Established in 2016, From Balloons to Drones is an online scholarly platform that analyses and debates air power history, theory, and contemporary operations in their broadest sense, including space and cyber power. To date, with have published over 250 articles on various air power-related subjects.
Since its emergence at the start of the 20th Century, air power has increasingly become the preferred form of military power for many governments. However, the application and development of air power are controversial and often misunderstood. To remedy this, From Balloons to Drones seeks to provide analysis and debate about air power through the publication of articles, research notes, commentaries, book reviews, and historic book reviews – see below for a description of the range of articles published.
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From Balloons to Drones publishes a series of review articles that examine the top ten books that have influenced writers on air power. See more here.
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From Balloons to Drones publishes occasional historic book reviews that aim to be an accessible collection of appraisals of critical historic publications about air power history, theory, and practice. See more here.
Submissions should be submitted in Word format and emailed to the address below with ‘SUBMISSION’ in the subject line. Also, please include a 50-100 word biography with your submission. References can be used, and please be careful to explain any jargon. However, if you are unsure if your idea fits our requirements, please email us with ‘POTENTIAL SUBMISSION’ in the subject line to discuss.
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Header image: A Panavia Tornado GR4 of No. IX(B) Squadron on a training sortie in preparation for deployment to Afghanisation, c. 2012. (Source: Wikimedia)
Editorial Note: Led by our Editor Dr Mike Hankins, From Balloons to Drones produces a monthly podcast that provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here. You can also find our podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.
In our latest podcast, we are joined by General Larry O. Spencer, former Vice Chief of Staff of the U. S. Air Force. He recounts his journey from being raised in Southeast Washington, D. C. to enlisting in the U. S. Air Force and eventually rising through the ranks to become one of only nine African Americans to wear four stars. General Spencer’s background as a support officer in an organization that tends to favour pilots and aircrews brings a different lens through which to look at the USAF and the use of air power.
General (ret’d) Larry O. Spencer served as Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force until his retirement in 2015. As VCSAF, he presided over the Air Staff and served as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Requirements Oversight Council and Deputy Advisory Working Group. He assisted the Chief of Staff with organising, training, and equipping 664,000 active-duty, Guard, Reserve, and civilian forces serving in the United States and overseas. Spencer was born in Washington, D.C. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in industrial engineering technology from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, and was commissioned through Officer Training School in 1980 as a distinguished graduate. Spencer has commanded a squadron, group and wing and was Vice Commander of the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center. He was also the first Air Force officer to serve as Assistant Chief of Staff in the White House Military Office. In addition, he served as the Comptroller and then Director of Mission Support (A7) at a major command; and held positions within the Air Staff and Secretary of the Air Force. Before becoming VCSAF, Spencer was Director, Force Structure, Resources and Assessment, Joint Staff, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C.
Header image: General Larry O Spencer outside his family home in Washington DC, 30 July 2015 (Source: United States Air Force)
Air superiority needs to be conceived as a political condition that begins in peacetime, not merely a wartime operational pursuit. Perceiving air superiority in this way will make connections to the ordinary peacetime conditions political actors like the United States seek, resulting in military strategy, targeting, and weapons acquisition more in tune with national policy. This commentary piece is an essay based on a comprehensive study on the relationship between military means and political ends. Typically, examinations of air superiority start with discussing airframes, basing, technology, and tactics. This proposal, however, begins with the issues of legitimacy and norms and suggests ways of achieving air superiority rooted in peacetime operations. It concludes that a mix of manned and unmanned fighter aircraft is the best means of achieving this national policy.
An Essential Condition
Airliners require airspace free of the threat of missiles, drones, and gunfire before they even consider flight. Conversely, military pilots prefer unimpeded airspace in which whatever fire an enemy can send their way is insufficient to cause more than an occasional loss through which they can fly their missions without substantial interference and complete their missions. If the stakes are high enough, aircrews will press forward despite losses to hostile fire. Those can increase to the point that only the most necessary missions will justify prohibitive losses.
Air superiority is the general term used to describe these varying grades of airspace control. The condition is normally conceived in operational and physical terms: is a sector of airspace permissive enough for operations to be completed without too many losses? How many aircraft can one lose before it becomes too difficult to dominate a sector of airspace? Can a military actor achieve air superiority by shooting down a number or a percentage of aircraft?
More abstractly, one can relate air superiority to achieving a military strategy. For instance, Great Britain did not achieve air superiority over south-eastern England in September 1940 when its shoot-downs of Luftwaffe aircraft reached an arbitrary threshold. Instead, Britain gained air superiority when Germany could no longer proceed with its agenda of invading the United Kingdom; inflicting losses was just an intermediate step for the Royal Air Force. As a result, the British achieved a favourable outcome even though losses to enemy aircraft continued.
A Function of Governance
One can best perceive of air superiority as a political act and consequence. Since the ultimate goal of politics is to decide who governs where, how, and under what terms, the most helpful way to conceive of air superiority is as a political act. A state should ask whether its norms, rules, power, and assumptions govern what happens in the air when determining the safety within the airspace in which its national interests lay. These concepts take us into the realm of sovereignty: who or what has ultimate authority. For example, the Soviet Union was not completely sovereign over its airspace in 1983 when it shot down the Korean airliner flight 007 because of standards of international behaviour. It had the capacity to shoot down intruding airliners, and it could have continued to shoot down airliners for some time without much exertion. Instead, Moscow found itself condemned for shooting down an aircraft that should not have been where it was in the first place because international norms had already labelled what the Soviets did as illegitimate. The Soviets had violated a norm that really did not need to be codified: you just do not shoot down civilian airliners full of people. Because international discourse had long since settled that issue, the Soviet Union was condemned for its action. Arguments such as, ‘It’s over our territory,’ or, ‘warnings are all over air navigational charts; they simply should not have been flying there,’ carried insufficient weight. Furthermore, the issue had already been decided years before the incident through international law and had nothing to do with aircraft capabilities or weapons loads. The Soviets did not recognise that air superiority was ultimately a political issue, not an issue of military power, and they did not have ultimate authority over the concept.
Norms, discourse, legitimacy, and governance, should be the starting points for understanding air superiority; machines such as aircraft, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), drones, or satellites are tools that may or may not ultimately determine the legitimacy or reality of airspace control. Furthermore, since military force is a subset of information warfare, political actors can largely determine the legitimacy of airspace control before a shooting war is even contemplated, thus predetermining a significant portion of the consequences of hostile actions before they are initiated. States already pursue these conditions by flying between China and Taiwan or over the Sea of Okhotsk. Because airforces – and more ideally, civilian airliners – normalise these flights by making them regularly, they have become legitimate. Because international rules are related to air superiority, both should be considered cohabitants on the same continuum, like radio waves and light waves on the electromagnetic spectrum.
The achievement of air superiority thus begins in peacetime with the establishment of what is legitimate behaviour. Therefore, China understands this and is trying to construct airspace sovereignty over the western Pacific Ocean with manufactured islands, agitation over centuries-old, discredited maps, and military power: air sovereignty constructivism, if you will. Of course, nearby actors such as Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines, cannot give in lest they normalise China’s aggression, but they do not have sufficient power to resist militarily.
Although it forms a critical component of the response, resisting China’s aggression and preserving airspace freedom does not begin with building powerful air forces. Regional powers must perpetuate an ongoing narrative about what is legitimate in the airspace off the coasts of Asia. When they make violations of their airspace by Chinese military aircraft actions that are automatically condemned; for example, they will have contributed to a powerful foundation for air superiority. Grassroots rhetoric condemning Chinese production of runway cratering missiles, not to mention artificial islands, would further contribute to the discourse of air superiority. So, the first component of air superiority operations would be to create a norm of, ‘this is simply the way things are; this is what is appropriate.’ For instance, international airspace is accepted, and air defence identification zones extend only as far as radar coverage from one’s mainland (generally around 200 miles). When no one, or at most, only China, questions that assertion, those states will have added to the legitimacy of their own defensive military aggression if it is ever necessary. Nurturing this narrative does not carry prohibitive costs, but it requires constant attention and never ends.
This endeavour’s more deliberate components include international agreements, international organisations, multinational military exercises, and air sovereignty flights. Conducted as a diplomatic-information campaign, these activities can predetermine who will be the victim and who will be the aggressor if armed conflict erupts. Indeed, ensuring that one’s state achieves victim status and is not labelled the aggressor is the most critical goal in the discourse of air superiority. Victims have very liberal rights to self-defence during war, while aggressors may not have any rights. Therefore, possessing the legitimate right of self-defence when protecting airspace is critical and begins in peacetime. States should make maintaining that status an ongoing component of their grand strategy and ensure that illegitimate power is the only means available to actors like China and Russia.
