Image: US Navy

The following story was written by Chris O’Connor. “ZEPREP” is a featured entry from The Art of the Future Project’s “Third Offset” war-art challenge. A Navy Supply Corps officer, he holds a degree in History from the US Naval Academy and an MBA in Supply Chain Management from the Naval Postgraduate school. He has been published by the Center for International Maritime Security.

“RED DECK.” The 1MC blared, redundantly. Ensign W.B. Ellis’s glasses continuously displayed the deck status at the lower edge of his vision. They kept the old-school 1MC procedures for crewmembers who didn’t currently have their AR ‘shades on, which annoyed the night watch standers trying to sleep—an ancient Navy tradition.

He was standing in the hangar bay of the ship, waiting to go out to the flight deck, so he quickly threw open the quick-acting hatch and stepped out into the bright sunlight. The mid-day humidity in the South China Sea was tolerable thanks to the frigate’s speed, and Ellis’s glasses immediately adjusted to the light change. To his right, the large hangar bay door slowly opened as the warning horn blared and his glasses flashed a yellow warning arrow that indicated a safety hazard.

Tapping his left index finger into his palm, he opened up the aperture of his AR filters to Full SA (situational awareness) mode, grafting onto his visible world an overlay that showed all combat and navigation system inputs. This was one of the shortcut gestures that he and his personal AI had customized; he could give instructions verbally, through eye motions, or with his hands, which were continually tracked with a set of wristbands.

Centered in the middle of the flight deck was a newly delivered container of parts. The reticle on his ‘shades told him that the recently departed hopper drone was already 154 yards aft of the ship. The wasp-like drone sped off, its ducted fans transitioning to forward flight as it turned to the west. His overlay showed the light green line of the projected course of the hopper leading to LBJ, a destroyer over 50 miles distant.

The boiling white wake of his ship, USS Rochester (FF-35), faded off to the north, transcribed with a yellow line that was the ship’s track. A Foxtrot Corpen of 180 was needed in order to get a good envelope for the drone, but every aircraft had slightly different wind requirements. The wake curved a few degrees to the right as the autonav system set up for the next delivery.

He walked over to the pallet and looked at it. His ‘shades read the tags of all of the items inside and showed him depictions of the contents. The large jewel case contained neatly stacked electronic parts, graphene components, and custom biopharms. All items that were just too complex for the Rochester’s VULCAN AI to build himself (as pronouns went, the ship was female, VULCAN was not). The AM systems onboard were just too small and not stabilized enough to build all parts. Hence the hopper additive forge run from the America. VULCAN inventoried the parts with Ellis’s glasses and logged receipts on the right hand side of his vision. In practice, it was unnecessary for him to see the inventory function working in real time, but he figured that as the Supply Officer, if anyone should be keeping track of that, it should be him.

Looking past the container, Ellis saw one of the three escort USVs that was accompanying his ship. It was a vicious-looking little vessel, trapezoidal and dark grey. Its angular outline was punctuated with small missile and decoy launchers, sensor arrays, and a snubby little 30mm cannon. Since it reminded people of Civil War Confederate Navy armored ships, people took to calling them “fiberclads.” In fact, you’d have to squint really hard to make the association with the famed Merrimack.

“Excuse me, Sir.” A non-accented generic male voice said behind him, “I need to stow that.” Ellis realized he was standing too close to the container and stepped aside. He turned towards the 6-foot humanoid robot standing behind him. “Sorry, Steve.”

The light grey-colored android had emerged from the hangar after the door was half open. It was shaped like a human for the most part, but its head looked like a shiny black egg—it was a 360 degree sensor array that was continuously scanning in IR, optical, and LIDAR. In effortless strides, it closed with the container, bent at the knees (robots have to protect their backs, too), reached around the sides of the 1,500-lb box and easily lifted it up into the air. As it turned and walked back into the dark maw of the hangar, Ellis noticed a round sticker, depicting a scorpion killing a submarine, firmly attached to the robot’s rear end.

Damn visiting HSM pilots zapped Steve again, he thought, this is getting old.

“Steve,” he said, “the Scorpions got you again.”

“Yessir,” the robot replied, as he walked away, “at least they didn’t cover any sensors this time.”

“Get that off before the Skipper sees it. The only way aircrew could have got that on you is if you let them do it.”

Two blue ovals appeared in the head of Steve, facing backwards towards Ellis. “Aye aye,” the robot said. With what sounded like a sigh.

