Conn, Sonar: New contact bearing 0-4-5, designated Sierra 1.
Conn, Sonar: New contact bearing 0-4-7, designated Sierra 2.
Make depth 1-2-0 feet, aye.
Conn, Sonar: Sierra 1 is classified as…escort.
Set course 0-4-0, aye.
Conn, Weps: Tube 1 loaded.
Part One: A Bit of Background
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that one of my favorite computer games is Cold Waters. Released four years ago by Australian game developer Killerfish Games, Cold Waters is a simulation that depicts submarine warfare in three different Cold War-turns-hot scenarios:
- NATO vs. USSR, North Atlantic 1984
- NATO vs. USSR, North Atlantic 1968
- U.S. vs. People’s Republic of China, South China Sea 2000
In Single Mission or Campaign mode, Cold Waters places you – the player – in command of a submarine (or, in the parlance of the world’s navies, “boat”) in service with the fleets of either the United States, the Soviet Union, or the People’s Republic of China. In most of the scripted Single Missions, your boat will be American and is automatically chosen for you. In a few, however, you can try your hand at commanding a sub from either the Soviet Red Banner Northern Fleet or the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
Cold Waters was designed, according to the Killerfish Games website, as an homage to the original MicroProse’s classic 1988 game Red Storm Rising, a fast-attack sub sim based on the eponymous 1986 novel by Tom Clancy and Larry Bond. In that game, a player took on the role of a U.S. Navy sub driver during a fictional Third Battle of the Atlantic in four distinct time periods – 1984, 1988, 1992, and 1996 – and commanded a boat from several available (and era-appropriate) classes in a bid to deny the Soviet fleet control of the Norwegian Sea.
Cold Waters – to those gamers who cut their teeth on Sid Meier’s Red Storm Rising – is a nicely done reboot of the older game. Of course, the backstory of Cold Waters’ World War III is different. In the newer game, the designers use historical events – Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election to the Presidency, Soviet unease with Reagan’s anti-communist rhetoric, the shootdown by Russian fighters of Korean Airlines Flight 007, and paranoia in the Kremlin over a 1983 NATO exercise code-named Able Archer – and then alter history by positing that glasnost and perestroika never occurred because World War III broke out before Mikhail Gorbachev took power in Moscow.
Part Two: ‘Junks on Parade’ – One of the Toughest Missions
Cold Waters also seems to have been inspired by another game I used to play in the 1990s: Tom Clancy’s SSN, published in 1996 by Simon & Schuster Interactive. In that submarine sim, you were restricted to commanding an Improved-Los Angeles class boat, the USS Cheyenne, in a tightly-scripted story by Clancy pitting the U.S. Navy against the Chinese in a battle for control of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
One of the toughest missions in the game is Junks on Parade, a fixed Single Mission set in the era of the U.S. vs. China South China Sea 2000 campaign (but not part of the campaign itself). As in most of the Single Mission scenarios, the game assigns you to a specific class of boat; in this case, it’s the USS Seawolf, one of only three SSN-21-class boats built for the Navy before production closed due to the prohibitive cost of building and operating these expensive ($3 billion per unit) warships.
Junks on Parade takes place at 0700 hours on 20 August,2000 in the Taiwan Straits. The hard-line regime in Beijing has decided to invade Taiwan, which China considers to be a “renegade” province, and reunify the independent Republic of China (ROC) with the Communist mainland.
The situation is this: A heavily escorted People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) convoy that includes several amphibious landing ships is en route to the west coast of Taiwan. Several warships, including a Soviet-era Sovremennyy-class destroyer, provide escort, while several Harbin Z-9 anti-submarine helicopters and a Y-8X Maritime Patrol Aircraft provide air cover.
Your primary mission as skipper of USS Seawolf is to destroy the landing ships and Chinese merchants with troops, vehicles, and supplies aboard. The secondary goal is to destroy the warships.
Why is ‘Junks on Parade’ So Tough?
If you know anything about the SSN-21 class, you know that the Seawolf is a large fast attack sub that based its design on the Navy’s experience with the Los Angeles class. According to the website Naval Technology:
The Seawolf was designed as a faster, better-armed eventual replacement for the Los Angeles class nuclear-powered attack submarines….
The Seawolf was a product of the Cold War, conceived to maintain the USA’s acoustic advantage over Soviet submarines. With the end of the Cold War and the change of emphasis to littoral operations, the cost of the Seawolf submarines was judged prohibitive and the programme was curtailed in favour of the smaller and cheaper Virginia class New Attack submarines.
Now, you’d think that a faster (35-knots max speed) and better-armed boat like the Seawolf would give you a huge tactical advantage over a convoy escorted by destroyers and frigates under air cover, right?
