‘Let your plans be as obscure and impenetrable as the night.
But when you decide to move, fall onto the enemy like lightning.’
Sun Zi, The Art of War, 5th century BC.
USS Ronald Regan
October 14. 6.00 a.m.
Never before in all his previous duties had Commander Taylor been forced into such a farce. The fitness workout to which the entire crew had to take part seemed perfectly ridiculous to him. Worse, he felt he was drawn into a humiliation exercise in which the Navy airmen were transformed into ballerinas for the occasion. He had been cursing for a good hour on the flight deck, clumsily raising his legs, when he caught shot of the voice of Sanchez, an Afghanistan war veteran with whom he took part in the final assault of the Tora Bora underground base.
‘Let’s go, Taylor. They’re waiting for us. Our aircraft are ready to patrol. Take off at eight zero twelve.’
Taylor looked at his watch, too glad to see his sufferings brought to an early end. He immediately ran inside to his quarters and jumped into his flight suit, while to Hornets rose on an elevator platform from a hangar below deck.
Ten minutes later, Taylor and Sanchez were leaving the briefing room. They climbed up into their respective cockpits, fired up the twin-jet engines and slowly taxied to their waiting positions, guided by the deck crew.
First in line, Sanchez opened the throttles to full power. A deafening roar burst into the cockpit. A few seconds later, he felt a violent kick in the back as the steam catapult began to hurl the aircraft amid a trail of dense haze. Pulled by the catapult’s shoe, the Hornet was flung from standstill to 260 kilometres per hour in less than two seconds – a fleeting moment in which the pilot, crushed against his seat under four times his own weight, abandons physical contact with the carrier and finds himself staring straight up at the clear blue sky. With the afterburner, the two jet engines blew plumes of crimson flames like a Chinese dragon. The plane soared into the air and veered left after a few seconds to clear the path for his escort. 20 seconds later, the second Hornet was in turn catapulted into the air. The two fighters grouped up to continue in formation.
Mark Campbell climbed up the stairs and, still panting, entered the operations room at the top of the island.
‘Captain,’ he blurted, trying to catch his breath, ‘I’ve taken the liberty of informing you personally that…’
Campbell gasped again before continuing:
‘a Hawkeye’s just spotted an enemy plane. It seems it took off from Dachang airbase, near Shanghai. According to its radar signature, it could be a Cub type distant-alert plane. It’s heading towards our task force at a speed of 600 kilometres per hour.’
The captain turned over to Admiral Ralph Brendel who was commanding the air fleet with his on-board staff:
‘Admiral, this reconnaissance plane is closing in to acquire our group’s position data. We must stop it before it gets sufficiently close to pinpoint us.’
‘Captain, will you please order our two F-18s to intercept. Their mission is to chase that plane back to its base. If it fails to comply, shoot it down,’ he ordered in an adamant tone.
Within two minutes, the two US planes had set bearings on their target. Taylor immediately recognized the Cub: an Antonov AN-12 made under license in China with the local designation Y-8. It was advancing at its 600 kilometres per hour cruising speed at an altitude of over 7000 metres. But as the two fighter pilots were homing in on the Cub, they were overtaken by doubts.
‘Leader to Zulu, do you see what I see?’ asked Taylor, scarcely believing his eyes.
The Cub was not the Y-8J model that they had been expecting. An enormous rectangular radar antenna, at least 5 metres in span, was mounted on the back of the plane.
‘What’s that! It looks like a Hawkeye!’ Sanchez replied.
Taylor confirmed what they were both suspecting.
‘It’s an AWACS. And it’s fitted with a high-precision, long-distance radar by the looks of it.’
Taylor immediately contacted the aircraft carrier.
‘Leader to Ronnie, it’s an AWACS. I repeat: the Chinese have sent us an AWACS! Awaiting instructions. Are we to eliminate? Please confirm.’
But no answer came on their radio channel.
In the command centre aboard the Ronald Reagan, silence gave way to a sudden burst of effervescence. The chief Admiral of the Fleet, who was also the officer in command of tactical operations, was making rapid exchanges with his officers regarding the Chinese radar plane identified by the two Hornets. The intelligence officer was pointing to photos of the plane displayed on the large LCD screen.
‘This is what we were expecting, a Y-8J, easily recognizable by its oversized rounded black nose that dips downward. It has good avionics, but it’s no match for our Hawkeye. Even if it turned out to be an Airborne Early Warning system, its range would be limited to 200 kilometres, thus making it incapable of acquiring a complete overall coverage of our operations theatre. And this is what our guys have just intercepted! It now appears the Chinese possess a true AWACS. They’d been seeking to obtain one from foreign sources. Failing to find one on the market, they obviously managed to knock up a home-grown AWACS.’
Using his small metal rule as a pointer, the intelligence officer indicated the radar antenna on the back of the plane.
‘What you see here is something the Chinese developed themselves. It is built around a Y-8, which is their own version of the Antonov AN-12. According to our records, it carries a phase-array scanning radar. That’s the large rectangle you see fixed on the airframe by a series of struts. It’s backed up by a second radar, also a phase array, whose window is under the airframe…’
‘What’s the capability of its airborne radar?’ snapped the Admiral.
‘It is difficult to say, Admiral, but if the Chinese chose to send us its AWACS, we can assume they’re pretty confident of its performance. You can be sure it has a range of over 500 kilometres.’
The Admiral winced, as if someone had suddenly stabbed him in the abdomen.
‘So, we have to conclude that our entire fleet has been located…’
‘Negative, leader. Just send it back home and keep taking pictures.’
Sanchez and Taylor circled broadly round of the plane, and then flanked it on either side, wing against wing. They were sufficiently close to see the four pilots and the flight engineer in the Y-8’s cockpit. But the crew gave no sign of reacting, as if they wanted to gain time and get as close as possible to the US task force. Inside the airframe, there must have been at least 10 radar operators scrutinizing their respective screens, trying to locate each vessel.
