Jungle humidity is murder for Army-issued HUDs. Mine stopped working about 24.38 seconds after we touched down at Tocumen Airport, so I switched on my aftermarket specs and connected them by laser cable to the STAC—Systemic Tactical Awareness Controller. My old man gave me the specs as a graduation gift (West Point class of 2048). How he knew my Army-issued gear would stop working so quickly, I can’t say.
I stowed my HUD and shrugged at Staff Sergeant Morris. “Figures. Aftermarket tech works better.”
Morris grunted and motioned for the other human members of the HST (hybrid strike team) to debark. Morris had been distant the whole flight.
“Sergeant Morris,” I said, pulling my ruck onto my shoulder. “I hope this doesn’t feel like a babysitting assignment.”
His eyes narrowed. “It’s not that, Sir. We didn’t even rate a C-17 from Bragg, and we didn’t even get to jump from the plane. Panama’s been quiet for twenty years, and we have ROEs so strict they wired them into the STAC.” He flipped down his HUD and STACked in, nodding towards the rear ramp in frustration. “Besides, a whole HST is overkill for a three-day area defense mission.”
We were to secure the Ronald W. Reagan Omnidirectional Space Elevator Transition Station—Gipper’s Twist, for short—the start point for one of four feeder cables to the main cable, anchored somewhere in the Caribbean. Gipper’s Twist, connected to the Port of Gamboa by a 15K rail line, was the first link between a major seaport and Midway Station, a spaceport tethered in mid-earth orbit. Someday the elevator would extend to geostationary orbit, but for now we had to keep things calm on the ground so SECDEF could cut the ribbon at Gipper’s Twist, in three days.
Back at Bragg, my CO had grinned. “What a great assignment for you, LT! We’ll show the Ruskis and the Chinese that our elevator is better than theirs.”
With a slap on the back he told me how hooah I was and stuffed my team and me, along with our gear, into the cabin of a rickety C-130. The carbon fiber skin and EM (electromagnetic) drive turbofan engines were a new lease on life for the old airframe, but after nine decades in production even Hercules starts to wear down.
I stepped from the ramp and wiped my brow as Morris strode toward the three Panamanian vehicles idling on the tarmac. He looked back at me and made a face. “And we have to ride in rusty old MRAPs.”
I ignored him and blinked into my specs to check progress. Drones were already in, and they were almost done with the rattle tubes (rapid-firing, self-propelled mortar tubes with STAC-targeting and turbo-cooling systems). The MECHs (Military Engineering and Combat Hybrids) would go last, since we’d use them when we got to Gipper’s Twist to establish a wide area perimeter. No sense in defending Gipper’s Twist by just sitting on it. I mean, who hasn’t read The Defense of Duffer’s Drift?
Morris commed over the STAC. “Ready, Sir.”
I climbed into my MRAP, brimming with anticipation.
* * *
The terrain around Gipper’s Twist lent itself to the defense. The jungle had been cleared well away from the station to make room for the railway junction and other infrastructure, like warehouses and the road to the village. As soon as defensive preparations were under way, I went to the top of the rise and sketched out the terrain. We had clean lines-of-sight and a lot of options for setting up interlocking fields of fire.
Our thirty MECHs helped set up the defensive strong points. MECHs performed combat engineering tasks, and their heat and IR signatures mimicked a human’s. In a firefight, they could shoot, move, and communicate with their human controller over the STAC, so the enemy would have a hard time distinguishing them from human All Domain Soldiers.
The twelve ADSs in our team, including Sergeant Morris and me, covered all warfare domains. We had four ground combat controllers and two each of combat engineer, air domain, fires, and information domain controllers. Most of us could cross-operate in a pinch, and we could all fight the old-fashioned way. You know, duty, honor, country, and all that. The brass hated it, but we called ourselves “addies”. “All Domain Soldiers” took too much breath.
With the MECHs, rattle tubes, and drones (fifteen unarmed for surveillance, comms, and targeting and five long-loiter ground attack drones), we had quite the firepower in our team. We also counted on continuous satellite and nextgen Global Hawk all spectrum surveillance and targeting, STACked in seamlessly so we could see and shoot everywhere, even when it wasn’t line-of-sight. In a real bind, satellite-based high velocity micromissiles, tipped with autotargeting explosive or inertial warheads, could rain death on the enemy. The ROEs were restrictive—no engagement outside the 1000 meter radius from Gipper’s Twist, and no concentrated fires—but our team had warfare covered.
