What Does Mobilization Mean?

Doing a rare commentary on a contemporary military situation, since it happens to overlap with what I’ve read about. Fair warning-I’m not an expert, I’m a civilian enthusiast who has read too much and seen too many order of battle charts. Take this what you will.

So, moving with the speed and grace of the Austin Powers steamroller victim, Russia has finally declared a “partial” mobilization after seven months of brutal attrition, including training units. At first limited to reservists and people with military experience in out of the way provinces (let’s be realistic), it’s nonetheless very broad. The initial goal is 300,000 troops, which sounds like a lot and is still politically dicey. Why they did this is obvious-the Ukrainian counteroffensives and the failure of their improvised semi-mobilization left them with little choice.

People have talked ad nausem about the equally obvious issues with training and equipping that many (or more) troops, as well as morale. So I’ll mention two topics. The first is what they can legitimately accomplish. This is to serve as a stationary dug-in meatshield as the first line of defense. Every army needs an infantry meatshield from somewhere. In the early summer Ukraine was doing this, desperately throwing poorly equipped and trained militia to the east. Of course, you can have that or you can have the 1991 Iraqi infantry formations, but there is a legitimate use for low-quality troops, at least on paper.

What they cannot do effectively is launch offensives. You can probably understand why this is a big deal. And that’s especially if they have worse and their opponents better equipment.

Now for the rivet-counting nerd part and what you need to equip 300,000 people (this is NOT saying the real ones would be equipped or organized this way, just showing how demanding it is equipment-wise). Using a mostly foot OPFOR infantry division as the baseline (ie, largely only suitable for defensive operations), and assuming a handwaved 20,000 strong divisional slice of support troops beyond the 10,000 strong division itself, you get get 15 division-equivalents, which is…

  • 465 tanks
  • 540 artillery pieces
  • 270 multiple rocket launchers
  • 540 anti-aircraft guns.

Even in Russia this does not grow on trees, especially after the stockpile has already been plundered massively.

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.

Weird Wargaming: Conventional Bush War

The Rhodesian Bush War passed without a decisive 1975-style conventional campaign. Of the two main guerilla organizations, it was the Ndebele, Soviet-favored ZIPRA that placed more of an emphasis on conventional operations, compared to the majority Shona, China-favored ZANLA’s “people’s war”. A combination of largely successful preemptive strikes by the Rhodesian military and a (smart) focus on inherent strengths than weaknesses by the opposition meant that the large battle never came.

The common wisdom about such an operation “Zero Hour” (as one code name for it was) is that it would be stopped with ease (although it does not help that most surviving prominent sources are either from the ZANLA-veteran regime or former Rhodesians, neither of which has an incentive to talk up their opponent). But even if the first such offensive was stopped with ease, the rebels definitely had the people and enough hand-me-down aid to try multiple times.

Such an offensive would feature the fairly light Rhodesian military against an opposition that would have at least T-34/85s, BTR-152s, appropriate artillery, and even rumors of fighter aircraft. (If said fighter aircraft could disrupt the deployment of the infamous Fire Forces, it would not be good for the Rhodesians). It can obviously be played with any kind of wargaming ruleset that can handle early/mid Cold War equipment and formations.

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: Crimson Star

Crimson Star

The third Maelstrom Rising book, Peter Nealen’s Crimson Star takes the action to the American west. With the collapse into anarchy and invasion underway, the Triarii have their hands full. Having read this, I feel like it is both a lot better and a lot worse than the first two books.

First, the good. It’s written in third person, which is so much more suitable for a work of this nature. So much. Granted, the viewpoints are a little too restricted (try telling pre-Fuldapocalypse me that I’d think that), but it’s still a huge step that makes it so much better to read. And of course the action takes advantage of the larger scope, with lots of vehicle units and large forces. It is as good as anything else Nealen has done.

