The Army’s Guardian Angels

Image: USMC/Staff Sgt. Artur Shvartsberg

This story is a featured entry from the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Mad Scientist Initiative contest exploring warfare in 2030-2050.

Prologue:  In the near future robotics and networked sensors will be found in the air, on the ground, in and under the sea.  Human soldiers will still be needed to access areas denied to robots and to make direct contact with other humans, both friend and enemy.  The mass of information to be analyzed from countless sensors and the 24 hour nature of combat will demand more of our soldiers than ever before.  It is incumbent on us as scientists and engineers to integrate new technology with our warfighters in a way that enhances their combat effectiveness. 

Lieutenant Collins and his platoon are about to be assigned a mission to rescue an American NGO aid worker and a diplomat, the last survivors of a convoy ambushed in a lawless section of San Terrania when the previous government fell apart.  Their story is a hint of things to come…


Lieutenant Collins stood outside Major Thomas’ office, straining to hear the vocal discussion going on inside through the closed door.  Captain Redd stood up for his teams when it looked like their mission was a little less than half baked, and in the last week that was pretty much all the missions.

Almost a week ago the government of San Terrania had evaporated.  On day one, a coup in the capital and the federal military HQ killed or scattered all the government’s leaders, and the regular police forces were wisely staying out of sight.  The next day the coup leaders turned on each other and that left no one in charge.  In the absence of any authorities every militant and criminal had come out of the woodwork with guns and looted the national armory.  Just the sort of happy go lucky place you would want to live and work.

So far the American base had been left alone. It was located almost 50 miles up the coast from the capital and not near any real population center.  It wasn’t on the menu just yet.  The militias and gangs were staking out their territories and eventually some of the looted ordnance would be pointed our way.  For now, Lieutenant Collins and his team had been making short runs to bring in the American and allied personnel, both military and civilian, who got caught out in the storm and were forced to shelter in place waiting for help.  Clearly there was another mission to assign.

The debate in the Major’s office quieted down and Captain Redd opened the door.  “Lieutenant come in please.”

The Major, Captain Redd, and an agitated, red-faced civilian in a rumpled suit had been in the meeting.  Major Thomas spoke first, “Lieutenant we have a new mission for you.  Mr. Steinfeld is from the U.S Diplomatic Mission.  You are probably aware that there was an aid convoy ambushed two days ago in Sorrent Province.  At the time we believed all the members of the convoy had been killed, but Mr. Steinfeld has information that suggests one aid worker and a diplomat survived the attack and are being held prisoner by a local militia.  We don’t know their current condition or exact location, but we have a suspected site to investigate.  If it pans out we want them retrieved as soon as possible.”

“Do you have anything to add Mr. Steinfeld?” asked the Major.

Mr. Steinfeld was clearly distraught from the loss of so many people and very emotional in his plea. “Lieutenant Collins, David Lewanski is my best and most experienced negotiator.  He went into the field with the aid workers to ensure they came home safely.  Please bring these folks home for me.  I don’t know when we will stabilize this political situation, but when we finally do we are going to need people like David to put this country back together.”

The mission briefing with Captain Redd was quick and efficient.  Drop into hazardous territory, find two lost sheep without being discovered and get the heck out.  The mission was already underway, just not with boots on the ground yet.

At the same time, 90 miles north, an eagle shaped UAV was gliding on the thermals rising off the sun-warmed slopes of the mountains.  The upper surface of the wings included conformal solar cells to charge the batteries, and the updraft allowed the UAV to return to high altitude for a good field of view.  The occasional real eagle or vulture that took an interest would glide in formation studying the odd looking bird before moving off.  There wasn’t much moving on the ground, but the UAV was also collecting Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), mostly phone calls and radio transmissions.  There was the usual chatter in the open, but once in a while there were encrypted transmissions in the sat-phone band.  The artificial intelligence software flagged that for further analysis and built a file on the location and content of the signal.  Given good thermals and a daily dose of sunlight the UAV could fly for months listening and watching from on high.  A flock of eagle UAVs could even network signals, share data on thermal updrafts and autonomously coordinate their surveillance for better coverage.

Later that night Lieutenant Collins and his platoon suited up to start their mission.  There was a little grumbling, but they knew lives were hanging in the balance and they wanted to ensure they were on the ground and in position well before the sun was up.  Each member of the team wore a wing suit and oxygen supply, along with a combat sensor/comms helmet, suppressed personal weapon and a supply of food and water. It was time to get in the game.

