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.

130_inf_div_ssi

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 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.

 

 

 

Command Fiction: The Lessons of Java

This is based on the Command scenario Indonesian War: Air Battle Over Java. I did an after-action report of it, but figure it works as a Command Fiction as well.

Commonwealth forces have participated in airstrikes against a major Indonesian Air Force base. Six aircraft have been lost to enemy action. Damage appears to be major, with the airbase ceasing operations since the bombardment.

– – – – – –

Since the 1995 war, the two sides have adopted radically different lessons learned from the climactic battle over central Java. For the Commonwealth, especially Australia, the biggest was all-weather, high-altitude attack capability. From a military perspective, going flat-out even after taking casualties to AAA was essential to neutralizing the threat to the Commonwealth navy. Yet this would not always be a luxury they could afford, so the acquisition of JDAM-style munitions was an absolute must.

For Indonesia, the choice was harder. They chose land-based high-altitude SAMs. There was a practical reason for this-to counter an enemy that can fly at high altitude and hit targets accurately, you need obvious defenses. But there’s also politics. Despite being an archipelago, the Indonesian Army has historically been by far theĀ  most politically influential branch of the nation’s military-a situation compounded by it remaining intact and suffering relatively few casualties, while the air force and navy were shattered.

So a system that it could control appealed to the Army brass, which is why the major cities now boast S-300s protecting them. To the extent that they fit into a cart-before-the-horse strategy, it’s to inflict unacceptable losses on Australian attackers. Only now the threat comes from the PLAAF attacking from the north instead of Australia attacking from the south.

The TNI-AU has been rebuilt with a handful of modern fighters, while the navy has become a Philippines-esque shriveled wreck.

With relations improved to the point where a 20th anniversary commemoration was handled exceptionally well by both nations, it remains unclear whether the upgraded arsenals will clash again. But the Australians are getting ahead of the curve, acquiring standoff weapons to defeat the horizon-limited SAMs…

 

 

 

The Perspective That Destroyed The Technothriller

So, I have an additional theory about the technothriller’s fall. It’s not on the central level thatĀ Nader Elhefnawy argued (the fall of the USSR took away the biggest immediate driver), or my own speculation (high technology weapons became so common that they ceased being ‘new and exciting’). This is secondary to those.

The theory is that of a precedent that made it (even) harder to continue the thriller in its post-1991 climate. This is, for lack of a better term, the “high level focus”.

As Elhefnawy describes it:

“Rather than having his protagonist Jack Ryan conveniently turning up in the right place at the right time, every time, so as to dominate the narrative, the story’s action is widely diffused among a large number of organizationally and geographically dispersed viewpoint characters. (11) This includes a large number of minor ones, whose sole connection to one another is their playing some small part in the evolution of a common crisis; and whose sole function in the story is to provide a higher-resolution view of some particularly interesting bit of the larger situation.”

A lot of technothrillers would adopt this high-level focus. While I understand the reasoning behind it, I’ve found that more often than not, it’s detrimental. If I had to describe why, the two biggest reasons would be:

-The perspective-hopping gets in the way of a continual flow, turning it into a “this happened, then this happened, then this happened…” clunker.

-The large number of characters and plots make it harder to develop any specific one in detail.

Those are general critiques that could apply to any genre. Where I think the high-level focus amplifies the problem with the technothriller in general, and the post-1991 one in particular is:

-Going into a genre the author isn’t the best at writing. I’m especially thinking politics here, where it became an increasingly tinny “Stupid politicians getting in our way” at worst and flat at best.

-Most crucially, in terms of threat to the main characters. If there’s a low-level focus and all you need to do is write a challenge to the individuals, that’s fairly easy regardless of how ineffective the threat as a whole is. A single SA-2 battery to a fighter plane, whatever the on-paper threat, is still a guided telephone pole-sized explosive heading straight for it. If on the other hand, one has to go all the way up the chain of command, it becomes harder to present a force with obsolescent equipment as a true threat. And since the conventional threats got harder to find after the Gulf War and fall of the USSR…

This is not to say that a high-level focus can’t be done well, or that a low-level one can’t be done poorly. However, I’ve found low-level works that aren’t the best quality to still be fun (and not in a so-bad-its-good way) that bad high-level ones aren’t.

Before I finish, I should give a recommendation/example: Raven One is a largely low-level work that, while not award-winning, is still a good military thriller.

 

Targets

So, I have a potentially unusual bottleneck in making Command scenarios: What targets to go for?

Any air-to-ground scenario needs targets. In some cases, the wealth of imports makes targeting easy-just use a multi-unit airfield and you have a ton of targets right there. Mobile vehicle targeting is also fairly easy-plop down a few trucks/tanks/APCs and there you have it.

Now for the bigger issues, which in many ways are opposites: Priority targets and massive target sets.

This is a gigantic issue for real military planners, so it’s not a game design issue. Figuring out the “weak links” in the supply bottleneck is important-and difficult. I frequently use “supply facilities” as a catch-all, but that’s an oversimplification. Even in terms of attacks on line units, some things are higher-priority than others.

In one recent “what-if” scenario editor sample, I was having the never-were F-16XL conduct attacks with AGM-65s against Iraqi forces in the Gulf War. I had multiple rocket launchers (not ballistic missiles like the Scud, MRLs like the BM-21) as the chosen targets due to their lethality.

F-16xl

(an F-16XL, the hunter).

MRLtarget

ASTROS/Sejil-60 MRLs, the hunted.

(By the way, the outcome was fairly similar to the real Gulf War air campaign-massive damage to the Iraqi targets, and a few low-probability SAM launches in return. One did connect and downed an F-16XL)

Putting in gigantic target sets is time-consuming for a scenario designer, and becomes a bigger problem when munitions get more capable. (WWII-vintage planes in Command can bomb a target repeatedly and still miss-a modern fighter, even with unguided weapons, can easily knock the same thing out in one go). Putting over a hundred targets in has deterred me before.

Then there’s the issue of how many points should be given to what targets. I’ll admit in one scenario, I disabled scoring altogether to not have to deal with that issue. Since scoring has to be matched with expected player losses, it’s even harder to do right.