Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
Flying High: Suppression
Well out to sea, flying low and hidden by the Earth’s curvature, a jet fighter aircraft traces huge circles over the water. It waits for the signal that the force ashore no longer have surprise on their side. Behind and to either side of the ‘crewed’ jet fighter are two smaller jet powered vehicles. They are steered by electronic brains that the human pilot delights in calling her ‘wingwomen’. Their mission is key. Somewhere on the island there is a battery of medium surface-to-air missiles that includes two radar vehicles and a generator truck as well as 8 massive eight-wheel launch trucks that elevate multiple launch tubes with a diameter almost that of an oil drum. The missiles can reach out over 200 km, and as long as they are in action, drone and air support will be heavily constrained.
The signal comes.
As the alert flashes in front of her eyes on her electronic head mounted display, the pilot turns towards land and descends to fly lower still, just above the waves, at just below the speed of sound. As the airframe vibrates in surface effect, the pilot’s eyes instinctively keep flicking to the scrolling electronic map, though since only small islands punctuate the open ocean around her there is little to see. Then the southern edge of the island’s coastline emerges at the top edge of the display. Soon.
She watches for the waypoint indicator to illuminate. When it does, she pushes the throttle fully forwards and changes her grip on the joystick, from fingertip control to a firm grasp in anticipation. As she pulls back and the G forces drain the blood from her brain there is a moment of fuzziness before she reaches a 45° climb angle and eases the stick to neutral. The flick of another switch opens the stores door, increasing the drag and just slightly decelerating the plane, giving an illusion of weightlessness. Her blood pressure restores, and the suddenly smooth climb makes her aware of the sound of her own breathing inside the oxygen mask. A further switch selection sends a signal to the AI in the two UAVs behind her. Prompted, they increase speed to fly closer to merge and confuse the radar return. As the altimeter spins she watches for a number, sees it and counts off the seconds: three, two, one – thumb the pickle and pull back again. Six finned streamlined shapes appear from beneath the fuselage and gradually fall behind and below continuing on a ballistic path, as the aircraft lifts away and steepens its climb to nearly vertical. The pilot resists the temptation to seek safety early with a reverse roll, listening acutely for the audio cues from the electronic warning and countermeasures system. The two UAVs are now very close, a few metres to either side of her, but just ahead. Her aircraft vibrates in the disturbed air from their engines.
Then she hears it, faint for a moment, then the screaming pip pip pip pip of an Echthros tracking radar. The voice of the operator in the AWACS cuts through surging adrenaline. “Black widow your window closing eight, seven, six………” That tells her a missile, perhaps two, is about to roar from its vertical launch tube into the sky. She hopes the defence intelligence geeks did their sums right and the five seconds calculation is on the money. The voice calls “five, …” Stick hard left, touch of rudder, stick level, inverted, pull back hard …… Triggered by her manoeuvre behind them, the UAV diverge, away from her and each other – disappearing from her field of view as she turns sharply to face the threat on the ground. A head-on engagement, adding her velocity to that of the antiradiation missile hanging beneath her aircraft will minimise its flight time. At the moment her aircraft faces the tracking radar she pickles again. For an instant the flaming exhaust of the antiradiation missile seems to hesitate just in front of the aircraft before leaping away to become a twinkle disappearing away towards the earth. As she pulls back and left hard the AWACS operator countdown finishes. “Three, two, one……….”
Just before the aircraft rolls back she catches a glimpse of a tiny column of yellow flame rising from the ground way below her in the darkness: an Echthros missile. She is now diving obliquely towards 22
and across the trajectory of the threat to present the most difficult guidance solution. If she survives the next few seconds, she is safe. The two ‘wingwoman’ UAV, also now dive at right angles, descending in tight erratic loops and pulling G forces no human could survive to offer competing radar targets. Below, a few hundred metres above its vertical launch tube and still travelling slowly, the missile kicks sideways and swings to course correct and then accelerates out over the sea into the night sky trailing yellow flame.
