NATOSource|Daily News of the World's Most Powerful Alliance

September 23, 2018
Editor’s note: This short story describes a hypothetical future war in northern Europe between Russian and NATO forces using advanced technology.

RUSSIA-NORWAY BORDER

Small mountains of bicycles marked the Norwegian-Russian border at the Storskog crossing, piled high like shimmering haystacks in the November moonlight. Alongside them on the Russian side were cars and buses dusted with days of dirty snow, abandoned by refugees pressing toward safety without a backward glance. Norwegian police and Border Guards watched warily as the tens of thousands of people flowed into the Norwegian town of Kirkenes . The canvas tents at the airport reached capacity 12 hours ago, so the refugees carefully sought out the nooks and alleys amidst the Arctic town’s traditional brightly painted homes and bland modern buildings. The crowd’s panic dissipated in the cold and dark, replaced by resolve to not only escape but to stay away, perhaps forever.

The coffee was cold and bitter, as if brewed right out of the barren Arctic plain’s dirt and rock. US Marine Corps Sergeant Sylvia Hammer drank it out of a tiny black plastic cup that she balanced between sips on the rangefinder in front of her. She studied the refugees, moving with a river’s unstoppable energy between the rolling hills. They moved with steady urgency and few belongings, all on foot or on bicycles now, as they pushed through the dark along the Russian E105 road to its terminus where land and fjord met in Norway.

“You take your pills?” said Hammer.

“Think we are going to get sick?” said Harald Solberg, a corporal in the Norwegian Border Guard who was four months in to his six-month rotation at the nearby Sør-Varanger Garrison.

“Yes,” said Hammer.

“Really?” she said.

She nodded her head, anonymous behind her ivory-white balaclava.

“Just fucking take them,” she said. “You’re only 19. You don’t want to die slowly.”

“Well, I read they can make you ... you know. And what if this Russian meltdown isn’t real? You can’t believe everything you ... ”

Solberg had never been issued any chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear protection (CBRN) gear, and Hammer did not bring hers for the training deployment. All they had were some Cold War-era potassium iodide pills scrounged by the Norwegians.

Hammer’s headset pinged and she rolled onto her back, resting against the cold steel of the M107 sniper rifle that lay between the experienced Marine scout sniper and the young Norwegian soldier. They had been in the hillside hide site for 54 hours and, judging by the laser-burst message bounced from a glider well offshore, there was no indication of relief anytime soon. They had no food, a liter of water left between them and 40 Raufoss Mk 211 rounds for the oversized long-distance weapon. A week ago, this was supposed to be a joint NATO training exercise, with Hammer among the contingent of Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance snipers passing along lessons learned about the beast of a weapon that she had used extensively in Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria. The rifle was another recent addition amid the Norwegian Border Guards’ gradual transformation into a potent fighting force. Today they boasted Javelin missiles and even a squadron of worn-out armed Reaper drones leased from the United Kingdom for surveillance – and anti-armor -- duties.

For the moment, the rifle was of no use: the two-person team was there to be eyes and ears. They were running almost entirely analog to avoid the Russian drone and electronic warfare countermeasures activity that surged along with the refugees during the past 96 hours. There was an electronic bubble over the city, meaning the local police, Home Guard, and Army in the area were unable to communicate out over their usual networks. The civilian airport suffered an unexplainable air-traffic control and power systems outage, limiting access in and out of the area. What remained for military communications was a secure laser-burst relay system, acquired a few years earlier as part of a US-funded NATO modernization program.

The backdrop was a large-scale migration unheard of in northern Europe’s usually tense but quiet Arctic reaches. Funneled by the Finnish frontier, a tide of thousands of refugees rushed across Norway’s border. Amid stories of a runaway disaster at the Kola Nuclear Power Plant, and of Finland rebuffing refugees through lethal force, countless Russians fled north. Underlining the crisis was rumblings of a coup in Moscow and a reported mutiny by traitor captains of Russia’s nuclear jewel – the Northern Fleet. Their nuclear submarines were sabotaged by what Russian media reported was a rogue US Navy SEAL task force.

