Project report on the 2020-2021 No Longer Experimental (NLE/”Nellie”) HEMA jacket

If you’ve read the previous reports on the brown gambeson and the Gorillambeson, you’d already be aware that this is the present culmination of that line of development. It’s still not perfect and I already have a few tweaks I’d like to make to future iterations, but from this point on it’s mostly going to be more a process of refinement rather than radical rethinks and redesigns. Meanwhile, the personal jacket project represents a largely separate and parallel line of development with rather limited applicability to this case.

The basic idea for this project was to use the lessons I had learned from the Gorillambeson to build an extra-simple HEMA jacket from the ground up and see whether I can do it efficiently enough to justify at least some kind of regular small-scale production. That idea led to the design below.

The fundamental lines remain very similar to the Gorillambeson’s original design with a general shape built upon rectangular cutting principles. The main difference lies in the front pieces (towards the top of the diagram). I was trying to think up a way to make a front-opening jacket while keeping the fundamental cut of the pieces extremely simple, and the solution I eventually resorted to was to have two identical front pieces that overlapped in the hatched area. I thought this would allow me to minimise the mental effort of tracking which piece should go where, since the worst thing that could happen if I made a mistake was that I’d end up having to choose which side of the overlap goes on top of the other after the fact.

In terms of padding, most of the jacket was intended to have one layer of recycled felt filling (of the same kind used on the Gorillambeson, and quite similar to the material used inside SPES jackets) except for the blue areas — i.e. the non-overlapped parts of the front pieces, which would have two layers of batting sandwiched between the shell and lining. The overlapped part would only have one layer on each side, but the overlap would functionally give the jacket two layers of padding over the entire front of the body pieces.

The actual work of cutting and sewing the jacket was largely devoid of drama since I was relying heavily on processes I had already worked out through trial and error on the Gorillambeson. The first thing to do was of course to quilt/padstitch the components (shell, lining, and padding) of each individual body piece separately, then assemble the padded-up body pieces together.

Then I quilted the sleeves and attached the shell to the body pieces. Here I didn’t cut the felt batting to match the shape of the sleeves, but rather as straight untapered strips just wide enough to match the sleeves’ circumference at the cuffs. The original intention was to leave the bottom/inner half of each sleeve unpadded so that the padding wouldn’t interfere too much with the wearer’s movement in the elbow and the armpits. The square underarm gussets were also left unpadded; I added a couple of layers of fabric to compensate for the lack of padding there.

Note that I had already closed the side seams between the body pieces and also the underarm gussets. I think I closed the seam along the bottom of one of the sleeves too, which would become relevant later. For now let’s have a look at the whole thing from the inside, where I hadn’t closed any of the lining seams:

Just visible at the edge of the collar is part of the old T-shirt I sandwiched between the two layers of padding on each of the front pieces — something I had made into a standard practice since the days of the old brown gambeson.

But back to the sleeves. At this point I thought I’d try completely closing one sleeve by sewing up the bottom seam on the shell piece first, working from the inside (jacket inside out, right sides together). Then I’d close up the lining seam from the outside, still working with the jacket inside out. Once everything had been closed up, I would then pull the sleeve through the wrist opening into its final right-side-out condition. As it turned out, this would have made sense for an unpadded garment, but the batting made the sleeve hard and rigid enough that I ended up having to spend a great deal more effort than I expected to yank it right side out. Of course I learned the lesson, and for the other sleeve I adopted the much more sensible idea of flipping the sleeve right-side-out before I closed the long bottom seam; I then sewed up the seam on the lining first before closing the shell seam from the outside. This alternative method proved to be much simpler and more practical and it’s probably what I’m going to use for future garments (if I get to make any).

The next order of business was to neaten up the front and install the zipper. Unfortunately I didn’t take any detailed pictures of this phase — again, because it was a pretty straightforward affair and there’s hardly anything that hasn’t already been discussed in the Gorillambeson report. And once both sides of the zipper had been installed, it was time for my favourite part: the Frankenstein test, basically just a matter of seeing whether the fully assembled jacket had enough structure to stand up on its own without any kind of stand, form, or mannequin propping it up from the inside.

What else can I say? IT’S ALIIIIIVE

The Delta surge was at its height when the jacket was finished, so it took a few more months before I finally had the chance to test it out in a group practice session with my club. It was still a very small and informal session and we didn’t stress-test the jacket all that hard. I think this was also around the same time that I started calling the jacket Nellie, from NLE (“No Longer Experimental”).

