Out in the Pacific Ocean, there is a war taking place. It is a “warm war,” a shoving match between the United States, the uncontested ruler of the seas since WWII, and China, which now possesses the world’s largest navy. The Chinese regard the Pacific, and especially the South China Sea, as their ocean, and they’re ready to defend it. Each day the heat between the two countries increases as the Chinese try to claim the South China Sea for their own, and the United States insists on asserting freedom of navigation. Throughout Southern Asia, countries are responding with outrage and growing fear as China turns coral reefs into manmade islands capable of supporting airstrips and then attempts to enforce twelve-mile-radius, shoot-down zones. The immediate danger is that the five trillion dollars in international trade that passes through the area will grind to a standstill. The ultimate danger is that the US and China will be drawn into all-out war.
Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist Michael Fabey has had unprecedented access to the Navy’s most exotic aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, aircraft, and submarines, as well as those who command them. In his “well-informed, readable treatment” (Library Journal, starred review), Fabey offers “good...reporting from both sides of the conflict. He gives his Chinese sources a thorough workout, the little emperors and true believers alike, and he has a sharp eye for what faces the American fleet if push comes to shove” (Kirkus Reviews). Fabey predicts the next great struggle between military superpowers will play out in the Pacific, and Crashback, more than any other book, is an accurate preview of how that conflict might unfold.
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It’s a calm, almost serene day in December as the USS Cowpens sails alone through the dangerous blue-green waters of the South China Sea. With the American flag snapping at the masthead, the Cowpens and its four hundred officers and crew are tense, primed, ready—and they are closing fast on their target.
The target on this day is an aircraft carrier, a carrier that’s flying the flag of the People’s Republic of China. And for the Cowpens crew, this is no drill.
The Cowpens is a guided-missile cruiser, one of the Ticonderoga class of U.S. warships, and as such it exudes both beauty and power. Almost six hundred feet long, low-slung and sleek, the ship slices through the sea at up to thirty-seven miles per hour—a speed that feels far more intense and urgent than it would on land. Standing on its deck, with the surge of its eighty-thousand-horsepower propulsion plant humming through the hull, with white water cascading past the bow and with that red, white, and blue flag streaming proudly in the wind—it’s like riding a nine-thousand-ton living thing. For an American surface warfare sailor, such a ship at sea is a beautiful sight.
But the beauty is secondary. The Cowpens’s primary purpose is destruction.
For that there are the missiles. Packed into loading racks below its main deck or locked onto deck launchers are more than a hundred missiles designed for a host of violent missions, both offensive and defensive. There are antiaircraft missiles, anti-ship missiles, antimissile missiles. There are million-dollar-apiece Tomahawk cruise missiles that can destroy land targets a thousand miles distant, and surface-skimming Harpoons that can put a quarter ton of high explosive into an enemy ship that’s over the horizon. An ideal cruiser weapons load includes ASROC missile/torpedoes that can hunt down and sink a lurking enemy submarine, and twenty-two-foot-long SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) that can blow an enemy plane out of the sky more than fifty miles away.
There’s more. For closer work—for example, supporting an amphibious assault on a disputed island—mounted fore and aft are two five-inch guns capable of lobbing seventy-pound explosive shells fifteen miles. For still closer work—say, mixing it up with an enemy high-speed catamaran gunboat that’s closing fast—there are a couple of 25mm Bushmaster chain guns and a couple of .50-caliber machine guns. And if things get really hot in combat, if an enemy missile somehow manages to evade all the defensive firepower and is screaming toward the Cowpens at Mach 2, there’s a 20mm Phalanx gun that can spit out bullets at the rate of seventy-five rounds per second and put up a missile-busting wall of lead.
It is an astonishing amount of firepower. In fact, the Ticonderoga-class cruisers are designed to be the most powerful surface warships ever to put to sea, under any flag, in any century. They and their weaponry are meant to impress, to intimidate, to inspire awe—and if necessary, to deliver shock in paralyzing quantities. That’s why the USS Cowpens is here on this day in the South China Sea.
That’s the theory, anyway. But aboard this ship, not all is quite as it seems.
