Read an Excerpt
By David Poyer
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2002 David Poyer
All rights reserved.
18 February: Ministry of Defence, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Those who knew him from West Point called the CINC "the Bear." Behind his back, those who had to endure his outbursts called him "Stormin' Norman" — and other things as well. Colonel E.H. Salter, his deputy intelligence chief, stood before his desk now, perspiring despite the air-conditioning, while the general read the message he'd just been handed.
The office the Saudis had assigned him was the size of a small ballroom. Winged-back chairs upholstered in cream brocade stood along the walls. At its far end hung life-size oil portraits of the king and the crown prince in gold frames. An easel tilted a huge map of Kuwait, Iraq, and northern Saudi Arabia. The desk was gigantic, blond Swedish modern, completely bare except for two black telephones, a tray of iced water and glasses, and a half-eaten instant Cup O' Noodles with a plastic spoon stuck in it. Behind it on a shelf was another phone, this one red, the scrambled direct line to Washington. This room was on the second floor of the Ministry of Defence building in downtown Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. It was 0300, and outside the windows the skies were dark.
The CINC — the commander in chief, US Central Command — was in chocolate-chip battle dress with the sleeves rolled. H. Norman Schwarzkopf's beefy bare forearms rested heavily on the desk. The four subdued stars of a full general weighed down his collar points. He was wearing a heavy chrome diver's watch, a wedding ring, and the reading glasses he didn't like to be photographed with. The intelligence officer noted that his face was slack with fatigue, and that he was gaining weight again. None of these were good signs. When Schwarzkopf raised his eyes from the paper, his expression had taken on a familiar chill, the one that all too often presaged the storm.
"Where the hell'd this come from?"
"It's a personal ultimatum from Saddam Hussein to you, sir."
"I can see that. I can read, damn it! How did it get here? How do we know it's actually from him?"
"Lieutenant General Ahmad handed it to the Swiss ambassador in Baghdad at ten hundred this morning with a request it go direct to you by hand. Not to State. Not to General Powell. Direct to you."
"Well, the son of a bitch has got that right. As soon as anything in writing gets to Washington, you can consider it compromised." Schwarzkopf scowled, fanning himself with the paper. Then he suddenly reared, throwing his weight back till the chair groaned. "Wait a minute. If it's supposed to come by hand, how did you get it?"
"We intercepted the Swiss embassy's report of the text," the intel officer said. He didn't look away from the general's eyes. The only way to deal with the Bear was to stand directly in front of him, know your shit, tell it straight, and give off no scent of fear. "You'll get the actual paper later today. The Swiss are sending a courier from Beirut by air."
"It's horseshit. It's a bluff." The general threw the paper down and looked at it with contempt. "What is this — if a single Allied tank crosses the border, he'll destroy Tel Aviv. Horseshit."
"Make it a crematorium, General," Salter said.
"He says he'll make the city 'a crematorium,' sir. Not 'destroy' it."
"What's the difference?"
"He's making a historical reference," the intel officer said. He took a deep breath. "And I don't think it's 'horseshit,' General. He's threatened something like this before, back in July, then again in a broadcast in September. And he may be able to do something close to what he threatens."
"I don't think so. He's talking more Scud attacks. Even though he's not doing that much with them so far, not in terms of actual damage."
"Sir, with all due respect, the Israelis are taking this seriously. I have a back door to David Ivri. They want to know what we're going to do about it."
Ivri was the director general of the Israeli Defense Ministry. Salter watched the name take effect. Schwarzkopf sagged back, scowling, lips pursed. After a moment he said, "I won't even ask how they got hold of this."
"I agree, General. That's an interesting question in and of itself."
"Your point being I've got to hold their hands, or they'll send their own people in after whatever it is they think he's threatening them with."
"Yes, sir. They have to feel confident we're dealing with it."
Both men knew the Israelis had prepared a major air and commando raid to go into the western desert and root out the missiles that were killing families in Tel Aviv. And that if that happened, the fragile coalition of Arabs and Westerners would collapse, handing Saddam political victory no matter what happened on the battlefield.
