The Return of the Sea Control Podcast

By Jared Samuelson

Sea Control! Our podcast dedicated to all things maritime security makes its triumphant return. New host Jared Samuelson introduces himself and provides a brief preview of the new format. Plus: great music by Kimber’s Men!

Download The Return of the Sea Control Podcast Teaser Here

Jared Samuelson is a career U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He previously commanded USS Whirlwind (PC 11). He produces and hosts CIMSEC’s Sea Control podcast. His work has appeared on CIMSEC and War on the Rocks.

Operation Tripolitan

Fiction Week

By Jared Samuelson

Celebes Sea, approximately 850 nautical miles from Fiery Cross Reef – 0030 Local

“Romeo’s closed up,” came the call from the port bridge wing. Raising the red and yellow romeo flag to the top of the stays was the signal USS Omaha, an Independence-class Littoral Combat Ship, was beginning its approach to the Japanese oiler Mashu.

Lieutenant Junior Grade Hassan Caterall’s hands betrayed a slight tremor as he flicked his eyes in the direction of his Executive Officer, the ship’s second-in-command. The XO, Commander Morgan Dennis, a former enlisted sailor with more than 20 years in the Navy, hovered over the console between Hassan and the ship’s Navigator, Lt. j.g. Mike Dunleavy. Dennis’s eyes moved continuously, alternately looking out the windows ahead, down at the radar and navigation displays in front of his junior officers and towards the bridge wing where the ship’s captain stood, watching and measuring the distance to the oiler.

“Let’s go, Caterall,” Dennis said. “Just remember, if there’s a problem, forget that schoolhouse bullshit. Just put the throttle down and walk hard away.”

Hassan had completed the training required to drive the LCS just three weeks prior. He thought ruefully about how he and his classmates had spent most of their free time in class bitching about how unrealistic and unnecessarily rigorous the training was. Now he found himself about to make a silent, nighttime approach in wartime conditions to a foreign oiler and silently thanked his instructors. He shifted in his seat. His flame-retardant flash hood pulled at his neck. He was wearing the hood pulled down so as not to restrict his vision; his gloves sat in his lap to allow for maximum dexterity while controlling Omaha’s sensitive waterjet engines.

With his left hand, he eased the combinator, which controlled Omaha’s waterjets, forward, increasing power. The combinator clicked and locked in his hand. He stifled his momentary panic and relaxed his hand while counting to four, just as he’d been taught. At four, he eased the combinator forward again, allowing himself to exhale as he felt the ship surge forward. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the shark-like silhouette of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer O’Kane, backlit by the moon as she searched for enemy submarines.

************

The South Pacific War, as the media called it, had come without notice. The Chinese executed simultaneous attacks coinciding with two American freedom of navigation operations or FONOPs. In the first, the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group, sailing through the Taiwan Strait, found itself saturated with ballistic and anti-ship cruise missiles, resulting in the worst U.S. Navy losses since the battle of Savo Island. Only the destroyer John McCain had limped away, sustaining multiple missile hits to her superstructure and scores of dead.

The second FONOP, at Mischief Reef in the Spratly islands, ended similarly when Chinese fighters operating from the new airfield at Fiery Cross Reef flew in below the horizon and surprised the destroyers Chung-Hoon and Chafee. Both ships were hit multiple times. Nearby Chinese naval militia in unmarked fishing vessels immediately swarmed, overwhelming the crews with the result that the two American hulks were taken as prizes and moored to a pier at Mischief Reef. An exultant Chinese government immediately released images of the listing ships pierside, Chinese flags flying from their deformed masts. An unknown number of Americans remained on the island as prisoners, complicating plans for a retaliatory strike.

The attacks were just a distraction for the long-anticipated move against Taiwan. With the 7th Fleet Carrier Strike Group at the bottom of the Straits of Taiwan, a large Chinese amphibious force sortied from the fleet base at Ningbo and landed all along Taiwan’s west coast. Despite fierce opposition, Chinese special forces who had infiltrated the populace, a seemingly endless supply of ballistic missiles and China’s unfettered ability to pour in more troops meant the Taiwanese struggle, while valiant, was ultimately doomed.

Chinese missile salvos against Guam and the remaining 7th Fleet ships in Yokosuka and Sasebo, Japan rendered the U.S. Navy impotent west of Pearl Harbor. The Japanese, who had seen much of their own fleet destroyed, were supporting their American allies with two surviving Kongo-class destroyers, the diesel submarines that were underway at the time of the attack, and a trio of ships that had been visiting the American east coast on a training cruise. The Australians had immediately pledged support, but their units were patrolling far to the south. America’s European allies were still mulling over their positions.

