Small Wars Journal

Sic Transit Gloria

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Sic Transit Gloria

Matthew Ader

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.

Amy – Specialist - 1 Platoon, Charlie Company, 3/1 Automated Brigade Combat Team (US) - 15 kilometres northeast of Dobrynka

“I hate the rain.”

“You’re sealed up, Suarez.”

“Fuck off Amy.” I sighed and shook my head. Even in a fully sealed exoskeleton, secure any kind of intrusion and proof to most assault rifles, Suarez could still find a way to complain.

Of course, a dripping wet Otsoan wood wasn’t the best place to be. Better than Drum, but then again, anything was better than Drum. Something pinged in the corner of my helmet, an alert from one of our outlying sensors. Blinked over to it.

Half the night in front of me lit up as the augmented reality display showed the camera feed. A group of soldiers was limping up a track about two kilometres east. They were all visibly wounded. “Hey,” I said, “we’ve got some Otties due east. About a squad.” 

“Sounds like some of 2nd Brigade. Fuckers broke and ran a few hours back. I’ll tell the el-tee.” Suarez’s voice was laid back, but I recognised the stress. Somewhere out in front of us was a division of pissed off Donovians and the Otso National Army was melting like a private seeing pinks and greens for the first time.

I settled back into the shell-scrape. Even though we were armoured, that mess in Atropia showed how useful earthworks were. Hah. A million dollars’ worth of soldier sitting in a hole that Buford would have dug. Talk about a high-low mix.

Something thumped out in the distance. Artillery, probably. Then Suarez, “Amy, re-org on the el-tee. We’re moving.” I grumbled my way out of the scrape, hefting my pack and walking right. The AR displayed the meeting point, a few hundred metres away.

“Word on the sensors?”

“Leave ‘em for now.”

A shriek out in the night – rocket artillery. A little closer this time. Donovian, definitely. “Donnies are getting active.”

“Uh-huh.” What a character was Suarez. Talkative when bitching, monotone when it was least helpful. A few minutes more and we were gathered up around the el-tee, eleven of us in our drab armour.

“Right chaps,” said the el-tee. “The Dons fell for Johnson’s cognitive camo. That artillery you heard was them shelling the fuck out of where they thought we were. They’ve got a platoon coming in to clean up. We’re going to ambush them. Supervisory only. 3rd Squad will hit it on ground, 2nd to follow up. Positioning sent to your AR.” My display let out a confirmatory green flash. “Questions?”

“What about the rest of the company?” That was Richardson. Nosy.

“It’s just us here. Anything else?” I spoke up.

“Should I try for air?”

“If you can get it, sure. Right, let’s get moving.” We all pinged assent and shook out into a staggered file, started walking between the trees. We wouldn’t be doing the shooting ourselves, not unless things really hit the fan. Just watching over the swarm.

As we walked, I pulled up an air support menu on my AR. Gone was the days of formalised bureaucracy. The Army had ripped off Uber – each platoon had a track on nearby air assets. Could task them in with a swipe. Two MQ-27s were orbiting fifty kilometres back. I pinged an alert warning and got a confirmation from their ground station a few moments later. Had them booked for the next 20 minutes.

A message popped up on the screen, sent to the #platoon-all chat. ‘EN PLT DESG BANDIT 31-Y IN ENG RANG.’ That was from the supervisory AI for 2nd Squad, comprising ten quadrotors and some dozens of smaller suicide drones. Bless its silicon heart but it never had learnt to speak English properly.

I DM’d the el-tee, whispering to the transcriber as we kept walking. ‘Sir, I’ve booked a pair of MQ-27s. Could change plan to an integrated air strike?’ The message sent and we went a couple more steps and then his reply came back – “Rog. Vector MQs in now.”

Then he pinged to #platoon-all – ‘Plan changed to air strike. Get in extended line.’ We got, moving calmly to maintain dispersion. The enemy platoon was at the edge of sensor range, with the 2nd Squad relaying data. I shoved the feed upstairs to the MQs. That’d give targeting. The AR flipped to show a map with the approximate aircraft location. At the bottom of the map, in a cheery purple – ‘Your target will be serviced in four minutes. Thank you for shopping with the US Air Force!’ Screenshotted and DM’d to the el-tee.