There were two major notes we identified from this test. The first was that the sleeves were somewhat too long for wearers who didn’t have absurdly long arms. The remedy was pretty straightforward and I’ve shortened the sleeves by a couple of inches since then. It’s also possible that I might talk to people who might want to commission future jackets to suggest using a lighter and less stiff batting material (maybe something similar to the Dacron/polyester batting on the brown gambeson) for the sleeves.

The other issue was that the double layer of padding in front of the shoulders sometimes bunched up and made it slightly uncomfortable to perform certain movements that involved extending the arms forwards. This wasn’t exactly an easy matter to fix in a fully assembled jacket, and in any case it’s not such a huge impediment in most cases, so I decided not to apply the obvious fix (i.e. opening up the jacket and removing one layer of the batting in a roughly quarter-circle-shaped area in front of the shoulders) to Nellie itself. Instead, I’ll just keep it in mind and apply it by default to future jackets and/or gambesons with double-layered padding in front.

So what’s next? I’m not sure either. I might sell the jacket on like some of the previous experiments, or I might hold on to it as a loaner piece for the club and a physical sample to display in future events (if I ever get to attend any, that is). And I’m not going to stress myself out over it since there’s no need to decide in a hurry. What’s important is that Nellie’s basic design seems to be a major step closer to answering the issue of how to produce more affordable torso and arm protection for the Indonesian HEMA scene (as I griped about back in 2017). Still not a perfect solution, and I’m not quite sure I can turn much of a profit if I want to keep the prices affordable, but at the very least I wouldn’t be stuck in the same dilemma as with the more complex and refined design for my personal jacket (i.e. I’d either have to charge a high price no better than those of imported products or take a severe financial loss due to the amount of labour that would have to go into another iteration of the jacket).

General report on my personal 2018-2020 HEMA jacket project

This is the third in the series of catch-up reports on the jacket and gambeson projects I’ve been working on since 2017. Other installments can be found here (for the original brown gambeson), here (for the Gorillambeson), and here (for the Nellie/NLE (“No Longer Experimental”) jacket).

The Nellie report should have been the logical continuation of the Gorillambeson report since Nellie was largely based upon the lessons I learned while making the Gorillambeson. However, I’m doing a write-up on my personal jacket project first (still unnamed, though if I had to choose a representative model for the Sartoria Insulindica HEMA jacket, it’d be this one) since it was actually started before the Gorillambeson. Its genesis went back even further with this crude pattern sketch I drew in mid- or late 2017:

Not an amazingly clear picture, I know. Some features of this sketch went into the actual pattern, such as the use of late 19th-century cutting methods to form the base pattern for the body pieces. Others didn’t, especially the grown-on front collar (which I eventually replaced with a more sensible separate collar).

In general, I cut the pattern with measurements from a mannequin I knew to be slightly larger than my body size. This produced a garment that was on the loose side when it was first assembled in an unpadded/unfilled state in February 2018. I had the vague idea that it would become somewhat closer-fitting as I padded it out but I didn’t really have a particularly good idea of how well (or poorly) it would work out. But hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

It’s worth noting that I wasn’t even sure this was going to be my personal jacket project at this point; since I didn’t know how well it’d fit me personally once it had been padded out, I was still hedging my bets and thinking that I might sell it to somebody else if it turned out to be a poor fit for me.

But enough about the abstract plans for the jacket’s future. The body pieces’ cut was rather conventional, just with narrower shoulders and much larger armscyes than what one would have seen in a normal lounge or reefer coat (the ancestors to the modern single- and double-breasted business coats, respectively) at that time. The sleeves was where it got weird. I was in a rather experimental mood so I decided to cut them as a simplified version of 14th-century grande assiette sleeves with two identical upper-arm pieces (i.e. the top sleeve and the undersleeve both had the exact same trapezoid shape), front and rear gussets cut and installed as I went along, and finally separate forearm pieces with an elbow hinge to make sure that I still had full freedom of movement in the elbow despite the rather close fit on the sleeves. This makes for six pieces for each sleeve, and that’s only the shell material; the lining doubles that to twelve pieces per sleeve for a grand total of TWENTY-FOUR pattern pieces for both sleeves. Pretty manageable for such a heavily customised jacket but a total disaster if I were to try to turn it into a mass-production model. Here’s a picture of the elbow hinge on one sleeve, again from February 2018 before I started stuffing any of the padding material into it.

