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

By Phil Reiman

      The heavy door closed behind him and he poked on the interrogator’s screen. “Interrogator C45-1 Let’s try this again.” An interrogator that answers questions; funny every time, he thought. “Who can get me smart on this?”
      Specify training need, please.
He thought for a second about how to put his request into something the Interrogator could answer, “I need an individual who can bring me up to speed on the battle systems we’re using in this AO.”
      Training Modules on . . .
“Nope, I need a person. I want a tutor”
The Interrogator paused. Milliseconds. Then displayed a list:
      MSG Hanson AC3 – OPS NCO 2301st AABN, assigned TF NORTHERN STRIKE
      SFC Rodriguez MC2 – AOPS NCO 2301st AABN, assigned TF NORTHERN STRIKE
      SFC Palermo-Hang INF3 – BSYS NCO 304th C2IC, assigned TF NORTHERN STRIKE
“Hanson. Have him contact me. Now.” Major Charles Amir leaned back in the padded chair. The green vinyl creaked loudly under his Arctic mil-suit. Even in this armored, insulated command post, the cold was everywhere. Leading in this unit is going to be . . . odd. As a replacement, he didn’t know the politics or personalities – to his left; his right or under him. Worse, he didn’t know the job.
      He knew combat or that’s what his bio said. That’s how he got the job here. Citation-For Actions Before the Enemy – On 13 April, 2024 Lieutenant Charles J. Amir lead 15 Soldiers of the 23rd Armored Infantry Regiment, Heavy (AIRH) in a rearguard action outside of Taipei . . .
      Master Sergeant Hanson calling
      “Master Sergeant, I need help.”
      Gotcha, Sir. Nice to meet you. A youngish Soldier appeared on the screen; dressed in his artic under gear. Just a bump cap; no applique armor no hardware.
      “Where’s your armor?” Amir changed tone, “Uh, sorry for the circumstances.” He came as a replacement for Major Anthony A. Rodriguez-Soto. It was only name to him, but he was their guy; their leader.
      Sir, current SOP is soft suits and bumps inside BCP. Are we changing that?
      “Yes, but I’ll send the message – Interrogator – task on uniform posture. Remind in one hour.
      Acknowledged. Reminder.
      “I am stepping in here and I am stupid on the kind of things this unit can do. I am a heavy rifle and . . . You look young for a Master Sergeant.”
      Automation Corps stuff, sir. Skills are bills; plus, you know I test well and came in under an accelerated program. Most of our Armored Auto Corp Battalion is younger than me.
      A fleeting thought, maturity crossed his mind, but it fled as Hanson added, I read your milbio, sir. I think you’ll be a good fit based on what I read about Taipei.
      “Stop. Taipei was a nightmare. I . . . wait, that was rude. Sorry. I’m still spinning from the trip and this assignment.
      Message Traffic. Welcome. New Mess . . . he cut it off. Ignore.
      Do you need time? Hanson sounded concerned.
“No, and there isn’t any. I’ll stim. You know what? I’ll summarize what happened in Taipei and then you can get a sense of what I don’t know. Deal?
Hanson told the Soldier how his section of the 23rd AIR drew the rear guard because they were closest to full strength after the chaos outside of the city. Casualties in this conflict came fast and in bunches. His platoon took up positions as advised by their expert systems and of practical necessity a few hundred meters on the friendly side of a canal bridge. They were in roughly in position when alerts flashed. INCOMING. H-sonic; ORG 034 . . . < 1 minutes.
Teeth gritting. IMPACT.
However, there were only a few earth-shattering kabooms; mainly just a thousand pops. Spider mines, the worst. Clouds of them began to fall around them. They plinked to the ground; flipped open and became a spreading sea of movement, slowing crawling . . . away. Whether a miscalculation or a planned, the moving minefield was well behind his position.   But a few were close. Moving. Those few moved slowly, mindlessly closer.
These things will eat an unsupported team alive.
Somewhere behind him, a team member either triggered or shot one. Collectively, the spiders reacted, moving wordlessly over the rubble – toward his unit’s position; scratching over the rubble.
We have minutes. Circle the wagons. Get out and comeback when these things are neutralized. CANDLELIGHT! All ECM on! Flares – Sparklers – Chaff. The mines stopped. Some lurched after flares and detonated. Others wandered aimless. Most sat in a 1000 meter oval around his team.
Countermeasures will confuse the mines as long as we’re popping, but – we’re lit up. . The enemy will pound as soon as they can get something pointed in our direction. Worse, between battery life and expendables we could hold off these for only a few minutes. The surprise was gone and it doomed his defense Getting out was key.
I called for fire; breach a lane. The shells arrived and churned the earth. The mines were destroyed in the beaten zone, but they began filling in – not too fast but my TAC showed greater density in our egress path. Something made me think they couldn’t follow a head fake. I didn’t think; I put it into motion. Called in another strike – wider, deeper on a new azimuth – 143. The head fake.
