Sci Fi Military: Something new, or a retread of modern military?

This seems to be a controversy, which is this:

Sci fi military, is it going to be evolved and different or a retread of what we have now?

Certain things will always make sense, like that you must have hierarchy in military commands, and only one person ultimately in charge. I don’t think that can change, at least for humans. When people buck this particular nugget of wisdom, you end up with military disasters. Command by committee = Vietnam.

As for the actual composition, you would be hard pressed to find something alternate to an officer/nco/enlisted ranking structure. That’s been around for 1000s of years.

Romans | Modern
miles        private
optio         sergeant
centurio    lieutenant
legate       colonel

Without organization, you have a cluster of people who fight as individuals, and that’s not a military. Or, not an organized one.

The proposed changes stem from an idea that mankind will evolve. [Haven’t any evidence of this, so it’s unlikely.]

Absent some sort of coercive behavior, most people aren’t strongly motivated to fight. Thus, hierarchy.

Military Officer Function for Science Fiction

Tactics and strategy inform or should inform everything a soldier does.

Your soldiers in military sci-fi must have a doctrine of some kind which tells them what to do and how to do it.

In the modern US Army, the nuts and bolts of things soldiers are trained to do are called Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTP for short).  The larger picture is strategy, and there are some pretty basic things that are to be accomplished with strategy.

With strategy, you must ask the question: Why are your military units doing what they’re doing?

If it does not have an applicable purpose, then your officers look incompetent, stupid, untrained, or insane. If the character is portrayed as competent, then his inability to understand strategy will be seen as a function of the author’s inability to understand strategy and the reader will stop reading the book. Do not misunderstand this to mean that officers aren’t sometimes wooden, textbook responders, or unable to remain focused on the objective. It means that if you portray a competent officer, he will respond to stimuli in a competent manner, based on the information they receive.

A competent officer has training to teach him to gain information about the objective, evaluate the enemy forces and intent, and either respond or initiate a response.

The things we will see in your novel will reflect whether your POV character is a grunt or a officer.  Sometimes there’s officers who are ground-pounders– that is, company level and lower– but the higher ups formulate strategy based on the size of the units they command.  A general may command an army (or divisions), and lower ranking officers command smaller sized units all the way down to the company commanders who are in the field supervising their platoons.

One important aspect of strategy (and indeed, tactics) is sustainability. That’s the dull world of logistics. Did I say dull? It’s not dull if you’re on the pointy end of the spear and you are getting no supplies, or worse, the wrong supplies. Horror stories abound from how landing ships were configured for the US Army landings in Morocco and Algeria. The doctrine of loading a ship with stuff wasn’t advanced at all, and I believe the stevedores were often left in charge of determining what would be loaded where.  This led to situations where the guys first on the beach need tanks, or jeeps, or ammunition, or medical supplies, and instead they’ve got bales of blankets or rations or underwear. It sounds absurd, but the military will grind to a halt if they don’t have petrol and bullets. And water. And boots. And artillery.

Therefore, if you want to invade a planet, a space station, or another ship, you will need logistics: Transport, gas, food, drink, armor, weapons, communications, shelters, clothes, ammunition, and batteries. It’s not enough to go in with just the stuff on your back. You will need resupply if you’re not living off the land.  One way to cut off an army is to interdict its supply lines, and those supply lines in space are ships dragging supplies around and factories on the ground factoring. Cut off the ships, you cut off the ability of the attacker to support an attack and you conceivably will win the engagement. We see this doctrine in seige warfare, starting over 3000 years ago (the Greeks), and continuing to the present day (Cuba).

So your logistics arm is going to acquire, store, and move stuff. It finds replacement personnel and stores them. It acquires, stores, and moves weapons systems.  It provides medical, legal, and psychiatric care for personnel. If any of these things does not happen, it will affect the effectiveness of the personnel by lowering their morale and inhibiting their ability to fight.

The mindset the US Army has is that, “(1) In combat, Infantrymen who are moving are attacking. (2) Infantrymen who are not attacking are preparing to attack.” (FM 3-21.8 The Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad, published by the United States Army.)

Overall, the strategies used in sci-fi are going to mirror those used in modern combat. Asymetrical warfare, using small unit and terror tactics, must be responded to by the larger force with a unified strategic doctrine that places forces in places to quickly react to provocation or to search for and prevent attacks before they happen.

What is the larger strategy? Follow the money. No matter how you posture your future, ultimately there are never enough resources for everyone, and that is the crux of most decisions made by the polity. It’s not for the good of the people, it’s for the good of commerce. Ultimately, no matter how deep a political system may lay in socialism, it will collapse without the application of capitalism. Therein lays the logistics argument: To get all this stuff, you must mine it, grow it, or manufacture it.  The strategy is to protect the stuff, or to take the stuff.

I see some authors who promote a character from a shivering private up to general grade levels. Being a grunt does not mean you are trained to think like an officer. It means you’re trained to think like a grunt. When you have Private Schlomo promoted way above his pay grade, he’s going to be way out of his comfort zone because he isn’t trained to understand the fight at company, brigade, or division level. A fireteam leader or squad leader has 3-8 people under them, and the decision tree may not be that complex. A platoon leader, which is the lowest level of officer supervision, is the point where the thought process must be done on a give-orders-to-subordinates basis.

You must use a staff, because you are not capable of getting the information necessary to do your job on your own. At company level, you have an executive officer who seconds the commanding officer’s lead. At higher levels than company, you see more staff to assist with functions such as analysis and prediction of enemy action, communications, IT, operations to assist in personnel (promotions, moving around, exiting the service, pay, awards, and so on), and training (both finding locations and creating the criteria for what is being taught, writing manuals, creating videos for training).

