By Lieutenant Colonel Robert Lamont, USMC (ret.)
“All hands brace for shock. This is not a drill,” boomed the petty officer of the watch’s voice over the 1MC.
The captain tapped the button on the ship’s internal communications system and asked, “Combat, Bridge, how many inbounds?”
The radar operator’s eyes widened in the soft green glow of his screen. The number of tracks tracing lines radiated from its surface like crows’ feet. “Bridge, combat, many, many,” said Seaman Jejomar.
“Got it,” replied the Captain. He rolled his shoulder and turned toward the remote ship operator on the bridge. “Lieutenant Torres, are the Mayhem protocols set over on the Hemroni?”
The Lieutenant tapped the controls on her tablet. The edges of her eyes narrowed as they scanned down blinking green status symbols. “Yes, sir. All systems radiating and the signature is active.”
“Sir, a question if I may?” asked Ensign Smyth.
“Take hold and ask your question Ensign.”
“What are the Mayhem protocols?”
“Well, we can’t shoot down all these missiles, so we’re going to catch any leakers,” said Captain Morris. The edge of his mouth lifted into a smile.
“The Hemroni is an old merchant ship converted for remote operation. Some of those containers hold systems to radiate electromagnetic signatures akin to the task force. The missiles will home in on it and pass us. As long as we hold EMCON, it will be alright.”
“And when she sinks, sir?”
“Not likely, Ensign. The top layer of the container deck is refrigerated Pykrete.” Morris lifted his binoculars to study the lines of the ship silhouetted by moonlight some five nautical miles off the port beam.
“What’s Pykrete, sir?”
“British came up with the idea in World War Two. It is a combination of sawdust and water frozen solid. Damn stuff is stronger than steel. It wasn’t until recently that the refrigeration technology caught up to the requirement. When those missiles hit home, they won’t do much damage.”
“Here they come,” announced the bridge wing lookout. His voice broke as he ducked behind the steel wind shield.
The striking glow of ramjet exhausts were bright against the black of the night sky as they approached. The pulsating sound of their engines rang in Torres’ ears as they sped directly for the Hemroni. Smyth craned his neck in tracking the missiles pop upward, and then dive into the cargo ship. Torres turned away from the yellow-orange flame that rolled over the containers illuminating a gray smoke cloud in its wake. The dark veil of night asserted its dominance when the flames flickered out.
“I counted six, six impacts, Lieutenant. Acknowledge,” barked Morris.
“Aye, sir. The instrumentation shows six. All systems in the green. She’s continuing to radiate, sir,” said Torres.
“Sir, if the Pykrete is such a good defense, why isn’t the ship crewed?” asked Smyth.
“It’s sort of hard to find volunteers to stand the mid-watch on a target ship, Ensign,” quipped Morris. “Are you stepping up?”
“No, sir. I did, however, want to know the origin of the ship’s name?” asked Smyth.
“The Hemroni was named for a fictional British strategist from the age of sail in the HMS Comet series. The book is on the CNO’s required reading list. You didn’t know, Mister Smyth?” said Morris tightening his stare on the junior officer. “Check it out on Amazon. It would enhance your professional development.”
“I’ll look it up, sir.”
“Lieutenant Torres, any word on the status of the Independence?”
“No, sir. Given their last reported position, they should be approaching the drop point in 15 minutes.” She looked over her shoulder to check the status board and nodded.
“Officer of the deck, once we get the deployed status report from Independence, I want to execute an immediate return to the Balabac Strait. We need to make for the Sulu Sea and get some deep water under the keel. The Independence may well like all this shallow water, but it just makes me nervous.”
“True, sir,” said the Officer of the Deck. He lifted a hand and pointed off to the northwest. “However, given the notorious lack of capability of the Littoral Combat Ship class, they required escort to deliver their package. They were supposed to relieve larger ships for other duties, but now we have to support them so they can complete their mission. Makes one wonder, just who in the hell is supporting whom.”
One side of Morris’ face tightened, and he lifted one eyebrow toward the officer of the deck. He added a single word, “Indeed.”
