By Evan D’Alessandro
The sea was bright in the Strait of Hormuz as the tanker cut a broad swath though the deep blue water. Not a cotton ball of a cloud dotted the sky, not that it would have mattered to the radars that had been bolted onto the tanker’s superstructure a month prior in Djibouti. An anthill of men and women had descended onto the tanker for two days, installing equipment and tuning it for its lethal purpose.
Onboard a pair of MRZR vehicles, ladened down with the many dishes of the LMADIS anti-drone jamming system and the newly attached lasers were lashed to the foredeck, while two JLTV-AA vehicles with the guns and missiles of their anti-air turrets sat close by. Fat cables with thick rubber coatings to prevent seawater corrosion snaked back aft to connect with the newly bolted on radars. An intermodal-shipping container, painted with its dull green anti-corrosion paint waited silently with its SeaRAM missiles, sitting atop in poised patience. Most importantly were four containerized drone swarms perched at the edges of the ship in their hives, silently daring any Iranian to be foolish enough to attempt an attack.
With the war with China driving markets onto a knife’s edge, it was only by stringent measures that the world economy had not plunged to its death like Icarus. Integral to preventing the long fall was keeping the oil flowing. Combat and convoying was consuming every warship available, so now the Marine SHEILD teams were needed to pick up the slack. The SHEILD (Ship Held, Embarked, Integrated Logistics Defense) team was a concept developed mere months before the war had started, after a series of public wargames had embarrassed the Navy by showing that America couldn’t protect its critical commercial shipping using ships alone. The idea had been to take a platoon of Marines, and equip them to protect a large ship from missile and drone attacks. Now this idea would be tested for real.
The SHEILD team had embarked on the rusting tanker in the pre-dawn glow before the tanker slipped its line. The Marines were still tying down their vehicles and installing the chaff dispensers when the ship had begun vibrating as the waves hit its bow, the rising sun cutting long shadows across the deck. The Lieutenant had not been happy that they had not managed to secure a helicopter with its APKWS anti-swarm system, designed explicitly for killing Iranian fast attack boats. Resources were stretched thin, and the SHEILD concept could theoretically work without it. It would have to work without it.
As they headed for deeper water, their two anti-sub, anti-mine Sea Hunter unmanned surface vehicles ran back and forth in front of the tanker, not unlike small children during a warm days recess. At this range one could make out the large, 8-rotored drones held on each of the Sea Hunters back decks, ready to deploy a radar dummy that looked like the tanker should they come under missile attack. The tanker itself held four more of the large octocopters, plus several jamming pods. Theoretically a JLTV-AA could provide point defense with its gun but the software upgrade allowing for it had been bogged down in development hell for months.
One hundred miles up in low earth orbit, the tiny, boxy, CubeSat-like surveillance satellites silently watched as the Iranians slipped their berths all along the coast, leaving with pale white wakes. They continued to impartially monitor the area, their number allowing almost near real-time satellite imagery to the tanker below.
The Lieutenant had seen the imagery and had a sense of the potential battlefield. He was thinking about it as he looked at the ship through his VR goggles, sizing up the old tanker. With bleary eyes, he pulled the goggles off and took another sip of coffee. It had been four hours since he had been awoken and he was on his third cup of coffee. He scraped the powdered creamer off the side of the chipped cup. The tanker’s company emblem that decorated the cup was faded from years of use. “Forget that oil out there,” he thought to himself as gazed into his coffee cup and the caffeine started to hit him, “coffee is the real black gold.” After a moment more of quiet contemplation, he turned and with a cool voice ordered the ship to general quarters.
General quarters was maintained as the day wore on, the sea breeze, and golden sun, long forgotten in the tanker’s bridge. When the Sea Hunters had found a contact and ran it off, it only made the Lieutenant more nervous. Satellite imagery was confirming different movements in the area. There were several other tankers nearby, some making a run for ports before the Iranians decided to attack, some with SHEILD teams on them waiting for the inevitable. Iranian speedboats had darted back to their rocky alcoves and within an hour of leaving, reared their heads in another political threat to shake up Washington in a political power game, the Lieutenant thought. He had been ready to stand down the team, but then the Iranians had slipped berth again probably having finished refueling after their stunt earlier in the morning, and the satellites said there were more than he wanted coming toward him.
