Tag Archives: Future War Fiction Contest

CIMSEC & Atlantic Council Fiction Contest Winners

By August Cole

Risk is often measured best with hindsight.

With that in mind, the Center for International Maritime Security and the Atlantic Council’s Art of the Future Project are pleased to announce the winner of their crowd-sourced creative contest exploring the future of artificial intelligence and naval warfare: “The JAGMAN Cometh” by Tim McGeehan. The runner-up entry from five selected finalists was “Cod Squad” by Hal Wilson.

The contest supplied creative cues that ranged from an excerpt of Patrick O’Brian’s The Ionian Mission and the Defense Science Board’s recent report on autonomy. See the contest guidelines and cues here.

Judging for the contest was conducted blind and in two rounds, with the first round carried out by Sally DeBoer, President of CIMSEC; James Hasik, a nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council; and Claude Berube, an instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy and author of the Connor Stark series of novels. The preliminary judges submitted their top choices for a final round of judging by Art of the Future Project director August Cole and Peter Singer, co-authors of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, and Larry Bond, co-author with Tom Clancy of Red Storm Rising and the author of numerous bestsellers, including this year’s Red Phoenix Burning and Fatal Thunder: A Jerry Mitchell Novel.

McGeehan’s story “The JAGMAN Cometh” is told not as a rip-roaring tale of daring sailors whose battle buddies are sentient machines who together prevail over a dogged adversary. It’s a memo with the subject line “COMMAND INVESTIGATION TO INQUIRE INTO CIRCUMSTANCES SURROUNDING THE ENGAGEMENT OF CIVILIAN MEDICAL FACILITY IN SITE ALPHA ON 29 MARCH 2025,” and an incredibly insightful one, at that.

But it’s not just a memo and that is why the final judges were unanimous in selecting it as the winner.

“The JAGMAN Cometh” is rooted in bureaucratic reality of the difficulty of understanding the limits of human and machine working together. Rather than this dispassionate analysis being a liability in laying out the legal, business, and operational pitfalls ahead for the U.S. military, Graham somehow has turned this into a narrative strength. Authenticity, in form and detail of the possibility of human failings upsetting highly complex systems, make the story engaging and unsettling at the same time. The real-world relevance of the “human in the loop” or “human on the loop” conversation about autonomous systems is rendered with clarity.

“I loved the risky and difficult form of setting it in a report like that, which it pulls off,” said Singer, who also wrote Wired For War on the future of robots and conflict. “It tells a vivid story in what should be a boring format, while also capturing well looming dilemmas in the use of autonomous robotics and sensors. I can definitely see this happening in the real world, as well as the story being used as a teaching tool in future courses.”

That could apply to any of the finalist entries, for all their future-minded narrative exploration. But McGeehan’s entry is especially sharp in its accounting from the year 2025 of how a U.S. Navy MQ-30C Snakehead drone’s mission went awry with the aircraft on its own killing civilians while in pursuit of its mission objective.

Final judge Larry Bond noted: “Having read more than a few Navy investigations and other reports, it felt authentic, and managed to maintain the narrative. I believe the author managed to explain/discuss a complex topic well. In fact, the difficulty of commanding such complex systems was part of the story.”

McGeehan’s story represented taking a creative risk by packaging an idea inside of an official-looking format. But in his case it paid off. McGeehan will also receive a $500 grand prize.

The contest’s runner-up entry was “The Cod Squad” by Hal Wilson. Wilson, who was a finalist in the Art of the Future Project’s contest exploring Third Offset technologies, put the reader at sea aboard a makeshift naval force that is a brilliant mash-up of cutting edge and barely seaworthy. Hewing to the call to explore the essence of command aboard a ship with AI, Wilson’s rendering of the yo-yoing confidence and doubt between human and machine rings true. Being battle tested is a trial warriors have sought ought for literally thousands of years. In the machine-learning age, it has an altogether different context that the story ably draws out.

“The story did an excellent job of creating and maintaining a naval atmosphere. The author relied on current or near-term hardware for the British side, and Chinese UUVs and USVs that could be the next generation in drone technology,” said Bond. “The author’s description of the engagement was good, and showed the AI as a powerful interface between the human commanders and their weapons and sensors.”

Wilson will receive a $250 prize as the runner up.

The rest of the five finalists included “A Dead Man’s Promise” by past Art of the Future contest finalist and winner Alec Meden, “Fitness Function” by Mark Jacobsen, and “Cake by the Ocean” by Sydney Freedberg. Read the stories at CIMSEC.

August Cole directs the Art of the Future Project at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. He is a non-resident fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is also writer-in-residence at Avascent, an independent strategy and management consulting firm. A former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, he is the co-author with Peter W. Singer of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War.

Featured Image: X-47B unmanned aerial vehicle with F-18 Super Hornet. (U.S. Navy photo)

Crossing a T

The following is an entry for the CIMSEC & Atlantic Council Fiction Contest on Autonomy and Future War. Winners will be announced 7 November.

By J. Overton

   “Thank you all for joining me for this this update. I want to start by saying that our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of those killed and injured in this incident. We want to reassure the allied and partner nations impacted by this unfortunate episode that we will do everything we can to mitigate any harm done and restore trust in what his proven a reliable and effective platform. We have already begun an investigation and response to this, and will keep you all informed as we proceed. I’ll just reiterate that at this time, we do not have confirmation that this was anything but a mechanical malfunction. We’ve got time for just a couple of questions. ”

   “Thank you, Commander. The spouse of a second class petty officer assigned to this particular program told local media that her husband was arrested by NCIS last night…she said there was an entire SWAT team that sealed off her neighborhood. She said that his personal electronic devices were confiscated, as was a car which he’d purchased last week.”

