Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Long War, Part XVI - Advent Rising

The French Connection

In May 2016 the Western intelligence world was shocked by the revelation that France was exporting arms and supplies to the jihadists in Syria and Nigeria. The Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence agency, shared these allegations with the US, who later passed it on to General Bradford at X-Com. German-US relations had cooled somewhat after it was revealed in 2014 that the US had CIA moles in the BND, but the scale and nature of their discovery overrode any differences between the two NATO partners. A clear chain of custody was compiled through German surveillance which showed arms being taken from French bases, stockpiled in ports on the Mediterranean Sea, before finally being smuggled onto container ships bound for Nigeria. There was also inconclusive evidence that French shipments were also being routed to Syria by way of Turkey, with shipments crossing the northern border of Syria to end up in the hands of ISIS and al-Qaeda groups. What made these revelations even worse was the apparent complicity of the French government - surveillance footage showed the weapons being packed and loaded in plain sight in French bases, although there was much debate as to whether or not the base commanders were aware of the final destination of these weapon shipments. These claims were so shocking and controversial that intelligence officers did not know what to do with the bombshell on their hands. If these claims were validated then the French government was responsible for supplying the worst terrorist organizations of the 21st century, responsible for numerous deaths and atrocities all over the world.

The French carrier Charles De Gaulle carried out hundreds of air strikes against fundamentalist Islamic groups in Syria and Iraq.

This revelation was a complete turnaround for French policy, which up to the latter part of 2015 had been to actively oppose and combat terrorism all over the globe. France had one of the most forwardly deployed militaries in the world, and maintained several bases in Africa due to the painful legacy of French colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries. France was instrumental in peace keeping and anti-terrorism operations in sub-Saharan nations such as the Central African Republic, Mali, Chad and the Ivory Coast. France was also one of the coalition leaders in the battle against al-Qaeda and ISIS in Syria, having launched over 200 air strikes against terrorist strongholds from the carrier Charles De Gaulle in the Persian Gulf since 2014. For these reasons, France's actions in the early 21st century baffled and mystified the international community. US Secretary of State John Kerry stated: "Since late 2015 French policy has been unpredictable and inconsistent. President Hollande refuses to engage in meaningful dialogue anymore, and French officials obfuscate, delay and sometimes outright lie when dealing with us. In the UN they have been unreliable and dishonest partners, pledging to stand with us on resolutions, only to back out later without giving us the courtesy of telling us." Kerry's statement was in reference to France's flip flopping with regards to the establishment of X-Com in 2015-2016. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council France had vetoed the original X-Com resolution, but then voted for it when the amended resolution went before the UN General Assembly. France sent a company of soldiers and technical staff to Tanegashima in February 2016 when the X-Com unit was first constituted, only to have them withdraw one month later after France left the Council of 16. President Hollande's dramatic about faces exasperated and infuriated world leaders, while domestically it merely confirmed the French people's dim view of their incumbent President, who possessed the lowest approval ratings of any French leader in modern history. Nonetheless none of France's backflips in the UN compared to the shocking revelation made by German intelligence, and crisis meetings were convened in secret to discuss what was to be done in the light of these findings.

Official French opposition to the X-Com project had grown since their withdrawal from the Council of 16 in March 2016. The newly appointed French ambassador to the UN, Jean Pétain, publicly lambasted the UN and the X-Com project in a series of speeches and interviews. Pétain's actions publicly exposed X-Com as a nascent military organization, and laid bare before the global public details of its operations. The details were so explicit that they could have only come from the French personnel initially deployed with X-Com back in March 2016, or from an insider currently serving in the task force. "X-Com has gone far above and beyond its original mandate," said Pétain in a fiery interview on CNN. "It was supposed to be a research team, not some paramilitary unit wilfully ignoring sovereign borders. There are over 10,000 soldiers in Tanegashima. What possible purpose do they serve? More importantly, who do they serve? Who do they answer to? X-Com is basically the Secretary-General's own private army, answerable only to him, and what baffles me is how all these nations are willing to let him do whatever he likes with it." Ban's response was typical of the man. "If the X-Com unit only answered to me," he stated ruefully. "Then why do I have to make so many phone calls every time they need to go anywhere?" Realistically the X-Com unit was under no threat of being disbanded, despite the strident objections put forward by Pétain. As long as it had the support of the superpowers it had manpower, material and funding. The decisive intervention in Nigeria also earned it a great deal of international good will, although its global mandate did raise many questions among the nations in the General Assembly. In the spirit of cooperation and inclusion Ban accepted small donations of men and material from nations not represented in the Council of 16 in order to sooth and placate the odd murmurs of dissent. In return he promised greater transparency and consultation from the X-Com unit in future operations.

The Advent Acts

France's anti-terrorist stance up to the end of 2015 earned it the ire of global terrorist organizations, and the country was the subject of numerous terrorist attacks in the early years of the 21st century. The single deadliest attack in French history took place on 13-14 November 2015, where a coordinated series of suicide bombings and mass shootings in Paris killed 130 people and injured 368. The attacks were a retaliation by ISIS for France's involvement in the Syrian civil war. In response to the attacks President Hollande instituted an état d'urgence (a state of emergency) which was originally scheduled to last only three months after the attack, but was never subsequently lifted. On 17 November 2015 Hollande convened a Congrès du Parlement français and addressed both houses of the French Parliament, laying out his plans for constitutional and legislative reform. There was widespread support for a tough law and order stance after the November attacks, but that support evaporated almost instantaneously after Hollande's dramatic proposals were made public. The proposed new laws expanded police powers to hold and detain suspects without a warrant, and temporarily suspended habeas corpus, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press while the state of emergency persisted. The most controversial proposal was an amendment to the French Constitution which would give the President plenary power to institute or maintain a state of emergency. Under existing law the President could only institute a state of emergency for 12 days, after which the consent of Parliament would be required to extend it. Under Hollande's proposal the President could unilaterally decide when to begin or end the state of emergency, and taken with the expansion of government powers effectively gave Hollande dictatorial control over the country.

