Blackmail by Rick Campbell follows a bold military and political strike by the Russian government that leaves the U.S. reeling, crippled, and vulnerable, with only a desperate long-shot chance to avoid a devastating world war (available June 27, 2017).
The U.S. aircraft carrier patrolling the Western Pacific Ocean is severely damaged by a surprise salvo of cruise missiles. While the Russian government officially apologizes, claiming it was the result of fire control accident during a training exercise, it was instead a calculated provocation. With the U.S. Pacific fleet already severely under strength, the Russian President decides that the US response is a clear indication of their weakness, militarily and politically, and initiates a bold plan.
Political unrest is spreading through the Eastern European states. The Russian Northern Fleet moves swiftly in the Mediterranean Sea, the Russian army is moving west to the border, and Russian Baltic and Black Sea Fleets are mobilized. In one bold strike, the Russian army moves to reoccupy a large number of the industrialized areas of the former USSR, while blockading the vital sea passages through which the world’s oil and natural gas transit. To make matters worse, Russia’s Special Forces have wired every major oil and natural gas pipeline with explosives. If the U.S. makes one move to thwart Russia, they’ll destroy them all. The U.S. is risking disaster if it acts, but the alternative is quite possibly worse. Torn between the unthinkable and the impossible, the only possible move—to launch an attack on all fronts, simultaneously.
USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT
Night was falling over the Western Pacific as USS Theodore Roosevelt surged through dark green waters, headed into a brisk wind. Seated in the Captain’s chair on the Bridge of his Nimitz class aircraft carrier, Captain Rich Tilghman observed two F/A-18E Super Hornets locked into the bow catapults, their engines glowing reddish orange in the twilight. In a few seconds, both aircraft would head out to relieve fighters in Roosevelt’s combat air patrol, as the carrier strike group cruised several hundred miles off the coast of China, just beyond range of China’s DF-21 missile, nicknamed carrier-killer. A few months ago, that’s exactly what the Chinese missiles had done.
The war between China and the United States was short, but devastating. There had been no declaration of war by either country or a formal cease-fire; the combat had halted once the outcome became clear. Although America prevailed, the cost was high. Four heavily damaged aircraft carriers were in shipyards being repaired, while a fifth rested on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, leaving USS Ronald Reagan as the sole operational Pacific Fleet carrier. Submarine losses had been heavy, with the opposing sides virtually wiping each other out, and U.S. surface ship losses had been high as well.
What remained of the U.S. Pacific Fleet had been augmented with Atlantic Fleet units shifted to the Pacific, joining USS Ronald Reagan. Not far to the south, the Reagan strike group was also on deployment, with the United States keeping two carrier strike groups off China’s coast at all times.
Captain Tilghman’s attention returned to the two Super Hornets as the bow catapults fired. The aircraft streaked across the Flight Deck, then rocketed upward, their paths marked by the white-hot glow of their afterburners against the darkening sky. Not long thereafter, the first of the returning aircraft landed, announced by the squeal of tires hitting the deck and the hydraulic hum of arresting wire motors as the Super Hornet’s tailhook snagged number three wire. The F/A-18 was soon headed to the nearest elevator for a trip to the Hangar Deck, while a second aircraft landed.
Tilghman pushed himself to his feet and left the Bridge for a short tour of his ship before calling it a night. So far this deployment, it had been all quiet on the western front.
Captain First Rank Dmitri Pavlov stood at the back of the Central Command Post aboard his Antey class guided missile submarine, called Oscar II by NATO, surveying his men at their watch stations as they shadowed an American carrier strike group to the west. The crew’s orders and reports were calm and professional, reflecting the proficiency a crew gains after several months at sea. Vilyuchinsk’s Watch Officer, Captain Lieutenant Dolinski, monitored the submarine’s depth, steady at seventy meters, occasionally checking the status of their communications, verifying they were copying the broadcast on the floating wire antenna trailing several hundred meters behind the submarine.
The Communications Post was downloading the latest round of naval messages, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary until the speakers near Pavlov energized.
“Command Post, Communications. Have received a Commanding Officer Only message.”
