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Maritime and naval fiction.

Operation Eminent Shield: The Advent of Unmanned Distributed Maritime Operations

Read Part One on the Battle of Locust Point. Read Part Two on the Nanxun Jiao Crisis.

By David Strachan


The following classified interview is being conducted per the joint NHHC/USNI Oral History Project on Autonomous Warfare.

Admiral Jeremy B. Lacy, USN (Ret.)

December 3, 2033

Annapolis, Maryland

Interviewer: Lt. Cmdr. Hailey J. Dowd, USN

Good morning.

We are joined again today by Admiral Jeremy B. Lacy, widely considered the father of autonomous undersea conflict, or what has come to be known as micronaval warfare. Admiral Lacy spearheaded the Atom-class microsubmarine program, eventually going on to establish Strikepod Group 1 (COMPODGRU 1), and serving as Commander, Strikepod Forces, Atlantic (COMPODLANT), as well as Commander, Strikepod Command (SPODCOM). He is currently the Corbin A. McNeill Endowed Chair in Naval Engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy.

This is the third installment of a planned eight-part classified oral history focusing on Admiral Lacy’s distinguished naval career, and his profound impact on modern naval warfare. In Part II, we learned of the aftermath of the Battle of Locust Point, and how continued Russian micronaval advances, most notably the nuclear-armed Poseidon UUV, led to the development of AUDEN, the Atlantic Undersea Defense Network. We also learned of CYAN, a “walk-in” CIA agent who revealed Chinese penetration of the AUDEN program, and the resulting emplacement of numerous AUDEN-like Shāyú microsubmarine turrets throughout the South China Sea. One of these turrets, at Gaven Reefs, known to the Chinese as Nanxun Jiao, was directly involved in engaging the USS Decatur, and was subsequently the target of an undersea strike which resulted in the deaths of four Chinese nationals, including CYAN himself.

The Nanxun Jiao Crisis was a wakeup call for the United States. With Chinese militarization of the South China Sea expanding to the seabed, a new sense of urgency now permeated the U.S. national security establishment. Pressure was mounting to counter China’s increasing belligerence and expansionist agenda, but doing so risked igniting a regional conflict, or a confrontation between nuclear-armed adversaries.

We joined Admiral Lacy again at his home in Annapolis, Maryland.


Let’s begin with the immediate aftermath of Operation Roundhouse. How impacted was Strikepod Command by the events of that day?

It was devastating. Unimaginable, really. That we’d had a hand, however unwittingly, in the murder of four people, and watched it unfold in real time right before our eyes – you can’t prepare for something like that. They brought in counselors from Langley [Air Force Base] – chaplains, experienced drone pilots who’d been through this kind of thing. But for a lot of talented people it just wasn’t enough, and they had to call it a day.

For those who remained the trauma eventually gave way to anger, and then determination. But the feeling of betrayal, of vulnerability, was difficult to overcome. All we could do was move on as best we could.

The CYAN investigation would eventually yield a single spy – Charles Alan Ordway , a FathomWorks contractor motivated apparently by personal financial gain. But you weren’t convinced that was the end of it.

Ordway worked on AUDEN, but he didn’t have code word clearance, so while it was true that he had passed sensitive information to the Chinese, there was really no way for him to have known of Roundhouse or CYAN. From a counterintelligence perspective, he was low hanging fruit, and I believed – and continue to believe to this day – that there was someone else.

The intelligence provided by CYAN led to the discovery of several operational Shāyú installations in addition to Nanxun Jiao. What was the reaction in policy circles?

Alarm bells were going off throughout Washington, and we were under extraordinary pressure not only to process the raw intelligence, but to understand the broader implications of China’s growing micronaval capability, particularly as it applied to gray zone operations. It was quite clear now that strategic ambiguity was no longer appropriate, and if policymakers were waiting for a reason to act, it seemed Nanxun Jiao was it.

And yet, apparently it still wasn’t.

No. The president felt that while the Shāyú emplacements represented a concerning development in the South China Sea, there was little difference between seabed microsubmarine turrets and onshore ASCM batteries. Keep in mind, it was also an election year, a time when politicians generally avoid starting wars. And there was additional concern that any escalation in the South China Sea would have an adverse impact on the restarted negotiations with North Korea.

So we were in a holding pattern, a period of strategic paralysis, really. No additional strikes were authorized, or even under consideration. We’d sent a message with Roundhouse, and the Chinese answer was continued harassment and militarization. They were dug in and practically daring us to escalate. And with neither side willing or able to consider a diplomatic solution, the tension was left to fester.

Let’s come back to that, if we could, and talk a bit about developments at FathomWorks. The Atom-class was proving to be a phenomenally successful platform, and you were now being called upon to replicate that success in another domain.

Once the dust had settled I got a call from Chandra [Reddy, the ONR Atom-class liaison] who wanted to chat about Falken [the Atom-class artificial intelligence], and specifically whether I thought it could be adapted to an unmanned surface vehicle. We got to talking, and he says you know what, Jay, there’s someone you should meet. Next day, I’m off to Olney [Maryland] with Max [Keller, Director of AI for the Atom-class] to meet with Talia Nassi.

Was that name familiar to you?

She was three years behind me at the Academy, and our paths had crossed a couple times over the years at conferences and training sessions. She was pretty outspoken and wasn’t afraid of ruffling a few feathers, especially when it came to unmanned systems and what was then being called DMO, or distributed maritime operations. Like everyone else, though, I knew her as the maverick commander who’d taken early retirement to start Nassi Marine.

But you had no idea she was behind the Esquire-class?

I had no idea that such a program even existed. It was highly compartmentalized, as these things tend to be. Very need to know. But there’d been rumors that something was under development, that [DARPA/ONR] Sea Hunter was really a prototype for a deep black program, something highly advanced and combat-oriented.

And so you arrive at Nassi Marine…

And Talia greets us in the lobby. Then it’s off to the conference room for small talk, sandwiches, and coffee. Then onto Falken and its potential for USVs. And then after about fifteen minutes Talia politely asks Max if he wouldn’t mind waiting outside. He leaves, and she reaches down, plucks a folder from her briefcase and slides it across the table. I open it up, and I’m looking down at a something straight out of Star Trek.

The Esquire-class?

It was honestly more spaceship than warship, at least on paper. Trimaran hull, nacelle-like outriggers, angular, stealth features. And for the next half hour or so, Talia briefs me on this revolutionary unmanned surface combatant, and I’m thinking, wow, this is some really impressive design work, not really imagining that it’s moved beyond the drawing board.

Did you wonder why you were being brought into the fold?

