The Oval Office, the White House
“Damn them,” the President almost screamed. “They really did it? Just went and did it without our permission? Damn them!”
“Mr. President, they are a sovereign nation and we all did know that this was coming, sooner or later. Well, at least most of us knew,” replied the President’s National Security Advisor. Jack Darden squared his broad shoulders and looked his President and old friend directly in the eye.
Darden had played football at Northwestern University. As a pulling guard he specialized in opening holes for the guys carrying the ball. He still saw himself as having the same role for the Chief Executive of the land. Intensely loyal, almost to a fault, he had met the President when both were young professionals fresh out of college. He didn’t always agree with his old friend, however. He typically took a more realistic view of the world and the Middle East. The President and others in the inner circle often called it a more pessimistic view.
For his part, as a Democrat from one of the most liberal states, the President had often been portrayed as not a friend of Israel. At least, the “right” wing media had tried hard to paint him that way, in his opinion. In reality, he merely wished to take what he considered a more pragmatic approach to nations such as Iran, Syria and North Korea. Labeling nations as members of an “axis of evil,” for example, did not advance the diplomatic dialogue, in his opinion. Nor did Israel subjecting over a million Palestinians to a sort of apartheid and continuous aggression. No, peace would not be made by the blind, unconditional support of Israel which the U.S. had for so long practiced. A more balanced approach was needed to move Middle East peace forward, especially in the face of the ongoing conflagration in Syria and continued chaos in Egypt.
The President grunted and abruptly said, “Let’s start the security briefing” with a distinct edge in his voice.
“Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen,” began the National Security Advisor. “Here are the latest developments in the Persian Gulf. Early this morning approximately 110 Israeli aircraft struck at least 7 Iranian nuclear sites. The aircraft were preceded by massive and coordinated cyber attacks directed at Iranian early warning radar and air defense systems, energy infrastructure systems and the communication network. This was followed by cruise missile attacks launched by Israeli submarines in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman. We believe that 2 or 3 submarines participated in the attacks. It is important to note that virtually no Iranian anti-aircraft activity was detected until just before the first air launched weapons began to impact their targets and this, in turn, was almost perfectly coordinated with the impact of the cruise missiles. In other words, the Israelis managed to get significant numbers of non-stealthy aircraft deep into Iran without detection.”
“Didn’t we detect them?” interrupted the President. “Isn’t this why we have military assets all over the world and in space?” he demanded.
“Mr. President, we did detect over 150 of their aircraft lifting off from Israel and you were notified. The Israeli force included tankers, fighter escorts, UAV’s, and other support aircraft. What were we supposed to do at that point? Threaten to alert our dear Iranian friends unless the Israelis agreed to turn back? It’s probable that the Saudis may have also detected them and the Russians almost certainly did, but the Saudis probably gave them free passage over their air space and it appears the Russians were not able to communicate with their Iranian friends in any meaningful manner. This may be due to the cyber attack.”
The President did not at all appear pleased by the explanation.
“In addition, as we all know, our signals and human intelligence have both taken severe reductions in capabilities due to budget constraints over the last few years, especially once the automatic spending restraints of sequestration fully took effect,” interjected the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force General Rick “R&R” Richardson.
“So, this is all because we didn’t fully fund the Pentagon’s wish list? Because we didn’t buy every toy, bell, and whistle our uniformed friends asked for?” the President asked, his voice laced with sarcasm. Although he had hidden it remarkably well since assuming the office of Commander-in-Chief, the President’s long-standing disdain for all things military was well known.
A palpable silence followed as all eyes fixed on the President. He furrowed his brow and asked for the briefing to continue.
“In short, the Israelis used more aircraft and penetrated further into Iranian airspace than even we had thought possible” reported Darden matter-of-factly.
“How did they get so many aircraft so far?” interrupted the President. “All of my intelligence experts said they didn’t have the ability to do so.”
“A couple of our estimates did included the possible use of buddy stores, in addition to all of their regular tanking assets. They probably also used some of their very large UAVs as tankers. We know they have been developing these capabilities.”
“Buddy stores?” asked the Vice President quizzically.
“Large auxiliary fuel tanks with refueling hoses fitted to regular tactical aircraft,” answered the CNO, Admiral Jankowski. “Allows fighters or attack aircraft to refuel other similar types of aircraft. Navy and Marine aircraft have used them for years. And frankly sir, isn’t it a good thing that the Israelis were able to strike with such a large and effective force?”
The Admiral’s response from the President and the Secretary of State were icy glares.
The NSA cleared his throat and then went on, “We believe the cruise missiles have primarily attacked command and control systems, air bases, and the Iranian power grid, which appears to be down in large sections around all nuclear sites, the capital of Tehran, and other key defense installations including air and naval bases. Not surprisingly, Republican Guard air defense and missile units appear to be particularly hard hit.”
