Manned Unmanned Warfare

Fiction Contest Week

By Commander Ivan Villescas, USN

“Battle Net Active,” the NET box announced. The Officer of the Deck turned his head from the gray horizon to the bridge’s digital overlay, quickly analyzing the subject line.

“Set General Quarters,” the OOD ordered, returning to the horizon as urgent tones sounded throughout the ship.

Petty Officer Joe Guarino scanned the centerline screen in the Combat Information Center. Patiently he waited for the information to download. On this third deployment, he no longer felt anxiety each time the NET called the ship to action. Slowly, colored patterns coalesced into information and a backlogged chat began to scroll on the screen’s right.

“Bridge, Combat,” Guarino said into his headset mic, “hold us on event perimeter, predicted CPA bears due east, outside engagement range.” With the Closest Point of Approach out of range, there was little the ship could do.

“Roger,” the OOD answered, “Coming east, twenty knots.”

“Aye sir,” Guar answered, keeping his communications concise and keyboarding draft orders to push the larger Control and Surveillance drone further ahead, “request recall Roktas, maintain Overcon forward.”

“Roger,” answered the OOD.

Guar activated the Overcon drone’s new orders and felt the Landing Craft Utility wallow in its turn. Guar hoped the Marines had their drone command centers chained properly to the vehicle deck. The LCU had more speed with new, larger engines, yet maneuvered like a school bus.

The Sergeant across from Guar muttered into his headset, passing the order to recover the four Bayraktar Minis, the point defense drones the Marines called Roktas.

First Lieutenant March, the Marine Officer and GQ Battle Watch Captain entered Combat. Closing the hatch he stopped, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the low light. The Sergeant recognized him and stood. “Status,” the Lieutenant said, taking his chair at the interactive table screen.

Guar remained seated at the screen opposite and answered with a standar report, “Battle Net active, current event predicted outside engagement zone. Roktas on recall, maintaining Overcon port side forward. Predicted CPA one six zero nautical miles.” Guar waited to see that the Lieutenant had understood then added, “Surface and Air Engagement Teams manned and ready.” The LT nodded, turning to the Sergeant to his right.

After a brief silence, the Sergeant said loudly, “Sir, defense posts manned and ready.”

The LT keyed his mic, “Bridge, Battle Watch manned and ready.”

“Roger, out,” answered the captain.

Guar felt thumping vibrations as the diesel engines below approached full power. The LT flipped his headset mic under his chin and looked at Guar, “Questions while we transit Petty Officer Guarino?”

The Marines had swapped out just weeks ago and Guar was ready for the newbies’ questions.

“Why pull in the Roktas?”

Guar hesitated, knowing the drones were the first line of the ship’s defense the Marines controlled. “Sir, we are transiting at 20 knots with a cross wind,” pausing to let it process, “the drones were designed for dwell time not speed,” then added, “With Overcon and the NET, we should have awareness up and your guys will have Butterflies at the ready,” referring to the 40-millimeter grenade-launched suicide drones. Guar knew the Marines were manning each cardinal point of the ship and could fire a swarm of Butterflies at short notice.

The Sergeant nodded, while the LT answered, “Makes sense. So why not start the Gas Turbine Generators if we might shoot the railguns?”

“The GTG’s, sir,” answered Guar, “they burn hot and an ass-load of fuel.” Guar coughed then added, “Pardon my language, sir.”

“No pardon necessary,” the officer laughed, “but the Corps uses Metric.” He continued, “Metric ass ton…hot, you mean infrared?”

“Yes sir, you can see turbine exhaust from satellites. We stay spectrum quiet – until we shoot.” Guar pointed at the right side of the screen adding, “We have low probability at this distance and there are four other railgun pickets with closer range.”

“So what are the odds we nail one?” the Marine asked.

 “Two months ago, 85 nautical miles, we hit two with four shots. Under 50 miles, predicted success rate is near 80 percent. This one, the closest we will get is maybe 150 miles. We still close the distance. Ten percent is better than none when we are protecting the destroyers and carriers.”

“Sir,” interrupted the Sergeant, “Roktas recovered. All Butterfly teams on station.” Guar nodded, satisfied. The Butterflies drones were not long on range or firepower, but they could form a massive swarm and overwhelm automated defense systems.

The launch detect sounded and three red arrows formed on the screen tracking due south. Another alarm and four new arrows appeared directly behind the first three.

