Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
Assessments and Reactions
The Echthros Marine Brigade commander reports his assessment to his superior on the secure system: ‘A beach landing is underway several kilometres to my North, with multiple subunits reporting fighting there. The enemy appears to be using obscurant that defeats thermal vision systems. My positions on the Western approach are being probed hard but I have neither been penetrated in force nor lost my observation positions around the centre and southern approach roads. Communication has ceased with the platoon covering the northern approach road and before it was lost there were ‘tanks’ reported to their north-west. I assess they are not tanks but rather light amphibious vehicles which have come from the beach landing. To contemplate attacking us they must be in Brigade strength, so this is probably a lead battalion. That is likely the Australian main effort which I can strike with my autonomous strike drones, as their millimetric seekers will not be defeated, but I need to use them in mass to overwhelm their air defences and strike a devastating blow. To do that I have to fix them in place. I will use my Western approach mechanised reaction company for that. I will force the Australians to close up to engage decisively at which point I will strike with the drones.’
The commander’s order for his Western zone response force to conduct a counter penetration manoeuvre triggers a flurry of activity in an undercover parking lot, as ingenious canvas disguises are ripped away to unencumber twelve amphibious APCs. The car park fills with the black smoke of diesel engines that have not been run in weeks. The three leading vehicles have radar controlled turrets with four 25 mm cannon and four surface-to-air missiles. They move fast, leapfrogging each other, to a preselected position behind the company headquarters of the subunit whose APC hidden in a shopfront successfully destroyed the UGV. There the three amphibians park themselves in open areas bounded by buildings which obstruct horizontal lines of sight, but where they can observe the sky and provide protection against the overhead threat. Like Arab troops in earlier wars keeping away from unpredictable ZSU-23-4’s, their dismounted protection team get well clear of the armoured beasts, conscious of the hazard from the explosive active protection systems and the unpredictability of automated surface-to-air weapons.
Once they are in position, the Echthros air defence APCs transmit the codeword that protection from loitering Australian precision munitions is in place and the remaining APCs move out of their hide, three armed with 105mm guns and six with 30 mm cannon. Conducting a move that the crews have rehearsed so many times over the past weeks in the simulated virtual environment that the vehicle systems can create when connected to each other, the vehicles form three teams. With white smoke pouring from their exhaust vents, they advance down the central western road leading out of town and into a light industrial area. Before they reach the forward company headquarters and near where the air defence APCs are covering the skies, the six vehicles turn right down a lateral road travelling hundreds of metres before they slow and drive off the road left and right to crash through yards and gardens to their destination buildings.
The Echthros know their stuff. When they reach the carefully pre-selected hide positions inside workshops, warehouses and garages that will provide overhead cover, Marines leap out of the APC’s to open doors and let the vehicles enter, guiding them to the exact positions where vehicle guns can engage out of windows down fire lanes that will defilade the advancing Australians. They leave the doors remain open ready for rapid withdrawal. The Marines set to work preparing hasty infantry fighting positions, and avoid forward facing positions looking out of visible windows on the vulnerable front walls, rather looking out from the windows on side walls to cover in front of other buildings hiding APCs. In turn their colleagues in the buildings site their positions to fire in front of their neighbours, protecting them. They begin breaking window glass and piling up office furniture and machinery to make little indoor bunkers. A Marine climbs down from the company commanders APC gingerly carrying a small surveillance drone. When he reaches the doorway he flattens the palm of his hand and it whirrs into life and hovers up and away. They are now perfectly poised to block the Australian force approaching from the front – and when it is fixed it can be destroyed by the drone swarm.
Back in Darwin, as a high-altitude drone reveals the redeployment of the twelve Echthros vehicles, the commander recognises the moment and with a grin says: “Outstanding. They have bought it. I don’t think they have anything that’s looking through hot smoke. They would not have unmasked a company response force if they had anything more than perimeter positions up there. You’re going to push through and hit them up the rear. ‘Plans’, upload the option for Task Force Kayute that rushes the Western perimeter zone in a single wave in hot smoke. And yes, legal yes, I am happy with the collateral risk and I am authorising hot smoke – we can thank the Echthros that their curfew is keeping everybody out of harm’s way – but only on the West – ‘Guns’ switch to cold smoke in the North, I want them to see something. Ops, build me a package to swing right in behind them. No indirect kinetic – it might spook them. Drop dishes and trail fibre to the first contact, and yes, Air, can we have counter jamming munitions on station please?”
