A Discourse on John Boyd: A Brief Summary of the US Air Force’s Most Controversial Pilot and Thinker

A Discourse on John Boyd: A Brief Summary of the US Air Force’s Most Controversial Pilot and Thinker

By Dr Michael Hankins

In March 2018, Air University Press released a new edition of Colonel John Boyd’s A Discourse on Winning and Losing with a new introduction by Grant Hammond. On top of his heavy influence in designing the F-15 and F-16 fighters, Boyd was one of the most influential and often cited officers in the history of the US Air Force (USAF), but unlike most famous strategic thinkers, he published almost nothing. Thus, this new edition promises to be possibly the most widely disseminated and studied edition of Boyd’s intellectual output.

John Boyd during his service in Korea. (Source: Wikimedia)

Boyd is, however, a controversial figure. Among USAF officers, Boyd is either loved or hated. Hammond’s introduction refers to him as ‘legendary,’ ‘a great original thinker,’ and ‘a paragon of virtue – loved by many […] for his character and integrity.’[1] On the other hand, former fighter pilot and USAF Chief of Staff General Merrill McPeak summarised the opposing view: ‘Boyd is highly overrated […] In many respects he was a failed officer and even a failed human being.’[2] Boyd was the type of person who challenged authority and fought for what he believed. He was also the kind of person that was so profoundly insecure that he stalked food courts to hunt down and physically assault people whom he perceived had not shown him proper respect.[3] However, many younger officers have never even heard of Boyd nor are they familiar with his ideas or character. With the recent release of the new edition of his work, it is worth taking time to briefly summarise Boyd’s significant contributions and provide some context as to why he is both so praised and so controversial.

First, we must deal with the notion of Boyd as – according to Hammond – ‘a premier fighter pilot.’ Some have referred to Boyd as the greatest fighter pilot who ever lived, and many press outlets mistakenly refer to him as an ace. Although Boyd did fly F-86 Sabres during a brief tour in the Korean War, he does not have a single air-to-air kill to his credit. He never fired his gun in a combat situation. This is not necessarily an indictment of his skills. The reason is that in those years, the USAF tended to fly in formations in which only the lead element was cleared to fire, while the wingmen provided protection. Boyd only ever flew in a wingman position, and never got in an opportunity to fire at enemy MiG-15s. Later, Boyd became a flight instructor at the USAF Fighter Weapons School, and he wrote a manual on dogfighting tactics. His reputation as a fighter pilot was built on his time as an instructor, during which he displayed a penchant for defeating incoming students in simulated dogfights (developing his claim that he could always do so within forty seconds). Fans of Boyd laud him for this, although his detractors often wonder why an instructor defeating his students using an oft-repeated manoeuvre is noteworthy, much less a point worth bragging about.

Boyd’s first significant contribution to USAF thinking was ‘Energy Maneuverability Theory’ (EMT) in the early-to-mid 1960s. This was an application of the principles of thermodynamics to aircraft metrics. Up until that point, the most important metrics for evaluating fighter planes tended to be wing loading ratios, top speed, and acceleration. Many fighter pilots tried to argue that agility and manoeuvrability were more important in a dogfight, but although wing loading could provide a rough idea of how well a craft could turn, it fell far short of an accurate description of a plane’s manoeuvrability. Boyd’s EMT instead analysed how well an aircraft could change energy states – involving speed, acceleration, kinetic and potential energy – essentially giving a numerical value to how well a plane could manoeuvre under various conditions. Charting this value on a graph corresponding to speed and altitude will give a curve of the aircraft’s manoeuvring capability. This method gave fighter pilots a way to talk to engineers in their ‘language,’ and describe dogfighting in mathematical terms, which had a significant influence on aircraft design. Beginning in the late 1960s, EMT became a significant factor in designing and evaluating American aircraft.

This chart, a typical example of the types of charts Boyd produced, compares the agility of an F-4 Phantom II and a MiG-21, but specifically under conditions of a 5g turn. (Source: USAF Academy Department of Aeronautics)

Although Boyd appears to have come up with these ideas independently, he was not the first to do so. A decade earlier, in 1954, an aerodynamics engineer working for Douglas named Edward Rutowski had the same concept. Rutowski’s work did not apply to dogfighting, but to calculating fuel ranges of various types of aircraft.[4] However, the equations – and the charts – are almost the same as Boyd’s, who later admitted to copying the charts after denying it for years.[5] One element that Boyd did add, however, was overlaying the EMT curve for one aircraft on top of another, to show where one aircraft had an advantage in manoeuvrability. These comparisons, first done in the late 1960s, showed that Soviet aircraft of that time might have a distinct advantage in dogfighting compared to the American fighters of the day (which, in that period, were mostly interceptors, not traditional fighters). Thus, while not necessarily completely original, Boyd did more to popularise the EMT concept and apply it to fighter design and tactics training, which then became part of a push within the USAF to design aircraft that were more specialised for air-to-air combat.

Boyd had a hand in the design of those planes. The first major USAF project to design a dedicated air superiority fighter was the F-X program, which eventually resulted in the F-15 Eagle. Boyd was brought in partway through this project and attempted to influence the design toward being more dedicated for dogfighting. To Boyd, this meant making it as small as possible and gutting it of sophisticated technologies, especially radar. The more massive the radar dome in a fighter’s nose, the larger the entire plane needed to be. Making the radar as small as possible (or, as Boyd advocated, eliminating it), could make the plane smaller and lighter. Boyd managed to have a significant influence on the design of the F-15, but he did not get everything he wanted. The plane was significantly more extensive and more sophisticated than he advocated, so in disgust, he turned to another project.[6]

McDonnell Douglas F-15A (S/N 71-0280, the first F-15A prototype). Note the square wingtips and unnotched stabilator. (Source: Wikimedia)

Using a combination of subterfuge, connections with high-level decision-makers, stealing unauthorised time on USAF computers, and meeting with aircraft manufacturers in secret using coded language, Boyd pressured the Air Force to procure a smaller lightweight fighter. Boyd wrote the requirements for that plane, which happened to match almost identically the characteristics of a plane he had been secretly designing with General Dynamics’ Chief of Preliminary Design, Harry Hillaker. That plane eventually became the F-16 Fighting Falcon—his ideal true dedicated air-to-air dogfighter. However, Boyd was also disappointed by the modifications made to that aircraft. The USAF made it heavier and more sophisticated than he wanted, and so Boyd denounced it in disgust.[7] Indeed, although his vision for the F-16 was a pure dogfighter, the plane has rarely been used in air superiority missions by the USAF and has achieved zero air-to-air kills for the US.

An air-to-air right side view of a YF-16 aircraft and a YF-17 aircraft, side-by-side, armed with AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, c.1972. (Source: Wikimedia)

After his retirement in 1965, Boyd went back to work in the Pentagon as an analyst, and it was during this time that he completed most of the intellectual output in the recently released new volume. This began with a short essay entitled ‘Destruction and Creation,’ which argued that societies and systems only really change when they are destroyed and recreated, rather than reformed from within. In 1976, Boyd received a NASA grant to study the differences in pilot behaviour between simulators and reality. Instead of focusing on that, Boyd produced a study titled ‘Fast Transients Brief,’ which consisted of carefully picked historical examples with which Boyd argued that victory in war was the result of being quick, unpredictable, and agile, with the goal of producing confusing in the enemy. This brief was essentially the first draft of what became a larger briefing called ‘Patterns of Conflict,’ which Boyd continually expanded to include more historical examples of his point. This briefing continued to grow, including more examples, until it became the final form under the new title ‘A Discourse on Winning and Losing.’ In this form, it was a fourteen-hour briefing split into two days. Boyd refused to shorten his briefings or to distribute summaries or slides to those who did not attend, insisting on being given the full amount of time, or nothing.[8]

Also embedded in these briefings was his evolving idea of the OODA loop, which stands for ‘observe, orient, decide, act.’ This was Boyd’s description of the process by which decisions are made at all levels from the tactical to the strategic. Boyd argued that all combatants in a conflict are going through that cycle, and whoever can complete repetitive OODA cycles more quickly will always be the victor. Fans of this theory tend to argue that this insight is revolutionary and secures Boyd’s place alongside thinkers such as Clausewitz or Sun Tzu. Others claim that this idea is very simplistic and offers very little in the way of insight or practical application. Interpreting and applying Boyd’s theory to subjects ranging from warfare to business has become something of a cottage industry. The OODA loop is still taught at US professional military education institutions. Love him, hate him, or merely indifferent, one cannot deny that Boyd has left a legacy and influence.

