The following is an entry for the CIMSEC & Atlantic Council Fiction Contest on Autonomy and Future War. Winners will be announced 7 November.
By Mike Matson
“You know my great-granddad did this crap back in the day,” I said, standing on the bridge while scanning with the binoculars. To starboard a little less than a half klick away, chugged along a similar container ship, with more ships visible to the front and rear, cruising at 12 knots in three parallel lines. To port was open ocean.
“What’s that Lieutenant, stand watch bored out of your skull,” replied Jim amicably, the lead contractor under my command. He sat there stroking his mustache. I snorted.
“Well, that too. I meant convoy duty, same as us. North Atlantic, 1943. Gave him ulcers apparently.” Jim nodded, happy to suddenly have some conversation to pass the time.
“Stomach not handling the MREs?” I shook my head no. “What did he sail on?”
“Destroyer Escort. Tiny little tin can. The USS Holder. I remember my dad telling me stories his paw-paw told him.” I laughed at the memory of one. “His CO was a pre-war officer, a real martinet. Made the junior officers use the head first in the morning so the metal seat was warm by the time he needed to take a crap. Paw-paw allegedly said more than once he had wished him dead.”
“I appreciate the offer to warm my seat in the morning Lieutenant,” Jim said deadpan and I winced. I really need to stop giving him freebies to remind me how much older he is, I thought. The acme probably didn’t help. Apparently stress made my face break out. I tried brushing it off with a snort.
I nodded into the distance at the sleek form sliding over the swells a few kilometers to port. It was only visible once every third or fourth wave, and even then you had to know where to look to find it. “His ship was three times the size of our escort out there but that isn’t saying much. He told my dad even in the calmest sea he always had to keep one eye out for waves when walking on deck, and the smallest storms would kick their butt, everyone puking all over the place.”
“How’d he make out?” Jim asked.
“Survived the war and the ulcers. But they took a German aerial torpedo portside bringing their first convoy into the Med. Killed his best friend standing next to him.” I paused, thinking of the old scrap book my dad had with the photos of the ship in dry dock in Algiers. “Torpedo destroyed the bow. They ended up cutting the ship in half and welded the stern of the Holder to the bow of another DE which had its stern destroyed. Made a whole new ship.”
“Damn, they couldn’t do that to ships these days. You put a scratch in the paint and its six months in dry dock and a $100-million-dollar price tag.”
“Yeah, that’s one reason why they started making those robo-ships out there. It sinks, it costs 1/100 the price to replace as it would the John Finn, and 1/10th the time to build.” The USS John Finn, an Arleigh Burke destroyer, was the convoy commander, and one of only two manned US Navy vessels in this convoy. The other five convoy escorts were four autonomous ASW corvettes, dubbed robo-ships, and an LCS.
I knew from the pre-convoy brief and the Blue-Force tracker we also had dedicated P-8 support, with two planes constantly on station, hunting for subs outside our perimeter, and a Global Hawk up top watching over everything. We also had a few undersea autonomous hunter/killers lurking below but I’d be damned to explain how they coordinated their efforts with the convoy.
Jim and I sat there in the bridge of the container ship Trondheim, six stories above the deck, and continued to watch the world go by. It was a good day to be at sea. The sun was shining and the sea was calm. If it wasn’t for the fact there were Russians out there trying to kill us, a fact that kept everyone constantly on edge, the day would have been perfect.
Jim apparently got tired of my attempt at conversation because he didn’t say anything after that. Eventually he hefted his oversized girth and headed out to the crew quarters to check on his people, two decks below. It left me with the two lookouts on the bridge wings while I sat in the helmsman seat. I didn’t blame Jim for his mood swings, while the day might be nice, the duty really was shitty.
I scanned the ship with the binoculars. Nothing really to see but an endless stack of containers. The containers blocked the view of the bow where half the modular SeaRAM battery was mounted. Nor could I see the trailer mounted CIWS on the stern which comprised the other half of the SeaRAM system, except through the video screens mounted in front of me. Other than the SeaRAM I had seven carbines, seven pistols, and two .50s on rail mounts with which to defend the ship.
