Hunter Killer: The War with China - The Battle for the Central Pacific

David Poyer

Hunter Killer: The War with China — The Battle for the Central Pacific

(Here is a mountain range at last, old man, across your easy path;

No mole-hills, these! — bare cliffs, sharp ledges, frowning chasms, overhanging steeps;

No valley, no way through — only the pass, high up and far.

Now gird your loins — face ancient facts — take stock of what is in you;

You are brave enough — you do not hesitate;

No fear! — you will scale a higher mountain than you climb — you will surmount yourself;

You will be glad and amazed to find your old true self returning to you.)

— LINCOLN COLCORD, VISION OF WAR

I

WAR

1

Joint Base Pearl Harbor — Hickam, Hawaii

His ride showed up at the Navy Lodge that morning, as promised. “Captain Lenson?” The driver peered up, bulky in flak vest, sidearm, and helmet. He had a black carbine bracketed by the Humvee’s wheel. “Needed a lift, up to Camp Smith?”

“That’s me.”

“Don this vest, sir.”

Dan started to protest — they were only going from one base area to another, and the temperature was already in the low nineties — but pulled the Kevlar over his khakis. Then wriggled in, jamming his briefcase by his feet and settling his combination cap in his lap. The motor roared and he settled back, trying to get comfortable in a seat obviously designed for someone much shorter.

Hastily erected barbed-wire-and-concrete barriers, as well as bright orange plastic road barriers — confiscated, no doubt, from the Hawaii roads department — walled off the base area. Dan shaded his eyes as the morning sun flashed off the Southeast Loch. Off Ford Island, the Arizona Memorial bridged white against the glowing water. Beyond loomed the gray bulk of USS Missouri. A war had ended on her decks, with the surrender of an empire.

Now a new war had come, and with it new horrors.

The driver muttered, “What they got you doing in this fucked-up war, Captain?”

“Uh, saw some action off Taiwan… but right now, I’m sort of up in the air.”

The marine’s glance snagged. He squinted at the road, then back at Dan’s chest. “Is that the…? Sir?”

The blue-and-white ribbon often got that reaction. “Yeah.”

“The Congressional? Sir?”

“Correct.”

“Jeez. I mean… now I know who you are. Um, what I said, about the war being fucked up, I meant…”

He trailed off, and Dan didn’t ask him to elaborate. Because he was exactly right.

They skirted the pier area, tires humming. Deserted, except for one littoral combat ship and the gray upperworks of a Burke-class: USS Mitscher, at the naval shipyard. The destroyer had absorbed three missiles in the Taiwan Strait action. He should stop in and see her CO.… Two weeks of medical leave had caught him up on sleep, restoring him somewhat from the Savo crud, and he’d gotten his neck and shoulder looked at. He’d written an after-action report, and put his people in for decorations. But he still had outstanding issues. Such as the investigation into his actions aboard USS Savo Island, the Ticonderoga-class cruiser he’d commanded.

Dan twisted a heavy gold Annapolis ring. He was on his way in to meet with Barry “Nick” Niles. Once Dan’s patron, then nemesis, then reluctant rabbi again, Niles had just taken over as chief of naval operations. Now, apparently, he’d come out to consult with the theater commander about the direction of the war.

The driver halted at a barriered gate. Diesels snorted. A crane-arm rotated in slow jerks, dangling another concrete barrier into place. Armed sentries examined their IDs, then waved them through, returning their scrutiny to the road in.

Dan cleared his throat. “What’s the Corps take? We expect Hawaii to be attacked?”

“Happened before,” the sergeant observed laconically.

Dan raised his eyebrows, but couldn’t think of a comeback.

The war had begun with a nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India. China’s attack on India, to support its ally, had broadened the conflict. The U.S. and India had imposed a blockade. Escalating in turn, the People’s Republic had knocked out American communications and reconnaissance satellites.

When the Allies countered, Premier Zhang Zurong had upped the ante again. He’d suppressed Taiwanese defenses with ballistic missiles and air attacks, then launched a cross-strait invasion. And when USS Franklin D. Roosevelt had sailed to assist the Taiwanese, he’d done the unthinkable. Destroyed the entire battle group with a nuclear-tipped missile… killing almost ten thousand U.S. servicemen and — women.

