canopy before splashing in the sea and boarding two staged autonomously piloted rubber raiding craft that carried the bulk of their equipment and supplies another 20km to a remote beach. The raiding craft then departed the area, leaving the team alone and unafraid.
By separating the equipment from the personnel, the chance of compromise was reduced. Two boats floating in the ocean are easily discounted as craft adrift or flotsam. The air insert was offset far enough and coincided with specific meteorological conditions in order to limit the chance of audible and visual compromise. The first few times the team practiced the maneuvers they worried about the technology involved, but now they would not have it any other way. They did not have to cache boats or other equipment, and when it was time to leave, the boats would show up and take them away.
Smith threw the phone back to Rodgers, which he deftly caught then looked at his leader. “What unpleasant orders do we have now?”
“Shut up, you know you like this kind of thing.” Smith replied without answering the question. “Go and get Meredith and Jackson, then I’ll explain.”
The Sergeant sat down with the other two and waited for the team to gather. Populated islands had their drawbacks, like having to hide, but they also had their perks. Modified cell phones and wi-fi blended in seamlessly with the local infrastructure. Without satellites, most places were limited to line-of-sight microwave and laser transmissions or undersea cables. This particular island was in the footprint of the enemy’s communications satellites, so the little island maintained communications with the outside world. Her team was still fantastic with directional high frequency radio, but why do things the hard way if it was not necessary? 20 minutes later the team was together again, making their dugout and covered position crowded. No one had taken a shower since they arrived, so the air was rather ripe with the smell of sweat, dirt, and a little blood from Meredith cutting his finger.
This mission was the first time in enemy territory for the three Lance Corporals, but the Corporals and Sergeant had done this type of thing at least a dozen times over the past three years. New or old, shared suffering always brought a team closer together, and this team had reached the point where they were still brothers and sisters without the individual’s little idiosyncrasies causing irritation amongst the group. Now the group would be tested once again, and this time the mission was not going to be quiet observation.
“Staff Sergeant Godric’s team identified the fleet. We are done here and exfil tonight the same way we came.”
“We are going to parachute from the water?” came Corporal Rodger’s ornery remark.
Sergeant Smith glared him back to silence and continued, “Looks like we will link up with a PT boat and then with the USS America, have a few days’ rest, and then prep for something else.”
Corporal Wainwright asked the obvious, “Which is…?”
Sergeant Smith rolled her eyes, “If I knew, I’d tell you. Now, pack your junk up. We have to be ready to time our departure between overflights. The goal is to meet the boats at 2300, so we have eight hours to be on the beach.”
Nothing ever goes according to plan, but for whatever reason, God smiled on the team as they destroyed their hide site and snuck down to the edge of the beach to await darkness. The night was clear, which meant the raiding craft could use their astral navigation instead of Sergeant Smith setting a beacon that would have increased the chances of detection. The raiding craft arrived nearly silently on their electric engines. Three Marines and their equipment went into each craft, and eight hours later were recovered by a patrol boat reminiscent of its World War II ancestor and later rendezvoused with the USS America.
Ten days after the rendezvous, at least three pairs of Americans boarded three commercial flights from three American cites, took three different routes, and landed at three different airports in Vietnam. After debarking, the pairs exchanged their tourist cloths for garb better suited to the jungles and mountains and then faded into the population as best they could. On the second day in country, they abandoned their vehicles and passed into enemy territory, only reuniting on the mountain overlooking their objective.
As far as reconnaissance missions went, this one was unusual. Generally, they kept to actual reconnaissance and avoided going kinetic. On occasion, fate presented an opportunity and the team would exercise its snipers or the platoon conduct a raid, but those occurrences were few. This time the team was part of a larger operation aiming to disable a communications relay’s defense system. The communications center was obviously a static location, but the missile defense and anti-missile defense systems were mobile and randomly moved throughout the area.
Sergeant Smith had no idea how many teams beyond the other two in her platoon were assigned to the mission because she did not have the need to know. If a team was caught and tortured, they would not be able to give away the larger scope of the operation. She was no idiot though. They were lucky the mountainous terrain prevented the mobile systems from ranging inside a 10km square area. Even that limited movement area required more than a single six-man team to locate and report on movements in a highly sensored and wooded mountain area. There would be ground sensors, satellites, and flyovers constantly looking for intruders. Defense systems could not fire from underneath trees though, which meant there were a limited number of sites to park them.
Her team had its portion of the area to observe. If they found something, they would signal its location back to a raid force floating 200 miles offshore. Regardless of whether or not they spotted the defense systems, the raid was scheduled and coming. Sergeant Smith did not envy the 30-Marine raid force. They would fly in at tree and mountaintop level, at night, infiltrate the facility to upload a virus to the communications system, and then exfiltrate after setting demolition charges. Sergeant Smith would never have thought a computer virus was worth the lives of her brothers and sisters before the conflict began, but the havoc wrought in the United States changed her views. Once the virus spread was confirmed, they would blow the facility and force network traffic to the backup facilities and hopefully increase the virus spread.
