Guantanamo Bay, on the southeast coast of the island of Cuba, is
the prettiest spot on the planet, thought Rear Admiral Jake
He was leaning on the railing on top of the carrier United States's
superstructure, her island, a place the sailors called Steel Beach.
Here off-duty crew members gathered to soak up some rays and do a
few calisthenics. Jake Grafton was not normally a sun worshiper; at
sea he rarely visited Steel Beach, preferring to arrange his day so
that he could spend at least a half hour running on the flight
deck. Today he was dressed in gym shorts, T-shirt, and tennis
shoes, but he had yet to make it to the flight deck.
Grafton was a trim, fit fifty-three years old, a trifle over six
feet tall, with short hair turning gray, gray eyes, and a nose
slightly too large for his face. On one temple was a scar, an old,
faded white slash where a bullet had gouged him years ago.
People who knew him regarded him as the epitome of a competent
naval officer. Grafton always put his brain in gear before he
opened his mouth, never lost his cool, and he never lost sight of
the goals he wanted to accomplish In short, he was one fine naval
officer and his superiors knew it, which was why he was in charge
of this carrier group Iying in Guantanamo Bay.
The carrier and her escorts had been running exercises in the
Caribbean for the last week. Today the carrier was anchored in the
mouth of the bay, with two of her larger consorts anchored nearby.
To seaward three destroyers steamed back and forth, their radars
probing the skies.
A set of top-secret orders had brought the carrier group
Jake Grafton thought about those orders as he studied the two cargo
ships Iying against the pier through a set of navy binoculars. The
ships were small, less than eight thousand tons each; larger ships
drew too much water to get against the pier in this harbor. They
were Nuestra Senora de Colon and Astarte.
The order bringing those ships here had not come from some
windowless Pentagon cubbyhole; it was no memo drafted by an
anonymous civil servant or faceless staff weenie. Oh, no. The order
that had brought those ships to this pier on the southern coast of
Cuba had come from the White House, the top of the food
Jake Grafton looked past the cargo ships at the warehouses and
barracks and administration buildings baking in the warm Cuban
A paradise, that was the word that described Cuba. A paradise
inhabited by communists. And Guantanamo Bay was a lonely little
American outpost adhering to the underside of this communist
island, the asshole of Cuba some called it.
Rear Admiral Grafton could see the cranes moving, the white
containers being swung down to the pier from Astarte, which had
arrived several hours ago. Forklifts took the steel boxes to a
hurricane-proof warehouse, where no doubt the harbormaster was
stacking them three or four deep in neat, tidy military rows.
The containers were packages designed to hold chemical and
biological weapons, artillery shells and bombs. A trained crew was
here to load the weapons stored inside the hurricane-proof
warehouse into the containers, which would then be loaded aboard
the ship at the pier and transported to the United States, where
the warheads would be destroyed.
Loading the weapons into the containers and getting the containers
stowed aboard the second ship was going to take at least a week,
probably longer. The first ship, Nuestra Senora de Colon, Our Lady
of Colon, had been a week loading, and would be ready to sail this
evening. Jake Grafton's job was to provide military cover for the
loading operation with this carrier battle group.
His orders raised more questions than they answered. The weapons
had been stored in that warehouse for years—why remove them
now? Why did the removal operation require military
cover? What was the threat?
Admiral Grafton put down his binoculars and did fifty push-ups on
the steel deck while he thought about chemical and biological
weapons. Cheaper and even more lethal than atomic weapons, they
were the weapons of choice for Third World nations seeking to
acquire a credible military presence. Chemical weapons were easier
to control than biological weapons, yet more expensive to deliver.
Hands down, the cheapest and deadliest weapon known to man was the
Almost any nation, indeed, almost anyone with a credit card and two
thousand square feet of laboratory space, could construct a
biological weapon in a matter of weeks from inexpensive,
off-the-shelf technology. Years ago Saddam Hussein got into the
biological warfare business with anthrax cultures purchased from an
American mail-order supply house and delivered via overnight mail.
Ten grams of anthrax properly dispersed can kill as many people as
a ton of the nerve gas Sarin. What was that estimate Jake saw
recently? --- one hundred kilograms of anthrax delivered by an
efficient aerosol generator on a large urban target would kill from
two to six times as many people as a one-megaton nuclear
Of course, Jake Grafton reflected, anthrax was merely one of over
one hundred and sixty known biological warfare agents. There were
others far deadlier but equally cheap to manufacture and disperse.
Still, obtaining a culture was merely a first step; the journey
from culture dishes to a reliable weapon that could be safely
stored and accurately employed --- anything other than a spray tank
--- was long, expensive, and fraught with engineering
Jake Grafton had had a few classified briefings about
CBW—which stood for chemical and biological warfare—but
he knew little more than was available in the public press. These
weren't the kinds of secrets that rank-and-file naval officers had
a need to know. Since the Kennedy administration insisted on
developing other military response capabilities besides nuclear
warfare, the United States had researched, developed, and
manufactured large stores of nerve gas, mustard gas, incapacitants,
and defoliants. Research on biological agents went forward in
tandem at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and ultimately led to the
manufacture of weapons at Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas. These
highly classified programs were undertaken with little debate and
almost no publicity. Of course the Soviets had their own classified
programs. Only when accidents occurred --- like the accidental
slaughter of 6,000 sheep thirty miles from the Dugway Proving
Ground in Utah during the late 1960s, or the deaths of sixty-six
people at Sverdlovsk in 1979 --- did the public get a glimpse into
this secret world.
Nerve gases were loaded into missile and rocket warheads, bombs,
land mines, and artillery shells. Biological agents were loaded
into missile warheads, cluster bombs, and spray tanks and
dispensers mounted on aircraft.
