Tank Losses

The Soviet calculations for tank losses in a World War III were incredibly high by the standards of “smaller” wars, around the level of each front losing 6-15% of its tanks every day (and even more when facing either nuclear or advanced smart weapons)[1]. Interestingly, their theorized APC/BMP loss rates were substantially lower despite thinner armor. This probably has to do with tanks leading the attack and thus being more likely to hit minefields and the like, as well as being the first targets.

“Loss” does not necessarily mean “permanently destroyed”, and one of the crucial determinants is who holds the battlefield, since that can turn a knocked-out but repairable tank into a permanent loss.

Still, even the best-case scenario still involved more than a division worth of tanks being knocked out each day, and this in a period where the Soviet advantage over NATO was arguably never greater.

 

[1]See “Generic Enemy: Mobile Forces Part 1, Operational Art And Tactical Doctrine”, pg. 11-18, par. 1141, “The Front Offensive Operation, CIA/DO Intelligence Information Special Report, 15 June 1979“, pg. 316, and “Front Offensive Operations“, pg. 369”.

Review: The Black Effect

The Black Effect

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Harvey Black’s The Black Effect is the kind of book I thought I’d be reviewing en masse on this blog, at least in terms of basic plot. Namely, in 198_ World War III breaks out. Cue a lot of tanks exploding. This is the second book in Black’s _____ Effect series, and the first I reviewed at Sea Lion Press before this blog even started.

The Black Effect is what I feared Team Yankee would be before being pleasantly surprised.  It’s a mostly-conventional 198X WW3 book that happens to be a picture-perfect case for why a bowl of ingredients does not equal a meal.

Some of the individual ingredients (battle scenes) in the novel are good, if repetitive. Others are weighed down by things like Black constantly listing the full designations of every piece of equipment in overwhelming detail (fog of war? target fixation? Limited viewpoints? What are those?). But as a whole the book just amounts to a disorganized parade of various pieces of military equipment and graphene-thin Steel Panthers Characters differing only in what they’re crewing and how much ‘camera time’ that they get before being blown up.

There is an almost total lack of anything cohesive or coherent beyond “WW3 stuff happens”. It gets to the point where the intelligence photographers who were the high point of the previous installment turn into just another pace-breaking liability. This at least doesn’t have The Red Effect’s using up nearly all of its space on historical events with names badly changed (ie, Stanislav Petrov became “Perov”) before rushing to stuff a bunch of battles into the last thirty pages.

The Black Effect isn’t all bad. It’s more evenhanded than a lot of WWIII stories, it being written as an alternate history with decades of hindsight helps with some (but not all) technical accuracy issues, and it works at providing simple action scenes. It’s just I’ve read better, even in this very specific subgenre.

Review: Soldier of Gideon

Soldier of Gideon

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The Casca series takes its path to the Arab-Israeli wars hinted at in the first book. Soldier of Gideon is a “modern” Casca, as opposed to the ancient Cascas. Taking place in the Six Day War, it’s typical of later Cascas-formulaic but good.

The action-packed book is in this kind of particular subgenre of war story that’s more gory and grisly than a John Wayne-style sanitized work, but still far more over the top and spectacular than a truly grounded novel. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s interesting.

(Sidenote: For whatever reason, historical war fiction isn’t usually my cup of tea. I’ve read good examples, but it just doesn’t grab me the way action-adventure or even technothrillers do. That being said, I have read enough to tell which slot Soldier of Gideon fell into)

The Arab armies seem to use primarily western equipment (to the extent that only Jordan did in the historical war)  with a few IS-3 tanks thrown in as level bosses challenging encounters. Casca and friends go to every theater of the war. In the process, Sadler demonstrated both his greatest strength and greatest weakness as the series dragged on.

The greatest strength is managing to maintain dramatic tension and fluid excitement in a story that features A: A historically decisive blowout victory, and B: An immortal protagonist. This is no easy task, and it’s a sign of Sadler’s proficiency that Casca never devolves into the “unironic One Punch Man” that it could have.