“On the Independence, this is Lieutenant Choker, I have the deck and the con,” his bull-like voice echoed across the bridge. He looked over to see Commander Sarah Gonzales motion him over to her Captain’s chair.
“Yes, ma’am,” said Choker.
“It’s Captain, not ma’am, Lieutenant. I’ve worked damn hard to plant my butt in this seat and I damn well expect to be addressed as so,” said Gonzales. “Now, what is the status of launching the zodiac?”
“I checked with the ship’s First Lieutenant on my way up to the bridge and he said they would be underway in…” he paused and look at his wristwatch, “20 minutes, Captain.”
“We don’t have 20 minutes. The task force just dodged a missile salvo. Combat has lost the electromagnetic spectrum, it’s like we are fighting in a fog,” said Gonzales. She looked toward the port bridge wing and allowed her stare to carry out toward Mischief Reef. That small spit of land stood out there alone in the darkness. “Just steady up toward the reef. The more distance we gain the less the zodiac will have to cover when they debark.”
“Aye, aye, Captain,” said Choker.
“Any word from the landing force?” asked Gonzales holding a stare on the communications officer.
“No, Captain. They have been silent since reporting touchdown two days ago. When the satellites went down, we lost both voice and data transfer. The Chinese crafted the worms and computer viruses with precision. One of my techs found backdoor code in a replacement part we got from the Pacific Rim. For all I know they could have been from Korea, Taiwan, or Japan. They came to play, and their play has taken the whole of the electronic spectrum with it,” said the communications officer. His gaze fell to the deck as he spoke.
Pushing on the internal ship link, Gonzales said, “Combat, Bridge, what have I got left in the way of EW assets?”
“Not much, Captain. I don’t know what they did, but all our offensive and defensive electronics are down hard. Jammers are fried solid. The techs are pushing to repair, but I can’t say when we’ll be back up. The only thing you can count on are the two chaff launchers.”
“Stern gate, Bridge, when will you get the boat launched?” asked Gonzales.
“I need 10 more minutes,” said the ship’s first lieutenant.
“You’ve got five,” said Gonzales. The pause gave the bridge crew time to exchange glances.
“Aye, Captain. Five it is.”
“Officer of the Deck, possible missiles inbound starboard side,” yelled the bridge wing lookout.
“Combat, Bridge, bearing for chaff deployment?”
“You’re on it, Captain.”
“Fire chaff,” screamed Gonzales. Her voice wavered as she spoke. The muffled pop, pop, of the chaff canisters going airborne resonated down to the bridge. The quartermaster of the watch bobbed his head in response.
“Officer of the Deck, evasive action,” said Gonzales.
“Aye, aye, Captain.”
“Helmsman, right standard rudder, steady on course 260,” said Choker.
“Sir, my rudder is right standard.”
“Two missiles passing starboard, Captain,” said Choker. His head snapped as he traced their flight aft.
“Sir, steady on course 260,” said the Helmsman.
“Very well,” replied Choker. He moved to the bridge wing. His gaze followed the long white luminescence of the ship’s wake as it etched a sheen across the night blue waters of the shoal.
“Bridge, stern gate, the zodiac is away. I say again, the zodiac is away. You are free and clear to maneuver.”
“Officer of the Deck, turn us around and head east. We’ll make for the Balabac Strait,” said Gonzales. She labored to keep her tone in check.
“Missiles inbound,” said the petty officer of the watch. His extended hand shook as he pointed to the northwest.
“Fire chaff,” said the Captain.
“They’re not reloaded yet,” said Choker.
“Why the hell not?” asked Gonzales.
“Seems no one topside thought it was important enough to give the keys to the ammunition locker to Petty Officer Albert,” said Choker. “He knows everything about those weapons but can’t do squat without rounds.”
“Great. Evasive action,” commanded Gonzales.
“Too late,” barked Choker. He grabbed the 1MC, and announced, “Missiles inbound starboard side, brace for shock.”
