THE PHONY WAR
There were times when it was right to ask for permission, and times when it was better to ask for forgiveness. Devlin figured this was one of the latter. She knew that Carl Williams’ intelligence report was on its way to NSA. She’d made sure it was also copied to the CIA and FBI heads of station in Moscow, and her own channels in State. She wanted it widely read, and well understood. HOLMES analysis had convinced her this wasn’t a fight about controlling a strategic waterway, this was a fight about the very survival of the Russian Federation and what they were willing to do to secure it.
That was a whole other war than the one they were preparing to fight. Devlin wasn’t privy to the plans the Pentagon were putting together, but she was pretty sure they just involved putting a few hundred Rangers or Airborne troops in the air, landing them on Saint Lawrence and taking the island back. It wouldn’t be easy, they’d have to win air superiority to get the troops in, which also meant dealing with Russian naval assets in the Strait.
But that was the purpose of the Enterprise task force, now on its way north from San Diego. At the same time she was due to meet with Kelnikov, a media announcement would be going out announcing the task force intention to reinforce ‘freedom of navigation’ in the Strait, but the signal to Russia should be clear. ‘We are going to be taking back our island.’ Knowing what she knew, Devlin realized Russia was not likely to be spooked by the approach of the Enterprise. They had probably already planned how they would deal with an intervention like it.
If HOLMES and Williams were right, then Russia was already at war, it just hadn’t declared it yet.
Foreign Minister Kelnikov had organized to meet Devlin at an office inside the Foreign Ministry building on Moscow's Smolenskaya-Sennaya Square. As with everything in Devlin’s world, such meetings always had an element of predictable theatre. The Minister had kept her waiting an unreasonably long time, even given the state of relations. The seating was arranged so that she was uncomfortably perched on an ornate 18th century chair that seemed to have been stuffed with porcupine quills. It was mid-morning by the time the Minister arrived, a bright sunlit day, so she was of course arranged with the sun in her eyes and his face in shadow. He had insisted she come alone, and he was flanked with a phalanx of Foreign Ministry officials. It was so predictably pathetic.
But he wouldn’t have taken the meeting if he didn’t have something to tell her. She doubted he was there to listen, but she hoped to change that.
Adjusting himself behind a long low desk, Kelnikov smiled expansively, “Madame Ambassador I am terribly sorry to have kept you waiting, I was in a tiresome meeting with the Prime Minister of Burundi.” Translation; this business with Saint Lawrence is not top of my agenda. Devlin smiled back at him, “Julius? Yes, I met with him yesterday.” Translation; screw you.
“To the business at hand,” Kelnikov said, one of his aides handing him some papers. “It is good our ceasefire seems to be holding. A slip now by either side could have global repercussions neither of us wants.”
“Indeed,” Devlin replied carefully. “And on that point, I have been asked by the Secretary of State to convey to you once again our very simple demand, that you liberate the citizens of Saint Lawrence and withdraw your remaining forces.”
“Yes,” he affected to sound bored. “And is there another deadline accompanying this ultimatum?” He looked at the top page of the papers he had been handed. “I see you have announced you are going to try to send an aircraft carrier taskforce through the Strait. A ‘freedom of navigation’ exercise you call it. We might see it differently.”
“Oh, no, you misunderstand,” Devlin said, and paused. She was supposed to make it clear to Kelnikov that US forces were being positioned to take the island back. Together with the approach of the Enterprise task force, it was intended to force Russia’s hand and give them the opportunity to withdraw their meagre force without any further combat. Looking at Kelnikov, even in the half shadow caused by the light behind him, she could see something of the same smugness in his eyes as she saw all those weeks ago - he radiated it.
She had decided. She was going to go seriously off-script.
“That’s just media spin,” she said. “The Enterprise is actually moving into position to be able to protect us from any likelihood you might be stupid enough to attempt to invade Alaska.”
Now she had his attention. Oh, she would have paid a million dollars for video of his face as she said it. That insufferable smugness vanishing in an instant to be replaced by a horrified uncertainty.
“I am sorry?” he said. “You accuse us of…”
She reached for her own briefcase, and took out the printout she had made of HOLMES ten year forward water supply projection for the Russian Federation, the one that had been a sea of blood red. She handed it across the table, and one of Kelnikov’s aides took it, studying it with a frown before handing it to the Minister.
“You have serious leaks at the highest levels of your defense ministry,” she said, maliciously. “Clearly not everyone in your government agrees with the insanity of its leadership.”
“What is this?” Kelnikov demanded, turning the page over and back again.
“This is the future you fear, the future to which you believe the only answer is war. A near future, in which Russia finds itself without the water it needs to sustain its people and its economy.”
He threw the paper down on his desk, “This is fiction.”
“Good,” Devlin said, standing. “Minister, we are not preparing for a ‘freedom of navigation exercise’. Neither are we only preparing to take back Saint Lawrence Island, though we soon will. We stand ready to defend the Yukon River Basin and the sovereign State of Alaska against invasion, with every man, woman and weapon at our disposal.” She delivered a small, mocking bow. “The last ‘great power’ that attacked US territory was Japan, and their miscalculation resulted in their ruin. American warfighting capability has come a long way since then.”
She turned to leave, the sound of voices arguing with each other in Russian behind her as Kelnikov’s aides broke their silence. He said nothing himself.
On a whim, she turned to face the Russian delegation again but fixed her eyes on the Foreign Minister, speaking only to him, “Arkady, there is a way out of this. Russia will find it humiliating and the terms will not be favorable. But it could save millions of lives. You need water? Ask us to help.”
His glare burned through her back as she closed the door behind her. She hadn’t actually lied. Not really. She was pretty damn sure that as soon as Carl Williams report started circulating inside the State Department and Pentagon, that everything she had just said was about to be true.
Life in the age of ‘always on’ had its advantages. Perri had found that if he went up onto the roo of the gas station, his Russian radio connected automatically to a Russian military satellite communications network. So far so good. What was not so good? He could read just enough Russian from years of watching Russian TV to see the display was asking him to input a code word. But the radio also had a device connection capability, and it was more than happy to hook up to his telephone and connect him to the unencrypted world wide web. ‘Warning,’ said the text scrolling across the display, ‘Communications on this channel are not secure.’