For a half-frozen refugee with a dead phone and barely-sympathetic Norwegian officials for saviors, sifting the truth of this was impossible. Not least because truth was mixed among Moscow’s reports: somebody sabotaged the submarines during the chaotic mutiny and a digital veil draped the Kola reactor. The area became a digital void on military and civilian feeds.

“See that?” said Solberg. “The three white trucks with the red crosses painted on them, the long ones by the gas station.” The vehicles were beaten, weather-worn electric-powered beasts, silently edging their way through hapless mobs of refugees. Hammer noted how they moved with a purpose: any lingering refugees earned aggressive horn-blasts.

“Roger,” said Hammer. She leaned forward and pivoted the spotting scope. “Are they really using fucking Alibaba Global Express trucks?” The Alibaba presence could be counted on anywhere a global crisis erupted, offering an unparalleled delivery and additive printing capability that managed to weave Beijing-tied connections into fragile areas needing mending. But this was a new twist to see them commandeered and used here by Russian irregular forces.

“What is that they are carrying? Medical supplies?” said Solberg.

Hammer snorted, surprised at how punchy she was.

“The Russians are using Chinese trucks with Swedish plates?” he said.

Her only response was to study the trucks with even greater intensity.

The tractor-trailers were backing into an empty lot next to the gas station, carefully negotiating the maneuver with the help of a group of men. They had emerged from the gas station as the lorries approached, looking to the frostbitten refugee on the road like a gang of rough workers. Hammer, however, boasted both powerful optics and more sleep than the typical refugee. The fighters wore sleek wraparound augmented-reality rigs and black balaclavas, with AK-74 rifles slung across foul weather cloaks.

“Shit. I don’t think, I know... ” said Hammer. “I’m recording; prep for transmission. Then get ready to move.”

The trailer ramps lowered and then a dozen octocopters flew out the back of the trucks, pausing in midair before climbing into the air and out of sight.

“Counting approximately twelve recon UAS,” said Hammer.

“Noted,” said Solberg, tapping out a message on his phone, which was plugged in to a grey plastic box the size of a rifle magazine.

Moments after, a rumbling sound rolled across the snowy rock, washing over them even at a distance. The higher pitched sound of grinding metal cut right through the air.

“Seeing Uran-11s, counting nine. Three per truck. Approximately 20 Spetsnaz, AK-74s,” said Hammer. “Transmit.”

The Uran-11 was an automata, a tracked micro-tank about the size of a Mercedes station wagon, with a low-slung body no higher than the hood-line of a sedan. It was the bastard son of the grim street fights in Grozny and Aleppo: its telescoping turret – mounting a 30mm chain-gun and a pair of anti-armor missiles on each flank – allowed it to strike targets in high buildings or concealed behind barricades. Atop the tank’s rear, just above the engine, was a crate-sized box of 60 small micro drones. Each carried three ounces of explosive: they could swarm larger targets or scatter like mines to stop or channel the movement of troops – or civilians. Nor did these latest-generation models require direct human input. The Russian approach to unmanned weapons saw human control as a vulnerability at best, and at the worst an impediment to accomplishing a mission.

“Confirmed,” said Solberg.

Hammer removed her balaclava and took a deep breath of the biting air. Solberg tried to make eye contact with her, but Hammer kept her eyes locked ahead and he felt his stomach knot.

Then one of the automata turned off the road and began traversing a shallow slope, climbing carefully, toward their hide site. Suddenly realizing something was afoot, clusters of refugees began to scatter. Then, just as abruptly as it began moving the automata stopped. Hammer did not need the scope to see the turret whip toward them. One of the octocopters must have detected their transmission.

“Get your bike, go!” she shouted at Solberg, as she took aim with the M107.

