By Major Brian A. Kerg, USMC
The Pacific Ocean
Ensign Bean, U.S. Space Force, laid back in his coffin rack aboard the USS America, staring at the roof of his stateroom. Hammering blows and the buzzing of power tools echoed through the room as the paint chippers worked on maintaining the flight deck. His head pounded with a migraine, and he fought off waves of nausea; four weeks into deployment and he still hadn’t found his sea legs.
“I’m in the goddamn Space Force,” he said. “How did I end up on a boat?”
“Ship,” Tilly said. The Marine lieutenant looked up from his tablet and gave Bean a grin. “You’re on a ship. And you’re here because the green weenie is joint in nature.”
“This is garbage,” Bean said. “My classmates are living the good life at SPACECOM in D.C., or getting their PhD’s at Wright Patterson Air Force Base and engineering the next generation of satellites. Of all the places they could have put me, I got shoved into one of the oldest tin cans in the fleet.” He rubbed at his eyes. “I should have run for the hills when they cut me orders for a Marine Expeditionary Unit.”
“Well buddy, it’s a shame that you’re not back at Star Fleet, or Space Camp, or wherever the hell they put the rest of you Shatners, but I feel safer knowing you’re on our team.”
“Really?” Bean rolled over in his rack, looking at Tilly with cautious hope.
Tilly laughed. “No, of course not. You’re dead weight. But at least you get to see the world, even if you’ll never see the stars.”
“But the recruiting commercial said I’d get to see the stars!” Bean cried. He pointed to the patch on his flight suit. “Ad astra!” he said, reading the Space Force slogan. “To the stars!”
Their phone rang, and Tilly answered, shouting over the noise. “You need me and the what? The stack?”
Bean’s ears perked up. “That’s me. The Space Tactical Controller. I’m the STAC.”
“Got it.” Tilly hung up, and nodded at Bean. “They need us in the SACC.”
Bean looked at Tilly quizzically.
Tilly rolled his eyes. “Yeah, there’s a joke in there. Don’t hurt yourself trying to make one.”
“No, I mean, why do they need me?”
“Great question. Maybe because you’re part of the Fires cell? Grab your tablet. Let’s get there and we’ll find out what the hell is going on.”
After getting settled in the Supporting Arms Coordination Center, Major Sarah Avery, the Fires Officer-In-Charge, started to brief the cell.
“Alright folks,” she said, “its game day, and we don’t get any warm-up time before kick-off. Here’s the skinny: The Communist Party of Thailand just launched their own version of the Tet Offensive.” The few sidebar conversations immediately ceased, and the entire shop fell silent. Avery pressed on.
“Most of the Thai government’s forces have been tied up in their border provinces for years, fighting the communist insurgents in the jungle. So last night, when the communists activated sleeper cells all across Bangkok, they caught the Thai military on their back foot. The government is barely holding onto the capital. A Joint Task Force is being thrown together, but there’s no time to wait, and our MEU got the mission to reinforce Bangkok, now.”
Excited murmurs filled the room. Tilly slapped Bean on his shoulder. “This is it, Shatner! We’ve got ourselves a war!”
Bean looked at Tilly, his eyes wide. “Why do we want that?” Then, more quietly, “And will you please stop calling me Shatner?”
“Not a chance,” Tilly said, smiling ear to ear.
Major Avery waved her hands, settling the room down, and continued. “Worse yet, the communists seized Bangkok port, and all the Anti-Access/Area Denial systems the U.S. put in place in 2030 to help the Thai government deter Chinese aggression are now in the hands of the enemy. The S-900 is an over-the-horizon, surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missile system that out-ranges all of our organic capabilities. We can’t get close enough to hit them before they’re close enough to hit us.”
Tilly raised his hand. “Aren’t there any sea control teams already in the area? I thought persistently deployed expeditionary advanced bases were supposed to give us a foot in the door for situations like this.”
Avery snorted. “Bully for you. You paid attention at The Basic School. Yeah, we had sea control teams in the region until about a decade ago. They were our lynchpin to containing Chinese regional expansion, and our allies across the Pacific loved them. But after Chinese ascension popped like a bubble in the 40’s, most got defunded or re-assigned to EUCOM. Can I finish?”
Tilly cleared his throat and looked away. “Yes, Ma’am.”
“So where do we fit in?” Avery asked the room. “We’re not looking to blow the hell out of a friendly city, and the CO is more concerned with getting us to the fight in one piece. Our first job is to use our fires to best support the Amphibious Ready Group’s ability to land the landing force and get the MEU ashore intact at Bangkok.”
Tilly blanched. “We’re going to do an amphibious landing into a mega city? Jesus, are we looking for another Gallipoli?”
“What’s Gallipoli?” Bean asked, looking from Tilly to Avery. He was gravely concerned that even Tilly’s excitement had suddenly been blunted as the details of the plan emerged.