As far as I knew, I was there to talk about Falken, so it did strike me as odd that I’d be briefed on a deep black surface platform. But it wasn’t long before I understood why. One of the main features of the Esquire was its integrated microsubmarine bay. Talia had originally envisioned something that could accommodate a range of micro UUVs, but ultimately decided to focus on the Atom given its established AI and the seamless integration it offered.

Nassi Marine headquarters is sometimes referred to as “Lake Talia” for its enormous wave pool and micronaval testing facility. Did it live up to its name?


When Talia finishes her briefing, I follow her down the hall and through a set of doors, and suddenly I’m staring at the largest indoor pool I’ve ever seen. It’s basically her own private Carderock, but nearly four times the size and twice as deep. When she founded Nassi Marine, Talia wanted somewhere she could put classified systems through their paces in a controlled, secure environment that was free from prying eyes. Dahlgren [Maryland] and Bayview [Idaho] were far too visible for her, so she acquired some surplus government land in rural Maryland and nestled a cutting edge R&D facility between a country club and an alpaca farm.

Was there a working prototype of the Esquire?

Talia walks me over to the dry dock, and there it is.

What was your impression?

I was struck by how small it was. At only fifty feet long, it was less than half the length of Sea Hunter. But it looked fierce, and according to Talia, packed a mean punch. Fifty caliber deck gun, VLS for shooting nanomissiles and Foxhawks, a newly developed swarming drone. It also featured a hangar and landing pad for quadrotor drones, as well as two directed energy turrets and countermeasure launchers. And of course, the integrated well deck-like feature for the launch and recovery of microsubmarines. And these were just the kinetics. It also packed a range of advanced sensors and non-kinetic effectors as well.

So, between the engineering and AI integration, you had your work cut out.

Indeed we did. Talia put me on the spot for an ETA, and after giving it some thought, I estimated six to nine months for the full deal. That’s when she hits me with the punch line: “You’ve got three.”

Three months?

Three! I was like look, we might be magicians at FathomWorks, but we’re not miracle workers. And anyway what’s the hurry? Talia looks me right in the eye and says, “Because in about 18 months it’s headed to the South China Sea.”

Did that come as a shock?

The timetable was certainly a shock, but it was also the first I’d heard that any plans for escalation had moved beyond the gaming table. The handwriting had been on the wall for years, of course, so I wasn’t surprised, and honestly it came as a relief knowing that a tangible response was finally in the offing.

So you embark on the Atom integration, and at the same time you’re overseeing Eminent Shadow . . .

Which has now been greatly expanded in the wake of Nanxun Jiao. At its peak I think there were no less than forty Strikepods – about two hundred fifty Atoms – dotting the Spratlys and Paracels, providing FONOP escort and monitoring PLAN and militia activities both on and below the surface.

And the Shāyú was proving itself to be an ideal tool for the gray zone.

Indeed. After Nanxun Jiao, the Chinese were utterly emboldened and were becoming ever more ballsy. Nearly every FONOP was met with Shāyú harassment, and even though we’d stepped up Atom production and significantly increased our operational footprint, it was challenging to keep up. And PLAN engineers were becoming ever more creative.

How so?

They’d been working on a micro towed array for the Shāyú, similar to what we’d been developing for the Block II Atom. From what we could tell, they weren’t having much success, but they did find that it could be effective for gray zone effects. Shāyús would make runs at our DDGs with arrays extended, and once in a while penetrate the Strikepod perimeter and foul the screws pretty good. Even if publically the Chinese didn’t take credit, there was significant propaganda value in disabled U.S. warships.

Were you also monitoring for new indications of seabed construction?

Our main concern was the northeastern Spratlys and southern Paracels near the shipping lanes. With a foothold in either of those locations, the Chinese would have near complete maritime domain awareness over the South China Sea. So our mission was to closely monitor those areas, and report back anything anomalous. It wasn’t long before we found something.

The emplacements at Bombay Reef and Scarborough Shoal?

We’d been monitoring inbound surface traffic when satellites spotted some unusual cargo being loaded onto a couple fishing trawlers up in Sanya. We vectored Strikepods as they departed, and trailed them to Bombay and Scarborough where we snapped some surface imagery of divers and equipment being lowered over the side. We monitored for about five days, keeping our distance, and picking up all manner of construction noise. We’re itching to take a look, but wait patiently for crew changes and quickly order the imagery. The Strikepods are in and out in under five minutes, and two Relay burst transmissions later we’re looking at the beginnings of Shāyú turrets at both locations.

What was your analysis?

It indicated that the Chinese were planning for future confrontations in the region – gray zone or conventional, most likely due to their planned militarization of Bombay and Scarborough.

The implications were grave. Vietnam had a history of taking on great powers and winning, and had pushed back hard on China in the past. And while Duterte had been cozying up to Beijing and drifting away from the U.S., Scarborough Shoal would be a red line. A provocation like this could be just the excuse Hanoi and Manila needed to act.

Did the United States share the intelligence?

Not initially, no. First and foremost we needed to safeguard sources and methods, and sharing anything would reveal our micronaval capabilities which were still highly classified and largely unknown. The Shāyú was also still a mystery, and divulging what we knew to Hanoi or Manila would risk exposure to Beijing. And we couldn’t be sure that they wouldn’t act unilaterally, igniting a conflict that could draw us into a war with China.

You were obviously busy at SPODCOM overseeing Eminent Shadow, but FathomWorks was also working intensively now with Nassi Marine.

Once we discovered Bombay and Scarborough, the sense of urgency was high, and we were working around the clock to get the Esquire combat ready. We ran through countless simulated missions in the Lake, and eventually at sea off North Carolina. Talia handed it off for production on time and under budget, and we joined the operational planning underway at Seventh Fleet.

Eminent Shadow was about to become Eminent Shield?

Yes. Of course planning for a South China Sea incursion had been underway for several years, and it was only after Locust Point that I’d been asked to join, to integrate micronaval elements into the wargaming framework.

But during those games, there was no mention of the Esquire?

Not initially, no. All we were told was that, in addition to being deployed from Virginias and surface ships, Strikepods could also be launched and recovered from a hypothetical USV with fairly abstract capabilities. But once the Esquire moved beyond the design phase, and there was a working prototype, it was folded into the games going forward.

And those games formed the basis for Eminent Shield?

