Editor’s note: The Army Mad Scientist team executed its 2019 Science Fiction Writing Contest to glean insights about the future fight with a near-peer competitor in 2030. The team received seventy-seven submissions from both within and outside of the Department of Defense. The following story was the winning entry and was submitted by Col. Jasper Jeffers. This story features future disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence, augmented humans, and robotics.
You never actually heard the rounds that hit closest to you. You definitely felt the change in pressure every time a bullet slapped in to the far side of the wall though. Jack looked back at his squad. They were nervous and holding tight to the inside of the wall, but craning their necks around looking for an opportunity to return fire. Based on the bark of the report, and the rate of fire, Jack figured it was a modified PKM on a targeting pod at the top of the hill. The pods allowed for backward integration of several older machine guns, then turned them into remote sensing and precision engagement platforms. Humans could not throw that many rounds from a PKM into the same hole.
Something caught his eye to the right. AN41 (“Alpha-November-Four-One”) was moving their way. She scooted over and dropped to a knee. The PKM decided to start working on the team’s quadruped and began thumping it broadside. It made no major impact on the armor of the robot, but made an incredibly distracting racket. The “ting-ting-ting” of eight hundred rounds per minute bouncing off composite armor only lasted for a few seconds. Once the PKM pod shifted fire to the q-ped, one of the other q-peds oriented on the PKM position and put three shortrange Seekers in the air. Two went up and took the shortest route possible to the pod, their seven-pound charges exploding from the pod’s active countermeasures. The third Seeker had gone into loiter mode, then with perfect timing, swept in a long arc behind the other two to strike when the pod’s countermeasures were overwhelmed. The pod went silent.
AN41 popped her visor up. She did not need the augmented reality display. She was “chipped,” like all other Legionnaires, but she had joked that the visor worked better than sunglasses and she was from California. Dust clung to the exterior of her armor. Her exo had been “tuned up,” as the soldiers say, meaning she had taken rounds on her way across the open ground. The impact points were visible on the shoulder and chest components of her exo, but she did not look very fazed. About that time, a different heavy machine gun started thumping away, and the unmistakable sound of quadcopters could be heard from above. She grinned at Jack and the squad, looked up toward the top of the hill and said, “Here’s the plan.”
Earlier that morning.
Jack sat with the squad during breakfast. PT was finished, and on most days on this rotation, PT was the major event. They were seven months into this deployment to the DMZ near Otso. The squad was lucky today. Jack managed some time scheduled in one of the augmented reality lanes that allowed the squad to use all its own organic equipment in a real physical environment, but the training scenarios came through the augmented reality visors on their integrated helmets. The Army had virtual reality trainers everywhere, and for the most part, you could have your soldiers run VR scenarios from their bunk by just dropping their helmets on, but it was the rich AR experiences that let you really add the physical stress load to the team in an indoor or outdoor environment.
Jack grabbed another cup of coffee and ducked out of the mess tent when his platoon sergeant called to him from across the room.
“Need you to take 3rd Squad and kit up. Meet by the flagpole in twenty—you are picking up security and reaction force duties for a Legionnaire element going up north.”
Legionnaires on the patrol added a layer of stress for everybody. Major visibility from higher existed on any operation where general purpose force infantry elements, like Jack and 3rd Squad, were mingled in with members of the Legion. It didn’t bother Jack at all—he was uninterested in higher’s opinion on just about any topic.
Twenty minutes later, 3rd Squad, 2nd Platoon was by the flagpole in full kit. The squad had supported two Legionnaire missions before, but those were “on call” and they had never gone forward with the patrol. This would be different. It would also be their first trip up north toward the Donovian border. The squad had not heard a shot fired in anger during any previous operations.
Jack looked up as a young Army major, in multi-cam with sleeves rolled up at the cuffs and a bright smile on her face, walked over to them. This was a thing with Legionnaires; they were such disgustingly nice people.
“Sergeant Adams, I’m AN41.” Another thing about these guys; Legionnaires only introduced themselves by callsign. This did not help eliminate the image that they were mostly robots.
“But most of my crew calls me Annie.” She smiled and extended her hand. Jack shook it.
