#BookReview – The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945

#BookReview – The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945

Peter Gray, The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945. London: Continuum, 2012. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. xv + 346pp.

Reviewed by Dr Ross Mahoney

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The British Strategic Air Offensive against Germany (SAOG) and the Allied Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO) remain contentious and divisive areas of debate within the historiography of the Second World War and the development of air power, respectively. Essentially the central debate on the bomber offensive has been polarised between discussing the exigencies of military effectiveness – the contribution the campaign made to the overall war effort – and the philosophical view that it was a morally reprehensible act.[1] More recently, the historiographical trend has shifted towards understanding the impact that bombing had upon civilian populations.[2] Into this field in 2012 came a new and important work by Peter Gray that examined the conduct of the SAOG innovatively, namely through a deep understanding of the role of strategic leadership in war and its relationship with the legality and legitimacy of the bombing campaign against Germany.

Gray’s book focuses on strategic leadership and the interface between key senior leaders involved in the direction of the bomber offensive against Germany. Leadership remains an often discussed but little understood area of study within military history. As a result, books are replete with inadequate or ineffective leadership claims without understanding the factors underpinning it and how it interacts with operations. Nevertheless, effective leadership remains the key to understanding military performance at all levels of war.

Gray’s professional experience both as a senior officer in the RAF – he retired as an Air Commodore – and in academia meant that he was well equipped to write this book and the PhD on which it is based. While at the time of writing, Gray is a Professor of Air Power Studies at the University of Wolverhampton; he was previously the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Senior Research Fellow in Air Power Studies at the University of Birmingham and is an acknowledged expert in air power studies and leadership. Before he retired from the RAF, Gray served in several important positions, including Director of Defence Studies (RAF) at the Joint Services Command and Staff College and as Director of the Defence Leadership and Management Centre. However, that Gray is a retired officer does not affect his objectivity towards the subject he studies. Indeed, while it can be easy to suggest that retired senior officers often suffer from what might be described as cultural blindness towards the subjects they write on, this is not the case with Gray, as evidenced by his analysis of the role of Marshal of the Royal Air Force (MRAF) Sir Arthur Harris noted below.

Gray’s work used an interdisciplinary approach grounded in an understanding of leadership theory to examine the direction of the bomber offensive. Utilising his extensive background in the military and his teaching and writing about the subject, Gray explored some of the theoretical aspects of leadership while making it clear that leadership is both complex and ambiguous at the senior/strategic level. For example, in examining the interface between the relationship of the Air Officer Commander-in-C of RAF Bomber Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, and the RAF’s Air Staff, in particular Harris’ relationship with the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), MRAF Sir Charles Portal, it is evident that numerous factors related to the complexity of ambiguity of senior leadership influenced the conduct of SOAG. These factors included relationships with allies, operational commanders, inter-service rivalry, and moral and ethical considerations. Harris does not emerge from this analysis well, with, for example, Gray describing him as ‘naïve’ to expect the lion’s share of the national resources for the bomber offensive. In addition, Harris struggled to ‘accept the vicissitudes of coalition warfare’. Nevertheless, Gray does admit that Harris operated within a problematic area where the ‘operational and strategic levels’ overlapped (p. 291).

There are numerous reasons why Harris arguably struggled in looking up and outside of his operational silo. However, as Gray lamented, Portal probably regretted that Harris never went to the RAF Staff College at Andover and instead attended the British Army’s Staff College at Camberley (p. 43). This is an important cultural point that still requires further examination. Nevertheless, while Harris has often been portrayed as the archetypal advocate of the RAF’s perceived singular focus on bombing in his development as a leader, he lacked the intellectual underpinnings that most future senior RAF commanders shared: attendance at Andover. It should, however, be noted that his attendance at Camberley also illustrated that he was well regarded in the RAF as students attending the other service Staff College’s also acted as representatives of their parent services and sought to inform fellow students about their work. Also, unlike many of his contemporaries operating at the senior level, including Portal, Harris never attended the Imperial Defence College (IDC), where he would have learned to speak the language of a combined military.

Another example of Harris’ inability to look up and out of his silo concerns the debates over relations with the other services. While Harris issued directives and loyally carried out orders, he often soured relations with a poor choice of language for a senior leader. The use of terms such ‘oily boys’ did not aid him or the Air Staff’s ability to explain complicated arguments over the effectiveness of air power to both colleagues within other services and politicians and allies (pp. 255-7). These leadership challenges were a key issue throughout 1944, especially in the lead up to Operation OVERLORD (pp. 215-28). Nevertheless, a vital problem for senior leaders is the maintenance of vision and purpose for an organisation in the face of the leadership challenges that faced both Harris and the Air Staff. Maintaining this vision and purpose had implications for the direction of the bomber offensive.

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The Quebec Conference, 23 August 1943. Left to right round table: Lord Louis Mountbatten, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound, General Sir Alan Brooke, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, Air Marshal L.S. Breadner, Field Marshal Sir John Dill, Lieutenant General Sir Hastings Ismay, Brigadier H. Redman, Commodore R. Coleridge, RN, Brigadier General J.R. Deane, General H.H. Arnold, General G.C. Marshal, Admiral W.D. Leahy, Admiral E.J. King, and Captain Forrest B. Royal (Source: © IWM A 18825)

In comparison to Harris, the RAF was fortunate that, in Portal, they had a CAS who had the vision and ability to see the organisation’s central purpose through to fruition. Portal managed the shift to area bombing, and he was able to work well with both politicians and allies alike. However, Portal was perhaps aided in his work given that his key ally, the United States Army Air Force, placed as much importance as the RAF did on the bomber. However, the decision by the Combined Chiefs of Staff to place Portal in charge of the strategic direction of the Combined Bomber Offensive at the Casablanca Conference of January 1943 (p. 211) highlighted not only an indication of his abilities as a senior leader but also his standing amongst his peers. Unlike Harris, Portal was able to look up and out of his silo and interface with ‘the various organizations that contribute[d] to the greater enterprise […] across the range of Whitehall and into international arenas’ (p. 291).

Gray’s discussion of legitimacy is useful as it helps set the context for the conduct and direction of the bomber offensive and the challenges that confronted the RAF’s senior leadership during the Second World War. The interwar period saw significant discussions over air power in modern warfare. It also saw attempts to codify and limit its role through international law. While the Hague Conference of 1923 produced a report on the Rules of Aerial Warfare with genuine humanitarian intentions, it was not ratified by the nations involved. The attempt to codify laws relating to the use of air power failed most significantly at the Geneva Disarmament Conference, 1932-33. Nevertheless, this failure to agree did not mean that the RAF ignored the implications of the ethics of air power when formulating doctrine and strategy. However, beyond legal discussions, there was, as Gray argued, little in the way of contemporary philosophical debate over war in general. Indeed, the historiography concerning anti-war movements in the interwar period is ‘muddled at best’, thus raising significant questions over interpretations, such as Grayling’s (p. 48).

For Gray, the most influential writer in this period regarding issues surrounding legitimacy and international law was the jurist J.M Spaight (pp. 54-7). The reason for Spaight’s importance stems from his relationship with MRAF Sir Hugh Trenchard during his tenure as CAS, his standing within the Air Ministry and perhaps most importantly, the simple fact that his voluminous works appeared on the reading list for Andover, where future leaders would have been exposed to his writings. Although Gray does not make this point, Spaight wrote for the Royal Air Force Quarterly in the 1930s. This would have seen a broader audience in the RAF exposed his work, though the question remains how much journals such as the Quarterly were read beyond those attending Staff College.[3]

The failure to gain effective international agreement over the use of air power in war led Spaight to note that inevitably ‘cities would be bombed’ (p. 57). Similar ideas pervaded the development of air power doctrine but did not mean that other areas of operations were ignored. The focus on bombing was the logical development of an inherently offensive weapons system. When applied in the strategic sense, the application of bombing was going to raise moral issues. However, the British had a tradition of utilising its other strategic arm, the Royal Navy, to bombard and blockade so that the use of the British Army in continental warfare could be ‘sidestepped’ (p. 59). This, coupled with ineffective international control concerning the laws of war, allowed for the development of an offensively minded doctrine.

