Cold War Nuclear-Powered Aircraft: A Step Too Far

Cold War Nuclear-Powered Aircraft: A Step Too Far

By Dr Peter Layton[1]

Birds and aircraft have a fundamental problem: their range and endurance are limited. To remain aloft requires the expenditure of energy. Eventually, birds must land and rest, and aircraft must refuel. The invention of nuclear power in the 1940s appeared to offer a way to cut this Gordian knot. A nuclear-powered aircraft could, it seemed, provide dramatically improved range and endurance compared to chemically fuelled powered aircraft.

Such ambitions were strengthened as the Cold War between the US and the USSR worsened. The Cold War released immense funding for military purposes while providing an operational rationale: a requirement for very long-range bombers able to strike military-industrial complexes deep in the Soviet heartland. The generous funding now available meant numerous new high technology possibilities could be considered, built, trialled and if successful enter mass production. An obvious candidate to research and investigate seemed nuclear-powered aircraft.

The original ideas about using nuclear power for aircraft propulsion had appeared around 1944. These led to a minor research program, the Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft study, beginning in mid-1946. Undertaken by Fairchild, this examined reactor technologies and engine transfer systems. These studies proved encouraging and so in 1951, with the Cold War deepening, the United States Air Force (USAF) proposed to begin actively developing manned aircraft nuclear propulsion. Contracts were let for three main elements: two X-6 prototype test aircraft, a nuclear propulsion system (reactor and turbojets) and an NB-36H reactor flight-test aircraft.

An air-to-air view of the Convair NB-36H Peacemaker experimental aircraft and a Boeing B-50 Superfortress chase plane during research and development taking place at the Convair plant at Forth Worth, Texas. This plane was called the Nuclear Test Aircraft (NTA) and was redesignated XB-36H, then NB-36H. The NTA completed 47 test flights and 215 hours of flight time (during 89 of which the reactor was operated) between July 1955 and March 1957 over New Mexico and Texas. (Source: Wikimedia)

Convair received the X-6 contract. The aircraft was envisaged as being of comparable size to the company’s B-36 Peacemaker bomber with a length of 50m, a wingspan of 70m and an empty weight of some 100 tonnes. The X-6 was planned to have 12 turbojets; eight conventionally fuelled used for take-off and landing, and four nuclear-powered used during in-flight trials. This was an ambitious but expensive test program and was cancelled by the incoming Eisenhower administration in 1953 on budgetary grounds. However, the other two elements continued.[2]

General Electric was awarded the propulsion contract, progressively developing across 1955-1961 three direct-cycle nuclear power plants under the ground-based Heat Transfer Reactor Experiment (HTRE) test-rig program. The final HTRE-3 propulsion system featured a solid moderator using lightweight hybrided (sic) zirconium instead of water, a horizontal reactor to meet aircraft carriage requirements and produced sufficient heat to power two X-39-5 (modified J-47) turbojets simultaneously. HTRE-3 had several firsts including demonstrating an all-nuclear turbojet start, having a primary shield able to handle radiation levels expected in flight and in being designed for in-flight stresses, air pressures, temperatures, and G loadings.[3]

The third element was to flight test a reactor. In mid-1952, Convair was contracted to modify two B-36 aircraft: one for a ground test, the other for flight test and designated as the NB-36H. The major modifications involved firstly, the crew compartment and avionic cabin being replaced by an 11-tonne nose section lined with lead and rubber to protect against reactor radiation and secondly, the rear internal bomb bay being altered to allow fitment of the 16-tonne reactor. Less apparent were the cockpit glass transparencies being some 30cm thick and nine water-filled shield tanks in the fuselage to absorb any escaping radiation.[4]

In the meantime, the USAF was firming up its requirements. In March 1955, General Operational Requirement (GOR) No. 81 was issued seeking a nuclear-powered weapon system, WS-125A. Aspirations included a range of about 10,000nm, an operating altitude of 60,000-75,000ft and an endurance of perhaps more than a week airborne.[5]  WS-125A was to have a cruise speed of at least Mach 0.9, desirably offer supersonic dash in the target area and enter service with operational units in 1963.[6]  Realising such high ambitions was to prove problematic.

In July 1955, the NB-36H began flight test with the reactor going critical in flight for the first time in September. The reactor did not power the aircraft, instead of being tested to verify the feasibility of a safe, sustained nuclear reaction on a moving platform. For each NB-36 flight, the one-megawatt reactor was winched up into the bomb bay at a dedicated pit at Convair’s Fort Worth plant and then removed again after landing.[7] When in flight, the aircraft was accompanied by a radiation-monitoring B-50 (a slightly updated B-29) and a C-119 transport aircraft carrying paratroopers able to be dropped to secure any crash site and limit bystander exposure to radiation.[8] In total, the NB-36H made 47 flights, ceasing flying in March 1957.

The results of the nuclear propulsion tests and the NB-36H were mixed. HTRE-3 had proven nuclear-power turbojet feasible and that a flyable propulsion unit could be built albeit technical challenges remained. The major problem was that it was hard to build a nuclear reactor small enough to fit into aircraft, but which produced the operationally significant energy output required. It seemed that using contemporary technology would mean nuclear-powered aircraft were relatively slow. For a time, concepts of ‘nuclear cruise, chemical dash’ were investigated; supplemental aviation fuel would allow supersonic dash in the target area.[9]

Moreover, the NB-36H flight programme highlighted the hazards associated with operating such nuclear-powered aircraft. While well-shielded aircraft would not normally pose radiation dangers to air or ground crew, there were worries that accidents and crashes might release fission products from the reactors, and about the dosage from prolonged human exposure to leakage radioactivity.[10] In this, the test flights mainly served to draw attention to the real difficulties that would arise in working with nuclear fuel in operational service conditions.[11]

WS-125A was accordingly cancelled in early 1957. However, there remained occasional flickers of renewed interest in nuclear-powered aircraft into the early 1960s. The Continuously Airborne Missile Air Launcher (CAMAL) concept called for a nuclear-powered strike aircraft able to stay aloft on airborne alert for 2-5 days. This led into Dromedary, a turboprop design capable of an airborne alert for 70-100 hours and able to stand-off outside hostile territory and launch the 600-1000nm Skybolt ballistic missile.[12] These ideas meant research into aircraft nuclear propulsion continued although in only a fairly desultory fashion. This finally ended in 1961 when the new Kennedy administration reallocated funding.