Ultimately a determined aggressor will not care. International opprobrium, condemnation, and even new enemies who wage war against the aggressor state may not be enough to dissuade a political actor from taking what he wants by force. However, if the revisionist power wins that battle over airspace, it will find itself in a weakened condition for resisting the international opprobrium that would follow. Ideally, regional actors will possess enough military power to persuade an aggressor to not go to war in the first place or fight him to a standstill if war comes. The question of what the best hardware is for accomplishing that goal is one that states must answer the first time correctly.
Prior to Weapons Acquisition
The most important question surrounding the hardware of air superiority is not which machine will shoot down the most enemy aeroplanes or missiles. Instead, one should ask political questions addressing legitimacy, deterrence, which governs where and how, and gaining victim status. Covering those bases will function as force multipliers to the combat capabilities of one’s air and space forces. States should opt for a mix of capabilities—not for operational reasons or the ability to achieve high kill rates of invading aircraft and missiles, although necessary. Instead, the capabilities must further political goals. Air capabilities need to be able to deter, reaffirm legitimacy, confer aggressor status on the state that is attacking, and wreck the aggressor’s strategy. From there, one should construct a system of sufficient lethality to preserve or regain air superiority. Furthermore, an air force should pursue air superiority as a component of governance, not merely as a military operation.
Surface-to-air missiles may be the best starting point because they are inherently defensive. A PAC-III missile cannot attack China from South Korea or anywhere else, for that matter. SAMs are legitimate because they operate from within a country or one of its warships. They are not aggressive since they are defensive weapons. An enemy must attack them, often as the first step in an airstrike; thus, SAMs force the enemy into labelling himself the aggressor and your state the victim, giving the attacked country the power that comes to a victim in today’s discourse. But an air force can use up its SAMs quickly. Suppose the enemy still has offensive power after the defender fires off its last missiles. In that case, the defender will be in a precarious state, and victim status and the legitimacy of his cause may be so much rhetoric.
The SAM’s stablemate, antiaircraft artillery, can cause great destruction to an attacker. As inherently defensive weapons, they are legitimate and not a weapon of aggression. They need to be able to detect and hit enemy missiles and aircraft; however. Otherwise, their use conveys the image of mindless firing and panic. Since the geographic coverage of each piece is quite small, they are tertiary weapons.
Cyber weapons should be a component of air superiority hardware. Few things could be better than somehow switching off or wrecking enemy hardware from within, for instance, but to my knowledge, computer viruses do not yet cause circuit boards to melt themselves. A force struck down with computer viruses can clean out the malicious software, and even examine and exploit it for a counterattack. For that reason, cyber weapons are one-shot pieces of software. They can help defeat an enemy onslaught, but they can also help an enemy strengthen his network defence because the attack exposes a weakness.
Space-based weapons have the potential to dominate the airspace below, but they have problems when it comes to legitimacy, deterrence, and labelling. If a country flies a space laser over its enemy to protect international airspace, it does so intrusively, confusing the world audience as to who the aggressor is. Placing a satellite armed with defensive weapons could give the appearance of a constant offensive threat overhead. Damocles would not be a politically helpful label for an armed satellite.
Weapons Have Differing Meanings
There is currently a rush to build unmanned aircraft that either function as remotely piloted vehicles or as autonomous aircraft flown by artificial intelligence. They are less expensive, there is no pilot to be killed or captured, and their swarms can overwhelm defences or attacking strike packages. Drones, however, can only extend firepower, not legitimacy. Squadrons of drones either convey the seriousness of large groups of appliances or the sinister capability of robots; fiction writing has already determined many of the meanings we attach to drones. It will be challenging for drones to be perceived solely as defensive and fully legitimate, and their deterrent effect may be less. One of the components of deterrence is forcing the enemy to attack and kill your people and your territory if they wish to attack. Thus, an enemy is less likely to attack an ICBM in a silo, for example, than a ballistic missile submarine; land-based ICBMs enhance deterrence. Furthermore, people, not machines, need to govern airspace. People are more legitimate than machines, and people, not machines, can be victimised. Drones can threaten, but unlike manned aircraft, they cannot coerce in a way that is seen as legitimate. Drones will be most effective in furthering a political narrative when retained as adjuncts – extra shooters – to manned aircraft.
Because of the politics of air superiority, its optics, the issue of legitimacy, the need to convey political will and commitment, and the different meanings attached to manned aircraft and autonomous aircraft, a great need remains for men and women to fly the aircraft and man the SAM sites that achieve air superiority. Skin in the game is necessary because an aggressor will be less inclined to shoot down a manned aircraft than a drone. The people of a country will be up in arms if one of their piloted aircraft is shot down during a crisis, but if one of their drones is shot down, how should they react when an armed appliance has been destroyed? Drones will provoke, but fighters with a human at the controls can deter, signal, provoke, defend, escort, and assert international norms. While drones can provide more tactical firepower, only manned fighters can function as political weapons. Indeed, fighter aircraft that cannot be used against surface targets unless they spend six months in a depot undergoing conversions may be in the national interest to a far greater degree than a multi-role aircraft. It may even be in the national interest to produce a follow-on to the F-22 that can only be used as an air-to-air weapon.
Air Superiority without Bombing China
A capability to achieve air superiority over eastern Europe or the western Pacific without needing to carry out bombardment missions against Chinese or Russian SAM sites or airbases is most attractive politically as well as militarily; an ability to dominate airspace with a mix of manned and unmanned fighter aircraft without the assistance of aircraft attacking targets on enemy territory gives several advantages to political leaders. First, such a capability remains a defensive, legitimate political act of governing airspace and defending airspace. Such aircraft cannot attack their adversaries and thus are less escalatory. They can complete the mission of air sovereignty over their own territory or within international airspace. Proposals of bombing Chinese or Russian airbases in defence of Taiwan or the Baltic states are asinine. When one is bombing Russian airbases, one is attacking Russia, a Russia with a nuclear arsenal. Airfield and SAM site attack strategies, operations, and capabilities were essential when deterring the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War. They may be a requirement against peer states when a geopolitical relationship is going down the tubes, but bombing Chinese or Russian airfields constitutes poor politics for the United States and its allies except in the most extreme circumstances. An offensive capability and strategy in defending friends along the Asian periphery will lead to a war that worsens conditions, rather than a settlement in which those areas are governed in ways that respect the sovereignty of smaller states and international law. An offensive-defensive strategy will erode the victim status regional actors can easily retain if they emphasise an airspace politics of live and let live.
Developing the best new aircraft, SAMS, and directed energy weapons for shooting down enemy aircraft and missiles must not be procurement’s starting point for maintaining air superiority over the western Pacific. Again, air superiority is a political act, a contest of who governs the western Pacific in this instance, and how. What characteristics will the machines employed to carry out that task needs with that goal in mind? Because of the lethality of SAMs, air-to-air missiles, cyber weapons, and guided ballistic missiles, aircraft must be excellent technologically, but not for the sake of fielding the most advanced technology. Because of the political goals of the United States and its allies, the weapons should be defensive. An F-22, for example, is ideal for this mission because it does not possess much of an air-to-ground bombardment capability. That trait is a political advantage because the capability, intentions, and rhetoric are all congruent with a policy goal of governance and air defence. Since F-22-type aircraft do not support a ground attack strategy well, they are politically ideal for preserving air superiority. Several wings of American and allied F-22s and Next Generation Air Dominance Fighters (NGADs) would have the ability to defeat Chinese assets. Since they do not have the range to penetrate deep into Chinese territory, they threaten China less and match the political rhetoric of the United States and its friends more. Most importantly, highly-capable fighter aircraft can achieve air superiority solely in international airspace – the ideal location for exerting air sovereignty.
Because of the political goals behind its existence, the NGAD should be designed as a single-purpose, air-to-air combat-only fighter with a person in the cockpit. It does not need the capability to penetrate deep into Chinese or Russian airspace to destroy surface targets because that capability will not match up with any of the United States’ political goals. Why should the United States and her friends must have the capability to destroy SAM sites and airfields on Russian or Chinese territory? For that reason, the NGADs should be forward deployed, not F-35s. Keep the offensive capabilities of F-35s away from our adversaries. That will support American rhetoric and strategy, and their transfer forward in a crisis will help diplomatic efforts if it ever comes to that.