The missile alarm suddenly blared, though it was no surprise as the satellites had seen the shore-based anti-ship missile (ASM) launchers being set up days before. The tanker and the SHEILD team on board had been moving with four of their drone decoys up, and two recharging at a time. Within seconds the airwaves were filled with a thick snowfall of noise as the Lieutenant ordered the jamming pods turned on. With his next breath he ordered the other two drone decoys aloft, and they began to detach from their recharging stations and lumber skyward, adding to the cacophony.
The Lieutenant watched with an internal pride as his Marines prepared for combat. One corporal was getting the newest satellite data, with the projected positions of the Iranian boats: straight on a collision course toward him and his crew. The Lieutenant began to coolly gather his information and prepared to send it up the chain of command. As he looked out on the ocean, he toggled his VR goggles to “hostile” making the Iranian light orange outlines turn a blood red. They were now at war in this part of the Strait, even if the politicians hadn’t officially declared it. The software marked the change to ‘Hostile’ and shunted the message, popping up on the tablet of the communications sergeant. The Lieutenant preempted the question the sergeant was about to ask, and confirmed the change in hostilities that everyone onboard already knew. The sergeant signed her name, pressed confirm and in a millisecond the message was encrypted, bounced up to a satellite, then to another one, and then back down into Washington where it was decrypted. The president, seeing the changes on the Situation Map, sucked in air though clenched teeth, as more and more reports came in from the tankers in the Strait. Today was not going to be a good day.
The Iranian anti-ship missiles themselves cared little for what was going on in Washington and closed on the tanker with vicious ferocity, having left their ground-based launchers for the freedom of the sky, roaring over the head of the boats far below with a shriek. They came over the horizon only to be confronted with four contacts, unable to tell the octocopter drone decoys apart from the real target. The missiles, unsure of which to target, deliberated for a moment and split off in their different directions. The ECM managed to clear out some more of the missiles, the computer noting better than expected results and sending off the data to be analyzed by AI later. The bright, burning plume of chaff claimed another, leaving two missiles for the containerized SeaRAM. The SeaRAM waited patiently for the missiles to come into range, before letting its own missiles slip loose like over-eager dogs of war. The first of the SeaRAM missiles claimed one Iranian missile with a magnificent blast and a loud fiery bloom. The second SeaRAM claimed its victim too close for comfort, with chunks of red hot missile debris impacting the water meters from the tanker in white, fountain-like plumes of mist.
With the most immediate threats over, the Lieutenant watched as the Iranian fast attack boats came in next. Almost soundlessly the drone containers on the tanker deck began spewing drones like an agitated wasps’ nest. A cold, angry, buzz permeated the air as quadcopters rose into the air, swirling into a fierce cloud. Far away, the Iranian boats were launching their own drones, and both swarms rose upward and began to slip over the waves into a clash of swarms.
The drones skimmed over the wave tops, flitting from crest to crest. The Lieutenant selected the ‘Defense’ command on his goggles, drawing a line on the VR map that his drones would hold to prevent the Iranian drones from getting to his tanker. He then zoomed in on his own onrushing swarm to inspect it; in front were the Charlies fitted with a downward and upward facing fragmentation mine. The mines themselves ended up doing very little in combat, as the enemy’s drones steered well clear, wary of the large area of effect that could bring down several drones at once. But that was the point. The Charlies would funnel enemy drones into the waiting arms of the Alphas. In addition to the small plastic explosive charge every drone carried for a final suicidal rush, Alphas were fitted with a small gun, to take on other drones. The gun was fixed to a small servo below the bottom of the craft, but for the most part the drone had to turn its whole body to lay its gun onto the target. It was the Alphas who would be there to shred the drones dodging the Charlies. The least important in the air-to-air swarm warfare were the Bravos, whose bodies contained extra plastic explosive designed to be used against larger targets. But in a pinch a Bravo would bring another drone to a fiery death by sacrificing itself. The Bravos sat patiently in their containers on the tanker, looking out onto the cloudless sky from within their metal confinement, as the rest of their compatriots were already flung into the battle.
