In Sight of the Past

Fiction Contest Week

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)


Fiction Contest Week

By Bryan Williams


0538R hours 25 MAY 2028CE

Okay, I’ll be honest. I’m glad this isn’t Alaska. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the training, practicing intercepts, and targeting with the ATFLIR (Advanced Targeting Infrared) pods, but the job was rough. Three years helping build that facility. Three years training in dissimilar combat with VX-33, testing weapon after weapon tirelessly. Three years watching the United States struggle to push back against the turning tides of the Pacific. So, I remember the bright side. I’m not freezing my ass off at NAWS Elmendorf, running through sorties with the Air Force to catch Tu-95s and Sukhois poking their way in the ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone).

I wanted more excitement and a change of scenery. I wanted to have some type of career advancement that didn’t involve shadowing flying Russian deathtraps whenever Raptors weren’t available. I’m not the kind of person that sits and waits for opportunity, so maybe I seize the moment, and a transfer to Naval Air Facility Kadena to shadow VFA-113 seemed like a good move at the time. The Department of Defense wanted to try out the AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile, and these guys are the first ones to field them.

“Your duty is to train, get them comfortable, and advise improvements.” I was told. “You know the situation. You know our beyond-visual-range disadvantage. We’re here to correct it, especially if this gets hot.”

Imagine my disdain when I’m jolted awake by missile warheads hitting the city. Buildings shake. Smoke rises. Sirens blare, telling us the Chinese didn’t like our ship transit through the strait and the three fighter jets they lost playing chicken.

They sent more jets, which fired upon the USS Delbert D. Black, and unfortunately sunk it. Tomahawks cleared the launch base of the Peoples’ Liberation Army Air Force jets, with the ones airborne and on attack runs destroyed by SM-2 missiles from the dying Delbert Black.

For years, our training hyped the potency of the Chinese ballistic missile forces. Late last night, we discovered one important thing about the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF): Well, their missiles do work.

INDOPACOM is in shambles, our satellites either blinded or destroyed. I’m suited up in minutes, escorted out to my aircraft that the Taiwanese staff ingeniously moved to trick the ballistic missiles targeted at the makeshift hangars. Oh, and by ‘makeshift,’ I mean it looks like they stashed three F/A-18s in a Walmart. Hidden “Rhinos” ready to roll.

But it works.

Startup procedures. Bitchin’ Betty and her attitude. Engines up. Canopy locked.

We’re told by command to “Get the hell in the air!”

Yes. We understand, sir. Perhaps it’s the barrage of guided missiles hitting the city behind us that presses the point.

We taxi deep, nose cone to nozzle until we reach the runway, a converted freeway for wartime. Which, if we haven’t noticed, is no longer a misnomer. Then it hits.

This is wartime. I was bored. I was lost. I wanted more.

As I climb full burner into the night sky, it looks as if I will get my wish. Maybe, this was more than I wished for. Space Force and INDOPACOM push our encrypted datalinks, then to a local AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) that patches us to a Mission Operator (MOP). For our surprise attack, we get MOP 2555.

MOPs are always focused, always punctual.

This person is no different, “Halo Flight. MOP 2-5-5-5. Proceed to waypoint Alpha, heading 0-6-0,” he says. “Mission: Defense. Skycap angels 25.” Basically, ‘Defend the sky in this area’ and shoot anything that tries to come into it.’ Then, “Command reports multiple groups inbound ADIZ, origin Putian, BRA,” meaning bearing-range-altitude, “last seen off your 2-4-0 for 1-6-3, angels 38, 950 knots. Potential group of fighter type J-11. Clear to engage at your discretion.”

So they’re behind us, out to the southwest, 163 miles range, at 38,000 feet, and flying at Mach 1.4ish. They’ll pass us eventually, likely within a few minutes at this rate, but Hillard strictly adheres to rules. We stick to mission. Period.

We’re at cruising speed. 570knots. No rush.

Halo Flight flies Vic formation. I, Halo 1-3, take third wing. Captain Hillard, Halo 1-1, flight lead. Lt. Dan, Halo 1-2, second wing.

We head west, ten degrees southward. Tankers are pivotal to any aerial operation. Our best guess is we are to swap babysitting as a flight of Raptors plays high cover. There’s no doubt about it: they are far better interceptors, but we’re all INDOPACOM has right now. I see no other reason to fly angels 20, or twenty-thousand feet elevation when more will do.

It’s night still. There should be no worry about contrails.

“Halo Flight,” says Hillard, “let’s push 0-6-0 for a while and try to pick up contacts to our west. No burners for now.”

“Copy,” both Dan and I say simultaneously.

There is a pause, “950 knots? Damn, they’re bookin’!” Dan says.

“Hopefully someone picks them up,” Hillard says.

“They’ll need a ferry if they want to harass Kadena. J-11s don’t have that range,” I say. “Especially at that speed.”

I peer down at my instruments. My cherished aircraft “Lucy” is my hidden joy. Our relationship goes through up and downs, usually when she throws fits and wants dates with the maintainers. The Environmental Control System and On-Board Oxygen Generation System suck as usual. ATFLIR works when it wants to, but I’m here.

But I need her now. She’s older, one of the last produced models of the 2010s, and one of the first variants of the Block III retrofits that changed her to an X model.

The active electronically scanned array radar is nice. I’ve enjoyed the APG-79. Still, even with it, I don’t see shit.

The tactical electronic warning system is silent too. Nothing on the screen. No one is tracking us.

None of these aircraft are smooth, but the turbulence leftover by Typhoon Noke plays hell on us as we climb.

A few of the jolts show 5g on the heads-up display. Bitchin’ Betty, the attitude-laced avionics computer constantly nags.

Flight controls! Flight controls!

We’ve all learned to live with her. Three more side bursts threaten to rip away the tails.

“Anything?” Hillard asks, seeing little on the scope.

“Negative,” I say.

“Same here,” says Dan.

“Halo Flight to MOP. We’re showing zero contacts, over.”

Then, it gets spooky. MOP gets snarky,

“Halo Flight, be advised, be advised, contacts, pop-up-group of three to five, unknown type, out your 3-0-5, now for 1-1-5, Angels 25. Flanking! 900 knots and reducing.”

Mystery contacts, now maneuvering to our sides.

“MOP we have no contacts.” Hillard grows worried. “Waypoint Alpha 160 miles out.”

“Do we keep this heading?” I ask. “I don’t like this.”

“We can’t leave the tanker.”

“Raptors, sir.” Dan adds. “Tell me they can’t cover it. They have the fuel.”

“Mission is mission,” Hillard hates dissidence. “FOBs (forward operating base) getting hammered, and we got missiles raining up the strait! We can’t lose that tanker. ”

“Sir,” I plead, “we do ourselves no good bunched up like this. We get out to the tanker, if it’s still there?”

“It’ll be there!” he snaps.

“And if not, sir?” I press. I know he hates this.

“Agh, dammit.” Hillard growls. “Halo Flight to MOP, we’re concerned about the lack of contacts this far toward the waypoint. We need your guidance for course correction.”

Nothing. Static.

“Halo Flight to MOP.”

“Halo Flight to MOP.”

“I say again, Halo Flight to MOP.”

“Shit,” Dan says. “Com blackout. Satellites down. Missiles.”

“So China was waiting for this! The whole time!” I exclaim.

“Cool it!” Hillard barks, thinking on his toes. “Three, I think you have a good idea. We’ll have to split. 900 knots, 115 miles, we’ve got five, maybe eight minutes tops until they’re on top of us. Let’s go for 3-0-0 and turn in sharp in three minutes.”

“Good idea to cut that flank off.”

I look over to my right. The sky is dark, lit only by the flickers of lightning in the tall clouds in the expanse. I know what’s next. Hillard only does what makes sense. We have to turn toward them.

“Three,” Hillard says to me, “go pincer right. Keep tight. 50 miles, turn back in, and we’ll meet you in the middle. Anything shows beyond this, it’s hostile. You’re the AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile) Queen.”

“No V-I-D?” I ask. Confirming the change of engagement rules.

Even in wartime, visual identification is necessary. No one wants to be the guy that shoots down a Dreamliner or an Airbus.

“Confirm. No V-I-D. We are at war. This is a no-fly zone.”

“Roger. Pincer right for 3-4-5. Mid-low-high.” I say, confirming out altitude positions relative to each other. “I’ll take high. Aiming for angels 40.”

I look at them, hoping this isn’t the last time. Then, with one subtle move of the joystick, I peel away and pull into the turn, breathing through the g against my stomach. Lucy noses up, and I see the stars fading above me. Over my shoulder, Dan peels away left.

Nautical twilight is near. I hope to use it should I meet something out there that isn’t a Raptor or tanker.

“See you in a few minutes,” says Hillard. “Good luck.”

“Aye, sir.”

The airframe is filled with squeaks, rattles, and buffeting. Over the years, I imagine the test pilots that flew Lucy before me grew as acquainted to those sounds as I am. It’s music when we have none. The one thing that keeps us ticking, should the adrenaline overwhelm me, I listen to the squeaks of rivets flexing in their seams, the wings bouncing along in the air.

I wish for home. Farm fields. Lush air.

There is no time for daydreaming. My thirty seconds is up, and I pop the radar into scan, nose still pointed high as I cross angels 30.

Nothing, but I give it time. The horizon spans to infinity, now flushing with blue with the new day, a bad day, potentially for millions of people should this grow even further out of control.

