In 2020, From Balloons to Drones will run a series of articles that examine the use and development of air strikes from the earliest use of air power through to today.
The use of air power to achieve an effect on the ground and at sea remains controversial. For example, with regards to strategic bombing, Robert Pape argued in Bombing to Win that it ‘did not work’ as a military strategy. Moreover, since the inception of air power, there have been ongoing legal and ethical debates about the use of air strikes in various spheres of military activity. As such, From Balloons to Drones is seeking submissions for a series of articles that examine the varied use of air strikes, both kinetic and non-kinetic, at the tactical, operational and strategic levels of war. Themes to be explored might include, but are not limited to:
Strategy, Theory and Doctrine| Organisation and Policy | Roles
Operations – Kinetic and Non-Kinetic | Tactics, Training and Procedures
Strategic and Operational Effect | Technological Developments
Culture | Ethical and Moral Issues
National, International and Transnational Experiences
We are looking for articles of c. 3,000 words, though we will accept larger pieces and we reserve the right to publish them in parts. We welcome and encourage submissions from academics, policymakers, service personnel, and relevant professionals. We also welcome submissions written from diverse academic disciplines.
We plan to begin running the series in January 2020, and it will continue for as long as we receive potential contributions. We will also be looking at publishing extended versions of selected articles in an edited volume.
Submissions should be submitted in Word format and emailed to the address below with ‘SUBMISSION – Bombing to Win Revisited’ in the subject line. Also, please include a 50-100-word biography with your submission. Footnotes can be used, and please be careful to explain any jargon. However, if you are not sure if your idea fits our requirements, then please email us with ‘POTENTIAL SUBMISSION – Bombing to Win Revisited’ in the subject line to discuss.
Header Image: B-52Ds from the Strategic Air Command line up for takeoff as they prepare for strikes over Hanoi and Haiphong, North Vietnam, during Operation LINEBACKER. (Source: National Museum of the USAF)
It is evil to approach war with fixed ideas; that is, without an open and flexible mind, but it is certain to lead to disaster to approach it with the inapplicable formulas of the past.
To the U.S. Army’s Air Corps Tactical School’s (ACTS) Class of 1936, Major Harold George proclaimed, ‘[W]e are not concerned in fighting the past war;–that was done 18 years ago.’ Having dismissed much of the value of studying the First World War for insights into air power, George emphatically returned to this theme a few minutes later, reminding his students that they sought to ‘peer down the path of future warfare. We are not discussing the past.’ Similarly, Major Muir Fairchild emphasised the problems caused by the ‘lack of well established principles, developed from past experience, to guide the air force commander.’ Suggesting that little of value could be derived from a study of the First World War, it is no wonder that one monograph focusing on the impetus for the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Forces’ strategic bombardment campaign of the Second World War highlighted the inter-war period as a source of problematic thinking. Tami Davis Biddle’s Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare has stressed the ACTS motto as fittingly emblematic of its institutional culture: ‘we progress unhindered by tradition.’
Paradoxically, however, ACTS instructors struggled not to mine the First World War for historical lessons. Fairchild spent almost one-tenth of his lecture reading from the British official history of the First World War in the air, The War in the Air. Similarly, George identified one historical lesson as central to future warfare: Germany had been defeated in the First World War not because its army had surrendered but because its people had crumbled. As Lieutenant Colonel Donald Wilson explained, it was the ‘collapse of the German nation as a unit’ – largely because the people constituted the ‘weak link’ – that explained the war’s end (emphasis in original). As a result, ACTS ought to focus primarily on targeting civilian morale, albeit indirectly.
Their vision can be modelled in order to depict how ACTS conceived of strategic bombardment and how these ideas changed as they began contemplating how to apply these ideas against Germany in the Second World War. Air War Plans Division (AWPD)-1 and AWPD-42, drafted in July of 1941 and August 1942, respectively, demonstrated important shifts in thinking about air power’s application. Moreover, they presaged a far more tactically minded employment of American air power in the Combined Bomber Offensive than has been recognised generally.
This model draws on a modern interpretation of Carl von Clausewitz’s famous triangle, which is often thought of today as consisting of the following three legs: the government, the people’s passions, and the military. The ACTS model could be depicted as follows: air power is best used at the strategic level to bend the enemy’s will; thus it should focus on affecting an opponent’s government and people because this approach provides the most direct path to achieving one’s desired political ends. A tactical focus on fielded forces, by contrast, is far less desirable because it is fundamentally inefficient. On occasion, however, a focus on the military might have a significant strategic effect. In other cases, an effect on electricity, for example, might have a strategic effect on the government and people as well as a more tactical effect on the military.
This thinking went beyond ideas of an ‘industrial web,’ which continue to dominate many scholars’ discussions of ACTS thinking. By zeroing in on the concept of a national structure, ACTS worked to link kinetic effects on industrial targets to the military as well as to the population, thus helping to refresh some aspects of strategic thinking in the wake of the Industrial Revolution – albeit with critical flaws. This thinking can be seen in ten recently published lectures of ACTS edited by and commented upon by Phil Haun. Of the more than 60 lectures presented at ACTS, Haun has identified these ten as representing the school’s ‘most mature thinking’ while reaching the greatest number of officers.
A kind of national structure potentially could make room for a wider array of effects than an industrial web theory could, even if it struggled to make causal links between effects and political ends. By 1936, for example, ACTS envisioned a strategy that targeted the ‘vulnerabilities’ of ‘modern industrial nations’ aimed primarily at one point of the triangle: the people, as reflected in two lectures by George and Captain Haywood Hansell. These lecturers advocated the destruction of carefully selected points in societies to cause ‘moral collapse’ – or effects on the population – as the immediate effect of strategic bombardment. The nation’s ‘will to resist’ was ‘centered in the mass of the people,’ as Hansell explained. Attacks on ‘vital elements upon which modern social life is dependent’ allowed for a focus on an opponent’s will rather than the more circuitous and inefficient focus on its means. Hansell struggled to connect the effect on the people to any ‘express[ion] through political government.’ In effect, he wished away the government leg of the triangle. George further reasoned that even if strategic bombardment failed to have the desired effect on the population, it could have a positive effect on the military leg of the triangle due to the abundant material requirements of industrialised warfare.
As such, George’s lecture anticipated a more mature 1939 lecture by Fairchild, which better integrated the effects of selected industrial attacks on two legs: people and the military, with the hope of simultaneously:
[r]educing the capacity for war of the hostile nation, and of applying pressure to the population both at the same time and with equal efficiency and effectiveness.
