From Balloons to Drones – An Update

From Balloons to Drones – An Update

Over six years ago, in June 2016, From Balloons to Drones was launched. From Balloons to Drones was established with the simple vision of providing an open access online scholarly platform for analysing and debating air power history, theory, and contemporary operations in their broadest sense, including space and cyber power. Since establishing From Balloons to Drones, we have published nearly 250 posts ranging from articles to book reviews. Overall, the site has received over 180,000 hits since 2016.

The past few years, however, have been challenging for all, personally and professionally. From our perspective, this has led us to publish material irregularly. However, all of that is about to change. With a renewed sense of purpose, From Balloons to Drones hopes to continue to deliver well-researched and rigorous articles, book reviews and other material, including our popular podcast series of interviews with leading air power specialists. One of our most popular features is our ever-expanding ‘Air Power Reading List.’ We continue to add volumes to this curated reading list as we review new books on air power and historic titles.

We still hold true to our original vision of providing an avenue for debate and discussion about air power. However, we are always on the lookout for new contributions from established researchers or new and emerging scholars within the air power studies community. If you are interested in contributing, visit our submissions page to learn how to contribute. All our articles are peer-reviewed by our team of highly qualified and experienced editors, and we will work with you to deliver your articles to a broad audience via our social media channels.

We hope you enjoy what we publish; however, we are always keen to hear your views on what we publish. If there is an area of research that needs to be given more coverage, please let us know either in the comments or on social media.

Thank you for taking the time to read this update, and we look forward to hearing from you in the future.

Header image: A Dassault Etendard IVP of the French Navy. (Source: Wikimedia)

#ResearchResources – Recent Articles and Books

#ResearchResources – Recent Articles and Books

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

Articles

Kristen Alexander and Kate Ariotti, ‘Mourning the Dead of the Great Escape: POWs, Grief, and the Memorial Vault of Stalag Luft III,’ Journal of War & Culture Studies (2022), DOI: 10.1080/17526272.2022.2097774.

In March 1944 seventy-six Allied prisoners of war escaped from Stalag Luft III. Nearly all were recaptured; fifty were later shot. This article examines what happened in the period between recapture and the interment of the dead prisoners’ cremated remains at Stalag Luft III. It positions what came to be known as ‘the Great Escape’ as an event of deep emotional resonance for those who grieved and reveals the dual narrative they constructed to make sense of their comrades’ deaths. In discussing the iconography of the vault constructed by the camp community to house the dead POWs’ ashes, this article also suggests a dissonance in meaning between that arising from personal, familial grief and the Imperial War Graves Commission’s standardised memorial practice. Focusing on the Great Escape’s immediate aftermath from the perspective of the POWs themselves provides a more nuanced understanding of the emotional impact of this infamous event.

Susan Allen, Sam Bell and Carla Machain, ‘Air Power, International Organizations, and Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan,’ Armed Forces & Society (2022), doi:10.1177/0095327X221100780.

Can the presence of international organizations reduce civilian deaths caused by aerial bombing? This commentary examines this question in the specific context of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. We evaluate this based on interviews conducted with members of international organizations that were present in Afghanistan during the conflict, existing intergovernmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and government reports, and with quantitative data on civilian casualties between 2008 and 2013. We conclude that there is tentative evidence from Afghanistan that international organizations can in fact reduce the severity of civilian killings that result from the use of air power. However, there is much need for greater data sharing to more fully answer this important question.

Derek Lutterbeck, ‘Airpower and Migration Control,’ Geopolitics (2022), DOI: 10.1080/14650045.2022.2094776.

Migration scholarship has thus far largely neglected the role of aircraft in both (irregular) migration and state policies aimed at controlling migration. Drawing inspiration from the field of strategic studies, where ‘airpower’ has been a key theoretical concept, this article explores the role of aerial assets in states’ migration control efforts. The article discusses three main dimensions of the use of airpower in controlling migration: the increasing resort to aircraft for border enforcement purposes – or what can be referred to as ‘vertical border policing’ –, states’ tight monitoring of the aerial migration infrastructure, and the use of aircraft in migrant return operations. As a core element of state power, it is airpower’s key features of reach, speed and height which have made it a particularly useful migration control instrument.

Priya Mirza “Sovereignty of the air’: The Indian princely states, the British Empire and carving out of air-space (1911–1933),’ History and Technology (2022), DOI: 10.1080/07341512.2022.2079370.

Who owns the skies? Under British colonialism, the ownership of the skies of India was a contested matter. The onset of aviation presented a challenge to the territorial understanding between the British and semi-sovereign Indian princes, Paramountcy (1858–1947). Technology itself was a tricky area: roadways, railways, telegraphs, and the wireless were nibbling away at the sovereign spheres which Paramountcy had put in place. This paper looks at the history of aviation in princely India, from aviation enthusiasts such as the rulers of Kapurthala, Jodhpur and Bikaner to subversive princes like the Maharaja of Patiala who worked towards a military air force. The paper tracks the three stages of the journey of aviation in princely India, from individual consumption, to the historical context of World War One which aided its access and usage, and finally, the collective princely legal assertion over the vertical air above them in the position, ‘sovereignty of air’. The government’s civil aviation policy in India remained ambiguous about the princes’ rights over the air till 1931 when their sovereignty of the sky was finally recognised. The paper focuses on the Indian princes varied engagement with aviation, modernity and their space in the world.

Ayodeji Olukoju ‘Creating ‘an air sense:’ Governor Hugh Clifford and the beginnings of civil aviation in Nigeria, 1919-1920,’ African Identities (2022), DOI: 10.1080/14725843.2022.2096566.

This paper focuses on the neglected subject of the beginnings of civil aviation in Nigeria in the aftermath of World War I. Until now, the literature on civil aviation in British colonial Africa had focused largely on Kenya, Central and South Africa and on post-World War II West Africa. This paper, relying on previously unexploited archival material, examines policy debates and options considered by the Colonial Office, the Air Ministry and the Nigerian colonial government. The unique, pioneering aviation drive of Nigeria’s Governor Hugh Clifford took place in the context of immediate post-World War I dynamics: economic vicissitudes, Anglo-French rivalry in West Africa and the policy interface between London and the colonies. This paper demonstrates that aviation development in Nigeria had roots in the early 1920s, and that the initiative was not a metropolitan monopoly, thereby illustrating the extent of colonial gubernatorial autonomy vis-à-vis London.

S. Seyer, ‘An Industry Worth Protecting? The Manufacturers Aircraft Association’s Struggle against the British Surplus, 1919–1922,’ Journal of Policy History 34, no. 3 (2022), pp. 403-39.

The American aircraft industry’s important role in the economic, military, and cultural expansion of the United States over the past one hundred years has been well documented by historians. But America’s twentieth century aerial dominance was not preordained. After World War I, the nascent American aircraft industry faced a concerted British effort to dump thousands of war surplus machines on the U.S. market. With aircraft outside of the nation’s tariff regime, members of the Manufacturers Aircraft Association turned to Congress for emergency protections in the face of what they considered an existential threat. Despite efforts to equate a strong industrial base for aviation with the national defense, aircraft antidumping legislation became mired in partisan debates over tariff policy and accusations of wartime corruption. In the absence of relief from Congress, the Wright patent served as a barrier against the importation of foreign surplus machines.

Ameya Tripathi, ‘Bombing Cultural Heritage: Nancy Cunard, Art Humanitarianism, and Primitivist Wars in Morocco, Ethiopia, and Spain,’ Modernist Cultures 17, no. 2 (2022), pp. 191-220.

This article examines Nancy Cunard’s later writing on Spain as a direct legacy of her previous projects as a modernist poet, publisher and black rights activist. Cunard was a rare analyst of the links between total war, colonial counter-insurgency, and cultural destruction. Noting the desire of both the air power theorist and art collector to stereotype peoples, from Morocco to Ethiopia to Spain, as ‘primitive’, the article brings original archival materials from Cunard’s notes into dialogue with her journalism, and published and unpublished poetry, to examine how she reclaimed and repurposed primitivism. Her poems devise a metonymic and palimpsestic literary geopolitics, juxtaposing fragments from ancient cultures atop one another to argue, simultaneously, for Spain’s essential dignity as both a primitive and a civilised nation. Cunard reconciles Spain’s liminal status, between Africa and Europe, to argue for Spain’s art, and people, as part of a syncretic, universal human cultural heritage, anticipating the art humanitarianism of organisations such as UNESCO.

Books

Stephen Bourque, D-Day 1944: The Deadly Failure of Allied Heavy Bombing on June 6 (Osprey: Osprey Publishing, 2022).