Eventually they did, yes, but initially we were running scenario after scenario of high-end warfighting. There were some smaller skirmishes and limited conflicts where we intervened on behalf of regional states, but in general the primary objective was always either stopping or rolling back Chinese expansion, with the Esquires called upon as a force multiplier to augment ISR and EW, act as decoys, deploy Strikepods for ASW and counter-microsubmarine ops, and take out small aerial threats. Plausible to be sure, but at some point it occurred to me that the Esquire might enable us to project power in a less conventional, but no less effective manner. To essentially meet the Chinese where they were.

So we gamed some scenarios where the U.S. assumed a greater presence in the South China Sea using unmanned systems. Something beyond FONOPS and undersea reconnaissance. Something visible and formidable enough to send a strong signal to Beijing without provoking a shooting war. A kind of gray zone gunboat diplomacy, if you will, pushing things to the edge while gambling that the Chinese wouldn’t resort to a kinetic response.

Turnabout is fair play.

That it is.

How was it received?

Well, people appreciated that it was bold and imaginative, I suppose, but ultimately felt it was fraught with uncertainty, that it would only serve to antagonize the Chinese, and quickly escalate to high-end conflict anyway.

So it went to the back burner?

Yes, but I continued to refine it, along with input from Talia, who eventually came on board as strategic advisor, as well as some folks at the Pentagon and Intelligence. Once the discoveries at Bombay and Scarborough happened, though, the administration was looking for options . . .

And you got the call-up.

Yes, ma’am.

What was the plan?

The overarching objective of Eminent Shield was to signal that the United States would no longer sit idly by as the South China Sea was transformed into a Chinese lake. And we would do this by establishing a permanent distributed maritime presence in the region using a network of unmanned surface combatants.

The plan itself involved four sorties of LSDs out of Sasebo to essentially seed the region with Esquires. At fifty feet long, with a beam of seventeen, we determined that a dozen would fit into the well deck of a Whidbey Island. After some practice with the Carter Hall and Oak Hill down at [Joint Expeditionary Base] Little Creek, we airlifted forty-eight to Sasebo, where they were loaded onto the Ashland, Germantown, Rushmore and Comstock. Separated by about thirty-six hours, they sailed on a benign southwesterly heading between the Spratlys and the Paracels, escorted by an SSN and two or three Strikepods to monitor for PLAN submarines and Shāyús. At a predetermined waypoint, and under cover of darkness, the Esquires would deploy, then sail to their preprogrammed op zone – two squadrons to the Paracels, two to the Spratlys, and one to Scarborough Shoal – and await further orders.

Was there concern that the Chinese would view such a rapid deployment as some kind of invasion? A prelude to war?

 We considered a more incremental approach, something less sudden. But we needed to act quickly, to avoid any kind of coordinated PLAN response – a blockade or other high profile encounter that could escalate. A rapid deployment would also underscore that the United States Navy had acted at a time and place of our choosing, and that we could operate in the South China Sea with impunity. At the end of the day, the Esquires were really nothing more than lightly armed ISR nodes, and were far less ominous than a surge of CVNs or DDGs.

Did it proceed as planned?

For the most part, yes. There were some technical hiccups, with three Esquires ultimately refusing to cooperate, so the final package was forty-five – nine vessels per squadron. The pilots and squadron commanders were based out of SPODCOM in Norfolk, but the Esquires were fully integrated into the regional tactical grid, and, if necessary, could be readily controlled by manned assets operating in theater.

And you were able to avoid PLAN or PAFMM harassment?

By sortie number four we’d gotten their attention – probably alerted by a nearby submarine – and three CCG cutters were vectored onto the egressing LSDs. But the deployment went off without incident, and in a few days all four ships were safely back in Sasebo.

And then we waited.

How long was it before the PLAN became aware?

It was about thirty-six hours before we began to see some activity near Subi Reef. The Esquire is small, and has a very low cross section, so it was unlikely they’d been tagged by radar. More likely they’d been spotted by an alert fishing boat, or passing aircraft, or possibly the heat signatures of the LENRs lit up a satellite.

At around 0300 I wake up to an “urgent” from the watch that about a dozen fishing boats were converging on Subi. So here we go. By the time I get to the office they’ve got the live feed up, and I watch the maritime militia descending in real-time. We order the Equire to deploy a six-ship Strikepod to enhance our visual, and pretty soon we’ve got a wide angle on the whole scene – lots of little blue men with binoculars, clearly perplexed, but no indications of imminent hostilities. This goes on for nearly three hours, until we notice some activity on one of trawlers. They’re prepping a dinghy with some tow rope and a four-man boarding party.

They’re going to grab it?

Certainly looks that way. They lower the dinghy and make their way over, inching to within ten meters or so, and that’s when we hit them with the LRAD [Long Range Acoustic Device], blasting a warning in Chinese – do not approach, this is the sovereign property of the United States operating in international waters. Things along those lines.

They turn tail and beat it back to the ship, but they’re not giving up. Next thing we see guys tossing headphones down to the dinghy. Needless to say, we weren’t about to give them a second chance, so we quickly order the Strikepod recovered and hit the gas.

Did they pursue?

They tried. But the Esquire can do about forty knots, and by the time they knew what was happening, we already had about 500 yards on them, so they gave up fairly quickly.

I imagine it wasn’t much longer before the other Esquires were discovered?

Word spread quickly of that encounter, and no, it wasn’t long before Esquires were being engaged by militia at multiple locations. In some cases they would try to board, in others they would attempt to blockade or ram. But the Esquires were too maneuverable, and between Falken and the pilots, we managed to stay a step or two ahead.

Had you anticipated this?

We’d anticipated the initial confusion and fits of arbitrary aggression. We also anticipated the political backlash, of course.

Which did manifest itself.

Yes, but not entirely how we’d envisioned. We knew that Beijing would be furious that the United States had mounted such an aggressive op in their own backyard. But at the same time, would they really want to draw that much attention to it? Wouldn’t that be underscoring the U.S. Navy’s ability to operate anywhere, anytime?

And the PLAN’s inability to prevent it.

Sure enough, state television reports that a U.S. Navy unmanned surface vehicle – singular – had violated Chinese sovereignty and was engaged by PLAN forces. Video footage flashed from a PLAN destroyer to a rigid hull speeding toward an Esquire, to a couple of hovering [Harbin] Z-9s. The implication was that the Esquire had been captured or otherwise neutralized, yet all forty-five were fully functional and responding. It was a clever propaganda stroke, but by going public, the Chinese had opened a Pandora’s box.

Because now the Western media was all over it?

And with the Esquire out in the open, we’d have a lot of explaining to do. There would be questions about capabilities, deployment numbers …

To which the answer was?

