Has Air Power Reached its Zenith?

Has Air Power Reached its Zenith?

By Dr Sanu Kainikara

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’.

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The X-45A Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle technology demonstrator on its sixth flight on Dec. 19, 2002. (Source: Wikimedia)

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.

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HTV-2 on the upper stage of the launch vehicle after jettisoning of the payload fairing. (Source: Wikimedia)

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)

It is Time to Demystify the Effects of ‘Strategic Western Air Power’ – Part 2

It is Time to Demystify the Effects of ‘Strategic Western Air Power’ – Part 2

By Lieutenant-Colonel Dr Jyri Raitasalo

Editor’s Note: In this two-part article, Dr Jyri Raitasalo considers what he argues are the two fundamental fallacies concerning the application of strategic air power by Western states in the modern era. In the first part, he examined the challenge of the use of military forces as a tool for solving political problems. In this second part, he examines the issue of ‘no casualty warfare.’

Fallacy 2: No casualty warfare

The second fallacy in Western air power paradigm touches on the notion of precision engagement with almost zero civilian casualties and no collateral damage. This narrative was formed in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War and has been maturing and strengthening ever since.  Precision engagement has indeed become one of the game changers in warfare lately, but the Western narrative on pinpoint accuracy in warfare has become a strategic level hindrance to effective military operations.

The notion of no or little collateral damage developed into the Western air power paradigm little by little as political leaders since the early 1990s continuously decided to use military force actively for humanitarian purposes. It was a prerequisite that Western military operations do not cause civilian suffering or produce collateral damage in military operations (read: war) that are eventually humanitarian in nature. Focusing on the precise application of large-scale violence was thus a must for political purposes. It was needed for the legitimacy of these operations and to ‘sell’ these operations to domestic audiences within the Western world and internationally.

Combined Air and Space Operations Center
Combined Air and Space Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, provides command and control of air power throughout Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and 17 other nations. The CAOC is comprised of a joint and Coalition team that executes day-to-day combined air and space operations and provides rapid reaction, positive control, coordination, and de-confliction of weapon systems. (Source: Wikimedia)

Also, as these humanitarian military missions had almost nothing to do with Western national interests or threats to Western states, it has been crystal clear from the start that force protection has been essential in these operations. Over time this has developed into a tradition of casualty-aversiveness, making Western soldiers ‘strategic assets’. Air power has facilitated safe military operations as practically all opponents during the post-Cold War era have had no functioning air forces of capable air defences. Relying on air power to fight humanitarian wars has been practically the only way that these operations have become possible in the first place. As President Bill Clinton explained: ‘I do not intend to put our troops in Kosovo to fight a war’. For the US the post-9/11 Global War on Terror changed this aversiveness to send troops to battle for a while.

What started as a way to ‘market’ humanitarian missions to voters and the general population has turned into a Western narrative on war, which accentuates the ability to strictly control the ‘dosing’ of violence in wars and being able to fight without civilian casualties and collateral damage. During the post-Cold War era, this guiding political principle and a semi-binding Western norm on warfare have led to Western militaries developing extremely expensive military systems to fight this ‘frictionless precision warfare’. This trend has been tremendously problematic for European states, as they in most cases do not have sufficient economic resources to develop their armed forces into credible military actors with even a modest number of usable high-tech military systems. When combining this trend with the post-Cold War era professionalisation of European militaries, most states in Europe today possess ‘Lilliputian militaries’ with little warfighting capability for large-scale conventional war against advanced state adversaries.

Final thoughts

Air power is important in warfare. Moreover, modern high-tech air forces can produce a decisive effect on the battlefield when used properly. ‘Unfortunately’ for some Western (mostly European) militaries, the post-Cold War era did not for more than 20 years pose any real military challenges that would have required sober analysis on what kind of missions the armed forces should be preparing against. Moreover, more importantly, as the existential threat evaporated quickly in the early 1990s, many Western political leaders filled the vacuum of security threats by turning their eyes towards out-of-area conflicts and stability throughout the globalising world.

