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Mad Science Fiction: Fight and Win in Contested Multi-Domain Operations
The Mad Scientist team executed its 2019 Science Fiction Writing Contest to glean insights about the future fight with a near-peer competitor in 2030. We received 77 submissions from both within and outside of the DoD. This story was one of our semi-finalists and features a futuristic look at warfare and its featured technologies.
The instant reach-back capabilities to the Joint Intel Cloud provided millions of specialized AI models. Everyone worried about the “armchair quarterbacks” back in the U.S., but the overwatch, especially machine vision augmented reality improvements, added levels of focus and awareness in real time. Back on March 17, 2030, Donovia flexed its military muscles and invaded Osto, rushing into its neighbor and taking control of the vast robotic manufacturing automation district surrounding Soto, the megacity capital of Osto. The Pentagon think tanks predicted this a decade ago but couldn’t get the timeline down to create a sense of urgency for Congress to act. It was another example of the slow-rolling strategy that gets by our ability to cut it off early. The mission became rescuing our ally Otso from the influence and control of Donovia, which was seeking to control global supply lines of lithium and cobalt refinement and manufacturing. The strategic importance of Otso was obvious to the United States’ ability to power its economy. The risk of not engaging Donovia’s aggression was an economic setback estimated at half a decade; this was unacceptable now that we were in a mobile capable quantum computing age and our transportation industry relies on lithium and cobalt for high-capacity batteries.
We were six months into the deployment when Army Futures sent out some microchip-LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) helmets weeks after field tests. These gave each warfighter a 360-degree machine vision advantage, not only giving everyone “eyes in the back of our heads,” but also indicators when weapons or bombs were identified within view. We all thought it would take years to get them fielded; thank God someone had the guts to write the check and get us the gear. About 10% didn’t work correctly due to rushed production, but the ones that did work gave us a huge edge in the fight. The built-in brain wave sensors baselined each wearer within 10 minutes and synced with our wearables and implants. The old-timer millennials called this “autotuning,” and we couldn’t help laughing at their old-school humor. Before these helmets, we had sensory overload and couldn’t focus amid the chaos. More than a few times, Donovia used focused-energy weapons to disorient us, but after the new helmets arrived, we didn’t even notice the difference. Those that chose to ride cowboy, without their helmets, had to take a knee and rest for a few days. Active noise canceling was something we had 30 years ago, but these headsets could read our brain waves and, in a microsecond, offset the frequencies coming from energy pulses.
Donovia was well prepared and anticipated our ramp-up, especially when our expeditionary units didn’t enforce OPSEC, or Operations Security, on social media. The warfighters got the brief and cut ties with Facebook and LinkedIn, but the spouses and kids made it obvious with their post about going-away parties and missing someone soon. Donovia knew well the standard U.S. “shock and awe” bombing campaign on its supply lines and outposts. They set up outposts manned with older-model robotics moving supplies around and setting up autonomous resupply routes to draw our attention. The Donovia Special Ops forces came months before the invasion, removed their uniforms and assimilated into the Otso megacity of Soto. They understood that the United States would have problems identifying them as enemy combatants. If Donovia Special Forces were cut down by the U.S., they appeared to be innocent civilians, which Donovia used as further propaganda against the U.S. Donovia fighters could be identified only by their augmented-reality visors, which looked like thick black frames, and control rings they use to see each overlay of the environment, including each other. They commandeered the subways and conducted major operations only in underground spaces. The Donovia Special Forces never left a footprint and used mobile adhoc outposts in civilian spaces to remain covert, even setup holographic distractions to draw attention away from their true actions. They knew if they could keep the city occupied and functioning, they could obscure their connections to it. They controlled the bridges, and food and ammo were brought in by underground tunnels and northern supply lines. They were regularly reinforced with combat robots that enabled them to remotely control vulnerable locations. Robots don’t need an air supply, and are impervious to chemical and bioweapons, which means our asymmetric tactics didn’t affect their operations. Soto was a smart megacity with over 18 million residents, and Donovia hooked into every network and controlled the city. If Donovia could control Soto, it knew that Otso was theirs.
