Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
Synchronicity as lethality
The Echthros reaction force hidden in buildings and poised to strike the Australians advancing from the beach landing have their weapons and thermal sights trained across their arcs of fire which defilade the approach from the north. Their sentries, forwards and outside the buildings report hearing intermittent roaring, firing, vehicle noise and then a smoke bombardment to their front. Sitting in his turret, the commander peers at the screen displaying the view from the small drone that he has been cautiously directing towards the beach, inputting waypoints along the streets to keep it below roof height. Less than a kilometre in front of his position the image begins to blur in the thickening smoke. He decides to risk the loss of his ‘eyes in the sky’ and inputs the command to climb. Within a few seconds he has a panorama, smoke clouds spreading in the breeze amongst the streets and buildings, thickening to a solid fog across the beach and out to sea. Amongst the tendrils of obscurant below he sees angular shapes moving between houses. One seems to have a mine clearing flail. He has seen enough and touches the ‘autonomous return to base’ icon.
The Marines stationed in the buildings and crewing the APCs hear a volley of rockets incoming from the North that screams out of the sky and bursts above them, but where they are concealed indoors they do not see the explosions spray incandescent smoking particles above them, which continue to burn as they tumble downwards. The sentries in positions outside buildings do. They see the glowing pellets descending upon them and run for the nearest buildings. The armoured vehicle crews are surprised to see their protectors abandon their positions until the view from their windows is obscured by the billowing smoke. The company commander is increasingly unnerved as vehicle gunners report being unable to observe anything through the thickening clouds in front of them.
The noise of approaching vehicles gradually grows louder. He can hear the intermittent industrial grinding and smashing sound of the Stormtrak cutting its way through successive buildings, but unable to see this he is baffled. Why are the Australians mineclearing? This must be a serious attack. He reaches for his radio handset and transmits: “Comrade General there is a substantial armoured force in killing area 5 and approaching my position. My weapon sensors are blinded. They are using thermal obscurant. I believe we have an opportunity to land a great blow. I recommend that you hit them with the guns and then a wave of drones in radar mode. I will hold them here for you to do so. Long live our nation!”
The crews of the battery of self-propelled guns in a warehouse in the southern side of the town have been eagerly awaiting the order to engage. The codeword comes and the gun captain yells from his desk in the corner “Final Protective Fire area 5”. Young soldiers frenziedly pull on the chains to open the roller doors as diesel engines roar to life. Their tracks screech and skid as they accelerate out into the open, lurching to a stop after travelling no more than 50 m. Comrades are in trouble and they will fire immediately. Barrels elevate and turrets rotate and one after the other the commanders confirm they are laid on by yelling to the battery commander who has raced after them on foot. His arm goes up and down and the six guns recoil and rock their vehicles back on their suspension hurling 122 mm shells into the sky. The shock from the muzzle blasts reverberates from the buildings around. A few seconds later the guns all fire again almost simultaneously, gradually losing cadence and by the fifth volley the blasts are staccato. The fifth round is the signal for the drivers to head out to their alternative hide, and immediately move off, as their officers race back to the command post vehicles still in the warehouse.
Nearer the centre of town, two other vehicles have driven from hiding places into the open. The large rectangular container on the back of each truck is angled upwards and 12 horizontal doors are opening to expose the shelf within. On each, there is a grey drone with the wingspan as wide as a man’s reach. One soldier stands below the poised weapons looking up to confirm that every door is fully open and watching for yellow hazard lights on each to flash and indicate the millimetric sensors are running. Satisfied he rushes and climbs in the cab, no sooner the armoured door shuts than the first one shoots skywards pushed by its booster rocket and climbing to get above its target area. The pusher propeller pops out and starts to spin, but unnecessarily for the munitions brain has already started on a diving trajectory that will place its radar search cone right in the centre of Echthros killing area 5. In millimetric mode there is no need for human input – the seeker will hunt radar returns – big moving things – big static things – little moving things – and then objects in the open. No control links to jam.
