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.

Review: Carrier Aviation in the 21st Century

Carrier aviation has always had a tendency to interest people. After all, flying aircraft of ships sounds crazy enough than one wouldn’t think it was a viable plan of operations if not for the very fact that a number of navies does so on a regular basis. Interestingly, quite a number of important changes have taken place when it comes to worldwide carrier operations in the last decade or so. This includes several new carriers being commissioned, and new aircrafts coming into service, making much of what is written on the subject out of date.

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Enter Harpia’s Carrier Aviation in the 21st Century – Aircraft carriers and their units in detail. The book goes through all navies currently sporting a commissioned carrier and fixed wing aircraft, and with “currently” that means the end of 2017. In short, the Royal Navy and Queen Elizabeth is included, but the Thai Navy is not following the retirement of their Harriers. Navies with more or less suitable ships but not having fixed wing aircraft, e.g. the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, are left out.

Readers can, and most likely will, have opinions about this line. Some will undoubtedly feel that it is a stretch to include Brazil considering the state of the NAe São Paulo (ex-Foch) or the Royal Navy considering that shipboard F-35 operations are yet to commence. Others will likely argue for a inclusion of a number of big-deck helicopter carriers and amphibious ships which arguably sport more shipbased aviation than some of the smaller ‘Harrier carriers’. Personally I would have liked to see some discussion around the feasibility of F-35B operations from a number of ships that have been speculated to be more or (usually) less ready to handle the V/STOL bird, such as the Japanese Izumo-class, the Australian Canberra-class, and the Dokdo-class of the ROKN. Still, I get that the line has to be drawn somewhere, and the basis of who’s included and who’s left out is clearly stated, which is nice.

One interesting feature of the book is that it puts the carriers and their aircraft into context. While chances are you have read a text or two about the INS Vikramaditya and its MiG-29K’s before, the book does not only (briefly) discuss the history of Indian naval aviation to put the latest program(s) into context, it also explains the contemporary doctrine and what role the carrier plays in today’s Indian armed forces, the likely composition of a carrier battlegroup, and not only lists but describes all embarked aviation units, fixed and rotary winged.

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More or less the same is the case with each and every country-specific chapter of the book. I say more or less, because every chapter is written by a country-specific expert (hence the ‘editor’ after Newdick’s name), and the setup and sub-headings vary slightly. While purists might find this irritating, I personally find it good that the authors have been given some leeway, as the unique situations in different navies are better served by getting more custom fit descriptions compared to being shoehorned into a ‘one size fits all’ template. I was a bit worried upon opening the book that the variances would be so big that the book wouldn’t feel like a coherent work, but having read it I don’t feel that is the case.

Over all the book is a very enjoyable read, though the Italy-chapter does suffer from the same kind of language-issues that I mentioned in my review of Harpia’s Tucano-book. However, I am also happy to say that the good points of the Tucano-book carries over as well. These include highly enjoyable pictures and top-notch full-colour illustrations, as well as excellent build-quality of the book. In fact, I am yet to manage to break any single one of my Harpia-books, and that include bringing an earlier review book along for a camping trip in the archipelago.

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The gorilla in the room when writing about carrier aviation worldwide is the completely outsized role of the US Navy. In short, the US Navy fields more and larger carriers and carrier air groups than the rest of the world together. How do you tackle this, without the book feeling unbalanced? The USN does indeed get a longer chapter than the rest of the countries. However, US carrier aviation is also remarkably homogeneous, being built around two clear templates: the Nimitz (and now Ford) with a carrier air wing and the smaller amphibious ships with their aviation elements, and the number of flying platforms has shrunk considerably compared to the classic cold war wings. This means that there is no need to give ten times the space for the USN compared to e.g. the French just because they have ten times the number of carriers. This makes the book feel balanced, and laid the last of my worries to rest. The sole issue I foresee is that developments in carrier aviation is moving rapidly in several countries at the moment (USA, UK, China, India, …), and that means that parts of the book run the risk of becoming outdated quite fast. Still, that will be the case with any book on the topic released during the next five to ten years (at least), and there is certainly enough ‘longlasting information’ to make sure that the package as a whole isn’t going anywhere soon.

Compared to the Tucano-review which I was very excited for, I was somewhat more lukewarm to the prospect of what felt like yet another carrier book. However, the book surprised me, and certainly grabbed my attention. The chapters are deep enough to include plenty new information to me, and of such a length that it is easy to pick up and read through a single chapter if you suddenly have a need for a quick rundown of the current status of Spanish carrier aviation (yes, such things do happen to me occasionally). Harpia’s telltale illustrations and tables are also found in abundance.

