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.

Fleet Actions, Historical and Otherwise

In June 1961, the USN and JSDF prepare a series of provocative moves into the Sea of Okhotsk. Well, in real life they didn’t, but in my Command scenario “The Okhotsk Bastion”, they did. The Soviet forces there are somewhat historical, save for a hypothetical carrier and its assorted aircraft.

The actual scen is very slow (it is after all, an anti-submarine scenario with very limited equipment), but I went to the editor, rearranged the small JSDF task group and the southernmost fleet of subchasers, and got-the biggest fleet engagement since World War II.

To put this in perspective-it was between three Japanese ships and eight Soviet subchasers. The former’s “fleet” consisted of a recent yet still low-end frigate, an IJN-surplus anti-sub vessel, and a coastal minesweeper with a deck gun. The latter had medium and small ships. No ship in the engagement had more than 1,400 tons displacement. None had anything bigger than a 120mm turret.

The JSDF lost the new frigate. The Soviets lost one large and four small subchasers. There were limited aerial engagements.

Book after book would be written on the engagement.

When you have such a small sample size, the data will be obsessed over.

This explains why so much naval warfare has been theoretical-not just since World War II, but since the development of the steam engine. A combination of rapid technological progress mixed with few samples (thanks to both the high capital costs of ships and Anglo-American naval supremacy) has made wargaming and simulation crucial.

So when looking at alternate history Command scens, it’s interesting to see how influential they might have been in their timelines that never were.

 

Alternate Gulf Wars

I’ve been thinking of trying a few Command scenarios as part of the 25th anniversary of the Gulf War, some dealing with what-if equipment, and others dealing with what-if politics. So far none have gotten any farther than a few experiments in the scen editor to see how balanced they are.

The F-16XL one I mentioned earlier was equipment-wise. The rest is going to be political. One possibility, actually mentioned in the official US Navy history, Shield and Sword, was that the nations who openly supported the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Libya, Sudan, and Yemen, would interfere with Coalition operations-most importantly, their vital supply routes.

The book also mentioned that a show of force quickly deterred them from doing so-understandably. Iraq’s would-be allies are considerably weaker than their patron-and my experiments showed it.

 

Red Storm Rising

I got Red Storm Rising. How could I not get it? I’ve played Command, so why not get the book that inspired so many wargames? Why not read the traditional genre classic that simulated the battles in the Harpoon boardgame?

So I got the book and read it. And it was-mediocre. Not bad, in the sense of the horribly bad books I’ve read far too many times. But it just didn’t have the sense of “wow, this is a giant classic”. I think there are two main reasons for this.

The first is that the prose just wasn’t the best. The hopping-around viewpoints to show every front of World War III took away from a sense of continued immediacy, and even without that, the writing wasn’t the most powerful. Although a far different period, HMS Ulysses captured northern-latitude naval combat in a much more intense and well-written way. In addition to that, the book stumbled as well by giving an inevitably contrived explanation for starting the war (and a horribly composed Politburo scene), rather than just saying “The war started, now let’s fight it”, and going past it to the real draw.

The second was not the fault of the book itself. Rather, I think it has to deal with the context I read it in. A lot of things in it that were novel at the time, like Tomahawks and (inaccurately speculated) stealth fighters hitting key targets just don’t seem very awe-inspiring to a post-Gulf War reader who sees them as standard procedure.

Then there’s that I’ve seen so many imitators that the original doesn’t seem so original. To someone who’s seen many Backfire regiment vs. carrier group scenarios, I especially don’t have an interested reaction to watching one in a book. Also unsurprising is the Soviet invasion of Iceland-a pipe dream out of place for a defensive fleet, which only works in the book itself as a jury-rigged surprise attack. Yet after that book, Iceland landings are ubiquitous in WWIII fiction, as if standard Northern Fleet procedure was to attack it that way.
While not a totally bad book, through some things that are its fault and some things that aren’t, I just didn’t find Red Storm Rising the most engaging.

Command Scenarios I’ve Wanted To Make

Here are some Command scenarios I’ve wanted to make. This whole list would be incredibly long, because of just how excellent the editor is and how much I’ve wanted to make. But a few in my mind right now are (all titles working).