The Echthros response company commander standing in the turret of his APC inside a workshop and looking out of a window into the white smoke towards the sounds of approaching vehicles feels a strange mix of elation and relief as he hears the express train sound of the incoming shells. Short moments later feels the shockwaves of their detonation a couple of hundred metres in front of him shake the building and a windowpane is shattered by a steel shard. He unlatches his seat and lowers his head within the cupola, counting off the seconds between volleys and still trying to pin down the roaring smashing noise that he hears intermittently. After the fifth set he loosens his helmet to expose his ears and listen carefully. Then just briefly he hears a descending whine and a satisfying double explosion. He presses the radio transmit button: “that’s our hunter killers in millimetric mode – it sounds like they’re having happy hunting – they shouldn’t be looking anywhere this far back, but nobody take any chances, stay inside until you’ve heard all 24 land”.
By the time six munitions have impacted in succession somewhere in front of the response company positions there is no more movement noise from in front of them. The growing interval between the descent and detonation of the subsequent drones is driven by the algorithm in autonomous mode. Optimised to destroy platforms when human guidance is not possible, each munition processes the return from its millimetric sensor, recognises platforms already destroyed and continues to search for ‘next most likely’ object which are now parked cars and other large ferrous objects.
As the Echthros hammer descended through the smoke onto the deception force, a kilometre or so away several of the Xtraks from the initial reconnaissance patrol had stirred again. They had turned and elevated their tubes high towards the Echthros counter penetration force. Now, as the moving Australian UGV force closes in on them, the Xtraks engage. At intervals of between seven and ten seconds a mortar bomb is fired from one of the dispersed UGV, the bombs detonating around the buildings hiding the Echthros AFV’s.
The impact of the mortar bombs marks the beginning of confusion amongst the would-be Echthros ambushers. Above the detonations, they begin to hear noises of approaching vehicles smashing through fences, walls and pushing aside water tanks. Closed down inside their vehicles they cannot locate the direction. With a synchronisation completely beyond human operators, almost every MAVOC turns around a corner or smashes through a fence at the same time to arrive at a position that gives physically clear lines of sight to the Echthros vehicles, some a mere 30 m away. The MAVOC thermal imagers are also blinded by the hot billowing smoke, but their cannon are aligned roughly towards their targets. As soon as each vehicle halts it switches to human operation, and back in Darwin the operators peer intensely at their screens watching for the tell-tale shapes of their targets hot engines to show through the thinning and cooling smoke.
Unlike their comrades in the vehicles, the dismounted Marines hear the noise of the uncrewed vehicles to their rear and recognise a threat somewhere unseen in the smoke. They yell to each other above the noise of the impacting mortar bombs. One peers out from the doorway of a house where he has taken shelter and makes out a Polywheeler 20 metres away. He fires a burst at the shadowy shape, but his rounds pass through the polyethylene wheels and body without effect or prompting a response. Recognising that the vehicle may also be blind in the smoke, he makes a dash back to where an RPG lies, dropped by a comrade. Without stopping he grabs it and extends it before creeping back around to the doorway, with it poised on his shoulder. As he moves forward he can still see little, but the hot smoke has cooled enough for him to be seen, though only as an indistinct shadow, by an operator back in Darwin. She recognises that an enemy so close is a threat, even though she has not yet seen the launcher, and she authorises the self-defence system. In an instant the AI polls the surrounding vehicles. If the systems collectively can get a firing solution the default will be to engage any human figure nearby with less-lethal ring airfoil rubber munitions, but in the whirling still warm smoke they cannot. A small cylinder discharges out of the back deck of the Polywheeler and detonates its thermobaric payload just above the UGV. The Marine, caught in the shockwave collapses to the ground, his potent weapon unfired.
