Review: Wet Work

Wet Work

Mark Hewitt’s Hunter series continues its crazy in Wet Work, the fifth installment. It gets harder to review a later book in a long series unless the quality changes massively in either direction. This is not the case here. Like most of its predecessors, it’s a sprawling technothriller with a ridiculous main character who makes John Rourke look like an everyman in comparison.

Thankfully, one thing about this book is different and better. The final action set piece is actually tense and well written. But even that can’t break it out of the pack of “I love reading them, but don’t really recommend them for other people” that the first four established.

SOF Infiltration Techniques

I’ve decided to kick off the new year on Fuldapocalypse with my current “I justify it by claiming it’s for book research, but really it’s mostly for its own fun sake” obsession. This is the way special forces teams are infiltrated (moved in to their target, almost always with the intention of stealth).

Granted, there are elite teams moving about in All Union (without spoiling any specific element), and the Soviet-Romanian War saw the biggest deployment of special forces in modern history. But it’s still a fascinating topic. So in rough order from least to most complicated…

  • On Foot. This is the most basic type, with very obvious limitations. In this case the borders are already packed with conventional troops (including recon ones), so very few to no SPF teams would go in that way.
  • Helicopter/VTOL. This needs little explanation. Both its strengths and weaknesses are pretty obvious to those with basic military knowledge.
  • Boat. This also doesn’t need much explanation. In this specific case, it’s hindered by Romania having only a small amount of coastline suitable for amphibious landings. One 1970 CIA analysis put it at only nine miles (page 10), but this admittedly would be far less a problem for small SOF craft as opposed to large landers.
  • Ground Vehicle. AKA the Desert Rats. This gives the force a lot more mobility once in the target area, but it also makes it more noticeable and adds to their logistical areas. And especially for the more prosaic role of most spetsnaz, this also overlaps to a large extent with the horde of BRDMs and long-range patrols in “conventional” units.
  • Static Line Parachute. This is less precise than helicopters but can take advantage of (often) longer range or higher-performing aircraft. The type of aircraft also differs-I have a soft spot for planes like the An-2 and C-145 Skytrucks that are small for mass paradrops but quite able to release small teams.
  • Infiltration in Peacetime. This uses secret agents and other “peaceful” means to help bring the SPF in before the fighting starts. The problem is that you need a good network of secret agents to succeed this way.

These are the mundane, usual, “boring” techniques. Now for the “interesting” ones.

  • Free fall parachute jumps. Requiring more skill and risk, this is further divided into the “easier” HALO (High Altitude, Low Opening) and “harder” (High Altitude High Opening) jumps. The former is mostly intended for unconventional war to keep the drop plane hidden (in a visual and sound sense) and less vulnerable, while the latter is an extreme jump that involves the parachutists gliding a considerable distance.
  • Ultralight aircraft and paramotors. Mentioned in both the GENFORCE-Mobile and TC 7-100.2 manuals for special forces insertion, these seemingly silly devices have been considered a serious way of moving in. The performance of motorized paragliders and ultralight planes varies, but can be “increased” if only a one way trip in is needed.
  • Wingsuits. The most exotic yet, these are mentioned in TC 7-100.2 and the various Worldwide Equipment Guides. Still conceptual as of this writing and the absolute hardest to use, these squirrel-gliders are nonetheless, well, awesome. Especially the powered ones.

It’s important to note that the majority of historical spetsnaz from the 1950s to 1991 were still two-year draftees. The best and most motivated two-year draftees, but still two-year draftees. Infiltrators in the second category in a Soviet-style military would have to be officers or professional volunteers with longer-term contracts to get the time to master such exotic techniques.

A massive number of Soviet, Bulgarian, and Afghan special purpose forces participated in the invasion of Romania. The very first substantial Soviet casualties in the war came when a Romanian MiG-23 shot down a transport carrying SPF for a parachute insertion, killing all eighteen people on board. While those three nations are well known, there have also been rumors of other SPF as well as western mercenaries disguised as employees for humanitarian NGOs.

Review: Special Reconnaissance and Advanced Small Unit Patrolling

Special Forces (specifically MACV-SOG) veteran Edward Wolcoff has created a masterpiece in Special Reconnaissance and Advanced Small Unit Patrolling. Despite the long and clunky title, the book itself is very accessible. The goal was to create a list of tactics, techniques, and procedures determined by both theory and practice. It was also to present them in a way that was easily accessible and not written in field manualese (indeed, taking issue with official doctrine is stated in the introduction as a big motivation for the entire book). Wolcoff succeeds admirably in both parts.

