From Sea to Sky

Fiction Week

By David Alman

June 21, 2029
Qinche, Beijing

Wang Peng was nervous. As a watch supervisor for the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, he had been hand-picked to oversee and coordinate the first overt act of the conflict with America. Wang Peng was normally a confident man. His career had seen him command missile batteries, work on the development of the newest hypersonic glide vehicles and penetration aids, and serve multiple tours developing plans and policy for the PLA. He believed in his mission – to defend China against foreign encroachment and ensure China was respected on the world stage – and had faith that technological and doctrinal advances made the Rocket Force a potent instrument of power.

Three years ago, he would have been confident. His mission was to deny America the ability to project power into the First Island Chain. To do this, the Rocket Force had two principal targets: naval vessels and aerial-refueling tankers. Anti-ship ballistic missiles and long-range cruise missiles had already pushed the U.S. Navy far out into the Marianas Islands and limited their strike capacity by forcing them to swap cruise missiles for surface-to-air missiles to defend themselves. The U.S. Navy had done the rest by procuring short-ranged strike fighters that were all but useless in a contested environment. The tanker problem had originally been easier – just strike the handful of bases capable of handling America’s tankers, destroy the fuel farms, and attempt to kill the aircraft themselves. By killing the tanker force, the strategic bombers based in the continental U.S. would be mission-killed without needing to strike the American homeland or intercept them en-route. Much to Wang Peng’s dismay, however, intelligence had monitored a shift in American war plans that threatened to undermine much of the Rocket Force’s potency.  

Wang Peng looked over the watch floor to a new set of computer terminals and a joint team of Army, Navy, and Air Force personnel. He cursed the amount of time it had taken to get the equipment installed – he was sure American watchstanders didn’t have to deal with the amount of bureaucracy and the slow speed that came with buying anything after the anti-corruption reforms. The terminals were plugged in to a supercomputer, requisitioned from academia, with the sole objective of trying to find America’s seaplane tanker force.

Fifty Miles East of Guam

Lieutenant Commander Jessica Morello was living her dream. She sat in the left seat of the aircraft, a 200,000-pound machine gently rolling with the waves. The seas were calm, with a slight swell from a westardly wind. She had the window and hatch above her head open, headset wrapped around her neck, and a tablet on her knee. She was snacking on a protein bar and chatting with her co-pilot, Air Force Captain John Marks, waiting for contact with the tender. The joint Navy-Air Force crew reflected the joint nature of the program. The Navy was, in a repeat of the original Seaplane Striking Force debate, unwilling to divert funds from the carrier force. As a result, the Air Force funded the majority of the bill and provided most of the pilots. The Navy’s contribution came from a few pilots and the tender operation.

Captain Marks was shaking his head laughing at Morello’s explanation of her callsign, “SLAM.”

Morello had previously explained, “It’s actually an acronym that stands for ‘Super Lost Above Miramar,’ before I got into the program I was on a training mission out of Lemoore and accidentally rejoined on the wrong lead – so while the rest of the squadron flew off, I was following a Marine back to Miramar and didn’t realize it until we were calling approach. It’s hard to come back from that one, so I was renamed the next week.” Marks was still laughing when the tablet on Morello’s knee lit up, “Neptune to Penguin – coming up now, five-hundred yards out.”

Morello snapped at Marks, “Let’s get it started up.” The two officers opened their checklists and started to bring engine #2, previously off to conserve fuel, online. As the engine came alive, Marks scanned the engine instruments to ensure the engine was operating smoothly while Morello looked around at the water outside the aircraft.

The headset cracked to life, “This is Neptune, we’re at your five o’clock on the surface.” Morello kicked the left rudder pedal and leaned forward in her seat, straining to look back. As she did, the water rudder on the aircraft opened up to slowly turn it left. She advanced the right throttle to speed up the turn. Marks, responsible for the radio responded, “Copy, we’re turning.”

As they passed through forty-dive degrees of turning, Morello called out that she had the tender. Another forty-five degrees and Marks could see it too. There, sitting proudly on the surface, was how it all came together for the seaplane tanker force. The black hull of the USS Georgia looked menacing compared to the blue sky and white clouds around them. The Georgia had started life as a ballistic missile submarine ready to rain nuclear death upon America’s enemies. But, she had evolved. First, into a guided missile submarine carrying 154 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles and then into her current form as a seaplane tender. Darwin would have been proud.

