Thinking about the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, part two: so what were the drones good for?

So. To be clear, this was actually the thing I wanted to write about, but as usual I got distracted by the question of whether drone warfare has rendered tanks obsolete and had to split that off into a separate post. But then, if they haven’t made tanks obsolete, just what have they done instead?

Well, to begin with, I guess an overview of the previous conflicts over Nagorno-Karabakh is in order. Let’s just say that since the first war in 1988-94 established the front lines of the frozen conflict, the war had settled down into an affair of static lines akin to the Western Front of World War I. This is by no means unusual; many mid-sized regional wars towards the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st have gravitated in this direction, including the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s, Indo-Pakistani clashes in the 1990s and 2000s, and the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine from 2014 onwards. This tendency has been attributed to a variety of factors, but in most cases it’s either a lack of capacity to break the static stalemate or — where the capacity wasn’t lacking — a lack of political will to escalate the conflict to a degree that would justify bringing forth the capacity to break the stalemate, often partly due to fears of intervention by stronger neighbouring powers. As I understand it, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict from the end of the first war in 1994 had largely been seen as a case of the former, since that war’s conclusion left the Azerbaijani government and military forces in disarray; indeed, the first few days of the war actually followed the familiar pattern of conflicts that had been observed before in 2016 and again in July 2020, where Azerbaijani forces mounted limited offensives against a relatively small section of Armenian (or Artsakh) trench lines and managed to secure small gains at the start of the fighting, but the Armenian/Artsakh forces would then mount counterattacks (often facilitated by the initial withdrawal from the territory gained by the Azerbaijanis, which allowed their artillery to fire more freely at pre-registered targets in the captured trench lines) that wiped out most or all of the Azerbaijani gains. Even after Azerbaijani offensives started pushing back the front lines by a significant extent in the south, their advance was still slow and gradual compared to the heavy casualties they were inflicting (and taking), and some external observers still had grounds to express skepticism that the invasion would lead to any lasting operational or strategic results two weeks into the war.

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My take on the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, part one: no, the tank isn’t dead. (Not yet anyway.)

The recent news of Ukrainian strikes on separatist forces in Donbass with Turkish-made UAS has reminded me that I’ve never quite managed to put together my scattered thoughts about last year’s conflict between Azerbaijan and the Armenian-backed separatist Republic of Artsakh in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Of course, the thing is I haven’t really done a particularly in-depth study of the conflict, so most of my knowledge about it is second-hand at best. But even then I’m pretty sure I’ve learned enough to know that some of the ways the conflict has been presented in the popular imagination can be misleading at best (and outright wrong at worst). Note that I was actually planning to write this for an Indonesian audience, but I’m writing this in English first because I usually find it easier to sort out complex ideas in that language before translating them into Indonesian (as opposed to writing them in Indonesian from the get-go).

Maybe the lowest-hanging fruit out of all those media takes is the sensational idea that, thanks to the proliferation of armed UAS and loitering munitions, now “the tank is dead” or “tanks have been rendered obsolete” somehow. It’s almost not worth debunking since we’ve been seeing the same idea touted repeatedly with every new development in antitank weaponry, tactics, procedures, or whatever, and it has been proved wrong pretty much each and every time. Seriously. It’s just about as old as the tank itself, starting with the equivocal performance of British tanks in their combat debut at Flers-Courcelette (1916). The next major episode was probably the one related to the development and adaptation of dive-bombing to attack enemy bunkers/strongpoints and tank reserves gathering behind the front in the 1930s; this is pretty comical in hindsight since we now know from the German experience in the Spanish Civil War and World War II that yes, dive-bombers worked well against enemy tanks, but they were only really effective when there were also friendly tanks to exploit the disruption they caused (see the thing about combined arms below). Then it surfaced again with nuclear warfare in the 1940s and 50s, and once more it turned out to be quite comical in hindsight since people soon realised that tanks were some of the most survivable weapon systems on the nuclear battlefield if equipped with the appropriate CBRN protection. Antitank missiles in the 1960s and 70s presented a much more serious threat, but most certainly not an insurmountable one; for instance, Israeli tankers during the Yom Kippur War (1973) didn’t need all that long to develop countermeasures against the 9M14 Malyutka (AT-3 Sagger) missiles used by their Egyptian adversaries, such as the “Sagger dance” (driving in zigzags and other irregular movements to make it more difficult for the missile operator to track the tank) and simply returning fire at known or likely launch sites in the hopes of disrupting the missile operator’s concentration. These countermeasures may not have negated the threat but at the very least they managed to restore some measure of parity between the tank and the antitank missile team in terms of their ability to neutralise each other. And of course US experience in the (Second) Gulf War against Iraq clearly highlighted the repeating theme that antitank missiles (whether launched from the ground or from the air) tended to work best in conjunction with friendly tanks trained to work together with the relevant missile launch platform(s).

