Large Special Forces Units

The term “special forces” can have many different meanings. The western definition of “special operations forces” implies the ultimate operators. The Soviet definition of “special purpose forces” just means those trained for a certain role. Thus engineers and chemical personnel technically count as “special troops”, and many “SPF” are mainly recon personnel.

Training Circular 7-100.2 differentiates “SPF” and “commandos”, the former capable of things comparable to western-style SOF like training/leading allied irregulars and the latter capable of more “muscular” missions that require a bigger conventional force (commandos are listed as being able to operate at up to battalion level, something SPF never would even during direction action missions). There is a large amount of overlap, and they are more similar than different.

Then there are the “special forces” that would be considered just larger light infantry formations by the standards of other countries. Or not even that, with Stryker/BTR formations viable for (and sometimes expected to be used in) air assault operations due to their larger dismount size and some “SF” riding in APCs when operating with mechanized forces and/or facing threats that require appropriate protection.

Thus the clearest definition boils down to a vague “units with personnel trained to at least theoretically higher standards and intended to conduct tasks above and beyond those assigned to run of the mill formations”. Interestingly, I’m seeing (with the precedent of Syrian commandos in Lebanon and the proposed TRICAP Ranger/Helicopter formations) certain “special forces” being used an antitank reserve with their increased skill, more and better AT weapons than comparable line infantry formations, and the ability to be deployed quickly.

Review: Black Skies

Black Skies

The third book in the Dan Morgan thriller series (albeit the second one I’ve actually read), Black Skies is a cheap thriller that I expected to be a simply decent one like the first installment. Instead, I found it to be like a cross between someone’s silly Mary Sue self-insert fantasy and Jon Land.

The former comes from the fact that its author claims to be a Black Ops (capital!) veteran, and someone who did so much Super Secret Special Stuff that it’s all secret, you know. The Nigerian prince scammers tell a more credible story. The child who looks at you with crumbs on his face and the cookie jar empty and says “it was the cat” tells a more credible story. This is so obviously a wish fulfillment ridiculous action fantasy.

(Note: I do not consider a wish fulfillment ridiculous action fantasy a bad thing)

The Jon Land part comes from it being one of the few other thrillers that really approach his sense of buildup. I believe it’s a coincidence from both being in a shared genre, but I saw a lot of similarities. There was a good sense of buildup, without really that many stumbles. There were convoluted double and triple crosses. The MacGuffin and antagonist weren’t as gonzo as they would be in an actual Land book, but I’ll take what I can get. Since I love Jon Land thrillers, seeing one in a similar style was quite a treat.

Of course, this also shares some of Jon Land’s flaws. Namely, the rushed disposal of some of the antagonists when it’s clear that the book is running short, and a rather “questionable” depiction of firearms. I saw a “Glock .22” (which implied a small .22LR cartridge, when the author meant a real Glock 22 without the dot) and someone important using a cheapo Kel-Tec gun. Though in a thriller you already know is goofy, the inaccuracies are just part of the fun.

This is not a “good” book by any means. But it is a fun book. And that’s what matters.

Review: Sword of the Caliphate

Sword of the Caliphate

Reading Dodgebomb, I was faced with the very un-Fuldapocalyptic sight of a somber, sedate, historically accurate historical war novel. With Clay Martin’s Sword of the Caliphate, I return to the same place in a much trashier tale. And it’s a self-proclaimed World War III to boot. How could I resist?

The protagonist is an ex-soldier turned contractor guarding a fuel site in Iraq when a super-bioweapon that only affects non-Arabs is released on the world by a terror caliphate. With nuclear retaliation inevitable, he and his compatriots have to try and escape. A premise that’s basically “The Anabasis after an event triggered by Hideo Kojima levels of biology understanding” is not exactly the worst a cheap thriller could do.

This book has everything that I normally dislike about cheap thrillers. It’s written in first person, and the narrator is snooty to boot). It has the “have your cake and eat it too” where the protagonist does awesome things in a nominally “realistic” manner (basically, it’s the equivalent of immediately following Saburo Sakai’s long flight back after being shot in the head with Vesna Vuckovic’s long parachute-less fall, and following that with Jack Burke and Andy Bowen’s seven hour boxing match). It has the frequent “look how much I know” infodumps. The writing prose is very blocky.

And yet all this was present in such great quantities that it actually came full circle from “annoying” to “fun”. When I saw the first instance of my normally loathed “this isn’t the movies, now watch me do this amazing thing”, I actually went “YES!” and did a small fist pump. It’s been a while since I read a book that just teetered on the edge of “amazingly stupid” and “stupidly amazing”.

This novel is tasteless, crass, contrived, ridiculous, bizarre. It’s also fun. And it’s so much more audacious than just a run of the mill “shoot the terrorist” book. I enjoyed it, and that’s what counts.

The Style of Camouflage

Camouflage uniforms have sometimes been issued in limited amounts, especially during the World Wars. In some cases, they were chosen for practical reasons. Recon troops and others who needed legitimately better concealment were given them. One interesting case is the US only really deploying camouflage uniforms in the Pacific theater in WWII, as the Germans loved camo, and thus using them in Europe caused too much confusion. Another one is how a lot of armies that previously used the classic M81 Woodland have updated their uniforms, since the ubiquity of that pattern has made it very easy for enemies to make disguises.

But there have also been cultural reasons, for lack of a better term. And not just bandwagoning like the infamous American “every service stomps into a digital camo pattern” experience in the 2000s. I’ve heard that the postwar Bundeswehr was slow to adopt camouflage uniforms because of their association with the Third Reich. And in places like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, camouflage has been reserved for elite units as a sort of status symbol. There’s also police forces adopting blue and/or gray pseudo-camouflage to show a sort of “military power”.

