Warbot 1.0: The Death of Homer

Image: Alex Brady / Laser Tank
Image: Alex Brady / Laser Tank
Image: Alex Brady / Laser Tank

161900UNOV2033 (1:00 p.m. local time)

Captain Stacy Doss felt the urge to yell to Homer, to ask him if he was OK. But that was stupid, because he was dead, and that made it highly unlikely that he would answer. Homer wasn’t his real name, just a funny nickname for her favorite platoon leader. She had lost contact with him a few hours ago. He was brave, resourceful, and probably killed by an enemy warbot. And here she was, a Captain in the United States Army, sitting north of Manila, feeling the sense of guilt only commanders know after a battle. Call it the weight of command. Maybe she missed something, perhaps she could have done better. As the commander of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, she needed to find him to pay her respects, for closure. It was what commanders did.

Three hours earlier…

#

“Roger Alpha 6, will cross phase line Tango in three mikes, will advise when we have objective Red Sox secured.” As was the unit’s habit, they had named their objectives after baseball teams.

Stacy took a deep breath before she responded to her fellow commander. Captain Mike McGinness, the Bravo company commander, was advancing along her right flank and was as good he was annoying. She would never hear the end of it if he achieved his objectives faster. And there would be no hiding it in the new Mission Command IV software running in the Assault Command Post. Major Megan Bennett, the battalion operations officer or S3, was a real know-it-all pain-in-the-ass and would surely let her hear about it at the after action review.

Stacy exhaled, adjusted her pony tail, and fiddled with her engagement ring.

“Bravo 6, be advised we are having difficulty with our scouts. The enemy pulled back a bit. Might be breaking contact, and we also seem to be getting some intermittent radio jamming. We’re having to take the drive on Objective Cubs a bit slower than planned.”

“Chicken,” Mike said.

Stacy looked at her command screens. In the dim light of her Tactical Operations Center, or TOC, she could see most of what she needed to make good decisions and issue commands. The TOC and the eight Soldiers that staffed it existed to provide her with not just data but also situational understanding, or contextualization, to enable her to quickly issue effective orders to her subordinate units. The interior was typical of forward-deployed TOCs: the familiar and ubiquitous potpourri of sweat, body odor, flatulence, coffee, dip, and leftover food that someone inevitably spills in the corner. Combat meals had a certain consistency across the decades, and it was always the one that smelled the worst that made it to the floor. Today, the reek of tuna casserole dominated. But at least the TOC had air conditioning and mobility, which her dad hadn’t enjoyed in Afghanistan, “back in the day, when it was hard.”

Stacy ran the routine counter-jamming procedure and pushed the scout platoon out further, trying to figure out where the enemy was, and what he was doing. The Chinese forces played to their strengths. Their scout units, while not equipped with the latest thermal and visual sensors, had better acoustic sensors. This made for an interesting cat-and-mouse game among the scouts akin to a blind man with excellent hearing trying to find a deaf man with excellent eyesight. She pushed her scouts still further forward, still trying to understand what was going on in her portion of the battlefield.

The new command interface, almost like the video games she played at the National Military Academy at West Point, was intuitive. The incorporation of gaming technology gave her an experiential edge as she grabbed a unit icon with her hologlove and moved it to the desired location. Her platoon leaders received the order and executed it in accordance with her intent and the firing parameters she had laid out at the beginning of the operation in a formal mission order. It was the epitome of the “Mission Command” concept embraced by the Army twenty-five years before. Pretty slick and effective when it all worked.

The two lead scouts crept forward, mindful of the danger but eager to find the enemy. Like its Vietnam-era predecessor, the Sheridan II armored reconnaissance vehicle was not designed to stand and fight, but to find the enemy, hide, and if discovered, run like hell. It was a low, sleek eight-wheeled vehicle capable of a top speed of eighty miles per hour. Its most prominent feature was the bulbous, telescoping boom. The boom and sensor package perched precariously on top could extend fifteen meters above the vehicle to see above most trees and allow a commander to observe critical events in real time.

The two scouts had just started deploying their booms when seven of the small Chinese command-detonated Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP) mines went off. The mines had a limited range but were close enough to temporarily paralyze the approaching scout vehicles, rendering them effectively blind.

