The Magnificent Forward Observers

Poor me.

I know too much for a Seven Samuraiinspired battle to be both realistic and dramatic. At least against an army, which is what I was going for when I thought of the concept. Because against a larger and at least somewhat disciplined force willing to take any sort of loss, seven people are going to get crushed effortlessly. The best they could do, and this assumes they have the support in the first place, is hide and call in reports and fire support similar to the Marines at Khafji.

Now, against er, “irregulars”, as was the case in the original inspirations, it’s a different story. Still implausible, but they’d likely be far less skilled, and more crucially, have a far more timid risk calculus. Which is to say, there’d be more pressure to just “give up” and loot an easier target rather than take huge losses for the sake of a victory. The historical record of militia shows that, in general, they’re much worse at attacking than they are defending.

But could one still make a good story out of either a semi-plausible or outright implausible version, against either type of opposition? Of course! As long as it was well-written and fit the tone of the overall work, any sort of setup can work very well.


Naming an Army

This is another piece of mine on military unit names. It kind of follows along with the last one I did.

This is on naming the army. Not the overall title for the army as an overall organization, but naming the exact equivalent for “Field army“, or even “army group“.

For the etymology, I thought back to the overall theme, of a [villainous] group with a kind of bizarre obsession with the ancient and traditional. The name of an army/army group equivalent would be from a (likely ancient) language, the word taken directly as a loan rather than adapted. And it would not be any directly military-related one there, but something like “assembly” or “federation”.

The image invoked is images of ancient peoples, on the steppes or in the forests, the kind unfairly referred to as “barbarians” by outsiders, forming a coalition of their warriors to campaign. And the reason I got there, or how the name-developers got there in-universe, has to do with the nature of such ultra-large units.

Regardless of national culture or doctrine, extremely large units like army groups and/or field armies are always considerably more ad hoc than the smaller ones in the same country. They’re determined by resources and location. So if it’s ad-hoc, a little like an ancient coalition, that opens the door for it to receive the name of one.

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Of course, the question is how much an author should use a possibly confusing author-coined name rather than a familiar one. It’s tough to answer, but is easier in that the names this term would be replacing are themselves looser and to many people more unfamiliar than clearer small units.

The Last Horse Cavalry Manual

I’m currently reading FM 2-15, April 1941.

A US Army manual that is quite possibly the last, and certainly one of the final manuals devoted to horse cavalry in depth. It’s interesting to see the ultimate expression of a soon-to-be-obsolete practice.

For all my knowledge, I still don’t have the full frame of mind to accurately synthesize it with both older horse and later motorized operations, but I can see the passing of an era nonetheless.

Horse cavalry in a mechanized age fits my love of oddball formations, which may be why I’m as interested in it as I’ve been.

The public-domain field manual can be accessed here

Not just the FE Battalion Anymore

My crazed mind continues.

So instead of stuffing the Fire Emblem cast into one battalion, I spread them out all over other units. This I’ve found is a little different than the battalion idea, in many ways for the better.

  • I can sideline physically incapable units.
  • I can go across all levels, rather than from “private” to “Battalion commander”.
  • I can make the protagonists argue amongst each other about strategy in ways that they couldn’t as small-unit commanders.
  • From a meta example, I can put them in different technology levels in a way that’s easier than “Hey, you’re WWII cavalry now, then you’re a Gulf War battalion, now you’re a modern light infantry one!”
  • Pegasus knights as pilots, anyone?

Generals KIA

The subject of generals killed in action post-1900 holds a bizarre and somewhat morbid interest for me. It’s a period where personal presence on the battlefield was theoretically less important thanks to the use of the telephone and later radio. It’s also a period where fighting formations became exponentially more powerful.

Not surprisingly, the World War II Eastern Front takes the cake. Although there were exceptions, American general officer casualties were surprisingly low-they were comparable in both World War II and Vietnam despite the lower casualties of the latter war.

For a later period hypothetical WWIII/high intensity peer war, I have a tentative list of dead generals that mainly includes air/missile strikes (including a corps commander and some of his high-end staff taken out by a hit on their badly sited HQ). Besides those and maybe a few shot-down ones, there’s an example I made of the commander of an airborne division killed by a tank raid on a forward helicopter base he’s visiting.

