Bad Fiction Spotlight: Tom Kratman’s Carrera series

Imagine you have a series where everything is handed to the main character on a silver platter, and they still appear like they’re barely able to reach the plate. This surreal experience is the heart of Tom Kratman’s Carrera series.

The backstory of how the series came to be is in many ways more interesting than the story of the books themselves. Tom Kratman was an officer in the US Army who had a disappointing career, rising to lieutenant colonel essentially by default without actually getting to command anything of significance. This was combined with a legal career that, to put it mildly, he wasn’t suited for.

So, he wrote several manuscripts of military fantasy stories. Then the infamous Baen Books accepted those manuscripts (after one throwaway novel featuring a heroic Texas taking on an evil Hillary Clinton caricature that even Kratman himself put solely into the “potboiler” category). Now, if these were just conventional thrillers that happened to be, say, a little more right-wing than even the norm for the genre, they would have been considered mild curiosities at best.

The Carrera books were not conventional thrillers. For one, they were intended as military manuals, to show the guy who was too good for those jealous idiots in the Pentagon how to really do stuff. Next, they were extremely cumbersome in terms of prose (to the extent that the first book had to be released in two volumes because it was too big). Finally, Baen had to apply a ‘sci-fi’ covering to them-but only the most basic covering. The result was very interesting.

So, here’s the plot summary of the actual books themselves. A space probe discovers another habitable world, and a force led by evil European administrators sends colony ships across the distance to “Terra Nova”, with various nationalities. Terra Nova is essentially exactly the same as the world the colonists left, only with everything upside down and backwards and the country names replaced with bad puns. South Africa becomes North Uhuru, the US is the Federated States of Columbia, France is Gaul, Britain is Anglia, to the disgust of Scots, Iraq is Sumer, etc… The worst examples are China and India, which become Zhong Guo and Bharat-yes, China and India become-China and India.

Meanwhile, the United Nations that ruled Old Earth collapsed into a literal backwards, decadent monarchy. Their space fleet was rusty and malfunctioning, to the point where they needed to buy replacement parts from the Terra Nova surface.

After a nonsensical “World War” that involved the “US”, “England”, and “Germany” against “France”, “Russia”, and “Japan”, there was a “Vietnam War” and a “Gulf War”, and even an “Iran-Iraq War”. (You see a pattern with the quotations).

At this point the actual books start. Patrick Hennessy has his family killed on “9/11” (which involves airships), kills several obnoxious yet nonviolent strawman pro-Muslim demonstrators, and after a bit of “Kind Hearts and Coronets-ing”, gets a huge inheritance. Calling himself Carrera, the vengeance-minded soldier sets to work on building a mercenary force out of formerly-demilitarized “Panama”.

After Carrera acquires a ton of suspiciously cheap military gear, he now has a brigade. Said brigade fights in the invasion of “Iraq”, where they find the Mystery WMDs after Carrera befriends a defeated “Iraqi” commander.

Eventually, the commander of the Space UN fleet is taken hostage and “Riyadh” nuked (!) by Carrera. This solves the “War on Terror” issue, and the series continues to the original manuscripts, where Carrera, with his array of meticulously built-up defenses, fights off the attacks on “Panama” by the “EU” and “China”.

The series has kind of been put on “indefinite hold”, as Kratman left to focus on writing a web column (and argue in the comments sections of said column) instead. Naturally, it stopped right on a “cliffhanger”, after fending off a “Chinese” amphibious attack.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

What makes the books stand out, besides the horrible writing and worse pacing (I was able to skip an entire book without missing anything, and could probably have skipped two more and still figured out what was going on), is the weirdly unheroic hero.

Carrera is a psychopath whose maximum effort at redemption is the occasional “I feel bad about this” sentence that doesn’t change any example of the characterization. The prologue to “A Desert Called Peace” features a man called the “Blue Jinn” who is confronting a huge group of prisoners, and orders the men to be crucified and the women and children sold into slavery. One reviewer thought the Blue Jinn was some yet-to-be-introduced antagonist-it was Carrera.

