[Author’s Note: Nightfall is a fictional piece that describes the future of squad warfare using tools currently being developed by the U.S. Army’s Synthetic Training Environment-Cross Functional Team. Throughout this story, you will read about intelligent tutoring, virtual rehearsals, drone mapping of terrain, distributed operations in denied environments, and other complexities of facing a peer-threat. In time and resource-constrained environments, the Synthetic Training Environment is committed to developing capabilities that help Soldiers out-think and out-maneuver their enemy.]
Nightfall. The word spun round and round in Teddy’s mind until he couldn’t take it any longer. They used to own the night. Not anymore. Now, nightfall was in a wholly different category, one of punch and counter-punch that lasted for a seemingly endless period of time until eventually, the sun returned and the damage could be assessed. That was the trouble with taking on a peer threat – it changed the way you fought, trained, and thought about combat.
But that wasn’t the only thing that had changed. Leaders predicted there would be strike windows and invested in smart rockets and robotic tanks. In the digital age, however, all of those became nothing more than paperweights. Robotics wasn’t far enough along to reliably carry out missions without human pairing and the millions spent on GPS guided munitions went dumb once the sky became saturated with electronic attack and advanced counter-measures.
This was the new way of war – one that was dictated not by the power of artillery or the grind of armor, but by the ferocity of electromagnetic attack, the void of intelligence and GPS, and by an electrical humming that never allowed one to fully rest. His platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class Klunk had commented that for the first time in history you could hear your cancer growing. Nobody laughed.
When the sun set and darkness crept over the horizon time seemed to stop. Sure, the trees still swayed with the wind, but it always felt as if the sun would never rise again. When midnight slipped to 2:00 a.m. the night had a way of playing with your mind. Your thoughts weren’t your own and, when aided by the ceaseless humming of friendly and enemy jammers and the eternal pounding of randomized “dumb” artillery, thinking was just white noise carried away in the wind.
Tonight would be different though. No longer were the infantry bringing up the rear while artillery hammered Otso’s eastern forests and tracked behemoths plowed east towards Donovia. With Donovian air defense bubbles largely impenetrable and the air war stalemated, this became the Army’s fight, and who better to represent the Army than a digital Soldier grafted into the middle of the 21st century.
Teddy was glad to have a role in the front. Over the last week, his squad had played roundup for disabled autonomous vehicles and scrap duty of sensitive circuit boards. Only once did they have a real Donovian autonomous tank roll into their assembly area but its targeting circuit was already fried from EMP bursts and it had run out of ammunition hours ago. It still made for good target practice though; the U.S. Army never liked the cost of self-driving targets. Sergeant First Class Klunk joked they should thank the Donovians for providing the equipment free of charge.
Teddy lifted his Soldier Augmentation System, or S.A.S., to his forehead and looked across the tree-filled landscape. Craters pocked the ground, uprooted trees packed the already thick underbrush, and the smell of tree sap and smoke hung low in the air. Enemy scouts were setting fires and clearing new fighting positions at the edge of town. The area was gearing up for a real battle. A battle Teddy would get to be a part of.
A member of Teddy’s squad shifted her weight to his left. The dull thuds of plastic and metal equipment raking the ground accompanied her. Sergeant Sally Johnson. She was good. You had to be out here; there was no room to be anything other than good. War managed all on its own to fill the rest with bad and Teddy suddenly found himself appreciating everyone on his team all the more as he lay in his hastily dug trench.
He watched her for a moment, seeing a pale glow reflect off her cheeks from her own S.A.S. She was studying. Her augmentation system was likely reviewing her movement that day and providing feedback to increase efficiency. It was also recording whatever cellular and radio frequencies made it through the electromagnetic screen line to glean any information about the civilian population and enemy movements in the area. Once compiled, the S.A.S. would give Sergeant Johnson expert advice on Donovian tactics to increase her lethality and survivability in the upcoming mission.
What Teddy found the most interesting about the S.A.S. was that each tutor was learning and operating independently of another. Their neural nets were built that way to harden them from electromagnetic attack but there was an advantage to the disconnected learning. Each S.A.S. tutor was developing its own best practices and assessing the environment based on its paired Soldier’s capabilities. This injected a level of disciplined randomness into an otherwise doctrinal and mathematical equation. From what they had seen so far, this disciplined randomness made it nearly impossible for the Donovian’s centralized AI to analyze their movements.
