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

By Michael Hallett

   Knudsen awkwardly grabbed his glasses, the humidity of the tropical island fogging them immediately when he exited the lower level of their “headquarters” and began climbing the external stairs. The stairs wound around the building to provide the only entrance to her office overlooking their single pier. The boss had “bought” the island from a Pacific nation that, disappointed by the continued absence of meaningful US investment in the islands, had begun offering long term leases to anyone with the available money. Laurence bought the entire set and as a result now “owned” one of the largest Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) in the Pacific. “Most people think of those countries as tiny islands – I think of them as vast maritime domains with land based, unsinkable headquarters,” Laurence said, justifying her purchase.

   “This is not going to be a fun brief,” he thought. The OPTEST had failed, and he now had to explain why. “Did a detonator timing on the Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) cause the failure? Power loss? Did they not have the speed to keep up? But the fishing boat was only going 8 knots!”

   Pausing at the top of the stairs he stared down at his target, the fishing boat they’d “acquired” earlier that week. He hadn’t asked where the fishermen were. It sat at the pier, innocently floating, giving no indication why it had potentially ruined everything he’d worked for. This was his first failure, but Laurence was not the type, he was certain, who suffered failure gladly, allowing for “fast failing” and thus enhanced learning.

   “No, I’m not gating paid to learn, but produce. And I failed.”

   Suddenly realizing they could see him on the landing from inside and might be watching him now, he shoved his glasses back onto his face and opened the door.

   The chief of staff (COS), Laurence’s second in command who was the only person it seemed that had known her for more than a few months stopped talking when Knudsen opened the door. Both he and Laurence looked at him, not speaking. Even the cats stopped and stared at him.

   “Laurence is the master of the uncomfortable silence,” Knudsen thought. He walked over to the table at the side of the screen, placed his tablet down carefully and brought up the brief. Just as he was about to send it to the screen…

   “Well!” Laurence snapped. “Status update!”

   “The test was unsuccess…” Knudsen said.

   “I know that! Everyone knows that. I want to know why? No, I want to know that the next test will work,” she said.

   “I’ve prepared a brief based on the preliminary data…” Knudsen said, returning to his tablet.

   “I don’t care about the brief! Don’t ‘brief’ me, just answer the question!”

   Flustered, and a little lost with the slides to use as a crutch, Knudsen took a deep breath. “Initial reports indicate…”

   “Darn cat!” Laurence yelled, picking the cat up form the table and throwing it across the room. “I told it not to get on the table!”


   Knudsen opened his mouth to repsond.

   “You know what? I don’t care. I’m paying you to care.”

   “You are paying him for results,” the COS said.

   “Yeah, you are paid for results, and I’m not seeing any. When is the next test?.”

   “Tomorrow,” Knudsen said.

   The cat jumped onto the table closest to the screen. Knudsen picked up his tablet so the cat wouldn’t step on it. The cat looked at Knudsen disapprovingly from its perch on the table edge.

   As he looked at Laurence, waiting for her response, she reached into her pocket and pointed what appeared to be a laser pointer at the cat.

   Knudsen heard a soft “poof” sound, and watched the cat fall to the floor. A blood and fur mist settled to the table.

   Knudsen froze. “I’m glad I picked up my tablet,” he thought.

   The other cat jumped onto the table next to Laurence.

   “Whose cat is that?” asked the Laurence.

   “Mine,” said the COS.

   “So I just blew mine to hell! I thought it was yours! I loved my cat!”

   The COS’s cat stood on the edge of the table, reconsidering its decision join the discussion.  Unfortunately for the cat, its pre-jump wiggle proved extremely ill advised. Its jump to the ground did not take it out of the Laurence’s line of sight sufficiently quickly, and it expired like its colleague.

   “There. Much better,” said the CEO. “Now we are both unhappy. That is fair.”

   Slowly Knudsen walked to the door and out of the office. When neither the COS or Laurence called him back he hurried down the stairs, thinking of the pre-test checks he still needed to perform – and glad he wasn’t a cat.


   The three personnel onboard the old PANAMAX cargo ship were enduring another day of regular steaming. The Rover walked into the Engineering Control Station (ECS) and nearly jumped out of his skin when the Engineering Officer yelled “Boo!” right behind him.

   “Not funny!” the Rover said, as the Engineering officer laughed. “What are you doing down here anyway?”

   “Sometimes I feel guilty getting paid for riding this thing. I come down here to check on you and make myself feel useful,” he said.

   “Yeah, why are we even on this old tub?” asked the Rover.

