Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Long War, Part XXI - Flashpoint in Asia

The East and South China Seas

While the Syrian army was being routed in the desert by the alien backed rebels, another global crisis was unfolding in the Pacific theater. The Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in China) were a disputed cluster of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. Once considered worthless the discovery of natural gas reserves beneath the islands made them the fulcrum of a growing nationalistic dispute between Japan and China.

The hotly disputed Senkaku Islands, roughly 1000 kilometres southwest of the X-Com base in Tanegashima.

Japan and China have a long and fractious history, and the possibility of another conflict between these Asian powers in the 21st century had long been mooted by think tanks and global strategists alikeChina's growth into a superpower was accompanied by a commensurate willingness to test the boundaries of her new status. The issue which raised the most conflict was China's willingness to dispute sea territories in the East and South China Sea. While the Japanese and Chinese wrangled over the Senkaku Islands, a similar dispute arose in the South China Sea between China, Vietnam and the Philippines over the Paracel and Spratly island chains. The Philippines sought international arbitration to challenge China's claim over these islands, and on 12 July 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague found that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources in the disputed area.

The disputed Paracel and Spratly island chains.

While many of China's rivals celebrated the ruling, some commentators argued that the Philippines' victory in the international tribunal amounted to nothing, and would ironically only serve to harden China's position in future territorial disputesThese fears were borne out by the increasing escalation of tension in the East China Sea. China refused to attend the proceedings, and stated explicitly that they would not abide by the tribunal's decision. The Philippines and Japan put aside historical enmity stemming from Japan's brutal occupation of Manila during the Second World War, and became de facto allies with Japan agreeing to supply military equipment and navy vessels as a check to Chinese expansionism. US and Japanese joint naval exercises in both the East and South China Seas also grew apace, and Chinese spokesmen warned that war was imminent.

On 6 August a large swarm consisting of over 200 Chinese fishing vessels entered the waters around the Senkaku Islands, prompting a formal protest from JapanThe Chinese government brushed it aside, and stated that the presence of the fishing vessels was in response to the movement of fish shoals rather than any strategic move on the part of Beijing. An unexpected incident, however, momentarily dampened the ardor of the hawks on both sides. On 11 August the Japanese Coast Guard rescued six Chinese fisherman after their vessel collided with a Greek ship and sank in contested waters. The rescue was called an act of "extreme benevolence" by Chinese commentators, and the Chinese government responded swiftly by thanking Japan. For several days the Chinese and Japanese governments put aside their enmity as their respective Coast Guard services coordinated to help locate eight more missing fishermen. For the first time it appeared that there might be the possibility of a future where these two civilizations could co-exist and prosper together instead of being perpetual antagonists.

A member of the Japanese Coast Guard extends his hand to the Chinese fisherman wearing the red lifejacket.

Hopes for peace proved to be a chimera however, as relations between the two nations swiftly deteriorated. Whatever slim chance for peace these two nations might have had vanished as a string of incidents served to further inflame national sentiments and spark off a major conflict in the region.


On 18 August 2016 a Chinese national presented himself to the Taiwanese consulate in Taipei and formally asked for political asylum. Colonel Shaojie Zhang was a long time aide to Admiral Wu Shengli, the head of the Chinese Navy. Given the code name "Chilong" ("hornless dragon") by Taiwanese case officers, Zhang took advantage of a state trip to abscond with several sensitive documents and defect. While Chilong's credentials were impeccable, the story he gave to the Taiwanese debriefers beggared belief. Chilong claimed that Admiral Wu had been "compromised" by the visitors. Furthermore, he claimed that Wu was actively advocating open war within the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and the Communist Party of China (CPC) at the behest of the visitors, and had successfully gathered together a coterie of like-minded hawks keen to avenge the "century of humiliation" suffered by China. Among their expansionist agenda included the annexation of Taiwan, the military defeat of Japan, the expansion of China's sea borders, and most importantly, the ejection of the US from the Pacific. Chilong's account was accompanied by numerous recordings and documents, all of which appeared legitimate.

Taiwanese intelligence, fearing that Chilong's offer was a ruse to provide China with casus belli (a provocation to war), refused his request for asylum. Taiwanese and Chinese relations had reverted back to Cold War levels since the ascension of the new female Taiwanese president in May 2016. President Tsai Ing-wen was an advocate of Taiwanese independence, and since taking office had adopted a risky policy of refusing to recognize the "one China" principle which subsumed Taiwanese independence to China. In response China suspended diplomatic ties with Taiwan, and deliberately slowed down the issue of travel documents, effectively destroying Chinese tourism to the island nation. China also used its position and influence on the UN Security Council to ensure that Taiwan was not invited to an assembly meeting of the UN's International Civil Aviation Organization. Taiwan was not a member of the UN, and China took every opportunity to block every attempt by Taiwan to have her sovereignty recognized. 

Tsai judged that Chilong's request and his preposterous claims were not worth further backlash from Beijing, and ordered his deportation. In keeping with her flexible, open-ended strategy, however, she first informed the Americans, the Japanese, and most importantly, the UN and the X-Com organization about Chilong's claims. Chilong was also deported to Hong Kong rather than mainland China, where he at least had a marginal chance of escaping as opposed to meeting a security detail of Ministry of State Security officials waiting for him to disembark in Beijing. Upon landing in Hong Kong Chilong's background as a special forces soldier and intelligence officer immediately made itself apparent as he easily evaded clumsy, last minute attempts by Chinese officials to apprehend him and disappeared into the city. Before he blended into the general population he made one final call to a Chinese PLA soldier who had served under him in the field. "Dacheng" Nguyen was a former member of the PLA Navy commando team known as the "Sea Dragons", and was now serving in the X-Com unit. Chilong's final message reiterated his request for political asylum, and his claims that the aliens were attempting a covert takeover of the world's governments.

