Tag Archives: AI

For Sea Control, First Control the Electromagnetic Spectrum

Sea Control Topic Week

By LCDR Damien Dodge

Rapidly maturing electromagnetic technology will revitalize U.S. Navy combat potential and enhance opportunities to establish sea control. As the new National Security Strategy aptly illustrates the United States is faced with resurgent great power competition. Simultaneously, the Joint Operating Environment of 2035 portends a future influenced by the proliferation of disruptive and asymmetric capabilities engendered through global advances in “science, technology, and engineering” expanding the innovation horizons of “robotics, Information Technology, nanotechnology and energy.”1 The Intelligence Community’s Worldwide Threat Assessment reinforces this view and highlights aggressive competition due to adversary advances in high-impact dual-use technologies. The creation of Google’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) center in Beijing and China’s recent testing of its “quantum satellite” followed by its rumored fielding of an at-sea railgun offer practical demonstrations of this outlook.2 Furthermore, retired Marine General John Allen and Amir Husain envision “hyperwar,” in which the future battlespace will churn with cross-domain action and counteraction at speeds nearly eclipsing human capacity for comprehension and reaction.3

Within the context of this near-future operating environment, current maritime Information Warfare (IW) capabilities, such as those contributing to Signals Intelligent (SIGINT), Electromagnetic Maneuver Warfare (EMW), Electronic Warfare (EW), and communications, do not afford sufficient operational agility or adaptability to gain advantage over or exploit the weaknesses of adversaries. Adversaries that are bent on projecting overlapping and reinforcing domains of combat power near their national shores could overwhelm and exploit seams in current Navy electromagnetic-dependent  capabilities.

Given this challenging, hypercompetitive environment the Chief of Naval Operations’ Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority confronts this problem head-on. The CNO seeks to “strengthen naval power at and from the sea” and also to “advance and ingrain information warfare” capabilities across the Navy. This is to enable maritime commanders to achieve objectives through multi-domain maneuver and control “in a highly ‘informationalized’ and contested environment.”4  Additionally, the “Surface Force Strategy: Return to Sea Control” echoes the CNO’s direction by promoting “Distributed Lethality,” which advocates for “increasing the offensive and defensive capability of individual warships, employing them in dispersed formations across a wide expanse of geography, and generating distributed fires.” This is complemented by Defense Department officials advocating for human-machine teaming and an explosion in fielding unmanned systems. Finally, this accelerating competition compels the CNO to advocate not only for a larger fleet, but also one which “must improve faster” where “future ships… [are] made for rapid improvement with modular weapons canisters and swappable electronic sensors and systems.”5

Fortunately, rapid advances in technology, beyond solely enabling adversaries, can also support the CNO’s vision for the Navy – especially one primed to rapidly integrate and learn. With the advent of new designs for antennas and Radio Frequency (RF) components, the evolution of Software Defined Radios (SDR), and more practical instantiations of Artificial Intelligence (AI), these technologies can now be innovatively combined to operationalize envisioned, but not yet fully realized, IW and EMW warfighting capabilities. The capability nexus formed by these swiftly maturing technologies affords the Navy an unparalleled opportunity to maintain cross-domain battlespace decision superiority while outpacing and seeding uncertainty within an adversary’s decision cycle. To achieve this, the Navy must leverage longstanding research investments and aggressively transition these technologies from Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) programs, Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) initiatives, Office of Naval Research (ONR) workbenches, and warfighting center laboratories into fully integrated naval systems. These transitions will provide warfighters the needed tools and decision aids to dynamically control their electromagnetic signatures, provide optimal and low probability of detection communications, deliver more effective Electronic Warfare (EW) capabilities, revitalize signals intelligence collection, and engender greater freedom of action across the electromagnetic spectrum. This enabling electromagnetic superiority will present expanded opportunities for maritime commanders to seize sea control at times and places of their choosing.

Emerging Options and Tools in the Electromagnetic Domain 

Antennas and RF components accomplish many functions on a navy ship. These functions are traditionally performed by dedicated single-role RF apertures and components which operate radars, transmit or receive communications, establish tactical datalinks, collect adversary communication signals, and detect or electronically frustrate threat sensors. This stovepipe approach to accessing and influencing the electromagnetic spectrum has created warships bristling with single-purpose antennas awash in scarcely manageable electromagnetic interference (EMI) and subject to individualized, byzantine maintenance and logistic support tails. This situation is a contributing factor to the complexity of the Navy’s C5I architecture afloat, which VADM Kohler admitted requires a 50-person team at the cost of one million dollars to make a Carrier Strike Group fully effective prior to deployment.6 Also, when new capabilities are fielded, such as the F-35, existing systems are often not sufficiently adaptable to absorb their advanced capabilities. Marine Commandant General Robert Neller highlights this issue when lamenting the Marine Corps’ inability to benefit fully from the F-35’s sensors due to Navy amphibious ships being unable to optimally communicate with the aircraft.7 Additionally, shipboard antenna thickets create a significantly larger radar cross section (RCS), thus illuminating these ships to adversary active sensors. Finally, this collection of standalone systems complicates the ship’s ability to manage its electromagnetic emissions in order to hide from passive threat sensors and often the only option may be a tactically dissatisfying binary approach: gain battlespace awareness and communicate, or hide from the adversary.           

In contrast to this patchwork approach, more open architecture (OA) and dynamic phased array antennas combined with advanced element-level RF components are improving beamforming parameters. These include very low sidelobes and extended frequency range dynamics of RF system apertures as revealed by even superficial scans of Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC), Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and International Telecommunication Union (ITU) websites.8 Georgia Tech Research Institute’s agile aperture antenna technology exemplifies these burgeoning capabilities.These capabilities could enable various, low-RCS antenna arrays to perform and synchronize a multitude of electromagnetic functions – evidenced by the Zumwalt class destroyer’s smooth exterior. Separate antenna array elements could form directional, purposeful transmitting or receiving beams pointing to traditional satellites, CubeSats, Aquila-like aircraft, UAVs, or other warships while other array elements establish links or sense the environment.10 These various arrays and elements would be kept from interfering with each other by orchestrating their assigned tasks across temporal (transmission timing), spectral (frequency allocation or waveform selection), and spatial (which element and/or beam) dimensions, or some combination thereof.

For example, an antenna array on the forward part of the ship could switch duties with those on the aft, thus eliminating cut-out zones and distracting ship maneuvers such as steering a “chat-corpen,” which is slang for a ship heading that will maintain satellite communications (SATCOM). Adjustable transmission power and frequency settings combined with narrower beamforming options may offer additional satellite pointing opportunities or improved low-on-the-horizon aircraft communications, while reducing probability of detection or interception by an adversary. Low power, narrow horizontal beams designed for intra-strike group communications could also multi-statically search for surface contacts – referred to in academic journals as “radar-communication convergence.”11 A majority of shipboard spectrum access and sensing could be performed through a more standardized and harmonious set of advanced interconnected antenna arrays, despite the remaining need for distinct electromagnetic array systems such as Aegis or Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP), which are beyond near-term integration into this concept due to their highly specialized functions. Nevertheless, more capable and dynamic antenna arrays and RF components are a source of increased efficiency, greater operational agility, and a potential aperture to confuse adversaries while maximizing friendly communications and sensing.

A necessary complement to advanced antennas and RF components is the flexibility of SDRs and their associated digital signal processing (DSP) capabilities. SDRs can accomplish a wide variety of functions previously relegated to system-specific hardware by using devices such as field-programmable gate arrays (FPGA) and more generalized, or even virtualized, computing platforms.12 Together these systems can generate, process, store, and share digital data about signals, either for transmission or upon reception. SDRs can generate waveforms electronically-molded for multiple purposes, allowing for backend DSP to differentiate the signal transmissions and, if combined with radar, reflected returns, maximizing the information recovery from each emitted electromagnetic field.

Evolving SDR performance is establishing the foundation for advanced capabilities such as cognitive radio or radar. “Cognitive” in this usage simply implies a capability designed to sense the electromagnetic environment and determine times and frequencies that are being underused, offering an opportunity for use by the system, which is also known as dynamic spectrum access.13 The concept was conceived as a way to achieve more efficient use of the commercial frequency spectrum, given its increasing congestion, but it also has obvious military applications. For example, if a frequency-hopping system was detected in an area, then a cognitive radio could hop to a different sequencing algorithm, or if a radar was sweeping the spectrum at a certain periodicity, a cognitive radar could sweep at a synchronized offset and use both returns for a more refined depiction of contacts in the area. There are even proposals where radar can work collaboratively with cellular signals to detect contacts with a low probability of interception.14 This could be a useful capability during stealthy naval littoral operations. Additionally, within the bounding parameters of the antenna arrays and RF hardware components, new waveform generation only requires a software update enabling an SDR to facilitate communications with new capabilities such as the F-35, a newly launched CubeSat, a friendly unmanned system, a newly arrived coalition partner, or a recently invented low probability of detection waveform designed to defeat the adversary’s latest sensing algorithm.

The more ambitious and final ingredient necessary to achieve improved IW and EMW capabilities is a form of AI designed for electromagnetic applications and decision support. It is obvious from the contributing authors to the recent ITU Journal special issue, The impact of Artificial Intelligence on communication networks and services that Chinese research and innovation is also trending in this direction.15 While SDRs are powerful tools, they could be improved by orders of magnitude through use of AI algorithms such as those derived from Game Theory and Bayesian mathematics.16 SDRs can perform DPS and waveform generation, but AI or machine learning algorithms can assist in orchestrating enhanced scanning and sensing, thus providing the right signals or portions of the spectrum at the right time to the SDRs for DSP and information extraction. In other words, AI could perform higher-level operations such as altering the application of DSP procedures and determining when and how best to sense and exploit underused, or purposefully below the noise floor, portions of the spectrum. AI could also link the myriad permutations of waveform possibilities to operational objectives such as prioritizing air defense electromagnetic sensor processing and EW protection during an engagement, minimizing adversary emission detection opportunities during a raid, or contributing to adversary uncertainty through deliberately misleading emissions during deceptive maneuvers. Together, these capabilities crowned with practical AI implementations could contribute toward easing many tedious, human-speed and error-prone activities used to achieve IW and EMW capabilities. These human errors include hurried and disjointedly setting emissions control, establishing overly static yet fragile communications plans, divining optimal radar configurations, or communicating haphazardly with coalition partners. Empowered with AI-enabled automation and decision aids, a more integrated and homogenous approach using advanced antenna arrays and SDRs to access and sense the spectrum would vastly improve electromagnetic freedom of action and decision superiority. Thus, if the Navy desires to seize sea control when and where she chooses, first establishing electromagnetic spectrum control is a warfighting prerequisite.