Fairchild’s carefully parsed assumption about equal effect is dubious; after all, airpower thinkers have been infamous for their promises to be able to quantify the effect. Moreover, again, the government leg of the triangle remains absent. His point that the enablers of industry such as electricity and oil are ‘joined at many vital points’ places these critical aspects within the triangle, thereby potentially affecting each point, at least in theory. Fairchild reasoned regarding the importance of preventing one’s opponent from acquiring key materials, such as petroleum, as well as the transportation system and electricity. Today it is common to describe ACTS as efficiently identifying key industrial bottlenecks, but such a characterisation falls short of Fairchild’s greater vision. He did not seek to attack industry so much as ‘national structure,’ as he described it.
For Fairchild, this vision appealingly provided a convenient shortcut to waging war so common to advocates of strategic attack. The ‘resulting shock effect’ and the ‘degree of facility with which these installations may be destroyed’ lured airmen with the perennial promise of being home by Christmas. In doing so, Fairchild made assumptions emblematic of ACTS thinking by envisioning a kind of paralysis complemented by efficient destruction. These effects allowed the ‘maximum contribution toward the Allied aim in the war at that time,’ unlike what he regarded as a more ineffective and tactical focus on the fielded forces, which airmen viewed as synonymous with slow attrition.
This theory came to life in AWPD-1, hurriedly envisioned over nine days in July of 1941 by former ACTS instructors such as Lieutenant Colonel Harold George, Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Walker, Lieutenant Colonel Orvil Anderson, Major Haywood Hansell, Major Laurence Kuter, Major Hoyt Vandenberg, and Major Samuel Anderson. All but one of these officers had attended and/or taught at ACTS. The plan posited 154 targets of strategic attack to be destroyed in six months in the following priority:
Air support in joint operations.
In compiling this list, air planners claimed to adhere to the strategic vision of the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy’s War Plans ABC-1 and Rainbow 5, which in Europe required an air offensive designed to reduce German air and naval assets and material while preparing for a ground offensive. However, the planners did not set out a traditional air superiority campaign with an array of targets, including airdromes, aeroplanes, and factories. Rather, they adhered to Fairchild’s emphasis on national structure, relegating aeroplane assembly plants – the first hint of an air superiority campaign – to the fourth priority.
The emphasis of ACTS continuing into AWPD-1 is modelled below, showing the split emphasis on the military and the people as two legs of the triangle, with the people receiving the primacy of focus. A plan focused on enablers such as electricity and oil doctrinally targeting national structure represented the most matured form of ACTS thinking, albeit with a problematic hope in the efficacy of strategic attack.
By September of 1942, however, this vision underwent a substantial change in focus, as the emphasis shifted down the spectrum toward more tactical means. AWPD-42 prioritised the destruction of the Luftwaffe, albeit still attained primarily through industrial means in the form of attacks against aeroplane and engine factories. Regardless, such a change represented a significant change in thinking away from more general enablers such as electricity to war material itself that had a less immediate effect on society as a whole. Second, the US Army Air Forces needed to concentrate on submarine building yards, before finally turning its attention to transportation in order to sever the ‘vital link in the Germany military and industrial structure.’ Electricity, the epitome of a structural target, had dropped from first to fourth place. In effect, AWPD-42 represented a more traditional and tactical focus, designed as it was to interdict material, though admittedly at its source, before seeking to paralyse the economy. The model below reflects this distribution with more emphasis placed on the military rather than the people, as the general trend in thinking shifted toward destroying a military’s ability to meet its material requirements. Production to strike at the enemy’s fielded forces – rather than the dual enablers of the people’s will and military means – received the greatest focus in AWPD-42.
The notion of a quick and easy path to victory through strategic attack proved a chimaera, as it has so often in history. Germany responded to attacks against its aircraft factories, for example, by dispersing them. It also fully mobilised its economy in 1944, although it could do only so much to make up for poor strategic choices. Germany had a price to pay in reduced efficiency; but so too did the Allies in terms of the very kind of attrition that they sought to avoid in the first place. It was not enough to wage an air superiority campaign against factories. German fighters and American fighters and bombers battled each other well into 1945, especially during the Battle of the Bulge.
Modelling and parsing out how ACTS envisioned strategic bombardment provides a historical case study in conceptualising strategic attack and changes in thinking over time. Doctrinally, the US Air Force continues to insist that air power used in strategic attack has the ‘potential to achieve decisive effects more directly without the need to engage enemy fielded forces.’ It cited several operations over the last 50 years in which the Air Force denied its opponents
[a]ccess to critical resources and infrastructure, defeat[ed] enemy strategies, and decisively influence[d] the enemy to end hostilities on terms favorable to US interests.
Amidst the U.S. military’s reemphasis on great power conflict, it is useful to return to the fundamentals to consider how, exactly, a strategic attack might help to achieve its desired ends through a focus on the military, the people, and the government.
Header Image: A Boeing Y1B-17A in flight near Mount Rainier in Washington state, c. 1938. (Wikimedia)
 Quoted in Lieutenant Colonel Donald Wilson, ‘Principles of War’ in Phil Haun (ed. and commentator), Lectures of the Air Corps Tactical School and American Strategic Bombing in World War II (Lexington, KT: University Press of Kentucky, 2019), p. 71.
 Major Harold George, ‘An Inquiry into the Subject ‘War” in Haun, Lectures, p. 35.
 Fairchild, ‘Air Power and Air Warfare’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 48. For another similar lecture opening, see Captain Haywood Hansell, ‘The Aim in War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 73. This same tension between rejecting history yet almost immediately jumping to a discussion of historical examples can be seen in Major Frederick Hopkins, ‘Tactical Offense and Tactical Defense’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 100-8. Hopkins also sought relevant lessons from the Spanish Civil War, for which Biddle has argued some airmen were too dogmatic to do. See Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 171.
 Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare, p. 138.
 Fairchild, ‘Air Power and Air Warfare’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 52-4.
 George, ‘Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 40-1. George even concluded his lecture by returning to this theme. Ibid., p. 44. Also see Lieutenant Colonel Donald Wilson, ‘Principles of War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 62 and Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 144. Also see Haun, ‘Introduction’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 8.
 Major Muir Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 140. Of course, one’s intent can differ from one’s effects, as occurred in the Second World War due to bad weather and the challenges of precision bombing. For this ethical discussion, see Douglas P. Lackey, ‘The Bombing Campaign: The USAAF’ in Igor Primoratz (ed.), The Bombing of German Cities in World War II (New York: Berghan Books, 2010), pp. 39-59. Even with precision, indirect effects on civilians can be highly problematic. See Daniel T. Kuehl, ‘Airpower vs. Electricity: Electric Power as a Target for Strategic Air Operations,’ Journal of Strategic Studies, 18:1 (1995), pp. 237-266.