Alternating between the sunlit bridge and the dim, green-glowing confines of the ship’s Combat Information Center (CIC) is the man entrusted with the Cowpens’s massive collection of lethal weaponry, and with the lives and well-being of the crewmembers who operate it. Captain Greg Gombert is tall (six-foot-six) and lean, with blue eyes and a shock of brown hair, dressed in the navy’s new working uniform of one-piece blue coveralls. Intense, driven, supremely self-confident, he pushes his ship and his crew—and himself—hard. The product of a strict midwestern Catholic upbringing, steeped in the concepts of duty and hard work, at age forty-four Gombert is a man who has never failed at anything—and he doesn’t intend to fail in this mission.
In a low, even voice Gombert says a few words to his officer of the deck (OOD), a young lieutenant, and a second later those words blare over the ship’s loudspeakers.
Set modified Condition Zebra. Set modified Condition Zebra.
The order sends sailors racing through the ship, closing and dogging watertight hatches and shutting off valves. Damage control and firefighting squads stand by; sonar and radar and electronic warfare operators stare at their display screens with renewed intensity. Senior chiefs check and recheck every system. Condition Zebra is the navy’s second-highest level of combat readiness, just below General Quarters. GQ is when you’re under threat of imminent attack; Zebra is when you might soon be.
The process takes only a few minutes. Watching from the bridge, listening as the various department heads’ readiness reports come in, Gombert isn’t completely satisfied. He knows the crew is doing its best. But there just hasn’t been time. . . .
With two decades of service behind him, Gombert is a rising star in the navy, this despite the fact that he’s not a “ring knocker”—that is, he began his career as a navy ROTC midshipman at Notre Dame, not at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Still, he has an enviable record, with all the necessary ticket-punches required for rising to even higher command: multiple sea tours on frigates and destroyers, including a much-praised tour as captain of a new destroyer, the USS Gridley, and all of that mixed in with a master’s degree and four years of obligatory desk duty in the Pentagon. He’s been the commanding officer of the Cowpens for just six months.
A command like this should be a pinnacle in any navy surface warfare officer’s career. After all, while there are fifty-five thousand active duty officers in the U.S. Navy, at any given moment fewer than three hundred of them are entrusted with command of a navy ship. It is a singular honor, although you wouldn’t know it from the pay scales. Depending on rank and years of service, a navy ship commanding officer earns a base pay of between $80,000 and $120,000 a year—about what the manager of a Walmart superstore makes. But nobody is in the navy for the money.
And of those fewer than three hundred ship commanders, only twenty-two, Gombert included, are in command of a guided-missile cruiser like the Cowpens. All the old World War II–style battleships are long gone now, turned into razor blades or floating museums; cruisers are the navy’s new battlewagons. And in an already elite subset of navy officers who command warships, cruiser captains are special.
True, submarine commanders are an elite group as well. But a sub’s job is to hide, to lurk unseen and quietly gather intelligence or wait for orders to launch its missiles; you don’t use subs to display power, to show the flag. It’s true also that aircraft carriers are bigger, and their captains more high-profile. But carriers never operate alone. While at sea they are always surrounded by other warships in a carrier strike group—which means that while a carrier captain commands his ship, he always has an admiral standing over his shoulder who commands the strike group. Carrier captains are on a pretty short leash.
Cruiser captains are different. Although cruisers often operate as part of carrier strike groups, they are also capable of performing “lone wolf” missions, racing from hot spot to hot spot alone, independent, with thousands of miles of ocean between them and the navy brass and the navy bureaucracy; they’re the front line, the point of the spear. To command such a ship on such a mission is what young and ambitious navy surface warfare officers dream about. It’s what Greg Gombert dreamed about.
And yet, on this day—specifically, December 5, 2013—as he and his ship steam toward their rendezvous with the Chinese navy aircraft carrier in the South China Sea, Captain Greg Gombert is a man beset with a daunting array of problems.
Of course, for anyone who presumes to command a U.S. Navy ship of war, problems—or as navy officers call them, “challenges”—are the daily fare. Equipment breaks down, computer systems malfunction, human beings fail. And the captain owns all of it—every stripped nut and bolt, every burned-out microchip, every eighteen-year-old sailor fresh out of boot camp who doesn’t do his job. As far as the navy is concerned, anything that goes wrong aboard a U.S. Navy ship is not just the captain’s responsibility; it’s the captain’s fault.
