With the war in Germany over it was time to pull forces back. Apart from 200,000 Army soldiers, assorted vehicles and a small naval and air force the full attack force had been ordered to go back home. Having such a large military on the move however provided opportunities. Before the war and the Impact, the Empress had ordered Operation: Pharaoh, a swift surgical strike to rapidly assert Athenian control over Malta. Militarily Malta posed no chance and at the time the only deterrent was the possibility of an Italian response. With Italy now solidly on their side that concern was gone as well. This left Avra in a comfortable position, she knew her Empress’ wishes, she knew it could be done and she knew with the normal military movements no one would even notice until it was too late. As such, while declaring war during a regency tended to be a no go, she had no problems with it here. As the orders were issued to the Imperial Command, the branches of the Hellenic Forces jumped into action. Satellites had already been tracking military developments on Malta ever since the first orders were issued and now with even more precise intelligence from RQ-4s and MQ-4Cs, nothing could hide. It was these surveillance operations that showed Malta’s army could be no larger than 70-80,000 soldiers, it had several hundred tanks, towed artillery and S-300s with the former focused on anti-shipping, about 600 F-16s and several hundred helicopters of varying kinds. The anti-air was heavily outdated and even if it could detect the carrier-launched F-35s or surface-launched F-22s, the Growlers in the Hellenic Navy would make quick work of it with their Next Generation Jammer. The navy was a slightly tougher nut to crack, however here it was more a numbers game than quality. Air strikes could handle most of the 105 patrol boats and the overwhelming surface capability of even a single Carrier Strike Group would leave little left of the larger vessels.
As preparations were completed and all units in the proper ranges, Operation: Pharaoh could begin. With only two stages it really wasn’t a difficult plan. The first stage would be a joint air and naval strike to take down the Maltese defences and establish air superiority over the islands. Once that was established a Marine landing force would force their way on the islands and with help from Army Paratroopers and air and naval fire support take over vital infrastructure. If all went well civilian casualties would be negligible and even infrastructure would generally be left unharmed. Many even expected that stage 1 alone could possibly break the Maltese defence and force an early surrender to avoid further bloodshed. Avra however was less convinced of that chance.
As the designated time arrived F-35Cs, EA-18Gs from the HNS Empress Athanasia, HNS Dobrich and HNS Alexander the Great as well as F-22s, F-35s and B-2s from HAF based in Greece and Asia Minor entered weapons range. The Growlers would be first to engage in jamming operations and launch their HARM payloads against S-300 sites that had been identified prior. Jamming would have three goals; crippling their air defence, crippling their ability to communicate on the island and perhaps most importantly cutting them off from the world. Attack submarines simultaneously cut the undersea cables linking Malta to the rest of the world while F-35s launched their own anti-radiation missiles against radar and SAM sites. Combined with these strikes would be air to surface strikes using more conventional payloads against the few airstrips on the islands, hangars, fuel depots, munitions depots, army barracks, naval stations and artillery positions. The focus of the Greece-launched F-35s instead was on the defending navy, specifically the patrol boats but also the Cassard and Durand de la Penne Class destroyers. Zeus Class Battlecruisers and Ares Class Cruisers would likewise use their naval guns and missiles against the larger targets as well as any patrol boats unlucky enough to be in their range.
To the Maltese these initial blows were tragic. Malta had suspected the Athenian Federation would strike at some point, their expansion pattern made that clear. The Maltese government had some hope that they could somehow play out Athens and Rome against each other due to their comparable powers but when the Byzantine League was announced they knew for sure either one of them was going to strike them. They didn’t however expect it this soon. Athens was still tired from the German war and they had just lost millions of their own. Furthermore attacking while the actual ruler is away seemed like outright insanity. As the Athenian airstrikes hit the jamming operations prevented field commanders from informing their superiors and governments. As Malta had generally placed the military outside cities (in anticipation of war and the hope that it would protect the cultural treasures), it ironically was the lack of internet and global connectivity that first pointed the Maltese government to there being a problem. Falling back to landlines and other jam-proof communication methods some command and control was restored but the news wasn’t good. The initial strikes had incapacitated a decent part of the Maltese Air Force, the S-300s had shown themselves all but useless against the highly advanced stealth fighters and on the sea things weren’t a whole lot better. Outgunned and unable to engage at the same ranges as their enemies could, the Maltese fleets would often spend minutes exposed before they could shoot back. This had left 25 out of 35 destroyers completely disabled or worse and half the patrol boats sunk. The remaining ships were struggling to regroup as the Athenian engagements continued.
Almost in desperation orders were issued to get as many F-16s in the air, using whatever they could as air strips. Furthermore towed artillery was to be repositioned to engage any naval landing attempt rather than being focused further out sea. The sea was lost, now all focus had to shift to the coastline. The remaining navy would be ordered to delay the Athenians as much as possible so the Maltese army could mobilize. They knew winning against an enemy that outnumbered them and was decades more advanced was not feasible, but this way at least they could maybe establish a stalemate or force negotiations on more favourable terms.