“War is a matter of vital importance to the state, the province of life or death, the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.”
Sun Tzu: The Art of War
Fort Meade, Maryland
Wednesday, 31 May 1989, 2020 Zulu
Wednesday, 31 May 1989, 3:20 P.M. Local
The small flashing light on the wall screen crept across the overlay of the eastern edge of China, heading with agonizing slowness toward the safety of the ocean. The men in the room watched the light's progress with mixed feelings. From the back of the room, Doctor Meng could tell that the air force general, Hixon, was the most anxious. With two good reasons, Meng knew. That light represented Hixon's prized toy, the B-2 Stealth bomber, and, more importantly, Hixon was in charge of the mission.
The aircraft was displayed on a screen measuring almost forty feet wide by twenty feet high, which dominated one end of the Tunnel. Facing the screen, in ascending rows, were banks of terminals where the various officers responsible for the mission worked. In the rear of the room, on a slightly raised dais, sat Meng, who oversaw the whole operation through a terminal that linked him to the master computer.
Meng glanced down at the computer screen as new input scrolled up. In a low voice, consistent with his small stature, he read the results. “There is sixty-five percent probability of target destruction.”
Hixon didn't like that. “Hell, they went in right on top of the son of a bitch. There's no way they could have missed.” The air force general signaled for one of his officers to type out a message over the SATCOM link. “Tell them to repeat transmission of strike data.”
The general's words were transcribed into the keyboard. The letters went through a scrambler onto a tape, which transmitted the message to the National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters next door. There, a large dish antenna beamed the message to orbiting satellites, which then directed the beam down to the B-2's radio receiver, where the message was unscrambled.
The general turned his attention to the clear lower right corner of the forward electronic screen, where the answer would be displayed. In less than five seconds the reply appeared.
THIS IS PHOENIX ONE/ ROGER/ RETRANSMITTING STRIKE DATA/ END/
Meng's boss, General Sutton, sought to comfort Hixon. “Sixty-five percent is rather high for a mission like this. Within acceptable parameters.”
Hixon ignored the information and concentrated on the dot on the screen. Another 120 kilometers and the aircraft would make it out of Chinese airspace.
Meng watched as the data appeared on his computer terminal. As he expected, the retransmitted data from the aircrew spelled out the same results as the original. The aircraft had indeed made it to target and had delivered its bombs. The only question was whether the ordnance had done the job it was supposed to do.
A new message appeared on the screen.
THIS IS PHOENIX ONE/ PICKING UP SOME TURBULENCE/ TERRAIN IS GROWING MORE BROKEN/ REQUEST PERMISSION TO GO TO 1,000 FEET AGL/ END/
Hixon scanned the telemetry he was receiving from the SATCOM channel regarding the aircraft. The general didn't want to take any chances. He typed in the reply himself.
THIS IS HELM BASE/ REQUEST DENIED/ END/
Another message pulsed onto the screen.
PHOENIX ONE/ REQUEST PERMISSION TO USE FLIR/ END/
Hixon immediately denied the request to use forward-looking infrared radar.
HELM BASE/ DENIED/ END/
Meng raised an eyebrow at Sutton. “I thought the reasoning behind using the B-2 on this mission was that it wouldn't get picked up on radar and wouldn't have to fly so low, sir.”
Hixon looked at the civilian scientist with irritation. He didn't like some civilian egghead telling him how to do his job. “Yeah, that's true but—”
He was interrupted by the disappearance of the dot. General Hixon slammed his desktop. His telemetry link went blank. “Goddamnit, we've lost the link! How the hell did that happen?” He typed into his keyboard furiously.
PHOENIX ONE THIS IS HELM BASE/ STATUS REPORT/ END/
The only answer was a blank screen.
PHOENIX ONE THIS IS HELM BASE/ STATUS REPORT/ END/
Meng looked up from his computer. “Aircraft satellite transponder is off. We have to assume that Phoenix One has gone down.”
Hixon turned on the frail old man clad in a white lab coat. “Bullshit! There's no way those bastards could have spotted her. It would take a miracle for them to have run across it randomly.”
Meng spread his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “There are many possibilities, General. Their most modern military jets, which by the way we sold them, do have look-down radar and may have over flown the flight path. The data is unclear as to the B-2's stealth capability against such a system. A lucky visual missile shot, perhaps from a ground site? You knew that the flight out would be much more difficult than the flight in due to the destruction of the target, alerting the Chinese to the presence of the aircraft.”
Hixon wasn't buying it. “Your goddamn computer is wrong. That plane is still flying.”
Meng did not like being cursed at, nor did he enjoy being told that his computer was wrong. His computer was the heart of this entire system—a system that had taken Meng two years to design and the Department of Defense two years and more than a billion dollars to build. Meng glanced over at General Sutton, who, knowing how Meng felt, quickly intervened.
