Virtual Command Part 3 – Hostages

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What follows is Part 3 in the fictitious future warfare serial ‘Virtual Command’ from Australia’s newest professional military education platform The Strategic Tank. Find Part 1- ‘Thor’- here and Part 2- ‘Boots on the Ground’ here.

Virtual Command Part 2- ‘Hostages’ concludes: You and every one of your soldiers had been equipped with ‘Guardian Angel’ drones. Each soldier had two mounted within the rear of their suit. This meant, if needed, one could always be in the air while the second was recharging. The ‘Angels’ could deploy automatically if the suit detected a threat and/or complex terrain or could be launched manually by the soldier. They had no offensive capabilities, however, despite their size, had excellent electro-optical sensors. The Angels could operate either autonomously or under the control of the soldier. They could identify and mark targets, instantly updating the team’s AR visors with enemy locations. Within the AR, enemies were highlighted in various colours depending on their threat. Yellow for those who weren’t an immediate threat and red for those who were. The soldier who was in the best position to kill the threat received a flashing enemy icon and an alert. It was a highly effective system that had performed extremely well in training. You’d soon find out if it worked in combat. 

Augmented Reality Information. Image

1816h 18 November 2054

The initial reconnaissance had not gone as planned. The drones you had sent in were zapped from existence on the outskirts of Razish. The SAPA had created a ‘bubble’ around Razish with anti-drone systems. Although frustrating, it at least gave you some information. It gave you an idea of just how badly the SAPA wanted to maintain control of Razish. It was, after all, the closest town to the coalition airbase in Atropia. Were they planning on using it as a base to mount an attack on the coalition airbase? Would it be used for something else? It didn’t matter. What mattered at that moment was that the microwave systems needed to be disrupted before you entered Razish. With the amount of technology on your soldiers and the way your company functioned, you couldn’t risk them remaining operational.

You had requested intelligence support in ascertaining the likely locations of the remaining anti-drone systems within Razish but weren’t surprised when it was denied. You’d find out much later what they were focussed on, but they weren’t worried about your ‘little problem’ in Razish. They were looking elsewhere. The continued reconnaissance was, therefore, your responsibility.

Like the cavalry scouts, your integral reconnaissance elements were nothing short of impressive. With drones temporarily removed as an option, the recon elements were the only option for locating and potentially disrupting the anti-drone capabilities before you and the remainder of your company could break into the town.

They stepped off at dusk. Although most elements now had colour night vision, the spectral cloaking worked best at night- even with your own systems- and meant the soldiers were near on invisible. As they neared Razish, the team had reported that the town looked normal. Civilians seemed to be carrying out regular activities. But which of them were civilians and which were fighters? Although challenging, it wouldn’t be impossible to determine, it just meant the reconnaissance would need to double as a cyber-operation.  

As well as locating the remaining anti-drone systems, you’d tasked the reconnaissance team with taking Electronic Warfareequipment with them. They had been directed to gain access to various networks within Razish which would assist in differentiating friend from foe. Derived from earlier variants, the Electronic Warfare systems were powerful in terms of capability, but if turned on too far from Razish, would alert the enemy and potentially disrupt the plan. The system had to be utilised from within the town where it could ‘hide within the clutter’ and go unnoticed. 

Razish was defended by both man and machine. Image

1753h 19 November 2054

As soon as the Electronic Warfare systems had been switched on, your AI Assistant began to feed you information. You were now able to spoof or control the anti-drone systems (and most other systems) as you saw fit. You’d chosen not to destroy them as it would certainly place the SAPA on high alert, but also meant you couldn’t use the system for yourself. Moreover, you had access to some of the weakly encrypted communications networks and facial recognition systems in Razish. The SAPA had thought facial recognition could be used to their advantage in controlling the local population, but it was about to become their downfall. 

With seemingly god-like access, you linked the feeds to the intelligence network. This meant you could both identify and track SAPA personnel within Razish. You didn’t have the ability to track them once inside some buildings which didn’t have cameras, but you at least knew which building they were in. Your company’s AI Assistants would monitor their communications and turn their transmissions into visual graphics of intent within your AR Visors. It had almost felt like an unfair advantage, but if it meant that you and your men had a better chance of going home alive you would certainly use it.

Before you commenced the company’s movement into Razish, you had methodically ensured (with help from your AI assistant) that the conditions were set. The cordon to the north had been established by the upgraded ‘Blank Knight’ Unmanned Combat Vehicles, surveillance from the air was rife, you had the SAPA fighters pinpointed and tracked, and precision fires laid on and ready to fire. You thought your first fight would be a piece of cake.  

The UGVs in the north would provide you with more than just a cordon. They would also form part of your deception plan, sending electromagnetic signals that indicated the presence of IFVs. It was, after all, the best approach to Razish and would be easily believed. 

2031h 19 November 2054

As had been the case for the reconnaissance team, your advance had to be slow and methodical. It was the best means of keeping your signature low and your force unseen. You wanted the advantage of surprise. The combination of the signals team spoofing some sensors whilst the UGVs deceived the others had worked. The SAPA fighters within Razish had mobilised and commenced executing their defensive plan. 

