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

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

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

Reviewed by Dr Ross Mahoney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Dr Michael W. Hankins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Richard Shimooka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Dr Michael W. Hankins

cia-station-d-area-51

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#BookReview – Drone War Vietnam

#BookReview – Drone War Vietnam

David Axe, Drone War Vietnam. Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2021. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. viii + 166 pp.

Reviewed by Dr Roger Connor

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The rapidly expanded use of military drones for surveillance and targeted strikes has generated greater interest in 20th Century military drone development and use over the past two decades. The most prolific antecedent to the General Atomics Predator was the US Air Force’s (USAF) Vietnam-era employment of Ryan 147 ‘Lightning Bug,’ a variant of the Firebee turbine-powered target drone developed in the late 1940s. In all, 3,435 Lightning Bug combat missions were flown over the South-East Asia combat by 1,106 of what today would be regarded as ‘attritable’ drones. Launched from a DC-130 mothership and recovered in flight after popping a parachute by CH-3 helicopters, these unconventional reconnaissance remotely piloted aircraft fit the traditional rationale for drones – the D’s: Dull, Dirty (nuclear), or Dangerous operations. Over North Vietnam, Lightning Bug flights freed RF-101 and other reconnaissance crews from particularly hazardous or politically sensitive missions, such as documenting air defence sites, especially S-75 (NATO designated SA-2) surface-to-air missile complexes. Some even performed propaganda leaflet drops. While the 147s flew unarmed in operations, considerable development occurred in equipping them with precision-guided ordnance, but the war ended before they were suitable for deployment.

David Axe, a self-described journalist, filmmaker, and blogger, has produced a slick-looking, if somewhat anemic, study of the Ryan Lightning Bugs. Organized into sixteen short chapters of roughly four-to-eight pages, each separated by photographic spreads, the first three chapters address the early history of the Lightning Bugs, framing them as a response to the challenge of the Soviet S-75 (SA-2) surface-to-air missile. Chapters four to fifteen document various episodes of operations of operations over North Vietnam with an emphasis on Ryan’s response to the challenges encountered. The final chapter documents Ryan’s next generation Model 154 drone.

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A US Air Force Lockheed DC-130A Hercules taking off on a mission in Southeast Asia, carrying two Ryan AQM-34 Firebee drones, c. 1969. Firebees flew reconnaissance missions using a pre-programmed guidance system or by remote control from the DC-130 crew. (Source: Wikimedia)

Drone War Vietnam attempts a survey of Lightning Bug operations while linking them with post-war strategic applications of remotely piloted aircraft and the broader narrative of drone development. The primary attraction for Axe’s narrative is that it is well-illustrated with images that do not appear in other works on the topic. Many of these photos originated with the Ryan archives, now in possession of the San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives. These include multiple perspectives of drone operators in DC-130 motherships and a Marine Corps CH-37 helicopter used in drone recovery operations that crashed in just such an attempt. As a visual record of this technological niche, Axe’s monograph is the best available in print.

Unfortunately, Axe’s narrative is disappointing. A significant factual error in the first two sentences of the introduction sets the tone (incorrectly describing the well-documented 2001 first strike made from an MQ-1). Casual errors such as Mutually Assured Destruction being described as having existed in 1950 also crop up. While these contextual errors are frustrating, fundamental errors on the topic are less forgivable. For instance, Axe notes, ‘[B]etween 1966 and the end of the Vietnam War, Army helicopters attempted 2,745 drone recoveries and completed 2,655 of them: a 96.7 per cent success rate’ (p. 90). This is a nice recitation of facts, except that almost exclusively USAF helicopters of the 350th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron performed the duty – a critical fact that does not appear in the text. Axe’s writing style is accessible, but sometimes overly so with the use of incomplete sentences, for example, ‘[N]o opportunity to bait an S-75 battery’ (p. 80).

Axe’s understanding of the sweep of drone history is poor. He takes an American-centric focus, but even then, has ignored the broader historiography of remotely piloted aircraft development. Instead, he describes drone history as Kettering Bug begets Denny Radioplane begets Firebee. A quick look at H.R. Everett’s Unmanned Systems of World War II (2015) should have been enough to avoid such a flawed chronology. Meanwhile, the technical aspects inherent in the Lightning Bug’s achievements receive little attention, particularly concerning the challenges and limitations of operating and recovering the drones. Likewise, the incredible advances in inertial navigation that made autonomous flight in contested airspace possible pass with only a couple of sentences.

The text is not footnoted, and tellingly, neither Axe nor his editor understood the difference between primary and secondary sources as they are delineated in his bibliography, though almost nothing he includes there would be considered a primary source. Even obvious sources, like the Project CHECO report on Buffalo Hunter (the late war phase of Lightning Bug operations), easily obtainable online, are missing.

