Review: Handbook of Military Knowledge For Commanders

Handbook of Military Knowledge For Commanders

One of the biggest treats I’ve read is the translated 1980s Chinese document called the “Handbook of Military Knowledge For Commanders”. Exactly as it implies, the document is a hundreds of pages long and highly deep look into the Cold War’s least advanced and most secretive major army. Because of this, it’s an excellent resource not just for the Cold War PLA, but also many of the client states/units equipped, trained, or even just inspired by it. As well for less-advanced (compared to major powers) armies in general.

A lot of this contains basic stuff that any field manual reader won’t find surprising. The layout, at least of the translated version, leaves something to be desired. And there are a few translation quirks like keeping the romanized Chinese word “Fendui”, instead of just saying “units” or “subunits” (as would be appropriate for the context.) In fact, the document has the worst of both worlds in that it shows “Fendui” but not the original characters, making it confusing for both English and Mandarin native speakers.

Still, this is an excellent study of not just that specific army at that point in time (mid-1980s), but also of many principles applicable to all forces at any time. If you have the time to dig through four hundred pages of field manualese, it’s well worth your while.

Weird Wargaming: The Condor Missile

Imagine a ballistic missile made by as close to as pure a League of Evil as it’s possible to get. Such a missile did not actually (to public knowledge) enter service, but it was worked on by several of the world’s most nefarious regimes. I speak of the Condor II/Badr-2000 (and undoubtedly many more names if it had spread) missile that was worked on by the Falklands-era Argentine junta, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Egypt’s military regime (which has been credibly rumored to have continued development on other long-range missiles based on it in secret by itself.)

In Nuclear War Simulator, if I want a basic strategic missile for a rogue nation I’m giving plausible nuclear weapons, I give them Condors. As a final version of the Condor II was never explicitly built and tested, exact figures cannot be determined. However, range has been stated at 500-1200 kilometers and circular error probable from 500-50 meters, with even the larger number being acceptable for a nuclear warhead aimed at a city. The UNMOVIC report on Iraq’s missile program stated that the Badr-2000 had more modest goals: 1 phase with a range of 620 km and a CEP of 6.2 kilometers, followed by Phase 2 (620 km/620 meters) and Phase 3 (750 km/750 meters). The ballpark is narrow enough for me to use a “considerably longer than INF limits, and not too inaccurate” judgement in individual cases.

The payload was about 300-500 kilograms, and the missile around 80 centimeters in width. This would require a small warhead to work properly, and a light one to push the missile to its intended range. The first-gen Iraqi warhead would have been too big, but it would not have been an insurmountable problem given enough time (or, in my backgrounds, an AQ Khan-style nuclear network providing the materials/documentation to build a ‘standardized’ warhead small enough to fit into a Condor II).

To have every regional nuke-seeker get Condors is still a bit of a stretch. Historically, the foreign components and shaky finances of the developments gave opponents leverage that they used to squash it. But to have some of them slip through is not entirely implausible.

Mobile Corps Artillery

Indirect fire assets available to a GENFORCE mobile corps. As expected, they have a lot of them. The basic forces are largely equipped and organized with 1990-era Soviet equipment.


Combined arms battalions have a…. something of 24 2S31 120mm gun-mortars at paper strengths. Why the “something”? It’s because it’s called a battalion in the document, but feels a little awkward to have a battalion under the command of a battalion. It’s just as confusing in Russian, where it’s a variant of the word “division” equivalent to a western battalion of artillery or missiles-yet a different variant of “division” is a classical multi-regiment/brigade division. Anyway, the battalion’s battalion/division-whatever takes the place of the classic regimental 2S1 formation.

The other indirect-capable (if clumsy) asset is the four 2A45 Sprut 125mm AT guns in the battalion’s anti-tank battery. While the USSR used towed anti-tank guns in the classic TD role throughout its existence, it also used everything for indirect fire. Although firing tank ammunition and only having a max elevation of 25 degrees, a big cannon is a big cannon is a big cannon.