Moreover, this did not mean, as Spaight’s own writings indicated, that there was no desire to fight the war as humanely as possible. However, there was a realisation amongst the Air Staff that, as Gray has written elsewhere, ‘The Gloves Will Have to Come Off’ (p. 57).[4] This had clear operational implications for the conduct of the bomber offensive when the decision was taken to shift to both night attacks and area bombing. However, it should be seen as an incremental shift and not the obvious solution as traditionally portrayed. Nonetheless, questions over the humane use of strategic air power became acutely apparent in 1945 when the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, began to distance himself from the campaign after the raid on Dresden. Concerning this episode, Grey argues it had a degree of logic to it but must be placed within the context of being aware of the growing resilience of Germany’s military in the face of allied advances, and that the Air Staff argued that an early end to the bomber offensive might cause the loss of more lives in the long-term (p. 228).

Overall, this excellent book adds a fresh perspective to a well-trodden path in the historiography of the Second World War. Gray makes clear that before any evaluation can be made on the key areas that have occupied historians of the bomber offensive, namely the issues of effectiveness and morality; we must understand the challenges that confronted those responsible for its conduct and how they sought to deal with the ambiguities and complexities of senior leadership under the stress and strain of global conflict. It also illustrates that historians should not be afraid to learn from allied disciplines. In understanding alternative methodologies, we can bring new light to old subjects.

Dr Ross Mahoney is the Editor-in-Chief of From Balloons to Drones and is an independent scholar specialising in air power and the history of air warfare. He is currently the Senior Historian within the City Architecture and Heritage Team at Brisbane City Council in Australia. He has over 15 years of experience within the heritage and education sectors in Australia and the United Kingdom. He was the inaugural Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum in the UK. In Australia, he has worked as a Historian for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and taught at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at The Australian National University based at the Australian War College. His research interests are focussed on military history, with a specific focus on the history of air warfare, transport history, and urban history. He has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He has a book review website here and can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.

Header image: Air Marshal A.T. Harris, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, RAF Bomber Command points to a location on a map of Germany hanging in his office at Bomber Command Headquarters, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. On the left stands Air Vice-Marshal R. Graham (left) the Air Officer Administration at BCHQ, and on the right Air Vice-Marshal R.R.M.S. Saundby, Harris’s Senior Air Staff Officer. (Source: © IWM CH 5490)

[1] The view that bombing was morally reprehensible can be summarised by the work of A.C. Grayling. However, this work should be treated with care given the author’s clear lack of understanding of how both the SAOG and CBO were conducted. See A.C. Grayling, Among the Dead Cities: Is the Targeting of Civilians in War ever Justified?, Paperback Edition (London: Bloomsbury, 2007). Within the debate over the effectiveness of the CBO there are several continuing debates on themes such as the question of the bombing techniques employed by the RAF and the USAAF as well as the contribution made by the campaign in achieving air superiority over Europe before Operation OVERLORD. A key work on the debate over precision versus area bombing remains W. Hays Park, “Precision’ and ‘Area’ Bombing: Who did which, and when?,’ Journal of Strategic Studies 18, no. 1 (1995), pp. 145-74. For an examination of the role played in achieving air superiority over Europe, see: Stephen McFarland and Wesley Phillips Newton, To Command the Sky: The Battle for Air Superiority Over Germany, 1942-1944 (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991). For a discussion of how RAF Bomber Command sought to overcome some of the challenges it faced with reference to the use of operational research techniques, see: Randall Wakelam, The Science of Bombing: Operational Research in RAF Bomber Command (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009).

[2] Important in this shift was the work undertaken by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project on ‘Bombing, States and Peoples in Western Europe, 1940-1945.’ For some of the work that emerged from this project, see: Claudia Baldoli, Andrew Knapp, and Richard Overy (eds.) Bombing, States and Peoples in Western Europe 1940-1945 (London: Continuum, 2011); Andrew Knapp and Claudia Baldoli, Forgotten Blitzes: France and Italy under Allied Air Attack, 1940-1945 (London: Continuum, 2012).

[3] For example, see: J.M Spaight, ‘An International Air Force: Part I – Fantasy,’ Royal Air Force Quarterly 1, no. 4 (1930); J.M. Spaight, ‘An International Air Force: Part II – Reality ‘, Royal Air Force Quarterly 2, no. 1 (1931).

[4] Peter Gray, ‘The Gloves Will Have to Come Off: A Reappraisal of the Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive Against Germany’, RAF Air Power Review 13, no. 3 (2010) pp. 9-40.

#Podcast – Through the Stratosphere in the U-2 and in Life: An Interview with Colonel (ret’d) Merryl Tengesdal

#Podcast – Through the Stratosphere in the U-2 and in Life: An Interview with Colonel (ret’d) Merryl Tengesdal

Editorial Note: Led by our Editor Dr Mike Hankins, From Balloons to Drones produces a monthly podcast that 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. You can also find our podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.

Colonel Merryl Tengesdal flew helicopters in the US Navy before transferring to the US Air Force to become the first (and so far, only) African American woman to fly the U-2. She tells us the fascinating story of her career, what it’s like to fly an aircraft on the edge of space, and drops some inspirational advice along the way.

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Merryl Tengesdal, a military veteran, aviator, and commander who served in the United States Navy and the US Air Force, is an American retired career military officer who is the first and only African-American woman to fly the U-2 spy plane. Her final assignment before retirement was as Director of Inspections for The Air Force Inspector General from October 2015 through August 2017. Tengesdal is a veteran of the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan.

Header image: Tengesdal stood in front of a USAF Northrop T-38 Talon. (Source: Tengesdal Website)

#ResearchResources – Recent Articles and Books (March 2022)

#ResearchResources – Recent Articles and Books (March 2022)

Editorial note: In this series, From Balloons to Drones highlights research resources available to researchers. Contributions range from discussions of research at various archival repositories to highlighting new publications. As part of this series, we are bringing you a monthly precis of recent articles and books published in air power history. This precis will not be exhaustive but will highlight new works published in the preceding month. Publication dates may vary around the globe and are based on those provided on the publisher’s websites. If you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here.

Articles

Malcolm Abbott, ‘Maintaining Aircraft Manufacturing through Government Purchases: Australia and Canada from the End of the Second World War until the 1970s,’ The Journal of Transport History (2022), doi:10.1177/00225266221086791.

In this article, a comparison is provided of the alternative Australian and Canadian government procurement policies for military aircraft in the post-Second World War period. Procurement was used by both governments to maintain manufacturing capacity that was established in the Second World War. By undertaking this analysis, the differing characteristics of the two policies are highlighted. In both cases procurement policies promoted the maintenance of aircraft manufacturing industries, however, the resulting industries were quite different in nature, a result partly of the differing natures of the policies, and different to some degree to the results of the policy in other Western countries.

Dagvin Anderson and Jason Hinds, ‘Joint Task Force Quartz: Through and Airpower Lens,’ Æther: A Journal of Strategic Airpower and Spacepower 1, no. 1 (2022).

