Small Wars Journal

Phase Line Red

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Phase Line Red

Bob Shalala

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.

SFC Black slipped the shorting plug into his Combat Information Processor, turned it two clicks, and waited for the system to spin up. His HUD came to life, but the grid coordinate read all zeros.  His Team Sergeant, who had insisted everyone be able navigate with paper maps, had been right all along.  The satellites had been destroyed or were being jammed.  He keyed his mic and waited for a ping back from the server.

“Incoming!”  The hushed warning came from one of his teammates a few meters away.  Black removed the plug, shutting down his electronics.  Instinctively he adjusted his feet to ensure he was fully covered by his cape.  The Chameleon Active Camouflage Cape mimicked the surrounding forest floor and hopefully blocked most of his body heat.  The Donovian drone passed by, probably hunting the last of the Otsoian forces who began pulling back the night before.   Someone tapped him on the ankle.

“Let’s go.”  MSG Franks, the Team Sergeant, moved to the next position and helped another commando to his feet.  He gathered the eight other members of his team around him and pointed to a black dot on his map case.  “This is where we were when nav went offline.  This is where we need to be,” he said pointing to another dot 2750 meters away.  “327 degrees for 550 meters, high ground to our right, if you see the railroad embankment, you’ve missed the next checkpoint.  Got it?”  SFC Rivera nodded, set the bezel ring on his compass and oriented it.  Black, the Assistant Team Sergeant, checked Rivera’s azimuth and got the team ready to move. “Stow your ear defenders and keep your hoods down unless we make contact.  Go to ground and cover up if the drones come back.”  Everyone nodded.

Franks stopped them short of their final check point, the team instinctively forming a hasty defensive position.  He pulled a Hermes Message Drone from Black’s rucksack and connected the coil cord from his CIP to a port at the base.  He checked to make sure everyone was covered up, but ready to move.  He turned the shorting plug to the first setting which enabled just the local functions.  No power was flowing to his radios or HUD, so there was little chance he would be detected by the multi-spectral sensors the Donovians were employing.  Using the keypad, he edited the message he preloaded into the drone prior to the start of the operation.  Satisfied, he shut his system down and handed the device to one of the grenadiers.  Franks issued a five-point contingency plan to Black who would take part of the team to another point to deploy the drone.     

Thirty minutes later, SSG Turner the grenadier, found a gap in the canopy large enough to launch the drone.  He removed the HEDP round from the chamber and inserted the propellant charge. He then slipped the push rod from the Hermes down the barrel and connected it. The charge propelled the Hermes three hundred meters before the counter-rotating props sprang out and the engine started.  The Hermes immediately began broadcasting its encrypted data and would continue until it was acknowledged and remotely disabled, or ran out of power.  If the message was received, headquarters would know the teams’ status and general location.  Franks had programmed it to fly south which improved the chances of success.  Black had everyone replace the natural camouflage they used to augment their capes and made sure everyone knew what azimuth they would be taking and the distance to the link up point.

The sun was setting by the time the entire team was in position at Phase Line Red. (figure 1)  Their mission was to overwatch a small valley, which according to the latest reports bordered the Donovian FLOT.  If the enemy moved south, Franks was to conduct a delaying action as he saw fit, and assist in the engagement of key targets.  He plugged the end of the micro-fiber wire into his push-to-talk switch and clicked the button six times.  Earlier they had run the wire to each of their positions.  Unlike the RF devices which enabled their tactical awareness network, the wire shielded their signals and was virtually undetectable.  Even then, no one wanted to risk the 152mm airbursts the Donovians liked shooting at RF signals, so even with the wire, talk was kept to a minimum.  Franks heard a series a clicks indicating Rivera and Black had their shooting teams ready, and the Pilum and Nesher team’s were in place.  The last set of clicks came from SFC Tomas the radio operator who reported the Q-157 Signals Operations Device was in place. 