   “Because it is an old tub,” the Engineering Officer said. “Not worth fully automating. It is cheaper to keep a few people on here.”

   “But nothing ever happens. It is practically fully autonomous,” said the Rover.

   “Yeah, but not completely, and that gap between “Fully autonomous” and “Almost autonomous” costs money to fill, more money than this ship is worth. We’ll ride it for another year or so before they scrap it.”

   “There are worse jobs, I guess,” the Rover said.

   “Yep,” said the Engineering officer. “I’ll see you later.”


   The Fillers, (as Knudsen liked to call them) aquatic autonomous vehicles, ascended from their transit routing hugging the ocean floor, homing in on the particular PANAMAX’s merchant ship’s acoustic signature. This signature, a combination of the propeller and machinery sounds, generates a noise ‘fingerprint’ unique to each ship.

   Like a school of salt water piranha dispersing to attack an unlucky cow from multiple directions, the autonomous aquatic vehicles broke off from their transit formation and each headed for a specific location on the ship’s hull.

   The first drone to reach its terminal position attached itself magnetically over a salt water intakes and began releasing a fluid into the water,. This fluid, which looked like a thick milkshake, was sucked into the intake and flowed unimpeded through the pipes, values and pumps for 20 seconds after release from the drone’s tank – then the coagulation began.


   “What is going on!” the Engineer muttered to himself as his phone, running the ship Engineering Operational Control System (EOCS) app, suddenly emitted a series of alarms. He was used to the normal alarms, the sequence of beeps that enabled him to in effect listen to the plant and know what kind of minor hiccup it was experiencing, and whether or not he needed to go down to the ECS to deal with it or could manage from one of the many Ship Control terminals spread throughout the ship or in the simplest cases, his phone.

   “Is the Rover messing with me? Revenge?” he thought. “Hysterical.”

   However, when he heard a slight change in the ambient noise generated by the ship, the overall constellation of noises that constituted ‘normal’ in the environment, all of which he was responsible for, he abandoned the login on his stateroom terminal and moving at his maximum speed, headed for ECS.

   As he dogged down the watertight door behind him, usually left open during everyday steaming, he listened to the voice of the ship control system reciting a litany of causalities.

   “#2 firemain pump offline.

   # 2 evaporator offline, #3 offline, #4 offline.

   #1 fire main pump offline. Loss of firemain pressure…”

   “What the …” he said, grabbing the phone to notify the officer the deck (OOD). “She must be freaking out up there too, with all these alarms.”

   The Rover’s voice on the main spaces circuit broke into the repetition of the causalities by the ECS.

   “Firemain is down,” he said frantically, “And everything, I mean everything is tripping offline.”

   “Shutdown the main engines and generators, we’ll run on emergency battery backup!” the EOOW said, placing the phone back on the hook.

   “Aye aye,” said the Rover.

   The EOOW’s hope, that this was a joke imposed on him, already waning, vanished completely.  Relying on the muscle memory instilled by countless engineering casualty control drills, his hands flew over the console executing emergency shutdown procedures. What he couldn’t do from the ECS the Rover was doing in the Main spaces.

   The emergency lighting switched on as he powered down the ship’s service generators. The nearly 1000 foot ship shuddered.

   “It feels like we ran aground!” the Engineer thought. “But that’s impossible.”

   The Ship’s Master entered the space.

   The Engineer caught the Master’s eye but kept working through his shutdown procedures.

   “Shaft speed indicator – zero. The shaft had stopped completely. But even without power it should be turning. Did we lose lube oil pressure?” he thought.

   “Rover, check for catastrophic main reduction gear lube oil loss!” he said over the ECS circuit.

   Two clicks sounded over the circuit as the Rover quickly keyed a handset, the acknowledgement signal during a casualty.

   “What is going on, Engineer?” the Master asked.

   “I don’t know yet sir, we’ve shut everything down. The first indication was a loss of firemain pressure, but the shaft is stopped too, I mean stopped, no movement.”

   The Engineer stood in front of the control consoles, breathing heavily as they both looked for a clue as to the cause of this cascade of causalities. The silence was oppressive. The ship was cold, dark and quiet, the worst possible set of conditions for an engineer.

   “I’m heading to the bridge to make my reports,” the Master said. “Get me answers.”

  “Aye aye sir,” said Engineer.

   The Rover slipped past the Master and dogged down the door in the ECS behind him.

   “I shut everything down, well everything that had not already tripped offline on its own,” the Rover said. “What is going on?”

   “Nothing good,” said the Engineer, as he picked up the handset again and finally called the Bridge.

