By Austin Reid
0545 Shenzhen, China
The building was drab on the exterior; a nondescript office complex on the fringe of Shenzhen outside of Hong Kong. Li Zhou opened the door and got out of her small car. She eyed the revolving door and made her way to the entrance as the vehicle moved along to its next user. She had reached the pinnacle of her career.
It all started with an acceptance to MIT, the job in Silicon Valley, a high paying research fellowship with DARPA and IBM then her eventual return home to the PRC. Zhou’s untimely departure in the eyes of her previous employer, a tech giant researching quantum technology, was under the guise of accepting a position at a smaller firm in Japan.
The whole time, Zhou was an intel officer with the Chinese ministry of state security known as the MSS.1 The assignment was initially very broad: infiltrate American industry. As her research progressed, the target become obvious. From those first classes at Cal Poly and the eventual Ph.D. from MIT, Li knew she was interested in the emerging field of quantum computing, specifically encryption.2 This interest played perfectly into the hands of the Chinese state.
The woman at the desk nodded and motioned to Zhou to follow. Dr. Zhou swiped her badge at the elevator bank and waited. The door opened, and she stepped inside.
They were on the brink of testing their new machine. Today was the first deployment of the technology. It was meant to be a test in a controlled lab to see if its power was as grand as they all thought. The timing was odd; it was six in the morning. This was something that PLA and her superiors at MSS insisted upon. She wasn’t sure what was truly going on, but she had a sense something much larger than her quantum machine was at play.
As the elevator opened into the dark room, her suspicions were confirmed. The deputy minister of the MSS was standing over a console pointing, showing what appeared to a PLAN admiral something on a screen.
Both men looked up as she entered.
“Dr. Li Zhou, it is a momentous day, we look forward to seeing what you and your team have concocted for us.”
Li shook the Minister’s hand and faced the admiral.
“Forgive me, Dr. Zhou. This is Admiral Zheng. He is here to help liaise with another part of the test.”
“Oh? I wasn’t aware of the second part.”
“It is no problem, think of me as an observer.” the man with piercing eyes said.
Li nodded and concealed the chill that came over her after the cryptic response.
“Excellent, let us get started.”
“Before we begin, could you give the admiral here an overview of the scope of today’s attack … erm test?”
“Certainly, Minister.” Li said, not letting his slip up escape notice.
“Admiral, we have refined the technology that we have developing for decades. Our quantum computer is ready to crack encryption in embedded systems and operations technology. The concept today is to see if we can crack the data and control feeds of satellites over the South China Sea controlled by America and her allies. We have recreated them in this lab and will attempt to disrupt them in this demo today.”
Admiral Ming and the minister both smiled
“This is grand. I will ensure that the Chairman hears of your work today. This test is a momentous occasion.”
Li beamed “Thank you, admiral”
“Let us begin…”
Li sat at the console and toggled the targets they had for this morning.
“Ok, first up is an iridium communications satellite in low earth orbit. It’s the first of six iridium birds we will take offline, and it’s about to pass over the South China Sea. Let’s see if we can get a back door into it…”3
Li looked down at the timeline she had on what their goals were for today.
Brute force into 22 ISR/communications/GNSS & ELINT satellites orbiting or stationary over the South China Sea
- shut down command and control link with ground stations
- Erase any data collected within 48 hours prior
- Once clear of the 60-min time window, undo the disruption and deorbit satellites
The admiral was glowing.
“When we are successful today, the implications for the nation will be essential for our growth. The west will lose imagery for any satellite that comes near China.”
For a moment, the room was still. The only sound was the hum of the power bank running into the massive machine.
Zhou Li hit enter; the machine buffered for a moment as her computer sent the commands into the quantum computer, which chewed through the encryption of the first target. Once cracked, an HMI appeared on Li’s terminal. This interface gave her inputs to make changes and set parameters for the hack.
The two men watching behind her were staring through her at the screen with such intensity there should have been smoke coming from the focal point.
She didn’t notice, Li was in a trance, focusing on her work as if she were conducting an orchestra. The first target, the iridium bird, was breached. Without skipping a beat, she marked off the first box on the list below and moved toward the next.
One by one, she worked down the list until they were all listed as functional kills. Li moved the cursor and highlighted the function to disconnect all the breached birds loitering over her nation’s homeland illegally. With a grin, she pressed the button and looked at the pair standing over her.
