Category Archives: Fiction

Maritime and naval fiction.

The Past and Future Wars of Fiction

By Hal Wilson

Bodies are strewn across the rolling, sunlit fields — each one clad in the scarlet tunics and bearskins of British Guardsmen — each one “marking the line of their victorious advance.”But their victory is a brief one. Hostile reinforcements are pouring in, quickly mounting a flank attack of their own. Chaos follows, and with it a desperate retreat. By morning, the corps commander is dead, the household cavalry is broken, and a battalion of 500 British soldiers is reduced to 180 men.2

But this military disaster is not in some far-flung corner of a foreign land; the British Army is retreating from the southern English town of Dorking, with the German Army hot on its heels. Having swept the Royal Navy aside with decisive new weaponry, the Germans have now also broken the back of Britain’s ill-prepared Army. Almost overnight, Britain loses its Empire and dignity alike.

At least, that is how Colonel Sir George Tomkyns Chesney thought events would occur.

Writing in 1871, Chesney serialized his thought experiments in Blackwood’s Magazine; the result was The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer. The story reflected Chesney’s abiding fear that “if serious military reform was not undertaken and the Germans ever got across the channel, England was doomed.”3 While overshadowed by a better-loved cousin — The War of the Worlds, for the writing of which H.G. Wells borrowed directly from Chesney’s earlier work4 — Dorking defined an entire genre: future-war fiction.5

The Battle of Dorking, by Colonel Sir George Tomkyns Chesney, originally published in 1871.

As for Blackwood’s? Chesney’s story “was the best business they had ever had.”6

And it is easy to understand why. “Humans connect over a story,”7 explain authors Peter Singer and August Cole, the writers of 2015’s Ghost Fleet: a Novel of the Next World War. Or, as explained by Max Brooks, author of the 2006 novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War: “The best way to educate is to entertain.”8 Fiction offers a direct line to the imagination and the interest of countless ordinary readers. Such was the scale of Chesney’s appeal that his work attracted the personal denunciation of then-Prime Minister William Gladstone, whose ministry was determined to avoid further defense spending.9 Now ask yourself, how many Prime Ministers have been compelled to denounce the House of Commons’ Defense Committee reports?

Singer and Cole’s Ghost Fleet — inspired partly by Brooks’ zombie epic10 — depicts Sino-U.S. warfare from the beaches of Hawaii to low-earth-orbit. Moreover, it illustrates the power of stories as a vehicle to educate and inspire. Ghost Fleet popularized a tidal-wave of what co-author Cole terms ‘FICINT,’ which is fiction writing grounded in reality.11 Military organizations from the U.S. Naval Institute12 to West Point’s Modern War Institute13 now host regular FICINT initiatives, while the French Defense Innovation Agency recently hired sci-fi authors to identify future threats.14 Ghost Fleet itself quickly landed on the reading lists of the Chief of the Air Staff of the Royal Air Force;15 the U.S. Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations,16 and the U.S. Marine Corps War College.17 Not to be outdone, Admiral James Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, recently made his own contribution to the genre.18

So much for the appeal — but what use is science fiction in an age of flat or declining defense budgets? History offers some pertinent clues.

Writing in 1925, a former MI5 agent called Hector Bywater released The Great Pacific War: A History of the American-Japanese Campaign of 1931–33. Bywater not only predicted World War Two’s famous American island-hopping strategy, but directly shaped it by prompting a rewrite of War Plan ORANGE — the American inter-war plan for a possible Japanese conflict.19 Likewise, in 1978, General Sir John Hackett released The Third World War. Hackett, who jumped into Arnhem at the head of 4th Parachute Brigade, wrote for reasons that echoed Chesney’s from over a century before: namely, to warn that if “we wish to avoid a nuclear war we must be prepared for a conventional one.”20 And even if Tom Clancy’s later novel, Red Storm Rising, has since come to define the fictional vision of hard-bitten Cold War combat, it was The Third World War — with over three million copies sold — that helped to drive the substantial reforms for which Hackett had argued.21

The western militaries of yesteryear were no strangers to sweeping changes in technology, nor the daunting threat of war with advanced, capable opponents. And now that their successors grapple with mounting threats ranging from the Baltics22 to Taiwan,23 they too are leveraging the power of fiction to educate and inspire — to reveal risks and opportunities. Not long ago, in the nineties and early millennium, the results were often fanciful. Whether in visions of U.S. armored divisions rolling across Siberia to crush Chinese troops wholesale,24 or laser-armed B-52s picking off Russian nuclear bombers,25 it is all too easy to find the hallmarks of that heady, hubristic era — back when Fukuyama called time on history and President Bush declared Mission Accomplished. And while some recent fiction on future warfare is overtly pompous and politicized — consider Omar El Akkad’s American War — a body of far greater work is growing — see, for example, Captain Dale Rielage’s award-winning How We Lost the Great Pacific War,26 which captures a trend of material that is at once both engaging and often deeply sobering.

And so it should be. Just as Wells’ anonymous narrator recounts of the Martian aftermath — that it robbed the world “of that serene confidence in the future which is the most fruitful source of decadence”27 — it is not a moment too soon that we leave behind the comforting anachronisms of yesteryear.

But if Western defense communities accept this already, what about the rest of us? Whether British politicians defending ties to China,28 Disney executives dismissing the Uyghur genocide,29 or EU negotiators overlooking slave labor,30 many elites need a hard dose of fiction to find their way back to reality. Closing the Battle of Dorking with a portrait of a desolate, occupied Britain, Chesney leaves his readers with the observation that “a nation too selfish to defend its liberty could not have been fit to retain it.”31 150 years may have passed, but Chesney’s fictional warning remains as pertinent as ever.

Hal Wilson is a member of the Military Writers’ Guild who specializes in using fiction to explore future conflict. His published stories include finalist contest entries with the U.S. Naval Institute, War on the Rocks, and the Atlantic Council’s Art of Future Warfare Project. He lives in the United Kingdom, where he works in defense. He can be found on Twitter at @HalWilson_

References

[1] George Chesney, The Battle of Dorking, p.15. http://public-library.uk/ebooks/29/91.pdf

[2] Ibid. p. 17

[3] Richard J. Norton, ‘Through a Mirror Darkly: The Face of Future War, 1871-2005’, Naval War College Review, Vol. 62, No.1 (2009), pp. 123-140, p. 126.

[4] Denis Gailor, ‘”Well’s ’War of the Worlds,” the ‘Invasion Story’ and Victorian moralism’, Critical Survey, Vol. 8, No.3 (1996), pp. 270-276, p. 271.

[5] A. Michael Matin, ‘Scrutinising “The Battle of Dorking”: The Royal United Service Institution and the mid-Victorian Invasion Controversy,’ Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol. 39, No.2 (2011), pp. 385-407, p. 388.

[6] I.F. Clarke, ‘Before and After “The Battle of Dorking”, Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 24, No.1 (1997), pp. 33-46, p. 33.

[7] August Cole & PW Singer, Thinking the Unthinkable with Useful Fiction, p. 4. https://www.socom.mil/JSOU/SpecialEventDocs/P.W.Singer_Useful%20Fiction.pdf

[8]Hadley Freeman, ‘Max Brooks; ‘Pandemics come in predictable cycles. If I’m the smartest guy in the room, we’re in big trouble’, The Guardian, (06.06.2020). https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jun/06/max-brooks-pandemics-science-fiction-world-war-z-devolution

[9] Matin, ‘Scrutinising “The Battle of Dorking”’, p. 390.

