Editorial Note: From Balloons to Drones is pleased to announce our new podcast series. Led by Assistant Editor Dr Mike Hankins, the series builds on the success of From Balloons to Drones, and it provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here.
In our latest podcast, we interview Dr Tyler Morton to discuss his new book From Kites to Cold War: The Evolution of Manned Airborne Reconnaissance. Not only do we get some incredible stories about aerial surveillance (especially from the WW2-era), but we have a blast talking about our biggest “nerd moments” from the archives, and why that type of work is so powerful and exciting!
Header Image: A U-2C painted in a gray camouflage pattern called the ‘Sabre’ scheme in 1975. The camouflage replaced the usual black finish to ease British concerns about ‘spy planes’ operating from the UK. In Europe, this U-2 tested equipment to locate and suppress enemy surface-to-air missiles. (Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force)
What is air power? How do we study it? How do we use it? Do previous characterisations sufficiently capture the concept? Perhaps. This article contends that prior attempts to put meat on the bone towards a framework to study air power scholarship are insufficient.
Moreover, we must appreciate the richness of our inquiries if we – scholars and professionals, such as political scientists, historians, policymakers, practitioners and users – want to understand better the concept of air power to help answer important questions. These questions may be: how do civilian airline pilots and training schools contribute to a nation’s ‘air power?’ Can peacetime control of airspace access constitute a form of air power? To what extent does air information, such as weather, the electromagnetic environment, knowledge of space weather, constitute a form of air power? Furthermore, more, importantly, how do these questions and related concepts orient to each other. As such, this article argues that air power is the domain-agnostic admixture of personalities, outcomes, organisations, technologies, ideas and events to do or, that do, something in or for, the air.
This definition is unique in that it explicitly and parsimoniously joins together the breadth of military and civilian endeavours. It highlights the ‘stickiness’ of related topics and contends that air power is not an inherently military pursuit, though its application almost always manifests as such. The definition provides more form to the general, varied ideas of military thinkers about essential elements of air power. This article begins the discussion on the topic of how we structure air power studies across various academic fields and cordons a more robust dissection of the topic in future publications. Furthermore, this article details the constituent components of air power to clarify meaning. Then, it uses this perception of air power to explain its evolution throughout history. Finally, briefly, it discusses our current air power disposition to make sense of what component will drive innovation in the coming decades — organisations. So, how have we come to envisage this elusive thing we call air power?
Definition and Components of Air Power
In the Age of Airpower, Martin Van Creveld explored about 250 years of the concept. Among others, he highlighted the work of people with simple, yet elegant definitions of air power, such as that of Brigadier General William ‘Billy’ Mitchell who viewed it as doing ‘something in the air.’ Other writers such as Mark Clodfelter provided more angles: breaking the concept of air power into direct and indirect applications. For Clodfelter, direct air power generally involves kinetic outcomes such as bombing and indirect presumes more non-kinetic capabilities, such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).
Meanwhile, organisations such as the US Air Force (USAF) define air power based on its organisational experience and conceptual refinement. The latest iteration of USAF Basic Doctrine defines the concept as ‘the ability to project military power or influence through the control and exploitation of air, space, and cyberspace to achieve strategic, operational, or tactical objectives.’ So, how do we break air power down for study?
While Mitchell’s definition is more parsimonious, adding a little complexity provides the explanatory muscle to how we think about air power and thus how we can consider the concept’s change over time. Foundationally, one should recognise that to do something in the air does not necessarily mean that the activity must originate in or from the air. For instance, a ballistic missile launch originates from the land, traverses through the air and maybe space, and then strikes somewhere on land. This example demonstrates the potential of the agnosticism of the air domain. Furthermore, a more robust definition allows for careful, coordinated forecasting of future air power applications using clear and structured links within and across the subject’s elements. For instance, air power researchers studying C-17 humanitarian assistance capabilities may be linked to those studying procedurally based command and control organisations as well as those studying the political effects of humanitarian assistance to optimise future disaster response towards national priorities.
Conceiving of air power as an admixture of component concepts: each noteworthy, though not equal, in characterising the ability to do something in the air is vital for several reasons. One benefit is to have more structured research programs that allow thinkers to situate their contribution to the subject area. Another is to generalise debates on air power concepts that link military and civilian theory and application. A generalisation can help guard against what seems to be a tendency to overly militarise air power thought, evoking the coercive and persuasive elements of the concept. The benefits are similar to those of academic fields like history or political science though air power studies can best be described as an interdisciplinary subfield or topical field.
Importantly, to be useful, the components must be defined. First, personalities may be individuals or groups that have a profound impact on the development of the notion. For instance, Mitchell vocally and publicly advanced the idea of a separate US military service despite the misgivings of more senior leaders, including President Calvin Coolidge. In part, the general’s 1925 court-martial resulted from agitation for a separate US air service. However, the spectacle thrust air power into America’s national dialogue. He challenged the US Army – then overseeing land-based air forces – stating that their leaders were negligent for not building an air service capable of national defence. Mitchell is credited by many as being the original maverick in pursuing an idea of independent military air power that was largely sidelined at the time. Mitchell’s persona, in part, catalysed the existence of organisations critical to the development of air power.
Mitchell’s calls for an independent air service bring us to the second component — organisations, which are administrative and operational systems that foster ideas, leverage people and exploit technologies towards some outcome. An exemplar is the USAF’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) under Major-General Curtis LeMay’s tutelage. SAC pursued the idea of ‘strategic’ air power, discussed later, towards its outcome of long-range conventional and nuclear bombing. SAC oversaw most of the US nuclear deterrent and development of bomber capabilities for the USAF. The organisation came to personify air power in the US and for much of the world during the Cold War. Albeit an unfair approximation, civilians and military personnel alike were lent the idea of air power’s ability to render an outcome of total enemy devastation embodied by SAC’s long-range bombers and, later, ballistic missiles.
In our context, outcomes are the effects, assessments and results by which military and civilian leaders come to associate air power. For instance, after the Second World War, both military and civilian leaders came to associate air power with the unconditional surrender of the enemy evoked by the use of nuclear weapons. This idea created problems during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, where expectations outpaced the new reality of limited, non-nuclear warfare. Limited warfare lends itself to more technical means — leaving technology to be the more tangible, driving component of air power.
As a component, technology includes all the capabilities, research, design, development and testing that allow practitioners to do things in the air. For instance, a significant component of the US’ advancements in stealth technology originated with the Skunk Works team under Kelly Johnson’s orchestration, among others. The team’s research and design techniques led to advances like the SR-71 Blackbird and the F-117 Nighthawk. These technologies, along with other capabilities-related advances, influenced expectations such as those discussed above: enabling the limited, non-nuclear warfare that became characteristic of vast swaths of America’s recent history. However, while technology is sometimes the easiest to translate as an air power component, though not always easy to grasp, it is ideas that sometimes generate change.
