Liner Notes: Paying for War in Angola

There’s  a common military aphorism that amateurs talk tactics but professionals talk logistics. Despite that famous statement, histories of logistics can be hard to find and among those histories of finance (beneath the strategic level) even harder. The obscurity extends beyond historians even to the militaries you would expect to know better. According to a short monograph recently published by Air University Press, the US Air Force went into both Gulf Wars without a financial management system capable of operating in a war zone.

One of the more innovative experiments in managing finance in the theater of operations comes from the Cuban intervention in Angola. It’s particularly interesting for me because it hinged on one of the more unusual instruments of postwar power, the cruise liner.

Between 1975 and 1991 more than 430,000 Cuban soldiers and civilians served in Angola. The troops, who were a mix of professionals, reservists, and conscripts, were all ostensibly volunteers. Though conscripts got the perk of reducing their service from three years to two, in general pay was poor. An ordinary soldier received seven Cuban pesos and 150 Angolan kwanzas per month, disbursed at the end of the soldier’s tour. The kwanzas could be used to buy discounted luxury goods in special subsidized shops in Luanda. The pesos were for home. To avoid having to funnel all returning troops through Havana or operate pay counters in every port of arrival, the Cubans hit on an unusual solution. For most of the 1980s they hired the Soviet cruise liner Leonid Sobinov to float off the Angolan coast as a “money ship.” Troops were shuttled out to the Sobinov to receive their back pay before the long transatlantic voyage home. Under close escorts because it carried so much money, the Sobinov usually stayed in Angolan waters for three days at a time. At least once it remained for a month.

The original designers of the Sobinov had probably never considered such as use for the ship. That said, they had probably also never considered that it would be owned by the Soviets. Like many of the Soviet Union’s larger passenger ships, it had been constructed outside the Soviet sphere entirely. Built for the Cunard Line in Britain as the RMS Saxonia in the mid-1950s, the Sobinov was sold to the Soviet Union and renamed in 1973. In addition to its unique duties as a “money ship,” it operated as an occasional troopship and cruise ship in the south Pacific and Mediterranean. It was laid up in the mid-1990s and scrapped in 1999.

Source: Edward George, The Cuban Intervention in Angola, 1965–1991: From Che Guevara to Cuito Cuanavale (Frank Cass, 2005)

Aleksandr Zhitomirsky

During the Second World War, when it still seemed like the Germans might capture Moscow, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels wrote a list of Soviet propagandists who were to be killed upon capture. Number one was the writer Ilya Ehrenburg. Number two was chief Radio Moscow announcer Iurii Levitan. Number three was Aleksandr Zhitomirsky, the designer and artist of one of the Red Army’s chief illustrated propaganda magazines.

That, at least, was the story, one which is mentioned – with appropriate skepticism – by Erika Wolf in the catalogue to a major exhibit of artist Aleksandr Zhitomirsky’s work at the Art Institute of Chicago. A talented designer and illustrator whose most striking works were the satirical, even grotesque, photomontages that he created in the early years of the Cold War, Zhitomirsky’s work pilloried capitalism and the United States, often with allusions to the Nazi threat against which Zhitomirsky had cut his teeth propagandizing. While his main employment from 1953 to 1991 was as chief artist for Soviet Union (Sovietskii Soiuz), a glossy magazine aimed at readers in Eastern Europe and Asia, his illustrations appeared in the Literary Newspaper (Literaturnaia gazeta), official organ of the Union of Soviet Writers; Red Fleet (Krasnyi flot); Rising Generation (Smena); the satirical magazine Krokodil (Crocodile), and even occasionally in more exalted venues such as Truth (Pravda), the official newspaper of the Communist Party, and News (Izvestiia), official paper of the Soviet government. Those works attracted attention not just at home, where he was part of a major photomontage exhibit in East Berlin in 1961/2 and had his own retrospective in Moscow, but even in the US, where some of his photomontages from the Literary Gazette drew comment in the New York Times.

On balance it’s the postwar art, not just the illustrations mentioned above but also the book covers and occasional poster, that is the focus of Wolf’s Aleksandr Zhitomirsky: Photomontage as a Weapon of World War II and the Cold War (Yale University Press, 2016). For me, though, it’s Zhitomirsky’s wartime work on Front Illustrated (Frontovaia illiustratsiia) and its complementary German-language edition aimed at enemy soldiers (Front Illustrated for German Soldiers / Front-Illustrierte für den deutschen Soldaten) that’s more captivating. The postwar designs are hardly subtle. How often can one look at a monkey-like Goebbels ventriloquizing through some American symbol?

