“What modern combat lacks in humanity,” Calloway observed, “it more than makes up for in intensity” (522).
RSR is an epic technothriller that imagines a massive, multi-theatre conventional conflict between NATO forces and the Warsaw Pact in the late 1980s. The novel examines the capacities and shortcomings of various allied and enemy intelligence, logistical and combat systems as they are applied in a diversity of applications. The scope of these systems run the gamut from peace-time Navy signals intelligence gathering to sophisticated KGB counter-intelligence operations to anti-submarine warfare to AirLand battle to anti-satellite warfare to guerrilla tactics in Soviet-occupied Iceland. The novel amounts to a thoroughgoing analysis of the operational concepts of Western and Soviet militaries at the end of the Cold War. It’s kind of like the old guy with the gold-embroidered USN ball cap’s equivalent of “War and Peace”.
“It’s an awful sound. You hear rushing air. If you penetrate the hull at deep depth, the sudden pressure change inside the hull causes the air to ignite and everyone inside the boat incinerates. I don’t know if that’s true, but somebody told me that once. Anyway, you hear the rushing air, then you hear the screech – like a car throwing its brakes on hard. That’s the bulkheads letting go. The comes the noise of the hull collapsing, hollow boom, sort of. And that’s it. A hundred people just died. No, I don’t like it much.
“The hell of it is, it’s exciting,” O’Malley went on. “You’re doing something extremely difficult. It requires concentration and practice and a lot of abstract thought. You have to get inside the other guy’s head, but at the same time you think of your mission as destroying an inanimate object. Doesn’t make much sense, does it? So, what you do is, you don’t think about that aspect of the job. Otherwise the job wouldn’t get done”. (564)
Clancy’s narrative style is conservative and maybe even a little generic, but the conceptual depth of the subject matter is substantial and impressive. While the novel’s characterizations hinge on a more or less untroubled concept of honour (evil is, for Clancy, a known quantity), the novel is interested in the kinds of “alienated” experiential conditions of “cold” warfare characteristic of intensely technological battlespaces (the ASW environment, for example). The novel’s interest in the deep operational concepts of adversary (i.e. Soviet) forces even detours into unexpected topics like commentaries on classic Soviet cinema (two Navy/USMC SIGINT officers watch a pirated satellite broadcast of Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, for example, and comment about its historical and technical accuracy and the merits of the performance of the actor portraying Nevsky).
The tension seemed to grow by degrees, then it plateaued. The years of training were paying off. Data was handled, plotted, and acted upon in seconds. The crew suddenly a physical part of the gear they were operating, their feelings shut off, their emotions submerged, only the sweat on their foreheads betraying that they were men after all, and not machines. They depended absolutely on their sonar operators. Sound energy was their only indication of what was happening, and each new bearing report triggered furious activity. (329)
While the novel highlights distinguished feats of heroism, honour and chivalry on both sides of the conflict, Clancy’s esoteric knowledge of the logistical and operational organization of the military forces of the day is the primary subject matter. The novel is primarily interested in the process of intelligence gathering, with combat (particularly ground combat) being secondary or even tertiary to the intelligence intrigues. Accordingly, much of the “action” of the first few hundred pages concerns the processing of disparate bits of intelligence as a reserve naval intelligence officer (Toland) begins to recognize the broad outlines of the Soviet plan for invading Western Europe. In deference to the process, the novel details the tabling of the Office of Naval Intelligence and US military command with “characters” who are known only by their acronyms (COMSUBLANT, COMLANTFLT, COMNAVAIRLANT) in the same sense that the novel only gives the US President a title (rather than a name). These “characters” (if they can be called that) are more body politic than they are body natural, and only serve as functionaries of plot development and contextual detail.
Then came the VCR. All the data relayed from the aircraft was recorded on videotape anyway since it was a convenient medium for data storage, but the VCRs built into the NATO system possessed only a few operating features. The Dutch captain thought to bring his personal machine into his office, and demonstrated how by using fast forward and fast reverse, the radar data could be used to show not only where things were going, but also where they had come from. Computer support made the task easier by eliminating items that moved no more than once every two hours – thus erasing the Russian radar lures – and there it was, a brand-new intelligence tool.