You could see on your holographic map that both man and machine were positioning to engage your company, but it was only the ‘man’ part of that problem which concerned you. The SAPA had drone swarms but they were relatively easily hacked. They operated on a centralised/hierarchical basis. Put simply, they were ‘dumb swarms’, able to carry out basic tasks only and often controlled centrally by a human. You had the choice to break the link and render the systems useless or add them to your team. You’d chosen the latter as, despite being dumb, the SAPA’s drones had great firepower. 

Once the SAPA fired the first rounds at your team, all combat systems- bar the humans themselves- switched to ‘on the loop’ functions. With incredible synchronicity and accuracy, multiple automated systems engaged the SAPA combatants and their unmanned counterparts with an orchestral beauty. The humans only watched for potential errors at this point. The number of SAPA icons in your visor seemed to dwindle almost immediately. 

The vehicle crew let you know that the company was 500 metres from where you would dismount. Every hundred metres, you were updated until the vehicles screamed to a halt and your men dismounted under the cover of weapons firing, smoke and sonic weapons.

The sonic weapons had done their job and incapacitated several SAPA fighters on the town perimeter. Before they had known what was happening they had been administered an anaesthetic and were marked for collection by the trailing elements and ‘logbots’.

The company has broken into Razish. 

You released swarms of ‘microbots’  via airburst munitions with the task of destroying automated defences and snipers who were unable to be targeted without the risk of significant collateral damage or civilian deaths. They were an incredible system (predominantly because of ‘emergent coordination’) and made quick work of their task while the soldiers on the ground did what only humans could do. 

0210h 20 November 2054

The company was advancing through Razish like it had done multiple times in Virtual Reality rehearsals back at the airbase. Only this time it was 0210h and it was for real. Luckily, the suits were doing their job and ensuring a steady stream of stimulants to keep each soldier awake and alert. The ‘breacher bots’ synchronised their detonations to the millisecond to assist in disguising just how many of you there were. You knew you had the firepower and overmatch to deal with the SAPA within Razish but didn’t want them to think there was a requirement to reinforce it. 

The clearance of Razish had been going so smoothly until your AI Assistant informed you that a small number of SAPA fighters had taken several women and children hostage within the town’s bank, likely as a last-ditch attempt to deny you total success in Razish. The Assistant informed you that there was only one viable entrance for humans but that the SAPA had indicated they would kill the civilians if you moved closer or continued fighting. 

It was a conundrum. It didn’t feel right to pause the clearance but what choice did you have. You couldn’t let the first urban operation by Australians in Atropia result in civilian deaths. It would just fuel the SAPA’s narrative. 

Whilst you had hoped this would not occur, you had at least identified that hostage taking/human shielding was a potential option for the SAPA during the wargaming and rehearsals. What you hadn’t planned on was the use of the bank. You knew they were downstairs in a secure room through the bank’s cameras. The bank was secure and would be impossible to breach without making your presence known; risking the civilians inside. You were disappointed in yourself. You’d given too much credence to the AI and forgotten that you weren’t fighting against machines. 

You were fighting against humans. 

There was a way to deal with it, but it was something that had not been operationally tested. It, of course, came with risks, but you were running out of options and, more importantly, time. There was no way out for the SAPA fighters, so the risk of them killing a civilian grew every second you waited. You asked your Second-In-Command to grab the ‘black box’. He knew what this meant. After he had passed you the small box, you turned the dial, synched it to your AI and attached it to a small drone. 

The drone advanced stealthily towards the rear of the bank. On the roof of the bank, it paused. The black box opened and 20 or so ‘Mozzies’ were released. The Mozzies were miniscule drones, literally the size of their natural namesake. What they lacked in size, they packed in capability but, like everything, their capability came with a trade-off. Their range, endurance and autonomy were extremely limited due to their size. They needed to be within a few hundred metres of either the human controller or a drone that could act as a signal booster. The human needed to stay ‘in the loop’ for the Mozzies. In this instance, that human was you.  

A prototype of the ‘Mozzie’ drone. Image

With assistance from your AI and the hacked cameras, the targets were clear. The Mozzies entered the bank through an air duct and made their way to the lower level where the SAPA and hostages were. With your assistance, the Mozzies moved towards their targets, remaining out-of-sight and undetected. Once you had confirmation that all had landed on their targets, you ordered them to complete their function. The effects of the painless injections were quicker than you’d expected. The SAPA fighters collapsed, seemingly simultaneously. The Mozzies had administered a small but effective dose of tranquiliser. With the hostage situation diffused, your company continued its initial task almost issue-free. But this was a simple mission in the grand scheme of things, and you would soon be faced with far more complex tasks that wouldn’t result in total success for your team. 

To be continued…

About the Author: Trevor Williams is an Australian Army officer with experience in Cavalry, Armoured Personnel Carrier and Tank roles. He is currently posted to the School of Armour and will command a Tank Squadron in 2020. You can find him on Twitter @strategic_tank.

Image Credit: Cover photo found here.