March 25, 2019
By Amir Husain and August Cole
22 KILOMETERS NORTH OF KYIV / UKRAINE
“Incoming!" shouted Piotr Nowak, a master sergeant in Poland’s Jednostka Wojskowa Komandosów special operations unit. Dropping to the ground, he clawed aside a veil of brittle green moss to wedge himself into a gap beneath a downed tree. He hoped the five other members of his military advisory team, crouched around the fist-shaped rock formation behind him, heard his shouts. To further reinforce Ukraine’s armed forces against increasingly brazen Russian military support for separatists in the eastern part of the country, Poland’s government had been quietly supplying military trainers. A pro-Russian military coup in Belarus two weeks earlier only served to raise tensions in the region – and the stakes for the JWK on the ground.
An instant later incoming Russian Grad rocket artillery announced itself with a shrill shriek. Then a rapid succession of sharp explosive pops as the dozen rockets burst overhead. Nowak quickly realized these weren't ordinary fires. There was no spray of airburst shrapnel or the lung-busting concussion of a thermobaric munition. Instead, it sounded like summer fireworks - the explosive separation of the 122mm rocket artillery casing. Once split open, each weapon’s payload deployed an air brake to slow its approach.
During that momentary silence, Nowak edged out slightly from under the log to look up at the sky. He saw the drifting circular payload extend four arms and then, suddenly, it came to life as it sprang free of its parachute harness. With a whine from its electric motors, the quadcopter darted out of sight.
That sound built and built over the next minute as eleven more of these battery-powered Russian autonomous drones darted menacingly in a loose formation through the forest above the Polish special operations commandos. Nowak cursed the low-profile nature of their mission: The Polish soldiers had not yet received the latest compact American counter-UAS electronic-warfare systems that could actually fit in their civilian Skoda Kodiaq SUVs.
Nowak held his airplane-mode mobile phone out from under the log to film the drones, using his arm like a selfie-stick. Nowak needed to report in what he was seeing – this was proof Russian forces had turned their new AI battle management system online inside Ukraine. But he also knew that doing so would be a death sentence, whether he texted the video on the country’s abominably slow mobile networks or used his secure NATO comms. These Russian drones could detect either type of transmission in an instant. Once the drones cued to his transmission he would be targeted by their onboard anti-personnel munitions or a follow-on strike by conventional artillery.
This was no mere variation on the practice of using Leer-3 drones for electronic warfare and to spot for Russian artillery. It marked the first-ever deployment of an entirely new Russian AI battle system complex, Omega. Nowak had heard about the Russians firing entire drone swarms from inexpensive Grad rocket-artillery rounds once before in Syria while deployed with a US task force. But they had never done so in Ukraine, at least not that he knew about. Most observers chalked up Russia’s Syrian experimentations with battlefield robots and drone swarms to clumsy failures. Clearly something had changed.
With his phone, Nowak recorded how the drones appeared to be coordinating their search activities as if they were a single hive intelligence. They divided the dense forest into cells they searched cooperatively. Within seconds, they climbed and dove from treetop height looking for anyone or anything hiding below.
Nowak signaled with his hands to the two members of his team that he could see that they should stay where they were.
Then one of the drones flew a cloverleaf pattern around the trees above him, before disappearing out of sight behind the leafy canopy.
That was a close one, Nowak thought.
He took off his ballistic glasses to wipe them of sweat, and glanced back at his teammates with a look of clear relief on his face.
It was a mistake to place any hope in that moment of calm.
At that very instant, the drone’s computer vision algorithms detected Novak’s team. Each and every one of them. Within seconds, six of the aggressively maneuvering drones revealed themselves in a disjointed dive down from the treetops and zoomed in on the JWK fighters’ positions.