D-Day is one of the most written-about events in military history. One aspect of the invasion, however, continues to be ignored: the massive pre-assault bombardment by the Allied Expeditionary Air Force (AEAF), reinforced by RAF Bomber Command and the US Eighth Air Force on June 6 which sought to neutralize the German defenses along the Atlantic Wall. Unfortunately, this failed series of attacks resulted in death or injury to hundreds of soldiers, and killed many French civilians.

Despite an initial successful attack performed by the Allied forces, the most crucial phase of the operation, which was the assault from the Eighth Air Force against the defenses along the Calvados coast, was disastrous. The bombers missed almost all of their targets, inflicting little damage to the German defenses, which resulted in a high number of casualties among the Allied infantry. The primary cause of this failure was that planners at Eighth Air Force Headquarters had changed aircraft drop times at the last moment, to prevent casualties amongst the landing forces, without notifying either Eisenhower or Doolittle.

This book examines this generally overlooked event in detail, answering several fundamental questions: What was the AEAF supposed to accomplish along the Atlantic Wall on D-Day and why did it not achieve its bombardment objectives? Offering a new perspective on a little-known air campaign, it is packed with illustrations, maps and diagrams exploring in detail the features and ramifications of this mission.

Laurence Burke II, At the Dawn of Airpower: The U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps’ Approach to the Airplane 1907–1917 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2022).

At the Dawn of Airpower: The U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps’ Approach to the Airplane, 1907-1917 examines the development of aviation in the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps from their first official steps into aviation up to the United States’ declaration of war against Germany in April, 1917. Burke explains why each of the services wanted airplanes and show how they developed their respective air arms and the doctrine that guided them.   His narrative follows aviation developments closely, delving deep into the official and personal papers of those involved and teasing out the ideas and intents of the early pioneers who drove military aviation   Burke also closely examines the consequences of both accidental and conscious decisions on the development of the nascent aviation arms.  

Certainly, the slow advancement of the technology of the airplane itself in the United States (compared to Europe) in this period affected the creation of doctrine in this period.  Likewise, notions that the war that broke out in 1914 was strictly a European concern, reinforced by President Woodrow Wilson’s intentions to keep the United States out of that war, meant that the U.S. military had no incentive to “keep up” with European military aviation.  Ultimately, however, he concludes that it was the respective services’ inability to create a strong, durable network connecting those flying the airplanes regularly (technology advocates) with the senior officers exercising control over their budget and organization (technology patrons) that hindered military aviation during this period.

Jim Leeke, Turtle and the Dreamboat: The Cold War Flights That Forever Changed the Course of Global Aviation (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2022).

The Turtle and the Dreamboat is the first detailed account of the race for long-distance flight records between the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy less than fourteen months after World War II. The flights were risky and unprecedented. Each service intended to demonstrate its offensive capabilities during the new nuclear age, a time when America was realigning its military structure and preparing to create a new armed service – the United States Air Force.

The first week of October 1946 saw the conclusion of both record-breaking, nonstop flights by the military fliers. The first aircraft, a two-engine U.S. Navy P2V Neptune patrol plane nicknamed the Truculent Turtle, flew more than eleven thousand miles from Perth, Western Australia, to Columbus, Ohio. The Turtle carried four war-honed pilots and a young kangaroo as a passenger. The second plane, a four-engine U.S. Army B-29 Superfortress bomber dubbed the Pacusan Dreamboat, flew nearly ten thousand miles from Honolulu to Cairo via the Arctic. Although presented as a friendly rivalry, the two flights were anything but collegial. These military missions were meant to capture public opinion and establish aviation leadership within the coming Department of Defense.

Both audacious flights above oceans, deserts, mountains, and icecaps helped to shape the future of worldwide commercial aviation, greatly reducing the length and costs of international routes. Jim Leeke provides an account of the remarkable and record-breaking flights that forever changed aviation.

Micheal Napier, Flashpoints: Air Warfare in the Cold War (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2022).

The Cold War years were a period of unprecedented peace in Europe, yet they also saw a number of localised but nonetheless very intense wars throughout the wider world in which air power played a vital role. Flashpoints describes eight of these Cold War conflicts: the Suez Crisis of 1956, the Congo Crisis of 1960-65, the Indo-Pakistan Wars of 1965 and 1971, the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1967 and 1973, the Falklands War of 1982 and the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88. In all of them both sides had a credible air force equipped with modern types, and air power shaped the final outcome.

Acclaimed aviation historian Michael Napier details the wide range of aircraft types used and the development of tactics over the period. The postwar years saw a revolution in aviation technology and design, particularly in the fields of missile development and electronic warfare, and these conflicts saw some of the most modern technology that the NATO and Warsaw Pact forces deployed, alongside some relatively obscure aircraft types such as the Westland Wyvern and the Folland Gnat.

Highly illustrated, with over 240 images and maps, Flashpoints is an authoritative account of the most important air wars of the Cold War.

David Nicolle and Gabr Ali Gabr, Air Power and the Arab World – Volume 6: World in Crisis, 1936-March 1941 (Warwick: Helion and Company, 2022).

Volume 6 of the Air Power and the Arab World mini-series continues the story of the men and machines of the first half century of military aviation in the Arab world. These years saw the Arab countries and their military forces caught up in the events of the Second World War.

For those Arab nations which had some degree of independence, the resulting political, cultural and economic strains had a profound impact upon their military forces. In Egypt the Army generally remained quiet, continuing with its often unglamorous and little appreciated duties. Within the Royal Egyptian Air Force (REAF), however, there were a significant number of men who wanted to take action in expectation of what they, and many around the world, expected to be the defeat of the British Empire.

The result was division, widespread mistrust, humiliation, and for a while the grounding of the entire REAF. In Iraq the strains of the early war years sowed the seeds of a yet to come direct armed confrontation with the British.

Volume 6 of Air Power and the Arab World then looks at the first efforts to revive both the REAF and the Royal Iraqi Air Force (RIrAF), along with events in the air and on the ground elsewhere in the Arab world from 1939 until March 1941.

This volume is illustrated throughout with photographs of the REAF, RIrAF and RAF and a selection of specially commissioned colour artworks.

Adrian Phillips, Rearming the RAF for the Second World War: Poor Strategy and Miscalculation (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2022).

When the RAF rearmed to meet the growing threat from Nazi Germany’s remorseless expansion in the late 1930s, it faced immense challenges. It had to manage a huge increase in size as well as mastering rapid advances in aviation technology. To protect Britain from attack, the RAF’s commanders had to choose the right strategy and the right balance in its forces. The choices had to be made in peacetime with no guidance from combat experience. These visions then had to be translated into practical reality. A shifting cast of government ministers, civil servants and industrialists with their own financial, political and military agendas brought further dynamics into play. The RAF’s readiness for war was crucial to Britain’s ability to respond to Nazi aggression before war broke out and when it did, the RAF’s rearmament was put to the acid test of battle. Adrian Phillips uses the penetrating grasp of how top level decisions are made that he honed in his inside accounts of the abdication crisis and appeasement, to dissect the process which shaped the RAF of 1940. He looks beyond the familiar legends of the Battle of Britain and explores in depth the successes and failures of a vital element in British preparations for war.

John Quaife, Battle of the Atlantic: Royal Australian Air Force in Coastal Command 1939-1945 (Newport, NSW: Big Sky Publishing, 2022).

At the outbreak of World War II, somewhat by accident — and just as the first shots of the war were fired — young Australian airmen from the Royal Australian Air Force were engaged in operations that would become known collectively as the Battle of the Atlantic. Arguably lesser-known than air campaigns in other theatres, large numbers of Australians who volunteered for service with Royal Australian Air Force, found themselves fighting in this battle. Australians were there at the outbreak and many would go on to fly some of the final missions of the war in Europe.

This book captures some of the experiences of the Royal Australian Air Force members who served with Coastal Command and, through the weight of numbers alone, stories of the Sunderland squadrons and the Battle of the Atlantic dominate the narrative. Being critical to Britain’s survival, the battle also dominated Coastal Command throughout the war but Australians served in a surprising variety of other roles. The nature of many of those tasks demanded persistence that could only be achieved by large numbers of young men and women being prepared to ‘do what it took’ to get a tedious and unrewarding job done. Over 400 did not come home.

Steven Zaloga, The Oil Campaign 1944–45: Draining the Wehrmacht’s Lifeblood (Oxford: OIsprey Publishing, 2022).

With retreating German forces losing their oilfields on the Eastern Front, Germany was reliant on its own facilities, particularly for producing synthetic oil from coal. However, these were within range of the increasingly mighty Allied air forces. In 1944 the head of the US Strategic Air Forces, General Carl Spaatz was intent on a new campaign that aimed to cripple the German war machine by depriving it of fuel.

