The Persian Gulf, the very near future
The crippled Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) was making 14 knots on its way to Naval Support Activity (NSA) Bahrain where its damage would be assessed for repair. The Commanding Officer (CO) of the nuclear-powered ship, Captain James “Jimbo” Fisher didn’t like the decision to keep his carrier in the Persian Gulf after the Iranian attack which had damaged his ship and two of her escorts twelve hours earlier. He didn’t like the decision one bit. Fisher strode back and forth on the bridge as he cursed whichever spineless politician had made that decision. While the President was the ultimate arbiter of where his battle group went, he was surely being advised by one or more of his top staff. Here, in the Gulf and still damaged, the Abe made a tempting target. He was sure the Iranian mullahs and admirals were just contemplating their next move like a pack of hyenas circling a wounded lion. And, he could not believe that the President had forbidden American forces from fully retaliating by striking Iranian naval and air installations.
The official statement from Washington, D.C., read, “We will refuse to escalate the violence, especially since the Islamic Republic of Iran acted in self-defense after being attacked by Israel.” Despite the vehement protests from pro-Israel circles, including many in the GOP, the Chief Executive had once again shown his true colors on the Middle East. He was no friend of Israel.
Regardless, American forces were once again forced to act with one arm tied behind their back by bureaucratic rules of engagement and could only act in self-defense and not fire unless fired upon. The fact that they had already been fired upon was notwithstanding. The thought that politicians could and should control a battle from some distant capital was ridiculous, but had been around for a very, very long time.
The Captain did not have to wait long.
“Bridge, Combat,” came the call from his CIC Watch Officer.
“Go ahead,” answered Fisher.
“Captain, we have numerous high-speed surface contacts approaching from the Northeast.”
“Roger. Bosun, sound general quarters. Combat, Bridge. I’m staying here and taking the conn,” said the Captain. “Mason, prepare for a mass surface boat attack,” he said to his TAO.
“Roger, Captain. All weapons stations report manned and ready. Ingraham and Ford are in position to the Northeast and they are ready to intercept. Halsey is racing up from behind Ford and Freedom is also close by and is at flank speed to intercept the boat swarm,” reported LCDR Mason Palmer from his station in CIC.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy (IRGC Navy) had developed and practiced small boat “swarm” tactics since the end of the Iran – Iraq war in 1988. The Pasdaran (as the Guard units were known in Iran) found this form of asymmetric warfare particularly well-suited to the close confines of the Gulf. Dozens or even hundreds of cruise missile or other armed small boats would converge on a target from different directions to overwhelm the defenses. And the attack on this day would include the first-ever real combat use of wing-in-ground effect vehicles (WIG).
“Bridge, Combat. We have 90 plus high speed surface contacts approaching from 3 vectors. Speed varies from 45-55 knots. Designate raids 1-3. Range between 12 and 14 miles. CIWS and RAM mounts are on auto.”
“Very well, Mase. Keep the updates coming,” instructed the Captain.
“Bridge, Combat. New contacts, designate raid 4. Another 20 plus; range 10 miles. Raids 1-4 advancing on a threat axes spanning approximately 160 degrees. We are vectoring in our CAP to engage and have 2 more Hornets in bound from Bahrain, but it will be close.”
“How are the CAP birds loaded out? Do they have anti-surface,” asked Fisher anxiously.
“Affirm, Cap’n. Each has four Mavericks and two CBU-97 cluster bombs.”
“I don’t like those numbers, Mase. We have at least 80 widely dispersed boats heading our way and only 2 fighters for air support.”
“We also have the Super Cobra we were able to embark on Cape St. George. That “Whiskey” Cobra will do some damage for us.” The Captain used the nickname for the AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopter on patrol with the ships.
Despite the optimism of his TAO, the Captain was right to be worried. Each of the four Maverick missiles carried by the two F/A-18E Super Hornets on Combat Air Patrol could easily destroy a small attack boat. And, each of the CBU bombs would disperse 40 sensor-fused munitions which could also destroy a small boat (or an armored vehicle as originally designed). But the over 80 boats were widely dispersed, limiting how many groups the Super Hornets could engage. Fisher figured that each F/A-18E would make one pass on each of two groups and kill many of the boats. But he could not count on all boats being neutralized. He would have to rely on his escorts and his own CIWS and RAM systems once again.
