Review: Strategy

Strategy

B. H. Liddell Hart’s Strategy will always be a book I remember, although not necessarily for good reasons. It was one of the first history books where I’d become well-read enough to reasonably question its thesis. While Liddell Hart’s life and career has no shortage of controversy around it, I want to focus this review purely on this specific book.

Liddell Hart talks up the “indirect approach” big time, listing a huge number of historical examples. Unfortunately, the history is a cherry-picked list of questionable ones. Even when much younger, I remembered Liddell Hart skipping over several attempted indirect approaches in the American Civil War that failed and brushing off the battle of Guadalcanal (while falsely saying it was a project of MacArthur. It wasn’t.)

As for the theory, well, this kind of “maneuver warfare” talk is the kind of thing that’s uncontroversial in general principles yet doesn’t always translate to specific goals. Sometimes a “direct” approach is desireable. Many more times it’s necessary, for better or worse. What one can see Liddell Hart going for is wishful thinking, where fancy footwork alone can break an enemy without the need for any kind of attritional phase. This is utopian.

Is this book totally bad? No. I’d say it’s useful if you know the context. With that in mind, it’s useful for looking at how one school of thought approaches history and doctrine. But it shouldn’t be anyone’s first book on the subject.

The Oderpocalypse

This could only have been produced in a very short time period, after the Berlin Wall and end of the Warsaw Pact but before the actual breakup of the USSR. Because of this, this RAND report looks interesting, especially in its “long-term” ramifications.

Having an intact, hostile USSR but no Warsaw Pact means that to threaten Germany, it has to move through Poland first, can only put two fronts against Germany directly due to Poland not being that wide (the third has to either be a reserve/second echelon or swing through the Czech Republic), and puts the initial front line considerably farther to the east, with the Oder river being the first big obstacle. It’s an interesting piece.

Review: British Battleships

British Battleships

Oscar Parkes’ 1957 British Battleships: Warrior to Vanguard is exactly what it says: A gigantic encyclopedia on every large armored warship the Royal Navy operated from 1860 to the then-present. This has been one of the oldest, rarest, biggest, and most expensive books I’ve owned, and it’s amazing. This is a big, comprehensive look at British capital ships, from the famous ones of the World Wars to weird 19th Century contraptions.

The mid/late 1800s are the most interesting time period as battleship design zigzagged around, but every part of the book is effective. There are numerous cutaway drawings, and they’re well done. The writing is descriptive and engaging as well.

Yes, being made in the 1950s means a lot of it is dated now. Yes, it’s a little more broad than it is deep, a consequence of having to cover so much ground. But it is still an amazing, incredible history book. When published, the age of the battleship had just ended, making this book a fitting tribute.

The Conventional War In The Air, 1970s

I’ve come across a declassified CIA document from 1972 illustrating a speculative Soviet air campaign in a Cold War turned conventionally hot. Having just emerged from the nuclear monomania of the past decade, it shows the weaknesses of the Soviet air forces in what was new territory for them. Almost everything was either too short-ranged, too vulnerable, carried too small a bomb load for conventional war, or a combination of the above.

That being said, it still would be very formidable to oppose, especially by the standards of “we only need to hold the air above the North German Plain for a few days”.

Review: Fallen Soviet Generals

Fallen Soviet Generals

Aleksander A. Maslov’s Fallen Soviet Generals is a long, detailed, historical list of how general officers died in World War II. It’s a book I’ve mentioned before on this blog, but it deserves a full review of its own. Because the subject is interesting to me (for some reason), I enjoyed the book in spite of its obviously morbid topic.

This has the weakness of a dry history book. It’s not very lively or engaging for someone not into the subject matter, and it’s not helped by the book both being originally written in another language and being translated/edited by David Glantz, a legendary historian whose prose is nonetheless sometimes, er, flat. But it also has the strengths, meticulously categorizing how, where and when every single Soviet general died in the war.

The topic is interesting to me because, especially to an American (the US lost only twenty generals in World War II, less than a tenth the Soviet total) used to technology where they theoretically should be at less personal risk, the loss of a general officer seems like a strange aberration. Yet it clearly wasn’t, and there are many conflicts where it would be. Even for conflicts of a different technological type, Maslov’s book remains an excellent resource for how and why general officers could die in battle.

The Hall of Fame And The Hall of Herb

One of the most amusing things that I look at in sports history is to see how many Cooperstown plaque-holders can match the title record of Herb Washington-one. A little background is in order.