[10] Sharon Weinberger, ‘Ghost Fleet: Welcome to the World of Post-Snowden Techno-Thrillers’ The Intercept, (04.07.2015). https://theintercept.com/2015/07/04/ghost-fleet-welcome-world-post-snowden-techno-thrillers/

[11] August Cole, ‘“FICINT”: ENVISIONING FUTURE WAR THROUGH FICTION & INTELLIGENCE (INDO-PACIFIC SERIES)’, War Room – U.S. Army War College, (22.05.19). https://warroom.armywarcollege.edu/special-series/indo-pacific-region/ficint-envisioning-future-war-through-fiction-intelligence-indo-pacific-series/

[12] Hal Wilson, ‘Letter of Marque’, U.S. Naval Institute, (01.12.20). https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2020/december/letter-marque

[13] Hal Wilson, ‘Jonathan Roper: Travelling Consultant’, Modern War Institute at West Point, (21.05.19). https://mwi.usma.edu/jonathan-roper-traveling-consultant/

[14] Sebastian Sprenger, ‘French sci-fi writers set out to ‘scare’ the military establishment’, Defense News, (30.04.21). https://www.defensenews.com/global/europe/2021/04/30/french-sci-fi-writers-set-out-to-scare-the-military-establishment/

[15] ‘CAS’ Reading List 2016’, The Royal Air Force Centre for Air Power Studies. https://www.raf.mod.uk/what-we-do/centre-for-air-and-space-power-studies/documents1/cas-reading-list-2016/

[16] CNO Professional Reading Program. https://www.navy.mil/CNO-Professional-Reading-Program/Readiness/

[17] U.S. Marine Corps War College Reading List. https://www.usmcu.edu/Portals/218/AY%2021%20Reading%20List_%20ver%208%20Jan%202020.pdf

[18] 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis, USN. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/635212/2034-by-elliot-ackerman-and-admiral-james-stavridis/

[19] Norton, ‘Through a Mirror Darkly’, p.131.

[20] General Sir John Hackett, The Third World War: The Untold Story (Sidgwick and Jackson Limited, London, 1982), p.431.

[21] Norton, ‘Through a Mirror Darkly,’ p.133.

[22] Sandor Fabian, ‘Are the Baltics Really Defensible?’, Royal United Services Institute. https://rusi.org/sites/default/files/20201009_fabian_web.pdf

[23] Valerie Insinna, ‘A US Air Force war game shows what the service needs to hold off – or win against – China in 2030’, (12.04.21). https://www.defensenews.com/training-sim/2021/04/12/a-us-air-force-war-game-shows-what-the-service-needs-to-hold-off-or-win-against-china-in-2030/

[24] Bruce Fretts, ‘Book Review: ‘The Bear and the Dragon’, Entertainment Weekly, (01.09.2000). https://ew.com/article/2000/09/01/book-review-bear-and-dragon/

[25] ‘Plan of Attack’, Publisher’s Weekly, (19.04.08). https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-06-009411-9

[26] Captain Dale Rielage, ‘How We Lost the Great Pacific War’, USNI, (05.2018). https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2018/may/how-we-lost-great-pacific-war

[27] H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds, (Penguin Books, London, 2005[1898]), p.179.

[28] Stefan Boscia, ‘George Osborne hits out at Tory ‘hotheads’ who want UK-China ‘Cold War’, CityAM, (17.03.21). https://www.cityam.com/george-osborne-hits-out-at-tory-hotheads-who-want-uk-china-cold-war/

[29] Rebecca Davis, ‘Disney CFO Admits Filming ‘Mulan’ in Xinjiang Has ‘Generated a Lot of Issues’ (10.11.2020). https://variety.com/2020/film/news/disney-cfo-filming-mulan-in-xinjiang-problematic-1234766342/

[30] Jacob Hanke Vela, Eleanor Mears and David M. Herszenhorn, ‘EU nears China trade deal despite slave labour fears’ (19.12.2020). https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-nears-china-trade-deal-despite-slave-labor-fears/

[31] Chesney, The Battle of Dorking, p.22. http://public-library.uk/ebooks/29/91.pdf

Featured Image: Original drawings by Henrique Alvim Corrêa for the 1906 edition of HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds.

Violent Peace: Coming to Washington

The following excerpt is from David Poyer’s latest novel,  Violent Peace: The War with China: Aftermath of Armageddon, and is republished with permission.

By David Poyer

In the event, he had to get another dose of vaccine, a shot this time, since the version Homeland had given him hadn’t been approved by DoD. Then he had to cool his heels for two hours before he got to see the CNO’s flag secretary.

She was new, and didn’t seem to have any idea who he was. And of course since he was in a rumpled, oil-stained uniform, and probably stank of exhaust and sweat and too many days sleeping rough, he had to explain. Looking skeptical, she’d gone in to notify her boss.

And come out smiling. “He’ll be with you shortly, Admiral. I’m so sorry. I should have recognized your name. Task Force 91, right? Operation Rupture Plus?”

“That’s me.”

“I wish I could have been there. But some of us had to hold the fort here in DC.”

“I understand completely.” Dan forced a smile and got up, but staggered as a wave of dizziness rushed over him. From the dual vaccinations, probably.

“Are you all right, sir? Should I call—”

“Yeah. I’m fine. Just been . . . I’m fine.” He braced a finger against the bulkhead until the vertigo passed, then followed her into Niles’s office.

His old mentor, then enemy, then reluctant rabbi again, had lost a shocking amount of weight. Barry “Nick” Niles’s service dress blouse sagged loosely on a once-massive frame. His shirt collar gaped around his neck. His color seemed less that of a healthy African American than the hue and texture of gray wax. And he’d apparently gone to the shaved-head look. But his first words, from behind his desk, were robust. “Where the hell have you been, Lenson?” he boomed, just like the old Niles.

Dan came to an awkward attention. “I had leave, Admiral.”

“That doesn’t mean you drop off the face of the planet. Where were you?” Niles squinted. Sniffed the air. “Do you smell gasoline?”

“I bought a motorcycle. My daughter was kidnapped. So I . . . I was trying to pick up her trail across country.” The CNO nodded. “And did you?”

Dan swallowed, fighting a tickle in his throat and a sudden desire to weep. The dizziness peaked, then receded again, like a tide. He blinked rapidly, looking toward the shatterproof windows. “No. No, sir. I lost track of her in Wyoming. No telling where they went after that, or . . . what they did with her. There’s a body in Nebraska that . . . is . . . that may be her. I couldn’t make a positive identification.”

The CNO nodded heavily. Grunted. Muttered, after a moment, “Sorry to hear. I know it doesn’t help to hear it, but a lot of other people are missing relatives, friends, kids . . . two of my nephews, working oil out west, not a word since the laydown.”

“Things are confused out there, sir. They could just be in one of the camps.”

Niles waved his hope away and picked up a piece of paper. Seemed to remember Dan was standing, and pointed to a chair. No offer of an Atomic Fireball, as in the old days. The bowl was empty. Maybe they’d stopped making them during the war.

He sagged gratefully into the armchair. Cleared his throat, and tried to focus as Niles set the paper aside.

“You been home? Seen Blair yet?”

“No sir. Came straight here.”

“Uh-huh . . . uh-huh. Well, good work out there with Rupture, Dan. If I haven’t made that clear. If you hadn’t stopped the clock to build up your ammo and fuel reserves, then kept shoving when the going got rough, we’d have gotten kicked back into the China Sea.”

