The Platoon Battle Group

Image: NASA

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


Part 1

I envied the weapons of the KNPA. Compared to my platoon’s bulky standard issue equipment, law enforcement had always been supplied with a more agile tool set. The low expected casualties and a fully professional force made everything from custom-fitted handles and grips to shooter-identifying triggers economical and feasible. Also, a lot of the artificial intelligence scanning the visible and the cyber environment and the augmented reality presentation layer had more nuance and finesse in them. Being able to model the variety of parties and threats we faced in the midst of the civilians, rather than just good old “us and them” came in handy.

Sighing almost silently, I pushed my assault rifle with my right hand to get a bit more comfortable, allowed my messaging feed to flash over my vision and proceed with the interview. At least we didn’t need translators in every squad anymore.

     CNN: Debate saw candidates arguing over a tougher foreign policy

     Wife: Mike broke his thumb, but it’ll heal perfectly. Call tomorrow?

     Fox News: “Troop ramp-up will restore civilian society before end of month” says the President

     History Channel: After DPRK nuclear incident was China’s de-facto annexation the only alternative?

The shopkeeper was certain that the same group kept stealing his and the neighborhood’s other merchants’ UPSs. The way she described the bandits made me feel she wasn’t making it up and that they were likely professionals. No breaking up places, aggressive threats or wasting time. Sturdy, but not-too-big guys in their late twenties. Relatively few implants, tattoos or other body augmentations. Hell, they sounded just like the guy we had picked up an hour ago or almost anyone from my own platoon. Uninterrupted Power Sources were often in need, since most militant groups relied on electronics and electric motors for everything and blocking power to parts of the city was a common tactic. I concluded the interview promising little but encouragement and handed the situation to the KNPA representatives. I stepped out into the street.

     Me TO ALL: OK, base stations, normal rota…

     Corporal Stubbs TO ALL: PoW on the run!

I remembered assigning another soldier to back up Stubbs, but his dot was alone on my field of vision.

     ME TO ALL: Stubbs to pursue, use non-lethal force with minimal political effects. Squad leader coordinate autonomous assets. Other squads on standby.

I switched to Stubbs’ vision and the system replayed the last few seconds in double time. PoW had run off towards the border of our responsibility area leaving nobody on the platoon ready to intercept. I couldn’t get a read on the PoW anymore.

     ME TO Squad 1 / KNPA: Our earlier capture on the run. Anyone in area D2 ready to intercept?

     Squad 1 / KNPA: Negative. All my guys are in these stores.

     Stubbs: Continuing in pursuit towards D2 via overpass.

Roughly 10 % of our autonomous assets went offline and not too surprisingly in a very inconvenient direction. Basically, in two perpendicular streets of which either could be a logical route for the PoW to escape through. It would take a few minutes for the drone network to rebalance. I was certain the PoW hadn’t disappeared from my system by accident, since Stubbs was still chasing someone with a visual contact. Knowing Stubbs couldn’t be bothered with questions I simply tapped fully into his real-time feed and immediately my head gear pumped a small dosage of his hormonal experience into my body. Lots of adrenaline with a hint of fear, perhaps only for failing in his mission. Besides the goggles the injection point was the only constantly rigid part of the head gear that turned into a ballistic shield only upon impact.

The platoon had been given a back-office cyber squad as an additional asset for the time being, so I ordered the two guys on duty to wake the rest of the team up and get the PoW back on the AR, assess, limit and stop the breach to our networks and get the autonomous assets back online. In that order of priority.

     Stubbs: Shot available after next corner.

     Me TO Stubbs: Take it, if PR estimate less than .3.

      Stubbs: Do not copy. Reeeepe…

The sound broke and simultaneously my feed control was also disturbed. The social chatter started leaking on to the battle mode.

     W1fe: Please answer! I have a bad feeling about everything.

      Johnny@home: DUDE – WHERE AR U? DRUNK!!1!!

     Stubbs: Cannot engage target. System giving out political ramifications estimate in the high 40s. Instructions?

    Wife: Good night my hero!

    MikeR: How about A(Stp->Fin)?

    Fox News: President’s game inside Korea’s domSRK*. politics is a quagmire that’ll only ruin the rel__ionship with China

    Me TO Stubbs: Stay on pursuit.