 For this characterisation of an ‘industrial web theory,’ for example, see Scott D. West, ‘Warden and the Air Corps Tactical School: Déjà Vu’ (Thesis, School of Advanced Airpower Studies, 1999), p. v and 1.
 George, ‘An Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 43.
 Hansell, ‘Aim in War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 78, 81 and 84. Even as Hansell insisted this was the ‘primary strategic objective’ of Air Forces, he did not make this link for navies’ ability to blockade, instead taking the more Mahanian view that the primary role of the Navy was to destroy other navies. In this way, he highlighted his bias for air power as offering unique shortcuts. Ibid., p. 84.
 Hansell, ‘Aim in War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 77.
 George, ‘An Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 43. Fairchild similarly highlighted the importance of this military capacity. See Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 188-9.
 Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 143.
 Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 189.
 Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 152-7.
 Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 182.
 Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 166.
 Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 166. For the very rare recognition that ground operations occasionally could be decisive, see Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces,’ p. 186.
 ‘Appendix 2: AWPD-1’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 232-3.
 ‘Appendix 3: AWPD-42’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 258.
 ‘Appendix 1 – Trenchard Memo,’ p. 232 and ‘Appendix 3: AWPD-42,’ p. 258 in Haun, Lectures.
 While highlighting the more overt focus on supporting an invasion, Robert Futrell argued that the ‘strategic philosophy of the two studies was virtually the same.’ See Robert Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine: Basic Thinking in the United States Air Force (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 1989), p. 131. For a discussion of strategic interdiction as compared to operational interdiction, see Robert Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), p. 75.
It is often challenging to name a single person who is a critical figure within any discipline, and as I reflected here, this is also the case with air power studies if such a discipline exists. Despite this, one individual who has made an indelible impact on air power studies over the past couple of decades is Colonel Professor John Andreas Olsen. As well as publishing several studies on Operation DESERT STORM and Colonel John Warden III, Olsen has successfully published a series of edited works that have focused on several aspects of air power. The importance of these works is that Olsen has been able to bring together leading scholars to write about critical themes concerning the use and development of air power. In this latest edited volume, Olsen has, once again, brought together a line-up of prominent scholars and military practitioners who are at the forefront of researching air power.
This book seeks to ‘improve knowledge of and insight into the phenomena of aerospace power.’ (p. 8) Indeed, as Olsen reflects, air power is more than just ‘aircraft, weapons systems and bombing.’ (p. 5) Recognising this, Olsen further notes that any analysis of air power must also encompass, though not limited to, issues such as ‘training, education, values, rules of engagement, leadership, adaptability, boldness in execution, and a range of other factors, tangible and non-tangible, that influence a military operation.’ (p. 5) It is around this broad definition that this book is designed. The book’s design reflects Sir Michael Howard’s sage words that military history, and by default military affairs in general, should be studied in breadth, depth, and context. As such, the book is split into five sections that in turn deal with themes related to Howard’s advice. In providing a coherent pedagogical purpose to the book, Olsen has at least tried to provide some form and flow to the volume, which can often be a challenging prospect with any edited book.
The first section deals with the essence of air power and provides the breadth aspect for this volume. The section consists of six chapters dealing with air power anatomy, theory, history, high command, science and technology and ethics and international law. Each author is well placed to write their respective chapters, and each provides a useful overview of his subject. For example, Peter Gray provides an excellent strategic overview of the critical trajectory of air power history (pp. 70-80) while Philip Meilinger (pp. 35-45) discusses some of the essential themes evident in one hundred years or so of air power theory.
The second and third sections provide the depth to this volume by exploring critical aspects related to the delivery and application of air power. It is in these sections where we see the greatest mix between academics and military practitioners in the volume. Of the 12 contributors to these sections, seven are currently serving officers ranging from a two-star officer, Air Vice-Marshal Richard Knighton of the Royal Air Force (RAF) through to two Wing Commanders from the Royal Australian Air Force, Travis Hallen and Chris McInnes. The first section on delivering air power focuses on issues such as control of the air, command and control and logistics. It is good to see the latter included as it is clear, as Knighton concludes, that the logistical requirements of air power are not ‘well understood.’ (p. 151) The section on applying air power deals with the integration of air power with the other domains including space and cyber and each provides a good overview of the issues related to these topics.
The final two sections provide the context to this volume by exploring issues related to the political-social-economic environment in which air power operates as well as a section on national case studies. The latter section includes some interesting selections including chapters on Indian, Pakistani, Brazilian and Japanese air power. Some might argue that chapters should have been included that dealt with, for example, the US, UK, and other European nations. However, this book needs to be read in conjunction with other edited volumes by Olsen, such as Global Air Power (2011) and European Air Power (2014) where you will find chapters dealing with these nations. As such, it makes a refreshing change to see other examples included in this volume. The section on the political-social-economic environment includes some exciting chapters dealing with the political effect of air power and coercive diplomacy. As Michael Clarke (p. 237) argues, air power is a potent weapon but needs to be used carefully to help achieve a political effect. This view is mirrored by Karl Mueller who notes that ‘aerial bombing was not a panacea for preventing wars.’ (p. 252) Indeed, perhaps the critical criticism of air power thinkers has been their overestimation of the capability available to them as well as the place of military aviation within the toolbox of national power.
While there is much to praise in this work, there are no doubt some gaps that require some reflection. The first is a comment on authors, and this is not so much a direct criticism of the book but rather a comment on the state of the discipline at this moment in time. The book has been authored entirely by male academics or serving officers who, as already noted, are eminently qualified to write their various contributions. However, the lack of female contributors is disappointing especially as there are female academics and serving personnel writing about air power. Indeed, the issue of male dominance of the discipline is one we are well aware of here at From Balloons to Drones – all the editors and assistant editors are men. Indeed, at From Balloons to Drones we hope to continue to offer opportunities for all to contribute to the discussion about air power. Building on the above reflection is also the fact that each of the authors in this volume has some form of relationship with the military. They are either serving or retired officers, teach, or have taught within the professional military education (PME) ecosystem, or work for a think-tank associated with the military, such as RAND. If this sample of authors in this volume is indicative of the discipline, then the study of air power still struggles from the problem identified 20 years ago by John Ferris who wrote that:
[those studying air power are either] the children of airmen, have been military personnel themselves, and have been employed at a historical office or service school in Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, or the United States.If this remains the case, there remains an open question as to how we broaden out the discipline to avoid accusations such as the weaponisation of the past. Linked to this, of course, is the question of what a broader and more diverse perspective on air power would bring to the discipline.