What the Captain did not know was that his injured ship was facing a far larger attack force. And, one that was coordinated. The surface search radars tracking the over 110 attack boats were not picking up the 10 semi-submersible Gahjae Class torpedo boats with each of the four flotillas. Based on the North Korean Taedong-C, the Gahjaes were advancing with the other Iranian craft and using the wakes to blend in with the surface clutter. Each Gahjae had two large torpedo tubes and was also laden with extra explosives. Like all the Iranian crews in the attack, they had volunteered with a willingness to martyr themselves while inflicting a humiliating defeat on the hated American infidels.
The last two components of the masterfully planned attack would come at the infidels from both above and below the waves. Mini-submarines were lying in wait to ambush the Americans even as their flying brothers in the new Bavar-2 ekranoplans closed in. Called Wing-In-Ground effect craft in the west, the ekranoplans had been built from expertise acquired from their Russian allies.
The six Ghadir class mini-subs were staged along the expected path of the American carrier. Their orders were merely to drift quietly and wait for the American ships to come to them. And so they had. The steel monstrosity had steamed past the first 2 subs, positioning them in the perfect position to fire their Hoot supercavitating torpedoes along the wake of the ship. First developed in the 1970s by the Soviets, supercavitation torpedoes achieve their tremendous speeds by in effect “flying” in a gas bubble which is formed around the torpedo by the specially shaped blunt nose and gases vented from exhaust of their rocket engines. The bubble keeps the water from contact with the surface of the torpedo and this dramatically reduces drag and enables the tremendous speeds of over 200 knots.
“Are our escorts engaging with their 5 inchers?” demanded Fisher.
“No sir, they are in range, but there are a large number of civilian craft in the area. Merchants and fishing boats. We’ll need to get positive ID,” responded Palmer.
“ID hell,” yelled the Captain. “Engage! All weapons stations engage!”
“Roger. All ships, weapons free. Engage. Say again, weapons free. Engage,” said Palmer over the fleet radio link.
The 5”/54 caliber Mk 45 lightweight guns on the destroyers Ingraham and Ford began firing at the two groups nearest to them. The Republican Guards began to jink and maneuver their boats to avoid the incoming fire. The five inch guns were scoring hits, but not all of them were kills and the boat swarm came ever closer.
The Super Hornets arrived over two of the groups as they came within 6 miles. Of the 40 cluster bomb munitions dropped over the closest group, several homed in on the same target and only 16 boats were destroyed. For the next three passes, the strike fighters had similar success. The number of attacking boats was reduced by nearly half, but 61 boats continued to advance. And this did not include the 28 remaining semi-submersible boats.
Aboard the Abe the now familiar call of “Vampire, vampire,” went out from the TAO. “New contacts, bearing 350 true, feet dry, still beyond the beach, but will be feet wet within a minute or two. Designate raid 5. Thirty-two missiles inbound. C-802 type.”
“My God,” thought the Captain. “And the tin cans,” he asked CIC.
“Destroyers are engaging the vampires now,” reported the LCDR Palmer. And then, “Vampire, vampire. Contacts separating from raids 1 through 4. Short range missiles from the attack boats!”
Nineteen of the remaining Iranian craft were missile boats and these had now launched their missiles once inside the five mile range to the Lincoln.
“Combat, confirm this is a different set of vampires from the first,” demanded Fisher.
“Confirmed two distinct sets of vampires inbound,” said Palmer flatly as he continued to work the controls of his radar screen and strained to understand the reports flooding in from the escorting ships.
Eighty-three boats continued to advance and were now joined by 70 missiles. Meanwhile, the Super Hornets had come about and were now firing Maverick missiles at the lead boats. All 8 missiles found their marks and more attacking boats fell victim to the 5 inch guns from the destroyers and the lone Super Cobra attack chopper. All their missiles expended, the Hornets now swooped low to engage the attacking boats with their 20 mm multi-barrel Vulcan cannon. Fifty boats remained. Then 40. The AH-1W killed two more boats with Hellfires. But the boats weren’t dying fast enough.
Four miles south of the fully engaged carrier, the Bavar-2 ekranoplans took off from the placid surface of the Gulf. They had been hiding behind two non-descript tramp steamers approximately 2 miles apart and taxied away from the Lincoln, continuing to use the steamships as cover. Once airborne, they quickly accelerated to their maximum speed of 120 knots. Half of the WIG craft swung northwest with the others turning northeast to approach the American ships from different vectors. The WIGs carried no weapons. They were the weapons and each carried 300 lbs of explosives and a single crewman as a pilot.
Made largely of fiberglass and flying a mere 15 feet above the waves, the ekranoplans were difficult for the American search radars to detect. Even worse, the fire control algorithms on the gun and missile systems evaluated the higher speed missiles as greater threats and continued directing the weapons systems to fire on them.
