Review: North Korean Tactics

North Korean Tactics

One of the best OPFOR manuals I’ve seen, and one of the most recent, is ATP 7-100.2, North Korean Tactics. The manual itself is a good read, and the “Breaking Doctrine” podcast that comes along with does a great job explaining how both it and other OPFOR documents (a long weird guilty pleasure of mine) have come into being.

Thus the manual isn’t a direct “They will do this” the way that some of the more overly rigid Soviet-inspired ones were. But it does show the characteristics of the secretive country (light infantry, high willingness to take casualties, artillery over tanks, etc…) and has to focus on its specific qualities instead of just lumping them in with a generic OPFOR designed for challenge above adherence to any specific country.

It’s not perfect, but it’s intriguing and well-done, showing the seeming contradiction of mass asymmetric warfare in action. Ones for China and Iran are planned, and I’m awaiting them. (There’s one for Russia announced, but it’s kind of in limbo. My hunch is that the need for something so specific is less for a country that’s already studied and already fairly close to the generic OPFOR).

The Tiers of Fighters/Opponents

So, boxing (and to a lesser degree mixed martial arts, though that is an inherently higher-variance sport) has developed a sort of tier system for its numerous fighters. Title Bout Boxing, through its auto-scheduler enabling you to run numerous simulated matches, is good for determining just how good fighters in one tier can fare against those in another. What I’ve found is that cheap thriller opponents can also fit into these categories.

  • Tomato Cans. The bottom of the barrel. They’re set up in deliberate squash matches, most often for the purpose of artificially inflating a fighter’s record. Or providing a spectacle. Tomato cans are always ranked as “0” in Title Bout Boxing, and the only way they can defeat any kind of significant fighter is through an injury/cut/occasional fluke knockout.
  • Journeymen. The middle of the pack. These are the low-tier filler fighters which everyone has to pass through, and which define the median that people diverge from. In Title Bout, they’re ranked 0-2, and aren’t quite as hapless as tomato cans against clearly superior opponents.
  • Gatekeepers/Trial Horses. These are fighters intended to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. Barring the above lucky moments, they aren’t expected to credibly challenge for a title themselves. But they can determine if a prospect is all that or not. In Title Bout, they’re typically ranked 2-4.
  • Fringe Contender. This is where the lines start to blur. In-game, they’re a 5-7 ranked fighter who can occasionally win against superior opponents “legitimately” (I’ve found that being able to win via decision is a mark of legitimacy, as are knockouts/TKOs that aren’t due to cuts). Often they’re genuine champions by national/regional standards.
  • Contender. 7+ ranked fighters in-game who can consistently win legitimately, even at low percentage chances overall, against other contenders. I chose the game’s 7 rating as the line because that’s the in-game rating of Ingemar Johanssen, widely considered one the weakest world champions ever.

As always, perspective is important. Even tomato cans are better at punching than any normal person, and the difference is simply a matter of degree. Someone good by lower standards can still be the equivalent of a tomato can against an all time legend.

Looking At Desperation Formations

Occasionally, I dip into what I’ve called “Normandy Syndrome”, which goes something like this. Because the Normandy Campaign may be the single most studied and written about engagement in western history (with the possible exception of Gettysburg), I tend to look at other, different, more novel conflicts. However, this means that because I haven’t looked at them in some time, the big name campaigns become understudied to me in their own right, meaning that then I do take a look at them…

Generally though, I go back once I’ve had my fill. This time is partially an exception, as I’m looking at (gulp) Axis military formations. Don’t worry, this isn’t me becoming the kind of person who can memorize the name of every single Tiger II platoon commander. In fact, what interests me the most is the bad, hodgepodge, underresourced formations.

One area where Normandy Syndrome in general holds up is in force structure. It’s very easy to find and understand Soviet/American organizations as applied postwar. So thus seeing how different ones looked is distinctive to me, and I’m a sucker for OOB charts. But seeing unit TO&Es derived from limited resources, as opposed to Cold War excess, is also a good worldbuilding exercise for postwar formations under similar constraints.

First up are the Italians. Divisions with two three-battalion regiments, often “reinforced” by a Blackshirt battalion or [small] regiment, were the order of the day. I’ll get back to this formation later.