Meanwhile, war had resumed between South and North Korea, and U.S. bases in Okinawa had been taken down with missile strikes, then seaborne invasion.

Now battles raged in India and Vietnam, on Taiwan and Okinawa. And so far, the Chinese seemed to be winning them all.

The driver murmured, “Said you saw action, Captain?”

“At sea.”

“Fighting the slants, right?”

Dan hadn’t heard this term before, but it was easy to guess what it meant. The marine said, “So, they tough, or what? We gonna come back out there, right?”

“They’re definitely tough,” Dan said. “We’re going to have to put our shoulders to the wheel to win this one.”

They left the expressway for a winding two-laner, climbing through a residential area. Many of the homes were boarded up, as if for a typhoon. The driver noticed him noticing. “A lot of the folks up here packed up and left town. Went back to the mainland.”

A wooded hill rose. They passed a football field, a baseball field, parking, a pool. At another sentry post, a machine gun overwatched sandbagged barriers. Dan’s ID got a more thorough inspection here, and his briefcase was searched. Sweat trickled under his Kevlar.

Finally they were waved through this one too. The engine labored as the Humvee climbed. At last it coasted to a halt beneath nodding nipa palms, between two huge new buildings. “In that side door, not the front,” his escort advised as they got out. So the guy was there to take him in personally. “You can leave the ballistic protection in the vehicle, sir,” he added.

Building 700, the Nimitz-MacArthur Pacific Command Center, overlooked the harbor and the shipyard. To the north rose ridges of hills, the nearest crowned with homes, the farthest still green with palms and tropical hardwoods, laced with pearlescent mist. To the east rolled more forest, more hills. To the west, the city. The palm fronds clashed in a sudden breeze, like the rattle of swordplay. He stood for a moment looking down toward the sea, letting the wind dry his sweat. Then followed his escort into a concrete entranceway.

* * *

He’d figured to meet Niles in some office, but his escort led him down a back corridor to an unmarked steel door. After another ID check, the driver racked his rifle in a wall mount, getting a metal tag like a coat check in exchange.

The four-person elevator started slow. Dan looked for a control panel, but there wasn’t any. Then it dropped very fast. He grabbed his nose and cleared his ears. He grunted, “How far down are we…?” Then comprehension arrived.

The Sanctum.

The Bunker.

The Navy had determined never to be taken by surprise again.

He stepped out into an icy-cold, compact, hospital-stark, LED-lit passageway.

The marine led the way. Obviously he’d been here before. Dan nodded to Army personnel — they tended to sulk if ignored in passageways — but didn’t to Navy or Air Force unless they greeted him first. Which most, looking harried or intent on their own tasks, didn’t. Meeting rooms, situation rooms, intelligence spaces, opened off the central passageway. They turned one corner, then another. Dan’s nape prickled as he recognized the right-angle designs, the slanted-away walls at the corners. It looked like feng shui, but it was to limit blast damage, in case a bunker-penetrator made it this deep.

Admiral Barry “Nick” Niles stood before a large-screen display, his back to the door. With his arms crossed, his shoulders looked even broader than they were. The screen glowed with the Pacific Command logo, an eagle with wings spread over a globe oriented to display the Western Ocean. Niles seemed to be studying the Chinese coast. It was the first time Dan had ever seen him in a civilian suit. It didn’t make the new CNO look any smaller.

“Admiral? Captain Lenson’s here.” The marine eased the heavy door shut behind himself. So the guy wasn’t just any old pool driver. He must be one of the CNO’s aides.

“‘We’ll be back,’” Niles said to the screen, not turning.

He was quoting what Dan had told a pool reporter after Savo Island had limped home damaged from the battle in the strait. “They’re making you into a hero. CNN, Fox, they showcased your attack. Bankey Talmadge quoted you on the Senate floor.”

“I’m no hero, Admiral.”

“Hey, I’m not objecting. Right now, we can use some positive news. They’ve kicked us back to Guam. ...

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