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A Conversation with Naval Fiction Writer David Poyer, Author of Deep War

By Michael DeBoer

I had the pleasure of speaking with author David Poyer, former naval officer and author of the Tales of the Modern Navy and War with China series of novels, and other exciting naval fiction titles. We discussed his newly released book in the War with China series, Deep War, how the trends of war are reflected in his writing, and how the main characters of a long series are taking on new roles.

(Read our previous interview with Poyer on his book Onslaught here.)

MD: A major feature of your work is the escalatory nature of war. You seem to be making the point that, given the escalatory nature of a war between nuclear powers, the use of nuclear weapons is likely or inevitable. Do you think the taboos regarding nuclear use are enough to maintain a conventional war between nuclear powers?

DP: Well, as one of my characters says, there is no historical precedent for war between two nuclear-armed powers. My own analogy is a knife fight in an alley, where both antagonists, in addition to knives, are carrying concealed firearms. Is the combatant who’s about to lose his life going to forego pulling his gun? I doubt it.

Limits have a way of getting transgressed in war. Unrestricted submarine warfare, use of gas, shelling and bombing cities . . . none of these red lines held when a regime felt its existence was at stake, and most were not merely “taboos,” but had been duly codified in international law signed by the warring parties.

So to answer your question, yes. As I have assumed in these novels, the danger of escalation is extreme.

MD: Tales of the Modern Navy was, until these chapters, slightly retrospective. They normally looked backward 5-10 years. However, starting with Tipping Point, we’ve moved into the future. What did you have to change about your writing process and style when you moved into the future?  How did you prepare?

DP: That’s a perceptive question that goes back to the roots of my writing career. My very first published stories were science fiction, and so were several of my early novels: Stepfather Bank, White Continent, The Siloh Project, and others. So incorporating and extending technology into story hasn’t been a stretch for me.

The shift from mildly retrospective to near-future was crucial because although Dan’s several missions for the Tactical Analysis Group, for example, (Korea Strait, The Weapon, The Crisis, The Towers) were classified, and thus could be accepted by an informed audience as having happened even though they hadn’t heard about them on the evening news, we couldn’t slide a whole world war past them that they knew had NOT happened! The shift to a near future was the answer. And no special preparation was necessary; simply extending current political and technological trends a few years adds, I hope, enough credibility to make the story work. We’ll see in ten years how close I came – and of course, I’m hoping the dire events described in these volumes never happen!

MD: Technological development in Deep War is picking up speed. Lenson’s reality is now populated with Zumwalt-class follow-ons, directed energy weapons, increasingly sophisticated UAVs, successive blocks of F-35, integrated digital optics, and AI. Similar to Ghost Fleet, this cocktail produces a brutal combat environment in which few humans can survive. Do you have any thoughts on the future of warfare with all of these digitally enabled and augmented technologies?  Are we coming around a corner similar to the First World War, when the technical capacity for killing exceeds our ability to innovate in a way that prevents attrition from becoming the decisive force in war?

DP: “Picking up speed” – sure, and I note in these novels that war is always a forced draft for technology. Still, though, that technology often fails you, especially in combat conditions, and I highlight that possibility in Hector Ramos’s experiences on Itbayat and Taiwan, as well as occasionally with the other characters. As for the technical capacity for killing exceeding the capacity to innovate in a way that bypasses attrition . . . I must disagree. Attrition was the decisive force in World War One. It was decisive in WWII as well. But innovation on one side, along with good strategy, can drive attrition rates on the other side. That is how they are related, I believe.

As to the future of warfare with these augmented technologies, these six books . . . The Cruiser, Tipping Point, Onslaught, Hunter Killer, Deep War, and next year’s Overthrow . . . address and describe the way I think warfare may evolve.

MD: I think I caught a little bit of Fahrenbach’s This Kind of War in Hector’s experience on Taiwan. Is that accurate, and are there any other books that inspired you in this work?

DP: Haven’t read Fahrenbach but thanks for the suggestion! Several pages of research articles, monographs, and a few books are listed in my acknowledgements at the back of each novel, along with shout-outs to those folks who advised me and read portions of the text to make sure I didn’t go completely off the rails. Many, many active duty and recently retired subject matter experts backstopped me and provided useful suggestions. I owe them a lot. Still, any errors and omissions are my responsibility.

MD: Deep War largely surpassed Daniel Lenson, who winds up being mostly an observer compared with Oberg, Staurulakis, and Hector. Have you considered writing works with any of them as the central figure?

DP: These novels are braided narratives, with different characters providing different views of the action. I call the story arcs of each protagonist a “strake,” in an analogy to ship design, with Dan serving as the keel. If you welded together the strakes for each character from succeeding books, you would have more or less the work you describe.

