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Demons in the Tall Grass
This article is the latest addition to the U.S. Army TRADOC G2 Mad Scientist Initiative’s Future of Warfare 2030-2050 project at Small Wars Journal.
(2230Z 25 May 2037) Savate, Angola
Paulo crouched in his slit trench with his squad mates, the AK-12 rested on the raw dirt in front of him. The slit trench was a foot wide and five feet deep. It zig-zagged in either direction away from him and was sprinkled with members of his rifle company.
To his right was the squad machine gunner, swerving his RPK-16 left and right, looking through the thermal sight for targets. Their company’s three BMP-4s were hull down 100 meters behind them.
Paulo was almost 20 years old and in the 15th month of his conscription period in the Angolan army. He had short curly hair and an easy smile which he wore on his face most of the time. He had been conscripted immediately after the end of his secondary schooling and had made corporal at the one- year mark. He wore a moisture wicking green camouflage tunic, trousers, and cap, a web belt and light- weight boots. As a non-com he wore the standard solider communication system and blue force tracker. IR reflector patches were sewn into his shoulders and back of his cap.
Paulo knew this was something other than an exercise. Normally they stayed in the field 2-3 days then returned, with never more than his company being deployed. Now the entire 6th mechanized brigade had road marched south to Savate, Angola, about 60 kilometers from the Namibian border. There they were ordered to dig fighting positions. Most importantly, everyone was issued live ammunition.
Tonight, he had his rifle, six magazines in a chest harness, a grenade, and a canteen. His stock sported a flashlight and laser designator. As a corporal he didn’t rate night vision googles, those were limited to sergeants and above. But his AK-12 had a red dot sight.
“Watch the left! Watch the left!” hissed another conscript to the machine gunner. Everyone was nervous. Thirty minutes before one of their patrols a kilometer south of them had made contact. A company had gone out in support and a massive firefight had ensued. A panicked officer could be heard on the net calling in artillery on their own position because they were being attacked by demons in the tall grass. Nobody had yet returned.
“All commanders warn your men to stay alert but hold fire unless command is given,” crackled his ear piece. The radio signal was weak and broken. He warned his fire team to be ready.
Behind Paulo, the battalion commander came forward. With him were three Russian mercenaries. The mercenaries all had night vision goggles mounted on their helmets. Paulo knew the Russians had brought along two companies of robot tanks. The robot tanks sported am impressively large number of guns, missiles and lasers. Two of them had deployed with the quick reaction force. Explosion suggested they had been destroyed.
The Russians and Angolan officer looked intently into the night, talking among themselves and periodically looking at a tablet on a mercenary’s arm. He watched the Angolan officer carefully. Suddenly there was a screamed warning from down the trenches.
He whipped around and saw forms in the tall grass moving towards the trenches at a high rate of speed, spread out across his entire front. A dozen or more speeding lines headed directly towards the trenches like fish swimming just under the water.
“Fire!” Paulo ordered and started shooting, properly squeezing off three round bursts. The lines kept coming. Paulo had strobe light-like glimpses of bounding animals. Just before they burst from cover, piercingly loud hyena cries filled the night. One charged right out of the bushes in front of him, five glowing eyes on its face as it attacked. Paulo slammed his hand on the nearby clacker to detonate the directional mines to his front. The world exploded in noise and dust.
(Two Days Prior) Impala Base - 200 Kilometers Northwest of Rundu, Namibia
The three South African transports had landed at 0100Z at Rundu, Namibia. The authorities had turned off all the lights to the airport to hinder prying eyes, and the pilots had landed using night vision. The entire flight from the South African airbase had been done at low level to avoid Angolan air search radars, and the newly installed Russian strategic SAM based at Cutato, Angola.
The planes were guided to the tarmac. Loaders rumbled into the back of the first two aircraft, carrying out large cargo pallets which were loaded onto waiting trucks. The third plane disgorged eight oversized UTV-type vehicles and forty tough looking men in uniform.