That we don’t comment on ongoing operations, of course. But, through calculated leaks and relentless investigative reporting, the Chinese would quickly realize what they were dealing with, and what it signaled in terms of U.S. intentions and resolve.

And meanwhile Eminent Shield continued. With unmanned FONOPS?

To start with, yes. The Esquires initially had taken up position outside twelve miles, but we soon began moving them intermittently inside territorial limits to deploy and recover a drone. By this point militia boats were always shadowing, and would move quickly to harass the Esquires as best they could.

But then we upped the ante a bit. We’d use onboard EW effectors to spoof their GPS and AIS. We’d lure their destroyers to one location while a DDG ran a FONOP just over the horizon, unmolested. We’d form ASW dragnets using smaller squadrons of three or four Esquires with their towed arrays and Strikepods deployed, sonar banging away.

And, yeah, we also installed dead wire in the towed arrays of some of the Atoms, so we were able to return the favor and foul some screws of our own.

What about the Shāyús?

The Shāyús were the greatest source of trouble for the Esquire, and we’d anticipated this. We couldn’t be certain whether or how the Chinese might engage the Esquires on the surface or in the air, but we were absolutely certain that there would be attacks from below.

But with the Esquire’s waterjets there were no screws to foul. And a six-ship Strikepod was deployed as an escort at all times, and there were also Firesquids [anti-torpedo torpedoes] for additional defense. But even so, the Esquires were quite vulnerable, and the Shāyús quickly moved to exploit this.

In what way?

The Esquires were defending well, but the Shāyú’s tactics were evolving. Initially they would engage the Atoms ship-to-ship and attempt to defeat them before moving on to the objective. But soon they learned to avoid the Atoms altogether and engage in hit and run attacks from below, targeting the Esquire’s stern in an attempt to ram and disable the microsubmarine bay and propulsion. Living up to their namesake, I suppose. [Shāyú is Mandarin for shark.]

Did Falken adapt accordingly?

Falken quickly recognized the need to deploy its full complement of Atoms to defend against the volume of attacking Shāyús, and actually began to form smaller squadrons of two or three Esquires to offset the numerical disadvantage. Falken also ordered escorting Strikepods to assume a tighter, closer formation, one that emphasized protecting the Esquire’s belly and backside, and began using Firesquids as decoys to great effect, something we hadn’t even considered.

Atom attrition was high then?

For a time, yes, and resupply was challenging. The payload modules on nearby Virginias were filled to capacity, but that was only around forty or fifty units. At the rate we were losing them, we’d be critical in a matter of weeks.

So the Shāyús adapt, Falken counters, but the attacks continue until one day the Shāyús succeed in disabling an Esquire within twelve miles of Mischief Reef.

And now it’s a race to recover.

The [USS] Mustin [DDG 89] was about forty kilometers away, and was immediately ordered to the area. The PLAN had also been alerted, and vectored the destroyer Haikou, which was only five kilometers away. So Mustin puts a Seahawk up, but even at full throttle Haikou is still going to win that race.

Haikou arrives, and they immediately put a boarding party in the water. ETA on the Seahawk is two minutes, and the Mustin is still thirty minutes away at flank. We blast the LRAD, but they’re wearing headphones now, so we fire a warning from the 50 cal, and light off a small swarm of Foxhawks. This gets their attention, and manages to buy us the few minutes we need.

The Seahawk arrives, loaded with Hellfires, and five minutes later, Mustin appears on the horizon. Now we’ve got ourselves a standoff. The Chinese are making threats, and we’re making counter-threats. And then the militia shows up – fishing boats, CCG, wrapping cabbage to cut off Mustin and the Esquire. And so we’re eyeball to eyeball, now, fingers on the trigger.

An hour goes by. Two. Eight. “Stand by” is the order. Twelve hours. Darkness falls, and we keep vigil through the night. By now, the media has it, and talk of war is everywhere. A new day dawns on the South China Sea, and around 1930 Eastern, I’m summoned to the vault for a telepresence with the Sit Room.

To brief?

Not exactly.

First they asked me to confirm the conclusions of my earlier analysis, that the Shāyú emplacements were likely a gray zone prelude to a Chinese land grab at Bombay Reef and Scarborough Shoal.

Then they asked whether I believed the Chinese would willingly dismantle Bombay and Scarborough in return for withdrawal of the Esquires.

And did you?

The Chinese would want the Esquires gone ASAP for political reasons, but they also were well aware of their capabilities, and how they would dramatically augment U.S. firepower in the event of regional hostilities. It seemed to me that Beijing would be willing to forfeit those locations if it meant a reduced U.S. military presence, and also the ability to save face by appearing to expel the U.S. Navy from the South China Sea.

And then I offered a pretty candid, if unsolicited, opinion on the deal.

Which was?

That the Chinese would be getting much more than they were giving up. That dismantling the emplacements, while a short-term loss for the Chinese and a gain for us, would do little to deter future militarization. The U.S. would also be giving up significant strategic leverage, and potentially damaging our credibility in the process.

So you were against it?

You’re damn right I was. Call me a hawk, but we’d gone round after round with Beijing for over a decade, and then took one on the chin at Nanxun Jiao. We’d finally taken decisive action, and now we’re just going to let it slip away?

But ultimately it did.

Unfortunately, yes.

Around 2200 the Chinese suddenly back off, and Mustin is allowed to move in and recover the Esquire. The next day news breaks of emergency multilateral talks in Tallinn, Estonia involving the U.S., China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

There was great optimism leading up to Tallinn, that this could be the diplomatic breakthrough that would empower regional states to push back on Beijing knowing that the U.S. had their back. But ultimately it was not to be. The Chinese dismantled the Shāyú emplacements at Bombay and Scarborough, and in return the United States withdrew every last Esquire. Beijing also pledged to work toward “greater understanding” with its neighbors and other ambiguous words to that effect. The Tallinn Communiqué was hailed as a success by all, but for entirely different reasons. The U.S. and our allies believed this was a significant step toward regional stability by checking Chinese expansionism. The Chinese, meanwhile, declared victory in having expelled the United States from its backyard while strengthening its role as regional hegemon.

Were you disappointed with the outcome? 

Disappointed? Perhaps. The Navy exists to ensure peace and protect U.S. interests through strength, and so when policy seems at odds with that mandate, yes, I guess it makes me bristle. But I wasn’t surprised. Tallinn wasn’t the first toothless resolution in the history of international diplomacy, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.

And all I could think, sitting there in SPODCOM, watching the last of the Esquires being recovered under the watchful eye of PLAN warships, was that it wouldn’t be long before we’d be back there again.

Only next time, things might not end so cleanly.

