Review: The Rhodesian War

The Rhodesian War: A Military History

The subject of Rhodesia and its war is dominated by uh, “iffy” sources that I shouldn’t have to explain the problems with. Thankfully, among these strides a beautiful unicorn: Moorcraft and McLaughlin’s The Rhodesian War: A Military History. Originally released not long after the war’s end and Zimbabwe’s creation, it recently got an updated edition on post-war developments.

What this is is a very evenhanded, very detailed look completely devoid of “Fire Forces! Selous Scouts!” “Shorts!” “Be a Man Among Men!” Soldier of Fortune romanticism. It doesn’t hesitate to look at the negatives of the guerillas (and, in the updated edition, the Mugabe regime), but it’s unsparing in its blunt assesment of the minority government: Rhodesia was doomed from the start. The British knew it. Apartheid South Africa knew it, which is why they tried to twist Rhodesia into stepping aside in favor of a moderate African government, rather than face a radicalized one on their border that would develop from a victorious war. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that even South Vietnam and 2001-2021 Afghanistan rested on vastly sturdier foundations than Rhodesia did.

The Rhodesians had no concept of war as a political entity and were only good at leveraging limited resources in tactical operations. Even those were aided by weaker opponents (Rhodesians themselves had said that if the guerillas had been as astute in military craft as the Vietnamese ones had been, the war would have been lost much sooner), and said opposition was becoming better as the end of the decade neared.

This is one of the best-single volume military histories I’ve read. It’s also a great antidote to noxious internet fandom surrounding a country that simply did not deserve it.

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.

Review: US Narratives of Nuclear Terrorism

US Narratives of Nuclear Terrorism Since 9/11

Because of my current “itch” for material involving nuclear weapons, I knew I had to read Liverpool University professor David Seed’s US Narratives of Nuclear Terrorism Since 9/11. In spite of its title, this covers material written long before 2001. As I love highbrow analyses of lowbrow fiction, I dug deep into this book.

Doing more than just digging into stuff like The Sum of All Fears, Seed in fact wades through the Augean Stables of fiction that makes up what I’ve dubbed the “shoot the terrorist” subgenre. To have read so many books of that nature seems astounding even to me, who loves cheap thrillers. Some are books that I’ve read from big names like Tom Clancy and Mario Puzo (Fears and The Fourth K). Some are from series that I’ve heard of (like SEAL Team Seven). Others are extremely obscure and unknown to me prior to seeing Seed’s compilation.

This isn’t perfect. At times the book gets a little too stereotypically “academicese” in it writing, and there are the occasional typos here and there. And while it sounds like a clickbait video, I’d have loved to see someone with more technical knowledge critique the plausibility of many of these scenarios. Seed tries and often does a good job, but an actual nuclear expert could probably do better.

But it’s something very near and dear to my heart, and as a review of thriller fiction, I remain in awe of this smooth narrative. Where else could I hear of books like Thomas Fillinger’s Chameleon’s Shadow, where Seed mentions the following plot point in a deadpan fashion:

“Detroit is destroyed when a nuclear bomb detonates by accident, but this proves to be a sideshow from the main search for the leader of the conspirators, who are all depicted as stereotyped fanatics.

It’s plots like that that make me love my reviews. And this brave struggle of a book has warmed my heart. I mean, even I probably couldn’t make it through that many “shoot the terrorist” novels without gaining an insatiable urge to lick the Chernobyl Elephant’s Foot. It’s not Seed’s fault, but so many plot elements repeat throughout his summaries: Warheads stolen by/sold to the antagonists and the dreaded “suitcase nukes” are two of the most common. Granted, this comes with the cheap thriller territory, and these kind of books succeed or fail more on execution than concept, but still.

There are definitely a lot more terrorist nuke books than conventional WW3 books, and this does a great job covering them and (however accidentally) showing the different subgenres of thrillers.

Review: On Nuclear Terrorism

On Nuclear Terrorism

Michael Levi’s On Nuclear Terrorism has been the best book I’ve read in some time. In fact, of all the books and papers I’ve read on this topic, it’s arguably the greatest. Levi takes a holistic approach, using the analogy of a sports team where trying to judge each component in isolation falls short. Although he uses baseball when football is a much better analogy. Oh well.