In the moment between realization and action, Novak’s mind raced. The soldier wondered if they were detected by their thermal signature. Or perhaps the onboard machine vision identified the outlines of human bodies against the natural background? What Novak did not know was that the JWK team was being tracked for the past eight hours, all the way back to their safe house. There was no one tell that revealed them in this moment. It was an AI-driven compounding of data and pattern recognition that drew together myriad sources, from Russian IMSI-catchers intercepting mobile phone traffic to real-time satellite imagery.
Then it was the moment to fight. Nobody needed to be told what to do. The team raised their weapons and fired short bursts at the Russian drones. One shattered like a clay pigeon. But two more buzzed into view to take its place. Another drone went down to a shotgun-fired SkyNet round. Then the entire drone formation shifted its flight patterns, dodging and maneuvering even more erratically, making it nearly impossible to shoot the rest down. The machines learned from the loss of one of their own, Nowak realized. Would his superiors do the same for him?
Nowak emptied his magazine with a series of quick bursts, but rather than reload he put his weapon aside and rolled out from under the log. Fully exposed and clutching the phone with shaking hands, he hastily removed one of his gloves with his teeth. Then he switched the device on. Network connected. He scrolled to the video of the drones. Send! Send! Send!
Eleven seconds later, Novak’s entire Polish JWK special forces team lay dead on the forest floor.
PATCH BARRACKS / STUTTGART VAIHINGEN / GERMANY
“That what I think it is?” said US Army General Richard Neville, the head of European Command for the last eight months. “Omega’s online? In Ukraine!”
“The footage is verified by the Polish defense ministry,” said the Defense Intelligence Agency civilian analyst, no older than 25. Neville had never seen him before, which meant somebody sent him into the office to deliver some very bad news. This kid was somebody’s cannon fodder, Neville thought, and another reminder he needed to repair his relationship with the J2 Directorate.
Neville furrowed his brow even more and stared intently at the wall screen as he considered the ramifications of the briefing’s footage. The shaky images and accompanying description of the drone attack on the JWK forces sent chills down his spine.
As a long-time Army special operator whose Middle East deployments started when the intelligence analyst was in kindergarten, Neville was the vanguard of officers who were supposed to bring asymmetrical thinking to one of the US military’s most prestigious and, in the current chaotic European and American political era of the early 2020s, highly constrained combatant commands.
"How much time do we have before they deploy this capability more broadly?”
"Estimating 24 hours, sir. The Russians are already moving to fully use the system to cover all the territory they hold in the Ukraine,” replied the briefing officer. “And likely into the rest of the country. While Russian forces themselves may not move any further than Ukraine, the Omega system will be able to hold at risk targets in Poland, the Baltics, and we expect out to Kaliningrad. It will also may cover all the way up to the Kola Peninsula.”
“What’s the latest out of Western Ukraine?”
“Right now, Russian proxies – East Ukrainian groups along with Russian Spetsnaz – are continuing their drive into western parts of Ukraine to stop what they continue to call ‘ethnic cleansing’. Russian armor and attack helicopters are providing support. We see Omega’s influence on these otherwise conventional operations; targeting is extremely precise. NATO still has not offered a formal statement or a response. Poland’s sending more military trainers, mostly SOF. UK MOD is leading a push to move a BCT into Poland as a backstop, but there’s no political appetite for the risk. Once Omega is fully online with expanded coverage Russia will extend its Tu-160 bombers sorties into Western Ukraine right up to the Polish borders. And it will be impossible to move NATO forces into Europe by air without significant risk of catastrophic losses.”
"How could we possibly be finding this out only now? Anybody we know pick the wrong time to go on goddamned extended leave?" Neville said. “This has to have been right there in front of us all along.”
"Sir, as I explained, this type of technology is really hard to detect. We've been focused on watching their hardware for decades. But this isn't about hardware. Omega’s just … software. It’s code. The Russians have assembled a host of existing systems... what's tying them together is the software... the AI... bits don't show up in NGA's satellite imagery… You just saw the attack on the JWK but if you just focus on those drones… you’re going to miss the big picture here on how Omega works..."
