The following is an entry for the CIMSEC & Atlantic Council Fiction Contest on Autonomy and Future War. Winners will be announced 7 November.
By Chris O’Connor
[1022 EDT, Location of VRcast unavailable]
[Bthere functionality unavailable]
The VRcast opens to a view flying low over debris-strewn blue-green water, illuminated by late day sun. The view plans upwards to show a flat beach, punctuated by a single collapsed dock surrounded by small fishing boats. The horizon behind it is broken with the outlines of trees and the low buildings of a fishing village, all of which show earthquake damage. Some are completely destroyed. Smoke rises in several areas around the buildings, creating a haze over the island. The view zooms into a man standing on the rubble of a fallen wall. He is wearing a camera vest, cargo pants, and hiking boots. He has a bandage on the right side of his head.
As he speaks in an educated British accent, he makes it a point to climb through the rubble, turning towards the camera on occasion to make a point.
“Good evening from the South China Sea. I’m Wallis Barnes with an exclusive report. I apologize in advance for the latency of this recording… and the lack of Bthere functionality. So there will be no walking around inside this VRcast. This is a recording with no streaming capability, unlike most of our broadcasts. More on that later.”
“It has been a momentous ten hours here, and most of the outside world has not heard anything of it, apart from official releases from the People’s Republic of China, the United States, and the Red Cross. At 9:24 local time, a shallow earthquake, measuring 8.7 on the Richter scale, rocked this small island and its approximately three thousand inhabitants. The death toll is over two hundred and rising, as this island is not supposed to have any seismic activity nearby- the buildings are not built to withstand the shaking.
“I travelled here to talk to the inhabitants about how their lives have been changed by the recent fishing wars and the collapse of the nearby fisheries. As we all know there has been heated talk on the international scene for decades about this and other islands, inhabited by people of one nation but claimed by several others, including China.”
“I was indoors when the quake struck, and was lucky to make it out alive. Sadly, my VRshades did not. Fortunately for this report, my camBot did.”
The VRcast point of view shifts to a shaky first person perspective of someone running down a dark hallway towards the light of an open door, as debris falls from above. Screaming can be heard coming from the left and the right. Just as it gets to the aperture of the door, a dark abject falls from the right, and the view goes dark.
The point of view switches to a shot a hundred feet over the beach, panning across the destruction. Villagers are picking through the rubble, assisted by day-glow orange tracked robots with manipulator arms, as small legged ground robots act as stretcher carriers. Overhead, quadcopter drones are passing through the rubble, occasionally pausing at buildings to tag them with different color paint pellets. Off in the distance, at a low point in the island by the water, cargo tiltfan drones rise quickly from the surface and speed off to points unknown. Others return to that area and descend out of sight briefly, before rising to follow their peers.
“As you can see, the rescue and relief operation is underway, it is a lean one- most of the Red Cross, USAID, and US Military presence is in drone form,” the reporter continues as a voiceover. “It seems unusual out of context; normally efforts such as these would involve hundreds of people, but politics have gotten in the way. The local government has requested aid, but most of the world did not know about the cry for help because they didn’t hear it.
“Ten minutes after the quake, all communications to the outside world were shut off or became completely unreliable. This included the high altitude internet router drones, communications satellites, and even global positioning systems. That is why this report does not have a geo-tag. The spoofed GPS signals make the systems here think we are in southern Australia. None of the surface radio and cell towers here work. Not only were many of the means to reach the outside world physically destroyed by the earthquake, but there was also a coordinated network attack that shut everything else down. The only communications that surviving islanders received were from the People’s Republic of China, saying that they were coming to their rescue and that Chinese efforts will bring enduring prosperity to the island.”
The VRcast shows a muted recording of a world famous Chinese actor standing on the island’s beach, smiling as he talks and gestures towards the blue line of the western horizon, from which a massive Red waving flag is stretching across the sky, with a centered yellow large yellow star shooting four streams of smaller stars outward. The tops of dozens of ships can be seen coming over the horizon, as waves of Y-8 and Y-20 cargo planes fly towards and overhead the viewer.
“It was a slickly produced broadcast, apparently created just for a situation such as this, most probably the aftermath of one of the typhoons that regularly pass through this region. We only found out later that the Chinese declared a maritime exclusion zone around this island and an Air Defense Identification Zone above it. This was to ‘deconflict aid efforts’ and was ‘for the safety of all surface vessels and aircraft’ in the area. Twenty-one minutes later after that broadcast started, the PLAAF made an appearance, with a special delivery.”
The view changes to a surface perspective of a pair of sleek fighters, flying at high speed seven hundred feet over the surface. A caption overlay keeps the text [Chengdu J-21 (PLAAF)] next to the aircraft as they pass the island with an earsplitting roar. Two long pods separate from each. Drag chutes open, slowing the pods down. A scores of small drones of mixed types fan out from the pods as they fall, dropping close to the surface before racing off to different points over the island. Some of the VTOL variants take position on the ground, while the fixed wing ones start orbits. The pods land upright on the ground and open up like a flower, becoming base stations for the swarm UAS.