A 1943 assessment of Italian artillery (pg. 79) said it was a hodgepodge, middling force. A postwar assessment of Italian artillery (pg. 25) said-it was a hodgepodge, middling force. Contrary to the stereotype, both sources praise the crews, but note they were underequipped and unsurprisingly deployed forward more often than the Western Allied norm. Which makes sense given transportation issues and the comparative lack of direct fire support.

Then there’s ZE GERMANS. Not the wunderwaffe Germans, but the tattered, late-war, desperate Germans. For all the “lol-Italians” snickering, it’s worth noting that the Germans themselves had six battalion divisions later in the war, both of a downscaled classic type of two three-battalion regiments and a “Volksgrenadier” type of three two-battalion ones that was (on paper) equipped with more automatic weapons to make up for it.

Volksgrenadiers and Volkssturm are often confused. The former was meant to be more capable than other similar-sized formations due to a mass of automatic rifles and machine guns and even in practice was no worse than any other later-war formation, while the latter was the last-ditch pathetic old men with panzerfausts and ancient rifles militia that people know.

Then there’s my favorite, the later-war armored formations. By 1945, a “Panzer” division had only one battalion of actual tanks and one of APCs even at full strength. In fact, it reminds me more than anything of a postwar light OPFOR formation. One battalion of tanks, a few miscellaneous AFVs and vehicles (ie, for the WW2 formations, it was gun tank destroyers, for postwar ones, they’d be likely replaced by ATGM carriers), and some infantry in softskin trucks, equivalent either to a small division or just a brigade, depending on the type. In practice, well, I’ve heard multiple sources say, and I believe them, that the 1945 Germans were comparable qualitatively to the 1941 Soviets.

Because having too few resources is far more common than having too many (and this is before attrition!) I feel looking at the Axis minors and late-war Germans is a good exercise if developing fictional formations. It’s also a very refreshing and important contrast from the usual myth of waves of Tigers.

Drones of the OPFOR

As some of the OPFOR documents were published as the UAV revolution began and as they were based on countries known to have substantive drone programs/the means to obtain high-quality commercial ones, it’s not surprising that remote vehicles play a role. In the 1990s documents, they are referred to as “RPVs” (Remotely piloted vehicles)

The American Heavy OPFOR is mentioned as using multiple kinds of drones. Its operational/strategic drones are mentioned as having a maximum radius of around 300 kilometers. Divisions have smaller RPVs for spotting purposes. The Light OPFOR has similar units in its better-equipped formations.

The British GENFORCE-Mobile Forces goes into more detail.

  • A combined “reconaissance-strike” UCAV that can spot AND attack.
  • Strategic groupings/fronts have an UAV with a 500km range, armies/corps one with 300 km.
  • Divisions and brigades have “long” range (70 km) UAVs and “short” range (30 km) ones.
  • Artillery regiments/brigades have organic 50 km range UAVs for spotting and laser-designating for smart weapons.

The figures stated are somewhat generic, especially for the bigger and/or more advanced ones, but given the giant number of UAVs in service/development (and undoubtedly even many more since that chart was published around ten years ago!), it’s easy to find representative platforms.

The Conventional Guerilla Army

Yes, I know this title sounds like a contradiction. Yet the irregular opponent operates in tiers.

At the “bottom” tier of organization, as per Training Circular 7-100.3, Irregular Opposing Forces (source of diagram), there is what that document calls “insurgents”, ones devoted purely to doing damage.

Next are what it calls “Guerillas”. The definition is “

“A guerrilla force is a group of irregular, predominantly indigenous personnel organized along military lines to conduct military and paramilitary operations in enemy-held, hostile, or denied territory (JP 3-05). Thus, guerrilla units are an irregular force, but structured similar to regular military forces. They resemble military forces in their command and control (C2) and can use military-like tactics and techniques.”

(Bolding added by me)

The document holds “guerillas” to be more organized and more capable of conventional-ish action than “insurgents.” It lists (obviously rough) organizations up to brigade size.

