Fiction is playing an increasingly important role in shaping the debate and discussion on the future of warfare. In this short story, Jason Begley explores the enduring nature of technology’s influence on the conduct of war and the challenges associated with managing the short-term benefits gained through a technological edge.

Almost dawn.

He drew a deep breath. It was today. It had to be today.

His people, with their augmentations, were as ready as they could be. And time was most definitely not on their side. The technological breakthrough of the augmentation had changed so much, and he knew that those changes were but the beginning. Once the augmentations had assured their survival, he had no doubt that variations of this new generation of technology would change many facets of their lives, perhaps even their entire way of life.

After today, things would never be the same.

He knew the advantage the augmentations gave them would be fleeting. While he believed they had managed to keep them secret from their adversary, he knew that once fielded in combat, their secret would be in the open. He had argued strenuously with the others that the time for choice was long past, knowing that they could not afford to hide the technology any longer. This was now about his people’s survival, and it was the time for action.

The recollection of how they came to this point caused his stomach to churn and brought a sour, acid taste into the back of his throat. Their neighbours, and their neighbours’ neighbours spoke eloquently about the common good, shared values, cooperation, and rules-based orders that respected each other’s rights: a world in which might did not make right. Their apologist talks about their adversary despite its belligerence and expansionist nature. Their claims that his people were overly focusing on differences in culture. Their self-assured statements that his people need not worry because the region shared inextricably linked interests, and a sense of collective security would prevent any aggression.

Talk. And more talk. But merely talk and nothing more concrete than that. All of it just empty words and empty promises from those with either nothing to lose or who hoped that by not antagonising the rising power they might avoid its gaze.  The bystander mantra of ‘go along to get along’. The tools of the appeaser.

It had always been thus.

He had watched their adversary slowly but surely increase in size and might, subordinating minorities within their own borders and unifying under a hegemonic social construct that valued themselves highest and the others as merely means by which to further their own interests. There was no talk of shared values or collective arrangements from them. Territories that had been shared for generations were encroached upon and their resources exploited with no regard for their neighbours. All to feed the seemingly insatiable appetite of a booming population and the egos of yet another generation in their ongoing cult of personality.

It had always been thus.

The basic maths was indisputable, and still yet the appeasers had disputed it. Their adversary’s entire society and its growth and population and industry required it to expand to sustain itself lest it collapse. Even for an old grunt like him, this was obvious. But unsurprisingly, being right had not eased the bitterness of being proven right. That he and others had pushed their leaders to be better prepared for the inevitable while their leaders maintained their faith in ‘talk’ only increased the bitterness. He would rather have been proven wrong than be in their present position. Their territory invaded and almost lost in its entirety. Their resources, seized. Their people, refugees in their own borderlands – those who survived the attack anyway.

Even now, more talking from their neighbours. Calls for restraint, and respect, and rules. He resisted the urge to vomit.

With the bulk of their resources lost, his people were now doomed to a gradual decline as a society, people, and culture. The alternative was to make ‘peace’ with their attacker and join their society. His lip curled in a sneer at the term, knowing that it really meant second-class citizenry and indentured labour as they were slowly absorbed into the hegemon. The choice to die slowly or become a battered spouse in an abusive marriage was no choice at all.

And still, the talking among their neighbours continued…

He glanced at his colleague, the scientist, and reflected on the shift in talk among his own people. In the aftermath of the invasion, there had still been a perception of choice – albeit both options were bad. The choice between accepting annexation and all the suffering it would bring, or to fight back, knowing full well that they could not win and that the suffering that would be inflicted on those of their people who did survive would be worse as a result.

But now…

He looked down at his arm and its augmentation. He did not know where her concept had originated.  He did not, at this juncture, particularly care. She had the idea, she developed a prototype, and she demonstrated, unambiguously, its merits. Some of his commanders, licking their wounds and nursing their injured pride after her initial demonstration, had still resisted the augmentation. They saw it as too different and argued it was untested in real combat conditions. But concurrent with her proposal and prototype she also fielded an unassailable logic: If what they had been doing so far had delivered only resounding defeat, would not more of the same only assure more of the same?

He smiled wryly as he recalled the gritted teeth of his peers, ‘their’ capability and credibility as warriors challenged by an academic.