Aleksandr Zhitomirsky CoverFront Illustrated for German Soldiers, which existed to sow unease and dissension in the German ranks, had to be more indirect. For his cover designs and leaflets, Zhitomirsky mixed captured German photographs and new photography (often with himself as the model) with images borrowed for his vast trove of reference photos, often airbrushed together to the point that they became impossible to distinguish. With one leaflet, Choose! Like This or Like That!, Wolf shows how what appears to be a single photograph of dead Germans lying on the ground was actually a composite of seven different photographs, layered together, photographed, then retouched to create a seamless image. With others, she shows how Zhitomirsky mixed background photography with physical objects (like reproduced letters and snapshots) in trompe-l’œil arrangements. Taking advantage of Zhitomirsky’s personal archive, Wolf can demonstrates just how impressive his work was.

How Not to Network a Nation

petersI’ve been looking to read How Not to Network a Nation by Benjamin Peters since MIT Press announced it last November, but a mixture of delays, library closings over summer, and general busyness meant that I didn’t lay hands on a copy until a few weeks ago. I’m really glad that I remembered, since it’s a wonderful book that sheds a lot of light on the development of computer networking and the internet.

Peters examines a series of failed attempts to create large-scale civilian computer networks in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, which he explains in the context of the Soviet economy and the development of cybernetics as a discipline. (Those wanting a overview of the argument can listen to his lovely interview with the New Books Network). By analyzing these Soviet proposals, Peters not only describes Soviet efforts at network-building but also sheds some light on the parallel processes going on in the United States.

Comparing the success of the Internet to the failure of the Soviet network proposals helps highlight the distinctive features of the network that ultimately developed out of the US ARPANET experiment. It also casts what Peters calls the “post-war American military-industrial-academic complex” in the unusual role of altruistic and disinterested benefactor. In contrast to the Soviet Union, where the military and its suppliers jealously guarded their power and priorities, the US government ended up funding a lot of research that – though loosely justified on the basis of military need – was more or less unrelated to specific military requirements and ended up being spread far and wide through civilian connections before it ever proved to have military significance.

How Not to Network a Nation is probably most rewarding for those with some knowledge of the Soviet economic and political system, including its perennial bureaucratic battles and black markets deals for influence and resources. (Anyone wanting to know more, for example, about the debates over how to mathematically optimize the planned economy, with or without computers, should read Francis Spufford’s well-footnoted novel Red Plenty.) Its biggest omission is any discussion of the technical features of the Soviet projects. Arguably, one of the reasons that the internet became the Internet is that it was built from architecture (particularly TCP/IP) flexible enough to span multiple thinly-connected networks with varying capabilities and purposes. That flexibility made it possible for networking to thrive even without the kind of deliberate and wide-ranging support that a large-scale, well-planned project would have required. Peters’s book, illuminating as it is, never addresses those aspects of network development.

Watching the Soviets off the Canadian Coast

David Zimmerman’s new book on the Royal Canadian Navy, Maritime Command Pacific, discusses the navy’s anxieties about the presence of Soviet trawlers or merchant ships off the Canadian Pacific coast. Maritime Command Pacific presumed that Soviet ships were undertaking intelligence activities to monitor Canadian naval and maritime air forces, military radio transmissions, and underwater cables. In wartime, they suspected the Soviet fishing fleet would be cut submarine cables, jam radio communications, lay mines, land secret agents, raid isolated shore targets, support Soviet submarine and aircraft operations, or even scuttle ships to block Canadian ports. As a result, planning for home defense in British Columbia included guards for as many as 3,000 captured Soviet seamen, and naval operations included the close surveillance of Soviet fishing vessels in the Canadian area of operations (which extended beyond Canadian territorial waters).

HMCS New Glasgow at sea, 1956. Canada. Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / ecopy. LAC Ref. Archival reference no. R112-6097-7-E.

HMCS New Glasgow at sea, 1956. Canada. Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / ecopy. LAC Ref.
Archival reference no. R112-6097-7-E.