“We’ll keep at Forty-One, ma’am.” This was the traditional callsign terminology designating a unit commander for the Legion and Jack wanted to display the highest professionalism.
“Thanks Sergeant A, appreciate your helping us on this one—we’re not expecting any drama, but once we get up into Otso, never hurts to have the extra help.”
Jack knew these super-soldiers absolutely did NOT need his squad as extra help, but he appreciated the gesture. He also understood there was an intangible benefit to the visual display of a rifle squad. Many years ago, Jack’s brother had been a Legionnaire, and Jack himself had gone to assessment but it had not worked out. It was no big deal—less than two hundred Legionnaires existed in the force, so the rate of selection was ridiculously low.
Jack had a pretty good idea of the capabilities and type of people that ended up with the chip. He was looking at three of them right now. Just behind AN41 were the other two Legionnaires on the team; there were always three. Behind them, and closer to their specialized mobility platforms, he could see the folded legs of three q-peds on a trailer pulled behind their support vehicle. He could guess what was inside the housing bumps on the back of each q-ped, and doubted these Legionnaires needed anyone to be watching their back.
“No sweat, ma’am. . . . We are ready to roll.”
“Sounds good. Split up between the lead and trail truck, and if you can ride up front with me, we can get caught up before we get outside the bubble. We’ll real-time distro the guidance to your team’s internal channel and visors.”
She called them trucks, but the machines were designed with speed in mind. A mashup of an early 2000s five-ton-truck and a dune buggy. They were incredibly light, to include being light on armor—the machines had significant active countermeasure capability, but at the end of the day, their real defense was mobility and speed.
The squad split up and Jack walked to the lead vehicle with his helmet in his hand and his rifle pulled close to his chest on his over-the-shoulder sling. AN41 was adjusting her exo and helmet next to the back of the vehicle when she looked up without a smile.
“Jack, I apologize. . . . The MIND just passed me your background. I wanted to let you know your brother was an amazing individual and leader. He put me through the course. It is truly an honor to meet you—he was a hero.”
It started with driverless cars. Who doesn’t want their kids to be safer? And nothing non-biologic was killing more humans than vehicle accidents. The first driverless vehicles were a novelty, but it was the ability to network driverless vehicles and the resulting decrease in accidents and overall increase in safety that led to the opening. If you have a million autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles, wouldn’t you want a powerful AI to assist in the overall safety? The overall efficiency of all this transportation availability? Simple but large-scale AI systems became a natural overlay of the social and political environment. And like many technological advances before, they inadvertently became tools in the next human conflict. The government introduced legislation to mandate large-scale AI to truly bring about the reality of ending motor vehicle accidents. And the people loved it. Who doesn’t want their kids to be safer?
The inevitable (and well-intentioned) government regulations of Western political powers ultimately clashed with the technology proponents’ plan to “democratize” AI development. The democratization was intended to reduce the risk of any one human political power using AI as a weapon. However, opening it up to the world made it free and available for actors who would use the technology for their own agendas. It created the perfect conditions for what folks now call the Continental Wars between Donovia and Otso.
AI became a tool for political leaders in Donovia to justify military strategies of rapid exploitation and the initiation of attacks. This was not unforeseeable; someone should have looked up the Schlieffen Plan. Except now, powerful and free AI was crunching numbers, probabilities, and potential strategies instantaneously. A billion regressions on a particular course of action could lead you to some pretty confident and horrible decisions. It was only a matter of time until a weakened state power determined that outcomes could only be changed by acting with violence—that is what “their AI” told them.
The war “ended” in a stalemate: a long line of a DMZ along the “new” border of Donovia. In the meantime, along the buffer zone, both sides patrolled, competed, and wrestled in a space that was not quite full-on war, but certainly included plenty of small-unit skirmishes.
During the conflict’s decisive action phase, the United States learned (the hard way) about the strengths and weaknesses of AI-networked systems. The United States created, by leveraging champions of the tech industry, the world’s most powerful AI entity, simply referred to as the MIND. The MIND had to represent the best of the values that make up the idea of the American Republic. The United States knew humans were always the weakest and slowest point of decision making, but they could not just turn over power to machines. So the United States adjusted its approach. It created the Legion.
