Review: Lavi

Lavi

Engineer John Golan decides to tell the story of the IAI Lavi fighter in the book of the same name. It’s a very frustrating, “mean 51%” book. First, the good part. The aeronautical engineering stuff (which takes up an understandably large portion of the book) is well done (if over my head mostly). Likewise, the story of its development and cancellation, with tumult and controversy in both America and Israel, is also well told.

The problem comes from the slant of the book. In terms of bias towards the Lavi, Golan feels the same way about it as Arrian did about Alexander the Great. It’s understandable for an engineer to feel that way: The Lavi being a clean-sheet design meant that there was more it could with less size in the strike role than the adapted F-16. But this also leads to tunnel vision and avoiding the context. Which is that an expensive toy may not have been the best option overall for a country with a reduced conventional threat and in an economic collapse at the time (inflation in Israel was reaching near-Weimar levels).

There are also a few “brown M&Ms” (oversights that raise some eyebrows for me). Golan speaks of the Osirak raid as “setting Saddam’s nuclear program back a decade” (if anything, it accelerated it), and takes the 10-1 kill rate in the Korean War at face value. More annoyingly, it falls too much for the “Pentagon Reformer” arguments.

Finally, relying on fighter pilots gave me the exact opposite thought than Golan intended. His impression of the Yom Kippur War veteran pilots leaning so hard on the Lavi was that of pragmatists who’d been through the worst of war. My impression was of them (understandably) wanting a gold-plated plane while not being able to see the forest for the trees. As Bill James put it “The trees really are not, when you think about it, in a very good position to evaluate the issue.” It gets to the point where you probably wouldn’t know from this book alone that the Bekaa Valley air battle was the squash it was with the “worse” aircraft.

Still, this is an interesting book on an interesting plane. For aviation enthusiasts, it’s well worth a read.

Review: Shadow Strike

Shadow Strike

In true Israeli fashion, the country’s leadership stayed publicly mum when a building in eastern Syria mysteriously exploded on September 6, 2007. Ten years later, they announced what everyone already knew-they had bombed and destroyed a Syrian reactor building. Yaakov Katz proceeded to write Shadow Strike, the story of the operation and its lead-up.

Previously, I had regarded the operation purely in terms of its anticlimactic execution. Like so many other times since 1948, the Israelis came, they bombed, they conquered. For the sake of secrecy, the site of the North Korean-supplied reactor had no defenses around it. But Katz tells the story of how a combination of flukes (getting a Syrian official’s laptop that showed very well what it was), politics (in Jerusalem and Washington), and urgency (the reactor had to be destroyed before it went critical) and in the process, makes it far more intriguing then the tip of the iceberg.

The reactor, unlike Osirak, was optimized to produce plutonium for weapons, and getting it operational would have cleared the biggest bottleneck to nuclear warheads. While no reprocessing or warhead assembly buildings were found, those are significantly easier to hide.

This has to rank as one of the lucky fates of history. I do not think Assad would have launched a first strike-his family did not survive by being foolhardy. And even with the bottleneck cleared, there were still more obstacles to actually making a bomb. But knowing that the Syrian Civil War beckoned, having a hot reactor running during it-and one of a more rickety design than the heavily shielded ones at Enerhodar, is a nightmare that was averted.

Saddam’s Almost-Bomb

Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had a legitimate nuclear weapons program that was, by most accounts, very close to building a functioning Fat Man-level device before the invasion of Kuwait. A draft nuclear operations manual was even made. For all intents and purposes, it was destroyed in the 1991 Gulf War and there was no serious attempt to restart it prior to 2003.

The WMD swing-and-miss isn’t really the subject of this post. It was a combination of the inherent untrustworthiness of the Iraqi regime (which still would have more than willing to make genuine WMDs), a desperate desire to avoid a false negative after 9/11, and a bizzare bluff aimed at Iran by a Saddam who was increasingly believing his own propaganda. I have increasingly believed that, after 1991 and especially after 2001, that the Iraq War, or at least the country undergoing a catastrophic meltdown (see the Syrian Civil War), would have been inevitable given that element and the inherent instability of it, but that’s for another time.

Anyway, the Iraqi design was a spherical implosion device centered around 15-18 kilograms of highly-enriched uranium. The first incarnation of it was very wide (over a meter), with the big Tu-16 and Tu-22 bombers being the only delivery systems capable of dropping it. Later it shrank to the point where it could fit inside a ballistic missile, and active programs were focused on making longer-ranged missiles that could carry such a device. The yield is unknown and the only available references to them in open sources I’ve found are understandably redacted. One theory based on text size I’ve seen argued that the small design had the strength of only one kiloton and the big one three, which fits with the yield of early North Korean (pure test) designs. More generous estimates put it around 10-20. Regardless, it was unlikely to be more than low double digit kilotons in terms of blast strength. It’s worth noting that even the lowest-end estimate would still mean a radioactive version of the 2020 Beirut explosion.

