Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
Shaping the Ecthros Commander
Back in Darwin on the big screen there is little change in the array of symbols representing the Echthros Marines. Perhaps twenty defensive positions have been identified around the airport and harbour as well as one or two in the town: one or two well concealed armoured vehicles have been located near these positions suggesting that will be the pattern throughout. The arrangement conforms with a Echthros doctrine: a light perimeter force supported by precision artillery, backed by mobile combat teams concealed in depth, poised to conduct counter penetration once an attack in strength develops. Probably two thirds of the brigade are in the perimeter positions, leaving perhaps three company size combat teams as reaction forces. The location of these, as well as the drone and tube batteries of the artillery regiment remains unknown. All watching the screen are aware this picture may be out of date after the loss of the offshore surveillance drone earlier in the morning. Current cloud cover means the satellite imagery is limited, so the feeds from the ground force surveillance UAVs will be crucial once they are put up again, having been grounded to avoid the risk from the drone hunter-killers darts.
Home control is more confident about the fidelity of the display of their own forces. Further up the coastline, amongst a cluster of tiny rocky islands a handful of submersibles wait, resting on the seabed: a fully autonomous diversion waiting to come ashore. A little further offshore, other submersibles, laden with missile tubes hang neutrally buoyant a few metres below the wave tops. Towards the middle of the island, dispersed in the forest, just short of where settlements begin, are the MAVOC with their control teams and their lighter UGV brethren. The heavier artillery platforms are further back towards the beach where a shuttle of high-speed landing craft brought the crewed mechanised force vehicles ashore before dawn. With each infantry section is a soldier in a different uniform, a special forces soldier from the Filia forces that Australia now assists. When the force reaches the urban area, local knowledge will help, and providing unequivocal proof to the local people that the Australians are allies is critical.
What begins now gives form to accelerated warfare. A plan conceived by humans but tested and adapted and finally synchronised by AI.
Six km to the north-west of the airport is a rocky headland, beyond which lies a long open gently sloping sandy beach. There are beach chairs and umbrellas tidily stacked above the high tide mark. A few hundred metres offshore several submerged Sublander release slightly buoyant cylinders which as they surface, begin to emit a foggy vapour. Having released their smoke generators the submerged craft slowly move towards the shore several metres below the surface until their track shrouds begin to carve ruts in the sandy bottom. Rather than open them, the submersibles vent air to settle themselves more firmly on the bottom and then open their cargo doors and lower their ramps, releasing a few trapped bubbles of air from the flooded cargo decks.
Further offshore another amphibian vents water rather than air and slowly rises until the swell splashes across its rolling deck. Suddenly, with a bang, a neat hole appears in the neoprene sheathed steel deck as a gas generator blows a sealing cap clear. Moments later, there is a bang-woosh as a rocket launches a long cylinder into the sky, where it takes cruciform shape as wings rotate into position. It continues to climb higher, driven by a spinning propeller. The bang, bang whoosh pattern repeats five times as more loitering munitions are launched into the sky.
Much further offshore a single jet UAV, flying fast and well ahead of its control aircraft suddenly pitches up from sea level climbing for a toss delivery of another swarm of glider-munitions. Soon the first handful of little plastic gliders are descending steadily towards the airbase – and the beach with the stacked deckchairs.
At the end of that beach where the dunes rise and spiky grass begins, the Echthros have built a bunker. A sentry glances yet again at his watch inpatient for relief. At first, he does not notice the haze growing across the local horizon, far less spot that beyond where the breakers are crashing there are a dozen floating cylinders billowing white smoke. By the time the glycol vapour wisps around him the source is well hidden. More puzzled than alarmed he calls his section commander who comes grumbling from his privileged position in front of a purloined desk fan. He also is merely curious till he notices the smell of antifreeze, and snatches at his radio handset to report the curious phenomenon.