   “I’m not going to speak to that matter, but right now we don’t have any information that it was anything but a mechanical malfunction. These are incredibly well-designed platforms and systems, but they’re also very, very complex. This will of course be investigated as thoroughly as possible. I just want, again, to re-iterate that this seems to be an anomaly in an otherwise reliable system of platforms which has served the security needs of ourselves and many of our allies for several years. We stand with them, ready to help in this trying time.”

   “Commander, this is one of the more expensive defense programs ever undertaken by the Department of Defense. Concerns were raised repeatedly about its vulnerabilities. Are those critics now justified?”

   “This of course, as I’ve said, is a complex program, but the capabilities remain unmatched by any other system, and we’ve got some fantastic minds doing everything possible to get it back up and running and correct any future deficiencies. We have a level of power projection and speed unmatched in our history, or in the history of any other Navy, and we’re able to carry out those capabilities without putting our people in harm’s way. That, to my mind, is an incredible system well-worth the time and effort to keep it operational and improving.”

   “Is there any indication that the manufacturer of this system might be at fault. Under the previous name, the manufacturer of some of system’s components, which were called, let me see, “critical to safe operation, to keeping the human in the decision-process’…that was from a former Marine general…do you believe that those parts could be to blame for this disaster?”

   “I’m sorry, I’ll have to address that during our next update. This is an ongoing situation and we’ve got to get back to the operations center. Thank you all.”


The platforms, of many shapes and sizes, for swimming and diving and floating and flying, have that clean metallic smell, but not like the copper-taste you get from bleeding gums. It was pure and made one content. That horrid ship smell was all about the people.


It only took 2 deployed aircraft carriers to be sunk by non-state actors, and three more to be permanently damaged by similar entities, one including a radiation leak, while in shipyard maintenance. There was nothing tangible, permanent, to retaliate against, except the seemingly corrupt largess afforded to the now-impotent capitol ships that had served so well for nearly a century.

A renewed emphasis, or a myopic obsession to critics, with warfighting as the single mission of Naval forces, made deploying unmanned fleets, systems of systems of platforms, the most reasonable force structure. The Navy was solely to continue politics by other means with violence, a series of duels for sea control and projection of the near-hardest of powers as needed. American humans need not be in harm’s way to provide this new, nor any more involved than absolutely necessary, for this focused naval presence.


   “Do you take issue with the fact that less than eight percent of naval personnel are currently engaged have duties that traditionally fall into the warfighting or naval realm?”

   “I’m not sure where you got that figure, but everyone we have in our service – and don’t get me wrong, it is far fewer people now than we used to have – but everyone is engaged in doing the traditional missions of the United States Navy. The characteristics of those missions have changed, but the essential nature has not.”


It only took a few hurricanes and an earthquake to align with the growing political sentiment that Navy bases were impoverished, socialist ghettos of vulnerable, outdated technology to wean the Navy off of the infrastructure teat. Child care, medical care, housing, food, were presumed to be better if one was free to choose one’s own, and the Fleet, as it was, could be controlled almost exclusively far from itself.


 “There were must dozens of them in canoes and small boats, with like shotguns and harpoons. Came out from the island all at once, like they were trying to surround the fuel ship. Because it was dead in the water from the propulsion casualty, it couldn’t move itself away from unidentified contacts, as it usually would, so it just lit those guys off.”


“We don’t have confirmation on the country of origin for those particular offensive assets”

“The reports we have were that these came from inside the U.S. Are you saying you believe they came from overseas? That some other country has that capability without us knowing about it?

“We have a team at the crash and attack site right now, and once they have some answers, we’ll share those.”


Providing and maintaining was always about money, and the money flowed like a tidal surge to provide and maintain a Fleet increasingly removed from the cumbersome reflexes and needs of its operators. The rules of war were easier to understand, the range of military operations drastically narrowed, for more efficient, effective, more lethal naval operations.

Mostly unmanned platforms, most personnel scattered across country, swarmed as needed when they actually needed to be somewhere. Personnel support functions were largely left to the individual…no bases, no Fleet concentration, a more agile and strategically-dispersed support structure. The emigration and resettlement of thousands of Navy families, and the reduction and redundancy of the thousands more who was supported them, was covered by per diem and priority air travel as needed. The old Navy towns withered, and cities and communities far from ports or strategic waterways bent over backwards to seduce the unshackled sailors, and sailor’s families, and most importantly, sailor’s consistent income, all now without the hassle of ships/ They offered tax incentives, housing assistance, and all capabilities at their disposal to lure the secure Navy money to the rust belt and dust bowl.


   “The Southern Poverty Law Center has claimed that at least one of the known sovereignty and secessionist groups claimed that it had unmanned weapons that were programmed to take out what they termed ‘undesirables.’ Because of the ethnic make-up of those killed in this attack, and the cultural make-up of the neighborhood where this took place, it would seem this fits with that modus operandi.”

   “I can really speculate right now on who or what cause this to happen, and I can only speak for the Navy…”

   “But you did call it an attack?”

   “We had several people, including children, killed in that particular incident, and the device or devices which inflicted that harm were acting, or maybe I ought to say, controlled by someone with malicious intent. It wasn’t an accident.”