Onboard Ingraham and Ford the sailors manning port side .50 cal and 25 mm surface mounts began to shift fire from the surface boats to the low flying hybrid aircraft. Southeast of the Abe, the sailors on the Cape St. George did the same. The cruiser’s SM-6 missiles and CIWS engaged the flying boats with some success. One Bavar somehow slipped past her defenses and crashed into her superstructure just below the bridge. The fireball was only the first.
“Explosions to the south,” called out the Lincoln’s port lookout. “They’ve hit the Cape St. George.”
“Damn it,” swore Fisher. “Damn it!”
The Cape St. George had killed all but three of the 16 ekranoplans approaching her from the Southwest. One of the survivors had scored the hit on the cruiser while the other two continued on toward the carrier. While her bridge was almost completely out of action, Cape St. George was able to continue steaming and fighting from her CIC which remained intact.
Of the southeast group of WIGs, fully half of the 16 remained and pressed their attack.
To the north, one C-802 impacted the Ingraham along with a Bavar. Metal was ripped apart. Her entire superstructure seemed to be on fire. Meanwhile the Ford had been lucky and had only been struck by fragments of missiles destroyed close in by her CIWS systems. Her luck was not to hold, however, as she was struck almost simultaneously by two explosive laden boats. The first struck dead amidships. The second struck her hull aft, demolishing her screws and rudders. Ford seemed to leap out of the water before settling back and burning with smoke and flame pouring out of the two gaping holes in her side. Water flooded in and she quickly began to list to starboard as her damage control crews fought to save her.
Back aboard the Lincoln, her luck had run out as well. A single C-802 found its mark between the two forward aircraft catapults. Then, like wasps swarming much larger prey, the ekranoplans and attack boats closed in. A Bavar struck her flight deck on the port side while another flew into her number four catapult. A third flew into the island superstructure. On her starboard side, a single surviving surface fast attack boat struck her below her number 2 elevator. Worse, three of the semi-submersible boats had also slipped past the furious American defense and struck the wounded carrier. The powerful warship shuddered along her entire 1,092 foot length as explosions lit up the dark skies. Tongues of water leapt into the sky from the boat impacts at and below her waterline. She was burning from bow to stern.
On the bridge Fisher had been thrown about like a toy and lost consciousness temporarily. As he came to and regained his thoughts, all he could think to himself was how they had been like fish in a barrel. Their foes had laid this multi-layer trap for them and they sailed right into it. He had sailed his men right into it. He was sickened to the pit of his stomach as he struggled to his feet.
The final phase of the attack commenced. Each of the six Ghadir mini-submarines fired a single Hoot torpedo from ranges of between 1.4 to 2 miles. The torpedoes screamed through the water at the burning, stricken ship at almost 200 miles per hour. The ship’s SSTDS torpedo defense system successfully neutralized four of the relentless killers. The other two ran straight and true into their target. The great ship shuddered again and more fires burned. Her keel was essentially broken in two locations and she started listing severely to starboard within minutes. Throughout the enormous ship, sailors and Marines were dead or dying. Many of the dead and dying were horribly burned. Dozens caught in the lower decks below the water line were drowned or drowning. Others were trapped in burning compartments and dying of smoke inhalation. Those blown apart from the impacting missiles and explosions or with their flesh literally shredded off their bodies from the jagged pieces of shrapnel suffered considerably less than their shipmates consigned to slow, agonizing deaths.
Above them, on the hangar and flight decks, some of the air wing crew was literally bathed in burning jet fuel and aviation gas. The horrible screams of the wounded were mixed with the deafening explosions. Other sailors, standing or working too close to the edge of the flight deck, were tossed into the air by the massive concussions only to plummet the more than 90 feet to the treacherous waters of the Persian Gulf. Hitting the water from that height was like hitting concrete. Most of those blown overboard hit the water awkwardly and died. A few lucky ones hit feet first and survived with broken legs and broken backs. These then faced their next struggle to survive in trying not to drown while dealing with their shock and injuries.
Within 20 minutes from the initial contact report, the great ship was a burning hulk, dead in the water. Not since World War II had the U.S. Navy lost a battle or a capital ship, let alone both.
West of Natanz, Iran, 18 hours before
“Radar! Radar illumination,” screamed Lt. Eddie Rozen, without meaning to, into his microphone from the backseat of his F-15SI Silent Eagle (Israeli version) all-weather, long-range strike fighter.
