Category Archives: Fiction

Maritime and naval fiction.

Fiction Week Wraps Up On CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

In response to our Call for Articles, talented writers submitted fictional short stories that sought to envision the unique challenges of future conflict and the enduring relevance of the human element. Others sought to delve into individual emotional trials that accompany national security imperatives. Read on below to see the stories featured. 

Emissions Control by Jeffrey Hunter

“Jonas could have been frightened at the idea; mustered some measure of apprehension at the notion of an underpaid meteorologist being placed in charge of a multi-million dollar piece of experimental equipment. There was even the potential for him to be astounded that leadership had ignored his words of warning as to just how bad of an idea this was. Instead, Jonas was hungry.”

Overdue by James Blair

“Nancy heard the crowd rustling and murmuring more. Words like ‘overdue’ and ‘Scorpion’ escaped their lips, but the words felt heavy in her ears –weighed down with their innermost thoughts. She didn’t know why they worried so. She knew her daddy would be there soon.”

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, AI by Mike Matson

“’Confidence level?’ asked SC Lamb, although his gut told him they were right. Burrows was a pro who had grown up doing field work in the age of AI. He was trained never to make any break in his physical pattern when operational because the machines were always watching. But something had thrown him for a half second and then he had veered across the flow of traffic in an awkward manner. It was enough.”

The Battle of Locust Point: An Oral History of the First Autonomous Combat Engagement by David Strachan

“The Chesapeake Bay Incident, as it became known, was a harbinger of things to come, for just ten weeks later, as crowds descended on Baltimore Harbor for Fleet Week and the commissioning of the U.S. Navy’s newest destroyer, USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000), Russian and U.S. microsubmarines would square off just beneath the surface in what would be the first combat engagement of the autonomous era, the Battle of Locust Point.”

North of Norfolk by Hal Wilson

“‘We suffered some damage in our last patrol,’ she explained, ‘a shockwave from close in on the port side. It’s caused some damage to our propulsion. But Keegan’s deputy had to stay ashore with some kind of duodenal, and we don’t have our usual complement of senior technical rates. So, without Keegan, we don’t know how to fix it. At this rate, we’ll be doing bare steerageway all the way home.’”

Xiangliu by Evan D’Alessandro

“Onboard each ship in the task force, smuggled in by contractors by flash drives, was a virus waiting for this moment. In the first few milliseconds all the task force’s early warning alarms were shut off by the virus, so fast that the crewmen standing watch on the bridge wouldn’t have noticed even if they had been paying attention. At the same time, hours of previous uneventful sensor data was fed back to the task force’s radars by the virus. The watch was still blissfully unaware of what was to happen. Outside the weather was still clear and beautiful.”

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org.

Featured Image: Abandoned Ship by Sergey Vasnev (via Art Station)

Xiangliu

Fiction Topic Week

By Evan D’Alessandro

The task force was transiting a lightly-used shipping lane, moving to an exercise in response to the tensions that always seemed to pop up. Due to the collisions between Navy and civilian ships in recent years, Navy policy mandated the task force turn on their AIS transponders, broadcasting their location for all to see. For those aboard the ships it was a bright sunny day for the exercise to begin, the Pacific weather lovely as always seen in movies.

Lurking close by in the shipping lane were two innocuous cargo ships, with their containers stacked high, like the traffic one sees going though the Straits of Malacca. But these were no ordinary cargo ships. Their crews had been specially embarked days before, and had anyone noticed, they had military men on them. If any of the dockyard workers had cared to say anything, their better judgment stopped them. Onboard the special crews noted the turning on of the AIS transponders. Within several minutes they had the Club-N’s in their shipping container launchers prepped and ready, the data from the AIS being fed into the targeting chips of the missiles. The order to fire was given, and the peaceful day was shattered with the roar of the sea skimming missiles leaping out of their launchers.

The first missile launched at that time, unlike its compatriots, rent the sky in two. Within the first few seconds of its life free of its launcher its trajectory threw it upward to make it visible to radar. The radars onboard the task force immediately recognized the missile as a Club-N, its body a clear contrast to the blue sky surrounding it.

Onboard each ship in the task force, smuggled in by contractors by flash drives, was a virus waiting for this moment. In the first few milliseconds all the task force’s early warning alarms were shut off by the virus, so fast that the crewmen standing watch on the bridge wouldn’t have noticed even if they had been paying attention. At the same time, hours of previous uneventful sensor data was fed back to the task force’s radars by the virus. The watch was still blissfully unaware of what was to happen. Outside the weather was still clear and beautiful.

While in port a spy had planted modified aircraft engine repair micro drones onto the ships in the task force. This type of drone was commonly used to fix miniature scrapes and dings in an aircraft engine, but these instead had been adapted to destroy. They carried tiny files, and their bodies contained explosive. They slowly worked away at the Phalanx CIWS’s onboard, their tiny files chipping away at their wiring and electronics. Their task done the drones hid and waited, their tiny explosives standing ready to disable the Phalanx CIWS’s had they not done their work properly.

Two days previously the task force had transited though an area that was being prospected for magnesium nodules. The task force’s sonars picked up several prospecting drones and their mother ship in the area, but they saw no drones come close to the task force. Another set of drones they had failed to pick up had been converted. Taking off the shelf magnesium prospecting drones, and utilizing a new stealth anechoic coating developed in Singapore, these drones were almost invisible. Armed with torpedo warheads, these drones had sidled up to the ships and latched on like a remora, unnoticeable unless one was to dive below the ship.   

The task force’s first warning of the Club-N’s was right before they hit. The Phalanx’s CIWS’s that hadn’t already been totally disabled tried to move into action, but at best spit out a thin blanket of misdirected fire before the micro drones detonated, and finished it off. Undaunted by the minimal fire put out by the task force, the Club-N’s closed to contact. Their explosions ripped through hulls and lifted ships out of the sea. The water turned a frothing brown and ships succumbed to the onslaught. The commanders still alive were unable to grasp the situation as it had happened so fast. The crewmen on deck could see their task force dying around them.