All worthwhile visions of the future confront challenges and resistance, and this one is no different. Legacy antennas, components, radios, and architecture litter numerous program offices, each with differing objectives. Therefore, the Navy must diligently work to coordinate deliberate whole-of-Navy modernization schemes that leverage open architecture, emphasize interoperability, and prioritize these technologies in pursuit of this vision’s goals. Beneficially, the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division’s Real Time Spectrum Operations (RTSO) and ONR’s Integrated Topside initiative are laboring toward these ends.17 Also, various DARPA activities such as Signal Processing at RF (SPAR),  Shared Spectrum Access for Radar and Communications (SSPARC), and Communications Under Extreme RF Spectrum Conditions (CommEx), Advanced Wireless Network System (AWNS), and the Spectrum Collaboration Challenge (SC2) together create a rich portfolio of experience and opportunity awaiting renewed Navy focus and attention.18 Furthermore, it will be critical for the Navy to establish an ecosystem, either contracted as a service or as a core, in-house function, in support of continuous SDR software Development and Operations (DevOps) and AI algorithm development.19 This will enable the Navy to continually pace electromagnetic congestion and adversary competition.

Agilely designed, open architecture antenna arrays and RF components connected to dynamic SDRs and empowered by AI algorithms can revitalize and ingrain IW and EMW warfighting capabilities across the Navy to allow the force to confidently seize sea control and win in the future maritime battlespace. Collectively, these capabilities could bring about currently fanciful opportunities, such as a strike group secretly transiting at night through fishing grounds using radio communications imperceptibly different from the fishing trawlers. Such a strike group could employ both intra-strike group communications and surface search radar while receiving and sending intelligence via recently launched CubeSats transmitting on waveforms indistinguishable with area freighters’ Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) satellite communication links, thus remaining electromagnetically camouflaged while maintaining battlespace awareness and communications. Meanwhile, cognitively networked strike group assets could passively sense and target the adversary’s emissions, enabling distributed but converging fires from distant unmanned platforms across the area of operations. Electromagnetic control establishes the initial conditions for sea control.

Lofty tactics and operations will perform sub-optimally and be disrupted through electronic attack unless the Navy builds a solid foundation in electromagnetic freedom of action. Fortuitously, these technologies creatively combined will lay the keel of advanced naval warfighting upon which future naval success will be built, launching a powerful, tough, and confident Navy into the turbulent waters of great power competition to seize sea control when and where she chooses.

LCDR Damien Dodge is a U.S. Navy cryptologic warfare officer assigned to the staff of Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, NATO. He welcomes your comments at: damienadodge+essay@gmail.com. These views are his alone and do not necessarily represent any U.S. or Allied government or NATO department or agency.


[1] Joint Operating Environment 2035: The Joint Force in a Contested and Disordered World, Joint Staff, 14 July 2016, pp. 15-20. http://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Doctrine/concepts/joe_2035_july16.pdf?ver=2017-12-28-162059-917

[2] Daniel R. Coats, “Worldwide Threat Assessment  of the  US Intelligence Community,” 11 May 2017,  https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Testimonies/SSCI%20Unclassified%20SFR%20-%20Final.pdf  

and, Reuters, “Chinese quantum satellite sends ‘unbreakable’ code,” Reuters.com, 10 August 2017,  https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-space-satellite/chinese-quantum-satellite-sends-unbreakable-code-idUSKBN1AQ0C9 and, Shelly Banjo and David Ramli, “Google to Open Beijing AI Center in Latest Expansion in China,” Bloomberg.com, 12 December 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-12-13/google-to-open-beijing-ai-center-in-latest-expansion-in-china

[3] GEN John R. Allen, USMC (Ret.), and Amir Husain, “On Hyperwar,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 143, no. 7 (July 2017), 30–37.

[4] A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, Chief of Naval Operations Staff, Version 1.0 January 2016. Available at, http://www.navy.mil/cno/docs/cno_stg.pdf

[5] “The Future Navy,” 17 May 2017, http://www.navy.mil/navydata/people/cno/Richardson/Resource/TheFutureNavy.pdf

[6] Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “Navy Kludges Networks: $1M Per Carrier Strike Group, Per Deployment,” Breaking Defense, 12 February 2018, https://breakingdefense.com/2018/02/navy-kludges-networks-1m-per-carrier-strike-group-per-deployment/?_ga=2.90851354.1645113230.1518436630-2104563909.1489661725

[7] Mike Gruss, “Three tech problems the Navy and Marines are worried about,” C4ISRNET, 8 February 2018, available https://www.c4isrnet.com/show-reporter/afcea-west/2018/02/08/three-tech-problems-the-navy-and-marines-corps-are-worried-about/

[8] Examples include: James J. Komiak, Ryan S. Westafer, Nancy V. Saldanha, Randall Lapierre, and R. Todd Lee “Wideband Monolithic Tile for Reconfigurable Phased Arrays,” available http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/1041386.pdf and Benjamin Rohrdantz, Karsten Kuhlmann, Alexander Stark, Alexander Geise, Arne Jacob, “Digital beamforming antenna array with polarisation multiplexing for mobile high-speed satellite terminals at Ka-band,” The Journal of Engineering, 2016, 2016, (6), p. 180-188, DOI: 10.1049/joe.2015.0163 IET Digital Library, http://digital-library.theiet.org/content/journals/10.1049/joe.2015.0163  and Darren J. Hartl, Jeffery W. Baur, Geoffrey J. Frank, Robyn Bradford, David Phillips, Thao Gibson, Daniel Rapking, Amrita Bal, and Gregory Huff, “Beamforming and Reconfiguration of A Structurally Embedded Vascular Antenna Array (Seva2) in Both Multi-Layer and Complex Curved Composites,” Air Force Research Laboratory, AFRL-RX-WP-JA-2017-0481, 20 October 2017, available http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/1042385.pdf

[9] GTRI Agile Aperture Antenna Technology Is Tested On An Autonomous Ocean Vehicle … https://www.rfglobalnet.com/doc/gtri-agile-aperture-antenna-technology-autonomous-ocean-vehicle-0001

[10] Aquila is a Facebook project to develop a high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) solar-powered UAV “that the company envisions one day will provide wireless network connectivity to parts of the world that lack traditional communication infrastructure.” Steven Moffitt and Evan Ladd, “Ensure COMMS: Tap Commercial Innovations for the Military,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 143, no. 12 (December 2017), 54-58.

[11] Bryan Paul, Alex R. Chiriyath, and Daniel W. Bliss, “Survey of RF Communications and Sensing Convergence Research,” IEEE Access, date of publication December 13, 2016, date of current version February 25, 2017, Digital Object Identifier 10.1109/ACCESS.2016.2639038 available http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?arnumber=7782415

[12] Mike Lee, Mike Lucas, Robert Young, Robert Howell, Pavel Borodulin, Nabil El-Hinnawy, “RF FPGA for 0.4 to 18 GHz DoD Multi-function Systems,” Mar 2013, http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a579506.pdf

[13] Helen Tang and Susan Watson, “Cognitive radio networks for tactical wireless Communications,” Defence Research and Development Canada, Scientific Report, DRDC-RDDC-2014-R185, December 2014, available http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/1004297.pdf 

[14] Chenguang Shi, Sana Salous, Fei Wang, and Jianjiang Zhou, “Low probability of intercept-based adaptive radar waveform optimization in signal-dependent clutter for joint radar and cellular communication systems,” EURASIP Journal on Advances in Signal Processing, (2016) 2016:111, DOI 10.1186/s13634-016-0411-6, available https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5085998/ 

[15] ITU Journal, ICT Discoveries, First special issue on “The impact of Artificial Intelligence on communication networks and services,” Volume 1, No. 1, March 2018, available, https://www.itu.int/dms_pub/itu-t/opb/tut/T-TUT-ITUJOURNAL-2018-P1-PDF-E.pdf

[16] Jan Oksanen, “Machine learning methods for spectrum exploration and exploitation,” Aalto University publication series, Doctoral Dissertations 169/2016, 21 June 2016 Unigrafia Oy, Helsinki, Finland, 2016, available

https://aaltodoc.aalto.fi/bitstream/handle/123456789/21917/isbn9789526069814.pdf?sequence=1 and Helen Tang, et al.

[17] Gregory Tavik, James Alter, James Evins, Dharmesh Patel, Norman Thomas, Ronnie Stapleton, John Faulkner, Steve Hedges, Peter Moosbrugger, Wayne Hunter, Robert Normoyle, Michael Butler, Tim Kirk, William Mulqueen, Jerald Nespor, Douglas Carlson, Joseph Krycia, William Kennedy, Craig McCordic, and Michael Sarcione, “Integrated Topside (InTop) Joint Navy–Industry Open Architecture Study” Naval Research Laboratory, Sponsored by Office of Naval Research, 10 September 2010,  NRL/FR/5008–10-10,198 available http://www.dtic.mil/get-tr-doc/pdf?AD=ADA528790 and, John Joyce, “Navy Expands Electromagnetic Maneuver Warfare for ‘Victory at Sea,’” U.S. Navy, 11/2/2017, Story Number: NNS171102-14, http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=103165

[18] See DARPA research at https://www.darpa.mil/our-research and, Helen Tang, et al. and John Haystead, “Big Challenges Ahead as DOD Tries to Address EMSO Implementation,” Journal of Electronic Defense, February 2018 pp 22-25; and DARPA’s SC2 site https://spectrumcollaborationchallenge.com

[19] Possibly a sub-ecosystem within OPNAV’s Digital Warfare Office (DWO).

Featured Image: Operations Specialist 2nd Class Matthew Jones, from Victorville, Calif., stands watch in Combat Direction Center aboard the forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73). (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Jennifer A. Villalovos/Released)

Unmanned Mission Command, Pt. 1

By Tim McGeehan

The following two-part series discusses the command and control of future autonomous systems. Part 1 describes how we have arrived at the current tendency towards detailed control. Part 2 proposes how to refocus on mission command.