The person he had called was a kid they met in Vancouver, who actually lived in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Alaska. He was a member of the Ta’an Kwach’an first nations tribe, called Johnny Kushniruk. Perri and Dave had agreed Johnny was the best person to call because his old man was a Mountie in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at Whitehorse, and they needed someone with a few stripes to help get their story out and tell them what the hell they should do.
When they’d convinced Johnny they weren’t messing around, and then convinced him to get his father on the line, the conversation got very serious very fast. Johnny’s father’s name was Dan Kushniruk, but he told the boys to call him Sarge.
“Are you boys safe?” was his first question.
“Yeah, no one is looking for us,” Perri told him. “Not since the missiles. They’re pretty much occupied with just staying alive now I think.”
He got the boys to walk him through what they’d done the last few weeks, their attack on the ammo dump. His main concern was for the townspeople still being held hostage.
“I’ve got photos of everything,” Perri told him. “Most of them are from long distance, up on the bluff, but we did a run to the air strip yesterday to get this radio, so we have some photos from there. I could upload them?”
“I can give you a website to send them to,” Sarge told them. “Send me everything you’ve got. Look, you have to assume that using that Russian radio isn’t safe. Someone in Gambell could be listening in next time, or someone in Russia. When you’re online, it would be pretty easy for them to track your signal down, triangulate you. If the place you are in is safe, you need to keep it safe.”
“So once you make that upload, I want you to cut the connection and never call me from there again.”
“Don’t call me from your hiding place. Never make a call from the same place twice. Keep the calls under three minutes, less than a minute would be even better.”
“Got it. Should we have a schedule or something?”
“Good thinking son, but not a fixed schedule. What’s your birthday?”
“My birthday? January 7, 2012.”
“And your friend?”
Dave leaned forward toward the mike, “November 19, 2014.”
“Right, so for the next few days you will connect only once a day at 1 pm, 7 pm, 8 pm and 12 pm, got that? That’s the numbers in your birthday. Then you follow your friend’s birthday: 11 pm, 7 pm, 8 pm and 2 pm. You get me?”
“Yeah, I get it, 20 is like 20:00 military time, so that’s 8pm,” Perri said.
“Right. It’s a pretty random pattern but easy to remember and hard for anyone to predict.”
Sarge took them through what he wanted them to report on in their next report later that day: how many civilians were being held hostage, where they were being held, whether any appeared sick or injured, and then the Russian troop numbers, how many were still in Gambell, how many body bags they had seen, how many injured, what uniforms they were wearing, what equipment they appeared to possess.
“Can you get word out to the press? We want to let people know we’re still here, we’re fighting back,” Perri told him.
“I get that,” Sarge said. “And it’s amazing, the two of you holding out this long, doing what you’ve done. But that would be suicide. Right now the best thing you have going for you is no one knows you are there.”
Private Zubkov had joined the Spetsnaz three years ago on a dare. His buddy in the 3rd Air and Air Defense Forces Command had applied, and Zubkov had told him he was crazy. A scrawny stick like him would never get through, they only took men who were totally hard core, like Zubkov.
“OK, so, you apply too, we’ll see who gets through,” his friend had said “I bet you get booted out in your first week. Mental resilience, that matters more than brawn.” He was wrong of course. You needed both. Zubkov qualified, but his buddy didn’t.
He had brawn, and he had brains. So why was he being left behind to babysit a bunch of grandparents, six small children, seven wounded Russian troopers too sick to walk and too tough to just die, and one lobotomized Captain? It wasn’t fair. He was Spetsnaz! From any height, into any hell!
The motto had stirred his blood when he first saw it. But if it hadn’t been for the dare, he probably wouldn’t have made it through. The physical tests were nothing for a boy who’d grown up on the steppes, nursed from a frozen teat. But the gung-ho idiocy of his squad members made his teeth grind - there wasn’t one of them who recognized it was Dostoyevsky the Captain was spouting. He doubted any of them had ever read anything longer than a weapons manual.
Technically, his contract had already expired. He was waiting for his release papers to come through when they’d shipped out; he’d already decided he was done with the special forces. No re-up for him. He’d saved a little money and he had a buddy in Anadyr with a fishing trawler who wanted a partner who could throw in some cash to help upgrade the boat and join the business. He figured he’d probably meet cod who were smarter than some of the guys he was serving with.
So the attraction of being Spetsnaz really started to wear off the moment the enemy started landing goddamn cruise missiles on his head. And when Sergeant Penkov had singled him out to stay behind, that was the last straw. From any height, into any hell? He didn’t realize hell could be a job as nursing assistant in a schoolhouse on a windy little island in the Arctic. To make things even more enjoyable, it was the rainy season on Saint Lawrence, with daytime temps in the low forties and night time temps close to freezing.
Sergeant Penkov had every remaining soldier out fossicking through the town and over at the airfield for the supplies they would need for the overland trek. They had to feed 20 soldiers and nearly 200 islanders for more than a week. Zubkov suddenly became worried there would be nothing left for him, let alone the wounded and his elderly captives.
Looking for the Captain the night of the attack, Zubkov stumbled across a small shack down on the dock that looked like it was used by the local supermarket to store dry goods. Rice, pasta, sugar, flour, canned fruit and vegetables, packet soups and bottled water. So he’d spent a morning with a wheelbarrow ferrying it over to the school while no one was looking, and hiding it in a utility cupboard.
It would keep him fed for a few weeks. But it wasn’t anywhere near enough for all of them.
Right now, he had his feet up on a desk in what must have been the school master’s office, which was a grand name for a little hideaway at the back of a classroom with a desk and a filing cabinet. They’d put a transceiver dish on the roof, run a cable down to the transmitter on the desk beside his boots and wired it into one of the undamaged wind turbines. The transmitter was a United Instrument Manufacturing Corporation M01 base set, through which field units could send and receive signals at distances up to 600 km. It was their lifeline to Russia, their link to their comrades in Savoonga.
But it wasn’t portable. It sucked too much juice.
“This is your order of priority,” the Sergeant had told him. “Your own well-being is last priority. The well-being of the wounded is your second priority. And the well-being of this radio base station is your first priority. If it comes down to it, the last thought in that thick head of yours as you die, should be ‘thank God, the radio is still working.’ Clear?”
