The year is 2017, and mankind is on a collision course with the perfect storm of all time. A finger is on the trigger in the East China Sea, and the blast to come will set off a chain reaction of catastrophic proportions.
East China Sea
14 September 2017
Ensign Inoue Makita was bursting with energy as he rushed through his battle stations checklist aboard his beloved Harakaze. As a young officer in the resurgent Japanese navy, he was proud to be part of an action that would bring honor to his country and boost his budding naval career. He didn’t know that his naval career—and his life—would come to a violent end in less than twenty minutes.
The Harakaze, an older guided-missile destroyer, could still do thirty knots while toting a considerable amount of firepower. Until four hours ago, it had been on a routine patrol with two small destroyer escorts in the contested waters of the East China Sea. Now the mission had changed, and Ensign Inoue and his fellow officers were briefed on a tactical operation that, if not properly executed, could escalate into a military conflict with the People’s Republic of China. The skipper’s briefing had been terse:
“China has attempted to dishonor Japan and its navy for over a decade. Their latest provocation has been to float a new oil platform, the Dragon II, to within two kilometers of Japan’s exclusive economic zone. There’s a good chance this rig will siphon off oil and gas from the Shirakaba oil field, which they call Chunxiao, and which crosses our boundary line at an underwater depth of about five thousand feet.
“We have been instructed to conduct an aggressive recon mission against the Dragon II platform. The platform is said to be loaded with armaments, and our intelligence wants to know its defensive capability and response time. We also want to send a signal that Japan does not take kindly to China’s attempt to monopolize this resource. We will test their defenses, gentlemen, by making a water-buzzing run at their platform.”
Ensign Inoue’s knees almost buckled. Water buzzing was a macho maneuver both navies had used earlier in the decade to flex their muscles and intimidate platform workers. He thought that the high-speed run that ships made at oil platforms, followed by an abrupt last-minute turn to slam the platform with a huge wake, was stupid and dangerous. It did no damage to the platform and was soon forgotten by the platform workers it was intended to intimidate. The Japanese navy had all but abandoned the exercise when both sides—in violation of oceanic protocols—started to mine the perimeters of their platforms at about four hundred meters.
“Relax, gentlemen,” said the skipper, sensing their concern. “We’ll be making our turn at an eight-hundred-meter distance from the platform—well before reaching its mined perimeter.”
The skipper gestured toward the oceanographic chart displayed on the bulkhead and painstakingly detailed the timetables, coordinates, and plan of action.
“You will be on full general-quarters alert. All weapons, including antiship missiles, will be battle ready. Is that clear? If we are fired upon, as we might well be, we are authorized—repeat, authorized—to return fire without hesitation. Remember, gentlemen, our mission is not only to collect data but also to send a message to China that we are fed up with their aggression. If fired upon, we’ll be glad to let them know that we will no longer be dishonored so close to our border.”
Ensign Inoue’s eyes widened as he digested the skipper’s chilling words. This could easily turn into an armed conflict if the Dragon II fired on them. He knew his crew would love to fire back, and it would be a challenge to make sure they didn’t fire the first shot.
At 0015 hours sharp, the Harakaze throttled up for its thirty-knot parallel run along the EEZ line and, as planned, turned slightly to starboard for its final run against the Dragon II. Ensign Inoue knew the Harakaze had to be showing up now as a menacing blip on the platform’s radar screen, and his palms sweated as the tension mounted. Can we get in and out before the platform gun crews react? he nervously wondered.
Positioned on the starboard bridge, Ensign Inoue watched the Harakaze cut its graceful swath through the water. Exhilarated by the view, he felt as one with his ship. The tension mounted as the bridge called out the distance remaining until the violent port-side turn: “Twelve hundred meters . . . eleven hundred meters,”—so far so good, no platform fire—“one thousand meters . . . nine hundred meters. . . .” He braced himself for the eight-hundred-meter call and sharp turn that would follow. “Eight hun . . .”
The last thing he would ever see or hear was a deafening explosion and burst of flame shooting across the starboard bow. He didn’t see the jagged piece of shrapnel that exploded toward him and instantly severed his brave young head from its torso. The hopes and dreams of Ensign Inoue’s all-too-brief twenty-three years were snuffed out in a nanosecond.