The general sat thinking. Finally he said, "What exactly do you think he has? He can't actually pop a nuke, can he?"
A phone rang then. Not the red one, a plain black one. Schwarzkopf picked it up, listened, then rasped, "You two work it out, Walt. You hear me? Settle it yourself. I'm trying to run a war. Don't call me again on piddly shit like this, General. Earn your goddamn paycheck." He slammed the handset down.
Salter went on, answering the question he'd been asked before the call. "No, sir, we don't think he can. Our belief is that if he had a working bomb, even a bread-boarded one, he'd announce it. He hasn't done that. Therefore, it's something else."
"He's talked about that from day one. The tone of this message is different."
"You reading tea leaves on me, Salter?"
"Possibly, General. But the corporate-knowledge people think he's talking about something new."
"I still think it's a bluff."
"Sir, if I can interject a personal opinion."
Schwarzkopf nodded warily. Salter said, "The trouble is, Prince Bandar's right. Saddam doesn't make empty threats. The Al-Sabahs thought he was bluffing when he moved the Republican Guard to their border. He wasn't. We thought he was kidding when he said he'd use his Scuds. He launched them the day after we raided Baghdad. He's already proved he can reach Israel with conventionally armed missiles. Whatever he's got now, he thinks it'll do what he says. Or he wouldn't say so."
The general pursed his lips. He read the paper again. His heavy round face was set now. "Turn Tel Aviv into a crematorium," he said. "So what's he got?"
A gradually rising siren note outside came at the same moment the black phone purred again. Both the staff officer and the general reached automatically to check the gas masks slung at their belts. Schwarzkopf stood, holding the phone. When he put it down, he said tersely, "Three Scuds launched from vicinity of AsSalman. Headed our way."
* * *
THE WAR room was seven stories down and eighty feet underground. Salter followed the general and his security man down a long passageway lit by fan-shaped sconces. Saudi and US sentries snapped to present arms. Past them, the three men went down another long stairwell, narrow, concrete-walled, echoing and empty, and through heavy steel doors that clanged shut behind them.
The room within was large but low-ceilinged and dim. A continuous murmur of voices and the hum of computer blowers floated from the desks and consoles. It smelled musty, like a tomb. Schwarzkopf stopped to pour black coffee into a plastic foam cup, exchanged terse words with an Air Force colonel, then looked around impatiently for Salter. They ended up in a small room deep in the JIC, the intelligence center where the photo analysts did bomb damage assessment.
"You asked me what he might have, other than chemicals," the intel officer said, going on as if they hadn't been interrupted. He took a lap briefing from his briefcase and laid it out in front of the general. "There are several possibilities. The Defense Intelligence Agency's appreciation of Iraqi military capabilities says Saddam might have, not a bomb, but a crude nuclear device that depends on radioactivity more than blast. It might take days, but it could still kill thousands of people. Also, sources inside the Soviet weapons program report that the Iraqis could have weaponized anthrax and possibly bubonic plague."
At each slide Schwarzkopf slumped farther in his chair. He took off his glasses. When Salter fell silent at last, he sat with pouchy eyes closed, rubbing his face.
A tap on the door. The security chief leaned in. "Sir, all three Scuds are down. One intercepted by Patriots. The other two impacted north of the city."
"No word yet, sir. I'll get that to you as soon as it comes in."
The CINC nodded and looked at Salter again. The intel officer said, "We might have an indicator. From the Iraqi underground, such as it is. We got a confused report about something called hijurat ababeel."
"It seems to be a code name, a cover name," Salter said. "Literally, it means 'flying rocks,' or something like 'throwing stones.' Think of what David used on Goliath. It might also be a reference to the Qur'an, but I'm not clear on that yet. I have some of our people trying to mine anything else out of it."
"I'd better just have Buster Glosson bomb it," Schwarzkopf said. "Generate a B-52 strike."
"Sir, we could do that, if we could localize it."
"I thought you said you got a report from the underground."
"A rumor of its existence. Nothing like grid coordinates."