1

Franks flexed his shoulders contentedly.  He felt better than he did on most training events. So far, they hadn’t had to carry litters or wear their protective masks, and the distance they had covered was far less than what they were accustomed.  Aside from the drones having forced them to shut down their network, they were executing as they had been trained.  The same could not be said for the Stryker Brigade that had massed just behind the Otsoian front lines.  Essentially road bound in the forested terrain, they were hit with a series of rocket and drone attacks that targeted their communication and combat support systems.  Although the SHORAD systems defending the lead battalion accounted for a few of the larger drones, dozens of smaller ones made it into the brigade rear.  There, they detected generators with their large heat signature and damaged or destroyed them with incendiary charges.  In a single period of darkness, the Brigade TOC, the Signal Company, the MI Company and most of the medical assets were forced to operate off battery or vehicle power.  The biggest loss was the counter-battery radar which effectively blinded the M-777 battery.  On the other hand, the Donovians were able to fire artillery concentration on pre-surveyed targets which effectively halted the Strykers.  The Stryker Brigades’ organic fires assets were denied the ability of firing on area targets due the possibility of Otsoian civilian casualties. The Donovians took full advantage of this and placed their artillery and ADA assets accordingly.  They also made maximum use of the local phone system and low power wire communication which further hampered US targeting efforts.

Franks checked his watch. They would know in a few minutes if three days and nights of slipping through the thick forest would pay off.  He pulled his hood back and removed his helmet.  Off to the southwest he could hear the sound of rotors.  He donned his helmet, clamping his ear defenders in place.  He hit the PTT button six times and was immediately answered by clicks from the other stations.   If he looked he could probably see the aircraft on short final into the clearing to his west, but his concentration was on the intersection 857 meters to his north.  If the enemy was coming, that would be the direction. 

Two kilometers north the mast mounted acquisition radar picked up the incoming aircraft and sent a message to the firing battery.  The crew started the air compressor raising the launcher unit just above the trees.  The seeker head on the number one missile scoured the sky for a heat signature but found nothing.  The crew switched on the coaxially mounted targeting radar hoping the two systems would que the launcher to the radar returns.  The seeker on number one emitted a steady tone and the operator pulled the trigger. 

Further to the northeast, the signal intercept unit supporting the Donovian motorized rifle battalion in the sector detected an RF spike in the general location of where their sister ADA unit had just engaged an aircraft.  The operator passed the line of bearing and range to the mortar FDC who immediately plotted a solution and called the battalion fires officer for permission to fire.  Clearly an enemy air assault was in progress, and hopefully they could catch them while they were still on the LZ.  Franks saw the flash followed by the boom but paid little attention.  Another aircraft passed over, flares and chaff falling in its wake.  A trail of sparks cut across the sky followed by booms in quick order.  An aircraft tumbled from the sky, the flares popping from its dispenser ricocheting off the ground and trees at odd angles.                                                                         

All three guns were ready when they were cleared to fire by the brigade fire officer on what was now designated target Kilo-117.  Word was also sent to the other section within range to stand by for additional fire missions.  A few seconds after the first rounds slammed into the LZ, Tomas whispered that the Q-157 was still transmitting on all three frequencies, mimicking a US Infantry units’ FM and SATCOM transmissions.  The next salvo would probably take care of that, but by then, it would have done its job.  Franks clicked twice and adjusted the focus on his binoculars.   

Forty-five thousand feet above the valley, an A-190 Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle surveyed the battlefield below.  Its “swarm” of three smaller A-80 UCAV’s were several thousand feet below scanning the area with their multi-spectral sensors.  With the satellites out of action, they were flying by Inertial Navigation and talking to each other via their onboard line-of-sight Low-Probability of Intercept or Detection radios.  As the Donovian EW assets were brought to bear against the Q-157, the UCAV’s mapped the enemy’s radio signals, and heat spikes from the missile and mortar launches.  As more information was gathered, the A-80’s were able to pinpoint target for the GBU-110 Semi-autonomous Loitering Bombs.  When the autonomous processor onboard the A-190 had enough information, it prompted the A-80’s to act. 

The Donovian mortar section leader was contemplating moving to another location, a standard practice to avoid counter-battery fire.  However, with the Americans’ artillery over twenty kilometers away he decided against it.  Dealing with the camouflage nets in the day was a bad enough, and at night, it just wasn’t worth it.  Anyway he wanted to be ready when the infantry swept the area looking for any survivors of what was turning out to be another disaster for the Americans.  He heard the GBU-110 as it flew over his position bound for what was probably the ADA battery.  He never heard the one headed for him.  He made it two steps before the canister split open, showering his platoon with dozens of sub-munitions. 