Air defence NGADs should be the forward-deployed aircraft because they can survive airspace infested with long-range Chinese SAMs fired from warships and long-range fighter aircraft far better than variants of the F-15 or F/A-18. The most advanced legacy airframes – including those not yet manufactured like the F-15EX – would only function as SAM sponges in the western Pacific and have no business flying in this theatre unless Chinese air capabilities have significantly been diminished. Even though it is more survivable against SAMs than legacy aircraft, the F-35 is not ideal for this mission because its offensive capabilities run counter to the policy and narrative desirable for governing the airspace over the western Pacific. Furthermore, it is too slow to run down and destroy the fastest Chinese fighters; it cannot engage and disengage at will like an air superiority fighter needs to do. However, given the low numbers of extant F-22s, F-35s must participate in the air-to-air battle in this scenario for the next several years. Finally, the NGAD should be designed as an aircraft carrier-launched aircraft and then equip both the US Navy and the US Air Force. Aircraft designed for carrier operations can be flown from land bases, but aircraft designed for runway operations cannot stand the stresses of carrier catapult launches and arrested landings. The NGAD should not be multi-role, but it will be multi-service. Furthermore, if it does its job well, it will not need to carry bombs because peer adversaries will not continue offensive warfare if they have lost command of the air.
Policy Goals, Grand Strategy, Narratives, Military Strategy, then Weapons Acquisition
The way to determine what kind of new technology to acquire for deterrence and war is not to first pursue the most advanced technology conceivable. However, the military strategy that results from a defence review may require just that. States need first to decide what they want. What political world do they want to live in? How can they use force, diplomacy, acquisitions, deterrence, legitimacy, and narratives to reach that world without stumbling into a major war – or winning if war breaks out? Air superiority starts with political goals, not technology, doctrine, or operations. Such an approach will significantly improve the United States’ opportunities for maintaining an international order conducive to the ideals and interests of itself and its friends. The capabilities of its military hardware will then be congruent with its peaceful rhetoric.
Dr Michael E. Weaver is an Associate Professor of History at the USAF Air Command and Staff College. He has authored five air power articles and a book on the 28th Infantry Division. His second book, The Air War in Vietnam, is due out in the fall of 2022. Weaver received his doctorate from Temple University in 2002, where he studied under Russell Weigley.
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed herein are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense, the U. Air Force, or Air University.
Header image: An F-15EX Eagle II from the 40th Flight Test Squadron, 96th Test Wing out of Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, flies in formation during an aerial refuelling operation above the skies of Northern California, 14 May 2021. The Eagle II participated in the Northern Edge 21 exercise in Alaska earlier in May. (Source: Wikimedia)
In the light of the ongoing war in Ukraine and the support provided by other states, it seems like, for the past month, discussions (at least those air power-related) revolved around two topics: no-fly zones and the potential transfer of Polish MiG-29 fighter jets to the Ukrainian Air Force. While the potential consequences of the former have been analysed and commented on by several professionals, security analysts and researchers, the reasoning behind the decisions regarding Polish MiG-29s are less discussed. The coverage has been mainly limited to reporting the progress of the potential deal (or, more recently, calling it off) between Poland, the US and Ukraine. What would it mean then for Poland (and NATO) if those fighter jets were transferred to Ukraine, and why such a move is more complicated than it seems?
The MiG-29 saga can be traced back to EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell announcing on 27 February a €450m scheme to fund weapons for Ukraine, which would include providing fighter jets. These were supposed to be post-Soviet aircraft with which Ukrainian pilots are familiar. The following day Ukrainian authorities announced in a Tweet that the Ukrainian Air Force was to receive a total of 70 fighter planes from Poland (28 MiG-29), Slovakia (12 MiG-29) and Bulgaria (16 MiG-29 and 14 Su-25). At the same time, Borrell backtracked on his announcement and acknowledged that the potential transfer of those aircraft would have to be agreed upon bilaterally by individual states rather than sponsored by the EU. On Tuesday, these news reports were quickly denied by Slovakia and Bulgaria. Also, Polish President, Andrzej Duda, speaking alongside NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the Łask Air Base in Poland, clearly stated that Poland would not send their jets to Ukraine as that would suggest a military interference and NATO is not part of that conflict. Following a plea by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to supply his country with more firepower, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced on Sunday, 6 March, that Poland has been given ‘the green light’ to provide the Ukrainian Air Force with MiG-29s and indicated the possibility that in turn the Polish Air Force could be supplied with new F-16s. On Tuesday, 8 March, the following statement was made by the Polish Minister of foreign affairs, Zbigniew Rau:
The authorities of the Republic of Poland, after consultations between the President and the Government, are ready to deploy – immediately and free of charge – all their MIG-29 jets to the Ramstein Air Base and place them at the disposal of the Government of the United States of America.
At the same time, Poland requests the United States to provide us with used aircraft with corresponding operational capabilities. Poland is ready to immediately establish the conditions of purchase of the planes.
The Polish Government also requests other NATO Allies – owners of MIG-29 jets – to act in the same vein.
The US rejected the proposal as ‘not tenable’ because it presents serious logistical challenges and ‘raises serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance.’ General Tod D. Wolters, Commander for the US European Command, later repeated that stance and added that such a move, while not increasing the effectiveness of the Ukrainian Air Force, could be seen as escalatory in the conflict with Russia. Also, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz opposed the proposal of transferring Polish MiGs via Ramstein, saying ‘we want to de-escalate the conflict, we want to see an end to this conflict.’ The argument of possible escalation the transfer could bring is dominant in the discussions around the topic. It also explains Poland’s motivation not to take the final decision unilaterally. As explained by President Duda in a joint press conference with the US Vice President Kamala Harris, as a NATO member, Poland cannot decide on an issue that could impact the security of the whole Alliance. Therefore they ‘wanted NATO as a whole to make a common decision so that Poland remains a credible member of NATO.’ A potential escalation of the conflict quite rightly dominates the discussion on the MiGs transfer, but what are the other ‘logistical challenges’ as mentioned by the US authorities that such a move would entail?
The MiG-29s currently possessed by the Polish Air Force is a remnant of its past. As a former Soviet bloc country, Poland had in its inventory mostly aircraft built either in the Soviet Union or under their licence, so, for example, the fighter fleet consisted of MiG-21, MiG-23, MiG-29, and Su-22, where only the latter two types had any modern combat capability. As a result of post-1990 modernisation conducted in the Polish Armed Forces, the former two types (MiG-21 and MiG-23) were withdrawn from service by 2004. As per MiG-29s, many of those purchased at the time by Poland was not a brand-new platform. In fact, ten jets were acquired from the Czech Republic in 1995, and an additional 22 were bought from Germany in 2003. The latter ones were in a much worse condition than the others and required a major overhaul. As a result, only fourteen out of those 22 were operational in the Polish Air Force. In 2021, Poland had 28 MiG fighters. One could ask how much difference would those aging platforms make if transferred to the Ukrainian Air Force? Ukrainian air fleet consists of post-Soviet platforms including, for example, MiG-29, Sukhoi-27, or Sukhoi-25. Therefore, transferring aircraft with which pilots are familiar makes perfect sense. Especially while there are still pilots who can fly them, as with every aircraft lost in a fight, an experienced pilot is lost. Also, since the start of the war, neither the Ukrainian side nor the Russian has secured air superiority, although both have suffered losses. As reported on the Oryx list of equipment losses, to date, the Ukrainian Air Force lost 12 fixed-wing aircraft while, on the Russian side, 16 fixed-wing platforms were destroyed and one damaged. Certainly, in such a situation, additional MiGs are needed to fill the emerging gap and ensure that Russia is still denied air superiority. However, would they be a game-changer as compared with the highly effective Ukrainian air defence? It has already been suggested to provide Ukraine with ground-based air defence systems as an alternative solution to transferring fighter jets – simpler logistically and less risky of conflict escalation.
On a similar note, however, one could also ask what it would mean for Poland’s defence if these aircraft were to be transferred to the Ukrainian Air Force. Indeed, such a move would leave the Polish Air Force with a capability gap as MiGs are the only fighter jets in their fleet. The multi-role F-16s Poland also possesses could potentially take over that role. However, that would mean that the F-16s cannot perform other roles they are capable of, like engaging in air-to-ground missions. Therefore, transferring MiGs would weaken Poland’s (and NATO’s defence), leaving a capability gap that would need to be filled.
A solution to that, as it seems, could be the potential deal between Poland and the US, resulting in acquiring ‘aircraft with corresponding operational capabilities’ as suggested in the Ministerial statement. There are, however, certain logistical difficulties to such a move. Firstly, there is a backlog in the production of F-16s; therefore, immediate delivery of new aircraft to fill the gap is not an option. Secondly, to acquire new jets and fill the gap promptly, Poland would have to jump the queue as it would be not the only country waiting for those platforms, and, at the moment, priority has been given to Taiwan. Also, acquiring used aircraft would present similar difficulties as they will have to be replaced with new platforms to start with and then most likely undergo an overhaul before being sold. Therefore, it is not a quick nor easy solution.