High above, two F-15E Strike Eagles had made the trip at full afterburner, departing from their faux CAP zone to cover the convoy. Beneath their wings, long, white stubby pods glinted in the sun, as out of them fell drone after drone in a steely rain. Their arms folded in to maximize their downward velocity they gained speed with a certainty only gravity permits. An experienced observer would note that the drones were a mix of stock Charlies and Air Force Bravos with a shorter range and more explosives, but at the speed they were falling they soon became nothing more than a blur. The two F-15s turned, heading back to base; their payload accelerating downward toward the Iranians below.
The American drone swarm met the Iranian drone swarm head on, tiny quadcopter blades breaking into glittering shards of metal as the brutal melee began. With the algorithms controlling each swarm, every move was fully thought out, having been tested time after time, in billions of simulations using the most expensive AI the country could afford. Money might not be able to buy love, but it could buy CPU cycles. To the humans watching the clash there was nothing magnificent about it. If one was in line of sight, the melee resembled a blender of metal, all the AI-controlled intricacies lost to the human eye. But the American swarm from the tanker was serving its purpose, as the F-15s’ swarm fell increasingly downward.
While the drone melee continued far in front of the Iranian fast boats, 100 meters above the boats the air-dropped drones deployed their stubby wings and rotors as they hit the Iranian’s anti-drone jamming. Almost all of drones stopped and whirled, switching on their cameras, as below on the Iranian boats alarms stared to go off. The few drones that had been overwhelmed by the Iranian’s EW continued downward, miniature limbs undeployed, tiny geysers of water marking their deaths in the warm blue sea. Their remaining companions spent fractions of a second processing. Their tiny microchips whizzed as their detection software looked at the boats below, speeding towards the tanker, waiting with their missiles until they were sure they would kill it.
From their overlook of the boats, the air-dropped drones flashed their lights at one another in a final unjammable communication to each other and broke off in ones, twos, threes, and fours, and dove on the boats. The Charlies hit seconds before the Bravos, using their mines to clear the smaller boats of personnel, leaving them dead in the water. The Bravos came in a second behind. While the explosive each Bravo contained was generally not enough to destroy the boats entirely, it was enough to disable weaponry and critical systems, or, in some cases to set off munitions in a chain reaction. Knowing where to strike was important, as each boat’s digital blueprints had been easily stolen by a hacker, allowing hundreds of thousands of computer simulations to predetermine the best way to destroy, cripple, and maim Iran’s fleet of small craft. Unceremoniously the drones dove like a hungry wolf pack on unguarded sheep.
The Lieutenant watched from the bridge through his VR headset, filtering out the swarm-on-swarm melee in time to watch as the Air-Force Bravos engulfed the Iranian boats and encased them in sparks of flame. In the panic, what Iranian boats hadn’t been disabled, destroyed, or swept of sailors, fired what few missiles were still usable, and then turned tail and went for home. None were stupid enough to want to try to close to gun range with the rotor-whirling melee in front of them. The missiles were smaller than the shore based ones that had passed the dronefight earlier and had signaled the start of the attack; they plunged toward the tanker. The ECM, chaff, and drone decoys managed to pull most of them off, leaving two to the SeaRAMs. Once again its missiles leapt forth to intercept their Iranian counterparts. The Lieutenant watched for a brief moment as the first pair collided and then a heart-stopping moment later as the second one missed. Unburdened by concerns of mortality the SeaRAM threw out another missile, hoping to intercept the incoming ASM before it plowed into the tanker, which would set it alight like an oversized Zippo. Inside the Lieutenant’s goggles, the missiles track converged towards the tanker and he screamed out the order to brace. The two missiles collided with a roar that caused those onboard the tanker to duck. Shards of metal cartwheeled across the deck, one smashing into the carriage of a JLTV, ripping a tire to ribbons, and immobilizing it, while a second piece went careening into a bridge window sending glass flying across the deck and into an unlucky Private who let out a high-pitched scream. The tanker now bore scars where the paint and rust had been striped off by shrapnel, revealing long silver marks, but no fireball came to immolate those onboard. The Lieutenant screamed for the corpsman as his mind turned back to the battle unfolding before him.