In recent years, the U.S. Navy’s unmanned vehicles have achieved a number of game-changing “firsts.” The X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) executed the first carrier launch and recovery in 2013, first combined manned/unmanned carrier operations in 2014, and first aerial refueling in 2015.1 In 2014, the Office of Naval Research demonstrated the first swarm capability for Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USV).2 In 2015, the NORTH DAKOTA performed the first launch and recovery of an Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) from a submarine during an operational mission.3 While these successes may represent the vanguard of a revolution in military technology, the larger revolution in military affairs will only be possible with the optimization of the command and control concepts associated with these systems. Regardless of specific mode (air, surface, or undersea), Navy leaders must fully embrace mission command to fully realize the power of these capabilities.

Unmanned History

“Unmanned” systems are not necessarily new. The U.S. Navy’s long history includes the employment of a variety of such platforms. For example, in 1919, Coast Battleship #4 (formerly USS IOWA (BB-1)) became the first radio-controlled target ship to be used in a fleet exercise.4 During World War II, participation in an early unmanned aircraft program called PROJECT ANVIL ultimately killed Navy Lieutenant Joe Kennedy (John F. Kennedy’s older brother), who was to parachute from his bomb-laden aircraft before it would be guided into a German target by radio-control.5 In 1946, F6F Hellcat fighters were modified for remote operation and employed to collect data during the OPERATION CROSSROADS atomic bomb tests at Bikini.6 These Hellcat “drones” could be controlled by another aircraft acting as the “queen” (flying up to 30 miles away). These drones were even launched from the deck of an aircraft carrier (almost 70 years before the X-47B performed that feat).

A Hellcat drone takes flight. Original caption: PILOTLESS HELLCAT (above), catapulted from USS Shangri-La, is clear of the carrier’s bow and climbs rapidly. Drones like this one will fly through the atomic cloud. (All Hands Magazine June 1946 issue)

However, the Navy’s achievements over the last few years were groundbreaking because the platforms were autonomous (i.e. controlled by machine, not remotely operated by a person). The current discussion of autonomy frequently revolves around the issues of ethics and accountability. Is it ethical to imbue these machines with the authority to use lethal force? If the machine is not under direct human control but rather evaluating for itself, who is responsible for its decisions and actions when faced with dilemmas? Much has been written about these topics, but there is a related and less discussed question: what sort of mindset shift will be required for Navy leaders to employ these systems to their full potential?

Command, Control, and Unmanned Systems

According to Naval Doctrine Publication 6 – Command and Control (NDP 6), “a commander commands by deciding what must be done and exercising leadership to inspire subordinates toward a common goal; he controls by monitoring and influencing the action required to accomplish what must be done.”7 These enduring concepts have new implications in the realm of unmanned systems. For example, while a commander can assign tasks to any subordinate (human or machine), “inspiring subordinates” has varying levels of applicability based on whether his units consist of “remotely piloted” aircraft (where his subordinates are actual human pilots) or autonomous systems (where the “pilot” is an algorithm controlling a machine). “Command” also includes establishing intent, distributing guidance on allocation of roles, responsibilities, and resources, and defining constraints on actions.8 On one hand, this could be straightforward with autonomous systems as this guidance could be translated into a series of rules and parameters that define the mission and rules of engagement. One would simply upload the mission and deploy the vehicle, which would go out and execute, possibly reporting in for updates but mostly operating on its own, solving problems along the way. On the other hand, in the absence of instructions that cover every possibility, an autonomous system is only as good as the internal algorithms that control it. Even as machine learning drastically improves and advanced algorithms are developed from extensive “training data,” an autonomous system may not respond to novel and ambiguous situations with the same judgment as a human. Indeed, one can imagine a catastrophic military counterpart to the 2010 stock market “flash crash,” where high-frequency trading algorithms designed to act in accordance with certain, pre-arranged criteria did not understand context and misread the situation, briefly erasing $1 trillion in market value.9

“Control” includes the conduits and feedback from subordinates to their commander that allow them to determine if events are on track or to adjust instructions as necessary. This is reasonably straightforward for a remotely piloted aircraft with a constant data link between platform and operator, such as the ScanEagle or MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned aerial systems. However, a fully autonomous system may not be in positive communication. Even if it is ostensibly intended to remain in communication, feedback to the commander could be limited or non-existent due to emissions control (EMCON) posture or a contested electromagnetic (EM) spectrum. 

Mission Command and Unmanned Systems

In recent years, there has been a renewed focus across the Joint Force on the concept of “mission command.” Mission command is defined as “the conduct of military operations through decentralized execution based upon mission-type orders,” and it lends itself well to the employment of autonomous systems.10 Joint doctrine states:

“Mission command is built on subordinate leaders at all echelons who exercise disciplined initiative and act aggressively and independently to accomplish the mission. Mission-type orders focus on the purpose of the operation rather than details of how to perform assigned tasks. Commanders delegate decisions to subordinates wherever possible, which minimizes detailed control and empowers subordinates’ initiative to make decisions based on the commander’s guidance rather than constant communications.”11

Mission command for an autonomous system would require commanders to clearly confer their intent, objectives, constraints, and restraints in succinct instructions, and then rely on the “initiative” of said system. While this decentralized arrangement is more flexible and better suited to deal with ambiguity, it opens the door to unexpected or emergent behavior in the autonomous system. (Then again, emergent behavior is not confined to algorithms, as humans may perform in unexpected ways too.) 

In addition to passing feedback and information up the chain of command to build a shared understanding of the situation, mission command also emphasizes horizontal flow across the echelon between the subordinates. Since it relies on subordinates knowing the intent and mission requirements, mission command is much less vulnerable to disruption than detailed means of command and control.

However, some commanders today do not fully embrace mission command with human subordinates, much less feel comfortable delegating trust to autonomous systems.  They issue explicit instructions to subordinates in a highly-centralized arrangement, where volumes of information flow up and detailed orders flow down the chain of command. This may be acceptable in deliberate situations where time is not a major concern, where procedural compliance is emphasized, or where there can be no ambiguity or margin for error. Examples of unmanned systems suitable to this arrangement include a bomb disposal robot or remotely piloted aircraft that requires constant intervention and re-tasking, possibly for rapid repositioning of the platform for a better look at an emerging situation or better discrimination between friend and foe. However, this detailed control does not “function well when the vertical flow of information is disrupted.”12 Furthermore, when it comes to autonomous systems, such detailed control will undermine much of the purpose of having an autonomous system in the first place.

A fundamental task of the commander is to recognize which situations call for detailed control or mission command and act appropriately. Unfortunately, the experience gained by many commanders over the last decade has introduced a bias towards detailed control, which will hamstring the potential capabilities of autonomous systems if this tendency is not overcome.

Current Practice

The American military has enjoyed major advantages in recent conflicts due to global connectivity and continuous communications. However, this has redefined expectations and higher echelons increasingly rely on detailed control (for manned forces, let alone unmanned ones). Senior commanders (or their staffs) may levy demands to feed a seemingly insatiable thirst for information. This has led to friction between the echelons of command, and in some cases this interaction occurs at the expense of the decision-making capability of the unit in the field. Subordinate staff watch officers may spend more time answering requests for information and “feeding the beast” of higher headquarters than they spend overseeing their own operations.

It is understandable why this situation exists today. The senior commander (with whom responsibility ultimately resides) expects to be kept well-informed. To be fair, in some cases a senior commander located at a fusion center far from the front may have access to multiple streams of information, giving them a better overall view of what is going on than the commander actually on the ground. In other cases, it is today’s 24-hour news cycle and zero tolerance for mistakes that have led senior commanders to succumb to the temptation to second-guess their subordinates and micromanage their units in the field. A compounding factor that may be influencing commanders in today’s interconnected world is “Fear of Missing Out” (FoMO), which is described by psychologists as apprehension or anxiety stemming from the availability of volumes of information about what others are doing (think social media). It leads to a strong, almost compulsive desire to stay continually connected.  13

Whatever the reason, this is not a new phenomenon. Understanding previous episodes when leadership has “tightened the reins” and the subsequent impacts is key to developing a path forward to fully leverage the potential of autonomous systems.

Veering Off Course

The recent shift of preference away from mission command toward detailed control appears to echo the impacts of previous advances in the technology employed for command and control in general. For example, when speaking of his service with the U.S. Asiatic Squadron and the introduction of the telegraph before the turn of the 20th century, Rear Admiral Caspar Goodrich lamented “Before the submarine cable was laid, one was really somebody out there, but afterwards one simply became a damned errand boy at the end of a telegraph wire.”14

Later, the impact of wireless telegraphy proved to be a mixed blessing for commanders at sea. Interestingly, the contrasting points of view clearly described how it would enable micromanagement; the difference in opinion was whether this was good or bad. This was illustrated by two 1908 newspaper articles regarding the introduction of wireless in the Royal Navy. One article extolled its virtues, describing how the First Sea Lord in London could direct all fleet activities “as if they were maneuvering beneath his office windows.”15 The other article described how those same naval officers feared “armchair control… by means of wireless.”16 In century-old text that could be drawn from today’s press, the article quoted a Royal Navy officer:

“The paramount necessity in the next naval war will be rapidity of thought and of execution…The innovation is causing more than a little misgiving among naval officers afloat. So far as it will facilitate the interchange of information and the sending of important news, the erection of the [wireless] station is welcomed, but there is a strong fear that advantage will be taken of it to interfere with the independent action of fleet commanders in the event of war.”

Military historian Martin van Creveld related a more recent lesson of technology-enabled micromanagement from the U.S. Army. This time the technology in question was the helicopter, and its widespread use by multiple echelons of command during Viet Nam drove the shift away from mission command to detailed control:

“A hapless company commander engaged in a firefight on the ground was subjected to direct observation by the battalion commander circling above, who was in turn supervised by the brigade commander circling a thousand or so feet higher up, who in his turn was monitored by the division commander in the next highest chopper, who might even be so unlucky as to have his own performance watched by the Field Force (corps) commander. With each of these commanders asking the men on the ground to tune in his frequency and explain the situation, a heavy demand for information was generated that could and did interfere with the troops’ ability to operate effectively.”17

However, not all historic shifts toward detailed control are due to technology; some are cultural. For example, leadership had encroached so much on the authority of commanders in the days leading up to World War II that Admiral King had to issue a message to the fleet with the subject line “Exercise of Command – Excess of Detail in Orders and Instructions,” where he voiced his concern. He wrote that the:

“almost standard practice – of flag officers and other group commanders to issue orders and instructions in which their subordinates are told how as well as what to do to such an extent and in such detail that the Custom of the service has virtually become the antithesis of that essential element of command – initiative of the subordinate.”18

Admiral King attributed this trend to several cultural reasons, including anxiety of seniors that any mistake of a subordinate be attributed to the senior and thereby jeopardize promotion, activities of staffs infringing on lower echelon functions, and the habit and expectation of detailed instructions from junior and senior alike. He went on to say that they were preparing for war, when there would be neither time nor opportunity for this method of control, and this was conditioning subordinate commanders to rely on explicit guidance and depriving them from learning how to exercise initiative. Now, over 70 years later, as the Navy moves forward with autonomous systems the technology-enabled and culture-driven drift towards detailed control is again becoming an Achilles heel.