A small cluster of people stood in the dark to meet them. After handshakes, salutes, and several minutes of discussion, everyone climbed into the trucks or idling Land Cruisers. Together they convoyed out onto the main asphalt road heading northwest, headlights dimmed with blackout caps.
By dawn the vehicles were 200 kilometers northwest of Rundu, and just a few kilometers south of the cutline with Angola. The trucks were stashed under multi-spectral camouflage netting supplemented with tree and bush cuttings, their tracks raked out of the dirt to avoid revealing their location.
Most of the men from the planes were directed to open air dorms to sleep while commanders retired to a wood and bush building, equally as well camouflaged as the vehicles, serving as a command post. The passengers from the plane looked around and noticed a pair of C-RAMS tucked into sandbagged positions under trees, and carefully camouflaged trenches on the perimeter. Inside the commanders found a Namibian General and a SANDF Special Forces Colonel waiting for them.
(30 Minutes After Attack Began) Savate
Paulo and two squad mates huddled together in the trenches, cowering while hell unfolded around them. Dozens of mechanical animals the size of large dogs had just raced through their position, rifle fire erupting from gun barrels mounted between their shoulder blades. The twisted metal remains of three machines lay in the dirt in front of their trenches, destroyed by the mines. The remaining machines had headed towards the main camp yipping like hyenas on the hunt. Two BMPs exploded in their wake.
Paulo had seen one of the machines leap at his battalion commander and slam the officer in the chest with a massive, bone crunching thud. It spun away from the dying officer, pivoting several times to shoot at the Russians. Two of them fell dead, the third ran. It turned and followed the other machines deeper into the camp.
Paulo heard several deep BOOMs outside the perimeter he recognized as mortars firing and moments later fountains of dirt leapt skyward near the closest heavy machine gun bunker. The bunker was struck and exploded. Further away a string of explosions traced over the trench line, killing several men.
In the middle of it all he swore he heard a cloud of insects buzzing and looked up to see what looked like a small swarm of bird-sized creatures flying overhead. They ignored him and kept going.
Explosions continued behind him. He started coughing from wisps of tear gas mixed with smoke. He heard a heavy machinegun firing from outside the perimeter and red tracers streaked overhead. A round hit a running man and Paulo saw him disintegrate. Paulo tried to locate the vehicle but all he saw were tracers and muzzle flashes just above the tops of the tall grass.
As he watched the gun would disappear, only to start firing again several seconds later from a different position. It was clearly too small to be a truck. He reloaded his rifle with a fresh magazine and signaled his two comrades, an anti-tank team, to follow him out of the trench. Both carried three disposable rocket tubes and pistols. The machine gun was the only potential enemy he could see. They were going to get that gun. Slowly Paulo and the anti-tank team crawled out of the trench and headed into the vegetation.
(One Day Prior) Cutline
Most of the Angola- Namibia border was a 50-meter strip of cleared bush which ran east-west. It was known as the cutline. Under the cover of darkness, a SANDF column crossed the cutline and made their way into Angola. The convoy stopped two hours later in a chana, a grassy depression surrounded by trees, set up their netting, and laid down to rest until daylight.
(One Hour after Attack Began) Savate
Paulo and his team could not find the machine gun. They followed spoor through the bush, random rounds zinging overhead, but had no luck. The anti-tank team begged to go back but Paulo refused. He was determined.
Suddenly there was a slight gap in the tall grass just as something in front of them on the far side of a clearing fired. It looked like a giant metal rhino, and it had an automatic grenade launcher on top of it. It fired a burst, then sat down on its haunches to hide.
So that’s why I can’t see them after they fire. Very clever, thought Paulo. He tried calling in fire support, but all channels were jammed.
Paulo signaled with his hands for both gunners to shoot. The range was almost too close. Both gunners fired at the same time, striking the beast. It exploded with a surprising fury, blowing them all off their feet and lighting up the sky. They laid there stunned as debris pitter-pattered in the dirt around them.