I employed different points of view for the same reason Tolstoy did it in War and Peace: a war is too geographically and emotionally sprawling an event to recount from one point of view.

A final reason for multiple characters was that Dan is getting pretty damn senior by now. We began the series with him as an ensign in The Circle. Now he’s a one-star, at least for the duration. But what that means is that as he ascends the ladder, it becomes more and more difficult to believably involve him in close-up dramatic situations. Most admirals I know would agree that their official duties are pretty unexciting from an action-adventure standpoint.

Thus, artistically, we had to transition Dan from an action hero to something more like a big-picture boss who functions less to take on bad guys hand-to-hand, as he did in earlier books, and more like the wartime leader who has to inspire, manage, and adapt fleet tactics to new threats and ways of fighting. That doesn’t mean the decisions he will make won’t be hugely significant and maximally stressful! He also shares with Blair Titus the coverage of overall strategy, although as a (increasingly reluctant) member of the administration she operates at an even higher level than he does.

MD: The title Deep War seems to be a homage to the Russo-Soviet pre-World War II concept of Deep Battle, a concept of operational warfare emphasizing penetration of enemy strategic depth. Was this intentional, and if so, who is waging the Deep War?

DP: Not really! Actually it’s a homage to Ilya Ehrenburg’s poem “The War,” where he wrote: “We speak of deep night, deep autumn; when I think back to the year 1943 I feel like saying “deep war.””  So it’s a literary reference that can be taken other ways as well. That I think is the best way to craft a title, with resonance that beckons the reader in, then reveals multiple meanings and associations as the book progresses.

MD: One theme that seemed to run through Deep War was the juxtaposition between Thucydides Whale and Elephant. By the time of your story, the United States has effectively denuded Chinese naval power, but can’t reach the land power’s center of gravity. Likewise, China, despite efforts through cyberspace, can’t reach the distant American center of gravity by conventional means. China has spent a lot of money and time trying to turn itself into a maritime power. Has it succeeded? Or will a Thucydides-type dynamic continue to hold true into the future?

DP: There are more elements to sustaining naval power than ships, or even a balanced fleet. Allies, technological depth, economic staying power, training, tactics, national determination, leadership, and geography are others. Right now we’re neglecting and even estranging our allies, but that can’t continue with any good end result for us. So, I assume in my writing that any fissures have largely been healed (though some allies are more allied than others). China’s increasing overreach and bullying of smaller nations will also contribute to a rebalancing of alliances.

But to return to your first question: the dire and unprecedented problem of how a war between two nuclear powers can be terminated resonates through the book. This is the crux of the dilemmas faced by Blair Titus, Dr. Szerenci, and Jay Yangerhans, and even certain elements within the Chinese leadership. They are searching more and more desperately as the conflict deepens and casualties mount for a way not necessarily to “win,” but to reach at least an armistice before escalation leads to mutual destruction. This is the real tension of the last two volumes of the War with China series, as I believe it’s the most likely way things would play out in the real world.

MD: Any final thoughts to share?

DP: In closing, I want to thank the many fans who’ve stuck with me through this series. I know it’s been frustrating at times to have to wait for the next volume in order to find out what happens to Teddy, Dan, Blair, Hector, Cheryl, and our other friends. Dark fates await some of them. Brighter days beckon for others. I too am just as impatient to find out how it all ends. Stay with me, as you so resolutely have so far, and we’ll all discover what lies at the end of their turbulent voyages!

David Poyer is the most popular living author of American naval fiction. His military career included service in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Arctic, Caribbean, the Middle East, the Pacific, and the Pentagon. His epic novel-cycle of the modern military includes The Med, The Gulf, The Circle, The Passage, Tomahawk, China Sea, Black Storm, The Command, The Threat, Korea Strait, The Weapon, The Crisis, The Towers, The Cruiser, Tipping Point, Onslaught , and Hunter Killer (all available from St. Martin’s Press in hardcover, paper and ebook formats). Deep War, the latest in his War with China series, recently published on December 8. Visit him at www.poyer.com or on Facebook.

Michael DeBoer is a U.S. naval officer. The views herein are his alone and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or any other organization.

Featured Image: Littoral Combat Ship by Matt Bell

Short Story Fiction Week Concludes on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

In response to our Call for Articles, talented writers explored various national security themes through fiction. From future undersea warfare to unmanned tactical scenarios, authors envisioned the complexity and confusion of future conflict with incredible imagination. Read on below to see the stories featured. We thank the authors for their writing. 