One final component of Boyd’s life that one must be aware of is his involvement in ‘The Reform Movement.’ During his time in the USAF, he and his followers who pushed for lightweight, dedicated air-to-air combat planes began referring to themselves as the ‘Fighter Mafia,’ and saw themselves at odds with the US government – to the point of depicting themselves as participating in a guerilla war against a government that they deemed as corrupt and ineffective. After Boyd’s retirement, this group morphed into what became known as ‘The Reform Movement’ and moved away from just fighter planes to becoming politically active on broader defence issues. This effort included a litany of journalists, military officers, and politicians who went as far as to form their congressional caucus, as well as non-governmental organisations with the goal of lobbying for particular policies.

The group wanted all US military hardware to be cheap and ‘simple.’ Simple in this context meant technologically unsophisticated relative to the mid-1970s. They argued for cancelling expensive ‘complex’ weapons such as the F-15 and the M-1 Abrams tank and replacing them with cheaper, ‘simple’ alternatives, such as relying on the older M-60 Patton tank or replacing F-15s and F-16s with swarms of F-5 Tigers. ‘The Reform Movement’ was more political than the ‘Fighter Mafia,’ and although the movement attracted some moderates and left-leaning individuals such as James Fallows (journalist for The Atlantic) and Senator Gary Hart (D-CO), it tended to skew conservative. Over time, it grew more conservative with the addition of politicians such as Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS), Newt Gingrich (R-GA), Dick Cheney (R-WY), and possibly its most prominent and active member (who coined the term ‘the Reformers’): self-proclaimed monarchist and white supremacist William Lind.[9] For this group, Boyd was seen as a messiah, and he was often discussed in religious terminology as a saviour preaching a new gospel.

Although this movement had an influential voice in the early 1980s, it had begun to stagnate by the end of that decade, and the 1991 Gulf War discredited many of their arguments.[10] However, despite that war demonstrating the effectiveness of all the weapons systems that the Reformers (and Boyd) had argued against, Boyd himself took sole credit for the success of that war. Boyd claimed he had been the actual author of the ground attack plan, which was not true, and that it would have been even more successful if his ideas had been implemented further.

Boyd is a complex figure, and his influence on the US military, especially the USAF, is impossible to deny. Although the bulk of his work has been floating around the internet for years, having a new edition of his work in an easily accessible and well-produced print edition is extremely useful and quite welcome.

Bibliographical Note

For more information on Boyd, the best place to start is most likely John Andreas Olsen’s 2016 article, ‘Boyd Revisited: A Great Mind with a Touch of Madness’ in Air Power History while the best examination of Boyd’s intellectual output is Frans Osinga’s Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (2007). Several authors further explore Boyd in Olsen’s edited work Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd (2015). A genuinely scholarly biography on Boyd’s life has yet to be written. Hammond’s brief biography, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (2012) is a useful starting point but leans into praise for Boyd to a level that some readers might be uncomfortable with. Robert Coram’s popular biography Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (2002) has its uses but is little more than hagiography and should be read with a sceptical eye.

Dr Michael Hankins is Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and and Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones. He is also a former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018 with his dissertation, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled “The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War.” He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header Image: A USAF F-16 Fighting Falcon Block 40 aircraft after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft during a mission over Iraq on 10 June 2008.  (Source: Wikimedia)

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[1] Grant Hammond, ‘Introduction to “A Discourse on Winning and Losing” in Colonel John Boyd, A Discourse on Winning and Losing, edited and compiled by Grant Hammond (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2018), pp. 1-2.

[2] Carl Prine, ‘Q & A with Merrill ‘Tony’ McPeak,’ San Diego Union Tribune, 23 November 2017.

[3] See, for example, a story of Boyd seeking out a former colleague who had expressed doubt in Boyd’s ideas years before. Boyd put out his cigar on the man’s clothing, then began shoving him and shouting obscenities at him, all in public. Told in more detail in Robert Coram, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2002), pp. 179-80.

[4] Edward S. Rutowski, ‘Energy Approach to the General Aircraft Performance Problem,’ Journal of the Aeronautical Sciences, 21 (1954), pp. 187-95.

[5] USAF Historical Research Agency, K239.0512-1066, John Boyd, Corona Ace Oral History Interview, 22 January 1977.

[6] For details on the development of the F-15, see Jacob Neufeld, The F-15 Eagle: Origins and Development, 1964-1972 (Washington DC: Office of Air Force History, 1974).

[7] On this issue, see: Grant Hammond, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (Washington DC: Smithsonian Books, 2012).

[8] These briefings are most thoroughly explored in Frans Osinga, Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (New York: Routledge, 2007).

[9] For a brief summary of Lind’s extremism (he was known for keeping a portrait of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in his office), see Bill Berkowitz, “Cultural Marxism’ Catching On,’ Southern Poverty Law Center, 15 August 15, 2003. Lind’s radical right-wing viewpoints are evident from his voluminous writing as the former Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism, and his many columns in a variety of conservative websites and magazines. His 2014 novel Victoria not only celebrates a violent militia movement overthrowing the American government but glorifies deportations and executions of non-whites and other minorities he deems undesirable, including Jews, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and it favorably depicts the use of nuclear weapons against African-American populations.

[10] For a summary of ‘The Reform Movement,’ see: John Correll, ‘The Reformers,’ Air Force Magazine (February 2008), pp. 40-4. To see them discuss their ideas in their own words, see: James Fallows, National Defense (New York: Vintage, 1984) and James Burton, The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1993).

#Editorial – Air Power Reading List

#Editorial – Air Power Reading List

By Dr Ross Mahoney

Last week, From Balloons to Drones launched its own air power reading list. Many of the world’s air forces release an annual reading list that contains crucial volumes that those services believe its members should read as part of their professional development. Indeed, as the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier noted in the RAF’s recently launched 2018 reading list; ‘[R]eading, study and debate form a fundamental component of developing our collective intellectual capital.’[1]

However, the list we have published reflects the original aims of From Balloons to Drones. From Balloons to Drones was established as an online platform that seeks to provide analysis and debate about air power history, theory, and contemporary operations in their broadest sense including space and cyber power. While From Balloons to Drones has a place within the online ecosphere of the profession of arms network, this is not the websites primary purpose. From Balloons to Drones has always aspired to bridge the gap between several interested audiences ranging from civilian academics, interested lay readers as well the military. Given this broader aim, the reading list we published is representative of that goal.

Crucially, this curated bibliography is by no means comprehensive, and it is essential to make clear that this has been done on purpose. This is for two reasons. First, it is expected that the reading list will be organic and grow over time. This links to the second reason, which is the source of the titles on the list. The list has been curated from our ‘Air War Books’ series and published book reviews. As such, the list is representative of the choices made by those air power historians who have contributed to our ‘Air War Books’ series to date. Indeed, as several people noted on our Twitter feed, there is a lack of books on naval or maritime air power, and this obviously reflects the interests of the contributors who have so far contributed to the aforementioned series. Therefore, as more contributions are added to the ‘Air War Books’ series, then more titles will be added to the list where applicable. In a similar vein, as we publish more book reviews on essential new and historic air power titles, we will add these to the list.