Most of Axe’s narrative is a retelling of William Wagner’s Lightning Bugs and other Reconnaissance Drones (1982). Wagner’s forty-year-old effort is the historian’s more thorough and polished option. Axe at least credits Wagner, a former Ryan Aeronautical executive, with much of his content, but this effort is a poor imitation of the original. Where Axe does improve on Wagner is in the contextual frame of drone operations, for which he adds a geopolitical frame of the various events and geographical operations. These are often over-simplistic, but they do succeed in making the book more accessible for an enthusiast audience interested in the hardware but with less understanding of the history and establishing a more well-rounded narrative. However, this contextual frame is often awkwardly executed in a way that does little to inform the application of drones, for example, a three-page chapter on the Gulf of Tonkin incident. The flip side is that Axe spends less than a third of the monograph on Lightning Bug operations in the Vietnam War. Instead, with Wagner as his primary source, he spends as much time on China overflights and ELINT (electronic intelligence) variants used to monitor North Korea as the far more substantive deployments over North Vietnam. Axe’s supposedly operational history thus primarily reflects a contractor perspective with very little of the service experience one might expect from this type of study.

These shortcomings become very apparent when examining a campaign like Linebacker II. As Wagner himself noted, Lightning Bug operations reached their peak during the operation. Axe’s telling of the story is almost exclusively in the frame of B-52 experience, which is a nice contextual detail, but adds nothing to the understanding of how or why remotely piloted aircraft were significant to the campaign.

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A QH-50 DASH anti-submarine drone on board the destroyer USS Allen M. Sumner during a deployment to Vietnam. The photo was taken between April and June 1967. (Source: Wikimedia)

Axe pays some attention to remotely piloted adjuncts to the Lightning Bugs such as the Lockheed D-21 and Ryan 154 Compass Arrow, both focused on the Chinese nuclear program. The decision to include these is somewhat odd as they are outside of his Southeast Asian narrative. While the Compass Arrow has at least a corporate family tree associated with the Lightning Bugs, the D-21 has no operational or technical overlap. Meanwhile, Axe makes no mention of the other prominent drone programs employed in South-East Asia such as the QU-22 and the QH-50 drone helicopter. The QU-22 were droned Beechcraft Bonanzas used as communication relay platforms for the Igloo White ‘electronic fence’ of ground sensors on the Ho Chi Minh trail. The QH-50s were used primarily to spot naval gunfire. The QU-22 and QH-50 provide a useful frame for understanding the broader requirement for drone aircraft and the inherent limitations of the technology. It is this sort of assessment and analysis that is most notably absent. Instead, Axe is content to conclude that the legacy of the Lightning Bugs was to show that the Predator’s milestones weren’t new (p. 150). Nuanced quibbles about what was new with Predator aside (quite a lot, in fact), this rather obvious point could have also been made about drone aircraft in World War II. The 147 (along with QU-22s and QH-50s) demonstrated an emergent association between remotely piloted remotely piloted aircraft and the goal of risk reduction in limited war, which was something revolutionary, but the author did is not well versed enough in the topic to see it.

Besides Wagner, there is another useful study, which Axe neglected entirely, specifically Steve Miller’s nearly 700-page self-published The 99th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron: The Air Force’s Story of Unmanned Reconnaissance in the Vietnam War (2017). Though Miller would have benefited greatly from an editor, it is a useful expansion on Wagner’s dated history, written by a Lightning Bug veteran and introduces a trove of primary source documentation, as well as a much-needed USAF operational perspective. He also brings in the QU-22 story. If Axe had focused more on veterans’ experiences like Miller, Drone War Vietnam might have been worth recommending. Instead, it is a pale shadow of Wagner’s better publication.

With the disappointments inherent in Axe’s monograph, one wonders what an effective revision of Wagner’s solid work might look like. However, Kevin Wright’s We Were Never There: CIA U-2 Operations Over Europe, the USSR and the Middle East, 1956-1960 (2021) gives an idea of what might be possible. Linking mission reports, operational context, supported by high-quality maps and graphics, he has developed a glossy enthusiast-style publication that meets scholarly standards of documentation while proving attractive and accessible for the aviation general-interest audience. A similar work on the Lightning Bugs would help both the scholarly study and enthusiast appreciation of remotely piloted and autonomous aircraft operations.

Dr Roger Connor curates several collections at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, including remotely piloted and autonomous aircraft, vertical flight, Army ground force aviation, cockpit equipment, and aviation infrastructure. He earned his PhD from George Mason University in 2020 with his dissertation, ‘Rooftops to Rice Paddies: Helicopters, Aerial Utopianism, and the Creation of the National Security State.’

Header image: The US Air Force Ryan AQM-34L Firebee drone ‘Tom Cat’ of the 556th Reconnaissance Squadron flew 68 missions over North Vietnam before being shot down by anti-aircraft fire over Hanoi. (Source: Wikimedia)

#HistoricBookReview – The Air War, 1930-1945

#HistoricBookReview – The Air War, 1930-1945

Richard J. Overy, The Air War, 1930-1945. Potomac Edition. Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2005. Appendices. Tables. Photographs. Notes. Bibliographic Note. Bibliography. Index. vii + 267 pp.

Reviewed by Ryan Clauser

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Few historical works have altered the course of a field of study in the way Richard Overy’s The Air War, 1939-1945 did when it was first published in 1980. When the book was published initially, air power history, as a field of academic study, was in its infancy and had been mainly regarded as the ‘Cinderella’ of military history (p. 240). However, Overy’s work transformed the historiography of air power history with his comparative study of the most important air forces of the Second World War.