Read Part 2 here.

Tim McGeehan is a U.S. Navy Officer currently serving in Washington. 

The ideas presented are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or Department of Defense.


[1] Northrup Grumman, X-47B Capabilities, 2015, http://www.northropgrumman.com/Capabilities/x47bucas/Pages/default.aspx

[2] David Smalley, The Future Is Now: Navy’s Autonomous Swarmboats Can Overwhelm Adversaries, ONR Press Release, October 5, 2014, http://www.onr.navy.mil/en/Media-Center/Press-Releases/2014/autonomous-swarm-boat-unmanned-caracas.aspx

[3] Associated Press, Submarine launches undersea drone in a 1st for Navy, Military Times, July 20, 2015, http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/tech/2015/07/20/submarine-launches-undersea-drone-in-a-1st-for-navy/30442323/

[4] Naval History and Heritage Command, Iowa II (BB-1), July 22, 2015, http://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/i/iowa-ii.html

[5] Trevor Jeremy, LT Joe Kennedy, Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum, 2015, http://www.aviationmuseum.net/JoeKennedy.htm

[6] Puppet Planes, All Hands, June 1946, http://www.navy.mil/ah_online/archpdf/ah194606.pdf, p. 2-5

[7] Naval Doctrine Publication 6:  Naval Command and Control, 1995, http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a304321.pdf, p. 6

[8] David Alberts and Richard Hayes, Understanding Command and Control, 2006, http://www.dodccrp.org/files/Alberts_UC2.pdf, p. 58

[9] Ben Rooney, Trading program sparked May ‘flash crash’, October 1, 2010, CNN, http://money.cnn.com/2010/10/01/markets/SEC_CFTC_flash_crash/

[10] DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, March, 2017, http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/new_pubs/jp1_02.pdf

[11] Joint Publication 3-0, Joint Operations, http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/new_pubs/jp3_0.pdf

[12] Ibid

[13] Andrew Przybylski, Kou Murayama, Cody DeHaan , and Valerie Gladwell, Motivational, emotional, and behavioral correlates of fear of missing out, Computers in Human Behavior, Vol 29 (4), July 2013,  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563213000800

[14] Michael Palmer, Command at Sea:  Naval Command and Control since the Sixteenth Century, 2005, p. 215

[15] W. T. Stead, Wireless Wonders at the Admiralty, Dawson Daily News, September 13, 1908, https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=41&dat=19080913&id=y8cjAAAAIBAJ&sjid=KCcDAAAAIBAJ&pg=3703,1570909&hl=en

[16] Fleet Commanders Fear Armchair Control During War by Means of Wireless, Boston Evening Transcript, May 2, 1908, https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2249&dat=19080502&id=N3Y-AAAAIBAJ&sjid=nVkMAAAAIBAJ&pg=470,293709&hl=en

[17] Martin van Creveld, Command in War, 1985, p. 256-257.

[18] CINCLANT Serial (053), Exercise of Command – Excess of Detail in Orders and Instructions, January 21, 1941

Featured Image: An X-47B drone prepares to take off. (U.S. Navy photo)

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, AI

Fiction Topic Week 

By Mike Matson

Julien swayed in his seat as the train clattered through the tunnel. He had always liked the tube, and even in the most stressful times, he found riding trains soothing. His body was lean like a runner’s, his casual clothes unremarkable, his cropped brown hair firmly in place. In his late 40s, Julien was plain in every way, the perfect look for an MoD intelligence officer.

Today however he was secretly agitated. He had sent the “emergency contact” signal ten days ago and today was the day.

Julien’s signal had sent a ripple of activity through the Russian Rezidentura, triggering pre-planned emergency procedures. His handlers had seen the signal, and provided the confirmation two days later.

To complete the three-way handshake and verify the original signal was real, the next day Julien had left the blinds open in one window. If it had been the left window it would have meant contact needed. But Julien had left the blinds open on the right window. He was requesting emergency extraction from Britain.

Today, Saturday, was the first operational window to attempt the extraction.

For three hours, he had been conducting a surveillance detection route across London, attempting to draw out surveillance teams, something he knew was damn near impossible these days with ubiquitous CCTV coverage, micro drones, and smart dust. But he was classically trained, and he had seen time and again proper tradecraft still mattered.

He had not picked up any sign of MI5’s surveillance teams, but something didn’t feel right. Is my subconscious picking up something, or am I just nervous? He wondered to himself. He was approaching his final go / no-go point where he had to decide whether to commit to the extraction.

“You haven’t picked up any matches correct?” he sub-vocalized in his throat.

“No facial recognition hits, anomalous movement patterns, or statistically significant facial expressions on any passengers,” replied his personal digital assistant through speakers on his AR glasses. His assistant, a government issued AI programmed for intelligence matters, had been continuously scanning the crowd, looking for the one item of place which might indicate he was under surveillance.

“What can you find on him there?” He tagged a fellow commuter across the way with a blink.

“Just a moment sir.” The AI snapped the QR dots lining the person’s glasses and obtained a readout: name, social media, marriage status, and an invite to contact for more information. He was a clerk at an investment house. The AI relayed it to Julien. Julien grunted.

“What about the signal traffic?” His clothing had special fibers weaved into his coat designed to intercept radio frequencies. His AI evaluated the sensor readings.

“Encrypted MI5 traffic remains higher than normal, and drone channels are in restricted mode.” Something was happening and Julien wasn’t sure if it was related to him.

His instincts from 20 years of field work were telling him to bail. A part of him knew he was violating the cardinal rule of field work – if it doesn’t feel right, walk away. There’s always tomorrow.

But he was convinced he was about to be exposed at work, if he had not been already. He had noticed subtle restrictions on his access over the last two weeks. The CI teams were onto him, or had him on a very small list of possible suspects. The noose was tightening, he could feel it.

The train approached the station. The doors opened and he decided to commit to the extraction. All he had to do was go up the escalators and as he walked out onto the street, a car would pull up and he would calmly get in. He was moments from safety. He took a deep breath. “Stay sharp,” he muttered to his assistant.

He followed the crowd and came around the curve towards the escalators. Standing to the right of the escalators was a woman with two small children. She was clutching an umbrella in her left hand. She looked annoyed as she tried to control her kids.

Jack said it a half second before Section Chief Lamb.

“He knows,” stated the AI android standing impassively next to SC Lamb as Lamb blurted out the same thing, along with a curse.

MI5’s primary counterintelligence AI assistant was watching the video feed with SC Lamb in MI5’s operation center. They had just watched Julien Burrows make an imperceptible half stutter step before regaining his composure and smoothly veering to his left down another hallway.

“Confidence level?” asked SC Lamb, although his gut told him they were right. Burrows was a pro who had grown up doing field work in the age of AI. He was trained never to make any break in his physical pattern when operational because the machines were always watching. But something had thrown him for a half second and then he had veered across the flow of traffic in an awkward manner. It was enough.

“87 percent and rising sir.”

“Attention!” Spoke SC Lamb into his throat mic. “We’ve been burned! Surveillance teams close the gap and body double him until the QRF armed response officers arrive. QRF move to intercept.”

The original plan was to take him down with his handler in the act of passing intelligence. The plan just changed on them.

As his forces expertly shifted gears, SC Lamb, tall, slim, and dressed as impeccably as any banker in London, contacted the Home Office and requested lethal force authorization – just in case.

Jack spoke up with what would later be assessed as the first inkling something else was in play.

“Sir…” Jack paused. “It appears we do not have any QRF assets close enough to reach him within the next five minutes, nor additional surveillance assets. But several Russian personnel are closing on his position.”

“What the hell Jack?” Jack was responsible for positioning MI5’s assets. SC Lamb suddenly looked nervous.

“I don’t know what happened sir, working to reposition assets now.”


Julien knew he had only seconds. He had been shocked at seeing the emergency evade signal in the form of the Russian diplomat’s wife with her kids. They somehow knew he had been compromised. Based on contingency procedures they had worked out a year before when he had met his handler in Portugal, he had one high-risk chance to escape the arrest which was probably imminent and that was the approaching in the next hallway – if they had timed it right.

He slipped off his jacket and unclipped his smart watch. As he rounded the next corner he ditched the jacket, phone, and watch. He tossed his glasses on the ground in front of him and stepped on them.

There was a short flight of stairs in front of him. He saw two men coming down the right side, almost holding hands. He made eye contact as he came up. Just as he got to them they separated and the two-part device they had been holding separated, revealing a faint blueish field. Julien’s teeth tingled as he went through it. As soon as he was through he took off running.

“He just ghosted!” yelled out a tech. Julien had stepped through a low powered EMP field designed to fry smart dust. Julien’s house, car, and cloths had been saturated with smart dust for months, billions of nano-sized RFID transmitters coded to his CI case. Everywhere he went, when he passed near an RFID reader, it had transmitted his location.

London had thousands of RFID readers installed by the police and security services which allowed for near continuous tracking of subjects. Coupled with CCTV, and insect drones following him in every public space, there was nowhere Julien had gone for months without SC Lamb, his team, and the ever-vigilant Jack knowing about it.

Julien’s code-word level access had also warranted MI5’s elite physical surveillance team to be assigned to cover him. They relied on old school hand signals to maintain contact while on target in order to defeat frequency monitoring, and they knew every street in the city better than a taxi driver – in fact they all had to pass the legendary London taxi exam to make the team.

Today the entire 30-person team had the eye, but MI5’s other teams were also active because at dawn the entire Russian Embassy staff plus family had bombshelled out of their living quarters to stretch MI5’s surveillance assets. The other MI5 teams scrambling to cover the dozens of Russians flooding the city was the cause of the radio traffic Julien’s AI had intercepted.