Giving more specifics to the drones for rebalancing the network, I could only reposition some intelligence assets and a Taser towards the right area. However, I wouldn’t be able to target anything, since the AR still didn’t identify the PoW.

     Stubbs TO ALL: Anybody seeing the object? I think he dropped from the bridge to the floor below and run inside the shopping center.

Five seconds passed.

     Stubbs TO ALL: Can’t see him inside either.

     Private Marcioni TO ALL: Here neither.

Right, Marci was the fellow that had backed-up Stubbs, but since they weren’t supposed to sit on each other’s laps, it hadn’t done much good for an old-fashioned runner. Browsing the highlights from his feed for the last few minutes showed he’d done the right things – keeping a constant distance and protecting Stubbs flank while taking away some route options from the PoW. Those things just hadn’t been any good this time.

All of the systems were also back online. The cyber squad had identified a combined vulnerability in the commercial technology based platoon level service bus and the military proprietary application delivery platform. The bus had enabled running any content already deployed in the so-called app store. Pretty worrying, but quickly fixed with a virtual patch.

     Me TO Squads: Quick check-up: Has anyone any info on the PoW in their systems. Disappeared from mine. Report back.

     Squad A: No sign of target.

     Squad B: No sign of target.

     Squad C: No sign of target.

I dumped the data of our mission to HQ and issued stand-by orders with four troopers on watch, others eating, sleeping and generally taking care of the equipment and themselves. I decided to start with the sleep. Still had to build a report by highlighting most relevant areas of the data, but that could be done as long as 24 hours after the mission before it was all added to the immutable blockchain-based war log. I was sure to get some heat for using the new PRE-functionality with such low thresholds, but I was a lot more prepared to take heat from my superior than through a public outcry after, for example, risking collateral damage and failing.


Part 2

No politician had talked about a war, but it sure felt like one inside Busan. Not your classic one with advancing armor columns, but a dirty gang war that you can’t escape to catch two nights of good sleep ever. Busan is one of the five cities in Korea hosting 95% of the population. Second largest by far behind Soul, it had also swallowed Incheon administratively six years ago. I was leading the platoon that was in charge of the eastern waterfront area with a rough population of 300,000 persons and a size of 30 square kilometers.

The area was huge for a conventional platoon, but you could call us a battalion, if you counted the firepower instead of the manpower. For example, each one of us had on average about five microdrones with the whole platoon thus boasting a fleet of 250 UAVs. Roughly the size of your palm each one carried one to three different missions: live visible or thermal video, acoustic sensors, SIGINT focused mostly on NearField and older networks such as Wifi and Bluetooth, relaying platoon and company level friendly networks, NBC intelligence, laser target marking, kinetic anti-drone missions and so on. Naturally we only had capacity to direct them as a swarm with the network having its own AI to direct the actual position, routing and missions for individual drones.

Our own armaments extended to shoulder fired AT missiles with radar and heat seeking properties as well as command control and programmable flight paths. Indirect fire was available in a minute, could be directed with one’s rifle or goggles, and we could strike with any kind of munitions from incendiary to mines to incapacitating gasses. Though, things being as they were, I’d be very surprised to run into a situation where I could use such assets, not to mention using a full rate of fire with several hundreds of rounds delivered in a minute. The current deployment was such that we’d left most of heavy vehicles at base, opting to move with motorbikes and armored cars. Thus, we had also sacrificed a lot of firepower in vehicle-mounted machine guns and a couple of newly minted rail guns. A small part we could utilize as remote-controlled and automated sentries in critical locations. Luckily, the assault rifle we all carried packed more punch than ever with caseless smart ammunition able to auto-aim towards the AR highlighted target available in all kinds of basic varieties like hollow point, armor piercing and illumination.

Even with all the technology I felt that our war here was akin to the good old real wars of history. It was always about bringing the boots on the ground. Especially here the wasteland at the China – Korea border acted as a barrier for any big maneuvers. Background radiation from the accident made relatively clean vehicles stand out against the background.