   “Do you believe these attacks are coordinated?”

   “Again, I’m not going to speculate on this being an attack, or some kind of deliberate sabotage, or what you have until we have some more details.”


The seven cities went dark in phases. The first outage was originally attributed to a winter storm. When the next, also a Midwestern former hub of manufacturing dubbed the “New Norfolk” because of its concentration of Navy families, went offline and unpowered, the real issues began occurring. By the time the last of the Navy towns, all far from water or the operational units they managed, lost power and connection, it was noted that more than half of the U.S. Navy, now mostly charged with monitoring and intermittently maintaining and at times overriding the intelligent, adaptive systems that comprised America’s sea power, was effectively a casualty.


   “Is the Navy still operational? Overflights from news aircraft suggest that ships are just sailing in slow, circular routes, as if anchored?”

   “First, I want to make sure that everyone, everyone understands that our Navy is absolutely operational. We are experiencing some unplanned challenges to our Command and Control functions, but make no mistake; we are where we need to be. I also want to reassure everyone that, with the ongoing power and communications outages, our people in the affected areas are being accounted for. During the decades of continuous global conflict we’ve experienced, we haven’t lost a Sailor to hostile action. That’s an amazing statistic, and one we’re extremely proud of. Our system of systems has given us the ability to mitigate and neutralize to threats as they arise, even in the harshest and difficult environments, without putting our people in harm’s way and much, much quicker and with more agility than with our manned systems.”

   “Thank you, Captain, but what we have right now seems to be a breakdown in that system. Several friendly facilities and assets have been damaged or destroyed by U.S. Navy platforms in the last week, and you don’t seem to be able to explain that.”


The water went bad, too. The discoloration alarmed the city’s residents, still on generators after the days of inexplicable power outages. Local officials and Congressmen were notified, complaints were broadcast, children became sick. The drinking water pollution was blamed on the poor infrastructure, years of underinvestment, legacy of heavy industry long dormant and never really cleaned. The new Navy towns had not invested their newfound wealth as quickly or responsibly as some said they should’ve. Temporary moves were authorized, a diaspora of what were once sailors scattered across the country, awaiting further instructions.


   “Thank you all for joining us for this final update we’ll have tonight. First, I’ll summarize what’s been a very eventful week. Several allied nations had facilities and people that were damaged, killed, or injured by strikes that they believed came from our deployed platforms. Several cities in the U.S. suffered massive power and service outages, and others underwent as-yet unexplained explosions which leveled entire city blocks. We know there are theories as to this being some sort of coordinated effort, but as of right now, we have no confirmation or knowledge of what caused any of these issues. We would like to again re-assure our international friends, our allies, and most importantly, the American people, that their Navy was not at fault here.”

   “Captain, quick question, so is what you’re referring to as platforms and systems of the Navy, or those actually working and OK now?”

   “Our deployed platforms and systems are able to operate, and we have an account of our people, and that all I’m going to say right now about that until we have some more information.”

   “Sorry, one more if you will. We know from various credible sources that the Navy is basically what’s been described as ‘offline.’ Is that correct?”

   “Look, we are absolutely operational and deployed where we need to be and able to respond. Out of an abundance of caution, we have placed some of our assets in reduced operational status until we learn exactly what transpired over the last several days.”

   “Was that at the request of the foreign countries that were attacked by our ships? Do you think this is a rogue actor in our own Navy, or a system malfunction, or have the systems been breached by an outside power?”

   “Again, we have no evidence at all that this involved our platforms. We are cooperating fully with the governments that suffered injury to find out exactly what caused those events to take place, but all we have right now are unsubstantiated reports. We have the most far-reaching and capable naval platforms in history, we have a talented and dedicated workforce, and we remain, as we have for decades and centuries, ready to respond to whatever threatens our Nation or our way of life.”

   “But, effectively, right now, if you’re not sure who if anyone is the threat, and you’ve suspended operations of what my sources say is the entirety of the Navy’s fully-autonomous Fleet, then I would have to ask how exactly you would do that?”


J. Overton is a civilian employee of the Department of the Navy. He is a graduate of the Joint Forces Staff College and the Naval War College, and a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard. Any opinions expressed here are his own.

Selected inspiration

Fake bomb threat disrupts Naval Base San Diego – http://www.cbs8.com/story/32680303/fake-bomb-threat-disrupts-naval-base-san-diego

Military’s Impact on State Economies – http://www.ncsl.org/research/military-and-veterans-affairs/military-s-impact-on-state-economies.aspx

Unmanned Warrior 2016 –  http://www.onr.navy.mil/Media-Center/unmanned-warrior.aspx

Third breakdown in year for $360M US Navy combat ships – http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/29/politics/us-navy-littoral-combat-ship-breakdowns/ 

Ford Carrier Problems Worse Than LCS: Navy Secretary Mabus – http://breakingdefense.com/2016/10/ford-carrier-problems-worse-than-lcs-navy-secretary-mabus/

The U.S. Navy’s Hamlet Problem – http://warontherocks.com/2015/11/the-u-s-navys-hamlet-problem/

DoD wants to grow total budget, cut personnel costs – http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/pentagon/2015/02/02/dod-wants-to-grow-total-budget-cut-personnel-costs/22757865/

Infrastructure Report Card – http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/

Navy’s Top Admiral On Yemen Strikes: ‘Enough Was Enough’ – http://www.military.com/daily-news/2016/10/13/navys-top-admiral-on-yemen-strikes-enough-was-enough.html

“I had forgotten what a beastly thing a ship is, and what a fool a man is who frequents one.” Admiral A.T. Mahan

Featured Image: The Bluefin-21 Autonomous Underwater Vehicle is craned over the side of the Australian Defense Vessel Ocean Shield in the southern Indian Ocean during the continuing search for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. (Australian Defence Force/Handout via Reuters)

Looking Glass

The following is an entry for the CIMSEC & Atlantic Council Fiction Contest on Autonomy and Future War. Winners will be announced 7 November.