“This was not a welcome development for the locals here, who would have little means to resist a swarm, even if they were not fighting for their lives against Mother Nature. Chinese personnel were expected next, along with other unmanned systems, but something was keeping them away, a small comfort to the people here who do not identify themselves as part of the Middle Kingdom. They know that once the Chinese arrive, they will never leave- a scenario repeated a number of times in the past. Luckily for them, forces unseen seem to be testing the exclusion zone, keeping the PLAN and PLAAF busy. ”
A compellation of short videos start. One is of smoke trials reaching something unseen high in the sky, leading to a puff of dark smoke. The next is of flashes in high in the sky. The third depicts several columns of smoke merging into one cloud from sources burning below the seaborne horizon. The final is of a massive fireball thousands of feet up from which flaming objects tumble. They leave streaks of black smoke they falls into the water not too far from the shoreline.
“It is a reasonable expectation that rescue personnel would arrive via air first, either Chinese occupiers under the guise of helping the people here, altruistic forces from other nations, or unaffiliated aid organizations. After all, the island is a few hundred miles from major airports. But as it turned out, the first human rescuers came by sea.”
The view changes to two hundred feet in the air, facing out to sea. Through the haze and smoke a grey catamaran vessel is seen bow on to the camera. It is travelling at high speed, evidenced by a boiling white wake behind it. On the center of its flight deck is a pair of large angled missile launchers on wheels. It is accompanied by two small angular vessels, keeping station to each side as escorts. The center vessel has the text [USS Bremerton (T-EPF-14)] over it, while the smaller ones are labeled [‘Fiberclad’ medium Unmanned Surface Vehicle]. A large panel can be seen on the side of the EPF flashing QR codes to the USVs; the black and white shapes are a gray blur, transmitting faster than the human eye can register.
“This view from the camBot shows the approach of a United States Navy transport vessel with robotic escorts. I was told later what these vessels are, and added their identification to the VRcast. Some of Chinese drones attempted to damage or distract it as it approached the island, but they were ill-equipped to deal with the limited defenses of the American force. This swarm was probably not intended to keep shipping away from the island, but it gave it a try.”
Over a dozen of the fixed wing drones, flying in an ever-changing swarm formation, pass the camera’s perspective and dive towards the oncoming ship. Tracers reach out from the trapezoidal USVs and strike some, while others burst into flames as they are hit by unseen laser beams. A few lose control and tumble into the water. In less than a minute, they have all been shot down.
“My camBot kept its distance. To identify it as a journalism asset, it is painted in bright colors so that it is not mistaken for security or military piece of hardware. I imagine that is why it was spared. It was able to capture the transport ship deploying amphibious vehicles, only about a half mile from shore.”
The video elapses a few minutes. The EPF, now much closer, appears to decelerate slightly, and a ramp extends from a lower deck over the stern of the vessel. Spaced thirty seconds apart, ten small wheeled vehicles splash into the water, only to partially resurface in the wake, with sensor blisters clearly visible above the water. The VRstream labels them as [Leatherback scout vehicles]. They fan out as they head towards the shore, leaving deceptively small wakes. They are followed by an eleventh and twelfth vehicle (captioned as [Squad Control Vehicles]) that are larger than the others, and beeline straight into the shore.
The perspective changes to a view facing the water from the top of one of the destroyed buildings. In the foreground, a small crowd of locals can be seen hiding behind a partially collapsed wall. Two of the scout vehicles, each no larger than an ATV, emerge from the water riding on six low wheels. Their shell-like domes folding open to extend the sensor blister and employ a weapons mount. A small UAS with counter rotating propellers jumps into the air from the rear of each vehicle and climbs away from view. As the Leatherbacks move toward the camera, sweeping the area, one of the two larger vehicles drive up on the beach, the size of a small SUV. There is a pause before a hatch opens on top of the SCV and the top half of a human emerges, wearing a dark combat suit with a breather mask and a bug like set of goggles.
An audio broadcast in several local languages and English is heard coming from the SCV. “We are Americans, here to help the local government take care of their people.” The figure waves his gloved right hand, and then uses it to pull the mask off of his face, he keeps the top half of his face obscured behind the goggles. He smiles and continues to wave as the audio rebroadcasts. The SCV continues up the beach as the Leatherbacks advance towards the camera.
“This is when we first encountered Captain Ellis of the United States Marine Corps.” The voiceover continues, “He is the local commander of the US military forces, which encompass only two humans and their accompaniment of ground and air robots. The transport that delivered the Marines had to depart the area, for it was in danger of being sunk by ballistic missiles as long if it spent too long in one place, allowing long range sensors to cue to it.”
