In this excerpt, the Islamic Front of Tunisia plays a couple of gambits in an effort to take down the carrier USS
CIC, USS RONALD REAGAN
Bradshaw sat back, lighting the first Marlboro Light from a new pack of cigarettes. This was going to be the day that Mahmoud tried something. He could sense it. A Sentry out of Sigonella had reported a Russian Tu-142 was headed for Bradshaw’s area. The good news was that Anthrax One was back on station, and it was packing again.
Bradshaw was nervous. The display was showing the friendly units in blue, hostile units in red, and neutral units in green. Merchant traffic was there, and so were three contacts sailing from Bizerte.
Sailing from Bizerte?
Bradshaw’s gut tightened. This was not good. No merchant traffic was going out of Bizerte – Lloyd’s of London had announced that any ship that sailed into the area would not be covered, and that notice had caused the expected result from a loss of insurance coverage. Merchant ships and their cargo are extremely valuable, and if they were lost and Lloyd’s didn’t cover them, then it was a big hit on some company’s bottom line. Business was business, after all.
“Get the alert helicopters moved over there, now.”
“Sir, we have a radio message,” one of the operators said. “Clear language on UHF Guard.”
“What is it?” Bradshaw asked.
“It’s the Tunisian Navy – they are ordering us away from the area, sir,” the operator said. “They say our aircraft are invading the airspace of the Islamic Republic of Tunisia.”
Fuck, Bradshaw thought. The bastards have turned the Tunisian Navy.
to move into position,” Bradshaw ordered. “Get ready for incoming!”
“Vessels identified as Combattante-III missile patrol boats. We have targeting radars on line,” the controller said.
“Take `em out,” Bradshaw ordered.
The strike group had three SH-60B Seahawks on a patrol pattern and armed to deal with just such a contingency. Two had been aligned on the threat axis from Bizerte, and they reacted almost immediately. In less than two minutes, they had fired their AGM-119B Penguin anti-ship missiles.
They were not the only ones responding immediately. The McCluskey
went into action, her Mk13 launcher slamming an RIM-66E Standard missile into position, and launching it. It then returned to the vertical position, where a second missile was loaded in. The launcher then rotated into the proper orientation, and fired again.
In less than a minute, the three Combattante III guided missile corvettes that had defected had each been targeted by multiple anti-ship missiles, the center boat by the Penguins, the flanking vessels by the Standards.
While the missiles moved fast, electrical impulses were faster, ensuring that the Tunisian Navy would get their shot off. Each of the three Combattante III-class corvettes launched their eight MM.40 Exocet anti-ship missiles. More modern versions of the missile that had nearly chased the Royal Navy from the Falklands, they streaked towards the American task force at very low level. A total of twenty-four flew towards the American task force.
A lethal race had begun.
The American missiles were faster. The Standard missiles, streaking at speeds in excess of Mach 2, arrived in a matter of seconds. Their targets pumped out desperate fire from their anti-aircraft guns, a twin forty-millimeter Breda and two twin thirty-millimeter Oerlikons with radar guidance. Six decades earlier, it would have been a lethal combination against a torpedo plane or dive bomber going maybe 300 miles an hour, tops.
The Norwegian-designed Penguins were pushing 700 miles per hour, the Standards twice that. It was a much more challenging shot, and it was over much faster than the naval battles of World War II had been.
The first to arrive were the Standards from the McCluskey,
targeted at the flanking corvettes, which made a desperate, and unsuccessful, attempt to put up a wall of lead – but it did not work. Each missile had a 215-pound blast-fragmentation warhead. All four Standard missiles scored direct hits – or, at least as close to direct hits as one could get. These missiles, primarily designed for anti-air work, had been equipped with proximity fuses.
The warheads detonated over the corvettes. The proximity fuses had been set to explode about fifty feet overhead. Hundreds of super-hot fragments cut through the lightly armored corvettes, killing crewmen and slicing into fuel tanks. Secondary blasts resulted, turning both corvettes into fiery wrecks that were now dead in the water.
The third corvette, in the center, had it worse. Four AGM-119B Penguin missiles were closing in. These missiles were slower targets than the Standards. The surviving corvette managed to down one of them using its forty-millimeter Breda. The other three Penguins went in low, heading for the waterline of the corvette. The infrared guidance pointed them right towards the engine room.
The wall of lead continued, the gunners desperately hoping for a second successful kill against the Norwegian-designed, American-built missiles. But the three Penguins moved in too fast, scored devastating direct hits. The first tore into the engine room, killing the engineers and stopping the last corvette cold. The other two punched their way into the hull.