He looked at it resentfully. They had of course taken the only working field handset with them. For a moment, he’d fantasized that if he had a second handset, he could just put a call through to his buddy the fisherman in Anadyr and get him to sail over and pick him up. His papers had probably come through while he was over here - technically, he wasn’t even a member of this damn unit anymore anyway. He sighed.
But decided that since the useless piece of junk was now his responsibility, he’d better refresh his memory on how to use it because he hadn’t looked at one since the early days of his training. He pulled out the manual, flicked through it, and tossed it aside. The base station featured a large LCD screen with a menu and he paged through that. OK, yeah, most of it he remembered. There was a menu that showed connected field units. It showed the type of unit connected, and the signal strength, and a submenu enabled him to select a particular field unit and boost the gain to improve the signal if they were in a hole somewhere.
But did it have any way he could hook up a basic microphone? Could he get a signal out himself?
No. Useless piece of junk.
He looked up at the wall where the ten mobile field handsets were normally racked - empty. Tapping the screen, he checked and saw the only working unit, the one being used by the Sergeant, was there on the connections menu. It was at max signal strength, which was to be expected as the column of soldiers and refugees had only left about a half hour ago, so they hadn’t gone far.
Strange. There was a second signal showing.
It didn’t have the same designator as the other field handsets, it was showing a different IFF code. Zubkov picked the manual off the floor and turned to the back where the designator codes were listed.
He frowned. The code for the second radio signal was the one listed for an ATOM Infantry Fighting Vehicle comms unit. The only ATOMs they had brought with them had all been destroyed in the attack, two out by the airfield, and one that had been parked outside the town hall. He checked the signal strength. It was showing a distance of 6-10 kilometers. Unfortunately, it didn’t show direction. But 6-10 kilometers, that would be right, if by some quirk one of the radios in an ATOM out at the airfield was still switched on.
But after three weeks? The battery should be dead by now.
As he watched, the signal disappeared, and didn’t come back.
Ah, right. Faulty connection, cutting in and out. That explained why it hadn’t completely drained the battery yet.
Suddenly, life didn’t seem so hopeless after all. If there was a working handset out there somewhere, all he had to do was salvage it, call his buddy to sail over, pick him up and then he could say goodbye to this stupid unit, this stupid army and this stupid windy rock in the Arctic, forever!
General Lukin and his staff were walking into the briefing room at Lavrentiya at the same time as Bondarev, and Lukin put an arm on the Colonel’s shoulder. “So, how is the leg?”
Bondarev dropped into a squat and stood again, “Stronger than ever General. I am grateful you arranged a ceasefire to allow me to recover without missing any combat.”
“Anything for the Commander of my 6983rd Air Base,” the General chuckled.
“General,” Bondarev asked. “Just quickly. Is LOSOS still go? I can assure you…”
“Patience, comrade Colonel,” Lukin said. They were walking into the room now and Bondarev greeted the commanding officers of the 3rd Air and Air Defense Forces Command’s three other Air Bases, together with its nine subordinate group commanders, most of whom reported to him. He fell back and let the General step ahead and take his seat. Lukin looked serious. Very well. The news was either going to be very good, or very bad.
“Gentlemen, I have just returned from Moscow, after high level strategic discussions about how we should respond to the American threats to our troops on Saint Lawrence.” He looked around the table. “As you know, Operation LOSOS troops are on the island lawfully, under the mandate of the Barents Council of Nations.”
There were a bunch of maps in front of each participant in the meeting, and a cover sheet. Lukin nodded to the intelligence officer Bondarev remembered from their first LOSOS briefing. Lieutenant Ksenia Butyrskaya, that was it.
She stepped beside a screen on the wall and brought it to life showing a map of the OA. “Comrade officers, as you know, following the sinking of the Ozempic Tsar and a suspected cyber-attack on one of our nuclear submarines in the Bering Strait, we succeeded in our objective of peacefully taking control of the island of Saint Lawrence. Not a single civilian or military death was recorded, and only minor injuries to our own or enemy troops. Under the auspices of the Barents Council of Nations, a no-go zone was declared around the island affecting only US military aircraft and shipping, and freedom of commerce was restored.” She took a breath and brought up a table of figures on the screen. Bondarev didn’t need to look at it, he knew the kill/loss ratio numbers by heart. She continued, “Unfortunately the USA did not respect the no-fly zone and responded with a major act of aggression in which it attacked our peacekeeping troops in and above Saint Lawrence with fighter aircraft and cruise missiles.” She glanced briefly at Bondarev. “Although outnumbered, we inflicted significant losses on the US air element, but we sustained considerable losses ourselves both in the air, and on the ground. With the viability of our defensive position on Saint Lawrence threatened, a ceasefire was negotiated and is still in force.”
She clicked a button in her hand and an overhead satellite image appeared on a wall behind her, showing a group of ships, at the center of which was clearly an aircraft carrier, sailing on the open sea.
“Yesterday, a US aircraft carrier task force centered around the USS Enterprise, and comprising at least three guided missile cruisers, five guided missile destroyers and two supply vessels left San Diego naval base for what the US Navy announced was to be a ‘freedom of navigation’ transit of the Bering Strait. Such carrier strike groups are usually accompanied by at least two attack submarines, not visible in this image.”
She zoomed the photograph in on the supply vessels. “These are not normal supply vessels. They are in fact LX/R amphibious assault vessels, each capable of carrying 2,200 marines and landing 36 amphibious assault vehicles; supported by two to four vertical takeoff transport aircraft or UCAVs. Their inclusion in this strike group is an unambiguous declaration by the Americans that they plan to land troops in the theatre.” She clicked the screen off. “The carrier strike group will arrive in theatre within five days.” She stepped back against the wall. Bondarev noted with interest she had said ‘land troops in the theatre’, not that they planned to ‘land troops on Saint Lawrence’.