American fortunes had improved slightly since the opening onslaught. A decision to eliminate Chinese satellites had resulted in a tit-for-tat exchange that destroyed both countries’ known GPS constellations and reconnaissance satellite coverage. The result for the U.S. Navy was a dramatically reduced Chinese ability to surveil the Americans. The U.S. Air Force had thrown up an improvised constellation of miniature satellites to partially restore American reconnaissance and geolocation services. The satellites, due to their size and number, were proving much harder for the Chinese to locate and destroy.

A Chinese sally from beneath their protective ballistic missile umbrella had been smashed when a pair of American submarines had devastated one of two Chinese carrier strike groups and an accompanying amphibious force. American submarines had performed exceedingly well, doing enough damage to cause Chinese commanders to pull Chinese submarines back into coastal waters. On the heels of those successes, the U.S. Navy would attempt its first tentative step forward to push back the Chinese bubble using its most unlikely platform, the Littoral Combat Ship.

************

Omaha and her Surface Division 11 sisters, Jackson, Montgomery ,and Gabrielle Giffords, had originally been conceived as “Surface Warfare” variants of the Littoral Combat Ship. Each nominally carried a crew of 74, 16 short-range Hellfire missiles and eight Kongsberg long-range Naval Strike Missiles. She and her sisters were now loaded, however, for far more than surface warfare.

SurfDiv 11 had rendezvoused with the Belleau Wood Amphibious Ready Group near Palau a day earlier. Omaha and Jackson had each taken aboard two companies of marine infantry and three Viper helicopters. Gabrielle Giffords embarked a team of maintainers for the Vipers, Marine logisticians, and pallets of small arms ammunition and food. Montgomery received a platoon of marines, a number of large, nondescript boxes, and a team of contractors. Aboard Omaha and Jackson, the Vipers were fully armed, fueled, and strapped to the flight deck. The infantrymen were packed into what, in peacetime, had been cavernous, and often empty, mission bays. Hassan had walked past the bay on his way to the bridge before watch, noting every square foot of space now seemed to be occupied by someone in digital green camouflage.

Before getting underway, each LCS received a hasty alteration to the massive mission bay door on the ship’s starboard side. Rather than a hydraulically operated mechanism to open the door that allowed cargo to be loaded and unloaded directly from the mission bay to the pier, each door was now rigged with a relatively simple pin and wire mechanism to turn it into a ramp that could be raised and lowered. The alteration allowed a single crewman to rapidly drop the ramp by hammering out a pair of retaining pins. The ramp would have to be reseated by a team of 10 sailors pulling it manually back into place.

It wasn’t until the ships were underway, leaving San Diego behind at a brisk 40 knots, that Omaha’s Commanding Officer, Captain Mark Dewitt, assembled the crew to explain the mission. Jovial and relaxed in peacetime, the weeks of conflict had taken a toll on Dewitt. Dewitt paused briefly while providing an overview of the early American defeats, gathering himself as he recounted events that had resulted in the deaths of numerous friends. Hassan thought the Captain’s face betrayed his weariness. He wondered if he was the only one who noticed.

Omaha and SurfDiv 11 were to be part of a massed, high speed assault on the Chinese base complex in the South China Sea. After a series of cross-Pacific, 40-knot sprints from oiler-to-oiler (the LCS was notoriously thirsty for fuel and had minimal tank capacity), the ships would embark marines near Palau, conduct a final refueling in the Celebes Sea, and then dash the remaining 800 miles to the Chinese base at Fiery Cross Reef.

Their arrival would be preceded by a barrage of Tomahawk missiles launched from American ships and submarines and Conventional Air-Launched Cruise Missiles fired from Air Force B52s. The Vipers would be launched in advance of their arrival at Fiery Cross to suppress enemy defenses further. SurfDiv 11 was to charge the piers, blasting shore targets with the ship’s 57 mm gun and Hellfire missiles while using the incredibly maneuverable waterjet engines to get pierside long enough to drop their ramps and allow the Marines to storm the pier. The marines would be outnumbered, but the general in command was counting on the combined firepower to shock the Chinese and allow his marines to overwhelm the defenses long enough to fly in reinforcements from a base in Palawan.

A pair of Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transports or EPFs, militarized high-speed ferries, would deliver additional air defense units, coastal defense cruise missiles, surveillance radar, and other support elements to establish an Expeditionary Advanced Base. Finally, a pair of U.S. Air Force Rapid Raptor packages would be airborne, waiting to swoop into the freshly seized airfield to begin offensive operations against neighboring Chinese installations.

At the same time, another division of LCSs with marines and special forces embarked would assault or raid the Chinese positions at Cuarteron Reef. A set of unmanned surface vessels and drones were already underway, flooding the area immediately surrounding the South China Sea with false signals to confuse Chinese targeting efforts.    