I was only a Lieutenant (junior grade), but I was the highest ranking officer on the ship. Ok, I had to admit to myself, I’m the only officer on the ship. However, I wasn’t the ship’s captain. There wasn’t a captain. The Trondheim was one of Maersk’s fully autonomous container ships. It routinely sailed between New York and Rotterdam without a soul on board.
The lack of a crew for a ship over 350 meters long was disconcerting to say the least. It was as large as an aircraft carrier but computers ran everything – admittedly with help from some unseen pilot in Holland, who was linked by satellite, monitoring the ship’s progress.
My official title was, ‘Commander Roy Davis, Naval Armed Guard Detachment, Trondheim.’ My mom was so proud; the title sounded important. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I was a glorified babysitter. I had five sailors and a Petty Officer third class under my command. The Navy had assigned just enough of us so two uniformed personnel could always be on watch on the bridge, and run the temporarily installed secure communications gear.
None of us were authorized to do anything to the ship in any way. In fact, when it came to ship handling, the only order I was authorized to give was to order abandon ship if necessary.
I’d give anything to be able to actually sail this ship, I thought for the hundredth time. I didn’t join the Navy to sail around on a ship that sailed itself.
My age, rank, and status, made dealing with the contractors somewhat problematic. Jim and I had an interesting relationship. I was 23 and a newly minted Lieutenant only a few months out of Great Lakes. Jim, as he kept pointing out, had kids older than me. His most junior employee made triple my pay. I knew they didn’t like me demanding one of them stand watch with my men on every shift, nor the regular battle station drills. Word was I was being overly by-the-book on what could otherwise be light duty for everyone.
Thankfully they didn’t openly give me grief. However, my seamen worshiped the contractors with their experience and money, and that added to the tension. They had brought three gaming consoles for the six of them, and all sorts of other creature comforts which distracted my most junior crew members. I knew the Petty had to privately remind one of the them the proper chain-of-command after getting some lip. I didn’t ask questions.
Still, Jim was generally OK as long as I didn’t push it with his men, and one woman, who kept our temporary defensive mounts and countermeasure systems working. I was vaguely concerned though how they would react if we saw action.
The Blue Force tracker only showed the convoy and its escorts. I had it zoomed in tight on the convoy to avoid clutter. The ocean was a busy place.
The convoy consisted of seventeen commercial ships; a mix of Ro/Ro, container, two ammunition ships, and a tanker, plugging along in three lines. No Fast Sealift or troop transports, we were a creeper convoy. We carried most of two heavy armor brigade combat teams, which we had loaded in Charleston, and were headed for Antwerp.
Looking out for us was the John Finn. It provided all of our long range air defense, a couple manned ASW helicopters, plus a complement of short range air and sea autonomous vehicles.
On the perimeter handling the bulk of the screening duties were the 550 ton robo-ships. They were seriously up gunned for their size; armed with a four cell VLS holding ASROCs, a salvo of ASW grenades, counter-torpedoes designed to intercept incoming torpedoes, and bistatic, passive/active towed sonars. They also each carried a 30mm chain gun on the bow and a RAM on the stern.
Datalinks tied them to the John Finn and the convoy. They shared sensor and targeting data with the P-8s, the GlobalHawk, and amongst themselves. The John Finn’s AI dictated all of the convoy’s movements. Watching it on the tracker, it seemed we moved less like ships, and more like a flock of birds, the movements were so synchronized.
The last escort ship was the LCS Cooperstown. The Navy had finally found a good use for the LCS ships as 21st century tenders for the flood of unmanned systems entering the fleet. The Cooperstown serviced all the autonomous craft above, around, and below the convoy, and was the backup convoy commander to the John Finn. The Cooperstown was loaded with four TERNs in addition to Fire Scouts.
Three quarters of the commercial ships were fully autonomous. The rest were reduced crew ships. Every third ship had some ad-hoc weapons mounted on it and an Armed Guard contingent like mine. Most of those ships were on the northern convoy line like the Trondheim, to help defend the group with their point defenses.