He’s been programmed to imitate humans to fit in, Ellis thought, but the over-the-shoulder eye contact made him look like an owl.

“Owls” was a nickname that some crewmembers called the standard shipboard model of humanoid robots—there were several of them on the ship. “Wally” was blanket nickname, which was based off of an old movie. For the same reason, the Royal Navy liked “Marvin.” Onboard most ships, robots in specific roles were give individual nicknames; “Snipe” was in the engineering spaces, “Snoopy” (who had really good optics) was on the bridge, “Blitz” kept mostly to ordinance and unmanned systems. “Steve” (derived from “Stevedore,” a manual laborer that carried cargoes) spent most of its time moving supplies and loading payloads into launchers and onto air vehicles.

These nicknames were an improvement over the original designations for the robots when they were first assigned aboard ship. Apparently, some genius at OPNAV thought calling them Automated Shipmates was a good idea. Sailors immediately saw potential in the associated acronym, pronouncing it differently. Ellis heard that they would still respond to the title of “Ass” if you called them that.

He knew the XO was not a fan. Since Ellis hadn’t earned his SWSCO qual yet, he was going to avoid pissing her off. And he was careful not to abuse Steve anyway. It was a good worker, and seemed to have pride in its work. There were automated discbots that could have moved the container of forge run parts, but the logistics robot chose to do it itself.

As Steve stepped into the hangar, the ship’s course indicator at the bottom of the left field of view steadied at 198. The words Zebra Corpen appeared in his vision.

Hearing a loud droning in the air, he turned around. A massive shadow was approaching from the stern, following a fat blue dotted line that led to the aft edge of the ship’s the flight deck. He didn’t have to tilt his head very far back to see the approaching airship.

The bright white Zephyr-type hybrid airship took up a huge section of the sky astern the frigate. It was approaching at 80 feet above the water to clear the Rochester’s mast, and was over 100 feet longer than the ship, with much more beam. As it lined up with the centerline Ellis’s shades said, Airship replenishment in 60 seconds. A large bay door then opened up on the underside of the “zep,” just aft of the nose.

It wasn’t really a zeppelin, despite the nickname. Nobody in the fleet seemed to be happy with the term “airship replenishment,” “enhanced VERTREP,” or “aerial alongside,” so over the few years that it had been employed, it changed to “ZEPREP,” which fit in well with the older “VERTREP” (vertical replenishment) and “CONREP” (connected replenishment) terms. And then the signal flag Zebra was associated with it, because the Surface Warfare Officers would be upset if there wasn’t a flag to fly for every distinct evolution.

Guided by its own AI, the Zephyr’s nose smoothly took position over the flight deck, leaving 90 percent of the airship flying over the wake of the frigate. It was quite a sight from the perspective of other ships on the water.

CLEAR THE FLIGHT DECK the autonomous airship told him through his glasses. A little embarrassed for staring at the zep, Ellis quickly walked back into the hangar through the open bay doors. He didn’t want to run and look unprofessional. Plus, it hurt to trip and fall onto rusty nonskid. Unlike a VERTREP or aircraft launch and recovery, the hangar doors stayed open. There was no downdraft to this evolution, no rotorwash to send debris flying.

His glasses readjusted to the darker hangar bay. Originally designed to hold H-60 helicopters, it now was an unmanned systems launch bay. Lining the bulkheads on the port and starboard sides were ready racks of drones. There were ten distinct models waiting to be launched, from the smaller VTAV Hummingbirds, to the Cormorant and Flying Fish cross-domain vehicles, to the large Sea Eagle UCAVs.

Blitz was testing mission packages in a rack towards the fore end of the space. Two second-class petty officers, an AA2 (Additive Artisan) and an US1 (Unmanned Systems Technician) were also in the bay, doing physical systems checks on clusters of drone launchers. They could check each of the vehicles with their glasses and AI assistants, but they were being extra thorough on their checks today.

Ready to receive” the CO said over the voice net. It was for the crew’s awareness and the Zephyr’s permission. Old habits die hard. The airship still needed verbal approval from the Skipper to begin, even though it was more than smart enough to tell that the frigate was ready for it.