-GIUK-21:

Modern/futuristic GIUK gap engagement.

-Rollback Kickoff

Previously mentioned.

-Three Squared

An attack on a very different and alternate Venezuela. Hugely ambitious, with strict ammo limits, hypothetical platforms galore, a long target list, and an air tempo slowdown. You’d control the USMC Aviation in three days of air strikes on a newly established regime.

-FLAG-21

An exercise scenario featuring carrier and amphibious warfare ship attacks against an OPFOR-state. The scope of it is something I’m debating, and also whether to make two versions-one against a huge “Heavy OPFOR”, and another against a smaller, weaker “Light OPFOR”.

-Sink The Alaska

Vietnam scenario where you use North Vietnam’s aircraft in a sea-attack role to hit American warships bombarding the coast. Was thinking of making a hypothetical Alaska modifiction the biggest target, hence the name.

-Operation Reinforce Padlock

(Had to think of a good name, so I fired up Mgellis’ command Inspiration PadPro generators a few times)

Historically, the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000 led to the quick collapse of their allies. Here, it’s conducted under the umbrella of a high-intensity air campaign against Hezbollah and Syria.

-23:59:59
Cuban Missile Crisis airstrikes. Lua and events to trigger a “delay, then surviving missiles launch” if any one site is destroyed.

The Carrier Air Groups That Never Were

Command’s latest series of updates have brought a new array of hypothetical units to the forefront. The question is what units would be used in a way that would maintain plausibility.

A-6F

This is easy. The A-6F, being an upgraded version of the old A-6 Intruder, would replace older A-6E units.

Naval F-117

(Note: the biggest difference between the A/F-117X and F-117N is that the former has air to air capability and the latter doesn’t).

This is tricky. They can replace A-6s as carrier strike aircraft, or they can serve in small detachments (3-6 planes, numbers closer to a specialty plane like jammer or AEW than a basic attacker) to serve as niche attack aircraft.

A-12 Avenger

If the Terrible Triangle was made to work and became the Awesome Triangle, it would also replace A-6s. In what quantity depends on the degree of success-like the naval F-117, it could be either a full-blown replacement or a costly niche plane.

Super Tomcat

Trickier. Super Tomcats can easily replace their direct predecessors, as well as the A-6 in the long-range heavy attacker role. What’s harder to say is whether or not they’d muscle aside the Hornet family as well-whether the Super Hornet gets cancelled or replaces the original F/A-18 as a light fighter rather than as a do-everything plane depends on politics and funding.

SV-22

Replaces the S-3.

F-24 NATF:

Replaces the F-14 as the pure air-to-air fleet defense fighter.

So, for one of the carrier wings, not in a limited intervention/peacetime profile, but a fully-loaded major war loadout, composed entirely of hypotheticals (at least in the fighter/attack units)

12-15 F-24 (1 squadron, fighter VF)

24-30 F-14E (2 squadrons, fighter VFA)

12 A-6F (1 squadron, attack VA)

18 other (Ea-6, E-2, S-3/SV-22, etc..) (multiple smaller squadrons).

-This assumes a more balanced, offensive-focused deployment. For the threat of a continued Soviet Union or other opponent that posed a greater threat to the fleet, swapping one of the multirole squadrons for another pure fighter one would not be surprising.

-This also does not take legacy aircraft into account. Either unupgraded F-14s or those in the database that have the AAAM but nothing else can replace the F-24s, and Hornets (legacy or, more doubtfully, Super) can replace the Super Tomcats. The A-6F can be replaced by the stealth attackers or super/legacy Tomcats (Legacy Intruders were some of the oldest platforms in the fleet and badly needed retirement). The ratio can range from only one squadron of new aircraft on the carrier to one squadron of old ones left (i.e, the small force of A-7s in the Gulf War).

-Just because all the planes are on the carrier does not mean that they are all ready to fly at a moment’s notice. The F-14 in particular was a high-maintenance plane, and while Super Tomcats may have eliminated some of the clunkier components, its swing-wing design is still inherently time-consuming to service. So for high plausibility, put some planes of all types in “Maintenance-Unavailable” .