Sometimes I really wished we did UI design in house.

And then we waited. A non-priority on #platoon-shitposting – ‘Johnson you horny fuck.’ The Tinder transcript from his cog-camo was attached. Another reason, of many, to mute that particular channel. I minimised the message and pulled the map back up. Another minute. Weapons release, and I could see three missiles heading in towards the enemy column. But the more dangerous one was the cyber strike. The Donovian systems were riddled with zero-days. Above my pay grade how, but we all had our theories.

Then three sharp explosions in the middle distance and a ping from 2nd Squad – ‘ENG NOW’. A rolling fusillade of sharp cracks – suicide drones, flying into heads. One more explosion. A couple of bursts of small arms fire. Silence.

Another ping – ‘ALL EN KIA.’

---

Gerasim – General - 79th Division HQ (Donovia) - Three kilometres from the Otso-Donovia border

My cigarette smoke swirled into the dead air. I could hear thunder.

“Sir,” one of the aides – so many aides in my career, so little time, “31st Battalion has stopped short of Dobrynka.” Inhale. Exhale. The 31st should have been past Dobrynka an hour ago.

“Brigade?”

“No contact. Probably an air strike.” I nodded slowly and threw the cigarette aside. The Americans were busy fucking with the S500s. Something in the chips, said the scientists. Didn’t care. All I knew is that we were back down to Pantsirs and 350s and it wasn’t enough. Thank God they only had two squadrons in country.

“Artillery support?”

“Just organic, sir, but – “ I turned and eyed him. He swallowed. “But we don’t have contact with the guns. Jamming.” Good man. I liked aides who didn’t quail at glares. Might even learn this one’s name.

“Send messenger drones to all the brigade artillery. Free fire orders. Air Force too. We need to take that town.” He saluted and I returned it and he went back into the command tent and I considered a second cigarette. Dobrynka sat on the intersection of three critical roads. Once it fell, 52nd Division could surge through it and take the country. Once it fell. If it fell.

The wind gusted, and I walked back into the tent. Just a handful of staff, all on phones or viz. Anything larger and the Americans would find us and stick us like a turkey. The e-paper map on the table glowed faintly in the weak light. Much more complex than what I’d trained with.

Nothing much had changed since I’d gone for the smoke. One brigade, the 92nd, chasing after the routing Otosan border forces, arcing north towards the Latvian border. The other, 13th, stopped short of Dobrynka. The initial plan had the 92nd remain blocking on the border in case the Europeans got antsy. But perhaps if we swung it south and flanked?

“Sir.” A low voice threw my chain of thought. Pavel, my chief of staff. “52nd’s on the line again. Want to know when they can go.”

“I’ll tell her when.”

“She wants to talk to you.” Fucking hell.

“Fine.” I turned and took the sat-phone.

“Gera! How are you?”

“I am fine, General Kirdana.”

“That’s just smashing to hear. So, I was wondering about Dobrynka. See, I’ve got three armoured brigades who’d just love to get to work. But the message about the town’s capture doesn’t seem to have gone through?”

“You have access to the same tactical overlay I do, General Kirdana.”

“Ah, my mistake! When do you think you’ll take it?” With an effort of will I resisted grinding my teeth.

“Soon. I have concentrated brigade artillery on it.”

“Oh, Gera, you have integrated information effects into your orders, haven’t you?” The effort of will failed.

“You’re not at Oxford any more, general, and I’d appreciate you dropping the lecturing act.” Twenty years my junior, a woman no less, comes strolling back from some fancy British college and waltzes into the plum command for this crisis. Didn’t need a nose to smell the corruption.

“My sincerest apologies. Please, do keep me informed.” The line shut off and I almost threw the phone into the wall. Silence descended on the tent. I hated Kirdana, but the she wasn’t wrong. We had a few more hours till the morning shows in Washington. Dobrynka had to fall by then.

“Pavel, are the Euros on the move?” I trusted him to query the AI. Much more than me. Never could get the damn thing to work. Another tick of quiet.

