Incident Off The Spratleys Part 1 of 3 | William Thomas Online | William Thomas

Incident Off The Spratleys Part 1 of 3

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Update: fiction becoming real

In January 2018, a Chinese frigate chased off USS Hopper when the guided missile destroyer steamed within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal, a reef in the South China Sea claimed by Beijing. 




By William Thomas



The clash was inevitable. Steam halfway around the world to tread on someone’s toes and they’re liable to lose patience. Or miscalculate your response to their response.




August 21, 2018

1730 hours local

Near the Spratley Islands in the South China Sea.


More akin to a helicopter-carrying missile cruiser, the super-sized stealth destroyer is 100-feet longer than a standard navy DD.


On a dying planet where everyone who’s not American is seen as a potential enemy, the brand new Zumwalt-class ship is intended to dominate inshore “littorals” crowded with fishing boats, commercial shipping, pleasure craft, transiting warships, skyhopping humpbacks, and civilian and military aircraft. 

So while Zumwalt ‘s radar-evading silhouette presents a major collision risk to minimally-crewed merchant ships depending on their radars, her 15,000-ton, high-sided bulk is hard to miss with the Standard Mark I eyeball.

Activate a single sonar, radar or transmitter and the ship’s stealth goes away. 

Meanwhile, DDG-1000’s stealthy “tumblehome" hull design, which provides less buoyancy as the ship heels, has already compromised hull stability.


Even worse, considers Captain Chester C. Bradley, at over $7 billion per copy, each Zumwalt class destroyer costs $1 billion more than a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. A price tag that’s forced the navy had to slash the original order for 32 radical ships to a fleet of… three vessels.


Which could, the captain ruefully reflects, turn out to be a blessing.


“Bridge, CIC,” rasps the bridge 1MC (ship’s primary intercom).


USS Zumwalt -Dennis Griggs/USN

“Bridge aye.” The Officer of the Deck is on the ball.


“Advise we are standing inside the Spratley’s declared 12-mile limit. Recommend immediate course change to 070 True.”


Another finger jabs the 1MC transmit switch. “CIC, this is the captain. I’ve informed the navigator we are holding course to exercise our right of free passage.”


“Someone’s coming to meet us, captain. Radar signature is a Chinese Type 052D. She’s just coming around the island now. Range 5,000 yards and closing fast. Speed 35 knots.”


Chinese Type 052D destroyer Kunming at flank speed

Chinese Type 052D destroyer Kunming at flank speed 

Bristling with missiles, torpedoes, a helicopter and a 130-millimeter cannon  none of it edible, but all of it costly  the oncoming warship is roughly equivalent to the U.S. Navy's Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. Please, Jesus, Zumwalt’s captain prays, give me back my Arleigh Burke. 

Turning to the OOD, “Sound General Quarters.”


The clang-clang-clang beloved of moviegoers every-where sends sailors racing up and down designated ladders throughout the 610-foot ship. Shipmates on watch are replaced by veterans whose greater experience is handicapped by their need to come up to situational speed. It only takes minutes. But they will be long minutes.


“U.S Navy warship!” booms the squawk box. “This is People’s Liberation Army Navy Kunming. You are violation China territorial waters. Return your course immediately.”


“Army Navy? Tell him to repeat that,” the captain orders the yeoman. To the OOD: “Hold your course. But let’s not get into get into a pissing contest. Switch over to turbines. Make turns for 50 knots.”


Sea’s too roughshore's too close, the Officer of the Deck thinks. And repeats the order.


With a howl, the ship’s jet turbines come online, sucking fuel greedily as twin screws spin into a cavitating blur. The big ship leaps ahead, sending solid water sheeting off the bows. And strong vibrations cycling through her hull.


Taking the short, choppy seas broadside, the slab-sided ship starts snap-rolling from side-to-side. The Chinese guardship broadcasts three more, increasingly urgent warnings to reverse course. All are ignored.


Then... a flash from the Chinaman. Seconds later, a naval artillery shell explodes close ahead, showering both open bridge wings with broken, cordite-stinking water.


“Bastards,” says the captain. “That was no warning shot.”


“Sir,” says the OOD, “all stations reporting manned and ready.”


If only the original 155mm Advanced Gun System was still onboard, he could fire projectiles at targets 80 miles way! But faced with Lockheed Martin’s extravagant $800,000 price tag for each rocket-boosted round, the navy had to downgrade his ship’s main armament to the same 155mm howitzer used by the grunts ashore.


“Stand by the main mount.”


“Sir, the 155 can’t train on…”


“Then stand by the Mk 46! What’s the range to that Shambo tin can?”


“Two-thousand five-hundred yards, captain,” the OOD comes back.


“Shambo?” queries the executive officer. “Isn’t that what the marines called Mao’s troops up by the Yalu?”

“My old man was there. First Marines. Choisin.” The captain bites off each word. “He’s still there.”


The exec is confused. “They didn’t send the remains…”


“About a baggie’s worth. Most of him is scattered all over those frozen hills.” The captain brings himself back with an effort. “I wouldn’t mind some payback.”