The transport aircraft took them up to 30,000 feet and equalized pressure with the outside before the rear door opened.  It only took a few seconds for the team to run out the back and leap into the darkness before the plane turned for home.  Before the cargo door closed, the crew also threw three more eagle UAVs out the back to assist with the mission.  The UAVs would automatically deploy and loiter until they received commands to proceed to a patrol area.

The wing suits were amazing.  They were thermally insulating, radar absorbing, and had a built in oxygen supply.  There was almost no way to track the team as they glided to earth over 20 miles from where they left the transport.  Courtesy of the infrared and night vision sensors in their helmets, the team could see each other in their augmented visual helmet displays and they flew in a loose formation.  As they approached the ground they flared their wings and deployed a small square chute for the final leg of the drop into the landing zone.  A minute later the entire team had concealed their chutes and wing suits and started hiking toward the objective.

“Lieutenant Collins, this is Mission Control your eye in the sky, Angel 52, requesting comms check.”

“Angel 52, this is Lieutenant Collins.  SITREP: quiet and dark here in San Terrania.  How’s the neighborhood?”

“The neighborhood is quiet for now.  I have the data stream on all nine of you.  No unusual vitals.  Confirm no injuries?”

“No injuries, Angel 52.  Where are we headed?”

“Lieutenant, the highlighted area on your map indicates an old mining facility and camp.  There hasn’t been active mining for decades, but SIGINT shows encrypted comms traffic and there is a partially camouflaged solar array around the end of the hill from your position.  I recommend you put your squads here and here on the map for surveillance.  I’ll deliver a snake to take a closer look at the site.”

“Understood, Angel 52.  Route the snake’s signal to me when it has something.”

High above, a brown snake slithered free of its UAV host.  It didn’t weigh much, so it needed only a small parachute for a gliding descent and its tail could provide steering on the way down.  The snake hit the ground with a puff of dust and a bounce.  Once it had a fix on the mining facility it slithered its way toward the closest building.

Made of electro-plastic muscles, this wasn’t an ordinary snake.  Its head included infrared and visual cameras, as well as acoustic and vibration sensors to collect data.  Communication took place through either RF or a narrow nonvisible light frequency that was all but undetectable without special equipment.  The snake’s onboard CPU was able to recognize approaching humans or animals and decide whether to hide or go dormant until the threat was past.  The intelligence it gathered was invaluable for allowing the team to map a facility and identify targets while remaining safely hidden outside the camp.

Lieutenant Collins followed the progress of the snake on his visor as it entered the steel shack.  He could hear conversation, but didn’t understand the words spoken between the men inside.  He certainly did recognize the distinctive muzzles of the 12.7mm DShK machine gun and a couple RPG launchers hanging over the edge the table above the snake, as well as the 7.62 AK weapon cradled in the arms of the guard peering out the window.  It was too much hardware for the few guys he’d seen so far.  There must be more hiding in the camp. The communications center was not visible in this building either.

“Angel 52 to Lieutenant Collins.”

“Collins here.”

“Sorry we don’t have real-time auto-translation on this dialect, but the conversation was about prisoners and waiting on orders from a superior.  I’ll leave snake 1 where it is and drop a few more.  Stand by.  Angel 52 out.”

Five minutes later more little brown snakes made dust puffs around the mining camp and went to work.

Lieutenant Collins relayed the video of the conversation in the shack to his team to keep them up to speed on the target.  Shortly before dawn the team reached the crest of the hill overlooking the mining camp and they settled into concealed hiding spots off the trail with a good view of the valley. Now it was time to wait and watch.

Later that morning three men stepped out of the shack with a quad-copter.  Everyone in the team knew this could be trouble.  The small UAV took off and started orbiting the camp as the enemy pilot got comfortable with the device.  It flew up to about 1000 feet and started following the dirt road while the three men stepped back under the overhanging roof of the shack so they were invisible to overhead surveillance.  For now Lieutenant Collins and his team were safe up on the hill side under their chromatic covers, but there was a reasonably good chance they would be discovered with IR sensors if the quad-copter went on a night flight over the cooling landscape.

Shooting down the quad-copter would reveal their presence so that wasn’t a good option.  “Angel 52 do you have any assets to take down the enemy UAV?” Lieutenant Collins asked hopefully.

“Stand by Lieutenant.  I’ve got a spare eagle available as soon as the copter gets out of sight of the pilot.”

After about 10 minutes a UAV disguised as an eagle swooped down and smashed into the quad-copter.  To anyone on the ground and even to the copter’s camera it would look like a real eagle had attacked the copter.  Both the enemy UAV and the eagle fell tumbling into the rocks below.

