Review: The German Aircraft Carriers

The German Aircraft Carriers

A book devoted to German aircraft carriers could have all the pages be blank and still be technically accurate. After all, the decision to not go ahead with them was one of the very, very few good ones the country made in World War II. But Simon Beerbaum’s work on them manages to show an excellent train of thought. For most of the actual writing and layout quality, what I said about the Russian carriers book applies just as well to this. What’s interesting is the content.

You might think that a compilation of never-built German designs would have a lot of weird ones as gargantuan as they were impractical. And you would be right. But there was a method to the madness of several. Intended as commerce interdictors, the carrier designs mostly had substantially large gun armament but smaller airwings. They resembled a pre-missile version of the Kiev “air carrying cruisers” in that regard. The book also covers postwar helicopter/VSTOL designs proposed by shipyards for export customers. It’s an interesting look at an interesting set of designs.

Review: Blind Strategist

Blind Strategist

I’ve wanted a book that dove deep into the excesses of supporters of so-called “maneuver warfare”. In Stephen Robinson’s Blind Strategist, I finally have it. How is it? Mixed. Thankfully, it’s the kind of mixed that makes for a good review.

The book is nominally aimed at John “OODA Loop” Boyd. However Boyd, due to his aversion to writing anything down, his own constantly shifting imagination, and his uh, “difficult personality”, is hard to pin anything on. I do not think it’s a coincidence that Boyd’s teachings are excellent in general terms but almost never work for anything specific.

Blind Strategist spends most of its pages slamming Basil Liddell-Hart and William Lind, who did not have an aversion to writing anything down. It also talks of the Wehrmacht Legend that drove maneuver warfare activism, and defends the oft-criticized William DePuy and his “Active Defense”. (I agree with almost all of the substantial criticisms of Active Defense, but think that in the mid-1970s, the post-Vietnam US Army needed to walk before it could run). Finally, it tries to hold maneuver warfare responsible for the Iraq War’s struggles. Even I think this is going too far, and it doesn’t exactly sound convincing.

Even in its main thesis, this comes across as being overly nitpicky and a little straw-mannish. I do not believe that even almost all of the most devoted maneuver practitioners would deny that there comes a point where you have to close and destroy. Note that I said “almost all”…

…Because Lind is one of those obsessives. And here, weirdly, Robinson arguably doesn’t go far enough. Blind Strategist neglects Victoria, a fantasy where indeed, just doing the right principles and following the right footwork causes the Mary Sue’s enemy to collapse totally without the need for a slugfest. It rightly talks about him trying to shove “third-gen” maneuver war into “fourth-gen” unconventional war, but doesn’t elaborate (and should) on just how he jumps right back to his third-gen map exercises at the slightest opportunity.

I feared this book would go a little too far in the opposite direction, and it does. But I can understand, given the maneuverist min-maxing, why it would do so. I don’t blame Robinson, and if there is room for extreme pro-“maneuver” arguments, there’s also room for extreme reactions.

Review: The Soviet/Russian Aircraft Carriers

The Soviet/Russian Aircraft Carriers

It’s time to ring in the new year with…. another history book. This one is Simon Beerbaum’s book on Soviet and Russian aircraft carriers. It’s not just about the Kiev and Kuznetsov classes, which I feared it might have been. On the contrary, it has everything from pre-WWI czarist proposals to post-revolution plans for converting surplus ships (with limited technology/resources, it would have been easier to finish a large warship as a carrier rather than an armored, big-gun battleship) to never-weres like the Ulyanovsk and Project 11780 Kherson “Ivan Tarava” helicopter amphib based on the Kiev.

This is an amateur enthusiast project, so it has issues with formatting and inconsistent quality in the line drawings. Those are small issues, and if I had a bigger gripe, it’d be that far too little attention is given to the actual air wings of those carriers-the entire reason they’re built. It’s vague, especially when there’s no shortage of equally fascinating never-were carrier planes as well (from the Yak-141 to navalized MiG-23s to other exotics).

Still, this book does what it sets out to do. For a country whose carriers have arguably all been prestige peacocks, a lot of designs were made. If you want an intro to these flattops, you could do a lot worse than this book.