When I started padding/stuffing the jacket out, I was also feeling experimental and decided to try using smaller pieces of fabric scrap from older projects as the filling material. The basic idea was that I’d stuff those pieces of scrap in until I felt like the piece had roughly the correct thickness, and then fix the scraps in place with small, densely-spaced padstitches.

This approach had the pretty significant advantage that I could vary the thickness of the filling/padding as I went, and I was also able to shape the curved parts of the jacket (the sleeves, the shoulders, etc.) to fit better with the actual shapes of my corresponding body parts. But there are also a couple of huge drawbacks: it’s very slow since I could only work on a small area at any given time and it was also extremely labour-intensive. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that this wasn’t going to be a viable method if I wanted to produce more jackets for the Indonesian HEMA scene (read my griping about the high price of gear back in 2017 here, though many things have obviously changed since then) and that’s why I decided to experiment with the recycled felt filling I used for both the Gorillambeson and Nellie. At the same time, though, I figured it was still going to be worth the effort to stick with the method until I had finished the rest of the jacket. Here’s what the result of the manual filling and padstitching looked like from the outside.

The personal jacket project proceeded rather slowly since I was working on the Gorillambeson (and its later conversion into a front-opening jacket) at the same time. I was also rather lax in documenting the progress, and the next set of halfway decent pictures I had of it were taken in October 2019 — by which time I had padded out the body and forearm pieces, and was starting to fill out the upper arm padding too.

By this time it was getting pretty obvious that the resulting garment was coming out pretty close to my actual body size, so there was no longer any use in wondering whether it was going to be my jacket (in a very specific sense) or a more generalised pattern. There’s also another picture from November 2019 that showed the back in slightly better lighting.

From this point on it was mostly finishing work: padding out the rest of the upper arm (or rather the outer half — I left the inner half unpadded since it’d be rather awkward to have that bulk in the armpit area and the crook of the elbow), closing up the parts of the lining I had left open (so that I could insert the fabric scraps for the padding), sewing on a pair of Velcro tabs to close the collar, and adding a narrow strip of cloth along the front edge of the jacket to help conceal some of the exposed parts of the zipper. The whole thing was finished in early 2020, just in time for me to show it off at the national workshop in late January. These were the pictures taken just before the workshop:

And one taken on the last day of the workshop, with the converted Gorillambeson (left) for comparison:

On the whole, I can say that the jacket has been a pretty significant success in providing myself with a fitted, heavily-padded jacket with minimal restriction to the movements I can expect to perform in historical fencing. But it has been utterly unsuccessful at providing a viable model for an affordable HEMA jacker for the Indonesian market; on one hand it’s tailored too closely to my size (so any other wearer would practically have to be my body double in order to be able to wear it comfortably), and on the other hand it’s too labour-intensive in both fitting and construction. Of course there’s nothing that stops me from making another jacket like it for somebody else, but I wouldn’t be able to do it without charging a rather high price (certainly no lower than the prices offered by cheaper HEMA manufacturers like Superior Fencing, and maybe not even lower than those offered by the likes of SPES). It was these conclusions that led me to go back to a simpler rectangular cut with the 2020-2021 Nellie project.

Maybe the only major disadvantage of this jacket is that it wasn’t made with 350N rated fabric and most events that require 350N jackets aren’t willing to test unrated jackets on the spot. I find this especially frustrating since I’m quite sure that the combination of two layers of fairly heavy denim and scrap filling in the middle would easily withstand 350N puncture tests and would probably even handle 800N just fine over most of the jacket’s purchase. That being said, I’m not going to complain too much about it since this is an issue I can normally circumvent by wearing the SPES Ben Solo jumper 350N light blouse under the jacket.

Project report on the 2018-2019 Gorillambeson

The main lesson I learned from the previous 2017 gambeson project was that I was going to need a better and more compact padding material for future endeavours, so naturally I went off to look for stores that sold something similar to the recycled wool felt I’m used to seeing in the internal filling of SPES jackets and the like. This turned out to be rather easier than I thought. Just to give a rough idea of what the material looks like on its own (i.e. not stuffed inside a jacket), here’s a picture of the first lot I bought back in 2018.