As a seaplane tender, Georgia had seen her missile tubes replaced by fuel storage. The space taken up by the 24 Trident Tubes turned 154 Tomahawk tubes was immense. In tanker configuration, Georgia carried approximately 1.5 million pounds of fuel, enough to fill ten B-2 stealth bombers to max fuel capacity. The concept was relatively simple and took inspiration from both the Nazi German milch-cow U-boats and the Navy’s own Seaplane Strike Force experiments in the 1950s.

American planners had identified that the critical vulnerability in Global Strike Command’s ability to project power was tanker bases. Flying from CONUS, the B-52s, B-1s, B-2s, and eventually B-21s would be required to tank multiple times both before and after striking targets anywhere near the Chinese coast. The planes could take a Northern route – topping off over the West Coast and Alaska, but closer to Japan things got trickier. If the Japanese were in the fight, it worked out well – it was unlikely that China would strike Japan and, if they did, there were numerous airfields to disperse to. The problem was if the Japanese – or other American allies – were out of the fight. This was the worrisome scenario for American planners.

The U.S. controlled bases – namely Hawaii, Midway, Wake, and Guam plus the Marshalls and Palau – were small enough in number to be extremely vulnerable to a first strike. And, since adversaries had likely learned from Japan’s failure to destroy Pearl Harbor’s fuel farm at the start of World War II, it was all the more likely that Guam’s fuel farm would be clobbered in any opening blow. Without these bases and their fuel supplies, American bombers wouldn’t be able to reach their targets without a prohibitive amount of tanker support.

Enter the seaplane tanker force. In a modern revival of the P6M Seamaster, the Air Force had funded a rapid design effort to build the seaplanes and given money to the Navy to fund the conversion of the Georgia and a few other littoral combat ships to act as tenders. The Georgia and a few Independence-class littoral combat ships acted as tenders: packed with fuel and, in the LCS’ case, supplies. The seaplanes would operate from Apra Harbor during peacetime and scattered throughout the ocean during wartime. They could get fuel from either of their tender options and conduct maintenance back at Apra or from the surface tenders. While plans called for three squadrons of 15 planes each – enough to ensure that around 20 were operational at any given time, the contractor had only been able to construct 20 planes total by 2029. Technical issues had delayed the first test flight and the first three vehicles were at Patuxent River for test and evaluation. Two others had been written off after severe structural damage – one after bumping into a tender and the other after a hard landing in rough weather – leaving only fifteen aircraft operational in the Pacific. It was the price of doing seaplane business after half a century without it.

“Penguin to Neptune, we’re coming up on your port side,” Marks said into the radio. The reply came back quickly, “Roger Penguin, sending the guide line out now.”

The seaplane pilots could see activity on the sub’s conning tower as the crew launched a quadcopter carrying the guide line. The guide line was the first step in the refueling process. After it was secured, then the fuel line could be sent over on the same path. The pilots, with their aircraft perpendicular to the submarine, could see the drone fly toward them and over them to the fuel receiver on top of the wing. The drone landed in a recessed section of the wing with guide wire attached, its job complete for now. With the guide wire secured, the submarine raised a tall mast from the conning tower. This mast, attached to the guide wire, would be used to send over the fuel line.

Marks was looking at Morrelo who in turn was mesmerized by the whole process. “Enjoying the show?” he asked sarcastically. She responded, “Yeah it’s all pretty amazing – I don’t know how well it would ever work in bad weather though.” That was the big problem, and the reason for the two seaplane write-offs earlier in the program. While the seaplane was designed to operate in up to 8-foot seas, it required a certain amount of finesse to avoid damage.

With the fuel line attached, the transfer process could begin. With the limited pumping capability of the submarine and the flexible fuel line, only around 3,000 pounds could be transferred every minute. For the seaplane, requiring 60,000 pounds to top off to its full load of 100,000 pounds, it would be a 20 minute transfer operation. With luck, it was all the time Wang Peng and his strike force would need.

Qiche, Beijing

 “Sir, we have the target,” said the watchstander, a junior PLAN officer.

