Virtual Command Part 2 – Boots on the Ground

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

“Understanding future warfare is the most important responsibility of those who must defend a nation from future enemies!” – Perry M. Smith

Virtual Command Part 1- ‘Thor’ concludes: You were almost blinded when the projectile hit. The shockwave was immense. Even through your armoured vehicle and personal protective layers, you could feel its intensity. Once you regained your senses and the dust had settled, there was no denying the target had been hit. The area where the system had been vaporised was replaced by a crater. It looked like an asteroid had struck the target, which wasn’t far from the truth. There was only one weapon system other than a nuclear device which could create such utter devastation. The Donovians had come through and repaired the functionality of ‘Thor’, a system that delivered ‘rods from god’, tungsten projectiles literally dropped from space that struck their target with a force that even current defence technologies could not stop...

29 October 2054

The Arianans had largely been defeated; both physically and morally. Once the devastating effects of Thor had been demonstrated, their will to continue fighting had diminished. The majority of the Arianan combatants surrendered or withdrew to their homeland. Who could blame them? Almost all their major systems were destroyed, and their casualty rates had been eyewatering. They were left with almost no capacity to continue to hold ground in any meaningful sense. There were, however, those that chose not to give up. They had embedded themselves into populations and formed the ‘The South Atropian People’s Army’ (SAPA). 

Theoretically, the world should have calmed down once the Arianan Conflict became a simmering insurgency. But it hadn’t. 

If anything, it was somehow worse. 

Relations between Donovia and the West had deteriorated. They were worse than they were in the early 2020s. Donovia was solely responsible for the restoration of key systems that had enable the West to keep their people alive, but the speed at which they did so had caused immense concern. Was Donovia able to repair the systems with such ease because they had previously hacked them? If so, what information had the Donovians already syphoned? Even if they hadn’t been hacked previously, it demonstrated that some of the West’s most complex systems were nowhere near as ‘secure’ as had been promised. Had the Donovians shaped the Arianans’ actions from the beginning? Had it been it a means of reducing some of the United States (and its allies) combat power in preparation for something to come?

Regardless of Donovia’s intentions, their actions had the world once again sitting on a knife-edge; back in the ‘grey zone’. With multiple small-scale demonstrations of military and political might, many within the cyber realm, the bonds of alliances were tested. Just as it had been before, it was unclear how many countries would side if Donovia or the West decided to breach the grey zone and declare war. To compound matters, the West had seemingly committed to another- likely protracted and expensive- fight against the SAPA insurgency. There was no support from home nations. They’d all seen this before in the Global War on Terror at the turn of the century and knew how these ‘wars of choice’ panned out.  

Whilst you had been keeping track of the ‘bigger picture’, your focus had been narrowed. Your company had been selected to reinforce the Australian elements in country. Although your deployment had been brought forward and you hadn’t received as much time to prepare as you had wanted, it didn’t matter. It was happening. 

You were going to do what you had spent years training for. The remnants of the Arianan forces and the SAPA needed to be removed so that Atropia could return to be the peaceful country that it was before the Arianan annexation. 

As was always the case, the only way to do so was to ‘get boots on the ground’ and this time, they were to be yours, and those of your company. 

14 November 2054

The boots (if they could still be called boots) of your suit touched foreign soil. It was a surreal feeling to touch down in Atropia. From all accounts, the first rotation had been involved in heavy fighting and had been successful. But this had come at a cost; and that cost was visible. As the airfield ground staff ushered you to your destination, you noticed the hulks of destroyed vehicles strewn across a makeshift vehicle graveyard. Many were the same vehicles you and your company would soon fight in. You noted the bloodstains, still present on the white interior of the shredded fighting vehicles, some with turrets and roofs ripped apart as if they were nothing. Everything suddenly became real. This was no training activity. You were flooded with apprehension, but it wasn’t the time to think about that. You had to get your company squared away and prepared for whatever was to come next. 

As you entered the hangar, you had your Artificial Intelligence (AI) Assistant scan the room to try and find someone of use. Before you got far, you recognised a face. You hadn’t needed facial recognition or AI to tell you who it was. It was a classmate of yours. You’d heard rumours that it was his cavalry squadron which had been one of the first ground units into the country and had been involved in the now notorious Thor strike but you hadn’t been sure. 