However, the other side of the coin is the almost complete lack of interest in using the immortal protagonist who’s lived for thousands of years, met every important Eurasian historical figure in that time, and is linked personally to Christianity as anything but a placeholder to build period pieces around. While cheap thrillers like these aren’t philosophical works, the wasted potential is still very high.

That said, as cheap thrillers, the Casca books still work, and work well.

 

Review: The Saudi-Iranian War

The Saudi-Iranian War

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As my first Command LIVE scenario was a conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, when I saw Ted Halstead’s The Saudi-Iranian War, I knew I had to check it out. I was sadly disappointed.

The Saudi-Iranian War is a technothriller through and through. Not only does it depict a military conflict with jumping viewpoints at all levels, but it does so through the lens of technological spectacle. It reads like a cargo-culted classic technothriller that manages to have even less of a human element than the stereotype would predict.

Halstead takes us on an all-tution paid semester in Rivets 205 at tem wur cool leg. The book just starts with character after character after character saying what they’re going to be doing, along with such important DEEP HISTORY details as the horsepower of a jeep’s engine. It’s the worst kind of knowledge-detail, the kind that goes “I know [or looked up] the exact designation of a Scud TEL, so I’ll write it out”, rather than leveraging any of it into making an actually better story.

The early part of this is rote description, metaphorical conference room scenes, and literal conference room scenes. It’s about as exciting as it sounds.

Halfway into the book, the “action” finally starts. If, by action one means “there’s descriptions of tanks, followed by descriptions of tanks firing, with a description of the exact shell [ie, M829A2] the tank fired.” Not only are the large battles treated purely as deterministic clashes of military hardware, but they’re also dull to the point where I’ve read more melodramatic Let’s Plays/AARs of various wargames. The smaller scale “cloak and dagger” stuff is also not ideal, but even it’s still better than the big battles.

Perhaps the most disappointing part is the setup. Iran hopes to defeat Saudi Arabia via a series of technothriller set pieces. Everything just feels like it’s one isolated, stilted technothriller set piece after another instead of anything that seems like it’s genuinely flowing. The tanks are a technothriller set piece. The aircraft are a technothriller set piece. The WMDs are a technothriller set piece. Not helping matters for a story so centered around military equipment is said equipment being a mix of “The Wikipedia page for Saudi and Iranian equipment”, plus a few shoved-in ‘exotics’ like T-14 Armatas and J-20s.

I’d recommend something like Raven One for a modern technothriller where an Iran with an expanded arsenal is the opponent. The Saudi-Iranian War just feels like a rote, box-checking IKEA Technothriller that has far more of the genre’s bad parts than its good ones.

 

Review: Steel Gauntlet

Steel Gauntlet

Steel Gauntlet is Starfist at its most cheesy ridiculous. Take the MARINE FIGHTING MAN bias and add a bunch of other hangups and you get this book.

Who and What

So, the MARINES are sent to deal with a power struggle where Space Corporate Saddam Stand-In Marston St. Cyr has rebuilt an army of ancient, previously forgotten vehicles called “tanks” and used them to seize total control of a resource-rich world. Once they get past the weasely politicians and non-MARINES, the MARINES have to fight a giant tank army. And I use the term “tank army” literally.

You have the MARINES, the non-MARINE weasels, the puppy cute space pet-kicking (literally) supervillain, the damsel in distress.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

There are more than a few infodumps here, and not just of the “MARINES awesome, other branches bad” variety. The infodumps about the past of armored warfare in-universe are particularly cringeworthy-especially since I detected an author rant at more than one point.

Basically, tanks never tried to counter increasingly penetrative ATGMs through indirect means (active protection systems, jammers, or just better tactics), instead plopping armor on until the “M1D7” reached 360 tons, twice as much as the infamously unworkable Maus. It could barely move and the “Straight Arrow” anti-tank thingies smashed it anyway. Although in what I hope was a typo, the “Straight Arrow’s” stated penetration value is equal or less than second-tier Cold War ATGMs like the Dragon and Metis.