Barring the invasion of Kuwait or other serious external interference, the program could have been up and churning out warheads by the mid-1990s. Of course, there would be serious external interference. Israel’s hyped attack on the Osirak reactor arguably owed more to the mania of Menachem Begin than any practical effect. Begin was the admitted inspiration for the supervillain Magneto (to give an idea of his temperament), and someone who embodied Alexander Wallace’s “hurt people hurt people” statement. Osirak was physically unsuited to producing weapons-grade material in quantity, and its destruction led to a much more hardened and dispersed program. Nonetheless, the Israelis would try.

Would they succeed? Would having the bomb actually lead to a calming effect, as argued by some? (Given the Kargil and Ussuri wars, I’m skeptical). As with everything involving the “devices”, there’s a thankfully small sample size to consider. There are many, many unknowns. But the atomic wolf was truly there.

Review: Righteous Kill

Righteous Kill

For all the prominence of the “go back in time to kill Hitler” trope in popular culture, there are surprisingly few books that feature it as the main plot point. Ted Lapkin’s Righteous Kill is one of them. The book has a delightfully simple plot-Israeli commandos go back in time to kill him.

The book has its flaws. The prose can be clunky and frequently descends into “I know the exact designation of a Scud TEL” level infodumps. This is also not a neutrally toned book, to put it mildly, and the ending is a little too neatly tied up. But these flaws are outweighed by its strengths, which is to say it manages to pit 2010s troops the author thinks are awesome against 1940s ones and still feel like a credible fight. This is not an easy feat, and it’s to Lapkin’s great credit that he succeeds in pulling it off.

This is both a fun book and a good one.

Review: Israel’s Next War

Israel’s Next War

Martin Archer’s Israel’s Next War was… strange. I’ve read my share of “boom boom goes the tank” war “thrillers” where there are what feels like five million characters (very few of whom are interesting) and five billion weapon descriptions (very few of which are relevant). Thus I was bracing for the book to be like that, and I was not wrong. But it goes a lot deeper than those surface issues.

First, there’s the action itself between Israel and an alliance of its traditional enemies, where I went “No. No. This isn’t how it would go” on many occasions. I guess I just can’t help myself, being the avid wargamer and historian that I’ve been. Something unrealistic, flawed, or not the most well researched isn’t a deal-breaker (far from it). But given the quality of the rest of the book, it went from eyebrow-raising to  head-shaking. Some of it is good, if a little rote. But more of it isn’t, and it all feels like Archer’s sources were:

  • A half-remembered History Channel piece on the Yom Kippur War.
  • Various “Modern Military Equipment” coffee table books.
  • Command And Conquer Generals.

The technology is all over the place, and the equipment is neither consistent nor particularly accurate. Combined with a dull non-war plot, this would feel like a ramshackle technothriller, if not for the final icing on the cake. That would be the writing style.

Archer writes the book in first person, constantly shuffling back and forth between first-person viewpoints with a label preceding their section. The nadir of this is a character named only “The Iraqi Lieutenant Colonel”, but the others aren’t much better. The prose alternates between the “BBGTT” classic of “Infodumps-R-Us” and something that’s surprisingly (and jarringly) “bouncy”, for lack of a better word. It clashes, to put it mildly.

For all those flaws, it’s not the absolute worst, either in plausibility or or in drama. But the “quirks” noted above push Israel’s Next War from being potentially bad and dull to bad and slightly weird. At least I had fun making this review.

Review: The Red Collusion

The Red Collusion

redcollusioncover

David Yaron’s The Red Collusion is a tale of rogue Soviets in 1981 attempting to start World War III, leading to a climax where they attempt to attack an American ballistic missile submarine.

This book is mostly pedestrian but has managed to surprise me in one regard-the sheer number of conference room scenes. The ratio of “people talking” scenes to “people actually doing something” scenes is very, very, high.

It’s realistic to have people talking and arguing about a big plan before they (attempt to) carry it out, but it’s also realistic to have cars stopped at red lights. Imagine a travel book where the author described every single red light, stop sign, and gas station the car stopped at, as well as every single argument the occupants of the car had about where to stop for gas or food. And then in the final action, there’s a time limit-so they urgently, reluctantly, and desperately stop at those traffic lights.

This is the technothriller version of that. Much of the book, apart from a few decently-written if generic spy fiction scenes, consists of the conspirators talking. It amounts to chapter after chapter of…

“Let’s do this.”

(cue long explanation of and preparations for what they want to do.)

“Actually, it would be better if we did this.”

(cue long explanation/plot thread)

“No, we should really do this.

(you get the idea).

Once they finally get going, the rushed “action” isn’t the worst, but isn’t exactly good either. This leaves the book as a strangely amusing novelty. The Red Collusion is saved from  simple mediocrity by taking a genre trope to ridiculous excess. I’ll leave it up to the readers to decide if it’s a good or bad thing.