“Bridge, Combat,” Guar reported, “hostile hypersonics, salvo of three, salvo of four, total seven, Mach 9, course 170. CPA seven minutes, range 155 nautical miles. Firing solution… three minutes, twelve rounds, low probability.”

“So if we fire,” the Lieutenant said thoughtfully, “we get twelve rounds off before they are out of range?”

“Yes sir,” Guar answered, “three salvos from all four barrels, but only the second salvo has a probability greater than 10 percent. At this distance, it’s a narrow engagement envelope. After the third salvo, the railgun has a 30 second cool-down and they are out of range before we can shoot again.”

On the screen, the active picket boats announced shots fired. No one spoke, quiet spectators to distant action. Minutes later a red arrow faded off the screen, seconds later, two more faded. Within a minute, all seven disappeared.

“Guess the Captain made the right choice,” the Lieutenant said, “how long does the net stay up?”

“About three hours,” Guar answered, “low earth orbit satellites pass quickly. Sometimes the bad guys shoot. But,” Guar paused, thinking, “They haven’t shot one down for months.”

The scrolling info on the right screen slowed. Guar pulled the headset away from his left ear, wiping the sweat off the cheap plastic then performed the same with his right.

“Petty Officer?” the Sergeant asked hesitantly, continuing when Guar turned, “can the railguns shoot ships?”

 “Yes…,” he answered, “…just not with the computer’s fire control system. The computer uses input from the radar or GPS cords from the battle net. …but… the railguns have a manual electro-optical mode for alignment and calibration. They can be in manual and fire. But the real problem is the curvature of the earth.”

“A round earth is a problem…?” asked the Marine.

“A ship 30 miles away, from the height of the railgun, you won’t see. At 20 you might see their bridge. Bitch to aim from a wallowing cork like us and it puts us in their missile range.”

The Sergeant stared into the bulkhead, thinking.

Guar continued, “The Navy was in a hurry to get picket boats out here and they slapped us missile defense flotillas together quick after we lost the first two carriers…” Guar lost his train of thought. The carriers made the news, but the destroyers… he didn’t like to think about how many ships, friends, shipmates were lost in the first month of the “Limited Defensive Operation.”

Launch detect sounded, and Guar read quickly as information began to scroll. “New event,” he announced, “predicted CPA 22 nautical miles, bearing 090, 17 minutes.”

“Close,” the Lieutenant said quietly.

Guar replied, almost whispering. “We have pickets on this line, two just south of us. We are primary,” he added as the chat confirmed.

“Bridge, Combat,” he called, “we are primary.”

“Roger,” the Captain answered, “commence prefire checks.”

“Attention,” Guar announced on the ship’s command channel, “we are primary, designated Bruins One. Secondary’s, Bruins Two and Three bearing 160 and 225 true, both at 35 nautical miles.”

Guar sent new guidance to the Overcon drone, keeping it on station to port and forward.

Minutes later, he felt then heard the roar of air from the Gas Turbine Generator. The second GTG started, matching the roar.

“Bridge Combat,” Guar called as a launch warning warbled, “Hostile inbound. Two salvos of four. Eight total. Three minutes to engage.”

“Roger,” the Captain answered slowly and clearly, “batteries release. Pass to Bruins Two, Bruins Three, batteries release.”

Guar repeated the order in chat to the other ships and spoke into his mic, “Weapons, status of solution?”

From Forward Fire Control, FC2 Samantha Hodges answered quickly, “Control in auto…, solution complete, 30 seconds to engagement.”

The LT looked at Guar, “batteries release, engage hostile inbound.”

“Batteries release aye,” Guar answered, turning the Fire Control switch to Auto.

On the screen, Guar watched the countdown announcing, “First salvo in four, three, two, one…” Thump, the ship shuddered, metal straining, vibrating as the railgun projectiles left the ship at Mach 8. The roar of air from the GTGs increased and Guar reported, “four rounds clear…” The second salvo rocked the superstructure and Guar announced, “eight rounds clear, fifteen second cool down.” Reading the scrolling information he added, “Bruins Two and Bruins Three, eight rounds clear, all conditions normal.”

The launch warning sounded again and Guar watched the screen announcing, “third salvo of hostile, correction four hostile salvos. Total sixteen hostile inbound.” Guar selected the fire control screen reading the results of Hodges and the computer calculations.

“Bridge, Combat,” he announced, “two salvos possible on the third wave, one on the fourth, if we override cooling.”