‘Leader to Zulu, our friend needs a wake-up call. Sound the alarm!’
Sanchez’s Hornet broke away to describe a loop. He cut the path of the Chinese plane, at the same time firing his Vulcan M61 20 mm cannon. The message could not have been clearer. It was the last warning fire before more radical measures. His cannon was sufficient to down the big Cub; there was no need to set off one of the Sidewinder missiles mounted on his wingtips.
The Chinese captain understood there was no point in insisting any longer. He began to veer westwards, losing a bit of altitude, then straightened on a south-west bearing, apparently heading back to its base. The two Hornets escorted it for a full 20 minutes without entering Chinese airspace. Then they radioed to the aircraft carrier.
‘The bird’s returned to its nest. Request permission to return to base.’
‘Okay leader, you can come back. We’re watching your customer on our screens.’
The two Hornets left their prey. They broke formation and set bearings to the USS Ronald Regan.
Aboard the Yunshu-8, everyone had kept their calm as the thunder of the two US fighter jets broke loose, drowning the din of the Chinese aircraft’s four turboprops. The Hornets had squeezed in tight, and even left them a few holes as a memento. But they have scored a victory. Inside the plane, eight radar operators glued to their screens had managed to locate the American task force vessels with excellent precision. Knowing the initial trajectory, the specialists at the Chinese HQ would be able to trace the aircraft carrier’s route with adequate precision over the following five hours. They had even sent the position information in real time to relay stations on the continent, which in turn immediately forwarded it to the headquarters.
Langley, CIA headquarters.
Lorna Green was beaming. It was miraculous. A satellite happened to be in the field of reception at the very moment when the tiny tell-tale transmitter was sending its signal. They had just detected the presence of Tom Bailey.
She unfolded a large map on her desk. Her eyes were not deceiving her. It was indeed a monastery, Taoist according to the symbol legend. Without waiting, she rang Stenton in Beijing, oblivious of the local time there.
‘We’ve found him. He’s in the Hubei, 400 miles from Xi’an as the crow flies.’
The announcement was met with a dull groan.
‘Stenton, are you there?’ asked Lorna assuming a dry and rasping voice.
‘Yes Lorna. Yes, I’m here. What’s going on?’
‘Would your contacts still be interested in a deal, despite the war? We’ve found Tom.’
‘Hardly likely. Now they’ll want to keep the computer scientist and place him on public trial with maximum international press coverage, so they could afterwards brag to the entire world about how they caught an American spy.’
‘Stenton, we must recover him before the Chinese do. Do you have enough men in the field?’
‘Well then, I want you to mount a commando operation. Tom is in a Hubei monastery, far from the cities. I shouldn’t think there’s anything to fear.’
‘We’ll need a precise topological survey of the area.’
‘I’ll get our observation satellites to fly over the zone. Will a position down to 5 inches been all right for you?’
Headquarters of the People’s liberation Army
October 14, 11:30 a.m.
The army chief of staff, surrounded by the highest dignitaries of the Central Military Commission, was waiting for the president. An American anti-aircraft and antisubmarine protection frigate had broken through the 200-mile exclusion zone China decided to impose against all military vessels and aircraft. They were 160 kilometres ahead of the Ronald Regan aircraft carrier, and must therefore be preceded by one – possibly two – assault type nuclear submarines.
The 200-mile limiting line was clearly not in the same league as the Great Wall of China. It had not managed to hold back the American armada. President Ren had to face up to his responsibilities.
‘Mr. President, one of our AWACS detector planes has located the flotilla with extreme precision before being intercepted by enemy fighters. It returned to base without any serious damage. The carrier-based task force initially marked a pause before entering the Sea of China, no doubt fearing an ambush. A frigate set off first as a scout to patrol the zone, and was then followed by other vessels in its progress. We are now in a position to confirm that the Americans have crossed the exclusion line.’
The awaited verdict had fallen. The United States had begun the hostilities. The war had entered into its active phase.
‘How far is the aircraft carrier?’
‘According to position data received half an hour ago, it is within 100 kilometres from the exclusion line. In the last 48 hours, we ordered four of our submarines to go on a mission. They’ve just received the target’s coordinates. We await your instructions.’
The President looked attentively at the positions of the vessels displayed before him on a large projection screen. The target, at the centre of the cluster, was clearly distinguishable by its bright scintillating echo dominating the others.
‘It’s time to place all our armed forces in a state of maximum alert.’
The army chief of staff immediately passed on the order.
‘Place all our strategic forces on alert, ordered the President without departing from his natural calm.
‘Our skies are continuously observed by American satellites… Every one of our movements will be known to them in real time, observed a general. But the latter bowed down upon noticing that the general in chief in command of the strategic forces had already accepted the President’s decision without batting an eyelid.’
‘Order our submarines to take on the aircraft carrier,’ he commanded, without taking any heed of the general’s faint-hearted observations.
The chief of staff gave a sign to the admiral in Chief of the Naval forces, who returned a nod of acknowledgement.
‘Our vessels have been ready for the past two days. We sent out four submarines. Two nuclear powered vessels, both belonging to our new type 093 class, plus an old 091, which went ahead as a scout. The fourth is our latest-generation ‘Kilo’ class submarine. Our first submarine, the 091, will reach the exclusion zone by mid-afternoon.’ It was Admiral Liang in person who had conceived this strategy.
The deadline date was getting closer. In just a few hours, the crisis would be about to reveal its true nature.
The chairman of the military commission, Liu Rong, broke the heavy silence that had fallen among those present.
‘We have prepared a communiqué in which the People’s Republic of China confirms that a foreign naval power has violated the exclusion zone it established. This constitutes a deliberate act of aggression. China shall not hesitate to use its nuclear arsenal to enforce the respect of its territorial integrity.
It is capital that American and world opinion clearly understand that China is the victim of aggression, and that the ensuing consequences can be of the utmost gravity. We must raise the tension, for the threat of a nuclear strike remains our first defence. But we must also be prepared to engage our navy and air force to defend our territory. If the Americans take us on, will make them pay for our losses.’
