I played the v0.2 release, which still had the SPEAR missiles, and only 6 allocated TLAMs. Here's how it went for me.
We're in the warm waters of the eastern Mediterranean, where my fine British carrier group, CSG-21, is operating between Cyprus and the Lebanese coast. In addition to the carrier group, and its load of F-35s, we have two more ships coming in from the west of Cyprus, and an SSN operating to the north of Cyprus. We're supposed to be here to attack ISIS targets in northern Syria, but escalating tensions with the Russians have put our mission in doubt. The Russians have a group of three ships in the area, built around a powerful Slava class cruiser based out of the port at Tartus, and a pair of their stealthy Kilo SSKs are reported to be in the theatre too. They've also got aircraft based out of the Khmeimim airbase near Latakia, including Su-27s, MiG-31s, and Tu-22s. The Flankers aren't a huge concern, but the potential of the MiG-31s, with their Kinzhal anti-shipping ballistic missiles, is rather alarming. Despite these threats, we're expected to prosecute our anti-ISIS operations, while keeping a close eye on the Russians.
The carrier group is ordered to head north, entering her assigned patrol zone and taking up a station between the NE end of Cyprus and Latakia. The two-ship group is ordered to proceed around the south coast of Cyprus, and eventually meet up with the carrier group. Due to the SSK threat, the surface ships are ordered to use active sonar. I don't trust my ability to find the Kilos passively. My SSN, the Artful, is ordered to head ESE for the Turkish/Syrian coast, and then head south along the coast to conduct periscope and ESM reconnaissance off each of the Russian bases. If the situation allows, the carrier group is to begin making strikes on ISIS targets as the carrier approaches its destination.
Our ships get underway as patrol planes and AEW helicopters lift off, and we're soon reminded how confined and busy this area is. Radar quickly confirms a large amount of shipping and commercial air activity (as expected from air and marine traffic reports). Sonar operators begin reporting on a variety of sea-life and drifting junk, some of it in very close proximity to the carrier group. None of my ready helicopters have passive sonobuoys, so I'm anxiously waiting for my helicopters with dipping sonar to finish readying, so they can help ID active sonar echoes at a distance.
We soon get a picture of Russian activity, including multiple low-altitude bogeys near Khmeimim, including MPA, Su-27s, and a low-altitude Backfire too (which is a bit puzzling). So far there isn't any sign of the MiG-31s, for which everyone is grateful. Their ships, however, are right on top of our designated patrol zone, and the Slava, flanked by two modern frigates, is going to be coming right across our northbound path. Therefore, the carrier group is ordered to turn east, heading for the Syrian coast, and then turn north again once we have passed the Russian ships. I definitely want to give them room, not only because of their ASMs, but also to stay away from their guns and SAMs, against which I have no defence if they use them in anti-surface mode. Avoiding them would be easier if my carrier group was composed of warships only, but two slow-moving oilers are with us, which makes us significantly less nimble.
We have some long-range reconnaissance assets, in the form of a single Poseidon at Akrotiri, and our allies are also supporting us with a Global-Hawk UAV, and the promise of a U-2 run tomorrow. The Poseidon is sent on a long mission up the coast and into northern Syria, and shortly after it lifts off it reports a bunch of floating shipping containers drifting off the Cypriot coast. Just drifting junk? Or someone's way of marking a drifting minefield? A warning is sent to my two following warships, who will avoid the area when they pass through early tomorrow.
Soon reports start flowing in from the recce planes. The Global Hawk reports on assorted ISIS activity in northern Syria, Syrian SAMs and air defences in the southern end of their country, and a Russian anti-ship missile battery and a minesweeper docked in Tartus. (So, the Russians are expecting to need minesweepers? Hmmm...) The Poseidon gets a look at the Khmeimim airbase, and the aircraft and SAMs there. It looks like three small SAM sites are guarding the area, plus the big S-400 site which can hit us almost anywhere within the theatre. Our plane also spots more Backfires, Flankers, and a Fullback, plus a bundle of helicopters, and (thankfully) just one MiG-31. Continuing north along the coast, and then flying east into Turkish airspace to enter Syria from the north, the Poseidon starts making an inventory of ISIS units.
