Meet the man who inspired Tom Clancy and The Hunt for Red October.
- By Michael PeckMichael Peck is an award-winning writer specializing in defense and national security issues. He holds an MA in political science from Rutgers University.
Writer Tom Clancy, who died last week, co-wrote the 1986 bestseller Red Storm Rising with former U.S. Navy officer Larry Bond. "I wrote like 1 percent of [that] book," laughs Bond — but as the designer of the popular naval wargame Harpoon, he played an important behind-the-scenes role as a naval warfare counselor to Clancy. Foreign Policy caught up with Bond this week to reminisce about his long relationship with the master of the military thriller.
Foreign Policy: How did you and Tom Clancy meet?
Larry Bond: Harpoon was published in April 1980. I would get letters from enthusiasts with questions about naval systems and stuff. Tom Clancy’s was one of the letters I got with questions about naval warfare. I answered it. Didn’t think more anything about it. Tom sent a follow-up letter with more questions, and we eventually started talking on the phone. We became good friends. He would call and we would chew the fat for hours. That’s why I always answer my mail. You never know where a letter is going to lead.
FP: What was Clancy like?
LB: He was knowledgeable and asked questions. He was always playing with concepts. Can you do this in real life? How does this thing work under the hood? For instance, electronic support measures (ESM), which is using an enemy’s radar and radio signals to determine his location. And he not only figured out how to use cross-bearing to triangulate the target, but he would ask, how wide is that beam? What is your margin of error? He really wanted to know how things worked. He was always exploring whatever issues interested him. He would bang the rocks together and come up with very correct answers.
When we were plotting Red Storm Rising — the core of the story is a NATO-Soviet war in the North Atlantic — he looked at Iceland and said, "this is a strategic piece of real estate. The Russians are going to want this." I told him the Russian Navy wasn’t set up for this. They didn’t have the amphibious groups we have. Tom goes, "no, no, they need to take this." We set up a Harpoon battle called the Great Keflavik Turkey Shoot that sort of validated what Tom was saying. If there are U.S. fighters based in Iceland, and Soviet Backfire bombers tried to strike convoys in the Atlantic, even just a few fighters would indeed tear a hunk out of the bomber stream. But what I couldn’t tell him at the time was that I had been working at the Center of Naval Analyses where there were several very classified studies going on about the strategic nature of Iceland. People were thinking about this hard, and Tom just pulled it out of the air.
FP: Is it true that Harpoon was the basis for the Hunt for Red October?
LB: Harpoon was one of the data sources for Hunt for Red October. The real basis for the book was the Storozhevoy Incident (where a Soviet destroyer unsuccessfully attempted to defect in 1975). Tom looked at that and thought, "What if that hadn’t been a surface ship that could be stopped easily, but a sub which couldn’t be easily found? And what if it was a brand-new ballistic missile sub?"
As far as technical stats, there are very few numbers in Hunt for Red October. People always focus on where he got all his information. If you pick up The Boy’s Book of Submarines, and The Boy’s Book of Sonar, you have 90 percent of what Tom had. What he got out of Harpoon was some weapon names, speed of ships, and so on.
When I wrote Harpoon, I was still in the Navy, so I deliberately did not go to any classified data sources I had. But there was a Navy training game called NAVTAG [Naval Tactical Game]. It was classified, which made it hard to distribute. So I wrote Harpoon as a training game. It wasn’t classified so we could leave the game lying around. I wrote it with simple rules because most naval officers are not gamers. But I was thinking about making Harpoon a commercial release, so in the game, I explained things like what a convergence zone was, or how passive sonar worked. And I think that’s what Tom liked. There was so much explanatory text in the game.
There was some stuff that Tom got wrong. In that era, the Soviets didn’t name their submarines. They had letters and numbers: "K" for the nuke boats and "B" for the diesels. But what I think what was important about Harpoon was that it served as a bridge for his next project, Red Storm Rising. It was the basis for our relationship.
Tom would have done okay without Harpoon. I’m not saying that because I’m humble. Harpoon only gave him some names and some speeds. So much of what he did in terms of creating characters and plots was independent of Harpoon. Tom was a born storyteller. Whenever he talked with people, he always used stories and anecdotes. After he wrote Patriot Games, Tom decided to take a year off from writing. And whenever I talked with them during that year, he would have ideas for books. He couldn’t stop thinking about creating stories.
FP: So it sounds like Tom wasn’t so much interested in creating realistic stories as he was plausible ones?
LB: If somebody who does this kind of stuff in the real world says this is bogus, the general public will pick up on it. It’s cooler to use the real stuff and come up with unusual ways of using it, even if this can be a challenge. Tom actually wrote himself into a corner once, with that knife fight at the end of Hunt for Red October between Red October and the Alfa-class sub. There are two U.S. subs there, but they don’t want to shoot at the Russians, and Red October can’t shoot because the torpedoes aren’t there and so on. How the hell are we going to get out of this one? Tom came up with the idea, after much head-scratching, of having Red October ram the Alfa. Everybody was like, what? But I’ve got models of both subs on the shelf in my office, and an Alfa-class sub is a fifth of the size of a Typhoon-class sub like Red October. If a Typhoon rammed it, the Alfa would be toast. Tom had an ability to come up with unusual yet plausible solutions.
FP: How did Red Storm Rising come about?