Then it gets trickier. Then there emerges “regular forces” that are intended to fight and hold ground conventionally. The Vietnam-era “Handbook on Aggressor Insurgent War” (FM 30-104, 1967) has a sample regiment of these regular forces organized as follows.

FM 30-104 rightly notes that these are organized similar to conventional Aggressor rifle regiments, only with lighter equipment. This flows right into the highest tier, consisting of…

  • Forces trained and equipped similarly to their external patrons (since very few unconventional forces can grow this powerful without outside backing). These are less interesting from an organizational standpoint, as the only things really distinguishing them are the origins of their forces and sometimes skill.
  • Irregular forces that have the size and equipment to succeed at conventional operations. These will have de facto infantry, motor vehicles (the infamous “technicals” ) and a smattering of supplied/captured AFVs, operable in what would be considered “detachments” in more structured armies in terms of their size and (lack of) organization.

Review: Armor Attacks

Armor Attacks

John Antal’s Armor Attacks is essentially a choose your own adventure book about a tank platoon. Created as a training tool, it was originally released shortly before the Gulf War. Thus it provides a window into Fuldapocalyptic tank battles.

The premise is that the Krasnovians (or, as they’re called in the book, the “Threat”-essentially a Soviet-style OPFOR) wants to seize the Middle East, and the Americans (and you) must stop them. While it shouldn’t be fair to criticize what’s clearly just a setup for the instructional vignettes he wants, I should still point out the Melville-esque prose clearly leaves something to be desired. Everyone talks in unrealistically robotic, exact terms. It’s understandable, but I still didn’t really like it in that sense.

At least this doesn’t do what Antal did in his first proper novel, Proud Legions, and try to make the reader’s unit the absolute conflict-defining centerpiece. The low, dirty place of the reader is emphasized, and rightfully so. Which is a good thing, as the actual vignettes/choices are well done.

I was “genre-savvy” enough to make some of the right decisions when I tried a run through of one of the scenarios. Tanks are more vulnerable to artillery than you might think, so don’t stay in one spot too long. Taking on a company of T-72s with a platoon of M1s is totally viable, even with 105mm M1s (I have the feeling that this would have been less intuitive pre-Gulf War). And so on.

However, and this may have been the legacy of The Henry Stickmin Collection and its “failure is just as good and entertaining as success” mindset at work, I also attacked up the middle. It didn’t go so well. In fact, I’d have loved for one of the scenarios to be a “Kobayashi Maru” one where you get wiped out no matter what you do.

The newest digital edition of this book does the orginal one better by showing the instructor’s material used. To me at least this was fascinating and interesting. For anyone interested in tanks of the period, I highly recommend this book.

Weird Wargaming: OPFOR as “Actors”

In some of my Command scenarios, I’ve depicted exercises. Many similar scenarios use the “characters”, the foreign platforms they’re simulating. Therefore there would be a lot of Soviet origin fighters. And there’s no problem with that. But I’ve decided to do things a little differently in my own.

I’ve decided to frequently use the “actors”, the western units painted up as “aggressors” to play the enemy during the operations. Part of this is just for the sake of distinct novelty, and part of it is to provide a non-contrived way for advanced western platforms to fight each other.

A general substitution rule I’ve used is this.

MiG-21F-5
MiG-23F-20
MiG-29F-20, F-16
Su-27F-15
Su-24F-111

There are of course even more variants, but those are the general ones.

The next part is setting the side proficiency of the OPFOR to “Ace”, the highest one. It’s there to simulate both highly trained crews (hi Jester and Viper) and give the player more of a challenge.

That’s my small personal guideline for exercise scenarios.

Review: Generic Enemy: Mobile Forces

Generic Enemy: Mobile Forces

So now it’s time to do a formal review of an OPFOR document. While an unusual choice, this one I believe is the most interesting, as it’s both a description and a sort of prediction. A 1990s British document made available via their version of the FOIA law fairly recently, the Mobile Forces is my favorite OPFOR publication, and not just due to its massive size.

First, I have to say the obvious thing quickly: This is a field manual written in field-manualese, not anything that’s meant to be any kind of literary work. That being said, its comprehensiveness is something.

