August Cole is the director of the Atlantic Council’s Art of the Future Project, which explores narrative fiction and visual media for insight into the future of conflict. He is a nonresident senior fellow at the Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security and the co-author of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War.
After seventeen years in the US Navy, Commander Wayne McCabe got seasick for the first time when a robot had the helm.
Technically, there was no actual metal humanoid at the controls because the 130-foot Sea Hunter-class trimaran warship was driving itself, six miles south of Jazireh-ye Larak in the Strait of Hormuz. McCabe ground his teeth as he fought the urge to throw up yet again and wondered what he was really doing aboard the USS Nantucket. McCabe adjusted the five- point harness on the captain’s chair by feel and looked at the spot on the console in front of him where the ship’s chief engineer had duct taped a red “NO” plastic button from a party store. Just out of reach. Fitting.
If McCabe hadn’t been aboard, then it would have essentially been a ghost ship. The nine other Sea Hunter-class ships in his squadron were unmanned and were the only ships in the mine-laden waters, making him the sole American sailor in the entire strait. The ships ran as close to silent as possible, communicating just by laser burst. They kept watch using infrared search and tracking sensors that flew like parasails 1,000 feet above the ship. In the middle of this summer night, the Nantucket was all but invisible.
At least it was cool, if not cold, sitting in the “fridge,” as he had jokingly called the bridge because of the onboard air conditioning constantly battling to keep the floating computer within its optimum operating range. He wore a tan aviator’s flight suit and augmented-reality (AR) helmet, deepening his sense of irony over his lack of control. This deployment was going to be hard to explain to the kids; he was aboard the Nantucket, at the cutting edge of naval warfare, but he was no more than a passenger. He was technically in command of the entire squadron, yet practically, he was in charge of nothing. But you couldn’t court martial an algorithm, so the Navy brass had to keep a human “in the loop” in case things went awry with the onboard autonomous combat system.
The United States had the Sea Hunter hulls to spare, though, as this “2.0” version of the ship had been in high production as part of the political push to meet the Navy’s 350-vessel goal by 2024. Until now, they had never actually been run fully autonomously. That had been too much of a stretch for the Pentagon.
But, the world had changed a lot in the past week. Six days earlier a pair of shore-based Nasr-1 anti-ship missiles hit the USS Theodore Roosevelt. While the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) missile battery didn’t sink the carrier, it and the rest of the task force made a hasty withdrawal from the area, after which the Iranians sowed hundreds of mines in the Strait of Hormuz—creating a geopolitical tremor the world was just not ready for. The Navy had to do something, and so they sent in twelve autonomous Sea Hunter-class ships based in the region; ten remained after bottom-moored mines sunk two of them.
To go from destabilizing the monarchy in Bahrain a couple months ago to an outright act of war by attacking an American super-carrier seemed to be a dramatic escalation between Iran and American allies in the Persian Gulf. But aboard the Nantucket, it felt fated. It was no surprise given the aftershocks of the 2020 partitions of both Syria and Iraq. McCabe had spent enough time in the region to know that the Iranians believed they’d been at war with the United States in one form or another for longer than he’d been in the service. Now the United States was counting down the hours until it finally could respond with overwhelming force.
Before that could happen, however, two critical missions had to be accomplished: charting and clearing the mines in the Strait of Hormuz and securing Iran’s nuclear sites.
The sea state was calm, hardly any chop with a six- knot wind from the west, a light but steady pressure as often preceded a big blow. The Nantucket’s reverse tumblehome bow, angled forward as if a knife balanced on its spine, cut cleanly through the water. It was a smooth ride, but still a violent one as the onboard computer system maneuvered based on its discreet communications with the other vessels.
“Display target set update,” he said into his helmet’s mic, trying not to burp.
There were 327 red dots on the map that his helmet’s augmented reality visor superimposed onto his field of view; the dots varied in size depending on the class and category of mine. The computer essentially triaged the targets, prioritizing the Russian- and Chinese-made bottom-mooring mines. Every so often one would disappear after one of the Sea Hunter ships or a Navy P-8 Poseidon jet patrolling overhead destroyed it with a torpedo.