I guess the main issue with this kind of “tankz is ded” reporting comes from the naive assumption that tanks are supposed to be invulnerable or something. The fact is they never were; there have always been weapons capable of gaining asymmetric advantage over the tank for as long as the tank itself has existed. Indeed, developments in tank warfare (not only in terms of technology, but also tactics and arguably even rear-area procedures like repair and refuelling) were usually driven by the need to overcome these threats. The Western Allies in World War II learned to smother German anti-tank guns with artillery fire or airstrikes (or both) as soon as those guns revealed their position by opening fire. The Germans similarly learned to disperse and camouflage their tanks more carefully to reduce the risk of being spotted and targeted by Allied airpower (including — or maybe especially — artillery observation aircraft). When the Israelis decided to design and produce their own tanks, those tanks (i.e. the Merkava series) incorporated the lessons from the 1973 encounters with antitank missiles by incorporating features to disrupt missile guidance (such as smoke projectors) and to resist the shaped-charge warheads commonly used by both infantry antitank weapons (such as the Soviet/Russian RPG-7) and antitank missiles. Even the US Army in the 21st century is being dragged, kicking and screaming, into admitting that maybe its armoured and mechanised assets need to be protected by a much larger number and variety of short-range air defence (SHORAD) assets after all, what with the possibility of fighting without air supremacy on one hand and the increasing threat from unmanned platforms on the other.

The other side of the coin is that tanks have never been particularly effective if they weren’t used as an integral part of a combined-arms system anyway. Both the Soviets and the Germans learned this the hard way during the Spanish Civil War; numerous tank offensives failed when the defenders successfully separated attacking tanks from their supporting infantry by laying down mortar and artillery barrages that the tanks could drive through with minimal losses but the infantry couldn’t. Without friendly infantry to flush out enemy ambushes and suppress enemy antitank guns, the tanks became extremely vulnerable to . . . well, antitank guns at long ranges and infantry ambushes up close. Similarly, British defensive tactics during the North African campaign in World War II emphasised that infantry facing an enemy tank attack shouldn’t try to stop the tanks on their own, but rather let the tanks pass and then engage the supporting infantry so that those enemy infantry would get separated from the tanks; this way, antitank defences in the rear would have had an easier time dealing with the Axis tanks (and the British frontline infantry might even be able to turn around and attack the tanks from the rear once they had succesfully driven off the Axis infantry). Later in Normandy, British shortages in infantry replacements during the Normandy campaign forced them to launch Operation Goodwood as a very tank-heavy offensive with inadequate infantry support, with the result that the British tanks took far heavier losses than they should have. Much later, during the Iran-Iraq War, there was the unfortunately little-known tank battle near Susangerd (1981), where a major Iranian tank attack proceeded with practically no infantry support (since the infantry, already numerically inadequate, was stuck behind a bridge destroyed by Iraqi air attack) and was massacred by dug-in Iraqi tanks and mechanised infantry.