Avery shook her head. “No. We’re looking for another Inchon. Let’s stop admiring the problem and figure out a way through this mess. We owe a fire support plan in thirty minutes. And if we get through this in one piece,” she pointed at Tilly, “you can give a lesson on the history of amphibious warfare to your buddy, Shatner.”
Bean’s face reddened. “Ma’am, can you please not call me-”
Tilly grasped Bean’s shoulder, cutting him off. He said nothing, simply shaking his head in warning.
The fires cell went to work, floating plans as diverse as an in-flight release of their drone swarms and using them to kamikaze the S-900’s, to using their offensive cyber operations team to take control of the firing platforms. Each plan was premised on a whole lot of hope, and the cell was growing frustrated.
“None of these are going to be perfect,” Avery told the group. “We lost the edge for a problem like this when we put the Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations Manual back on the shelf to gather dust. We don’t get to establish sea control before we land the landing force. We have to go ashore through the weapons engagement zone, and then establish sea control. Things are different now. The boss is going to have to assume a lot of risk. Our landing forces will be as distributed as possible to maximize survivability. But no matter what we do, some of our people are probably going to get hurt.”
Ensign Bean sat there on his own for a moment, flummoxed by the dizzying jargon of amphibious fires. Plugging his STAC tablet into a port on the classified network, he downloaded the technical specifications of the S-900’s, and matched them against the offensive space capabilities available within the region’s satellite footprint.
Bean sat back, his face lighting up. “I think we’re making this a lot harder than it needs to be.” He waved his hand frantically at Major Avery. “Ma’am, I’ve got an idea.”
Avery listened. She wanted to believe it would work. But Avery hadn’t exactly been an advocate for the boot Space Force officer that her higher headquarters had forced on her; the MEU hadn’t even exercised a space fires plan during their pre-deployment work-up.
Bean tapped at the data on his tablet, insistent. “The S-900s conduct targeting over the Pan-Asia Positioning System. It’s their version of GPS. No PAPS, no threat. It’ll work, we just have to get the fires approved by the Space Operations Squadron.”
“And that kind of approval takes, what… weeks?”
Bean shook his head. “It used to, but that’s why no one used space fires; by the time approval came down, the need had passed. To stay relevant, the Space Force had to streamline the approval process. For an event like this, I bet we’ll get the nod within the hour.”
Avery frowned. “That’s hard to believe. I’ll brief it as an option. But I think the boss will see it as the throw-away course of action.”
In the Landing Forces Operations Center, Bean wiped at the beads of sweat rolling down his brow. Even with the air conditioning at full blast, the heat from the plethora of command and control systems and the bodies of the battle staff was overwhelming.
The main screen showed the Common Operational Picture, a live drone feed of the Amphibious Ready Group floating in the Gulf of Thailand. One section of the aging Osprey squadron was in the air, each aircraft escorted by a pair of fighter drones. Farther afield, a swarm of micro-drones flew as a picket for the afloat force. Only two of the squadron’s eight F-35’s were prepared to take off the America’s flight deck; the rest were still down for the notorious maintenance issues that made them the joke of the entire aviation community.
A second screen showed a satellite feed of the Bangkok Port and surrounding area, with red overlays placed on the locations of the S-900’s.
Tilly leaned over Bean’s shoulder. “I hope this works, Shatner. If it doesn’t, our ass is going to be hanging out in the wind.”
Bean looked at his computer again, checking the targeting interface. “We’re going to be fine. Space Ops approved the strike package, and their cyber guys already did their recon; we’ve got this in the bag. All I have to do is push a button, and we’re golden.” He gritted his teeth. “And stop calling me Shatner.”
“When you get out of the Space Force, I’ll call you whatever you want. Until then, you’re Shatner to me.”
Avery stepped between the both of them. “Bean says it works. So does the old man,” she said, looking at the MEU Commander, Colonel Lloyd. “It’ll work.”
Colonel Lloyd stood in the center of the watch floor. A drone operator pin clung to his chest, right above his jump wings. His left hand was stuffed in a trouser pocket, while his right held a steaming cup of coffee. He was the only relaxed person in the room.
He took his hand out of his pocket, glanced at his watch, and nodded at Major Avery. “Launch it.”
Avery slapped Bean’s shoulder. Bean hit the key.
The command to attack bounced from Bean’s ship in the Gulf of Thailand to the Space Operations Squadron in D.C. Immediately authenticated, it was transmitted into orbit, where it shot from satellite to satellite around the earth.
Thousands of miles over the America, a constellation of U.S. satellites sat in geosynchronous orbit. For years, they had served only as a surveillance asset targeting the Southeast Asia region, while keeping a seemingly sleepy eye on the Thai military satellite system that was its neighbor. They hadn’t yet had a reason to use the full range of their capabilities.
Receiving Bean’s command, the U.S. constellation oriented on the Thai satellites, acquired their targets, and fired their jammers.
“Direct hit,” Bean said. “They should be dark.” He looked up at Major Avery, then to Colonel Lloyd. “I think we’re good.”
