Soooo….now that I’ve laid out the basics of how Canadians do the airborne thing, let’s start into how Bland envisions it working. Much like our examination of Alex Gabriel’s Winnipeg Map Recce, I’m going to have to break this down into multiple posts. This one’s going to deal with some big-picture strategy issues, the next one will get into more ground level questions, as well as raising what I think is the biggest problem with the scenario Bland is outlining.
This next part of Uprising also takes place in the Canada Command Operations Centre (just where we left off last time!) only now Gen Lepine is standing in front of the giant screen (yes, there’s a giant screen), discussing his plans for a parachute drop into James Bay with members of his staff.
The solution they’re eventually going to come up with is going to bear a striking resemblance to the option that Will Boucanier described as ‘hard-assed.' It’s a bit of an odd thing, having characters indirectly praising each other. Maybe this is just Bland’s way of letting us know how all great military minds think alike?
Now the writing of this scene is…heavy on details and yet also really light. In this scene, there’s two main people Lepine talks to: (Navy) Commander Nick Pew, the CCOC Director, and (Navy) Commodore John Miller, the CCOC Chief of Staff. During the course of this scene, Lepine will be talking with both these guys about his plans, but it won’t exactly be clear who he’s talking to at any particular moment. At one point Comander Nick Pew will walk away for a bit, but since Comodore John Miller (who’s basically his clone) was there from the previous scene, Lepine will keep talking. This left me flipping back and forth several pages to remind myself who was who.
This is why it’s important to give each character their own voice.
I’m going to do the best I can to identify which high-ranking confidante Gen Lepine is talking to at any given moment, but if you’re following along in the novel as you read this blog (you brave souls), don’t blame me if I get something wrong. It really isn’t clear.
[Nick Pew] “Afternoon, sir, anything special I can do?”
“Not yet, Nick. Anything unusual going on?” Lepine asked as he scanned the current ops display.
“Just changing the readiness status of the para unit in Trenton, sir. That’s on time, although the Hercs are being bitchy as usual. We’ll have an op-readiness state in a couple of hours. NDOC did report a short while ago that things are heating up in Montreal and their sources tell them the natives are planning a big show in town tomorrow morning. The SQ says they can handle it, and have put their so-called riot cops on standby. But the CDS expects an aid-of-the-civil-power requisition from Quebec at the first sign that things are getting out of hand.”
Levine settled into a chair. “Yeah, especially once the [Québec] premier realizes she can have our guys for free and save SQ overtime payments. I’m not sure the politicians get it, Nick, but we need to be ready. What about James Bay?”
Apparently, when an aid to civil power situation is declared, all the cops have to go home and refuse their paychecks.
So in the real world, the CF has acquired newer model Hercules transport aircraft that are likely to be a lot more dependable, but never mind that. Notice how there’s no mention here of a Task Force Commander (TFC) for the airborne mission. Nick Pew (who is a Navy staff officer) is getting SITREPs directly from the unit commanders themselves.
That’s not the way these things work. More on that in a bit.
Lepine then spends a couple of pages speculating with Nick as to what the best way to seize the airfield and the dam would be. Then Nick leaves, but the conversation continues:
The general walked to the map and ran his finger thoughtfully down the Chisasibi-to-Radisson road. “Okay. So what’re our options, John?”
[John Miller] “It’s not much of a combat challenge, once you’re on the ground, sir. There’s no way the bad guys can put up a fight against any kind of regular force; the only real issue could be taking back the generating station without damaging it. Getting there is the real trick. Here there are three main approaches we could use. First, we could drive up Highway 109 with a couple of companies with air support and take the area. But there are two problems there. Given ambushes and obstacles, and we have to assume there would be both, it could turn into a slow, miserable crawl north, giving the opposition ample time to destroy the facilities, even cripple the dams as well as the station if they want to, then get away. Second, the obvious units to use from 5 Brigade will probably be busy elsewhere, in the south – in Montreal, for example.”
