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: Praxis Tacticum

Praxis Tacticum

Canadian retired colonel Chuck Oliviero has released the new Praxis Tacticum. It’s one of those “mean 51%” books, being incredibly erratic. Much of the actual content is not objectionable-ie, “learn to face someone who isn’t a low intensity, technically inferior opponent”. Some of it is stuff even unqualified armchair general me picked up-me being the OPFOR addict I am, I’ve seen journal articles complaining about the rigidity of the OPFOR in practice compared to its flexibility in theory that he states. And some of it, however much I’d disagree with, is at least defensible and understandable. Oliviero is much, much more of a “manueverist” than I would be.

Plus, anyone who wants to simplify documents and instructions into something that isn’t in field-manualese has their heart in the right place.

However, the execution does not come across as ideal. For something aimed at lower-level commanders, it feels far too pretentious and buries the important stuff (stuff like how to do rapid drills and move a unit very quickly without outrunning your supply lines), in a mess of pompous mush. His decision to have a flexible, winning OPFOR (good) turns into an embrace of exercise munchkinism. This also has its heart in the right place (again, an opponent with the ability will seek to disrupt your setup and can often succeed) but I had the uncomfortable feeling that it was just him wanting to show off his supposed genius, crossing the line too often from “spar in an unconventional way” to “spar in traditional boxing and then instantly launch a Masvidal-Askren flying knee to crush your partner before patting yourself on the back.”

And this is the biggest problem. There is a very, very, very obvious barely disguised subtext of resentment that he didn’t get to be in charge throughout the book. High technology is treated with skepticism, unless it’s on tracks. Like everyone, Oliviero comes across as unavoidably biased-but he takes it to extremes.

I would recommend this for enthusiasts or intellectuals who have a full grasp of the context surrounding this book. Yet from my limited viewpoint, I actually would not recommend it to his target audience. It comes across as too slanted and inefficiently written.

Review: The Iraqi Threat

The Iraqi Threat And Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction

In the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, Stephen Hughes released an unofficial sort of OPFOR compilation called “The Iraqi Threat And Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction.” As the intelligence forces of the world found out after the war, getting any kind of accurate information on a country both as secretive and as slapdash as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a very difficult challenge. So I can forgive Hughes for any inaccuracies in the book, just as how I can forgive pre-1991 western sources on the USSR for not having information that was only unclassified/found out later.

What is significantly harder to forgive is the layout of the book. It’s, to be frank, a total mess. A lot of the most important parts on Iraqi (conventional) capabilities are lifted from an NTC document but strewn about in a way that makes them less understandable. Likewise for his pieces on Iraqi equipment. And militias. And so on. About the only thing really interesting and coherent is a huge section on mountain formations and defenses, which is applicable to far more than just Saddam’s Iraq.

But that can’t save the rest of the book, which is just too poorly organized to be much good. Even accepting it as a product of its time, it’s still effectively unusable, unlike many other OPFOR documents.

Review: Silent Night

Silent Night: The Defeat of NATO

I thought that the well of classic Fuldapocalypses had run too low. Then I found out about and read Silent Night, a 1980 story about a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Written by WWII tank veteran Cyril Joly, it, as the title suggests, tells the story of NATO’s loss. There’s a reason why this book is not mentioned alongside Red Army in the list of “bad guys win” novels. Or talked about much at all.

That’s because it’s a terrible book. First the prose is clunky and none of the characters sound natural. Then there’s a ton of conference rooms, hopping viewpoints around everywhere and a tone of forced “solemn darkness”. It honestly reminded me of the online TLs/fanfics I’d read and gotten too angry about-but this was published in 1980. Of course, one thing about it is incredibly different and that is the nature of the war’s conduct.

Basically, 99.9999% of the work is done by infiltrated-in irregular forces, ranging from external operators to local collaborators. They smash bases, kill or capture commanders, and generally break NATO completely. By the time the Soviet conventional forces cross the Inter-German border, they’re facing only a tiny amount of scattered, light resistance. I’d compare it to the Iraqis in 2003 or the final stages of World War II in the west-but that would be an insult to the Fedayeen Saddam and Volkssturm.

After the cakewalk conquest, the later portion of the book involves a clear author rant where he suggests that NATO dramatically reduce its conventional forces in favor of fortifications with “micronuclear” launchers. Then it ends with an OOB dump to add “character.”

There’s a thing called survivorship bias, where you get nostalgia because you remember the good and not the bad. People remember Red Storm Rising, Team Yankee, Red Army, Chieftains, and Hackett for good reasons. They do not remember this, and it’s also for good reason.

Review: Hitler’s Last Levy

Hitler’s Last Levy

Hans Kissell was chief of operations for the German “Volkssturm” (lit. “People’s Storm”), the infamous last-ditch militia created at the end of World War II. In Hitler’s Last Levy, published in German in the 1960s and translated decades later, he told their story. It’s an interesting look at a horrific footnote.