Her technology would also alter the conventions of conflict irreversibly. The weak gained disproportionate lethality against those who would otherwise be stronger. This prompted more heated and emotive arguments over tradition, romantic notions of combat and the warrior ethos, the entrenched foundation of structures and training regimes on which he and his peers had built their place in this society. While the augmentation, and their situation, made such adherence to past notions laughable, it was again logic that prevailed as she asked a single question, scathing in its simplicity and brutal reductionism. ‘Given the victor will write our history, what is the value of dying with pride, compared to survival as a people?’

With that existential argument, the debate ended, and their course was set.

His thoughts returned to the augmentation. The testing has been hasty due to their situation, but as thorough as they could afford. After initial setbacks with some candidates, they realised that the augmentation could and should be better tailored to its host, leveraging their respective strengths. True, matches were not always perfect, but time was at a premium, and the resources for the augmentation were limited.

Then there were the hosts themselves. Some (and he grudgingly accepted it was mostly the younger hosts) adapted swiftly to the augmentation. He had needed to be taught how to use the augmentation while those younger hosts had not only rapidly taken to the technology but had gone beyond the scope of testing to develop new techniques that further realised the augmentation’s potential. Others… Well, some hosts (again, he grudgingly admitted it was mostly his generation) simply could not appear to grasp the concept of the augmentation or to optimise its use. Whether this was due to a muscle-memory too attuned to long-standing tactics and techniques, or because they subconsciously could not accept the inherent unfairness of the advantage it offered over a foe was unclear. But during testing, the augmentation quickly proved to be more of a hindrance than a benefit for these hosts, and with resources in short supply, they were swiftly cut from the program.

Executing the testing itself had not been without challenge. Their adversary monitored them closely. Whether to see if they were massing what forces they had left for a counter-attack or to choose a time to deliver the coup de grâce was irrelevant – they were constantly under surveillance. While the scientist had initially demonstrated the augmentation in the open, he recognised its potential and had acted swiftly to implement a security regime around it lest the technology become widely known and its advantage lost. The testing had then been conducted in secret, with only the most trusted personnel brought in to help improve it and develop the training. They had made use of the furthest reaches of their territory, regions in which the adversary’s surveillance access was most limited. At the same time, they had massed and manoeuvred forces closer to their old lands to distract surveillance resources and the intelligence analysts who would pore over the data those resources collected. He was cautiously confident that they had maintained their secrecy. Then again, he reflected, whether they had or had not, they were committed to action now, and the proof of how effective their measures had been would very much be evident in the outcome. Either way, that outcome would be swifter than the painful attrition they currently faced.

It was time.

He stretched, feeling the weight of the augmentation. But like all the successful hosts, the initial awareness of that weight was overtaken by a satisfying sensation of it as an extension of his own body, and he knew that in combat it would perform as exactly that. He stepped forward to lead his people to war.

The scientist listened intently as he relayed how the battle had unfolded and how her technology had performed under real conditions. He noted that things had played out more swiftly than they had imagined, surpassing even their most optimistic plans. They had closed the enemy, he said, widely dispersed to minimise the adversary’s ability to establish a real-time appreciation of the battlespace as a whole and build the situational awareness necessary to recognise that an attack was imminent. As they attacked the adversary’s early warning network, their augmentations came to the fore.

The order of magnitude increase in lethality meant that as each sentinel was struck, they had no capacity to raise the alarm. The augmented forces then penetrated deep into what were their former territories towards their former homes. They found their adversary’s annexation force wallowing in complacency, totally unprepared. They targeted attacks on the leadership that caused paralysis among lower echelons, a weakness his intelligence staff had anticipated for their adversary with its highly centralised leadership and regimented structure. What little defence had been briefly mustered rapidly shifted into a rout as the strike forces systematically and thoroughly executed their plan to finality.

She listened as he described the final scenes – brief, deliberate, and brutal.