Stacy muttered a string of expletives and reported back to the battalion Assault Command Post, or ACP, that while the actual damage was minimal, replacing a few key parts and a reboot would require five to seven minutes.

#

This was all the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) needed to insert fourteen targeting drones. The drones were older quadcopters of the Ningxia type. They were still reasonably effective and derived their name from a 1949 battle in the Chinese Civil War in which the PLA achieved a decisive victory over the Nationalist Chinese Army of Chiang Kai-Shek. The drones ripped past the scouts with a dull whirr, flew fast and low to pre-designated locations, and settled into the heavy canopy of the tropical forest. Even if their camouflage was only marginally effective, they were cheap and did their jobs well. That was the beauty of embracing disposability.

PLA combat vehicles emerged from camouflaged assembly areas in rapid succession. The assembly areas were camouflaged both physically, with old fashioned nets, and electronically. A perimeter of small devices confused, degraded, and spoofed enemy electronic sensors. The combat vehicles had to close the distance to the scouts and would be able to cover the seven km in about four minutes on their meticulously-planned route. The PLA had carefully assigned this mission to Colonel Yu Jai Bin. He was a decorated and hard-working officer, but his unenviable responsibility as an only child to care for his aging parents in Shanghai always weighed on him. While he secretly doubted the wisdom of the aggressive political decisions of his government, he was a professional who would carry out his orders. Besides, he thought, excelling in this campaign might result in a coveted promotion to general. To ensure all went well, he had seen to the smallest of details, and none were too small for his attention. He hated when his staff called him a nanomanager behind his back. But he would show them why he insisted on such detail.

Yu’s basic plan was as elegant as it was simple. Once the Japanese and Americans were forced to land on Lingayan beach in order to move on Manila, the value of the punitive expedition against the Republic of the Philippines had been fully realized. The Philippines had simply been punished in a modern equivalent of the Melian Dialogue. Thucydides’ summary of the famous dialogue from Peloponnesian War was essentially the law of the jungle in its rawest form: Do what we want, or pay the price. The Chinese expected that after they had made an example of the uncooperative Philippine government that the other nations on the periphery of the South China Sea would be more open to Chinese diplomatic overtures. The Japanese and American militaries were now committed to an expensive and time consuming fight, and almost as importantly, Colonel Yu had the honor of testing several experimental weapons with live training aids. He noted that the invasion fleet, consisting mostly of Japanese ships, used the same invasion beaches on the northwest side of Luzon as they had in 1942.

How ironic, he thought.

The enemy would be road bound and would likely follow the Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway southeast to Manila, their ultimate objective. His attack point would be at the location where the road came closest to the Tarlak River; his spoiling attack against them would raise the military costs of the engagement even more for the forces heading toward Manila. He had been marshaling his troops near the village of Guimba for three days. Yu had few remaining reconnaissance satellites still working after the opening days of the conflict, and he counted on the Americans not having enough of theirs remaining to fully comprehend what he had been doing. The loss of most satellites in the opening stages of the conflict had been a major blow both sides, but Colonel Yu presumed that the psychological impact on the Americans had been greater due to their overdependence on satellites for communications, navigations, and reconnaissance. High-altitude reconnaissance drones were less effective, almost to the point of obsolescence due to powerful ground-based air defense lasers. This made the Americans even more reliant on their low-altitude, terrain-hugging tactical drones. But he had a plan for them too.

He stood to address his task force staff, he nervously scratched at his thumbnail with his index finger until he began speaking.

“Today we begin what will indeed be a historic engagement. We, as the vanguards of the PLA, will engage the forces of the Western Pacific Alliance. We shall make their intervention expensive but part of our purpose is also to test new technologies and tactics that will inform our decision making in the later, and decisive phase of the conflict. Consider this an experiment in the laboratory of war.”

“And now let us begin,” he said simply.

#

The battalion’s ACP grew quiet as the Griffon peered into the distance and began a slow arc to move in the direction Alpha Company. No one was quite sure what was about to happen. They continued to focus on the drive on Manila but kept one eye on the left flank where Captain Doss and her company were. Major Bennett saw it first. She quickly manipulated the command screens and called over to the battalion commander.