Unfortunately I still ran into the problem of different production lots being not exactly identical in thickness and density to each other, but in the event it has been considerably less serious than what I had experienced with the previous gambeson’s Dacron filling — mostly because I only need one or two layers of the wool felt to get a reasonable degree of protection as opposed to anywhere from two to six for the Dacron/polyester fluff. Here’s one of the test patches I made to figure out the correct thickness for the whole thing. Most of it had two layers sandwiched between the shell fabric and the lining but there’s a part along one edge with only one layer of padding.

The gambeson project itself wasn’t started immediately after I finished the previous one; I actually spent much of 2018 working on my personal jacket project with a more fitted cut (which shall be the subject of a different post), but I soon figured out that such a fitted cut didn’t really work with the goal of making something relatively simple and affordable for Indonesian clubs (as I whined about back in early 2017). So, between that and simply not wanting to get too experimental while working with a new and unfamiliar filling material, I decided on an extremely simple cut based on the T-tunic with a neck opening wide enough to let the new gambeson be put on over the head without any fastenings or the like. I didn’t bother to take any pictures of the individual pieces before they were put together so the earliest pictures I have of this project (from October 2018) was already in the initial stages of assembly with all the body and sleeve pieces roughly sewn together.

One fairly noticeable difference from the previous gambeson is that the wool felt filling was far less puffy than Dacron/polyester fluff, so it also compressed less under the padstitching/staystiching I used to fix the layers together. As a result, I was also able to get away with far fewer lines of padstitching on the main body and sleeve pieces than on the brown gambeson.

I still wasn’t entirely sure about the sizing and comfort of the whole thing so I only put in some crude assembly stitches before I brought it out to its first event, namely the workshop that the Jakartan branch of my club was invited to hold in GOIFEX back in early 2019.

Believe it or not, the image was taken years before Squid Game came out, so any similarities were purely coincidental. And yes, I was wearing that smile of existential despair before it was cool, partly due to how tired I was from both the workshop itself and the need to travel to a different city to attend it. But maybe the most important thing was that the cut of the gambeson — while far from perfect — seemed to be good enough for my purposes at the time, and I decided to continue the assembly without further alterations for the moment. This was also probably when I started calling it the Gorillambeson due to the way the sleeves ended up being too long for somebody my size.

It should be fairly easy to see the small underarm gussets here. But for a better idea of the general shape, here’s another picture while I was airing the Gorillambeson out immediately afterwards.

Long story short, the initial version of the Gorillambeson was finished roughly in time to feature in the next event the Jakarta branch was invited to: the Ancol cultural festival in the middle of the year. The thing should just be visible at the right edge of this picture, hanging as the backdrop to the main table in the club’s stand.

Shortly after this mid-2019 event, some people in the Jakartan branch expressed the desire for a front-opening jacket. I decided that I might just as well experiment with converting the Gorillambeson into one rather than making something entirely new. The first step was to cut up the front body piece along a line extending downwards from the edge of the neck opening.

Then I added an extra layer of the felt padding on top of the shell fabric, and one more layer of the tan lining fabric on top since I didn’t exactly have enough of the blue denim left to completely cover the front. In case it’s not obvious, I only added the second layer of padding to the front; the back piece and the sleeves retained the old single-layered configuration for the internal padding.
I also made the collar smaller since it no longer had to be large enough to let the wearer’s head pass through, and as a result I had to patch in a small piece to cover the gap on the inside. This picture also shows the zippered closure I added underneath the front opening, though in this case I hadn’t sewn it to the other side of the opening yet.

The conversion procedure as a whole wasn’t very dramatic or difficult and I finished it fairly quickly, but it wasn’t until the first interclub Indonesian HEMA workshop in Surabaya at the end of January 2020 that the modified Gorillambeson got the chance for a field trial. Here it is being worn on the left by the then-leader of the Surabaya club (and yes, if he looks familiar, he was also the one who asked for the earlier brown gambeson to be modified into a coaching jacket). By comparison, I was wearing my own personal jacket (the subject of a separate report) on the right.

Just as in its original state prior to the modification, the Gorillambeson-turned-jacket worked well enough but was far from perfect. Maybe the most noticeable issue is that the wide front body pieces means that the padding in the shoulder section tends to bunch up when both of the wearer’s arms are extended forwards. This is probably more obvious in the most recent pictures from 2022 during a practice session of the Jakartan branch of my club (which has become the Gorillambeson’s forever home after the workshop).

