Review: Flashpoint Russia|Russia’s Air Power: Capabilities and Structure

Some books are harder to review than others, and Flashpoint Russia (ISBN 978-0-9973092-7-0) is one of them. It’s Piotr Butowski. On modern Russian military aviation. What more do you really need to know?

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Okay, I realise this might not answer all your questions, so let’s dig into further detail.

This isn’t the first Harpia Publishing volume written by Butowski. I reviewed his books on their aircraft and air-launched weapons, and they are still my go-to references for anything related to the Russian Air Force equipment. However, when writing about the capabilities of the Russian Air Force (as well as Naval Aviation), knowing their equipment is just half the story. The other question is what the order of battle looks like, something that up until now largely has been a case of piecing together different sources and news stories. This is where Butowski’s latest steps in.

The book does start with a short overview of the history of the Russian military aviation post-Cold War, but it swiftly moves on to the main purpose of the book: a complete and well-researched order of battle for not only the Russian Air Force, but the Naval Aviation and the (limited) aviation assets of the three para-military services of the Federal National Guard Service (Rosgvardia), the Federal Security Service (FSB), and the Federal Guard Service (FSO). It should be noted that this means that all military and paramilitary aviation assets available to the Russian state are included, a big benefit for anyone analyzing the overall Russian capabilities. It must be said that given the relatively limited number of pages, the total stands at 142, it is a serious amount of information that Butowski has been able to cram into the book. Missing are however the civilian authorities that would be requested to assist the state, such as the aviation assets of EMERCOM and the Federal Customs Service.

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This isn’t a book for the keen scale modeler looking for walk-arounds of aircraft or numerous colour-profiles. Granted, the book does feature the abundance of high-quality pictures we’ve come to expect form Harpia, but it is a book you get for the text and the maps. The detailed information on regiment-level units is a treasure trove for anyone trying to understand what kinds of capabilities Russia are able to bring to any part of their vast country. It even include details such as the fact that the 3rd Independent Reconnaissance Aviation Squadron (3 ORAE) at Varfolomeyevka (commanded by Lt.Col. Sergey Nomokonov) has around 20 unservicable aircraft at their base! Perhaps the one minor gripe I have is that when discussing the traditions of the units, sometimes there are mentions of details such as “the renowed 3 IAP regiment”. At these times, I would appreciate if half a sentence had been dedicated to explaining why the 3 IAP is famous? But it is a minor issue.

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An interesting part is also the look at military aircraft acquisitions post-2000, that gets its own chapter towards the end of the book. Together with the overview of the structural and command changes in the early parts of the book, these ensure that the reader understands the detailed order of battle descriptions, as these provide a good framework for the main text.

The book is directed towards a niche readership, but so is this blog, so I have no issues highly recommending it! After all – It’s Piotr Butowski. On modern Russian military aviation. What more do you really need to know?

The review sample was received for free from Harpia Publishing for review purposes.

Review: Modern Chinese Warplanes – Chinese Army Aviation – Aircraft and Units

In December last year I reviewed two Harpia books, the publisher’s sister volumes on the current state of Chinese Air Force and Naval Aviation. I then commented that “the role of Army Aviation is never quite explained, and I was left somewhat wondering what exactly they do, and how it differs from the rotary-winged units of the Air Force. I can only assume this would have been clearer if all three volumes had been read together.” This spring the third volume was released (ISBN 978-0-9973092-8-7), and it did indeed clear things up.

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The basic premise of the book is rather similar to the two earlier volumes, dealing first with the history and current trends of the force as a whole, briefly describing the markings and serial number system, then going through the platforms (aircrafts, helicopters, and UAVs) and weapons used, before fielding a brief overview of the training syllabus. A complete overview of the PLA Army aviation order of battle the occupies the next 30 pages, before describing the aviation assets of the People’s Armed Police Force, and ending with two paragraphs on the enigmatic aviation units of the Border Defense Corps.

However, it isn’t just the status of the WIG-craft of the Border Defense Corps that is enigmatic, but on the whole the Chinese Army Aviation is rather secretive and mysterious. Here the book deviates strongly from many of the other Harpia books. Usually the offerings are the ultimate guides, but since the topic is so poorly documented the Army Aviation-volume in many places notes that different details are unconfirmed. The whole chapter on training syllabus for example is rather short, spanning just over two pages as “barely any hard data is available”.