The president got up from his seat, prompting his chiefs of staff to do likewise.
West China Sea
Chinese navy submarine ‘Han’
October 14, 12 p.m.
Captain Huang knew he would be the first to arrive at the target. He was the commander of the ‘Changzheng,’ a Chinese 091-type, first-generation assault type nuclear submarine, codenamed ‘Han’ by NATO. It was his task to confront the American air-sea forces that had just crossed the exclusion zone imposed by the government of China.
The military HQ had sent him both the coordinates and the most probable trajectory of his target. The latter was the ‘Ronald Regan,’ the latest aircraft carrier to come out of the American shipyards. Huang searched across the bank of sonar screen consoles. It was going to be quite some challenge to cross the curtain of submarine detectors dropped by the US task force. For a start, it meant diving to a depth of at least 200 metres.
He turned to his sonar operator.
‘Still no signal?’
‘Nothing at all, sir. Not even a whale.’
His sonar equipment was able to pick up the noise from other submarines or surface vessels without even sending a tell-tale sound signal to its potential targets. This ‘one-way-only’ detection was their only guarantee of discretion – and survival. But the submarine was showing its age. It was due to be replaced by 093 submarines, of which two were already in service. One of them was following approximately 100 kilometres behind, together with 2 Kilos – conventional diesel-electric powered submarines that were nevertheless remarkably silent. Huang would dearly have loved to say as much for his own craft.
And yet the chiefs of staff had chosen to place his sub at the vanguard position. They surely had good reasons for this.
USS Ronald Reagan
October 14, 2 p.m.
Admiral Brendel was satisfied with the situation. For the time being, everything was going rather well. The approaches to the West China Sea had been thoroughly explored by his two ‘watchdogs’, as he called his detection frigates, and by attack submarine SSN Charlotte, all reporting that no Chinese vessel had been detected.
But he knew it would not be long before the Chinese fleet would rear its head; it was inconceivable that China would remain passive in front of a violation of their so-called exclusion zone. The Chinese were forced to engage in contact, and thereby fall under the accusation of attacking the American fleet in international waters! They were thus caught in a trap of their own making.
Now it was the American aircraft carrier’s turn to cross the 200 mile line. It was going to mark a pause, waiting for an anticipated Chinese reaction.
Lieutenant Mark Campbell brought him the news he had been waiting for.
‘Admiral, the Princeton has just detected a hostile submarine 95 miles from the Ronald Reagan in sector 5-3-8.’
Without delay, the Admiral turned to his second officer. It was now urgent to install a barrage of acoustic buoys.
‘Send out a Viking and drop of 16 buoys 50 miles ahead of our position.’
The subsonic twinjet, geared for antisubmarine warfare, was already on the flight deck. Its crew that was just waiting for the plane to be taxied and placed against the catapult.
20 minutes later, the plane was over the announced sector and dropped a single line of sonar buoys so as to form a protective barrage ahead of the task force.
Upon hitting the water, each buoy separated into two parts: a floater which remained on the surface and housed a transmitter for the radio link with the aircraft, and a 400-gramme metal cylinder containing a hydrophone. Once submerged, the latter remained connected to the buoy via a reeled cable. The hydrophone emitted an acoustic waveform that could be reflected by the submarine if it came within its active range.
‘Admiral, the Viking has just detected an intrusion in the sector 5-3-8. It was a signal from one of its sonar buoys; it must be a Chinese submarine. It immediately moved away you when it realized it was spotted.’
Serious business was about to begin. The Admiral turned to George Foley, his second in command
‘Which of our submarines are in the vicinity?’
‘The Princeton to the south is the nearest one to the zone. To the north, the Charlotte can be there in under two hours.’
‘I want you to direct both these vessels immediately to that sector. And discretion is the operative word. Put out the order to use only the passive sonars. And send out to Seahawks from the Princeton.
‘Admiral, we’ve been able to classify our targets from the sonar signals: it’s a Han,’ cut in Campbell. ‘It’s the Chinese 091 type attack nuclear submarine.’
Captain Foley made no mystery of his surprise.
‘A Han! Jeez, I thought these vessels were decommissioned years ago! They encountered their worst problems during their final testing back in the 80s – leakage from the nuclear boiler, if I remember right.’
‘According to our information, there were two left in service. But it must be their swan song, because the new 093-type generation now appears operational.’
‘The 093’s definitely more furtive, but it’s nothing more than a good old Russian Victor III from the 80s, too. Nothing that can outdo our detection systems. You’ll soon see the Chinese go begging to their Russian friends for their Akulas.
Foley was chortling heartily, as if – with pardonable tunnel vision – the whole outcome could only concern his own vessel. For it was true that the Americans had developed awesomely effective submarine detection technology. Their sonars and data processors that could recognize a Typhoon and distinguish a Delta from an Alpha or a Charlie. But the Admiral had been expecting a more precise and balanced form of response from the captain.
‘Gentlemen, all this doesn’t explain why the Chinese are sending us a craft they know perfectly well we’re bound to detect the moment it leaves its mooring.’
‘Because they want to keep their best vessels to pursue the operations,’ suggested Foley, in a somewhat haughty tone, before adding more seriously that he would not be surprised if two or three Kilos were lurking around at that very moment, not less than 100 kilometres from their positions.
But the Admiral was still not satisfied by the viewpoint adopted by his second-in-command.
‘My opinion’s that the Chinese have chosen to deliberately sacrifice that submarine. It’s going to take every possible risk and try to force a passage to compel us to sink it.’
‘And force us into the role of the aggressors!’
Foley was no longer laughing. Neither was the Admiral.
‘The Chinese know only too well that they’re in a position of inferiority both in the air and at sea. Their strategy is to pose as the victims, even at the price of sacrificing on the way a few Sukhoi’s, or some of their missile launching frigates. And at the same time they’re escalating the risk of a nuclear conflict.’