That was enough for Paulo and the men. They headed back to the safety of the trenches.
As they returned, eight armored vehicles appeared. On the left was an Angolan T-72 tank and three Russian robot tanks. On the right there was a BMP-4 and three more Russian robot tanks.
An animal-machine was trotting close to the vegetation outside the trenches and one of the Russian tank’s lasers swiveled and fired, emitting a loud hum, hitting it. The animal-machine was cut in two. The tanks stopped near the trench to shoot at unseen targets in the dark as Paulo entered the trenches.
The hyena yipping increased in volume as predators began to swarm around the armored force. Five or six were circling their perimeter yipping and shooting grenades. Two others crept under some bushes 70 meters to Paulo’s right and laid down like dogs. A long, thin antenna rose out of the back of one dog with some small device on top. The tanks furiously fired at the fleeting targets which circled them.
Mortar rounds burst around the armor, striking a Russian tank on the thin turret top, destroying it.
From a new direction, the ghost machine gun struck a Russian robot tank with a dozen exploding armor piercing rounds. The turret was pounded, and the externally mounted rockets were hit, bouncing the tank in place from the explosions. A robot tank popped smoke, instantly covering the entire armored force in a blinding white cloud which only added to the chaos. Suddenly the Russian turrets all stopped firing just as a third robot tank was hit by armor piercing rounds in the treads and disabled.
Paulo saw the two demons through the smoke laying down under the bush and pointed at them.
“Kill those things!”
The first anti-tank gunner got into position while Paulo covered him with his rifle. The rocket streaked overhead, missing completely. They didn’t seem to notice.
“You stupid cow how did you miss! Hurry, fire again.” The second gunner set up, and this time the rocket hit the nearest machine square in the side, obliterating it and causing the other one to go flying into the bush.
Seconds later the Russian tanks seemed to come back to life. Paulo wondered if there was a correlation between the crouching demon dogs and the robot tanks not working.
Paulo tried to shoot the demons still circling the tanks. One animal looked at him. Paulo shot at it, the rounds going wide. The animal-machine turned and sped towards a robot tank. It bounded up to the front of the tank, dropped and low crawled under the vehicle. It paused then kept crawling and ran away out the back.
A second later there was an explosion under the tank.
Paulo saw a flash of light seemingly come out of the seams of the tank and it expanded slightly like it was breathing. Then a 50-meter sheet of fire blasted out of the top hatch like a rocket engine, where it blazed with a massive roar as the internal magazine cooked off, the heat driving Paulo and his comrades to the ground.
(Earlier That Morning) 25 Kilometers south of Savate
Captain Verlin Ellis crouched with his NCO, his soldiers, and his Namibian SF counterpart at dawn under a tree surrounded by thick green bush.
“Listen up everyone, the operation is a go. Intelligence shows the brigade in a holding position south of Savate. We are to conduct a recon north until we can fix their position. Alpha and Charlie groups will be working their way up the left side. Charlie will hit their right flank with their predator package at the same time we attack from the south and Alpha will be the stopper group with the third group north of town. Once we have them located, we are to hold until nightfall then attack.”
The South African Recce officer’s skin was as black as night, while the Namibian was a Caucasian, probably of Portuguese descent. Peterson’s NCO was a charro and one of the best bush trackers he had ever met. The rest of the Recces were a mix of black, colored, and white. They wore gear similar to any NATO special forces operator, except the Namibian, who wore shorts with his kit.
“The terrain on the approach is mostly flat, with varying degrees of vegetation, mostly tall grass and bushes. Thankfully it’s the dry season but watch for swampy areas as we approach the river.”
“Anything with even a 10-meter rise in elevation is going to be dominating high ground. That would be these three hills here, here, and here,” pointed the Namibian officer on the map. He had spent most of the last month north of the cutline tracking Angolan movements. “Roads other than the road into Savate are nothing more than cow trails. They pinned themselves against the river. When they retreat their only option is the asphalt road.”