Confident, I put the CP in the Gipper’s Twist control tower, kept an info addy, an air addy, and two MECHs with me, and assigned the rest of the combat power to strong points on the rise south of the CP, on the rail line leading into the jungle, and in the village, where I put our best marksaddies (“marksmen” is too gender-specific). I doffed my battle rattle and paid a courtesy call to the foreman of the work crew, who had a gentle demeanor and a Russian calendar that looked out of place on his wall. We exchanged pleasantries and he admired my specs, so I let him put them on. I put Morris in charge of organizing recon patrols, and instructed him to buzz my STAC if anything appeared amiss in the night. With a smile, I wiped the sweat from my brow, straightened my mosquito netting, and went to sleep in less time than it took my Army-issued HUD to malfunction.
* * *
The buzz of bullets zipping through the CP startled me into consciousness. Brow furrowed, I reached for my helmet and weapon, then checked whether I was STACked in. I blinked into my specs. Nothing.
“Sergeant Morris, do you copy?”
The two addies in the CP jumped out of their cots and activated the MECHs, then took defensive positions. I blinked into my specs again, but the battlefield overlay menu didn’t activate. All I saw were grenade bursts and muzzle flashes in the night.
“Burns and Gill, whaddya got?”
“STAC’s down, Sir,” said Burns, the info addy, with powerful understatement.
Gill, the air addy, tapped his HUD. “Sir, we don’t have STAC targeting or spectrum overlay, but we do have visibility for team air assets. We can...”
Thwuck! A bullet zinged through the window and hit Gill in the face. He slumped over, and instinct kicked in.
“MECH, cover my zone! Burns, help me.”
Burns and I tried to staunch the blood, to revive him, but we failed. Bullets kept whizzing through the CP. Panic rose in my chest. Cut off from my team. I’d lost a man.
I stumbled over to my position, head spinning, the image of Gill’s still body seared onto my mind. Yet another volley of bullets zipped through the CP, and my mind sprang to clarity. I rummaged through my ruck, hands crusty, and fished out my radio. I clenched my jaw and clipped the radio onto my shoulder harness, then returned fire.
I craned my head down to open the radio channel with my cheek. “Morris?”
“Sir, was your radio off? Lost STAC. Troops in contact at all strong points. Lost Jones and fifteen MECHs. Estimate enemy strength fifty fighters. Not clear how they jammed us.”
I slammed my fist on the window sill. Two addies down. “What do you need, Sergeant?”
“Sir, rattle tubes are offline. Can you get us fires?”
“All the fires you want.” Screw the ROEs. “You laze ‘em. I’ll blaze ‘em.”
When the enemy popped up, we smashed him, courtesy of my team’s lasers and our ground attack drones. Problem was, the explosives twisted up the rail line and flattened one of the warehouses. The twisted metal and rubble were too much to clean up in two days. After the shooting stopped, I realized that the legal mess my concentrated fires created would take even longer than that to clean up. SECDEF couldn’t come down like this.
My CO told me to hold a presser for local media to explain why the ribbon-cutting ceremony would be delayed.
Before the presser Burns came over to me, somber. “Sir, ran some STAC diagnostics. We had a hack. Your aftermarket specs.”
I took off my specs and examined them with a wary eye. A dull metallic bead, about the size of a tick, was attached to the interior of the left temple. Then I remembered the foreman I showed them to, the one with the Russian calendar hanging on the wall.
I groaned, then considered the lessons learned:
Controlling information systems won’t ensure victory, but you’re not going to win if you let the enemy hack you.
When precision targeting breaks down, mass and firepower are still measured in effect, sometimes with strategic consequences.
Battlefield terrain is composed of geography and information. And humans.
* * *
I woke to the gentle hum of four EM drive turbofan engines. I didn’t stop to think about whether yesterday was a dream, but applied the lessons, glad for a chance at redemption.
I tapped Sergeant Morris’ shoulder and plugged into the C-130’s comm system, signalling channel two.
“Sergeant Morris, STAC check, then test line-of-sight comms.”
