Arc Light (novel)

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Arc Light
First edition (h/b)
AuthorEric L. Harry
CountryUnited States of America
PublisherSimon & Schuster (hardcover)
Jove Books (paperback)
Publication date
September 1994
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Pages625 pp (paperback edition)
ISBN0-671-88048-9 (hardcover)
ISBN 0-515-11792-7 (paperback)
813/.54 20
LC ClassPS3558.A6753 A89 1994

Arc Light is the debut novel by Eric L. Harry, a techno-thriller about limited nuclear war published in September 1994 and written in 1991 and 1992.

As China and Russia clash in Siberia, and war brews between the United States and North Korea, a series of accidents and misunderstandings lead to a Russian nuclear strike against the United States. The U.S. retaliates against Russia, and World War III begins.

The novel becomes part military techno thriller, part political drama as heated internal debates concerning the right course of action in the war unfold on both sides while each government tries to deal with the colossal damage the nuclear strike has done to their countries. Moderate voices try to prevent a second nuclear exchange by taming the hawks and working behind the scenes to arrange a ceasefire. Meanwhile, the on-the-ground consequences for civilian and military alike are explored in depth.

The novel focuses on three key groups:

  • National Security Advisor Greg Lambert and his immediate political superiors: President Walter Livingston, his successor and the National Security Council.
  • Major David Chandler, US Army Reserve, as he is activated and sent to Europe where his unit spearheads the allied advance towards Moscow.
  • Chandler's wife, Melissa, as she struggles with the birth of their first child in the midst of a nuclear war.

The title refers to the term arclight, which was a code during the Vietnam War for a strike by a B-52.[1] This term is used in the opening pages of the book.[2]

Plot summary[edit]


Set in the late 1990s in the backdrop of a stalemated Russo-Chinese War for control of Eastern Siberia, North Korea invades the Demilitarized Zone weeks before a planned reunification.

Part I[edit]

In order to end the war quickly, the commander of the Siberian Military District, General Yuri Razov, calls the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Andrew Thomas, to warn the United States of Russia's decision to use tactical nuclear weapons against China. Thomas tries to talk Razov out of this decision, with no success. In Moscow, a radical anti-Western Russian general named Zorin overthrows the civilian government and STAVKA, seizing control of the Kremlin in a swift coup d'etat and taking command of the nuclear communicators.

In Washington, National Security Advisor Greg Lambert has dinner with Russian colonel Pavel Filipov, military attaché to the embassy in Washington and a close friend of his and his family. As a reward for the US logistical cooperation in the war with China, Filipov reveals that Zorin was the one who convinced the North Koreans to invade the DMZ, in order to preserve Russia's supply lines over the Korean peninsula.

As the Russian attack in China unfolds, the US moves to DEFCON 3 as a preventive measure and recalls all its forces back to service: while Lambert is ordered to board Nightwatch with the rest of the cabinet and the Joint Chiefs, Filipov is recalled to Moscow. As the White House is being evacuated, US President Walter Livingston instructs the Secretary of State to warn the Chinese of the impending strike, not wishing to be complicit in Russia's heinous actions. Lambert is wary of the ramifications that decision might entail, but the chaos of the evacuation prevents the President from hearing his advisor's objections.

In Los Angeles, US Army Reserve Major David Chandler is ordered to present himself at March Air Force Base to take command of his unit, leaving behind his 9-month pregnant wife, Melissa. As the mobilization continues, Melissa enters in labor and decides to leave the city.

From the Kremlin bunker, General Zorin watches the US evacuation and bomber takeoffs through cable news. Outside, loyalist government forces cut the coup plotters' communications before taking the building by force, leaving Zorin unable to contact the majority of Russia's armed forces, including Razov's nuclear attack in the Far East. After being warned of Russia's incoming nuclear attack by the US, China retaliates by launching their own nuclear weapons against Russia. The warheads directed at Moscow, however, are intercepted by the nuclear-tipped anti-ballistic missile system deployed around the capital. Zorin –sleep-deprived and under the effect of amphetamines– is convinced that the US took advantage of the confusion and launched a first strike against Russia. Still in control of the nuclear communicators, Zorin orders the ICBM forces in Western Russia to launch at their pre-programmed targets. Their ballistic-missile submarines are not used in the attack, as they are far less accurate than the ICBMs and, thus, only useful for targeting large targets with wide margins of error, such as population centers. The submarines are ordered to maintain their positions in a “bastion” around the Kara Sea, to be used in case Russia orders a second strike.