[End Part III]

David R. Strachan is a naval analyst and writer living in Silver Spring, MD. His website, Strikepod Systems, explores the emergence of unmanned undersea warfare via real-time speculative fiction. Contact him at

Featured Image: “The Middle of Nowhere” by hunterkiller via DeviantArt

A Conversation with Naval Fiction Writer David Poyer, Author of Deep War

By Michael DeBoer

I had the pleasure of speaking with author David Poyer, former naval officer and author of the Tales of the Modern Navy and War with China series of novels, and other exciting naval fiction titles. We discussed his newly released book in the War with China series, Deep War, how the trends of war are reflected in his writing, and how the main characters of a long series are taking on new roles.

(Read our previous interview with Poyer on his book Onslaught here.)

MD: A major feature of your work is the escalatory nature of war. You seem to be making the point that, given the escalatory nature of a war between nuclear powers, the use of nuclear weapons is likely or inevitable. Do you think the taboos regarding nuclear use are enough to maintain a conventional war between nuclear powers?

DP: Well, as one of my characters says, there is no historical precedent for war between two nuclear-armed powers. My own analogy is a knife fight in an alley, where both antagonists, in addition to knives, are carrying concealed firearms. Is the combatant who’s about to lose his life going to forego pulling his gun? I doubt it.

Limits have a way of getting transgressed in war. Unrestricted submarine warfare, use of gas, shelling and bombing cities . . . none of these red lines held when a regime felt its existence was at stake, and most were not merely “taboos,” but had been duly codified in international law signed by the warring parties.

So to answer your question, yes. As I have assumed in these novels, the danger of escalation is extreme.

MD: Tales of the Modern Navy was, until these chapters, slightly retrospective. They normally looked backward 5-10 years. However, starting with Tipping Point, we’ve moved into the future. What did you have to change about your writing process and style when you moved into the future?  How did you prepare?

DP: That’s a perceptive question that goes back to the roots of my writing career. My very first published stories were science fiction, and so were several of my early novels: Stepfather Bank, White Continent, The Siloh Project, and others. So incorporating and extending technology into story hasn’t been a stretch for me.

The shift from mildly retrospective to near-future was crucial because although Dan’s several missions for the Tactical Analysis Group, for example, (Korea Strait, The Weapon, The Crisis, The Towers) were classified, and thus could be accepted by an informed audience as having happened even though they hadn’t heard about them on the evening news, we couldn’t slide a whole world war past them that they knew had NOT happened! The shift to a near future was the answer. And no special preparation was necessary; simply extending current political and technological trends a few years adds, I hope, enough credibility to make the story work. We’ll see in ten years how close I came – and of course, I’m hoping the dire events described in these volumes never happen!

MD: Technological development in Deep War is picking up speed. Lenson’s reality is now populated with Zumwalt-class follow-ons, directed energy weapons, increasingly sophisticated UAVs, successive blocks of F-35, integrated digital optics, and AI. Similar to Ghost Fleet, this cocktail produces a brutal combat environment in which few humans can survive. Do you have any thoughts on the future of warfare with all of these digitally enabled and augmented technologies?  Are we coming around a corner similar to the First World War, when the technical capacity for killing exceeds our ability to innovate in a way that prevents attrition from becoming the decisive force in war?

DP: “Picking up speed” – sure, and I note in these novels that war is always a forced draft for technology. Still, though, that technology often fails you, especially in combat conditions, and I highlight that possibility in Hector Ramos’s experiences on Itbayat and Taiwan, as well as occasionally with the other characters. As for the technical capacity for killing exceeding the capacity to innovate in a way that bypasses attrition . . . I must disagree. Attrition was the decisive force in World War One. It was decisive in WWII as well. But innovation on one side, along with good strategy, can drive attrition rates on the other side. That is how they are related, I believe.

As to the future of warfare with these augmented technologies, these six books . . . The Cruiser, Tipping Point, Onslaught, Hunter Killer, Deep War, and next year’s Overthrow . . . address and describe the way I think warfare may evolve.

MD: I think I caught a little bit of Fahrenbach’s This Kind of War in Hector’s experience on Taiwan. Is that accurate, and are there any other books that inspired you in this work?

DP: Haven’t read Fahrenbach but thanks for the suggestion! Several pages of research articles, monographs, and a few books are listed in my acknowledgements at the back of each novel, along with shout-outs to those folks who advised me and read portions of the text to make sure I didn’t go completely off the rails. Many, many active duty and recently retired subject matter experts backstopped me and provided useful suggestions. I owe them a lot. Still, any errors and omissions are my responsibility.

MD: Deep War largely surpassed Daniel Lenson, who winds up being mostly an observer compared with Oberg, Staurulakis, and Hector. Have you considered writing works with any of them as the central figure?

DP: These novels are braided narratives, with different characters providing different views of the action. I call the story arcs of each protagonist a “strake,” in an analogy to ship design, with Dan serving as the keel. If you welded together the strakes for each character from succeeding books, you would have more or less the work you describe.

I employed different points of view for the same reason Tolstoy did it in War and Peace: a war is too geographically and emotionally sprawling an event to recount from one point of view.

A final reason for multiple characters was that Dan is getting pretty damn senior by now. We began the series with him as an ensign in The Circle. Now he’s a one-star, at least for the duration. But what that means is that as he ascends the ladder, it becomes more and more difficult to believably involve him in close-up dramatic situations. Most admirals I know would agree that their official duties are pretty unexciting from an action-adventure standpoint.

Thus, artistically, we had to transition Dan from an action hero to something more like a big-picture boss who functions less to take on bad guys hand-to-hand, as he did in earlier books, and more like the wartime leader who has to inspire, manage, and adapt fleet tactics to new threats and ways of fighting. That doesn’t mean the decisions he will make won’t be hugely significant and maximally stressful! He also shares with Blair Titus the coverage of overall strategy, although as a (increasingly reluctant) member of the administration she operates at an even higher level than he does.

MD: The title Deep War seems to be a homage to the Russo-Soviet pre-World War II concept of Deep Battle, a concept of operational warfare emphasizing penetration of enemy strategic depth. Was this intentional, and if so, who is waging the Deep War?

DP: Not really! Actually it’s a homage to Ilya Ehrenburg’s poem “The War,” where he wrote: “We speak of deep night, deep autumn; when I think back to the year 1943 I feel like saying “deep war.””  So it’s a literary reference that can be taken other ways as well. That I think is the best way to craft a title, with resonance that beckons the reader in, then reveals multiple meanings and associations as the book progresses.