Watch ended uneventfully, and once relieved I went below. I sarcastically contemplated going to the mess, or the officers’ quarters, but the ship didn’t have any of those. The ship was autonomous, the implications of which I hadn’t fully realized when I was first assigned.
The only accommodations in the six story bridge tower were located two decks below the bridge. A single large room had six fold out cots attached to the wall, two fold out tables with built in chairs, a microwave, and a single head with no shower. These minimal quarters were maintained in case a maintenance crew had to stay on-board overnight.
Maritime rules also required a functional bridge be present on all commercial ships for use by harbor pilots as needed, and for emergency use. Thankfully there was a second head located off the bridge, which eased morning congestion.
The rest of the ship only had limited access hallways for maintenance personnel. With 13 naval and contractor personnel onboard, space was tight. Any other chairs, and extra cots, we had to bring ourselves, and we looked like parents at a kids’ soccer game in our folding chairs back by the stern when off duty.
For supplies, we had all the MREs we could eat. One of the contractors had been smart enough to bring a solar-powered camping shower among his other gizmos, so we could all bathe when needed. He had also brought his own drone with a camera on it and spent his off hours buzzing the ship and taking videos.
It was not how I expected to go to war.
“How goes the war Lieutenant?” asked one of my sailors in the crew room. He was barely nineteen.
“As far as I know it still goes sailor. We’re on track to land in five days. Nobody’s shooting at us, so we’re good. Besides, if they were out there, we’d see them coming.” That seemed to placate him. He put his ear buds back on and closed his eyes while laying back on his bunk.
Despite being under threat of air and submarine attack, we were not operating under EMCON. There really wasn’t any point. It seemed counterintuitive, or maybe asinine is the right word, I thought, but we were not left with many options. I’d had this conversation with my Petty Officer at the beginning of the trip and laid out the troubles we faced.
“Bob, there isn’t any way to hide. Autonomous doesn’t mean stealthy. This ship is sending and receiving constant updates via satellite to its control center. It can’t sail without its radar on at all times in order for it to avoid collisions.” Bob clearly didn’t like that. I concurred.
“It’s totally FUBAR. Same for our robo-ships. Navy fucked that up big time. Somebody forget we might want to hide every once in a while. I swear, we forgot what it was like to have to fight our way across the ocean.” I talked with the know-it-all attitude of someone who hadn’t been there or done that yet. Bob spoke up.
“Haven’t we used this playbook before?” He said sarcastically.
“Yep. Seems we never learn. Between the mandatory radar use for safe navigation, and all the datalinks, we can’t go EMCON anymore. If we tried, half the fleet would stop dead in the water due to safety protocols.”
“What about the John Finn? If it is radiating its Aegis, it’s like a giant beacon. Surely they can turn it off if needed.”
“Yep, but she has to talk to the robos and there are already so many other radars on, might as well turn on the big set and give us as much warning as possible. Besides, between DigitalOcean, AIS trackers, all the floating tide sensors out there, and websites like floatradar, pretty much anyone can guess where we are at all times. So our only hope is to turn everything on and keep the baddies as far from us as possible.”
“Jeez, that’s not the way to fight LT.” My Petty Officer clearly was reconsidering the benefits of his “easy” duty billet on a container ship. “Hope we’re going to be in the center line of the convoy.” That’s when I broke the news about where the convoy commander had decided to place us.
“What do we have for dinner tonight?” I said as I sat down on my cot. A seaman, named Mike, paused his game and reached into an open box and looked in it, rooting around.
“We got spaghetti, pork patties, or Vietnamese Pho.”
“Toss me the Pho.” Mike tossed me an MRE over his shoulder, no-look style.
I started digging into the Pho, which didn’t totally suck, when the klaxon started going off. Why does a ship designed to be crewless have a klaxon? Flashed through my mind.
Everyone jumped up at once and sort of bumped into each other. Grabbing my hat and a life preserver I raced for the stairwell.