LB: The book came about because of another game. I was doing analysis for the Center for Naval Analyses, which was doing things like, how many carriers will we need in 20 years? We’re doing all this deep thinking about REFORGER [reinforcements to Germany in the event of a Soviet attack] and Atlantic convoys. There were so many variables. I was explaining this to Tom, blathering on about the Atlantic and the convoys and the SOSUS net (underwater sonar network). And Tom goes, "you could turn that into a good book." And I’m like, really? How would you do that? [laughs]. That was how we decided upon Red Storm Rising. The core is about the Atlantic and the convoys to Europe.
I got to watch Tom’s genius. I’m listed as co-author, but I wrote like 1 percent of the book. Tom was fast. He could do 10 pages a day without breathing hard. I was doing staff studies and operations analyses of how the Russians would take Iceland, and that was the structure that Tom would hang everything else on. But I was basically his apprentice and his reality check.
FP: Did you and Tom ever play Harpoon together?
LB: He was in rural Maryland and I’m in northern Virginia. But we did play sometimes. There was one chapter in Red Storm Rising called "Dance of the Vampires." We played it out in Harpoon with Tom as the Russian commander. We gamed out some of these carrier battles. We weren’t looking for a particular plot for the book. We already knew how the plot would run. You know, it’s early in Act II, and the bad guys have to win at that point. But after gaming a couple of those carrier battles, Tom and I both had a better sense of what the flow of the battle would be and how it would take shape. Any kind of research like that simplifies writing fiction. I tell high school English classes time and time again that it’s so much easier to go and find out about something than have to make stuff up.
FP: What was Tom like as a player?
LB: Very aggressive. He was always looking for an angle or an unusual tactic. I’m Mr. Doctrine. I try to emulate real-life tactics. Tom wanted to go one step further. He would come up with these strategies that were very unconventional. He noticed that the speed of an AS-5 Kelt [an old Soviet air-to-surface missile carried by bombers] very closely matched the cruise speed of a Backfire bomber. Tom was the one who asked, what if the Russian fired these missiles as drones — the Russians had converted many of them into target drones — so on radar they look like a Backfire formation coming at a carrier? I was the one who told him how you could tell the two apart. But the Russians could hang a radar reflector on them so the itty-bitty missile would look like a big bomber. So we worked it out. It wasn’t part of Soviet doctrine, so the U.S. wasn’t ready for it. It’s a viable tactic, even if you can only use it once.
FP: Do you think Tom Clancy’s novels had an influence on the Cold War?
LB: There is a very strong rumor that I’ve heard about Red Storm Rising. Iceland gets invaded, and when Tom and I were researching this, we discovered that NATO and Iceland had a basing agreement that was very strict. NATO could not bring any new equipment to Iceland without agreement at the ministerial level. In the book, it became clear that the reaction times for reinforcing Iceland had to be a lot quicker. So there was a renegotiation of basing rights based on what was depicted in the book. Red Storm Rising was also used at the Naval War College.
Harpoon has also had a positive effect. It’s been used as tactical training at the Naval Academy and elsewhere, though not officially. There are games and simulations. A game is two or more opponents in a closed system where theoretically everyone has an equal chance of winning. But a simulation is more open-ended. I can set up a simulation where there is no hope that one side can win. That was an argument I used to have with Tom all the time. He would look at the Soviet Northern Fleet and their Backfires, and the U.S. Second Fleet, and go, "well, each has a 50-50 chance of winning." And I would go, no, no, Tom, don’t make that assumption. It’s not a closed game. There could be a change in tactics. If there is a fat carrier target out there, they can bring over Backfires from Long-Range Aviation [the Soviet strategic bomber force] to join the Red Navy Backfires, and now instead of two regiments of bombers, the carrier is facing five. That’s no longer a simulation. That’s a murder mystery.
FP: A lot of information has come out of the former Soviet archives. Did you find anything that changed Tom’s novels or Harpoon?
LB: Harpoon has been almost completely revised after what we found in the Russian literature. For example, nobody had heard of the Kh-31 Krypton, a Mach 3 anti-radiation missile. We’re like, where did that come from? And then there was the Kh-41 air-to-sea missile, which the Russians called the Mosquito. Who said the Russians had no sense of humor? It’s the size of a Greyhound bus. We confirmed that Soviet doctrine was entirely defensive. The further we penetrated into their defensive zones and got closer to their bases, the more stuff they were going to throw at us.
FP: So if you could redo Red Storm Rising or Red October knowing what we do now, how would you change the plot and weapons?
LB: Good question. Obviously I’d tweak the weapons and hardware to use the newest data, but I believe in both cases, the premise and story hang together pretty well. A very small example of that is that I updated the Dance of the Vampires scenario a few years back, and I didn’t have to change the basic structure of the scenario at all.
FP: Why do you think books like Red Storm Rising were so popular?
LB: Red Storm Rising has to be the greatest "what-if" of that genre. You have to jump back into your wayback machine. In the 1980s, we were out of Vietnam, and you have to remember how frozen the two militaries were. We didn’t want to shoot at the Russians, and they didn’t want to shoot at us. Remember when we shot down the two Libyan aircraft? The actual use of American military force during peace time was a huge issue back then. Today, people are dropping bombs all over the place and no one notices. But it wasn’t just that the book had huge force-on-force war. There was so much stuff we wrote about that had never been used before, like cruise missiles. So much of it was untested. Then Desert Storm came along, and now everyone knew about these weapons. So the guys who came along after us and wrote these novels didn’t have the same success that we did.
FP: How do you feel about your books being called technothrillers?
LB: I always use the term "military thriller," because the focus is on military action. If you look at some books, they focus so much on military technology. They throw numbers at you. I don’t like to use numbers in my stories. If you use more than one or two, people’s eyes start to glaze over.