200 m offshore, behind and beyond the surf zone, telescopic tubes rise to lift plastic-coated satellite dishes up through the waves from the Sublanders. Then, underwater, heavy, low, UGV begin to move down the ramps and head towards the beach. These are armoured twin-tracked and articulated Stormtrak4000s. From each, a thin slightly buoyant fibre-optic data tether links back to the mother craft, and from it, via satellite to Darwin. At first, all the UGV operators at home control can discern is the sandy swirling confusion that a body surfer might see if they open their eyes under a breaking wave. Then, as the camera begins to clear the breaking waters, the sandy green alternates with an opaque white. The operators drive their UGVs until they are confident that the top of the vehicle’s tracks are well clear of the water. They then touch the control that ignites pyrotechnics within the heavy polyethylene envelopes wrapping and protecting the weapon and sighting system. The bags begin to unwrap and inflate away from the machinery, but before they have fully ballooned, they pop as embedded heating wires turn them to strips of plastic litter. The low-slung machines seem to be all turret and tracks like a stretched miniature World War II tank. As the plastic flutters free the operators have a thermal picture of the beach. The system AI immediately halts the closest UGV and swings its barrels to align on the Echthros bunker, while the other UGVs continue up the beach in the smoke.
At home control the Stormtrak operator is presented with a magnified thermal picture unaffected by the smoke on the beach, giving a clear image of two heads, their warmth showing white above the darkness of the sandbag bunker wall. In large text the question ‘authorise engagement 4BIT?’ appears while to one side of the screen data scrolls confirming ‘target at known enemy position’, ‘target wearing a helmet’ and ‘holding unidentified objects’. The operator ignores the system request for a moment, touches the audio icon and waits as the crosshairs on his screen continue to automatically track one bobbing head in the enemy bunker. He flicks the icon that temporarily projects his view onto one of the main screens that dominate the control room to alert everyone to the imminent engagement. Then he hears the SIGINT call: “I confirm enemy alerting transmissions from location St Albans”, and so assured touches his screen again. As he authorises engagement he also triggers the loudspeakers on the UGV. Prompted by the view of the bunker above her, the loitering munition operator looks at the target sequencing table on her own screen to similarly reassure herself that the AI has confirmed the bunker at location ‘St Albans’ as her initial target.
The Echthros sentry and section commander peering out over the sandbag wall of the bunker into the fog hear the soft popping sound as the plastic is blown free of the UGV’s. Then from out on the water they hear splashing and Filia voices, yelling cursing and giving commands. The commander yells to his men to “stand to” and calls into his radio handset that the Filia are landing. His misjudgement is bloodily reinforced a moment later as a whip-cracking burst of machine-gun fire throws sand from the lip of the bunker into the disintegrating face of the sentry.
One of the UGV remains still sitting in the waves and now mimics the fire of many soldiers, rapidly switching the point of aim across and around the Echthros bunker, sometimes single shots, sometimes bursts. As it engages its loudspeakers continue to project the sounds of an infantry force coming ashore. Behind it, Xtraks begin to emerge from the surf, echeloned in line against the tidal drift to ensure that they do not drive over the fibre-optic tethers of the vehicles ahead of them. The other Stormtraks, now well ahead and apart from each other, are climbing low sand dunes, their tracks sliding in the loose sand until they catch on roots and rocks. They ascend up over the dunes and cross the road beyond, heading towards buildings on the far side. As they do, all of the UGV are showered with the descending sand and debris thrown up and in all directions by the massive explosion of a loitering munition disintegrating the Echthros fortification.
The Stormtrak moves itself away from the smoking crater where the bunker stood to a position amongst the piled deckchairs, sun loungers and sunshades. It trains its small elevating turret back along the beach to where and enemy investigation is most likely to come from. The loudspeakers are now quiet but every few minutes the turret slews and fires a single shot up or down the beach. The less agile Xtracks move to where a track leads off the beach, but before they take it they suddenly transform, as compressed liquids course through a tubular skeleton mixing to form foam and inflate a camouflage festooned superstructure. Though they are invisible to the naked eye in the fog, even if viewed in the thermal spectrum the warmth of the chemical reaction will give the appearance of a small, armoured vehicle. Next to each of the fake AFV now lie a couple of fake bodies – human -shaped envelopes filled with rapidly stiffening warm foam, clothed and apparently catastrophically wounded. As the vehicles move on the plastic bodies are left behind for enemy sensors to find.
As they approach the buildings beyond the road the Stormtraks suddenly stop and reverse, describing a semicircle that brings the rear of the UGV’s towards the nearest wall. Then the machinery mounted there elevates and spins, revealing itself as a tiller flail. The vehicles each extend their probes and drive them hard into the wall, pausing for the distant operators to scan the interior and confirm the breach. Within a few tens of seconds, the platforms are inside buildings, and again emitting glycol smoke as they use their TI cameras to assess immediate threats. Then they switch to silent mode, relying on their AI to monitor their passive sensors, alert for the sounds of approaching people, vehicles or platforms. The Xtraks with fake superstructures cross the road and take up positions near the buildings, then one at a time begin slowly moving forwards in short bounds emitting smoke vapour from the generators. They are far from silent as their loudspeakers mimic the sound of much heavier armoured vehicles and emit occasional shouted commands. Every minute or so there is an explosion as one of the discharger tubes on the deception vehicles is fired. The payloads are pyrotechnic simulators that descend harmlessly to the ground and after a delay first emit a cloud of smoke then small arms fire effects.