‘What are we to do about this Han?’
‘No need to rush, time is on our side. We’ll begin by harassing it. If it backs away, let it return to its base. If it forces through our barrages, then sink it. That’s an order.’
October 14, 2:30 p.m.
‘The guys aboard of the Charlotte are going to have a whale of a time following that old crate! It sounds like my grandma’s coffee grinder!,’ quipped the Princeton’s sonar officer, who had no trouble in classifying the Chinese vessel by its giveaway signature.
Two SH-60 Seahawk helicopters took off from Princeton’s platform. 30 minutes later, they were inside the zone with sufficient fuel for four hours’ mission.
The first one began to hover about 20 metres over the sea’s surface and dropped its AQS-13F submersible sonar. The latter was suspended from a 500 metre cable, more than long enough to reach down to the submersion depth of even the most modern submarines. The helicopter’s autopilot locked into a perfectly stable hovering mode. The sonar sank to a depth of 100 metres. No sooner had it emitted its acoustic signal in all directions that it picked up an echo signalling that the Han was on a new bearing. It was now heading south, attempting to bypass the barrage of buoys. It’s a tactic was doomed to failure. It was now stalked not only by the two helicopters, but also by the Princeton and the Charlotte.
The second Seahawk followed a path that took it head-on against the submarine’s position. It then hovered and dropped its sonar to a depth of 150 metres, bombarding the Han with acoustic impacts. It repeated this procedure several times in succession. Upon hearing these active acoustic energy emissions, the submarine once more changed bearing while maintaining its depth of 200 metres.
The sub was clearly not going to give in. It traced large curves to escape from the range of the sonars. But its derisory speed of 20 knots was no match for the helicopter’s 300 km per hour capability. The game was completely one-sided.
The pilot of a second Seahawk began to show signs of nervousness.
‘We’ll soon have to go back to base, our fuel level’s getting low,’ he announced to his tactics officer.
‘Its seventeen hundred hours. We’ll return to base in fifteen minutes.’
‘I hate these long drawn out agonies; let’s kill it now and get it over and done with!’ pleaded the pilot.
‘We have orders not to sink it. Up till now it’s always retreated from us.’
‘Just one nice little torpedo and it’ll be game over.’
The Seahawk carried two MK-50 light torpedoes mounted on outboard pylons. Although only 2.7 metres long and 30 cm in diameter, they spelt certain death for any submarine that came in their way. An active acoustic, self-homing device was mounted inside the nose, coupled with a passive acoustic guiding system. They could charge towards their prey at over 70 kilometres per hour. There was simply no escape from such a weapon. A submarine that was detected, identified and located was a dead submarine. All the helicopter had to do was to place itself straight above the enemy vessel, drop its missile and move away. To have any chance of escaping, the submarine would need either a highly sophisticated electronic countermeasures systems that would override the torpedo’s own guiding devices, or equally complex decoys – none of which China was likely to possess.
If the order to fire were given, they could sink the Han in a few minutes. But no such order came through.
‘We’re going back now, the relief party’s on its way; the new choppers’ll be here in 10 minutes and the Charlotte’s right close.’
The American fleet had ample means to play cat and mouse with the Han all night long if needs be.
Chinese navy submarine Han
15th October, 2:15 a.m.
Captain Huang did his best to hide the overwhelming tiredness that had gripped him. He had to show the example to his officers and crew. A superhuman task after the long hours of intense stress.
Shortly before 2 p.m., he fell upon the barrage of acoustic buoys as he was heading east. He was about 150 miles off the coast and first crossed that barrage when heading for the aircraft carrier. Now the sub was turning back on its heels. The nightmare began just after 3 p.m.. The US helicopters with their active sonars had stalked him without respite, relaying each other one another above the ocean to track it down.
He was the snake confronted by the crane, as in the legend of Chang Sanfeng, the ancient Taoist monk who invented Chinese martial arts back in the 12th century. According to the tale, the bird would open its wings and swoop to attack the reptile with its powerful beak. But the snake would always dodge away with slick circular movements. Over and over again the crane would strike, the snake each time slipping out of its predator’s clutches, and so the combat lasted, all through the night, without there being a winner or a loser.
And there he was, inside his miserable steel snake, immersed 200 metres down inside the ice cold depths, describing circles, curves and loops. Meanwhile, above the surface, the mechanical bird brimming with thunder and fire was dipping its deadly beak in its search. But there ended the analogy: the forces were all too evidently uneven.
Water – cold – dodging away: all the yin characteristics were on his side. The yang – fire, heat, attack – was with the Americans! Once more, he ordered a new manoeuvre, this time a change of bearing to the north. The sonar officer had just spotted a new trace.
‘Captain, come and look, I think we have visitors. This trace doesn’t come from the helicopter sonars. It looks like a submarine, probably a Los Angeles class.’
The Han was caught in a trap between the active buoys, the helicopters and now a US nuclear submarine.
October 15, 2:50 a.m.
Inside his submarine submerged to depth of 150 metres, Captain Nathan Kirchner had been tracking his prey for over 10 hours. At last he had the Han on his sonar screen. The Chinese sub had been darting around to escape from the Seahawk. But, like a goldfish in an aquarium, it kept coming up against an invisible wall, in this case the curtains of sonars. And yet it never gave up, forever refusing to retreat and always dodging the attacks. Was this what they were taught at the Chinese naval academy?
In any case, these were perfectly useless manoeuvres to the rational mind of the US captain. Just what was the Han up to? Surely it could not seriously expect to come head to head with a United States Navy aircraft carrier of the?
Kirchner had placed his vessel on maximum alert. Its arms systems were primed, the Han’s coordinates entered in real-time into the weapons computer system, and the torpedo launching tubes were readied. They just needed the captain’s orders to deliver their weapons.
The Charlotte kept a chaste distance from the Chinese submarine to avoid being detected by the latter – not an easy task, the way the Han kept darting from one bearing to another. He knew that his opponent’s detection capabilities well, and was fully aware of exactly how close he could safely get.
