The increased effectiveness of smart bombs firsthand

I decided to indulge my inner VVS target planner and do some (very basic) calculations for air power against opposing targets. What I found made me smile. The methodology is extremely simple-I used a regiment of 36 paper-strength aircraft, carrying 4 PGMs each (a proposed upgrade for the MiG-29 had a targeting pod on the centerline and up to 4 KAB-500L laser bombs). Then I used the 60% hit rate estimated for smart bombs in the Gulf War. Then I had only 25 aircraft actually launched to simulate attrition and realistically low readiness.

So that gets 100 drops and 60 targets plinked. That’s one-two battalions worth, if we’re talking about armored vehicles. And even that’s ideal and doesn’t take stuff like aborts, aircraft getting shot down before reaching their target, and hitting the wrong thing into account. But this is an oversimplified spherical cow exercise anyway.

What makes this more interesting is the 1969 claim that “a fighter-bomber division is capable, in one day of combat with two or three sorties, of inflicting destruction (up to 20% losses) on one to two enemy brigades”. Meaning at the very least, even earlier PGMs can have an air regiment do what used to take a division three times its size.

This was a fun little thought exercise to do.

Review: The Iraqi Threat

The Iraqi Threat And Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction

In the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, Stephen Hughes released an unofficial sort of OPFOR compilation called “The Iraqi Threat And Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction.” As the intelligence forces of the world found out after the war, getting any kind of accurate information on a country both as secretive and as slapdash as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a very difficult challenge. So I can forgive Hughes for any inaccuracies in the book, just as how I can forgive pre-1991 western sources on the USSR for not having information that was only unclassified/found out later.

What is significantly harder to forgive is the layout of the book. It’s, to be frank, a total mess. A lot of the most important parts on Iraqi (conventional) capabilities are lifted from an NTC document but strewn about in a way that makes them less understandable. Likewise for his pieces on Iraqi equipment. And militias. And so on. About the only thing really interesting and coherent is a huge section on mountain formations and defenses, which is applicable to far more than just Saddam’s Iraq.

But that can’t save the rest of the book, which is just too poorly organized to be much good. Even accepting it as a product of its time, it’s still effectively unusable, unlike many other OPFOR documents.

The Growing MOUT Frontage

The Soviets had a love-hate relationship with city combat. On one hand, the pitfalls of something that went against their desire to move fast were very apparent. On the other, as the world became more built-up, they recognized it as a necessity. So in my relaxing reading of old field manuals, I decided to look up the frontage they desired in cities. Strictly defined frontages and unit boundaries were a trademark of them. Having both late 1940s and mid-1990s as my primary dates (because that was where I had the most detailed primary sources/analyses) wasn’t ideal, but oh well.

By the Heavy OPFOR/Genforce Era, the city block (generally 80-100 meters wide and 200-300 meters long) that had doctrinally taken a battalion or even entire regiment to storm fifty years earlier had been reduced to a reinforced company (whose reinforcements included SPHs meant to engage buildings with direct fire). Me being an detached armchair enthusiast, I’m wondering how much was better trust in a smaller unit with better training and communications and how much was the belief that they just had to walk over the rubble because their supporting firepower was so much greater.

And of course different circumstances would produce different geographical densities. But I still found it interesting. As was the shift of where the tanks should generally be compared to the infantry. With the Battle of Berlin undoubtedly in their minds, the most relevant statement in the early postwar regulations was “The mission of the tanks and the self-propelled artillery is to support the infantry attack with fire and shock action [note the “Fire” appearing first]”. Then much later their assault drills had the tanks usually going ahead of the infantry. Then after the uncomfortable experience of Chechnya, it shifted back to “the infantry should almost always go first unless the situation specifically calls for something otherwise”.

Review: ATP 7-100.3 Chinese Tactics

ATP 7-100.3 Chinese Tactics

After seeing the excellent work on North Korea, I eagerly awaited the next installment in the ATP 7-100 series on the most potential opponents. When ATP 7-100.3, Chinese Tactics dropped, I was not disappointed. Well detailed and well laid out, this is the first comprehensive unclassified analysis of the PLA in decades.

In some ways, being a far more advanced opponent that’s far closer to the fictional maximum-challenge “composite OPFOR” than North Korea is means that the tactics shown feel a lot more mundane and slightly less interesting. But showing the (deliberately overcomplicated and confounding) organization is where this shines. The modern PLA is organized a lot like the old “GENFORCE-Mobile” OPFOR with a bunch of brigades and combined arms battalions jumping straight to corps-equivalents with six line brigades each.

This is a great resource and I highly recommend reading it. Besides its topicality, seeing a force structure diverge from the classic Russo-American style is interesting to see and valuable for wargamers.

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.