The fight continues...
NIGHT 1 - Main Strikes
Night operations are dominated by strike packages flown against the Spratley Islands. During the day, ESM operators reported SAM emissions from the three most heavily fortified islands, Subi Reef, Mischief Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef, and these become the focus of the strikes.
The two northern islands are hit by the heavy bombers from Guam, using modern JASSM-ER missiles which keep the launching aircraft hundreds of miles out of danger. Each strike has eight bombers with 24 missiles each, for a whopping 192 missiles per island, which can overwhelm the defences by volume alone. However, the modern HQ-9 batteries on the islands would probably knock down about 26 missiles each, reducing my strike effectiveness and preventing me from reliably destroying all aimpoints. I have no SEAD assets to tackle the SAMs directly, so the cruise missiles will be escorted by F-35s, releasing a cloud of 32 SDBs just before the missiles arrive. My hope is that these will act as decoys, drawing most of the SAM fire, and allowing the main strike through.
The strikes arrive in the middle of the night, and operations proceed as planned. The SDBs do get shot down en-masse (not a single one makes it to the targets), but that eats up 40 to 60% of the defensive SAMs. The remainder tear up the first waves of cruise missiles (aimed for low-priority targets), but the final waves are unopposed and the runways and taxiways are hit and destroyed. This leaves the islands ruined as locations for offensive activity, but they still have a defensive sting. The HQ-9 SAM sites are battered, and many are missing launchers and sensors, but they have so many aimpoints that some of them remain operational, at least in a limited capacity.
The south-western strike, against Fiery Cross Reef (and the SAM on nearby Cuarteron Reef) comes from the carrier group, which launches 131 of its TLAMs at the island, leaving a comfortable reserve of 125 for later operations. (The SSGN, lurking quietly to the SE, remains in reserve and does not participate.) I have no F-35s to provide SDB support in this area, but I have plenty of F-18s with HARMs and JSOWs, and powerful EF-18 Jammers too. The combination of ARMs and precision guided cluster munitions is much more effective than SDB decoys alone, and the air defences are completely eliminated, and the aviation facilities are ruined at the end of the strike.
In between these major operations, the Australian F-18s come in from the southern Philippines with tanker support, and make JASSM attacks against the central three islands. These are not major bases, and they have no real defences, but they do have capable surveillance radars. The cruise missiles make quick work of those soft targets, and the Australians return home undetected.
This leaves the Chinese without any air facilities in the Spratleys, and any further air activity there will have to fly in from Woody Island in the north, or the more distant mainland. Unless the carrier is holding something in reserve...
NIGHT 1 - Naval Operations
As the night wears on, and dawn approaches, my submarines start to get into action.
In the north, the Australian SSK has arrived near the cluster of islands west of Manila, where a single unidentified ship contact has been loitering since the beginning of the conflict. Poking up a periscope, the sub can see that it's not actually a proper warship. It's one of those big frigate-sized Chinese coast guard cutters, and it's in waters that are too shallow for a reliable torpedo attack. Fortunately, the sub has some Harpoons on board, and one hits the vessel squarely in the side, setting it on fire. Rather than waste more missiles on a target of questionable value, the skipper turns away and heads south again, looking for real targets. A few hours later, radar operators in a nearby E-3 note that the contact has been lost, presumably burning out and sinking.
Further south, the Key West, my late model LA, gets a CZ contact on something running slow and deep SE of Cuarteron Reef. The sonar operator thinks it's a Han-class SSN, but despite the fact that this is a relatively noisy target, it proves elusive and difficult to pin down as it drifts in and out of convergence zones. It takes about eight hours of drifting and cruising to finally get on its tail and torpedo it later in the morning.
The most exciting submarine operations are reserved for the Mississippi, my Virginia class SSN. This has been proceeding NE, along the north side of the Spratley chain, pausing now and then to stick up a radio mast and get position updates on the enemy carrier group. The Liaoning and friends are proceeding SE at a cautious 7 knots, and it looks like the two sides will meet about 50 nm north of Fiery Cross Reef. After receiving a final update (including the reassuring news that the F-18s had made concentrated efforts to shoot down the ASW helicopters), the Mississippi lowers its mast and heads in. (Post-war analysis shows that the Chinese actually had briefly detected the Mississippi using a towed array, at a range of about 16 miles, but only as a yellow goblin with an uncertainty area. Since their ASW helicopters were destroyed, they were unable to investigate.)
Approaching the formation from the south, the Mississippi comes up shallow to get sonar contact on the surface ships, and fires four torpedoes at a range of ten miles. Two are aimed at the Liaoning, and one each at the closest frigates. The Mississippi goes deep again, but stays slow to keep the wires, tracking the torps in until they get good signal acquisition, and then four good hits! The two frigates break up and begin sinking immediately, and the carrier slows. Turning back, my sub engages again, hitting the settling Liaoning repeatedly, and sinking another destroyer. As the carrier stops and rolls over to capsize, my captain orders his celebrating crew to turn away and leave the area. He only has two torpedoes left, and although he could continue to engage that would leave him defenceless if he meets another submarine. Better to prudently leave now, and preserve his combat capability for later.
The second day is largely devoted to follow-up operations in the Spratleys. P-8s with SLAM-ERs get rid of the two lone ships in the center of the islands (one little frigate on patrol, and one big LPD, apparently doing some work at Johnson South Reef). SEAD work by the carrier's F-18s shuts down the last of the SAM radars on Subi and Mischief Reefs, and F-22s beat up on some older J-11s operating out of Woody Island.