The USAAF’s Oil Campaign built up momentum during the summer of 1944 and targeted these refineries and plants with its daylight heavy bombers. Decrypted German communications made it clear that the Oil Campaign was having an effect against the Wehrmacht. Fuel shortages in the autumn of 1944 forced the Luftwaffe to ground most of its combat units except for fighters involved in the defense of the Reich. Fuel shortages also forced the Kriegsmarine to place most of its warships in harbor except for the U-boats and greatly hampered German army campaigns such as the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944-45.

This fascinating book packed with key photos and illustrations examines the controversies and debates over the focus of the US bombing campaign in the final year of the war, and the impact it had on the war effort overall.

#Commentary – Air Superiority as a Political Activity

#Commentary – Air Superiority as a Political Activity

By Dr Michael E. Weaver

Air superiority needs to be conceived as a political condition that begins in peacetime, not merely a wartime operational pursuit. Perceiving air superiority in this way will make connections to the ordinary peacetime conditions political actors like the United States seek, resulting in military strategy, targeting, and weapons acquisition more in tune with national policy. This commentary piece is an essay based on a comprehensive study on the relationship between military means and political ends. Typically, examinations of air superiority start with discussing airframes, basing, technology, and tactics. This proposal, however, begins with the issues of legitimacy and norms and suggests ways of achieving air superiority rooted in peacetime operations. It concludes that a mix of manned and unmanned fighter aircraft is the best means of achieving this national policy.

An Essential Condition
Airliners require airspace free of the threat of missiles, drones, and gunfire before they even consider flight. Conversely, military pilots prefer unimpeded airspace in which whatever fire an enemy can send their way is insufficient to cause more than an occasional loss through which they can fly their missions without substantial interference and complete their missions. If the stakes are high enough, aircrews will press forward despite losses to hostile fire. Those can increase to the point that only the most necessary missions will justify prohibitive losses.

Air superiority is the general term used to describe these varying grades of airspace control. The condition is normally conceived in operational and physical terms: is a sector of airspace permissive enough for operations to be completed without too many losses? How many aircraft can one lose before it becomes too difficult to dominate a sector of airspace? Can a military actor achieve air superiority by shooting down a number or a percentage of aircraft?

More abstractly, one can relate air superiority to achieving a military strategy. For instance, Great Britain did not achieve air superiority over south-eastern England in September 1940 when its shoot-downs of Luftwaffe aircraft reached an arbitrary threshold. Instead, Britain gained air superiority when Germany could no longer proceed with its agenda of invading the United Kingdom; inflicting losses was just an intermediate step for the Royal Air Force. As a result, the British achieved a favourable outcome even though losses to enemy aircraft continued.

A Function of Governance
One can best perceive of air superiority as a political act and consequence. Since the ultimate goal of politics is to decide who governs where, how, and under what terms, the most helpful way to conceive of air superiority is as a political act. A state should ask whether its norms, rules, power, and assumptions govern what happens in the air when determining the safety within the airspace in which its national interests lay. These concepts take us into the realm of sovereignty: who or what has ultimate authority. For example, the Soviet Union was not completely sovereign over its airspace in 1983 when it shot down the Korean airliner flight 007 because of standards of international behaviour. It had the capacity to shoot down intruding airliners, and it could have continued to shoot down airliners for some time without much exertion. Instead, Moscow found itself condemned for shooting down an aircraft that should not have been where it was in the first place because international norms had already labelled what the Soviets did as illegitimate. The Soviets had violated a norm that really did not need to be codified: you just do not shoot down civilian airliners full of people. Because international discourse had long since settled that issue, the Soviet Union was condemned for its action. Arguments such as, ‘It’s over our territory,’ or, ‘warnings are all over air navigational charts; they simply should not have been flying there,’ carried insufficient weight. Furthermore, the issue had already been decided years before the incident through international law and had nothing to do with aircraft capabilities or weapons loads. The Soviets did not recognise that air superiority was ultimately a political issue, not an issue of military power, and they did not have ultimate authority over the concept.

Bird of a feather ...
An F-15 Eagle banks left while an F/A-22 Raptor flies in formation en route to a training area off the coastline of Virginia, 5 April 2005. (Source: Wikimedia)

Formulation
Norms, discourse, legitimacy, and governance, should be the starting points for understanding air superiority; machines such as aircraft, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), drones, or satellites are tools that may or may not ultimately determine the legitimacy or reality of airspace control. Furthermore, since military force is a subset of information warfare, political actors can largely determine the legitimacy of airspace control before a shooting war is even contemplated, thus predetermining a significant portion of the consequences of hostile actions before they are initiated. States already pursue these conditions by flying between China and Taiwan or over the Sea of Okhotsk. Because airforces – and more ideally, civilian airliners – normalise these flights by making them regularly, they have become legitimate. Because international rules are related to air superiority, both should be considered cohabitants on the same continuum, like radio waves and light waves on the electromagnetic spectrum.

The achievement of air superiority thus begins in peacetime with the establishment of what is legitimate behaviour. Therefore, China understands this and is trying to construct airspace sovereignty over the western Pacific Ocean with manufactured islands, agitation over centuries-old, discredited maps, and military power: air sovereignty constructivism, if you will. Of course, nearby actors such as Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines, cannot give in lest they normalise China’s aggression, but they do not have sufficient power to resist militarily.

Although it forms a critical component of the response, resisting China’s aggression and preserving airspace freedom does not begin with building powerful air forces. Regional powers must perpetuate an ongoing narrative about what is legitimate in the airspace off the coasts of Asia. When they make violations of their airspace by Chinese military aircraft actions that are automatically condemned; for example, they will have contributed to a powerful foundation for air superiority. Grassroots rhetoric condemning Chinese production of runway cratering missiles, not to mention artificial islands, would further contribute to the discourse of air superiority. So, the first component of air superiority operations would be to create a norm of, ‘this is simply the way things are; this is what is appropriate.’ For instance, international airspace is accepted, and air defence identification zones extend only as far as radar coverage from one’s mainland (generally around 200 miles). When no one, or at most, only China, questions that assertion, those states will have added to the legitimacy of their own defensive military aggression if it is ever necessary. Nurturing this narrative does not carry prohibitive costs, but it requires constant attention and never ends.

This endeavour’s more deliberate components include international agreements, international organisations, multinational military exercises, and air sovereignty flights. Conducted as a diplomatic-information campaign, these activities can predetermine who will be the victim and who will be the aggressor if armed conflict erupts. Indeed, ensuring that one’s state achieves victim status and is not labelled the aggressor is the most critical goal in the discourse of air superiority. Victims have very liberal rights to self-defence during war, while aggressors may not have any rights. Therefore, possessing the legitimate right of self-defence when protecting airspace is critical and begins in peacetime. States should make maintaining that status an ongoing component of their grand strategy and ensure that illegitimate power is the only means available to actors like China and Russia.

Ultimately a determined aggressor will not care. International opprobrium, condemnation, and even new enemies who wage war against the aggressor state may not be enough to dissuade a political actor from taking what he wants by force. However, if the revisionist power wins that battle over airspace, it will find itself in a weakened condition for resisting the international opprobrium that would follow. Ideally, regional actors will possess enough military power to persuade an aggressor to not go to war in the first place or fight him to a standstill if war comes. The question of what the best hardware is for accomplishing that goal is one that states must answer the first time correctly.

Prior to Weapons Acquisition
The most important question surrounding the hardware of air superiority is not which machine will shoot down the most enemy aeroplanes or missiles. Instead, one should ask political questions addressing legitimacy, deterrence, which governs where and how, and gaining victim status. Covering those bases will function as force multipliers to the combat capabilities of one’s air and space forces. States should opt for a mix of capabilities—not for operational reasons or the ability to achieve high kill rates of invading aircraft and missiles, although necessary. Instead, the capabilities must further political goals. Air capabilities need to be able to deter, reaffirm legitimacy, confer aggressor status on the state that is attacking, and wreck the aggressor’s strategy. From there, one should construct a system of sufficient lethality to preserve or regain air superiority. Furthermore, an air force should pursue air superiority as a component of governance, not merely as a military operation.

Surface-to-air missiles may be the best starting point because they are inherently defensive. A PAC-III missile cannot attack China from South Korea or anywhere else, for that matter. SAMs are legitimate because they operate from within a country or one of its warships. They are not aggressive since they are defensive weapons. An enemy must attack them, often as the first step in an airstrike; thus, SAMs force the enemy into labelling himself the aggressor and your state the victim, giving the attacked country the power that comes to a victim in today’s discourse. But an air force can use up its SAMs quickly. Suppose the enemy still has offensive power after the defender fires off its last missiles. In that case, the defender will be in a precarious state, and victim status and the legitimacy of his cause may be so much rhetoric.

The SAM’s stablemate, antiaircraft artillery, can cause great destruction to an attacker. As inherently defensive weapons, they are legitimate and not a weapon of aggression. They need to be able to detect and hit enemy missiles and aircraft; however. Otherwise, their use conveys the image of mindless firing and panic. Since the geographic coverage of each piece is quite small, they are tertiary weapons.

