The analysts who swung and missed regarding the (initial phase of the) Ukraine War and the Russian performance in it still made reasonable assumptions.

  • It was reasonable to assume that Russia’s modernization was deep and genuine.
  • It was reasonable to assume that, having spent a year moving the forces, that Russia would also spend a year planning.
  • It was reasonable to assume that modern weapons on the Ukrainian side (like the few Georgia had in 2008) and/or any degree of qualitative superiority would just increase Russian casualties slightly without changing the outcome.
  • Finally, it was reasonable to assume that Russia would follow its paper doctrine, like it did in Chechnya, Georgia, and in 2014.

Of course, it was also reasonable to assume that even a smashed-by-the-fire-strike Ukraine would still fight ferociously, and that a conventional “victory” would just mean occupying a large country that loathed them. Yet few expected something that would have a Voroshilov instructor saying this:

Yet the most baffling part is how the Russians struggled with the very areas where they had a reputation for being good: Operational planning, concentration of force, and air defense. It would be like the U.S. going to war, and not just struggling, but struggling with logistics and air power. Goes to show that even the best model or most well-thought out analysis is only as good as its inputs.

And one of those inputs, and one of the hardest to actually measure, is personnel quality. It came to me as an armchair theory that “professionalizing” the military without creating more incentives for the middle class to join meant that its recruit base, centered around the rural poor, would actually be of lower quality. Then I saw a piece from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project that seemed to reinforce this, containing the explicit quote “‘Contract soldiers are getting worse and worse‘” amidst describing training woes. This would seemingly lead to the worst of both worlds-personnel who are more expensive but not more capable than the previous mass-mobilization system.

Life Imitates Art

The Kirov novel Eagle Rising, previously reviewed on Fuldapocalypse, has a wargamed out (mostly via the excellent The Operational Art of War) Russian all-out invasion of Ukraine in 2021 with largely realistic OOBs-that ends after a few weeks with the Russians grabbing a chunk of the country but falling short of their objectives and descending into a grinding stalemate. There are of course differences, often erring on the side of spectacle like a brigade-sized air assault into Dnipro at the beginning and, most bizarrely, a counteroffensive crossing the border to hit Belgorod.

It’s described in the book itself after the initial big battles as “All Tyrenkov [the time-traveling Russian leader] has done is buy himself a long war there, and for a lot of blood and steel.”

Like Hector Bywater’s The Great Pacific War, this was strangely prescient in many ways. Even in small details like Ukrainian light infantry succeeding with hit and run strikes. Of course, the background is vastly different, involving a time traveler from the past (Tyrenkov) going forward , seizing control of contemporary Russia, and mistaking a potential future victory for a certain one. But the nuts and bolts are a tribute to both the TOAW simulation and the power of well-designed wargames in general.

Weird Wargaming: The Soviet-Romanian War

If you want to use small-unit wargames in my never-was draft percolating of a futuristic USSR deciding to finish off a surviving Ceausescu, some basic guidelines. Obviously, it’ll depend on the exact ruleset, but here’s the basics:

Union of Soviet Sovereign Republics

The USSR, under a Sovereign Union that in real life got scuttled by the August Coup, follows the 1990s GENFORCE “Mobile Forces” concept. Which is to say a multi-tier force. The “Basic Forces” divisions resemble slightly better late Cold War ones. The Mobile Forces ones have more futuristic equipment, better body armor/night vision, and substantially better training.

Mobile Forces battalions are organically combined arms mixed. APCs/IFVs are three to a platoon with each squad having a magazine LMG and rocket launcher. Company weapons platoons have lighter ATGMs and belt/tripod GPMGs. All Mobile Forces mechanized battalions have a large number of organic 2S31s (or Nonas for less-equipped formations).

Given the terrain, mountain formations have been plucked and sent in. GENFORCE mountain brigades are a four-infantry-one-tank battalion setup with supporting equipment suited for high altitudes (ie, lighter and higher-angle artillery). They also have a separate APC battalion that can be used to motorize if the terrain is appropriate. The one historical Soviet mountain brigade was inherited by Kyrgyzstan and consisted of two BMP and two soft-skin battalions with some attached cavalry and pack animal units.

Soviet Allies

The main contributors to the Soviet effort are Bulgaria and the stabilized Afghanistan. The former mobilizes to its full ability, which means it runs the gauntlet from “1980s NSWP” to “T-34s and World War I heavy artillery” (hey, if it can shoot and make a big explosion, it’s still worth something). The latter contribute a fairly standard BTR-equipped motor rifle division and numerous commando units.


Romania has a regular army with a degree of military modernization that it lacked. While select units have SRBMs based on foreign civilian sounding rockets, bespoke grenade launchers, and more (comparably) advanced tanks like the bizarrely shaped TAA, others are bottom of the barrel. All units should be mostly low quality, but some (particularly Securitat irregulars) will have better morale than others if applicable.

Organizationally, most should resemble lower-tier eastern forces.

Formations in the Fog Of War

Two previously speculated-upon formations that have not had much evidence to substantiate their (exact) existence include Iraqi “Special Forces Divisions” and the “Islamic Regiments” of the 1980s Afghan mujaheddin.

The former were depicted as regular army formations containing soldiers with at least some greater training and morale than the bottom-of-the-barrel rabble. They were fairly conventional triangular motorized infantry divisions in terms of structure, operating in either trucks or wheeled APCs. These divisions contained no organic (part of their structure) tanks, but could easily get them cross-attached if need be.