X-Com Goes Covert

By August 2016 X-Com was facing a crisis over jurisdiction. The overt alien abductions in the opening months of the war had all but ceased, leaving little opportunities for the types of intervention which called for Skyrangers dropping out of the sky and disgorging squads of soldiers to sanitize an area. More and more it was becoming apparent that the aliens were integrating themselves in the geopolitics of the world. The most obvious example of this was in Syria, in which alien mechanical units were decisively intervening in the civil war on the side of the rebels. EXALT had clear ties to the visitors as made apparent by the advanced tech at their disposal, and the exact nature of their relationship remained worryingly opaque. There were also furtive whispers and rumors that the rise of the French totalitarianism was due to alien infiltration of the highest levels of government. Such talk was largely unsubstantiated, but for X-Com soldiers who had first hand experience fighting sectoids this particular conspiracy theory was fast gaining traction. Many X-Com soldiers could testify to the strange lapses, visions and hallucinations which occurred when fighting the small grey aliens, and it required no great leap of the imagination to envisage this happening on a larger scale. Chilong's claim offered an opportunity for X-Com to examine tangible evidence of alien infiltration, and to ascertain the aliens' methodology and aims. The problem, again, however, was jurisdiction. China made it clear that Chilong was a wanted fugitive, and his capture a domestic security affair. This was the crux of the problem facing the organization. There were no more "clean" operations, in which the sides were cut and dried, and government permission for interventions a mere formality. It was no longer an issue of humans versus the aliens - despite their best intentions to keep the organization apolitical, it seemed that the increasing predilection for the visitors to actively involve themselves in the affairs of nations meant that X-Com would have to become a political creature, too.

In a historic meeting on 21 August 2016 the X-Com leadership finally decided to take full advantage of the powers given to it by the UN General Assembly. A clandestine squad designated as Kurogumi ("Black Team") was formed, composed only of the most trusted X-Com operatives, and sworn to complete secrecy. Kurogumi would be entrusted with the most sensitive operations, and would operate without any identifying markers of any kind. The operators were informed that the UN would disavow any knowledge of them in the event of being captured or killed. Kurogomi was formed as a direct result of three operational requirements. The first requirement was a request from a former X-Com operative named Pierre "Scree" Rousseau, who was making wild claims that former X-Com soldiers had been brainwashed and pressed into service as ADVENT soldiers in France. The second was to decide if X-Com should ascertain whether Chilong's claims about Admiral Wu's subversion were substantiated, which would entail violating Chinese sovereignty and assisting and harboring a wanted fugitive. The third was the pressing need to investigate the EXALT organization in Syria, which was now inexorably tied to the rebel movement and openly assisted by alien mechanical units. All scenarios required X-Com to pick a side in the internal politics of a sovereign nation, of which two - China and France - were permanent members of the UN Security Council.

In the end the decision fell to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and he was unequivocal in his belief that the general mandate given by the General Assembly in January 2016 was sufficient justification for X-Com to send clandestine units into Syria, France and Hong Kong. Ban also stated that he would take the responsibility for any fallout stemming from X-Com's action, reminding all present that his term would end in December 2016. Despite his professed willingness to accept all responsibility, Ban urged General Bradford to exercise all possible discretion in the deployment of clandestine units. In a private conversation between the two men, Ban said to Bradford: "I am quite willing to fall on my sword - but I would prefer not to, unless it is the only option available."

The only dissenters in the meeting were the Japanese, who were quite sensitive to matters pertaining to China. Prime Minister Abe stated that Japan would continue to offer manpower, material and staging areas for X-Com, but would prefer to distance themselves from actions that might increase tensions between the two nations. To this end General Kiyofumi Iwata, the nominal head of X-Com, would step down as Force Commander, and General Bradford would assume overall command of the task force. There was some discussion about removing Bradford from command and appointing a European or an African instead, but it was quickly dismissed. Bradford had earned respect and prestige for his conduct at Ogbomosho, and Secretary of State John Kerry, also present at the meeting, added ruefully: "No one in Beijing is going to believe that the US and Japan aren't pulling the strings behind the scenes. Might as well give them an American to throw tomatoes at."

Dogfight in the East China Sea

Unfolding events would quickly make all of X-Com's attempts at diplomatic niceties moot. In 2013 China unilaterally established an Air Defense Identification Zone over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and demanded that any aircraft wishing to enter this airspace report themselves to China first. This zone has been studiously ignored by the US, Japan and Taiwan, all of whom disputed China's sovereignty over the airspace. Aircraft on all sides frequently fly in close proximity in a dangerous game of "chicken" over the islands. China accused Japanese fighters of locking on their jets over the East China Sea on 17 June 2016. This mirrored an incident in 2013 when the Japanese accused a Chinese frigate of locking on to a Japanese destroyerLocking on a target by fire control radar is the most provocative act short of firing missiles, and can be grounds for retaliation. Thus far only strict rules of engagement, human steadiness under pressure and awareness of the stakes involved has prevented an incident in the East China Sea.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) of Japan and President Xi Jinping (right) of China can barely conceal their disdain for one another.