Franks saw the flashes from the cluster bombs followed by rippling explosions.  There was another series of flashed from the north west, but the explosions were barely audible.   The fire from the crashed “helicopter” continued to burn.  The drones, designed to mimic the MH-60 (R), had done their job and forced the enemy to turn on their air defense search and acquisition radars.  A short time later, another GBU-110 passed overhead.  He tensed slightly, mentally checking his navigation.  Theoretically they were in a no-fire area, but men and machines do make mistakes.  A moment later the motor changed pitch and the sound soon disappeared altogether.  It had dropped its cargo and continued on to taunt the Donovians into turning on their search radars again.   

Tomas hit Send on his CIP prompting Franks to open a text message.  While the Q-157 was flooding the airwaves with RF energy, Tomas sent and received digital messages on his PRC-160 (Z) High Frequency Radio.  Not dependent on satellites and operating on frequencies just above the noise floor, the encrypted data transfer went unnoticed by the Donovians.  Franks opened the message which ordered him to continue the mission for the next 24 hours.  A streak of light ended in a brilliant flash signaling the death of one of the A-80’s.  Sensors on its sister ship detected the missiles’ point of origin, and dispatched another GBU-110.  The launcher was probably controlled remotely, but the cluster munitions might get some of the crew or at least disrupt their communications.         

In the darkness somewhere between the teams’ position and the road intersection, an M-207 Semi-Autonomous Area Denial Munition crawled towards its position.  Some of its companions were hopelessly entangled in their parachutes or unable to move from where the GBU-110 dropped them.  The majority however, were operational and ready for the job ahead.   A few minutes earlier the A-190 sent a burst transmission giving them their final instructions.  This information was shared over their self-healing, wireless network, and although it took most of the night, the SAADM’s managed to arrange themselves as instructed.  As they powered down in successive belts across the choke point, their active camouflage mimicked the surrounding area making them virtually undetectable from more than a few meters.        

Franks heard engine noises throughout the night but none seemed to be any closer than the intersection.  The Donovians had shown they could detect and target the powerful thermal and fusion weapon sights the Americans used, which forced Franks to rely on his M-63 Enhanced Binoculars.  About two hours before sunrise, the flash and noise of an explosion woke him.  Tomas, who had joined him at his position pointed to the culvert over the stream.  What was left of a hybrid powered all-terrain vehicle lay smoldering in the ditch on the north east side.  The magnetic, seismic or acoustic sensors on one of the SAADM’s had triggered the devices’ shape-charge anti-armor weapon, destroying the vehicle. Franks hoped the fuel or batteries would ignite and illuminate the area.  With one SAADM destroyed, the others sent pings across the network to reestablish connectivity.  The master processor was satisfied the grid was still intact, and ordered all nodes into the passive mode.   Franks doubted anyone was riding in the vehicle, but he was sure the remote operator knew where they had lost contact with their automated scout.  Franks grabbed the viewer and used the multi-function toggle to activate the fusion camera.  Earlier he had separated the right side of his M-63 Binoculars from the left and placed it by the trunk of a large tree a dozen meters away.  He connected the two sides by cable which gave him a remote view of the valley.  He used the toggle to control the micro gimbal, and when the image came into frame, he nudged Tomas who tapped a command into his CIP.  The PRC-160 (Z), which was at the end of a 100 meters of micro wire, momentarily powered up and sent another burst of data over the slant wire antenna.   

Over one hundred kilometers south, the watch officer at the Corps Fires Desk received a message from the SOF LNO.  The message was immediately passed to the ready section, and a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System pulled out from under the highway overpass where it was hiding.  The Army Tactical Missile leapt from the launcher, and before the smoke cleared the launcher was headed to the reloading point.  A few kilometers west, another launcher with six dual-purpose warheads prepared to shoot.