“They’re just groping in the dark. They can’t find us through our jamming and ECM,” replied Major Moshe Alon, his pilot and the leader of the strike cell, in a reassuring tone. A veteran of Operation Orchard in 2007 and Operation Cast Lead in 2008, he was confident in the IAF’s (Israel Air Force) ability to penetrate hostile air space, even without this newest fighter in the IAF, which the entire world didn’t even suspect Israel had. With the new fighter they would certainly be able to enter the target air space. And officially, Israel did not possess the F-15SI. The modifications to the standard Israeli F-15I Ra’am (Thunder) were based on the “proposed” Boeing F-15 SE (Silent Eagle) which, as far as anyone knew, had not been produced. But even the major had to admit, to himself, that flying into Syrian airspace, or over the Gaza Strip was one thing. Flying against Iran’s integrated air defenses, supplied mostly by their Russian allies, was something completely different.
“Bogeys, bogeys, rising to meet us,” Rozen said, slightly more controlled this time.
“Their fighter radars have even less chance of finding us, concentrate on your weapons solution.” The major was sympathetic, vividly remembering his first time in combat, flying over Syria in 2007 to destroy a secret nuclear reactor then under construction.
“Thank Heaven for the overcast sky,” he thought to himself, since it further reduced the chance of detection by one of the biggest actual threats to his flight. The good, old-fashioned Mark I Eyeball.
His Silent Eagle was the lead plane in a 24 ship strike group of 12 F-15 SI’s and 12 F-16I Sufa (Storm) fighters. Similar strike groups of various sizes were
approaching other key sites of the Iranian nuclear program. The Bushehr nuclear reactor to the South, which was partially manned by Russian nuclear scientists, was targeted. Arak, a heavy water facility which they had bypassed to the south a short while ago was also to be hit, along with a half-dozen other sites, including command and control facilities, and key air defenses.
The Silent Eagles were in the lead, due to their reduced radar signature, and helping to clear the way for the very capable, but decidedly non-stealthy F-16Is. Although in truth, having to carry the massive bunker buster bombs, which was their primary payload on this cloudy night, externally (as opposed to internally) compromised most, if not all of the stealth gains. Nevertheless, the Silent Eagles were the most advanced warplane possessed by the IAF and were about to gauge if they were worth the massive investment made in them by their nation.
The Israelis had modified both the F-16I and F-15I (and later SI variant) with large conformal fuel tanks along the fuselage, which not only dramatically increased their fuel capacity, but actually reduced drag at certain speeds, thus boosting their range over the baseline models flown by so many other nations. The avionics and sensors suites were also substantially upgraded.
“Explosions to the south,” reported Rozen dutifully.
“Must be cruise missiles from our submarines impacting the air defense sites.” The Navy actually had the honor of firing the first shots, thought the major to himself. Dubious honor, he quickly corrected himself. In reality, the first “shots” had been fired by too-young looking technicians in non-descript office buildings back in Israel, which had launched a vanguard cyber-attack before the first naval cruise missiles were fired from submarines or the first fighters had blasted off the runways.
The Islamic Republic of Iran had already been the unfortunate target of the world’s first coordinated multi-phase cyber attack, which also included the first cyber super-weapon, the Stuxnet virus, beginning in 2010. Rumored to have been developed by either the U.S., Israel, or both together, the Stuxnet malware specifically targeted the Iranian nuclear program software. The cyber weapon would trick industrial process sensors and control systems not to shut down due to normal behavior, and even self-destruct. For instance, centrifuge controllers were given false normal readings even as the speed was increased to the point of self-destruction. At least one-fifth of the centrifuges which Iran needed to produce enriched uranium were destroyed in this manner.
Stuxnet had been preceded by another program called Duqu. This cyber-weapon took a type of reconnaissance by copying blueprints of Iran’s nuclear program, thereby allowing Stuxnet to be tailored to its target. After Stuxnet came Flame, another malware reconnaissance tool. This one recorded emails, instant-messaging chats, images of users’ computer screens, keystrokes, and network traffic. A compromised device didn’t even need to be connected to the internet or a network since Flame would look for internet connected devices through local networks, or by looking for wireless devices such as Bluetooth. It could even remotely turn on microphones. The massive program also had the ability to wipe out hard drives, just as another program called Wiper had done to the Iranian oil ministries in the years and months before the physical attack. Even financial transactions had been targeted by a program named Gauss.
This time around, the cyber-attack tricked Iranian radars into seeing clear skies and then switched to show hundreds of aircraft approaching, thus leading their operators to think they were malfunctioning.