The concept was simple. The best way to ensure the MIND did not become a tool for efforts fundamentally incompatible with human values was to embed and meld the MIND with humans themselves. This type of cybernetic approach made soldiers the ideal first candidates for the incorporation of the MIND. The American people generally had the most confidence in the military among political institutions, and you needed a group of young, willing humans to actually execute the concept.
A specially selected set of individuals would take on this responsibility and ensure the power of the MIND was kept out of the hands of the wrong people. It would be a military organization made up of the best human natural leaders with exceptional character. The candidates could come from anywhere: college, the State Department, nonprofits, or from within the armed services. Chosen in a selection process that forced hard decisions under stress, it was designed to allow an individual’s moral and essential values to bubble to the top. Once chosen, cybernetic networked devices were implanted into them and the two forces—man and machine—balanced out as one. Near-omniscience from access to the MIND, and an ethical code that prevented purely mathematical decision making. This was the Legion.
Implant the core networking system directly into each Legionnaire’s brain, and hope the selection process picked individuals with the right core values. It involved humans, so the chance of selecting the wrong person was always present. So a failsafe was built in: only three living Legionnaires acting in concert could access the resources of the MIND. A tactical check-and-balance theoretically reduced the risk of any single Legionnaire becoming compromised by the power or becoming an unwitting servant of the MIND.
The vehicles bounced down the road, but vibrations were not transferred to the crew seats. The active suspension eliminated the jouncing. Everyone instinctively leaned left and right when the vehicle mounted difficult terrain, even though the crew compartment barely moved at all.
AN41 and Jack were in the lead vehicle and she turned to him to discuss the plan. She did not need to drive, or at least she was not looking at the road. Jack did not understand how it worked, but the MIND guided the vehicle and would alert AN41 to a set of certain parameters or environmental changes to return her eyes to the road.
“Sergeant Adams, let’s lay out the plan here.” she said.
Jack was not sure how much she needed her human eyes. The vehicle was packed with sensors of all varieties; visual, EW, shortrange radar. All were constantly analyzed and integrated through the MIND, which was always looking for indicators and alerted human attention to anything above a certain suspicion threshold. Jack was also sure all of that could occur with something as simple as a blink.
“We are headed north, just inside the contested area of Otso.” she pulled over a map board and highlighted a location in the valley to orient him.
“We know there is an ongoing effort to disrupt the current ceasefire by our adversary. We also know that somehow this valley, this town in particular”—she pointed at the map again for emphasis—“is a major focus for their recce efforts.”
Legionnaires commonly said things like this. “We KNOW.” It meant the MIND had run the sims, billions of regressions, and identified a place on the map like this town, with a population of less than 7,500 people, that might be identified as crucial to the outcome of something. Like the future of planet Earth.
“The adversary is competing here. It has been a constant string of intimidation and low-level influence activities.
“We’ll run a multi-day patrol there, identify the methods the adversary is using to influence the population, stop them if possible, but also bolster confidence in the community that the coalition can protect them and ensure basic security and governance.”
Jack nodded and made notes he could pass on to the squad, despite knowing everything she said was piped into the squad’s helmet comms two vehicles back. The squad had two brand new privates. There was no technology solution to prevent soldiers falling asleep immediately upon seating themselves inside a military vehicle.
“The surrounding area is heavily contested.”
This was Legionnaire-speak for high-intensity conflict and violence. The Continental War itself had been incredibly lethal: new weapons, new technology, and employed at speed. But it had also been quick. In the current political stalemate, the “heavily contested” areas could go to high-end lethality almost instantly. AN41 just meant this could get sporty, but not a small-arms gun fight. She was saying they could get thumped by rockets and high-end killer quadcopters.
“We’ll stay along this route until just outside the main population center in the valley. Then we’ll dismount the q-peds and move up separate from the vehicle and isolate from the high ground. Once set, we’ll go into the village and see what we can sort out.”
Jack nodded and looked to her for more guidance, but her eyes glazed over, something coming across the network was chewing up her human bandwidth.