“Yes sir. Resistance was a lot heavier than I expected.”

“Than anyone expected. Including our intel and our AI. That took a lot of moxie, to keep driving ahead when you were looking at casualty reports of twenty, thirty percent.” Niles tented his fingers. “Of course, if that’d been the wrong decision, we would have hung you by the balls.”

Dan figured that for a rhetorical statement, so simply nodded. And waited for the other boot to drop.

Niles searched through what was apparently Dan’s personnel file, though it seemed odd that it was printed out. He rumbled to himself, as if musing, then said a bit louder, “Your stars may be permanent.”

“Oh. Is that right, sir?” It didn’t seem that important, but he tried to look gratified.

“At least you’re on the postwar list for Senate confirmation. Nothing’s guaranteed these days.” He sighed, sat back, glanced out the window. “We’re having to fight for every flag billet. There’s a lot of pushback about anything to do with the Pacific. We need to pull two carriers back for core replacement and overhaul. That’s going to be a major fight in the next budget. There are already calls to scrap them, rather than refuel.”

“Then, thank you, sir. For the nomination, at least.”

Niles shrugged and rolled his eyes, and Dan added, “I saw something new on the way in here. Something called a Homeland Battalion.”

“Uh-huh. In black uniforms?”

“Yes sir.”

“Uh-huh.” Niles tilted a massive head. “Homeland Security’s amalgamating loyal Guard units and militias into Blackies. Also known as Special Action Forces. And they want new general billets for them. They’re not DoD formations, they’re DHS, but they count against our general and flag authorized strengths.”

“That doesn’t sound exactly . . . fair, Admiral.”

Niles’s eyelids flickered. “There’s worse coming over the horizon. Posse Comitatus may be suspended. To fight the unrest in the cities, and out west. And the closer we get to the elections . . . the slogan’s ‘Forward as one,’ but the reality may be that we’re headed for one-party rule.”

Niles looked away. “Some of us are determined not to let that happen. At least, not if we can prevent it.”

Dan weighed that last sentence. Then, despite himself, glanced around the office.

The admiral caught his reaction, and waved a large hand. “You can speak freely. This room’s a SCIF. Noise suppressors on the walls, and we sweep it every morning. One island we keep as sane as we can. The Joint Chiefs, I mean. Just don’t face the windows if you’re discussing anything you don’t want overheard.”

“Yes sir.” He wanted to know more, but decided he’d better digest what had just been intimated first. Because Niles’s words could be construed, in the wrong hands, into something close to treason.

Niles reached for the empty candy container, but halted his hand halfway. He rumbled, “I’m going to be stepping down pretty soon, Dan. We won, if you can call losing ten million lives a win. And I’m tired.”

“Ten million,” Dan repeated blankly, horrified. This was the first he’d heard of any round figure. Most of the deaths must have taken place within the areas he’d routed around in his trek east. Plus fallout effects, carried by the wind. Radiation, looting, revolt, disease . . . so the dying wasn’t over yet. He straightened his shoulders. “You’re punching out, sir? Retiring?”

Niles rubbed a palm over his bare scalp. His smile resembled a sardonic jack’o lantern’s. “I have pancreatic cancer, Dan. They’re treating it, but as you can see, it’s a losing battle. I’d rather not die walled up in this fucking office. Scenic as the view is.”

“No sir. Of course not. I don’t—I’m very sorry to hear that.”

A tap at the door, and the aide stuck her head in. “Five minutes, Admiral.”

Niles sighed. He stood from behind the desk. Dan, rising too, saw anew how shrunken his old senior’s body was beneath the now nearly tent-like blues. Niles shrugged again. “That’s the cookie . . . Anyway, you’ll want to know what’s next for you. It’s still up in the air. Jung Min Jun called. He wants you as ambassador to reunited Korea. I told him that was a nonstarter. No way the administration would go for it, and you weren’t a fucking diplomat anyway.”

Dan nodded, not chagrined. Dealing with Jung could be stressful, and he wasn’t eager to leave home again. “Yes sir. So what were you thinking?”

The CNO waved the question away. “Let’s talk about that next time you come in. For now, go home. Take a shower. See Blair. Get some sleep. We all need a rest. Still got that boat of yours? Go sail it. Come back in when you feel up to it. Three, four days or so. Tell Marla to give you a District pass and a ration card.”

Niles looked at the papers again, a contemplative, lingering glance. Then shoved the chair back and came around the desk. He didn’t move like a lumbering bear anymore. His steps seemed tentative, cautious. His grip, though, was still strong as he pincered Dan’s shoulder. “We go back a long ways, Lenson. All the way to Crystal City and the JCMPO. I’ve been hard on you at times, I guess.”

Dan forced a smile. “No more than I deserved, sir.”

“But I fought for you too, when you needed it. The way I hear you do for your own people.”

“Your example, Admiral.”

“An officer who knows when to take a risk, even dares to disobey, for the good of the service—that’s a rare thing. We were headed for a zero-risk Navy for a long time, before this war. I tried to fight that, whenever I could.” Niles held out his hand. “I guess after all these years you’d better make it Nick. In private, at least.”

Dan’s eyes stung. At the Academy, spooning—a senior’s giving a junior permission to use a first name—was a time-honored tradition. One never given lightly. He cleared his throat and took the proffered hand. “Yes sir. I mean, Nick.”

“Sir?” said the aide, from the door. “Before you leave. Legal wants a word.”

“Legal? Hell. Well, make it short,” Niles said, turning away, letting go Dan’s hand, clearly annoyed.

A tall woman in blues introduced herself. She carried a red striped folder. “I heard Admiral Lenson was in the building.”

“Get to it,” Niles growled.

She turned to Dan. “The notification by the ICJ. Admiral, has anyone discussed this with you?”

The International Court of Justice. “Uh, my wife mentioned it.”

“Blair Titus,” Niles clarified. “Undersecretary of defense.”

The legal officer nodded. “Yes sir. I thought as long as he was here, we could go over the administration’s stand. That no US citizen will be judged.”

Dan said, “But doesn’t that mean the Chinese won’t attend either?”

Niles shook his head. “They’re trying to take that position. But they signed the treaty. Giving up war criminals was one of the stipulations.”

“That’s actually a political question, Admiral.” The attorney clasped her hands primly in front of her, elbows out. “It goes to war guilt, if we still want to align ourselves with that concept. But if we do, the ICJ may indict Americans as well. As they may with Mr. Lenson, here.”

Niles said irritably, “Forget it. He’s not responding.”

“What happens if I don’t?” Dan said, accepting that he probably wasn’t going to, but also curious as to what would happen if he didn’t.

“You wouldn’t be able to travel to Europe, probably,” the advisor said. “At least to Europe, the UK, the other standing members of the court. If you did, you’d be subject to arrest, extradition, and trial.”

Niles patted his arm. “Don’t lose any sleep over this, Dan. This’ll all get settled way above our pay grades.”

He nodded to the aide, who stepped aside to let them both pass.

_______________________________________

DAN stopped by Blair’s office, but her people said she was overseas, in Singapore. “Oh, yeah,” he muttered. “The peace conference.” He stopped in at the cafeteria and put a lunch on his new ration card.

Next stop: home, in Arlington. And just about time; the bike was down to a top speed of forty, and its smoke trail was like a burning bomber’s.

He shut the engine down and rolled the last few feet down the driveway.

