By Dr Peter Layton
Richard J. Bailey, James W. Forsyth Jr. and Mark O. Yeisley (eds), Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. xii + 279 pp.
It may seem somewhat odd to be reviewing a book about thinking strategically on a website concerning air power and history. But not so. This book is written by past and present faculty members of the US Air Force’s (USAF) School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS) located within the Air University at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Air power thus permeates the book, running in parallel with the notion that history is a particularly useful discipline when educating future strategists.
For From Balloons and Drones readers though there is a deeper interest. With all the hubris of a fast jet aviator Richard Bailey tells us that SAASS is the ‘premier strategy school in the US Department of Defense (if not the country at large)’ (p. 1). Arguably, make that ‘the world at large’, at least regarding influence on air power thinking. The USAF dominates modern air power theory and practice. This book nicely illuminates the culture that underpins such dominance.
Strategy: Context and Adaptation comprises 11 main chapters each written by a different faculty member. Academics are notoriously averse to standardisation, delighting in holding differing opinions and employing diverse writing techniques. This book accepts this and seeks to make it a virtue, with each chapter entirely different regarding structure, content, style, and tone. Coherence and unity of purpose are then meant to be achieved not at the chapter level but in the book overall. The book’s design is meant to take the reader along an ‘optimal arc’ so that they complete ‘an intentional full circle academic journey’ (p. 3). Does it work? For me, not quite. The book seems more a compilation of disparate articles – all insightful, many outstanding, most cutting-edge – that is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.
The book’s subtitle is ‘context and adaptation,’ both good threads to discuss its contents. There is much made of the need for individual strategies to be developed appropriate to the context within which they are to be implemented. Understanding context, getting ‘to know the key actors, relationships, factors and challenges’ is seen as the first step in ‘doing strategy’ (p. 241).
The argument is though considerably more sophisticated than it may first appear. The notion is developed that strategy and context interact, continually changing each other and simultaneously evolving together. Everett Dolman writes ‘so now we are all constructivists, of course’ (p. 33). A somewhat surprising statement given that the American armed forces strategic culture overall is often seen as being realist, so privileging relative material power rather than ideas.
For air power thinkers and historians there is some importance to this reflectivist notion as made clear in Jeffrey Smith’s excellent chapter. Smith develops the idea that the USAF has generally been tardy in adapting its strategy, force structure and training in the context of the times.
The interwar Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS) devised the strategy of precision daylight bombing of vital industrial targets, but this was found wanting when employed in the context of a capable air defence system and needed adaptation. In the nuclear age post-Second World War, the strategy of large-scale nuclear strikes using long-range bombers dominated but was again found wanting in the context of the Vietnam conflict, a limited war fought with conventional munitions. In the post-9/11 era of small wars and insurgencies, the strategy of short-range fighters delivering precision-guided weapons was again found wanting in a context where population security was deemed key and the enemy elusive. Smith argues that in each case ‘translating the theory into a feasible strategy [was] flawed because it failed to consider, understand, or incorporate the full context in which it would be applied’ (p. 139). Adaptation then became necessary to achieve success, but this was often too slow, proving costly in blood and treasure.
Smith then extends this insight from history to the future of air power. He argues that contemporary air power theories, strategies, force structures and training may prove inadequate in the future context in which they are applied. It seems adaptation will be required again albeit with nuance.
Dolman considers (p. 32) that it is not perfect adaptation to the context that is key but rather having a diverse range of force capabilities available that become progressively useful however the context changes. As Smith notes, fast jets were perfect for 1991’s Desert Storm but inadequate for the different operational contexts later encountered. The importance of Dolman’s conceptual call for diversity is nicely illustrated by Smith’s outline of post 9/11 air operations that required ‘tactical airlift, special operations, ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance], close air support and tightly integrated action with ground forces’ (p. 145) not high-flying strike packages comprising mainly supersonic fighters.
This step from historical analysis to tomorrow’s battles reflects the SAASS motto of From the Past, the Future (p. 129). When one considers that the ACTS’ motto of the 1920s was Proficimus More Irretenti (We Progress Unhindered by Tradition) (p. 115) you can get a sense of how modern USAF strategic education has evolved, or as airmen might say, of its current vector.
Richard Muller’s chapter on using history to educate strategists explores this aspect further. The USAF, born after the Second World War straight into the revolutionary new nuclear age determined that military history be mostly irrelevant; technology studies and current affairs accordingly dominated the Air University’s curricula. In the wake of the Vietnam War though doubts arose and the study of history crept in. After some travails, this inclination became institutionalised following some vigorous prodding from the US Congress and the activism of the remarkable Ike Skelton (D-MO). SAASS was one of the results albeit it should be highlighted that the use of history at this school has a decidedly utilitarian flavour.
When this book was written in 2015, only two out of 11 SAASS courses were ‘explicitly historical in orientation’ (p. 129) with emphasis placed instead on the curriculum being interdisciplinary. Muller usefully sets out four ways history should be used to educate airmen (pp. 123-5). Firstly ‘to instil corporate spirit and foster awareness of airpower’s rich heritage’; secondly ‘to illustrate or even legitimise current doctrine, operational concepts, organisational reforms or weapon systems’; thirdly as part of the ‘systematic attempt to extract useful insights from a thorough examination of previous wars, campaigns or other historical events’; and lastly ‘to inculcate the ability to think in terms of cause and effect or to work through complex interactions of personalities, contextual factors, friction and so on’. As Muller himself notes, professional historians would be aghast about the first two somewhat proselytising functions.
The last function, however, that of developing critical thinking skills, is particularly noteworthy given that air forces are culturally inherently technocratic organisations. This essential characteristic needs some balancing when conflict erupts and the need for successful strategising arises. Steven Wright (pp. 234-6) considers most air force personnel are linear thinkers that excel at getting things done correctly but that this is not enough. Air forces also need abstract thinkers that excel at understanding what the correct things are that need to be done. Studying history can help improve people’s abstract thinking skills by giving them an understanding of how to think about context and its relationship to strategy. History then helps people understand what the correct things are to be doing and is accordingly an indispensable element in a strategist’s education.
Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower is a snapshot of SAASS at a specific time in history, after the 9/11 wars and before the emerging era of contested skies. The book is excellent in guiding the reader to think more thoughtfully about strategy, what it is and how it should be made while providing an interesting window into contemporary USAF senior staff college education. Eclectic by design, the book offers much for military professionals, academics and all concerned with deeply understanding the business of strategising and its teaching.
Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. His PhD is in grand strategy, and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. He is the author of the book ‘Grand Strategy’.
Header Image: Austin Hall at Maxwell AFB. Austin Hall was the home of the Air Corps Tactical School before the Second World War. (Source: Wikimedia)
 While Bailey is not a fast-jet aviator, this reviewer used to be one and so feels able to use such an analogy shamelessly.