Cover Image Torpedo

Author: Jeff Edwards
Publisher: iUniverse
Year: 2004
Reviewer: Neal Stevens

In cinema, when the two main characters face off for the big fight, if the hero has a gun and the bad guy puts up his fists, the hero will valiantly throw down his weapons and give the bad guy an even chance. I always had a difficult time buying into that. What if the bad guy won? Is throwing away your advantage and giving your adversary even odds the responsible way to manage the conflict? I suspect most people feel the same way, which is why theaters erupted with applause when Indiana Jones pulled out his S&W .45 and shot the sword-wielding assassin in Raiders of the Lost Ark. To defeat your enemies you strive for maximum advantage; you don’t let them dictate the conditions of the fight.

The unlikely premise that drives Jeff Edwards’ novel Torpedo has a fuel-starved Germany defying a UN embargo to deliver four advanced U-boats to a terrorist Middle Eastern nation. The German Chancellor would rather take on the US and Britain than the Green freaks in his own country. When the Brits and Americans issue a warning not to press the issue and set up a blockade the Germans come out swinging, sending a flight of Luftwaffe EuroStrike fighters to take out the blockade ships at Gilbrator.

Did I mention Germany is a member of NATO and the US has 40,000 troops there?

So, Germany has staged Pearl Harbor on British and US ships, killing scores of allied servicemen. The German Chancellor means to get those subs to the customer, a fictional rogue nation called Siraji (aren’t there several real countries the author could have used, such as Iran?) even if it means more hostilities. The US President convenes an emergency summit to shape a response. When the CNO offers to bring in the USS Topeka nuke sub to pick off the less capable diesel boats, the President strongly objects. He insists on holding back the awesome and heavily taxpayer-invested might of the US Navy. They’ve got four submarines—we send four surface combatants to take them on. No carriers, no bombers, no land-based aircraft. Just our destroyers and frigates against their submarines.

I can tell you this: I didn’t vote for this guy.

As frustrating as this seems for the reader, Edwards uses this character to illustrate how a politician with pre-conceived, Rumsfeldian concepts of warfare and tactics can make life deadly for the men in the field. Because the President is wedded to the idea of bringing down the German government through "single combat", the protagonist Captain and the sailors in the Navy group have to wage war without the natural advantages the US provides.

The four U-boats are conventional diesel boats with air independent propulsion (AIP) that enables them to run submerged and virtually undetectable for nearly two weeks. But AIP alone certainly cannot be expected to get them from Deutschland to the Persian Gulf-- they still need to snorkel and manage at least one refueling stop. Additionally, the subs have to transit the Suez Canal. The US Secretary of State, a woman, meets the Egyptian President to request they stop the passage. Of course, the Egyptian refuses. I suppose she neglected to drop in the useful diplomatic phrase "bomb you back to the stone-age". Call Richard Armitage, we need someone who can speak the native dialect. Even so, why didn’t the US set up an ambush at the entrance to the canal? I assume the President ruled that out as underhanded.

I always consider it a sign of trouble when a novel has a President as one of the main characters. Who wants to read about White House staff meetings? The dialogue is always the same: "What do we know? What are our options? All right, here’s what we’re going to do. Do it for the children." Well, all except that last part. The point is, read any worthwhile historical account of a sub skipper or navy commander and the President is never a central figure.

During the buildup to the actual conflict there are a few episodes which did not contribute much to the plot advancement. The British Embassy in DC is hit with a biological attack and book takes a fleeting turn as the SIS track clues to the Arab terrorists. The Chinese ambassador is hauled in before the President to be grilled over ballistic missiles fired over Taiwan. Where does that lead? Nowhere, except maybe as the basis for a sequel.

Torpedo comes fully packed with an assortment of "gee-shucks" characters. There’s the waffling President, the thinks-on-his-feet Captain, a plucky female chief, and one smarty-pants Admiral. Dozens of characters are given a name and a bit of dialogue, even though most exist for a few sentences between introduction and demise. Edwards has more success with the technical elements of the story. Interspersed between chapters are concise histories of the torpedo as a weapon and technical briefings. I found these bits interesting and original. The author does a good job constructing a case for the effect a single occurrence can have on history.

The naval engagements keep Torpedo afloat. A former Chief Petty Officer, the author knows how to work in natural constraints such as gear breaking down and casualties to create tension. The conflicts between the MH-60R helos and the U-boats bear noting. I thoroughly enjoyed how the U-boats employed sub-SAM missiles to take on the air units. Not sure if the hardware and tactic exist in real life but one must wonder, why not? As portrayed in Torpedo, once a helo finds a sub, the sub can readily take them out with a simple heat-seeking surface-to-air missile. If submarines can launch ICBMs and Tomahawks, why not SAMs? I’ve been told that subs can detect the presence of ASW helos miles away and they can take steps to avoid contact. Ok, fine, but what if the helo gets lucky and manages to drop a sonobuoy right over the sub’s position? Should we suppose the sub has no recourse but to get ready for torpedo evasion?

The author is at his best when his characters are processing sonar contacts and developing firing solutions, when the ASROCs fly and the CIWS denies incoming Vipers. The battles action is engaging but Edwards worked in too many gimmick tactics—most notably, the DD firing the 5-inch guns straight up so the shells will fall forward of the bow to detonate mines and tricking acoustic homing torpedoes by maxing out a screw with a bad shaft bearing. Why is it the only good guys come up with these fancy moves?

Edwards wants to tell a big story but the lackluster characters and contrived plot mire it down. As a techno-thriller, Torpedo compares with Clancy but other than Hunt for Red October I’ve never been called a Clancy fan. The naval engagements keep Torpedo afloat and the core of the novel is, of course, the battle between the destroyers and the U-boats. The President would have it no other way.

 


 

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