The Strait of Hormuz
Aboard the Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), air operations had been at a frantic pace for the last four hours since word of the Israeli strike on Iran had first come into the communications center, known simply as “Radio.” The “Abe” was the centerpiece of Carrier Strike Group Nine, which in turn was operating as part of the U.S. Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. Her escorting ships were arrayed around her, particularly to the North. Originally, the secretary of defense wanted to send the newly commissioned USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) stealth destroyer through the straight, but the President said, “we need a bigger saber to rattle this time” – so, he sent in the Abe, against almost everyone else’s recommendation.
Captain Jim Fisher was concerned as he looked out over the 4.5 acre flight deck from his perch on the bridge. He didn’t like the idea of taking his precious ship with its priceless crew into such restricted waters. He knew that American aircraft carriers had been sailing in the Persian Gulf since World War II, but he still didn’t like it. Here he couldn’t maneuver freely. And here, he gave up one of the carrier’s greatest strengths, the ability to keep potential enemies hundreds of miles away, while still being able to strike at them at the time and place of his choosing, should the need arise. Steaming in the “inbound” channel of the 21 mile wide strait, they were only eleven miles from Iran’s hostile coast and the anti-ship missiles on that coast. Eleven miles is virtually instantaneous in flying time, especially when it comes to fast accelerating missiles. And Fisher truly didn’t like the fact that his crew would have such a short time to react to any missile attack. In years past the Strike Group would have included three or four additional escort vessels. Ships which could be used as pickets to better defend his precious “bird farm.” But, the last few years of budget cuts, sequestration, etc., had inexorably reduced the number of active duty navy ships leaving his beloved service stretched dangerously thin around the world. America’s enemies, as always, had noticed and had become bolder by the day.
“All of the precautions have been covered,” he thought to himself as he went through his mental list yet again. The ship’s E-2D Advanced Hawkeye airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft was orbiting with its Lockheed Martin APY-9 radar that was able to “see” smaller targets and more of them at greater ranges than the older E-2C model it replaced. The rotodome contained the critically important, continuous, 360-degree scanning capability, along with the latest Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA), which allowed operators to focus the radar on selected areas of interest.
Nevertheless, the athletic Floridian felt uneasy, and not just because he hadn’t slept for the previous 18 hours. He just could not stop thinking about which and how many Russian, Chinese, or North Korean made anti-ship missiles the Iranians might truly have and what they might do with them.
“Bridge, Combat,” he heard his CIC watch officer call.
“Combat, bridge. Go ahead,” he replied.
“Captain, our surface search radar is picking up some activity on the coast, by Bandar Abbas, but nothing from the picket.”
“Roger, I’m on my way,” replied Fisher. As he opened the door of the Combat Information Center (CIC), the nerve center of the great vessel, he heard the call he had so dreaded and prayed fervently would never come.
“Vampire, vampire, bearing 021 true,” came the shout from the primary air search radar operator just as the Hawkeye also radioed in the new contacts.
“All ahead full,” commanded Fisher. “Unmask the starboard RAM and sea-whiz. Update number and speed.”
“Forty-eight contacts sir, splitting into two groups. First group of 33, velocity is Mach 0.8. Profile suggests Noor missiles. Designate Raid 1. Second group of 15, speed is passing Mach 1.6. Profile suggests Sunburns. Designate Rai…”
“What?” screamed the captain incredulously? “Here? That fast? That many?”
“Sunburns,” gasped the Tactical Action Officer (TAO) as he stared at his radar screen.
The SS-N-22 missile, NATO codename “Sunburn” was a nightmare for any sailor. Designed by the Russians specifically to destroy American aircraft carrier battle groups, they were rumored to have been supplied to the Iranians, but the rumors had never been confirmed. Until now.