Doctrine, strategy, theories, policies and politics combine to form air power’s conceptual component. These ideas embody how personalities can use other components. Reciprocally, all the other components can help thinkers conceive of new ways to conceptualise air power. To demonstrate, during Operation EL DORADO CANYON, President Reagan and his national security team viewed air power as a punitive instrument of national security policy. Existent technologies in the 1980s allowed Reagan’s response to state-sponsored terrorism with a long-range, airstrike on targets tailored to the perceived offence. Reagan’s team shepherded the technology component in a way that had not yet been explored to its fullest. They updated strategic attack doctrine; tested theories of international relations; set new international policies; and ignited the politics of air-driven limited, military interventions.
Events like Op EL DORADO CANYON also constitutes the last element of air power. Our understanding of past campaigns, battles and historical milestones enables a fuller appreciation of air power and the possibility of modifying its future use. Unfortunately, these so-called understandings can sometimes lead to misapplications of history and, ultimately, to disaster. For instance, the counterinsurgency in Iraq that began almost immediately after the invasion in 2003 required a different application of air power than previously practised, but it would take multiple Secretaries of Defense to enforce this understanding upon the military, as evidenced by the explosion of unmanned technologies among others. The components of air power – personalities, organisations, outcomes, technologies, ideas and events – provide the critical infrastructure for the study of air power. We can use this infrastructure to help us understand various aspects of the topic, like what elements may be more important at various times in history. This understanding can help us orient ourselves in history relative to the seemingly dominant feature of our time so that those who study, and practice air power can best allocate resources, whether academically or practically.
Epochs of Air Power
In this section, this article now considers the prominence of the above elements as determinants of historical periods in air power’s evolution. A short walkthrough of air power’s epochal changes rooted in the above-defined elements illuminates current and the future application of air power. Geoffrey Barraclough, in An Introduction to Contemporary History, provided an idea about ‘spots and jumps’ that define historical periods and transitions. He used the timeframe 1880-1960 to discuss the shift between modern and contemporary history based primarily on economic and geopolitical factors. Using a similar conception of eras punctuated by ‘spots and jumps,’ rooted in the components of air power to characterise the shifts, this section divides the evolution of air power into five timeframes. Importantly, during shifts between the timeframes, changes in predominant component concepts of air power led to changes in our concept of air power.
Before 1783 – The Age of Imagination
Air power before 1783 can be viewed as an ‘Age of Imagination’ or ideas. There were no bounds except those imposed by humanity’s evolving understanding of terrestrial physics. Some of the earliest human records depict mystical flying or lobbing objects through the air as weapons. In their way, our ancestors from around the world gave us our first concept of air power. They conceived of divinity by drawing and storytelling of gods that could defy gravity unassisted, a fruitless pursuit for mere mortals that dates to Greek, Roman and Chinese mythology. While ancient and pre-industrial humans did not themselves defy gravity, humankind created things to help defend themselves, such as arrows and trebuchet missiles. These weapons are essential to the study of air power because the idea of projectiles travelling large distances to destroy an enemy finds its roots here. These weapons emerged over thousands of years, sometimes a crowning achievement of empires such as Persia and the Mongols. Nonetheless, the wild-eyed dreams of fantasy came to a relatively abrupt end in 1783 when the Montgolfiers floated their first balloon. The brothers’ flights began the period of the ‘Origins of Air Power.’
1783 to 1903 – The Origins of Air Power
Between 1783 and 1903, changes in the concept of air power resulted from slow changes in technologies. For instance, a new class of ‘aeronauts’ proliferated workable ballooning technologies that ended up in the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte, though his use is not the first use on the battlefield. He used available technologies when and where he could to enhance reconnaissance and direct artillery strikes. In 1798 Bonaparte used balloons to try to overawe the Egyptians in a campaign to subdue the Middle East and North Africa. After an unsuccessful display, Napoleon ordered the balloon unit’s disbandment. Undoubtedly a balloon would have come in handy in 1815 when Napoleon looked for Grouchy to spot and crush Blucher’s flanking movement at Waterloo. Nearly a half-century later, professionals continued to struggle with the concept of air power: conceiving of it as an unproven, unpredictable and unusable conglomeration of technologies and techniques, such as gas-producing machines for balloons, telegraphs and airborne mapmaking. Such was Thaddeus Lowe’s disposition in bringing air power to fruition during the American Civil War. Thus, it would be until the turn of the twentieth century.
1903 to 1945 – The Douhetian Epoch
From 1903 to 1945, ‘strategic’ air power and its offshoots was the idea that drove changes in the conception of air power as something more than an observational or auxiliary tool for ground forces. The idea of independent air power came to full fruition in August 1945 with the dropping of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan. To begin, in December 1903 the Wright Brothers brought heavier-than-air flight to reality. Driving the science of aeronautics were ideas like those refined by Giulio Douhet in the early part of the 20th century. Theorists like Douhet opined that wars could be won by striking at city centres from the air to break the will of a people, forcing them to surrender. Douhet’s original Italian publication in 1921 would not get immediately translated into English; however, people like Hugh Trenchard, the first Royal Air Force commander, articulated similar thoughts and organised, trained and equipped his military forces towards those ends. Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris would make use of Trenchard’s advancements during the Second World War over German cities such as Hamburg, Dresden and Berlin. Though it would take the American military time to adopt the British model of indiscriminate bombing, this idea came to epitomise air power for the period.
Importantly, this was also the timeframe during which commercial air travel in lighter- and heavier-than-air vessels took root. Though the ‘golden’ age of commercial air travel would come later, concepts like air routes, navigating via beacons, airports and other ideas began to solidify. These concepts had both military and civilian applications and technologies that enabled further development of the idea of air assets used over long distances. However, the military would continue to dominate ideas about air power as a ‘strategic’ concept even as these ideas came into contact with a significant theoretical challenge: limited warfare in an age of potentially unlimited destruction from thermonuclear weapons.
1945 to 2001 – The Era of Immaculate Effects
The next era, roughly spanning 1945 to 2001 is the maturation of strategic bombing extremes enabled by high technology. Militarily, the era is marked by the rise of a more immaculate, precise warfare with limited aims to mitigate aircrew losses, fulfil more specific international obligations and for operational efficiency among other goals. There was a change in the concept of air power because of what it was perceived to have achieved during the Second World War and the idea that the same outcome could be realised even in the face of more limited warfare. By the beginning of this timeframe, the USAF sidelined more tactically-minded airmen like Pete Quesada to ensure adoption of strategic bombing as a vehicle to solidify the association with air power. In part because of his prestige as a tactical aviation adherent, the ‘bomber generals’ defanged Quesada and the organisation he led, Tactical Air Command, after WWII. There was no room for anyone but true believers in the strategic attack mindset, but this would change after the experiences of Korea and Vietnam in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Only later in the period would Quesada’s tactical aviation and more precise attack legacy permeate military circles.
In civilian aviation, technology-fueled huge leaps in air power. National airspace, global navigation capabilities and air-containerised freight were concepts that would hold vast military and civilian applications. It is during this time that military and civilian aircraft started to compete for airspace for things like training, exercises and navigating various corridors. Another critical advance was the widespread implementation of the instrument landing system that allowed commercial aircraft to land in increasing levels of degraded atmospheric conditions. Again, precision enabled by technology characterised this era.