The mission’s most daring element, however, was its conspicuous lack of major fleet units. Because of the required transit speeds and the detectability of their high-powered Spy radars, American commanders had elected to leave their most potent ships, the Arleigh Burke destroyers and Ticonderoga cruisers, behind. Those units would remain west of the Philippines or in the Celebes Sea to give the Chinese the impression the American fleet was hesitant to push back into the South China Sea. This left the undergunned LCSs exposed to Chinese missiles with only electronic countermeasures and short-range Rolling Airframe Missiles for self-defense.

Celebes Sea approximately 300 miles south southeast of Davao, The Phillipines – 0032 Local

Hassan felt Mashu’s wake nudge Omaha’s bow to starboard as he approached the oiler’s stern. The seas were glassy. The beautiful scene, a full moon reflecting from the ocean’s surface, made for ideal weather for submarines hunting surface ships, although the Chinese had shown no inclination to push their subs out this far. Hassan pushed the thought from his mind and angled his waterjets toward the oiler, forcing Omaha onto a course paralleling the larger ship while Captain Dewitt shouted ranges from the bridge wing. Seconds later, the XO said curtly, “Cut it,” and Hassan reduced power as Omaha settled into position alongside. A line was passed between them to allow the ships to easily measure distance. Normally strung with disposable chemlights, the ships were instead supposed to remain darkened, so distances were relayed via sound-powered telephone. The heavy metal spanwire was hauled over and connected, allowing Mashu’s refueling rig to slide into a bell-shaped receptacle on Omaha’s port side.

Hassan could hear the exchange between the Engineering Officer of the Watch, seated behind him, and the captain culminating with the order to “commence pumping.” It required all his concentration to hold Omaha alongside the Japanese ship. He spent the next 20 minutes silently praying the combinators wouldn’t lock while the ships were this close together. By the time the order “cease pumping” was relayed, he was drenched in sweat and his left hand was cramping on the combinator handle.

As the lines from Mashu dropped clear, he pushed the combinator handle forward. The division “flagship,” Omaha had refueled last and now, free of the oiler, she surged forward, gradually increasing speed to 40 knots as her three sisters and the two EPFs fell in astern, heading northwest in a loose column toward the gap between Tapaan and Maningkulat Islands.

Hassan’s relief, Lt. j.g. Marilyn Starnes, the ship’s Auxiliaries Officer, came up to the bridge a few minutes later and began preparing for watch turnover. Starnes gathered information from Dunleavy, including the ship’s course, speed, and maneuvering intentions for the next few hours while Hassan remained “eyes up,” scanning the horizon for surface contacts. Once ready, Marilyn requested the Captain’s permission to relieve and then allowed Hassan to stand and step away from his chair. He was too tired to apologize for how sweaty he’d left the seat.

Hassan headed below to the messdecks, joining a line of sweaty sailors who had just left their replenishment stations. The marines, mercifully, were eating MREs in the mission bay, so as not to overwhelm the small crew manning Omaha’s galley. Mike Dunleavy joined him in line a few minutes later and the XO showed up shortly, as well. The two junior officers occupied a table in the corner of the messdecks and tried to hide their disappointment when the XO sat down heavily at the next table over.

The XO looked pointedly at them, “You two need to rack out after this. I don’t care what other obligations you think you have. We go to GQ in 16 hours and we’ll be there until we’re pierside or at the bottom.”

The two juniors looked at each other, half-eaten grilled cheese sandwiches hanging from their hands. Finally, Hassan turned back to the XO. “Are we going to make it, sir?” Commander Dennis regarded his young officer, “I think we’ll get in … but the mission isn’t always to come home.”

South China Sea, 200 nautical miles southeast of Fiery Cross Reef, 1800 Local

Hassan had been lying awake in his rack for an hour when the alarm sounded to bring Omaha to General Quarters or ‘GQ’, her highest condition of readiness. He’d slept in his flash hood and had his gloves tucked into his pocket. Just before he reached his battle station on the ship’s bridge, he found a Chief passing out new additions to his wardrobe, lightweight body armor, a small life preserver that clipped around his waist, and a Kevlar helmet. He took a minute to tighten the body armor and briefly considered the inflatable yellow life preserver, light and packed small enough in its navy blue pouch that it fit in his hand and wondered if the buoyancy would be enough to overcome the weight of the body armor if he went into the water.

He found Mike Dunleavy already in the left-hand seat and started gathering information. The ship’s electronic warfare specialists were reporting jamming by both sides. The Chinese had multiple surface and airborne radars flooding the South China Sea searching for Americans, but thus far the combination of jamming support and the NEMESIS system meant SurfDiv 11 was undetected. Montgomery would soon add another element for the Chinese to consider: the nondescript boxes she’d onloaded earlier had transformed into a series of launchers spread over the flight deck. Loaded into the launchers were the drones comprising the LOCUST system. The Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology would release a swarm of autonomous drones to confuse Chinese radars at the four air defense batteries on Fiery Cross Island’s periphery, buying the LCS, the Vipers, and anyone else approaching the islands additional time to pull within weapons release range.