The US Navy had also occasionally expressed interest in nuclear-powered turboprop flying boats. In April 1955, Operational Requirement CA-01503 sought a nuclear-powered seaplane capable of high subsonic speeds primarily for the attack of ports and warships using conventional and nuclear weapons with the secondary roles of mining and reconnaissance. The USN desired to have a prototype available for its evaluation no later than 1961. By mid-1956 the Navy had decided a solely-USN power plant was unjustifiable and that the Navy’s aircraft would use the USAF’s WS-125A power plant. The cancellation of the WS-125A thus terminated the USN’s plans as well.[13]  At one stage, it seemed the UK might sell three mothballed Princess-class flying boats to the USN for nuclear-power trials, but funding oscillated and eventually was not forthcoming.[14]

Further afield, the USSR was also busy. In the late 1950s Tupolev designed but did not build two nuclear-powered bombers: the subsonic Tu-119 and supersonic Tu-120. The Soviet leadership thought the projected payloads and speed were inadequate for the costs involved. Tupolev was though authorised to continue research on nuclear aircraft.[15] Accordingly, a Tu-95 turboprop bomber was modified at a nuclear complex near Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan to allow flying a nuclear reactor, becoming the Tu-95LAL (Letayushchaya atomnaya laboratorya – flying atomic laboratory).[16] Mirroring the NB-36H trails, some 34 Tu-95LAL flights were undertaken in 1961 with the reactor on board but without providing propulsion. The tests similarly revealed that a nuclear-powered aircraft was impractical with the technology of the time. The gain in performance from not carrying chemical fuel was consumed by the heavy reactor and shields and so Soviet interest in nuclear-powered aircraft declined.[17]

The Tu-95LAL test aircraft. The bulge in the fuselage aft of the wing covers the reactor.(Source: Wikimedia)

In the end, a better technological solution won out. For both the US and the USSR, the ICBM fitted with lightweight thermonuclear warheads offered a much better answer to the problem of a long-range, highly survivable nuclear strike. The considerable effort and funds expended in investigating nuclear-powered manned aircraft yielded much technical information and engineering expertise but ultimately little else. This was not for lack of interest in the defence aerospace industry. At the time, Kelly Johnson of Lockheed’s Skunk Works fame wrote:

After a half century of striving to make aircraft carry reasonable loads farther and farther, the advent of a [nuclear] power plant that will solve the range problem is of the utmost importance […] this unique characteristic is one to be greeted enthusiastically.[18]

Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. His PhD is in grand strategy, and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. He is the author of the book Grand Strategy.

Header Image: An NB-36H producing contrails in flight. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] This post partly draws on the author’s Chapter in Michael Spencer (ed.), Nuclear Engine Air Power (Canberra: Air Power Development Centre, 2019). This book discusses contemporary nuclear-powered propulsion systems for aircraft and missiles.

[2].  Jay Miller, The X-Planes: X-1 to X-31 (Arlington: Aerofax, 1988), pp. 69-73.

[3].  F.C. Linn, Heat Transfer Reactor Experiment No.3: Comprehensive Technical report, General Electric Direct-Air Cycle Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Program (Cincinnati: General Electric Company, 1962), pp. 15-18.

[4].  Raul Colon, Flying on Nuclear: The American Effort to Built a Nuclear Powered Bomber.

[5].  Theo Farrell, ‘Waste in weapons acquisition: How the Americans do it all wrong,’ Contemporary Security Policy, 16:2 (1995), p. 194; ‘Thoughts on WS-110A,’ Flight, 10 January 1958, p. 44.

[6].  Comptroller General of the United States, Review of the Manned Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Program of the Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Defense, B-146749, 28 February 1963, p. 133

[7].  Colon, Flying on Nuclear.

[8].  Miller, The X-Planes., p. 210.

[9]Ibid., p. 73.

[10].  Brian D. Bikowicz, The Decay of the Atomic Powered Aircraft Program, 12 Nov 1992.

[11].  Bruce Astridge, ‘Propulsion,’ in Phillip Jarrett (ed.), Faster, further, higher: leading-edge aviation technology since 194 (London: Putnam, 2002), p. 134.

[12].  Peter J. Roman, ‘Strategic bombers over the missile horizon, 1957–1963,’ Journal of Strategic Studies, 18:1 (1995), pp. 208-13.

[13].  Comptroller General, Review of the Manned Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Program, pp. 134-40.

[14].  Raymond L. Garthoff, ‘The Swallow and Caspian Sea Monster vs. the Princess and the Camel: The Cold War Contest for a Nuclear-Powered Aircraft,’ Studies in Intelligence, 60:2 (2016), p. 3.

[15].  Arthur J. Alexander, ‘Decision-Making in Soviet Weapons Procurement,’ Adelphi Papers, 18:147-148, (1978), p.32.

[16].  Garthoff, ‘The Swallow and Caspian Sea Monster vs. the Princess and the Camel,’ p. 2.

[17].  Piotr Butowski, ‘Steps Towards Blackjack,’ Air Enthusiast, 73 (1998), p. 40.

[18].  F.A. Cleveland and Clarence L. Johnson, ‘Design of Air Frames for Nuclear Power’, quoted in Bikowicz, Decay.

#BookReview – Through Adversity: Britain and the Commonwealth’s War in the Air 1939-1945 – Volume 1

#BookReview – Through Adversity: Britain and the Commonwealth’s War in the Air 1939-1945 – Volume 1

Reviewed by Alexander Fitzgerald-Black 

Ben Kite, Through Adversity: Britain and the Commonwealth’s War in the Air 1939-1945 – Volume 1. Warwick: Helion & Company Limited, 2019. Maps. Figures. Photographs. Annexes. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. 492 pp.


