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San Diego, CA
September 16, 2017
Ray McConnell was watching the front door for more arrivals, but he would have noticed her anyway. Long, straight black hair, in her early thirties, casually dressed, but making jeans and a knit top look very good. He didn't know her, and was putting a question together when he saw Jim Naguchi follow her in. Oh, that's how she knew.
Ray stood up, still keeping one eye on the screens, and greeted the couple. The woman was staring at the wall behind Ray, and he caught the tail end of her comment. "... why you're never at home when I call."
Jim Naguchi answered her, "Third time this week," then took Ray's offered hand. "Hi, Ray, this is Jennifer Oh. We met at that communications conference two weeks ago-the one in San Francisco."
As Ray took Jennifer's hand, she said, "Just Jenny, please," smiling warmly.
"Jenny's in the navy, Ray. She's a computer specialist..."
"Which means almost anything these days," Ray completed. "Later we'll try to trick you into telling us what you really do."
Jenny looked a little uncomfortable, even as she continued to stare. Changing his tone a little, Ray announced, "Welcome to the McConnell Media Center, the largest concentration of guy stuff in captivity."
"I believe it," she answered. "Those are Sony LED flat-screen TVs, aren't they? I've got a fifty-incher at home."
Ray half-turned to face "The Wall." "These are similar, still just three and a half inches thick. But larger," he said modestly.
"And four of them?" she said with awe. "Impressive, and expensive."
Ray shrugged sheepishly. "Some guys have sports cars; I have my Wall."
Every new guest had to stop and stare. The living room of Ray's ranch house was filled with electronic equipment, but the focus of the room was the quad four-by-eight flat-screen video panel. He'd removed the frames and placed them edge to edge, covering one entire wall of his living room with an eight-by-sixteen-foot video display-The Wall.
Right now it was alive with flickering color images. Ray pointed to different areas on the huge surface. "We've set up the center with a map of the China-Vietnam border. We've got subwindows," Ray said, pointing them out, "for five of the major TV networks. That larger text subwindow has the orders of battle for the Vietnamese and Chinese and U.S. forces in the region."
He pointed to a horseshoe-shaped couch in the center of the room, which was filled with people. "The controls are at that end of the couch, and I've got two dedicated NEC quad-core computers controlling the displays."
"So is this how the big kids keep track of an international crisis?" Jennifer asked.
"Maybe." Ray shrugged again and looked at Jim Naguchi, who also shrugged. "I dunno. We never met any. We're just engineers."
"With a strong interest in foreign affairs," she observed.
"True," Ray admitted, "just like everyone else here." He swept his arm wide to include the other guests. Half a dozen people were sitting around the living room, watching the screens, talking, or arguing.
"There are folks here from the military, like you, and professionals from a lot of fields. We get together at times like this to share information and viewpoints."
"And watch the game," she noted coolly. Her tone was friendly, but a little critical as well.
"That window's got the pool on the kickoff times," Ray answered, smiling and indicating another area filled with text and numbers. "Most of the money on when the Chinese will move is at local sunset, in"-he glanced at his watch-"eight hours or so."
"And I brought munchies," Naguchi added, holding up a grocery bag.
"On the counter, Jim, like always," Ray responded. On one side of the living room was a waist-high counter covered with a litter of drinks and snacks.
Ray explained. "It's my way of feeling like I have some control over my life, Jenny. If we know what's going on, we don't feel so helpless." He shrugged at his inadequate explanation. "Knowledge is power. Come on, I'll introduce you around. This is a great place to network."
Raising his voice just a little, he announced, "People, this is Jenny Oh. Navy. She's here with Jim." Everyone waved or nodded to her, but most kept their attention on the Wall.
Ray pointed to a fortyish man in a suit. "That's Jack Garber. He's with Northrop-Grumman. The guy next to him is Don Engen, a C++ coder at a local software company. Bob Reeves is a Marine." Ray smiled. "He's also the founding member of the 'Why isn't it Taiwan?' Foundation.''
