How it could happen, part two: Nemesis
This week’s post is the second of five parts of a fictional narrative tracing out a scenario of American imperial defeat and collapse. As already mentioned, this is scenario rather than prophecy—an outline of what could happen rather than a prediction of what will happen, and thus an exploration of some of the major vulnerabilities in America’s faltering empire. It may also be worth saying that no real aircraft carriers were harmed in the making of this narrative.
The missiles and fighter-bombers launched from the fleet were the second wave of the American assault, not the first. Attack helicopters from Kenyan bases took off a few minutes later, but went in ahead to target Tanzania’s air defenses. Their timing was precise; by the time the first US jets crossed into Tanzanian airspace, the four military radar stations that anchored the northern end of Tanzania’s air defense system were smoking rubble. Real-time satellite images brought news of the successful strike to Admiral Deckmann and his staff aboard the USS George Washington, and to President Weed and his advisers in the situation room in the White House.
Those images were on the screens when the whole US military satellite system suddenly went dark.
In US bases around the world, baffled technicians tried to reconnect with the satellite network, only to find that there was no network with which to reconnect. NORAD reported that all the satellites were still in their orbits and showed every sign of still being operational, but none would respond to signals from ground stations or send data back down. Analysis quickly ruled out a technical failure, which left only one option; the president’s national security adviser glanced up from a hurriedly compiled briefing paper outlining that one option, to find the Secretary of Defense regarding her with a level gaze. She turned away sharply and snapped an order to one of her aides.
Analysts long before the war had noted China’s intense interest in antisatellite technology. After the war was over, however, it turned out that what took out the US satellite system was not advanced technology but old-fashioned espionage. Chinese agents more than a decade earlier had managed to infiltrate the National Reconnaissance Office, the branch of the US intelligence community that managed the nation’s spy satellites, and data obtained by those agents enabled Chinese computer scientists to hack into the electronic system that controlled US military satellites in orbit and shut the whole network down, robbing US units around the world of their communications and reconnaissance capabilities. Within minutes, cyberwarfare teams were at work, but it took them most of a day to get a first trickle of data coming in, and more than a week to get all the satellites fully operational again—and that was time the US invasion force no longer had.
The Chinese technicians who had slipped into Tanzania in the months before the war had strict orders that no action was to be taken under any circumstances until the US began active hostilities. The terse radio message announcing the destruction of the northern radar stations removed that factor. The crews knew that they might only have minutes before American bombs began falling on them. Their mission was precisely defined by the logic of “use it or lose it,” and so everything that had arrived in the shipping containers went into the air in well under ten minutes.
Survivors’ accounts of what happened aboard the naval task force over the next hour are confused and in places contradictory, but apparently shipboard radars detected nearly a thousand targets suddenly airborne on the southwestern horizon. At least half of those were false echoes, electronic decoys produced by Chinese “spoofing” technology, and many of the remainder were physical decoys meant to draw fire away from the supersonic cruise missiles that constituted the real attack. Even by the most conservative estimates, though, there were at least 200 of the latter. The task force had some of the best antimissile defenses in the world, but naval strategists had determined decades beforehand that a sufficiently massive attack could be sure of getting through.
Those cold mathematics worked themselves out in a chaos of explosions, burning fuel, floating debris, and dead and dying sailors and soldiers. Of forty-one ships in the task force, three made it safely to harbor in Mombasa, and eight more—including one of the troopships—were able, despite damage, to fight their way to the Kenyan coast and get surviving crews and passengers ashore. The others were left shattered and burning, or went to the bottom. The fate of the three carriers was typical: the John F. Kennedy took three cruise missiles in close succession and sank with nearly all hands; the Ronald Reagan was hit by two, caught fire, and was abandoned by its crew; the George Washington was hit astern by one, staggered in toward the coast despite crippling damage to its steering systems, and ran onto a sandbar near the Kenyan shore. A Japanese news photographer on assignment snapped a picture of the abandoned ship—broken, ghostlike, the deck tilted nearly into the surf on one side—and that photograph, splashed over the media worldwide in the following days, became for many people the definitive image of the East African War.
* * *
Long before the George Washington reached its final resting place in the sands off Kilindini, US forces on the scene were doing their best to respond. The loss of satellite intelligence did not prevent the launching points for the cruise missile attack from being spotted from the air by drones, and US fighters hurtled south to hammer them; only the orders that scattered each of the Chinese crews the moment their last cruise missile went up kept them from suffering horrific casualties, and as it was, more than a thousand Tanzanian civilians were killed. More than half the planes on the three carriers had taken off before the carriers were put out of action, furthermore, and those that made it safely to Kenyan territory were refueled and put to use immediately, carrying out punishing strikes against Tanzanian military and political targets.