None of these mean that the tank is useless. It’s still a very powerful platform when used properly, and one thing people tend to forget is that the tank tends to be more survivable than the infantry as a general rule. Casualty statistics from Normandy show that infantry soldiers were at least twice or three times as likely to get wounded or killed than armoured vehicle crews (especially tank crews) under similar combat conditions. It’s something we see during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict too. Reliable casualty figures are hard to come by, but let’s be lazy by using the total military deaths quoted in the Wikipedia article (4025 reported killed on the Armenian side, 2908 on the Azerbaijani side) and compare them to vehicle losses documented through OSINT (open-source intelligence) at Oryxspioenkop. And to tilt the odds against the tank, let’s unfairly assume that all tank crews were killed when a tank was destroyed and half of them were killed when the tank was damaged or captured (let’s say three men dead per destroyed tank and one and a half for every one damaged or captured), even though the real survival rates were probably rather higher than that. This gives us about 580.5 tank crewmen lost on the Armenian side (let’s round it up to 581) and 132 on the Azerbaijani side. Even with this unfair weighting, tank crewmen only made up less than 15% of the deaths on the Armenian side and less than 5% on the Azerbaijani side. These numbers were no doubt significantly lower than the percentage of comparable losses among the infantry. (And yes, I know I should be comparing them proportionally instead — whether the tanks made up a higher or lower percentage of the losses than the percentage they made up among the forces actually involved in combat — but data on that is even harder to some by.)

Bottom line? No, the use of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) and loitering munitions as seen in the Nagorno-Karabakh war hasn’t rendered tanks obsolete. If anything, it has given a savvy commander an additional item to add to the usual toolkit of combined-arms warfare — alongside the tank and other less novel weapon systems. But then how do the new weapon systems work within this context?

Well, it’s getting quite late here (going all the way into the early morning hours, as a matter of fact), so I guess I’ll save that for another time.

Kesalahan umum tentang senjata api di dunia fantasi #1: melompat langsung dari nol ke senapan modern

Lho. Senjata api di cerita fantasi? Bukannya senjata di cerita fantasi terbatas pada pedang, tombak, busur panah, dan senjata kuno lainnya sebelum kedatangan senjata api? Tidak juga. Latar yang sering dipakai cerita fantasi cenderung memiliki tingkat teknologi yang kurang-lebih setara dengan Abad Pertengahan atau masa Renaisans, dan periode sejarah ini di dunia nyata justru merupakan waktu kemunculan dan perkembangan pesat dalam teknologi senjata api. Sebenarnya sudah cukup banyak cerita fantasi (baik dalam bentuk novel, komik, film, ataupun bentuk lainnya) yang mengandung penggunaan senjata api secara terbatas, terutama sebagai senjata baru atau eksotis di dunianya. Oleh karena itu, panduan ini akan membahas salah satu kesalahan umum yang muncul akibat kurangnya pengetahuan penulis tentang sejarah perkembangan teknologi senjata api, yaitu melompat langsung dari dunia tanpa senjata api ke persenjataan modern dalam waktu yang terlalu singkat tanpa memperhatikan rumitnya perkembangan teknologi yang memakan waktu berabad-abad abad di dunia nyata.

(The original English version can be found here)

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Tactics for Dummies: The Importance of Keeping Reserves

Moving on from the “Moving People on A Battlefield is Hard” series, this time I’d like to address a related subject: reserves. And for that, we’re going to break the old series’ rule on not having the enemy in the picture, because keeping (and using) reserves is mostly a matter of how our force interacts with the enemy’s. Let’s have two opposing forces fighting each other in line.

Now, with both sides equally matched like this, the two would just have to duke it out until one of them breaks through exhaustion, attrition, or whatever. In any case it’s going to take a long time and the winning side might be too exhausted to pursue by the time the battle is decided. So let’s get creative, shall we? We’ll start by zooming in to the situation on the right flank (from the blue side’s perpective).

Here we have both sides in four ranks, a little jostled around by the ebb and flow of the hand-to-hand combat between their respective first ranks but otherwise in generally good order. But somebody among the blue ranks (let’s mark them off as magenta) sees that the fight isn’t going anywhere, so they take the initiative to gather up people from the unengaged rear ranks.