Furthermore, purchasing aircraft to replace MiGs presents potential training and personnel challenges. Despite what type is being acquired, personnel (both pilots and ground crew) must be trained, and air bases need to be prepared. Moreover, as one could expect, training a fourth-generation fighter pilot is a lengthy and multi-level process. For example, the first deployment of Polish F-16s happened in 2016 – ten years after they were bought by the Polish Air Force when four of the fighters joined Operation Inherent Resolve in Kuwait. Under special circumstances, like a developing conflict in a neighbouring country, it could be suspected that training could be sped up. However, this certainly cannot happen overnight and would still require time and resources. Also, a valid question remains about the personnel currently working with MiG-29s. They would need to be re-trained for a new platform type (whatever that would be). However, it is also quite possible that they may not qualify for that because of age. Therefore, one could ask whether it is a good moment to make them redundant and whether such a move would not further weaken Poland’s defence capability.
There are also technical issues that need to be addressed before the fighter jets are transferred. When Poland joined NATO in 1999, it meant a major military transformation, part of which was focused on increasing compatibility with the Alliance’s systems. That meant that the existing aircraft had to be fitted. For example, with equipment allowing for secure communication with the platforms belonging to other NATO members or equipment allowing for its correct identification as friend or foe. As Ukraine is not part of NATO, those systems would need to be removed. Furthermore, one should remember that as NATO aircraft, the avionics in Polish MiGs were re-scaled from metric to the imperial system. Moreover, that not only involved upgrading or re-scaling the equipment and creating a whole new mindset, so the personnel did not need to make calculations to operate in the air constantly. Therefore, before the fighters were to be transferred, their avionics would need to be re-scaled back to the metric system, or otherwise, it would cause a significant challenge for Ukrainian pilots if they had to make the calculations manually under war conditions.
Another issue is the logistics of the potential transfer itself. Since flying those MiGs from a NATO airbase, whether in Germany or Poland, has been ruled out, it is unclear how they would be delivered. One scenario mentioned using a non-aligned country as a middleman – a base where the re-painted Ramstein fighters could fly to and then continue their journey to Ukraine. Kosovo was suggested as one of the possible options that would rule out NATO or the EU’s direct participation in the transfer. Nevertheless, with Russia warning that the use of other countries’ airfields for basing Ukrainian military aviation with the subsequent use of force against Russia’s army can be regarded as the involvement of these states in an armed conflict,’ it seems that such a move would likely lead to an escalation of the ongoing war.
The potential transfer of Polish MiG-29s to the Ukrainian Air Force proves to be not as straightforward as the political rhetoric may paint it. Quite the opposite – it is a lengthy, costly, and complex process. Moreover, its potential consequences range from the escalation of the conflict through to the weakening Poland’s defence capability (as well as NATO’s eastern flank in a time of war taking place on its border) to the many logistical challenges. Therefore, the decision should not be taken unilaterally by one country but rather carefully considered by the whole Alliance, as the consequences it may bring will also need to be faced collectively by all its members.
Dr Maria E. Burczynska is a Lecturer in Air Power Studies at the Department of History, Politics and War Studies, University of Wolverhampton where she is involved in designing and delivering an online MA course on Air Power, Space Power and Cyber Warfare. She obtained her PhD from the University of Nottingham where she worked on a project focused on European air power and its involvement in different forms of multinational cooperation. Her thesis, titled ‘The potential and limits of air power in contemporary multinational operations: the case of the UK, Polish and Swedish air forces,’ is making an important contribution to the field of air power studies, which remains to date largely dominated by the US case. The significance of her research was recognised by the Royal Air Force Museum awarding her the Museum’s RAF Centenary PhD Bursary in Air Power Studies in April 2019. Maria’s research interests are in the broad area of military and security studies in both, the national and international dimension. She is particularly interested in contemporary European air forces and their participation in multinational operations and initiatives as well as the influence of national culture on the military culture of individual air forces. She can be found on Twitter at: @BurczynskaMaria.
Header image: A US Air Force General Dynamics F-16C from the 183rd Fighter Wing, Illinois Air National Guard, flies in formation with a Polish Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29A from the 1st Tactical Squadron over Krzesiny air base, Poland, on 15 June 2005. Both aircraft participated in exercise ‘Sentry White Falcon 05.’ (Source: Wikimedia)
Editorial Note: Led by our Editor Dr Mike Hankins, From Balloons to Drones produces a monthly podcast that provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here. You can also find our podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or more commonly, Drones, have become increasingly key to contemporary warfare, even iconic. But are they really as revolutionary as they appear? Dr Michael Boyle joins us to discuss his recent book, The Drone Age: How Drone Technology Will Change War and Peace. He examines the drone phenomenon as it has currently affected global conflict, and how drones might shape the future.
Dr Michael J. Boyle is an Associate Professor and Chair of Political Science at La Salle University. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia. His previous books include Violence after War: Explaining Instability in Post-Conflict States, Legal and Ethical Implications of Drone Warfare, and Non-Western Responses to Terrorism.
Header image: A USAF MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft flies above the smoky San Gabriel Mountains of southern California on its way to a fire mission in the northern part of the state, August 2020. (Source: US Department of Defense)
Editorial Note: Led by our Editor Dr Mike Hankins, From Balloons to Drones produces a monthly podcast that provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here. You can also find our podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.
The war in Syria from 2011 onwards has featured heavy reliance on air power, not just by the US and its allies but also by the Russian Air Force. In this exciting episode, Dr Aaron Stein discusses his new book, The US War Against ISIS, which details how air power played a crucial role in the conflict against terrorist groups in Syria. He also reveals the fascinating and almost unbelievable engagements between US and Russian aircraft in this complex conflict.
Dr Aaron Stein is Director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia in the US. He is the author of Turkey’s New Foreign Policy: Davutoglu, the AKP and the Pursuit of Regional Order and has published in the peer-reviewed journals Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, Insight Turkey, and The Journal of Strategic Security.
Header image: An MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter from HSC 15 flies as the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) conducts flight operations in the US 5th Fleet area of responsibility supporting Operation INHERENT RESOLVE.
Editorial note: In this series, From Balloons to Drones highlights research resources available to researchers. Contributions range from discussions of research at various archival repositories to highlighting new publications. As part of this series, we are bringing you a monthly precis of recent articles and books published in air power history. This precis will not be exhaustive but will highlight new works published in the preceding month. Publication dates may vary around the globe and are based on those provided on the publisher’s websites. If you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at email@example.com or via our contact page here.
Phil Haun, ‘Winged Victory: How the Great War Ended: The Evolution of Giulio Douhet’s Theory of Strategic Bombing,’ War in History (2021). doi:10.1177/09683445211027596.
A war’s conclusion can impact strategic thinking even when the outcome is misinterpreted or an outlier. For a century, Giulio Douhet in Command of the Air, 1921 and a 1926 revision, has been the prophet for the utilitarian morality of bombing cities to gain decisive victory. His earlier work, Winged Victory: How the Great War Ended, written in 1918, has been ignored where he argued for the interdiction of enemy lines of communication. His theory changes by how the Great War ends with the collapse of the German population’s will. Had it ended differently, he could have reached a different conclusion that could have impacted the development of air power theory in the twentieth century.
Colin Tucker, ‘The Effect of Aerial Bombardment on Insurgent Civilian Victimization,’ Security Studies (2021), DOI: 10.1080/09636412.2021.1951834
Little is known about how air strikes influence insurgent behavior toward civilians. This study provides evidence that air strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) by counterinsurgency forces were a contributing factor in its civilian victimization. I theorize that air strikes expanded the distribution of insurgent fatalities to include higher-echelon membership and, at the same time, imposed psychological impairments on its fighters. As a consequence, these changes relaxed restraints on civilian abuse at the organizational and individual levels. This theory is informed by interviews of ISIS defectors and translations of ISIS documents and tested through a statistical analysis of granular-level data on air strikes and one-sided violence during ISIS’s insurgency. These findings contribute to our knowledge of insurgent behavior and provide important policy implications in the use of air strikes as a counterinsurgency (COIN) tool.
James Corum, Norway 1940: The Luftwaffe’s Scandinavian Blitzkrieg (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2021).
