Review: Unflown Wings

Unflown Wings

I was somewhat critical of Yefim Gordon’s book on the MiG-29. Yet for his Unflown Wings, showing nearly a century of never-built Soviet/Russian aircraft, I’m far less so. This is an amazing book about amazing aircraft. It’s rightfully massive, covering every major design bureau.

People looking at the weird “Luft 46” German aircraft often overlook that every country had its similar oddball paper planes. And so it is with this book. With many illustrations, one can see everything from the redundant to the too expensive to the too out-there. It’s a lot to make you wonder what could have been, from the cancelled jet-powered maritime patroller to giant seaplanes to my personal favorite, the overambitious “Backfiretomcat” Tu-148 multi-role fighter.

The very nature of this book means that the issues I had with the Fulcrum one are far less so. Because the aircraft here never actually entered service in any event, it means there’s less need for total rigor and one doesn’t have to be “deep”. Breadth is required for this overview, and it’s very, very broad indeed.

This is a very fun, very thick book, and I recommend it to any aviation fan in spite of its size and expense.

Review: Mikoyan MiG-29 and MiG-35

Mikoyan MiG-29 and MiG-35: Famous Russian Aircraft

The MiG-29 was the last hurrah of the legendary Cold War bureau. Aviation authors Yefim Gordon and Dimitry Komissarov write about it in the extensive Famous Russian Aircraft: MiG-29 book. The book is both a wonderful treat and a bitter “what could have been”. First, the obvious needs to be stated. This is a book for aviation enthusiasts and not a general audience. If you don’t know much about the MiG-29 or military aircraft already, it’s not a good first choice.

But even as a niche in-detail work, it’s uneven. Gordon has a reputation online for not being the most reliable source, but I wouldn’t know enough to comment in that regard. Whatever the veracity, the book is extremely broad, covering each and every prototype, variant, and proposal of the Fulcrum complete with excellent pictures and once-rare photographs. You want to know the exact radar designations? This is for you. You want to know the slight visual differences? This is also for you.

Yet while it’s broad, this book also feels shallower than it could have been. This manifests most visibly in the section on the actual service of the MiG-29. There, it’s a combination of more lists and stuff that I’d already heard about. It was disappointing and could have used a little more doctrinal meat.

Finally, the book feels a little, well, inefficient. It’s a very long impressive paperweight of a hardcover, but its layout and formatting doesn’t look very space-effective. The pictures are good, but their organization isn’t. That being said, take this book for what it is-something meant for serious aviation fans. It’s what you’re getting, for better or worse.

Review: Silent Night

Silent Night: The Defeat of NATO

I thought that the well of classic Fuldapocalypses had run too low. Then I found out about and read Silent Night, a 1980 story about a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Written by WWII tank veteran Cyril Joly, it, as the title suggests, tells the story of NATO’s loss. There’s a reason why this book is not mentioned alongside Red Army in the list of “bad guys win” novels. Or talked about much at all.

That’s because it’s a terrible book. First the prose is clunky and none of the characters sound natural. Then there’s a ton of conference rooms, hopping viewpoints around everywhere and a tone of forced “solemn darkness”. It honestly reminded me of the online TLs/fanfics I’d read and gotten too angry about-but this was published in 1980. Of course, one thing about it is incredibly different and that is the nature of the war’s conduct.

Basically, 99.9999% of the work is done by infiltrated-in irregular forces, ranging from external operators to local collaborators. They smash bases, kill or capture commanders, and generally break NATO completely. By the time the Soviet conventional forces cross the Inter-German border, they’re facing only a tiny amount of scattered, light resistance. I’d compare it to the Iraqis in 2003 or the final stages of World War II in the west-but that would be an insult to the Fedayeen Saddam and Volkssturm.

After the cakewalk conquest, the later portion of the book involves a clear author rant where he suggests that NATO dramatically reduce its conventional forces in favor of fortifications with “micronuclear” launchers. Then it ends with an OOB dump to add “character.”