Well, if the scenario took place in the deeper parts of the Pacific Ocean, you’d be correct. Most U.S. Navy SSN’s were meant for blue-water operations, including the three SSN-21-class boats. These subs are at home at depths of 400 feet or more, and their designs are optimized for that.
Of course, fast-attack boats can and do carry out missions in shallower coastal waters (aka littoral operations). But as Junks on Parade clearly demonstrates, the Seawolf is at a tactical disadvantage in the “green waters” of the Taiwan Straits.
Every time I play Junks on Parade, I notice that the maximum water depth ranges from 150 feet to just under 250. This might sound like a lot, but if you know even the basics of submarine warfare, shallow waters are mightily inhospitable for large boats designed for blue water ops.
See, one of the reasons that subs work at their best in deep water is because if you have one or more enemy torpedoes coming your way, you need a lot of room to take effective evasive action. In a shallow-water scenario, you can use noisemakers (decoys) or MOSS simulators (basically a small torpedo-like device designed to emit the recorded sound of your boat’s power plant to trick the enemy into firing at it instead of at your boat).
There are two problems with decoys and MOSS simulators. One, you have a finite amount on board – 20 noisemakers and maybe four MOSS units. You have to carefully parcel out their use, and even if they work 100% of the time (spoiler alert: they don’t always work!), you eventually run out of ‘em.
The other problem with noisemakers and MOSS’s is this. You need both speed and room to maneuver to keep your boat out of the enemy torpedoes’ 45˚ “cone of acquisition” – aka the “Cone of Death.” That means you have to move your boat as fast as you can, as deep as you can.
In deep waters, running fast and deep is easy, especially if you don’t have to worry about a close encounter of the worst kind with the seafloor. Also, the deeper you go – if you don’t dive below your crush depth – you don’t need to worry about your sub’s screw creating “cavitation,” which is a noisy wake of bubbles that shows enemy sonars where you are.
In shallow waters, though, evasive maneuvers are limited to vamoosing your boat as fast as possible and trying to keep out of the 45˚ cone of enemy torpedoes’ active sonar seekers. It’s hard to evade one or two “fish” fired by one warship, but it can be done if you keep calm and give the right helm orders.
In Junks on Parade, though, you have to juke and jive like a wide receiver evading a horde of defensive linemen and linebackers on your way to the other team’s end zone because you not only have to worry about wire-guided torpedoes from the escorts, but also avoid being hit by ASROC-like rocket-boosted torpedoes like China’s CY-1 missile or airdropped torpedoes from those pesky aircraft hunting you from the sky.
Ideally, you should not fire any of your weapons – Mk. 48 ADCAP torpedo, UGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missile, or UGM-109B Tomahawk Anti-Ship Missile (TASM) – until you have identified your targets and are in a good firing position. Depending on the random variant of the mission that decides where you and the enemy are in relation to each other and how deep the water is, sometimes this will be easy – especially if you’re close to the primary targets: the landing ships and cargo vessels.
It’s always a good idea to use torpedoes first because not only can you steer them with the wire guidance, but they are usually stealthy and a weapons launch (known as a “transient”) is hard to detect by the escorts, especially if they are far away. In fact, I recommend the use of torpedoes only unless the troop and landing ships manage to make a run for it at flank speed while the PLAN warships, helicopters, and Y-8 patrol planes keep you busy dodging all sorts of nasties, including depth bombs, ASW rockets, and of course, torpedoes.
Harpoons and UGM-109B Tomahawk Anti-Ship Missile (TASM) do come in handy if you need to “reach out and touch” those troop-laden transports or cargo ships if they are out of torpedo range, but use them after you’ve sunk all the escorts. That way, even if you have Z-9 helos hovering overhead and Y-8’s patrolling nearby, you can fire some missiles and try to clear the “flaming datum” – parlance for the visible trail of the missile launch – before the enemy can sic helicopters and planes and drop torpedoes where you were last seen.
I have played Junks on Parade several times since I bought Cold Waters in July of 2020, and in all those sessions, I’ve only come out of the fight unscathed once. Otherwise, the best that I’ve managed to do is to sustain “only” one hit from enemy weapons; usually, I get hit by at least two air-launched weapons, which due to their smaller size don’t do as much damage to my Seawolf as the heavier wire-guided torpedoes from the Jiangweis, Chengdus, Ludas, and Sovremennys that escort the amphibious and cargo ships in this scenario.
Junks on Parade gives you the best 2000-era boat in U.S. Navy service, but trust me, it’s a tough mission.
Cold Waters, 2017, Killerfish Games