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).
Editorial note: In this new series of posts, From Balloons to Drones plans to highlight research resources available to researchers. Contributions will range from discussions of research at various archival repositories through to highlighting new publications. As part of this series, we plan to bring 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.
This article sheds lights on the difficulty faced by the minor powers when they were trying to build an effective air force during the interwar period (1919–1939) and the Second World War, using the experience of Chinese military aviation as an example. It argues that the Chinese were heavily influenced by the ideas of decisive action and strategic bombing, as well as similar ideas that were attributed (sometimes incorrectly) to the Italian General and air proponent Giulio Douhet. Only the harsh lessons of the war gradually persuaded the Chinese to adopt a more realistic approach to using air power.
Royal Air Force aircrew endured mental and physical stresses during bombing operations. Their chances of completing a tour of operations unscathed were around one in four, and many were aware the chances were slim. Some who refused to fly were accused of ‘lacking moral fibre’ (LMF). Although this was not a medical diagnosis it is frequently viewed through the lens of mental health and reactions to trauma and it has become a powerful and important cultural phenomenon. This article re-examines LMF in the culture of the wartime Royal Air Force, before considering how and why LMF is remembered by veterans and in popular histories since the war.
Historians have overlooked the important role played by airpower in combined arms during the Palestine Campaign, 1917–1918. This article argues the Egyptian Expeditionary Force adopted Western Front command structures, successfully integrating airpower within their command and control systems. Tactical and strategic airpower provided intelligence which allowed Corps and Army Headquarters to control the tempo of operations, while ground attack operations disrupted Ottoman command and control arrangements. This integration made a clear contribution to the success of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force at the crucial battles of Third Gaza and Megiddo.
William Head, ‘The Triangle of Iron and Rubber: Ground Actions and Airpower during Operation Attleboro,’ Air Power History 67, no. 4 (2020).
This article analyzes the combat emotions of Royal Norwegian Air Force Fighter pilots (hereafter RNoAF) during their bombing campaign over Libya in 2011. Using grounded theory in our interviews with them, we identified 12 categories of their emotions and behaviors, with variations in pride and fear emerging as the two key themes. We show how those two emotions thread through the literature of emotions in combat, and show further how our data, and the resulting matrix from an analysis of it, both apply to and extend that literature. We also show how the high and low variations of pride and fear interact to both support and counter each other. Our findings thus make an important contribution to the combat emotions literature on the action and behavior of fighter pilots.
The involvement of the air force in a series of Joint Task Force (JTF) arrangements, which were initiated to neutralise various security threats, accounted for a growing record of air campaigns in Nigeria. Although there is growing public attention for airpower in Nigeria, its operational relevance and associated concerns have received inadequate academic attention. Accordingly, the understanding of recent developments in Nigeria’s air campaigns to neutralise targeted threats against security across the country remains largely limited and incoherent. This study, therefore, seeks to examine trends in air campaigns, with emphasis on cases, locations, targets and impacts of airstrike, in Nigeria. For this purpose, 241 cases of airstrike with 3,210 fatalities and 273 cases of air/land operations with 2,186 fatalities that were recorded across Nigeria in the last two decades were assessed. This is expected to contribute to a growing body of knowledge on air campaigns of the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) as well as their relevance to neutralise targeted threats and associated human rights concerns in internal security operations.
This article investigates the work conducted by the Royal Air Force (RAF) in the development of tactical air power in the interwar period. It analyses the RAF’s theoretical doctrinal thinking during the period along with exercises conducted on a joint Service basis to further develop these ideas in practice. It will argue that, rather than neglecting tactical air power during this period as is the accepted view, much good theoretical work was done that formed a theoretical and intellectual basis for the further development of tactical air power in the light of operational experience during the Second World War.
Theo Van Geffen, ‘The Air War against North Vietnam: the Thanh Hoa Railroad and Highway Bridge (Part 6, Conclusion),’ Air Power History 67, no. 4 (2020).
No abstract provided.
Darrel Whitcomb, ‘1972 – US Army Air Cavalry to the Rescue in Vietnam,’ Air Power History 67, no. 4 (2020).
No abstract provided.
James Young, ‘The U.S. Air Force’s Long Range Detection Program and Project MOGUL,’ Air Power History 67, no. 4 (2020).