MD: One theme that seemed to run through Deep War was the juxtaposition between Thucydides Whale and Elephant. By the time of your story, the United States has effectively denuded Chinese naval power, but can’t reach the land power’s center of gravity. Likewise, China, despite efforts through cyberspace, can’t reach the distant American center of gravity by conventional means. China has spent a lot of money and time trying to turn itself into a maritime power. Has it succeeded? Or will a Thucydides-type dynamic continue to hold true into the future?

DP: There are more elements to sustaining naval power than ships, or even a balanced fleet. Allies, technological depth, economic staying power, training, tactics, national determination, leadership, and geography are others. Right now we’re neglecting and even estranging our allies, but that can’t continue with any good end result for us. So, I assume in my writing that any fissures have largely been healed (though some allies are more allied than others). China’s increasing overreach and bullying of smaller nations will also contribute to a rebalancing of alliances.

But to return to your first question: the dire and unprecedented problem of how a war between two nuclear powers can be terminated resonates through the book. This is the crux of the dilemmas faced by Blair Titus, Dr. Szerenci, and Jay Yangerhans, and even certain elements within the Chinese leadership. They are searching more and more desperately as the conflict deepens and casualties mount for a way not necessarily to “win,” but to reach at least an armistice before escalation leads to mutual destruction. This is the real tension of the last two volumes of the War with China series, as I believe it’s the most likely way things would play out in the real world.

MD: Any final thoughts to share?

DP: In closing, I want to thank the many fans who’ve stuck with me through this series. I know it’s been frustrating at times to have to wait for the next volume in order to find out what happens to Teddy, Dan, Blair, Hector, Cheryl, and our other friends. Dark fates await some of them. Brighter days beckon for others. I too am just as impatient to find out how it all ends. Stay with me, as you so resolutely have so far, and we’ll all discover what lies at the end of their turbulent voyages!

David Poyer is the most popular living author of American naval fiction. His military career included service in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Arctic, Caribbean, the Middle East, the Pacific, and the Pentagon. His epic novel-cycle of the modern military includes The Med, The Gulf, The Circle, The Passage, Tomahawk, China Sea, Black Storm, The Command, The Threat, Korea Strait, The Weapon, The Crisis, The Towers, The Cruiser, Tipping Point, Onslaught , and Hunter Killer (all available from St. Martin’s Press in hardcover, paper and ebook formats). Deep War, the latest in his War with China series, recently published on December 8. Visit him at or on Facebook.

Michael DeBoer is a U.S. naval officer. The views herein are his alone and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or any other organization.

Featured Image: Littoral Combat Ship by Matt Bell

Short Story Fiction Week Concludes on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

In response to our Call for Articles, talented writers explored various national security themes through fiction. From future undersea warfare to unmanned tactical scenarios, authors envisioned the complexity and confusion of future conflict with incredible imagination. Read on below to see the stories featured. We thank the authors for their writing. 

The Nanxun Jiao Crisis and the Dawn of Autonomous Undersea Conflict by David Strachan

“We were keenly aware of adversary developments, particularly with the PLAN. The intelligence we’d been receiving on the Shāyú was spotty, but given China’s public successes with Haiyi gliders and deep diving vehicles like the Hailong III, as well as their commitment to an Undersea Great Wall, we were fairly confident that not only did the program exist, but that it was in all likelihood operational. And it wasn’t long before our suspicions proved correct.”

Non Lethal by David Poyer

“It had begun like all wars, with failed politics. The first failure was in the fragile coalition that was Europe. The Donbas Autonomous Republic had asked the Russian Federation for “fraternal assistance.” The Ukrainians, by now used to French wine, Greek music and American TV, called on NATO. The Poles had responded, the Marines had landed at Odessa, and the Russians were rolling forward, when it happened. The General Assembly unanimously resolved that if the two blocs resorted to war – or violence in any form – they would be ejected from the world body, which would reconstitute in Beijing and isolate them both with the mother of all embargos. The president, after some initial waffling, agreed. Yet somehow, Ukraine had to be resolved; and the troops were already there.”

Spasibo by Evan D’Alessandro

“The Mk.2’s AI pulled information from Grasshopper 7 and its own sensors, overlaying the convoy’s turn, and projecting forward. Three threats, the Mk.2 AI decided, and it dived and launched. Six ‘Silverfish’ torpedo interceptors raced out from the Mk. 2, closing in on the inbound torpedoes. The Captain looked on from the bridge. By the way the Mother Hen’s torpedoes were dodging, it was obvious they were outdated; clearly the Russians had underestimated the convoy’s defenses.”

A Captain’s Revenge by Duncan Kellogg

“While the Captain was an aggressive man, he was not without caution. The Fateh had been slowly moving from point to point off the Iranian coast in order to remain undetected while it scanned American and Saudi vessels. To Ahmadi’s surprise, he had not yet seen any indication that the Americans had even the faintest idea that they were there. Just as this thought left his mind, Ahmadi saw a new contact appear on his passive sonar display.”

Carthage by Chris O’Connor

“The enemy knew now that the ABs were gone, and decided it was time to finish us off. Our remaining eyes in the sky winked out. Back on auto engage, the remaining PD stopped waves of incoming projectiles and drones, but it was going to run out of ammo soon. When I could open my left eye through the pain, I saw the ammo status steadily dropping. Garcia still had her rifle attached to her suit, but it wasn’t going to help in this onslaught.”

The Great Pacific War: Requiem in 2030 by Walker Mills

“The enemy ship indicators on the tablet started to disappear. Elrod could now see the dim glow over the horizon of the burning fleet. This is for the John C. Stennis and the John F. Kennedy. After two decades of fait accompli aggression the president outlined a new policy of preemption and escalation in a speech at Annapolis, new weapons alone could not effectively counter aggression. The Chinese fleet ostensibly sailing to evacuate Chinese citizens was the first victim. The president had decided that 15,000 Chinese soldiers weren’t needed to protect a few dozen tourists and he wouldn’t wait until after it was a clear act of aggression. So he sent in the Marines.”

Blood Wings by Mike Barretta

“The flight is nearly over and I can tell from her relaxed posture that she knows she has passed. As far as she is concerned, all she needs to do is fly straight-and-level back to Whiting field. I almost feel bad about what I am going to do. In about fifteen seconds, the time it takes to hit the ground from 700 feet, we are both going to find out how good of an instructor I am.”

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at

Featured Image: “Abandoned Ship” by Sean Hargreaves

Blood Wings

Fiction Topic Week

By Mike Barretta

            First Lieutenant Gabrielle Cruz (USMC) is an unexceptional student. Unexceptional, however, is contextual. She is fluent in two languages, graduated with honors from LSU, earned a degree in petroleum engineering, and volunteered for military service during wartime. She is unexceptional because as I look around the squadron’s ready room much the same could be said about every other flight student.