‘Captain, how much longer are we to play this cat-and-mouse game? They seem to want to go on for ever. Do they really think we’ll give up?’ mused the second officer.
Kirchner understood his officer’s feelings. This close-quarters surveillance hardly made sense.
‘We have orders not to fire all the while the enemy sub doesn’t cross the barrage and simply continues to dodge the sonars. Spare a thought for our guys up in the choppers. They’ve been relaying each other for the past 12 hours!’
Chinese navy submarine Han
October 15, 2:55 a.m.
That American submarine had been stalking it for hours. It was now vital to get out of its reach. For a moment, Captain Huang turned his mind off the shrill sound of the sonars that had been piercing his ears for the past 12 hours. The presence of the enemy submarine had become his foremost preoccupation. More speed was needed. He gave the orders to his second officer.
‘Captain, our engines are already pushed very hard and our vibration levels are uncomfortably high,’ answered the latter with undisguised concern.
Huang would not be discouraged so easily. He set his mind racing for a few moments before ordering:
‘Push the power to absolute maximum. I want over 25 knots.’
The second officer passed on the order to the engine room.
‘Where’s the Los Angeles,’ asked the sonar officer.
‘7.6 miles inside sector 2-8-5: at a depth of 160 metres, Captain.’
The vibrations were now booming throughout the hull.
‘24 knots, sir.’
‘New position of the Los Angeles?’
‘Impossible to tell, sir. I can’t pick up any signal.’
The Han had been maintaining a speed of almost 27 knots for over 15 minutes.
‘Where’s the American vessel?’ insisted Huang.
‘I’ve lost him, sir.’
They had to keep up the effort. The vibrations were now a problem. They were interfering with their detectors, and the very low frequency drone of the machinery was wearing down the nervous systems of the crew, already severely weakened by the tension of the past hours.
At that moment, a violent shock rocked the vessel. The submarine jarred, seemed to grind to a standstill for a fleeting moment, and then started to drop like a brick, its nose dipping straight towards the lower depths. In the space of a few seconds, the keel angle flipped from zero to 40°. Huang and his officers were flung forward, losing their footing and tumbling uncontrollably under their weight.
Huang painfully managed to pick himself up, a flood of questions chasing away his grogginess. What exactly could have caused this? Had they been hit while attempting to escape from the US submarine? Why was there no explosion?
Clasping the pair of handles on the periscope turret, he scanned the scene around him to evaluate the damage. The sonar officer lay motionless on the ground. His head had struck violently against a sonar console, knocking him unconscious. A deep wound from his temple was pulsing out a pool of blood. The second officer was nursing his right arm, wincing with pain. He yelled:
‘Captain, our depth’s 310 metres!’
Huang grabbed hold of the microphone.
‘Calling machine room. Stop propulsion. Reverse engines at full power!’
Then he enquired:
The last syllable of his voice was followed by the heavy silence against the background hiss of the speakers. Precious seconds elapsed. Then there broke out a voice, stammering, pregnant with fear.
‘Captain… the hydraulics… the rear fin hydraulics… they’re dead. Control bars jammed… We’ve lost all control. Injured crew all around me…’
The second officer was screaming, while cracking sounds were heard from all along the hull. There was a long, echoing, groaning sound as the steel structure was buckling under the pressure.
‘Captain, depth now 440 metres! Awaiting emergency instructions!’
‘Flush out all ballasts,’ ordered Huang after a heavy pause.
The Han was gliding towards the abysses at a speed of 14 metres per second. The submarine was now an agonising mass of continually screaming metal splitting at every rivet. The compressed air flasks, under a pressure of 250 bars, forced out the sea water from the ballasts as the latter filled with air.
‘Captain!’ The second officer’s voice seemed to be pleading.
Huang, almost resigned, picked up the microphone.
‘Drop the safety weights…’
It was too late. The depth gauge was by then displaying 540 metres. The reactor’s cooling circuit was beginning to weaken under the external pressure. A razor like sheet of water cut its way across the central control room, amid screams of terror relayed by each of the Tannoy system’s speakers. Huang tried to spare a final thought for his wife and only son. But his brain refused to bring them to mind. Everything was fading away all too quickly.
At 600 metres depth, the ocean is calm, silent and as cold as steel. The submarine slid with uncanny grace into its abyssal grave. There was a final, dull, booming crack, followed by the deadened sound of an explosion. An enormous air bubble broke out from the carcass. It seemed to float for a fraction of a second before being whisked away to the surface.
All that remained of the Han and its crew was now for ever sealed in the ocean’s bosom.
October 15, 3:10 a.m.
Captain Kirchner was tracking the Han on the screen, looking over the shoulder of his sonar officer.
‘Captain it’s again switched direction – the Chink doesn’t know whether he’s coming or going!’
‘He’s out to give us a sleepless night, you’d better get used to the idea…’
The Charlotte was proceeding to mimic the Han’s manoeuvres with a slight time lag when a second officer once more called out to his captain.
‘Sir, it’s just accelerated. It was at 23 knots, and now it’s moved up to 27. Do you think it’s spotted us?’
‘Possible, we were following him from pretty close behind. They have sonars too, remember. But what the hell… without realising it, it’s now heading straight towards a Seahawk!’
The captain was pacing silently round his cabin, immersed in his thoughts, wondering if he would ever receive the order to destroy that Han with its insolently long submerged range. He was brutally brought back to the present by a short, shrill cry of awe coming from his right.
‘Captain, quick, come and look. The Chinese sub’s suddenly begun to dip down.’
The officer was pressing his headphones against his ears with both hands, intrigued by what he was hearing.
‘Listen to this!’
He had turned a knob, and now the signal picked up by the sonar came through all the speakers of the operations room. Cracking sounds were distinctly audible through the background hum.
‘They’re at a depth of 500 metres. It’s crazy!’