“Sir, I am not sure what that is, but it doesn’t look good.”

Bennett was an exceptionally competent S3, having placed first in her regional competition for entrance into West Point. With the continuing advances in the automation of all the armed services, the numbers of humans needed to run wars decreased. That, coupled with the series of budget crises in the mid 2020s, resulted in draconian cuts to the military and as a byproduct, the consolidation of the service academies. Competition for entry was fierce and, in addition to seeking the usually expected physical, mental, and character traits expected of future leaders, testing included the ability to achieve situational understanding based on electronic inputs and to cognitively hypertask responses. This last component of testing was essentially a giant computer game.

As good as she was, she also expected a lot from those around her. She didn’t come off particularly harsh, but a few of the younger officers figured they knew it all and that anyone with the rank of major or above couldn’t possibly understand what was really going on. The fact that she had been a smart-ass captain only four years ago was not lost on her. But her additional years of experience would pay off during the coming days.

Lieutenant Colonel Gammon looked up at the massive integrated COP, or Common Operating Picture, with a pensive look. The COP was essentially a 3D map that displayed all known information about friendly forces, their condition, supply and ammunition status, the terrain, civilian structures and population, weather, and as much about the enemy as was known. The display was fed by all-source intelligence algorithms, linked sensors, and tracking devices in all friendly vehicles. The display itself could be manipulated with hologloves with progressively higher permissions based on rank or position. Bennett had a level two glove and zoomed into the area that the computer algorithm was flashing red as an unknown. Computers were excellent for number crunching firing solutions and figuring logistical requirements, but you couldn’t program intuition. Despite all the advances in AI, computers remained idiot savants that had difficulty understanding and adapting to complex and novel events. Like this one.

“What is it?” asked the boss.

“Not sure yet. I’ll move the Griffon in closer. Hey 2, anything on your net?”

The 2, short for S2, was the intelligence officer, Captain Luke Olive. He was a bookish man who constantly pored over screens that fed the COP.

Luke replied, “Negative, but something isn’t right. The computer shows medium uncertainty in that sector. That’s in Alpha Company’s sector where a few small EMP detonations went off about a minute ago. The social media feed only has two clips uploaded by some Philippine teenagers of a few small quadcopters. Probably just the usual disposable Chinese recon drones. I’m also seeing text evidence that civilians have been moving out of the sector for a few hours due to the ‘brown sound’ in that sector. Might be why we don’t see more info. Without overhead satellite help, it’s a little tougher to figure out what’s going on.”

The “brown sound” was a reference to a specific frequency and intensity of sound that would cause humans to become quite uncomfortable. It was commonly used in most militaries, as it was a convenient way to influence civilians to depart from an area of interest and make enemy forces consider the same course of action. While it had a real name and nomenclature, the device was affectionately known by the troops as the SSG, or Shit Storm Generator, because when applied for a sufficient amount of time, it eventually made humans defecate uncontrollably. There was even a recorded instance of a lieutenant who faced a courts-martial after getting drunk and having the bright idea to point one at his unit’s headquarters. And that is how legends are born…

#

Colonel Yu was pleased and began to fidget with the nervous energy of someone who drank one too many energy drinks. During the interwar years, China invested heavily in chemical lasers along with solid-state lasers. There was a tradeoff. China’s solid state models were a bit behind as it took more time to acquire an enemy’s research and development results, reverse engineer them, and then produce a weapon. It was however, exceedingly cheaper to do it this way vice independent development. China had invested its domestic research efforts into advancing chemical lasers. These could be built on a massive scale, and while more dangerous to use and physically larger, they could produce truly impressive beams of incredible strength in the low gigawatt range. The result was that the utility of most aircraft was greatly diminished. With the ability to force aircraft to remain out of effective range and destroy those that didn’t, these weapons almost nullified the huge American investments in advanced manned aircraft. Of course, both sides developed close-in point defense laser weapons that also made most artillery, rockets, antitank missiles and mortars nearly ineffectual against modern armies. While the Americans, Japanese, Chinese, Russians, and some European nations could field these area and point defense systems, most of the world could not, or would not, afford the bill. Following the disastrously high casualties in the last decade’s conflicts in Vietnam, Indonesia, and Taiwan, several nations had wished that they had made these investments.

