Established in 2016, From Balloons to Drones is an online scholarly platform that analyses and debates air power history, theory, and contemporary operations in their broadest sense, including space and cyber power. To date, with have published over 250 articles on various air power-related subjects.
Since its emergence at the start of the 20th Century, air power has increasingly become the preferred form of military power for many governments. However, the application and development of air power are controversial and often misunderstood. To remedy this, From Balloons to Drones seeks to provide analysis and debate about air power through the publication of articles, research notes, commentaries, book reviews, and historic book reviews – see below for a description of the range of articles published.
The study of air power is to be understood broadly, encompassing not only the history of air warfare, including social and cultural aspects but also incorporating contributions from related fields, such as archaeology, international relations, strategic studies, law and ethics. Possible subjects to be explored might include, but are not limited to:
Strategy, Theory and Doctrine | Organisation and Policy | Roles
Operations – Kinetic and Non-Kinetic | Tactics, Training and Procedures
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Ethical and Moral Issues | National, International and Transnational Experiences
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From Balloons to Drones welcomes and encourages potential submissions from postgraduates, academics, and practitioners involved in researching the subject of air power.
From Balloons to Drones publishes informative peer-reviewed articles on air power that range from historical pieces to the analysis of contemporary challenges. These well-researched articles should attempt to bridge a gap between the specialist and the non-specialist reader. They should be around c.3,000 words, though From Balloons to Drones will accept larger pieces. We reserve the right to publish them in parts.
Air War Books
From Balloons to Drones publishes a series of review articles that examine the top ten books that have influenced writers on air power. See more here.
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Historic Book Reviews
From Balloons to Drones publishes occasional historic book reviews that aim to be an accessible collection of appraisals of critical historic publications about air power history, theory, and practice. See more here.
Submissions should be submitted in Word format and emailed to the address below with ‘SUBMISSION’ in the subject line. Also, please include a 50-100 word biography with your submission. References can be used, and please be careful to explain any jargon. However, if you are unsure if your idea fits our requirements, please email us with ‘POTENTIAL SUBMISSION’ in the subject line to discuss.
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Header image: A Panavia Tornado GR4 of No. IX(B) Squadron on a training sortie in preparation for deployment to Afghanisation, c. 2012. (Source: Wikimedia)
After the Wright Brothers made their first flight in December 1903, it took the US Army several years to start paying attention to heavier-than-air aviation. While lighter-than-air platforms, in the form of observation balloons, had been in use with the US military since the US Civil War, the novelty of heavier-than-air aviation in the form of aeroplanes eventually engaged the minds of military thinkers around the United States and all three combat arms – infantry, cavalry, and the field artillery. Officers from these combat arms offered similar but often diverging takes on the new invention. By examining articles published in professional journals of the period, this article considers how the US Army received and thought about the aeroplane’s application before the outbreak of the First World War.
For the infantry branch, the aeroplane introduced the possibility of lifting the fog of war from the battlefield in the form of easier, faster, and more reliable scouting opportunities. In 1909, Captain John R.M. Taylor, an infantry officer and prolific military theorist of the period, wrote in the Journal of the United States Infantry Association – later the Infantry Journal – that combat had changed little since the US Civil War two generations earlier. Primarily, artillery still functioned as artillery, cavalry as cavalry, and infantry as infantry. Ranges and lethality had increased, but the overall way wars were fought had, he argued, largely remained similar – American theorists at this time tended to look to the experience of the US Civil War as the first modern war, excluding European definitions, which often included the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War. However, the aeroplane offered a third dimension to the battlefield in the way that ground-based scouts – be it a group of skirmishers or a cavalry troop – could not replicate.
Taylor’s article, using a counterfactual based on Major-General George McClellan’s campaigns in 1862, suggested that the former might have won the war if he had had reconnaissance aeroplanes. Taylor believed that while the aeroplane was still in its infancy, the same had been said about the automobile a decade prior. Moreover, he envisioned the aeroplane and the airship taking their place in the order of battle as soon as the next great war alongside automobiles in the aid and support of the three combat arms as screening and attack forces.