Joint Task Force Quartz gave Airmen an opportunity to develop, establish, lead, execute, and debrief a Joint task force during combat operations. The operational context required the development of a synchronized and integrated scheme of maneuver bringing together information operations, combat aircraft, combat support, and logistics for each night’s air tasking order. As the Air Force develops new operational concepts, the command relationships must be built upon centralized command, distributed control, and decentralized execution all under the art of mission command.

JoAnne Bass, ‘A New Kind of War,’ Æther: A Journal of Strategic Airpower and Spacepower 1, no. 1 (2022).

The more Airmen recognize that influence operations have affected them, the faster we can recover and rebuild our defense against these attacks. Information warfare is not new; what has changed are the tactics our adversaries are using to conduct these operations at scale. We must empower our Airmen to recognize and actively combat this threat.

C.Q. Brown, ‘Ready to Meet the Moment,’ Æther: A Journal of Strategic Airpower and Spacepower 1, no. 1 (2022).

The task of preparing the Air Force to accelerate change is solidly rooted in the service’s brief but noteworthy history. The US Air Force went from propellers to jet-powered aircraft in the blink of the eye. In the 1950s, the service rapidly developed intercontinental ballistic missiles, the world’s greatest nuclear deterrent. From there, the Air Force mastered stealth and precision weapons. The next few chapters in the Air Force story are likely to be as challenging as anything we’ve ever done. But change ensures the service remains ready, as always, to meet the moment.

Mark Clodfelter, ‘Rethinking ‘Airpower versus Asymmetric Enemies,” Æther: A Journal of Strategic Airpower and Spacepower 1, no. 1 (2022).

Airpower’s effectiveness against any type of enemy depends on how well it supports the positive political goals without risking the achievement of the negative ones. The framework presented, which includes a distinctive terminology categorizing various airpower applications with those categories helping to ascertain how effectively an application supports a political goal, offers no guarantee of success or failure, nor is it a predictor of the future. But it does charge those leaders who might apply airpower to think carefully before making that decision.

David Deptula, ‘A New Battle Command Architecture for Joint All-Domain Operations,’ Æther: A Journal of Strategic Airpower and Spacepower 1, no. 1 (2022).

To achieve the objectives of JADC2, the US Air Force must deliver information to warfighters at the edge of the battlespace. The service must rapidly evolve beyond the large, centralized combined air and space operations centers of today—hundreds of people in stovepiped divisions around segregated mission areas—to a much more agile and dispersible set of processes and command-and-control structures. This new architecture must adapt to the air battle management system and JADC2 developments. But given the slow evolution of these programs, the Air Force cannot wait to begin changing the architecture for command and control of aerospace forces.

Everett Dolman, ‘Space is a Warfighting Domain,’ Æther: A Journal of Strategic Airpower and Spacepower 1, no. 1 (2022).

The Space Capstone Publication opens with the declaration that space is a warfighting domain. This assertion has tremendous repercussions for force structure, budget decisions, public and international perceptions, and, perhaps most significantly, for the culture of the newest military service. The capstone publication sets a tone for military space responsibility that is long overdue.

Ron Gurantz, ‘Does punishment work? Selection effects in air power theory,’ Comparative Strategy 41, no. 2 (2022).

Air power theory initially proposed that punitive attacks against civilian targets could force enemies to surrender. The current literature, however, has largely concluded that conventional bombing is ineffective as punishment. I argue that this is the result of a selection effect. By focusing only on high-profile bombing campaigns, the theory has drawn its conclusions from cases where punishment is likely to fail. This contrasts with deterrence theory, which has analyzed diplomacy in the shadow of nuclear punishment. Air power theory should follow this model by examining how the threat of bombing has influenced diplomacy and broader patterns of international politics.

Karen Guttieri, ‘Accelerate Change: Or Lose the Information War,’ Æther: A Journal of Strategic Airpower and Spacepower 1, no. 1 (2022).

The United States Air Force must accelerate change or lose an information-cyber war that is already hot and holds at risk American social, economic, and political cohesion. The Air Force has launched promising organizational and technological initiatives including an “integration imperative” recognizing the interdisciplinary, techno-sociological character of information warfare. At the same time, the Air Force has removed cyber from its mission statement. Moreover, force development does not progress past digital literacy, cyber hygiene, and information technology training. To win, the Air Force must develop and promote strategists to overcome vulnerabilities and seize opportunities in the cyberspace domain and information environment.

Clinton Hinote, ‘After Defeat: A Time to Rebuild,’ Æther: A Journal of Strategic Airpower and Spacepower 1, no. 1 (2022).

We lost people, we lost aircraft, we lost a campaign, we lost prestige, but we did not lose forever. It is time to look beyond the sense of finality that comes with defeat. We can decide not to lose. After suffering tremendous moral and physical attrition, it is time to rebuild. We cannot waste this crisis. We must implement the necessary changes to be victorious, next time.

Jacqueline van Ovost, ‘75 Years of Mobility Operations: Evolving for the Next 75,’ Æther: A Journal of Strategic Airpower and Spacepower 1, no. 1 (2022).

Operation Allies Refuge, certain to be studied for generations to come, unmistakably demonstrated the resolve of the logistics enterprise. But we cannot become complacent; the complex and dynamic nature of tomorrow’s challenges to US national security require an agile US Transportation Command, flexible, fully integrated, and responsive enough to meet the volume and tempo of warfighters’ demands. The command must place renewed emphasis on maneuver and evolve how the concept is applied across domains.

Robert Pape, ‘Hammer and Anvil: Coercing Rival States, Defeating Terrorist Groups, and Bombing to Win,’ Æther: A Journal of Strategic Airpower and Spacepower 1, no. 1 (2022).

The power of airpower lies in its supreme ability to match the use of force to decisive weaknesses in an opponent’s military strategy. This power lies not so much in technology, the balance of forces between coercer and opponent, civil-military relations, or professional command and control over military forces, although each of these is critical to the successful use of coercive airpower that achieves vital political objectives without inflicting harm to no purpose. Effective airpower instead turns, fundamentally, on understanding the enemy.

John Shaw et al., ‘Sailing the New Wine-Dark Sea: Space as a Military Area of Responsibility,’ Æther: A Journal of Strategic Airpower and Spacepower 1, no. 1 (2022).

The designation of a new military area of responsibility is highly significant change, denoting the major structural and functional differences between the current US Space Command and its predecessor, which existed between 1985 and 2002. A few propositions can guide our approach to accomplishing the command’s Unified Command Plan responsibilities: the area NOT in the US Space Command AOR is the most special place in the cosmos; the word “global” cannot adequately describe the political/military range of national security considerations; the concept of key terrain must be reimagined in the domain; and the military space AOR has relevance for everyone.

Johnny Stringer, ‘Air Power, 2010-2020: From Helmand to Hypersonics,’ Æther: A Journal of Strategic Airpower and Spacepower 1, no. 1 (2022).

An examination of air power employment over the last decade yields lessons and deductions from some exceptionally challenging operations in deeply complex environments: geographical, political and informational, but also increasingly shaped by the information environment, and with multiple audiences, actors, and adversaries. The West and its allies are at an inflection point in the employment and utility of air and space power; we no longer own nor can dictate all the terms of the debate.

Marybeth Ulrich, ‘The USAF at 75: Renewing our Democratic Ethos,’ Æther: A Journal of Strategic Airpower and Spacepower 1, no. 1 (2022).

Countering threats to American democracy is a vital national interest. Civics literacy and the development of a democratic ethos must be fostered in Americans beginning in early childhood, but the military plays a role in national democratic renewal as well. On the occasion of its 75th birthday, the US Air Force must draw upon its heritage, renewing a commitment to a democratic ethos that preferences service members’ obligation to the Oath of Office above partisan or personal interests.