Colonel Lloyd nodded again. “Great.” Then, to the battle staff: “Press on.”
With that one keystroke, the MEU’s plan was set in motion. Pro-words were launched over radio nets, initiating actions across the MEU-ARG team, along with supporting actions at every echelon of command. The F-35’s launched from the flight deck.
With their teamed drones flying over-watch, the Ospreys flew to the limit of advance, lowered their rear loading doors, and dropped a load of suicide-drones into the air. After tumbling a few feet, the swarms took flight and expanded into a cloud formation. They swiveled back and forth like electrons around a nucleus, then pushed inland, seeking their targets. Behind them, the next stick of Ospreys, full of infantry Marines and war-bots, were ready to land once the drones had secured the landing zone.
Flashes of light and puffs of smoke scattered across the video feed as the S-900’s fired. Missiles rose into the air, their targets unknown to those watching on the America; were they coming for the unmanned drone swarm? The Ospreys full of landing troops? The America and all the embarked forces?
“Oh shit, they’re still online!” Tilly said, grasping Bean’s shoulder.
“I only hit their navigation system! I can’t stop them from firing!” Bean said, pushing Tilly away.
Tilly pointed at the main screen, and the dozens of missiles rising into the sky. “Well I hope they taught you to swim at Space Camp, because if you screwed this up, we’re all going for a dip.”
The Marines and sailors on the watch floor held their breath in a long, pregnant pause, watching the screens, and waiting.
In the bay, one red missile struck the water, miles off target. Another misfired entirely, destroying the system itself on the shore. The S-900 systems, completely reliant on satellite positioning to track their targets, could only fire blind. One after another, the enemy missiles impacted without effect. Soon after, the America’s drones swarmed the landing zone, destroying every enemy weapon system they could identify.
A strong hand slapped Bean’s shoulder. He looked up to see Colonel Lloyd peering down at him, a devious grin spreading across his face. “Good job, Shatner.”
Days later, Bean and Tilly were standing in the Port of Bangkok, watching the sun set.
“It’s still mind blowing,” Bean said. “I can’t believe the bad guys just took off when the S-900’s couldn’t keep us from landing.”
“We sure didn’t plan for it. ‘Catastrophic success’ — we did so well we couldn’t capitalize on it. But, hey, if I didn’t have a way to stop a thousand Marines and a battalion of their murder-bots from coming ashore, I’d probably turn tail and run, too.” Tilly handed Bean a cigar.
“I’ve never smoked before,” Bean said, eyeing the cigar with suspicion.
“If you have a baby or win a battle, you smoke a cigar,” Tilly said, offering a lighter.
Bean lit the cigar, took a deep drag, and had a massive coughing fit.
“Is this supposed to be fun?” he said through choking gasps.
Tilly slapped him on the back. “It’s an acquired taste.”
“You keep saying that. About ship life, about working out of a tent city, about sleeping on the ground.” With each complaint, Bean pointed his cigar like an accusing finger, first at the America floating in port, then at the green tents comprising the MEU’s combat operations center ashore, and finally at the ground. “Bangkok’s right there. I can walk to a five star hotel. And we’re sleeping in the dirt like idiots. It’s 2050, not 1950.”
Tilly grinned and stuck a pinch of dip in his mouth. “Yeah, some things don’t change. It’s the way of our people,” he said, pointing to the “U.S. Marines” nametape on his blouse. “But hey, at least we finally unscrewed our awards system. The CO got that medal on your chest within days of the action. When my dad was coming up in the Corps, guys waited months to years to see a medal, depending on the award.”
Bean reached into his pocket and fished out the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal. “That was a nice surprise. Hey, what’s the little gold ‘C’ for?”
Tilly rubbed his temples. “It’s for ‘combat’, man. The ‘C’ is for ‘combat.’”
“Really? This counted? I thought combat would be different. You know, more blood and guts.”
“You and me both. But it’s your world, now, Bean. Space and cyber effects at the tactical edge, and routing the enemy without killing a single man — friendly or enemy. You got me sold. If you guys get around to making Space Marines, I’ll become a Shatner in a heartbeat.”
Bean grinned. “You called me Bean.” He tried another drag of his cigar.
Tilly slapped Bean on his back again, forcing Bean to inhale, subjecting him to another coughing fit.
“Don’t get used to it,” Tilly said with a smile. The two watched the sun disappear into the ocean, smoking their cigars, until the sky faded to black. They stared up into darkness of space, trying to discern the stars from the satellites, struggling to guess to which blinking pin of light they owed their lives.
Brian Kerg is a Marine Corps officer and writer currently stationed in Norfolk, VA. His professional writing has appeared in War on the Rocks, Proceedings, The Marine Corps Gazette, and The Strategy Bridge. His fiction has appeared in The Deadly Writer’s Patrol, Line of Advance, and The Report. Follow or contact him @BrianKerg.
Featured Image: “Lonely Orbiter” by Simonard Theo via Artstation