The Three What-Ifs

It’s my 600th post on Fuldapocalypse. I’ve gotten a lot of books recently on never-were aircraft. Thus it’s fitting to make this post about a pattern I’ve seen in equipment that never was. From least to most interesting, here are the three big categories I’ve seen.

The first is “a different proposal for the same requirements”. This is often the least interesting, because the different proposals are still designed to meet the same goals. Most of the time you get something that just looks different but has similar (theoretical) performance, and sometimes not even then. There can be real and appreciable differences, but they especially aren’t noticeable on the outside.

The second is kind of related to the first, and that’s “a proposal that lost, and whose reasons for losing are obvious”. For instance, it’s very easy to see why the T-8 design won handily for what would become the Su-25 compared to its competitors-and not just from other bureaus. It faced the anachronistic Il-40/102, and some shoved-in kitbashes of existing aircraft (Yakovlev put forward a variant of its not-exactly-ideal existing designs, Mikoyan used something based off the classic Fishbed, and even Sukhoi itself had a derivative of the Su-15 interceptor that looked very little like its “parent.”).

The third is the real fun part, and that’s stuff made with totally different goals. This is where you get all the giant napkinwaffe planes. But you also stuff that’s knowingly lower-performance for the sake of affordability.

The increased effectiveness of smart bombs firsthand

I decided to indulge my inner VVS target planner and do some (very basic) calculations for air power against opposing targets. What I found made me smile. The methodology is extremely simple-I used a regiment of 36 paper-strength aircraft, carrying 4 PGMs each (a proposed upgrade for the MiG-29 had a targeting pod on the centerline and up to 4 KAB-500L laser bombs). Then I used the 60% hit rate estimated for smart bombs in the Gulf War. Then I had only 25 aircraft actually launched to simulate attrition and realistically low readiness.

So that gets 100 drops and 60 targets plinked. That’s one-two battalions worth, if we’re talking about armored vehicles. And even that’s ideal and doesn’t take stuff like aborts, aircraft getting shot down before reaching their target, and hitting the wrong thing into account. But this is an oversimplified spherical cow exercise anyway.

What makes this more interesting is the 1969 claim that “a fighter-bomber division is capable, in one day of combat with two or three sorties, of inflicting destruction (up to 20% losses) on one to two enemy brigades”. Meaning at the very least, even earlier PGMs can have an air regiment do what used to take a division three times its size.

This was a fun little thought exercise to do.

Weird Wargaming: The Red October

Yesterday I placed a formal Command database request for a hypothetical Soviet submarine. But this wasn’t something like say, a Yankee Notch with conventional missiles. No, this was of a famous literary submarine. The titular undersea ship in The Hunt For Red October. And it made me think of more than just wargame stats.

First, the boring stuff. The Red October in the book isn’t just a re-engined Typhoon. It’s bigger, and has 26 tubes for SS-N-20 missiles instead of the twenty in the original. Weirdly, and this is actually a kind of accidental serendipity, it has only four torpedo tubes compared to the six in real Typhoons. This is probably just getting the not-yet-confirmed details wrong (a sillier example is the even-then biased Clancy portraying the Typhoon as a cramped mess when in fact it famously boasts a gym, arcade, and small swimming pool). But it makes to give up some low-priority torpedo tubes to help make room for the caterpillar drive.

Ah yes, the caterpillar drive. For the database request-in game, I wanted to go the simple route. While in the book it has a combination of the quiet caterpillar-impeller drive and louder normal propellers, I think doing complex mechanics changes for one whimsical hypothetical unit would not be a good cost-benefit. So my suggestion in the real request was just to treat the sub overall as very quiet (at the level of a post-1991 SSBN with advanced propulsion) and leave it at that.

But what got me thinking, especially with full post-USSR hindsight, was how a sub of that nature could be used. Now ballistic missile subs do not have the most complicated or versatile mission structure. But the question (regardless of what the book would say) whether it’d just be used as a more defensible bastion sub or dare to venture out to its quietness would make for interesting study/simulation.

Finally, a part of me views the sub as being something like the ill-fated Komsomolets: A capable and advanced vessel, but one that’s still ultimately a test-bed with additional members of the class unlikely to be built. Especially because the base Typhoon is so big and bulky already.

Weird Wargaming: Supersonic VIP Jets

Every so often, a supersonic business/VIP jet proposal emerges, often derived from high-performance fighters. One of the most interesting was a plan to use the MiG-25 of all airplanes to make a very fast transport. (It wasn’t that serious of a design, but still…)

Now, I can think of a few legitimate, cost-is-no-deterrent users (both governmental and private) who would benefit from moving a few people or a small amount of material around very quickly. But other than that, in private hands I can honestly see supersonic bizjets as being knowingly ridiculous status symbols. Like the supercar that never goes above the speed limit or the SUV that never navigates anything more than a small hill on the road, it’s the symbolism that counts.

