Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
Humanity and bringing up more humans
“Sir, respectfully, I insist. We are obliged to offer medical help to those who can no longer, or who are no longer, resisting. We know there are at least six gravely injured Echthros Marines in the central area of the shopping centre. We know that once we brought up our HAVOC and started blind firing 155mm HE through half a dozen walls right to detonate smack in the middle of their prepared positions the survivors withdrew – for goodness sake we even have the imagery of them running right past the Stormtrak. The Spheridrones have mapped the rubbled mess wrecks of positions they abandoned. In short, Sir, there seems no possibility the enemy will be able to treat or evacuate their own casualties. We must do so. I accept we cannot ask a soldier to go in there. We can send an uncrewed evacuation platform – that’s what they’re designed for.” In the one-star’s office adjacent to the control room, a tense conversation is occurring between the legal officer and her boss.
“What makes you believe that they would allow themselves to be evacuated by one of our machines?” Asks the senior. The response is firm “Why would they not? We have plenty of people who speak Echthros and remote loudspeaker system works just fine in talking to our own casualties. And if you don’t buy the moral argument, think of this. If this fight goes well, there’s going to be the best part of half of a Marine brigade still dug in around this town. Some footage of us doing the right thing might be just what we need when we try to persuade them to surrender?” The One-star is thoughtful for a few long moments. “Okay. We’ll do it. Just between you and I, I have an odd feeling about the centre approach, and your pushback is crystallising it. And thank you Barbara, dissent is not disloyalty, you are a credit to the Navy. Right, let’s tell the team”. He opens the door and steps out into the main room.
“Okay everybody, listen up. We have three lines of surface tunnel towards the CBD. Exploiting the centre gives us most flexibility – it’s easier to switch left or right if we get delayed. But the centre is a bit bogged and the other two are nearly at their objectives – probably 20 minutes ahead of the centre. The other thing is we still don’t know where the second Echthros reaction force is. It would be a bit unbalanced to have them both on the northside, plus if there was one there surely it would have been used to hit the beach? It’s pretty unlikely they have another force in the same area where the first one was. In fact, it’s more probable there is a gap there now. That makes the northern penetration look good. Also, if their reserves are in the south, they will have to cross both the other penetrations to reach us.”
My decision is that we will now push through on the northern penetration with our two dismount troops – I want to do it fast before they figure out their response.
I confirm that I want them to go right forward and clear backwards. In the same spirit we will go with 66% occupation of MAVOC, let section commanders play the shell game and load their vehicles the way they like – I hope I don’t need to say that the lead vehicle of the first wave needs to be a Zulu….. Another thing,…. Richard, your Echthros is pretty good, that’s what your wife tells me, so I have a special job for you. It’s a bit of a first, a bit of an influence operation and a bit helicopter humanitarianism. We will talk in a minute. The rest of you, any questions?……..”
The big, tracked carrier is tucked well into the back of the warehouse, pointing outwards, yet hardly noticeable parked in the aisle between storage racks reminiscent of IKEA. Its bulky IFV heritage is evident, but the thick panel of overhead armour with its array spine-like array of active protection panels is more Stegosaurus than T Rex. The two retractable remote weapon stations and the plough like dozer blade reinforce that this platform is dedicated to taking punishment not issuing it. It has two complementary roles, keep its precious cargo of infantry and engineers alive as it crosses the no man’s land beneath precision drones, and provide shelter and succour for the operators of the robotic systems that deliver kinetic effects. The hose like cables that snake off out of the building providing electronically silent links towith hand placed weapon stations and a rebroadcast antenna indicates that this is a RAS control version with operators on board.
Another similar carrier trundles past, pulling a boxy four wheeled trailer that looks incongruous. It turns into the open main door of the adjacent warehouse and makes a wide skidding turn that brings it alongside to dwarf the last of four MAVOC that are neatly parked in a line behind a pair of Xtraks. Even before the larger vehicle has come to a halt, unseen remote hands are opening the MAVOC rear doors. The two dog handlers climb out of the carrier first, guiding their four still leashed animals to jump well clear of the towbar: evidently the section commander is confident that the exchange point is secure. Without hesitating dogs and humans move to the second MAVOC and climb inside. Evidently this sections SOP is to leave the front vehicle uncrewed. The remaining soldiers climb down with rifles slung, gather around the trailer, disconnect it and drag it to the rearmost MAVOC. Like the dog handlers, they also have their backpacks slung in front for travel, and they remove them as they clamber into the limited space inside the two rearmost vehicles. Next to the vehicles, several drones rise off the concrete where they have been recharging, ready for autonomous escort duty. They follow the two Xtraks which will lead the way, heading off a few calculated moments ahead because they are slower than the MAVOC.
The section commander tightens his harness and looks around to check the other three soldiers. He gives a cheerful thumbs up to the attached Fila soldier. None of them have the fully integrated helmet screens that give the dedicated MAVOC crews the full transparent armour effect, but the composite image on the 10 cm high flat screen strips arrayed around the inside of the vehicle give pretty good of what’s outside. He can toggle his single screen eyepiece view between the cameras inside the other three vehicles and he does so quickly: section is ready. He hits the transmit switch on his wrist, speaking to the remote driver: “take us to the Amphitheatre please Gaius Appelicus, and don’t spare the horses”. A female voice retorts, “You can call me Bellona, Pedites”. He smiles at the quick comeback and the obviously deliberate jerk as his vehicle begins to move.
