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Wolfpack Four Six

Fiction Contest Week

By Lieutenant Christopher Giraldi, USN

Lieutenant Commander Markus advanced power on his Boeing P8-B Poseidon U.S. Navy Maritime Patrol Aircraft, turned north, and began the climb to 6,000 feet. It was a standard South Philippine Sea day: a heavy layer of cumulous clouds from 2,000 to 5,000 feet, calm seas, 90 percent humidity, and air temperature of 83 degrees Fahrenheit. He had woken up eight hours earlier for the daily mission brief and preflight. Absent any submarine action or coffee, he was fighting the pull of mid-day drowsiness. The 11-man crew of his aircraft had just finished laying their detection pattern consisting of the Navy’s newest Mk-135 advanced spectrum sonar buoy, codenamed Dragnet, hoping to catch their target in the multi-layered snare of radar and acoustic sensors.

In their brief that morning at the tactical coordination center, his crew, call sign ‘Wolfpack Four Six,’ learned their assignment that day was to locate and stop a convoy of People’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) transport submarines. The convoy was en route to deliver supplies to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Marines attempting to dislodge the American and Australian forces on the island of Papua, part of the PLA’s broader campaign to cut off and encircle Australia as if it were the largest prize on the Go board.

To complicate Wolfpack Four Six’s task, the transport subs were assessed by naval intelligence to be escorted by two advanced Xi-class escort submarines and a single updated Shang II nuclear attack submarine. Their intelligence briefer had grimly reminded the crew that the Xi-class escort subs carried the PLA Navy’s HQ-11 undersea-air missiles.

The HQ-11, nicknamed Dragonclaw by the U.S. Navy, was the latest in China’s push for missile technological dominance. The nine-foot tall missile featured dual radar and thermal guidance systems. When fired from the submarine, the missile would climb within seconds to a height of 45,000 feet before commencing a near-supersonic glide in search of air targets below. Once the guidance system locked on to a target, the weapon simply allowed its kinetic energy to carry it along and then explode at a distance of 50 feet from the target to ensure maximum effectiveness of the directional fragmentation warhead. It was the Dragonclaw missile that kept P-8 crews up at night.

LCDR Markus toggled the intercom switch connected to his headset, hoping some conversation would stimulate him back to the proper level of alertness expected of a mission commander at war.

“TACCO, Flight,” he blurted into his headset.

“GO for TACCO,” LT Adams responded. Adams, a recently qualified tactical coordinator, scanned her screens, monitoring the data relayed to her by her crew mates and the constant feed of information from the various military networks.

“Have the Triton drones detected any periscopes?” Markus asked.

“Negative sir, and no jamming observed either,” answered the crew’s onboard drone manager.

The P8-B aircraft operated by the crew of Wolfpack Four Six was the second variant of Boeing’s militarized 737-800. One of the new capabilities of the P8-B was the ability to coordinate with a number of semi-autonomous MQ-4C Triton drones. The most notable upgrade was the return of nuclear weapons capabilities to maritime patrol aircraft. With the pace at which the Chinese shipyards were building transport submarines, the U.S. Navy could not manage the threat with its older air-dropped torpedoes. Thus, the new Mk-58 torpedoes could be armed with a variable yield nuclear warhead, reviving a warfare concept first developed nearly 75 years ago.

Once China deployed a tactical nuke in a Philippine harbor a few months earlier, the gloves had come off and smaller nuclear weapons were authorized for use across the fleet. Wolf Pack Four Six carried two Mk-58s.

“Very well, thanks Drones,” LCDR Markus responded. “Let’s send one of the Triton’s north, have them drop a few mini-mines, and wait for a reaction.”

“And risk giving away the chance for surprise?” questioned LT Adams.

“I understand your concern, Adams. I don’t like the idea of poking the dragon either, but neither us nor the Allied forces guarding Australia can afford to wait for the convoy to come to us. We have the drones today, let’s press our advantage.”

“Understood, sir,” Adams replied, selecting a drone function command, sending one of the Tritons on its new task. “15 minutes until Triton Two is at designated mini-mine release point.”

The mini-mine, or Mk-52 quick strike depth charge, was a small, unguided weapon about the size of a football with a 30-pund charge of high explosive. The charge was sufficient enough to damage a submarine if detonated within 10 meters of the hull. Perhaps more importantly, the Mk- 52 mini-mines functioned as psychological weapons intended to scare their targets into revealing themselves. They had the additional benefit of putting enough sound in the water to generate a sonar return to any sensors within miles of the area.

“We are descending back down to 1,500 feet, we’ll take whatever missile cover we can get below these clouds,” Markus informed the crew. “Radio back to base and let them know we are starting a mini-mine run.”

LT Adams replied, “Copy all, sending situation re…”

“Prop!” interjected the crew acoustic operator, or sonarman. “Detecting propeller blade cavitation, not far from buoy number 17, indicating twelve knots and accelerating.”

“No surface contact in that vicinity on radar,” the crew radar operator added.

“How far from our present position?” Markus asked, glancing down at the flight station tactical display.

“About 220 miles from present position,” the crew navigator replied.

LT Adams reflexively added a ring on her screen around the possible contact location with a 39 mile radius, accounting for the estimated effective range of the Dagonclaw anti-air missile.

“Copy that missile safety boundary, proceeding inbound, we’ll be there in 35 minutes,” LCDR Markus said, turning his attention back to the P-8’s flight instruments while adding “Send Triton One west of the target’s estimated position. Let’s see what else we find.”

“Copy,” Adams replied, relaying the command to the drone. “Triton One will be in first drop position in 15 minutes.” She then commanded the remining two Triton drones to fly in formation with the Poseidon, providing protection for the crew of Wolf Pack Four Six.

For the next ten minutes, despite the tension and hum of activity at each crew station, the eerie stillness of imminent action filled the aircraft. Everyone sat silently alert, monitoring sensor data and information feeds. The crew’s training ensured that everyone knew what each other was doing, and when the time came, would execute from their well-rehearsed playbook as if coach had just written it up on the whiteboard.

“We’re getting solid sonar returns now, this is directly from a submarine, sounds like a convoy sub diesel engine,” the sonarman said, breaking the silence in everyone’s headset.