Three aircraft and 30 Marines were an acceptable loss for the compromise of the communications relay and everything connected. Sergeant Smith did not know the specifics, but was led to believe the virus would cause a cascade of system failures that facilitated something much larger. Once upon a time, the loss of three aircraft and 30 Marines would have been unthinkable, but times change and the realization that people die in war was finally accepted by the public. Reconciling the death of their sons and daughters took the American public some time, but when your entire country suddenly has zero balances in their bank accounts and no economy or virtually stored records, views quickly change.
Corporal Wainwright removed the thermal optics that would be the key to finding their objectives while Lance Corporal Nicholson assembled two old MK13 and two M107 sniper rifles. The weapons and optics were secured from a dead drop in route to their location. Once the raid force arrived, the reconnaissance teams were supposed to target any defense systems with the antimaterial rifles and cause chaos with the MK13s. With the exception of Sergeant Smith and Corporal Rodgers, the other members of the team grabbed a rifle as they split into pairs and spread out.
Corporal Wainright was trained to use exceedingly small unmanned aerial vehicles, but the risk of compromise from flying a UAV in the highly sensored and observed area was too great. The defense systems would eventually reveal themselves and allow the reconnaissance teams to provide exact positions for targeting purposes. As time continued to pass, Sergeant Smith checked on each pair and ensured the small remote sensors they placed around their position were still active. If anyone snuck up on her team, they would have a few moments notice before bullets started flying.
At first the team thought the low rumble in the distance was the latest unnamed flyover screening for intruders, but a buzz on the team’s incredibly classified black box let them know the raid force was about to arrive. Sergeant Smith did not know how the box worked or why it worked the way it did, but she did know it allowed for simple and undetectable communications.
Without being told, each Marine lay down behind their rifle and optic, screening areas identified as likely for the defense systems to appear. Sure enough, the small clearings in the area began to fill with soldiers and wheeled or tracked missile systems. No one fired yet, each focusing on their target to ensure one-shot, one-kill once the order was given. As the last rays of the sun descended behind the mountains, casting the valley in twilight, the box buzzed a second time. Again, the Marines did not need the order from Sergeant Smith. They knew the plan and would execute it flawlessly. As expected, four reports sounded loudly, and then Sergeant Smith heard a chorus of echoes from the rest of the teams in her platoon. A few seconds after that, even more reports sounded from other platoons assigned the same mission. Then the irregular fire of Marines picking their targets at will was drowned out as the three tilt-rotor aircraft descended.
No one targeted the communications facility itself. Only after the virus was spread into the enemy’s network and beyond the facility could the station fall. Sergeant Smith did not see, but she heard a new voice in the chorus of chaos, stealth jets delivering their payloads onto the missile defense systems highlighted by the reconnaissance teams. Joint Terminal Attack Controllers in each team directed the fire. She looked over to see Corporal Rodger’s performing his duties as a JTAC. Miraculously, the raid force was inside the compound and almost inside the facility. Only two minutes had passed since the beginning of the raid, which meant enemy fighters should be closing in on the raid force. The timeline only gave the raid force fifteen minutes to get in and out.
Five minutes in, the first fighter fell from the sky and crashed into the mountains as a ball of fire. There was no way to tell to whom the fighter belonged. The scene on the ground was now calm, the raid force in control and presumably executing the mission inside. All resistance on the outside was quashed, the reconnaissance teams began to execute their exfiltration plans. The team was leaving the weapons and optics in place and running as fast as possible to a small clearing where another tilt-rotor aircraft was supposed to land.
Sergeant Smith, Corporal Rodgers, Corporal Wainright, Lance Corporal Nicholson, Lance Corporal Jackson, and Lance Corporal Merideth never made it to their landing zone. The rest of their platoon presumably did not make it out of the valley either. If Sergeant Smith had to venture a guess in the moments of fleeting twilight before her soul departed earth, the raid force never completed their mission. The air, the ground, everything, disappeared in a blinding flash and cataclysmic sound. Maybe her senior leaders decided the enemy would never destroy their own facility or maybe it was an acceptable risk. Regardless, a depleted uranium rod dropped from space impacted the communications relay and released the energy of a nuclear bomb. Had the virus spread through the network before the facility’s destruction? Maybe, maybe not.
In modern war against peer competitors, the full spectrum of operations, kinetic, information and cyber, and political, had costs. In this case, the cost was over 30 Marines and six aircraft. At another time in history, the cost would have been unacceptable, but now the country would not even bat an eye. Sadly, the destruction of the communications facility by its owners would garner more news than the loss of Marines. Ever evolving, ever changing, the campaign’s costs were being accepted by the public. And so the war would continue.
Captain Patrick Schalk, USMC, commissioned in 2013. He has served at 8th Communication Battalion at Camp Lejeune, NC from 2015 to 2018 as a Platoon Commander, Training Officer, and Assistant Operations Officer. He served at 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion in Okinawa, Japan as the Battalion Communications Officer from 2018 to 2020. He is currently a student at the Expeditionary Warfare School in Quantico, VA.
Featured Image: “END MDP” by Mark Kolobaev (via Artstation)