The house looked . . . deserted. Desiccated pine needles carpeted the roof, with patches of green moss. One of the gutters had come loose and hung down like a torn hem. The shingles needed attention. The lawn had grown two feet high, and Virginia creeper and the red hairy cables of poison ivy twisted through the undergrowth and up the trunks of the pines, clinging and strangling. He’d have to take a machete to them.

Around back, he found the spare key under a brick in the patio. Let himself in to first quiet, then alarmed mewing. He scooped Blair’s cat up and cradled it, ruffling its fur. “Hey, Jimbo.” Remembering suddenly how he’d cradled his daughter the same way, so many years ago.

The house smelled musty. No wonder; the windows were taped over, as if for a hurricane, and duct-taped shut, no doubt as a preparation against fallout, though it hadn’t reached this far east. He fed the cat, then let himself down the narrow steps to the basement. Here, in his study, it smelled even worse, as if the books were moldering. He went back up and checked the air-conditioning. But a crimson sticker sealed the breaker in the off position: Save Energy for Victory.

So he went around untaping and opening the windows and sliding down the screens. Not much of a breeze, but it might cool the house a bit. He checked the refrigerator: empty. The panty was bare too, except for a few staples: olive oil, beans, rice, canned stuff, bottles of wine. Blair must have been getting her meals at work.

He stood at the window, watching squirrels squabble and play in the pines. Feeling suddenly . . . aimless. Apprehensive.

Fuck that! He should feel relieved, right? The war was over.

And the US had “won.”

Yet he’d lost too much to feel relieved, or happy, or even curious about what came next. An indictment? He couldn’t muster concern for that, either. Like the legal beagle had suggested, maybe the whole concept of “war guilt” was a thing of the past. Quaint, like honor, or virtue, or truth, or the idea noncombatants weren’t legitimate targets.

He just felt . . . empty. Peculiar, out of place, as if this were some uncanny, alternate world he’d never expected to inhabit. And guilty, too, as if by surviving he’d betrayed those who had not.

The wine, in the pantry. He could uncork it. Forget all this. Blot it out, if only for a few hours.

No. He’d been sober for too many years. The craving faded. It wouldn’t help. When he woke up tomorrow, his daughter would still be dead.

He’d have to learn to live with that. Somehow. Like millions of others, all across the US. Across China. Pakistan. India. Indonesia. Iran. Vietnam. In all the countries this war had wrecked, trampled, and poisoned. Remember that, he told himself. You’re not the only one. He looked at the coffeemaker, but decided Niles was right. He needed a shower, a good long sleep more.

Upstairs, to a rumpled bed. The comforter was pulled up haphazardly, as if his wife had left in a hurry. Stooping to the pillow, he could smell her. Her lotions and emollients stood lined up in the bathroom. He peed, got a quick shower, then lay down. Blinked at the ceiling.

He didn’t bother to set the alarm.

David Poyer’s sea career included service in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Arctic, Caribbean, and Pacific. He’s the author of nearly fifty novels and works of nonfiction, including the Dan Lenson War with China series: Tipping Point, Onslaught, Hunter Killer, Deep War, and Overthrow. His next book, Violent Peace, will be published this December. Poyer’s work has been required reading in the Literature of the Sea course at the U.S. Naval Academy, along with that of Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville. He lives on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (March 26, 2008) An unarmed Trident II D5 missile launches from the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Nebraska (SSBN 739) off the coast of California. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Ronald Gutridge/Released)

Unexpected Victory

By Ryan Hilger

            Excerpted from the forthcoming Unexpected Victory: The U.S. Navy in the Sino-American War, 2034-2036 by Fred Goures, to be published by Random House in December 2039.

            …Several Chinese admirals agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity on the following question, among others: “What surprised you most about the war?” Their answers were remarkably similar: the Yukon-class corvettes. Named after American rivers, the Navy built and deployed more than 60 Yukons in three years from 2033-2036. One Chinese admiral’s remarks are typical:

Admiral [redacted]: The Yukons caught me and the PLA leadership completely by surprise. When we started the war in October 2034, we thought we would have the American Navy sunk in a few weeks. We knew the submarine threat would take time, but we did not consider their surface forces much of a threat.

Goures: Why was that?

Admiral [redacted]: It was clear from decades of industrial espionage and intelligence collection that the American Navy had not managed to introduce much in the way of new technologies in decades, despite the focus on innovation. Thus, the introduction of the Yukons did not draw much attention from us.

Goures: Why not?

Admiral [redacted]: They were much smaller and seemed simpler than the American mainstay, the Arleigh Burke-class. We did not see how they could have posed much of a threat to us. We were very wrong on this.

Goures: How so? What made the Yukons different?

Admiral [redacted]: In retrospect, their simplicity was pure elegance. The Americans seemed to be able to upgrade and repair them so rapidly, even while at sea. We never seemed to fight the same ship twice. It may have been the same hull, but each encounter demonstrated new capabilities that we did not anticipate, usually without the ship ever pulling into a port. We could not keep up…

______________________________________

                       Admiral Peter Malone, the Program Executive Officer (PEO) for Ships in 2031, recalled sitting in a meeting with senior Navy leadership when the idea of what would become the Yukon class was born:

Things were not going well at all. The Large Surface Combatant program had not panned out in the 2020s like we thought. Apparently, we did not learn the lessons of the Zumwalt or Littoral Combat Ship programs sufficiently, because we repeated many of the same mistakes. After the fourth year of Congressional cuts to the program and reductions in planned numbers of hulls, the Secretary of the Navy called for a meeting to discuss options.

I had only been in the PEO Ships job for a few months, but I did not see how we could recover. My mind drifted from the conversation to the problems the Navy overcame to deliver both a ballistic missile submarine and a submarine-launched ballistic missile in less than five years in the 1950s – and with an immense amount of new technology to boot. I wondered how we had managed to drift so far from such incredible origins.

I snapped back from my daydream and saw the Chief of Naval Operations glaring at me. “Do you have any ideas, Pete?” I nodded and thought for a moment, but I already knew what I needed to say.

“Kill the program.” There were a lot of shocked expressions.

“Clearly what we have done in the past has not been working. Let’s throw out the playbook and try something completely new. I’ve got some ideas on ship construction, digital engineering, and how to develop products differently. Give me six months and I will come back to you with a proposal for a new ship class and how we will deliver them to the fleet.”

After a few moments of incredulous silence, he looked at Admiral Higgs, the Commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, “Dan, what do you think?”

“Well, I don’t see anything to lose from this. Most of my requested capabilities were dropped in last year’s budget cuts anyway. This at least may get me more ships sooner, which is really what I need to balance against China.”

The CNO let the tension hang in the air before replying. “We have everything to lose if we fail this time. Let’s get it right.” Off we went.

_______________________________________

                     The Yukon-class had a very interesting beginning. It was the first government-designed and built ship in decades. Many questioned the government’s sanity in taking on the challenge of designing a ship after contractors had done it for so many years, but the government was left with little choice. Captain Lucius Walker, the Program Manager of the LSC program, recalls the day their hand was forced. On May 25, 2031, Captain Walker and his team held an Industry Day to discuss the radical new ideas they had.

We thought we had a really awesome set of ideas for industry. My team had spent a lot of time doing futuring exercises, talking with operators, looking at the case studies of Fitzgerald and John McCain from a damage control perspective, reviewing the failures of the Littoral Combat Ship program, and culling the new technologies to see what could meet the mission needs in the threat environment of the 2030s and beyond. The environment was very missile-centric, which amounted to a huge departure from traditional gun damage-tolerant designs. Those had not changed much since World War II.

