Fatal Thunder: A Jerry Mitchell Novel (5 page)

BOOK: Fatal Thunder: A Jerry Mitchell Novel

Samant shook his head in amazement; none of this made any sense. What were Dhankhar and his staff thinking? Unable to offer any explanation for the radical schedule change, Samant sat silent, thinking and drinking his tea. After a few moments, a visibly uncomfortable Petrov spoke quietly. “I’ll understand if you can’t tell me, Girish, but I have to ask. Are there any near-term plans to recommence hostilities against Pakistan? Do I need to worry about a submarine that will be going into combat?”

The blunt questions caught Samant completely unawares; Petrov was definitely out of bounds, but he completely understood why the Russian had asked. Initially suspicious, the Indian looked carefully at his friend; then he saw the haunted look in Petrov’s eyes. The man desperately wanted to know if the decisions he’d have to make could result in the loss of another submarine. The ghosts of
still clung to him.

“Honestly, Aleks, I don’t know of any plans to start the fighting again—not that there couldn’t be some contingency plans being considered. There are a number of very frustrated senior officers who are unhappy with the peace negotiations. Our friend, Dhankhar, is one of them. But I can’t see why this would require
’s refit to be accelerated. Besides, Pakistan’s navy has been badly mauled. There isn’t a whole lot left, and nothing that would require an Akula-class submarine to take care of it.”

Samant’s answer appeared to ease Petrov’s worried expression, but not entirely. The Russian finished his tea, stood, and faced his host. “Then I have one last question for you, Girish. And I don’t mean to be offensive, or seek access to India’s state secrets, but it is a rather sensitive subject, so I must beg your pardon in advance.”

“Certainly,” replied Samant, now deeply curious.

Petrov took a deep breath, bracing himself before speaking. “Is it the Indian Navy’s intention to put nuclear weapons on

“WHAT!?” shouted a stunned Samant as he leapt to his feet. “How can you even suggest such a thing!”

Petrov remained calm. Samant’s reaction was completely justified; the question did sound like an accusation. “Bear with me, Girish. I will explain my reasons in a moment. Now, please, will you answer the question?”

Fuming, Samant struggled to get his anger under control. Friend or not, Petrov’s insinuation was insulting. Several tense seconds went by before the Indian captain responded, and even then it was through clenched teeth. “I know of no nuclear weapons that can be fired from
’s torpedo tubes. We currently lack the ability to make warheads that small, that’s why we’ve concentrated on ballistic missiles. Even if the Nirbhay cruise missile were ready now for submarine launch, which it isn’t, it would probably be conventionally armed. Besides, such a modification would be a gross violation of our agreement with your country.”

“Agreed, on both counts. So, why have I been ordered to install the ability for the combat system to pass data to a nuclear-armed weapon?”

The fury on Samant’s face dissolved into disbelief. “You must be mistaken, Aleksey. My country doesn’t have a suitable weapon.”

“Am I? Look here, Girish,” said Petrov as he rolled out several detailed schematics of the fire control system.

“Here are the two Omnibus combat system consoles as currently configured on
. The weapon data transfer wiring exits the back of the consoles at this point, runs to these junction boxes in the torpedo compartment, and ultimately feeds into the tubes, here. Now, note the changes on this schematic.

“See here? These are new wires that need to be installed, and they run to the existing junction boxes. But note the new panel section on the Omnibus console. The last time you saw them, this section was plated over.”

Samant studied the plans carefully and frowned. “This wasn’t part of the original refit plan I reviewed eight months ago. I specifically recall requesting the old CRTs be replaced with flat-screen displays and I was told there weren’t going to be
substantial changes to the fire control system.”

“Exactly, Girish, and that’s the heart of my problem. These changes are very recent. But more importantly, on Russian Navy submarines, that is where the nuclear weapon control panel is located. It allows the commanding officer to unlock a weapon so it can receive start-up power, launch data, and also satisfies the final control interlock, allowing the warhead to arm.”

“You’re certain of this, Aleksey?”

“Absolutely, my friend. I have many, many years of experience with this system. Even so, I’ve tried to come up with a viable alternative explanation. So far, I haven’t found one.”

“Have you raised this issue with Captain Mitra?”