Onboard Nightwatch, President Livingston and his staff are informed of the Chinese retaliatory attacks against Russia. At the same time, however, they receive warning of Russian strategic weapons being directed at the United States. Based on their trajectory, the attack is classified as a “counterforce strike”, directed at the US' strategic military facilities (such as missile silos, major air force and naval bases and NORAD) instead of civilian infrastructure. The President takes the Joint Chiefs' advice and orders its own ICBMs to retaliate in kind against Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces, before their silos are destroyed in the incoming attack.

In March AFB, Chandler takes command of his assigned battalion and departs in a commercial airliner, en route to an unknown destination. Minutes later, the base is obliterated by dozens of Russian nuclear warheads. Other targets such as Cheyenne Mountain, Raven Rock, together with the US nuclear silos and major bomber and radar bases, suffer a similar fate. Immediate casualties in the mainland United States are estimated to be between 4.5 and 7 million dead, with hundreds of thousands more left severely injured or exposed to heavy doses of radiation.

As President Livingston heads to his private cabin to collect his thoughts, Chairman Thomas ponders to the rest of the staff aboard Nightwatch how the Chinese were able to retaliate so quickly, as their missile forces are not as advanced as those of Russia or the U.S. and require too much 'lead time'. Lambert informs Thomas and the rest of the staff of Livingston's order to warn China of Russia's incoming nuclear attack. This confession shatters the staff's confidence on the President's ability to lead the country.

Returning to Moscow from the Far East, Razov arrests Zorin and the rest of the coup plotters. Via the hotline, Razov assures President Livingston that the nuclear attack against the US was a mistake, promising that there will be no more attacks from Russia. Livingston cuts Moscow off in disgust, telling Razov they better keep their word regarding no further attacks, as the US continues its nuclear retaliatory attacks against Russia. The reformed STAVKA learns that the submarines in the Kara Sea bastion received orders from Zorin to simultaneously launch their nuclear missiles on fail-deadly conditions in case they come under attack and to disregard any and all recall orders.

With the overall loss of ground communication, Chandler's aircraft is notified to land on Gander Airport in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.

Part II[edit]

Still onboard Nightwatch, President Livingston and his cabinet plan for the aftermath of the nuclear strike. Since the Russian attack was not directly intended against the civilian population, casualty numbers are relatively low. To stop the conflict from escalating further, Livingston orders the US military to stand down and engage Russian forces only if fired upon first, a decision that draws Lambert and the military staff to question his judgement. The stress takes its toll on the President, as he must approve every emergency decision arriving at his desk, from farming in the midst of radioactive fallout, calling the draft lottery to housing and disaster management.

Meanwhile, on the Congressional Bunker in Greenbrier, West Virginia, the surviving members of the US Congress pass a declaration of war in an emergency session, instructing the President to prosecute the war until all of Russia's nuclear forces are disarmed or annihilated. From Mount Weather, Vice-President Paul Constanzo makes a TV address calling for a massive military response against Russia in retaliation for their attack on the US. Constanzo's words are diametrically opposed to Livingston's wishes, who believes that a land invasion of Russian territory and/or an attempt at forced nuclear disarmament will lead to a second nuclear exchange, this time directed against each other's cities; a MAD scenario that would inevitably lead to a nuclear winter. President Livingston lands in Philadelphia to set up his cabinet on land and solve the issue with the Vice-President and Congress.

Returning to Los Angeles, Melissa Chandler begins labor. She gives birth to a baby boy in a crowded hospital in Palm Springs. In the aftermath of the nuclear attack, drinking water and foodstuffs become scarce across the United States.

Congress orders an investigation into the causes of the war, calling a number of witnesses, including National Security Advisor Greg Lambert, to the Greenbrier facilities to testify before the special congressional committee. On the way from the bunker, Lambert requests the military for help to locate his wife and in-laws, from which he hasn't heard since he was evacuated to Nightwatch. On the irradiated outskirts of Washington D.C, Lambert hitches a ride in an Army helicopter and spots his wife's abandoned car on a highway. Some miles further down the road, he finds his in-laws' minivan: the corpses of Lambert's spouse, relatives and Filipov's wife are inside, long dead from exposure to radioactive fallout.

In the Kremlin, Razov is overruled by the STAVKA generals and agrees to a more active role to defend Russia, ordering an invasion of Iceland, a strategic deployment into western Ukraine to counter US forces in the border with Slovakia and halting the ongoing Russian incursion in northeast China, redeploying most forces and matériel for the European theatre.

Part III[edit]

In front of the congressional committee, Lambert refuses to testify, arguing that the information is classified for national security purposes. The US Supreme Court, now based in Mount Weather, rules that he must answer all questions put forward to him by the Congressional committee.