In an ironic historical twist, battles between near-peer competitors with modern armies would be increasingly fought line of sight, head to head, much like battles of the Napoleonic Wars.

One of the main combatants of this new war was the Type 100 Main Combat Vehicle, or T100. It was a marvel of Chinese engineering and its numbering bore a special significance to the “Century of Humiliation.” It was designed to be fast, effective, and capable of both mass production and progressive automation. Its eight wheels were all independently electrically driven and steered. Powered by a hybrid diesel-electric drive, it mounted a 125 mm main gun and a coaxial machine gun. Yu was banking on the T100’s speed to allow his forces to close the distance with the enemy quickly, and to cover the electronic dead zone between the reach of his early warning and reconnaissance sensors and the point at which the T100s could visually and acoustically acquire targets and engage in combat. The counter recon fight took on a new degree of difficulty and remained a decisive phase of any operation.

The heavy air defense laser fired at a lone American drone arcing towards the dead zone. It burned a dime sized hole through the fuselage and the smoking drone spiraled down like a wounded bird. This was the signal for the T100s to launch forward in unison, guns at the ready. Only the slightly premature EMP mine detonations could have given the enemy any warning.

The twenty-seven T100s, led by three recon vehicles, and supported by their support platoon, raced forward at full speed. The support platoon consisted of a recovery/repair vehicle, three resupply vehicles, two fire support vehicles, a radio relay vehicle and a command and control vehicle that followed along behind the force. The T100s performed magnificently. Targeting drones, hidden in tree canopies, assisted the scouts in finding one of the enemy machines temporarily degraded by the EMP mines. They passed the information to the lead T100, which fired on the move and scored a direct hit. The single sabot round cracked the vehicle’s hull open. The T100 fired again with an explosive HEAT round to make certain the vehicle was destroyed.

With no other sightings yet, they were within ten km of the main road and what they expected would be the flank of the allied advance. All was proceeding according to plan.

#

Stacy saw it first. One scout vehicle was not responding and assumed lost. The second one, Ranger 21, had just come back on line and was providing a rapid feed to her holoscreen. Lots of unidentified red markers were appearing to her east. The intelligence algorithm would identify them as soon as enough information became available.

And it soon did. Ranger 21’s mast mounted sensors and the Sentinels that had been inserted earlier began identifying the lead vehicles of the column. Stacy took the real-time feed from the surviving Sheridan and picked out the distinct silhouette of a T100.

Stacy called Major Bennett’s ACP, and while the information she was seeing was also apparent to them in real time, the human component of war remained and was essential to making complex decisions.

“Dragon 3, Alpha 6, you seeing this? I think this is the lead of a PLA battalion. Wheeling the company left to make contact and engage.”

This would be a meeting engagement, one of the most dangerous maneuvers in warfare, and her first real engagement since taking company command. Stacy couldn’t shake the gnawing fear that she might screw this up.

“Roger Alpha 6, gain and maintain contact but do not become decisively engaged,” replied Major Bennett.

Stacy’s hands moving quickly over the holomap as she instructed her three platoons where to move and set up. She quickly gave firing parameters and ensured that each unit had a primary sector to cover. The platoons would work out the details on the ground and she trusted them to do so quickly. She had instructed the two light platoons to set up a screen, while Homer’s platoon of “heavies” would be prepared to do the blocking and tackling.

Homer was equipped with the latest version of the antivehicle electro-magnetic rail gun, an old-fashioned 7.62mm minigun for antipersonnel targets, and the usual suite of defensive measures, to include the Mark IV Point Defense System (PDS). The rail gun was impressive, but heavy, and the power requirements necessitated a tracked vehicle, hence the slowness of the platoon. Homer and his platoon of heavies lumbered into position and waited. They pointed rail guns at the expected location of attack and remained silent with the exception of constant whirring of their PDSs as they searched for missiles and drones. The light platoons moved into slightly better positions as they were on wheels and far better able to maneuver into tighter spots, while ensuring they had a way out.