“Admiral, Minister, that’s it, we have concluded the brute attack. At this point, we wait and see if there’s any simulated response.”
“I was told we have another team running as a blue team attempting to undo what I’ve done..” she continued with pride.
“I’m confident that they will fail.”
Both men smiled again as if holding in an inside joke.
“Minister, is there something I’m missing?”
“What aren’t you telling me? “
Before the Minister could speak the admiral interjected
“This was a live attack; you just infiltrated and defeated all western satellites over the South China Sea.”
“You have done your country a great service, Dr. Li Zhou.”
He stepped forward and produced a pink blossom.
A dark smile crept over Li’s face; immense pride filled the cold heart of this intelligence officer as the admiral pinned the blossom on her lapel
Dr. Li Zhou snapped to attention.
“What is my next target?”
0545 LT MV Patriot
Cortez looked off the bow. He could see the Navy drone boat moving off to run down some phantom. He’d never understood why they had them for these trips, but he wasn’t going to complain.
“Jackson, do you want to get some stick time?”
The mate looked up. “Yes cap’n I’d appreciate it. You know how they don’t let me get much sunlight anymore.”
“Someone has to keep this oversized computer sailing!”
“Y’all doing a stellar job, next port your grog ration and night out is on us,” Cortez added with a sarcastic grin.
“Thank you, sir. Shenanigans will be had…” Jackson managed with a tip of the cap as he made his way to the helm.
“Ok, Jackson, bring her to 022, and up to 17knts.”
“Aye 022 at 17knts.”
Cortez moved to look at a contact report the Navy escorts just forwarded the ship. Well, the report that 90′ drone sent. There wasn’t anyone aboard her, just a slew of computers and some missiles just in case a boat, submarine, or another missile got too close. Each ship in the convoy also had a close-in weapons system (CIWS), a dated platform originally posted on navy ships in the 1980s. These were the mean-looking snowmen with chain guns meant to throw up a wall of fire at an approaching target. Each CIWS was mounted on top of the bridge in a standard shipping container and were a little smaller than the original systems deployed in the Cold War. These upgraded devices had a master arm control that was a physical switch in the chief’s office three floors below the bridge that would bring the weapon into an autonomous mode. Navy protocol dictated that this was to be left in standby mode until the crew was told otherwise by the Navy.
Cortez wasn’t worried about this trip. The precautions came only after the attacks on the ships in the Strait of Hormuz all those years back. They usually made this run without an escort. He hadn’t looked at the manifest for this one, but he figured it had something to do with what was starting to broil on the Korean Peninsula… or was it Taiwan? He couldn’t remember, that’s why he never joined the Navy.
Officially known as ASV-2, the convoy had two drone ships covering the trail of ships making their way to Japan from Diego Garcia. One ASV tasked with AAW, or shooting down airborne threats. The other with ASW, or sinking submarines, bent on targeting their protectee. Each vessel was normally a sleek craft, but the weapons on the bow and stern made them look like floating gun trucks from that old war movie set in Africa.
On their convoy, they had two ASVs, MV Patriot, MV Eagle, and four smaller autonomous barges that were essentially tethered to the two larger ships to increase the amount of cargo a single convoy can bring to the next port. Convoy 16 as it was known to the Navy, was one of the first combining so many autonomous systems. Each of the defensive systems were tethered to human operators; the Navy still wanted to control weapons release just in case one of their systems locked onto a civilian craft crossing the path of the convoy.
“Cap’n take a look over towards the ASV…”
Cortez looked up from his focus; just ahead of the ASV he saw a swell form.
“what the he…”
Before he could finish his thought, a whale breached the surface
Cortez shook his head with a chuckle, “Damn Jackson, I thought we were about to be attacked by a sea monster …”
“Cap’n, you’re too jumpy! I’m at the helm, and there’s nothing to worry about.”
Liberian flagged bulk ship 60,000 DWT
South China Sea – 30 miles NE of Convoy 0510
Just over the horizon, another merchant ship was steaming ahead at a four knots across the path of the Patriot and Eagle Convoy. On the deck of the ship, hatches were being moved to reveal a nefarious payload.