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Reading Diary, mid-2021-ish

This month I finally finished Cristopher Allmand’s The De Re Militari of Vegetius: The Reception, Transmission, and Legacy of A Roman Text in the Middle Ages. I may have started reading it as early as June, and was certainly planning to finish reading it by mid-July at the latest, but it turned out to be a much tougher text than I thought — not because of the writing style or anything, but because I kept trying to chase down the references in the footnotes. But then maybe I should have expected that all along since I was reading it to gather background information for my much-delayed attempt to translate Philip of Cleves’ Instructions de toutes manieres de guerroyer tant par terre que par mer for my own use. And in this sense it has been pretty useful since the book informed me of two other French treatises from roughly the same era, namely Robert de Balsac’s La nef de princes et des batailles and Berault Stuart’s untitled thingy. I’ll go and check them later once I’ve had a long enough break from medieval/Renaissance European military history stuff, I guess.

However, there’s an interesting distraction that has been occupying my mind. On pp. 194-5, Allmand mentioned an anonymous German translation of Vegetius’ work from the early 15th century, a few decades earlier than the much better-known translation by Ludwig Hohenwang (first printed in 1475 but probably finished some time earlier). He said this earlier translation had an interesting addition about the importance of wrestling in training soldiers (something Vegetius didn’t mention), and also “the need to practice regularly in the use of weapons, whether swords or knives.” No doubt that’d sound quite familiar to people who have studied late-medieval and early German sources in HEMA, particularly since these three things appear in very close proximity to each other in the Zettel (mnemonic verse) attributed to a certain “Johans Lichtenawer.” Let’s just use Dierk Hagedorn’s transcription of the Rome version here:

Ringes guet fesser

Glefen sper swert | und messer

Mandleich bederben

So naturally I got curious about what the actual words were in the Vegetius translation. Unfortunately Allmand attributed this information to personal communication with Frank Fürbeth, the discoverer of the manuscript, and as far as I can tell none of Fürbeth’s transcriptions of the marginal notes and/or addendum in the translation have been published thus far. And that means I might have to resort to one of two possibilities: contacting Professor Fürbeth directly to see if he could share the transcription with an uncredentialled amateur researcher, or going straight to a digitised copy of the manuscript (apparently known as the Seitenstetten Codex 65 or something like that) and squinting at the thick handwritten pages individually until I could identify the one that actually contains the relevant passage(s), and then transcribe those passages manually if I want to bring them up for discussion. And like I said before with the French military treatises, this will have to wait until both my brain and my eyes are less stressed than they are right now.

In the meantime, I’m moving on to Vera Mironova’s From Freedom Fighters to Jihadists: Human Resources of Non-State Armed Groups, a fascinating study on Syrian rebels from the rather unusual perspectives of labour market and business organisation theories. I learned about the book last year from the MWI’s Irregular Warfare podcast but haven’t quite got around to procuring and reading it until quite recently. It has been a fun read so far and I think I can recommend the book already even though I’m still far from finishing it.

Tactics for Dummies: Moving People Around on A Battlefield is Hard, Part IV: Why Do We Need Units?

Now, I guess, would be a good time to synthesise the things I’ve previously explained in Part I and Part III (the latter of which would have been Part II if not for the digression on wedges). And for that we’re going to move to a slightly larger scale. Let’s use this line, with four groups of nine individuals each:

Now imagine we’re marching the line forward — but whoops. There’s an obstacle lying in the path of the blue group.

This is where the division of the line into several sub-units really comes in handy. Instead of the entire line getting stuck at the obstacle, now it’s only the blue unit that has to solve the problem of how to get ahead. In this case, let’s use one of the simplest solutions, where the blue leader moves to the clear end of the blue sector while the other units continue forwards.

From this point Blue Leader can resume the march while the rest of the unit “snakes” in into a file behind them. This time I’m going to remove the shadow of the units’ old positions to declutter the image.