"You spooks must have some idea where it is."
"Only a general one." Salter laid out his last slide. It showed Iraq, pocked with a scattering of circles. On the scale of the map the circles were tiny, but each one was miles across.
Schwarzkopf stared at it, then looked up. "SAM batteries. The air defenses."
"So what are you showing me?"
"This weapon — whatever it is — is Saddam's last-ditch deterrent. His retaliatory capability, to put it in terms we'd use. Where do countries keep their deterrents? We keep ours in silos in North Dakota, or underwater in Trident submarines. The Soviets hide theirs in the Barents Sea, or deep in the interior." Salter's hand hovered over the map, then came down where dozens of circles interlocked. "You don't put them on the periphery; you put them in the heartland. Where is that for Saddam?"
Schwarzkopf looked at it. "In Baghdad?"
"The heart of his power," Salter said. "The best-defended site in the country. Also where the report about 'Flying Stones' came from. It's not much, but it's the best we have."
"Where in Baghdad?"
"That we don't know, sir. If it's there, it's too well hidden for overhead reconnaissance, or we'd have it by now."
Another tap at the door. It was a female captain with details on the missile attack. Two warheads had impacted in empty desert north of Riyadh. The Scud engaged by the Patriot had been damaged, not destroyed. It had fallen in a Koranic school and killed or injured thirty students and teachers, most of whom had been asleep.
Schwarzkopf pondered a moment more, then reached for a phone. "CINC here. For General Moore ... Hello, Burton? I'm sending my deputy J-2 over with some bad news. Yeah. He'll tell you. He'll be right over." He hung up and said to Salter, "Don't leave this one to the system. As of now it's your number one personal tasking. Make it happen. Report to me every day. Call me personally if anyone gives you shit or stands in the way."
"Yes, sir," said the intel officer.
The general hesitated, then added, "Find it. But don't hit it until I personally approve it." He heaved himself up and stalked out. At the door he turned back. "Understand what I'm telling you?"
"Yes, sir, I do."
"If we've got to put the snake eaters in to find it, so be it. But find it. Before G day. Verstehen sie?"
"That doesn't leave us much time, sir."
"Five days. That's all any of us have, Colonel. I'm not going to postpone this thing again."
"Yes, sir. Oh — the message." Salter held it out. "Are you going to answer it?"
Schwarzkopf wadded the paper and threw it back. "The only answer he's getting to this is a bomb."
"I still think he's bluffing. But if he isn't, this could be a show stopper, Colonel. Do not fail me. Do not fail the thousands of men who'll be putting their lives on the line one week from now. Do not fail the civilians who'll die if I'm wrong and he's actually got something held back."
He turned, lightly for so big a man, and a moment later was gone.
Deep beneath a terrified city, Salter stooped slowly for the paper. He smoothed it out, looking down at it.CHAPTER 2
19 February: The Northern Gulf
Over the sea brooded a turbulent darkness deeper than any storm, blacker than any dusk. The smoke smelled like grease and acid, with a darker taste beneath: the stink of disaster and waste and war. The pall rolled a thousand feet deep over the uneasy waters between Kuwait and Iran where the Task Group was steaming. It left a slick on every surface and control in the helicopter, and it made visibility so bad that, banking away from USS Tripoli, the pilot didn't even bother to look up from his instruments.
Behind him, the lean, gray-eyed officer in sweaty khakis stared into the blackness with his mouth set. The burnt-oil stench made him feel like throwing up. He was remembering another time in these same waters, not that many years before, during the tanker-convoying effort known as Operation Earnest Will. Another time when war had loomed and men got ready to die.
And many had, when USS Turner Van Zandt had hit a mine. He rubbed his mouth, remembering how many had gone down with her. How many had slipped away afterward, of heatstroke and dehydration during days adrift. From the sharks and sea snakes, and the patrol boats that had attacked the helpless men in the water.
He seemed to have seen a lot of that in his career. Disaster. Loss. Van Zandt. Reynolds Ryan. Then deep in the China Sea, the frigate that had once been USS Gaddis but at the end had no name at all. When he closed his eyes, he saw men in the water, men burned, men torn apart by shells. Maybe he carried it with him, like a communicable disease.