The ship whose name was ground off the hull during a visit to a Chinese-friendly port in Africa was making way under a bareboat charter from a Senegalese ship owner. Crewmembers were hanging over the side, doing their best to paint a name and IMO number on the aft of a vessel lost to a typhoon the month before.
The complex ballet was progressing as the master of the ship walked up the stairs to the bridge from his stateroom. The iron-jawed man clutched his morning tea and surveyed the operation. Below on deck, the chief mate was directing the movement of the containers to on deck in preparation for the day’s action.
The chief looked toward the bridge from the deck, making eye contact with the master. The chief raised the radio and stated firmly, “Master, this is chief, we are ready to begin in 5 min…”
“Chief, this is master, very good.”
The Crane swung with the spreader hoisting the final container to its position on deck. It had taken 30 minutes for the entire operation to play out. The CM looked to the master one more time, who nodded as men moved off the deck to their positions elsewhere onboard.
The master looked over the ship. On deck were eight new containers. He could have fit dozens more, but this was all that he was given for this mission, with a final nod to the CM from the master, the operation began.
“Helmsman, take us to 0275 at five knots.”
“Aye master, 0275 at five knots.”
On deck, eight of the containers started to shudder as the tops began to open on hydraulic lifts. In the ninth were the consoles to initiate the strike. Within five minutes the containers were in a firing position.
The flurry of activity on the deck slowed, the last of the crew cleared back to their quarters.
The chief picked up a whistle attached to his radio lanyard and blew two short blasts.
Fifteen seconds later, five men in black jumpsuits appeared on the hatch covers and moved towards the two command and control containers.
The lead man opened the door and stood there holding the heavy steel frame for his colleagues. He shook each of their hands and pinned a black poppy on each of their lapels.
As the last man took his seat, the chief appeared in the doorway and nodded to the leaders of the black-clad operators.
The man grinned and signaled for the others to commence. In a flurry of typing and calculations, the men energized the weapon system. One by one they signaled their system was online.
The chief looked to the bridge wing, where the master was waiting. Without any emotion, he lifted his arm and gave the order.
The CM looked back to the commando and nodded.
The deck of the merchant ship shuddered as six simultaneous missiles ignited and launched from their erectors. As each booster cleared the ship, another ignited, pushing the cruise missiles on a flat trajectory toward their targets just over the horizon. As the missiles were clearing, the next volley erupted out of the vessel.5
The chief hunkered into the C2 container to watch the remainder of the launches. Finally, after the four salvos cleared, the last two containers opened to reveal their payload. The man at the console for this system turned a key and flipped a switch. The old sailor had never seen these drones before. He moved to the door and peered out to watch.
Just towards the bow, a flurry of exhaust spewed from the ports at the base of each box as hundreds of small rockets fired nearly simultaneously. Each drone had a 10kg high explosive warhead. The chief’s jaw was on the floor, the speed at which hundreds of these drones seems to shoot and then swarm together was terrifyingly beautiful. He was in shock.
Just as fast as the furry had begun, it was over. The sound of the munitions was gone. The chief stood there, dumbstruck.
The men in the block coveralls cleared off the deck, and the cranes moved back into play.
One by one, each container was dropped over the side. The ship was cruising in 7000-foot deep water. Plenty deep enough to keep the secrets of what was just launched.
0600 HRS LT South China Sea – M/V Patriot
A yellow light flashed on the console. Jackson walked up to the monitor displaying the CIWS camera eye. His heart sank, he never thought he’d see live missiles coming at him while on the deck of a merchant ship. That risk was for when he had his other uniform on. This couldn’t be happening.
“Captain Cortez, we have vampires on the scope!”
“Vampires? What are you getting at Jackson.”
“Missiles, sir, we have missiles coming over the horizon!”
Cortez paused; he knew that Jackson was in the Philippine Navy when he wasn’t sailing with him.
Just as Cortez looked up at Jackson with horror in his eyes, the feed cut.
Houston – 2005 HRS LT
Static rolled over the screens before cutting to black.
Cortez fell back into his chair. All he could hear was the pounding of his heart and the whine of the air conditioning overhead. There was nothing he could do for his crew sitting in this remote operations center. The ship was steaming ahead at 16knts almost nine thousand miles away in the pacific.