This is not just for people who actually do light infantry patrols. Even armchair writers like me will find it very useful for both research and curiosity. Few stones are left unturned. This aims to be comprehensive and it succeeds. It does arguably focus a little too much on the past, but given the author’s Vietnam service, this is quite understandable. While “tone” isn’t the most relevant for a book like this, I enjoy how this comes across as being critical of official doctrine and often greatly so, but not in a bitter or axe-grinding way (Wolcoff has said that he submitted this book to a security review and cooperated with the Pentagon in its publication, FWIW).

What I particularly like is how Wolcoff makes it very clear that failure is as big a teacher (if not more) as success. Survivorship bias can skew things massively, so it’s important to look at what didn’t work as well as what did. This is a great resource for well, anyone, and well worth a purchase.

Review: Spetsnaz The Inside Story

Spetsnaz: The Inside Story

There are few Cold War authors who I have less respect for than defector Viktor Suvorov (pen name), nor are there more who’ve influenced the thought and discourse around Fuldapocalypses in a such a negative way. Since Suvorov was one of the biggest popularizers of the mega-super Spetsnaz , I felt that his Spetsnaz: The Inside Story would be an excellent first book to review.

Now defectors, confidential informants, and the like are generally not the best or most reliable people. Some may be and have been deliberate double agent sneaks to muddle the waters. But more have had mundane issues. Issues like exaggerating their own importance and telling their new handlers what they want to hear. There’s a reason why American military officers in the cold war considered intelligence defectors not noble dissidents but unreliable weasels while having far more respect for enemy field commanders who stayed loyal until December 1991. Suvorov fits this negative stereotype to a T (and I’m not the only one to say this).

The story begins with a description of shovels. Yes, military entrenching tools are important for digging in, other utilities, and make for a good enough melee weapon. Then Suvorov dives deep and talks about how spetsnaz train with their shovels as weapons and that it involves putting one alone with only a shovel against a crazed dog. Woof.

So yeah. If Suvorov says that a bicycle has two wheels, walk around and count them. There’s accurate points here and there, but remember what they say about a broken clock (or that he just grabbed it from an accessible source that others would soon do with less embellishment, or took information that wasn’t that controversial). Suvorov also introduces the “Icebreaker Theory” where he states that Stalin was going to invade west and Germany simply preempted him. (You know who else said that?). The Icebreaker Theory, which he would later expand into a full book, goes from “questionable” to outright uncomfortable in my eyes given how it echoes the Germans own justifications for Barbarossa.

Then there are the psychologically iffy parts. Perhaps the least credible sentence in the book is “In the spetsnaz soldier’s opinion the most dangerous thing he can do is put faith in his comrade, who may at the most critical moment turn out to be a beast.” It’s not like successful war has always relied about trusting one’s colleagues in crisis, and that demanding special operations would demand more of that. I can believe them to be ultra-cynical, cold, and hard-edged (to say nothing of having grown up in an autocratic society), but Suvorov generalizes every single one of them to be those mixed with (in another dubious quote) “A spetsnaz soldier knows that he is invincible.” This strikes me as playing to the crowd, because it’s what an armchair observer with little knowledge of actual battle dynamics would think the ultimate warrior mindset would be like. Even some of the accurate statements come across as being aimed too low: For instance, his (correct) emphasis that a safehouse keeper/secret agent should be someone who blends in and doesn’t have any profile to attract attention is accompanied by a swipe at the likes of James Bond, with Suvorov apparently figuring that most of his audience gets their knowledge of spycraft from that.

Even leaving plausibility issues aside, Suvorov’s writing is rambling, pretentious, and sensationalist to the extreme. This is not aimed at people who would actually have to make a serious plan about dealing with the serious, legitimate threat of opposing special forces. This is giving a general audience the treasured “inside peek” that Bill James recognized and criticized. It’s the Cold War equivalent of someone from the Pakistani intelligence services talking about Osama bin Laden’s giant mountain fortress and his army of countless infiltrators throughout the world in the early 2000s.

The biggest problem is that there’s now basically no point to read this for solid information. In an age where you have western analysis done with much greater access and info (ie, Heavy OPFOR/GENFORCE-Mobile) and translated real primary sources (ie, Voroshilov Lectures), including those on the spetsnaz themselves, having a dated “I WAS THERE” “expose” like this is basically worthless as a practical source. One of my biggest pet peeves is that Suvorov has been cited far too often by Cold War wargamers despite better sources having long been available now.

What it does show is the tone of the times, and of the kind of sensationalist book that appears to stoke every zeitgeist. In this sense, it (and Suvorov’s other books) are surprisingly close to the stereotypical true crime paranoia book. Except with spetsnaz instead of serial killers or whoever.

Review: No Need to Know

No Need to Know

The third in Hewitt’s Hunter series, No Need to Know is every bit as out-there as the first two (if not more). Once again, I’m in the somewhat unusual position of not recommending them for other people while having a blast reading them myself. The conspiracies don’t stop in this book, and neither do the set-pieces.