Hassan looked down at the closed circuit camera showing the flight deck, now a hive of activity as marines and sailors worked together to prep the Vipers for launch. The nervous energy permeating the ship didn’t come as a surprise. Even Omaha’s seasoned Chief Petty Officers, most of whom had at least 18 years’ experience, were being forced to confront their first combat experience.

South China Sea, 80 nautical miles southeast of Fiery Cross Reef, 2100 Local

The lookout’s voice crackled over the radio, “Bridge, Starboard lookout. I have a … a glow on the horizon … 050 relative.”

Hassan was “eyes up” while Mike Dunleavy studied the navigation display and he swiveled his head to the right. The XO stood near the captain’s chair. He and the captain paused to look to the horizon. The XO, thumbs hooked into his body armor, said “Tomahawks going in…” just loud enough for the rest of the bridge to hear. The glow continued moving from right to left, racing towards Fiery Cross Reef.

The Captain looked down at his watch. “Right on time…”

Omaha was at flight quarters, preparing to launch her three Vipers. The first was spotted in the center of the deck aft. Her takeoff would be aided by more than 50 knots of relative wind sweeping across the deck as the ship maintained 40 knots. After running through the checklist and getting the Captain’s permission, Mike Dunleavy announced ‘green deck’ into his mic and the two of them heard the noise of Stinger 21’s rotor blades as she swept past. The flight deck crew was already moving to spot the second helo for launch. Stinger 22 and Stinger 23 were both in the air in less than 5 minutes. The three-plane formation did a quick pass over the flagship, joined the helicopters just launched from Jackson and formed a loose line abreast, skimming the wavetops to avoid the Chinese radar that would hopefully be knocked offline by the Tomahawks.

Hassan had to keep his eyes forward to avoid being distracted by the barrage of signal lights being directed toward Omaha. The need to conduct this attack in silence had almost overwhelmed the Navy, which had disestablished its Signalman rating in 2004. The ability to communicate without electronic means was now in high demand, so the Americans had embarked Australian, Japanese, and even British yeomen who had flown around the world to join the fight as silent communicators. American quartermasters, theoretically proficient in Morse code and signaling protocol, were receiving a crash course from masters as the ship COs finalized details of the assault that normally would have been communicated via naval message or e-mail. 

The narrow passage on Fiery Cross Reef’s northeast corner was the only means of accessing the inner harbor. With a 104-feet-wide beam, only 30 feet less than a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, the Independence-class LCSs would be forced to pass through the channel one at a time, followed by the EPFs. With the “landing force” embarked, Omaha and Jackson would be first through and make directly for the piers normally occupied by Chinese auxiliaries and dredgers. Gabrielle Giffords would follow. Her marine aircraft maintainers would fight as infantrymen until landing space could be secured for the Vipers. Montgomery would pass through last and remain in the basin providing supporting fire from marines manning heavy weapons on her flight deck and the ship’s 57 mm gun. All ships were instructed to enter the channel at maximum speed so their momentum would carry them forward and clear, even if damaged. The islands housed an assessed pre-war garrison of 1,000-strong, but long-range radars had detected regular flights from the Chinese mainland. Intelligence estimated most of those flights were fighters and maritime patrol aircraft, but no one knew what the estimate was based on given that American satellite coverage had been largely eliminated in the war’s early days.

South China Sea, 50 nautical miles southeast of Fiery Cross Reef, 2145 Local

The tension of several hours at General Quarters had steadily worn the crew down until the first trickles of information began coming in. While still 60 miles out, there were flashes visible, reflecting from the few high-level clouds. The bridge fell silent as each sailor realized these would be the Tomahawks and Air Force CALCMs impacting or being intercepted. Moments later, a light began blinking urgently from the EPF trailing the formation. The second EPF, USNS Choctaw County, had been fitted with a makeshift signals intelligence and electronic warfare suite mounted on her flight deck in a container.

The British yeoman read the message to the pilothouse seconds later. “Multiple surface-to-air missile launches detected. Radar emissions have stopped.”

Had the Chinese radars been eliminated or were they merely shut off to complicate targeting?

In another twenty minutes, more flashes. “Vipers engaging. At least one shot down. Enemy air search radar operating. Signal isn’t as strong as it was…”

South China Sea, 20 nautical miles southeast of Fiery Cross Reef, 2230 Local

The battle was visible now. While it was still unclear exactly what damage the Tomahawks and CALCMs had done, pillars of smoke rose into the air and fires burned from one end of the island to the other. The American missiles were supposed to target the four Chinese air defense complexes, the headquarters building and the concrete revetments that served as shelters for maritime patrol and fighter aircraft. Small, fast shadows periodically blocked the flames, letting the ships’ crews know at least some of the Vipers were still in the fight.