The Nanxun Jiao Crisis and the Dawn of Autonomous Undersea Conflict by David Strachan

“We were keenly aware of adversary developments, particularly with the PLAN. The intelligence we’d been receiving on the Shāyú was spotty, but given China’s public successes with Haiyi gliders and deep diving vehicles like the Hailong III, as well as their commitment to an Undersea Great Wall, we were fairly confident that not only did the program exist, but that it was in all likelihood operational. And it wasn’t long before our suspicions proved correct.”

Non Lethal by David Poyer

“It had begun like all wars, with failed politics. The first failure was in the fragile coalition that was Europe. The Donbas Autonomous Republic had asked the Russian Federation for “fraternal assistance.” The Ukrainians, by now used to French wine, Greek music and American TV, called on NATO. The Poles had responded, the Marines had landed at Odessa, and the Russians were rolling forward, when it happened. The General Assembly unanimously resolved that if the two blocs resorted to war – or violence in any form – they would be ejected from the world body, which would reconstitute in Beijing and isolate them both with the mother of all embargos. The president, after some initial waffling, agreed. Yet somehow, Ukraine had to be resolved; and the troops were already there.”

Spasibo by Evan D’Alessandro

“The Mk.2’s AI pulled information from Grasshopper 7 and its own sensors, overlaying the convoy’s turn, and projecting forward. Three threats, the Mk.2 AI decided, and it dived and launched. Six ‘Silverfish’ torpedo interceptors raced out from the Mk. 2, closing in on the inbound torpedoes. The Captain looked on from the bridge. By the way the Mother Hen’s torpedoes were dodging, it was obvious they were outdated; clearly the Russians had underestimated the convoy’s defenses.”

A Captain’s Revenge by Duncan Kellogg

“While the Captain was an aggressive man, he was not without caution. The Fateh had been slowly moving from point to point off the Iranian coast in order to remain undetected while it scanned American and Saudi vessels. To Ahmadi’s surprise, he had not yet seen any indication that the Americans had even the faintest idea that they were there. Just as this thought left his mind, Ahmadi saw a new contact appear on his passive sonar display.”

Carthage by Chris O’Connor

“The enemy knew now that the ABs were gone, and decided it was time to finish us off. Our remaining eyes in the sky winked out. Back on auto engage, the remaining PD stopped waves of incoming projectiles and drones, but it was going to run out of ammo soon. When I could open my left eye through the pain, I saw the ammo status steadily dropping. Garcia still had her rifle attached to her suit, but it wasn’t going to help in this onslaught.”

The Great Pacific War: Requiem in 2030 by Walker Mills

“The enemy ship indicators on the tablet started to disappear. Elrod could now see the dim glow over the horizon of the burning fleet. This is for the John C. Stennis and the John F. Kennedy. After two decades of fait accompli aggression the president outlined a new policy of preemption and escalation in a speech at Annapolis, new weapons alone could not effectively counter aggression. The Chinese fleet ostensibly sailing to evacuate Chinese citizens was the first victim. The president had decided that 15,000 Chinese soldiers weren’t needed to protect a few dozen tourists and he wouldn’t wait until after it was a clear act of aggression. So he sent in the Marines.”

Blood Wings by Mike Barretta

“The flight is nearly over and I can tell from her relaxed posture that she knows she has passed. As far as she is concerned, all she needs to do is fly straight-and-level back to Whiting field. I almost feel bad about what I am going to do. In about fifteen seconds, the time it takes to hit the ground from 700 feet, we are both going to find out how good of an instructor I am.”

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org.

Featured Image: “Abandoned Ship” by Sean Hargreaves

Blood Wings

Fiction Topic Week

By Mike Barretta

            First Lieutenant Gabrielle Cruz (USMC) is an unexceptional student. Unexceptional, however, is contextual. She is fluent in two languages, graduated with honors from LSU, earned a degree in petroleum engineering, and volunteered for military service during wartime. She is unexceptional because as I look around the squadron’s ready room much the same could be said about every other flight student.

            During the brief, she listened attentively and asked the same questions that I’ve fielded from previous students. In turn, she correctly answers my questions. It’s a good start to the flight. She is an attractive woman. Dark-skinned. Dark-haired. Closer in age to my daughter than she is to me. Usually the briefing space smells like fear-tinged sweat and dry erase markers, but with female students, it smells of soap and shampoo. It is a distinctly different military than the one I joined fifteen years ago.

Once, while I was with my wife, I saw her in the Cordova Mall enjoying a brief respite from training. As we passed, she said hello. With her hair down, made-up face, and civilian clothes, I didn’t recognize her. The Marines do a remarkable job of standardizing their officers. They will make you a man even if you are a woman, and the process was only half-finished with First Lieutenant Cruz. An aura of femininity stubbornly clung to her.  

