Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
Uncrewed into the urban
Just offshore, Sublanders silently waiting on the seafloor begin to hum and stir as electric
pumps force water out of tanks, and as they begin to rise the silt beneath their hulls is swirled and stirred. As the first submersible breaks the surface, the pumping continues, stealth abandoned in pursuit of stability. Deck hatches wind back exposing row after row of vertically arranged tubes, which begin to angle forward in unison. As they reach the predicted launch angle, thrusters at the rear of the submersible swish water to correct for direction. Rubber caps begin to pop off, blown by micro-gas generators. Inertial sensors seek the right moment during the gentle the pitching and rolling of the craft. Then, from tubes randomly assigned across the array, a salvo of rockets rises on a column of flame and smoke to race and roar away into the sky towards the town and the airbase. There is a pause while the submersibles thrusters again correct for direction and elevation and then another salvo screams skyward to a different part of the town. A massive naval artillery barrage is beginning. However, this is not another city-smashing bombardment as seen so often in history.
Like the rocket engagements launched earlier, these munitions also deliver obscurants as they decelerate over the target area. As before, the lightweight spent rocket bodies descend harmlessly under parachutes. In many areas, bursting tubes again scatter pellets that generate cool smoke as they fall to the ground. The point of difference is that half of the rockets are full of powder-like tiny metallised flakes packed around pyrotechnic ‘airbags’ which, on bursting form large shimmering, drifting and slowly descending clouds that degrade not just vision but also millimetric and thermal sensors.
As a billowing metallic counter surveillance screen is erected in the sky over the town, back in the forest combustion engines roar into life. Recently brought ashore by high-speed landing craft and now dispersed in the rear within a few hundred metres of the beach are perhaps a dozen larger armoured vehicles. These are the IFV-based Heavy Armoured Personnel Carriers that bring humans to battle, well protected by layers of passive and active armour and equipped with RAS for counter drone defence. Accompanying them is a handful of Heavy Armoured Vehicle Optionally Crewed (HAVOC) vehicles, a dedicated tanklike fire support and engineering vehicle, but with a distinctive asymmetric turret mounting both a barrelled 155mm gun and a cannon as well as a dozer blade. Behind all the large vehicles are towed trailers whose compartments are laden with drones and some of the small and lighter urban combat UGV. Forward of the heavy vehicles, and dispersed further out from the beach, other groups of crewed and uncrewed MAVOC also move out of their hides towards the tracks that lead to town.
Further forward still and advancing on parallel tracks and roads into the outskirts of the town towards the still smoking wrecks left from the break in battle, are more teams of uncrewed vehicles. The familiar grouping of the low-cost workhorse Xtrak800s and Polywheelers now accompany a far more heavily armoured platform. These are the Stormtrak4000, like those that fought on the beach, affectionately also known as ‘wombats’, reflecting their tough nature and role in burrowing through buildings. They are long, low squat and segmented, each vehicle consisting of two connected platforms both of which have two wide tracks. The impression is of appearing to be more track than body, looking rather as if the track assemblies from two excavators have been linked up, but with a bulkiness at each end. One end is dominated by an elevating flail/tiller assembly for breaching masonry and on the other is an elevating arm on which remote weapon station is mounted. Some of the vehicles carry a folding bridge unit with a hydraulic launch unit instead of breaching machinery. Bringing up the rear of each group of UGV’s, are other vehicles of similar size and shape to the Xtrak: the more sophisticated Varitrak500s. Rather than the simple elevating multi-barrelled weapon system of the Xtrak, the Varitrak have an elevating arm on which is mounted an RWS and variable geometry, meaning they can change their width. This allows their track assemblies to move in and out from the armoured body, so they can pass through doorways and other narrow gaps as well navigate rubble.
The different elements of the robotic force move passively under individual platform AI control with only intermittent transmissions to update their positions. The ongoing Echthros jamming is not yet impacting control and the communication specialists in Darwin are confident that the ground team in the MAVOC will still be able to work through the jammer, but less sure that control from Australia will be maintained once the demand on the mesh network increases. The One-star back in Darwin has delayed striking the mobile Echthros jammer UGV as long as possible, not wanting to show his hand and conscious that the jamming might be quickly duplicated, but he makes the call and another RAAF jet UAS delivers the pair of anti-radiation missiles that end the transmissions.
The Echthros southern post section commander and his men have remained hunkered down and undetected throughout the break-in battle. He has not been able to discern a clear pattern in what he has heard of the engagements just to his North, not from the backwards and forwards skid sounds of rubber tracks and plastic wheel rumble of the UGV, nor from the humming of UAV.. Now there is a new sound. Steel tracks, many of them that can only be heavy armoured vehicles. It dawns on him the explosions of a few minutes ago may have been the sounds of his comrades being killed and that he alone may be able to inform his commanders about what is happening around him, Swirling smoke still prevents him or any of his men seeing much out of their well-camouflaged apertures. However, he is able to use his thermal weapon sight and discern the moving vehicle sized blobs that are the approaching thermally camouflaged small UGV and heavy Stormtraks. This time when he reaches for the obsolescent field telephone that has proved so useful, the line is dead. He rotates the knob on his harness to switch his radio on, but to his frustration hears only static noise. He presses and transmits anyway: “Company leader this is 13, multiple armoured vehicles approaching. I say again multiple armoured vehicles approaching location of 13, acknowledge over”. He thinks he can hear a change in the static kissing that might be acknowledgement, but he cannot be sure. His comrades behind him must be warned another way.