Nightfall. Teddy shifted his own weight now in the narrow dirt trench he had dug a few hours before. After a week of waiting, Charlie Company had finally made it to the first Donovian controlled town in Otso. Now, only fifteen kilometers from the forest’s edge, Teddy felt giddy. Inspired. Ready.
A dull tone sounded through the humming in his ears. His S.A.S. had something to tell him. Teddy licked his lips as he lowered his goggles over his eyes. His tongue brought back the taste of sweat and the feeling of a sandy grit smeared against chapped lips. As the goggles fell over his eyes they flickered on and then became transparent, illuminating the night around him and adjusting the color to a natural spectrum. It was as if the sun had never set.
“What’s up, Rex?” he asked candidly.
Rex wasn’t a real person but its internal neural net had allowed it to develop a personality all its own. Teddy had been encouraged to name it when he was issued the S.A.S. and the name Rex felt about as right as any other name. Plus, when you have two minutes at the new equipment fielding facility prior to deployment to think of a name, why not go with an old dog?
“Your pulse is up,” Rex responded. “You must be excited. Remember to breathe deeply to keep your CO2 levels down. You don’t want to get shaky. The enemy is always watching.”
Teddy grinned. “Thanks, Rex, but just give me the news already,” he begged.
Rex wasn’t the best yet at mimicking the emotional tone of the conversation, but it did its best to present the news in an upbeat form. “The platoon is being ordered to clear the North-West portion of town. There is a jamming platform we have to destroy. As before, this movement will be pre-synchronized by your tutors but executed individually. There won’t be any communication with the rest of the company due to enemy jamming.”
Teddy nodded and Rex, sensing the overly human response continued. Soon, a three-dimensional map hovered above Teddy’s trench. “I’ve been analyzing the mission and comparing it to what we know about recent enemy activity. Only a portion of the intelligence push came through and the news is a few hours old, but it lines up with what I’ve captured on civilian frequencies. They know we’re coming and reports of troop reinforcement on the western edge of town appears accurate. Unfortunately, my data push to the CP was ineffective.”
Rex drew a black line between Teddy and the town’s clearing and labeled it “Phase line Black – 5K-Probable EMP and Mortar Contact.”
“We’ve got a lot of rehearsing to do, Teddy,” Rex warned. “You have a fifteen-kilometer movement and the assault starts at 0200. Like I told you earlier, you cannot expect to have any contact with the rest of the platoon or company until you have destroyed the enemy jamming platform in the town. This movement will be pre-synchronized but distributed in action.”
A route was charted through the trees with a series of graphics that told Teddy where his contact points were, rally points before the objective, and the best guess array of enemy forces. As he moved, these graphics would be displayed in his vision and updating him on enemy locations and changes to his route. The goal was to get Teddy and the rest of the squad to think faster with the information they were given. The quicker information could flow from intelligence, sensors, and the rest of the squad, the better Teddy could be at out-thinking his enemy. In a war where both sides were armed with artificial intelligence, the speed of thought translated into appropriate action was measured in milliseconds.
“At Phase Line Black,” Rex continued, “I might have to go inside depending on the severity of EMP strikes. But I can manage my own rhythm and will try to prevent disruption to your assault against the objective. If you’re ready, I’ve built a full-scale model of the terrain behind you. I suggest we begin rehearsing immediately. SP is at 2200.”
Teddy nodded and shuddered to himself. Unlike Sergeant Johnson, Rex had only been with Teddy for a few months. “Going inside” was a reference to Rex transferring himself to a non-conductive implant inside the top of Teddy’s cheekbone. The implant served as Rex’s digital twin and stored his data until the EMP wave could no longer damage his neural network. While it sounded harmless, every time the transfer took place, Rex would suggest he had heard and learned things inside of Teddy that made him feel dissected. Sergeant Johnson assured him the feeling would pass. It hadn’t.
Climbing to his feet, Teddy turned around to find a full scale, virtual rendition of the warehouse on the north-western corner. Their objective. Other members of his squad were moving about virtual renditions of their own. Teddy couldn’t see the objects they were interacting with, but like synchronized swimmers, they would eventually come together and rehearse as a team with their tireless tutors guiding the whole event.
At exactly 2200, Teddy pulled himself up from his foxhole, touched his sensitive items, and walked quietly into the forest. Twelve feet above him hovered a small drone that silently mapped his environment ahead. For pennies on the dollar, his squad could use a three-dimensional printer to create a new drone if this one crashed, fully equipped with all the sensors and cameras that provided Rex the ability to identify enemies before he was confronted by them.