But on the whole I wasn’t dissatisfied with the Gorillambeson since it has provided me with some valuable lessons to apply in subsequent projects, especially the Nellie (NLE/No Longer Experimental) jacket I made in late 2020-early 2021.

General summary of the 2017 gambeson project and its 2020 conversion into a coaching jacket

Pictures have been cropping up on my social media “memories” feature to remind me that the gambeson project I undertook in 2017 is now five years old. It was originally an attempt to provide a tutorial for Indonesian DIY-ers in making their own protective gear, especially for the armed disciplines of HEMA (historical European martial arts), but it has been spectacularly unsuccessful in that respect so I guess I’ll just console myself by writing down an English version of the project diary instead. But if you’re interested in reading the original Indonesian version anyway, here are the five parts in all their (dubious) glory: (part 1: front body piece) (part 2: rear body piece) (part 3: right sleeve) (part 4: left sleeve and the whole thing) (part 5: cut up and converted).

And before we dive into the details, here’s a sneak peek at the final result of the original project before the 2020 conversion:

Now that thou hast feasted thine eyes upon yon travesty, let’s get into some of the basic ideas of how and why I made this gambeson in a rather peculiar way.

Continue reading “General summary of the 2017 gambeson project and its 2020 conversion into a coaching jacket”

Catatan Tambahan tentang Proyek Modifikasi Gambeson (5)

(English version here)

Beberapa pembaca yang sempat mengikuti catatan proyek membuat gambeson dari awal sampai akhir (bagian 1, bagian 2, bagian 3, bagian 4) mungkin penasaran dengan nasib gambeson hasil proyek percobaan ini. Singkat kata, pada tahun 2020 yang lalu gambeson tersebut dimodifikasi dan lalu dijual ke klub HEMA Surabaya Silverpoint sebagai alat latihan milik bersama; artikel ini akan menampilkan sejumlah foto yang diambil sepanjang proyek konversi/modifikasi tersebut. Pertama-tama, mari kita lihat lagi bentuk jadi gambeson ini sebelum dimodifikasi.

Modifikasi pertama yang diinginkan adalah bukaan belakang yang ditutup dengan ritsleting. Untuk itu tentu saja bagian belakang gambeson perlu dipotong menjadi belahan kanan dan kiri.

Lalu kemudian ritsleting diselipkan ke bukaan di antara kedua belahan tersebut.

Continue reading “Catatan Tambahan tentang Proyek Modifikasi Gambeson (5)”

Alonso de Chaves on the shipboard use of the montante (Iberian two-handed sword)

All right, I’m not going to use this post to engage in a systematic or extensive discussion on the use of the two-handed sword in naval engagements. Instead, I’m just going to use it as a place to stash some stuff I’ve previously written down in a Facebook group post — which, as everyone knows, is simply not a very good way to preserve things for posterity. I’m basically just moving the information here to make it easier to find should I need to reference it again later.

The background to this whole thing was a discussion in an Indonesian HEMA chat group, where somebody brought up the subject of when and where the two-handed sword was used and I got rather irritated since most of the discussion just went around and around, bringing up modern ideas cooked up in the modern participants’ heads without backing them up with historical evidence. Eventually I started badgering people for sources, and fortunately one of them (the proprietor of Arpio Shop — go visit and buy one or two of their swords if you want to thank them for this) came up with a translated excerpt from a work titled Espejo de Navegantes, by a certain “Alonso de Chaves,” to the effect that the montante (the Iberian — that is, Spanish/Portuguese — variant of the 16th-century two-handed sword) was one of the most suitable weapons for boarding or defending a galley, somewhat linking it with Rule XI Simple (also known as the “galley gangway”) in Figueyredo. I felt like the excerpt probably came from a valid primary source, but it seemed incomplete and I wasn’t convinced that it actually referred to galleys or their gangways at all (“gangway” here being a slightly awkward translation of Portuguese coxia or Italian corsia, a subject of some debate among naval historians specialising in 16th-century Mediterranean warfare). So I started digging.

Continue reading “Alonso de Chaves on the shipboard use of the montante (Iberian two-handed sword)”

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.

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

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 entirely 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 when there were also friendly tanks around.

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 when 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. With the friendly infantry lagging behind, the tanks became extremely vulnerable to ambushes by antitank guns at long ranges and enemy infantry 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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