The pilot, whose name was Arch Kielly, blinked the cargo bay lights twice, then twice again, to signal he was descending to thirty thousand. Once there, he'd crack a hatch, depressurize, then lower the C-130's ramp. That was so we could jump at twenty-nine thousand five hundred -- the minimum height we'd need to carry us to within striking distance of our target.
I was so preoccupied with checking the cargo straps on the assault craft (it was tied down astride the double-tracked rollers) that I got caught pants-down inattentive when Arch turned the interior lights off. He did that for a perfectly good tactical reason: so no one would be able to see anything untoward from the western shore of Borneo, five and a half miles below, just in case anybody happened to be looking in our direction, which was, of course, up.
So, I was blindsided (literally) by the sudden blackout. Then Arch the fucking pilot did something else I hadn't remembered he was going to do (although he'd told it to me in simple declarative sentences during the preflight briefing): he banked sharply to starboard as he brought the plane onto a due north heading. Surprise. Doom on Dickie. Which is a polite way of saying in Vietnamese that I was being fuckee-fuckeed. One second I was checking the quick release harness on the ICRRC, an acronym that stands for Improved Combat Rubber Raiding Craft for those of you who aren't familiar with SpecWarspeak. The next, I'd lost sight of everything and everybody else as the plane's interior went completely lightless. It was like, WTF?
Then he plunged the nose earthward, dropped the right wing about forty-five degrees, and knocked me completely off balance. I rolled around in the dark like a fucking pinball SEAL, caromed off a bulkhead, got turned around the wrong way (is there any right way in these situations?), tripped over the rollers, lost my balance, and went skidding face first into one of the hard-cast, H-shaped, reinforced aluminum mounting beams that support the plane's forward seating module. It was like, slip, s-l-i-d-e, SMACK -- whaap.
Oh, that smarted. Belay that. It fucking hurt. Instant agony. My oxygen mask was knocked askew. My goggles were spun halfway round my head. My helmet strap cut off my air. Now, those of you who know me at all, know that I have a unique relationship with pain. In actual point of fact, I have an existential relationship with pain. By this, I mean that I see pain not as a vague, generalized physiological concept to be explored; not as a cryptic, enigmatic problem to be analyzed; but as a real-time, essential, individual challenge; a subjective, personal confrontational experience.
Pain is an ordeal; a physical encounter to be lived through, relished, and explored, crack by smack by whaap. My pain exists so I can demonstrate to you, my constant and gentle readers out there, that I am inexorably...alive.
Which is probably why that precise, painful, and even Heideggerian instant was exactly the second the C-130's crew chief -- who was waiting for his cue -- received said signal from the pilot and cracked open the port side hatch. I heard a Perot-size giant sucking sound, and felt the accompanying tremor as the Hercules lost pressure and its interior temperature dropped about 106 degrees in four and a half seconds. Oh, fuck me very much one more time! Was I ever inexorably, existentially, alive.
I struggled to readjust my helmet, mask, and goggles, but the environment wasn't making things easy for me. One problem: it was dark, remember? Another problem: I was wearing a shitload of equipment, and it was difficult to move quickly since I kept catching my straps, loops, lashes, or laces on one of the 130's numerous interior hooks, hangers, pylons, or braces every time I tried to shift my body position.
You do not, after all, jump out of an aircraft at twenty-nine point five thousand feet to go kill bad guys wearing nothing but skivvies, sneakers, and a K-Bar knife. Everything you plan to use, you must carry with you. And when your operational plan calls for a thirty-mile parachute ride followed by a ten-to-fifteen-mile boat ride, followed by who-the-hell-knows-what, you have to carry enough for contingencies. Contingencies, hell -- there's the omnipresent Mr. Murphy to worry about, so you have to go out of the plane loaded down with more junk than you'll find in the Brigade fucking Quartermaster catalog. And things get even more knotty, intricate, complex, when you are operating, like I am, in the black. (No pun intended. What I'm talking about right now are black -- as in untraceable -- ops.)
Which is why I wore a wet suit (generic, French-made) covered by your basic black Nomex flight coveralls (German manufacture). Over those sat a UDT-style life vest (also in basic black), as well as a Brit Royal Marine CQC (that's Close Quarters Combat) vest equipped with class-III body armor and a flotation bladder, not to mention pockets that held twenty or so pounds of lethal goodies that ran the gamut from plastique (in this case an RDX-rich Czech Semtex) and Bulgarian pencil detonators to a point-and-shoot digital electronic camera, (it produces bits-and-bytes computer images on a three-and-a-half-inch disk ratherthan using conventional film), and half a dozen extra magazines for my pistol, each of which contained vintage East German-manufactured frangible Plus-P load ammo.
From the starboard side of the padded pistol belt around my waist was suspended the ever-fashionable ballistic nylon tactical thigh holster containing a Portuguese knockoff of a Heckler & Koch USP 9mm semiauto pistol. The compartment usually reserved for a spare magazine held a suppressor for the pistol. Suspended from my waist's port side and cinched around my left thigh sat a ballistic nylon mag-holder for six thirty-round magazines (filled with the same Kraut ammo that was inside my pistol mags), so I could reload the suppressed HK MP5-PDW I would be carrying. My belt also held a canteen of water, a pouch holding a pair of small but powerful bolt cutters (British), my first-aid kit (also French), and a K-Bar assault knife in a Kydex sheath. I've already told you about the oxygen mask (Japanese) and helmet (Israeli). I don't think I mentioned the O2 bottle, navigational chest-pack, and radio.