I would have hoped that an attractive young woman approaching me in the mall would arouse some reaction from my wife.

“One of your students?” asked my wife

“Yes,” I replied.

“She’s pretty,” said my wife.

“I hadn’t noticed.” I said.

“You’re an idiot,” said my wife.

 “I’m not lying”

“Yes, you are.”

I was lying. There in the mall, I couldn’t help but notice her on her terms. She is sleek and menacing and confident. A backwards glance over her shoulder would stop a younger man’s heart mid-beat or make an older man, such as myself, tighten his stomach just a bit.

“Let it out,” says my wife.

“What are you talking about?”

“You’re impossible.”



Seven hundred feet above Spencer field, she is neither sleek nor menacing, but just as fatal to me. Underneath a white helmet, visor down, she looks like a ferocious pixie bobble-head. All I can see of her face is a light dusting of freckles on her cheeks and a glistening bead of sweat hanging from the tip of her nose.

She is my On-wing, which means that I am responsible for teaching her the basics of helicopter flight. This is her last flight with me before her performance and, by insinuation, my own, will be evaluated by another instructor before she can solo the aircraft. For the past two weeks, I have taught her the fundamental attributes of a competent pilot: Situational awareness, knowing what is going on around the aircraft, and basic airmanship, the ability to make the aircraft perform as desired. She flies well, but not perfect. Perfection is the province of God and by definition unattainable. The best any pilot can do is to exist in a constant state of correction.

The flight is nearly over and I can tell from her relaxed posture that she knows she has passed. As far as she is concerned, all she needs to do is fly straight-and-level back to Whiting field. I almost feel bad about what I am going to do. In about fifteen seconds, the time it takes to hit the ground from 700 feet, we are both going to find out how good of an instructor I am.

She squeezes the radio trigger to announce her intention to depart Spencer and return to Whiting Field.

“Spencer, Eightball one eight eight…..”

            Before she gets the chance to finish the radio call, at the maximum point of distraction, when she must talk, fly, and think, at the same time, I roll the engine to idle to simulate a failure. The engine fades to a dull pointless drone. Gauges droop to their resting state. Rotor speed decays.

“Simulated,” I say.  

The worst possible outcome is that she exceeds my ability to correct her and we hit the ground with sufficient vertical velocity to bend metal and shatter bone. It is the wrong time and place for doubt. We fall out of the sky at over two thousand feet per minute and her initial response is to maintain the correct attitude. In aviation, attitude refers to the orientation of the aircraft to the ground. In life, attitude refers to the orientation of the person to the problem. At this moment, she needs both. She lowers the collective to maintain rotor speed and pushes the nose over to maintain airspeed. The cyclic slams against my right leg, and the aircraft rolls to a 45 degree angle of bank. It isn’t enough to reach the field, so she increases the roll to 60 degrees, the limits of the aircraft. From my vantage point, it is as if Spencer field is rotating around us. Dusty, mid-summer grass fills the windscreen as we fall. First Lieutenant Cruz is in a furious state of constant correction. She is observing her environment, making prioritized value decisions, and acting upon them as if her life depended upon it. It does. Over the intercom she repeats, “Attitude, N, R, Ball,” the mantra that describes the path her eyes take as she scans the instruments and outside world.

At 100 feet, I have an important decision to make. Should I let her continue and commit to the outcome, or take the controls?  Much beyond this point, the likelihood of me salvaging a bad maneuver diminishes towards zero. She is flying the aircraft and I am watching her flying the aircraft. By definition, my reaction is behind hers. My only advantage is experience.

            At 75 feet, she flares the aircraft, pulling the nose up, pitching to the sky. The ground blossoms beneath us. Airspeed bleeds towards zero and rotor speed builds under the influence of inflowing air. The aircraft drops and my hands rest lightly on the controls. At 5 feet, she pulls sharply on the collective to reverse the flow of air and cushion the landing. Rotor speed droops to 85 percent, the bare minimum to sustain flight. She adjusts the pedals to align the aircraft with the direction of travel and levels out. All at once, we have run out of altitude, airspeed, and options exactly as it is supposed to happen. The aircraft touches down with a slight bump and slides across the grass.

I look over at her and she is grinning from ear-to-ear. I know exactly how she feels because fifteen years previously some forgotten flight instructor taught me the same maneuver. She knows she has done well and I want to share the moment with as much elation as is boiling inside her. Instead, I say, “Good job, but……..” and I launch into a critical review of her performance.