Shocked, the battle-ready crew turned their guns on the Dragon II, surmising that it was the source of the violent hit they had just taken. The Harakaze slowed as though clamped by a giant hydraulic brake, taking on water through a gaping starboard hole. With great difficulty, the Harakaze crew completed their port turn and opened fire on the gun crews of the Dragon II. Both sides took heavy casualties as the Harakaze limped away from the Dragon II gun batteries now raking its deck with .50-caliber machine-gun fire in a battle that seemed to last an eternity.
The captain, shaking with blood loss from shrapnel wounds, managed to make two hurried calls to his waiting destroyer escorts. Though mortally wounded, he had the presence of mind to correct his first call, in which he had misreported that they were fired upon, with a second call saying they had hit a mine eight hundred meters out. Vital intelligence, he thought, choking on his own blood, and he died believing the Harakaze had done its job.
Commander Zhao Cai, captain of the Chinese missile frigate Wenzhou, received Dragon II’s frantic call for help in the face of the Japanese attack. His fire control team quickly located the Harakaze at the edge of the platform’s minefield. Commander Zhao nodded in recognition of the PLAN high command’s recent decision to extend the minefield perimeters from four hundred to eight hundred meters and fortify the oil platforms with naval guns, though he felt the deterrent value of such moves was lost by keeping it secret. His fire control team, meanwhile, had fired two YJ-12 antiship missiles at the limping ship. He watched with horror as the Harakaze retaliated by firing off four Harpoon III antiship missiles not at the Wenzhou, but instead at the Dragon II platform.
Within minutes of the respective missile launches, the mortally wounded Harakaze and Dragon II began their death plunges into the deep, murky waters of the East China Sea. Commander Zhao did not need the disappearing blip on the radar screen to tell him the once-proud Dragon II was lost. A massive fireball rose on the horizon, and he imagined the wreckage that must surround it: raging flames, growing oil slicks, and a few oil-doused survivors frantic to avoid death by water or fire. He slammed his fist on the deck rail in rage. His orders to respond aggressively to any attacks on the Dragon II fueled his desire for revenge against this perfidious act of cowardice; it was payback time.
After a brief consultation between Zhao and his fellow commander on the missile frigate Luoyang, the two ships launched a joint salvo of JY-12 missiles at all Japanese targets within a fifty-kilometer range. This included the two destroyer escorts, two nearby Japanese-owned oil platforms, and a platform-supply ship.
The platform workers and crew of the support ship never knew what hit them. One of the Japanese destroyers sank immediately, but the other escaped the onslaught and ran for Japanese waters. Its captain immediately conveyed the horrifying news to the Japanese high command.
Passengers on at least three commercial flights headed toward Taiwan saw what looked like a New Year’s fireworks festival. The airline crews reporting the spectacle to air traffic control had to repeat themselves several times. A sharp-eyed reporter from Shared News Services glanced out the window of one of the Taipei-bound planes and was astonished to see fires blazing all over the East China Sea. She took what photos she could with her phone and sent out a news blast to all affiliates and subscribers upon landing. Less than two hours after the first blast, the incident was world news.
Meanwhile, international satellites as well as monitoring facilities at U.S. Naval Base Guam, several hundred miles southeast of Chunxiao, were busily accumulating data. The radio intercepts from Chinese and Japanese naval vessels reinforced the ugly picture now evolving.
Missiles deployed, the Wenzhou and Luoyang took up defensive positions near the sunken Chunxiao platform. Although the massive oil slicks burned furiously, the automatic underwater emergency shutoff systems on all of the sunken platforms—a technology perfected after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon debacle in the Gulf of Mexico—appeared to be holding. For now, the Chinese commanders were more concerned with potential counterattacks from Japanese naval forces in the general area. PLAN high command listened to their reports with horror and issued further orders.
Commander Zhao gazed gloomily off the starboard bridge at the fiery waters, then checked his watch, now showing 0105 hours—Beijing time—and marveled at how quickly things happened in warfare. He had almost certainly pulled the trigger on World War III, and all he could do for the moment was continue his watch and wait.
In Earth’s Orbit
14 September 2017
As scores of intelligence satellites monitored the naval battle in the East China Sea, three new satellites, with entirely different missions, were collecting data of a more catastrophic nature.
Orbiting Earth in a combination of circular and geostationary orbits, the new observers carried the most advanced climate-monitoring technologies known to mankind. Joining several other climate satellites launched earlier in the year, the grand-slam trifecta was expected to unequivocally clarify the climate-change puzzle. They represented the best effort yet to accurately assess Earth’s true state of health, and the diagnostic results would shake the scientific community to the bone.