And then there are the Jon Land-style super-conspiracies, who of course would have the fastest, shiniest, most capable aircraft imaginable…

Soft and Sharp Sportsbooks

Here’s a great post on the two main kinds of sportsbooks, “sharp” ones that allow skilled bettors to play and actively shift their lines, and “soft” ones that focus more on marketing/entertainment, just follow the lead of the sharp books regarding lines, and will, often massively, stop skilled bettors.

As for the ethics question of it, well, I do think soft books are unethical the way that other types of gambling are unethical. After all, I remember very well all of those New York State Lottery commercials promising riches just one ticket away. And the highest margin business model of sports betting is often called the “parlay lottery” for good reason.

Though to be fair, the odds have to be staked in favor of the house for the sportsbooks to survive at all. The analogy I use is basketball. If it’s a soft book, you’re playing a rigged carnival version. If it’s a sharp book, you’re playing one on one against a pro player who’s good at stealing the ball even from other pros. As betting expert Joseph Buchdal put it:

How about this one [warning label]: “95% of sports bettors will lose at UK bookmakers. The other 5% will be banned. 99.9% of sports bettors will lose at bookmakers who let you win.

The Similarities Of Two Seemingly Different Activities

What I like about my favorite simulation games is that you can set up a situation and see how it plays out. Sometimes it’s an obvious situation, and sometimes you legitimately don’t know. Sometimes it’s legitimately relevant to contemporary issues, and sometimes it’s a total gonzo fantasy. I did think that writing fiction was different-until I actually wrote multiple books.

In the spectrum of “write completely as you go along” to “meticulous plotting”, I’m somewhere in between. I do make outlines and character lists, as much as so that I don’t forget them as for any other reason. But my final products have frequently either diverged from the outline or incorporated something not in them. Reminiscing on that has made think “a-ha, so it really isn’t that different from a sim.”

It involves me setting up a situation (which is to say the basic plot and main characters). Then it involves me seeing how that situation plays out over the course of me writing and editing it. It is fascinating to look back on my completed books and see how their development unfolded.

On Sports Betting Media

The legalization of sports betting in the United States has brought about a wave of media devoted to it. And even in the offshore era, there were no shortage of websites talking about gambling. After looking at sports betting media, it didn’t take me long to sour on it. Even with less direct knowledge, it came across as being extremely shallow at best and, more often, something sinister seeming. It felt like trying to goad people who knew basic sports trivia into playing a stacked against them game (even back then, I knew the fundamentals of how gambling worked).

And after finding out more, studying more, and getting the spark that would lead to The Sure Bet King, I feel weirdly proud to say that well, I was completely on point. The conflicts of interest are there. Sportsbooks themselves and their loss share affiliates (people who get others to sign up to the books in exchange for a share of the house winnings) obviously have no direct incentive to help punters win and much motivation to help them lose. There’s a reason why sportsbooks hype up the people who hit a monster parlay/accumulator (where multiple outcomes all have to win), because those are where the house has the biggest edge. The idea is to get Joe Sportsball Fan to be convinced that if he follows his gut and knowledge of trivia, like how Aaron Rodgers doesn’t have that clutch spirit, then the jackpot will be his.

Even more innocently, I think (no pun intended) that even without this conflict, a lot of sports betting shows are just basic sports opinion pieces given a gilded gambling coating. The indispensable “Sports Truth with William Leiss” channel (who I actually thanked in the dedication to my book, and with good reason), has two videos showing this, which is dubbed the “think tank.” There isn’t any actual statistical analysis (not that most sports hosts could really do it beyond “Oh, he’s hitting .230”), just stuff like “I think that the Giants offense isn’t ready yet so I think the Colts will cover.”

Then there are the few sharp bettors who are (of course) magnified on social media. To be honest, after seeing what it entails, I would chose one of my old jobs that involved hauling carts back to a rickety old, cramped supermarket, often in bad weather, for six days a week, in an instant over being a professional sports bettor. It just feels almost wasteful, like a strange form of slumming from people who have the drive and/or intelligence to succeed at other careers that are far less zero-sum and far more relaxing. Learning that a lot of the “sharps” win not by being better handicappers but by a combination of manipulating the lines and doing the equivalent of coupon-clipping and bargain hunting, further drove my opinion down.

In fact, despite me maintaining every bit of negative feelings for the sleazy tactics of the bookmakers, I actually began to take their side to an extent regarding the banning/limiting of winners (one of the most vocal complaints from the sharps). And it wasn’t just “oh, they have to make money.” It was more like “oh, they have every right to keep munchkins from plundering them. Good for them.”

And then there are the touts, or tipsters. These pick-sellers are nearly all scam artists, and when I saw how they worked, I knew that one would be the perfect topic for a novel. Touts got amplified because for the longest time they were the only sports betting figures who could operate semi-openly (see the infamous infomercials), and they took advantage of it post-legalization.