Usually an On-wing and I will fly once or twice more before they get their wings, but I never flew with her again. About six months after we last flew, she knocked on my office door. Her face is a little leaner, her posture more square, some would say that there is a bit less of her and a little bit more Marine.

“Mr. Barretta, I’m getting winged this Friday.”

“Congratulations.”  In the back of mind, there was never really any doubt.

“What did you select?”

“Cobras, west coast, my first choice.”

“Cobras, that’s awesome.” All the Marines want Cobras. Bell helicopter, the manufacturer, says they made the Cobra beautiful because it is the last thing the bad guys will ever see. When she flies her Cobra over moonlit desert or triple-canopy jungle, she will be a predator. Cobras don’t rescue anybody.

“Anyway, the soft patch is this Thursday and my parents and grandparents are flying in. I was hoping you would be able to patch me.”

“I would be happy too,” I say.

The soft patch is an informal ceremony the night before the official winging. Parents and friends gather and a student is called up with his or her instructor. The velcro leather name tag the student wore while in training, emblazoned with service insignia, is ripped off and a new leather name tag with Naval Aviator wings is “tacked-on,” with a punch. Funny or fast stories about the students are told and the instructor is given a bottle of their favorite liquor.

“Thank you, sir.”  What do you like?”

“I am a little short of Grey Goose.”  She smiles. During a lighter moment she had told me how she got sick on Grey Goose at a party.



At the soft patch ceremony, I find her sitting at a table with her parents and grandparents. Her father is prior Army enlisted as was her grandfather. Her grandfather was at Hickam Army Air Force Base on December 7th 1941. I shake both their hands. I give her mother a small framed poem called: The Fighter Pilot’s Prayer. It reads:  Dear Lord, Give me the eyes of an Eagle, the Heart of Lion, and the Courage of a U.S. Marine Corps Helicopter Pilot. It’s a small thing and I do it for all my soft-patchees.

Her mother smiles and thanks me and I tell them what they already know:  That their daughter did well. I excuse myself to grab a reinforcing beer. My stories are famous for being funny, but I’ve never really gotten comfortable telling them in front of 80 or 90 people. The beer helps. When it is our turn, we meet each other at the front of the room. She is nervous and excited.

 She hands me a bottle of Grey Goose and I set it aside. I tell a funny story. It is entertaining, embarrassing, and completely fictitious. I don’t owe anything to reality. She can’t do anything, but smile and take it like a Marine. Students attempting to defend themselves are booed down by the cadre of instructors lured in by free beer. The laughter ends and I find her new leather patch. Above her name are Naval Aviator wings embossed in gold.

When soft-patching female students, most male instructors fumble around like they were trying to pin a corsage to the strapless gown of their prom date. I’ve learned that the direct approach is the best. I grab the corner of the worn leather patch over her left breast and tear it off. It makes a ripping sound as it pulls from her flight suit. I put it in my pocket. I keep the patches of every student that I soft patch. I smooth the new patch on and then I haul back and punch her right in the patch. Anything else would be disrespectful, a signal that she was other than what she was, a colleague, and Marine Corp Naval Aviator.

When I was winged, metal wings with two pins were placed on the uniform and then punched on without the little frogs to cover up the points. The idea was to draw blood and “tack-on” the wings so they would never fall off. The more blood the better. Over time the tradition broke under more political sensibilities, but the spirit remains.

She winces. I check her parents and they are beaming with pride and seem not to have noticed that what I had just done to their daughter could in some circumstances be considered an assault. They are a military family and they understand what just happened and why it had to be that way. I’m a bit relieved.

            At the end, the ceremony devolves into small gatherings and her father works his way through the  crowd towards me and I wonder if maybe he has changed his mind about the whole punching his daughter thing.

“Thank you for taking care of my daughter,” he says.

“She took care of herself,” I say.

“We know. We know,” he says, and he fades back to his family.



“Did you hear?”

“About what?” I ask.

“West coast Cobra crash.”

“No, who was it?”

“Cruz. You remember her?”

“Yea, she okay?

“No, her and the FRS instructor were killed.”  The FRS is the Fleet Replacement Squadron that transitions newly winged aviators to their fleet aircraft.


“Bird strike took out the tail rotor on a goggle flight.”  Contrary to popular belief, birds do fly at night and with the reduced field of vision that comes with flying on night vision goggles there was no realistic chance of avoiding a collision.

“Thanks for telling me.”

“I thought you would want to know.”

Really, I could have gone the rest of my life not knowing, but in the long run there is no way to not know. Mishaps are ruthlessly examined and disseminated. Talking about the dead is a requirement of the job. Sooner or later, I would have found out.