Cyber weapons should be a component of air superiority hardware. Few things could be better than somehow switching off or wrecking enemy hardware from within, for instance, but to my knowledge, computer viruses do not yet cause circuit boards to melt themselves. A force struck down with computer viruses can clean out the malicious software, and even examine and exploit it for a counterattack. For that reason, cyber weapons are one-shot pieces of software. They can help defeat an enemy onslaught, but they can also help an enemy strengthen his network defence because the attack exposes a weakness.

Space-based weapons have the potential to dominate the airspace below, but they have problems when it comes to legitimacy, deterrence, and labelling. If a country flies a space laser over its enemy to protect international airspace, it does so intrusively, confusing the world audience as to who the aggressor is. Placing a satellite armed with defensive weapons could give the appearance of a constant offensive threat overhead. Damocles would not be a politically helpful label for an armed satellite.

An F-35C Lightning II assigned to the VFA-101 launched off the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) flight deck on 4 September 2017.

Weapons Have Differing Meanings
There is currently a rush to build unmanned aircraft that either function as remotely piloted vehicles or as autonomous aircraft flown by artificial intelligence. They are less expensive, there is no pilot to be killed or captured, and their swarms can overwhelm defences or attacking strike packages. Drones, however, can only extend firepower, not legitimacy. Squadrons of drones either convey the seriousness of large groups of appliances or the sinister capability of robots; fiction writing has already determined many of the meanings we attach to drones. It will be challenging for drones to be perceived solely as defensive and fully legitimate, and their deterrent effect may be less. One of the components of deterrence is forcing the enemy to attack and kill your people and your territory if they wish to attack. Thus, an enemy is less likely to attack an ICBM in a silo, for example, than a ballistic missile submarine; land-based ICBMs enhance deterrence. Furthermore, people, not machines, need to govern airspace. People are more legitimate than machines, and people, not machines, can be victimised. Drones can threaten, but unlike manned aircraft, they cannot coerce in a way that is seen as legitimate. Drones will be most effective in furthering a political narrative when retained as adjuncts – extra shooters – to manned aircraft.

Because of the politics of air superiority, its optics, the issue of legitimacy, the need to convey political will and commitment, and the different meanings attached to manned aircraft and autonomous aircraft, a great need remains for men and women to fly the aircraft and man the SAM sites that achieve air superiority. Skin in the game is necessary because an aggressor will be less inclined to shoot down a manned aircraft than a drone. The people of a country will be up in arms if one of their piloted aircraft is shot down during a crisis, but if one of their drones is shot down, how should they react when an armed appliance has been destroyed? Drones will provoke, but fighters with a human at the controls can deter, signal, provoke, defend, escort, and assert international norms. While drones can provide more tactical firepower, only manned fighters can function as political weapons. Indeed, fighter aircraft that cannot be used against surface targets unless they spend six months in a depot undergoing conversions may be in the national interest to a far greater degree than a multi-role aircraft. It may even be in the national interest to produce a follow-on to the F-22 that can only be used as an air-to-air weapon.

Air Superiority without Bombing China
A capability to achieve air superiority over eastern Europe or the western Pacific without needing to carry out bombardment missions against Chinese or Russian SAM sites or airbases is most attractive politically as well as militarily; an ability to dominate airspace with a mix of manned and unmanned fighter aircraft without the assistance of aircraft attacking targets on enemy territory gives several advantages to political leaders. First, such a capability remains a defensive, legitimate political act of governing airspace and defending airspace. Such aircraft cannot attack their adversaries and thus are less escalatory. They can complete the mission of air sovereignty over their own territory or within international airspace. Proposals of bombing Chinese or Russian airbases in defence of Taiwan or the Baltic states are asinine. When one is bombing Russian airbases, one is attacking Russia, a Russia with a nuclear arsenal. Airfield and SAM site attack strategies, operations, and capabilities were essential when deterring the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War. They may be a requirement against peer states when a geopolitical relationship is going down the tubes, but bombing Chinese or Russian airfields constitutes poor politics for the United States and its allies except in the most extreme circumstances. An offensive capability and strategy in defending friends along the Asian periphery will lead to a war that worsens conditions, rather than a settlement in which those areas are governed in ways that respect the sovereignty of smaller states and international law. An offensive-defensive strategy will erode the victim status regional actors can easily retain if they emphasise an airspace politics of live and let live.

Developing the best new aircraft, SAMS, and directed energy weapons for shooting down enemy aircraft and missiles must not be procurement’s starting point for maintaining air superiority over the western Pacific. Again, air superiority is a political act, a contest of who governs the western Pacific in this instance, and how. What characteristics will the machines employed to carry out that task needs with that goal in mind? Because of the lethality of SAMs, air-to-air missiles, cyber weapons, and guided ballistic missiles, aircraft must be excellent technologically, but not for the sake of fielding the most advanced technology. Because of the political goals of the United States and its allies, the weapons should be defensive. An F-22, for example, is ideal for this mission because it does not possess much of an air-to-ground bombardment capability. That trait is a political advantage because the capability, intentions, and rhetoric are all congruent with a policy goal of governance and air defence. Since F-22-type aircraft do not support a ground attack strategy well, they are politically ideal for preserving air superiority. Several wings of American and allied F-22s and Next Generation Air Dominance Fighters (NGADs) would have the ability to defeat Chinese assets. Since they do not have the range to penetrate deep into Chinese territory, they threaten China less and match the political rhetoric of the United States and its friends more. Most importantly, highly-capable fighter aircraft can achieve air superiority solely in international airspace – the ideal location for exerting air sovereignty.

Because of the political goals behind its existence, the NGAD should be designed as a single-purpose, air-to-air combat-only fighter with a person in the cockpit. It does not need the capability to penetrate deep into Chinese or Russian airspace to destroy surface targets because that capability will not match up with any of the United States’ political goals. Why should the United States and her friends must have the capability to destroy SAM sites and airfields on Russian or Chinese territory? For that reason, the NGADs should be forward deployed, not F-35s. Keep the offensive capabilities of F-35s away from our adversaries. That will support American rhetoric and strategy, and their transfer forward in a crisis will help diplomatic efforts if it ever comes to that.

Air defence NGADs should be the forward-deployed aircraft because they can survive airspace infested with long-range Chinese SAMs fired from warships and long-range fighter aircraft far better than variants of the F-15 or F/A-18. The most advanced legacy airframes – including those not yet manufactured like the F-15EX – would only function as SAM sponges in the western Pacific and have no business flying in this theatre unless Chinese air capabilities have significantly been diminished. Even though it is more survivable against SAMs than legacy aircraft, the F-35 is not ideal for this mission because its offensive capabilities run counter to the policy and narrative desirable for governing the airspace over the western Pacific. Furthermore, it is too slow to run down and destroy the fastest Chinese fighters; it cannot engage and disengage at will like an air superiority fighter needs to do. However, given the low numbers of extant F-22s, F-35s must participate in the air-to-air battle in this scenario for the next several years. Finally, the NGAD should be designed as an aircraft carrier-launched aircraft and then equip both the US Navy and the US Air Force. Aircraft designed for carrier operations can be flown from land bases, but aircraft designed for runway operations cannot stand the stresses of carrier catapult launches and arrested landings. The NGAD should not be multi-role, but it will be multi-service. Furthermore, if it does its job well, it will not need to carry bombs because peer adversaries will not continue offensive warfare if they have lost command of the air.

Policy Goals, Grand Strategy, Narratives, Military Strategy, then Weapons Acquisition
The way to determine what kind of new technology to acquire for deterrence and war is not to first pursue the most advanced technology conceivable. However, the military strategy that results from a defence review may require just that. States need first to decide what they want. What political world do they want to live in? How can they use force, diplomacy, acquisitions, deterrence, legitimacy, and narratives to reach that world without stumbling into a major war – or winning if war breaks out? Air superiority starts with political goals, not technology, doctrine, or operations. Such an approach will significantly improve the United States’ opportunities for maintaining an international order conducive to the ideals and interests of itself and its friends. The capabilities of its military hardware will then be congruent with its peaceful rhetoric.

Dr Michael E. Weaver is an Associate Professor of History at the USAF Air Command and Staff College. He has authored five air power articles and a book on the 28th Infantry Division. His second book, The Air War in Vietnam, is due out in the fall of 2022. Weaver received his doctorate from Temple University in 2002, where he studied under Russell Weigley.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed herein are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense, the U. Air Force, or Air University. 

Header image: An F-15EX Eagle II from the 40th Flight Test Squadron, 96th Test Wing out of Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, flies in formation during an aerial refuelling operation above the skies of Northern California, 14 May 2021. The Eagle II participated in the Northern Edge 21 exercise in Alaska earlier in May. (Source: Wikimedia)

#ResearchResources – Recent Articles and Books (March 2022)

#ResearchResources – Recent Articles and Books (March 2022)

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

Articles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#Commentary – Transferring Polish MiG-29s to Ukraine: why is it easier said than done?

