By Dr Ross Mahoney

I started writing this post several months ago, but for various reasons, it lay dormant until a recent Twitter exchange began with Brian Laslie. Brian suggested that Mark Clodfelter’s The Limits of Air Power was the ‘foundation of modern air power studies.’ This immediately got my attention, and I queried this, which led to a fruitful exchange of views on the subject between several participants.

The original source for this post came from comments I provided to the Second Sir James Rowland Seminar at the Australian Defence Force Academy, which is an initiative between UNSW Canberra and the Royal Australian Air Force’s Air Power Development Centre. Another source was a post by Nicholas Sarantakes with an update on the ongoing debate on the ‘decline’ of military history in academia. These sources originally got me thinking about the state of air power studies in the English-speaking worlds and the recent Twitter exchange brought that process to the fore again.

In my reply to Brian, I made the argument that in the UK, the mantle of ‘father’ of air power studies, in my opinion, belongs to Air Vice-Marshal Tony Mason who was the RAF’s first Director of Defence Studies (DDefS). To my mind, Tony generated the space for the subject both within the RAF and with external partners. There are, of course, other names we could put into this mix including Dr Noble Frankland, J.M. Spaight, Professor Phil Sabin and Professor Richard Overy, but I am unsure whether these writers ever created enough mass for the field to evolve. For example, while Overy wrote on air power issues early in his career, he then moved onto other subjects, though has more recently returned to the field. Conversely, through the creation of the DDefS post, the RAF has provided a platform for the development of air power studies in the UK. The position still exists, and there have been several notable holders of the post including Dr Peter Gray, who is now Senior Research Fellow in Air Power Studies at the University of Birmingham, and the current Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stu Peach. Indeed, since moving to the University of Birmingham, Grey has helped generate a mass of air power scholars in the UK and beyond.

Despite my views on the origins of air power studies in the UK, some important issues came out of the discussion on Twitter. One is that while we might identify Clodfelter or Mason as defining the field in the US and UK respectively, this does not answer the question of whether there is someone who crosses national boundaries. One name that did spring to mind was John Andreas Olsen. However, as Travis Hallen, one of the editors over at The Central Blue, reflected, Olsen has been more productive in bringing together people to produce worthwhile edited volumes. Furthermore, as David Benson, a Professor at the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Power Studies, noted these writers may have defined the field but should they define it today? David provided an interesting reflection on this issue in a number of Tweets, and while I do not agree with all of his points, his views on how we define the field are critical.

Knowledge is not static and as such how we define the field of air power studies should not be fixed either. Indeed, David suggested that this might be the case with it being argued that the study of air power might not be keeping up with changes in the field of social science. Here lies one problem as this essentially suggests a social science view of the study of air power and raises the question of where the subject fits as a discipline? Is the study of air power a social science or is it interdisciplinary? Moreover, are we looking at air power from the perspective of how it is defined in doctrine or do we need to take a broader view that encompasses a wider remit and brings in other fields including history? I would suggest the latter.

Take, for example, myself, I am an air power specialist, but first and foremost I am a historian, though I admittedly make use of interdisciplinary methodologies. My views on air power, even when looking forward, is essentially historical in outlook. I believe that we cannot understand the future without first considering past challenges, but does this lead to a ‘classical’ analysis of air power? I do not think so. I would argue that my broader perspective allows me, hopefully, to push the field forward. In this, I agree with David’s view that is up to those of us currently working in the field to ‘push it from its origins into modernity as a scholarly field’. Another advantage of broadening the scope of air power studies is that by encompassing a more comprehensive approach that includes aspects such as the history of air warfare and the social and cultural analysis of the armed forces, then we can further understand how we develop the knowledge that defines the field. We should also add other disciplines into this comprehensive mix including ethics and law.

Despite much of this rambling and reflection the crux of the issue remains how we develop air power studies as a scholarly field? What are the mechanisms that can be used to develop and disseminate knowledge? For me, one of the key issues here is the insular character of the field. As John Ferris reflected in 1998, those studying air power are either:

[t]he children of airmen, have been military personnel themselves, and have been employed at a historical office or service school in Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, or the United States.[1]

My reading of the situation is that not much has changed and broadly speaking those of us writing on air power are a homogenous group who come from similar backgrounds. Again, using myself as an example, I am the child of a soldier, my PhD supervisor was a retired one-star officer, and I work for an institution devoted to preserving the history of an air force. Therefore, I accept there will always be a degree of subjectivity in my work. As such, how do we break free from that mould to further develop our field?