This will naturally come down to personal preference, but in my opinion when an acknowledged expert such as Rupprecht gives his best understanding of a topic, and crucially is open with where the line between confirmed and unconfirmed details run, I will gladly take that over having a book half as thick dealing only with confirmed facts.

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I will admit that I have a soft spot for Chinese aviation, with their unique and sometimes strange (at least for someone used to Western doctrines) solutions. I mean, who else create a dedicated short-range air-to-air missile for helicopter-to-helicopter combat? And then load up eight on a light transport? As such I did find it a very enjoyable read. While the OOB-chapter certainly is of great value to many analysts, I personally find the equipment chapters to be the most interesting. I was naturally happy to find that the helicopter chapter was dealing with the systems in more depth, partly because the book was “probably” the first ever to deal with the topic, as the author put it. For anyone having a problem recognising their Z-8WJ from their Z-8G, this is the book to get.

Otherwise there actually isn’t much to say. The quality of the book, including the glue binding, is top-notch as always with Harpia. Pictures and illustrations are in colour and excellent as usual. You might not get the definitive monograph as usually is the case with Harpia, but that will be the case with anything written on the topic due to the level of operational security surrounding the Chinese Army Aviation. This is still the book to get if you are interested in the topic, and highly recommended for anyone interested in Chinese helicopters and UAVs.

The book was kindly sent to me free of charge by Harpia for review.

Review: Modern Chinese Warplanes – Chinese Air Force & Naval Aviation

Harpia is doing an update for their Modern Chinese Warplanes-book, something which is certainly needed, considering how things have changed during the last six years. The update also splits the original into several volumes according to branch. The Naval Aviation volume came out during the spring, while the Air Force one is hot off the printers. Army Aviation will then follow in April 2019.

From a Finnish (or even European viewpoint), China is largely a trading partner with a rather poor human rights record. Great power struggles in the Pacific and Thucydides traps are far away both geography-wise and psychologically. As such I will admit that my understanding of Chinese military aviation is rather limited, and the books filled a much needed void in my bookshelf.

In case anyone has missed it, China is rapidly starting to produce modern aircraft in a host of different classes, including both high-profile fighters such as the J-20 and lesser-known projects such as the Y-20 transport. On the other hand, the far-reaching organisational changes and updates to doctrine and training regimes during the last years are likely of even greater importance, and is only now (likely) reaching their final form. The books cover all of these aspects, including aircrafts currently in use (stretching from the An-2 derivative Nanchang Y-5 to the top-modern Chengdu J-20), weapons, doctrine, training curriculum, and last but not least an impressive full order of battle. The order of battle is likely the single most comprehensive and up-to-date one published in non-classified books, and explains both the current organisation as well as the roots it comes from.

As with all Harpia-books, the illustrations are of a very high-quality and (almost always) spot-on.

The big question is if the book is too up-to-date? Especially in the case of the Naval Aviation one, questions still remain which units exactly have been reformed and which are still awaiting change. Operational secrecy and increased internet censorship inside China means that information isn’t always easy to come by. Here as well Rupprecht does a good job, as his long experience with the topic gives him the ability to piece together the available snippets of information to create the bigger picture. Importantly, he also clearly indicates which parts are confirmed, which are unconfirmed, and where there are alternative theories and explanations.

The map of the Eastern Theatre Command Navy at the beginning of the Southern Theatre Command Navy-chapter.

But as always there is some room for improvement. The otherwise excellent maps of the areas of operation for the different theatre commands are placed after their respective chapters, leading to the slightly confusing situation where you’re reading about one theatre command while looking at a map of the bases of another one. Another issue is the appearance of the Army Aviation, which is briefly mentioned in a number of places, especially when discussing the Air Force helicopters in use. The role of Army Aviation is never quite explained, and I was left somewhat wondering what exactly they do, and how it differs from the rotary-winged units of the Air Force. I can only assume this would have been clearer if all three volumes had been read together. As it now stands (and as it would for some other China-rookie only getting a single volume) it all remains rather fuzzy, and I found myself wishing for a few sentences on how the lines are drawn between the three branches. A third issue was that in a handful of places I found myself struggling to get a picture of how exactly the designations had changed during development of aircrafts (this was especially the case with the UAVs), though to be honest I am unsure about to what extent the author is to be blamed, and to what extent the Chinese drone programs simply have been complex. As a counter-balance, the chapters on the rather confusing family of different Soviet/Russian and Chinese ‘FLANKER’-variants is simply the clearest and most straightforward one I’ve come across over the years, and a joy to read.