BEGIN REPLACEMENT appeared on every set of ‘shades on the ship. A counter to the right of Ellis’s vison read 0/24. Almost immediately, two pallets of frozen food appeared, two feet apart. The clamps holding onto the bottom of the pallets opened outward and smoothly darted upward on cables. Thirty seconds later, two more pallets appeared (eggs and one of FF&V), two feet behind the first two, exactly in line. More food. Always in the same order. Frozen first, then fresh, then dry food, parts, AM build material, and even the occasional mail.

He couldn’t see it, but he knew the airship was drifting backward as it lowered the supplies from over 60 feet above. The positional accuracy was not really needed for the FF’s large flight deck, but the aircraft was given the capability for smaller destination ships. It could be used to swap modules out of underway vessels, LCACs, and USVs.

The VULCAN system told him through his ‘shades that this run was mostly going to be food and AM feed stock; the standard ZEPREP. It also told him that the Skipper’s valuable Diet Coke was on the last food pallet, the cases of cans stacked on top of the soda concentrate pouches. Ellis would have prioritized that as the first pallet if he had a say in the matter. But he didn’t. The VULCAN supply, maintenance, and repair AI set the priorities, Ensign brownnosing notwithstanding. It was humbling as a Supply Officer not to have control over such things, but he was still needed as a watch stander onboard, and AIs were still not very good at doing in-port receptions for dignitaries. Supply Corps Officers, such as Ellis, were put on smaller ships only for certain deployments.

The airship’s pallet counter ticked up rapidly.

14/24. Flour and spices (lone cook onboard still made scratch biscuits) and the (vital) Diet Coke.

The flattened cylinder-shaped discbots emerged from their bays straddling the bay doors, seeming to hum with excitement, waiting for the ZEPREP to end so they could get to work. Recovering containers from the flight deck and clearing FOD was their bread and butter. They were designed to operate on nonskid, unlike their smaller cousins that cleaned the decks inside the ship.

16/24. Extra power cells for drone directed energy systems.

As he looked up at the underside of the cargo airship through the roof of the hangar bay, his AR filter showed him the pallets flowing forward and being fed into the replenishment gear. It was so smooth it looked like a biological process. Looking down the length of the zep, he could see that it was largely empty; it looked like the Rochester was the last ship on this run. Ellis noticed the normally svelte outline of this Zephyr was marred with additional blisters and antennae. It looked like it had some modifications that were normally installed on the larger MARPAT and ISR Cumulous-type airships. There were plenty of potentially hostile forces in the area to keep track of. Every collection asset counted.

Just after the counter hit 24/24, Ellis’s shades went dead. The entire overlay and heads-up display—the message stream, the combat systems overlay, all of it—disappeared. He was just wearing expensive glass lenses. He quickly clenched his fists behind his back—the reboot command for his personal system—and nothing happened.

Klaxons blared as the ship was called to General Quarters on the 1MC. The Captain came up on the old-fashioned speakers. “JANUS has detected an intrusion into our systems. We are scrubbing it, but we have reason to believe this is a precursor to a larger attack. OCEANUS, Empty quiver.”

The hangar bay door automatically started to close as the launchers on each side of the ship sequentially kicked out the ready drones in a cacophonous roar. Some needed more help than others. The Sea Eagles had rocket boosters while the Flying Fish just needed compressed air to make it into the water. Some malfunctioned, stuck in their tubes.

His ‘shades finally came to life as he ran towards the ladder of Helicopter Control Officer Station, his GQ post. It was just a place for him to get safely out of the way, after all, no-one stood watch up there anymore. With ‘shades that could see through the ship and autoland systems, you didn’t need someone physically up there as helos landed anymore. Below him, the two launch bay petty officers strapped themselves into shock chairs facing the launchers and set to work, talking to their AIs while making rapid hand gestures. Blitz was slapping new components into a couple of the laggard drones, hung in their launchers.

As he strapped himself into his perch above the flight deck, the Full SA feed from OCEANUS came back up. And it was a mess. The horizon was covered in hostile icons. There was broad spectrum jamming going on. It appeared that all comms and navigation feeds were down. Hopefully the UAS they just put into the air would help rectify that. Past his view of the abandoned pallets on the flight deck, he could see the Zephyr dropping in altitude and falling back behind the ship, now command tethered to the frigate as a decoy.