“Gentlemen,” General Lukin said with gravity. “Operation LOSOS is moving to a new phase, dictated by the continued irrational and irresponsible behavior of the USA. The cruise missile strikes on Saint Lawrence, mere miles from Russian territory, are a provocation we cannot ignore. The willingness of the crazed politicians in Washington to sacrifice their own citizens to their missiles, is also something the world community cannot ignore. Today, the Council of Ministers in Moscow agreed to a plan to establish a neutral geographic zone as a buffer between the USA and Russia to secure against future attacks and to mitigate the threat of any land borne invasion of Russia by the USA.” Before anyone could speak to ask questions, Lukin waved a finger to Butyrskaya again.
She flashed up a map of Alaska, showing what were clearly landing zones and directions of attack. The ultimate objective was shown to be a diagonal line of control stretching from Fort Yukon in the north to the fishing town of Bethel in the south west. It was almost entirely uninhabited country. The nearest US military facilities were the air bases as Eielson and Elmendorf-Richardson Dickson, well outside the line of control. The only population center of any note was Nome, with a population of 2,300.
“Speed of action will again be the byword of Operation LOSOS,” the Lieutenant said. “However, there are no passable roads or bridges in the target area east of Nome. Because of this, support by even light armored vehicles and mobile anti-air defenses will be limited to zones of control around key airfields. The first objective will be to secure the Nome airport and position logistical units, forward air units and heavy air defenses there. Second phase objectives will be the airfields in the west at Wales, south at Bethel, in the central region at Galena and in the far north at Deadhorse. Airborne and special forces will secure the airfields, and any police, paramilitary and urban weapons depots in these small population centers.”
Urban weapons depots? Bondarev realized she was talking about hunting and fishing stores. What kind of ‘invasion’ was this? Focused as he was on the coming air war, he hadn’t considered the challenges of controlling a huge wilderness area with only a few scattered population centers.
Hands were starting to raise around the table, but Lukin waved them down, “You all have questions. Please let the Lieutenant finish, then you will be directed to new rooms for tactical briefings, where you can ask questions to your hearts’ content.”
“A report from the Foreign Ministry in Moscow today indicated it had received information that the US has anticipated an attack on the Alaska mainland. This isolated report however is not backed by other intelligence, which indicates the US has been slow to bring its ground forces to readiness. It has activated national guard units in Alaska and Washington State, but not in the nearby states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho or Montana, as would be expected. Reliable information indicates that the Alaska national guard is preparing to defend its major population centers only: the capital Juneau, and major cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks. Even this will stretch its capacity and it does not have the strength to attack our airfield beach head at Nome and defend urban centers.” She threw up a map showing the expected track of the US carrier task force. “We believe the true objective of the USS Enterprise taskforce is not Saint Lawrence, but to reinforce its bases in Anchorage and Fairbanks.”
She clicked the map and showed big red arrows arcing up toward the line of control from Anchorage in the south and Fairbanks in the center. “If we succeed in taking Nome, the strategic pivot points for any counter attack by US ground forces would usually be from these two centers, Anchorage and Fairbanks, but again, the lack of roads leading into the Yukon river catchment makes major ground based assaults impractical. The US, like us, will be forced to rely on airborne and special forces units to retake its territory, so the 3rd Air Force will play a critical role in maintaining air superiority in the theatre.” She left the map on the screen for them to absorb, “That concludes this preliminary briefing. Unit briefings will now be held in the meeting rooms indicated in your folders.”
Lukin folded his hands in front of him, “Gentlemen, this is a winnable war. We will not be threatening US population centers, we will make that clear. We will simply be establishing a nonmilitarized zone in the Alaskan wilderness for the protection of international air and sea traffic in the Bering Strait. The US cannot attack us by land, it can only threaten us by sea and by air. Nome is the key - if we can take and hold the airfield there, together with our base at Lavrentiya and the airfield at Savoonga, we will have a nexus of control over the entire battlefield.” He looked around the room in case there were any dissenters, but saw none. “Very well, you are dismissed. Colonel Bondarev, you will remain.”
That got him some sharp looks from the other air base heads - unfortunately, most of them were of sympathy. Arsharvin told him the engagement over Saint Lawrence was not seen in Moscow as a tactical success even though losses had been expected. He wondered if he was about to be relieved of his command. He stayed nervously sitting as Lukin made small talk with a couple of his officers before the room was suddenly empty and the General sat down again. He knew by now it was best to see how the dice would roll, so he said nothing.
“So you are fit for combat again?” Lukin asked.
Bondarev noted he did not say ‘fit for command’. So, his days as commander of the 6983rd were done.
“Yes Comrade General. And in the intervening weeks I have restored the 4th and 5th Air Battalions to full strength. Thanks to your intervention, I am also now able to report that the Okhotniks of 6983rd Air Base are also fully crewed and ready for offensive operations.” He wanted Lukin to know that if his command was to be taken from him, he was leaving it at optimal readiness.
“Good, good. I thought I should tell you this myself,” Lukin began, and Bondarev’s heart fell to the floor. He steeled himself for what was coming. Lukin continued, “The operation to take Nome will depend entirely on your ability to establish air supremacy over the Bering Strait and the target area around Nome.”
Bondarev started to speak, “General, if I could just…” Then he heard what the General had said. He wasn’t being relieved, he was being given a pivotal role! Perhaps the pivotal role.
Lukin misinterpreted his interjection, “Yes, whatever you need this time. I want any requests on my desk tomorrow morning. I am releasing your UCAVs for use in support of operation LOSOS and the Okhotniks of the 575th and 3rd Air Base will also operate under your command. This gives you two Su-57 and Mig-41 groups of 60 aircraft and 110 UCAVs. I want you to keep the 42 Su-57s of 7th Regiment in reserve, they will only be released on my command.” Lukin leaned forward. “You will not be outnumbered next time Yevgeny.”
“Thankyou Sir, we will not fail.”
“You cannot,” Lukin smiled thinly. “Our masters in Moscow were wavering. The ferocity of the US attack, their willingness to sacrifice their own people … it shocked President Navalny. They were not willing to commit further ground troops to Operation LOSOS unless I could guarantee complete air supremacy.”
“Our losses will be considerable,” Bondarev warned. “Are they aware…”
“Yes. But the Americans may find they suddenly have other problems to deal with in coming days. You won’t be facing the entire US Air Force.”