MAVOC are weirdly quiet, moving slowly on the smooth concrete there is little sound beyond the rumble and squeaking of the rubber tracks as they head out of out of the big warehouse door. The little convoy shakes out to put a few lengths between vehicles, then accelerates and disappears into the clouds of glycol vapour drifting in the streets beyond. For those aboard, the thermal cameras output does not show well on the flatscreens. Although the passengers can see passing buildings in monochrome, the images are fuzzy and the resulting disorientation combines with the non-human ‘driving habits’ of the AI system to give an unreal sense of being on a fairground ride. Conscious that this move is entirely in the hands of other humans and machines, rather than look out, most of the soldiers looked down at the map view display on their personal devices, simplified view of what the distant operators and drivers will also be looking at. In less than a minute of sharp jinking turns they have travelled the few hundred metres to where a Stormtrak began to cut a penetration route short minutes ago, and where the two Xtraks have just entered. The sections drones are already hovering in a TI search pattern several hundred metres ahead, where a gap between buildings mean that the moving vehicles will be briefly exposed.
As they approach the first breach the MAVOC slow a little, but not enough to prevent the soldiers and dogs inside being thrown violently against their harnesses as their rubber tracks bump over rubble and the edges of walls and skid where dust lies on tiles. Unseen in the smoke, 50 m away on the far side of the road, the manoeuvre is mirrored by the MAVOC’s carrying the first section of the other troop. On either side of the street, the pattern of deployment is similar. The Xtraks prove the route, but they are not mere sacrificial goats against the threat from mines and IED – the bulky boxes mounted on their decks contain a compact electronic countermeasures unit. For some stretches of the advance, where the AI has identified possible obstructions for the smaller vehicles within the buildings, rather than move inside, they move outside on the street. A matter of metres behind the Xtrak the first uncrewed MAVOC follows, with a bigger interval before the evenly spaced remainder. Still tucked into a building further back a single HAVOC and its two Polywheeler escorts waits to move forward by rapid bounds.
As they jog, the Echthros company sergeant major and corporal storeman are sweating profusely in the heat, struggling for breath in the foetid glycol laden air. It would be bad on the surface, but they are jogging and splashing in a storm drain. Their exertion is beginning to take the edge of their anger, anger ignited as they listened to the sounds of their comrades dying in their armoured vehicles. And vengeance is blended with duty. So, they carry anti-tank launchers and run towards the sound of the guns – or rather the sound of the machines. In fact, they run, very deliberately, to the sound of where the machines last were, moving in dashes between. The senior man is wise enough to know that there will be easier targets behind an attack. They come to a section where the drain disappears into darkness, the light at the end perhaps 200 m away. Too far. The Australian vehicles are somewhere nearby. There is a rusty set of rungs leading up to ground level, and the senior man motions to the younger corporal to go up and have a look. When he reaches the top, he can just discern an alleyway in the fog and waves his comrade up. Here the sound of moving machinery is clearer, it is not far off, perhaps in the street at the end of the alley. They crouch down behind rubbish bins and extend a launcher each, then cradle it and move cautiously forwards.
The AI already ‘knows’. The thermal sensor on a passing Reccedrone6 shared the data with the system, which in turn matched its human-shaped signature with a location where there is a low probability that humans would normally be. It polled the input from all recent sensor reports nearby and matched it with similar data from a Perchdrone stuck high on a building wall above the alley. The triangulated data reached the threshold of threat probability and the images are being presented to an operator in Darwin along with the engagement options. A screen has been touched and a Polywheeler rolls on plastic wheels to the end of the alleyway, extends its arm and rotates the weapon system around the corner. The unequivocal TI image of the two dutiful NCO’s prompts confirmation from Australia and a burst of cannon rounds ends their mission.
The AI is processing other threats. The main map screen in the home control room is now zoomed on the centre of town, showing that the leading MAVOC teams astride the penetration axis have almost caught up with the Stormtraks, the HAVOC is several hundred metres behind and a bit further back another two sections in MAVOC’s are already following on. There is no sign of threat to the just-secured axis of advance, but the reconnaissance drones have identified an emerging new mission nearby. On the second big screen, thermal imagery from an overhead drone is focused on a building identified as a clinic. Human figures carrying weapon-like objects can be seen carrying unidentified items from a truck into the building, but other human figures can be moving in and around it, strongly suggesting the location is still being used for medical purposes. The One-star is decisive when he addresses the room: “okay, this is potentially very messy, if they occupy the clinic then we can quite legally hit it, but it’s pretty obvious that that’s not an option for us. If it turns into some sort of quasi-hostage setup that will also be a huge headache with the Filia government. We need to do something right now before they get organised in there. It’s a job for a human-machine team. The only thing we’ve got is the lead sections, but I reckon there’s no more than an Echthros platoon defending so one section should do the job. So the new mission for the right-hand forwards section on that axis is to capture the clinic. Let’s make it happen guys.”
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.