Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
Like most others in the control room the One-star stares up at the map display on the big screen. In a glance the viewer registers the blue dots representing the uncrewed systems and charting their flow from the beach through the forest and well into the town. There, the density and pattern of symbols immediately reveals a force grouped in linear clusters that are fanning out into multiple lines of advance, probing and infiltrating the unknown terrain that lies on the path to the centre of the Echthros position. Yet attention is not on the blue symbols and what until a few moments ago had seemed like their inexorable ant-like advance. Those looking are focused on one thing, the sudden appearance of a cloud of red symbols swirling and jinking above the most concentrated area of the swathe of blue ones. The mysterious loss of signal from the two forward air defence MAVOC several minutes ago now has sinister implications. The swarm of Echthros munitions is circling over a target which has just lost most of its protection. The tension in the big room is electric. Any moment they must surely attack.
Yet still they loiter. Why? Now is surely the moment to strike. Can the UGV fleet below take cover before the predators stoop? Seconds tick away. Some of the blue symbols begin to change, indicating that a UGV has lost its field-of-view, a proxy for being inside a building. Still the red symbols circle.
Chance is playing its part. The autonomous Echthros killer munitions have immediately recognised a juicy array of vehicles targets on the move below. They have already calculated that to overwhelm the air defences they should strike simultaneously. The multispectral smoke limits them to an autonomous radar mode of attack, and radar control is optimised for striking moving targets. The programme of each missile is written to make sure that it will continue to track a moving target that momentarily disappears behind or passes under a bridge or other object. So, if it loses radar return it waits several seconds before communicating with the swarm to ‘agree’ which of the remaining targets to strike. But at the same time the collective intelligence of the swarm is trying to ensure missiles engage the highest value targets – which to the missile logic is the targets that are giving the strongest radar return signal at any moment in time. What is happening is that as a MAVOC or Stormtrak disappears inside a building, the munition currently assigned to it waits a few moments before polling the rest of the swarm for a new target – which in turn prompts reallocation. For a few crucial seconds there is a delay.
On the ground, in town, two soldiers briefly step into the fog just outside of the building concealing their MAVOC to check a fault with the satellite connection. They notice a weird ‘beating’ whining sound from somewhere high overhead, which as they look pointlessly upwards into the fog and cock an ear, builds to a descending crescendo. Instinctively they throw themselves to the ground, and 4 kg of high explosive detonates just after penetrating the iron roof two floors above them. The blast reflecting from the far side of the street slaps them concussively fractions of a second before they are violently showered in plaster and splinters. There is creaking and crunching. The diverging jet of plasticised metal from the shaped charge warhead has smashed neatly down through the upper floor to shear a support beam 3 m below and the ceiling sags and drops the to rest on the top of the MAVOC. Timbers and corrugated iron begin to land in the street outside. Then, more numbing explosions in the fog around them, rattling like gravel thrown on a drum as 35 other munitions impact across where robotic force has taken cover.
In the control room, the sudden disappearance of the cloud of red symbols is heart stopping. For slow seconds there is no change to the blue symbols. An operator, realising the IR camera on her Reccedrone is looking across the rooftops towards the centre of town toggles a switch to display the monochrome view up on one of the large overhead screens. Cotton-wool like white puffs of heat bloom silently, scattered across the grey shapes of rooftops. On the adjacent map screen, one, then three then seven of the symbols pulse representing loss of signal alarm. The whole room continues to stare, dread changing to hope as no further symbol changes. The One-star calls out “I see seven platforms down, everyone forward of line Armidale test your systems. Team commanders report back to me”. There is a buzz of activity as UGV operators rotate vehicles and turrets, while grounded drones are briefly lifted a few metres off their rooftop perches. The leaders start to call out in turn. ”Team Dundalli reporting, two Xtrak down only, my people are fine but I’ve lost comms with a few Spheridrones though”. The commander turns to the next group of consoles. “Team Bussamari, an empty MAVOC has gone completely – fried – but the guys in the one next to it are fine except that they are stuck because the roof has fallen in on them. Three Xtrak gone, similar with the footballs.” The third leader has a tone of amazement. “Team Jandamara, boss I’ve only lost one Xtrak, but a dozen birds went dead instantly and my ground crew swear they had a camera looking right at a Spheridrone as it was checking a storm drain when it got walloped. It looks like their missile radar is good enough to find a bloody moving clockwork mouse.” The room stirs as it realises the implications. They have been extraordinarily lucky, but it is likely a logic or programming glitch that has saved the day. They are facing seriously impressive technology.
