How Larry Bond Met Tom Clancy

Friday, October 11th, 2013

Larry Bond was a US Navy officer when he published his war game, Harpoon, in 1980 — which brought him to Tom Clancy’s attention:

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.

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