And it does. And it is now where I feel helpless, when I know deep down there is absolutely nothing I can do to stop a war, when training goes to reality in the time it takes for Hillard to scream,

“Spike! Spike! I got RWR (radar warning receiver) at three-o-clock!”

Dan followed up, “Turning in towards you! Still no contact!”

“Three! Contact?”

Nothing. Nothing. Oh, shit.

The instrument panel lights up.

I get Master Caution, and the RWR’s telling, Bloop!

Then, Deedle! Deedle! Deedle! Deedle!

Radar lock.

Shit. Shit. SHIT. The TEWS (tactical electronic warfare system) screen shows the missile, but the system’s weakness is that it only gives a relative direction of the spike. It isn’t exact, but it’s from 11-o-clock. That’s enough for whereabouts. I breathe, my legs tingling with despair as I must now choose whether to press forward for a counter shot, or dive defensive.

“Three!” I say, the tension clear in my voice. “I have RWR. Spike 11-o-clock. No—wait.” I see a hit on radar. Faint, the little rectangle glowing ominously through the scan. “I have contact! 40 miles! Low RCS! Got him on—” high-g interrupts my speech as I attempt to nose in, “—ugh! Hold on,” the rectangle disappears, instead replaced by a line of six hollow likings, “he’s jamming!”

RWR jingles again. Deedle! Deedle! Deedle!

But it gets worse, the chimes growing frantic, their pulses as fast as my pounding heart.


“Missile!” I call, fighting my instinct to turn away. I feel the heat leaving my body, the blood tensing into my gut, the dryness in my mouth.

I need to press. Just a few more miles to close the distance.


“Oh, come on!” I scream, frantically hitting the queue button, waiting through these agonizing seconds for my saving grace, the one thing that could tell me where my lovely secret bandit hides.

“Two!” says Dan, labored, “I’m completely defensive! I have two tracking me, 15 miles! RWR!”

“Come on!” I scream again, until finally, I see it spelled clearly in my heads up display. There, a little rectangle appears in the lens, levitating in the sky behind towering thunderclouds.


Home on jammer/multi-seek mode. The rectangle highlights his position, still slightly out of visual range. A JATM should sprint toward that area, going ballistic before hitting pitbull mode, where it’ll lock onto the first thing it sees with both a heat signature larger than a car engine and a radar cross section bigger than a cardinal. If all else fails, it looks for visual cues of known adversary aircraft.

I’ve only tested it. Holy hell, I hope it actually works.

It has to work.

His missiles must be close, so I let loose, the master arm already toggled the moment things got hairy.

“Fox-3!” I yell, pressing the launch button.            

A JATM bursts from the rails, its rocket motor streaming orange as it fires away. Panicked, I let two more away.

“Fox-3! —Ugh, Fox-3 again!” before another JATM is off the rail. “Engaging bandit, heading 3-0-2, Angels 24. Pressing!”

“Three, defend!” says Hillard, defending himself. “Descending through Angels 13, countermeasures out!”

“Two!” I say, hoping he’s there. “Two!”

He’s not.

I lose contact with the bandit, flipping the radar into auto acquisition mode. It’s a last ditch effort, hearing the RWR stop blaring in my ears, the sounds of my breath fogging up my mask. This is stupid, and I know it. I should turn cold to him. In fact, I should’ve done that at least 90 seconds ago, but I can’t let him run us down.

Closing at 850 knots, there is no way we can run.

What I can do, and it’s the only thing I hope for, is to force an overshoot only if those missiles don’t jump me. I roll right, pushing Lucy into a brake so hard I feel my guts push deep into the seat. The blood sucks from my head.

Flight controls! Flight controls!

Breathing is the only way through it, if there weren’t 950 pounds atop my chest. It devolves to mere suckles, gasps for life as my vision peters out. I don’t want to drop my tank. It still has 2,000 pounds in it last I checked, but I’m chewing through that sitting on the afterburner like this.

I ease up on the stick. Life comes back to me.

No RWR yet. My goal is to notch the bandit. I need to stay as perpendicular to him as possible,

“Three, defending!” I gasp, hearing the RWR ring again.


Whoop! Whoop! its voice in slow motion, Missile! Missile!

Hillard yells, his voice tearing holes through me, “I see the missile! I see the launch! It’s coming! There’s two!” then, “Agh!”

Flight controls! Flight controls!


And that is the end for him.

I’m heading straight for Hillard and Dan. Twilight blooms in the sky ahead this way, due east where home is, and my safety. I wish for them to save me, if only for this moment, before I see a flash on the horizon. Then flames, fragments of debris falling, the leftovers of what was once an F/A-18E. Captain Justin Hillard. Gone.

“I think One is down!” shouts Dan. “I’m defending!”

“I see One is splashed!” I croak, peering over the shoulder, seeing two contrails above, a kink in their line as they redirect towards me.

“Shit!” Dan screams. “No more RWR!”

“Don’t press!” I say, pointing Lucy’s nose down. The darkened ocean fills my view, the sounds of the aircraft bouncing through heavy turbulence at 870 knots. 910 knots. 960 knots.

I cross Angels 9. I’m running out of altitude at this speed.

This is it. This is where I die.

“I’m pressing!” Dan says defiantly. “Turned back in, I see—two, no, three contacts!” then, “Fox-3!” again, “Fox-3! Agh, oh sh—”

I already see it, one flash ahead of me. Maybe ten miles.

“Nooo!” I only hear myself.

Flames, but there are two contrails flying away from it. Two rocket motors heavy to the north, streaming up until through the breadth of baby blue abyss, I see a small blackened dot, an aircraft, two burners lit as it pulls defensive.

It’s a bandit. Within visual range.

Yes. This is where I die.

I check my six, dropping more chaff in the beeline down. I cross angels 5, pulling back on the stick, looking up to see. The bandit, just as confused and spaced out as me, makes a mistake and flares as he goes cold to Dan’s JATMs.

But AIM-260s don’t give a damn about flares.

He realizes this, but it’s too late. He pulls hard up, just as my vision goes black, the 900+ pounds pushing me into the seat.


Flight controls! Flight controls!

Boom. It bursts into a trail of flames. I pull up to center it, looking back, one missile bursting just behind me. Where’s the other? I saw two! The other one is next, surely here to finish what it’s brother couldn’t: me.

And there, behind the left tail, I see it, its rocket motor extinguished, its guidance computers honing onto me, using its last bit of kinetic energy to close the gap. Oh god. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to go.

I must do something! I can’t just wait for it!

Roll! Roll! And I do, nearly spinning the wings off.

Desperation makes us all stupid, and here I do a stupid thing.

Flight controls! Flight controls!

“Aggggggh!” I’m blind, pulling into the bank so hard that my eyes give way to starvation. I don’t see it. “Aaaaaggggh.” And then I do, slipping beneath me, and then I yank the stick back, nosing up.

Flight controls! Flight controls!

I get lucky. There is no other way to put it. The missile attempts to follow, but it’s spent. Its nose pops up, and it closes to within perhaps a hundred feet of me—shit, maybe even fifty. Shit. SHIT. I think it’s going to hit.


Whoop! Whoop!

I pull back again, hoping the wings don’t detach. Flight controls!

It bursts. I gasp. I hear the shrapnel shoot by me, some of it hitting the canopy, piercing the wing skin, hitting the tails, and then—the engine.

Turbulence. The worst kind.

I hear nasty sounds, much like metal chewing against blown bearings, the compressor and its fans shearing into their housings. Lucy rolls hard to the left. I see the wing flex.

“Aaaaaghhh!” I scream for someone to help me. “Noooo!”

Bitchin’ Betty spells it.

Engine fire, LEFT! Engine fire, LEFT!

It gets worse, ACM failure!

And worse in sequence, Radar failure!

But I don’t need radar for Sidewinders. Maybe, by this point, I either don’t care, or I’ve accepted my fate to the degree that I must maximize it. Lucy is still controllable. I still have hydraulics. Wings still attached. Both tails there. I can still maneuver—for now.

Let’s make the best of this. I put her into Seeker Caged Mode. Slam mode, the mode where the pilot no longer cares about being cordial.

Sidewinders armed. I nose up and bank back to the left.

Boom. There’s a flash in the distance. And then another. Two burning trails of debris falling. What? How could that be?

Holy shit. My JATMs. They both hit someone. There were only two fired in that direction, and it was from me.

“Splash two!” I say, still not accepting my friends are dead. “I think I splashed two! They’re in tight formation. Two groups of two—gaaaah—pincer coverage!”

I look left as I bank. I’m spewing smoke, a large flame reminiscent of Saturn V boosters from the nozzle of my left engine.

Engine fire, LEFT! Engine fire, LEFT!

Shut up, Betty! I know! I know!

My helmet sight queues. Seeing the two bandits down, I should be more than close enough for IRST [Infrared Search-and-Track]. The scan head sweeps, so I thank God it’s still working.

I reach down and pull the fire handle and shutdown switch for the left engine. Killing the turbine, yet the fire persists. I’m leaking fuel. It’s literally pouring out the wing, but I’m going fast enough to ensure it spews behind the plane in the wind.

Maybe, I’ll have just enough energy for this plan.

The reticle comes up on the HUD. The display shows my little wolves are ready. It’s time to uncage them, but only when the time is right.

There’s the telling hum of old adage.

