Review: Rhinelander

Rhinelander

After 31 (!) books, the World War II arc of the Kirov series concludes in Rhinelander. This is what I’ve been reading for the last month as the latest long, sequential series that I had a weird craving for. This book continues the time travel adventures which grow steadily more convoluted and more obviously a way to set up wargame sandboxes.

It also focuses on an alternate World War II where the initial Allied invasion of France came from the south and there were different tanks (including timeshifted modern ones on both sides) and… lots of changes. Much of it is reminiscent of the final battles on the historical western front, only moved up a year. A sort of “mini-Bulge” is conducted as one of the set pieces.

There was no real way that this lummox could conclude gracefully, so it gets a quick brute-force ending with a lot of exposition to smooth things over for the next timeshift and arc, a contemporary World War III that got the series to my attention in the first place. I was nonetheless content with it, and not just because the Kirov series defies normal critical scaling. Especially knowing the nature of the series and the state of the war at this point, having several books of nothing but the Allies advancing without truly serious opposition would not be ideal.

Review: Red Army

Red Army

So I actually haven’t done a formal review of Ralph Peters’ masterpiece Red Army on this blog yet. I think I should, because well, it’s my clear choice for “best conventional World War III book of all time.” It has fewer competitors for that title than I originally thought when I first read it, but still manages to stay above them.

The story of a conventional WW3 in 198X, the book jumps between the perspectives of various Soviets as they carry out the war. One of the best “big war thrillers” at managing the viewpoint jumps, it never feels awkward or clunky in that regard. The characterization is very good, especially by the standards of the genre. And it works very well at avoiding an excessive focus on technology.

Of course, Peters has the Soviets win, and thus deserves extra credit for going against the tide. At the time the book was published, there was a (justifiable) sense of increasing triumphalism. Having them win and win handily was a good move. Especially since it doesn’t come across as being done for cheap shock value.

There’s a few sour parts. While the viewpoint jumping is good, the two messages of “humanize the Soviets” and “show how they can beat NATO” sometimes don’t work well, especially as the latter means characters done just to explain things (granted, as someone who’s read the translated Voroshilov Lectures and similar materials for fun, I understand it in ways a casual reader at the time almost certainly wouldn’t). There’s criticism of how the Soviets advance too fast, which is valid but which I consider a mild issue, no worse than Team Yankee’s similar problem with lopsidedness. My biggest complaint is how the situation is set up to let the Americans almost entirely off the hook for NATO’s defeat.

But these are small problems at most. Red Army is an excellent book, and I have no problem considering it my favorite “Conventional WW3” novel of all time. And it has one of my favorite book covers ever.

Review: The Bear Marches West

The Bear Marches West

A short, small, and simple compilation, Russell Phillips’ The Bear Marches West is a list of prospective wargame scenarios made out of the three most iconic 1980s conventional World War III novels: Red Storm Rising, Team Yankee, and Red Army.

The book itself is basic: You get a listing of forces, a listing of the situation, and that’s essentially it. This is so that it doesn’t get tied to any one rules system. For enabling reenactments of scenes in the classics, this book works well enough, although anyone who knows 198X WWIII wargaming (not exactly an underused or underexplored area) should likely be able to do something similar with just a bit of knowledge. Still, it’s an inexpensive novelty, and it would be interesting to see what ruleset generates results closest to what actually transpired in the original novels.

Review: Air-Mech Strike

Air-Mech Strike

The book Air-Mech Strike holds the origin of the infamous “Gavin” nickname for the M113. It’s also extremely dated and, for the most part, badly written. This is a very 1990s book, despite being published in the early 2000s.

The “Gavin” name is a little more forgivable in this context because it’s meant to refer to a heavily modified and upgraded M113 instead of just the stock vehicle itself. The problem is that the authors want to have their cake and eat it too-they want an existing vehicle to fill the “medium motorized” infantry role out of legitimate concern that a big procurement wouldn’t happen in the post-USSR budget crunch, but also want a lavishly upgraded one. Yes, they give supposed cost figures, but I’m still skeptical (to put it mildly).