The analyst kept stalling in his explanation, trying to find the simplest way of explaining the situation. Given Neville’s operational background, as well as his 6’5” height and physical presence that earned him the nickname “The Terminator,” analysts usually tried to dumb down a brief. This only served to anger him, and further flustered the briefers. It was a vicious cycle, and one that he was known to enjoy for the show of it. But the seriousness of the moment did not afford him any levity. He went to the heart of the issue and stood up behind his desk, talking with his hands.
"Let me get this straight... you're telling me Omega... is a Russian autonomous joint force in a goddamned ready-to-deploy box... that the area-denial bubble projected by their new S-600s extends all the way to the exo-sphere, and Omega covers the entirety of the ground, sea and cyber domains... that the system is ready to be deployed... and it’s invisible? That’s bullshit we miss this coming online, especially with all that’s going on right now at home.”
Neville picked up his iPhone off the desk and thrust it in the analyst’s face. “We have these, don’t we? Everybody knows you don’t plug a copper line into the wall to talk to somebody. None of this should be a mystery. We’re smarter than that.”
He tossed the iPhone onto his desk.
“Or maybe not. Maybe the truth of it is we’re always going to be a flip-phone force.”
The intelligence analyst winced.
"Sir, I understand your frustration. It's entirely justified. But I was asked by Director Shah to brief you immediately and share everything we know. He knows your teams are ...”
“Anything from Germany’s leadership yet?”
“That’s to be expected. Did Director Shah say the President’s been briefed on Omega?”
“They’re trying, sir. The White House has indicated he’s staying over after a political rally in Wisconsin and that he has declined to speak with the Joint Chiefs, the NSC, or Director Shah until Tuesday.”
“So, our window to preempt it already closed?”
“Yes, sir. There’s nothing indicated from the Joint Chiefs, either, at this time,” said the analyst. “
Then get comfortable and have a seat,” said Neville. “I need you to run through everything DIA is sending up to Joint Chiefs and NSC. And maybe I can make a few suggestions to capture their attention…”
The analyst looked uncomfortable, but Neville gave him a reassuring nod, the one that had worked on everybody from street-level Iraqi sources in Basra back in the day to his own superiors at Joint Special Operations Command. Yet Neville wasn’t interested in making a more persuasive argument to ramp up the threat; he wanted to do something to neutralize it, and fast. He needed time to think and listening to a droning briefing often led to inspiration, in the same way lying in the dentist’s chair or taking a shower had in the past.
“Sure. Sure, sir. We can do that. I’ll give you the full version, then,” the analyst said.
Neville sat down heavily in his chair and leaned back, motioning for the analyst to continue.
"Artificial intelligence is the future not only of Russia but of all of mankind … Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world."
Russian President Vladimir Putin, September 2, 2017.
At the end of the Cold War the crumbling Russian economy had placed what was left of the former Soviet armed services at a major disadvantage. There was a massive reduction in the number of troops, scientists employed by the military complex went without jobs and many left the country. Military research and development efforts that had allowed the former USSR to challenge the US and NATO appeared to vanish. Billions of dollars of investments in advanced bombers, ships, aircraft carriers, submarines, armor and ICBMs soon amounted to very little. Maintenance budgets collapsed and the systems themselves fell into disrepair. But after many years of humiliation a revisionist, nationalist president had risen to power in Moscow, supported by billionaire oligarchs who rallied round him to restore national honor. Slowly, they began a concerted effort to rebuild military capabilities that could have the greatest impact.