So tanks went bye-bye, until now. Now having to face “new” tanks, these centuries-old weapons (which are infodumped as having a guidance system, but are treated as ordinary bazookas in-practice) are reverse-engineered, so it’s like fighting people wearing armor with reverse-engineered big muskets.

Zombie Sorceresses

Well, the contrivances run very high here. The MARINE FIGHTING MEN have to face challenges, but the enemy has to behave in a way that doesn’t actually diminish the MARINE FIGHTING MEN. There’s a lot of “Oh look how much danger they’re in” statements that don’t sound credible, to put it mildly.

Tank Booms

There are lots of tanks booming. Their guns boom, and they boom when they explode. In the category of literal tank booms, this book has even Team Yankee or Tin Soldiers beat.

The action is not bad, but most of the first three-quarters of the book involve MARINE FIGHTING MEN destroying unsupported tank formations. The enemy artillery is stuff mounted on tanks, the enemy “infantry” is mentioned as dismounted tank crewmen (who still fall victim to our heroes as easily as their rides do), and the enemy tanks are prey for the MARINES. There’s a ridiculous “copy an amphibious landing with hovercraft” scene at the start which just seems redundant given that they’re landing from space.

The gap between theoretical and actually perceived danger is very big in this book. There’s lots of “Oh no, the undersupported MARINES are facing enemy reinforcements” statements, but almost every battle is just them hitting badly-handled tank-pure formations and wrecking them.

Then (after yet another swipe at the non-MARINE branches), the final act consists of a cloak and dagger plot and chasing Space Corporate Saddam Stand-In Marston St. Cyr himself through the mining tunnels. Here it declines a bit, as the axe-grinding combat gives way to simply decent-ish cheap thriller action.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This is one of the highlights of the Starfist series. Seeing MARINES battle a strawman distorted tank force makes for a delightfully laughable tale. The tropes tip over into unintentional cheesy fun, and the book is all the better for it, helped by better fundamentals than the Starfist series sometimes has.

It moves so far so earnestly that I somehow enjoy it.

 

Review: Battle Front (USA VS Militia)

Ian Slater’s Battle Front spun the 90s Technothriller Opponent Selector Wheel and it landed on “Militias”. While Slater has written some proper World War III novels, this is my first introduction  to him.

Who and What

Now, it wasn’t until sometime in that I found out this was one of the middle books in a five-book series. That explained some of the confusion, but I wasn’t that lost before. There is a Second American Civil War between the federal government and right-wing militias who are both cartoonishly racist puppy kickers and far more competent than they would have any right to be. On the federal government’s side is main character General Mary Sue-I mean, Douglas Freeman.

Now, the book kind of rambles and jumps around, but what was interesting (and good) to me was how it didn’t feel like an axe-grinding polemic. Nor did it feel like a parody either. It takes this crazy setup and plays it completely, sometimes boringly straight. Normally I’d praise a book for not being too political, but it just feels strange. Maybe it’s that the non-American Slater didn’t have a feel for American politics, but that doesn’t explain all of it.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

The book can get kind of infodumpy and it never seems to enter full gritty story mode. Furthermore, a lot of the infodumps are strange and frequently inaccurate (for example, one used ‘TOW’ as a generic term for anti-tank rounds. Not even missiles, rounds).

Zombie Sorceresses

The zombie sorceresses made American militias number in the hundreds of thousands, be unified, and be competent. The latter part required the most zombie sorceress intervention.

Tank Booms

The action is mostly dull and somewhat infodumpy, but it gets the occasional ridiculous moment, like how the evil militia are preternaturally competent (to drive the plot) and the ridiculous stuff like over-effective reactive armor (except it’s described as if it was inert add-on armor) on pickup trucks.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This book is about 5-10% crazy goofy, and about 90-95% dull tedium. Yet I’m a sucker for even a little bit of crazy goofiness. A lot of other readers might not be.

Review: Proud Legions

Proud Legions

Proud Legions is a book featuring another Korean War, the second of two feared “major theater war” locations in the 1991-2001 period. Its author, John Antal, had written several “choose-your-own-COA” ones beforehand and composed extensively for Armor Magazine. That combined with his own tank experience in South Korea made me eager for the book. I instantly thought of comparisons to Tin Soldiers, another armor-veteran composed book that ranks as one of my favorite post-1991 thrillers. How would it stack up?