“Everyone get a vest on and get to your battle stations!” For half of them it meant heading down to the deck for possible damage control, for the rest of us, it meant the bridge. We charged up the stairs as a crowd.
“Report!” I yelled as I led the parade of sailors and contractors onto the bridge.
“The Finn just reported probable missile attack,” said the seaman on duty at the helm, getting out of the chair so I could take it. “They picked up a Russian tactical drone a hundred kilos out they think was launched from a missile sub to get a better targeting solution.” I zoomed out the tracker to 500-mile radius and saw the red blip for the drone, and two blue blips racing towards it. We had two robo-ships between us and the Russian drone. Good.
“Look!” a contractor said, pointing. I looked to the east and saw multiple smoke trails begin to arc into the sky and tip over to the north. In less than a minute there were over 20 missiles headed downrange.
I glanced at the tracker and saw a rising number of red inverted V’s appearing and moving towards the convoy, with blue V’s moving towards them.
“We got inbound missiles everyone!” I yelled. Jim crowded near me to watch the tracker.
I could feel the ship’s engine surging and the Trondheim begin to pick up speed. The John Finn must have sent movement orders to the convoy. I watched the choreographed movement on the tracker as ships were turned to present a minimal target aspect to the missiles. It somehow felt like I was watching an organic creature it was so smooth.
Jim spoke quietly to me. “See anything?” he asked as I scanned the horizon with binoculars.
“No nothing… wait! Explosions! Looks like Finn’s missiles are getting hits.” I glanced down and saw the red and blue Vs converging. Puffs of smoke appeared on the far horizon. The John Finn fired more missiles. I saw both a TERN and a helicopter racing north, torpedoes slung underneath both.
To port a series of smoke lines appeared running parallel to the convoy.
“Did they hit the escorts?” Someone asked.
“No,” I responded, not taking my eyes from the binoculars. “The robos are laying a smoke screen.”
“Smokescreen? You really thing that will work?” Asked Jim derisively.
“They’re not burning diesel like the old days. It’s the same multi-spectral smoke loaded on our hull canisters,” I replied with some heat. Jim needed to lose the attitude in front of the crew, I thought.
More explosions. They were moving closer to the convoy at astonishing speed. Ships without SeaRAMS started launching clusters of super-sized grenades full of smoke and chaff, enveloping their ships in instant clouds of dark smoke. I thought I was going to puke, as raw fear surged through me.
“Deploying decoy!” I yelled and smashed a large red button temporarily screwed into place on the console. A sticky note was helpfully next to it with the words, “DON’T PUSH THE RED BUTTON!” written on it.
Instantly there was a BOOM! And a large silver drum was shot off the back of the ship. It hit the water 200 meters behind us, and a giant radar reflector inflated in seconds.
“Releasing batteries to full autonomous mode,” I yelled, and the SeaRAM components swiveled to port, looking for targets.
The Russian missiles coming towards the convoy were single minded in their purpose, but they worked together to complete their mission. Most of the flight they had flown a low-level subsonic run to save fuel, but as they reached the last 5 kilometers, they popped up and went supersonic, seeker heads actively looking for targets.
They worked together, talking to each other in a cooperative algorithm to decide where to attack. Two of the missiles carried active jamming warheads to try and slough off the John Finn’s incoming missiles. They picked a spot in the center of the convoy to overload the defenses and converged on that point in space, even as the John Finn knocked them down.
A Russian missile slammed into the container ship a half kilometer in front of us on its port side. The starboard hull bulged outward and ship innards and flaming fuel blew out into the water. Containers launched into the air in a fan shape away from the ship. I watched one seemingly tumble in slow motion end over end towards a ship in the center line. It landed in the water just short of the hull.
Suddenly, a flash of light as bright of the sun exploded in front of us, lighting up the bridge. Someone screamed. We all raised our arms in defensive postures. I foolishly thought it was a nuke. Once I realized I wasn’t vaporized, I looked up. As the light started to fade, the shock wave and a deafening sound hit us, buffeting the ship.