Someone in a project office had to dig deep into Greek mythology to come up with the OCEANUS AI system name. AEGIS had been around since Ellis’s grandfather’s day, but a new mission set was added to manage drone swarm behaviors and over-the-horizon weapons, so a rename was in order. The Titan god of the sea was really the only option left. Poseidon, Neptune, and Triton were taken several times over. JANUS, the god of doorways and gates, was the cleverly named cyber defense and comms AI. ATHENA was the task force combat AI that integrated hundreds of assets, from the OCEANUS systems on various surface ships and scores of unmanned systems and swarm command nodes. ZEUS was definitely taken; it was the STRATCOM space and missile AI.

At the upper edge left hand corner of his vision, he saw two angry red triangle icons appear. He looked up (and through the structure of the ship) and focused his eyes towards them, over 40,000 feet up and 32 miles away to the northwest. His ‘shades took the cue to zoom in to the task force’s Cumulus-type robotic airship being attacked a pair of small air-to-air missiles. The leading missile in the pair wobbled and disappeared in a spray of debris, followed in oblivion by the second, a mile short of their target. Both were swatted by unseen directed energy beams.

A Cumulonimbus upgrade, Ellis thought. They operate too high up to have a defensive air swarm, but have other ways of protecting themselves.

A larger triangle appeared and faded as a stealth aircraft unleashed two more missiles. The first raced toward the airship only to be stopped 200 yards away. The second missile wasn’t stopped far enough away for the Cumulonimbus to escape harm—when it exploded, fragments of the missile perforated the broad side of the aircraft. It immediately started to bleed altitude, but the info overlay superimposed over the airship showed that the outer bag was sealing up.

The airship’s sensors finally got a fix on the hostile stealth aircraft shortly before the resurgent hostile triangle graphic merged with the friendly blue goldfish icon. Undaunted in its mission, a flying wing enemy UCAV had collided with the surveillance ship, emerging from the other side wreathed in flame and tumbling to the water below. The Cumulonimbus plummeted from the firmament, leaving a black cloud of smoke in the sky in its former station.

He looked back out at the stern of the ship. The frigate’s waterjets, operating at max throttle, made the wake a sheet of white, angry water. Two hundred yards distant was the imposing nose of the Zephyr, now keeping station directly behind the Rochester as a seduction asset. It was now at wave-top height (his AR reticle read 8 FT AGL) and had no issue keeping up with the warship, even at low-level. To enhance its attractiveness to incoming missiles, the top half of the Zephyr gradually changed color to match the hazy blue sky, and the bottom half became the same color as the Rochester. Ellis knew that it would mimic the outline of a US Navy warship in order to confuse further any optical sensors looking its way.

As he was looking aft, two fiberclad escorts from the port side crossed through the wake at full speed. They looked more like alien spacecraft when they were going full tilt—their angular black superstructures had risen completely above the water, with their single thin ventral keels extending into the water. Unseen at the end of their keels were their propulsion pods, now propelling much less displacement, as the underside of their lightweight hulls were acting as aerodynamic lifting bodies.

Another fiberclad, still in hull down mode, dropped back from its starboard station to take its place between the lumbering Zephyr and the Rochester. Its angular 30mm cannon slewed to starboard, aiming futilely towards the enemy to the west. Turning to look that direction, Ellis noticed that the dozens of “suspected hostile” icons on the horizon had been winnowed down to ten red diamonds on the surface, and two POSSUB inverted triangles below the surface. The nearest ones were missile crafts 40 miles distant, the farthest a surface action group of five vessels almost due west but over 150 miles away (thanks to the curvature of the earth, their icons looked like they were below the water).

Ellis tapped the palm of his right hand with his right index finger, bringing up the comms network menu in his left lens. He selected the combat net by selecting it with his vision cursor.

“Captain,” the CSO said from combat, “the ISR zep gave us a good targeting solution to enemy surface and contacts before she bit it. SHF and EHF are still degraded. Constellation coms and swarmnet is up with ATHENA actual.”

The CO might already have known all this, thought Ellis, but the CSO’s job was to distill it a bit; the Skipper was a millennial after all. He still used a tablet on occasion and just couldn’t take all the inputs to his visor that most of the crew had. He was probably sitting behind the CSO in combat, looking at the largely redundant video screens. Most of the watchstanders in there were in full VR sets and control gloves, oblivious to the physical environment around them.

As he listened to this exchange, Ellis could see that OCEANUS was identifying some of the enemy to the west, with the help of the swarm that was continuously changing shape and size. Four of the contacts were identified as high value targets. LPDs and a command ship. They were quickly assigned antiship missile missions from OCEANUS.