"I'm still looking for new members," the Marine announced. Lean, tall, even sitting down, and with close-cropped black hair, he explained. "I keep thinking this is some sort of elaborate deception, and while we're looking at China's southern border, she's going to suddenly zig east, leap across the straits, and grab Taiwan."
"But there's no sign of any naval activity west of Hong Kong," Jenny countered, pointing to the map. "The action's all been inland, close to the border. I'm not in intelligence," she warned, "but everything I've heard says it's all pointed at Vietnam..."
"Over ten divisions and a hundred aircraft," Garber added. "That's CNN's count this morning, using commercial imaging satellites."
"But why Vietnam at all?" countered Reeves. "They're certainly not a military threat."
"But they are an economic one," replied Jenny. "They're another country that's trading communism for capitalism, and succeeding. The increased U.S. financial investment makes China even more nervous."
"Out of the blue like this?" Reeves was ardent. "Without any warning, two weeks ago, the Chinese started massing troops on the Vietnamese border, and at the same time issued an ultimatum that effectively turns Vietnam into a Chinese colony. It's clear it took everyone by surprise. Look at the way the U.S. military's scrambling to move ships and planes into the theater. But what's behind it? No incident, no provocation, just 'meet these demands or we invade'?"
"No provocation that we know about," Jenny responded coolly.
Ray McConnell smiled, pleased as any host would be. The new arrival was fitting in nicely, and she certainly improved the scenery. He walked behind the counter into the kitchen and started neatening up, trashing empty bags of chips and recycling empty soda bottles. Naguchi was still laying out his snacks on the counter.
"She's a real find, Jim," Ray offered. "Not the same one as last week, though?"
"Well, things didn't work out." Naguchi admitted. "Laura said she needed more space. She suggested I go to Mars." He grinned.
Ray nodded toward the new arrival. "Where's she stationed?"
"All Jenny will tell me is NIOC, San Diego, the Navy Information Operations Command," Naguchi replied. "She knows the technology, and she's interested in defense and the military."
"Well, of course. She's in the business," Ray replied. "She's certainly involved in the discussion." He pointed to Jenny, now using the controls to expand part of the map.
"That's how we met," Naguchi explained. "The Vietnam crisis had just broken, and everyone at the conference was talking about it between seminars, of course. She was always in the thick of it, and somewhere in there I mentioned your sessions here."
"So this is your first date?" Ray grinned.
"I hope so," Naguchi answered. "I'm trying to use color and motion to attract the female..."
"Ray! You've got a call." A tall black man was waving to him. Ray hurried into the living room, picked up the handset from its cradle, and hit the VIEW button. Part of the Wall suddenly became an image of an older man, overweight and balding, sitting in front of a mass of books. Glasses were perched on his nose, seemingly defying gravity. "Good ... evening, Raymond."
"Dave Douglas. Good to see you, sir. You're up early in the morning." The United Kingdom was eight hours ahead of California. It was four in the morning in Portsmouth.
"Up very late, you mean. I see you've convened one of your gatherings. I thought you'd like to know we've lost the signals for two of your GPS satellites."
Naguchi, who'd moved next to Jennifer, explained. "Mr. Douglas is the lead administrator for the SeeSat-L website, a satellite observation group. They're hobbyists, located all over the world, who track satellites visually and electronically. Think high-tech birdwatchers."
"I've heard of them," she answered, nodding, "and of Douglas. Your friend knows him?" She sounded impressed.
Naguchi replied, "Uh-huh. Ray's got contacts all over."
Jennifer nodded again, trying to pick up the conversation at the same time.
"... verified Horace's report about an hour ago. It was space vehicle number sixty-three, a relatively new bird, but anything mechanical can fail, I suppose. I normally wouldn't think it worth more than a note, but he and I were already discussing another GPS satellite that went down earlier. We lost its signal about a week ago."
"Why is Horace looking at the GPS satellite signals?" Ray asked.
"Horace collects electronic signals. He's writing a piece on the GPS signal structure for the next issue of our online magazine."
