Review: Coup D’Etat

Coup D’Etat

Chris Nuttall’s Coup D’Etat is a book I knew I had to get when I saw the premise. A princess of a Middle Eastern country wrangles western mercenaries to overthrow it in a modern Dogs of War (explicitly cited as an influence, and obvious enough even without the citation)? Sounds good enough. The possibility of a thriller that can be more than just a small group of commandos? You betcha!

The premise is thus very good. The problem is that the execution is not. First, the main character comes across as an uncomfortable Mary Sue, and his opinions along with a more important portrayal cross the line from “hardened realist” to “creep”. But the bigger problem is the setting.

Taking place in a petrostate is a good, and arguably great setting. Having a fictional one so you don’t need to step on real toes and can make it to your needs is another good literary tool this book uses. The problem is that, well…

Say you had a fictional US state in the Old South for your story, and it was portrayed as being composed entirely of corrupt redneck bosses, uneducated and bigoted rural poor, Klansmen, and oppressed African-American sharecroppers who are used entirely as a mentioned prop to show how bad things are without actually being elaborated on. Replace that with the contemporary Middle Eastern equivalents and you have “Kabat”, the oil kingdom the novel takes place in. Compounding the worst true elements of an environment for the sake of fiction isn’t necessarily bad, but here it is. It takes away the stakes by making it look like an irredeemable and worse, dull wasteland. Pretty much any character who isn’t a power broker, trigger puller, or supervillain is used as nothing but a pop-up attraction in the freak show obstacle course.

Granted, you could reasonably argue that I’m overthinking the backdrop for an action thriller. Except this isn’t a very good action thriller. Not just because the prose is only decent at best, but because so much is devoted to the setup and exploring this dubious setting. So this book fails at being a suspense thriller and it fails at being an action thriller. It aims very high and falls very, very short.

A Thousand Words: Money Plane

Money Plane

Adam “Edge” Copeland and Kelsey Grammer’s Money Plane is the story of an attempt to rob a flying super-casino. It fails. Not the heist, the movie. This is an extremely stupid movie. And it’s not even that stupid in a fun way. It’s just inept. Even if one follows the reasonable assumption that action movies do not have to make sense, it’s a failure. Its suspension of disbelief refuses to be followed.

For instance, in-universe, a “master thief” doesn’t seem to know how many people crew the average commercial cockpit. Out of universe, a professional wrestler is squandered by having him spend the bulk of the movie sitting at the controls and talking. In-universe, there are no staff on this supervillain plane and no one goes to check on the cockpit even after the plane shakes and diverts from its original course. Oh, and almost all the resistance comes not from the plane runners but from other gamblers.

The film is very short but still feels overstuffed, not knowing if it wants to be a serious heist movie or a silly heist movie. None of the protagonists are very developed or charming, and even Grammer’s performance is a little too forced. The people behind the titular super-plane are squandered: The actors who play the “concierge” and “bookkeeper” on the plane actually do their supervillain roles well, but the movie bizarrely shifts away from them and towards unfunny “wacky” guests like a cowboy who ends up shooting himself in the head (it’s a long story). I wanted to like this movie, but it really doesn’t work, even as a dumb action movie.

Review: The Russian Way of War

The Russian Way of War

One of the biggest surprises of the initial part of the 2022 Russo-Ukrainian War was that the former did not fight according to its paper doctrine. At all. Lester Grau and Charles Bartles The Russian Way of War is an excellent attempt at explaining said doctrine for a western audience. As anyone who’s studied them knows, they’ve left quite the paper trail. While sources like the VDV Textbooks Collection can provide them online in Russian fairly handily, this translates them to English.

And it translates them to English well. I have a few quibbles. The biggest is the authors taking an overly optimistic view of vehicle adoption, perhaps taking propaganda sources a little too much at face value. But the rest of it is well-done and evenhanded. The only real “problem” I’ve noticed is that I’ve read so many OPFOR documents that much of what they’re saying is already familiar.

But that’s a good “problem” to have, and I was still enlightened by this book. Every wargamer wanting to do missile-age combat involving the Soviets/Russians should read this.

