Review: Invasion Downfall

Invasion: Downfall

DC Alden’s Invasion series is infamous. After reading Downfall, the first installment in the series, I soon found that this infamy is completely deserved. First, the obvious part: This is a book about an Islamic superstate invading the UK. And it has the politics you’d expect from such an invasion novel. Yes, there’s a lot objectionable about it, including the “traitorous fifth column in waiting” trope taken to extremes even by the standards of the genre.

Of course, I found something else objectionable, which is that it started off in a conference room. And we see a lot of those, and not in a well-handled way. At least the “setup phase” isn’t too long, even if what’s going to happen is completely obvious.

When push finally comes to shove, the military action is not exactly a rival to Larry Bond. The enemy uses a surprisingly bland array of mostly western equipment (not helped by later editions trying to make it “contemporary” by erratically changing names), and there are iffy set pieces like an E-3 letting itself get in range of a short-range missile. The infamous “strong but weak” trend that I was already on thin ice about picks up. “The horrible hordes can easily overrun England-but they can lose multiple strategic aircraft in one battle with named characters.” Like a slightly less intense version of Joly’s Silent Night, nearly all of the British military is incapacitated by irregulars before the conventional forces land.

Just a little bit more research and/or imagination would have made the battles a lot better. As would having the opponents actually earn their victory in Operation أسد البحر. The actual book is a “get the conference rooms right, but not the battles” mediocrity.

The Camouflage Sweepstakes

For some time after the fall of the USSR, the independent Russian military was known for its huge array of often-mismatched camo patterns. Even after the “digi-flora” standardization, this remains true to a degree (as in other armies-look at the classic “Woodland vest over desert camo” look in the Iraq War.)

For the camo sweepstakes of a surviving Red Army, I see a few options.

  • VSR-93. This pattern historically was in development when the USSR collapsed. There’s no reason why an intact, better-funded USSR wouldn’t be able to standardize.
  • TTSKO. This was an existing camouflage pattern widely continued by ex-Soviet republics.
  • For a more fanciful idea, a type of early digital camo could be adopted. As it stands, one was adopted by an ex-SSR, with Latvia’s “LATPAT” camo. Although not to the degree of the American Dual-Tex, the “pixels” are still significantly bigger than most other digital patterns.
  • Something else. Even in Russia itself, the Interior Troops adopted many patterns that could easily be used for the regular army.
  • Simple legacy pattern uniforms.
  • A combination. The GENFORCE-Mobile concept gives me the idea of the Mobile Corps and Airborne Forces having “fancier” uniforms.

World War 199X

The Zapad-99 exercise, the first massive maneuver conducted since the fall of the USSR, shows some interesting insight into the conduct of a World War III in the 1990s instead of the classic 1980s. The conduct of the exercise went essentially like this:

  • The OPFOR, or “Hypothetical Enemy”, as is the official Russian term for such things, launched a giant campaign in the Baltic/Belarusian region, overwhelming the overmatched CIS troops with air and missile power.
  • Kaliningrad was overrun by the Blueeaglelanders.
  • In the most famous and controversial part of the exercise, a limited nuclear “escalation by deescalation” after the fall of the exclave was conducted in which bombers attacked several important targets with cruise missiles. Two Tu-95s and two Tu-160s were successfully launched, and the missiles on those are enough to cause monstrous damage. (that’s 36 AS-15s with 200kt warheads. Ouch.)
  • Said targets are likely to be NATO bases in Europe and American bomber and logistics bases in the continental US.

To a degree, this era has already been explored, however imperfectly, in Arc Light and Red Hammer 1994. Northern Fury takes place in the 1990s but assumes a stronger, intact USSR and conventional weapons (at least for now…)

Review: The Voroshilov Lectures

The Voroshilov Lectures

The Voroshilov Academy was/is one the most prominent Soviet/Russian military training centers of all time. In the late 1980s, a peek behind the curtain emerged. An Afghan officer named Ghulam Wardak attended the academy in the mid-1970s and carefully transcribed the courses. Wardak later fought with the mujaheddin and escaped to the United States, where staff from the US Army’s Soviet Army Studies Office eagerly edited and published his notes. Since its publication, the CIA’s FOIA reading room has declassified similar lectures and studies from there that support Wardak’s interpretation of them.

In three volumes (two on strategic and one on operational combat), the lectures go into detail about how to plan and execute a Soviet campaign in 197X. Most importantly, they occurred in a time period that finally allowed for the discussion and making of purely conventional plans. The lectures and planning do not take the naive belief that a Fuldapocalypse would stay conventional from start to finish, but they do view non-nuclear war as important. (Of course, with Soviet conventional superiority at the time, they’d have a vested interest to keep it non-nuclear as long as possible…)

Obviously much of these lectures need to be taken with a pile of salt. There’s obvious politically uh, slanted passages and some of the advance rates seem a little too optimistic. But these are nonetheless an invaluable resource for the wargamer and/or conventional World War III historian. As detailed Soviet primary sources, they excellently fill a previously blind spot in knowledge.

