Tom Clancy’s Op-Center: Into the Fire: New Excerpt

Into the Fire is a brand new addition to Tom Clancy's Op-Center series about a group of group of U.S. forces stranded on a small island near North Korea. The series was created by Tom Clancy and Steve Pieczenik, and is now being written by Dick Couch and George Galdorisi (available May 5, 2015).

When a team of assassins murder a high-ranking North Korean general and his family in their sleep, making it look like a robbery, events are set in motion that could shake the balance of world powers. Meanwhile, a U.S. naval combat ship, the USS Milwaukee, is attacked by North Korean forces in the middle of a training exercise off the shore of South Korea, and Commander Kate Bigelow is forced to ground the ship to avoid being captured. The crew takes refuge on a tiny island, trapped dangerously between the grounded ship and a fleet of hostile North Korean soldiers.

Op-Center intelligence discovers a secret alliance behind the attack—a pact between China and North Korea that guarantees China total control of a vast oil reserve found beneath the Yellow Sea. As both sides marshal their forces for a major confrontation at sea, Chase Williams and his Op-Center organization devise a plan to secretly spirit the American crew from the island and out from under North Korean control. But the North Koreans are not finished. In a desperate gamble, they unleash a terrorist cell on the American homeland. Only Op-Center can uncover their plan and stop it in time to prevent a major catastrophe that could lead to all-out war.

Chapter One
Pyongyang, North Korea

October 26, 0430 Korea Standard Time

The dilapidated, mustard-brown van slowed to a stop in the predawn hours as it approached the checkpoint leading to the housing area where many of the senior officers of the Korean People’s Army—the KPA—lived in near-Western accommodations. The exclusive community was south of the Taedong River, close to the KPA’s military headquarters in central Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, but far enough away to be suburban by most standards. It was a short ride for these senior military leaders when their staff cars came to collect them for the journey to KPA military headquarters each morning.

But the luxuries and perks afforded these fifty- and sixty-something officers who had clawed their way to the top of one of the KPA’s five branches did little to obscure the Spartan, even primitive, living conditions of this nation of 25 million people. Pyongyang residents lived in perpetual misery with perennially unhealthy air, shoddy housing, unreliable utilities, a decrepit health care system, little access to quality food, and virtually none of the amenities most people take for granted. Even the road leading to this housing area was made of cheap asphalt and filled with potholes and ruts that made navigating it a challenge. With a standing army of over a million men, the fourth largest in the world, and over another seven million reserve and paramilitary forces, it was easy to see why there was little money left over to meet the basic needs of the North Korean people.

Two sleepy soldiers manning the wooden guard shack emerged to check the papers of the van’s driver. They groused as they stepped out into the below-freezing temperatures. These types of vans, made by the Jianghuai Automobile Co. Ltd. or some other Chinese auto manufacturer, were a common sight in the early morning hours in this neighborhood. The van that was stopped at the guard shack, like the others that made this journey, was most likely bringing fresh fruit, vegetables, and freshly baked bread—things that were an unreachable luxury for ordinary North Koreans—to the household staffs of the senior officers living here. By the time these officers rose, they and their families would have meals prepared for them that would pass muster in most four-star hotels in the West.

As one soldier examined the documents offered by the driver, the other, following standard protocol, moved to the van’s passenger side, where he looked down on the sleeping man in the passenger seat. He banged on the window to roust the sleeper, and, as the man lifted his head, the soldier made a circling motion with his hand, indicating he should roll the window down. The passenger complied while the other soldier continued to shine his flashlight on the sheath of documents the driver had handed him.

Suddenly, the driver grunted, and both men in the van raised pistols and shot the guards in the head. The silencers did their job and muffled most of the noise. Brain matter, blood, and tissue exploded from the back of both soldiers’ heads, and they collapsed onto the snow-covered road. Within seconds, three men emerged from the back of the vehicle. They picked up the dead guards and threw them in the back of the van, then used small shovels to rake the snow around to cover the ground where the guards had fallen and to mask the fact there was anything amiss. Their task complete, they jumped into the back of the van as it lurched away and headed for the home of Vice Marshal Sang Won-hong, deputy chief of the general staff of the KPA.

*   *   *

Several hundred meters up a gentle hill, Vice Marshal Sang, his wife, and his three sons slept soundly while their household staff of four busied themselves in their home’s expansive kitchen. They piled wood into the cast iron stove to provide extra warmth in the kitchen, cleaned and cooked food, and made preparations for the family’s breakfast, which was still several hours away.

