Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
Isolating the objective
Bouncing against their straps inside the dimly lit MAVOCs, the three teams of the leading right hand section struggle to focus on the graphics on their jolting personal devices. The 3D maps and photographs of buildings visually elaborate on the verbal orders they are receiving from their troop commander. He is speaking to them from the HAPC back at the transfer point, from where he will fight the battle, exploiting the massive information and capability advantages of RAS: distant command supersedes mission command. Already, several Reccedrones are circling over the clinic unseen in the fog and capturing images from a distance, and Spheridrones are concentrating in preparation for swarming, although they are held back on the rooftops a block away to avoid losing surprise.
A few waypoints tapped onto screens in the control room in Darwin start to redeploy ground systems across the force. The leading Stormtrak that cut the right-hand tunnel now changes direction and begins to cut a passage towards the clinic. The accompanying Polywheeler and Xtraks backtrack to access a route to that will take them to positions that overwatch the clinic, going back a short way to turn left where the Stormtrak-cut tunnel through the buildings crosses an alleyway. After them, the still advancing MAVOC’s carrying the assault section takes a right into the same alleyway, led by their uncrewed vehicle. The AI algorithms have already computed the likely threats to the feasible quick approaches to the clinic, compared them and chosen back alley routes offering optimum probabilities. The solutions even determine the exact line to take on the road, overlaying changes of speed and direction, imposing a wild ride on the passengers in the MAVOC as they hurtle towards the objective, glycol smoke pouring from the generators.
In the control room the team clustered around the consoles supporting the new mission have been reassigned drones and UGV from across the force. The intelligence analysts have added a new alarming piece to the puzzle. The equipment that they observed earlier being unloaded from trucks has been identified as a set of tripod mounted remote weapon stations. Weapon options include a belt fed machine gun, grenade launcher and unguided anti-tank rockets. One is being set up on the roof, and Marines can be seen moving inside rooms at several points on the building that have dominated fields of fire. The team leader decides to immediately disrupt the defenders by making a first discriminate strike. He waits until the first Polywheeler is in position overlooking the clinic and there are four small arm equipped Gundrones circling overhead before he inputs detailed attack commands. Leaning forwards over his console he uses two fingers to expand the scale of the 3D map and then with a touch of his finger directs the drones to take up station in the smoke 150m away from the clinic. He then hands individual control of three drones over to his team members. “Pick a target” he says, then calls out “legal please, Maam” realising he has time to invite ethics oversight. The four intently scan the thermal views to each select a single unequivocal combatant, and then exchange glances with the legal officer until she gives them all the nod.
The leader then says quietly but firmly: “Closer, one single shot only, climb fast when you’ve taken it ”. The Gundrones edge forwards, trying to get close enough for the 6.5 mm personal defence weapon they carry to have a good hit probability, or at least a low probability of hitting a civilian. He waits as the drones get closer and closer, watching for signs that the Echthros Marines have realised that the sound in the fog is a threat. One of the targets gesticulates, and the leader simply says “now”…………. the recoil kicks the barrel down, sparing the operator seeing the consequences of the shot for the little platforms climb away.
Around the clinic, chaos reigns. Those people who did not take cover when the shots came out of the fog do so when they hear larger calibre fire and the sound of breaking glass. For perhaps 15 seconds the cannon of the unseen Polywheeler maintains a steady cadence of pop, pause, pop, pause.… Spinning hollow rubber cylinders break windows across two faces of the clinic building, showering shards on Marines, medical staff and patients before bouncing off walls and coming to rest gently puffing smoke. Civilians and military alike mostly remain hugging the floor in a common quest for survival. When the firing stops, distracted by loudspeaker announcements in Filia from a drone perched on a nearby roof, and fearful of the rubbery smelling smoke, few notice the Spheridrones that follow in and bob briskly along the ceilings out of human reach. At every floor level a Gundrone has returned, hovering along immediately outside the building hidden by the smoke and, like the unarmed drones inside, moving stochastically. With the Marines and hospital staff intermingled, the system is offering few opportunities to engage, but the one or two precise shots, from an invisible firer are having a huge suppressive effect.