The tarps came off the trucks and the men got to work.
First came Bravo Group’s attack force of forty hyenas. Standing just under two feet high on their articulated legs, and weighing roughly 40 kilos, the small robots were off-loaded, and their integrated solar panels were unfolded to top off their battery charges.
The hyenas operated in pack formations via an encrypted mesh network. While they could be directed by human operators if needed and could send and receive data via satellite or drone relay, they were designed to operate in total autonomy at ranges up to 40 kilometers from their handlers.
Each hyena had a swiveling front section like a head with four sensors and a small speaker. The sensors were a camera and separate thermal camera, a range finder, and a laser designator/pointer. Built into the hump of the hyena’s back was a fixed rifle barrel in a bullpup configuration, chambered in 5.56mm which fired in three round bursts.
On each side there was a pre-loaded 40mm double tube grenade launcher. The guided, low velocity grenades could be launched forward between 25-150 meters. The hyenas were loaded with a mix of HE, CS gas, HEAT, and thermite grenades. They could select targets themselves or have another hyena or human operator designate a target, in which case they were also capable of non-line-of-sight attacks.
The front third of the main body cavity held a 600 round rifle magazine. The middle held the guts of the machine, with the computer, motors for the legs, and the batteries. The third part of the body was a modular container.
The modular section could contain one of four packages. The attack dogs contained a five-kilo shaped charge limpet mine for attaching to vehicles. There were 24 attack hyenas.
The reconnaissance module contained a SIGINT package and three-meter extending EW mast, tipped with a camera and laser designator. The other module held a broad spectrum active jammer. There were eight recon / EW hyenas, split evenly between the two modules.
The command module contained communication equipment to talk with their handlers. Each command hyena could control the entire pack or split off and operate smaller numbers of the pack independently of the main wire mesh network. There were eight Alphas.
The hyenas operated at a normal 10 kph pace but could accelerate in attack mode to almost 70 kph for short distances. A normal battery charge lasted eight hours and when their batteries were low, they were designed to lay flat and deploy their solar panels to recharge when on long range missions. The front legs of each hyenas sported a 4” retractable blade on the left foot and a fixed cutting tool on the right.
Second off came the buffalos, the heavy weapons support element. There were six of the 350 kilo beasts. They were roughly the same size as a water buffalo, hence their name. They retained the same basic head sensor suite as the hyenas, and a larger, sturdier version of the hyena’s legs.
Three of them mounted an 81mm auto-loading mortar. The mortar laid flat in a depression along the spine when traveling and rotated back with its baseplate to fire. On their backs along both flanks were 10 concave docking stations parallel to the mortar nook, each holding a three-ounce helicopter drone called a sparrow. The drone had a ten-minute flight radius with its tiny motor. One ounce of the drone was plastic explosive. They had a simple optical sensor and were designed to land and detonate on anything matching their picture recognition algorithms, such as ammo crates, fuel cans, or engine hoods.
Most of the mortar beasts’ interior was devoted to batteries and ammunition. They carried five GPS- enabled HE rounds, five flare rounds, five smoke rounds, and another 25 general purpose HE rounds. Fire control was based on hyena target designation or could be human operator directed.
The forth buffalo sported a small, sleek turret on a flat back, with a 12.7mm machine gun, and the buffalo held 500 rounds of armor piercing tracer.
The fifth buffalo held an automatic grenade launcher with 200 smart rounds in a similar turret to the 12.7mm gun. The grenades were programmed as they fired and could detonate over trenches or beyond obstacles to hit men behind cover.
The sixth carried three anti-tank missiles in a telescoping turret. Like the mortars, their fire could be directed by hyenas, human operators, or self-directed. None of the turret models carried the sparrows but all six had a large, pointed metal brow that extended slightly beyond their head and could be used as a spear or ram. The buffalos also sported two grenade smoke dischargers on their front shoulders.