While Taylor theorised about mechanised warfare broadly, the Massachusetts National Guard experimented with its application during their manoeuvres in 1909. Importantly, as Captain John Sherburne reported in the Infantry Journal’s pages, the Massachusetts National Guard improvised the use of ‘two automobile trucks as mounts for two light guns of naval type.’ Moreover, these were used as part of an ‘auto truck platoon’ by one opposing force during the manoeuvres. These experiences led Sherburne to hypothesise about the possibility of guns on such vehicles as potential anti-air assets, thus showing how even in the early years of aviation, officers were already thinking through the challenge of countering the threat from the air.
In 1910 and 1912, respectively, Captain G.L. Townsend, a career infantry officer, and Captain Paul W. Beck, one of the US Army’s first pilots, summed up the mood in the infantry in the pages of the Infantry Journal by arguing for a compromise between enthusiasts and critics of early aviation. They argued that while aeroplanes and airships had not yet matured as platforms, it was the job of the peacetime army to pay attention to new developments and create doctrine and institutions. This was so that aeroplanes might be used in war both through trial and error and through observations of potentially hostile nations’ use of aviation, with particular attention paid to the zeppelins of Imperial Germany even as they remained in their infancy.
The Infantry Journal’s editorial board, presided over by US Civil War veteran and former US Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General John C. Bates and made up of reform-minded career officers who wished to modernise and professionalise the Army, broadly agreed with the ideas and proposals of these Townsend and Beck. Moreover, they believed that once fully developed, the aeroplane would become a great asset to infantry soldiers as a scouting force where cavalry could not reach. Nevertheless, they tempered the mood of aviation enthusiasts by recommending that any work on aviation be postponed to a time when war would be on the horizon. Aviation, as they argued, was too costly at the time. In the end, it all came down to funding. For the price of a squadron of aeroplanes or airships, machinery operating on the bleeding edge of technological progress, the US Army could fund and outfit several regiments or even divisions of infantry:
In the time required for us to create a field army after the declaration of war, and until such an army were in readiness both aeroplanes and aeroplanists would be useless, we should have time to build more aeroplanes and train more aeroplanists than probably any nation will ever use in war. The aeroplane can do us no greater military harm than driving out of mind again that our need now is the same as always — merely men, not machines, even though they be new machines with all the fancied terrors that superstition and ignorance give to things unknown. The invention of gunpowder was once expected to end war (as were the torpedo and the submarine).
Given this attitude, the infantry, always searching for more funding, applied the same logic to aeroplanes as critics of standing armies had done to the infantry: aviation units did not require costly training. They could be raised at a moment’s notice. This obfuscated the real reason: the US Army had no money to investigate the potential of aviation. Despite being stretched thin in manpower and funding; numerous infantry officers had become advocates for aviation. First among them was First Lieutenant Benjamin Foulois, the US Army’s first official aviator and a lifelong air power advocate and pioneer, who wrote in 1908 that in ‘all future warfare, we can expect to see engagements in the air between hostile aerial fleets.’
The cavalry, by contrast, saw its role as the US Army’s eyes and ears threatened by the invention of the aeroplane. Having already acknowledged that its days of charging enemy positions and dispersing troops were long over, the American cavalry had reinvented itself first as a frontier constabulary, a scouting force, and, in its current iteration, a force of mounted infantry ready to fight as infantry, to protect the flanks of the advancing army, and to chase fleeing enemy infantry. Already criticised by the infantry and artillery branches who doubted the viability of horse cavalry against modern weapon systems, the cavalry were determined to keep their role as scouting and routing forces. It was no wonder that in the Journal of the United States Cavalry Association in 1909, the well-respected horsemanship expert Edward L. Anderson dubbed the Wright Brothers’ aeroplane and automobiles as abominations.’