“Lieutenant, the enemy copter has been disabled and the good news is that it crashed high up on a steep slope, remote enough that it would take those guys a few hours of climbing to retrieve it. The bad news is that my eagle is also down.  Hopefully those guys don’t have more quad-copters ready to fly.”

“Thanks Angel 52.  We will recover the eagle if we have the opportunity.  Any signals from our snakes?”

“Funny you should ask Lieutenant.  Snake 3 is now in their comms center and Snake 4 is making its way down a side tunnel that had an armed guard at the entrance.  We should have a good picture soon.”

“Angel 52, it will be a while before dark and we are ready to catch some shut eye down here. Are you on guard duty this afternoon,” asked Lieutenant Collins?

“Affirmative Lieutenant.  Stay out of sight and rest.  I have three assets on station now and Angel 17 will join me shortly.  By the way, the brass is watching the feed now.  We believe your location is the hideout of the coup leader who started this whole mess and who is still pulling the strings in the capital.  If so, we might have more than a rescue mission to execute. Angel has the watch.”

The team was well camouflaged and out of sight for the rest of the afternoon. It was dusk when Lieutenant Collins woke to a whisper in his earpiece.  “Lieutenant, Angel 17 here.”  Collins was instantly awake, but didn’t move.  He studied the graphics Angel 17 had downloaded to him and blinked three times to silently let her know he was awake.

“Lieutenant, there is a party approaching your position on the trail from upslope.  Your team is awake and listening.  There are four males with rifles, and what appear to be one male and one female prisoner.  I can see handcuffs on the prisoners.  They will be visible to your position in about three minutes.  The armed males appear to have night vision.  At least they aren’t stumbling where the prisoners are.  Snake 1 reports that the guard at the camp is on duty. How do you wish to proceed?”

“Squad 1, I need four shooters.  Squad 2 and machine gunner stay quiet for now, but be ready.  You have less than one minute to move into position.  You are parallel to the trail so each of you take one target.  Share your fire control lock when your target is in your sights.  When all four icons turn green I’ll order you to fire.  Only fire a second shot if needed.  Hopefully the prisoners are the folks we’re here to rescue.”

The squad wriggled into firing positions over the trail being careful to expose only the top of their helmets where the IR and targeting sensors could see and range the targets.  Once the targets were even with the squad their eyes would be on the trail and not looking to the side where the shots would come from.  Patiently waiting, the icons turned green and four shots were fired.  All targets went down.  The prisoners dropped to the ground and hid behind low rocks, eyes wide expecting the worst.  Sergeant Umway was closest to the prisoners and spoke softly to them.

“Who are you,” he asked in English?

They both rolled up as best they could with handcuffs on.  “Oh, Thank God!” They whispered back. “I’m Dave Lewanski from the embassy and this is Kelly Baker from Care For Kids.  How did you find us?”

“Just hanging out here sir.  Who’s got the key to the cuffs?

“The last guy, left pants pocket,” reported David.

The cuffs were removed but the abrasions on David and Kelly’s wrists were raw and bleeding.  Sergeant Umway applied some Sim-Skin from his med kit.  It would stop the bleeding, prevent infection and the anesthetic would dull the pain.

“Sergeant, are you here all alone,” Kelly asked?

“No Ma’am, the rest of the platoon is here along with Angel,” replied Sergeant Umway.

“I don’t see anyone else, and who is Angel,” Kelly asked?

“No one sees us, Ma’am.  Except Angel. Angel is all around us, in the sky, on the ground, even underwater or underground sometimes. Angel sees what we see and hears what we hear.  Like a Guardian Angel, which is where the name come from.”

Lieutenant Collins appeared quietly out of the dark.  “David, Kelly, I’m pleased we found you.  I’m Lieutenant Collins,” he said as he shook hands with both of them.  “Angel wants to know if there were other survivors from your convoy?”

“Yes,” David replied.  “There were 10 others who survived the attack.  We were separated two days ago and don’t know where they were taken.  Did you already find them?  Are they OK?”

“Sir, we believe there are prisoners in the mining camp down in the valley.  There are about 20 armed enemy personnel we know about hiding out of sight in the camp plus some sophisticated comms gear.  Those prisoners could be your people.  Angel and the brass are talking about the plan now.”

“Well we have to rescue them Lieutenant!” David said.  “That should be obvious!  You tell this Angel…”

“Not my call sir.  But, they haven’t sent instructions on our ride out of here yet, so we are probably going to get company.”

“How can we get company,” David asked?  “We are on a mountain.  I know you can’t parachute people into a boulder field like this.  All you would get is broken ankles, legs and necks!”

The answer came an hour later…

“Lieutenant.  This is Angel 52 and 17.”

“What’s the plan, Angel?”