At some point, we may cull the list, but for now, we hope that you enjoy the list and get something useful out of it.

Header Image: Forward air controllers in PC-9 aircraft fly in support of Exercise PITCH BLACK 2018. These aircraft are operated by the Royal Australian Air Force’s No. 4 Squadron. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

[1] Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hiller, ‘Foreword’ in CAS’ Reading List 2018 (Shrivenham: RAF Centre for Air Power Studies, 2018).

#AirWarBooks – Dr Randall Wakelam

#AirWarBooks – Dr Randall Wakelam

Editorial Note: In the fourth instalment of ‘Air War Books,’ Dr Randall Wakelam discusses the ten books that have influenced and shaped his writing as an air power historian. If you are interested in contributing to this series or From Balloons to Drones more generally, find out how here.

Since joining the Air Force more than 45 years ago, I have found that professional education for those working with air power has not been a forte of Canada’s Air Force. Much of what I have learned, I have done so out of curiosity and by selecting graduate courses and by doing graduate research that allowed me to satisfy my curiosity and develop a better understanding of air power. While I am critical of this circumstance in Canada I do not think it is unique; there are too many editorials, op-eds and notes from chiefs of service that attempt to get aviators to read if not write.

Having taught air power at the Canadian Forces College and now at an undergraduate and graduate level to officer cadets and civilian students, I continue to learn. In this teaching, I think I am comfortable with the notion that air power concepts introduced a century ago have now reached maturity regarding what air power effects can be applied and how. What is constantly in flux is the larger Geopolitical context of why and when one wants to apply air power effects.

The one other factor that I would want to bring into the formulation of this list is my desire to get inside the thinking processes of those who have developed air power concepts and then applied them. Thus, several the titles that you will see below are either biographies or studies of the human condition. In the case of biographies, I fully recognise that looking at the life stories of some of these actors comes with risks. Case studies of human and personnel questions are perhaps less risky but not without risk.

And now to the list, which is most certainly too short to do justice to the many other works that I have found important to me.

Philip Meilinger (ed.), The Paths of Heaven: The Evolution of Airpower Theory (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1997). This volume is without question the one work that I keep going back to. Admittedly written from a United States Air Force (USAF) perspective I have found the work balanced and useful in seeing the ‘long duree’ of air power thought and its application. I first read the book just after it came out but even now, twenty years later, do not find it particularly dated. Of great value is I.B. Holley’s summary and commentary. His criticism that the work ignores naval aviation serves as a caution to readers that while highly valuable the volume does have its limitations.

John Andreas Olsen (ed.), A History of Air Warfare (Washington D.C.: Potomac, 2010). This work fills the void of the last two decades since Paths of Heaven was published and provides readers with a different treatment of many of the same ideas and events presented in the former. For that reason, I think it provides a solid bookend to balance the USAF compendium. Also, the reader gets a good dose, perhaps too good of the air campaigns of the post-Cold War decades and three useful studies of current and future themes, most importantly small wars and space. The penultimate chapter, by Martin van Creveld, balances Holley’s commentary and leaves the reader with the ultimate question: has the age of air power come and gone?

Allan D. English, Understanding Military Culture: A Canadian Perspective (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004). When I reviewed English’s book about a decade ago, I wrote that it was, for me at least, a volume that captured essential ideas about military culture, ideas that I might have benefited from even from my first days in uniform. In a relatively short but well-focused study, English laid out the elements of culture, looked at them through the lens of the USAF and then from the perspective of the Canadian air arm. At that time there was no the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), as there had been up to the 1960s and as there is again today. The absences of that organisational title and the emotional trappings of an independent air service were all the more reason to read English’s book at the time. The comings and goings of organisations, from squadron to air forces that continue in all nations made and makes this work incredibly insightful.

Henry Probert, Bomber Harris: His Life & Times (Aylesbury: Greenhill Books, 2001). For a long time, I wanted to attempt to understand the thinking of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris. Was he the wanton killer of German civilians that he was accused of being? How did he apparently hold the loyalty of his aviators? Probert’s study of the man gave me the answers that others did not. Bullheaded to the point of obstinacy – certainly more than not – but he did set out to apply the concepts and technology available to him to accomplish the task set for Bomber Command. Moreover, in this, we see not bombast alone but also a sharp intellect and a degree of flexibility and accommodation (that I would not have expected) and above all a desire to save the lives of his crews, or at least make their sacrifices count. Probert showed me Harris’ strengths and weaknesses, giving me a good picture of what any operational level leader might look like, warts and all.

Denis Richards, Portal of Hungerford (Tintern, MON: William Heinemann, 1977). If Harris is a good case study in operational level leadership, then Denis Richards biography of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Viscount Portal makes a good companion. Few of us will ever get to work at or even observe the work of senior air force leaders or to have exposure to the sorts of institutional level challenges they face, both within their service and across governments and coalitions. This book gives us that access, and it allows us to put the better-known struggles of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in its formative years into a more personal context where, as in the case of Harris, personal strengths and weaknesses – the human factor – contribute to success or precipitates failure.

Dewitt S. Copp, A Few Great Captains: The Men and Events That Shaped the Development of U.S. Air Power (McLean, VA: EPM Publications, 1989). This work has been my only deep dive into the USAF, and as I began to think more about culture, doctrines and effects, it seemed to be important to study not just one man or a few, but rather the birth and evolution of an air power community. I believe I found that in this work. It looks at the people and their professional growth, ideas, experiences, small ‘P’ politics and larger organisational conflicts.

John J. Zentner, The Art of Wing Leadership and Aircrew Morale in Combat, CADRE Paper no. 11 (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2001). This set of case studies looks at leadership in a flying organisation, arguably one of the hardest notions to explain to army and naval officers who generally lead within plain sight of their followers. Moreover, to be honest, how one leads in the air is often hard to describe, or at least it was before the recent decades of air operations, to aviators. Effective leadership should promote high morale, and Zentner posited that that strong morale is linked to aircrew control over the tactics they are to use in the air. During a period of relative global calm, he set out to test his concept in three case studies. He looked at two fighter leaders, one German and one American in the Second World War, and for a third case flows the leadership of a B-52 Wing Commander during the Vietnam War.

Allan D. English, The Cream of the Crop: Canadian Aircrew, 1939-1945 (Montreal: McGill Queen’s University Press, 1996). This work is focused on the personnel issues of the RAF and the RCAF, and thus we find an investigation into an aspect of air warfare every bit as important as technologies. English sets out to explore and comment on the impact of what today we recognise as post-traumatic stress disorder on Bomber Command aircrew. To do this he looks at the Royal Flying Corps experiences of recruiting and training during the First World War and how these, and societal cultural norms were adopted by the RAF and to a lesser extent the RCAF in the Second World War. He shows the significant difference in the policy adopted by the RCAF and how rehabilitation of stress casualties rather than their banishment could safeguard critical human resources.

Robin Higham and Steven J. Harris (eds.), Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat (Lexington, KT: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006). Not every air campaign is a success and not every air service ensures the security of its home nation. In studying failures Higham and Harris edited volume expose us to valuable experiences of things gone wrong. More important than the various well researched and presented case studies is the introduction where the editors lay down a simple truth: ‘other things being equal’ the better air power ‘should’ prevail. They then go on to look at the range of ‘other things’ and here is the true value of the collection: the reader soon realises, or should, that there are almost countless factors in play that can cripple an air force, often long before a conflict begins. To codify these factors, Higham adapts Mahan’s characteristics of a maritime nation to identify where and how air power nations can and have failed.