The civilian traffic and occasional technicals are no surprise, and it looks like they have two sets of Shilkas providing some rudimentary radar warning near their leadership compounds. They've also got some self-propelled arty, and a number of UAV systems, but the real surprise is the pair of SRBM units! These have the potential to reach deep into friendly nations, and cause all manner of political problems. Clearly, they are our first priority.
By this point our carrier is passing east of the Slava, which has now altered course southward along the Cypriot coast, when radar suddenly picks up brief tiny contact ahead of us. It's gone a moment later, but the operator insists it had to be a periscope or a snorkel. One of our helicopters hurries out to the area, and active sonobuoys confirm a submerged contact of some sort headed south towards us at about 3 knots. One of the Kilos? We can't tell yet, but there's no way we can risk it. The carrier group alters course to the NW, attempting to simultaneously avoid the Russian surface group and the possible sub.
Two more goblin contacts are called in the same area, and the tension mounts. Two get resolved as biologicals, and then the third one sticks up a mast again and starts snorkelling. It's one of the Kilos, and it's only ten miles away. Helicopters mount a constant patrol near the contact, as the carrier group keeps heading NW, trying to thread the gap between the two dangerous foes.
Meanwhile, part of the air group is launching its first strikes, and F-35s lift off into the darkness, flying north over the ocean and only turning west when they have given a wide berth to the SAMs at Khmeimim. They manage to destroy both the ISIS SRBM batteries, and three of the four Shilkas, plus a few more lesser units, before heading back towards the carrier. The strike could have been stronger, but the F-35s with SDBs have been ordered to stay on deck alert for anti-shipping duties, which reduces the forces available for use against ISIS.
However, F-35s aren't the only strike items we have. Two cargo helicopters head NE for the Turkish coast near Samandag, skimming above the waves at lowest possible altitude. On board, SAS demolition teams ready their stockpile of satchel charges, while infantry squads do a last check of their NVGs and weapons. Their destination is the most south-westerly of the ISIS forward bases. It will take them most of an hour to get there, and they all hope for an unmolested journey.
By 1:00 AM local the carrier group has just entered the officially defined area of operation. The Slava group has turned SE, and is passing behind us to the south, and the Kilo is still being monitored to our east. Between the Bears and Mays and Backfires, I'm sure the Russians know exactly where we are. The one asset they may not yet have located is our SSN, which comes to periscope depth to fire a salvo of four TLAMs (out of our six allowed) at one of the leadership compounds in ISIS territory.
Moments later we get an urgent message from the UK government. There is every indication that the Russians are about to attack, and we are cleared to respond aggressively if they do. We even have clearance to shoot first, if we believe there is imminent danger if we don't open fire.
All ships are immediately brought to full alert status, and a pair of F-35s are immediately scrambled to rush towards the coast and forestall any appearance by the MiG-31s, while the commander holds an urgent conference with his staff. Should the cargo helicopters be recalled, or are they safer flying further away from the carrier? Should we engage the Kilo now, or hold off?
The Russians solve our dilemma when the Slava and the nearest frigate launch a salvo of anti-shipping missiles towards us, and the Kilo starts changing course towards the carrier. Our helicopter immediately drops torpedoes, and the hostile sub is sunk in moments, before it has a chance to launch any weapons.
F-35s keep scrambling from the carrier as the hostile missiles hurtle towards us, and the task group commander confidently calls upon the Burke to unleash its massive SAM battery to defend against the attack. Except the Burke's full of TLAMs, and only has 24 SAMs! Some of these start chopping down the Slava's first salvo, and the other ships in the task group start firing too. Radar operators on the AEW helicopter start hollering about vampires coming from the direction of Tartus, more vampires coming from the Slava, and aircraft taking off from Khmeimim. SAMs are launching in rapid succession, maneuvering towards the incoming missiles.
'Saturation counterattack!" orders the admiral, and Harpoon missiles start launching in an off-axis BOL attack, designed to overwhelm the closest frigate, and then carry on to hit the Slava. F-35s launch jamming drones and a swarm of SDBs towards the two targeted ships, and activate their own powerful jammers.
Missiles are passing in both directions now. F-35s burnering towards Khmeimim report kills on two (not one) MiG-31s lifting off from the airbase, plus hits on multiple other aircraft (3 Tu-22, a Fullback, and a May and a Bear). All my aircraft in the theatre are diving for the deck and running away from the S-400 as fast as they can, including the terrified crew of the Poseidon over northern Syria, who know they are hopelessly vulnerable. Fortunately, the S-400 isn't firing yet.