Though they were servants and of a lower class in North Korea’s society than the family, as live-in help for a senior military officer they enjoyed conditions that made them the envy of most of their countrymen. They bent to their various tasks with energy since they knew they could be dismissed at the whim of the vice marshal or his mercurial wife. One of their fellow workers had been terminated just two months ago and was thrown, weeping, into the alley behind the home.

*   *   *

The van stopped two hundred yards from the house. Five black-clad figures emerged, their faces obscured by ski masks, their hands holding Chinese-made Type 77 semiautomatic pistols with silencers. They moved with purpose and were soon pressed against the outside wall of Vice Marshal Sang’s kitchen. A nod from their leader, and they burst into the room.

“Silence and you will not be harmed.”

The only man among the household staff, the general’s butler, stepped forward. “What do you want here?”

“That’s not your business, old man,” the leader barked as he pressed the barrel of the pistol to the butler’s forehead.

The intruders moved quickly, cuffing the staff with plastic ties and duct-taping their mouths shut. They frog-walked them into the large pantry and slammed the door shut.

“Remember the layout,” the leader said. “One bullet to each of their heads, then take everything of value, especially money and jewelry. There will likely be a small standing safe. Carry that away, too.”

They dashed up the staircase and split up to cover the bedrooms on the second floor—the general and his wife in their large master bedroom and each of the young boys in their individual bedrooms. The silencers muffled most of the sound as the intruders put one bullet in the head of each victim.

The killing done, the five men concentrated on collecting anything of value in the vice marshal’s home. They shoved money, jewelry, furs, and anything else small and movable into large heavy-duty bags. Once they deposited those bags in the van, two of the men returned to carry out the floor safe while the three others removed the artwork from the home’s walls.

It was all over in ten minutes. The heavily laden van moved down the hill and toward an unknown destination.

 

Chapter Two
East China Sea

November 4, 1130 Korea Standard Time

Commander Kate Bigelow sat in the captain’s chair on the enclosed bridge of USS Milwaukee(LCS-5). Milwaukee was the third ship in the Freedom littoral-combat-ship class, the newest class of U.S. Navy ships. It was a 378-foot, 3,000-ton vessel featuring clean lines that provided the ship with a low radar signature. Aboard with Captain Bigelow were some seventy-eight officers and enlisted sailors and a complement of eight civilian technicians. Milwaukee called the San Diego Naval Base home and was currently on a forward deployment to the western Pacific, or, in sailor-speak, WESTPAC. The ship was forward-based in Singapore, the U.S. Navy’s operating base for its LCS ships of both the Freedom and Independence classes.

In preparation for the upcoming exercise with the United States’ Japanese and South Korean allies, Milwaukee had called at the Yokosuka Naval Base to participate in the usual pre-exercise briefings and was now just leaving the Fleet Activities Support Base in Sasebo, the U.S. naval facility on the west side of Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost home island. Steaming in company with Milwaukee was the mine-countermeasures ship, USS Defender (MCM-2). Since Bigelow was senior to Defender’s commanding officer, she was also in operational command of the two-vessel flotilla.

At Sasebo, Milwaukee had an army of Navy civilian technicians and contractor representatives come aboard for three days to tweak the gear associated with its mine-countermeasures module. The LCS ships could be quickly configured for different mission tasking by switching out different mission modules. There was a mission module for surface warfare, for antisubmarine warfare, and for mine countermeasures. These modules had looked good on paper, but their development had lagged well behind getting the lead ships of the class in the water. The mine-countermeasures module was the least technically mature of all the modules the LCS ships carried, so it needed more TLC than the gear on most Navy ships.

Milwaukee’s forward and aft mission bays were crowded with conex boxes and shipping containers that housed sonar-towed arrays, unmanned underwater vehicles, and several suites of mine-hunting gear. Among the gear was the AN/AQS-20A underwater towed sonar; the Knifefish surface-mine, countermeasure, unmanned undersea vehicle; the AN/WLD-1(V) Remote Multi-Mission Vehicle; and the Unmanned Surface Sweep System. And as they left Sasebo, eight technicians stayed aboard to continue to tweak the mine-countermeasures gear. None of this pleased Bigelow, but she had learned long ago that her role as commanding officer was not to gripe but simply to get the job done.