I risked a glance at the tracker. The John Finn and Cooperstown were still there Thank God. I used the binoculars to try and see the ship that was hit. It appeared to be the tanker full of jet fuel. Where there had been a ship, there just rose a fireball into the sky. I started to give an order…
I saw movement on the horizon through the corner of my eye, low to the surface and moving at a speed too fast to fully process, zig-zagging wildly. The SeaRAM fired off two missiles, missing the target. Realizing it had missed, the SeaRAM told the countermeasures to launch.
A dozen concussive jolts rocked the ship in milliseconds as smoke grenades were launched into the air, followed less than a second later by them detonating with much larger impacts all around the ship. It was like being in the middle of a fireworks show. Everything instantly went black as smoke blanketed the ship in a protective cloud.
Another crewman saw the missile just before the grenades blew and screamed a warning. We all braced as the smoke was covering us. There was an even more massive sound and all the bridge windows exploded. Many of us were knocked to the deck and I could feel the ship shudder. Alarms started going off in a deafening shrill and the lights went out, followed quickly by emergency lighting activating.
“Damage control, report!” I screamed as I stood up, looking out, trying to see how badly we were hit, but unable to see anything because of the smoke. I was completely disoriented from all the explosions and the shift from blinding light to near darkness.
“I think it hit the decoy Lieutenant,” someone yelled.
“Then what the hell blew out the windows?” I demanded. I felt something warm and sticky starting to cover the right side of my face. I touched my fingers to my cheek and felt blood and glass shards.
“Shock wave from the missile explosion is my best guess Skipper,” said the Petty Officer.
The ship began to slow noticeably. What the hell is that about? raced through my mind. Blinking warning lights in the smoky haze made the bridge feel like a disco.
“What the fuck Bob, why are we stopping?” The Petty Officer shrugged and scanned the control panels, trying to figure out what was wrong.
Jim slowly stood up where he had been knocked over. Both his knees were skinned up bad.
The sailor who had been on watch spoke up in a panic. “SIR! The ship’s autopilot is off line. I think the shock knocked out the radar and satellite connection.”
I froze for just an instant. My orders are clear; do not operate the ship in any way. I looked at the tracker, which somehow was still working. Our ship was falling out of line. With the datalink and radar offline, the Trondheim was going into its pre-programmed recovery mode, dropping speed to steerage way only as a safety measure.
I sensed everyone looking at me. The bridge was a shambles. The grenade smoke was dissipating, and it was getting lighter every moment. Many of us I saw had cuts and scrapes. The ship was stopping, making us sitting ducks.
Fuck it. I acted.
“I have the conn!” I yelled and I flipped the cover on the ship control override and toggled the switch. The ship was now in manual mode.
“You! get over here and get on the helm.” I pointed to the sailor who had been on watch on the bridge when I arrived. He raced over and grabbed the steering wheel. “Give me 20 knots and come right 15 degrees starboard onto a bearing of 121 degrees to match the convoy.”
“Aye aye, Sir!”
My gaze turned back to the ship in front of us, now drifting off to port as we came out of our smoke cocoon. The missile hit had broken its back. It had snapped in two and as the halves slipped under the waves, hundreds of containers littered the surface.
I ordered the lookouts to scan for survivors. I got on the radio and reported what had happened to the John Finn. I got a terse “copy that” and orders to stay in formation. The convoy commander did not seem to care a newly minted Lieutenant was driving a 350-meter container ship. Guess he has bigger issues at the moment.
We avoided colliding with any major debris on the surface, and raced to regain our position in the convoy. A status update came in from the John Finn a few minutes later. At least one sub had launched a missile attack. It was too far out for the John Finn to attack, so the P-8’s were prosecuting. They had torpedoes in the water ranging on the sub.
The Finn also reported a probable submarine had somehow gotten in close and the convoy was continuing to maneuver to avoid the new threat. The convoy commander had us slide farther to the back to put our ship between the Ro/Ro’s and the submarine.