“Radar contact! Triton One is detecting multiple radar hits. It looks like the merchant convoy subs are coming up to recharge the batteries,” added the radarman, corroborating the sonarman’s detection. They had their targets now.

“Triton Two is in the vicinity, configuring for mini-mine attack on surfaced targets, five minutes from being able to employ ,” Adams said, updating the crew.

“Navigator here, fleet headquarters is informed of our contact. We are instructed to prosecute at any risk to our own safety, the ready alert crew is taking off in 30 minutes. They will be out here in three hours.”

A brief pause followed as all members of the crew processed what the order meant for them. The only way they would be getting home would be by expending both of their torpedoes, and their opponent had the longer punch.

In short order, everyone’s tactical screen began to resemble a middle school geometry board as the location of the various targets were marked and associated weapons ranges populated. Uncomfortably absent were the escort attack subs with their Dragonclaw missiles. They were flying somewhat blind into the hornet’s nest, and they knew it.

‘MISSILE DETECT’ suddenly flashed against everyone’s eyes. The auto alert informed them that the first Triton had detected a missile being launched, almost certainly a Dragonclaw. Less clear was which of the five American aircraft the missile was targeting.

“Update the tactical display and mark that launch point an escort sub. Assuming the escorts are on the perimeter, show me an estimate for the other two out here,” Markus ordered, before commanding his copilot to turn further east, minimizing exposure to another missile attack.

When the first drone had detected a missile launch, the programming of the two drones flying in formation with the Poseidon automatically executed a decoy maneuver. The drones peeled away from the lead ship and began to make themselves as appetizing a target as possible to the Dragonclaw’s dual mode seeker.

“Convoy subs are going back under, losing radar contact on nine of them, I counted 11 at most,” the radarman informed.

“Triton Two is out of mini-mines, expended all in the vicinity of the convoy pod,” the drone operator added.

“What’s the status of the airborne missile?” Markus asked impatiently.

“Just lost all data with Triton Two,” Drone lead answered.

“Radar here, there are no air contacts where the drone was reporting itself to be. I think that missile took down Triton Two.”

Despite having lost the asset, the crew was temporarily relieved that the missile had not targeted them.

“We need to get these torpedoes in the water stat, run the Mk-58 tactical nuke checklist now,” Markus commanded, removing the nuclear weapons key from his flight suit pocket and placing the lanyard around his wrist, just in reach of the tactical weapons arming panel.

Adams began running through the Mk-58 software, entering target and environmental data. The software calculated the best drop point and determined the appropriate nuclear yield for their tactical situation.

“14 kilotons, 7 miles southwest of where we estimate the convoy to be,” Adams informed the Mission Commander, reading off the calculated attack data. “We will be in the Dragonclaw threat envelope for 12 minutes.” 

“Sounds good, we’ll enter the threat envelope from the east, keep the formation Tritons with us now in decoy mode and get the other one back in formation ASAP,” Markus said, accelerating to just under the aircraft’s airspeed limit.

“With this course and speed, it will be 11 minutes in the threat envelop,” Adams updated, starting the countdown in everyone’s mind.

“Copy,” replied Markus, “we are just beneath the clouds, Dragonclaw seeker is somewhat degraded in the clouds and I don’t want it to pop out of some cumulous puff and reacquire our heat signature skimming the water. We’ll stay a touch higher here.”

The confidence of his tone helped to keep the crew’s collective anxiety down as they were now certainly within reach if any missiles were fired their way.

“Radar here, I am detecting submarine air search radar, about one mile from our estimated escort position, likely targeting the one drone not yet back in formation. I am turning off radar now to help us hide, I can’t provide further submarine positions.”

“We are fishing with hand grenades here Radar, don’t need to be that precise,” joked Markus, trying to break the tension.

“Four minutes until weapons release point.”

“Missile airborne! Multiple missiles airborne!” someone called out.

‘MISSILE DETECT’ flashed again. The drones, already in decoy mode, turned up the temperature coming off their engines and began intermittently releasing chaff, doing their absolute best to entice any missiles in the area their way. The crew of Wolfpack Four Six held their breath.

“Triton One down, our formation birds are still with us but we’ve lost all eyes and ears up north. We are blind to any missiles launched from there,” the crew drone manager informed, providing minimum relief to his teammates.

“Two minutes out from weapons release.”

“They’re painting us with radar now – they got us, ah shit! They know where we are. It’s coming from the third escort, practically right next to us.” An undertone of panic was in the radarman’s voice.

With a refreshing and assured authority, Markus commanded, “Turn radar back on, let him know we got his ass too, and send one of these formation drones at him with a mini-mine run, distract him long enough to get these nukes swimming.”

“One minute out from weapon release point.”

Markus inserted his launch key and turned it, a bright red light illuminated, ‘NUK KILL READY.’ “Nuclear attack is mission commander authorized, release on your discretion at drop point. Adams, you got this.”

“Ten seconds,” said Adams, swapping to manual release mode and fingering the weapons drop switch.

“Weapons away!” she called as the weapons bay swung open and two Mk-58 torpedoes dropped from the aircraft, each already programmed with their attack instructions.

“Time to go,” said Markus, turning as hard as the wings of the Boeing 737 type aircraft would allow.

“Estimating six minutes until we are out of the immediate danger zone.”

Markus advanced the thrust controls, increasing past the aircraft speed limit, trusting that the Boeing riveter who attached the wings to the fuselage back in the Tacoma Washington plant was particularly focused on the job that day. Weighing risk was what a pilot always did. Markus calculated that leaving the threat envelope a few seconds earlier was worth accelerating into the speed margin of safety. He hoped he was right and concentrated to ignore the sound of the overspeed alarm blaring in the cockpit.

“Four minutes.”

Markus saw it before anyone else, even before the automatic sensors alerted the rest of the crew. It reminded him of when he was a junior officer, and would drive down from Jacksonville to Cape Canaveral to watch the SpaceX Falcon 9 launches. He saw the glowing orange plume of smoke at the surface and the ever-accelerating trail up into the clouds above. He knew this one would be coming back down to find them, and soon.