The small size of the Canadian fleet meant that surveillance of the Soviet commercial fleet was thin at best. An example of a more involved operation was the tracing of the Soviet trawler SRT 4454. First spotted by American patrol aircraft on June 8, 1962, SRT 4454 was shadowed  over the course of two weeks first by a Canadian Neptune patrol airplane, then by the frigate Stettler, again by Canadian aircraft, and finally by the frigates New Glasgow and Jonquiere. The after action analysis of the operation included the observation that no seagulls followed the ship when it was streaming its trawl, unusual if fish were being caught; reports from the Department of Fisheries and the Pacific Oceanographic Group that the waters SRT 4454 was “fishing” were too deep to catch much of anything; and radar contact by the Neptune with what might have been a submarine nearby. Maritime Command Pacific’s final conclusion was that SRT 4454 might have been planting “underwater navigation fixing aides,” possibly in conjunction with a submerged submarine.

Unfortunately, Zimmerman’s book concludes in 1965, just as the Soviet fishing presence in the eastern Pacific was massively expanding (Carmel Finley’s Pacific Fisheries project has been documenting that expansion here, here, and here). The book also leaves open the question “was the Soviet fishing fleet engaged in spying or other nefarious activities?”

I’ve been looking for anyone writing about this for a while. During the Cold War, the idea that Soviet fishing vessels – as opposed to the intelligence-collecting ships that were built on trawler hulls but openly acknowledged as naval vessels – were heavily engaged in espionage or clandestine operations was widespread. The most dramatic that I’ve ever seen is in the semi-fictional future history World War 3, edited by Shelford Bidwell, in which two Soviet factory ships (the fish-processing mother ships of the Soviet fishing fleet) lay mines in the Dover Straits through concealed ports beneath the waterline.

Twenty-four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I’ve yet to see any new specifics, despite the range of other disclosures about Soviet military and intelligence activities. Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, especially when it comes to intelligence and national security, but the gap is starting to look like no one has any good stories to tell – or that the stories remain so relevant to current events that they are staying deeply buried to protect sources and methods. Without any direct evidence, the best argument that the Soviets were probably using the fishing fleet for intelligence activities is that NATO nations were doing the same themselves. The US, British, and Norwegians all both 1) operated covert or clandestine intelligence-gathering ships which were disguised as civilian trawlers or merchant ships and 2) collected intelligence by placing agents on genuine civilian trawlers or cargo ships or having their crews collect information themselves.

Whether or not Soviet civilian vessels really did threaten the Canadian Pacific coast, the fear had at least one major consequence. The need for a military presence, no matter how minimal, along the less populated northern British Columbian coast was one of the reasons for creating the Canadian Rangers as a unpaid, almost unarmed (the only weapon issued was the Second World War-vintage Lee-Enfield rifle), volunteer reserve to protect the coast. The Rangers, who not only still exist but have become a significant part of Canadian military policy in the north.

Source Notes: Maritime Command Pacific: The Royal Canadian Navy’s West Coast Fleet in the Early Cold War (UBC Press, 2015) discusses Canadian surveillance of Soviet ships on Pacific coast. American clandestine intelligence-gathering ships are covered in Jeffrey Richelson’s article “Task Force 157: The US Navy’s Secret Intelligence Service 1966–77” (Intelligence and National Security, vol. 11 no. 1); more overt intelligence-gathering is in Wyman H. Packard’s A Century of Naval Intelligence. British use of trawlers is the topic of Richard J. Aldrich and Mason Redfearn’s “The Perfect Cover: British Intelligence, the Soviet Fleet and Distant Water Trawler Operations, 1963–1974” (Intelligence and National Security, vol. 12 no. 3)

Architecture for Command

The Russian Federation’s air campaign in Syria has led to some new video of the inside of the new Russian strategic command center opened late last year in Moscow. The National Defense Management Center (Russian acronym: NTsUO) is supposed to be a combined command and control facility for all Russian military, paramilitary, and emergency services, including the nuclear deterrent. The huge command center, much of which seems suspiciously immaculate, features enormous video screens, serried ranks of computer workstations, and a circular conference table that looks like it came straight from the set of Doctor Strangelove.

Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Joshua Strang.

Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Joshua Strang.