Cortez keyed the number for OPS
“Ops, this is Convoy 16 – we have a loss of connection and missiles inbound …”
“Standby Cortez, we have a developing situation. We’ve lost connection to the entire fleet. We don’t know if it’s the satellites or our systems…send in your report and standby for instructions…”
Cortez was about to launch into a tirade, but the mention of losing the fleet network stunned him. He paused to let this sink in
“Understood ops, keep me posted.”
Cortez picked up his coffee and flung it across the room. The stainless steel mug lodged itself into the wall next to the door. Coffee began dripping out onto the floor.
Guam 0800 HRS LT
“That’s odd..” the communications technician stated to no one in particular as he took a bite of his sandwich
“Whatchya got there, Grimes?”
“Not sure yet, but I think my computer just took a dump. I just lost all feeds to the ASV’s on convoy 16…”
“Convoy 16? Is that the train we got moving to get those TLAMs, JASMS, and SM-2s and 3s out to the Seventh from Garcia?”
“Yeah, that’s the one. I’m running a check now.” Grimes muttered to himself.
“No, this isn’t right.”
“Grimes, what’s going on?”
“I pulled the logs. We certainly have gone dark on convoy 16, I can’t ping anything, and we lost all feeds.”
“Ok, I’m gonna call the OOD and see if they have anything.”
“Captain? This is LT Valdez down here with convoy ops.”
“Oh, when did you get sent to chase whales?” The captain said with a laugh.
“Just this week, Captain … sorry to cut you short, but we have a situation.”
The captain stiffened on the other end of the line
“We have lost connection to convoy 16 operating in the South China Sea.”
“Oh, fuck!” Shouted Grimes in the background.
“Hold on, Captain.”
“What is it, Grimes?”
“Ma’am, we are down on all three convoys that are in the South China Sea.”
“I can’t ping any of the six ASVs in the AO.”
“I just tried to raise an LCS we have in the area, the Giffords, and she’s off COMMs, too.”
“Captain, did you catch that?”
“Yes, LT, I need you to get up to CIC now.”
Captain Robacher put the phone back into the cradle
His face went blank; His mind went into overdrive as he tried to call out to INOPACOM HQ in Hawaii.
The line was dead.
He looked to his comms specialist one terminal down and frowned.
Captain, we are blind and deaf. I can’t raise anyone on secure SATCOM…
The captain fell back into his chair and swore.
M/V Patriot South China Sea 0605
Lights began flashing on the console indicating they had lost connection to control and the remote operations center overseeing the convoy.
Jackson picked up the bridge phone and dialed his ETO.
“Javier, I need you on the bridge now!”
Javier was the vessel’s techie, the Electronic Technician.
Since the ‘pilot program’ was introduced as a way to meet the manning shortages of the global sea services in the west and as a way to cut down on labor in the rest of the world, only a small cadre of sailors were aboard even the largest ships.6
8000 meters ahead of the Patriot, ASV 2-1, the AAW ship was in the middle of its normal patrol pattern, actively scanning the horizon with its camera and radar for any threats.
The radar and FLIR onboard the ASV were monitoring the approaching missile but had yet to receive a classification on the system.
Since the loss of the connection in the minutes prior, the machine had no authorization to engage the rapidly approaching targets. In order to engage, weapons release authority had to be granted by the control station either at Guam or from an AWACs or P-8 flying overhead, and since there was no aircraft near, or connection with the operators, the ASV just took its course waiting for the connection to be reestablished. The system was in a loop waiting for direction when the first anti-ship missile struck the superstructure.
Javier barreled onto the bridge, “What’s up, J?”
His eyes immediately tracked to the smoking heap of the escort drone on the horizon.
“Woah what the fuck did we get into, J?!”
“Get on the VHF and see if you can raise the other ships in the formation.”
“M/V Eagle M/V Eagle this is M/V Patriot.”
“M/V Eagle M/V Eagle this is M/V Patriot.”
Radio crackles with static.
“M/V Patriot this is M/V Eagle, what’s going on.”
“Eagle, we just lost connection to ROC, and we have missiles inbound. We need to override the safety on the CIWS, before they get too close, over.”
“Patriot understood we will start on that… it may take a few minutes to ….”
A massive explosion rips across the water interrupting the radio exchange.
Javier and Jackson rushed out to the bridge wing. Just about 6000 meters to their aft port quarter, an explosion had rocked the Eagle.
