The Admiral stood on the catwalk outside the bridge of the carrier, scanning around the horizon. Sure, he had all the fancy displays and charts and staff feeding him updates but there was no substitute for simply standing out in the weather, absorbing the feel of the situation. He was a throwback to an earlier time, he supposed, but it worked for him. For the moment, there were no flight operations and the quiet time allowed him to gather his thoughts and consider his decisions.
Distantly, he could see an occasional escort ship, one of 33 in the 4-carrier task force, but the group was far too spread out to see most of the ships. That was one of the things he and his ship captains had had to get used to after a life of peacetime sailing in relatively close formation instead of true battle formations. He liked it, though. It had never seemed right to sail with ships so close together. It wasn’t combat-ready. It was just a lazy, bad habit developed in peacetime. He felt comfortable, now, with the group spread out over fifty miles or more.
Overhead, a small UAV passed by on its way out to its designated scouting point. No one controlled the UAV. It was flying simple waypoints and would remain communications-silent unless it found a reportable target and then it would issue only a momentary micro-burst transmission.
Far off, a contrail marked one of the CAP aircraft going about its business. At least a dozen CAP aircraft were always in the air. Death could approach far too fast to depend on aircraft sitting on the carrier decks to respond. If aircraft weren’t already in the air when a threat appeared, it would be too late.
Hundreds of miles away, far out of sight on all sides of the task force, additional aircraft were conducting counter-scouting sweeps to deny the enemy targeting data on the group. The semi-stealthy F-35Cs had, at last, found a task they excelled at. The task force had already destroyed three enemy search aircraft before they had been able to spot the task force. In fact, it was quite likely that the enemy search planes had never even detected the F-35s. The searchers had simply ceased to exist in the space of a heartbeat, never knowing what had happened. In addition, two enemy commercial fishing boats had been destroyed hundreds of miles out from the group. The Admiral was taking no chance that the fishing boats would radio the group’s location. Maybe the boats were simply eking out a living and represented no threat but this was war, not some half-measure, semi-peacetime operation where avoidance of collateral damage and concern for civilians was more important than combat objectives. If it wasn’t a US warship, it died.
A blinking light on a distant escort caught his eye. A message was being relayed back to the carrier from an escort far over the horizon. Who would have thought that blinker lights would have become the standard means of communication on today’s maritime battlefield? The necessities of EMCON had resurrected the role of the signalman.
The admiral almost thought he could hear the silence of the inactive radars that normally poured massive amounts of electromagnetic noise into the world. It felt right to him. A task force should be silent. Silent but not blind. The group was constantly monitoring their surroundings using every passive EO, IR, and signal collection sensor they had. In every ship, operators strained to pick out the faintest hint of a threat.
Far ahead, the Admiral glanced at the dark, rolling clouds that signaled a storm. The carrier group was headed straight for that storm and it was a blessing. The weather would provide safety and concealment, at least for a while. Peacetime sailors on deployment had bemoaned bad weather but that had quickly changed. Now, every sailor who appeared on deck looked first at the sky, hoping to see clouds and storms and the added safety they offered.
A twitching movement of one of the forward CIWS units caught his attention. The operators were running non-stop combat drills, he knew. The unit pointed towards an empty patch of sky and the gun fired a couple of seconds burst, its ripping sound disturbing the quiet. This was not peacetime where weapons were left idled for months on end and fired once a year during some checklist exercise. This was war and every gun and missile system in the fleet was test fired every day. Every weapons station was continually manned and those systems that had the capability were left in full auto mode. At any given moment, a third of the crew was at their battle stations. When the enemy appeared – and they eventually would – it would likely be with little warning. The ships were poised and straining at the leash. This level of readiness could not be sustained indefinitely but they only needed to do so for the several days that the actual combat portion of the mission would last. After that, they would return to port and they could rest all they wanted … those who survived. This was not a several month long peacetime deployment. The task force was on a mission and they would strike fast and hard and then retire just as quickly.
Glancing around, the Admiral noted with immense satisfaction the several extra SeaRAM and CIWS that had been hurriedly installed in various locations around the carrier. After the first few carrier losses of the war, the Navy had quickly realized that its standard defensive weapon fits were inadequate, to say the least. The Admiral had pounded on higher command and demanded the additional weapons. It was amazing how the engineers, when challenged and turned loose, had managed to find room to mount the additional units.
Below him, on the flight deck, the Admiral watched as the various colored shirts went about their tasks. EMCON had been extended even to the flight deck crew. Radios and headsets had been abandoned and the crews had been trained to accomplish their jobs with just hand signals. It was riskier to operate that way but the crews had enthusiastically embraced the new procedures that reduced emissions and lessened the likelihood of enemy attack.
Taking a final deep, satisfied breath, the Admiral returned to the bridge and was struck, yet again, by the eerie quiet. Because of the absolute EMCON, there was none of the usual peacetime background buzz of constant communication updates, radar reports, orders, useless information churn, and pointless discussion. The task force had trained relentlessly for the mission and was now executing it in total silence. When they spoke, the crew spoke almost in whispers, as if the enemy might hear them. Cold War carrier groups had trained to launch entire strikes in total radio silence and this group’s EMCON was taking even that to new levels. Not a single stray electron was being emitted for the enemy to suck up and analyze. Until incoming missiles appeared at the horizon, the task force would remain a silent ghost.
Smiling slightly, the Admiral acknowledged to himself that he was thoroughly enjoying combat operations. It was immensely satisfying to not have to continuously answer to higher command. It was just him. He knew what the mission was. He knew how he wanted to execute it. For once, there was no one looking over his shoulder. This was the way it should be.
The Admiral had drilled his captains to exhaustion so that they thoroughly understood the mission, his intent, and the required doctrine. Now, they would execute the mission without him looking over their shoulders. They did not need micro-managing from him any more than he needed it from those above him. His captains knew what to do and they would fight their ships with his intent firmly in mind. Simplicity was the foundation of the group’s doctrine and it was simplicity that would maintain some degree of order when the inevitable chaos of battle arose.
The Admiral nodded slightly to himself. The task force was combat-ready.
This was just a short vignette to try to convey a sense of what a combat task force should be and some of the ways it would differ from a peacetime cruise. Too many people still have the impression that ships will conduct deployments during war just as they do during peace. I’ve tried to capture many of the individual elements that we discuss and tie them together in a single, coherent picture.