Hollande's attempt to pass what later became known as the Advent Acts was the spark that lit the powder keg in France. These acts were so-called because they were drafted during the Advent period before Christmas, and also as a way of mocking Hollande, whom popular media labelled as an aspiring tyrant with a Messiah complex. An editorial in the Le Nouvel Observateur wrote:

Monsieur Flamby has finally lost his mind. In these proposed acts we not only see a mind swimming in delusion, but also the power hungry aspirations of a would-be tyrant. No one in his right mind would even consider proposing, never mind ratifying these acts, which take away all the freedoms fundamental to democratic society. Even Herr Hitler's Enabling Act appears benign by comparison.

Opposition leaders were similarly stupefied at the audacity of Hollande's proposals. Unlike American or Australian bipartisan governments, France had a multi-party system and governed through the creation and dissolution of ever-shifting coalitions. Hollande's constitutional proposal would have to navigate a political quicksand to even have a chance of being heard, and early indications were that it would be impossible. Virtually every political party in the political spectrum, including the Republicans and the National Front,  did not waste the chance to denounce and ridicule the President. Members of Hollande's own Socialist Party and their coalition were horrified at the draconian provisions of the acts, and begged Hollande and his advisors to radically alter them, lest they destroy any miniscule hope of winning re-elections in 2017. Defections from the Socialist Party began en masse. "Hollande no longer speaks for the Socialist Party," said one disaffected member. "He only speaks for himself now." French and international media were equally merciless in pouring scorn and derision, and popular opinion was almost universally in opposition to the acts. The numerous calls for a vote of no confidence were drowned out by louder calls for the President to resign.

Despite massive opposition Hollande did not waver. Hollande became the first President in nearly a decade to invoke Article 49 of the French Constitution, which allowed the Advent Acts to bypass the National Assembly. Under the French constitution the opposition was entitled to raise a vote of no confidence, and this was done on 10 May 2016. No one expected Hollande's government to survive the vote, but in an amazing and complete reversal of fortunes the opposition was only able to raise 246 out of the 288 votes needed to dissolve Hollande's government, much to the consternation and bafflement of every political analyst. In the days before the vote Hollande had conducted a series of one on one talks with influential party leaders at the Élysée Palace. While the content of the talks were kept confidential, party leaders exited the Palace with a seemingly new found respect for the President, and tried to influence their party members to vote with the incumbent. The confusion engendered by this about face muddied the voting waters tremendously, allowing Hollande to squeak by on the thinnest of margins. Hollande had also somehow managed to unify the Socialist Party - even dissenters from the back benches appeared to have recanted their misgivings, and voted with the President. This new solidarity, along with the disarray in the ranks of the opposition, allowed Hollande to call for a Congress of the French Parliament to vote on the constitutional amendment giving him plenary powers on 24 May 2016.


The French Congress was a special body composed of both the Senate and the National Assembly, and it met at the Palace of Versailles to vote on the amendment. Constitutional change required either a national referendum, or a three-fifths majority in Congress, and it was almost universally believed that the bill stood no chance of being passed despite the miracle wrought by Hollande in surviving the vote of no confidence. Laurent Wauquiez of the Republicans attacked Hollande for wasting the Parliament's time, a sentiment which was echoed by Marine Le Pen of the National Front. Prior to the vote the Palace was surrounded by heavy security and closed to the general public for over a week. Arriving reporters and political commentators were shocked to find that the proceedings were to be closed from the media. Aside from a select group of "approved" reporters (mockingly known as Hollande's "stooges"), reporters were not allowed to enter the building during the Congress and had to wait outside behind heavily patrolled cordons of French security. Reporters noted that there were large numbers of police clad in riot gear present, ostensibly as a precaution against terrorist attacks. Since the November attacks Hollande's security detail had tripled in size, and large numbers of tall, thin men wearing dark suits and glasses were becoming a common feature in the President's increasingly infrequent public outings. After three hours, members of the Congress began leaving the building, and news began filtering out that the impossible had happened - the bill had passed.

France's President Hollande addressing the French Congress on the vote to grant him plenary powers.

The news stunned the nation. Politicians leaving the building appeared dazed and confused by what had just transpired. Wauquiez, one of the most adamant critics of the amendment, looked lost and discombobulated. Mobbed by the media all he could offer was a weak statement:

Hollande gave an amazing speech, one of the best I've ever heard. At the time it seemed so convincing - so inspiring - that I couldn't help but vote aye. Now, though, I think - what have I done?

Similar stories emerged from other politicians, all of whom displayed signs of confusion and incoherence upon leaving the building. Not all present were similarly affected. Le Pen launched a blistering attack on the rest of Congress, calling them "slack-jawed idiots" who "were taken in by a confidence trick." Her anger was also reserved for members of her own party, who could not explain why they voted the way they did. In a public display outside Versailles Le Pen lambasted members of her own party, who could only stand shame-faced and apologetic as their leader vented her wrath. Similar stories emerged of party faithful across the political spectrum talking to their colleagues in bewildered confusion, unable to explain what had just happened. "It would be laughable if it wasn't so tragic," said Le Pen bitterly. "This is a national catastrophe."

The accounts which interested X-Com observers the most were ones similar to that given by Greens senator Marie-Christine Blandin:

I felt a very, very strong compulsion to vote yes - I don't know why I did, or where it came from, but it didn't feel like it was coming from me. So I fought it, and fought it, and suddenly the compulsion was gone. I was free again. I looked around and saw my colleagues in a similar stupor. I shook Desessard beside me, and all he did was look through me, before returning his gaze on Hollande. I did the same to Placé , and he looked at me like I was a stranger. I shook him again, and this time he recognized me and snapped out of whatever it was. We looked around the room, and it was the same everywhere. Hundreds of faces staring at Hollande like he was God or something. Here and there, people like me and Jacques, looking around, wondering what the hell was happening.

Blandin's description rang true for many X-Com operatives, many of whom had first hand experience of such compulsions during their battles against the sectoids. When quizzed by Bradford and Doorn as to whether such compulsions could compel someone to vote, Nigeria's "Syp" Mayumba could only shrug: "When it happened to me I would hallucinate and see things that weren't there. But I never felt compelled to do anything. I could still choose how to react, even to disbelieve what was in front of my eyes. I don't believe the sectoids could control us in the way you are suggesting." Hungary's "Gevlon" Kovács disagreed. "In England, when Scholz died, I could feel something compelling me to run. I've never felt terror like that before, even when we were fighting the chryssalids. The fear was completely irrational - most of the sectoids were dead, and we were just mopping up the last two or three. There was no reason to be afraid, but I was." The Hungarian soldier was emphatic. "It's only the scale that is different. In my view it is completely possible." Accounts like these only added to the growing suspicion within X-Com that the French government had been compromised by the aliens. It was a suspicion borne out of their experience fighting the sectoids, but one they could not readily share with the world, which remained largely ignorant of the capabilities of the visitors.