Airfield Construction

Notional airfield construction times from the 1987 Staff Officer’s Handbook

Although obviously outside the scope of this simple spherical cow chart, I do wonder when the point would come when more engineer battalions would pass the point of diminishing returns. Nine women can’t make a baby in a month, after all.

A Heavy OPFOR army/corps has an organic engineer brigade with heavy equipment that would presumably halve the time required. Fronts will also include at least one engineer brigade. The construction of airfields and other base areas is a stated mission of those high-level assets. (If only the Russians had spent 2021 building and refurbishing better depots right on the borders instead of just piling up the rusty AFVs…)

Review: The Bear And The Dragon

The Bear And The Dragon

Tom Clancy’s The Bear and the Dragon is not just the greatest technothriller of all time, but also one of the greatest novels of all time. With its accuracy and evenhanded portrayal of various cultures, it transcends the shackles of genre fiction to create a new class of literature. Not since Vasily Grossman has a writer truly understood and shown the effects of war in its entirety-

-AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

-Just kidding, by all accounts it’s even worse than Executive Orders. April Fools!

VTOLs and Airships

Technically speaking, lighter-than-air airships that have the ability to rise vertically just by dropping ballast are VTOLs. But a lot has struck me about how these heavier-than-air contraptions should be, but mostly aren’t, a staple of alternate history the way airships are. Oh, in science fiction they appear in force (see the Orcas from Command and Conquer and Vertibirds from Fallout), but in regular AH, not so much.

VTOL craft run a gamut from simple (conventional helicopters) to ultra-complex. After normal rotorcraft you have so-called “compound helicopters” like the cancelled Cheyenne that have additional horizontal engines to make them go faster. Then you have tilt-rotors/wings like the V-22. After those there are airplanes with dedicated lift engines. Then you have Harrier-style thrust vectored craft. Perhaps the most complex proposal was a giant Beriev seaplane with literally dozens of lift engines.

VTOLs have been technically possible as long as aircraft themselves, but they’ve run into issues. Trading complexity and the problems that come with it, as well as other performance issues, for small advantages (mostly speed for helicopters and takeoff distance) is one problem. Another is stability, with computerized controls being almost necessary. Of course, another design with tradeoffs that has been underused despite being technically possible is…. lighter-than-air airships!

Yet while the presence of airships has become a cliche in alternate history circles, VTOLs have not been. Alternate history is full of Victorian zeppelins, not Vietnamese tilt-wings and jet-copters. If I had to give one reason why, I’d say it’s because of brand appearances. Zeppelins look like something from the past, therefore it’ll be “historic but with zeppelins”, aka alternate history, while VTOLs look futuristic, and therefore writers are more likely to just make a story with them pure science fiction (or sold as such).

Or it could just be genre inertia. But it’s a fascinating subject about fascinating vehicles all the same.

Review: Mikoyan MiG-23

Famous Russian Aircraft: Mikoyan MiG-23 and MiG-27

Another Gordon/Komissarov book specializing in the study of just one platform, I knew I had to get the volume on one of my favorite ugly ducklings: the MiG-23. The Flogger did not enjoy a charmed life. With hindsight, it occupied an uncomfortable niche between the cheap MiG-21 and advanced later fighters. Its swing-wing design was a long-term limiter. The MiG-23MS export version, with no long-range missile ability, was the equivalent of using a Manning brother as a running quarterback.

This is a little better laid out than the MiG-29 book, but it still has iffy formatting and a tendency to shift into colloquialisms like lots of exclamation points! That being said, it delivers a lot of technical-and operational-info. It has the strike and fighter variants all covered, as well as exotic proposals like the IFR-capable carrier versions and my most beloved unsuccessful attempt to put new wine in old wineskins: The MiG-23-98 series.

It’s definitely written by and for aviation enthusiasts, but I had fun with this book. It’s a worthy tribute to an often (and not unreasonably) savaged aircraft.

Review: Russian Air Power

Russian Air Power

The 2002 book Russian Air Power, by Gordon and Dawes, is something I was eager to get for the sake of seeing a past snapshot. I was not disappointed. Sure it’s dated (including a laughably inaccurate prediction that by 2010 the Russian Air Force would have streamlined down to three platforms, including the PAK-FA), but I expected it to be dated. A slightly worse criticism is how the doctrinal specifics of a high-intensity “air operation” are left a little vague for my liking.