Franks pulled up the sector sketch on his CIP and tapped on the icon for Target Alpha-1.  The first dismounts were just past the intersection and he wasn’t sure of the time on target for the HIMARS strike.  He closed the protective cover on the fusion camera to reduce the chance of it being detected.  It would take a few moments to get ready anyway.  He used a dropdown menu to select the method of engagement and control, then tapped Turner’s icon.  The CIP sent a signal across the wire which activated an audio prompt in Turner’s headset and a vibrating patch on his right shoulder.  It also remotely activated the Indirect Fire Aiming System on Turner’s Multiple Grenade Launcher.  Turner clicked the Acknowledge key which sent a reply to Franks and silenced the alarms.   With the engagement data uploaded, the weapon mounted LED prompted him to properly align the MGL.  The aiming stake he emplaced earlier helped, and within seconds he was ready to fire.  Rivera made sure the muzzle was clear of their foxholes’ parapet and squeezed Turner on the shoulder.  Hopefully one of the GBU-110 that was dropped earlier had destroyed the enemy’s counter battery radar.  Franks counted down the time of flight and opened the fusion cameras’ protective cover. The round impacted west of the target.  Using the mil scale reticle, he did the calculations and made the correction.  He moved the target icon a few millimeters to the right on his CIP, which equaled seventy meters on the ground and hit Send.   Turner fired the remaining five rounds and dropped to the bottom of his foxhole to reload.     

SFC Hefner delivered a second volley of 40mm which forced the dismounted infantry to move to the north side of the intersection, but not before they raked the surrounding area with machinegun and RPG fire.  The Americans were unaffected because the IFAS enabled them to remain in cover and engage target while Franks gave them corrections from his own hidden location.  They were now in their alternate positions, and using the information from the earlier engagement to confirm the data on their range cards and sector sketches.  Franks was confident he could force the dismounted infantry to take another route, which would put them under the guns of the other teams.  That’s if the others had made it to their positions.

Twenty thousand feet above the team, the parachute on the ATacMS (Special Purpose) ejected from its container.  A thousand feet later it was automatically cut free when the wings of the Unmanned Air Vehicle (Rocket Delivered) snapped into place.  The onrushing air started the motor, powering the sensors and the LPI/D communication system.  As it circled, the onboard LIDAR and other sensors detected the massed EM and heat signatures of a Donovian motorized rifle company.  The information was transmitted to the A-190 which relayed it to the ground station in the Corps rear.  Within minutes, another fire mission was sent to the ready launcher.  The driver pulled out of a hay barn and stopped directly over a small traffic cone his section NCOIC had placed earlier.  The launcher responded to the digital commands, sending six rockets north.  Franks was surprised by their arrival but pleased by the secondary explosions that continued until just before dawn.

Franks was typing a SITREP when he received a call from the Pilum team.  A vehicle had pulled into the intersection and the team was awaiting instructions.  Franks activated the fused camera and scanned the area.  A Combat Engineer Vehicle, most likely autonomous or remotely controlled, was slowly making its way south.  As it approached the culvert where the scout vehicle had been destroyed, a Mine Clearing Line Change erupted from its rear deck. Franks instinctively ducked his head as the shock wave from the explosion washed over him.  He pressed the PTT.  “Pilum, fire and displace.”    

The first stage of the tandem warhead was actually defeated by the active system on the CEV. The second stage, and the inertia of the motor was enough to detonate the reactive armor on the right side of the vehicle.  The vehicle stopped, its hybrid engine still running.  Franks thought about engaging it with one of the Neshers, but until it did something other than idle in the road, he would save his ammo.   A second vehicle appeared and fired a burst of PK machinegun fire into the area of the earlier Pilum launch.  The gunner had already reeled in the cable which connected the now empty launch tube to the Command Launcher Unit.  Franks could see the protective covers on the vehicles’ sensors were open as the turret slowly scanned the terrain ahead.  The 30mm chain gun and duel Kornet launchers were menacing, but what worried him was the mast-mounted Cats Eye Optic Detection Systems.  He was sure it was flooding the area with broad spectrum light waves and watching for returns off reflective surfaces.  Franks closed the cover on the fused camera and slipped down the hill until the cable was fully extended.  He would probably survive the direct fire weapons, but not the impending artillery barrage if the optic was detected.  “Pilum, acquire and fire at will.  Displace to the ORP.” 