As the explosions rocked the ships, the converted magnesium prospecting drones felt the tremors and activated. They had spent the past two days aurally locating the engine room of their respective ships. They silently detached and started their motors, matching speed with their ships, moving into position right beneath the sounds of working machinery. Then they detonated. The gas bubble expanded faster than the speed of sound, ripping apart hulls. From above it looked like Charybdis was trying to consume each ship.  Then just as sudden as the bubble arrived, it collapsed, driving water into the broken hulks of what had once been ships.

The task force’s submarine commanders below had only seconds more to react. The magnesium prospecting drones had been too noticeable to use against the submarines in the task force, but another type of drone did the trick. The aircraft engine repair micro drones that had been introduced to the ships had also been inserted into the submarines by a turncoat. Slowly some disabled the torpedoes, abrading away what they needed to with their small files over the course of days. Others sat near the nuclear reactor, biding their time. As they felt the submarine rock from the explosions above, they moved into their final positions and they too detonated. Their tiny bodies contained not enough explosive to damage the nuclear reactor itself, for that was not their target, but more than enough to cause a chaos of burst pipes and destroyed machinery. Onboard fluid rushed from pipes as alarms rang. Had it happed in peacetime it would have been a catastrophe, but what was to come was worse.

For the two Chinese submarines trailing the task force, the explosions were the signal. Both Type 93’s launched several torpedos that rushed through the water like sleek fish. The torpedoes had no problem homing in on the cacophony of noises coming from the task force’s subs, for they sounded like a band in an empty auditorium. The sonar operators onboard each boat watched the torpedoes converge, and then hit. The horrible sounds of the hulls rupturing were heard, the pressure of the sea claiming the submarines as its own. As the horrible shrieks subsided, the fight below the sea finished. 

One of the attack submarines that had been trailing the task force surfaced amid the carnage. The submarine had been specially modified for this mission and released a swarm of drones that lazily skimmed over the wave tops. Each drone was equipped with a high-resolution camera capturing footage of the victory. For the government back home the footage was worth its weight in gold. Wars were no longer only matters of weapons, but also of information.

In Hawaii it was yet another beautiful day in paradise. Far away the cyber attack continued, feeding falsified data into the Navy’s systems. For the sailors in Pearl Harbor, the task force was still steaming along and was soon to be clear of the shipping lane. To the rest of the world, the war wouldn’t begin for another six hours…

Evan D’Alessandro is a student at Luther College studying astrobiology, data science, and international relations. He enjoys military history and policy debate, and aspires to become a naval intelligence officer in the future. He can be contacted at  evan.dalessandro@gmail.com.

Featured Image: A New Beginning by P C (via Art Station)

North of Norfolk

Fiction Topic Week

By Hal Wilson

“Is Jim in?” he asked, red-faced and dripping rain.

The front door underlined his question, slamming shut as abruptly as he had arrived.

“Hello Carl!” the kindly, old receptionist beamed. The question was redundant, but politeness demanded it; they both knew Carl was on-site. He was one of their few staff not already called up for the front. “What’s the matter?”

“Call him up, will you? There’s something urgent.”

She frowned – picked up her phone and dialled Jim’s line. He could hear the internal line bleep patiently, once, twice, three times… It ceased as the connection was made.

“Got a visitor,” she explained, “it’s Carl, something urgent for you… OK.”

She set the phone down.

“He’ll be up in a moment,”

Carl paced by the door, as if that could make time pass more swiftly.

He was an ageing man; hiding a modest paunch and greying hair. But he had an ex-rugby prop’s broad frame, and energy enough that people mistook him for greater youth. The receptionist, watching him, knew what was on his mind: the new arrival to town. Everyone was talking about it.

“Carl!” boomed a voice from the back of the room.

It was Jim, smiling as he heaved open a back door. Machine-sound and solvent smells followed; the essence of grinding metal and chemical cleaners; the natural home for maritime engineers like Jim. Brushing strips of swarf from his coverall, Jim shook Carl’s meaty paw.

“How’s it been in the sales team? Keeping busy?”

“How do you like the idea of some war work?” Carl replied.

“We already have contracts with…” Jim paused. “Wait. You mean they need…”

“They do,” Carl interrupted, taking Jim by the arm, “come on.”

Outside, the rain assaulted in thick drifts from the leaden sky. They hurried past the storage yard, where coffee-coloured steel tubes were stacked like so much timber. Soaked to the skin, they bundled into Carl’s car.    

“Any details about the job?” Jim asked, checking for his old-style pen and paper. The car sputtered alive, and they set off down the rain-slick road, heedless of the speed limit.

“Nothing yet,” was the answer, “I’m no good with technicalities anyway.”

“True enough,” Jim agreed.

They crossed the Great Ouse River on the back of a Victorian bridge, crenellated with iron gargoyles weeping in the deluge. The broad, brown waters of the river blurred by, giving way to the town along its banks. Here huddled lengths of terraced homes, lights burning in their windows as they waited out the storm. Much like the rest of these isles.

“How’s it been, anyway?” Jim asked, fumbling for small-talk with some engineers, his social skills left something to be desired.

“What? I only saw you last week.”  

“Well, just asking…”

“I’m fine,” Carl sighed, relenting, “just worried about the boys.”

“Still no word?” Jim ventured cautiously. The news from the east was grim. Estonia: gone, and with it some thousand British soldiers. Germany: ‘de-escalating’ – a betrayal, garbed in Teutonic politeness. All the while, Kaliningrad still held out.

Carl said nothing.

They drove on, through the heart of the old hanseatic town.

Here, they passed the Elizabethan gates of ochre ashlar, which once resisted Cromwell. There, they passed the town hall, built in the days of Drake. It had the aspect of a cathedral and a skin of chequered flint, declaring SEMPER EADEM above its door. Cobblestones rumbled beneath their wheels, and the narrow streets narrowed yet more until, at last, the river reappeared before them.