The decision to look at the big picture as well as noting the issues that alarmist worst-case analysis brings are relevant to much more than countering nuclear terrorism. He also turns “the terrorists only have to succeed once” statement on its head by pointing out that while true, it can also be said that “they have to succeed every step of the way, while their opponents only have to succeed at one”. This sort of reasoning is welcome whatever the subject.

Not that this is a brief overview-it goes into a lot of detail on things like the uses and limitations of scanning detectors and does a lot of detail on gun-type weapons (implosion ones get less effort, because given the issues states have had, non-state actors going for them is arguably pushing it). And he even goes into psychology as well, which is important for the goals of irregular groups.

The impression I’ve gotten from this and other sources is that nuclear terrorism can be compared to Y2K. Y2K was mistakenly perceived as an overblown panic when in reality it was a legitimate issue largely solved by a massive effort when the new millennium rolled around. Similarly, while the threat of even a radioactive Beirut/Tianjin/Port Chicago-level blast (to say nothing of even a Little Boy-level bomb) is a legitimately frightening one, the similarly massive efforts to work against it have (to date of course) deterred even attempted nuclear terror attacks. The Aum Shinrinkyo cult marked the only known attempt at a substantive irregular nuclear program, and it failed despite numerous factors in its favor (lots of money, able to operate openly pre-chemical attacks, and access to Russia at the depths of its 1990s desperation).

Bad sports analogies and occasional clunkiness aside, this is an excellent book.

Review: Revisiting South Africa’s Nuclear Program

Revisiting South Africa’s Nuclear Program

Apartheid South Africa built a handful of nuclear bombs before the ANC government dismantled them. As a result of that revelation and transparency, it provided an interesting look into a a field that is understandably quite opaque otherwise. David Albright and Andrea Stricker’s Revisiting South Africa’s Nuclear Program show it in depth.

Altough this is a technical nonfiction book, Albright and Stricker nonetheless write well, and it’s quite accessible to non-nuclear physicists. The creation, developmental struggles, warhead production, and removal of South Africa’s nuclear weapons is all covered, and there are several interestingly unique factors about it that the book provides.

The first is a technical tidbit. South Africa went with a conceptually simpler gun-type device in the style of Little Boy. However, their device was small enough to fit on a Raptor glide bomb carried by a Blackburn Buccaneer, and there were (preliminary) plans to boost it to around a hundred kilotons using a special pellet. As most powers have used implosion devices, South Africa’s experience shows how far the basic gun-type can be pushed.

The second is that, unlike other nuclear programs, South Africa’s was comparably well run and efficient. The pragmatic choice of a gun-type was one of the good decisions that it made. And it still took several years in peacetime while running into bottlenecks-most notably the enriching of uranium.

For those interested in the relevant subjects, this book is thus a good read.

Review: The Russian Way of War

The Russian Way of War

One of the biggest surprises of the initial part of the 2022 Russo-Ukrainian War was that the former did not fight according to its paper doctrine. At all. Lester Grau and Charles Bartles The Russian Way of War is an excellent attempt at explaining said doctrine for a western audience. As anyone who’s studied them knows, they’ve left quite the paper trail. While sources like the VDV Textbooks Collection can provide them online in Russian fairly handily, this translates them to English.

And it translates them to English well. I have a few quibbles. The biggest is the authors taking an overly optimistic view of vehicle adoption, perhaps taking propaganda sources a little too much at face value. But the rest of it is well-done and evenhanded. The only real “problem” I’ve noticed is that I’ve read so many OPFOR documents that much of what they’re saying is already familiar.

But that’s a good “problem” to have, and I was still enlightened by this book. Every wargamer wanting to do missile-age combat involving the Soviets/Russians should read this.