On 27 August 2016 a Chinese W-50 drone was spotted by Japanese AWACs over the islands, and four Japanese F-15Js were scrambled to take a closer look. In response the Chinese scrambled two Su-30 Flankers and two Chengdu J-10s to verify and monitor the presence of Japanese fighters over the disputed airspace. Upon arriving at the drone's location the Japanese pilots were unable to locate the drone by radar. One pilot - "Godzilla" Tabata - later claimed to have seen a UFO lurking in the clouds. His claim was not corroborated by flight data, and Tabata himself stated that the UFO did not register on their radar arrays, but he was adamant that both he and his wingman saw the alien craft. Shortly after losing sight of the alleged UFO, the Japanese encountered the Chinese aircraft, at which point one of the Japanese received a warning that his aircraft was under lock from fire control radar. The pilot immediately began evasive maneuvers and fired off countermeasures. Shortly afterwards two other Japanese jets received lock on warnings, including several missile warnings. The Japanese, under severe duress, engaged the Chinese fighters and shot down three Chinese jets for the loss of two of their own.

The Chinese account of the encounter played very differently. According to the Chinese, there was no drone over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and their jets were scrambled when their radar picked up the incoming F-15Js. Upon locating the F-15Js they were immediately fired upon and lost two fighters before they had a chance to react. The remaining two fighters engaged the F-15Js and destroyed two Japanese fighters before a third Chinese fighter went down into the sea. At this point the sole remaining Chinese fighter successfully escaped from the combat, while the remaining Japanese fighters were recalled to await the fallout of this shocking incident.

A pair of Japanese Mitsubishi F15Js.

Both nations reacted with a predictable mix of outrage and fury. Nationalistic sentiments were fanned to blazing heights. Demagogues railed on talk shows and on the Internet. Japanese shops in China were ransacked and pillaged in the same way they had been when the islands first became contested in 2012. Unlike 2012, however, the Japanese began to retaliate. Total defeat in the Second World War had muted the nationalistic movement in Japan for over 70 years and discredited militarism as a bankrupt policy leading only to ruin and devastation. Japan had learned that as long as she was willing to play second fiddle to the US she would prosper and grow in the Pacific - her previous attempt to contest American hegemony had ended in disaster. The running conflict with China, however, was awakening a more belligerent Japan, one whose martial roots went back for hundreds of years. As for China, their national policy was driven by the need to never again be humiliated by the West or by Japan, who had occupied Manchuria in 1931 and were responsible for shocking atrocities at Nanking in 1937. Unlike the US, long accustomed to being winners in her wars, China had been defeated and occupied by the British, the Americans, the French, the Germans, the Italians, the Austrians, the Russians and the Japanese during the period known as the "century of humiliation". There was no way for either nation to back down from this confrontation without a humiliating loss of face. At 3.12 am Eastern Standard Time President Obama of the US received a phone call from Prime Minister Abe asking for assurances that America would uphold her obligations under the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. Japan, in plain English, was asking whether the US would join her in her war against China.

Next: TBC

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Long War, Part XX - Civil War

Previous: The Long War, Part XIX - Mirage

Global Flashpoints

By the year 2016 several flashpoints had been identified as having the potential to escalate into a global war. In Asia the rise of China as a superpower clashed with America's 70 year hegemony over the Pacific. Any dispute involving Taiwan, North/South Korea and Japan could escalate into a general war between the two superpowers. In the Middle East the civil war in Syria had been re-purposed into a war by proxy, as US and Russian forces, long time historical antagonists, sought to remake the Syrian political landscape into one in line with their national interests. The close proximity of both nation's armed forces in the backdrop of one of the most turbulent and dynamic conflicts in that region's troubled past also had the potential to escalate catastrophically. In a Europe beset by a massive refugee crisis, Britain voted to leave the European Union while France was racked by civil strife as President Hollande sought to consolidate his newly instituted dictatorial powers. The civil war in the Ukraine had long been displaced by the war in Syria in the world's headlines but it continued to simmer in the background, prompting NATO to refine its readiness and response capabilities as a check to halt further Russian aggression.

The Syrian conflict had proxies from all over the world.

The infighting and scrambling for position came to a brief halt when the world's satellite network was destroyed in late 2015 by the visitors. The lull allowed the creation of X-Com despite opposition from France in the Security Council, and the task force vindicated itself spectacularly in its containment of the chryssalid threat in Ogbomosho in April 2016. Since Ogbomosho the visitors became more and more conspicuous in their absence. UFO sightings dwindled almost down to zero, and X-Com found itself as an organization without a purpose. Skyrangers sat idle in the hangars. Soldiers drilled, caroused, and studied English in Tanegashima. Researchers and engineers poked and prodded captured alien tech for insights. The feared alien invasion of Earth did not materialize. The battle of Ogbomosho, began to be re-interpreted as a disaster brought about by impulsive Nigerian troops inadvertently releasing an organism no one knew about. "In all likelihood," stated CNN's extra-terrestrial analyst David Bolton. "There was only one chryssalid, and the first Nigerian trooper who let it out started a disastrous chain reaction which nearly wiped out Ogbomosho." Such re-interpretations were met by derision by X-Com personnel, but it did not stop the apparent movement in world media to recast the aliens as less than malevolent invaders, and more like misunderstood visitors. Bewildered by the positive spin, Chief Engineer Raymond Shen remarked, "It's almost like there is a conspiracy to rehabilitate their image." Dr. Moira Vahlen was characteristically blunt in her response. "Perhaps there is."