Carl pulled up in the lee of the old Customs House, sandstone-chiselled with all Wren’s hallmarks. Alabaster-capped by its Roman cupola, it watched them anxiously.

“Let’s go,” Carl directed, braving the rain once more.

The downpour took them eagerly, hungrily, like a lusting lover; they could only shiver as sharp winds embraced them also, sweeping in off the Wash. Together they hustled to a nearby quay, frantic as they rushed down its length. At the far end, they scrambled aboard a waiting boat.

“Glad you boys could make it.”

It was Steve, the town ferryman, cocooned in waterproofs and greeting them at the rail.

Steve shook them by the hand (for they were each old friends), and they felt the warmth in his ever-calloused palms; saw the glint of eagerness in his hooded eyes. His craft was an open-sided, flat-bottomed thing, ideal for these tidal flats. Without another word, Steve got them underway. His two passengers could only shudder and stamp their feet – the wind was even fiercer down on the water.

And they had a fight on their hands. The ferry would normally glide to its landing stages on the easy tides of a river that – as befitting its name – often simply oozed. But now it braved the face of the afternoon tide. The waters were racing in with express-train ferocity, while miniature whitecaps frothed and broke amid the tawny waters. At the wheel, Steve simply stood like a statue, sharp eyes peering for detail. Stamping their feet, Carl and Jim could only curse the north wind, grabbing stanchions as the ferry bellied against every wave.

Suddenly, from starboard, motion drew their eyes. A pair of black-winged Cormorants cruised carelessly by, skimming scant centimetres above the rushing waters. The two passengers followed them with their gaze, taking in the town as the birds flew upstream: rain-slick roofs gleamed like gemstones as the sun struggled through low clouds above. Under each patch of shining slate peered the ivory-white outlines of windowpanes, each one tracking them with bated breath. Farther upstream, the port’s grain silo was half-swallowed by the concrete cloud, leaving a corrugated stump to the eye.

The town was a good place for the soul, by all accounts. But it was also scared.

Anyone looking upriver could understand why. Garbed in rusting blue, moored alongside the port, was the SCOTS KESTREL. It was just one of the grain bulkers marooned at the town over the last weeks. Beyond the port’s entrance lock were another two docks. Hidden behind the agribulk sheds, both were filled to capacity with millions upon millions in lost revenue.

There were steel-carriers, timber-ships and coal-haulers. All languished immobile. Each was waiting. Waiting – either for the order to convoy or for their insurers to resume trading. Whichever came first; as their old Baltic routes were best avoided for now.

Just as concerning was the newest arrival. It was anchored mid-river for lack of harbour berths.

Its flanks were gunmetal grey, with a bladelike bow and squat bridge amidships. Immediately aft was the ship’s mast, complete with swirling radar and hedgehog-spine aerials. Farther aft were crane assemblies dangling fast boats – and, behind them, a vacant helicopter pad. It flew the White Ensign, to be sure, but the ship gave no confidence. Not for Carl, at any rate.

It was shot through with rust. It was small. And it was alone. Carl could spot only one weapon aboard. It was some trifling pop-gun cannon, mounted on an open platform.

Insane, he decided. Who would sail in that thing?

“Almost there now,” Steve announced, rousing Carl from his frigid musings. Ahead, he noticed, the port-side crane was stirring at their approach, lowering one of the ship’s boats into the river. A member of the ship’s company stood astride, waving for them to approach. Steve angled his ferry until it was close alongside, gesturing with a flick for Jim and Carl to go.


Lieutenant Commander Hart breathed deep, closing his eyes for a brief moment.

The Russian had made it far too close.

He could still see the torpedo track in his mind, still hear the collective gasp of his bridge crew as it detonated late – on the far side of their helpless ship. Perhaps some Russian technician got sloppy. Perhaps some electronics failed at that one critical moment. Either way, terror had laid a dread hand on Hart’s shoulder, only to pull away. He exhaled, trying to harness this emotion. He would have to inspire some terror of his own in the P8 sub-hunters who dropped the ball. The useless pricks.

And then there was Keegan, the poor bastard. But that was something else entirely.

The bridge deckhead felt somehow oppressively low; the air itself seemed lifeless, as if robbed of its oxygen. He had the LED lighting off for now – its glare brought on headaches after enough hours – leaving the space with the half-dead ambience of the cloudy sky outside. But with the ship lying at anchor, its engines were still. Their comms, for now, had ceased their babble. It was quiet, at last. Praise God, it was quiet.

In the momentary peace, tea mug in hand, Hart idly pursued some mental mathematics.

Five day patrol – five times twenty-four: one hundred and twenty.

Deduct sleep – five times two, or three? Call it two-point-five… twelve-point-five.

And the shakeup at Pompey? Let’s say two times twenty four, minus six… forty-two.

One hundred twenty plus forty-two… minus, what was it? Twelve point five? Bloody hell… 

Hart rubbed at his eyes, despairing. Try as he might, he simply couldn’t finish his mental gymnastics. Even so, it confirmed what he already knew: this endurance was a young man’s game.

But then, if not him to command this ship, then who?

All his friends in the fleet, men and women he had known since the early days at Dartmouth, were already committed. Each and every one.  Every colleague he knew, through almost two decades in the Service, was either deployed or holding down countless shore jobs in the absence of the rest. There were too few hulls, and not enough crews for those they had anyhow. The last Hart saw, one of the old Type 23s was still by Portsmouth’s No. 1 Basin, just waiting for hands to sail her.

“Sir,” came a voice, stirring him back to life. It was Lieutenant Asher, his second-in-command.

“Number One.” He hoped she had missed his moment of weakness.

“The civilians are on the water,” she reported, “we should have them on board shortly.”

“Good. Ensure they only see the engineering spaces. And avoid talking about Keegan, if you can.”

“Of course, sir.” Asher understood the subtext. Don’t let them realise how strung out we are.