Stacy clicked the fire-support interface and requested three pre-approved Sky Lance strikes at locations she tapped with her hologlove. The M47 Sky Lance was a truck-launched cruise missile that could skim the treetops and deliver a substantial thermobaric, EMP, or point-detonating warhead to a target. In this case, she cued up thermobaric warheads.

She got a quick response, although only one had been allocated to her company due to a missile shortage. Following the development in the 2020s of increasingly effective point defense laser systems and the subsequent decline in effectiveness of traditional fire support capabilities, the Army realized it had a fire support problem. With high powered anti-aircraft lasers clearing the skies of most jets and drones flying above treetop height, the Army invested heavily in small ground-hugging missiles.

A1, one of first platoon’s light vehicles, stopped transmitting. Then B2 and B3. All three were now indicating destroyed on her holoscreen. Stacy suppressed the fear that this might not be under control, and grabbed the stimpac she had forgotten to take and placed it under her tongue. The ability of tactical commanders to hypermanage the chaos around them was often the limiting factor in unit effectiveness and the stimpacs helped improve cognitive functions during critical times. They were an issued item, and use was required for that purpose. The effects began to hit and Stacy quickly began to feel her pulse quicken and focus tighten on what was going on. How could the enemy know where they were with such fidelity and get the first shot off?

“Targeting drones. The little crappy ones,” she said under her breath. She guessed that they went in after the EMP mine when her sensors “blinked.” Stacy realized that she had a real problem. Not being sure of where they were, her whole position was likely compromised.

Gotta pull back, out of their sensor range. If they follow, our sensors will pick them up and the point defense system lasers will put them down, she thought. Need about a ten km pull back to ensure we are out of range.

Seemed like a good plan and she hologloved it in.

“Negative” came the firm reply from Lieutenant Colonel Gammon, “That will put your fighting positions within line of sight of the main road. You can pull back five km, but that’s it. You’ve got to hold the flank there.”

“Roger, Sir, Wilco,” she responded. As a commander, she knew she was an economizer of death and destruction. Minimizing her unit’s and maximizing the enemy’s while accomplishing the mission. And this meant accepting casualties.

Stacy readjusted her orders just as A4, another light vehicle, stopped transmitting. This was going brown quick, she thought. With a quick flip of her hologlove, she pulled up direct video feeds from what remained of her recon platoon. She quickly scrolled through Scout 3, Scout 4, and then to Scout 2. There it was, what looked like the main enemy column.

Her two light platoons were already firing on the move. Now the scouts were moving. All the vehicles turned on their smoke generators, which created a patchy fog on the battlefield. While the smoke definitively identified a vehicle’s own location, the particulate matter in the smoke also disrupted the enemy’s thermal and optical targeting systems. This, along with the leave-behind decoys, could often buy precious seconds to enable a vehicle to get behind a terrain feature and out of the enemy’s line of sight. Homer’s platoon was the furthest back and she decided to wait a bit more to ensure that not all her forces were moving at once and that she had something solidly prepared should the enemy charge.

She hit the fire icon on her holoscreen and a few seconds later the Sky Lance screamed to life. The Lances flew low, often less than ten meters above the tree line, and gave terrific shrieks as they flew past. To protect against laser fire, the nosecone was hardened enough to withstand two to three seconds of laser energy. It was all that was necessary. They travelled at Mach .8 in flight, self-corrected, boosted to Mach 1.4 as they cleared the last terrain feature, and could generally get the thermobaric warhead pretty close, if not on the target before detonation. Thermobaric warheads were wonderful to behold, creating an impressive blast and pressure wave akin to a tiny nuclear device.

Right in the kisser, this should get their attention, she thought. The Lance had a time of flight of less than a minute and achieved a near perfect hit at the lead of the column. The Sentry drones registered three hits, with two more possible. Stacy felt good about the hit. While she could have released the fire command to the scouts, she decided to maintain personal control of the weapon and held it at her level.

A few minutes passed, and a quick look back at her holoscreen showed that Alpha Company’s two light platoons and the scouts were in their new positions, setting in defensive measures, and preparing for what was next. They had gotten away almost cleanly on account of their speed, defensive measures, and perhaps a bit of luck. The stay-behind decoys were one-shot disposable robots that gave the signature of a full sized vehicle and could fire only one kinetic shot. They didn’t always fool the enemy, but a few of hers did and two even got confirmed kills before being destroyed.