In a 1911 article in the Journal of the United States Cavalry Association on the reorganisation of the cavalry branch, Brigadier General Walter Schuyler, a long-serving cavalry commander since the American Indian Wars, saw the aeroplane and any other form of modern technology like the radio or the automobile as auxiliary forces that would help the cavalry increase its reaction time on the battlefield. However, on the other hand, others, such as retired officer E.L. Gilpin saw the cavalry as more than capable of taking on the aeroplane in single combat, believing that while the aeroplane might offer a bird’s eye view of the battlefield, the horse cavalry was the superior scout for detailed information even as they used their carbines to shoot down reconnaissance aeroplanes with superior marksmanship. Even the supporters of the aeroplane among the cavalry belittled aviation enthusiasts as having a ‘child-like faith.’ They believed that the maturation of the technology would, eventually, lead to it becoming a great support system. Nevertheless, like its peer, the infantry, the cavalry could not – and would not – see the aeroplane as revolutionary in its current state.
The artillery, meanwhile, precisely saw that. Colonel John P. Wisser, a coastal artillery officer and an accomplished West Point educator and military attaché, became a staunch supporter of the aeroplane, as did many other artillery officers at the time. Reviewing the events of the Russo-Japanese War, Wisser echoed many views held by the infantry’s Taylor. He also believed that the US Army’s overall make-up had not changed since the US Civil War except for longer ranges and increased firepower. By contrast, aviation was still advancing exponentially to the point that an army fighting in the 1910s would have identical infantry and cavalry assets to the previous decade. However, its aviation assets would set it apart from any army of the last 50 years. By 1912, the artillery community concurred with Wisser’s original conjecture and believed they had found in aviation the best tool for mastering indirect artillery fire.
It was also an artillery officer, Isaac Lewis, whose light machine gun, the Lewis Gun, was first tested by the US Army as an aircraft-mounted weapons system. In 1912, Captain Charles Chandler and Lieutenant Roy Kirtland took a Wright Model B Flyer up in the sky. They tested the Lewis Gun as an air-to-ground weapon, scoring adequate hits against paper targets and collecting valuable data about air-to-air and air-to-ground combat.
While the artillery arm welcomed the aeroplane and the airship most enthusiastically among the three combat arms, this was likely due to its position as a largely technical and engineering-driven arm that was not in direct competition with the changes military aviation later brought to the battlefield. Indeed, artillery was already seen as an auxiliary to cavalry and infantry operations and relied on accurate reconnaissance to provide just that. While the infantry could not justify the cost at the time and the cavalry felt threatened in its role as the reconnaissance arm of the US Army, the field artillery accepted the aeroplane as another tool that would help them accomplish their mission more quickly as well as more precisely.
US Army aviation remained in its infancy after the outbreak of the First World War. While military aviation faced criticism as a novelty across the US Army, it largely enjoyed at least some measure of support across all combat arms who saw in it a valuable new tool for scouting, transportation, and even what would eventually be called close air support. The American military was quick to experiment with arming aeroplanes and creating ad-hoc anti-aircraft guns, showing they were quick to comprehend, use, and adapt to modern technology. However, fear of change and budgetary concerns remained, sabotaging efforts to experiment with aviation to its fullest extent. Additionally, the combat arms essentially saw aviation as a support arm, severely limiting the military theory that could be developed around the new invention.
Alexander Reineke is a PhD candidate in the North American History Department at Ruhr University Bochum. His thesis, provisionally entitled, ‘Prussia Envy? Alienation and War Preparedness in the Peacetime US Army, 1900-1941, focuses on the peacetime US Army before and after the First World War. He received his MA in History from Ruhr University Bochum in 2019. Since 2020, he has been a member of the editorial staff at AKM Portal für Militärgeschichte.