“And when you’re done with them, report back to me. We need to discuss magazine access.”

Asher saluted and exited onto the bridge wing. Heading aft, she drew her weatherproof smock close against the rain. Hart was tired – she had seen through his façade at once.

It was no surprise. The older generations avoided the EverReady stim-pills that kept her going longer. She spat in despair. She needed Hart at 100 percent: her own seagoing experience was nowhere close to his, and she knew it. It was down to him that they survived the last patrol – barely – but his reserves were spent.

Just like Keegan.

“Keep taking the bloody pills,” she muttered.


As soon as Carl and Jim were aboard the ship’s fast boat, the sailor waved for the crane operator to hoist them back up. Unsteady, the two bent their knees and hoped to save themselves embarrassment. The sailor regarded them as if they were drunk.

“You the engineer?” he asked, raising his voice above the wind. Carl noticed the sailor was young: incredibly young. There was no hiding the boyish face, despite his easy pose and deep voice.

Almost the age of my boys, he realised. Jim nodded in reply to the sailor.

“Lieutenant Asher will take you in,” the boy replied.

He pointed to a figure waiting at the ship’s rail, wrapped in a foul-weather smock. Carl and Jim looked sidelong at each other as the hoist thunked their boat back into place.

“Gents,” the figure called, “follow me.”

Jim started as he realized the figure was a woman. She regarded them with disdainful black eyes, almost as severe as the bun tying back her auburn hair.

“Are you Lieutenant Asher?” Carl asked, pretending to ignore his friend’s awkwardness.

“Come on,” she sighed, “time is a factor.”

They hurried along the waterlogged upper decks, ducking through an awkward doorway. Mercifully, the wind remained outside. But the ship’s narrow passageways were bathed in the clinical glare of LEDs, as though they were entering a surgeon’s operation. Ahead, Asher was already racing down the ship’s vertiginous ladder. Unsure of themselves, the two men lingered at the top. The treads were narrow, slickened by the raindrops from Asher’s passage. The climb was slow and treacherous; more than once, Carl felt he was about to slip.

Together below, Asher led them deeper into the ship’s guts. The engine room, lined with silvery heat-cladding, was deserted; its single gangway was flanked by two van-sized diesel blocks. Carl looked about himself, confused by light-studded consoles; looming extractor vents; labyrinthine pipes swirling around the engines.

“Here,” Asher pointed, “this is what we need you checking out.”

Looking over Jim’s shoulder, Carl understood little of what he saw.

“What, the shaft generator?” Jim asked, peering closer.

“No, that. That thing – there.”

Carl looked across at Asher, confused. How can she not understand her own machinery?

“Excuse me, Lieutenant, are you not the onboard engineer?”

Asher paused, hesitant. Crouched on his haunches, Jim looked up at her in curiosity.

“No. Keegan, our MEO – Marine Engineering Officer… he fell. Broke his neck where we came down earlier.”

“Good god,” Carl gasped, thinking back to his own unsteady climb, “I’m so sorry to hear.”

Asher nodded thanks.

“We suffered some damage in our last patrol,” she explained, “a shockwave from close in on the port side. It’s caused some damage to our propulsion. But Keegan’s deputy had to stay ashore with some kind of duodenal, and we don’t have our usual complement of senior technical rates. So, without Keegan, we don’t know how to fix it. At this rate, we’ll be doing bare steerageway all the way home.”

“Where’s the Machinery Control Room? Have you checked the switchboards, the DC links?” Jim asked, looking around.

“Yes, our artificers did thorough tests. No wider system faults.”

Producing his pen and paper, Jim scribbled urgent notes.

Carl, no engineer himself, only loosely understood what was being discussed. He watched as Jim rolled his sleeves and made closer, painstaking observations. Minutes passed as he gave running commentary to Asher – as if she could understand, either.

“The shaft pedestal is OK, by the looks of things… Maybe it’s the flanges… No, no, it’s misalignment! Maybe from the shockwave you mentioned.” He span around, locking eyes with Asher.

“Look, I’m eyeballing it here, but I reckon the jacking screws are misaligned. That’s going to overload your bearings. But we may have caught it before they need replacing.”

Asher glanced at Carl, out of her depth.

“What are our next steps?”

“I want a second opinion,” Jim said, “let me go talk to my guys and we’ll get you a proposal in a few hours. I reckon we can replace the jacking screws for a temporary fix. Then it’s over to your guys in Pompey for a deeper look. The shockwave may have caused all sorts. Hull flexing, you name it.”   

“How long?”

“Hard to say. But we’ve got stocks on hand, what with all those docked ships deferring MRO work.”

Carl smiled, proud for his friend. Jim was in his element.

And, better yet, it was another sale to boost Carl’s own quarterly numbers.

“Lieutenant Asher,” he beamed, “sounds to me like you’re in luck.”


Lingering at the bridge windows, Lieutenant Commander Hart watched the local ferry leaving. The two passengers looked pleased with themselves. Hart gave silent thanks for the luck of reaching this place – they might yet make it to Portsmouth after all.

“How long?” he asked, glancing over his shoulder as Asher returned to the bridge.

“They’ll have a proposal for us soon. Beyond that he wouldn’t say. But he was confident.”

“What did you tell them about Keegan? They must have asked about our own engineer team.”

“I said he fell, sir. Broke his neck.”

“Hmmm. Better than the truth.”

“You said you wanted to discuss small arms magazine access?”

“Just so,” Hart said, knocking back the last of his tea. “Keegan should never have gotten access to that pistol. And how did we not see how he was headed for a breakdown?”

“We all are, sir.”

Hart set down his mug, as if it had grown suddenly too heavy. Asher watched him, hesitant.

“A friend of ours just shot himself, Asher. Without him, we were almost disabled. Don’t be flippant.”

“Sir, I’m deadly serious. We’re not going to last another patrol like this. Sooner or later, the P8 fliers will miss another contact. And then we won’t be submarine bait. We’ll be dead.”