Ray looked uncertain, even a little worried. "Two failures so close to each other is a little unusual, isn't it?" It was a rhetorical question.
Douglas sniffed. "GPS satellites don't fail as a matter of routine, Raymond. You've only had five go down since the first operational satellites were put online some twenty-eight years ago. That's just over a nine-percent failure rate overall, and with the newer-generation satellites, the failure rate is half that. No, Raymond, this is most atypical. By the way, both satellites were passing over the Pacific basin when the signals were lost."
Ray could only manage a "What?" but Douglas seemed to understand his query. "I'm sending you a file with the orbital data for the constellation in it. I've marked SVN forty-five and sixty-three. They're the ones that have failed." He paused for a moment, typing. "There ... you have it now."
"Thank you, Dave. I'll get back to you if we can add anything to what you've found." Ray broke the connection and grabbed his data tablet.
While he worked with the system, speculation filled the conversation. "So we turned off two of the birds ourselves?" someone asked. "That doesn't make any sense. What could we hope to accomplish by doing that?"
"Denying their signal to the Chinese," Reeves suggested.
"If so, why only two?" countered Jenny.
"And the most accurate signal's encrypted anyway," added Garber. "The Chinese can only use civilian GPS."
"They've got their own Beidou system," reminded Reeves. "With it's own encrypted signal. They're using it in their equipment. And if they have the gear, they can use the European Galileo, which is even more accurate."
"We need GPS a lot more than the Chinese," said Garber.
Jennifer nodded. "All of our strike planning depends on GPS. Not to mention most of our precision-guided weapons. If we had to go back to the pre-GPS days, it would be a lot harder to run a coordinated attack. We could never get the split-second timing or accuracy we have now, and we'd have to get closer to the targets. That means higher losses from air defenses."
"Here's the orbital data," Ray announced.
The smaller windows on the Wall all vanished, leaving the map showing southern China and Vietnam. A small bundle of curved lines appeared in the center, then expanded out to fill the map, covering the area with orbital tracks. As Ray moved the cursor on his data pad, the cursor moved on the map. When it rested on a track, a tag appeared, naming the satellite and providing orbital and other data. Two of the tracks were red, not white, and were marked with small boxes with a time in them.
"Where are the satellites right now?" someone asked.
Ray tapped the tablet, and small diamonds appeared on all the tracks, showing their current positions.
"Can you move them to where they'd be at local sunset for Hanoi?" suggested Garber.
"And what's the horizon for those satellites at Mengzi?" Jenny prompted, pointing to a town just north of the Chinese-Vietnamese border. "That's one of the places the Chinese are supposed to be massing."
"Stand by," answered Ray. "That's not built in. I'll have to do the math and draw it." He worked quickly, and in absolute silence. After about two minutes, an oval drawn in red appeared on the map, centered on the location. Everyone counted, but Ray spoke first. "I count three."
"And you need four for a good 3D fix," finished Naguchi.
National Military Command Center
September 18, 2017
"... and since we no longer have complete twenty-four/seven 3D GPS coverage, the staff is working a new air plan." The assistant J-3 looked uncomfortable, as only a colonel can look when giving bad news to a roomful of four-star generals. "Aircraft navigation errors interfere with our tactics, and weapon-miss distances more than double."
General Warner was the Air Force Chief of Staff. He cut into the conversation, reporting, "The first wave has eighty-three targets, and we've allocated a hundred and fifty combat aircraft and almost two hundred cruise missiles. That part of the air plan has been redone, except for a final check. The follow-up and secondary strikes are next. They'll be harder, since it's a larger set and involves potentially mobile targets."
General Sam Kastner, U.S. Army, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was in charge of the meeting. "I just came from the Oval Office, and the president is convinced that Operation CERTAIN FORCE will only work as a deterrent if the Chinese believe we really can stop their invasion."
This meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had originally been scheduled to review the ongoing preparations for Operation CERTAIN FORCE. The buildup had been ordered as soon as the United States and her Asian allies had become convinced that the Chinese troop movements were more than just an exercise. Instead, they were working to understand the effects of the GPS satellite loss on what had been an almost overwhelming advantage.