Historically nations used chemical or biological weapons against an
enemy only when the enemy lacked the means to retaliate in kind.
The threat of massive American retaliation had deterred Saddam
Hussein from the use of chemical and biological weapons in the 1991
Gulf War, yet these days deterrence was politically
In 1993 the United States signed the Chemical Weapons Convention,
thereby agreeing to remove chemical and biological weapons from its
The US military had been in no hurry to comply with the treaty, of
course, because without the threat of retaliation there was no way
to prevent these weapons being used against American troops and
civilians. The waiting was over, apparently. The politicians in
Washington were getting their way: the United States would not
retaliate against an enemy with chemical or biological weapons even
if similar weapons were used to slaughter Americans.
When Jake Grafton finished his push-ups and stood, the staff
operations officer, Commander Toad Tarkington, was there with a
towel. Toad was slightly above medium height, deeply tanned, and
had a mouthful of perfect white teeth that were visible when he
smiled or laughed, which he often did. The admiral wiped his face
on the towel, then picked up the binoculars and once again focused
them on the cargo ships.
"Glad the decision to destroy those things wasn't one I had to
make," Toad Tarkington said.
"There are a lot of things in this world that I'm glad I'm not
responsible for," Jake replied.
"Why now, Admiral? And why does the ordnance crowd need a battle
group to guard them?"
"What I'd like to know," Jake Grafton mused, "is why those damned
things were stored here in the first place. If we knew that, then
maybe we would know why the brass sent us here to stand
"Think Castro has chemical or biological weapons, sir?"
"I suspect he does, or someone with a lot of stars once thought he
might If so, our weapons were probably put here to discourage
friend Castro from waving his about. But what is the threat to
removing them ? "
"Got to be terrorists, sir," Toad said. "Castro would be delighted
to see them go. An attack from the Cuban Army is the last thing on
earth I would expect. But terrorists—maybe they plan to do a
raid into here, steal some of the darn things."
"Maybe," Jake said, sighing.
"I guess I don't understand why we are taking them home for
destruction," Toad added. "The administration got the political
credit for signing the Chemical Weapons Treaty. If we keep our
weapons, we can still credibly threaten massive retaliation if
someone threatens us."
"Pretty hard to agree to destroy the things, not do it, and then
fulminate against other countries who don't destroy theirs."
"Hypocrisy never slowed down a politician," Toad said sourly. "I
guess I just never liked the idea of getting naked when everyone
else at the party is fully dressed."
"Who in Washington would ever authorize the use of CBW weapons?"
Jake muttered. "Can you see a buttoned-down, blow-dried,
politically correct American politician ever signing such an
Both men stood with their elbows on the railing looking at the
cargo ships. After a bit the admiral passed Toad the
"Wonder if the National Security Agency is keeping this area under
surveillance with satellites?" Toad mused.
"No one in Washington is going to tell us," the admiral said
matter-of-factly. He pointed to one of the two Aegis cruisers
anchored nearby. "Leave that cruiser anchored here for the next few
days. She can cover the base perimeter with her guns if push comes
to shove. Have the cruiser keep her gun crews on five-minute alert,
ammo on the trays, no liberty. After three days she can pull the
hook and join us, and another cruiser can come anchor here."
"There's a marine battalion landing team aboard Kearsarge, which is
supposed to rendezvous with us tomorrow. I want Kearsarge to stay
with United States. We'll put both ships in a race-track pattern
about fifty miles south of here, outside Cuban territorial waters,
and get on with our exercises. But we'll keep a weather eye peeled
on this base."
"What about the base commander, sir? He may know more about this
than we do."
"Get on the ship-to-shore net and invite him to have dinner with me
tonight. Send a helo in to pick him up."
"Sir, your instructions specifically directed that you maintain a
business-as-usual security posture."
"I remember," Jake said dryly.
"Of course, 'business as usual' is an ambiguous phrase," Toad
mused. "If anything goes wrong you can be blamed for not doing
enough or doing too much, whichever way the wind blows."
Jake Grafton snorted. "If a bunch of wild-eyed terrorists lay hands
on those warheads, Tarkington, you and I will be fried, screwed,
and tattooed regardless of what we did or didn't do. We'll have to
will our bodies to science."
"What about the CO of the cruiser, Admiral? What do we tell
"Draft a top-secret message directing him to keep his people ready
"Aye, aye, sir."
"Nuestra Senora de Colon is sailing this evening for Norfolk. Have
a destroyer accompany her until she is well out of Cuban
"Yo." Toad was making notes on a small memo pad he kept in his hip
"And have the weather people give me a cloud-cover prediction for
the next five days, or as far out as they can. I want to try to
figure out what, if anything, the satellites might be
"You mean, are they keeping an eye on the Cuban military?"
"Or terrorists. Whoever."
"I'll take care of it, sir."
"I'm going to run a couple laps around the deck," Jake Grafton
"May I suggest putting a company of marines ashore to do a security
survey of the base perimeter? Strictly routine."
"That sounds feasible," Jake Grafton said. "Tonight let's ask the
base commander what he thinks."
"Terrorists or the Cuban Army—wanna bet ten bucks? Take your
"I only bet on sure things, sir, like prizefights and Super Bowls,
occasionally a cockroach race."
"You're wise beyond your years, Toad," the admiral tossed over his
shoulder as he headed for the hatch.
"That's what I tell Rita, Toad shot back. Rita Moravia was his
Jake Grafton didn't hear the rest of Toad's comment. "And wisdom is
a heavy burden, let me tell you. Real heavy. Sorta like biological
warheads." He put the binoculars to his eyes and carefully studied
the naval base.
Excerpted from CUBA © Copyright 2002 by Stephen Coonts.
Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Press. All rights