#Commentary – Transferring Polish MiG-29s to Ukraine: why is it easier said than done?

By Dr Maria E. Burczynska 

In the light of the ongoing war in Ukraine and the support provided by other states, it seems like, for the past month, discussions (at least those air power-related) revolved around two topics: no-fly zones and the potential transfer of Polish MiG-29 fighter jets to the Ukrainian Air Force. While the potential consequences of the former have been analysed and commented on by several professionals, security analysts and researchers, the reasoning behind the decisions regarding Polish MiG-29s are less discussed. The coverage has been mainly limited to reporting the progress of the potential deal (or, more recently, calling it off) between Poland, the US and Ukraine. What would it mean then for Poland (and NATO) if those fighter jets were transferred to Ukraine, and why such a move is more complicated than it seems?

The MiG-29 saga can be traced back to EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell announcing on 27 February a €450m scheme to fund weapons for Ukraine, which would include providing fighter jets. These were supposed to be post-Soviet aircraft with which Ukrainian pilots are familiar. The following day Ukrainian authorities announced in a Tweet that the Ukrainian Air Force was to receive a total of 70 fighter planes from Poland (28 MiG-29), Slovakia (12 MiG-29) and Bulgaria (16 MiG-29 and 14 Su-25). At the same time, Borrell backtracked on his announcement and acknowledged that the potential transfer of those aircraft would have to be agreed upon bilaterally by individual states rather than sponsored by the EU. On Tuesday, these news reports were quickly denied by Slovakia and Bulgaria. Also, Polish President, Andrzej Duda, speaking alongside NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the Łask Air Base in Poland, clearly stated that Poland would not send their jets to Ukraine as that would suggest a military interference and NATO is not part of that conflict. Following a plea by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to supply his country with more firepower, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced on Sunday, 6 March, that Poland has been given ‘the green light’ to provide the Ukrainian Air Force with MiG-29s and indicated the possibility that in turn the Polish Air Force could be supplied with new F-16s. On Tuesday, 8 March, the following statement was made by the Polish Minister of foreign affairs, Zbigniew Rau:

The authorities of the Republic of Poland, after consultations between the President and the Government, are ready to deploy – immediately and free of charge – all their MIG-29 jets to the Ramstein Air Base and place them at the disposal of the Government of the United States of America.

At the same time, Poland requests the United States to provide us with used aircraft with corresponding operational capabilities. Poland is ready to immediately establish the conditions of purchase of the planes.

The Polish Government also requests other NATO Allies – owners of MIG-29 jets – to act in the same vein.

The US rejected the proposal as ‘not tenable’ because it presents serious logistical challenges and ‘raises serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance.’ General Tod D. Wolters, Commander for the US European Command, later repeated that stance and added that such a move, while not increasing the effectiveness of the Ukrainian Air Force, could be seen as escalatory in the conflict with Russia. Also, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz opposed the proposal of transferring Polish MiGs via Ramstein, saying ‘we want to de-escalate the conflict, we want to see an end to this conflict.’ The argument of possible escalation the transfer could bring is dominant in the discussions around the topic. It also explains Poland’s motivation not to take the final decision unilaterally. As explained by President Duda in a joint press conference with the US Vice President Kamala Harris, as a NATO member, Poland cannot decide on an issue that could impact the security of the whole Alliance. Therefore they ‘wanted NATO as a whole to make a common decision so that Poland remains a credible member of NATO.’ A potential escalation of the conflict quite rightly dominates the discussion on the MiGs transfer, but what are the other ‘logistical challenges’ as mentioned by the US authorities that such a move would entail?

The MiG-29s currently possessed by the Polish Air Force is a remnant of its past. As a former Soviet bloc country, Poland had in its inventory mostly aircraft built either in the Soviet Union or under their licence, so, for example, the fighter fleet consisted of MiG-21, MiG-23, MiG-29, and Su-22, where only the latter two types had any modern combat capability. As a result of post-1990 modernisation conducted in the Polish Armed Forces, the former two types (MiG-21 and MiG-23) were withdrawn from service by 2004. As per MiG-29s, many of those purchased at the time by Poland was not a brand-new platform. In fact, ten jets were acquired from the Czech Republic in 1995, and an additional 22 were bought from Germany in 2003.[1] The latter ones were in a much worse condition than the others and required a major overhaul. As a result, only fourteen out of those 22 were operational in the Polish Air Force. In 2021, Poland had 28 MiG fighters.[2] One could ask how much difference would those aging platforms make if transferred to the Ukrainian Air Force? Ukrainian air fleet consists of post-Soviet platforms including, for example, MiG-29, Sukhoi-27, or Sukhoi-25. Therefore, transferring aircraft with which pilots are familiar makes perfect sense. Especially while there are still pilots who can fly them, as with every aircraft lost in a fight, an experienced pilot is lost. Also, since the start of the war, neither the Ukrainian side nor the Russian has secured air superiority, although both have suffered losses. As reported on the Oryx list of equipment losses, to date, the Ukrainian Air Force lost 12 fixed-wing aircraft while, on the Russian side, 16 fixed-wing platforms were destroyed and one damaged. Certainly, in such a situation, additional MiGs are needed to fill the emerging gap and ensure that Russia is still denied air superiority. However, would they be a game-changer as compared with the highly effective Ukrainian air defence? It has already been suggested to provide Ukraine with ground-based air defence systems as an alternative solution to transferring fighter jets – simpler logistically and less risky of conflict escalation.

CLEAR SKY 2018
A Ukrainian MiG-29 Fulcrum takes off from Starokostiantyniv Air Base on 9 October 2018 as part of the Clear Sky 2018 exercise. (Source: Wikimedia)

On a similar note, however, one could also ask what it would mean for Poland’s defence if these aircraft were to be transferred to the Ukrainian Air Force. Indeed, such a move would leave the Polish Air Force with a capability gap as MiGs are the only fighter jets in their fleet. The multi-role F-16s Poland also possesses could potentially take over that role. However, that would mean that the F-16s cannot perform other roles they are capable of, like engaging in air-to-ground missions. Therefore, transferring MiGs would weaken Poland’s (and NATO’s defence), leaving a capability gap that would need to be filled.

A solution to that, as it seems, could be the potential deal between Poland and the US, resulting in acquiring ‘aircraft with corresponding operational capabilities’ as suggested in the Ministerial statement. There are, however, certain logistical difficulties to such a move. Firstly, there is a backlog in the production of F-16s; therefore, immediate delivery of new aircraft to fill the gap is not an option. Secondly, to acquire new jets and fill the gap promptly, Poland would have to jump the queue as it would be not the only country waiting for those platforms, and, at the moment, priority has been given to Taiwan. Also, acquiring used aircraft would present similar difficulties as they will have to be replaced with new platforms to start with and then most likely undergo an overhaul before being sold. Therefore, it is not a quick nor easy solution.

Furthermore, purchasing aircraft to replace MiGs presents potential training and personnel challenges. Despite what type is being acquired, personnel (both pilots and ground crew) must be trained, and air bases need to be prepared. Moreover, as one could expect, training a fourth-generation fighter pilot is a lengthy and multi-level process.[3] For example, the first deployment of Polish F-16s happened in 2016 – ten years after they were bought by the Polish Air Force when four of the fighters joined Operation Inherent Resolve in Kuwait. Under special circumstances, like a developing conflict in a neighbouring country, it could be suspected that training could be sped up. However, this certainly cannot happen overnight and would still require time and resources. Also, a valid question remains about the personnel currently working with MiG-29s. They would need to be re-trained for a new platform type (whatever that would be). However, it is also quite possible that they may not qualify for that because of age. Therefore, one could ask whether it is a good moment to make them redundant and whether such a move would not further weaken Poland’s defence capability.

There are also technical issues that need to be addressed before the fighter jets are transferred. When Poland joined NATO in 1999, it meant a major military transformation, part of which was focused on increasing compatibility with the Alliance’s systems. That meant that the existing aircraft had to be fitted. For example, with equipment allowing for secure communication with the platforms belonging to other NATO members or equipment allowing for its correct identification as friend or foe. As Ukraine is not part of NATO, those systems would need to be removed. Furthermore, one should remember that as NATO aircraft, the avionics in Polish MiGs were re-scaled from metric to the imperial system. Moreover, that not only involved upgrading or re-scaling the equipment and creating a whole new mindset, so the personnel did not need to make calculations to operate in the air constantly. Therefore, before the fighters were to be transferred, their avionics would need to be re-scaled back to the metric system, or otherwise, it would cause a significant challenge for Ukrainian pilots if they had to make the calculations manually under war conditions.