Reaching into the left cargo pocket on his flight suit, McCabe pulled out a silver gel pack the size of his thumb. With his Nomex gloves on, it took him a minute to rip it open; he viciously squeezed the coffee-flavored amphetamine paste into his mouth. He’d been awake for twenty-six hours already, and he just had to stay sharp for six more hours.
That was when America’s response to the Iranian aggression—Operation CANDLEMAKER—would kick off.
The Nantucket suddenly surged forward—then turned sharply to starboard. The vessel’s speed picked up, topping thirty knots. The map updated, flashing fourteen red triangles approximately eight miles to the north. Each triangle represented an Iranian fast-attack craft, which had been detected by one of the Navy P-8s, call sign MALLET. The display indicated MALLET already vectored a pair of Marine Corps A-10 attack jets.
Two years earlier, Marine Attack Squadron 231 received thirty-two A-10s from the Air Force’s Twenty-Third Fighter Group, the famed Flying Tigers, as part of a House Appropriations deal to fund more fifth-generation jets for the Air Force. Slow flying and heavily armored, the A-10s were perfectly suited to this mission and were armed accordingly. They did not need a real-time data- link, nor did their pilots suffer from the soda straw view of their environment. The light-bulb bulge of the jet’s canopy gave them a full picture of the sea beneath.
The Iranian craft tracked by McCabe were likely laying more mines. They also apparently carried countermeasures to deter the Griffin missiles carried by the Sea Hunter ships, based on earlier engagements. That was why McCabe needed to be here, whether he wanted to be or not. It wasn’t up to him, anyway.
Kathryn Collins, a twenty-nine-year old first sergeant in the Army’s Seventy-Fifth Ranger Regiment’s Reconnaissance Company, rested her forehead on her forearm. Sweat stung her eyes constantly. She looked again, squinting to make sure she wasn’t seeing things. Shit. She slowly turned her head to look at Staff Sergeant Tyrell Alexander lying next to her in the hide site concealed by camouflage and infrared-defeat netting. They hadn’t spoken a word in seventeen hours, not since the four-person Army Ranger reconnaissance patrol parachuted in to the mountains south of Chalus, a resort town near Iran’s Caspian Sea coast. The deep emerald-colored vegetation masked the hard dirt soil. Here and there, stone ridges emerged that looked to have patiently worn their way into the sun. Most importantly, the hills afforded her team ample cover. Not as much as she would have liked, but it would do.
And now she heard a young girl softly singing.
She reached over and squeezed Alexander’s forearm, pointing with a slowly extended trigger finger at the road ahead. The paved road, wide enough for a heavy truck, worked its way up from the Tehran-Shomal Freeway before becoming a seeming road to nowhere meandering through the lush hills. It was fresh concrete, repaved six months ago, according to the mission’s intelligence brief. The road followed a valley whose walls hemmed it in on either side. Her team lay concealed in two positions near the road’s terminus, codenamed site JERSEY, where the asphalt abruptly ended at a hangar- size set of steel doors set back into a reinforced concrete opening recessed into the side of the mountain. Teams overseen by Joint Special Operations Command were fanned out throughout Iran at or near nuclear sites, moving under the electronic cover of a steady stream of cyberattacks on the nation’s communications and Internet infrastructure. That was just the preamble to what would come next.
Such a beautiful song, Collins thought. The former professional CrossFit athlete had a basic command of Farsi, but any tune sung by an eleven-year old girl walking her dog carefree through the early-morning mountains would be beautiful whether you knew the words or not.
A sharp bark from the dog, a shepherd of some kind, and then the singing stopped. The girl kept advancing up the road’s gentle grade. About twenty feet ahead of her, a faint white line was etched into the road surface by a small piece of Georgia granite that the staff sergeant carried in a pocket on his chest rig. Alexander called that line the Rubicon.
Don’t do it. Don’t. Just don’t, thought Collins. Not another step up this road. Do. Not. Cross. The. Line.
The girl, hair covered by a dark blue headscarf, wore a pair of dirty jeans, a bright white, clean T-shirt, and tattered blue running shoes. She held a long stick, forked at the end, which she had been dragging idly along the concrete. The dog inched ahead, and froze. Then, it uttered a low growl. She said something to the dog, and wagged her stick at it. The dog sprinted off up the road, then veered directly at Collins and Alexander.