(The counterinsurgency tactic Carrea prefers can be summed up as ‘kill every man old enough to grow a beard, unless they’re on your side already’.)

Even towards his own troops, Carrera is unheroic. The main character casually yawns during a discussion of training deaths and views the percentage of casualties in training as not an inevitable tragedy but as an agreeable goal to toughen the troops up. Even the ruthlessness of the protagonist is secondary to the really weird characteristic-the fact, alluded to in the introduction, that even given every advantage, Carrera is a terrible commander.

When equipping his army, Carrera is an announced master of logistics. Unfortunately, Tom Kratman’s definitions of logistics involve only two things:

-An initial sticker price.

-A gamey ‘cost limit’ that can’t be exceeded.

This combines itself with the ‘manual’ part-see, everything is to be meticulously researched, because this is a true manual, and must be accurate. So the military is equipped using the same logic someone uses when looking at a Steam sale (ooh, three indie games for a dollar fifty!). My favorite example is his air force-rather than equip with surplus “MiG-29s” or something similar, Kratman saw that MiG-17s were available for the low thousands of dollars, so he had “Panama’s” air force be equipped with hundreds of “MiG-17s”-of course, they were upgraded with stuff that would obliterate the cost savings, but hey-sticker price.

My second-favorite is the navy, where he buys ships at scrap prices and has them be usable without budget-busting refits.

There are of course exceptions to this cheapskating. Of course “Panama” spends effort designing the Perfect Military Rifle, and makes super-tech whose cost calculations completely ignore development costs-therefore they get submarines that have never-before-used propulsion systems and can dive incredibly deep, as well as stealth aircraft. Then there’s the actual fighting.

In training, the infantry die repeatedly to sloppliness on the part of the trainer that doesn’t teach the survivors anything. The tank crews, on the other hand, not only perform poorly in initial training and are diverted to useless attacks on sea targets rather than returning until they get their fundamentals right, but when introduced to their vehicles, are given a de facto advertisment from the manufacturer instead of a realistic evaluation, to “improve morale”.

Once the combat begins, even that pales in comparison.

Pretty much every conventional battle follows the same formula. Kratman has bragged about writing full OPLANs and logistics plans for every single battle.

-Self-insert comes up with and infodumps detailed Grand Plan. (Sometimes the infodump is even multiple books ahead of the actual battle, but it’s there)

-Battle starts. Whatever the force, they just immediately dig in and don’t maneuver.

-Kratmanland forces get pounded by the strawman enemy.

-The Grand Plan is launched after many casualties.

-The Grand Plan is executed, and routs the strawman enemy.

Reading about tank crews not doing anything while infantry are fighting for their lives not too far away is kind of bizarre-and not even like any other Mary Sue. A conventional Mary Sue is something like the main character in the horribly wish-fulfillment computer fantasy anime series Sword Art Online, who can go into a VR game he’s never played before and zip around leaping and cutting his way to victory in a competitive tournament despite different mechanics. In Kratmanland, he would just camp in a bottleneck until the clock ran out and eke out a tiny victory by default thanks to having two more hit points than his opponent.

Thankfully, those who wish to check out the “majesty” of A Desert Called Peace for themselves can do so, for Baen has made the entire book free.

Just be prepared.

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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.

-Parallels-

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.

-What-ifs/Wargaming-

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.

In Defense of the F-4

In the frequent criticisms of the F-35, it is often compared to the F-4 Phantom, another “do-everything” plane that ended up being used in all roles for both the US Navy and Air Force. The idea goes that since the F-4’s performance ended up being poor, so will the the F-35.

An example can be seen in this op-ed.

“What is fascinating is that the same argument was made almost 50 years ago about the F-4 Phantom, a twin-engine fighter designed for air superiority and reconnaissance. It was first sent into battle without an internal cannon — because of the Pentagon’s optimistic assumption that the new generation of air-to-air missiles made close-range air duels a thing of the past.

The result was that outdated North Vietnamese MiGs were able to shoot down these Phantoms in dogfights, which the Pentagon had planned not to have. So the Phantoms had to be equipped with the very guns once considered unneeded. The Navy then had to create the Top Gun program to teach what had become a lost art of aerial dogfighting.”