Illuminated in his goggles were also the other members of his squad, flanking him to his left and right and emanating a dull blue hue. The mesh network created by his S.A.S. would show his team even when occluded from view. This prevented friendly fire and ensured he wouldn’t get ahead of the platoon, becoming a victim of friendly fire himself. Concentration, he told himself as he recited the principles of the offense in his head. Move dispersed and come together to concentrate our attack against the enemy.
Branches cracked and leaves crunched as Teddy moved slowly through the thick undergrowth of the forest. Uneven ground chewed at his feet. Thorns clawed at his pants. He hardly felt any of it.
His focus was on the mission. Scan for enemy. Listen for noises. Look for trip-wires and mines. As he moved, Rex called out phase lines and occasionally reminded him about his heart rate and breathing. Beyond the mission, Rex encouraged him. Each time Teddy found himself wondering if he could take another step towards actual combat, Rex piped in with a joke about Donovian incompetence or reminded him that his training was more than sufficient.
Before his most recent joke ended, Rex’s voice changed. “Incoming!” he called, followed by “Get down!”
Teddy obeyed and mortars burst around him. Dirt fell. Leaves and branches thudded against his helmet. No time to think.
“Get up,” Rex ordered. “500 Meters East. Run!”
And he did. Through brush and thorns and craters. Grenades clanked against his rifle as he ran but there was no point in being silent now. They were close. Blue halos on either side of him indicated his squad was running too. No orange. They had all made it through the first barrage.
Teddy hit the dirt when a number on his goggles indicated it was time to stop. He looked back and watched the rest of his squad hit the ground too. More mortars burst behind him. Red icons appeared on his screen in front.
Machinegun fire erupted through the trees. A pulse of blue and yellow shot skyward. His drone above fell clumsily to the ground.
“Low crawl,” Rex ordered. “The clearing is right ahead of you.”
Teddy obeyed, scraping his body against dirt and rock to maintain as low a profile as he could. Mortars ripped through the trees and bullets snapped overhead. Another burst of blue and yellow erupted in the center of town, this time causing his goggles to sputter and flash. A friendly halo went from blue to yellow. Someone was hurt but he knew he couldn’t stop. They had to suppress the enemy. Achieve overmatch. The continuous humming of enemy electromagnetic attack grew loud and then even his own squad disappeared from his S.A.S.
Jammed. The mesh network was off but Rex was still there and he was keeping time. As long as all the other Soldiers in the company obeyed their own tutors, the operation would go as planned. More rounds snapped overhead, but Teddy had made it to the berm. Cover. He felt relieved. The silhouettes of buildings against a darkened sky appeared before him. Rex marked a spot at the corner of town. His objective.
A machine gun nest, outlined in red, sat directly in front of him. Their attention was to their left. Teddy brought the rifle to his cheek and fired. A Donovian soldier fell. Another took cover behind sandbags. The machine gun re-oriented on Teddy. He fired again and again, watching his rifle rise and fall in a rhythmic motion that assured him of his actions. Two more soldiers fell and a third Donovian crawled towards the machinegun.
An ammo count-down on his S.A.S. warned him he would have to reload, but now his squad was online with him and picking up the slack. More gunfire burst from the tree line to his south. Achieve overwhelming fire. Achieve fire superiority. Suppress the enemy.
“Reload,” shouted Rex’s voice into his ears, but a dull buzz of rotor blades washed out Rex’s voice. Drone Swarm. Teddy dropped his magazine, inserted another, and slammed the bolt forward. A light flashed behind him as a friendly EMP burst neutralized the incoming drones. They fell lifelessly into the town beyond. A third volley of mortars burst around him but the bulk of the explosions were to his south. First Platoon was doing their part and now it was time for him to do his.
60 seconds. The red words flashed in the corner of his goggles as he continued to scan for Donovian soldiers. First platoon would engage enemy fighting positions from a support-by-fire while second platoon breached the concertina wire and sandbags that Donovian soldiers emplaced earlier that day. Teddy dropped his second magazine and secured a third in his chamber, verifying the counter in his goggles updated with his new load. He checked his grenades and adjusted his helmet. Nothing had fallen off.