2000 and Beyond – Flexible Niche
The most recent period begins at around the turn of the millennium. This is the epoch as ‘Flexible Niche’ because it involved the use of existing or new technologies for a variety of activities dependent on how organisations are positioned to leverage them. Beginning in the late 1980s, formalisation of the contemporary Air Operations Center (AOC) is an early indicator of the present epoch. This organisation enabled the focused air campaign during Operations INSTANT THUNDER and DESERT STORM that, in part, led to ultimate victory for coalition forces in 1991. It was no longer enough to think of air power as just a capability or bringing about the strategic defeat of an enemy via the limits of destructive power or achieving national objectives with as few civilian casualties as possible. The organisation became the template for how to leverage air power across a wide area and from multiple sources. A contemporary view of air power considers the construct of how and which organisations best leverage technologies, ideas and people towards a given outcome, which may be a military one. There are a variety of concepts that the United States military is exploring, including the Multi-Domain Operations Center and Defense Innovation Unit, in addition to the standup of a Space Force among other initiatives.
Civil aviation is undergoing a similar bout with organisations, especially in the United States, as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grapples with how best to control airspace with the rise of unmanned technologies, especially in congested metropolitan areas. Should the FAA continue to hold all the cards or is the organisation in need of decentralisation of authorities to states and localities? Technologies may forestall the organisational decision, but this era’s solutions seem to be organisationally related rather than technically.
For the new century and beyond, it will not necessarily be which countries and industries have the best technologies or smartest people or best ideas that define the development of air power: it will be the organisations that can best leverage the other components that will determine how we conceive of air power. To summarise, again, air power is the domain-agnostic ability to do something in the air resulting from an admixture of personalities, outcomes, organisations, technologies, ideas and events. These components, at various times, represent reasons why our concept of air power changes over time.
The use of epochs allows us to generally discuss how components of air power drive thinking and successful pursuits of the concept over time, which is why it is useful to develop a unified framework for their study. Moreover, as opposed to the more traditional commentary of air power, linking military and civilian advancements in the same epoch demonstrates that air power is not an inherently military concept. This article serves as an overview of the start of a more robust discussion about the development of air power and a characterisation of what will likely temper that development for the 21st century — organisations. Future topics will involve civilian efforts to deal with drones and swarms, the importance of civil aviation and commercial space efforts in air power development, and the exploration of the idea that organisations will be the defining issue of this era.
Given all of this, air power is the domain-agnostic admixture of personalities, outcomes, organisations, technologies, ideas and events to do or, that do, something in or for, the air. Moreover, these components at various times have influenced significant shifts in our conception of air power over at least five critical epochs. Scholars and professionals must acknowledge the military and civilian dimensions of air power to live up to the concept’s full potential. Hence, to conclude, there is a need for a unified framework for the study of air power to promote the integration of military and civilian issues with the field.
Major Jaylan M. Haley is a career USAF Intelligence Officer. Currently, he is a student at the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Power Studies at Air University. Over 14 years, he served in a variety of intelligence-related positions from the strategic to the tactical levels. During Operations ENDURING FREEDOM and INHERENT RESOLVE, he served as an Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Liaison Officer to multiple US Army Divisions and US Marine Expeditionary Forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Most recently he was an Air University Fellow, serving as an Instructor in the Department of International Security at the USAF Air Command and Staff College. He is a PhD Candidate in the Kansas State University Security Studies program with research focused on leverage air power as a tool of national policy.
Header Image: A US Navy Grumman F-14A Tomcat intercepts a Soviet Tupolev Tu-95 ‘Bear D’ reconnaissance-bomber over the Pacific Ocean on 21 November 1984. The F-14 was assigned to fighter squadron VF-51 aboard the USS Carl Vinson and was deployed to the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean from 18 October 1984 to 24 May 1985. (Source: Wikimedia)
 Domains include air, space, cyberspace (or electromagnetic), land and sea. Domain agnosticism disregards a specific domain towards the application of a specific concept. For instance, intelligence collection is domain agnostic. This means that intelligence collection can come from any of the domains-air, space, cyberspace, land or sea.
 ‘Strategic Implications for the Aerospace Nation’ in Philip Meilinger (ed.), Air War: Essays on Its Theory and Practice (Abingdon: Franck Cass, 2003), pp. 217-30.
 Martin Van Creveld, Martin, The Age of Airpower (New York: PublicAffairs, 2011), p. 71; William Mitchell, Winged Defense: The Development and Possibilities of Modern Air Power (New York: Dover Publications, 1988), p. xii.
 Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), p. 213.
 United States Air Force, Core Doctrine, Volume 1 – Basic Doctrine (Maxwell AFB, LeMay Doctrine Center, 2015).
 Robert Smith, ‘Maneuver at Lightspeed: Electromagnetic Spectrum as a Domain,’Over the Horizon: Multi-Domain Operations & Strategy, 5 November 2018. Importantly, the so-called warfighting domains of air, space, land, navy and now cyber – or perhaps more aptly electromagnetic – all interface with the air domain and provide a medium through which something can happen in the air.
 Douglas Waller, A Question of Loyalty (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004), pp. 21-2.
 Donald Mrozek, Air Power & the Ground War in Vietnam (Virginia, VA: Pergamon-Brassey’s International Defense Publishers, 1989), pp. 14-5.
 Conrad Crane, American Airpower Strategy in Korea: 1950-1953 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2000), pp. 16-22.
Rebecca Siegal, To Fly Among The Stars: The Hidden Story of the Fight for Women Astronauts. New York, NY: Scholastic Focus, 2020. Bibliography. Hbk. 340 pp.
Academic book reviews, at least those found in the back two-thirds of academic journals, tend to follow a predictable pattern. The good: ‘The author deftly demonstrates…’ Followed by the not so good: ‘What the author misses though is…’ Finally, the wrap up: ‘In the end, this work…’ It is, to a certain degree, the nature of the ‘business’ of academia, the manner in which one professional must praise and critique the work of a peer to the wider audience of colleagues. Removed from this predictable outline of reviews are more personal opinions. One will likely not find the phrase, ‘I enjoyed….’ I have often lamented to friends that nothing will ruin your love of history like the professional study of it. So, it is with great pleasure that every so often a book lands on my desk that is at the same time a well-written history and a thoroughly enjoyable book. Rebecca Siegel’s To Fly Among the Stars: The Hidden Story of the Fight for Women Astronauts is just such a book. For something a bit different here at From Balloons to Drones, I will follow the predictable pattern not so often found on blog posts.
The Good. The author deftly demonstrates that the search (and desire) for women astronauts has been almost entirely overlooked. In this book, written for the upper Middle Grade to Young Adult audience, Siegel weaves the well-known story of the Mercury 7 alongside the contemporaneous story of the virtually unknown ‘Mercury 13’ – the moniker was never official and added much later. This is not to say that the study of these pioneers has been entirely overlooked, and I would encourage our readers to get their hands on the following works: Martha Ackmann’s The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight and Margaret A. Weitkamp’s Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America’s First Women in Space Program. Do not allow the fact that this is a book written for a younger audience, dissuade you from its importance and what will surely be great impact. For starters, this is a good book. Even scholars of the field will likely find something new – and dare I say something to enjoy – in these pages. Siegel has not only done her homework, but she provides avenues for a new generation to do theirs: her bibliography, the place where the next generation scholars and scientists will turn, is diverse and exhaustive. Considering, the age group this book is intended for, the bibliography is the equal of scholarship on the subject.