Most military historians take a narrative approach in their works. Even when they seek to prove a specific thesis, they offer the evidence to the reader in chronological order. There are, of course, exceptions – and Ben Kite is a notable one. In 2014, he produced Stout Hearts: The British and Canadians in Normandy 1944, a work that focused not on the narrative of the battles in Normandy, but rather how British and Canadian armies (and air forces) operated there. The result was an outstanding reference work for historians, history buffs, and especially those seeking to understand what it was like for their Commonwealth ancestors who fought there.

In Through Adversity: Britain and the Commonwealth’s War in the Air 1939-1945 Kite has turned his focus to the skies. His primary aim is ‘to capture the main themes and strands of the war in the air as fought by the British Commonwealth’ (p. xiii). Volume 1 includes 20 chapters spread over four parts, each containing one of these themes or strands. These are usually mission types performed by the air force. In each part, Kite takes particular care to explain changes in the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) tactics and operational techniques along with the advancement of technology. He is more interested in how airmen planned and executed missions than in the role of senior commanders and overarching narratives. As such, this book is not a repeat of John Terraine’s The Right of the Line. Consequently, the experiences of aircrew fighting a deadly war in skies across the globe stand out.

In part one, Kite offers readers a background on pre-war RAF policy and preparations for war. He notes that although the 1920s were lean years, the RAF did receive significant investments in the late 1930s due to fears of the growing Luftwaffe in Nazi Germany. Ironically, although RAF doctrine focused on the bomber, the British bomber fleet was ill-prepared to strike at the German war industry. Much would have to change if the force were to have a chance of inflicting the knock-out blow advocated by influential interwar air power theorists Giulio Douhet and the RAF’s own Hugh Trenchard.

The second chapter of part one examines how the RAF mobilized and trained its manpower. Some readers will find this section a little disappointing since it offers a pretty standard focus on the path of pilots (and observers) through the Empire Air Training Scheme. There is comparatively little about the training regimes of other aircrew positions or the ground crew.

As the prerequisite for successful air operations of all types, Kite begins his examination of air combat with air superiority. The author takes a campaign-centric approach after beginning with the pre-war development of RAF Fighter Command. In northwest Europe, he examines the Battle of Britain, the uneconomical Fighter Command air offensive over Fortress Europe, and defence against German night raiders and V-weapons. Kite samples the battles for air superiority in the Mediterranean through the siege of Malta. Finally, he concludes the section with a pair of chapters featuring the rapid loss of air superiority in the Far East and the effort to turn the tide.

IWM K 1117
A Consolidated Catalina MkI of No. 205 Squadron RAF taxies past another aircraft of the Squadron moored in the Strait of Johore off Seletar, Singapore (Source: © IWM K 1117).

The chapter that stands out in part two takes the reader through a Fighter Command mission during the Battle of Britain. Kite takes an end-to-end approach here. He begins with how pilots began their mornings at airfields across Britain and finishes with sortie debriefings by intelligence officers. It was their job to understand what had happened in the air, including the difficult task of sorting victory claims. Kite affords the relatively unsung role of the fighter controller prominent attention, reminding readers the might of the many backed ‘the Few’ at the sharp end. This effectively illustrates the importance of ‘a good early warning capability and an efficient command and control system’ (p. 193) for effective air defence.

From air superiority, the book moves on to discuss Bomber Command’s role in striking back at Nazi Germany. Kite organizes this section into four chapters. The first offers the reader a general overview of how the offensive developed from unescorted, anti-shipping raids suffering unsustainable losses to night bomber raids of growing strength and sophistication. The chapter focuses on Bomber Command strategy and policy, including the creation of No. 6 Group Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in early 1943.

No. 6 Group owed its existence to a desire for a highly visible Canadian air effort in the war. Kite outlines the many unintended disadvantages of forming a separate national group within Bomber Command. Unfortunately, this is where Kite ends the story of 6 Group. Although the group faltered in 1943, 1944 was a much better year. New leadership, the shift from targets deep inside Germany to support the Normandy landings, and the arrival of better aircraft ‘enabled No. 6 Group to exceed the performance of comparable bomber groups in the air and on the ground.’ In fact, according to the RCAF official history, from September 1944 until May 1945 ‘the Canadian group could claim as good an operational record as any.’[1]

Despite Kite’s treatment of No. 6 Group, he does well by Bomber Command as a whole. Kite takes the reader through an end-to-end Bomber Command mission in two chapters. The first chapter covers the route to the target, beginning with the role of armourers in loading the aircraft while the aircrew underwent specialized and team briefings. Crew roles, navigation equipment, the aircraft, and German defences all receive attention. The second chapter takes the reader from the run into the target and through the return leg. Except for memoirists explaining their personal slide of the air war, few resources so comprehensively relate the bomber crew experience.

The concluding strike chapter outlines the development of a precision bombing capability within Bomber Command and No. 2 Group, which operated light and medium bombers over Nazi-occupied Europe.

The final part of volume one covers the war at sea fought by RAF Coastal Command and the Royal Navy’s (RN) Fleet Air Arm (FAA). The first two chapters examine anti-submarine operations during the Battle of the Atlantic. Kite highlights the importance of cooperation between the RN and Coastal Command in intelligence sharing and winning the battle of improving tactics and technology. He concludes that while the Allies heavily reduced the U-boat threat by 1943, the RAF senior leadership’s failure to afford a greater priority to Coastal Command ‘nearly cost the Allies the war.’ (p. 321) This criticism mainly revolves around the delay in giving Coastal Command priority for Very Long-Range aircraft. These aircraft could patrol the mid-Atlantic gap, where U-boats operated beyond the range of most land-based aircraft.

