It’s another bit of tank fiction I’ve blogged about before but am now proud to review ‘formally’ at Fuldapocalypse-the Duffer’s Drift for the 1980s edutainment piece The Defense of Hill 781. Enjoy.
Tin Soldiers has been covered before here but I figured I’d give it a bigger, more detailed review at Fuldapocalypse. It’s a post-1991 technothriller that manages to work better than a lot of others.
One of my favorite looking tanks is the infamous M60A2 “Starship”.
The tank itself had a deservedly short and unglorious career. Its 152mm gun-missile system and electronics were, er, less-than-ideal, and after only a few years most were either converted back to conventional 105mm M60s or support vehicles, where they served well. But its unique turret just looks fascinating to me. It’s ugly. But that’s part of the charm.
While many designs and prototypes of larger-than-normal tanks were made, the only American heavy tank to reach a degree of production was the M103. Even then, the Marines were more enthusiastic about it than the Army.
But the army had worked heavy tanks into their doctrine. And they were primarily tank destroyers. Not completely, like the purpose-built TDs of WWII, but organized very similarly.
According to the 1949/1951 edition of FM 17-33, when heavy tanks were “brewing”:
“The missions of the heavy tank battalion are:
a. To provide antitank protection, in both offense and defense, against enemy tanks.
b. To support the advance of the medium tank and armored infantry battalions.
c. To perform, in addition, the missions normally assigned to the medium tank battalion.”
Note the prioritization. Paragraph 254 is even more explict and similar to the initial wartime tank destroyer doctrine.
“The heavy tank battalion of the armored division normally will be given an antitank mission in both the mobile and sustained defense. When attached to the combat commands or the reserve command, the battalion, or its companies, usually will be held in reserve, ready to move out to meet any enemy threat, especially by tanks superior in capabilities to the medium tank.”
Now, other roles for the heavy tank, including the breakthrough/support role its eastern counterparts were primarily envisioned for (and which it was designed to stop) were mentioned, this was not inflexible. But the focus was on the anti-tank role.
Prior to the introduction of “smart” weapons, attacking tanks directly with aircraft was, in purely materialistic terms, incredibly difficult and certainly inefficient.
While pilots claimed massive numbers of tank kills, careful examination when the dust settled revealed a different story. In WWII, it was 5-8%, depending on how you fiddle with statistics. By Korea, the 100% confirmed aircraft kills of tanks had risen only modestly, to 12%. Granted, this is a slight lowball figure because a lot of the “unknown” losses were to aircraft napalm. If every single “unknown cause” loss turned out to be due to aircraft, it would rise to 40%, but this is doubtful, and the modest point still stands.
As this video shows, attacking and disrupting the soft-skinned support elements was something air power at the time was far better equipped to handle.
One thing I’m legitimately curious about (and haven’t read that much on, hence my curiosity) is the height to which “dumb” (albeit ballistic computer-assisted) rockets and bombs could reach with postwar technology.
This is the IS-7 heavy tank.
Although impressive in firepower (in addition to its heavy gun, it had an assisting semi-autoloader) and armor, it was understandably and justifiably cancelled for being too heavy, clunky, and complex. The final Soviet heavy tank would be the T-10.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.