1st Place Finisher
By Ralph G. Francisco
Western Pacific, in the near future…
The sea blazed orange as the sun set off the port bow, Guam’s rugged outline shrinking in PB 301’s wake. Ahead, LT Benjamin Bannon could just make out squalls forming on the horizon. “Good,” he mused, “we’ll need the surface clutter.”
As his four missile boats cut their way northwest, he reflected how weeks of attrition forced this course of action. He sympathized with the DDG caught pierside on day one. Her survivors were now digging trenches above the landing beaches. Like their great-grandfathers before them, the sailors of Apra Harbor were caught by surprise on a Sunday morning.
There would be no immediate relief of Guam, nor could the island be fully suppressed from mainland China. A sizable portion of US assets were destroyed, but People’s Liberation Army strikes were not as precise, nor as resistant to countermeasures, as originally feared. Remarkable efforts by the Seabees kept damaged runways operational. As tensions across the Taiwan Strait rose in the preceding months, they even built piers large enough to shelter small craft in Guam’s sea caves. Replacement aircraft were trickling into Andersen AFB, slowly rebuilding air power.
As expected, the peer-level war spilling across the Western Pacific degraded GPS, satellite communications, and the command and control flag officers had grown so accustomed to. This conflict would be one of short HF bursts, Task Unit initiative, and plenty of subterfuge. Meanwhile the PRC’s reunification by fait accompli was dangerously behind schedule. Dozens of ships were sinking in the Taiwan Strait, and twenty days of bloodshed had gained Chinese Marines just one tenuous beachhead.
These setbacks forced PLA naval staff into a hasty contingency, seeking to deny Guam’s further use to American forces. A Task Force was ordered to sail east from the so called “Taiwan Exclusion Zone.” The short planning cycle and lack of an aircraft carrier infuriated China’s East Sea Fleet Commander, but the admiral’s hands were tied by the fortunes of war. This armada would still deploy powerful amphibious ships and heavily armed escorts.
Ben dwelled on yesterday’s decision brief with Task Group 75.3. “It’s better for your boats to take the offensive than be annihilated during the landings,” concluded the grey-haired O-6, his weathered face deeply concerned. “I want you to have at least some chance. Shoot and scoot, this isn’t a suicide mission. Do you understand me, son?” he said, looking directly at the Patrol Leader. “Limited airstrikes will coincide with your attack, but forget any close coordination.”
Ben replied in a professional, albeit subdued tone. “Captain, the sea state will be rough tonight, with a low ceiling, 10% illumination and three-mile visibility. They may not be able to launch Helos or UAVs for surface search. My height of eye is terrible, but if the intercept point is accurate, we might get into the Weapons Engagement Zone undetected.”
His recollections were broken by a buzzing through his Liberator headset.
“20 knots over ground LT, increasing swells on the bow,” said GM1 Harold from his centerline station in the pilothouse. Five pneumatic shock seats recoiled in unison as the boat plunged through the waves. The four darkened craft ran at radio silence, each coxswain switching to NODs as the twilight faded.
“GPS signal degraded, Inertial Figure of Merit 1, time to waypoint, 7 hours,” added QM3 Wilson, from his navigation console to Harold’s left.
“Roger,” Ben acknowledged.
“Chief, watch turnover at Phase Line Green, have the off section rack out,” he ordered in a purposefully casual tone, knowing few would sleep.
He was responsible for 48 Sailors and four Marines on this patrol. Deep down, he wondered how many would return.
The MKVII PB represented one of the few acquisition programs that achieved its purpose without gold-plating or delay. By 2022 it was clear that China’s naval build up had to be offset, and that America’s shipyards lacked the capacity to match them. In response, the Navy ordered 30 of these cheap stop-gap platforms. Designers favored a proven hull form, reliable Cummins Diesel engines, dual water jets, Furuno radars and other commercial systems. The 90-foot craft were heavily armed with one MK 38 25mm, one remote .50 cal, and several machine guns. Her main battery (and her true purpose) consisted of recycled ship-killers. Decommissioned cruisers provided the RGM 84 Harpoon missiles. Pairs of these dated but still deadly weapons were mounted on the fantail. Their forward-facing tubes canted up, just clearing the angular pilot house. A small fire control radar topped her stubby mast. Each crew consisted of just 12 thoroughly cross-trained sailors. She was simple, fast and ugly. Ben admired the grey, low slung vessel’s resemblance to WW2 torpedo boats. He wondered if they’d make the old PT squadrons proud.