The assistant gunner peered through the peep sight satisfied the launch tube was pointed in the general location of the armored vehicle at the intersection.  At nine hundred meters it was well within the arc of the seeker head.  He crawled way, careful not to disturb the launcher or the CLU cable.  As soon as he signaled the gunner he was out of the back blast area, he heard the hum of the coolant and the click of the protective cover on the seeker head snapping open.  Two seconds later, a pop followed by the ripping sound of the flight motor signaled their last missile was on its way.  The onboard defensive system of the armored vehicle fired a spread of exothermic smoke in an attempt to block the IR seeker on the warhead.  The control surfaces on the Pilum moved sending the missile on a near vertical path.  The control surfaces snapped again allowing the seeker head to reacquire the vehicle.  The rocket motor fired its final stage propelling the missile to super-sonic speed.  Although the active defense destroyed the warhead, the kinetic force of the remaining twenty plus pounds smashed into the turret knocking the weapons system off-line.   

Franks didn’t know if it was bad tactics, or poor asset management, but the drones that should have proceeded the ground vehicles finally showed up.  The first was an octocopter that buzzed the tree line in the vicinity of where the last Pilum had been launched. He thought about having one of his men shoot it down with a Nesher, but the spindly off-the-shelf drone wasn’t worth it.  It hovered over the minefield and dropped a string of bomblets which appeared to be the equivalent of 60mm mortars.  At one point, it headed further south along the road until it either lost link or the operator lost confidence in his ability to fly under the overhanging branches.  Shortly after it headed north, it was replaced by a mono wing which dove into the valley making what appeared to be mock attack runs.  The team, mindful of what had happened at the start of the operation, remained hidden under their capes. 

“Nesher, stand by,” Franks whispered into his mic.  Two clicks and a pause followed by three more meant they were ready with the launcher.  SGT Sullivan had the second missile, but chances were they would only get the chance to fire one before they had to displace.  “OK, fire if he turns out north.”  Franks was wondering if they heard him when pop of the soft launch followed by the ignition of the flight motor told him they had.  Franks would have liked to see the drone spiral into the ground, but he was reeling in the other half of his binoculars and getting ready to move his team.  They had done their job.  On the far side of the valley, the enemy commander not only had to contend with the pounding they had received from the UCAV’s and rocket artillery, now apparently there were dismounted infantry with anti-tank guided missiles and MANPADS on their axis of advance.   

Franks had taken a few steps when he was slammed to the ground.  His body armor and ear defenders protected him from some of the effects of the blast, but later they would find the blast meter in his helmet recorded the maximum impulse it could measure.  Dazed, he vaguely remembered Tomas and the others dragging him to the ORP.  Luckily only a few rounds fell around them before a second wave of MLRS and ATacMS slammed into the north side of the valley.

Black pulled a Hermes from Franks’ Rucksack and plugged it into his CIP.  He glanced at his map and did some quick calculations.  They had moved about three hundred meter after SFC Kramer, the team medic, had pumped clotting agent into the wounds in Franks’ legs and bound them with compression dressings.  They had assembled the sections of carbon fiber tubes they all carried and along with Franks’ cape constructed an expedient litter.  Hours of practice under worse conditions had prepared them for this kind of situation.  It showed as the team rotated between carrying the litter and security as they moved south.  It would be dark in less than two hours, and the farther they moved from the last known enemy location, the better the chances were of executing a successful MEDEVAC.  Kramer unzipped the vent in the armpit of Franks’ coveralls and attached the coil cord from his CIP to the port on the biometric harness in Franks’ base layer.  He swiped the vital signs into a MEDDATA folder containing the information he had taken earlier at the ORP.  He unplugged the coil cord and passed it to Black.  Five minutes later, Hefner launched the Hermes containing a digital message with their SITREP, a casualty report, and a nine-line MEDEVAC request.  They had no way of knowing if the message would be received, so they continued marching.

Five hundred meters north, Rivera and Sullivan watched the bend in the road.  Sometime after the barrage that had wounded Franks, a small Unmanned Ground Vehicle crossed the valley and used its articulated arm to access the service port at the rear of the damaged CEV.  The UGV then acted as a relay which allowed the operators to reboot the systems and get the CEV running.  Rivera heard the second MICLIC detonate, and knew the motorized infantry weren’t far behind.   He and Sullivan had managed to cut down two medium sized trees and drop them across the road.  If they had more time and material, they could have made a proper roadblock, but the CEV would reduce that almost as quickly. Their intent was to stop them for a few minutes and wait for a target of opportunity as the column bunched up behind the CEV.   