Alexander cursed under his breath. “I’ll handle it,” Collins whispered. She leapt up, drew her suppressed Sig Sauer pistol, and charged down the road right at the dog with her weapon up. At the last moment, Collins didn’t fire, however, and ran straight at the girl. The stick clattered to the ground as the girl’s hands began shaking.
Without breaking stride, the Ranger squeezed the girl close to her, crushing her into her body as she swept her up and pivoted, then advanced backwards up the road. Carefully. Step by step. Collins held her breath, and whispered “Shhhhhh” as she covered the girl’s mouth with her gloved hand. She treaded carefully past a squat, dark green six-wheeled vehicle that was backed into a shallow cutout in the valley wall near the entrance. The girl shut her eyes and went loose in Collins’ arms as she dragged her up into the hide site.
“You had to bring her in here?” said Alexander. “And the dog, will it be joining us next?”
“The dog’s gone if it makes a sound again,” said Collins. She paused to catch her breath. “As for the girl, with the kill-bot out there, what choice did I have?”
The Army’s autonomous ground vehicle guarding the site entrance was what the Rangers called a kill-bot, a cross between a NASA Mars rover and a comic-book death machine. Each bot was armed with a single 50-caliber machine gun and a pair of Javelin anti-armor missiles; they were programmed to automatically open fire at any person entering the area. The Joint Chiefs had hotly debated the system’s first deployment in full-autonomous mode, but the exigency of Operation CANDLEMAKER won out. This kill-bot, and the three others deployed around the suspected nuclear weapons storage site, stood guard as silent sentinels tracking anybody or anything entering or leaving the facility. The bots parachuted in with Collins’ patrol and set up their positions on their own. To avoid fratricide, Collins’ team had special fiber-optic materials woven into their uniforms and hide-site netting identifying them as friendlies when the kill-bot’s laser sensors detected them. Rather than destroying the site, the plan was to box it in so that no person or vehicle survived arriving or leaving. The Rangers covered them with camouflage netting. That was it.
By now, the dog had discovered the kill-bot, which paid it no mind. The kill-bot used an algorithm to classify targets that was inspired by the way social-media sites sort user photos. Lifting a leg, the dog peed on one of its wheels and trotted back down the road, ignoring the girl’s whimpering.
A striking dawn, mused Commander McCabe. He had the ship’s towed optical sensor slowly pan across the lush pink and orange bars melting on the horizon line. The Nantucket moved slowly now, barely leaving any wake on the Gulf’s blue waters. This was the ship’s pace as it searched for mines or nearby undersea activity, in case any surviving diesel-electric Iranian submarines lurked nearby.
Two minutes earlier, the formation of Iranian fast-attack boats had surrounded one of the Sea Hunter ships, the USS Shelter Island. Then, he watched the blue dot representing the ship turn into an “X” on his AR view of the area. Destroyed. He swore he heard the explosion, but he was so punchy from lack of sleep he wasn’t sure. He could access the P-8’s certain view of the attack but he didn’t. Maybe his ship was going slowly because it was hiding or afraid, he wondered. Self-preservation had to have been programmed in somewhere. McCabe suddenly felt flushed and took a long drink of water.
Then, his augmented-reality map’s small red triangles converged into a large arrow-like wedge; he faded out the view of the sunrise and focused on the map. They were coming for him next as there were no other Sea Hunter ships in the area besides him. Time to target: eight minutes. Why wasn’t the ship moving in the opposite direction; it could at least buy some time until air support arrived. The twin vertical-launch boxes of rockets on the stern only had seven Griffin missiles left between them.
He tried to cue up a systems status overview, but it wasn’t appearing on his helmet display.
“McCabe, override code X45T2. Command system review,” he said.
It was really, really hot, he realized. He pulled off his Nomex gloves and lifted the helmet’s visor.
Seven minutes until the fast-attack craft were in range.
Time to break radio silence. At this point, if the Iranians heard him, it mattered little. He took off the sweltering helmet and spoke awkwardly into the chin mic.
“MALLET, this is Nantucket actual. How copy?” said McCabe, calling up to the US Navy P-8 overhead.