Hart shot her a frosty glance. It softened almost at once. She was right, after all. He reached into a pocket, pulled free a signal message – fresh off the printer.

“I can’t argue with that. But I can give you good news. Read this.”

Asher looked across the message in front of her.

“From COMUKMARFOR,” she read, “return to HMNB Portsmouth for emergency refit and installation of Battle AI. Report ETA and LOGREQ!” Asher looked up, grinning for the first time in a long time. Hart was smiling right back at her.

“Number One, chase up our Navigating Officer, then have a word with the logistics rates. Tell them HMS KENNET is headed home.”

Hal Wilson explores future warfare challenges through narrative and fiction, and has been published by the Small Wars Journal. He has written finalist entries for fiction contests held by the Atlantic Council’s Art of the Future Project, as well as the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. Hal lives in the United Kingdom, where he works in the aerospace industry. 

He graduated in 2013, with first-class honours in War Studies and History from King’s College, London, and is now studying a masters degree in the History of Britain in the First World War.

Featured Image: Maintenance by khesm (via Deviant Art)

The Battle of Locust Point: An Oral History of the First Autonomous Combat Engagement

Fiction Topic Week

By David R. Strachan

TOP SECRET/NOFORN

The following classified interview is being conducted per the joint NHHC/USNI Oral History Project on Autonomous Warfare. This is the first of an eight-part series with Admiral Jeremy B. Lacy, USN (Ret), considered by many to be the father of autonomous undersea warfare, where we discuss the development of the Atom-class microsubmarine, and its role in the first combat engagement of the autonomous era, the Battle of Locust Point.

November 17, 2033

Annapolis, Maryland

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


The last twenty-five years have witnessed extraordinary developments in naval warfare. Ever smaller, smarter, more lethal vehicles have revolutionized the way navies fight, and the way nations project power beyond their borders. Historians agree that the genesis of this “micronaval revolution” can be traced to the year 2016, when a disabled Russian Istina-class microsubmarine was recovered off the coast of Cape Charles, Virginia. The Chesapeake Bay Incident, as it became known, was a harbinger of things to come, for just ten weeks later, as crowds descended on Baltimore Harbor for Fleet Week and the commissioning of the U.S. Navy’s newest destroyer, USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000), Russian and U.S. microsubmarines would square off just beneath the surface in what would be the first combat engagement of the autonomous era, the Battle of Locust Point.

Historians also agree that the micronaval revolution can be traced to a single individual, an individual whose name, like Hyman Rickover, is virtually synonymous with the bold thinking that has come to define the modern U.S. Navy.

Admiral Jeremy Baynes Lacy, USN (ret.) graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1989, earning a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. He served at sea aboard the USS Pennsylvania (SSBN 735), USS Henry M. Jackson (SSBN 730), USS Springfield (SSN 761), and the USS Pogy (SSN 647), deploying to the North Atlantic, Arctic, and Western Pacific, as well as conducting numerous strategic patrols. Ashore, Lacy earned a Masters Degree from the Naval Postgraduate School in Naval/Mechanical Engineering, and served as Major Program Manager for Undersea Project 7, the Atom-class microsubmarine program. Following his work on the Atom-class, he established and commanded Strikepod Group (COMPODGRU) 1, eventually serving as Commander, Strikepod Forces, Atlantic (COMPODLANT). His personal decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit (three awards), the Meritorious Service Medal (two awards), the Joint Service Commendation Medal, the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal (five awards), and Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal (two awards), in addition to numerous unit and campaign awards.

Admiral Lacy is currently enjoying his “retirement” as the Corbin A. McNeill Endowed Chair in Naval Engineering at the United States Naval Academy. He was interviewed at his home in Annapolis, Maryland.

Would you tell us a little of your background? How did you end up in the Navy?

I was born and raised in the rural New Jersey hamlet of Port Murray, nestled among cornfields and cow pastures many people can’t believe exist the Garden State. My mother was a secretary at the local elementary school, and my father managed a printing plant just outside New York City. He grew up dirt poor on a farm in New Hampshire without a whole lot of options, so he enlisted in the Navy the day after he graduated from high school. After basic, he ended up in crypto school in California, then a Naval Security Group detachment in Turkey where he eavesdropped on Soviet communications. When I was little he used to make these veiled references here and there to his time in the service, but he never elaborated on anything. He took his secrecy oath very seriously, and it wasn’t until the mid 80s, when I was a curious teenager, that he felt comfortable opening up about what he did. I was totally captivated by the stories he would tell, and the meaning that the work gave him. As luck would have it, I was a pretty good student, and managed to get accepted to the Academy. Fast forward four years and I’ve got a degree in mechanical engineering, and five years of submarine service waiting for me.

Why did you choose submarines?

Never in a million years did I expect to end up choosing submarines. It was the time of Top Gun, and boy I was gonna fly jets! But during my summer service orientation I went for a cruise on the Nebraska, and that was it. I was hooked, and fifteen months later I’m on the Pennsylvania for my junior tour.

Would you say it was the submarine service that spurred your interest in unmanned vehicles?

Oh, definitely. When I was on the Pogy we worked with some very early prototypes sent up from [Naval Undersea Warfare Center] Newport for arctic testing. Nothing too sexy – ocean survey, bathymetry. But I guess at that time I was intrigued with the idea, and started imagining the possibilities, the implications. What if these things could think for themselves? What if they were weaponized?  And what if the bad guys had them? After my tour on Pogy, I ended up at the Naval Postgraduate School working on my masters, and actually wrote my thesis on UUVs – a survey of current architecture, an examination of future technologies and how these could be leveraged for unmanned systems, and how UUVs could be integrated into fleet operations.

Legend has it DOD wanted to classify it.

[Laughs] Well, not really. It was nothing more than a skillful integration of open sources, some analysis, and extrapolation. It did manage to attract some interest, though.

From ONR? DARPA?