The not so good. What the author misses though is…not much. Weaving the familiar with the lesser-known demonstrates the state of cultural and gender backwardness that was accepted as normal practice in the latter half of the 20th Century. Siegel presents a refreshing take on a familiar space story. Most female pilots struggled to find work and acceptance in the air, but for a select few being a pilot was not enough. While the names Shepard, Grissom, Glenn, Carpenter, Cooper, Slayton, Schirra remain (more or less) recognisable, the names Cobb, Dietrich, Steadman, Sloan, Funk and others are not. Siegel’s timely work coincides not only with the 50th anniversaries of the Apollo flights but with a modern NASA seeking to inspire an American public as it sets its sights once again on deep space travel. It was only 37 years ago that the first American female astronaut launched into space, the first female shuttle pilot 25 years ago, and the first female shuttle commander 21 years ago. In the 60+ year history of crewed American spaceflight, these exploits and successes were built upon lesser-known figures whom Siegel brings to light for a younger audience.
In the end, this work will appeal to a wide audience: across specialties, across interests, across genders and across generations. To steal from another space-themed genre, this work will be the spark that lights the fire in the next generation of space explorers. We are all better for this book having been written.
Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. His second book was Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.
Header Image: Exuberant and thrilled to be at the Kennedy Space Center, seven women who once aspired to fly into space stand outside Launch Pad 39B neat the Space Shuttle Discovery, poised for liftoff on the first flight of 1995. They are members of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs, also known as the ‘Mercury 13’), a group of women who trained to become astronauts for Americas first human spaceflight program back in the early 1960s. Although this FLATs effort was never an official NASA program, their commitment helped pave the way for the milestone Eileen Collins set: becoming the first female Shuttle pilot. Visiting the space center as invited guests of STS-63 Pilot Eileen Collins are (from left): Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman. (Source: Wikimedia)
Hindsight tends to make the contingent seem predestined. This is why reading history is essential for those responsible for planning for the future. When military professionals engage with history to try and understand how decisions, events, and circumstances – many of which lie beyond their control – shaped the present, they better appreciate that future planning is not about prediction; it is about preparing for adaptation. This is the lesson I took from Lieutenant Colonel Dr Tyler Morton’s book From Kites to Cold War, published by the United States Naval Institute Press in 2019.
This may not have been the insight that Morton intended for his readers. The book is the published version of Morton’s 2016 USAF Air University PhD thesis, which aimed to educate airmen on how airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) evolved rapidly from novelty to necessity. Although Morton claimed that the book ‘is a unique account spanning two millennia of manned airborne reconnaissance history’ (p. 9), the book’s six chapters cover less than 200 years: from the Montgolfier brothers’ hot-air-balloon demonstration in 1783 to the Linebacker air campaign over North Vietnam in 1972. This is not a criticism of Morton; his treatment of those 200 years is detailed and engaging and lives up to the promise of providing a unique insight into the development of a capability that is now a cornerstone of modern military operations. Morton’s 200-year story of airborne reconnaissance is one of vision, innovation, hype, misstep, and adaptation. This is a story whose beginning and early evolution has interesting parallels to what is occurring today with a range of emerging technologies.
Most histories of air power begin at the turn of the 20th century with the development of dirigibles and heavier-than-air flight. Those seeking to establish a longer pedigree for military aviation may refer to the French use of balloons at the Battle of Fleurus in 1794. Morton’s first chapter covering the Montgolfier’s 1783 balloon demonstration through to the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, therefore, fills a gap in air power’s historical narrative.
As Morton describes it, the 19th century was a period of civilian-led experimentation that enjoyed ambivalent support from militaries in Europe and the United States. Though contemporary militaries saw the potential for balloons to contribute to their armies’ situational awareness, many believed resources were better spent on more established capabilities. Using examples from the French Revolutionary period and the American Civil War, Morton shows how the tension between inventors, scientists, and entrepreneurs who demonstrated, but also oversold, the possibilities of airborne reconnaissance, and military leaders who needed to balance innovation with operational necessities shaped initial development efforts. The opportunity cost of an experimental technology versus tried-and-tested during a time of war hindered the military employment of balloons until the end of the 19th century.
It was during the first 15 years of the 20th century, the focus of chapter two, that the perceived benefits of military air power began to exceed the cost. Practical and operational demonstrations of airships and heavier-than-air machines sparked interest in militaries in Europe and the United States, leading to a growing acceptance of aviation’s future military role. Morton’s analysis of this period draws attention to the increasingly important role of empowered officers who drove progress in airborne reconnaissance. Officers such as then-Lieutenant Benjamin Foulois who envisaged the development of airborne reconnaissance as a system requiring the development of new technology and skill-sets beyond those associated with the aircraft itself, and who were empowered to drive the capability forward. Foulois’ career – on operations, as a member of the critical aeronautical boards before and after the First World War, and as Chief of the Air Corps – provided him with the opportunities within the military establishment to translate his vision into reality. His demonstrations of air-to-ground communications and aerial photography in support of US operations during the Mexican Revolution established the utility of airborne reconnaissance for key US Army leadership. In Foulois’ own words (p. 67), the Mexican operations ‘had proven beyond dispute […] that aviation was no longer experimental or freakish.’
Growing awareness in Europe and the United States of the military utility of airborne reconnaissance opened the door for the capability advocates when war came. It would not take long for the capability to prove its worth. Airborne reconnaissance enabled operational success on both sides of the First World War from the earliest stages of the war. It provided Allied commanders with intelligence on German manoeuvres that enabled the so-called ‘Miracle of the Marne.’ On the Eastern Front, German air reconnaissance of Russian force dispositions played a vital role in the German victory at Tannenberg; according to Field Marshal Hindenburg (p. 85): ‘Without the airplane there is no Tannenberg.’ Morton’s discussion of developments during the war in chapter three provides the reader with an appreciation of how the capability developed as a system comprising the air platform, cameras, communications, and the processing, exploitation, and dissemination (PED) of information. This was a logical progression of the pre-war developments, but, as Morton highlights, it was the character of First World War trench warfare (p. 86) that ‘gave aviation the chance it needed to solidify further its value as a force enhancer.’ The reduced mobility of ground forces created an intelligence gap which air power advocates and innovators ably filled. It was the development under real-world operational conditions that made airborne reconnaissance effective as it ensured the system evolved to meet requirements. This also had the effect of removing any lingering doubt about whether the capability had a place in future force structure. With its future assured, the next challenge was determining the exact form and function of that future capability. As the final three chapters highlight, this was not easy.