The latter were supposedly black-clad formations of raiders with more organization and standardization than the usual bands, but nothing (usually) heavier than normal crew-served weapons. They consisted of about 600-900 people broken into multiple small battalions. It’s worth noting that their layout does bear a resemblance to the kind of “guerilla regiments” that Mao described in detail in On Guerilla Warfare.

Of course, there is a hint of truth to these formations. There were/are large commando formations in the Iraqi and especially Syrian armies, the Republican Guard did have an unambiguous “Special Forces Division”, and the mujaheddin did occasionally operate in formations the size of the fabled “Islamic Regiments”, as well as deploy better trained and equipped subunits. This is of course is what leads to the inevitable exaggerations.

And also, the joy of generalist wargaming rules and alternate history is that these units can easily be simulated as if genuine. Neither requires much in the way of exotic equipment or modifiers to use.

Weird Wargaming: The Red October

Yesterday I placed a formal Command database request for a hypothetical Soviet submarine. But this wasn’t something like say, a Yankee Notch with conventional missiles. No, this was of a famous literary submarine. The titular undersea ship in The Hunt For Red October. And it made me think of more than just wargame stats.

First, the boring stuff. The Red October in the book isn’t just a re-engined Typhoon. It’s bigger, and has 26 tubes for SS-N-20 missiles instead of the twenty in the original. Weirdly, and this is actually a kind of accidental serendipity, it has only four torpedo tubes compared to the six in real Typhoons. This is probably just getting the not-yet-confirmed details wrong (a sillier example is the even-then biased Clancy portraying the Typhoon as a cramped mess when in fact it famously boasts a gym, arcade, and small swimming pool). But it makes to give up some low-priority torpedo tubes to help make room for the caterpillar drive.

Ah yes, the caterpillar drive. For the database request-in game, I wanted to go the simple route. While in the book it has a combination of the quiet caterpillar-impeller drive and louder normal propellers, I think doing complex mechanics changes for one whimsical hypothetical unit would not be a good cost-benefit. So my suggestion in the real request was just to treat the sub overall as very quiet (at the level of a post-1991 SSBN with advanced propulsion) and leave it at that.

But what got me thinking, especially with full post-USSR hindsight, was how a sub of that nature could be used. Now ballistic missile subs do not have the most complicated or versatile mission structure. But the question (regardless of what the book would say) whether it’d just be used as a more defensible bastion sub or dare to venture out to its quietness would make for interesting study/simulation.

Finally, a part of me views the sub as being something like the ill-fated Komsomolets: A capable and advanced vessel, but one that’s still ultimately a test-bed with additional members of the class unlikely to be built. Especially because the base Typhoon is so big and bulky already.

The Similarities Of Two Seemingly Different Activities

What I like about my favorite simulation games is that you can set up a situation and see how it plays out. Sometimes it’s an obvious situation, and sometimes you legitimately don’t know. Sometimes it’s legitimately relevant to contemporary issues, and sometimes it’s a total gonzo fantasy. I did think that writing fiction was different-until I actually wrote multiple books.

In the spectrum of “write completely as you go along” to “meticulous plotting”, I’m somewhere in between. I do make outlines and character lists, as much as so that I don’t forget them as for any other reason. But my final products have frequently either diverged from the outline or incorporated something not in them. Reminiscing on that has made think “a-ha, so it really isn’t that different from a sim.”

It involves me setting up a situation (which is to say the basic plot and main characters). Then it involves me seeing how that situation plays out over the course of me writing and editing it. It is fascinating to look back on my completed books and see how their development unfolded.

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.

New Command scen for testing: Sneaky Sneaky

I got back into making Command: Modern Operations content with another draft scenario that I’ve called Sneaky Sneaky. It’s in an alternate historical setting where a “Walkerist” rogue state survived in Central America. Now they have to try and slip a few improvised mini-subs past the Royal Navy to Belize. Much inspirational thanks goes to the Covert Shores website for its great work on analyzing such submarines.

The scenario can be tried out here.

Review: How To Make War

How To Make War

Written by acclaimed and prolific wargame designer James Dunnigan, How To Make War is an impressive one-volume entry on both the basics of military operations and wargaming them. It’s not an easy feat to stuff so much into one book, but he manages it. Every facet of post-WW2 warfare is covered inside, along with simple but generally effective formulas for determining a unit’s “combat power” and stuff like average attrition in personnel and equipment.

Some of the “flaws” are clearly not his fault. For instance, it’s not his fault that (like most aficionados, to say nothing of actual veterans) I already knew most of what he was saying in his basic description of various unit types. It’s also not his fault that some of the book is dated (the latest edition was made in 2003). I’ll even excuse its frequent yet understandable bias, which is exactly what you’d expect from an old western Cold Warrior.

The biggest drawback that I’m not so willing to let slide is how its two central parts don’t really gel. It’s trying to both teach someone to walk (ie, the intro to all parts of the military) and run a marathon (do calculations for exact combat power). It just feels a little awkward to have “here’s the basic differences between infantry-heavy and tank-heavy formations” and “here’s how to calculate the combat power of a Syrian armored division” close to each other in the same book.

Still, this is a very good and very convenient resource for people wanting to learn more about missile-age warfare and/or wargaming. For fictional country simulations/story concepts, I’m already finding his formulas very useful for translating an order of battle into a general feel of its relative strength (which is the most important part). While some specialists may already know its material, you still can’t go wrong with getting this book.