There are huge lists of TO&Es, to the point where I could probably just say “read the book itself” if I was doing a Weird Wargaming on the “air mech strike force”. There are piles and piles of 1990s NETWORK SMART WEAPON BUZZWORDS. There’s a utopianism that goes far beyond the reasonable arguments to mechanize existing airborne forces.

This is only backed by lopsided and unconvincing hypothetical case studies with absolutely no effort to “stress-test” the proposal. There’s a cakewalk in Central Asia against ragtag (conventional) opposition, a Kosovo intervention with pushover Serbs that might have been understandable before the actual war, but which feels like it would turn into the next Market Garden with the knowledge of their abilities gained after it, a Second Korean War where a risky deep attack is brushed aside as succeeding in one paragraph, and a Kuwait defense scenario that rightfully argues it’d be better than a footbound “speedbump”, but doesn’t examine how much better.

Ultimately, it just comes across as being enthralled by a certain type of theoretically possible toy. This is the land warfare equivalent of arguing for an air doctrine built around flying aircraft carriers, a naval doctrine built around submarines of various sizes, or any other gimmicky weapon that could be technically buildable.

Review: Eagle Rising

Eagle Rising

The Kirov series, of which Eagle Rising is the 47th (!) installment, is strange. If I’d read it three years ago, I’d probably have unfairly denounced it as the worst series of all time. In my more recent reviews, I’d sort of wavered from criticizing the individual books to admiring the ridiculous (in a good way!) plot and premise of the setting.

Now I have this weird feeling that’s settled. I unironically love the craziness and excess that the series gets into, while remaining just as critical of the many flaws of the individual books. I’ll take this flawed excess standout over a hundred “51% books” any day.

That being said, this book itself has essentially two set pieces spread out of over many pages and takes place in an entire arc with a forgone conclusion stated as early as the first book in the series. Whatever the author’s intention, the impression I got of this arc, with this particular WWIII having long since been established as ending in a nuclear fireball (hence the time travel and changing it in the first place…), was that it served mainly to show off wargaming set pieces.

The set pieces are a big Russo-NATO showdown in Eastern Europe and the shenanigans of the ship and its crew. The former is a strangely intriguing example of what happens when you rely on wargame simulations to an incredible and unprecedented degree. Besides the obvious issues with such a stilted de facto let’s play, there’s also problems when the simulations produce an undramatic (however realistic) result and there’s not much “cushion” of characterization or low-level danger to balance them. Another issue is that this particular conflict setup is not exactly undergamed.

The latter, a far more out there plot, involves the use of a time travel MacGuffin and some of the crew going onto an island and fighting a pack of wolves (it’s a bit of a long story). It also involves long scenes of clunky dialogue, which is less fun.

In a way, this book, with time travel shenanigans and wargame AARs, is its own series in a nutshell. Is this a good or bad thing? Well, it depends on what you want and/or like.

Front Defensive Operations

frontdefense

From the Heavy OPFOR Operational, here is a picture of a front-sized defensive operation. My first thought upon seeing it and counting the divisions, besides any political concerns, is – “Does NATO even have enough forces to break through it without a huge amount of technological superiority”?

This particular diagram is something of an idealized best case, as the front has both a second-echelon tank army to counterattack and several independent divisions as “combined arms reserves”. But still. I’d have to ask…

  • How much of a force multiplier are the initial belts (which were expected to be overrun?)
  • How much of the artillery and missile forces can survive and fire effectively on the attackers as they approach?
  • Most importantly, what’s the overall context?

 

 

Autoloaders in Soviet tanks

Why did the Soviets so eagerly adopt autoloaders for their tanks? I don’t have any direct primary sources supporting it, but I have some hunches.

  1. Size. Soviet/Russian tanks have always had substantial size/weight limitations for transporting them along the entire length of the rather large country. This explains a lot, including why there was less (which is not the same as no) focus on tanks fighting other tanks, as opposed to using artillery and ATGMs. If the autoloader can make the tank smaller by removing one of the crew, it helps a lot.
  2. Making crew training less relevant. If you have a gigantic force of in-and-out conscripts, you don’t want to rely on something that relies a lot on individual skill.
  3. The third, which I saw in an intelligence piece on the Soviet tank company, stated “in understrength units there may be no loader in tanks other than those of the company and platoon commanders.” I’d really like to see more evidence for this, although it does say understrength.