But this new government knew it could not afford to make the mistakes that the old Communist Party ruling the USSR had. Russia's economic potential was nowhere near the United States and thus, going down the path of maintaining military parity in the old sense of the term was a fool's errand. Both sides knew that whatever military maneuvering they did would be under the dark shade of the nuclear umbrella their respective ICBM arsenals extended over the world. The real question was how could the new Russia be more assertive in regional conflicts. The new president knew that being seen as a great power and gaining favor and leverage with the various nations of the world was critical. Many states sought partnerships with great powers that could alter the “strategic balance” and somehow revert the world to a multi-polar order. But building a military able to project power is not cheap. In looking for a balance between cost and influence, the Russian military complex identified technology as the great leveler. They recognized that Russia could never compete broadly across every area of technological research, but they deemed such broad parity unnecessary for their strategic objectives. Certain lines of research were identified, and resources were efficiently allocated.
The first investment resulted from the realization that in an interconnected world high-velocity information had become as all-encompassing and omni-present as the very molecules of air we breathe into our lungs. Influencing data streams, shaping them and transforming them, was elemental. Information warfare had long been regarded as an area of great importance for generals and military planners. The 21st century made information a primary domain of battle, control of which could dictate whether or not war occurred and if it did, influence who became seen as the victor. If war was "indecisive" -- which so many US military campaigns tended to be – then controlling the flow of information in ways that allowed perceptions of the war’s outcome to be molded allowed something novel, a narrative of decisive victory.
During the Cold War, Soviet military planners had already determined that they could not compete with NATO or the United States in terms of the sophistication of their air forces. Soviet aircraft designed by the legendary Mikoyan and Gurevich, Tupolev and Sukhoi design bureaus focused on exceptional aerodynamic performance, robustness and high production volume. They lacked greatly in electronic sophistication, arguably the most important aspect of military aircraft in modern times. Realizing these shortcomings, the Soviets made major investments to deny NATO aircraft the use of airspace via the development of increasingly sophisticated surface-to-air missiles. These could be deployed in numbers, would be quick to intercept incoming fighters and could be fielded at a fraction of the cost of the fighter aircraft they were designed to counter. If the purpose was not to mount an offensive campaign on enemy soil, but to deny the enemy the use of one’s own airspace, sophisticated SAMs were a great investment.
The new Russian government doubled down on their focus on these missile systems. The premier institution charged with this work was the Almaz-Antey design bureau. The president took a personal interest in ensuring that the best university graduates saw Almaz as a career path, and that funds were made available to the organization on a priority basis. The care and feeding of this important institution had indeed paid dividends in many ways. Four key systems were designed and manufactured by Almaz. The older, Soviet-era S-300, the considerably more capable S-400, the newest S-500 available only to Russian forces, and the under-development S-600.
The S-300 system was quite capable of dealing with a variety of fourth- generation aircraft. The Russian government used it both as a source of revenue and as a way to bolster allies. Iran and China had both received these systems. Since S-300 was not the latest SAM system, the Russians were quite liberal in allowing technology transfer. The Iranian Bavar and Chinese HQ-9 systems both drew from S-300 design and technology.
The S-400 was a different beast. As of the late 20-teens it was the most sophisticated surface-to-air missile system available. The US Patriot air-defense system, which achieved some notoriety during the first Gulf War, couldn't hold a candle to the S-400's capabilities. The Russian system came with nearly half a dozen different missile interceptors designed to cover high-altitude, long-range threats, as well as low-altitude and close-range threats. Many radars were part of the S-400 complex providing monitoring of hundreds of real-time aircraft tracks. The processing systems could manage and guide 90 simultaneous interceptors. The entire system was mobile and could fire and move to a new location to protect itself. Its cutting-edge radar technology was rumored to be capable of detecting stealth aircraft - the US Air Force’s ace in the hole. The S-400 soon emerged as the first area-denial system that allowed its operators to feel a degree of immunity from the deadly capabilities of US air power. Prosperous regional powers such as Turkey and India lined up to purchase the system. So great was the S-400’s appeal that the Turkish government even risked the loss of considerable investment and removal from the multinational F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, in which they were a major partner. The Indians campaigned vociferously to be allowed to purchase the S-400 and not face threatened US sanctions as a consequence. Even the Qataris offered to pay billions for access to the platform.