This aspect of camouflage uniforms is both ironic (something intended to blend in is chosen because of its looks) and interesting to me. As is the reputation that seemingly neutral camo patterns develop based on who uses them.

Review: Nonstate Warfare

Stephen Biddle’s Nonstate Warfare aims to debunk the myths around warfare featuring nonstate actors and point out that there really isn’t as clear a line as thought between “conventional” and “unconventional” warfare. As I’ve been annoyed by the use of the terms “Hybrid War” and especially “4th Generation War”, I was eagerly awaiting this book. However, I found the execution significantly flawed.

Now, the premise is sound and well supported, which makes the flaws in outcome all the more severe. Basically, even the most mass-mobilized total wars with the clearest defined front lines have an irregular and/or deep element (he uses the excellent example of partisans on the Eastern Front in World War II). Likewise, even non-state elements can and have fought battles with large forces, heavy weapons, and the aim to hold territory. Very few people would dispute this. Biddle also points out that the progress of industrial-age technology means that ill-equipped irregulars can have weapons that the most advanced world powers didn’t have a few decades prior.

None of this is really controversial, and simply stating that would make for a very short book. What would be useful would an example of middle-level armies that don’t fit categories very well. Biddle does do this, with his descriptions of the Sadrist militias in the Iraq War and Adid’s forces in Somalia fitting well. He also has an interesting analogy with a spectrum from “Fabian” operations (a reference to the Roman strategy of avoiding defeat) to “Napoleonic” ones (a reference to seeking decisive battlefield victory). To be snarky, Fabian operations to excess are Kalib Starnes spending the entire MMA fight running away from Nate Quarry, while Napoleonic ones are the bandit in a Bethesda game charging the player in super-armor.

Unfortunately, this is written in clunky academese. Biddle uses a rigid scale to rank various forces from “Fabian” to “Napoleonic”, one that I found to be too rigid for an inherently arbitrary judgement. His writing is full of hair-splitting and nitpicking of what honestly feels like a strawman that everything is either phalanxes on a field or nothing but backstabbing. There’s weird hangups like a fixation on force density for its own sake, obsession on individual technical examples (so Adid had TOWs? So what? Even in 1993 it wasn’t like they were stealth fighters), and not enough focus on non-state forces supplied by state ones.

I wanted to like this book. And I don’t disagree with the overall point. But it could have been made just so much better. This feels like an academic squabble in academic language, when a plain-text history of case studies with “conventional irregular armies” would have been far more suitable in promoting the argument.

Review: Righteous Kill

Righteous Kill

For all the prominence of the “go back in time to kill Hitler” trope in popular culture, there are surprisingly few books that feature it as the main plot point. Ted Lapkin’s Righteous Kill is one of them. The book has a delightfully simple plot-Israeli commandos go back in time to kill him.

The book has its flaws. The prose can be clunky and frequently descends into “I know the exact designation of a Scud TEL” level infodumps. This is also not a neutrally toned book, to put it mildly, and the ending is a little too neatly tied up. But these flaws are outweighed by its strengths, which is to say it manages to pit 2010s troops the author thinks are awesome against 1940s ones and still feel like a credible fight. This is not an easy feat, and it’s to Lapkin’s great credit that he succeeds in pulling it off.

This is both a fun book and a good one.

Weird Wargaming: The Ambitious Special Operations of WWIII

This Weird Wargaming has the original intent of Fuldapocalypse meeting what the blog has gained a focus on-largely conventional World War IIIs mixed with elite small unit actions. I got the inspiration for this from a question of “what would the Army Rangers be doing in a conventional WW3?” Whatever the skill, level, troops like them are just far too light for the Centfront and would get bulldozed and/or bypassed. My initial thought was that they’d just get sent over to Norway with all of the other light infantry.

This was a very timid use of them (and other special forces), and the responses got my eyes lighting up. One was “Delta hunting the rail-mobile command center of GSFG, with the Rangers adding extra muscle.” To me it would be a ultra high-risk operation with an iffy reward, but hey, what else would you use them for?

Something like that would be a blast to sim, even if it’d have to use a different ruleset than the usual large-unit Fuldapocalyptic reenactments. While I have the same apprehension that it would turn into another Kidnapped with a scenario the mechanics aren’t meant to handle if you used a “hard” system, good design on either end would make it excellent. And if you used a “soft” system, well, stuff like this is what action heroes are made for.

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: The Night Stalker Rescue

The Night Stalker Rescue

Jason Kasper’s The Night Stalker Rescue is a prequel novella (to a series I haven’t yet read) featuring the mission of saving a downed helicopter pilot in an anti-terror operation in the Philippines gone wrong. Short and cheap, it’s the kind of book that works best as a “literary snack.” And that’s often fine.

This is a 51% snack, but it’s a fun 51% snack. About the only real quibble I had was having the book be written in first instead of third person. I think the latter is better for thrillers because you don’t have to either have a severely limited view or give the protagonist ridiculously good situational awareness. But this isn’t a deal breaker at all.

The fundamentals are sound and the story works. This is a solid “appetizer” that makes me want to read more from its author, and that’s always good news about a book.

Review: Operation Siberia

Operation: Siberia

William Meikle’s Operation Siberia is not deep fiction. But it is very fun fiction. With a recommendation from The Sci-Fi Fantasy Reviewer and a love of prehistoric megafauna that stretches back to David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work, I knew I had to read this book. And I was not disappointed.

The plot is basically a Jurassic Park knockoff that descends into what’s essentially “Scotsmen vs. Yetis”. Done with solid execution, it’s a great cheap thriller to pass the time. While not deep even by genre fiction standards, I enjoyed it a lot. Meikle takes a great premise and applies it well.