Kramer pulled a third set of vitals and noticed Franks’ oxygen saturation level was dropping.  He removed a micro oxygen generator from his aid bag and placed the mask over Franks’ face. He connected the auxiliary power cable to the port on one of Franks’ radio batteries and made sure the generator was secured to the litter.  Prior to cinching the drawstring on the casualty blanket he tore open an air-activated heating pad and placed it inside.                

Rivera saw the CEV before he heard the hum of the six electric motors mounted in the wheel hubs.  The diesel motor would probably kick in if the flail was activated, but for now it crept to within 100 meters of the roadblock in near silence.  Rivera had set the Nesher to the direct fire mode which eliminated the soft launch and the need to super-elevate the tube.  He sighted it on a stump on the far side of the road and activated the remote firing switch.  He hoped to get a BTR-190, but destroying the CEV and blocking the road for an extended period of time would also do.  The CEV fired a demolition charge from its 90mm cannon which partially cleared the trees.  It fired a second round and activated the flail.  As it pulled forward, Rivera lifted the safety cover and depressed the fire button on the remote firing device.  The launch and subsequent detonation were indistinguishable. 

The BTR-190 nosed around the bend and stopped.  Sullivan knew the range from a study of the map and the mil measurement of the vehicle commanders’ shoulders. The Cats Eye sensor on the turret made using his laser range finder impossible anyway.  He had selected a position which allowed him to emplace his rifle and use his remote viewer while remaining behind solid cover.  The skillful use of natural camouflage and a diffuser on the scope lessened the chances of the Cats Eye detecting the optic.  Rivera glanced at the LED display on his IFAS and pulled the trigger.  The bullet-trap rifle grenade did little damage, but masked the shot that actually killed the vehicle commander.  The BTRs’ 30mm cannon raked the surrounding woods, although its thermal sight couldn’t pick up any heat signatures.  Rivera switched channels on the remote firing device and detonated a directional mine as soldiers began to spill from the BTR.  Sullivan pushed up on the pistol grip of his rifle, centered the crosshairs and pressed the trigger.  The suppressor masked what little sound could have been heard over the chain gun and PK fire.  A Donovian dropped, hit just above his body armor.   Rivera detonated their last mine which drew the enemy’s attention to the east side of the road.  Sullivan was tempted to fire a third time but the crackle automatic fire ripping through the trees around him made him think otherwise.  He slid down the bank of the gully and followed Rivera into the gathering dusk.

The chirping in his headset let Tomas know the UU-96 Kestrel Unmanned Utility Craft was within range.  He pointed the directional antenna from the ground control unit south and waited.  A minute later, its coaxial rotors brought it to a hover above the LPI/D beacon.  Tomas ordered it to land, the twelve-foot rotor disk and absence of a tail boom allowing it to slip into the tiny clearing.  Black pulled the resupply bundles from the pod as the others struggled to load the semi-conscious casualty.  Kramer placed the oxygen mask from the onboard system over Franks’ face and removed the oxygen generator from the litter.  Black ran his hands along the pod ensuring nothing was in the way and pushed the lid shut.  He signaled to Tomas who entered the command for a vertical launch.  Once the Kestrel cleared the treetops, the auto pilot turned it south towards the CASH.  Black tapped Turner on the shoulder.  Time to go find Rivera and head south to Phase Line White.

Categories: Mad Scientist

About the Author(s)

CSM (RET) Bob Shalala served for over 29 year in Airborne, Ranger, and Special Operations Units, where he deployed for combat operations to Panama, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Arabian Peninsula.  His awards include the Silver Star, the Defense Superior Service Medal, and 5 Bronze Stars, 2 with Valor Devices. He is also the recipient of the Richard D. Meadows Award for Heroism.   He is the author of The Spearmen Chronicles, a military science fiction about Rangers and Special Operations forces in the 22nd century.   Currently he is the Manager and Business Developer at the L3-Harris facility in Spring Lake North Carolina.