My normal weight is in the 220-pound area. If there'd been a scale on this flight, I'd have weighed somewhere in the 270 range. And I wasn't even three-quarters loaded up yet. The point of all this inventory description is to illustrate that there were a lot of possibilities when it came to the "materials that catch on protuberances" category.
I noticed that my fingers were going numb under the Nomex gloves. Now, I don't care whether you've jumped from thirty thousand feet once, or whether you've done it a couple of hundred times like I have: when they depressurize the fucking plane, it gets real goddamn cold, real goddamn fast. Even with the coveralls and the quarter-inch-thick neoprene foam wet suits below 'em, we were suddenly in a d-d-d-deep freeze.
I could sense my guaranteed fog-proof Bolle combat goggles frosting over on the outside, which would have made it hard to see the O2 connector in front of my nose -- if I could have seen anything in the blackness. I stumbled through the plane until I found an oxygen outlet. I identified it by Braille, fondled the nozzle, shoved it sans foreplay into the female connector, and (unlike the president) inhaled as deeply as I could.
Nothing happened. I sucked again. Nada. I tried a third time. Bupkis. This particular oxygen outlet wasn't working. But no O2 at thirty thousand feet is a course of action frowned upon in every one of the military's field manuals and instructional course materials -- not to mention the long list of personal do's and don'ts I carry in my Slovak brain.
So I fought my way aft in the darkness, found a second nozzle, and rapid-switched. Of course, that one was screwed up too. It was right then I realized that my old and constantly consistent nemesis, Mr. Murphy of Murphy's Law fame, had stowed away for the ride.
I yanked the tube connector out of the plane's oxygen supply and shoved it into the O2 bottle strapped to my chest along with the altimeter, compass, large digital readout watch, Magellan GPS module, and secure radio. I inhaled, and was rewarded with a lungful of oxygen. At least I'd be breathing when we went off the ramp. Of course, after that, things might get sticky. There were twenty minutes' worth of air in the bottle strapped to my chest. We were jumping at twenty-nine-thou five hundred. The estimated descent rate given the air temperature, crosswinds, humidity, and load, was eighteen feet per second. You need oxygen until you pass below ten thousand feet. Well -- this was combat, and in combat we might get away with a twelve thou ceiling.
Okay, you do the math. Twenty-nine five thou minus twelve thou, divided by eighteen feet per second, gives us approx 972 seconds (I'm talking fast because I'm using up oxygen) which, divided by sixty, comes to just over sixteen minutes of air. So if we jumped in the next three minutes, I'd be hunky-dory. If not? Sayonara, Dickie -- it would be hypoxia city.
You say you don't know about hypoxia? Well, lemme explain. The condition is a manifestation of pulmonary insufficiency. That's a twenty-dollar way of saying that your blood ain't gettin' enough oxygen. The manifestations include cerebral vasodilation, and changes in sensorum ranging from confusion to narcosis. In the kind of two-bit plain English I understand, this polysyllabic soufflé means that if I jump from too high an altitude I don't get enough oxygen in my brain (that's the cerebral vasodilation stuff), and I can also experience (here come the sensorum goodies): confusion, drowsiness, sluggish reaction time, loss of muscle control, blurred vision and a confused, almost drunken thought process. Bottom line -- if something goes wrong, I can kill myself because my reaction time and sensory perception mechanisms will be off-kilter. Not a favorable condition for the old Rogue Warrior to be in.
Arch turned the emergency lights in the cargo bay on, and everything was all of a sudden bathed in dim red. Now I could see again. There were eight of us making the jump tonight, a HAHO -- that's High Altitude, High Opening -- insertion, which would take us on that aforementioned thirty-mile airborne parasail, followed by the ten-mile boat ride. And all that -- that was going to be the easy part. Because after our half-the-fun-is-getting-there fun, we'd have the second part of the good time. To wit: assaulting a ship whose crew was augmented by zhongdui -- Chinese naval commando reconnaissance units -- who were, the intelligence reports surmised, probably almost as well trained as we were. Zhongdui notwithstanding, we'd take the ship down and send it to the bottom before they could get any message to the outside world that they'd been attacked.
Not that executing any of the above would be a problem. Not with the merry band of hop-and-pop shoot-and-looters I had with me tonight. Tonight, I was traveling with Warriors. Over there, Duck Foot Dewey ran a second swipe of Russian duct tape around his magazine pouch so it wouldn't come open midair and leave him sans ammo for the suppressed HK submachine gun secured to his chest. Just to his left, Gator Shepard checked the tape that wound around the tops of his Adidas GSG-9 tactical boots. The shock of jumping out of a plane can rip your boots right off. That's not a good idea when the outside temperature's about fifty below zero, Fahrenheit. Lose your bootie like that and you get to play "This Little Piggy Froze Solid."
Next to Gator, Half Pint Harris fondled his swim buddy Piccolo Mead's rucksack, pulling on it hard to make sure it wouldn't separate when the chute opened. Hunkered down just across the aisle from Half Pint was Chief Gunner's Mate Eddie DiCarlo -- I call him Nod, as in Wynken and Blynken -- taking a long and loving last look at his suppressed Heckler & Koch MP5-PDW before he stowed it in the padded scabbard that would ride on his right thigh. Leaning against the bulkhead just aft of Nod was Master Chief Nasty Nicky Grundle, whom I'd rescued not three weeks ago from a drab training assignment in Hawaii. Nasty's web gear was being checked over carefully by his new swim buddy, a former UCLA linebacker named Boomerang, the only West Coast surfer-puke in my current group of shooters.