But, I forgot to tell everyone the plan. I dropped a FF marker and I screamed on the coms – everyone to my marker and from there heading 233. Bring all and any! WARPATH-WARPATH-WARPATH! Immediate withdrawal. As the impacts churned the ground, the mines crawled to block the broad passage along 143. The team was moving – fast. I don’t know if you have much experience with exoskeletal-units; everyone knows the ‘iron’ is strong, but when we move – it’s fast.
Time for the real move. I called in the second strike, pounding the currently lightly covered perimeter along 233 – ninety degrees off the first strike. The arty scattered or killed the few spiders that remained. We pushed up the second lane.
We had two breakdowns and we triggered a few mines. The iron is great; you’re armored, powered and connected, but if that stuff goes down it can be very lonely. You go from a god of war to a potted plant in an instant. It can trap you. And the shear force that it takes to break them, can squish the mortal inside like ripe fruit. Organs tear loose. So, I keep my TAC to tracking positions and to red status and that’s it. Too much to track – I have been counseled about that, why don’t you have this or that on your TAC? It’s all happening too fast. Turns out that omniscience is overrated. We got out, carrying our wounded and our broken. And they gave me a medal.
Tracking, sir. Hanson seemed excited.
He didn’t mention his career before the Second Chinese Civil War or how that sprang from the Black Money crisis of 2021 when banks sold their own crypto currency and how it pulled trillions of dollars out of legit financial system. He skipped how the evaporation of all their citizens’ savings undercut the legitimacy of the PRC. Then coups, counter-coups or revolutions or whatever left the governments of the world trying to avoid the angry lunges from a self-destructive giant. He skipped that the United States was here to help the Chinese against the Chinese and that he was sure in his bones that the invasion of Taiwan was really only an attempt by the northern Chinese to bring us into the war against the southern Chinese. And it had worked.
He skipped the dramatic advances in material science that made hard, light armor; thin, long-lasting batteries and mobile power plants possible. And the introduction of troop-level AI. Exoskeletons in first world armies. Ubiquitous automated combatants. The Army’s incessant desire to add ‘A’ to every unit designator – the same way that it added ‘mechanized’ to units in the 1930s. This boy-master-sergeant probably knows all this better than I do.
For a moment, he thought about how the Army he had joined in 2019 was so different now. Sure, everyone had seen all these changes coming, but since managing large organizations was like driving a car by looking in the rearview mirror. Basically have to crash to know when to turn – and the Army was in every way a stodgy organization. This war changed all that.
A top down, bottom up reconstruction. New units, ranks, careers. Sure you could still be in the infantry, but that would not let you evade the minimum test scores. The new Army was small and expensive and required far more from every Soldier in training and maturity than any other armed force in history. Every decision was ‘assisted’. You were trained on A-systems from your first day in the same why you learned drill and ceremony or marksmanship. And the wash out rate was high. Soldiering isn’t for everyone, buddy; no levee en mass is going to save you from AI guided rocket artillery. Modern armies don’t play with a deep bench. There is no reserve – there’s those ready to fight and – targets, he grinned to himself.
That assisted leadership was what he was sure had led to this giant, frozen Inchon. The Bad Chinese were paying handsomely in e-coin for anything that it could get over the trade routes in the newly opened arctic. To cut that off, some colonel’s ginned up a course of action that involved a large raiding base near an arctic river basin. Seems reasonable, I am sure that’s how it went down. It’s easy – I have seen it too many times – sit back and let the AMIS or the ATICS or the JORIC or whatever acronym the leader want to hide behind – divine a solution. Pick and click strategy. L-E-D leadership.
He had little faith in that. You have to go and see; you have to have been there, he thought. That’s what’s missing when we surrender to our AI advisors. The raiding and blockading had been a success at an earlier base but the Chinese had anticipated such a move and came in force to counter it. Leading to a brutal, icy exchange that killed the aforementioned Major Rodriquez and 25 other Soldiers. But they were a strategic head fake – weren’t they? They were the bullet sponge. Designed to draw the bad guys up and out – make them fight and think they’d won. Cold calculation, but that’s what the AI advised. Once the bad guys felt the threat was eliminated, the bottleneck would surge through and we’d pounce. That time was near.
“Hanson, how much time do we have?”
I don’t know. Bears and foxes set the hounds off almost every day.
“Real bears?”
Yeah, polar. Biologicals, they call them. The sentry hounds love them. Just like real hunting dogs. At least the hounds were deployed, he thought. The four-legged, sensor units roamed the frozen wilderness at a range of tens of kilometers and would give him a good cushion if something came their way.
