Review: Will To Fight

Will To Fight

In the Will To Fight study/book, RAND analysts tried to take a look at one of the most important yet hard to study parts of war-the will of the soldiers to fight. It’s a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s sincere in trying to tackle something essential, and its detail is excellent.

On the other, it’s centered around a chart that resembles what you see in the dreaded DoD Powerpoints of Doom. This is not the most surprising thing, but it is still a little too awkward. And beyond the well done simulations and descriptions of games with morale factors and how they affect outcomes, it still has the feeling to trying to directly quantify what’s admitted in the study itself as not directly quantifiable.

Nonetheless, the topic is well-cited and well handled, and is important enough that “mixed” quality still makes it well worth a read.

Review: Wings Over The Hindu Kush

Wings Over The Hindu Kush

Lukas Muller’s Wings Over The Hindu Kush shines a light on an obscure footnote in aviation history: The Afghan air forces (yes, plural) between the Soviet withdraw and Enduring Freedom. Leaving behind a large quantity of helicopters and aircraft, there were enough parts and willing pilots for the Taliban and its rivals to create air forces up until 2001. As someone aware of their existence and interested in how functional air units could be maintained from such “scraps”, this book was an easy purchase.

In a complex, fluid situation without the best documentation, getting the detail that Muller did was no small feat. The book isn’t the biggest or most absolutely detailed, but it does tell the story of these helicopters, Fitters, and Fishbeds. And it’s a very interesting story.

The strike aircraft were far from the most capable or effective (the transports in a place with poor infrastructure were far more vital), but their mere presence in such conditions was surprising. And this book clears up the surprise in a great way.

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.

Review: Soviet Era Airliners

Soviet-Era Airliners: The Final Three Decades

In many ways, Aeroflot mirrored the USSR itself. Its breakup in 1991 scattered the massive airline’s assets across all the independent republics. Christopher Buckley’s Soviet-Era Airliners: The Final Three Decades tells the story of what happened to all the “Classics”, “Crusties”, “Carelesses”, “Clobbers”, and more. While the collapse of the USSR and the failure of its aviation industry to make a competitive product caused its new-build civil aircraft industry to fall apart instantly, there were lots of surplus planes around.

This book does a great job showing most of their fates. There’s lots of details and even more excellent photographs. If you like civil aviation at all, this is a great book. I was curious to see what happened to these flying trilobites, and now I know.

Review: Confrontation

Confrontation: The War With Indonesia 1962-1966

Peter van der Bijl’s Confrontation is a military history of the four-year small war known as the Konfrontasi. It goes into extremely military detail. What’s not to like? The answer is, surprisingly, a lot. This isn’t really a bad book, but it is a flawed one.

The first flaw comes from the nature of the war: It really wasn’t much of one. It was more a political stunt by Sukarno than anything else, and the actual service chiefs did the bare minimum to support it. This isn’t the author’s fault, but his priorities are. There’s less of the politics (though they’re still present) and more of firefights in the jungle that blend together (almost always ending with “better-trained Commonwealth troops get the better of worse Indonesians”).

The second comes from the author’s biases. There are a lot of rants about journalists, especially journalists covering the Troubles, which feel kind of out of place. Worse is the absolute fawning hagiography of the British and Commonwealth armies. This is accurate in terms of specifics vis a vis the Indonesians, but still gets annoying, as does the very British slant of “unlike you knuckle-dragging Yanks, we won our jungle war” without noticing the very different context of Malaya. Finally, there’s no real attempt to explore escalation counterfactuals beyond just “The Indonesian air force and navy wasn’t very good”.

This ultimately comes across as just a series of jungle warfare vignettes. It’s not the worst book about its conflict, but it’s not the best and could be much more.

Review: The Rhodesian War

The Rhodesian War: A Military History

The subject of Rhodesia and its war is dominated by uh, “iffy” sources that I shouldn’t have to explain the problems with. Thankfully, among these strides a beautiful unicorn: Moorcraft and McLaughlin’s The Rhodesian War: A Military History. Originally released not long after the war’s end and Zimbabwe’s creation, it recently got an updated edition on post-war developments.

What this is is a very evenhanded, very detailed look completely devoid of “Fire Forces! Selous Scouts!” “Shorts!” “Be a Man Among Men!” Soldier of Fortune romanticism. It doesn’t hesitate to look at the negatives of the guerillas (and, in the updated edition, the Mugabe regime), but it’s unsparing in its blunt assesment of the minority government: Rhodesia was doomed from the start. The British knew it. Apartheid South Africa knew it, which is why they tried to twist Rhodesia into stepping aside in favor of a moderate African government, rather than face a radicalized one on their border that would develop from a victorious war. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that even South Vietnam and 2001-2021 Afghanistan rested on vastly sturdier foundations than Rhodesia did.

The Rhodesians had no concept of war as a political entity and were only good at leveraging limited resources in tactical operations. Even those were aided by weaker opponents (Rhodesians themselves had said that if the guerillas had been as astute in military craft as the Vietnamese ones had been, the war would have been lost much sooner), and said opposition was becoming better as the end of the decade neared.

This is one of the best-single volume military histories I’ve read. It’s also a great antidote to noxious internet fandom surrounding a country that simply did not deserve it.