     Bloomberg: Rare earth futures plummet with the launch of BioT’s organic processors

     ABC: Military Expert: “Gen. Gurns needs to look at Naval history for solutions in Korea”

“Fleet in being,” the general said. It was a good analogy on what the fancy tanks, planes, missile launchers and everything were good for on the Korean peninsula. All the real fighting was in the cities, if you’d wanted to do a major maneuver on the open wastes you’d get spotted by satellites, radar, passive radiation sensors in thermal and radiation bands in a matter of seconds and blasted away with missiles and extremely long range artillery like rail guns and guided munitions. But everyone knew both sides sure had enormous amounts of assets hidden nearby tying the other force down as well. The only things moving in the area were small sensors with limited weaponry like laser-equipped UAVs. The laser wasn’t strong enough to destroy most targets, but it made sure a heat seeking missile from another platform found its mark. The approach was good for defeating both stealth and armor as the drone was actually very small and cheap.

Space above the area was very analogous. The proper satellites were naturally visible, but everyone refrained from targeting them. However, the microsatellites on very low earth orbits kept running into each other by “accident” while simultaneously providing yet another method of surveying the area and keeping it empty. I knew some platoon leaders had gotten a full microsatellite equivalent under their command, but my request was constantly low on the priority service list as they didn’t see a fit for mission requirements. Neither did I, but space technology got me excited.

     WIRED: New Fallout set in Korea – Fact is stronger than fiction

I remembered two really wild rumors about the area. First was that the Chinese had released a bacterium or a fungus into the area that was visible to some new sensor and you could easily spot anything that had not been around long enough to be overgrown by a tiny shell of the material. The other story was about either side having a huge tunneling project on going that could transport a full battalion underneath the contaminated area.

     Mike Fastow: On a leave for 4th of July?

     ME TO Mike Fastow: Nope. Maybe X-Mas. Beers?

     Popular Science: Hyper X 2 – How are they making hypersonic missiles agile?

     ABC: Domestic policy has disappeared from the election themes

I tagged Lieutenant Xian to be the acting platoon lead and started eating.

During the following weeks, the situation had first gotten so mellow, the guys at HQ had already worried hostiles were withdrawing to cut the juice from all of Busan. Things had luckily, if you can say so, heated up pretty shortly afterwards. Our normal days now included actual shooting matches and disarming booby-traps and minefields instead of just intelligence gathering and co-operations, e.g. babysitting, the police. Opposing elements seemed to be trying to disrupt the functioning of the city and score easy kills from our guys for PSY/INFOOP material. Luckily, I still had everyone alive. We’d lost the subjected cyber squad, since those guys had now a full war on in their domain. I suppose helping us with our lives on the line wasn’t as important. On the other hand, the back office doing intelligence had even gotten better and we got a real-time threat model running on our field of vision showing the overall danger level and areas of increased risk.

     CNN: China claims wide power outages at the same time West Coast went offline

      Wife: We’re baking today. Your favorite. Miss U!

      ABC: Military confident they are ahead in the cyber capabilities

     CNN: Latest polls show trust in government at its low point in 3 years following the Intoco releases


Part 3

Our next mission started with a fire in a metro tunnel. The police were directing traffic away and the firefighters ran towards the scene, when the entry tunnel exploded, collapsed and killed three of them. I immediately saw that the KNPA personnel started taking firing from several nearby buildings. Conveniently their positions were located between my squads A and C.

     Me TO ALL: Squad A move towards the explosion area. Clean the area of hostiles. Shoot for effect. Squad C suppressive fire for Squad A.    Reposition to utilize effectively all fires. Squad B reposition to cover for gaps left by A & C. PRE-limit upped to .7.

     WEATHER: Overcast. Probability of rain at <1%.

Collectively our sensors could initially identify ten shooters, all of which seemed to be actual persons with guns in their hands. The data matched with what we got through HQ from their own and third party sensors and intelligence assets including breached hostile networks. The first three were easily taken down as Squad C opened fire. At least one of them most likely died. This and the other suppressive fire already had the effect of making the police and the firefighters a lot safer. They could both focus on their job. I got to approve the KNPA’s evacuation route for the civilians and made it visible to the squad leaders. Squad B moved closer to help maintain security of the path. The whole platoon was for the first time since deployment less than 2 kilometers away from me.