Header image: A Wight Model A arrives at Fort Myer, Virginia aboard a wagon for testing by the US Army, attracting the attention of children and adults, 1 September 1908. (Source: Wikimedia)
 On the development of US Army aviation in this period, see: Herbert A. Johnson, Wingless Eagle: US Army Aviation through World War I (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001); Laurence Burke II, At the Dawn of Airpower: The U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps’ Approach to the Airplane, 1907-1917 (Baltimore, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2022).
 F. Stansbury Haydon, Military Ballooning during the Early Civil War (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), passim. First published in 1941 as Aeronautics in the Union and Confederate Armies: With a Survey of Military Aeronautics Prior to 1861 by Johns Hopkins University Press.
 A.D. Harvey, ‘Was the American Civil War the First Modern War?’ History 97, no. 2 (2012), pp. 272-280.
 Captain John R.M. Taylor, ‘Cavalry and the Aeroplane,’ Journal of the United States Infantry Association VI, no. 1 (1909), p. 84; Lori Henning, Harnessing the Aeroplane: American and British Responses to a New Technology, 1903-1939 (Norman, OK: Oklahoma University Press, 2019), p. 35.
 Taylor, ‘Cavalry and the Aeroplane,’ pp. 85-7.
 Captain John H. Sherburne, ‘Automobile Guns in the Massachusetts Maneuvers,’ Journal of the United States Infantry Association VI, no. 3 (1909), p. 375.
 Sherburne, ‘Automobile Guns in the Massachusetts Maneuvers,’ pp. 380-81.
 Captain G.L. Townsend, ‘The Use and Effect of Flying Machines on Military Operations,’ Infantry Journal VII, no. 2 (1910), pp. 246-55; Captain Paul W. Beck, ‘Military Aviation in America. Its Needs,’ Infantry Journal VIII, no. 6 (1912), pp. 796-817.
 Anonymous, ‘Concerning Aeroplanes for the Army,’ Infantry Journal VII, no. 3 (1910), p.461.
 First Lieutenant Benjamin D. Foulois, ‘Military Aviation and Aeronautics,’ Infantry Journal IX, no. 3 (1912), pp. 314-6; Harvey M. Spaolsky et al., U.S. Defense Politics. The Origins of Security Policy (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010), p. 116.
 Benjamin D. Foulois with Carroll V. Glines, From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts. The Memoirs of Major General Benjamin D. Foulois (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company 1968), p. 44.
 Louis A. DiMarco, War Horse. A History of the Military Horse and Rider (Westholme, PA: Yardley 2008), pp. 289-298.
 See Anonymous, ‘Editorial,’ Infantry Journal I, no. 3 (1905), pp. 174-81 and similar analyses of the use of cavalry in the Russo-Japanese War published in the service journals between 1904 and 1906. Edward L. Anderson, ‘Horses and Riding,’ Journal of the United States Cavalry Association XIX, no. 72 (1909), p. 729.
 ‘Cavalry Reorganization,’ Journal of the United States Cavalry Association, Vol. XXII, No. 85, p. 23; Henning, Harnessing the Aeroplane, pp. 33-4.
 E.H. Gilpin, ‘Armament and Equipment of the Cavalryman,’ Journal of the United States Cavalry Association XXII, no. 85 (1911), p. 82.
 First Lieutenant Daniel L. Roscoe, ’The Effect of Aeroplanes Upon Cavalry Tactics,’ Journal of the United States Cavalry Association XXIV, no. 101 (1914), p. 856.
 Roscoe, ’The Effect of Aeroplanes Upon Cavalry Tactics,’ p. 857.
 Colonel John P. Wisser, ‘German Ideas on Tactics,’ Infantry Journal VII, no. 3 (1910), pp. 377-80.
 C.H. Powell, ‘The Lewis Automatic Gun,’ Infantry Journal IX, no. 1 (1912), p. 44.
 Colonel John P. Wisser, ‘The Tactical and Strategical Use of Dirigible Balloons and Aeroplanes,’ Cavalry Journal XXI, no. 81 (1910), p. 414.