With several copies made of each tape, a staff of over a hundred intelligence and traffic-control experts examined the data round the clock. Some engaged in straight tactical intelligence. Others looked for patterns. A large number of trucks moving at night to and from front-line units could only mean shuttle runs to fuel and ammunition dumps. A number of vehicles breaking away from a divisional convoy and deploying in line parallel to the front meant artillery preparing for an attack. The real trick, they had learned, was to get the data to the forward commanders quickly enough so they could make use of it. (392)
The novel is remarkable not only for its detailed and comprehensive treatment of the theoretical and practical applications of Soviet and NATO military doctrines, but for its prescient anticipation of aspects of hybrid or full-spectrum warfare in the Soviet counter-intelligence doctrine of “Maskirovka” (Маскировка). Maskirovka is the Russian word for “camouflage” and the concept developed from the early 20th century to encompass a range of deep operational concepts and activities aimed at denial and deception.
“But маскировка has a broader military meaning: strategic, operational, physical and tactical deception. Apparently in U.S. military terminology, this is called either CC&D (camouflage, concealment and deception) or more recently D&D (denial and deception). It is the whole shebang—from guys in ski masks or uniforms with no insignia, to undercover activities, to hidden weapons transfers, to—well, starting a civil war but pretending that you’ve done nothing of the sort.” (Berdy, Michele A. “Russia’s Maskirovka Keeps Us Guessing.” Moscow Times 31 July 2014)
The plot develops around a politburo ploy to stave off the collapse of the Soviet Union after a jihadist attack destroys a major refinery in Azerbaijan, decimating the USSR’s petroleum reserves. Over the objections of a handful of ministers, the politburo votes to undertake a complex, multi-faceted deception in order to divide NATO forces and fabricate a pretext for a major offensive in Europe. This Maskirovka is conceived and carried out in order to maximize strategic surprise in order to soften Western resistance in advance of a gambit to seize oil fields and production facilities in Iraq and the Arabian peninsula.
The Soviets make unilateral overtures on arms reductions treaties, decommissioning several antiquated submarines in a gesture of “good faith” in advance of proposed talks to throw Western governments off their footing. Shortly thereafter, the KGB stages a bombing in the Kremlin in which a number of visiting schoolchildren are killed. The bombing immediately follows a broadcast of a digitized remaster of Alexander Nevsky on state television, the details of the film matching the broad outlines of the state’s account of the bombers’ actions and designs, which blames German intelligence operatives. Simultaneously, Russian special forces sail for Iceland on a merchant vessel camouflaged to look like an American ship, intending to seize Keflavik airfield and cut short the operational range of NATO’s hunter-killer submarines. A KGB operative, preparing to attack vital NATO infrastructure, is apprehended in Germany after he is struck by a car and is interrogated under the influence of sodium pentothal. Western intelligence circles quickly clue in to the Soviet designs and put themselves on war footing, mobilizing fleets and putting forces on high alert. With the Russian covert strike on Keflavik, the war commences in earnest.
At some level, the Maskirovka is a success. Greece and Turkey stay out of the war on account of the counterintelligence plot. The US is slow to mobilize, mistaking Soviet preparations for annual drills, and Soviet forces are able to seize strategic airfields in Norway and Iceland with only nominal resistance. These early successes give the Russians an enormous advantage in the battle for the North Atlantic that makes convoy duty highly risky for NATO forces. This advantage results in major fleet loses for the US and the UK after several successful air raids and submarine skirmishes. However, the Maskirovka is but one operational element of the grand Soviet strategy, and their persecution of deep operations warfare in Europe is far less decisive, particularly as the Navy is able to compensate for its losses and innovate new aerial tactics, resulting in a tactical stalemate that frustrates Soviet ambitions, leading to an internal coup and eventual ceasefire.
“once political authorities commit military forces in pursuit of political aims, military forces must win something—else there will be no basis from which political authorities can bargain to win politically. Therefore, the purpose of military operations can not be simply to avert defeat—but rather it must be to win” (US Army, FM 100-5).
The novel is also interested in the problem of the first strike, over which the Soviets demur because of the “political” implications of the decision. The meaning of this political decision is unclear, but we might infer that the decisiveness of that kind of escalation moves beyond the modelling of war as the continuation of politics and into something more like the spasmodic calculations of Herman Khan’s wargasm: after the point of escalation, it would become exceedingly difficult to contain the response and so the decision has implications which alter the nature of the sovereign decision and sideline the tactical and strategic problems of conventional military force.