In the next phase of Operation Symphony, as the operation was called, air defense and command and control installations were the first to be physically targeted by heavily modified Popeye Turbo cruise missiles fired from one Dolphin class submarine in the Persian Gulf and two more in the northern Arabian Sea. Actually, the Popeyes and Dolphins were both modified. Four of the subs’ torpedo tubes were enlarged to 650 mm from the standard 533 mm, while the SLCMs (submarine launched cruise missiles) themselves were stretched for greater range. The cruise missile attacks along with the cyber attack effectively blinded the Iranian air defense forces. So although all critical nuclear sites were protected by Russian –made S-200 surface-to-air (SAM) systems and American-made Hawk missiles from the 1970s, their crews were firing without targeting solutions and hoping for the best.
Meanwhile, other Israeli aircraft and cruise missiles were attacking Iranian power lines and generating stations with special munitions that exploded to spread chemically treated carbon fibers on their targets. The fibers short-circuited the switching stations and transformers, causing havoc throughout the power grid, just as the demand was spiking due to the rapidly spreading reaction to the attacks.
The second wave of cyber-attack began at that moment. Cellular phone networks were flooded with false transmissions and began to overload and were then given false commands to shut themselves off. All Iranian ability to “see” or “hear,” let alone react to what was happening to their country, was rapidly being severed. For good measure, a third wave was also set in motion by Israeli cyber assassins. The radio networks used by civilian first responders were similarly disrupted and then effectively shut down.
The power grid of the Islamic Republic of Iran crashed.
“Two minutes to release point, major.”
“Let’s pray our new innovation does the trick,” replied the major, mostly under his breath.
“Don’t you mean innovations, sir?”
The new innovation was two GBU-28 Paveway III laser guided bombs with BLU-122 warhead, 5,000 lb bunker buster bombs, one under each wing of the Silent Eagle, joined by a length of strong nylon rope approximately 225 meters in length. The “drag” bomb had small aerodynamic drag fins carefully engineered to have 5% additional drag than the normal bomb fins. This allowed the two bombs to fall at the precise separation, which allowed the first bomb to impact and detonate without destroying the drag bomb. This was a new take on the “tandem warhead” which had been used for years on anti-tank missiles. The hope was that the linked bombs would penetrate to the deeply buried and hardened bunkers in which the Islamic Republic of Iran was enriching uranium in thousands of centrifuges which had survived the Israeli cyber assaults.
Smart bomb technology could put multiple projectiles through the exact same point, as the world learned during the 1991 Gulf War watching bombs follow one another through windows or holes blown in walls by other bombs. But Israel was not the United States. Smart bombs, in reality smart bomb kits, which are then bolted on to “dumb” bombs, are expensive and time consuming to produce, especially for such a small country. So, to maximize the impact by the relative few bunker busters available, Israeli weapons designers came up with a simple, yet ingenious and effective solution: tie a conventional “dumb” iron bomb to a leading “smart” bomb. This served the dual purpose of getting two guided weapons for the price of one, and also ensured multiple, perfectly timed hits on target without risking another bombing pass by the same aircraft or a second sortie by another aircraft. And since rubble is easier to “bore through” than intact concrete or mountain rock, the follow-on weapon would be able to penetrate even further into the protected bunkers.
“Bombs away” said Rozen, with just a hint of exhilaration, even has he thought that he would soon be back over Iran, the campaign to destroy the nation’s extensive nuclear weapons program being measured in days or weeks, rather than as the single raids that had destroyed Iraq’s reactor in 1981 and Syria’s in 2007.
In the front seat, the major could not stop himself from thinking about his son, try and try as he might. He knew that one and possibly two groups of paratroopers were already on the ground in Iran, attacking Fordo and perhaps one other installation. Even a major in the IAF was not told all of the details of such a secret and critical operation. It was strictly need to know, and he did not need to know. Nevertheless, it was crushing him. His oldest son was a paratrooper and was almost certainly part of the operation. He also knew that even at that instant, a volley of Jericho II and Jericho III missiles were being fired as the second wave (third wave, depending on one’s point of view of the cyber attacks). Next would come the huge Eitan (“Steadfast”) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), each carrying multiple air-to-surface missiles, bombs, or electronic counter-measures (ECM) pods. These 737- sized UAVs, called Heron TPs in the West, would use their extremely long loiter time to continue attacking pre-selected targets and targets of opportunity, should they arise.
Alon and Rozen both expected to be back over hostile Iranian skies the following night, even before the Herons had departed.
“May G_d be with us all,” whispered Major Alon to himself as he watched yet more eruptions light up the night sky, and knowing that the entire Middle East would now similarly erupt.