The Iranian drones sensed they were outmatched at this point. With their number dwindling, the algorithm decided to make a break for the tanker. The Iranian drones blinked at one another furiously, and switched to a more aggressive stance designed to allow some of their kin to slip through towards the tanker. The losses would be heavy, but they had a chance to strike the ship. A warning popped up in the Lieutenant’s goggles, as some of the Iranian swarm began to break through. They were several hundred meters out from the tanker when they began dropping like oversized metallic flies as the LMADIS’s jamming overwhelmed them. The Lieutenant watched as the young Marine in front of him began slewing the LMADIS’s laser back and forth with his controller. Trained by years of video games, the young man began to place shot after shot into the oncoming drones, cutting them down to size. The Lieutenant entered the action too, selecting his containers and issuing the command.
Like a hive of bees that has just realized a bear is coming to rip apart their home, the Lieutenant ordered the Bravos, still inside the containers, to intercept the incoming swarm. Unlike their Air Force equivalents that had shattered the Iranian fast boats minutes ago, the Marine versions had less explosives to weigh them down, making them more nimble and maneuverable, and most importantly, better able to intercept incoming drones. At four drones a second, the containers began flinging them aloft like clay pigeons. In the salty air they dipped, stabilized, and turned on a suicide run toward the oncoming swarm.
At close range an explosion is a truly terrifying thing, doubly so when it is the product of two drones closing in on one another at high speed, resulting in a bright fireball that sends razor blades of metal flying haphazardly. From where the Lieutenant watched though his VR headset the last ditch defense of the tanker by his Bravos looked like so many children’s sparklers fizzling out on the Fourth of July across the wavetops. Judging by the reported number of drone casualties, his Bravos had overwhelmed the enemy. The last of his Bravos kicked aloft by the launcher were treated to a beautifully cloudless sky. Their tiny brains processed the incoming information: the area around the tanker was cleared of hostiles, and they began to skip across the water toward the retreating Iranians. The Bravos would chase the retreating Iranian boats to the limit of their range before returning with the rest of the swarm to the tanker and to their hives, to recharge and prepare for the next attack.
The Lieutenant joined in the small cheer that filled the bridge, before it dissipated into the warm sea air. As the drones began to come in from the brutal melee, and drip back into their hives, far off on the horizon he could see dark, angry smoke, clawing its way toward the sky violently. He and his team had been fortunate. Fate had not been so kind to others like him.
The president looked up from the video sent from the Lieutenant’s VR goggles to the report on the old oak desk in front of him, and he once again sucked air in through clenched teeth. 12 tankers attacked, two lost, three damaged. Some of the tension was lost as he looked at the Iranian’s losses. They had been steep, if not in men, then in material. A large chunk of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Navy would need to be repaired, though the three-letter agencies were still collecting intelligence on that. The Iranians had underestimated the SHEILD teams, but they had not proved to be the aegis he had wished, but nothing ever did. He turned toward the rest of the group in the room, “All right ladies and gentlemen, time to get on the news and keep the oil prices steady.” Men and women walked out with purpose, some to waiting cars to the big news studios, others to dark back rooms where humans and bots would start to influence public perception on social media. As the room emptied out, the president sighed and stared at the picture in the Lieutenant’s file. The uniform sharply defined intelligent eyes and roughcast face. It had been a long time since he had been in the same place. He rubbed his arm where the piece of shrapnel had cut through years ago, severing muscle and smashing bone. It had always hurt on cold days.
Far across the warm blue of the Persian Gulf, the Lieutenant looked at the satellite imagery of the Iranians redeploying ASMs and aircraft to attack once again. “What are Washington and the president going to do about this mess?” he said to the vast expanse of ocean in front of him. He shuddered and let his musings be taken by the breeze. He absentmindedly looked down at his left hand, where a tiny dot of red had grown unnoticed. With a slight shake in his hand from the adrenaline he reached down and plucked out a metal sliver and held it up against the blue sky, a drop of red falling from it and splattering on the floor below. It would not be the last drop of blood shed that day.
Evan D’Alessandro is a student at Luther College studying Environmental Science, Data Science, and International Studies. He enjoys military history, science fiction, and wargaming. He hopes to study and develop wargames for the military and policymakers in the future. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Featured Image: “Battle Quad” by David Knapp via Artstation