In order for Georgia to surface so close to the seaplane, engineers had installed a low-tech active sonar in the hull of the seaplane. It was not just meant to signal its position, but it also helped the seaplane explore if there were any underwater obstacles in front of it if operating in shallow water. Upon landing in the designated rendezvous area, it sent out three quick pings to help the submarine locate the aircraft. While everyone realized there was a risk in doing this, the idea was that no enemy assets would be anywhere close by. After all, Georgia was in the area and ultra-quiet. It would be able to hear any enemy sub-surface threat well before it became a problem.

What the American planners did not fully comprehend, however, was just how advanced China’s undersea surveillance network was. Over the previous decade, ultra-quiet wave-riding and battery assisted unmanned underwater vehicles had travelled at slow speeds all over the Pacific to lay sound, pressure, and magnetic sensors. Networked together, they formed an extremely capable observation network. While America’s submarines remained particularly elusive, the network helped to track the carrier battle groups, surface vessels, and, in this case, an actively pinging seaplane.

The supercomputer had gone to work immediately after hearing the signals. Using the principle of time-distance-of-arrival, combined with previous benchmarking studies, it was able to recommend a narrow search ellipse with a major axis of just ten miles and a minor axis of a mile (more precise on one axis due to the layout of the sensor network). Immediately after this information was available, Wang Peng’s team tasked one of the many ocean surveillance satellites – part of a robust constellation designed to fix America’s carrier strike groups – to look in the area. Seconds later, the machine learning algorithm had identified the aircraft and submarine on the surface of the water and generated target coordinates for other weapon systems.

The 2,000 mile range from Fujian – on the coast of China – to Guam was much too far for cruise missiles or strike aircraft to travel in the approximately 30 minute window the sub and aircraft were together. But, the Chinese had made great progress on their hypersonic weapons programs. The WU-14, a hypersonic glide vehicle boosted by a DF-17 or other ballistic missile, was capable at travelling at over 4,500 miles per hour. That allowed it to travel the distance required in twenty-seven minutes, just fast enough to strike the refueling operation.

Wang Peng took a deep breath, looked back at the watchstander and said, with some sense of remorse, “Execute now, option A – inform command we found the tanker.”

Andersen AFB, Guam

 For Captain Lindsey Harrison, Guam was her dream assignment. She had the chance to explore the history of the island and the Japanese invasion during World War II, snorkel dive in Apra Harbor, and get plenty of beach time to relax and enjoy the Pacific Ocean. On duty, she was a section supervisor for Guam’s integrated air defense system. Linked in with other national assets, she was in command of the island’s air defenses and air defense plan. It was a tense time – leadership had previously ordered them to a higher alert level, requiring more of the defense systems to be up and operational at any given time and giving the crews less time to relax. Everyone was tired.

Captain Harrison was scrolling through Twitter on her unclassified computer, thinking about when she might get over to visit Japan and try Jiro’s sushi restaurant, when her phone – the red phone used for drills or something far more deadly – rang.

“Captain Harrison – flash message just in – Chinese forces are moving to launch posture, sound the alert, get the aircraft on standby. Not a drill.”

She immediately turned to her team and ordered them into action. The first priority was flushing the aircraft from the base, especially the stealth bombers. The second priority was ensuring all air defense equipment was fully operational. The warning message was sent over to the aircrews, most on fifteen minute standby but some – including the B-2 crews – on five minute standby. They immediately raced to start their aircraft and get them in the air.

All over Guam, but particularly on the western side of the island, weapons crews pulled camouflage netting off of their equipment and powered them on. The island’s defense was a combination of radars, missiles, hypervelocity guns, one prototype laser, and multiple jammers and decoys. The United States, anticipating that China would understand the air defense layout, also possessed a few tricks up its sleeve offshore.

Three minutes after the initial alert order, Captain Harrison received another phone call, “Multiple launches on the mainland. Comms are being jammed. You’re weapons free on any Chinese assets heading your way. Good luck.” Captain Harrison’s face was drained of color as she relayed the information.

Five minutes after the initial alert order, Captain Harrison verified that all the air defenses were online and slaved to the central air defense system. Simultaneously, Spirit 01 – one of four B-2s forward deployed to the island – was taking off with its cargo of long-range missiles and headed for the holding stack offshore.

