Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
The Echthros Colonel of engineers stands, scanning the expectant eyes of men seated uncomfortably on the concrete floor, surrounded by weapons, satchels, ammunition containers and tripods. He waits for complete silence to settle across the hundred odd Marines in the underground car park.
“Marines. Your comrades of the second Battalion have served our nation well on the perimeter. Their stealth, resistance and cunning has identified and blunted the Australians attack. They are still coming from the West and we are going to strike them hard and with surprise. They are good soldiers, good infantryman but they think like infantryman. I have studied them. They think urban warfare is room combat. Well, we will give them a fight in buildings like they expect but not in the way they expect it. The great lesson from the Iraqi and Palestinian resistance is to kill invaders with explosives.
So, we will welcome these intruders, ha, we will invite them into our new home. If they ‘Thunder run’ like in Baghdad we will let them come down the streets and destroy them there. When they discover the old lesson that they cannot progress in the open, we will make them work hard to come through the buildings, make them bring more forces forwards – and then we will blow them to hell.
Your job is to make them do that work.
I remind you of three things. First, stay hidden. In a minute when you deploy, do not stray for a moment from the passages my men have cut in the walls between here and your positions. No matter what happens do not approach a window to observe until I order the fight to begin – and when I do never ever show a face – use just your weapon sight to look. Second, obey your comrades, my sappers. The explosive charges will in an instant turn buildings into pillboxes and allow you to walk through walls, but they must not be slowed down by having to think for your safety. Third, the advice of the great communist soldier Marshall Zhukov – in battle an explosive goes into every room before you do!
Finally, trust the plan. You have practised it many times in the simulator. Yes, reality will be slightly different and there will be unexpected things but think of this. How much more confusing and shocking will it be for your enemies. Go to your posts.”
The Colonel salutes the assembled men and the first platoon commander steps from behind him and gesticulates to his sections to stand up. They do so in thoughtful near silence, picking up, slinging and adjusting ammunition and weapon loads with easy familiarity. They are a little more cautious with the less familiar explosive frame charges and the sticky goo leaking from the black tapes on some of them. With a nod from its commander an engineer corporal leads the first platoon across the car park to an access door in the concrete wall. It opens to a sheer muddy rock wall face two metres beyond, the maintenance access to the drainage airspaces left when constructing the foundations of the building. The laden men step into the opening and then awkwardly down onto a slippery drainage gutter, their loads crashing and clattering on the doorframe before they turn to the right out of the rectangle of light projected from the car park and into the gloom pierced by swinging head torches. They enter the rarely seen netherworld of catacomb spaces that surround the massive concrete foundations of modern buildings.
In the damp darkness the Marine platoon follow the exterior of the basement wall and turn around an outside corner to follow the concrete slab until they reach an illuminated arrow pointing into the darkness. There the corporal leads them away from the wall where in their headlights they can see that a muddy knotted rope leads across rubble strewn rock. They must scramble over the outcrops left uncut during construction between the two neighbouring buildings foundations. Their loads scrape and crash on the uneven ground. It is hot, sticky and stinky. They are above the water table but not away from the smell of the sewage contaminated pipes that drain into these subterranean spaces. Sliding down the far side they meet and traverse along another basement wall, to enter a maintenance access door like the one they just left. Sticky mud is tromped through this further basement and up the stairwell on its far side, then into a corridor at ground level. The muck from their boots is now highlighting the path signposted by two-strand electrical signal cable neatly taped to the floor at intervals. Their route leads through neat mouse holes cut in the adjoining walls between buildings, sometimes descending into basements, but mostly along interior corridors and spaces protected by multiple ferro-concrete walls and floor panels between them and the outside world. Sometimes they must rely on headlights and marker arrows in the darkness, in other places fluorescent lights still burn and show where the engineers have used beams, bolts and wire to close off all access to the manoeuvre corridor they have created.
Finally, the Marines find themselves in what the dim green light of luminous emergency exit signs reveals to be an extensive underground space. The file has stopped moving forwards and they begin to form a cluster around the platoon commander. They are surrounded by the racks and counters of the basement level of a department store, and the hiss of a drinks can opening suggests at least one person is taking advantage of the resources lying around them. A voice calls from the corridor behind: “last man Sir”. The platoon commander speaks forcefully to impress his words in the near darkness.