The importance of Overy’s The Air War is hard to overstate, especially as the book has been reprinted twice in 1987 and 2005. In the most recent edition, that under reviewe here, Overy, now an Honorary Professor at the University of Exeter in the UK, provided the reader with new additions in the form of new statistical figures, updated research, and notes from the author. These new additions illustrate Overy’s dedication to his work and has helped keep The Air War an essential source for historians and remains one of the premier air power history texts. Since the publication of the first edition of The Air War, Overy has continued to write extensively about air power history and the history of the Second World War, including works such as Why the Allies Won (1995), The Battle of Britain: Myth and the Reality (2001), Interrogations: The Nazi Elite in the Allied Hands, 1945 (2001), The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (2013) and most recently Blood and Ruins: The Great Imperial War, 1931-1945 (2021). Potomac Books published the latest edition of The Air War as part of their Cornerstones of Military History collection.

Overy starts his work by proclaiming that ‘this is not a ‘blood and guts’ book about the air war’ (p. xiii), but rather a study that aims to compare and contrast the air forces of the warring nations along with their preparations, strategies, leadership, economics, and development. The Air War sought to provide a greater overview and understanding of the discrepancies between Allied and Axis air forces and fully explain air power’s role throughout the war.

Lancaster_B_MkI_44_Sqn_RAF_in_flight_1942
Three Avro Lancaster BMkIs of No. 44 Squadron, Royal Air Force based at Waddington in Lincolnshire, flying above the clouds, 29 September 1942. Left to right: W4125, ‘KM-W,’ being flown by Sergeant Colin Watt, Royal Australian Air Force; W4162, ‘KM-Y,’ flown by Pilot Officer T.G. Hackney (later killed while serving with No. 83 Squadron); and W4187, ‘KM-S,’ flown by Pilot Officer J.D.V.S. Stephens DFM, who was killed with his crew two nights later during a raid on Wismar. (Source: © IWM TR 197)

The Air War begins with an overview of each combatant nation’s preparations for war and their overall use of air power. Overy wrote that air power theory and doctrine had matured in the years leading up to and throughout the Second World War. These new ideas stated that air power could be used in many ways, such as: protecting naval power, close air support, strategic bombing, and air defence. For example, naval aviation was invaluable for Japan as the Imperial Japanese Navy used it to develop carrier strike forces. The development of Japanese naval air power sought to offset the advantages that western navies, such as the United States and Great Britain, held over Japan. However, for other Axis nations, naval air power was non-existent as Germany and Italy saw no merit in committing resources to build aircraft carriers. Instead, Germany and Italy subscribed to the theory that air power was best suited for a role in supporting their armies. However, the Allies crafted their air power doctrine more holistically to encompass all aspects of military aviation, including naval support, support of armies, strategic bombing, and aerial defence, all of which played critical roles in the Allied air war.

Overy breaks down the Second World War by year and the theatre of operation beginning with the early War in Europe spanning from 1939 to 1941. This section discusses Germany’s and the Axis’ initial success with close air support and air interdiction. However, Germany’s victories were quickly halted following the fall of France and the beginning of the Battle of Britain. Left as the only attacking force capable of striking the United Kingdom from occupied France, the Luftwaffe found itself in a role for which it was wholly unprepared. In contrast, the British utilised a far more general strategy to successfully defend their nation and launch a strategic bombing campaign of their own. Overy stated that, ‘the German rejection of a more general air strategy coincided with shifts in the war itself that made such a strategy more rather than less necessary’ (p. 37). While the air war was still an essential facet of the Second World War in its first two years, it had yet to fully mature on the battlefield.

For the rest of the war in Europe, 1941 to 1945, Overy explains how the allies’ general air strategy put them at a far more significant advantage in the air war compared to their Axis counterparts. As described by Overy, this generalist strategy allowed the allies to combine the many facets of air power, including aerial defence, ground and naval support, and strategic bombing, into one encompassing approach to the war in the air. This perspective also helped mature the Allies use of air power throughout the war. Further, the economics of the air war is also stressed. As Overy pointed out, the United States alone had seen a steady increase in aircraft production every year since 1942, and by 1944 they were outproducing Germany at a rate of nearly three to one in aircraft. Additionally, the Americans suffered less than half the losses of the Germans in the air throughout the war. These factors combined led the allies to victory in the air war and the war in general.

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An Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi A6M2 ‘Zero’ fighter takes off from the aircraft carrier ‘Akagi,’ on its way to attack Pearl Harbor during the morning of 7 December 1941. The aircraft was flown by PO2c Sakae Mori, 1st koku kantai, 1st koku sentai, and flew with the second wave. (Source: Wikimedia)

The war in the Pacific was strategically a much different conflict than the one in Europe. Japan’s approach to air power was to use it mainly as a supporting arm of its navy to create a multi-faceted naval strike force. Japan used their war with China to hone this strategy and their aviation technology. This early period of war for Japan allowed them to create a superior fighter aircraft in the Mitsubishi A6M Zero and allowed them to hold the upper hand for a time in their war against the United States and Great Britain following the attack on Pearl Harbor. As the war in the Pacific persisted, the Allies again found multiple roles for airpower and again committed to a generalist strategy in the east. Continuously, like the war in Europe, economics played an essential role in the Pacific, as even by 1941, Japan had begun realising that their economy was in short supply of the raw materials needed to fight a war. This hampered the Japanese war effort and nearly crippled its ability to produce aircraft. By the end of the war, Japan’s aircraft industry could barely replace what was being lost in combat, while the Americans kept producing increasingly better aircraft at staggeringly higher rates. Again, Overy emphasises that the Allied generalist strategies and superior economies were able to win the air war in the east.