There’s a thing called survivorship bias, where you get nostalgia because you remember the good and not the bad. People remember Red Storm Rising, Team Yankee, Red Army, Chieftains, and Hackett for good reasons. They do not remember this, and it’s also for good reason.

Review: Air Battle Central Europe

Air Battle Central Europe

Alfred Price’s Air Battle Central Europe is a magisterial study of aviation plans for a hypothetical conventional World War III. What makes it different from other technical studies? The answer is simple-it looks at the whole and not just the sum of the parts.

In the interviews and discussions, every piece of the NATO air power puzzle is studied, and each role of each aircraft is talked about. The result is a lot of detail, and an important look at how combined arms works in the air. It’s both accessible and comprehensive.

There are a few sour parts. Some aren’t it’s fault, like the book being dated compared to a post-Gulf War understanding. The biggest issue I thought that was its fault was a willingness to talk more about the ideals of what air power would do than a stress-tested analysis that involved a worse case. But the book is still excellent and a must-read for anyone studying a conventional Fuldapocalypse.

Review: Mobile Strike Forces in Vietnam

Mobile Strike Forces in Vietnam: 1966-1970

Gordon Rottman’s Mobile Strike Forces in Vietnam: 1966-1970 is about a frequently understudied and overlooked force in the war-the MIKE (or Mobile StrIKE) forces of the CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group). Comprised mostly of non-Vietnamese minorities (the famous “Montagnards”), they served as essentially a parallel army under US Special Forces command.

The MIKE forces arose from a pair of facts on the ground. The first was that the CIDG needed a mobile action force, especially as nearly all of its rank and file formations were only suitable for local defense around their home villages. The second was that it couldn’t count on the support of the southern government or mainline American/allied forces. So an in-house force had to be created, and it was.

Rottman’s book is, without exaggeration, a masterpiece. First, it’s careful not to exceed its grasp or opine on the war as a whole. Sticking to its subject matter closely, it delivers. And does it deliver. The book succeeds in being both extremely detailed (going into both paper organizations and how the formations inevitably diverged from those organizations in practice) and very readable. There’s only a few big blocky info sections, and those are more than offset by the rest of the book. Even though it’s short, you can get a very clear picture of how these forces trained and fought. This includes everything from the WWII/Korean hand-me down equipment they used to their occasional use of parachutes because of the advantages they offered over helicopters in certain situations (capacity, range, ability to deploy a lot of people quickly).

It’s also very evenhanded. After seeing so many authors whose advocacy for light infantry operations has reached the level of outright fetishism, it was a delight to see the drawbacks of such forces respectfully laid out by a knowledgeable Vietnam veteran with personal experience. The MIKE forces are given both credit and criticism when deserved. This is an excellent book and an excellent study of Vietnam War operations.

Review: The Modern Bodyguard

The Modern Bodyguard

Peter Costerdine’s The Modern Bodyguard is an excellent research resource for realistic “executive protection”. Written in a typically sharp, slightly sneery British style, it delivers the blunt realities of the job, especially for civilians who lack both financial and legal resources compared to government personnel. For instance, it points out that private security, especially traveling private security, will almost always be unarmed for legal/political reasons (at least as of the time of writing).

It’s not perfect, and it says something about the type of genre that even Costerdine goes into tirades about various types of firearms. But its positives outweigh the negatives substantially. If you’re curious about realistic, limited-resource protection, I cannot recommend this book enough.

Review: Nonstate Warfare

Stephen Biddle’s Nonstate Warfare aims to debunk the myths around warfare featuring nonstate actors and point out that there really isn’t as clear a line as thought between “conventional” and “unconventional” warfare. As I’ve been annoyed by the use of the terms “Hybrid War” and especially “4th Generation War”, I was eagerly awaiting this book. However, I found the execution significantly flawed.