In a cumulative 20-year long emergent process, Western states have become more and more interested in and reliant on applying air power actively in expeditionary operations because using military force throughout the international system has become possible. Political leader’s ‘trigger happiness’ in the West has increased during the post-Cold War era. On the tactical and operational levels of war, air power offers ‘easy solutions’ when there is the need to do something quickly and visibly – for example during large-scale atrocities committed by authoritarian leaders towards their citizen. On the strategic level, though, the results have been much more modest. Modern air power has not lifted the ‘fog of war’, nor has it produced many positive strategic results. Air power does not provide Western states with a ‘silver bullet’, nor has it changed the nature of war:  war is still a duel of wills, which means that adaptive enemies will do their utmost to destabilise Western strengths and lead in military capability development. This can be done at the tactical, operational or strategic levels.

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A USAF F-15E Strike Eagle takes off from Aviano Air Base, Italy, for an air strike mission in support of NATO Operation ALLIED FORCE on March 28, 1999. (Source: Wikimedia)

The use of large-scale military violence – waging war – needs to be taken seriously. Even if it is possible to cause pinpoint destruction and make targeted killings, one should remember that political problems can rarely be solved by killing all the opponents (from afar) or by punishing them severely. The active use of Western air power during the last 20 years has resulted in the lowering the threshold on the use of military force in the world. This could backfire in the future as China and Russia are increasing their military capabilities and great-power statuses.

Dr Jyri Raitasalo is a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Finnish military and a Senior Staff Officer at the Planning Unit (strategic planning) of the Finnish Ministry of Defence. He holds the title of Docent of strategy and security policy at the Finnish National Defence University.  During his latest assignments, he has served as the Commanding Officer of the Helsinki Air Defence Regiment (Armoured Brigade), Head Lecturer of Strategy at the Finnish National Defence University, ADC to the Chief of Defence and Staff Officer (strategic planning) in the Finnish Defence Command (J5). Jyri Raitasalo is a called member of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences.

Header Image: The Department of Defense’s first U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter (JSF) aircraft soars over Destin, before landing at its new home at Eglin Air Force Base, July 14, 2011. (Source: Wikimedia)

It is Time to Demystify the Effects of ‘Strategic Western Air Power’ – Part 1

It is Time to Demystify the Effects of ‘Strategic Western Air Power’ – Part 1

By Lieutenant-Colonel Dr Jyri Raitasalo

Editor’s Note: In this two-part article, Dr Jyri Raitasalo considers what he argues are the two fundamental fallacies concerning the application of strategic air power by Western states in the modern era. In this first part, he considers the challenge of the use of military forces as a tool for solving political problems. The second part of this article can be found here.

Ever since the 1991 Gulf War, the Western strategic discourse on air power has accentuated the role of high-tech precision-guided weapons together with good situational awareness and reliable command and control systems in solving modern conflicts. After the lessons learned from Operation DESERT STORM were drawn, one of the main tenets of western strategic thinking has been the (over-)reliance on the possibilities to solve political conflicts with modern weaponry – from the air. This notion did not emerge out of thin air. It was one answer to the many demands that Western statesmen – first and foremost among them the President of the United States – made immediately after the Cold War had ended. Since the early 1990s, the international security environment developed positively – at least from the western states’ perspective. However, the world was still infected with many low-level threats that rose in significance simultaneously as the Soviet threat evaporated.

The so-called Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) has been expected to deliver positive outcomes to political crises with little risk to Western soldiers or national interests – whether in Bosnia (1995), Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003) or Libya (2011). Many western ‘wars of choice’ – under the headings of ‘humanitarian interventions’, ‘military crisis management operations’ or ‘expeditionary missions’ have been made possible – and in some cases necessary – by the demands of the contemporary 24/7 media, high-tech ‘revolutionary’ warfighting capabilities and the fading of the existential threat posed by the Soviet Union.