Robert Grattan, The Origins of Air War: The Development of Military Air Strategy in World War I  (London: IB Tauris, 2009). Grattan, an RAF navigator, turned business professor in his later years, presents a study of air arms in the First World War. He argues that the leaders, flyers and even politicians and industrialists had nothing to go on and so national air arms were sort of a ‘design build’ enterprise with rapid advancement through trial and error. He looks at aircraft, weapons, personnel and tactics studying the advancements of each in relation to the others. The use of the word ‘strategy’ in his title is a bit misleading; ‘air power concepts’ would more accurately describe his focus in my view.

Dr Randall Wakelam teaches military and air power history at the Royal Military College of Canada. After graduating from RMC in 1975 he flew helicopters for the Army, becoming CO of 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron in 1991. Along the way, he also had staff appointments in aircraft procurement and language training policy. Since 1993 he has been an educator, first in uniform at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto and now at RMC. His research and publishing focus on air power and military education.

Header Image: A group of pilots of No. 1 Squadron RCAF, gather around one of their Hawker Hurricane Mark Is at Prestwick, Scotland, c. October 1940. The squadron’s commander, Squadron Leader E.A. McNab, stands fifth from the right, wearing a forage cap. (Source: © IWM (CH 1733))

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SPACE FORCE: The Militarisation of United States Space Policy from Eisenhower to Trump

SPACE FORCE: The Militarisation of United States Space Policy from Eisenhower to Trump

By Bradley Galka

On 18 June 2018, President Donald J. Trump announced his intention to create a new branch of the United States armed forces. This new branch, the US Space Force, would be charged with controlling the nation’s military activities in space. The fact that the US would be involved in military activities in space in the first place should not be taken for granted. The US’ first military space policy was based on the principle that space ought to remain a ‘sanctuary’ from the sort of martial competition that was taking place on earth’s surface. Despite these peaceful beginnings, nearly every successive president has established a military space policy more aggressive than the last. The proposed establishment of the Space Force as a new branch of the US military represents the apex of this decades-long trend toward increased militarisation of space.[1]

President Eisenhower visiting the George C. Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama, 8 September 1960. (Source: NASA)

The US government’s first space policy was established during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower and the military saw the nation’s developing satellite program as a valuable tool in monitoring Soviet military concentrations and looked forward to developing the critical capacity of detecting hostile missile launches from space. The president’s views differed with military leaders in significant ways. While the military advocated the development of anti-satellite (ASAT) missile technology and other generally hostile technologies for use in space, Eisenhower was more interested in the scientific possibilities of the space program. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on 29 July 1958, as a separate entity from the Department of Defense – one with a purely peaceful civilian mandate. Though he did green-light some early research into ASAT technology, the US never developed a functional ASAT capability during Eisenhower’s presidency.[2]

John F. Kennedy took the first steps toward a more militarised space policy by approving the full-scale development of the anti-satellite and anti-ballistic missile technologies first considered during Eisenhower’s tenure. Kennedy was concerned with the nuclear ‘missile gap’ that was said to be developing between the US and the Soviet Union and was alarmed by reports that the Soviets were seeking a capacity to place nuclear weapons in earth’s orbit. Ultimately, however, Kennedy chose not to increase tensions between the superpowers through military competition with the Soviets in space, but rather to seek a diplomatic agreement limiting or banning such hostile actions. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, brought about the successful culmination of these efforts with the signing of the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty by the US and the Soviet Union in 1967. The terms of this treaty forbade the testing or positioning of nuclear weapons and other types of weapons of mass destruction in space, prohibited the construction of military installations or fortifications on the moon, and banned any military manoeuvres in earth’s orbit. The terms of the treaty stipulated that space would only be used for peaceful, scientific purposes.[3]

Richard Nixon’s presidency was not marked by significant changes in the US’ military space policy. Gerald Ford, however, set the US on a drastically new, and far more aggressive, course. During Ford’s presidency, a series of internal government review boards reported to the president that the US’ existing space policies were woefully insufficient to protect the nation’s important space assets from the threat of Soviet attack. Experts warned that deterrence was not enough. The US, they said, would need to develop not only substantial defences in space but would need to obtain potent offensive firepower as well. Ford acted on this advice by drafting a new military space policy. This policy declared that ‘the Soviets should not be allowed an exclusive sanctuary in space for critical military supporting satellites.’ The employment of non-nuclear anti-satellite technology, Ford declared, would enable the US to ‘selectively nullify certain militarily important Soviet space systems, should that become necessary.’ By the end of his presidency, Ford had put in place the US’ first outwardly aggressive military space policy, mandating that the nation obtain both offensive and defensive capabilities in space.[4]

Jimmy Carter followed in Ford’s footsteps by officially rescinding the US’ self-imposed prohibition on testing anti-satellite weaponry in space. In 1978 Carter promulgated a new space policy which affirmed the right of the US to ‘pursue activities in space in support of its right of self-defense.’ Regarding anti-satellite capability, Carter declared that the US would continue to seek a ‘verifiable ban’ on such technology but would continue its research and development ‘as a hedge against Soviet breakout.’ In other words, the Carter administration sought to obtain a ban on ASAT technology but was unwilling to let the US fall behind if the Soviets refused to cooperate or broke the terms of any prospective treaty.[5]

Project Excalibur was a proposed x-ray laser based anti-missile technology. It used a nuclear warhead surrounded by a number of metal rods that acted to focus the output of the explosion into narrow beams that would be aimed at nuclear missiles and their warheads. (Source: Wikimedia)

When Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981 the US upped-the-ante yet again. One of the most notable products of Reagan’s whole presidency was his famous Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), known popularly as the ‘Star Wars’ program. The nature of SDI changed significantly over time but was a program designed to give the US the capacity to intercept and destroy a massive Soviet missile barrage en-route to the US or its allies using space-based weapons platforms. Though regarded by most now and many in his own time as wildly unrealistic given the technology of the day, Reagan’s intention of stationing military weapons in space capable of defeating Soviet attacks on earth was far beyond anything the US had been willing to attempt before. This technological program was coupled with Reagan’s stated unwillingness to continue negotiating with the Soviet Union over any form of disarmament which he believed would interfere with American prerogatives or American interests.[6]

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 the ambitious nature of Reagan’s SDI program was scaled back under George H.W. Bush from a massive global missile shield to a smaller, regional defensive program capable of interdicting missiles in smaller numbers but with higher accuracy, reflecting the new realities of a post-Cold War world. Both H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton maintained the US’ stated willingness to both attack and defend military assets in outer space, but the post-Cold War world saw a marked decrease in the perceived importance of military space readiness. Bill Clinton was notable for his administration’s desire to open up the US’ space technology for the benefit of civil and commercial interests around the world. GPS, the global positioning system which serves as the basis of modern satellite-directed navigation, was initially a military asset unavailable to the public until Clinton opened access to the program in the 1990s.[7]

US Navy Ordnance handlers assemble Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) bombs in the forward mess decks before putting them on elevators headed for aircraft on the flight deck aboard USS Constellation, c. 2003. JDAM’s are guidance kits that convert existing unguided bombs into precision-guided ‘smart’ munitions. The tail section contains an inertial navigational system and a global positioning system. JDAM improves the accuracy of unguided bombs in any weather condition. (Source: Wikimedia)

The advent of the Global War on Terror and the protracted conflicts in the Middle East has reinvigorated the government’s concern with space policy in recent years. George W. Bush took steps to limit the free access to GPS established by Bill Clinton claiming the nation’s enemies – whether conventional military, insurgent groups or terrorist organisations – could use GPS as a useful tool against US interests. Perhaps the most notable use of military satellite technology, however, has been the drone program. Satellite-enabled drone reconnaissance and bombing missions have been central to US military operations around the world since the 1990s and have only grown in importance. George W. Bush and Barack Obama each found space assets to be indispensable in the conduct of their military missions abroad and have each affirmed the importance of space in their iterations of national space policy.[8]

In his 2006 exposition of US space policy, George W. Bush declared:

In this new century, those who effectively utilize space will enjoy added prosperity and security and will hold a substantial advantage over those who do not. Freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power. In order to increase knowledge, discovery, economic prosperity, and to enhance the national security, the United States must have robust, effective, and efficient space capabilities.[9]

By declaring that space is just as crucial to the modern military as air power and sea power Bush seems to have prefigured the seminal development in US space policy that incumbent President Trump announced in 2018: the planned establishment of the US Space Force.