Chinese-claimed Subi Reef, as seen from Philippine-claimed island of Thitu on April 21, 2017. Photo- AFP:Ted Aljibe

Chinese build-up on sea-level-challenged Subi Reef, claimed by Philippines -Ted Aljibe/ AFP

By now they’re close enough inshore to see low surf creaming against the Spratley reef. Low buildings, radar and radio antennas, and weapons emplacements – some still under construction – line a narrow neck of curving land so low-lying it’s nearly awash.


That is so nuts, the exec thinks. “Haven’t they heard of sea level rise?”


“I want the first round right through their wheelhouse,”

 the captain says.


The exec turns. “That was just a warning shot, captain. Our sudden acceleration must have confused their aim.”


“How do you know that, mister?” The captain pauses. Seems to reconsider. “‘Drop two rounds 100 yards ahead of that ship.”


“But sir, all this vibration. The gun’s accuracy goes to hell at this speed.”




The order is relayed. The 30mm turret swivels outboard as if sniffing for prey… fires two rounds in rapid succession.


Seconds later, the first shot bursts directly under the oncoming destroyer’s plunging forefoot. The ship staggers. And keeps coming. The exec is terrified to see her forward mount swiveling towards them.


No waterspout marks the second round. Instead, the onrushing warship’s foredeck vomits twisted metal, flesh and flames from the wrecked turret.


“What the hell?” someone shouts.


The Chinese warship abruptly slows and sheers off, making for the low atoll.


“That will teach them to show some respect,” the ODD blurts out.


“Shut up,” says the captain.


“American warship! Stop your fire! Stop your fire!” the burning ship radios. “We are not fire on you. We are warning only these waters are mines.”


Zumwalt slows so abruptly, sailors who aren’t holding fast are thrown forward off their feet. Alarms light and a buzzer sound on the bridge.


“Bridge, engineering. We have an engineering casualty. Both turbines have tripped offline. Looks like another Integrated Power System fault, captain, like we had in Panama when we had to get towed through the locks. Either that or the Total Ship Computing Environment Infrastructure has faulted again.”


“Switch back to main engines!”


“We’re trying, captain. But my name’s not Scotty…”


The burning destroyer hasn’t returned fire. So it looks like a conjuring trick when Zumwalt’s beer can bow folds upwards and back, before tearing away in a blast of flames and roiling black smoke.




If the ship hadn’t already drastically slowed, she would have collapsed the forward bulkheads and driven herself under. As Zumwalt coasts to a stop, the jade waters of the South China sea are already lapping the foredeck.


“Sound collision alarm,” orders the captain. As the urgent whoop-whoop-whoop sounds through all compartments, the bridge squawkbox squawks: “Close all watertight doors. Damage control and fire-fighting parties lay forward…”


“Steady up your course,” the OOD orders. Ignoring the blood streaming down her face, the helmsman puts her wheel down… then back, meeting the turn. The clicking of the gyro repeater stops abruptly on their original heading.


“Report damage,” the captain orders. “Get a corpsman up here and someone to relieve the helm. And shut that damn alarm off!”



Damage control -USN

“Sir, we’re too shorthanded,” the OOD says in the sudden silence. We can’t spare the hands needed to man the weapons, sensors and propulsion,” the exec says. 


The computers that have displaced hundreds of able-bodied sailors can’t fight the fires or carry out repairs, the OOD tells herself. Then, crazily: At least they didn’t go through with eliminating the cooks and issuing us prefab MREs to heat up in our ‘spare time’ – a sure recipe for mutiny…


“Bridge, CIC. That destroyer has slowed and is turning away. Back toward the nearest dock.”


“Hell he is! He’s unmasking his batteries to fire a broadside! Take him out with the main battery!”


“Bridge, CIC. The 155 will not train on surface targets.”


“Well throw something at him!”



With a roar, a Vertical Launch Tube spits out a single anti-ship missile. Then Zumwalt’s secondary batteries open up. Shell splashes bracket, then begin hitting the Chinese warship.


Come on, come on,” the exec tells himself aloud. Thinks, Range is too short for the missile to arm.


The oncoming warship blooms like a bright flower. And just as quickly…


… is gone.


Everyone on the bridge gapes. Thinks, magazine! Then, That could be us!


Captain Bradley rudely shoves the deaths of 280 sailors from his thoughts.


“Yeoman. Send a Flash Priority message to COMPACFLT. Advise we have been engaged by a Chinese warship, taken damage and sank same. Request…”


“Bridge, CIC! We have 10 – repeat 10 – Houbei–class fast-attack missile catamarans and a missile frigate closing fast from… everywhere!”


“Where did they come from?” someone shouts.

“Captain, that island's jamming our transmissions, nothing’s getting through."

The skipper stays on task. “Are they in missile range?”


“Aye, captain. Their C-801’s are well in range.”


“Sink them!”


“Which ones, sir? We’re a little task saturated.”


“Oh, I don’t know,” the captain says through clenched teeth. “Pick a couple…”


Chinese missile frigate launching an air-defense missile near Hainan and Paracel islands. AP

Chinese missile frigate firing missile near Hainan and Paracel islands. -AP

“Missile launch! Multiple missile launches! Eight – no, 10 birds in the air!” CIC reports.


“Damn,” says the captain. Just before Zumwalt reverts to her constituent atoms.




PART 2. 

“RESIST MUCH, OBEY LITTLE”   发件人     William Thomas 2023