The Campaign for Norway in 1940 was a pivotal moment in modern warfare. It was the first modern joint campaign that featured not only ground and naval operations, but also airpower as an equal element of all operations. Indeed, Norway was the first campaign in history where air superiority, possessed by the Germans, was able to overcome the overwhelming naval superiority, possessed by the British. German success in Norway was not pre-ordained. At several times in the opening weeks of the campaign the Norwegian and Allied forces could have inflicted a major defeat on the Germans if their operations had been effectively supported. It was, in fact, the superior German use of their air force that gave the Germans the decisive margin of victory and ensured the failure of the Allied counteroffensive in central Norway in April and May of 1940.
The Norwegian campaign featured some firsts in the use of airpower including the first use of paratroops to seize key objectives and the first sinking of a major warship by dive bombers. All aspects of airpower played important roles in the campaign, from air reconnaissance to strategic bombing and ground-based air defenses. The British employed their Bomber Command in long-distance strikes to disrupt the German air and naval bases and the Germans used their bomber force to carry out long-range support of their ground forces. The German ability to transport large numbers of troops by air and the ability to supply their ground and air forces over great distances gave the Germans their first major campaign victory over the Western Allies.
Covering the first true joint campaign in warfare, this book provides a complete view of a compelling turning point in World War II. Featuring an analysis of the cooperation of ground, naval and air forces, this book is intended to appeal to a broad range of readers interested in World War II, and specifically to those interested in the role airpower played in the strategic and operational planning of the Campaign for Norway.
Bill Norton, 75 Years of the Isreali Air Force – Volume 3: Training, Combat Support, Special Operations, Naval Operations, and Air Defences, 1948-2023 (Warwick: Helion and Company, 2021).
The Israeli Air Force grew from humble beginnings to one of the largest and most experienced air combat teams in the world. This came through several major and minor wars with its Arab neighbors, almost continuous military actions short of war, and preparation for power-projection operations unusual for so small a nation. The 75-year history of the Israeli Air Force is, then, a fascinating study of a relatively small military organization working to meet shifting obligations under multiple impediments while being repeatedly tested in combat. Many factors over the decades shaped the air fighting capability, not the least being the demands of the evolving battlefield, uncertain funding, available weapons, and quality of personnel. Tactics and doctrine were, in turn, shaped by government policies, international pressures, and confronting adversaries likewise evolving. When the trials in war or combat short of war came, success was a measure in relevance of the service’s weapons, adequacy of training, and experience of personnel.
As a companion to Volumes 1 and 2 giving the chronological history of the Israeli Air Force, this third volume details special topics underscoring the service’s capability growth. These richly illustrated topics are flight training, photo reconnaissance, aerial refueling, electronic warfare, support of Special Forces, support of the Navy, and the Air Defence Forces. A summary of aircraft that served with the Israeli Air Force is provided, with a photograph of each type and major models. A summary of all IAF air-to-air “kills” is also included.
Written at a time of historical changes for the air force, and the Israel Defense Forces as a whole, this volume informs understanding of the service emerging and operating in future years. Backed by official and unofficial histories published in the last 20 years, and the unprecedented openness in the past few decades, the author has worked to make this account more accurate and complete than those of the past. It also stands apart from many other books in performing this examination in a more dispassionate and critical manner, without the common hyperbole.
Harry Raffal, Air Power and the Evacuation of Dunkirk: The RAF and Luftwaffe During Operation Dynamo, 26 May – 4 June 1940 (Bloomsbury Publishing: London, 2021).
The evacuation of Dunkirk has been immortalised in books, prints and films, narrated as a story of an outnumbered, inexperienced RAF defeating the battle-hardened Luftwaffe and protecting the evacuation. This book revives the historiography by analysing the air operations during the evacuation. Raffal draws from German and English sources, many for the first time in the context of Operation DYNAMO, to argue that both sides suffered a defeat over Dunkirk.
This work examines the resources and tactics of both sides during DYNAMO and challenges the traditional view that the Luftwaffe held the advantage. The success that the Luftwaffe achieved during DYNAMO, including halting daylight evacuations on 1 June, is evaluated and the supporting role of RAF Bomber and Coastal Command is explored in detail for the first time. Concluding that the RAF was not responsible for the Luftwaffe’s failure to prevent the evacuation, Raffal demonstrates that the reasons lay elsewhere.
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
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.
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.
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)
Editorial note: In this series, From Balloons to Drones highlights research resources available to researchers. Contributions range from discussions of research at various archival repositories to highlighting new publications. As part of this series, are bringing you a monthly precis of new articles and books published in the field of air power history. This precis will not be exhaustive but will highlight key new works published in the preceding month. If you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at firstname.lastname@example.org or via our contact page here.
Since the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Central Military Commission launched a major reorganization of the entire People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in early 2016, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has followed up with its own reforms at all levels. In February 2016, the changes entailed ‘above the neck’ reforms at PLAAF Headquarters and reduced the number of Military Region Air Force Headquarters from 7 to 5, renaming them Theatre Command Air Forces. Changes in 2017 focused on ‘below the neck’ reforms by creating a ‘base-brigade’ structure by reforming several command posts into bases; abolishing fighter, fighter-bomber, and ground attack aircraft air divisions; replacing air regiments with brigades; as well as changing the name of its former 15th Airborne Corps to Airborne Corps. Whilst the PLA leadership has moved ahead with pushing the PLAAF towards becoming a modern air force with enhanced aerial power alongside greater interoperability with the other PLA services, the reconstitution of its organizations has nevertheless led to a fallout due to policy changes concerning its rank-and-file.
Britain emerged from the Second World War with a huge aviation industry dedicated primarily to military production. During the war, in agreement with the USA, Britain used US transport aircraft, thereby giving the USA a huge potential advantage in post-war civil aviation. Nevertheless, during the war Britain charted a course of aircraft development that would allow new, competitive civil aircraft to be in place by 1950. Under the Labour government of 1945–51, Britain imposed a “Fly British” policy to encourage production of civil aircraft and required the national airlines to buy British aircraft. However, American competition, the demands of rearmament and the tightly controlled ordering process for civil and military aircraft made the production of British civil aircraft costly and uncompetitive. Faced with changing technology, rising costs and the development of US jet aircraft, the British aviation industry was forced into a radical consolidation by the Macmillan government.
This article provides the first account of air intelligence in the South West Pacific Area during the Second World War. Centring on the organisational aspects of intelligence-gathering, analysis, and dissemination, it brings the Directorate of Intelligence within the combined Royal Australian Air Force-US Army Air Force Allied Air Forces into sharp focus. This article argues that Australian-American cooperation in air intelligence was shaped by strategic circumstances, the balance of Allied air forces in the theatre, and personal relations between intelligence personnel. Though cooperation in air intelligence largely ended on a sour note in late 1944 when the Australians were largely excluded from the US-led second Philippines campaign and the Directorate of Intelligence was essentially dissolved, this article demonstrates that the Directorate became a sophisticated, if under-appreciated, intelligence organisation by mid-1943.
This paper will examine the political thought of a selection of literary figures who fought in the Free French air forces during the Second World War: Romain Gary, Joseph Kessel and Antoine de St Exupery, all of whom fought under the Free French colours in the Royal Air Force. I intend to show how the literary output of these writers all, in their different ways, reflected the feelings of humiliation felt by the French in exile about the defeat of 1940, and how they suggested ways for France to recover in the post-war era. Their thinking about French domestic politics, their Allies (especially the British) and the future of Europe are all dominant themes. The writings of all of these personalities also reflect a strong belief in a future European détente in which the British and Americans have a lesser role than the one they often envisaged for themselves in the Washington-based ‘post-war planning’ process.
First flown in May 1936, the Fieseler Fi 156, or Storch (Stork) as it was better known, was designed in answer to a request from the Luftwaffe for a short-range reconnaissance aircraft.
For its time, the Fi 156 had amazing performance and flight characteristics for what today is known as STOL (Short Take-Off and Landing). It could take-off from a lawn considerably smaller than a football field.
During the Second World War, the ubiquitous Storch was the airborne eyes of the German Wehrmacht (Army) and was also used on daring missions, including the rescue of Mussolini, the Italian dictator.
One of the last flights into Berlin was made in a Storch. Many were sold to Germany’s allies while one was used by Churchill after D-Day to observe the progress of the invasion. Others were used by the RAF as squadron ‘hacks’ with one being flown off an aircraft carrier.
The STOL concept was copied by many countries, including France, Japan and the USSR. Post-war, production continued in Czechoslovakia, France and Romania with more than 3,000 built. Some are still today flying.
As 1942 opened, both Nazi Germany and the Allies were ready for the climactic battles of the Atlantic to begin. Germany had 91 operational U-boats, and over 150 in training or trials. Production for 1942-44 was planned to exceed 200 boats annually. Karl Dönitz, running the Kriegsmarine’s U-boat arm, would finally have the numbers needed to run the tonnage war he wanted against the Allies.