Another issue is the logistics of the potential transfer itself. Since flying those MiGs from a NATO airbase, whether in Germany or Poland, has been ruled out, it is unclear how they would be delivered. One scenario mentioned using a non-aligned country as a middleman – a base where the re-painted Ramstein fighters could fly to and then continue their journey to Ukraine. Kosovo was suggested as one of the possible options that would rule out NATO or the EU’s direct participation in the transfer. Nevertheless, with Russia warning that the use of other countries’ airfields for basing Ukrainian military aviation with the subsequent use of force against Russia’s army can be regarded as the involvement of these states in an armed conflict,’ it seems that such a move would likely lead to an escalation of the ongoing war.

The potential transfer of Polish MiG-29s to the Ukrainian Air Force proves to be not as straightforward as the political rhetoric may paint it. Quite the opposite – it is a lengthy, costly, and complex process. Moreover, its potential consequences range from the escalation of the conflict through to the weakening Poland’s defence capability (as well as NATO’s eastern flank in a time of war taking place on its border) to the many logistical challenges. Therefore, the decision should not be taken unilaterally by one country but rather carefully considered by the whole Alliance, as the consequences it may bring will also need to be faced collectively by all its members.

Dr Maria E. Burczynska is a Lecturer in Air Power Studies at the Department of History, Politics and War Studies, University of Wolverhampton where she is involved in designing and delivering an online MA course on Air Power, Space Power and Cyber Warfare. She obtained her PhD from the University of Nottingham where she worked on a project focused on European air power and its involvement in different forms of multinational cooperation. Her thesis, titled ‘The potential and limits of air power in contemporary multinational operations: the case of the UK, Polish and Swedish air forces,’ is making an important contribution to the field of air power studies, which remains to date largely dominated by the US case. The significance of her research was recognised by the Royal Air Force Museum awarding her the Museum’s RAF Centenary PhD Bursary in Air Power Studies in April 2019. Maria’s research interests are in the broad area of military and security studies in both, the national and international dimension. She is particularly interested in contemporary European air forces and their participation in multinational operations and initiatives as well as the influence of national culture on the military culture of individual air forces. She can be found on Twitter at: @BurczynskaMaria.

Header image: A US Air Force General Dynamics F-16C from the 183rd Fighter Wing, Illinois Air National Guard, flies in formation with a Polish Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29A from the 1st Tactical Squadron over Krzesiny air base, Poland, on 15 June 2005. Both aircraft participated in exercise ‘Sentry White Falcon 05.’ (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Zbigniew Średnicki, ‘Modernizacja techniczna sił powietrznych,’ Przegląd Sił Zbrojnych, 3 (2015), p. 11.

[2] ‘Chapter 4: Europe,’ The Military Balance, 122.1 (2022), p. 136.

[3] Ewa Korsak and Magdalena Kowalska-Sendek, ‘Andrenalina, predkosc i spelnienie marzen,’ Polska Zbrojna 8, no. 868 (2018), pp. 12-8.

Call for Submissions: Naval and Maritime Air Power Revisited

Call for Submissions: Naval and Maritime Air Power Revisited

In 2022, From Balloons to Drones will run a series that examines air power in the naval and maritime spheres.

From the First World War onwards, the use of air power in naval and maritime spheres has become an essential element of military operations. Indeed, even by 1918, many of the roles associated with naval air power, such as carrier airstrikes, had emerged. Similarly, the development of maritime air power was well-developed by 1918. Moreover, as the world’s major navies recognised the importance of naval air power and commissioned aircraft carriers between the First and Second World Wars, further developments and debates emerged.

2022 marks several significant anniversaries in naval and maritime air power history. In 1922, the US Navy, which became the world’s major user of carrier-based air power, launched its first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley. 2022 also marks the 80th and 40th anniversaries of two significant examples of the effective application of naval and maritime air power, the Battle of Midway and the Falklands War, respectively. As such, From Balloons to Drones is seeking submissions for a series of articles that examine the varied use of air power in the maritime sphere, broadly defined. Articles might, for example, explore the development of carrier-based air power, the use of land-based air power in support of naval and maritime operations, or the use of air power in support of amphibious operations. Possible themes to be explored might include, but are not limited to:

Strategy, Theory and Doctrine | Organisation and Policy | Roles

Operations – Kinetic and Non-Kinetic | Tactics, Training and Procedures

Strategic and Operational Effect | Technological Developments | Ethical and Moral Issues

National, International and Transnational Experiences | Personal Experiences

Memory and Memorialisation

We are looking for articles of between 500 to 4,000 words, though we will accept larger pieces, and we reserve the right to publish them in parts. Please visit our submissions page for more information on the types of articles published by From Balloons to Drones

We plan to begin running the series in February 2022, and it will continue for as long as we receive potential contributions. We welcome and encourage submissions from academics, policymakers, service personnel, and relevant professionals. We also welcome submissions written from diverse academic disciplines.

Submissions should be submitted in Word format and emailed to the email address below with ‘SUBMISSION – Naval and Maritime Air Power Revisited’ in the subject line. Also, please include a 50-100-word biography with your submission. Footnotes can be used, and please be careful to explain any jargon. If you are not sure if your idea fits our requirements, then please email us with ‘POTENTIAL SUBMISSION – Naval and Maritime Air Power Revisited’ in the subject line to discuss.

If you are interested in contributing, please email our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or contact us via our contact page here.

Header image: The Japanese aircraft carrier IJS Hiryu maneuvers to avoid bombs dropped by USAAF Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress bombers during the Battle of Midway on 4 June 1942. (Source: Wikimedia)

#ResearchResources – Recent Articles and Books (December 2021)

#ResearchResources – Recent Articles and Books (December 2021)

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

Articles

Donald Bishop and Erik R. Limpaecher, ‘Looking Bakc from the Age of ISR: US Observation Balloons in the First World War,’ Air Power History 68, no. 3 (2021).

No abstract provided.

Patrick Luiz Sullivan De Oliveira, ‘Transforming a Brazilian aeronaut into a French hero: Celebrity, spectacle, and technological cosmopolitanism in the turn-of-the-century Atlantic,’ Past & Present (2021). https://doi.org/10.1093/pastj/gtab011

This article explains how the Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont, who at the turn of the twentieth century became the first global celebrity aeronaut, operated as a symbol of ‘technological cosmopolitanism’ — a world view that ostensibly promoted a vision of global unity through technology-enabled exchanges while simultaneously reproducing a core-periphery imagined geography that threatened to erase marginalized populations. Technological cosmopolitanism fitted snugly within the rubric of the Third Republic’s aspiring universalism, which assumed that France offered a model to be emulated around the world, but it was not hegemonic. If for the French appropriating Santos-Dumont meant safeguarding France’s leadership in aeronautics and assuaging their claims of universality, for Brazilians the elision was marked by ambiguity. Brazil’s First Republic hungered for heroes, and authorities saw Santos-Dumont as a symbol of modernity that showed that its place in world history was more than peripheral, even though that very vision was shaped by a Paris-centric world view. But marginalized Afro-Brazilians also found ways to appropriate a white ‘Frenchified’ Brazilian and reimagine their place in a cosmopolitan order. Technological cosmopolitanism evoked a world united by transportation, communication and exchange, but imagining who got to construct and partake in that community was a process continuously marked by erasures and reinsertions.

A. Garcia, ‘The South African Air Force in Korea: an evaluation of 2 Squadron’s first combat engagement, 19 November until 2 December 1950,’ Historia 66, no. 2 (2021).

South African participation in the Korean War (1950–1953) in direct support of an international military offensive led by the United States of America demonstrated the National Party administration’s commitment to opposing Communism. This article details how the deployment of South African Air Force 2 Squadron achieved the strategic objectives of the South African government in supporting the anti-communist United States-led United Nations coalition in the Korean War. It evaluates the performance of South Africa’s Air Force in their first operational test since the Second World War. The combat operations discussed under the scope of this article include the first tactical engagement of 2 Squadron in support of the initial advance (19 November to 21 December) 1950 and then later, the retreat of the United Nations force.

William Head, ‘The Berlin Airlift: First Test of the U.S. Air Force,’ Air Power History 68, no. 3 (2021).

No abstract provided.

N.R. Jenzen-Jones and Jack Shanley, ‘Precision Strike,’ The RUSI Journal (2021) DOI: 10.1080/03071847.2021.2016208

This article examines the development of precision guided munitions (PGMs) from the earliest proto-PGMs of the late 18th century to the miniaturised, semi-autonomous forms in present service. N R Jenzen-Jones and Jack Shanley trace the history of these revolutionary weapons and examine how their battlefield roles and real-world use cases have evolved over time.