Stacy’s screen still indicated that the enemy was advancing, albeit a bit more slowly than she expected. The S2’s miniscreen popped up in the corner of her main screen. It provided a brief analysis from an AI-enabled intelligence program. It indicated that the enemy was roughly battalion sized, consisted mostly of T100s, and while the attack was reasonably well ordered, the enemy seemed to have a statistically higher than average rate of minor frictional issues, to include numbers of vehicles taking wrong turns, getting stuck (four were), or instances of multiple, and therefore inefficient firings on the same vehicle. Interestingly, the decoys her platoons had left behind caused more disruption than usual.

Good, I hope this means we are fighting the B team, Stacy thought.

Reporting came streaming in from the light platoons and the scouts in the form of texts along the bottom of her screen. Several of the enemy targeting drones were destroyed when they attempted to follow her forces. She assumed most of the others were out of range.

Time to move Homer and the heavies back. She lightly touched the platoon icon and swept it to the new battle position and went back to monitoring the screens.

The T100s were closing on Homer’s position and she had timed his retrograde to the new position well. She busied herself with coordinating the fight and peering through the video feeds from individual vehicles to gain a better sense of a battlefield she could not physically see. Her focus was disrupted by the unmistakable crack of a rail gun in the distance. The heavies were engaging, but it was at the wrong place. She checked her screen. Did she give the wrong command, not hit “execute” with her hologlove, or was there interference on the battlefield? Homer had not acknowledged the command to move and she hadn’t noticed. Now there were no comms with him. He was effectively on his own and would have to execute the commander’s intent, her intent, as he understood it.

I hope I was clear, she thought as the knot in her stomach grew.

#

Lieutenant Colonel Gammon’s command post was a flurry of activity. As the commander of 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, a unit that traced its lineage back to the Civil War, he had no intention of getting bested. This was shaping up to be a real fight, with his youngest and least experienced commander holding the left flank. She was new to the unit, a bit of an unknown at this point, and she had a stubborn side to her that could be an asset or liability, depending on the situation. She might need coaching.

With one of his favorite recon tools, the Griffon, now a smoking hole, Gammon’s situational awareness was limited to what he was getting off Captain Doss’s feed.

“Alpha 6, we are teeing up an additional Lance for your company. We can see that your heavy platoon is stationary and appears to be out of comms. What else do you need to keep the main body off of them?”

He heard some hesitation mixed with determination in her voice when she responded with “I think I have this, for now.”

“Major Bennett, tee up one of the remaining Lances, make it available to Alpha 6. And be prepared to go forward and assist her.”

“Roger, Sir, but I think she’s got it.”

The conversation ended with his nod. Bennett was a solid officer and Gammon trusted her judgment as she had spent more time with the young Captain than he had. Gammon was himself a gifted officer whose leadership, human insight, tactical prowess, and tenacity earned him a nickname by his troops, who knew him not as Gammon but as “Da Man.” He was after all already a legend as the only officer to survive a courts-martial for using an SSG on fellow officers. The board members at his courts-martial chalked up his pointing the SSG at Brigadier General Nightingale’s headquarters during a staff meeting as a youthful indiscretion. While they did punish him, they did not end his fledgling career. This was for two reasons: their view of his potential (anyone that could pull off that stunt was both creative, fearless, reckless, or a combination of all three), and that most of them had been recipients of General Nightingale’s toxic leadership in the past and hence figured that the event was a form of cosmic justice. They had often believed General Nightingale was full of crap and with the help of the young lieutenant, it was proven for all to see, and smell.

#

Homer wasn’t frightened and knew what had to be done. With comms out with his company commander, he was going to have to execute “mission command” to its fullest, and wing it, sort of. Captain Doss had given him clear mission orders that he had passed on to the rest of his platoon. His imperative was to keep the left wing strong and prevent an enemy penetration that could jeopardize the main attack by Bravo and Charlie companies as they secured the route to Manila.