The shock came right away. Both Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics said that we could not do what our Industry Day proposal requested. Too much of it relied on proprietary information and lead integrator efforts and products. We had a heated discussion in the Gooding Center on the [Washington Navy] Yard, but they weren’t going to budge. I could understand their position. They had spent decades cultivating an integrated set of systems; you simply could not break them apart the way we were talking about. It was then that I knew we had to bring the design in-house.

_______________________________________

            After the collapse of the Industry Day in May 2031, Captain Walker’s Ship Design Manager, Austin Corleone, spoke with Captain Walker outside the Gooding Center:

I decided to go for it. “Do you have a few minutes, Captain?”

“Sure, why not? I don’t really want to go back in there at the moment.”

“Ever since we finalized the Industry Day proposal, I’ve been thinking about different ways to bring the ideas into a ship.”

“Shoot.”

“I think we can design a simple ship in-house.”

“Come again?”

“Bear with me. It doesn’t have to be complex. We can design the hull and space allocations for all the major systems: radars, combat systems, weapons, etc. We work with other program offices to deliver those subsystems to the strict interfaces that we provide. Remember in 2002 when Amazon forced their internal programs to communicate only through certain interfaces or be fired? We don’t need to design the entire ship, just require programs to provide models to fit into the spaces and interfaces we give them. We make the mechanical and electrical systems very simple and easy to replace—no more rats’ nests of cables everywhere. In that way, we can use the digital models to see how all the parts fit together into a coherent whole. Software standards in industry have moved to the extreme in terms of modularity with service mesh architectures, and I see no reason why we can’t do the same with ship designs.”

“You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Absolutely. I’ve got a few friends who think along the same lines in other program offices that think it would be feasible. What do you think?”

“Can you get your friends together at our office tomorrow to map out what this might look like? I’m curious.”

“I’ll get it set up.”

            The Yukon program office exploited the fast, inexpensive, restrained, and elegant criteria to the letter in designing the ships. The use of model-based engineering techniques stemming from the Digital Engineering Strategy combined with a confederation of program offices allowed the Yukon program to design a ship in record time. They approached allowed individual program offices to be the experts in their area, freeing the Yukon team to design an overmatch of hull, mechanical, and electrical services for the programs to use. The result was a simple, elegant ship that was easy to build, upgrade, repair, and operate.

_______________________________________

            The Yukon program embraced its new role as a lead systems integrator. Once the hull design and its associated services had been finalized, they contracted to start hull construction, without any of the major subsystems ready. Captain Walker made the key decision to revert to a historical norm: outfitting at the pier. The Navy had gotten away from it as ship designs increased in complexity, but it briefly resurfaced with the Zumwalt-class, though more by accident than planning. Designing the ship for ease of access allowed the pier-side outfitting to be conducted rapidly by both sailors and contractor teams. Ships were commissioned at an unheard of rate with the latest gear that the confederation of program offices could deliver.

            As the ships deployed, the various program offices continued to support the ships by providing for over-the-air delivery of software to give the ships the maximum capability possible against the adversaries. The independence of hardware and software allowed designers to consider sensors in fundamentally new ways, and the surface fleet saw radically new capabilities from the same hardware as a result. The independent, digitally-engineered design allowed for rapid upgrades to the ships while deployed, in some cases with new hardware even being delivered via small drones in the South China Sea. The seamless integration that digital engineering and DevSecOps created allowed the programs supporting Yukons to achieve update and repair speeds that were orders of magnitude faster than the Navy had ever thought possible. As a result of these design decisions, the ships performed remarkably well in combat, earning rave reviews from the sailors operating them to the adversaries fighting against them.

Lieutenant Commander Ryan Hilger is a Navy Engineering Duty Officer stationed in Washington D.C. He has served onboard USS Maine (SSBN 741), as Chief Engineer of USS Springfield (SSN 761), and ashore at the CNO Strategic Studies Group XXXIII and OPNAV N97. He holds a Masters Degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School. His views are his own and do not represent the official views or policies of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Navy.

Featured Image: “Dreadnought 2050” by Rob McPherson (via Artstation)

Haze Gray Zone

By Chris O’Connor

Ma’am, your presence is requested in Combat. OS2 Van-Manama’s message appeared in the right lens of LCDR Sara Fernandez’s glasses. A top-down overlay of an unknown surface contact appeared in her left lens.

On my way, OS2. She subvocalized back. She still wasn’t used to the formality in the Navy. Or the food. The only thing she ate for breakfast in this hot weather was buttered toast. She got up from her seat in the tiny mess space, dropped her plate in the washer, and went down the ladder.

“What do you have for me?” She asked OS2 V-M as she entered the Combat Information Center. She could talk plainly here. No need to message through LiFi to communicate, as she did in the rest of the ship. Combat was not an impressive space; two terminals, an observation chair, and display wall. At least it was air conditioned. OS2 was seated at the right terminal.

“It’s that Contact of Interest we’ve been waiting for; 350 at 23 miles. Going 13 knots on a course of 170. It’ll pass right by the seafarm.”

She squeezed past OS2 to sit at the left terminal and pulled up the COI’s track info. It was classified on AIS as a fishing fleet factory ship. The Chinese had this type harvesting seafood in every ocean now that most fisheries in their EEZ had collapsed.

V-M continued. “Its signature is certainly correct, the right number of diesels at the right harmonics, ELINT shows commercial SATCOMs and surface search. And the satellite images we pulled down show a wake profile that fits for a ship of the type. It has one commercial VTOL security drone up. I’m sure it’s aware of our tender.”

“Copy. I’ll go let the Captain know.” She said, leaving Combat.

The Master, Captain Aquino, was on the port bridge wing, observing crane ops. The heat and humidity was mitigated by a slight breeze. The Polillo 2 was working on one of the seafarm perimeter buoys.

“Morning, Captain.”

“Morning.” He mumbled back, eyes remaining on the crane. “I see the large contact on the Furuno. Is that why you’re here?”

“You guessed it. After this buoy, could you secure from crane ops for a while? We should be prepared to maneuver.” Fernandez said.

“I know the drill.” Aquino said, annoyance creeping into his voice. “I’ll go to thrusters soon and be ready to seem really interested in working deep in the buoy field.” He said, gesturing out to the farm, large yellow solar floats extending south as far as the eye could see. “I’ll act casual, ‘cuz I don’t want to be killed.”

“Yes, Sir.” She said, heading for the ladder.

“Don’t call me Sir!” He shouted after her. “I was a Senior Chief in the Navy. And I STILL work for a living!”

_______________________________________

A disembodied voice greeted Sara. “Thanks for coming today. The purpose of this interview is to collect information for our historical archives.” All that she could see was the emblem for Naval History and Heritage Command floating six feet in front of her in an empty, white-paneled cube. It was the default setting for a VRcast waiting room.

“Coming today? I’m in my office at home,” she pointed out.

“We will set the default interview template.” The view faded and was replaced by a mid-twentieth century history professor’s study, complete with walls of bookshelves and leather chairs. Fernandez could almost smell books, old wood, and leather. But without a multisensory neural link, it was all in her imagination.

Across from her was a desk covered in papers. Seated behind it was a middle-aged man, hair thinning on top of his head and in a blazer with leather patches at the elbows. A notepad was ready in front of him, fountain pen in hand.

