Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
A briefing in Darwin
500 m metres away from the Darwin control room is another large room full of people. But in this amphitheatre no one in the audience wears a uniform. The presenter does. As he steps up to the podium the buzz of conversation amongst the assembled international journalists dies away.
“Colleagues of the press, welcome to Darwin and welcome to another new day of defence transparency. The Chief of the Defence Force has asked me to extend to you her personal thanks for agreeing to our terms for participating in this second ever defence update briefing lockdown. I must remind you that you have all agreed to not communicate with anybody outside this building for 48 hours from the end of this briefing, or at an earlier time if the operational commander advises me. I also remind you that you have also agreed not to publish or communicate specified operational details or information that could be prejudicial to processes of law, also for a period of six months. I’m sure you will now wish me to update you on the islands operation. Please open the envelopes underneath your seats.”
The audience reach beneath their legs and unfold an A3 sized map of the island boldly marked with arrows and symbols. A second piece of paper is a list with a bold red heading: capabilities and details embargoed for six months.
“Colleagues, you have a copy of the PowerPoint up on the screen. You will notice the addition of blue symbols to the map of the island.” There is a ripple of laughter.
As you will see from the arrow, we have landed and, in conjunction with our allies, are in the process of ejecting the Echthros from Filia territory. You will understand that at this point I’m not at liberty to describe to you the ongoing amphibious operation that has landed Australian forces on the island. I can however tell you that we have begun to do what we went there for. The approach to the town is now ‘broken open’. The Echthros outer defensive perimeter has been breached and a mechanised response force they sent against us has been destroyed. We are now pushing into the town. And all this has been done by an autonomous force.”
A voice interjects angrily – “But the Prime Minister said there would be no killer robots and humans would be in control”. The response is calm, almost smug. “And the Prime Minister is correct. Not only have service members been controlling every weapon system, but those members have been extensively trained on simulators in the legal use of force. Furthermore, we have fought the battle from right here in Australia”. There is a chorus of questions and arm waving, which the presenter ignores holding up one hand and waiting for silence.
“May I ask you to leave your questions to the end please. I will answer one of those questions just asked however, because it raises an important question of understanding. Has the area shown on your map with the big blue Arrow been cleared? No. Clearing an urban area is the slow detailed task of checking every building, structure and hiding place. Remote control platforms change this process dramatically, reducing its historical risk. Nevertheless, a detailed clearing operation will require time and a concentration of many systems. The discrimination required in the presence of civilians demands assured human supervision. Technical considerations, particularly bandwidth constraints on operating many uncrewed systems in a small space, dictate that this will still need many of these humans close to the platforms. Such ‘clearing’ will come later or is limited to small areas. What the crewless reconnaissance and break-in force have done is reduce battlefield ambiguity, setting the conditions for manoeuvre such as the destruction of the Echthros mechanised company – and I will give you more information about that later – and the infiltration that is now going on.”
The switch to technocratic language begins to calm the impatience of the audience, and speaker continues his presentation, consciously deliberate and academic in tone.
“The tactics of infiltration – pushing past and around resistance, leaving cut off defenders for following troops to deal with – is an ancient idea rediscovered by the Germans in WW1. It is an aggressive approach that requires accepting risk. On urban terrain there is a particular danger that an enemy will allow attacking troops to penetrate and then cut them off, as happened to American units when fighting the Germans in France in 1944. However, uncrewed systems remotely controlled by AI deliver the advantages of an infiltration attack, while the combination of the removal of humans and increased awareness of the battlefield dramatically changes the risk equation.”
The journalists scribble notes, verging between resentment at being lectured at and being fascinated.
“The system logic of our AI system can use a detailed 3D model of the battlefield to instantly calculate the view from any point. Thus, without needing humans on the ground, it identifies open spaces or streets that represent fire lanes or engagement areas and the positions from which these can be seen. In seconds it can deliver calculations that historically required a commander’s personal reconnaissance from multiple points. An AI directed infiltrating force can not only select and update known or likely threat positions, but it also provides unprecedented coordination of overwatch. The system can rapidly, systematically and reliably deploy advancing elements to both cover threat approaches to friendly positions and isolate enemy held areas. Nor does a semiautonomous force need to pause, regroup, or rotate like its human equivalent. The psychological and briefing requirement to concentrate soldiers is removed. AI can manage combat elements without putting them static in one place, offering dispersion, speed and protection from the fluidity.”