Author Frank Blazich has spent years researching and compiling disparate records of Civil Air Patrol’s short-lived–but influential–coastal patrol operations of World War II, which he synthesizes into the first scholarly monograph that cements the legacy of this unique and vital wartime civil-military cooperative effort.
Airpower in the War against ISIS chronicles the planning and conduct of Operation Inherent Resolve by U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) from August 2014 to mid-2018, with a principal focus on the contributions of U.S. Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT). Benjamin S. Lambeth contends that the war’s costly and excessive duration resulted from CENTCOM’s inaccurate assessment of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), determining it was simply a resurrected Iraqi insurgency rather than recognizing it as the emerging proto-state that it actually was. This erroneous decision, Lambeth argues, saw the application of an inappropriate counterinsurgency strategy and use of rules of engagement that imposed needless restrictions on the most effective use of the precision air assets at CENTCOM’s disposal. The author, through expert analysis of recent history, forcefully argues that CENTCOM erred badly by not using its ample air assets at the outset not merely for supporting Iraq’s initially noncombat-ready ground troops but also in an independent and uncompromising strategic interdiction campaign against ISIS’s most vital center-of-gravity targets in Syria from the effort’s first moments onward.
Ralph Cochrane was born in 1895 into a distinguished naval family. After joining the Royal Navy, he volunteered in 1915 to serve with the RNAS in airships and was an early winner of the Air Force Cross. In 1918 he transferred to the fledgling RAF and learnt to fly, serving in Iraq as a flight commander under ‘Bomber’ Harris. His inter-war career saw him as a squadron commander in Aden before he became the first Chief of Air Staff of the Royal New Zealand Air Force. During the Second World War he served mainly in Bomber Command and commanded 5 Group from early 1943. He formed 617 Squadron and was instrumental in planning the legendary Dambuster Raid, the most spectacular of the War, as well as the sinking of the battleship Tirpitz. An inspirational leader, he trained 5 Group in low level target marking skills. Post war Cochrane held a string of senior appointments commanding Transport Command, Flying Training Command and finally as Vice Chief of Air Staff, retiring in 1952. He died in 1977.
In the past century, multinational military operations have become the norm; but while contributions from different nations provide many benefits — from expanded capability to political credibility — they also present a number of challenges. Issues such as command and control, communications, equipment standardization, intelligence, logistics, planning, tactics, and training all require consideration. Cultural factors present challenges as well, particularly when language barriers are involved.
In Allies in Air Power, experts from around the world survey these operations from the birth of aviation to the present day. Chapters cover conflicts including World War I, multiple theaters of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, Kosovo, the Iraq War, and various United Nations peacekeeping missions. Contributors also analyze the role of organizations such as the UN, NATO, and so-called “coalitions of the willing” in laying the groundwork for multinational air operations.
While multinational military action has become commonplace, there have been few detailed studies of air power cooperation over a prolonged period or across multiple conflicts. The case studies in this volume not only assess the effectiveness of multinational operations over time, but also provide vital insights into how they may be improved in the future.
Compared to armies and navies, which have existed as professional fighting services for centuries, the technology that makes air forces possible is much newer. As a result, these services have had to quickly develop methods of preparing aviators to operate in conditions ranging from peace or routine security to full-scale war. The first book to address the history and scope of air power professionalization through learning programs, Educating Air Forces offers valuable new insight into strategy and tactics worldwide.
Here, a group of international experts examine the philosophies, policies, and practices of air service educational efforts in the United States, France, Italy, Germany, Australia, Canada, and the UK. The contributors discuss the founding, successes, and failures of European air force learning programs between the Great War and World War II and explore how the tense Cold War political climate influenced the creation, curriculum, and results of various programs. They also consider how educational programs are adapting to soldiers’ needs and the demands of modern warfare.
Featuring contributions from eminent scholars in the field, this volume surveys the learning approaches globally employed by air forces in the past century and evaluates their effectiveness. Educating Air Forces reveals how experiential learning and formal education are not only inextricably intertwined, but also necessary to cope with advances in modern warfare.
In 1972, America was completing its withdrawal from the long and divisive war in Vietnam. Air power covered the departure of ground forces, and search and rescue teams from all services and Air America covered the airmen and soldiers still in the fight. Day and night these military and civilian aircrews stood alert to respond to “Mayday” calls. The rescue forces were the answer to every mans prayer, and those forces brought home airmen, sailors, marines, and soldiers downed or trapped across the breadth and depth of the entire Southeast Asia theater. Moral Imperative relies on a trove of declassified documents and unit histories to tell their tales.