Back in Washington DC, President Weed ordered a media blackout on the disaster. His press secretary announced merely that the task force had been attacked by missiles, and that details would be coming later. That night, meeting with his advisers and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he reviewed what was known about the fate of the task force, frowned, and muttered an expletive. “They bloodied our nose, no question,” he said. “If we cave in, though, we’re screwed. We’ve got to reinforce the troops in Kenya and proceed with the operation. I want a plan on my desk first thing tomorrow.”
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs that year was Admiral Roland Waite, a patrician New Englander with Navy ties going back to an ancestor who sailed with John Paul Jones. “You’ll have it, sir,” he said. “If I may suggest, though—”
The president motioned for him to continue.
“A plan for extracting our forces, sir. Just in case.”
“We can’t.” The president all at once looked older than his sixty years. “If we cave in, we’re screwed. The whole country is screwed.”
The plan was on the president’s desk at 6 am: a sketchy but viable draft of an airlift operation, using most of the Pentagon’s available air transport capacity to get troops and supplies from Europe and the Persian Gulf to Kenya in a hurry. By the time it reached the Oval Office, though, the unfolding situation had already rendered it hopelessly obsolete.
* * *
The planes took off from airbases in Central Asia as soon as word came that the enemy satellite network was disabled. A flurry of secret diplomacy in the months before the war had cleared flight paths through Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran, and positioned tankers for in-flight refueling in the latter country; Iranian civilians waved and cheered as the planes roared by, guessing their destination. As ships burned and sank off the Kenyan coast, six Chinese fighter wings were on their way to Tanzania, with more to follow.
Their route was not quite direct, since Tanzania was under heavy air attack by the Americans and thus could provide no safe airfields. Instead, an airbase in the Chinese client state of South Sudan served as a final staging area. More shipping containers had ended up there, and some of the tight-lipped young men as well. Fresh pilots climbed aboard the fighters, fuel tanks were topped up, aircrews loaded and armed weapons, and the first wave of the air counterattack hurtled southeast into Kenyan airspace. American radar crews on the ground misidentified them at first as friendly craft, delaying an effective response for a few minutes. The moment the newcomers began attack runs on one of the American airbases, though, that mistake was cleared up, and US fighters already in the air pounced on the Chinese fighters while those on the ground roared up to join the fight.
An hour into the air battle, the American commanders on the scene and in the Persian Gulf were clear on three things. The first was that the planes and their pilots were Chinese, even though every plane had had the red star of the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force carefully painted over with the green roundel and white torch of the Tanzanian Air Force. The second was that, at least at the moment, the Chinese had the advantage of numbers. That was less of a problem than it might have been, since the US had plenty of fighter wings available to join the conflict, and four more were already being shifted to Persian Gulf airfields within striking distance of the combat zone.
The third realization, though, was the troubling one: the Chinese pilots were at least as good as their American counterparts, and their planes were better. Both US fighter wings in Kenya flew the F-35 Lightning II, the much ballyhooed Joint Strike Fighter, which had been designed to fill every possible fighter role in the NATO air services. That overambitious goal meant that too many compromises had been packed into one airframe, and the result was a plane that was not well suited to any of its assigned missions. The Chinese J-20s had no such drawbacks; faster and more heavily armed than the F-35s, they had a single role as a long-range air superiority fighter and they carried it out with aplomb. By the end of the first day, though both sides had been bloodied, US losses were nearly half again those of the Chinese force.
News of the arrival of the Chinese fighters forced the plans for resupplying the four US divisions in Kenya by air into indefinite hold. “Until we have air superiority back,” the Secretary of Defense explained to Weed and the other members of the team, “there are hard limits to what we can do. Even if we send them with fighter cover, the big transports are sitting ducks for their air-to-air missiles.”
The president nodded. “How soon can we expect to retake control of the air?”
“Within a week, if everything goes well. I’ve got four fighter wings on the way in tomorrow, and four more following them in two days.”
“What about the airbases in South Sudan?” the president’s national security adviser asked. “Those should get hit, hard.”
“That would mean,” the Secretary said, picking his words carefully, “widening the war to include another Chinese ally. Maybe more than one, if the other African countries in their camp get involved.”
“They’re already in,” President Weed growled. “Diego Garcia’s in range; I want a B-52 strike on the South Sudan bases as soon as possible.”
* * *
Two days later, a mob sacked the US Embassy in South Sudan. The staff barely escaped by helicopter from the roof. The B-52 raids the night before had cratered one of the two Chinese airbases, but also flattened two nearby villages and killed several hundred people. Across Africa, Chinese allies took turns denouncing America’s actions in East Africa and threatening war against Kenya, while the few remaining American allies lay low.
The denunciations were for show. The real decision had been made more than three months earlier, as Tanzanian and Chinese diplomats made secret visits to half a dozen Chinese-allied nations in Africa, explaining what America was about to do and why it mattered. The prospect of a Chinese military response made a difference this time; so did China’s offer to cover the costs of the plan being proposed; so did the cold awareness, inescapable as one head of state after another stared at maps and briefing papers, that if the Americans overwhelmed Tanzania, any of China’s other African allies might be next. One after another, they signed onto the plan, and began an indirect process of troop movements.