Sir, we’re ready. We’re in place and quiet. We’ve got the latest and greatest. We’ve got a full depot. We’ve got persistent eyes over, on and under the ice. We’ve got long-range, fast drones that can place decoys or batteries where we need them when we need them. Three hours flight time puts us 300 km north. That’s a big net. We are green on power and coms. And we’ve got Mk II cargo loaders to move all this stuff. Give me a convoy and we’ll stampede them to the barbeque.
“Should I be worried?”
No. But . . . , Hanson paused as he brought up a new system.
The BAAS suggests doubling that sector, by thinning the river side. I’ll shift the hounds to the contact.
The Major watched the screen, “right, can you tell me about your battle system?”
Sure – like I said, the latest and greatest q-bit wiz bang. It works on the trope-system. . .
A pattern recognition system. Like the electric MacArthur that thought up this operation – go after their supply – through the Arctic. Loosely, the system looks for patterns, or conventions in thought and offers solutions based on its weight of different variations.
“I get that. Take it up a notch.”
The BAAS – or Battle Auto Assistance System states our current situation falls into a bug war. That’s reasonable. The environment here is harsh. Bad for people. Bots don’t care. So we have lots of robots. Lots. The Battle systems sees this as a Bug War – lots of dumb enemy units – and looks for the MacGuffin . . .
A fragile component that amounts to an Achilles heel. If the system finds it – maybe a lack of redundancy or a probable sensor confusion the BAAS it will suggest it. It draws from mountains of open source and ‘S’ material.
This kid was educated, he thought. “Does it just suggest to kill the central controller?”
Right, that would be the Ontological trope. You know, kill the wizard and his minions die? Decapitation in a technospheric sense.
“So, does this thing do more than point out the obvious? Is this thing strategic or tactical? What’s its scale?”
Above tactical, not granular. Obvious is up to you. . That’s still up to you One guys creative genius is another guy’s hack, but it generates that ‘commander’s intent’ baloney and publishes a sharp looking Opord that . . . oh.
“No issue. The intent is to complete the mission. I don’t believe in end states either.”
Ok, sorry. My best advice is to think of it as one of those puzzle games. If you take too long, the game wiggles one of the pieces; points to an answer. Gives you a hint.
Got it.”
That GUI is everywhere now, if you look for it, you see it all the time now – banks, care centers you name it.
      “Is it like chess AI?”
Ugh. In chess were talking pattern recognition and as you sort through the moves your looking for patterns. So is the machine. Once it sorts your moves in to a set of patterns, it follows the probabilities to where you are going. But, Chess is not infinite, there are only so many variations. To trick the AI you just have to break the rules. Decide that your piece is a rook or that go under the board. Can’t see that stuff. GEB
Gödel-Escher-Bach. Can’t code inspiration. right?
“That’s Auto Corps slang, right?”
Right, I’ll. . .
Ugh. That’s the advice?! We bought the head fake, he thought. The rest of the attack was a blur when the Major recalled it later. None of the standing orders felt good, but he jabbed at CUSTER. Positions and equipment came up on the screens. Some blue, but a lot of red all coming from the southwest across the frozen river. Auto turrets were tearing into the approaching targets. Lots of kills. Too many at this distance, too close. We can’t shift. In an instant, he knew, we’re not going to stop them.
The screen flashed with updates as he scanned. Messages to higher for assistance. But the Soldiers, were simply supporting systems – they had to trust those systems to save them and it wasn’t looking good. How do I lead, in a system that is responding without me? Do I go out and pat the machine on the hood, telling the troops this is the best tech around? Inspirationally polish a bumper? I have to DO something.
The red tide was taking enormous punishment as the missile batteries and cannons swept the approaches. Still coming – right at us. Too close. Just as an unfamiliar and unwelcome feeling of panic began to rise he noticed the green units – cargo handlers. Big cargo handlers.
“Hanson, can you – we – someone move the Mk IIs?!”
Can . . . I think.
He could. A quick message and the automated cargo hulks were moving at full speed in a variety of directions away from the outpost. The red hoard chased or at least some did. The cargo handlers got farther than he expected. They were tough.   The distraction gave the blue forces the distance and time to thin the attack. Six minutes and forty seconds after the proximity warning, the red attack had dissipated. It felt like he hadn’t taken a breath in days, when he finally filled his lungs with chilly air. Position was blown. They will be back or use larger stand-off stuff in a few minutes.
Major Amir’s thoughts moved to the next phase; getting everyone prepared to jump out of here, but he gave himself second to savor the moment, fell for the old misdirection play. . .

Phil Reiman is a husband and a father of two living in Alexandria, VA and working as an attorney for the Air Force’s Legal Operations Agency in its Litigation Division at Joint Base Andrews, MD.

Featured Image: Vikhr reconnaissance-assault unmanned ground vehicle with ABM-BSM 30 weapon turret on BMP-3 chassis at Military-technical forum ARMY-2016 (Wikimedia Commons)

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