“Roger, Sir. I’ll start Burns on a full STAC diagnostic,” he said, reaching for his LOS comm card and holding it up for the team to see.
While the team rummaged for their own cards, I continued my instructions. “Launch drone patrols from the aircraft so we can have all spectrum recon as soon as we hit the ground, even beyond the ROE perimeter. We need a clear picture of the human and information terrain.”
Morris nodded, then motioned for the team to STAC in. I flipped down my HUD to monitor the STAC check. When my HUD started wigging, I passed it to Burns.
By the time I climbed into the ancient MRAP, I boasted a functional, Army-issued HUD, complete with active cyber diagnostics.
On route to Gipper’s Twist, air recon gave us a baseline information and human terrain picture. The density of human activity around the station surprised me, mostly construction workers going back and forth, but the information picture blew me away. The village was thick with signals, centered on the foreman’s house.
This time, I trudged over there with Burns, and I kept my gear on. Before rapping on the door, I nodded to Burns. He circled around the house to find the source of the flow.
The foreman answered, fat fingers holding the doorknob. “Hola, you must be security. Bienvenidos.”
His demeanor brimmed with levity, but I couldn’t trust my mission to this man’s geniality. All the same, I couldn’t alienate him three days before the work was complete, so I yanked off my glove, flipped on my realtime digital interpreter and stuck out my hand. “Pleasure, Sir.”
Entering his house for the second time, the same unremarkable interior met my eyes as before. I checked for clues that might explain the information flow. A decrepit plasma screen hung on the wall and a dusty cell phone made a home on the mantel, but there was nothing to suggest the place had left the twentieth century. I blinked into the STAC and messaged Burns: Cut the line.
The house buzzed with rapid-fire Spanish, too fast for my digital interpreter to pick up. The foreman’s eyes darted this way and that. He shrugged in mock apology and shuffled out of the room.
A young woman emerged from the back, wiping wet hands on her bright pink apron, wearing a smile to match. “My father asks if you will please come back later.”
I raised an eyebrow with as much nonchalance as I could muster and held up a hand. “No problem. Could you tell him that I’d like to gather the workers after the evening meal? I want to offer some words of encouragement.”
“Sí.” She smiled and eyed the door with a please-leave-now look.
I pinged Morris as soon as my boot hit dirt. “You know the card security system for the construction workers?”
“Have handheld scanners ready to check worker IDs. I’ve invited them for a pep talk after chow tonight.”
“Roger. I’ll detail some MECHs for crowd control, and we’ll check cards against the worker manifest.”
I smiled and blinked to ping Gill.
“Sir?” Gill said.
“Focus extra air assets on the village, and get the sat link up. I want to know if there are any suspicious comings and goings tonight, especially after we check IDs.”
With our strong points set, and with the all spectrum overlay streaming through my HUD, I felt confident that we had secured Gipper’s Twist for the night. All the workers on the manifest came and had their cards checked after chow, and I blathered on about the future, pan-American brotherhood, and the riches the cable would bring. A couple of workers came up, exchanged nervous glances and said something about “other workers”, but my interpreter didn’t follow the dialect. They walked off.
We were ready, though. At 2300, the patrols set, I laid down on my cot in the CP, giving strict instructions for Gill and Burns to wake me at the first sign of trouble.
I woke to a thunderous boom and the STAC alert buzzing in my ear. The CP shook. I bolted upright and reached for my weapon, half expecting to feel the tower topple underneath us. I slapped on my helmet and HUD, then worked my way out of the mosquito netting.
Burns and Gill were already up. I STACked in and scrolled through the battlefield overlays. Explosion at Warehouse 1. Small arms fire north and east of the village.
“Burns and Gill, give me an air and info picture.”
“Sir,” said Gill, “targeting and recon for air assets are glitchy. We can find, but not fix and destroy.”
Gill: “Enemy is using handheld jammers with frequency skipping. Definitely Russian tech, Sir.”
Morris’ air controller STACked through with a fire mission. The battle map on my HUD showed enemy fighters engaging from just outside the ROE perimeter. Occasionally they’d come inside, but not long enough for the rattle tubes to engage with precision, at least not without massing fires.
I scratched my chin. “Gill, patch into the sat and get some inertial micros on their way from low-earth orbit.” The jammers wouldn’t work as well on the slim-profile missiles, and they auto-targeted the last thousand feet of descent.