"It will work," Warner affirmed, standing. He was built like a fighter pilot, short and almost stocky. The air force was the lead service for the operation, since their aircraft would carry out most of the manned strikes.
"Right now, for at least ten percent of the prime night-strike time, we'd be operating without adequate GPS coverage. If we use the remaining time with full coverage, to maximize our strikes, that makes us a little more predicable. If we accept the reduced coverage and fly then, we'll pay for it with proportionately reduced effectiveness. We can still do it, but the price may be a little higher."
Kastner nodded an acknowledgment, scowling, but as Warner sat, the air force general asked, "Did the president mention anything about the negotiations? Do we have a timeline?" In other words, how much time did they have before the Chinese moved?
"No." Kastner answered so sharply it surprised the others. "The Chinese aren't negotiating, so there's been no progress. Just an impossible list of demands, out of the blue, citing territorial claims hundreds of years old, persecution of the Hoa minority in Vietnam, and of course the South China Sea with the Spratly Islands."
"And all the Vietnamese have to do is allow themselves to become a Chinese colony," Admiral Glover finished.
Kastner shrugged. "They're not talking to the Vietnamese-they're not talking to anyone. But it's not an ultimatum, technically. There's no deadline-which, in a way is smart, because nobody knows exactly when the time's up. Most of Asia's in an uproar over this, and the lack of a timeline just adds to the uncertainty."
"We'll get it done, sir." Warner looked over to Glover, who nodded confidently.
Kastner turned to a boyish-looking rear admiral. "Mike, have your people found out anything else since this morning?"
The J-2, or the director, joint staff intelligence, usually had two or three assistants on his briefing staff, but this time he had a small mob of officers and civilians behind him. The admiral moved to the podium.
"Only that both birds were functioning within norms just before they went off-line. Number forty-five was much older, well beyond her design service life. She was the first to go, and, because of her age, no one thought anything of it. Hell, we were surprised she kept on plugging along after last year's solar flare took out three of her siblings. Number sixty-three is a whole other ball game. It was one of the updated Block IIF birds with the longer service life, not quite brand-new, but not over the hill, either. All attempts to restart them, or even communicate with them, have failed. Imaging from telescopes shows that they're still there, but they're in a slow tumble, which they shouldn't be doing..."
"And the chance of both of them suffering a catastrophic failure is nil," concluded the chairman.
"Yes, sir. The final straw is that we started warm-up procedures on the two reserve birds, sixty-six and sixty-seven. Or rather, we tried to warm them up. They didn't respond, either. And they're tumbling, too. Both were younger Block IIF satellites, with only three years in orbit."
General Warner asked, "Is there anything that links this to the Chinese?" He sounded frustrated, and surprised that the perpetrator should be so hard to identify. The air force, through the Fiftieth Space Operations Wing, operated the GPS satellites.
"Aside from the timing, and the fact that the active GPS satellites stopped transmitting while over the Pacific, no, sir. We don't know how they did this, either. If we knew how, that would immediately narrow the list of suspects, as well as ways of gathering evidence.
"We know that the DSP infrared satellites detected no launches, and we believe that they also would have detected a laser powerful enough to knock out a GPS bird-although that's not a certainty," he added quickly, nodding to an army officer with a stern expression on his face.
"The Chinese are the most likely actors, of course, but others can't be ruled out. CIA believes the attack was made by agents on the ground or in cyberspace, but we've detected no signs of this at any of the monitoring stations. The navy believes the Chinese have adapted their space launch vehicles for the purpose. Although it's a logical proposition, we've seen no sign of a launch or the considerable effort it would require. And we track the Chinese space program quite closely."
The frustration in his voice underlined every word. "It's possible that the Russians or someone else is doing it to assist the Chinese, but there's no particular reason for them to help China. There aren't that many candidates, and we've simply seen no sign of activity by any nation, friendly or hostile." He almost threw up his hands.