Boomerang (he pronounces it "Boom-rang") had earned his nickname during BUD/S. Had he ever. The first time he went through training, he broke his ankle the fifth week. So they held him back until the next cycle. The second time around, he broke his collarbone at the end of the sixth week. This time they tried to wash him out. But the sonofabitch refused to go. He kept coming back for more. And the third time through, he graduated at the top of his BUD/S class -- with two broken toes and a cracked rib.
I'd tell you more about Boomerang, but I see that Arch the pilot just blinked the red lights three times. And that whining noise you hear? That's the sound of hydraulics. The sonofabitch is lowering the ramp. And over there, the crewmen are unfolding the tracks so the ICRRC package -- specifically the Kevlar-reinforeed rubber assault craft, engine, fuel bladder, communications package, and assault gear, all lashed together in one ingenious, parachutable bundle -- can roll right off the end of the ramp.
Arch blinked the lights thrice again. That was the get-ready sign. The next signal -- the green jump indicator -- would be roughly five minutes from now.
Shit -- I wasn't ready to go-go-go yet. That was on the one hand. On the other hand, there was that old Rogue Commandment that had to be observed. You know the one. It goes, "Thou hast not to like it -- thou hast just to do it."
And, there was much "it" to do. So, I scampered up to the cockpit, gave Arch a thump on the shoulder, a hearty "fuck you, cockbreath," and an upraised middle finger to show how much I cared.
Arch handed the controls to his copilot and swiveled in his chair. "Fuck you, too, asshole," he said through his mask. I could see the smile in his cobra's eyes. "Just stay in one piece, huh?"
I nodded. "I'll try."
He extended his big, gloved hand. "If there's ever anything else I can do -- just call. I'm in the book at Kadena -- there are lots of Kellys, but only one, spelled my way, with an ie."
"We come from the Cuban Kiellys. Grandpa was a Rough Rider who stayed behind. Over the years, the spelling got changed."
I grinned behind my mask, took his hand and clasped it. "Well, Kelly with an i and an e, don't make any fucking offers you don't mean."
His eyes grew serious. "I never do." Arch swiveled, settled back behind the wheel, made sure he had his feet firmly on the pedals, then nodded to his copilot that he was assuming control.
I plugged my Magellan into the navigator's satellite data display. His radar had our target ship on the screen. It was some 125-odd miles from our current position, traveling due north at a steady six knots an hour.
What was our current position? Well, we were over water now -- the South China Sea to be precise -- west-northwest of Belitung Island, about 200 miles south of the equator, and 110 degrees east longitude. FYI, we'd flown out of Guam eleven-plus hours ago on this here MC-130E Combat Talon aircraft, which had been custom painted for us in a dull, black radar-defeating stealth paint. The craft itself bore no identifying markings whatsoever. Neither did anyone in crew. Even so, I can tell you (don't breathe a word of this, okay?) that the plane -- as well as its crew -- came from the Air Force Special Operations Commands 353rd Special Operations Group, First SpecOps Squadron, based at Kadena Air Base, on Okinawa.
I'm not usually a big fan of the Air Farce. But these guys knew what the fuck -- they were pros. So far as I was concerned, Lieutenant Colonel Arch and his aircrew could fly me A3, which stands for anyplace, anytime, anywhere. He was the type you wanted on a mission like this one. He'd get the job done, sans complaint, no matter what it took. I'd known that the moment we'd met: he had the look of a stone killer in his eyes, and he'd never said anything that wasn't in the affirmative.
Once we cleared Guam, we'd climbed quickly to our cruising altitude, the Combat Talon's operational ceiling of thirty-three thousand feet, and headed south by southeast on a route that would take us just under four thousand miles. We skirted Palau, cut a wide swath past Mindanao, refueled from an unmarked tanker over the Makassar Strait, then flew due west over the Borneo jungle before turning north for our final approach to the target. We'd stayed away from radar sites and flown (we hoped) between Russian, Chinese, French, and Israeli satellite passes. We'd maintained strict radio silence. This mission had to be fucking stealth all the way.
I stared through the pilot's windshield. It was the perfect operational milieu: there were no lights to be seen anywhere. I turned away, plugged my Magellan into the naviguesser's console and puffed the latest information from the navigator's forward-looking radar into my own. Then I plugged into the EWO -- that's Electronic Warfare Officer -- console, and dumped his target information into my own unit, too. That way, I could set a heading after we'd jumped -- a course that would bring us down exactly where we had to be. The info loaded, I punched a series of commands into the unit and watched as it responded properly.
Then I turned the Magellan off, waited fifteen seconds, switched it on again, and repeated the cycle. I see you waving your hand out there. You say what? I'd just checked the GPS once, and I was wasting time? Hey, bub -- remember the old Rogue's Eighth Commandment. Thou shalt never assume. So I didn't. I double-checked to make sure that the information I'd transferred was stored properly, and that it was displayed the way I was going to need it displayed. I peered down at the screen. Everything was copacetic. Now I knew there was at least one thing Mr. Murphy couldn't screw with tonight: my Magellan system.