Enemy clearly started to reposition themselves and it became harder to keep count of them. Most likely at least two new guns joined the battle. Even with all the tech I felt I needed to get my eyes on the battlefield, so I took an elevator upstairs. Looking towards the metro station, the fire was still spreading and there were smaller explosions every now and then. The roads south were more or less blocked with the waterfront limiting that direction anyway. Squad A had taken a southeastern route and was approaching the center of the enemy positions from that direction. Squad C was on the west flank in a staggered line with almost everything in a firing position. The enemy was in a semi-arc to the north and major part of B was towards the east next to the outpouring of civilians.

All the AI functionality was online, but it was responding a bit slowly, when I received a dose of hormones to induce caution. You weren’t supposed to say fear, but it felt the same. I needed to think fast, but hard. There was something bad in our situation, but I didn’t know what. The AI obviously only had a bad hunch. I didn’t have time to reach an analysis or issue new orders, when it all hit us simultaneously.

Two bridges collapsed near the civilians’ evacuation path cutting the Squad B in half in a torrent of panicking masses. My AR went full bright hurting my eyes in the night and I had to flip the goggles off.

     Me TO Squad C Leader: My AR down. Your status?

     Squad C Leader: AR just flashed. Can’t see rite even without it.

     Squad C Leader: Fire from west. Repeat from west! Somebody is behind us.

     Me TO ALL: Squad A take cover, continue engaging the enemy. Squad C reposition to direct fires to west as well. Squad B what’s your status?

     Squad B Leader: Status unknown. Can’t reach most of my guys with comms or by physical access.

I had to keep cool, but it looked like we were the main dish for the biggest move in the city so far. I looked out the window at the area and started to develop a plan. I watched as block after block of buildings went dark. Damn, they were also cutting the power and we’d run out juice for critical assets such as the sentries and night vision pretty fast. Time to call HQ.

     Me TO HQ: Are you getting the data?

     HQ: Yes.

     Me TO HQ: Any chance of using some of those indirects without PRE-limits?

     HQ: Negative. Our model shows that your best option would be a withdrawal. We’ll send quadies from the 33rd Air Cavalry to the crossing at point 356-96. Note that we’ll also takeover your drone fleet to ensure the enemy can’t utilize AA. How much time do you need?

After a short argument 15 minutes was all I got. Good thing was that Squad B got their comms back up and everyone was accounted for. Although one had been killed already. The four troopers on our side of the collapse were the first I ordered to go secure the landing area. They still got a sentry to help out, even if HQ had taken away our drones.

Using smoke and teargas I got the PRE low enough to use the indirects on the buildings with the initial shooters and then on the west side of Squad C, protecting them from the new threat as well. The smoke had very good characteristics for blocking all sensors, but they continued to shoot us too effectively by recon micro-UAVs and audio sensors. I was angry at myself for failing to ask for crackling smoke too. Teams A & C had both lost three troopers with one of them being Squad A’s leader. Most of us got our AR back online, if they simply had enough battery left, so I took direct command of Squad A’s guys. They had to protect C moving almost through them to the point 356-96, which was a tough maneuver to handle. Always the bureaucrat I noted that ordering them to simply cease firing for the pass through would certainly get extra scrutiny in the post-battle assessment.

    Me TO 33rd Air Cavalry: Does everyone have a seat?

    33rd: Yes. But we’ll need to do the pick in two parts.

    Me TO 33rd: What happened to automatic distance control formation flight?

    33rd: We’re using it to the max. It’s just a crossroad for crying out loud.

On the landing site, the number of drones was significant. I could actually see them positioning themselves as screens ready to employ measures for anti-missile fire, ultimately even positioning themselves on the flight path. Squad C started arriving with fire on their heels at the same time with the first quadie and were directed straight in. It was a lot easier for the guys from B with their sentry to keep the pursuers at bay. The small arms fire was of no harm to the quadies and we got the rest of the platoon on to the next pick-up in a minute. Had to abandon the sentry, but not without taking all the intelligent parts with us. I was naturally the last one on a lift. Presumably flying towards the Busan HQ with two of the rotors already tilted for cruising, I allowed myself to glance at the feed.

     CNN: President-elect “Agreement on de-escalation in Korea with the Chinese leadership”

     BBC: USA bringing their boys back home


Topias Uotila holds a Master of Science in Technology degree from the Helsinki University of Technology and the rank of First lieutenant as a reservist in the Finnish Defence Forces. He is employed in the private sector leading in technology intensive service businesses and leads several voluntary national defense courses.