Focusing on 1972, Darrel Whitcomb combines stories of soldiers cut off from their units, advisors trapped with allied forces, and airmen downed deep in enemy territory, with the narratives of the US Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines, contract pilots, and special operations teams ready to conduct rescues in Laos, Cambodia, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam. All of these missions occur against the backdrop of our withdrawal from the war and our diplomatic efforts to achieve a lasting peace. In detail, Whitcomb shows how American rescue forces supported the military response to the North Vietnamese’s massive three-pronged invasion of South Vietnam, America’s subsequent interdiction operations against North Vietnam, and ultimately the strategic bombing of Linebacker II.
Armageddon and OKRA is the first in a planned series about the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) air campaigns being compiled as part of the RAAF’s 100th-anniversary celebrations. The RAAF’s Chief of Air Force (CAF) intends for the series’ works to be ‘readable, well-illustrated, educative and enduring’ (p. 3). In the main, Armageddon and OKRA ably meets these ambitions.
The book though carries additional burdens in aiming not just to market the RAAF to the Australian public but also to contribute to the Air Force’s professional military education and be of interest to serious academic researchers. It would be difficult for any work to satisfy such a diverse audience completely. Given this split, this review discusses Armageddon and OKRA from both a reader’s viewpoint and a military organisational perspective.
Armageddon and OKRA is split into two main parts. Part one examines Australian air power during the First World War in the Middle East between 1915 and 1919. The principal focus is on the operations of No.1 Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) during the British capture of Palestine and Syria from the Ottoman Turks in 1917-1918. ‘Armageddon’ in the title refers to the Battle of Megiddo in late September 1918 in which the No. 1 Squadron fought. This English language word comes from the Ancient Greek name for Mount Megiddo, subsequently used in the Christian Bible’s Old Testament.
Part two then moves forward a hundred years to 2014-2018 and the US-led coalition operations to support the Iraqi Government to defeat Islamic State (ISIS). Part two’s principal focus is the small RAAF Air Task Group deployed for this task as part of the larger Australian Defence Force’s Operation OKRA, and which involved (amongst others) No.1 Squadron again. This is a rather elegant symmetry that perhaps was not made as much use of as could have been.
The involvement of the RAAF and its predecessor, the AFC in these two periods was at the tactical level of war and accordingly, the book’s main focus centres around squadron operations. Part one provides a comprehensive overview that nicely relates the tactical to the strategic level, the air activities undertaken, the various aircraft Australian’s were trained on and flew in operations, maintenance aspects and the air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons used. In this part, No.1 Squadron’s use of the Bristol F.2b Fighter in 1918 features prominently, including the destruction of a large Turkish ground force that the unit trapped in the Wadi Fara gorge. Also notable is the attention paid to including the opposing German squadrons, particularly FA300, and how they impacted No.1 Squadron. Wars involve two sides, however; many histories overlook this interdependence.
Part two is somewhat different. Early on, there is a detailed examination of the command-and-control arrangements for OKRA. The naming protocols are quite arcane for the casual reader, not unsurprisingly as their origin lies in the demands of automated messaging systems not in easy human comprehension. This then moves into several short chapters that discuss the daily air operations as seen at the squadron-level by OKRA’s deployed air units. These units flew the F/A-18 ‘Classic’ Hornet fighter/bomber, the F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter/bomber, the E-7A Wedgetail airborne warning and control aircraft and the KC-30A air-to-air refuelling tanker.
By the time the reader reaches these final chapters, it is apparent that CAF’s aims to be ‘readable, well-illustrated, educative and enduring’ has been achieved. In Australia, the book is keenly priced while its excellent line drawings of aircraft and numerous photographs add to the overall appeal. Some may argue over ‘enduring,’ however, the second part of the book offers a level of detail of the RAAF’s part in OKRA that is presently unequalled. In particular, future historians of these air operations will value this book because it gives the reader an insight into the rhythm and grind of daily squadron life during operations.
On the other hand, in meeting CAF’s other dictum, the book falls a bit short for the professional or academic reader. It is not – nor was intended to be – a critical analysis of the RAAF’s air operations in these two periods. The book dwells on the positives and only rarely and rather briefly notes any possible negatives. There are also reoccurring lapses into hagiography. Of the two parts of the book, the second is the most impacted. There is room left for a definitive, comprehensive history of the RAAF during OKRA.