Meanwhile, the British had, at last, assembled the solution to the U-boat peril. Its weapons and detection systems had improved to the stage that maritime patrol aircraft could launch deadly attacks on U-boats day and night. Airborne radar, Leigh lights, Magnetic Anomaly Detection (MAD) and the Fido homing torpedo all turned the anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft into a submarine-killer, while shore and ship-based technologies such as high-frequency direction finding and signals intelligence could now help aircraft find enemy U-boats. Following its entry into the war in 1941, the United States had also thrown its industrial muscle behind the campaign, supplying VLR Liberator bombers to the RAF and escort carriers to the Royal Navy. The US Navy also operated anti-submarine patrol blimps and VLR aircraft in the southern and western Atlantic, and sent its own escort carriers to guard convoys.
This book, the second of two volumes, explores the climactic events of the Battle of the Atlantic, and reveals how air power – both maritime patrol aircraft and carrier aircraft – ultimately proved to be the Allies’ most important weapon in one of the most bitterly fought naval campaigns of World War II.
During the Second World War, Bomber Command witnessed the large four-engine ‘heavy bombers’, namely the Handley Page Halifax, Short Stirling and Avro Lancaster develop into significant bomb-carrying platforms.
Arming for Accuracy: RAF Bomb Aimers During the Second World War studies the origin of bomb aimers, their training and the complexity of dropping many types of ordinance. Technical and scientific developments are examined to provide an understanding that enabled the bomb-aimers wing to be awarded to the men who volunteered.
Accounts of dangerous operational flying will be revealed by bomb aimers in numerous aircraft. This book will examine true accounts that took place, and many are based upon personal flying logbooks and other unique material originating from the aircrew.
In Minuteman: A Technical History of the Missile That Defined American Nuclear Warfare, David K. Stumpf demystifies the intercontinental ballistic missile program that was conceived at the end of the Eisenhower administration as a key component of the US nuclear strategy of massive retaliation. Although its nuclear warhead may have lacked power relative to that of the Titan II, the Minuteman more than made up for this in terms of numbers and readiness to launch—making it the ultimate ICBM.
Minuteman offers a fascinating look at the technological breakthroughs necessary to field this weapon system that has served as a powerful component of the strategic nuclear triad for more than half a century. With exacting detail, Stumpf examines the construction of launch and launch control facilities; innovations in solid propellant, lightweight inertial guidance systems, and lightweight reentry vehicle development; and key flight tests and operational flight programs—all while situating the Minuteman program in the context of world events. In doing so, the author reveals how the historic missile has adapted to changing defense strategies—from counterforce to mutually assured destruction to sufficiency.
Airpower played a pivotal role in the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from 2014 to 2019 and contributed to the success of Operation Inherent Resolve. This report sheds light on the impact of the air operations in Operation Inherent Resolve and whether airpower could have been applied differently to achieve faster, more-sustainable outcomes. The authors incorporate interviews with U.S. and coalition personnel, primary-source documents, and U.S. and coalition strike and sortie data to document the operational history of the air war, assess the relationship between airpower effects, and analyze the strategic and operational impact of airpower in Operation Inherent Resolve.
The authors find that, although airpower played an essential role in combating ISIS, airpower alone would not have been likely to defeat the militant organization. Instead, the combination of airpower and ground forces—led by Iraqi and Syrian partners—was needed to destroy the Islamic State as a territorial entity. The overarching strategy of Operation Inherent Resolve, which put ground-force partners in the lead, created several challenges and innovations in the application of airpower, which have implications for future air wars. To be prepared to meet future demands against nonstate and near-peer adversaries, the U.S. Air Force and the joint force should apply lessons learned from Operation Inherent Resolve.
To Rule the Skies: General Thomas S. Power and the Rise of Strategic Air Command in the Cold War fills a critical gap in Cold War and Air Force history by telling the story of General Thomas S. Power for the first time. Thomas Power was second only to Curtis LeMay in forming the Strategic Air Command (SAC), one of the premier combat organizations of the twentieth century, but he is rarely mentioned today. What little is written about Power describes him as LeMay’s willing hatchet man—uneducated, unimaginative, autocratic, and sadistic. Based on extensive archival research, General Power seeks to overturn this appraisal.Brent D. Ziarnick covers the span of both Power’s personal and professional life and challenges many of the myths of conventional knowledge about him. Denied college because his middle-class immigrant family imploded while he was still in school, Power worked in New York City construction while studying for the Flying Cadet examination at night in the New York Public Library. As a young pilot, Power participated in some of the Army Air Corps’ most storied operations. In the interwar years, his family connections allowed Power to interact with American Wall Street millionaires and the British aristocracy. Confined to training combat aircrews in the United States for most of World War II, Power proved his combat leadership as a bombing wing commander by planning and leading the firebombing of Tokyo for Gen. Curtis LeMay. After the war, Power helped LeMay transform the Air Force into the aerospace force America needed during the Cold War. A master of strategic air warfare, he aided in establishing SAC as the Free World’s “Big Stick” against Soviet aggression. Far from being unimaginative, Power led the incorporation of the nuclear weapon, the intercontinental ballistic missile, the airborne alert, and the Single Integrated Operational Plan into America’s deterrent posture as Air Research and Development Command commander and both the vice commander and commander-in-chief of SAC. Most importantly, Power led SAC through the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Even after retirement, Power as a New York Times bestselling author brought his message of deterrence through strength to the nation.
Ziarnick points out how Power’s impact may continue in the future. Power’s peerless, but suppressed, vision of the Air Force and the nation in space is recounted in detail, placing Power firmly as a forgotten space visionary and role model for both the Air Force and the new Space Force. To Rule the Skies is an important contribution to the history of the Cold War and beyond.
Editorial Note: 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of Operation DESERT STORM. To mark this anniversary, during 2021, From Balloons to Drones will be publishing a series of articles that examine various aspects of DESERT STORM’s air campaign. We will be publishing pieces throughout 2021, and if you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at email@example.com or via our contact page here. The official call for submissions can be found here.
From Balloons to Drones is pleased to be working in conjunction with the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies to publish a series of articles on various aspects of the DESERT STORM air campaign. These articles were initially published as part of a Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies special report, Desert Storm: 30 Years Later – Lessons from the 1991 Air Campaign in the Persian Gulf War. These article were originally presented at a day-long Mitchell Institute program on the DESERT STORM air campaign held on 19 March 2016, You can download the report here.
In this latest instalment, we are pleased to present a piece by Dr Benjamin Lambeth of the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment. In this article, Lambeth discusses some of the lessons learnt and forgotten from the DESERT STORM air campaign and their influence on more recent operations.
It is a special honor for me to have been invited to share the podium with this symposium’s roster of distinguished speakers to offer some final thoughts on what I believe we all would agree still remains even today – a quarter of a century later – the most epic American combat experience since Vietnam. Having now heard all of the preceding presentations this afternoon, I believe that my charter for my concluding remarks is to try to reinforce the most important and memorable recollections that were voiced earlier by those who were actually there in the fight—both in the war zone in Southwest Asia and back here in Washington.
A Combat First
To begin with, as most of you all will remember, not long after Operation Desert Storm ended, then-Secretary of the Air Force Don Rice commissioned the Gulf War Air Power Survey, or GWAPS as it is more commonly called for short. That was an in-depth, five-volume assessment of the air war modeled on the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey conducted after World War II. Professor Eliot Cohen at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies here in Washington led it.
In the preface to their unclassified synopsis of the GWAPS effort, Eliot and his co-author Tom Keaney wrote that one important purpose of the exercise had been to provide ‘an analytical and evidentiary point of departure for future studies of the air campaign.’ Inspired by that enticement, I subsequently sought to try my best to make broader sense of the Gulf War and its meaning in a substantial study of American air power’s evolution since Vietnam that was sponsored by General Ron Fogelman during his tenure as Air Force chief of staff. That study was eventually published as a commercial book by Cornell University Press in 2000. After much careful consideration, I finally chose as its title, The Transformation of American Air Power. I did so, I will now admit, before what I later came to disparage as the ‘T-word’ became so popularized and devalued by the Rumsfeld Pentagon that it eventually ended up meaning almost anything one might want it to mean. But I still have no regrets over having made that title choice, since, if used with all due discretion and discipline, ‘transformation’ remains an uncommonly powerful word. My dictionary defines ‘to transform’ as ‘to change the nature or character of something radically.’ And that is exactly what I believe happened to the substantially improved American air posture after Vietnam that we finally took to war against Saddam Hussein in 1991.