Well, actually it was the folks at Newport who reached out to me initially. My advisor at NPS was friendly with the CO there, and at the time – around early 1999 – they were working with APL, SPAWAR, and some other folks on crafting the Navy’s UUV master plan. So they called me up, asked if I’d like to come aboard, and next thing I know I’m on a plane to Rhode Island.

What was your contribution to the 2000 UUV Master Plan?

Well, by the time I entered on duty, the bulk of the heavy lifting was pretty much complete. But I did manage to contribute some perspective on the vision, CONOPS (especially in ASW), as well as technology and engineering issues. But where I think I added the most value was regarding the feasibility of the SWARM [Shallow Water Autonomous Reconnaissance Modules] concept – the idea of utilizing large numbers of small AUVs to create a dynamic, autonomous sensor grid for wide area mine countermeasures.

Was the SWARM concept a precursor to the Strikepod?

Conceptually, yes. It was an early articulation of an undersea battle group, the idea of numerous autonomous vehicles cooperating together to complete a mission. But while the idea was entirely feasible, I felt that SWARM was rather narrow in its scope. As an MCM platform, I suppose it made sense, with scores of small, relatively inexpensive nodes spread across hundreds of square miles, air dropped from B-2s or Hornets. But what we needed was an entirely new class of vehicle that was flexible, adaptive, and capable of carrying out multiple missions, whether in networks of two or two thousand. So, then, I guess you could say that SWARM inspired both Strikepods and the Atom-class submarine, but for different reasons.

Can you talk about how the Atom-class program originated, and how the Strikepod concept evolved?

I’d been having discussions with some of the Newport and MIT folks while working on the Master Plan, and we were all pretty much in agreement on the core elements of a UUV pod structure – connectivity, redundancy and expendability. We were also in agreement that small is beautiful, if you will, but all of the work on miniaturization was being done in the universities. Long story short, not only did ONR find the funding, but agreed to bring the university people on board, and next thing we have a lovely, windowless compartment in the basement of the Navy Lab. And we had a nice, nondescript name: Undersea Project 7.

It was an exciting time, and it was a genuine privilege working with some of the brightest minds around, people who could have easily been making five times their salaries at Google, or JP Morgan. 

The technology was complex, and the work could be pretty tedious. Lots of highs and lows – two steps forward one step back. For some of the top brass it was hard to justify the expense, pouring all that money into a system that seemed unnecessarily complicated, and, for them, pure science fiction. Do we really need roaming schools of killer fish? Don’t forget, these were guys who came from the era of SOSUS. But that’s what we were offering – and more. A smart SOSUS that could be deployed anywhere, at any time.

We envisioned three variants – one for command & control, or what we called the Rogue, one for navigation and communications, which we called the Relay, and a third that could physically attach itself to vessels, mines, infrastructure. This we called the Remora. Together they could be organized in networks of any size, undersea strike groups capable of communicating with each other and, via the Relay, surface assets and ashore bases.

The Atom-class was under development for nearly fifteen years. Were you at all aware of what was happening with adversary developments, and did that play a role in the design?

Absolutely, and somewhat.  Over time, I became increasingly involved with the intelligence side of things – collection guidance, and analysis. There came a point where I was ping-ponging pretty regularly between Carderock and Suitland, especially by the late 2000s when we were really stepping up our efforts. We were well aware of Chinese interest in unmanned systems, and around 2010 we started receiving reports about the Shāyú program. We were also keeping close tabs on some tech transfer between North Korea and Iran, something reminiscent of their Yono and Ghadir cooperation. There was a real sense of urgency, that we needed to be out-innovating and out-classing our adversaries if we were going to stay ahead of the curve. But we believed strongly in the Atom and Strikepods, and while it was important to know what the other guys were up to, we didn’t let it distract us from our own vision.

The most intriguing stuff was the HUMINT coming out of Rubin [Central Design Bureau for Marine Engineering] – concerning a Project S3, or “Istina” – references to unmanned systems, miniaturization, and a breakthrough in energy production. And then there were reports of Russian vessels showing up unexpectedly during our boomer patrols. They seemed to just know where we were. The counterintelligence guys were in overdrive – this was eerily familiar to the red flag that plagued Richard Haver before the Walker ring was exposed. So we couldn’t just stand there and scratch our heads. But everything checked out internally. So, if there was no security breach, then, how could they know?

So, I started compiling data, and mapped it all out. CIA and DIA both believed it could be evidence of a non-acoustic sensor of some kind, and while this was certainly plausible, the evidence was mostly hearsay. We had imagery of SOKS sensors, and journal articles, and public statements by high ranking officials, but no hard data to substantiate the existence of a viable, working platform. We were, however, receiving quality product on the Istina program that suggested the Russians had developed some kind of miniaturized naval platform capable of lurking silently off Groton or King’s Bay, then trailing our boats to expose their positions to the Russian Fleet.

But you couldn’t sell it?

[Laughs] Well, no, which, admittedly, was pretty frustrating. But something that gets lost in all the scandals and the slanted reporting is the commitment to analytic rigor that permeates the intelligence community. These folks understand that their work has a direct impact not only on U.S. policy, but ultimately on human lives. The difference between right and wrong can mean the difference between life and death, and they carry that burden every day. So, no, I couldn’t sell it. And it was back to the drawing board.

And then Cape Charles happened.

And then Cape Charles happened.

Can you tell us about that day?

I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a Saturday morning, one of those heavy, dewy August mornings in D.C. I was out getting in my run before the heat of the day, when I get a call from Chandra [Reddy, the ONI liaison for Undersea Project 7]. He tells me I need to come in to the office. We were working weekends pretty regularly, but I’d blocked out that day for a round of golf with my dad. I kindly remind him of this, and all he says is, “Jay – we’ve got something.” An hour later I’m on an SH-60 out of Andrews with Chandra and four engineers from S&T, tracking the Potomac out to the Bay. 