“Yes. European Army in the Baltics is mobilising. All over Instagram, apparently. SIGINT confirms.”

“They’re going to intervene?” Kept the tone level, but my stomach was roiling. We’d assumed the Euros wouldn’t get involved. If they did, the whole enterprise would collapse. We’d lose the war –worse, I’d have to ask Kirdana for help.

“It doesn’t look like it, sir.” Thank god and all his angels. “But the 92nd are going to have their hands tied up there for the next few hours anyway.”

“I see.” Didn’t have any other options. I exhaled slowly and looked down on the map. Everything now rested on Dobrynka.

---

Steven – Captain - Company HQ, Bravo Company, 3/1 Automated Brigade Combat Team (US) - Dobrynka 

Red dust rained down on me, larger fragments spalling and bouncing off my armour plate. The ground was heaving, like we were at sea, and I struggled back to my feet. “Seedy, what was that?”

My AI answered in a calm tone, too perfectly modulated – “Estimated direct hit on the building with a 155mm artillery shell.” Fuck. A wonder we were still standing. I looked around and – half the room was collapsed in and I could see Matthews half buried. Something red was seeping but I didn’t know, and I couldn’t know and –

“Sir, I can’t feel my legs! Sir!” Matthews. Christ. I took a deep, shuddering breath and centred myself. Still had a job to do. “Sir!” Look around the room. No other casualties. Thank God.

“Jonno, look to Matthews.” One of my other staff, only one of two left now – only one of two! – knelt down and started helping. “Seedy, casevac?”

“Nothing.” As if anything had changed in the three minutes since I’d last asked. “Priority message from 2 Platoon. Should I – “

“Yes.” A brief tone in my helmet and then a rushed voice came in, just balancing on the edge of panic. Didn’t blame them.

“Captain, half my men are down. Suicide bots expended, and 2nd Squad’s gone. I need to withdraw.” With a gesture I brought up the AR map of the town. 2 Platoon was holding the south. The sensors the Donovians hadn’t sanitized showed at least a battalion coming at them.

“Son,” I began, trying to put a steadying note into my voice, “if you retreat, our entire position is unhinged. You must hold.”  

“We can’t hold.” Chewed my cheek and looked closer at the map. Dobrynka was not a large town, but there was some space. Just a little.

“Right. Right. Pull your men back into the town. Put your 3rd Squad as a minefield on the outskirts. There’s enough rubble for cover. I’ll set up a resupply.”

“Sir!” The line clicked shut.

“Seedy, get a glider resupply for 2 Platoon.” A light blinked green confirmation. We couldn’t helicopter things in or out. Gliders dropped from aircraft hanging back was the best bet.

A freight train whistle and the ground shuddered again. More artillery. “Simone,” I said to the one remaining soldier, “what’s the sit with effects?” She answered without turning.

“#WarCrime is trending up in relation to the Donovian offensive. I’m fuelling it with footage of this artillery. Tossed highlights upstairs to Effects Command.” Like punctuation, something boomed. “Trying to get a Dobrynka specific hashtag going, but their bots are counter-brigading.

“Got it, thanks.” Turned back to the AR map and zoomed out. What we had painted a dismal picture. A battalion fixing us with a frontal attack. Two more flanking the town, one on each side. My platoons battered and broken in a rough square. We’d hurt them, but it wasn’t enough. We needed more. Our Charlie Company was up to the north, but intermittent contact. Bravo was south, with the battalion commander, last I heard, but contact dropped half an hour ago. Didn’t want to think about what might have happened.

Still. Maybe there was an option. If I could get through to Charlie, get them to turn south and east, plunge into the enemy rear echelon. Blunt that pincer long enough to keep the northern road clear. Could get reinforcements, or at least withdraw in good order.

“Seedy, tell Charlie to attack south. And get the battalion, or brigade commander – whichever you can find, tell them the plan. We need to reclai – “

And then something whistled outside, and it was coming closer in an infinite moment and –

---

Abigail – General – Joint Task Force HQ (US) - Vitauka, capital of Otso

“We’re going to lose Dobrynka.” I rubbed my forehead and regarded the fine-grained wood of the hotel table. No high-tech headquarters for me, not in this kind of war. The rest of the staff were scattered in rooms all around us. 