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Why swordfighting in video games can’t be (and maybe shouldn’t be) “realistic”

All right. While cleaning up some old files, I found some stuff I wrote for some old discussion on why the swordfighting mechanics in a video game several years ago (I don’t even remember what it was) didn’t look “realistic.” My basic response was that there are several fundamental reasons why video-game swordfighting can’t be realistic, and maybe why it shouldn’t be in the first place. I think I can still stand by most of those points so I guess I’ll just post them here for posterity’s sake.

1) Controller and display latency. When we’re talking about responding to an opponent’s attack in a video game, first the attack will have to be initiated in the console/CPU, then the information will have to be transmitted to the display, then processed into a form that the human eye and mind can perceive as the designers intended. Then the human player needs to perceive the movement and react by manipulating the controller in some way. Then the information must be transmitted back from the controller to the console/CPU and the cycle begins anew. In a “real” swordfight the fighter would only have to do the middle step (perceive the movement and react by manipulating the sword). This means that it takes much more time (maybe twice or three times as much) for a video game player to plausibly react to an opponent’s attack, which in turn means that the attacks will have to be slower and more telegraphed if the game designer wants the player to be able to react to it at all. The most illustrative comparison here isn’t HEMA vs. medieval sword games, but rather Olympic fencing vs. FIE swordplay (the game). Pay particular attention to the slow-motion replays in FIE Swordplay and the sheer amount of telegraphing you should be able to spot in them.

1a) A somewhat-related issue is the limits of modern display units. By and large, affordable ones have much lower resolution in the human eye and a narrower field of view. This means that video game displays mostly have to engage the gamer’s central vision and can’t take advantage of the eye’s peripheral vision — which is incidentally much better at detecting motion. (Note: this was written before the advent of 4K displays, which in some cases may actually exceed the resolution of the human eye, but 4K doesn’t really have much effect on the issue of cutting off peripheral vision anyway.)

1b) There’s another corollary in that swordfighting is a whole-body activity while video game controllers are usually just manipulated with the hands. This not only limits both the stimuli the player can provide to the game but also the kinds of feedback that they can rely on — visual, auditory, and a minimal amount of haptic force feedback, as compared to pretty much all the senses in an actual swordfight.

2) To be brutally honest, people play video games to have fun, not to become better swordsmen. This is one really important fact we tend to forget as fencers (whether modern, HEMA, theatrical, or whatever): the vast majority of people in the world lack the time and/or the inclination to make an actual study of swordplay. It’s economically unfeasible for a game company to make games with swordfighting systems that can only be effectively be played by real-world fencers and martial artists. Indeed, it’s not as if there aren’t enough people in those categories who don’t mind unrealistic video game swordfighting. Just from my own individual and subjective perspective, when I play a video game I want the swordfighting system to be relatively simple and fun and easy to learn — I certainly wouldn’t want it to replicate the complexity and the frustrations I have to face in actual training!

So there. The low-effort post of the day since my brain is to preoccupied with other things to write a really substantial, useful post. And in any case you can check the index of similar articles if you want more substantial stuff.

Thoughts on the (not-so-)new Indonesian “Tank Boat” (North Sea Boats/Lundin X-18 Antasena)

The so-called Indonesian “Tank Boat” (officially named the X18 Antasena) has been in development for quite a few years now — in fact, I remember seeing an early mock-up at the IndoDefence exhibition as far back as 2016, and news about its initial development date back even further. But it’s back in the news in late May 2021 with the conclusion of its sea trials and live-fire tests (though not with the turret and armament shown in most of its promotional materials — more on this later). So I guess this would be a good time to gather my thoughts about it in one place.

First, a picture to show what it looks like. And no, I didn’t forget to remove the NSB logo and menu bar by mistake — I specifically left them in there to show that it’s a screengrab from Lundin/NSB’s official site. I hope it counts as fair use, but in any case do visit their site for the official specs.

