The Low-Pressure Missile Tank Age

Only a few actually made it into mass production, but around the world, there was eager development in the 1960s of low-pressure gun/missile launcher tanks, the kind best emphasized by the M551 Sheridan and M60A2. The Soviet designs have turrets that resemble”squashed” versions of the classic dome turret.

The impetus was how to extend the firing range of the tank. This arrangement was ultimately made obsolete by the development of better fire control (for western tanks) and barrel-launched ATGMs that could be used in conventional tank guns (for Soviet ones)

But they’re still an interesting footnote.


Politicized Armies

Kenneth Pollack’s Armies of Sand, and its thesis predecessor, “The Influence of Arab Culture on Arab Military Effectiveness”, is fascinating not just for its core claim, but also in how, culture aside, politicization and underdevelopment worked in theory and practice.

Pollack listed three main types of excessive politicization for militaries.

  • “Praetorianism”, where the military is more interested in politics and/or gaining power than preparing for serious combat.
  • “Commissarism” or ‘coup-proofing’, where the military is subject to measures designed to neutralize it as a political threat.
  • “Palace Guard” where the military is designed more for combating internal threats than for high-intensity combat.

The three can easily blend together. Praetorianism can be followed by commissarism as the winner of a power struggle consolidates, and commissarism and palace-guardism can be tied as the regime and country blur.

Palace-Guardism appears to be the least worst of the options, because in many cases an internal threat is far more urgent and far more credible than an external one, and because the common separate palace-guard forces (think the Republican Guard) are frequently benchmarked against the regular army and thus serve as the strongest conventional force.

Pollack’s description, which he backs up with evidence and case studies from several heavily politicized armies, is that politicization frequently leads to wildly uneven performance and affects the politically vulnerably upper ranks far more than it hits the lower, more obscure, or safe lower ones. Sometimes it can be downplayed, particularly in commissarist systems, if the regime lucks into a few high-ranking officers who are both militarily capable and politically friendly. And it often doesn’t need that many (For instance, a sample Light OPFOR Expeditionary Army needs only one army and three to five division commanders)

It’s an interesting study, as overly politicized armies will exist as long as politics and armies do, and it shows both the similarities and differences in every incarnation of it.

Armies of Sand

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately. In terms of fiction, it means (among other things) lots of new Fuldapocalypse reviews in waiting. But I figure I’d cover a non-fiction book here, Kenneth Pollack’s Armies of Sand, because it’s a followup to one of my younger classics.

That younger classic would be Kenneth Pollack’s Arabs At War (and the thesis that led to it, The Influence of Arab Culture on Arab Military Effectiveness). It, alongside Andrew Gordon’s The Rules Of The Game, were two of my introductions to serious military history. Both are detailed, long history books that I’ve nonetheless viewed later on with a somewhat more skeptical eye.

I grabbed Armies of Sand on release. By “normal person” standards, it’s a good book. But by my very high ones, I’m skeptical. I’ve found Pollack, who is making very, very serious claims, has a few “Brown M&Ms” that point to some lack of rigor. There’s comparably few updated sources from the ones in the thesis, and he points to hit rates of in comparison to peacetime theory rather than the inevitably much lower ones in wartime practice.

(Granted, I think some of my issues aren’t so much with Pollack himself compared to how the Spacebattles War Room has kind of taken his work and flanderized it, particularly 1991 Iraq, from “They under-performed, sometimes dramatically so” to “They could lose to WWI armies or the like and are completely, utterly incompetent”[1]).

So I want to point out what Pollack does right. He doesn’t discount the other hypotheses (politicization and underdevelopment[2]), and he applies the cultural element (what he thinks is the most responsible) with a lot of care and respect, knowing how easily it is to sink into bad stereotypes.

The best “control group” section is politicization. The Soviet doctrine part isn’t bad at all, and Pollack comes across as less biased than he did in the thesis, but politicization and the two control countries were more fascinating to me, describing the similarities of Argentina in the Falklands War and South Vietnam. My only complaint is that Iraq was used as the Arab case without mentioning the conventional portion of the 2003 war, which is well-documented and also featured a monstrously politicized army.

The biggest miss in the control section is underdevelopment. Pollack uses the same two countries he did in the thesis (Toyota War Chad and Mao’s China) despite a huge pool of choices[3] and uses Syria instead of an oil state with a more dramatic shift for the Arab example, a slightly befuddling choice (I have a hunch Pollack wanted to work one of the most famous armies in there and nowhere else really fit).

Then there’s the culture section. I’d already read about it from the thesis, but he handles it well. Pollack never argues it would always be the case, points to training as the transmission mechanism, and points out examples of Arab armies that, mostly by having a smaller and more selective choice of soldiers, performed better individually.

_ _ _ _ _

Armies of Sand should not be the be-all-and-end-all of books about Arab armies in the modern age, but my critiques and nitpicking shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the book is bad or worthless. On the contrary, as a beginning and general reference for jumping off to more “hardcore” studies, it’s well worth a read.

I’m just “spoiled”, I guess.

_ _ _ _ _

[1]Of course, Spacebattles living through 2014, the nadir of modern Iraqi army performance, may have reinforced this.

[2]The third, Soviet doctrine, had very little negative and many positive influences on the Arab armies that used it.