Display of might
A US Air Force Boeing B-52H Stratofortress of the 2d Bomb Wing static display with weapons, at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, in 2006. (Source: Wikimedia)

During the 25 years of the post-Cold War era, Western air power ‘theory’ – based on the expectations of Western political leaders – has entertained the notion of strategic success in war just by deploying air assets against chosen adversaries. During this time we have witnessed the mystification of air power – the new ‘silver bullet’ – to epic proportions in a way that practical results from recent wars lend little support. Analysing recent western air wars from Bosnia (1995) to Libya (2011) one can easily detect that none of them has proved to be strategic successes for the west. Thus the ‘brand’ of contemporary Western air power is better than its actual track record. None of the often mentioned ‘successes’ have facilitated long-term positive outcomes.

The contemporary Western air war paradigm is based on two fallacies: the idea that high-tech military capabilities facilitate easy solving of political problems and the notion of almost casualty-free warfighting. Both of these should be subjected to strict scrutiny. It should be noted that it is not the militaries’ fault that political leaders have expressed repeated demands to the use of military force that are beyond the boundaries that existing military capabilities can deliver. However, to facilitate better strategies in the future, these fallacies will be elaborated next.

Fallacy 1: The use of military force is an effective tool to solve political problems

It is good to acknowledge that the number of armed conflicts – and the average number of people killed in these conflicts – has decreased during the post-Cold War era. As the Human Security Report Project noted in 2014, we have witnessed:

the rapid decline in international wars (anti-colonial wars are included in this category) over the past 60 odd years. The average number of international wars being fought every year per decade shrinks dramatically – from over six in the 1950s to less than one in the 2000s. […] From the early 1990s to the present day, overall conflict numbers have dropped by some 40 percent, while the deadliest conflicts, those that kill at least 1,000 people a year, have declined by more than half.

Despite the positive trend in warfare since the end of the Cold War, there have been many brutal cases where large-scale human suffering and damaged infrastructure have caused concern within the western security community. First of these instances was ‘born’ out of the result of the 1991 Gulf War: the predicament that the Kurds (in the north) and the Shia population (in the south) faced after Saddam Hussein was defeated – but remained in power. Moreover, many others have followed: from Somalia to Haiti, and from Timor-Leste to Kosovo.

The humanitarian suffering brought to our living rooms by the 24/7 media – and later by social media, smartphones and tablets – has become a new factor influencing western decisions in the use of military force in the world. Although most of the (air) wars that the West has waged during the post-Cold War era have almost nothing to do with Western national security directly, there has been the need to do something to ease humanitarian conditions and suffering around the world in the many crises that have been ongoing – from Iraq to Somalia and Haiti to Libya. Thus, the western approach to ‘humanitarian interventions’ and the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) emerged to fill in the void that the end of the Cold War caused within the western threat perceptions.

Facing no existential threats, for the past 25 years, Western states have had the luxury of focusing on crises around the world where large masses of people have been violently oppressed. Moreover, the tools of the ongoing RMA – precision air strikes as the forerunner – seemed to propose a possibility to manage these humanitarian crises with little cost – in either blood or treasure. As was noted after the Gulf War:

A significant part of that edge [US’s edge versus Iraq] can be attributed to the revolutionary new military technology used by U.S. forces for the first time in Gulf War.

In other words, the lessons learned from the Gulf War – where Saddam Hussein’s big Army was easily defeated on the battlefield – have influenced the way that Western political leaders have been trying to solve violent political crises out-of-area.

However, the problem lies exactly here: the complex, violent crises around the world cannot be solved by precision bombing or by killing the ‘bad guys’. The politicisation of ethnicity and religion, the criminal elements involved and the contradictory political goals of multiple adversaries in most of the contemporary violent crises mean that externally imposed military solutions will not work. As has been noted in connection with the 2001 US-launched Global War on Terror, it is hard to kill enough terrorists without at the same time facilitating additional terrorist recruiting and providing additional PR for the terrorist cause.