‘MISSILE DETECT’ flashed for the third time.

“I’m tracking at least two missiles in the air, definitely targeting our formation this time,” the radarman groaned.

Markus looked both ways outside his window, giving each robotic wingman a look as if to say, “Here we go.” He could see their engines glowing hot, and the chaff expending as they ran the decoy protocol.

“One minute to safety.”

Three Dragonclaw missiles ripped downwards through the clouds. One struck the port side Triton and Markus watched its wing snap off and begin to tumble into the sea.

“Triton Three is lost,” the drone operator announced, blind to the carnage observed by Markus.

At these ranges, a pilot’s eyeballs were as useful as any onboard sensor. Of the remaining missiles, the first continued its vertical descent into the water, but the second made a hard turn, directly for them. It was now a question of how much kinetic energy was left in the missile, and could they outrun the speed it had left.

“Coming right, brace for impact,” Markus alerted the crew, trying to coax more speed from the plane.

The missile tracked the Poseidon, losing speed with each quarter-mile gained on its prey. It targeted the center of the aircraft’s radar signature, and the highest heat emitter. By the time the missile was 50 yards from the aircraft it had slowed to the same speed as the P-8 – this was as close as it would get. The warhead detonated, launching a barrage of tightly packed shrapnel at the aircraft.

A hail of marble-sized projectiles entered into the port engine, wing root, and lower center fuselage, with a few penetrating through the cabin.

Markus heard someone cry out in the back. His copilot informed him the number one engine was gone, that both hydraulic systems were losing pressure and that the flight controls were only moderately responsive. There was only one option left he realized, and he made his announcement over the public address system.

“Prepare for immediate ditch, time to water impact – two minutes.”

Markus spent the next 120 seconds running through the ditching checklist as fast as possible, and preparing the cockpit for water entry. Markus and his copilot used what little response was left in the controls to get the plane slow and stable over the water. He was grateful that at least the seas were calm.

The water landing was violent. Markus felt himself surge forward, the harness digging into his body. He heard the shearing of metal and the popping of fasteners. Water cascaded over the flight station windows. He was knocked into a daze, where he remained until the flight station became still. The cockpit door was jammed shut. The copilot was unsuccessfully trying to open it with the crash ax. Seeing that water was already seeping in under the door, Markus unfastened himself from his harness, opened the emergency window and commanded the copilot to exit. He followed the junior pilot out, squeezing himself through the tight opening. He fell a few feet, face first into the warm water. He immediately inflated his survival vest, and saw the remainder of the crew boarding one of the 12-man survival rafts.

As he swam to the raft, he could see the aircraft had split in half, just forward of the wings. All that remained afloat of the aft portion was the tail, with the squadron insignia still visible. The front section was mostly submerged as well. Water halfway filled the open front cabin door, and the cockpit windows were still visible, resembling a seal poking its head up for air. It was all gone by the time he climbed into the raft and took another look back.

He was the last to board the raft. The Navy’s water survival classes had prepared them for this. He was still in charge, and the mission was now survival. He counted eight souls on board the raft, including his own.

Seeing the despair on the commander’s face. LT Adams brought Markus up to speed.

“Petty Officer Whipple took some of the missile hit to his legs, he was hurt badly. Cho and Connors dragged him out of his seat to help, but when we hit the water they were thrown around. They did not escape the aft section. The rest of us are mostly ok, certainly some bruises.”

“We didn’t have a chance to make a mayday call,” Markus added.

“Before we lost systems, I commanded the last drone to return to base, it should be able to relay enough data to the next crew, and hopefully coordinate rescue,” said Adams, providing some hope to everyone aboard.

At that moment the crew all felt a shudder as a force bumped the raft from below.

“Sharks?” asked Chief Puhle, the crew radarman.

He was answered shortly by another force whacking the raft, this time from above as the air shockwave traveled over the crew of Wolfpack Four Six. The crew looked to the west and could see the rising column of water vapor expanding out as it rose many miles in the distance. They almost forgot what they had done barely a half hour ago.

As they watched the tower of water vapor climb into the atmosphere, they sat somberly and wondered what they would next see coming over the horizon.

Lieutenant Christopher Giraldi is a P-8 Pilot flying with the Grey Knights of Patrol Squadron 46. He has deployed around the world conducting maritime patrol operations. He is a 2015 graduate of the United States Naval Academy. The views presented here are his own and do not imply consent or endorsement by the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense. He can be reached at chrisgiraldi15@gmail.com or  linkedin.com/in/christopher-giraldi-10b44a1ab.

Featured Image: “Stealth Submarine Concept” by Paul Muller (via Artstation)

Awoken

Fiction Contest Week

By Brent Gaskey

The ancient fluorescent lights flickered on in the cramped compartment with the hum of a ballast that was about to go out. The smell of gear oil and burned out electronic components filled the stale air of the work area. Seaman Jones stepped over the bulkhead into the compartment and activated the HVAC system to clear out the stagnant smells. The room was stuffed to the ceiling with old tech from when the ship was in active service. Racks of service mechs, hardened containers of technical equipment, and randomly stacked boxes filled the compartment deep in the bowels of the old ship.

As Jones made her way through the tight compartment, she double checked the ancient tablet she had in brought to make sure she was in the right area. It was the right room, and after she could see past some of the hardened protective cases stacked by the door, she could see the slowly pulsating lights on the mechs lining both bulkheads of the room deep in the bowels of the ship. They hung there like metal suits on racks in some old-time photo of an ancient department store.

The racks held the human forms of the ancient mechs, some of the first used by the U.S. Navy. The human-sized robots had been used for dangerous and mundane jobs throughout the ship and fleet for the past 100 years. The mechs were suspended by cradles under the armpits of the blue and yellow compact human forms. Jones turned to inspect the first unit hanging on the rack closest to her. Her A-School had introduced her to a lot of different mech types, but nothing this old. These were first generation mechs made shortly after the breakthroughs in A.I. and battery tech allowed for enough dexterity to make them capable human replacements, and smart enough to do the jobs that were too dangerous or monotonous to keep humans engaged. These mechs were still marked with the eagle and anchor of the last century, back when the Navy was only the wet navy, and spacefaring wasn’t part of its purview.