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We get the usual supervillain opponents and the usual equalizer gimmicks-in this case, super-EW that scrambles all the high-tech doodads and “S-300s”. The action also hops around between a lot of viewpoint characters, but no worse than other technothrillers.

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I was reminded a lot of Team Yankee here. Normally this would be a very good thing, as Team Yankee is one of my favorite cheap thrillers of all time. However, this reminded me of one of the weaker parts of Team Yankee. Namely, the “Herman Melville for tanks” part complete with long detailed descriptions of what a tank unit commander would do, followed by a map illustrating the action-to-come in case we missed it.

And while it can get overly detailed in places, it can also get vague and/or inaccurate. For instance, part of its explanation for the lack of air power is the North Koreans having a huge number of “S-300” missile systems, something they have only acquired recently in real life. The problem wasn’t that they got them earlier, it was that they were treated like tactical systems running with the field forces instead of the operational/strategic ones they are.

They come across as being treated like SA-6/11/17 style battlefield SAMs from their description. While not that big a deal, I still noticed it.

Zombie Sorceresses

For most of the book, the zombie sorceresses don’t need to work beyond the usual limits of the genre. Yes, the foes are abnormally belligerent, yes, their scramblers potentially work a little too well. But both of those are easily justifiable for literary reasons.

What I felt was the most contrived part of the book had to do with the protagonists. Antal seemed to be working harder than ever to make the hero and his unit supremely (and probably unrealistically) relevant. This was especially true of the climax, where plotnukes are the least of its problems.

The “Wha?”

The characters and plot are serviceable by cheap thriller standards. I didn’t get much of a feeling out of them, but I wasn’t expecting to. The action on the other hand, is both good and problematic.

The good part is that it’s fast-paced and visceral. There bad parts start with it possibly being a little too gory for its own good. This isn’t to deny that war is brutal and gory, it’s just that I found the contradictions between “gore, grime, and oh this is horrible” and “look at the Abrams go! It made a company of BMPs go boom boom!” a little jarring.

A bigger one is straining to make a battalion of M1A2s more relevant by itself to the conflict as a whole than it probably would be. Team Yankee, however (over?)effective its protagonists were, was not trying to have a single company win World War III on its own. In Tin Soldiers, the “it’s all we got” protagonist force felt at least somewhat more justified in being decisive. So they’re at the main junction to prevent a super-breakthrough.

And-they perform a leadership strike at the end. It’s not “they went all the way up to Pyongyang.” It’s “The marshal of the North Korean army, who’s staged the coup and started the war, has moved south to take personal command of the decisive battle, and they’re there to fight against him.”

What makes this still more problematic is the location. Tin Soldiers was in perfect tank country against a mechanized opponent that had just a bit of effects. This is in more closed terrain against a lesser-equipped enemy. Seeing them deal with constant masses of infantry and artillery in an asymmetric battle would be more interesting than the (realistic, if better-case) scenario in the actual book where they smash up an enemy tank brigade that has far inferior equipment, but then that one battalion wouldn’t be as decisive as Antal clearly wanted it to be.

Having spent four paragraphs criticizing the action, I want to end this section on a more positive note. When there is close-in-infantry action, as opposed to the plot-action or Abrams’ destroying everything, it’s written very well. I especially liked a scene where someone in command of dozens of the most powerful armored vehicles still has to fight with a pistol at one point. It’s actually realistic-one time the colonel commanding a “Thunder Run” into Baghdad in the 2003 Iraq War had to do just that.

The Only Score that Really Matters

I’m being harder on this book than it deserves. It’s still a good read for anyone who wants a tank-exploding cheap thriller. The problem is that my expectations were higher than they probably ought to have been. There was Antal’s pedigree as a nonfiction tank writer, and I think that both it and the effectiveness of other novels by people with similar-but-lesser credentials made me think it’d be better.