“And the Enterprise?” National Guard units did not phase Bondarev. Neither did regular USAF units. Against human pilots, his men were more than a match and this time they would not allow the enemy drones to close to dogfighting range where they could use their maneuverability advantage. If Russian ground attack units were successful in suppressing the US ability to operate out of Eielson and Elmendorf-Richardson air bases, the enemy would have to fly from further afield in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, so they would have no home ground advantage. But the approaching supercarrier with its 75 F-35 and F-47 fighters, could change the balance. It was a headache he didn’t need.
“You needn’t worry about the Enterprise,” Lukin assured him. “It is a big stick the Americans rattle at smaller nations. The Navy will take care of the Enterprise. Admiral Kirov assures me the Americans will soon learn how vulnerable their capital ships are.”
Vulnerability was something Perri knew all about.
How to feel it in yourself, how to see it in others. It wasn’t an easy life on Saint Lawrence, you had to earn your living from the land and sea around you, no one was going to give it to you. And sometimes you et the bear, sometimes the bear et you.
Right now he was staring at that damn radio again, knowing it was like a homing finger of death that pointed straight at him and Dave, wondering whether he should turn it on and tell the Sarge what he was seeing.
Because something was happening down there in Gambell and it didn’t look good. All yesterday, they’d watched the Russians go house to house with sacks, looting. Not televisions or computers or jewelry, though they probably didn’t hesitate to help themselves to anything shiny that was lying around … they saw one guy with a shopping trolley and it looked to Perri like they were loading up on food. OK, so there hadn’t been any helicopters flying in supplies for weeks now, so they were probably running low, but what had been low level scrounging the last couple of weeks seemed like planned pilfering now.
Then they heard shouting down by the school. Perri and Dave were up on the bluff, and looked down on the town with scope and binos.
“They’re pulling people out of the schoolhouse,” Dave said. “Lining them up.”
“I see your brothers,” Perri said. “#%&*$#. I think they’re going to shoot them.”
“Do something man!” Dave said, “You got the gun. You’re the sniper!”
“Shut up!” Perri said. He knew he was too far away to take a shot. Sure, he could spray a few downrange, and he might disturb whatever was going on, but he wouldn’t be doing any more than making the troops down there aware he was up here. Maybe a few of their people could get away though… “Wait, no. The Russians all have backpacks. Our people have got packs on too, coats and boots.”
“Would you load people up and then take them out to shoot them?” Dave asked, confused.
Perri watched down the scope a minute more. “They’re moving them somewhere. They’re all heading out.”
“Where the hell…”
“I don’t know, but everyone down there is kitted out like they’re going cross country,” Perri said. As he spoke, he saw his family in the lines of townspeople. His brothers and father, his mother. She looked so small. And pissed. She was yelling at a Russian soldier who was trying to push people into line. Yeah, that was his ma.
When they finally had the 200 townspeople lined up in two long lines, the Russia soldiers formed up ahead and either side of them, with a few at the rear and they headed off down toward the road out of town went along the airstrip and then skirted the bluff – after that it nowhere in particular. Only bird watchers and hunters or berry pickers used the tracks out that way. In ten minutes though, it was clear they were quitting town.
“I can’t see my grandma,” Dave said, running his binos up and down the line of hostages. “I can’t see your grandparents either. None of the elders are with them.”
“Kids are with them though,” Perri said. He ran the scope back through town and stopped at the school, where he saw a solitary Russian soldier standing on the school steps, watching everyone leave. He didn’t appear in a hurry to join them. Perri watched as he finished a cigarette, ground it out under his boot, and went back inside the schoolhouse.
“They split them up,” Perri said. “I bet they left the elders and the kids back in Gambell, took the adults and kids with them.”
“Human shields,” Dave said. “That’s what they call it, right? Can’t get a missile up your clacker if you’re walking next to a bunch of civilians.”
Perri thought about it. “Yeah, but walking where? We’ve got to decide; do we follow the group, or stay here, see if we can somehow get the kids and elders out.”
They looked at each other. Without speaking they knew what they had to do.
Devlin also knew what she had to do. She had to have a little shot of bourbon.
Just a little one. Medicinal.
She swirled it around her mouth. It was a John J Bowman single barrel, and five-time winner of the World Whiskey Best Bourbon award. A fine example of American craftsmanship, and every glass she poured was trade promotion, right? Except this one. She put the bottle back on the tray beside the gin which was the favored end of day tipple among the diplerati. And it was the end of a very long day.
Her people had been working their networks in Embassies and Consulates across the city, testing support for a coming UN Security Council resolution rescinding the recognition of the Barents’ Council of Nations. It couldn’t succeed, not with Russia and probably China abstaining, but it was the first step to a full vote in the UN chamber to have the Council delegitimized so that Russia could no longer hide its aggression behind a veil of international probity. State wanted to get that done before the impending attack in Alaska.
They were also drawing up a ‘skins and shirts’ list of who would be with them, who would be with Russia, and who would try to stay neutral, if the shooting war started again. It didn’t look good. The US had its traditional steadfast allies behind it: Australia, Canada, Britain and New Zealand. Also looking like it would fall behind Team USA was Turkey, still worried about continued Russian influence in neighboring Syria. Russia could be sure of the support of its newly won Baltic allies, Finland and the ‘Stans’, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan. Russia could also muster Middle East support from Syria and Iran. But there was a depressingly long list of countries declaring this was a bilateral ‘maritime dispute’ between Russia and the USA, including most of Europe.
Devlin had spent the morning with the Swedish Ambassador, impressing on him in diplomatic double-speak that if he wanted to keep selling Volvo motor cars in the USA and Swedish arms like its Gripen fighters and Bofors cannons to US allies the US would be expecting Sweden to get off the fence and vote in the UN to de-accredit the Barents Council at its next meeting in two days. “Abstaining again is not an option,” she’d told him, “I suspect it would annoy Volvo’s Chinese owners mightily if they weren’t able to sell their cars in the US because of a political miscalculation?”
The reason she needed a drink was not because it was the end of a hard working day - she’d had plenty of those. It was because she feared all her efforts, all her people’s efforts, were like firing buckshot into a hurricane. She had called Washington at midnight the night before to follow up on her report about the imminent Russian attack on Alaska, only to be told it was ‘regarded as interesting but unlikely’. It did not concur with intelligence from other sources, or reports from other embassies. Russian military movements were consistent with preparations against defense from attack by the USA, but not consistent with what would be needed to mount a full scale invasion. That would require the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of troops, the transport of armor and materiel, and there were no indications that was taking place.