Although Livingston desperately tries to avoid an all-out war between the US and Russia, skirmishes between both countries continue in and around Russian territory. After the governments of Germany and France refuse to support the US as part of NATO, his cabinet begins to negotiate a new “Treaty on Euro-American Military Security” (TEAMS), encompassing the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Canada, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Iceland, Greece and Turkey (with Finland as a secret partner). Despite the restraint exercised towards Russia, Livingston orders to detonate a high-altitude nuclear warhead over Pyongyang as a warning shot to force North Korea out of its invasion of South Korea: the ploy is successful, as North Korea notifies the UN of its immediate military withdrawal from the South.

Again in front of Congress, Lambert reveals President Livingston's order to warn China of the incoming nuclear attack by Russia. This, alongside his refusal to prosecute Congress' declaration of war, triggers calls for his immediate impeachment. In Russia, STAVKA decides to hold any further attacks on US or allied targets, depending on Livingston's continuity as President.

As his choices run short, President Livingston is notified of a secret straw vote that Congress will conduct before the actual impeachment vote: if the resolution against him passes, he will order the U.S. Armed Forces into full war footing against Russia. The straw poll is a landslide in favor of impeachment. As promised, Livingston's final act in office is to declare free-fire rules against any and all Russian military targets, with the notable exception of the submarines in the Kara Sea bastion. In his final moments as President, Livingston begs Lambert to stay in the cabinet to moderate Constanzo's aggression towards Russia, urging him to avoid a second nuclear exchange at all costs.

Part IV[edit]

After Constanzo is sworn in as President, the US and its allies move to invade Russia. At the same time, General Razov orders an amphibious assault on Iceland to bog down a number of elite US and Canadian units from joining the main invasion force. With most of the frontline Russian forces still in the Siberian front, the western border is left lightly defended. STAVKA orders the use of nerve gas and the conscription of Provisional Troops to support the defense of the Russian motherland. Constanzo abrogates Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty and exhorts former NATO members in France, Germany and Norway to respect the US' supply lines and military facilities. As Russia's satellites are shot down by ASAT-armed F-15s, their main submarine bases in the Northern Sea are destroyed in a conventional bombing run. Russia counterattacks by using Tu-22M and Tu-160 bombers to knock out power stations across the United States, sending cities such as Los Angeles in darkness.

Major Chandler's aircraft lands on an air base in Prešov, Slovakia, near the border with Ukraine. On his first day on a war zone, Chandler manages to get two of his men killed in an unmarked minefield. After surviving a Russian chemical bombardment, he is ordered by Colonel Harkness, the regional US forces commander, to take command of an armored battalion, despite Chandler's protests to be transferred to an intelligence unit.

With Washington D.C. contaminated by nuclear fallout, the US government organizes a provisional capital in Philadelphia, formally transferring most functions and personnel from the bunkers. National Security Adviser Gregory Lambert becomes famous among a cautious civilian population, thanks to his statement against Livingston in Congress and the loss of his family in the nuclear attack.

In the Kremlin, Filipov is ordered by Razov to travel to the United States and meet his friend Lambert (under the excuse of looking for his wife) to warn him about the orders received by the ballistic missile submarines in the Kara Sea bastion. After a recorded debriefing in a CIA safe house in Philadelphia, Lambert tells Filipov that his wife died in the attack. In a meeting with the Principals Committee, President Constanzo reviews Filipov's taped statement: the Joint Chiefs, together with the directors of the CIA and NSA, believe that the so-called “Kara Sea submarine bastion threat" is a bluff, arguing that a dead-hand order is inconsistent with both Russia's top-down military doctrine and game theory scenarios.

The US and its allies quickly advance in two prongs from their staging areas in Central Europe towards the heart of European Russia. Despite the surrender of Ukrainian and Belarusian forces, and the Polish-led northern prong advancing according to plan, the southern prong stagnates close to Prešov under heavy resistance by the Russian 8th Guards Army. Because of the potential for a protracted land war, the Federal Reserve and Treasury chairs warn President Constanzo of a very high probability that, thanks to large portions of the civilian population abandoning the major cities in fear of a second nuclear exchange, an economic depression of unprecedented proportions might occur in the coming months unless civilian economic activity is normalized. As such, Constanzo signs an executive order to force all civilian employees back to their jobs. Together with that, Lambert proposes a previously-rejected plan to open a third front in northwest Russia with amphibious landings in Karelia, potentially reaching Moscow before the year's end. Supported by Finnish forces, the amphibious attack is successful: Russian forces in the area are left unable to respond in time to prevent a potential allied encirclement on Saint Petersburg.

In the Russian Far East, US Marines stage a landing on Primorye, forcing the Russian forces deployed around China to hold their positions instead of transferring to European Russia. Despite heavy losses, they are successful in the capture of Vladivostok and the destruction of several sections of the Trans-Siberian Railway line. After the Japanese Self-Defense Forces occupy the Kuril Islands, Sakhalin and other Siberian regions declare their secession from Moscow's control.