At home, I open the bottle of Grey Goose hiding in the back of the freezer. The vodka has a sluggish oily look to it. I retreat to my study and the quiet of the house intensifies. I usually stay up late to sit and think when the kids have finally fallen to sleep. I sit in my chair and sip the freezing cold vodka and it is good. Ghosts recline in the chair opposite me. They are young and beautiful with pale eyes. John Brown killed in a T-34 Crash, Dave Pidgeon killed in an A-4, the guy I can only remember as Jasper, the two killed when their gyros failed on a dark night, many others, about twenty five in all, including a newly-promoted Captain Gabrielle Cruz. I wonder what bizarre combination of skill, luck, and grace conspired to let me survive a career that took so many away. Some lie buried beneath white crosses and manicured lawns, some in shaded family plots, some lost forever to the sea.

Some sit across from me.

I know exactly what went on in her cockpit. First, there is the sudden unexplained thump, a high frequency vibration in the pedals, and then the nose breaks free, spinning rapidly to the right. She pushes full left pedal to stop the yaw and it is useless. Her heart keeps rapid time and she is flushed with adrenaline heat. Maybe she does everything right. Maybe she doesn’t. Near the final moment, she realizes that whatever she is doing is not enough and she hopes that she is merely a witness to the experience rather than a participant. She falls into the dark, illuminated by urgent lights, and then it is over as if she never was.

“Who are you talking too?” asks my daughter.

“No one.” The ghosts shift away from reality. I look over at the doorway and she is standing there, young, long-limbed, and present. She looks like her mother when we first met. “I’m okay, just thinking.”

“You’re weird. Can you help me with algebra?”

“Can I help you tomorrow?”

“Yea, I guess. When am I ever going to use it?”

“All the time.”

“You’re lying.”

“I am.” 

“Well, maybe I’ll join the Navy and fly helicopters like you.”

“Maybe you will,” I say.

She enters the study and bends over to kiss me on the cheek. Her hair caresses the sides of my face like a ghost’s touch and I can smell the shampoo and it reminds me of someone I flew with once. “Goodnight,” she says as she leaves

Please God, I hope not, I add in silence. There is only so much luck and skill and grace in the world to go around and I have used far more than I had any right to and someone had to be shorted.

Maybe someone was.

With an overly generous measure of Grey Goose warming me, I know it to be true. As naval aviators, all of us will fly, some of us will fight, and few of us will die, and it seems that there is nothing more of it. I finish the Grey Goose. If I turn my head just so, I can see a ghost sitting at the edge of vision. I think ghosts are mirrors, reflecting only what is in front of them. This one is the pale color of grief. I turn my head a bit more and the ghost is gone.

Mike Barretta is a retired naval aviator who works for a major defense contractor. He holds a Masters degree from the Naval Postgraduate School in Strategic Planning and International Negotiations and a Masters degree in English (creative writing) from the University of West Florida. His stories have appeared in Apex, Redstone,  New Scientist, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and various anthologies including the Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide, War Stories, and The Year’s Best Military Sci-fi and Space Opera.

Featured Image: AH-1Z Viper attack helicopter by David Roterberg

The Great Pacific War: Requiem in 2030

Fiction Topic Week

By Walker D. Mills

            The admiral stood on the bridge of the first of Type 003 aircraft carrier, the Sichuan. She was the pride of the People’s Liberation Army Navy fleet, advertised as a domestic design, her plans were largely based on the Gerald R. Ford Class schematics and the aircraft that she tended were remarkably similar to the F-35. Beijing had staged an attack on some Chinese tourists on the islands and publicly clamored for a United Nations response to end the violence. Conveniently, the PLAN amphibious group had been exercising in the nearby Scarborough Shoal and was tasked by Beijing with ‘evacuating all Chinese nationals.’ Of course they would need to use the airport for this. And their evacuation aircraft would need security in the form of ground troops. He knew the Philippines wouldn’t resist. His intelligence officers said the Americans had sent one of their new Marine battalions but he wasn’t worried. He had missed the fleet action in the in the Great Pacific War. But on the way home from Sri Lanka his ship had caught the Marine Ospreys over the open ocean sortieing from Okinawa. He had given the order not to stop for survivors.

