The Soviet Pentomic Division

In the late 1950s, the United States adopted the ill-fated Pentomic Division layout of organization for its army. While going through declassified CIA documents, I found that (assuming the CIA document is accurate, the necessary caveat) around the same time, the Soviets were seriously considering adopting a similar model with a similar justification. The document in question is here.

Here’s the important picture. The proposed “Soviet-Pentomic” structure is on the left.sovietpentomic

The big thing that makes the two similar is skipping conventional battalions in favor of regiments/”Battle groups” with a large number of companies in them. I thought it interesting at any rate, a minor footnote in organizational history.

 

The Tank Crew

Tank crews can make for an underappreciated fictional niche. There’s enough of them to be more than an individual (ie, pilot), yet not enough to get out of hand. You get between three and five crew to a tank (again, barring the edge cases), and there’s less need to perspective hop.

Building and Destroying Tank Formations

A division-sized mechanized formation tends to have (as a rough rule of thumb that assumes a big Cold War sized division as the base), around 500-600 armored vehicles in it, with the ratio of tanks to APCs/IFVs depending on the exact type of unit, whether it’s a tank/armored or motor rifle/mechanized infantry unit.

So, as a very rough artificial measurement for an artificial country in an artificial setting, I can tend to just plop down a number of overall tanks and divvy them up.

The next part is figuring out how quickly those formations of tanks would get destroyed in actual fighting. It depends on the kind of fighting and opponent, and ranges from “a year” to “less than a day”.

Michael Farmer’s Tin Soldiers

So, I read Michael Farmer’s Tin Soldiers and for the most part enjoyed it. It’s a cliche “cheap thriller”, but it’s not a bad cheap thriller in spite of its flaws. If you want to see tanks firing and exploding, it has that.

So, it’s a post-USSR technothriller, which means it plucks an opponent of the week, in this case a sanctions-less, aggressive Iraq. There’s a war, and that’s pretty much all I need to say about the overall plot.

The best part of the book is the middle portion. It reads like a somewhat clunkier Team Yankee, but the upgraded T-72 vs. M1A1 action is good, and the way Farmer evened the odds is something I appreciate. The beginning is pretty stock technothriller (a combination of training scenes and infodumps in offices and conference rooms), and the end drags on too long, contains the shoved-in damsel in distress love story, and a bit of near-Dale Brown escalation.

Still, Tin Soldiers is not a bad book if you like cheap thrillers or tanks.

A few further genre fiction thoughts

So, a while ago, I mentioned Tanya Huff’s Valor series as an example of someone who could work around a writing weakness. Basically, an author whose background and resume would be, on paper, the last person to write effective military fiction managed by setting up the plots so that the characters were in small groups and situations she was comfortable with. It was a sign of working around weakness.

Now, a part of me thinks that its success might not have been in spite of her lack of experience, but in some ways because of it. That is, she had less of the genre’s baggage because she didn’t know you were “supposed” to do something. Granted, all this could just be me viewing the Valor books with rose-tinted goggles as I count the cliches in my latest binge of technothrillers, but still.

(Besides Team Yankee, I’m reading another piece of “Tank Fiction”, Michael Farmer’s Tin Soldiers. The latter hits a lot of the technothriller cliches but is still a good “cheap thriller”)

Team Yankee

I’ve just finished Harold Coyle’s Team Yankee, the classic tank novel.

By its own terms, it’s not the best book.

It’s like a micro-scale Red Storm Rising. (I don’t mean in tone, or obvious setting, I mean it’s a decent but dated and over-jargoned book). It’s a little too clinical. Too much explanation of attacks and formations and stuff in detail, like Coyle wanted to show off what he knew. At times I thought “this is like Melville, only with tanks instead of sailing ships”.

The characters away from the main group aren’t that good. The wife subplot seems superfluous, cutting to an A-10 pilot or headquarters officer is a little jarring, and the occasional Soviet viewpoint character exists basically to go “curse those dastardly Americans!”

And yet when comparing it to the later WW3 imitators I’ve seen on the internet and self-published fiction, it comes across as better. For while it has the flaws mentioned above, it also has one thing a lot of the later ones don’t-a truly consistent narrative. The viewpoint disruptions aren’t too bad, and some are indeed tied in to the main action, which cannot be said for others. This alone makes it worth a read.

Supertanks

So, my big dilemma can be summed up in one work. Supertanks.

There are a bewildering array of paper supertanks that the fall of the USSR nipped in the bud. These, both western and eastern, range from conventional upgrades of previous-gen tanks (many of which were actually made, at least in prototype) on one end, to ultra-exotic “Crew of two and they’re both in the hull” designs on the other. 140 and 152mm monster guns, uncrewed turrets with innovative autoloaders, the list goes on and on. They’re interesting to see, and I’m wondering “If I’m making a semi-grounded fictional supertank, what real one should it most resemble?”

And yet, for one of my main antagonist groups, the question of supertanks gives way to the more important one of “are they the kind who’d have large formations of tanks at all, be they surplus or super”. That’s the question I should be asking.