What Does Mobilization Mean?

Doing a rare commentary on a contemporary military situation, since it happens to overlap with what I’ve read about. Fair warning-I’m not an expert, I’m a civilian enthusiast who has read too much and seen too many order of battle charts. Take this what you will.

So, moving with the speed and grace of the Austin Powers steamroller victim, Russia has finally declared a “partial” mobilization after seven months of brutal attrition, including training units. At first limited to reservists and people with military experience in out of the way provinces (let’s be realistic), it’s nonetheless very broad. The initial goal is 300,000 troops, which sounds like a lot and is still politically dicey. Why they did this is obvious-the Ukrainian counteroffensives and the failure of their improvised semi-mobilization left them with little choice.

People have talked ad nausem about the equally obvious issues with training and equipping that many (or more) troops, as well as morale. So I’ll mention two topics. The first is what they can legitimately accomplish. This is to serve as a stationary dug-in meatshield as the first line of defense. Every army needs an infantry meatshield from somewhere. In the early summer Ukraine was doing this, desperately throwing poorly equipped and trained militia to the east. Of course, you can have that or you can have the 1991 Iraqi infantry formations, but there is a legitimate use for low-quality troops, at least on paper.

What they cannot do effectively is launch offensives. You can probably understand why this is a big deal. And that’s especially if they have worse and their opponents better equipment.

Now for the rivet-counting nerd part and what you need to equip 300,000 people (this is NOT saying the real ones would be equipped or organized this way, just showing how demanding it is equipment-wise). Using a mostly foot OPFOR infantry division as the baseline (ie, largely only suitable for defensive operations), and assuming a handwaved 20,000 strong divisional slice of support troops beyond the 10,000 strong division itself, you get get 15 division-equivalents, which is…

  • 465 tanks
  • 540 artillery pieces
  • 270 multiple rocket launchers
  • 540 anti-aircraft guns.

Even in Russia this does not grow on trees, especially after the stockpile has already been plundered massively.

My OPFOR Countries

Screenwriter Stephen E. de Souza has a catch-all Latin American country called “Val Verde” he uses whenever a politically neutral country in that part of the world is required for one of his movies. (In Arnold’s Commando, John Matrix wiped out the entire military of Val Verde by himself.) I have made several Val Verdes in my brain that I’m in the process of putting down in writing, and which may become more than just an order of battle chart.

They are:

Cardona

Cardona is the conventionally weakest OPFOR country and the closest to de Souza’s Val Verde in terms of theme. It draws from both South American and Southeast Asian influences (if I wanted to be really shameless, I could have it have large conveniently Spanish-speaking regions and equally large parts with native Asian languages.)

Cardona’s military is large in numerical terms but lightly equipped and is focused on internal control rather than external invasion. It also has no shortage of irregular groups of all shapes and sizes.

Seleucia

Named for the Seleucid Empire, Seleucia is a catch-all Middle Eastern OPFOR country. Like its namesake, it features terrain from the Mediterranean to the Altais. A diverse and fractious nation, it is at times (ie, when the scenario calls for it) a strong state and at times a weak one. But even at its conventionally weakest, it’s still more powerful in material terms than Cardona is.

Seleucia can be the opponent in everything from irregular warfare to Gulf War level major battles. It also can have nuclear weapons in some cases.

Teutonia

Named after a form of Germany, Teutonia is the developed western European country. The most technologically advanced of these states for the time period, it was once a world power and remains a continental one.

In addition, Teutonian exports are found all over the world, including in the other two mentioned countries. Teutonia is a nuclear power if the tech level of the scenario allows it.

All three will be elaborated on, possibly in prose form… (winks)

Weird Wargaming: Conventional Bush War

The Rhodesian Bush War passed without a decisive 1975-style conventional campaign. Of the two main guerilla organizations, it was the Ndebele, Soviet-favored ZIPRA that placed more of an emphasis on conventional operations, compared to the majority Shona, China-favored ZANLA’s “people’s war”. A combination of largely successful preemptive strikes by the Rhodesian military and a (smart) focus on inherent strengths than weaknesses by the opposition meant that the large battle never came.

The common wisdom about such an operation “Zero Hour” (as one code name for it was) is that it would be stopped with ease (although it does not help that most surviving prominent sources are either from the ZANLA-veteran regime or former Rhodesians, neither of which has an incentive to talk up their opponent). But even if the first such offensive was stopped with ease, the rebels definitely had the people and enough hand-me-down aid to try multiple times.

Such an offensive would feature the fairly light Rhodesian military against an opposition that would have at least T-34/85s, BTR-152s, appropriate artillery, and even rumors of fighter aircraft. (If said fighter aircraft could disrupt the deployment of the infamous Fire Forces, it would not be good for the Rhodesians). It can obviously be played with any kind of wargaming ruleset that can handle early/mid Cold War equipment and formations.

The Eternal Death (And Life) Of The Tank

The year is 1916. Someone peers through his binoculars and sees an artillery shell smashing into one of these new tracked machines called “tanks”, destroying it. Shaking his head, he goes “These can’t amount to anything, they can be destroyed so easily.” (Even with modern tanks, if a big artillery shell hits it, it’s gonna hurt.)

The year is 2022. Someone looks on the internet and sees a drone launching a smart munition and destroying a tank. Shaking his head, he goes “these must be obsolete, they can be destroyed so easily.” Some things never change.

I could point to 1918 and heavy machine guns (really, the M2 Browning was considered a prime antitank gun at its introduction), 1944 and bazookas, 1973 and ATGMs, 1991 and laser-guided bombs, 2003 and smart cluster shells-you get the idea. Many others have said with far more knowledge and eloquence than me about the importance of armor, mobility, and firepower, regardless of its destructibility. So I’ll take another route.