Much of this equipment was new or in the testing and evaluation stage of its development. And it was heavy. Not only did the mine-countermeasures module make the ship capable of doing little else but hunting mines, but the added weight elevated the ship’s center of gravity. Bigelow, who was acutely sensitive to her ship’s movement, was aware Milwaukee’s rolling motion was a bit more pronounced and that the vessel held the farthest point in the arc of its roll for just a fraction of a second longer than it used to. The ship was different than it had been before the module was taken aboard.

Kate Bigelow was a graduate of the United States Naval Academy. She had gone to the academy for two reasons: to play lacrosse and to sing. Coming out of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, her two passions had been playing lacrosse and singing in her school glee club and church choir. She was an all-state midfielder and also had a strong voice. Her grades were good if not outstanding, but the academy women’s lacrosse coach saw her play and liked what she saw. Lacrosse was a rough sport, even the women’s game, and Kate Bigelow, while owning a technically sound game, was not above flattening an opposing player with a legal hit. And Annapolis was but an hour’s drive from her home, so her parents could come to her games. So she started for three years on the lacrosse team, beating Army two of those three years, and sang in the Catholic Choir and the Naval Academy Glee Club. Kate had graduated in the upper half of the bottom third of the class of 2002. And while she had never really considered a full career in the Navy as a seagoing officer, two things intervened that kept her from leaving the service. First, she found that she liked U.S. Navy sailors and that she had a knack for leading them. Second, she found command intoxicating. There was nothing like it on the outside, so she stayed in. Since the Navy made it a practice to seek out capable female officers to place in command at sea, her goals and those of the Navy coincided. She had previously commanded an MCM ship like Defender that now followed them out of Sasebo.

Milwaukee was her second afloat command, and she relished having another command after this. Oddly enough, many career naval officers did not savor command at sea. There were too many things that could go wrong and derail their chances at promotion. Kate Bigelow was not one of those. When she was assigned staff or shore duty, she was constantly plotting how to get back to sea. When she was at sea and in command, she was always looking for ways to extend her tour in command.

“How ’bout some coffee, Skipper?”

“I can always use a cup of coffee, XO.”

Commander Jack O’Connor was the ship’s executive officer and two years junior to Bigelow. He had come aboard when Bigelow had taken command, and they had had their differences. The captain was responsible for the operation of the ship, but the XO ran the ship—or, more to the point, ran the department heads, who ran the ship. Bigelow understood this and tried to allow her second-in-command space to do his job. Toward the end of the transit from Singapore to Yokosuka, they had begun to fall into sync and work as a team. Then there had been the pre-exercise conference in Yokosuka several days ago, and that had not gone well.Milwaukee and Defender were scheduled for an at-sea rendezvous with six South Korean minesweepers for a mine-hunting and -clearing exercise off the west coast of Korea. The officer in charge of the exercise was a senior captain in the South Korean navy. At the pre-exercise conference, attended by all the commanding officers and their execs, O’Connor had spoken out of turn on occasion, and at one point he had encroached on Bigelow’s position and the position of the Korean captain. Bigelow had worked with the Koreans before and knew the premium they put on rank and the strict protocols of seniority. Following the conference, Bigelow had taken him aside and quietly but firmly given him an old-fashioned ass chewing. Their interactions since then had been cordial but strained. Bigelow rightly sensed the offer of coffee was a peace overture. She took the proffered coffee, and the two of them made their way out to the exposed starboard wing of the bridge. The wind was coming from the west off the East China Sea, and it had a bite to it.

“Krause, you look like you could use a break and a warm-up,” she said to the lookout, loud enough for the officer of the deck inside the bridge to hear. “Why don’t you ask the officer of the deck if you can get some coffee for yourself?” She looked in and caught her OOD’s eye as well, and he called the sailor into the warmth of the pilothouse.

The two made for an odd couple on the bridge wing. O’Connor was six three and pushing the Navy’s height-weight tables. He had played football for North Carolina, a starting guard, but the bulk that served him well on the offensive line was not all that advantageous in the confined spaces of a small combatant. O’Connor had a youthful appearance and clear blue eyes that seemed to obscure his borderline weight issue. He was married with two kids, twin girls, and he wanted to stay in the Navy. He knew if he performed well, he would relieve Bigelow as commanding officer once her tour was done.