Coastal Defense Squadron Three deployed eight of these aluminum craft to Guam, just three months before hostilities commenced.
The age-old tyranny of distance left Ben with time to think. The math was depressing. His fire control radar stood 15 feet above the waves, while an LHD’s flight deck stood at 90 feet. He could expect detection at no greater than 15 nautical miles. Subsonic Harpoons would require nearly two minutes to cover that stretch, plenty of time for a well-drilled enemy to react. To improve their chances, his patrol carried Switchblade loitering munitions, modified to imitate the Harpoon’s active seeker, making them, in effect, expendable kamikaze decoys. He hoped the drones would distract the enemy, but this mission was based on more assumptions than he cared to admit.
Honestly, the plan stunk and Ben knew it, but being trapped on an island left one with few choices. He prayed the rough seas would partially conceal his patrol from surface radar. His brief committed two boats (4 missiles) to a suspected Type 075 LHD. The 36,000 ton amphibious ship carried the most troops, rotary wing assets, and landing craft, marking her as the priority target. The balance of his force would prioritize an oiler or LPD. With luck they could score at least one mission kill, then beat a mad retreat.
“I wish I failed Academy calculus,” Ben quipped over the internal net. “Sales life seems a lot healthier.”
“I should have been an exotic dancer, LT,” GM1 philosophized. Harold was his best Coxswain, and ironically the most prone to seasickness.
“No one would pay for that,” added OS2 Castro, the Communicator seated to Harold’s right. She volunteered at Guam’s animal shelters in her off time.
After a dark and exhausting transit, the patrol reached their waypoint point at 0100. They idled their engines, laying in ambush, only using precious fuel to maintain station, bow into the seas. Fatigue and nausea would magnify the longer they bobbed there. Ben hoped his inertial navigation position was accurate enough, as cloud cover prevented any celestial fix.
Now we wait, puke over the side, and try not to be rammed by an enemy destroyer, he joked to himself, trying to push thoughts of Bataan and Wake Island out of his mind.
“Heads up sir, three large tracks, bearing 330 true, range 14 miles, course 120, speed 15kts,” reported QM3’s steady cadence fifteen minutes later.
“Roger. Castro, pass that over IR signal light,” replied Ben. “Chief, set General Quarters.”
“I’ll get them ready, Sir,” said QMC Velarde.
Ben watched the father of three descend the pilot house ladder, bracing himself as the deck pitched. “Q” had known war as a boy in El Salvador. Now he would see it again. He appeared outwardly untroubled by what was to come.
The Lieutenant suspected the largest track to be the LHD, although he wished for a less primitive identification method. After confirming all consoles were dimmed, Ben grabbed his helmet and opened the overhead hatch. Cold salt air filled his lungs, his noise canceling headset muffling the wind. He lowered his PVS-14, a crisp bluish white phosphor image revealed swells and white caps breaking at six feet.
Visibility less than three miles. We may have a chance in this soup, Ben thought to himself.
“Nothing on thermal, LT,” informed EN2 Carrol from the MK 38 console, panning his gun camera.
“OS2, put this out over signal light: Execute to follow, line abreast, course 350, speed 20,” Ben ordered. “My element will cover track furthest right, 02 cover middle, 04 cover the furthest left track, standby to launch switchblades.”
He prayed silently as he watched each boat reply “Roger” via infrared light, visible through his night vision monocular. The flashing light drills were a pain, but he was glad for them now.
On signal, each boat launched drones into the night. 24 grey cylinders unfolded wings and zoomed at wave-top level toward the enemy. They would pop up to 100 feet just as the Harpoons were launched. With luck some would draw fire, or at least distract the enemy for a few critical seconds. If the missiles struck, the drones could conduct Battle Damage Assessment before diving into the target. Three pounds of C-4 explosive wasn’t much, but could damage precious radars or communications arrays.