The data package for the counter-counter penetration manoeuvre is the product of hours of human check wargaming to choose one solution of a selection from different machine learning programs. As it uploads from the Plans branch computers to the main system, the operators of the small vehicles concealed on the edge of the forest now see their screens light up with the traces of individual preplanned routes. The RAAF desk sends a coded message that changes the search priorities of antiradiation missiles hanging on a jet UAS flying a pattern offshore.
The one-star nods to the artillery colonel, who touches his screen to authorise the systems that
run the fire plan. Far to the north of the island in thick cover MAVOC rocket launchers drive out into open spaces. The multiple tubes elevate and the vehicles jiggle their tracks until their direction is correct, and after a pause of only a few seconds, rockets burst from them trailing flame. Salvos in turn are launched towards the beach area and then right along the Western perimeter of the town, where smoking pellets are soon falling from the sky.
At the edge of the forest all of the MAVOC there begin moving at once: Lanchester tactics to exploit numerical advantage and saturate sensors. Each takes its unique route, minimising movement on roads or tracks, moving across paddy fields, along verges and through the small gardens that surround so many of the simple houses. The uncommitted Polywheeler move also, spread between the armoured vehicles, but lacking the agility of tracks they stay on the roads. Behind them follow slower Xtrak, many carrying specialised systems that will be needed in the next stages of the battle.
The blue images moving on the large screen back at home control, form several rough lines of dots that move towards the town like a simulation of a Napoleonic battle. An alert signal flashes in the top right of the screen and several of the operators call out together “losing data from the hoverballs”. The SIGINT console responds, “yes, there’s a pretty powerful spectrum agile jammer out there somewhere”. The One-star turns towards the Air Force area and says “Wendy, over to your team”.
The fleet of Australian UGV has only been moving for a few minutes when an Echthros missile shoots skywards from the somewhere in the middle of the Western perimeter to rise above the smokecloud. At its apex it pops cruciform wings and starts to descend towards the UGV force. The CUAS MAVOC have been waiting for this, a precision munitions attack. Three missiles in succession are launched from different firing points along the Echthros perimeter and are successfully knocked down by the CUAS MAVOC while still descending above the smoke clouds. The penny packet, probing launch pattern suggests these engagements are simply responding to demands from their forward observation positions. Even a volley of eight precision missiles that rises up in a stream from a battery in the middle of the town does not suggest the Echthros have recognised the threat and decisively engaged, though it inflicts damage. The two overwatching Australian MAVOC CUAS successfully knock out four of the descending munitions but three of them strike a target. Fortuitously, by moving the maximum available force together, only one is a more valuable MAVOC.
As the distance between the uncrewed platforms and the Echthros perimeter positions closes down to a few hundred metres, the risk that further volleys of the latter’s semiautonomous precision munitions might strike their own vehicles grows. This alone progressively reduces the overhead threat to the Australian force, but the risk of engagement from the surviving defensive positions now grows.
The AI has already carefully calculated the point at which one of the advancing platforms might be visible to a suspected enemy position. Mere moments before this point is reached a volley of a dozen Skyfang-S30 guided munitions whistle down from the sky to detonate tens of metres above the buildings concealing the Ecthtros bunkers. The AI is able to not merely identify the building but align the munition within 20 cm of any part of a room within the building. The low-collateral warhead echoes the 19thC design of Colonel Shrapnel, but with a high explosive charge accelerating several hundred bean-sized tungsten pellets to supersonic velocity in a narrow cone – and detonation stand-off determining the spread of pellets over the target. The effect is like firing a shotgun from up on the steps of a ladder down at the roof of a dolls house on the ground below. Firing from different heights makes the difference between devastating a single room or the whole building – but with negligible damage beyond a predictable circle. With each pellet having the energy to penetrate 8 cm of concrete, they readily smash through roofs. floorboards and sandbag bunker overhead protection.
As the Skyfang-S30 detonate over and smash the Echthros perimeter positions, the force of RAS vehicles races onwards in the smoke guided by AI on pre-planned routes, the MAVOC smashing through gardens and backyards, moving fast and without hesitation. Vehicles on the inside flank move slower so that the whole force wheels to move in behind the Echthros counter penetration elements – along routes preplanned from geospatial data that the networked drones and surveillance system has checked and confirmed in near real-time. Two of the vehicles have fallen behind, a sign that their fibre-optic strips have been sheared and that their communications links are degraded. Slowing platforms with weaker communication links is an AI default measure to reduce the risks if the mesh radio system is jammed. Platforms that are well forwards and not able to receive authority for lethal engagement immediately become vulnerable.
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.