It is understandable that political leaders resort to the use of military force relying on advanced weaponry to solve nasty crises around the world. The humane instincts of Western strategic decision-makers are understandable and praiseworthy. However, the sad part is that strategically, the use of military force has not been able to bring about political reconciliation or stability into ongoing conflict zones. On the contrary, the first ‘RMA air-war’ in history – the 1991 Gulf War – produced a political stalemate that resulted in a war of attrition against Iraq between 1991-2003. This attrition warfare manifested itself through the enforcement of no-fly zones and punitive air strikes against Iraq every time Saddam’s troops violated the rules imposed on them.

Even though the first Gulf War did not bring a politically favourable outcome vis-à-vis Iraq, the lessons drawn from that campaign at the operational level influenced how air power was used in Bosnia and Kosovo during the 1990s. The two air wars in Europe – in Bosnia 1995 and over Serbia in 1999 – have not till today produced lasting strategic outcomes that would be favourable to western states. Both are practically failed states, which can take a turn for the worse at any time. Also, in today’s tense international environment, the very unstable situation in Bosnia and Kosovo provide ample opportunities for Russia to manipulate the West.

It is noteworthy that immediately after the Kosovo air war, the US Secretary of Defense William Cohen noted that:

[…] what we were able to achieve through this [Kosovo] campaign reminds all of us that the revolution in military affairs is fundamentally changing the way in which we fight. […] In Operation Desert Storm, […], there were only a handful of sophisticated aircraft that could carry precision-guided munitions, […] In Kosovo, nearly all of our fighters could deliver these devastating weapons.

Cohen’s remarks are spot on when looked from tactical or operational perspectives. On the strategic level, however, the effects of “devastating weapons” do not automatically turn into political objectives.

To be fair, it must be noted that air power was eventually able to stop ethnic violence in the former Yugoslavia, but whether the level of violence increased because of the air wars or not, is still debatable. In any case, both Bosnia and Kosovo have shed light also on the negative impact of western air power:  the mere existence of highly capable western (read: US) Air Forces – together with the global 24/7 media – facilitated the increase of violence both in Bosnia and Kosovo as the West was lured into these crises by attacks on the ground that aimed to escalate the conflict – not to end it. The Western humanitarian intervention approach was in its formative years, and the belligerents on the ground in Bosnia and Kosovo knew how to take advantage of it. After the terrible case of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, it was easy to exploit the willingness of the West to do more – even by escalating ethnic cleansing to draw the West into the conflict.

The second round of large-scale air warfare against Iraq took place through a campaign of ‘shock and awe’ in 2003. It was accompanied and followed by mechanised thrusts to destroy Saddam’s Army, a task that the United States and its allies succeeded to do. However, this operational success was not followed by the fulfilment of strategic goals. Air power was not able to solve the post-Saddam political crisis in Iraq – a fate also shared by the Army and the Marine Corps throughout the subsequent counter-insurgency (CI) operation, which resulted in the withdrawal of US troops after years of fighting and thousands of casualties. The breaking up of Iraq’s state structures, administrative routines and security forces also facilitated the birth of ISIL and the increase of violence and instability in the region. In all, the 2003 war in Iraq – and the chaos that has followed – has proved to be a strategic mistake of massive scale. The possibilities of quick high-tech warfare against much weaker traditional conventional army lured the US into a process that eventually became uncontrollable. This is the true essence of war – that competitive advantage in one sphere of war-fighting (e.g. technology) can be mitigated or even nullified by another (e.g. tactical asymmetry). There are no ‘silver bullets’ – at least not for long.

RAF Tornado GR4 Aircarft During Operation Ellamy
Two fully armed RAF Tornados from RAF Marham transit the Mediterranean Sea en-route to Libya as part of the UK’s Operation ELLAMY to enforce the UN no-fly zone in March 2011. (Source: Defence Imagery, MoD)

Finally, the air war against Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya in 2011 – NATO operation Unified Protector – helped to set in motion a crisis that will influence European security for years to come – negatively, not to mention the additional suffering to ordinary Libyans. Today Libya is a failed state with multiple armed forces fighting over power and economic benefits. Also, Libya has become one of the bases for extremist terrorism. Operation Unified Protector showed the might of advanced air power by destroying the Gaddafi regime, but the strategic consequences of the operation will haunt the West – and Europe particularly – for years to come.