Skirmishes and major battles happened south and east of the city, with heavy losses on both sides. Air battles ensued, but not with jets and massive bombing campaigns. The air was dominated by thick clouds of drones. Any jet that tried attacking them would end up severely damaged. The old-timers said it reminded them of an old movie called “Birds” and made us watch it. If Donovia couldn’t control the birds to attack us, it could mass manufacture drones, which wasn’t much different. Dogfights rarely occurred, because Donovia didn’t want to commit heavy platforms for its proxy wars. Bombers could drop precision bombs on open targets, but couldn’t risk hitting most of Soto, fearing thousands of civilians could be killed by extreme collateral damage. Neither side wanted a repeat of the first 12 months: 20,000 lost lives between the Donovia and the United States. Otso didn’t have much of a standing Army resistance, since Donovia controlled the generals and officers through corrosion and payoffs. Patriotism in Otso had dwindled after years of political dissidence and strife. Many in the Otso media claim nationalism was dangerous and would strike at one political side based on facts and data they obtained from “reliable sources.” Both Donovia and the United States were testing their military’s discipline and new tech, unsure of the results. Otso has more than 70% of its population in mega cities, nearly 50% in Soto alone. Therefore, control of Otso rested in the control of its megacity capital of Soto.
The United States could do little to destroy targets in the subways using aerial bombing without killing tens of thousands of civilians. The dense urban fabric of Soto meant any bombing would result in heavy civilian casualties. When assault and explosive drones were deployed by the U.S., there was a backlash of negative political sentiment from allies and major violent protests broke out worldwide. Videos of drones that were shot down or disabled by Donovia showed the U.S. drones exploding, killing innocent Soto civilians. Some drones hit the mark, but the public backlash diminished Otso war support for kinetic ground operations. Most Otso citizens were appeased by Donovia’s military rulers since they did little to disrupt their lives. The U.S. was being painted as war-hungry, and every disruption to Otso citizens’ ultra-connected lives only served to radicalize the youth who joined drone, hacker, and extremist groups. Those 13 to 29 years old didn’t have much connection to the physical world or relationships that might shame them if they joined extremist groups. Most of them were addicted to virtual reality, massive multiplier online worlds, robots, and AI companions. The ruling class was older than 60 and didn’t understand the motivations of these young men, motivated only by keeping the status quo. The Otso women tended to stay out of these groups, but some did join and were the eager to prove their mettle, making the most violent contributions against U.S. involvement. Donovia has removed Otso’s government leaders but had well-placed civil replacements from Otso loyal who were to Donovia. Donovia appointed former provincial governors who had taken bribes over the years. Donovia had politically damaging information on the former governors and threatened them not only with mass shame and ostracization, but execution of their entire extended families. The Otso people recognized these leaders and there was little dissidence about the power shift, especially when Donovia used coordinated psychological messaging across media platforms. Donovia has been sewing mistrust for Otso and Soto officials for years and portraying political factions and social groups against each other as adversaries. This was not like Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan, where weak military leaders rotated often. This was planned for decades, starting around 2008 when worldwide data hacks, botnets, and social media marketers collected every detail on every person. The Donovia propaganda division seemed to know more about each person than they knew about themselves.
Donovia didn’t need to hold massive tracks of land or hills when it owned the majority of the population’s attention through rerouting internet sites and searches, and used social media campaigns to bolster support of Donovia’s agenda. They propagandized the U.S. as the aggressor and oppressor of Otso. Donovia would message that its forces were there to save Otso from civil war and assist with building a stronger, more unified region. Donovia persistently used AI on Otso social media and search engines to determine the population sentiment. They measured their efforts based on Otso’s social discussions and of the general population using data science models and machine learning bots. Donovia would stay ahead of dissidence by effectively measuring the mood and collective emotion of the citizens of Soto and Otso. It used facial recognition and wireless carriers to track movement of Soto’s citizens to identify irregular behavior. Donovia monitored every cell tower and data-mined to discover and tear out opposition groups. The Nazis did this back in the 1930s and 1940s, but Donovia could almost read the population’s minds using predictive policing. The U.S. measure of victory and progress had to be modified to Influence Operations. The U.S. had used very tightly controlled micro drone swarms to send messages in the sky at night to still-loyal Soto residents, enabling the U.S. to clear the streets for days while armored divisions rolled in and dug a foothold in the lesser-occupied warehouse district. This gave the U.S. the ability to control part of the supply lines and choose its place of battle. From there, the U.S. forces could access Soto’s smart-city system, and cyber operators launched tools to disable cameras and sensors throughout the city. Taking this advantage away from Donovia gave the U.S. an opportunity to infiltrate the subway systems with autonomous hounds and explosive drones. This began the long journey of clearing over 100 miles of heavily protected subway and supply tunnels. Most of the underground outposts discovered were completely autonomous, except for one communications expert who kept the meshed fog nodes up and ensured the robotics were maintained. The communications experts were of no value anyway, as they were basic recruits trained in data science and systems design. They were never brought into the military decision or strategy meetings.