A minute later, just as Spirit 02 was beginning its takeoff roll, she received another phone call – this time from the anti-submarine warfare cell stationed on the island, “Harrison, be advised we have heavy acoustic activity consistent with missile launches fifteen miles east of the island – we’re moving to prosecute but you’ll have inbounds.”

Fifteen miles west of the island, three improved Song-class submarines – ultra quiet diesel electric submarines – were launching the last of their thirty cruise missiles. It was not the largest strike package ever assembled, nor was it required to succeed, but it would certainly cause problems for the American air defenses. The thirty missiles were split into two groups: ten were tasked towards the airfield and its runway and taxiways; the other twenty were going after the command post and search radars.

As an SH-60, redirected from a training mission, raced towards the spot where the Songs had fired, they saw multiple cylindrical shapes pass under them – the cruise missiles – and reported it in. A search radar picked up the missiles shortly after they crossed the horizon at approximately eight miles. With the missiles travelling at just over 500 miles per hour, the air defenses had one minute.

While most of the air defenses on Guam were oriented towards the west, the prototype laser battery had an unrestricted arc to the east. Two batteries of Rolling Airframe Missiles were the first to engage. Their coordinated fires sent twenty-two missiles at twenty-two targets. With limited ammunition, they could not afford to shoot twice at each as doctrine had previously called for. There were other layers to deal with the leakers.

The American missiles met the Chinese missiles four miles offshore and destroyed ten of them. Next up came the Army Avenger missile battery with its Sidewinders. The Avenger team quickly fired off its eight missiles which met the Chinese at two miles offshore. Another five went down. It was now the laser’s turn. It killed three before having to cycle its chemical cartridges. By that time, the missiles had crossed ashore. After completing its fifteen second cycling procedure, the laser managed to shoot down another two before the missiles were outside the firing envelope. The airfield would have to deal with ten.

Fortunately for Spirit 04, the missile that would have detonated right above it had been destroyed by a Sidewinder. Unfortunately for Captain Harrison, two missiles targeting her command post had made it through. The CRAM terminal defense gun took out one, but the other slammed into the bunker and detonated, wiping out Harrison and her team. The other eight missiles lost five of their number to CRAMs around base, but one managed to detonate above a taxiway – causing an enormous explosion to rip through the base as a fully loaded KC-135 tanker blew up, taking with it two more 135s and forcing Spirit 04’s crew, just getting airborne, to fight to make sure their plane wasn’t toppled over into the ground. The other two both impacted the primary search radar for the base, taking it offline.

Immediately after the main search radar went offline, another team brought the backup radar to life. The situation was bad, but not awful. All four B-2s were in the air, three B-52s were taxiing to the runway accompanied by ten F-15s, and seven KC-135s were minutes away from takeoff. Additionally, the air defenses had worked relatively well given the direction of the attack – most were oriented to the west toward China.

The next wave came from an unexpected source. 100 miles north-west of Guam, a Chinese-flagged container ship revealed itself to be carrying a deadly cargo. Instead of electronics, its containers carried cruise missiles. The 800-foot long vessel launched 200 missiles in the span of four minutes, a mix of cluster, high-explosive, and anti-radiation weapons targeted at the airfield and its defenses. Its mission complete, the container ship turned west for the long, slow, and dangerous journey home.

The Chinese expected that at least 100 of the missiles would get through given the volume in such a short time period. They had not counted on the USS Lyndon B. Johnson to be offshore. In what was a remarkable intelligence failure for the Chinese, the naval intelligence unit that tracked America’s warships had failed to relay the importance of the Zumwalt-class destroyer’s rotating patrols off Guam. It was something that everyone apparently knew, but in reality nobody put the pieces together. The U.S. Navy had found a mission for the three Zumwalt class ships:  island defense. The vessels were capable of carrying three-hundred and twenty Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSM) for missile defense. And, because they were stealthy, China had difficulty tracking the Zumwalts. It was likely for this reason that the intelligence was not relayed – China had not identified just how omnipresent at least one vessel of the class was off Guam.