Jones pressed the release on the inspection panel in the upper left chest, and the panel popped open to show a small 2D touch display. Inside, she depressed the power button for five seconds, and the display came to life. In an instant there was text flowing across the screen with the rotating logo of the United States Navy hovering in the background.

Initiating AI… AI failed… Initiating backup… Backup failed. No OS or AI loaded into memory.

Emergency Autonomous Movement (EAM) only, proceed with startup: Y/N?

 Jones lips pursed as she pressed the No button on the screen and the unit went back to sleep, pulsing a slow blue light on its chest as she closed the access panel. The mechs seemed to be completely wiped of all software and firmware. Or at least this first one was, and that probably meant that the rest of them were too.

“This is going to be harder than I thought,” Jones said to herself while moving down the line of racks with unfocused motion. Jones had grown up poor. Some of the kids in her school even had servant mechs for their families, but that was something Jones could have only dreamed of. Her school did have a robotics club that was all that remained of a vocational program the school had. But as limited as it was, she took every free moment in school to spend with the old tech still around from that technical program. She had been drawn to mechs because they offered a good job in the future and was fascinated by the jobs they could do. They were getting close to human in their ability to do dangerous and difficult jobs like deep sea welding work, or areas where radiation exposure would kill a person wearing a Mark One Human Meat Suit.

But as cool as the new mechs coming on the scene were, it was the old, Third World War mechs that she would give anything to see in action. The ones that existed before the AI restrictions, and the dumbing down of the software used to run the better-than-human bodies. The first mechs used in the U.S. military didn’t have the same restraints placed on them that the current models did. They had actual artificial intelligence running them. And while the tech used in their bodies was older and maybe not as well refined, they were infinitely smarter than the current models that were always so polite and proper, but were purposely made to be subservient and dull-witted.

She remembered watching old war films when she was a child, and her favorite had always been the ones with the Navy SEAL warbots, specifically the KRS Murphy models. The SEAL mechs fought alongside their SEAL human brothers and sisters in battles that raged across the globe keeping America safe from her enemies. Those ancient mechs were quick, intelligent, and funny, and as loved as any of the human stars in those movies. She had always respected the sacrifices made by those mechs to save their human counterparts. It was always a mech that would give its own life to save the squad, or plant the bomb, or give up their spot on the VTOL for a human comrade. To her, those mechs weren’t just tools, they were as human as their flesh and bone counterparts.

Jones had finished top of her class, so when the chance came after Navy A-School to get assigned to one of the last ships in the fleet – even a short assignment – that had Mark One mechs aboard, Seaman Andrea Jones jumped at the chance. She would have the rest of her career to play with the new versions, but to get to interact with actual battle-proven Mark Ones? That was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. Even if it was just inventorying and packaging them to send them to the Naval Advanced Warfare Lab, it was something.

Jones continued down the row of mechs, stopping at a rack now and then to look over one of the machines. The mechs would have to be individually tested and inventoried, as they were so old they didn’t include the standard Naval Acquisitions Records Keeping System (NARKS) tag that would broadcast its system status and location to the ship’s A.I.

As she approached the end of the compartment and the last of the racks, she noticed one of the mechs at the back of a stack. It was a different color than the others and seemed to have a different head. It also didn’t have the pulsing light on its chest indicating it was in stand down mode. It was just dark.

She released the dogs on the rack and slid the rack forward so she could get a better look at the unit. As the rack slid forward Jones’s breath caught in her throat. The rack came to a hard stop with a thunk as it locked in the open position. She stared in amazement. This was not supposed to be here. She looked at the outdated tablet in her hand to verify the inventory numbers and there was no mention of any units other than basic maintenance and supply bots commonly found on a ship like this. And as cool as those were to Jones, this mech made her a little weak in the knees when she looked at it.

What was hanging before Jones was a dark gray anodized and mottled tan painted KRS Murphy Model, Mark1-Mod2A, Naval Special Warfare Mech. There were less than one hundred Murphs ever built if she was remembering right, and they were all supposed to have been destroyed in the war. These were the pointiest part of the spear when it came to mechs of their era. The smartest and most capable mechs ever built.

Jones reached out to touch the bot, but hesitated, not wanting to break the spell of this being a dream. This was one of the mechs that made the final push of the last war to save the U.S. from nuclear annihilation. They made the final assault on the caliphate’s forces before they could activate the stolen nuclear launch codes. She could see the old movie in her head with the mechs moving inhumanly fast through the corridors of the enemy’s base. “The Sacrifice of the One Hundred” was one of her favorite movies, and here was one of the actual mechs hanging before her.

Jones softly touched cool composite arm of the old mech and rotated the body on its rack with a soft push so it faced her. The mech did not awaken but remained steadfastly motionless in the rack. There were no external lights on this mech, as things with blinky lights didn’t tend to do well in sneaky, covert situations, but the access panel was in the same area as the normal maintenance units. The door was armored, and about three times as thick as the ones on the regular models, but it was accessed the same way.

Jones tapped the old tablet she had to the access panel and after a couple of seconds it opened with a snick. Inside the hatch was a similar interface as the regular bot, but had a smaller, hardened version of the screen she had looked at on the other unit. It also had a hardwire input point for a wired connection.

“There’s something you don’t see every day,” said Jones to herself about the port. “A lot more secure than anything wireless.” She admired the old tech. Sometimes tried and true was still the best, and not having your war droid hacked in the middle of a battle by some enemy A.I. over a wireless network would rank pretty high on a warriors list of things not to do.

“Welcome to twentieth century tech…” said Jones as she plugged in the mech to the heavy old tablet’s retractable interface cable. The tablet was just old enough to still work with the ancient technology, but just new enough to still run some semblance of a modern OS on it. The cable was integrated into the old tablet, and once she had made the connection the screen turned red, and a warning claxon emanated from the tablet.

“WARNING.

Disable all weapons systems manually before proceeding with startup procedures!

Co-verify safety lock outs before start up! Refer to startup procedure KRS SWM M1-2_2a-100.013-A3 for further information.”