The AI has already raised the breaching blade on the four MAVOC and allowed the first, uncrewed one, to race ahead. From an alleyway out of sight of the clinic but mere metres away, it accelerates straight for the wall of a non-descript one storey administration building that faces the rear of the clinic across a narrow lane. There is no pause to probe behind the wall for civilians. One of myriad calculations has already weighted the potential harm of losing surprise versus the low probability of both civilian presence and civilian injury in this particular building, sought and then been given human approval. The little platform smashes a clean cut through the wall, turning the excised panel into broken blocks scattered across the interior, and skids to a halt amongst falling plaster in the centre of a large room. The glycol still billowing from its emitters denies human vision but the IR cameras all around the MAVOC detect no sign of human presence. The platform pauses for a moment sensing on behalf of the AI system, the operators in Darwin and the controllers in the HAPC less than 2 km away.
Moments later, the second MAVOC, having already slowed to walking pace, follows in through the breach, its cutter shaving a little more of the wall before it is it crosses to the far end of the big room and stops with a screech of rubber tracks on tiled floor. The armoured door hisses open and two dogs leap out, snuffling and snorting at the smell of glycol and pulling their handlers behind them on retracting leashes. Head worn thermal goggles let the humans see to command the dogs and begin a familiar systematic pattern of search. 90 seconds later dogs and handlers are back in their MAVOC, sitting alert inside and training their weapons outwards through the open door. Above them the remotely controlled turret slowly traverses the big room, feeding data from its superior weapon sensors back to the AI.
The two remaining vehicles are paused in the alley 50 m behind and cocooned in the additional protection of a pulse of multi-thermal obscurant. A ramp on the trailer pulled behind the rearmost has lowered and previously unseen small UGV descend to halt on the road, blind until the multispectral obscurant has cleared. They are Agitrak55 light, agile unarmoured tract platforms whose multiposition track extensions permit them to easily climb stairs. Their hull mounts a multi-tube launcher with breaching munitions, and a kinetic breaching tool while on an extending arm they have a precision rifle and grenade launcher. Each has a small drone that is powered and controlled by a retractable tether. While the UGV unload themselves down the ramp, concurrently hatches on the top of the trailer also swing open, but they too remain static waiting for the multispectral smoke to clear. When the two MAVOC that are still outside are given the electronic okay to come forwards by the dog handlers, the trailer is disconnected first. Once they have entered, the vehicles rotate 180° to face back towards the aperture they have entered by. They remain closed down while the soldiers inside are briefed, with the two dog handlers now acting as sentries.
In Darwin, and on the big screen inside the HAPC at the exchange point, an identical three-dimensional virtual model of the clinic is being displayed and populated. Data from the Spheridrones inside and others circling externally are updating the shifting picture within the building. The troop commander and the operators inside the command vehicle with him will oversee and likely directly control the armed assault platforms, while overwatching systems will work semi-autonomously, overseen from Darwin. Discussing the developing plan as they go, they are touching the screen to put data into a waypoint-based synchronisation system. Each of them plots the intended movement within the building of each platform or drone that are responsible for, as well as kinetic effects such as entry breaching or distraction fire. The Troop commander is tying in in all of these actions and movements onto a timeline of phases, while in the background the AI is performing calculations and creating a data set of instructions for every system for each phase.
In the main ground floor corridor that is the artery of the clinic, the Echthros platoon commander has gathered half of his men away from windows and drones. Most of his team were spread around different parts of the building when the Australian drones struck, and this is those that have been able to answer of the summons of the whistle. “Right men, you know the drills for hasty defence of the building: stay back and look outwards. If the enemy are still outside, get back from the windows and use the cover of interior doorways and walls to shoot. The enemy are close enough that they might get inside, get back from the walls, doors and windows behind furniture or in rooms that don’t have windows to the outside. I want you men from three section upon the top floor and everybody else down here with me. I want you three Marines to grab bookcases and filing cabinets and make a little bunker at the other end of the corridor and the rest of you are going to help me turn these toilets into a pillbox. Remember the concrete penetration demonstration on the range? Well we are about to cut firing ports with a machine gun – and it’s going to get pretty noisy and dusty in here – any questions? ”. The mood of the assembled Marines is transformed by their leader’s aggressive approach and they reply with grins, their optimism quickly dampened again by the sound of incoming rockets.
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.