This narrative is designed to explore the difference that robotics, artificial intelligence, autonomy and augmented reality spatial computing could achieve with technologies that presently exist, or will exist commercially in the near future. The aim is to understand how human-machine teams (HUM-T) could enable advantage to Australian close combatants. The narrative is in two parts; the first is a story of a ‘contact’ in Afghanistan by an eight person infantry section. It could be any contact that occurred in the past decade of Australia’s military experience. The second narrative is an imagined future. It explores the same scenario using existing technologies to augment human cognition of the environment and enhance human-machine cooperation. It is not a distant future but in fact a future that is achievable with technology available today if simply used differently. In doing so it exploits autonomy and robotics while still retaining the relationship between soldiers and the physical environment and the information that is typically used to make decisions during contact. This narrative is an informed hypothesis and tries to convey the potential for change – it is not a predicted future. It is also not a story of ‘digitisation’. A digital backbone allows information exchange; it also allows machines and people to cooperate to their strengths. The aim therefore is not digitisation but to use the product of digital systems to create better cognition of the environment by humans and machines. In doing so, the foundation of HUM-T is created by the combination of robotics, artificial intelligence, autonomy and augmented reality computing to allow better performance in close combat. Finally, the imagined narrative is a change in the manner our leaders and empowered combatant teams fight, adapt and win in the land domain.
. It explores the same scenario using existing technologies to augment human cognition of the environment and enhance human-machine cooperation. It is not a distant future but in fact a future that is achievable with technology available today if simply used differently. In doing so it exploits autonomy and robotics while still retaining the relationship between soldiers and the physical environment and the information that is typically used to make decisions during contact. This narrative is an informed hypothesis and tries to convey the potential for change – it is not a predicted future. It is also not a story of ‘digitisation’. A digital backbone allows information exchange; it also allows machines and people to cooperate to their strengths. The aim therefore is not digitisation but to use the product of digital systems to create better cognition of the environment by humans and machines. In doing so, the foundation of HUM-T is created by the combination of robotics, artificial intelligence, autonomy and augmented reality computing to allow better performance in close combat. Finally, the imagined narrative is a change in the manner our leaders and empowered combatant teams fight, adapt and win in the land domain.
Current Fighting System: Encounter Battle.
A section patrols through a lightly built up village in Afghanistan in open file.
The ISR(1): The scout steps out from behind a mud brick wall to cross a gap between two compounds. A shot rings out, a round passes by the scout and kicks up earth to his right. The soldier swears and steps back quickly to the cover of the wall.
Contact Time: 0 minutes.
The Section: The shot is heard. Each member of the section dives to the nearest cover, applying the run, down, roll and observes their arcs for signs of the threat that has just emerged.
Contact time: 1 minute.
The Section Commander: The section commander finds cover and stops, waiting for the reports from his scout. He gets a mixture of communication on the personal role radio network. Two soldiers have reported they see nothing in their arcs. Another indicates that there is some dead ground they could use to the left of their position. The scout eventually breaks into the net and describes a shot. He thinks it came from about 200m forward of their position, possibly from a larger two-level building compound slightly right of their present axis of advance. The section commander asks if anyone has been injured. All report no. He checks his GPS and goes to his map to confirm current location and his orientation to the present threat.
Contact time: 2 minutes.
The Section: As each individual finalises their initial scan they make visual contact with each other. The senior soldiers and the 2IC indicate to members of their team where to move to close gaps in the sections small perimeter. They are soon firm in a position that offers all around observation and ensures that each soldier has visual contact with the next.
The Section Commander: the section commander observes his troops carrying out their contact drill as he scribbles some notes in his contact report (AAWWW)(2). He duly sends the short contact report to his superiors and asks for confirmation of medical assets and asks what ISR and fires support he can draw on. He is told he has eyes in the sky in 20 minutes. He has support fires available from fast aircraft but he lacks the JTAC(3) to coordinate. He can make do with emergency close air support (CAS) if it gets tricky but it will be hard to use CAS in this environment due to the proximity of civilians and the likelihood of unacceptable collateral damage. His medical assets are only about 20 minutes fly time. He assesses the assets and the information his soldiers have provided him.
Contact time: 5 minutes.
The Section Commander: The section commander has scribbled some notes. He is not sure what the enemy position is, it may be a single shooter, it may be part of a wider network of defensive positions. He thinks that he has likely interrupted either drug or Taliban activity and they have fired to slow down the patrols approach. It’d be nice to see if anyone was moving away from the compound. It might help him understand if this is a delaying tactic or something more deliberately intended to kill members of this patrol. He gives a quick set of orders.
Situation: team, we have a single shooter, probably from compound nine on your urban maps. Single shots so far, probably rifle fire. I think it may be a delaying tactic. Possibly we interrupted something and they are trying to buy time to disperse. We’re going to move at speed to stop them or at least confirm ‘squirters’. We have ECAS, some eyes in about 15minutes and CASEVAC on standby. Platoon is about 10 minutes out.
Mission: I31A will fix threat in location by NLT 15mins from H-hour IOT allow I31 to destroy enemy in compound nine.