The ship’s Tactical Action Officer called up on the internal communications net, “Captain, TAO. We’re listening in on the Vipers’ radio frequency now. The channel is clear. Say again, the channel is clear.”

The TAO paused and background noise from Combat spilled over the speaker before an excited voice broke in: “VAMPIRE, VAMPIRE! VAMPIRE bearing 347, range 16 nautical miles!”

The bridge crew automatically peered into the smoke and flames at bearing 347, trying to spot the anti-ship cruise missile the Sea Giraffe radar had detected. “Got it,” said the XO, extending his arm. Just below the horizon, a flame burned, no more than a pinprick of light at this range. The British yeoman was already out on the bridge wing, frantically signaling the other ships in company.

“Looks like it’s headed for Montgomery, sir,” the TAO said, trying to affect a calmer tone. The ships had fanned out earlier and were proceeding in an approximate line abreast. Montgomery was four miles from Omaha’s starboard beam. As the pinprick on the horizon moved towards Montgomery, the entire bridge watched, rapt. Even Hassan, momentarily forgetting he was supposed to be “eyes up” watched the engagement unfold. Montgomery was heeled over in a hard turn to starboard, trying to unmask her missile launchers. When the missile was four miles out, flashes erupted from Montgomery, a pair of Rolling Airframe Missiles racing towards the inbound. One of the missiles wobbled almost immediately upon leaving the launcher, spiraled and then dove into the ocean just a few hundred yards forward of the ship. The remaining RAM closed one rapidly until it detonated yards away from the inbound. The Chinese missile shuddered, the flame of its rocket motor appeared to vibrate before impacting Montgomery’s bow seconds later.

The ship’s speed saved her. At 40 knots, an LCS “squats,” her stern sinking deeply and her bow elevating. The Chinese missile had impacted the ship’s bow right where the ship’s anchor was mounted, pushing the anchor back into the windlass room, killing a Bosun’s Mate and starting a fire. The missile fragmented when it struck the anchor. Its remnants punched through the aluminum deck on the foc’sle, directing shrapnel topside, but there were no crewmembers stationed there. The only other casualty besides the Bosun’s Mate was the starboard lookout, knocked down by a piece of shrapnel in her shoulder. Montgomery kept her speed on, slowing slightly due to her wrecked bow. Omaha signaled “Make best speed” as all ships anxiously scanned the horizon for more missiles.

South China Sea, 5 nautical miles southeast of Fiery Cross Reef, 2252 Local

Montgomery had fallen slightly astern of her sisters. The ship’s aluminum hull continued to burn where the missile had struck, fed by wind. There was nothing to be done. The division was too close to the enemy. The ship’s speed was generating enough wind to keep the smoke from obstructing the bridge crew. Omaha’s Captain had ordered a loose column formation now, with Omaha at its head, followed by Jackson 500 yards behind, Gabrielle Giffords astern of Jackson and the wounded Montgomery about 2000 yards behind Gabrielle Giffords. The two EPFs held their position 20 miles offshore, waiting to be told the pier had been secured so they could deliver their cargo. Hassan was grateful to be piloting the flagship, as her place at the head of the column meant he just needed to steer an ordered course rather than attempt to hold station on another ship.

The chaos at Fiery Cross was visible to the naked eye, but Hassan had no time to watch. He could see tracers, presumably attempting to engage the Vipers, reaching toward the sky and sometimes crossing his field of view. The ship’s Combat Information Center had reestablished communications with the Vipers. Three were still airborne, though low on fuel and out of ammunition. They had reported the channel was still clear and that one Chinese auxiliary was tied up at the pier on the north side of the basin. They continued to circle and draw fire from the island’s defenders. One had been shot down on approach, and one had been shot down immediately after destroying the cruise missile battery that had fired on Montgomery. A third had simply vanished.

Aboard all four ships, sailors and marines swarmed over the flight decks, setting up machine gun positions to engage targets ashore. Sailors manning the 57 mm guns and Hellfire missile consoles waited impatiently for targets.

The entrance to the harbor was on the island’s northeast corner. The division’s approach from the southeast meant Hassan would now lead the column in a looping turn. Keeping the other ships close would concentrate their firepower and minimize the amount of time the Chinese had to target ships in the narrow channel. Once in the basin, Hassan would keep his speed on until the last minute, relying on Omaha’s ability to stop almost instantaneously to moor safely.

The British yeoman passed the order for the other three ships to “close up,” decreasing the distance between them to 250 yards. At that distance, if Omaha slowed Jackson would have almost no opportunity to react, smashing into her stern. The XO stood behind Hassan again, laying a reassuring hand on his shoulder.

