By Major Brian Kerg, USMC
July 10th, 203X. Expeditionary Advanced Base (EAB) Itbayat, Philippines. 156 km from Taiwan.
First Lieutenant Stephanie ‘John Paul’ Jones stood in the company command post with her platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant Billy Wickem. They were both trying to ignore the stifling humidity that wrapped around their woodland cammies like a hot blanket. The company command post (CP) consisted only of cammie netting tied to trees, a map hanging from five-fifty cord, MRE boxes, and a High Frequency (HF) Low Probability of Detection (LPD) radio connected to a laptop.1 Still, it was a welcome reprieve that caught a fair amount of wind coming in off the coast despite being hidden in the tree-line.
She and her Marines had been persisting at their EAB with the rest of Charlie Company, waiting to be employed in support of the Littoral Combat Battalion for a month. Her hair, rolled in a moto-bun, was starting to get crusty. She wondered how the company commander might react if she asked if she could shave her head or cut it to male high-and-tight grooming standards, both to better cool off and break the monotony for her platoon.
But more than that, the sheer boredom of waiting for their shot was eating the morale of her Marines. Alpha Company was slinging enhanced naval strike missiles at People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) ships across the area of operations, and Bravo Company was cruising around in Mark VI patrol boats, boarding and disabling or sinking People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAF-MM) craft. Alpha and Bravo were racking up notches on their belts. Meanwhile, ‘Check-in-the-Box’ Charlie Company, which covered down on all the other mission essential tasks for their battalion, was still kicking rocks in this godforsaken jungle. Her platoon, which owned the expeditionary mine warfare mission set, didn’t seem to have much of a place in the defense of Taiwan.
A rustle in the brush caught Stephanie’s ear, snapping her from her reverie. Captain Phan stepped out of the jungle and into the CP, followed by his operations chief, Gunny Malone. The skipper, it seemed, was omnipresent, constantly cutting through the network of covered trails, checking in on every platoon day after day, night after night, reminding the Marines that above all else they were there to “persist forward indefinitely!,” a hallmark of Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO).2
“Lieutenant, Staff Sergeant,” Pham said, smiling and nodding at each of them. “Glad you came so quickly. How’s your platoon holding up?”
“Oh, sir, you know,” Stephanie said, trying to match Pham’s alacrity. “Persisting forward.”
“Indefinitely…” Wickem added, a blunt, tired punctuation.
“Sounds like they’re getting comfortable in the routine,” Malone said, grinning. “Maybe we’ll have to kick ‘em off the island.”
Stephanie raised an eyebrow, glancing from Malone to Pham. “Sir?”
“It’s your platoon’s lucky day, Jones,” Pham said. He tapped on the radio. “You’ve got a mission.”
Stephanie’s heart beat rapidly in her chest, and she fought back a smile, maintaining her bearing. “The platoon’s ready for anything, sir.”
Malone stood in front of the map, and everyone closed in around him. As he briefed them, he tapped at each point on the map. “Here’s us, at our EAB in Itbayat,” he said. “About 150 clicks north of us is Taiwan. When China launched their operation to ‘reclaim’ the island, Taiwan fought back hard. Flooding the Taiwan Strait with mines and surrounding the island with mobile maritime minefields has been the lynchpin of their defense. They can remotely open the minefields to allow shipping to reach the island, then close the fields to keep China out. The PRC didn’t anticipate how long it would take to clear these fields, or that mining would sink more of their ships than any other weapon system in the fight.3 This is what bought our task force time to deploy to the AO.”
“Washington, of course,” Pham said, “isn’t looking to escalate this into a full-blown war with China. If that happens, we all lose. We’re just here to support Taiwan.”
“Right,” Morales said. “And supporting Taiwan means keeping them in the fight. China can’t break through to Taiwan, so they’re looking to blockade Taiwan instead.” He traced a line connecting Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines.4 “Taiwan’s holding their own within their territorial waters, but they can’t cover the international waters. Chinese ships can hook around and cast a wide net. So, the Coalition has declared an exclusion zone, here.” He traced another line between Indonesia and Taiwan, crossing the Bashi Channel. “Any Chinese ships that try to break through it are fair game, so they can’t effect a blockade. ‘Fair game’ so far has been blasting them with rocket artillery from our EABs.”5
“Sea denial 101,” Stephanie said.6
“But there’s just too many targets,” Pham said. “They have more pawns on the board than we do, and they don’t care how many get killed. We’re starting to run dry on missiles and it’s going to be a minute before our battalion gets resupplied. Hell, at this rate, the entire regiment could go Winchester before we know it.”7
“And we come in where, exactly?” Stephanie asked. Malone tapped the map between Taiwan and Itbayat. “The Bashi Channel. You’re going to mine it.”
Wickem cleared his throat. “I thought it was already mined. The Navy’s had an Upward Falling Payload at the sea floor there since before things kicked off.”8
“They did, until the PRC detected and cleared the field,” Pham said. “Which is good, because they won’t expect another minefield, and won’t be looking for one inserted like this.”