Earlier, I have considerably higher casualties among general officers. This is because there’s often more divisions and because worse C3 means the generals have to be at the front more often.


Grand Colonels And Naming Conventions

So, for one of my innumerable exercises, I created a military rank called “Grand Colonel”. Much as how “Lt. Colonel” is a step down from “colonel”,  “Grand Colonel” is a step above. While some research did find that some countries do use the rank senior colonel, it doesn’t quite match my use of it.

My “Grand Colonels” command divisions, putting them in the same spot as a major general. I still haven’t come up with a better name for higher-rank generals that doesn’t use the exact term. Maybe I’d fall back on it, or use something like ‘corpsmaster’. However, I imagined how weird and different the term “major general” might sound if across the English speaking world, we were used to going from colonel to grand colonel.

Or forget colonels altogether. Since “Colonel” comes from the Italian word for “column”, someone commanding a similarly sized unit could get a vastly different name. I don’t have the linguistic skill to say what it would be without resorting to a robotic-sounding compound name, but still. Language development is full of weird quirks that get accepted as being totally normal. They’re interesting to study.

I once saw a conlang rank of “sub-general”-is it between colonel and general, or is it something equivalent to Lieutenant General? Could two countries with the same language family have one ‘sub-general as the former’ and one as the latter? Why not?

(Also,  while the officers are fairly consistent, I have the enlisted ranks in the same organization have a weird sort of craftsman like rank, with ‘private’ becoming ‘novice’ and higher enlisted ranks becoming ‘apprentices’ and ‘stewards’. So a sergeant major becomes a ‘Grand Steward’, linking it back to the ‘Grand _____’ precedent established by the grand colonel.)

Rivet Counting Addiction

Help, my rivet counting addiction has been triggered yet again. The culprit this time is the Micromark Army Lists, a very large list of orders of battle that range from the historical to the purely theoretical, from the musket age to the present. On Wargamevault (great site), they’re cheap, and I’ve been snapping them up en masse.

Weird how my cautious mentality gives way. I’ll waffle and hesitate over a cheap e-book, but have been wolfing down these dry lists like crazy. I’ve tried to get novel ones, but there have been a few duds I probably should have seen coming (You mean an unreformed ex-Soviet republic is going to organize its military on gasp-Soviet lines [that I already know a lot about]? .) In spite of that, the novel ones have been pretty informative…

Which is a big problem. I’m worried I’ll get too bogged down in rivet-counting minutia. In my Command scens, I’ve never been shy about brushing aside a specific unit’s availability by giving it a fictional name, and I’ve become even more inclined since writing that post. In other words, I might make a fictional aircraft carrier too.

But somehow I’m struggling mightily to translate that pragmatism to prose fiction.  But I’m still trying, and I still have hope I can use the informative quality of stuff like the lists to my advantage while not turning into either an infodump fest (“oooh, X has two battalions of ___ per division, unlike Y who only has one, improving its firepower but also hurting it logistically….) or just stalling out.

There is such a thing as too much research, after all, especially if it’s misdirected research.


Army Unit Names

So, when naming fictional military units, I like to use fictional names rather than real equivalents. There are many reasons for this, from creating a sort of “wall of separation” between fiction and reality that makes me feel more comfortable writing them, to just the fun of thinking up appropriate names in the same general class.

Regrettably, US Army units encounter both of the seemingly contradictory stumbling blocks I described in an old post on unit names at Baloogan Campaign. Its current divisions are (comparatively) few and in many cases distinctive, especially specialty units like the 82nd Airborne. Almost like aircraft carriers.

However, they’re also numbered-and the US has a huge pool of inactive World Wars-only divisions that make putting a number above them an exercise in stumbling over triple digit units.


The shoulder patch for the phantom 130th Infantry Division.

This is not an insurmountable issue, and in fact I have an in-jokey way. I’ve used the phantom units used in WWII as “real” units. So units that were fictional in real life become real in fiction.

Plus it’s also somehow less of an issue for units not American, especially from fictional countries. There I can add all the 1st and 3rd and 82nd divisions I want to.