Does an inattentive junior officer of the deck somehow manage to run the ship aground on an uncharted sandbar while the captain is sound asleep in his cabin? It’s the captain’s fault. While the captain is deep in the bowels of the ship for an engine room inspection, does an inexperienced radar operator or bridge lookout fail to spot that tiny fishing boat directly in the ship’s path? It’s the captain’s fault for failing to maintain the ship and the crew in a proper state of readiness and training. And if serious damage to life or property results—well, the only thing that ship’s commanding officer will ever command again is a desk.
It’s a harsh and unforgiving system, and one that every commanding officer of a U.S. Navy ship has to accept. He or she knows any problem, no matter how seemingly small, can wind up ruining a career.
But aboard the Cowpens, Captain Gombert’s problems—challenges—far exceed the normal.
There’s the crew, for one thing. The 340 enlisted sailors aboard are a mix of early twentysomethings with a few years’ navy experience and fresh-faced teens just six months past their high-school proms. Yes, they’re eager, and earnest, and they try hard enough. But they’ve only been aboard the Cowpens for ten months at the most, with the majority of that time spent in port, not at sea. Even those who have served on other Ticonderoga-class cruisers haven’t had time to learn all the quirks and idiosyncrasies of this particular ship; they just don’t yet have a feel for it.
The same thing goes for the twenty-seven chief petty officers, the noncommissioned officers who are the backbone of any military organization. They’re solid, and experienced; some of them have been knocking around the Western Pacific—they call it “the WestPac”—on destroyers and cruisers for the past decade. But they don’t have experience on the Cowpens. It’s like they’re living and working in a new and unfamiliar city.
The thirty-two junior commissioned officers aboard the ship also have their limitations. Gombert has already effectively relieved—fired—the ship’s executive officer, the second-in-command, categorizing him as a “significant leadership team weakness.” It’s an unusual move for a captain to make, especially in the middle of a sea deployment; it’s also an indication of how tough a commander Gombert can be. So for now the ship is sailing without an XO, increasing the burden on the captain. As for the other junior officers, men and women in their midtwenties and early thirties, in Gombert’s view many of them seem tentative, unsure of themselves, hesitant to take on new and greater responsibilities. In the sometimes old-fashioned way he has of phrasing things, Gombert has described them as “nervous Nellies.”
And then there is the ship itself. It’s a crisis waiting to happen.
Like other Ticonderoga-class cruisers, the Cowpens (hull number CG-63) is named after a battle, specifically the pivotal American victory over a British army near the small town of Cowpens, South Carolina, in 1781. (The ship’s nickname is the “Mighty Moo,” and continuing with the bovine theme, the crew collectively is known as the “Thundering Herd.”) Commissioned in 1991, the ship has seen more than two decades of service, much of it hard service. Until six months earlier the Cowpens had been slated to be put into “reduced commission,” that is, to be “preserved,” nearly mothballed, until the navy decided whether to overhaul or decommission the ship. But then the U.S. government revealed its so-called Pacific pivot, an economic, diplomatic, and military shift of emphasis away from the Middle East back toward Asia and the Western Pacific. The navy decided that it needed the Cowpens to project power and show the flag in the region, so after a hasty and mostly cosmetic $7 million refit in San Diego, in September the Cowpens and its new crew headed west.
And on the outside the ship looks good. Its decks and towering superstructure gleam, the crew looks sharp in their dark blue uniforms and baseball caps, the ship can still speed across the ocean with a bone in its teeth and the flag flying. But inside it’s a different story. The internal mechanical systems are old, the ship needs miles of new electric wiring and fiber-optic cables. Worse, the Cowpens is equipped with an antiquated version of the Aegis Combat System, the complicated array of interconnected radars, sonars, computer systems, and missile launchers used to identify, track, and destroy targets. The Cowpens’s new crew is accustomed to working with a newer, more capable version of the Aegis system—so for them, operating the Cowpens’s outdated system is like going from Windows 10 to Windows 2.5. They haven’t yet learned to handle it effectively.
Given enough time, can the Cowpens’s crew and its outdated combat system still fire the ship’s missiles? Sure. Can the ship defend itself against one or two incoming enemy anti-ship missiles? Almost certainly. But could the Cowpens effectively identify, track, and destroy dozens of enemy missiles suddenly coming in at the same time from ship- and land-based missile batteries—an enemy attack tactic that is indelicately known among navy officers as a “gangbang”? The answer is, no way. If this mission somehow goes south and the Cowpens gets gangbanged by enemy missiles, the ship is in serious trouble. Captain Gombert knows that. And the navy knows it, too.