Another explosion went off by the rail line. The STAC’s alarm buzzed again, and I blinked it off to reveal a third squad-size element attacking us. I blinked through the overlays. We didn’t have any addy casualties, but total enemy strength was over fifty. The LEO sat only had forty missiles allocated to our team, and we were supposed to assume fifty percent targeting accuracy.
“Gill, how long before we have targeting back?”
“Sir, by triangulating drone, Global Hawk, and sat data, I can code a way around enemy jamming. Three minutes, Sir.”
“Roger,” I said. “When that’s up, use rattle tubes to funnel the enemy inside the ROE perimeter. Then we can target with small arms.”
I followed the engagement on my HUD. A group of fighters funnelled into the perimeter, but hugged the warehouse just before LEO missile impact, so only three of the fifteen went down. Other groups went to ground outside the perimeter, then disappeared from the STAC.
I pulled up the all spectrum imaging overlay, but the enemy fighters were gone. “Gill,” I said, “confirm contact lost with hostile force to the north.”
Pregnant pause. “Sir, confirmed.”
An eerie silence settled. Didn’t feel right. I pursed my lips. We knew where they were, and in what numbers, but had no idea what they intended.
I pinged Jones, a fires controller at the rail line strong point, and asked for a SITREP.
“Sir,” she said, “they shot our MECHs all up, but didn’t even target us. Had real good aim, Sir.”
Before I had time to process how our air and space surveillance capability could have lost track of two dozen enemy fighters, or how they targeted our MECHs, an explosion rang out from the direction of the warehouses, followed by the pucker of small arms fire.
“Morris,” I commed.
“On it, Sir.”
A message came over the STAC from one of the village MECHs: “Unarmed civilian running from station. Detain?”
I blinked an affirmative and said, “On route.”
By the time I got there the young woman from the foreman’s house lay tazed and shaking on the ground. A two-foot pipe lay nearby. I leaned down to check her pulse and turned to the MECH. “Was that really necessary?”
“She struck me with that pipe.” The MECH then produced a dusty old cell phone, just like the one I’d seen on the foreman’s mantel. I raised an eyebrow. “Summarize contents, MECH.”
Videos of workers wounded by rattle tube fire and members of my team aiming rifles at figures fleeing into the jungle appeared on my HUD, along with GIFs posted to social media. Hashtags like #AmericanImperialism and #UnsafeCable made the intent plain.
Her eyes flickered open. She sat up and gave me a surly glare. Off towards the warehouses, the engagement died off, and the pregnant silence returned. While the young woman fumed, another attack began back at the rail line. The sun had cleared the treeline, and the young woman’s knowing glance told me they had accomplished everything they set out to do, and I had not.
With a grimace, I turned on my heel and strode back to the CP, thinking of ways to explain to my CO how things had gotten so out of hand. Of course, he told me to hold a local presser. As I composed my opening statement, I considered the lessons learned:
Space may be the ultimate high ground, but it holds little advantage without understanding the human terrain.
Information is like water; you can influence its currents, but you can’t control its content.
Modern war is a race against time, a deadly game of hide-and-seek where no one knows who’s “it”. With precision targeting and microfirepower, whoever gets found first loses.
A clear picture of the enemy disposition is no substitute for understanding his intent.
* * *
I awoke once again to the welcome sound of turbofan engines humming through the carbon-fiber fuselage of a well-aged C-130. I gave Sergeant Morris the same instructions as before, with the addition that Burns should insinuate zero-day malware on all networks in the vicinity of Gipper’s Twist, just in case. I ordered Morris to create a quick reaction force, and Jones to lead patrols through the jungle, outside the ROE perimeter, to lay passive sensors.
When we got to the foreman’s house, instead of cutting the network line and revealing our intent, I instead had Burns splice in, both to install his malware and to feed information back to the States, in case anyone in the village was part of known networks. I asked the foreman to demonstrate the station’s capabilities for me, and I had Gill take high-resolution video of a shipping container ascending into the sky. The container was empty, and we brought it back down after a thousand feet, but the video that Gill produced would help steer the narrative about Gipper’s Twist on social media. The video went viral, so I had Gill follow me around for the rest of the evening, inspecting construction progress, addressing the workers, and offering a substantial CERP bonus to the whole crew if they finished the project a day early.