Kite concludes the RAF’s role in the volume with two chapters on anti-shipping operations. He begins with early operations from the United Kingdom, especially those focused on the Dutch and Norwegian coasts. In the war’s early years, strikes were effective against enemy merchant shipping. Coastal Command needed better aircraft, tactics, and armour-piercing bombs to achieve success against the German surface fleet. RAF anti-shipping operations matured over time and in parallel with developments in the Mediterranean and the Far East. Missing from Kite’s history of the RAF’s war at sea are the anti-submarine and anti-shipping efforts that went into supporting the Normandy landings in June 1944. It is unclear whether these elements will appear in Volume 2, which promises to cover air support for the army in detail.

Many readers will be pleased that Kite wrote two chapters on the Fleet Air Arm. Some authors would have left the role of naval aviation out of scope, and it is commendable that Kite has included their experiences.

One general critique is the author’s tendency to rely on lengthy quotations from memoirs and diaries. Letting the veterans speak for themselves is a noble effort, but it also means relying on the quality of another’s writing to tell the story. Kite’s retelling of a harrowing anti-submarine patrol by a Sunderland flying boat crew over the Bay of Biscay was outstanding (p. 309-314). I sometimes found myself wishing that Kite had taken this approach more often rather than relying on lengthy and raw veteran’s accounts.

Through Adversity is a treasure trove of information for its readers. Twenty-five appendices or annexes (with source attributions) offer the reader great quick-reference material. The book is exceptionally well illustrated with thoughtful captions. These captions often include the identity and fate of both the aircraft and its crew, closing an otherwise open loop. Finally, Kite’s use of squadron mottos for most of the chapter titles is a nice touch that adds character to the book.

Overall, Volume 1 of Ben Kite’s work on the British Commonwealth’s war in the air is a great achievement. In the 1980s, John Terraine’s The Right of the Line afforded readers an excellent top-down narrative study of the RAF in the Second World War. Kite’s contribution is to capture the airman’s experience within that broader context. Through Adversity is the first half of an excellent reference work for historians, history buffs, and especially those seeking to understand what the air war was like for their Commonwealth ancestors in skies and at airfields across the world. The military aviation community anxiously awaits the publication of Undaunted: Britain and the Commonwealth’s War in the Air – Volume 2.

Alex Fitzgerald-Black has a Master of Arts in Military History from the University of New Brunswick and a Master of Arts in Public History from the University of Western Ontario. Alex’s research interests include air power in the Second World War, with a particular focus on the Mediterranean, and Canadian military history. He is the author of Eagles over Husky: The Allied Air Forces and the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943. Alex operates his blog at and can be reached on Twitter @AlexFitzBlack.

Header Image: In the shadow of their Handley Page Halifax, ‘Pride of the Porcupines’ aircrew and groundcrew members of No. 433 ‘Porcupine’ Squadron, No. 6 Group RCAF gang up on the miniature English automobile owned by one of the aircrew members. (Source: DND / LAC / PL-29380)

[1] Greenhous et al., The Crucible of War, 1939-1945: The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force Volume III (University of Toronto Press, 1994), pp. 526-7.

#BookReview – No Fly Zones and International Security: Politics and Strategy

#BookReview – No Fly Zones and International Security: Politics and Strategy

Reviewed By Dr Peter Layton

Stephen Wrage and Scott Cooper, No Fly Zones and International Security: Politics and Strategy. Abingdon: Routledge, 2019. Tables. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. xi + 166 pp.


This is an excellent little book on no-fly zones. No Fly Zones and International Security is arguably the seminal work on the subject, but it may be on a subject whose time has passed. The book may be both the first word and the last on this particular type of air power operation.

No Fly Zones and International Security falls within the genre of strategic studies but does not use any particular theoretical framework. Instead, the authors opt to integrate history, current affairs, technology and the operational level of war into a most comprehensive analysis. In this process, the two authors bring a wealth of knowledge and experience having been involved with no-fly zone issues and their study for decades. Stephen Wrage is a Professor at the US Naval Academy and specializes in American foreign policy and strategies. Scott Cooper flew EA-6Bs for the USMC including in most of the no-fly zone operations this book explores.

No-fly zones are explained as seizing another country’s airspace and applying to the airspace specific rules and regulations. So understood, no-fly zones are a form of occupation more akin to naval blockades or maritime exclusion zones than to the placing of ground forces in another country. This means no-fly zones are somewhat out of sight both to the population of the country impacted and to the country employing them. Their impact on the domestic politics of either country is accordingly somewhat muted, making their lifting less pressing; they can continue for many years. No-fly zones are a way of exerting military pressure, but they do so in a quasi-benign manner that places the onus to escalate to direct conflict on the state whose airspace has been seized. No-fly zones are then a soft form of coercive diplomacy, a military power tool or method that lies somewhere between economic sanctions and war in the conflict continuum.

The book initially delves into the doctrine, nature, types, tactics, strategies, and ethics of no-fly zones. This provides the background necessary for in-depth analysis and careful assessments of the no-fly zones in Iraq, Bosnia, and Libya. The Iraq chapter covers mostly Northern and Southern watch; the former when labelled Provide Comfort I was where no-fly zones originated. The Bosnia chapter is more expansive, moving from the short-lived 1992-93 Operation Sky Monitor to the major air campaign over Kosovo in 1999. Libya is even more so with the no-fly zone only fleetingly appearing before turning into a significant military intervention albeit conducted almost entirely by air.

The inclusion of much more discussion than solely about no-fly zones in the Bosnia and Libya sections does highlight that the history of no-fly zones is somewhat meagre. On the other hand, including such information directly related to air power helpfully places no-fly zones into context. The three history chapters also end with a useful lessons learned section that nicely summaries the issues for busy people and policymakers.

The book’s last chapter looks forward to whether no-fly zones have a future. As part of this, it also discusses no-fly zones that could have happened in Darfur and Syria and explains why they were not implemented. This highlights that the relationship between no-fly zones and strategy is worth exploring.