Finally, there are the various governments who treat sports betting as a tax-producing cash cow. New York is particularly ham-fisted in this regard, which is even more counterproductive because there’s the far more lenient New Jersey right next door. So yeah, there’s that too.

So I came away from my research with even less regard for the sports betting industry than I had before-and more of a feeling that it would be great subject matter. So I wrote my first full-length novel about that very topic. And I had lots of fun doing so.

In Memoriam, Pierre Sprey

It took me some time to find out that Pierre Sprey, the legendary face of the “Pentagon Reformers”, passed away. RIP, and all sympathies with his friends and family. His life as a person (and music producer) has little to do with his life as an analyst. But it’s Sprey as an analyst that the military internet knows, and that legacy is, sadly, mostly for the worse.

As an analyst, Sprey symbolized a lot of trends, most of them negative. What he was most known for was his faulting any aircraft beyond a YF-16 as being slow, clunky, expensive, and that wouldn’t even work. One can take a sympathetic view and point out that it made much more sense in the 1960s with bulkier, objectively less effective early sensors. Once solid state electronics developed, one could have one’s cake and eat it too. Sprey still kept designing an air force that would make perfect sense-for a third world country in 1962.

Sprey also had a McNamara Pentagon (of which he was a member)-style fascination with numbers for their own sake. Thus the F-86 was good because of its (inaccurate) 10-1 kill ratio, as opposed to the lower rates of Vietnam-era fighters. SAMs were overhyped just because they didn’t shoot down that many aircraft directly. While some of it was grounded, it felt like spherical cow analysis from someone who didn’t understand context.

To me the extra-sad part was his decline. This can happen to people in all circumstances. Joe Morgan the baseball player was an ahead-of-his time figure whose style was a sabermetrician’s dream. Joe Morgan the baseball analyst was a traditionalist cliche-spouter who became a sabermetrician’s nightmare. Bill Belichick was one of the more sensible coaches when it came to going on fourth down. Now he’s one of the most timid. Tom Clancy dropped significantly in quality. You get the idea.

What wasn’t Sprey’s fault was that he ended up in a media environment where he had no incentive to be accurate and every one to continue his initial statements. What was his fault is that he embraced it. He could just keep citing his (somewhat exaggerated) credentials and repeating all of his soundbites. He could get sloppy to the point where he couldn’t even display the right system (using a Stryker MGS to symbolize a 175mm M107). He could sound credible to people who had entirely reasonable suspicions about military equipment-and not enough knowledge to counter him. But to people who did have enough knowledge, he became a mildly annoying irrelevance.

In fact, I could probably argue that Sprey hurt his own cause. Because too many people with legitimate concerns about legitimate technological overreach cited or sided with him, it likely harmed their own credibility. What I’ve read is that there was a surprising amount of common ground between the Pentagon Reformers and those actually in the military who wanted “good enough now” solutions and a focus on human improvement over trying to tech past problems. They squandered it by going completely outside.

Sprey should have been remembered as a man who did some defense commentary a long time ago and spent the rest of his life as an eccentric music producer. Instead he willingly became, in the words of military Youtuber “Lazerpig“, a “rent a critic”.

The Making Of A Division

Just as eggs, butter and flour mix don’t equal a pancake on their own, having three hundred tanks and two hundred APCs does not equal an armored division. By American standards, even in World War II, it took a year and a half to turn a scratch-built division from “exists on paper” to “ready to deploy”. Postwar, two years was an optimistic hope.

The central core of the division is a “cadre”. The officers (how many are commissioned vs. non depends on the circumstances) comprise the cadre of the division, which in a normal sized division is around one to two thousand people. Reserve forces deliberately keep their cadre at higher strength and readiness so they can be quickly built around during mobilization.

There’s also external powers not just supplying the equipment, training, and resources for their client/colonial army, but also supplying the central officer cadre as well. (This is why one snapshot analysis of Iranian casualties in the Syrian Civil War found no confirmed dead below the rank of sergeant.)

I also want to say that the cadre forces are the hardest to obtain (from just my amateur gut reaction) compared to either a large number of shorter-trained recruits or a few high-level commanders. The bottleneck for your revved-up 25 division army, especially an effective one, feels like the roughly 25,000 people in the cadre, compared to the 25 commanding generals or the 250,000 enlisted. And this is before political difficulties arise. Although I should note that this was less an issue for continental powers in the World Wars because of both having plenty of survivors from destroyed units as cadres and, to be frank, lower standards.

Cadres can come from:

  • Scratch-trained officers “jumping rank”.
  • The small existing military being streched out to become a cadre force (this happened in World War II-in 1939 Ike was a lieutenant colonel).
  • Retired personnel being brought back.
  • Existing irregulars being formalized. (This led to “Zouave” regiments in the American Civil War being formed around Napoleonic reenactors because they were the only ones with skill at musket drills).
  • External personnel being sent in to fill the cadre role.
  • Survivors from reduced/destroyed units.