At two miles out, the Captain moved to the starboard bridge wing and started feeding targets to his 57 mm and Hellfire gunners. There were a pair of Chinese machine gun nests on either side of the channel entrance. The 57 mm gun opened up on the one to the right and a pair of Hellfires demolished the nest to the left, a small figure briefly running around aflame afterward before falling and lying still, still burning.

Omaha charged towards the entrance, passing the remains of the fighting position as she proceeded up the short channel. On her port bow, a set of towers, shattered by American missiles, burned fiercely. The heat was palpable in the bridge and a gust of wind caused the Captain and yeoman, now on the port side to cringe slightly, distracting them from a pair of figures running around the base of the ruined structure. The Captain’s eyes went wide and he barely had time to yell “RPG” before the grenade detonated just above his head, killing him and the yeoman instantly and spraying a cone of shrapnel into the pilothouse. The blast was deafening and Hassan’s head snapped to the right as a metal shard buried itself in his Kevlar helmet. He heard Dunleavy grunt to his left and was vaguely aware of the XO down on the deck to his right. Two sailors on the flight deck with an M240 machine gun engaged the RPG team, tracer rounds reaching out before the Chinese could reload.

Hassan’s vision swam as he forced himself to concentrate, the channel opening into the basin before him. The Chinese auxiliary was visible, moored along the pier to his right. “Range to the pier?” he screamed to Dunleavy. Receiving no response, he looked over and saw a shard of metal the size of his hand sticking out of the side of Mike’s head which was lolling forward on his chest. Horrified, he looked down at his own display, making a snap estimate that he had less than 500 yards to the pier. He undid the seat belt restraining him, noticing the XO stirring as he, out of habit, announced “transitioning to the centerline console” before standing and moving to a position where he could see his navigation screen, his cameras and look out the windows.

The weapons teams aboard all four ships were fully in the fight. The sound of small arms, main guns and Hellfire missiles on the American side and Chinese small arms and RPGs made it impossible to hold a conversation.

The XO clambered to his feet and moved beside Hassan. Commander Dennis’s left hand was clamped on his right arm and blood was seeping between his fingers. He fumbled for his radio and gave a terse order inaudible to Hassan over the sound of the ongoing battle. Hassan altered the control mode for the engines, allowing himself to independently control the port and starboard engines. To get the ramp onto the pier, he would need to walk the ship sideways. He was already cutting speed as Omaha passed the Chinese auxiliary.

Marilyn Starnes led a pair of sailors onto the bridge. The XO started gesturing toward Mike Dunleavy’s inert form and a small fire burning on the port bridge wing. One of the sailors blasted the fire with a CO2 extinguisher while Starnes and the second sailor extracted Dunleavy. Starnes took the seat, slick with Dunleavy’s blood and zoomed in her navigation screen to help Hassan.

Hassan had mostly checked Omaha’s forward motion as she cleared the Chinese auxiliary’s stern. He was trying to pivot the ship on her bow, twisting the stern too rapidly into the light offsetting wind and throwing two sailors, heavily loaded and caught off-balance, over the side along with their M240 machine gun. Everyone else on the flight deck unconsciously pressed themselves into the ship’s non-skid.

Hassan reached down for the ship’s Azimuth Thruster or ‘Azi,’ realizing belatedly, he’d forgotten to engage it as he slowed. The Azi was powered by an 800 horsepower motor that would not only move the bow left or right, but tended to make the entire ship slide sideways. It was ideal for this sort of pier work. Marilyn saw his hand hesitate and jumped out of her seat. She ran back to the engineer’s console, pushing the slumped body of the Engineering Officer of the Watch back just enough to energize and lower the Azi and flashed him a thumbs-up. Hassan rotated the handle to angle the Azi towards the pier and increased power.

The volume of fire from the flight deck increased as Omaha’s rate-of-turn slowed and gunners identified more targets ashore. The fire slackened when one of the Vipers passed overhead, paused and started to lower itself onto the pier. The XO moved to the starboard bridge wing and watched, uncomprehending, until he saw the pilot and his gunner shut the helicopter down, jump out and run towards the ship’s bow and stern, respectively, to receive mooring lines. The petty officers at the line handling stations didn’t wait for an order, firing line guns towards both of the marines while machine gun crews provided covering fire. The marines retrieved the thin red messenger lines and began hauling the ship’s heavier mooring lines over.

Hassan was walking the ship sideways, less than 50 yards from the pier, his lateral movement in excess of the schoolhouse-approved 0.7 knots, but not caring. The XO was hanging halfway over the side of the ruined bridgewing, watching Omaha close the pier. Ahead, he could see Jackson pirouetting to make her own landing. Montgomery stood in the center of the basin, her nose still ablaze as her 57 mm gun pumped round after round ashore. In the distance, Gabrielle Giffords’ upper superstructure was engulfed in flames. She had run full-speed into the pier on the far side of the basin. Dennis stared for a second before looking back down and watching Omaha’s side sliding inexorably towards the pier.