“Go with one and one, save the barrels and leave something for Bruins Two and Three,” answered the Captain.

Guar nodded in agreement. Shots from overheated barrels had little chance at success.

By now, he thought, the first rounds were reaching detonation points. Each projectile was a Mach 8 cylinder filled with heavy tungsten flechettes and a small charge. Approaching the inbound missiles, the flechettes spread into a cloud of high-speed heavy chaff. They didn’t need to physically hit the missiles, only disrupt the air path. Even a slight air disruption could cause a catastrophic wobble to a hypersonic missile and the four-round bursts formed cloud patterns calculated to eliminate the missiles.

Guar saw the first four missiles blank out simultaneously. Seconds later, three of the four in the second salvo blinked off. After a brief pause, the fourth disappeared. The railgun fired again. “Eight of sixteen down, railgun batteries at 60 percent,” Guar announced to the bridge. The railgun fired again, jarring the boat. As he waited for the other two ships to report, a warning flashed again on the screen.

Reading the urgent warning, he announced, “Bridge, Combat, NET reports high speed surface contacts inbound. Tracking seven, bearing 010, 30 nautical miles, closing at 30 knots.” 

“Roger,” the Captain’s voice answered, resigned, knowing the slow moving LCUs couldn’t outrun the speedboats. “Coming right to 210. Closing Bruins Two and Three for combined self-defense. Launch Sleepers.”

The Marine looked at Guar and raised his eyebrows. “Sleepers?” he asked.

“Unmanned Semi-Submersibles. Not powerful, but they give us some standoff distance.”

CIC began to sway as the ship turned. Guar watched missiles from the third and fourth wave wink off the screen. “15 of 16 down,” he announced. Guar hoped the destroyers would knock down the final missile as he announced, “Computer gives us credit for nine,” with hollow cheer.

As the three LCUs range closed, Guar initiated the Defense Link, a dedicated local net to share sensor information, drone, and weapons control. He reset the table monitor and organized the screens showing views from mast mounted cameras on each picket boat. After flipping through several views he transferred control to the LT.

The Lieutenant muttered into his mic, then reported, “Captain, BDC, crew-served weapons manned and ready. Roktas out. Bruins Two and Three report same, I have assumed sensor and fire control for Bruins.”

“Roger,” replied the Captain, “Lieutenant March, you have tactical control of Bruins self-defense.”

Guar followed display and the video feeds on the bulkhead. “NET reports 11 hostile diamond swarm formation,” he announced to both the bridge and combat, “Overcon has closest on radar.” Then added, “NET reports one mothership. Catamaran. Approximately 45 nautical miles bearing 040, inbound 25 knots.”

“Roger,” the Captain replied, “mama hasn’t fired missiles, she doesn’t know where we are. If we can take her attack boats over the horizon, maybe she won’t locate us.”

The lieutenant muttered instructions on his headset while the sergeant began sending orders on the Defense Link. Guar watched the camera feed from Overcon as Rokta drones raced towards the oncoming fast attack boats. The Roktas carried grenades. A close hit would put a small fast attack boat out of action and the Marines, maneuvering them from the control boxes on deck, were experts at it.

At seven miles, the Roktas began dropping payloads. Camera screens blanked white as patterns of grenades detonated. Guar evaluated from east to west using the Overcon camera, “Nine confirmed kills,” he announced, “two remain bearing 015, 022, approximately nine nautical miles, mothership bears 035, 40 nautical miles.”

The Sergeant grunted, sending orders again. Guar zoomed in on video from the Overcon. A grenade exploded, visibly stunning the three-man crew and the boat slowed. A second grenade was a direct hit, Guar shifted video to the final small boat and the white screen faded in revealing floating wreckage.

Close threats eliminated, Guar shifted Overcon focus to the mothership, “Track one-two, inbound, 35 nautical miles bearing 040, speed 30 knots and closing. Frigate. High Energy Laser drone defense… Passing targeting data to Fleet.”

Guar felt cold as he read the Fleet’s answer on the NET. “Bridge, Combat, no missile support for at least an hour.”

Combat was quiet. The only sounds were cooling fans and breathing, Guar could hear his own heart beat as he uploaded new instructions to the Overcon.

“Combat, Bridge,” the Captain announced, “Meet me on the screen.”

Guar blanked the table screen and set it to mirror the bridge display.