Regarding content, several areas could have further strengthened this volume. For example, it is curious that the quote above concerning what encompasses the study of air power begins with training and education; however, neither subject is present in this volume. Concerning education, its omission is even more curious given the focus on the so-called conceptual component in programmes such as the RAF’s Thinking to Win, Plan Jericho in Australia, and the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Airpower in Formation. Interestingly, and perhaps indicative of the perceived importance of this volume, there is a paperback version of this book that has been produced in conjunction with the RAF’s Centre for Air and Space Power Studies and includes the Thinking to Win logo. However, as Meilinger reflected in his chapter, ‘[N]eeded are airmen well grounded in all aspects of air warfare, including the theoretical.’ (p. 44) If this is the case, then it follows that the provision of high-quality air power education is critical, and a chapter on this subject would have been valuable. Other chapters that could have been included include the culture of air forces and leadership as opposed to Stephens’ (pp. 24-34) focus on high-command. Indeed, it is often remarked that air forces are somehow different to army and navies in their outlook. If this is the case, then an examination of the culture of air forces and issues such as leadership would have further enriched this volume.
Overall, despite my criticisms above, this is an excellent and essential contribution to our understanding of air power. As noted, the pedagogic layout of the book helps give the volume purpose that leads the reader through many critical issues related to air power. As such, while the book’s primary market will undoubtedly be serving air force personnel involved in PME and training activities, there is enough in this volume that other interested readers will gain much from this collection.
 John R. Ferris, ‘Review Article – The Air Force Brats’ View of History: Recent Writing and the Royal Air Force, 1918–1960,’ The International History Review, 20:1 (1998), p. 119
Dr Ross Mahoney is the Editor of From Balloons to Drones and is an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the resident Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum, and he is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.
Header Image: An RAF F-35B Lightning from No. 617 Squadron stationed at RAF Marham. This aircraft is performing a hover manoeuvre during the Royal International Air Tattoo in 2018. (Source: UK MoD Defence Imagery)
Editorial Note: On 19 September 2018, our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney delivered a paper on the subject of ‘The Role of History in Educating Air Power Strategists’ at a seminar organised by the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) Air Power Development Centre in Canberra. A precis of this paper was published in the Pathfinder bulletin issued by APDC, which can be found here. The Pathfinder series covers a range of issue from strategy, historical analyses, operations, administration, logistics, education and training, people, command and control, technology to name a few. Irrespective of the subject though, Pathfinders will always be focused on the relevance to air power; they are not intended to be just a narrative but deliver a measure of analysis. Apart from the addition of some minor changes to make this precis applicable to From Balloons to Drones as well as the inclusion of footnotes and further reading suggestions, this article appears as published in Pathfinder. We are grateful to APDC for permission to re-publish the piece, and the views in this article and the associated Pathfinder are not necessarily those of the RAAF.
‘[t]he study of military history lies at the foundation of all sound military conclusions and practice.’
Rear-Admiral A.T. Mahan, ‘The Naval War College,’ The North American Review, (1912)
‘The word history carries two meanings […] It refers both to what actually happened in the past and to the representation of that past in the work of historians.’
John Tosh, The Pursuit of History, Third Edition, (1999)
What is history? What is its relevance to an air power strategist? These are important questions; however, as Richard Muller, a senior member of the faculty at the US Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, reflected in 2016, ‘as a rule air forces have not embraced historical study to the same extent as have their army or navy counterparts.’ Nevertheless, in 1912, a year after an Italian aeroplane dropped the first ‘bomb’ over Libya, noted US naval historian and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan reflected on the link between military history and ‘sound military conclusions.’ However, history does not provide clear lessons. Nevertheless, the study of the past does offer a lens through which to analyse, understand and reflect on the challenges currently faced by modern air forces.
This article considers some of the issues related to applied military history beginning with an outline of the purpose of history and the challenges of applying the past to the present. It also considers how air forces have used the study of the past as a tool for education while concluding with some tentative thoughts on how history can be used to educate strategists in the continuing challenge to achieve professional mastery.
To start with, the term ‘education’ is used in this narrative in a broad context and incorporates both formal and informal learning. Similarly, the term ‘strategist’ is used in a collegiate manner and assumes that modern air forces seek personnel who are professional masters, well-versed in the core knowledge that underpins the application of air power.
As the British historian John Tosh reflected, the term history is ambiguous at best. Is history a collection of facts related to what has happened or is it the scholarly discussion and representation of the past? If the latter statement is accepted as being correct, then it can also be assumed that the interpretation of the past is an argument without an end. While a hackneyed observation, history is a dynamic field of study, one where historians continually re-examine evidence and reinterpret the past. Linked to this is the extent of historical information available to historians and, by default, strategists who seek to apply lessons from the past to the present. The archival records and evidence that underpin the interpretation of the past are normally incomplete. For example, the National Archives of Australia only preserves a small amount of the material generated by the Australian Government.
Moving beyond the above understanding of history, the field of military history can be split into three subfields: popular, academic, and applied history. There is a degree of overlap between the latter two. The main criticism of applied military history is that it is a form of weaponising the past to cater for the present. Underpinning this criticism is a view that those writing such history do so without sufficient understanding of the context in seeking to deduce lessons learnt. Unfortunately, this criticism is currently directed at academics working at institutions delivering professional military education. These institutions use history to illuminate and provide context to the ambiguous challenges that officers attending them are likely to confront in the future.
Historically, the criticism of weaponising the past does carry some weight, and therefore air power strategists could be criticised for the poor use of history to support their arguments. Indeed, as Sir Michael Howard, a distinguished military historian, noted in his 1961 lecture on ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History’:
[W]hen great [interwar] pioneers of air war…advocated striking at the homeland and at the morale of the enemy people…they were basing their conclusions on their interpretation of past wars’. (emphasis added)
More recently, Colonel (retired) John Warden III’s book, The Air Campaign, has been criticised for his use of a selective reading of history to fit the theory being propounded in it. Admittedly, Warden is not a historian. However, such selective use of history becomes problematic to the broader task of delivering professional education when such texts appear in, for example, Staff College reading lists where they can reinforce a narrow, and at times wrong, understanding of some of the officers they are meant to educate. Despite this criticism, it is clear that many air power thinkers have recognised the value of a broad reading of history. For example, in a 1921 article on ‘Strategy and Air Strategy,’ Group Captain John Chamier of the Royal Air Force reflected on the challenge of deducing appropriate principles for the use of air power given the brief history of air warfare till then. Nevertheless, Chamier recognised that ‘strategic principles are derived from the study of history’, and he recognised that examples from ‘naval and military strategy’ could provide the necessary framework for a discussion of ‘air strategy.’
