Benham (Ben) Farthi’s POV
I walked into the Operations room of the spy trawler, the lights dimmed and the big screen showing an overhead map of the northern section of the Persian Gulf. The exercise area for the Iranian Navy was outlined in blue, the twelve-mile territorial waters line in red. White dots, in a line just outside the territorial line, marked the locations of the sonar listening array we had spent the last twelve hours laying down while pretending to trawl for fish. They were now six nautical miles northwest of the exercise zone.
I smiled as I looked around my ship, the culmination of my twenty-three-year career with the CIA’s Middle Eastern desk. Six months ago, I was made Captain of the trawler Bountiful, flagged out of Dubai. The ninety-foot long vessel had twin 750-HP turbo diesel engines and had been converted in a secret shipyard to spycraft. The nets were just for show; modifications allowed us to set and retrieve sonar arrays, intercept communications, and monitor missile telemetry. We had been at sea for the past two months as tensions increased in the Gulf Region.
I was less than twenty miles away from my country of birth, but I would never return. My parents had fled to America after the fall of the Shah of Iran, escaping with hundreds of other Iranian Christians before the Ayatollahs consolidated power. I grew up in a suburb of the Twin Cities in Minnesota, got a degree in languages at the University of Minnesota, then joined the US Navy. I served on a cruiser during the 1991 Gulf War, in charge of a division of cryptologists and electronic warfare technicians. When I was at the end of my service commitment, I was recruited into the CIA. With my fluent Farsi and Arabic and my ability to blend seamlessly into the population, I quickly made my mark.
I have been spying on Iran for most of my life.
I worked almost ten years in country, developing sources, passing messages and running my spy network focused on the Iranian nuclear weapons program. I barely escaped with my life after the Wikileaks scandal exposed my identity, so I was restricted to a desk until this command opened up. I relished being back on the front lines of the secret war again.
Few people understand just how vulnerable the world is to Iran’s hegemony of the Persian Gulf. The Gulf supplies twenty percent of all oil traded in the world, fourteen supertankers a day pass through to the rest of the world. In the Straits of Hormuz, the shipping lanes run close to Iranian waters as the Gulf necks down before entering the Indian Ocean. The US Navy has operated in the region almost continuously since the 1970’s to safeguard this trade.
The Iranians were continually developing new ways to threaten the trade, and the latest threat was a serious and direct one. We had intelligence they were developing a new type of programmable mine, able to identify specific warships or vessels, then autonomously release a torpedo from short range. If they perfected the technology, it could allow them to close the Persian Gulf to our warships, or target only the large oil tankers as they passed, while maintaining deniability of their involvement. We were here because our asset said they were going to be testing one of the mines during the wargames.
“We’ve got a destroyer, two corvettes and eight patrol boats in the area right now,” Commander Mark Walters said. Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, the forty-year-old Naval Intelligence attache’ to my ship was my second in command. The radar image was displayed on another screen on the wall, the names of the vessels and course/speed lines showing what was happening in the area. “The target ship and tug are five miles from the exercise zone. You can see the ships are setting a three-mile perimeter around where we believe the torpedo mine has been set.”
“On station,” McDonald said as he pointed to his screen. The drones were flying back and forth, just outside Iranian airspace, their powerful cameras watching the exercise area. I didn’t expect them to show much, but I was hoping to get photographs of the torpedo when it was recovered.
“Sonar ready, tracking the surface targets,” Parker said. A former Navy Submarine sonar tech, he had years of experience with stuff like this. The computer analysis of the sonar data was the function of two other technicians, Troy and Carson. The software they were using could use the time sounds arrived at the different sonar array points to track the position, speed and direction of selected targets. Part of what we wanted to figure out was the method the torpedo used to home in on the ship and the speed of the torpedo. Iran had long been a pioneer in super-fast torpedo development.
I pressed the button on the intercom by my command chair as I sat down in front of my displays. “Engine room ready?”
“Ready, sir. Fake nets are out, explosive cutters ready.” If the Iranian Navy came to us, we would cut the fake nets loose and high-tail it out of there. The retrofit had put far more powerful diesels than the original design, and we could hit close to twenty-five knots at full speed. If we couldn’t escape, pre-set charges would scuttle the ship and white phosphorous bombs would destroy all of our intelligence gathering equipment. We could not allow the ship to fall into their hands, and I would never be captured alive. I knew all to well the fate that would await me in the basement of the Iranian military prison.