Maybe that was why the board had decided to promote others while he stood still. Marking time as his career slipped away.
He remembered his way past the memories as they flew southward, till gradually his tension ebbed and he leaned back and closed his eyes.
They landed aboard Blue Ridge an hour later. He swung out of the aircraft, reached back for a flight bag, and jogged across black nonskid. The air was hotter here than in the northern Gulf. The sky had cleared too, turning the bright hazy tan he remembered from years before. He handed his cranial to a crewman. Beside a weather-decks door a lieutenant with an aiguillette beckoned.
"Lieutenant Commander Lenson? Off USS Tripoli?"
"That's me," Dan said.
"Welcome aboard, sir. Follow me, please."
Belowdecks seemed very bright. Dan blinked, trying to keep track of where they were going in the white-painted passageways; then gave up. He was used to frigates, destroyers, not the labyrinth of this huge and nearly unarmed command ship. He barked his shin and started paying attention to the knee knockers. At last the aide pushed open a door. "The admiral's in here," he said.
"In here" was extremely dim, lit in hazy blue, and smelled of rubber and ozone. The deck was soft underfoot, padded by insulating matting. Petty officers and junior officers sat tranced before screens and keyboards. Radio nets spoke in muted whispers, and under all other sounds purred an unending drone of ventilation. He stopped, waiting for his eyes to adjust, then followed his guide to where three officers sat before large decision screens. Dan came to attention. "Lieutenant Commander Lenson, sir."
"Sit down, Commander." A tense-looking man in trop whites sat gnawing a pencil in a padded leather command chair. To his left was a hefty marine in starched desert battle dress. To his right sat an air force officer in Class Bs. Dan hesitated, then sat where the admiral pointed, perching sideways before a console.
The decision screens showed Task Force 151.11's movement west. Minesweepers and gunfire support ships were probing in toward the coast of occupied Kuwait. The amphibious task force was forming behind them. To the south were four carrier battle groups. The air picture swept out hundreds of miles farther, over Kuwait, Iraq, southern Iran, and Saudi Arabia. It showed carrier air patrols orbiting and strike groups ranging far inland. Dan wiped his forehead. In the air-conditioned dim his sweat felt icy cold. A shiver wormed down his back.
"Just got in, Dan?"
"Just jumped off the helo, sir."
He'd met Wayne Kinnear during the planning effort that led to the impact of a hundred and twenty-two Tomahawk missiles on Iraq. Vice Admiral Kinnear was COMUSNAVCENT, commander of all US Navy and Marine forces in the Gulf. He wore the wings of a naval aviator and had shot down two enemy fighters in Vietnam.
Kinnear pointed his eraser at the air force officer, then at the marine. "Meet Colonel Ed Salter, from the CINC staff in Riyadh. And Lieutenant Colonel Anders Paulik, First SRI Group, I MEF. Gentlemen, you asked me for a Tomahawk targeter. Commander Lenson planned the TLAM strikes on Baghdad that opened the air war. He also planned the strike against the suspected chemical warfare aircraft at the Al Rashid base two weeks ago. Since then I've had him working for Pete Bulkeley in the Northern Gulf, getting ready for the invasion. I have to admit, I had my doubts about cruise missiles before I saw them live on CNN."
"You married, Commander?" said the Marine Corps colonel. Paulik was stocky, heavily built, with a crew cut and an accent Dan couldn't place. Not southern, like most marines, as if they'd all been born again at Parris Island and had become through that at least honorary South Carolinians. His skin was weathered as dark as old bronze.
He thought about Paulik's question, about Blair Titus and their long-distance, off-again, on-again relationship; decided to go for the short answer. "No, sir."
"A daughter. She lives with my ex."
The air force officer said, "You look like you're in good shape."
"I run, when I can," Dan said.
Paulik asked, "Any medical problems? Back? Knees?"
"None that I know of. What's this all about?" He glanced at Kinnear, but the admiral's attention was on the screens.