The Echthros section commander summons two soldiers and his second-in-command and explains his plan finishing with; “Okay you know what to do if I don’t come back”, before leading the two men out through the back door into the swirling smoke. They move through back gardens towards the metallic sounds of oncoming tracks. When they reach a cluster of thick bushes growing against the building, he slings his assault rifle and extends the rocket launcher he carries. One of the soldiers with him does the same, the other holding his rifle ready and leaving two rockets slung on his back. The men move purposefully between buildings, staying close to the walls as they move towards the position the commander has in mind. They ignore the occasional civilian face peering from the houses they pass. Despite the swirling smoke, the section commander finds the ambush position he chose when first planning the defence. There is a vegetable garden next to where the road changes direction, bounded by walls and scrubby trees which provide some concealment. Better still, there is a tatty lean-to roof which once sheltered a civilian vehicle, but now will conceal him from the air. He indicates for the others to get down behind the wall while he alone peers over the top through the billowing smoke. They wait.
The screeching noise of metal on metal from the heavy tracks draws menacingly nearer, almost drowning out a quieter closer rumbling as the erratic shape of two camouflaged rubber tracked Xtraks roll through the smoke tendrils. Then a moment later one of the squat two-part armoured vehicles is passing 20 m away. The commander continues to wait and peer while the first Stormtrak turns to follow the curve of the road and begins to move obliquely away from him – and then the second platform comes into view through the smoke. He ducks down, grasps the launcher, staying low fits it over his shoulder and cocks the mechanism. The soldier next to him mimics his actions. The commander whispers and exaggerates his lip movements: “You take the near one”. He rises, bringing the launcher muzzle above the edge of the wall, laying the top aiming mark in the optical sight onto the receding fading shape and presses the trigger. The two men fire almost together, and the targets are so close that the explosions of the rockets launching merge with the detonation of the warheads against the UGV’s in a mind-numbing blast of sound.
While both the armour and the heavy steel tracks on Stormtrak are impervious to small arms fire and might even survive a few cannon rounds, these high explosive anti-tank (HEAT) munitions are designed to defeat main battle tanks. The front vehicle has its cutting module forwards, so the warhead strikes the rearward gun mounted section. In an explosive instant the large shaped charge projects a few hundred grams of copper at hypersonic speed, a jet of plastic metal moving with so much energy that it passes through the rear tracks and wheels, into the armoured hull and control systems, through the ammunition storage compartment and finally out through the front wheel and track with the projected spall having enough residual energy to smash one track of the front module. A moment later ammunition in the rear section explodes. The second Stormtrak has its tiller assembly facing the rear and the Echthros warhead detonates against one of the hanging flail arms. The extra stand-off from the vehicle means that the copper jet loses energy and focus before it strikes the armoured section, so it merely penetrates track, first wheel, hull and then expends its residue wrecking the interior. With ringing ears but elated at the destruction of the two UGV, the Echthros NCO signals for the two other men to follow him away. As he steps out from beneath the lean-to roof the thermal camera on a Gundrone12, unseen above him in the smoke, captures the image of the receding three figures, and with electronic instinct swings to align the 40 mm grenade launcher that hangs beneath it. There is a delay while the system requests engagement authority…
The One-Star back in Darwin notes with surprise that he feels a visceral sense of shock and loss as the symbols on the big-screen change to reflect the destruction of two Stormtrak and the imminent engagement of the perpetrators. “Okay” he says, unnecessarily, “keep everything off that route until I say otherwise”. Ha, he reflects, I’m anthropomorphising. On the big screen, the automatic adjustment of platform positions and routes has already begun and is immediately visible from the lateral shuffling of advancing platforms avoiding the area where the engagement has occurred. There are no new orders needed, the AI has the helm.
The crewless infiltration attack pushes forwards in the smoke, following the 3D image of the town, street and road surface that sits in their electronic memory. The teams of Xtraks and Polywheelers are like the warriors on the horns of a Zulu bull battle formation. They protect the main body from surprise, but more important, push forward to provoke, locate and envelop the enemy, ready to sacrifice themselves so that the chest – the heavier platforms – can strike at weakness. Yet the teams move forward steadily without contact.
Behind them, where more UGV’s continue to move forwards, first one and then the second group of Echthros Marines survivors from the perimeter positions creep out in the smoke to attack UGV by hand, using small arms and hand placed mines to knock out several Xtraks. The reserve section of the Echthros Western perimeter company manage to blow up a bridge across a storm drain beneath an uncrewed MAVOC. Yet, these losses are comparable to munitions expenditure – a cost for an effect – and the capacity to accept them allows the break-in force to push on inexorably. As it does so the analysts back in Darwin continue to examine imagery collected along the routes and task platforms to conduct assurance surveys, acutely conscious that on a robotic battlefield a competent enemy is likely to try to defer engagement until human targets are available.
The leading Xtraks have now moved through the light industrial areas and the shabby low rise apartment blocks on the outskirts of town and have reached the zone where the buildings begin to be joined up and ferro concrete becomes the predominant building material. Here they are increasingly channelled in the streets with little opportunity to move into cover and are more vulnerable from attack from above. They continue to push forward along parallel streets but slow down to move by alternate bounds with their overwatch Polywheelers hanging further back still.
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.