Review: Praxis Tacticum

Praxis Tacticum

Canadian retired colonel Chuck Oliviero has released the new Praxis Tacticum. It’s one of those “mean 51%” books, being incredibly erratic. Much of the actual content is not objectionable-ie, “learn to face someone who isn’t a low intensity, technically inferior opponent”. Some of it is stuff even unqualified armchair general me picked up-me being the OPFOR addict I am, I’ve seen journal articles complaining about the rigidity of the OPFOR in practice compared to its flexibility in theory that he states. And some of it, however much I’d disagree with, is at least defensible and understandable. Oliviero is much, much more of a “manueverist” than I would be.

Plus, anyone who wants to simplify documents and instructions into something that isn’t in field-manualese has their heart in the right place.

However, the execution does not come across as ideal. For something aimed at lower-level commanders, it feels far too pretentious and buries the important stuff (stuff like how to do rapid drills and move a unit very quickly without outrunning your supply lines), in a mess of pompous mush. His decision to have a flexible, winning OPFOR (good) turns into an embrace of exercise munchkinism. This also has its heart in the right place (again, an opponent with the ability will seek to disrupt your setup and can often succeed) but I had the uncomfortable feeling that it was just him wanting to show off his supposed genius, crossing the line too often from “spar in an unconventional way” to “spar in traditional boxing and then instantly launch a Masvidal-Askren flying knee to crush your partner before patting yourself on the back.”

And this is the biggest problem. There is a very, very, very obvious barely disguised subtext of resentment that he didn’t get to be in charge throughout the book. High technology is treated with skepticism, unless it’s on tracks. Like everyone, Oliviero comes across as unavoidably biased-but he takes it to extremes.

I would recommend this for enthusiasts or intellectuals who have a full grasp of the context surrounding this book. Yet from my limited viewpoint, I actually would not recommend it to his target audience. It comes across as too slanted and inefficiently written.

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: Stalin Strikes First

World War III 1946: Stalin Strikes First

I’ve said before that I don’t really consider 1940s World War IIIs to really be in the same genre as post-Vietnam ones. However, they still meet the very basic definition. One such work was World War III 1946, which was involved in internet controversy about its quality and plausibility before it got commercialized. The first printed installment is Stalin Strikes First.

This is not the most ideal story. The first issue is that its writing system just isn’t that good. It’s a mixture of snippets, conference rooms, and vignettes that never really rise beyond exposition. The second and more fascinating issue is how the war develops, with the Soviets skill on the ground being downplayed while they pull one superweapon in an area of historical weakness after another out of their hats. There’s also a bit of taking primary sources too literally, especially dated ones. Imagine a 1980s World War III where the Warsaw Pact armies could consistently move at their maximum on-paper speeds at the same time that NATO air power was inflicting its maximum on-paper attrition and you’ll get the idea.

This particular book has the Soviets winning the initial advance. And not through their existing strengths or through Red Army-style showing how they can be more than the sum of their parts. No, it’s through author fiat handing them one victory after another on a silver platter. There is obvious enthusiasm put into this book, but I still cannot recommend it. There are just so many better World War IIIs out there.

The Minimum Viable Tank

M4 Shermans and T-34s saw service in many armies and many conflicts long after World War II. Their use after the Korean War and the export wave of Pattons/T-54s/Centurions has been interesting to me. It represents something that I’d call, for lack of a better word, the Minimum Viable Tank. Which is to say that against any other tank or any substantial anti-tank weapon, they’re hopelessly outclassed.

Yet they still can and still could do “tank things”. They have armor, they can move fast, and they can make things go boom. Thus the weird wargamer in me wants to go “just what can these minimum viable tanks accomplish?” And in many real cases, the answer has been “a lot”.

What adds to their appeal is that they were not found in the superpower armies directly. The US quickly ditched its remaining Shermans after Korea, and T-34s did not endure that long even in the lowest-category units once a glut of hand-me-down postwar tanks became available. But they were shipped abroad, and they did fight, meaning their presence likely indicates an obscure area.

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).

Weird Wargaming: From The Periphery to the Centfront

The force deployments of the Cold War Central Front have been one of the most obsessively studied and analyzed of all time. Yet some surprising curveballs can still emerge. One of them I recently found was unadopted suggestions to move either Turkish or Italian forces to permanent bases in West Germany. The Turkish force I heard was two divisions. The Italian one was undefined.

The biggest (purely military and not political) risk I felt was that a significant portion of these nation’s heavy formations (the only viable ones for a conventional Fuldapocalypse) would have to be moved. Thus they would need to be either reequiped with cheaper and less capable superpower surplus, beefed up expensively, or have fewer mechanized units on their own territory.

As for where to put them, there were a few options. One was the obvious use of them to shore up the always vital and always vulnerable NORTHAG. Another was to put them in Southern Germany and/or other areas with good defensible terrain (such as the Harz Mountains) to free up Bundeswehr troops to go elsewhere.

However they were equipped and wherever they went, having these alternate deployments seems like it would make for an interesting wargame scenario.

Weird Wargaming: The “Pharaonic” Division

One of the gems in the Micromark Army List order of battle sets is the “WW2.5” hypothetical set. In an alternate victorious Germany, it’s kind of a way to do a battle with all sorts of never-were prototypes and units from Allies and Axis. However, the organizational structure remains largely the same as historically-with one strange exception.

This is the “Pharaonic” Division, adopted by Egypt as part of returning to its ancient roots (yes, this is an excuse plot). And it’s interesting. At division level, it’s very conventional (three brigades, one armored and two infantry), and at brigade level mostly so (two “hosts”/subunits of either tanks or infantry).

However, the regimental (or “host“, as it’s called) level is extremely different. Like the infamous pentomic formations, it has five companies and skips the battalion level. Line platoons consist of five ten-man squads. Artillery battalions consist of five batteries of five guns each.

Tanks do not follow the rule-of-five and instead use a more conventional 4-3 model (4 tanks in a platoon/troop and 3 of those in a company/squadron). However, tank squadrons have an organic pentomic mechanized infantry troop. Although they’re not in the OOB document, I can see hypothetical independent armored formations intended for attachment to infantry units being organized in the “5 subunits” way to make attachment and organization easier. It’s worth nothing that the self-propelled guns used primarily for infantry support/defense are arranged this way.

The original pharaonic division was only covered in mechanized form, but its principles mean it can easily be adopted to other types of units. For instance, I can easily make a triangular pharaonic division with either three or six infantry hosts (depending on if you want a brigade level or not) and the usual support elements.