Editorial Note: Led by Editor Dr Mike Hankins, From Balloons to Drones produces a monthly podcast that provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here. You can also find our podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.
In our latest podcast, we interview Dr Laurence Burke II, the Aviation Curator at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. We ask how did the US get from the first flight of an aeroplane in 1903 to full-fledged military-capable aeroplanes in only short few years? Burke takes us through the people that made that journey happen. He explores the different approaches to the airplane made by the US Army, Navy, and Marines Corps, and why each of them went about exploring military aviation in a unique way.
Dr Laurence Burke is the Aviation Curator at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. He earned an undergraduate degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a master’s in Museum Studies from George Washington University, and, in 2014, a PhD in History and Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University. Since then, he has taught history at the United States Naval Academy as a post-doc and then was Curator of U.S. Naval Aviation at the National Air and Space Museum for several years before starting the job at Quantico.
Header image: A Wight Model A arrives at Fort Myer, Virginia aboard a wagon for testing by the US Army, attracting the attention of children and adults, 1 September 1908. (Source: Wikimedia)
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.
Since the end of the Cold War, the West’s militaries have been engaged in a series of protracted and persistent low-intensity counterinsurgency campaigns. For air forces, this has broadly meant involvement in campaigns where there have been few serious challenges to control of the air and air dominance was assumed. However, as we move further into the twenty-first century, that scenario is likely to change with the likelihood of peer-on-peer high-intensity conflict increasing. In such conflicts, air dominance will have to be fought for, and maintained, to utilise the full spectrum of capabilities afforded by the exploitation of the air domain.
The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones seeks to commission a series of articles that examine critical themes related to the challenge of preparing modern air forces for the possibility of high-intensity conflict as they transform into 5th generation forces. As well as informing broader discussions on the future of conflict, these articles will provide the intellectual underpinnings for a Williams Foundation seminar on the subject of the requirement of high-intensity conflict to be held in Canberra, Australia in March 2018.
The editors seek contributions that provide a variety of perspectives on the following key themes:
Strategy and Theory | Future Roles | Emerging Threats | Air Force Culture
Force Structure | Technology and Capabilities | Ethical and Moral Challenges
Doctrinal Trends | Education | Training
Articles can range from historical discussions of the above themes through to contemporary perspectives. Perspectives can also come from a number of related disciplines including history, strategic studies, international relations, law, and ethics.
Articles framed around one of the above themes should be c. 2,000 words. Submissions should be submitted in Word format and emailed to the addresses below with ‘SUBMISSION – HIGH-INTENSITY WARFARE’ in the subject line. Also, please include a 50-100-word biography with your submission. Please be careful to explain any jargon. Publication will be entirely at the discretion of the editors. These articles will appear on the websites of The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones simultaneously. We will be publishing articles from the middle of February 2018 onwards.
Keen to write but need some guidance? Email us, and we can link you up with a mentor-editor who can assist you before formal submission.
It has just been over a year since From Balloons to Drones was established as a platform for the discussion of air power broadly defined. Since our first post, we have published 40 pieces on a variety of subjects ranging from the historical to the contemporary. We have had articles dealing with issues related to the efficacy of air power, the topic of military education and the future of air power. We have also recently started a new series, Air War Books, that explores the books that have influenced air power writers. Contributors have come from around the globe including contributions from Finland and Australia. I am grateful to those who have contributed to the site. Without them, there would not be much here. However, most of all, we have received regular traffic from people interested in reading what we have written, and for that we are grateful.
Just as a bit of fun, here are the top five posts by views:
These are just a selection of the articles that have appeared over the past year, and we look forward to adding regular content as we continue to develop. To do this, we need to expand our list of contributors continually and if you are interested in writing about air power issues – both historical and contemporary – then you can find out how here. If you have any questions, then please leave a comment here or emails us at email@example.com.