In the damage control locker, Petty Officer Freeman pulled his flame-resistant suit up over his shoulders. The crinkling sound of the silver fabric filled his ears as he secured the straps. It was too hot to wear the thing otherwise. The missile impact rippled through the deck casting his entire team off their feet. Freeman had to fight the pull on his body as the ship decelerated. His un-commanded movement stopped on impact with a fire extinguisher. For reasons he couldn’t explain, his eyes noticed the inspection tag was out of date. He keyed the intercom to talk with Damage Control Central, nothing. He thought, dead, not even static on the line. The ship began to ease to port causing him to strengthen his grip to remain vertical.
The squeaking sound of the watertight hatch undogging was his first clue that a runner had reached the team. Warrant Officer McKay stepped through the portal. Pointing aft, he said, “We’re hit in after steering. I’ve got flames and flooding starboard side. Get your team down there and put out the fire. We’ll deal with the flooding once it’s out.”
Freeman nodded. “Follow me,” he said waving his hand and heading aft. The team pulled their hoses over knee knockers and down the passageway. His eyes widened on seeing the extent of the blaze. He grabbed McKay’s shirt, and yelled above the roar of the flames, “I’ve got fire on both sides now. It’s moving forward. I’ve got to get more people down here to fight this thing.”
“You know we’re shorthanded. What you’ve got is what you’ve got. Put the damn thing out,” said McKay.
“Be nice to have some of the civilian maintenance contractors down here now in the middle of this sh—”
“Shut up and fight aft,” screamed McKay.
The hose team stepped forward, sweeping the hose left and right. The flames were knocked down, only to burst back to life as the foam moved side to side. Freeman’s mouth fell agape when the hose went limp.
“I’ve lost water pressure,” yelled Freeman.
“I’m on it,” yelled back McKay. Freeman flashed his gaze forward and then aft when the Warrant Officer disappeared forward.
“What do we do now?” asked the seaman holding the nozzle.
Freeman was pulled to the look of the sailor’s eyes. He had seen terror before, but never had the look so embraced the essence of a man’s soul. The lad’s head movements were jerky and abrupt as the flames crept closer.
“We hold. We will hold here. The water will be back on in a minute,” said Freeman.
Lieutenant Commander Jim Day moved next to the captain. They turned away from the rest of the bridge team. The conversation was conducted in hushed tones and whispers, but it drew the full attention of everyone on the bridge.
“Captain, you know the ship is lost,” said Day.
“Not while I still have one DC team emplaced aft,” retorted Gonzales.
Day let out a huff, and said, “Captain that’s all you’ve got, one team and it’s not at full strength. Even DOT&E said this thing couldn’t take damage and survive. Well, we’ve taken more than a little damage here, Captain. She’s done.”
“I don’t give a damn what DOT&E says, I’m not quitting the ship.”
“But you do give a damn about your sailors, Captain. You’ll need to start moving them off now to clear this thing before the fire reaches the central magazines. It’s going to light up like a roman candle in 15 minutes max.”
Gonzales looked back across the bridge. All eyes reflected the dim sparkle of the battle lanterns and held in her direction. Her mentors at the Naval Academy had never taught her how to quit, and now didn’t seem like a good time to start. For one brief moment, she could visualize the flag that hung in Smoke Hall; “Don’t give up the ship.” The captain’s hand tapped in time with the ship’s clock, as the seconds march by. The collective stare of the watch team was focused on this one corner of the bridge.
“Orders, Captain,” said Choker.
“Abandon ship. All hands abandon ship,” said Gonzales. She leaned back in her chair and waved the bridge team away.
“Captain, we have to go now,” said Day.
“I’m staying with the ship, Commander. I will not surrender my Independence,” said Gonzales. She pressed her upper lip down hard to mask any emotion.
“It will be the death of you, Captain.”
She nodded but turned her stare forward. Day exhaled, saluted, and departed the bridge.
Colonel Garret had to tighten his eyes as the arc of the sun peaked above the horizon on the open ocean. Even at this early hour, he had to flex his fingers between the buttons of his utility uniform to force air across his chest. This did little to abate the sweat building on his back and neck. His muscles strained with each impact of the zodiac as it glided across the South China Sea swell. The splash of sea water across his face was cooling, even if it did taste of salt.