Imagine something that is objectively less well armed and less armored than a tank. Now imagine that it, vulnerable to everything a tank is and so much more, is nonetheless not obsolete but remains totally indispensable. I’m talking of course about the classic basic box-APC, proof against small arms and some shrapnel. There’s a reason why Ukraine in the current war has been so eager to receive any kind of vehicle with an engine and armor plating, and why released footage of its current offensive in Kherson has shown them being put to good use.

There’s a reason why, especially on any kind of open terrain, armored forces are so much more accomplished than unarmored ones. And no amount of anti-tank gadgets can change that.

Arthur Hailey: Technothriller Writer?

Generally speaking, alternate history questions about how some creative artist’s career could have gone differently are not my favorite thing. There are just too many inputs and inspirations, and one would be hard pressed to find something more volatile than popular culture tastes. That being said, I’ve found one author who I can definitely see sliding into a different genre if he’d come to fame 10-15 years later.

That author is Arthur Hailey, most famous for his novel Airport, which inspired the movie that spawned the entire disaster genre (and its parody in Airplane!). Hailey loved to write books that examined a complex thing (be it banks, airports, car factories, or what not) in amazing detail, before climaxing in some kind of crisis. He also loved technology to the point of taking too many futurists at face value (Passenger pods loaded into planes on conveyor belts!)

Hmmm, massively researched technical detail? A love of technology? That sounds like he’d be right at home with technothrillers.

In fact, I can so easily imagine Arthur Hailey’s Aircraft Carrier. The carrier and everything from the catapults to the air tasking order is described in minute detail. As is the drama surrounding members of the crew, which will consist of at least two middle-class Americans committing adultery. Then, in the final chapters of the book, the carrier will sail into action! But it won’t be a full on Fuldapocalyptic world war with the carrier fending off a hundred Tu-22s in the GIUK Gap while a nuclear sword of Damocles hangs over everyone’s head. Hailey just wasn’t that high stakes a writer, and his target audience probably wouldn’t go for something as tense as that. It would probably be something like El Dorado Canyon, probably against a fictional OPFOR country. The carrier accomplishes its mission, but not before a million more “I know the exact designation of a Scud TEL” infodumps are launched and at least one of the adulterers is blown up.

Look, I didn’t say it was going to be a good technothriller.

Indeed, as much as Clancy and Bond’s books may have been dated and rendered less potent by their technology becoming considerably less novel, Hailey’s have aged far worse. And I’m not (just) talking about their culture and characterization. Their entire gimmick is “this is a thing.” And if you already have the slightest familiarity with that thing in ways that audiences in the 1960s and 1970s did not, the books become empty clunkfests.

Still, it’s very easy to see the success of someone who wrote in a very similar style (Airport is basically a peacetime technothriller, after all) translating to something else down the road. That’s the fun of alternate history.

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.

Prop Betting

One of the most revolutionary changes in sports betting in recent years has been the rise of player props (ie, will this player score? How much of Stat X will this player accomplish in the game? Will the final score be odd or even?) Veteran gambling reporter David Purdum talks about this paradigm shift in an ESPN column. Props began in popular culture as those goofy things they did in the Super Bowl, but have now risen up massively, displacing the old spreads, totals, and moneylines.

Although Purdum’s column talks about the NFL, props are something that can (and have) been done in any sport with a relevant stat. Looking at the upcoming English Premier League matches, I’m seeing between 400 and 550 props on each game. (There are already over 200 props at some books for NFL Week 1 games a month off from the writing of this post). I saw an array of props for an upcoming cricket match. During the dark sports days of Spring 2020, I was both bemused and a little impressed by seeing giant prop menus for Belarusian soccer matches.

Of course props have a downside too from a business perspective, and that’s that they amplify the sharp-soft clash greatly. Traditionally, the few sharp books have had fewer and tamer prop markets than the much larger number of soft ones. It’ll be interesting to see to what extent the player/team prop markets can be “sharpened” the way the main lines have been.

But as of now, it’s a very reasonable question to ask “how can you ensure a house edge on hundreds and hundreds of different markets [things to bet on]?” And the answer is often “you really can’t.” The approaches are frequently blunt: Low limits, high house shares compared to lines, and restricting/limiting people who consistently win.

Still, for better or worse, giant prop bet menus are here to stay and dominate.

The Business Gurus

The Sure Bet King featured sports betting touts, or pick-sellers, as its subject. Now I feel it right to turn to a very similar (to the point where there has to be substantial overlap) type of charlatan who has followed a similar path of thriving first on late night infomercials and then excelling on the internet.

I speak of course of the business guru, often called “fake gurus” by their critics (with good reason). First I feel obligated to note that unlike sports betting touts, their actual business model can be applied well. It consists of providing and selling teaching courses on starting and running businesses. These can and have been done legitimately, so there’s a substantial grey zone…

…in theory. In practice, the business gurus come in a type of scheme that makes them no better than Dr. Goldrush’s 1000 Star Guaranteed Lock Of The Century! The biggest part of this scheme is that the investment courses are sold as a get-rich-quick miracle, something that leads you to relax and leave that horrible job you have (of course, running a business as opposed to being an employee almost always means more work, but the gurus won’t tell you that). Just learn about real estate flipping/dropshipping/whatever, and you can be as rich as them.

The second-biggest part is that the gurus almost always make more money by selling these courses than they did by doing the business practices they supposedly teach. Which is understandable, as you rarely see real successful entrepreneurs running around hawking seminars.

Finally, the people who have braved the courses will often mention how shallow and insignificant the actual content within is. After all, once you’ve paid for the course, the actual content doesn’t matter to the gurus.