For the rest of the world and France in particular, the result of the Congress was solely attributable to the politicians who voted yes for the amendment. Questions as to the irregularity of the proceedings were subordinated to outraged calls for the whole sale resignation of those who ratified the amendment. "We have been betrayed," cried the L'Express. "These so-called guardians of the Republic have handed the keys to Monsieur Flamby, of all people." Politicians baffled by their own behaviour during the Congress regrouped swiftly to campaign against the amendment, partly as a means of damage control, and also out of shame over what had happened. When quizzed by reporters on the validity of the Congress' result, Wauquiez was adamant:

There is only one way to satisfactorily answer this question. President Hollande decided to forego a referendum, knowing full well that the French people would never stand for such an amendment. It is time for the French people to decide. We must have a referendum, and we must have it as soon as possible. Let the people decide if this is really what they want for France, because if we let this result stand we make Hollande the first despot of France since Napoleon the Third.

The call for a national referendum was a battle cry taken up by virtually all of France. France in the 21st century was an active democracy, with an almost 80% voter turnout compared to the US's 48%, and massive demonstrations, strikes and protests erupted all over the nation. There was immense public pressure on Hollande to resign. His political opponents recognized the hallmarks of a coup d'état, but were confident that Hollande lacked popular support to maintain his new government. No coup survives long without popular support unless backed by powerful police or military regimes, and Hollande did not appear to possess these, either.

Or so they thought. Once Hollande had the authority of the amendment behind him he immediately created a task force called ADVENT, perhaps as a jab against those who labelled his legislative proposals as the Advent Acts. ADVENT was granted wide spread powers mirroring that and superseding traditional police, including the ability to arrest people without warrants and to hold them indefinitely. Hollande never had to appeal for police or military support because he used ADVENT troopers to implement his policies within the capital. No one knew where ADVENT was recruited from or where they were trained but soon there were thousands of well-armed and well-disciplined black clad troopers in Paris and their numbers swelled daily. Traditional law enforcement like the police nationale and the gendarmerie nationale were more or less left alone to complete their duties, but their chiefs and leaders were summoned by Hollande to the Élysée Palace for high level briefings and subsequently became as reclusive as the President, rarely leaving their offices and issuing puzzling and contradictory decrees to their mystified and increasingly concerned subordinates. The Compagnie Républicaine de la Sécurité (CRS) or the French riot police, was merged with ADVENT and compelled to undergo "re-training" in several newly-established facilities all around the nation. French military units were also deployed overseas and garrisons emptied, ostensibly to pursue the war against terror - in reality, Hollande was dispersing and breaking up power blocs which could conceivably create organized resistance while he consolidated control domestically. ADVENT forces began arresting and detaining journalists and reporters, and the sight of heavily armed riot police armed with rifles and batons became more common place. They were invariably led by thin men in dark suits, marking them as part of Hollande's own private security detail.

French protesters demanding the end of the state of emergency.

If Hollande expected the French people to roll over meekly while he seized control he would be sadly mistaken. The birthplace of one of the earliest explicit enunciations of human rights (the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen), France had a robust history with democracy and dictators, occupation and resistance, and its people were no strangers to revolution. Incensed by the increasing presence of ADVENT troops in the capital, French citizens began to adopt extra-legal means to combat the growing repression. They hid political dissidents from the prying eyes of ADVENT, and when faced by the shut down of Internet service providers (ISP) throughout the nation, reverted to handing out pamphlets and leaflets and passing news through word of mouth. Guerrilla radio stations sprang up in the absence of the Internet, and soon the air was alive with insurrectionist talk of revolution. These stations did not survive for long - somehow government forces could locate and triangulate these ad hoc broadcast networks swiftly, and squads of heavily armed ADVENT troops would shut them down. Undeterred resistance radios went mobile, and learned to displace from place to place from broadcast to broadcast. Protests became more violent as ADVENT responded with increasing brutality. The question of where political prisoners were being detained was the largest and most incendiary topic - no one knew where they went, and many of the massive protests racking the country were composed of furious and distraught citizens looking for their missing loved ones. In the meantime the rest of Europe could only sit back and watch in disbelief as one of the Western world's more stable democracies imploded into anarchy and totalitarianism.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Long War, Part XV - The Enemy Within

The Rise of EXALT

Intelligence analysts initially believed that the massive Boko Haram uprising that coincided with the chryssalid outbreak in Ogbomosho was an unfortunate coincidence which diverted much of Nigeria's armed force assets away from the crisis. Weeks after the incident, several facts began to emerge which contradicted this initial conclusion. African coalition forces continued to give ground to the Boko Haram counter-offensive around Lake Chad, and much of the insurgents' success could be attributed to the actions of the splinter jihadist group known as the Sabbaha. At first it was believed that the Sabbaha was just a highly effective cell of the Boko Haram network, but when members of the faction began appearing in Syria and fighting alongside al-Qaeda and ISIS fighters it became apparent that they were a separate organization with a global reach equalling and even surpassing that of al-Qaeda and ISIS. Sabbaha was the Arabic word for "exalt", and it was by this name that the faction became known as, thanks largely to the viral videos released by the organization. One infamous video showed a Sabbaha spokesman quoting a mishmash of religious texts after a successful attack against a Nigerian outpost south of Lake Chad. "Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds," the spokesman intoned. "His messengers have returned. Exalt them in all their glory, and accept them into your hearts. Be not proud, but abase thyself, and exalt those that have to come to lift us up. For it is said, whoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted." 
An EXALT patrol moving through the ruins of an urban centre in Syria.
The spokeman's speech was sprinkled with a confused jumble of psalms and aphorisms from both the Bible, the Koran and a number of more obscure religious texts. The lack of doctrinal consistency was not lost to some - analysts wondered out loud as to whether EXALT actually possessed a cohesive internal ideology, or whether the allusions to religious texts were a smokescreen for a more sinister agenda. Analysts also posited that EXALT's confused religious stance could possibly lead to conflict with the more fundamentalist elements of the jihadists, which took religious orthodoxy to extremes. Nonetheless there were advantages in EXALT's more moderate approach, especially in Africa, where Christianity, Islam and the Bahá'í Faith were the most widespread religions. In a continent filled with a myriad of cultures, dialects and religious practices a moderate stance ensured a larger pool of followers and more potential recruits for the EXALT cause. Regardless of whether they were true believers, apostates or cynical opportunists, no one could deny the effectiveness of the EXALT forces, whose hit and run raids took a disruptive toll on government operations in both Nigeria and Syria. What made these raids more worrisome was the presence of UFOs in the skies during critical operations involving EXALT forces. On numerous occasions air support could not be provided to ground troops fighting in Nigeria and Syria due to alien fighter craft hovering in the vicinity. It was a troubling coincidence, and one which did not slip past the eyes of careful observers.