Pavlov acknowledged and entered the Communications Post, stopping by the two printers.
The radioman hit the print button and a message slid from the left printer. Pavlov read the directive, then read it again.
He took the message to the Central Command Post, addressing one of the two Messengers. “Request the First Officer’s presence in the Command Post.”
The senior seaman acknowledged and departed in search of the submarine’s second-in-command, and a moment later Captain Second Rank Mikhail Evanoff arrived. Pavlov motioned Evanoff to join him by the navigation table, also requesting the Watch Officer’s presence. When the two men approached, Pavlov slid the message across the table.
Pavlov waited while the two men read the directive, then, like him, read it again. Confused and then concerned expressions worked across their faces, and the two men exchanged glances before Pavlov’s First Officer spoke.
“This cannot be correct,” he said. “We have been directed to fire upon the American strike group, targeting their aircraft carrier. Surely there has been a mistake. An errant message from a training scenario, perhaps.”
Pavlov’s Watch Officer studied the message as the First Officer spoke, searching for formatting irregularities. But the message was properly formatted, with the required weapon release authorization. Dolinski looked up.
“We should request verification. We aren’t at war with the United States, but this might start one. We must be certain this directive is properly authorized.”
Pavlov answered, “It’s authentic. And expected. I met with Fleet Admiral Lipovsky before our deployment. He informed me that we might receive this message.”
“Why would we be directed to fire upon the Americans?” his First Officer asked.
“He did not elaborate,” Pavlov answered. After a slight pause, he said, “Do you have any additional questions or reservations?”
When neither man replied, Pavlov ordered his crew to full readiness.
“Man Combat Stations. Proceed to periscope depth.”
USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT
Three levels below the Flight Deck, in the aircraft carrier’s Combat Direction Center, Captain Dolores Gonzalez settled into her watch routine as the CDC Operations Officer. She examined the Video Wall, a collection of two eight-by-ten-foot displays mounted beside each other, with a half-dozen smaller monitors on each side. After failing to note anything unusual, she shifted her thoughts to the combat air patrol to the west. They were keeping eight Super Hornets airborne at all times, along with an E-2C Hawkeye at twenty-five thousand feet, its radar searching the skies for hostile aircraft and missiles. Two of the F/A-18 fighters were approaching bingo fuel and would return to the carrier shortly. Her eyes shifted to the Flight Deck display; two more Super Hornets were moving toward the bow catapults and would be on their way out to relieve the returning fighters in a few minutes.
That was the daily routine, with days turning into weeks, then months. Across the Combat Direction Center from Gonzalez, the strike controllers were idle, as was the Tactical Action Officer who supervised them, with no inbound targets to engage and no outbound strike sorties.
The bow catapults fired, launching the Super Hornets, and it wouldn’t be long before the two fighters approaching bingo fuel returned. Gonzalez settled in for what would be a long but hopefully boring night on watch.
Vilyuchinsk tilted upward, rising toward periscope depth. The submarine’s Watch Officer kept his face pressed to the attack periscope, the aft of the submarine’s two scopes. Despite the crowded Central Command Post, now at full manning, it was quiet while the submarine rose from the deep.
Dolinski announced, “Periscope clear,” and started turning the scope swiftly, completing several sweeps in search of nearby contacts. Vilyuchinsk settled out at periscope depth and Dolinski declared, “No close contacts!”
Conversation resumed now that there was no threat of collision or detection by surface contacts, and Dolinski completed a more detailed scan of the ocean and sky, searching for distant ships or aircraft. “Hold no contacts.”
Pavlov ordered, “Raise primary communication antenna.”
One of Vilyuchinsk’s antennas, able to communicate with satellites, slid upward. Although Pavlov knew the American carrier strike group was to the west, he needed a detailed tactical picture to ensure he was targeting the correct ship. Vilyuchinsk was beyond visual range and couldn’t use its radar either, as that would give away the submarine’s presence. Instead, Pavlov would rely on the tactical summary from the broadcast, containing all warships and merchants at sea and updated every five minutes.
The Communication Party leader’s voice came across the speakers. “Command Post, Communications. In sync with the broadcast.”