As news media flashed word of the South Sudan riots around the world, accordingly, the ambassador from Tanzania presented himself at the Kenyan presidential palace to deliver a note. Despite the studied courtesies with which it was delivered, the note was blunt. Since Kenya had allowed a hostile power to use its territory and airspace to attack Tanzania, it stated, the Tanzanian government was declaring war on Kenya—and over the next few hours, six other African nations did the same.
Three hours before dawn the next morning, an artillery bombardment silenced the animal and bird sounds of the coastal forest on the Tanzania-Kenya border, some fifty miles south of Mombasa. Tanzanian troops surged over the border at first light, backed by the first contingents from the other members of the Chinese-supported coalition and by a wave of Chinese ground-attack aircraft. By day’s end, forward scouts riding the armed light trucks that African armies call “technicals” were halfway to Mombasa, Kenya’s second city and largest port.
That night, Kenyan and American military officials held a hastily called meeting in Nairobi, chaired by the Kenyan president. The original American plan of action was fit only for the shredders, everyone recognized that, and the issue at stake now was not the liberation of Tanzania but the survival of the US-friendly Kenyan government. The next morning, after hurried consultations with Washington via the secure diplomatic line from the US embassy, the four American divisions left their bases and headed toward Mombasa, running up against Coalition forces two days later.
Under normal circumstances, the US forces would likely have seized the advantage and the victory, but these were not normal circumstances. The air war continued, but the Chinese edge was widening; the US air bases in Kenya had been bombed repeatedly, and efforts to resupply them by air even at a minimal level were running into increasingly fierce Chinese fighter attacks. Furthemore, the four US divisions had only part of their normal equipment—the rest was at the bottom of the Indian Ocean—and the troops they were facing included seasoned veterans of some of Africa’s most bitter wars.
The major issue, however, was air superiority. The US military had made air superiority so central to its military doctrine, and had achieved it so consistently in past campaigns, that nobody had any clear idea how to fight and win a battle without it. Generals who were used to aerial reconnaissance and lieutenants who were used to being able to call in air strikes were both left floundering when these and many other mainstays of the American way of combat were no longer available. As the Chinese pressed their control of the air further and ferried in more ground-attack aircraft, US forces had to face the unfamiliar threat of air strikes, and US generals had to cope with the fact that it was their movements that were being spotted from the air. Finally, there was the impact on morale: troops who had been taught nearly from their first days in boot camp that air superiority guaranteed victory were unprepared to fight against an enemy that had taken air superiority away from them.
Which of the many factors decided the Battle of Mombasa remains an issue for military historians. Still, the results were not in doubt. After a week of hard fighting, Coalition forces took Mombasa and began to advance up the main highway toward Nairobi, while the battered US divisions and their Kenyan allies retreated before them. The Kenyan president fled to Kisumu, in the far west of the country, with his mistress and his cabinet. Jets still screamed south from US bases in the Persian Gulf to tangle with Chinese fighters based in half a dozen African countries, and land-based cruise missiles and B-52s from Diego Garcia pounded anything that looked vaguely like a military target, but it was hard for anyone to miss the fact that the US was losing the war.
End of the World of the Week #43
Speaking of cod theories involving lots of ice—the theme of last week’s failed apocalypse—any collection of predicted cataclysms that never quite managed to happen would be incomplete without a reference to the inimitable Hans Hörbiger and his Welteislehre or World Ice Theory. Hörbiger was a brilliant Austrian engineer whose mechanical inventions made him a well-earned fortune, but like many another engineer, his ability to figure out ingenious mechanical devices did not translate into a capacity for critical analysis of his own scientific theories.
The World Ice Theory is among the more complex of alternative cosmologies, and no attempt will be made here to summarize it in any detail. The important thing to have in mind, for our purposes, is that space is full of ice. The Milky Way isn’t a galaxy full of stars, it’s a vast cloud of chunks of ice, and they’re all spiralling slowly inwards...toward us.
The Moon is one of the blocks of ice. It’s not the first Moon the Earth has had, either. Every so often the Earth’s gravity captures a big chunk of ice, which then proceeds to spiral inwards until it finally disintegrates and bombards the Earth with ice-meteors, causing vast destruction followed by equally vast floods. That’s what killed the dinosaurs, and the most recent moon of ice broke up recently enough that myths and legends are full of garbled references to the cataclysm. What’s more, the current Moon is very close, and someday soon it will break up in its turn, obliterating our civilization.
Hörbiger’s theory first saw print in his book Glazial-Cosmogonie in 1913, and between the two world wars it was extremely popular. It still retains a following today, even though astronauts have been on the Moon and found that it was a ball of rock, not ice.
—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.