Jack toggled his screen to a rear-facing view and observed the rest of the patrol. Three crew vehicles, with the rear-most one pulling the q-ped trailer. He noted quadcopters landing on the center vehicle, taking on a battery reload, and then lifting off again to resume station some distance away from the convoy. At any given time, four quadcopters were in the air running a diamond pattern. At least two were armed with direct fire systems or shortrange missiles.
The feed from the quadcopter full-motion-video sensors pumped onto his screens and his AR visor, but he knew AN41 could use her chip to sort of “see” the feeds in her brain. He knew she was not dedicating much time or focus to it, because the MIND would monitor the feed and spot trouble in the quads’ integrated sensor data.
The robotic centerpiece to Legionnaire operations was the q-ped. In official military lingo, the Semi-Autonomous, Modular, Quadruped, Tactical Support System. The SMQTSS. Horrible as far as acronyms go, soldiers generally shortened this down to the phonetic “SMACK-TISS”. However, the most popular reference to this piece of hardware was the “q-ped.”
The q-peds descended from the original quadruped robots that gained internet notoriety in the early 2000s. They looked very similar, but were about the size of a Clydesdale or medium camel. Each carried a coffin-looking box on its back with large hinged bay doors. These doors folded down to either side revealing a variety of payloads: anything from additional quadcopters, to shortrange missile racks, to medical and treatment capabilities. The boxes could be swapped and tailored to the particular mission. Jack had no idea how many variants existed, but he knew they were rumored to haul small tactical nukes during the decisive-action phase against Donovia.
The three q-peds were behind Jack now. All riding on the trailer with legs tucked under them like sleeping canines and no observable markings on the mission package boxes on their backs.
Jack woke up when he heard the chimes.
“Jack, toggle to QC-1 feed,” AN41 said while staring blankly ahead, lost in whatever info the MIND was pushing her. She told him to toggle to the quadcopter feed so he could see what she was getting inside her head.
The scene before them looked pretty rough. Ahead, Jack counted the remnants of three houses and at least three vehicles that had been hit with some type of explosive weapon. One of the vehicles, an Eastern European-looking station wagon, was on fire. Multiple Otsoian bodies were strewn about, and most were heavily burned.
“We’ve got movement on the north side of the burned-out wagon. You have contact with my pointer?” Jack had visual contact with her pointer, basically an infrared dot she was driving from inside her brain that beamed out of QC-1. The dot displayed on his screen hovering on a moving human just north of the truck.
“Contact pointer.” Jack responded.
“Let’s dismount your squad and move . . . here.” She cybernetically moved the red dot farther to the north along a wooded area that would be the natural avenue of escape if this individual wanted to split.
“Got it. Moving.” Jack spoke the words into his helmet mic while bailing out the side of the vehicle and jogging back toward the rest of the squad. He did a quick press check on his rifle and signaled his squad to rally and follow him. He headed toward the northern wood line.
The whine of the quadcopters died away as they picked up a larger orbit around the patrol. AN41 had pushed them out to distance. She was experienced, and this smelled like trouble. She dismounted and one of the q-peds immediately stood up from the trailer and trotted over to her left shoulder. AN41 was about five-foot, five-inches on a good day. The eight-foot-tall q-ped towered over her.
The other two Legionnaires were nowhere to be seen, but the other two q-peds had disappeared from the trailer.
AN41 did not appear to be taking any great tactical precautions as she moved up on the last known location of the individual that they had seen from the air. A door burst open from the least destroyed of the houses across the street and a child flopped out to the ground at her feet.
The boy looked to be about nine years old and in tremendous distress. AN41 crouched on the balls of her feet next to him. The actuators in her exoskeleton’s knee joints made a soft whining noise. The boy was covered in grime and sweat. He held his left arm up in half-hearted defensive gesture as AN41 spoke quietly to him.
Jack noticed that the boy’s clothes and hair were matted with the fine dust that you see settle after buildings are pulverized with high explosives, or after a massive earthquake.
The boy shivered and spoke in a language unrecognizable to Jack but clearly processed by AN41’s chip; she nodded and pointed around the scene in conjunction with boy’s murmurs. Her connection to the MIND gave her access to a translation and behavioral gesture application that put previous versions to shame. The MIND would ingest the boy’s statements and provide AN41 with the most appropriate response based on the most favorable course of action for mission accomplishment. AN41 was still a human though, and she could choose to adjust the strategy on the fly based on her instinct, and the MIND would adapt. Right now, her body language said that something did not fit. The boy continued to talk and pointed up the slope to the north about five hundred meters to another set of villas and compounds built directly into the mountain’s ten-degree slope.
