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.

Review: On The Path of Songun

The Armed Forces of North Korea: On The Path of Songun

It’s been a while since I read a really, really good military nonfiction reference. Thankfully, Stijn Mitzer and Joost Olieman’s The Armed Forces Of North Korea: On The Path Of Songun takes the cake. The product of the same people behind the legendary Oryx Blog of military intelligence, this took a while to finally get going. Thankfully, it’s well, well, well worth the effort.

So why is it so good? Well, for a start, it’s incredibly well researched, written, and photographed. It’s not an OPFOR manual or a ridiculously broad order of battle chart. What it does do is go into legitimate detail and depth about the KPA and its rise, fall, and rise. What made me absolutely fall in love with this was how this is the rare military book that doesn’t fall into either extreme of “unstoppable or helpless”. When I saw the self-proclaimed intent to the debunk the notion that the KPA wasn’t/isn’t a threat, I feared it would go too far in the opposite direction.

That was not the case. I was treated to a very evenhanded look that amounts to “Yes, there’s modernization, yes there’s legitimately advanced indigenous developments, but as of now it’s limited and foreign support is undoubtedly there” and doesn’t hesitate to point out their shortcomings and material issues. The authors are even good at pointing out what they can verify and what they can’t, a must for dealing with a country as secretive as North Korea.

For enthusiasts, general audiences, wargamers, and anyone, really, this is a great book that I highly recommend.

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.

Review: No Man’s Land

No Man’s Land

The 58th Kirov book, No Man’s Land takes the series to World War I. It has tanks and monsters, but not monstrous tanks. This installment isn’t quite as good as The Mission, and returns somewhat to the “excuse to show a bunch of battles” plot format. This isn’t unexpected from the series, but it is a little disappointing after seeing the previous one be a little more cohesive.

This is Kirov, for better or worse. It’s got all the weird elements and now it’s making them even weirder. This is not a bad thing. I still don’t think it’s really possible for the series to end gracefully by this point. It’s going to be some mushed-up variation of “destroy everything”, “reset everything”, and/or “just stop”. But I honestly don’t care.

Review: Firepower

Firepower: A History of the American Heavy Tank

R. P. Hunnicutt was the dean of American tank history, and in Firepower he turned his attention away from the famous Shermans, Pattons, and Abrams’ to something more obscure-heavy tanks. Due to the issues needed to ship them across the oceans, the American military was never the fondest of heavy tanks (a similar issue with being able to travel on bad roads and be easily shipped across the Eurasian landmass has always constrained the size of Soviet/Russian tanks). Excluding the Pershings considered “heavies” while operating alongside lighter Shermans, the only heavy tanks actually produced were a handful of M103s.

But their doctrine was heavily (no pun intended) spelled out and there were, as this reference book shows, a lot of interesting designs. These range from the produced M103 to the World War II boondoggle that was the M6 to the French-esque autoloaded Cold War heavies that languished in obscurity until the World of Tanks computer game. And of course, there’s the monstrous, monomaniacal T28.

This is a dry reference book that reads like a dry reference book. Yet its subject matter is obscure and fascinating, and I highly recommend it to tank enthusiasts and people who like “what-ifs”.

Big Guns in Big Units

The corps/army level artillery mission hasn’t really changed that much since World War I, at least from what I’ve seen.

  • Counter-battery
  • Deep strike
  • Supporting the right effort at the right time.

As always, the Soviets were the most explicit in spelling it out, as one set of field regulations shows.

The American FM 100-15, from a similar time, had a similar statement.

As far back as 1923, the regulations explicitly state:

“The primary mission of corps artillery is the destruction or neutralization of hostile batteries, the destruction of hostile defenses, and long-range interdiction fire.”

As technology has consistently improved, command has “flattened”, and the understanding of its role has become more obviously apparent, more recent documents don’t spell it out so exactly. But the general concept is still there and present.

Review: Soviet Military Operational Art

Soviet Military Operational Art: In Pursuit of Deep Battle

David Glantz is one of the most famous and prolific western Sovietologists. In his 1991 Soviet Military Operational Art, he took a big yet close look at their conduct of campaigns, from theory to practice, from the revolution to the then-present. As with everything he’s written, it’s dry history. But it’s excellent for what it is.

Special focus needs to be given to his looking at the more obscure and lesser-known periods of Soviet military history, such as the revolution and Russian Civil War itself, the interwar period, and the immediate post-WW2 one. These tend not to get as much attention as WWII itself and the 1980s hypothetical WW3s, but are just important historically and frequently very different tactically. Looking at the layout of a Russian Civil War division, so different from the formations I knew, I thought “this was like when baseball pitchers threw underhand”.

The book is still a little dated in some areas, and has a few issues. I think the most glaring one is Glantz overstating the effect of the Stalin purges. While they didn’t help the Red Army, looking at later Russian sources gives me the impression that its biggest problem was expanding too much too quickly and that the purges were just the icing on the cake. Khrushchev-era politics would give an obvious incentive to blame Stalin directly for as much as possible.

But this is a small issue and the book itself is still excellent.

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.