Hummmmmmmmmm, then, waaaaaaaahhhh

But I can’t fire. I can’t waste this precious missile. The bandit closes, highlighted by the vibrating green circle over him in the visor as he speeds to my flank. He does what I planned minutes ago, doing an easy 700+ knots. The sky is much brighter now, and finally, I see them.

Holy. Hell. Two Chengdu J-20s. In the flesh.

One moving far faster than the other, half mile separation in altitude.

And I’m this close to them. Now, it all makes sense. The high interdiction speed. The lack of radar pickup. The missiles. I think they carry PL-21s, some bullshit knockoff Russian R-77, but maybe I shouldn’t discount them.

Clearly, they killed Hillard and Dan.

It’s just me, and I pull hard into the bank, just as I see the faster J-20 come to overshoot. I roll, holding the right engine as high as I can, feeling the left shudder and rake Lucy about in the clouds.

There is slow motion, though we pass perpendicular, him over top me. Admittedly, the Chengdu is a beautiful aircraft. It’s long, its wings mounted stern, little canards wiggling off each side just behind the canopy. Whomever is flying, they never realize their mistake.

Very little is known about the J-20, but physics are real.

He has far too much energy, and in his overshoot, he rolls and pulls up, forcing a displacement, attempting to match my turn—at least if he still considers me to be a threat. I’m on fire, but to him, he sees that one missile has missed, and the other as far as he’s concerned did most of its job.

Neither he nor his wingman fire at me.

Either I am lucky, or they are out of missiles.

Will they come back for me? Will they rotate, or will they commit back to their forward track? I focus on the lead. I see his burners on, and a fast, wide turn, and these fleeting seconds I hold my breath, ignoring the repeating warnings from Lucy and her Bitchin’ Betty. I hope. I pray, watching him start his roll.

Left or right? Which way will they try to get me?

Well, I’m not waiting. My indicated airspeed is 384 knots. Smack into the fat of a Super Rhino’s turn speed. With the larger wing area I can pull much higher turn rates in the F/A-18X, but that’s an undamaged one. Considering the holes in my left wing, I can’t pull as hard as I want. Still, I rotate just enough, bouncing aloft, watching and feeling the wings justle, the vortex clouds condensing over the leading edges.

I nose up, just as he crosses around.

I see his burners, still on. Perfect for a sidewinder.

Huuummmmmmm, then, Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah

Fox-2. An AIM-9 leaves the rail.

I pitch down, still pretending to be dead.

He hasn’t turned yet, evidence that he assumed I was done for. With no tanks—or at least he dropped them—he has to be low on fuel, likely not wanting to expend any extra energy fiddling with me. His wingman does the same, covering the sea below as he banks away.

I turn my head upward, bringing the helmet-mounted seeker to him.

Maybe this is cowardice, but this is war. I nose up again.

Huuummmmmmm, then, Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah

Fox-2. I fire my last AIM-9.

They are clueless at this point, still flying away, their backs turned to me.

I imagine them calling out a ‘splash,’ their temporary victory short lived as a Sidewinder closes in like a German Shepherd, and in just the last moment, I see the lead J-20 flaring, the decoys flying out behind him as, just then, he’s hit by a blast fragmentation warhead.

Fire engulfs him, then his right wing separates. He rolls, tumbling until the forces rip off the tails. I don’t see where he ends up, but it’s at least away from me. He’ll crash somewhere north of here at that heading, in waters we control. His friend meets a similar fate.

So much for your stealth tanker strike, guys. It was okay, until you met me.

Mighty Dragon — that’s what they call them.

Oh, yes, it’s a sight to see, and before I die, I hold in happiness that in my luck, maybe somewhere in history, I’d go down as the first pilot to ever face such an aircraft in surprise combat.

And I killed four of them. Lucky me.

That was for Captain Hillard and Lieutenant Dan. Shit. There’s a searing pain against my back.


Engine fire, LEFT! Engine fire, LEFT!

APU fire! APU fire!

Dammit. Caught up in the Sidewinder uncaging, I forgot how dire my situation was. After losing the airspeed, the wind no longer keeps the spewing fire away. It’s in the aircraft, licking at the inner fuselage. The cockpit fills with smoke, my pants on fire, and the extinguisher only gives temporary respite.

I’m screaming. This hurts so damn bad.

I flip the toggle to jettison the drop tanks, but one catches—the one jammed on the battered left wing. Aerodynamic forces grapple the tanks, just long enough to yank Lucy into a hard left yaw. I’m thrown against the right cockpit fairing, the directional change and load shift more than the trim can adjust to. I nose up and over, the wind catching the bottom of the fuselage, ripping away the right tail, sending it into the left, and finally, the jammed wing tank is free.

Somehow I’m still flying. I use the one rudder I have left to point to heading 2-4-3. This should take me back to Taiwan, assuming that the island hasn’t been overrun. I have no clue what happened to the other two bandits we saw during the engagement. I can’t worry about that now.

There are three ways for me to die:

1) Burning alive in this aircraft.
2) A final hit by the other two bandits.
3) I eject, where I succumb to blunt force trauma from 400 knot winds, or make it down and drown.

Tough choices. But Lucy still has a little life left.

The main fuel dump still works, so I use it, pushing the right engine enough to climb back to Angels 10. Up here, I see Taiwan, and though it isn’t Taipei, I’m somewhere near the coast, at least 80 to 100 miles out. I adjust trim, keeping the nose high enough and the remaining left tail lags enough to hold a reasonably steady cruise. I’m guessing maybe 300 knots. Airspeed sensor failed when the nose cone detached.

Come on, Lucy. Come on sweetheart.

We’ve come too far to go out this way.

This gives me just a moment to see the beauty of the sky, perhaps the last few things I’ll see.

Flight computer hot! Flight computer hot!

The Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System visor quits along with the main avionics displays, but the bingo fuel light still works. So much for that fuel dump.

I’ll have to ditch, but I’ll hold out.

I fumble around, looking down to the com board, remembering to pay attention to the radio again.

I hear a voice in the static. “Halo Flight, this is Eagle Flight.”

Then, the coms die. Now, I get my silence. Minutes pass this way, five, six, or maybe eight.

Something catches my eye in the distance. It’s another bird, one of ours, moving into my three-o-clock. A Kadena Raptor. I recognize the tail number. Must be Eagle Flight, the bastards we were supposed to meet at the waypoint. He gets to within 100 feet of me, playing cautious to not get sucked into my debris stream.

He waves his wings. In the canopy, I see the pilot gesturing.

Oh, sure. Look at that. Lucy’s datalink still works. It’s a separate system from the avionics. I hit turbulence, either the wind, or the plane stalling. Maybe both.

My Raptor friend moves in above me. He’s surveying my plane, likely as shocked as his wingman that I’m still flying. I know, guys, I know. Make sure you get plenty of pictures.

Knocking and screeching startle me.

Engine fire, RIGHT! Engine fire, RIGHT!

I pull the right engine fire handle. Then I lose the lights. APU failure.

Flight controls failure! Flight controls failure!

Uh oh,

Eject! Eject!

I nose down. Oh god. I see nothing but water. My heart races. My stomach knots. Now, I have no more tricks up my sleeve, no more last minute lucky draws from a hat.

Bless their hearts, the Raptors follow me down.

The altimeter winds down, its hand spinning so fast that I can no longer see it. Rather I see dial digits, passing through 8,000.

7,000. I’m picking up speed.

5,800. The hops grow violent, threatening to shatter my spine.



There’s so much water. I can’t eject yet!

Not yet!


“Oh—my god.” I black out, shortly after the left wing separates, the jet rolling starkly to the left. Somehow, before I inevitably pass out, I grab the handle, and I shoot out, my breath taken away by the pain and shock of bursting into the atmosphere.

I freefall until the chute pops, jolting me to a faint descent. Stunned, I can see only a few bits and pieces. Below me, my plane spins, the aerodynamic forces snapping the fuselage in two. There, it tumbles piece by piece into the water.

The same water where I meet my fate.

All I see is darkness.

I never thought that it would be this dark.

Bryan Williams is a Mechanical Engineer working in the automotive field and moonlighting as a novelist. He is a huge aviation fan, particularly interested in the tactics of combat aviation. He has self-published one unrelated novel, The Underground Kings. Further additions to “Bandit” can be found on his website at

Featured Image: “Jet” by Lorenzo de Sanctis (via Artstation)

Mischief and Mayhem

Fiction Contest Week

By Lieutenant Colonel Robert Lamont, USMC (ret.)

“All hands brace for shock. This is not a drill,” boomed the petty officer of the watch’s voice over the 1MC.

The captain tapped the button on the ship’s internal communications system and asked, “Combat, Bridge, how many inbounds?”

The radar operator’s eyes widened in the soft green glow of his screen. The number of tracks tracing lines radiated from its surface like crows’ feet. “Bridge, combat, many, many,” said Seaman Jejomar.

“How many?”


“Got it,” replied the Captain. He rolled his shoulder and turned toward the remote ship operator on the bridge. “Lieutenant Torres, are the Mayhem protocols set over on the Hemroni?”

The Lieutenant tapped the controls on her tablet. The edges of her eyes narrowed as they scanned down blinking green status symbols. “Yes, sir. All systems radiating and the signature is active.”

“Sir, a question if I may?” asked Ensign Smyth.

“Take hold and ask your question Ensign.”

“What are the Mayhem protocols?”

“Well, we can’t shoot down all these missiles, so we’re going to catch any leakers,” said Captain Morris. The edge of his mouth lifted into a smile.

