Something grabs a hold of me tightly
Flows like a harpoon, daily and nightly
Will it ever stop? Yo — I don’t know
Turn off the lights, and I’ll glow.
— Vanilla Ice, late Cold War American recording artist
“Storm reports that she has reached Point Egret,” Hanne announces flatly. “The squadron is in place.”
“Very well,” I acknowledge, to the back of her head. My chief of staff is seething.
It is very early in the morning aboard KNM Fridtjof Nansen (F310), the largest and most capable ship in the Royal Norwegian Navy. We have just completed a harrowing overnight sprint north, hugging the jagged coastline in darkness and total electronic silence, and I am hoping that our arrival in this area will remain unnoticed for a little while longer.
We are not alone. Our friends out in the pre-dawn darkness are four Skjold-class fast missile craft. The Skjolds are this generation’s tribute to PT boats — barely displacing 300 tons, they are specially shaped to evade radar and can make 60 knots in calm seas. They are, in fact, the fastest armed surface craft in the world. For the past two weeks they have been wreaking havoc on Russian surface activities, punching at amphibious shipping and then fading back into the shelter of the coastal radar clutter before the escorts can react. Which is why the Russians have now sent a fast surface group to kill the Skjolds once and for all.
Hanne believes that I am making an enormous mistake. She knows the Skjolds very well, having served as the deputy program officer before going on to be Skudd‘s first commander. In fact, she is one of the Navy’s top two or three tactical experts on fighting these boats, and she insists that the key advantage of the Skjolds lies in their blistering speed. And by ordering the squadron to remain in their hide sites instead of keeping them on the move, she thinks that I am squandering the initiative and robbing them of their best chance to survive the coming engagement.
I’m not so sure. My chief of staff comes from a world of fast-boat alley fights, where short-range hit-and-run attacks on other missile craft are the order of the day. She thinks I am too old, too cautious to understand her carbon-fiber spaceships that zip around on cushions of air. Perhaps she is right about that. But my background is in the frigate navy, a world of helicopters. You cannot outrun a helo. Zooming around at 60 knots in the presence of enemy airborne search radar just announces to the world that you are something to kill.
And what the Russians can see, they can kill. They build the best antiship missiles in the world, and their newer weapons are heavier, faster, and longer-ranged than ours. Even their older systems are monsters. By comparison we are throwing thumbtacks.
But, of course, the race does not always go to the fellow with the three-ton Mach 2.5 cruise missile. We hope.
I glance at the clock. It is time.
“Cola 03, green deck,” the deck circuit chirps. A minute later the helicopter winds up and bites into the air, lifting away from the flattened rear end of Nansen. The helo departs with a throaty roaring growl that we can feel even deep inside the heart of the ship. But electromagnetically, she is as quiet as a hummingbird.
This is a game of hide-and-go-kill. We are crouched on the dark sea with radar flashlights, armed with ship-killing weapons that can reach over the horizon. Shine your flashlight on a target and you can kill it, though you may not be able to tell exactly what you are killing. But others can see your beam sweeping across the water from farther away than you can see them. It is precisely the kind of uncomfortable situation that certain long-haired Canadian guitarists of decades past might have declared to be ironic, if only there were a singable English word that rhymed with “radar.”
Our five ships are strung out on a loose line that runs to the northeast, hugging the rugged coastline like rain on a wedding day. My flagship anchors the line to the south, ambling down the channel at an innocuous 10 knots. The Skjolds are tucked into small inlets and coves without a hint of irony, where the rocky surroundings will hopefully shield them from the probing fingers of enemy radar.
Cola 03 is headed to a patrol station far to the west. Like a lookout climbing a tree, an radar up high can see much farther than a radar at sea level. Sadly, it can be seen from farther away as well, and I do not want the aircraft’s presence to compromise Nansen‘s position. By keeping its radar off until it is a good distance away, I hope to suggest to the enemy that the helo took off from somewhere far to the west, where we spent most of yesterday evening ostentatiously banging together electronic pots and pans.
While remaining radar-silent itself, Cola 03 carries hypersensitive antennas that are tuned to listen for the radar beams of others. And there is a lot of electronic noise over the open sea this morning.