They briefed me enroute. Apparently the Coast Guard in Cape Charles, Virginia got a call around 7:30 that morning from a fisherman about a mile off the coast who said he came across something that “looked military.” They send out an RB-M, and bring back what they believe is a U.S. Navy prototype submersible. They phone it in, and ninety minutes later we’re putting down on a grassy airfield in the middle of nowhere, where we’re greeted by an earnest seaman recruit who proceeds to leadfoot it all the way to the station.

It was being kept in a back room, sitting on a table under a blue tarp. When I first saw it, I thought it was just a radio-controlled sub, like someone’s weekend garage project had gone astray. It was basically a miniaturized Oscar II, maybe six or seven feet long, which I suppose shouldn’t be surprising, since the Oscar was built for capacity, and why go to the trouble of designing and developing a whole new hull form when you can just miniaturize one that’s already in the inventory? 

We didn’t know how long it had been disabled, or if the Russians were even aware. We did know that the [Vishnya-class intelligence ship] Leonov had been lurking offshore, and there were a couple of fishing boats we were keeping an eye on near Norfolk, but for all we knew the handlers were right nearby, somewhere on shore. We had to assume they would come looking, so we had to act quickly.

We cracked it open and took a look right there on the table. The guys from S&T were like pathologists, very careful and thorough. One of them had a video camera, which I eventually realized was patched in to the White House Situation Room. 

I don’t think I need to tell you that the intelligence value was immeasurable, a holy grail. It confirmed, of course, what I’d been speculating all along, but it also showed us just how far along the Russians were. The propulsion system alone was a quantum leap for them, and was very similar to what we had been developing for the Atom.

Too similar?

I’d say strikingly similar. Maybe alarmingly so. But there was so much information floating around in the public domain – academia, scientific journals – so much private sector R&D going on, the design could have originated anywhere. For sure there was plenty for the counterintelligence guys to lose sleep over, but at that moment we had bigger fish to fry.

Did you bring it back to Washington for further analysis?

Well, actually, no.

You see, during the autopsy, one of the tech guys notices something – a small explosive charge right against the hull, wired to the CPU. The damn thing had an autodestruct! It was right out of Mission Impossible, but it obviously had failed to activate. We’d been toying with just such an idea for the Atom-class – a small blast to punch a hole in the hull and allow it to disappear into the depths, then ping like a black box for eventual retrieval.

Chandra’s on the secure phone, presumably with the Situation Room, when he turns to me, pointing at the Istina. “They want us to blow it,” he says. “They want us to put it back.” Immediately I think – are they crazy? This is the biggest intelligence haul since K-129, and they want to just dump it?  But then I realize – of course!  The Bay is shallow enough that if the Russians come calling, they will expect to find it, and if they can’t, they’ll have to assume we did. We needed them to believe we were clueless, so we had to let them find it. That way they’d never know what we knew.

So we closed it up, drove it back out into the Bay, and scuttled it.

Was it then that the President authorized Operation Robust Probe?

The biggest question on everyone’s mind was: Is this an isolated penetration, or is it part of a larger operation? Prudence required that we take action to sanitize the Bay, so yes, Robust Probe was ordered, and the Navy immediately mobilized.

But as urgent as the situation was, there was also a need for discretion. We couldn’t exactly fill the Chesapeake Bay with destroyers. Even an increased presence of Coast Guard or small patrol craft would likely not go unnoticed, at least by the Russians. So, within hours the Navy had cobbled together a flotilla of private watercraft manned by cleared contractors and sailors in civies. They fanned out across the Bay, banging away with dipping sonar, fish finders, and whatever they could use.

Fortunately, we’d been putting Alpha, the first operational Strikepod, through its paces, and had been having a lot of success. So we fast-tracked sea trials, put a crew together, rigged up a mobile command post – the very first Strikepod Command – in what looks like a plain T.V. news van, and we’re in business. 

Within twenty-four hours Alpha had detected another Istina lurking just off Thomas Point Light. It was an odd mixture jubilation – knowing that the Atom-class was a success – and dread, the weight of knowing of what was at hand, that the Russians had not only designed, developed and deployed a sophisticated micro AUV, but they were using it to brazenly violate our territorial waters.

Was there any other reaction from the White House?

The President immediately convened the National Security Council, and, yes, yours truly was ordered to attend and provide the briefing. He was not happy. How did we not see this coming? I explained how we were aware of Russian efforts, but that our coverage had been spotty. And there were no indications that the Russians were on the brink of deploying a new vehicle to the fleet, much less inserting it into U.S. territorial waters. 

I remember how surreal it felt, sitting there in the Situation Room, the looks on the faces around me. 

Fear?

Not fear. More like a mixture of deep concern and disbelief as if no one could wrap his head around the fact that this was actually happening. And I think everyone in that room knew that things were about to change, that all of our theorizing, prognosticating, and preparing for the future of naval warfare was coming to a head. The future had arrived, right in our back yard. 

The prevailing opinion in the room was that we should move immediately to destroy it and contact the Russian government. The guys from CIA made a compelling argument for restraint – one with which I concurred – that this was more an opportunity than a threat. There was no reason to believe this was Russia’s opening move against the United States, and that if anything it was the latest example of resurgent Russian bravado and Putin’s longing for the Cold War days. This was an opportunity to gather as much intelligence as possible on a new foreign weapons platform. But there was also concern that, if weaponized, the Istinas could be used to stage a terror attack and sow further insecurity and political unrest in the United States. In the end, though, we managed to convince the President to hold off, but if at any point it was determined that there existed a threat to life or property, we would have to destroy it.

Did you personally have any theories as to its intentions?

Not many. There was Aberdeen [Proving Ground]. Theoretically an Istina could get in close enough to extract some SIGINT or MASINT, depending on the vehicle’s sensor capabilities. But who really knew? Maybe the Russians were just interested in ship spotting, or counting crabs.

And then it just kind of hit me. It was September – the following month was Fleet Week in Baltimore. The Navy would be showcasing its wares –warships, the Blues – which normally wouldn’t be such a big deal, except there was something else that year.