“Sir, we’re ten mikes out from the reef,” barked the coxswain above the roar of the outboard motors. The colonel nodded and tugged on his kit.
Garret took in the scene illuminated before him. The trade winds pushed a light column of smoke across Mischief Reef. He followed the rise and fall of the swell on a Chinese research vessel half submerged in the channel blocking the entrance to the artificial island’s bay. Two Light Amphibious Warships stood stranded on the reef across from the channel. He lifted his hand in that direction, and said, “Get me over there by those ships. That side of the island is under Marine control. The Chinese hold the other. Let’s go, quickly now.” He had to strengthen his grip when the coxswain threw the throttle forward causing the zodiac to go airborne. The twin outboard engines hissed at him before settling back in the water.
The zodiac made a soft crunching sound as it slid up onto the sand. With one pack strap over his shoulder Garret leaped over the gunwale and splashed ashore. He could hear the Coxswain scream for his crew to push away before he reached the high-water mark. His ears were accosted by the heavy thumping of mortar fire scattering sand about him as it attempted to chase the boat back to sea. The grit of the sand clung to his face as he went prone avoiding the metal that whistled above. A quick glance up, and he saw a Marine waving for him to move in their direction. With a huff, he sprinted off the beach and collapsed next to a concrete building.
“Who the hell are you?” asked Garret.
“Staff Sergeant Jane Darby, sir.”
“And what is your job in this goat rope?”
“Intel and Info Specialist, sir,” said Darby. She pointed to a concrete block building and added, “The captain’s CP is this way.”
Moving by the 81mm mortar section, they both ducked below the debris of a shell-pocked barracks and darted into the darkness of the CP. Looking around he noticed most of the company staff were huddled around computer screens that flashed static or were blank. He could feel his hands tighten into compact fists.
“Sir, Captain Reed, how can I help the colonel?”
The colonel’s frown deepened on studying the appearance of the Marine captain. Not a single wrinkle was etched across his brow. His mind raced, the captain looks so young. He can’t have more than six to eight years in this outfit and half of that wouldn’t even be in the operating forces. To place so much responsibility for this operation’s success in one so young, who the hell thought that was a good idea?
“Captain Reed, you’re alive. I was sure you died given we haven’t heard squat from you in 48 hours,” said Garret. “Why isn’t this island under your control?”
“We’ve encountered some…issues, sir.”
“Go on,” said Garret. His tone was skeptical.
“The LAWs got us ashore with 19 ACVs each. Between the headquarters and barracks buildings, we were fighting in an urban environment from the moment we disembarked. The ranges were so short they could hardly miss with RPGs and the armor on the vehicles couldn’t withstand any hits. The ACV is a great vehicle, sir. It just doesn’t have the survivability to go toe-to-toe in an urban battle. We had to clear this place dismounted, room-by-room, with rifles and grenades mostly. The same way my grandfather did in Germany.”
“I saw a fist full of ACVs on the runway. Was that by design to block the airstrip?” asked Garret. The colonel was glancing around trying to read the mood within the room.
“No, sir. I think that’s one Lieutenant Ashley should explain,” said Reed. He waved for the young officer to join them.
“Yes, sir,” said Ashley saluting.
The colonel made him hold the greeting, and asked, “What happened out there on the airfield Lieutenant?” Given the lieutenant’s time in purgatory, he saluted, and let him assume a more relaxed stance.
“Sir, when I saw how we were getting bogged down on this side of the island, I decided to use maneuver and shatter the enemy’s cohesion. Exploiting speed as a weapon, we attacked along the airstrip before the enemy could react.”
“Did you request supporting arms?” asked Garret.
The Lieutenant glanced over to Staff Sergeant Darby, and then to his company commander. Darby stepped into the discussion, and said, “Sir, the Chinese knew just how to hit us. All our dispersed operations rely on the electromagnetic spectrum for connectivity. The minute we radiate, they send heavy mortars, 120mm or larger, directly at us. You haven’t gotten any reports for the same reason. Worse, it’s a two-way net. Our long-range missiles remain idle since they can’t get any targeting data. We can’t see a damn thing, sir.”
