The Taurus Campaign demonstrated one thing with glaring accuracy; the obsolete design of the tank. In the heavy fighting between armor units and the ‘bugs’ many vehicles were lost not due to damage to the vehicle, but to the crew being compromised. If not for significant advantages in airpower and the indisputable power of the Emperor’s Fleet, the campaign would have been lost. A omen was seen at Taurus, a call for a new combat vehicle, something more than a better gun on a faster body, but an entire new generation of combat vehicle.
James MacArthur Willis
Director McCain-Willis Heavy Industries
The Mech Dream
Since the middle part of the 20th century, the fighting robot, or mech, has been a common component in science fiction and military think tanks. Advancements in robotics, computers, and other military hardware advanced through the next centuries, and though set back following the Pan-Solar war, would reach a point where the fighting robot was a possibility. Possibility does not equate to realization, and the battlefield would remain dominated by the armored combat vehicle, infantry in powered armor, and the various air and aerospace craft of the fleet.
Several attempts were made to foster a mech into combat service, but the War Department continually blocked funding for what they considered a pipe dream. Why spend billions developing mechs when tanks already existed and did their job with exceptional capability? This thinking would dominate the military for several decades and would not change until the ill-fated Taurus Campaign.
Taurus and the Bugs
Alien life was encountered at Beta Taurus II, a mineral valuable world 50 light years from Terra. Rather than the primitive bacteria or alien plant life found on other worlds, this new species was aggressive, xenophobic, and organic in nature. Dozens of names flew around, and the Taurian species was tagged with ‘bugs, creeps, zerg (an obscure reference to an ancient Terran video game) the Klendathu (another obscure media reference) but only Bug really stuck. Vaguely insect and mollusk like, the Bugs at Taurus proved adept at scything through infantry units that faced them. Tanks and other armored vehicles faired little better as the bugs found popping hatches to be relatively easy. Terran casualties on Taurus are estimated to be in the range of 80,000 dead and half again as many wounded. The bugs would be defeated, but through combined planetary bombardment, and continual runs from bombers and ground attack aerospace craft.
The initiative for the Mech was renewed following Taurus, and surprisingly the War Department released funding and put up a contract for a function fighting mech. Seventeen design firms would labor for nearly two years, borrowing from science fiction, industrial automation, and computer gaming technology to complete their submissions for the contract. Of the seventeen, nine deployed remote operated robots, two used artificial intelligences for operations, and six utilized a human pilot. The testing and trials at the Mars proving grounds were intense and after six weeks, only three designs remained, two of which had human pilots one was driven by remote.
The deciding factor was the simplicity of the ‘Little Willie’ submitted by McCain-Willis Heavy Industries. Robust and well armored, the Lil’Willie proved itself by being easy to repair and simple to maintain in the field. Repairing the machine required no more special skill than that possessed by a normal automation mechanic or a computer technician. This contrasted sharply with the remote pilot design that required a harmonics engineer, a synchronization technician as well as six specialized robotics engineers.
On the Shoulders of…Campers?
What was largely unknown by the other contractors, McCain-Willis had a functional mech before the contract was released. One of the company founders, Bruce McCain, had been an active terramorpher and explorer. Finding traditional vehicles too limiting, and power armor/hardsuits to be too small, he developed a walking machine the size of a tank but as mobile as a man on foot. Using this design, he would explore new worlds, traverse rough terrain with ease, and generally stomp around like a kid on an ATV. Following McCain’s death in a spacing accident, the design was shelved. After the contract was released, McCain-Willis had a significant head start on their rivals. While their designs faltered in rough terrain, suffered from problems in the field and other toothing errors, the Lil’Willie slogged along as it had done a decade earlier. Though now it carried a larger engine, armor plating and firepower equal to two conventional tanks.
Pilots of mechs often suffer from mild cases of megalomania, and some develop agoraphobia, or a certain fear of being outside of their mechs. It’s hard to not feel powerful when you alone command a 90 ton walking god of reinforced armor plating and firepower enough to level a city sector. That feeling is addictive, and letting go of the controls can be as hard as quitting heroin.