Light motor rifle battalions used for infantry-dominant areas and heliborne operations have 8 towed 82mm 2B14 mortars and just as many 2B16 Nona-K 120mm towed gun/mortars.


Intended to be treated similarly the Basic Forces division, combined arms brigades have an organic artillery regiment. This consists of 54 six-inch SPHs (the 2S19 Msta is the default) and 18 light multiple rocket launchers (the default is the “Prima”, a version of the BM-21 with 50 tubes per truck instead of 40). The artillery regiment has its own set of organic spotter drones.

Light motor rifle brigades, which are used for a similar role as the battalions mentioned above, only larger, have 18 MRLs, 36 towed 2A65 Msta-Bs, and 18 2A61 light 152mms (Think a smaller, lighter 152mm gun with muzzle brake on a three-pronged D-30 carriage).


The combined arms corps has two missile brigades with eighteen surface-to-surface missile TELs each (Tochka/SS-21 in the document, but anything in that category could be used). It also has a multiple rocket launcher brigade with 72 medium MRLs (default is BM-27, but again, anything in that ballpark). Rounding it out is an artillery brigade of Giatsints- 48 towed and 48 self-propelled.

The corps air assault battalion has eight 2S9 Nonas.

Front/Strategic Grouping

Fronts will have brigades/regiments, usually lumped into one administrative artillery division of the weapons mentioned above and 2S7 eight-inch SPHs. They will also usually have a rocket brigade of the 9A52/BM-30 Smerch or something similar (bigger than a BM-27, that’s for sure), as well as longer-ranged ballistic and cruise missiles.

The guns and multiple rocket launchers are almost always pushed down to army and corps-level artillery groups in battle.

The Box MLRS Revolution

The BM-30 Smerch remains a fearsome weapon. It’s often compared and not unreasonably to the M270 MLRS on the opposite side of the Berlin Wall. But in many ways, it’s like the last generation of propeller aircraft, while the MLRS was one of the first jets. And I’m not talking about guided rounds.

One of the biggest differences is that the Smerch has to be manually reloaded one rocket at a time. The MLRS/HIMARS just involves plopping in a new canister full of rounds (and the launch vehicle itself has a crane to boot). Many other newer systems (primarily Chinese, Israeli, and Turkish) also use the canister system, even if some still need the extra expense and risk of a separate loading vehicle.

Though too little and late for the current war, the Russians did eventually go for the box MRL with the Tornado series. However, I’m earnestly baffled why they didn’t try to do so more while the USSR was still intact, given the obvious advantages of such a system. Sunk costs of existing rockets and later post-1991 financial troubles are a possibility. Or maybe it was because the Smerch’s giant rockets couldn’t be canisterized. But still, given the prominence of artillery, and the use of other mechanical aids (automated naval vessels, autoloaders for tanks), it still is a little surprising.

The Hungry King

High-intensity warfare uses up a LOT of artillery shells. Like, a lot. How much? Well, these charts from the Light OPFOR Tactical (for eastern calibers) and FM 101-10-1/2, 1987 edition (for western calibers) give a notional example. They’re not identical-the OPFOR norms chart is shells fired towards a target while the FM 101-10-1 one is shells used up by a certain artillery piece per day-but they both show how much metal and explosive is going to fly (the answer: A lot).

Artillery is called the “king of battle”, and the king can get very, very hungry sometimes. Moving large quantities of heavy, highly explosive shells is no small feat, and to succeed or fail with that task means the difference between victory and defeat. A conventional Fuldapocalyptic World War III in the 1980s would have a massive quantity of artillery shells fired every day.

Weird Wargaming: The Abrams-SPH

The year is 1995. Faced with either leaping into the unknown with a clean-sheet system or plugging along with legacy platforms, several contributors to Armor Magazine decided to pursue a middle ground. In the November-December edition, they unveiled their contraption: An Abrams-chassis 52-caliber (same as the PzH2000 and Archer) self propelled howitzer with an autoloader and a whopping 80 rounds inside.