The navigation and target info elements secure, I slid down the ladder rails, found the remainder of my own web gear, pulled it on, double-checked all the straps and Velcro closures, shrugged into my reserve chute, then attached my weapons scabbard, rucksack, and all the other miscellaneous goodies necessary for the night's activities. I punched the display screen of my Magellan and called out the coordinates of our target ship to my shooters so they could program their own GPS units. When I got "OK" signals (and a chorus of "Fuck you very much, Skipper") from everyone, I clambered astride the assault craft and clipped my harness straps to the big, black thirteen-cell Vector assault chute I'd ride tonight. I pressed my thighs up against the Kevlar-reinforced rubber.
"Hey -- does that feel good, sir?" Nasty Nicky Grundle shouted. If his voice hadn't been muffled by the oxygen mask he wore I would have sworn that he'd spelled sir with a c and a u.
I nodded affirmatively, then did a pretty passable Rin Tin Tin humps Lassie against the gunwale. Ooh -- it did feel good. Still laughing, Nasty and Boomerang released the tie-downs and began to slide the ICRRC package aft, holding it steady with a pair of safety straps secured to a pintle in the forward cargo area while I waddled behind, looking not so much like your generously endowed Richard as a fifteen-foot rubber-cocked Dick.
I hand-signaled the guys to circle wagons and watched as Gator, Nod, Half Pint, Duck Foot, and Pick flanked the ICRRC, then began to edge slowly aftward, their progress hampered by the hundred-plus pounds of equipment that each man carried.
I looked up to see the air crew chief's face, obscured by oxy mask and goggles, waving Boomerang and Grundle off. They gave the crew chief a thumbs-up, backed away from the ICRRC, and joined the other swim buddies. Seamlessly, they were replaced by two crewmen whose coveralls were crisscrossed by long yellow nylon safety harnesses secured to the aircraft's bulkheads.
We moved aft until we came to the ramp hinge. There, the crew chief signaled a halt. I looked down. There was nothing to see -- only, blackness and the void. I raised my eyes and looked out horizontally, and saw a constellation in the moonless night. The Southern Cross? Perhaps. Who knew. Certainly not I.
And then the two green lights came on and blinked twice. I drew my right hand across my throat. The crewmen nodded and unhitched the safety lines. I put my whole weight against the ICRRC, screamed a heigh-ho Silver and a hearty "Fuck-you" as I r-o-l-l-e-d it toward the void, tossed the crew chief the bird, and lumbered off the ramp, pulled by the weight of the assault craft.
Normally, I like to throw a hump and watch the plane disappear behind me. But tonight that was impossible -- jumping attached to the ICRRC meant a static opening -- that is, with the chute's line attached to the plane -- and it came real fast. Some invisible giant hand grabbed me by the nuts and slammed me up against the gunwale of the ICRRC two or three times, then took me by the helmet, tried to twist my head in a complete three-sixty like something out of The Exorcist, gave up, and finally slapped me up against the boat face first half a dozen times so I'd feel VMA -- very much alive. Then, as suddenly as it had started, it was over, and, the ICRRC hanging under me, the descent smoothed out.
I retrieved a red-lensed minilight from a pouch on my chest, tightened its lanyard loop around my wrist, then checked the steering fines and risers to make sure there were no tangles. I counted cells and saw thirteen. The chute appeared to be in textbook perfect condition. Compass heading was north-northeast. I put some of my weight on the steering line and swung the chute twelve degrees to the right, sending the ICRRC and me due north. Altitude was twenty-nine six and falling. I heard flutter around me and looked for the seven other canopies. Nada. Well -- it wasn't cause for concern. After all, they were jumping with dark chutes and without lights.
Besides, every man with me tonight had made hundreds of HAHO jumps. They knew they had to key on the infrared strobe lights strapped to my ankles. And if they missed the IR lights, or the strobes died, each man had a Magellan GPS unit on his chest. And if their Magellans crapped out, and they missed my strobes, they'd have a very, very long swim.
But this was no occasion to dwell on failure. In fact, failure is a word I do not recognize. I have only one way to deal with my life, and with my missions: I attack, attack, attack.
And so, I rolled my head back and looked up at the stars. There are times when Warriordom is perfect -- and this was one of them. Believe me, there are few experiences as exhilarating, energizing, or invigorating as jumping out of a perfectly good aircraft at an excessive altitude in order to initiate a mission that will stretch one's physical, mental, and operational capabilities way past the 100 percent mark.
And this Mission Impossible would certainly stretch our operational capabilities. We had been tasked by the powers that be (in this case the White House) with carrying out a stealth-quiet component of national policy. As long as I have a couple of minutes here, let me give you some of the background.
According to those solons in charge of things back in Washington, it is crucial to keep our relations with China on an even keel these days. First of all, China has the potential to become a superpower -- and you play politics with superpowers differently from the way you do with other nations. Then there is the economic factor. China, you see, is one of our biggest overseas trading partners. From oil companies, whose investments in China total billions of dollars, to American telecom corporations, where tens of thousands of jobs depend on their selling equipment to the Chinese, to industrial machine toolmakers who hope to modernize Chinese plants, to toy manufacturers who buy cut-rate goods there and sell them at top-dollar prices here, China is important to the American economy. How important? Our trade deficit with China was more than fifty billion smackeroos last year. That gives the Chinese a lot of crout.