In thinking about future works, the elegant symmetry of parts one and two was noted earlier. In reading the book, the more critical reader might like to assess the similarities and differences between No.1 Squadron operating as part of the British Empire and then 100 years operating as part of the American ‘empire’. In the First World War, No. 1 Squadron and Australians were more broadly considered part of the British Empire; they were simply English people born offshore. It is unsurprising the future Air Marshal Sir Richard Williams, later the ‘father of the RAAF,’ ended the war commanding in battle the Royal Air Force’s 40 Wing, which was overwhelming a British entity.
During OKRA, there is a much greater separation between the Americans and their foreign air force partners; the later provide tactical level forces to use as the US determines. However, through its astute alliance management process, the American empire has shaped foreign air forces to be fully and immediately interoperable with US forces regarding doctrine, equipment, support, and training. In contrast, in the British Empire’s war, Australia provided people to Britain who needed to be trained, equipped and, later in battle, logistically supported. For Australian’s, the British Empire was more collegiate, but the modern-day American one is arguably shrewder. Armageddon and Okra’s author, Lewis Frederickson, has written a fine, relevant analysis on Australia’s First World War experience for those wishing to explore such issues further.
Finally, it is worth discussing the book from a military organisational perspective. The book’s forward sets out CAF’s intentions for the series. These are not just laudable but noteworthy in breaking from the last 20 years of RAAF development. In these earlier periods, RAAF and other Australian Service chiefs stressed teamwork, and especially loyalty, over critical thinking. This is a recognised problem for small professional military forces which lack the scale to be able to be ‘broad churches’ that can include disruptors. In this series, and in his new Air Force Strategy, CAF now appears interested in setting off down this path. If so, later books will need to be more analytical, including engaging in constructive criticism. It is uncertain if this will be possible or acceptable.
Armageddon and Okra is an excellent value read that makes a useful contribution to RAAF history. It is particularly important and valuable in breaking new ground on the RAAF’s participation in OKRA against ISIS. Overall Armageddon and Okra will be of interest to the general public, military enthusiasts and undergraduates undertaking strategic studies courses.
Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University and a RUSI (UK) Associate Fellow. His PhD is in grand strategy, and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. Author of the book Grand Strategy, his posts, articles and papers may be read here. He was also once a navigator on No.1 Squadron RAAF flying F-111Cs.
Header Image: Centenary tail art on a F/A-18F Super Hornet of No. 1 Squadron RAAF at the main air operating base in the Middle East Region during Operatyion OKRA. (Source: ADF)
 Lewis Frederickson, ‘The Development of Australian Infantry on the Western Front 1916-1918: An Imperial model of training, tactics and technology’ (PhD Thesis, UNSW Canberra, 2015)
What is air power? How do we study it? How do we use it? Do previous characterisations sufficiently capture the concept? Perhaps. This article contends that prior attempts to put meat on the bone towards a framework to study air power scholarship are insufficient.
Moreover, we must appreciate the richness of our inquiries if we – scholars and professionals, such as political scientists, historians, policymakers, practitioners and users – want to understand better the concept of air power to help answer important questions. These questions may be: how do civilian airline pilots and training schools contribute to a nation’s ‘air power?’ Can peacetime control of airspace access constitute a form of air power? To what extent does air information, such as weather, the electromagnetic environment, knowledge of space weather, constitute a form of air power? Furthermore, more, importantly, how do these questions and related concepts orient to each other. As such, this article argues that air power is the domain-agnostic admixture of personalities, outcomes, organisations, technologies, ideas and events to do or, that do, something in or for, the air.
This definition is unique in that it explicitly and parsimoniously joins together the breadth of military and civilian endeavours. It highlights the ‘stickiness’ of related topics and contends that air power is not an inherently military pursuit, though its application almost always manifests as such. The definition provides more form to the general, varied ideas of military thinkers about essential elements of air power. This article begins the discussion on the topic of how we structure air power studies across various academic fields and cordons a more robust dissection of the topic in future publications. Furthermore, this article details the constituent components of air power to clarify meaning. Then, it uses this perception of air power to explain its evolution throughout history. Finally, briefly, it discusses our current air power disposition to make sense of what component will drive innovation in the coming decades — organisations. So, how have we come to envisage this elusive thing we call air power?