At the end of April 2016 a large battle took place near Diffa on the Niger and Nigerian border between African coalition forces and Boko Haram. Diffa had been a harbour for thousands of Nigerian refugees fleeing the fighting in Borno, but on 27 April the refugee town was attacked by a large force of Boko Haram. The battle was a costly one, and it ended in a marginal victory for the African coalition. During the battle several EXALT soldiers were killed along with hundreds of Boko Haram insurgents. The bodies were to be summarily buried, but a keen eyed medic noted some unusual aspects about the cadavers and made arrangements for an autopsy. While the bodies were superficially similar to a normal human cadavers, deeper inspection revealed several modifications not of terrestrial origin. While the Nigerian doctors were unable to understand how these implants functioned, they seemed to correlate to observations made by Nigerian soldiers about this new splinter group, which attributed EXALT with superhuman feats of strength, speed and skill. Alarmed by this turn of events Nigerian forces were instructed to send any fallen EXALT soldiers back for autopsy, and subsequent corpses revealed that all of them had also been subject to genetic modification. Not all corpses had the same modifications, however, which seemed to indicate that these implants and grafts were done to enhance the existing specializations of the enemy combatants. One corpse had a secondary heart - another had skin which looked like human epidermis, but had the stopping power of Kevlar - one cadaver, identified as a sniper, had eyes which were clearly modified to give the recipient improved ocular vision and the ability to see in different spectrums of light. Many discredited Nigerian soldier eyewitness accounts were re-examined in the light of these findings. Furious Nigerian commanders had refused to believe these tales told by their soldiers, dismissing them out of hand as excuses for military setbacks, but the mounting evidence told otherwise. Amazing stories of EXALT soldiers jumping onto rooftops in a single bound, or vanishing in plain sight suddenly became much more believable.

In the meantime the appearance of EXALT forces in the Syrian civil war turned around the flagging fortunes of the jihadists, whose forces were under constant attack by a coalition of nations led by the US and France. Syria was a flash point waiting to combust, as Russian assisted government forces led by President Bashar al-Assad pushed back US backed rebels from key cities in the strife-torn state. Syria was a complex three cornered conflict, with the Russians and Assad's government in one corner, the Kurd rebels backed by the US in another, and the jihadists in the third, who sought to exploit the chaos and confusion to carve out a fundamentalist Islamic state in the greater region of Syria and Iraq. To add to the confusion Turkey, the US's nominal NATO ally in the conflict, seemed quite content to antagonize both superpowers. While Turkey was staunchly anti-Assad and anti-government, President Recep Erdogan took Washington to task over the Western refusal to see the militarism of secular Kurdish groups in the same light as the terrorism of the Islamic State. Turkey also shot down a Russian Su-24 which they claimed had strayed too close to the Turkish border, precipitating a diplomatic crisis between the two nations.
The fiery remains of a Russian jet plunges to the earth after being shot down by Turkey.
While the superpowers and their allies played their complex game of regime-building in Syria, the real human cost of the civil war went largely unnoticed. The estimated number of casualties ranged from 150,000 to over 470,000, with the UN estimating the number at roughly 400,000. These casualties included women, children and non-combatants, and precipitated a refugee crisis as hundreds of thousands of Syrians fled the war zones. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that there were over 4.8 million displaced Syrians, making it the biggest displacement of people since the Second World War. Many European nations, wary of sleeper terrorist cells entering their countries, closed their borders, and the issue of immigration became an incendiary topic in politics once more. In the meantime, intelligence reports from the region pointed to an alarming development - thousands of displaced Syrians and Iraqis, shunned by the world at large, appeared to be turning towards the jihadists in unprecedented numbers. A report by UK intelligence officer Amelie Edwards revealed that it was not to fundamentalism that people were turning to, but to rather to more secular concerns:

The movement towards EXALT appears non-ideologically driven. What the EXALT forces are offering is something neither the US or Russia, or any of the other powers currently intervening in Syria have - safety, protection, and an end to the conflict. While thousands of Syrians die everyday in clashes between pro-government and rebel forces, Syrians who manage to flee to the EXALT zones are given food, medicine and shelter. We don't know from where exactly these supplies are coming from, or how they are getting there, but we strongly suspect that the visitors are responsible. Furthermore the EXALT zones are safe from bombing or shelling - the UFOs in the area shoot down any fighters or missiles straying over these zones. This is the first time we've seen the aliens establish what is essentially a no-fly zone - we've never seen them stake out a piece of Earth's territory and hold it before. Ground incursions by government or rebel forces are decisively punished by EXALT forces - in some cases with air support from the UFOs - and the EXALT forces allow people to move in and out of the safe zones to pass on the message of hope to friends and relatives in conflict ridden areas. Even the world's media is allowed to enter these zones, and the images and footage coming out of these safe zones show injured people being treated and fed and taken care of.

Edwards also confirmed that EXALT's comparatively moderate stance on religious orthodoxy was both a boon and a curse for the fledgling organization:

EXALT's moderate stance allows people from all denominations - Christians, Muslims, Sunni, Shia, Kurds - to enter their safe zones, which makes their appeal even more widespread. They also police the zones very stringently to ensure no fundamentalist related conflicts arise. We believe that ideological struggles have taken place between EXALT and the more extreme elements of ISIS and al-Qaeda, but in each case the EXALT forces seem to prevail, either through negotiations or in some cases, the use of force. EXALT is providing the jihadists with equipment, manpower, and air support, which gives them a lot of leverage. Hardliners have either changed their tune, perhaps accepted it as the cost of doing business, or in some cases, just disappeared. Somehow EXALT has managed to penetrate networks which have taken us years to unravel, and the most worrying thing about it is that we don't know how they are doing it. They seem to be changing these networks from the inside out, moderating them and toning down the rhetoric, thereby increasing their supporter base.