“Catch, sir?”

“The Hemroni is an old merchant ship converted for remote operation. Some of those containers hold systems to radiate electromagnetic signatures akin to the task force. The missiles will home in on it and pass us. As long as we hold EMCON, it will be alright.”

“And when she sinks, sir?”

“Not likely, Ensign. The top layer of the container deck is refrigerated Pykrete.” Morris lifted his binoculars to study the lines of the ship silhouetted by moonlight some five nautical miles off the port beam.

“What’s Pykrete, sir?”

“British came up with the idea in World War Two. It is a combination of sawdust and water frozen solid. Damn stuff is stronger than steel. It wasn’t until recently that the refrigeration technology caught up to the requirement. When those missiles hit home, they won’t do much damage.”

“Here they come,” announced the bridge wing lookout. His voice broke as he ducked behind the steel wind shield.

The striking glow of ramjet exhausts were bright against the black of the night sky as they approached. The pulsating sound of their engines rang in Torres’ ears as they sped directly for the Hemroni. Smyth craned his neck in tracking the missiles pop upward, and then dive into the cargo ship. Torres turned away from the yellow-orange flame that rolled over the containers illuminating a gray smoke cloud in its wake. The dark veil of night asserted its dominance when the flames flickered out.

“I counted six, six impacts, Lieutenant. Acknowledge,” barked Morris.

“Aye, sir. The instrumentation shows six. All systems in the green. She’s continuing to radiate, sir,” said Torres.

“Very well.”

“Sir, if the Pykrete is such a good defense, why isn’t the ship crewed?” asked Smyth.

“It’s sort of hard to find volunteers to stand the mid-watch on a target ship, Ensign,” quipped Morris. “Are you stepping up?”

“No, sir. I did, however, want to know the origin of the ship’s name?” asked Smyth.

“The Hemroni was named for a fictional British strategist from the age of sail in the HMS Comet series. The book is on the CNO’s required reading list. You didn’t know, Mister Smyth?” said Morris tightening his stare on the junior officer. “Check it out on Amazon. It would enhance your professional development.”

“I’ll look it up, sir.”

“Lieutenant Torres, any word on the status of the Independence?”

“No, sir. Given their last reported position, they should be approaching the drop point in 15 minutes.” She looked over her shoulder to check the status board and nodded.

“Officer of the deck, once we get the deployed status report from Independence, I want to execute an immediate return to the Balabac Strait. We need to make for the Sulu Sea and get some deep water under the keel. The Independence may well like all this shallow water, but it just makes me nervous.”

“True, sir,” said the Officer of the Deck. He lifted a hand and pointed off to the northwest. “However, given the notorious lack of capability of the Littoral Combat Ship class, they required escort to deliver their package. They were supposed to relieve larger ships for other duties, but now we have to support them so they can complete their mission. Makes one wonder, just who in the hell is supporting whom.”

    One side of Morris’ face tightened, and he lifted one eyebrow toward the officer of the deck. He added a single word, “Indeed.”


    “On the Independence, this is Lieutenant Choker, I have the deck and the con,” his bull-like voice echoed across the bridge. He looked over to see Commander Sarah Gonzales motion him over to her Captain’s chair.

    “Yes, ma’am,” said Choker.

    “It’s Captain, not ma’am, Lieutenant. I’ve worked damn hard to plant my butt in this seat and I damn well expect to be addressed as so,” said Gonzales. “Now, what is the status of launching the zodiac?”

     “I checked with the ship’s First Lieutenant on my way up to the bridge and he said they would be underway in…” he paused and look at his wristwatch, “20 minutes, Captain.”

    “We don’t have 20 minutes. The task force just dodged a missile salvo. Combat has lost the electromagnetic spectrum, it’s like we are fighting in a fog,” said Gonzales. She looked toward the port bridge wing and allowed her stare to carry out toward Mischief Reef. That small spit of land stood out there alone in the darkness. “Just steady up toward the reef. The more distance we gain the less the zodiac will have to cover when they debark.”

    “Aye, aye, Captain,” said Choker.

    “Any word from the landing force?” asked Gonzales holding a stare on the communications officer.

    “No, Captain. They have been silent since reporting touchdown two days ago. When the satellites went down, we lost both voice and data transfer. The Chinese crafted the worms and computer viruses with precision. One of my techs found backdoor code in a replacement part we got from the Pacific Rim. For all I know they could have been from Korea, Taiwan, or Japan. They came to play, and their play has taken the whole of the electronic spectrum with it,” said the communications officer. His gaze fell to the deck as he spoke.

    Pushing on the internal ship link, Gonzales said, “Combat, Bridge, what have I got left in the way of EW assets?”

    “Not much, Captain. I don’t know what they did, but all our offensive and defensive electronics are down hard. Jammers are fried solid. The techs are pushing to repair, but I can’t say when we’ll be back up. The only thing you can count on are the two chaff launchers.”

    “Stern gate, Bridge, when will you get the boat launched?” asked Gonzales.

    “I need 10 more minutes,” said the ship’s first lieutenant.

    “You’ve got five,” said Gonzales. The pause gave the bridge crew time to exchange glances.

    “Aye, Captain. Five it is.”

    “Officer of the Deck, possible missiles inbound starboard side,” yelled the bridge wing lookout.

    “Combat, Bridge, bearing for chaff deployment?”

    “You’re on it, Captain.”

    “Fire chaff,” screamed Gonzales. Her voice wavered as she spoke. The muffled pop, pop, of the chaff canisters going airborne resonated down to the bridge. The quartermaster of the watch bobbed his head in response.

    “Officer of the Deck, evasive action,” said Gonzales.

     “Aye, aye, Captain.”

     “Helmsman, right standard rudder, steady on course 260,” said Choker.

     “Sir, my rudder is right standard.”

     “Two missiles passing starboard, Captain,” said Choker. His head snapped as he traced their flight aft.

    “Sir, steady on course 260,” said the Helmsman.

    “Very well,” replied Choker. He moved to the bridge wing. His gaze followed the long white luminescence of the ship’s wake as it etched a sheen across the night blue waters of the shoal.

    “Bridge, stern gate, the zodiac is away. I say again, the zodiac is away. You are free and clear to maneuver.”

    “Officer of the Deck, turn us around and head east. We’ll make for the Balabac Strait,” said Gonzales. She labored to keep her tone in check.

    “Missiles inbound,” said the petty officer of the watch. His extended hand shook as he pointed to the northwest.

    “Fire chaff,” said the Captain.

    “They’re not reloaded yet,” said Choker.

    “Why the hell not?” asked Gonzales.

    “Seems no one topside thought it was important enough to give the keys to the ammunition locker to Petty Officer Albert,” said Choker. “He knows everything about those weapons but can’t do squat without rounds.”

    “Great. Evasive action,” commanded Gonzales.

    “Too late,” barked Choker. He grabbed the 1MC, and announced, “Missiles inbound starboard side, brace for shock.”


    In the damage control locker, Petty Officer Freeman pulled his flame-resistant suit up over his shoulders. The crinkling sound of the silver fabric filled his ears as he secured the straps. It was too hot to wear the thing otherwise. The missile impact rippled through the deck casting his entire team off their feet. Freeman had to fight the pull on his body as the ship decelerated. His un-commanded movement stopped on impact with a fire extinguisher. For reasons he couldn’t explain, his eyes noticed the inspection tag was out of date. He keyed the intercom to talk with Damage Control Central, nothing. He thought, dead, not even static on the line. The ship began to ease to port causing him to strengthen his grip to remain vertical.

    The squeaking sound of the watertight hatch undogging was his first clue that a runner had reached the team. Warrant Officer McKay stepped through the portal. Pointing aft, he said, “We’re hit in after steering. I’ve got flames and flooding starboard side. Get your team down there and put out the fire. We’ll deal with the flooding once it’s out.”

   Freeman nodded. “Follow me,” he said waving his hand and heading aft. The team pulled their hoses over knee knockers and down the passageway. His eyes widened on seeing the extent of the blaze. He grabbed McKay’s shirt, and yelled above the roar of the flames, “I’ve got fire on both sides now. It’s moving forward. I’ve got to get more people down here to fight this thing.”

   “You know we’re shorthanded. What you’ve got is what you’ve got. Put the damn thing out,” said McKay.

    “Be nice to have some of the civilian maintenance contractors down here now in the middle of this sh—”

  “Shut up and fight aft,” screamed McKay.

    The hose team stepped forward, sweeping the hose left and right. The flames were knocked down, only to burst back to life as the foam moved side to side. Freeman’s mouth fell agape when the hose went limp.

    “I’ve lost water pressure,” yelled Freeman.

    “I’m on it,” yelled back McKay. Freeman flashed his gaze forward and then aft when the Warrant Officer disappeared forward.

    “What do we do now?” asked the seaman holding the nozzle.

    Freeman was pulled to the look of the sailor’s eyes. He had seen terror before, but never had the look so embraced the essence of a man’s soul. The lad’s head movements were jerky and abrupt as the flames crept closer.

    “We hold. We will hold here. The water will be back on in a minute,” said Freeman.


    Lieutenant Commander Jim Day moved next to the captain. They turned away from the rest of the bridge team. The conversation was conducted in hushed tones and whispers, but it drew the full attention of everyone on the bridge.

    “Captain, you know the ship is lost,” said Day.

    “Not while I still have one DC team emplaced aft,” retorted Gonzales.