Razov calls the US television networks to make a direct address to the United States, warning its citizens that, if allied forces breach Moscow's ring motorway, Russia's ballistic missile submarines would be ordered to attack all major US population centers. The announcement triggers panic across the United States, with cities becoming deserted of people during a critical economic moment. In Los Angeles, Melissa Chandler decides to evacuate the city, fearful for her life and her newborn son's. Apart from the TV address and Filipov's debriefing in Philadelphia, the CIA received the same information from a well-placed HUMINT source with connections to Russian leadership, codenamed “Damocles” (suspected by Lambert to be Filipov). CIA and NSA analysts maintain their argument to President Constanzo that everything received from Russia about the “bastion” is a planned disinformation campaign by STAVKA to keep their nuclear counterforce ability. The military officers, however, become more aware of the potential risk of escalation.

As US and allied forces approach Moscow, the Damocles source continues to feed intelligence to the US, including reports that Russian forces are preparing for a long, protracted nuclear war of attrition against the occupying forces. President Constanzo, looking for a way to end the war, instructs Lambert to meet personally with Razov in Moscow to offer him a peace agreement: Russia would surrender its nuclear arsenal in exchange for entering the US' “nuclear umbrella” for a period of five years (renewable depending on political conditions), respect for Russia's pre-war borders, re-arming of its conventional armed forces and scheduled withdrawal of American and allied troops from European Russia. Lambert would have two hours to reach an agreement. If he goes incommunicado after the deadline passes (or is believed to be under duress) US forces will receive their orders to attack both Moscow and the Kara Sea submarine bastion, followed by the destruction of all major metropolitan areas in Russia with atomic demolition munitions.

Part V[edit]

At the same time Lambert crosses the Moscow frontline under a white flag to meet with Filipov, the other members of STAVKA depose Razov. After Lambert and Filipov are notified of the impromptu coup, the latter moves to rescue Razov. Filipov's vehicles intercept the convoy carrying Razov and his entourage outside Lefortovo. Lambert offers Razov the US terms for a ceasefire, to which he personally agrees. As Lambert's deadline passes, President Constanzo orders the attack on Moscow and the Kara Sea bastion to begin immediately.

A freshly promoted Lt. Colonel Chandler orders his armored task force to breach the Moscow perimeter. His tank is disabled by a Russian ATGM and is forced to continue on foot. As he reaches an enemy foxhole, he finds the bodies of hundreds of provisional Russian soldiers, killed by US-launched chemical weapons.

Bombing and artillery cover Moscow as Razov, Filipov and Lambert race back to the Kremlin. Fighting their way inside the bunker, Razov takes control of the nuclear communicators and inputs a code. Lambert calls President Constanzo to tell him that Razov has agreed to the ceasefire terms. Razov explains to Constanzo that the code he entered on the communicator disabled the detonators on the nuclear warheads on the Bastion's submarines: a fail-safe measure established by Gorbachev after the attempted coup in 1991 to prevent a nuclear civil war.

Constanzo orders to abort the naval attack on the Kara Sea. Most of the override orders are acknowledged, but the cruiser USS Anzio is engaged in combat with one of the submarines and its communications are knocked out. The destroyer USS John S. McCain is ordered to sink the Anzio; the order arrives too late, however, as the Anzio fires its ASROC batteries against the Russian submarine, triggering the fail-deadly orders on the Bastion's submarines to launch their missiles. Razov assures Constanzo that the warheads will not detonate, but he doesn't believe it despite Lambert's pleas. In response to the launches, Constanzo orders the US Navy's SSBNs to launch their missiles against Russia on fail-deadly orders of their own: the detection of an electromagnetic pulse consistent with a nuclear attack.

The Russian missiles strike their targets all over the United States, although (true to Razov's word) no nuclear warheads are detonated. As US and Russian forces agree to a ceasefire and disengage from combat, Lambert, Filipov and Razov climb upstairs to the heavily damaged Red Square. Still angry, Filipov says farewell to his former friend Lambert, as Razov hints that he was the “Damocles” source all that time.


Three months after the formal cease of hostilities, the security situation in Russia grows worse for the American occupation forces, as anarchist protests pop up in major cities, triggered by the lack of food during the winter.

In Los Angeles, Lt. Colonel Chandler says farewell to his wife and child as his two-week leave of duty comes at an end, returning to Europe to take command of his armored task force.


  1. ^ Hemphill, Robert. Platoon: Bravo Company. Macmillan, 2001, pg. 245.
  2. ^ Harry, Eric L. (September 1994). Arc Light. ISBN 978-0515117929., pg. 11.

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