“Weapons free,” the Skipper said, calmly.

To the left and right of Ellis’s seat in the HCO tower, vertical launch hatches opened and unleashed the ship’s entire complement of eight antiship missiles in quick succession. They dropped their boosters and roared away on tongues of flame, supersonic before they crossed the horizion.

OCEANUS AUTO, the battle management AI reported in the ‘shade message stream.

The Skipper had given the weapon systems over to OCEANUS, with defense of the ship set to a higher priority than offense, for now. Every unmanned system, from the fiberclads, to the aerial swam, to the tethered Zephyr, were given commands to follow and protocols to continue if they were cut off from the OCEANUS command AI.

The distant contacts then revealed their hostility by unleashing 43 antiship missiles in the direction of Rochester and the task force beyond her.

Dozens of the swarm UAVs dropped to sea level to create a defensive barrier in front of the incoming missiles. Within seconds, some of them were already on the horizon heading their way. Mount 761 on the bow began spitting out hypervelocity dart rounds like a jackhammer. Chaff bloomed from the frigate’s launcher, and the fiberclad in the wake contributed some foil to the effort. The picture clutter was getting very hard for human eyes to process as the icons closed on each other, and a series of explosions flashed on the horizon.

Some of the enemy missiles were too smart and too fast for the swarm to get to. It also looked like a section of the swarm just died, possibly due to a defensive EMP countermeasure burst from one of the incoming missiles. A handful of them made it through. Mount 761 kept shooting, and the SeaCUDA launcher above Ellis joined in, spitting out four missiles.

It was over in seconds, and only afterward did Ellis understand what happened.

Two missiles went towards the Zephyr. One passed through the nose of the aircraft before detonating, the energy of the warhead and the inertia of the missile emptying into open air. The second one did a dive at the artificial waterline of the airship, exploding as it hit the water, and sending debris into the bottom of the aerial behemoth.

One passed between the Rochester and the fiberclad behind her and was shot down moments later by a Flying Fish drone that leapt out of the water and took it out so it couldn’t wander into the other ships in the strike group. The unfortunate companion fiberclad was then hit by a supersonic sprint vehicle, which lifted the 35-foot vessel into the air, disintegrating it into a tumbling mass of carbon fiber and machinery.

Two missiles made it close enough to the Rochester to damage her. The close-in microwave directed electromagnetic pulse system must have got to them, for one collided into the water 50 yards away and sent warhead fragments into the amidships. The other zigged with it but should have zagged, and was killed by OCEANUS with the starboard 30mm. It was a shot that only an AI could make. The canon’s rate of fire didn’t allow for a second shot at a Mach 3.5 target. It detonated in midair and sprayed the flight deck and the mission bay below with metal shards. Some of the containers of supplies were knocked off of the flight deck, while others were heavily perforated, leaving few unmolested.

Ellis’s vision rimmed with yellow as FIRE and FLOODING scrolled across it. Black smoke poured from the starboard side below the flight deck. Snipe and the damage control flying squad were en route to the aft mission bay. It was the worst hit space on the ship.

Donning his mask, he jumped down from the HCO ladder. The acrid smell of a shipboard fire filled the hangar bay, but there wasn’t any damage to the systems within. Small robotic arms were working away at loading more drones into the launchers. The two petty officers were wearing masks now, gesturing away at the launch racks, undeterred by the smoke.

“SUPPO,” the CO said over the net, “get the flight deck clear. We’re now the helo and hopper ready deck.”

“Aye aye, Sir,” Ellis said, stepping out under the opening hangar doors. Steve and discbots were already on the flight deck, in full FOD clearance mode, gathering some salvageable items, pitching the rest into the water. The deck angled as the ship turned sharply to the east. The damaged Zephyr struggled to keep up, still at wave top height astern. Still tethered to it, she would follow until OCEANUS didn’t need it anymore.

Far off to the west, the icons of hypersonic missiles from the LBJ and LAKE ERIE were arcing downward at the hostile targets below the western horizon, accompanied by a rain of rail gun projectiles. Closer in, a Cormorant UAS found something to kill. It dove into the water 80 yards to the port beam of the ship and hit something big, kicking up a column of water that drenched the flight deck and everything on it.

Damn. I hope some Diet Coke survived, the USS Rochester’s SUPPO thought, as he got to work.