    Day let out a huff, and said, “Captain that’s all you’ve got, one team and it’s not at full strength. Even DOT&E said this thing couldn’t take damage and survive. Well, we’ve taken more than a little damage here, Captain. She’s done.”

    “I don’t give a damn what DOT&E says, I’m not quitting the ship.”

    “But you do give a damn about your sailors, Captain. You’ll need to start moving them off now to clear this thing before the fire reaches the central magazines. It’s going to light up like a roman candle in 15 minutes max.”

    Gonzales looked back across the bridge. All eyes reflected the dim sparkle of the battle lanterns and held in her direction. Her mentors at the Naval Academy had never taught her how to quit, and now didn’t seem like a good time to start. For one brief moment, she could visualize the flag that hung in Smoke Hall; “Don’t give up the ship.” The captain’s hand tapped in time with the ship’s clock, as the seconds march by. The collective stare of the watch team was focused on this one corner of the bridge.

    “Orders, Captain,” said Choker.

    “Abandon ship. All hands abandon ship,” said Gonzales. She leaned back in her chair and waved the bridge team away.

    “Captain, we have to go now,” said Day.

    “I’m staying with the ship, Commander. I will not surrender my Independence,” said Gonzales. She pressed her upper lip down hard to mask any emotion.

    “It will be the death of you, Captain.”

    She nodded but turned her stare forward. Day exhaled, saluted, and departed the bridge.


    Colonel Garret had to tighten his eyes as the arc of the sun peaked above the horizon on the open ocean. Even at this early hour, he had to flex his fingers between the buttons of his utility uniform to force air across his chest. This did little to abate the sweat building on his back and neck. His muscles strained with each impact of the zodiac as it glided across the South China Sea swell. The splash of sea water across his face was cooling, even if it did taste of salt.

    “Sir, we’re ten mikes out from the reef,” barked the coxswain above the roar of the outboard motors. The colonel nodded and tugged on his kit.

    Garret took in the scene illuminated before him. The trade winds pushed a light column of smoke across Mischief Reef. He followed the rise and fall of the swell on a Chinese research vessel half submerged in the channel blocking the entrance to the artificial island’s bay. Two Light Amphibious Warships stood stranded on the reef across from the channel. He lifted his hand in that direction, and said, “Get me over there by those ships. That side of the island is under Marine control. The Chinese hold the other. Let’s go, quickly now.” He had to strengthen his grip when the coxswain threw the throttle forward causing the zodiac to go airborne. The twin outboard engines hissed at him before settling back in the water.

    The zodiac made a soft crunching sound as it slid up onto the sand. With one pack strap over his shoulder Garret leaped over the gunwale and splashed ashore. He could hear the Coxswain scream for his crew to push away before he reached the high-water mark. His ears were accosted by the heavy thumping of mortar fire scattering sand about him as it attempted to chase the boat back to sea. The grit of the sand clung to his face as he went prone avoiding the metal that whistled above. A quick glance up, and he saw a Marine waving for him to move in their direction. With a huff, he sprinted off the beach and collapsed next to a concrete building.

    “Who the hell are you?” asked Garret.

    “Staff Sergeant Jane Darby, sir.”

    “And what is your job in this goat rope?”

    “Intel and Info Specialist, sir,” said Darby. She pointed to a concrete block building and added, “The captain’s CP is this way.”

    Moving by the 81mm mortar section, they both ducked below the debris of a shell-pocked barracks and darted into the darkness of the CP. Looking around he noticed most of the company staff were huddled around computer screens that flashed static or were blank. He could feel his hands tighten into compact fists.

    “Sir, Captain Reed, how can I help the colonel?”

    The colonel’s frown deepened on studying the appearance of the Marine captain. Not a single wrinkle was etched across his brow. His mind raced, the captain looks so young. He can’t have more than six to eight years in this outfit and half of that wouldn’t even be in the operating forces. To place so much responsibility for this operation’s success in one so young, who the hell thought that was a good idea?

    “Captain Reed, you’re alive. I was sure you died given we haven’t heard squat from you in 48 hours,” said Garret. “Why isn’t this island under your control?”

    “We’ve encountered some…issues, sir.”

    “Go on,” said Garret. His tone was skeptical.

    “The LAWs got us ashore with 19 ACVs each. Between the headquarters and barracks buildings, we were fighting in an urban environment from the moment we disembarked. The ranges were so short they could hardly miss with RPGs and the armor on the vehicles couldn’t withstand any hits. The ACV is a great vehicle, sir. It just doesn’t have the survivability to go toe-to-toe in an urban battle. We had to clear this place dismounted, room-by-room, with rifles and grenades mostly. The same way my grandfather did in Germany.”

    “I saw a fist full of ACVs on the runway. Was that by design to block the airstrip?” asked Garret. The colonel was glancing around trying to read the mood within the room.

    “No, sir. I think that’s one Lieutenant Ashley should explain,” said Reed. He waved for the young officer to join them.

    “Yes, sir,” said Ashley saluting.

    The colonel made him hold the greeting, and asked, “What happened out there on the airfield Lieutenant?” Given the lieutenant’s time in purgatory, he saluted, and let him assume a more relaxed stance.

    “Sir, when I saw how we were getting bogged down on this side of the island, I decided to use maneuver and shatter the enemy’s cohesion. Exploiting speed as a weapon, we attacked along the airstrip before the enemy could react.”

    “Did you request supporting arms?” asked Garret.

    The Lieutenant glanced over to Staff Sergeant Darby, and then to his company commander. Darby stepped into the discussion, and said, “Sir, the Chinese knew just how to hit us. All our dispersed operations rely on the electromagnetic spectrum for connectivity. The minute we radiate, they send heavy mortars, 120mm or larger, directly at us. You haven’t gotten any reports for the same reason. Worse, it’s a two-way net. Our long-range missiles remain idle since they can’t get any targeting data. We can’t see a damn thing, sir.”

   “Did you try remoting your antenna to reduce your vulnerability?”

    “Yes, sir, but they have some sort of artificial intelligence program over there. The minute you key to talk, you can hear the thump of the mortar rounds on their way. Can’t see how a person in the loop can turn it around that fast.”

    “I’m going to have to report all this back to headquarters you know,” said Garret.

    “Good luck with that, sir. We’ve been unable to crack their interference over the net or on the airwaves,” said Reed.

    Garret pulled a boxy shaped object from his pack and held it up. Engaging the handle, a light flashed several times. “I’ll use this Captain. My zodiac is holding offshore until I signal.”

    “Flashing light, sir. Just a little primitive, don’t you think?”

    “Primitive, directional, and short ranged. Perfect for skirting around the electromagnetic spectrum and keeping messages secure. Who would have thought we’d be using boats as messengers to close the communications gap. I’ll bet you don’t even know your Morse code, do you, Captain?”

    Reed looked to the deck, and replied, “No, sir. It never was a requirement.”

    “What have you done to throw them off balance?” asked Garret. The wrinkles around his eyes were etched just a little deeper.

    “I ran a shore-to-shore night attack across the lagoon to exploit the stealth signature of the ACV. The vehicle’s tires struggled to negotiate the coral reef and that slowed us down, sir. However, it was the Chinese night vision that gave us away first. They just sat there and shot at us like the battle of Jutland.”

    “Alright, lots of attempts to get at them, but what are you trying to accomplish here. What is their center of gravity?”

    “I’m afraid I’ll have to address that one, sir,” said Darby. Her tone sounded sheepish. “When we did our threat assessment, it was determined that the island’s distillation plant was key. Take out their ability to make water and they would have to throw down in a week at most.”

    “And?”  The colonel tightened his stare on her and held his arms akimbo.

    The staff sergeant threw a can to him, his catch was reflexive. Reading the label aloud, he said, “Tsingtao. A Chinese beer, so what?”

    “Not beer, sir. The island is stocked full of those and they are all water. The Chinese stockpiled enough water here to last a very long time. We on the other hand, have burned through our two days of supply carried on the ACV and have to eat what chow we have captured,” said Darby. The edges of her mouth turned down on that comment.

    “How are their rations?”

    “It’s an acquired taste, sir.”

    “Well, it would seem not only have the Chinese read Sun Tzu, but they appear to understand his lessons as well,” said Garret.

    “Meaning what, sir?” asked Reed.

    “Meaning they cheat. They don’t play by any set of rules because it’s not in their culture to do so. We were so confident in our ability to exploit predictive intelligence to unhinge them, we now find our forces scattered across the archipelago in penny-sized packets of combat power unable to exploit the range of our missile forces to support each other because we can’t pass the engagement data required to launch such a strike.”

    “How did we get to such a state, sir?” asked Ashley.

    “Can’t single out one thing, Lieutenant. Part of the outcome rests on what can be called the MEU mentality.”

    “The what?”

    “We spent so much of the last twenty years deploying and exercising as MEUs we came to believe those were amphibious operations. Since many of those that were successful in that environment went on to become senior officers, we’ve become hostage to our own experience.”

    “But I don’t see how that operational experience can be a detriment, sir,” said Reed.

    “In itself, experience is not a bad thing. You have to be able to employ the wisdom to know when your experience is, or more importantly, is not, relevant.”

    “How does that apply to MEUs?” asked Ashley.

    “A MEU commander has to balance many constraints. Personnel available, weapons status, training time, and perhaps most overarching, the lift available. They became absorbed in the knap sack problem.”

    “The what?”  Ashley widened his eyes.

