From the cutting room floor: Mahan's first battle
0905 EST, Sunday 13 February 1994
USS Mahan (DDG 42), twenty miles southwest of the Dallas
One of the few ships that morning that possessed an effective means to defend itself was the USS Mahan, an aging Farragut-class guided missile destroyer, or “DDG.” To keep the thirty-year-old destroyers relevant in an increasingly high-tech world of naval weapons the US Navy had ensured that the Mahan and her sister ships received the “New Threat Upgrade,” or NTU. The NTU provided the old Farraguts with new radars, new computer systems, and, most importantly, the ability to launch the effective RIM-67 Standard surface to air missile, giving them a potent anti-air capability.
The Mahan was steaming with her air search radars switched off to minimize wear on a faulty bracket as she passed through the southwestern area of the Soviet target zone. This made the destroyer the responsibility of the Vepr, an Akula-class attack boat. The call from Darkstar had alerted the destroyer’s captain, a fiery, black-haired Italian from Tampa named Jake Belcastro, to order his radars energized. These sensors immediately detected two cruise missiles approaching from the east, and Belcastro ordered: “General quarters, missile!”
Mahan was sailing with her RIM-67 missiles stowed below and not mounted on her twin Mk10 launch rails. Leaving the missiles on the launch rails left the sophisticated weapons exposed to the elements and to corrosion, and even though he had received the DEFCON One warning he was unlikely to need his SAMs today. Mahan’s commander was now regretting this decision immensely. The launcher would now need to accept missiles from the automatic magazine system before the ship could launch weapons to defend itself. That would take time—time they didn’t have.
“Get me missiles on those rails!” ordered Mahan’s captain as he strode from the bridge to his ship’s darkened combat information center, or CIC. Working frantically to activate their SAM system, the CIC crew suffered from their relatively low level of training. Without a budget, you don’t have men that are really ready, thought the captain grimly. Mahan, as one of the oldest ships in the fleet, had not received priority. Seconds ticked by as the Soviet missiles streaked ever closer.
“Range?” demanded Belcastro after what seemed to him an interminable amount of time.
“One-one miles, sir,” responded the air defense officer quickly. “Targets’ speed is four-five-zero knots. I’ve got two more at the edge of detection range to our north, on a northeasterly bearing.”
Won’t be able to engage those ones, thought the captain, half-relieved that he could focus on just saving his own ship, and in the same instant feeling guilty for his selfishness.
“What’s the status on our SAMs, Weps?” the captain demanded of the weapons officer, his tone rising with the tension of the moment.
“Just coming up now, sir,” said Weps.
Two white-painted RIM-67 missiles slid horizontally out of the Mahan’s magazine system on the destroyer’s stern. The launcher received the weapons, then rapidly elevated and traversed until both of the Standard missiles pointed to starboard, towards the incoming threat.
“Ready, sir,” announced the weapons officer.
“Ok,” said Belcastro, pausing to get his racing heart under control as the missiles closed to within eight miles, “batteries release!”
The first Standard missile roared off its launch rail, a thick contrail of gray-white smoke trailed behind it, shrouding Mahan’s stern. A second later, the second missile streaked away as well. Immediately the launcher rotated back to its horizontal position to receive two more missiles from the magazine. Except this time only one missile emerged. A tilting rail inside the magazine feeding system for the starboard launch rail had jammed, halving the rate of fire for the Mk10 launcher.
“Sir,” Weps called, “we have a jam in the missile feed system. We can only launch one Standard every thirty seconds until we get it back up!”
Belcastro clenched his jaw, his tension level ratcheting up to new heights. Two incoming sea-skimming missiles were out there, and he’s never actually tried to shoot one down until now. Would the SAMs work? He focused his attention on the tactical display in the CIC as the blue symbols for his two missiles approached the red symbol denoting the lead Russian weapon. Mahan’s fire control radar could only direct missiles against one target at a time, and could not engage the second until the first had been destroyed. A yellow puff on the gray horizon five miles away indicated that this had occurred.
The radar operators shifted the beams of their fire control radar onto the remaining missile, screaming towards them through the wafting smoke of its companion. Seconds later, the third SAM roared off its rail and arced eastward, trailing a thick smoke trail. In the CIC, each man’s heart began to thump more rapidly as all watched the digital display. The outbound SAM moved rapidly towards the slower-moving cruise missile until the two intersected on the screen. Blood ran cold as the blue SAM symbol then kept moving outward, diverging from the target, while the red marker kept coming.
A fourth RIM-67 was just coming out of the magazine onto its rail, but everyone in CIC knew that it was too late for another shot. Instead, Belcastro ordered, “Five-inch mount, battery release!” It was a long shot, using the Mahan’s turreted deck gun, designed fifty years ago, against the oncoming ultra-modern cruise missile, but it was all they had left. Mahan did not possess a CIWS. Everyone in the CIC heard the first loud thunk through the bulkhead as the five-inch gun, operating under radar-guidance, fired its first projectile. The round missed.
The gun continued to speak, firing a round every two seconds. Still the enemy missile came on. A third round left the barrel, then a fourth, and then the missile was within a mile of the destroyer, a distance it could cover in less than ten seconds. The gun fired a fifth time. Miss. A second later, the sixth projectile left the barrel. The missile closed to within half a mile of the destroyer. Then the seventh round from the five-inch mount exploded across the its path, sending a single shard of jagged shrapnel into the warhead. The resulting violent eruption sent a blast wave that rattled bulkheads, computers, and people in Mahan’s CIC. The ship was safe.
After a moment the air defense officer said, “Scope is clear sir. No further threats at this time.”
A second later the damage control officer called, “Damage report, sir. Navigation radar is offline, so is the surface search set. Our ESM is rebooting… that’s it, sir.”
He, along with everyone else in the dark compartment, could barely believe their luck. The old gun mount, using World War Two era technology, had saved them.
Belcastro was breathing heavily. He remained silent for a long moment, then ordered in a quiet, dangerous voice, “Call up that AWACS, Darkstar whatever. I want a point of origin for those missiles. CIC, find me a helicopter. We’re going hunting.”