In chapter four, Morton covers the interwar period and the Second World War – a 26-year period during which there were significant advances in technology, concepts, and operational experience – in one page more than he covers the five years of the First World War. Surprisingly, this does not reduce the quality of the insights he provides. Morton focuses on two main areas during this period: the relative neglect of airborne reconnaissance into the 1930s as air power’s advocates struggled to define its role; and the wartime expansion of the reconnaissance role from imagery intelligence (IMINT) into signals intelligence (SIGINT). Opportunity cost remerged as a significant factor driving air power development during the interwar period. Ironically, as militaries and air power advocates struggled to clarify the role of air power, the tried-and-tested capability of airborne reconnaissance was neglected as investment flowed into more experimental and conceptual areas such as strategic bombing, a reversal of situation Morton describes in chapter one. However, new technologies and the character of operations during the Second World War created opportunities for innovative airmen and their adaptable organisations to consolidate and expand the role of airborne reconnaissance. The ubiquity of radar and radios increased the opportunities and requirement for collection against new sources; Morton does an excellent job describing the resulting emergence of SIGINT across all theatres. By 1945 the major disciplines of modern airborne reconnaissance were firmly established, but the challenge of prioritisation would continue to shape its development well into the Cold War.
Morton takes a different approach to deal with the Cold War. Rather than dividing the period arbitrarily into different time periods, he opts for a thematic approach. Chapter five explores ‘airborne reconnaissance as a strategic political instrument’. While chapter six, the book’s final chapter, examines airborne reconnaissance in the ‘hot wars’ in Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam. Of note, unlike previous chapters that have examined the developments internationally, the final two chapters focus solely on airborne reconnaissance in the United States. The unstated premise is that whereas previously the ideas and experiences of the other great powers had exerted an influence on the evolution of the capability this ceased to be the case after the end of the Second World War. Whether or not this is true is open for debate, but Morton’s discussion of the period does make a compelling, though implied, case.
In chapter five, Morton describes a period of consistent investment in and development of ‘strategic aerial reconnaissance’. The need to maintain awareness of Soviet capabilities to strike the United States and develop intelligence for targeting of US strategic strikes against the Soviet Union drove these developments. Soviet responses also played a role. As superpower competition grew and the Soviet’s began actively targeting US collection assets, political concerns began to impact the requirement for US reconnaissance capabilities directly. Morton describes how this interplay between collection requirements and political considerations drove improvements to sensor capabilities, giving rise to the Big Safari program, and the survivability of the collection platforms, leading to the A-12 Oxcart/SR-71 Blackbird, and the U-2. These were strategically significant capability improvements that were vital to the success of the US deterrence strategy.
While the United States focused its reconnaissance efforts on strategic requirements, the ability to meet tactical the demands for reconnaissance was neglected. In the book’s final chapter Morton describes how the United States adapted its strategic reconnaissance capabilities, and rapidly developed and implemented new tactical systems to meet the requirements of Korea, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War. The most interesting aspect of this final chapter is not the technology, but the processes that were developed. In Korea, Colonel Karl Polifka implemented a tactical reconnaissance management system that deconflicted the multitude of requests coming into the 5th Air Force and tracked the status of the product; a process that sounds remarkably similar to today’s collection management process. During Vietnam, the integration of technology and process as part of the Teaball project – a system that enabled highly-classified SIGINT to provide near-real-time intelligence into USAF fighter cockpits over North Vietnam – contributed to an increase in the USAF’s kill ratio from 0.47:1 to 4:1. In the words of General John Vogt, then-Commander of the 7th Air Force (p. 204):
During Linebacker we were shooting down the enemy at a rate of four to one […] Same airplane, same environment, same tactics; largely [the] difference [was] Teaball.
Teaball is an appropriate way for Morton to end his history of airborne reconnaissance. The progress made technologically, organizationally, and procedurally from 1783 to 1972 is impressive; when you shift timescale from 1914 to 1972, that progress is even more spectacular. As Morton reflects when discussing the 1965 introduction of the communication-intelligence-equipped EC-121D Warning Star into the Vietnam conflict (p. 200):
In scarcely fifty years, airmen went from using smoke signals and dropped messages to a fully integrated communications capability delivering near-real-time SIGINT data directly to air and ground warfighters.
This progress was not smooth, nor was it predestined, it was the result of the creativity, vision, and perseverance of inventors, engineers, airmen, and military commanders who were able to adapt emerging capabilities to meet operational and strategic requirements.
From Kites to Cold War is an essential read for anyone involved in the present or future of airborne ISR. Morton’s well-written history of the first 200 years of airborne reconnaissance provides an appreciation of how the capability evolved into its modern form, particularly how the vision and adaptability of airborne reconnaissance advocates were crucial to progress. For the same reason, this book is also a useful read for those in the innovation game or involved in future force design. Although Morton’s aim was not to write a book on military innovation, this is essentially what it is. It is an instructive tale of vision, hype, experimentation, and adaptation that provides useful points of discussion and debate for those charged with integrating experimental technologies and ideas into future force structure.
Wing Commander Travis Hallen is a Royal Australian Air Force officer with a background in maritime patrol operations, and a co-editor of The Central Blue. He has had a long-term interest in the development and improvement of airborne ISR having conducted multiple operational deployments in that role. He is a graduate of the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. Wing Commander Hallen is currently in Washington, DC.
Header Image: After Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union during a CIA spy flight on May 1. 1960, NASA issued a press release with a cover story about a U-2 conducting weather research that may have strayed off course after the pilot reported difficulties with his oxygen equipment. To bolster the cover-up, a U-2 was quickly painted in NASA markings, with a fictitious NASA serial number, and put on display for the news media at the NASA Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base on May 6, 1960. The U-2 cover story in 1956 was that it was a NASA plane to conduct high-altitude weather research. But various observers doubted this story from the beginning. Certainly the Soviets did not believe it once the aircraft began overflying their territory. The NASA cover story quickly blew up in the agency’s face when both Gary Powers and aircraft wreckage were displayed by the Soviet Union, proving that it was a reconnaissance aircraft. This caused embarrassment for several top NASA officials. (Source: Wikimedia)
Boar 81, we’ve got approval to strike the convoy you found. This will be Type 2 control, single GBU-38s, 30-second spacing, attack from the north. Your target is a column of vehicles near coordinates 123 456. Nearest friendlies are 40 kilometres east. Expect weapons clearance on final…
The situation described above is becoming increasingly common in US and NATO air operations. Aircrew found a legitimate target in an area in which risk of fratricide is nil, yet the strike is being closely controlled by ground personnel hundreds of kilometres away via satellite radio and using Close Air Support (CAS) procedures. The trouble with this example – based on an actual occurrence during Operation INHERENT RESOLVE – Is that it illustrates the US military’s misapplication of CAS procedures to situations for which those procedures were not designed. This issue largely stems from two factors: a continued inability to resolve tensions inherent in operational frameworks (how we divide battlespaces up for command and control purposes) and weaknesses within United States and European doctrine that cleaves all air-to-surface operations against enemy military capabilities into either Air Interdiction (AI) or Close Air Support (CAS) categories.
The framework issue is discussed often, and therefore largely ignored in this article. However, the doctrine issue remains mostly unaddressed. The main notable exception is a 2005 RAND study entitled Beyond Close Air Support. More importantly, the flaws in the doctrinal models reflect deeper issues with the theoretical foundation western militaries use to understand air-to-surface operations. This article attempts to resolve this issue by presenting a more nuanced theory of counterland operations by examining the differences between the CAS mission and CAS procedures as well as addressing why this difference matters.