“Now we wait,” I said.
The tug got closer to the wargames area, and a new sound started to be tracked. “What is that,” I asked as I heard the sound over the sonar channel.
“The small cargo vessel they are towing is now broadcasting engine and screw sounds,” Parker said. There was a high-pitched whine of a turbine and the thrum of screws. “Twin screw, gas turbine. Ticonderoga-class cruiser, give me a minute and I’ll tell you which one.” Parker had too much fun with this; each ship had its own unique sonar characteristic,
They watched the radar as the tug, moving at six knots, pulled the vessel into the middle of the exercise range behind a tow rope five hundred yards long. “Shouldn’t be long now,” Mark said as the tug passed into the ring of ships.
We all watched the screens as the tug passed through the center, then the target ship. “TORPEDO IN THE WATER,” Parker yelled as his monitors lit up with the loud noise of a high-speed screw. He and his techs furiously worked their monitors, using the computers to triangulate the track of the torpedo.
Their analysis was projected onto one screen, while the drone feed of the target ship was on the other. I watched as the dot representing the torpedo raced towards the target ship, then passed under. “Not a live one,” I said, my disappointment showing. An explosion would give us an idea of the warhead size. Modern torpedoes didn’t run into the side of the ship, they exploded underneath it. This caused the ship to rise up, breaking the keel, before crashing back down.
“Keep tracking it, they must be planning to retrieve it,” I said. Torpedoes are buoyant after depleting their fuel, so they could easily be picked up.
“On it,” Parker said. The torpedo kept going northwest, and we heard an impact followed by a small explosion right as the screw sound stopped. The Iranian boats headed after it, but after an hour it was clear something hadn’t gone as planned.
Something had gone really wrong, because the patrol boats found nothing. “It might have malfunctioned and hit the bottom, rupturing the fuel tanks or getting stuck in the mud,” Parker said after listening to the recording a few more times.
The sonar analysts were working furiously to put together the data they had, putting a location on the screen where they lost it. The spot was a half-nautical-mile inside Iranian waters, in almost three hundred feet of water, and the Iranians were nowhere close to it.
I composed a message to send to Langley. Recovering the torpedo-mine before the Iranians could would be an intelligence coup, but I would need help. I asked for specialists in underwater salvage and their equipment to be sent to me as soon as possible. Meanwhile, we would continue to monitor the situation and hope they gave up on the search soon.
Four days later, we made port in Bahrain for fuel and food. After dark, a panel truck drove up and we loaded a bunch of cases of equipment onto the ship, along with two new personnel. We left at before sunrise, steaming back to the Northern Gulf. We anchored just outside territorial waters, and I called everyone into the room to discuss our strategy.
“Gentlemen, Langley has authorized us to attempt recovery of the Iranian weapon, but we’re not going to be dumb about this,” I said. “We will stay at least a mile away from their waters at all times. Taking weeks to do this job is acceptable, getting caught is not. Our new crew members have the lead on the recovery, and we are here to support them. Tim Schmidt is a former Navy Master Diver and salvage specialist, he’s lead on the operation. James Woodley is a former SEAL and has been trained in explosive ordnance, he’ll be disarming the warhead before we attempt recovery. Gentlemen, anything you want to say?”
“We’re going to do the search using an Unmanned Autonomous Vehicle first,” Tim said. “The minisub carries magnetic sensors which we will use to identify potential targets. There’s a lot of junk in this area of the Gulf- garbage, sunken ships, scrap, so it will take a while to map everything and figure out which locations we want to go after first. The two of us will dive those spots, using a scuba sled. Once we’ve located it, we’ll attach float lines and tow it outside their waters where you can recover it at night.”
“The minisub, how are we tracking its location,” Parker asked.
“We don’t, we get that later. There is a retractable GPS receiver buoy that tells the minisub its location and allows it to stay on pattern. It’s a simple correction based on vehicle speed and depth to correct for the drag of the buoy and the magnetic array to figure out the exact location of each anomaly,” James replied. “It’s good for this operation because there are no radio transmissions. We set it up before launch, and the minisub is programmed to follow a search pattern and collect the data. It returns to a designated point and surfaces when done. We recover, recharge and send back out again the next night.”
“The bouy’s not brightly colored or radar reflective, it’s less than the size of a balloon,” Tim added. “We actually make it out of Styrofoam so it looks like floating trash. We’ll need you to monitor the area for boat traffic, especially Iranian Navy. If something is in the area, we send a pause command to it by radio. It shuts down its thrusters and drifts with the wind and current until they are gone, and then we send a command to restart.”