“I know, Ray. So, what are we going to do about it?”

“Lose the war?”

“Shut up, Ray.”

“Ma’am.” Smart ass chiefs of staff. Ray was useful, alright, but really there was a time and a place for humour.

“Okay, back to basics. We’ve got a 1 Batt committed up north, 3 Batt around Dobrynka. 2 Batt about to draw on supplies here. Right?”

“Yes.”

“Good to know my faculties haven’t entirely deserted me. Right. We’ll get 2 Batt to hold the main road leading here from Dobrynka. 3 Batt go for a fighting extraction.”

“We think the Donovians have an armoured division ready to move once Dobrynka falls. One battalion can’t stop that, ma’am.”

“I am capable of basic arithmetic, Ray.”

“My point stands.”

“Tell them to sew the fields with all their fancy gadgets. No static defence. We’ll make it a road without joy for the Donovians. Attrit them constantly, hit and run with the autonomous platforms. Slow them down. By the time they reach the capital, they’ll be wounded, demoralised and undersupplied. And then they’ll run smack into our proper airborne brigades.”

Ray nodded slowly. “They’re going to need some time. Maybe another three hours.”

“3 Batt…will give them that time.”

“They’ll die.”

“I know.” My voice was low, and I shook my head to clear it. This was the reality of a war. “Winston!”

“Here, ma’am.” Green light on the glasses rim. Unlike Ray, an AI was always punctual.

“Highest priority ping to all 3 Batt platoons – ‘Take any steps necessary to slow enemy advance up Route Tango. The eyes of the world are upon you. The fate of the entire war rests on your shoulders. Good luck.’”

“Leaning a bit on Eisenhower, don’t you think?” Ray had clearly never written a hype ping before. I didn’t bother giving him a response.

“Did you get that, Winston?”

“Yes, ma’am. The message has been sent. Anything else?”

“Tell 2 Batt to resupply as fast as possible and prepare for offensive action. Help staff draft OPORD for 2 Batt seeding Route Tango with autonomous weapons.”

“Very good, ma’am.” The green light blinked off and I was left with not a lot to do. Orders were sent, staff were working the technicalities.

“You know, this all depends on the Euros letting our planes through.” Ray’s voice was pensive.

“I know. Not a lot I can do about it but…I know.” Let my voice trail off. “I guess we should go visit the staff?” Before he could answer, there was a frantic knocking on the door. Ray went to open it and a staff captain half-tumbled in, clutching a phone in one hand, saluting and talking all at once.

“Ma’am, 2 Batt’s supply depot, it’s been found.”

“Found?” I didn’t need to ask the question. He thrust the phone at me in lieu of speaking. Open to Twitter, pictures of our stockpile from crappy smartphones. Geotagged, though. Still enough. Even had a hashtag. “Do you think they’ll miss it?”

“I don’t think so, ma’am. If we’re picking it up, the Donovians aren’t going to be far behind.” Thought so. Still. Fuck.

“Winston! Tell 2 Batt to take what they can and clear out now.” Green light confirmation. “Thank you for bringing this to me, Captain. I’ll handle it from here.” He saluted and left. I turned to Ray. He beat me to it.

“Fuck.” I nodded in mute agreement. A message pinged in on my glasses from the air defence bot – ‘3 HYPR-SON SS-29 INBD VITAUKA.’

I picked up my phone and opened Facebook. I wondered if our defeat was going to be livestreamed.

---

Natasha – Deputy White House Chief of Staff - Site R (US)  - Raven Rock Mountain Complex

I was adrift in an ocean of uniforms. The room was packed with soldiers and airmen going to and fro, talking on phones and setting up computers and bustling. And I was just sitting in a crumpled pantsuit trying forlornly to get Twitter to load.

“Nat,” I looked up. It was Tom, the White House liaison on the Joint Staff. He handed me a coffee, a chunky tablet in his other hand. “You look like you need this.” I did.