“From the outskirts of the town right through the suburban perimeter, our reconnaissance and break-in force have established ‘streetscape targeting parity’. This is where the combination of ‘panoptical’ surveillance systems and powerful precision weapons deliver a high probability of quickly destroying an enemy position that unmasks – I mean shows itself. Once we have this sort of parity, an advancing force can manoeuvre to eliminate, bypass or envelop isolated or hasty enemy positions. The basic idea is that we know that it is impossible for an enemy to defend everywhere. An enemy cannot be everywhere in breadth, depth and strength. So this system allows us to use speed to disrupt preparation or occupation of enemy main defensive positions.”
“…But what if the enemy are underground?” a voice calls out from the back. The speaker replies wryly. “Quite so, streetscape targeting parity is decreasingly useful as building construction gets stronger and denser because it both protects from precision weapons and channels movement through predictable gaps. Let the explain the idea a little more for you.”
“The first element that enables streetscape targeting parity is the ubiquity of sensors deployed as sentinels across the town, airfield and beyond. Early in the operation we deployed surveillance UAVs. Most are low-cost expendable Perchdrone1’s like is the on the slide. Launched from bulk canisters they fly without external control to carefully pre-selected positions, moving just above tree or rooftop height. Many are now perched or squatting on trees and rooftops, with some self-adhered to vertical walls or windows. Once in position with their thermal and visual sensors staring along streets and across open spaces, they remain passive except to transmit images of people or machines moving. Even when they are shot down by systems or small arms that tells us something because we know where they were lost. There are essentially harmless and if picked by civilians or adversaries they continue to transmit images until batteries are exhausted or there is an attempt to open them – … And no, we are not giving them away – that is when a small pyrotechnic self-destruction advice operates. We also have a very clever device called a Cyclops which we have been able to place in certain carefully selected buildings, particularly those suited to hasty defence or in places where troops might attempt to move concealed within. They are not quite so harmless,…….. But I repeat that humans are completely in control.”
Several journalists exchange glances. The presenter continues;
“The second element that enables this notion of streetscape parity is much greater situational awareness. That awareness delivered by AI taking multiple sensor feeds and synthesising these with geospatial and intelligence data. The result is a rich ‘computer mental model’ of the urban battle space – I say computer mental model because the system has actually got far more information than we could portray. We use visualisation technologies to provide commanders with the most important bits – which still gives an unprecedented picture of the physical battlefield with real-time representations of enemy troops and systems. What is even more revolutionary is that this data is also what the networked AI uses to constantly adjust plans and execute manoeuvre – and it does it all much faster than human decision-makers can.”
“So this idea of streetscape parity depends on having real-time situational awareness, – but we have to do things as well as know things. To support a force manoeuvring on urban terrain we must be able to respond immediately to threats to that force – and we have something called an overwatch element to do that. However, in urban areas threats may come from any direction and in three dimensions, so overwatch is a pretty difficult job. It is really difficult to coordinate the deployment and tasking of human troops to protectively overwatch every location from which the enemy might possibly ambush advancing elements. In fact, organising overwatch can take as much time as clearing in detail which everyone knows takes time. It’s these two things that are the key factors in the historically slow pace of urban offensive operations.” The presenter now lifts both arms to emphasise the point he is about to make;
“However……. A pre-positioned force of robotic systems armed with effective sensors and coordinated by AI is unprecedented. It means the force has level of alertness, a greater speed of response ………as well as spatial assurance that all threat directions are overwatched. Everyone in this audience will understand the impact that airborne drones armed with precision munitions such as the Predator had post 9/11. You’ll know that critical scholars have argued that this amounted to psychological domination of some Middle Eastern countries. However, in reality, these effects have never been continuous nor assured, especially in urban areas. The notion of having ‘overwatch assurance’, which for practical purposes means guaranteed backup, is best delivered by something right there on the ground. You actually need what’s called the tactical persistence of ground vehicles, or at the very least the ability to purchase your dry nearby until it is needed – and of course you need utterly reliable connectivity to an engagement authority – the human who’s going to say its okay to shoot.” Again, the speaker pauses for effect
“Nevertheless, all this amazing technology does not prevent an enemy ambush, or small engagements that infect casualties or impose minor delay. We have something else as well. Something quite revolutionary. A novel capability that profoundly changes the battlefield. The Australian force can conduct operations-under-obscuration. This is not just about fighting in smoke using thermal images to see when the enemy cannot. It’s more than that. The systems that I have just shown you have amazing 3D mapping capabilities that make a useful ‘memory’ of the terrain. We can load that into our the robotic platforms allowing them to navigate from memory. Let me tell you some more…….. “
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.