Understanding the purpose of CAS and the intent of CAS tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) as codified in US Joint Publication (JP) 3-09.3 Close Air Support helps one recognise that CAS TTPs are intended to mitigate the risk of fratricide. However, the CAS mission is focused entirely on affecting an enemy in close support of a friendly land force. This, in turn, suggests that while many air actions may fall under the purview of the CAS mission, only a subset of these missions require the level of control typically used. The current poor understanding will create significant issues if the US or NATO fights a peer adversary. Ground commanders, Tactical Air Control Parties (TACP), and aircrew should foster a culture of flexible TTP application based on risk assessment to enable a more effective tempo depending on the specific operational environment.
Examining Definitions of CAS
Determining what defines CAS as a mission begins with JP 3-09.3 Close Air Support, which views CAS as an action by fixed-wing or rotary-wing aircraft against targets in close proximity to friendly forces which require detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces. The two key phrases most often keyed upon by CAS-focused communities like the TACP and A-10 tribes in the US Air Force are ‘close proximity’ and ‘detailed integration.’
Interestingly, the NATO definition of CAS includes the same definition almost word for word but adds that TTPs are executed ‘for fratricide avoidance and targeting guidance performed by a […] Forward Air Controller.’ British air and space power doctrine does not include detailed integration in its most basic definition but notes that ‘intensive air-land integration and coordination’ is necessary for fratricide prevention and target identification. Most other American allies match either the NATO or US definition. The US and its allies, therefore, agree that the mission of CAS is airstrikes in close proximity to ground forces and that detailed integration is needed. However, most allied doctrine notes explicitly that the purpose of detailed integration is to either mitigate fratricide risk or enable target correlation.
Close proximity is clearly a subjective term. Close means one thing to an infantry unit defending urban terrain and something entirely different to an armoured formation attacking through a desert. Doctrine even describes close as situational. Likewise, detailed integration may encompass entirely different issues depending on the situation. So, even though these two clauses are the cited hallmarks of CAS, one cannot easily list out the explicit characteristics required to meet the conditions because they are too situationally dependent. JP 3-09.3 even states that when deciding if a mission should be considered CAS or not, ‘the word ‘close’ does not imply a specific distance […] The requirement for detailed integration because of proximity, fires, or movement is the determining factor.’ Therefore, even though proximity is considered one of the two main factors, the emphasis for describing CAS is detailed integration.
Three main elements drive a need for detailed integration: proximity, fires, or movement. These elements are multifaceted in the ways they influence air-ground integration. Proximity presents the most obvious issue in CAS: risk of fratricide. There is also a risk to the aircraft due to their proximity to surface-based fires which requires mitigation. Proximity further mixes with fires and movement to suggest another theme not mentioned in any of the definitions. Airstrikes occurring within a land commander’s area of operations (AO) may have a considerable impact on future actions by the effect those strikes may have on the enemy, the terrain, or civilians. These effects might be long-term, such as the destruction of crucial infrastructure or critical damage to military equipment, or short-term like the psychological effect of a large airstrike on an enemy unit. In either case, the land commander must both approve the strikes – in a sense ‘buying’ the effects of the attack – and ensure that the effects facilitate the overall operation. Considering fires and movement, the intent of CAS is to strike targets that directly enable the land scheme of maneuver. Doctrine hints at some of these points. This discussion highlights a weakness prevalent in all the doctrinal definitions of CAS that feeds into the misunderstandings throughout the US and allied forces: the definitions describe what CAS is, not the purpose of CAS. This is due in no small part to the way that most doctrine organises the various missions of air power.
The Counterland Doctrinal Framework
Once again, there is a large degree of consensus between the US and its allies over air power’s mission structure. US JP 3-0 Joint Operations simply classifies most air power missions within the various joint functions; most of the subjects discussed in this essay naturally fall under fires. In contrast, NATO doctrine creates a hierarchy of air missions. Air attack encompasses most missions which directly influence an enemy. One subset of attack is counter-surface force operations, under which falls air power contribution to counterland operations, which in turn incorporates two missions: AI and CAS.
UK doctrine closely aligns with NATO thinking. The US Air Force theory lies between the US joint doctrine and European concepts. It describes all-action intended to influence an enemy’s land forces as counterland which includes just two sub-missions: AI and CAS. The US Marine Corps presents a slightly different perspective. Marine thinking classifies six functions of Marine aviation, one of which is offensive air support (OAS). OAS incorporates CAS and deep air support (DAS), which includes AI, armed reconnaissance, and strike coordination and reconnaissance (SCAR). Of note, Marine doctrine states explicitly that ‘detailed integration is accomplished using positive control’ and that ‘positive control is provided by terminal controllers [JTACs].’ This listing shows that, except for US joint and Marine Corps doctrine, militaries tend to organise CAS and AI under a broader counterland concept (see Figure 1). Therefore, most US and NATO service members view CAS as a subset of a counterland concept.
CAS, as shown earlier, occurs close enough to friendly land forces that strikes require detailed integration. AI – the other half of counterland operations – occurs far enough away that this level of integration is unnecessary. Adopting a more conceptual view, the larger counterland mission set is enemy-centric – any counterland mission focuses on affecting an enemy’s combat system. AI and CAS, though, are friendly-centric – the doctrinal difference between the two lies in the level of integration mandated by the proximity of friendly land forces. Harkening back to the earlier identification of fratricide risk as to the primary reason demanding detailed integration with target nomination as a close second, we arrive at the crux of the issue.
To solve these two problems, CAS is differentiated from AI in that while executing CAS, aircrew does not have weapons release authority. By mandating that the land force commander must approve target nomination and weapons release and because the land commander is the authority for expenditure of weapons in the assigned area of operations, the various systems seek to resolve the two critical issues associated with airstrikes near friendly land forces. This clarification enables one to define the purpose of the CAS mission while still acknowledging the characteristics that separate it from AI.
The Purpose of CAS: A Mission-Based Definition
CAS is an air mission flown in close support of land forces to disrupt, degrade, or destroy enemy forces. These enemy forces are in close enough proximity to friendly land forces that risk mitigation mandates detailed coordination between the air and land forces. This definition does not roll off the tongue as easily as the current definition in JP 3-09.3 but does address both what the CAS mission is in addition to its characteristics and requirements. By creating a definition that addresses the purpose of CAS, we introduced the key elements that form the basis for CAS procedures.
Evaluating CAS Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures
CAS TTPs intend to mitigate the risk of fratricide and integrate air effects into a larger fire support plan by efficiently nominating, correlating, and approving weapons release against targets. A process termed Terminal Attack Control accomplishes this goal, hence the name for the person that controls CAS strikes, the JTAC. Standardised communication – most notably the CAS Briefing, referred to as the 9-Line – and specific weapons release authorities and parameters combine to achieve the overall intent. Compared to defining the purpose of CAS, deducing what CAS TTPs intend to do is simple. However, two major presumptions within the CAS TTPs are not readily plain and may cause issues in a large-scale conflict. These concerns drive the overall conclusion that there is a disconnect between the intent of CAS and the procedures laid out in current doctrine.