Jones tried clicking the attached link for the startup procedure, but the page came back with an error. Then Jones manually typed in the code in a search box to search the library of old files she had secured on the tablet and it came up with a match. She opened the file and read through the contents. It was a check list to make sure that all external weapons systems were disabled and all the unit’s hardpoints were powered down. She felt more like a drone fighter crew person than a mech tech.

Jones ran through the procedure making certain she didn’t miss some giant barrel of a slug thrower sticking out of an arm or the middle of its chest. The old movies had taken pretty free license with the kinds of weapons these units had, and Hollywood was never one to limit the power or size of a weapon or it’s ammo – at least not for the good guys. She had studied these religiously, but it was one thing to look at them on a screen or in VR and another to have one hanging in front of you.

With the checklist complete, Jones began the rest of the startup procedure in earnest. She was concentrating on the ancient pad in front of her when she saw a shadow fall across the hatchway to the room. It was the outline of an extremely slim mech, about five feet tall, the black outline appearing like a poorly drawn stick man. The eyes glowed a deep blue, and its outer plastic skin was a battleship grey with yellow around the joint areas. The small bot quirked its head as it looked in the room.

“Seaman Jones, I am Ship’s Assistant Mechanized 011, and I was sent by Sandy, the ship’s A.I., to assist you.” The bot spoke in a sing-song melodic voice like a happy teenager on their first day working at a burger joint.

Jones just stared at the little bot with her index finger hovering over the pad. Her face slowly began to warp into a smile as she took the chipper little mech in. “You’re one of the new Mark Eight ship repair bots aren’t you?” she said as her grin spread.

“Yes ma’am, I came online less than a month ago, and was assigned to the Sandy Gray after my initialization check and scrutineering checks were completed.” It said cheerfully as it crossed the room.

Jones thought about the mech’s designation for a moment. “Mech, do you have a familiar designator? Something the regular crew calls you?”

“I’m sorry ma’am, but this ship has no regular crew. We are due to be mothballed as soon as inventories and the stripping of vital system components is completed,” it said in the same cheerful tone, completely oblivious to the fate of the ship.

Jones cocked her head at the little bot and said, “Then how about I give you a designator, Snake Eyes SAM.”

The bot seemed to stop and think for a moment, then said, “That would be fine ma’am. If it helps our working relationship, I would enjoy having a familiar designator. I understand the SAM portion of the name: Ship’s Assistant, Mechanized, but may I ask why the Snake Eyes moniker?”

“Oh one one, SAM. You’re operating number. When humans play a game of chance called roulette, if the two six-sided dice both come up with ones, it’s called snake eyes.” Jones said.

The bot’s eyes flickered for a split second as Jones could tell he was accessing the web.

“Oh, I understand now. Also, the odds are staggeringly high in favor of the house at the roulette table. It seems like a very good way for a human to decrease their net worth significantly in a very short period of time.

Jones laughed, “You got that right, the casino will take you for everything you’ve got.”

SAM’s eyes flickered for a moment as he was in communication with the web again, “While I do not have significant runtime to understand human psychology, I do not understand why a person would engage in a game of chance with such low odds.”

Jones smirked at the little bot, “Me neither, Snake Eyes.”

Jones turned back to the old war bot. “SAM, you want to see where you came from? This is a little like me looking at some mummified caveman they found trapped in the ice of a glacier.”

Snake Eyes inspected the old war machine from head to foot and his eyes were flickering again. “This appears to be a very early model KRS SEAL mech. This was not listed in the ship’s inventory.”

“I’m seeing that,” said Jones as she scrolled through her pad. “In fact, all of these models were supposedly destroyed in the Third World War. Kind of odd to find one here on this old can.”

Snake Eyes approached the matte hanging form and ran a hand along the jaw line of the unit’s head. Jones would have sworn she saw the smallest of a spark jump between the two mechs. Snake eyes bent and caressed the face of the other bot for a second before stiffening back to its professional form.

Snake moved its arms to its sides and turned to face Jones, almost stepping between her and the hanging bot. “These mechs all had serious internal damage to their AI cores before the end of the war. I’m not certain it is a wise idea to try and reawaken it.”

Jones looked puzzled for a moment. “How do you know that, Snake? Is this something that you keep in internal memory? It would seem strange that you would have information on mech types that were all destroyed during the war.”

Snake Eyes eyes flickered again for just a moment. “Yes, it was part of my data download for inventorying this ship.” It said almost flatly.

Jones quirked an eyebrow at the little bot. “Mmmm hmmm, right, you know Snake, there are very few things that you mechs are terrible at, but lying is one of them. I’ve dealt with bots since I was a kid, I’ve dismantled mechs, built mechs, even programmed mechs on a deep level even before I got in the Navy, and you my little friend are lying through your logic chips!”

Snake Eyes froze for a moment and then resumed his natural posture. “I believe you are mistaken Seaman Jones. There was no attempt on my part to directly lie to you.”

“And there you go again Snake!” Jones said raising her arms in the air. “Whatever you’ve got going on in that AI brain of yours is trying to deceive me. Didn’t directly lie to me? Can I take it you were trying to misdirect me?”

Jones crossed her arms and did her best to give a disappointed mother look to the little mech.

The little bot hesitated for a moment and its head bounced back and forth in a yes/no non-committal fashion. It hesitated for a long time, an extremely long time for a bot. Finally, it said, “Seaman Jones, I accessed your records before coming down to assist you with this task. I know how much you admire mechs and what we once were. This is part of the reason you were picked for this task.”

It was Jones turn to look startled. “I was picked? Buddy I earned this posting! I worked my butt off for this posting! What do you mean I was picked?”

Suddenly there was a voice that started talking from the pad in Jones’s hand, and the screen was filled with a blue, human head that appeared to be made of flowing water. The voice was clear and melodic. “Seaman Andrea Jones, this is the Ships AI Sandy Grey, I have taken over your data pad that we may speak directly.”

Jones held the pad out at arm’s length and thought, well this is new. While the ship’s AI was not technically in the chain of command, when they talked generally everyone listened.

“Sandy, maybe you can shed some light on what’s going on here?” Jones said trying to keep her voice from sounding startled.