However, even if there are a few minor things I dislike or would have chosen to do otherwise had I been the editor, there’s no denying that this is yet another great addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in Chinese aviation. Personally I found greatest enjoyment in the descriptions of Chinese aircraft and airborne weaponry, but I certainly can see that anyone interested in developments in the South China Sea or potential Sino-Japanese clashes would find the OOB to be of even greater value. The books are also of the usual high-quality and hold up well to regular use (and abuse), and the illustrations include both a large number of colour photographs of high-quality as well as the excellent maps and tables which one has come to expect from Harpia. Note that the differences in size of the aviation arms are reflected in the books, as the Air Force one is considerably longer at 240 pages compared to 96 for the Naval Aviation.

Recommended.

The books were provided free of charge by Harpia for review. The ISBN numbers are 978-0-9973092-6-3 for the Air Force and 978-0-9973092-5-6 for Naval Aviation.

Review: Höstsol & Höstregn

Prominent Swedish blogger Lars Wilderäng (Cornucopia?) made something of a splash amongst the Swedish defence community when he released his first novel Midvintermörker in 2011, widely hailed as the best Swedish techno-thriller since the Cold War. This was followed by the final part of the two-book series, before Wilderäng temporarily left near-future wars for other topics. Last year he finally returned to the battlefield with the book Höstsol (ISBN 9789176795439), which received it’s finale earlier this year with Höstregn (ISBN 9789176795842).

As with the earlier series, the books describe how an escalating crisis eventually evolves into war, and how the Swedish Defence Forces and general society respond to the challenge. In typical Clancyesque fashion the narrative follow a number of persons at different positions whose lives are affected by the war in one way or the other. The characters enter and exit the story throughout in varied fashions, and with the exception of a handful of the main cast most remain rather flat to the reader. The decision is understandable, this is a story about a major war, and to try and tell too many stories in-depth at once would quickly have made the books twice as thick as they are. Less well-developed side-characters feels like a fair trade-off to keep the number of pages manageable.

More disturbing is that especially in Höstsol a number of characters feel somewhat dumbed down. Yes Pjotr, you already mentioned that the whole of Gayropa is occupied by fascists, there’s no need to reiterate it at every turn. The portrayal of Swedish media is also a bit over the top in my personal view. These are largely the same issues that I disliked the most about Midvintermörker’s finale Midsommargryning, and they are especially tiresome as Wilderäng clearly is capable of writing interesting characters, Misja and major Bergäng being prime examples.

But to be honest these aren’t books read for the depths of the character gallery, but for the vivid portrayal of how a modern society copes with war, and for possible scenarios leading up to one. While not the first one to raise the topic, Midvintermörker was likely the single most important factor in popularising the ‘Gotland-scenario’, and in the same way Höstsol creates an interesting and plausible scenario for how a crisis involving Sweden could come about. Most fascinating here is the work performed to mask the beginning operations as something other than war, and while I won’t go into details to avoid spoilers, Höstsol’s strength lies largely in the questions raised around the politics and how ‘hybrid’ scenarios could be adopted to a Swedish context.

If much of Höstsol is a slow build-up to disaster, by Höstregn the reader is already in a full-blown shooting war. While the policy questions and study of international relations might not be as interesting, the quicker pace of Wilderäng’s war story makes the book the more enjoyable one from a thriller point of view. Still, there’s really no use in treating the books as two independent works, as the story is a direct continuation to the point that they need to be read together.

I am somewhat torn about my final verdict. I still feel that Midvintermörker is Wilderäng’s strongest foray into the techno-thriller genre, but Höstsol is (by now at least) considerably more thought-provoking from a national security point of view. There is a tendency in both Finland and Sweden to have a rather sharply defined view of what wars are and how they start, and Wilderäng’s latest works serve as (enjoyable) reminders that by now we should have learned to expect the unexpected when it comes to Russian military planning.

Recommended.

Review: The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Attacks on The United States

“Cassandra cried, and curs’d th’ unhappy hour;
Foretold our fate; but, by the god’s decree,
All heard, and none believ’d the prophecy.”
Aeneid 2.323

Jeffrey Lewis is something as rare as an arms control rockstar, sporting not only knowledge of his niche field, but sharing it primed with one-liners such as his (in)famous ‘goat rodeo‘-analysis of the US-North Korea relationship. Recently Lewis released his first work of fiction. Unsurprisingly, it is about a nuclear war with North Korea.