   “Status report!” the OOD yelled.

   “Total system shutdown, total loss of main propulsion and auxiliaries,” the Engineer said, forcing himself to report calmly.

   “I know that!” shouted the OOD. “Get me power!”

   “The Master is on his way to the Bridge,” the Engineer said. “We’re working on it.”

   He and Rover stared at each other for a moment in the silence.

   “I’m going to inspect the plant, and see if I can figure anything out. Stay here and I’ll report in to you. Break out a log and write down everything I say.”

   The Rover nodded and began looking for the green hardback logbooks that he know were in a drawer somewhere, but that he’d never actually used. The Engineer grabbed another flashlight, dogged the door down behind him, and headed into the Main Spaces, sick to his stomach.


   No reports. Knudsen stared at his phone in disbelief. “This can’t fail too. I won’t get off the island alive,” he thought, as he started to sweat. He was due at Laurence’s office in 15 minutes. He’d received the initial reports that the evolution at the merchant ship had started. He’d spoofed the ship’s navigation system to reduce the range the drones had to travel, but not so much that the ship’s course would indicate any sort of relationship to his location.

   “The communication network is good,” he said, checking yet again that the longer range high flying UAVs he’d deployed the week before were still on station, and reporting all conditions normal. The UAVs enabled him to create a secure communication network.

   “When you work for a hacker, you learn to guard against being hacked,” he thought. The high flying solar powered UAVs were the primary transcieving nodes. Other UAV and surface drones, with intermediary UAVs serving as mid-altitude amplifiers, constituted the lower altitude and surface nodes of the communication network. The underwater drones still had to surface to communicate. However, they were so smart communication, once he’d provided his commander’s intent, was seldom necessary.

   “If the comms are good, why am I not hearing anything?” he asked the screen in his hand.

  He checked the network status again. All green.

   “I don’t have time for this! The evolution started, I know that. Did the mid altitude UAV run out of power early? Or just fail?”

    He’d only sent one, in order to reduce the chances of detection.

   “That was obviously a mistake,” he said.

   He checked his watch again.

   “Don’t panic,” he told himself. “What other measures of effect can I find and use?”

   He walked around the FabLab twice before inspiration struck.

   “AIS! I can check the speed on the satellite feed from the ship’s Automatic Identification System!” Pulling it up on his tablet, his eyes watered with joy when he saw the speed – “1.4”

   “Stopped. That only means one thing – success!”

   Calm now, and with 5 minutes to spare, he looked out at his drone Fleets, arrayed in what he liked to refer to as “Centurions,” 10 by 10 squares of surface, subsurface, air and the ones he was most proud of, multi-domain electromagnetically hardened drones.

   He thought of the holding area as his “zoo” in which the various types of bioemulated drones waited for their next mission. By starting with a blank slate in the design process, made possible by additive manufacturing, he’d created machines unlike any made before, blending the robustness and durability of nanotechnology derived materials with biological design principles. The results were drones with all of the advantages of biological systems, without the disadvantages in terms of strength and of course destructive potential.

   “That is not entirely true,” he had to admit. “They still have the energy weaknesses of machines.” Indeed, that was his biggest challenge, how to keep the machines going. It was of course possible ot create drones with long dwell times, in whatever domain, but he not yet been able to effectively combine a long on station time with the capability to act rapidly that Laurence’s plans all seemed to require.

   “But we are still getting the jobs done,” he said out loud to the unresponsive “animal” army arrayed in front of him.

He selected a set of drones and assigned them to the pre-established test mission using his phone. As they departed the FabLab, Knudsen examined his phone.

   “It’s still strange to look at my phone and see only a few apps,” he thought. All the mobile devices ran only on Laurence’s secure work network, which was much less rich, of course, than the normal internet everyone was accustomed to. Neither his phone nor tablet had Web access. All Dark Web access took place through thin clients. Laurence said it was a cyber security measure. Knudsen suspected it was simply a system for controlling the software – the human software.

   “But I’m getting paid enough and creating the machines I’ve always dreamt of, so I shouldn’t complain. I can live without mobile internet access – though I suspect some people couldn’t.”

    As the drones exited the FabFloor he turned and headed up to the Office for the demonstration.


   Knudsen walked quickly around the edge of the cliff along the narrow pathway undulating above the jungle below. (the security chief had explained the undulations were designed to provide firing positions, so that one person could, if necessary, hold off any force that achieved the impossible and landed on the island.) The views of the sunrise were amazing, the colors of the biomass below pulsing as the sun rose above the horizon during the golden hour. Laurence had her own view of the sunset, but no one (except maybe the COS) was ever allowed over there.