Heather Venable, ‘Accelerate Change and Still Lose?: Limits of Adaptation and Innovation,’ Æther: A Journal of Strategic Airpower and Spacepower 1, no. 1 (2022).

Achieving air dominance requires more than technology. History reveals that technological solutions do not always offer the surest path to success. In this vein, calls for change provide terse nods to concepts and ideas, such as potential competitors’ “theories of victory,” while privileging more technological solutions. The services need a sound strategy to answer the requisite preliminary question of innovation or adaptation: we can, but should we? And, if we pursue innovation or adaptation in one area, what other area must be neglected because of that choice?

John Warden, ‘Winning a Peer War,’ Æther: A Journal of Strategic Airpower and Spacepower 1, no. 1 (2022).

A war with a peer is very unlikely to start tomorrow. If it did, however, the United States would be forced to fight with the ideas and the equipment that currently exist. America might in the final analysis prevail, but the challenge would be extreme and the cost likely to be high before victory was attained. On the other hand, if the war does not start for a decade or more, the United States has the opportunity to prepare well to win at an affordable price in a reasonable period of time. America’s survival, and that of the West writ large, demands we find the solutions that will lead to victory in a war with a peer opponent. The United States cannot afford to gamble that there will not be a serious peer war in a foreseeable future.

Books

Bojan Dimitrijevic and Jovica Draganić, Operation ALLIED FORCE – Volume 2: Air War over Serbia 1999 (Warwick: Helion and Company, 2022).

On 24 March 1999, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) launched Operation Allied Force against Serbia, claiming that Serb forces in Kosovo were engaged in ethnic cleansing and gross violations of human rights. Serbia, in turn, claimed to be fighting against an insurgency. This would be the last war in Europe during the 20th century.

The second volume of Operation Allied Force provides in depth analyses of the operation. The authors have analysed the experiences of both sides, starting from the command chain of the aviation of both air forces and the operations of the Yugoslav/Serb air defences.

This book explains many “firsts” that occurred in Operation Allied Force: the use of B-2A stealth bombers, new SEAD aviation tactics, and new munitions ranging from JDAM and JSOW to Graphite bombs. It also examines the tactics of Serbian air defences to minimize the effects of the air strikes, by adopting movement and improvisation. Finally, the authors reveal the level of damage and casualties on the FR Yugoslavia side and comments upon the aircraft losses on both sides.

The analyses are based upon original data as the authors, both the members of the joint Serbian Air Force/USAFE team which analysed Operation Allied Force in 2005–2006, received the opportunity to compare the experiences of both sides.

Operation Allied Force, Volume 2 is illustrated in full colour with photographs, diagrams and other illustrations from the FRY/Serbian Air Force, official USAF/NATO photographs from the US National Archives and original colour artworks commissioned for this project.

Raymond O’Mara, Rise of the War Machines: The Birth of Precision Bombing in World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2022).

Rise of the War Machines: The Birth of Precision Bombing in World War II examines the rise of autonomy in air warfare from the inception of powered flight through the first phase of the Combined Bomber Offensive in World War II. Raymond P. O’Mara builds a conceptual model of humans, machines, and doctrine that demonstrates a distinctly new way of waging warfare in human-machine teams. Specifically, O’Mara examines how the U.S. Army’s quest to control the complex technological and doctrinal system necessary to execute the strategic bombing mission led to the development off automation in warfare.

Rise of the War Machines further explores how the process of sharing both physical and cognitive control of the precision bombing system established distinct human-machine teams with complex human-to- human and human-to-machine social relationships. O’Mara presents the precision bombing system as distinctly socio-technical, constructed of interdependent specially trained roles (the pilot, navigator, and bombardier); purpose-built automated machines (the Norden bombsight, specialized navigation tools, and the Minneapolis-Honeywell C-1 Autopilot); and the high-altitude, daylight bombing doctrine, all of which mutually shaped each other’s creation and use.

William Pyke, Air Power Supremo: A Biography of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2022).

Sir John Slessor was one of the twentieth century’s most distinguished wartime commanders and incisive military thinkers, and William Pyke’s comprehensive new biography reveals how he earned this remarkable reputation.

Slessor, a polio victim who always walked with a stick, became a First World War pilot in the Sudan and on the Western Front and a squadron and wing commander in India between the wars. When aerial warfare was still a new concept, he was one of the first to develop practical tactics and strategies in its application. In the Second World War, as the Commander-in-Chief of Coastal Command during the Battle of the Atlantic and the RAF in the Mediterranean during the Italian and Balkan campaigns, he made a remarkable contribution to the success of Allied air power. Then, after the war, as a senior commander he established himself as one of the foremost experts on strategic bombing and nuclear deterrence. That is why this insightful biography of a great British airman and his achievements is so timely and important as we enter a new era of strategic doubts and deterrence at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

William Pyke follows each stage of Slessor’s brilliant career as a pilot and commander in vivid detail. In particular he concentrates on Slessor’s writings, from his treatise on the application of air power in support of land armies to his thinking on nuclear deterrence and Western strategy.

#NavalAir22 #BookReview – TOPGUN – The Legacy: The Complete History of TOPGUN and Its Impact on Tactical Aviation

#NavalAir22 #BookReview – TOPGUN – The Legacy: The Complete History of TOPGUN and Its Impact on Tactical Aviation

Editorial note: During 2022, From Balloons to Droneswill be running a series of articles, including book reviews and podcasts, that focus on the development and use of air power in the naval and maritime spheres of operations. In this book review, Dr Michael Hankins reviews Brad Elward’s recent history of the US Navy Fighter Weapons School, which was created during the Vietnam War to help improve fighter capabilities within the Navy.

The call for submissions for our Naval and Maritime Air Power Revisited series can be found here.

Brad Elward, TOPGUN – The Legacy: The Complete History of TOPGUN and Its Impact on Tactical Aviation. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military, 2021. Notes. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. 688 pp.

Reviewed by Dr Michael W. Hankins

topgun

The United States Navy Fighter Weapons School, also known as TOPGUN, is one of the most popular aspects of the history of US military aviation. The 1986 eponymous film about the program launched the school into the public consciousness, and the topic has remained popular enough to prompt a much-anticipated sequel set to release in 2022. It is somewhat surprising then that there has yet to be a solid monograph about the history of TOPGUN. Some useful books exist, such as Robert Wilcox’s Scream of Eagles (2005), based on a series of oral histories, or the memoir of co-founder Dan Pedersen, Topgun: An American Story (2019). However, these are primarily the accounts of participants rather than a deeper analysis of TOPGUN’s development. Aviation author Brad Elward attempts to fill this gap with Topgun: The Legacy, a massive tome covering the school in extreme detail. This book is undoubtedly the definitive guide to the TOPGUN programme, and it is difficult to imagine a more authoritative work on the subject. However, while a few missed opportunities result in the book being a bit less than the sum of its parts, those parts present are very strong and offer significant value to the reader.

The first thing readers will notice about this book is how massive it is. It’s huge, heavy, and hard to hold. It’s packed with small print spread over 688 pages—over 130 of which are reserved for footnotes. Although perhaps difficult for a casual read, the book’s size reveals just how rich it is in detail and research. Elward conducted over 450 interviews and had more access to the archived records of TOPGUN than any other researcher. This allows Elward to present unprecedented intricacy levels about what happened at TOPGUN over its history. Minute details are revealed, including the changes to the curriculum over the years, precisely who participated and in what capacities, the partnerships with other services, the school’s relationship to the rest of the US Navy, and far more. All this detail is bolstered by frank personal accounts of pilots, instructors, and other participants and eyewitnesses, which adds a fascinating layer to the narrative that is a great read.