Paulik didn't answer, just asked another question. "And from what the admiral says, you're shit smart on Tomahawk?"
"Lenson was in Joint Cruise Missiles for the program development phase," Kinnear said. "He troubleshot the airframe when we had those crashes early in the program. Out here, he helped reprogram the Lacrosse radar satellites to give us the Iraqi terrain contours."
"Okay, that's good, but how about tactical employment? Targeting angles, warhead types?"
"Well, as Admiral Kinnear said, we've done quite a bit of targeting. I know what the system can do."
"And what it can't?"
"Well." He cleared his throat, not sure what they were getting at. "The missile has its limitations. The mission has to be planned in advance. To program in the terrain matching and the flight profile. Once your round's in flight, you can't reprogram or recall; you're locked in to that target. And you need contrast for the final homing phase; that's done with a separate visual matching system. And the warhead's not all that heavy. I've developed algorithms for optimal targeting against the various types of structures that make up the Iraqi military-industrial base —"
"Sounds like our boy," Paulik told the admiral.
"Here's the situation," said the bird colonel, Salter.
Lowering his voice, though the closest ear other than theirs was several meters distant, Salter explained they were trying to localize a rumored Iraqi threat. They had some intercept material. It confirmed their human intelligence, HUMINT as it was called in the trade, but they still had nothing precise enough to bomb with. They had to send in a ground team. CENTCOM's J-3, Major General Moore, had passed the mission to Lieutenant General Walter Boomer, commander of the First Marine Expeditionary Force — all the marine forces in the Gulf and Saudi. Boomer had passed it to the First SRI Group.
Paulik picked up there. "SRI stands for Surveillance and Reconnaissance Intelligence. We're the headquarters element between HQ I MEF and the divisional force recon units. This mission's short fuze, but it's the kind of thing we train for. We're sending a team in to find this threat, if it exists; localize it; and call in Tomahawks on it. We need a targeting guy. Thanks for volunteering, Commander."
"I didn't volunteer," Dan said, more or less by reflex.
Obviously following the conversation though he hadn't seemed to, Kinnear said, "Mr. Lenson here has gotten out of a few tight spots before. Not always smelling like a rose, but he came back."
Salter said, "Then he'll have to do. We're not using Tomahawks anymore in the northern theater. After that bunker strike that killed all those civilians, we've pretty much moved the air war over the Republican Guard and stood the TLAM shooters down —"
"That wasn't a Tomahawk —"
Salter backtracked smoothly. "No, it wasn't, Admiral, and I didn't mean to imply it was. The two events are unrelated."
"You bring your personal gear?" Paulik asked Dan.
"No. They just told me to get on the helicopter and bring my targeting kit — the templates and so forth."
Kinnear raised his eyebrows. "Now, wait just a minute. I understood this to be a consultation. Not a raid on my staff. It's true we're not firing Tomahawks just now, but we're going to need Lenson here for the amphibious invasion."
Colonel Salter cleared his throat. "You know there's not going to be an invasion, Admiral."
"Not the mainland — I know that's off. But Faylakah Island, we're going ahead with that."
Salter said apologetically, "Sorry, sir, that's not in the CINC's plan either. You'll get official word tomorrow. What you're executing is purely a deception plan. A diversion, to keep their eyes on the sea while the army goes in farther west. And I'm taking your man here with me. If there's a difficulty with that, sir, I suggest you call General Schwarzkopf direct." To Dan he said, "You won't need gear. We'll provide everything. We're leaving in ten minutes. You might want to drink some water before we go."
Dan had been sitting with one arm on the console, watching the volleys going back and forth. At the news that the landing was off, he tensed. It explained a lot of things he'd been wondering about. Such as why there hadn't been any preparatory shelling of the Kuwaiti beachfront, the liquid petroleum factory, the other facilities that could shelter Iraqi forces for a counterattack. But no one had told the eighteen thousand marines and thousands of supporting sailors out there getting ready. And the destroyers, cruisers, battleships, and minesweepers of Task Force 151, which — he glanced at his watch — should be just now entering the Iraqi minefield.