Military ranks – sci-fi

I’ve seen a fair few numbers of military sci-fi novels that do interesting things with ranks. The modern ranking system has some meat to it, in that we see certain positions going back centuries and millenia.  Others, not so much.

There’s two approaches I see: 1) Historical, based on a present day military ranking system of a particular country; 2) Non-historical, either because the author doesn’t understand military ranks or they are deliberately changing it.

Historical Ranks

The advantage of using a system based on historical systems is that there is a lot of knowledge out there available to interpret and understand the ranks. Some authors may draw from their own knowledge and experience in the military.  There are nuances for different countries, and even the different services may have ranking systems that are not strictly using the same rank names for the same ranks.

Witness, for instance, the navies of the future.  If you’re using the United States navy, you have some classifications that might not sound right applied to space navy: Seaman, for instance.

You also have rank names and titles based on hundreds of years of traditions that are in turn descended from word origins that may or may not make sense. Lieutenant, which is Leftenant in the UK, is from the French.  The position is a junior officer in the US Army and USMC, but it’s a mid-level position in the US Navy.

While I was reading the Honor Harrington series, I thought it was fascinating that David Weber carefully brought forward the ranks and roles from the current UK modern navy, and even utilized the terminology.  It was a sort of look of “what would the English navy look like in space”?

If you’re going to use historical ranks, try to understand them enough to know what they do. Which ranks typically lead which sized forces?

Don’t mix up the force compositions. If you’re talking about a fireteam, that is not the same as a squad (it’s usually a sub-element of squad), or platoon, or company, etc. Those are terms of art and they have meanings that resonate with military guys.  They may differ from nationality to nationality.

In the Warstrider series, the ranks and force composition names are Japanese, reflecting the culture of those worlds.  I’ve seen Chinese ranks used as well. The future of space isn’t always ‘MURICA!, though it feels like it most of the time in the books I read.

Making up a new rank system

I believe that if you’re going to create a new ranking system, while it’s comfortable to use historical rank names, it’s going to look like you botched your research. When you say “this guy is an optio and he’s in charge of 100 men” that makes some readers’ heads hurt. We’re thinking, “no, you mean centurio, and it’s only 88 guys.”  Make up new ranks and rank structures with non-historical names, and you avoid this problem.  We readers have all this baggage about what we think it’s supposed to be, and it bothers us, a lot, when you do something that breaks the mold of what we think that means.  A sergeant is an non-commissioned officer (which is another funny term- if you don’t have commissioned officers, can you have a NCO? Or does it want another title?) so he shouldn’t be doing officery stuff, and vice versa.

Or make it clear that you’ve departed from the wonky historical ranks. You could have private 7th class as your lowest rank, and then after that, sergeants first through fifth class, and so on. Those people who don’t know what a first sergeant is or a staff sergeant or a master sergeant aren’t going to care, as long as they can get your system and understand the inherent rank status of each character.  Higher or lower?

Force Composition – Who leads what?

One thing you should consider is the makeup of the forces each person commands. The US has been experimenting with the ideal number of people under command of a person for over sixty years, and they think it’s four person teams, typically. This doesn’t mean you’re wedded to that fact, but you should consider force composition before blithely making up numbers. This is one of those areas where it won’t ring true if you say one guy is commanding, say, 48 people with no other NCOs or officers.  That’s a platoon, by the way, and there’s usually a ton of people to make everything happen.  For instance, you may have:
Platoon leader – 2nd or 1st Lt. (48 people under)
Platoon Sergeant – Sgt. or Staff Sgt. (directly trains the 4 SLs)
4 Squad leaders – Corporals or sergeants (12 or 8 people under)
3 or 2 fireteam leaders in a squad – specialists or lance corporals or corporals

And then there’s the idea of battle-buddies, which is that you have a guy to look after you and you look after him.  The Air Force calls that a wingman. We know from Top Gun that you never, ever leave your wingman.

Even in the four man fireteam, there is rank hierarchy due to position.  Thus, the fireteam leader is carrying a rifle with a grenade launcher, his battle buddy might be the least experienced guy who gets just a rifle, and then there’s a MG guy and his battle buddy humps ammo for him.  It’s VERY clear who is next in line for command of the element, because when the guy in command is killed or wounded, the next person has to take over.

The end result of that whole mass is that each person doesn’t command more than 4 people. Wait, Pontius, you say, the Lt. commands 48 people. No, he doesn’t. He tells their NCOs what he wants to have happen and they carry it out. So he’ll talk to the plsgt or the SLs and tell them that he wants them to move to a ridgeline using bounding overwatch and then provide fire suppression on position x.  The squad leader makes decisions and issues orders to the fireteams, and they execute the orders.  The Lt. does not give orders to individual soldiers at the end of the line; he goes through intermediaries and lets them use their training to carry out the orders using their best understanding of tactics, techniques, and procedures.

Higher Ranks

The higher ranks are more esoteric; at a certain point, maybe at battalion level or higher, the officers aren’t in combat, aren’t in the field, necessarily. They’re directing things, again with a low number of officers directly reporting to them so they can keep the information flow going.

Think of it like trying to play four games of Risk simultaneously.  The information flow is going to be rocky; you might be getting slammed on one board while you have a great position on another, but your attention is limited and you can only focus on one thing at a time.  The joy of computer systems is that it can sometimes prioritize things and organize things for better review, and your sci-fi universe can reflect that.

That’s it, in a nutshell.

Edit-  To help you out, current US Military ranks are found here: http://www.militaryfactory.com/ranks/index.asp


Go ahead, comment. It won’t kill you.  And, um, it’s not because I’m desperate. Because I’m not. I’m NOT! Just comment. If you comment, I’ll be your best friend!  C’mon. I’ll give you a cookie! Yeah, I love the “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” books, too.

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