The sound of the blast echoing off nearby buildings coincides with a MAVOC operator in Australia looking at the image seen through a large doorway and discerning the distinctive thermal shape of the engine heated rear of a light tank. She lays the aiming reticle just above the glowing white of the rear deck towards where the still undefined turret must be and fires. For a brief moment on her screen there is a white haze from the muzzle flash and impact heat pulse. Then a small white dot appears showing the heat where the armour has been penetrated. She fires twice again and there are suddenly two more dots, almost superimposed. A moment longer and the white of heat billows violently above the dots and becomes a complete ‘white-out’ of the screen. A catastrophic ammunition fire in the light tank turret has just blown the hatch off. The AI uses her ‘overhead map view’, to alert her to another the APC 50m away. As she rotates the turret and scans the gradually resolving thermal image of the streetscape she picks out the distinctive shape of rear of another Echthros vehicle, but before she has laid her gun on it, it flashes with the glowing white silhouetted shape of the rear open door. The hot door shape pulses as high explosive rounds from another MAVOC detonate within. She thinks: ok, Both targets are down, get out now. She toggles the self-defence control twice and two thermobaric grenades detonate above her vehicle, blowing all of the windows out of the building in front of her. She touches the glycol smoke switch and taps the icon to relocate, triggering it to accelerate backwards and race at speed away from the Marines and towards the next task, the remaining enemy vehicles.
In the space of 10 seconds a robotic force has swarmed and eliminated nine enemy armoured vehicles. Battles where larger force of apparently individually weaker elements can overwhelm armoured systems have many precedents since Agincourt. There is now a substitute for numbers. Advantage flows from a synergy of surprise and speed enabled by the coordinating power of AI. The capacity to move rapidly across complex terrain and in one moment deliver all the elements of force to arrive at engagement positions suddenly and simultaneously is overwhelming. In effect, AI has delivered to the advancing force the advantage that historically accrued to the ‘ambusher’ lying in wait.
The Echthros CUAS APC hidden behind nearby buildings that have been providing protection against the drones overhead merit more care. Surprise is lost. The Echthros machines are as well armed as the MAVOC and are guarded by dismounted Marines. The odds may be more even. The MAVOC, however, have a unique advantage: blind-fire. They exploit the capacity, inadvertently discovered during the invasion of Iraq, of armoured vehicle ballistic penetrators to travel through many blocks of buildings and combine this with e-bullet ballistic prediction technology first developed for live simulation.
During Mission planning, an AI enhanced version of architectural CAD software creates a 3D map of the basic details of every building, fence and bush, which is loaded into the electronic memory of every vehicle. This not only allows basic vehicle navigation from a ‘memory model’ alone but is populated and updated with targets from the networked sensor array, including other platforms. This enables direct fire weapons to engage unseen targets in a fashion analogous to indirect ‘artillery’ weapons. The system enables platforms to align their cannon on a target that is invisible because it is inside or behind a building and can engage even if there are multiple walls between the weapon and the target. By firing successive rounds, loopholes are blasted through barriers in turn all the way to the intended target. When assigned one or more target locations, a platforms AI will pick an optimum blind-fire position, select the best route and blind-drive there without the hesitation of a human driver. This manoeuvre can be conducted under the protection of any either thermal or visual obscurants, offering huge tactical advantage.
The MAVOC operators are sitting at their consoles adjacent to each other in Darwin, so unlike tank commanders of an earlier age, struggling above vehicle noise to tersely coordinate the battle on the radio, they can simply speak to one another as they drive using their screens. First one, then another reports communication problems. As the vehicles have turned back around onto their original route in order to attack the remaining enemy CUAS vehicles, most have probably sheared their fibre-optic links to their satellite dishes. This means that Echthros jamming is beginning to have effect. This threat has been anticipated and the MAVOC and their accompanying small UGV continue to move – but more slowly. The glycol smoke billowing around them will give some level of protection, but without human authorisation they can only act to defend themselves against unequivocal close attack, and then only with tracking devices and their less lethal gun.
The one star steps in: “Wendy, how long before you can hit that jammer?” She replies; “a couple of minutes, unless I take the risk of popping early, bad idea if they have switched their big missiles to the control of tracking radar on one of the other islands”. He accepts her judgement but decides that waiting several minutes for full control to return is too great a risk and he must unmask his backup option. His next order is; “Okay switch to local control with full power”. In the industrial building a few kilometres back from the battle, the crew of four have been sitting in their MAVOC, following the battle and waiting for this moment. They hear the order; touch their screens to take control. Immediately they do so the compact diesel generators in several special-purpose Xtraks deployed between the on-battlefield human crew humans and the UGV force roar into life, boosting mesh radio transmission strength enough to cut through the jamming.