The Johnson, twenty miles offshore, was trailing an aerostat two-hundred feet in the air. The aerostat was equipped with the latest electro-optical and infrared cameras to provide a passive early warning capability to the ship. A sensor operator on the ship was first alerted to a possible threat by a sharp ping in his ears. He looked toward the screen where the camera had auto-tracked one of the missiles and immediately shouted at the air warfare coordinator to go active.

Johnson’s air defenses sprang to life, powered by its SPY radar. The radar immediately picked up the missiles and automatically prioritized their engagement. The Johnson was still on a, “shoot twice, look once,” doctrine, so 200 ESSMs targeted 100 of the inbound Chinese cruise missiles. They downed 80. After Johnson went active, 15 of the Chinese missiles, coded for anti-radiation engagements, turned towards the Johnson. Johnson fired 30 missiles at these before engaging with its onboard laser and close-in point defense guns. Johnson killed the final missile just fifty yards away – debris still splattered against the ship, causing minor casualties, and one lucky piece of shrapnel cut the aerostat wire, sending it off into the sky.

Guam’s air defenses dealt handily with the remaining 70 cruise missiles – just three got through only to detonate above empty aircraft revetments. By the time the cruise missiles were detonating over empty concrete, the last of the F-15s were getting airborne. Then, the hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) arrived. Skipping along the upper edge of the atmosphere at 4,500 miles per hour, the HGVs began their terminal dive towards Andersen Air Base. Here, the hypervelocity gun weapon systems on the island went into action. There were 20 inbound targets and five guns on the island. Each gun began to pump out rounds, auto-calculating the point to aim based on the missile trajectory. The laser also joined in, immediately downing one inbound. Unfortunately for the air defenses, the glide vehicles began to deploy their penetration aids, greatly complicating the air defense picture. The air defenses were only able to down four HGVs in total, leaving 16 to strike the base.

Seven of the remainder obliterated the fuel farms on the south-west and north-west sides of the base, sending large mushroom clouds into the sky as the fuel detonated. The other nine weapons delivered the coup-de-grace. Chevron Five, the first KC-135 to roll down the runway, was just passing abort speed when the runway fifty yards in front of them disintegrated as the hypersonic vehicle slammed into the concrete and exploded its payload. With no time and no options, the KC-135s front gear collapsed as the plane passed over the hole. The plane’s nose slammed into the ground and skidded – generating a shower of sparks and causing massive structural damage to the aircraft. The crew frantically climbed out through the cockpit windows and dropped down to the ground via ropes before sprinting away. Thirty seconds later, the tanker exploded and engulfed the runway in flames. The other eight weapons hit the two runways, putting an additional five holes into the already-maimed runway and three into the previously undamaged one. Andersen was shut down, trapping the six remaining KC-135s and eliminating – for the time being – America’s primary Pacific airstrip.

Fifty miles East of Guam

Fifteen minutes and 45,000 pounds of fuel into the transfer process, Morello received an emergency disconnect warning from the Georgia. Her sonar team had picked up a submerged contact closing on them, likely one of the Song class submarines leaving its launch area. It was a fortuitous contact. By the time the five HGVs arrived at the Georgia’s position and dispensed their cluster munitions over five football fields of ocean, the Georgia was a quarter mile away and two-hundred feet underwater.

With 85,000 pounds of fuel onboard, the seaplane accelerated slowly. Once it reached an appropriate speed the seaplane rose up onto the step, the notched section of the fuselage that helped the aircraft break free from the ocean. At 150 knots, the seaplane lifted off the ocean into ground effect. Morello pushed the nose down to keep it there – the interaction of the wings with the ocean gave the vehicle more lift – and let the plane accelerate to 170 knots before pulling back on the yoke and accelerating into a climb.

“Penguin 2 is airborne,” Morello radioed into the mic. She was overjoyed at the response, “Howdy skipper, seven of nine are up over here. Heading north to the rendezvous point.” The seaplanes at Apra Harbor had emerged unscathed and were beginning to take to the air. With ten seaplanes airborne, they had nearly a million pounds of gasoline to offload to other aircraft.