By mid-2016 the Syrian civil war had been raging for five long years. The war had a long and torturous history, escalating into a many cornered conflict involving all the major players in the region. US backed rebels fought the Russian backed government forces for control of the nation, while fundamentalist sought to carve out an Islamic state in the greater region of Syria and Iraq. In the midst of the chaos the Kurds, a Middle Eastern ethnic group residing in parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, saw the internecine conflict as an opportunity to create the rump of a Kurdish nation. Turkey, a nominal ally of the US, engaged in brinkmanship with Russia while simultaneously attacking Washington for backing Kurdish rebels, whom they considered as terrorists in the same vein as ISIS and al-Qaeda. Commentators on the conflict have long expressed their deep pessimism as to whether any of the sides could achieve a victory significant enough to allow the country to rebuild. Even the most optimistic forecasts could not envision Syria escaping its fate as another failed state in the region, ruled by dozens of warlords and subject to the whims of the superpowers.

What had been largely forgotten in the scramble for power was the plight of the refugees in the war-torn state. The continuing exodus of displaced Syrians to Europe represented the greatest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. While some nations like Germany and Austria distinguished themselves by throwing open their borders, other nations were not as accommodating. In Macedonia police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse refugees attempting to cross the border. Hungary, overwhelmed by the flood of human traffic, closed its borders and diverted the exodus through its disgruntled neighbors. Turkey, standing on Syria's northern border, bore most of the brunt of housing and care for the refugees. The refugee crisis served to fracture and divide the European Union, serving as a catalyst to inflame nationalistic movements. Britain's withdrawal from the European Union was largely influenced by the refugee problem, and even Austria and Germany, initially very receptive to the influx of refugees, soon began to feel the political backlash of allowing so many people into their respective nations.

In Syria, stranded refugees without the means to escape had fewer and fewer choices. Some could opt to hunker down and hope that the conflict passed them by. These people lived a life fraught with uncertainty, subject to the vagaries of war and the whims of the numerous factions involved in the conflict. Thousands of men fled the combat zones in fear of being conscripted, and women and children faced an existence unsure of whether they would be able to acquire the basic necessities of life. Others, radicalized by the loss of friends or family, chose to pick up arms and join a side in the conflict. For those, the organization known as EXALT was becoming a better and better choice. Despite its apparent roots as a mercenary force in service of the jihadists, the organization had expanded tremendously and was presenting a much more welcoming and moderate stance. EXALT camps accepted everyone regardless of denomination, and strictly policed their zones to ensure that ethnic or religious based conflict was nipped in the bud. Even more impressively, EXALT gave members of the international press unconditional access to their camps, and the reports that came back from the front lines were glowing in the extreme. In addition to press access, EXALT provided humanitarian aid organizations access and escorts to badly hit refugee camps. EXALT's success in opening the supply corridors was in stark contrast to the failure of the UN, whom aid organizations accused of favoring al-Assad's regime. More and more organizations chose to deal with EXALT rather than the UN, which was under increasing pressure to open an inquiry into their Syrian aid program due to allegations that supply contracts worth tens of millions of dollars had been awarded to people closely associated with al-Assad.

Offensive in Syria

On 25 June the Syrian government launched a massive offensive at the rebel stronghold of Aleppo with the aid of Russian air power. Assad's plan was to isolate the rebel enclaves and prevent them from linking up with one another. This was part of his overall strategy of maintaining "an army in every corner" of Syria, in order to forestall any kind of partitioning solution that could be put on the table by the UN or any of the superpowers. The rebels, surrounded and lacking air support, pleaded with the US for aid and succor, but President Obama, wary of being entangled in yet another war, limited the US contributions to the supply of small arms, CIA training and limited air strikes. As hopes for a more decisive US intervention waned opponents of Assad's regime turned to a new ally, one that would turn the tide of the war in the rebels' favor.

One of the aliens' heavy weapons platform - the cyberdisk.

This new ally would be one that X-Com was intimately familiar with. The visitors, having disappeared from the skies of the world, suddenly reappeared with a vengeance. Russian jets carrying out bombing runs were intercepted by UFOs and shot down by the dozen. More UFOs dropped out of the sky and destroyed several Syrian airfields, dealing a crippling blow to government air power. On the ground the rebels were supplemented by squads of genetically enhanced EXALT troops armed with high tech weapons of unknown origin. EXALT squads were also accompanied by an exotic array of extra-terrestrial mechanical units. Floating disks known as cyberdisks glided silently and swiftly above the battlefields flanked by an attendant swarm of drones. Cyberdisks resembled miniature UFOs, but their simple, elegant design belied their ability to metamorphosize into heavy weapon platforms in the blink of an eye capable of destroying armor and fortified positions. They were supported by squads of flying humanoids previously identified as floaters. Unlike other floaters encountered in single UFO raids these floaters appeared coordinated and organized, moving swiftly and decisively over the battlefield to seize objectives and repel government attacks. Finally, there were also several sightings of a mechanical unit which resembled a flying mechanical squid. As with the floaters, drones, and cyberdisks, these squid-like machines propelled themselves through the air through means unknown, and their exact role on the battlefield remained unclear. The skies over Aleppo were frequently darkened by great flocks of these mechanical units, and self-styled alien "watchers" found it difficult to sketch and categorize the bewildering array of flying units on display.

