By Lieutenant Christopher Giraldi, USN
Lieutenant Commander Markus advanced power on his Boeing P8-B Poseidon U.S. Navy Maritime Patrol Aircraft, turned north, and began the climb to 6,000 feet. It was a standard South Philippine Sea day: a heavy layer of cumulous clouds from 2,000 to 5,000 feet, calm seas, 90 percent humidity, and air temperature of 83 degrees Fahrenheit. He had woken up eight hours earlier for the daily mission brief and preflight. Absent any submarine action or coffee, he was fighting the pull of mid-day drowsiness. The 11-man crew of his aircraft had just finished laying their detection pattern consisting of the Navy’s newest Mk-135 advanced spectrum sonar buoy, codenamed Dragnet, hoping to catch their target in the multi-layered snare of radar and acoustic sensors.
In their brief that morning at the tactical coordination center, his crew, call sign ‘Wolfpack Four Six,’ learned their assignment that day was to locate and stop a convoy of People’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) transport submarines. The convoy was en route to deliver supplies to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Marines attempting to dislodge the American and Australian forces on the island of Papua, part of the PLA’s broader campaign to cut off and encircle Australia as if it were the largest prize on the Go board.
To complicate Wolfpack Four Six’s task, the transport subs were assessed by naval intelligence to be escorted by two advanced Xi-class escort submarines and a single updated Shang II nuclear attack submarine. Their intelligence briefer had grimly reminded the crew that the Xi-class escort subs carried the PLA Navy’s HQ-11 undersea-air missiles.
The HQ-11, nicknamed Dragonclaw by the U.S. Navy, was the latest in China’s push for missile technological dominance. The nine-foot tall missile featured dual radar and thermal guidance systems. When fired from the submarine, the missile would climb within seconds to a height of 45,000 feet before commencing a near-supersonic glide in search of air targets below. Once the guidance system locked on to a target, the weapon simply allowed its kinetic energy to carry it along and then explode at a distance of 50 feet from the target to ensure maximum effectiveness of the directional fragmentation warhead. It was the Dragonclaw missile that kept P-8 crews up at night.
LCDR Markus toggled the intercom switch connected to his headset, hoping some conversation would stimulate him back to the proper level of alertness expected of a mission commander at war.
“TACCO, Flight,” he blurted into his headset.
“GO for TACCO,” LT Adams responded. Adams, a recently qualified tactical coordinator, scanned her screens, monitoring the data relayed to her by her crew mates and the constant feed of information from the various military networks.
“Have the Triton drones detected any periscopes?” Markus asked.
“Negative sir, and no jamming observed either,” answered the crew’s onboard drone manager.
The P8-B aircraft operated by the crew of Wolfpack Four Six was the second variant of Boeing’s militarized 737-800. One of the new capabilities of the P8-B was the ability to coordinate with a number of semi-autonomous MQ-4C Triton drones. The most notable upgrade was the return of nuclear weapons capabilities to maritime patrol aircraft. With the pace at which the Chinese shipyards were building transport submarines, the U.S. Navy could not manage the threat with its older air-dropped torpedoes. Thus, the new Mk-58 torpedoes could be armed with a variable yield nuclear warhead, reviving a warfare concept first developed nearly 75 years ago.
Once China deployed a tactical nuke in a Philippine harbor a few months earlier, the gloves had come off and smaller nuclear weapons were authorized for use across the fleet. Wolf Pack Four Six carried two Mk-58s.
“Very well, thanks Drones,” LCDR Markus responded. “Let’s send one of the Triton’s north, have them drop a few mini-mines, and wait for a reaction.”
“And risk giving away the chance for surprise?” questioned LT Adams.
“I understand your concern, Adams. I don’t like the idea of poking the dragon either, but neither us nor the Allied forces guarding Australia can afford to wait for the convoy to come to us. We have the drones today, let’s press our advantage.”
“Understood, sir,” Adams replied, selecting a drone function command, sending one of the Tritons on its new task. “15 minutes until Triton Two is at designated mini-mine release point.”