Header Image: English Electric Lightnings of No. 56 Squadron RAF during an Armament Practice Camp at Akrotiri, c.1963. In the foreground, a technician is preparing a Firestreak missile for loading. (Source: Defence Imagery MoD)
The accepted anecdote is that the Aero Club of Great Britain was imagined during a hot air balloon outing over the lush countryside of Kent in 1901. Its instigators were Frank Hedges Butler, officially a partner in his family wine merchant business but more of a gentleman adventurer, his daughter Vera Butler, and the young Hon. Charles Rolls – who would lend his name to the famous automotive company and become one of the first licensed pilots in Britain. The organisation they founded would serve as a sort of gentleman’s club for aviators and gained the patronage of the King in 1910 – thereafter referred to as the Royal Aero Club.
Besides establishing some of the first training fields for flyers, the Aero Club was the sole body tasked with granting pilot’s licenses prior to the First World War. All the men who would join the newly formed Royal Flying Corps or naval flight units first obtained this qualification at their own expense. In the postwar years, the Club was the political and social centre of British flying, hosting annual dinners for the winner of the King’s Cup Air Race. The heydey of the Aero Club is now identified with the apex of British aerial achievement in the interwar years. The early Club, however, invested little energy promoting new technical or scientific developments in the direction of heavier-than-air flight, instead of fulfilling its initial brief as a leisure and sport-oriented ballooning for gentleman amateurs. Hedges Butler seemed preoccupied with rural ballooning competitions and his hobby-horse idea of a volunteer Army Balloon Corps, which initially gained half-hearted endorsement by the War Office but was scuttled prior to the First World War.
A little-known controversy over the Aero Club and a rival club which was never formed is a fascinating way to access larger questions about the development of heavier-than-air flight in early British aviation. Aviation historians will be familiar with the debate over whether ‘official’ Britain – be it government or quasi-official institutions – exhibited a characteristic, haphazard approach to the development of national aviation. Critics, both contemporary and historical, have argued that this lassitude allowed British ‘wings’ to fall behind other nations. Among other shortcomings, the British government may have been amateur in efforts to contact the Wright Brothers or probe their technology. Hugh Driver, in his detailed history of early British military aviation, argued that the lengthy emphasis on ballooning by the Aero Club had ‘a material effect on the development of aviation generally’.
Prior to the inception of the Hedges Butler Club, motor engineer and founder of the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland, Frederick Simms, was the first to distribute a prospectus for an aeronautical club based on the existing French model. Its primary goal was directed towards the pursuit of heavier-than-air flight and in support of inventors. (Though it should be noted that at the time the French Aero Club also had an early emphasis on ballooning and dirigibles.) Simms was also a successful businessman who acquired rights to the UK manufacture of the internal combustion engine. He founded several eponymous companies, developing the magneto spark plug. As outlined by Driver, ‘Simms had the prior claim to found an aero club as such’. Not only was he the founder of the Automobile Club in 1897, but he was also interested in heavier-than-air flying machines as early as 1896 – cooperating with Hiram Maxim’s attempt to build a steam-driven aeroplane.
His proposed group – the ‘Aero Club of Great Britain and Ireland’ – was intended as a spur to the development of ‘aerial navigation’. With characteristic enthusiasm, he claimed:
I am convinced that it only wants a Club or Society on modern lines to bring together the many British enthusiasts [to solve] this great problem.
The Aeronautical Society, in existence since 1866, would have seemed – at least in theory – to fit the bill. However, it too was established as a ballooning Society and was in a somewhat moribund state at the turn of the century. At the time of Simms prospectus there indeed was a perceivable gap in organised enthusiasm for flight. After several acrimonious exchanges, Simms’ idea lost out to rival Aero Club. Simms and Hedges Butler were probably already acquainted, the latter having been appointed an honorary treasurer of the Automobile Club in 1898. It is therefore doubly unfortunate that the acrimony over the Club remained unresolved.