He was now knee deep in the execution of his mission. Homer and his wingman, C2, had positioned themselves on the left of their platoon battle position while C3 and C4 had covered the right. The plan was to engage with two to three rounds each, move to alternate firing positions while the railgun cooled down and their capacitors recharged, and repeat. Their main weapons, the turret mounted M20 hypervelocity railguns were brutally effective.

With the decline in effectiveness of chemical energy (HEAT) missiles over the past two decades as point defense systems dramatically improved, direct fire weapons once again rose in primacy to the point of dominance. Gunpowder weapons, especially large ones, could only achieve muzzle velocities for penetrating rounds of around two km per second and out to a range of four to five km at best. The M20 fired a five kg depleted uranium penetrator at 3.7 km per second out to ranges of eight to ten km. The muzzle energy the gun generated, over thirty five megajoules, required power in the mega-amperes range but only for milliseconds. These things got hot in a hurry and thus had a sustained rate of fire due to heat buildup. Fire too quickly in succession and the system would melt. It was, however, an acceptable tradeoff for a weapon this good.

The recoil rocked the whole vehicle as the round left the gun. Homer’s first round was dead on. At 3,642.7 meters, the round still maintained near maximum penetrating power and ripped thought the T100’s armor with ease. The T100’s innards blew out the back of the vehicle and it rolled to a stop as its remaining forward inertia was spent. It was the lead vehicle and now the ones behind it had something else to contend with. C2 fired at the rearmost vehicle of the nine-vehicle company in view. They had waited until the unit exposed itself and now had them boxed. The lead and trail vehicles were knocked out and the remaining seven were having difficulty maneuvering to get around the wrecks and the ubiquitous irrigation ditches.

With normal communications out even within the platoon, the Homer and his wingman were using back up line-of-sight laser based comm links with a relay to C3 and C4.

C3 and C4 were now also firing, the distinct crack of their railguns drifted through the other noises of battle. They were not able to lay as good of a trap as they would have liked due to the terrain and only had three T100s in the kill zone when they began to fire. The T100s started firing back even as more came into view. After several rounds of back and forth the M20s were hot and it was time to move. Six more T100s were wrecks, and one more was stuck. On the friendly side, C3 had taken a glancing hit in the track, C4 took one that penetrated one of its two main capacitors, but they were still combat effective. Mostly.

Homer gave the signal, they popped smoke and the decoys sprang up as they all moved back to their alternate firing positions.

Unfortunately, the glancing hit to C3 was worse than expected. A damaged, and now thrown left track was potentially a death sentence for her.

Homer did a quick recalculation of his plan. C3 still had fully functional armament while C4 would be firing his M20 at a dramatically lower muzzle velocity due to the blown out capacitor. Dramatically lower velocity was mostly a euphemism for “sling shot velocity.” Homer adjusted his plan and sent C4 back into position while he and C2 moved to their alternate positions. In the short run, this wasn’t too bad, but now Homer’s next move would be problematic with C3 and C4 locked into one position.

C3 and C4 continued to engage. Homer told C4 to distract the enemy lest they concentrate all their fire on C3. With no cool down time C3’s weapon began to both overheat and lose effectiveness. The automated fire control system managed as well as it could but C3 quickly requested Homer’s permission to override the overheating protocol. It wouldn’t matter much if they kept the weapon from melting if the vehicle ended up in the scrap yard. Homer quickly approved her request and continued firing from his position.

The T100s were getting closer to C3 and C4, and more importantly, they had ranged them and knew they weren’t moving. C4 clicked out of contact with Homer. Homer’s external acoustic sensors let him know C4 hadn’t survived the hit and was now in pieces. His platoon had managed to kill four more T100’s but their advantage of range and surprise was now gone. Based on how the enemy was maneuvering, Homer knew that the best chance to both hold back the enemy and keep what was left of his platoon alive was to concentrate his firepower in one fighting position. He adjusted his plan again, and with C2 he moved to a new, yet-to-be-determined fighting position near C3. Low on smoke and out of decoys, they were now vulnerable. One of the remaining PLA targeting drones committed suicide by briefly illuminating C2 with a targeting laser. C2’s point defense system quickly destroyed it but it was too late. Every T100 in the area was now firing at or moving to where they could fire at C2. Even worse, they were quickly calculating every location where C2 could theoretically be in the next two to three minutes.