The book is at some pains to not claim no-fly zones are a strategy instead of seeing them as ‘an option, a tactic or a tool.’ As such, they offer states a relatively low-cost way to ‘do something’ without becoming deeply involved while retaining the ability to modulate air operations as necessary and withdraw very quickly if needs be. This brings to mind Eliot Cohen’s 1994 comment that ‘[a]ir power is an unusually seductive form of military strength, in part because, like modern courtship, it appears to offer gratification without commitment.’

A US Air Force McDonnell Douglas F-15C Eagle from the 53rd Fighter Squadron is met by maintenance personnel at Aviano air base, Italy, after a mission over Bosnia to enforce the No-Fly Zone on 1 June 1993. (Source: Wikimedia)

In terms of gratification, the book makes it clear that no-fly zones by themselves can achieve little; they need to be part of a much larger and aggressive joint campaign to have a decisive impact. In this, no-fly zones can realistically have no real strategic objective in and of themselves. At best, they can be a conflict management tool that freezes in place the status quo. At least so far, they have been used only in intra-state conflicts.

In intra-state conflicts, no-fly zones arose and have been used mainly for humanitarian protection purposes. This cuts back to the ‘do something’ imperative liberal states feel when the global media discerns significant human rights violations occurring. Since Iraq and then Afghanistan, military interventions by Western powers have become less appealing, but this has not made doing nothing in the face of genocide and mass atrocities suddenly attractive. States still feel a moral obligation, and under the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm, some international pressure, to respond. No-fly zones can signal an interest in an issue, but as the book makes clear, they do not in themselves prevent or stop humanitarian disasters.

R2P is starting to appear as a rather quaint notion of a gentler, kinder time. No-fly zones were an American idea carried out with allied support to mildly enforce particular Western rules, albeit the United Nations generally endorsed these. Rising great power China is unattracted to supporting such humanitarian interventions as they involve intervening against authoritarian governments mistreating their people. China under Xi Jinping is increasingly more likely to aid authoritarian governments than stop them committing human rights abuses as its endorsement of Syria’s Assad regime reveals.

Russia, the perennial troublemaker of the modern era, is similarly inclined. Indeed, had a Syrian no-fly zone been implemented, Russia would have been one of the nations it would have been directed against. No-fly zones may now simply be an anachronistic artifact of a liberal rules-based order that has crumbled.

The book concludes on a sombre note in arguing that the Russian use of surface-to-air missiles systems in the Donbass in shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 and 19 Ukrainian military aircraft created and then policed a no-fly zone, that has since been ratified under a cease-fire agreement. China has now extended this innovation by installing similar missile systems on its newly created islands in the South China Sea. There are now effectively no-fly zones above and for 12 nautical miles (the claimed territorial limit) around these new artificial constructs.

No-fly zones started out as a device associated with humanitarian protection during civil wars. They may now be morphing into a device whereby authoritarian states can make territorial land grabs.

No Fly Zones and International Security makes an outsized contribution to what is admittedly a small field and not just in terms of discussing no-fly zones. It is one of the few books discussing in a comprehensive, balanced, insightful and well-argued way the application of contemporary air power. The book offers much for military professionals, academics and all concerned with deeply understanding the business of applying air power in the modern world.

Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. His PhD is in grand strategy, and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. He is the author of the book Grand Strategy.

Header Image: A US Air Force EF-111 Raven from the 429th Electronic Combat Squadron flies over the Alps of Northern Italy while on a mission during Operation DENY FLIGHT in 1995. (Source: Wikimedia)

#BookReview – Lectures of the Air Corps Tactical School and American Strategic Bombing in World War II

#BookReview – Lectures of the Air Corps Tactical School and American Strategic Bombing in World War II

Reviewed by Group Captain Jo Brick

Phil Haun (ed.), Lectures of the Air Corps Tactical School and American Strategic Bombing in World War II. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2019. Illustrations. Appendices. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Notes. xvi + 297 pp.

Let us not be zealots. Let us not plunge thoughtlessly from the old and known to the new and untried. Let us not claim that the airplane has outmoded all other machines of war. Rather, let us be content with an evident truth: The air force has introduced a new and different means of waging war. (p. 85)

Haywood Hansell

41sm64RGspL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_As Hansell highlighted, air power revolutionised war by allowing the focusing of force on the enemy’s vulnerable areas without having to meet its forces ‘in the field’. There are now a few essential books on strategic bombardment that provide historical depth to its development primarily during the Second World War. Works such as Bombers and the Bombed – Allied Air War Over Europe by Richard Overy, Among the Dead Cities by A.C. Grayling, and Air Power and Warfare – A Century of Theory and History by Tami Davis Biddle provide a rich contextual background within which Phil Haun’s compilation sits.

Phil Haun has compiled the lectures of the Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS) as a means of capturing some of the primary sources that led to the development of the American approach to strategic bombardment. The theories focused specifically on high altitude daylight precision bombing (HADPB). The lectures in Haun’s work were developed during the formative period of air power, following on from the landmark work, Command of the Air, by Giulio Douhet, which advocated for the use of air power for strategic bombardment of civilian populations and cities on the assumption that it would destroy morale and force populations to capitulate. Douhet’s work focused on the importance of gaining command of the air and the direction of air power to particular targets.

What makes Haun’s compilation compelling, and its most significant contribution to the study of air power is that it preserves nascent thinking about how to put novel theories into practice. The work also highlights the perennial struggle between the development of strategic air power – to ostensibly use air power as a means to victory on its own – or the development of air power capabilities that primarily support naval and land forces. Although the technology has developed beyond what the authors of these lectures could have imagined, their ideas and arguments have a direct link and relevance to conceptions of strategic strike, and bombardment in depth. For example, Major – later General – Muir Fairchild’s discussion of the ‘National Economic Structure’ (pp. 140-64) in his 5 April 1939 lecture to the ACTS finds resonance in the targeting of Daesh oil and cash stores during Operation INHERENT RESOLVE as a means to removing the economic support to its military operations in Iraq and Syria. This compilation of lectures is recommended for military professionals, and students of military history and air power, who want access to primary sources that demonstrate the fundamental ideas on strategic bombardment and how air power could be used independently as a means of forcing the rapid capitulation of the enemy.