The video fun stopped at night, though. “Sergeant Morris,” I said over the STAC, “enforce a nighttime curfew. Have Burns set up a thorough permit investigation process should anyone decide they want to leave their homes anyway.”
I didn’t even bother with a CP, much less a cot and mosquito netting. I would not fail this time. I caught some sleep here and there during battlefield circulation. Things were quiet until about 0200, when Gill’s voice came over the STAC: “Sir, three groups of four individuals heading into the jungle. Passing drone feed to you now.”
I examined the feed. How’d they avoid the curfew patrols? “Looks like they’re converging on a point in the jungle,” I said. “Jones, can you intercept?”
“Yes, Sir. We’ll be waiting for them.”
“Sergeant Morris,” I said. “Have there been any curfew violations?”
“None, Sir. Their spectrum signatures appeared all of a sudden in the jungle, but they match signatures we logged in the village earlier. Not sure how they got there.”
“Sir,” said Gill, “all spectrum imaging indicates a possible weapons cache at Jones’ rendezvous point.”
“Jones,” I said, “if they touch those weapons, detain them, but do not engage with lethal force.”
“Wilco, Sir,” said Jones. “In position now.”
I watched the confrontation unfold on my HUD. The twelve villagers converged on the rendezvous point, and Jones’ patrol enveloped them with practiced skill, silent. The villagers opened up the cache, and Jones and her patrol pounced.
“Sir,” she said. “Eleven men and one woman detained. Gave up without a fight.” She paused, but kept the channel open. “Uh, Sir, these aren’t your average narco weapons. These are high-end AKs with signature diffusion and all spectrum sights. Chinese manufacture. They could pick off MECHs from well inside the jungle without having to worry about hitting a human.”
A shiver ran through my spine. They were much better equipped than I thought they would be.
Morris commed. “Sir, a couple of MECHs and I located the spot where one set of signatures popped onto the STAC. Found a late-model handheld tunnel digger. Even has the original manufacturer plate in Cyrillic. They had plenty of time from curfew till now to tunnel into the jungle.”
“Good work, Morris and Jones. Jones, bring those villagers and hold them in Warehouse 1. Burns, take two MECHs and begin processing and interrogation. Be ready to launch the zero day if things get hot.” I smiled at the battlefield overlay on my HUD, completely devoid of enemy activity, but I wasn’t about to get cocky. “Stay alert, Team. This isn’t over.”
I went to confront the foreman. “Before few days,” he said, “men with guns come and threaten my daughter and me. We had to take in those twelve, like they were workers.”
He refused to say anything more, so I detained him and his daughter, mostly for their own protection.
A new day dawned, and I let myself believe that we could succeed. The day passed without incident, even without the foreman directing things. Workers scrambled to put the finishing touches on Gipper’s Twist: siding the station, seeding grass in the soil, painting parking lot lines, installing electrical fixtures. My team and I watched them carefully. It looked like Gipper’s Twist would actually be done a day early, so I contacted Bragg to finalize my CERP request and offered local media a sneak peek of Gipper’s Twist, one day before the ribbon-cutting. It would be real coup: award the crew their bonuses and show local media a container rising into the morning sky.
The next night passed without incident, and I afforded myself the luxury of a cot. I could almost see SECDEF’s beaming face as she shook my hand with a firm attaboy. We just needed to pass one more tranquil night, then we would be home free.
I took off my battle rattle for the local media event. I unplugged my STAC and donned soft cover. More approachable and human that way. I stood in the parking lot with a clutch of local media. To the click of cameras and typing thumbs, and using my digital interpreter, I explained how Gipper’s Twist would endure as a symbol of pan-American togetherness and prosperity. With a flourish, I motioned towards the shipping container as it entered Gipper’s Twist on the rail line, explained how the twist mechanism lifted it from the rail line to the cable, and smiled as the container began rising from the station roof behind me.
But then the cable machinery stopped. I turned, and a pit opened in my stomach. Something snapped and the container fell back into the roof and crashed down inside the station. The concussion blew out the windows. A section of siding fell off the station. My blood went cold as I realized that the cameras and thumbs hadn’t stopped.