“The snakes have mapped out the building and the tunnel area where the prisoners are being held.  We can’t hit the enemy quarters with anything big or we run the risk of collapsing the tunnel or killing the prisoners with overpressure.  So, we are going to air drop a set of twins by glider.”  Twins were ground combat robots designed to fight as a pair.  “You have IFF built into your comms so they won’t shoot you or your team, but keep the civilians close and don’t get ahead of the twins while they do their job.  Understood?”

“Yes, Ma’am.  I saw a set of twins rip through a bunker back home and I’m perfectly happy to stay out of their way.”

“What’s the time table,” asked Lieutenant Collins?

“Move your team down toward the camp and take up position on the bank of the stream near the road where you will be out of sight and protected.  The twins will arrive by glider in about 20 minutes.  They only need a minute to deploy and then I’ll take out the guard shack and knock in the door on the main building.  By the time you get across the road the twins will have neutralized any remaining enemy personnel in the building and will move into the mine taking out any other personnel they find. After that I’ll have them take up position in the side tunnel to prevent anyone from reaching the prisoners.  You follow the twins down the tunnel and secure the prisoners. Any questions?”

“Once we raise hell and have the prisoners, what is our exit plan,” asked Lieutenant Collins?

“The large building at the edge of the camp has a truck inside.  Take the truck and get out to the coordinates shown on your map. There is a landing spot large enough for the helo to pick you up.  Bring the twins back out with you unless they are too damaged to bother.  If they are, we will remote detonate their onboard charges and scatter their parts.”

Collins and his team moved into position quickly but carefully using LIDAR sensors in their helmets to search for trip wires, IEDs, mines and sensors as they moved down the hill.  Once they were concealed and protected by the embankment along the stream they waited for the twins to arrive.  Right on time there was a skidding crunching sound from just out of sight up the valley and moments later two multi-wheeled robots came zipping up the road.  Both had a low center of gravity, armored glacis in the front, and two arms that deployed up from the body.  Each robot had one arm equipped with a machine pistol, with the other arm free to manipulate doors, climb obstacles, plant explosive charges or throw grenades.  The Lieutenant could see a ring of sensor eyes on the body of the robot and some on the hands.  It could see across the full range of IR, visual, radar and terahertz frequencies.  It could lose 20 or more of its eyes and it could still see, navigate and shoot just fine.  The power supply was good for about 30 minutes of intense activity or 30 days on surveillance standby.  Tonight would not require 30 minutes.

When the team and the twins were ready the show began.  Two invisible 50 pound glide bombs were launched from a weapons drone loitering over 30 miles away and at 42,000 ft altitude.  It took about 8 minutes for the bombs to arrive following their preprogrammed glide path.  When they were in sight of their targets, the bombs switched over to the target image Angel had provided for precise hit points.  When they hit it was impressive.  One bomb hit the corrugated steel shack, both shack and the guard disappeared in a thermite augmented blast.  Secondary explosions indicated the RPG rounds were consumed as well.  Seconds later the other bomb flew through the side of the main building, and continued halfway to the mine entrance where it detonated.  Everyone inside was killed and the side of the building was opened for easy entry.  The twins didn’t wait for an invitation. They sped off into the dark.  It seemed like only seconds and they had climbed over or under the debris of the building and entered the mine.  As they sped down the tunnel, they encountered enemy personnel stumbling around in the dark, still disoriented by the blast. The robots targeted each human enemy with two shots, one at the center of mass and one at the head in case the target was wearing body armor.  Before the targets fell to the ground, the robots were already speeding past, picking their next targets.  There was a fair amount of shooting over the next 60 seconds and then it got quiet.

“Lieutenant, your team can enter the mine tunnel.  I can see a lock on the door where the prisoners are located.  See if you can grab a pry bar on the way through, or you will need a cutting charge,” instructed Angel 52.

It only took a few minutes to retrieve the prisoners.  Ten in all, but two were wounded and not in shape to walk out.  The squad fashioned makeshift stretchers for the wounded, and by the time they exited the mine, the second squad had the truck running.  They loaded the wounded while four men lifted the twins into the back and then everyone else boarded the truck. Now they just needed a nice quiet ride to the pickup point.

A little way down the road Angel called.  “Lieutenant, hold up.  You’ve got company coming your way from the town up the road.  One army truck with a heavy machine gun in the lead and two more trucks full of armed men.  Looks like they heard the glide bombs and plan to investigate.  You don’t have any place to hide or side roads to take that will let you avoid them.  I’m checking on assets now, but we may need to use the twins to slow them down.”

“Understood Angel.  The twins are in good shape.  We will reload their ammo.”