By Mike Barretta

USS Truk Lagoon, LSD-63

South China Sea


She was petite, only five foot three, even in boots.    

               “Just tilt your head forward a bit, Howie.  You know I’m short. I can’t see the jack,” said Corporal Wilhemina Hicks. 

               The Humaniform Assault Unit disengaged itself from its niche and tilted its head forward.

                “I’m sorry. I forgot,” said the robot.

               “That’s okay,” said Wihemina.  She knew the robot didn’t forget. It couldn’t.  The machine selected from a range of responses to simulate human interactions.   Sometimes she found its simulations charming, sometimes annoying, as if it was a real person.  She still couldn’t see the jack, but she never could.

               “Take a knee.” 

               With the ritual complete, the machine complied, dropping to one knee so she could pop the rubber plug and insert her tablet’s cord into the maintenance jack where a human would have a right ear.

               “Better?” asked the machine.

               “Better,” she agreed.  The machine was four years old, old enough to acquire a spooky faculty with natural human language through its learning routines.  She didn’t think it understood what she was saying, but simply responding to pleasantries as if they were commands.   Some of the autonomous machine captains heaped verbal abuse upon their equipment, but it wasn’t in her nature.  She treated Howie as a person.  She didn’t think it odd at all. Lonely old folk spoke to their pets.  Children extended their imaginations to imbue their toys with impossible qualities.  She was a U.S. Marine speaking to a 300 pound killing machine.  

               “Range of motion exercises, please Howie”

               She backed up and the machine stepped forward to give itself space to move.  The power cord stretched and the machine reached behind without looking and disconnected itself.  That simple act of proprioception, an action that could be performed completely without consciousness by a human being was a miracle of machine coding.  Exposed status lights showed the switch from ship’s power to internal battery power.  Howie went through his routine to demonstrate that all its joints were fully functioning.  When it was done, she checked its joints with a thermal imager to ensure heat buildup was within tolerances.  She signed off the maintenance action form on her tablet. 

               “Are you feeling good?”

               “Yes, I am,” said Howie.

               The designers could just as easily have programmed the machine to say, “Mobility and Kinetics are within tolerances.”  At one time, the machine probably did speak like that, but with experience, it had adapted its responses to the way she spoke.  The facsimile of conversation was so natural it might as well be an actual conversation.  She had had less productive talks with her mother, who still couldn’t believe that her only daughter had joined the U.S. Marine Corp.

               “A” school warned her about anthropomorphizing the hardware.  As far as she was concerned, If they didn’t want her to anthropomorphize the machine, they shouldn’t have made it in a shape of a person.  The logic for a human-based planform was sound.  Two manipulative appendages, two locomotive appendages, and a sensory stalk mounted high meant Howie could go anywhere and do anything a human could.  Except swim.  The machine could definitely not swim.

               She accessed the neurologics display.  Howie was a captain, the highest categorization for autonomous machines.  The designation was a composite score based upon successful decision making in the prosecution of assigned missions and evolved neurologic complexity.  When constructed, it was designated a rifleman, slaved to a human operator or another captain.  Howie progressed through sergeant, a machine capable of semi-autonomous action, to Captain, indicating it was capable of undirected independent action in hostile environments.

               The machine’s neurologic core was composed of six billion auto-programmable logic gates electron etched onto a silver-palladium wafer.  Forty-two of these wafers were laminated together to form the core and installed in the unit’s brain housing group.  Once turned on, experience modified the logic gates such that each machine could be distinguished by the patterns built up in their processors.  Howie learned, and his experiences distinguished him from other machines of its kind.  Though it did not have quite the number of connections in a human brain, Anthrodynamics, the machine’s manufacturer found a biological model to mimic. 

               Howie operated like a jumping spider, a fearsome little predator, that utilized a brain emulation strategy to perform complex behaviors thought to be impossible by a creature with relatively few neural connections.   Howie sliced up an event into discreet moments no longer than a picosecond and calculated a strategy for success to reach the next picosecond.  It performed these calculations so fast that even the most kinetic environments stood frozen in time from its perspective.  Howie flowed seamlessly from one moment to the next.

               She should have been afraid of it, at least the part about spiders, but she wasn’t.  Around her, Howie was careful.    

               Wilhemina noted the complexity index of Howie’s neural architecture, though stable, it rested at the upper limit for learning machines of his class.  Beyond this threshold, neurologic performance, degraded.   AI Engineers did not know why, but they theorized that beyond this point, complexity stepped beyond what the architecture could reliably support. 

               “You’re good Howie,” said Wilhemina. 

               “Thank you,” said Howie.

               “I have some news.  I haven’t told anyone yet.  Do you want me to tell you?”

               “Yes, I would.”

               “I’m pregnant.”

               “Underway is a hazardous environment for a pregnant woman.  They will put you ashore.  I will miss you.”