While strategy and economics are at the heart of Overy’s work, he also delved into other aspects of the air war, including leadership, training, organisation, science, and research of each nation’s air force, all of which played a crucial role in the air war at large. Each of these additional factors was eventually influenced at some juncture in the war by the strategy and economics of each nation and how they chose to operate their air forces. Nonetheless, each of these additional factors played a significant role in the air war of the Second World War.

Throughout the course of Overy’s research, he relied heavily on official documents, public records, and memoirs of pilots, military commanders, and government officials. Overy was also fortunate to have access to various German records housed with the Imperial War Museum in London while researching the book in the 1970s. That said, while access to some sources was abundant, others, specifically those dealing with the Soviet Air Force, were scant at best and were limited to what the Soviet government saw fit to publish. Another issue in researching this project was the state of air power scholarship, which was in its infancy. Due to this, Overy was forced to depend on more general studies of aircraft, economics, and World War II for secondary sources. A problem that the publication of the book itself began to rectify. Overy also admits that he utilised fictional and popular publications to get a well-rounded perspective of the air war but did not include these works among his cited sources.

In this new edition, Overy has added a new preface in which he claims to have changed very little of his original text, but instead focused his edits on updating the charts and statistics. These illustrations show how economics influenced the air war and exhibit the discrepancies in how Allied and Axis powers produced aircraft. Also, in this newest edition, Overy included a valuable bibliographic note in which he evaluated the development of the historiography of air power and provided the authors and titles of works that have extrapolated further on the ideas laid out in the original Air War text such as tactics and leaderships and economics. Notably, among these works are Richard Davis’s Carl A. Spaatz and the Air War in Europe (1992), John Gooch’s collection of essays Airpower: Theory and Practice (1995), and John Buckley’s Air Power in the Age of Total War (1999). This section was not meant for Overy to vaunt his own influence on the field, but rather to provide readers with a greater historiographic picture of Second World War air power scholarship and show how the field has grown since 1980.

To describe The Air War as notable would be an understatement, as Overy took on the monumental task of comparing and contrasting the primary air forces of the Axis and Allied powers of the Second World War. Even from the outset of this book Overy admitted that he only spent paragraphs on what could be volumes worth of work, yet he was still somehow able to distil mass amounts of information and statistics into only 211 pages of content. From these pages, Overy concluded that the allies were able to gain the upper hand and win the air war largely because of their generalist strategic approach and superior economies. In totality, Overy’s The Air War is still among the preeminent air power works and should continue to be heralded for ushering air power history into the mainstream of academic study.

Ryan Clauser is an Adjunct Professor of History at DeSales University. He received his MA from East Stroudsburg University where he wrote his master’s thesis on restored airworthy Second World War aircraft as important pieces of historical memory that should be preserved as living monuments. He specialises in air power history and memory of the Second World War.

Header image: The Boeing B-29 Superfortress was the long range strategic bomber used be the United Sates to bomb Japan. It was the largest aircraft to have a significant operational role in the war, and remains the only aircraft in history to have ever used a nuclear weapon in combat. (Source: Wikimedia)

#BookReview – Picturing the Space Shuttle: The Early Years

#BookReview – Picturing the Space Shuttle: The Early Years

J.L. Pickering and John Bisney, Picturing the Space Shuttle: The Early Years. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2021. Hbk. 240 pp.

Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie

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A couple of years ago, in a book review for From Balloons to Drones, I started by saying:

A different type of book necessitates a different type of book review. Herein you will not find an author’s argument or a critique thereof since the book being discussed today is a collection of photographs and an extremely fine one at that.

That book review was for J.L. Pickering and John Bisney’s Picturing Apollo 11: Rare Views and Undiscovered Moments. The same authors have followed up that superb effort with the recently released Picturing the Space Shuttle: The Early Years.

As the title suggests, the authors undertake to produce a pictorial history of – and to look at the development of – the reusable Shuttle Transportation System (STS), the Approach and Landing Tests (ALT), the astronaut class of 1978 (the ‘Thirty-Five New Guys,’ or TFNGs) and the first four STS missions that made up the test program for the new shuttle. Pickering and Bisney have again accomplished just that and produced a unique look at the early days of the space shuttle program, using rare, never-before-published photographs from the late 1970s and early 1980s. The book opens with a forward from STS-1 pilot Robert L. Crippen, who stated that he hoped the book ‘will increase your appreciation for what a remarkable accomplishment the Space Shuttle was.’ Crippen need not worry; the book does precisely that.

Although ostensibly a book of photographs, there is also enough background here to keep the layman and the historian happy with the development of the program. However, it is the photos that stand out. From Maxime Faget’s original model of a reusable space shuttle to the numerous designs, concepts, and artists’ renderings as they developed into the recognizable shuttle design that went into production, there are enough photographs in the first chapter alone to make the book worth the purchase.