The Russians had a blockbuster air-defense capability on their hands.
And they knew it... and they quickly saw how emerging AI technologies could enable far more.
The reaction to these cutting-edge S-series systems, not just from a technology perspective, but more importantly, from a geostrategic point of view, emboldened Russian planners and the top echelons of leadership. Here was the only practical and affordable counter to a top-end air threat. Smaller regional powers could never develop air forces to rival the US and NATO, and so the S-400 was the only defensive game in town.
Despite being the world’s pre-eminent developer of anti-air systems, Russia itself would continue to push the envelope. Buoyed by funds from arms sales, the Almaz bureau was tasked with developing new systems that would protect Russia from even more distant threats, such as even stealthier aircraft and hypersonic missiles that adversaries had on the drawing board. The S-500 and S-600 anti-air and missile defense complexes were the result of these new research efforts. Newer, higher speed interceptor missiles allowed engagement envelopes beyond what the S-400 could manage.
When these long-range S-series weapons combined with shorter-range air-defense systems like the Pantsir, Russian military planners saw the potential for an unprecedented capability. But any weapon is only as good as the information that guides it to a target and the narrative that develops around the weapon’s effects. The answer to this problem came from a series of successive software and hardware breakthroughs. Researchers had been experimenting inside Russia employing AI to stitch together not only what distributed radars detected but other forms of electronic and signals intelligence collection. Crimea offered the perfect proving ground with rapid iterations of a harmonized approach to electronic warfare, drones, and conventional fires. as embodied by tThe increasing reach and sophistication of unmanned systems such as the Russian Leer-3 unmanned aircraft continued to grow. What Russian researchers quickly confirmed was that these such upgrades together allowed for AI-guided effective tracking of threats, prioritization, and target selection well beyond what was initially envisioned. This fusion of technology opened their eyes to an entirely new possibility... an ultimate weapon: Omega.
General Neville held up his hand, and offered the analyst a bottle of water from a refrigerator off to the side of his desk.
“Hydrate,” he said.
The analyst nodded and gulped down half the bottle. “That’s good origin-story stuff but I think you’re not going cutting through all this history to tell me why this all really matters. What can you tell me about Omega itself?”
Omega is not any one specific weapon, rather it is made up of a menagerie of Russian weapons, large and small. It’s as if you fused information warfare, SAMs, fires, drones, tactical autonomous bots… There’s everything from S-600 batteries to cheap Katyusha-style rocket artillery to Uran-9 and -13 tanks. But it is what controls the hardware that makes Omega truly unique: AI. At its core, it’s an artificial intelligence system fusing data from thousands of sensors, processed information, and found patterns that human eyes and minds cannot fathom. The system’s AI is not only developing a comprehensive real-time picture, it’s also developing probabilities and possible courses of enemy action. It can coordinate thousands of “shooters”, from surface-to-air missiles, to specialized rocket artillery deploying autonomous tactical drones like the ones that killed the JWK team, to UGVs like the latest Uran-13 autonomous tracked units.
The developers of the Omega system incorporated technologies such as software-defined radio, which uses universal receivers that could listen in to a broad array of frequencies. Thousands of these bands are monitored with machine learning algorithms to spot insurgent radio stations, spy on the locations of Ukrainian military and police, and even determining if a certain frequency is being used to remotely control explosives or other military equipment. When a threat is discovered, the system will dispatch drones to observe the triangulated location of the source. If the threat needs to be neutralized a variety of kinetic systems – from guided artillery shells to loitering munitions and autonomous drones – can be dispatched for the kill.
18 HOURS LATER / NEAR THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE BORDER
The four US Army Green Berets drove their dark blue Mercedes-Benz panel truck, stolen that morning from a Ukrainian telecom-equipment repair company, out of the driving rain and into the rotting barn. The driver shut off the engine and they waited. The barn smelled of wet wood and fertilizer.