The Chinese aren't completely passive, and my carrier group has an alarming encounter shortly after 0800 hrs. The carrier had been proceeding NW during the night, before turning NE to launch and land the strikes against Fiery Cross Reef. Now, I order it to turn SE, and head back towards Malaysia. Partway through the turn, sonar operators started yelling "Goblin! Direct path, it's behind us!" There on the screens, a bright yellow sonar strobe pointed directly at my carrier. Now my ships and subs had already seen a few goblins that turned out to be biologicals, but those were usually spotted ahead of us, during constant course cruising. For this one to pop up exactly at the moment I turned? That seems more like a sub kicking in throttles to try and keep up.
The two closest ships at the back of the formation immediately fire torpedoes, bearing only, in the general direction of the threat, and a Vertical Launch ASROC roars out of the cell, arcing over to land in the middle of the uncertainty zone. Quick response helicopters are ordered to scramble, and the task group pushes the throttles to flank speed to run away. Are torpedoes already in the water, headed our way? The helicopters push on all power and race down the bearing to the enemy, dropping sonobuoys until one gets a hard contact. It's a sub all right, and fortunately it's far enough away that it's torps (if any), probably can't catch us. Mark 46s rain down, and soon the Kilo takes a hit, implodes, and dies.
The question is, did it identify us? Are the DF-21 anti-shipping ballistic missiles already headed our way? It turns out the answer is no, but it's an anxious wait to see... (Postwar analysis shows the sub had not spotted my carrier group. The sub was on constant course, and it was the improvement in sonar performance as my ships slowed to rearrange the formation that allowed us to make the detection.)
As well as their subs, it turns out that some of the Chinese stealth fighters are still operational. An RQ-4 gets a brief glimpse of a pair of them headed towards the Spratleys in the morning, and I scramble F-18s and F-22s to try and catch them. I keep the F-18s low, in the cloud, to prevent the J-20s from seeing me on IRST, in the hope that this will force them to turn on their radar and reveal themselves. It doesn't work, and they get away. It's not until later in the afternoon that some F-22s catch them up near Woody Island, killing one and damaging one. After that, I spot no more of them.
The biggest event during the day is the attack on the remaining ships of the Chinese carrier group. These have tightened up into a four-ship task group, still headed into the Spratleys, and three of them have modern VLS loadouts stuffed with SAMs. The carrier group prepares a heavy strike, with F-18Fs carrying 20 LRASMs (six for each big ship, two for the frigate in the back of the formation), accompanied by numerous F-18s with HARMs, and Growlers with AARGMs, and all seems to be going well. The Chinese ships have their radars off, but I can usually count on some BOL HARMS to provoke them to turn their radars on, and then the mass HARM salvo can soak up the SAMs while the LRASMs come in to attack.
Except there's a low cloud deck. The ships don't see the HARMs. Therefore they don't turn on their radars. My anti-shipping missiles get closer, more BOL HARMs fly uselessly overhead, and the Chinese still don't light up. It's not until my anti-shipping missiles turn on their radars that the Chinese respond in kind, and then it's too late! A colossal swarm of SAMs erupts from the enemy ships, knocking my anti-shipping missiles out of the sky, and my HARM counter-barrage can't get there in time to save them. Most of those get shot down too, and all four of the enemy ships emerge from the storm, a little scuffed, and with empty magazines, but essentially intact.
The raid commander stares at this failure in some dismay. How's he going to explain this to command? But remember those last two LRASMs, aimed at the frigate in back? Those had been sent looping around the back of the formation to try and hit the frigate from the rear, and they finally arrive, flying in and neatly hitting the frigate and a destroyer. The other ships, missiles expended, can only watch in frustration as their comrades sink into the seas. The sad denoument follows some hours later, as another ship, probably gashed below the waterline by the body of a HARM floods and sinks. The last lone ship is finally torpedoed around dusk by the SSN Key West.
Activity during the second night begins around 8:00, when another anti-shipping strike launches from my carrier, to deal with the two-ship task group that is now east of the Spratleys. This is another powerful pair, composed of a modern destroyer and cruiser, with a staggering number of SAMs. However, these guys have their radar on, and the massed HARM/AARGM salvo works perfectly, staggering the vessels with a rain of fragmentation warheads before the anti-shipping missiles arrive to finish the job.
The bombers make another appearance pre-dawn, with the B-52s directing their JASSM-ER attack at the facilities on Woody Reef. Eight of the F-35s support with 64 SDBs, and a pair of Growlers come up from the carrier with tanker assistance, in order to provide SEAD support. This attack goes very well, and Woody Island is reduced to smoking rubble without any opposition.
The B-1s also come back to the Spratleys, this time carrying numerous 2,000 lb JDAMs. Those with penetrator warheads target the ammunition bunkers, while those with blast warheads target any remaining facilities like docks, buildings, and airport facilities.
By dawn there are no facilities remaining on any of the islands, except for a few buried fuel tanks. The carrier group, now patrolling 160 nm south of the Spratleys has reloaded many of the F-18s with cluster munitions and Mavericks, for mop-up work against any troop formations which might be left. I do not expect high intensity operations at this time, so the tempo will slow down, and the pilots will have a chance to rest. (At this time, with no significant operations envisioned, I ended the game with 1 day 1 hour left to go.)
< Message edited by AndrewJ -- 12/26/2019 4:46:43 PM >