Ben consulted the faint glow of his Omega Seamaster, timing his launch carefully.
“This is Zero One, standby…” He broke radio silence over the encrypted boat to boat net, briefly un-keying his microphone.
He clearly recognized three of his best friends as they “rogered out” over the VHF circuit. Each lieutenant would largely fight their own boat, their own little war. Endless drills taught them to coordinate with minimal radio traffic once things went kinetic. The four craft revved to full power, forming an evenly spaced battle line, beam to beam. Their sterns dug into the sea, bow waves forming in their teeth.
“Link stable, time on target one mike,” said QMC, eyeing the switchblade console, the “black hot” outline of the LHD growing larger in the FLIR display.
Satisfied with PID, Ben keyed his circuit, “This is Zero One, weapons free.”
In unison, the four FC radars illuminated their assigned quarries. By now, the lead ship was just 12 miles away.
“Zero Two, Bulldogs away.”
“Zero Three, Bulldogs away.”
“Zero Four, Bulldogs away.”
“This is Zero One, Bulldogs away,” replied Ben.
Eight booster rockets ignited, spitting flames into the darkness. Fifteen-foot missiles lurched out of their tubes, stabilizer fins springing into position as the weapons shot skyward. Their exhaust illuminated the low clouds an eerie shade of blue, before they dove gracefully to the surface, skimming the sea at over 500 mph. The patrol turned in unison to starboard, forming a column, their water jets churning the sea behind them. Ben was satisfied with the skillful maneuver, one which they had practiced many times.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Wu rubbed his eyes, straining to stay awake. His ship had been at battle stations for ten hours due to the air and subsurface threat, his Task Force zigzagging to avoid murderous U.S. submarines. War news was heavily censored, but rumors claimed many comrades had been lost to heavyweight torpedoes. Suddenly his console buzzed, a flashing symbol denoting an unknown fire control radar.
“FC radar bearing 160!” he announced. Just then six additional symbols flashed across his screen. “Harpoon emitter, multiple bearings south, strength six!” he stated, stress audible in his voice.
“Bridge, come to full power. Air, report status!” demanded LCDR Lee, the Combat Watch Officer.
“Five unknowns, bearing 160, altitude 30 meters, speed 61 knots,” replied the Air Defense Coordinator in a confused tone.
“I thought you said they were Harpoons?!” LCDR Lee barked, accustomed to shouting at his sailors in this manner.
The exhausted watchstanders began to step on each other over the battle net. Confusion reigned for a few moments before Lee regained control, coordinating softkill and hardkill procedures. They behaved admirably given their lack of sleep. Four of the drones were destroyed by HQ-10 point defense missiles. However, their scramble distracted them from the four subsonic tracks detected ten miles to the south. Only two were defeated by ECM and CIWS.
One Harpoon struck starboard amidships, 20 feet below the flight deck. 500 pounds of high explosive detonated a fraction of a second after punching through the hull, just inside the hangar deck. Aviation fuel lines caught fire while several Ka-27 helicopters burst into flames. Stacked ground attack munitions detonated while a second missile struck the well deck below. A few moments later two of the explosive drones slammed into the superstructure, wounding one sailor and disabling the air search radar. The crew had never trained for a conflagration of this magnitude, and would spend the next 11 hours fighting to save their ship.
“Two hits!” reported QMC Velarde, the boat erupting into cheers as the patrol fled the scene. Ben glanced at the drone display, just in time to see his Chief guide two into the flattop’s island.
The other boats reported at least one hit on the Oiler. The LPD remained unscathed. Its allocated Harpoons had either malfunctioned or were successfully distracted. Still, Ben could not believe their success.
“Castro, pass the word back on HF,” he ordered, not sure if they would live to report in person.
“WHERE DID THAT COME FROM!” shouted EN2 Carrol, his display filling alarmingly with the fighting tops of a warship. “It looks like an escort! We must have wandered right past each other,” he speculated.
Ben recognized the Type 054A “Jiangkai II.”
“It’s a frigate,” he said, thankful it wasn’t a Renhai cruiser. She was blocking their escape and closing at an oblique angle, just 5,000 yards away. “It’s between us and home, keep going, and chase the splashes.”