“Lay the mines, then hold tight at Mavulis Island and control your minefields from there,” Malone said. “Signature management is key. Communicate by exception only. Turn radios on only to receive at our designated comms windows.”9
“And remember,” Pham said.
“Persist forward,” Stephanie said, indulging in a half-smile.
“Indefinitely…” Wickem muttered.
The Bashi Channel
Stephanie sat in the pilothouse of the modified Mark VI patrol boat, staring out at the waters of the Bashi Channel. While usually acting as a maritime, mobile command post for her platoon, their task required most of the boat’s capabilities be avoided. With GPS and other electronic means of navigation disabled to avoid detection, her navigator, Corporal Schwab, was plotting their location on a map using a compass, ruler, and manual calculations. The current plot showed them about halfway between Itbayat, far to the south, and Taiwan’s Orchid Island to the northwest.
“It’s about that time,” Wickem said, looking from the chart to his watch. Stephanie nodded, and stepped out of the pilothouse to watch the payload get delivered.
Sergeant Ortega was at the boat’s stern, watching his team finish preparations of the mine racks. Twenty smooth black orbs were in each of the ten racks, glistening in the noon-day sun.
“Wouldn’t it be awful if Supply screwed up the order and these were bowling balls instead of mines?” Ortega asked, eyeing the racks.
“Bowling balls or mobile mines, all I care is that they can give us a strike,” Stephanie said. “Launch ‘em.”
“Launch!” Ortega ordered.
“Launching!” his Marines replied. They opened the rack gate and flipped a switch. As the boat sailed forward, the mines rolled one after the other into the water with a heavy splash.10 They immediately vanished into the water, following their algorithms to spread out, submerse to the correct depths, and stand by. If any targets met the strike criteria, the mines would close with the craft and detonate. Beyond that, they would sit idly by, in receive-only mode, waiting for an operator to give them the command to move to another location.11
Their mines released, Stephanie eyeballed her watch, giving her other squads operating just in sight to her north and south ample time to deliver their payloads in turn. Satisfied, she nodded at her radio operator, Lance Corporal Kim.
“Confirm delivery for me, would you, Kim?” Stephanie asked.
“You know, Ma’am,” Kim said, pulling a pair of flags out of her pack, “my recruiter told me going into Comm was going to let me work with cutting edge technology. You know, set me up for success in the outside world.” She stood, raised the flags, and sent a semaphore message to the two other patrol boats. She lowered her arms, glanced at Stephanie, and held the flags up helplessly. “This is BS.”
Stephanie couldn’t help a smile. “I guess if it doesn’t get us killed, it’s cutting edge. ‘Everything that’s old is new again,’ right?”
Kim grinned, and looked back to the horizon. “You’re starting to sound like my dad,” Ortega snorted. “If the lieutenant is our dad, does that mean Staff Sergeant is our mom?” Kim shook her head. “I always imagined Staff Sergeant as more of a drunk uncle.” Stephanie crossed her arms and forced a smile, reflecting on their banter while they set about emplacing their killing field. Was this gallows humor? Anxiety? Or were they too relaxed, taking their eye off the ball?
Kim squinted, reading the flags sending her a message back. “Payloads delivered.” Stephanie nodded. “Let’s go home.”
Kim waved her flags again, signaling all to return to base, then tucked the flags back in her pack. As her patrol boat turned around, three missiles shot across the sky.12
“Theirs or ours?” Ortega asked.
“Ours,” Stephanie said, recognizing their signature from live-fire EABO exercises at Marine Corps Littoral Combat Center-Hawaii. “Looks like Alpha Company is staying busy.”
“Hope that’s three good kills,” Ortega said.
Stephanie shook her head. “We need a three-to-one saturation ratio to make sure we beat most Chinese ship defenses. It’s probably just one target. And its why our magazines are running dry so fast.”
Wickem stepped up behind her, watching the missiles fly. “And bad timing for us. That’s going to bring a whole lot of sensors looking in our direction. Alpha’s shooters are going to scoot to a new island while we head back to Mavulis.”
Stephanie nodded, seeing the missiles now as a bad omen. “We’ll have to go full dark when we get back. Let’s just focus on the next step.”
EAB Mavulis Island. 98 km from Taiwan.
With their boats hidden under signature dampening blankets and the Marines out of sight in the small structure abandoned by the Philippine military at the start of hostilities, Stephanie knew she should have felt confident in their concealment.13 Out of sight, out of mind, she told herself. But a lingering doubt nagged at her gut.
Sitting in an old fishing hut, she was passing the time by playing a game of Go on a small, portable nine-by-nine square board against Wickem. She looked at the black and white stones, mulled her strategy of laying the pieces to keep her black stones connected while simultaneously encircling Wickem’s white stones.
This is how it all fits together, she thought. EAB-hosted precision fires and mine warfare. Sea denial is a game of Go.
The crackling of her HF-LPD radio snapped her back into focus. Then the implications of being contacted crashed against her like a wave.14
Scrambling to the radio, she snagged the handset. Wickem ran to the window, shouted at the Marines to stand-to, then hurried back to his lieutenant.
