The Komneniad: Strategic Dilemma

Although a glance at the maps of 1940 and 1942 shows the Khanate making spectacular gains – the loss of the Tibetan highlands easily compensated by the gain of all of coastal China – the truth which underlies the triumphal appearance is that the Komnenoi, by 1942, were in something of a strategic dilemma.

FSR March 1940

FSR July 1942

It is true that the gain of coastal China had alleviated the fear of a land war against the vast Imperial Japanese Army. Some have referred to the specter of a ‘two-front’ war, but in fact this was almost irrelevant; the IJA, once landed on a broad front in China, was more than large enough to simply swamp the Legions. Whether Punjab was involved or not was quite irrelevant; trying to march through Tibet, the Moslem armies could hardly expect to reach even the source of the Yangtse by the time the IJA was bombarding New Byzantium and dictating terms. To have this threat removed was, then, an enormous gain, quite irrespective of the industry and population of China, always concentrated near the mercantile coast.

With this existential problem alleviated, however, the question for the Khanate became “What next?” And it was here that the problem arose. It was still necessary to keep a strong force in Korea, the remaining land border with Japan; true, the narrow and mountainous peninsula is easily defensible, but enough force to expect to hold it against the 200 regular divisions of the IJA remained a significant fraction of the Khanate’s strength. Then, the lengthy Chinese coast also had to be defended; true, this was much easier than attempting to hold the old inland border, but any sudden landing or coup-de-main seizure of a port would be disastrous, restoring the situation of 200 IJA divisions free to maneuver in the Chinese plains.

With the necessary subtractions for these defensive purposes – after Japan’s actions in the December War, no Japanese regime was going to get much trust in the Khanate, no matter how politely they insisted on their neutrality, or how many suicides among the old militarist clique they forced – there was very little left for projecting power; and, in any case, nowhere in particular to project it to. The traditional Siberian front, although wide in a purely physical sense, was logistically much too narrow for modern armies: The vast quantities of ammunition and fuel required, and the very limited railroads, precluded any serious offensive against Russia, which in any case had little of value east of the easily-defensible Urals. Indochina was held by an ally, and was mainly valuable – with the exception of Singapore – for its raw materials, which was not the Khanate’s bottleneck. The economic problem, indeed, was rather in processing the flood of ore from the immense reserves in Siberia. Although there had been mining there for centuries, even on a large scale by earlier standards, these earlier efforts paled by comparison to what the twentieth century could do. Coal, oil, rare earths, industrial-grade diamonds, and plain old iron ore by the thousands of tons; investors, workers, and drawers of the State dividend alike were awash in new wealth. But for all their economic success, the Komnenoi were at heart a military caste, and however much they might have rejoiced in the increase in the State dividend, their autarkic-nationalist instincts were alarmed by the sight of all this materiel flowing out of Shanghai harbour, to make guns and tanks and aircraft in the forges of other countries. Thus when the Senate and the People cast greedy eyes on other countries’ wealth, it was factories, machine tools, and skilled workers they coveted; raw materials might get a shrug of “better to have it than not,” but it did not excite the imagination.

Indochina, then, was not attractive, even before considering the number of troops required to garrison its long coastline. That left Punjab, which on the face of it had several good points as a victim of Khanate aggression: Its army and industry were both relatively weak, it had recently acquired Roman territory in the shape of the Tibetan plateau, and the traditionally garlic-heavy diet of its people made its ambassadors unpopular at parties. Unfortunately, its border with the Khanate, although suitably long and not too badly supplied with railroads, could be divided into two parts: The mountainous bit and the jungle-covered bit. Neither was very suitable for any sort of warfare except the most grinding attrition, as the Legions had proved extensively in their – successful, so far as it went – campaigns of 1940. Worse, its industries were not conveniently concentrated anywhere; and the prospect of holding down India, with another long coastline full of excellent harbour infrastructure – built to support the Black Navy in its heyday – had to make anyone familiar with the Khanate’s manpower situation wince. A small army of well-trained and well-equipped long-service volunteers was very suitable for winning battles by breaking men’s hearts and making them run. Unfortunately, at some point during Konstantin’s reforms, someone had failed to ask how, supposing the Legions made progress towards their historic goal of reunification, they were supposed to pacify the territories they took. Consequently the project of conquering even India, much less the immense area of Central Asia that was Punjab’s historic and industrial core, left Roman generals un-enthusiastic, to say the least.

Considered as an imperialistic, expansionist power, then, what the Khanate chiefly needed was a generation of peace: Time to build its industries to a level commensurate with its raw materials, time to absorb the vast unorganised mass of the Chinese people into the Legions (along with liquidating their more restive elements), time to fortify the Korean mountains and Chinese coast to economise on manpower and allow concentration elsewhere. It was, of course, extremely unlikely to be granted any such pause. The Komnenoi were, therefore, faced with a problem for which they were, by national temperament, somewhat unsuited: Namely that of prioritising their various fronts to avoid losses, rather than maximise gains. A general staff which had, historically, been much more used to considering how best to impose the will of the Senate and the People on recalcitrant barbarians found this rather difficult; but since the devil was clearly driving, they made do.

The eventual Defensive Plan of 1942 was not an inspired product of the warmaker’s art; indeed its decisions were almost dictated by geography rather than strategy. The Korean border got the maximum priority, due to its combination of nearness to the industrial core around New Byzantium, probability of war with Japan, and the unpleasant possibility of 200 divisions of Japanese conscripts simply disembarking into excellent Korean harbours and strolling into battle. The Indochinese and Russian borders were given the lowest priority, and held by thin screens of second-category units, for exactly the opposite reasons: War with Russia or Catalunya was unlikely, and even if it should come these borders were far away from anything of value – there was plenty of space to trade, at need, for time; nor would any invading force benefit from the easy logistics of the short hop over the Sea of Japan.

That left the Punjabi border and the Chinese coast, and here for the first time there was some controversy over priority. One could reasonably argue that a surprise Japanese landing would be disastrous, and that much force should be dedicated to preventing it. Such a concentration, however, would doom the Khanate to a purely defensive stance; and this, in the end, was intolerable. If Punjab was unpromising ground for expansion, it was also the only game in town; the Komnenoi simply could not bear to abandon all possibility for victory and conquest. The coast, therefore, was to be defended with what could be spared from the Tibetan Strategic Reserve, and not vice-versa; and the prestigious I Komnenoi, the elite armoured kataphrakts, were assigned to the western border.

If it came down to it, after all, the Legions had fought their way through the Tibetan plateau, at hideous cost in blood and treasure, before; there is a reason the main pass through the Himalayas is called the ‘Romanoi Kush’, ‘Killer-of-Romans’. And there was, for patriotic Komnenoi, Reunification to strive for; the ideology of the Khanate, somewhat at odds with geographic reality, had always looked to the west. In the far distance glittered the City of Men’s Desire, and even, impossibly, the Eternal City itself, temporarily a Moslem colony under a Punjabi viceroy. Against the lure, however unlikely, of such prizes, no Komnenoi worthy of the name could have bowed to mere caution; to give coastal garrisons priority over a force intended to expand the western border was psychologically impossible. Nor is it obvious that they were wrong; boldness, it is true, is not always rewarded in war, but caution very easily flows into mere timidity, and is lost. Of that sad fate, at least, the Komnenoi were in no danger.

Railroads, Revanchism, and Revolt: Grand Strategies of the Great Powers, 1940-1950
Chapter 8: Western Wind, Eastern Enigma
Francois Radich
Polytechnische Universität Paris Presse
(C) 1967


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