“They’re mobilizing their Far East fighter Brigades, air defense batteries, airborne troops and special forces Ambassador,” a State department bureaucrat in the Secretary of State’s office had told her in a patronizing tone. “Not the Divisions of troops, main battle tanks and the ships they’d need to land them. They’re getting ready to defend themselves and their position on Saint Lawrence, not go on the attack.”
She didn’t have the stripes to be able to ask anyone in the Pentagon what specific preparations - beyond sallying forth with the Enterprise strike group - the US was making to either challenge the Russian occupation of Saint Lawrence or defend against an attack on Alaska, so she turned to an alternative source. An old Canadian friend from her days as a junior officer in the embassy in Ottawa. He sat on the Canadian Foreign Ministry Joint Intelligence Committee now and she asked him had her communique reached his desk, or had it been buried.
“Oh, I got it,” he said. “Or a filtered version. Under the five-eyes agreement they couldn’t exactly bury it, they had to share it, but they 'contexted' it with five other reports indicating this business was all about the Bering Strait and rights of passage, and nothing to do with water supply and the Yukon basin.”
She had blown her top, “Do people think we are complete idiots?” she’d asked him. “Why the hell would we blow up a Russian freighter and cripple one of its submarines? What possible reason?”
“Whatever the reason, it must be serious, if you’re willing to kill 200 of your own people for it,” the man said, with untypical directness. “If you’re willing to sail a carrier battle group right along the Russian east coast.”
She saw how you could look at it, if you bought into the bill of goods Russia was selling. “OK, look. You’ve seen my report, what is Canada’s take on this? If Russia marches into Alaska, you have to be worried. I just need a steer here.”
“That’s kind of ‘in flow’, to be honest,” he’d said. “But I can tell you, we gave your Russian water shortage projections to our Expert Panel on Climate Change Adaptation to punch into their own abacus.”
“Let’s just say they agree the Bear across the ditch is going to be getting very thirsty in about ten years.”
She sighed, sat down in her chair and swung her tired legs up on her desk. At her elbow was a pile of papers and a book Carl Williams had sent up to her to look at a few days before. “The Man Who Saved Britain” by a Harvard history professor. She had read the blurb on the inside cover. Some professor had come across a trove of papers in Germany written by the impressively named Friedrich-Werner Graf von der Schulenburg, the last German ambassador to the Soviet Union before Operation Barbarossa, the battle which signaled the start of the German war on Russia. In his personal letters, written communiques and personal diaries von der Schulenburg had relentlessly pursued a campaign to persuade the Reich Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, and his trusted coterie, that if they embarked on an invasion of Britain, their Russian ‘allies’ would take advantage of their distraction and immediately stab them in the back, marching into Poland, Czech, Slovakia, Albania, Yugoslavia and most importantly, the precious oilfields of Romania. He cited numerous conversations with Russian politicians, bureaucrats and military officers to back his claims, he sent translated clippings from newspapers, and he made three trips to Berlin to personally brief the Nazi party hierarchy about the threat. He also cited conversations with the US Ambassador in Russia indicating the US had no intention of entering the war in Europe.
In the end, he prevailed. Hitler postponed his plan to invade England, shored up his defenses along the Atlantic front, and sent his tanks and Stukas east. Britain was saved from invasion, but the US did come into the war in Europe and Russia gave the Nazis a spanking.
The small handwritten note on an old photo stuck in the front told her what Williams was thinking, sending her the book. To Devlin von der McCarthy,
Sometimes the voice of one person is enough. Keep at it.
In the early part of the century, the US became very concerned about the threat to its ability to project sea power, from Chinese and Russian hypersonic anti-ship missiles. In testing, the scram-jet driven missiles proved capable of speeds up to Mach-8; eight times the speed of sound. Fitted with double core fragmentation warheads Russia had showed that a missile like its Tsirkon DM33, could achieve a terminal velocity of 2,648 meters per second or 5,800 miles per hour, making it impossible for even state of the art counter-missile defenses to track, let alone intercept.
With a range of about 250 miles and the ability to cover 100 miles in less than a minute, able to be launched from multiple platforms on, above or under the sea, the missiles risked making not just carriers and larger surface combatants vulnerable, they could make them obsolete.
In addition to accelerating its own hypersonic missile program in the face of advances by China and Russia, the US invested billions into research on how to counter such missiles. How could they be tracked? The problem wasn’t designing a radar that could detect them, but whether the software could keep up and what type of algorithm was needed to solve the problem of target ‘ambiguity’. What type of processing capabilities would be needed to react and activate countermeasures when reaction time was measured in milliseconds? Could they be spoofed by decoy strategies? Could they be jammed? Could they be destabilized with simple air cannons fired by perimeter vessels?
Quantum computing and dedicated radar and processing software solved the detection problem, and the answer to intercepting them was found not in ballistics, but in optics. The only defensive system able to target and fire quickly enough was a high-powered laser. After successful testing, the Gen 5 High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS) was deployed on all US navy ships, military and industrial targets which were deemed vulnerable to hypersonic or ballistic missile attacks. In the Syria - Turkey conflict it had proven able to intercept nine out of ten ballistic missiles before they reached their targets.
Seen to be politically akin to a weapon of mass destruction, no hypersonic missiles were used in the Syria conflict and it was perceived that the first nation to use them in war would be opening a new Pandora’s box.
Of course, HELLADS just triggered a new arms race, on the premise that the best way to defeat HELLADS was to overwhelm it with multiple missiles, and all the major armies started stockpiling scramjet missiles at the same time as fitting their surface warships, submarines and aircraft to be able to field them, while arguing strenuously in public that the use of hypersonic missiles by any nation would be akin to using a tactical nuke.
Still it remained that a hypersonic weapon had never been used in war, and the HELLADS system on the USS Enterprise and its escorts had never actually been tested in combat.
Perri Tungyan was feeling pretty combat tested.
“I’m looking at him right now,” Perri said down the line to his new friend Sarge in Canada. “Through the window of the headmaster’s office. Got my scope on him.”
