The following story, Zubr, is by Chris Sautter. Sautter lives and works in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Zubr is an excerpt from his manuscript South China Sea – the story of open warfare between China and the United States in the most important trade route in the world. He can be reached at email@example.com.
*** Thitu Island, South China Sea***
A gentle breeze stirred the palms and mangroves bordering the narrow, brilliant-white beach. Overhead, the easy sway of palm fronds sounded in a pleasant, soft rustling the movement filtering the bright shine of the late morning sunlight into constantly-shifting shade patterns at the foot of the trees. A part of Private Jose Cuisa’s mind duly noted that he had just moved from light into shade an instant before the shockingly-hard impact of his opponent’s fist slammed against his jaw. Cuisa staggered backwards, instinctively pulling in his elbows and raising his gloves into a defensive position. Shit! He’s fucking strong! He blinked his eyes quickly, trying to clear his head. Get back in the fight! Don’t be a pussy! Cuisa’s opponent, a beefy sergeant, advanced. The sergeant sensed weakness in his opponent, pushing the younger man back with a flurry of wild, powerful punches aimed at Cuisa’s head – a sudden frenzy to knock the lean teenager to the ground after three long rounds. The sergeant was getting sloppy in his eagerness and even though dazed, Cuisa had waited for this.
Cuisa’s left hand shot out in a lightning-quick double jab, momentarily distracting the older man and simultaneously delighting Cuisa’s squad mates lining the edges of makeshift ring. Hoots and yells of encouragement – the sergeant was not a popular man on Thitu, especially in comparison the ever-cheerful Private Cuisa. “Sipain ang kanyang asno, Cuisa!” roughly, “kick his ass!” as the young man’s supporters urged him on. Cuisa gathered strength from the yells, hearing his name above all else, feeling a sudden obligation to please them and justify their confidence in him. He shielded his face between his gloves, letting his hands take the impact of the sergeant’s punches. Cuisa took two quick but deep breaths and regrouped. He fired off the combination that had made him a junior champion at home in Manila. His left glove shot out in another jab tagging the older man, distracting him just enough to drop his hands a fraction, long enough for Cuisa to spot the opening. There! Now! Just enough room. A powerful right cross snapped out, rocking the surprised Sergeant, followed by a tight left hook squarely landing on his jaw and then a finishing uppercut connected a millisecond later, catching the dazed man’s chin, snapping his head back. It was done. The senior enlisted man buckled to the sand amid whoops and cheers from the onlookers. Private Jose Cuisa could fight.
***Ten Miles Northeast of Thitu Island, South China Sea***
BRP Apolinario Mabini (PS-36), cut easily through water – twin diesels burbling happily as she maintained a steady 18 knots. She was on a routine supply mission for the 40 man contingent of Philippine soldiers occupying the vessel’s destination: a roughly 100-acre dollop of sand covered with mangroves, bushes, and coconut palms located 220 nautical miles southwest of Manila and known as Thitu Island.
Thitu Island – the lump of sand that is the largest of the few Philippine-occupied Spratley Islands in the South China Sea – possesses one distinctive feature: a 1,200 meter, hard-surface airstrip. The dilapidated runway is unique – it’s the only airstrip in the South China Sea not located on a Chinese-controlled island. Thitu has no control tower, no hangers and no aircraft maintenance facilities. For the Philippines, Thitu’s value lies not in its dubious tactical usefulness, but in its far more important symbolic value. Thitu is an undeniable piece of the Philippine territory right in the middle of the South China Sea – in the rough center of the Chinese-claimed sea – and accordingly, a constant source of irritation to Beijing. The Chinese had no less than seven island bases under construction in the Spratley island chain of which Thitu was a part. By 2017 a Philippine military base, even one as innocuous as Thitu, was becoming intolerable.
Two nautical miles out – a green smudge of the island growing large on the horizon – “make your speed ten knots,” Apolinario Mabini’s Captain ordered. He knew the concentric shallows and reef lines ringing the tiny island – treacherous and real threats to Apolinario Mabini’s hull. No reminders of the hazards were necessary – the rusting hulk of the Philippine Navy’s BRP Lanao del Norte (LT-504), a 1,400 ton landing ship purchased surplus from the United States, remained permanently grounded in place just 200 meters offshore – casualty of a misguided attempt at docking at the island in 2004. Deemed too expensive to salvage, the slowly disintegrating wreck served as the perfect warning to approach Thitu with great caution. Apolinario Mabini’s helmsman kept his ship at a respectful distance from the hulk.