Syrian government soldiers try vainly to stop the advance of a sectopod.

The biggest alien weapons platform spotted in the battle was a mechanical biped which towered over the battlefield. Rebels pinned down by government forces watched in awe as what later became known as the sectopod strode past their positions and shattered enemy lines. Supporting these massive war machines were humanoid robots that appeared completely mechanical in nature, yet possessed the fluidity and grace of biological beings as they navigated the uneven, shell-pocked urban streets of Aleppo. The rebels' initial shock and apprehension soon turned into cheers as the aliens methodically took apart the government forces. The biggest ovation was reserved for a sectopod upon which a Syrian resistance flag was affixed - anywhere the machine went it drew cheers, applause and whistles from the harried rebels. For the government forces it meant death - despite being a large and spindly target it was remarkably durable, shaking off several direct RPG hits and returning fire with a massive cannon that devastated everything in its path. They were not invulnerable - three or four were destroyed during the battle after being subjected to intense fire. The destruction of these war machines brought attention to another phenomenon - fallen sectopods attracted swarms of alien drones, and within an hour the machine would rise again, seemingly as good as new. This was true for any mechanical or quasi-mechanical unit of the aliens. One particularly gruesome video showed a floater with a ghastly head wound moving in formation with the rest of its squadron. The floater seemed dead, but its mechanical components still functioned ably enough to allow it - or to compel it - to keep moving with its compatriots.

The seeker. Their role on the battlefield would not become clear until after the cessation of hostilities in Syria.

The aliens never interacted with the rebels directly. Rather, EXALT forces acted as a go-between for alien and rebel units, summoning reinforcements to wherever they were needed. On the few times when circumstances drew both forces together the aliens were alert but uncommunicative. For some rebels a close up look at the floaters was disconcerting to the extreme. "They never talked," said one rebel Syrian colonel. "They seemed to understand Arabic, and could respond to requests like move out of the way or stop. I was surprised at how much they looked like us - the floaters have two arms, a head with two eyes and a torso - they look like people with their feet removed. They never talked, or initiated conversation, even among themselves. They looked angry, crazed even. We didn't want to provoke them, so we stayed clear of them. But we could see EXALT troops speaking to them, and they seemed to understand them well enough."

The alien intervention was decisive. Assad's goal was to encircle the rebels by cutting off Castello Road, the main supply route into eastern Aleppo. Preliminary Russian air strikes were intercepted and destroyed by the aliens. Government armor columns advancing onto Castello Road were intercepted by marauding UFOs, and soon the desert was filled with the blazing wrecks of tanks and APCs. Assad's infantry ran into several ambushes by alien forces buried in the sand - many platoons were wiped out when cyberdisks rose from the dunes and devastated squads with its primary weapon. Units which made it to Castello Road were met by dug in rebel troops reinforced by EXALT units and supported by alien air power. Even night time gave no respite to the hostilities. The aliens were not encumbered by darkness, and fought at the same level of effectiveness. Furthermore, darkness brought a terrifying hidden enemy which strangled and killed isolated government troops. Men were found at dawn with their chests and windpipes crushed, with no other clue as to what was responsible for their grisly fates. Assad's soldiers soon learned to fear the night, and this, coupled with their losses during the daylight hours, had a debilitating effect on morale. What started out as a decisive push to isolate the rebels in Aleppo swiftly turned into a rout which threatened to upend the existing balance of power in Syria.

Syrian armor burns after being hit by UFOs.

Russian prestige could not permit the collapse of the Assad government, and a flurry of diplomatic activity swiftly culminated in a temporary ceasefire in August 2016. George Sabra, the president of the Syrian National Council and leader of the coalition opposing Assad, made a speech after the defense of Aleppo, congratulating the rebels for their heroic stand, as well as stating his intention to step down as president. The new leader of the opposition would be Emilia Amat al-Maseeh, a hitherto unknown political figure who claimed to be a spokesperson and representative of EXALT. That a woman would lead Syria's opposition was an eye-opener to most in the West, and a monumental insult to fundamentalists clinging to a radical vision of Islam. But the most shocking part of al-Maseeh's ascension as president was her claim that she spoke to the visitors, and that they were now ready to communicate.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

X-Com War Diaries, Part XI - December 2016

Previous: X-Com War Diaries, Part X - November 2016

This will be the last post in this series until 2017. After this I'm going back to writing fan fiction, and endeavour to catch up the Long War story to around December 2016 before resuming play. As I've stated before, the purpose of this parallel series was to give me an idea of X-Com's progression during the calendar year in order to better weave in real events and my own headcanon. With my playthrough now up to January 2017 there's now plenty of material to work with. I'm also suffering from X-Com fatigue, if truth be told. Not the writing fiction part - that's always fun - but at this point I reckon I've played almost 1000 missions. The most fun for me now is to play one or two missions a week to advance the campaign, and leave it at that. At this speed I'll have lots of time to catch my headcanon up to my in-game campaign state.

December 2016.

So, December 2016. 18 contacts, of which 12 were shot down or destroyed by X-Com fighters. 15 missions in total, all completed - three abductions, three EXALT missions, one terror mission, seven recovery missions, and one Council mission - disarm an alien bomb. Two scouts shot down by X-Com forces were left to the auspices of local authorities. I refuse to send out squads composed mostly of rookies and will just pass on salvage if there are insufficient experienced troops to lead the way. 

Constructing an Elerium Generator to power the Hyperwave Relay.