“J, get to the CIWS panel and clear the locks!”
“Aye, chief!” Javier said as he jogged off the bridge.
“Eagle, come in eagle!”
“What the fuck was that…
“Eagle Come in!”
Javier made a dash for the CIWS panel in the stateroom turned ops center a few decks below
0615 MV Eagle
Bernal grabbed his head. His ears were ringing, a moment ago he was on the radio with the Patriot, walking up to the bridge. Then black.
He looked up. The superstructure was in tatters. It was pealed back like a can and in flames.
Bernal was covered in blood and water. He glanced over towards the rising sun. The Convoy had less than 30 minutes before it would be completely light. He knew that the Eagle had less. Just as he rolled over and passed out from the pain, secondary explosions ripped open the deck of the Eagle as the magazines bound for Japan detonated.
0620, M/V Patriot
He raised the radio one more time but was knocked off his feet when another detonation ripped across the Eagle.
“Fuck, that must’ve been the cargo cooking off.”
Just as Jackson returned to the bridge one of the missiles veered off course.
“… thank God,” Jackson said crossing himself
He moved up to the bridge window to face over the carnage. As he set his hands on the panel, he saw dark silhouettes vectoring down towards the ASV.
“Oh no, not the last escort!”
“Why aren’t they shooting at the missiles!?! Fucking useless Navy! Leaving the merchies to die while you sit in a fucking cubicle.”
The dark mass came down straight on top of the escort and detonated. The flash skipped across the water into the bridge, followed by the shockwave.
“Jackson, the CIWS is hot!”
Before Javier could finish the angry snowman on the top of the bridge let rip its chain gun on an approaching missile.
The vampire detonated sending debris and a shockwave breaking the glass on the bridge.
Jackson moved to the cabinet and grabbed the EPIRB, and tossed it on its life ring over the side of the bridge wing into the sea below. Next, he got the iridium satellite phone in a last-ditch effort to get help.
He extended the antenna while Javier was shouting a mayday call into the VHF, hoping someone nearby could rescue what was left of this convoy.
He dialed the emergency number for INDOPACOM, the Navy’s Pacific Command.
…. …. …. Unable to reach the network
“There should be a full signal, and we have complete line of sight to the sky?!”
“Oh shit,” Jackson muttered, realizing that the loss of connection to the Captain must have been something to do with satellites if the phone was down too. His face grew paler as he realized the EPIRB was worthless, too.
Jackson moved through the scattered mess of the bridge to the stairs down into the superstructure.
The CIWS above them took down another two missiles before running out of ammo.
“We need to abandon ship. Get the ditch bags and the supplies into the lifeboat.”
Another explosions rocked the ship as something broke through the phalanx of defensive fire.
The two men tossed their survival gear ahead, climbed into the lifeboat and strapped in.
Jackson looked to Javier and nodded.
Javier hit the release and began praying.
The small craft fell away into the sea below, dolphining under the surface before shooting back up.
Jackson fired up the engine and motored away from the doomed ship as fast as he could. Just ahead, he could see three of the barges had been hit. Those must have been the explosions earlier thought the pair independently.
A buzzing noise washed over the lifeboat. Javier looked out the top of the craft for the source.
“What the hell, are those birds..?”
His eyes were stinging with sweat, tears, and blood. He was exhausted at the barrage of the last 30 minutes. He couldn’t make out much else than the shape and a concerning buzz.
Before Javier could say anything to Jackson, the swarm of birds dove at the last barge. At least 30 of the pelicans from hell dove at the drone barge on a suicide mission.
Just as it came together, it was too late. The barge split in half at the force of the initial explosion
The concussion rocked the craft and knocked the two unconscious. Behind the lifeboat, the Eagle and Patriot began their descent into the depths.
South China Sea 0645
“Bring us alongside”
The helmsman maneuvered the small RHIB across the chop near the listing lifeboat. The squad leader brought the spotlight onto the open hatch. A man appeared.
“Oh thank god, you got our mayday!”
“We were attacked and we..”
“What ship were you aboard?” interrupted the bald clad figure.
“Uhh the M/V Patriot…” the Filipino man said quizzically.
“Where are the rest of you?” insisted the figure on the RHIB.
The first man dragged another up into the light
“Here, we are the last two… “
The squad leader nodded to the man to his left.