2020 cover

The book, described as a “speculative novel”, has an interesting format in that it is written in the form a government commission report issued a few years after the events it deals with. This avoids the classic ‘non-fiction writer writing fiction’-trap of a subject matter expert actually not being that great at writing fiction, thereby dispensing with the need for a ghost writer. With that said, the book was not overtly dry in style, being on the more flowing end of the government report spectrum.

The fact that the synopsis of the book is given in the introduction makes it a somewhat strange read. Like Cassandra in the opening quote of this review, the reader knows that things are going to turn bad, and can only watch as the actors (more than a handful of which are real-world politicians) happily stumble on towards the disaster. The attention to detail (including the baseball cap) adds to the non-fiction feel. A large number of real-world events from history have also been ‘reskinned’ and brought into the story. For the (amateur) historian some are immediately recognisable, while others are more obscure. The combination of current-day details and past episodes provide a strong case for that while this might be a nightmare, there’s really nothing in that promises that it will remain that way. And while the plot of the book is a nightmare leaving millions dead, it isn’t your worst one.

The plot covers what is usually referred to as a limited nuclear exchange. There is no extinction event, no mutually assured destruction, just a couple of guys who aren’t deterred by what was supposed to be the ultimate deterrence weapon. Worse outcomes are hinted at, but the fact that the story never evolves into a full-blown apocalypse means that it is still possible to somehow grasp the huge amount of human suffering that even a limited nuclear exchange would cause. The decision not to invoke mutually assured destruction is one of the keys to why the book manages to hold the reader’s interest the way it does.

The basic premises of the book likely doesn’t come as a surprise for followers of Lewis’ writing or the Arms Control Podcast. This issue also hints at the single major flaw of the book, namely that it is likely that it is preaching to the choir. That is no fault of the author, nor of the book he has written. However, as the issue of the North Korean nuclear program is so closely associated with Trump, it seems impossible for the plot to be judged on its own merits and credibility. Nor will it likely be picked up by the people that would benefit the most from reading it. That’s a shame, as The 2020 Commission Report deserves a fair chance as a warning for our particular time. Let’s just hope Lewis doesn’t turn into a modern-day Cassandra.

Review: Genombrottet – Operation Cerberus, 1942

The twin battlecruisers (or battleships) of the Scharnhorst-class are amongst the most fascinating warships built during the 20th century. The graceful lines hide the fact that the vessels were built with full battleship armour, and I still have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that the vessels displacing over 30,000 tons were capable of reaching speeds above 30 knots. From an engineering viewpoint, they were simply astonishing, the very more so considering the limited experience of designing and building modern capital ships the German yards had when they were launched.

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Still, their operational service wasn’t quite as spectacular, most of the time being spent in port. It is telling that one of the more important episodes was the channel dash, in which the two vessels together with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen (famous for making the battleship Bismarck company on its sole major operation) sprinted from Brest through the English channel and back to Germany. The strategic retreat was a stunning success in the short term, but also effectively removed the threat from surface units to the allied transatlantic convoys.

When I first opened Genombrottet (Swedish for “Breakthrough”) the channel dash was not new to me. However, my understanding of Unternehmen Zerberus as it was known to the Germans, was limited to the handful of sentences usually dedicated to the operation in books covering the broader naval war or air operations over the channel. In short, I believed that the operation simply constituted of the German flotilla setting sail in broad daylight and sprinted through the channel without any major obstacle other than Royal Navy and the RAF, and as these failed to put up any serious resistance it wasn’t really all that complicated in the end.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I had not realised that the navigation in itself was a major obstacle due to the strong tides and shifting sand banks. I also hadn’t quite grasped how substantial the mining of the area by both sides was. And lastly, I had no idea how well-informed the British forces were with regards to the German intentions.

Combined these factors means that the operation was a complex undertaking, with both sides sporting several moving pieces which the commanders tried to manage, more or less successfully. This provides for a fascinating story, where seemingly small issues have major effects on the outcome of the operation. If ever there was a textbook case regarding how frictions work in a military settings and why joint operations are hard to manage, it is Cerberus.

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Handley Page Halifaxes of No. 35 Squadron RAF bombing the dry-docks at Brest, France, mere months before the breakthrough. Source: IWM via Wikimedia Commons

The account is gripping, and is being retold from numerous different angles. Some of these are based upon interviews made by the authors of surviving veterans, others are pieced together from numerous first- and second-hand sources. The book reads like a novel, with the real persons involved having dialogues and thinking the occasional non-plot related thought. Being able to follow the daring operation as its plays out, blow by blow, it is hard not to be caught up in the excitement, even as the general outcome is known to the reader. The fact that the moves and countermoves are described from their initiation also means that the reader gets an understanding of the significant work going into what eventually becomes a couple of minutes worth of actual combat in any of the skirmishes taking place along the route. This makes it possible to understand not only the ‘how’ of the operation, but also the ‘why’ behind the events that shaped it.