But in the U.S. Navy, there was always that “if.” Officers could be removed from a position simply because of “loss of confidence in their abilities,” a vague clause that had no equivalent in most professions. Beyond that, a less-than-glowing fitness report from Bigelow might not derail him from taking command once her tour was over, but it could put him ashore permanently once his tour in command was complete. That would end his chances for promotion and a long career. Bigelow herself was five eight and as slim as when she roamed the lacrosse fields. At thirty-six, she had outgrown all the girlishness and eased into a quiet command presence that was understated and compelling but still very feminine. She had married one year out of the academy, but the union had lasted only two years, and she had no children. There was a Marine infantry colonel in her life, but he had grown kids and a three-year tour at the Pentagon to contend with. Both welcomed an occasional weekend together, and both put their careers ahead of the relationship.

Kate Bigelow was a careful listener and almost never raised her voice. And she had a knack for judging people as well as leading them. She rightly suspected the reason O’Connor had sought her out. When the lookout was gone, she turned to her number 2 and waited.

“Ah, Skipper, I wanted to apologize again for my conduct at the meeting in Yokosuka. I don’t know what I was thinking. Actually, I wasn’t thinking. I really want this mine exercise to go well, and it just seemed to me that we were being marginalized by the Koreans. After all, our capabilities are far superior to theirs. Still, it was not my place.”

Bigelow measured him. She was still not sure if he truly understood he was out of line or if this was a reaction to O’Connor’s knowing full well he and his career were completely in her power. She had, however, seen enough of Jack O’Connor to know her executive officer was not a strong naval officer—adequate perhaps in some ways, but not strong. And it saddened her. She knew it would just make her job all that much harder and the rest of her tour in command less enjoyable. Ships in the U.S. Navy operated best when the CO and XO complemented each other and commanded as a team. Bigelow did not see that happening with Jack O’Connor.

“Very well, Jack, and I appreciate your coming to me like this. But answer me this. If the North Koreans ever do mine the approaches to Inchon, whose mine-clearing ships will be the first on scene?”

“Ah, the South Koreans.”

“And what will our primary mine-countermeasure duties be in time of war?”

He paused. She was a step ahead of him, but, to his credit, he was not far behind. “Protecting our capital ships against mines?”

“Exactly. You and I both know that the LCS is pretty helpless in a blue-water hostile environment. Inchon is the likely target of a North Korean mining operation and well within land-based-air and surface-to-surface missiles from the north. So at issue is not how well we can clear mines but how well they can clear mines. Of course, we want to evaluate their capabilities and help them in any way we can, but it’s their show. If it comes to the real thing, they’ll be on their own. They know it, we know it, and Commodore Park and his little flotilla of sweepers know it, okay?”

“Roger that, Skipper.”

“And don’t forget,” she said, lowering her voice, “we have a shitload of untested gear back there, we’re undermanned in several critical ratings, and half this crew has never cleared a single mine. We’re here to train our crew, test our gear, and do what we can to help the South Koreans.”

“Roger that.”

“And not to pick a scab, but never, and I mean never, speak over top of me in front of others or in front of this crew. You are welcome to come to me and say what you like behind closed doors. In fact, I count on that; that’s part of your job. But never in public. Fair enough?”

“I’ve got it, ma’am.”

After O’Connor left the bridge, she wandered into the pilothouse and walked over to the tiny navigation cubicle at the rear of the enclosed space.

“What do you have for me, Chief Danforth?”

The chief quartermaster looked up from his screen with its electronic chart and smiled. “I put us right here,” he said, pointing to a location on the track of their planned intended movement—or PIM in Navy parlance. “With Uku Jima off to port about six miles and Hirado Jima to starboard some four miles, base course is zero-zero-five at fifteen knots.”

“Time to turn?”

“On this course and speed, I make it thirty-six minutes until we come left to our new course of two-seven-six.”

“How long until we get to the Cheju Channel?” Bigelow was referring to the broad channel between Cheju Island and the southern tip of the Korean mainland.

“From our next turn, I make it about eleven hours.”

Bigelow did the math quickly. That would be about 0300 the following morning. She nodded. “Okay, see that I’m called well before we get into the channel.”

“Aye, aye, ma’am.”