Kinnear had flushed, obviously angry. "If the CINC wants him, he can have him. The planning's done now anyway. But this about the landing not coming off —"
"It's not going to happen, Admiral," said Salter again. "Both Secretary Cheney and General Powell are against it. But I'd keep that very close hold. If Saddam even gets a hint we're not coming in from seaward, he can swing those eleven divisions south and knock the hell out of I MEF coming up through the Saddam Line."
They were all silent, contemplating that. Finally Kinnear nodded. "Very well, take him. I'll have the helo called away for you."
AS THEY waited to board, Paulik stared off over the slowly passing sea. A small combatant, perhaps a missile boat, flying the green Saudi flag kept station a thousand yards off, and Dan recognized a British Sheffield-class destroyer on the horizon to the north; he guessed it was York. The smoke was thinner down here, and again he noticed the sky, faded like a master chief's khakis. And looking down into the sea he saw that it was the same transparent blue he recalled from years before. The cruise that had ended so badly for USS Turner Van Zandt and her strangely divided yet always courageous captain.
"Been in combat before?" Paulik said, interrupting but in a strange way paralleling Dan's thoughts.
"Oh — ashore, only once. I was on an amphibious staff in the Med. During the Syrian incursion. Colonel Steve Haynes was the MAU commander. I got ashore with the landing force, but I wouldn't say I know much about ground warfare."
"Well, what you need to know, we'll get you up to speed on. Let me explain a little more about this mission. You know what Force Recon is."
Dan tried to concentrate. "They're like Delta Force or the SEALs, as I understand it. Special operations."
"Well, yes and no. Our Force Reconnaissance community trains to the same standards, but we're not walled off from our parent service the way they are.
"Anyway, a couple years ago I was in Quantico working what we called the Urban Assault Team concept. The UAT trained with high-tech gear, new weapons, new tactics, new sensors in order to penetrate, operate in, and extract from high-density urban environments. We figured that's where warfare's going in the long run, urban environments like Beirut and Northern Ireland and so forth."
"Makes sense." Dan glanced back to see the chopper pilots climbing into the cockpit, the turbines start to whine.
"Yeah, I thought so, but we got defunded in eighty-nine and had to send everybody back to their units. Those who stayed in got deployed out here in the Desert Shield buildup. But as it happens, this mission's going into a built-up area. When I realized that, I thought of a couple of my sharp performers from UAT. I found them, MEF tasked the division to shit them out to me, and I'm using them as a nucleus to build the Signal Mirror team. You're gonna be what we call an attachment."
"You said 'Signal Mirror'."
"That's the code name. Right."
"Tell me again why you need a navy guy for a marine mission."
"I need a Tomahawk targeter in good physical shape, somebody who can think under pressure and come out with the right decision. The admiral seems to think that's you."
Dan wondered if it was also that ever since he'd tried to resign once, then taken it back, he'd had the feeling certain people considered him expendable. He dismissed that as paranoia, though. "Where exactly are we going?"
"Out west, to link up with the team."
"I mean, on this mission you're talking about."
"I can't tell you yet, but it'll be serious Apache man-tracking Indian Country." Paulik smiled broadly. "I got to do some of that in Cambodia. Livin' in the red. Does wonders for your nightmares."
"What are we looking for when we get there?"
"I can't tell you that either, because actually we aren't sure. We just got to get some eyes in there to look around, see what they can find." A crewman jogged toward them, and Paulik turned. "Okay, let's strap it on."
"Well, look, wait a minute. They need me where I am."
Paulik looked taken aback, as if the idea someone might question or object had never occurred to him. "Hey, I asked for their best guy and they shit you out. Don't worry, we'll have you back on your ship in a week. Two weeks, tops."
"Well, all right," Dan said, feeling like he'd just stepped overboard without a life jacket.
The aide, the one who'd taken him to the command center, came up to them. He said, "Admiral's got a last word for you, sir."
Excerpted from Black Storm by David Poyer. Copyright © 2002 David Poyer. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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