By Ian Brown
“—unprecedented chain of events culminated today in his early resignation only three months into his second nominated term. Citing the well-publicized campaign against his reforms, he noted that his person had become a distraction from the Service’s ability to fulfill its mandated functions. As he stepped away from the microphone, our Pentagon correspondent heard him comment that ‘never was so much so misunderstood by so many,’ but she could not get him to elaborate. While his successor awaits Senate confirmation, sources already report that the rapid recapitalization of divested weapons systems will be a top priority for the new—”
“You’re fucking kidding me,” spat Colonel Sara Hård, though she knew the general was, sadly, serious. The general’s fleeting smirk confirmed her suspicions.
“Come now, colonel,” responded Brigadier General Paolo Ricci. “We all have our roles. This is just what your little science experiment was designed for, right?” Hård bit her tongue until she could taste blood. It was that, or say something that would see her leave the room stripped of her already tenuous command. Truly, there are none so blind as those who will not fucking see…
“Sir,” she said, working to keep her tone neutral, “I don’t dispute that this assignment is one of the many possible missions my regiment was constructed to execute, but I strongly believe that a more mutually supportive deployment—”
“Enough.” The smirk was gone. “Let me be clear, colonel. I’ll use your band of littoral misfits because this crisis is here, and so are you. And as it happens, your reason for being happily aligns with this specific request of the Norwegian government. Who knows, this could be the perfect chance for the Marine Littoral Regiment to finally show its quality.” A ghost of the smirk reappeared. “So you will plant your space experts and cyber warriors and influencers and missileers on those islands, and make noises if any Soviets get too close—which they won’t. We will handle anything that comes down the road.”
And there it was. General Ricci, poster child of the old guard, wanted his refurbished tanks and artillery tubes to have a public knife fight upon which he could slap the bumper sticker of “locate, close with, and destroy,” because that’s what the old guard wanted. Her “influencers”—linguistic trend analysis among their skills, not that Ricci cared—were screaming that this conflict would unfold another way. They want an amphibious win against us, her influencers said, they’ll come by sea, the road is just a distraction—but Ricci clung to his vision.
“Captain Rhys, please have the duty driver return Colonel Hård to the airfield,” he said nonchalantly. Hård rose and wordlessly followed the captain out of the room. She could feel Ricci’s eyes mocking her as she left.
Hård sat in silence on the drive back to Kirkenes Lufthavn. She had known this eleventh-hour plea with the MAGTF commander was likely fruitless regardless of the moment’s urgency. The Russian Federation had collapsed following its army’s expulsion from Ukraine and subsequent economic free fall. The chaos had forced NATO to contend with more than a dozen new breakaway regimes all fighting each other, with the violence regularly spilling over NATO borders. The New Murmansk Soviet had been quiet thus far, until a few days ago when its Chairman broke his silence.
The Chairman’s exact words—rights under the Svalbard Treaty, a litany of historical injustices, the protection of Russian-language speakers—were largely irrelevant. Only two things mattered. The Soviet’s military forces were among the most potent of the breakaway states and the Northern Rotational MAGTF was in a position to do something about it.
Hård had hoped this meant the Marine Littoral Regiment’s turn had finally come after the long months of being shunted aside. Facing the pending Soviet offensive, she thought her argument was strong: the MLR, along with Ricci’s conventional forces, should redeploy to Bear Island and Svalbard together to oppose Soviet landings and threaten their naval forces seeking to break into the Atlantic. Ricci gave one of his smirks and assessed Soviet amphibious and naval capability as “low.” But since the Norwegian government shared her concern, her MLR would cover the islands. Away from the “real” land fight in Hesseng he wants, and the cameras.
A knock on the car window pulled Hård back from her dark thoughts. She was at Kirkenes Lufthavn. Giving the waiting driver a tight smile and small nod for his forbearance, she got out. The MV-22 Osprey that had brought her here was already spinning a short distance away, and a shadow in front the aircraft’s silhouette walked toward her. She recognized her assistant operations officer, Major Travis Cuomo, who raised a hand holding a cranial to her in greeting.