Shell-shocked and war weary Syrian refugees arrive in EXALT camps.
The visitor's humanitarian intervention in Syria prompted some to suggest that the aliens were not wholly malevolent, a hypothesis which Bradford quickly rejected. "No one who was in Africa will tell you that the aliens are here to help us," he said. "I have to admit, thought, that in the battle for hearts and minds in Syria the aliens are trouncing us. But to what end, who knows." Nonetheless this was the first act of benevolence attributed to the aliens, which opened the door to the possibility of negotiations in the future. While some people lauded EXALT's actions in Syria, Edwards warned that there were still plenty of disaffected and displaced people who were ripe for recruitment into terrorist organizations. EXALT offered empowerment, purpose, and a sense of belonging against the impersonal juggernauts of the superpowers. Angry young men and women who lost friends and family could not help but be impressed and influenced by the EXALT soldiers. They were genetically enhanced to be stronger, faster and more skilled than normal humans, but beyond these superficial changes they were also making a difference and influencing the world around them. They were not just helpless victims in the game of nations. More people joined EXALT after seeing their loved ones being given life-saving medical treatment than the Boko Haram ever recruited by compelling people at gun point, and these recruits were true believers in the righteousness of their cause.

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Long War, Part XIV - Battle for the Skies

The Air War Intensifies

Military commands all over the world were determined to wrest back control of the skies from the aliens. Since the German attack on Poland in 1939, no country has won a war in the face of enemy air superiority, no major offensive has succeeded against an opponent who controlled the air, and no defence has sustained itself against an enemy who had air superiority. Conversely, no state has lost a war while it maintained air superiority, and attainment of air superiority consistently has been a prelude to military victory. The high commands of most nations knew this, and made greater efforts in developing countermeasures to combat the alien threat. X-Com's success in shooting down two scout class UFOs encouraged and gave hope to air commands everywhere. Drawing from the lessons learnt by “Monk” Kanamin, air forces ceased using guided missile systems and went back to old school dogfighting. Advanced fighters which excelled in BVR (Beyond Visual Range) air combat were replaced by ageing craft which had proven their worth in classic “furballs”. Planes like the F-15 and the F-16 were stripped down of any redundant systems, and had their gun ammunition capacity greatly expanded. The double advantage of using older fighters was that they were purposely built to fight in WVR (Within Visual Range) combat, and they were significantly cheaper. For the price of one F-35 (estimated to be more than $180 million per aircraft) one could get six F-15s (roughly $30 million per aircraft) or nine F-16s (roughly $20 million per aircraft). An ongoing debate raged over the role of stealth fighters, and as to whether or not they could be detected by the UFOs. The discussion was abruptly cut short when modified American F-35s off the west coast of the US launched several experimental missiles at a UFO contact north of Los Angeles. The missiles spiralled uselessly into the sea, and the contact, seemingly enraged by the interference, immediately made a bee line towards the F-35s and shot one of them down, decisively ending the debate.
A flight of scout class UFOs flying over Connecticut in the gathering dusk.
The aliens' ability to strike anywhere in the world gave them the initiative against any defence humanity could muster. At cruising speeds of almost Mach 2, even the Skyranger would take roughly 10 hours to get to a hotspot on the other side of world. Time was of the essence, especially with something like the chryssalids which had the ability to multiply exponentially. Many units patterned on the X-Com model sprang up all over the world - some were counter-terrorist units re-purposed into alien fighting groups, and others were built from scratch. In the US alien fighting was placed under the umbrella of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), and soon Delta and SEAL teams were deploying all over America in response to landings and abductions. In Europe the NATO Very High Readiness Joint Task Force became responsible for responding to alien incursions in western Europe. All over the world airborne assault units were being constituted or re-purposed to do one thing - to respond rapidly to alien landings and to contain the threat lest a situation similar to what happened in Ogbomosho occur.

The changes implemented by global air forces paid immediate dividends. The first pilot credited with a UFO kill was Chinese pilot Bao Wu, who engaged a scout class UFO with his Chengdu J-10 and shot it down with his Gsh-23 autocannon near the Vietnamese border on 17 April 2016. His feat was celebrated and feted by the Chinese, and he became a global hero to the general public, who were unaware of the two kills scored by X-Com earlier in March. Monk's achievement as the first ever fighter pilot to score a UFO kill would not be revealed until many years after the war. He took his relegation in the history books with good humour, despite constant ribbing from his fellow pilots and an attempt to change his call sign to “No Kill”. In the war's aftermath fellow pilot “Grounder” Tanner stated, “Not only did Monk get the first UFO kill ever – he also did it with an F-35, which is terrible in a furball. Back then the F-35 didn't even have a proper gun system – our cannons were jury-rigged by Chief Shen, and jammed all the time. We had enough ammunition for about – I don't know – about five seconds of firing. But Monk was a badass. He lined up that bogey, and put it down with ammo to spare. He was the best pilot I'd ever seen.”

Grounder's comments reflected the X-Com pilots' general discontent with the F-35. The most expensive fighter jet ever developed, the F-35 was plagued with problems long before the UFO threat became public. Cost overruns, doubts about its effectiveness and constant delays hampered the project, and its greatest strength, its ability to fire missiles from BVR and escape without detection, was completely ineffective against the extra-terrestrials. The most damning criticism came from the pilots themselves. Once they realised that dogfighting was the key to shooting down the enemy the X-Com pilots had no hesitation in requesting the F-22, which along with the Russian SU-35 and European Typhoon, was arguably the best dogfighter of that era. No fighter could keep up with a UFO when it decided to accelerate away, but for reasons unknown scout UFOs, perhaps intent on their own mysterious missions, would hover around an area despite the presence of fighter craft and give pilots every chance to shoot it down. Guided missile weapon system rarely ever worked against the aliens, meaning that the only way to shoot down a UFO was to close in and engage it with guns. Without the aid of radar pilot skill became tremendously important, with each pilot having to rely on their own judgement to lead the target accurately to score decisive hits. In spite of these disadvantages human forces world-wide were able to score three kills in the month of April, taking the total of UFOs shot down to seven. X-Com accounted for four of this overall total, but it came at a terrible cost. X-Com's fourth kill, UFO-11, destroyed one F-35 piloted by "Skipper" Darwin and badly damaged the planes of "Zeke" Gibson and "Q-Tip" Murphy. Skipper's body was never recovered. The cost was similarly prohibitive for other air forces all around the world - every UFO shot down was done at the cost of roughly twenty terrestrial aircraft.