Synchronisation matters psychologically.
The rocket salvos falling in turn on the demonstration and deception landing sites coincide with a wave of glider munitions striking targets on the airfield. This time they are set to detonate all three submunitions shortly after the breaching charge detonates. One glider strikes the fuel farm, and the explosion throws up a great fireball. Another strikes a hanger with the explosion blowing the wing off a transport aircraft. With his passive air defence detector operators reporting more gliders inbound, the Echthros brigade commander yields to the pressure to unmask his air defences. He texts eagerly awaited orders to the crews of two CUAS equipped amphibians, authorising them to deploy out onto the airfield from the hangers where they are concealed. As he does so he plays an unexpected card.
As soon as one of the CUAS systems is in position, from one of the other hangers on the airbase emerges a huge eight-wheeled truck mounting a radar-controlled combined missile/cannon SHORAD turret on its back deck. Within moments of the system appearing on the airbase the Australian AI system has integrated the feed from a high-altitude drone on distant station with the feeds from the seismic array and seismic sensor monitors and had a human operator approve the truck as a priority for Australian loitering munitions. However, the two weapons it assigns are obliterated by the cannon of the waiting Echthros CUAS amphibians.
The eight wheeled truck drives unscathed straight to the centre of town and puts down its hydraulic legs in the middle of the paved courtyard of a C-shaped shopping centre. Here it can only engage upwards, but it is effectively screened from the low-profile glider attacks and can concentrate its sophisticated attention on the loitering munition threat.
Within seconds of the Echthros SHORAD system powering up and switching on its radar, white streaks leap from either side of its turret. They race into the sky and bright yellow starbursts announce the destruction of a further two loitering munitions. This is very visible success for the Echthros defence system, but teams are too well trained for complacency. The CUAS crews are acutely aware of their vulnerability and the two vehicles work as a closely coordinated alternating pair. Only one at a time emerges from the airfield hangers, following an erratic pattern, with neither remaining static and in the open for more than 90 seconds. Their teamwork proves effective and soon every glider that approaches from the open airfield and seaward side is being knocked from the sky.
Yet, faster than human operators could make the change, the Australian targeting AI program devises a new plan. It updates the commands to a series of gliders to fly approaches amongst the clutter of the buildings of the town towards the airfield and to pass between the two hangers from which the Echthros CUAS platform are constantly emerging and returning to. It’s learning logic has calculated that if presented with successive targets the defenders will continue to fire rather than break off engagement to return to cover, and that if one platform is close to expending its ammunition the other will emerge to continue engaging. The logic works, and both platforms remain in the open together knocking down all but one of six gliders passing between them. Thus preoccupied, two remaining airborne loitering munitions gain a window of opportunity to set up an attack on the CUAS amphibians, coming in low and slow over the town from opposite ends and approaching masked from behind the hangers. When they simultaneously pop over the hangers and into the field of view of the turret sensors a couple of hundred metres away the Echthros CUAS systems recognise the greater threat and react instantly, slewing through 180° and react to the new greater threats. One munition is smashed apart by cannon fire a mere 50 m short of its target, but the tactic has created enough delay for the other weapon to destroy the second CUAS platform. Advantage in the drone versus counter-drone battle is shifting.
At home control in Darwin the atmosphere is tense as operators look for the anticipated signs of the Echthros commander responding to the deception and deploying one of his response forces out from its hide. If the response forces remain undetected and uncommitted the planned attack through the town will be far riskier. An unlabelled side door leading into the main control room opens and a scruffy civilian eccentrically dressed in a Hawaiian shirt emerges to announce to the whole room: “hey guys, you know I can’t tell you how we know but I can tell you that our Echthros Brigadier General thinks that the North beach landing is the real deal”. The one star grins with relief and says; ”thank you Spooky”.
Thanks to Electro Optic Systems for helping create this content.
Original Artwork imagined by Charles Knight, drawn 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.