Most modern command centers are situated in well-protected bunkers, like NORAD’s Cheyenne Mountain headquarters, or bland warehouses, like the Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid, Qatar. The NTsUO, unusually, is built into an impressive heritage building on an embankment beside the Moskva River. No. 22 Frunzenskaya Naberezhnaya, the former headquarters of the Soviet (and then Russian) Ground Forces, has the “stripped classical” style and gargantuan massing of the Stalinist-era building it is. Its architect, Lev Rudnev, is best known for two skyscrapers from the more baroque later stage of Stalinist neoclassicism: the Moscow State University main tower, one of Moscow’s “Seven Sisters,” and the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw.

Frunzenskaya Nab. 22. By Ikar.us (CC BY 3.0)

Frunzenskaya Nab. 22, before renovations. Photograph by Ikar.us (CC BY 3.0)

Of the three major military buildings in Moscow, Frunzenskaya Nab. 22 may be the nicest. The first, the M.V. Frunze Military Academy (constructed 1932–37), was a fortress-like bloc whose smooth mixture of neoclassical and modern features was marred by a mock tank on the roof and Stalin’s bombastic words – “We desire no foreign territory but will not yield one inch of our own“ – engraved on the wall (there’s a good photograph in the University of Michigan digital collection here).

The second, the People’s Commissariat of Military and Naval Affairs on Znamenka Street (1934–38), was less austere, with Italianate touches to its roofline. Historian Roger Moorhouse somewhat unkindly describes it as having “stucco walls, brutal bas reliefs of stylized tanks, and an elaborate central tower sporting red stars instead of clock faces.” (You can see several photos, from various angles, at Wikimapia).

Both buildings were clear symbolic statements of Soviet military strength. Neither was the worst architectural indignity inflicted on Moscow by the Red Army. That honor probably goes to the Red Army Theatre (1934–40) designed by Karo Halabyan, a pillared monstrosity whose floor plan traced out a red Soviet star.

Russian Army's Theatre by Vladimir OKC. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Red Army Theatre. Photograph by Vladimir OKC. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Although Frunzenskaya Nab. 22 was, in the words of Moscow News, ornamented “like a militaristic Christmas tree, with sculptures of helmets, swords and real-life tanks,” the building still cuts an impressive figure. A renovation seems to have added two towers in a similar style to the original building and a large glassed-in atrium complete with its own huge flat screen. The result is a command center that seems as much about sending messages by being seen as about sending messages to control operations. After all, who would put the command center for the Strategic Rocket Forces somewhere that is already ground zero in any nuclear war?

The atrium of the NTSuO. Getty Images.

Soviet Cartography’s Secret Mission? (Possibly, but Probably Not)

Wired has an interesting and well-illustrated (or is it well-mapped?) article called “Inside the Secret World of Russia’s Cold War Mapmakers.” Written by Greg Miller, the article discusses both the Soviet Union’s gargantuan, top secret mapping projects, as well the odd history of their percolation to the west at the end of the Cold War and their use since.

While maps for civilian use were deliberately distorted to destroy their cartographic value, the Soviets mapped almost the entire world at 1:200,000 scale, most of Europe, Asia, North America, and northern Africa at 1:50,000 scale, and all of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe at 1:25,000 scale. (One person Miller interviews says that 1:50,000 is “globally considered among the military to be the tactical scale for ground forces,” which means the Soviets had mapped all of the Soviet Union, including vast swathes of Siberia, to a more detailed level than was needed for most military operations.) Maps of some US cities were done down to 1:10,000 scale, at which point one is seeing individual buildings in cities like Syracuse, NY. In at least some cases, the Soviets seemed to have information from on the ground that made the maps more accurate than unclassified local maps from the same era. Some times they seemed to have made amateur mistakes of interpretation.

Since the Cold War ended, these super-detailed maps have proved useful in all sorts of places. They’ve been used for mapping out cell networks, and to draw international boundaries on the US government’s own official maps. And Miller’s article also talks about the strangeness of purchasing and discussing these maps, given a continued reticence in the former Soviet Union to say much about them.

The fact that the Soviet military seemed to have over-mapped a lot of areas suggests a system with plenty of resources, quotas to fill, and little or no desire to challenge the assumptions about whether or not the work was worth it: so basically a typical Soviet  industrial operation. They also seem to have piled a lot of non-spatial information on to the maps, including “everything from the materials and conditions of the roads to the diameter and spacing of the trees in a forest to the typical weather at different times of year.”