Review: Project 19

Project 19

James Ronsone and Matt Jackson’s Project 19 is an alternate history story about a far more severe Gulf War. In it, the Soviets, eager to disrupt the world’s oil supply (and thus raise the value of their own products) have more or less openly supported the Iraqis with piles of modern equipment and trained pilots. Thus they charge full-force down the Arabian Peninsula, and the squash of the historical war turns into a frantic struggle instead.

The very designation of this book (and its series) is a matter of question. It’s an alternate history “big war thriller” for certain, but even though not designated as such, I feel it deserves the term “World War III”. Yes, the location is different and so are some of the participants. But I see a giant conventional Soviet-American conflict and know only one thing to call it.

As for literary quality, it’s a little awkward. On one hand, the characters are Steel Panthers cutouts who exist to stand around in conference rooms or operate military equipment with cameras strapped to their heads so that the reader can see them. And the prose, well, sometimes it comes across as even clunkier than what I’ve read in the Kirov series. That is no small feat. Finally, while the technical inaccuracies are never more than mild, something this infodumpy has no right to get details like “Chinese T-62 copies” (which never existed) wrong.

But on the other hand, this is an extremely hard genre to write well. I’d even go so far as to say that “big war thrillers” are arguably the hardest type of fiction to write well. They’re certainly tougher and require far more balancing than normal action hero or small unit stories. What Ronsone and Jackson want to do is make a broad scope telling of a very different war. And here they succeed. It comes at the expense of a lot of other things, but this book succeeds in its main goal.

Apart from that dichotomy, I could have a few more nitpicks about the plausibility. The Soviets couldn’t supply an external country with high-end tanks without either stripping their most essential forward forces or diverting a year or two’s worth of factory production. Even there, advanced tanks didn’t grow on trees. The speed at which the Iraqis advance is more than the ideal distance of a successful operation, much less the imperfect, generally slow military that they were. But all these can be handwaved aside in the name of wanting to provide a challenging opponent, which is where this succeeds. I particularly like the US military being placed in a position where it doesn’t have total air control right away.

So in conclusion, this book has many virtues and flaws. Though not the best example of its subgenre, it’s nonetheless readable for fans of Larry Bond and the like.

Review: People’s War

I’m doing it. I’m breaking all my rules. I’m reviewing an in-progress internet online alternate history piece by an author I overreacted to in the past, at one point calling his TLs the “worst ever”, something which is not true and which I apologize for. I speculated as to why I felt as negative as I did in the very review itself, and with years of hindsight I can say that, sadly, it was just personal stress mixed with tunnel vision. The actual view I have of them is what I said I’d have felt in isolation before-middling Hackett-fics, no better or worse than say, Operation Zhukov and not really the most able to build a long review around.

But I think this new TL is worthy. I feel I’m calm enough to look at it more objectively, unlike my past axe-grinding. Like with New Deal Coalition Retained, I feel that this isn’t an obsession and that one post on an internet timeline won’t overwhelm dozens of those on other topics far less controversial to me. And I feel it does have something to say about the genre. I don’t want to come across as gatekeeping or saying someone shouldn’t do anything that they and others enjoy. I’m just giving my personal opinion. And of course, if my opinion on it changes as new updates emerge, I will gladly make an update post.

The timeline is called People’s War, and it’s about a surviving East Germany.

What I consider People’s War to show actually has a parallel in sports betting. What William Leiss calls “manual research”.

Now obviously literature is not a zero-sum game like sports gambling is. Everyone has to start off with the surface level details, and not everyone can or wants to do Kirov-level simulations. But this kind of ultimately surface research applied to a pseudo-Hackett pure exposition style has made me see the strengths and weaknesses of it.

The biggest strength is that there is a lot more verisimilitude. This is something that Young Grognard Me took for granted because I started with nonfiction books and wargames and went backwards from there. Now I know how rare even nominally accurate military fiction is in a world of “machine gun pistols”, “Flamethrower M60 Abrams”, and “A-130 helicopter gunships”. More to the point, this and the WW3 TLs that preceded it and which I got far too angry about are far more sensible than the clearly just tossed carelessly out “stock photo and a wikibox” stuff like the infamous New Deal Coalition Retained Part II. It’s one thing to arguably lean too heavily on Hackett, Bond, and primary sources as Lions Will Fight Bears and its successors did. It’s quite another to avoid them completely in favor of BIG NUMBERS, as NDCR Part II did.

But Hackett, Bond, and the WW3 TLs were dealing with a hypothetical conflict that had decades and decades of simulations, analyses, and sources dedicated to it. Said documentation is a big reason why it’s up there with the American Civil War and World Wars for wargaming and “hard” alternate history. But what happens when you’re dealing with something that doesn’t have that paper trail?