[3]Pretty much any country with overall economic stats below Western Europe would do. All the other control countries he used in the underdevelopment section, including Argentina, which for all its problems is not a bottom-tier country by any means.

A Study of a Slapdash Army

The later part of the book’s own title was evidence alone of it being severely dated. The book in question was “The Iraqi Threat and Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction” by Stephen Hughes.

Hughes’ book, released in 2002, is self-published and essentially a compilation of other sources, some of which I’ve already seen[1]. The book has lots of grammatical errors, is fairly scattershot, doesn’t go into detail in parts when it should have, and puts a little too much effort into things like illustrations of aircraft.

However, it did go into more detail on niche stuff like mountain infantry that I found useful. And it’s also interesting to show just how hard it was to get reliable information at the time on an army increasingly reduced to a twisted, tangled jumble of wrecked divisions and an alphabet soup of competing paramilitaries.

As the unofficial “know your enemy” reference book for military officers in the impending Iraq War it was intended as, the book’s format, aircraft illustrations and all, makes a lot more sense. Even if tank formations and corps orders of battle would soon be the last thing American soldiers had to worry about.

Indeed, its very flaws serve as illustrative examples of how murky such states can be. Hughes’ book should not be the first or most prominent source for someone studying the army or period, but it definitely deserves a place on the shelf, if its weaknesses are understood.

[1]Which makes me kind of biased, and not necessarily representative.

Circle Trigon Ranks

While looking at the Circle Trigon Aggressors (1940s-1970s), I saw their earlier and later ranks.

Early Ranks:originalaggressorranks

Later Ranks:


Some notes:

  • The early ranks are made with American insignia, using a mixture of junior bars, major’s leaves, and cavalry sword pins. The later ones use a mixture of bars.
  • The rank structure is actually Spanish-inspired rather than being American or Soviet/Russian. Two giveaways are calling lieutenant colonel-equivalents “Commandants” (although in Spain itself it’s major-equivalent) and, more importantly, general officers “general of [unit they’d command]”.
  • Following on the above, when they become more blatantly pseudo-Soviet and thus went from “division” to “army”, the position of “general of corps” became obsolete. So the three star rank became “General of Army”, and the four-star rank, commanding army groups, became the clunky “General of Armies“. From a brief machine translation into Esperanto, it became Ĝenerala de Armeo (3 stars) and Ĝenerala de Armeoj (4 stars).


Interesting to see in hindsight.

The (intended) use of postwar heavy tanks

While many designs and prototypes of larger-than-normal tanks were made, the only American heavy tank to reach a degree of production was the M103. Even then, the Marines were more enthusiastic about it than the Army.

But the army had worked heavy tanks into their doctrine. And they were primarily tank destroyers. Not completely, like the purpose-built TDs of WWII, but organized very similarly.

According to the 1949/1951 edition of FM 17-33, when heavy tanks were “brewing”:

“The missions of the heavy tank battalion are:
a. To provide antitank protection, in both offense and defense, against enemy tanks.
b. To support the advance of the medium tank and armored infantry battalions.
c. To perform, in addition, the missions normally assigned to the medium tank battalion.”

Note the prioritization. Paragraph 254 is even more explict and similar to the initial wartime tank destroyer doctrine.

“The heavy tank battalion of the armored division normally will be given an antitank mission in both the mobile and sustained defense. When attached to the combat commands or the reserve command, the battalion, or its companies, usually will be held in reserve, ready to move out to meet any enemy threat, especially by tanks superior in capabilities to the medium tank.”

Now, other roles for the heavy tank, including the breakthrough/support role its eastern counterparts were primarily envisioned for (and which it was designed to stop) were mentioned, this was not inflexible. But the focus was on the anti-tank role.

How I became a German Army Skeptic

There are a handful of books and sites that kept me from ever experiencing the kind of feeling of excessively hyping the World War II German military.

The first was Christoper Wilbeck’s Sledgehammers. Now, granted, that book has a massive flaw in that its author takes “questionable” claimed kill ratios at face value far too much, but it nonetheless sincerely tried to find the flaws in the Tiger and did not hesitate to point out lost battles. It got me on the right foot.

The second was Spacebattles and the very informed, very unbiased members of its “War Room” subforum. This was where I learned, among other things, about one of the biggest weaknesses of the German military-strategic intelligence. (Normandy is the most famous example, but I cannot emphasize enough how their blunders there were in the tide-turning 1942-3 period on the Eastern Front).

The third was simply the context that I grew up in. I was free of the “baggage” that dominated the debate and discussion of past decades. I was born long after the period where everyone from scholars like van Creveld and Dupuy to popular historians like Max Hastings put forth a near-consensus that the Wehrmacht was an absolute master of war that lost only due to superior Allied resources and Hitler’s antics. There are also some minor things-I didn’t play that many, if any, WWII video games, be they poppish or wargames. I was too busy in Advance Wars and the postwar Steel Panthers. (So I didn’t see that many of the low-end “why no my krupstall block the sherman shell” ‘Wehraboos’ that fill every WWII game forum with complaints that their wunderpanzers lost)

Then there’s more modern historians like Sovietologist David Glantz and Robert Citino, the latter of whom has specialized in the study of the German military in ways that contradict a lot of the 70s-80s theorizing. I proudly have books by both of them on my shelf.