"Thank you, Admiral," replied Kastner. "Set up a Joint Intelligence Task Force immediately. Spread your net wide."
He didn't have to say that the media was also spreading their net. Television and the Internet were already full of rumors-that an attack had been scheduled but called off, that the Chinese buildup was just a bluff, that the United States had already backed down because of the risk of excessive casualties, and others more fanciful. U.S. "resolve" was now an open question.
Gongga Shan Launch Complex
Sichuan Province, China
September 22, 2017
General Shen Xuesen stood quietly, calmly, watching the bank of monitors but wishing he could be on the surface. He had a better view of the operation from here, but it did not seem as real.
It was their fifth time, and he could see the staff settling down, nowhere as nervous as the first launch, but China was committed now, and her future hung on their success.
Everyone saw the short, solidly built general standing quietly in the gallery. It was a commander's role to appear calm, even when he knew exactly how many things could go wrong, and how much was at stake, both for him and for China.
In his early fifties, he'd spent a lot of time in the weather, and it showed. An engineer, he looked capable of reshaping a mountain, and he had Gongga Shan as proof.
Shen had already given his permission to fire. The staff was counting down, waiting until they were in the exact center of the intercept window. The "Dragon's Egg" sat in the breech, inert but vital, waiting for just a few more seconds.
The moment came as the master clock stepped down to zero. The launch controller turned a key, and for a moment the only sign of activity was on the computer displays. Shen's eyes glanced to the breech seals, but the indicators all showed green. He watched the video screen that showed the muzzle, a black oval three meters across.
Even with a muzzle velocity of nearly five thousand meters per second, it took time for the egg to build up to full speed. Almost a full second elapsed between ignition and ...
A puff of smoke and flame appeared on the display, followed by a black streak, briefly visible. Only its size, almost three meters in diameter, allowed it to be seen by the human eye. High-speed cameras caught the egg as it left the bore and displayed an image on a central screen. Everything appeared nominal.
Shen relaxed, his inward calm now matching his outward demeanor. His gun had worked again.
"Hatching," reported the launch controller. Everyone had so loved the egg metaphor that they used the term to report when the sabots separated from the meter-sized projectile. Designed to hold the small vehicle inside the larger bore, they split and fell away almost instantly. Effectively, the projectile got the boost of a three-meter barrel but the drag of a one-meter body.
Speed, always more speed, mused Shen as he watched the monitors. The crews were already boarding buses for their ride up the mountain to inspect the gun. Other screens showed helicopters lifting off to search for the sabots. Although they could not be used again, they were marvels of engineering in their own right and could reveal much about the gun's design.
The goal was ten kilometers a second, orbital velocity. First, take a barrel a kilometer long and three meters across. To make it laser-straight, gouge out the slope of a mountain and anchor it on the bedrock. Cover it up, armor and camouflage it, too. Put the muzzle near the top, 7,900 meters above sea level. That reduces air resistance and buys you some speed. Then use sabots to get even more speed. You're halfway there. Then ...
"Ignition," announced one of the controllers. Put a solid rocket booster on the projectile to give it the final push it needed. "She's flying! Guidance is online, sir. It's in the center of the basket. Intercept in twenty minutes."
General Shen had seen the concept described in a summary the Iraqis had provided of supergun technology after the first Persian Gulf war. American technological superiority had been more than a shock to the People's Liberation Army. It had triggered an upheaval.
The Chinese military had always chosen numbers over quality, because numbers were cheap, and the politburo was trying to feed one and a half billion people. They'd always believed that numbers could overwhelm a smaller high-tech force, making them reluctant to even try. Everyone knew how sensitive the Americans were to casualties and to risk.
But if the difference in quality is big enough, numbers don't matter anymore. Imagine using machine guns during the Crusades or a nuclear sub in World War II. Shen and his colleagues had watched American troops run rings around the Iraqis, suffering few casualties while they devastated the opposition.