It’s still readable, good for a first prose novel, and by the standards of cheap thrillers overall is effective. But it has issues, and those issues aren’t just that Harold Coyle and Michael Farmer left some big shoes to fill.

 

Review: Line of Control

I decided to go on a hunt for new thrillers. By chance when looking them up, I found Line of Control by Mainak Dhar, where after coups in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, they ally to reheat the conflict with India. This was an Indian technothriller. I was intrigued.

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Dhar has read his classics, and it shows. After a few chapters, the structure is very clear to anyone who’s read Clancy, Bond, or the like. I was reminded more of Larry Bond than anyone else. I think it was because Dhar, unlike more specialized authors, went all the way from infantry to air and naval crews to spies to leaders.

Although I will say this- in one very crucial way, Dhar manages better than Bond. Much better.

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Of course, with the classic inspiration comes the classic drawback. Sometimes, especially in air-to-air combat, the listing of exact numbers and ranges gets a little too high. It isn’t the absolute worst, and it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the novel as a whole, but it’s there and it grated a little.

One silver lining is how the setting of the book allows for considerable novelty in terms of equipment without being contrived in the least. The protagonists are using largely Soviet/Russian systems, while the antagonists are using mainly American ones, with F-15s as their secret techno-weapons.

Zombie Sorceresses

I didn’t really feel that much “zombie sorceress” contrivance in the book. It existed, but never truly beyond the norm for the technothriller genre as a whole. When one of the biggest issues apart from the belligerency of the antagonists (which is part and parcel of the whole genre) is “they found enough irregulars to launch a corps-sized conventional attack”, it’s pretty good.

A lot of it I think has to do with the setting. When you have two real-world enemies that are much closer in power as-is, I don’t think you need nearly the amount of contrivances or “equalizers” that occur in a post-1991 technothriller with the US as the protagonist country.

And then there’s dealing with the nuclear weapons. But that’s done in a literary way that made me excuse anything.

The “Wha?”

On one hand, this has the usual thriller tropes. It has lots of viewpoint characters, perhaps a few too many. It has lots of subplots, bouncing around a little too much. The characters are stock thriller ones.

And yet, it never felt like Dhar put a character in without a purpose he intended for them. There may have been a few too many subplots, but there’s just enough characters to fill those plots without being excessive. Furthermore, Dhar handled a very, very difficult issue for technothrillers in an effective way.

Dhar takes the “stop the nukes” plot and makes it the final climax of the book. He doesn’t brush past them with a handwave. And he doesn’t do what Larry Bond did in Cauldron and just remove them with a super-counterforce strike early in the book. There’s the conventional battle and then the fear of escalation. While I could nitpick the plausiblity of how it played out, it worked in literary terms.

The Only Score That Really Matters

I liked this book. It has infodumps, conference room infodumps, a buildup to something you know is going to happen, and other faults of the genre. But it also has the strengths of it, handles some elements very well, and has a setting that’s novel to a filthy Yankee like me.

I recommend it.

Review: Arc Light

Arc Light

Arc Light by Eric Harry is a good but uneven World War III tale. Even at its worst, it never dips below the genre median, and at its best it goes in a novel direction that takes a big concern head-on instead of sidestepping it. While this might seem (and is) praiseworthy, it left me wanting the whole story to be more consistently good.

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Arc Light has two “parts”. One is bold, the other cliche.

The first part is the nuclear war. This, for all my small quibbles, handles the defining weapon of the Cold War excellently. The initial strikes are described in massive detail, and the threat hangs uneasily for the rest of the book. Instead of either handwaving nukes aside altogether or, worse, dropping a few contrived “plotnukes” (Hackett’s Birmingham-Minsk exchange is a picture-pefect example), it launches a big but survivable nuclear “counterforce” strike while keeping the unease of follow-up strikes there.

The second part is a totally conventional military cheap thriller. It’s not outright bad or unreadable, but it has most of the genre tropes there. Multiple viewpoint characters (though, I will say, not too many), and worse, contrived, tinny political scenes that only serve to set up the action that everyone knew was coming anyway.