First off, never assume the bad guys will be easy to defeat once you get them into a head on fight. Assume the worst, prepare accordingly, then act surprised if things go well. Otherwise you run the risk of ending up like the French at Dien Bien Phu. And nobody wants that.
Second, the only real issue could be taking back the generating station without damaging it? Uh…that’s your mission. That’s kind of…most of the entire mission! Your mission literally consists of two parts: 1) Fly to James Bay and 2) re-take the hydro electric dam! Yeah, the jump is going to be a huge part of the operation, but if the jump is flawless and the dam doesn’t get re-taken, your mission failed. Miller is basically telling his boss “Flying there is going to be hard, but after that it should be fine. Except for re-taking the dam. That’ll be hard.”
Third. Just so that we’re clear, Bland has confirmed there’s already RCMP up in James Bay, and Highway 109 is currently open. But getting people onsite to protect the dam apparently isn’t an option, nor is sending plainclothes officers up the Highway before it’s closed off.
Miller shifted his pointer to Chisasibi and the airfield. “Option two. We take Chisasibi and the airfield with guys from Trenton, use it as a base of ops, then drive or march up the road from there to Radisson. Two problems with that one also. First, it’s also slow; we might have some opposition on arrival, and certainly have to expect it on the road. Second, the village is small and so is the airfield. We’re doing a staff check at the moment with the air commanders, but you can see from the map that there’s only one runway and it’s so small we could only get one Herc in at a time. Then we’d have to turn it around, taxi back, and take off to clear the runway for the next one. That’s very slow and very open to attack. And if one Herc were disabled on the active runway, game over. Unless the bad guys are idiots, they know that too – and whoever we’re up against are not idiots.”
***So we’re clear, it’s over 100 km from Chisasibi to Radisson, and they’re talking about marching as though it’s a reasonable option. Like…no.***
That having been said, Bland seems to be assuming that the only option is to land Hercs on the runway, Israeli-style. Never mind that an airport runway is a wide open piece of ground that would…you know…make a perfect DZ for an airborne assault. Once the troops are on the ground, pushing out a perimeter to protect the planes is still doable, right?
But hey, what do I know?
[John Miller] He switched the map to Radisson and zoomed in close to the facilities. “So, option three: a para-op directly onto the site. At least this one has clear advantages: speed, surprise, direct action against the high-value target. It also has one big disadvantage: crappy dropping zones, with broken ground, boulders big as cars, deep ponds, and scrub trees all over the place. In fact, by the book, there aren’t any dropping zones in the area. When we passed the close-up photos around a meeting of the para commanders, they all sucked in their breath. They said if it’s the only way, they’ll go, but the predicted lots of casualties on landing and considerable difficulty assembling the troops. If it were an opposed landing, they said, all bets on reaching the facilities before they could be damaged were off, so this one isn’t that quick either. And when I asked if we could go at night, I thought for a moment they were going to throw me out the window.
Wow cool! The paras were so dismayed by the idea of jumping at night that the staff officer actually feared they were going to throw him out the window! That’s so cool! These guys must be seriously hard-assed operators to be giving off out the window glares like that!
So there’s some issues with the PoV we’re using but first off, Miller is wrong. According to “the Book” you can drop troops into any environment…during operations. It’s only in training that safety rules comes into effect. According to “the Book“ (Airborne Operations – Parachute B-GL-324-004/FP-001) you could drop airborne troops into the recently irradiated aftermath of a Soviet nuclear strike in West Germany if necessary.
Part of me feels like I’m making too much out of this, but Bland spent his entire career in staff and HQ positions, not commanding real troops in an operational theatre. As a result, he doesn’t seem to appreciate the reality of his own fictional creation: In his world, Canada is currently at war for its own survival. Most of the population (and even the government) hasn’t figured it out yet, but the military should be acutely aware of it by now.
This is war. Not training. The CSSR should rightly be dismayed by their DZ options on this mission, but getting mad and giving the messenger the ole’ defenestration stare? No. This is their fucking job.