Cut to a long distance shot of the Bremerton, stern to the camera. It is pumping a dark cloud of obscurants into the air as it churns through the waves in a zigzag pattern. Columns of angry water erupt around it and an explosion appears off to its port, as something hits one of its escorts. It disappears into the afternoon haze. Smaller bursts of airborne explosions can be seen above it as it fades.
The shot switches to the reporter standing next to the SCV, with Capt Ellis next to the dismount ladder of the vehicle. It is late afternoon. The Marine is wearing Oakley AR ‘shades and a soft cover instead of his full helmet system, but is obviously alert and not relaxed. Gesturing at the amphibious vehicle and the Marine, Barnes continues.
“Captain Ellis is operating under a pseudonym and will keep his face partially obscured so that he is not easily identified. I have also modulated his voice so that it cannot be used for the same purpose. He will now talk us through what happened after he arrived on the island. It gives us valuable insight into the footage my camBot took. Please go ahead, Captain.”
“Thank you, Sir.” Ellis begins, looking away from the camera, towards some distant activity. “It is good to be part of this relief effort. We are here to provide security assistance and aid relief efforts during this difficult time.”
“Why are you the only outside forces here?” Barnes asks.
“My Marines were the only unit nearby when the earthquake hit and found ourselves inside the new exclusion zone. My Centaur platoon [US Military term for human-machine team] was just on its way back to Subic on the Bremerton after a COIN [Counterinsurgency] mission in Indonesia. It appears that the PLAN lost track of us among the commercial traffic around here, and when the shooting started, they had bigger fish to fry, anyway. So we were the first to respond and keep the Chinese away until follow-on forces arrived.”
But the Chinese did arrive, in albeit in small numbers. Tell us how you countered that.”
“Well, the swarm they dropped off was not a very robust one, so we hijacked it and co-opted it.”
“Co-opted?” Inquired Barnes.
“Yessir. My platoon now controls the swarm now as if it is ours. My team has network intrusion capabilities with us, and we weakened their resistance by taking over their pod base stations. We convinced the Chinese through their own swarm that the island was covered in US forces, so that they would leave it alone. They still sent a team to be sure… Excuse me. Go ahead, Gunny. Roger. South end sentry? Copy all.”
As he speaks, he reaches up to the air with his right hand. Jabs his index finger out, rotates his wrist in a counterclockwise motion and then moves it downward a half a foot in an arching motion. He then closes his fist, and brings it back down to his side.
“I apologize Sir,” says the Captain. “Still have business to attend to.”
“The Chinese team?” the reporter asks, helpfully.
The VRcast switches to a rooftop view of a small clearing with a floor of low scrub that seems to be away from the residential structures of the island. It has bushes and trees around it. Two blurs (outlined in red by the VRcast) are seen descending from the air, as they touch the ground, they materialize into a pair of soldiers in full wingsuits. The suits change color from the color of the sky to that of the local foliage. They raise rifles in an alert posture.
The Marine continues as a voiceover, “Two infiltrators were sent in about two hours after we arrived. We knew their insertion methods- active camo wingsuits, and they hadn’t changed their tactics since the Malay insurgency. So we lured them with the co-opted drone signals, and dropped them on an EMP mine.”
The two soldiers in the VRcast drop their rifles and try to take off their helmets. They lose balance and fall to the ground, one face first, the other to its side. Two fully combat suited Marines emerge from behind the low buildings. They shrug off faraday blankets and point rifles at the prone insertion team, as a Leatherback emerges from the foreground. The Leatherback begins broadcasting audio in English and Mandarin that is garbled in the recording. One of the Marines lowers his rifle and strides over to the Chinese soldiers. He rips large objects out of the back of their suits, pulls off their helmets, and yanks earpieces out of each of their ears. Covered by the Leatherback and the other Marine, he then handcuffs both of the now helpless opponents. The VRcast cuts back to the interview.
“They are now in the custody of the local police, for they are trespassing on sovereign territory of another country. We are here to assist with law and order, as part of providing assistance and relief the earthquake. ”
“It seems you were equipped to encounter such a team.”
“In part. My platoon carried some of the standard COIN and network intrusion components with us, but we had to build some items. A cover for the exterior of the mine had to be made so that it would be masked from their sensors and would blend into the environs around the ambush. We also made several types of special handcuffs so we could immobilize whatever model of ‘wingnut’ suit they arrived in. The SCVs have AM systems that can do the job.” Ellis says, as he lovingly pats the vehicle next to him.
“The islanders at this point still had no outside assistance… tell us what you did next.”