The boy held up two fingers. Sisters. He pointed again to the middle compound on the slope and stood up. He tugged on AN41’s right radial exoskeleton armor. The right forearm segment contained her close-combat and backup weapon, a 40-cal single barrel direct fire system. The boy started walking up the slope.
“Team, this is AN41. Deploy for contact, we are going to move up and check this out.”
Her connection to the MIND adjusted the strategy and fed new recommendations into her chip.
The chipping process required months of surgery. Small scars around all of the Legionnaires’ ears indicated augmentation for increased biological performance in hearing and probably smell. The technological game-changer was the integration directly with the human brain.
If it had not been for the war the integration may never have occurred. Repeated tests (and mistakes) on military volunteer subjects were executed quickly, and risk levels were exceptionally high. The ubiquity of the technology on all sides drove the need for speed.
To integrate all the different technologies, sensors, and weapons faster than the enemy, you could have two approaches. First, you could go get the smartest human coders in a room and have them continually write software to bring all the different technologies together. Or, you could put together a learning neural net to do the coders’ work perpetually at inhuman speeds; give the power of weapon system to the AI. Many military leaders feared the unintended consequences of the second approach.
The enemy, however, was not concerned with the second- and third-order effects of handing power to the AI. Donovia’s strategic AI told them they had to go to war, and the tactical AI variants made the networked employment of lethal capabilities lightning fast. A potent combination.
“Jack, can we get some overwatch on the two smaller compounds to the east?” AN41’s voice came over helmet comms, but he was watching her face. She was “speaking,” but her mouth never moved. The voice was completely computer-generated but sounded just like her. Crazy.
Jack called up his B Team leader and sent the team to a small, low wall about a quarter of the way up the slope that offered some frontal cover and good sightlines across the entire eastern side of the compound.
The other two recently reappeared Legionnaires split the small draw going up the slope on opposite sides. Each had a q-ped in close proximity. Neither were looking at AN41 as she made her way up the middle behind the boy.
Jack was trying to figure out why the Legionnaires chose to take this detour to check on this kid’s two sisters, when he heard a computer-generated alert in his comms.
“Take Cover. Take Cover.”
In the age of networked sensors and weapons systems, everything happens at a speed humans are not built to manage. There was no bright, hot light from the high explosive. There was no whine from quadcopters, and no barking report from machine guns. There was a feeling of overpressure and the sound of air being split by a projectile.
Behind them, one of their vehicles exploded. Jack was still diving toward a large rock to his right as multiple things began to swirl around him. Less than three seconds had passed. Each of the housings on the back of the q-peds had opened up. AN41’s q-ped began flinging countermeasures into the air at an almost imperceptible rate with a sound like a teenage girl’s scream. It was terrifying.
The easternmost q-ped put three shortrange missiles in the air and the westernmost q-ped revealed a monster 25mm direct-fire system under its housing and began blasting through a window more than three hundred meters up the slope with incredible accuracy.
Jack hit the dirt. Now seven seconds in.
More overpressure. AN41’s q-ped exploded.
Jack suspected he knew the system they were up against. It was exceptionally rare to bump into a mobile railgun that accurate, that small, and with that rate of fire. They had stumbled into some trouble here.
Jack still did not have time to think. Five more seconds had passed. Now came the shortrange missile swarm and the barking report of a machine gun. Both sides used shortrange missile systems based on hybrid UAV designs and precision-guided missile systems. They could loiter, they could swarm, they could chase if needed. There must have been three dozen in the air at that point. Jack did not know if they were his or theirs.
The westernmost q-ped broke station and headed down to cover AN41 as she moved toward the low wall. Jack crawled the rest of the way and pulled himself up behind the wall as she came and took a knee next to him.
The machine gun rounds pinged off the q-ped with incredible accuracy, but with no visible effect.
“Here’s the plan.”