Hassan felt the ship impact the pier before his digital display changed and, whispering “wind out, toe out” to himself, he threw the ship’s starboard side engine 30 degrees “out,” pinning Omaha to the pier. The bow was still coming in when the XO roared “Land the Landing Force” into his handheld radio, watching as the mission bay door dropped and the marines stormed out.

Commander Jared Samuelson is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He previously commanded USS Whirlwind (PC 11).

Featured Image: “USS Independence in Operation” by Yinan Shao via Artstation

Plum Blossom

Fiction Week

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.

PLUM BLOSSOM

Brute force into 22 ISR/communications/GNSS & ELINT satellites orbiting or stationary over the South China Sea 

Once inside:

  1. shut down command and control link with ground stations
  2. Erase any data collected within 48 hours prior
  3. 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.[4] 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.

“Goddammit!”

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

“Cortez..?! Captain??”

“Fuck!”

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”

“Yes, sir.”

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.

Endnotes

[1] 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

[2] 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/

[3] 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

[4] 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

[5] Russia, China, and Israel have reportedly developed containerized weapon systems. Russia: http://roe.ru/eng/catalog/naval-systems/shipborne-weapons/klab-k/

[6] 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

Blue Death

Fiction Week

By Captain Chris Rawley, USN

Senior Colonel Liang Min savored a bite of delicious saka-saka while the dark green waves of the eastern Atlantic lapped up on shore several meters away. During his nearly three years in West Africa, he had grown to love the buttery dish made with cassava leaves. Mid-bite, his smartphone buzzed, and he recognized the number as originating from Beijing. As the defense attache and senior People’s Liberation Army military representative for the neighboring countries of the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo, his job was relatively stress free, and he knew a call from Beijing could only mean something more important than his R&R.

Liang was enjoying a respite away from the frenetic congestion of Kinshasa in sleepy Port Noire, planning a visit for one of China’s three hospital ships, which were on deployment bringing medical care and goodwill around the continent. He ended the short call thoroughly irritated, knowing he was facing a series of flights on questionably maintained puddle jumpers and a bone-jarring truck ride.

*****************************************************

Twelve-year old Denis Mutebe grimaced under the weight of the bag of ore on his shoulder. He was confident this load would provide enough money to buy a liter of petrol for his father to make the harrowing motorbike ride to the clinic in Kolwezi to buy medicine for his little sister Fini.  Over the last several years, the bluish-gray rocks Denis carried had become one of the world’s most important and scarcest commodities.

In 2026, the Environmental Protection Agency put regulations into place outlawing sales of new vehicles with internal combustion engines in the United States, sending the economy into a tailspin. Elon Musk became the world’s first trillionaire as Telsa’s stock price skyrocketed nearly overnight. At the same time, the forced shift to electric-powered vehicles sent a shockwave through the world’s limited cobalt supply.

Despite millions of dollars in research and development looking for a replacement, Tesla and other electric vehicle manufacturers could not find a technology to replace the cobalt resident in each car’s lithium-ion batteries, not to mention the batteries that powered the billions of cell phones, tablets, and other smart devices across the planet.

About two-thirds of the world’s cobalt originated in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country also renown for outbreaks of Ebola, cholera, and persistent ethnic violence.

A 20-kilo bag of low-grade ore, like the one digging into Denis’ shoulders, would produce about three kilograms of cobalt, enough to make the Nickel-Cobalt-Aluminum cathodes which ensured the batteries of an electric vehicle remained stable.

Though he had been tempted to pocket a couple handfuls of the rocks, Denis knew that was impossible with the drones constantly flying overhead watching his every move. His best friend Mobutu had disappeared a few months ago after telling Denis he had been skimming some of the rocks to sell to the traders in Lubumbashi. Other diggers he knew had been crushed under tons of red mud when the pits they were working in collapsed. Still other child miners succumbed from infected wounds from the guards who beat them for not making quota. Denis had painfully learned not to get too attached to anyone, lest they be removed suddenly from his life.

Though most of the team still considered him an outsider, Cryptologic Technician First Class Jeremy Collins knew that he held the key to this mission in his hand. Similar to the way the Army had leveraged Navy individual augmentees with expertise in electronic warfare to jam enemy improvised explosive devices on the roads of Iraq two decades earlier, today, they tapped into the Navy’s much more advanced cyber capability by pulling sailors like Jeremy away from ships and shore stations onto the front lines of irregular conflicts, which were more common than not throughout America’s history.

Operational Detachment Alpha 0315’s weapons sergeant, or Bravo, as Jeremy now referred to him, had wanted to simply take down the drones patrolling the camp with their own man-portable jammer so they could employ their surrogate force of NCDM militiamen to assault a blinded target.