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On Rendering Military Courtesies (Saluting in the Valkyria Chronicles and How to Deal With It in Your Own Fiction)

Remember the last post where I overanalysed the treatment of reconnaissance in a chapter of the Valkyria Chronicles? To be honest, I think I have a weird attachment to that chapter and the associated combat mission in the game since they’re full of low-hanging fruits for discussion. When we left off the last time around to go on a tangent with the whole reconnaissance thing, there were three officers — Captain Varrot and her two platoon leaders, Welkin and Faldio — gathered in an orders group. Immediately afterwards, the game ended up sidestepping the need to discuss the Gallian Militia’s reconnaissance doctrine (or the lack thereof) by having Alicia — one of the three sergeants in Welkin’s platoon — simply barge in and interrupt the meeting. And that’s hilarious. And I mean HILARIOUS.

But why? Well, first, the fact that she could make an unimpeded and unnanounced entrance at the orders group implies that there was no security at all in Varrot’s command post, not even a sentry posted outside the briefing room. So they’re lucky that it was just Alicia who barged in, not an enemy infiltrator with a grenade or something. This is one of those small things that could really annoy readers with military experience (or even readers who don’t have any military experience but have read enough stuff about daily life in real-world military forces), and the lesson here for fiction writers is please make sure that your fictional command posts have security. Except, of course, if the lack of security is the whole point of the thing and you want the characters inside the command post to suffer for it. You know the drill.

The other thing that stood out to me is that Alicia didn’t make any overt displays of military courtesy — no saluting, not even standing at attention and offering a formal greeting. Now, this is a slightly more complicated subject, so let’s break it down into several smaller issues.

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On Reconnaissance and Battlefield Intelligence in Valkyria Chronicles (Operation Cloudburst/Battle of the Bridge)

For today’s post, I’m going to take a trip down memory lane and talk about Valkyria Chronicles, a game I used to play — or to be strictly correct, one I mostly used to watch while other people played, though I played a fair amount of it myself. I’m choosing it because some of those gaming sessions sparked interesting discussions about military science and its representation in popular culture, and none more so than the fourth chapter in the game (titled Operation Cloudburst, with the actual combat mission being named Battle for the Bridge). And I’m not even going to discuss the entire chapter or mission here — one scene from the briefing alone should give us plenty of material to go by.

Let’s start with a little background information. The player takes the role of Welkin Gunther, a lieutenant in the militia forces of a fictional country called Gallia. For the most part Welkin commands Squad 7 of Captain Eleanor Varrot’s 3rd Militia Regiment. Readers with some familiarity might notice something odd here; why is a lieutenant commanding a squad, and why is he directly under the command of the regimental headquarters with several levels of command (most notably the platoon and the company, probably also the battalion) missing in between? On the other hand, what is a captain doing at the head of an entire regiment when it’s a command normally assigned to a much higher rank? I think some of the nuances involved might have been lost in translation from the original Japanese version of the game, and in practice it’s much easier to treat Welkin as a platoon leader (and his “squad” as more of an understrength platoon than a real squad) while Captain Varrot’s actual role in the game slots much more neatly into the billet of a company commander, which happens to be a good fit for her actual rank too.

At this point in the story, Gallia had been invaded by the neighbouring Empire, and the Imperial troops had seized large portions of Gallian territory in their drive towards the Gallian capital of Randgriz. The major Gallian city of Vasel lies along one of the principal avenues of approach towards Randgriz, and the Imperial invasion force had seized the Great Bridge of Vasel linking the two halves of the city before a counterattack by Squad 7 (in the previous chapter/mission) stopped them from expanding their bridgehead on the near bank. Now Squad 7 has been ordered to seize this momentum and launch a counterattack to retake the bridge. During the orders group with Captain Varrot, Lieutenant Faldio Landzaat — leader of Squad 1, Squad 7’s sister platoon in the “Regiment” — correctly remarks that the mission is suicidal since there’s no way that Welkin’s platoon would have enough mass to accomplish the task on its own. This then leads to the following exchange between Welkin and Varrot:

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