“Jesus,” breathed General Richardson.
“There’s more,” continued Darden as he subconsciously ran his hand through his salt and pepper hair. “Just moments before beginning this briefing, I was informed that our strategic reconnaissance satellites detected no fewer than thirty ballistic missile heat plumes lifting off from southern Israel. These are almost certainly Jericho II missiles with a range of at least 1,400 kilometers and may also include Jericho IIIs with a range of at least 5,000 km, if you recall.”
“My God,” exclaimed the White House Chief of Staff, Joel Miller, himself Jewish by ancestry and faith. “Are they nukes?”
“We can’t be certain but we don’t believe so. Most estimates are that Israel would hold its nukes in reserve and only use conventionally armed ballistic missiles in the opening salvos, until and unless Israel itself were attacked with WMDs. In any case, the missiles should be impacting right about now, so we’ll have confirmation,” answered the DNI, the Director of National Intelligence.
“Why would they lead with aircraft if they planned to use ballistic missiles all along?” asked the Secretary of State.
“Surprise,” answered General Richardson. “The Russians watch for the heat signatures of ballistic missile launches just as we do. Pretty hard to hide those and risk Ivan warning Tehran. In addition, large numbers of sudden ballistic missile launches would have also put the Russians, Chinese, Indians, and Pakistanis on alert. So, the aerial strike hit just minutes after the naval cruise missiles hit, and those in turn struck just after the cyber attacks brought down the Iranian electrical and air defense grids. In any case, now that the Iranians are effectively blind, deaf, and dumb, they can’t be warned.”
“Correct, General,” the NSA complimented Richardson. “In addition, the Israelis may be doing this as ‘a time on target coordination’ to take out scientists and technicians along with first responders rushing to the sites.”
“General, please refrain from using that out-dated, derogatory cold-war term for the Russians, however cute you think you are being,” stabbed the Secretary of State. Richardson and the Secretary exchanged additional visual daggers.
Darden paused and drew a deep breath. “Lastly, ladies and gentleman, we also believe there are Israeli special operations teams on the ground in at least two locations.”
“Are you serious?” interjected the President.
“Yes, Mr. President, I’m afraid I am. We’ve known of Israeli covert operatives as well as special forces teams operating inside of Syria and Iran for some time now. All those Iranian nuke scientists having accidental deaths the last few years haven’t been a coincidence. Neither are Iranian armament shipments blowing up in Syria.”
Knowing glances and nodding heads confirmed what everyone in the room already knew. Several Iranian nuclear scientists had met untimely deaths in the years and months during which the United Nations and the international community had attempted in vain to convince the Islamic Republic of Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program. Bombs attached to cars by motorcycle riders in broad daylight was one of the more common causes of premature death for Iran’s best nuclear minds.
“Is there any good news?”
“Well, we have not yet detected an Iranian response, at least none other than localized efforts to defend themselves within Iran itself.”
“But we know there will be one,” said the President. “So I’m not sure that really is good news.” All the heads in the rooms nodded slowly and gravely in agreement.
The Persian Gulf
On board the supertanker MT TI Europe, the morning watch crew was looking forward to the end of their four hour watch which had started at 4:00 AM local time.
Known as an Ultra Large Crude Carrier, ULCC, the Europe was among the largest ships in the world. She carried 3.1 million barrels of crude oil just on-loaded at Saudi Arabia’s enormous Ras Tanura refinery and terminal complex.
Even fully loaded and displacing over 500,000 tons, she was making a good (for her) 16 knots on the calm seas.
On the ship’s bridge, the Third Mate scanned the blue, cloudless sky and drew in a deep breath. “Oh how I love smell of the sea,” he thought to himself. A tall Norwegian with thick blond hair, he had grown up on the coast and had learned to sail in and out of the fjords from his grandfather practically from the time he could sit on his knee. He had sailed around the world several times during his merchant marine career and despite his good mood he did have to admit to himself that the Persian Gulf was his second least favorite place to sail, after the Straits of Malacca.
His pleasant reverie was shattered by the low rumble of a jet engine, distant at first, then louder and louder. The rumble became a scream which was immediately followed by a shattering blast. He was thrown back against the bulkhead and then he tumbled to the floor. Despite his disorientation, he fought to his feet and looked over his ship. Even as he looked at the fireball before his very eyes, he could not believe it. The ferocious concussion shook the massive ship along her entire 1,240 foot length. Fire alarm klaxons screamed and strained as smoke began to pour from the gaping wound amidships. He heard the screams of his crew as they raced to help their injured ship and shipmates. At sea, the culture is and always has been, “ship, shipmate, self.”