“Ladies and gentlemen”, the one star says to the room. “Let’s keep making our luck, we have gone indoors, let’s stay indoors. We change to a penetration attack from here on. That’s the same three axes, just getting under cover a little earlier. The Echthros probably think they’ve knocked us back a bit and I don’t see any point in disabusing them. If they do know how lightly we just got off I think they’ll take a few minutes to plan their next move – or at least change their munition programming…….” He hesitates and looks down at the device buzzing in his hand. “Spooky tells me that they are planning to put up a drone for battle damage assessment………… I assess we have a window to get the HAVOC and the HAPCs forwards… Team Musquito, do that. Everybody else, like I said, the same three axes and I haven’t changed my expectation that we will only push people down one, but we need to keep that option open. Let’s all get across the change, AV can you put up a couple of TI feeds from whichever force starts moving first.
Heads and eyes look upwards as on the left-hand big screen a cascade of windows starts to tile across the display. A mouse flashes across closing some and expanding others. The call signs showing on the images reveal that they are being transmitted from the platforms of Team Dundalli on the northern flank. The TI images are monochrome, set to white for heat, and like old photographic negatives not always intuitive to look at. The AV operator continues to drag-and-drop different feeds trying to get a couple of camera views that together tell the story. He settles on a street view at a crossroads with the road running away into the distance and buildings packed on either side, probably from a MAVOC given the high resolution, and then a different view of the same street from a higher aspect, likely from a perched drone.
There is movement in the bottom right of the screens. A bright white bar – a recently fired cannon barrel – appears to float above barely discernible wheels that are noticed only because they obscure the ghostly outline of the coffin shape of its hull. The Polywheeler halts with its cannon facing out to the right as the distinct all-metal shape of an Xtrak accelerates through the crossroads and begins to moves up the street driving on the right-hand sidewalk. Another similar vehicle follows on, but on the left to start moving up the left sidewalk. Two more follow and the four UGV move as alternating pairs until they are 150 m further forwards where the two rearmost Xtraks turn inwards with their 81 mm tubes poised to launch destruction across the street. For a brief moment the watchers see the four disks signature of a Reccedrone6 zooming across the screen on its way to a new rooftop perch.
The Polywheeler that was overwatching the smaller tracked vehicles now motors briskly over the crossroads and skid turns to tuck up tight against the corner of the building on the right, facing to the left, with its elevating arm extended forwards so that the remote weapon station alone protrudes round the corner. Another Polywheeler appears on the left-hand side of the screen and mirrors the movement of the first, halting on the opposite corner and similarly facing inwards across the street with its weapon covering round the corner. As the wheeled UGV are moving, half a dozen little lights move past them up the street like fireflies, and hover around the buildings on the corner. They are the tiny hot motors of Spheridrones2s. Hidden from human viewers by the smoke, they float from aperture to aperture and transmit compressed images to update the composite battle picture in the Australian headquarters.
Brief puffs of white at the muzzle of the cannon and hot cases ejecting onto the pavement show that the UGV are firing. The MAVOC camera perspective gives the illusion that the Polywheeler are firing at each other, but the fuzzier alternative view from the drone shows that they are firing across the street into the front face of the buildings on the end of the row. When the AI determines that the work of breaking windows with less lethal rounds is done, a couple of the little fireflies disappear from view on each side street, going inside to continue their autonomous search.
Across the Home control room people are transfixed as a cascade of still images from the drones appears in small windows at the bottom of the big screen. This is history. Room clearing without soldiers. Yet it is not clearing without people. A series of images shows a family huddling in the corner of a room who must be terrified of the football sized lattice around the hovering camera in front of them. Then another image seems to show less fear. Perhaps they have seen the Filia flag. They can certainly hear the continuing loudspeaker announcements booming out from a platform in the street in their native tongue, and they are doing as instructed.
On the big screen, another platform moves into the camera view from low and left, starkly white on the screen. Its hot all-metal, low, wide tracked and articulated profile is unmistakable. At walking pace, the Stormtrak heads directly for the wall of right-hand corner building on the other side of the crossroads. From either side a white fan-like effect pulses for a short distance, the glycol vapour plume only visible to the TI camera for the short distance it remains hot after passing over the heater elements of the smoke generators. As the UGV approaches the wall with its cutting blades spinning, it is momentarily slowed, not stopped, as a long narrow probe is punched through the wall, its embedded camera scanning for civilians or threats. As the spinning blades contact the wall, concrete is powdered, reinforcing rods are sheared and the tips heat up. The watchers in TI see what appears to be a spinning white brush at the front of the UGV that is gradually hidden as a dust plume billows.