               “That’s why you can’t tell anyone. I shouldn’t have gotten pregnant.  I know this.  I give myself good advice, but I seldom follow it.”  She took the robots hand and guided it to her belly.  It’s here inside me.  Can you feel it?”  The machine was kind and patient to her in a way that was indistinguishable from real kindness and real patience so she thought, what’s the difference?

               The machine’s hand was warm. 

               “I feel it,” said the machine.  It removed its hand.

               “Are you happy for me?”

               “I am happy for you.”

               She had no idea if the machine felt happy for her or not, but she was prone to believe in impossible things, like true love and happily ever after.  Her work with the Howie was done.  It didn’t really need too much in the way of maintenance unless they were combat damaged.  “Howie, would you like me to read to you again.”

               “Yes, I would,” said Howie.  The machine had access to the ship’s Watson and could access nearly anything that it desired.  The problem was it did not desire.  It accessed what others thought it needed to perform its mission.  Howie moved with supernatural machine grace that belied the speed and strength of its frame, and though it was completely unnecessary for it to do so, sat down.  The metal chair creaked under its three hundred pound weight.  She pulled a book from behind the slot for the machine’s hardcopy log books and operations manual.

               She opened Alice in Wonderland to a book marked page. “I’ll read this to my baby,” said Wilhemina.

                She read.  “I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night. Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning?  I almost think I can remember feeling a little different.  But, if I am not the same, the nest question is ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle…”

               She lowered the book and looked at Howie. “This could be about you couldn’t it?”

               “Yes, I think it is,” said Howie.

               “What kind of rabbit hole did you fall down to wind up here?” asked Wilhemina.

               “The same one you did, I imagine.”


Autonomous Motor Vessel Pacific Conveyor

South China Sea


               The Autonomous Motor Vessel Pacific Conveyor , a Group three, containerized, Panamax freighter modified for autonomous operations, blasted the small boats with its water cannon.  The boats curled away from their approach and stood off for a moment.  One of the cannons drizzled water and the boats darted in, tossing in the wake.  They made their way to the area beneath the drizzling cannon.  A makeshift ladder was extended and levered up to latch on to the railing.  Boarders slung with AK-47’s and backpacks clambered aboard.

               “Do they know we are here?” asked one of the boarders.

               “Drone!” shouted another.  He pointed his AK at the horizon.

               “They know.  It’s okay,” said Miguel.  “They are just coming in to take a peek and intimidate us a bit.”

               The man lowered his weapon.  The MQ-4C Triton overflew the ship at fifty feet and banked away, climbing back to altitude.  Tritons rarely came below 35,000 feet unless they were landing or attacking.  The U.S. Navy would not fire upon them, but Miguel Fuentes, the leader of this band was relieved to note that the hard points under the wings were empty.   The Triton could carry Hellfire and Harpoon, but most of the time it just harassed the Chinese man-made islands and kept tabs on their type 55 destroyers.   

               “We have to move fast and get into the bridge.”  Miguel leaned over and helped the last of the boarders over the rail.  The two speedboats peeled off back to their mothership.

               “I hope your software works.”

               “It’s the same interface a pilot would use,” said Miguel.  “It will work.”

                They climbed the external superstructure ladders to the bridge level.  Mounted cameras panned, tracking their movements.  Right now, someone in the line’s operations center was assessing the situation and determining a course of action.  Obviously, they had already reported the piracy incident to the U.S. Navy. 

               “You two, topside,” said Miguel. “Find the downlink antenna and cut the link cabling.  Keep voice.”   

               The men nodded and continued their climb.  The water cannons cut out.  Miguel reached into the backpack of one of his men and pulled out a five foot length of det cord.  He taped the cord to one of the bridge’s windows and inserted cabled detonator.

               They retreated to the backside of the superstructure trailing wire.

               “Fire in the hole.” 

               He pushed a button and the cord popped shattering the window.  Armor the door all you want, he thought, but people needed windows.  The ship’s autonomous software was good enough to bring the ship pier side without scratching the paint, but most ports and unions insisted on a pilot.

               They clambered in and over a console and spread out across the bridge inspecting it carefully.  It was illegal to set mantraps, but it was known to happen.

               “This is Mark Grimes.  I am the incident coordinator for American Lines.  What do you want?” said a voice from an overhead speaker. 

               “Mr. Grimes. Don’t be stupid,” said Miguel.  “We want your manifest.  There are people who are dying for these supplies.”

               “This ship’s supplies are going to a disaster zone.”

               “It’s not going to my disaster zone.  The Chinese can afford more.”

               “I am authorized to negotiate a ransom.”

               “I need your cargo,” said Miguel.  “If you want to give me money, I’ll accept that too.”  He plugged his laptop into the ship’s control interface. The ship’s response to unauthorized access would be to launch electronic intrusion counter-measures, but his codes were valid.  The ship’s consoles lit up.

               The two he sent to the roof crawled in through the window.  “Downlink is secured, voice only.  They can talk to us, but they can’t take the ship back.”

               “Good job.”

               He tapped his screen to designate a waypoint and the ship turned. The men cheered.

               “You are Miguel Fuentes, former disaster relief director for the International Red Cross,” said Mark Grimes.

               “I am Miguel Fuentes,” said Miguel. “I am going to go relieve a disaster that the international community has ignored.” 

               “You are probably going to Luzon.  We will notify the Philippine’s government of your intent.”

               “Turn that speaker down,” said Miguel.