The book is comprised of several lectures delivered at ACTS at Maxwell Field, Alabama, between 1936 and 1940, and demonstrates the development of American logic and assumptions regarding the best use of a new capability – aerial bombardment – to achieve strategic outcomes. In his ‘Notes on the Text’ (pp. xv-xvi), Haun explained the criteria he used to select the ten lectures published in the book. First, the lectures were the most quoted in subsequent publications on U.S. strategic bombardment and were therefore considered by Haun to be the most important. Second, the lectures demonstrated the most mature thinking on the theory of American strategic bombing before the entry of the United States into the Second World War in December 1941. Third, these lectures were delivered to the largest number of students at ACTS between 1938 and 1941. Fourth, the students mentioned above became the officers who planned and conducted bombardment in Germany and Japan. Fifth, there were the best-preserved lectures. Finally, and pragmatically, not all ACTS lectures could be physically included in a single volume work.

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

The lectures were delivered by officers who were experienced aviators, and some had tertiary qualifications, though only a few had combat experience. Only a few, such as Major – later Lieutenant-General – Harold George and Fairchild, had completed some professional military education. This does not distract from the utility of the lectures presented here, as they demonstrate a practitioner’s approach to wrestling with the dilemma of how to maximise the utility of a new weapon of war, and to avoid the protracted stalemate on the Western Front only 20 years before the time these lectures were written.

Haun’s introductory sections to the book provide an overview of the development of air power theory during the inter-war period. Aside from Douhet, the most important ideas that influenced the development of air power theory in the United Kingdom and the United States can be traced to a few individuals. Major-General Hugh Trenchard became the first Chief of the Air Staff of the newly established Royal Air Force in 1918. He influenced the development of British strategic bombardment theory, principally reference to attacking the enemy’s morale, which was not as blunt as Douhet’s advocacy for the bombing of the civilian population. Brigadier General William ‘Billy’ Mitchell proposed the creation of an independent air service alongside his ideas on strategic bombardment that focused on the selection of targets that would most quickly degrade the enemy’s capacity to fight and therefore shorten the war. The inter-war theorists minimised discussion about the effect of bombardment on the civilian population, with the practice of bombardment of cities by both sides in the Second World War. This culminated in dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945. The effectiveness of strategic bombardment of cities remains a subject of enduring controversy.[1]

The first two chapters provide an elucidation of the understanding of strategy, air power, and warfare as held by the lecturers. The enduring nature of war is discussed or mentioned in these chapters, such as Captain – later Major General – Haywood Hansell’s statement that:

War is a furtherance of national policy by violence. Since nations find the real fulfilment of their policies in peace, the real object of war is not the continuance of violence, but the establishment of a satisfactory peace.’ (p. 75)

The authors of these lectures also grappled with the industrialised nature of warfare that was so grimly demonstrated on the Western Front from 1914 to 1918. George, in ‘An Inquiry into the Subject of “War”,’ noted what he perceived to be the increased vulnerability of industrialised societies, due to their:

[s]usceptibility to defeat by the interruption of this economic web […] connected therewith is the industrial fabric which is absolutely essential for modern war. (p. 43)

This theme is continued and further examined by Fairchild’s lectures in chapters five and six.

Perhaps the least relevant lectures are those in chapter three, which are very technical and limited to the capabilities available at the time the lectures were written. Lieutenant – later Brigadier General – Kenneth Walker’s ‘Driving Home the Bombardment Attack’ discussed the tactics and formations that he considered the most effective for the bomber force to penetrate enemy air defence. They represent rudimentary ideas that were yet to be tested. Haun commented that Walker’s ideas proved to be right in that bomber formations successfully penetrated air defences, yet only focused on single raids rather than the cumulative effect of aerial attacks over time (p. 98). Major Frederick Hopkins’ lecture, ‘Tactical Offense and Tactical Defense’ considered the attrition rate of the bomber force and consequent ability to conduct offensive bomber operations. These lectures discuss the tactical viability of the bomber force and its impact on successful offensive bombing operations. However, they did not account for the development of radar, which had a dramatic impact on the effectiveness of bombardment, and was being developed at the time of their writing.

Captain – later General – Laurence Kuter’s lecture on the ‘Practical Bombing Probabilities’ considered several factors that determined the accuracy of delivery and effectiveness of bombardment. Kuter’s lecture was delivered in 1939 while the Norden bombsight continued in its development. Although the bombsight would not be used until the war, the concepts and ideas discussed by Kuter represented necessary rudimentary steps in thinking about bombardment accuracy. From the ‘Practical Bombing Probabilities Problem,’ we can draw a direct link to the development of elaborate weapons effects information, and other considerations that affect bombing accuracy. The factors that determine ‘how many bombs it takes to hit and sink a battleship’ or any other target are now answered by software such as the Joint Air-to-Surface Weaponeering System, and databases such as the Joint Munitions Effectiveness Manual. These targeting tools are essential for the planning of strike missions and are directed towards maximising accuracy while ensuring a high ‘probability of kill’ (Pk).

Boeing Y1B-17
A Boeing Y1B-17 in flight. This aircraft would eventually be developed B-17 Flying Fortress. (Source: Wikimedia)

Chapters five, six and seven covers the theories of Fairchild are perhaps the most useful lectures as they are still relevant today. Fairchild’s work provided insight into the dilemma of how to effectively use air power for strategic effect versus using air forces to support land and naval forces. As Haun highlighted, with the development of the Norden bombsight and the B-17 Flying Fortress, the next issue was to determine what targets could be struck to most effectively and rapidly result in victory (p. 139). Fairchild’s work is based on studies by Donald Wilson, who provided an analysis of America’s infrastructure and its vulnerability to attack because U.S. isolationism at the time prevented the collection of intelligence about the Germans and Japanese.