The alien response to the renewed air offensive was decisive. In late April a new type of contact was spotted in the skies above the world. It was superficially similar to the alien scout ship in size and appearance, but ensuing events proved that it was vastly superior in armament, manoeuvrability and aggression. These craft were dubbed "fighters" and they lived up to their name, aggressively engaging and destroying any craft in their vicinity. No terrestrial fighter could stand against them, and squadrons of aircraft foolish enough to try were soon blazing wrecks falling from the sky. On 19 April 2016 X-Com tracked the largest UFO contact ever seen to date (UFO-9). It was easily double the size of a modern aircraft carrier, and its entry into Japanese air space precipitated a massive response from the Japanese government. Squadrons of F-15s from the Japanese Air Self-Defence Forces were scrambled for a second time to engage the massive craft. The US Seventh Fleet also scrambled several F-15s to support the air strike, but it was to no avail. Missiles failed to hit their mark, and attempts to close into gun range were punished by massive plasma barrages which obliterated several brave but luckless pilots. The surviving pilots were ordered to withdraw, and all Japan could do was watch helplessly as the alien battleship traversed their air space before finally heading out over the Pacific Ocean.
A flight of F-22s.
In addition to the losses incurred by air forces all over the globe, the aliens also began methodically destroying the new satellites launched into orbit by US and China. Emboldened by the success of X-Com's first satellite, US and China attempted to restore their orbital networks with launches in March and April. Whatever hopes both superpowers harboured soon faded into ashes when these satellites were located and destroyed by alien fighter craft. Even X-Com's vaunted stealth satellites were not immune to the alien's riposte, but it seemed that the stealth systems at least gave the satellites a fighting chance. If a UFO was detected the satellite would fire its manoeuvring rockets to displace to a new location, and then go into silent running mode, essentially shutting down all its systems while it glided to a new location in the sky. Satellite XCS-1 over Japan successfully avoided a marauding fighter using this countermeasure, but the newly launched satellite over India (XCS-2) had no such luck due to the sloppiness of ground control, which failed to react in time. The Indian satellite was destroyed by the aliens, leaving XCS-1 as the lone active satellite in orbit around the Earth. Due to the fates of the newly launched satellites Force Commander Iwata was understandably hesitant about launching X-Com's third satellite, but after intensive talks with the UN Secretary-General, the US President and the Japanese Prime Minister it was agreed that the risk was acceptable. XCS-3 was launched from Vanderberg Air Force Base in the US, and it took station over mainland China. X-Com's request for a squadron of F-22s was also granted by the US. Despite federal legislation prohibiting the export of the fighter, most of the X-Com air wing was composed of American pilots under the jurisdiction of the US Seventh Fleet, and thus never left American command and control. President Obama cut off vocal Republican opposition to the transfer with the statement: "The pilots are American. They answer to American commanders. If the UN wants to use our planes, they ask us, and if we think it's prudent, we will order our pilots to go on the missions. If we don't, they don't. So what's the problem?" In addition Obama circumvented a study commissioned by the US House of Representatives by proposing the immediate resumption of F-22 production, and also tabled a bill repealing the Obey Amendment in the Department of Defence Appropriations Act 1998, which banned the sale and export of the F-22 to foreign governments. Obama's proposal to both restart the production of F-22s and to make the craft available to foreign nations was a complete turn around from his actions in 2009, in which the Democrats were responsible for cutting $1.75 billion in defence spending earmarked for the continued production of the Raptor. When asked about the about face, Obama replied sardonically: "As far as I can recall, the Earth wasn't being invaded by aliens in 2009."

The increased aggressiveness of alien air patrols was accompanied by a commensurate increase in alien forces on the ground. Counter-alien groups all around the world reported an increasing number of aliens during their ground missions. The ubiquitous sectoids were now being accompanied by the floaters first seen in Ogbomosho. The chryssalid was the most feared alien species for obvious reasons, but they were not sighted again for the remainder of April. Instead human defenders ran into increasing numbers of sectoids, outsiders, drones and floaters. The floaters were more capable combatants than the sectoids due to their speed and manoeuvrability, and their ability to fly. They required expert marksmanship to bring down, and could plague a landing site for days after the UFO which brought it to Earth either escaped or was secured by human ground forces. There were also some troubling reports of some kind of terrifying hidden alien “stalker” which strangled its victims. To date no one had seen one these “stalkers”, but anywhere the aliens went there were increasing numbers of victims found dead and asphyxiated, with their wind pipes crushed. As with the floaters, these murders could persist long after the UFO was gone, and they provoked terrible feelings of dread in civilian populations. Finally Delta Force commandoes reported encountering a hitherto un-encountered species of alien during a UFO recovery in New Mexico. This alien was reportedly a heavily armed biped wearing powered armour of some sort, but no more details were forthcoming from an unusually tight-lipped JSOC spokesman.
X-Com's April 2016 evaluation.

April would prove to be the high water mark of the global air war in 2016. It would not be until the following year that human air forces would be able to effectively challenge the visitors in the air thanks to breakthroughs made by Dr. Moira Vahlen and Dr. Hongo Marazuki. As the months wore on UFO contacts became more heavily armed and aggressive, and by mid-2016 most air forces around the world ceased trying to intercept and shoot down the visitors. Even the introduction of F-22 fighters in the X-Com air wing did nothing to improve the kill ratio against extra-terrestrial craft, although it did improve the survivability rate of the pilots who flew them. All humanity could do now was to maintain a network of counter-alien ground units on high alert, and respond to landings and abductions as timely as possible. It was a passive reactive response which handed all the initiative to the aliens, but it was also the only thing the humans could do in the face of the aliens' total air superiority.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Long War, Part XIII - Escalation

Previous: The Long War, Part XII - The Battle of Ogbomosho

The battle of Ogbomosho marked a turning point in the global perception of the alien threat. The pathetic ineptitude of the sectoids in combat was nothing compared to the terrifying threat of the chryssalids - for days, weeks and months, harrowing footage from Nigeria circulated and haunted the collective nightmares of the world. The sight of UFOs in the sky once again inspired fear and terror, and a second wave of panic swept the globe. Religious attendance swelled to historic proportions, as people from all denominations faced the very real idea of Armageddon in their lifetimes.