“Racket, racket, racket,” chants the electronic warfare tech in a trained monotone. “I hold multiple surface and airborne emitters, bearing 016 from Cola 03. At least one type Palm Frond and one type Mushroom. Correction, two Palm Fronds.”
The unique radiating signatures of Russian military hardware. We gravitate toward the EW man, who ignores us while he concentrates on the electromagnetic witchcraft swirling in his console. When he finally speaks he looks past the officers and addresses the ops chief. “Evaluate group as mixed air and surface contacts, composition four. SKUNK 3, Gremyashchy-class frigate, bearing 016. SKUNK 4, a second Gremyashchy, bearing 021. BOGEY 1, Helix-A helicopter, bearing 333. BOGEY 2, Helix-A helicopter, bearing 340. All are active.”
“How far to the Grems?” Hanne asks immediately.
“Hard to say in these conditions. Maybe 40 miles. Maybe more.”
A pair of brand-new Gremyashchy-class frigates, with their own birds already aloft. Our main quarry this morning. To be truthful, I had not expected them this soon.
Hanne appears beside me, her blue eyes electric.
“At 40 miles that places them here.” She taps the display. “They are already within missile range. We can have the Skjolds break cover and speed north at 60 knots. In five minutes we would be in radar illumination range and can shoot, then break contact to the south. The Skjolds can do this, Flaggkommandør. It is a standard drill we trained for all the time.”
“We don’t know for sure that the Russians are at 40 miles,” I tell her. “And they have two Helixes airborne. They would make us coming off the coast in an attack profile. We’d all be dead 90 seconds later, long before we got into radar range.”
Her nostrils flare. “That situation is not going to change, Flaggkommandør. Their missiles will not become slower because you wait. Speed and surprise are our only advantages.”
The ops chief, standing over the EW tech, interrupts us. “Cola 03 has new rackets. Evaluate as SKUNK 5, bearing 022, estimate 60 miles, and SKUNK 6, bearing 234, estimate 30 miles. Cannot classify at this time.”
“Getting crowded,” I observe unnecessarily.
“It will become worse at sunrise,” Hanne says.
Three more ESM contacts appear between 0505 and 0508, two of them about 20 miles further to the east. I watch the overlapping wedges dance across the display, each representing the zones that the signal processors calculate the radar emissions might be coming from. If the zones become small enough, and our guesses as to the actual position of the contacts become good enough, we could theoretically shoot. The missiles would proceed to the expected area and use their own short-range onboard radars to guide on whatever they find there. But there are too many commercial fishermen in these waters. Norwegian civilians. We cannot shoot blindly into a crowd of innocents.
A minute later the EW section completes its classification analysis. SKUNKs 5, 6, and 8 are using commercial navigation radars, the hallmark of neutral shipping traffic. But SKUNKs 7 and 9 are broadcasting the telltale military radar waveforms that mark them as Russian Nanuchka-class fast missile boats. We still don’t have exact positions, speeds, or directions of travel. But now we have a pretty good idea of who’s who. A western group comprised of two Grem frigates and their search helicopters. An eastern group comprised of two smaller Nanuchkas. And a bunch of fishermen sprinkled in between.
The tactical staff updates the manual backup plot. I am vaguely aware of Hanne staring at me from the shadows, slender arms folded.
At 0511, Cola 03 checks in at its patrol station. A moment later, the helo’s powerful surface search radar illuminates the scene and sweeps away all the guessing, like a new sun rising in the west. No doubt the western military radar is a blaring alarm to every sleepy Russian electronic warfare technician within two hundred miles.
With three big sweeps of the active airborne radar we pinpoint the Grems, racing southeast at almost 30 knots. One of the Russian search helicopters presses to the southwest, alarmingly near the westernmost Skjold. It’s not clear whether the Helix’s Mushroom search radar is near enough and sensitive enough to capture the Skjold in its hide site. But presumably the Russian frigates are headed in this direction for a reason. And they are rapidly drawing close.
“Hanne.” The chief of staff locks her gaze in my direction. “The launch cycle for a full salvo of eight missiles. How long?”