A tremendous roar shook her as she lay under the mottled white camouflage and sensor-defeat netting. It looked like a flight of cruise missiles, heading south no more than 30 feet above the ridge. Her heart quailed. No way were the missiles support for the Spetznaz below. Something far larger and far worse was taking shape.

“GO!” she shouted into the angry air around her, snatching a look back as Solberg jerkily pedaling his electric-assisted snow bike to safety. Then she centered the rifle’s crosshairs on the automata’s launch box for its swarming drones. She pulled the trigger, just as she saw a puff of smoke bloom from the Uran-11’s barrel. She fired again and closed her eyes.

K-561 KAZAN
The flight of 10 Kalibr cruise missiles had leapt from the aft missile bays with the urgency of lightning and a thunder that shook the marrow itself. Their targets would be struck within the next four minutes, after which Commander Pyotr Grossman would know whether his gambit had been worth it.

But for now, he simply cursed: his tea was too hot. He should have known better, but his nerves got the better of him and he had gulped down the steaming, bitter brew to hide the concern that his eyes always betrayed at times like this. How could they not. Audacity required incaution, which Grossman ached to summon his entire military career but could not. Instead, he cultivated opportunities to be bold on his own terms. At 53, Grossman had lived both long and well, far more than a lifelong Russian Navy submariner ought to expect. He had survived the darkness and subterfuge of the past weeks, which had finally – when combined with his own emergent ruthlessness – given him command of this beautiful Yasen-class attack submarine, the Kazan. It also meant every hour and minute now was to be spent with an eye on history’s coming accounting for Moscow and those who bestowed upon him the honor of command. He thought his career squandered but the fact that he had chosen the right side, at the right time, meant he finally achieved what he had dreamt of since he was a boy.

When he left port, it was under the tightest security that he had ever experienced in his 32 years in the Northern Fleet. The Kola reactor furor and the attempted coup in Moscow was the rationale, but it was also perfect cover for an opportunistic action that would ensure Europe, China and the United States saw Russia as reinvigorated for having survived its most profound political and military crisis since Boris Yeltsin’s 1993 showdown at the Russian Parliament.

“Depth?” said Grossman.

“300 meters,” said the navigator.

He knew he would have to take the submarine on a long elliptical loop out from Norway’s northern coast. There, he would certainly find Norwegian and American P-8 patrol planes and submarines working to keep the sea lines of communication open. After this strike mission, the next phase was to disappear. To be unaccounted for. Missing. Rogue. To create doubt, and concern, about the whereabouts of a nuclear-armed Russian submarine that was fitted out to patrol for up to six months. To again create week after week of confusion and doubt in Brussels, Washington, Berlin. Maybe even Moscow.

Was this a heroic way to fight? That was a question to be answered years from now, and one he was not particularly interested in at the moment. He would accomplish his missions, and protect his country – by all means available.

“Proceed,” he said, and looked at his watch. The missiles would be impacting about now. He looked out at the crew on the submarine’s combat center, and no longer felt the doubt that had held him back his whole career. His submarine, Russia’s future. “And bring me another tea.”

ØRLAND AIR BASE
His back hurt, but Sergeant Jan Erik Steinmark bent down again because he had to. He had found another one. He grabbed at the small silver metal screw, no longer than his fingernail, but his winter gloves made it impossible. He pulled off the glove and pinched the errant debris between the stub where his index finger once was and his thumb, holding the metal up to the moonlight like he was inspecting a precious stone. This was a ritual of his own design. As the senior maintainer in the Royal Norwegian Air Force responsible for the country’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, it was the idea of not making the small efforts that kept him up at night. What had he overlooked that day? What had his team let slide? So he walked with them, sweeping their flashlights back and forth as they scoured the hangar apron area for any debris that might get sucked into the jet’s massive engine.

Bending over to snatch what he thought was a wine-cork shaped piece of black plastic, he paused He closed his eyes to focus on a sound that was out of place, unexpected. Yes, it was: a turbojet engine. Steinmark then spun around to scan the dark sky. There were no scheduled flight operations for another six hours, when one of the P-8As was due back at the base. Four F-35s were on a long-endurance combat air patrol over Norway’s eastern border with Russia and Sweden, refueled by United Kingdom Royal Air Force tankers that loitered just offshore. The rest of the fifth-generation jets were either on standby or being worked on.