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Just two months after the Ault Report was published, TOPGUN was up and running in an old trailer at NAS Miramar. The first class graduated later that year, c. 1969. (Source: US Naval Institute)

One element that jumped out was how often the curriculum changed and how quickly the instructors adapted to a changing environment. The courses were constantly revised and kept up to date, even in the face of significant challenges to the concept of TOPGUN. For example, introducing the F/A-18 Hornet prompted the instructors to incorporate more ground attack elements into their classes, overturning their previous exclusive focus on air-to-air combat. Tension remained, however, between the TOPGUN participants and the attack community, particularly those involved in the STRIKE U (Naval Strike Warfare Center) program. At times, the rivalry and posturing between these groups approached levels of drama associated with reality television. The level of cooperation between TOPGUN and other services was significant as well. Close coordination with the US Marines and the US Air Force helped create a more joint approach to training and the sharing of information. This had a noticeable effect on the combat operations of the 1990s and beyond, as aircrews could work together in a more joint-minded way than in previous conflicts.

Elward also brings a much welcome look into this more recent history of the school. Previous work on TOPGUN tends to focus on its early years and its influence on air combat in the Vietnam War. Elward brings an intricate amount of detail to the later years of TOPGUN in chapters arranged by decade. In this analysis, the 1990s emerge as the period of the most major transition in curriculum, approach, and aircraft. The school adopted new aircraft and teaching foci during that period and moved from Naval Air Station Miramar in California to Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada. The programme also took major organizational steps to change its relationship with the rest of the fleet, becoming more integrated and able to spread expertise throughout the force much more effectively. It was during this period, in 1996, when TOPGUN and STRIKE U merged along with the Carrier Airborne Early Warning Weapons School to form what is now known as Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center. Other significant changes to teaching in the 2000s as the global war on terror entailed a much heavier emphasis on ground attack as near-peer threats emerged in the air. Elward’s analysis is so detailed that it includes lengthy discussions of how the school switched to using email or other more mundane aspects of running the program brought about by changes in personal computing.

The book does have a few weaknesses, however. These mostly stem from the author’s enthusiasm for TOPGUN, which at times moves into advocacy for the program. This is evident in Elward’s main thesis, which is that in the major conflicts of the 20th Century, the US military forgot and had to re-learn the fundamentals of air combat, and only the formation of the US Navy’s TOPGUN program ended this cycle. This argument is similar to previous works (such as Wilcox and Pedersen). This thesis is unconvincing. Elward rightly points out that air combat knowledge was passed from pilots with experience in one conflict to those of the next, and the US Air Force’s Fighter Weapons School was active and successful throughout the early Cold War. The alleged habitual forgetting is not evident except in the case of the early 1960s, in which air-to-air combat training was severely reduced (or even eliminated) in the US Air Force and US Navy. The first several chapters are a useful synthesis of other works on the topic of air-to-air combat, but the book might be stronger without them.

In the attempt to portray TOPGUN as the solution to major problems, there are a few noticeable omissions of issues that might reflect less positively on the program. For example, the discussion of the Tailhook sexual assault incidents is dismissive and defensive, and Elward omits the tragic death of pilot Art Scholl while filming the Top Gun movie. Racial disparity is not mentioned, and the book does not address that TOPGUN has been overwhelmingly white and gives no recognition to the few African Americans who participated in and contributed to the program.

These flaws, however, do not change the fact that this book is incredibly well-researched, deeply detailed, and remains an engaging read even given its length. There will always be more room to ask new historical questions about TOPGUN, but this book has cemented its place as a definitive source on the topic. Elward’s work is sure to please enthusiasts and many general readers. Aviation scholars will find this a very useful source as well.

Dr Michael Hankins is the Curator for US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps post-World War II Aviation at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the author of Flying Camelot: The F-15, the F-16, and the Weaponisation of Fighter Pilot Nostalgia (2021). He is also the Podcast Editor at From Balloons to Drones. He is a former Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD in history from Kansas State University in 2018 and his master’s in history from the University of North Texas in 2013. He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header image: The adversary instructor program was one of TOPGUN’s early contributions. When the US Navy established fleet adversary squadrons in the 1970s, it was important that adversary pilots provide standardized threat presentations in aircraft such as F-5s (top and middle) and A-4s (bottom). (Source: US Naval Institute)

#Podcast – The Lynching of American Airmen in Nazi Germany: An Interview with Dr Kevin Hall

#Podcast – The Lynching of American Airmen in Nazi Germany: An Interview with Dr Kevin Hall

Editorial Note: Led by our Editor Dr Mike Hankins, From Balloons to Drones produces a monthly podcast that 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. You can also find our podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.

During the Second World War, many allied air crews were shot down over Europe. Some escaped, some were captured, but many others became victims of Lynchjustiz (lynch justice) by Germans. These lynchings were committed not just by Nazi officials, but civilians as well, as Nazi propaganda emphasized the air war. Dr Kevin Hall, the author of of recent book on the subject, Terror Flyers: The Lynching of American Airmen in Nazi Germany (2021), joins us for a look at this difficult topic.

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Dr Kevin T. Hall is a postdoctoral researcher at the Ruhr-Universtiät Bochum, Germany. He was a Fulbright grantee in Cologne in 2013–2014 and obtained his PhD from Central Michigan University in 2018. In 2019, he was a postdoctoral research historian at the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency (DPAA) in Honolulu, where he assisted the agency in accounting for US servicemen missing from past conflicts.

Header image: An image of Stalag Luft 1 outside Barth, Western Pomerania, Germany. The camp held Allied airmen, mainly Americans. The image shows blocks of huts and other buildings in the camp area. Sections of barbed wire and a guard tower are visible. In the distance, the Barth church tower. (Source: IBCC Digital Archive)

#ResearchResources – Recent Articles and Books (February 2022)

#ResearchResources – Recent Articles and Books (February 2022)

Editorial note: In this series, From Balloons to Drones highlights research resources available to researchers. Contributions range from discussions of research at various archival repositories to highlighting new publications. As part of this series, we are bringing you a monthly precis of recent articles and books published in air power history. This precis will not be exhaustive but will highlight new works published in the preceding month. Publication dates may vary around the globe and are based on those provided on the publisher’s websites. If you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here.

Books

Douglas C. Dildy, “Big Week” 1944: Operation ARGUMENT and the Breaking of the Jagdwaffe (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2022).

A rigorous new analysis of America’s legendary ‘Big Week’ air campaign which enabled the Allies to gain air superiority before D-Day.

The USAAF’s mighty World War II bomber forces were designed for unescorted, precision daylight bombing, but no-one foresaw the devastation that German radar-directed interceptors would inflict on them. Following the failures of 1943’s Schweinfurt-Regensburg raids, and with D-Day looming, the Allies urgently needed to crush the Luftwaffe’s ability to oppose the landings.

In February 1944, the Allies conceived and fought history’s first-ever successful offensive counter­air (OCA) campaign, Operation Argument or “Big Week.” Attacking German aircraft factories with hundreds of heavy bombers, escorted by the new long-range P-51 Mustang, it aimed both to slash aircraft production and force the Luftwaffe into combat, allowing the new Mustangs to take their toll on the German interceptors. This expertly written, illustration-packed account explains how the Allies finally began to win air superiority over Europe, and how Operation Argument marked the beginning of the Luftwaffe’s fall.

Richard Hallion, Desert Storm 1991: The Most Shattering Air Campaign in History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022).

An expertly written, illustrated new analysis of the Desert Storm air campaign fought against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which shattered the world’s fourth-largest army and sixth-largest air force in just 39 days, and revolutionized the world’s ideas about modern air power.

Operation Desert Storm took just over six weeks to destroy Saddam Hussein’s war machine: a 39-day air campaign followed by a four-day ground assault. It shattered what had been the world’s fourth-largest army and sixth-largest air force, and overturned conventional military assumptions about the effectiveness and value of air power.