She compresses her lips for a moment. “Thirty, maybe 35 seconds for fire control. Thirty-two seconds for the firing cycle. For a well-drilled crew, somewhere between 62 and 70 seconds.”
I look at the plot. The Grem formation is about 25 miles from the nearest Skjold. The Russian P-800 missiles carried by the frigate fly at 1,600 knots, or about Mach 2.8 at sea level. At that speed it would take about 60 seconds to cover the distance. If the Russians shoot first, the Skjolds would not have the opportunity to get a full salvo off. If we are half a minute late detecting or reacting to the launch, we might not get any missiles off at all.
I turn, and see the same conclusion dawning in Hanne’s wide eyes.
“Now — both!” I blurt. It occurs to me that this is not naval history’s most articulate command, so I try to help with some urgent pointing.
But she is already on the other side of the plot station, and has relieved the CIC officer of his radio handset with a street magician’s dexterity.
“Shearwater, all stations, warning condition yellow.” Her voice booms over the command circuit repeater in the bulkhead, lending the odd impression of an emcee announcing the winners of a deadly raffle. “Designate shooters Gnist and Steil. On order, take west surface group with bulldogs, full salvo. Target sort, your discretion.”
“Steil, SKUNK 4, sorted.”
“Gnist, SKUNK 3, sorted.”
Exactly 33 seconds tick by, according to the CIC clock.
“Steil, standing by to take SKUNK 4 with eight bulldogs. Set and ready.”
“Gnist, ready to take SKUNK 3 with eight bulldogs. We are set and ready.”
She looks in my direction, eyes alive, a wolf quivering on a leash. Hanne the Terrible. The ops chief wordlessly holds out something to me.
I take the handset. “This is Shearwater Actual. Warning condition red. Shooters, as briefed: engage SKUNK 3, engage SKUNK 4.”
Miles away, Gnist and Steil unlimber the quad-cell box launchers concealed in their rear decks. Alternating between port and starboard canisters, each boat hurls eight Kongsberg Naval Strike Missiles (NSMs) into the crisp air in a flurry of heat and exhaust. The NSMs lack the muscular bulk of their Russian counterparts. Yet they are stealthy, evasive, and smart, part of a new generation of domestic weapons purpose-built for combat among the fjords. They settle into a cruise profile in two distinct flocks, each headed over the horizon for a Russian frigate at just under the speed of sound.
With the missiles on their way, their motherships left behind face a tactical quandary. The two trains of cruise missiles, which have likely already lit up every Russian tactical plot in the area, point directly back to the hide sites. In fact, the Helix less than ten miles away may have even visually observed both launches. There will be no further hiding for Gnist or Steil at this point.
But running may make things worse. Even at 60 knots, neither of the Skjolds will be able to exit the engagement envelope of the Russian missiles before someone shoots. And with the Helix nearby, missiles will be on the way shortly. The question is where one would prefer to be shot at. Open waters would be certain death. At least hidden in the folds of the rocky terrain, there is the possibility that the Russian missile radar seekers will be confused. As long as the Helix is there, the Skjolds may be better off where they are.
Hanne has no better ideas. There is no tactical doctrine for this situation. I wish the Skjolds had better antiaircraft defenses. Shoot the helo, break contact, and race away. But they do not.
At 0514 Steil picks up a radar contact, very fast, very low, inbound at 15 miles. Then another. Then another. Nobody has to wait for the EW tech to announce his evaluation. At least one of the Grems has launched their P-800 antiship missiles.
Gnist detects a P-800 as well. We watch in silence as the slow-moving trains of NSMs crawl north, passing the handful of southbound Russian missiles moving at almost three times their speed.
One of the P-800s disappears, either impacting the rocky cliffs or becoming confused by all of the radar reflections off the terrain. The others open their giant radar eyelids, and begin their active terminal search, looking for something to kill.
At 0515 Steil fires her decoys and is struck by a P-800. She sinks within a minute. Less than thirty seconds later, Gnist simply evaporates from the display.
There is a collective, involuntary gasp from everyone in the combat information center. Almost everyone. Hanne stands impassively in front of the tactical plot, a silent frost maiden with an officer’s shoulder straps.