Blinking three times, Steinmark saw points of light approaching from the north. Maybe seven or eight. Nine? What was this? There were dozens!

Steinmark understood the topography of his life by the largest features, the big moments that were sometimes profoundly joyous, often terrifying. His daughter’s difficult birth. The motorcycle accident in Vietnam that cost him his finger. This was one of those moments.

Then the base’s alert sirens sounded and Steinmark felt like he was going to throw up. He looked at the tiny screw in his hand a last time, stuffed it into his pocket, and started running. As he ran he shouted for the rest of the crew to get to shelter. If they survived the approaching wave of cruise missiles they would still have to mind the small things, even more than before.

TWO WEEKS LATER...

VAERNES NORWAY, MARINE CORPS PREPOSITIONING PROGRAM UNDERGROUND DEPOT
He had suffered through more than two weeks inside the cave, now. Fifteen days of unwashed clothes and a stink like burning plastic. Outside, the sun was just coming up, as it was mid-morning. For his part, Steinmark had almost forgotten the sun’s warmth on his skin. He had little sense of the ordinary passing of days – there was too little sleep and too much work for anything like a peacetime progression of the calendar.

He stood up from the metal desk and pair of laptops to stretch his lower back. He reached into a pocket on his overalls and pulled out a can of snus, savoring the momentary release of flavor and the break from the cave’s wartime funk.

The cave system was set inside a hillside, protected by a blast proof door. During the Cold War it was filled with US Marine Corps equipment and vehicles. After the US withdrew most of its forces from Afghanistan and Iraq, the Norwegian cave became the depot for Humvees in desert camouflage parked alongside tracked snow vehicles. Three years ago, the Marines traded out two rooms of Humvees for massive additive manufacturing machines capable of printing their Nibbler drones, as well as antennae, vehicle and artillery components and parts. It had not been originally intended to print aero-structures and aircraft skins but that is what Steinmark was doing now, along with the Marine Corps aircraft maintenance technicians and logisticians.

The Norwegians had six flyable F-35s remaining after the Russian cruise-missile strike. Only one P-8 survived and it had relocated to Iceland, about 1,600 kilometers away.

Steinmark reverentially contemplated the object in his hands. “This is my last tin of snus,” he said.

US Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Willy McCloskey shook his head. “Well, I haven’t figured out a way to print Cope either,” he said. “If the Corps was really smart, that’s the first thing we would have done. Look, I brought plenty of dip, so you want any you let me know.”

McCloskey again offered Steinmark the maroon and black can, but the Norwegian never accepted. Now that Norway had been in a state of war this long, he knew it would not be long before he said yes. Neither had slept more than an hour during the past two days, as the printers were literally melting themselves, working around the clock to get the Norwegian F-35s back into fighting shape.

“How’s the printer cooling?” said Steinmark, referring to the massive fans they set up to cool the overworked extruding elements on the cave’s US-supplied 3-D printers.

“Better. The thing I can’t get my head around is we won’t know if these are going to work until the aircraft is in the air. On the ground they look like the real deal. But only the pilot is going to really find out if these parts are worth a shit.”

Two of the printers were producing large laminate-like pieces to replace the shrapnel-riddled skins of the Norwegian F-35s ravaged by Russian cruise missiles. What had offered peacetime cost savings – consolidating Norway’s F-35s and P-8s at Ørland – had simply made a larger wartime target. There were other factors at work. While Norway had reexamined its basing plans a year ago, a clandestine Russian disinformation campaign led to a series of viral videos and reports that the F-35 could be flown remotely by American commanders at any time. The claim was the jet was a sort of Trojan Horse designed to provoke Russia into war at any time the NSA wanted -- without a Norwegian at the controls. So the communities being considered for possible pocket-bases, located just off of highways and in steep valleys, quickly mobilized against it.