“I’m guessing we’ll be in Longyearbyen a bit longer?” he asked as she strapped her cranial on.
“Yes,” she replied, continuing toward the Osprey. “I’ll have some orders to transmit once we’re airborne. Weather update?”
“Low pressure system’s growing. Pilot’s gonna have to buster to get us back before the skies close.” Cuomo paused. “With aviation grounded, we’ll be awfully lonely out there.” Hård smiled tightly.
“Nonsense,” she said with forced lightness. “It’s just an opportunity to grow where we’re planted.” Cuomo quietly nodded as they approached the Osprey’s tail ramp. After the Osprey lifted, Hård plugged her cranial into the aircraft’s communications system and started sending orders into the ether. The lights of Kirkenes faded behind them. Far to the west, lightning danced on the horizon.
“Dog Three Six confirms the Pyotr Velikiy is destroyed.” Hård nodded thanks at the corporal who had delivered the message.
“Good,” replied Hård. “Tell Captain Garard and the Influence cell to launch their packages in 20 minutes. I don’t need to review it.” The corporal nodded in return, and went back to his corner of the hotel dining room. Outside, the arctic storm swirled, an angry contrast to the unnatural calm of her Marines inside the Blu Polar Hotel. Turning away from storm, Hård headed to a different corner to watch the Influence cell at work.
Captain Garard was quietly guiding the editing process for the latest information packages. The work was a microcosm of what her “misfits” brought to the table. Her Space Marine liaison team had received commercial satellite cuing for the Soviet Northern Fleet flagship Pyotr Velikiy a few hours ago. The satellites fed targeting information to the Maritime Strike Tomahawk battery with the Lava Dogs on Bear Island, which then—with the satellites watching and her Influence cell listening—launched a missile salvo.
Hård observed the strike playback as Garard’s team massaged it. Two missiles struck the ship, one detonating the vessel’s magazine to break its back. She listened as the radio transmissions from the Pyotr Velikiy changed from bored reports to screams. Radio silence followed as the two pieces of the Pyotr Velikiy’s hull slid beneath the storm-frothed waves.
Of the Influence cell’s information packages, the first was for public consumption, highlighting a straightforward message: we are winning. It showed the video but omitted the screams, instead dubbing over a patriotic Norwegian rock ballad that had gone viral when the New Murmansk Soviet announced its intentions. This package would go to Norwegian news outlets, Russian social media, even Ricci’s COMMSTRAT Marines—not that the latter would do anything with it.
The second package also had a straightforward message: we are going to kill you, and you can’t stop us. It swapped out music for the dying crew’s screams. This one would go out across Soviet naval military channels to sow pure fear. Similar packages had gone out following each strike, and her Marines had been gratified to watch some of the Soviet ships turn back after receiving the Influence cell’s transmissions. It was maneuver warfare at work—space and influence domains joined with long-range fires assets to create a combined arms effect that had significantly shrunk the Soviet threat to the archipelago. Things were going pretty well. Except…
The amphibs were missing. There were four Project 23900-class amphibious assault ships in the Soviet Northern Fleet, and when that Fleet had met the front edge of the storm southeast of Svalbard, satellites lost track of them. Her Space Marine liaisons had worked to recover the tracks scattered by the storm—but despite reacquiring many lucrative targets, the amphibs remained ghosts. That meant thousands of Soviet naval infantry were out there, location unknown, plowing toward them—
“Ma’am?” A hand touched her shoulder; it was Captain Garard. “We’ve launched the packages,” said the captain. “Just wanted you to know before we start breaking things down to displace.”