The NSMs also continue unperturbed. They are fire-and-forget weapons, neither knowing nor particularly caring about the sudden demise of their motherships.
In the meantime, something odd starts to happen.
“Vampires,” calls Skjold, one of the two surviving Skjolds in a hide site to the east. Not aimed at them — traveling west. It seems that the east group has also fired a salvo of their P-120 missiles. They don’t know how many of us there are, I realize, and maybe they don’t know they have already killed two of us. Perhaps the Helix cannot see into the rocks after all, even if the terminal seekers on the advanced P-800 missiles can.
The display is cluttered with missile symbols, as Russian missiles appear everywhere while the flocks of NSMs track north. As they near their targets, one of the Grems begins engaging the train of NSMs with its air defenses, just as the smart missiles begin their programmed terminal evasion maneuvers.
The Russian hard-kill air defense systems claw two of the NSMs out of the air, before the surviving missiles dash through the missile defense belt and are ineffectively engaged by the last-ditch automatic gun systems. Then Steil exacts its vengeance from beyond the grave as the first of its NSMs pierces the hull of the Russian frigate and detonates inside a watertight compartment. On our tactical displays, we see the contact representing a Gremyashchy frigate suddenly slow from 27 knots to a complete stop in less than a minute, on fire and dead in the water.
The other frigate manages to kill three NSMs with its hard-kill defenses, but, having expended missiles defending its sister, pauses to reload its launcher. The remaining NSMs blow through the automatic gun systems and dive at their target. Ten seconds later the second Gremyashchy disappears entirely from Cola 03’s radar coverage, apparently having disintegrated completely.
It is 0517, and in the space of under six minutes, four of the world’s most modern stealth warships have managed to kill each other from a distance of over 20 miles. Tactically it is a good exchange for us — two 2,200-ton frigates for a pair of 300-ton fast missile craft — but I am not in an especially celebratory mood.
“Where are the Nanuchkas?” demands Hanne.
It is a good question. The EW tech reports that the east group faded from coverage three minutes before, and have not re-emerged, out of range of Cola 03’s radar. Skjold suggests that they are probably “displacing” after their missile shoot, fearing the same kind of retaliatory counterfire that killed Steil and Gnist. Running from the bewildering ambush that just claimed their comrades in the dark.
Our orders are to bloody the Russians, with the two newly-commissioned stealth frigates being a priority. Nanuchkas are elderly combatants dating back to the Cold War, and if they have already fired their missiles they are no longer an immediate threat. We are not supposed to take unnecessary risks. The Skjolds are national assets and we have already lost two of them this morning. And surprise disaster comes quickly in an age of over-the-horizon missiles.
“How many missiles did they shoot?” I finally ask.
“We counted eleven,” says Skjold‘s captain.
“Nanuchkas carry six apiece. That leaves one,” insists Hanne. “They are still an active threat.”
I look hard at her.
“I want them,” she says quietly. No anger, no pleading, just a flat statement of fact. From an officer who had personally certified every Skjold crew in the fleet. Her eyes shine wetly in the cold light of the tactical display.
The tactical staff watches me in silence. I weigh prudence against boldness, a measured win versus a complete victory. Or a foolhardy defeat. At sea, with few ships and fast missiles, there is not the luxury of slicing risk very finely. All or nothing: decide.
In the end, I take the handset from the chief of staff.
“Cola 03, snap 050, best speed. We need surface coverage further to the east.”
We lost contact with the second Nanuchka over eight minutes ago, and with the first five minutes before that. Everybody agrees that they are headed east. But northeast, to withdraw? Or southeast, to slip into the coastal noise and surprise the surviving Skjolds?
With only one missile left — if that — my bet is that they are retiring. It makes no sense to attack. Crazy.
“You do not know fast missile boat crews very well, I think,” Hanne remarks, eyes fastened on the display.
Well, that much is true. I order the Skjolds closer inshore, radar-silent, while we await the helo. Suddenly I am afraid of mistakes. Is it really a good idea to go looking for the Nanuchkas after all? Maybe we should back off, call it a day. Let the air force take care of these stray boats.
At 0529 Cola 03 calls: “New surface group, bearing 079, 95 miles, composition two.”