The Nuclear Assumptions

The one thing going in the would-be nuclear terrorists favor is that nuclear weapons have a lot of “slack” built into their design. IE, they can be ridiculously “inefficient” and still be devastating. Even a rough-implosion sub-kiloton warhead is still a much hotter, radioactive version of this:

But that’s it. Everything else works against them. There’s a lot of attention paid to nuclear material ever since the 1940s for obvious reasons. The materials require specialized personnel and are hazardous (radiation is the least of the worries-both uranium and plutonium are extremely flammable, for one). I used the analogy of Y2K in my review of the best book on the subject that I’ve read.

While reading Brian Michael Jenkins’ own book, one passage jumped at me. This was Jenkins, a renowned terrorism and security expert, talking about how the yields increased.

We have too easily slid from the scientists’ first estimates of terrorist nuclear devices with yields likely to be in the tenths of a kiloton range to a now-assumed standard of a ten-kiloton terrorist bomb. The worst case has become the baseline assessment.

-Brian Michael Jenkins. Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? (Kindle Locations 3611-3612). Kindle Edition.

And yet, both seem valid. Ten kilotons is slightly less than Little Boy, an extremely simple “bang two chunks of HEU together” design whose biggest limiter is that it requires a lot of fissile material. Less than a kiloton is what’s often theorized for a very basic implosion design, necessary with plutonium as the explosive material. Since in the 1970s there was justified fear around the glut of plutonium, that is not an unreasonable assumption. Likewise, it’s also not unreasonable to assume that with access to Little Boy levels of material (Cold War “Surplus”?) one could make a Little Boy level bomb.

There are no real case studies to go on. Aum Shinrikyo conducted the only known and most credible attempt to acquire nuclear weapons by a terror group. It never got beyond basic theoretical designs, as has every other terror daydream. With a (thankful) sample size of zero, all planners can do is base the possibilities on theory.

Review: The Burma Wars

The Burma Wars

Because Myanmar/Burma features so prominently in my current novel draft, I figure I’d look at George Bruce’s The Burma Wars , a history of the British conquest. There were three large Anglo-Burmese wars, but Bruce mostly concentrates on the first. This is understandable, as the latter two were uninteresting squashes.

Bruce is every bit the Empire fan you’d expect a British pop-historian of the 1970s to be, but he still gives the Burmese credit when due. They were comparably armed, had a knack for building fortifications quickly, and the Anglo-Indian force that went against them was logistically troubled and questionably led. And yet, the British still eventually won, and it only got better/worse from there.

I wouldn’t make an old piece of popular history the sole source on any big historical event, but this at least made for a good starting point. I’m glad I read it.

A Thousand Words: The Assassination of Trotsky

The Assassination of Trotsky

Directed by Joseph Losey and starring Richard Burton as the title character, The Assassination of Trotsky is often placed on many “worst movies ever” lists. It is a well deserved placement. For this is a terrible, terrible movie. And it’s deliberately terrible-it’s not due to circumstances, but due to creative choices.

First off is Richard Burton’s performance. His Trotsky looks like a cheap Colonel Sanders mascot and acts like that aging beatnik professor you had in college and loathed. You will learn absolutely nothing about the historical context from this film. In fact, the only way to make sense of the incoherent plotting is to assume that Losey thought the audience would already know everything historically relevant.

Second is the massive, massive padding. Since it doesn’t take ninety minutes to have an ax hitting someone in the head (SPOILER ALERT!), Losey fills the movie with filler. This includes a scene involving rabbits being raised, a long gondola ride where Stalin’s image appears in the water, and, worst of all, a long and gruesome bullfight scene. The only attempts at suspense involve dragging every scene out and playing minimalist music. This gets old after about, oh, two such scenes.

About the only sympathetic character is Romy Schneider’s “Gita”, who is as confused with the situation and disgusted with the bullfight as the audience is. Sadly, she cannot carry on her own, and is the subject of a padding scene as well.

This is a terrible, terrible mess that’s almost so bad it’s good. Almost.

Review: Revisiting South Africa’s Nuclear Program

Revisiting South Africa’s Nuclear Program

Apartheid South Africa built a handful of nuclear bombs before the ANC government dismantled them. As a result of that revelation and transparency, it provided an interesting look into a a field that is understandably quite opaque otherwise. David Albright and Andrea Stricker’s Revisiting South Africa’s Nuclear Program show it in depth.

Altough this is a technical nonfiction book, Albright and Stricker nonetheless write well, and it’s quite accessible to non-nuclear physicists. The creation, developmental struggles, warhead production, and removal of South Africa’s nuclear weapons is all covered, and there are several interestingly unique factors about it that the book provides.

The first is a technical tidbit. South Africa went with a conceptually simpler gun-type device in the style of Little Boy. However, their device was small enough to fit on a Raptor glide bomb carried by a Blackburn Buccaneer, and there were (preliminary) plans to boost it to around a hundred kilotons using a special pellet. As most powers have used implosion devices, South Africa’s experience shows how far the basic gun-type can be pushed.

The second is that, unlike other nuclear programs, South Africa’s was comparably well run and efficient. The pragmatic choice of a gun-type was one of the good decisions that it made. And it still took several years in peacetime while running into bottlenecks-most notably the enriching of uranium.

For those interested in the relevant subjects, this book is thus a good read.