Transformed Airpower in Action
We have already heard abundant first-hand testimony this afternoon as to the main details of the air component’s performance throughout the campaign, so I will not waste time recapitulating any of those events in my own remarks. Let me just say that after the campaign’s cease-fire went into effect, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind about the determining influence that the initial air attacks had in producing the subsequent course and outcome of Desert Storm. Those attacks against Iraq’s air defenses and command and control facilities were uniformly effective, with initially, more than 600 strike sorties launched in radio silence against the country’s most significant targets the first night and with just one coalition aircraft lost to enemy fire—a Navy F/A-18, presumably to a lucky long-range infrared-guided air-to-air missile fired from an Iraqi MiG-25 that had somehow escaped being detected and identified by our E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft that was operating on station nearby. Over the next three days, the air war struck at the entire spectrum of Iraq’s military assets, gaining unchallenged control of the air and the needed freedom to operate with near-impunity against Iraq’s airfields, ground forces, and other targets of interest. In one of the first serious assessments of the campaign’s air offensive to have appeared in print after the dust settled, the United Kingdom’s most respected commentator on air warfare, retired RAF Air Vice-Marshal Tony Mason, aptly characterized it as ‘the apotheosis of 20th-century air power.’
Perhaps the single most important point to be made about the planning approach that underlay Desert Storm’s air effort has to do with its having sought and achieved desired combat effects as a major departure from our earlier targeting practice. For example, there was no assessed need for the air component of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) that conducted the campaign to destroy each and every last Iraqi acquisition and tracking radar and surface-to-air missile (SAM) site. It was enough for it simply to be so effective in its initial SAM-suppression attacks that Iraq’s SAM operators were intimidated from turning on their radars and engaging the coalition’s attacking aircraft, since they had quickly learned from the first-hand experience of others that if they did, they would invite a high-speed anti-radiation missile (HARM) shot down their throats with the certainty of sunrise.
And, by the same token, there was no assessed need for the air component to destroy each and every last Iraqi fighter aircraft. The coalition was so totally dominating in the air-to-air arena that the Iraqi Air Force soon lost any incentive to turn a wheel. Before long, it was said by some inside observers of the ongoing air war that the three most fearsome words to an Iraqi fighter pilot were ‘cleared for takeoff.’
What Made it Possible?
To sum it all up in brief, American airpower showed during Operation Desert Storm that it had finally matured in its ability to deliver the kinds of outcome-determining results that its early visionaries had promised in vain years before. Thanks to our exploitation of the latest technology, our pursuit of more realistic aircrew training, and our development of better strategies and concepts of operations after Vietnam, American airpower in all services underwent a nonlinear growth in capability as a result of the advent of stealth and our ability to attack targets consistently with high accuracy around the clock. Only later, of course, with the subsequent advent of the satellite-aided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), could it do so in any weather conditions as well.
But by the time of Desert Storm, our air assets had finally gained what they needed by way of combat wherewithal to set the conditions for victory in high-intensity warfare. They also ever more steadily came to supplant the traditional role of our ground forces in contributing the bulk of heavy lifting toward achieving joint-force combat objectives, with friendly ground forces now fixing enemy ground troops and air power doing most of the killing of them rather than the other way around, as had been the case in all previous joint air and land operations.
To offer just two examples of this momentous combat role reversal, during the pre-campaign Operation Desert Shield buildup of allied forces in the war zone, CENTCOM shipped nearly 220,000 rounds of M1A1 Abrams main battle tank ammunition to the forward area, of which less than 2 percent were actually fired in combat. For its part, the air component dropped more than 23,000 bombs on Iraq’s ground forces, making for 67 percent of the campaign’s overall air effort.
By the same token, fast-forwarding to the three-week major combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom in early 2003, the U.S. Army flew only two deep-attack missions with fewer than 80 of its AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, and it fired only 414 of its high-end MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) in support of its march northward from Kuwait to the heart of Baghdad. In contrast, CENTCOM’s air component during the same three weeks flew more than 20,000 strike sorties, using 735 fighters and 51 bombers to attack, with devastating effect, more than 15,000 Iraqi target aim points in direct facilitation of CENTCOM’s land offensive, but also mostly ahead of and independent of any friendly ground-force action.
Perhaps the most compelling testimony to what that air capability allowed in Operation Iraqi Freedom came from Lieutenant Nate Fick, a Marine Corps platoon commander during CENTCOM’s land offensive, who later wrote in his book One Bullet Away:
For the next hundred miles, all the way to the gates of Baghdad, every palm grove hid Iraqi armor, every field an artillery battery, and every alley an antiaircraft gun or surface-to-air missile launcher. But we never fired a shot. We saw the full effect of American air power. Every one of those fearsome weapons was a blackened hulk.
Later Airpower Successes
With respect to the air component’s successful performance in beating down Iraq’s ground forces in the Kuwaiti Theater of Operations (KTO) in just a little more than a month to a point where they no longer presented a major threat to the coalition’s final four-day land push, some observers tended for a time afterwards to dismiss that performance as nothing more than a one-off anomaly. It was, they said dismissively, the open desert setting, or the unusual vulnerability of Iraq’s armored forces to precision attacks from above, or any number of other unique circumstances that somehow made the air war an exception to the familiar time-honored rule that it takes friendly ‘boots on the ground’ in large numbers, and ultimately in head-to-head close combat, to defeat well-endowed enemy forces in high-intensity warfare.
To many people, that argument sounded reasonable enough when American and allied air power’s rapid rout of the Iraqi army was something the world had never seen before. Yet in the 12 years that followed Desert Storm, allied air power prevailed again in four widely dissimilar subsequent cases, starting with NATO’s two air-dominated wars over the Balkans in 1995 and 1999 and followed soon thereafter by Operation Enduring Freedom against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in late 2001 and then by the major combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March and April 2003. True enough, in none of those five cases, with the one exception of Kosovo, did air power produce the sought-after result all by itself. Yet one can fairly say that in each instance a mature air component was the main enabler of all else that followed by way of producing the desired outcome at such a low cost in friendly and noncombatant enemy lives lost. In so doing, American air power showed to the world that it had finally come of age, at least for high-intensity wars against well-equipped enemy forces.
Airpower’s Triumphant Years
In the wake of that uninterrupted succession of air warfare achievements, the first twelve years that followed Desert Storm looked for the entire world like an unqualified air power success story. Thanks to its preeminent role in the 1991 Gulf War, it seemed to many that the air weapon had finally become the tool of first choice for U. S. Joint Task Force (JTF) commanders. That impression was further reinforced by the similarly preeminent role played by air power in shaping the equally successful outcomes of Operations Deliberate Force and Allied Force in 1995 and 1999. Indeed, as Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute remarked at the turn of the 21st century, by the time the second Bush administration took office in January 2001, ‘not only did it look like air power could win wars, but there was a new crop of policymakers ready to embrace that message,’ starting with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
That view was further reinforced by the outcomes of the major combat phases of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom in late 2001 and early 2003, both of which were also largely enabled by the effective use of air power in making possible the unimpeded ground operations that brought an early end to the existing regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. In all, by the end of major combat in Iraq in April 2003 after just three weeks of sustained allied air and land operations, the evolved capabilities offered by transformed American air power seemed finally to have heralded a new style of war for the United States and its coalition partners, at least with respect to high-intensity combat against conventional forces like the ones that Saddam Hussein had fielded.
A New Insurgent Challenge
Unfortunately for that fact-based and well-founded conviction, however, the end of major combat in Iraq heralded a new era of warfare for Americans in not just one way but in two. Just as the Iraqi Freedom experience confirmed our final mastery of high-intensity combat, it also confronted us with a newly emergent wave of counterinsurgency fighting for the first time since Vietnam. That second challenge, for which we were totally unprepared, became clear within just days of the occupation’s onset as coalition ground forces were shown to have been both completely untrained and un-resourced to meet the needs of post-campaign stabilization. A similar challenge arose in Afghanistan after the Bush team took its eye off the ball there, opening up a chance for the Taliban to move back into the ensuing power vacuum in an attempt to regain control of the country.
Before our initial successes in Afghanistan and Iraq went sour and morphed into prolonged land-centric wars of attrition, the main focus of the American defense debate in Washington had been on the relative merits of air power versus ground power in joint high-intensity combat. By the time we were ready to take on Iraq in 2003, the American ‘boots on the ground’ community had clearly become the more beleaguered of the two in the continuing inter-service tug-of-war over roles and resources. However, the insurgencies that soon thereafter consumed us in Iraq and Afghanistan for half a decade and more entailed enemy wartime conduct of a quite different sort—designed to avoid our greatest strengths and instead to make the most of our vulnerabilities and weaknesses. As a result, the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps gained a new lease on life after 2003 as the challenges of combating newly-emergent insurgencies moved the spotlight from air power to our ground forces as those bearing the brunt of daily combat losses and accordingly those in greatest need of daily sustenance and funding.