Dr Jyri Raitasalo is a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Finnish military and a Senior Staff Officer at the Planning Unit (strategic planning) of the Finnish Ministry of Defence. He holds the title of Docent of strategy and security policy at the Finnish National Defence University.  During his latest assignments, he has served as the Commanding Officer of the Helsinki Air Defence Regiment (Armoured Brigade), Head Lecturer of Strategy at the Finnish National Defence University, ADC to the Chief of Defence and Staff Officer (strategic planning) in the Finnish Defence Command (J5). Jyri Raitasalo is a called member of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences.

Header Image: An F/A-18 Hornet of VFA-94 carrying out operations in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001. Visible on the wing are two 500-pound Laser Guided Bomb Units (GBU-12) (left), and an AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile. (Source: Wikimedia)

From Balloons to Drones: Contributors Wanted – We Want You!

From Balloons to Drones: Contributors Wanted – We Want You!

Since its launch in June 2016, From Balloons to Drones has published a variety of articles, commentaries, research notes, and book reviews dealing with issues related to air power history, theory and practice. However, to continue to develop and regularly publish material we need new contributors keen to publish on the subject of air power. As such, we need you!

From Balloons to Drones welcomes and encourages potential submissions from postgraduates, academics, and practitioners involved in researching the subject of air power. We seek to publish articles, commentaries, research notes, and book reviews that encourage a healthy discussion about air power from historical themes through to commentary on contemporary operations and challenges.

Air power is treated in its broadest sense and includes cyber and space power, and we are happy to discuss the suitability of any proposal for the site. We also encourage contribution from people working in the fields of strategic studies, law, politics, ethics, international relations, archaeology, and museology.

Submissions can take the following form:

  • ArticlesFrom Balloons to Drones seeks to publish informative 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 non-specialist reader. They should be around c. 1,000 to 1,500 words, though From Balloons to Drones will accept larger pieces though we reserve the right to publish them in parts. References can be via footnotes and hyperlinks.
  • CommentariesFrom Balloons to Drones seeks to publish opinion pieces on recent on a recent piece of news, either on a contemporary or historical subject. These are to be responses to such piece and should be no longer than c. 1,000 words.
  • Research NotesFrom Balloons to Drones seeks to publish research notes related to contributor’s currents research projects. These take the form of more informal pieces and can be a discussion of a source or a note on a recent research theme. Unlike other pieces published by From Balloons to Drones, they can be written in the first person, though they can include references. These should be c. 500 to 1,000 words.
  • Book ReviewsFrom Balloons to Drones publishes occasional book reviews that aim to be an accessible collection of appraisals of recent publications on the subject of air power. If publishers are interested in having a publication reviewed then, please contact us via the email address below.

Submissions should be submitted in Word format. Also, please include a 50-100 word biography with your submission. However, if you are not sure if your piece fits our requirements, then please email us with the POTENTIAL SUBMISSION in the subject line. References can be used, and, given the readership of this site, please be careful to explain any jargon used.

If you are interested in contributing, please email us at airpowerstudies@gmail.com

Header Image: A B-1B Lancer drops back after air refueling training, 30 September 2005. This B-1B, from the 28th Bomb Wing, deployed to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, as part of the Pacific Command’s continuous bomber presence in the Asia-Pacific region. (Source: Wikimedia)

#Commentary – A Rose by Any Other Name…

#Commentary – A Rose by Any Other Name…

By Dr Ross Mahoney

In a recent piece for The Central Blue, the blog of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation in Australia, Robbin Laird has suggested that rather than describing the F-35 Lightning II as a 5th Generation aircraft, we must think of it as ‘a first generation information and decision making superiority “flying combat system”.’[1] (Emphasis in original)

Arguably, this is an important shift in how we think about the capabilities of this new platform and the implications this has regarding how we think about air power. However, this labelling of platforms and capabilities raises several interesting observations and what follows are some personal opinions on the issue of ‘labels.’