In fact, this is actually better paced if anything than the second and especially the first book. While it’s still overly long, it feels like it flows better and doesn’t have that many outright dull moments. Ok, except those involving the details of operation the YO-3 airplane, which is obsessed over throughout the series.)

That sounds like faint praise. And the inherent flaws of the first two are still there. But still it’s nice to see an author’s craft get genuinely better.

Review: Shoot Down

Shoot Down

The second of Mark Hewitt’s Hunter thrillers, Shoot Down is somewhat different from the first in terms of setup. Almost the entire W.E.B. Griffin style pop epic is gone in favor of just a then-contemporary cheap thriller. Unfortunately, this just means we get a thriller twice as long as it should be. And with all the issues and then some.

And yet, I have not just finished this book with its “shoot the terrorist” plot, I’ve even moved on to the third installment. Because this is flawed in an interesting way, and I want to see how uh, “interesting” it becomes. But I still don’t recommend this series for “normal” readers.

Review: Advance To Contact 1980 (Ronsone/Aaronson)

Advance To Contact 1980

The time has come to finally return to the starting theme of this blog. A 1980s World War III book is being reviewed here, Advance to Contact by James Ronsone and Alex Aaronson. This is a very Larry Bond-esque book taking place at an unusual time (beginning of the decade, or as I like to call it NATO Hard Mode) and in unusual places like Iran and Central America. Operation Eagle Claw succeeds-and things spiral from there.

Of course, I have an obligatory rivet-counting nitpick. Eagle Claw was more or less completely unworkable and it was probably for the best that it failed as early as it did. Reaching the city itself would just lead to massive collateral damage and the deaths of the hostages. Eagle Claw succeeding is like Operation Sea Lion succeeding in terms of plausibility.

But for the sake of the story, I’ll gladly it slide. Different theaters certainly beats Germany and the North Atlantic. Especially when the geography leads to different types of battles than giant mechanized blasts in the Fulda Gap.

As far as literary quality, this is a little rough but very forgivable. While at times it gets clunky, this is an extremely hard genre to write well. It certainly did not stop me from enjoying this book, and I look forward to the next installment.

Review: Special Access

Special Access

The first in the Duncan Hunter series of aviation thrillers is Special Access. This book is very right-wing and very bad. It’s not terrible because it’s right wing, if that was the case 4/5ths of Fuldapocalypse review subjects if not more would be bad. There’s only a little overlap between “slant” and “reason why I didn’t like it”, but even that little is more than most trash fiction.

Special Access starts off being obviously inspired by W.E.B. Griffin. In fact, it apes his structure so much that despite only reading one unconventional Griffin novel in full, I still saw the resemblance immediately. It’s a long progressive stride through years and years. Only with stalling on a short period and then racing ahead with clumsy timeskips. The main character is a total Mary Sue, but that’s the least of this book’s problems.

Once in the “present”, the politics reach the level of the posthumous “William W. Johnstone’s” novels. The president (the novel was released in 2013) is a foreign-born terrorist agent. Muslim terrorists have thoroughly infiltrated the government. You get the idea. Not only is the tone like those “literary masterpieces”, but so is the structure. It’s a clunky cheap thriller, and even though the action set pieces are better than any posthumous “Johnstone” novel I’ve read, that’s not saying much.

So this is basically two books in similar but not exact genres, both of which have massive flaws, jammed together. It’s like those times when people try to combine sporting events and concerts and they both fail. With bad athletes and worse musicians. I would even go so far as to say that this is the worst book I’ve read in some time.

Review: Primary Target (Jack Mars)

Primary Target: The Forging Of Luke Stone

A prequel to the Luke Stone adventure novel series, Primary Target is one of those books that somehow manages to hit every single genre cliche and then some. Reading this gets the most cookie-cutter action hero imaginable, almost literally every single type of cheap thriller villain showing up at some point, and 51% action.

In other words, I loved it. This is the best kind of 51% book, and it’s the perfect type of novel to relax one’s mind in between deeper and more fulfilling books. I recommend this as silly fun.

Review: Punk’s Fight

Punk’s Fight

Former F-14 RIO Ward Caroll’s Punk’s Fight is actually the third book in his series starring an F-14 pilot (write what you know, I guess). I nonetheless chose it as my starting point because it takes place during the beginnings of Enduring Freedom and I was fresh off reading about the Afghan air wars. Maybe the first two books were better. Because this one was not very good.

Do you want Herman Melville’s Overdescriptive F-14 Ride followed by a contrived way to get his main character to the ground war and lots of self-aggrandizing? If so, then this is the book for you. To be fair, its technical realism is an arguable selling point, but it squanders it on unlikeable and axe-grinding characters, mixed with the protagonist’s not-exactly-ideal adventure on the ground when his Tomcat goes down.

I can see why some people would like this book and series, but I didn’t.