But I have the Heavy OPFOR stuff for that, and the rest of the book is good. That I already knew much of it was no knock against it. And the part about the air force’s role in the Chechen Wars is excellent (and further reinforces my belief that, despite huge investment in the twenty years since, it may have actually regresssed from that in terms of overall capability in the early part of the Ukraine War.)

If you can get this book, do so. It’s a good historical reference, and Dawes keeps a lot of Gordon’s issues in check.

Review: American Secret Projects: Airlifters

American Secret Projects: Airlifters

Craig Kaston and George Cox’s two volume series on American airlifters is one of the main reasons for the recent fascination I’ve had with these cargo-bearing beasts. Like a lot of books in the series, both are excellent. However, one of the volumes outshines the other, though through no fault of the authors.

The first volume is well-written and illustrated, but it describes a time period where, for the most part, it’s just variations on big-bellied freighter aircraft. The second volume has a lot of those too, but also has weird shapes, VTOLS, napkin company projects that make Mukhamedov and Stavatti look like Boeing and Airbus, and so much more.

If you have to get one book, get the post-1961 volume. But both are well worthy of any aviation history enthusiast’s bookshelf. Fair warning-you may twist your brain into a pretzel trying to estimate just what some of these oddballs can and can’t transport. It’s what I’ve been doing a lot, and I have no regrets.

Soviet-Romanian War: The Chronology

I finally have a set chronology for the course of the Soviet/Romanian alternate history war I keep posting about. And yes, I’m now running three WIP books simultaneously.

Using the classical best-case 60km a day (on average) rate of advance, the Soviets would cross Romania in a little more than a week. Under their 70-100km guidelines for weaker opponents (which it’d definitely qualify as), it would fall in 5 days (too optimistic)[1] However, the same sources drop their rate to 30 km in mountainous terrain, found in central Romania.

The Bulgarians take an outsize share of the casualties. In part, this is because of the difference in both skill and equipment (in 1989, the Bulgarians historically still had T-34s equipping their reserve formations!). It’s also because of them having to cross the Danube opposed, never an easy task.

Bucharest, with its population of 2 million people, is not initially stormed in full. Instead it’s surrounded, left for the Bulgarians to keep encircled, and squeezed while the rest of the country is overrun. In around two weeks at absolute most, it is.

In a nod to the Gulf War, BARCAPS are placed to keep the doomed RoAF from escaping to Yugoslavia…. but the majority of planes that make it across due so to Hungary, the longtime rival, instead.

The stumbling block I had because of how much it depends on the story is what would happen to Ceausescu. Whether he successfully escapes, tries and fails to escape, gets couped, or killed/captured by the Soviets (keeping in mind he’d be very old and was in terrible health already in 1989). Of course, now I’ve found a solution that I can work into the plot…

Regardless, it ends in considerably less time than the current Russo-Ukrainian War has already been going on for (which is why I feel comfortable posting this now.) Using MCOAT with variables and unit sizes that I feel are close enough, casualties amount to:

  • Union of Soviet Sovereign Republics: Circa 3,500 killed, 14,000 wounded to varying degrees.
  • Bulgaria: Circa 6,500 killed, 26,000 wounded
  • Afghanistan: Circa 640 killed, 2,900 wounded
  • Romania: Circa 47,000 killed, 131,000 wounded [around a quarter of forces deployed at least hurt!]

These calculations assume nine days of high-intensity combat. Bulgarians and the Basic Forces divisions would take a large share compared to Mobile Corps with better armor, equipment, and medicine.

The result is a regime installed made up of local collaborators and those with some ties to Romania. Occupation duty is largely left to the Bulgarians and Afghans. Although prewar Romanian doctrine called for guerilla fighting, there isn’t terribly much stomach for it from the apathetic, shell-shocked population. Much of Romania’s population flees during and after the war, primarily to Hungary and beyond.

And out of it emerges, among other things… a mystery. Or several mysteries….

[1]The coalition managed a rough 45 km a day in the Gulf War, against a weak opponent in open terrain, and 30 km in the conventional phase of the Iraq War, with a pause and while facing the rougher areas of Iraq itself.