“Thanks,” Hård replied with a small smile. “I guess that means I should be getting myself ready to move too, doesn’t it?” Garard gave an agreeable nod as the room’s calm turned to flurried activity. In moments, her Marines had packed up the command post and were hauling their Pelican cases into the rain toward their next location under the displacement plan that kept them ahead of the Soviet targeting cycle. Hård gave herself another small smile. The rain seemed to be slackening; that would make it all the easier to find the amphibs. Things were indeed going well.
“Riptide Six, launch the barn.” Hård pushed the “end” button and tossed down the handheld. So much for things going well. A sharp crack overhead caught her attention. From her latest command post high above Isfjorden, she looked up through the camouflage netting to see pieces of burning debris floating in the dark sky. It was the latest casualty in the air battle raging above them.
They’d found the amphibs; or, rather, the amphibs had found them. Under cover of the storm, the Soviets had reached the Isfjorden undetected. Her regiment’s coastal radars picked up faint returns, called it in, and then came the missiles and loitering munitions as the line of Project 23900 ships brazenly pushed toward Longyearbyen. But once the initial surprise had worn off, her Marines stung back.
Explosions and flaming debris filled the air in the battle between her Stinger and MADIS gunners, and Soviet missiles and drones. The Soviet drones came in increasing numbers, intended to soak up as much ground-based air defense as they could, but she’d trained her Marines to be ready for this. A new sound thrummed through the airspace, and she again looked skyward to watch the results.
“Launching the barn” was a contingency she’d kept in the back of her mind for unconventional employment of her MLR’s excess tactical ISR drones. Now those drones would add their rotors and propellers to the air battle. New flashes lit up the night sky as her drone operators sent their unmanned platforms against the cloud of Soviet drones in kamikaze runs. They plunged down from above to cut their Soviet counterparts in half, or drove into Soviet rotors and propellers to send them spinning to the ground. The frequency of the flashes slackened after a few minutes, and Hård knew that her Marines had cleared the airspace for the battle’s next phase. She picked up her handheld, scrolled to a different contact, and pressed the “call” icon.
“Go for Dog One Six,” came the reply.
“This is Actual,” Hård said. “Ghost them, and be ready for leakers.”
“Yes ma’am,” the voice responded. “Everyone goes swimming.” Hård felt a small measure of sympathy toward the Soviet amphibs for the hard time about to unfold. She looked through her binocular NVGs, saw a flash and bloom of light on the flight deck of the rear-most amphib, and then the rest of the Ghosts came.
The Ghost drone—its predecessor first tested in Ukraine but later dismissed by the old guard as lacking the spirit of true combined arms—was silent, low-profile, and launchable from almost anywhere. Hård swept her NVGs across the dark sky, the darker-than-dark silhouettes of the Ghosts barely visible as they converged from a hundred launch points around the island, and then plunged into the amphibs.
The rear-most ship took three hits to the bridge in quick succession, and as its course drifted slowly to starboard it became clear the helm was beyond human control. The next ship in line suddenly spewed flames from virtually all of its openings. Fuel tanks ruptured, and we know they have poor damage control. Jesus. As she watched, some of the flames fell down to the water rather than rise in the air, and she knew those flames were wrapped around people. She shifted her gaze to the right—
—to be blinded by a searing white light from up the fjord. Hård ripped her NVGs off, blinking away painful spots. When her vision cleared, she looked down the fjord and saw a sheet of fire spreading across the water where the lead amphib had been. A Ghost had hit its magazine, and the ship was simply gone. Need to work up an award for whoever flew that drone, she thought, just as a tall black shape cut in front of the pool of flame. It was the last amphib, burning in more places than she could count, but clearly still under control and just as clearly, its captain was sprinting to shore to give the embarked naval infantry a fighting chance. Hård put her NVGs back on in time to see smaller black shapes speeding from the ship’s stern. In an act of true desperation, the Soviets were launching their landing ships while the amphib was still at flank speed.