Qinche, Beijing

Wang Peng’s staff was pleased, but he was not. Crippling Guam was an accomplishment – something that they had trained for and executed flawlessly. The Zumwalt class’s presence had been an unwelcome surprise, but the runways and fuel farms were both out of action. Wang Peng was angry about the Georgia. Post-strike reconnaissance did not show a huge oil slick, evidence of a successful hit. Instead, the sea was calm and undisturbed, meaning that their weapons had hit empty ocean.

Not killing the Georgia meant that there was a sizeable amount of fuel still roaming the ocean ready to fill up bombers on their way to target Chinese forces. The invasion fleet was putting to sea under cover of darkness and it was likely that they would be met by a barrage of missiles from Air Force bombers, not to mention the American Navy and its submarines. Each missile that made it through could kill hundreds of Chinese soldiers before they ever got ashore on Taiwan.

Wang Peng’s team was now playing a waiting game. Every satellite pass they would check the status of the Andersen’s runways along with alternate runways on Saipan, Tinian, and throughout the Pacific. Once the Americans were close to repairing them or had diverted to a different field, Wang Peng would order another strike to keep the bases suppressed. He couldn’t help but feel bad that the American engineer teams were working so hard only to eventually have their handiwork destroyed just as they approached completion. In the meantime, he would keep an eye out for the Georgia or any of the surface tenders, the converted littoral combat ships.

It was interesting, he thought, that they were ordered specifically to avoid targeting any of America’s powerful surface combatants or aircraft carriers. Leadership had explained that any graphic loss of life or destruction of American assets could bolster public resolve and result in a larger American response. Of course, there were exceptions – for example, Wang Peng’s team was ordered to bracket any American carrier group that approached strike range to signal Chinese capabilities. But, by limiting their strikes to air bases and minimizing casualties, they hoped that the American public would not accept a drawn-out conflict. After all, did the average American even know where Taiwan was?

200 miles east of Taiwan

Spirit Flight, the four refugee stealth bombers from Guam, headed east toward Guam. They were low on fuel. After orbiting in their holding pattern, the Air Operations Center (AOC) had ordered them to unleash their long-range anti-ship missiles (LRASMs) on a group of Chinese minesweepers and destroyers in the Strait. A continuous barrage of Chinese missiles was clobbering the Taiwanese. The Taiwanese wanted to keep their limited set of anti-ship cruise missiles hidden for now, so the Air Force would need to help blunt the initial wave of ships.

After firing off their weapons, the B-2s needed to top off on fuel. The holding pattern and strike mission cost about 4,000 miles of the B-2’s 6,000-mile range. They needed at least 3,000 more miles to make it to their alternate landing site in Australia. The pilots nervously eyed the fuel tanks as they flew east at four hundred knots. The Pacific’s size was unforgiving.

Moving west to meet them were the eight seaplanes, KBY-10 Catalina IIs, led by Morello. She had left two behind around Guam to help top off the fighters. The B-2 pilots were relieved to get their final vector to the Catalina IIs and moved to their pre-contact refueling points. Each B-2 would take 100,000 pounds total from two tankers, giving the stealth bombers the extra 4,000 mile range to reach Australia with a healthy margin. After refueling, the Catalina IIs would be running low on fuel but had planned for just that eventuality. Steaming west to meet them was one of the Independence-class tenders with two million pounds of fuel onboard.

Once done refueling the B-2s, Morello ordered her aircraft to put down on the water 100 miles away next to the tender. The calm seas made landing easy. Eight seaplanes crowded around the tender, pulling up two at a time to take on fuel. The tender used its crane to hoist one of the aircraft out of the water onto its large repair deck to run routine maintenance. They didn’t know when they’d next get the chance. With the more powerful pumps on the surface ship, each seaplane was totally refueled within twenty minutes. After two hours, the eight seaplanes were again in the air ready to support the next wave of inbound bombers. The seaplane tanker force was working.

David Alman serves in the Air National Guard. In his civilian career, he is an aerospace engineer and management consultant. David is interested in the interaction of technology and strategy, innovation, and national economic power. David holds a BS and MS, both in aerospace engineering, from the Georgia Institute of Technology and is a licensed pilot. The opinions expressed here are solely his own and do not express the views or opinions of his employers.

Featured Image: “Sea Plane 001” by Adrian Bush via Artstation

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