It takes the ops chief less than ten seconds: “Evaluate new group as SKUNKs 7 and 9, contact resumed.” We have found our Nanuchkas.
“Kommandørkaptein Olhauser is now the Officer in Tactical Command,” I announce.
Hanne considers me for a moment with a glance that I can’t read, then accepts a handset from the ops chief.
“This is Shearwa–” she begins, but then seems to remember something and starts over. “This is Bullfinch 5. Storm and Skjold. Warning condition yellow. Missile engagement, SKUNKs 7 and 9. Drill 7, drill 7.”
“Storm, affirm, drill 7. Standard ripple count?”
Hanne pauses. “No. Eight rounds. Full salvo.”
The EW tech breaks in: “Peel Pair, bearing 078 from Cola 03. SKUNK 7 is going active.”
“Storm, SKUNK 9, sorted. Setting up.”
“Skjold, SKUNK 7, sorted. Same.”
“Now second Peel Pair, same bearing. SKUNK 9 is active.”
“Hurry up,” warns Hanne, with a wild look at the changing shapes on the tactical display.
“Storm, set and ready.”
“Skjold, set and ready.”
Hanne glances at me reflexively, but does not wait. “Warning condition red. Engage SKUNK 9, engage SKUNK 7.”
“Storm, bulldogs away.”
“Skjold, bulldogs away.”
“Vampire, vampire, vampire! I hold a single vampire, bearing 040, fast, range 14 miles. Designate VAMPIRE 52.” It looks like we didn’t miscount. The Nanuchkas in fact had been saving a P-120 round.
Hanne: “All stations, scram, scram, scram. Execute break contact maneuvers, drill 7.” Both of the fast surface-effect craft acknowledge. The display shows them accelerating past 40 knots.
“I have a Pop Group along the target bearing. SKUNK 7 is engaging bulldogs.”
One of the NSMs disappears. Then the remaining NSMs plow into the first Nanuchka. “Peel Pair ceased, Pop Group ceased. Evaluate that as a kill. SKUNK 7 is a kill.”
“Volcano, volcano, volcano. Active missile seeker along the bearing of VAMPIRE 52.”
“New Pop Group. SKUNK 9 engaging…Pop Group ceased. SKUNK 9 faded. Evaluate SKUNK 9 as a kill.”
But Hanne is not looking at the sinking Russian missile boats. She is focused entirely on Skjold, which despite its full-speed dash along the coast, has been unable to break contact in time. Now a dead man’s antiship missile is actively searching for it.
Skjold‘s 76mm gun swivels around and begins firing at the Russian missile. However, the P-120 missile moves at ten miles per minute, and at that speed the gun can only get off four rounds, all of which miss. The little missile craft has no other hard-kill defenses.
The P-120, I remember, has a dual-seeker system. If the radar seeker fails, there is a backup infrared seeker mounted below it. The last chance is to use a decoy to seduce the missile seeker — seekers — and cause the P-120 to miss.
In the very last moments before the three-ton P-120 spears her composite hull, Skjold fires a spread of chaff/flare rockets.
Time slows. Hanne’s posture is stoic, but her eyes betray her.
“VAMPIRE 52, volcano ceased, contact faded. Evaluate as a miss and self-destruct.”
Major victory: 700 points
1x Ka-27PL Helix A
2x MPK Gremyashchy [Pr.2038.5, Improved Steregushchy]
2x MRK Nanuchka III [Pr.1234.1 Ovod]
20x 100mm/59 A-190 Frag
3x AK-630M 30mm/65 Gatling Burst [400 rnds]
15x PK-10 Flare [SO-50]
4x PK-16 Flare [TST-60U]
26x SA-N-21c Growler [9M96]
3x SA-N-4a Gecko [9M33]
4x SS-N-26 Sapless [P-800 Onyx]
12x SS-N-9 Siren [P-120 Malakhit]
2x P 960 Skjold
6x 76mm/62 Super Rapido HE Burst [2 rnds]
8x DUAL TRAP Chaff/Flare
32x Naval Strike Missile (NSM)
4x RIM-162A ESSM
Scenario/simulation: “First Contact,” Command: Modern Air and Naval Operations.