    “The knap sack problem is a common optimization problem familiar to all your Operations Research types out of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. In short, you have to fill the knap sack with the most valued items to secure the greatest value within a given set of constraints. The three ship ARG served as our knap sack for generations of Marines that deployed worldwide. I fear it has become the albatross around our neck to the same extent as the Ancient Mariner.”

    “As opposed to what?”  Reed’s stare locked on the colonel demanding an answer.

    “Backward planning has always been a hallmark of amphibious operations. First, develop your scheme of maneuver ashore. Once you have that down to ensure a win, determine the shipping you need to carry it into contact. When you reach the scene of action with a predetermined load, the best you can do is execute some sub-optimal scheme of maneuver. What could have made your maneuver here more viable?”  The colonel’s eyes now flashed between the three Marines.

    “I could have used some armor-protected firepower to clear this built-up area on landing. It would have allowed us to sustain momentum off the beach and carry the other side of the island,” said Reed.

    “I needed heavy indirect firepower on the ground with us,” said Ashley, “it’s an essential element of our maneuver doctrine.”  He pointed in the direction of the airstrip. “When I made my dash, if I could have kept their heads down, we would have maneuvered with a speed negating any response. The 81mm mortars just didn’t have the punch to intimidate them behind these fortified walls.”

    “The nature of this compound didn’t show up in all the satellite images I studied,” said Darby. She kicked a sandbag on the interior bulkhead. “That fact that they reinforced these structures with sandbags was lost to us, as well. Nothing really replaces collection agencies on the ground when it comes to assessing enemy capabilities. When poor information on the enemy was coupled with loss of the electromagnetic spectrum, this outcome was predictable.”

    “And so, despite being chartered to field a force that can fight across the spectrum of conflict, we tailored ourselves for one scenario. When that scenario didn’t unfold as envisioned, we lacked the flexibility to adapt to new challenges on the other side of the bay,” said Garret. His upper lip slammed down when he finished.

    “Sir, did you just say we violated our own doctrine when we formed these specialized Marine Littoral Regiments?”

    “I was in the room at Quantico during all those discussions. At the time, we sure as hell didn’t think so. We labored to build a modern naval combined arms force. In retrospect, a few more eyebrows should have been raised when we agreed to plug into the Navy’s composite warfare framework. I think too many folks were too proud to admit they didn’t fully understand the nature of the doctrine and the implications for our command and control. We’ve made the MAGTF look more like a boat than a ground combat formation,” said Garret.

He looked out the window and over the white-capped waters of the ocean. “We have become missile centric and lack the mobility and sustaining fire power to facilitate maneuver. As you said, you couldn’t keep their heads down with indirect fire when you started off across the airstrip. When the Commandant asked for someone to come see what was happening here, I jumped at the chance. Just wanted to see how my baby came out.”

    “The baby is ugly, sir,” quipped Darby. Taking a deep breath, she added, “What will they do now, sir?”  She bit her lower lip in anticipation of his response.

    “Now Staff Sergeant, they will play a game of Wei-Ch’i with us,” said Garret. A shallow grin occupied his expression.

    “Meaning exactly what, sir?”

    “In the game of Wei-Ch’I, the defeat mechanism is encirclement. Right now the Chinese Navy is sending its submarine force into the narrows of the Philippine Archipelago. They will bottle up any reinforcement and wait us out. We have attempted to wall them up along their coast. But, with the expanse of Russia behind them, it is unlikely we’ll be able to isolate them for long. It’s not like the Russians have ever really been our friends or supported our interests. We on the other hand, can’t get resupply since our ships are held distant and we don’t have control of the seas.”

    “Can’t they helo in our stuff,” asked Ashley.

    “Not with all that air defense gear on the other side of this rock. It would be worse than our helicopter losses in the Grenada Operation. I think this evolution will have much in common with that little Caribbean escapade,” said Darby.

    “In what way Staff Sergeant?” asked Garret.

    “Both will feature lots of lessons learned,” quipped Darby. One side of her face lifted in a slanted smile.

    “Well, it would appear we are going to be here for a long time,” said Garret. He picked up a Chinese ration, and added in a whisper, “Fortunately, I like rice.”

LtCol Robert Lamont (ret.) spent 22 years in the Marine Corps, including tours with the Marine Detachment aboard USS Constellation (CV-64) and the USS Cleveland (LPD-7) as a Combat Cargo Officer. His final tour was as a III MEF action officer planning Cobra Gold in Thailand and Tandem Thrust in Australia. He currently writes maritime fiction in that age of sail. Follow his work at

Featured Image: “Armored Light Vehicle Concept” by Ahn Hyoungsup (via Artstation)

Front Row Seats In Tomorrow’s War

Fiction Contest Week

By H I Sutton

Helena was studying the screen intently. The blurred pixels of the satellite image clearly showed ships, but whose were they? She scrolled down, heading south towards the artificial reef. Its deep harbor was hacked from coral, thousands of years of life, now dead. There was nothing there. Looking inland there were some jets on the runway. These must be the Chinese Flankers everyone was talking about. Helena was not looking for what everyone else was. She raced back north to her unidentified ships. This was her catch.

There was a clink of porcelain as Aaron placed their refill on the table.

For a moment Helena looked up and surveyed the Starbucks. No one was paying any attention to them.

Aaron settled back down to his own laptop.

They made eye contact. In unison they looked back down at their screens, silently immersing into their hunt to identify the mystery ships. The world was watching the tensions unfold.

The USS Michael Monsoor was known to be in the area. Its harsh futuristic lines harked back to the ironclads of old. None of these unidentified ships were her.

Monsoor’s presence in the South China Sea was well justified, every ship has the freedom to navigate there. But that wasn’t stopping the situation from turning bad, and quickly. China was ratcheting up the rhetoric and mobilizing its navy. Everything looked like this was going to be the trigger for a major confrontation, maybe war.

It seemed ridiculous to the two friends, surely it was only an excuse. If things kicked off, it would be because someone had a bigger motive, not because of the actions of one ship.

The satellite imagery was from earlier that morning. It wasn’t great resolution, each pixel represented about 10 feet of real estate. But it was timely and it was free to access by literally anyone in the world. If a major escalation was about to start, Helena and Aaron would probably know more than the traditional media reporting it. Helena pondered for a moment, maybe she already knew more than some of the captains of the ships? Surely the navies’ intelligence organizations would be closely guarding their intelligence and squirreling away their secrets.

Meanwhile, all one needed was an internet connection to survey the mass of ships gathering near the reef. Some were clearly warships. Helena flicked back to the AIS data which showed ship’ positions in real time based on their automatic radio transmissions. All ships were supposed to do it, except warships. These ones weren’t on the map. They were running dark.

“Bingo” Aaron exclaimed. “Got the Hawkeye data. Someone uploaded it” Aaron shared the link to the data dump.

A message popped up on Helena’s screen. Within a few minutes it had been loaded into a map, showing a mass of dots and lines across the South China Sea. This was a type of satellite which monitors radio transmissions. Zooming in on the area where the unidentified ships had been that morning, Helena saw a trail of yellow lines leading due south. The ships weren’t on AIS, but they were using their radios to communicate with each other, and this was betraying them.

“Do you think we should post something?” Aaron’s tone hinted excitement. Being the first to call a new piece of information would enhance his reputation in the small community of watchers.

“This is bigger than Twitter,” Helena responded. “Do we have anything on Chinese social media yet?”

“A few possibles. There were some photos of one of their carriers, but I think we’ve seen those months ago.” Aaron hadn’t looked up for several minutes. He glanced sideways, wondering whether anyone was listening to their cryptic conversation. “What is Chinese for fishing boat? I think their maritime militia might be a starting point for a search.”

“I know someone who has a bunch of maritime militia-connected accounts. Some of these guys don’t have any discretion about what they post. I will give him a ping.”

“Oh, like this?” Aaron blurted, his excitement was palpable.

Instantly the message window on Helena’s laptop popped up, revealing a photo over the side of a tiny fishing boat. On the horizon were the hazy outline of warships, including a Type-055 Renhai-class cruiser and what looked like frigates. A helicopter was lifting off from the cruiser. These should be their unidentified ships. “Can we verify this? Where it is?” Helena’s initial delight morphed into suspicion. It seemed too good to be true and she was terrified of calling it wrong.

“It’s from Weibo. The original poster says it is from today in the Paracel Islands.” Aaron became defensive. “And here is another. This looks legit to me. Posted 12 minutes ago. It has only been viewed three times.”

In Helena’s mind pieces of the puzzle were coming together.


8,000 miles away aboard the U.S. Navy destroyer in the South China Sea that same puzzle was still a mountain of fragments. Captain Richards grabbed both rails and propelled himself up the steps two at a time to the bridge, a habit formed over years of service aboard ships, leaving the command center far behind him. Within a couple of paces he was at the line of windows. He lifted his binoculars and surveyed the dozens of small boats on the horizon. It was an old-fashioned tool, anachronistic maybe, but for all the advanced radars, electro-optical sensors, and signals intelligence, he was not seeing the wood for the trees.

His ship was virtually surrounded by fishing vessels. Was it a trap? He had slowed it down to a stop. He was used to having a Chinese warship trail him, even getting in close for a game of cat and mouse. Near collisions were commonplace. But this was different. Where the Chinese expecting him to run over the thick mass of tiny boats in front of him? That would create an international incident. This wasn’t his call, not today. The world would be watching.