There’s a trope in military fiction: The ‘we were expendable!’ trope. In it, the very concept that government or military superiors would decide that military lives can be traded for some kind of goal or objective is treated as though it were utterly intolerable. The very idea that soldiers – including the story’s protagonist! – might be sacrificed for the greater good is treated like a crime against nature itself.
I mean, they’re so cool! They’re supper cool army guys with awesome weapons and gear and maybe tattoos! And they’re going to let some pencil-neck loser in an office make them die? That’s not fair!
Except that, in real life, it is.
To use a historical example, the airborne drops into Normandy prior to D-Day were known to be high risk. Gen Eisenhower – the Supreme Allied Commander and authority holding the ultimate responsibility for D-Day itself – knew that a lot of the young men he was sending over in planes were not going to survive. Many of them might not even live to set foot in occupied France at all. Think about that. Eisenhower sent thousands of men into the night of 5-6 June knowing that hundreds, possibly thousands, would die having never even seen a German soldier…and that this was the best case scenario.
And General Dwight D. Eisenhower decided that this was acceptable.
This is a reality that is (or should be) understood by any soldier who volunteers to serve their country, but especially by members of specialized formations such as the CSSR. They get the training because their job is the most dangerous. Which means greater risk of death. There may be the expectation that they would only be sacrificed if the mission was very important – you don’t casually throw away your deadliest weapon – but if the objective is important enough…
Okay so we’re getting into some dark, philosophical territory here. Something that can (and probably will) be its own post unto itself, so I’m going to bring things back to more technical nit-picking.
Remember how I said we’d talk about the airborne chain of command later? This is later:
Why are we hearing about this second hand from a Navy staff officer? This section ends with Lepine finally naming the CO of the Canadian Special Service Regiment (young Col Rusty Campbell) but why didn’t this scene happen in person? Why pass up on a nice, tension filled moment in exchange for describing it second hand later on?
This is another example of Bland’s tendency to tell, rather than show. Now that the action’s about to kick off, we can expect to hear all about dramatic battles and confrontations, relayed second hand by staff officers in a HQ far away from the action.
But this goes further than just bad writing. Bland is getting some very real aspects of the chain of command wrong in this scene.
When it comes to Canadian Airborne operations, the chain of command splits between an airborne forces commander, and the airlift commander, with a Task Force Commander (TFC) running the overall mission. The TFC has an enormous amount of leeway when it comes to planning and executing the mission, up to and including the right/responsibility to call off or re-direct the mission in case something goes wrong in the last minute. Once the TFC has been assigned to lead the mission, they’re the boss. Higher Generals can set the parameters and objectives, but the mission belongs to the TFC.
Simply put, no random staff officer (especially not a navy staff officer) has any business butting into a planning session and telling them where to jump. DZ selection lies with the TFC and airborne forces commander, with input from the airlift commander. They’re the ones going into harm’s way, so they’re the ones who make the call.
That having been said, Gen Lepine can set the conditions for this mission where the only option might be to jump into the DZ that he prefers (or the one that Commodore Miller wants). Regardless, it’s still up to the TFC to make the call.
What we’re seeing here is a conversation that shouldn’t be happening right now. Instead the TFC should have stormed into Lepine’s office, red-faced and furious at the conduct of his Navy staff officer trying to dictate the mission to his people. Now my experience with full-time jump units is mostly limited to hanging out with some M-Coy guys during my workup training back in the day, but I don’t imagine it would be a very civilized conversation.
Now maybe the only option available is the one that Miller/Lepine/Bland have outlined here: dropping in close to the dam and accept the resulting casualties. But that’s for the task force senior officers to decide.
This actually seems to be a blind spot for Douglas Bland: He seems unable to trust subordinates.
In the real world though, if you got faith in their ability and their commitment then you can trust them do the right thing. Even if it means heavy losses along the way. So you give them the job and have faith that they’ll do it right without any micro-managing. And if you don’t have faith in your people? Then why the fuck did you put them in command in the first place?
And who knows? Maybe they’ll come up with a better option you can’t see.