Lessons Forgotten in the Fight Against ISIS
Looking now at our current effort against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), it has already been under way at a lethargic pace for more than two years, with still no end in sight or any truly significant progress achieved so far, yet at a cost of more than $5 billion in sunk cost to date, to say nothing of the additional cost in reduced service life for our jets that have flown so many combat sorties for so little gain. To my mind, it has been more than disheartening to see just how far we seem to have regressed in the 25 years since the first President Bush told us after Desert Storm that “we’d finally kicked the Vietnam syndrome.” We are now back to Vietnam all over again, it appears, with the return of the daily body count and CENTCOM’s daily recital of the number of sorties flown, bombs dropped, and targets attacked in the absence of any more meaningful metrics of performance to show how effectively we are actually faring.
I am reminded too in this regard of how we seem to have forgotten the wise counsel of the classic Prussian military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz, who stressed the criticality of correct situation assessment and of duly fighting the war one is actually in rather than the war one believes one is in or would prefer to be in. In that respect as well, it is hardly surprising that a U.S. Army-dominated CENTCOM that has been so deeply habituated to counterinsurgency warfare as a daily diet for more than a decade would naturally roll into this latest fight against ISIS as though it were just a continuation of the counterinsurgency war in Iraq. That unthinking approach has, among other things, occasioned the draconian no-civilian-casualties rules of engagement that have so badly hampered our air effort since it began ever so haltingly in early August 2014.
But ISIS is not an insurgency. On the contrary, it is a self-avowed emerging nation state that is replete with coherent leadership, territory, an infrastructure, an economy, a central nervous system, and the beginnings of a capable conventional army, all of which are eminently targetable by precision air power. Accordingly, it should be engaged by our air assets as such and not in the more gradualist and ineffectual way in which CENTCOM has pursued the Obama administration’s half-hearted campaign so far.
Has Airpower Paid a Price for Its Precision?
In that regard, before turning to my final reflections on Desert Storm, it behooves us to ask first how the current fight against ISIS may offer the latest telling example of how our very ability to avoid causing noncombatant casualties in warfare almost routinely has increasingly rendered air power a victim of its own success since 1991. People like most of us in the audience here whose formative images of air power were steeped in Vietnam had our eyes opened during the first few nights of Desert Storm by watching cockpit weapon system video clips on the nightly TV news showing laser-guided bombs homing down the air shafts of Iraqi bunkers one after the other with unerring precision. Thanks to that substantially improved capability that was first pioneered in Vietnam, avoiding unintended civilian casualties in the course of conducting air strikes naturally became a goal that air campaign planners sought to bend every effort to strive for in future conflicts.
But by the time of Operation Deliberate Force against the Bosnian Serbs in 1995, just four scant years after Desert Storm, American political leaders and rank-and-file citizens alike had become so habituated to such accuracy that what campaign planners once strove for in good faith, because air power could now generally permit it, had become not just expected but was now a binding precondition for getting an approval to drop a bomb or strafe a target. Even one inadvertent civilian fatality as the result of an errant air attack was now likely to become front-page news, as it has been ever since our would-be air war against ISIS began in early August 2014.
True enough, air power’s heightened ability to minimize unintended civilian casualties in warfare has brought along with it a new responsibility on the part of airmen to make the most of that ability in their target planning in good faith. But at the same time, it has also levied a new challenge on our most senior leaders, both civilian and uniformed, to do better at managing public expectations when even the most stringent Laws of Armed Conflict are not as exacting as our own self-imposed rules of engagement have lately become. Otherwise, collateral damage avoidance will continue to trump mission accomplishment in priority, which is tantamount to the tail wagging the dog in the conduct of war.
What Made Desert Storm Unique
With all of that by way of background, how can we best summarize the main takeaways to be drawn from the 1991 Persian Gulf War? For my money, American air power between the end of the Vietnam War and the start of Operation Desert Storm had finally evolved to a point where it had become truly strategic in its character, thanks to its by-then proven ability to produce outcome-determining effects. That was not the case before the advent of low observability to enemy radar, precision target attack capability, and vastly better real-time battlespace situation awareness in the American air posture. Earlier air wars were limited in the combat successes they could achieve because it simply took too many aircraft and too many losses to achieve too few results at too high a cost. But by 1991, American air power had finally arrived at a point where it could make its presence felt quickly and could impose effects on an enemy from the very outset of fighting that could have a determining influence on the subsequent course and outcome of a campaign. How? In large part by enabling almost unopposed friendly ground maneuver and thereby establishing the needed conditions for achieving a JTF commander’s campaign goals fairly quickly. Or, put more simply, by granting JTF commanders and their subordinate forces freedom from attack and freedom to attack.
This breakthrough in capability, however, was not just about technology. As Congressman Les Aspin rightly remarked after the Gulf War ended when he was still chairman of the House Armed Services Committee: ‘One, the equipment worked and was vindicated against its critics.’ But also, he added: ‘Two, we know how to orchestrate it and use it in a way that makes the sum bigger than all the parts.’ His second point in that statement was really the more important of the two by far. For if Desert Storm’s ultimate successfulness heralded any ‘revolution’ in warfare, then it was as a result of the campaign’s effective exploitation of all the inputs discussed earlier this afternoon, including the critically important and unquantifiable intangibles like training, tactics, proficiency, skilled leadership, concepts of operations, and boldness in execution in addition to all the technology magic that Americans usually fixate on when considering the main ingredients of military capability.
What the Gulf War Bequeathed to Us
In light of all the foregoing, it is long past time for airmen to stop seeking their intellectual guidance from such outmoded prophets as the Italian general Giulio Douhet, who advocated for air power at a time in the early 1920s when it was still embryonic and had virtually nothing in common with what it has since become today. If we need to identify new sources of such guidance for tomorrow’s still-evolving air weapon, then they should be drawn instead from the successor generation of American airmen whose path breaking insights into force employment allowed the example set by airpower’s more recently acquired performance capabilities in 1991. For in Operation Desert Storm, air power showed, for the first time ever, its ability to achieve strategic effects directly through its increased survivability and lethality. In earlier years, air forces sought to impose the greatest possible pain on enemy populations and industry, as was done against Germany and Japan in World War II and even against North Vietnam toward that war’s end in 1972, because such a strategy was the only one that air power could then underwrite with any hope of achieving success. Today, however, there is so much more one can do with air power to produce combat outcomes that more directly affect an enemy’s ability—not his will, but his ability—to continue fighting.
Of course, all force elements, including ground forces, have the opportunity in principle to seek the effects of mass without actually having to mass by leveraging modern technology to the fullest in quest of greater precision in force employment. But what was unique about modern air power as it first showed its hand in 1991 was that it had finally pulled well ahead of surface forces in its relative ability to do this, thanks not only to its newly-gained advantages in stealth, target-attack accuracy, and battlespace awareness, but also to its long-standing and enduring characteristics of speed, range, and flexibility. That, I would suggest, is the main legacy of air power’s transformation since Vietnam that we saw demonstrated for the first time in Operation Desert Storm.
Dr Benjamin S. Lambeth is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in the US. He assumed this position in July 2011 after a 37-year career as a Senior Research Associate at the RAND Corporation, where he remains an adjunct associate. Before joining RAND in 1975, he served in the Office of National Estimates at the Central Intelligence Agency. A civil-rated pilot, Lambeth has flown or flown in more than 40 different types of fighter, attack, and jet trainer aircraft with the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and with eight foreign air forces worldwide. He also attended the USAF’s Tactical Fighter Weapons and Tactics Course and Combined Force Air Component Commander Course, the Aerospace Defense Command’s Senior Leaders’ Course, and portions of the Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) and Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Instructor’s Course. In 2008, Lambeth was appointed by the Secretary of Defense to serve an eight-year term as a member of the Board of Visitors of Air University, which he completed in 2016. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Air Force Association, the U.S. Naval Institute, the Association of Naval Aviation, the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, and the Editorial Advisory Boards of Air and Space Power Journal and Strategic Studies Quarterly. He is the author of numerous books including The Transformation of American Air Power (2000), which won the Air Force Association’s Gill Robb Wilson Award for Arts and Letters in 2001. His most recent book is Airpower in the War against ISIS (2021).