“Does this put you at ease? We can set this to any template you prefer.” The interviewer AI asked, now enrobed in a professor avatar.

“This works for me. It is kinda funny, though. I was never in an office like this because I am not 100 years old.”

“Alright, then. Let us get started. The purpose of this interview is to collect information from veterans of the war so that we can make VR historical simulations. It is intended as a free-flowing discussion. I detect that you have a brain interface implant. Can we access it for biofeedback during our talk?”

“No, it’s just an augment for my right eye.” Sara felt an itching sensation where flesh and bone met metal and plastic in her ocular cavity. Maybe it was time for a firmware update.

“Joined the Navy at 36, after a leaving a successful career in autonomous systems. You were being paid more than two times a Lieutenant Commander in your civilian job. There were many people in your comfortable position that did not join up when the nation needed them. Why did you?”

_______________________________________

“The seafarm surveillance drone that US1 reconfigured is making an ID pass.” OS2 said looking at the drone feed. “Something’s not right.”

LCDR Fernandez was sitting in the chair next to him and monitoring the sensor feeds, while watching the AI run the object detector module. They had to use laser to communicate with the drone to keep their comms signature down. Signal strength was not very good in the humid and salty conditions.

The video feed from the drone showed the COI. It was painted blue and white, with perfectly placed rust streaks, and the superstructure was not quite right to Sara. The detector results came back as possibilities: 95% factory fishing ship, 72% car ferry, 5% generic amphibious warfare vessel. On the visual feed, panels on the side of the COI were changing colors, sometimes flashing patterns.

“It looks like it is covered in active adversarial network patches. I’ve never seen so many,” V-M said. “Our module is only seeing a fishing vessel and somehow ignoring the other qualities of the ship. It is being played like a fiddle.”

“Do you think they know the standard detector module inside and out and trained their AN systems to counter it?” Sara said sarcastically. “OCEANUS,” she said to the Combat AI. “Run it again with that algorithm trained with US1’s input set. A new module that the Chinese did not plan to encounter might see something else.”

After a few seconds, the module came up with a new result. 94% modified Type 071 (NATO reporting name: Yuzhao) LPD.

It was a Yuzhao altered to have the external appearance of a fishing vessel. It could have been damaged in the opening of the war and rebuilt in the yards to look that way. Maybe it was a mod of one of the export variants that never made it to Thailand.

Either way, it was a major violation of the Seven Powers agreement. Warships of that size should not be in the South China Sea.

_______________________________________

“I was a domestic delivery drone network supervisor. Studied robotics at Carnegie Mellon and got hired right after graduation by a small logistics UAV startup in San Diego. After working there for a few years, the company was bought out by one of the tech companies, which was inevitable. Absorbed into the workforce of a FANG, I was responsible for all UGV and UAV delivery operations in Pennsylvania when the war started. Looking back, the strangest part of the whole thing was we still haven’t figured out who started what we now call the ‘Seven Powers War.’”

“What do you mean?” The interviewer said, now going through the motion of jotting down notes.

“We always blamed China for starting the war, and China blames us. But neither of us were ready at the kickoff. The CCP was hit by that massive ransomware attack at the same time as Congress and the White House. And it was a well-executed hit job. Almost everyone’s official and personal email accounts and phones were taken offline, with no way to pay it off, like the NotPetya attack back in the day.” 

“NotPetya?” The AI stopped writing.

“You don’t know what that is? You do real-time research while we are talking. I’m sure you know precisely what happened.”

“Of course, I will develop VRcast content with embedded branches to references. But for the sake of archiving the interviews for public consumption, I would like to do this as a conversation.” 

“I am impressed how well you can talk to me. Can’t even tell that you are a bot.” Fernandez said.

“Ever since GPT5, the Turing test is invalid. If it would make you feel better, I can take on his persona for this interview.”

“Would you look like a young Cumberbatch or the real guy?”

“I can look like anyone you want if it makes this interview productive, but please do not call me a ‘bot.’ I find that outdated slang derogatory,” the AI said coldly.

“Right. Sorry.” She conceded. “I’ll get back on track. That attack’s intent was to cripple the leadership in both countries. Russia and the other powers either reacted quick enough to prevent it or they were not targeted. Of course, deepfakes of everyone taking credit were out there. I even saw one of Uruguay’s Prime Minister claiming responsibility to bring the ‘Great Powers to their knees.’”

“How did this lead to you signing on the dotted line?” the AI said, with a pipe now placed in the corner of his mouth, face simulating deep interest in the conversation.

Sara leaned back in her chair. “It’s a funny phrase, by the way. I completed my contract with a biometric finger scan.”

“I have to keep in character with my persona.” The AI commented, waving his pipe at his paper-covered desk. “I cannot be anachronistic.”

“Well, it was China’s first shots that made it personal for me,” Sara said. “They had been getting increasingly paranoid and thought we were intentionally crippling their leadership with the cyberattack. Maybe they thought we were overacting to that election-year PLAN carrier strike group FONOPS in the Gulf of Mexico. A lot of Americans were pissed off when the Chinese did that.

“Predicting a U.S. play in the Western Pacific, the Chinese leadership reacted with a what I see as a ‘flexible response option’— or at least that’s how my joint training would describe it. Instead of attacking our bases and combatants directly, they went for our fleet replenishment ships.

“Our oilers were easy to find and track with pretty basic AI, thanks to the hundreds of commercial imagery CubeSats in orbit. All the oilers underway in the Western Pacific had two antiship ballistic missiles fired at them. Not even the new missiles, but the older models, since our replenishment ships were easy pickings with no countermeasures or defenses. The PLA saved the new ‘DFs’ for the potential higher-end targets.

“Out of ASBM reach was USNS Genesee, two days west of Pearl. First in a new class of fast replenishment oilers, ‘Genny’ was the fastest and largest ship since the old AOEs were in service, with expanded hangar space for the new VTOL ‘Hopper’ logistics drones.

“Like its counterparts, it was sailing solo with no escorts. While its counterparts were being wiped out by ballistic missiles, the ‘Genny’ lost power. From what the survivors told us, immediately after a logistics database update, a worm was triggered in its power systems that shut everything down, to include backup batteries and generators. There was no recovering with the personnel onboard. None of their servers worked, so it was impossible to use the smart ship system to even find where the issues were.

“My Uncle Juan was one of the unfortunate engineers furtively trying to get the controllers on the diesels working when the main spaces and Hold 3 were both hit with sprint vehicles. Only nine from the crew of eighty-seven were plucked from the water hours later, after the UUV that launched the YJ-18s was found and neutralized.

“There were now no replenishment ships west of Pearl Harbor. They could have been crippled with worm attacks alone, but China put them on the bottom of the ocean. It meant that our warships throughout the Pacific had limited legs and were constrained to ports that were now at threatened by more long-range weapons.”

“So you joined because your uncle was killed?” The professor asked.

“It was a major part of it. We were not a military family. I had a great uncle that was an officer in the Navy during what he called the ‘Tanker Wars’ and my mom’s cousin served in the Space Force, but I really liked Uncle Juan and wanted to do something in his honor. The nature of how the war changed also made me a good officer candidate.”

_______________________________________

“Pass this info to the Hughes through the seafarm’s network.”

“Aye aye, Ma’am.” OS2 said. “US1 is putting up another drone to act as a laser comms relay for the exploit ops.”

“Ready for that?” Fernandez said to CTR2 Cruz. She was sitting in the left console seat now. Fernandez had moved back to the observation chair.