Highly recommended for anyone looking for an update of carrier aviation worldwide!

The book was kindly provided free of charge for review by Harpia Publishing.

Review: EMB-312 Tucano – Brazil’s turboprop success story

One of my avgeeky soft spots is high-performance turboprops, so when Harpia announced that they were doing a book on the Tucano, it immediately caught my attention.

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Today the idea might be considered rather mainstream, but when the Tucano was born it still took quite a bit of outside the box-thinking to go for the idea of a near-jet experience in a prop plane. It is this combination of daring can-do attitude from the company and designers coupled with the engineering ingenuity it took to make it all work that lies at the heart of why I like this class of aircraft. However, truth be told I knew preciously little about the Tucano, and even less of the backstory of how Brazil suddenly appeared as a recognised exporter of high-performance training and COIN aircraft.

João Paulo Zeitoun Moralez starts at the beginning, detailing how the idea of a Brazilian aviation industry was born, and how a small team of engineers started producing basic indigenous designs in parallel to license production. Then when the opportunity presented itself, Embraer was ready to push a brave new design for a sudden Brazilian training requirement. Interestingly enough, the book details how the aircraft evolved through multiple concepts, and the political game behind it. After this the subsequent marketing push and Brazilian service is described, before attention briefly turns to the Short’s S.312 for RAF (as well as Kuwait and Kenya). After this comes a go-through of all 16 countries to which the aircraft was exported (one of the chapters being dedicated to US civilian operators), before discussing the roadmap and development work that led to the EMB-314 Super Tucano. The book is then rounded up with some impressive appendices, featuring technical specifications for both EMB-312 and S.312, colour profiles, ORBAT’s, and production lists listing individual fuselages. Note that the EMB-314 Super Tucano is not covered in the book, as it will receive its own volume in the (near?) future.

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The book sports plenty of photographs, both of the aircraft in action and close-ups of stores and other details. The photographs are almost exclusively in colour.

It is easy to be enthralled by the book. As a mechanical engineer turned project lead, I found the description of the work leading up to the operational debut highly fascinating. The topic is often glossed over in similar works in favour of more pages dedicated to operational use, but there certainly is an interesting story to be found here as well.

It is the completeness that really makes the book shine. Going through all stages from the birth of the Brazilian aviation industry up until and including the operational service for all operators to the very end of last year. One thing worth mentioning is that the export orders are given in alphabetical order and not chronologically, starting with Angola and ending with Venezuela. This means that it’s easy to look up a given country, but when reading through the first time it does at times feel like you are lacking parts of the puzzle. E.g. the Iraqi aircraft were mentioned in both the Egyptian and the Iranian chapters, before you eventually get around to getting their own story in the chapter on Iraq. I can see why they have done it this way, and it sure helps next time I pull the book out of the shelf to look up Peru, but for general readability I would perhaps have preferred them in chronological order.

The appendices are also of high quality, with the full-colour artworks including both early concepts (black and white), prototypes, and 60(!) operational aircraft representing all 16 operators. These are absolutely top-notch, both when it comes to the artistic work and the aircrafts picked, as they show an interesting mix of standard and special paint jobs.

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The book after a cover-to-cover read. The binding is still in near-mint condition.

The book feels big without being oversized when read. The size is just below A4, and with 256 semi-gloss pages it weighs in at just over a kilogram. When first opening the shrink wrap I felt slightly worried that the spine wouldn’t keep together, but I am happy to say that it held together without any problem despite my reading not being of the most gentle kind, including quite a bit of carrying around from place to place and leaving it flung open for prolonged times.

The single issue which stuck in the back of my mind is that while the facts, storytelling, and illustrations are all very good, the editorial work is unfortunately not quite at the same level. There are a few typos, and some sentences give a feeling that they are either translated or written by a non-native English speaker (big caveat that I myself is not a native English speaker, so this last one might be my mind playing tricks). These aren’t anything close to deal breakers and doesn’t detract from the interesting story, but I was somewhat surprised that, given the high quality of the other areas of the book, the editorial work felt more 95 than 100 %.

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Some of the more colorful Tucanos in RAF service.

Having said that, I am not going to lie: I absolutely love this one. Last time I reviewed a Harpia-book it was the Russia’s Warplanes-volumes, which I liked very much, but which were more of reference works than books to read cover to cover. This one is a comprehensive story of a single plane, and as such the reading value is significantly higher. The varied countries it has seen operation with is also adding to the interesting story, and a large number of those countries have used it operationally in combat. As mentioned earlier, the artworks are also absolutely fabulous, and certainly catches my imagination. Now, didn’t Hobby-Boss release a Tucano in 1/48 last year…?