Definition and Components of Air Power
In the Age of Airpower, Martin Van Creveld explored about 250 years of the concept. Among others, he highlighted the work of people with simple, yet elegant definitions of air power, such as that of Brigadier General William ‘Billy’ Mitchell who viewed it as doing ‘something in the air.’ Other writers such as Mark Clodfelter provided more angles: breaking the concept of air power into direct and indirect applications. For Clodfelter, direct air power generally involves kinetic outcomes such as bombing and indirect presumes more non-kinetic capabilities, such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).
Meanwhile, organisations such as the US Air Force (USAF) define air power based on its organisational experience and conceptual refinement. The latest iteration of USAF Basic Doctrine defines the concept as ‘the ability to project military power or influence through the control and exploitation of air, space, and cyberspace to achieve strategic, operational, or tactical objectives.’ So, how do we break air power down for study?
While Mitchell’s definition is more parsimonious, adding a little complexity provides the explanatory muscle to how we think about air power and thus how we can consider the concept’s change over time. Foundationally, one should recognise that to do something in the air does not necessarily mean that the activity must originate in or from the air. For instance, a ballistic missile launch originates from the land, traverses through the air and maybe space, and then strikes somewhere on land. This example demonstrates the potential of the agnosticism of the air domain. Furthermore, a more robust definition allows for careful, coordinated forecasting of future air power applications using clear and structured links within and across the subject’s elements. For instance, air power researchers studying C-17 humanitarian assistance capabilities may be linked to those studying procedurally based command and control organisations as well as those studying the political effects of humanitarian assistance to optimise future disaster response towards national priorities.
Conceiving of air power as an admixture of component concepts: each noteworthy, though not equal, in characterising the ability to do something in the air is vital for several reasons. One benefit is to have more structured research programs that allow thinkers to situate their contribution to the subject area. Another is to generalise debates on air power concepts that link military and civilian theory and application. A generalisation can help guard against what seems to be a tendency to overly militarise air power thought, evoking the coercive and persuasive elements of the concept. The benefits are similar to those of academic fields like history or political science though air power studies can best be described as an interdisciplinary subfield or topical field.
Importantly, to be useful, the components must be defined. First, personalities may be individuals or groups that have a profound impact on the development of the notion. For instance, Mitchell vocally and publicly advanced the idea of a separate US military service despite the misgivings of more senior leaders, including President Calvin Coolidge. In part, the general’s 1925 court-martial resulted from agitation for a separate US air service. However, the spectacle thrust air power into America’s national dialogue. He challenged the US Army – then overseeing land-based air forces – stating that their leaders were negligent for not building an air service capable of national defence. Mitchell is credited by many as being the original maverick in pursuing an idea of independent military air power that was largely sidelined at the time. Mitchell’s persona, in part, catalysed the existence of organisations critical to the development of air power.
Mitchell’s calls for an independent air service bring us to the second component — organisations, which are administrative and operational systems that foster ideas, leverage people and exploit technologies towards some outcome. An exemplar is the USAF’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) under Major-General Curtis LeMay’s tutelage. SAC pursued the idea of ‘strategic’ air power, discussed later, towards its outcome of long-range conventional and nuclear bombing. SAC oversaw most of the US nuclear deterrent and development of bomber capabilities for the USAF. The organisation came to personify air power in the US and for much of the world during the Cold War. Albeit an unfair approximation, civilians and military personnel alike were lent the idea of air power’s ability to render an outcome of total enemy devastation embodied by SAC’s long-range bombers and, later, ballistic missiles.
In our context, outcomes are the effects, assessments and results by which military and civilian leaders come to associate air power. For instance, after the Second World War, both military and civilian leaders came to associate air power with the unconditional surrender of the enemy evoked by the use of nuclear weapons. This idea created problems during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, where expectations outpaced the new reality of limited, non-nuclear warfare. Limited warfare lends itself to more technical means — leaving technology to be the more tangible, driving component of air power.
As a component, technology includes all the capabilities, research, design, development and testing that allow practitioners to do things in the air. For instance, a significant component of the US’ advancements in stealth technology originated with the Skunk Works team under Kelly Johnson’s orchestration, among others. The team’s research and design techniques led to advances like the SR-71 Blackbird and the F-117 Nighthawk. These technologies, along with other capabilities-related advances, influenced expectations such as those discussed above: enabling the limited, non-nuclear warfare that became characteristic of vast swaths of America’s recent history. However, while technology is sometimes the easiest to translate as an air power component, though not always easy to grasp, it is ideas that sometimes generate change.