“Yes, of course. I made a polite inquiry about the modifications this morning. Although, I, ah, didn’t mention the part about nuclear weapons,” replied Petrov with a cynical grin. “Mitra said the combat system upgrade is for a new indigenous Indian weapon system that will be available in the near future. He said he wasn’t at liberty to discuss it with me.”

“What new weapon?” Samant grumbled. “The advanced torpedo DRDO has been working on is for European submarine designs. It’s completely incompatible with Russian submarine torpedo tubes. That’s why we chose to acquire the improved UGST-M torpedo…”

“Which is of Russian design and manufacture,” finished Petrov. “And one other thing. It appears that only Russian technicians are making this modification. Unfortunately, the maintenance package our countries agreed to has a vague clause regarding the replacement of torpedo tube interface wiring as needed. I can’t say this modification is outside the scope of the contract.”

“This … this is incredible!” stammered Samant. “Who approved this change?”

“Vice Admiral Bava, Dhankhar’s chief of staff, is the only signature on the modified refit documentation.”

“No one from the Controller of Warship Production and Acquisition Office signed off on it?”

“Correct,” Petrov answered as he rolled up the plans. Samant rubbed his forehead and started pacing, his mind reeling.

Petrov watched as his friend walked behind the desk, a deep scowl on his face.

“Girish,” pleaded Petrov, “I would like nothing more than to think this is just a clever kickback scheme to skim off some money from the refit funding, God knows there’s been plenty of that in the past. But, given the nature of the modifications and the insanely truncated schedule, it’s not at all consistent with simple graft. My gut instinct says something is dreadfully wrong here.”

Samant stopped, and nodded slightly. Then, straightening himself, he said, “What do you want me to do, Aleksey?”

Relieved, Petrov moved closer. His speech was more animated. “Your office has two masters, one here in Vizag, the other in Mumbai. If you could make some discreet inquiries to the Directorate of Naval Design and the assistant chief of naval staff submarine acquisitions concerning new submarine torpedo tube launched weapons, I believe we’ll be able to either confirm or deny my suspicions. I will do likewise through the Russian naval support liaison office, although I’m not confident I’ll get much help.”

“Very well, Aleksey. I will make the calls as soon as you leave. When should we try to get together again?”

“Later this evening, at Akshaya’s, say twenty hundred hours. We’ve had dinner there before; so no one will think it unusual. And if I’m wrong, dinner is on me.”

13 March 2017

1030 EST

The White House

Washington, D.C.

Joanna Patterson fought to control her excitement as she strode down the hallway to the Oval Office. She had pleaded with the president’s chief of staff, Milt Alvarez, for just ten minutes of the president’s time. That’s all she said she needed to pass on the results of the aerial sampling analysis; after that she’d have the president’s undivided attention. The single piece of paper in the folder she carried was a bombshell.

She barely noticed the lone Marine standing guard, and she didn’t realize she had entered the outer office until the president’s secretary greeted her. “Go right on in, Dr. Patterson. The president is expecting you.”

“Thanks, Evangeline. As my husband is fond of saying, stand by for heavy rolls.”

“Are you going to ruin my president’s schedule—again, Doctor?” remarked McDowell with a smirk.

“Very likely, ma’am … Sorry.”

A Secret Service agent opened the door and Patterson walked in to find the president, Alvarez, and Secretary of State Andrew Lloyd watching the TV. Alvarez waved her over, pointed to the flat screen, and whispered, “The Indian ambassador to the UN is concluding his speech.”

“Oh, lovely. I bet that’s going over well,” Joanna said with a wince. Alvarez’s pursed lips and the sharp shaking of his head confirmed her cynical prediction.

“… our war with Pakistan is a righteous one as they attacked us again, without provocation. The Pakistani government’s denial that they had nothing to do with the terrorists that struck our naval bases last year is flimsy at best. Their policy of harboring terrorists, arming them, and protecting them from outside retribution clearly shows the Pakistani regime’s true intent. And while India chose to respond militarily this time, as is our right, we have scrupulously followed the rules of war as laid out in international conventions.