In an upstairs room above where the Stormtrak is flailing, a couple and two infant children cower in the corner, trying to protect themselves behind a chest and a heavy mattress pulled on top of themselves that is already covered with shards of glass and concrete dust. Massive vibrations shake the walls and the floorboards beneath them shudder as thrown fragments of concrete strike from below. Then the pneumatic hell on earth doubles down as the platform below them turns on its air horn and a paralysing static wave of sound engulfs the building, reducing the family to a clutching, quivering, immobile, nauseous heap. The wall there leaning on shakes even more as 3 metres below them the UGV jockeys and the flail cutters push upwards expand the hole. Yet they live.
In the thermal view, the watchers can see that the flailing machine is now advancing through the opening it has is made, while two further UGV are moving into the crossroads to follow on. Like the Xtraks, the Varitraks are built of armoured steel and have a strong thermal signature, and both the variable width track arrangement and remote weapon station make their ‘IR visible’ profile distinctive.
Both of the smaller UGV follow close behind, rocking as they scramble over the broken masonry scattered around the new artificial doorway. As the uncrewed machines disappear indoors, across the street and moving in parallel a Stormtrak is leading a similar team to begin cutting its penetration.
The One-star decides to clarify army minor tactics in case anybody from the RAAF or Navy missed earlier briefings. “Okay guys, you can’t see what is happening inside the building, but the drill is identical but a mirror-image on each side of the street. You saw how the Xtraks go up the street a bit to provide a cut off effect behind any enemy that might be present, then how they are followed by unmanned Spheridrone2s. As you saw, they are a bit of a life preserver – and not just for us – in the old days the first thing into that room with the family wouldn’t have been drone it would have been a grenade. And the great thing is we don’t have to control them, the only thing we have to do is to authorise the platforms to make holes in windows and doors to let them search inside. And look, they are cheap, at the cost of the dozen hand grenades there are a bargain. But you’ve seen that. The bit that you can’t see is pretty important too. What happens is we let the Stormtrak get one room and wall ahead of the other vehicles, partly because if it hits a mine we don’t automatically lose several systems, but more because it’s a literal rock show near those machines – we are now smashing walls and rock shards are not good for optics?
“……Anyway, the key bit of the drill is that at least a couple of Varitraks follow on and turn inwards so they are looking across the street and motor over to a window and use their elevating arm and weapon station to knock out the glass. That means that whenever a penetration team is advancing on one side of the road, there are at least a couple of weapons trained in their direction from the other side ready to fire in front, above or even behind them. The really clever bit is that the AI system is processing all these images looking for things that might be threats or people, when it sees something the operator gets both the images and a little icon on a map of the building. All they have to do is tap the dot and a couple of weapon systems will be pointing at it. Pretty bad for any enemy. Sure you can be agile and maybe trick or get out of the way of a little tracked machine coming along the corridor. Not so easy to dodge cannon shells coming through the wall.” The one star pulls a wry face.
“So the big idea here is that though they are pretty agile and can go up and downstairs and so on, we don’t use the Varitrak to fight in rooms, so much as into rooms. Of course there are plenty of places neither they nor their weapon can reach, so once the autonomous hunting footballs have found something we got the Spheridrone5 which is the nasty big brother. Basically it follows along behind the team spending most of its time resting on the ground saving batteries and if we find something that needs your blowing up then we send it in.”
“My commanders can mix-and-match the team that goes with the Stormtraks, and even put two of them together. What they are mostly creating is a manoeuvre space, a passage that we can move troops through quickly – ideally moving them in MAVOC. But at the same time what they are also creating is a great big trap and ambush for the enemy. Every few rooms, we drop a cyclops and it just sits there looking and waiting. If something moves nearby cameras switch on and send us a picture. If its an enemy: bang. If a civilian tries to pick it up they will get a pretty nasty shock, but if they persist, we lose comms then it chemically self-destructs. I mean thinking about it in old terms, we basically lay antipersonnel mine fields right through the enemy position – except it is completely IHL compliant. ………. Anyway, that’s what’s going on inside the buildings at the moment, and I can see that Bussamari and Jandawarra are about to start cutting.”
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.