In the six decades between Eisenhower’s first military space policy and the space policy of Trump, the US has gone from a purely peaceful conception of space to a grudging acceptance of defensive militarisation to a modern policy in which an aggressive militarisation of space is regarded as essential to national defence. The elevation of space activities from auxiliary status to an independent branch of the armed forces not only solidifies the importance of space in the modern US military but represents the next logical step in a pattern of increasingly aggressive military space policy established since the earliest days of the US space program.

Bradley Galka obtained his Master of Arts degree in history from Kansas State University in 2017. He is currently pursuing a PhD at Kansas State. His research focuses on the relationship between politics and the military in the United States, particularly regarding fascism and the U.S. military during the inter-war period.

Header Image: The launch of the STS-74 mission aboard the space shuttle Atlantis from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. (Source: NASA)

[1] Namrata Goswami, ‘The US Space Force and Its Implications,’ The Diplomat, 22 June 2018.

[2] Nelson Rockefeller, National Security Council, ‘US Scientific Satellite Program,’ NSC-5520, 20 May 1955; Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Abilene, KS, S. DDE’s Papers as President, NSC Series, Box 9, 357th Meeting of the NSC, NAID#: 12093099, Everett Gleason, National Security Council, ‘US Objectives in Space Exploration and Science,’ March 1958; Eisenhower Presidential Library, DDE’s Papers as President, NSC Series, Box 9, 339th Meeting of the NSC, NAID#: 12093096, S. Everett Gleason, National Security Council, ‘Implications of Soviet Earth Satellite for US Security,’ 10 October 1957.

[3] George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Kennedy Administration National Security Council, ‘Certain Aspects of Missile and Space Programs,’ NSC-6108, 18 January 1961; George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Johnson Administration, Lyndon B. Johnson, ‘Cooperation with the USSR on Outer Space,’ NSAM-285, 3 March 1964; United Nations General Assembly, ‘Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, 27 January 27, 1967.

[4] George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Ford Administration, Brent Scowcroft, National Security Council, ‘Enhanced Survivability of Critical US Military and Intelligence Space Systems,’ National Security Decision Memorandum 333, 7 July 1976; George C. Marshall Institute,  Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Ford Administration, Brent Scowcroft, National Security Council, ‘US Anti-Satellite Capabilities,’ National Security Decision Memorandum 345, 18 January 1977.

[5] George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Carter Administration, Jimmy Carter, Presidential Review Memorandum – NSC 23, ‘A Coherent US Space Policy,’ 28 March 1977; George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Carter Administration, Jimmy Carter, Presidential Directive/NSC 33, ‘Arms Control for Anti-Satellite (ASAT) Systems,’ 10 March 1978; The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, Atlanta, GA, Presidential Directives, Jimmy Carter, Presidential Directive/NSC-37, ‘National Space Policy,’ 11 May 1978, pp. 1-2.

[6] George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Reagan Administration, Ronald Reagan, National Security Decision Directive Number 42, ‘National Space Policy,’ 4 July 1982.

[6] George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Reagan Administration, Ronald Reagan, National Security Decision Directive Number 85, ‘Eliminating the Threat from Ballistic Missiles,’ 25 March 1983; Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, CA, Office of the Press Secretary, ‘White House Announcement on the Development of a Defensive System Against Nuclear Ballistic Missiles,’ 25 March 1983; George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Reagan Administration, Ronald Reagan, National Security Decision Directive Number 119, ‘Strategic Defense Initiative,’ 6 January 1984; George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Reagan Administration, Ronald Reagan, National Security Decision Directive Number 195, ‘The US Position: Nuclear and Space Talks,’ 30 October 1985.

[7] George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the George H.W. Bush Administration, George H.W Bush, NSD-30, NSDP-1, ‘National Space Policy,’ 2 November 1989, p. 3; George C. Marshall Institute,  Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Clinton Administration, Office of the Press Secretary, PDD/NSC-23, ‘Statement on Export of Satellite Imagery and Imaging Systems,’ 10 March 1994; George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Clinton Administration, William Clinton, PDD/NSTC-2, ‘Convergence of US-Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite Systems,’ 5 May 1994; George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Clinton Administration, Office of the Press Secretary, ‘Fact Sheet: US Global Positioning System Policy,’ 29 March 1996.

[8] George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the George W. Bush Administration, George W. Bush, ‘US National Space Policy,’ 31 August 2006; George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Obama Administration, Barack Obama, ‘National Space Policy of the United States of America,’ 28 June 2010.

[9] George W. Bush, ‘US National Space Policy,’ 31 August 2006.

#BookReview – Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower

#BookReview – Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower

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).[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.

Air Corps Tactical School
The Air Corps Tactical School (created as the Air Service Field Officers School in 1920) went beyond its mandate of training officers to also become an engine for air power theory development in the interwar period. (Source: US Air Force Air University)

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)

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[1] While Bailey is not a fast-jet aviator, this reviewer used to be one and so feels able to use such an analogy shamelessly.

Smashing the Axis: How the Allied Air Forces Supported the Purpose behind Operation HUSKY

Smashing the Axis: How the Allied Air Forces Supported the Purpose behind Operation HUSKY

By Alexander Fitzgerald-Black

In June 1943 a staff officer with 1st Canadian Infantry Division examined planning documents for Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. The operation to begin the Allied assault on Festung Europa’s soft underbelly was just weeks away. During his preparations, the officer came across an air staff memorandum. It read:

Owing to the small size of Malta which limits the number of fighter squadrons which can be based there, and the distance from the beaches, it will not be possible to maintain standing patrols over the assault areas except for the first few hours after the battle starts.

The large number of Air Forces taking part in the operation […] will be employed in bombing and “sweeping” enemy airfields and communications in order to gain air supremacy and prevent Axis aircraft from interfering with our assault forces. It is probable, therefore, that few friendly aircraft will be seen by our forces on the beaches after the first few hours and the reason for this should be carefully explained to assaulting troops […] it should be made clear that, although few Allied aircraft are visible immediately over their heads, considerable air forces are, in fact, operating continually in support of them.[1]

The Canadian division was entering combat for the first time. However, it was to fight as part of British Eighth Army, famous for its victory at El Alamein under Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery. Years of fighting the Germans and Italians in the desert had allowed the Royal Air Force (RAF) to hone its support for land campaigns. Air Commodore Raymond Collishaw and Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Coningham put into practice an air support doctrine that privileged concentration of force.[2] The priority for an air force supporting the army (or navy) was to secure air superiority. The second was to disrupt the enemy movement of reinforcements and supplies behind the lines. Close air support of ground troops in combat with the enemy was third, much to many army commanders’ dismay.

3 - Italy roads and airfields (rails) FINAL
Italy’s Aerodromes and Railways (Source: Dr Mike Bechthold)

Many (but not all) British Army commanders felt that this order was incorrect. Instead, they desired control of their own air force in support of ground operations and an air umbrella that would protect their advancing forces. The British Army had tried this approach and failed in the Western Desert. During the attempt to relieve Tobruk in Operation BATTLEAXE the British Army demanded that the RAF establish an air umbrella over the battlefield. Under Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, the RAF caved to the British Army’s requests, even though they believed this to be a highly inefficient use of resources. This decision ultimately contributed to BATTLEAXE’s failure.[3]

From then on, the RAF in the Mediterranean guarded against the tendency of army commanders to request for what senior airmen called ‘penny packets,’ smaller groups of aircraft assigned to a ground commander. They also endeavoured to convince their army counterparts that the RAF’s optimal use in support of ground forces was as long-range artillery. This explains why the Air Staff memorandum included in planning documents issued to the assault forces. Aircraft should be concentrated against Axis airfields, ports, transportation networks, or shipping beyond the reach of land or sea forces to stop or limit the enemy’s ability to interfere with the land operation. During Operation HUSKY, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, commander of all Allied air forces, used his air forces effectively according to the priorities set out above.