            Major Charles Elrod climbed out of the UTV II, an electric version of the Polaris MRZR with a mission module on the back. In this case a launcher for the new anti-ship missile. The company had about two-dozen launchers and laser batteries that could be fired from the UTVs or set up to fire dismounted.  They had left their heavier missiles, mounted on JLTVs behind. He looked out to sea – Good weather. Perfect for a landing. They’re more afraid of a typhoon than they are of us.  This matched the Defense Battalion’s S-2 estimate. He looked down at his tablet – all of his launchers glowed green. A good sign, they haven’t been able to find and disrupt our network yet. Regardless, his wiremen had already laid the cables that connected launchers to the G/ATOR radars in case the network failed. The missiles could be fired at any grid in a 200km range and search for their own targets with a combination of LIDAR and radar, but it helped if someone found the targets first. He could even see the minefield the Naval Detachment had laid. I’m not sure if you can call them mines if they can lay themselves and hunt for their own targets.

            He was anxious, this would be the first time one of the new Marine Defense Battalions saw combat. It would be the first time U.S. forces would fight the Chinese after the disaster that was the Great Pacific War in 2025. Everyone thought the new Chinese Islands would be the flashpoint – but it was the subsea cables. America’s military had been humiliated by the Chinese and ceded any pretense of control over the South China Sea in the Manila Accords. The Navy bore most of the fallout – and saw the largest culling of their senior officer corps since World War II. Hopefully it was enough. Those guys were still wide-eyed during the Congressional inquiries. The Marine Corps had largely sat on the sidelines after giving tactical control of its fighter aircraft to the sister service. All of 3rd Marine Division just sitting there waiting. What a waste. Until the Marines made a hasty, 11th hour heliborne assault from Okinawa. They retired their colors. Should have given the Colonel a posthumous court martial instead of a Medal of Honor. The Corps’ new Expeditionary Advanced Base Doctrine was air-centric, problematic for a force that built itself around squads and platoons of riflemen. They had all but abrogated their Title 10 mission to prepare for the “seizure or defense of advanced naval bases,” consistently prioritizing the small wars of the Middle East over the Pacific. We got lots of training on IEDs but none on cyber or EW.

The loss… not that anyone called it that…  had spurred a sweeping reorganization in the service. After scrapping the failed Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations concept they went back to their roots and reorganized eight infantry battalions into Marine Defense Battalions, an old concept from the first half of the 20th Century. The goal of the Defense Battalion was to free up the fleet for action elsewhere – if it had to dedicate its resources to protecting bases it had less to dedicate to fleet action. Made up of Air, Sea and Land Defense Companies with Sensor & Network Company, they were a marriage of the best missile technology available, a remote and autonomous sensing capability, and interoperability with Naval and Air Force sensing and strike capability shepherded by a distributed anti-access, area denial doctrine. Similar concepts like ‘warbot companies’ had been discussed for years never adopted. After the war the generals picked a small group of junior officers and tasked them with reforming the Corps. Eschewing the tyranny of Quantico they worked out of an office in San Francisco. They drew on long forgotten letters by Pete Ellis about the defense of advanced bases and base denial and they visited engineering labs in Silicon Valley and Mountain View before sending fresh requirements to Raytheon and Boeing for a new generation of anti-air and anti-ship missiles. I’m still surprised those companies survived telling Congress that they couldn’t meet the missile orders. I guess they figured it out. 

            The new weapons had come just in time. Elrod’s men had been practicing in California with the old Stinger I missiles until a month ago when the new Stinger II missiles arrived. A transfer from the Marine Corps’ Low Altitude Air Defense community, Major Elrod had been skeptical of the new weapons. Man portable, but not man launched? Lasers? But the drills on San Clemente Island had him convinced. He needed half as many men as his old LAAD unit, and after setting up the launchers and networking them with the radars up he didn’t need any. They could track and fire on the Chinese autonomously. He cringed when he thought about the debates over autonomous weapons. We were debating the morality while our enemies were testing these weapons in Syria and Sri Lanka. We gave them a ten-year head start.

            His tablet pinged. One of the MUX drones had found a Chinese Coast Guard cutter. Probably a picket for the amphibs. Worth sinking? The MUX thought so. Elrod watched his tablet as the MUX sent orders to three of the new Fast Combat Vessels hiding out in a cove. It was able to use the new light-based LOS communication suite to transmit nearly instantaneously, and it was un-jammable. The egg-heads said it worked just like fiber optic cable – but without the cable. They sortied and quickly and raced to their separate launch points at over 90 knots. The boats were a hybrid American/Swedish design. The MUX had picked three different points for them to fire their missiles that were just beyond the radar range of the ship. The separate firing points would send the missiles in a way they would approach the Chinese ship from three different directions and overwhelm its close defense gun and leave the amphibs wondering where the missiles came from. Damn, those drones are smart. He looked up for a second before he realized all of the action would be well beyond the horizon. The most potent new weapon fielded by the Marines wasn’t organic to the Defense Battalion. It was the MUX drone flow by VMU-9 in support of the battalion. The MUX, without any weapons of its own, is the eyes and ears of the Defense Battalion. Sortieing hundreds of kilometers off the coast to identify and track targets for the battalion to prosecute with their own fires or fires from sister services.