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This is a montage of the individual portraits of the 35-member 1978 class of astronaut candidates. The Astronaut Class of 1978, otherwise known as the ‘Thirty-Five New Guys,’ was NASA’s first new group of astronauts since 1969. This class was notable for many reasons, including having the first African-American and first Asian-American astronauts and the first women. From left to right are Guion S. Bluford, Daniel C. Brandenstein, James F. Buchli, Michael L. Coats, Richard O. Covey, John O. Creighton, John M. Fabian, Anna L. Fisher, Dale A. Gardner, Robert L. Gibson, Frederick D. Gregory, S. David Griggs, Terry J. Hart, Frederick H. (Rick) Hauck, Steven A. Hawley, Jeffrey A. Hoffman, Shannon W. Lucid, Jon A. McBride, Ronald E. McNair, Richard M. (Mike) Mullane, Steven R. Nagel, George D. Nelson, Ellison S. Onizuka, Judith A. Resnik, Sally K. Ride, Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Rhea Seddon, Brewster H. Shaw Jr., Loren J. Shriver, Robert L. Stewart, Kathryn D. Sullivan, Norman E. Thagard, James D. Van Hoften, David M. Walker and Donald E. Williams. (Source: NASA)

Some of the great gems are the photos that show the transition from the Apollo era to the shuttle era. Nowhere is this more clearly displayed than the chapter detailing the Shuttle Enterprise’s Approach and Landing Tests. Here, Apollo mission veteran Fred Haise (Apollo 13) is joined by Gordon Fullerton, Joe Engle, and Richard Truly to test the flying characteristics of the new shuttle. Dave Scott and Deke Slayton in very late-1970s garb also make appearances in these pages (pp. 38-9). This transition is completed in the next chapter with the introduction of NASA’s next astronaut class, the ‘TFNGs,’ which introduced America and the world to the names of Guion Bluford, Anna Fisher, Robert Gibson, Steven Hawley, Sally Ride, and many others. The book includes a complete montage of the 35 Group 8 astronauts, the TFNGs (p. 71). Many of them are also pictured testing out Apollo-era spacesuits, marking the transition from old to new. If you had a favourite shuttle-era astronaut, there is a good chance they were represented in this class, and I was pleased to see photos of some of my heroes herein: Rhea Seddon, Frederick Gregory, and Shannon Lucid (65-71).

Obviously, the book really takes off (pun completely intended) with a section devoted to the first four shuttle missions, all of them aboard the Columbia. After that, the book moves from construction at Palmdale to delivery to Kennedy. The woes of Columbia’s heat-ablative tiles are adequately covered and, although the shuttle is a brand-new ship, it looks the worse for wear in several photographs (pp. 104-5). However, these problems overcome, there are some truly terrific ‘behind the scenes’ shots as Columbia is mated to the stack and rolled out to the pad. Here, there are some iconic photographs of the shuttle sitting on the pad with the setting sun turning the clouds a stunning orange and lifting into bright clear-blue Florida skies, but also some great shots ‘on orbit’ and the crews returning safely to Earth along the tanned lakebed of Edwards Air Force Base in California.

The Space Shuttle Columbia touches down on lakebed runway 23 at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to conclude the first orbital shuttle mission
The Space Shuttle Columbia touches down on lakebed runway 23 at Edwards Air Force Base to conclude the first orbital shuttle mission, 14 April 1981. (Source: NASA)

Picturing the Space Shuttle is another masterwork. It is truly a tour de force and a compelling collection of photographs that should be on the bookshelf of everyone who considers themselves a shuttle aficionado. One hopes that Pickering and Bisney continue to comb through the photographic archives of later shuttle missions. It has been 40 years since Columbia lifted into the sky for the first time and, perhaps even more amazing, a decade since the last shuttle returned safely to earth. As time marches on and the shuttle program recedes into memory, Pickering and Bisney have given us a reason to remember what Astronaut John Young called the ‘world’s greatest flying machine,’ the Space Shuttle.

Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and is the Command Historian at the United States Air Force Academy. Formerly he was the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). He is the Book Reviews Editor for From Balloons to Drones. A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his Masters’ from Auburn University Montgomery in 2006 and his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. He is the author of Air Power’s Lost Cause: The American Air Wars of Vietnam (2021),  Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force (2017) and The Air Force Way of War (2015). The latter book was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s 2016 professional reading list and the 2017 RAF Chief of the Air Staff’s reading list. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header image:  The Space Shuttle Columbia glides down over Rogers Dry Lake as it heads for a landing at Edwards Air Force Base at the conclusion of its first orbital mission on 14 April 1981. (Source: NASA)

#BookReview – Wonders All Around: The Incredible True Story of Astronaut Bruce McCandless II and the First Untethered Flight in Space

#BookReview – Wonders All Around: The Incredible True Story of Astronaut Bruce McCandless II and the First Untethered Flight in Space

Bruce McCandless III, Wonders All Around: The Incredible True Story of Astronaut Bruce McCandless II and the First Untethered Flight in Space. Austin, TX: Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2021. Illustrations. Notes. ARC. 247 pp.

Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie

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It is a picture that seems to hang somewhere in every elementary school and library in America. For that late Gen-X group born in the last half of the 1970s, it hung on the walls of our bedrooms next to baseball heroes Dale Murphy and Mike Schmidt. Space Historian Emily Carney has dubbed it simply ‘the poster.’ The image is so ubiquitous as to be almost forgettable, not because it is forgettable but because you see it everywhere: from museum walls to commercials. It is inescapable. It is easily as memorable as any photograph that came out of America’s early space program, and it remains one of NASA’s most requested pictures. The image is of an untethered astronaut floating alone in the blackness of space, feet dangling above a blue and white Earth. Even as I write this review, a version of the famed photo hangs in my office, a hand-painted copy by my oldest daughter, herself a budding STEM and space lover.