In this book, Richard P. Hallion, one of the world’s foremost experts on air warfare, explains why Desert Storm was a revolutionary victory, a war won with no single climatic battle. Instead, victory came thanks largely to a rigorously planned air campaign. It began with an opening night that smashed Iraq’s advanced air defense system, and allowed systematic follow-on strikes to savage its military infrastructure and field capabilities. When the Coalition tanks finally rolled into Iraq, it was less an assault than an occupation.

The rapid victory in Desert Storm, which surprised many observers, led to widespread military reform as the world saw the new capabilities of precision air power, and it ushered in today’s era of high-tech air warfare.

David Hobbs, The Fleet Air Arm and the War in Europe, 1939–1945 (Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2022).

For the first time, this book tells the story of how naval air operations evolved into a vital element of the Royal Navy’s ability to fight a three-dimensional war against both the Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe. An integral part of RN, the Fleet Air Arm was not a large organisation, with only 406 pilots and 232 front-line aircraft available for operations in September 1939. Nevertheless, its impact far outweighed its numbers – it was an RN fighter that shot down the first enemy aircraft of the war, and an RN pilot was the first British fighter ‘ace’ with 5 or more kills. The Fleet Air Arm’s rollcall of achievements in northern waters went on to include the Norwegian Campaign, the crippling of Bismarck, the gallant sortie against Scharnhorst and Gneisenau as they passed through the Channel, air attacks on enemy E-boats in the narrow seas, air cover for the Russian convoys, air attacks that disabled Tirpitz, and strikes and minelaying operations against German shipping in the Norwegian littoral that continued until May 1945. By the end of the war in Europe the FAA had grown to 3243 pilots and 1336 aircraft.

This book sets all these varied actions within their proper naval context and both technical and tactical aspects are explained with ‘thumb-nail’ descriptions of aircraft, their weapons and avionics. Cross reference with the Fleet Air Arm Roll of Honour has been made for the first time to put names to those aircrew killed in action wherever possible as a mark of respect for their determination against enemy forces on, above and below the sea surface which more often than not outnumbered them.

The Fleet Air Arm and the War in Europe completes David Hobbs’ much-praised six-volume series chronicling the operational history of British naval aviation from the earliest days to the present.

Milos Sipos and Tom Cooper, Wings of Iraq: Volume 2 – The Iraqi Air Force, 1970-1980 (Warwick: Helion and Company, 2022).

Officially established on 22 April 1931, around a core of 5 pilots and 32 aircraft mechanics, the Royal Iraqi Air Force was the first military flying service in any Arab country.

Wings of Iraq, Volume 2 tells the story of the Iraqi Air Force between 1970 and 1980. In doing so it examines the air force’s involvement in the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and then the showdown with the Iranian-supported Kurdish insurgency in northern Iraq in 1974-1975. These two affairs taught the Iraqis that numbers alone did not make an air force. Correspondingly, during the second half of the 1970s, Baghdad embarked on a project based on full technology transfer from France, which was intended to result in preparing the IrAF for the twenty-first century.

This process hardly began when the new ruler in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein at-Tikriti, led his country into an invasion of neighbouring Iran, embroiling it in a ruinous, eight-year-long war. This volume details the events leading up to the beginning of that war and its opening moves in the air.

Although virtually ‘born in battle’, collecting precious combat experience and playing an important role in so many internal and external conflicts, the Iraqi Air Force remains one of the least known and most misinterpreted military services in the Middle East. Richly illustrated, Wings of Iraq, Volume 2, provides a uniquely compact yet comprehensive guide to its operational history, its crucial officers and aircraft, and its major operations between 1970 and 1980.

#BookReview – Lavi: The United States, Israel and the Controversial Fighter Jet

#BookReview – Lavi: The United States, Israel and the Controversial Fighter Jet

John W. Golan, Lavi: The United States, Israel and the Controversial Fighter Jet. Lincoln NE: Potomac Books, 2016. Index. Maps. Figures. Tables. Images. Appendices. HBK. 416 pp.

Reviewed by Richard Shimooka

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John Golan’s Lavi is a unique and welcome contribution to the field as the history of defence procurement, in general, remains a somewhat esoteric research area. Golan’s work focuses on the Israeli designed Lavi, a purpose-built close air support aircraft designed to replace the venerable Douglas A-4 Skyhawk in the Israeli Armed Forces (IAF) service. It had a short, bright life before the project reached an ignominious conclusion with a high stakes Israeli government cabinet meeting. Golan’s book chronicles the project’s history, drawing from a wide variety of primary sources, including documentation, interviews, and secondary sources. He effectively conveys Israel’s unique security environment and the need for a strong indigenous industrial base, which helped guide the programme’s development.

Golan’s unique background as an aviation engineer infuses his work with a different perspective than other accounts. He sews together many of the programme’s technical aspects with the project’s political, diplomatic, programme management, and doctrinal dimensions. That synthesis is rare in many accounts, which examine one or two areas and only make perfunctory acknowledgements of other areas. Lavi avoids that trap and is one of the most comprehensive treatments of a recent procurement project. The book starts by exploring the strategic and doctrinal history of the IAF that led to the project and the development of the country’s aviation industry that enabled its creation. A crucial part of these sections is how Golan highlights the experiences of various personnel, such as Benjamin Peled (p. 24) and Ezer Weizman (p. 37), who both played important roles during the Lavi’s gestation. The book then moves onto the programme’s project management, political, and technical dimensions, tracing its development until its demise. The book’s last third covers some of the post-cancellation fallout and effects.

One part of the book bears special mention: the appendixes. While most authors use them to elucidate topics not adequately addressed in the text, Golan adds nearly 100 pages covering various aspects of fighter design, performance, construction, and industrial considerations. No such comparable study exists that collects all these considerations in one place. It is the icing on top of the author’s already excellent book.

However, the account has a few shortcomings. The most apparent is how Golan addresses the factors and decision-making that led to the programme’s collapse. The book catalogues the wide array of factors that led to its cancellation, such as the desperate state of Israeli public finances in the late 1980s. However, the book largely relegates them as contributing factors throughout its narrative. Golan reserves much of the blame surrounding the programme’s collapse to US Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger. In particular, the secretary’s anti-Israeli perspective and dogged bureaucratic approach are noted as being particularly effective at convincing already reticent Israeli authorities to cancel the programme.  Golan prioritises Weinberger’s agency over all other actors and seems to give his role the preponderance of blame for the outcome.

While Weinberger undoubtedly played an obstructionist role, the Israeli government was not the only one to encounter his department’s intransigence towards multinational fighter projects. For example, the development of the Japanese Mitsubishi F-2 programme experienced similar levels of strife. Thus, any multinational programme would encounter political hurdles within the United States.

Nevertheless, Golan’s focus on the political and diplomatic aspects of the programme’s cancellation slightly underplays some of the other dynamics that affected the outcome. One is the economic and industrial trends that affected all western fighter development programmes during the latter half of the Cold War. The number of Western fighter manufacturers started to decline between the 1960s to 1980s, largely due to the rising cost of developing and producing fighters, which far outpaced normal inflation.