The men were covered in sweat as they unloaded and prepped the machines. Once the hyenas and buffalos were charging, the last truck was carefully unloaded.
Off came the boars. The boars were suicide bombs on legs. Each of the 15 machines was short, only a foot high, with stubbier legs for stability. They had a simpler head design than the other two models, with only a single day/night camera and a speaker. They had the ability to receive target coordinates on the move from hyenas or operators and could ID targets on their own. They looked mean, and they were. Their outer shells were composed of pre-scarred metal and were overlaid with a layer of small steel balls for enhanced shrapnel. Inside they packed 75 kilos of high explosive.
They had a max speed of 15 kph. For tonight’s mission each boar was downloaded with different sounds to blare from their speakers, with choices ranging from Zulu war cries, to lion roars, to AC/DC’s Thunderstruck. Chaos was their primary mission.
All three models were painted in a dull tan/green motif which made them virtually invisible when motionless or laying down. Their insulated electronic motors made little noise. They were designed to survive small arms fire up to 7.62mm and could traverse mud or water up to a half meter deep.
Between the three Recce groups, nine machines failed warmup. That left 180 fully autonomous and cooperative war machines to hunt the 1,200 strong 6th brigade.
(75 Minutes After Attack Began) Savate
Paulo looked furtively over the lip of the trench at the remains of the armor. The tank, BMP, and four Russian robot tanks were burning wrecks. The remaining robot tanks had rumbled into the bush and Paulo could hear a gun battle in the distance. The smell of burning diesel filled the air.
Dead bodies, pieces of bodies, and metal parts were scattered all around him. Just then he heard a new commotion in the tall grass. He turned in time to see a small metal creature trotting towards them.
He and his comrades started firing. Sparks flew as the bullets bounced off the machine, making is sway. It suddenly started blaring bugle calls. It did a little hop jump and its front feet cleared the trench. It tried to do it again with the back feet and one foot missed. The beast’s rear end slipped downward into the trench. The beast’s back legs tried to gain traction, but its weight was too heavy. The beast tipped over into the trench onto its back. It lay there wedged in the trench, its legs flailing, its upside-down head looking at Paulo, while bugle calls filled the trench.
Paulo stared at the beast for a few seconds. First one, then a second massive explosion rent the air towards town. A cacophony of sounds and music started blaring all around him in the night. A larger, secondary explosion revealed something had hit the main fuel or ammo dump. In quick succession additional massive explosions took place all over the encampment. Fires highlighted debris, pieces of equipment, and bodies cartwheeling through the night sky.
That was the last straw for Paulo. He climbed out of the trench and ran for his life.
(90 Minutes After Attack Began) Bravo Group OP
Captain Ellis intently watched the display. It was a tracker of the remaining machines and their video feeds. He liked what he was seeing. The Angolans were disengaging in disarray.
He sent new commands and reconfigured the remaining hyenas from his and Charlie’s groups into a single sweep formation. Seventy-three hyenas had started the attack and 49 remained. They formed into 10 small hunting packs and started moving north at a walking pace to sweep the town. The remaining buffalos trotted behind them to engage strong-points. The boars had already completed their mission with devastating effect.
(Pre-Dawn) Alpha Group OP
The 6th brigade exodus was under observation by the Alpha team OP. The team saw one of the leading vehicles hit an antitank mine they had planted, 15 kilometers north of the town. That was their signal. As the road came to a clogged standstill, they sent the signal to launch the third package of predators waiting in the bush to the north of the road.
Asphalt Road north of Savate
Paulo dozed on the top of an idling Angolan BMP which was stopped in the traffic jam on the badly maintained road. He lay there in a stupor with a dozen other exhausted, frightened men.
In the distance floated the first yips of hyenas, the noise carried on the wind. Paulo’s head snapped up off his chest just as the first mortar rounds started landing.