Authors: J. T. Brannan
BEYOND ALL LIMITS
Copyright © J.T. Brannan 2014
For Justyna, Jakub and Mia
‘When written in Chinese, the word 'crisis' is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.’
– John F. Kennedy
Jing Fenghe sighed as he rested back against his olive-green truck and lit up a cigarette.
He watched the commotion around him as he puffed away at his noxious, but mercifully cheap, Hongtashan. His body sagged with relief; this was no longer his responsibility. He was just the driver, after all, a lowly corporal within China’s Second Artillery Corps. What happened now was not his concern.
And yet, he
interested. He had been driving this truck around the country for months now, from one secret location to another. The convoy of vehicles – the transporter Jing drove himself was just one of a fleet which included various command and control elements, supply trucks, and an armed escort – usually patrolled the major coastal roads between Wenzhou and Fuzhou, covering thousands of miles of the People’s Republic’s southeast provinces.
But in all that time, during all those interminable miles, the convoy had not once stopped to perform its ultimate function. Well, not until
, Jing reminded himself. Now the convoy had stopped on a hard, rocky plateau on a piece of remote high ground just off the main G15 route, west of the harbor town of Ningde.
Jing looked around him again, ignoring the rough dirt scrub of the surrounding countryside, the promise of the East China Sea just beyond the rolling hills ahead, and watched the convoy’s crew go to work.
A squad of soldiers was busy securing their perimeter, keen that no citizens stumbled upon their location and questioned what they were doing – not that questioning was a common pastime in the People’s Republic, Jing reminded himself.
While the armed guards busied themselves, a team of surveyors was taking samples from the ground, making sure that it was firm enough to receive the colossal surge of energy it would soon be given. It wouldn’t do to have the truck and its millions of dollars’ worth of technology smashed to pieces because the ground was too soft for an effective launch.
At the same time, the command and control crew calculated bearings, vectors, angles of deflection, and a hundred other variables that Jing couldn’t even pretend to understand.
But it wasn’t the activity that interested Jing so much as the intention that lay behind it. After all, they had performed the same tasks countless times during rehearsals.
But this was the
He couldn’t be sure, of course, but Jing was fairly confident that they were no longer playing games. For the first time in its career, the
carried by his team was about to be used in anger.
The unit’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Hu Liangyu, had told all the men that it wasn’t an exercise, but this in itself wasn’t sufficient; he often said those things to create more of a ‘sense of reality’ in his crew. But this time, the man’s body language had changed. His normal arrogance had slipped slightly, he was slightly unsure of himself, and he was stiff beyond his regular military bearing. The stiffness came from stress, Jing could see that immediately; the stress of actually having to carry out –
carry out – the job he was paid to do.
Jing finished his cigarette and dropped it to the floor, grinding it to dust under his booted foot. He turned away from the busy crew and finally looked out over the hills towards the East China Sea hidden in the distance beyond.
He could only imagine what was out there, and the effect that the
would have on it.
Ellen Abrams, President of the United States, accepted the coffee in its little porcelain teacup with a nod of thanks to the Navy steward who served it.
Allowing herself a sip of the brew – the White House mess was rightfully famed for its coffee – she turned to Catalina dos Santos, the Director of National Intelligence. ‘So what do you have for us, Cat?’
‘Well ma’am, there’s thankfully nothing to get too worked up about right now,’ she said evenly. ‘The threat board is pretty clear, as far as that goes. We’re still concerned about Russia, though.’
Abrams nodded her head, as did the others around the small conference table. Russia
starting to become something of a problem. Or, she reminded herself, Russia was going
to being a problem after several rather pleasant years of cooperation.
The signing of the Mutual Defense Treaty in 2019 had been the highlight of Abrams’ first term in office, and something that – at one stage – had almost been unthinkable. A tripartite defensive agreement between the superpowers of the United States, the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China, the agreement had promised global security in the face of a worryingly uncertain world.
Now several months into her second term, having won the November election if not by a landslide, then at least by a significant enough margin to keep control of Congress, Abrams was worried that the MDT might be showing signs of fracture.