“Yes Ma’am. We have a common system target set fed into our JANUS AI. We’ll be looking for networks common to Yuzhaos, fishing vessels, or anything commercial commonly installed at the shipyard of origin.”

Sara reached behind her and grabbled the IC phone off the hook. “Captain, OIC. We’re about to annoy the contact,” she said.

“Copy,” Aquino gruffly said. “I’m turning off all my external comms and navigation systems except for the Furuno. It’s the only thing we have that is airgapped. Moving into the field now.”

The diesel vibrations through the hull stopped, and Fernandez felt the ship move on thrusters into the field.

“Sweep is negative for EM leakage. COI is doing a good job with signal discipline, save the nav radar.” OS2 reported.

“Let the Hughes know that we are going for network intrusion. We’ll probably get a response.”

“Will do Ma’am,” V-M replied.

“Let’s see if they left any of their antennas to receive only.” CTR2 said.

Probing low power signal antenna. JANUS began.

Detected: Autonomous trawling net system.

“It looks like they were serious enough about their cover that they put a commercial fishing system onboard, and someone didn’t think to disable the antenna.” Cruz observed.

Trawling systems connected to ship’s common servers.

Uploading worm.

Intrusion Detection AI on PLAN network countering.

Lost comms. JANUS was in the LPD’s network for mere seconds.

“Drone down.” OS2 said. “It looks like COI hit it with a laser.”

“Was the worm fully uploaded?” Fernandez asked.

Cruz was looking at multiple feeds at once, using hand gestures to make selections. “Looks like it, Ma’am,” she said. “It depends on which one JANUS decided to use.”

“They detected the intrusion, so it doesn’t have a lot of time to work,” Sara said. “What worm did JANUS deploy?”

Unmask Rev 11, JANUS responded, before Cruz could.

CTR2 continued. “The results from ‘Unmask’ will depend on how the shipboard networks are configu—crap!”

“Multiple military comms and radars radiating on COI. Classify contact as hostile!” OS2 shouted. “They just lit up like a Christmas tree.”

The true nature of the contact was now broadcast for the world to see. 27 miles away, on the west edge of the buoy field, the Hughes and its flotilla of Lake-class corvettes leapt to all ahead full, as their smaller Fiberclad USV escorts struggled to keep up.

_______________________________________

“The Navy needed people of your expertise with the new drone systems after the ceasefire,” the AI stated, leaning back in its chair, as if it was a human realizing this for the first time.

“Exactly. I’m sure you are collecting interviews from many vets, but as you know, the first two weeks of shooting was a free-for-all. It escalated so quickly that I am amazed to this day we didn’t go nuclear. I think it’s because we didn’t attack targets on the Chinese mainland, even though they laid waste to our Guam bases. China could have put some cruise missiles into Pearl or San Diego but chose not to. And both sides only used hypersonic weapons against each other’s warships. But that still meant that we lost a lot of ships. This wasn’t a one-sided exchange. With the help of the Air Force, we took out most of the larger platforms in the PLAN South- and East- Seas Fleets.

“We learned quickly that nothing on the surface of the ocean could hide anymore. On day one of the shooting, for example, they fired about thirty older ASBMs at the strike group that was east of the Philippines, purposely encircling it with impact points, demonstrating to us that they knew where it was.”

“Undeterred, our response to the sinking of the oilers was that same CSG launching a strike on Chinese artificial islands in the SCS. Before those strike aircraft recovered to the CVN, the CSG was hammered with ASBMs and long-range cruise missiles, and only the McCain got away without major damage. She escorted the survivors of the CSG into Tacloban; one barely afloat DDG and the CVN, which was missing sections of her island and had massive holes in her flight deck. The other strike group in WESTPAC had to fight its way back to Pearl through a PLAN UUV wolfpack, with a pod of our own ORCAs and LIVYATANs running interference.”

The AI was tearing through his notepad now; Sara wondered what exactly he was writing. The professor noted, “After this continued for two weeks, both sides ran out of chess pieces in the Pacific. And the Seven Powers ceasefire agreement limited the size of assets we could send over there.”

“The USN had to reconstitute fast,” she said. “It went on a crash course in platform procurement, and acquired small vessels built in yacht and fishing boat yards throughout the U.S. Most of these were modified to become unmanned surface vehicles. The USVs ranged from high-end combat ones, like the stealthy Fiberclads, to low-end logistics, surveillance, and lily pads for the short-range aerial systems. They were designed to need smaller logistical footprints so they could operate without a replenishment fleet of larger ships.”

“And new sailors were needed to crew this Navy,” the AI pointed out.

“Yep. It took about a year to get out to the fleet with my accelerated commission. Familiarization didn’t take too long. After all, I was experienced with a lot of the commercial platforms the Navy had bought. I joined up with the command in San Diego. Had sims and tactics training and was then assigned to a SCS-centric detachment that was to go underway on clandestine collection platforms. I thought the Navy was going to put me in charge of a sexy drone warfare unit. I ended up doing something quite different.”

_______________________________________

Seneca just got hit.” V-M said calmly. “Most likely a UUV.”

“At least hiding in the farm will protect us from that.” Fernandez said, matter-of-factly. It would be hard to weave a weapon through the underwater maze of interconnected buoys to hit Polillo 2.

Now that the game was up, the Yuzhao was in survival mode. The radiating triggered by ‘Unmask’ abruptly ceased, and she increased speed and turned to the north, trying to bug out.

“Swarm deployment on hostile.” OS2 reported. Concealed launchers on the Chinese ship began to disgorge a heterogenous cloud of drones into the air around it.

The U.S. flotilla was not going to let that LPD live to sneak around another day. The surviving corvettes each launched a pair of Super-LRASMs at the contact while kicking out their own much smaller swarms, which included Cormorant UAVs to counter the hostiles in the water below.

None of the LRASMs reached their target. They met a brick wall of drones, directed energy, and good old fashioned 30mm CIWS rounds. But the Hughes drove on with the flotilla, firing the rest of their missiles and going ‘Empty Quiver.’ The flotilla put every available drone into the fight, emptying their launchers. The LPD was more than a match. The PLAN equipped it with a superior combat systems AI and scores of drone tubes.

OS2 unleashed creative stream of multilingual invectives. Fernandez was impressed how her comms AI tried to keep up with the translation, labelling it as Mix of Vietnamese and Kiro. One insult, for example, had something to do with a whale and a bowl of petunias.

“I don’t know what you are saying, but it doesn’t seem professional,” she said.

“Sorry Ma’am. The contact just went Death Blossom on us,” V-M muttered.

The classic movie reference would have been funny in any other context, but the video feed of the LPD putting up an ever-thickening cloud of UAVs like an angry beehive was no laughing matter. To make matters worse, drone variants were launched that were new to OCEANUS’ threat database.

CTR2 barely croaked, “Network sweep. They suspect us. JANUS is countering multiple intrusion attempts from the Yuzhao through the seafarm net.”

Then Sara saw on the OCEANUS feed a tendril of the enemy swarm break off and head toward Polillo 2.

_______________________________________

“We were assigned to a 32-meter buoy tender, based out of a small fishing port in the western Philippines.” Fernandez continued. “There were many commercial vessels like it, contracted out to maintain farms of aquaculture such as kelp and mussels. We bounced around geographic locations in the SCS based on collection requirements. The Det consisted of seven ununiformed sailors of a mix of rates: Operations Specialists, Unmanned Systems Techs, Cryptologic Techs, Additive Artisans. I was the Officer in Charge, but the tender’s Master was a Merchant Mariner.