Our SAMs knock down the last of the incoming missiles, and then it's the turn of ours to arrive. The closest Russian frigate carves a chunk out of our strike, but gets overwhelmed and smashed, and a dozen Harpoons continue on towards the Slava, whose potent SAMs continue to knock more down. Two get through, wounding the ship and setting her afire, so she turns out of line and starts limping towards the docks at Tartus at 9 knots.
The last frigate delivers a salvo of eight missiles towards our carrier, and my British frigates confidently maneuver to engage with their accurate Sea Ceptor missiles, until the Sizzlers suddenly accelerate to 1900 knots, and the missile gunners belatedly realise they're too fast for the Sea Ceptors to engage! The Russian missiles plunge towards the task force, while a spastic barrage of Meteors, Asters, and Standards tries to fill the gap, managing to kill the last one just over a kilometer from its target.
As the carrier group consolidates after the attack, another Sizzler comes in from the SSW. It gets shot down, but leaves us wondering if it was a leftover dogleg shot from the last frigate, or if it was from the other Kilo that's reportedly out there somewhere. Meanwhile, the carrier group turns and heads north at 20 knots, as fast as the oilers can go.
One enemy frigate is sunk, and the Slava is struggling homewards towards Tartus, but the other frigate is pursuing us northwards at 25 knots. Unless something changes, we're going to get caught. The carrier group is completely out of Harpoons, most of our SAMs don't have anti-surface capability, and while the Standard missiles on the Burke do, the Burke only has three of them left for self defence. Our F-35s are all reloading or have inadequate munitions, our SSN isn't anywhere nearby, and the two ships coming along the south side of Cyprus are still hours away. They're ordered up to flank speed, which is risky enough, but they may not make it in time. This could get interesting...
Meanwhile, we elect to use our last two allotted TLAMs in an attempt to hit the shore-based SSM battery. It's got a good OTH radar, which is probably keeping tabs on us. The missiles are sent to cross the coast well north of Tartus, and hook around and attack across the hills from the east. Unfortunately, the SAMs there spot them anyway. Only one gets through, and the radar continues to operate. The ISIS leadership compound, which is the target of the other four TLAMs already in flight, has no such defences, and it gets struck and destroyed.
My SAS-carrying helicopters also close in on their target in western Syria, and after the escorting F-35s drop small LGBs on nearby ISIS forces, they land to commence their demolition activities. While the infantry stand guard, the sappers move in swiftly, plant their charges, and reduce the compound to rubble. They then hurry back to the helicopters, and return to the carrier at lowest altitude, trying as best they can to keep below the radar horizon from the S-400. Thankfully, it continues to remain silent.
Death of the Admiral Essen
By this point, the frigate which is pursuing me north has been identified as the Admiral Essen. Its SSMs are gone, but its SAMs, if it has any left, could be deadly in the anti-surface role. I would prefer not to close if I have other options. Accordingly, HMS Diamond launches its helicopter, loaded with 10 small Martlet missiles, and sends it skirting around the frigate in the darkness, to approach from the rear.
Sneaking up at wave-top altitude, the anxious crew volley the entire salvo at maximum range, praying that they won't be spotted in time. The little missiles arrive and pummel the superstructure, ripping up antennae and surface mounts, but doing no significant damage to the hull. The frigate slows down a few knots, but it's still faster than my carrier group, and it continues to advance, which isn't great. The good news, however, is that it seems to be out of long-ranged SAMs. None were fired at the helicopter, which slips away hurriedly into the darkness once more.
No SAMs? Well then, Guns South! The two British frigates and the Burke detach from the carrier group and fall back towards the oncoming frigate. The Diamond's helicopter reloads and sprinkles the frigate with another missile barrage, and then our three ships close to engage. The five-inch gun on the Burke and the 114s on our frigates outrange the Russian 100mm, and they commence pummelling the enemy several miles before he can fire back. As the target slows under the blows, our ships maintain their range advantage, battering the enemy until the burning wreck slowly submerges and sinks to the dark sediments below.