T.B. Kwan, ‘“The effects of our bombing efforts”: Allied Strategic Bombing of the Japanese Occupied Territories during World War II,’ Air Power History 68, no. 3 (2021).

No abstract provided.

Wyatt Lake, ‘Origins of American Close Air Support,’ Air Power History 68, no. 3 (2021).

No abstract provided.

John G. Terino Jr., ‘Cultivating Future Airpower Strategists: On “Developing Twenty-First-Century Airpower Strategists”,’ Strategic Studies Quarterly 15, no. 4 (2021).

In 2008, Major General R. Michael Worden forecast specific challenges for airpower strategists including emerging technology, transnational terrorist organizations, an explosion of information power, budgets, and resourcing. His predictions have borne out in what the Air Force faces today, and Air University is responding, providing the next generation of airpower strategists.

Joseph B. Piroch and Daniel A. Connelly, ‘Six Steps to the Effective Use of Airpower: On “The Drawdown Asymmetry: Why Ground Forces Will Depart Iraq but Air Forces Will Stay”,’ Strategic Studies Quarterly 15, no. 4 (2021).

Then-Lieutenant Colonel Clinton S. Hinote’s 2008 analysis of the Iraq drawdown and the continued role of airpower in that conflict serves as a foundation for six steps to the effective use of airpower today.

Thomas Wildenberg, ‘Col. Thomas L Thurlow and the Development of the A-10 Sextant,’ Air Power History 68, no. 3 (2021).

No abstract provided.

Books

Phil Haun, Colin Jackson, and Tim Schultz (eds.), Air Power in the Age of Primacy: Air Warfare since the Cold War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).

Since the end of the Cold War the United States and other major powers have wielded their air forces against much weaker state and non-state actors. In this age of primacy, air wars have been contests between unequals and characterized by asymmetries of power, interest, and technology.  This volume examines ten contemporary wars where air power played a major and at times decisive role. Its chapters explore the evolving use of unmanned aircraft against global terrorist organizations as well as more conventional air conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and against ISIS. Air superiority could be assumed in this unique and brief period where the international system was largely absent great power competition. However, the reliable and unchallenged employment of a spectrum of manned and unmanned technologies permitted in the age of primacy may not prove effective in future conflicts.

Mark Lardas, Truk 1944–45: The Destruction of Japan’s Central Pacific Bastion (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2021).

A fully illustrated history of how the US Navy destroyed Truk, the greatest Japanese naval and air base in the Pacific, with Operation Hailstone, and how B-29 units and the carriers of the British Pacific Fleet kept the base suppressed until VJ-Day.

In early 1944, the island base of Truk was a Japanese Pearl Harbor; a powerful naval and air base that needed to be neutralized before the Allies could fight their way any further towards Tokyo. But Truk was also the most heavily defended naval base outside the Japanese Home Islands and an Allied invasion would be costly. Long-range bombing against Truk intact would be a massacre so a plan was conceived to neutralize it through a series of massive naval raids led by the growing US carrier fleet. Operation Hailstone was one of the most famous operations ever undertaken by American carriers in the Pacific.

This book examines the rise and fall of Truk as a Japanese bastion and explains how in two huge raids, American carrier-based aircraft reduced it to irrelevance. Also covered is the little-known story of how the USAAF used the ravaged base as a live-fire training ground for its new B-29s — whose bombing raids ensured Truk could not be reactivated by the Japanese. The pressure on Truk was kept up right through 1945 when it was also used as a target for the 509th Composite Squadron to practise dropping atomic bombs and by the British Pacific Fleet to hone its pilots’ combat skills prior to the invasion of Japan.

David Nicolle and Gabr Ali Gabr, Air Power and the Arab World – Volume 5: The Arab Air Forces and the Road to War 1936-1939 (Warwick: Helion and Company, 2021).

The years immediately prior to the outbreak of the Second World War saw the earliest and the more recently established Arab Air Forces attempting to play a role on the regional if not yet on the world stage for the first time. It was a period when those Arab states which had real or merely theoretical independence were more or less allied with European countries that were gearing up to face the growing Fascist and Nazi threats. Unfortunately, these anti-Fascist and anti-Nazi countries were themselves the imperial powers, France and the United Kingdom, which were still seeking to maintain their domination of the greater part of the Arab World. To say that this complicated the situation, and strained the loyalties of the men of the newly emergent Arab air forces would be an understatement.

Volume 5 of the Air Power and the Arab World series, therefore, seeks to shed light on a difficult and widely misunderstood time.  It draws upon decades of research, including previously unpublished interviews with men now dead, archive sources than have never before been translated into a European language, and material which, though available in obscure Arabic publications, has been almost entirely neglected by aviation historians. 

This volume is richly illustrated with specially commissioned colour artworks illustrating the aircraft flown by the air forces in the Arab world during this dynamic period of time.

#Podcast – The Drone Age: An Interview with Dr Michael Boyle

#Podcast – The Drone Age: An Interview with Dr Michael Boyle

Editorial Note: Led by our Editor Dr Mike Hankins, From Balloons to Drones produces a monthly podcast that provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here. You can also find our podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or more commonly, Drones, have become increasingly key to contemporary warfare, even iconic. But are they really as revolutionary as they appear? Dr Michael Boyle joins us to discuss his recent book, The Drone Age: How Drone Technology Will Change War and Peace. He examines the drone phenomenon as it has currently affected global conflict, and how drones might shape the future.

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Dr Michael J. Boyle is an Associate Professor and Chair of Political Science at La Salle University. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia. His previous books include Violence after War: Explaining Instability in Post-Conflict StatesLegal and Ethical Implications of Drone Warfare, and Non-Western Responses to Terrorism.

Header image: A USAF MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft flies above the smoky San Gabriel Mountains of southern California on its way to a fire mission in the northern part of the state, August 2020. (Source: US Department of Defense)

#BookReview – Airpower in the War against ISIS

#BookReview – Airpower in the War against ISIS

Benjamin S. Lambeth, Airpower in the War against ISIS. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2021. Maps. Tables. Images. Notes. Bibliography. Hbk. 305 pp.

Reviewed by Richard Shimooka

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In the study of contemporary air power operations, Benjamin Lambeth has primarily led the field for over 40 years. A long-time RAND Corporation political scientist and now a non-resident fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Lambeth has written numerous books that have provided deep insight into modern operations and issues. A key example of Lambeth’s work was his in-depth dissection of the 1999 effort to liberate Kosovo from Serbian control, NATO’s Air War for Kosovo (2001).

Continuing in the comprehensive manner of his previous work, in Airpower in the War against ISIS, Lambeth reflects on the five-year campaign against Daesh in Syria and Western Iraq between 2014 and 2019. This book joins recent works that have examined this subject area, including the recent RAND study The Air War Against the Islamic State: The Role of Airpower in Operation Inherent Resolve (2021). Although Lambeth covers the same subject matter, he provides a more argumentative perspective on the conduct of the air war against ISIS. In addition, Lambeth’s book includes a deep level of detail surrounding the issues faced by the allied planners and practitioners, based on interviews with many personnel directly responsible for the strategy, planning and execution of the campaign. However, while Lambeth uses these interviews in conjunction with a variety of published works, the analysis in this book, which is derived from the aforementioned sources, fails to live up to the standards of his previous work. Indeed, blurs the debate on this topic rather than illuminate it.

Lambeth’s scope complicates the book’s analysis. He frequently questions the political and strategic decision-making emanating from the White House, Pentagon and U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). Lambeth then draws a straight line from these strategic decisions to air power practitioners’ operational and tactical issues in the field. A core theme, for example, is that President Barack Obama was too hesitant to intervene in the initial phase of ISIS’s growth. In Lambeth’s view early intervention could have forestalled the growth of the nascent movement. He identifies this ‘unproductive gradualism’ as a misuse of air power that greatly hindered its use and utility until the late stages of the campaign. In making this argument, Lambeth compares the application of air power in the war against ISIS to the equally unsuccessful Rolling Thunder campaign during the Vietnam War in the 1960s (p. 11). Moreover, Lambeth argues that the U.S. administration’s approach to military operations was too restrictive in its employment of air power and too beholden to the requirement to prevent civilian casualties, so much so that military operations became paralysed.

Refueling the Fight Against ISIS
Two F-22 Raptors fly in formation behind a KC-135 Stratotanker from the 340th Expeditionary Air Refuelling Squadron during a Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve mission over Iraq, 11 April 2017. (Source: Wikimedia)

The persuasiveness of Lambeth’s argument is weakened, however, by the book’s superficial treatment of the political and strategic decision-making process. Rather than considering how and why U.S. leaders made their decisions, Lambeth depicts them as simple orders, without examining the trade-offs inherent in the policy-making process that guide their creation. As a result, the book is more comfortable critiquing the policy without examining its connection to the broader grand strategy objectives of the United States. This is unfortunate, as there is no shortage of material available on the Obama administration’s political decision-making surrounding ISIS. That administration did not believe that ISIS was an existential threat, and the White House sought to limit the U.S.’ involvement in the conflict. The book could have benefitted from a richer discussion about managing engagement in this case as part of a proper critique of Obama’s grand strategy approach, thereby providing a better understanding of the strengths and shortcomings of limited engagement in a conflict.