One of the more interesting aspects of Fairchild’s lecture ‘National Economic Structure’ (pp. 140-64) is his discussion of the effectiveness of attacking an enemy population’s morale versus the enemy’s war-making capacity. He concluded that because of the adaptability of ‘man’ the fear initially caused by strategic bombardment to becomes ineffective over time. This was certainly borne out by the evident ‘Blitz Spirit’ and resolve within British society as the result of bombardment by the Luftwaffe in 1941. Fairchild went on to state that a more humane – and certainly consistent with the laws of war – approach was to understand the target as a system. He said:

Complete information concerning the targets that comprise this objective is available and should be gathered during peace. Only by careful analysis – by painstaking investigation, will it be possible to select the line of action that will most efficiently and effectively accomplish our purpose, and provide the correct employment of the air force during war. It is a study for the economist – the statistician – the technical expert – rather than for the soldier. (p. 146)

This is precisely the function of ‘target systems analysis’ today, which is essential for understanding the vulnerabilities of a system in order to identify the components that can be affected to destroy or degrade the operation of the system. The United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS) acknowledged that the factors of production identified by Fairchild – transportation, petroleum refineries, and electrical power stations – were indeed critical vulnerabilities in the German economy (p. 178).

The maturity of such a system was perhaps most evident in the command and control established to plan and execute the air war against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. Using the small planning cell established during the Cold War called ‘Checkmate’, Colonel John Warden III developed a plan to use air power to defeat Iraq by targeting it’s ‘centres of gravity’.[2] This included obtaining control of the air by destroying Iraq’s air defences to maximise freedom of manoeuvre by the U.S. and allied air forces to strike at command and control nodes, transportation, power and communications.[3]

Haun’s compilation of lectures certainly has contemporary utility by providing a good background to some of the ideas and theories that form the foundation of the practice of contemporary strategic strike. However, the book is limited by its focus on a very particular part of the development of U.S. strategic bombardment theory. Consequently, Haun’s work is a point in time reference that must be read alongside other works mentioned previously, and also with the reports of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey to provide a rich context and anchor for this work.

As Eliot Cohen once argued:

Air power is an unusually seductive form of military strength, in part because, like modern courtship, it appears to offer gratification without commitment.[4]

Air power has provided nations with the ability to coerce and deter others from acting in particular ways. Haun’s work ends with a summary of the perpetual struggle between the apportionment of air power resources towards strategic strike or to support other forces. The development of exquisite multi-role capabilities has alleviated the need to choose between these broad air power roles. Air power has also allowed nations to take swift and decisive action against others in a manner that does not commit it to long term ‘boots on the ground’, as Cohen’s words highlighted. The 1991 Gulf War demonstrated the effectiveness of strategic bombardment when planned and synchronised with the wider joint and combined campaign. So successful was the use of air power in the 1991 Gulf War, that it prompted the authors of Military Lessons of the Gulf War to proclaim:

[t]he inescapable conclusion […] that air power virtually brought Iraq to its knees, and the air war showed that air power may be enough to win some conflicts.[5]

The use of air power, however, must be much more discerning. In the information age, the simple targeting of physical infrastructure and systems are no longer solely effective. The prolonged and ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have perhaps demonstrated the limitations of the kinetic solutions offered by strategic bombardment. Ideologies that fuelled these conflicts cannot be simply ‘bombed’ into submission. The main effort is no longer necessarily fought with the bomber or fighter force, but rather in the memes and interactions on social media.[6] Perhaps the next evolution is to incorporate some ‘axiological targeting’ considerations – which requires understanding the human population as a system, including understanding what is of value to them.[7]

Relative to the conduct of war by land or sea, the use of the air for warfare is a little over one hundred years old. The utility of strategic strike continues to evolve and will present more opportunities and challenges. Many of the ideas developed and taught at ACTS lie at the foundation of the theories and practices in place today and form a humble yet essential contribution to the evolution of air power theory.

Group Captain Jo Brick is a Legal Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. She is currently the Chief of Staff, Australian Defence College. She has served on a number of operational and staff appointments from the tactical to the strategic levels of the Australian Defence Force. Group Captain Brick is a graduate of the Australian Command and Staff Course. She holds a Master of International Security Studies (Deakin University), a Master of Laws (Australian National University) and a Master (Advanced) of Military and Defence Studies (Honours) (Australian National University). She is a Member of the Military Writers Guild, an Associate Editor for The Strategy Bridge, and an Editor for The Central Blue. She can be found on Twitter at @clausewitzrocks.

Header Image: Austin Hall at Maxwell AFB. Austin Hall was the home of the Air Corps Tactical School before the Second World War. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] See Charles S. Maier, ‘Targeting the City: Debates and silences about aerial bombing of World War II’, International Review of the Red Cross, 87:859 (2005).

[2] Tom Clancy, with General Chuck Horner (ret’d), Every Man a Tiger – The Gulf War Air Campaign (New York: Berkley Book, 2000), pp. 256-7. See also Thomas A. Kearney and Eliot A. Cohen. Gulf War Air Power Survey – Summary Report, 1993.

[3] Clancy and Horner, Every Man, 372-3.

[4] Eliot Cohen, ‘The Mystique of US Air Power’, Foreign Affairs, (1994).

[5] Rod Alonso, ‘The Air War’ in Bruce W Watson, Bruce George MP, Peter Tsouras, and BL Cyr. Military Lessons of the Gulf War (London: Greenhill Books, 1991), p. 77.

[6] See P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, Like War – The Weaponization of Social Media (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2018).

[7] See Peter Wijninga and Richard Szafranski, ‘Beyond Utility Targeting: Toward Axiological Air Operations’, Aerospace Power Journal (Winter 2000).

#Podcast – Interview with Dr Tyler Morton

#Podcast – Interview with Dr Tyler Morton

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!