20 Naples 1
This photograph provides an excellent visualisation of concentrated targets in Naples, Italy. Numbers 1 to 5, 7, and 8 indicate wrecked or damaged vessels at the docks, while numbers 6 and 9 indicate a grain elevator and airframe works respectively. The railway yard is immediately above the airframe works (Source: US Air Force photo 27493 AC)

I have discussed the air superiority and close air support functions in previous posts. The remainder of this article will focus on the role of interdiction strikes in support of the army and its purpose in Sicily.

Why were the Allies landing in Sicily? At the Casablanca Conference in early 1943 superior British staff work and arguments led to the decision to invade Sicily once the Allies secured North Africa. General George C. Marshall, America’s top soldier, argued for Operation ROUNDUP, a cross-Channel invasion from the United Kingdom in spring 1943. He felt that this was the best way to ease pressure on the Soviets in the east. Marshall’s British counterpart, General Sir Alan Brooke, had a different assessment. There were 42 German divisions in France, more than enough to contain whatever force the Anglo-Americans could get across the Channel in 1943.[4] The Eastern Front would benefit little from Marshall’s plan. However, what if the Allies knocked Italy out of the war in 1943? The Italians had some 54 divisions, 2,000 aircraft, and the still-formidable Italian navy.[5] If Italy surrendered, it was logical to expect that the Germans would replace these losses with their forces. Nazi Germany had already shown a willingness to send forces to the Mediterranean in a crisis. They had done it in the Balkans and the Western Desert in 1941 and Tunisia in late 1942. Forces defending southern Europe could not support operations on the Eastern Front. Nor could they stand watch on or behind the Atlantic Wall waiting for the inevitable cross-Channel invasion. This was the plan the Allied air forces supported.

As news filtered in about the success of Allied landings in Sicily (under temporary air umbrellas established by fighters based in Malta, Gozo, Pantelleria, and even Tunisia), Tedder was already looking ahead to future operations in support of the Allied strategy. He wrote to his superiors in London:

Should the next week’s operations go well, I have been considering possibility of staging really heavy blows at, say, three vital centres in Italy. The whole of the Liberator force on Naples before it has to stand off to train for Tidalwave, the whole B.17 force on Rome, and if possible Harris’s Lanchester force on another shuttle service attack on suitable targets in N. Italy. All attacks simultaneous. Feel moral effect of such operations might be vital, especially if attack by shuttle service included [sic].[6]

With the landing force firmly ensconced in Sicily, Tedder unleashed his strategic bombers in another round of attacks. He hoped that Italy – tired of three years of war, having suffered massive casualties at Stalingrad and Tunis, and with Allied forces on their doorstep – was ripe for capitulation. Allied bombers in North Africa targeted Naples and Rome in particular. Both were significant as transport hubs, but Rome had the added prestige of being an Axis capital.

The Allied air forces had already paralysed the Sicilian railway system; now their focus shifted to the mainland. Naples was southern Italy’s most important railway junction. From 15 to 18 July 1943 the city suffered bombardments from United States Army Air Force B-17s, B-25s, and B-26s by day and RAF Wellingtons by night. Some RAF Boston light bombers even acted as pathfinders for a force of American B-25s, operating at night. The raids targeted the city’s marshalling yards, war industries, and nearby aerodromes.[7] According to a report by Solly Zuckerman’s Bombing Survey Unit using evidence assembled after the Allies took the city in October, ‘Naples was wiped out as a railway centre after the July attacks.’[8]

On 19 July the skies darkened over Rome as a combined force of nearly 600 medium and heavy bombers struck railway yards, war industry, and aerodromes within or near the city. Realizing the enormous political ramifications of this raid, the American aircrews were thoroughly briefed. They were to avoid targeting the Vatican, and the raid was preceded by dropping leaflets to warn the local population of the pending attack. Despite these and other efforts to prevent civilian casualties the bombers still killed between 1,700 and 2,000 people.[9] The raids effected a 200-mile gap in the railway system from Rome to Naples for 48 hours and contributed to the wider campaign of paralysing the Italian railway system by destroying rolling stock, locomotives, and their repair facilities. The trains were no longer running on time in Italy.[10]

24. Littorio 2
Wrecked rolling stock at the Littorio Rail Yards near Rome, Italy (Source: US Air Force photo B-62176 AC)

More importantly, the raid on Rome helped to drive the Italians out of the war. At the time of the raid, Benito Mussolini was meeting Adolf Hitler at Feltre in northern Italy. Mussolini’s task for this meeting was to secure his country’s removal from the war. He failed as an irate Hitler shouted him down, complaining about the failure of the Italians to provide adequate bases for the Luftwaffe and the resulting heavy losses the Germans had suffered defending Sicily.[11] Mussolini returned to Rome when he heard about the raid and less than a week later King Victor Emmanuel III replaced him with Marshal Pietro Badoglio. The new government set about contacting the Allies to sign a separate armistice, which they did on 3 September 1943.

Popular accounts feature Hitler’s response in the form of the operation to rescue Mussolini. What is more critical is Operation Achse. This was a plan for German forces to disarm Italian forces in Italy, the Balkans, and southern France in the event of an Italian defection or surrender. In addition to the four German divisions fighting in Sicily, a further ten were already on their way to Italy or had just arrived.[12] The German force in Italy would grow to nearly 25 divisions at the time of the invasion of Normandy.[13] Even without counting the German forces arrayed in southern France and against Tito’s Partisans in the Balkans, the Allied strategy set out at Casablanca had worked.

The Allied aims for Operation HUSKY were to open the central Mediterranean to Allied shipping, topple Italian fascism, force the Nazi high command to defend southern Europe on its own, and secure bases from which to continue the war in Italy. The American, British, and Canadian armies fighting in Sicily played their role in this mission with the support of the Northwest African Tactical Air Force, capturing the island by 17 August 1943. However, so too did the Strategic Air Force. Their raids on mainland Italian railway transport made Axis resupply efforts difficult and forced the enemy to use other less efficient methods to move their forces and supplies. This approach would later become the basis for the Transport Plan in support of Operation OVERLORD in 1944.[14] These same raids brought pressure on the Italian state to shed Fascism and change sides in the war. In this way, the strategic mission of the Allied soldiers and the Allied airmen (even those flying missions hundreds of miles away from the front) were one in the same.

Author’s note: As an aside, while the Allied air forces managed to paralyse the Sicilian and southern Italian railway systems in mid-1943, they were also unable to stop the Axis evacuation of Sicily in August. Should air commanders be held to account for failing to prevent the successful Axis evacuations across the Strait? I will save this topic for a future post, but you can always read Eagles over Husky to examine my answer.

Alexander Fitzgerald-Black is an Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones. He has a Master of Arts in Military History from the University of New Brunswick and is a Master of Arts in Public History candidate at the University of Western Ontario. Alex’s first book, Eagles over Husky: The Allied Air Forces and the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943, was published in early 2018. His research interests include air power in the Second World War, with a particular focus on the Mediterranean, and Canadian military history. He operates a blog at alexfitzblack.wordpress.com and can be reached on Twitter @AlexFitzBlack.