Trying to Hackett-ify a 1980s technothriller scenario is one thing. But this TL is trying to Hackett-ify what’s essentially a 1990s technothriller, where a surviving East Germany ruled by Honecker’s widow comes into conflict with the western world. Now looking at the reams of studies of a theoretical conventional Fuldapocalypse is one thing. But where are the think tank papers for “Fighting a somehow surviving ex-Warsaw Pact state post-USSR, especially with the hint of threat balancers you’d find in a Larry Bond novel?” They aren’t there. The closest are clear surface details like the names and amounts of weapons that end up feeling close to the more shallow “here’s the exact designation of a Scud TEL” than what effect barrages of those missiles would have in practice.

And this is my objection. Because there’s less opportunity to look, this sort of thing just feels kind of shallow to me without either simulation/deep analysis or just setting up the basics and running with a conventional story. And the TL format prevents the latter.

It’s still far superior to the outright Calvinball of NDCR’s Neo-Timurid Empire or postwar AANW’s “Eastern Siberia as an American state.” The military details are still far greater and more plausible than 3 million Soviet troops sloooooooooooowly advancing against 2 million NATO ones. Compared to “historical fanfiction” AH, it is better.

But there still doesn’t like a real solid base is there. And by the standards of either wargaming or literary fiction, I feel it doesn’t reach its potential.

Especially because this is a redo of a previous concept for a surviving East Germany war that was ultimately abandoned in part because, unsurprisingly, its base was too one-sided strategically. This is what I think goes full circle back to the “Manual Research” video, because Leiss specifically talks about the follies of using manual research for an obvious mismatch. Manual research can tell you what common sense and the odds show-that the powerhouse team against a paid-to-lose punching bag will easily win. But it can’t tell you how likely the opponent is to cover the inevitably massive point spread.

The force regarded as the best non-Soviet Warsaw Pact military can definitely still threaten the characters in a normal narrative and can definitely still do more damage than Saddam’s army did. It’s just that this and other works like it sit in an awkward middle ground between hard and soft. I wouldn’t call it a trinket, but it still feels less than whole.

Review: WW III

WW III

It’s finally time to review the third major archetype of World War III fiction. Ian Slater’s WW III embodies the “what realism?” school of fiction. In fact, he may be the least technically astute technothriller author out there-and you know I don’t say this lightly. Slater embodies frequently going into huge technical detail on some kind of weapon or vehicle-and getting said details wrong.

Anyway, the plot itself is a simple “Second Korean War and Fuldapocalypse big war thriller”, only with a ton of jumbles. Besides his technical inaccuracy, Slater’s work is also defined by its incoherence. In longer series this translates to absolutely no sense of continuity. Here it’s just sloppiness.

And yet this book is oddly fun in a Tommy Wiseau/Ed Wood style way. It’s a good game to see when Slater actually gets a technical comment right. Seeing the adventures of Mary Sue lead-from-the-front general Douglas Freeman is amusing, even if Slater fills the rest of the NATO cast with drooling doofuses to make him look better. Every fan of these kinds of World War III should really read this, if only to appreciate the virtues of the books that, whatever else, got most of the basic details right.

Review: Silent Night

Silent Night: The Defeat of NATO

I thought that the well of classic Fuldapocalypses had run too low. Then I found out about and read Silent Night, a 1980 story about a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Written by WWII tank veteran Cyril Joly, it, as the title suggests, tells the story of NATO’s loss. There’s a reason why this book is not mentioned alongside Red Army in the list of “bad guys win” novels. Or talked about much at all.

That’s because it’s a terrible book. First the prose is clunky and none of the characters sound natural. Then there’s a ton of conference rooms, hopping viewpoints around everywhere and a tone of forced “solemn darkness”. It honestly reminded me of the online TLs/fanfics I’d read and gotten too angry about-but this was published in 1980. Of course, one thing about it is incredibly different and that is the nature of the war’s conduct.

Basically, 99.9999% of the work is done by infiltrated-in irregular forces, ranging from external operators to local collaborators. They smash bases, kill or capture commanders, and generally break NATO completely. By the time the Soviet conventional forces cross the Inter-German border, they’re facing only a tiny amount of scattered, light resistance. I’d compare it to the Iraqis in 2003 or the final stages of World War II in the west-but that would be an insult to the Fedayeen Saddam and Volkssturm.

After the cakewalk conquest, the later portion of the book involves a clear author rant where he suggests that NATO dramatically reduce its conventional forces in favor of fortifications with “micronuclear” launchers. Then it ends with an OOB dump to add “character.”

There’s a thing called survivorship bias, where you get nostalgia because you remember the good and not the bad. People remember Red Storm Rising, Team Yankee, Red Army, Chieftains, and Hackett for good reasons. They do not remember this, and it’s also for good reason.

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.