First, and while we should always be careful of generating faulty parallels, as a historian, I am quite certain I have heard similar phrases before namely Giulio Douhet’s ‘battleplane’ concept. In short, in the second edition of his seminal work Command of the Air, written in 1926, Douhet argued that the roles of combat and bombing should be combined with a single type of aircraft, the ‘battleplane.’ This was a move away from his thinking outlined in the 1921 edition of Command of the Air, but as Thomas Hippler has noted, at a conceptual level, the ‘battleplane’ was important because it allowed Douhet to reconcile the ideas of war in the air and war from the air.[2] For Douhet, both were synonymous and one, though whether this proposed platform would have solved that challenge remains debatable. This was clearly a lesson derived from Douhet’s views of the First World War. Nevertheless, the problem with the ‘battleplane’ idea is that it was a solution to one set of circumstances and would not have applied to all situations where the use of air power might have been called upon. Could we end up in the same situation if we think of the F-35 in a similar vein?

Second, a broader issue with Laird’s description is that of buzzwords or phrases. Buzzwords tend to be created to support someone’s vision of the future, and they are unhelpful if not grounded in some form of intellectual rigour. Indeed, buzzwords and phrases are certainly not something limited to air forces but pervade the military more broadly. For example, in the last few days, it has been reported that the US Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations has decided to shelve the use of Anti-Access/Area-Denial as a ‘stand-alone acronym’ primarily because it ‘can mean all things to all people or anything to anyone.’[3] This is an important point, and the same can be said of effects-based operations, which was fashionable in the late 1990s and early 2000s.[4] Both of these strategies are ideas that have history, and we should be careful about trying to re-invent the wheel. As I recently heard from one colleague, if you want a new idea, read an old book. As such, is the description being applied to the F-35 helpful when thinking about the application of air power? It is indeed being linked to the idea of 5th generation strategy, but we must continually ask the question within the question and seek to understand what is underpinning such statements. For example, is the platform important or the ideas about their use? Also, should we be careful about linking platforms to strategy?

Nevertheless, while I would advocate the need to critique statements, such as Laird’s, there is certainly always a case to build new language and ideas to explain future challenges. This is particularly important for air power because, since the end of the Cold War, it has become, arguably, the West’s preferred way of war.[5] Nevertheless, as Tony Mason reflected, ‘while our technology is lifting us into the 21st century, our formative concepts remain rooted in a bygone age.[6] This comment remains as relevant today as it did in 1998. While today’s core air power roles can be identified in the activities of the First World War, it is perhaps an axiom that as with any field of human endeavour, the language and ideas about the use of military aviation should and must evolve as time goes by and situations change.

This, however, raises my third point of how we improve and encourage the conceptual thinking that underpins many of the statements made by commentators and practitioners. It is ok to have opinions and advocate them; however, they must be derived from the intellectual study of the field. Indeed, while advocacy can create friction, that friction, in turn, can generate innovation, which is important if organisations are to adapt to changing strategic, operational and organisational shifts. However, it should also be recognised and understood that such friction needs to be managed so that it does not become divisive as it arguably did at the strategic level between the RAF and Royal Navy in the inter-service debates of the 1920s. This is clearly an issue of education, and how that process is utilised and retained by air forces. This is difficult for western air forces primarily because they have been involved in sustained operations for at least the past decade. This has not given air forces significant time to think and reflect on their craft as their focus has been elsewhere. Nevertheless, air forces have, where possible promoted thinking. For example, the modern RAF runs a fellowship to encourage study and expand the Service’s ‘intellectual capacity.’[7] However, this intellectualising of air power needs to filter back into the development of thinking, policy and doctrine and refresh the lexicon while providing the necessary foundations to attempts to redraw conceptual boundaries.