The best news in December was that X-Com only lost three soldiers, arresting the casualty freefall we've been in since September. We also had another soldier reach maximum level. Master Sergeant "Graev" Maestas joins the ranks of the elite. Snipers make up the preponderance of that list as they are tucked away safely behind the front lines and are rarely exposed to enemy fire. If the aliens can shoot your snipers they will - I found this out the hard way when "Syl" Roche bought the farm. "Akuma" Ishikawa is my most impressive max level soldier because his job is to scout ahead and draw fire. His survival is belied by the fact that there are many, many other scouts on the memorial wall who were not as fortunate. It's taken 10 months to create my short list of elites (I don't have a full squad of max level soldiers yet), and they can die so fast, especially in Ironman mode. I've become so calloused at losing good soldiers, especially after the loss of some favourites earlier in the campaign. It's never fun, but the temptation to quit and restart is gone. Final victory is all that matters. Once I finish this Long War campaign I'm never going to play the Long War again. X-Com 2 though? I haven't played through the latest DLC - Shen's Last Gift - so never fear. I'll still be playing some variant of X-Com well into the future, just not the Long War. My dream game is a hybrid Jagged Alliance / X-Com hybrid, where the dysfunctional cast of mercs is tasked with saving the world. That would be awesome.

The three EXALT missions we conducted this month allowed us to finally pinpoint the location of the EXALT base. It was in Japan, leading to unique situation in which Japan harboured both an alien base and the EXALT base at the same time. That would be our objective for next month then - to assault both strongholds, and bring Japan back into the Council fold. But that account will have to wait until my fan fiction is back on track.

At the close of 2016 X-Com is striking back, and have won back two countries after losing five to the invaders.

So by the close of 2016 X-Com are armed with gauss weapons and Aegis armour, with plasma weapons and Titan armour in the pipeline. We have four to five MEC troopers who share two basic exo-suits, and we've started giving small genetic enhancements to select scouts and assault troops to increase their survivability. We possess two alloy SHIVs and two or three expendable older models which can be taken at a pinch. Our fighter based airforce is fully upgraded, and can be depended on to blow small to medium contacts out of the sky. We have captured and interrogated every member of the alien invasion force, with the sole exception of the Ethereals. Our cadre of psykers is growing. EXALT is exposed and vulnerable to a final assault. Three nations are still occupied by the invaders, but the return of Canada and Russia to the fold have encouraged and emboldened the task force.

On the downside - our fighters are still no match for large or very large contacts. Sectopods have been encountered a few times, and while these war machines are serious threats, they pale in comparison to the Ethereals themselves. Fights with the alien overlords are dangerous because of their ability to mind control. Sectoid commanders share this ability, but aren't as dangerous because they die pretty easily. An MCed trooper can be rescued by concentrating all fire on the controlling sectoid, but Ethereals are far more robust and have the ability to reflect damage. They're usually accompanied by a cadre of Muton Elite guard as well, while the sectoid commanders just have sectoids and the occasional mechtoid for backup. We still haven't had the base assault yet, which is somewhat unnerving because we'll be fighting a fully upgraded alien force when they do hit us. Most of the enemy have 20 hit points or more nowadays, and we really need our plasma weapons to keep up with the health escalation. Finally, there's always the fact that the task force is just one step away from disaster at all times. One bad mission could wipe out my elite cadre at a moment's notice. So there's plenty of fight still left in this campaign. For now though, it's time to return to the fan fiction.

Next: TBC in 2017

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

X-Com War Diaries, Part X - November 2016

In November X-Com tracked 23 contacts. The problem with world wide coverage is that you can see everything, and have to respond accordingly. At the beginning of the campaign X-Com only had one satellite, and thus could conduct their operations in blissful ignorance of what was happening to the rest of the world. This peace was only interrupted by UFO activity over the nation where you began, and by abductions and terror attacks popping up on occasion. With global satellite coverage you can see the UFOs going about their business. You can see abductors heading to land, and terror ships moving towards their targets. Raiders and destroyers occasionally bomb nations, and supply barges usually show the potential location of a new enemy base. The one thing I have yet to see in this campaign is a very large target moving in towards the X-Com base. That would be the prelude to a base invasion.

X-Com continue to complete their missions, but lost 13 soldiers this month.

X-Com shot down or destroyed 15 of the 23 contacts, a glowing testament to the new found efficacy of our air force. We were still fielding terrestrial fighter jets, but these jets had been tremendously augmented by alien tech. Our jets were armoured and heavily armed - in addition to laser cannons or phoenix cannons, the jets carried wingtip missiles and UFO countermeasures. Our air force had every possible upgrade short of creating the Firestorm, and it showed in this month's tally.

Russia was liberated from the aliens this month, leaving only the nations of Asia under the yoke of the enemy.

On the ground X-Com conducted 16 missions, out of which one was aborted. X-Com conducted five abduction missions, two terror missions, one EXALT mission, one base assault in Russia, five UFO assaults, one UFO recovery and the final mission in the Portent DLC arc. In keeping with my resolution to be more conservative with my soldier's lives I aborted a UFO assault when too many pods were aggroed. I also opted not to undertake crash recoveries of four downed UFOs. Up to this point I had taken every mission on offer, but now our new protocol was to only take a recovery or assault mission if doing so still left a functional squad in reserve for unexpected events.

Five berserkers, plus a cadre of mind controlling sectoids behind. No thanks - time to bug out.