There’s probably more like how it makes using bigger guns easier, but those are the biggest three that come to my mind. I also like to think of how the inevitable national bias would change if it was, for whatever reason, the opposite. Instead of tales of arm-wrecking autoloaders, there’d be sniggering of “we have high-tech auto-loaders, and the Soviets are still having people stuff the tank with shells-look at how they’d get tired.”

Adding A Tank Manufacturer

So this thought came to me from a throwaway line in Sidney Sheldon’s Master Of The Game about how the main character’s conglomerate started manufacturing tanks in World War I (along with other war material). How hard is it to slip a tank company into an alternate history?

There’s two boring solutions. One is that it’s easy if the story calls for it, with a focus on armored vehicle economics not usually being beneficial to a book (especially a Sidney Sheldon one). Another is that they can, especially during the World Wars, be just a contractor that built tanks designed by someone else (see a lot of railroad locomotive plants in World War II). A third is that they end up as the main winner for a gigantic wartime or Cold War contract and just become what General Dynamics Land Systems (to give one example) is in real life. A fourth is if severe politics (read-no reliable import partners) are involved.

But privately designed tanks for private sales? That’s tricky. There’s really only a few windows, the interwar and middle Cold War periods. Otherwise, you just have a glut of WWII surplus/early Cold War military aid or an equally huge one of advanced technology/later Cold War surplus.

And even then, for every success like the Vickers MBT, you have failures like the AMX-40 and Osorio, to say nothing of one-customer wonders like the Stingray. Both political power and economies of scale are tough to overcome. Yet there’s always the chance of getting an export order and then having the exported tanks do well enough to trigger more interested customers. It still isn’t going to come close to the T-55 or Patton, but it can work.

Review: Condition Zebra

Condition Zebra

conditionzebra

The (supposedly) final arc of John Schettler’s epic Kirov series, now exceeding even The Subspace Emissary’s Worlds Conquest in terms of word count, begins with Condition Zebra. This is the story of a contemporary World War III, after the Kirov timeshifted away from another contemporary World War III, possibly making it the first series to have multiple World War IIIs in it.

Having read two books in the 49-and-counting series, I figured it would at least be the same as before.  I was wrong. It somehow managed to be worse. And it manages to be worse in ways that might be considered contradictory at first glance.

One one end, the basic nuts and bolts writing has all the problems of the past Kirov books (characters who exist solely to operate military equipment, rote technical descriptions of the battles that give away the wargames used to sim them, and overall clunkiness) and just feels sloppier, with the dialogue, grammar, and even structure seeming worse.

On the other, the giant timeline tangles get bigger, more confusing, and somehow more pointless-seeming than ever. Knowing the end result and purpose, it just feels like the developers of Madden, 2K, or The Show making up a gigantic plot about time machines and time-traveling team general managers to explain why past players can appear in a game with current stars.

Maybe it’s those above flaws and maybe it’s just that the novelty of seeing the world’s longest wargame let’s play has worn off after three books, but this doesn’t even seem bad in a bemusing way anymore. It’s just bad.

 

Review: Red Phoenix

Red Phoenix

redphoenixcover

Larry Bond’s Red Phoenix, telling the story of a second Korean War, is something I’ve struggled with for a while but now, after a lot of other books read, have the words to successfully describe. In short, it’s the Marine Force One of “big war thrillers”.

Every archetype of the small genre is there. The shifting viewpoints from top to bottom. Going into every part of the theater. And so on. And they’re executed with enough skill to not be bad, but not enough to be truly memorable or standing out.

What does stand out, and which I also have a more nuanced view of than I used to, is the long intro setting up the war. I’ve thought it, from a literary perspective, to be less than ideal. It’s taking a huge amount of effort to set up something the reader already knows will happen.

But from a plausibility perspective, given the massive unlikelihood of a Second Korean War even at the height of the north’s power, I can forgive it for putting in the effort to set up a situation where it could happen. It’s certainly better and less ridiculous than Cauldron at any rate.

And what else is there to say? This is very much a “if you like the genre, you’ll like this book. If you don’t, you won’t” kind of novel.