First, CAS procedures are almost entirely reactive. One can argue that planned CAS is an exception to this, but two factors reduce the strength of this claim. In this author’s decade of experience practising CAS, preplanned missions were far and away the exception rather than the norm. Mike Benitez’s article ‘How Afghanistan Distorted CAS’ shows that my experience is typical. Further, unless the plan includes detailed restrictions and weapons release authority, TACP and aircrew must still resort to using the entirety of CAS TTPs even during a planned mission. Nevertheless, in my experience reactive TTPs are so ingrained that even when strikes are planned in detail, both the controllers and aircrew have difficulty merely executing the plan. Decades of experience in the Middle East created a sense within the minds of both parties that 9-Lines need to be passed and confirmed on the radio even if there are no changes to the plan.
In stark contrast to aircrew performing AI, there is a limited ability within this paradigm for CAS aircrew to exercise initiative during battle. Since CAS is doctrinally a form of fire support, at first, this seems reasonable. However, on closer inspection, it should cause concern for several reasons. None of the doctrinal models with the notable exception of JP 3-0 specifies CAS as a form of fire support – it is air attack against land forces near friendly forces. This suggests that either the doctrinal models are flawed or that CAS is a distinct mission that happens to provide fire support, not a fire support mission that happens to be conducted by aircraft. Putting that point aside, ground-based fire support may conduct any number of missions with some level of internal initiative. Artillery raids or counter-battery fire are two examples. Further, harkening back to the doctrinal model point, CAS is quite different from other forms of fire support.
If lethal fire support for land maneuver is broadly divided into the categories of CAS and artillery, note that virtually all forms of artillery employ indirectly. That is, the artillery crew aimed at a location derived and passed from another source. CAS aircrew, on the other hand, receives target information from the JTAC and aim or guide the munitions themselves. Apart from bombing on coordinates, a technique not commonly used, CAS aircrew perform the aerial equivalent of aiming a rifle at the assigned target. Thus, even though they might be dropping a bomb from several miles distant, the aircrew is employing a direct-fire system as compared to other, indirect forms of fire support.
This distinction is significant because it shows that in many cases aircrew, unlike artillery operators, have the capability to find their own targets independent of specific target nominations from a controller. In recent years, CAS practitioners even added guidance to the doctrine explaining how CAS aircrew could nominate a target to a JTAC then receive a nomination and weapons release authority for the same target.
Going back to the concept of reactivity, one should now see the first issue clearly. CAS procedures, as an adjunct of fire support procedures, are inherently reactive. However, aircrew, unlike artillery operators, can identify targets independently. Therefore, the possibility exists that CAS can be performed proactively, given the right circumstances and presuming risk to friendly forces is mitigated. This suggests that the doctrinal models are correct: CAS is a distinct counterland mission that has fire support characteristics but is not inherently a fire support mission that happens to be performed by aircraft. If one accepts this notion, then we necessarily come to the second presumption behind extant CAS doctrine.
The reactive nature of CAS rests on the idea that detailed integration and risk mitigation are best accomplished through the close control of individual targets and, in most cases, individual attacks. This may be proper in many cases. In some cases, though, a single target or target set may require multiple attacks. This notion is part of the rationale behind Type 3 control in current doctrine, in which the land force commander approves multiple strikes on the same target. This type of control is still inherently reactive. However, with enough planning and an appropriate command and control capability, forces may be able to conduct CAS with a level of initiative unheard of today. Therein lies the problem with the mindset prevalent in the US military today.
The Grey Area between AI and CAS
While the earlier discussion showed that all counterland missions are inherently enemy-centric, but the difference between CAS and AI revolves around friendly land dispositions. AI is performed in areas in which the risk to friendly land forces is nil and therefore, only minimal integration is required. CAS, on the other hand, is performed in areas where the risk of fratricide exists and detailed integration into the land fires scheme is required. In practice, this means that battlespaces are cleanly divided into AI and CAS areas by the Fire Support Coordination Line (FSCL). Virtually any US doctrinal manual that discusses the FSCL conveys that the FSCL is not a dividing line between AI and CAS TTPs, but instead ‘delineates coordination requirements for the joint attack of surface targets.’ The line is closer to a command and control border than anything else. However, for all intents and purposes the mindset discussed at length that aircraft operating within a land component area of operations are conducting CAS, the FSCL becomes a border between AI and CAS areas. While joint doctrine attempts to negate this thinking.
Accepting the argument regarding CAS TTPs are inherently reactive, one sees how the FSCL creates a zone where aircraft can operate proactively and a second zone in which aircraft must function entirely reactively. The problem is the size of the second zone. During the major combat phase of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, the US Army often placed the FSCL more than 100 kilometres from friendly troops. Obviously, friendly forces were at basically zero risks of fratricide if aircraft struck targets that far away. Additionally, most surface-to-surface fires were shot at targets well short of that distance.
Recent Warfighter exercises indicate that FSCLs today are often placed about thirty to 40 kilometres from the friendly lines. Even in this battlefield geometry, there is still a sizeable portion of the battlespace between the friendly front and the FSCL in which the risk of aircraft causing fratricide is minimal. This article does not address the operational framework concerns raised by this example, i.e., where should the line be, or should there be other coordination lines? Instead, this author posits that regardless of how a force organises a battlespace there will be a grey area.
This grey area is entirely subjective and based on the context of each individual battlespace. When analysing a battlefield, one can usually clearly lay out the areas near friendly troops where CAS procedures must be used to mitigate risk to friendly forces and integrate air strikes into the larger fires plan. One can also clearly see the areas in which no risk is present to friendly troops and the need for detailed integration into the fires plan is nil – the AI area. However, there will be many areas on the map that do not fit neatly into either category. These areas might be far enough away from friendly troops that fratricide risk is low but still close enough that detailed integration is required to deconflict aircraft with surface-to-surface fires.
Alternatively, there might be areas that, due to the nature of the terrain or the friendly scheme of maneuver, are relatively close on the map (say within a few kilometres) but the risk of fratricide is nevertheless quite low. These two simple examples illustrate the notion that between CAS and AI is a nebulous area that can be found in many battlespaces. The pressing concern for US and NATO CAS practitioners is to learn to conduct proactive CAS in these grey areas to achieve the purpose of CAS while retaining enough control to accomplish the intent of current CAS TTPs.
Finding Solutions to Enable Proactive CAS
The extant CAS paradigm relies on the idea that CAS fires must be reactive. A reactive mindset, however, is not conducive to success in a modern battlespace in which the speed of decision-making is paramount. The paradigm should allow for aircrew to proactively achieve the purpose of CAS – disrupting, degrading, and destroying enemy forces per a land maneuver commander’s intent and with minimal risk to friendly forces. The 2019 US JP 3-09 Joint Fire Support identifies the criticality of fast-paced decision-making in modern combat, emphasising that joint fire effects are best achieved through ‘decentralized execution based on mission-type orders.’ A myriad of options to do this is already within US doctrine.