“For God’s sake, don’t do anything stupid,” Sarge said urgently. “You don’t know what the situation is inside that building.”
“He’s on his own in there, just smoking a cigarette, scratching his butt,” Perri said. “I could take him down, then we could check out the school. If he’s the only one, I could get our people out.”
“And if he’s not, they could all be dead,” Sarge said. “Did the Russians take any wounded with them? Did you see stretchers, people being carried?”
Perri looked at Dave, who shook his head. “No.”
“Then if they’re alive, they’re still in there and they’re probably still able to hold a gun on your people. Or they could have wired the place with explosives in case they are attacked, take out your entire town with a flick of a switch. Just relax son.”
“I am relaxed,” Perri said to him through gritted teeth. “But I have about ten minutes to decide if we do something about this guy and try to get our people out of that school, or do we go after the others who are getting further and further away the longer we talk.”
Sarge gave him a moment to calm down. “They are probably going to an evacuation point, to meet a ship or submarine,” Sarge speculated. “If they are, we need to know.”
“Why would they be heading out of town?” Perri asked. “A ship could pick them up here.”
“I thought you said the harbor was destroyed,” Sarge asked. “It looked like it in the photos you sent.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“They could be going down to Kavalghak Bay,” Dave said. “You could get a small ship in close to shore there.”
“If the Russians are quitting Gambell, if they’re pulling them off the island, that’s critical intel,” Sarge said.
“Oh man,” Perri groaned. There had been no activity in the town, so he and Dave had climbed up to the roof of a building two streets back from the school and he had perfect line of sight down into the school master’s office and the Russian soldier sitting there drinking his coffee and enjoying his cigarette, while he stared at some sort of screen. Dave was lugging the car battery and the Russian radio and complaining all the way because he’d had to leave his rifle behind, he couldn’t carry it all. They’d worked out that they could wire the radio to any old TV aerial or satellite dish and get a good signal, so they’d hit the general store and stolen one of those folding portable TV and radio aerials and it worked just fine.
“I could knock this guy out now, and then we could head out after the others,” Perri insisted. He’d zeroed the scope with a few shots at a target a good distance out of town a couple of weeks ago, and the cross hairs in his electronic scope were indicating very little windage, and minimal bullet drop. He put the crosshairs right on the temple of the Russian soldier, with the pipper sitting on his neck. He told himself it was a shot even Dave could make.
“What you’re doing there is bigger than those elders Perri,” Sarge told him. “I’ve passed your intel to our military here, and they’ve passed it to the Americans. Yeah, maybe you could free your old people from that school, or you could stay cool, and maybe help to free your whole island.”
Perri felt his finger tighten on the trigger, saw the crosshairs quiver on the temple of the Russian soldier. Then he rolled onto his back and swore up at the lead grey sky.
Private Zubkov scratched his temple, not realizing how lucky he was. To still have a temple, that is. But he wasn’t exactly focused on the world outside the school office window. He was focused on that damn ghost radio signal, because if he was reading the screen right, the damn thing was transmitting again and it had gotten closer. The screen showed range rings in bands of 5 kilometers, and he could see the last remaining field handset, taken by the Sergeant, had just moved from the 5km ring to the 10km ring as his unit hiked out of town with their captives and headed north around the bluff toward the coast.
The ghost signal, the one with the icon that said it was coming from an armored personnel carrier, that one had just popped up on the screen again, and it was showing inside the 5km ring now! He tapped the screen, in the way of all the non-digitally inclined through the ages, and as he did so, the icon disappeared. He was still seeing the portable handset taken by the troops, but the APC radio had winked out.
Maybe he’d read it wrong. There was that wrecked APC down by the town hall. That must be the one transmitting, not one of the ones out by the airstrip. The screen he was looking at only showed range, not direction, so he must have been mistaken thinking it was coming from way out at the airstrip.
It was right down the street!
He stood up, ground out his cigarette, finished the cold coffee in the bottom of his cup and pulled his thick padded jacket on. It was still about 12 degrees outside, but the wind out there could freeze a man’s tits off. He picked up a 39mm AS VAL rifle, stumped down the corridor and looked in on the wounded. There were seven of them lying on makeshift beds laid across desks. One had an IV drip in his arm that Zubkov had to change every day. Two of them had abdominal wounds that couldn’t be treated, so they couldn’t be moved. One of them had a fever. They weren’t expected to make it, so all he could do was make them comfortable. In reality, they were already dead, but luckily none of them were conscious; they were on big doses of intravenous painkillers. There were several with leg wounds, including one soldier who’d lost his entire lower left leg. They were also doped up on pain killers and antibiotics, sleeping or reading. One gave a small wave to Zubkov and indicated with a sign that he wanted a smoke, so that he didn’t wake the others. Zubkov nodded back to him to show he had seen him. Sitting in the corner, mumbling to himself, was Captain Demchenko. He was loaded up with antibiotics too, and Zubkov had expected him to contract some sort of encephalitis in his brain and clock out sooner or later, which if you asked Zubkov, would have been a mercy. But the red hot metal splinter that had sliced through his head had apparently been surgically sterile. The guy didn’t even have a temperature and he looked perfectly normal, for a man who had just had radical brain surgery that is.
It was only thirty minutes since he’d asked the civilians if anyone needed a toilet break, and an hour until he was supposed to go around and check on them, and hand out some MREs for lunch.
But during his first morning of playing combined nurse and prison camp guard, Private Zubkov had made a decision. And his decision was this.
Screw being left behind to play nurse and prison camp guard. Screw the 14th Spetsnaz Squadron. He’d been near-drowned in interrogation simulations, beaten with a baseball bat for coming last on a cross country march and had to take a solid shotgun slug in his protective vest just to get through basic training. Hell, he’d survived a US cruise missile landing less than a block away from him, without even a scratch.
He was going to find that damn radio, call his buddy the fisherman in Anadyr, and get out.
A high value unit like a supercarrier is very well protected indeed. 200 miles out from it, covering all quarters, are the ‘picket’ ships, combat air patrol aircraft and airborne early warning UAVs. Inside that is the outer screen of ships anywhere from 10 to 20 miles out from the carrier, positioned to provide antimissile and anti-air defense. The ships making up the outer screen for the Enterprise were primarily there for anti-submarine defense - ‘delousing’ as it was called - and maintained a constantly patrolling swarm of drones around the formation using thermal imaging and towed sonar, looking and listening for any sign of a subsea intruder.