I called off the demonstration, but the press walked off smiling with glee at America’s humiliation. I dreaded the hashtags I’d see that afternoon.
I was already composing contrite words for my report when Burns ran up with my STAC earpiece and HUD. “Sir, Bragg finally got back with that human networks report you requested. Thirty names came up. We got twelve that first night, but eighteen others were in the work crew yesterday.”
I took the earpiece from Burns and shoved the laser cable into my HUD. When the systems synched, I switched on my private channel with Sergeant Morris. “SITREP.”
“Sir, Gipper’s Twist has flexiglass. Even with that container falling in, those windows should’ve held. A combat engineer checked out the siding, and he thinks some of the workers put microdet behind it. The crashing container disguised the sound of the detonation, which was probably set off remotely.”
Sabotage. For maximum media effect. We were so close. After sending my report, I reflected on the lessons learned:
In an information vacuum every military action is tactical, but as long as communications hold out any action can become strategic. Unfortunately, information vacuums do not exist.
Achieving information dominance is important, but it’s just as important to retain and exploit that dominance.
Technology enables economy of force and a clear picture of the human terrain, but controlling the human terrain requires material influence.
Hubris is a fickle friend.
* * *
I woke once again and sighed in relief at the forgiving turbofan hum of the C-130’s engines. Determined to apply what I learned, I organized the team for maximum effect, as before: drone patrols, quick reaction force, strong points, jungle patrol, zero day malware. I even requested a human networks report on the worker manifest as soon as possible, marking it high priority so I’d get it back within twelve hours instead of two days.
Instead of trying to control events as they occurred, I trusted my team to operate based on mission intent. Every addy had a responsibility, and I rotated around the battlefield to lend support, encourage decisiveness, and empower initiative. Together, Jones and Morris sussed out enemy movements on the first night. Based on the human networks report, Burns waylaid certain individuals with time consuming questions and paperwork. Gill detected messages to Russian contacts in Colombia asking for microdet and drones to activate it. I used the CERT bonuses, but I also gave references to authorities at the Port of Gamboa for any workers who wanted to move away from the influence of narcotraffickers.
And I didn’t hold a local presser the day before SECDEF’s ribbon-cutting ceremony. I documented progress at Gipper’s Twist on social media, but I didn’t accept more risk than was necessary.
The night before the ribbon-cutting, I stole a few hours’ sleep, then woke at midnight to circulate. The day before had been cooler than normal, and fog descended in the wee hours. At 0335 muzzle flashes and grenade blasts ripped open the pre-dawn.
“STAC in, everyone. Trust your buddy and use your overlays.”
Burns launched the zero day, in case any villagers had second thoughts about which was the right side to support. My HUD showed 112 fighters hunkered down outside the ROE perimeter, plunking sniper fire into my team’s positions. We had a few MECHs damaged, but we dominated air, space, and information domains, and the enemy didn’t target our addies. A real twenty-first century standoff.
Then Jones got hit. Lower extremity. Nothing really dangerous, but it was enough, so I got on the horn to Bragg and asked my CO to approve an expansion of the ROE perimeter.
“The longer this goes on, the worse it’ll be for us,” I argued.
“Approved,” said my CO, “but higher says to employ just enough firepower to get them to withdraw. Nothing more. Airborne.”
“All the way, Sir.”
Our LEO missiles and rattle tubes savaged the enemy as soon as the STAC expanded the ROE perimeter, and at 0407 the enemy started to withdraw. The STAC overlay showed them carrying off about 40 casualties, but we couldn’t say if they were dead or wounded.
I led a patrol into the jungle to see what I could find out about the enemy. They didn’t leave many clues, aside from some bloody foliage and shell casings, but we took samples anyway. On the way back to the village, I considered how decisive an advantage all-domain dominance is.
Before the ribbon-cutting ceremony the next day, as we waited for SECDEF, Burns leaned over to me. “Sir, the DNA analysis came back on that foliage. Mostly Latin genes, but some Russian as well.” He grinned and raised his eyebrows. “Spetsnaz?”
I turned up the corners of my mouth. “Don’t let it get to your head, Burns.”
SECDEF’s convoy pulled up outside Gipper’s Twist. She got out of her black SUV and strode up to me. “Attaboy, LT Forehand Hindsight,” she said, pumping my hand up and down. “You’ve made America proud.”