That only leaves the Slava, limping home, and our two remaining ships south of Cyprus eventually catch up and sink it with a salvo of Harpoons, under the cover of an F-35 jammer. The Slava never fires a shot, and joins her comrades on the sea-bed.
By 4:00AM local, the SSN Artful is approaching her destination near Latakia. Slowing to the slowest of speeds, she deploys a pair of her mine-hunting UUVs, which go searching ahead of her into the zone. By 0451 Artful is raising her masts and commencing two hours of surveillance, recording the radar emissions of the SAM defences in the area, and watching for any activity.
She certainly gets some, half way through her mission, when she suddenly detects the radar emissions of a Bear MPA lifting off, which prompts her to hastily lower her masts and dive as deep as she can in such restricted waters. Has she been spotted? Half an hour later she cautiously pokes up an antenna, and, detecting nothing, continues her mission. (Patrolling F-35s have thoughtfully shot down the Bear.) Eventually, with enough data in store, she retrieves her UUVs and heads down the coast to Tartus.
She arrives at Tartus later in the morning, following her drones again, and commences surveillance while trying to stay out of the very shallow water in the area, which would leave her sail awash. She confirms that the minesweeper is still in harbour, but there is no other unusual activity, and she eventually picks up her drones and heads back out to sea where she resumes normal patrols.
When morning comes, the carrier group is patrolling in the north end of her area of operation, and launching strikes against more targets in northern Syria. The SAS demolish another compound, and the F-35s work over more targets, destroying the artillery battery, assorted armed trucks, and more of the fixed facilities, including the last leadership compound. Oddly, one of the toughest targets to destroy are the terrorist bands, whose dispersed elements can soak up large amounts of guided ordnance for very little return. My pilots find themselves wishing for conventional cluster bombs or WCMDs to do this sort of anti-personnel work. (But those would be politically incorrect...)
The whereabouts of the last Kilo is finally confirmed at 0800, when it decides to pitch a pair of Sizzlers at the carrier group from almost directly underneath a loitering F-35. The missiles are spotted immediately, and shot down in short order, and helicopters come hurrying over to find and engage the culprit. The sub hasn't gone far, and within half an hour she is localized and sunk.
The two ships which had sunk the Slava had been assigned to hunt for the sub, but now they are released from this role, and sent north to join the carrier group, which they do by mid-day. Other than a couple of planes (a Backfire and a May) which try and sortie later in the day, and are shot down by long-ranged SAMs, there is no more direct combat action for the surface ships.
The final act is a strike on Khmeimim, coming just after dark. The SAMs at Khmeimim have an excellent view out west over the ocean, but there’s a long north-south escarpment about 12 miles to the east, which generates a major radar shadow that we intend to exploit. The majority of the F-35s lift off and fly NW, as if to head for more ISIS targets in northern Syria, but they then duck below the radar horizon and turn south, and then turn west again, flying back towards the Russian airbase. The first group of F-35s pops up and releases a barrage of SPEARs towards the SAMs there, which provokes an immediate response from the S-400. SAMs come streaking towards my ordnance and my aircraft, which turn and dive into radar shadow of the hills east of Khmeimim, and the shelter of the valley there.
More F-35s come popping up out of the valley, firing a swarm of Brimstones at the SAM sites, and finally the last F-35s pop up to unleash SDBs and JDAMs at the airfield infrastructure. All of them duck down into the protective valley again, burnering north and south to try and get out of the path of any incoming active radar SAMs, which are already hurtling overhead to engage the SPEARs.
The F-35s manage to get away with it, although a pair of them lose their towed decoys to near misses, and then it's a matter of swarm vs. swarm. Fortunately, our cloud of incoming small ordnance outlasts their inventory of ready SAMs, and our small missiles start crashing into SAM launchers and radars, while SDBs rip into aircraft parking spaces and hangars. Numerous fireballs erupt from parked aircraft as they are torn up by the accurate impacts, and BDA suggests that the Russians have lost almost all their assets in the destruction.
Alarmingly, a few of the leftover missiles, deprived of targets by the destruction of the SAM launchers, go wandering out to sea, and end up passing very close to a passenger liner. Fortunately, they miss. The political repercussions of that sort of gaffe would be rather unpleasant, to say the least...
And with that, the scenario is over. Victory for the UK forces, at least here. But what will the Russians do next?