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.

Review: Third World War: The Untold Story

Third World War: The Untold Story

It’s very hard for lightning to strike twice. And in Third World War: The Untold Story, John Hackett tried. He did not really succeed. The problem was that much of the appeal of the original came from being the first out of the gate, whereas by 1982 the zeitgeist had clearly shifted. (An obscure and amusing example comes from the line “World War III is drawing near” in the XTC song Generals and Majors, released in 1980).

While possibly unfair to list the earliest instance of a genre as not having held up well over time, I do believe that Hackett’s work has aged the worst of all the few “big-name” conventional WW3 books. It’s earliest, and it’s clearly meant as an explicit lobbying document in a way that the (still-slanted) other works of that nature did not. And this applies far more to a modestly repackaged version released four years after the original. Because that’s what it is.

This is the book equivalent of one of those “remastered special edition” movie DVD releases. There’s a reason why those, even if the underlying film is sound, do not generate nearly as much enthusiasm as the first, novel release.

Review: The Great Martian War: Invasion

The Great Martian War: Invasion

Scott Washburn’s The Great Martian War: Invasion is a fan-sequel to Wells’ classic War of the Worlds, with the Martians returning for more. There is one piece of bad news about this book and one piece of very good news. The bad news is that the execution never progresses beyond “decent”. This book is very Larry Bond-ish in its big scope, and that’s not always a good thing.

But thankfully, the good news makes up for it. Which is to say that the premise of “Theodore Roosevelt, tanks, and 75mm quick-fire guns against Martian tripods” is such a great one that it only needs a decent execution to be a solid, enjoyable novel. And that it is. The military balance is set up in such a great way, having neither the (deliberate) lopsidededness of either the original or Edison’s Conquest Of Mars.

How can you not recommend a book of this nature to any fan of alternate history or classic sci-fi?

Weird Wargaming: T-64 APCs

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When all you have is a bunch of T-64 tanks, everything looks like it could work with a T-64. As it stood, the independent Ukraine inherited a gargantuan number of those tanks after the breakup of the USSR. As the beginning of the Donbass War showed all too vividly, it had very little else. Since the bureau that designed and the plant that built it were also in Ukraine, then… well, the hammer was even more prominent.

So, there’s the BMP-64, essentially an eastern Bradley on a tank platform. It has similar dimensions and a similar role as the famous American IFV (although a lot more dismounts). Note on the same brochure there’s more vehicles on the T-64 chassis and other tanks fitted with infantry compartments. The latter ones I’ve always envisioned as (at least theoretically) being more suited for a western armored cavalry structure. They can do the same things a tank in armored cav units can do, but they also have a few scouts to dismount when need be.

Then there’s the BMP-K-64, using the tank chassis for a wheeled APC. I find it simultaneously weird, interesting, questionable, and somehow impressive. This would be used like any other Stryker/BTR-style wheeled troop carrier, albeit with its thick front armor taken into account.

These desperation-born oddballs are the kind of armored vehicles I have a soft spot for.

The Breach

One of the most difficult military operations (although to be fair, none could be considered truly “easy”), and one I’ve recently been looking at in my armchair studies, is the breaching operation. Requiring firepower and engineering in massive and coordinated amounts, its challenge is emphasized in everything that talks about it. Yet what’s equally interesting is that defending against such an attack requires just as much in the way of perfectly synced combined arms as launching it.

It’s a counterintuitive paradox that fortifications (the official term for preparing them called “survivability” ) are important to manuever war and mobile counterattacks are equally important to positional warfare. For the former, I’ll just say that artillery hasn’t exactly gotten less effective since World War I. For the latter, any position can be eventually reduced and overwhelmed with firepower if the opponent is given the chance.

Review: Vortex (Larry Bond)

Vortex (Larry Bond)

Larry Bond’s Vortex is a tale of war in southern Africa, as a revanchanist South Africa seeks to retake Namibia, with the opposition of Cuba and the Americans drawn into it. My first proper Larry Bond novel in some time, I wanted to see how this, his last pre-Soviet collapse novel went. And the answer, sadly, is “not too well”.

I knew his style, and, starting this blog, thought it was a lot more common than it actually was. I knew it’d have a lot of conference room scenes. I knew it would have a very long opening act to set up the war everyone knows is going to happen. I knew it would hop around viewpoint characters a lot and focus on each and every part of the war. Yet I wasn’t prepared for how excessive all of it would be. This is the longest, clunkiest, and, I hate to say it, worst Larry Bond I’ve read.

It takes over a hundred pages just to get to the conference rooms. The book has this weird “too hot and too cold” feeling where it stays for a while on a low-rate cloak and dagger plot in the first half and then explodes into too many tangled threads in the second. Naturally, all of this makes the ending too contrived and neat.

This is a shame because the premise-expanding on a real conflict with truly interesting participants and tactics in a theater of war genuinely unfamiliar to many Americans-is a very good one. Which makes it being squandered in this huge mess all the worse. Bond has written much better than this, and his other works have similar-level battle scenes without the structural failings here.