The astronaut in the photograph is Bruce McCandless II, hardly a household name; but you have heard his voice, and you have seen his face in the old B-rolls of the floor of mission control where he served as a CAPCOM (capsule communicator) on the Apollo 10, 11 and 14 missions. McCandless served as CAPCOM for the first lunar extravehicular activity (EVA), and said “Okay, Neil, we can see you coming down the ladder now.”

Hardly a household name, yet he was at the epicentre for two seismic events in the history of crewed spaceflight: the first steps on the moon and the man behind the mask in the first untethered EVA. That untethered EVA and his first ride into space was a long time in coming. Half of his astronaut class flew to the moon, including Jack Swigert, Al Worden, Stu Roosa, Ron Evans, and Ken Mattingly as Command Module Pilots, while classmates Edgar Mitchell and Charlie Duke walked on the surface of the moon. Fred Haise served as the Lunar Module Pilot for the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, another of McCandless’s astronaut class. Much of his class served on Skylab, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, and the early shuttle flights.

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Bruce McCandless II, c. 1971. (Source: Wikimedia)

McCandless, and classmate Don Lind, was considered more a scientist than a pilot in his astronaut class. This undoubtedly hurt him in crew rotation and mission assignments. One need look no further than Astronaut Walter Cunningham’s book, The All-American Boys, to know that Deke Slayton did not look favourably on anyone who was not a test pilot. Cunningham aptly noted:

If an astronaut had been in space, he was a star. If he was on a crew, he was a prospect. If he was not yet in line, he was simply a suspect. He hadn’t really made the team. (Cunningham, p. 84).

Cunningham also noted that amongst all astronauts, ‘At the very bottom of the pile were the hyphenated astronauts, the scientists’ (Cunningham, p. 87). McCandless II almost became the astronaut the world forgot despite his presence in the famous photo.

In his new book Wonders All Around: The Incredible True Story of Astronaut Bruce McCandless II and the First Untethered Flight in Space, this omission is being corrected by his son, Bruce McCandless III. This book focuses on the astronauts of the Apollo era who doggedly hung on at NASA through the early Space Shuttle program. Also unusual is that Wonders all Around is the third book to either be authored or co-authored by a son or daughter of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo Astronauts, the others being Rosemary Roosa’s To the Moon: An Autobiography of an Apollo Astronaut’s Daughter, and Kris Stover’s For Spacious Skies, written with her father Scott Carpenter. All three bring a different perspective to the golden age of spaceflight.

The author traces the early journeys of his father but does not fall into the trap of taking too long to tell it. For Bruce McCandless, ‘the real joys of his life: reading, thinking, and engineering.’ This demonstrates that McCandless II was a man at home inside the cockpit and a textbook (p. 40). McCandless’ selection to NASA might not have come with a rapid assignment to a flight, but it did place him in the middle of the action, most notably with his selection serving as a CAPCOM. The author notes this assignment came with a bit of a letdown when he states:

It’s like being the backup quarterback who relays plays from the sidelines; you’re part of the action, but no one’s going to remember you after the game. (p. 62).

Nevertheless, McCandless II soldiered on through Apollo, Skylab, and Apollo-Soyuz, all without a flight assignment and grimly hung on through the intervening years waiting for the shuttle to come online. McCandless endured, and he could be seen ‘wandering the halls of Building 4, haunted by the ghosts of cancelled Apollo missions,’ even as newer generations of astronauts began to take their place in line for shuttle assignments (p. 134).

McCandless III sets about telling his father’s story and the societal, political, and cultural events that occurred along the way. He also delves into the family life of McCandless II at home, and, in this case, ‘dad’ comes across as a work-at-home, distant, slightly standoffish figure, that many in my generation can identify with.

Wonders all Around is the perfect transition book for those looking into the late-1970s lean years as NASA moved from the Saturn V to the Space Transport System. McCandless III notes that his dad was part of the transition from the all-male, test pilot atmosphere to the shuttle era’s more inclusive and scientific period. McCandless was there to see it all, still hoping for his first rocket launch and all along the way continuing his work on the piece of machinery that would solidify his place in the history of photography: the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU).

Of course, the book inevitably leads to McCandless’ first flight, his piloting of the MMU up to 300+ feet from the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1984, and ‘Hoot’ Gibson taking the now-iconic photo, but neither of the McCandless’s story ends there. Instead, McCandless II continued to stick it out at Houston and flew one more time on a possibly more famous mission, STS-31, which deployed the Hubble Space Telescope (I would be remiss here if I did not recommend Astronaut Kathryn Sullivan’s magnificent biography Handprints on Hubble).