And, of course, there is also the Machiavellian ingredient. During the Cold War, China was our way of keeping the Soviets off guard. That was one of the major reasons Richard Nixon resumed relations with Peking back in 1972. If the Sovs had to keep a million Red Army soldiers on the Manchurian border, that was a million fewer potential adversaries for NATO to face in the West. Today, there may be no more Soviet Union. But the Russians still want to expand their sphere of influence -- and one of the most pragmatic ways to keep them bottled up is to employ the Chinese trump. But these days, Peking -- which is now spelled Beijing -- is a much harder -- and wilder -- card to play.
So much for history. Now let's look at the current situation. One problem we are facing is a recent rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing -- a potentially dangerous political situation because it means that they could coordinate policy to work against the United States. Another complication: the Chinese are finding new ways to flex their political and economic muscles. They've just taken control of Hong Kong, which adds billions of hard currency dollars to their economy. And they're looking for new ways to expand their influence in Asia and elsewhere, all across the Pacific Rim.
One way the Chinese have done so is through weapons. They are the number two weapons exporter in the world -- second only to us. Moreover -- and more dangerous -- the panjandrums in Beijing haven't bothered to act within "conventional" borders. Over the last year, they have started shipping nuclear missile components (a clear violation of U.S. non-proliferation laws as well as the nuclear non-proliferation treaty they'd signed not two years ago) to Pakistan, Libya, and Iran.
Now, it has been obvious to me for some time that the Chinese have decided to use their new-found position and clout to squeeze the United States whenever possible. The problem is that we have not pushed back.
Let me pause here long enough to give you a theory about international relations. It is a concept propounded by Colonel Arthur "Bull" Simon, the Warrior who led the famous 1970 raid on the Son Tay prison in North Vietnam and who, in retirement, was hired by Ross Perot to rescue Perot's people in Iran, back in 1979.
"Bull" used to preach to us SpecWar youngsters. "If history is any teacher," he'd growl, "it teaches you that when you get indifferent and you lose the will to fight, some other sonofabitch who has the will to fight will take you over."
Those are words we should all take to heart. But "Bull" Simon's real-world experience wasn't held in very high esteem by most of those in the current administration. Our latest national security adviser, the newly installed Director of Central Intelligence, and the secretary of state are all practiced in the fine (and cowardly) art of appeasement. You -- yes, you out there. You what? You want an example of appeasement?
Okay. At the most recent Sino/American ministerial (a ministerial is when our secretary of state and their foreign minister get together and palaver), SECSTATE hesitatingly -- almost apologetically -- brought up the matter of the slaughter of students at Tiananmen Square, the use of prisoners to make consumer goods, the torture of political dissidents, and the persecution of Christians.
The Chinese foreign minister slammed his palm on the table and said, quote, "The allegation that anyone died at Tiananmen is a lie. Your other assertions are also without basis in reality."
And what did SECSTATE do? SECSTATE did nothing. SECSTATE swallowed hard. And did nothing. The exchange made all the nightly news programs. I felt sickened when I saw it.
And that wasn't the worst. The worst was that the matter of nuclear smuggling was never even brought up. The fact that SECSTATE lacked the cojones to confront the Chinese upset me. I was even more upset when I learned from a verygood source that our secretary of state had evidence to the contrary in her briefcase. But instead of using it, she sat there and said nothing.
Officially, therefore, the United States had no-reaction to China's provocations. More to the point: our secretary of state has requested that the Chinese consider a schedule of summit meetings over the next three years, the first one to take place in six months. The Chinese have taken SECSTATE's request under advisement. Dammit, we didn't set the agenda -- we simply made a request.
What did SECSTATE's disastrous performance tell the Chinese? It told 'em we weren't serious. It indicated we didn't have backbone, determination, or guts. It demonstrated weakness. And weakness is something that should never be revealed -- not to other people, and certainly not to a nation like China, which is intent on creating a hegemony in its part of the world.
On a clandestine level, however, I am happy to report that not everyone in the administration assumes the same puppylike, belly-exposed, all-four-feet-in-the-air position that our secretary of state, the CIA director, and the national security adviser seem to adapt so regularly.
It had taken three weeks or so, but the president had finally been convinced (browbeaten may be a more accurate word, but I wasn't in the room) by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and SECDEF -- the secretary of defense -- that Beijing couldn't be allowed to operate unchallenged, especially when it was selling weapons of mass destruction to states that sponsor terrorism directed at the United States.
Indeed, after carefully working his way around the State Department, the CIA, and the NSC chairman, SECDEF actually convinced the president to sign a national security directive that authorized covert military action if it could be proved without possibility of error that the Chinese were in substantial violation of the nonproliferation treaty. SECDEF argued that by acting covertly -- by leaving State, CIA, and even the NSC out of the loop -- diplomacy could proceed unabated. The president could still hold his regularly scheduled summit meetings with the Chinese -- smiling warmly, acting nicey-nicey at the state dinners, but still let 'em understand that we weren't going to be pushed around.
That was where I came in. As you know, five months ago, the JCS Chairman, an Army four-star and lead-from-the-front warrior named Crocker, had me detailed to his office as his ASR -- that's Attack SEAL-in-Residence. I'd gone after a bunch of no-goodniks in Moscow and the Middle East (you can read all about it in Rogue Warrior: Designation Gold).