Cuisa absently rubbed his jaw, sore from the big Sergeant’s punch, and watched the slow approach of Apolinario Mabini with satisfaction. He and his squad mates always threw a minor celebration when care packages arrived from home but this celebration would be even better. The squad had also decided to celebrate Cuisa’s crowning as “Thitu Island International Boxing Champion,” a title that had never existed until Cuisa’s friends settled on it after the morning’s fight. Cuisa focused on the sharp edge of Mabini’s bow creeping closer to shore, imaging the food, mail and new DVD’s that slowly approached from offshore. The young private understood why Apolinario Mabini had to move so slowly among the reefs – but he didn’t have to like the waiting.
Apolinario Mabini’s steady, gradual movement forward suddenly stopped – an oddly violent, jumping motion totally apart from the steadiness of a second earlier. For a millisecond, Cuisa thought she had run aground on the reef but Apolinario Mabini exploded out of the clear blue water in a spray of white foam, hot orange flame and ugly, grey-black smoke. Then the sound. A concussive, crackling, booming wall of heated air raced out – a physical presence of its own – over the water; up onto the beach, engulfing an unbelieving Cuisa and seconds later, rolling over the island.
***Sanya Naval Base***
Picture the largest hovercraft you’ve ever seen. Now double it until it’s more than 200 feet long, half as wide and more than forty feet at its highest point.
Add two metallic humps each projecting the menacing black barrels of turreted Gatling guns guarding a line of dark armored windscreens marking the bridge high above the waterline. Forward, a surface-to-air missile suite perches menacingly and hatches shield retractable rocket launchers. Aft, the oversized cowls of three, 20 foot diameter thrust propellers dominate the breadth of the stern.
The combined shriek from craft’s five military-grade jet engines pegged at full throttle requires crewman to wear heavy headgear and ear protection. Even then the sound penetrates – something huge and vibrating, barely controlled and eager to break free. This is a Chinese Zubr-class assault craft.
A Zubr can carry up to 10 light armored vehicles, up to 300 troops, up to 130 tons of combat cargo or any combination. And it can carry all of it at up to 63 knots – in short bursts – for up 300 or so kilometers at full capacity. Once on station it doesn’t stop to offload offshore, it keeps going. Up over the target beach without slowing, idling lift engines to settle to the ground and drop its bow and stern ramps to disgorge its load of armor and soldiers protected by Zubr’s on-board arsenal. A Zubr is huge, roaring, lethal thing – appearing suddenly on an enemy’s beach. But despite its size – despite its intimidating appearance and capabilities – Zubr is not a long-range craft. Zubr is too large to be carried on a proper ocean-going transport and too delicate – if that label can be applied – to navigate heavy, deep-ocean, seas.
A Zubr’s is designed for shorter missions, it is a gigantic commando raider capable of striking quickly, and with overpowering violence. Perfect for ranges of around 400 kilometers – ideal for landing a highly-mobile armored force on a lightly-defended enemy shore; shooting in from far over the horizon, out of view until it’s too late. China’s Southern Sea Fleet of the People’s Liberation Army Navy based in the South China Sea possesses several Zubr’s.
By 2017, Beijing’s tolerance of interlopers in its self-declared sovereign territory had reached its end.
The crew of the trim, blue-grey replenishment ship, Qinghai-Hu, swarmed over her decks in the precise choreography of getting a large naval vessel underway. Casting off her moorings, the pilot carefully guided the 37,000 ton ship through the boat traffic passing between the dozens of warships both moored offshore in the deeper waters of the bay and those tied up to long piers jutting out into the water. Safely clear of the breakwater, the harbor pilot left the bridge, climbed down the ladder along the big ship’s side with confidence borne from hundreds of similar trips and neatly dropped on to the deck of the powerful “Pilot” boat bobbing alongside the accelerating, Qinghai-Hu. He turned and threw salute to the Qinghai-Hu’s Captain leaning over the railing, receiving a crisp salute in response.