The mini-mine, or Mk-52 quick strike depth charge, was a small, unguided weapon about the size of a football with a 30-pund charge of high explosive. The charge was sufficient enough to damage a submarine if detonated within 10 meters of the hull. Perhaps more importantly, the Mk- 52 mini-mines functioned as psychological weapons intended to scare their targets into revealing themselves. They had the additional benefit of putting enough sound in the water to generate a sonar return to any sensors within miles of the area.
“We are descending back down to 1,500 feet, we’ll take whatever missile cover we can get below these clouds,” Markus informed the crew. “Radio back to base and let them know we are starting a mini-mine run.”
LT Adams replied, “Copy all, sending situation re…”
“Prop!” interjected the crew acoustic operator, or sonarman. “Detecting propeller blade cavitation, not far from buoy number 17, indicating twelve knots and accelerating.”
“No surface contact in that vicinity on radar,” the crew radar operator added.
“How far from our present position?” Markus asked, glancing down at the flight station tactical display.
“About 220 miles from present position,” the crew navigator replied.
LT Adams reflexively added a ring on her screen around the possible contact location with a 39 mile radius, accounting for the estimated effective range of the Dagonclaw anti-air missile.
“Copy that missile safety boundary, proceeding inbound, we’ll be there in 35 minutes,” LCDR Markus said, turning his attention back to the P-8’s flight instruments while adding “Send Triton One west of the target’s estimated position. Let’s see what else we find.”
“Copy,” Adams replied, relaying the command to the drone. “Triton One will be in first drop position in 15 minutes.” She then commanded the remining two Triton drones to fly in formation with the Poseidon, providing protection for the crew of Wolf Pack Four Six.
For the next ten minutes, despite the tension and hum of activity at each crew station, the eerie stillness of imminent action filled the aircraft. Everyone sat silently alert, monitoring sensor data and information feeds. The crew’s training ensured that everyone knew what each other was doing, and when the time came, would execute from their well-rehearsed playbook as if coach had just written it up on the whiteboard.
“We’re getting solid sonar returns now, this is directly from a submarine, sounds like a convoy sub diesel engine,” the sonarman said, breaking the silence in everyone’s headset.
“Radar contact! Triton One is detecting multiple radar hits. It looks like the merchant convoy subs are coming up to recharge the batteries,” added the radarman, corroborating the sonarman’s detection. They had their targets now.
“Triton Two is in the vicinity, configuring for mini-mine attack on surfaced targets, five minutes from being able to employ ,” Adams said, updating the crew.
“Navigator here, fleet headquarters is informed of our contact. We are instructed to prosecute at any risk to our own safety, the ready alert crew is taking off in 30 minutes. They will be out here in three hours.”
A brief pause followed as all members of the crew processed what the order meant for them. The only way they would be getting home would be by expending both of their torpedoes, and their opponent had the longer punch.
In short order, everyone’s tactical screen began to resemble a middle school geometry board as the location of the various targets were marked and associated weapons ranges populated. Uncomfortably absent were the escort attack subs with their Dragonclaw missiles. They were flying somewhat blind into the hornet’s nest, and they knew it.
‘MISSILE DETECT’ suddenly flashed against everyone’s eyes. The auto alert informed them that the first Triton had detected a missile being launched, almost certainly a Dragonclaw. Less clear was which of the five American aircraft the missile was targeting.
“Update the tactical display and mark that launch point an escort sub. Assuming the escorts are on the perimeter, show me an estimate for the other two out here,” Markus ordered, before commanding his copilot to turn further east, minimizing exposure to another missile attack.
When the first drone had detected a missile launch, the programming of the two drones flying in formation with the Poseidon automatically executed a decoy maneuver. The drones peeled away from the lead ship and began to make themselves as appetizing a target as possible to the Dragonclaw’s dual mode seeker.
“Convoy subs are going back under, losing radar contact on nine of them, I counted 11 at most,” the radarman informed.
“Triton Two is out of mini-mines, expended all in the vicinity of the convoy pod,” the drone operator added.
“What’s the status of the airborne missile?” Markus asked impatiently.
“Just lost all data with Triton Two,” Drone lead answered.
“Radar here, there are no air contacts where the drone was reporting itself to be. I think that missile took down Triton Two.”
Despite having lost the asset, the crew was temporarily relieved that the missile had not targeted them.