Now, my cage had been unlocked once again. The deal was simple: roughly six weeks ago, FORTE satellite surveillance had detected what appeared to be a shipment of nuclear missile components. It tracked them on a long,meandering odyssey from a location deep within China to the Chinese coast. There, after a two-week period in which the missile components were moved from warehouse to warehouse on an irregular schedule -- it appeared the Chinese were trying to confound surveillance, which they must have suspected, by trying to play a version of those street-corner shell games. Anyway, the components were finally loaded on what appeared to be a freighter named the Nantong Princess, -- which was moored in Shanghai harbor. The vessel sailed before any HUMINT -- that's HUMan INTelligence -- could verify the FORTE's assessment.
But the United States knew for certain the ship was not a commercial craft. That fact had been determined by National Security Agency: SIGINT (SIGnals INTelligence) monitoring of its shortwave radio broadcasts, as well as its ELINT -- ELectronic INTelligence -- and TECHINT -- TECHnical INTelligence -- capabilities. And we knew that it was making a series of stops all around the Pacific Rim, starting in Pusan, South Korea, and ending at Karachi, Pakistan. Further investigations by No Such Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and a couple of other alphabet soup groups that I'd go to jail for ten years for just mentioning, confirmed BRD -- that's beyond a reasonable doubt -- that the Nantong Princess was in fact a military vessel, manned by Chinese naval personnel augmented by zhongdui naval recon forces, and therefore a legitimate target for yours truly.
Since Chairman Crocker and I are not only on a first name basis (he calls me "Dick," and I call him "General") but also see the world eye-to-eye when it comes to taking action, he had asked me to come up with a tactical operation plan to make the freighter and its nuclear shipment disappear, but give the Chinese absolutely no opportunity to blame the United States.
Six hours after he'd made his request, I'd shown up at his office with precisely the kind of KISS (that's Keep It Simple, Stupid) operation I like the best. I'd take a small group of men, carry out a covert assault on the Nantong Princess in an isolated area during its leg from Jakarta to Singapore, and send it -- and its cargo -- to the bottom.
And the Chinese? Oh, they might have their suspicions. But I would leave not a trace of evidence to link the U.S. of A. with anything that might happen in the South China Sea. After all, the shipping lanes between Jakarta and Singaporeare known to harbor pirates. The waters are filled with sharks. Ships have been known to disappear without so much as the well-known trace. That is known as deniability.
The plan I laid on the Chairman's antique desk wasn't a new one. In fact, it was one I'd taken off the shelf from my Cold War days and adapted to the current requirements. The Cold War plan called for a concentrated electronic bombardment of the target vessel to cut off all communications. I wouldn't have that luxury -- I'd have to sever the comms myself. The Cold War plan called for a quick extraction by chopper. I'd modified that element, too: we'd extract by submarine. We'd have a beacon and would be able to summon it into the area once we'd completed the sensitive portion of our mission. And the old plan was paid for out of funds supplied by the Department of Defense's Special Operations budget. This one would have to be black funded. To do that, I suggested that the Chairman funnel some of the $50 million in Russkie money I'd sluiced off to him not three months ago, when my old friend Colonel Avi Ben Gal of Israeli Army Intelligence and I stumbled onto a couple of dozen of Moscow's secret bank accounts, during an operation we'd staged in Paris and the Middle East. The bucks (they were Swiss francs, but it would be simple to convert 'em) were easily accessible, no one would ever be the wiser -- and best of all, we wouldn't cost the U.S. taxpayer even a single tax dollar. The man actually footing the bill would be Viktor Grinkov, a nasty, unscrupulous, greedy piece of work who currently ran the Russian interior ministry. It was his money -- and he had made it clear through a series of backchannels he was upset at us for purloining it.
I laid the OPLAN on Chairman Crocker's desk. He indicated for me to Park It, then donned half-glasses and began to read. When he'd finished, he asked me half a dozen pointed and specific questions, listened as I expanded on the elements he'd queried, then asked me to wait outside while he made a call on the secure phone that sat at his left elbow.
Four minutes later he'd cracked the ornate wood door himself and beckoned me inside. "I like the funding part," he said, smiling. "SECDEF does, too." He paused. "There's only one element I'd like to change," he said.
I'm always open to suggestion if it makes the OPLAN better. "General?"
"I want you to exfil differently. The submarine commander should have no idea where you've been or what you've been doing. So change the pickup position by at least sixty or seventy miles -- more if you can, even if it means taking on an additional fuel bladder. I don't want any submarine's log giving out the relative position where your goddam target went down."
I thought about it. Made a lot of sense. Gave us more deniability -- and kept the sub's CO out of the loop. "Can do, sir."
"Good." He tossed my op-plan at me -- I caught it one-handed -- then pointed his thumb and index fingers in my direction in his trademark "Colt .45" fashion and said, "Then, go get 'em, Dick." Then he added the qualifier. Here is the Rogue Warrior's First Law of Covert Operations: There is always a qualifier.
Unlike most, this one was simple but direct. "Don't fail, don't leave any pecker tracks, and don't get caught," is what the Chairman told me, his face serious.
So, as is usual in my life, there was going to be no wriggle room for error. I had to stage my assault in a totally stealth fashion. I had to take over the ship before any message could be sent out. And I had to neutralize the whole fucking crew. That is a politically correct way of telling you I wasn't going to be taking any prisoners tonight.
Don't look so shocked. War is not nice. And this, no matter what you might think, was war.