You can find a review of Tyler’s new book here.

811-jEbGabLDr Tyler Morton is currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He is an active duty US Air Force officer who holds a PhD in Military Strategy from the Air University. He is the author of From Kites to Cold War: The Evolution of Manned Airborne Reconnaissance (2019). He can be found on Twitter at @ty_morto.

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)

A Unified Framework for Air Power Studies

A Unified Framework for Air Power Studies

By Major Jaylan Haley

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.[1]

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.[2] 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.’[3] Other writers such as Mark Clodfelter provided more angles: breaking the concept of air power into direct and indirect applications.[4]  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).

A scene from William ‘Billy’ Mitchell’s court-martial in 1925. (Wikimedia)

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.’[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10] This idea created problems during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, where expectations outpaced the new reality of limited, non-nuclear warfare.[11]  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.[12] The team’s research and design techniques led to advances like the SR-71 Blackbird and the F-117 Nighthawk.[13] 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.[14] 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.

An SR-71 taxing on the ramp with engines powered up, c. 1995. (Source: Wikimedia)

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.[15] 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.[16] 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.[17] 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.[18]  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.[19] He used the timeframe 1880-1960 to discuss the shift between modern and contemporary history based primarily on economic and geopolitical factors.[20] 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.[21] 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.[22]  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.[23] 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.[24] 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.[25] 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.

US Air Force Lockheed F-80C Shooting Star fighter-bombers from the 8th Fighter-Bomber Squadron during the Korean War in 1950-51. The aircraft are equipped with ‘Misawa’ long-range tanks. (Wikimedia)

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.[26] 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.[27] 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.[28] 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.[29]


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)

[1] 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.

[2] ‘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.

[3] 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.

[4] Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), p. 213.

[5] United States Air Force, Core Doctrine, Volume 1 – Basic Doctrine (Maxwell AFB, LeMay Doctrine Center, 2015).

[6] 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.

[7] Douglas Waller, A Question of Loyalty (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004), pp. 21-2.

[8] Donald Mrozek, Air Power & the Ground War in Vietnam (Virginia, VA: Pergamon-Brassey’s International Defense Publishers, 1989), pp. 14-5.

[9] Conrad Crane, American Airpower Strategy in Korea: 1950-1953 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2000), pp. 16-22.

[10] Ibid, p. 23, 27.

[11] Ibid, pp. 175-9.

[12] Ben Rick and Leo Janos, Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed (Boston, MS: Little, Brown and Company, 1994), p. 7, 39.

[13] David Robarge, Archangel: CIA’s Supersonic A-12 Reconnaissance Aircraft (Washington, D.C., Center for the Study of Intelligence, 2012), p. 1.

[14] Reuben Brigety II, Ethics, Technology and the American Way of War (London: Routledge, 2007).

[15] Joseph Stanik, El Dorado Canyon: Reagan’s Undeclared War with Qaddafi (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2003), p. ix.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers (New York: The Free Press, 1986), p. xv, 233-4.

[18] Robert Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2014), pp. 128-9; Donald Rumsfeld, Known and Unknown: A Memoir (New York, Penguin Group, 2011), p. 648.

[19] Barraclough’s ideas about history are not universally accepted in the field of history.

[20] Geoffrey Barraclough, An Introduction to Contemporary History (Baltimore, Penguin Books, 1964), p. 11.

[21] Van Creveld, The Age of Airpower, p. 6.

[22] Stephen Poleski, The Balloonist: The Story of T.S.C. Lowe: Inventor, Scientist, Magician and Father of the U.S. Air Force, (Savannah, GA: Frederic Beil, 2007).

[23] Guido Douhet, Command of the Air (Pickle Partners Publishing, 2014), p. 21.

[24] Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas About Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), pp. 73-4, 79.

[25] Richard Overy, The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe, 1940-1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2013), 58.

[26] Crane, American Airpower Strategy in Korea, p. 184.

[27] Brian Laslie, The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training After Vietnam (Lexington, KY:, The University Press of Kentucky, 2015), p. 34.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., p. 131.

#BookReview – To Fly Among The Stars: The Hidden Story of the Fight for Women Astronauts

#BookReview – To Fly Among The Stars: The Hidden Story of the Fight for Women Astronauts

Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie

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)

#BookReview – From Kites to Cold War: The Evolution of Manned Airborne Reconnaissance

#BookReview – From Kites to Cold War: The Evolution of Manned Airborne Reconnaissance

Reviewed by Wing Commander Travis Hallen

Tyler Morton, From Kites to Cold War: The Evolution of Manned Airborne Reconnaissance. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2019. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. 328 pp.


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)

#BookReview – Harnessing the Airplane: American and British Cavalry Responses to a New Technology, 1903–1939

#BookReview – Harnessing the Airplane: American and British Cavalry Responses to a New Technology, 1903–1939

Reviewed by Dr Tyler Morton

Lori Henning, Harnessing the Airplane: American and British Cavalry Responses to a New Technology, 1903–1939. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019. Figures. Tables. Appendices. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. xi + 224pp.


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.

Dr Tyler Morton is currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He is an active duty US Air Force officer who holds a PhD in Military Strategy from the Air University. He is the author of From Kites to Cold War: The Evolution of Manned Airborne Reconnaissance (2019). He can be found on Twitter at @ty_morto.

Header Image: Dayton-Wright DH-4s of the US 12th Aero Squadron flying liaison with US Army cavalry on patrol on the United States/Mexico border, c. 1920. (Source: Wikimedia)

#Podcast – Interview with Dr Stephen Bourque

#Podcast – Interview with Dr Stephen Bourque

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.

Header Image: Interior of one of the E-boat pens at le Havre, showing the collapsed ferroconcrete roof, caused by 12,000-lb deep-penetration ‘Tallboy’ bombs dropped by No. 617 Squadron RAF in a daylight raid on 14 June 1944. (Source: © IWM (CL 1208))