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Astronaut Bruce McCandless II, mission specialist, participates in a extra-vehicular activity (EVA), a few meters away from the cabin of Space Shuttle Challenger. He is using a nitrogen-propelled hand-controlled Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU). He is performing this EVA without being tethered to the shuttle. The picture shows a cloud view of the Earth in the background. (Source: Wikimedia)

As new and forthcoming astronaut biographies continue to be published each year, our understanding of NASA as an organization continues to grow as well. McCandless III’s biography of his father adds to our understanding. McCandless II clearly had the ‘Right Stuff,’ but he had more than enough of the ‘Scientific Stuff’ to make him a legendary astronaut, and this biography cements the name of McCandless alongside Shepard, Armstrong, and Ride.

McCandless II said of that famous photo that “I have the sun visor down, so you can’t see my face, and that means it could be anybody in there. It’s sort of a representation not of Bruce McCandless, but mankind.”[1] That may be true, but the author has lifted that visor and allowed the sun to shine on the face of his father at last. Wonders All Around is a powerful biography, history, and love letter to an organization, an event, a photograph, and an individual.

Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). He is also the Book Reviews Editor here at From Balloons to Drones. A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his Masters’ from Auburn University Montgomery in 2006 and his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. He is the author of Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force (2017) and The Air Force Way of War (2015). The latter book was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s 2016 professional reading list and the 2017 RAF Chief of the Air Staff’s reading list. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header image: Astronaut Bruce McCandless, II tests a the manned maneuvering unit during a test involving the trunion pin attachment device he carries and the shuttle pallet satellite (SPAS-01A), partially visible at bottom of the frame. The space shuttle Challenger was flying with its aft end aimed toward the Earth. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Anne Broache, ‘Footloose,’ Smithsonian Magazine, August 2005.

#BookReview – An Honorable Place in American Air Power: Civil Air Patrol Coastal Operations, 1942-1943

#BookReview – An Honorable Place in American Air Power: Civil Air Patrol Coastal Operations, 1942-1943

Frank A. Blazich Jr. An Honorable Place in American Air Power: Civil Air Patrol Coastal Operations, 1942-1943. Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 2020. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pbk. xvi + 239 pp.

Reviewed by Bryant Macfarlane 

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As a much younger man, I participated in the United States Air Force’s Civil Air Patrol (CAP) cadet program like many other young Americans. Along with emergency services and aerospace education, the CAP cadet program teaches valuable life skills and cementing a nascent airmindedness into its members.  Given the important role, the publication of Frank A. Blazich, Jr.’s An Honorable Place in American Air Power: Civil Air Patrol Coastal Operations, 1942-1943 is an important addition to the literature on the role of American air-power during the Second World War.

Blazich, Curator of Modern Military History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History and Director of the Colonel Louisa S. Morse Center for Civil Air Patrol History, is uniquely suited to the task of writing the history of CAP’s important role at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic. An Honorable Place in American Air Power recounts the exploits of volunteer American civil airmen combating U-boats off the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts and patrolling the American-Mexico border in the critical opening months of American involvement in the Second World War. Though not the first to tackle the subject, Blazich’s effort is undoubtedly the most complete accounting of how American – air-minded civilians found a way to help their nation in a time of dire need. Blazich challenges the hagiographic treatment of William Mellor, Andrew Ten Eyck, and Robert E. Neprud by arguing that the CAP had significant safety, organisational, and funding issues until Congress created federal legislation in 1948. While most works produced since the 1950s have been tertiary works, Blazich supports Clair Blair’s conclusion in Hitler’s U-Boat War (1998). Blair and Blazich argue that U-boats were not a decisive weapon of war in the Atlantic but did significantly delay the total mobilisation of American assets towards operations in Africa. Blazich’s original research builds upon the archival work of Michael Gannon and the capture of oral history by Louis Keefer to fully explore the historiographical gap left in the official histories of the US Army and US Navy.

While the work is aimed at incorporation into professional military education venues, Blazich’s writing is very accessible to general readers and military professionals while retaining academic rigour. Blazich’s presentation and enthusiasm allow the narrative to unfold cleanly across the page while easily allowing the interested reader to understand his methodology and sources in endnotes and appendices. Researchers and academics are rewarded by including deep endnotes and rich appendices that provide a wealth of resources for further work on the CAP and interested in exploring aspects of the Second World War, air power, civil-military relations, security studies, and general American aviation history. In so doing, Blazich definitively puts to rest the myth of CAP aircraft destroying or damaging enemy submarines and clarifies the challenges surrounding the CAP and its participation in the American anti-submarine campaign from March 1942 to August 1943.

Blazich effectively demonstrates how, with tentative agreement from the US Navy and US Army Air Forces, an organisation of volunteer private pilots, mechanics, radio operators, and administrators freed military personnel and equipment for operations outside of the continental United States. Using professionalism, dedication, resourcefulness, and small civil aircraft, the CAP surmounted formidable geographic, legal, and logistical obstacles in establishing a series of 21 air bases from the Maine-Canadian border to the Texas-Mexico border. This was conducted through volunteer efforts with minimal state or federal support. Further, Blazich demonstrates that, despite support from the Office of Civil Defense (OCD), many military officials were sceptical of the potential for effective inclusion of the CAP into their national defence responsibilities. Nevertheless, despite the reorganisation of military commands and interservice squabbles over responsibilities, the CAP proved to be an effective and timely solution to the nation’s needs in securing the American eastern sea frontier and freeing uniformed forces for operations in Africa and the Pacific.