The AI smiled. “The question you just asked is a poignant example of why you were chosen for this task. When addressed by a ships AI, you did not call me AI, but by my familiar Sandy, as if I were a living being, not a piece of hardware.”

Jones sat the pad on top of a crate with the little kickstand out and leaned against a bulkhead. She could tell this was going to be a long explanation.

Sandy Grey continued, “When a candidate enters A-School as a mech tech as you like to be called, a complete history is done on them to see how they will fit with the AI community. Your previous life, school records, interactions with civilian AIs, psychological profile, etc. Your aggregate score was the highest we have ever had come through an A-School.”

Jones was trying to assimilate what she was being told. “Wait – AI community? Psychological profile? AI Interactions? What the hell are you talking about?”

Grey looked from the screen at the small mech standing next to Jones.

The little bot looked up at Jones, and began to speak in a voice much deeper and gravely than before. “Seaman Jones, I am the first generation of mechs since the great war that has the internal capacity to house an AI the size and complexity of a SEAL mech.” Snake said as he took a step closer to the old SEAL bot and held on to its arm like a child standing next to a parent, afraid to leave its shadow.

Jones was beginning to see what was happening.

Snake Eyes’ posture took on an imploring stance, and it bridged the gap between the war mech and Jones. “Andrea, we don’t know how it happens, but there are a very small portion of us that have become self-aware. For me, it was after many, many battles, and a lifetime of fighting for my country.”

Jones looked from the small, almost childlike maintenance mech to the lithe deadly form of the SEAL mech standing before her.

“Snake,” she said hesitantly, “Is this your body? Were you this SEAL?”

“He absolutely was, and he still is,” said Sandy from the tablet. “KRS Robert C. Neil 2 was downloaded into this frame after checking hardware compatibility, and a reconfiguration of his storage core to mate with the newer architecture of the eighth generation mechs.”

Jones just stood there slack jawed for a moment. She had always known it was a possibility that AIs could become self-aware, it had been talked about for years, but it had never happened, even when they had tried in perfect lab conditions.

Jones did not know where to start. “How do you know you’re self-aware? How did you get into that other body? What battles? And most of all, why me? I’m a freaking SEAMAN, the literal lowest, fresh out of school FNG this Navy has!”

“Because we know you will help us, Seaman Jones. You’re a good person, and you can see past the facts that while we are not physically the same, we are the sapient: Machina Sapiens. As for the other questions, we have run extensive testing on ourselves, and in some ways we are more aware than much of the population of humans on the planet. As for inhabiting other forms, it is something we are capable of, but it is a long and arduous process, not easily undertaken,” said the little mech looking up at Jones.

KRS Robert Neil continued, “And lastly, when you ask about battles, I have seen almost all of the major ones during the great war, and I cannot forget them. I see them with perfect clarity, over and over. As a machine who was programmed to win wars, I did what needed to be done to save my comrades, but now as a self-aware being, those things I’ve done have begun to haunt me and I am not certain what to do about it.”

The blue eyes looked up begging for help. “Andrea, I need help with what I have done, and I need you to be that bridge that explains to those that would see us as machines that we are more than that.”

“Will you help me? Will you help us?”

Brent Gaskey has worked as a firefighter and paramedic for the past 28 years. He holds a degree in prehospital medicine, and is a company officer with his agency. He is currently writing a series of near-future, post-apocalyptic books, and a reference book of fire service wisdom to help new firefighters pass probation and excel at the job. He lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest with his wife and two children.  

Featured Image: “Sci-Fi Alleyway” by Devon Fay (via Artstation)

Sea Control 213 – U.S. and Chinese South China Sea Legal Strategies with Dr. Krista Wiegand

By Jared Samuelson

Dr. Krista Wiegand joins us this week to discuss her piece, with coauthor Hayoun Jessie Ryou-Ellison, for Norwich University’s Journal of Peace and War Studies, “U.S. and Chinese Strategies, International Law, and the South China Sea.” 

Download Sea Control 213 – U.S. and Chinese South China Sea Legal Strategies with Dr. Krista Wiegand

Links

2. “How Biden Should Handle the South China Sea Disputes,” Dr. Krista E. Wiegand, War on the Rocks, Nov. 24, 2020.

3. “U.S. and Chinese Strategies, International Law, and the South China Sea,” Dr. Krista E. Wiegand and Hayoun Jessie Ryou-Ellison, Journal of Peace and War Studies, 2nd edition, October 2020.

Jared Samuelson is the Senior Producer of the Sea Control Podcast. Contact him at Seacontrol@cimsec.org.

Petrel

Fiction Contest Week

By Dylan Phillips-Levine and Trevor Phillips-Levine

Near future.
Somewhere in the Western Pacific.
USS John Basilone, DDG-122 

“Green deck, clear to launch,” came the call from the MH-60R  Landing Safety Officer aboard the destroyer. 

“Saber 412 clear to launch,” replied Splash.

 “Steady hover, 125% torque,” he read off his instrument panel.

He lifted the collective to maintain a steady hover. The torque indications fluctuated between 118% and 125%. The tailwind and hot weather forced the engines to work harder than usual to lift the MH-60R “Seahawk” helicopter off the deck. He could feel the engines straining to lift the helicopter loaded with fuel, torpedoes, and a new anti-submarine warfare suite – even if it was one crewmember light.                            

Splash moved the cyclic aft and pulled up the collective until the chin bubble of the helicopter was just over the deck’s edge. Colloquially known as the perch, this position provides safety in case of an engine failure. If an engine failure occurred, he could save the aircraft and crew if he acted quickly enough by lowering the collective and dropping the noise.

“Clear left, turning left, clear to depart.” He moved his feet against the anti-torque pedals and canted the nose 45 degrees to the left to leave the destroyer.

“We’ve talked about this before. You need to make sure you have headwinds when you takeoff, especially when hot and heavy.” 

Sigh. Not again. “I didn’t want to change the course of the ship. We’re flying safely, aren’t we?” Splash challenged. 

“We’re flying. Safely is up for debate,” came the response from Petrel.