A key component of Lambeth’s argument concerns the proper role of air power in modern conflicts. Chapter Two presents a review of air power’s employment and theory in the post-Cold War period, critically analysing the operational usage and broader political and strategic dynamics. This is one of the book’s best sections, and a useful reference work on modern air power thinking. Based on this chapter, Lambeth advises against the subordination of air power to ground forces when it comes to counterinsurgency operations, arguing that such an approach corroded the institutional knowledge and capacity to fully exploit the capabilities of air power between 2001 and 2011 (p. 39). Moreover, the book emphasises how institutional set-up and broader policy decisions made by then U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates diminished the U.S. Air Force’s stature and influence in military operations over Syria and Iraq (p. 32).

These observations tie into a broader critique of the flawed initial perceptions of ISIS as primarily a counterinsurgency threat rather than an embryonic state entity. This improper framing of the organisation, according to Lambeth, contributed to a far less effective employment of air power against the Islamic State (p. 199). This is an interesting observation made by several interviewees within the book, which can be viewed as part of the ongoing debate concerning whether air power has unique capabilities and how to utilise it in a battlefield properly. While Lambeth does not directly engage in this area of theoretical discussion, the book’s essential thrust suggests that air power’s unique characteristics have been constantly misapplied over the past two decades. This argument may have increasing relevance as the United States disengages from stability operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan to counter near-peer threats such as China and Russia.

It is within this context that Lambeth provides detailed critiques regarding excessive civilian casualties. For example, at one point Lambeth quotes an article by David French in support of his views. An Iraq War veteran and practising attorney, French details what he believes are the consequences of the civilian casualties:

It’s time to consider the true cost of America’s self-imposed constraints [American combatants] don’t just comply with the law of war. They go beyond the requirement of the LOAC [Law of Armed Combat] to impose additional and legally unnecessary restrictions on the use of military force. Rules of engagement [in their most suffocating form] represent true war-by-wonk, in which a deadly brew of lawyers, politicians, soldiers, and social scientists endeavor to fine-tune the use of military force to somehow kill the enemy while ‘winning over’ the local population, even as the local population is in the direct line of fire. (p. 190)

This quote lays bare the disconnect between Lambeth’s analysis and the Obama administration’s perspectives, the latter of whom were focused on winning over the population and preserving domestic support. Consequently, Lambeth presents a caricature of their views and arguments to push forward his preferred approach that would loosen up the rules of engagement to permit greater civilian casualties. Ironically, this resembles the type of military thinking of which the Obama administration seemed most wary of when responding to the challenge of ISIS and led them to seek an alternative strategy.

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A Sukhoi Su-24 of the Russian Air Force taking off from Khmeimim air base in Syria during Russia’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War. (Source: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation)

Nowhere are the book’s contradictions more evident than in its treatment of Russia’s role in the conflict. Moscow’s 2015 intervention was one of the turning points in the war and helped to reverse the declining fortunes of Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad government in its fight against ISIS. Russia’s application of air power played a critical role in halting ISIS’s advances into government-held terrain, and then supported a counter push that crippled the nascent state’s war-making capability. Yet, at the same time, the effort was highly controversial in its use of indiscriminate aerial bombing over civilian targets.

Despite its important role in bringing the conflict to its conclusion, Lambeth’s book is largely devoid of any discussion of Moscow’s actual contribution to the outcome. Instead, it offers a highly questionable account of its motivations for intervening:

Eyeing the lucrative opportunity that must have seemed all but irresistible for such a brazen move enabled by President Obama’s failure to honor his ostentatiously declared “red line” after Assad ignored it and used chemical weapons against his own people, Russia’s President Putin no doubt saw a ripe occasion for the first time since 1972 to establish a new, and this time potentially enduring, Russian foothold in the Middle East after the Soviet Union had been rudely ejected from the region by a brilliant stroke of diplomatic force majeure orchestrated behind the scenes by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and executed by Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat. (p.151)

This account is inaccurate, and Lambeth even cites sources that refute it, such as Sanu Kainikara’s excellent overview, In the Bear’s Shadow: Russian Intervention in Syria (2018). Syria has remained Moscow’s closest Arab state since the 1970s, as evidenced by the large Russian naval base at Tartus on its northern coast. Moreover, ISIS and its affiliates also posed a direct terrorist threat towards Russian security, such as in the Caucasus region, which provided additional motivation for an intervention. The rest of the chapter includes almost no mention of Russia’s actual military role in the conflict but rather is devoted to detailing its indiscriminate attacks that caused civilian casualties and how Russia’s presence was a nuisance for the Allied prosecution of the conflict. The chapter reinforces the overall problem of the book’s one-sided portrayal of the political and military strategy surrounding the effort, which brings into question many of the book’s other observations and conclusions.

Overall, Airpower against ISIS is a mixed effort. It offers an extremely detailed portrait of the operational and tactical issues surrounding contemporary western air power operations. It provides critical insight into the challenges of undertaking a campaign of this type, that should be read by anyone with a professional or private interest in the field. However, its flawed treatment of the political and strategic considerations limits its value overall and thus needs to be read critically and in conjunction with other works to extract its full value.

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

Header image: Two United States Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet aircraft fly over Iraq, 3 March 2016 as part of Operation INHERENT RESOLVE. (Source: Wikimedia)

From Balloons to Drones – 5 Years On

From Balloons to Drones – 5 Years On

By Dr Ross Mahoney

Five years ago, on 15 June 2016, From Balloons to Drones was launched. From Balloons to Drones was established with the simple vision of providing an open access online platform for the analysis and debate of air power history, theory, and contemporary operations in their broadest sense, including space and cyber power. Since establishing From Balloons to Drones, we have published 195 posts of various types ranging from articles to book reviews. More recently, in 2019, we started producing a popular podcast series with interviews with leading air power specialists. Overall, the site has received over 130,000 hits since 2016.

None of the above would have been achieved without the support of our editors, contributors, and readers. Personally, I am grateful to all the members of the From Balloons to Drones editorial team for their continuing hard work, especially as it is all done voluntarily. Indeed, when the site was established, it was run by one person, our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney. However, over time, the editorial team has grown and evolved. In 2018, long-time contributors Dr Brian Laslie, Dr Michael Hankins, and Alex Fitzgerald-Black came onboard as editors. While Alex has moved on, we have continued to build and strengthen the editorial team with the addition of Victoria Taylor and Dr Luke Truxal to the team. As we look forward to the next five years of From Balloons to Drones, I am pleased to announce the addition of two new editors to the team: Dr Maria Burczynska and Ashleigh Brown. Maria is a Lecturer in Air Power Studies at the University of Wolverhampton in the UK, while Ashleigh, a PhD student at UNSW Canberra, is a researcher for the Official History of Australian Operations in Iraq & Afghanistan and Australian Peacekeeping Operations in East Timor. The addition of Maria and Ashleigh will help strengthen the team in several areas, and we are looking forward to what the future holds with them.

I am also grateful to all our contributors and readers. Without our contributors, there would be nothing to publish and, as such, no website. However, we are always on the lookout for new contributions either from established authors or from new and emerging scholars within the air power studies community. If you are interested in contributing, then visit our submissions page to find out how to contribute.

So, what about the future? More of the same but better. We still hold true to our original vision of providing an avenue for debate and discussion about air power. We will aim to continue to refine what we offer in terms of content and build on the success of the past five years. We have more articles, book reviews and podcasts in the pipeline. However, we are always keen to hear your views on what we publish. If there is an area of research that needs to be given more coverage, please let us know.

Finally, as a bit of fun to celebrate our fifth birthday, here are the top five most-read posts since our launch in 2016:

  1. Michael Hankins, ‘Inventing the Enemy: Colonel Toon and the Memory of Fighter Combat in Vietnam’
  2. Michael Hankins, ‘A Discourse on John Boyd: A Brief Summary of the US Air Force’s Most Controversial Pilot and Thinker’
  3. Liam Barnsdale, ‘Royal Air Force ‘wings’ Brevets in Second World War Propaganda’
  4. Justin Pyke, ‘Blinded by the Rising Sun? American Intelligence Assessments of Japanese Air Power, 1920-41: Part 1 – The 1920s’
  5. Jeff Schultz, ‘Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 1: Training’

Header image: Pilatus PC-21A aircraft from No 4 Squadron based at RAAF Base Williamtown fly in formation on return from Sydney in support of an Air Force 2021 commemorative service held at the Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)