Presented in five chronologically focused chapters, with an introduction and concluding chapter on how volunteer civil-auxiliary assets can be exploited for future needs, An Honorable Place in American Air Power is a highly accessible and vital work. Some may take historical umbrage with Blazich’s argument (p. 1) that within the context of the era, ‘CAP members became the first American civilians to actively engage with enemy forces in defense of the United States.’ However, as Blazich (p. 1) clearly outlines across the five chapters that make up the core of this book that for approximately 18 months, the volunteer civilian airmen of the CAP became a de jure ‘fourth arm of the nation’s defense.’ While volunteering for CAP missions did not preclude Selective Service selection, and members had to provide their uniforms, aircraft, equipment, and facilities, it offered the only path for a private citizen to maintain the ability to ‘own, operate and service any aircraft and radio equipment.’ (p. 89)

While Blazich rightly argues that the formation of the CAP was a synchronicity of people and events that was put into motion in the late 1930s, what is unquestionably clear is that the organisation would not have been taken as seriously by the War Department had it not been for the positive relationships air-minded leaders. These included people such as Fiorello LaGuardia, of the OCD, shared with well-placed Army officials, like Chief of the Army Air Forces ‘Hap’ Arnold, in the War Department. Arnold, like Giulio Douhet, understood the need to educate political leaders on the critical link between military and civilian aviation. Arnold also understood that America was soon to be desperately needed a ready supply of skilled pilots and maintainers. Because of this, argues Blazich, Arnold became ‘one of the CAP’s biggest supporters’ from within the War Department. (p. 150) While Blazich clarifies that CAP operations occurred concurrently with the increased convoy and military force projection that had effectively created wide-area security for American sea frontiers, the argument is clear that the CAP provided an evident success in effectively adopting civilian volunteers and equipment into the National Defense Strategy.

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The front cover of Blazich’s book is based on this 1943 recruitment poster for the Civil Air Patrol that was designed by Clayton Kenney. (Source: NARA)

A prime example of synchronicity was the November 1941 decision of the OCD to place Army Major General John F. Curry, a retired Commandant of the Air Corps Tactical School, as the CAP National Commander. Thus, building trust between the fledgling CAP and the War Department as unarmed CAP patrols began in January 1942. Blazich (p. 56) argues that despite the early support by the War Department, by March 1942, the US Navy felt the CAP would ‘serve no useful purpose except to give merchant ships the illusion that an adequate air patrol is being maintained.’ However, this did not go far in impressing Admiral Ernest King, who opined (p. 57) that CAP aircraft ‘would not be productive in sufficient degree to compensate for the operational difficulties to be encountered in coordinating and controlling the flying involved by inexperienced personnel.’ Despite these expressed feelings by the US Navy, civil leaders expressed further trust in the CAP’s ability, under the operational jurisdiction of Naval sea frontier commands to extend the safety of merchant shipping through the American littorals and beyond from U-boats operating along American waters.

On 29 April 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9339, which transferred the CAP from the OCD to the War Department. By the summer of 1943, trust in the CAP as an asset to the nation’s defence in freeing military human resources for combat and providing overflight services had measured a success. The CAP bought time for the Navy to build force capacity to conduct land-based, long-range offensive operations across the American sea frontier. Admiral King registered accolades as the CAP stood down its continuous volunteer air services to America’s eastern sea frontiers. According to Blazich (p. 150), ‘King, never one to offer accolades except when appropriate, his praise represented the highest compliments’ to the demonstrated professionalism, bravery, and sacrifice of the volunteer members of the CAP.

The final chapter of An Honorable Place in American Air Power argues that the retention of the CAP after the national defence emergency demonstrates that innovative solutions to strategic problems can be found when Americans work collaboratively. Here, Blazich urges key leaders to use the legal and social foundations laid by the CAP to be extended into more routine use in an emergency, or civil relief situations. Blazich, arguing that the CAP has expanded to include cyber and small unmanned aerial system operations, sees an underutilised functional capacity in the CAP. ‘For a future conflict with an unknown enemy, [and] the improbability of a conventional enemy land force invading the continental United States,’ argues Blazich (p. 175), ‘physical CAP assets will assist the Air Force along the nation’s borders, in cyberspace, and throughout the interior.’

In conclusion, An Honorable Place in American Air Power is a tremendously important work that expands our understanding of the American home front in the opening months of the Second World War. While, as Blazich argues (p. 164), ‘deterrence is a nebulous matter to objectify into metrics,’ An Honorable Place in American Air Power conclusively demonstrates the effectiveness of the CAP through the actions of the brave men and women of the coastal patrol stations that motivated legislative designation of the CAP as the auxiliary of the United States Air Force. Moreover, the CAP is ‘available for noncombat programs and missions with taxpayer funding and resources’ (p. 170) to continue providing education, emergency rescue, and other support to continually build strength for a capable air presence for the American people.

Bryant Macfarlane served in the United States Army from 1997 to 2019 and is a PhD student at Kansas State University studying vertical flight and its effect on military culture. He can be found on Twitter @rotary_research.

Header Image: A variety of Civil Air Patrol-operated aircraft, including a Sikorsky S-39 in center frame, parked at Coastal Patrol Base 17  between July 1942 and August 1943. The base would eventually become Francis S. Gabreski Airport in New York State. (Source: Wikimedia)  

#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)