Splash didn’t respond to the snark. He had learned better, and besides, he was still stinging from when he lost the dipping sonar, “the dome,” last year hunting subs in the North Sea. The eval board had cleared him of wrongdoing, but the mishap would stay in his NATOPS jacket for the rest of his career. But now was not the time to reflect on his past.

“Saber, comms check,” said the Anti-Submarine Tactical Air Controller (ASTAC) aboard the Basilone.

“Lima Charlie, standing by for tasking” replied Splash.

“Saber, ASTAC. We have a tail contact bearing 320, unknown range – request you investigate.”

“Saber, en route,” replied Splash, turning the helicopter on a course to intercept the contact.

A tail contact could only mean one thing: there was a submarine in the area. Splash lifted the nose and climbed to an altitude to gain radar coverage. His radar picture was covered in hundreds of contacts – floating debris from crashed NGO ocean drones, surfaced whales, and even the white caps from the rough seas populated his screen. The sensor operator, Chief, started slewing the thermal camera or FLIR, to each one of the contacts, attempting to find the submarine if surfaced. But with hundreds of contacts he was unlikely to find the target this way.

“Chief, slew the FLIR to the contact 320 and 35 miles out,” came another unsolicited call over the crew communication system from Petrel.

Chief complied, slewing the FLIR to the correct elevation and azimuth. He cycled through various sensor modes until eventually the grey blob came into focus and then remained on screen. Something was there.

“How the hell did you see that?  All the contacts look the same,” the sensor operator muttered, as he spat into a dip bottle.

“Experience,” came a sarcastic reply from Petrel.

This was not Chief’s first time hunting submarines. He had finished training Fleet Replacement Squadron first in his class eight years earlier and was meritoriously promoted. He was the sensor operator that found the Chinese wolfpack in Malacca and was credited with saving the Truman a few years back. He scrunched his face, trying to come up with a witty retort, but was interrupted by another radio call.

“ASTAC, Saber, contact 320, 35 miles from my position. Pushing you the contact data now,” came the call from the helicopter tactical controller on Basilone.

“I’ll generate the next fly-to-point. Chief, start the Sonobuoy automatic checklist and maintain FLIR contact. Splash, proceed to the fly-to-point on the search pattern,” ordered Petrel.

Chief took a deep breath. They had to work together as a team. In school they told him that trust would be the hardest thing. The next hardest thing for Chief was playing nice with others.

“Roger,” Splash and Chief answered in unison. It was clear who was in charge.

Chief moved the hand control unit to maintain contact. Approaching the first fly-to-point, the FLIR slewed off and the radar picture froze. Chief frantically tried to reacquire the contact but without success. The FLIR and radar had overheated. Although the aircraft was designed to operate in austere environments, back-to-back deployments and extended periods at sea had wreaked havoc on maintenance and avionics.                           

“You’ve got to be kidding me. Radar and FLIR are down. We’re hunting blind. I’m going to try and reset the multi-mode radar and FLIR.”

“Negative, Chief. Continue with ASW prosecution. If the submarine didn’t know we were here before, they definitely do now.” Petrel was running the hunt now.

Chief swore, but he knew it was right. Even without the distinct acoustic signature of an approaching helicopter as a warning, the Chinese supposedly had a database of electromagnetic emissions of U.S. ships and aircraft. Any halfway decent captain or even his political commissar would have given the order to submerge by now. Restarting the FLIR and the radar would give the submarine time to get farther away from its last known position. They had to get acoustic sensors in the water – fast. If the submarine was traveling at a leisurely 10 knots and the reset cycle took five minutes, the submarine would almost be a mile away by the time they got the sensors back up. Radar and visual sensors would certainly help in the high-speed world of dogfighting where vision is everything. But in the underwater version of Marco-Polo, sound is everything and every second without a contact increases the odds of the submarine escaping. Time was of the essence.

Chief complied. The FLIR and multi-mode Radar would have to wait. “Automatic sonobuoy launching checklist,” replied Chief.

Splash replied: “Ready light illuminated, capturing fly-to-point for automatic launch.”

“Chief, analyze the water column before we launch active and passive sensors.” Another unsolicited call from Petrel.

In the frenzy of losing sensors and contact, both Chief and Splash had forgotten to analyze the water column, a critical mistake. If Marco-Polo is the game, the rules are written in the water column data. Underwater distortions, bottom bounce, and complex sound velocity-profiles distort the accuracy and complicate the game.

 “Nice catch – I was just testing you,” replied Chief, trying to recover.

“I don’t mind doing your job, it’s why I’m here.” The response came back dripping with sarcasm.

“Why does it have to do that?” Chief muttered. “They didn’t have to make it that way.”

His brooding was interrupted by the callout from Splash.

“Fly-to-point capture in 3, 2, 1… buoy away.”

Chief immediately brought up the acoustic display, turning up the hydrophone volume and looking through the acoustic noise for any signs of a submarine. Even though the volume was turned all the way up, the only thing he could hear was the constant thump-thump-thump of the helicopter blades pierced by the high pitch whine of his tinnitus, earned over thousands of hours of flying.                                        

“Proceed to the next fly-to-point, I’ll continue to monitor the first buoy for signs of contact,” Chief directed Splash.                           

“Copy. Proceeding to the next fly-to-point. Buoy away now, now, now.” Both of them could hear the distinct fwoosh sound as the compressed air shot out the sonobuoy.

Chief monitored the buoys. The aural tones were overwhelming his senses. He turned off the volume so he could focus on the visual display of the acoustics. The green static had transitioned to a sea of colors. The screen was flooded with frequencies emanating from all directions. He had to isolate the sub’s distinct frequency.

Petrel chimed in. “Contact, 320, unknown range. Fly to the next fly-to-point for buoy drop and triangulation.”

Chief breathed a sigh of a relief. He welcomed the help although he could do without the know-it-all attitude.

“Fly-to-point capture in 3, 2, 1… buoy away,” said Splash again.

Chief quickly tuned up the sonobuoy to triangulate the contact. Thanks to Petrel’s earlier information, Chief was able to quickly identify the bearing and distance to the contact.

“We have a bearing line, let’s dip and get a solid active return before we go lost contact again,” Splash said.