Lepine looked over the maps once again. “Okay, here’s my outline. My aim is to take and secure the generating station with minimum chance of serious damage to the site. We will drop right on it, grab it and the Chisasibi airport to support a second stage assault later in the day.” Miller was already taking tidy notes.
“I want all three airborne commandos on the mission. Two drop on the generating facilities and initially the third stays airborne as a reserve. Once it is clear that the first drop got on the ground without serious opposition, the third commando goes to Chisasibi, drops on the airfield, secures it, and holds it for the Herc landings to follow. If the attack on the generating station is in serious doubt, then the third commando will drop there to support the first two. In that case, we’ll sort out the Chisasibi airfield assault as the situation develops.
It’s worth noting here that there’s no talk of any of the Infantry Regiments’ jump companies providing supplemental forces for the operations. Nor is there any talk about other forces (such as Combat Engineers) attached to add capabilities. The mission will be carried out with CSSR’s three commandos and nothing else.
“The whole force should expect to be on the ground until relieved by the Quebec authorities, but it must be self-sufficient for at least one week. If the operation continues beyond that period, plan to relieve the para companies with units from 5 Brigade. As soon as the paras are on the ground, I want a major unit from 5 Brigade up the Matagami-Radisson road as fast as they can move to take over the mission from the airborne. I was the Special Service Regiment pulled back into reserve soon as possible. I think we may need them somewhere else, sooner than most people expect.”
There’s also no talk about flying in additional troops to Chisasibi, or landing them on James Bay with commandeered float planes. Hell, for all of Lepine’s reliance on Navy officers, I’m amazed no one’s suggested moving supplies in across Hudson’s Bay by boat! It’s a bare-bones airborne drop followed by a long, obvious drive up a single Highway, and if things don’t work, it’s the politician’s fault.
Also, how is it that Lepine is micro-managing an airborne drop to this degree, but when it comes to the relief force all he says is ‘a major unit from 5 Brigade?’ I’m assuming he means the Van Doos, but that’s a lot of hand-waving for something that ought to be a Battle Group at the very least.
[Gen Lepine] “We fight wars as we have to, not as we would like to…didn’t some old general say that?”
“Yes, sir,” Miller replied without hesitation. “Lord Kitchener, during the First World War. Not the most encouraging precedent.
Historical Note: One of the early failings of the army leadership during the First World War was that command & control often ran top-down. Decisions would be made by Generals in HQs who had no idea what the conditions on the ground were. One of the Canadian innovations during that war was to push the maximum amount of information downwards to allow lower levels of leadership to make decisions on their own.
“Maps to the Lance-Corporals!” was a popular slogan in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Of course the Generals who pushed this idea the most were (British) Lord Julian Byng and (Canadian) Sir Arthur Currie. The former was beaten by a Liberal, the latter was a fat belly. No wonder Bland has no respect for them.
 The post linked here doesn’t actually contain the quote, but it covers the scene where Boucanier muses about it. Hindsight is 20/20.
 As best I can remember, these are just about the only Navy characters in this entire novel. Or at least, the only two with speaking roles. Incidentally, it is pretty normal to have officers from various elements represented in a higher headquarters like Canada Command.
 Well, okay, the Viet Minh were pretty happy about it. But still…
 In real life (as we’ve discussed before), the main police force in the region is the Eeyou Eenou Police Force (EEPF). It’s not clear if Bland thinks they would join the NPA, or if they would be denounced as ‘White Indian’ traitors.
 Especially since the first fatal casualty occurred at CFB Halifax. Fred McTavish. We remember.
 Casualties, according to this trope, only happen by accident or if the enemy does something especially evil or treacherous. If only those meddling politicians and generals would just butt out…
 At least one option I can imagine would be to find a better DZ further away that they could jump into safely at night, then march to the dam under cover of darkness to attack it at dawn.
 Pretty much every combat arms regiment has some kind of jump capability, even if it’s not in the form of an actual sub-unit specifically trained for the job. The same goes for non-combat arms units (albeit to a lesser extent), especially since many of them have members who are ex-infantry anyway.