Review: The Soviet/Russian Aircraft Carriers

The Soviet/Russian Aircraft Carriers

It’s time to ring in the new year with…. another history book. This one is Simon Beerbaum’s book on Soviet and Russian aircraft carriers. It’s not just about the Kiev and Kuznetsov classes, which I feared it might have been. On the contrary, it has everything from pre-WWI czarist proposals to post-revolution plans for converting surplus ships (with limited technology/resources, it would have been easier to finish a large warship as a carrier rather than an armored, big-gun battleship) to never-weres like the Ulyanovsk and Project 11780 Kherson “Ivan Tarava” helicopter amphib based on the Kiev.

This is an amateur enthusiast project, so it has issues with formatting and inconsistent quality in the line drawings. Those are small issues, and if I had a bigger gripe, it’d be that far too little attention is given to the actual air wings of those carriers-the entire reason they’re built. It’s vague, especially when there’s no shortage of equally fascinating never-were carrier planes as well (from the Yak-141 to navalized MiG-23s to other exotics).

Still, this book does what it sets out to do. For a country whose carriers have arguably all been prestige peacocks, a lot of designs were made. If you want an intro to these flattops, you could do a lot worse than this book.

Review: US Battleships

US Battleships: An Illustrated Design History

Norman Friedman’s US Battleships: An Illustrated Design History was one of the first really big, really crunchy, really technical books on military equipment that I got. It’s obviously not light reading (at least for normal people), but it flows well. And I honestly think battleships are the best suited to a historical chronicle like this.

Since 99% of their history was in the past tense (the sole exception being the Iowa reactivation at the time of the book), it means there’s less sensitive info around. And since battleships are gigantic and awesome (don’t lie), it makes for fascinating reading. In battleships, you can see the US Navy going from its humble beginnings to its World War II juggernaut.

Technical naval warfare fans should definitely get this book. It’s one of the best of its kind.

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).

Review: Super-Squad

Super-Squad: The Now Missing Component

It’s time to look at one of the most prolific military theorists: Vietnam veteran H. John Poole. Poole’s recent Super-Squad is a detailed call for improved light infantry tactics and a different squad organization, along with a historical study of various opponents from World War I to the present.

I may have never, ever encountered a “mean 51%” nonfiction book like this one. Poole is an infantry veteran who’s walked the walk. His desires are sincere and heartfelt, and many of his goals are valid or at least understandable. Yet there’s just so much else wrong in presentation and even theory here.

The book could probably be around half of its length and work with a concise message of “This is my proposed squad organization. This is how various limited-resource opponents across history used maneuver and skill to counter their lack of direct resources. You cannot always assume superior resources, so this is vital.”

Instead, it’s a long rambling bunch of anecdotes and illustrations, often from old field manuals. Anything that shows the “eastern army” succeeding is trumpeted. Anything that shows them failing is quickly glossed over. The writing lacks humility, to put it mildly. There are statements like “no combined infantry/tank attack has succeeded except on open terrain”, which is simply untrue. The ridiculous lumping of every possible Asian opponent into generalized “eastern armies”, combined with an obsession with ninjas (really!) doesn’t exactly help much. Neither does (especially if you want change) the constant bashing of the existing American military, something that will put most people on the defensive.

This has to be understood as being like Curtis Lemay calling for a giant fleet of super-bombers dropping souped-up nuclear weapons. If your experience involves a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Everything. It gets kind of repetitive and even a little annoying at places.

I don’t regret getting this book. As an “OPFOR light infantry tactics and case studies as written by your kooky old granddad who’s convinced he can save the economy through multi-level marketing” book, it (and many of Poole’s other books, given their similarities) works for what it is. Just don’t really expect it to be anything more.

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.

Review: Russian and Soviet Ground Attack Aircraft

Russian And Soviet Ground Attack Aircraft

Alberto Trevisan and Anatoly Borovik’s Russian and Soviet Ground Attack Aircraft is the latest addition to my collection of technical, diagram-filled books on aviation history. It’s meant to be a comprehensive, picture-heavy catalogue of all the “Samolety Polya Boya”, a term that can be very awkwardly translated to [their definition] “Battlefield Aircraft”. The “Russian” in the title is accurate, as this book also includes World War I and post-1991 designs.

The “Samolety Polya Boyas” in this book range from the famous Il-2 and Su-25 Sturmoviks to low-end propeller planes to high performance edge cases like the MiG-23BN/27s (the proposed but never adopted final upgrade package that included the ability to mount radar pods and refuel in midair warms my Flogger fan heart). It also looks at never-were designs in the same range, most notably the postwar Illyushins, which were victims of technology, doctrinal changes, and being extremely ugly.

Some of the types it does and doesn’t focus on can feel a little arbitrary. While I suppose that’s the perils of dedicating a book to as vague a term as “ground attack aircraft”, I feel obligated to point it. Thankfully their choices never feel too weird or too bad, and I can understand the desire to avoid mission creep.

If I had one quibble (besides a somewhat iffy layout), it’s that there isn’t enough “how” in the book for my tastes. I would have liked to see an Air Battle Central Europe-esque section on the doctrinal “division of labor” between them, helicopters, and higher-performance bombers/strike aircraft, and how it evolved and changed. While I can get information on that from other sources (and/or intuit it based on capability-your slow short-legged ground attackers are not going to be used for deep, well-defended targets if they can help it), it’s still a lacking feature.

But the rest of the book is still great. The artwork is excellent, the list of aircraft covered is very big despite its self-imposed limitations, and the technical detail (especially for paper aircraft with fewer sources available) is surprisingly high. Even without the parts I would have liked, this is still a great resource for a centerpiece of the VVS.

Review: The Afghan Way Of War

The Afghan Way Of War

Robert Johnson’s The Afghan Way of War was an obvious buy for me based purely on its relevance to current events. I was expecting a concise military history of that country and got it. But I also got more. The “more” had a few rough spots but was mostly good. As the book was published in 2011, it does not contain the decade that saw massive changes in the war even before the fall of Kabul. But that’s not it’s fault. Anyway, this was an interesting book, and not just because of its subject matter.

From the get go, the book wants to avoid and debunk “Orientalist” stereotypes. Because of this, at times it can get a little too “argumentative”, for lack of a better word. There are some passages that remind me of Stephen Biddle’s Nonstate Warfare in terms of being a little too focused on going “Well, these sources are wrong”. But only a few, and they aren’t deal breakers by any means. That the book succeeds at achieving its goal helps a lot.

And when The Afghan Way of War goes from being “argumentative” to “informative”, it works wonderfully. Johnson avoids not just the “idiot fanatic savage” stereotype, but also its cousin, the “cunning inscrutable super-warrior that the poor dumb lazy westerner cannot comprehend” that the likes of William Lind and H. John Poole like to trot out. The Afghans from the 1700s to the present are shown at their best and worst, never being truly dominant even in irregular warfare but always a threat.

One of the most fascinating and best written sections dealt with the Soviet war in the 1980s. The picture it paints of the mujaheddin there is not a flattering one. They come across as being substantially and massively flawed, and accomplishing as much as they did purely due to external support and the inherent advantages of irregular war on home ground.

Granted, its conclusions are not exactly shocking to anyone knowledgeable. Said conclusions amount to “a country known for poverty and disunity will have that manifest in its military and operations”. And it sometimes dives a little too deeply into supposed motivations (the “why”) when a deeper dive into operations (the “how” ) would have been, at least in my opinion, more useful.

Still, this is an excellent book and I highly recommend it.

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.