Doctrine, strategy, theories, policies and politics combine to form air power’s conceptual component. These ideas embody how personalities can use other components. Reciprocally, all the other components can help thinkers conceive of new ways to conceptualise air power. To demonstrate, during Operation EL DORADO CANYON, President Reagan and his national security team viewed air power as a punitive instrument of national security policy. Existent technologies in the 1980s allowed Reagan’s response to state-sponsored terrorism with a long-range, airstrike on targets tailored to the perceived offence. Reagan’s team shepherded the technology component in a way that had not yet been explored to its fullest. They updated strategic attack doctrine; tested theories of international relations; set new international policies; and ignited the politics of air-driven limited, military interventions.
Events like Op EL DORADO CANYON also constitutes the last element of air power. Our understanding of past campaigns, battles and historical milestones enables a fuller appreciation of air power and the possibility of modifying its future use. Unfortunately, these so-called understandings can sometimes lead to misapplications of history and, ultimately, to disaster. For instance, the counterinsurgency in Iraq that began almost immediately after the invasion in 2003 required a different application of air power than previously practised, but it would take multiple Secretaries of Defense to enforce this understanding upon the military, as evidenced by the explosion of unmanned technologies among others. The components of air power – personalities, organisations, outcomes, technologies, ideas and events – provide the critical infrastructure for the study of air power. We can use this infrastructure to help us understand various aspects of the topic, like what elements may be more important at various times in history. This understanding can help us orient ourselves in history relative to the seemingly dominant feature of our time so that those who study, and practice air power can best allocate resources, whether academically or practically.
Epochs of Air Power
In this section, this article now considers the prominence of the above elements as determinants of historical periods in air power’s evolution. A short walkthrough of air power’s epochal changes rooted in the above-defined elements illuminates current and the future application of air power. Geoffrey Barraclough, in An Introduction to Contemporary History, provided an idea about ‘spots and jumps’ that define historical periods and transitions. He used the timeframe 1880-1960 to discuss the shift between modern and contemporary history based primarily on economic and geopolitical factors. Using a similar conception of eras punctuated by ‘spots and jumps,’ rooted in the components of air power to characterise the shifts, this section divides the evolution of air power into five timeframes. Importantly, during shifts between the timeframes, changes in predominant component concepts of air power led to changes in our concept of air power.
Before 1783 – The Age of Imagination
Air power before 1783 can be viewed as an ‘Age of Imagination’ or ideas. There were no bounds except those imposed by humanity’s evolving understanding of terrestrial physics. Some of the earliest human records depict mystical flying or lobbing objects through the air as weapons. In their way, our ancestors from around the world gave us our first concept of air power. They conceived of divinity by drawing and storytelling of gods that could defy gravity unassisted, a fruitless pursuit for mere mortals that dates to Greek, Roman and Chinese mythology. While ancient and pre-industrial humans did not themselves defy gravity, humankind created things to help defend themselves, such as arrows and trebuchet missiles. These weapons are essential to the study of air power because the idea of projectiles travelling large distances to destroy an enemy finds its roots here. These weapons emerged over thousands of years, sometimes a crowning achievement of empires such as Persia and the Mongols. Nonetheless, the wild-eyed dreams of fantasy came to a relatively abrupt end in 1783 when the Montgolfiers floated their first balloon. The brothers’ flights began the period of the ‘Origins of Air Power.’
1783 to 1903 – The Origins of Air Power
Between 1783 and 1903, changes in the concept of air power resulted from slow changes in technologies. For instance, a new class of ‘aeronauts’ proliferated workable ballooning technologies that ended up in the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte, though his use is not the first use on the battlefield. He used available technologies when and where he could to enhance reconnaissance and direct artillery strikes. In 1798 Bonaparte used balloons to try to overawe the Egyptians in a campaign to subdue the Middle East and North Africa. After an unsuccessful display, Napoleon ordered the balloon unit’s disbandment. Undoubtedly a balloon would have come in handy in 1815 when Napoleon looked for Grouchy to spot and crush Blucher’s flanking movement at Waterloo. Nearly a half-century later, professionals continued to struggle with the concept of air power: conceiving of it as an unproven, unpredictable and unusable conglomeration of technologies and techniques, such as gas-producing machines for balloons, telegraphs and airborne mapmaking. Such was Thaddeus Lowe’s disposition in bringing air power to fruition during the American Civil War. Thus, it would be until the turn of the twentieth century.