Rivets

The rivet-counting concerning the nukes is present and annoying. Annoying in the sense that they alternate between well-described horror of nuclear war and clinical, dull infodumps. A lot of the nuclear infodumps have the “I know what the formal name of a Scud TEL is” feeling, where it sounds like the author using the story to demonstrate what he knows instead of using what he knows to help make the story better. But, in an excample of how conflicted this book can be, they’re interspersed with genuinely gripping descriptions.

The rivet-counting concerning everything else is just irritating, especially when large battles and plot-progressing moments are told in nothing but infodumps.

Zombie Sorceresses

While I’m sure the zombie sorceresses were at work with the setup, the important part was that it didn’t feel as contrived as it had been. It has Russia as the opponent and its nuclear exchange dominates the book without being too big.

I’d say the biggest zombie sorceress intervention came in politics and the Americans invading Russia. But even that I forgave, for it was more novel.

The “Wha?”

This kind of wobbles a lot. The low-level soldiers are handled very well. The noncombatants are handled decently, at least in a well-intended way. Anything political turns into either infodumps or Larry Bond-wannabe “they set up what you knew what would happen” scenes.

Arc Light feels like it’s trying to tell a big Red Storm Rising-style story while using a fairly small number of viewpoint characters. The former is acceptable, and the latter to me is laudable. But what this means in practice is that a lot of the story is told in either infodumps or maps. It either needed more characters (which are not necessarily bad if handled well) or a smaller scope.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This takes the eccentricities of 90s techno-thrillers and manages to use them well. But it still could have been more. At times it feels like a gritty genre-amplifier and at times it feels like a routine Larry Bond knockoff.

It’s kind of befuddling. Arc Light will have a gritty infantry battle that has down and dirty bleeding and confusion, and then it will have a classic conference room infodump. It will show something with great skill-and then tell anyway. A giant tank battle is explained in an infodump.

But it still tries to move outside the narrow genre limits and mostly succeeds. In particular, it handles WMDs without them ever feeling like “plotnukes” there to just add a bit of cheap drama. It just could have used a little more focus and a lot less tinny politics.

Review: The Defense of Hill 781

The Defense of Hill 781

Time to start off October by reviewing an unconventional favorite of mine. Like many stories in its genre, The Defense of Hill 781 is nothing but an excuse to show tanks exploding. Unlike many stories in its genre, it accepts and embraces this as a form of Duffer’s Drift style ‘edutainment’.

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The book diverges from the formula by going right to the action and doing so in a form of various “learn from failure as well as success” vignettes following the classic Duffer’s Drift style formula. It’s not a conventional thriller or even a conventional story, and this works in its favor exactly.

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The Defense of Hill 781 has a lot of detail. However, in its specific context, it’s understandable and forgivable. This is meant as an instructional piece, and thus it needs to be detailed. So while the detail can be clunky, it’s not “I know how many wheels are on a Scud TEL and what the proper name of that TEL is.” It’s relevant to what needs to be taught.

Zombie Sorceresses

This book has the humorously named protagonist A. Tack Always thrown into a ‘real’ purgatory of the National Training Center to fight the infamous Krasnovian OPFOR. It is completely artificial and makes absolutely no pretensions of being anything else.

The “Wha?”

So The Defense Of Hill 781 does not have a conventional plot, nor does it have conventional non-lecturing characterization. What it does have is detailed yet visceral battles that redeem the lack of this.

Instead of robotic “Fifty T-62s and ten M60s were destroyed” infodumpy battles, you have the main character running around trying to find a radio after each of his comm sources is either jammed or outright destroyed. This grit and pain is what lets author James McDonough play to his strengths and make the lack of “fluff” a strength rather than a weakness.

The Only Score That Really Matters

The Defense of Hill 781 is one of those “either you like it or you don’t” books. If you want any kind of plot or characterization whatsoever, it’s no good. But if you want to see well-written battle scenes in training aid-level detail, and I did, this is a good tale that is completely without any extraneous fluff. It doesn’t always work, but it does here. This stands out of the pack as a unique and varied contribution to the 1980s mechanized combat genre.