The book was provided free of charge for review by Harpia Publishing.

 

Review: 2017 War with Russia

When I first heard of this book last year, I was immediately thrilled. A senior officer with recent insight into NATO’s inner workings writing a modern-day techno thriller of all-out war in the Baltic states, this was bound to be a great read! Right?

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The preface promised great things as well. The author reflects upon the Russian invasion of Ukraine and how this transformed the European security order. At the time, he was Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe (DSACEUR), in short NATO’s number two military officer in Europe, offering a unique insight into how this monumental moment was viewed from inside the organisation.

As my fellow commander and I watched, we all knew who those vehicles belonged to and who was operating them. But proving it was another thing […] and we couldn’t even consider doing anything to counter it as Ukraine was not a member of NATO.

Unfortunately, the preface is probably the strongest part of the book in my opinion. My understanding is that this is sir Shirreff’s first book, and unfortunately the storytelling of the novel is not up there amongst the classics of the genre. The general outline is interesting, but when it comes to execution many of the characters and attempts to flesh out the story feels like cliches we’ve all seen before.

But while the hero might be predictable, all women beatiful, and all British politicians scheming and uninterested in national security, the book retains one undisputable quality which kept me hooked to the end: this is likely the best non-academic look into the inner workings of NATO available at the moment. While reading the book, I constantly reflected upon what the retired general is trying to tell his audience, and how much of the thoughts expressed by the characters at the strategic level reflect those found at Number 10, in the White House, and Casteau. Perhaps even more interesting is the picture painted of Putin’s personality, presumably mirroring rather closely how his personality is seen amongst the higher echelons of NATO. Certainly sir Shirreff is leaving some things out to maintain OPSEC and putting his own personal spin on others, but at the same time the purpose of his writing does shine through and is nicely summed up in the subtitle: “An urgent warning from senior military command”. I appreciate that by putting this warning in the form of a novel, he achieves two things he would otherwise not have done: reaching new audiences, and being able to “go for it” in a way he would not have been able to if he had written a non-fiction text.

In the end, I don’t regret spending a few euros to get the Kindle-edition of the novel, and I did highlight quite a few passages when reading. If you belong to the (arguably not huge) group of people interested in national security and related questions, you might very well find it an interesting read. But as a novel, I would unfortunately not recommend it. However, if you are still interested in what general sir Shirreff has to say (and I highly recommend that you do), head over to Youtube where a number of interesting interviews and speeches are found, such as this one by the Brookings Institute.

Review: Russia’s Warplanes (Vol. 1 & 2)

If last month’s review was a unique book covering a rarely seen topic, this month’s double have it tougher when it comes to defending their necessity – do we really need yet another book on the same MiG’s, Sukhoi’s, and Tupolev’s?

Spoiler alert: Yes, we do.

But let’s take it from the beginning. As the subtitle indicate, the topic is the aircrafts and helicopters of today’s modern Russian Armed Forces and export derivatives of these. You will not find the MiG-21 here, but instead what is probably the most up to date go-through of all Su-30 versions found throughout the world. The books are complementary volumes, were Volume 1 deals with tactical combat aircraft (up to Su-24 and -34), transport and attack helicopters, reconnaissance, surveillance, and special missions platforms (including aircrafts, helicopters, and balloons!). Volume 2 takes on strategic bombers, maritime aircraft, transports, tankers, and trainer aircraft. In addition, volume 2 also covers developments regarding the aircraft presented in volume 1 which took place during the year between the two volumes (August 2015 to August 2016). It also feature a chapter on the Russian air war in Syria.

The books are divided into chapters according to the role of the aircrafts, and each aircraft get their own sub-chapter. In cases where significant changes has been made, new generations get their own sub-chapters, such as the MiG-29 being split into the early air superiority line and the multirole MiG-29K/29M/35 line. All data is given in running text, with no data tables or similar. This makes the book highly readable, with clearly structured sub-sections making it possible to easily find any data point you might be looking for. It is certainly possible to read the books cover-to-cover, though I find it more enjoyable to head straight for the aircraft I am currently interested in. The books do provide an excellent one-stop shop for well-researched information on the Russian Air Force of today, making them invaluable when you suddenly feel like checking up the capabilities of that Il-20M spotted at pictures of Hmeymim air base.

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While the stars of the book certainly comes as no surprise to anyone, the Su-27/30/33/34/35-family e.g. occupy 30+ pages of the first volume, the books leave ample room for less well-known systems as well. The trainer versions of the Tu-134 get their own sub-chapter, and I didn’t even know about the existence of Russian tethered balloons before I read about them here! In short, if it flies and there is a reasonable connection to the Russian armed forces, it is represented in the books.