Review: Small Unit Tactics

Small Unit Tactics

Because of a desire to write action scenes that are at least slightly more maybe, kinda-a-little more realistic than “hand cannons and elbow drops”, and because I’m a sucker for instruction books, I’ve been dipping into visual tactical guides. These are the kind of things the infamous Paladin Press would publish, and aim to translate from field-manualese to English (a more charitable interpretation is that they’re aimed at genuine military personnel and try to make legitimately important stuff clearer). One of them is Matthew Luke’s Small Unit Tactics. How is it?

This book focuses almost entirely on the ambush. Because I actually enjoy reading field manuals for fun, there wasn’t a lot I didn’t already know. But this is a clear example, and it talked about ambushes in a way different from how I’d previously read about them. Maybe because I had read so much about irregular forces, the type most firmly in my mind was “fire, do as much damage as you can, and then immediately try to escape”. The book talks about a further close assault, and labels that kind a mere “harassing ambush”, used mainly for deterring patrols/reaction forces.

This is a good resource for fiction writers and/or armchair generals. The pictures and photos (mostly of military exercises practicing the type of actions written in the book) are well-done, the text is well done, and it can be applied to almost any type of formation. Yes, the classic OPFOR has the simplest foot infantry tactics (unitary squads deploying in lines), but those unitary squads are still capable of launching an ambush. It’s not the be-all-end-all of research, but it’s still a very good component.

Review: US Battleships

US Battleships: An Illustrated Design History

Norman Friedman’s US Battleships: An Illustrated Design History was one of the first really big, really crunchy, really technical books on military equipment that I got. It’s obviously not light reading (at least for normal people), but it flows well. And I honestly think battleships are the best suited to a historical chronicle like this.

Since 99% of their history was in the past tense (the sole exception being the Iowa reactivation at the time of the book), it means there’s less sensitive info around. And since battleships are gigantic and awesome (don’t lie), it makes for fascinating reading. In battleships, you can see the US Navy going from its humble beginnings to its World War II juggernaut.

Technical naval warfare fans should definitely get this book. It’s one of the best of its kind.

Review: The Voroshilov Lectures

The Voroshilov Lectures

The Voroshilov Academy was/is one the most prominent Soviet/Russian military training centers of all time. In the late 1980s, a peek behind the curtain emerged. An Afghan officer named Ghulam Wardak attended the academy in the mid-1970s and carefully transcribed the courses. Wardak later fought with the mujaheddin and escaped to the United States, where staff from the US Army’s Soviet Army Studies Office eagerly edited and published his notes. Since its publication, the CIA’s FOIA reading room has declassified similar lectures and studies from there that support Wardak’s interpretation of them.

In three volumes (two on strategic and one on operational combat), the lectures go into detail about how to plan and execute a Soviet campaign in 197X. Most importantly, they occurred in a time period that finally allowed for the discussion and making of purely conventional plans. The lectures and planning do not take the naive belief that a Fuldapocalypse would stay conventional from start to finish, but they do view non-nuclear war as important. (Of course, with Soviet conventional superiority at the time, they’d have a vested interest to keep it non-nuclear as long as possible…)

Obviously much of these lectures need to be taken with a pile of salt. There’s obvious politically uh, slanted passages and some of the advance rates seem a little too optimistic. But these are nonetheless an invaluable resource for the wargamer and/or conventional World War III historian. As detailed Soviet primary sources, they excellently fill a previously blind spot in knowledge.

Review: Super-Squad

Super-Squad: The Now Missing Component

It’s time to look at one of the most prolific military theorists: Vietnam veteran H. John Poole. Poole’s recent Super-Squad is a detailed call for improved light infantry tactics and a different squad organization, along with a historical study of various opponents from World War I to the present.

I may have never, ever encountered a “mean 51%” nonfiction book like this one. Poole is an infantry veteran who’s walked the walk. His desires are sincere and heartfelt, and many of his goals are valid or at least understandable. Yet there’s just so much else wrong in presentation and even theory here.

The book could probably be around half of its length and work with a concise message of “This is my proposed squad organization. This is how various limited-resource opponents across history used maneuver and skill to counter their lack of direct resources. You cannot always assume superior resources, so this is vital.”