That peacetime opposition, however, had passed and the remaining jets were scattered throughout southern Norway, hidden as best was possible in a persistent social media environment. They were under bridges and in warehouses, locations selected by a US Air Force computer program designed by a Silicon Valley company. The parts were discreetly transported in trucks to the planes, where the maintainers who followed each aircraft around from site to site in civilian vehicles worked around the clock.

The jets rarely flew. Even then it was on extremely brief, low-altitude missions when they used their electronic warfare and cyber capabilities to defend against the rolling attacks on TelNor’s infrastructure, or to collect targeting information in the area around Kirkenes. There, they scanned everything from SIM cards to IP addresses on smartwatches. It was a very unique kind of air war, where air-to-ground missions were entirely non-kinetic and aircraft survivability depended on how the jets could be hidden in plain sight between sorties. Even the internal guns had been removed to lighten them up for shorter takeoffs on the smallest possible roads that could serve as runways

“How much longer do we have?” said Steinmark.

“Until?” McCloskey.

“You hit Russia back,” said Steinmark.

“Well, should have been by now. Pulling no punches, like the Finns did. But Moscow could take this whole thing nuclear, and then this cave is the right place to be. As to when that is, you got me. I’m just a reservist from Philly who thought the only thing I’d do on my Norway deployment was learn to ski.”

Steinmark sighed. “You are earning a doctoral degree in electrical engineering,” he said. “And you work at the Pentagon.”

“Alright,” said McCloskey. He motioned for Steinmark to follow him closer to the printer where it was noisier. He put a hand on the Norwegian’s shoulder. “I don’t know exactly when, but it’s soon. Really soon. They’ve already flown the JLTVs from here down to Germany, and God only knows if they will survive the drive into Poland. So what’s left here is what my Marines got for you guys.”

Steinmark just nodded.

“ANGRY TRIDENT mean anything to you?”

“No, what is it?”

“Forget it. Let’s get back to work.”

K-561 KAZAN
After the initial excitement of turning a page in the book of history with the launch order he gave, this phase of the cruise was just day after day of stress and boredom for Captain Grossman. Sitting in his command chair, he found himself again and again running his fingers over the two jagged tears in the leather armrest. Bullet holes. The two shots that had killed his predecessor in this very combat center, clearing the way for Grossman’s command.

Then he was given a new mission, which would be for even higher stakes than the cruise missile strike.

Their current location put them just south of Svalbard, the research-focused archipelago north of Norway at the intersection of the Barents, Norwegian, and Greenland Seas. This was dangerous territory, as US Navy Orca unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) patrolled the region to create a picket line designed to contain the rest of the Northern Fleet. But the Kazan was well on the other side, and the UUVs had so many design compromises to deal with power and communications that they were quite loud and therefore easy to avoid.

“Approaching the intercept point,” said the Kazan’s XO.

“Just keep us off the bottom,” said Grossman.

“Tube one is loaded,” the weapons officer interjected.

“And tube two?” said Grossman.

“Ready with the backup,” said the weapons officer. Grossman would brook no risk, not now. As a Russian navy officer, he knew how much could unexpectedly go wrong.

“Proceed,” said Grossman. “Tube one release.”

The torpedo door opened with barely a murmur. There was hardly a disturbance in the water. Rather than launching a weapon, the submarine was releasing a swarm of small crab-like robots, the underwater equivalent of an octocopter. Each was to attach itself limpet-like to the vital fiber optic cable running from Svalbard to the Norwegian mainland. Their mission, however, was not to sever or otherwise destroy the cable. It was to inject bad data, and a particular program that would seek out an Indian satellite transmission facility on the barren Arctic island.