Back to the business at hand. After all, there was work to be done -- to wit, I had to guide us to the second phase of the mission and set us down ten nautical miles due south of our target. I pressed the switch on the Magellan GPS unitthat sat next to the altimeter on my chest pack. The screen illuminated, but I saw no information. No distance to target. No beading. No latitude. No longitude. No nothing.
WTF. I pressed the on/off switch again. And again, the display came up blank.
Let me pause here for just a few seconds to explain the kind of unkosher pickle I was in.
Looking for a single ship in the South China Sea can be a problem if: if you are coming from the air, if it is night; if the ship does not want to be found; and if you do not know where the fuck you are relative to the target. Am I making things plain enough for you?
Yes, I had a compass. I could steer north, south, east, and west. I had an altimeter. I knew how high I was. But without the Magellan, which gets its signals from a GPS, or Global Positioning Satellite, I had no way of knowing where I was in relation to the target. I had no course to follow. No glide path to glide along.
My men had Magellans. But I couldn't use their units to help me because we had no way of making contact. Sure I was carrying a radio -- but it and all its gear was stowed securely in my chest pack, and there was no way to use it. More to the point, even if I pulled it out and set it up, my guys' radios were in their chest packs.
Now, both you and I know that the Magellan was working just fine not ten minutes ago. But that was then and this was now and I was being screwed with by Mr. Murphy more than I wanted to be.
Okay. Let us be logical here. The batteries were working. That I knew because the screen lit up. But the antenna obviously wasn't working. Why wasn't it working? I stared at it and tried to be logical. And in staring, I had an epiphany. Y'know, as my old shipmate Doc Tremblay has told me more than once, sometimes I do have fartbeans for brains. The goddamn thing wasn't working because I'd forgotten to plug the antenna, which was located in my helmet, into the unit.
I reached inside my flight suit, brought the connector wire out, plugged it securely into the Magellan's base, and turned the power on once again. Bingo. Full display. Now, perhaps, it was time to sit back and enjoy the ride.
Six thousand feet and descending through thickening clouds. My oxygen had barely lasted through fifteen five, and by the time I'd cleared ten five I was feeling the effects of hypoxia. That is to say, I felt sluggish and drowsy, my muscles wouldn't react very quickly, and my vision was blurred. What's the problem? The problem was that I wasn't making the turns I had to, when I had to -- and I was therefore drawing all of us off course.
I fought my body with my body -- tried to regain control over myself. But I wasn't having any luck.
Fuck it -- I yanked on the right steering line and went into a tight, corkscrewing turn that dumped me fifteen hundred feet -- from just above eleven thou to nine thou five -- in just under a minute. It worked -- the thick air was like a slap in the puss. I was back in control. I caught a thermal, gained a little altitude, and checked my instruments to see how much I'd screwed up.
It wasn't as bad as it could have been. Despite my problems, we'd made progress -- some tailwind action had brought us farther along the track than I'd anticipated. That was good -- the less distance we had to travel on the water, the better off we'd be. I looked down toward the choppy surface a mile below my boots. Like the Pacific, the South China Sea is an unpredictable, often nasty place. And that's when you've shipped out in something that's measured in the hundreds of tons. Our craft was less than twenty feet in length. It was powered by a single, although powerful, outboard motor.
There was a change in the sound of my parachute. Have I ever explained that you can tell from the way the air passes the foils what your chute is going to do? Well, you can. And from the way things currently sounded, I was about to pick up some crosswind.
I looked up -- not much to see. Then, suddenly, the ICRRC and I were yanked to port. Jerked hard. Crosswind, hell -- that was a fucking wind shear. I pulled hard on the steerage lines and risers to bring us back around. No response. I hung on the lines with all my weight. Still nothing. Then I looked up and realized that one of the outer cells had buckled.
That was bad juju. Very bad juju. That is an understatement. You do not want your chute to buckle and collapse, because the chute is what keeps you from hitting the water at about 120 feet per second. And hitting water at 120 feet per second produces the same nasty result as hitting concrete at 120 feet per second. Am I making the point to you through ironic use of numerical repetition? Good. I think the Naval Special Warfare technical term for the condition I am describing is: "go splat."
I was not fucking about to go splat. Not tonight, anyway. I used the ICRRC as a platform, hoisted myself up, stood on the gunwales of the fucking boat, grabbed a handful of the starboard-side risers, and began to hoist myself up them, as if they were a climbing rope. That maneuver sent us into a spin -- corkscrewing the ICRRC and me down at an accelerated speed.
But it also filled the leading edge of the canopy and the stabilizers with air. I could fucking feel the difference.
Now all I had to do was reverse the spin. How to do that? Let go the risers and drop -- letting my harness absorb the shock -- would probably work. I released my grip and dropped. As I hit -- hard -- I perceived that I'd made an ever-so-slight miscalculation about the weight factor and its consequences. You -- the asshole laughing out there -- you're ahead of me, aren't you? You realized I hadn't factored in the weight of the ICRRC, and so it wasn't my harness that bore the brunt of my six-foot drop, but my nuts -- an eye-crossing, testicle-squeezing jolting kick that left me feeling like I'd be singing falsetto for the next couple of weeks.
I checked the compass and worked the steering handles to bring me back to a correct heading. That done, I began my final approach check, as I was under three thousand feet now and descending rapidly toward the water's surface. I heard the flutter of other chutes and looked around to see one, two, three, four shadows closing up behind me. I hoped the rest of my crew was there. But there'd be no way to tell until we all hit the water.