In isolation, Israel might have been able to absorb these cost increases. However, the fiscal realities of the state were dire, as Golan described:

At the time that Israel’s National Unity Government took office, the nation was undergoing an economic earthquake. Decades of extended defense budgets had taken their toll. Defense expenditures had always been a leading element in Israel’s national budget. In the aftermath of the 1973 war, however, Israeli defense expenditures had skyrocketed – consuming an average of 24 percent of Israel’s gross domestic product during the decade that followed. In comparison, the United States – even at the height of the war in Vietnam – devoted less than 10 percent of its GDP toward defense. The burden on Israel’s economy was unbearable, driving budget deficits and inflation to unprecedented levels. (p. 101)

Golan’s characterises the factors pertaining to the Lavi’s demise as chess pieces employed by Weinberger and his staff to cancel the fighter. However, given these desperate economic realities, it is difficult to see how the programme would continue even after the fateful cancellation of the fighter on August 31, 1987. Already there was significant support for either cancelling or curtailing Lavi purchases within the Israeli cabinet. If purchases were reduced, this would create a phenomenon known as a death spiral, where decreasing lot purchases result in higher unit costs, often leading to further reductions.

Another significant dynamic unexplored in the book is the major, ongoing doctrinal shift in the close-air support mission. Golan’s work is effusive in its praise for the Israeli fighter, often pointing out its ability to undertake this mission. However, the book fails to cover the changing threat landscape, which would pose significant challenges for the aircraft’s viability in its assigned mission.

It should be noted that these are relatively minor issues in an otherwise excellent book. Very few accounts have synthesised such a disparate but relevant array of facts to create an authoritative account of the programme. Golan’s weighting of these factors may invite some critique and debate, but that should by no means discourage anyone from reading this outstanding work.

Richard Shimooka is a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, Canada. He was a Senior Fellow at the Defence Management Studies Programme at Queen’s University from 2007–2012, and a Research Fellow at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute from 2012-2017. Richard works’ cover a diverse array of topics, including Canadian and American foreign and defence policy, modern air power and defence procurement.

Header image: IAI Lavi B-2 prototype at Muzeyon Heyl ha-Avir, Hatzerim, Israel. 2006. (Source: Wikimedia)

#BookReview – CIA Station D: Area 51 – The Complete Illustrated History of the CIA’s Station D at Area 51

#BookReview – CIA Station D: Area 51 – The Complete Illustrated History of the CIA’s Station D at Area 51

T.D. Barnes, CIA Station D: Area 51 – The Complete Illustrated History of the CIA’s Station D at Area 51. Danbury, CT: Begell House, 2021. Photographs. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. 590 pp. HBK.

Reviewed by Dr Michael W. Hankins

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Area 51 has long been a source of fascination, intrigue, and conspiracy theories. It has also inspired popular culture from television and film to 2019’s widely publicised (but barely attended) Facebook-based attempt to ‘storm the site. However, those familiar with the military aviation world have long known that Area 51 is little more than a US Air Force (USAF) (formerly Central Intelligence Agency, CIA) facility where experimental aircraft are tested. This includes everything from the U-2 spy plane to the F-117 stealth fighter. T.D. Barnes, who worked with the CIA during its formative years at Area 51, attempts to set the record straight with this new book covering the CIA’s activities in the Nevada desert during the early and mid-Cold War. The result is a profoundly informative work that reveals new stories and will please enthusiasts. Still, the size of the book and its challenging organisation might be overwhelming for casual readers.

From the early origins of Station D, which only much later became known as Area 51, Barnes traces the major CIA aviation programs based there. These include the U-2, the A-12 (and associated Blackbird ‘family’ aircraft of the YF-12, SR-71, and M-21), and the MiG exploitation programs that evaluated and flew captured Soviet aircraft. Some side projects associated with these significant programs are explored as well, most notably Project PALLADIUM, which provided valuable intelligence on Soviet radar capabilities. The details of these programs will already be known to many readers. For example, the Blackbird family programs are well documented by works such as Paul Crickmore’s Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond the Secret Missions (revised edition, 2016) or Richard Graham’s The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird (2015). However, Barnes’ work reveals fascinating new details about even these well-covered topics. Barnes presents both familiar and new stories from the perspective of the CIA rather than from the USAF or industry contractors. The Palladium program is particularly interesting, involving complicated, world-ranging plots to send fake signals in the direction of the Soviet Union to see what their radars could detect. Barnes does a good job of tracing the story from field teams collecting information to how information was analysed and used in technological and strategic decision-making at the highest levels.

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A scale model of an A-12 prepared for radar cross section measurements at ‘Area 51,’ c. 1959. (Source: Wikimedia)

This fresh perspective is also wide-ranging. At times, Barnes zooms out to discuss broad historical topics and focuses on minute details of a particular program. As a result, readers will find a wealth of immense detail, as well as many photographs, some of which have not been published before (although some of the photos are of low resolution and appear pixelated on the page). Although technology is often at the centre of these stories, Barnes also sheds interesting light on the institutional histories; seeing the organisational evolution and institutional rivalries from the CIA’s perspective is an interesting and welcome lens on this material. For example, Barnes traces the various tensions between the CIA and the USAF, from high command to individual personnel.

The individual level is where the book really shines. Barnes gives a true, ‘on the ground’ account of many of these programs, not only showing how the CIA’s efforts affected the Cold War, but depicting what it felt like to live there, to work there, and the realities of day-to-day life inside a top-secret facility working on advanced, world-changing programs. The Blackbirds may have been top-of-the-line, sleek, space-age aircraft. Still, Barnes contrasts that with stories about the trouble getting clearances and badges, the type of housing available on the station, the type of bars that employees frequented, and the games with which personnel and pilots amused themselves. Whether he is telling a detailed technological history or something personal, the focus is on the details of these stories – there is no large historical analysis, nor a broad historical argument made in this book.

4477th_Test_and_Evaluation_Squadron_MiG-21_in_flight
A MiG-21F-13 flown by United States Navy and Air Force Systems Command during HAVE DOUGHNUT in 1968. (Source: Wikimedia).

As interesting as the material is, some readers have a few barriers to entry. The first is the whopping price tag of US$149. Although this cost might be too high for some readers, it is worth noting the amount of material one gets for the price. The book is heavy and massive, almost unwieldy. It contains nearly 600 oversized, double-columned pages, each of which is almost twice the dimensions of a typical print book. In terms of word count, this is probably about three typical books’ worth of material, which might help to justify the cost for some readers.Historians looking for a thesis will not find one, as the work does not seek to make a historical argument. Instead, it is focused on detailed accounts of individual stories. Furthermore, although the book is packed with detail, the immense amount of material might be difficult for some readers to navigate. In addition, it is written in a meandering style, which is sometimes charming, but at other times leads to repetition. In some cases, stories are told and retold, sometimes more than once. Usually, the retellings of stories contain slightly different emphases, but periodically sentences are repeated verbatim, and in some cases, photographs are reused. There are no footnotes and only a brief bibliography. Except for a few instances where a document is referenced directly in the text, readers may have trouble finding sources for information or quotes.

In conclusion, enthusiasts of the U-2, A-12/SR-71, and captured MiG programs will likely find much to like about this book, including newly discovered details and fresh images from a new perspective. Although it is a bit less accessible to casual readers, researchers will find plenty to pore over here.

Dr Michael Hankins is the Curator for US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps post-World War II Aviation at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the author of Flying Camelot: The F-15, the F-16, and the Weaponisation of Fighter Pilot Nostalgia (2021). He is also the Podcast Editor at From Balloons to Drones. He is a former Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD in history from Kansas State University in 2018 and his master’s in history from the University of North Texas in 2013. He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header image: A Lockheed M-21 carrying Lockheed D-21 drone in flight. (Source: Wikimedia)

#ResearchResources – Recent Articles and Books (January 2022)

#ResearchResources – Recent Articles and Books (January 2022)

Editorial note: In this series, From Balloons to Drones highlights research resources available to researchers. Contributions range from discussions of research at various archival repositories to highlighting new publications. As part of this series, we are bringing you a monthly precis of recent articles and books published in air power history. This precis will not be exhaustive but will highlight new works published in the preceding month. Publication dates may vary around the globe and are based on those provided on the publisher’s websites. If you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here.