You headed in his direction so that he could see a familiar face; it looked like he needed it. It was abundantly clear he had not been fulfilling a staff role. His suit had been repaired, maybe more than once. But he and his squadron were headed home. They were being replaced. After a quick chat, he offered to transfer his files to you so that you could review them once you had time. Your AI assistants briefly linked, and in seconds, months’ worth of intelligence data, video and reporting was all yours. With his spirits seeming slightly improved, you headed onwards. You’d review your AI Assistant’s summary of his data later, but it was time to get to work. 

Your Company Sergeant Major let you know that he would handle preparations while you went to get orders. On the way into the briefing room, you caught a glance through a door. There was no doubt that it was the intelligence cell. You could see them. A bank of ‘Cybies’. Although you had known of their existence, you hadn’t expected to ever actually see one, let alone see a bank of them in country. They were so rare and valuable they were rarely spoken of, let alone moved from wherever it was they regularly worked. 

The Cybies (Australian slang for them) were incredible. Stuck in a sort of permanent ‘dream-state’ and sustained by life support, they were linked together and to machines. They operated as a ‘network’, sharing the superior ‘computing power’ provide by the combination of human cognition and AI. The combination of man and machine was deliberate to counteract the weaknesses of each. But this wasn’t like intermittently interfacing with machines. It was permanent. Once they were connected, it was a lifelong commitment to service. Other than the rare genome required for the linkage, it was the primary reason they were so rare. Their sheer presence in Atropia indicated just how worried the West was about Donovia’s cyber capabilities. They had been brought forward to establish a standalone intelligence hub. You hoped this would work in your favour.

Initial Testing of the ’Cybie’ Concept, circa 2030. Image

There was no uncertainty in the orders you had been given. Your company was to clear a small town known as ‘Razish’ from SAPA influence. You knew this was going to be something new. There had been almost no urban fighting to-date. What tactics and equipment did the SAPA possess? Would they put up a decent fight? Had they convinced the population to support their cause? Despite the incredible amount of information and intelligence available at the operational and strategic levels, these tactical level questions would remain unanswered. Until the information was blatantly obvious.

Your Company

Your mechanised company was based on the Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV). Like the Boxer, the IFV had also seen improvement since its introduction. Its enhancements included an advanced version of a ‘soldier panzergrenadier’-like system which enabled the dismounts to designate targets for the vehicle crew directly from their weapon/Augmented Reality (AR) visor. Unlike initial models where designation was required to be done manually, it was now fully automated. The sensors in each vehicle- combined with those in the suit- enabled the AI to determine threat signatures and when a soldier was combat stressed. This gave the system ‘permission’ to go from a human ‘in the loop’ to an ‘on the loop’function. Based on the detected threats of the entire team, it would cue the vehicle’s weapons to the greatest threat.

Additionally, the vehicle was equipped with an ‘Iron Visionlike system which enabled the crew and dismounts to view their surroundings ‘through’ the vehicle. Importantly, the fire control system was also able to be viewed by the crew through the system which had also been upgraded to include ‘multispectral scanning’. The majority of the ‘thinking’ was now done by the vehicle. If out of contact, the crew only needed to ‘approve’ the engagement by the system. If in contact, the system could function in an automated mode or be overridden by the crew. This was central to combating drones. Swarms had become commonplace and were a significant risk to vehicles. Fortunately, a resurgence in the development of stacked-projectile weapons, combined with guided munitions, achieved a viable solution. Each vehicle and suit were equipped with a swarm defence system, but the suit was only equipped with a small, one-shot self-defence capability. 

Early model ‘Metal Storm’ stacked-projectile weapon. Image

In addition to the protection and augmentation afforded to the cavalry soldiers, each infantry soldier was afforded additional protection. Infantry soldiers were expected to enter and survive sustained close combat. They, like their IFVs, had received armour made from Shock Mitigating and Reinforcing Molecular Nanocomposites based on Graphene. It was incredibly robust in comparison to previous armour types but was also extremely light. Best of all, it could repair itself.  

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. 

To be continued…

Augmented Reality Information. Image

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.