Part of the answer, of course, lies in establishing networks beyond our traditional insular boundaries. How do we, for example, encourage the study of air power beyond military academies? How do we work with colleagues who might ask difficult questions that do not fit our subjective paradigms? We need to be willing to accept these challenges and be prepared to discuss these issues freely and openly rather than dismissing them.

Further to a conceptual and personal willingness to engage, which I suspect most of us are happy to do, there is the question of the mechanism for discussion. While online platforms, such as From Balloons to Drones, The Central Blue, The Strategy Bridge and War on the Rocks are useful for generating discussion, are there other ways of pushing and developing knowledge? Has the time come, for example, to establish an academic journal devoted to air power that moves us beyond the service sponsored journals?

I have no silver bullet to these questions and what I have written here is part of an ongoing reflection on the subject, and I welcome any further thoughts people have. Nevertheless, I do think the time has come for us to reflect on the field and start ‘push it from its origins’.

Dr Ross Mahoney is an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the resident Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum, and he is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and is an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He blogs at Thoughts on Military History, and can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.

Header Image: An RAF Atlas (A400-M) at night during Operation Mobility Guardian. (Source: MoD Defence Imagery)

[1] John R. Ferris, ‘Review Article – The Air Force Brats’ View of History: Recent Writing and the Royal Air Force, 1918–1960,’ The International History Review, 20:1 (1998), p. 119.

9 thoughts on “#ResearchNote – Wither Air Power Studies?

  1. Hi Ross,
    Happy to weigh in. Full disclosure: fairly recent PhD (<10 years) with a published dissertation on an airpower topic, experience teaching at the U.S. Air Force Academy and Air Command and Staff College, and a retired Air Force officer. These are my personal observations on the current state of the field and issues:
    First, the number of historians in civilian academia willing and able to direct dissertations on airpower studies has been declining at an alarming rate, making it a struggle to find a program and advisor when I began my search almost ten years ago. Dick Kohn is now an emeritus at UNC. Joe Guilmartin recently passed away at Ohio State and Wick Murray moved on a while ago. Bill Trimble and Jim Hansen are both emeriti at Auburn, and Stephen McFarland moved on to UNC-Wilmington, which does not have a doctoral program. Don Mrozek remains at Kansas State and is still doing excellent work, as evidenced by Brian Laslie's success, but there are precious few airpower scholars in civilian academia, meaning that the current generation is unlikely to be replaced when they move on. Many of those who have completed airpower dissertations in the past decade or so are almost all working within the PME establishment, if they are even still working in the field at all. Which leads to the field's second problem: a disturbing lack of objectivity among airpower scholars. With the services (and one service in particular) providing most of the support for historical inquiry, there is an often unstated, but sometimes openly stated, pressure for advocacy and a discouragement of criticism of airpower inherent in government-supported research. As an associate professor at USAFA, I had a "minder" (retired faculty member) attend my airpower class, which offered a critical examination of airpower's capabilities and limitations. Needless to say, that was the only semester I was allowed to teach the course. At ACSC, the chair of my department, renamed the "Department of Airpower," from the "Department of Leadership and Strategy," during my tenure there, frequently ended his enjoinders to the department with the slogan, "Airpower–Get Some!!" The allocation of research support made it clear that there was a preference for those who would be advocates for airpower and less support for those interested in a more critical examination, perhaps unsurprising in an era of a perceived decline in service budgets, and when scholars elsewhere in academia, most notably political scientists, were writing books suggesting that the Air Force be abolished and rolled back into the Army and Navy (see Robert Farley's "Grounded"). ACSC, the Air War College and SAASS have a surprisingly small number of established airpower scholars on their staff–maybe one or two at each institution–and displayed very little interest in hiring more during the most recent hiring cycle that I was a part of. It is unsurprising that when scholars working in PME apply for jobs in academia, they are often met with skepticism about their objectivity and their ability to make meaningful contributions to a program that may have little demand for students specializing in airpower, especially when the only market for such scholars is back in the service schools. It should be noted that Clod's "Limits," which many agree is a foundational text, alongside Con Crane and Tami Davis Biddle's work, was produced by a serving officer, but that all three scholars are working within the PME establishment, though not the Air Force's. The same could be said for a number of recent authors of airpower books (John Curatola and Ed Kaplan among them, who are currently working for the Army). They are all informing the current generation of officers but they are not directing dissertations and mentoring the next generation of air power historians. Personally, I've moved on to topics outside of airpower history, both as a result of my frustration with the lack of support within and for the field and in a last-ditch attempt to broaden my background in order to find meaningful employment.
    But abandoning airpower studies would be a disservice to the historical community and the nation. At a time when military commanders demonstrate a marked preference for the aerial weapon (see Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, saber-rattling in the Baltics and Korea, etc.) we should have a diverse community of airpower scholars, both advocates and skeptics, to weigh in on the use of aircraft in modern and future war. So yes, there is a need for a journal devoted to airpower studies but, more importantly, a need for organizations such as the RAAF's Air Power Development Centre and the Royal Air Force's Centre for Airpower Studies (which sadly has no equivalent across the Atlantic, with the possible exception of the history department at the Royal Military College in Kingston) to support scholars willing to explore questions such as the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on the use of the aerial weapon in current and future conflicts. There is no regularly-scheduled conference for airpower scholars in the United States and no formal or even informal community of scholars working in the field. And no institution willing to step up (maybe someplace with a retired Air Force 4-star as a university president–are you listening, Kansas State?) and assume this mantle. Perhaps a commonwealth-led effort, with scholars such as Mike Bechthold at Wilfrid Laurier in association with the Australian or Canadian Defence Forces, will emerge. So, to summarize, the academy, at least in the United States, doesn't seem particularly interested in airpower studies and the services, which have the resources to support scholarly inquiries, only seem to be interested in studies that advance service agendas.
    Maintaining any field of scholarly inquiry as the profession evolves is a struggle. But efforts to bring it back from the dead may not even be able to get off the runway.