The Volkssturm was both a desperation formation and Martin Bormann’s attempt at making his own pet army (like the SS was for Himmler or the Luftwaffe ground formations were for Goering). Kissell goes into detail and includes a massive amount of direct primary sources. While this is a work by a German WWII commander, its subject matter makes it at least a little better than the usual “we fought in our unstoppable kitty-tanks until we ran out of ammunition and fought totally cleanly” memoirs. It’s impossible to portray the ragged old men as some kind of super-army, and they had far less opportunity to commit war crimes simply because by that point they were losing. And Kissell doesn’t hesitate to point to their (many) weaknesses.

Because of this, and because of the wealth of primary sources and details (for instance, describing how on paper, some Volkstturm battalions had an organic battery of captured anti-tank guns), I recommend this for anyone wanting to know about them or similar emergency territorial formations. Yes, it’s dated and slanted. But it’s not nearly as bad in those regards as you might think.

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.

Courses of Action

So one of my concepts, well, anyway…

-Intact, with all the cancelled toys USSR going to finally rid themselves of the surviving Ceausescu (I’ve wanted to write a sort of “Soviet Gulf War”). Notably, the only ex-Warsaw Pact state that allows staging and troop support by this point is Bulgaria. (Bulgaria was considered the most politically reliable of them, being a longtime Slavic ally of Russia that did not experience much unrest before the fall).

-This was created using the amazing Map.Army program.

-Heavy OPFOR Operational says that high-level paradrops generally max out around 250 km from friendly troops (Which means 36 hours to catch up even under their most ideal advance rates, four days under the most ideal against a peer opponent, and at least a week under any kind of realistic resistance). The earlier Voroshilov Lectures say 150 km at most in conventional conditions.

That being said, the map!

Three courses of action. These are not specific drop zones but general guidance areas, and yes, I did extend COA 2 into the Ukrainian SSR itself. OOPS!.

Course of Action 1 (not labeled but closest to the border) is the most tame, and features a variety of tactical close-to-support airdrops in the initial advance areas. Course of Action 2 is a deeper operational/strategic drop to secure the other side of the Carpathian Mountains. Finally, COA 3 is the deepest and most daring yet and involves having paratroopers land ultra-deep to quickly establish a presence in the Yugoslav/Serbian border to try and hold off any escape or resistance aid from there.

As for the rest of the plan, it’s pretty much Soviet boilerplate-blast through, charge deep. Bucharest is going to be encircled first and then left to second-line units (including Bulgarian ones) to actually reduce. Romania’s plan in this not-unexpected event was to just stage a prolonged unconventional resistance and use their inevitable-to-be-overrun regular units to buy a little setup time.

The Seventh Marine Division

So with the help of the Spatial Illusions Unit Symbol Generator, I set to work making an alternate historical USMC formation. First, the very name. The name “7th Marine Division” is deliberate to symbolize its fictional nature. In real life, the USMC never had more than six divisions even at the height of World War II.

The 7th Division itself is basically an administrative formation that would never actually deploy in full as one manuever unit. Even its subunits are often unlikely to deploy in full at any one location. Its “line” formations are the following.

  • The Parachute Regiment, a sort of revival of the Paramarine concept. The heaviest formation in the 7th Division (in that it has the light artillery and vehicles that an airdroppable regiment/brigade elsewhere would), it functions as a parachute-qualified light airborne formation.
  • The SOF Regiment, which essentially is just the real MARSOC under a different structure type.
  • The Raider regiment, which unlike the real renamed “MARSOC” is meant (at least on paper) to be a more direct-action focus formation comparable to the traditional Army Rangers.

I’m sure there are very good reasons for not adopting an organization or formations like this in real life. Oh well. This is for thriller fiction and wargaming, after all.

The Growing MOUT Frontage

The Soviets had a love-hate relationship with city combat. On one hand, the pitfalls of something that went against their desire to move fast were very apparent. On the other, as the world became more built-up, they recognized it as a necessity. So in my relaxing reading of old field manuals, I decided to look up the frontage they desired in cities. Strictly defined frontages and unit boundaries were a trademark of them. Having both late 1940s and mid-1990s as my primary dates (because that was where I had the most detailed primary sources/analyses) wasn’t ideal, but oh well.

By the Heavy OPFOR/Genforce Era, the city block (generally 80-100 meters wide and 200-300 meters long) that had doctrinally taken a battalion or even entire regiment to storm fifty years earlier had been reduced to a reinforced company (whose reinforcements included SPHs meant to engage buildings with direct fire). Me being an detached armchair enthusiast, I’m wondering how much was better trust in a smaller unit with better training and communications and how much was the belief that they just had to walk over the rubble because their supporting firepower was so much greater.

And of course different circumstances would produce different geographical densities. But I still found it interesting. As was the shift of where the tanks should generally be compared to the infantry. With the Battle of Berlin undoubtedly in their minds, the most relevant statement in the early postwar regulations was “The mission of the tanks and the self-propelled artillery is to support the infantry attack with fire and shock action [note the “Fire” appearing first]”. Then much later their assault drills had the tanks usually going ahead of the infantry. Then after the uncomfortable experience of Chechnya, it shifted back to “the infantry should almost always go first unless the situation specifically calls for something otherwise”.