The Sunburns’ four powerful ramjet engines quickly accelerated them to their maximum Mach 2.5 speed for a blistering sea-skimming attack profile. In addition to their 750 pound warhead, their 9,000 pound mass traveling at such tremendous speed imparted enormous kinetic energy on any target struck. Designed specifically to defeat the U.S. Navy’s vaunted Aegis radar system as well as the Close-In Weapons system (CIWS, commonly called sea-whiz), the SS-N-22s could fly as low as fifteen feet above the wave tops and perform violent, terminal pop-up maneuvers to avoid enemy missiles and gun systems just before striking their targets.
“Now it’s all up to our Standards, RAM and sea-whiz,” breathed the Captain.
“Let’s hope God in Heaven also has something to say about the matter,” said the TAO.
“Yes, yes indeed,” agreed Fisher.
Unlike the CIWS, the RIM-116 RAM, or Rolling Airframe Missile system had been designed to defeat missiles such as the high speed Sunburns. But, they had never been tested in combat. The Block 1 version of the fire and forget missile system had infra red (IR) all-the-way guidance to its target and was an upgrade in capability over the CIWS gun system.
Steaming one mile to the north of the Abe to serve as a forward picket was one of her escorts, the guided missile destroyer USS Sterett (DDG-104). The sleek gray warship shuddered once, and then again as she began engaging the missiles screaming southward with her SM-2 Standard Medium Range missiles.
“Range twelve miles,” called out the Lincoln’s Tactical Action Officer as he stared intently at the radar screen,” the palpable tension dripping from his voice.
“Nice coincidence,” grunted Fisher.
As both groups of speeding “vampires” neared the RAM’s eleven mile maximum range, the tongue of flame from the first of the 21 missiles in the launcher illuminated the night sky as it blasted free. With the Sunburns approaching at 1,100 feet per second, the American defenses had less than a minute to successfully engage all twelve remaining supersonic missiles even as their fire control computers and software attempted to sort out the subsonic Noors that were classified as lesser threats.
Aboard Sterrett, the incoming Iranian missiles had closed the range and her own CIWS systems began to engage the flight. Four fell to her guns. But the numbers seemed too great and the time seemed too short. A first missile, a Noor, struck the ship forward of the superstructure where the SM-2’s were exiting their Vertical Launch System tubes. The Iranian missile’s warhead failed to explode fully, but an SM-2 just clearing the deck did. Further aft, a second Noor struck the side of the destroyer at its helicopter hangar.
“Explosions, explosions to the north” yelled the starboard lookout on the Abraham Lincoln. Despite the news, no one seemed to listen to him, much less acknowledge his report. Eventually, the Officer of the Deck did respond.
In CIC, all eyes stared anxiously at the screens as the arrow symbols representing missiles closed each other and then began to merge. The hostile dots were disappearing, but not disappearing quickly enough.
“Come on. Come on,” said Fisher under his breath. “Please God, if you are real, if you are out there, we need you…only two more.” He felt the pit of his stomach continue to tighten and thought of his wife, six year old son, and little girl, just entering the “terrible twos.” “Please God…”
But on this day, it was not to be. A Sunburn slammed into the carrier’s flight deck amidships, just forward of the island superstructure and next to elevator number two. The missile’s hardened nose-tip burrowed through the flight deck, the hangar deck, and the third deck below before it’s time delay warhead detonated. The mighty behemoth shuddered with the impact and force of the explosion. The fireball erupted skyward as sailors from her own crew and her escorts looked on in stunned disbelief. Further aft, a second Sunburn slipped through the defenses but mercifully struck only a glancing blow to the aft end of the flight deck, just behind elevator number three.
The expansive flight deck, covered as always with aircraft, fuel, sailors and ordnance, quickly became an inferno of explosions, shearing shrapnel, smoke and fire. An F/A-18E Super Hornet about to launch on catapult number three was shredded by shrapnel. Two 500 pound bombs hung on pylons under her wings detonated and added their roar of destruction to the firestorm. Hundreds of sailors and Marines died instantaneously. Hundreds more were grievously wounded and burned. Dozens of her 85 aircraft were destroyed. The rest of the 5,680 men and women aboard the vaunted aircraft carrier would now have to fight for their ship and fight for their lives. And, the attacks they suffered had just begun.