The joint force could incorporate the US Marine Corps concept of the Battlefield Coordination Line into joint doctrine. This line allows land commanders to simply denote where the risk to friendly forces is low enough to justify AI TTPs. Whether land commanders and TACP utilise preplanned 9-Lines with Type 3 control, engagement areas with specific restrictions attached, or even restricted fire areas, the possibilities for enabling initiative to abound. If targets appear outside those areas, or the ground situation changes, then switch to close control of individual attacks. Nonetheless, in large conflicts, allow CAS aircrew to achieve the intent of CAS by providing enough freedom of action to enable initiative. US forces should foster a mindset that emphasises the concepts of mission command and decentralised execution – delegate decision-making authority to the lowest appropriate level. The simple fact is that US forces in all domains must make decisions faster than the enemy. A reactive CAS mindset virtually ensures a slow decision cycle. A proactive perspective, with proper risk mitigation, allows for thinking aircrew to engage the enemy faster with commensurate effects on the enemy’s tempo.
In summary, let’s review the key takeaways. First, counterland missions affect an enemy’s land military capabilities and consist of AI and CAS subsets. The only difference between these two is that CAS is executed in close proximity to friendly forces while AI is distant enough that detailed integration is not needed. Second, the purpose of CAS TTPs is to facilitate target nomination and mitigate risk to friendly ground troops. Third, the current US mindset is that a CAS mission must be controlled using individual 9-Lines for every target regardless of actual risk to friendly forces. The disconnect between the first two points and the third point creates a potentially dangerous concoction for CAS effectiveness during future major conflicts.
Land commanders, TACP, and CAS aircrew should train now to using various control methods to enable initiative on the part of aircrew. Whether that means more sophisticated uses of fire support coordination measures or learning to transition between CAS and AI TTP control methods flexibly is irrelevant. The point is to learn now, on bloodless training grounds, how to delegate initiative to the lowest levels to make decisions as rapidly as possible. The lessons learned today at Combat Training Centers and countless air-to-surface ranges around North American and Europe concerning how to conduct proactive CAS missions will pay dividends in a potential future conflict.
Major E. Aaron ‘Nooner’ Brady is a student at the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies. He graduated from the US Air Force Academy with a BS in History in 2006. He is a graduate of the US Air Force Weapons School A-10 course and is a senior pilot with more than 1,800 hours including more than 360 combat hours.
Header Image: A US Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II maneuvers through the air during Red Flag-Alaska 19-2 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, June 17, 2019. The exercise provides counter-air, interdiction and close air support training in a simulated combat environment. (Source: US Department of Defense)
 Marine Corps Reference Publication 1-10.1 – Organization of the United States Marine Corps (Washington DC:, Department of the Navy, 2016), p. 6-1.
 JP 3-09, Joint Fire Support (Washington DC: Department of Defense, 2019), p. A-5.
 Pirnie et al, Beyond Close Air Support, p. 68.
 Travis Robison and Alex Moen, ‘Reinventing the Wheel: Operational Lessons Learned by the 101st Division Artillery during Two Warfighter Exercises,’ Military Review, 96:4 (July-August 2016), p. 75.
The advent of flying craft was, without doubt, a threat to the long-established roles of ground forces. Most historians are familiar with the intra- and inter-service battles that raged during the early days of aviation, but rare are the works that dive into specific details within the various army branches. Seeking to fill that historiographical gap, Lori Henning’s meticulously researched book does just that.
Harnessing the Airplane tells the story of how cavalrymen in the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) dealt with the integration of aircraft – and to a lesser degree, the tank – into their branch. Analysing the first four decades following the aircraft’s invention, Henning shows that cavalrymen generally accepted the new technology, but were cautious about relinquishing the cavalry’s reconnaissance mission too hastily. Instead, the cavalry sought to experiment with aircraft to find ways to improve the reconnaissance service they provided to ground commanders.
Chapter one, ‘State of Affairs,’ sets the stage for the following analysis. In this chapter, Henning provides brief histories of the US and British cavalries. This baseline helps explain why both services saw the integration of the aircraft differently. The US cavalry embraced a wide range of missions and used the horse primarily for mobility purposes. This view of how to use horses led to strong resistance against aircraft as the US Cavalry viewed ground reconnaissance as one of its most essential functions. The British used the cavalry primarily for mounted combat and the pursuit of retreating enemy forces and this view allowed the British cavalry to be somewhat more accepting of aircraft.
Chapter two, ‘Early Response to Heavier-Than-Air-Flight,’ highlights the natural connection between aircraft and the cavalry. With reconnaissance being the first purpose of aircraft, cavalry reconnaissance was not surprisingly one of the first missions the aircraft sought to assume. In the earliest days, both nations’ cavalries acknowledged the potential of aircraft, but concluded that the technology was not sufficient; as Henning stated (p. 32):
The general consensus was that aviation would support the cavalry in the field as an auxiliary service and not replace mounted forces.
Chapter three, ‘Developing a Relationship in the 1920s,’ explores how both nations’ evaluated the First World War and the effectiveness of the new technologies that were introduced in that conflict. In the First World War, aircraft played a significant role while both cavalries were effectively absent. The public sentiment that the cavalry had become obsolete increased and cavalrymen in both nations had to defend their branch and find ways to justify its continued existence.
Chapter four, ‘National Economy,’ looks at the factor that may have been more damning to the cavalry than its poor performance in the First World War. In examining the financial arguments favouring aircraft over the cavalry, Henning provides a glimpse into reality. This was that the US and UK sought ways to decrease military expenditures and the aircraft’s proponents were more vociferous and persuasive in making this case than the proponents of cavalry.
Chapter five, ‘Autogiros and Mechanization,’ examines how cavalrymen continued to seek ways to work with the air forces to maximise both services’ effectiveness. By the 1930s, the relationship between air forces and cavalry had stabilised, but as time passed, airmen sought independence and increasingly focused on the strategic vice tactical use of aircraft. Both the British and American cavalry branches realised the need for its own air support, and as such, they turned to a new type of aircraft – the autogiro – to provide the airborne reconnaissance they needed.
Henning’s concluding chapter reminds us of the folly of abandoning functioning capabilities without first providing suitable replacements. Cavalrymen instantly recognised the potential of aircraft and tanks but approached their integration into the army from a cautious view. Despite being labelled as ‘backwards,’ the cavalrymen prudently sought ways to integrate the aircraft as its capabilities increased slowly. In telling this story, Harnessing the Airplane captures the essence of how organisations incorporate new technologies. Henning’s expert analysis highlights the challenge leaders face when presented with the next ‘game-changing technology.’ As she demonstrates, often, many are eager to go all-in without first ensuring that the ‘new’ can replace the ‘old.’ As we now stand at another technological crossroads with continual talk of replacing soldiers with robots, manned aircraft with drones, and analysts with artificial intelligence, this work highlights the rational approach of the early 20th century cavalrymen and provides a case study for today’s military thinkers to consider.
Editorial Note: From Balloons to Drones is pleased to announce our new podcast series. Led by Assistant Editor Dr Mike Hankins, the series builds on the success of From Balloons to Drones, and it provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here.
In our latest podcast, we interview Dr Stephen Bourque, author of Beyond the Beach: The Allied War Against France, to talk about the allied bombing of occupied France in 1944. Through a detailed look at local French sources, combined with official US sources, Bourque provides as thorough – and possibly controversial – assessment of General Dwight Eisenhower’s use of air power.
Dr Stephen A. Bourque served in the US Army for 20 years after which he obtained his PhD at Georgia State University. He has taught history at several military and civilian schools and universities, including the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies, and Command and General Staff College, where he is professor emeritus.