The man raised his weapon and sprayed the lifeboat with rifle fire. The RHIB moved closer, the man with the weapon jumped into the small craft.
“Toss them over and scuttle it, we have 10 minutes left.”
The squad leader looked down at the bodies in the water, silently. He grasped the blossom on his lapel and threw it into the sea.
Three Years Later
Sino-American War Commission:
The Investigation into the Conflict with the PRC Following the Seizure of Taiwan
Excerpt from Classified briefing report to Congress:
… In the days leading up to the start of hostilities with the People’s Republic of China, two RORO cargo ships, four drone barges, and two ASV convoy guards were lost to what is believed to be a coordinated missile and drone attack by PRC/PLAN forces. These cutting-edge drone ships had the top level of protection afforded to civilian merchant ships moving military cargo during peacetime. The ASV or Autonomous Surface Vessel is the product of the Sea Hunter Program to reach the 355 ship goal set earlier in the 2010s. Even with the advanced protection, all the vessels were lost. No survivors were recovered. The commission has no data or information on why or how they were lost other than a recording of the last few minutes before the ships lost connection with their remote operations drivers back in the continental United States. This recording depicts that the onboard defensive Close in Weapons system (CIWS) camera identified and vectored on an approaching volley of anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM). The mate on deck at the time told the remote operations center driver of the approaching threat, and then the feed went dead.
This commission has not determined for certain what caused the loss of feed. But what is known is all the satellites (22) orbiting over the South China Sea at the outbreak of hostilities three days later, were lost to unknown malfunctions as they all began to de-orbit. We never regained control of these systems, essentially making us blind and deaf in the opening bouts of the war.
Convoy 16 was tasked from Diego Garcia to the U.S. naval complex at Yokosuka Japan with stores of munitions including SM-6, SM-3, JASSM, LARSM, and TLAM. Other weapon systems including short-range air defense systems (SHORAD), and updated radar systems destined for the Japanese mainland in response to rising tensions in the region. The loss of this war material and weapon systems crippled the American response to the seizure of Taiwan. It can be inferred that this preemptive strike was meant to limit the United States’ ability to respond to the seizure of Taiwan with standoff weapons and offer up a defensive bubble with BMD capable destroyers.
We are unable to investigate the wreckage of the ships as it currently sits well within the Chinese missile umbrella that has gone up since the seizure of Taiwan. Though the open war has ended, the United States no longer can operate freely within the region as was possible before the outbreak of war.
Austin has worked in the maritime industry overseeing breakbulk and automated terminal operations. He has served as a stevedore superintendent in Mobile Alabama and an operations monitoring role at a remote operations center in Texas for a leading automated container terminal on the west coast. Austin is a master’s candidate at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service. He is pursuing an MPA with a focus on policy analysis and concentrations in cybersecurity and security policy management. Austin intends to pursue a career in infrastructure security upon graduation from the Bush school in either the public or private sector. You can find him on Twitter at @AggieIslander.
 The MSS/PLA has used academics to extract US IP for Chinese gain in the past. See this indictment from 2015 https://www.justice.gov/file/439721/download
 China has taken major steps to be the first nation to score in the quantum ‘arms race’. Quantum technology now is at the same level as traditional computing was in the 1950’s. Essentially in its infancy. – see this article for more – https://www.technologyreview.com/s/613507/the-new-benchmark-quantum-computers-must-beat-to-achieve-quantum-supremacy/
 There are 66 Iridium Sats in LEO, 11 birds can cover a 30* plane of the globe every 100 minutes http://www.iridium.it/en/iridium.htm
 The seahunter program is in development to give the USN an autonomous ASW platform. – https://news.usni.org/2019/04/29/sea-hunter-unmanned-ship-continues-autonomy-testing-as-navsea-moves-forward-with-draft-rfp
 Russia, China, and Israel have reportedly developed containerized weapon systems. Russia: http://roe.ru/eng/catalog/naval-systems/shipborne-weapons/klab-k/
 Rolls Royce is working on concepts for autonomous vessels. This Remote operation could be a step towards this goal. https://www.rolls-royce.com/~/media/Files/R/Rolls-Royce/documents/customers/marine/ship-intel/aawa-whitepaper-210616.pdf
Featured Image: “Warship” by Christian Bravery via Artstation