Execution: Team 1, you will move to compound four and establish observation of team 2’s approach to compounds 6 and 11. You will move on H-hour and be in position NLT H+7 minutes.
Team 2, we will move in pairs after Team 1 is set. Johnno, you and I will move first to compound 6 and observe north. BPT cut-off withdrawal with your gun. Steve, your pair moves last from your present position. Try to get eyes on from where you are to support team 1 until you move. When you do move, make sure you can see west of compound nine and prevent exfil that direction. I expect the platoon will assault from your axis so be prepared to receive them.
Command and Control (C2):
H-hour in 5 minutes at…. 1015 hours.
All else is no change from previous orders. Any questions?
Contact time: 12 minutes.
The Section: Team 1 commences its move. The first pair take a bound, using a small drainage ditch and some scrub as limited cover of their approach. They adopt a position observing to the North as the second pair starts to move. The intent is to leapfrog as pairs until they reach the compound wall at compound 11. One pair will remain looking north. The second will move to compound six and cover Team 2s move. The second pair is up and moving past Team 1’s first pair. Shots suddenly explode from compound 11 and 6. A burst of automatic fire and intermingled rifle fire cracks and zings into the earth around team 1. A member screams out loud and twists as he falls onto his back. He is crawling desperately towards the ditch. The team returns fire but is pinned down. Neither the enemy nor the section have the advantage as they exchange shots to prevent the other from dominating. The Australian’s can’t move and work to try and treat the leg wound suffered while sustaining their return fire.
The Section Commander: ‘What’s happening – report team 1’. The section commander gets the news. He realises that the enemy intend to defend their positions. He confirms that Team 1 can’t move. He looks at his watch. At least 10 minutes until the platoon arrives. He informs his HQ that they have a casualty and starts to prepare the 9 liner casualty report(4) to assist the medical crew prepare for the casualty evacuation (CASEVAC). Concurrently he pours over his map looking for options. How can he move to help and support Team 1’s exfil back to better cover. Options are limited.
Team 1: Joel, get a 40mm into that wall – make sure you hit this side, I don’t want dead kids! The team commander realises his best chance is to use their HE weapons to shock the enemy force and move back to team 2’s location. It’s only about 50m but there is very limited cover and he needs to drag a casualty which will make them slow and easy targets if the enemy stays active. Joel, get the 66mm as well. The team commander takes the 66mm rocket launcher from the injured solder and passes it to the rifleman named Joel. Joel crawls wide of the team position to draw fire away from the injured man and to get enough space to use the 66. He rapidly engages the wall positions with two 40mm high explosive (HE) rounds from the grenade launcher attachment (GLA). Each hits the wall below the enemy firer’s causing two loud explosions. The enemy disappear quickly from view. The team commander calls again, ‘Joel – next time, 66. We’ll then move. Use two more 40mm and follow us!’. Joel nods that he understands and waits until he sees another enemy firer appear on the wall. He fires the 66mm rocket, aiming immediately below his position on the wall, detonating the round a metre below the enemy. The enemy combatant disappears and does not reappear. Joel quickly grabs the 40mm GLA and engages the centre of the nearest walls on compounds 11 and 6. The team commander is meanwhile dragging the injured man, using the dust from the back blast of the 66mm rocket launch and two smoke grenades he’s thrown to obscure clear view of the team’s movement. Another digger grabs Joel’s arms, ‘pepper pot now!’. The two soldiers cover the team commander’s casualty drag as they withdraw across the open to their start position.
Contact Time: 21 minutes.
Section Commander: ‘Sunray I31, we are consolidated at GR 4567 8643. One casualty, leg wound. He is stable. 9 liner sent. Request you send a team forward to extract the casualty and marry up with me in person. I’ll explain what I know on your arrival. In short, at least three enemy positions at compounds 9, 11 and 6. They are holding ground and don’t seem likely to withdraw without encouragement. Suggest you avoid the roads, not cleared and this seems deliberate not hasty’.Platoon Commander I31: ‘Ack I31A’ – we are consolidated at GR 4567 8673 about 300m from you. I’ll be at your location in about 5minutes – look for us from South. Will contact you 100m short to confirm visual before we move in – out’.
To be continued…
About the Author: Scott Holmes is an Australian Infantry Officer working in capability modernisation at Army Headquarters. Scott was a 2018 Chief of Army Scholarship winner and used this opportunity to commence a Doctorate of Public Leadership at the University of New South Wales. The study is focussed on the implications of a Fourth Industrial Revolution for Army.
1. ISR – Information Surveillance Reconnaissance
2. At, At, What, What, What Report: At what time, At what location, What happened, What’s your assessment, What’s your intended action.
3. Joint Terminal Air Controller. Trained controller who coordinates aircraft and their munitions in battle.
4. 9-Liner Casualty Card: A method for recording and passing data about the injured persons medical condition and evacuation requirements. It allows the casualty evacuation (CASEVAC) team to prepare with appropriate medical and other equipment to extract the casualty and information like radio frequencies to liaise with the ground force.