A moment later, the two fire control displays updated with the current tactical picture, and Pavlov and his First Officer, along with Vilyuchinsk’s Missile Officer, gathered behind the men at their consoles. As Pavlov studied the display, he realized the tactical situation couldn’t have been better. The American carrier strike group was arranged with every surface ship escort except one positioned between the aircraft carrier and China, leaving only one destroyer on the back side between Vilyuchinsk and its target. It was a loose formation, which meant there would be little chance their missiles would lock on to the incorrect target. The only question was—how many of Vilyuchinsk’s missiles would make it past the destroyer and the aircraft carrier’s defense systems.
Pavlov announced, “Set contact eight-five-one as the target of interest. Prepare to fire, full missile salvo.”
The Missile Officer acknowledged and prepared to launch all twenty-four of Vilyuchinsk’s P-700 Granit surface attack missiles, each one armed with a warhead weighing almost one ton.
“All missiles are energized,” reported a watchstander seated at one of the fire control consoles. A moment later, he said, “All missiles have accepted target coordinates.”
Captain Lieutenant Dolinski initiated the next step. “Open all missile hatches.”
The hatches lining the submarine’s port and starboard sides retracted.
“All missile hatches are open,” the Missile Officer reported. “Ready to fire, full missile salvo.”
Pavlov surveyed the tactical situation and the readiness of his submarine one final time, then gave the order.
USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT
Inside Roosevelt’s Combat Direction Center, a wave of yellow symbols appeared on Captain Gonzalez’s display. Surprisingly, they were to the east of the carrier strike group instead of the west. A few seconds later, each yellow icon switched to a red symbol with a sharp point, representing hostile surface-to-surface missiles. Gonzalez picked up the handset and punched the Bridge button on the communications panel.
“Bridge, CDC. Have twenty-four inbound bogies from the east, classified surface attack missiles. Request permission to set General Quarters.”
“Set General Quarters.”
Gonzalez gave the order, and the gong-gong-gong of the ship’s General Alarm reverberated in CDC, followed by the announcement, General Quarters, General Quarters. All hands man your Battle Stations. Move up and forward on the starboard side, down and aft on port.
As the announcement faded, Gonzalez focused on shooting down the incoming missiles. Roosevelt’s defense would fall primarily on the shoulders of USS Stockdale, an Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer, outfitted with the Aegis Warfare System and SM-2 Standard missiles. However, air defense of the carrier strike group rested with the Air Warfare Commander, stationed aboard the Ticonderoga class cruiser, USS Port Royal. His voice came across the speakers in CDC.
“All units, this is Alpha Whiskey. Shift Aegis Warfare Systems to auto. You are Weapons Free.”
Gonzalez watched as the computer aboard USS Stockdale began “hooking” contacts, assigning them to missiles in the ship’s vertical launchers. A few seconds later, missiles streaked skyward from the destroyer. On her display, a stream of blue icons headed out toward the red ones. The incoming missiles had been fired at close range; there would be insufficient time to launch a second round if Stockdale’s SM-2 missiles didn’t destroy the inbound bogies. Gonzalez watched the display as first one, then another SM-2 intercepted their targets.
But not all. Six missiles continued inbound, targeting Roosevelt. It was time for the self-defense phase. Gonzalez turned to her Tactical Action Officer.
“Shift SSDS to auto.”
The TAO acknowledged, then shifted Roosevelt’s SSDS—Ship Self Defense System—to automatic.
He called out, “Missiles inbound. All hands brace for shock!”
Gonzalez reached up and grabbed on to an I-beam, watching as the SSDS targeted the inbound bogies. Sea Sparrow and Rolling Airframe missiles were launched in succession, taking out three inbound missiles, and the CIWS engaged next, taking out another.
Two missiles made it through and Gonzalez felt the deck shudder as the missiles detonated. On the aircraft carrier’s damage control status board, red symbols illuminated the Hangar Deck and the carrier’s Island superstructure, where the Bridge was located. Roosevelt’s deck trembled again, more violently, and a loud explosion rumbled through CDC. On the damage control status board, red symbols radiated outward from the middle hangar bay. Some of the ordnance staged in the bay had detonated.