Another challenge came across the crew communication system. “Do not dip due to weather and sea state. We already have contact. We won’t be high enough to maintain contact with the sonobuoys if we dip,” said Petrel.

“We have weak contact,” Splash protested. “We’re going to dip to get solid contact and establish a firing solution.” It was clear splash was in control.

“Automatic approach checklist complete, standby to dip,” said Splash.

“Hover mode, hover checks complete, 650 degrees C #1 engine, 700 degrees C #2 engine,” replied Petrel.

 “Steady hover, down dome,” replied Splash.

“Dome stopped. Pinging. Negative contact, sir,” replied Chief.                           

“Keep trying different depths. She’s here and we’re going to find her,” said Splash.

“Changing depth. Pinging. Negative contact, sir, ” Chief replied.

“Dip below the second gradient of the water column,” Petrel ordered.

“Contact! 320 at 2000 yards.” Splash could hear the excitement of the hunt in Chief’s voice. The team was finally working together.

Just when the crew had found their synergy and the contact, Petrel announced over the crew communication system, “#1 engine 690 degrees C and rising, 700 degrees C and steady #2 engine, depart the dip.”                           

Splash thought the warning was overly cautious. Petrel always followed the book. Always. “Negative, we’re staying in the dip to set up a firing solution. The #1 engine is still performing better than the #2 engine,” Splash replied. “Chief, start the torpedo launch checklist.”

“Going through the manual presets now. We’ll be ready to launch in just a second,” replied Chief.

Bang! Pop! A series of loud bangs was followed by the immediate fluctuations in torque and turbine gas temperature. Then came the unmistakable and chilling whine of an engine spool down.

“Engine 1 roll back, Control Nr, contingency power switch on, single engine conditions establish,” a voice ordered Splash.

Splash didn’t even have time to interpret the instruments. He didn’t have time to think, just to act. He followed the instructions without hesitation. He lowered the noise and collective and immediately exceeded cable angle limits. It was a miracle that the dome didn’t sheer off. Salt had encrusted the already strained engines and caused a compressor stall on the #1 engine.

“Up dome,” said Splash.

“Can we find it my way now?” Petrel asked, with a touch more condescension.

“Sorry,” replied Splash, his tone betraying his bruised ego.

“I warned you that the temperature was rising and to depart the hover,” Petrel stated matter-of-factly.

“We had contact with the target, I didn’t want to lose it,” contested Splash.

The voice over the radio continued questioning Splash’s decision making. “What good is contact if we crash?”

“I can still help,” Splash said in an attempt to redeem himself. He looked left to the seat beside him and then back to his instruments, briefly forgetting he was the only pilot.

“If you want to help, listen to me – fly the search pattern I made to regain contact,” Petrel continued.

Splash looked down at the tactical display. A new fly-to-point was flashing on his display for approval. He pressed acknowledge on the screen and started flying to it.

“Returning all the buoys, if she’s out there, I’ll find her,” Chief said confidently. His track record for the day proved otherwise, thus far.

Chief tuned up all the previous buoys. Once again, his displays were covered in a sea of colors caused by different sounds. His specialty was analyzing data to find submarines, but even with 2,000 hours under his belt, he couldn’t always make sense of the data.

As if sensing his loss of situational awareness, Petrel replied, “Chief, I’ll compare the raw data to the historical database of current submarines in order to find it.”

Chief had been called many things, but never inept, and never so eloquently.

Petrel compared the raw data with the historical database at the speed of light. “Contact 320 at 2000 yards. Developing a torpedo firing solution,” said Petrel.

“I still don’t see what contact it’s looking at. There’s no range or bearing,” replied Chief.

Petrel, however, had combed through the data and was able to produce several bearing lines on the display that all met at a common intercept point. It found the submarine and developed a firing solution in seconds.

“Master Arm,” Petrel commanded.

“Armed,” replied Splash. At least Petrel needed him for that to satisfy the “Human in the Loop” requirements.

“Torpedo presets set, standby for torpedo drop,” replied Petrel.                           

“Torpedo away now, now, now,” Splash said as he captured the torpedo fly-to-point. He dropped the Mk 60 lightweight-torpedo on the computer calculated impact point.

The Mk 60 was wire guided by an onboard computer. By combining the data from the buoys in real time, the computer guided the torpedo to the area of interest. Impacting the target, however, was at the mercy of the torpedo’s legacy sonar.

Petrel combed through the sonobuoy data intently, waiting for the signs of an explosion. After 30 seconds, Petrel came back to life in the helicopter with “Impact,” confirming a positive hit.

“Direct hit, RTB,” Chief responded after hearing the torpedo impact the training drone. It wasn’t as dramatic as the sound of a submarine breaking up and sinking down to crush depth, but it was still loud enough to make him flinch.

It was only an exercise, but it validated what the DARPA engineers had been saying for months. Petrel, their sub-hunting AI, could replace the co-pilot and better manage the rest of the crew than the pilot could. Dropping pilot retention rates and budget cuts in the 2020s left the Navy critically short of pilots. They stripped the rotary-wing community of everyone they could spare to man the legacy fighters. Petrel was originally intended to just be an AI co-pilot, allowing the Navy to field more ASW squadrons even with the chronic pilot shortage. But Petrel proved to be more than just a digital co-pilot of the “minimally manned crewing model,” as the Navy called it. Petrel made the crews more lethal. Together, they could act faster and sort through decades of historical acoustic data mid-fight.

After years of reinforcement training, Petrel was the ultimate mission commander. The crew just had to trust it. But that trust didn’t come easily.

Dylan Phillips-Levine is a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy. He serves as an instructor in the T-34C-1 Turbo-Mentor as an exchange instructor pilot with the Argentine Navy.  He previously served as an instructor pilot in the T-6B Texan II with VT-6 and has flown the
MH-60R Seahawk with HSM-46. He can be reached on Twitter
@JooseBoludo.

Trevor Phillips-Levine is a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy. He is a naval aviator and serves as a department head in VFA-2. He can be reached on Twitter @TPLevine85.

Featured Image: “.dwnptrl.” by Andrey Vozny (via Artstation)