Master Sergeant, 12th Dragoons
The Lil’Willie is a 90 ton mech that strongly resembles the love child of Robbie the Robot and an Infantry Fighting Vehicle. Armor composes roughly a third of the mech’s weight and can stand up to medium weapon’s fire with ease. Penetrating the slabs requires anti-ship weapons, as most anti-tank and armor-piercing rounds are insufficient to penetrate or damage the Willis significantly.
Each shoulder pauldron houses a 30mm rapid fire cannon that has computer aided targeting and tracking. These weapons work best against unarmored or lightly armored targets and when used against organic aliens like the ‘bugs’ they become things out of alien nightmares. Each gun is fed from a 1200 round ammo bin housed in the mech’s torso. A third cannon, a 75mm anti-armor cannon is mounted on the lower right side of the mech in what was dubbed the ‘Gunslinger’ position. With a limited ammo bin, the big gun is reserved for long range sniping, or close up and messy work with shotgun like explosive rounds.
Mounted in coaxial barbettes in the chest of the mech are combination flame thrower/grenade launcher/machine gun mounts. Able to track anything in front of the mech, these six weapons provide suppressing fire and are primarily anti-infantry ordinance. While largely psychological, the flame throwers do have some use in clearing terrain as well as setting larger ‘bugs’ on fire. The grenade launchers can be set up to feed from multiple mini-bins, providing sortable munitions for combat, ranging from smoke screens, poison gas, high explosive or other fun toys.
Mounted in an OTS, or Over-The-Shoulder setting, the Lil’Willie carries a four tube reloadable unguided rocket launcher. Fed by an autochuck, the 8 inch rockets take 12 seconds to load and be primed to fire. Once hot, the rockets can be used to scatter enemy formations of infantry, or to soften up fortified positions.
Finally, the Willie has functional arms and hands, which McCain-Willis developed hand-held weapons for the mech. Two versions were produced, a heavy artillery type cannon, and a plasma cannon. Using a five round clip, the 125mm cannon had long range and with the mech’s computer could be used as mobile artillery to support troops in the field. When later deployed in the second Taurus Campaign, most pilots used the artillery gun as a hive-buster, firing the weapon into the ground or directly into the mouths of the largest bugs. The plasma cannon had a link port that connected it to the Lil’Willie’s fusion reactor, as well as having a bottle to build up plasma in. While not the fastest firing weapon, few things could stand being liquified by superheated hydrogen plasma, plus the weapon proved that even the bugs could be intimidated.
Powered by a miniaturized tokamak fusion reactor, the Willie had almost unlimited range. It’s mechanical power came from a combination of servo-motors for fine control and thick bundles of myoacetate-polymers. These polymers mimicked mollusk muscle tissue and when stimulated with electricity contract strongly. Computer control is required to gain any sort of even movement, and direct control creates a zombie like exaggerated gait.
While performing admirably, the Willie demonstrated a number of problems that would be addressed in future mech designs. The most pressing concerns were that the Willie was ponderously slow compared to other tanks, and was rather top-heavy. This was not much of a concern facing the bugs since few of the bugs moved more than 20 or 30 mph themselves, and the Willie was able to keep pace with Terran infantry. In combat against other armored tanks and potential enemy mechs, it would be a liability as knocking a Willie over usually meant several minutes of the pilot working to get his machine standing again. Another concern was that the cockpit for the pilot while heavily armored from the outside did little to cushion the pilot from vibration or even injury should the mech fall. Willie’s also lacked any sort of ejection seat.
Deployment and Fate
The Lil’Willie was deployed to 16 worlds, and over the course of two decades, nearly 5,000 were built. The Willie was never used in a human against human war, but was used to suppress several riots, in which it proved to be a massive psychological weapon. Many rioters dispersed if a Willie was spotted moving towards a riot site. Eventually the Willie was phased out of service in favor of the updated Willie II, and other mechs that built off of the advancements pioneered by the Willie. Most of the Willies in service were retired and sent to scrap after being salvaged for their fusion cores and weapons.
While not exactly a great vehicle, the Willie is much akin to the WWI British Mk I tank. Large and cumbersome, it is breaking ground in a new field of war. Faster, sleeker, more deadly and focused mechs will eventually be built, but all can look to the squat and unlovely Lil’Willie as their common ancestor.