“Okay, this is it. We are right beneath the shopping centre. The stairwell behind the green sign on my left your right leads up to one section area, and the stairwell on the other side goes up to two section’s. Three section will stay down here with me in the storeroom just behind you. That’s our headquarters and where the platoon sergeant will stay with the medic and the signaller. Once either one of two section are in contact and have fired off their claymore banks, I’m going to take three section up stairwell we just passed in the corridor, right to the top and through the loft to get behind the Australians – and we have some presents to drop on them.” There is nervous laughter from the group. “Now I can’t say this often enough. The thing that is going to really mess with them could mess with us. We’re going to come out of a staircase behind them on the ground floor and assault this way. That will play with their heads, but we are coming straight back towards you and it will be dusty and dark and confusing as all hell. Once you hear our whistles just leave us to do the shooting and bombing inside the building on the ground floor and you guys concentrate on stopping anyone getting past either side above or below. Any questions?” Silence. “Right I’m going to take each section in turn to orientate them to their positions, preposition a few presents and bring you back here. We stay here in the storeroom until the recon guys confirm we’ve got enemies somewhere in the building. That’s when we blow. OK one section follow me.”
The commander leads off towards the stairwell, winding his way past the shop displays and counters. When he reaches the mezzanine level he gathers the section around him and points out the shaped charges stuck to the inside surface of the concrete and explains how when they are detonated the resulting loopholes will give the two soldiers posted there great fields of fire out down into the open spaces of the shopping centre. He tells the two tasked soldiers to leave a tin of handgrenades there, and sensing the consternation he says: “no, the blast won’t even dent the tin, but put it in that recess there!” He then takes the section back down to ground level, along a corridor into an almost empty service room. “Okay, when these blow….” He gesticulates to the charges stuck to the wall, “this will be a little one section fortress, and over there where we’ve pulled the air-conditioning duct out is where you will put the RWS covering right along the northern entrances to the shopping centre. Those cables over there with the ends under the sandbags are for the monitor. You have four cameras out there. Under the other sandbags are the initiators for the claymores, as per the plan they have been tested but are now disconnected. Don’t forget to make sure that the blow hasn’t damaged the wires when you get back here. Remember that you will get a warning when we blow claymores inside the building, but the off-route mines will be triggered by any vehicle that drives along the north face of the building. They are outside of the wall hidden in switch boxes and are going to knock a hole and a hollow concrete back into the shops in front of you, so don’t get freaked by that. Okay, now you’ve seen it, let’s go back down to the storeroom and you can start another rehearsal on the laptop – and drop two tins of grenades in that alcove there”. The platoon commander leads the first section back to the basement area, and repeats the exercise with the second before taking the third section and walking them along the rooftop gallery, pointing out where the sappers have cut holes in the air-conditioning ducts to allow them to drop grenades. Satisfied, and with the whole platoon in the quickly stuffy storeroom, he tells the engineer corporal to connect the firing circuits. He walks over to the field telephone and makes a call. “Comrade Major, we are in position and ready for your order to defend.”
Also underground, but hundreds of metres away in the deep basement below a hotel, the brigade operations officer steps up from his desk and walks over to the commanding general. “Sir, we have a substantial armoured force on the Western approach, and they are moving screened by thermal obscurant. The perimeter company commander reports they have destroyed many small robots in the smoke, but they can hear bigger vehicles. I recommend committing a couple of waves of killer drones in radar mode again – but will need to strike their air defence first – the acoustic locating section have pinged two of them well forwards – of course that means unmasking at least one 105 vehicle – as I’m guessing that a gun-fired missile is our best tool.” . The Brigadier-general reaches forward to his screen and touches it to drag and expand the battle map to focus on the northern end of town. He is thoughtful for a moment. “Okay, but just one”
Right in the centre of an empty warehouse in the northern end of town an Echthros APC is jockeying and skidding strangely. In the turret, either side of the 105mm gun the commander and gunner are intently peering at an electronic map and through a gunsight respectively. The commander is calling fine adjustments as he lays the turret direction to correspond to the angle of the trace on his map from their position to that the locating section have provided for one of the Australian air defence vehicles. He asks the gunner: “is your line of sight clear of that I-beam?” Satisfied, he orders: “Canister, at muzzle, fire”. There is a heavy clunk as the breach closes and a moment later the gun recoils violently between them, the muzzle blast reflecting off the walls and roof back through the open hatches. 15 m in front of the vehicle there is a ragged head sized hole punched through the corrugated iron. “Looks good and clean ” he says, “Missile, 3800m, air defence vehicle in the open on a slight rise, engage”. Though the missile is as slickly loaded as the canister round was, this time there is a delay as the gunner activates the seeker head and carries out pre-firing checks. Satisfied, he presses the firing button and the gun recoils again. This time he keeps his head pressed again the rubbers on the sight assembly, staring intently and waiting for the rushing image from the missile nose to resolve, his fingers tight on the joystick. Fuzz, Fuzz, still sky, then he sees the horizon rise up. There it is, a dot rapidly becoming a blob, then a growing angular shape. He swings the crosshairs over the suddenly expanding image of the Australian vehicle. Then all is white before the hole in the wall reappears in the gunsight reticule . He hits replay and after a few seconds of watching the slow-motion image from the diving missile reports. “Good hit”. The commander calls: “New target, left 60 mils………
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.