Now, the bad. The annoying slobbering over the Mary Sue protagonists reaches new heights. Any alternative to them is viewed as a completely incompetent obstacle. The narration does everything but say that their training was a combination of “SEAL, Ranger, Special Forces, and gutter fighting.” It got irritating, and it would be even more so if I hadn’t adjusted my expectations. After all, it sold itself as Larry Bond. By now, it’s actually Jerry Ahern’s The Defender updated to the present with more realistic battle scenes.

Do they balance each other out? My answer is: I still want to read the next book in the series. Make of that what you will.

Review: Holding Action

Holding Action

Peter Nealen’s second installment in the Maelstorm Rising series, Holding Action is an attempt at a bigger-scope war than the small-unit ones that make up a lot of his other books. Here it’s a clash in Poland in a campaign very clearly inspired by Larry Bond’s Cauldron (which was reviewed by the author and read for inspiration). And I’m sad to say I found it somewhat lacking.

The first and biggest problem is that the book is both written in first person perspective and clearly wants to be a big-scope tale. This square peg and round hole do not exactly align properly. And it’s not like the reader gets an excellent character study from it: The biggest trait I remembered in the main character was him being Catholic.

The second is that the Triarii, the “military NGO” that the protagonists serve in, feel like Mary Sues in ways that Brannigan’s Blackhearts never did. The Blackhearts are a bunch of expendable, disposable people doing underground dirty work. These are propped up as the centerpiece of fighting, more so than the bumbling regular American army. And listening to the narrator extol their awesomeness and the regular army’s weakness doesn’t exactly help matters either. The third and least important is that the setting tries to walk a tightrope between “plausible” and “distinct” and doesn’t really stay balanced.

That being said, the actual nuts and bolts action is as good as always, and I don’t fault Nealen at all for trying something very ambitious. It’s just that when you aim high, there’s a greater risk of falling short. This is a definite “uneven 51%” book. And there are worse things I could have called it. Besides, it’s fun to review an actual conventional World War III novel and go back to the blog’s roots.

Cold War Kitona

The Fuldapocalypse has traditionally been opened with a vast set of Soviet special operations that involve varying degrees of risk, realism, and audacity. Red Storm Rising famously had one such jury-rigged gamble resulting in the capture of Iceland. I’ve found another possibility that would involve my two obsessions of past and present: Conventional World War IIIs and commercial airplanes.

While the Second Congo War is about as far in terms of tone and nature from a Fuldapocalypse as it’s possible to get, its opening act nonetheless could have been lifted from the pages of a technothriller. In Operation Kitona, Rwandan and Ugandan troops seized four airliners and flew west to sever the DRC’s links to the outside world. The initial landing worked, but external support for the Congolese government doomed the offensive, plunging central and southern Africa into a long, bloody, and horrific war.

So it’s not too terribly farfetched to imagine planes being filled with “unruly passengers” happening to land at important dual-purpose airports at the worst possible prewar time…

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 Gamekeeper’s Night Dog

The Gamekeeper’s Night Dog

David Putnam’s The Gamekeeper’s Night Dog is one of the weirdest alternate history novels I’ve read. And yes, I have read every single Kirov novel. None comes close to this… thing. Really, to talk about it in conventional literary terms is almost beside the point. It’s middling in terms of quality and is a little too bloated, but why talk about that when you have such a befuddling premise?

See, in the 1890s, protagonist David Banner (no relation to the Hulk) has the Judeo-Christian God appear in a dream from His home in the black hole in the center of the Milky Way. A nightmare scenario (aka actual history) awaits if the last of the classic English Bulldogs (always capitalized in the book) goes extinct. There’s exposition where World War I, II, and even III is shown, with animal cruelty activists being portrayed as the equals of history’s worst monsters.

Also, apparently the divine value of a nation comes from the kind of dog that it has. Yes, it’s a weird book. Anyway, man and dog alike uplift the world, fight a very different Boer War, and continue to battle in an ahead-of-its-time World War I. We get loving depictions of bulldogs ripping men and animals to pieces. In fact, most of it is basically just bulldogs in “action”. The question remains: How do you even judge this book? My answer is simple. You can’t. It is not a novel so much as a very bizarre artifact.

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.