Herb Washington was a track athlete who was hired by the Oakland A’s as a “designated runner”. His lack of baseball knowledge meant that in practice, despite his speed, he couldn’t steal bases effectively. The trend of pinch-running specialists continued throughout the 1970s (in 1976, the A’s had two, Larry Lintz and Matt Alexander), but those were actual baseball players who could run fast. Washington, on an excellent three-peating A’s team, appeared in the 1974 World Series-and promptly got picked off at first. But he still got a title that many Hall of Famers didn’t have.

Just in the inaugural 1936 class, only one inductee (Babe Ruth) exceeds Herb Washington in championships (with seven). Then you have Ty Cobb (zero), and Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson, all with one, “equaling” Herb Washington.

Review: A UN Legion

A UN ‘Legion’: Between Utopia and Reality

Stephen Kinloch Pichat’s A UN ‘Legion’: Between Utopia and Reality is a very inconsistent book. This may be due to its subject matter, which involves the various proposals for a UN standing army, proposals made since before the formal United Nations Organization even existed.

About half the book, at least figuratively, is written in a particularly bad form of “academic-ese”. I had trouble getting through it and I read long dissertations for fun (seriously). Even if unintentional, the problem is that the political obstacles to such a force are so obvious and so easily explained that any long statement will become unfulfilling.

That being said, the other half of the book is a concise, well-written, and well-sourced example of various proposals. They come in two categories. The first is a gigantic “World Army”. The earliest proposals, made during World War II, fit this category, with numbers that seem big to a modern reader but weren’t back then. “World Armies” frequently were capped by a standing high-readiness force (think the 18th Airborne Corps or maybe the USMC/VDV).

The second is a smaller and more theoretically practical “UN Army”, a comparably small force designed for specific contingencies. One of the most detailed examples, which Pinchat describes, is the ‘Vital Force’/’UN Legion’ proposal amounting to several brigades of light to medium troops. Others amount to similar versions of the same thing-something that can conduct most normal peacekeeping missions, but without the ad hoc nature of existing setups.

I’m a little reluctant to recommend a book that sinks to such lows, but it’s still a good resource. It’s just a bit of a shame it’s not better laid out, but this is an academic history and the text is still good when it counts.

The Flying Aircraft Carrier: Not Just For Comic Books

Yes, there was a serious study on the possibility of equipping 747s with trapeze catches and stuffing them full of “microfighters” to serve as flying aircraft carriers that could reach any hot spot soon.

aacdesign

Besides the expense and equally obvious safety issues, these microfighters were only benchmarked against the MiG-21 and their small size would make them harder to upgrade (although this could be mitigated by increasingly miniaturized electronics and giving them smart weapons that didn’t need to be carried en masse). Still, this is a similar gimmick to what the absolutely crazy (in a good way) Black Eagle Force series did with its fighters, and it’s great for fiction.

Front Defensive Operations

frontdefense

From the Heavy OPFOR Operational, here is a picture of a front-sized defensive operation. My first thought upon seeing it and counting the divisions, besides any political concerns, is – “Does NATO even have enough forces to break through it without a huge amount of technological superiority”?

This particular diagram is something of an idealized best case, as the front has both a second-echelon tank army to counterattack and several independent divisions as “combined arms reserves”. But still. I’d have to ask…

  • How much of a force multiplier are the initial belts (which were expected to be overrun?)
  • How much of the artillery and missile forces can survive and fire effectively on the attackers as they approach?
  • Most importantly, what’s the overall context?

 

 

Autoloaders in Soviet tanks

Why did the Soviets so eagerly adopt autoloaders for their tanks? I don’t have any direct primary sources supporting it, but I have some hunches.

  1. Size. Soviet/Russian tanks have always had substantial size/weight limitations for transporting them along the entire length of the rather large country. This explains a lot, including why there was less (which is not the same as no) focus on tanks fighting other tanks, as opposed to using artillery and ATGMs. If the autoloader can make the tank smaller by removing one of the crew, it helps a lot.
  2. Making crew training less relevant. If you have a gigantic force of in-and-out conscripts, you don’t want to rely on something that relies a lot on individual skill.
  3. The third, which I saw in an intelligence piece on the Soviet tank company, stated “in understrength units there may be no loader in tanks other than those of the company and platoon commanders.” I’d really like to see more evidence for this, although it does say understrength.

There’s probably more like how it makes using bigger guns easier, but those are the biggest three that come to my mind. I also like to think of how the inevitable national bias would change if it was, for whatever reason, the opposite. Instead of tales of arm-wrecking autoloaders, there’d be sniggering of “we have high-tech auto-loaders, and the Soviets are still having people stuff the tank with shells-look at how they’d get tired.”