Bigelow sat down in her chair for a few minutes of peace before she returned to her stateroom and the mountain of paperwork awaiting her. Milwaukee had a mixed-gender crew, and that meant there were always matters of fraternization and unwanted, unwise, and illegal sexual conduct. There were issues related to the gear associated with the mine-countermeasures module, and the onboard team of Navy civilians and contractors were pressing her for a meeting to go over their problems. For them, it was all about the gear. Her department heads needed some of her time with lists of personnel and mechanical problems. A great deal of this could, and should, be handled by Jack O’Connor, but she still had nagging questions about his abilities. She knew full well she should allow him the space to do his job—sink or swim, as it were. But it was still her ship, and its ability to carry out its mission was on her shoulders, not his. So she was stuck; she had to walk that fine line between trusting him to carry out his duties and seeing to it that the job got done.

And there was the LCS itself, the Milwaukee. The critics of the U.S. Navy’s LCS program, both in Congress and within the naval establishment, were right in their assessment of the ship’s shortcomings. The LCS was basically defenseless. She was a sitting duck for any ship or small craft with surface-to-surface missile capability. Her single gun, the Mark 110, Mod 057 mm BAE Systems cannon, was capable of 200 rounds per minute with 240 rounds in ready-service availability. It could be deadly to small craft that came within five miles, but most of the world’s navies, including that of North Korea, had small craft with accurate surface-to-surface missiles that could be fired well outside that range. And they would be operating well within the arc of North Korean land-based air. Milwaukee’s RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile system was compact and effective against both low-flying aircraft and surface-to-surface cruise missiles. But there was an interface flaw. The RIM-116 had no built-in acquisition capability; it had to be carefully aimed along the axis of the incoming threat. The system that aimed the missiles was the AN/SWY-2 Ship Defense Surface Missile System. When the two systems worked, they worked well. But they didn’t always work well. In Bigelow’s experience, they produced a missile launch and a missile kill only about half the time.

One advantage Milwaukee did have was speed. While it could not outrun a cruise missile or an attacking aircraft, it could make close to forty-five knots with its two Rolls-Royce gas turbines and the two Colt-Pielstick diesels at full throttle and the four Rolls-Royce water jets all online. Yet with the heavy mine-countermeasures module aboard, Bigelow had no idea what her best speed might be, or how her ship would handle at that speed.

And then there was the helo issue. Just thinking about it made her stomach churn. The LCS was designed to embark the MH-60 Seahawk helicopter and the MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicle. The helicopter and the UAV gave the LCS a tremendously enhanced capability, and she had operated effectively with her helo det before. But for reasons that were still obscure to her, the Seventh Fleet staff and her LCS commodore in Singapore decided not to embark her helo det—neither the Seahawk nor the Fire Scout—for this exercise but to keep the detachment in Singapore. She had tapped into her network to try to find out why, and the most plausible reason she could uncover was that none of the South Korean minesweepers had a helo detachment and thus the Americans did not want to show up their allies. Fine for parades, she mused, not so much for operating in hostile waters. Having the nimble Seahawk aboard armed with a suite of Hellfire missiles always helped her sleep better at night when they were at sea. But it was what it was, she reminded herself. Deal with it, Kate. You don’t want your sailors to bitch, so don’t do so yourself when you don’t get everything you feel you need or want.

So, Bigelow thought to herself, I don’t really have much of an effective offensive punch, my defense works about half the time, and I don’t have an aviation detachment. I probably can’t outrun a threat. And in order to make the LCS less expensive and fast, my ship has no armor plating. Everything is electronic and interconnected, so one good hit and we’re out of the fight—done. Add this to the personnel problems and crew inexperience, and it was almost overwhelming—almost. Bigelow glanced out the bridge window at the receding coast of Kyushu, and, as she looked over at the LCD screen in front of her officer of the deck, she notedDefender was dutifully keeping station behind her. Then she smiled.

I wouldn’t trade this for anything.

“You say something, ma’am.” She had not noticed Ensign Allie Stockton, the officer of the deck, who had looked over her shoulder from her OOD chair in the pilothouse. Stockton was a Navy ROTC officer from Notre Dame, sharp as a tack.

“I said I think I’ll lay down to the chief’s mess and see if they have some decent coffee. Then I’ll be in my stateroom. Call me after you’ve come left to the new course, Allie. Otherwise, the standard daylight steaming orders apply.”

“Aye, aye, ma’am,” Stockton replied. Then, after Bigelow had exited through the rear door of the pilothouse, she announced, “Captain’s off the bridge!”

Copyright © 2015 Tom Clancy, Steve Pieczenik, Dick Couch, and George Galdorisi.

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Tom Clancy's many thrillers include The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. He died in 2013.

 

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