By Ross Mahoney

In a recent piece for The Central Blue, the blog of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation in Australia, Robbin Laird has suggested that rather than describing the F-35 Lightning II as a 5th Generation aircraft, we must think of it as ‘a first generation information and decision making superiority “flying combat system”.’[1] (Emphasis in original)

Arguably, this is an important shift in how we think about the capabilities of this new platform and the implications this has regarding how we think about air power. However, this labelling of platforms and capabilities raises several interesting observations and what follows are some personal opinions on the issue of ‘labels.’

First, and while we should always be careful of generating faulty parallels, as a historian, I am quite certain I have heard similar phrases before namely Giulio Douhet’s ‘battleplane’ concept. In short, in the second edition of his seminal work Command of the Air, published in 1926, Douhet argued that the roles of combat and bombing should be combined with a single type of aircraft, the ‘battleplane.’ This was a move away from his thinking outlined in the 1921 edition of Command of the Air, but as Thomas Hippler has noted, at a conceptual level, the ‘battleplane’ was important because it allowed Douhet to reconcile the ideas of war in the air and war from the air.[2] For Douhet, both were synonymous and one, though whether this proposed platform would have solved that challenge remains debatable. This was clearly a lesson derived from Douhet’s views of the First World War. Nevertheless, the problem with the ‘battleplane’ idea is that it was a solution to one set of circumstances and would not have applied to all situations where the use of air power might have been called upon. Could we end up in the same situation if we think of the F-35 in a similar vein?

Second, a broader issue with Laird’s description is that of buzzwords or phrases. Buzzwords tend to be created to support someone’s vision of the future, and they are unhelpful if not grounded in some form of intellectual rigour. Indeed, buzzwords and phrases are certainly not something limited to air forces but pervade the military more broadly. For example, in the last few days, it has been reported that the US Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations has decided to shelve the use of Anti-Access/Area-Denial as a ‘stand-alone acronym’ primarily because it ‘can mean all things to all people or anything to anyone.’[3] This is an important point, and the same can be said of effects-based operations, which was fashionable in the late 1990s and early 2000s.[4] Both of these strategies are ideas that have history, and we should be careful about trying to re-invent the wheel. As I recently heard from one colleague, if you want a new idea, read an old book. As such, is the description being applied to the F-35 helpful when thinking about the application of air power? It is indeed being linked to the idea of 5th generation strategy, but we must continually ask the question within the question and seek to understand what is underpinning such statements. For example, is the platform important or the ideas about their use? Also, should we be careful about linking platforms to strategy?

Nevertheless, while I would advocate the need to critique statements, such as Laird’s, there is certainly always a case to build new language and ideas to explain future challenges. This is particularly important for air power because, since the end of the Cold War, it has become, arguably, the West’s preferred way of war.[5] Nevertheless, as Tony Mason reflected, ‘while our technology is lifting us into the 21st century, our formative concepts remain rooted in a bygone age.[6] This comment remains as relevant today as it did in 1998. While today’s core air power roles can be identified in the activities of the First World War, it is perhaps an axiom that as with any field of human endeavour, the language and ideas about the use of military aviation should and must evolve as time goes by and situations change.

This, however, raises my third point of how we improve and encourage the conceptual thinking that underpins many of the statements made by commentators and practitioners. It is ok to have opinions and advocate them; however, they must be derived from the intellectual study of the field. Indeed, while advocacy can create friction, that friction, in turn, can generate innovation, which is important if organisations are to adapt to changing strategic, operational and organisational shifts. However, it should also be recognised and understood that such friction needs to be managed so that it does not become divisive as it arguably did at the strategic level between the RAF and Royal Navy in the inter-service debates of the 1920s. This is clearly an issue of education, and how that process is utilised and retained by air forces. This is difficult for western air forces primarily because they have been involved in sustained operations for at least the past decade. This has not given air forces significant time to think and reflect on their craft as their focus has been elsewhere. Nevertheless, air forces have, where possible promoted thinking. For example, the modern RAF runs a fellowship to encourage study and expand the Service’s ‘intellectual capacity.’[7] However, this intellectualising of air power needs to filter back into the development of thinking, policy and doctrine and refresh the lexicon while providing the necessary foundations to attempts to redraw conceptual boundaries.

Just to conclude, this is clearly a thought piece and does not propose any solutions to the challenges of today; however, we should be very careful about the labels we apply to platforms, capabilities and concepts. Terminology, as the discussion section of Laird’s piece, illustrated, matters and has a tendency to carry cultural baggage. In developing effective thinking about the application of air power as part of the solution to strategic challenges, air forces need to think about their place in the pantheon of options open to policy makers. I would argue that in an age of austerity and uncertainty, this requires air forces an investment in the organisation’s human element to generate the capacity to think effectively about the conceptual component.

This post can also be found at The Central Blue.

Header Image: An F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter test aircraft banks over the flight line at Eglin Air Force Base, 23 April 2009. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Robin Laird, ‘The F-35 and the Transformation of Power Projection Forces,’ The Central Blue, 19 September 2016.

[2] Thomas Hippler, Bombing the People: Giulio Douhet and the Foundation of Air-Power Strategy, 1884-1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 147.

[3] Sam LaGrone, ‘CNO Richardson: Navy Shelving A2/AD Acronym,’ USNI News, 3 October 2016. Also, see: B.J. Armstrong, ‘The Shadow of Air-Sea Battle and the Sinking of A2AD,’ War on the Rocks, 5 October 2016.

[4] For a useful discussion of effects-based warfare that takes account of historical and contemporary views as well as a multi-domain approach, see: Christopher Finn (ed.) Effects Based Warfare (London: The Stationary Office, 2002).

[5] For useful views on future air power thinking, see: John Andreas Olsen (ed.), Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015).

[6] Air Vice-Marshal Professor Tony Mason, ‘The Future of Air Power,’ RAF Air Power Review, 1(1) (1998), p. 42.

[7] CAS Fellowships – http://www.raf.mod.uk/raflearningforces/usefulinfo/casfellowships.cfm

One thought on “Commentary – A Rose by Any Other Name…

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