Now, the premise is sound and well supported, which makes the flaws in outcome all the more severe. Basically, even the most mass-mobilized total wars with the clearest defined front lines have an irregular and/or deep element (he uses the excellent example of partisans on the Eastern Front in World War II). Likewise, even non-state elements can and have fought battles with large forces, heavy weapons, and the aim to hold territory. Very few people would dispute this. Biddle also points out that the progress of industrial-age technology means that ill-equipped irregulars can have weapons that the most advanced world powers didn’t have a few decades prior.

None of this is really controversial, and simply stating that would make for a very short book. What would be useful would an example of middle-level armies that don’t fit categories very well. Biddle does do this, with his descriptions of the Sadrist militias in the Iraq War and Adid’s forces in Somalia fitting well. He also has an interesting analogy with a spectrum from “Fabian” operations (a reference to the Roman strategy of avoiding defeat) to “Napoleonic” ones (a reference to seeking decisive battlefield victory). To be snarky, Fabian operations to excess are Kalib Starnes spending the entire MMA fight running away from Nate Quarry, while Napoleonic ones are the bandit in a Bethesda game charging the player in super-armor.

Unfortunately, this is written in clunky academese. Biddle uses a rigid scale to rank various forces from “Fabian” to “Napoleonic”, one that I found to be too rigid for an inherently arbitrary judgement. His writing is full of hair-splitting and nitpicking of what honestly feels like a strawman that everything is either phalanxes on a field or nothing but backstabbing. There’s weird hangups like a fixation on force density for its own sake, obsession on individual technical examples (so Adid had TOWs? So what? Even in 1993 it wasn’t like they were stealth fighters), and not enough focus on non-state forces supplied by state ones.

I wanted to like this book. And I don’t disagree with the overall point. But it could have been made just so much better. This feels like an academic squabble in academic language, when a plain-text history of case studies with “conventional irregular armies” would have been far more suitable in promoting the argument.

A Thousand Words: The Blue Max

The Blue Max

A classic World War I aircraft film, 1966’s The Blue Max is the story of Bruno Stachel, a self-absorbed, vainglorious fighter pilot in the German military. How does it hold up today? Well, I think it suffers from being a product of its time, although not in the way one might think.

For its time, the aerial flying sequences and acting are very good. For its time, it’s an edgy and hard-hitting movie compared to the stereotypical John Wayne fluff of war movies past. Yet by modern standards, it pales in comparison to what post-Vietnam war films have to offer. Still, that’s through no fault of its own and it’s still a very good historical fiction film.

As an aside, I’ve heard it’s one of the few movies to depict largely realistic air combat maneuvering. Later movies have gone for more visually impressive but less practical aerobatics. This goes for wider, bigger turns. It may be a virtue made out of necessity with the lower-performance planes involved in production, but it’s still interesting to see.

Review: Tupolev Tu-22

Tupolev Tu-22

The Tu-22 “Blinder” is one of those “overshadowed by more famous successor” aircraft, the Backfire, which was doing the “let’s keep the same nominal designation for a new aircraft to pretend its more similar than it actually is” long before the Super Hornet. Sergey Burdin and Alan Dawes’ history of the Blinder is one that does it justice.

Though this is a very dry and very technical book overall, it does have some humorous anecdotes, such as how the Libyans used their Tu-22s (spoiler alert: Not very well). It also defends the bomber, with evidence, from the charge that it was a deathtrap. The authors make the good, backed-up case that it was no more dangerous than any other 1950s design, a period known for its high attrition. I’m reminded of the tale of it being unusual when the flagpole at Nellis wasn’t at half staff.

As for why a 1950s design stayed in service so long, the combination of the Soviet packrat attitude and its ability to carry monster ASMs a decent distance meant it was still viable. This “redemption of the ugly duckling” makes me eager for a similar book on another Soviet aircraft with a poor reputation, the MiG-23.

Really, this is a great book for aviation enthusiasts. I didn’t mind the reams of charts, and it goes into detail on lots of things. And the “use oddball tactics” side of me loved the passage where they trained/experimented with using the tail gun against ground targets. This is a solid work and I recommend it.