The Russians had been patiently preparing for this occasion. Bombshelling was nothing new. But Moscow Center mathematicians had developed specific travel routes across London designed to attack Jack’s algorithm.

The diplomats’ routes had been designed to manipulate the deep learning skills underpinning MI5’s automated CI program, and train the program to respond in an anticipated manner. Although the Russians didn’t know the program was named Jack, they had obtained part of its source code and knew how Jack operated.

The Russians had learned that deep learning algorithms could be tricked if fed enough repetitive data. And they devised a dedicated attack on Jack’s programming.

The Russians had conducted five near-identical bombshells in the last year, building up a pattern Jack would recognize. Jack anticipated where everyone was going this morning based on prior bombshells, and pre-positioned surveillance and QRFs accordingly.

This morning the Russians had introduced slight variations in the routes. Jack had compensated, recommending shifts in resources to address the changes. The math nerds in Moscow Center had calculated a 71 percent chance Jack would miss the crucial, fleeting advantage the new patterns created.

They were right.

What the route planning had done was create a temporary, surveillance-team free bubble around the tube station that developed just before Jack arrived at the station, isolating Julien with the few surveillance personnel maintaining contact with him on the train, while supporting teams were elsewhere or slowed by highly predictable London traffic.

At the precise moment, the Russians crashed the bubble, racing people into place to help Julien during the small window of advantage before Jack, SC Lamb, and MI5 realized they’d been played and could recover.

As part of the mathematical Maskirovka, a wife of a Russian diplomat who had never been used operationally before and therefore had a low score on Jack’s threat meter, was directed to stand in the tube station with her kids and carrying an umbrella. It was the warning signal.

Julien raced up the stairs and heard a commotion behind him. The two men who had ghosted him appeared to be wrestling with two men and a woman trying to get past them.

One of them the damn clerk from the tube car!

He pushed harder and hit the exit of the tube station. He had to make one of three planned rendezvous locations (RVs) within the next five minutes or he was on his own.

Turning, he walked along the sidewalk at a fast pace. Ordered to close in, the remaining surveillance team members were forced to break cover to keep up. Now Julien’s classical tradecraft kicked in, as he easily picked up two separate surface-level surveillance teams trying to reposition. He automatically recognized they were using a box pattern, allowing him from experience to anticipate where the other members were.

Julien hit the corner of the street. There was no one waiting for him, the first RV was empty.

He crossed the street and boldly pushed right into one of the arriving surveillance elements. He had guessed which team it was, whom he knew were unarmed and not authorized to apprehend a target. They blended back into the crowd, one of them making eye contact with him. He winked.

Do the unexpected, that’s the best way to beat the programming!

He knew from his training MI5’s command center would be frantically attempting to reacquire full containment. The QRF had to be only minutes away. If the pickup wasn’t at the second RV he would probably never make the third. He risked a glance upwards looking for insect drones.

“QRF 30 seconds out sir. Wasn’t expecting him to cut across the box like that. Delta element reported they were clearly made.”

“We know he was good, he’s attacking the damn procedures just like he was trained. No matter, we still have the eye and have two insect drones on him. Twenty seconds to intercept.”

Jack was not convinced.

“Section Chief Lamb, I think they are attempting a pickup. Traffic sensors indicate a car approaching from behind at high speed. They will get there before the QRF.”

“Then red light the traffic signals and gridlock that street!”

“It will take approximately three minutes to obtain Home Secretary approval and coordinate it with City of London. They will be gone by then.” SC Lamb cursed under his breath as he watched via video Julien step up to the curb. The operation was breaking down fast. But Julien was still in the middle of London. SC Lamb held the overall advantage.

An Audi pulled up to the curb with a squeal. The trunk popped open and Julien dived in and pulled the lid shut as the car pulled away.

Inside the trunk he stripped out of his remaining clothes, leaving only his underwear. The car came to another hasty stop a few minutes later and the back seat folded outward. He rolled into the back seat, helped by three sets of hands.

“Sir the trunk is thermal shielded. Two people in the back seat, one in the front. Entering the underpass now. Another diplomatic vehicle is entering from the other direction.”

“Time to reacquire the eye?” The Russians had successfully put themselves in the clear. As they had pulled away from the curb with Julien in the trunk, one of the Russians had leaned out the back window with a device he waved for 20 seconds behind them in a fan pattern. It was likely an anti-drone gun since the insect drones had dropped off the net.

All MI5 had left tracking Julien at the moment was a high-altitude drone following the car from 8,000 meters, which could not see into the underpass, but which had given them a body count via FLIR.

“Two minutes until acquisition. Normal time to traverse the underpass is approximately 10 seconds. They have already surpassed that.” Jack spoke with a clinical eye as his backend supercomputer mainframe endlessly churned through data and possibilities.

SC Lamb paced back and forth, the bridge larger than life in front of them on the screen.

“Contact! We have both cars exiting the tunnel in different directions. Total time in tunnel 47 seconds.” Lamb ordered QRF teams onto both cars.

SC Lamb was reminded of three card Monty. He wondered if that had ever been programmed into Jack. He noticed Jack was replaying the last twenty minutes of activity on a side screen, moving it forward and back time and again.

“What do you see Jack?” asked Lamb, looking at the replays going by at x8 speed on the screen.

“Not sure yet. Still working on the math. I’ll let you know if I find something.” Jack sounded pensive and distracted for a moment. Then he came back into focus. “Checking thermals on both cars…” Jack scanned the readouts.

“Both cars’ trunks are thermal shielded. I can’t tell you which car he is in.” SC Lamb chewed on his lips as he watched dashcam video from one of the mobile teams chasing to catch up.

“Sir, mobile teams are asking for permission to stop the diplomatic vehicles.” SC Lamb thought it over briefly.

“Granted. QRF are to stop both cars and seize the target.” He’d let Whitehall clean up the diplomatic mess. He figured he had some quid-pro-quo what with the Russians using EMP weapons.

SC Lamb thought back to the card analogy. Where was the third card?

The two Muslim ladies in full hijab with the small, darker-skinned child in hand walked down the sidewalk in the tunnel and watched as a car rocketed through, horn blaring. They looked at each other and kept walking.

Moments after that several pedestrians came running into the tunnel. One paused and gave the ladies a hard look, saw the child and the shopping bag full of groceries, and continued on his way, waving to the others.

The ladies continued out of the underpass, holding the child’s hand, along with their groceries, casually turning to take a flight of stairs up to the overpass. There they walked to a bus station and got on the driverless double decker bus that pulled up. The taller lady paid for all three of them and moved to the back of the bus where they talked quietly.

Fifteen minutes later SC Lamb knew the operation was well and truly blown.

“Sir, both GRFs indicate they have fully searched each vehicle and there is no sign of Mr. Burrows,” reported the lead communication tech. “The Russians are vehemently protesting their detention and claiming diplomatic immunity.”

“I fucking hate three card Monty!” growled SC Lamb. “Let them go but seize any EMP weapons.” He stewed for a few moments and the techs made themselves busy. SC Lamb spoke to Jack.

“Figure out what we missed.”

It was terabytes of data, but Jack’s processing capability and Lamb’s highly trained operators, who worked with Jack and the other systems with the help of machine-brain interfaces, pieced together what had happened in only a few minutes.

It was the shoes which first gave it away.

Reviewing body camera footage, it was a human tech Lamb was pleased to note who saw the two Muslim women were wearing men’s shoes. It was just a glimpse of a toe and heel but it was enough. The child’s face was then matched to a Russian diplomat’s child. Based on that, Jack enhanced processing of the thermal of the Audi and noticed one person in the back seat was statistically larger.

Back tracing the car’s route over the morning, Jack reviewed three dozen different CCTV views of the car in seconds. In two the angle was just right to backlight the passengers despite the tinted windows. One of them had a child sitting on their lap.

“Son of a bitch,” Lamb said with a bit of awe when Jack put the picture up on the screen. The child was a prop nobody had anticipated. It had worked perfectly.

“All right, they have a 20-minute head start. Work the bus route and follow the Russians’ dust trail, redeploy the teams into a containment net. I want teams at all the major train stations. Push his mug out to the Met Transport Police. I’m authorizing real time facial recognition on every CCTV in the city. Find him!”  The SC touched the ear bud to call the Director.

After three stops the two Muslim women got out and headed into a multi-story department store. There they split up. The Russian agent had debriefed Mr. Burrows and now it was critical he got back to the Embassy. He pulled off the hajib in one fluid motion and left it behind a display, heading back outside with his daughter.

He knew he would be instantly marked, but he didn’t care, Burrow’s intelligence was in his head. He called the Embassy and provided the one-word success signal.

Burrows went up a floor and quickly walked into a women’s WC where he entered a stall with his bag of groceries. There he pulled out his instructions for his extraction. Reading them three times, he tossed the flash paper in the toilet where it instantly dissolved.

Hidden under the groceries was a reversible backpack with a set of clothes and a set of tear away paper clothing to go over it. Accessories included a wig, new glasses, cheek inserts, two burner phones, two hats, and a reversible jacket. A wallet with pre-paid credit cards and a large amount of cash was also included. The wallet had a set of IDs and pocket litter. The instructions indicated one of the burner phones had a bitcoin wallet on it.

He waited until it sounded like the loo was empty, then rushed out, eventually making his way onto the street. He powered the first burner and walked a block to a bike station and checked out a commuter bike with the bitcoin wallet. He headed for the train station, his now long black hair flowing behind him.

Burrows parked the bike and walked into the station. He used the phone to purchase a ticket and got onto the train. Once on he walked forward. He took off his jacket as he reached the gap between the first two cars. Sliding open the door, he stepped between the cars and in one fluid motion, tore off the paper clothing, revealing the second set of clothes. He pulled off his wig, dropping it all in the gap.

At the next gap he reversed his jacket and backpack. He slipped his activated burner phone into a seat back in the third car. At the gap of the third car he put on his new sunglasses which would block iris scanning, added the mustache and clip-on earing, positioned the cheek inserts to alter his facial profile, and a popped on a cap and got off. He casually walked down the platform and out of the station, living his third disguise in the last hour.

It took considerable time and processing power but eventually Jack and the team cross referenced all the CCTVs with cell tower pings, and a few weak, residual smart dust hits from Julien’s contact with the Russian IO, and located Julien on camera biking to the train station.

Once they reconstructed his movements, cell phone pings and CCTV placed him on the train which had departed for the coast two hours before. Transport police on the train had been alerted.