For a moment he felt alone, in a sea of jumbled information. It was overwhelming and frankly, the intelligence picture he was being fed wasn’t making sense.

Hundreds of miles above his head a satellite was processing an image. A dozen were passing over the area several times a day. Some were military but most, like this one, were commercial.


“Satellite refresh in 20 seconds” Aaron couched over his laptop.

They both switched to the satellite providers’ web app. Their access would give them 30 minutes lead over non-premium users.

Helena impatiently pressed refresh on the browser.

After what seemed like an age, the fresh images showed up. Clouds. Lots of clouds.

She zoomed in to her previous coordinates, where the unidentified ships were. More clouds. “You try to the south of the reef. I’ll try the AIS position of that U.S. Navy destroyer. It’s been using an anonymous AIS handle.”

Through a clearing in the cloud she instantly recognized the top-down view of an impressive warship, the Monsoor. It was still in the water. And all around it, just a few hundred yards off every quarter, were tiny blobs. Fishing boats, hundreds of them. Still staring at the screen, Helena suddenly understood. “That ship isn’t going anywhere!”

“What’s up?”

Monsoor looks stuck, surrounded by the maritime militia. Wow! A billion-dollar warship stopped in its tracks by fishing boats!”

“She is a sitting duck. Welcome to hybrid warfare” Aaron muttered. “I think I’ve found the Chinese cruiser. She is still heading due south, away from the action. The AIS is all messed up now, I think the Chinese are jamming it. Like they did in Shanghai that time.”

Aaron’s coffee was getting cold. It was still morning where they were, but the light would be fading in the South China Sea.

“If the Chinese launch a missile, and nobody sees it, does it make a sound?”

“Oh, you think it is a trap?”

“The fishermen will see it, front row seats.”


Captain Huang looked out over the bow of his cruiser. The Type-055 was the pride of the People’s Liberation Army Navy. The faceted side of the main cannon’s casing caught the evening light. Between the captain and the cannon was a massive farm of missile tubes. Only the top of each tube was visible, marked by a square outer door. Beneath each gray square was a missile. He was so used to the view that he overlooked them, not giving any thoughts to what was inside.

The important payload, the new missile, was in a special launch container further aft. It was too big for the regular missile tubes, so some had been removed to make space for the wider and taller silos. It was a massive ballistic missile like the ones fired by submarines. But there was an important difference. Instead of a nuclear warhead, each missile had a small glider which could be steered onto its target at hypersonic speeds. One hit might be enough to sink an aircraft carrier. Or a destroyer.

“Are the new missiles ready?” Zhou asked as he stepped up beside the captain.

Senior Captain Zhou was the political commissar and the most senior officer aboard the ship. It was normal for PLAN warships to have a commissar on board, jointly commanding the vessel. On this ship he was the more senior of the two men, not that it should have mattered. The military commanders were anyway unfailing loyal to the Chinese Communist Party.

Technically Zhou and Huang were supposed to agree on each course of action but on missions like this, missions of national importance, everyone knew where the real power was.

“Your secret weapon is as ready as it needs to be at this moment.” Huang’s response had equal hints of mockery and resentment.

“There is no need for childish remarks, Captain. We are about to make history.”

Huang wasn’t listening. His mind was on the thousand tiny tasks which had to be done aboard the ship to launch the six missiles.

It was a completely new system and had not been tested from the cruiser before. Normally a weapon would have been tested many times before entering service, but this had been rushed. And hushed. And for the missile to be deniable it was important that, in the eyes of the world, it did not exist. No one should know that the cruiser had been fitted with the new weapon.

“Captain Huang! Are you with us? Captain!” Zhou was agitated. He had been talking and was sure that Huang was ignoring him. He was right.

“Yes,” the captain was momentarily back on the bridge. He deliberately didn’t acknowledge his senior’s rank. This was his ship, or at least it should be. “There are many things to be prepared,” he continued, expecting to be left alone.

“You cannot hide your mind in the details. We are but a small piece of a larger picture. A pictured viewed clearest from Beijing.”

Zhou paused, as even he knew the lecture was pointless. Huang, professional to the end, would do his job when the time came. He turned on his heels, but his rubber soles did not make any sound. Marching off, he feigned more important things to be getting on with.

Minutes later, 16 of the crew ran through the narrow passage that led along the side of the ship, up through a hatch and onto the aft deck where the second farm of vertical missile silos was. They quickly ran to their designated places around the blue tarpaulin which covered the new launch tubes.

Six of the silos where larger in diameter. They stood proud of the rest, about three feet higher. In all the six new missiles took up the space used by sixteen of the regular tubes, but it would be worth it.

Soon the tarpaulin was removed. The hatches of the special missile tubes were exposed for the first time since leaving the shed where she was built.

Captain Huang brought his binoculars up to his eyes and looked out of his bridge. Like Richards aboard the Monsoor, he took comfort in the simplicity of the age-old practice. Soon Huang’s ship would be far enough away to launch the attack.


“Lunchtime?” Aaron said finally. He set his laptop down to one side on the bench, keeping one eye on the open screen. He was waiting for the next nugget of open source intelligence about the situation in the South China Sea.

Helena nodded, not looking up. She was frozen, looking at the same image for minutes now.

On her screen was the satellite image of the Monsoor surround by tiny fishing boats. Was this it? The end of the U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation voyage? The end of the world’s freedom to sail in the South China Sea? She couldn’t help but think that there was something bigger going on.

They sat at the next table, with a view out into the street. It was dark inside and gray outside.

Helena was stuck for a moment, gazing blindly at the rain splattering on the empty sidewalk outside. Days weren’t usually like this.

Their laptops and spent coffee cups were still stating claim to the other table; this was their corner of the coffee shop.

A young barista came over and started clearing their old plates.

They both eyed him suspiciously as he scooped up the crumbs around their machines. As is the custom, nothing was said.

As he scurried off they picked up their sandwiches and took a few bites. They realized that they were starving.

“So?” Helena finally broke the silence.

Aaron bit his lip, holding in the excitement. His eyes betrayed him.

“Well what do we have?” Helena continued. It was a rhetorical question, they both knew she was the leader. “There is a U.S. Navy warship which is supposed to be conducting a Freedom of Navigation passage near the Chinese occupied reefs in the South China Sea.”

She held her left hand up and started counting with her fingers. That was one. “It’s not exactly routine, given all the rhetoric recently, but it would be a non-story if both sides let it to be.”

“But Beijing has chosen this moment as the watershed” Aaron added. “No more U.S. Navy in the South China Sea, it is their patch.” He was her perfect foil.

“Yes, this cannot end well. We know that the U.S. Navy won’t back down. Beijing knows that, everyone knows that. So they must want the Navy to react. They want an incident.”

She pulled down on the middle finger with her right hand: two. “It is stopped by a massive fleet of fishing vessels. These must be Chinese, and they must be part of the maritime militia.”

“A swarm.”

“Yes. They are acting as one unit. It is deliberate and there is no way they are fishing. So Beijing must be controlling them.” She paused, then grabbed her ring finger. There was no ring on it. “Three, there is a gaggle of Chinese warships, including a Type-055 Renhai-class cruiser, about 200 nautical miles south.”

“The bait maybe? Or they are running away?”

“No, I’m not buying that. Maybe they are holding back so that the confrontation appears to be between the U.S. Navy and civilian vessels? That would look better for them on the TV screens.”

“Or there is a military reason. Like the nuclear option?”

“That would be crazy. There is no way that the Chinese would use nuclear weapons that close to home. That close to their own people.”

Aaron raised an eyebrow. He wasn’t so sure. But he knew anyway that a nuclear attack did not seem likely. Within a fraction of a second his mind had raced through logics and reasonings. A tactical nuclear attack on the U.S. Navy just seemed like a really dumb way to start World War Three.

But maybe there was another weapon that the Chinese had in mind? Something which needed their warships to be hundreds of miles away. “If the Chinese attack the USS Michael Monsoor, that’s war,” he said. “This doesn’t make sense. Any attack would be tied back to them in a second. So I think their game is provoking us, they want an over-reaction.”

“Unless” Helena challenged, “they have a way of attacking which they can deny. Like the North Koreans did with that South Korean ship, the Cheonan.”

“China doesn’t have a deniable weapon. Any attack would be all over the internet in seconds. Every boat in that fishing fleet seems to be on the internet. Have you seen the Fox article, even they are getting their videos from Weibo.”

“Maybe.” Helena conceded. “But none of the media outlets have that Chinese cruiser on their feeds. Maybe we should break the story after all?”

“Let’s let it develop a bit more.” It was Aaron’s turn to be the voice of caution. “If we are wrong about the cruiser then we could be adding fuel to the fire. This could have real world consequences.”

He sat back, mopping his mouth with a napkin. He checked his phone momentarily before shifting back along the bench to his laptop. He was addicted to both devices.


Aboard the American destroyer Captain Richards was still on the bridge. His XO had joined him.

“Shall we launch the interceptor boats now that it is dark sir? Maybe make a hole in this noose?” she asked.

“No thank you. The last thing we want is any bloodshed. Or worse, prisoners.” He paused. “Send up a helicopter, see if its downwash can clear a path.”

“Yes sir.” The XO acknowledged the order. She turned to their staff who were loitering in the shadows at the back of the bridge.


500 nautical miles to the south the Chinese cruiser was finally ready to launch. Both senior officers were in the command center. They had seemingly repaired their earlier differences.

