RogerBW's Blog

Arctic Gambit, Larry Bond and Chris Carlson 08 November 2021

2018 technothriller. Those sneaky Russians have a new terror weapon, and only a pre-emptive attack can prevent World War III.

Well, the inspiration is up front: Bond found out about the putative Status-6 UUV and decided that all the claims were true. But, as Martin Bourne points out in his Shipwreck modern naval wargaming rules (the rule set for this era that isn't written by Bond and Carlson), there's a basic problem with this model: the people who build a weapon for a government have an interest in talking it up so that they get more funding, that government has an interest in talking it up so as to make it sound more intimidating, and the opposition's intelligence people have an interest in talking it up so that they get more resources for their flavour of analysis and countermeasure rather than some other department's. So every information source available to mere mortals will tend to make a system sound much more capable and reliable than it actually is.

But merely being able to vaporise a coastal city with a robotic submarine isn't enough, so we end up with

Project Dragon, a long-range, nuclear-propelled, nuclear-armed land attack torpedo system. In Russian terminology, the Dragon was a deep-sea torpedo-rocket strike complex, a strategic weapon that combined an incredibly large torpedo with a hypersonic land attack cruise missile. […] able to reach targets well inland.

and the difficulty is that this never really convinced me. I mean, even if we assume for the sake of argument that it works, that it is magically stealthy (the use of "nanomaterial" is a dead giveaway, the technothriller equivalent of "a wizard did it"), that it actually can effectively destroy an inland city with only a few minutes' warning by sneaking up to the coast and firing its missile… that's just the same capability that ballistic missile submarines have had since about the 1960s, with depressed-trajectory attacks! (And Larry and Chris certainly know this.)

And then we're asked to believe on top of that that, because this weapon is so huge, rather than wait for the submarines that can carry it to come into service, those sneaky Rooskies are building a launch complex off the northern Russian coast, 500 feet underwater. So, er, why can't you just roll one of these things off the dock at Arkhangelsk? Or drop it off a ship? Seems to me that would be a lot cheaper and quicker to get into action.

I've gone into the menacing new weapon at some length because in a book like this the threat has to be a credible one, and I just never found myself convinced. Which is a shame, because some of the rest is pretty good; in particular, I enjoyed the intelligence analysis of the data from various submarine missions to nose around that launch complex as it's being built, and the decisions about what information to make public when. The submarine action is decent, but there's really nothing here that Bond and Carlson haven't done before; because Jerry Mitchell is the series hero he is required to be Always Right, everyone who agrees with him is right and everyone who doesn't is wrong, and I never felt any sense either that he was in danger or that he might not succeed in every respect.

(Oh yeah, his former CO is now the President. And that's about the extent of anyone's characterisation.)

It may of course be that I'm just not a person who can enjoy technothrillers any more, but I've enjoyed others in recent years.

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