“There are Centaur teams that have an engineering capability, but this Raider team is not one of them. The Gunnery Sergeant and I tried to help with some of the rubble, but we need dedicated rescue suits and better drone coverage. Standard HA/DR [Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief] response involves airship delivery if an airfield is not available, so I had the robot platoon members find and clear a suitable field. I had no idea if anyone would arrive with the ADIZ [Air Defense Identification Zone] and exclusion zone up, but it looks like USAID [United States Agency for International Development] and the Red Cross decided to risk it with commercial air carriers. They took a gamble that the Chinese would not shoot down civilian flagged aid deliveries.”
A field that leads to a large flat beach appears in the VRcast. Two Leatherbacks can be seen in the distance. The view pans to two closer ones- they are positioned in a rectangle, marking a clear landing area. A deep hum fills the air. The top part of the view disappears behind a large dark object descending towards the field. The camBot pans back as a massive hybrid airship in FedEx livery descends on a shallow slope. Fifty feet below above the landing area, two shipping containers with “USAID” markings begin to lower to the ground on cables. Just as they touch the ground, they detach from the cables and the airship accelerates up and away from the field, unencumbered by cargo.
The view pans back to where the airship came from as a second FedEx airship approaches. The recording follows it as it drops off two more containers. These are labelled with Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems. As the second airship ascend away from the landing area, the Leatherbacks drive out of away from the field, their assigned roles complete.
The sides of one USAID container open up, issuing forth the legged and tracked recovery bots seen in earlier clips of the recording. Scan and marker UAS launch from the far end of the container. The other container extends launch tubes and launches dozens of small objects in multiple directions. The VRcast captions this as [First Responder Mesh Network deployment].
Captain Ellis provides a voice-over. “This is the standard unmanned first responder package. The USAID boxes carry rescue and recovery systems, and will employ ad hoc network hubs for the whole island. Once those hubs are set up, the drones will distribute low-cost AR glasses so that people on the island can communicate with each other. This will help me with my mission, I don’t have the capability with this team to aerial seed my own nodes, so I can use this network.”
The Marine continues, “The Red Cross boxes carry ‘food flies’ and enough food for thousands of people, for a short period of time…”
“’Food flies?’” Barnes interjects.
“I apologize, sir. That’s the slang for food aid drones. They swarm through the airspace and look like they are buzzing around food sources, when they are in fact picking up the food for delivery to aid points. They can be an annoyance in a war zone, where they complicate our battle picture.”
A small tracked vehicle emerges from the side of the far Red Cross container and drives across the beach into the water, trailing a suction hose for water collection. The top opens up, and packages rise into view on individual platforms. The shot pans to a top down view of the near Red Cross container as the top slides open, creating a series of ledges akin to an open cereal box. Scores of bug like eyes come into view, the sensor systems of small drones pointing upward. The drones move upward and out onto the newly deployed launch platforms, seemingly shaking with anticipation as liftfans fold from their wasp-like fuselage and rotate into a horizontal flight position. The “food flies” lift from the platforms in quick sequence, pick up packages from the other Red Cross container, and fly away at high speed.
“As you can see,” Barnes says, “HA/DR operations no longer involve food lines and people handing out food, the newer Red Cross containers deliver the supplies where they are needed. The food one desalinates its own water and packages it for the drones to deliver, and contains thousands of meals…”
“Excuse me Sir.” Ellis interrupts, “I need to end this interview. The south sentry saw two more cargo ‘zeps coming and we don’t know what they are carrying. I’m hoping it is a MSF [Médecins Sans Frontières] mobile hospital and a rescue team in power suits, but I can’t be too sure. Could be a PLAN Trojan horse.”
The Marine climbs up onto the SCV and puts on his helmet. He looks down at the reporter. “Do you want to send out this VRcast? It would be good to get the word out.”
“You can do that? How can you transmit this off the island?” Barnes asks, pleasantly surprised by this development.
“Yessir. If I told you how, the Chinese would know, wouldn’t they? Anyway, when you are done with post, NFC transmit it to any member of my team and we will get it to your news agency. Format it so that it is just one way, so no VRstreaming. Have to go.” He folds himself forward into the SCV as it drives off.
Wallis Barnes turns towards the camera, the expression of a serious reporter returning to his face. “There you have it. This small island, already reeling from a record earthquake, has now become a pawn in the great power competition in Asia. The international community is trying to help while the people here cling to survival. Thank you for joining me for this special report, hopefully the first of many. Have a good evening.”
The camera zooms back from the reporter, showing the island in the background and the aid efforts. The SCV can be seen rushing off towards the south, where airships can be seen approaching at low altitude. The view centers on the sun, low over the western horizon.
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Chris O’Connor is a Supply Corps officer in the United States Navy. He was a member of the CNO Rapid Innovation Cell and CNO Strategic Studies Group Director Fellow. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the United States Department of Defense.
Featured Image: DARPA’s Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (DARPA photo)