Class identity was one of the most salient characteristics of the Aero Club. In short, the emphasis was understood to be on the ‘club’ aspect of the name. It consciously modelled itself on the gentleman’s clubs of Pall Mall and St. James and acquired grand premises to match. Stanley Spencer, the aeronaut who piloted the three founders on the balloon outing when they conceived of the Club, was barred from membership due to his status as a ‘professional’. Many engineers, such as Simms, did not adapt readily to the image of an Aero Club man. He was an uneasy attendee at the first meeting of the Club on 3 December 1901 and was not placed on either the Organising or Balloon committees. The hierarchy and direction of the club were firmly established, ensuring that Simms was effectively sidelined from the new organisation, with the result that his prodigious energy (and those of like-minded men) for aeroplane flight was not utilised. To add insult to injury, Simms was asked for a £10 contribution to a balloon fund which he, understandably, refused.
Minutes of early Aero Club meetings, indeed, provide little indication of interests beyond ballooning. A certain Mr A. Verdon Roe was elected to membership in 1906, only for the name to be soon withdrawn. The Club did institute a ‘Technical Committee’ later that year with Charles Rolls, Simms, and John Moore-Brabazon as members. The latter was to become one of the best-known among the early generation of British aviators, though he learned more from time spent in Paris among French pioneers.
It is, however, one thing to make observations about the Aero Club and its early focus and yet another to conclude that they had any substantial impact on the larger course of British aircraft pioneering. There are substantial points to be made for a counterview. David Edgerton is well-known for his consistently presented case that the British aeronautical industry was thriving and well-supported in the Edwardian years and prior to the First World War. Some evidence for this is the fact that the first flight on British soil, by the flamboyant American showman Samuel Cody, was in an army aircraft produced by the Balloon Factory at Farnborough.
Others have suggested that British aviation needed to take its own course in its own time, and in fact benefited from a lack of meddling from ‘boosters’ of different varieties. For the most part, no amount of progress was ever enough for some aviation buffs who tended to be of strong and unmoderated feeling; it could be argued that the hand-wringing was merely that. Aviation journalists, such as C.G. Grey of The Aeroplane, traded on histrionics over the fate of the British nation due to some aerial oversight or another by both government and, on occasion, private industry.
There is also the view that there was little of concrete import that an Aero Club could have produced in the pursuit of heavier-than-air flight in the early 1900s. Indeed, when it did become a reality on European soil with the 1908 demonstrations of the Wright brothers at Le Mans, France, the Club soon pursued these capabilities. They established one of the first aerodromes at the Isle of Sheppey, near the mouth of the Thames, and partnered with the Short Brothers – who brought characteristic British inventiveness to the manufacture and testing of new aircraft.
One conclusion we may reach is that discussion about the omissions of the organisations such as the Aero Club, both then and now, suffice to highlight the level of anxiety within British aviation circles – whether the basis for these worries was real or imagined. Was it inevitable that any such Club conceived during the Edwardian years would be (at least initially) unimaginative, snobbish, and genteel? Perhaps so. The episode of the duelling Clubs does provide an illuminating insight into the early world of British aviation, which the self-taught engineers and inventors were just on the cusp of breaking into. Those of the Hedges Butler ilk would soon be superseded by a new aviation elite which was, while not entirely a meritocracy, certainly closer to it than the sporting aeronauts would have imagined.
Dr Michele Haapamaki obtained her PhD from McMaster University (Hamilton, Canada) and is the author of The Coming of the Aerial War: Culture and the Fear of Airborne Attack in Inter-war Britain (I.B. Tauris, 2014). She is currently writing a book on culture and early British aviation. She Tweets @IdleHistorian.
 See; Alfred Gollin, No Longer an Island: Britain and the Wright Brothers, 1902-1909 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1984) and The Impact of Air Power on the British People and their Government, 1909-14 (London: Macmillan Press, 1989)
 Hugh Driver, The Birth of Military Aviation: Britain, 1903-1914 (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1997), p. 32.