Bland deliberately skips over Stevenson’s recap of ‘the real targets,’ possibly as a way of building tension, or possibly as a way of not having to repeat himself a fourth time.  Instead the ex-Col gives his troops a bit of a pep talk by reminding his staff that the IRA managed to fight the British Army to a standstill with only a few hundred hard core members.  It works well enough as a motivational speech, but from the way it’s written, Bland seems to be presenting this pep talk as an actual argument.

“Stevenson looked around the table.  “That’s the bare-bones outline.  So what have we got to back it up?  First, there’s our troops, the active people and the supporters in the background.  There’re more than 70,000 native people living on reserves in Manitoba alone, and more than 100,000 in Saskatchewan and Alberta combined.  We need only a small fraction of them to carry out this mission.

Uh…What?  In answer to the question ‘what have we got to back it up?’ Stevenson’s just quoting basic demographics?  Never mind how many Indigenous people are living on reserve in Manitoba, how many of them are actually ready to fight?

I’m wondering if Bland got confused in this whole ‘switch the perspective’ counterpoint that he was trying for here?  Maybe he managed to get confused as to who was talking?  This is dialogue that should be in the mouths of the ITAC people, not the guy commanding the NPA forces themselves.  How many NPA warriors does Stevenson have ready to fight right now?  How many are armed, trained, set up in established units and a working chain of command?  If he says GO right now, how many warriors will be on the march?

In the last section, Stevenson mentioned several other Battle Groups in addition to Riel and Winnipegosis.  Do these BGs have names of their own?  Numbers?  Who are their commanders?  Just not having these details is a massive world-building fail.  Failing to imply that you even thought about it is worse.  Do not forget, Douglas Bland is claiming that his novel represents a meticulously studied and highly probably scenario.  Hand-waving away so many crucial details and numbers doesn’t speak well of his ‘research.’

We’ve already covered this before (Oh fuck, I realized how often I’m using this phrase.  Got to find something new.) when we looked at Alex Gabriel’s BG-Riel manpower requirements.  With the objectives he was given, he may have been able to pull things off if his Battle Group was somewhere around a thousand or so.  A thousand people.  That’s a little over one percent of the total Reserve population in the Province (or almost four percent of the urban population).  How many more are in BG Winnipegosis, and these other non-specified Battle Groups that Stevenson’s been talking about?

Are we talking about hundreds more?  Thousands?

“Remember, all of Ireland and the bulk of the British army were held in fear and in check for more than twenty years by a few hundred Irish Republican Army radicals.  The hard corps was not much more than a thousand men and women, but the real strength came from the silent supporters, ordinary citizens, who provided safe-houses, food, and so on, and who carried messages and kept an eye on the Brit soldiers and the security forces.  We’ve got enormous strength there too.  Not from everyone, not from all the elders, but more than enough to get the job done.

“Now let’s review phase two and the real targets.”

It’s worth noting that, for one thing, the IRA was largely an urban guerilla movement that had the advantage of a massive friendly population to hide in.  The British Army was hamstrung in that the only tactics that would have been guaranteed to work would have been something along the lines of a Comwellian purge killing thousands of innocent people.  Even then you’d have neighbourhoods where rival factions controlled territory that was literally measured in city blocks, and was sometimes just across the street from their enemies.

Stevenson, on the other hand, is proposing that they gather their NPA warriors on Reserves far removed from the city, then travel down open highways to their positions around Winnipeg.  Even if Gabriel pulls off some mystical bloodless coup and manages to take downtown Winnipeg without killing anyone, does he (Stevenson or Bland) really think that standing out in the open is a good idea against an enemy with air power?

Well…actually it will be.  The CF in Uprising will sit on their thumbs and watch as these columns roll blissfully towards the largest civilian population centre in the region and do absolutely nothing.  But let’s ignore that since Bland’s key selling point here is that his story is realistic.

How is Manitoba’s First Nations population supposed to provide ‘the real strength’ for the NPA?  The reserves might have provided some basic cover for smaller groups under more normal circumstances, where government response might be limited to mounties with a search warrant.  But in a full blown war?  Even if government forces were smart enough not to enter reserves in search of NPA warriors[1], what would stop them from waiting outside to intercept people as they left to carry out attacks?