Half the city fled when fighting began, creating massive tent cities and a humanitarian crisis for millions of civilians. Donovia biological and electronic warfare units attacked fleeing refugees and humanitarian workers in these camps using modified superbugs and directed energy, causing confusion and hysteria. Donovia was suspected of these refugee attacks, but never admitted to them. The attacks resulted in millions of civilian refugee deaths, and significant focus and effort on the attacks diverted attention from the main conflict in Soto. Donovia used this as additional reason for Soto residents to remain in the city, repeatedly telling them, “Your best interest and desires are here in the city; only death awaits you in fleeing to the aggressors.” The U.S. used tech developed by FEMA and lessons learned in Africa combating Ebola. FEMA had pod dwellings created by pre-fabricated components built to stack, connect, and seal. These were rapidly scaled and erected into massive interconnected hallways, commons, and isolation chambers. Body heat thermal sensors were installed to read signatures of the population, and those with high temperatures and persistent coughs were immediately quarantined.
By late 2032, the major kinetic ground operations ended with Donovia’s Army and Drone forces. A steady stream of refugees left Soto to flee war, mostly the poor and already disadvantaged. The refugees are usually happy to see the U.S., where they expect to get full refugee status. Donovia has reinforced this message to generate an overwhelming refugee crisis and make the ruling and middle class more content. Once the Soto refugees discovered they will not get a fully paid trip to the “land of opportunity,” further turmoil and riots started in the camps. When the rest of Otso was secured from the ground, Donovia relentlessly attacked U.S. Navy navigational and GPS grids. The fact is, Donovia has used the entire invasion as a massive diversion while launching coordinated cyber and space assaults. Its main goal was to set back the U.S. economy, knowing that all-out war was a “no win” for both sides, but it knew how to draw the U.S. in and generate unrest within our political parties. Unlike other major conflicts, this war has no end and started long before Donovia invaded Otso.
Leaders knew this was going to be a stalemate, since cobalt and lithium supply chains would be destroyed for the U.S., limiting new tech replacement timelines and setting back our research, innovation, and adoption cycles. Donovia wanted to be the No. 1 world power, and control or at least disruption of these resources would give Donovia an edge. The U.S. has had the superior military for a century, but Donovia was showing it had other methods.
The War Department ran out of rechargeable power cells for the millions of small drones, sensors, autonomous vehicles, eMobility conveyances, and Internet-of-Things devices shortly after the first anniversary of the war on March 17, 2031. Back in the United States, the electronic vehicle and eMobility industry were shuttered while the War Department nationalized remaining cobalt and lithium supplies and mines. The War Department had to work with the Ad Counsel on communicating this with the U.S. public. Rationing of lithium batteries severely damaged support for the Otso war efforts back home. The U.S. public has been addicted to high-capacity batteries for smart devices and electronics for a decade. Most can hardly remember a time before this war when they had to wait for new technology devices and mobility upgrades. The American people are now impatient when it comes to technology and getting new tech. The U.S. people only knew the war from the internet and social media news they consumed, and Donovia was tainting the message and spreading misinformation. Donovia produced videos and other multimedia that appear real, what the government referred to as “deep fakes.” Donovia would post them as if they were from the major media, internet, and social media outlets. The news and social media sites unified and sponsored a bill to create a blockchain-based chain-of-trust that would verify that the video or story came from them officially. They used the blockchain-based Ethereum smart contracts and digital signatures that generated new application and browser requirements. Congress passed the bill unanimously, the first time since the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack that Congress voted in unison on anything involving warfare. Many are now pushing to make official U.S. elections at all levels using blockchain based voting system with a single source of truth. Magnesium rechargeable substitutes were soon used back home, but it didn’t help much as the U.S. public’s patience for the kinetic war to be over was gone. New equipment was eventually modified to accept common consumable lithium batteries they had in stockpile until the supplies and manufacturing were restored and other alternative additives were developed.