And there’s something else about the Cowpens. Publicly, most navy officers would dismiss it as mere superstition, but there’s a feeling among many sailors that the Cowpens is an unlucky ship. In fact, as far as its commanding officers’ careers go, some believe the ship is actually cursed.
The year before, in 2012, the Cowpens’s then commanding officer was summarily relieved for having an improper physical relationship with another navy officer’s wife. The navy officially calls that “conduct unbecoming an officer”; unofficially, navy officers call it a “zipper malfunction.” And two years before that, another Cowpens commanding officer, Captain Holly Graf, the first woman ever to command a U.S. Navy cruiser, was also summarily relieved, for physically and verbally abusing her subordinates. Officers and crewmembers told dark tales of being pushed and shoved by the captain, of being subjected to shrieking F-bomb tirades, of being made to stand in a corner like misbehaving children. News reports about “Horrible Holly” and the “Sea Witch” cast a pall over the Cowpens name; chatter on unofficial navy blog sites portrayed the Cowpens as a star-crossed ship, a career killer.
But as he guides the Cowpens through the South China Sea, Gombert isn’t thinking about bad luck and curses—although, given what will happen to him later, maybe he should be. Instead, his mind is focused on the current mission.
It is a mission riddled with uncertainties, and fraught with physical and professional peril.
On its face it seems simple enough. For the first time, a Chinese navy aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is about to sally from its port on Hainan Island to conduct carrier task force training operations in international waters in the South China Sea. The U.S. Pacific Fleet in Hawaii and the Seventh Fleet brass based in Japan want the Cowpens to shadow the Chinese carrier and its escort ships, to gather intelligence, to see how the carrier operates and how it conducts air operations, to document what its capabilities are.
Cowpens can do that, easy. Its electronics may be old, but they can still vacuum up the Liaoning’s electromagnetic emissions and tap into its wireless communications systems. The Cowpens also has two Seahawk helicopters that can take off from the ship’s landing deck and hover near the Chinese carrier task force, taking film and photographs and generally eyeballing the situation.
Navies around the world routinely conduct such operations against other nations’ ships, although the name for them varies. The basic rule is: When we do it, it’s intelligence-gathering; when the other guy does it, it’s spying. But when done in international waters, it’s all perfectly legal under international law and long-accepted maritime practice.
But the Cowpens’s mission isn’t just to gather intelligence—spy—on the Chinese carrier. There’s a political purpose as well. The Liaoning’s foray into the South China Sea is yet another escalation in the Chinese navy’s growing presence in the region—a presence that is scaring the hell out of America’s Pacific friends and allies. The Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Malaysia, even the Socialist Republic of Vietnam—they all look with trepidation at the Chinese navy’s growing power, not only in the South China Sea but throughout the far Western Pacific. And they all want to know what the U.S. is going to do about it. So the Cowpens’s secondary mission is to show the American flag, to reassure the allies and other nations in the region. The Cowpens is going to get in close to the Chinese carrier and let everybody know that the sheriff—the U.S. Navy—is still in town.
Again, for the Cowpens all that seems completely doable. But in this particular case, there are a couple of potentially serious complications.
For one thing, the Liaoning isn’t just a Chinese navy aircraft carrier; it’s the only Chinese navy aircraft carrier, the first aircraft carrier ever in the history of the People’s Republic and the People’s Liberation Army Navy. And as such it is an object of enormous national pride, an announcement that China is finally about to step onto the world stage as a naval power. Already in the past decade the Chinese navy has become the world’s second-largest naval force in terms of warship tonnage, behind only the U.S.—and except for aircraft carriers, in the Western Pacific it is now arguably the U.S. Navy’s equal in maritime military power. With its new carrier program, it’s embarking on a long-range plan to become the dominant naval force in the region.
So to the Chinese government, the Liaoning isn’t just a ship; it’s a symbol.
And it’s not just the government that feels that way. It’s probably fair to say that not more than a relative handful of Americans could name a single U.S. aircraft carrier, much less name its commanding officer. But a billion people in China have heard about the Liaoning, and its dashing, urbane commander, Senior Captain Zhang Zheng. (It doesn’t hurt that his wife is a popular morning talk-show host on Shanghai television.) After Chinese TV showed video of the carrier’s flight deck crews directing jet takeoffs and landings—waving their arms, dropping to one knee—“Carrier Style” dance moves actually supplanted “Gangnam Style” as the hottest thing on Chinese teen social media.