“Mr. President, members of the General Assembly, let me be absolutely clear on this. India has not resorted to the use of nuclear weapons, nor do we need to. We have consistently upheld our part of the bargain during this cease-fire; the same cannot be said of Pakistan. The fact that the explosion was at a well-known Lashkar-e-Taiba stronghold can only suggest that the Pakistani government has lost its feeble grasp of reality and has begun to arm its homegrown terrorists with nuclear weapons…”

“And it goes downhill from here,” sighed Myles as he turned off the TV.

“Wow! I fully expected India to deny using a nuclear weapon,” Lloyd sneered. “But to accuse Pakistan of giving nukes to terrorists, that takes a lot of moxie!”

“The ambassador certainly played the part well,” commented Alvarez. “He almost had me believing India didn’t set off the nuke.”

“Probably because they didn’t,” interrupted Joanna. The heads of all three men snapped in her direction, a shocked expression on their faces.

“Dr. Patterson, you’re not suggesting…” Lloyd spoke hesitantly.

“I’m not suggesting anything, Mr. Secretary. What I’m saying is the data we have so far doesn’t support the theory that it was an Indian nuclear device.”

Myles sighed deeply again, and with a weary voice said, “Okay, Joanna, just cut to the bottom line.”

Patterson placed the folder on the president’s desk. “Mr. President, this is the executive summary of the analysis of the airborne samples collected by the WC-135 Constant Phoenix aircraft. The fallout cloud contained traces of both uranium 235 and 238, as well as multiple isotopes of plutonium. However, the ratio of the plutonium isotopes is not consistent with the manufacturing process used by India. Nor is the use of uranium consistent with Indian nuclear weapon design; they have historically used only plutonium.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, Joanna, but plutonium is made in a nuclear reactor and then refined, so isn’t all weapons-grade plutonium the same?” Myles asked as he began skimming the report.

“You’re correct, sir, plutonium is produced in nuclear reactors. But different reactor types produce different ratios of the various isotopes. Even weapons-grade plutonium still has some of the undesired isotopes in the material,” Joanna replied. “The isotope ratios in the airborne samples we collected are not consistent with a heavy-water reactor that India uses to produce their plutonium. The sample, however, is consistent with a graphite-moderated, light-water reactor.”

“And who uses that type of reactor to make plutonium?”

“We do, Mr. President … as well as Russia and China.” Joanna watched as Myles dropped the file, his face pale.

“Oh my God,” Lloyd whispered.

“How … how accurate are those results, Joanna?” groaned Alvarez.

“Postdetonation forensic analysis is not nearly as accurate as having the nuclear material itself, Milt. I can’t say where the plutonium came from, but we can be reasonably confident about the reactor type that produced the material.”

“Is there any way to verify the analysis, Joanna?” asked the president.

“Yes, sir. The ground samples collected from areas near the blast site are already in country and are en route to Homeland Security’s National Technical Nuclear Forensics Center. We should have the lab results in a couple of days. If they are consistent with the airborne samples, then there will be little room for doubt.”

“The question then, lady and gentlemen, is do we say anything right now?” solicited Myles.

“We can’t possibly release this preliminary data without verification!” blasted Alvarez. “If the analysis of the ground samples contradicts these results, we’ll look like fools.”

“I’m very sympathetic to your views, Milt, but the world in general, and Muslim nations in particular, already holds India guilty of nuking Pakistan—there have been demands for strenuous economic sanctions across the globe,” Lloyd warned. “And anti-Hindu violence is running rampant worldwide, even in the European Union. If we don’t say anything, we will be responsible for the injury or death of innocent people!”

“It can’t be helped, Mr. Secretary. We have to be very careful here, because the alternative explanation is even worse,” cautioned Alvarez. “Before we go to the world with this information, we need to have our ducks in a very straight line, because once we say India didn’t set off the nuke, the only other possible conclusion is that a Pakistani terrorist group possess nuclear weapons—weapons that quite possibly came from China.”

Lloyd groaned and rubbed his forehead. The chief of staff had a very good, but totally distasteful, point. The Pakistani government had repeatedly claimed that the LeT terrorists were operating under probable Chinese influence. If the U.S. were to indirectly corroborate that view, and then suggest that the LeT terror group had nuclear weapons, India might be compelled to conduct a preemptive strike to counter an unprecedented and unacceptable threat. One nuclear blast could become many.

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