Header Image: Armourers are fuzing a 4,000-lb HC ‘Cookie’ bomb at Kairouan West, Tunisia, before loading it into a Vickers Wellington MkX of No. 205 Group RAF, during preparations for a night bombing raid on Salerno, Italy, before Operation AVALANCHE in September 1943. Another airman carries winches aft of the bomb-bay to manoeuvre the bomb underneath the aircraft. (Source: © IWM (CNA 4071))

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[1] Library and Archives Canada, R112-104-3 Kardex System, Vol. 10868, War Diaries Canadian Planning Staff Files, March to June 1943, Air Staff Memorandum.

[2] For a new interpretation that gives Collishaw proper credit for these developments, see: Mike Bechthold, Flying to Victory: Raymond Collishaw and the Western Desert Campaign, 1940-1941 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017), p. 4.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Mike Peters, Glider Pilots in Sicily (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2012), p. 3.

[5] Douglas Porch, The Path to Victory: The Mediterranean Theater in World War II (New York, NY: Farrar, Straux and Giroux, 2004), p. 417.

[6] The National Archives (TNA), Kew, UK, AIR 20/3372, Cypher telegram from Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder to Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, 10 July 1943. There had been earlier shuttle runs using Avro Manchester and Lancaster bomber aircraft. These runs were deemed logistically unsound and Bomber Command settled for attacking the industrial cities of northern Italy from bases in the United Kingdom.

[7] TNA, AIR 23/6325, Northwest African Air Force operation ‘Husky’ report, Part A: The Invasion and Conquest of Sicily, pp. 9-10.

[8] The Solly Zuckerman Archive, University of East Anglia, Bombing Survey Unit/6/7, Air Attacks on Raid and Road Communications, Appendix II, Part 3.1: Naples pp.98-99.

[9] Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (London: Penguin Books, 2014), p. 524.

[10] Alexander Fitzgerald-Black, Eagles over Husky: The Allied Air Forces and the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943 (Solihull: Helion & Company, 2018) pp. 112-6.

[11] Albert N. Garland & Howard McGraw Smyth, The United States Army in World War II: The Mediterranean Theater of Operations: Sicily and the Surrender of Italy (Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, 1965) p. 243.

[12] List compiled from Ibid., P. 248 and 293, and Helmut Heiber & David M. Glantz (eds.), Hitler and His Generals: Military Conferences 1942-1945 (New York, NY: Enigma Books, 2004).

[13] Porch, The Path to Victory, p.656.

[14] Stephen Bourque, Beyond the Beach: The Allied War Against France (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018), p. 152.

The Downfall of the Red Baron: Lessons Learned from the First World War ‘Ace of Aces’

The Downfall of the Red Baron: Lessons Learned from the First World War ‘Ace of Aces’

By Squadron Leader Michael Spencer

Baron Manfred von Richthofen was killed in air combat on 21 April 1918. He was unequalled in having shot down 80 enemy aircraft in aerial combat during the First World War to become the most famous ‘Ace of Aces’ in the early history of air combat. He was the pride of the German Imperial Army and respected by military aviation historians as the ‘Red Baron.’ A study of Richthofen’s aerial victories highlights the importance of critical thinking to identify and repeat the rules for success in aerial dogfighting. Evidence-based analyses of his behaviours and medical forensics in the months before his death indicate how the war may have been exacting an increasing toll on his judgement and decision-making abilities. The combination of seemingly discrete events that occurred during on 21 April triggered his abnormal behaviours and poor decisions, which had an accumulative effect that led to his ultimate downfall.

Flying officers attached to Rittmeister Manfred Freiherr Von Richthofen’s squadron, Jasta 11, c. April 1917. Richthofen himself is seated in the Albatros D.III. aircraft. From left to right: standing: unidentified (possibly Leutnant Karl Allmenroeder); Hans Hintsch; Vizfeldwebel Sebastian Festner; Leutnant Karl Emil Schaefer; Oberleutnant Kurt Wolff; Georg Simon; Leutnant Otto Brauneck. Sitting: Esser; Krefft; Leutnant Lothar von Richthofen, younger brother of Manfred. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Manfred von Richthofen and Learning Lessons

The British called him the ‘Red Baron’, the French scorned him as the ‘le diable rouge’ (Red Devil) while his 1917 autobiography was called Der Rote Kampfflieger, which broadly translates as the ‘Red Battle Flyer.’[1] F.M. Cutlack, the official historian of the Australian Flying Corps (AFC), described him as the ‘star of stars in the German Air Force.’[2] On 21 April 1918, Richthofen pursued a Royal Flying Corps Sopwith Camel low over enemy-controlled territory, breaking one of his fundamental air combat maxims, and was fatally wounded. Until then, Richthofen had strictly followed Dicta Boelcke and his critical-thinking of air combat to be scorned, feared, and respected as the highest scoring air ace of the First World War.[3]

The quality of the box matters little. Success depends upon the man who sits in it.

Manfred von Richthofen, ‘The Red Battle Flyer,’ para. 182.

One of the reasons behind his significant success in air combat was his adherence to doctrinal maxims that guided his judgements in deciding when and how he would enter an action in the battlespace and engage a target. The Dicta Boelcke was named after their developer: Oswald Boelcke, Germany’s first air ace, with a total of forty victories. While early aircraft commanders were still seeking to understand roles for aircraft as the newest war machines to enter the battlespace, Boelcke is recognised as being one of the first fighter aces to apply critical thinking to air combat. Boelcke drew on his observations in air combat, reviewed his successes and failures, and critically analysed them to identify the critical decision points, ethical behaviours, and practical tactics that he considered would lead to repeated successes in the air. Boelcke tested and evaluated his air combat rules before recommending them as ‘rules for success’ that should be applied by other German pilots when flying into air combat as individuals or as a group in a squadron.

Boelcke promoted his lessons-learned as dicta to increase the chance of success in air combat by the pilots under his command, especially those who were new and inexperienced. His aerial warfighting principles were endorsed by the German Army to all its airmen, as Dicta Boelcke. After Richthofen was assigned to serve in Boelke’s squadron, Boelke became Richthofen’s mentor, instructor, squadron commander, and close friend. Richthofen became a keen practitioner of Dicta Boelcke.

We were all beginners. None of us had had a success so far. Consequently, everything that Boelcke told us, was to us, gospel truth.

Manfred von Richthofen, ‘The Red Battle Flyer,’ para. 109.

Richthofen fully embraced Dicta Boelcke and, after gaining his own experiences in aerial combat, he learned to apply his critical-thinking to identify his maxims to improve and complement his list of successful air combat tactics doctrine. One of his doctrinal maxims to complement Dicta Boelcke was to ‘never obstinately stay with an opponent’ or, having initiated a dogfight in favourable circumstances, know when to break off the attack when the situation has changed and is no longer favourable. He did not adhere to this principle, later, in his final mission.

General von Falkenhayn and Richthofen inspecting a Fokker triplane. Mr A.H.G. Fokker is seated in the cockpit and General von Falkenhayn is on his right. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Richthofen’s Final Mission

On 21 April 1918, Richthofen pursued a British Sopwith Camel piloted by novice Canadian pilot, Lieutenant Wilfrid May of No. 209 Squadron. May had just fired on the Richthofen’s cousin, Lieutenant Wolfram von Richthofen. On seeing his cousin being attacked, Richthofen flew to aid his cousin and engaged May, causing the latter to disengage from his dogfight with Wolfram. In turn, Richthofen was attacked by another Sopwith Camel piloted by Canadian Captain Arthur ‘Roy’ Brown. Richthofen successfully evaded his attacker and, even though his Spandau machine guns had now jammed and could only be fired manually, resulting in single shots, he decided to resume his pursuit of May.