Qinghai-Hu had not a moment to lose. She had a rendezvous at a specific point in the ocean the following morning. The other party could not be kept waiting.
*** Zubr 3320 ***
Zubr 3320 lit off its first gas turbine. It started with a low moaning whine, growing in intensity as the huge engine slowly spun up to life. Then another – and then sequentially three more. The shockingly powerful noise echoed out across the five kilometer width of the bay, bouncing off buildings, bringing surprised occupants to their windows to identify the source. The roaring whine intensified as the Zubr lifted itself, and the 200 men and the equipment secured in her enclosed, sound-insulated, cargo hold, straight up out of the water. Amidst a towering spray of sea mist, the Zubr rose to the full height of its armored air skirt and steadied, hovering some 8 feet above the surface of the water. 3320 engaged its propulsion propellers, and the giant vehicle gracefully pivoted in place bringing its bow in line with the breakwater and the gap leading out to sea.
***Holidays Inn Hotel – Hainan Island***
Nguyễn Thị Kim Tiến couldn’t help but look in the direction of the noise pouring out of the naval base across the bay. What is that? It sounds like several jets – but right on the surface. He quickly found the harried desk manager and told him he had to check one the roof-top HVAC units; there had been some leaks and he wanted to make sure they had been fixed. She waived him off absently as she tried to calm down an elderly guest from Hunan whose breakfast hadn’t been delivered on time – I want all of my money back!
Tiến was very glad to head for the roof. That was the good thing about being a hotel engineer – you could go anywhere in the hotel without suspicion. He had worked here at the Holiday Inns – not Inn as this was the Chinese imitation of that well-known hotel brand – Hotel of Sanya for two years and while some of the guests were a pain in the ass, the hotel had other features that made it highly desirable; like an unobstructed view of the entire base waterfront two kilometers away across open water.
Tiến unlocked the access door to the roof and carefully locked it behind him – can’t have a guest wandering out here – and entered the rooftop machinery room. He quickly removed the spotting scope from its hiding place behind a fuse box he had re-wired early in his employment. Tiến climbed to his usual perch on top of a small work bench, stood up, slid open the wall-mounted ventilation panel, pleased that it made no sound on the bearings he religiously lubricated, and began to scan the huge Chinese naval base across the bay.
He couldn’t miss the roaring Zubr – very unusual for one to be operating out of Sanya – and had enough time to catch a glance inside the closing bow hatch: packed solid with men milling about inside and equipment. Drill? A few mental notes as to time and what he had seen of the load-out –very little but somehow it looked and was operating differently – purposefully.
Ten minutes later an innocent text to his “wife” and ten minutes after that, a lieutenant with the General Department of Military Intelligence in Hanoi handed the message to his superior –Zubr-class landing craft departing Sanya – appears to have full combat load-out. Headed out to sea – approximate bearing one-eight zero not, repeat not along the coast. His captain scanned the message document and walked over to the wall mounted 1:50000 military maps of sections of the Paracels and the Spratley chains, silently considering them for moment and then beginning to calculate distances against the range of a fully–loaded Zubr-class landing craft.
Where are you going?
*** Zubr 3320, 300 kilometers South of Hainan Island***
“Underway,” Quinghai Sun grudgingly acknowledged, “the cargo hold of this fucking box is actually pretty smooth. Loud, but smooth.” But at slow speed, wallowing heavily in the slight chop far offshore, motoring slowly along as it refueled from the Qinghai-Hu alongside, the Zubr was a pig.
Half of the Marines trapped inside the dim cavern of the cargo hold were already seasick. Almost all of the others knew they were next.
No chance to get a breath of fresh sea air – the crew wouldn’t let the Marines on deck – and especially not during this dangerous, seldom-practiced at-sea refueling maneuver. Zubrs weren’t designed for at-sea refueling and the crew on both ships were being extremely careful. The fifty tons of jet fuel being transferred from the Qinghai-Hu through the pulsing black refueling hose was enough to shatter both vessels if mishandled. All the hapless Marines could do was try to get as close to one of the roaring ventilator returns lining the ceiling of the hold, imagine that the stale air blowing through made them feel better and hope that this fucking trip ended soon. Or the fucking Zubr sank.