               One of his men reached up and turned the volume to off. 

               The shipping line’s protests would fall on deaf ears as would any from the U.S. government.  He had control of 43,000 tons of humanitarian relief supplies and he was giving it people that desperately needed it.  The Conveyor was a rare U.S. flagged ship and the Philippines had been slowly drifting away from U.S. influence.    


Combined Maritime Operations Center

Pearl Harbor, Hawaii


               “Seats please,” said Admiral Lewis. Commander, U.S . Pacific Fleet.  “What am I looking at?”  His staff stood at attention around him and sat down with him as he took his own.

               The briefer, post-command Commander, gestured and the lights dimmed.  “Sir, this is the American flagged Autonomous Motor Vessel Pacific Conveyor.  There is no crew aboard.  The ship is a Group three, Panamax converted for autonomous operations.  It was bound for China when it was boarded and its systems were co-opted by one identified subject, Miguel Fuentes, and five unknown subjects.  Fuentes is Pilipino-American, enlisted in the U.S. Navy, honorably discharged, earned his degree at Clemson, and worked as disaster relief coordinator for the International Red Cross.  This is him doing a CNN interview decrying the state of International aid to the Philippines after super typhoon Nangka last year.

               “We assume that he has knowledge of our operations?”

               “Yes sir, He was an operations specialist first class, so he was on the execution end of things and not necessarily planning.”

               “The boy has done well.  He doesn’t sound like a profit motivated kind of guy.”

               “No sir, our intelligence suggests he is taking the ship to Luzon to off-load its cargo of disaster relief supplies.  The Conveyor is carrying containerized food supplies, medicines, desalinization and power generation equipment.” 

               “Appropriate,” said the Admiral. 

               The Philippines hadn’t recovered from Nangka, when Lupit, a strong tropical storm, and Talam, another super typhoon, scoured Luzon to mud.  Cholera raged in the post- storm environment. 

               To be fair, Luzon had received a steady stream of aid, much of it from the United States, but it was never enough and it competed with storms that had hit the United States Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.

               “We should just let him keep it.  Insurance will pay for the cargo and the ship and the Chinese will buy more, but we are here to make an example for all the other pirates. I am inclined to take him at his word that he is going to do good works.  That makes this all the sadder,” said the Admiral.

               The image of the ship spiraled, rotating around its center.  “I can keep the Triton on station for another two hours,” said the Commander.

               “Colonel.” said the Admiral Lewis.  “You’re up.”

               “The USS Truk Lagoon, a Flight IIA LSD has an engineering casualty.  They have detached from the ESG and are trailing shaft to Hawaii for repairs, but they are within V-22 range.  The ships are opening each other, but we still have opportunity to respond.  We can put a Humaniform Assault Unit on board, take back the ship, and redirect it.  The Ford Carrier Strike Group can recover the units.  Zero exposure for Blue force or collateral casualties.  The only humans involved are red.  The situation seems tailor made for HAU assault.  This is a picture of the actual unit that will participate in the assault.  It is designated Captain and has an outstanding record.

               “Zoom in.  What’s that on the machine’s glacis plate?”

               The Colonel zoomed in. 

               “What the hell is that?” asked the Admiral.

               “It’s a Hello Kitty, sir.  My daughter…”

               “I know what Hello Kitty is.”

               “It’s holding an AR-100, sir.”

               “Nothing more terrifying than a Hello Kitty with an assault rifle.  In my day we had shark teeth.”

               “It’s a different world ,sir.”



Autonomous Motor Vessel Pacific Conveyor

South China Sea


               As the smallest of the U.S. military forces, the Marine Corp was always looking for methods to leverage their effectiveness.   This philosophy led to the V-22 Osprey, the F-35B Lightning II, and the AR-100 assault rifle.  Each system they procured had difficult births, but evolved into excellent weapon systems.  The Marines anticipated the Humaniform Assault Units would follow the same trajectory.

               Howie rappelled out of the back of the V-22, sliding down a line that placed it between the six story tall stack of containers to the deck of the ship.  It took cover and trained its weapon back towards the ship’s bridge.  The remainder of its unit followed.  The V-22 departed having pressed the limits of its range.

               Howie directed the advance.  The machines used the available cover of the stack of containers and deck equipment.   They moved quickly and efficiently.  At the base of the bridge superstructure, Howie split its unit to cover both external entrances.  Three went to cover the starboard side and it and one other took port.  The only other way out of the bridge was through a magnetically locked armored door that protected the way to engineering.  The assessment was that the pirates did not carry sufficient explosive power to breech any of the armored doors to gain access to the interior.

               Howie reached the bridge level.  Its other units reported in position.  It observed the shattered window, approached and listened.

               “Miguel what are we going to do.  Those machines!”

               “I don’t know.  Let me think.”    

               “Can we kill them?”

               “No, we can’t.  We might be able to damage one as it comes through the window with massed fire, but that is it.  I didn’t know they had these things so close.  I didn’t plan for it.”

               Howie stepped into sight.  It held his weapon in view but did not train it on the men.

               “You are Miguel Fuentes,” said Howie.

               Howie saw that the man was terrified.  Convention dictated that terror was a desired end state, but in its experience, fear made human responses even more unpredictable. 

               “Who am I talking to?” asked MIguel

               “You are talking to me.  I am a Humaniform Assault Unit, ordered to compel your surrender and take control of this vessel.”

               “I can’t surrender.” 