It wasn’t China – although, as her advisors kept telling her, you could never
trust China – but Russia that was the problem. President Vasilev Danko had been a staunch supporter of the treaty, but his strongman successor, Mikhail Emelienenko, was outspoken in his criticisms. He was an old-school politician in the Soviet mold, and had no use for treaties and security pacts that Russia didn’t have complete control over.
He had not yet broken the treaty, but Abrams’ advisors felt that it was only a matter of time until he did. There were problems all through Europe with right-wing, near Fascist politics, and the feeling of many in the intelligence world was that Emelienenko was hoping to use these transnational problems to unite the European continent under his own control.
It was an extreme conclusion, and there was no evidence to support it directly, but Abrams was surprised by how many professionals believed in this horrendous scenario.
‘When’s my meeting with Emelienenko?’ Abrams asked Martin Shaker, the White House Chief of Staff.
‘Not until next month, he flies over on the fifth.’
Abrams nodded her head in thought. Mikhail Emelienenko was a thorny problem, but Abrams didn’t subscribe to the theory that he wanted to take over the entire continent. He was too intelligent for that, she reasoned; too practical. He might want to exert his influence over ex-Soviet Bloc nations, offer them something to bring them once again within the Russian sphere of influence, but she was sure he wouldn’t do anything too drastic to alter the global status quo. She had already met the man, and felt his intentions weren’t quite as they were portrayed by the media.
Many analysts agreed with this assessment – to balance out the doomsday scenarios, others offered up the alternative that Emelienenko was just playing up to his audience. The Russian people loved a strongman, and their new president had to establish himself with these credentials to the fore.
Abrams took another sip of coffee, replaced the teacup on its saucer. ‘Okay Cat, what do you think?’ she asked. ‘Your honest opinion. What’s Emelienenko going to do?’
Dos Santos cleared her throat. As Director of National Intelligence, she was the president’s key advisor on intelligence issues, and had access to the information and analysis of the entire glut of alphabet soup agencies which made up the US intelligence capability.
‘I think he’s testing the waters,’ she said finally. ‘There’s a lot of misinformation being spread about him – possibly
him – to see how it’s taken by the world at large. He wants to see how far he can push things. In a way, the Russian people expect it of him, it’s a game of sorts. As for any real, immediate, direct threat, I don’t think there is any. If you’re wondering if he can keep until your meeting next month, then – for my money at least – he can.’
‘Thank you Cat,’ Abrams said with a smile, turning as her Secretary of State, Nicholas Ingham, started to speak.
‘I would recommend trying to get a clear, verbal reassurance from him during your meetings,’ Ingham said, ‘in front of the world media if you can, getting him to clarify his position regarding the MDT. If you ask him direct, he’ll be forced to give his tacit support for the treaty. Then – whatever his real intentions – it’ll give us some extra time to sort things out behind the scenes.’
‘If he wants to end the MDT?’ Abrams asked next.
‘I think we can still keep China as a defensive partner,’ Ingham said, to murmurs of agreement around the table. ‘She’s proven herself a reliable ally already, and if Emelienenko wants to break away, then having China on our side will be vital.’
‘Yes,’ Abrams agreed, ‘I think you’re right.’ China had, in fact, already been immensely helpful, offering both her intelligence and military assistance in stopping a terrifying bioweapon attack on the United States just a few short months before. ‘Nick, get people to start looking into the ramifications of making the MDT a bipartisan treaty, so we can be ready to go if necessary. Pete,’ she said, turning to General Peter Olsen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ‘talking about China, how are the exercises looking?’
Olsen offered a rare smile. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘Very good, in fact. The
Gerald R. Ford
carrier strike group is entering the East China Sea right now, ready to engage in the exercises, which start tomorrow. It’s a real breakthrough,’ he said happily, ‘our first combined naval exercises with the Chinese. Even with the MDT, as you know, they’ve been reluctant to operate closely with us on training, and this means that they’re really opening up to us, which is great. It should be useful to both of us, and I can’t wait for it to get started. General Wu’s been particularly helpful, as you know.’