Two scribbled dots appeared on the chart and the Captain’s voice began to explain his plan as he drew the situation. “OK,” he said, “the frigate is overtaking us by a little more than 10 knots relative. He’s at thirty miles and hasn’t launched at us yet. He doesn’t have over-the-horizon targeting data. Likely he needs 20 miles or less to lock on us with fire control radars. About the same distance, we might be able to shoot him with our railguns in manual. To improve our odds, we need to knock out his fire control radars, the small dishes and the phased array on his forward mast.”

“Lieutenant,” the Captain continued, “normally we wouldn’t be able to reach him with drones, especially not the Butterflies, but since he is chasing us at 30 knots, if you fire aft at him, at 40 knots, your butterflies will close at 70 relative, in range at less than 30 minutes. We can patch Butterfly control through Overcon and extend guidance control. Guar, coordinate a swarm. Their laser defense is run by an AI, make the solution difficult. The AI prioritizes targets on size, closure rate, and trajectory. Once in his defense range, keep the Roktas slower and focus on attacking the bow so the aft laser can’t engage.”

Eagerly, Guar punched in data, letting the computer predict the solution, timing the drone launches. The sergeant began an animated discussion on the net, typing furiously to send orders. “Four sets of four six-packs ready,” the Lieutenant announced to the bridge, “Total 96 Butterflies plus eight Roktas, launching, now.”

Guar switched the table screen to chart overlay and split the video screens to track the groups of drones. Each Marine controller could control four groups of six Butterflies. The six packs stayed in proximity to receive orders and had pre-programmed group flight instructions. Two Overcon drones surveilled and passed control information from 15,000 feet. The eight Roktar drones were rising to their max altitude of 10,000 feet, their bomblets’ range increasing by altitude, while hopefully decreasing their risk of being targeted by the AI.

“Swarm approaching Laser defense range,” the Marine announced, “initiating swarm algorithms.” Guar could picture each group of six Butterfly drones beginning a scripted dance to evade targeting while closing on the enemy ship. On the screen, green dots danced toward the red dot.

Abruptly, a drone relay alarmed. On the Overcon screen, Guar watched a Butterfly flame and fall from the sky. “They are going for lowest altitude,” he announced, then added, “One of the sleepers is still out there, self-defense mode activated.”

“Sir, 79 Butterflys remain active. Initiating attack algorithms…now.”

On the Overcon camera, the Butterflys began random attack profiles. The camera showed dozens of bright flashes on the topside of the enemy frigate. “Breakthrough!” announced the sergeant.

Zooming in, Guar could see damage visible on the enemy’s mast. “Bridge, Combat, Parabolic dishes destroyed, phased array appears damaged.”

“Coming to starboard, new course 010,” announced the Captain. The ship began to wallow as it turned. The captain announced again, “Combat, you have batteries release, railgun, track zero one two!”

The LCU was now heading directly toward the enemy frigate. FC2 Hodgescalled, “Combat, Fire Control, target in sights.”

“Fire Control, you have batteries release,” the Marine answered.

The LCU shook as four barrels fired. Seconds later, they fired again. “Fifteen second cooldown,” Hodges announced.

“Combat, Bridge,” the captain announced, “she’s turning to starboard”

From the Overcon drone video, the curve in the frigate’s wake was visible. He zoomed in closer, “Smoke from the bow,” he announced. The Frigate continued to turn, presenting her port side and the railgun fired again. They drove on, waiting for the thirty second cooldown. The railgun fired again.

“Breaking off,” the bridge announced and the LCU began to turn and on the Overcon video Guar could see the black smoke on the enemy ship appear thicker, darker.

“Black smoke bearing 035,” announced the bridge, “secondary explosions.”

Guar watched the screen silently as the grey hull belched black smoke and flames.

“Combat, report mission kill track 012,” added the Captain’s voice, “coming south to await further instructions.”

Ivan Villescas enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the precarious age of 18 and was completely unprepared for the end of the Cold War. Quickly realizing submarines and nuclear power were far too restrictive for his travel plans, he pursued further education and a commission as a Surface Warfare Officer. After enjoying six sea tours, he was cast ashore for a decade performing a variety of roles in countries and continents of his choosing. Somehow, the Navy continues to fund both his education and travel, providing familiarity with facets of international security and development as both observer and actor in the world’s economic and political evolution, and perhaps preparing him to be the writer he aspires to become.

Featured Image: Art created with Midjourney AI.

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