The point is that to the Chinese people the Liaoning is a national treasure, and its commander the military equivalent of a rock star. Any real or perceived insult to that national treasure—for example, a U.S. Navy warship getting up in its grille on the high seas—will not be taken graciously.
And there’s still another complication for the Cowpens and its mission. In an attempt to shield their carrier and its escorts from prying Western eyes, the Chinese government has declared a forty-five-kilometer “safety zone” around the Liaoning while it’s at sea. According to the Chinese, no ship or aircraft, military or civilian, can enter that safety zone without permission from the Liaoning’s commander—permission that the commander is not about to give to a U.S. Navy ship of war.
Well, it’s outrageous.
Yes, a U.S. carrier strike group conducting at-sea operations will also enforce a safety zone around its ships; you don’t want a commercial fishing boat laying down a seine net in front of an oncoming aircraft carrier. So U.S. commanders will suggest—politely—that other vessels lay off for a few miles around the strike group.
But the Chinese are trying to take the safety zone concept to a whole new level. Forty-five kilometers? That’s about twenty-eight miles. That’s over-the-horizon stuff. In effect China is trying to declare its sovereignty on, over, and below a moving area of more than two thousand square miles of international waters. It violates every principle of international maritime law and the freedom of the seas. Not even haughty Britannia, when it ruled the waves, ever tried a stunt like that in peacetime. If this is allowed to stand, what’s to keep the Chinese navy from claiming a similar two-thousand-square-mile sovereignty zone in the Sea of Japan or the Taiwan Strait—or twelve miles off the Golden Gate Bridge, for that matter?
In fact, the Liaoning’s safety zone is just the latest in a long series of hostile moves by China to deny to other nations access to the commercially vital South China Sea, the U.S. included. They’re trying to turn the South China Sea into a Chinese lake. By sending the Cowpens into the South China Sea to challenge the Liaoning, the U.S. Navy is showing the Chinese America will have none of that.
That’s the navy’s public posture, anyway. But behind the scenes, at the U.S. Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii and at the Pentagon, the navy top brass aren’t so certain. After all, nobody on the American side is sure what the Chinese reaction will be when they see a U.S. Navy warship bearing down on them from over the horizon, safety zone be damned. Yes, they want China to ramp it back, to respect the rules of free navigation of the seas. And yes, they want to reassure the nervous Western Pacific allies that the U.S. still has their backs against China. But how far should the U.S. go to demonstrate that commitment?
At the highest echelons of the navy and the American civilian defense establishment there is a sharp, bitter, and ongoing fight over that question. The fight is so bitter, in fact, that the opposing sides have derisive names for each other. Those who want to take a low-key, nonconfrontational approach to China are dismissed as “Panda Huggers.” Those who want to respond aggressively, with muscular shows of U.S. naval force, are sarcastically known as “Dragon Slayers.” As the Cowpens steams into the South China Sea, that internal navy struggle has yet to be resolved.
And as a result, Captain Gombert’s orders are a masterpiece of ambiguity; they are part Panda Hugger, part Dragon Slayer. Gombert has been told to ignore the declared twenty-eight-mile safety zone and intercept the Liaoning, while at the same time he is to maintain a “de-escalatory posture.” He is to get close to the carrier—within three miles—but not too close, meaning not less than one mile. If there is any radio communication with the Chinese commander, he is to be firm and resolute but also “cordial and respectful”; he’s to be careful not to piss them off.
In short, Captain Gombert’s orders are to boldly take his ship and his crew into harm’s way—but for God’s sake, don’t let anything unpleasant happen out there.
And now that’s what is confronting Captain Greg Gombert as he takes the Cowpens into the South China Sea on this day in December 2013. He has a troubled ship, with a struggling crew, and they are sailing alone into dangerous waters, with uncertain orders, for a rendezvous with a proud and unpredictable adversary.
And the outcome of this mission could help determine whether the Pacific will remain “America’s Ocean.”
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 The Mission 7
Chapter 2 America's Ocean 21
Chapter 3 Lieutenant Wu's New Navy 55
Chapter 4 Acts of (Warm) War 77
Chapter 5 Panda Muggers 109
Chapter 6 Crashback 139
Chapter 7 Dragon Slayer 165
Chapter 8 Missile Men 189
Chapter 9 A Great Wall of Sand 221
Chapter 10 Course Change 247