Due to its location, Svalbard was a major relay point for satellite data transmissions. As this communication went both ways, Russian military intelligence realized it could use it as a deniable waypoint to infect the US commercial communications satellites that flew overhead. As the majority of American military satellite bandwidth was in fact commercial, not on dedicated military networks, these represented a significant target of opportunity. Rather than outright destroy them -- Grossman knew Russia had other means for that -- this was to exploit known code and design flaws that would introduce errors and unreliability. This was about breaking trust; about compromising the technology central to NATO’s inevitable counter-attack. The alliance was surely under immense political strain.

Grossman did not know when it would be, but in visualizing the small robots scurrying around the cables, he felt himself turn another page turn in the book of Russia’s history.

KIRKENES AREA
Sergeant Hammer’s mouth was dry, and it was not just the cold dry air. She knew this road was going to be busy soon, full of Russian vehicles rushing south. She patted the snowbank with a careful touch that turned into a gentle caress. She stepped back, her soft footfalls hiding the tension broiling inside her. She hated everything about IEDs, Hated waking up sweating. Hated the cowardly way her friends had died over the years in Africa and the Middle East. Most of all she hated planting them.

“Solid?” she said, adjusting the sensor-defeating mottled white cloak she wore.

Corporal Solberg nodded, holding his breath too. Hammer had just planted the last of four homemade mines she helped print and fabricate. Norway followed the Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel landmines so Solberg let Hammer handle the weapons. The US never signed the treaty. These were simple, low tech devices, the kind that could be found in any of the world’s running conflicts. There was a time and a place for high technology, she thought. Why did they call it high and low tech, Hammer wondered? There was no high and low, just good and bad tech - simple as that.

The only reason Hammer was alive was due to the two infrared and LIDAR decoys she had set up at her hide site near the border. They had actually worked, spoofing the Uran robotic tank that detected her transmission. A pair of human eyes would not have fallen for them, each about the size of a coffee can and containing a spring-loaded, human-shaped balloon. But computer vision fell for it, just like a kid opening a snake-in-a-nut-can trick.

She retreated into the trees, a bright moon casting long shadows in the forest as if she was going to be fighting alongside an entire platoon. Instead, she just had Solberg, who she watched carefully sweeping a branch over their tracks in the fresh snow. That would be enough.

About 150 meters from the ambush site, just on the backside of a small rise, Hammer texted on her tablet to a Royal Norwegian F-35 overhead. She confirmed she was ready and requested a scan of their area to see if she, Solberg, or the IEDs showed up on any of the aircraft’s sensors. It was a simple request, one that the airplane itself handled without disturbing the pilot, who was in the midst of trying to reboot one of his cockpit displays.

“Let’s get dug in,” Hammer said, her eyes dancing as a fresh snow began to fall.

By now Solberg had learned not to waste words when he was with Hammer. The young Norwegian just picked up his entrenching tool and started shoveling. He started the digging by creating two small pits for automata decoys.

K-561 KAZAN

Captain Grossman could not believe what he was hearing. Or, more precisely, what he had not been hearing.

“Contact, 3,000 meters!” shouted the weapons officer. How could they have gotten that close?

“Acoustics indicate American Virginia-class... I think.”

“Clear the area,” the submarine’s commander shouted. “Release countermeasures! And don’t tell me what you think, only what you know.”

The Kazan moved slowly, almost imperceptibly – like the first tremors of an earthquake. Then the deck shifted from underneath his feet with a violent trembling, more animal than mechanical as the 13,800-ton submarine began its sprint to what Grossman hoped was safety.

In fleeing the threat of a Virginia-class submarine, an apex predator in this undersea Arctic kingdom, Grossman knew he had failed at one mission: he had been tracked and located. Had the underwater robots failed at their mission, and by extension his?

“I have found an opening in the NATO picket, the navigator said. He showed Grossman his tablet screen, but the senior officer swatted it away. “But it’s to the west, so do we ...”

“You know what you need to do, just get us out of here and prepare to engage the target.”

He needed a moment to consider his options, unable to clear his mind that this might be his only, and final, command. It was like mashing buttons to change the channels on a dead TV. All he could think of was his own future. The crew in the combat center stole glances at one another. He knew that look as he had encountered it before. The responsibility for all the souls aboard this marvelous vessel seemed far smaller than ensuring his place in history was not lost in the next few minutes. He had already lost his crew, he could tell.