Like most OPFORs, it’s an idealized Soviet-style opponent. Unlike most OPFORs, especially the American Heavy OPFOR, it doesn’t just present that (even with post-1991 hindsight/sources) but also tries to look ahead, in this case towards a “hybrid” model that Russia at the time tried and, for obvious reasons, largely failed to actually adopt until decades later. A two-tier force exists, the “Basic” and “Mobile” forces.

The Basic Forces are arranged in traditional Soviet style, only with some differences-special premade forward detachments, a few other organizational changes, and, most importantly, many divisions having only three rather than four regiments at paper strength. The Mobile Forces, meant to be the cream of the crop, use the same “Brigade-Corps” organization that the Soviet tank forces in World War II used.

The Mobile Forces have permanent combined-arms battalions (while still eager to make ad hoc task forces if need be). Their brigades have a large number of battalions under their command. The document goes into massive detail as to how these two types of forces are meant to fight and work together.

There’s also a few changes.

  • The intended rate of advance slows down. Whether this is because of better artillery/enemy mobility/etc… or because the original rates were too optimistic is a good question, but it’s there.
  • Tactical use of nuclear and chemical weapons, while obviously not removed, is de-emphasized, simply because “conventional” weapons have gotten better.

As one of the best OPFOR pieces, this is well worth a read to enthusiasts, wargamers, and the like as a study of a “futuristic” yet still recognizably Soviet force. I’ll admit I’ve taken more than a little inspiration from it for my own writing, simply because of the effective, distinctive, two-tier military it portrays.

Front Defensive Operations

frontdefense

From the Heavy OPFOR Operational, here is a picture of a front-sized defensive operation. My first thought upon seeing it and counting the divisions, besides any political concerns, is – “Does NATO even have enough forces to break through it without a huge amount of technological superiority”?

This particular diagram is something of an idealized best case, as the front has both a second-echelon tank army to counterattack and several independent divisions as “combined arms reserves”. But still. I’d have to ask…

  • How much of a force multiplier are the initial belts (which were expected to be overrun?)
  • How much of the artillery and missile forces can survive and fire effectively on the attackers as they approach?
  • Most importantly, what’s the overall context?

 

 

Review: The Defense of Hill 781

The Defense of Hill 781

Time to start off October by reviewing an unconventional favorite of mine. Like many stories in its genre, The Defense of Hill 781 is nothing but an excuse to show tanks exploding. Unlike many stories in its genre, it accepts and embraces this as a form of Duffer’s Drift style ‘edutainment’.

Icelands

The book diverges from the formula by going right to the action and doing so in a form of various “learn from failure as well as success” vignettes following the classic Duffer’s Drift style formula. It’s not a conventional thriller or even a conventional story, and this works in its favor exactly.

Rivets

The Defense of Hill 781 has a lot of detail. However, in its specific context, it’s understandable and forgivable. This is meant as an instructional piece, and thus it needs to be detailed. So while the detail can be clunky, it’s not “I know how many wheels are on a Scud TEL and what the proper name of that TEL is.” It’s relevant to what needs to be taught.

Zombie Sorceresses

This book has the humorously named protagonist A. Tack Always thrown into a ‘real’ purgatory of the National Training Center to fight the infamous Krasnovian OPFOR. It is completely artificial and makes absolutely no pretensions of being anything else.

The “Wha?”

So The Defense Of Hill 781 does not have a conventional plot, nor does it have conventional non-lecturing characterization. What it does have is detailed yet visceral battles that redeem the lack of this.

Instead of robotic “Fifty T-62s and ten M60s were destroyed” infodumpy battles, you have the main character running around trying to find a radio after each of his comm sources is either jammed or outright destroyed. This grit and pain is what lets author James McDonough play to his strengths and make the lack of “fluff” a strength rather than a weakness.

The Only Score That Really Matters

The Defense of Hill 781 is one of those “either you like it or you don’t” books. If you want any kind of plot or characterization whatsoever, it’s no good. But if you want to see well-written battle scenes in training aid-level detail, and I did, this is a good tale that is completely without any extraneous fluff. It doesn’t always work, but it does here. This stands out of the pack as a unique and varied contribution to the 1980s mechanized combat genre.