“Chase the what!?” questioned his coxswain. At that moment, the enemy’s muzzle flashed, visible as dark puffs on the black and white screen. Geysers erupted off the port bow four seconds later.
“Chase the splashes, aye!” GM1 responded, recognizing the ploy to make the enemy over correct.
“Enemy frigate dead ahead, prepping a Javelin,” called Ben over the VHF.
“SEND IT!” replied a familiar Texan accent, causing the Patrol Leader to smile despite their mortal circumstances.
“25mm open fire when in range,” Ben directed. “Get those Javelins topside!”
The deck rocked crazily from side to side as the Coxswain pursued the splashes, each salvo getting closer. Their pea-shooter was useless until they closed the gap. Maybe we can get under their guns, he thought.
LCpl Kowalski blindly groped for the exterior ladder to the fly bridge. Near misses soaked everyone as he shoved past gunners burdened by armor, PFDs, helmets, and NODs.
“Give me some freaking room!” he shouted over the wind and engine noise.
As he climbed, he saw a missile streak overhead, narrowly missing the mast. Once topside, a fellow Marine handed him a green tube, which he attached with practiced hands to the launch unit, shouldering the anti-armor weapon made famous in recent wars. Taking a sitting position, he scanned over the bow, his buddy preventing him from tumbling overboard as the boat maneuvered violently. The green image of a forecastle filled his sight, his reticle settling over its gun turret. The “soft launch” Javelin flew out and hung in the air before its main engine ignited a few feet in front of the boat. The craft was moving forward at such speed that the Marines were actually burned by the rocket motor.
Down below, Ben watched as the enemy’s FLIR image grew alarmingly larger, wondering when they would eat an HE shell. By now their 25mm was barking, spitting baseball sized flashes toward the Frigate. The gunner aimed his crosshairs to the left of the pilot house, his lead accounting for the 40-knot relative closure rate. His shells appeared to arch up and to the right, a few detonating around the bridge. At that moment, a dark streak crashed into the 76mm gun from directly above, explosions obscured the warship’s foredeck with debris and flame.
“His main gun’s disabled, CUT BEHIND HIM!” Ben yelled.
The patrol swerved right, crossing the enemy’s stern at just 150 yards, plastering the Jiangkai’s port side with everything they had. Red tracers slashed out from each boat as they passed, some ricocheting off the dark water. Green tracers blazed back, streaking through the night. Through the portside window, Ben clearly saw Chinese gunners backlit by deck fires, some dragging their wounded shipmates behind cover.
A blinding flash and blast of hot air knocked Ben to the deck. He picked himself up in time to see QM3 clutching his throat, the floor below slick with warm blood and broken glass. The lieutenant immediately placed pressure on the 19-year-old’s neck, studying the navigation console. “Base course 125. Get us out of here, Harold!” he ordered desperately. Castro, having just expended her entire remote .50 cal belt, jumped off her console and began packing Wilson’s wound with gauze. The short, violent, surface action finished as suddenly as it started. The four boats ceased fire as they cleared the frigate’s stern, escaping at flank speed into a squall.
At sunrise, once inside Guam’s air defense umbrella, the patrol evacuated three urgent surgical casualties via MH-60s. The Marines sustained superficial burns, but were otherwise fit for duty. Ben’s tiny command docked after 16 hours at sea. Each boat was scarred by bullet and fragmentation damage, one even sporting a clean 76mm hole through the bow. The armor piercing shell failing to detonate against the thin aluminum hull. His AAR claimed one LHD and one oiler heavily damaged, with one frigate moderately damaged.
Ben concealed a hand tremor as he choked down coffee and eggs, transferring lessons learned to his counterpart. The remaining boats prepared to sortie that evening. Strike aircraft landed, rearmed and refueled, the morning’s attacks taking an additional toll on the approaching landing force. Across the island, Marines, Sailors, and Airmen manned anti-ship missiles, SAM batteries, and fighting positions, bracing themselves for the coming assault.
Ralph Francisco served as a Surface Warfare Officer for over eight years. He deployed to 5th and 7th fleets on a destroyer and as a Riverine Officer on MKVI Patrol Boats. He is an avid reader and student of naval history.
Featured Image: Art created by Midjourney AI.