And then it was on us and things happened all at once. The water had what looked like a three-foot chop -- more than I would have liked, but not as bad as it could have been. I cut the ICRRC package away at twenty-five feet. It dropped like a stone but landed right side up and ready to go. Then I released my combat rucksack -- so it wouldn't drag me down like a sea anchor when I hit the water.
Suddenly, instead of coasting the last four yards to the surface, I soared skyward. The big cargo chute caught a gust of air and, unfettered by the weight of the ICRRC package, began to lift me up and away. Shit. Fuck. I was at about ten yards -- and sixteen, maybe even eighteen miles an hour -- when I cut away. I dropped like the proverbial goddamn thrown stone. Which is to say, I slapped against the choppy surface face first and careened forward like one of those rolling bombs used by the World War II Dam Busters. My left foot caught in my rucksack line, which caused me to ball up and soar ass over teakettle, then flatten out and smack the surface in a painful belly-whopper. The momentum flipped me twice, then -- somehow, I saw what was coming -- I managed to grab half-a-lungful of air before my hundred-plus pounds of equipment sank and dragged me below the surface.
I struggled against the weight, my legs scissoring and my arms windmilling. Maybe it's the fact that I come from a down-and-out coal mining town in Pennsylvania, but I wasn't enjoying a lot of upward mobility right then.
Time to get serious: I grabbed the inflate tab of my CQC vest and yanked it. There was a satisfying hiss, the fucking thing filled with air, and I fought my way up, spitting seawater as I breached the surface like a goddamn killer whale.
I sputtered, and cursed at nothing in particular, then started to flail toward the ICRRC, which bobbed in the two-and-a-half-foot chop perhaps a 150 yards away. By the time my lungs were heaving and I was sweating into my wet suit despite the fact that the water temperature was in the low seventies. Believe me, it is not easy to swim, even with a flotation device on, when you're lugging half your body weight in soggy equipment.
I lashed my rucksack to the gunwale hand-lines and cut the umbilical cord that secured it to my harness. Then I inflated my UDT vest to give me more buoyancy, then began the laborious process of removing the craft's drop package, so we could turn this useless lump of reinforced rubber and Kevlar into an assault craft.
The weighted pallet was first. I sliced the nylon netting with my K-Bar. The pallet sank away just as it had been designed to do. Next, I carefully sheathed my knife (I've seen people slice through rubber raiding craft during the boarding process before, and I wasn't about to do that and turn myself and my men into shark feed tonight), grabbed the closest hand-line, pulled myself up, muscled over the gunwale, heaved myself into the boat, and performed one of my more improbable rolls onto the floorboards, which is to say I managed to land face first and smack my nose -- thwap-slap -- against the forward thwart cleat.
WTF. Or, as the long-suffering, hard-working chain-smoking dweeb editor is so fond of misstating, "no pain...no pain."
I shrugged out of the CQC vest and secured that, too. I was about to begin my boat equipment check solo when Nasty Nicky Grundle's size twelve paw grabbed the hand-line, and he heaved himself over the gunwale with a grunt, and a friendly, "Fuck you very much, Skipper."
My extended middle finger told him that he was number one with me, too.
Nasty shrugged himself out of his equipment and secured it. Then he began to unbolt the 155-horsepower outboard motor that lay on its side, secured to the floorboard. He was about halfway done when I heard splashing and looked up to see Boomerang, Gator Shepard, Nod DiCarlo, and Half Pint Harris sidestroking toward the ICRRC. About twenty yards behind them, Duck Foot and the Pick played catchup. That was eight out of eight. We'd be at full strength tonight.
I found the engine mounting brackets and motor bracket in their compartment and fitted them into place on the ICRRC's stern transom. Then I reached down and helped Nasty steady the outboard. He took the driveshaft, I held the cowling, and we lifted in unison -- the goddamn thing was a heavy mother, too. Carefully we slid the motor over the engine mounting brackets, attached it to the outboard bracket just behind the transom, and tightened the clamp screws firmly.
Boomerang freed the thirteen-gallon fuel bladder from its stowage cradle in the bow, humped it aft over the two thwart tubes, and began to secure it in position adjacent to the engine. Thirteen gallons was one point nine times the amount of gas we needed to get to our target, and then to our final extraction point. Despite that huge safety margin, if there had been room on the ICRRC I would have brought a second fuel bladder with us. Things go wrong: bladders can leak; fuel gets used up faster than you foresee; or maybe Mr. Murphy decides to put in an unscheduled appearance. Bottom line: gasoline is something you don't want to run out of in the middle of a goddamn ocean.
My other merry marauders tied their rucksacks to the hand-lines, clambered aboard, then set about making our minicraft into a seaworthy man o' war. They didn't spend a lot of time talking to one another -- they just Did the Job. That is common in units like mine. That is to say, units in which the men have worked together for so long that they don't need to speak, they simply converse in a kind of nonverbal, body-language shorthand.
Suddenly it began to rain. The sort of slow, steady, drenching rain common to the tropics. The hair on the back of my neck stood up as I sensed a shift in the surface wind. Just another couple of Murphy elements to factor into the morning's events. I glanced at the luminous Timex on my wrist. It was just past 0100. I knew that sunrise was at 0650. By then, the Nantong Princess had to be in two pieces, sitting on the bottom in seventeen hundred feet of water.
Copyright © 1999 by Richard Marcinko and John Weisman