   He stepped into Laurence’s main work/reception area. She was engaged in a discussion with the COS. He acknowledged Knudsen’s presence with a brief glance, and since he didn’t tell him to “Get the heck out” Knudsen knew it was ok to stay.

   The flow of Laurence’s conversation remained uninterrupted by Knudsen’s entrance. “The power of the movements as promoted in the media is that they accustom people to doing what they are told. Once they are acclimatized to think progressively in one way, say the environment for example, they can be manipulated to think in other ways. There is then so much noise in the system, and people are so unaccustomed to critical thinking, that it becomes extremely difficult for them to support the formulation and execution of appropriate policies.” Laurence said.

   “And your point is,” the COS said.

   Knudsen had to stifle a gasp. He was still shocked every time COS challenged Laurence. But he did, even after the cat incident.

   “They will applaud me as I become the richest person ever, by any measure (purchase power parity, per capita, gini coeficinet), even richer than Xerxes, the only free man in Persia, by making them poorer. Normally people only get rich by providing value to their customers. The richest get that way by providing value to society. I’m going to extract value, and they will love me more because I’ll clothe my actions in the language of virtue to which they have accustomed themselves. They didn’t give me the credit I deserved when I was ‘playing the game’ and they will now pay the price.”

   “And I’ll get rich too,” smiled the COS.

   “Indeed. Not as rich as me, but pretty rich.” They both laughed.

   Laurence turned her brilliant smile onto him. “Ah, my dear Knudsen, are your wee beasties ready for the demonstration?”

   Her ability to act warm and friendly, as if she never got angry, was unnerving. Especially when he knew she wasn’t actually happy to see him. “She will be after everything goes right with this demo,” he thought. 

   “Yes. They’ll reach initiating positions on schedule,” Knudsen said.

   “And how was the other long range test?” the COS asked.

   “Successful,” said Knudsen. “The ship is fully stopped. The engineering plant has been completely disabled.”

   “Very well,” Laurence said.

   Turning to the CSO she asked, “Is the test platform in position?”

   “When you reaching the viewing area you’ll see it,” the CSO replied.

   “Excellent,” Laurence said, hopping up from her chair.

   The fishing boat, captured in the island’s Exclusive Economic Zone, was now 1500 meters off the end of the pier. Laurence had a “fleet” of two yahcts that the island’s government had inducted into, or rather, designated as its “Maritime Law Enforcement Service”. Previously they had relied on their allies to provide EEZ enforcement, with only limited success. The two yahcts had detected and captured the fishing boat the previous week, enabling this second op test of his more overtly aggressive kinetic drones to take place.

   Knudsen snuck a look at his phone’s chart on which the fishing boat and his drones were indicated. Although he didn’t think it was entirely necessary, he’d cheated a bit, and placed a tracker on the boat to ensure that the drones could find it. They would only switch to homing in on the tracker signal if their organic radars and visual detection systems failed to lock onto the target, so he’d still get good data from the test, but it reduced the chances of catastrophic failure as Laurence watched.

   “If the drones flew and swam on by the boat without destroying it, I’m afraid I’d find myself taking a trip to the jungle below at an uncomfortable velocity,” he said to himself.

   He snuck his phone back into his pocket. It all looked good.

   Laurence glanced over at him. “Don’t you have to do something?” she asked.

   “No ma’am, they are fully autonomous. The AI agents will execute the mission as planned.”

   She smiled with her brilliant smile at him, and even though he knew it was just an automatic response of her highly developed charisma, it still made him very happy to have pleased her.

   He snuck his phone out again. Seeing that all the platforms in the engagement were on track, he hit the “execute” button that had appeared mid screen. Pushing that button constituted the final step in the start sequence. If this went well, on subsequent missions he could schedule the final “Go/no go” decision further back giving the AI engines more scope for mission execution, in effect pushing the decision down to the tactical level. He quietly took a deep breath as he waited for the attack to unfold.

   The first indication something happened was the sudden slowing of the fishing boat. Its stern drifted to the right, and it came to an almost complete stop in the calm seas just off the island about 1000 meters.

   “Not too impressive,” muttered the COS.

   “It will become rapidly more glamorous. Underwater drones just removed the ship’s propellers. They intercepted the boat, followed their way back to the shaft seal by adhering to the hull. They then placed a series of three electromagnetic thermite grenades next to the shaft until the grenades magnetically attached themselves. Seconds after attaching, the rotationally activated detonation occurred and the grenades burned through the shaft. Weakened, it snapped, causing the propellers to sink to the bottom, rendering the ship DIW,” Knudsen explained.