Zumwalt? 

Exactly. Zumwalt was on the agenda that year for commissioning. She’d be sailing up the Bay, and then docked for several days at Locust Point. We weren’t concerned with an Istina attacking Zumwalt, per se, but we knew that there was much to be had intelligence-wise. And while we had no desire to enable a Russian intelligence operation, we also wanted to collect as much as possible of our own.

When we examined the Istina in Cape Charles, we didn’t discover a warhead of any kind, so we assumed any others wouldn’t be weaponized either. And even if they were, it was unlikely that a single Istina could inflict any meaningful damage on an armored warship, unless the Russians had managed to develop a super compact, high yielding explosive, but there was no intelligence indicating such. Perhaps a group of Istinas detonating simultaneously could cause a problem, enough to raise some eyebrows or even provoke a crisis, but it would take dozens to equal the yield of even a single torpedo.

It was a delicate, rapidly unfolding situation that was unlike anything we’d ever experienced in the modern era. Of course, we’d ventured into Soviet waters in manned submarines during the Cold War, at great risk to both human life and the delicate balance that defined the Cold War. But had Parche or Halibut been detected or attacked and sunk during Ivy Bells, it would have provoked a political crisis that may well have triggered World War III. Were the stakes just as high now? It was anyone’s guess.

Were you able to deploy additional Strikepods?

Yes. Alpha had been working like a charm, but then abruptly it loses contact with the Istina as it moves under a passing tanker, which was of course disappointing, but not entirely unexpected. In the meantime, we’d deployed two more six-ship Strikepods – Beta to cover the central Bay, and Gamma the southern region. It was a lot of territory to cover, but that constituted the sum total of our Atom-class fleet at the time. There were eight currently in various stages of production, but it would be at least a day or two before we could deploy them.

Pretty soon we get word that Gamma has detected something down near Bloodworth Island.  At first we figured we’d reacquired the original, but an analysis of the acoustic data revealed that it was actually a new vehicle. It was alarming, for sure, knowing that there were now at least two Russian microsubmarines lurking in the Chesapeake Bay.

We tracked it for about two days, and then Beta manages to reacquire Istina number one. About twelve hours later, Alpha detects not one, but two more right at the mouth of the Patapsco River. That’s when everyone’s hackles went up. This was no longer a counterintelligence operation. 

Operation Robust Probe becomes Robust Purge?

Correct. Once we realized that we were dealing with at least four Istinas in the Bay, and they were lingering in Zumwalt’s path, the time for just being sneaky was over. We needed to at the very least disrupt, if not outright destroy them. 

By now the eight new Atoms have come off the line, so we fit them each with a makeshift warhead of C4, designate them Remoras, and deploy them immediately – four for Alpha, which was now tracking two separate targets, and two each for Beta and Gamma. They would only be employed if we felt that there was an immediate threat to life or property.

In the meantime, Zumwalt, Leyte Gulf, and Jason Dunham, and the other ships arrive, and as they transit the Bay, the Istinas take up position about 500 meters astern. Once the ships turn into the Patapsco, though, they back off and assume a position just outside the mouth of the river. They linger there for about twelve hours, until we get a burst from Alpha: One of the Istinas is headed up river.

So now we have a decision to make. Alpha is tracking two separate vehicles. Do we order Alpha to pursue, and break off contact with one of them? Turns out Sea Rays and Boston Whalers aren’t particularly effective ASW platforms, and Strikepods Beta and Gamma were both busy with their own tracks, well to the south, too far away to assist Alpha in time.

Then one of our brilliant engineers suggests splitting Alpha pod. We could repurpose one of the Remoras as a Rogue, and assign it an armed Remora and a Relay for coms. The engineers get on it, and in about fifteen minutes a small splinter pod breaks off and starts trailing the Istina up the Patapsco.  Things get increasingly tense as it nears the Key Bridge, and we decide that if the Istina begins moving toward the bridge supports, we would have no choice but to destroy it.

After a few anxious moments it passes under the bridge without incident, and continues on a path toward Locust Point, where the warships are docked. Word comes down from the Sit Room: The Istinas now present a clear and present danger, so immediately we order the splinter pod to attack. A minute later a Remora detonates about five meters below the surface, and we watch as it and the Istina disappear from the tactical display. Beta and Gamma attack as well, sending their respective contacts, as well as two Remoras, to the bottom of the Bay.

And just like that it was over?

It was over.

The Strikepods and surface vessels continued to prosecute Robust Purge until Zumwalt and the other ships made it safely to the Atlantic. By all accounts, Baltimore Fleet Week, including the commissioning of the Navy’s newest destroyer, came off without a hitch. No one had any idea that the first decisive battle of a new era in naval warfare had just occurred within throwing distance of Fort McHenry.

What were the takeaways?

Well, we had terabytes of data to analyze, of course, but perhaps even more importantly, there were myriad political, security, and even philosophical questions to consider. What exactly were AUVs? Were they vessels? Weapons? In a way they were like spies, but rather than round them up and expel them, or put them in jail, we’d have to disrupt them, or even kill them.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway, though, was the realization that a new form of conflict was dawning. Submarines had of course always been characterized by stealth and secrecy, and had engaged in high risk cat-and-mouse games in order to stay ahead of the adversary. But now that submarines were unmanned, and, like their stealthy manned cousins, operated far from the prying eyes of the public, a kind of limited war was now possible, a war with little or no risk of escalation, or political fallout, and most importantly, no loss of human life. A war characterized by secrecy, anonymity, and non-attribution.

In other words, as we sit here today in my living room, in the year 2033, with the benefit of hindsight, our vision of AUVs as merely an extension of the Fleet’s eyes and ears was really rather primitive.

And only the beginning of the story.

[End Part I]

David R. Strachan is a 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 strikepod.systems@gmail.com.

Featured Image: Arctic Sub Base by Jon Gibbons (via Deviant Art)