But the Bravo was overruled by the Team Chief Doug, who knew that the capability their Navy augmentee brought was critical to ensuring the mission was done accurately and with zero collateral damage. “Got it!” Jeremy looked down at the tablet and was now seeing the live video feed from one of the camp’s DJI Viper patrol drones. His stomach was already a wreck from the anti-malarial meds he took each morning with his MREs, but with this being his first combat mission his guts were in knots.

Safely concealed in dense brush a half click from the camp, Doug and the 18-Bravo rapidly selected targets with their augmented reality goggles, which were now streaming 4k ultra high definition video of the camp onto their retinas. Most of the targets were easy to distinguish from the diggers and other non-combatants, as each one carried a long gun. Doug was especially careful to avoid selecting the man with the olive green combination cover adorned with scrambled eggs.

Hundreds of miles away in the southern reaches of the Gulf of Guinea, Fire Controlman Second Class Riley Starke tensely awaited the order from the Tactical Action Officer to depress the button her right index finger now hovered over. Up until now, the ship’s fisheries enforcement deployment had been rather uneventful and boring for Riley, who spent most of her time supporting the boat deck crew. These boats were routinely launched against fishing vessels suspected of poaching in the exclusive economic zones of the neighboring Gulf of Guinea countries. In addition to a coxswain and engineer, each rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) carried a multinational ECOWAS boarding team led by Sea Shepherd advisors. 

These boardings could be tense sometimes; six months before, another LCS on patrol had exchanged warning shots with a PRC Coast Guard cutter operating out of the new PLAN navy base in Luanda, Angola. A fleet of People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia distant water trawlers had surrounded the boarding team from USS Billings off Gabon. As the ship closed to provide cover for the RHIB, the Chinese cutter came between her and the boarding team. At 12,000 tons, the ship was larger than U.S. cruisers and destroyers, and dwarfed the littoral combat ship Billings. The situation defused after the Chinese vessel turned away and called back the militia trawlers after rounds from Billings’ 57 mm cannon passed in front of her bow.

Colonel Liang strode next to Omir Abduweli, leader of the mining camp’s guard force.

Like most of the Uighur guards protecting the mine, Omir had received an early release from the “Vocational Training Center” he’d been held in for nearly eighteen months in exchange for a pledge to join the West African Regiment of the Peoples Corporate Militia. Omir had recently pleaded to his PCM battalion commander for artillery support, because a dozen of his patrols had been ambushed outside the wire by an increasingly well-trained and emboldened rebel group, the National Congress for Defense of Minerals.

Aboard the littoral combat ship USS Nikki Haley, the containerized modular multiple launch rocket system that had been strapped to the flight deck a few weeks ago popped open. Though the container took up a good amount of flight deck, there was plenty of room to launch and recover the ship’s Integrator surveillance drones.

With her other hand, Riley nervously adjusted the bright red ponytail poking out of the back of her ball cap, emblazoned with the ship’s motto “PERSEVERE.” The slogan represented the spirit of the ship’s namesake, who had been severely wounded on the campaign trail by an Antifa drone strike six years ago. Nervous but intensely focused, Riley reacted instantly as the order “batteries release” was given.

Swatting away a mosquito, Jeremy worked calmly, but urgently to upload the AI script he had designed into the missile’s warhead, which was now minutes away. Jeremy had built an app to patch together the drone’s automatic tracking feature with the warhead’s terminal guidance software.

Moments later and thousands of feet above, the modified missile warhead deployed dozens of sub-munitions. These in turn ejected small tubes terminally guided to their designated target by the AI-enhanced software.

Denis struggled for footing under the weight of his bag of expensive rocks. He heard a screech and a series of pops, causing him to pause momentarily.

COL Liang looked up when he heard the unusual sound. As his glance tilted skyward, he didn’t notice Omir and the five armed men just meters away from him collapsing. Nearly three decades of counterterror manhunting operations across the globe had evolved U.S. anti-personnel munitions into exquisitely discrete killing systems. All around the camp, the scene was similar as each sensor-fused round fired three downward pointing steel flechettes approximately two meters above its intended target.

While the other diggers stood nearby frozen and amazed, Denis slung his bag across the handlebars of a guard’s nearby bicycle, climbed on, and pedaled quietly out the front gate.

Captain Chris Rawley is a surface warfare officer and serves as the Reserve Chief of Staff for Commander, Naval Surface Forces. Over a 27-year career, he’s deployed across Africa, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Western Pacific. Captain Rawley is also a former Vice President and Board of Directors member of CIMSEC. In his civilian role, he’s the founder and CEO of Harvest Returns, an agriculture investment marketplace. This story is entirely fiction and any views expressed are presented in a personal capacity.

Featured Image: “Africa Street” by Gary Jamroz-Palma via Artstation

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.