That seems to be something that Bland is forgetting about rural Manitoba (as well as Saskatchewan and Alberta).  While there’s a small number of cities scattered across the region, there are thousands of people living in homesteads, farms, villages and towns.  While some of them are Indigenous or Metis, the overwhelming majority of them are ‘white’ and aren’t likely to be interested in helping a Native People’s Army that seems hell bent on besieging Winnipeg.

So, unlike the IRA, the NPA would be operating in a hostile environment.  Where any random civilian encountered is a possible informer who could burn them[2].

To follow the logic to its ugly conclusion, the “rational” answer for the NPA will be expel any people they suspect of not being loyal to their cause.  This would include most of the ‘white’ population of the rural areas.  The resulting wave of refugees could easily cause a panic further down their line of advance.  It could also inhibit government forces in their movements.  The trade off would be that the newly emptied regions would likely be treated as free fire zones once the uprising became truly bloody.

“Anyone who runs is a VC!  Anyone who stands still, is a well-disciplined VC!”  Full Metal Jacket (Warner Brothers 1987).  Image from

The second half of Stevenson’s pep talk is about to be echoed by the ITAC folks in a page or two, which makes this part of the chapter a repetitive slog.  It seems that ITAC was right on the money when they called the possibility of an attack on the oil pipelines using Northern Quebec and Winnipeg as diversions[3]!

“Right, phase two. We’ve identified three main target groups: the initial production centres, oil fields and the like; the infrastructure, pipelines and auxiliary systems; and the end-base production and storage facilities.  They’re all wide open to simple interference, like long-range rifle sniping, and all easy to attack and essentially impossible to defend.  Furthermore, repairing even moderate damage, especially to the transmission or storage facilities, would take weeks if not months.

“In the second phase of the operation, once we are in the south and in control of the cities, we move on these targets.  The natural gas compressor stations are the weak link in the system and are basically undefended, as you can see when you look at the images of a few of the targeted stations in Saskatchewan and Alberta.

“I had an old army staff college classmate, a white guy named Beamish MacDonald, a good man who saw the truth about Canada’s vulnerabilities long ago.  He confirmed our new assessments for us last year.  According to his calculations, and I trust them, merely to guard the 115 compressor stations on the TransCanada pipeline would require a force of more than a hundred army platoons of about thirty people each – 3,000 soldiers plus command staffs and logistical units.  Besides the compressor stations, there’s all the pipelines and all the other vital points to be defended at the same time.  No such force capable of all these duties exists in Canada.  We simply have to move our trained teams around, feigning attacks, spreading rumours of attacks, and sniping at people and sensitive equipment.  We’ll freeze the defenders wherever they may be and move to where they aren’t, because they can’t be in all the places all the time.  Of course, we can dramatically change the tempo with a truck bomb in a station any time we need to, but I hope that feints and small unit attacks will do the trick.”

I especially like the part where Stevenson’s staff college buddy calculated that the manpower needed to guard 115 compressor stations with a platoon each would come to over three thousand soldiers.  That’s the kind of high-order mathematical planning that can pad out entire slides in a powerpoint presentation.  Not to brag or anything, but my calculations put the number at 3,450[4].

Wait, didn’t we hear earlier on that Col Stevenson’s troops were on 72 hours notice to move?

The burring telephone interrupted the meeting.  Stevenson’s chief of staff took the call and immediately handed the phone to his commander.  

“Yes,” Sam said, and scribbled a few letters on a pad of paper. He snapped the cellphone shut, walked across the room to a locked cabinet, dialled the combination, opened a small steel locked box, and took out his code book.  His fingers slid down a list of the three-letter code Alfa-Foxtrot-Whisky and read across to the next column: “Go to twenty-four hours notice to execute the plan.”

Well, so much for the briefing.  I guess the staff will just have to wing it from here?

The thing with the three-letter code is called a trigram.  It’s an old-school way of encoding messages where a three letter code refers the receiver to a line in a pre-established code book.  When you’re talking on an ‘open net’ (that is, a net that could potentially be overheard by the enemy) it’s a good way of relaying orders since (unlike say, a substitution code) even if it’s intercepted by the enemy there is literally no relation between the letters and the message it’s relaying.  There’s always the risk of the code book being captured, but hey, nothing’s perfect.