            Elrod remembered when the Corps had reestablished up the small boat units that it used in Iraq. Oh how the Navy had fought to keep the Marines out of the boat business. The services had finally fought to a draw – it became a joint program with Sailors driving and Marines manning the guns. The boats, without the new missiles, had already proven themselves when the Marines deployed to help Indonesian security forces fight a resurgent Islamic State in South East Asia. Damn that was a nasty war, and still not over. But Elrod had watched that conflict from the sidelines – choosing to specialize in the larger anti-aircraft missiles over the smaller gun and directed energy air-defense platforms that the Corps deployed to counter the UAS threat. He was ready for his chance at combat after watching his buddies in the drone defense units deploy on back-to-back tours. The battalion’s focus was on destroying connectors – whether seaborne or airborne. Killing whatever has the soldiers on it. And the Navy focused on the capital vessels.

            The sun was beginning to set, and Elrod sat down and leaned against the UTV. His Chief Programmer, Chief Warrant Officer Two Alexa Abbas, a 22-year old MIT graduate, was still typing away, finishing the last inputs to the parameters for the missiles.  When she was done Major Elrod would set the system to be fully autonomous, otherwise the system would still need his permission to fire. She had volunteered for a direct accession into the Marines as a Warrant Officer under a new program that targeted people with critical skills, allowing them to move laterally into the force and skip some or all of the normal training pipeline. She was the senior programmer in the company, responsible for making sure all of the software worked as is was supposed to and that the Marines’ network was secure from the Chinese. The Great Pacific War had taught the Marines how vulnerable their networks were – on the first day only 10 percent of the F-35s in Japan were free from cyber intrusion. But many of the pilots decided to fly anyway. Most didn’t live to repeat that mistake. It was the civilian networks that suffered the worst. San Diego was without power for all 12 days of the war and the loss of cell phone service to military bases meant that their response to the crisis was in slow motion. All that talk about the ‘Ghost Fleet’ in Suisun Bay – there  was never time.

            The driver, Lance Corporal Alan Gomez, ran through his checks of the communications equipment again. He had been 14 when the last war started. He remembered getting out of school early and waiting for his mom to pick him up. It was late evening before she came because all of the traffic lights were out in LA. But mostly he remembered the riots that started the next day. He had enlisted with his parent’s permission at 17. He wanted to go into the infantry but he didn’t have the scores required for one of the new Assault Battalions. But he did qualify for the Defense Battalion. He was surprised to find out the training pipeline was 18 months long for the new infantry. He would attend training for driving, communications, and field medicine training before he would go to the six-month basic infantry skills course.

            It was around 4am when the island lit up. Major Elrod awoke with a start. Is this what it feels like to get bombed? But he quickly realized the ordnance was outgoing. He looked skyward, joining his driver and Chief Programmer. Hundreds of missiles streaked skyward, lighting up the dark night. There were more missiles firing from over the horizon. Must be from the Navy. He looked at his tablet. The MUX drones had identified the Chinese fleet earlier, but they waited until the Navy’s subsurface drones made sure they found all of the Chinese submarines before they fired. The Navy was still stinging from the losses they had suffered in the last war at the hands of cheap diesel electric submarines. They were just waiting for us. How did we not see? He watched the tablet, imagining the Chinese sailors react to the hundreds of missiles streaking toward them. Many would be shot down – first by other missiles and then by the close-in defense guns. More would be absorbed by the merchant and fishing vessels sailing with the fleet. But the Marine missiles carried countermeasures of their own. And they would fly together in formations, coordinating their flight paths to optimize their effects on target and confuse the Chinese defenses. Inevitably some would make it through, and then others would exploit the gaps in the fleet defenses to strike the ships at the center of the formation.

            The enemy ship indicators on the tablet started to disappear. Elrod could now see the dim glow over the horizon of the burning fleet. This is for the John C. Stennis and the John F. Kennedy. After two decades of fait accompli aggression the president outlined a new policy of preemption and escalation in a speech at Annapolis, new weapons alone could not effectively counter aggression. The Chinese fleet ostensibly sailing to evacuate Chinese citizens was the first victim. The president had decided that 15,000 Chinese soldiers weren’t needed to protect a few dozen tourists and he wouldn’t wait until after it was a clear act of aggression. So he sent in the Marines.

1stLt Walker D. Mills is a Marine Corps infantry officer. He is currently a student at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.

Featured Image: “Ready for War” by FranzowaR.