“Did you try remoting your antenna to reduce your vulnerability?”
“Yes, sir, but they have some sort of artificial intelligence program over there. The minute you key to talk, you can hear the thump of the mortar rounds on their way. Can’t see how a person in the loop can turn it around that fast.”
“I’m going to have to report all this back to headquarters you know,” said Garret.
“Good luck with that, sir. We’ve been unable to crack their interference over the net or on the airwaves,” said Reed.
Garret pulled a boxy shaped object from his pack and held it up. Engaging the handle, a light flashed several times. “I’ll use this Captain. My zodiac is holding offshore until I signal.”
“Flashing light, sir. Just a little primitive, don’t you think?”
“Primitive, directional, and short ranged. Perfect for skirting around the electromagnetic spectrum and keeping messages secure. Who would have thought we’d be using boats as messengers to close the communications gap. I’ll bet you don’t even know your Morse code, do you, Captain?”
Reed looked to the deck, and replied, “No, sir. It never was a requirement.”
“What have you done to throw them off balance?” asked Garret. The wrinkles around his eyes were etched just a little deeper.
“I ran a shore-to-shore night attack across the lagoon to exploit the stealth signature of the ACV. The vehicle’s tires struggled to negotiate the coral reef and that slowed us down, sir. However, it was the Chinese night vision that gave us away first. They just sat there and shot at us like the battle of Jutland.”
“Alright, lots of attempts to get at them, but what are you trying to accomplish here. What is their center of gravity?”
“I’m afraid I’ll have to address that one, sir,” said Darby. Her tone sounded sheepish. “When we did our threat assessment, it was determined that the island’s distillation plant was key. Take out their ability to make water and they would have to throw down in a week at most.”
“And?” The colonel tightened his stare on her and held his arms akimbo.
The staff sergeant threw a can to him, his catch was reflexive. Reading the label aloud, he said, “Tsingtao. A Chinese beer, so what?”
“Not beer, sir. The island is stocked full of those and they are all water. The Chinese stockpiled enough water here to last a very long time. We on the other hand, have burned through our two days of supply carried on the ACV and have to eat what chow we have captured,” said Darby. The edges of her mouth turned down on that comment.
“How are their rations?”
“It’s an acquired taste, sir.”
“Well, it would seem not only have the Chinese read Sun Tzu, but they appear to understand his lessons as well,” said Garret.
“Meaning what, sir?” asked Reed.
“Meaning they cheat. They don’t play by any set of rules because it’s not in their culture to do so. We were so confident in our ability to exploit predictive intelligence to unhinge them, we now find our forces scattered across the archipelago in penny-sized packets of combat power unable to exploit the range of our missile forces to support each other because we can’t pass the engagement data required to launch such a strike.”
“How did we get to such a state, sir?” asked Ashley.
“Can’t single out one thing, Lieutenant. Part of the outcome rests on what can be called the MEU mentality.”
“We spent so much of the last twenty years deploying and exercising as MEUs we came to believe those were amphibious operations. Since many of those that were successful in that environment went on to become senior officers, we’ve become hostage to our own experience.”
“But I don’t see how that operational experience can be a detriment, sir,” said Reed.
“In itself, experience is not a bad thing. You have to be able to employ the wisdom to know when your experience is, or more importantly, is not, relevant.”
“How does that apply to MEUs?” asked Ashley.
“A MEU commander has to balance many constraints. Personnel available, weapons status, training time, and perhaps most overarching, the lift available. They became absorbed in the knap sack problem.”
“The what?” Ashley widened his eyes.
“The knap sack problem is a common optimization problem familiar to all your Operations Research types out of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. In short, you have to fill the knap sack with the most valued items to secure the greatest value within a given set of constraints. The three ship ARG served as our knap sack for generations of Marines that deployed worldwide. I fear it has become the albatross around our neck to the same extent as the Ancient Mariner.”
“As opposed to what?” Reed’s stare locked on the colonel demanding an answer.