The pilot tenses involuntarily: knowing without seeing. Gravity and full throttle quickly accelerate her well beyond the sound barrier as she heads for mother Earth – or rather the safety of the sea. That speed is nowhere near enough to outrun a missile travelling at Mach four. But there is logic. An aircraft rapidly descending towards the surface and relatively close to the launcher presents a difficult guidance solution. The AWACS calls again: “black widow steer 15 for radar shadow”. She touches the joystick to adjust. The operators have calculated where at surface level she can get below the horizon of the tracking radar. The Echthros missiles have their own radar, but her on-board jammers are better able confuse them if she is no longer being ‘painted’ by the tracking radar.
Slow seconds pass. She visualises the trajectories and even as she calculates that she is safe, she hears the operator “black widow you are out of the basket”. Now the continued pip pip pip fills the pilot with delight. The Echthros have left their tracking radar on too long, perhaps confused by the sudden division of one radar target into three, perhaps about to launch again. Her anti-radiation missile is about to do its job. Moments later there is a pulsing bright yellow flash as the massive explosion on the ground below is reflected off the clouds above her.
Far above her the six streamlined shapes that were first released from her aircraft have spread apart and are reaching their ballistic apex, having slowed almost to a standstill. One after the other, a few seconds apart, tiny puffs of smoke trail from the seams of their sleek carriers bodies, then curved panels peel off and it release nine smaller similarly fishlike objects which appear to fly forwards from their now tumbling ‘mothers’. Moments later the tail assembly of the carriers are swinging beneath small parachutes providing a temporary ‘eye in the sky’ and an electronic link from Darwin to the scattering ‘fish’, even after they have landed and are tangled in trees or lying in open areas that will continue to provide another downlink to the mesh radio network. As the smaller fish begin to descend towards the earth, swept wings pop from each and the swarm of little gliders begins its long flight. Each drone in the swarm has a full list of targets in its memory, programmed over many days of study by the analysts back in Darwin. Programming for each target includes options for direction of attack and point of attack; a building, a window or doorway. All each drone needs to know is which target it must prosecute, while the collective swarm brain shares and updates that understanding.
In the underground Echthros Marine brigade headquarters there is uncertainty. The missile strike followed by a massive explosion from the small hill where the tracking radar recently stood is unequivocally an air attack – but what next? Nothing new on the sensors, no reports from sentries. Minutes pass. Then the sounds of a burst of fire from a close air defence or ‘CADS’ cannon system echo across the airbase.
The firstglide munition inflicts no damage, as it is quickly destroyed by a burst of fire from one of the low-lying amphibians. But damage was not its purpose. The ‘eye in the sky’ has ‘seen’ and now ‘hears’ radio nets burst into to life as Echthos commanders warn their troops of the air threat. The knowledge passes back to Darwin. There, strategising far faster than any human mission controller, the AI has selected four gliders to simultaneously attack from different directions – each approaching along a line that extends from a CADS towards another Echthros position. The AI has also selected three antiradiation missiles aboard one of the ‘Wingwomen’ and presented the solution for approval. The screen in the home control room matches that seen on the head-mounted screen of one of the operators in the swamp. It simply requests ‘SEAD strike approval’, with a graphic that gives the details.
The dual optical/microwave control systems on the Echthros CAD platforms out on the airfield are exceptionally capable. Fully alerted and scanning, while they do not identify the small plastic gliders jinking as they skim in low from the landward side across the trees, as soon as they pop up above the rooftops of the town several hundred metres away their turrets slew to engage. One of the systems does not hesitate and fires a short burst of electronically fused projectiles that detonate to destroy the first glider in the air, and detecting a second it spins its turret 90° and engages again. This burst only damages the glider wing deflecting it to detonate against a nearby building. Success. Perhaps not. The other two CADS systems had also located and laid on approaching gliders, but the location of other Echthros positions had been pre-programmed into their fire control to prevent fratricide. Each system had automatically first attempted to pass the target to another system and then requested manual authority to engage. The delay was no more than two or three seconds. That delay and the distraction of engaging threats, combined to delay the detection and engagement of a much greater threat. The three high-speed missiles launched from the jet UAV high above descended almost vertically, and so fast that the sonic boom of their arrival was indistinguishable from the explosions peeling the armoured vehicles open and leaving them blackened and smoking within their bunkers.
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.
Images by James Wilson-Knight
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.