30 seconds. Once a path was clear, Teddy would be the first through the breach and towards a warehouse on the north-western corner of town. Second platoon would follow and clear south allowing First platoon to hit a platoon-sized air and missile defense platform in the center of town.
Airburst artillery shattered above him. They were trying to flush him out but the canopy of trees shielded his body from the fragments. Teddy rolled his body to the right and pushed hard off the ground. His gear clumsily beat against his back as he pushed through the trees and into the open field. As he ran, a mine-clearing line charge erupted in front of him sending fragments of concertina wire and sand into the air.
Teddy hit the ground as more machinegun fire peppered the breach lane, listened for debris to stop falling, rolled his body to the left and clamored back up. The constant pounding of friendly machinegun fire flew overhead. Heat from fire and electricity bathed Teddy’s cheeks as he dashed through the breach and threw himself to the ground on the other side.
But then he was through. The noise was behind him. Buildings were in front of him.
“Get up!” shouted Rex. “Get to the building in front of you.”
Teddy obeyed. With arms shaking and legs burning he climbed once more to his feet and took cover behind a red brick building. He could feel other members of his squad hit the wall behind him.
“Door dead ahead,” Rex reminded him.
Teddy smeared the sweat and grime from his eyes and blinked. A pat on his shoulder indicated the fire team was ready. The third man in the stack, Specialist Jakes, jumped ahead of him and crossed to the other side of a wooden door, brandishing a black battering ram.
He held up a finger. One. The fire team rocked their bodies’ back and forth in unison feeding off of each other’s energy and working up the momentum to enter the room.
Two. Jakes hit the door with the black metal and rubber battering ram. Simultaneously, Sergeant Johnson leaned over and tossed a flashbang into the room.
Three. Teddy had no choice but to move forward with the momentum of his team. Johnson’s flashbang exploded as soon as he entered the room. Blinding light and noise engulfed him but Rex adjusted his goggles so that they darkened the split second the grenade went off and brightened immediately following. Flashes of light shot wildly from a blinded Donovian in the far corner of the room. Rex highlighted his enemy and Teddy fired twice before he button-hooked his movement to clear the near wall.
More rifle bursts erupted behind him indicating the rest of the stack had also found targets.
“Clear!” shouted Jakes and a familiar female voice also echoed the call.
Sergeant Johnson surveyed their foothold but there was no time for relief.
“Jakes!” she hollered. “Clear the stairs!”
Teddy quickly moved to Jakes’ right and removed another flashbang. Jakes shook his head. “Hand grenade,” he whispered.
Teddy complied and the two of them, side by side, crept up the steps with Sergeant Johnson behind them.
At the top, Teddy pulled the pin, dropped the spoon, and counted to three. He didn’t make it. Gunfire burst through the wall, striking Jakes in the left side and throwing him off balance. Pain shot upward from his arm into his neck and down to his toes. The grenade rolled from his hand and burst pre-maturely into the room.
Had he been hit? Time slowed as he tried to push Jakes off of him but he could feel his strength failing. Hands and boots clambered over Teddy but his vision blurred. Where was he? Who just climbed over him? Soon he felt his own body being dragged down the steps and then, a familiar voice began coaching him.
“You’re fine,” Rex told him. “Slow your breathing. Bring your knees up to your chest.”
Teddy obeyed, listening to Rex but hearing gunfire above him and wondering if Specialist Jakes and Sergeant Johnson would be alright.
“That’s it. Slow your breathing,” Rex continued to coach.
Fingers worked gently on his shoulder and then something was pulled tight. They moved down to his side and wrapped something across his stomach. He could hear voices but they were distant to Rex’s. The shadows above him were fuzzy and poorly shaped. Why weren’t his eyes working? He tried to stop thinking and trusted that Rex would translate the important parts. More footsteps rushed past him.
“What’s happening,” Teddy grunted.
“Your fight’s over,” responded Rex in a cavalier tone. “But you’ll be okay. I reported you as stable once the pressure dressing was applied to your wounds. You won. The building is secure. We’ll have the objective before the sun comes up.”
Teddy closed his eyes and willed his body to obey his instructor.
“Keep your knees up and slow your breathing,” Rex continued. “Your fingers will feel funny but that’s normal. You might feel some moisture behind your back but that’s normal too. Stay calm. Ground Evac will come once the objective is clear.”
Teddy focused on his voice.
“Did I ever tell you about the Donovian that walked into a bar?” Rex asked.