Instead, it’s a long rambling bunch of anecdotes and illustrations, often from old field manuals. Anything that shows the “eastern army” succeeding is trumpeted. Anything that shows them failing is quickly glossed over. The writing lacks humility, to put it mildly. There are statements like “no combined infantry/tank attack has succeeded except on open terrain”, which is simply untrue. The ridiculous lumping of every possible Asian opponent into generalized “eastern armies”, combined with an obsession with ninjas (really!) doesn’t exactly help much. Neither does (especially if you want change) the constant bashing of the existing American military, something that will put most people on the defensive.

This has to be understood as being like Curtis Lemay calling for a giant fleet of super-bombers dropping souped-up nuclear weapons. If your experience involves a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Everything. It gets kind of repetitive and even a little annoying at places.

I don’t regret getting this book. As an “OPFOR light infantry tactics and case studies as written by your kooky old granddad who’s convinced he can save the economy through multi-level marketing” book, it (and many of Poole’s other books, given their similarities) works for what it is. Just don’t really expect it to be anything more.

Review: Tehran’s Wars of Terror

Tehran’s Wars of Terror and Its Nuclear Delivery Capability

The worst book cover deserves to be seen in all its “glory”

Stephen Hughes’ The Iraqi Threat was a letdown. This is even more of a letdown. Trying to move through the smoke of the infamously secretive post-revolutionary Iranian military (with their five million new systems that appear in every new parade) would be a worthy and very useful endeavor. This not only fails in that regard, it acts like it doesn’t even try.

First off, I’m a “you can’t [usually] judge a book by its cover” type of person. I can understand having a bad cover or a crude cover. But this is an exception, because the cover of Tehran’s Wars of Terror is, without a doubt, the worst I’ve seen of any military reference book. And one of the worst I’ve seen period.

The cover is perfectly representative of the absolute slapdash mush inside. The Iraqi Threat at least had a central theme that it followed. This is just a rambling collection of various articles that are connected with only a vague link to Middle Eastern warfare. It doesn’t even work as a basic “know your enemy” primer because it’s so gargantuan and aimless. I feel surprisingly confident in saying that it’s quite possibly the worst military reference book I’ve read. And if not, it’s certainly down there.

Review: Russian and Soviet Ground Attack Aircraft

Russian And Soviet Ground Attack Aircraft

Alberto Trevisan and Anatoly Borovik’s Russian and Soviet Ground Attack Aircraft is the latest addition to my collection of technical, diagram-filled books on aviation history. It’s meant to be a comprehensive, picture-heavy catalogue of all the “Samolety Polya Boya”, a term that can be very awkwardly translated to [their definition] “Battlefield Aircraft”. The “Russian” in the title is accurate, as this book also includes World War I and post-1991 designs.

The “Samolety Polya Boyas” in this book range from the famous Il-2 and Su-25 Sturmoviks to low-end propeller planes to high performance edge cases like the MiG-23BN/27s (the proposed but never adopted final upgrade package that included the ability to mount radar pods and refuel in midair warms my Flogger fan heart). It also looks at never-were designs in the same range, most notably the postwar Illyushins, which were victims of technology, doctrinal changes, and being extremely ugly.

Some of the types it does and doesn’t focus on can feel a little arbitrary. While I suppose that’s the perils of dedicating a book to as vague a term as “ground attack aircraft”, I feel obligated to point it. Thankfully their choices never feel too weird or too bad, and I can understand the desire to avoid mission creep.

If I had one quibble (besides a somewhat iffy layout), it’s that there isn’t enough “how” in the book for my tastes. I would have liked to see an Air Battle Central Europe-esque section on the doctrinal “division of labor” between them, helicopters, and higher-performance bombers/strike aircraft, and how it evolved and changed. While I can get information on that from other sources (and/or intuit it based on capability-your slow short-legged ground attackers are not going to be used for deep, well-defended targets if they can help it), it’s still a lacking feature.

But the rest of the book is still great. The artwork is excellent, the list of aircraft covered is very big despite its self-imposed limitations, and the technical detail (especially for paper aircraft with fewer sources available) is surprisingly high. Even without the parts I would have liked, this is still a great resource for a centerpiece of the VVS.

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.