That plan had also been the subject of a debate that retained a degree of unease for her and all those involved, even though they had all agreed it was unavoidable. While today’s battle may have regained their territory, they knew the risk of a counter-attack from their adversary and reversal of their gains would be greatly increased if the adversary understood how they had been defeated and developed a countermeasure to the augmentation. Or worse, if their adversary were able to rapidly achieve augmentation of their own forces. They simply could not afford to let combatants who had viewed the augmentation in combat return home, but they did not have the means to detain them. That debate had circled around, ranging from ethics to collateral damage and proportionality. In the end, it came down to the question of risk. In terms of likelihood and consequence, what would happen if their secret were turned on them? So how far they were willing to go to protect it even once the battle was won?

And so, she thought, the battle had been won, and everything was back how it had been. But everything was different.

Their adversary had shown its hand, its willingness to simply take what it needed while pretending the case to be otherwise. Would their neighbours act now to prepare themselves, or would appeasement remain the order of the day, even though they had seen that a stand could be taken and their adversary’s nose bloodied? And now they had crossed a line in terms of collateral effects, would the nature of conflict change and proportionality cease to be a player? Certainly, she was sure, the need to maintain the technological edge would become critical to security, and a continuous escalation of military capability would become a new norm.

Her thoughts were interrupted by his question.

‘Sorry,’ she replied, ‘I missed that.’

‘I said, what now? Things will never be the same again,’ he said, echoing her own thoughts.

She paused, her expression betraying the fact that she had already been thinking beyond the fight even as the soldiers prepared for it. She knew that this moment was the point at which their leadership, including her critics, had the greatest confidence in her technology and her plans, so she needed to ensure that scientific progress maintained the position it had now attained.

‘Export.’

‘What?’ he asked, astounded. They had killed, arguably murdered, to keep this secret and now she proposed simply trading it away?

‘We are still too small to hold our own, even with the augmentation. We need the support of others. And the only way they will support us is if they know that they can stand with us as equals, not beside us as fodder.’ She continued, ‘Our neighbours share our fears, and they’ve seen what could happen to them. But they now know that winning is possible with the right technology. We give them a less capable version of the augmentation than our own, and we also withhold our most effective techniques and tactics. We gain from trade while maintaining the technological edge. Meanwhile, we build collective arrangements for the augmentation to create an alliance in which we can all contain the threat.’

He nodded slowly. It wasn’t just the nature of battle that had changed. He saw now an entire element of industrial statecraft that would need to be developed and closely managed. He may have only been an old soldier, but he recognised her and her breed of thinkers, with ideas beyond his ability to easily conceptualise, as the future. A future he needed to support.

‘Bring me your plan. I’ll handle the others.’

It was nearing dawn as she returned home. No, she noted, not home, this was just temporary. But soon, very soon they would be home. She was tired. But she was exhilarated. The combat forces may have secured the victory, and would no doubt gain the plaudits of her people. It had always been thus. But she knew that their achievements would have been impossible without her augmentation technology. And she knew she now had to keep that technology one step ahead of any others that may be developed.

She looked in on her children, still sleeping and oblivious to both the irreversible shift that had occurred in their world and their mother’s role in it. She sat between them as the first rays of sunlight crept across the lightening sky. The pair of them shifted in their sleep, moving closer to her warmth.  She cast her eyes towards the object across from where she sat and thought back to the moment three weeks earlier when it had simply appeared. They had been fleeing the invaders and stopped to rest for the evening. She awoke at dawn, to find it standing nearby among a pile of loose bones. Twice her height. Immobile, unmovable and silent. So black as to seem to absorb the sun’s rays altogether.

As she touched it, she had felt a surge of anger, frustration and fear for their future, taking up a leg bone from the pile and striking those around the monolith with all her might. That moment she had seen a new generation of fighting power and everything had changed.

She stroked her children’s fur and closed her eyes and wondered what the next generation of technology would bring.

Group Captain Jason Begley is a Royal Australian Air Force officer currently serving as the Director of Joint Effects at Headquarters Joint Operations Command, and posted mid-2019 to the National Security Fellowship at Harvard’s JFK School of Government. He is a graduate of the Australian Defence Force Academy and Australian Command and Staff College, with Masters in both Defence Studies (UNSW) and Military Studies (ANU). In his extensive spare time, he is undertaking a research PhD co-sponsored by the Air Force and the Sir Richard Williams Foundation. The views expressed are his alone and do not reflect the opinion of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Department of Defence, or the Australian Government.