On the battlefield, the U.S. used 3-D and 4-D printing machines in its field-deployable mixed-use Fabrication Laboratories, or “Fab Labs,” to print new external battery cases and soldered connection to the circuit boards. 4-D printing, watching those carbon nano-tubules, or as we called them, “bucky balls,” was amazing. When heated, they would bend into new shapes after printing and, after they cooled, attempt to return to their printed form. This was extremely helpful in creating mechanical and miniature fasteners that would be printed a bit smaller than needed. High heat would then be used to grow them around the join. We could apply the fastener to join separately printed components, and then 4-D-printed fasteners would shrink to create natural tension. The resulting tight seals made our printed devices, machines, and replacement components resistant to vibration. We had the Fab Labs reinforced with lead and lined with copper to shield our electronic signatures and protect our gear from energy-pulse weapons. It’s literally the only “safe place,” and we aptly named it “The Bunker.” It had drone-defeat turrets and active-passive Radio Frequency jamming. These became targets when we used active jamming, so we had to be smart with our digital footprint since Donovia used millions of roving microdrones that were deployed by larger drone platforms to sweep large areas for radio spectrum daily. They used machine vision and geospatial machine learning methods to detect our movements and activities. One major benefit was that our Bunker was actually deployed into a crater that our bombers created. Once the Air Force dropped the controlled-depth bombs to create the crater, it also dropped the Bunkers into them. The Bunkers then deployed small drone tractors about the size of riding mowers to fill in and reinforce the sides. They were deep enough that 3 feet of dirt and foliage matching the terrain were moved on top of them to obfuscate and camouflage them completely. Donovia didn’t even know the Bunkers were there when its troops walked and drove right over them. The Air Force was able to deploy the Bunkers ahead of the supply lines and enabled early entry ahead of ground supply lines. By the time we occupied the Bunker a few hours later, it had already auto-deployed the stealth beacon, deployed pebble-like perimeter sensors, and charged the internal batteries. The genius of the power system was that instead of worrying about a fuel plan for petroleum-based generators, the Bunker used a folding solar array that looked like a huge sunflower, which followed the movement of the sun and folded away completely.
This made our logistics planning much simpler, rapid, and scalable. These sunflower panels were mobile and could be moved around easily with either a few people and a dolly, or using the small tractor in the Bunker.
A few times, the Bunker was discovered by Donovia’s drones, but thankfully, it was a shell inside a shell, which helped to move it to a new Bunker shell within a couple of hours using mega-drone airlifts. We left the outer shell in place as a honeypot to Donovia that attracted attention away from our new position by sending out random active jamming sequences, and the small tractors would make it appear that we were still there. The shell within a shell also created a sealed airgap that helped insulate it from radiologic, chemical, biological, and energy weapons. The command post tents of past wars were deployed at first, but proved too slow to deploy and provided no physical protection for a sitting unit. The only units still using them were the hospitals, due to the massive influx of refugees, but this made the hospitals unwilling combatants and easy targets of opportunity. Most of us chose to use the remote doctors. Most of us never met our doctors, and they could have been anywhere in the world. Those doctors used remote telemedicine diagnosis and autonomous delivery drones for medicine drops. When there was non-life-threatening surgery, they used robotic arms and tools for sanitization, surgery, and stitches. The doctors could verify there were no foreign objects using Nano mites we poured onto our own wounds. Any foreign object or particle not made of cell-based proteins would cause them to luminate on the mini-fMRI scanners and appeared green to the naked eye. This made projectile and shrapnel injuries from blasts or microdrones easier to repair in the field. After repairing organs and skin, we were given stem-cell-based CRISPR-Cas9 protein injections around the site and poured some of the solution over the wound. This reduced the time for full recovery from non-bone and non-joint injuries to less than two weeks. Doctors also sent in blood that was drawn from new recruits who “donated” it a few weeks after Basic Training. If they were 17 to 25 years old, they got an extra 4-day weekend every 90 days to donate a pint. Athletes knew about “blood doping” for decades. The medical community discovered in the early 2020s that something different in the blood of the youth made healing much faster, especially when it came from physically fit, well-rested recruits. The Japanese knew about this well before the U.S. did, but we all just thought they were nuts back then.