“Backward planning has always been a hallmark of amphibious operations. First, develop your scheme of maneuver ashore. Once you have that down to ensure a win, determine the shipping you need to carry it into contact. When you reach the scene of action with a predetermined load, the best you can do is execute some sub-optimal scheme of maneuver. What could have made your maneuver here more viable?” The colonel’s eyes now flashed between the three Marines.
“I could have used some armor-protected firepower to clear this built-up area on landing. It would have allowed us to sustain momentum off the beach and carry the other side of the island,” said Reed.
“I needed heavy indirect firepower on the ground with us,” said Ashley, “it’s an essential element of our maneuver doctrine.” He pointed in the direction of the airstrip. “When I made my dash, if I could have kept their heads down, we would have maneuvered with a speed negating any response. The 81mm mortars just didn’t have the punch to intimidate them behind these fortified walls.”
“The nature of this compound didn’t show up in all the satellite images I studied,” said Darby. She kicked a sandbag on the interior bulkhead. “That fact that they reinforced these structures with sandbags was lost to us, as well. Nothing really replaces collection agencies on the ground when it comes to assessing enemy capabilities. When poor information on the enemy was coupled with loss of the electromagnetic spectrum, this outcome was predictable.”
“And so, despite being chartered to field a force that can fight across the spectrum of conflict, we tailored ourselves for one scenario. When that scenario didn’t unfold as envisioned, we lacked the flexibility to adapt to new challenges on the other side of the bay,” said Garret. His upper lip slammed down when he finished.
“Sir, did you just say we violated our own doctrine when we formed these specialized Marine Littoral Regiments?”
“I was in the room at Quantico during all those discussions. At the time, we sure as hell didn’t think so. We labored to build a modern naval combined arms force. In retrospect, a few more eyebrows should have been raised when we agreed to plug into the Navy’s composite warfare framework. I think too many folks were too proud to admit they didn’t fully understand the nature of the doctrine and the implications for our command and control. We’ve made the MAGTF look more like a boat than a ground combat formation,” said Garret.
He looked out the window and over the white-capped waters of the ocean. “We have become missile centric and lack the mobility and sustaining fire power to facilitate maneuver. As you said, you couldn’t keep their heads down with indirect fire when you started off across the airstrip. When the Commandant asked for someone to come see what was happening here, I jumped at the chance. Just wanted to see how my baby came out.”
“The baby is ugly, sir,” quipped Darby. Taking a deep breath, she added, “What will they do now, sir?” She bit her lower lip in anticipation of his response.
“Now Staff Sergeant, they will play a game of Wei-Ch’i with us,” said Garret. A shallow grin occupied his expression.
“Meaning exactly what, sir?”
“In the game of Wei-Ch’I, the defeat mechanism is encirclement. Right now the Chinese Navy is sending its submarine force into the narrows of the Philippine Archipelago. They will bottle up any reinforcement and wait us out. We have attempted to wall them up along their coast. But, with the expanse of Russia behind them, it is unlikely we’ll be able to isolate them for long. It’s not like the Russians have ever really been our friends or supported our interests. We on the other hand, can’t get resupply since our ships are held distant and we don’t have control of the seas.”
“Can’t they helo in our stuff,” asked Ashley.
“Not with all that air defense gear on the other side of this rock. It would be worse than our helicopter losses in the Grenada Operation. I think this evolution will have much in common with that little Caribbean escapade,” said Darby.
“In what way Staff Sergeant?” asked Garret.
“Both will feature lots of lessons learned,” quipped Darby. One side of her face lifted in a slanted smile.
“Well, it would appear we are going to be here for a long time,” said Garret. He picked up a Chinese ration, and added in a whisper, “Fortunately, I like rice.”
LtCol Robert Lamont (ret.) spent 22 years in the Marine Corps, including tours with the Marine Detachment aboard USS Constellation (CV-64) and the USS Cleveland (LPD-7) as a Combat Cargo Officer. His final tour was as a III MEF action officer planning Cobra Gold in Thailand and Tandem Thrust in Australia. He currently writes maritime fiction in that age of sail. Follow his work at www.amazon.com/author/lamont78
Featured Image: “Armored Light Vehicle Concept” by Ahn Hyoungsup (via Artstation)