1903 to 1945 – The Douhetian Epoch
From 1903 to 1945, ‘strategic’ air power and its offshoots was the idea that drove changes in the conception of air power as something more than an observational or auxiliary tool for ground forces. The idea of independent air power came to full fruition in August 1945 with the dropping of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan. To begin, in December 1903 the Wright Brothers brought heavier-than-air flight to reality. Driving the science of aeronautics were ideas like those refined by Giulio Douhet in the early part of the 20th century. Theorists like Douhet opined that wars could be won by striking at city centres from the air to break the will of a people, forcing them to surrender. Douhet’s original Italian publication in 1921 would not get immediately translated into English; however, people like Hugh Trenchard, the first Royal Air Force commander, articulated similar thoughts and organised, trained and equipped his military forces towards those ends. Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris would make use of Trenchard’s advancements during the Second World War over German cities such as Hamburg, Dresden and Berlin. Though it would take the American military time to adopt the British model of indiscriminate bombing, this idea came to epitomise air power for the period.
Importantly, this was also the timeframe during which commercial air travel in lighter- and heavier-than-air vessels took root. Though the ‘golden’ age of commercial air travel would come later, concepts like air routes, navigating via beacons, airports and other ideas began to solidify. These concepts had both military and civilian applications and technologies that enabled further development of the idea of air assets used over long distances. However, the military would continue to dominate ideas about air power as a ‘strategic’ concept even as these ideas came into contact with a significant theoretical challenge: limited warfare in an age of potentially unlimited destruction from thermonuclear weapons.
1945 to 2001 – The Era of Immaculate Effects
The next era, roughly spanning 1945 to 2001 is the maturation of strategic bombing extremes enabled by high technology. Militarily, the era is marked by the rise of a more immaculate, precise warfare with limited aims to mitigate aircrew losses, fulfil more specific international obligations and for operational efficiency among other goals. There was a change in the concept of air power because of what it was perceived to have achieved during the Second World War and the idea that the same outcome could be realised even in the face of more limited warfare. By the beginning of this timeframe, the USAF sidelined more tactically-minded airmen like Pete Quesada to ensure adoption of strategic bombing as a vehicle to solidify the association with air power. In part because of his prestige as a tactical aviation adherent, the ‘bomber generals’ defanged Quesada and the organisation he led, Tactical Air Command, after WWII. There was no room for anyone but true believers in the strategic attack mindset, but this would change after the experiences of Korea and Vietnam in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Only later in the period would Quesada’s tactical aviation and more precise attack legacy permeate military circles.
In civilian aviation, technology-fueled huge leaps in air power. National airspace, global navigation capabilities and air-containerised freight were concepts that would hold vast military and civilian applications. It is during this time that military and civilian aircraft started to compete for airspace for things like training, exercises and navigating various corridors. Another critical advance was the widespread implementation of the instrument landing system that allowed commercial aircraft to land in increasing levels of degraded atmospheric conditions. Again, precision enabled by technology characterised this era.
2000 and Beyond – Flexible Niche
The most recent period begins at around the turn of the millennium. This is the epoch as ‘Flexible Niche’ because it involved the use of existing or new technologies for a variety of activities dependent on how organisations are positioned to leverage them. Beginning in the late 1980s, formalisation of the contemporary Air Operations Center (AOC) is an early indicator of the present epoch. This organisation enabled the focused air campaign during Operations INSTANT THUNDER and DESERT STORM that, in part, led to ultimate victory for coalition forces in 1991. It was no longer enough to think of air power as just a capability or bringing about the strategic defeat of an enemy via the limits of destructive power or achieving national objectives with as few civilian casualties as possible. The organisation became the template for how to leverage air power across a wide area and from multiple sources. A contemporary view of air power considers the construct of how and which organisations best leverage technologies, ideas and people towards a given outcome, which may be a military one. There are a variety of concepts that the United States military is exploring, including the Multi-Domain Operations Center and Defense Innovation Unit, in addition to the standup of a Space Force among other initiatives.