The following events lasted only a few seconds. There was another cracking sound – more drawn out than the others – then the muffled roar of an explosion that sounded more like a rapid crunching of metal objects, finally followed by the gurgle of bubbles rising to the surface.
And then silence, brought into dramatic perspective by the gentle ripple of the ocean’s background noise.
Everyone had perfectly deciphered the signals. For some unexplained reason, the Han had vanished from their monitors and imploded at a depth of 600 metres. An accidental failure, no doubt. All the faces expressed the same feeling of gravity. The Chinese submarine had stood up to them for twelve consecutive hours without giving up. Its disappearance was due to accidental circumstances.
‘How many men aboard the Han?’ enquired Kirchner.
‘70, 75, muttered the second officer.’
He had to report immediately to the Ronald Reagan.
‘Bring us up to periscope depth,’ he ordered, so that the submarine could engage radio communication with the aircraft carrier.
‘Break radio silence and transmit the information. Send them the sonar recording.’
The weather forecast announced a severe low-pressure front over the zone. It was no time to drop guard.
October 15, 3:30 a.m.
A dog began to bark in the night. A second one followed suit. Hua turned over in his bed. Won’t these blessed dogs ever let him sleep? Weren’t dogs meant to be man’s best friend, not there to ruin his sleep? In any case, he had only been sleeping with one eye since sheltering these two protégés over the past two weeks.
Master Zhou had asked him to take care of them, and he was committed to do so, even at the cost of his own life. After all, Jin had learned martial arts, Thai Chi and meditation with her venerable master Chang at Luoyang. She appeared to be deeply in love with that American, Tom, a man who had won the hearts of everyone at the monastery.
But why were these dogs barking? That was odd indeed. He picked up his watch and held it before his eyes. The green luminous hands indicated three-thirty. He resolved to get up and inspect the central courtyard. The dogs had suddenly turned silent. Strange too.
Walking alongside the walls of the building beneath the overhanging roof tiles, he stumbled upon a dark mass. Dropping down on his knees to look, he realised it was a dog. He ran his fingers over its fur and felt a warm viscous liquid. Blood! The dog was dead, apparently killed by a weapon.
Hua sounded the alarm. He drew out a slender whistle from his pocket and blew out a long, shrill sound to arouse the other monks. Before he could finish, a dozen policemen in commando gear sprang out of the shadows and ran towards the monastery’s central courtyard, while others were encircling the buildings.
‘This is the police! Don’t offer any resistance! You are surrounded! Hand over your two fugitives!’ came a heavily distorted voice from a megaphone.
Hua instantly slipped away through a concealed flight of steps. A bullet whistled uncomfortably close to his ears and smashed against the stone wall.
‘Quick, help Jin and the American escape!,’ he kept repeating to himself.
He darted up the steps four at the time, pelted along a series of narrow corridors and finally came to the door where his two guests were sleeping.
‘No time to lose, the police have surrounded the whole monastery. Follow me…’
The couple hastily gathered their belongings and ran behind Hua.
‘All the exits are cut off. We’ll have to try the passage from the North face. It gives onto a deep scarp on the mountains,’ whispered Hua.
They climbed up several stairways until they reached a wooden terrace that dominated the valley.
‘But how are we to get down?,’ despaired Tom as he leant over the wooden parapet.
There was a drop of over 1000 metres to the small river that could just be made out at the bottom of the gorge, its surface catching the moon’s rays.
Hua urged them on:
‘Help me! Quick! We can only hold back the police 10 minutes at the most!’
They heard some rifle shots coming up from the central courtyard. The monks were clearly offering more than token resistance to the assailants’ advance.
From a dark corner of the terrace, Hua began to heave a dense bundle measuring about three metres in length, covered in cloth. Together, they rushed to unfold it. There were aluminium tubes, light fabric, two harnesses…
‘A hang glider!’ exclaimed Tom.
Jin was scarcely surprised. All this bore Zhou’s hallmarks.
They hastily assembled the different elements and were ready within a few minutes.
‘Hua, how could I ever thank you enough! I’ll never forget what you did for us!’
‘Please, go, I beg of you!’
They slipped on their respective harnesses and Hua ripped off a few boards of the wooden parapet to open up a passage for them. They were ready to leap into the void. The large delta wing almost immediately puffed up under the wind and dived into the valley, whistling through the air as it carried them. Gradually, the liquid reflections from the moon became more distinct.
They remained airborne in the night sky for nearly a quarter of an hour, Jin keeping her eyes trained on the distant plain at the mouth of the valley. They were scouting for a suitable landing site.
They pushed the hang-glider’s wishbone, causing the craft to nose up. Their feet hit the ground; they tried to run to follow the advancing ground, but their speed was still too great. They lunged and tripped forward, causing the front wing to dip and dig itself into the ground. Nothing dramatic – just an amateurish landing. In no time they had freed themselves from their harness and dismantled the glider. They scampered to the nearest patch of woods to find a hiding place.
Jin beamed Zhou a message. Their hideout had been stormed by the police. They were once again on the run and awaiting instructions.
Chinese navy submarine Kilo
October 15, 3:30 a.m.
Captain Meng of the People’s Republic Navy had been watching the combat – from afar, discreetly, undetected. His Kilo submarine was staying a safe 200 kilometres from the hostilities, but his passive sonar missed nothing of the affray. He was without any news of the 091 for 20 minutes now.
The 091’s operating zone had been the theatre of intense activity, probably involving antisubmarine warfare helicopters and even sonar buoys. His Kilo had been the silent witness of an interminable attack. The 091 of his comrade Huang, being at the vanguard, must have been spotted. His vessel was noisy. Too noisy. And their HQ had exploited that weakness to create a decoy for the Americans, who had indeed made it the object of their focus.
Its successor, the 093, had recently been commissioned and was taking part in the mission. Although technologically superior to the 091, it was still years behind its US counterpart in terms of detection capabilities.