While history and the application of its lessons by air forces is fraught with challenges, its importance as a didactic tool for the military cannot be underestimated. Indeed, the study of history has been, and remains, an element of the curricula at educational establishments of most air forces. However, considered in a broad manner, the study of history has been unbalanced. For example, in the late-1940s and 1950s, history and related subjects featured little on the curriculum at the RAAF College. As Alan Stephens has noted, the RAAF of this period identified itself as a ‘narrow technocracy’ with knowledge of the Air Force’s core business to be deduced from its ‘technical components’ rather than a ‘study of its history and ideas.’
To conclude, there are several areas where the contemporary study of history plays a key role in the education of air power theorists and strategists. Perhaps most important is that a deep and contextual study of history provides an important understanding for military personnel seeking to gain professional mastery of the profession of arms. Indeed, if it is accepted that the aim of learning is to develop the cognitive ability to understand and deal with ambiguity, rather than to provide clear-cut answers to current problems, then the study of history has a role to play.
The skills associated with historical analysis refines human cognitive areas such as the ability to make considered judgements. An important contributor to the effectiveness of this learning process has been the increasing civilianisation of the academic delivery at institutions catering to professional military education. At a practical level, the use of Staff Rides as a learning tool could also ensure that history could be used as a means to explore ideas outside of the confines of the traditional education environment. However, this process also has its own challenges. In the final analysis, Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely’s remark that the study of history needs to form an essential part of a ‘balanced diet’ of education for the military professional in order for them to develop the knowledge to be effective, rings completely true.
Even though history may not provide clear lessons, the study of the past offers a lens through which to analyse, understand and reflect on the challenges currently faced by modern air forces;
History could be considered a rather dynamic field of study, one where historians continually re-examine evidence and re-interpret the past;
It is recognised that ‘strategic principles are derived from the study of history.’
Gray, Peter, ‘Why Study Military History?,’ Defence Studies, 5:1 (2005), pp. 151-64.
Murray, Williamson, and Sinnreich, Richard Hart (eds.), The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
Dr Ross Mahoney is the editor and owner of From Balloons to Drones as well as being an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. He is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.
 Rear-Admiral A.T. Mahan, ‘The Naval War College,’ The North American Review, 196:680 (1912), p. 78.
 John Tosh, The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and New Directions in the Study of Modern History, Third Edition (Harlow: Pearson Education, 1999), p. viii.
 Richard R. Muller, ‘The Airpower Historian and the Education of Strategists’ in Richard J. Bailey Jr., James W. Forsyth Jr., and Mark O. Yeisley (eds.), Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016), p. 113.
 On professional mastery in air forces, see: Sanu Kainikara, ‘Professional Mastery and Air Power Education,’ Working Paper, 33 (Canberra: RAAF Air Power Development Centre, 2011).
 John A. Lynn III, ‘Breaching the Walls of Academe: The Purposes, Problems, and Prospects of Military History,’ Academic Questions, 21:1 (2008), p. 20.
 Kim Wagner, ‘Seeing Like a Soldier: The Amritsar Massacre and the Politics of Military History,’ in Martin Thomas and Gareth Curless (eds), Decolonization and Conflict: Colonial Comparisons and Conflicts (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), pp. 25-7.
 Michael Howard, ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History (lecture),’ Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, 107:625 (1962), p. 10.
 John Andreas Olsen, John Warden and the Renaissance of American Air Power (Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2007), pp. 78-9. In a similar vein to Warden, Colonel John Boyd’s work ‘cherry-picked’ history ‘to provide illustrations and empirical validation for patterns he observed in combat.’ However, it should be recognised that Boyd was an airman who was a general strategist rather than an air power thinker per se, though his ideas do have applicability to the air domain. See: Frans Osinga, ‘The Enemy as a Complex Adaptive System: John Boyd and Airpower in the Postmodern Era’ in John Andreas Olsen (ed.), Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015), pp. 53-4.
 Group Captain J.A. Chamier, ‘Strategy and Air Strategy,’ Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, 66 (1921), p. 641.
 Alan Stephens, The Australian Centenary History of Defence: Volume II – The Royal Australian Air Force (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 188.
 On the challenges associated with staff rides, see: Brigadier R.A.M.S. Melvin British Army, ‘Contemporary Battlefield Tours and Staff Rides: A Military Practitioner’s View,’ Defence Studies, 5:1 (2005), pp. 59-80,Nick Lloyd, ‘Battlefield Tours and Staff Rides: A Useful Learning Experience?,’ Teaching in Higher Education, 14:2 (2009), pp. 175-84.
 John P. Kiszely, ‘The Relevance of History to the Military Profession: A British View’ in Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich (eds.), The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 32.
Phillip S. Meilinger, Limiting Risk in America’s Wars: Airpower, Asymmetrics, and a New Strategic Paradigm. Annapolis: MD, Naval Institute Press, 2017. Illustrations, Notes, Bibliography, Hbk. xx + 277 pp.
The US possesses the pre-eminent military force in the world today. The record of the US in conflict since the Second World War does not, however, reflect this capability pre-eminence. In a recent online article, Harlan Ullman noted that:
President John F. Kennedy tartly observed that there is no school for presidents [but] there needs to be a way to bring knowledge and understanding to bear on presidents’ decisions.
Ullman’s concern is that President’s, and those that advise them, are ill prepared for determining political strategy in the context of using military force.
It would not be inappropriate to suggest that Phillip S. Meilinger’s new book is one way of addressing this knowledge deficit. In simple terms, this is a book about US strategy, or rather re-thinking US strategy in the context of protecting national interests subject to the usual pressures of representative democracy. Pressures that require amongst other things maintenance of public support, which is increasingly sensitive to the costs of war in both people and money. As such Meilinger advocates for a reorientation of US military policy to focus on its asymmetric strengths in areas such as air and naval power, special forces (SOF), increasingly pervasive intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and intelligence analysis, against enemy vulnerabilities, and at the same time limit the States exposure to the risk of ‘casualties and cost’. While a simple concept, it is a shift away from current US strategic policy that follows Clausewitzian notions of using conventional ground forces against enemy strengths.