This is a huge oversimplification, and also ignores the context that illustrates just how revolutionary the F-4 turned out to be. While not minimizing its imperfections, a closer look at the Phantom shows that it not only that many of the criticisms are unfair, but also that it acheived something more than the sum of the parts.

The Gun Debate

The legend goes “super-tech Pentagon thought that the Phantom didn’t need a gun, so it suffered until the gun was finally brought back”. The truth is much more complex. Marshal L. Michel’s Clashes: Air Combat Over North Vietnam mentions both that pre-war, many crews actually supported losing the gun. And there was a justification even during the early phases of the war-that a cannon would just make fighter crews try to get into dogfights with agile MiG-17s that, gun or not, would not end in the F-4s favor.

The justification was flawed, but it was still there, and was not just mere technological hubris. (Incidentally, the Americans, Europeans, and Soviets all built gunless interceptors in the same time period, showing that this trend was not unique to the Pentagon.)

But even with the gun, most of the kills went to missiles. The platforms on both sides that scored their kills with guns-the American F-105 and North Vietnamese MiG-17, did so because they had no choice. F-4 guns, both the jury-rigged external pods and internal models, offered some opportunities but did not change the basic dynamics of aerial combat. The malinged AIM-7 scored the bulk of American victories, and the AA-2 Sidewinder copy was the North Vietnamese weapon of choice.

In 1972, gunless Navy F-4s, backed by air combat training, excellent radar support in their area of operations, and largely facing weaker MiG-17s, scored their best group of kills yet. Air Force F-4s with guns, facing a larger and better-trained group of MiG-21s, initially foundered, with kills dropping to a negative ratio even by the USAF’s own admission. There is more to it than those initial claims, but it shows that the cannon was no cure-all.

Beyond the Gun

Beyond the stories of the gun, the dogfighting losses, and even the record of the F-4 in Vietnam as a whole, the context of its birth shows its true power.

From World War II to the 1960s, military aircraft development was a frenzied rush. Jets were appearing and getting faster and faster-aircraft were contorted into strange shapes as designers tried to take advantage of the possibilities. Aircraft would enter service, be slammed into rapid production runs that were as much to make up for the very high accidental loss rates as they were to build up the numbers, and then quickly drop out almost as soon as they went in.

There were lasting successes, like the A-4 Skyhawk. But these were drowned out by the mixture of flashes in the pan and utter duds that dominated 1950s tactical aviation. Enter the F-4. The plane began service as a fleet defense interceptor, to shoot down attacking aircraft and missiles threatening the carrier. Thus it was meant to operate in a more BVR-friendly environment (over the water with lavish radar backing) and was unlikely to close to gun-range. Yet it ended up making history in a different role.

Through its journey into becoming a multi-service, multirole “good enough” plane, the Phantom achieved something that had been lacking for much of the jet age-stability. The plane would be a fixture on American carrier decks and air bases alike for two decades, and remained in service with foreign customers for considerably longer.

Through the F-4’s imperfect and somewhat inadvertent pioneering of the multirole aircraft, it set the stage for deliberate designs to follow. Having the ability to both engage in the aerial combat role of a fighter and carry a large and/or long distance payload was extremely important. Pioneering the use of both radar missiles and smart bombs that are now ubiquitous, it provided a needed building block for those game-changers.

And its own service was not a terrible one. In addition to Vietnam, it served effectively in the Arab-Israeli and Iran-Iraq Wars. Among American pilots, even after its vulnerabilities through nearly a decade of war were revealed, it had its staunch defenders. (The book Sierra Hotel has an anecdote where F-4 crews were skeptical of the F-15, believing that having only one pilot would vastly limit its situational awareness. While the latter plane would certainly prove its worth, this was not the reaction of people who wanted to junk the wrecks they were forced to fly in).
In spite of its weaknesses, the F-4 was a capable, versatile product of the technology of the time that brought American jet fighters out of a chaotic childhood into a measured adulthood.