Assessing the damage, Gonzalez surveyed the Video Wall. The destruction was more severe than expected. The Island superstructure was a mangled mess of twisted metal, while orange flames leapt skyward from a massive hole in the Flight Deck, the edges peeled upward from the explosion in the hangar bay below. Gonzalez studied the red symbols on the status board, her eyes shifting uneasily toward amidships, where the nearest ammunition magazine was located. If the fires reached the magazine, it’d be all over.
Damage reports flooded into CDC, and it wasn’t long before Gonzalez realized Roosevelt was incapable of continuing flight operations.
Turning to her Tactical Action Officer, Gonzalez ordered, “Bingo all airborne aircraft to Reagan.”
The two missiles had inflicted significant damage, but Roosevelt had survived. As damage control parties fought the fires, focused on preventing them from spreading toward the ship’s ammunition magazines, Gonzalez’s thoughts shifted to whatever had launched the missiles. There were no air or surface contacts to the east, which meant the missiles were submarine launched.
It was time to deal with that.
Minutes earlier, Captain First Rank Dmitri Pavlov had ordered the missile hatches shut and his submarine down from periscope depth. The Americans would identify the launch point and it wouldn’t be long before Vilyuchinsk had company, and not the friendly kind. However, when the Americans arrived at the launch datum, Pavlov intended to be long gone. Once clear of the area and their safety assured, he would return to periscope depth and download the latest tactical information, plus satellite photographs for a visual assessment of their mission.
In the meantime, he would order his submarine deeper and faster. “Watch Officer. Increase depth to two hundred meters. Ahead full. Set Ultra-Quiet mode.”
Captain Lieutenant Dolinski acknowledged and gave the requisite orders. Vilyuchinsk tilted downward, increasing speed. It was time to decide on a course. With American strike groups to the west and south, that left east or north. Heading farther east offered the possibility that any pursuing American submarine would reach the edge of its operating area. The area could be adjusted, of course, but that would take time and a trip to periscope depth to send the request and receive the authorization.
To the east it was.
“Watch Officer. Come to course zero-nine-zero.”
Dolinski acknowledged and relayed the order to the Steersman.
As his submarine turned east and settled out at two hundred meters, Pavlov reviewed what his crew had done. A plan had been put in motion, and he hoped it wouldn’t be long before he understood its goal and the part Vilyuchinsk would play in the future. Assuming, of course, Vilyuchinsk slipped away from the Americans.
Pavlov listened as the Watch Officer ordered, “Hydroacoustic, Command Post. Report all contacts.”
USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT
Captain Dolores Gonzalez monitored the damage reports streaming into Damage Control Central. The fires amidships, initially spreading out from the Hangar Deck, had been contained, but casualties in the Island superstructure were high, with the ship’s Captain wounded. To what extent Dolores didn’t know, until Captain Rich Tilghman arrived in CDC, his arm in a sling and his face covered in soot. Dolores saw the rage on his face, even though it was covered in grime and tinted blue from the CDC displays. Tilghman’s first order had been to hunt down whatever had launched the missiles.
Gonzalez had vectored two Super Hornets to the east for a visual, just in case there was a surface contact they weren’t detecting for some reason, but the report was negative. The TAO was conferring with the SUBOPAUTH—the Submarine Operating Authority—aboard Roosevelt. There were two fast attack submarines assigned to the Roosevelt strike group, USS California to the west and USS Mississippi to the east. The missile launch datum placed the location of the enemy submarine inside Mississippi’s assigned waterspace, which meant the carrier strike group was Weapons Tight; they could not attack a submerged contact in that operating area for fear of sinking their own submarine. Hunting down the enemy submarine would instead be Mississippi’s responsibility.
The TAO announced, “Request a bell-ringer for Mississippi. I have a flash outgoing message.”
Copyright © 2017 Rick Campbell
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Rick Campbell is a retired Navy Commander who spent more than twenty years on multiple submarine tours. On his last tour, he was one of the two men whose permission was required to launch the submarine’s nuclear warhead-tipped missiles.