Review: Mikoyan MiG-23

Famous Russian Aircraft: Mikoyan MiG-23 and MiG-27

Another Gordon/Komissarov book specializing in the study of just one platform, I knew I had to get the volume on one of my favorite ugly ducklings: the MiG-23. The Flogger did not enjoy a charmed life. With hindsight, it occupied an uncomfortable niche between the cheap MiG-21 and advanced later fighters. Its swing-wing design was a long-term limiter. The MiG-23MS export version, with no long-range missile ability, was the equivalent of using a Manning brother as a running quarterback.

This is a little better laid out than the MiG-29 book, but it still has iffy formatting and a tendency to shift into colloquialisms like lots of exclamation points! That being said, it delivers a lot of technical-and operational-info. It has the strike and fighter variants all covered, as well as exotic proposals like the IFR-capable carrier versions and my most beloved unsuccessful attempt to put new wine in old wineskins: The MiG-23-98 series.

It’s definitely written by and for aviation enthusiasts, but I had fun with this book. It’s a worthy tribute to an often (and not unreasonably) savaged aircraft.

Review: Russian Air Power

Russian Air Power

The 2002 book Russian Air Power, by Gordon and Dawes, is something I was eager to get for the sake of seeing a past snapshot. I was not disappointed. Sure it’s dated (including a laughably inaccurate prediction that by 2010 the Russian Air Force would have streamlined down to three platforms, including the PAK-FA), but I expected it to be dated. A slightly worse criticism is how the doctrinal specifics of a high-intensity “air operation” are left a little vague for my liking.

But I have the Heavy OPFOR stuff for that, and the rest of the book is good. That I already knew much of it was no knock against it. And the part about the air force’s role in the Chechen Wars is excellent (and further reinforces my belief that, despite huge investment in the twenty years since, it may have actually regresssed from that in terms of overall capability in the early part of the Ukraine War.)

If you can get this book, do so. It’s a good historical reference, and Dawes keeps a lot of Gordon’s issues in check.

Review: American Secret Projects: Airlifters

American Secret Projects: Airlifters

Craig Kaston and George Cox’s two volume series on American airlifters is one of the main reasons for the recent fascination I’ve had with these cargo-bearing beasts. Like a lot of books in the series, both are excellent. However, one of the volumes outshines the other, though through no fault of the authors.

The first volume is well-written and illustrated, but it describes a time period where, for the most part, it’s just variations on big-bellied freighter aircraft. The second volume has a lot of those too, but also has weird shapes, VTOLS, napkin company projects that make Mukhamedov and Stavatti look like Boeing and Airbus, and so much more.

If you have to get one book, get the post-1961 volume. But both are well worthy of any aviation history enthusiast’s bookshelf. Fair warning-you may twist your brain into a pretzel trying to estimate just what some of these oddballs can and can’t transport. It’s what I’ve been doing a lot, and I have no regrets.

Review: The Iraqi Army

The Iraqi Army: Organization and Tactics

The NTC special text dubbed “The Iraqi Army: Organization and Tactics” is a valiant attempt at quickly trying to adapt to a different enemy. While the Iraqis used lots of Soviet equipment, their actual doctrine was more British-based on paper and often varied from both (usually for the worse). Just all on its own, it’s a fairly conventional and standard OPFOR document. But I find the context incredibly fascinating.

Like in Lester Grau’s much later The Russian Way of War, a tightrope had to be walked between the observed performance and the theoretical doctrine. Given the latter country’s vast paper trail and its known obsession with quantifying everything, separating the two was/is an easy task. As is/was noticing when theory inevitably diverged from practice, from Grozny to Hostomel.

Here, not so much. The Iraqi Army was notoriously slapdash, so the challenge was even greater. One example I like is that an Iraq War wargame supplement even told the player not to try and use any kind of standardized formation for them at all (!). On the more important doctrine, it acknowledges the flaws shown in the war with Iran, but cautiously and wisely goes with what can be paraphrased as “This may have been an aberration, treat them as a mechanized force worthy of their equipment”. That in many cases they turned out not to be showed the importance of assuming strength rather than weakness.

As a primary source, this is a very interesting snapshot. Plus it’s in the public domain and available readily now.