“You don’t have better things to do?” He settled into the seat next to mine.

“The President is going to be here in about five minutes. Air Force One’s just landing. We’re going to be in the room with her, means I need to bring you up to speed on what’s going on.”

“Where’s Nick? This is his job, right?”

“We, uh, we don’t have the SecDef right now. And the National Security Advisor is bunkered down in Iraq. It’s just us.”

“What do you mean you don’t have the SecDef?”

“Cyberattack on the State Department Ops Centre. He’s alive – think he left his phone in the hotel. We don’t have a backup number. Pentagon’s good at tracking army groups, not people.”

“To think we gave you all that funding for the War on Terror…” He smiled and waved his hand and swiped his tablet on.  

“The situation in Otso, on the ground, is pretty ugly.” The tablet screen was awash with whole sets of icons, and I took a moment to process it.

“That can’t be right? Things are that bad?” We were missing a whole battalion, another was scattered and getting ground down. The last blocking the road to the Otso capital. There weren’t very many Otsoan troops either, and a whole division of Donovians by the looks of things were plunging deep into the country.

“No. They’re worse. Commander EUCOM’s dead, shot outside his house. Patch Barracks got hit by a self-driving car bomb. 2nd Cavalry’s trying to leave base in Warsaw but there’s a whole bunch of protestors in the way.”

“What about the 173rd?” The brigade was forward deployed in the Azores, had been since the Italians kicked us out in 2027.

“It’s in flight, over the Atlantic, but we don’t know if the Euros are going to let it in the air space.”

“They’re probably not.”

“You think?”

“We’re losing.” I waited a moment, just in case there was a correction or something I’d missed. He remained quiet. “We’re losing, and the Euros have been realigning towards Moscow the last five years. Why go out of their way to help us now? Nothing to gain.”

There was a silence.

“So, options,” he said with a forced energy. “Our forces in country think they can hold Vitauka. They’ve got a full battalion still there. Supply depot got whacked, but they loaded on enough to make taking the city nasty.”

“A battalion against, what, at least one division? Can’t hold forever, right?”

“Yes. Our troops are better than theirs, but they’re not invincible. We’ve got maybe 12 hours to find them reinforcements.” Left unsaid – for now – was exactly how we could get them there.

“The President’s here,” Tom said, suddenly. His glasses were a glowing a bit. “Next floor up. Let’s go.” We waded through the uniforms to the elevator and found the President shortly enough in a side conference room. Just a handful of aides, Secretary of State, Director of National Intelligence. A pair of uniforms. All sitting around a table, an e-paper map of the area laid out before it. 

She turned briefly when the door opened. “Nat.”

“Ma’am.”

Tom took the lead. “Ma’am, you’ve been briefed on the plane?” Her face twisted into a wry smile for a moment.

“Lots of probablies in it, but yes. To confirm – we’re down two battalions, a critical supply depot and most of the European Command HQ?”

“That matches our information, yes ma’am.” She waved us to seats around the table. “There’s a brigade in the air now, but Nat doesn’t think the Euros will let it through their airspace.”

“You don’t?” That was the Secretary of State, bullish man with not enough hair. “The cost of them not doing it would be immense.” I paused for a moment to gather my thoughts. He was a rung above me. I knew the President trusted me but even so.

“The…costs we can impose on them are low compared to what the Donovians can do. They get most of their gas from Donovia, after all. And half the parliaments of Europe are in Moscow’s pocket. What can we do? We’ve already got a tariff on them.”

“We retain substantial conventional superiority…” his voice trailed off as the President shot him a withering look.

“Are you suggesting we get into another war with a nuclear armed power, Marcos?” He simmered. “I agree with Nat. Was on the phone to our man in Brussels, the mood in there is hostile.”

“Madam President,” a uniform spoke from the end of the table. “If the Euros won’t play ball, then we can’t get reinforcements into Otso.” The President plastered on a bland smile, the sort I knew from long nights in Iowa that concealed a vituperative reaction.

“Indeed, General Fitzwallace. What about other theatres? Options?” There was a beat of silent thought.