As with the book on Russia’s air-launched weapons, it certainly feels well-researched. Without losing the big picture, Piotr Butowski provide valuable insight into details. This is the first time I have encountered the fact that Sukhoi differentiates between the Vietnamese Su-30MK2V and the Venezuelan Su-30MK2V by writing the former with a Cyrillic Ve (Су-30МК2В) while the later is written with a Latin V (Су-30МК2V), just to give a small example on the level of detail.

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I actually struggle to find any major faults with the two volumes. Compared to the earlier review, these come in at a solid length of 252 and 251 pages respectively. The soft-cover books hold up well (though my examples did have a corner being slightly damaged in the mail), and I have experienced no issues with the binding despite at times leaving the book opened for some time. I like the fact that the books provide both a suitably deep (obviously a subjective measure) overview of the famous aircraft in use, but perhaps even more I value the fact that I now have a trusted source for easily looking up more obscure systems such as UAV’s and some of the newer sub-variants of older designs. The fact that the books are so new certainly provide added value, as they cover the recent period of modernization of the Russian Air Force.

Highly recommended!

Both books were provided free of charge for review by Harpia Publishing. The contents of this review has not been discussed with or revealed to Harpia before posting.

Review: Russia’s Air-launched Weapons

Harpia Publishing is one of those publishers who seems to have a more or less continuous stream of interesting titles coming out, but who’s books I’ve never actually have gotten around to trying out. As such, I gladly jumped on the opportunity when they contacted me and asked if I was willing to review their recent titles on the Russian Air Force. First out is something quite a bit out of the ordinary: Russia’s Air-launched Weapons by Piotr Butowski.

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Compared to many western countries, Russia operate a range of different air-launched weapons. Partly this is due to the fact that while many design bureaus have been pushing newer designs, few weapons have been completely phased out in the recent decades. Instead, newer weapons have been bought in relatively small series, which are used alongside older designs. Russia has also kept a considerable number of ‘traditional’ gravity bombs, and contrary to the west, largely use these as ‘dumb’ weapons due to the difficulty of fitting them with guidance kits (contrary to the Mk 80-series, the Russian bombs are usually welded monoliths, making it impossible to change out the fins).

All this makes for a bewildering array of weapons, making the need for this book high amongst aviation geeks. A second group for which the title ought to appeal are national security pundits keeping track of what the Russian Air Force carries and uses in Syria.

The book uses a clear layout, going through the weapons category by category, including strategic weapons (nuclear bombs and strategic/theatre-level cruise missiles), tactical cruise missiles, air-to-air missiles of different classes, helicopter launched missiles, bombs, rockets, guns and gun pods, as well as naval weapons such as torpedoes and mines. Targeting pods also get an overview, though it should be noted that Russia has traditionally preferred fixed sensors instead of pods, and these sensors aren’t covered in the book. All currently operational weapons are covered, as well as those currently in development. An interesting aspect is that Butowski appears to have toured major Russian air and arms shows for years, providing a valuable source of information for projects which have at different times been in development, but which then have faded away or gone silent for some time.

There are some real gems in this volume. While I appreciate having a comprehensive overlook of the R-27 family or the Kh-31, my personal favourites where the more obscure weapons systems, such as the huge Klevok-V helicopter-launched missile, the S-13ALT radar decoy rocket, or the air-dropped mines, information on which is hard to come by.

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9A4172K Vikhr and a B-8V-20 20-round rocket pod, both systems are covered in the book. Source: Минпромторг России via Wikimedia Commons
The book is a rather thin soft-cover, being just under 100 pages, and I must admit I felt a bit disappointed when I first pulled it out of the postal package. Having read it my opinion changed, and it doesn’t feel like it leave things out due to its size. When I reached the last page, on the whole I felt I had gotten all information I had hoped for, with the possible exception of the chapter on naval weapons which I felt could have been a bit longer, as well as discussing at longer lengths to what extent some systems are in wide or limited use. Those are minor complaint, as said, the information on naval systems are hard to come by, and the book provide new information for me here as well. For the production figures, it is understandable that these are guarded secrets of the Russian Air Force. The level of illustrations is also good!

On the whole, it is hard to not recommend this book. As said, it isn’t overly thick, and the price (around 20 euros) is on the higher end. However, it functions as a very handy guide both to those wanting to ID what is hanging under the wings of Russian aircraft at home and abroad, but also for modellers looking into creating suitable loadouts for their models. The information seems solid, and especially considering the fact that this is in many ways an unique book in covering the latest development up to this year. Well worth a recommendation.