“So basically, we do all the analysis during the day?” McDonald would end up with this task since drones were useless for us now.
“You got it. The real fun starts when we dive,” Tim said. “Up to then, we haven’t put anybody into Iranian territory.”
“And you know the consequences of that,” I said softly. “Let’s get to work.”
It took ten nights of launch and recovery, followed by ten days of data analysis, before we had the subject area completely mapped. We went a five-hundred-yard radius from the last known position and a mile in the direction of travel. There were hundreds of indications, but we worked them down to fourteen potentials we wanted to get eyes on. We would do things from near to far, working only at night when patrol traffic wasn’t around.
The depth of the water meant that we could only check one target per night. Diving at depths beyond ninety feet require specific safety precautions to prevent nitrogen narcosis, a potentially deadly situation. The depth forces nitrogen into the bloodstream at higher levels, where it can build up to the point it interferes with the diver’s ability to think and function. To fight this, their tanks were filled with tri-mix, a mixture of nitrogen, helium and oxygen. They had to motor to the target spot using GPS, then drop anchor on the sled. Once on tanks, they would clip safety lines to the anchor cable and descend at a planned rate to the bottom. Whether the target is found or not, they still have a limited time on the bottom before starting a controlled ascent to prevent the bends. If they miss the target, they have to return another night. It wasn’t a fast process. Since their bodies needed twelve hours to get the excess nitrogen out after a dive, they had to return to the ship and wait for the next one.
We were two weeks into dive operations. With the closest targets gone, things became much harder as the two divers needed to travel farther and farther to the dive sites. I was on the bridge when the emergency beacon activated, indicating the divers were in trouble. I sounded the alarm and ordered the net cut loose. Loud bangs echoed in the ship as the explosive charges cut the steel cables.
I pushed the throttles to full ahead and picked up the PA system. “We have a diver emergency, we’re going to pick them up. All hands to emergency sanitize stations. Deck crew, ready the Zodiaks for emergency egress.” The ship heeled over as the hard-right rudder turned us towards the dive position. The engines gave everything they had as we raced past the Iranian territorial borders.
“Four minutes to position,” Mark shouted. “We’ve got two Iranian patrol boats that have turned and are heading our way at high speed, nine minutes to intercept.”
“Shit.” We wouldn’t have much time. We sped through the dark waters, and three minutes later I saw the flashing strobe of one of the emergency beacons. “Deck, lower the cargo net starboard side for diver pickup,” I said.
“Roger that, Captain.” Three men rushed to the starboard side, flipping a cargo net over the rails after connecting the other end to a davit and steel winch cable. If I did it right, we’d catch the two in the net without even stopping and get the hell out of there.
I slowed the ship to four knots and lined up on the flasher. A minute later, one of the divers was in the net. “WHERE’S THE OTHER,” I shouted down from the bridge wing.
James had tossed his dive helmet onboard and was being pulled up. “DEAD, GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE,” he replied.
I didn’t have to be told twice. Pushing the throttles all the way forward, I turned back towards international waters. “Patrol boats are on us, closure rate has them overtaking us in six minutes,” Mark said.
“Time to international waters?”
I didn’t have a choice. “EMERGENCY SANITIZE, EMERGENCY SANITIZE. THREE MINUTES TO ABANDON SHIP.” I hit the alarm, and the deck crews raced to get the Zodiaks in place. In the control room, computer hard drives were removed and smashed and cryptological keys were removed from the safe and burned. The only thing we would keep was our treasure map, showing the locations of all the potential sites. That data was encrypted and put on a mini-SD, which was given to me by one of the techs. I swallowed it.
As soon as everyone was on deck, I set the timers for the explosions and slowed to eight knots before setting the autopilot. I grabbed my pistol belt, putting it on as I ran down from the bridge behind Mark. One of the Zodiaks had already loaded and had been slid off the ramp in back into the water, they were holding the second for us. We jumped in, and the men let go, sliding us into the water as the ship moved ahead without us.
The Zodiacs were configured SEAL-style, with underwater exhaust and a quiet engine. The two boats raced across the water, hoping their escape would be missed.
Thirty seconds later, a huge fireball engulfed the Bountiful. A minute later, the two patrol boats were circling the oil slick from where it went down.