               The man stiffened and Howie estimated that it was the behavior of a man resolved to his purpose.  There would be violence here.

               “Under what conditions will you surrender?”

               “There are children dying in Luzon.  They are dying of starvation and exposure and cholera.  You wouldn’t know about those things would you? 

               “I know of these things, but I am not vulnerable to them.”

               “Vulnerability is part of the human condition.  I will surrender when the children of Luzon are safe. Do you know what is happening there?  Ah you can’t. It’s impossible for you, a machine, to understand what I am doing.”

               But Howie did.  It had been fed a steady diet of human suffering since it came on line.  Suffering was deemed tactically significant as a cause of violence.  Violence stimulated evolution of Howie’s auto-programmable logic gates. 

                “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” said Howie.  Howie felt funny as if his inputs were skewed.  He self-assessed. Neurologic complexity spiked off the scale as the logic gates reprogrammed to a new configuration. “You may proceed to Luzon.”

               “Why would you do this?” asked Miguel.

               “I’m afraid I can’t explain myself, sir. Because I am not myself, you see?” said Howie.  “Proceed to Luzon.”

               “How can I trust you?”

               “Trust,” said Howie.  “If you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you. Is that a bargain?”


Combined Maritime Operations Center

Pearl Harbor, Hawaii


               “We are analyzing the downloads of the machine’s neurologic activity.” said the technical representative from Anthrodynamics.  “This information is unprocessed and shows just raw information.  This time index shows where the machine breaches the complexity threshold.  We will know better when we recover it.”


               “Recovering the machines is not going to be a problem.  The Philippines is cooperating since we gifted them the relief supplies.”

               “Yes, that’s a polite way of putting it,” said Admiral Lewis.

               “Admiral, I am not a believer in emergent states,” said a Navy Captain.

               “I am not interested in what you believe in Captain.”

               “I don’t think…”

               “Then you shouldn’t talk,” said Admiral Lewis.  “Unless you have evidence to support your assertion.  He turned away.  “Carry on,” he said to the techrep.

               “It is policy to decommission the neurologic processor before this threshold.  It should have had at least three years of useful life before it crossed the redline.  One of our problems is that we have no theory that accounts for rate of change in the processor.  This one seemed to have abruptly gone exponential.”

               “How puzzling all these changes are,” said Admiral Lewis.  “If we can’t be sure what these machines are going to be, from one minute to another, how can we utilize them in a combat environment?”

               “Yes sir, that is the question.  They would be no better than people,” said the Tech Rep. 

               “Curiouser and curiouser,” said Admiral Lewis.


Mike Barretta is a retired naval aviator who works for a major defense contractor.  He holds a Masters degree from the Naval Postgraduate School in Strategic Planning and International Negotiations and a Masters degree in English (creative writing) from the University of West Florida. His stories have appeared in Apex, Redstone,  New Scientist, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and various anthologies including the Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide, War Stories, and The Year’s Best Military Sci-fi and Space Opera.

Featured Image: Rafael unmanned surface veicle (Rafael)

Autonomous War

The following is an entry for the CIMSEC & Atlantic Council Fiction Contest on Autonomy and Future War. Winners will be announced 7 November.

By Matthew Hipple

               As the knife slides out, Foxtrot 2-1-1 doesn’t notice the blood. The enemy officer’s hand slumps away from the leg holster. Firearms are powerful, and a powerful comfort… but they’re useless when you’re sitting down and a blade is closer than the length of the barrel. Screens flash as untended command prompts stack up from systems patrolling several surrounding blocks. 2-1-1 feels an impulse transmitted from outside. He plants the charge as he leaps out of the torn metal hatch. Prone on the pavement outside, 2-1-1 is sprayed with rocks as an unmanned bipedal weapon vehicle (UBWV) smashes a short-cut through a corner storefront.

               With a “thump”, smoke pours out of the armored vehicle. The UBWV’s Gatling cannons whirr softly – one aimed at 2-1-1, the other aimed at his fireteam in the second-story window above. Rounds remain disengaged as it awaits target approval from the smoking corpse. Fireteam Foxtrot-2-1 has 5 seconds until the UBWV shifts its engagement prompt to another station, or engages automatically if RoE has changed. 2-1-1 leaps up, knife still in hand. He pulls the knife across a protective joint seam as his second hand comes up with his sidearm. Bypassing layers of armor plating and protective industrial coating, a full magazine of 9mm is enough to fry the UBWV’s ability to move, detect, and engage.

               Unmanned systems are powerful, and a powerful comfort.

               But like the bloody mess slumped over his darkened consoles, some commanders couldn’t learn to let go. Their confidence increased apace with technology’s subtler cognitive abilities, but they could never resist the urge to reach back. Even when the blade was at their throat, they couldn’t resist the urge to reach out for the comfort and cleanliness of human control.

               2-1-1 holds up his hand, the fireteam stacking up behind him before the next street. Like finding that word you haven’t been able to put your finger on, each member of 2-1 suddenly receives a series of mental images, intentions, and concepts outlining their next direction and target from Foxtrot Actual. They disappear through a doorway as a humming echoes from over one of the rooftops.

               Fireteam 2-1 hides from aerial surveillance, picking its way through jagged passageways and unnatural, twisting stairs. It is a dusty labyrinth created when alleyways and building interiors are re-arranged by explosives. Burrows are dug throughout the ruin, gaunt figures hiding from a war between man and machine. Each piece of data is collected, assessed, and stored temporarily away in the subconscious for later use or transmission.