Meilinger starts by reminding us of the main problem to be addressed – designing military strategy to achieve political goals with the highest chance of decisive military victory but at the least cost. Railing against the Clausewitzian model of seeking decisive victory by attacking an enemy’s strength head-on, and its attendant higher cost and risk of failure, Meilinger reviews the work of several renowned strategists including Basil Liddell Hart, J.F.C. Fuller, Antoine Jomini and Sun Tzu to identify an alternative strategic direction. The common thread he draws from such strategists is of using an asymmetric advantage to strike at an enemy’s weakness while protecting your own. He draws upon the example of indirect second-front operations that he defines as:
[g]rand strategic flanking manoeuvres involving a major military force that strikes the enemy unexpectedly somewhere other than the main theatre of action (the source of the enemy’s strength) and is directed to achieving clear political objectives. (p.31)
Within the concept of second-fronts, Meilinger sees a basis to provide the US with an asymmetric advantage over enemies, with the promise of limiting the America’s exposure to casualties and cost.
Meilinger then examines both successful and unsuccessful historical incidences of second-fronts from the Peloponnesian war through to the Second World War to determine whether they are conceptually relevant today. This examination identifies that the reasons for opening a second-front exist today. These reasons are to avoid enemy strongpoints, increased morale, gaining an economic advantage, splitting an alliance, denying or gaining access to resources, the base for further operations, taking advantage of a unique strength. Importantly, the contemporary need for states to limit risk and preserve resources makes the most fundamental reason for adopting second-fronts. Also, the use and creation of asymmetry against an enemy by avoiding their strengths and attacking their vulnerabilities to limit risk and cost are of significant relevance to the American public. Similarly, those factors prominent in success or failure of second-fronts such as valid strategy, competent planning, competent leadership, accurate and timely intelligence, friendly or neutralised local population, secure lines of communication, maritime and air superiority, are also still current.
While many of these factors are commonly addressed, Meilinger raises a couple of issues that are perhaps core to the application of an appropriate alternative strategy to the achievement of desired political objectives. Success requires both sound policy and strategy, the setting of which requires the military leadership to provide appropriate advice and guidance to the government. Political objectives must be achievable through an aligned strategy that military planners design to maximise the chance of success while simultaneously minimising risk and costs. As such strategy and the forces to implement it should not be adversely affected by service culture or other factors incongruent with the development of optimal outcomes. Should the government not accept appropriate advice, but instead adopts policy or strategy that inappropriately increases the risk to lives and/or of failure then the military leadership should have the moral courage to seek to positively influence political decision-making or be prepared to resign.
Meilinger highlights the asymmetric advantage provided to the US by its air power capabilities that most, if not all, nations would struggle to contain. Through its reach, speed, ubiquity, flexibility and lethal precision it provides the US direct access to all the strengths and vulnerabilities (centres of gravity) of an enemy, allowing it the ability to undertake direct or indirect attack against them, with drastically reduced risk to its forces and civilians, and a significantly reduced footprint. Concerns over its reputation (psychological, graphic violence, and morality of distance) and risk shifting to civilians, arguably are offset using precision weapons, targeting tools and detailed planning resulting in reduced risk to civilians. In other words, Meilinger claims it is ‘the US asymmetric advantage that limits [US] risk.’ (p. 190)
Since the Second World War, wars have generally been fought with limited means to achieve limited objectives, whether due to avoiding nuclear peers, concerns with maintaining public support, legal restrictions, media, geography, culture or concerns over managing scarce resources. Meilinger’s review of post-Second World War wars undertaken by the US from Korea to Iraq highlights a somewhat chequered record of success premised on US strategy of employing massive conventional ground forces. While air power was used during these wars, it was either used poorly, or when used successfully, the maintenance of an overall Clausewitzian conventional ground force strategy ultimately led to strategic failure.
Meilinger notes that perhaps another model should have been used; one presaged by historical second-front operations that used unique strategies and tactics to solve equally unique problems, with the goal of achieving measurable political results at minimal risk. As such Meilinger suggests that the US should ‘use [its] asymmetric strengths against enemy weaknesses while screening their own vulnerabilities’. In addition to air power, existing asymmetric strengths include SOF and ubiquitous ISR. Combining these three capabilities with ‘determined’ indigenous forces provide a force structure that provides an asymmetric advantage against conventional and unconventional enemy forces, and which when compared to conventional ground force options offers an opportunity for measurable results while saving lives and money.
There is, however, a paradox in Limiting Risk in America’s Wars that is hard to reconcile. The engaging, forthright simplicity of the book is achieved by avoiding overly complex analysis and justification of strategic concepts and their technical detail. Consequently, what makes the book easy to read and understand, also makes it appear shallow in specific areas. While the knowledge of the author is unquestionable, and the notes provide an extra depth of information, there are times when the reader is left to accept the statements of the author as fact, rather than follow an articulated analysis resulting in verifiable deductions or inductions.
For instance, a critical position taken by the author is that the US should adopt the asymmetric advantage provided by the ‘combination of air power, SOF, indigenous forces, and ISR.’ (p. 194) There is a succinct analysis of the air power capability resulting in a deduction that air power provides an asymmetric advantage, but there is no such deductive analysis of the asymmetric advantage of SOF and ISR and only a limited prescription for indigenous troops. While there seems to be a dearth of material on the anti-Clausewitzian aspects of these elements, examples exist. The work of retired General Robert Scales, for instance, on mobile land forces in replication of air power capability would seem to offer the prospect of more detailed analysis of corresponding ground force elements, to aid in fleshing out the elements of Meilinger’s overall strategy. The lack of detailed insight into each of the non-air power elements, by consequence results in the absence of explanation or analysis into how the four nominated forces fit together to deliver an overall asymmetric advantage in contemporary conflict. Admittedly, a core thread of the book is about raising the importance of air power in the overall force composition and strategy mix, but the failure to address the other elements and their combination can lead to questions, which undermines the overall premise of the book and could have been quickly addressed.
One such example is the a priori claim that the use of conventional forces increases the risk of casualties (civilians and own forces) – whether from the dangers of ground combat or the application of air power in support of troops in conflict. If you replace conventional forces with indigenous troops, the same risks still seem to exist. In fact, the risk may increase if the indigenous troops are not as professional or well-equipped as the conventional forces they are replacing. The logical conclusion that can be drawn thus appears to be that the only benefit that exists is a movement of risk from US forces (as no conventional troops are committed) to the indigenous forces and civilians.