            During the brief, she listened attentively and asked the same questions that I’ve fielded from previous students. In turn, she correctly answers my questions. It’s a good start to the flight. She is an attractive woman. Dark-skinned. Dark-haired. Closer in age to my daughter than she is to me. Usually the briefing space smells like fear-tinged sweat and dry erase markers, but with female students, it smells of soap and shampoo. It is a distinctly different military than the one I joined fifteen years ago.

Once, while I was with my wife, I saw her in the Cordova Mall enjoying a brief respite from training. As we passed, she said hello. With her hair down, made-up face, and civilian clothes, I didn’t recognize her. The Marines do a remarkable job of standardizing their officers. They will make you a man even if you are a woman, and the process was only half-finished with First Lieutenant Cruz. An aura of femininity stubbornly clung to her.  

I would have hoped that an attractive young woman approaching me in the mall would arouse some reaction from my wife.

“One of your students?” asked my wife

“Yes,” I replied.

“She’s pretty,” said my wife.

“I hadn’t noticed.” I said.

“You’re an idiot,” said my wife.

 “I’m not lying”

“Yes, you are.”

I was lying. There in the mall, I couldn’t help but notice her on her terms. She is sleek and menacing and confident. A backwards glance over her shoulder would stop a younger man’s heart mid-beat or make an older man, such as myself, tighten his stomach just a bit.

“Let it out,” says my wife.

“What are you talking about?”

“You’re impossible.”



Seven hundred feet above Spencer field, she is neither sleek nor menacing, but just as fatal to me. Underneath a white helmet, visor down, she looks like a ferocious pixie bobble-head. All I can see of her face is a light dusting of freckles on her cheeks and a glistening bead of sweat hanging from the tip of her nose.

She is my On-wing, which means that I am responsible for teaching her the basics of helicopter flight. This is her last flight with me before her performance and, by insinuation, my own, will be evaluated by another instructor before she can solo the aircraft. For the past two weeks, I have taught her the fundamental attributes of a competent pilot: Situational awareness, knowing what is going on around the aircraft, and basic airmanship, the ability to make the aircraft perform as desired. She flies well, but not perfect. Perfection is the province of God and by definition unattainable. The best any pilot can do is to exist in a constant state of correction.

The flight is nearly over and I can tell from her relaxed posture that she knows she has passed. As far as she is concerned, all she needs to do is fly straight-and-level back to Whiting field. I almost feel bad about what I am going to do. In about fifteen seconds, the time it takes to hit the ground from 700 feet, we are both going to find out how good of an instructor I am.

She squeezes the radio trigger to announce her intention to depart Spencer and return to Whiting Field.

“Spencer, Eightball one eight eight…..”

            Before she gets the chance to finish the radio call, at the maximum point of distraction, when she must talk, fly, and think, at the same time, I roll the engine to idle to simulate a failure. The engine fades to a dull pointless drone. Gauges droop to their resting state. Rotor speed decays.

“Simulated,” I say.  

The worst possible outcome is that she exceeds my ability to correct her and we hit the ground with sufficient vertical velocity to bend metal and shatter bone. It is the wrong time and place for doubt. We fall out of the sky at over two thousand feet per minute and her initial response is to maintain the correct attitude. In aviation, attitude refers to the orientation of the aircraft to the ground. In life, attitude refers to the orientation of the person to the problem. At this moment, she needs both. She lowers the collective to maintain rotor speed and pushes the nose over to maintain airspeed. The cyclic slams against my right leg, and the aircraft rolls to a 45 degree angle of bank. It isn’t enough to reach the field, so she increases the roll to 60 degrees, the limits of the aircraft. From my vantage point, it is as if Spencer field is rotating around us. Dusty, mid-summer grass fills the windscreen as we fall. First Lieutenant Cruz is in a furious state of constant correction. She is observing her environment, making prioritized value decisions, and acting upon them as if her life depended upon it. It does. Over the intercom she repeats, “Attitude, N, R, Ball,” the mantra that describes the path her eyes take as she scans the instruments and outside world.

At 100 feet, I have an important decision to make. Should I let her continue and commit to the outcome, or take the controls?  Much beyond this point, the likelihood of me salvaging a bad maneuver diminishes towards zero. She is flying the aircraft and I am watching her flying the aircraft. By definition, my reaction is behind hers. My only advantage is experience.

            At 75 feet, she flares the aircraft, pulling the nose up, pitching to the sky. The ground blossoms beneath us. Airspeed bleeds towards zero and rotor speed builds under the influence of inflowing air. The aircraft drops and my hands rest lightly on the controls. At 5 feet, she pulls sharply on the collective to reverse the flow of air and cushion the landing. Rotor speed droops to 85 percent, the bare minimum to sustain flight. She adjusts the pedals to align the aircraft with the direction of travel and levels out. All at once, we have run out of altitude, airspeed, and options exactly as it is supposed to happen. The aircraft touches down with a slight bump and slides across the grass.

I look over at her and she is grinning from ear-to-ear. I know exactly how she feels because fifteen years previously some forgotten flight instructor taught me the same maneuver. She knows she has done well and I want to share the moment with as much elation as is boiling inside her. Instead, I say, “Good job, but……..” and I launch into a critical review of her performance.



Usually an On-wing and I will fly once or twice more before they get their wings, but I never flew with her again. About six months after we last flew, she knocked on my office door. Her face is a little leaner, her posture more square, some would say that there is a bit less of her and a little bit more Marine.

“Mr. Barretta, I’m getting winged this Friday.”

“Congratulations.”  In the back of mind, there was never really any doubt.

“What did you select?”

“Cobras, west coast, my first choice.”

“Cobras, that’s awesome.” All the Marines want Cobras. Bell helicopter, the manufacturer, says they made the Cobra beautiful because it is the last thing the bad guys will ever see. When she flies her Cobra over moonlit desert or triple-canopy jungle, she will be a predator. Cobras don’t rescue anybody.

“Anyway, the soft patch is this Thursday and my parents and grandparents are flying in. I was hoping you would be able to patch me.”

“I would be happy too,” I say.

The soft patch is an informal ceremony the night before the official winging. Parents and friends gather and a student is called up with his or her instructor. The velcro leather name tag the student wore while in training, emblazoned with service insignia, is ripped off and a new leather name tag with Naval Aviator wings is “tacked-on,” with a punch. Funny or fast stories about the students are told and the instructor is given a bottle of their favorite liquor.