Abrams nodded. General Wu De was the Vice Chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission, which exerted control over China’s immense armed forces, and was a staunch supporter of the MDT. ‘Excellent,’ Abrams said, ‘please keep me updated on how it goes.’ She finished her coffee and turned once again to dos Santos. ‘Anything else I need to know?’
‘Only the possible threat stemming from Aryan Ultra,’ she said, ‘but you know that’s being dealt with as we speak.’
There was glance between the two women, and nothing more needed to be said. Indeed, it
be said; the agency that was dealing with it didn’t officially exist, and – despite their seniority – not everyone in the room knew of its existence.
Force One was a small, dedicated anti-terrorist team led by Mark Cole, a former Navy SEAL and covert government operative. The threats coming through the rumor mill about a possible attack by the homegrown criminal terrorist group Aryan Ultra weren’t specific; but they was serious enough to be investigated, and Cole was taking care of this one himself.
Cole’s presence was enough for Abrams to think nothing more about it, and she nodded once, then turned to address the room.
‘Okay, that’s it for this morning,’ she said. ‘Let’s hope we’ll have another peaceful day.’
Gerald R. Ford
was four acres of go-anywhere American real estate, the most powerful mobile weapons system ever created. With a crew of four and a half thousand, a complement of ninety aircraft, and a displacement of one hundred thousand tons, the ‘super carrier’ was rightfully regarded as being a city at sea.
Captain Samuel Meadows looked out of the windows of the seventh-story bridge and smiled. Despite the presence of Admiral Charles Decker, the commander of the Carrier Strike Group, on the flag bridge one level down, the fact was that the Ford was
city at sea,
four acres of real estate. Although Decker was in charge of the CSG, Meadows was in charge of the actual carrier flagship herself, and that knowledge sent a warm feeling floating through him.
The CSG was en route for a rendezvous with Chinese forces in the East China Sea, where they would engage in formal exercises with their MDT compatriots. Another smile creased Meadows’ face as he thought about the irony of the situation; not that long ago, Meadows was training his people to fight
the PLA Navy, and now here they were, working together. Well, he considered as he stared out at the wide blue horizon, that was the way of the world wasn’t it? It was
US navy intelligence briefings – as well as information now shared freely by the Chinese navy itself – showed that the nation’s maritime forces were hugely improved over previous generations. China had her own aircraft carrier now, and the logistical, technical and electronic support to go with it. In fact, her capabilities had improved so much – and indications were that her land and air forces had improved right along with her navy – that Meadows was glad that they weren’t going into battle for real. Once upon a time, he would have been assured of a quick, decisive victory; now, he wasn’t so sure.
But, he told himself, there was still nothing in the world to match a US carrier strike group in full fury. It wasn’t just the super carrier itself – although with ninety aircraft aboard, capable of making a launch from the huge decks every twenty-five seconds, it was a supremely fearsome combat platform; it was the other elements making up the group which combined to create an almost unstoppable force.
There were two Aegis guided missile cruisers, two guided missile destroyers, and a Los Angeles-class attack submarine, as well as a combined ammunition, oiler and supply ship. Together, the group could project US power anywhere in the world at short notice, and do so on a colossal scale.
herself was a carrier air wing which consisted of
squadrons, including the new F-35 warplanes which – at a hundred and sixty million dollars apiece – were the costliest weapon systems in history. But, Meadows was pleased to say, they were also among the most effective. Missions that had historically been carried out by a multitude of different aircraft – intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and electronic attack – could now be performed solely by the F-35, a fifth generation airplane which combined advanced stealth technology with a fighter’s speed and agility.
Meadows relaxed into his wide leather captain’s chair, confidant that – despite the advances in China’s military forces, and those of others around the world – there was still nothing so capable as a US carrier strike group.
He checked on the locations of the other ships in his group, and then on his operating aircraft; even though the exercise hadn’t yet started, he was still operating patrols as he would do when coming into enemy territory. He had a couple of fighters up, as well as an E2D Advanced Hawkeye to provide an airborne early warning capability. The electronic attack Prowlers and Growlers would be going up shortly too.
He checked his watch, noting that he would have to be on the flag bridge in twenty minutes for the final exercise briefing.