“What’s the scoop, Ma’am?”
“We’ve been compromised,” she said. “Maritime militia are closing in on Mavulis.”
“How many boats?”
Stephanie’s face was grim. “A lot.”15
“Do we have time to bounce?” Wickem asked.
Stephanie shook her head. “There’s too many and they’re too close.”
Wickem grabbed his rifle from its spot against the wall. “Guess we’re fighting until the cavalry arrives or until the bitter end, then. I’ll get the platoon to their fighting positions.”
“Wickem,” Stephanie said, her mouth widening into a macabre smile.
Wickem sighed. “You’re going to say it, aren’t you, ‘John Paul’?”
Stephanie grinned. “’Don’t give up the ship!’”
“We won’t, but we might just sink with it,” Wickem said, shaking his head, then stepped toward the door. Stephanie held up a hand, her eyes wide, illuminated with a sudden thought.
“Wait. Get me Ortega first.”
Moments later, most of the platoon was covered and concealed in fighting positions with weapons oriented out to sea toward the incoming ships. But Stephanie was on one knee, next to Ortega, over a rugged laptop connected to a receiver-transmitter. The laptop showed a map of their position at Mavulis Island and the surrounding waters. She pointed to a spot about a kilometer out from the beachhead. “There,” she said. “Right there.”
Ortega looked from the laptop to Stephanie. “Are you sure? Sending the signal will blow our cover.”
“It’s already blown,” Stephanie said. “We don’t keep using hand and arm signals after we’ve started shooting. We’re in a firefight already, it just looks different.” Ortega nodded and entered the command. Then, they waited.
Soon, a collection of PAF-MM ships were visible on the horizon, a motley crew of trawlers that Stephanie knew didn’t spend any time trawling. Through her binoculars, she could see medium machine guns on gun mounts, and crews wielding small arms. Stephanie stopped counting at twenty boats, estimating there were at least a hundred.16
“That… is a lot of boats,” Ortega said. “How can they mass so many? So fast? For such a small objective?”
“’Quantity has a quality all its own,’” Stephanie quoted.
“Is this going to work?” Ortega asked.
Stephanie slapped her hand on his shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “It worked in our war games,” she lied. “It’ll work here.”
Ortega glanced at Stephanie and smirked. “We never wargamed this, Ma’am. But thanks for trying to keep things positive.” He winked. “We won’t give up the ship.” Stephanie slapped his shoulder again and laughed, and Ortega laughed with her.
They turned their heads to watch the approaching boats, and their laughter died on the wind. Their smiles slid from their faces, which became stone masks, mere witnesses to the next moves of the game.
They saw the explosion before they heard it. The lead boat was consumed in a fiery blast, contrasted by the arcing splash of seawater that burst into the air. Then a second boat, a third, and a fourth were struck. Boat fragments and sailors were sent in all directions. Five, six, seven explosions, then too many together to count. The rest of the trawlers turned, broke, and fled from Mavulis Island.
“Should we pursue?” Ortega asked. “These aren’t just mines, they’re munitions. We can chase those boats down and strike them as easily as return the mines to their original position.”
Stephanie shook her head. “We need to give the Chinese an off-ramp. We can’t escalate. Let them run, make them reconsider.”
Some of the sailors in the water were still moving, thrashing to stay afloat. “Aren’t their guys coming back to scoop them out of the water?” Ortega asked.
“It doesn’t look like it,” Stephanie said, her voice a near whisper.
Ortega watched, confused. “Why won’t they?”
“They don’t need to,” Stephanie said, bile rising in her throat.17
Ortega was breathing, hard, confused. “Then will we?”
Stephanie wondered the same thing, afraid to listen too closely to her conscience. Wickem stepped up behind them. “Only if we want to die. They only sent the militia to try and get some of us alive. Now they’ll just rain missiles down on us. Those aren’t POWs. They’re a trap.” The surviving sailors started disappearing beneath the waves, one by one, toward Davy Jones’ locker.
Stephanie felt a hollowness opening up within her, watching the drowning men. Then she glanced at Ortega, imagined him in the water instead, face down and surrounded by the burning remnants of their patrol boat.
“Staff Sergeant’s right,” she said, clearing her throat and steeling herself. “Let’s get off this rock and bed down at our alternate position.”
Soon, the platoon was sailing away from Mavulis Island. Stephanie watched Ortega issue another command to the mobile minefield, moving the remaining mines back to their original blocking position in the Bashi Channel.
As they departed, she forced herself to watch the burning boats and the drowned men, and imagined that the black, oily smoke rising to the sky was a burnt offering to King Neptune, one mariner’s prayer that the war might end before it got any worse.
Brian Kerg is a Non-Resident Fellow at Marine Corps University’s Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity, and a Military Fellow with the College of William and Mary’s Project for International Peace and Stability. He is currently serving as the Fleet Amphibious Communications Officer, U.S. Fleet Forces Command. Follow or contact him at @BrianKerg.
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Featured Image: “The Jungle Base” by Tom Lee (via Artstation)