Geographer Alex Kent has a really interesting theory about this, suggesting that over-mapping and over-detailing (my words, not his) were a way of conveniently storing and organizing information that didn’t necessarily need to be mapped. Kent says “It’s almost like a repository of intelligence, a database where you can put everything you know about a place in the days before computers … There are layers of visual hierarchy. What is important stands out. What isn’t recedes. There’s a lot that modern cartographers could learn from the way these maps were made.”

It’s an argument that makes a lot of sense, since it parallels developments on the other side of the Iron Curtain. During the Second World War, the western Allies found themselves with broad and urgent requirements for all sorts of geographic information about potential theaters of war. In the UK, the Inter-Service Topographic Department (ISTD) created Inter-Service Information Series (ISIS) reports; in the US, they were Joint Army Navy Intelligence Studies (JANIS).

The shift from Second World War to Cold War meant the requirement never really went away, just moved east. As a result, both the US and the UK maintained general surveys of useful information for possible areas of conflict. In the US, the project was known as the National Intelligence Survey (NIS), and the desired scope was the entire world (with a priority focus on the Soviet bloc). An interagency effort led by the CIA, each area survey contained information on a country or region’s military geography, transportation, telecommunications, sociology, politics, economics, science, and armed forces. There were maps too, though only at 1:100,000 scale.

Depending on your age, you may even have used the results of the program. In 1962, the CIA started produced a classified annual update called the Basic Intelligence Factbook. Thirteen years later, that became available in unclassified form as the CIA World Factbook. It went online in 1997, and for kids of my generation it was an easy go-to source for the kind of basic facts that made a book report or a model UN briefing.

It’s quite plausible that the Soviet detailed mapped was a way of arranging a lot of the same types of information included in a factbook-like resource. On the other hand, no matter how well designed those maps were, they can’t have been a good solution in the long run. Large-format four-color maps are a pain to print, a pain to store, and a pain to ship. You couldn’t have transmitted the information over a phone line, machine to machine, like you could send statistics once computers were available. Instead, you would have been stuck pushing paper. Of course, those problems don’t mean that wasn’t what the Soviets were doing. After all, they made plenty of poor technological decisions.

When the Soviet Union Sold Satellite Photos

Given the Soviet Union’s reputation as tight-fisted with even mundane information, it may come as a surprise that there was a time when it sold satellite imagery internationally. The moment was the late 1980s, and the reason was hard currency.

Though the first steps into the commercial satellite imagery market had begun in the United States with the LANDSAT program, the US government was wary of letting just anyone buy images made in orbit. The Land Remote Sensing Commercialization Act of 1984 required any US operator to have a license from the Department of Commerce and comply with any national security requirements. Under these circumstances, the appearance of ten-meter resolution imagery (three times better than LANDSAT) from France’s SPOT (Satellite Pour l’Observation de la Terre) satellite in 1986 was a bombshell. Within a year, SPOT was selling $23 million in imagery annually and had captured more than 60% of the commercial market. That included images of the 1986 Chernobyl reactor accident, which became the first commercial satellite imagery to be shown on television.

Seventeen months after the launch of SPOT-1, the Soviet Union entered the imagery market. Taken from Soviet space stations and a series of earth-sensing photography satellites (similar to Soviet spy satellites but not as sophisticated), the images were sold by Soyuzkarta – a newly-created organization – and the photographs would have resolution as high as five meters – twice what SPOT was offering. The next year, the Soviets added electro-optical and radar images, though they were sold by a different organization, Glavkosmos.

The CIA’s judgement on the program, at least according to a research paper made available by the National Security Archive, was one of skepticism. Yes, the Soviets were offering twice the spatial resolution of the best alternative on the market, but in almost every other way they were behind the curve. The images were on physical film, instead of being digital. They were returned to earth by a parachute canister, not transmitted immediately, so they were slower to be received by the client. Orbits were sub-optimal for overhead imagery. In some ways, the Soviet service was not just inferior but downright obsolete: some radar tracks that were sold appeared to have been hand-spliced together, and delivery of the images on a computer-compatible tape required the client to provide the tape. As a result, the CIA estimated that between 1987 and 1990 the Soviets had sold only $5–8 million of imagery, or roughly 5–13% of the worldwide market.