Meilinger tellingly notes that if:
US leaders determine that our vital interests be indeed at stake and US involvement is essential the case studies reveal timeless truths regarding the most effective and efficient methods of achieving success at low risk. (p. 205)
Conceptually, after reading this book, it is hard to disagree with this statement. There is something powerful in the simple argument that strategy, and force composition, should be built around the use of asymmetrical advantages against enemy vulnerabilities to reduce risk and cost. However, by attempting to advance this concept one step further and identify, without full supporting analysis, a specific contemporary US strategy with a focus on air power and the other elements of SOF, ISR and indigenous ground forces, it strikes me that Meilinger not only comes to a logically weakened position. As such, Meilinger, unfortunately, misses the opportunity to articulate a more robust and appropriate strategy for the conduct of warfare generally.
Wing Commander Alec Tattersall has been a permanent member of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) since 1996. He is a graduate of the University of Tasmania (Bcom & LLB), the University of Melbourne (Grad. Dip. Military Law), the Australian National University (GDLP and LLM), and is currently undertaking postgraduate research into the philosophical aspects of autonomous weapon systems at the University of New South Wales. His recent postings include; Headquarters Joint Operations Command, Air Force Headquarters, the Directorate of Operations and Security Law, and the Air Power Development Centre. Threaded through these postings are a number of operational deployments to the Middle East and domestically for counter-terrorism. He is the currently seconded to Special Counsel in the Australian Signals Directorate and is the Defence Legal representative to the 2017/18 meetings of the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the RAAF, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.
Header Image: An MQ-9 Reaper equipped with an extended range modification sits on the ramp on Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan before a sortie on 6 December 2015. (Source: US Department of Defense Images)
Editorial Note: In the second instalment of ‘Air War Books,’ the editor of From Balloons to Drones, Dr Ross Mahoney discusses the ten books that have influenced and shaped his writing as an air power historian.
As editor of From Balloons to Drones, I thought I should reflect on what are probably the ten key books that have influenced me in my study of air power. However, I make three provisos. First, I attacked this from the perspective of key authors rather than the books themselves per se. As such, I have selected titles that I have enjoyed to illustrate the importance of these writers. Second, I have left out official histories and narratives though these have been just as influential on my writing as other works. Finally, I have included some non-air power texts in here. At the end of the day, I am a historian and an interdisciplinary one at that, and it is only natural that non-air power specific books have influenced how I approach what and how I write.
John Buckley, Air Power in the Age of Total War(London: UCL Press, 1999). Ok, this, and Peter Gray’s book below has as much to do with these individuals real influence on me as well as the importance of their books. John was my undergraduate tutor many years ago, and his influence was to start me on the track to where I am today. However, added to that, Air Power in the Age of Total War is an excellent examination of the rise of air power in the first half of the twentieth century and vital reading for anyone wanting an introduction to the subject.
Peter Gray, The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945(London: Continuum, 2012). Peter’s influence was as my PhD supervisor, and I will forever be grateful for his guidance. In my opinion, Peter is currently the leading air power specialist in the UK and one of the foremost experts in the world. That expertise is clearly evident in this book. The strategic air offensive against Germany is well-trodden ground, but Peter found a fresh way to assess its conduct. It is required reading not just for people wanting to understand the bombing offensive during the Second World War but also issues such as the challenge of senior leadership and matters such as legitimacy and international law.
Tony Mason, History of the Royal Air Force Staff College, 1922-1972 (Bracknell, RAF Staff College, 1972). I could have chosen any of Mason’s work, but this one has specific resonance for my research. This was written before Mason became the RAF’s first Director of Defence Studies (DDefS) in 1977 and is not widely available as the RAF Staff College published it. Nevertheless, Mason was not wide of the mark with many of his comments about the Staff College, though it does need to be brought up to date.
Allan English, Understanding Military Culture: A Canadian Perspective(Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004). English, a retired RCAF officer, is a noted historian of air power and has written an influential article on the RAF Staff College in the inter-war years. However, for me, his most important work is his study of Canadian military culture. As someone who specialises in the culture of air forces, this work is an essential primer on the subject of culture and its influence on the Canadian military.
John Slessor, Air Power and Armies(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936). I think everyone needs to have a contemporary air power thinker on his or hers list and Slessor certainly fits that bill. He is, perhaps, the closest the RAF came to having their own Clausewitz, though I remain to be convinced that the Service wanted a singular air power thinker. Rather I think the RAF collegiately developed officers with a broad view of air power, but that is another discussion. The importance of Air Power and Armies is that it really should put to rest the argument that the RAF was solely focused on strategic bombing. Yes, Slessor used a strategic conception of air power to inform his work, but he sought to understand how military aviation could influence the land battle. An important piece of work and the recent 2009 edition by the University of Alabama Press contains an introduction by Philip Meilinger.
Arthur Gould Lee,No Parachute(London: Jarrolds, 1968). Everyone needs a memoir in his or hers top ten, and there are a number of good works by air force personnel. Most are written by pilots, which says much about the culture of air forces as much as anything else. Lee wrote several books dealing with various aspects of his service life and each could find their way into this list. No Parachute is particularly useful for its appendices though the one on parachutes does need to be revised.
John Andreas Olsen, John Warden and the Renaissance of American Air Power(Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2007). As Brian Laslie mentioned in the first instalment of ‘Air War Books,’ I think we do need to include a work by Olsen. He is one of the key writers on air power currently, particularly about modern conflicts. His biography of Warden is fascinating and gives an excellent insight into this complex character. Perhaps what is more impressive, is that this was written while Warden is alive, which is never an easy task.
David French, Military Identities: The Regimental System, the British Army, and the British People c.1870-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). French is one Britain’s leading military historians, and I wonder how he would do if he turned his interests towards the RAF. However, for me, his analysis of the British Army’s regimental system is fascinating and one of those works that all should read to develop an understanding of how military organisations operate. There is much to take away from this study, and for me, it has raised significant questions about issues such as identity with regards to squadrons in air forces.
Richard Overy, The Air War, 1939-1945(London: Europa Publications, 1980). Overy remains not only one of the leading air power historians in the UK but also globally. The Air War continues to be one of the most influential titles concerning the role of air power during the Second World War. I could have quite easily has listed The Bombing War here, which is Overy’s most recent air power work. However, The Air War continues to be important, and while Overy’s views have developed over the years – like those of all historians – this work was written when air power history was a ‘Cinderella’ discipline. Thankfully, this is no longer the case, and the new edition of The Air War is useful for Overy’s overview of the field of air power history up to 2003.