“If you'll be patient, General Hixon, in a few minutes we'll have a readout on what happened to Phoenix One.”
Meng's fingers caressed the keyboard and accessed the aircraft file. He dumped in the data, sifted through the flight record, then looked back at the air force general. “You are most correct, General Hixon. The Chinese did not find your aircraft or shoot it down.”
“What the hell happened then?”
“The pilot made an error. In the dark, he flew his aircraft into the side of a mountain.”
“What!” Hixon was livid. “No way. Where are you coming up with this bullshit?”
Meng transfixed the general with his black eyes. “This ‘bullshit’ as you call it, General, is coming from the flight simulator that your men were piloting at Edwards Air Force Base. If you'd like, you can pick up the phone and call them yourself. The data link to the crew will no longer work, since the computer cut it off as soon as it determined that the plane had crashed.” Meng stood up. “Dragon Sim-12 is over. You may pick up a copy of the analysis prior to the outbrief tomorrow, sir.”
Hixon was shaken but not defeated. “There's a big difference between flying a simulator and the real thing. And there's a big difference between our running the real thing and this computer game you've set up here.”
Meng addressed the general in a calm voice. “General, my system works fine. Perhaps you ought to ask yourself why you think using a billion-dollar-plus aircraft to attack a dam of limited economic and strategic value is a valid plan. Did not your own staff suggest using a B-52 with cruise missile firing from standoff? Did not your own operations officer suggest leaving flight plan and en route decisions up to the airship pilot—a suggestion that the printout of the communications between here and the aircraft will clearly show you blatantly ignored a few minutes ago? I believe that the after-action report may well find that it was your refusal to allow the aircraft commander to increase his altitude or use his radar that led to the crash.”
Sutton tried intervening. “Perhaps we'd best wait—”
But Meng wasn't done. “The purpose of these simulations, General, is not just to test the validity of various war plan and strategic retaliatory strike missions. More importantly, it is also to test the effectiveness of the command and control structure of these missions. Your people in this Tunnel are the primary ones being tested, not the aircrew at Edwards.”
With that last comment, Meng turned and strode out of the room. He was waved through by the various security guards manning every corridor of the underground complex. Built next to the sprawling new headquarters for the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland, the “Tunnel,” as it was referred to by those who worked there, was actually a series of three major tunnels approximately 180 meters long by 60 meters wide. The main tunnels were connected by two cross tunnels at either end, which were basically corridors. Tunnel 3, the one Meng was just leaving, was the most secure and housed the mainframe computer that was Meng's brainchild. It was also the room where the strategic mission simulations, commonly called Strams, were conducted.
Tunnel 2, where Meng was heading, held the offices of the computer experts whom Meng controlled. Meng's own office, at the north end, was blocked off from the rest of the Tunnel by a thick cinder-block wall. Tunnel 1, to the east, was the outer tunnel, the workplace of the military staff officers who helped translate the various operations plans for the Strams.
Meng slammed the door behind him and sat down at his desk. The office was dominated by a series of large flat tables, arranged in a circle about his desk. It was on these tables that Meng laid out the flowcharts for every Strams exercise. He normally labored over the specific programming of every mission for at least two days.
Strams had a history that spanned almost a decade. Until Meng came along, it existed only as a concept in the mind of an idealistic army chief of staff in the Pentagon during the early 1980s. This chief of staff had watched what his own service was doing at Fort Irwin, California, and wondered if the same thing couldn't be done at the strategic level, particularly to test command and control structures.
At Fort Irwin, the army had developed a massive simulation of armored combat against a Soviet foe. The complex, called the National Training Center (NTC), was designed to approximate the conditions of mobile, armored combat as closely as possible, short of actual war. Every single soldier, vehicle, and aircraft at the NTC was equipped with a system of laser emitters and detectors that simulated the action and effect of the various weapon systems. Two battalions of American soldiers were stationed at Fort Irwin full-time to act the roles of the Soviet forces. These units used Soviet tactics, had vehicles that looked like Soviet vehicles, and in general acted like the enemy. The army NTC system, in fact, had been copied from the air force Red Flag program, in which a flight detachment simulated Russian aircraft and engaged in mock combat with American pilots.
Even more importantly, at the NTC every vehicle and major weapon system was tracked by a computer, which then correlated the results so that in the aftermath of a confused desert battle, the participating commanders could sit down with observer-controllers and analyze the battle step by step with computer printouts and videos. The NTC program had proven invaluable for training armored and mechanized infantry task forces up to brigade level—so invaluable that a similar setup for light infantry units had been subsequently located at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, and designated the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC).
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