Then the driver tapped on his smartphone screen and Tweeted a GIF of a goal-scoring Swedish handball player from last month’s European men’s championship game. It was a message hiding in plain sight that confirmed they were in place and would soon begin their mission.
Without a word, the three men and one woman pulled boxes out of the truck and began stacking them along one wall. Surrounded by muddy wheat fields, the farm was in a relatively isolated area 35 kilometers west of the Russia-Ukraine border. For the past year it functioned as a safe house for the Ukrainian intelligence services, who turned it over to the Americans at the request of the CIA station chief in Kyiv.
Given the time pressure on the team, this farm was the best the team could do. As members of European Command’s own special operations detachment, General Neville gave the Army soldiers a simple but urgent mission: tap into a nearby underground data network cable in an attempt to learn more about how Omega managed to transmit so much data using just Russian networks. DIA suspected the Russian military currently lacked adequate bandwidth for such a rapid expansion of the Omega system. This might lead to an interim reliance on commercial networks inside countries covered by Omega – and perhaps a tactical opportunity for disruption.
It seemed a valid theory, as the US military relied heavily on commercial data providers to carry mission-critical data traffic. General Neville had a similar hunch, that this could be a vulnerability in the Russian system that the US could – and should -- exploit. After all, it was a technological liability he regularly worried about himself for his own forces. But any vulnerability was only useful until it was exploited, and Neville knew that time was running short. The White House, caught in the most fraught domestic political crisis since 1860, had yet to take any action or even register that Omega’s game-changing revelation would up-end the strategic balance.
In the spirit of shaping the operational environment and executing his commander’s authority, he deployed 20 soldiers from EUCOM’s Commander’s In-Extremis Force to five different locations inside Ukraine. Three of the five teams would be in range of the Grad rocket artillery now deployed in Eastern Ukraine. Their overall objective was to gather as much information as possible about how Omega moved massive amounts of real-time data and other information.
Two hours later, the team stood dressed in dirty grey work coveralls, reflective orange stripes along the sleeves and pant legs tucked into brand new cheap rubber work boots. The brown boots were filled with a sprinkling of pink fish tank gravel, a painful countermeasure to the gait analysis that Russian forces were believed to conduct by drone in the area. They wore dirty orange watch caps that smelled like old sponges. Master Sergeant Tim Perkins stood before the three other soldiers. He was a slim, deeply tanned man of average height in his mid 30s whose bushy brown mustache and eager bloodshot eyes gave him the look of a poker player about to push his good luck just one more time.
“You know the deal. We dig, tap the cable, take whatever hardware we can, and get out. We’ll be at the target site in 30 minutes, and then we’ll have one hour of daylight to get it done. Ukrainian SOF on standby for QRF. Questions?”
“How’s your Russian, Hammer?” said one of the soldiers.
“Good enough to ask which way to Tampa. Anything else?”
The soldiers shook their heads.
“OK, good. Phones?”
One by one the soldiers pulled out their locally-registered iPhones and held them up, screen facing the senior enlisted soldier.
“Good.” Then he held up his own burner phone to show them that his too was still powered on. This was yet another essential form of subterfuge if the Special Forces soldiers were to keep their cover for as long as possible. “Roll out.”
Then Perkins opened the barn doors, enjoying the tang of the earthy air as he drew a deep breath. For a moment, it smelled like home.
He waved the truck out. Then he gradually slowed his movement until he stood frozen with a hunter’s willful stillness. Then he was all action: Motioning for the truck to get out, shouting “Go! Go! Go!”
He listened as he ran alongside. It was a sound unlike any other, but one he knew well: incoming rocket artillery, getting closer by the second.
Amir Husain is an author and inventor. He is the founder and CEO of SparkCognition, a leading U.S. artificial intelligence company. August Cole is an author and futurist who works on creative foresight at SparkCognition. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.