The M1-Arty, or AFAS/M1. Of note is the Archer-esque “backwards” layout of the main gun.

AFAS/M1 would fire 4 to 8 rounds in a Simultaneous Impact Mission (SIM) between 6-40 km. All rounds will impact within 4 seconds (first-to-last round). This requirement can be attained with an effective combination of a battle management system, fire control system, global positioning system (GPS) and an autoloader.-claim for its power from the article.

A resupply vehicle on the same chassis would also be designed. The AFAS/M1 had a target weight of 55 tons.

For all the unusual elements about its design, in practice this beast would have been deployed conventionally. In action, it would have served with heavy divisions/brigades in the usual format. It could be simmed by using the offensive stats of the PzH-2000. Yet it still stands out, in appearance if nothing else.

Clustering launchers for fun and profit

You are a rogue state with limited resources, and you want to make more powerful rockets. What is your improvised expedient? The answer, be it in North Korea or (with the most documentation) in Saddam’s Iraq, is frequently to cluster existing engines.

And what kind of engines would they be? There are the ubiqutuous Scud derivatives, but there’s also something even more readily available-surface to air missile engines, especially those (ie, SA-2s) becoming ever-less effective against actual opposing planes. Iraqi rocket/missile designs made extensive use of repurposed Guideline engines.

It’s gotten to the point where I’ve been making (oversimplified, of course) hypotheticals using the launcher and ballistic missile online calculators. Just input the relevant characteristics, thrust and size dimensions for the engines/rockets in question, and see the result! Quite an interesting bit of diversion for me.

The Artillery Growth Spurt

I was looking through my old planning documents and noticed something very interesting. In a 1969 piece on conventional-only operations that was one of the first of its kind, the Soviet planners estimated their artillery could inflict a maximum of 20% enemy losses in the opening fire strike.

By 1974, just five years later, when their conventional balance was arguably at its height, it had grown to the more familiar OPFOR ratio of 30-40% in a similar document.

I’m thinking (pure idle speculation), various combinations of bigger guns, more mobile guns, more accurate guns, better shells (cluster warheads that make conventional SSMs more than just a nuisance are mentioned in the same document), and probably stuff I missed.

What I find extra-fascinating is that the Azeri’s Nagorno-Karabakh opening half-hour mega-strike apparently destroyed 40% of the Armenian artillery-which is in line with the previous estimates, especially if you take into account technical superiority and massive, massive advancements in smart weapons. (Also, though, for all that, the war still lasted a month and a half and claimed around Azeri 3,000 KIA by its own admission.)

The Pom-Pom turned Bazooka

Having gotten the chance to read a lot of late-WWI and early interwar doctrine pieces, one thing struck me in particular. Not the focus on trench lines or the different communications with no radios, but the presence of “1 pounder guns” like this.

The 1-pounder was described as being meant to hit targets like machine gun nests and armored vehicles. It was almost always intended to be used for direct fire. In other words, it filled the same niche that far less clunky recoilless and rocket launchers did in World War II and beyond. I found that interesting.

(And, of course, the widespread use of light AA guns for ground attack means even the original concept hasn’t gone away. That the pom-pom was also one of the first effective AAA pieces means the connection is even greater).

The Big Artillery Lethality Chart

The 1957 edition of FM 6-40, Field Artillery Gunnery, has these projected casualty figures for battery and battalion artillery barrages being fired at vile Circle Trigonist opponents. What makes this interesting is that it’s a time period that has all the calibers: The classic old 75mm, the 105 and 6 inch guns well known to later people, the big 8 inchers, and the really big monsters.

Now it’s important to note that these are in absolutely (to the point of being unrealistic) ideal conditions. There’s no cover whatsoever, the fuzes are proximity ones that will explode at the perfect height, and, for what it’s worth, it was made in an era where infantry body armor was far less prominent than it would later become. That being said, it’s still a great resource.