“You know he’s not on the train, right?” asked Jack to SC Lamb. The SC gave a curt nod.

“I know but we have to check. Good to see you’re starting to figure this game out. What gave it away?” He was mad, embarrassed, and by this point resigned to the fact Julien had gotten away.

“I understand now Julien would know we would identify the new cell phone hitting the network just after he got off the bus. He intentionally left it turned on to draw us to his disguise and the train.”

“Yep.” A pause. “I gather the use of children was something unanticipated in your programming. It burned us twice today.”

“Yes, the children were an excellent tactic. As was their possible long-term effort to condition my response to put the target in the black at the crucial moment.” While working on the active case, Jack had still been spending time in the background unravelling the mathematics he suspected had been targeting his algorithm. He was already drafting a full report on it. “That will be something I’ll be working with the programmers on for some time I gather.”

“Any idea where he is headed?”

“I’m working several scenarios but still collecting data.” Jack seemed subdued, despite the fact the android’s face could not convey emotions.

“Well keep me informed, I have to go see the Director. We are expected at the PM’s residence in an hour.” SC Lamb was not convinced he’d still have a job in two.

“Thank you for the report Director Keane. That will be all.” The group of hound-faced men and one woman turned to go. “Not you Director Simmons, I want a word with you.” The tall, graceful head of MI6 nodded at her colleagues while the Home Secretary, Director of MI5, head of Military Intelligence, and SC Lamb shuffled out. After the door closed the PM and Director looked at each other for a moment.

“Did you help him?” asked the PM. He leaned forward on his desk in interest.

“Not today. He had to make the escape on his own to sell it. But I tipped the Russians yesterday over a compromised phone line by discussing MI5’s arrest operation with my Chief of Staff.” The PM let out a long breath.

“How will he get out of the country?”

“We honestly don’t know. And we’ll do everything we can to stop him. But every service has rat lines in place to smuggle out an agent. We have them. They have them. I doubt we’ll catch him.” She shrugged. The Director tried not to look smug now that her counterparts were out of the room.

“The hypnotic implant will wear off in two years, correct? Then he’ll try to get home?” Director Keane had briefed the PM on this operation the day he was sworn in. Only eight people knew of the operation in MI6, as did the PM and the prior PM.

MI5 and MoD had been kept in the dark. Everyone’s AI was too good to successfully run a traditional dangle operation. Everything had to be perfect and legit down to the neurological level. But the very real near-term potential of conflict with the Russians had demanded the risk.

“Yes, he had agreed to the operation before his Moscow attaché posting. We did a deep hypnosis, along with intense machine-brain stimulations to create the correct neural patterns to survive lie detector tests and brain and facial deception scans.” The Director took a sip of water and continued. “When he arrived in Moscow he was a disgruntled officer who made subtle indications he was approachable. The FSB handled the recruitment. After 18 months, we posted him back here to the Russia desk.

“Once here the material he had access to was 90% real and 10% fake. The fake material was related to three MI6 or MoD recruitments of Russian agents which didn’t actually exist. We kept feeding them hints through him about the moles, but never gave him a name to pass until last week. They have been tearing apart their services for over a year.”

“Who did you throw under the bus?”

“We picked a high-ranking FSB officer who had been privy to his recruitment, but not a participant. That’s what triggered Julien to run. He knew if the FSB officer was actually a MI6 spy, then we knew he was a Russian spy.” She smiled and continued.

“MI6 has been developing a logical data trail of corroborating ‘evidence’ for the FSB to uncover now that they have a name. Days when an MI6 officer passed within 100 yards of him on the way to work. References in cable traffic, things like that. The final bit was the officer’s daughter graduating from London School of Economics this week. We picked her up yesterday and have her at a safe house, claiming her Dad is in danger. He was planning on coming to London for the graduation. It will look like he had been planning to defect, which is why Burrows had to make emergency contact.”

“What will happen to the FSB officer?”

“He’ll be interrogated, probably tortured, and eventually shot,” The Director responded coldly. The PM whistled.

“We gave up all that real information for this one operation? Seems excessive.”

“Tensions with the Russians have never been higher since they annexed Belarus. Everything is on the table. The Russians also have been led to believe they have two moles in the SVR. Burrows was able to pass along that one was likely recruited in Delhi, the other in Mexico City. Both are large Rezidenturas, it will taint everyone in them. They’ll waste years hunting for our non-existent penetrations.”

“As we did to MI5.” Director Keane nodded her head in acknowledgement of the fact.

“And they revealed today they could exploit Jack to isolate Burrows against our surveillance. That is a huge reveal for us. We already have GCHQ tearing up the math behind it.

 “Once the hypnosis wears off we’ll do the reverse of what they did today and smuggle him home. After that happens they’ll realize all their AI-assisted tools to discover deception in a recruitment are flawed, and everything ever passed by Burrows will become suspect. In addition, they’ll suspect every other recruitment. We think there is at least one real penetration we haven’t identified, and this hopefully helps neutralize the problem in the future. We are messing with their source base for the next decade.”

“Jesus,” the PM breathed. He looked up at a painting on the wall, his mind wandering for a moment. “Is this protecting any actual recruitments we have?” He looked at the Director. The Director started at him and said nothing, a totally neutral look on her face. Finally, the PM nodded once. “Understood.”

“If that is all Prime Minster, I must go help with the efforts to catch Mr. Burrows.” Keane smiled.

“Yes. Good luck with that. Please keep me informed.” With that the Director walked out.

A week later…

The Mercedes pulled up to a dacha east of Moscow. As the car stopped a guard stepped forward from a group waiting for him and opened the door. Julien got out.

“Lt. Colonel Burrows, an honor to meet you,” an older man standing in the middle of the group said as he stepped forward, his hand outstretched. “Welcome to Russia, we have a lot to discuss.”

Mike Matson is a writer based in Louisville, Kentucky, with a deep interest in international affairs. He has 20 years of government experience, and degrees from The American University and the Joint Military Intelligence College, both in Washington, DC. In addition to 13 years in the Beltway before escaping to Kentucky, he has lived, studied, and worked in Brussels and Tallinn. He can be found on Twitter at @Mike40245.

Featured Image: Sci Fi City by Tom Gardner (via Art Station)

Emissions Control

Fiction Topic Week

By Jeffrey B. Hunter

Bells rang through the passageways and selected berthing spaces of the Navy’s newest, first-in-class destroyer, the USS JOHN POINDEXTER, as the smooth and melodic voice of one Seaman Halsey roused the morning watch from their beds with his traditional greeting.

“Rise and shine, shipmates! It’s another fine Navy day, so let’s show’em what we’re made of.”

A series of groans reverberated through the darkened hollows of berthing two as Halsey incrementally increased the lighting to each bunk. Jonas blinked in the slowly retreating darkness with a reluctant sigh. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had the luxury of not choosing between taking off his coveralls and sleeping over four hours.

 “Screw you, Halsey,” shouted one of the other disgruntled residents, stumbling out of his rack and stretching his tall, emaciated frame as much as the cramped space would allow.

“Neg, leave it alone,” Jonas replied, rubbing his eyes and rolling out of his rack. Normally as berthing supervisor, Jonas would try to be more patient with his bunkmates, but he just wasn’t in the mood.

“You know he can hear you, and what happens if you piss him off. Just get your stuff and…oh, Jesus…put some fricking boxers on, you tool. No one wants to see that.”

 “First,” Ng said, scratching his temple with a long, skeletal middle finger, “it’s Ng, jack ass, as in ‘swing’, ‘fling’, ‘spring.’”

“That’s Petty Officer Jackass to you,” Jonas shot back, quickly accompanied by a series of cat calls reminding him that he’d never actually left elementary school.

 “Second,” Ng continued undaunted, propping a hairless chicken leg as high on the ladder next to his bunk as possible, “everyone wants to see this. How could they not?”

“Because they have eyes, you CHICOM,” piped up Pulaski from a couple bunks down. Jonas groaned; this was going to be long morning if they were already getting into the ethnic jokes.

“CHICOM?! I’m not Chinese, you ignorant fascist. What are you, eighty?” Ng shot back, now assuming his best superhero pose. “Besides, you can’t even see me.”

“Ng, you’re six-two and weigh a buck five,” Pulaski replied, popping his shaved head out from his bunk with a wry smile, “you look like Lurch on a juice-fast.”

 “Lurch? Really? God you’re old,” Taylor cackled as he passed only to be rewarded by a thump on the shoulder from the amateur boxer.

“It’s okay, Taylor,” a voice Jonas thought was Moore said from the back of the berthing, “I don’t think that have Netflix in Poland. Not ever since ‘ze Germans…”

A chorus of the “’ze Germans” began to make the rounds through the space, Pulaski egging on the cheers like a football player pumping up the crowd after retrieving his glasses from under his bunk.

There was a time when Jonas might have been horrified by the relative insensitivity of poking fun at the great grandchild of holocaust survivors, but…the Navy had really beaten that out of him by this point.

Nothing was sacred in the berthing unless someone raised a stink and Pulaski was one of the more even keeled members of berthing two. In his own way, he seemed to own his family tragedy with a strange sense of pride and could probably turn anyone who crossed the line into a fine paste. Jonas would just step in and fix things before that happened.

While a fight or two might break out on other ships, no one was stupid enough to try it on the POINDEXTER. On other ships, issues could be solved by berthing supervisors, the Chief’s mess, and maybe even the Junior Officers before things got out of hand and people’s careers got snuffed. Here, Seaman Halsey would screw all of them before anyone could intervene and everyone knew it.

“If by Lurch, you mean an Adonis…” Ng continued, doing his best Usain Bolt victory pose.

“I don’t.”

“…and by a juice-fast, you mean bathed in mana and sunlight…”

“No, not really,” Pulaski replied matter-of-factly.

“…then you would be close,” Ng continued, undeterred. “But you see, my bespectacled friend…”

“Guys, seriously,” Jonas interrupted sharply, pulling the laces on his work boots to the point where his fingers turned white, “we don’t have time for this. They moved quarters up to ’15 for the broadcast from Third Fleet. So shave, shower, and shove off. ”

“Fifteen,” Ng spat, pulling a towel out from his bunk with the closest thing to urgency he could muster, “are you kidding me? When’d they put that out?”

“During mids last night,” Jonas replied, grabbing a razor and ducking into the head, “check your POST.”