Meadows sighed, stretched, and took one last look out of the bridge window at the crystal clear waters under the bright blue sky.
It looked like it was going to be one hell of a nice day.
The room was large – too large, Tsang Feng thought, given the small amount of people who presently occupied it.
But as the Paramount Leader of the People’s Republic of China, a man who held the simultaneous offices of President of the PRC, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and Chairman of the Central Military Commission, Tsang understood that he had a role to play, and a large part of that role was doing what was expected of him. And for the Paramount Leader, that meant meetings in huge, impressive, grandiose surroundings; surroundings that befit his position as leader of the world’s most populous country. It just wouldn’t be seemly to engage in meetings squirrelled away in tiny, windowless offices.
The décor was grandiose too; marble floors and pillars, gilt edging, antique porcelain. It looked incredible in the officially published photographs; you would have to get a lot closer to realize that most of it was fake, a mere façade constructed to impress the masses. Appearances, Tsang well knew, had to be maintained at all costs.
And so President Tsang ignored the vast empty spaces and concentrated instead on the men in front of him, the other members of the Central Military Commission.
There was the First Vice Chairman, Fang Zemin – as Vice President of the PRC and Secretary of the Secretariat of the Communist Party, the only other member of the commission who wasn’t a military officer; and then his other two Vice Chairmen, Generals Wu De and Yang Wanquan. The rest of the membership was composed of an assortment of generals and a single admiral, the commander of the PLA Navy.
In all, the men sitting in the huge room were responsible for the leadership of one of the world’s most formidable military forces, with over two million active service personnel split between the PLA Ground Force, Navy, Air Force and Second Artillery Corps, with nearly a million more in reserve and an additional million and a half making up the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force, which the CMC also controlled. Such colossal numbers were to be genuinely feared by other nations, Tsang knew, and now – at last – China’s military technology was starting to match her sheer manpower. It wouldn’t be long, he firmly believed, before she eclipsed even America’s legendary forces and became preeminent on the global scene.
But – despite the pleas of some on the commission – Tsang didn’t believe in power games and military posturing. He had no desire to enter into armed conflict with any nation, especially not the United States, and had welcomed the Mutual Defense Treaty with open arms, believing that it would make such a conflict even more unlikely. As for the other nations, Tsang was content that the sheer size and power of China’s military, in conjunction with her agreement with the US and Russian Federation, would ensure diplomatic negotiations would always swing her way. To ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’ was his chosen method of improving his country’s position in the world. If the stick was big enough, he knew he would never have to use it; the threat would be enough.
‘So my friend,’ Tsang addressed Admiral Meng Linxian, ‘you are happy with the forthcoming exercises?’
Tsang watched as Meng exchanged a quick, furtive glance with General Wu before answering, and wondered what it meant; he wasn’t aware that the two men had any close connection.
‘I am delighted,’ Meng said finally, ‘things could not be better. It will give us a chance to fully trial our own aircraft carriers and defensive systems, as well as to better assess those of the Americans.’
‘Indeed,’ Tsang said, still concerned about the look that had been exchanged between Meng and Wu. General Wu had proved himself to be an excellent addition to the commission, and was one of the men who had pushed for closer cooperation with US forces, including joint training exercises like this one. As the former commander of the Second Artillery Corps, Wu had been responsible for much of the nuclear arsenal which now resided underneath the Taihang mountain range between Hebei and Shanxi provinces. Labelled ‘The Great Wall Project’, tens of thousands of Army engineers had spent over a decade digging a five thousand kilometer network of tunnels which now hid China’s thousands of tactical and strategic nuclear warheads. It was a great success, and still all but unknown, even to their American partners.
Could General Wu be trusted?
Tsang scoffed at his own question. Could
truly be trusted? He had been around long enough to know the answer. And although he prided himself on his own ethical standards, it wasn’t quite true to say that he had achieved his current status and power without any recourse to morally questionable behavior. That just wouldn’t have been possible, would it?
And so the question of whether or not General Wu could be trusted was moot; nobody could be trusted and therefore, perversely, everyone
to be trusted lest the whole system come crashing down.
But Tsang still wondered what had passed between Meng and Wu, and what it could possibly foretell.