“We need to get these torpedoes in the water stat, run the Mk-58 tactical nuke checklist now,” Markus commanded, removing the nuclear weapons key from his flight suit pocket and placing the lanyard around his wrist, just in reach of the tactical weapons arming panel.
Adams began running through the Mk-58 software, entering target and environmental data. The software calculated the best drop point and determined the appropriate nuclear yield for their tactical situation.
“14 kilotons, 7 miles southwest of where we estimate the convoy to be,” Adams informed the Mission Commander, reading off the calculated attack data. “We will be in the Dragonclaw threat envelope for 12 minutes.”
“Sounds good, we’ll enter the threat envelope from the east, keep the formation Tritons with us now in decoy mode and get the other one back in formation ASAP,” Markus said, accelerating to just under the aircraft’s airspeed limit.
“With this course and speed, it will be 11 minutes in the threat envelop,” Adams updated, starting the countdown in everyone’s mind.
“Copy,” replied Markus, “we are just beneath the clouds, Dragonclaw seeker is somewhat degraded in the clouds and I don’t want it to pop out of some cumulous puff and reacquire our heat signature skimming the water. We’ll stay a touch higher here.”
The confidence of his tone helped to keep the crew’s collective anxiety down as they were now certainly within reach if any missiles were fired their way.
“Radar here, I am detecting submarine air search radar, about one mile from our estimated escort position, likely targeting the one drone not yet back in formation. I am turning off radar now to help us hide, I can’t provide further submarine positions.”
“We are fishing with hand grenades here Radar, don’t need to be that precise,” joked Markus, trying to break the tension.
“Four minutes until weapons release point.”
“Missile airborne! Multiple missiles airborne!” someone called out.
‘MISSILE DETECT’ flashed again. The drones, already in decoy mode, turned up the temperature coming off their engines and began intermittently releasing chaff, doing their absolute best to entice any missiles in the area their way. The crew of Wolfpack Four Six held their breath.
“Triton One down, our formation birds are still with us but we’ve lost all eyes and ears up north. We are blind to any missiles launched from there,” the crew drone manager informed, providing minimum relief to his teammates.
“Two minutes out from weapons release.”
“They’re painting us with radar now – they got us, ah shit! They know where we are. It’s coming from the third escort, practically right next to us.” An undertone of panic was in the radarman’s voice.
With a refreshing and assured authority, Markus commanded, “Turn radar back on, let him know we got his ass too, and send one of these formation drones at him with a mini-mine run, distract him long enough to get these nukes swimming.”
“One minute out from weapon release point.”
Markus inserted his launch key and turned it, a bright red light illuminated, ‘NUK KILL READY.’ “Nuclear attack is mission commander authorized, release on your discretion at drop point. Adams, you got this.”
“Ten seconds,” said Adams, swapping to manual release mode and fingering the weapons drop switch.
“Weapons away!” she called as the weapons bay swung open and two Mk-58 torpedoes dropped from the aircraft, each already programmed with their attack instructions.
“Time to go,” said Markus, turning as hard as the wings of the Boeing 737 type aircraft would allow.
“Estimating six minutes until we are out of the immediate danger zone.”
Markus advanced the thrust controls, increasing past the aircraft speed limit, trusting that the Boeing riveter who attached the wings to the fuselage back in the Tacoma Washington plant was particularly focused on the job that day. Weighing risk was what a pilot always did. Markus calculated that leaving the threat envelope a few seconds earlier was worth accelerating into the speed margin of safety. He hoped he was right and concentrated to ignore the sound of the overspeed alarm blaring in the cockpit.
Markus saw it before anyone else, even before the automatic sensors alerted the rest of the crew. It reminded him of when he was a junior officer, and would drive down from Jacksonville to Cape Canaveral to watch the SpaceX Falcon 9 launches. He saw the glowing orange plume of smoke at the surface and the ever-accelerating trail up into the clouds above. He knew this one would be coming back down to find them, and soon.
‘MISSILE DETECT’ flashed for the third time.
“I’m tracking at least two missiles in the air, definitely targeting our formation this time,” the radarman groaned.
Markus looked both ways outside his window, giving each robotic wingman a look as if to say, “Here we go.” He could see their engines glowing hot, and the chaff expending as they ran the decoy protocol.
“One minute to safety.”