The boy, almost forgotten about at this point, screamed as he took a round to the leg. AN41 jumped the wall and moved toward him. For some reason, she hesitated as she closed on the boy. The moment’s delay was enough.
AN41 dropped like someone flipped off her light switch. The other two Legionnaires reacted instinctively when she was hit and broke cover for just an instant. Both were immediately dropped. Suddenly, all fire from the top of the hill shifted to the low wall.
“Jack. This is Annie.”
Jack was sprinting back toward the low wall. B Team was covering him.
“Moving your way, 41.”
“Jack.” Her voice was calm and steady, but insistent. “I want you to hold what you’ve got.”
Jack was breathing heavily, the high-stress load of being under fire combined with the sprint to the low wall had his ears ringing and heart pounding.
“Jack, you know what it wants.” She was speaking on his internal audio, connected through to their integrated systems.
“It needs to take all three of us alive. It will kill the rest of your squad and then come down here and collect us.”
Three more enemy quadcopters began to move lower on the horizon. Where the hell did they come from? Another q-ped exploded from a railgun shot. The last q-ped’s active suppression was going crazy, flinging small projectiles into the air at an unsustainable pace.
“Jack.” This one was firm; she sounded different. “I’m offline with my team, they may be unconscious.
“I’m also paralyzed,” she continued.
“Jack, we’ve got about ninety seconds here. The Q is down to projectile countermeasures and those quadcopters are going to chew you all up once it runs out. This was a damn good trap. And I walked us right into it.”
“41, we’ll have fast movers up here in ninety seconds. . . . Just keep hanging on.”
“Jack, CAS is twenty minutes out. We don’t have much time to discuss, I need you to do what you have to do—what someone did for your brother.”
Jack momentarily flashed back to the man in uniform handing a US flag to his mother. He had heard the stories, but hadn’t wanted to believe Ben had gone down like this. He had been too good.
The quadcopters were screaming in now.
Jack turned back. Annie had her helmet off and her eyes closed. Her mouth was not moving, but Jack still heard her in his ears.
“Jack. Thirty seconds. Make it count.”
“Can’t do this, 41. Not in me.”
“No time for that Jack, this is bigger than you. This is why your squads come out with us. The MIND can’t do this for us but you can.”
The last two quadcopters were spitting fire now, but Jack couldn’t hear it. Time was slowing down.
You never really hear the rounds. You just feel the pressure as they impact around you. Jack rolled to the side of the low wall, his optic integrated with the visor. He fired twice.
Jack handed the encrypted key to the Legionnaire who thanked him and reminded him that he and his soldiers had signed non-disclosure agreements for the operation. Anything that happened on the mission was highly classified.
Immediate after he shot Annie, all enemy contact ceased. The other two Legionnaires had already died. The enemy’s AI immediately knew its mission was over, and any additional maneuver was wasted power and energy that could be applied elsewhere. The ultimate Machiavelli.
Once Annie was dead, the wounded boy received new instructions from his AI and the next level of human control . . . wherever that was. He and the quadcopters left as quickly as they arrived.
The scenario had been the perfect trap: multiple remote platforms integrated with a variety of legacy weapons and the equivalent of a combined-arms reserve with the three high-end weaponized quadcopters. All were networked THROUGH the boy and all were then networked higher to an AI/human centaur running that particular sector.
The cybernetic, “chipped” boy was the enemy’s only human involved in the attack.
Col. Jasper Jeffers is an infantry officer from Ripplemead, Vrginia. He received his commission through ROTC at Virginia Tech in 1996. He served in a variety of tactical assignments in infantry, Ranger, and special operations units throughout his career. These include rifle platoon leader in the 10th Mountain Division, Ranger platoon leader and company executive officer in the 1st Ranger Battalion, Commander of B Company, 1/5 IN (Stryker), Commander of A Company, 2nd Ranger Battalion, and command of other special operations units as a major and lieutenant colonel.He most recently commanded the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team at Joint Base Lewis McChord, Washington as part of the 7th Infantry Division. Col. Jeffers has numerous operational deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, and other locations throughout the Middle East. He is married to Bella Truong of Milpitas, California and they have three children: Jack (8), Norah (6) and Brynn (3).