Unlike the first two corvettes, which were rendered into flaming wrecks by the Standard missiles, the third corvette had to deal with that age-old threat of mariners – flooding. The result was a quicker demise as it capsized and sank with about half the hands on board.
The other two went down within two hours, taking about three-fourths of their crews with them. But they had already gotten their shots off.
Ninety miles east of Malta, the eight Tu-22 Blinders had unleashed their AS-4s from the east, and had begun a hard turn away. That had enabled all of them to escape and make their way back to base. The eight missiles would home in on the largest blip – and their AS-4s were built to kill carriers.
That drew the attention of the Aegis cruiser Monterey
. The thousand-kilogram high-explosive warheads on the AS-4 Kitchens would put a Nimitz
-class carrier out of commission for a long time.
As a result, the Aegis vessels concentrated on the bigger missiles. The Monterey
launched eight RIM-156 SM-2ER Block IV Aegis missiles. The missiles reached up towards the AS-4s – closing at a combined airspeed of Mach six.
All eight of the AS-4s were killed in the first volley. That allowed the Americans to focus on the main attack – the twenty-four MM.40 Exocets closing in.
Again, the Aegis vessel took the lead, joined by the Underwood, McCluskey,
. The frigates’ first volleys of RIM-66B SM-1MR Block VI missiles had already killed six of the Exocets before the Aegis cruiser joined them.
The Aegis cruiser went into a more aggressive posture – pumping out more SM-2s at the incoming Exocets. The total dropped down from eighteen to seven as the escorts went to work. Bradshaw glanced at the display, and counted six heading for the Reagan
The one outlier had gone for the older destroyer Hewitt,
and was dealt with by a pair of RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles from her Mk 29 missile launcher. The Spruance
-class destroyer then turned to the east, and sent her jamming systems to full power, trying to assist her enormous charge.
fired a volley of Evolved Sea Sparrows and RAMs, downing three of the missiles. That left three closing in. The carrier’s last line of defense now came into play: The Mk 15 Vulcan-Phalanx Close-in-Weapons-System (CIWS). The CIWS was a radar-guided, six-barreled, twenty-millimeter Gatling gun normally loaded with depleted uranium rounds, and used to shoot down missiles before they hit the ship on which they were mounted.
However, the Mk 15 CIWS systems were not carrying the newer depleted uranium rounds for the system. Instead, they used older tungsten rounds. Due to a lawsuit by an environmentalist group against the United States Navy, a judge (who had been a former aide to a progressive Senator on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee) had granted an injunction, and when the Reagan
had sailed, the DU rounds were left at Norfolk, and the tungsten rounds had been used instead. The Fourth Circuit had overturned the injunction in short order, with a very strong rebuke to the judge. However, while the rocket docket had acted quickly, it had come too late for the rounds to be sent on this deployment.
The result of that injunction would be demonstrated shortly. The range on the Vulcan-Phalanx was shorter with tungsten rounds as opposed to depleted uranium rounds. The first burst it fired missed. The second did as well. But the third burst caught the lead MM.40 about seventy-five yards from the system. The warhead detonated and sprayed fragments all over the mount – knocking it and the Mk 49 launcher for the Rolling Airframe Missiles out of commission and starting a fire.
Other fragments caught the planes on deck, leaving two of the S-3 Vikings little more than wrecks, while other planes were going to need repairs. But the worst was yet to come.
The last two Exocets got through the barrage of surface-to-air missiles, decoys, chaff, and close-in defenses. The first struck the fantail where the wrecked Vulcan-Phalanx and Mk 49 were. That totaled three of the damaged aircraft, and damaged eleven other planes, mostly S-3s, and two of the EA-6B Prowlers were never going to fly again. One sailor immediately grabbed a fire extinguisher, used it to put out the fire on his uniform pants, then got a hose, and began wetting down the smoldering wreckage of the RAM launcher.
But the second Exocet did the worst damage to the Ronald Reagan
’s combat power without damaging a single aircraft or weapons system. Instead, the French-built missile struck on the starboard side of the carrier, just underneath the island. And just outside three of the ready rooms on the 73,973-ton vessel for the pilots of the aircraft that the supercarrier had embarked on board. It detonated a second after impact, punching through the thick steel of the Reagan
The warhead on an Exocet consists of 165 kilograms of high explosive. The detonation sent fragments flying through the ready rooms of Air Wing 8. Nine highly trained naval aviators were killed outright. Others were injured to varying degrees, some suffering broken bones. A fire broke out in the ready rooms, and soon thick smoke was billowing through the area.
Strike Group Reagan
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