The Pentagon, E-Ring, Washington, D.C.
Lt. John Williams had only been assigned to the Pentagon for a month. And until a few days ago, he had loved his posting, particularly working in the outer “E-Ring,” where all the big wigs had their offices with the outside views. Now, however, he dreaded his task of giving admirals with lots of gold on their sleeves and shoulders bad news. He took a breath, knocked on the door, and entered the office of his boss, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral Mike Jankowski.
“Admiral, we have just received a Flash message from Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. The Lincoln’s been hit.”
“What? When? Did she hit a mine? A suicide boat? How bad is it?” The grizzled Navy veteran was struggling with his thoughts outpacing his words.
The U.S. Navy’s eleven active supercarriers were unspeakably valuable and expensive. At the pinnacle of its World War II power, the U.S. Navy fielded 28 large aircraft carriers and 71 smaller ones. By the time of the Vietnam War, only 23 total carriers remained. The end of the cold war and continuing budget cuts reduced the force to 15 and then 12, and finally, the 11 that remained. Those eleven however, represented an almost unimaginable investment in national treasure and prestige, both in technology and the highly trained personnel.
“We don’t know the details yet, sir, but it appears her battle group was hit with a mass missile attack from the Iranian coast just as they passed the strait’s narrowest point. They report the attack was comprised of almost fifty Noor and Sunburn missiles. Abe suffered one major and one relatively minor hit from the Sunburns. The Sterett was also hit. She was hit by two Noors. Hundreds are dead or unaccounted for, and hundreds more are wounded. Both ships are fighting the fires. We don’t have firm numbers on the casualties yet, but whatever they are now, they will go higher.”
“My God,” exclaimed Jankowski, making Williams wince. As a devout Mormon, Williams did not like the Lord’s name to be taken in vain.
Jankowski saw Williams wince and immediately apologized. “Sorry, John. Just slipped out. But how could this have happened?”
“I understand sir. This is a huge shock. And admirals have no need to apologize to O-3s. In any case, we’ll have to wait for the post action analysis, but obviously the distance and short reaction times played a part. In addition, the Iranians either got lucky or timed their attack exquisitely.”
“Thanks. And how so?” asked Jankowski.
“The subsonic Noors arrived first and while they were being engaged by our systems, the supersonic Sunburns arrived and some got through.”
“I see. Well, we’ll go back and look at that some more later. So, what’s her status?” asked the Admiral.
“Some of the fires are still burning but both reactors are intact and she is underway, making 9 knots. They think they can get to 12 knots if not more, very soon. At least 50% of her air wing was taken out, but it doesn’t really matter since she can’t carry out flight ops. The primary hit was almost dead center of her flight deck and the fires there and on the decks below are spewing heavy smoke. Sterett is dead in the water and also burning, but she may be able to get underway soon. Our damage control is the best, as you know. Ingraham and Ford are with Sterett and will take her under tow if she can’t get underway. The other escorts are all with the Abe. We’re flying CAP out of Bahrain and also have the escorts’ Seahawks in the air providing a perimeter.”
CAP, Combat Air Patrol, ensured that there was always a flight of protective fighters over the fleet at all times. However, this was of little help against a swarm of low flying cruise missiles, as the successful attack had just shown.
“Any further attacks from the damned mullahs?” questioned Jankowski.
“Not yet, but they’re sure to try and finish them off if we give them the chance. We need to hit back and hard,” Williams stressed. “We need to neutralize all shore and naval installations where further attacks against us can be launched.”
“When is our next satellite pass?” asked the CNO.
“About 30 minutes, sir. We’ll know more then,” replied Williams with an optimistic tone.
“We need to brief the President and the Joint Chiefs, ASAP,” thought Jankowski. And it was his turn to wince.