What happened to the Han? Its sudden sonar silence gave rise to the worst fears. His comrade had not fled. He was certain of that. His sense of duty was beyond reproach. His chances must have been slim, caught in a pincer by the US helicopters.
There now remained just the two Yuanzhengs, dubbed ‘Kilo’ by the Americans. The Chinese Navy had bought ten of them from the Russians. Captain Meng’s craft was of the latest generation ‘project 636’ type. It was one of the world’s most silent and discreet conventional submarines. Classical propellers create cavitation effects when they rotate, giving rise to acoustic tell-tale noises. The answer is therefore to use large-diameter propellers with more blades, allowing slower rotational speeds and thus reduced detection risk. Those of the Kilo adopted that approach with remarkable effectiveness.
As the adage goes, ‘a detected submarine is a dead submarine’. On the other hand, an undetected submarine posed a real threat to aircraft carriers. Silence and sonar discretion were thus the foremost qualities required of a combat submarine.
Meng was in the operations room.
‘Weather report!’ he ordered.
‘Very heavy gale warning,’ captain.
‘Which direction? I want the speed of the weather front.’
‘Heading towards us at 20 knots, sir.’
The advancing weather front had given him an idea. If he rose back to near the surface, staying at periscope depth, then he may have a reasonable chance of slipping through unnoticed! The enemy radars would be unable to detect the periscope in the background of waves. At least, that was what he was hoping. And, at such a shallow depth, the noise of the waves should mask his submarine’s acoustic signature. Under these conditions, even the sophisticated American signal processors would be unable to extract anything from the background noise. He could then advance furtively towards the US flotilla.
The deteriorating sea conditions at the surface were giving him a chance to go through unnoticed. It was a crazy idea. For, even if he ever managed to pierce through the protective curtain, he would never get close enough to the aircraft carrier to be within torpedo range. And, even if by some miracle he managed to get that close, the submarine would be spotted straight away and sunk by killer submarines. They had next to no hope of returning safely from that mission.
He chased away that thought from his mind. Nothing was to make him waver from his decision.
‘Submersion to periscope depth, bearing north-north-east,’ he ordered in his strident voice.
The rough sea was causing the submarine to roll. The gale force nine winds on the Beaufort scale generated wave amplitudes of several metres. The crossing was going to be no pleasure cruise.
It lasted over six hours, during which incessant cracking sounds reminded the crew of the tremendous stress the sea was exerting. Above them, in the sky, US detector planes were surely also flying despite those appalling weather conditions. At each moment, they expected to hear the acoustic shock of an enemy sonar bouncing off the sub’s steel hull. That would then sound the death knell, announcing the end of the expedition, the craft, and all its crew. The men were silent, all absorbed in their task and hiding their anxiety. They were all well aware that they were going it alone, a small craft, taking on a task force belonging to the Navy of the world’s most powerful military power of all time. A lone ranger, a foolhardy knight charging, lance in hand, to the assault of the enemy armies.
‘Captain, the weather front’s moved away.’
By then, they were at least 80 miles away from the aircraft carrier. Without resurfacing, they had to examine the horizon.
‘Raise the periscope,’ he ordered.
He flipped over the handles to the horizontal position and brought his eyes to the binoculars. The sky was clear with a milky-blue hue. But the sea remained agitated, with three-metre waves blocking his view in rapid cycles. He scanned the horizon through a full 360°. There was nothing in sight. And yet they were right in the centre of the American flotilla.
‘Captain, I think I’ve got a signal at 0-8-3.’
He turned the periscope to the direction just indicated by his sonar officer. Nothing was in sight. He waited for the waves to give him a clear view up to the edge of the horizon and looked again, scrutinising even harder. His eyes suddenly caught sight of a tiny black rectangle that must have been no more than a dozen kilometres away. A US vessel, towering above the water, came into sight.
His heart missed a beat. It was the aircraft carrier! How on earth could he have got so close? They must have both navigated towards each other, their relative courses bringing them to close proximity.
He had to act quickly if he was to fire his torpedoes before being detected. He turned to his artificer to initiate a launch sequence. He gave him the target’s azimuth and range, which the artificer duly entered into the arms system’s calculator.
The submarine was equipped with 18 torpedoes, six of which were preloaded in their tubes, the remaining 12 being stored on supporting racks. He decided to fire two conventional 53-65KE torpedoes and one wire-guided TEST-71MKE type. The former were Russian models that were totally autonomous after firing. They had active and passive sonar acoustic guidance systems, an electromagnetic detonator and a second, contact type, inertial detonator. These torpedoes were powered by gas turbines that ran on kerosene and oxygen. As for the wire guided torpedo, also of Russian origin, it unwound a wire whose length could reach several tens of kilometres. This wire let it remain in permanent contact with the submarine’s control system. The TEST-71 MKE was considerably more silent owing to its battery-driven electric motor propulsion. Moreover, its totally discreet remote guidance system allowed the operator to control its path right up to the target. In this way, the operator was free to change targets after launch and steer the torpedo manually, much like in a video game. The 53-65KE and TEST-71 MKE both weighed nearly 2 tons and carried an explosive charge of 200 kg – sufficient to pierce even the toughest of armours. This put them in the category of heavy torpedoes, with a length of over 7 m for a diameter of 50 cm.
Through the interphone link to the torpedo section at the submarine’s bow, the artificer ordered his men to activate torpedo launch tubes 1, 2 and 6.
The torpedo crew began a routine of connecting the designated torpedoes to the fire control computer, balancing the water pressure inside the tubes with the outside and opening their exit shutters. They were now ready to launch.
The computer evaluated the travel time at eight minutes. The torpedoes’ respective inertial guidance gyroscopes were set into rotation. These were the devices that gave the reference axis on which to fix the target’s bearing.
‘Tubes one and two, fire!’
The artificer pressed the corresponding buttons of his firing console, triggering the pneumatic actuators that propelled the torpedoes out of their tubes.
‘Torpedo one launched. Torpedo two launched,’ confirmed the artificer.