It required us pulling out of line, slowing, then sliding back into line further back and picking up speed again. I felt we handled the maneuver pretty well all things considered.
A robo came close alongside, only a few hundred meters to port. It’s 30mm kept tracking back and forth in a watchful manner towards the threat vector. I felt better having an escort nearby.
A robo further out had reported torpedoes in the water and had launched counter-torpedoes. A TERN and another robo-ship had raced northeast to attempt to sink, or at least drive off, the contact. They were apparently having trouble pinning it down.
Jim suddenly spoke up with a question.
“Your grandfather’s wish, did it come true?” The question startled me.
“His wish. That his CO would be killed. Did his wish come true?” For some unexplained reason that pissed me off. I gave him a hard look.
“All he ever said was be careful what you wish for.” Jim nodded absentmindedly, as he watched the robo-ship to port. He didn’t realize the irony I felt saying that.
“We fired two rounds from the SeaRAM. Get down there and confirm your team got it reloaded!” Jim blinked, looking away from the autonomous corvette, taking note of the command tone in my voice. Something clicked.
“Right Skipper,“ he said with more respect this time, “On it. Men, let’s move.” He and his men raced off the bridge.
I was left on the bridge with just my two sailors to sail the aircraft carrier-sized ship. I reflected ruefully the Trondheim was fat, slow, and turned like a cow, but had suddenly become my first ship command. I ordered my Petty Officer to focus on restoring the radar and data link to get the autonomous systems back online.
My men had responded nicely. I knew the Navy thought autonomous ships were the future, and yeah they probably were, but the last thirty minutes had proved to me fighting spirit still counted for something. Hopefully when this is over I’m not court-martialed for disobeying orders. I didn’t dwell on it, besides, the war came back and disrupted my moment.
The robo suddenly sped up, turning hard to port, and fired off two counter-torpedoes. Oh shit!
“Torpedoes in the water!” I yelled. “All ahead flank, right full rudder.”
“All ahead full, right full rudder, aye Sir!” yelled the helmsman as he slammed the wheel to the right. The ship vibrated as the massive engines kicked into flank speed.
“Come to heading 170 and hold it there,” I ordered.
“170 aye sir.” The helmsman was crisp in his response. All the time on the drills were now paying off. The ship responded slowly but surely.
I turned my binoculars back to the robo, just as a massive plum of water leaped into the air several hundred meters away from it. The counter-torpedoes had hit something. So much for the Finn’s intelligence the other sub was to the northeast.
I watched the robo fire its salvo of ASW rockets. This was too close for comfort for me to be a mere spectator. I silently urged the Trondheim to speed up. Thirty grenades arched into the air and came down with a series of splashes. The sea rippled with explosions.
Coming in over the horizon were three Fire Scouts, each carrying four depth charges. Damn, that’s not something you see every day, I thought.
“Skipper, the John Finn reports the missile sub has been sunk. They want us to merge back with the convoy as soon as we can, they’re going to leave the robo and Fire Scouts to finish off the contact. They think it might actually be a Russian UUV.”
We watched as the Fire Scouts came in on a series of bombing runs, the first dropping its charges, the other two hanging back. After a minute the next drone came on, then the third. The robo added an ASROC to the mix. We continued to gain distance as the sea danced and flashed with explosions behind us.
Robots fighting robots, I mused. How weird is that?
I shoved the terror I was feeling in my stomach to the back of my mind. It was enough to give me ulcers. I’d deal with the fear later, I decided, I temporarily had a ship to fight. END.
Mike Matson is a writer based in Louisville, Kentucky, with a deep interest in international affairs. He has 20 years of government experience, and degrees from The American University and the Joint Military Intelligence College, both in Washington, DC. In addition to 13 years in the Beltway before escaping to Kentucky, he has lived, studied, and worked in Brussels and Tallinn. He can be found on Twitter at @Mike40245.
Featured Image: An Unmanned Underwater Vehicle is recovered May 19th after a test during an international mine countermeasures exercise. (Hendrick Simoes/Stars and Stripes)