“All engines stop!” he heard himself scream. “Please Lord, help us,” he thought to himself urgently. He had not prayed to God since he was 14, but this seemed a good time to attempt a reconnection.
Despite the double hull safety design of the ship, oil gushed into the dark waters of the Persian Gulf as the Europe began slowing to a stop. A scant few minutes later and 200 miles to the East, another supertanker, this one having just entered the Persian Gulf, was also hit by an Iranian shore fired Silkworm anti-ship missile. By the time a fourth tanker was hit this one, still in the Gulf of Oman, 2 miles from the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz, hit a mine laid by an Iranian submarine all non-military sea traffic within the Gulf and for fifty miles out, had stopped. The flow of economically vital oil from the Gulf, upon which the entire world depended, had also stopped.
The missile and mine attacks in the Persian Gulf were only the first phase in the retaliation plan of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Ras Tanura, Saudi Arabia
The senior shift officer yawned as he surveyed the massive wall covered with status boards. Mohamet Ibrahim had worked for Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company, for 18 years but was still awed by the gigantic size of his company’s oil refining and export terminal complex. Among the largest in the world, the export terminals consisted of two piers and a chain of artificial, man-made sea islands with eighteen total ship berths. Each of the berths was able to accommodate the largest tankers in the world, up to 550,000 fully loaded deadweight tons. A nearby tank farm had a storage capacity of over 33 million barrels of oil and oil products.
Although Ibrahim’s native kingdom had the largest oil export infrastructure in the world, he knew that the massive sizes driven by the quest for economy of scale efficiencies were also their Achilles heel. Few people outside of the kingdom or the oil industry knew that more than half of Saudi Arabia’s vaunted oil reserves were in only eight fields, with the lion’s share of that being in the two largest fields. Similarly, the single Abqaiq processing complex refined fully two-thirds of the kingdom’s output. And, 75% of the total oil exports for the kingdom were loaded at Ras Tanura.
But the Iranians, centuries old antagonists of the Saudi royal family due to Shia – Sunni religious conflict, did know about the vulnerability of their Gulf rivals, as did their terrorist proxies inside the Kingdom. It was a little known fact in the Western world that although the ruling family was pro-Western and pro-U.S., the majority of the population of the Saudi kingdom was decidedly not. Many pro-Iranian terrorist cells existed inside the kingdom and were activated as soon as the first Israeli bombs and missiles exploded in Iran.
“Intruders,” screamed the security officer standing a few feet away from Mohamet.
“Where? How far out?” he demanded.
“Inside the 2nd perimeter for certain,” replied the diminutive security officer. “We are engaging.”
“How many? What …” Mohamet never finished his sentence as his ears caught the sound of a sort of whistling.
“What is that,” he thought to himself as the first mortar bomb exploded just feet away from the main control center. The concussion lifted him off his feet and slammed him against the bank of control panels. He shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts with his vision still blurry with the dust as more explosions shook the world around him. Now deafened, he could only feel, but not hear the blasts. “What in the world is happening?” he struggled as he saw the gaping mouths of his screaming friends, but could hear nothing. Blood was running from his burst left eardrum as well as from the back of his head where he impacted the control panels.
Two suicide terror squads had penetrated the first two of the three perimeter defense layers at the installation and set-up lightweight mortars before being detected and engaged by the facility’s security police. The 82 mm 2B14 Podnos light mortars had been acquired from Russia and then given to the terrorists by their Iranian sponsors. Although able to be broken down and carried in four “man packs” these had been brought in on Aramco vehicles commandeered with the help of sympathetic employees.
As serious as this attack was, it was merely a feint to draw the eyes of the security forces inward, just as they should have been looking out. Out was where the three other terror cells were beginning to fire additional mortars even as they awaited the appearance of their airborne and seaborne comrades. The airborne allies soon arrived in the form of four ultra-light aircraft, loaded down with gasoline fueled IEDs. The two seat aircraft carried a lone pilot and 120 pounds of fuel and explosives. Each ultra-light angled for the largest storage tank visible and dove with screams of “Allau Akbar!”
The seaborne attackers came in on fast speedboats also loaded with explosives and bore in on the helpless tankers tied up at their berths. Explosion after explosion rocked the area and lit up the night sky.
The resulting fires were so large and intense that they were detected by the infrared systems of U.S. early warning reconnaissance satellites orbiting in geo-synchronous orbit, 22,000 miles above the earth’s equator. Flash messages were sent from Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado (where the satellites were monitored) to NORAD headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska as well as to Washington, D.C.
The Middle East was now fully aflame, literally and politically, and the entire world would likely be engulfed along with it.