The captain waited about half a minute before ordering the launch of the wire-guided torpedo.
‘Tube six. Fire!’
‘Torpedo six launched!’
The second officer started the stopwatch he was holding in his left hand. It was the start of eight long nerve-wracking minutes of hoping and waiting for a hit.
‘Two minutes,’ announced the second officer.
He was tracking the progress of the wire-guided torpedo on his video display console. Its trajectory was good, and it was starting to get close enough to its target for the on-board passive sonar to pick up the aircraft carrier’s noise.
The sub was pounded by heavy waves, and all had to hold tight under the rolling movements.
The men were all stock still, frozen in suspense. From the machine room to the missile compartment, all the faces were tense, eyes searching each other anxiously.
The last moments seemed to go on for ever.
‘Eight minutes,’ announced the second officer.
From that moment on, each passing second gnawed away the hope of hitting their target. However, the sonar operator, headphones riveted to his ears, remained uncannily silent. Everybody understood. The two torpedoes had missed their targets. Or else they had stopped short, fallen prey to a breakdown in their propulsion system.
Their gazes turned to the artificer controlling the wire guided torpedo on his screen. He indicated that he had just switched the torpedo to the auto seek mode. There was nothing more to do except hope that the acoustic auto-director – the most appropriate system to bring the weapon to its target – would be able to do its job.
A voice broke the silence:
‘Explosion to the East!’
Relief was instantly reflected on all the faces. The captain seized the microphone and announced calmly to his crew:
‘The torpedo has reached its target.’
A murmur of satisfaction rippled through the vessel, everyone being aware that they had to be silent.
‘Submersion to 20 metres, bearing south,’ ordered Meng, anxious to disappear from the scene.
The Kilo slowly moved away, propelled by its electric motors in energy-saving mode. Still pushing his luck, the captain could once more hope that the noise of the waves would mask his retreat from the US task force.
USS Ronald Reagan
October 15, 10:25 a.m.
The shudder was felt up to the stern of the enormous vessel. Sufficiently loud and short to distinguish from the machine vibrations or the sea roll. The torpedo struck the aircraft carrier’s hull beneath its waterline, a third of a length from the bow. The machine room, boiler and propeller shafts were undamaged, allowing the Ronald Reagan to remain autonomous. But the gaping hole swallowed up tonnes of water, which would slow it down considerably.
Three Viking planes were immediately catapulted from the carrier’s flight deck. They dropped over 40 sonar buoys dispersed along an arc, forming a lethal trap for the Kilo. At the same time, four Seahawk helicopters were covering the area with their over-water sonars. The submarine was caught in the deadly net of the American fleet, just like a fish.
The Kilo was located at 11:34 a.m. In a final attempt to escape from its doom, the submarine suddenly veered course. But such a move could in no way fool the sonars. Within moments, a Seahawk set on its path and hovered ahead of the submarine’s trajectory. With perfect timing, an MK-50 torpedo dropped from its outboard pylon, followed by a second one. They dived obliquely towards the sea, slowed down by a small parachute serving both to stabilise and to dampen the impact upon submersion. Their nose-mounted active acoustic auto-seeker immediately locked on the Chinese submarine. Sliding through the water at 70 kilometres per hour, the torpedoes took less than a minute to come into contact with their target. A strong explosion erupted from the sea. It was followed by another. The Kilo no longer existed.
Langley, CIA headquarters.
‘There has been a leak, I’m sure of it!’
Lorna Green was incensed. The operation that the CIA’s Beijing bureau was mounting to recover Tom Bailey was now futile. The Chinese secret police forces had launched the assault on the monastery, wounding four monks. The infrared pictures of the action, taken by satellite, were displayed on the work desk of the Langley operations room. How could the Chinese have possibly got knowledge of the American’s hiding place? And foremost, who was protecting him? Counterespionage?
The CIA’s operation was cancelled; everything was now back to square one. Tom Bailey was once more on the run; they had to locate him, wait until he settled down at a precise location and attempt to pick him up, possibly in a hostile environment. And all this right in the middle of an open war with China.
Stenton, was trying to defend himself.
‘Lorna, I have total confidence in my men. They have all been in service with the CIA for many years.’
‘Stenton!’ Lorna interrupted sharply. ‘We can be sure of no-one in times of war. The naval battle that’s been going on the last few days and up till last night in the Sea of China can sway even the most moderately-inclined souls into a state of nationalistic fervour.’
He remained silent. This whole matter came at the worst possible moment. The day before, a Chinese submarine had been able to come sufficiently close to the Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier to land it a nasty blow.
And now the CIA, with all its unlimited technology, was incapable of laying its hands on Microsoft’s star computer scientist. Failures were accumulating.
‘We must change the teams, get fresh men in, starting from the top…’
He knew whom she was referring to. She was nurturing a lingering doubt about Santana Song.
‘It’s all over, Stenton. There are too many coincidences; get rid of Song and bring the old team back in. I want Song well clear of these operations and out of the hierarchy. I’m sending you over Kowalsky to supervise the reorganisation.’
He was in no position to protest.
The cell phone rang. It was Zhou.
‘Jin, I want you to head to the town of Yichang. Go five kilometres upstream of the Yangtze River from that town. A boat will be waiting for you. You’ll be safe for at least a few days. Go down the river towards Wuhan and Nanjing. I think the situation will quieten down before you reach Shanghai.’
She looked at the map. Yichang was only about 50 kilometres away. They would be there by the end of the afternoon.
‘You mean we’ll no longer have to hide?’
‘I hope not, Jin. Last night, the Chinese Navy forced a retreat of the American task force. A submarine managed to pierce a hole in their aircraft carrier. Despite the loss of two out our vessels, it’s a great victory!’
They set themselves off. The idea of going down the Yangtze by boat appealed to them. It was vital to remain mobile in order to limit the risk of being spotted and intercepted by the police forces. But how the devil had Guo been able to discover their hiding place?
A book by JF SUSBIELLE – Translation by Dominic KING