It’s not used much anymore because modern militaries tend to use various forms of encryption that make the transmissions unreadable.  An enemy listening in without the proper encryption key will hear nothing but a burst of static.  This doesn’t necessarily make old-school code systems obsolete, but one of the disadvantages with using a pre-established code book is that you can’t modify messages or improvise on the fly.  By using something like trigrams, your only secure comms are limited to a pre-set number of messages.  Everything else will be understood a listening enemy.

Bland made a number of references to ‘encryption’ back when he first introduced us to The Complex at Akwesasne, and he’ll bring it up again as the story moves on, periodically waving off plot holes with the excuse that the NPA’s messages can’t be read.

Like I pointed out in the post about the Complex, you don’t need to be able to read the message to get a lot of valuable information from it.  This particular message was sent by cell phone, possibly a conventional, off-the-shelf model, maybe some cheap burner phone.  Regardless of what was used, cell phones operate by relaying signals via the existing phone network and cell towers.  Which means that there has now been a direct signal sent from the Complex directly to receiver in Winnipeg, establishing that an NPA cell is operating there.  On top of that, if the call itself was overheard it would indicate that a pre-established coding system is in use[5].

This is important.  Even if they couldn’t listen to the call, the signal itself would have been strong evidence that Akwesasne has people in Winnipeg.  That crisis in the ITAC that’s happening right now?  How much of their argument could be swept aside by the revelation that a CF Electronic Warfare unit had intercepted this call?  Hell, how hilarious could it be if someone from Rogers Wireless was the one to break the news[6]?

Oh what am I saying?  Bland’s already established that the ITAC is too hung up on the smell of their own farts to bother actually developing new information.  The NPA’s shoddy COMSEC and bizarre reliance on forty year old coding systems won’t have any impact on the government’s ability to defend itself, and it’s the security professionals who have dropped the ball.  That’s Bland’s words, not mine.

So what does Stevenson have to say about this latest development?  He’s just got the word that this is no longer a mental exercise.  That the bloodshed he’s been briefing his staff about might be hours away.  A veteran special forces commander with decades of experience, he’s about to unleash hell on his own country and his former colleagues.

So it begins, he thought to himself; too bad for everyone.

Well, I may just be some random ‘Toon sergeant, but I’m honestly at a loss for words.

***Today’s Featured image is from season 1 of The Wire (HBO 2002).  In it, a group of Baltimore detectives thrown together largely as an afterthought to investigate an allegedly small scale street gang, only to discover they are far larger and more organized than expected.  One of the major sources of tension is that the criminals, despite being largely uneducated, employ a simple but challenging system of codes when they make phone calls.***

Part 31.1 here!


[1] Since we’re using the IRA conflict as an example, Police and the Army going into a hostile neighbourhood was a quick and easy way to provoke an ugly conversation.  Even when they could do so with impunity (which was often) the chances of a violent confrontation with unnecessary casualties was high.

[2] Things get even more complicated when you stop to consider the reality that a lot of ‘white’ people in Canada can claim some Indigenous ancestry, and there’s even a few who go so far as to apply for their Status Cards in order to access Treaty rights like easier hunting licenses.  So on top of everything else the NPA forces will have to determine if the pale-faced but dark haired farmer with a Status Card is actually Metis or if he’s just a sportsman taking advantage of a Cree great grandfather.

[3] Too bad they didn’t bother to warn anybody.

[4] To be honest, I cheated and used the calculator on my phone.  But I still think it’s legit.

[5] One of the disadvantages of using a burner phone.  Can you imagine the potential gold mine that could come from someone hearing and recognizing Stevenson’s voice?  Remember, right now they only suspect that Stevenson might be a leader in the NPA.  Why is this man answering his own phone?

[6] In Canada, we have two large national phone carriers: Rogers and Bell Canada.  I think there’s a joke here about choosing between being stabbed or poisoned?

3 thoughts on “31-Stevenson’s Assumptions + COMSEC

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