The Bunker was one of a couple of hundred of these Fab Labs also used as “cloudlets” where new AI and ML algorithms are sent in from the AI Centers of Excellence spread across the Intel and Defense agencies from the Department’s Joint Intel Cloud. They call these new AI algorithms “explainable” since data provenance is so important now. Donovia had been polluting our data sensors and intelligence sources, has known about our tech for years and has the same, but it has been focusing on non-kinetic Information operations, cyber, and space.
This war with Donovia has affected everyone worldwide. There were no near, deep, and reserve elements like in previous air-land battle campaigns. Everywhere can be a battlefield with space and cyber domains, which has made our Reserve and Guard elements extremely important, especially with cyber, medical, logistics, PSYOP, and space. The United States population has experienced many disruptions to daily life. Massive botnets in the millions that came from imported, insecure embedded hardware and software manufactured in Donovia and Otso have been causing unpredictable power and internet blackouts inside houses, autos, and personal area networks. Citizens have delays and difficulty accessing payment and bank information, getting directions without paper maps, or monitoring health care devices. Few networks are unaffected, except those that employed Zero-trust security models and embedded Trusted Platform Modules. Previous worries over the past 20 years were of a cyber “Armageddon,” but none occurred on an existential level. Most simply live their lives in a daily battlefield, ignorant to the cyber, influence, and space wars; accepting the disruptions like Great Britain’s citizens accepted the bombings that Nazis poured over their lives during WWII. Our leaders know there is no end to this war and tell us to remain resilient. Our only saving grace from constant disruption is Quantum computers reaching a factor of 20 quants, making autonomous cyber patching at the code level a reality. We have seen a slowdown in frequency of attacks since the 2035 referendum allowing AI to integrate into our trusted networks and personal devices. This enabled minimizing blast radius down to the individual as a result; only those who opted out of AI became disconnected from society. The mobile quantum devices are now at 4 quants and give us enough power to use our universal translators and control our mini-drone swarms that protect us from the larger drones by piercing their blades and providing smoke-like concealment for movements.
Looking forward from 2035 into the next 15 years, our future seems more certain, as we have the capability for fully autonomous robotics and general AI. These technologies reduce the need for a large standing Army; instead, they favor highly skilled small teams working along with autonomous systems. Our new threat is the lack of engaged citizens across the globe with their governments and those who are not working. The number of disenfranchised citizens is growing, because the number of jobs is decreasing, and they require increased expertise and long apprenticeships to enter the field. The high automation leaves humans competing with intelligent machines, even with skills taught through virtual and augmented reality. Massive demonstrations and civil unrest against the rich companies and governments aiming to control them is expected to escalate. These citizens feel left behind in the global society and the benefits realized by automation and AI. Most believe the U.S. Congress must call for a robotics & automation tax, but will likely struggle to agree on the rate and economic disruptions it may cause. Most world leaders agree augmentation over AI is best, but without economic incentives or penalties, the broad market seems to always choose the path to highest profit. This new cognitive and influence battlefield will emerge worldwide. Those citizens who feel purposeless will generate the most agitation and aggression. Many will relentlessly experiment with unsanctioned biomodifications, leading to highly unstable genetic variations that persist through generations. The biggest threat to the world order is the idle hands of large, disengaged populations who witnessed automation take away their opportunities and jobs. The youth try to find any avenue toward upward mobility, but without the right connections, they struggle to find their path. The future wars of 2050 and beyond are likely to be between the part of humanity who believe they are missing out and the wealthy class who believe they no longer require as much human labor for production. Many are eager to change this outcome and are working with local, regional, state, and national governments to develop new works programs that keep every citizen engaged in society. The balance is between not only the have and have-not, but also the engaged and disengaged.