Casualty wise blood continued to flow unabated, however. 13 dead this month. 9 in September, 11 in October, now 13 in November. The numbers were getting worse, but I bolstered task force numbers by hiring a large number of rookies. We'd also been getting Corporal level soldiers (level 3) as rewards for completing Council requests for samples and the like, so the experience loss wasn't all one way. Nonetheless, this was the third month in a row of large losses, and my roster was becoming dangerously brittle, filled at the top by a small number of experienced veterans with the remainder being rookies. 

Successfully completing the Furies mission (rescuing Annette Durand's companions) gave us three more psykers, but the month still ended with a net loss in overall experience. The Furies mission marked the end of all the remaining DLC content, meaning that we would no longer need to keep a squad in reserve in case these lucrative missions popped up. The Furies mission is also the hardest mission of the game in my opinion, because of the time limit and the number of enemies present. Luckily since I've played this mission about a gazillion times already I knew that using a camouflaged scout and running her down the left flank to deactivate the kill switch while the rest of the squad kept the aliens busy at the entrance was the best way to complete it. That's the strength of X-Com 2 over X-Com - partially randomized maps means you don't get map fatigue.

X-Com facilities are all but complete - the only thing we need is the hyperwave relay. And a Gollop chamber.

November also marked the auspicious debut of the chryssalid hive queen. I've seen this monstrosity in other playthroughs, but it still doesn't quell the queasy feeling I get in the pit of my stomach when I see this creature. I'm going to let the pictures tell the tale:

"Wait - what the hell is that?"

"It just jumped onto that building!"

"Retreat! Everyone fall back now!"

"Everything you've got! NOW!"

This thing is ridiculous. The worst part about it is that it fits through open doorways and windows like a normal soldier. I found this out the hard way in another campaign - I ran one of my soldiers into a house trying to avoid it, thinking that there's no way that thing is going to be able to squeeze in through the door. In an amazing feat of contortionism the monster leapt through the window and killed and impregnated my luckless soldier. On top of this miraculous ability it has the speed and agility of a regular chryssalid, meaning that it can MOVE, and it can jump onto buildings in a single bound. The best defense against this hulking creature is to run, shoot, and pray. Oddly enough flashbangs still suffice to slow them down, so having soldiers equipped with these weapons can make the difference between having enough time to take one down, or having an embryo forced down your gullet.

The problem is that they usually don't come alone. They're usually accompanied by a cohort of smaller but no less deadly broodlings, and if you are fighting another pod or aggro another one while fighting them it is game over man, game over. Time to bug out (excuse the pun hehe). Luckily for us the queen aggroed early with no other pods in sight, and so our response was to slow the pack down with a flashbang and pull back to the edges of the map all the while blasting apart its little escorts. Once all the smaller chryssalids are down we then focus the queen, and hope we kill it before it rips apart our squad. Despite our best efforts it was still able to catch up to and impregnate Werner before finally collapsing at the feet of a terrified Annette Durand. If you look at the final picture above you can see the zombified remains of Werner standing next to the right leg of the queen, while Durand is standing underneath the left leg. If we hadn't killed that creature on that turn Durand would now also be a chryssalid zombie. Luckily "Coreus" Shearer was on hand to cause ridiculous amounts of damage with his alloy shotgun.

X-Com was very busy in November.

The game is definitely getting harder. Unlike vanilla X-Com the game doesn't get easier as your tech improves - the aliens keep pace with you through upgraded minions, and if you let them have too many bases they will overtake you in upgrades and then just overwhelm you with better troops. The strategic situation impacts the tactical. I'm gambling tech-wise and will skip T4 pulse weapons to acquire T5 plasma ASAP, but it means there will be a couple of months where I'll have to rely on T3 gauss weapons against tough opposition. This month we were able to equip our troops with Aegis armour, which is the last stop before Titan armour - hopefully this will be enough to see the troops through the rough patch. This is also another reason why we've been capturing so many aliens whenever possible - we need their weapons to construct our own plasma variants.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

X-Com War Diaries, Part IX - October 2016

If September was tough, then October was simply brutal. The numbers tell the story. 14 UFOs tracked, of which seven were shot down and three landed and were assaulted. 21 missions attempted, with one failure. Five abduction missions. Three UFO assaults. Seven UFO recoveries. Two EXALT missions. Two terror missions. One base assault. One DLC mission. Incidentally the difference between a UFO assault and a UFO recovery is that the former involves attacking a UFO that has landed and has a full complement of crew, while the latter is securing a downed UFO which has taken losses during the crash. Oddly enough the more successful our air arm is, the more work it is for the ground troops.

October 2016.

The base assault in Canada occurred in the early part of September. We had already completed the Super Skyranger foundry project, which meant we could take an additional two soldiers to make a total of 10. It was a good thing we did, because four of them would die in the assault. Advancing carefully and methodically we cleared room after room and set up ambushes for alien pods, drawing them into carefully prepared kill zones. Despite our caution things still had a tendency to spiral out of control when pods would arrive unbidden. By the time we arrived at the hyperwave beacon chamber the troops were exhausted and spent - medikits, grenades and arc thrower charges had all been exhausted, and it was touch and go as to whether or not they could see it to the end. Two Vulcan mechtoids also refused to be lured into our ambush, and both war machines were bolstered by a sectoid commander hiding out of sight, leading into several turns of both sides hiding and refusing to be drawn out into the open. This impasse was broken by a flanking move by "Eva" Ivanova, one of my maximum level snipers. I had no one left to draw overwatch fire - my scout "Redbeard" von Heuvel had already been killed, nor did I have any smoke grenades remaining left to create cover. Eva had to do the dash by herself, but by some miracle she was not hit, and she was able to get herself in a position above the mechtoids where she could start blasting them with her alloy rifle without eating return fire (due to Squad Sight and a terrified spotter). This broke the deadlock, and allowed our exhausted soldiers to complete the assault.