Down here it didn’t matter which – just as long as their misery ended.
The young Ensign silently breathed a sigh of relief as he helped secure the refueling probe back into its storage clamp. The enormous hovercraft had safely disconnected and pulled away from the Qinghai-Hu in a clouds of noise and sea spray. He wanted nothing more to do with the huge, box-shaped craft.
His team had never – never – refueled one of those things and to do it for the first time here – in the open sea – was incredibly risky. Even his commanding captain looked happy to see the awkward creature separate and move safely out of range. Good riddance!
*** Zubr 3320***
Sun was starting to feel much better. The noise was back now that they were underway again, but the motion of the assault craft was bearable again. Harsh – constant bumps – but bearable. Once underway, the roar of the jet engines edged even higher than during the first part of the trip. Sun didn’t need to see the ocean outside to know that they were ripping over the ocean at a speed an ordinary ship could never achieve. Somebody wanted his company of Marines on the target island in a hurry.
Their sergeant, a flat-faced, bumpkin from somewhere near Qinghai approached Sun and his squad mates, moving easily over the lurching floor of the hold. As he walked the powerful little man slapped each of them on the back, grabbing their attention over the combination of stale air, partial sea sickness and impossible noise – leaning in close to their ears, “thirty minutes!” and then on to the next.
Sun leaned in to his friend, still slouched against the track of their air defense vehicle secured to the deck. “Good!” he shouted. “I’d rather face a few guns than spend any more time in this fucking thing.” The young man turned his faintly green face to his friend and gave a weak smile of agreement.
A brilliant blue sky spread over an endless horizon. Below it, the calm sea rolled gently under puffs of cloud; only sounds the water lapping against the narrow, sandy beach and the light breeze ruffling leaves of the mangroves lining the shoreline.
Cuisa had a new appreciation for the quiet of the little island, silence he scorned as boring a few days earlier. He was still nervous and upset from witnessing the destruction of Apolinario Mabini. The young man had recovered quickly from the initial shock of the explosion. He was one of the first to the reach the island’s dock, jumping into a boat scrambling out from the island to search for survivors. Debris from the sturdy patrol ship had scattered on the surface – some still burning. Anything heavy sunk immediately, coming to rest on the shallow bottom – outlines visible against the brilliant white sand of the ocean floor in the shallows inside the coral line. But memories of the crew remains they recovered kept driving Cuisa away from his friends back in their little cabin and out here to the quiet of the beach.
Cuisa had never seen anything like what the mine had done to a human body. Nothing like a car crash victim or even the bloody motorcycle injuries he had seen – Manila traffic was notoriously dangerous. The searing heat and explosive power that simply ripped a person to shreds was something new and deeply frightening. He struggled with the images.
A faint noise disturbed his thoughts, drawing his attention seaward. There! A cloud of mist rising out of the water over a blue-grey smudge far out in the distance – jet turbine roar loud enough to be heard even at this distance. It has to be big if I can see it from here. What is it? It moved at a speed almost unreal for something so large.
The smudge grew clearer – louder, quickly – impossibly quickly. What can move that fast? The Philippine Navy does not possess hovercraft but Cuisa had seen them on television. He recognized the signature cloud of sea spray engulfing the craft – partially hiding it as it moved and leapt over the water.
Cuisa could now make out two turrets mounted on the front – black barrels jerking back and forth in the direction of the island. Guns! It’s coming here! And then he recognized the blood-red naval ensign of the People’s Republic of China affixed to a radar tower amidships snapping wildly in the wind from the vessel’s incredible speed.
We’re under attack!!
Cuisa took off at a dead run to sound the alarm, stumbling once in the deeper sand quickly onto the short dirt “street” that formed the main thoroughfare on Thitu. “WE”RE UNDER ATTACK! Chinese hovercraft approaching from the north! We’re under attack!!” Cuisa kept screaming at the top of his lungs – curious soldiers tumbling out of their huts to see what was the commotion was about.
Thitu’s young commander, jerked up from his breakfast coffee at the sound of yelling outside. Thitu was his first major command – normally considered an easy introduction to the service for new officers, and Captain Michael Martinez was already off-balance from dealing with the aftermath of the sinking of Apolinario Mabini and the nauseating recovery efforts.