Then the Marines’ next defensive layer opened up. Carl Gustavs lanced across the water, Javelins arced up and then back down. More flames blossomed across the landing flotilla until it looked like fire had replaced water within the fjord. The last amphib charged toward the shore without slowing, and Hård guessed that it was no longer under human control either—this collision would kill or cripple anyone left alive on board that inferno. From her distant post, the sound of the warship crunching into rock sounded like a thousand empty oils drums being tossed around in a giant’s dryer. Then the ship simply sat, and burned. Just like that, it was over.
Her handheld vibrated. Hård looked at the screen. The number combination indicated it was a valid contact in the MAGTF C2 network, but she didn’t recognize it. She swiped to answer.
“Colonel Hård?” The voice was a faint quaver. “Colonel Hard? Ma’am?” Hård had to say “yes” several times before the answer finally registered with the caller. When it did, the caller muttered something indistinguishable, and Hård finally placed the voice.
“Captain Rhys? Why the hell are you calling me directly—“
“They’re all dead, ma’am,” Rhys replied softly. “They’re all dead, and we need you back here, and they’re all dead…”
It was several minutes before Hård could get Rhys to say anything else.
Hesseng and Kirkenes Lufthavn were smoldering heaps, though at least the airport had enough unbroken tarmac for an Osprey to land. Hård waited for the aircraft to shut down before stepping off the tail ramp, dreading the revelations to come. She walked toward the pitifully small field hospital the Norwegians had erected for survivors on the far side of the airfield.
Rhys’ bed was close to the door flap. Hård pulled up a folding chair and sat down. They looked wordlessly at each other for a few moments, with Hård finally breaking the silence.
“The general got his close fight,” Rhys said softly. “He thought their air would be grounded by the storm, and they would have to come up the highway into Hesseng. Our artillery would pound them on the way in, and then we’d have the urban tank battle that…” Rhys trailed off.
“That would prove Ricci right,” Hård finished. Rhys nodded.
“They killed our guns with rockets first. BM-30s and Tornados.” Rhys half-sobbed. “The Soviets know this ground, they live next to it. They know where you can put towed artillery and where you can’t. We were too far away to shoot back and too slow to move out of the way. Then they moved closer and did the same to Hesseng. They didn’t kill many of our tanks, just destroyed all the buildings so we couldn’t move. And when the weather broke, Tu-22s put cluster bombs on everything still standing.” Rhys paused again. “Then they came up the highway. Not many, but enough to…make their point. They drove right up to our stuck tanks and the rubble on our fighting positions, and pulled those Marines out who were still alive and…you saw the YouTube videos?” Hård nodded silently. She’d watched them on the flight over. The crew chiefs had kindly loaned her a rag to wipe up the vomit afterward. Ricci had gotten the close fight he wanted; close enough, as the Soviet videos showed, to put bullets in the back of Marines’ heads.
Rhys was silently weeping now. Hård stayed with the captain until weeping gave way to exhausted sleep, and then stood up to leave. On tables at the back of the field hospital were a number of body bags awaiting temporary burial. One lay on a separate table, a strip of bright yellow tape stuck to its side, with “Ricci” scrawled on it in black letters. Hård did not look at it on the way out.
“—retired generals expected at today’s hearings on the recent skirmish in the High North. Viewers might recall that yesterday’s hearings were interrupted by protestors, several of whom were later identified as family members of Marines executed by Soviet forces in the Norwegian town of Hesseng. Protestors displayed several of the horrifying images we have seen of shell-shocked Marines being shot at point-blank range by the Soviets, and, well, listen to the replay here as the protestors were removed: ‘Was that close enough, general? The Soviets got close and my son is dead, was that close enough, are you happy now—’”
Major Ian T. Brown currently serves as the operations officer at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare at Marine Corps University, Quantico. He is a contributor to previous CIMSEC Fiction Weeks, and has also discussed military fiction and wargaming on the Sea Control podcast. The views expressed here are in a personal capacity and do not reflect the views of the Krulak Center, Marine Corps University, the United States Marine Corps, or any other agency of the U.S. Government.
Featured Image: “War Ship” by Romain Laforet via Artstation.