Colonel John Bradford was promoted to a one-star general for his conduct in Ogbomosho. Now a Brigadier-General, one of the youngest ever in the US Army, his promotion not only acknowledged his exemplary conduct during the battle in Africa, but was also driven out of political necessity. Major-General Peter Van Doorn was now part of the X-Com task force and was already a two-star general. It would be almost unheard of for a general to place himself under the command of a colonel. Bradford's promotion to the General Staff made him a general and decreased the margin in rank between them by one, making his command over the task force more palatable to outsiders. This was especially true for the Japanese, whose strict sense of hierarchy was confounded by the presence of a higher ranking officer serving beneath his junior. In a frank discussion between the two men, however, Doorn acknowledged Bradford's authority over him and set his mind at ease. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon also threw his support behind Bradford. One of the conditions put forward by Ban for Doorn's inclusion into the task force had been to place Doorn subordinate to Bradford, and Doorn accepted this caveat without reservations.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe exchange warm greetings after the successful containment in Ogbomosho.

The addition of Doorn's brigade expanded the X-Com task force to about 10000 soldiers. The force was re-organised into two brigades under their original commanders, with Bradford leading 1st Brigade, and Doorn leading 2nd Brigade. Force Commander General Kiyofumi Iwata remained in overall command of X-Com, but it was becoming clear to all that it was Bradford - addressed by the operators as "Central" - who was the true heart of operations. Iwata's role was more political – he left operational command to Bradford, and focused his attention on being the liaison between X-Com, the UN and the Japanese government. The existence of X-Com was kept from the public eye. As far as the general public was concerned the alien breakout in Ogbomosho was contained by a coalition of Nigerian, UN and NATO troops. No explicit stories of X-Com were ever mentioned in newspapers or TV reports, but it was impossible to maintain total secrecy given the proliferation of social media. Virtually every contemporary cell phone had a camera which could take pictures and record video footage. The Skyranger in particular was captured in a series of dramatic videos rescuing a group of civilians from a hotel rooftop. The drop ship's futuristic design and the multi-national crew raised some eyebrows, as did the presence of Japanese troops during the crisis, who were clearly identifiable by the national badges worn by X-Com soldiers. Abe's political opponents accused him of deploying troops in clandestine operations in blatant contravention of Article 9. In the meantime Secretary-General Ban downplayed the existence of the X-Com unit, and lauded UN and NATO forces publicly for their intervention in Nigeria.

Despite the public acclaim Bradford knew full well how close the UN brigades were to disaster in Ogbomosho. His first actions as Brigadier-General were to take steps to mitigate and eliminate the problems which beset the task force during the battle. The first step was purging the unit of recalcitrant officers and prima donnas who refused to follow orders delivered by junior officers in Bradford's staff. With the full support of the UN Secretary-General, Bradford was able to have most of the difficult officers removed or reassigned. The remainder were given logistical or support duties away from front line deployment. Bradford's second reform involved creating a command element within every national unit which could speedily translate and relay instructions up and down the chain of command in English. English classes became a regular part of the task force's daily routine, much to the chagrin of the English speaking soldiers who were press-ganged into becoming language instructors. Thirdly, Bradford reorganised the two brigades as best he was able, putting platoons, companies and battalions into logical formations which took into account geography, shared language, culture, religion and casualties suffered. Bradford's brigade suffered 300-400 casualties, while Doorn lost almost a third of his UN brigade (approximately 1500-2000) soldiers. This consolidation meant that some of Doorn's soldiers were incorporated in Bradford's brigade and vice versa, but the two worked together with a minimum of fuss and were able to make compromises that the other could live with. Finally Bradford opened another round of selections, giving Doorn's men the opportunity to try out for the strike force. The strike force was no longer considered to be a joke formation by "wannabe" special ops soldiers who couldn't cut it in their home nation's selection programs. It was now battle tested, experienced and blooded, but most importantly it now had credibility. No one who fought at Ogbomosho would forget the sight of the Skyrangers screaming out of the sky to provide either relief, reinforcements, or ammunition. No one questioned the bravery of the strike force soldiers as they  were loaded onto the Skyrangers and dropped off into the cauldron of the university, surrounded by chryssalids on every side. No one could question the sacrifices made by the strike force, which lost a full quarter of its strength - 13 soldiers - in their role as a mobile reserve during the crisis.

Gender Wars

The most striking aspect of the X-Com strike force was that it was the first military unit in modern history in which men and women were almost equally represented. X-Com began as a UN formation, and as such gender parity was an explicit goal in its mission statement. Despite this lofty ambition reality lagged dramatically behind ideology - when the X-Com force was first constituted in February 2016, women only comprised of 3.4% of all UN military personnel, and only 8.9% of all UN police personnel. The real driving force behind gender parity was Secretary-General Ban, who was determined to leave behind a legacy before his term ended on 31 December 2016. No one envisioned that the X-Com strike force would mutate into a counter-terrorism unit, and as such the unit was initially made up of mostly non-combat units preparing to serve a largely ceremonial role. This allowed the deployment of a significant number of female personnel, who made up 19% of the X-Com task force. By contrast the strike force was almost evenly split between the genders. Bradford's initial selections during February 2016 was an exercise in soothing the various egos at work between the commanding officers in the polyglot brigade. Faced with a surfeit of requests and demands Bradford conceived of the selections as an impartial way of determining who would deploy on recovery missions. Not anticipating extensive combat operations he was instructed by Ban to create a model unit of the future along UN lines - a mixed unit made up equally of men and women. They saw their role as to provide security and logistical support to the research and recovery teams, and to liaise with local government authorities. No one realised that they would be eventually assaulting downed UFOs or holding the line against a full scale alien infestation in Africa. Selections may have begun as a political exercise, but the astonishing resiliency of the downed UFOs, the predilection of the aliens to defend their downed craft, the number of continuing abductions occurring all over the globe and X-Com's global mandate to cross state lines all helped shape the transformation of the unit from a security force into an assault unit.