Military investigators, recovery divers and their equipment were scheduled to fly in to Thitu by C-130 transport later this morning. What the hell is happening now? Martinez dropped his coffee and ran down Cuisa, still yelling something about an invasion and grabbed him by the shoulders. The fear in the young man’s eyes was unmistakable. “Cuisa! What’s going on?” Others pressed in to listen, as the young solider gulped for breath, “Captain, a Chinese hovercraft approaching from the north – I could see their flag. Very large.” He drew in another breath. “It’s moving really fast!”
The little crowd’s curiosity instantly shifted to alarm as the distant snarl of approaching jet engines confirming something was very wrong this morning.
“Where again?!” Cuisa pointed northwest. Martinez blinked in dumb surprise for a moment – a waterborne assault? They had discussed the possibility, briefly, before he deployed to Thitu but consensus had always been that any Chinese assault would be by air, not by sea. Air simply made more sense given the shallows and reefs surrounding the island: a conventional landing ship couldn’t pass over the reefs, they would be stuck offshore and would have to launch smaller landing craft; landing craft that would also have to slow down to pick a way over the shallow reefs and make easy targets. No. The Chinese were much more likely to assault Thitu by air under the protection of fighters from their new aircraft carrier.
“Fire off the alarm! Man defensive positions!” He turned to his second in command – still pulling on clothes after running outside from his morning shower, “Velasco, contact the inbound flight, advise that we are under attack from Chinese water-borne forces, advise them to stay clear. Go!” The lieutenant sprinted off to the communications building.
Within moments, the old fashioned air-raid siren began wailing, easily heard from any spot on the 100 acre island. I have to see what’s going on! Martinez ran back into his hut, grabbed his rifle, radio and binoculars and sprinted outside, motioning to a supply sergeant running the opposite to follow him. The two men ran past soldiers scrambling the opposite way; back towards the short airstrip – their assigned defensive positions lining the runway – that until now was believed to be the most likely point of attack.
Martinez broke onto the open beach in less two minutes, the men breathing heavily from adrenaline and the exertion of the short run. He could only stare in disbelief for a moment. It’s huge! How did it get here?
The Zubr barely slowed as it approached the reef just a half-mile offshore. The whining turbines already drowned out the sound from the siren behind him. Martinez shook himself out his shock, ducked inside the cover of the Mangroves, pulling a stunned supply sergeant in beside him and studied the craft through his binoculars as it sped right over the reef line. Beneath the twin 60 foot curtains of sea spray thrown up to either side of the enormous landing craft, Martinez counted two turreted multi-barreled cannons indexing across the beach searching for targets, surface-to-air missiles bristled in two bunches, noses already pointed into the sky. In the middle of the foredeck the kicker: a cluster of barrels he recognized as containing at least 20 powerful surface-to-surface missiles, multiple targeting radar antennae spinning furiously – eager to provide targets for the firepower below. Some 50 feet above it all, the Chinese flag whipping proudly in the wind from a radar tower. This is fucking ridiculous! We have less than fifty men and no weapons heavier than a 50-caliber machine gun.
The craft turned away from him and to his left, away from the center of the little island and towards the longest end of the runway jutting out into the water. All but the blunt bow section was hidden behind the enormous, shimmering curtain of spray. Martinez immediately realized what they were doing – there was no place large enough for the huge craft to run up onto the beach; it was going to run up straight out of the water and onto the runway – it was less than four feet above the water line. The majority of his little force was positioned at that end of the runway. They’ll be wiped out! The landing craft already started to disappear from view as it circled to the left – lining up for its final run in. I’ll never get there in time! Nevertheless, he started to run back the way he came, holding his radio to his ear as he ran. There was only one radio channel used for their defensive drills, Martinez prayed that in the scramble some of his men had remembered to grab radios and turn them on.
“This is Captain Martinez! This is Martinez! Does anyone on the net copy?” “Captain! Sergeant Serantes copies,” and then more two units quickly checked in. Martinez didn’t have time to be relieved. “All units, the Chinese landing craft is approaching the west runway extension – repeat: the west extension. The craft carries multiple heavy weapons. Engage only on my orders…” A harsh blast of static interrupted his transmission. Martinez stopped running for a second to yell into the radio: “All units! This is Martinez! Do you copy?! Do you copy??” Nothing. No responses – static. They’re jamming us!