A minute later Angel called again.  “Lieutenant, get the twins on the ground ASAP and back the truck up as far as you can around the corner.  You need to be out of sight and out of danger from bullets and shrapnel.”

The twins were quickly placed on the ground and they disappeared into the darkness while the trunk retreated up the road and around the corner out of harm’s way.  At Angel’s direction one of the twins climbed the side of the hill and took up a firing position behind a rock for protection. The other hid in the scrub grass along the edge of the road.  Shortly afterward the lead army truck came speeding up the road with the other two trucks close behind.  Angle designated the trucks as enemy vehicles and then the twin hiding along the road opened fire on the lead truck.  The small caliber bullets couldn’t penetrate the windshield and the machine gunner in the back was protected behind the bulk of the cab, but the surprised driver did skid to a stop while the gunner opened up wildly with the machine gun unable to find a clear target.  It never occurred to him that the target was a two foot high robot in the weeds right in front of him, and the machine gun couldn’t depress far enough to hit the robot anyway.

The other twin up on the hill sprayed bullets at the men in the next two trucks, who quickly dove for cover.  They could tell the shots were coming from the rise on their left so they rolled out over the right side of the truck and stayed down.  After a few minutes the robots ran out of ammo.  Both twins then made kamikaze runs on the trucks, but their internal self-destruct charges weren’t enough to do serious damage to the heavy blast resistant vehicles.

“Angel, thank you and the twins for the fire support.  We are ready to deploy into defensive positions,” said Lieutenant Collins.

“Stay right where you are Lieutenant!  Angel 17 arranged for some friends to lend a hand.  Please tell the civilians with you to cover their ears.  10, 9, 8…..2, 1.”

BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!  The three nearly simultaneous blasts were tremendous.  The ground shook and small avalanches of loose rocks rained down the slopes on either side of the small valley.

“What the heck was that Angel,” shouted Lieutenant Collins?

“Our friends in the Navy happened to have a Zumwalt destroyer off the coast.  Their 155 mm long-range guided rounds fly over 100 miles and can hit a target with GPS precision,” replied Angel 17.  “Now you just need to pick your way through the wreckage and head for the landing site.  Your aircraft is inbound.”

As they left, the Lieutenant could see flames devouring the glider that the twins arrived on less than an hour before.  All that would be left in the morning would be a few blackened and twisted metal parts and composite materials reduced to ashes.

The big helo arrived on schedule just before dawn.  It had twin counter-rotating rotors and about half way down each side there were remotely operated turrets with 20mm Gatling guns that could fire forward during an attack run or swing around to fire in a wide arc toward the tail.  With auto-targeting it only took one crew member to operate the weapons and Angel could assist remotely if necessary.  It looked scary from any angle.  The wounded were loaded and the medic applied health sensor patches to assess their condition and started treating them immediately.  Everyone climbed aboard for the trip back to the U.S. base.

When they arrived at base, medical personnel already had the health sensor data and whisked away the civilians to treat their wounds.  Lieutenant Collins and his team headed for debriefing and a good meal.

As Lieutenant Collins walked back to report to the Captain he found Mr. Steinfeld waiting for him.  “Lieutenant, I can’t thank you enough for what you did in the last couple of days. It is awfully good to know that people like you are on our side when we get into trouble.”

“Thank you, sir.  We are here when you need us.”

As they parted the Lieutenant whispered, “And thank you too Angel.” To his surprise Angel answered “It’s our privilege, Collins.  Now get some sleep.  You yawned 17 times in the last three minutes.”

Epilogue: Technology has the potential to overwhelm our soldiers with information to the point that they can’t function as soldiers when they need to. Operating secretly with minimal equipment so they can move fast makes the challenge even more difficult.  The Guardian Angels and semi-autonomous assets in this story are one way to off-load the bulk of the sensor processing and equipment from the soldiers on the ground so they can focus on what is in front of them.  It also allows them to react more quickly to real world changes in the situation.  The robots are relatively simple technology that allow the soldier to take a step back from the danger zone.  The robots are also an element of surprise and swift action that a human can’t achieve.  Combat robots may be the stuff of fiction today, but we’ve already imagined them and the technology exists to build them.  The only question is whether our soldiers will send combat robots into battle or be forced to face them.

Matthew Diehl has worked for 28 years in the defense industry on air, land, sea, undersea and soldier systems.  He currently works for General Dynamics in Vermont as a Sr. Staff Engineer leading R&D initiatives.  Matthew is a licensed professional engineer, holds a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and is an ASQ certified quality engineer.  During his spare time, and while on business travel, he is a voracious reader of science fiction novels.