The FE Battalion Has Arrived

So, my insane, twisted mind is taking the playable characters of the heroic fantasy series Fire Emblem and forcing them to work as drilled soldiers in a more modern battalion. Trained in technologies, these confront a level of war they could not understand before.

There are roughly 500 playable characters across every Fire Emblem game[1]. Enough to fill a small-medium battalion. Several large problems are:

  • Age and condition. These range from the very young to the elderly.
  • Division of labor. These people range from kings to lowly nomads.
  • Willingness to go into the more drudgerous parts of the unit (support, etc), which ties into the above point.
  • Degree of support the FE Battalion would have from higher levels.
  • Overall objective and type of opponent they’d be facing[2].

Another question mark is what the basic type of battalion it would be. A boring but effective plan would be using the healers as the basis for a medical unit and using the rest as just guards and clerks to support them. But since logic got thrown out, I might as well have them be a line unit.

A mechanized one, with the horse-mounted fighters as vehicle crews and the footbound ones as dismounts? Or a lighter one that takes advantage of their experience in less-developed conditions?

And finally, which of the heroic commanders would get to lead the whole unit?

[1]My count was preliminary and either ignored or double counted the same characters appearing in different games. But it’s around that number.

[2]This is actually clear. It’d be a conventional conflict against a powerful but not too powerful OPFOR.

Unconventional Army Formations

I’ve been looking at two unconventional military formations. The High-Tech Light Division proposals of the 1980s (brought to life in the form of the 9th Infantry Division), and the various plans to mechanize the US’s airborne infantry.

This led to me reading the book “AIR-MECH-STRIKE” by the infamous Mike Sparks.

The failure is when they stop talking about mechanizing airborne forces (which does have a lot of precedent behind it) and start talking about “AIR MECH STRIKING” the entire military, ripping apart heavy armored units in favor of their zippy-airborne operations, and yanking the helicopters away from existing divisions. Aviation assets would be concentrated at high levels similar to Cold War Soviet practice of focusing on the operational level.

Out of fairness, they do keep M1 and M2 AFVs in the proposal. Which begs the question of how often the AIR MECH units would go deep in practice. That is a question the authors shy away from. The three hypothetical scenarios given in the book are an attack against a ragtag force threatening Afghanistan with a handful of T-55s, a North Korea scenario which is tailor-made for the AIR MECH forces to jump in and save the day, and a Kosovo scenario that is laughable in its overoptimism (easy and over in ten days, against an enemy that showed that they weren’t to be underestimated).

Most of the book talks about organization and the exact gizmos employed, with little space devoted to how they’d be used. As a contemporary critique in Armor Magazine by LTC Steve Eden (page 48) noted, the buried secret to the AIR-MECH unit’s success is precision indirect weapons-which, if working as well as claimed, would turn any unit, regardless of organization, into a juggernaut.

Then there’s the secret weapon-the M113 GAVIN. (Yes, this is where the meme got started). Now, in the book’s context, it’s a lot more forgivable, since the term Gavin is only used to refer to a heavily modified M113 that I’m still skeptical could be airdroppable and have the equipment upgrades they want at the same time. Sparks later retconned it into being a name for the APC overall.

I just have the gut feeling that the AIR-MECH units would, the majority of the time, fight as conventional mechanized infantry in vehicles scrunched-up to fit a requirement that they would rarely execute. Either that or be deployed in an overambitious 21st century Market Garden.

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The HTLD is more interesting. There’s a plan for an “assault gun” (either the Stingray or AGS could work), buggies, and zipping Humvees containing the line infantry. While it’s still a little dubious in terms of facing a combined arms force, the Cold War background makes it more tolerable. After all, it was raised along with the heavy divisions and didn’t pretend to be a substitute for them. (That the requirement was for air-transportability rather than droppability helped a little).

What doomed it was interservice politics-to be truly effective, it needed new specialized equipment, but that came at a time when the Army wanted every M1A1 it could get. So it limped along with stopgaps such as TOW-Humvees and conventional M60 tanks until being disbanded post-1991.

I do like to imagine a “semi-objective” HTLD, with the in-production Stingray and commerical buggies being used. While I don’t think the HTLD was still a good idea, it’s at least an interesting one.