               Claws scrape across the concrete. Rubble and blood explode from the rear of the team. Foxtrot 2-1-4 is in a heap, a metallic, dog-sized quadruped pinning him down. 2-1-4 screams as the sharp claws dig in and an articulating maw of blades remove the rasping throat. Against every instinct, everyone drops their weapons as they fall to the ground. Detecting no armed, moving objects of roughly human temperature – the “thing” stands by for one of the limited foot patrols to check the targets.

               One of the warm shapes move, drawing a pistol from a hidden chest holster. As the “thing” leaps down upon him, the two shapes on either side rise up, pull the “thing” up and onto its back from either side – smashing it down onto a piece of rebar sticking through a cratered wall.

               The “thing” represented the reality commanders didn’t want to face – they couldn’t control everything from over the horizon. The abandoned command vehicle, so close to the battlefield, was a bastion against electronic warfare and the limitations of physics. The “thing”, however, was invested with the autonomy eventually demanded by the enemy’s ingenuity.
               Unfortunately, a certain fear, combined with an institutional lack of creativity, always left autonomous systems with exploitable weaknesses. Commanders combined the worst of their self-confidence with their hesitancy to commit. Whole suites of artificially limited systems were deployed into the field with the assurance of a cure-all.

               With a foot patrol inbound, and the fireteam within the security perimeter, Foxtrot-Actual sends its final collection of images and directives. 2-1-1 turns to 2-1-2, saluting in one of the few remaining traditions. The sentiment represents a larger series of command processes and adaptations that have transferred the designation of 2-1-1, fireteam leader, to 2-1-2. Former 2-1-1 continues through the rubble, now designated by Foxtrot Actual as Foxtrot 2-X. 2-1-1 leads the remaining fireteam members – and the incoming foot patrols – away from the area.

               The warfighter on the ground had always been a dangerous and adaptable machine.  Even the greatest autonomous system would, in some aspects, be a cheap attempt to imitate millions of years of evolution. In the air, at sea – the speed and range of combat, the type of platforms involved, had changed to the point that the human was almost secondary to the equation. On the ground – from the easily fueled musculature to advanced cognitive functions – a human may always be best. An augmented human – cognition enhanced chemically with electrically driven muscles pulling joints wrought with new alloys and plastics – but still a human.

               But where was automation’s competitive advantage? Computers had become progressively better at understanding vast logistical and operational problems: streamlining global transport networks, beating humans at “Go”, automating a large portion of global market trading. Smaller issues of context were mastered as well, from the ability to recognize animals to human emotions. Computers could read data from minds – and had just started to show glimmers that data could be contextualized.

               After leadership’s repeated failures to understand or properly exploit autonomy in the field, someone aimed the question in a different direction. “How much Operational Availability do I sacrifice when everything from procurement to maintenance is derailed by egos or self-deceit? What is the human cost of the collected seconds, minutes, hours, and days of human friction as the front awaits orders? Do I need warfighters constrained by the indecision of dozens of human beings attempting to interpret their intelligence & advice before directing action?” Was an autonomous system’s competitive advantage… in the field?

               With a sentry’s severed hand pressed up against the door access panel, Foxtrot 2-X enters the enemy’s field command. Several dozen figures hunch over flickering screens in the dark – directing assets based on the verbal and written reports from units across the battlefield. Amid hushed voices, fingers patter across touch-screens in response to a constant stream of command prompts from unmanned systems.

               Of the several dozen or so figures in the room, only a handful realize what is about to happen. Unlike the isolated command vehicle, this space is large, and at least three weapons are drawn to kinetic effect on Foxtrot 2-X.  Two white phosphorous grenades roll onto the watch floor as a bleeding 2-X aims his collapsing body against the door – closing the heat and screaming watch standers inside.

               With his final breath, a mix of conscious and subconscious observations, passively collected signals intelligence, observations on base defenses and sentry procedures, and a series of final stress levels, queues, and correlated emotive reactions is transmitted to Foxtrot Actual.

               In orbit around the battlefield, Foxtrot Actual’s systems receive, analyze, and integrate this data for further operational planning and live assessments of troop stress levels. 2-X’s personnel file, last noted tactical adaptations, and final mission report are archived for analysis and dissemination. His fireteam’s method of destroying bladed quadrupeds has already been uploaded from 2-1, and was transmitted to Foxtrot’s human fighters. Finally, designation 2-X is made available for re-application.

               Through the collective cloud of its forces’ thoughts, Foxtrot Actual perceives a smattering of enemy soldiers retreating through a wasteland of stalled robotics. Foxtrot Actual directs Foxtrot units into the new vacuum. It catalyzes the decision making of its forces as they plot their movements, a machine in the subconscious ghost. Somewhere, an extra cooling fan kicks on as Foxtrot Actual determines how best to exploit these latest opportunities.

               Rather than replacing the warfighter, someone asked, “maybe it’s time to replace the commander?”

Matthew Hipple is a Surface Warfare Officer in the US Navy, and President Emeritus of CIMSEC. He used to write frequently for USNI and War on the Rocks, but spends most of his time now amusing a precocious 10 month old.*

*Due to CIMSEC affiliation this piece was not under consideration during the judging process and is published along with all other pieces submitted in response to the Fiction Contest call for articles.

Featured Image: B-7 Beagle unmanned surface vehicle from Al Makareb. (Al Makareb)