I am a bit torn about the narrative perspective. It certainly makes the book easy to read and enjoyable, even for those not familiar with naval warfare in the Second World War. However, I am a history nerd, and I do prefer a somewhat ‘drier’ style of storytelling, where solely the known record is laid out. Objectively, there is nothing wrong with the writing of Genombrottet, it is usually possible to tell simply from the scenes where the line between fact and storytelling goes, and in the few unclear cases it is explained in the footnotes. Genombrottet is certainly non-fiction (as opposed to historical fiction), and I want to be clear that my main issue with it comes down to preferences of style rather than any fault of the book.

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Gneisenau showing the sleek lines of the class. Source: Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons

In the end, the book is highly recommended. Both writers have good knowledge of the subject, with Tamelander having written numerous books about WWII, including Bismarck about the battleship’s fateful journey, and Hård af Segerstad is an active duty naval officer. The duo has earlier produced a book about the german submarine force in WWII, Havets vargar.

Review: EMB-314 Super Tucano – Brazil’s turboprop success story continues

The toucan is back! Now sporting a Canadian turboprop and significant combat potential.

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As was the case with the original EMB-312 Tucano which was followed by the EMB-314 Super Tucano, Harpia Publishing’s volume on the Tucano is followed by a volume on the Super Tucano.

Compared to the first generation Tucano which was a trainer with secondary light attack capability, the Super Tucano is quite a different beast, sporting wing-mounted heavy machine guns and quite a bit sportier performance in effect making it a light attack aircraft also being able to function as an advanced trainer. After it’s introduction in Brazilian service where it replaced the Tucano in both the advanced training role and for combat operations over the Amazonas, it has went on to generate significant interest around the world amongst countries looking for a cheap aircraft for COIN or the air surveillance mission. In the later role, the aircraft has already scored a number of air-to-air kills against light aircraft operated by smugglers refusing to obey instructions, while both FARC and islamist insurgents in Africa and Afghanistan have been on the receiving end of the Super Tucanos ground-attack capability. Another interesting version is the Chilean modification in which they have fitted a third multi-function display, to effectively create a cheap lead-in trainer for the country’s F-16’s.

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The book follows the same pattern as the original one, starting with discussions on a number of different concepts for a high-performance combat derivative of the Tucano. After this follows the development of the eventual EMB-314 Super Tucano, and entry into Brazilian service. This includes both training, air display team, as well as combat operations in the jungle. Following this the export customers are discussed in alphabetic order, until the book ends with the current US OA-X light attack competition.

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The book is a real gem. I liked the original book, and I absolutely love this one! The original had some issues with the proofreading and editing, but I am glad to say that this one is both well-written and -edited. The colour artwork is also extremely nice, and include quite a number of striking paint schemes, from both Brazil and abroad, some of which are displayed with typical armament. While most are sideprofiles only, a single Afghan aircraft is displayed in a four-view colour profile. It’s also an excellent modeller’s reference, not only thanks to the large amount of colour photographs and profiles, but especially thanks to detailed discussions about differences between operators (whose got which radio set mounted, what armaments is used, are there bolt-on armour, …). A small omission is that as several of the weapons carried are rather exotic to the non-Brazilian reader used to always reading about the same variety of GBU’s and Sidewinders, a short section describing the properties of the different weapons in the arsenal would have been nice.

One of the very few editorial issues I found: a series of red semicolons. A mildly amusing flaw rather than a real nuisance.

The biggest downside is that the book is too contemporary. Compared to the EMB-312 book’s 256 pages, this one comes in at just under 100 pages. This is only natural, considering the much longer history of the former aircraft, but the fact that the Super Tucano very much is a contemporary product also means that already has there been deliveries which aren’t covered in the book. OA-X which has the potential to be a huge gamechanger for the EMB-314 is also an ongoing project, ending the book on something of a real-world cliffhanger. Still, if I can choose between getting this book now and not waiting a decade or two for the “ultimate volume”, I won’t think twice about it. The book includes lots of interesting details, and I will likely return to re-read a number of chapters in the not too distant future.

Highly recommended!

The book was kindly provided for review by Harpia Publishing.