Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
Dr Charles Knight developed this narrative as part of concept development and design activity with EOS Defence Systems to inform current and future Australian autonomous and remote operations technology development. Many of the concepts covered in this narrative are being actively pursued by EOS Defence and numerous other Australian industry players.
The Echthros Seizure
On a steamy tropical island, around the town and along the coastline, Echthros Marines stand night watch to an insect chorus. Some are comfortably surrounded by the dusty hessian smell of recently constructed sandbag bunkers, new fortifications concealed under camouflage nets and nestled against buildings or under palm trees. Those occupying the more prominent positions that dominate the flat open expanse of the airbase experience a less horticultural smell. They too are surrounded by new sandbags, but the dominant odour here is acrid. Pungent vapours still seep from the black sooty layer of detonation chemicals that coat the shattered bunkers they have reoccupied and rebuilt.
The sentries taking their two hour-long turn to stare out into the darkness occasionally have their faces faintly illuminated by the glow leaking from night-sight eyepieces. Those on the seaward side of the airfield hear waves lapping retaining embankments and those on the landside the voices and tools of technicians working in the hangers. All hear the hum from large earthen structures that protrude like monstrous molehills from the flat-grassed areas either side of the runway. Above each shows the black silhouette of sensors, missiles and multiple cannon: of close air defence system turrets. The thick sandbag walls and soil banks surround and protect the vehicles they are mounted on. Over the last three uneventful weeks the Marines have settled easily if not comfortably into defensive routine. Even at night they feel the humid heat as an unpleasant contrast with their temperate home far to the north. They are defending a battlefield, the site of their victory.
The battle to secure the airbase, harbour, and town around them had been brief but shockingly one-sided and brutal. The determination of the defending Filia to protect their homeland had counted for little. Many had never woken from their sleep as the massive blast of impacting ballistic missiles collapsed their barracks on top of them. Those who staggered from the rubble were stunned and deafened. Unlike their peers in the bunkers and trenches, they would not have heard the sinister buzz as the drone swarm arrived overhead, nor probably, the crescendo as 21st Century Stukas stooped from the sky to immolate themselves against the thermal signature of warm humans.
Few defenders survived the double strike and there had been little interference when Echthros amphibious vehicles wallowed and splashed ashore on the beaches alongside the airport, diesel engines roaring as their skidding tracks dragged them up the steep banks, splashing mud back into the sea. Tipping and bouncing on reaching the crest, they accelerated onto the exposed grassy expanses around the runway. Even when the first wave of the chisel fronted vehicles clattered across the tarmac, halted around the airport buildings and disgorged troops, resistance had been limited. Occasional muffled shots within were quickly drowned in a cacophony of fire from the attackers.
The second wave of armoured vehicles, as it pushed across the airfield and then beyond to seize positions on the outskirts of the town, had not remained unscathed. Amongst the smoking broken concrete of a 23mm anti-aircraft cannon position a dazed Filia gunner had survived. Numb with shock and bloodied, his penultimate act was to slowly hand-crank the twin barrels till they were laid on the merged rectangular silhouette of two amphibians 150 hundred metres from his position. When he pulled the firing lever a burst of projectiles capable of striking aircraft in the sky 3 km away made short work of the thin armour. Both vehicles burned for hours. This setback aside, once the Echthros Marines had dismounted their amphibious carriers they met little effective resistance as they systematically swept through the urban areas beyond the airfield. Aided by hovering UAVs they established a bloody human-machine team pattern.
Each small team of the Echthros moved cautiously on foot preceded by a hovering air vehicle, and overwatched by the cannon of a following APC. The commander constantly scanned his individual head-mounted display to observe the image feeds from the UAV’s camera and the vehicles thermal weapons sight. Anything that might be a Filia defender would immediately attract burst of fire from the vehicle, with gunners not waiting for orders. After that one touch of a button by the commander would prompt the UAV to start circling the target. Another touch would bring loudspeaker instructions from above in the local language “Come out with your hands in the air and lay down with your hands extended”. Prompt compliance saw civilians and defenders alike zip tied by a pair of Marines. Non-compliance or shots fired triggered a lethal robotic intervention summoned via a third button and announced by a distant pop from a tube on vehicle somewhere in the middle of the airfield behind them.
Hearing the hunter-killer munition launch was the cue for the Marines to throw bursting smoke grenades and get well clear of the circular ‘hunting zone’ in which the machines AI would decide what to kill. In less than 60 seconds they would hear a fluttering whine as a lethal drone joined its benign twin flying in circles, sensors scanning the allocated target area, algorithms matching its images against the criteria for a death sentence. Any object of human size and temperature, if moving or holding another object was doomed – a sudden dive, and overhead detonation and a shower of tungsten fragments. The munitions programming was intended to prevent it from attacking anything that ‘looked’ like a person lying in the open with outstretched arms or anything near the protective beacon carried by section commanders. However, the Marines, already conscious of the vagaries of autonomous lethality and after witnessing a fratricidal engagement early in the clearing battle quickly became cautious, often pulling right back next to, or even getting into their section APC while the lethal drones did their work.
The operation had been massively one-sided, with the only effective resistance coming from a handful of surviving defenders who fought from buildings, where walls and roofs limited the dominance of the lethal drones. Any notions these Filia had of protracting an urban battle were disabused once the Echthros began ordering the population out into the streets and bringing dog teams in to search purportedly empty buildings. If a dog indicated human presence, the response was to pull back and fire a thermobaric round into the structure. A few ruthless hours had seen all opposition crushed and Echthros Marine brigade in full control of the airport and harbour. Another day and a few civilian executions, and the population were subdued and compliant under martial law.
This great test of the Marines had gone exactly as the great leader had asserted such battles would. Supremely confident, the sentries now watch out into the night, their alertness driven by professionalism, without any anticipation of threat.
Dr Charles Knight
Dr Charles Knight explores how to reduce the risks and costs of combat amongst structures and populations – an interest sparked when as a Parachute Regiment officer he was tasked to develop urban combat and subterranean capabilities for confronting the Soviets in the German city of Hildesheim. He is a senior researcher at the University of NSW, Canberra and an adjunct lecturer at Charles Sturt University. His Masters research analysed vulnerabilities to asymmetric attacks in cities and his PhD examined coercion duringcounterinsurgency – both informed by field research in the Lebanon and Cambodia, as well as by uniformedservice with the RAF, British and Omani Armies and in Asia. In Australia he served in 1 Commando Regiment, commanded 2/17 Bn, Royal New South Wales Regiment, spent a decade in the Special Operations development branch, drove reform of close combat training and wrote the Australian Army urban doctrine.