The razor grated against Jonas’s skin, each bristle burning as though it were being individually excised and leaving the occasional red streak on his otherwise sun-starved skin. He hated dry shaving, but they just didn’t have the time.

Halsey hadn’t adjusted for the change in shift times, Jonas just knew it. Chief didn’t like submitting anything to Halsey which meant that everyone essentially had two schedules: Chief’s and Halsey’s. Both schedules had to be adhered to and rarely would match each other. Jonas had somehow managed to keep his section on track until now. He’d been too stupid to set an early alarm for everyone and now it was finally going to bite them.

At least Jonas had checked his POST before racking out. The Navy’s Personal Operating System Terminal, or POST, was one of the newest innovations big Navy had come up with for the POINDEXTER. It was essentially a smartphone, although the gents from the blue tile area got testy whenever you called it that. They’d tell you it was a vital link in the communication chain between the work centers, leadership, and Halsey. In reality, the POST was just one more way for the Navy to keep its thumb on you every hour of every day.

 “Man, this bull shi…”Ng started, but Jonas didn’t let him finish.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever man. You can let Chief know after quarters. I’m sure he’ll get right on it.”

The stench of oil-soaked dust and sweat filled the Combat Information Center as all of the POINDEXTER’s forty sailors crammed into the container sized space. Normally, they’d hold quarters on the helo-deck, but the admiral apparently wanted to address the whole crew before she arrived and the CIC was the only room equipped for the job.

That meant that instead of the crew getting their only bit of sunshine for the day, everyone was now tripping over each other trying to stay in some semblance of a formation amidst the CIC’s chairs and workstations.

Meanwhile, Chief Graven was trying not to step on the contractors setting up the teleconference while simultaneously delivering one of his usual morning speeches. The guys called it Ravin’ with Graven and was about as close to a comedy skit as any of them were going to get underway.

“Jesus Christ,” he’d always start; his thick Bangor accent filling the space while sweat dripped down his scalp, “fifteen minutes ‘arly. Naught five, naught ten, naught friggin’ faurteen. Fifteen. Any a you chuckle-heads thinks the friggin’ admral is gaunna wait fa ya?”

No one answered as the question was entirely rhetorical. Still, Jonas was not remotely surprised to hear Pulaski whisper behind him, “No, but I guess she’ll wait on you.”

Jonas just kept his eyes straight ahead. He was one of three second class petty officers on the POINDEXTER eligible for taking the first class exam and was still trying to recertify on his Information Warfare pin. It was bad enough that he was a weather specialist in an information technology billet, but now there were only three Chiefs on board to administer his board. He didn’t have room to piss off Graven, especially since Seaman Halsey was watching. Oddly enough, monitoring the crew was the only area that Chief and Halsey seemed to get along.

“…my Grandmatha…” Graven continued, the smacking a monstrous russet knife hand on the workstation in front of him brining Jonas back into the discussion just in time to meet Chief’s eyes while he took a sip of coffee from his Big Gulp mug.

This was a ritual of theirs. Graven would watch for any sign of anyone drifting off or spacing out and the crew would try to time their momentary lapses before he could catch them. They knew Chief would occasionally get a text on his POST from Halsey if he’d missed someone, but they’d also gotten pretty good at finding out how to keep Halsey guessing too. Ng had even tried to take up ventriloquism, but had so far only managed to get a few compromising photographs published on the daily work roster.

“Wait, how did we get onto his Grandmother,” Ng whispered to Jonas’s right.

“I don’t know, I must’ve had a stroke or something,” Pulaski answered, stifled laughter sweeping the workstations behind Jonas.

Chief’s POST vibrated on his belt as Halsey clearly noticed and ratted on him. Graven barely even paused to check the name on the screen before taking another sip of coffee and getting right to business.

“Haulsey tells me ya gaut somethin’ ta say, Pilski,” Chief began, his sharp smile made slightly menacing by the dark bags beneath his bloodshot eyes.

“Nothing Chief,” Pulaski answered, though there was too much laughter in his voice to miss.

“Oohohooo,” Graven cackled, a new bounce in his step, “Does lil’ Timmy Pilski wanna crack jokes in quaatas?”

“Is that even a word, Chief?”

“I’ll get to you in a moment, Neg,” Graven replied, his beady eyes shooting from one sailor to the other.

“Chief, I’m pretty sure that’s racist.”

Half the “formation” broke into raucous laughter while the rest froze like chameleons in a tree, praying Chief would just ignore them.

Graven took a moment to take another sip of coffee, clearly deliberating Ng’s fate while shaking his head and glaring pityingly at his junior sailor.

“Jesus Christ, Neg,” Chief continued with a reluctant laugh, “you aah dumb as dirt. Jonah, when do I get to replace this dink?”

“About two more months, Chief,” Jonas said with a smile, though he begged the two of them to shut up. It was bad enough sticking around for the admiral, but he knew Chief would talk to him about bearing after this and he just didn’t have the time.

 “Gawd help us,” Graven exclaimed with a bemused smile, “Ahright, listen up. Neg, you’re retaaded. Seaman Timmy, when I want yor apinion…”

“Hey, Gary,” one of the techs working the teleconference interrupted, “I think that’s it. The connection should dial up pretty quick.”

“Gary Graven,” Ng whispered, “are you fricking kidding me?”

“Stow it, Neg,” Graven grunted, a digital ring tone coming over the loud speaker.

“Wait, where’s the Captain and LT,” Taylor asked Jonas, though Jonas didn’t answer. He hadn’t seen either of the ships’ officers since his in-call a month ago. As far as he knew, Chief and Halsey had killed them and chucked them overboard.

“Standby, incoming call from U.S. Third Fleet Headquarters; Commander, Third Fleet on the line,” Seaman Halsey announced over the speakers. Simultaneously, everyone’s POSTs began vibrating, the same words emanating from their hips and creating an eerie harmony.

“Standby,” Halsey said again, though this time over the bridge’s loud speaker. “Attention on deck!”

A chorus of boots smacking together accompanied the opening of the bridge’s port hatch and the appearance of Lieutenant Commander Hall, swiftly followed by Lieutenant Shivaza, who promptly took their places at the head of the “formation.” Not a moment later, the feed connected and the enormous figure of Admiral Tyco appeared, greeting them in her usual subdued and robotic way before jumping right to business.

A sickening chill ran down Jonas’s spine as he crossed from the soothing tapioca of the ship’s second deck general spaces to the speckled azure of the restricted section.

The admiral’s speech had been thorough and fact-filled, which is why everyone had nearly fallen asleep. The only real nugget that had everyone stand to was the announcement that they’d be conducting a live fire test of the railgun. More than that, Seaman Halsey would be the one manning the guns.

As expected, the crew of the POINDEXTER maintained their bearing with this unexpected news; that is right up until the teleconference ended and the Captain and Chiefs began barking orders like stockbrokers on Black Friday. Jonas had barely escaped the chaos since he was still technically a meteorologist and had yet to complete his Information Warfare re-certifications.

Up until recently, this fact had caused him innumerable sleepless nights of studying and binge-watching online trainers. Now it meant that he could flee to the confines of the Axis until this particular horror show was over. The only downside was that the Axis was in the blue tile area.

On every other ship in the Navy, blue tile was flag officer country and one of two places where happiness went to die. Jonas wasn’t cleared to work in engineering, so that fortunately limited his levels of the Inferno to just the one. Still, Jonas hated this part of the ship, even if it wasn’t officer country.

The only reason Jonas even dared to cross the blue tiles’ threshold was to talk to Kyle, one of the mid-level contractors working with Halsey to keep the ship up and running. As a former chief electrician and expert on the POINDEXTER’s computer and electrical systems, he’d been approved as acting certifying official for his rates’ new electronics qualifications. Normally, the Navy would raise a stink on having a civilian do the job, but they didn’t have any sailors onboard who were qualified, so it was a moot point.

“General Quarters, General Quarters,” Seaman Halsey’s unwavering tenor rang through the passageway swiftly followed by the high-pitched whine of the combat siren, “all hands man your battle stations.”

Jonas sighed and shook his head.

“Here we go,” he said to himself swiping his security badge through the scanner outside the Auxiliary Quantum-Computing Server room, or “Axis room” as they called it, keying in his security pin, and putting his thumb in the fingerprint scanner.

A moment passed before the keypad flashed green and he heard the slick click of magnetic locks being released.

“Are you ready, man?” Kyle greeted him from behind the catacombs of computer servers as Jonas stepped into the frigid recesses of Axis and re-sealed the hatch.

“Kyle, the only people who get excited about a weapons firing are newbies and SWOs and I…”

Jonas stopped speaking as he began to recognize the music Kyle was playing.

“Daisy, daisy, give me your answer please…” sang a vinyl-rich tune. Suddenly Jonas’s hair began to stand on end as he navigated his way to Kyle’s lonely computer terminal in the back corner of the space.

“Are you seriously playing that right now,” Jonas asked testily, taking a moment to stop and appreciate a collage of kitchen magnets resembling a giant red eye on one of the servers opposite Kyle’s desk.

“Why not,” Kyle asked, brushing some granola bar off his nearly luminescent aloha shirt. “Seems only fitting.”

“It’s creepy.”

“Only if you believe in fate…”

Another chill ran down Jonas’s spine while Kyle began to chuckle.

 “You know you suck, right,” Jonas said, taking a seat in one of the spare fold-out chairs.

“Yeah, I know,” Kyle answered with a knowing smile, “but you have to admit, it’s pretty cool.”

“Sure,” Jonas replied, absentmindedly reading the ship system data on the TV monitors above Kyle’s desk, “One small leap and all that…”

“Man, you have no sense of occasion,” Kyle chided, clapping his hands together and typing furiously on the keyboard, “here we go…”

In moments one of the TV monitors flashed to live footage from the ship’s air defense gun while the second streamed video from an observation drone cueing between the POINDEXTER and a small target drone flying circles in the distance. A few more clicks of the keyboard, and chat windows from the different centers appeared beneath the videos, each either discussing the different aspects of the test or ranting about fantasy football.

Jonas shivered and began rubbing his hands, trying to ignore the faint clouds of steam leaving his nostrils.

“So why can’t we get a space heater in here,” he asked Kyle, who had taken to reviewing the Axis’s processing performance.

“Can’t let the place get too hot,” Kyle answered, completely un-phased by the frigid conditions. “The computer’s entangled pairings need to stay near 4 Kelvin to keep the system working. That and we need to shield them from electromagnetic radiation or the whole system starts to shut down.”