So the Chinese army had started the long, expensive process of becoming a modern military. They'd bought high-tech weapons from the Russians. They'd stolen and copied what they couldn't buy. They'd gotten all kinds of advanced technologies: supersonic cruise missiles for their navy, advanced radars, exotic aircraft designs.
It wasn't enough. Running and working as hard as they could, they'd cut the technology lag from twenty to ten years. They were following the same path as the West, and it would just take time to catch up.
General Shen had seen the answer. He'd found a vulnerability, then planned, convinced, plotted, and argued until the politburo had listened and backed his idea. If your opponent strikes at you from above, take away his perch. Take away that advantage.
Build a prison camp deep in the mountains, in a remote spot in southern China. Send the hard cases and malcontents there. The state has useful work for them. Watch the prisoners dig away the side of a mountain. You need a rail line to the nearest city, Kangding, two hundred and fifty kilometers southwest. That had been a job in itself. Then add army barracks, the launch control center, and extensive air defenses. It had taken years before it looked like anything more than a terrible mistake.
Meanwhile, design the Tien Lung, or Celestial Dragon, to fly in space. And design a gun, the biggest gun in the history of the world, Lung Mu, "the Dragon's Mother," to fire it. China's civilian space program had been expanded, and provided a lot of the talent, as well as a convenient excuse for foreign study and purchases.
"Control has been passed to Xichang," the senior controller announced. "Intercept in ten minutes." A look of relief passed over his face. If a screw-up occurred after this, it was their fault, not his. Of course, it was still a week's effort wasted.
Shen longed to be in two places at once, but the gun was his, and Dong Zhi, the scientist who had actually designed the Dragon's Egg, was at the space complex. Xichang was one of four launch complexes associated with China's space program, and they were in the right location and had the antennas to watch the intercepts.
Everyone in the room watched the central display, even though it was only a computer representation. Two small dots sat on curved lines, slowly moving to an intersection point. Then the screen changed, becoming completely black, with the characters for "Terminal Phase" displayed in one corner.
General Shen Xuesen smiled. He had insisted on an imaging infrared seeker for terminal-phase guidance. Not only was it hard to jam, it made the result understandable. Seeing the target grow from a speck to a blob to a recognizable satellite had made it real, both for the leadership who had watched the tests and for the people who had to do the work, who fought the war from Earth's surface.
The image was a little grainy, because of the lens size, but it also had the clarity of space. He could see the boxy, cluttered body of the American GPS satellite and the outspread solar panels, each divided into four sections.
The controller started counting down as the image slowly expanded. "Five seconds, four, three, two, one, now." He uttered the last word softly, but triumphantly, as the image suddenly vanished. A few people clapped, but they'd all seen this before, and most didn't feel the need now.
All that work, all that money, to put two small warheads in orbit. An explosive charge created an electronic pulse that fried the target satellite's electronics. A second warhead hurled a wall of fragments at the unarmored victim. Filled with atomic clocks and delicate electronics, a GPS satellite didn't have a hope of surviving either attack. The carcass would remain in its orbit, intact, but pocked with dozens of small holes, its microprocessors shorted out and smashed.
In fact, the kill was almost an anticlimax. After all the work of getting the vehicle up there, it was over far too quickly.
Skyhook One Seven
Over the South China Sea
September 22, 2017
"We just lost one of the GPS signals," reported the navigator. "Switching to the inertial navigation system." The navigator, an air force major, sounded concerned but not alarmed.
"Is it the receiver?" asked the mission commander. A full colonel, it was his job to manage the information gathered by the electronic intelligence aircraft. Running racetracks off the China coast, it listened for radar and radio signals, analyzing their contents and fixing their location. The digested information was data linked directly back to the joint task force headquarters.
"Self-test is good, sir, and the receiver is still picking up the other satellites, but we just lost one of the signals, and now we're outside our error budget." Each satellite over the minimum required narrowed the area of uncertainty around a transmitter's location. GPS was accurate enough to target some missiles directly or give pilots a good idea of where to search for their objective.
"So we've lost another one," muttered the colonel.
Copyright © 2015 by Larry Bond and Chris Carlson