As the large digital clock on the wall turned to 18:30 hours the commissar triumphantly shouted “Fire!”

The room was full of attentive junior officers and sailors. No one did anything, instead keeping one eye on Captain Huang. He was the boss of the ship, at least in fighting terms. And anyway, Zhou had no idea which sailor he needed to order, or what exactly they were supposed to do.

“There must be no warning, and no survivors aboard the American warship” Captain Huang said after a deliberate pause. There was no emotion. “We have to hope that they do not have any means to detect our military action.”

He breathed as if preparing to deliver an important speech. But there was nothing he could say that could starve off fate.

“Special vertical tubes missile batteries make ready, low flight trajectory, pre-designated target, United States Navy destroyer 112, target coordinate at,” he looked up at a display, “12.1 Port.”

He watched as three sailors in neatly pressed blue camouflage uniforms ran through their drills. They vocalized each step, yelling into the silent room. The excitement blotted out the background noises.

Within moments Huang had received the confirmation that the steps had been taken. “War alert! Launch four special vertical tubes, sequence 1, 3, 2, 4, at five second intervals,” he said firmly, adding “No delay.”

“Only four?” Zhou challenged. He had understood that all six were to be used, that would be the normal principle of a saturation attack.

“Four is enough, it is only a destroyer.” His duty was to his orders from the Party, he had done his duty. “And we never know when we might need the others.”

Moments later the bright flare of the missiles being launched erupted from the stern of the ship. Soon all four of the giant missiles were airborne, charging skyward. Their smoke plumes caught the very last traces of the evening sun.


Aboard one of the fishing vessels two men were training their night vision camera on a large warship. It was now not more than a couple of hundred yards away.

Suddenly the night sky became daylight as explosions erupted above them. They instinctively ducked back into the open topped boat. Looking up, terrified, they saw a shower of sparkling confetti slowly floating down. More explosions were happening higher up.

Although they did not recognize it, they were underneath a cloud of metal chaff and flares, designed to mislead the incoming missiles. The USS Michael Monsoor’s defenses were going into overdrive.

Above the pop of the firework-like pyrotechnics the fishing boat crew could hear the alarms on the warship. Suddenly rockets streaked up into the sky, as if signaling the imminent climax of a fireworks display. It was the ESSM air defense missile system. It was all the ship had.

The alerts came too late for the Monsoor.

The last-ditch defense was in vain. The incoming rounds were travelling at hypersonic speeds and maneuvering just enough to make targeting them extremely difficult. The destroyer wasn’t equipped with anything designed to take them on. Three of the Chinese missiles scored direct hits, breaking the spine of the ship.

The two fishermen eventually regained their composure. Without saying a word they began filming again, just as they had been instructed.

The mayday transmission was garbled, jammed by equipment aboard the supposed fishing boats.

These small boats then began hunting for survivors, rinsing the decks of the rapidly sinking warship with gunfire. The crackle of sporadic assault rifle fire echoed in the darkness. There were to be no survivors.


Helena’s twitter feed suddenly sprung into action.

Alerts and messages retweeted a statement from the U.S. Navy’s official twitter accounts. An unnamed U.S. warship was involved in a vague incident in the South China Sea.

They knew it was the Monsoor.

But the official statement was being drowned out by videos of the burning warship. There was no doubt that it was sinking. The videos were already going viral, being shared millions of times.

Even the TV in the coffee shop was showing the videos non-stop. The ticker headline read “U.S. Navy ship damaged in tragic accident.” Random commentators shared their wild speculation, and TV anchors pretended to know about warships.

“This is insane.” Aaron was dismayed. For the first time it felt real. “The Chinese are saying that the ship exploded without warning. People are saying that the U.S. Navy was attempting to make an attack or something. Or that it was an engine malfunction. No way to all of that…”

“Luckily all those Chinese fishing boats were there to pick up survivors…” Helena said numbly.

They had both noticed that none of the videos had sound, and that there was no word or sign of survivors.

“The Chinese are controlling the narrative. Information warfare 101,” Aaron concluded.

“Quick, what’s happened to that Chinese cruiser? You check the social media, I’ll see what the latest satellite imagery looks like”

They both dived back into the internet, the hunt was on.


“Hi Helena, Aaron. So I guess you want to talk about the accident in China’s waters? I just heard that Beijing is declaring an emergency and closing the seas around it. They are doing a press conference in 20 minutes, which my network is broadcasting live. Busy news day!” Brandon was sitting in front of a bookshelf. Disorganized blocks of books, some piled the wrong way, were only to impress. He had moved the old bookshelf behind his desk to make him seem more credible in Zoom meetings like this.

Helena tried to read the titles of the books. There were none that she recognized, nothing on naval history or warship recognition.

“It’s not in Chinese waters, it’s in international waters.”

“Their exclusive economic zone I meant,” Brandon cut her off. “It is their backyard, right. What was a Navy ship even doing there? And those poor fishermen, we are expecting a massive collateral body count at the news conference…”

“It doesn’t look like an accident,” Helena interjected, trying to wrestle control of the conversation. “The Monsoor was set up, and it is obvious that the Chinese did it.”

Monsoor was that U.S. battleship, right? Right. All the open source intelligence supports what the Chinese are saying Helena. You’ve seen the videos.”

“Those aren’t OSINT, Brandon, that’s information warfare. It is the Chinese narrative, they want us to take them at face value. We have to look at the bigger picture.” His tone was already annoying her, but she was trying not to show it. She hated that he didn’t know the difference between a destroyer and a battleship. Was he doing it on purpose to bug her? Probably not, his reports were full of errors.

“Listen, the news cycle is dominated by that video of the burning battleship. And now this news conference. Unless you have something massive it will have to wait. Maybe Tuesday or Wednesday cycle?” He was trying to sound like he was in a hurry, it was a power play.

“Isn’t there a version of events from the Pentagon or White House?”

“Nothing worth reporting. You know how it is, by the time they pull a proper presser people will have moved on.”

Helena took a deep breath. She had never fully trusted Brandon, but this was their best chance.

“We do have something massive, that’s why Aaron messaged you. There was a squadron of Chinese warships which were acting suspicious. We need your help.”

“If I help will I get the exclusive?” He was shortcutting straight to the deal.


“What help do you need?”


Aaron studied the image. It was incredibly rare to get high resolution images of ships at sea. The satellite companies normally turned their cameras off over open water to save energy and bandwidth. But with Brandon bankrolling it they had been able to task one to take a strip of the South China Sea. They had to miss the site of the USS Michael Monsoor sinking but they had caught the Chinese Type-055 cruiser.

“You guessed the coordinates of the Chinese warship perfectly. Impressive. And you were right, it’s definitely a Type-055,” his voice suddenly sounded unsure. “Something looks odd, though”

Helena quickly brought back the earlier images of the ship. Despite their lower resolution the tarpaulin over the second set of missile cells stood out. A blue blob a couple of pixels wide.

“There was a cover over the aft vertical launch system. That’s gone now,” she replied. “And the hatches seem discolored, maybe scorch damage?”

“And those VLS doors are bigger, aren’t they? Look at them compared to the ones up front.”

“Get your friend Brandon on Zoom again. Tell him the Chinese news conference is already old news.”

“Let’s wait,” His voice began trembling now. His mind pictured the burning ship, and the Chinese cruiser steaming through a choppy sea. He imagined the captain aboard the Chinese warship and wondered what he was thinking. He had no idea. He had never thought about the human element in his work before. Targets were just pixels on a screen. Hundreds of people, crews aboard the ships, were just datapoints. He was in over his head. “This is way bigger than anything we’ve found before. What if we make the incident worse with this? What if we are wrong?”

She glared at him over the top of their laptop screens. Beads of sweat caught the light in the furrows of his brow.

“We have to do the right thing.”


The banner at the bottom of the screen read “Breaking News.” It had lost its meaning. Brandon sat squarely facing the viewer, his manicured hands grasping a piece of paper. Like the banner it was redundant. Looking straight ahead, he read the autocue.

“This just in. The Navy ship, USS Michael Monsoor was sunk this morning. Contrary to what we are hearing out of Beijing, Chinese warships may have been involved in the incident.” His caveats and ambiguous words were carefully chosen to be ignored by the viewers. “We have exclusive information that a squad of combat ships, centered on the Chinese Navy Type-055 battleship, was shadowing the U.S. sailors.”

His constant misidentifications were grating Helena. She watched intently, anticipating what was coming next.

“Exclusive satellite images suggest that the Chinese warship fired a missile…”

The satellite imagery she had gathered, complete with her labels, flashed up on the screen.

Helena felt a moment of jubilation. Complete satisfaction.

The broadcast abruptly cut to another presenter. A lady on the ground in Taiwan.

“U.S. forces are on the move here in Taiwan. A helicopter, said to have escaped from the USS Michael Monsoor moments before it exploded, landed about two hours ago. We don’t know what these survivors said to their leaders, but we can see the results. We have counted three U.S. Air Force transport planes in the past hour.”

A fighter jet roared overhead, drowning out her broadcast.

Helena looked away. She slumped back on the sofa, tasting the silence in the room. Her dog looked at her, needing reassurance. Was it all going to be alright?

H I Sutton is a writer, illustrator and analyst who specializes in submarines and sub-surface systems. His work can be found at his website Covert Shores.

Featured Image: “A Quick Turnaround” by Anakin Ryan (via Artstation)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.