Three Dragonclaw missiles ripped downwards through the clouds. One struck the port side Triton and Markus watched its wing snap off and begin to tumble into the sea.
“Triton Three is lost,” the drone operator announced, blind to the carnage observed by Markus.
At these ranges, a pilot’s eyeballs were as useful as any onboard sensor. Of the remaining missiles, the first continued its vertical descent into the water, but the second made a hard turn, directly for them. It was now a question of how much kinetic energy was left in the missile, and could they outrun the speed it had left.
“Coming right, brace for impact,” Markus alerted the crew, trying to coax more speed from the plane.
The missile tracked the Poseidon, losing speed with each quarter-mile gained on its prey. It targeted the center of the aircraft’s radar signature, and the highest heat emitter. By the time the missile was 50 yards from the aircraft it had slowed to the same speed as the P-8 – this was as close as it would get. The warhead detonated, launching a barrage of tightly packed shrapnel at the aircraft.
A hail of marble-sized projectiles entered into the port engine, wing root, and lower center fuselage, with a few penetrating through the cabin.
Markus heard someone cry out in the back. His copilot informed him the number one engine was gone, that both hydraulic systems were losing pressure and that the flight controls were only moderately responsive. There was only one option left he realized, and he made his announcement over the public address system.
“Prepare for immediate ditch, time to water impact – two minutes.”
Markus spent the next 120 seconds running through the ditching checklist as fast as possible, and preparing the cockpit for water entry. Markus and his copilot used what little response was left in the controls to get the plane slow and stable over the water. He was grateful that at least the seas were calm.
The water landing was violent. Markus felt himself surge forward, the harness digging into his body. He heard the shearing of metal and the popping of fasteners. Water cascaded over the flight station windows. He was knocked into a daze, where he remained until the flight station became still. The cockpit door was jammed shut. The copilot was unsuccessfully trying to open it with the crash ax. Seeing that water was already seeping in under the door, Markus unfastened himself from his harness, opened the emergency window and commanded the copilot to exit. He followed the junior pilot out, squeezing himself through the tight opening. He fell a few feet, face first into the warm water. He immediately inflated his survival vest, and saw the remainder of the crew boarding one of the 12-man survival rafts.
As he swam to the raft, he could see the aircraft had split in half, just forward of the wings. All that remained afloat of the aft portion was the tail, with the squadron insignia still visible. The front section was mostly submerged as well. Water halfway filled the open front cabin door, and the cockpit windows were still visible, resembling a seal poking its head up for air. It was all gone by the time he climbed into the raft and took another look back.
He was the last to board the raft. The Navy’s water survival classes had prepared them for this. He was still in charge, and the mission was now survival. He counted eight souls on board the raft, including his own.
Seeing the despair on the commander’s face. LT Adams brought Markus up to speed.
“Petty Officer Whipple took some of the missile hit to his legs, he was hurt badly. Cho and Connors dragged him out of his seat to help, but when we hit the water they were thrown around. They did not escape the aft section. The rest of us are mostly ok, certainly some bruises.”
“We didn’t have a chance to make a mayday call,” Markus added.
“Before we lost systems, I commanded the last drone to return to base, it should be able to relay enough data to the next crew, and hopefully coordinate rescue,” said Adams, providing some hope to everyone aboard.
At that moment the crew all felt a shudder as a force bumped the raft from below.
“Sharks?” asked Chief Puhle, the crew radarman.
He was answered shortly by another force whacking the raft, this time from above as the air shockwave traveled over the crew of Wolfpack Four Six. The crew looked to the west and could see the rising column of water vapor expanding out as it rose many miles in the distance. They almost forgot what they had done barely a half hour ago.
As they watched the tower of water vapor climb into the atmosphere, they sat somberly and wondered what they would next see coming over the horizon.
Lieutenant Christopher Giraldi is a P-8 Pilot flying with the Grey Knights of Patrol Squadron 46. He has deployed around the world conducting maritime patrol operations. He is a 2015 graduate of the United States Naval Academy. The views presented here are his own and do not imply consent or endorsement by the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or linkedin.com/in/christopher-giraldi-10b44a1ab.
Featured Image: “Stealth Submarine Concept” by Paul Muller (via Artstation)