Immediately, the aircraft crew responded. A burst of adrenaline jolted him. “Nantucket, this is MALLET. We’re not getting any feed off you. Status?”
Just then the engines shut down and a series of alarms began bleating below decks, competing for his attention. He put his sweat-soaked helmet back on but the AR view showed nothing. What wasn’t the ship telling him? Dammit.
“MALLET, Nantucket is dead in the water. Ship’s not responding, and I have approximately fourteen hostile fast-attack vessels inbound, over,” said McCabe.
“Copy, Nantucket. Hold tight, we’re directing ANVIL 11 and 17 to you for CAS, stand. . .” Then the transmission cut out.
Silence. He unzipped the flight suit, as it was getting hotter and hotter with every inch the sun rose above the horizon. The ship was completely quiet; powered down. Dead as a curbside TV.
He had never heard it this quiet aboard Nantucket. The servers and air conditioning constantly droned on. That was it. The air conditioning was off. He made his way below into the small bay where the ship’s “brain” existed in a watertight compartment; he spun the wheel on the hatch and a blast of hot air tinged with burnt plastic washed over him. The fucking servers had overheated when the air conditioning went down. That had to be it. Why hadn’t the ship alerted him though?
He dashed back up to the bridge and snatched a pair of binoculars from a mount on the bridge chair. Panning across the horizon, searching for the oncoming attack boats, he finally found them just as they bloomed out from their arrowhead formation into a chaotic swirl of wakes and spray. They must be going forty knots, he reckoned. There was no way he could have outrun them. The sunlight glistened on the horizon, catching the spray and the lifelines on the vessels bows. Then he realized, they wouldn’t have chrome lifelines. Those are muzzle flashes.
Staff Sergeant Alexander offered the girl a green lollipop, the thirty-year old’s calloused and scarred hand cupping the candy like it was a delicate insect. The girl snatched it without crinkling the cellophane wrapper.
“Take this, Azar. Right? That’s your name?” said Alexander. He held out an oversized mottled camouflage T-shirt. The girl looked at First Sergeant Collins, who told her to put it on. The shirt’s fabric had the same fiber-optic “friendly” materials as their uniform; it fit her like a dress.
While Collins talked to the girl in a quiet voice, Alexander tapped out a series of emoji messages on a forearm tablet computer, letting the other Rangers know they were compromised.
The girl wiped the tears from her eyes and asked Collins in Farsi if they were Israeli. Collins said they were friends, and that she needed to go back home and not tell anybody what she had seen. She should take off the shirt, Collins said, and hide it somewhere safe.
“Let me guess, you have another one of those shirts in your ruck? You really do think of everything,” said Collins.
“I have to,” said Alexander. “Predictable enough. You try and kill everything that moves and of course some kids are going to show up.”
“How much time do we have?” said Collins. Alexander looked at his watch.
“We’re fucked, right?” said Collins. “Pretty much,” said Alexander.
“Message back then,” said Collins, “We’ll move to exfil site Charlie.”
“The bots?” said Alexander.
“You think they care if we leave? Nobody’s coming up here now who shouldn’t be here,” said Collins. “The girl will make sure of that.”
“Copy that, ma’am,” said Alexander, tapping out another message.
Thirty minutes later, the scuffling of feet in the dirt snapped Collins and Alexander from their prone position onto their backs, aiming their HK 416 carbines toward the sound, just out of sight.
“Friends! Friends! Friends!” said a man breathlessly whispering in Farsi from just out of sight.
After flicking off the safety of his weapon, Alexander drew the stock’s butt tight into his shoulder as he let out a deep sigh.
Then, he saw the wagging tail of a dog pop up and shook his head in disbelief.
The first volley of cannon fire from the Iranian fast-attack craft fell short and landed to port, throwing water high into the air. Instinctively, Commander McCabe ducked low beneath the bridge windows. A moment later a brace of rounds blew them out and sprayed his chair with steel and glass.
This was going to go quickly, he realized, as he rolled onto his side to try and worm his way even lower. The corner of the survival radio in his leg pocket bit into his skin.
He snatched it out and turned it on, trying to catch his breath.
“Mayday, mayday. This is Nantucket actual, we are under attack by approximately fourteen fast-attack craft. Mayday . . .” he said.
