Review: Air-Mech Strike

Air-Mech Strike

The book Air-Mech Strike holds the origin of the infamous “Gavin” nickname for the M113. It’s also extremely dated and, for the most part, badly written. This is a very 1990s book, despite being published in the early 2000s.

The “Gavin” name is a little more forgivable in this context because it’s meant to refer to a heavily modified and upgraded M113 instead of just the stock vehicle itself. The problem is that the authors want to have their cake and eat it too-they want an existing vehicle to fill the “medium motorized” infantry role out of legitimate concern that a big procurement wouldn’t happen in the post-USSR budget crunch, but also want a lavishly upgraded one. Yes, they give supposed cost figures, but I’m still skeptical (to put it mildly).

There are huge lists of TO&Es, to the point where I could probably just say “read the book itself” if I was doing a Weird Wargaming on the “air mech strike force”. There are piles and piles of 1990s NETWORK SMART WEAPON BUZZWORDS. There’s a utopianism that goes far beyond the reasonable arguments to mechanize existing airborne forces.

This is only backed by lopsided and unconvincing hypothetical case studies with absolutely no effort to “stress-test” the proposal. There’s a cakewalk in Central Asia against ragtag (conventional) opposition, a Kosovo intervention with pushover Serbs that might have been understandable before the actual war, but which feels like it would turn into the next Market Garden with the knowledge of their abilities gained after it, a Second Korean War where a risky deep attack is brushed aside as succeeding in one paragraph, and a Kuwait defense scenario that rightfully argues it’d be better than a footbound “speedbump”, but doesn’t examine how much better.

Ultimately, it just comes across as being enthralled by a certain type of theoretically possible toy. This is the land warfare equivalent of arguing for an air doctrine built around flying aircraft carriers, a naval doctrine built around submarines of various sizes, or any other gimmicky weapon that could be technically buildable.

A Thousand Words: Red Dawn

Red Dawn

The 1980s classic invasion movie, Red Dawn is a strange beast. While it rightfully ranks up there with Top Gun as one of the most iconic and remembered movies of its generation, I found it had some fundamental issues. And no, it’s not anything dealing with the actual premise.

The production values are very good. The acting is, at the very least, sufficient. Yet the movie’s biggest problem is its conflicting tone. There’s two types of invasion stories, what I call “grim invasion” and “pulpy invasion”. Grim invasion is what most of the original invasion novels were, while pulpy invasion is something out of, well, guess.

Red Dawn sort of awkwardly teeters between elements of both without really settling into one or the other. While not a deal-breaker for the movie, it sours it somewhat and leaves me with the feeling that picking one type, likely pulpy given the concept, would have made for a better story. That being said, the film is still well worth a watch.

Review: Tiberium Wars

Command And Conquer: Tiberium Wars

The Keith DeCandido novelization of Command and Conquer: Tiberium Wars was widely denounced upon release. I was there on Spacebattles, and I saw the critiques. I read it, and I agreed.

If the book itself was in an original setting, it would be forgettable and bland, a spacesuit commando Marine Force One with a Mary Sue protagonist. The only real quibble would be extremely rapid procurement of new rifles. But as it stands, it doesn’t gel well with the Command and Conquer game. At all.

There might be a mitigating factor in that I’ve also heard that DeCandido got background material for “Tiberium”, the cancelled C&C FPS project and based the book of of that, which would explain some things like the abundance of rifles. However, whatever the circumstances, this is a book to avoid.

Weird Wargaming: Independent Scotland

The subject of what military an independent Scotland might have has gathered a lot of attention. One of the most serious and definitive reports on the matter comes from the respected Royal United Services Institute, a piece entitled “A’ the Blue Bonnets.

The RUSI piece in short depicts a small and light land force not too dissimilar from Ireland’s, unsurprising in light of their similar geography. However it does assume a more capable air/naval element. The report shows a comparably strong navy and an air force with hand-me-down BAE Hawks as its fixed-wing fighters.

Assuming no political issues, something like the KAI Golden Eagle might also work as a basic air defense fighter, an heir to the F-5 of the past. That’s the only real quibble I have with the report, which is otherwise well worth a read.

As for the possible opponents of this Scottish military, far and away the most realistic is, like Ireland, whoever they’d face on foreign peacekeeping operations. For more out-there ones, you have Russia (especially at sea), and if you want to be really out there, you could do a “Kobayashi Maru” situation where the Scots have to inflict as much damage on the invading English/British invaders as possible.

And of course, this assumes a commitment to plausibility-if you strip-mined Scotland’s entire military age population and had an outsider equip and train it, then you could end up with something completely gigantic. But the “Ireland on land and another North Sea state on sea and air” option is the most logical.

Weird Wargaming: The UN Standing Army

An underappreciated and underutilized force for wargaming (particularly as it can be made with existing surplus equipment), the UN standing army as discussed in books like A UN Legion. Unlike some other entries in Weird Wargaming, the nature of this force makes describing it in any exact detail much harder.

On one end, there’s light peacekeepers with nothing but small arms or vaguer proposals. On the other, there’s the incredibly detailed “Vital Force” proposal. The bigger “world army” proposals also tended to be the most vague in terms of equipment. Yet it’s easy to find analogous historical units. Either the entire force or a large chunk of it could easily be structured like existing high-deployability forces. Airborne and amphibious units provide an excellent, well-documented guide.

For “world armies” with more conventional units, there’s plenty of national and/or theoretical inspiration to be drawn, possibly with some inferences (for instance, a priority may be on allowing smaller units to operate as independently as possible). The heavy divisions in the rapid-response units may get prioritization for upgraded equipment. As for that equipment, it can be anything from purpose-built (especially if it’s intended to be airdroppable/amphibious) to surplus.