As the UGV’s recognise that human oversight has been re-established they pick up speed again. Similarly, drones that parked themselves in open areas and on rooftops as jamming began, rise up resuming their hopping motion around and over buildings. With the hot smoke dispersed, most of these drones now head through the glycol vapour towards the positions of the Echthros CUAS amphibians, keeping low to stay in the dead space of their anti-air systems. They bob up from different points over the rooftops every so often to capture thermal still images that constantly update the networks shared virtual 3D understanding of the situation. As before, the MAVOC take routes that keep them off roads and tracks while the smaller UGV lag behind. Locals cowering in their homes at the sounds of engagement are terrified. They can see little in the white mist even when they risk looking out of the window. If they do they might get a brief glimpse of a small armoured vehicle streaming white smoke as it whines and crashes through their garden and past their home, but little more.
The commander’s decision means that three operators and their commander on the ground in their MAVOC suddenly have contingency oversight authority for the complete mixed force of UGV. They are immediately busy checking and, occasionally, updating the destinations AI has selected for the fleet. Many of the platforms are now approaching the area where the Echthros CUAS are tucked in behind buildings, positioned to cover the sky but undoubtedly now aware they are threatened. In the virtual battlefield environment being shared between sensors, human controllers and weapons the Echthros platforms are already clearly identified as legitimate combatant targets. The commander, unnecessarily, tells her crew; “Don’t you do it, let them do it”. She refers to the temptation, as battle seems imminent, for humans to step in and take manual control of vehicles rather than letting AI retain it for everything except the decision to engage. On her overwatch screen she sees one MAVOC has reached firing position, 10 seconds later another reports, then in rapid succession several more.
This is a moment of fine, and still human, judgement. If the enemy vehicles move now the opportunity to engage blind against them as ‘memorised’ targets will be lost. Firing too soon on one vehicle might cause the others to bug out, yet they might move anyway. The commander uses the tense time window to set engagement targets for mortars on the smaller UGV. “Wait,….. wait,…. Wait… “ she commands her three operators. Then when she sees that all three of the enemy vehicles have at least one MAVOC ready to engage, she reaches for her screen to fire the mortar bombs and then counts “thousand one, thousand two,…….” When she knows she has left enough flight time for the bombs to have impacted around the enemy vehicles, hoping that some of the Marines will still be standing nearby, she gives the order: “Fire”.
Several of the Echthros Marines hear the cough of the mortars firing nearby and throw themselves to the ground. The stunning detonations of the bombs and the crash of their splinters against vehicle hulls prompts the crew of two of the vehicles to slam their hatches shut. Cacophony follows. For the Echthros the sounds of the first two single cannon shots from an unseen MAVOC, though close by, are muted by the intervening buildings as neither penetrate. In one case, the penetrator strikes a concrete pillar and is stopped by several concrete block walls beyond. The other round strikes a block wall before the petals have properly separated from the penetrator, causing the parts to tip as they smash a hole, and the now tumbling penetrator is also caught. Those two rounds are aberrant. The following hail of penetrators smashes through multiple walls to strike the armoured vehicles from different directions. Once the MAVOC laser sensors confirm that ‘tunnels’ have been blasted through the intervening walls, the cannon switch to explosive ammunition, and there is a series of explosions from the corralled Echthros vehicles. The three human operators take back control and pause the firing, conscious of IHL obligations not to attack enemies who are no longer resisting. A single quad copter bobs up over the rooftops to assess battle damage. All three vehicles appear disabled but one of the CUAS systems is still functioning and autonomously engages to knock the robotic observer from the sky.
“Okay guys”, the commander says, “burrow a bit” and her three operators now each take over the best positioned MAVOC for the ‘coup de grace’. Each taking direct control of a cannon, they start to fire a pattern of single shots to widen the loopholes in the walls between the MAVOC and their targets. Once they can see the whole vehicle, they align the cannon towards the vehicle engines and fire more penetrator rounds until the thermal images show bright hot dots of impact around the engine area. They repeat the treatment for the CUAS turrets and two of the enemy vehicles begin to burn. “We are done there”, she says. “Two cyclops on each position will do it”. The message is clear. Do not remain where there is legal ambiguity about engagement and surviving Marines may counter-attack. Leave monitoring munitions behind and redeploy to secure the approach for the urban penetration.
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.