A roar filled his ears as a missile raced by the bridge, somehow missing the ship’s narrow superstructure. He poked his head above the window’s sill for a moment to see that one of the Iranian boats had fouled its prop in the parasail sensor array line that now lay limp on the water’s surface. The boat idled only one hundred feet away, but its bow-mounted twin-cannon was mercifully pointed the other way for the moment. They were close enough that he could hear the Iranian sailors shouting at one another.
“Is he telling the truth?” said Staff Sergeant Alexander. He’d slung his carbine a while ago, but warily watched the still-out-of-breath heavyset man in his early forties. He’d hustled to get to their position, sweat staining the T-shirt Alexander had given his daughter. At first the question was why. His name was Mohammed and the regime, he told Collins, imprisoned his father in Tehran when he was young, and he never saw him again. He assumed they were Americans and suspected why they were here. But the Ranger team was watching the wrong place, he explained; it was a dummy site designed to fool weapons inspectors and foreign intelligence. He knew where they should really look.
First Sergeant Collins shrugged her shoulders. “We’ll go check out the location, but I’m not bringing the Terminators along.”
The two other Rangers knelt nearby, scanning outward for any signs of activity. There wasn’t any, just the girl’s father and the dog. Collins took off her tan combat gloves, knelt down, and scratched the dog behind its ears. “Maybe I’ll just hang with the dog here, go for a hike.”
Alexander chuckled. “Yeah, Mo and me, we’ll handle it,” he said.
Collins stood up and said in Farsi. “One more time, show me one more time where you think the actual site is?” She passed the tablet computer to him, and he again pointed to the same spot. Checking the time, she realized they only had thirty minutes left until H-hour and Operation CANDLEMAKER kicked off.
“Send the coordinates. It’s three klicks from here, and that elevation is going to be a grind. Don’t think we can make it in time,” said Collins.
“Concur, ma’am,” said Alexander.
“But we’ll try,” said Collins.
“Let’s call in some air on the site. It’s the fastest way,” he said.
“Anybody live in the area?” she asked Mohammed.
He nodded yes.
“Maybe fifty people, six families.”
“That works,” said Collins.
“You good?” Alexander nodded.
“Request the mission and let’s move out,” she said.
Commander McCabe lifted the radio again and before he could speak it came to life.
“Nantucket, this is ANVIL 11. Flight of two coming from the east. Inbound to attack surface targets in your vicinity. Head south if able. Stay on this station. ANVIL 11, out,” said the voice.
McCabe shuffled on his knees and squinted into the rising sun. He could not make out anything. Then, the water around the Iranian boat that was snared on the parasail’s tether erupted in a fountain of spray, followed by a terrific ripping sound of the jet’s 30mm anti-tank cannon, and then an explosion that sprayed water and shrapnel across the deckhouse.
The whine of a US Marine Corps A-10 Thunderbolt going to maximum thrust less than 500 feet overhead reverberated through the Nantucket’s bridge. The fast- attack boats carved aggressively around one another as the second A-10, ANVIL 17, loosed a volley of rockets at them. For this mission, the jets carried a full load of 2.75-inch rockets in the jet’s six underwing pods, which were originally Korean War-era weapons—except they had been updated with laser-guidance systems that allowed the A-10’s targeting pod to designate multiple boats with the rockets.
One by one the unarmored boats burst into flames, as the A-10s took turns strafing and rocketing the fleeing craft.
“Nantucket, this is ANVIL 11, All targets destroyed. We’re Winchester at this time and are returning to base,” the pilot said, indicating he was out of ammunition. His voice sounded small on the tinny survival radio, but the unmistakable confidence came through loud and clear. “MALLET relays they will remain on station and have your back.”
For the first time in over a day, McCabe stepped outside. Under the full weight of the hot sun, he stood on the deck and waved at the departing A-10s. They dipped their wings in acknowledgment, before turning south to return to Oman.
McCabe returned to the bridge and looked for a bottle of water, kicking pieces of metal debris out of his way. He picked up his helmet, turned it upside down to shake out the shards of glass, and put it on. Slamming the “No” button with a clenched fist, he resolved to take another look at the climate control system.