The static stopped. New voice: “Attention Philippine forces on Tagalog Island! Attention Philippine forces on Tagalog Island! This is Captain Chiu Wen-ta, commander of the Peoples Republic Army Navy Landing ship 3320 approaching from the north. Respond.’
Despite the heavy Chinese accent, Martinez understood every word, he looked blankly at the speaker of the radio for a second – shaking off the brief feeling that it had somehow betrayed him – or been possessed. He held the radio to his ear, glancing at the puffing sergeant still jogging beside him, “This is Captain Michael Martinez, commander of the Republic of the Philippines military forces on the Philippine island of Thitu.” He emphasized the Philippine name for the island. “You are approaching the sovereign territory of the Republic of the Philippines. You do not, repeat you do not, have permission to land on Thitu. Landing Ship 3320 do you copy?’
The Chinese Captain ignored him, “Captain Martinez, for the safety of your men, you must order them to put down their weapons immediately. Any violence directed at this craft or any of its crew and Marines will be met with an immediate response in kind. Do not sacrifice your men. We are reclaiming China’s historic rights of possession of Tagalog Island. Do not interfere and you and your men will be given safe passage. Order your men to put down their weapons and to not interfere with our landing. Have your forces gather at the east end of the runway. You will be treated well. This is your last warning!”
Martinez and his sergeant finally broke into the open of the runway’s small parking area and were quickly joined by several soldiers who had clearly been listening in on their radios now looking at their captain’s AR-15 rifle pointing to the ground – uncertain.
Away to the right, the roar from the engines grew louder still; then the red flash of the Chinese flag floating forward – high above the line of mangroves running up to the side of the runway, above the green line of the mangroves: a moving wall of sea spray rising above the trees. The blunt nose of the Zubr burst into view – approaching and, without slowing, up and over the little rise out of the water and onto the hard surface of the runway. A slight alignment and then the craft moved forward – directly at Martinez and his group. Dust now blew from the sides far out into the water on either side. A monstrous, blue-grey crab backing them down on land.
Martinez looked at his men, noting their shock at their first sight of the huge craft crawling down the center of the runway. He noted the twin Gatling guns were now pointed at us and made his decision. “All Philippine forces on Thitu Island, this is Captain Martinez. Drop your weapons! Repeat: drop your weapons! Do not engage the Chinese landing craft! Do NOT engage! Muster at the east end of the runway.” He felt sick.
“Very wise, Captain Martinez,” there was only a small note of smugness in the Chinese voice.
Martinez turned to his men, trying to decipher looks ranging from shame, humiliation to relief in their faces.
“Men, I know that you …” The sound of a heavy machine gun firing from the far end of the runway interrupted him. Martinez jerked the radio to his ear, “Stop firing! Stop firing! This is Captain Martinez! Cease fire!”
Cuisa had forgotten his radio when he and his squad scrambled out to man their position at the end of the runway. From their fighting position camouflaged just inside the line of the mangroves, they had a clear field of fire and a reliable Browning “Ma-Deuce” 50 caliber machine gun to sweep their area. They hadn’t heard a thing other than the enormous roar from the landing craft as it turned the corner of the island and climbed onto the runway. It was now less than 30 meters from their position.
The sight of the red flag flying from the monstrous, howling craft, memory of bodies ripped apart by what had to have been a Chinese mine provided all of the courage Cuisa and his team needed to carefully aim their weapon at the massive propellers spinning deafeningly away and depressed the fire lever. The heavy machine gun reassuringly jerked back in its mount as Cuisa’s squad mate fed belted rounds into the heavy gun, cycling round after round through the chamber.
Martinez instantly spotted the muzzle flashes from just off of the runway. The Gatling gun operators sitting in their armored cave deep inside the Zubr spotted it too. The port-side turret swiveled violently to the side and down, spewing a stream of fire. The Gatling gun’s buzzsaw how could be heard even over the Zubr’s engines.
Cuisa’s fighting position disappeared behind a spray of wood, fire and dirt and went silent.