   “DIW?” COS asked.

   “Dead in the water,” Knudsen said, “As you can see.”

   “Let’s be honest,” said Laurence. “I was hoping for a bit more.” Her smile was gone.

   “I wanted to demonstrate the effects of each discrete attack. The show is not over yet, and a genuine attack would be planned for a unified ‘time on top’ or in other words, the attacks would occur simultaneously,” Knudsen said.

   Knudsen observed his observation drone take station over the ship and put on his glasses. After confirming the feed was available from the drone, he said, “A close in feed of the ship is now available. You might find it more exciting.”

   Laurence raised her eyebrwos and pulled her glasses down from where they had rested atop her jet black hair.

   The next phase of the attack began with a small explosion. It destroyed the surface search radar – not a big deal on a fishing ship, but the attack provided the proof of concept of “blinding” the target before the follow on drones with larger explosive payloads arrived.

   Next, the bridge windows blew out and a fire started.

   “Not very big explosions,” the COS said.

   “The explosives are sized to cause the appropriate amount of damage to accomplish the objective – destruction of shipboard systems. Each ounce of explosive reduces the range, speed and maneuverability of the drones, so I use the minimum effective dose,” Knudsen said.

   “Makes sense I guess,” the COS agreed. “And makes them hard to see.”

   The ship began listing to port.

   “How’d you do that?” Laurence asked.

    “Sea skimming drones with shaped charges aimed just below the waterline. The ship is also flooding due to the destruction of the shaft seal,” Knudsen explained.

   Two larger drones, that looked like six legged spiders, landed on the deck of the fishing boat. Gun muzzles emerged from the top of their oblong “bodies” and they began shooting the boat’s pilot house.

   “Those enable us to gain control of a ship without destroying it,” Knudsen said.

   “Looks like they are destroying the boat to me,” Laurence said with a happy laugh.

   “These drones provide us with a huge degree of attack flexibility,” Knudsen said with pride.

   “Quite nice, actually,” Laurence said, once again turning her 1000 watt smile onto Knudsen. “I think that’s enough.”

   “Roger,” Knudsen said, taking out his phone. He pushed the “Pause” button.

   “What happens to it now?” COS asked. “Will it just sink right there?”

   “It better not – I don’t want an oil spill on my front yard!” Laurence said.

   “No worries,” replied Knudsen. “I’ve placed high pressure supplemental buoyancy devices on board – basically giant balloons. They will fill the flooded spaces and restore the necessary reserve buoyancy so we can take the ship under tow and dispose of it later. I also removed the fuel. Residual lube oil and fuel remain in the tanks, but the oilphagic microbes I distributed throughout the ship will take care of that.”

   The ship quickly righted itself – it still listed slightly to port, but was clearly no longer in danger of sinking.

   ‘That should persuade people to pay our fees,” said the COS.

   Laurence smiled. “We’ve bent the cost curve so far in our favor they have no choice but to pay. Insufficiently agile, they can’t touch us, and they know the costs of even attempting to build the capability to do so will never be tolerated by their “citizens”.

   Knudsen headed down, happy the demonstration, this time, was visibly and unambiguously successful.


    As Knudsen looked out at the FabFloor he’d designed and with the help of his construction units, built single handedly, he felt a great satisfaction mixed with a growing sadness that he was engaged in an enterprise that increasingly appeared to be if not outright criminal was so close as to be indistinguishable from it.

   “I knew when I took the job that Laurence was a major player on the Dark Web, but I let her chic, and the millions of crypto-currency she gave me, cloud my judgment,” he said to himself. “But I have designed and manufactured some amazing technology, and maybe it won’t be as bad as I fear. If I hadn’t agreed to do it someone else would have.”

   Excited, he looked around the Lab and tried to think of someone he could share his good news with. He could chat with the AI on his phone. However, as a programmer he lacked the necessary ignorant empathy based faith possessed by non-programing, regular consumers required to make those sorts of relationships satisfactory.

   “I need an analog solution,” he thought. “I need a dog.”

Michael T. Hallett works in the International Programs department at the U.S. Naval War College and is the Executive Officer of the U.S. Pacific Fleet Maritime Operations Center (MOC) Reserve Detachment 301. Reach him at or The ideas presented here are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or Department of Defense.

Featured Image: SAM 3 Minesweeping unmanned surface vehicle (Saab)

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