Civil aviation is undergoing a similar bout with organisations, especially in the United States, as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grapples with how best to control airspace with the rise of unmanned technologies, especially in congested metropolitan areas. Should the FAA continue to hold all the cards or is the organisation in need of decentralisation of authorities to states and localities? Technologies may forestall the organisational decision, but this era’s solutions seem to be organisationally related rather than technically.
For the new century and beyond, it will not necessarily be which countries and industries have the best technologies or smartest people or best ideas that define the development of air power: it will be the organisations that can best leverage the other components that will determine how we conceive of air power. To summarise, again, air power is the domain-agnostic ability to do something in the air resulting from an admixture of personalities, outcomes, organisations, technologies, ideas and events. These components, at various times, represent reasons why our concept of air power changes over time.
The use of epochs allows us to generally discuss how components of air power drive thinking and successful pursuits of the concept over time, which is why it is useful to develop a unified framework for their study. Moreover, as opposed to the more traditional commentary of air power, linking military and civilian advancements in the same epoch demonstrates that air power is not an inherently military concept. This article serves as an overview of the start of a more robust discussion about the development of air power and a characterisation of what will likely temper that development for the 21st century — organisations. Future topics will involve civilian efforts to deal with drones and swarms, the importance of civil aviation and commercial space efforts in air power development, and the exploration of the idea that organisations will be the defining issue of this era.
Given all of this, air power is the domain-agnostic admixture of personalities, outcomes, organisations, technologies, ideas and events to do or, that do, something in or for, the air. Moreover, these components at various times have influenced significant shifts in our conception of air power over at least five critical epochs. Scholars and professionals must acknowledge the military and civilian dimensions of air power to live up to the concept’s full potential. Hence, to conclude, there is a need for a unified framework for the study of air power to promote the integration of military and civilian issues with the field.
Major Jaylan M. Haley is a career USAF Intelligence Officer. Currently, he is a student at the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Power Studies at Air University. Over 14 years, he served in a variety of intelligence-related positions from the strategic to the tactical levels. During Operations ENDURING FREEDOM and INHERENT RESOLVE, he served as an Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Liaison Officer to multiple US Army Divisions and US Marine Expeditionary Forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Most recently he was an Air University Fellow, serving as an Instructor in the Department of International Security at the USAF Air Command and Staff College. He is a PhD Candidate in the Kansas State University Security Studies program with research focused on leverage air power as a tool of national policy.
Header Image: A US Navy Grumman F-14A Tomcat intercepts a Soviet Tupolev Tu-95 ‘Bear D’ reconnaissance-bomber over the Pacific Ocean on 21 November 1984. The F-14 was assigned to fighter squadron VF-51 aboard the USS Carl Vinson and was deployed to the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean from 18 October 1984 to 24 May 1985. (Source: Wikimedia)
 Domains include air, space, cyberspace (or electromagnetic), land and sea. Domain agnosticism disregards a specific domain towards the application of a specific concept. For instance, intelligence collection is domain agnostic. This means that intelligence collection can come from any of the domains-air, space, cyberspace, land or sea.
 ‘Strategic Implications for the Aerospace Nation’ in Philip Meilinger (ed.), Air War: Essays on Its Theory and Practice (Abingdon: Franck Cass, 2003), pp. 217-30.
 Martin Van Creveld, Martin, The Age of Airpower (New York: PublicAffairs, 2011), p. 71; William Mitchell, Winged Defense: The Development and Possibilities of Modern Air Power (New York: Dover Publications, 1988), p. xii.
 Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), p. 213.
 United States Air Force, Core Doctrine, Volume 1 – Basic Doctrine (Maxwell AFB, LeMay Doctrine Center, 2015).
 Robert Smith, ‘Maneuver at Lightspeed: Electromagnetic Spectrum as a Domain,’Over the Horizon: Multi-Domain Operations & Strategy, 5 November 2018. Importantly, the so-called warfighting domains of air, space, land, navy and now cyber – or perhaps more aptly electromagnetic – all interface with the air domain and provide a medium through which something can happen in the air.
 Douglas Waller, A Question of Loyalty (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004), pp. 21-2.
 Donald Mrozek, Air Power & the Ground War in Vietnam (Virginia, VA: Pergamon-Brassey’s International Defense Publishers, 1989), pp. 14-5.
 Conrad Crane, American Airpower Strategy in Korea: 1950-1953 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2000), pp. 16-22.