“Thank you, sir.”  What do you like?”

“I am a little short of Grey Goose.”  She smiles. During a lighter moment she had told me how she got sick on Grey Goose at a party.



At the soft patch ceremony, I find her sitting at a table with her parents and grandparents. Her father is prior Army enlisted as was her grandfather. Her grandfather was at Hickam Army Air Force Base on December 7th 1941. I shake both their hands. I give her mother a small framed poem called: The Fighter Pilot’s Prayer. It reads:  Dear Lord, Give me the eyes of an Eagle, the Heart of Lion, and the Courage of a U.S. Marine Corps Helicopter Pilot. It’s a small thing and I do it for all my soft-patchees.

Her mother smiles and thanks me and I tell them what they already know:  That their daughter did well. I excuse myself to grab a reinforcing beer. My stories are famous for being funny, but I’ve never really gotten comfortable telling them in front of 80 or 90 people. The beer helps. When it is our turn, we meet each other at the front of the room. She is nervous and excited.

 She hands me a bottle of Grey Goose and I set it aside. I tell a funny story. It is entertaining, embarrassing, and completely fictitious. I don’t owe anything to reality. She can’t do anything, but smile and take it like a Marine. Students attempting to defend themselves are booed down by the cadre of instructors lured in by free beer. The laughter ends and I find her new leather patch. Above her name are Naval Aviator wings embossed in gold.

When soft-patching female students, most male instructors fumble around like they were trying to pin a corsage to the strapless gown of their prom date. I’ve learned that the direct approach is the best. I grab the corner of the worn leather patch over her left breast and tear it off. It makes a ripping sound as it pulls from her flight suit. I put it in my pocket. I keep the patches of every student that I soft patch. I smooth the new patch on and then I haul back and punch her right in the patch. Anything else would be disrespectful, a signal that she was other than what she was, a colleague, and Marine Corp Naval Aviator.

When I was winged, metal wings with two pins were placed on the uniform and then punched on without the little frogs to cover up the points. The idea was to draw blood and “tack-on” the wings so they would never fall off. The more blood the better. Over time the tradition broke under more political sensibilities, but the spirit remains.

She winces. I check her parents and they are beaming with pride and seem not to have noticed that what I had just done to their daughter could in some circumstances be considered an assault. They are a military family and they understand what just happened and why it had to be that way. I’m a bit relieved.

            At the end, the ceremony devolves into small gatherings and her father works his way through the  crowd towards me and I wonder if maybe he has changed his mind about the whole punching his daughter thing.

“Thank you for taking care of my daughter,” he says.

“She took care of herself,” I say.

“We know. We know,” he says, and he fades back to his family.



“Did you hear?”

“About what?” I ask.

“West coast Cobra crash.”

“No, who was it?”

“Cruz. You remember her?”

“Yea, she okay?

“No, her and the FRS instructor were killed.”  The FRS is the Fleet Replacement Squadron that transitions newly winged aviators to their fleet aircraft.


“Bird strike took out the tail rotor on a goggle flight.”  Contrary to popular belief, birds do fly at night and with the reduced field of vision that comes with flying on night vision goggles there was no realistic chance of avoiding a collision.

“Thanks for telling me.”

“I thought you would want to know.”

Really, I could have gone the rest of my life not knowing, but in the long run there is no way to not know. Mishaps are ruthlessly examined and disseminated. Talking about the dead is a requirement of the job. Sooner or later, I would have found out.



At home, I open the bottle of Grey Goose hiding in the back of the freezer. The vodka has a sluggish oily look to it. I retreat to my study and the quiet of the house intensifies. I usually stay up late to sit and think when the kids have finally fallen to sleep. I sit in my chair and sip the freezing cold vodka and it is good. Ghosts recline in the chair opposite me. They are young and beautiful with pale eyes. John Brown killed in a T-34 Crash, Dave Pidgeon killed in an A-4, the guy I can only remember as Jasper, the two killed when their gyros failed on a dark night, many others, about twenty five in all, including a newly-promoted Captain Gabrielle Cruz. I wonder what bizarre combination of skill, luck, and grace conspired to let me survive a career that took so many away. Some lie buried beneath white crosses and manicured lawns, some in shaded family plots, some lost forever to the sea.

Some sit across from me.

I know exactly what went on in her cockpit. First, there is the sudden unexplained thump, a high frequency vibration in the pedals, and then the nose breaks free, spinning rapidly to the right. She pushes full left pedal to stop the yaw and it is useless. Her heart keeps rapid time and she is flushed with adrenaline heat. Maybe she does everything right. Maybe she doesn’t. Near the final moment, she realizes that whatever she is doing is not enough and she hopes that she is merely a witness to the experience rather than a participant. She falls into the dark, illuminated by urgent lights, and then it is over as if she never was.

“Who are you talking too?” asks my daughter.

“No one.” The ghosts shift away from reality. I look over at the doorway and she is standing there, young, long-limbed, and present. She looks like her mother when we first met. “I’m okay, just thinking.”

“You’re weird. Can you help me with algebra?”

“Can I help you tomorrow?”

“Yea, I guess. When am I ever going to use it?”

“All the time.”

“You’re lying.”

“I am.” 

“Well, maybe I’ll join the Navy and fly helicopters like you.”

“Maybe you will,” I say.

She enters the study and bends over to kiss me on the cheek. Her hair caresses the sides of my face like a ghost’s touch and I can smell the shampoo and it reminds me of someone I flew with once. “Goodnight,” she says as she leaves

Please God, I hope not, I add in silence. There is only so much luck and skill and grace in the world to go around and I have used far more than I had any right to and someone had to be shorted.

Maybe someone was.

With an overly generous measure of Grey Goose warming me, I know it to be true. As naval aviators, all of us will fly, some of us will fight, and few of us will die, and it seems that there is nothing more of it. I finish the Grey Goose. If I turn my head just so, I can see a ghost sitting at the edge of vision. I think ghosts are mirrors, reflecting only what is in front of them. This one is the pale color of grief. I turn my head a bit more and the ghost is gone.

Mike Barretta is a retired naval aviator who works for a major defense contractor. He holds a Masters degree from the Naval Postgraduate School in Strategic Planning and International Negotiations and a Masters degree in English (creative writing) from the University of West Florida. His stories have appeared in Apex, Redstone,  New Scientist, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and various anthologies including the Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide, War Stories, and The Year’s Best Military Sci-fi and Space Opera.

Featured Image: AH-1Z Viper attack helicopter by David Roterberg