John James, The Paladins: The Story of the RAF up to the Outbreak of World War II(London: Macdonald and Company, 1990). Given my focus on the culture and ethos of air forces, this was again, one of those works that I could not ignore reading as it is one of the few social histories of the RAF before the Second World War. James worked in operational research sections in various RAF Commands and brought that experience to the writing of the book. It is good but does need bringing up to date, and I dispute some of his views on how the RAF branch system evolved. Nevertheless, a work to read.
Well, that is my top ten; however, it would be easy to add more to the list. As noted, when Overy wrote The Air War, and Mason served as DDefS, the academic study of air power, certainly in the UK, was a Cinderella subject. Thankfully, that is no longer the case and the last ten years have seen a number of significant studies published, which point the way forward for the subject but that will be a post for another time.
Dr Ross Mahoney is an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the resident Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum, and he is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and is an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He blogs at Thoughts on Military History, and can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.
In the past few decades, air power, and its application as a weapon of war or force projection capability has seen an enormous improvement in capabilities. In keeping with the current global ethos of avoiding excessive use of force while fighting a war, air power now has the ability to deliver extreme destructive power with precision, proportionality, and discrimination. Based on this capability, air forces have also developed into deterrent and coercive forces second to none. Considering that the military employment of air power is only a century old, these are great achievements. Even so, military forces are continually looking to improve their effectiveness through fine-tuning already sharp force application capabilities. This brings out the question—how much more effective can air power become?
The answer is not straightforward, and the term ‘effectiveness’ needs to be understood in a nuanced manner to arrive at a reasonably argued answer. Effectiveness—the ability to serve the purpose or produce the intended or expected result—in air power terms involves not only the ability to create the necessary effect but to do it while minimising the chances of own forces being placed in danger. Therefore, the increasing efficacy of the application of air power should be tempered with ensuring that the safety of own forces is also assured to a minimum accepted level. This dual requirement led to the development of uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs) that have now become armed with precision strike weapons to become uninhabited combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), a misinterpretation of the word ‘combat’.
The introduction of UCAVs into the battlespace opened a hitherto unknown and uninvestigated arena of military operations. Not only were there technological hurdles to overcome, but a whole plethora of moral, ethical, and legal aspects of warfare also started to be questioned. In the beginning, the UAVs were considered to be purely intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, which could be employed in benign airspaces where long-term ISR collection was required. By arming them, the technologically advanced military forces changed the existing equation of applying lethal force.
Going back to the primary reason for the introduction of UAVs, the need to safeguard one’s own combatants, there should be no argument regarding the arming of these vehicles. However, the so-called ‘drone strike’, a misnomer if ever there was one, has become an emotive issue not only with the people at the receiving end of the strike but also with the ‘politically correct’ media. Why is this so? Before analysing this, it must be stated here that an air strike can now be carried out with equal efficiency and precision by either a manned fighter or a UCAV. The only difference is that the human in the decision-making loop that permits the release of the weapon is placed at different places in each case. In the case of the manned fighter, the human is at the sharp end of the loop whereas, in the case of a UCAV, the human is almost at the beginning of the loop. In other words, in one case the human is placed in immediate danger while in the other, there is no danger to the human from the repercussions of the actions that are being initiated.
If there is no danger to own forces in the second case then why is there such a hue and cry regarding strikes carried out by UCAVs? Here, the survivability of the UCAV in a contested airspace, because of its low speed, restricted manoeuvrability, and lack of self-protection measures, is not being analysed since it is extraneous to this discussion. The fundamental reason for the discomfiture with the use of UCAVs is the fact that in the majority of cases, the opposing parties do not have air power capabilities and therefore such strikes are considered unethical. When the instances of collateral damage are added to the dialogue, the pendulum of public opinion decisively swings away from the use of UCAVs and air power. The real reason, however, is that in most of the Western democratic nations, the public opinion regarding national security and the employment of defence forces has been dominated by left-wing, anti-war groups. Once again, this discussion does not need to go into political debates and is curtailed here.
So, what is going to be the next breakthrough in terms of air power efficacy? Currently, the accuracy achieved by air-launched weapons, the clarity of airborne ISR and the global reach of air transportation are such that no further improvement seems possible or warranted. There can definitely be improvements in the speed with which response options can be provided and delivered. The realm of hypersonic flight is already very close to becoming a reality.
The next step change in the functioning of air power and related systems will take place when artificial intelligence (AI) becomes operational and is accepted as such. This statement needs clarification. AI is already a reality in many applications. However, complete autonomy has not yet been granted to AI in the case of weapon release functions. It is also true that AI has already proven to be fail-proof when tested under controlled conditions. There are many reasons for AI not being granted complete autonomy—capable of individual thought and decision-making rather than a pre-programmed response—the fundamental one being the question whether it is ethical to permit a ‘machine’ to make the decision whether or not a human being is to be ‘killed’ or eliminated.
In the case of fully autonomous airborne systems, further complications arise. In combat situations would it be ethical for a manned fighter to be destroyed by a ‘machine’? Would it be possible to program the machine only to destroy another machine, and in that case, does it mean complete autonomy for the AI? The question of legality in the use of fully autonomous combat systems is another area that has not been clarified. In fact, the process of creating laws that could govern the use of AI has not even got under way, and there is certainty that under the current geopolitical environment, agreement will not be reached.
In these circumstances, where ethics are being questioned, and there is no legal coverage for its employment, it is highly unlikely that AI will be employed to its full capacity in the near to mid-term future. In turn, it would mean that developments in air power capabilities and more importantly in its application will remain curtailed for the foreseeable future. Yes, the missiles will go further; space will become more pervasive; airborne platforms will fly faster, compute solutions at a much more rapid pace; and air power will entrench its place as the first-choice weapon in the vanguard of power projection. However, these are but refinements of what air power already does. For example, when a hypersonic flight becomes a normal reality, how much more effective will air power become? A reasonable answer would be, not by very much from what it does now.
The future of air power is going to be the same as it is today unless the next step-change takes place—AI is going to be the next technology that elevates air power further into being the most potent capability that the human race has yet invented.
This post first appeared at The Central Blue, the blog of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation.
Dr Sanu Kainikara is the Air Power Strategist at the Royal Australian Air Force’s Air Power Development Centre and an Adjunct Professor at the University of New South Wales. He is a former fighter pilot of the Indian Air Force.
Header Image: A three-ship formation of F-22 Raptors flies over the Pacific Ocean 28 January 2009 as part of a deployment to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. The Raptors were deployed from Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. (Source: Wikimedia)