Some 29,000 feet over the Caspian Sea, a US Air Force loadmaster aboard a C-5 transport jet unhooked a thick black cable from what looked like the case used to store a life raft on a large ferry. Except this was designed for stealth, not visibility. It was barrel-like, made of carbon fiber covered in a neoprene-type rubber radar-absorbent coating. The coating also made sure that the barrel’s internal warmers did not throw off too much heat to prevent detection. The barrel, and then a second and then a third, slid along a special track built into the cargo area floor that led to what the crew referred to as the garbage chute. The crew aboard this C-5, call sign BEEHIVE, flew a plane older than they were, but still they were at the forefront of swarming drone warfare. There were seventy-four barrels left to launch.
About three miles ahead of the C-5 and flying at 32,000 feet was an Air Force F-22. One mile abreast to each side and 2,000 feet lower flew a pair of Air Force F-35 fighters. The fighters protected the lumbering transport plane, the biggest in the US arsenal, in a formation nicknamed a “mullet.” Iran’s sophisticated Russian- sourced surface-to-air missiles were a threat, but the electronic warfare capabilities of the three fighters created a bubble of wizardry around BEEHIVE.
One by one, the loadmaster ejected the barrels, which deployed guidance vanes to steer them toward their target using a combination of GPS and inertial guidance systems. Inside each barrel, twenty Perdix III micro-drones hummed to life, as their mission profile updated in the moments that remained before they took flight together.
Miles below, First Sergeant Collins just reached a ridgeline with waist-high bushes above the target area. It was still a good kilometer away.
Staff Sergeant Alexander checked the pad on his forearm. “Get your head down,” he said. “Mo, too.”
Collins and the three other Rangers scanned the valley. It looked to be more densely populated than what Mo had described. This would be tricky, but it had to be done.
“Here we go,” said Alexander. “That complex of low buildings, adjacent to the water tower at the cliff base? Watch…”
Mohammed sat with his back against a tree, facing away, with his hands over his ears.
But there was no explosion. Just a faint buzzing that built and built in volume. Some 2,000 feet above, a small grey parachute bloomed from the three barrels dropped by the C-5. A moment later they split apart— simultaneously—and out tumbled sixty of the H-shaped microdrones. The propeller-driven aircraft, which were less than half a foot long with a nearly one-foot wingspan, zipped upward. It appeared as if they were all riding a collective updraft, then they broke right and dove again toward the compound. Collins watched as one drone tumbled out of the sky, and the others made way for its uncontrolled descent, before reforming.
This was not a strike mission, but reconnaissance to see what the Iranians might be hiding underground at the compound. Some of the Perdix drones searched for radiation emissions, others hunted for carbon dioxide blooms. The drones themselves, based on the sensors they carried, decided how to accomplish their overall mission. They didn’t need input; that would be like a dog’s owner telling his hound how to sniff out a squirrel. They just did it.
The Rangers were close enough to immediately capture some of the data the drones transmitted.
“It’s a good hit,” said Alexander. “Mo’s right, that’s the damn target.”
Collins looked at her watch. “Five minutes to go until H-hour,” she said. “Command is going to want to deploy kill-bots down there ASAP.” Collins paused and told Mohammed to head down there and get people out of the area. She turned back to Alexander. “Call it in while we move. We need to hustle back to JERSEY to shut down the bots. I don’t trust higher to do it. Once CANDLEMAKER kicks off, there’s going to be too much jamming to get anything through.”
The buzzing of the swarm faded as Collins descended carefully back down the ridge with the dog trailing behind her.
I’m shipwrecked aboard my own ship, Commander McCabe lamented. He sat in the bridge chair, staring at his reflection in the AR visor on his helmet, which rested atop the toy “No” button. Below, the air conditioning units were fried; the ship’s servers would operate for fifteen minutes at a time before they shut down again, which meant the entire vessel’s systems were offline.
So, he drifted and waited. Perhaps one of the other Sea Hunter vessels would come to his location; but, then what? It was not as if it was going to throw him a line for a tow. At least he wasn’t seasick anymore. A glance at his watch showed it was now eleven minutes past H-hour. CANDLEMAKER had begun. Where it would take the United States and Iran, he did not know. He checked the battery on the survival radio one more time and waited for somebody to call.