“What about Vladivostok?” Marcos said. “Donovian Eastern Fleet is still there. Hit them with some hypersonic missiles, follow up with 7th Fleet.”

“Fitz?”

“Well, ma’am, that could work.”

“Could work?” Her brows were furrowed.

“As in – we can kill their ships easy enough. Donovians never bothered modernising their fleet out there. But is it going to have a deterrent effect? It’s not like they use the ships there for much. Half of them are hold-overs from the USSR for Christ’s sake.”

“The Japanese would like it,” came one voice from the besuited aides on the other side of the table. A disagreeing noise and a murmur that sounded like ‘what about China’ and the President waved her hand.

“Worry about that later. We have 600 troops who are going to die in the next few hours unless we do something. Any other options? Mark?” she turned to look at the Director of National Intelligence, who had been sitting very quietly.

“Well, there is a cyber option. NSA has a zero-day backdoor into the Donovian power grid. We can bring it down.”

“For how long?” He shrugged artfully.

“We don’t know. At least a week, maybe up to a month.”

“That’s…worryingly imprecise. What’s the variable?”

“The virus does physical damage. Quite a bit of it. We don’t have perfect intelligence on how long it would take them to replace the components. But it’d hurt.” She looked like she was considering it, and I had to interject.

“Ma’am, this would hurt them too much. You’d kill thousands, minimum.” Got a lot of odd looks there, but no one spoke, and I plunged on. “It’s winter. No electricity means no heating. No water at all for the cities, because the natural sources are frozen over.”

“Do we have better options?” I took the silence as invitation. 

“We do. Ma’am.” She looked at me, closely. “Nuclear weapons.” And the room erupted as everyone tried to chip in at once and there were voices left and right and talk of condemnation and Tom was giving me a look and – she brought her hand down the table, hard.

“Let her finish. Nat, cut the dramatic bullshit. What do you mean? Precisely.”

“We have low-yield weapons on the Ohios, right? Firing a single weapon, somewhere uninhabited, would make them back off. Show our resolve.” You could hear a pin drop.  

“Let’s take a step back,” said the President, rushing into the gap. “So far, we’ve got three options – Vladivostok, cyber power grid, and nuclear signalling. Anything else? What about other cyber options?”

Mark spoke again. “Cyber is not a magic wand, ma’am. We do have other options, we could knock out some tactical and strategic communications, but without the ground forces to exploit, it doesn’t mean much. Besides, we only have a handful of zero-days, and they’re going to be looking for them now more than ever. There’s a time limit.”

“Fitz. Non-nuclear strike options?”

“We’ve got prompt conventional global strike. Could hit bases and infrastructure in the Donovian interior.”

“You didn’t mention that sooner?”

“No, ma’am. Because if we do that, then they’ll spread the war out as well. Everything they’ve done so far speaks to keeping this thing limited.” Most of the table looked at him, incredulity etched on their faces. The President made a ‘go on’ gesture. “If I were fighting this war, I’d have started it by putting missiles into every US facility from Hormuz to the Azores. They know exactly where they are, and they can hit them all. Instead, it’s been, what, a car bomb and a protest? Their information war barely mentions us, it’s all about Otso. They don’t want this to escalate more than it already has.”

“What about a ceasefire? Could request, ha, could request a peace with honour.”

“We could, ma’am,” said Marcos, looking down at the map. “But if we don’t change something in the conditions, if we don’t signal – signal strongly – that we can escalate beyond their threshold, then why would they take it? They’re about to win, win totally.”

“Not to mention,” Tom said, jumping in, “a ceasefire when the situation for us is this bad is inches away from a surrender. We can work around it a bit, but it’s going to leak and our prestige – well – there could be a problem.” He always did have a gift for understatement. Quiet came again.

“Marcos,” said the President, each word deliberate. “Get me the Donovian President. Fitz, tell STRATCOM to get their command planes in the air.”

Categories: Mad Scientist

About the Author(s)

Matthew Ader is a first-year undergraduate student taking War Studies at King’s College London. He has a keen interest in the application of speculative fiction to security and development topics. He tweets about it infrequently from @AderMatthew