X-Com's decisive intervention in the African crisis also radically changed the perception of the world's superpowers towards the task force. The primary motivator for the formation of the Council of 16 was a share in the research booty on offer from salvaged alien craft. In a series of secret protocols X-Com was obligated to turn over part of their salvage to the Council of 16 in return for continued funding. However since the protocols were drafted before anyone knew how effective the organization could become, Force Commander Iwata found that he had a lot of discretionary leeway as to what, when and how much X-Com would give. Japan invariably received the lion's share of the salvage, as did the US, which basically owned and operated X-Com's interceptor program. Elerium was the most coveted prize. This mysterious element was able to generate tremendous amounts of energy orders of magnitude greater than anything that existed on Earth. It was the power source for all alien technology, and its origin was a complete mystery. No one could guess at what physical processes created it, or where it came from. "Imagine having a nuclear reactor on your wrist," said Chief Engineer Shen. "That's how much power a tiny ball of elerium can generate."

The unit's success in Ogbomosho, as well as a growing understanding of the implications of the X-Com mandate, led the Security Council nations into offering their special units for inclusion into the task force.  There was talk of transforming the task force into a "real" unit, with "real" soldiers. Much of the off the record criticism directed at X-Com was the presence of so many female soldiers, and detractors pointed to studies such as the US Marine Corps Force Integration Plan, which indicated that mixed units were inferior to same sex units in terms of safety, efficiency and lethality. America's Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) offered the services of Delta Force and SEAL Team Six to the international task force. "Look, we all know that women in uniform are good for the voters and makes the UN feel warm and fuzzy inside," said JSOC's Lieutenant-General Austin S. Miller to Bradford during confidential discussions. "But this is a real war now, and you'll want real soldiers for this coming fight."

Ban, Iwata and Bradford did not want to compromise the unit's autonomy, and they declined the offer. Bradford anticipated that a large internal JSOC presence within the task force would amount to a corresponding increase in American influence. While Bradford was unquestionably a loyal patriot, he had more vision than most - he saw that an increased American presence could possibly antagonize China and Russia, whose continued support was invaluable to the continuing existence of X-Com. Bradford also understood that the primary factor in the effectiveness of special force units was the support and logistic structure behind them. The operators themselves were the visible tip of the spear, but behind each operator was a veritable army of support personnel, ranging from the intelligence network which provided them with their missions, to the pilots of the transports responsible for inserting and extracting the soldiers. Bradford was aware that JSOC operatives were probably stronger, faster, and better conditioned than most X-Com operatives, but he was willing to concede the 5-10% drop-off in overall effectiveness. In his eyes an intelligence failure or lack of adequate equipment would be more damaging to the effectiveness of the strike force than the difference between how fast an individual operator could run a kilometre in full pack and gear, or how much a soldier could bench press. Bradford's overall goal was to create a sophisticated support network behind his strike force which would off-set any human qualitative differential. He intended to do this by developing quality intelligence, providing comprehensive logistical support, and arming his strike force with the best gear possible. Chief Engineer Shen and his team were already on the cusp of developing laser weapons and cutting-edge body armour based on alien alloys. Bradford was confident that the deployment of these new weapons would make X-Com the best alien fighting unit in the world.

Bradford also had no intention of displacing his female veterans, many of whom had lost friends and colleagues in Africa. As far as Bradford was concerned X-Com was now a legitimate fighting force, whose cohesion had already been paid for in blood. In the era of firearms a child soldier from Africa could kill a room full of adult males with an AK-47 or a single grenade, and against foes like the chryssalids physical strength was a non-issue – the life form could tear through both sexes with equal ease. For Bradford it was the intangibles that mattered – heart, skill, will and tenacity – and these qualities were non-gender specific. There was ample historical precedent for the effectiveness and courage of female troops, he argued, pointing to the experience of the Soviet Union during the Second World War, in which the dire peril of the German invasion overrode traditional gender divisions of labour. During the siege of Stalingrad in 1942-1943 German armoured units were first resisted by teenage girls manning antiquated anti-tank guns on the outskirts of the city. They defended their guns to the last (wo)man, and German officers who fought them were horrified to find out that they had been killing young women. This horror turned to fear when they realised that Russian courage and fanaticism was a quality shared by both sexes. One German account of Stalingrad read - "There was absolutely nothing more frightening than to have to face Russian women lying on their stone doorsteps and firing until they were dead. These women did not know what giving ground meant. They killed, then died, in their place."
Ludmilla Pavlichenko, the world's greatest female sniper, with 309 confirmed kills. She refused an offer to become a nurse and became one of 1,885 female Soviet snipers to serve during the Second World War, and one of only 500 to survive.

Bradford's loyalty to his troops was also based on the growing skill of the female members of the strike force. The Soviet experience illustrated that women appeared to be ideally suited to the role of snipers, producing several outstanding female snipers such as Ludmilla Pavlichenko, Maria Ivanova Morozova and Tania Chernova. An impromptu sniper school established by "Okami" Takeda produced several promising female candidates, including "Tenshi" Hatakeyama (Japan), "Eva" Soroka (Ukraine), and "Chestnut" Jiminez (Mexico). Okami's scepticism was dispelled by the skill and work ethic of his students, and many of his graduates would go on and distinguish themselves in the war against the aliens. The skill and conduct of the snipers also won the respect of their male counterpart, echoing a similar situation which occurred in the Soviet Union during the Second World War. While female non-combatants were considered fair game for sexual harassment or worse, women combatants were off-limits and the men they served with strictly enforced this rule. Once someone passed selections and proved themselves they ceased being a man or woman, but became a soldier instead. After seeing X-Com's female soldiers in action in Ogbomosho, Doorn made the following comment: "They walk like soldiers, they talk like soldiers, they carry themselves like soldiers and when it came down to it, they fought and died like soldiers." Bradford was even more emphatic. "Gender is irrelevant. As long as they can pass selections and meet our minimum standards, they are eligible to serve. Make no mistake, this is just the beginning of a long, hard and costly war. Before this thing is over we may even end up having to bring our children into this fight." His words were spoken lightly, but even Bradford did not realize how grimly prophetic his words were to become.