The proficiency levels of a “small force” should be high, as creating a handpicked, well-trained force over clunkier ad-hoc formations is the entire point of their existence. Bigger “world armies” are going to be inevitably diluted, but should still err on the side of greater skill.

Review: The Weekend Warriors

The Weekend Warriors

Reading James Burke’s The Weekend Warriors means I’ve now read all ten of the alternate history conventional World War III series I’d identified. So how is it?

Telling the story of National Guard soldiers and their families during a 198X Fuldapocalypse, Burke uses some plot devices I’ve thought would have worked, like using fictional unit designations. He also aims for characterization and doesn’t hesitate to show the duller parts of military life. The result is something that tries to be something fuller than just tanks exploding…

…With an emphasis on tries. A lot of the high-level military details are anachronistic and in some cases outright “off”. The most jarring example to me was how the Soviets would focus on NORTHAG (which would be true) and thus do nothing but special forces operations in the American sector at the beginning of the war (which would not be). The action suffers from the same rough prose as the rest of the work and sometimes devolves into listing armaments in full.

Because of this, it comes across as being like a somewhat worse Chieftains-a tale of a conventional World War III that’s ambitious, but erratic and unpolished in execution.

Review: The Man With The Iron Heart

The Man With The Iron Heart

One of my theories about Harry Turtledove is that, for all times he’s been labeled “the master of alternate history”, he never had the most enthusiasm for the genre. It goes like this: Turtledove wanted to write Byzantine/Eastern Roman-themed fantasy, but after Guns of The South, alternate history became the money-making niche that he was stuck in. Turtledove would be neither the first nor last writer to have their most successful fiction be considerably different from the type they actually wanted to write.

Or maybe he did have enthusiasm for the genre, but didn’t have the mindset needed to really take advantage of it. Or maybe the nature of alternate history and needing to appeal to a generalist audience who doesn’t have the most knowledge of history forced him into a corner. Whatever the reason, The Man With The Iron Heart symbolizes the weaknesses of his style vividly.

The plot is simple. Reinhard Heydrich survives, gets the Werwolf resistance movement up and running, and launches a horrifically hamfisted/anachronistic Iraq War analogy. In reality, the German populace at large had no stomach for continued resistance, and the Allies, who came close to turning Germany into a giant farm, were prepared to crack the whip. The Werwolf plan was doomed from the get-go by the scarce resources and infighting that was baked into the Nazi regime from day one.

The execution of the book is done just as clumsily and clunkily as the setup. Much of Turtledove’s writing has the problem of what I frequently call the “technothriller without technology or thrills”, and this is no exception. It uses the “alternate history as a genre format” where there’s a big-picture, broad-viewpoint look at the situation and changed world. However, if the changed world is nothing but an unrealistic and worse, uninteresting analogy, that format is the worst possible.

Alternate history is a very divided genre. There are a lot of reasons for this, from the vague nature of what it even is to the different desires of different fandoms to how it’s frequently not considered advantageous to label a work as such. But that the “mainstream” end often consists of books like this doesn’t help.

Maybe there’d be more overlap if someone really did extensive research, made it more character focused, and kept it feeling substantially different while providing still noticeable but far more subtle commentary. Instead, Turtledove wrote this book, which I do not recommend.

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.

Review: Edison’s Conquest of Mars

Edison’s Conquest of Mars

From energy guns to ancient aliens building ancient civilization megastructures, a lot of sci-fi tropes originated in Edison’s Conquest of Mars. Besides that, this book is fascinating because of how min-max it is. A sequel to War of the Worlds bootlegs (it’s a bit of a long story), author Garrett Serviss made-something.

On one hand, the prose is terrible and flat even by 19th Century standards. It’s a self-promoting effort by the title character/famous person. The plot goes against Wells’ theme to a ridiculous extent. The most ridiculous elements seem mundane when actually described. It was originally a short-form serial and it shows in the writing.

And yet so much of the sci-fi cheap thriller was started, or at least popularized here. This, is very much like seeing a video game or movie that’s at the very, very beginning of its genre. It looks horrifically crude in comparison to its later successors, but you have to start somewhere.

Using Paratroopers

One of the biggest problems with using paratroopers besides the limit on airlift, and why they’ve just been high-readiness/at-least-theoretically higher skill infantry in real practice, is the cost-benefit with their operations. This is very tricky.

The Practical Reasons

Apart from situations where there just is no other way to move in quicker (ie, over bodies of water/other gaps), airborne landings, particularly on a very large scale, have faced the issue of either being unnecessarily risky and complicated for the task at hand or simply being too weak to accomplish anything (especially in a situation where everyone has a lot of heavy forces).

The impression I’ve gotten is that anything bigger than a company-sized landing force is dicey, and anything bigger than a battalion is really, really dicey. Yes, if everyone had giant Mi-26 sized helicopters and/or the landing forces had mechanized equipment of their own (ie, BMDs/Sheridans) it would help, but only somewhat.

The Literary Reasons

On the other hand, the literary reasons for big airborne operations are obvious. Just look at Band of Brothers, to say nothing of considerably more obscure works of fiction that range from Marching Through Georgia to Northern Fury H-Hour.

  • They’re big and dramatic all by themselves.
  • Because they’re often centered around (seemingly) important targets, it makes the actions of the protagonists look bigger.
  • Because airborne forces are inherently limited, it means drama can be maintained against a seemingly weaker opponent (a pretty extreme example of this is Marching Through Georgia, where the Draka are otherwise utterly superior to their opponents and paratroopers against a panzer force are the only way to have something even slightly even).