C2 moved quickly, attempted to add some uncertainty to the enemy’s calculations, but came up short. A T100 caught him as he emerged between two small knolls along one of the calculated routes. The shot was good, and caught C2 in the side. It was over in an instant. There was no huge explosion, just metal parts, newly created shrapnel and what was left of a sabot round emerging out of C2’s left side. C2’s war was now over.

The enemy was close now, the main comm link was still down, and Captain Doss still had limited information on what was going on. If they got another Griffon up, that might help, but until then, no luck. Homer was moving quickly, both cooling his guns and recharging its capacitors as he pulled in near C3. Homer selected the most logical position for what could possibly be a last stand and put in a request for an immediate Sky Lance strike. He fired at two approaching T100s, and got another kill. C3 was now nearly combat ineffective. Her railgun circuits grew so hot they melted the capacitors, she was immobile, and had only a minigun to defend herself. Even that was no good as it could not penetrate the armor of the T100s and there were no infantry to shoot. Still, Homer kept firing, bound by duty to his platoon and a sense of desperate survival.

#

Captain Doss’s screen suddenly flashed red with Homer’s request for a Sky Lance, a danger close final protective fire. Comms were intermittent, but he had to be both desperate and about to be overrun by the enemy for him to request something like this. She immediately released the strike to him as she tried to understand why C3 was still in her original position, Homer was nearby in a place that she had not expected, and numerous wrecked T100s were littered around Homer’s former position.

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Homer continued firing, protected C3, and took out two more T100s in the process. While the railguns did not use powder, they still had to be loaded with the tungsten penetrator projectile prior to each shot. A T100 had gotten in a lucky hit and the round had destroyed his autoloader. Homer immediately called the Lance in on his position. Twenty seconds later, it came screaming in and decisively ended the Battle of Tarlac River. Homer, C3, and the remaining four T100s all died at the same time in a massive thermobaric explosion.

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161915UNOV2037 (1:15 p.m. local time)

Stacy finally found him, or what was left of him. He was the first one she had seen when she arrived in the unit two weeks ago. Being young and new to war, she had thought it would be cute to write Homer on the side of his hull to personalize him a bit. It seemed like a shame that the supply system knew Homer, and those like him, simply as an M316 Heavy Offensive Multi-Role Robot, or “HOMRR” for short.

She shed no tears, but had a very strange sense of guilt that she was the one who had sent him into a fight that he did not survive. He had fought bravely, courageously, and autonomously. The correct term was no longer KIA, or “killed in action,” but rather DIA, or “Destroyed in Action.” She had to remind herself that Homer was a robot and that had he and those like him been manned fighting vehicles, many more Soldiers would have died not only in this battle, but also in this war. She still had much to do before the assault on Manila. She turned slowly and walked away.

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Epilogue: The Battle of the Coral Sea was unique in history in that it was the first naval battle fought without warships on either side actually sighting each other. It was fought entirely with aircraft and would herald a new age of warfare. In similar fashion, the Battle of Tarlac River was unique in that it was the first major land battle fought in which no human manned vehicle actually sighted another human manned vehicle.

Following the battle of Tarlac River, both sides continued to struggle to fully harness the power and potential of robotic mechanized warfare. As Germany and the Allies faced off in 1940, the Germans were outnumbered in tanks, trucks, troops, and artillery yet went on to conquer France in a mere six weeks. While leadership, luck and host of other factors were at play, it was the remarkable way that a few German military thinkers envisioned and developed a fundamentally new way of warfare, known to the Allies as Blitzkrieg, which made this victory even possible. Their doctrine was not dependent on future technologies, but simply integrated recent technological developments into a coherent and integrated way of fighting before their opponents did.

Who in this war would be the first to effectively integrate AI-enabled robotic technologies into a coherent and effective way of fighting remained yet to be seen.

Brian M. Michelson is a US Army Officer and currently serves as a Chief of Staff of the Army Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. His previous writing has appeared in Military Review, Small Wars Journal, and the Institute of Land Warfare. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army War College, the United States Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.