Articles

M. Abbott and J. Bamforth, ‘Determining the reasons for the failure of British aircraft manufacturers to invest in Australia’s industry, 1934–1941,’ Australian Economic History Review (2021). https://doi.org/10.1111/aehr.12235 

The aim of the article is to identify the factors that prevented British aircraft manufacturers from investing in Australia in the second half of the 1930s, a period when rearmament was creating demand for aircraft. The article looks at several unsuccessful proposals by British manufacturers to establish factories in Australia to build aircraft in the late 1930s, with additional attention being given to one proposal in particular. There is evidence that the Australian Government favoured the creation of an Australian-owned industry building aircraft under licence to foreign manufacturers, and it was this factor that largely deterred British investors.

Marc J. Alsina, ‘Aviation for the People: Class and State Aviation in Perón’s “New Argentina,” 1946–55,’ Technology and Culture 63, no. 1 (2022).

This article investigates the culture and politics of aviation in mid-twentieth-century Argentina under Juan D. Perón’s populist government. For enthusiasts around the world, aviation seemed poised for the long-prophesized “Air Age” transformations. Most emphasized the middle-class or elite nature of this quintessentially modern industry and its customers. Recent aviation scholarship in Europe and the United States has thus focused on affluent passengers or aircraft owners as the consumers of aviation technology. But this article reveals that Peronist Argentina implemented a massive political aviation program aimed at elevating socioeconomic conditions for the working classes. State media show that the authorities harnessed aviation as a technopolitical tool to both represent and enact their vision for a “New Argentina” by providing “dignified” work for the lower classes.

Xiaoming Zhang, ‘High-Altitude Duel: The CIA’s U-2 Spy Plane Overflights and China’s Air Defense Force, 1961-1968,’ Journal of Military History 86, no. 1 (2022).

During the 1960s, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s U-2 spy planes, piloted by Chinese Nationalist airmen from Taiwan, flew routinely over the Chinese mainland monitoring the Chinese nuclear weapons program; the overflights also demonstrated Beijing’s military weakness and inability to control its airspace. In spite of having only a few Soviet-made surface-to-air missile systems, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force was convinced that human factors, especially agility in strategy, operations, and tactics, could overcome a superior enemy. Although much remains secret, sources now available provide new insights into this secret Cold War history. Moreover, as the Chinese claimed themselves, these experiences remain valuable for China’s military response to war.

Books

Kevin Wright, We Were Never There – Volume 2: CIA U-2 Asia and Worldwide Operations 1957-1974 (Warwick: Helion and Company, 2022).

Devised by Kelly Johnson and operated by the CIA from 1956-74, the U-2 is the world’s most famous ‘spyplane.’ It flew at unprecedented altitudes and carried the most sophisticated sensors available, all in the greatest secrecy.

The second volume of We Were Never There concentrates on the period of operational missions mainly across Asia from 1957-74. The book utilises a large number of declassified documents to explore some of the remaining secrets of these missions.

The book starts by looking at some of the missions conducted by the CIA’s Detachment ‘C’ U-2s against key targets in the Soviet Far East up to Mayday 1960. It moves on to explore in detail the overflights of the Peoples Republic of China by Nationalist Chinese pilots in conjunction with the CIA. In particular, the study of Project TACKLE looks at efforts to gain intelligence on the PRC’s expansive nuclear programme from the early 1960s. This is supplemented with details of Taiwanese/CIA operations against North Korea and its Yongbon nuclear reactor. It presents target images and reveals detailed routes for many of these overflights that have not been publicly seen before.

Whilst the USAF took the lead in operations against Cuba, the book explores the earlier CIA missions against Cuba during the Bay of Pigs landings and the missile crisis. Another chapter explores the efforts to equip the U-2 for operations from US Navy aircraft carriers. Detachment G, based at Edwards AFB, had a worldwide contingency role, able to quickly deploy anywhere in the world. It undertook missions targets in Tibet, the PRC, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, British Guiana, Venezuela and elsewhere.

A section of the book examines the development of the U-2R, a major update of the original aircraft, making it larger and much more capable. Its handling characteristics and comparisons with the U-2C are explored with the help of interviews with two former USAF U-2 pilots who flew both models of the aircraft.

The final chapter looks at the return of the U-2 to Europe, in particular the UK, for training missions from the late 1960s. It covers details on operations over the middle east monitoring ceasefire arrangements between Israel and its neighbours in 1970 and 1973. It ends with the phasing out of Agency U-2 operations, the closure of projects TACKLE and JACKSON and an evaluation of the U-2’s contribution to aerial intelligence collection.

Bill Yenne, America’s Few: Marine Aces of the South Pacific (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2022).

America’s Few delves into the history of US Marine Corps aviation in World War II, following the feats of the Corps’ top-scoring aces in the skies over Guadalcanal. Marine Corps aviation began in 1915, functioning as a self-contained expeditionary force. During the interwar period, the support of USMC amphibious operations became a key element of Marine aviation doctrine, and the small force gradually grew. But in December 1941 came the rude awakening. Within hours of Pearl Harbor, heroic Marine aviators were battling the Japanese over Wake Island.

In the South Pacific, the aviators of the US Marine Corps came out of the shadows to establish themselves as an air force second to none. In the summer of 1942, when Allied airpower was cobbled together into a single unified entity – nicknamed ‘the Cactus Air Force’ – Marine Aviation dominated, and a Marine, Major General Roy Geiger, was its commander. Of the twelve Allied fighter squadrons that were part of the Cactus Air Force, eight were USMC squadrons. It was over Guadalcanal that Joe Foss emerged as a symbol of Marine aviation. As commander of VMF-121, he organized a group of fighter pilots that downed 72 enemy aircraft; Foss himself reached a score of 26. Pappy Boyington, meanwhile, had become a Marine aviator in 1935. Best known as the commander of VMF-214, he came into his own in late 1943 and eventually matched Foss’s aerial victory score.

Through the parallel stories of these two top-scoring fighter aces, as well as many other Marine aces, such as Ken Walsh (21 victories), Don Aldrich (20), John L. Smith (19), Wilbur Thomas (18.5), and Marion Carl (18.5), many of whom received the Medal of Honor, acclaimed aviation historian Bill Yenne examines the development of US Marine Corps aviation in the South Pacific.

#Podcast – The F-15 and F-16: Fighter Pilot Culture and Technology: An Interview with Dr Michael Hankins

#Podcast – The F-15 and F-16: Fighter Pilot Culture and Technology: An Interview with Dr Michael Hankins

Editorial Note: Led by our Editor Dr Mike Hankins, From Balloons to Drones produces a monthly podcast that 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. You can also find our podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.

Our own co-host Michael Hankins discusses his new book, Flying Camelot: The F-15, the F-16, and the Weaponization of Fighter Pilot Nostalgia, from Cornell University Press. We look at the development process of the F-15 Eagle and the F-16 Fighting Falcon, talk about the elements of fighter pilot culture, and the ever-controversial Colonel John Boyd.

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Dr Michael Hankins is the Curator for US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps post-World War II Aviation at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the author of Flying Camelot: The F-15, the F-16, and the Weaponization of Fighter Pilot Nostalgia (2021). He is the Podcast Editor at From Balloons to Drones, a former Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD in history from Kansas State University in 2018 and his master’s in history from the University of North Texas in 2013. He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header image: This cartoon from a 1977 General Dynamics briefing depicts the ‘myth’ that the F-16 production model had inferior performance to the original YF-16 prototype (Source: Lockheed Martin photo via Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum).