The Commander

I’ve been looking at surplus military manuals from various time periods to give me the important information of where a formation commander would physically be during a battle.

Obviously, the answer is “it depends”. Especially at lower levels, the rule of thumb (at least according to American military manuals) is “behind the lead subunit, so you aren’t at the very tip, but can still control the march and battle”. Of course, what the lead subunit is depends on the formation and the circumstances. The manuals themselves do not give a set location for where the command post should be (for very good reasons of both safety and flexibility), and throughout decades of major updates and technological changes, are adamant that the commander personally move often to the best location, which is frequently not the main command post.

Thus this gives me a feel for writing. The nuts and bolts of every specific engagement matter less than general details like where the commander would (in-theory) be. There are exceptions to the norm, for better and worse, which many of the manuals cover to their credit. Naturally, these won’t stop me from putting commanders into very weird situations, because I like weird.

It also doesn’t hurt that I’ve seen in my numerous forays into bad fiction examples of rather dumb commander placement, on all extremes. Many of which are not justifiable in either a tactical or literary sense.

And of course, pre-mechanized command is an entirely different story.




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.

_ _ _ _ _ _

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.

Alternate History and Economic Reality

Few industries are as ruthlessly grinding as mainstream automobile manufacturing. This makes alternate histories where the “independent” American auto companies stay in business extra-challenging.

Historically, most of the independents were wiped out by the Great Depression. After an artificial postwar spike thanks to demand after a lack of car production in the war, the survivors were forced to consolidate in the early 1950s after a production race between Ford and Chevrolet glutted the market.

Studebaker-Packard was out of the auto business in a decade. Nash and Hudson “merged” into American Motors (in reality Nash essentially kept Hudson’s dealers and obliterated everything else), and were only saved by investing in an inherently counter-cyclical compact just in time for the 1958 recession.

This could only happen once. Domestic compacts and imports moved in to hit AMC’s niche, and they were forced to play an innovation game with few resources for the remainder of their existence.

And that was the successful one. Kaiser Frazer fizzled out simply because it didn’t have enough money.

All this happened before the 1973 gas crisis, and before the bulk of emissions and fuel economy regulations came into effect. Tough business, the auto industry. This, combined with the inability of GM itself, much less a smaller competitor, to sustain a giant multi-brand lineup without large quantities of badge engineering, makes me skeptical of timelines where the independents stay active.

The Saga of the Escort Cruiser

This all started off with me seeing a database entry in Command, and ended with me understanding a fascinating process of evolution in naval history. The British “Escort Cruiser”, beginning as a supplement to its large carriers, ended up replacing them.

(The most invaluable sources on these never-were ships were DK Brown’s Rebuilding the Royal Navy and Norman Friedmans British Cruisers, Two World Wars and After)

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the escort cruiser concept was conceived of as a way to increase the ASW power of a carrier task force, leave space on the deck for strike aircraft by putting the helicopters on a separate ship, serve as a potential independent force for the RN’s defensive ASW mission (extra-crucially after the large carriers were cancelled), and in desperation, be a staging ship for helicopter landings. Thus they were to be helicopter carriers with a SAM armament.

Early designs were called cruisers but had the size and would-be construction standards of a large destroyer.

(early escort cruiser, source shiplover on ShipBucket )

Later they grew bigger, to become “proper” cruisers.

(late escort cruiser, source shiplover on ShipBucket )

This design was not unprecedented. Similar ships with a similar role can be found in the Italian helicopter cruisers and the Soviet Moskva .

Due to the “issues” in the postwar British economy and military system, the escort cruisers were never built. The story might have ended there, except the still-larger proposals turned into the  actually-built Invincible-class .

HMS Invincible turned into an impromptu American-style power projecting carrier for the Falklands, and the rest is history. Now to describe my own experience

When I first saw the escort cruisers in the Command Cold War Database, it was an early build, the game didn’t have the marked “Hypothetical Unit” symbol it now does, and so all I was looking at was a cruiser I couldn’t find a name for, with a strange missile-only armament and helicopter deck. (At the time I didn’t even know the Italian or Soviet counterpart).

While looking around on ShipBucket and, I found the escort cruisers with the hull numbers the DB entries matched. Then I, interested, looked up their history (and saw some discrepancies with their in-game portrayals that I noted in the CWDB thread, backed up with sources as is proper procedure).

It’s extremely fascinating to look at such a clear evolutionary process, from drawing to drawing to actual ship.

Jutland 100-The Rules of The Game

On the 100th anniversary of Jutland, World War I’s largest naval battle, I should talk about one of the longest and most influential books I’ve read, which happens to feature the battle considerably. That book is Andrew Gordon’s The Rules of The Game.

It was one of the first real deep, scholarly military history books I obtained. The book, which I saw as incredible upon my first, long-ago readings of it, has faded somewhat. In terms of describing the battle itself and the history of the Royal Navy, it’s still amazing.

But in terms of analyzing the history, it falls short.

The book describes not just the fleets, but also the personalities. The reader hears about John Jellicoe, the cautious yet respected commander of the Grand Fleet and David Beatty, the brash, ambitious, not-so-respected battlecruiser commander. Another far more unknown but pivotal figure is Hugh Evan-Thomas, an organization man put in charge of the four most modern Queen Elizabeth battleships of the fleet.

Gordon covers the battle until the moment where Evan-Thomas continues to sail towards the German fleet because he did not receive a signal, and then shifts to the 19th century, from the development of steam engines, increased signalling, the romanticization of central control, and the effort by George Tryon to reform it, cut short by his death in the HMS Victoria disaster.

After going up to World War I proper, it returns to May 31st, 1916, and ends with the post-engagement (and postwar) recriminations. The attention to detail Gordon has is incredible. So why have I (slightly) soured on it?

The answer can be summarized in one sentence. It’s too Pentagon Reformer.

  • Gordon shows a fatalistic view of communications technology, stating that it will always be pushed past its limits. While true, this is a glass-half-empty view of it, the reverse being that said limits themselves keep expanding.
  • The love of the “dashing maverick” hurts his view. Gordon seems to be reluctant to acknowledge the big picture-that fleet engagements were a luxury compared to the blockade, and that said blockade worked-the RN knew how to do it, and did it well. While he acknowledges it, it seems to be with gritted teeth.
  • Said “dashing maverick” also makes him one of a very few historians who hold David Beatty highly. What it amounts to is “Well, yes, Beatty was an egomaniac, yes he botched his deployment so that his best ships were in the back, with fatal consequences, yes he failed to do his job as a high-end scout, but hey, he understood initiative more than Jellicoe. This isn’t convincing.


Finally, the biggest problem with analysis (as opposed to presentation), is that it’s working off a sample size of one. This is not Gordon’s fault, this was the nature of WWI at sea. But even the most experienced forces can stumble, and so making a grand narrative of decline based on one single incident, no matter how big, is flawed. If the British had declined from Nelsonic initiative to centralization and then smashed the German fleet anyway, a hypothetical Andrew Gordon’s account would sound less like a chronicle of decline and more like the Reformer post-Gulf War “But you didn’t hit any Scud launchers” sour grapes screeds.

If the reader can keep these caveats in mind, The Rules of The Game is still a fantastic book.

The Fall of Advance Wars

I loved Advance Wars. First turn-based strategy I really got into, and I played every installment from the initial English release to the (as of now) final one, Days of Ruin.

The Advance Wars series had two big problems after the release of Dual Strike, the installment for the DS. The first had to do with the content. Dual Strike wasn’t a bad game, but it had taken every element of the series-a goofy atmosphere that didn’t quite gel with the whole “war” theme, and CO abilities-and taken it to excess. Allied COs stopped to “have battles” (not exercises, battles) in the middle of a campaign, and you ended up with “Tag powers” that turned into “win buttons” instead of the tide-tipping CO powers of past games.

The second had to do with the sales. Namely, that Japanese sales were hideous, and since it was being made by Nintendo, that was a problem. So, for Days of Ruin, Intelligent Systems tried to fix it. They didn’t release it in Japan at all, reset the plot to something darker, and toned down the mechanics. The result was a bittersweet series-ender.

The gameplay is good enough-possibly a little bland, but a welcome enough change from the bombastic Dual Strike. But the plot and setting? Days of Ruin has the largest disconnect between story and gameplay I’ve seen. The tutorial is the most immersive part. Really.

You have the impression of being a small group of fighters in a post-apocalyptic world, with very limited supplies. Then you get the ability to build new units-and it all collapses. You’re back to cranking out tons of tanks, military aircraft, and even carriers. And rather than just ignoring it as gameplay, the writers used a weird explanation of “mechanical units that only work close to the factory they’re built it” that caused more problems than it solved.

The plot is also bad. First, the darkness is on the surface, and there’s no moral complexity beyond it. Second, by the end-game they’re back to their comfort zone of mad science superweapons and totally happy endings. The result is a mess of missed opportunities and confusion.
Save for a virtual console port of the first Advance Wars game, there have been no more Advance Wars’, meaning Days of Ruin probably finished off the series.

China and the Atom Bomb-Parallels and Thoughts

A regime, born out of a fanatically anti-Western revolution and the veteran of a long bloody war has emerged as a ‘rogue nation’ to the established international order. Said nation has, directly and indirectly, went to war with the United States, unleashing its troops and arsenals to damage the US military and pin it down defending a new client state out of fear for its own survival. Now the US security establishment sits nervously as said nation, which has emphasized an unconventional approach to warfare to make up for its lack of an effective conventional arsenal, moves closer and closer to building a nuclear weapon.

And yet, some hope-could the regime be a lesser evil? Could a deal with it actually work?

This could be a description of Iran today, but it also describes Maoist China in the early Cold War. Throughout the early 1960s, the intelligence community navigated a fog as the country moved through its atomic development program, mystery continued and rhetoric escalated until the PRC detonated its first nuclear weapon in October 1964. Throughout the decade and beyond, the nation became the biggest wild card in the Vietnam War, and offers, if not lessons, then observations.

John F. Kennedy remained especially vigilant about the Chinese bomb, leaning towards a forcible strike against it. Against him, one unknown Policy Planning Council analyst named Robert Johnson continued to push for calm. Johnson-no relation to president Lyndon Johnson-’s view eventually won out, and the long-awaited nuclear test passed without much incident.

A surviving JFK, or a more hawkish administration, may very well have ordered a strike on PRC nuclear facilities. One of the best available sources is this document laying out a large array of options for fighting China’s nuclear ambitions, that range from the mild (condemn it and conduct a PR campaign) to the impossibly bold (support a Taiwanese reinvasion of the mainland (!) )

-What Happened-

China detonated its first nuclear bomb in October 1964. However, its capacity remained extremely limited-missile production was slow, and delivery systems remained limited to clunky H-6 bombers. As anticipated, the psychological effect was greater than the military changes.

Still in fear, the PRC rushed to support -within limits- the North Vietnamese, showing that the United States was not the only power politically restrained in the Vietnam War. Many thousands of Chinese troops, most being laborers and specialist engineers, were deployed to North Vietnam, where they assisted in infrastructure repair, construction, and deployment of anti-aircraft artillery. Although using a “volunteer” legal fiction for reasons of law and war, they did not even attempt to use a shallow “duelist deniability” and remained overt in all other means.

The fear of offensive forces deploying, even if in an unconventional capability, remained on the table throughout Rolling Thunder, and while unlikely, could not be discounted altogether (nor did planners feel it wise to, after the debacle of Korea).

The rest is history. China was approached as a balance to the Soviets, and in hindsight, the nuclear arsenal-with first bombers and then a small number of missiles-, proved less decisive than the worst fears indicated.


How many parallels are there between China in the 1960s and Iran today? Less than the initial comparison may seem. But some still exist. One may be to overestimate the effects of nuclear weapons by themselves. A nuclear missile that can destroy one thing at the expense of bringing a hundred Minutemen down in return is, in many ways, less of a threat than a conventional missile capable of accurately hitting any airfield on the Arabian Peninsula.

Another is the gap between public rhetoric and private will. This is why I get annoyed by the “only alternative to a nuclear deal is war” talk-if Iran wasn’t overtly attacked while Bush was in office and there was a more valid military reason to, why would there be the will for it in much more dovish circumstances? Similarly, I’d bet that for all of Israel’s public (and understandable, much as the Nationalist government on Taiwan’s worries of mainland nuclear weapons in a fairly similar situation were understandable) warnings, it has privately resigned itself to a nuclear Iran for some time.


The document of proposals and plans shows an array of PRC responses to US-led measures. They range from naval harassment to the takeover of Hong Kong or renewed attacks against India, after their victory in 1962. China’s arsenal at the time was numerous but low-technology-in naval/air matters, the best it could manage was mass production of fighters one generation (later two generations) behind its opponents.

The Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations simulation offers many opportunities for simulating the what-ifs. Areas surrounding China’s nuclear program have inspired many scenario ideas from me, including full-scale B-52 raids on the infrastructure itself. However, the most I’ve managed to actually make is a scenario called “Probe or Feint”, a limited aerial recon-in-force by F-106s over the Yangtze.

I’ve taken an interest in simulating a hypothetical blockade, although the scope of that is room for concern (Too small an area and it becomes unrealistically cramped, too big and you have scenario creep).
As both a historical example and wargaming effort, the political and military plans surrounding the Chinese nuclear weapons project are well worth studying.