Jonas cast a skeptical glance at the large magnetic mural opposite them.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Kyle said with a smile, “the towers are shielded against minor fields like that and we’ve got superconductors shielding the Axis from signatures outside. The Axis is basically impenetrable, in that respect anyway.”

“Huh,” Jonas said, starting to feel a little impressed. 

“Standby for test,” the LT’s voice flashed over the speakers. “Seaman Halsey has assumed fire control.”

Kyle’s eyes lit up immediately as the processing draw on his screens began to spike.

“Target identified and acquired,” Halsey said confidently. The gun’s camera slewed to port and centered on its target, zooming in so that Jonas could even see the propellers rotating from miles away.

“Target is an MQ-8 FIRE SCOUT. Firing solution plotted, capacitors charging.”

“Capacitors charging for a minimum range shot,” said a voice Jonas guessed was one of the contracted engineers working the railgun.

 “Confirmed Captain,” the LT chimed in, “firing solution looks good. No other aerial or surface contacts in the line of fire.”

 “Understood,” the Captain answered, “alright, Halsey, here we go; on my mark…four, three, two, one, fire.”

The ship jolted as the round left the rails, nearly knocking Jonas out of his chair. In an instant, the round tore through the helicopter-shaped drone, shattering the frame beneath the immense force of impact.

“Yeah!” Kyle shouted, raising his fists in triumph before pausing. Moments passed and Jonas was tempted to ask what was wrong, but thought better of it. There was far too much focus and too little patience on Kyle’s pale, computer-lit face for it to be anything but a big problem.

“Wait, wait,” he muttered, peering into the monitors, “where’s the charge? There should’ve been an explosion.”

Kyle snatched up his radio.

“Hey, Kelly, did you see an explosion?”

 “No, no explosion,” the woman said, clearly a little confused, “target’s still pretty dead, though.”

“That’s not what I mean,” Kyle answered, now sounding worried, “I mean from the round. I don’t think the round detonated.”

Seconds passed before the observation drone’s feed began slewing dramatically beyond the wreckage, scanning for anything out of the ordinary.

“There,” Jonas said, spotting a small white plume on the gun’s feed. Kyle scanned the feed and nodded, giving Jonas a thankful thumbs up.

“Hey, Kelly,” Kyle said into the radio, “pan a few more miles down range. We just saw some spray.”

In moments, the drone’s feed caught sight of the spray and what lay at its source.

A massive, dark cloud filled the black and white images of the drone’s feed and Jonas could see the chunks of flotsam scattered around a pool of foam at its center. He couldn’t see anything that looked like pieces of a ship, but that didn’t keep his heart from jumping into his throat. He doubted anything would look like its former self after that.

“What the hell did we hit?” the Captain’s dead-pan voice came over the radio. “I thought we were clear down range, Lieutenant.”

“We were, sir,” the LT replied, “we didn’t see anything.”

“Then what am I looking at? Halsey?”

Another plume erupted in the corner of the observation drone’s feed.  

“We appear to have struck a pod of marine mammals, Captain. Dolphins to be specific,” Halsey replied, a small, light figure appearing at the cloud’s epicenter before dissolving back into the carnal stew.

A palpable silence hung over the radio.

“Dolphins?” The captain repeated incredulously.

 “Dolphins!” Kyle exclaimed, his face growing scarlet with laughter and relief, “Frigging dolphins! Are you kidding?! Oh my god…”

Jonas stayed silent. Killing marine mammals was a big deal, especially in U.S. waters with the admiral coming on board and Seaman Halsey’s penchant for following regulations to the letter. Somebody was going to get hammered over this. Still, he hadn’t been anywhere near the CIC so at least it wasn’t his problem.

The mid-shift bell rang hollowly through the Axis while Jonas absentmindedly tapped his fingers on the desk and tried to figure out a way to get some games on his POST. Things had been pretty dull since Halsey had learned how to make bottle-nose bisque.

Kyle had been called away to deal with problems in the main server node while Chief Graven had ordered Jonas to stay put in the Axis and monitor things under pain of peeling potatoes with Ng down in the galley. Apparently with all of the contractors occupied solving technical glitches, Jonas was the most qualified person left to sit the Axis watch.

Jonas could have been frightened at the idea; mustered some measure of apprehension at the notion of an underpaid meteorologist being placed in charge of a multi-million dollar piece of experimental equipment. There was even the potential for him to be astounded that leadership had ignored his words of warning as to just how bad of an idea this was. Instead, Jonas was hungry.

Dealing with the absurd was just another day in the Navy, but doing it on an empty stomach was just cruel.

 Suddenly, a voice from the intercom rose over the din of humming servers.

“Jonas, oh Jonas…”

Jonas rolled his eyes, spying a freakishly tall tuft of black hair blocking the Axis’s external security camera.

“What do you want, Ng?” Jonas asked testily.

“I have a surprise for you,” Ng replied in a voice Jonas could only liken to a cartoon pedophile.

“Dude, I’m not in the mood.”

“Just open the door, man” Ng said, his voice returning to its usual register.

“Are you even cleared to be in here?”

“Dude, they wouldn’t put me on the ship if I wasn’t. Now open the fricking door.”

Jonas sighed and scratched his head. This was a new ship, so they’d probably vet everybody coming on board.

“I have your din-din,” Ng continued, clearly sensing Jonas’s hesitation.

“Fine,” Jonas capitulated, swallowing his doubts for the chance to silence his growling stomach.

The magnetic locks clicked open and Ng soon emerged from behind the wall of servers, a black backpack in hand and wearing an unnervingly wide smile.

“Heidi ho, neighbor,” he said, slapping the backpack on top of the tower nearest Jonas with a large metallic thunk.

“Dude,” Jonas exclaimed, jumping out of his chair, “careful. You break these towers and we’re all screwed.”

“Why,” Ng asked wryly, “is this where they keep the porn?”

“No, numb nuts, this is where they keep Halsey,” Jonas spat back, gingerly inspecting the tower, “or part of him at least. They’re trying to fix his main server right now. These are all that’re keeping him running.”

Ng stared around at the rows of giant grey towers quizzically then shrugged.

“Oops,” he said, “my bad. So what’s wrong with good ‘ole Optimus?”

“He’s seized up fire control,” Jonas said, rolling his eyes. “Says we can’t trust our rounds and is refusing to fire any ordnance outside of a combat situation. Apparently he thinks that’ll prevent any further incidents. He also says we need to return to port for a hearing on Thursday with the EPA and has scheduled consultations for the Captain and LT with JAG.”

“Seriously? What a drama queen,” Ng said, removing some canned ravioli from his back pack and popping the can open. “Kills Flipper and suddenly has a nervous breakdown? Pansy…”

“Yeah, well…” Jonas paused to watch Ng remove what he could only conclude was Thor’s ping-pong paddle from his backpack, slapping the foil-encased monstrosity on the desk in front of Jonas.

“Ng,” Jonas asked, almost afraid to hear the answer, “what is that?”

“This, good sir,” Ng replied, caressing the electrical-tape wrapped handle and dumping the ravioli into the middle of the paddle’s large circular face, “is the future. Behold Ng’s homemade induction hotplate!”

Before Jonas knew what was happening, Ng whipped the extension cord at the end of the object’s handle with a dramatic flourish and plugged it into the nearest wall outlet. Then, as Jonas’s eyes began to widen, Ng turned what looked like a stove top nob on the handle’s side as far as he could until the child-like handwriting on the nob saying, “Hi,” matched the red arrow of a “Sign Here” sticker attached just above.

In an instant the hotplate and its contents smashed into the red eye of Kyle’s favorite server tower, marinara dripping from the scattered magnets like blood-stained tears. The computer screen next to Jonas went blank as a hideous metallic screeching noise echoed within the server tower accompanied by the sound of metal being strained from the adjacent towers.

“Well that’s not good,” Ng muttered before Jonas began shouting.

“Turn it off you idiot! Are you fuc…”

“Ah, Jonas,” Kyle’s voice came over the radio, which ceased its slow crawl toward the hotplate as soon as Ng unplugged the device, “what’s going on down there? Halsey’s stopped talking to us and we’re reading some pretty big failures in the comms, navigation, engineering, and electrical management systems.”

At that moment the lights of the Axis died and were replaced by the dim fluorescents of the emergency back-ups. The humming of the servers ceased and was replaced by the eerie silence of inactivity. The Axis was dead.

Jonas didn’t dare reply. What could he say? Instead he just stared at the blood dripping from Halsey’s eye, wondering if he’d be charged with sabotage or murder. Then he slowly migrated his gaze to Ng who stood still as the grave, though appeared he to be lamenting the damage done to his weapon of mass destruction. It was then, staring at the all too recalcitrant cooking specialist that the tension in Jonas’s mind snapped like a worn guitar string and he decided that he may as well go down for both crimes.

“You moron,” Jonas screamed, leaping over the desk and slamming the bewildered man into the bulkhead behind him.

“Well,” he raged on, disgustedly smacking the ruined hotplate out of Ng’s hands with a definitive clank when the man refused to meet his eyes, “what should I say, Ng?! Huh?! What exactly should I tell them the problem is here?”

A flash of Ng’s impish smile crossed his lips before disappearing in fear, Jonas grabbing him by his collar and pulling the taller sailor down so that Jonas could look into his limpid brown eyes.

“What, Ng,” Jonas said threateningly, “what was that? Come on…”

The smile cautiously returned to Ng’s lips as he timidly nodded toward Halsey’s bloodied eye.

“Human error,” he said as though it were a question.

Jonas’s mind froze. He wanted to hit him, wanted to stay mad and exact his vengeance, but he couldn’t stop the chuckle from escaping his lips. He couldn’t possibly be this stupid.

“Human error?” Jonas replied incredulously, “Ya think?”

Jeffrey B. Hunter is a fresh face to the literary community, having separated from the US Navy this month after ten years of service as an intelligence officer to pursue his dream of being a fulltime author. While most of his previous creative and writing endeavors are classified, Jeff’s non-fiction piece “Updating the Information Environment” was featured in the August 2015 edition of the Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine. Jeff lives in Virginia with his wife and daughter, is an avid rock climber and traceur, and is currently working on his first science fiction novel. You can follow Jeff’s progress on his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/jeffrey.hunter.503092.

Featured Image: Battleship by Gerardo Justel (via Art Station)