As K-561 sprinted and drifted to escape its steady pursuer, the crew fired off a pair of torpedoes and counted down the seconds until the impact.

Even though those weapons hit their target it was clear something was wrong.

“That ... that was not a Virginia-class,” said the weapons officer. “Something else.”

Panic swelled Grossman’s tongue, squirming inside his mouth like a frog. “Was it ... one of our own?”

The cross look from the weapons officer gave him his answer, which afforded an instant of immense relief before fear gripped him again.

“No, maybe a decoy.”

That was when he knew.

The sound his crew detected was not in fact a nuclear-powered attack submarine. It was an American Orca drone from Unmanned Undersea Vehicle Squadron Two that had spoofed his sonar technicians. The mindless underwater drones herded the Russian submarine to the west, away from the Navy’s autonomous picket line of Orcas. Toward what, Grossman wondered, knowing he would learn very soon. If the American Navy could find him, it could destroy him.

The sole surviving Royal Norwegian Air Force P-8 was at that point turning south at 29,000 feet over the Norwegian Sea, 120 kilometers to the southwest of Svalbard. The aircraft was well outside the Russian air defense network set up over northern Norway but well within range of the Kazan. It had just released four air-launched torpedoes targeting the Russian submarine. The enhanced version of the High Altitude Anti-Submarine Warfare Weapon, essentially a glider package for a Mk. 54 torpedo, would be beckoned to the target by the Navy’s autonomous undersea vehicles now swarming in pursuit of the Kazan.

The P-8’s job was not done, however. After refueling, it would link up with two US Air Force F-22s and a Norwegian F-35 for the next set of targets: a network attack on the Russian command and control systems, and the automata that tapped into them, in and around Kirkenes. The mission’s objective was not known to the aircrews, and it was better that way. The steady electronic mapping and monitoring of the area by the Norwegian F-35s during the past two weeks allowed a forward-deployed team from the NSA and the British GCHQ in Oslo to override the automata and send them on a live-cast indiscriminate rampage that would continue until the autonomous machines’ batteries and ammunition ran out. At the same time, the Russian forces in Kirkenes would be given false orders to urgently begin their advance south toward Oslo – an expected mission, but ahead of schedule.

This rush away from the pandemonium would take them straight toward Norwegian forces waiting in ambush.

VAERNES NORWAY, MARINE CORPS PREPOSITIONING PROGRAM UNDERGROUND DEPOT
The smell no longer made him want to vomit. In fact, Steinmark was starting to crave the Copenhagen, the way the sweet burn at the back of his throat chased away the fatigue and overpowered the stink of his overalls. Maybe peacetime would taste like snus. This was war.

He put the tin back in his pocket and looked around for the mottled grey coffee cup that McCloskey printed for him with THE STEIN on one side and an American flag in relief on the other. There it was. The residue at the bottom was thick as honey and black as tar. He wandered off to one of the other work areas, hoping to find one of the few working coffeemakers that remained. They had not printed airplane parts now for a few days, so maybe he could get to work on getting the coffeemakers back on-line.

Then he stopped. Legs locked. What was that smell?

Rather, the lack of it? Fresh air? No.

He trotted off toward the cave entrance and recoiled as he advanced toward the light lancing inside the hillside. The caves were never dark, of course, but nor were they ever truly bright. What he was seeing was the pure brilliance only nature could provide.

There was laughter ahead and bright sun. McCloskey’s voice came through clearly among a half dozen Norwegian soldiers and American Marines.

“Stein, we’re nearly there, my man,” McCloskey said. “The Russians are boxed in up north, and word is they are about to withdraw.” He took a huge breath of air and held it, before sighing bodily. “Nearly there, brother, nearly there.”

August Cole is an author and futurist specializing in national security issues. He is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

RELATED CONTENT