“These tenders were set up for autonomous systems control and maintenance. Seafarms are run on a daily basis by a workforce of aerial, surface, and subsurface drones that check the buoys’ status, scan the crops, and test the water column for pollutants and security intrusions. It wasn’t unusual for a tender such as ours to be launching and recovering drones and related systems, which made it the perfect cover. Limited to slight modifications for our mission, we had bolted on a few extra comms antennas, mostly laser and other LPI comms, and we sure as hell couldn’t launch any Cormorants or Sea Eagles.

“The forces agreement meant that the only USN and PLAN ships allowed in the SCS were small combatants, while other nations patrolled with larger vessels as part of the enforcement mission. A four-ship flotilla of Lake-class missile corvettes was positioned near us, trying its best to keep a low signature, but sticking out like a sore thumb among commercial traffic. We kept them up to date on our ops, and they were ready in case things got hairy. The USS Wayne P. Hughes was the manned command ship; the remaining three were unmanned versions of the same class.”

The AI shifted is pipe from one side of his mouth to the other. “You were operating in an area that could combust at any time, and you were on an unarmed vessel.”

“And it got messy quickly.”

“One of the purposes of this project is to capture vignettes of important phase changes of the war. And we think your part was a big one, because it was when a new facet of Chinese operations was discovered.” The professor said, tapping his pipe in an ashtray. “I hear it was a close call for you, and I would like to record accurately what happened at that seafarm.”

“Are you interviewing the Skipper of the Hughes?” Fernandez asked.

“CDR Zhu? Of course. One of my personas talked to her last week.”

“I’m sure she chose John Paul Jones as her interviewer.”

“Actually,” the AI said, without looking up from his notes, “she went with Admiral Nelson. It took us a few seconds to render the HMS Victory under full sail, but it was an informative discussion.”

“Good. I bought her beers after she got out of rehab. That woman is a straight-up badass. She lost an arm during that exchange.”

_______________________________________

The OCEANUS feed was looking grim. The Yuzhao had blunted the corvettes’ attacks and was now turning its efforts to neutralizing the flotilla, which was just buying time until the inevitable. The unmanned vessels and Fiberclads used their aggregated swarm to protect the Hughes. One by one the Lakes were being sacrificed as their HPM pulses and CIWS flechette shells were not enough to save them alone.

The smaller Fiberclads died first. Then Tahoe absorbed over a dozen hits before succumbing. Okeechobee was staggered by repeated impacts until a UUV was able to catch up to it. ‘Okee’ broke in half like the Seneca, keel snapped by an underwater explosion. Then the friendly swarm broke away and headed to deflect the attack on the tender.

V-M said what they all realized. “The Hughes is sending the flotilla’s swarm to protect us.”

The friendly UAVs intercepted their Chinese counterparts just as they were reaching the outskirts of the seafarm. The Sea Eagles were able to shoot down drones without sacrificing themselves, while others, such as the Petrels, had to ram the opposition to make an effect. The Polillo 2 was spared.

The Hughes paid the price. Opening broadside to the section of the swarm bearing down on it, it could only rely on its self-defense mounts and was beset by the autonomous adversaries. It fared a little better than the rest of the corvettes, but was still hit numerous times. Dead in the water, the Hughes’ weapons went silent.

“The swarm has been significantly thinned out. It looks like it is pulling back to reconstitute on the Yuzhao,” OS2 breathed out.

“Still trying to get to us over the networks,” CTR2 reported, reading the JANUS feeds. “We don’t have enough resources for our instance of JANUS to out-cycle whatever they are using. It’s only a matter of time before our they are in our network.”

MJOLNIR inbound, OCEANUS reported.

“Never mind.” Cruz whispered.

Fernandez looked at the large display in above terminals. The Yuzhao was 17 miles distant and headed away, wake boiling behind, an anemic swarm of drones in company. Then the enemy ship shook as if a giant finger flicked it. An upper part of the superstructure spiraled away as a gaping hole was punched starboard amidships at the weatherdecks, and the hypersonic projectile exited the port side, spraying a shotgun pattern of debris in the water far beyond.

“Wow. Never seen one of those….” Sara let slip.

“Me neither.” OS2 added. “Higher ups must have really wanted it dead.”

The critically damaged LPD began to slow, fires and smoke pouring from amidships. That hit alone was enough to sink it, even though it was above the waterline. But then the ship went up. A huge fireball began deep in in its hold, followed by a shockwave through the water that could be felt miles away on the Polillo 2. When the blast subsided, what was left of the bow and stern of the broken ship was settling into the water.

V-M began on his multicultural curses again, seemingly happy this time.

“What was that thing carrying?” Cruz asked.

“Probably missile batteries to reinforce an atoll somewhere around here.” Fernandez said. “OS2, what’s the status of the Chinese swarm?”

“OCEANUS shows eleven drones still active of various types.” V-M replied, now done with the swearing. “The blast took out the rest, and there is no local swarm controller now. But we can’t do anything if they are still out there, they’ll self-organize and still be hostile.”

“CTR2, work with US1 to get another pair of drones up. I want JANUS to take control of those drones and splash them.”

“Will do Ma’am.” Cruz replied.

Sara picked up the IC phone again. “Captain, we can go to assist the Hughes now.”

“Looks like it is barely afloat,” Aquino observed. “And what’s left of the Chinese ship is almost under. We’ll see if there are any very lucky Chinese survivors from that blast after we go to the Hughes. Continue acting all civilian and innocent?”

“That’s right.” Fernandez said. “We’re not onboard, remember?” Which was a pity. She wanted to shake the hand of every sailor on that corvette. Instead, her Det will have to hide until they transferred the survivors to a larger Indian or Japanese warship, which was probably now on its way after detecting the clash.

“Let’s hope those Cormorants took all of the Chinese UUVs. By the way, that was one of the craziest f’ing things that I have ever seen,” he added.

“You and me both.” The Det OIC laughed.

_______________________________________

“The covert USN and PLAN vessels rarely came to blows. The engagement between your seafarm tender and the Chinese LPD showed two different means of gray zone warfare with different platforms. One, a concealed warship, the other a fishing vessel with military capabilities.”

“Which, ironically, was a Chinese tactic decades before we did it.” Sara added.

Underlining something in his notes, the AI observed, “Your actions uncovered a PLA operation to establish a bastion in Micronesia.”

She shrugged. “I guess a good cover was a fleet of large vessels supposedly netting tuna.”

“There was an island outpost that was not going to be a threat until the hypersonic batteries arrived. The Det on Polillo 2 revealed that shipment and protected Guam from those missiles. You blocked their next ‘Go’ move.”

Sara paused before saying, “I’ve told very few people over the past twenty years about what happened that day.”

“Well, now you have approval to get it on the record.” The interviewer AI said, making a show of turning over a fresh leaf of paper in his notebook.

“Where shall I start?” CDR Sara Fernandez (ret.) began. “We were only a few days out on an op out of Palawan when my CIC watch messaged me at breakfast…”

Chris O’Connor is a Supply Corps Officer in the U.S. Navy. He has had tours at CNO Strategic Studies Group and CNO Rapid Innovation Cell, and is Vice President of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). He has written a number of fiction and non-fiction pieces on the future of warfare.

Featured Image: “Grand Imperial Navy” by Rhys Bevan (via Artstation)