Richthofen was known to be very calculating in his observations of air battles before deciding when and whom to engage. Engagement only occurred when circumstances were likely to result in a favourable outcome. On this day, Richthofen’s judgment might have been affected by wanting to pursue the attacker who threatened his cousin, despite the circumstances – going against the aforementioned dicta that he considered critical for air combat success. Additionally, Richthofen had a reputation of being a skilled hunter on the ground with a single-shot rifle, and he may have decided that a victory with a single-shot Spandau machine gun be well within his capabilities and would significantly enhance his reputation and the morale of his flying Jasta.

May sought to escape Richthofen by rapidly descending to fly low across the front line into Allied-held territory. May later explained that his aircraft guns had jammed while being pursued and unable to out-manoeuvre Richthofen, he decided to fly low across the ridge into friendly territory, to ‘make a dash for a landing as his only hope.’[4] Eyewitness accounts reported seeing the Richthofen pursue May down to rooftop heights over the nearby village, which had a church with a bell-tower, and hearing the repeated cracking sounds of single gunshots coming from the aerial pursuit as the aircraft passed.

Richthofen appeared to decide to break one of his fundamental rules that he had previously applied so consistently in air combat by persisting in chasing May without regard for the new dangers arising around him. Richthofen was now flying low over Allied-held territory, with a strong easterly wind causing his aircraft to drift further behind enemy lines, and he was now flying low enough to be within the range of the Australian machine-gunners watching from the trenches. Richthofen seemed to have lost his situational awareness in focusing on May. Richthofen was then observed by the gunners in the trenches to fly up suddenly as if suddenly recognising the new dangers around him and only then decided to break off his pursuit of May – but it was too late. While pulling-up to ascend to a higher altitude above the trenches and ground troops, Richthofen was fatally struck by a single .303 round

He who gets excited in fighting is sure to make mistakes. He will never get his enemy down.

Manfred von Richthofen, ‘The Red Battle Flyer,’ para. 137.

Mortally wounded, Richthofen managed to execute a controlled crash landing, on the Australian-held battleground, before dying in the cockpit. Australian soldiers were quick to attend the crash site and seek to recover Richthofen.

Medical forensic analysis has indicated that Richthofen seemed to suffer from an uncharacteristic episode of ‘target fixation’, breaking his own rule to ‘never obstinately stay with an opponent.’ Medical researchers considered that this uncharacteristic error in judgement might be attributed to a persistent head injury from a head wound caused by a machine gun projectile ricocheting from his head during a dogfight that occurred nine months earlier.[5]

There has been controversy over multiple claims as to who was responsible for the fatal shot that brought down Richthofen; was it fired from a pursuing aircraft or one of the machine-gunners in the trenches? Although Brown was initially credited with the victory, medical forensic analyses of the wound ballistics, conducted in detail in later years, have indicated that Richthofen was struck in the chest by groundfire and not from an airborne shooter. Australia’s Official Historian, C.E.W. Bean, gathered eyewitness accounts from the battlefield that indicate it was most probable that Sergeant Cedric Popkin, an Australian Vickers machine gunner in the trenches, had fired the fatal shot that brought down Richthofen.[6]

Members of No. 3 Squadron, AFC, assumed responsibility for Richthofen’s remains as it was the Allied air unit that was located nearest to the crash site. Richthofen was buried in a military cemetery in France, with full military honours, by members of No 3 Squadron. A British pilot flew solo over the German air base of Jasta 11 to airdrop a message to respectfully inform them of the death of their celebrated commander, Baron Manfred von Richthofen on 21 April 1918.

The funeral cortege of Baron Manfred von Richtofen moving along to the cemetery at Bertangles, 22 April 1918. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Enduring Lessons for Modern-Day Aerospace Professionals

While accepting the challenges associated with extrapolating lessons from a historical example, Richthofen’s development and experience as a fighter pilot in the First World War does, however, highlight several enduring lessons for those flying in today’s operating environment. A key lesson is the need to develop critical thinking amongst military professionals who can effectively analyse their operating environment and develop solutions to challenges.

Boelcke was one of the first air aces to apply critical thinking to air combat and draw out best-practices as a way to increase the probability of success for other pilots, especially new and inexperienced ones. This was something that Richthofen built on, and he recognised the need for what in the modern vernacular might be referred to as a system-of-interest whereby in the operation of aerospace systems, the air vehicle, operator, and operating procedures and tactics need to work effectively in combination to achieve success. However, the recognition that a weapon, such as an aeroplane, was only as good as the person who operated it, and the training, tactics and procedures used by that individual, was only one part of the critical thinking process.

It was also necessary for the likes of Richthofen to capture lessons learned in the combat environment and regularly test and evaluate critical systems to improve performance. This also required pilots such as Richthofen to learn from personal mistakes and those of critical peers through ongoing discourse with both subordinates and superiors. The next step in this process was the ability to apply them in operation. Nevertheless, these lessons learned processes were all for nothing if not usefully applied as evidenced by Richthofen’s final flight where we see the significance of high-consequence decision-making and the failure to reduce risk.

The accumulation of seemingly small discrete decisions made by Richthofen on his last flight, where each decision had a seemingly minor consequence when reviewed in isolation, resulted in an accumulative effect that ultimately resulted in catastrophe. As such, it is essential that organisations need to develop the right culture, management systems, and training programs to reduce catastrophic risks to a minimum. Indeed, in Richthofen’s case, arguably, someone should have ensured that he did not fly on that fateful day as he was neither in the right physical or mental condition to fly effectively. Pilots and aircrew are expensive assets to train and maintain, and unnecessary losses such as Richthofen’s impact on operational effectiveness. Richthofen’s state on 21 April 1918 affected his judgement as he ignored one of his critical dicta – to never obstinately stay with an opponent.

Finally, it is worth reflecting that innovation and inventiveness never rest. Sometimes it is beneficial to study the past before looking to the future and look for opportunities to build on the experiences and inventiveness of others rather than starting at an experience level of zero. As Richthofen himself reflected:

Besides giant planes and little chaser-planes, there are innumerable other types of flying machines and they are of all sizes. Inventiveness has not yet come to an end. Who can tell what machine we shall employ a year hence in order to perforate the atmosphere?

Manfred von Richthofen, ‘The Red Battle Flyer,’ para. 222.

Squadron Leader Michael Spencer is currently serving in the Royal Australian Air Force at the Air Power Development Centre in Canberra, analysing potential risks and opportunities posed by technology change drivers and disruptions to the future applications air and space power. His Air Force career has provided operational experiences in long-range maritime patrol, aircrew training, and weaponeering, and management experiences in international relations, project management in air and space systems acquisitions, space concepts development, and joint force capability integration. He is an Australian Institute of Project Management certified project manager and also an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Royal Australian Air Force or the Australian Government.

Header Image: The remains of Baron Manfred von Richthofen’s plane and the two machine guns. Most of these officers and men are members of No. 3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

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[1] Der Rote Kampfflieger was first published in 1918. The quotes in this article are taken from the 1918 translation by T. Ellis Barker, with a preface and notes by C.G. Grey, editor of The Aeroplane. This edition published by Robert M. McBride & Co. can be found on the Gutenberg.org site.

[2] F.M. Cutlack, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 – Volume VIII: The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War, 1914-1918, 11th Edition (Sydney, NSW: Angus and Robertson, 1941), p. 215.

[3] R.G. Head, Oswald Boelcke: Germany’s First Fighter Ace and Father of Air Combat (London: Grub Street, 2016), pp. 97-8.

[4] Cutlack, The Australian Flying Corps, p. 251.

[5] P. Koul, et al, ‘Famous head injuries of the first aerial war: deaths of the “Knights of the Air”,’ Neurosurgical Focus, 39:1 E5 (2015).

[6] ‘Appendix 4 – The Death of Richthofen’ in C.E.W. Bean, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 – Volume V: The Australian Imperial Force in France during the Main German Offensive, 1918, 8th Edition (Sydney, NSW: Angus and Robertson, 1941), pp. 693-701.