Genetics lab online.

The second mission in the Operation Progeny DLC is called Deluge, and it triggered in the last days of October. This mission is set atop a crumbling dam, and X-Com operatives have to race across a road chock full of abandoned vehicles in order to get to a truck at the far end. In the end I had to exploit the win condition because there was no way we were getting to the truck in time. On the last two turns I just belted the alloy SHIV forward as far as I could, and even when the intrepid robot was smoking and on the cusp of falling apart from enemy fire it managed to trundle over the goal line on its last legs, and that ended the mission. Never mind that the rest of the squad was surrounded by mechtoids, mutons, floaters and sectoids. It was good that the mission auto-completed once we hit the goal, because my squad would have been massacred otherwise.

The successful assault on the Canadian alien base arrested the free fall of nations leaving the Council.

Exploit or not the mission was counted a success, and securing the truck added Annette Durand to our roster. Our roster of psionics was growing slowly - by the end of October X-Com had 11 psionics on its roster including Durand. All of them were only tier one psykers, but it was a good start - unfortunately "Alysianah" Towagozi would die during a terror mission in Australia, reducing their numbers to 10.

Annette Durand after her rescue by X-Com.

October also saw the genetics lab go online for the first time. I have to say that I am not a big fan of genetic enhancement as a rule - I prefer spending resources on MECs instead and creating big damage sponges rather than doling out MELD for incremental improvements to my soldiers. Nonetheless the lab gave me the option (as well as an adjacency bonus for research) and next month I might enhance my assault soldiers and scouts, who need every bit of kit to increase their already marginal survivability. October saw the introduction of bipods, armoured jets, and improvements to our gauss arsenal through quench gun research (improving armour penetration), among other things.

"Tora" Sato contemplates his new MEC exo-suit.

Speaking of MECs, October also saw their debut in the field. "Tora" Sato and "Belghast" Berger were my first two MEC troopers and they performed splendidly, acting as tanks, scouts and fire platforms. In keeping with the Long War's added complexity there are eight types of MECs spawned from each of the eight soldier classes, each with their own unique ability. "Tora" Sato was a Jaeger, with the ability to keep shooting if he killed a flanked or exposed target (In The Zone). "Belghast" Berger was a Goliath equipped with Absorption Fields (40% less damage taken after the initial 2 points), and his MEC was designed for survivability and durability. Both MECs were used pretty much the same way as the SHIVs - they drew fire, triggered enemy pods, then were pulled back to be repaired by arc thrower wielding engineers. They could also be healed by medics, unlike the SHIVs, which extended their damage soaking capability. In many ways this month was an auspicious month for X-Com, marking the introduction of MECs, the growth of our psionic cadre, and the implementation of the genetic enhancement program.

The month ended on a bad note, however, as my maxed sniper "Syl" Roche was killed on a UFO recovery mission that we eventually had to abort. Syl was one of two troopers who hit max level this month - the other was "Tengu" Hara, another soldier who features prominently in my fan fiction. I underestimated the size of the enemy force at the downed UFO site, and took more rookies that I normally would, thinking foolishly that Syl's Double Tap sniping skills would offset their inexperience.

The first pod we triggered on that ill-fated 100th mission.

Imagine my surprise when the first pod we triggered was a squadron of seven heavy floaters. Heavy floaters are terrible enemies for rookies, because not only are they durable but they are also very difficult to hit. For rookies with starting marksmanship the odds are very poor, and in return heavy floaters are accurate and armed with plasma grenades which they use to destroy cover. Our first turn we tried to engage them, but were unable to bring down a single heavy. Their return fire was particularly vicious, killing two X-Com operatives by first blowing up their cover, then blasting the exposed soldiers where they stood. After that it was just a mad dash back to the extraction zone, and Syl died trying to cover for her troops.

Our 100th mission was also our first failure, and to make matters worse we lost four X-Com operatives, including max-level soldier Lieutenant Bridget "Syl" Roche.

Operation Twisted Moon was our 100th mission in this campaign, and the first mission I had to abort. I was resolved that our troops would never push an untenable position again, especially in UFO assault and recovery missions where nothing political was at stake. Failing abduction and terror missions had severe geopolitical consequences, but as far as I could tell, aborting UFO assaults and recoveries only meant foregoing the salvage. Our casualty count for October was 11, surpassing the 9 soldiers lost in the previous month, and taking our total number of casualties to 35. This is a real cause for concern, because at this rate of attrition X-Com is going to be too brittle to progress further in the campaign. Rookie deaths are not so important, but losing veterans like "Syl" Roche, "Alysianah" Towagozi and "Redbeard" Heuvel are real setbacks. From here on in I'm not going to be shy about pulling the plug on missions in order to preserve my squads. The amount of missions being thrown at X-Com is also a concern - nominally we have three squads, but in reality we often have to assemble patchwork formations to plug the gap. Something has to be done to staunch the blood, else X-Com is going to die a death of a thousand cuts.

Next: X-Com War Diaries, Part X - November 2016