    1. Chris,

      First, sorry for my delayed reply. Second, thanks for the reply and honesty as to the situation you faced. There are some interesting points that you raise, and I agree that trying to keep the tempo of the discipline and pushing it along is a problematic proposition especially with one that is inherently linked to the military. Indeed, one of the criticisms I have increasingly come across from those working in civilian academia is that those who work in the PME sector are guilty of ‘weaponising’ the past. This is what has driven my question of how we separate ourselves from this criticism. It is a challenge, and not one helped by the experience you described of your time at ACSC. I wonder how common this experience is? Hopefully, this is something that will change in due course. If I were to problematise the issue, for me, what lies at the heart of the challenge is one of cultural blindness. Alas, as I mentioned in the piece, much of the literature is still written by those of us who have either worked for or closely with, the military. This leads to a challenge whereby it can be hard to look beyond that experience. I think we see this in much of the air power literature where is easy to fall into advocacy instead of analysis. Your point about the decline in supervisors in civilian universities further worsens this situation. As such, the question, to which I have no perfect answer, though I have suggested here ( a non-service affiliated academic journal, is how we shift the situation or at least keep the tempo going. I do, however, like the idea of a commonwealth effort.


    2. Chris,

      An interesting and thought provoking piece. I think you may have hit on something with your comment that ‘there is an often unstated, but sometimes openly stated, pressure for advocacy and a discouragement of criticism of airpower inherent in government-supported research’. My efforts to write objective air power history led to contact from scholars such as Robin Higham, Williamson Murray and Peter Mansoor and subsequent publication in the Journal of Military History, Canadian Military History and a chapter on RAF culture in a book edited by Mansoor and Murray in ‘The Culture of Military Organizations’.

      Of course, if the establishment wants to shut down alternative thinking it has the power to do so, particularly if, as you state, no one else is looking for the product at the moment. Such shenanigans, of course, saps the willingness of people like you and I to do research and write, as well as harming the long-term credibility of the genre.

      Chin up and good luck


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.