And inside that, the inner screen. This was the dedicated anti-air warfare screen. For the Enterprise, nothing but the latest HELLADS armed anti-air frigates, supplemented with more conventionally armed anti-air missile destroyers also armed with close-in ballistic defenses. The entire group was tactically data linked; if one of the pickets detected an inbound missile it was engaged if possible, and simultaneously handed off to the outer screen and inner screen to engage if needed. With a hypersonic missile able to get from detection range outside the pickets to its carrier target in less than two minutes, it was unlikely the pickets would be able to successfully engage, but at quantum computing speeds, the inner screen would theoretically have ample time to lock a target and bring it down. Even a target moving at 5,000 miles an hour.
That was the theory.
Russia was well versed in the theory, and in the practice. It had led the race to develop hypersonic missiles and aircraft for decades, and was also aware of the counter-measures developed against them. It had had many years in which to wargame a hypersonic missile attack on a carrier strike group, and had done so in secret using dummy missiles sent against its own (and only remaining) carrier, the TAVKR Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Kuznetsov. These exercises had revealed that penetrating the multilayered defenses of a carrier task group even using multiple sub launched hypersonic missiles fired from inside the picket screen, had a less than 10% likelihood of success against a HELLADS armed carrier strike group. Politically, a direct attack on an American carrier would also have been seen as an open declaration of war - something Moscow was still at pains to avoid.
Which is why Russia’s chosen strategy for taking the USS Enterprise out of the Battle for Bering Strait was … a rowing machine.
Of course, Aviation Electronics Technician E-3 Thomas Greyson was, as far as he was concerned, just applying an operating system update to the exercise machines on one of the hangar decks. It was probably the most exciting thing he’d been given to do that day, not because it was technically challenging, but because it involved real risk of bodily harm from the fitness fanatics he had to kick off the equipment so that he could patch and reboot it. Like everything else on the Enterprise, even the fitness equipment was networked. A seaman punched in their ID, did their workout, and the results were uploaded to a server and to the cloud, so that they could set goals and track their progress. Some of them were on compulsory scheduled workouts due to weight issues, and the data was used to assess their fitness for service. So yeah, he got a lot of grief when the machines had to be shut down but life sucks, as he told the grumblers.
The order for the patch had come through a day out of San Diego and landed in his inbox looking like every other routine piece of #%&*$# job he had to handle. They were sailing into a war zone, and he was patching the OS on gym equipment. No irony in that, at all. He pulled the patch down from the attached link, validated it, then called up the interface for the equipment in question, and applied the patch. The reboot had to be done manually, pulling the power and restarting the machines one by one, which meant him trekking all over the damn ship, from deck to deck. By the time he rebooted the last machine at about 1500 Pacific West Coast time, he was the one ready to hit someone.
But he got it done. And tomorrow was sure to be another fun filled day.
The Russian virus was elegant but complex and it had never been used before. It had been created specifically to attack the USS Enterprise. Once it had gained access to the Enterprise’s local network via the exercise machines on multiple decks across the ship, it copied itself to every available server and networked device, and then went to work. Perhaps not surprisingly, Seaman Greyson was one of the first to notice something was wrong. Back at his station, he turned on his tablet and went to enter the day’s activity in his duty log, only to find he couldn’t connect to the ship’s wireless network. It was there, his tablet just couldn’t log into it. Piece of #%&*$# tablet. He grabbed another one, entered his ID and tried to log on with that. No deal. He went over to a stationary computer and was about to try and turn that on when the general quarters alarm began to sound and total chaos broke out.
Grayson was already at his ‘combat station’ and didn’t need to go anywhere, but throughout the ship he heard people yelling, feet running, compartment doors being slammed and locked tight. He waited for an announcement - was it a drill, or vampires inbound? There had been a lot of talk that they might even see action on the way up to the Arctic if Russia had parked an attack sub on the sea floor ahead of them. But there was no announcement, nothing at all but the blare of the alarm. And that was almost worse than the fear there were missiles on their way.
The first thing the virus did was take down the ship’s internal communication links. Within minutes, nothing on the ship could talk to anything else, whether it was Grayson’s rowing machine, or the primary flight control center, the bridge, combat direction center or the carrier intel center, the only way anyone or anything could communicate was suddenly and critically, by yelling. Which there was a lot of. The next thing it did was cut the carrier’s links to the outside world: shortwave, longwave, digital radio, radar, satellite up and downlinks, they all went black. In minutes the most sophisticated ship in the navy had been reduced to the status of a steam driven world war 2 vessel with its only option the infallible battery backed Aldis lamps, flags and Morse code.
Without the ability to send or receive data, the defensive weapons systems were useless. Unlike the old steam powered catapults that drove their pistons with superheated water the Enterprise’s electromagnetic EMALS catapult couldn’t function without a working data link to the shooter’s console. The Enterprise became an aircraft carrier that couldn’t launch anything that wasn’t already on the flight deck and able to take off vertically.
And just like a ‘fly by wire’ aircraft, the Enterprise was ‘steer by wire’; it’s two 700 megawatt Bechtel A1B reactors driving four shafts which took their orders from the bridge computers, just as the rudders did.
So the only communication channel on the ship that the virus left open, was the link from the bridge to the steering and propulsion system. And the last thing it did before locking those down was to push the Enterprise’s speed up to 35 knots and order full right rudder.
Seaman Grayson didn’t have to worry for very long why there were no announcements. As the USS Enterprise slowly but horrifically accelerated into a wide skidding turn, it began to lean over 20 degrees and the contents of a high filing cabinet that Grayson had been using emptied themselves onto his back, knocking his head forward into his desk and taking all his worries away.
If he’d still been conscious, he would have heard the sound of metal tearing and worse, the sound no seaman or officer on an aircraft carrier wants to hear; the sound of inadequately secured aircraft sliding across hangar decks to smash into each other.
Followed by the smell no seaman anywhere, on any vessel, ever wants to smell.
(c) Fred ‘Heinkill’ Williams 2018. To be Continued.