Just to conclude, this is clearly a thought piece and does not propose any solutions to the challenges of today; however, we should be very careful about the labels we apply to platforms, capabilities and concepts. Terminology, as the discussion section of Laird’s piece, illustrated, matters and has a tendency to carry cultural baggage. In developing effective thinking about the application of air power as part of the solution to strategic challenges, air forces need to think about their place in the pantheon of options open to policy makers. I would argue that in an age of austerity and uncertainty, this requires air forces an investment in the organisation’s human element to generate the capacity to think effectively about the conceptual component.

This post can also be found at The Central Blue.

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.

Header Image: An F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter test aircraft banks over the flight line at Eglin Air Force Base, 23 April 2009. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Robin Laird, ‘The F-35 and the Transformation of Power Projection Forces,’ The Central Blue, 19 September 2016.

[2] Thomas Hippler, Bombing the People: Giulio Douhet and the Foundation of Air-Power Strategy, 1884-1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 147. There is a question over the correct date for Douhet’s second edition. Hippler consistently refers to it being produced in 1926 while the most recent imprint of Dino Ferrari’s 1942 translation describes it as the 1927 edition, see: Hippler, Bombing the People, p. 144; Thomas Hippler, ‘Democracy and War in the Strategic Thought of Guilio Douhet’ in Hew Strachan and Sibylle Scheipers (eds.),  The Changing Character of War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 181, fn. 13; Guilio Douhet, Command of the Air, translated by Dino Ferrari (Washington DC: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1998), p. x. It is clear, however, from the original Italian that while published in 1927, the second edition was written in 1926.

[3] Sam LaGrone, ‘CNO Richardson: Navy Shelving A2/AD Acronym,’ USNI News, 3 October 2016. Also, see: B.J. Armstrong, ‘The Shadow of Air-Sea Battle and the Sinking of A2AD,’ War on the Rocks, 5 October 2016.

[4] For a useful discussion of effects-based warfare that takes account of historical and contemporary views as well as a multi-domain approach, see: Christopher Finn (ed.) Effects Based Warfare (London: The Stationary Office, 2002).

[5] For useful views on future air power thinking, see: John Andreas Olsen (ed.), Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015).

[6] Air Vice-Marshal Professor Tony Mason, ‘The Future of Air Power,’ RAF Air Power Review, 1(1) (1998), p. 42.

[7] CAS Fellowships – http://www.raf.mod.uk/raflearningforces/usefulinfo/casfellowships.cfm

#ResearchNote – J.M. Spaight after the Second World War

#ResearchNote – J.M. Spaight after the Second World War

By Dr Ross Mahoney

In 2004, War in History published an article by Alaric Searle that posed the question ‘Was there a ‘Boney’ Fuller after the Second World War?’.[1] In short, Searle concluded that Major-General J.F.C. Fuller’s theoretical writing continued after 1945 alongside his historical writing and was not simply a ‘footnote to [his] biography.’[2] Searle’s question is an interesting one and could easily be applied to James Malony Spaight. In the inter-war years, Spaight, who was a trained jurist and, as a civilian, served in the Air Ministry, produced several notable volumes on air warfare with particular reference to issues such as its legality. As Robin Higham reflected:

No survey of British airpower theorists in the interwar years would be complete without mention of […] Spaight.[3]

Furthermore, Peter Gray noted that Spaight’s influence, due to his work within the Air Ministry, went further than just being ‘Trenchard’s good friend,’ as Higham suggested.[4] As Gray noted:

Spaight’s work was a readily available source of legal advice for his colleagues in the Air Ministry, and those who were likely to become staff officers having attended the Staff College at Andover.[5]

Before the Second World War, Spaight was clearly a critical influence on the development of air power thinking in Britain.

Despite his pre-war influence, what happened after the Second World War? Spaight retired from the Air Ministry in 1937, but continued writing during the Second World War, for example, in 1944 he published Bombing Vindicated in which he argued ‘that the line between military and civilian objectives’ was blurred.[6] Higham and Philip Meilinger in his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry noted the important books that he published after the Second World War.[7] Specifically, these were the third edition of Air Power and War Rights (1947), The Atomic Problem (1948) and Air Power Can Disarm (1948).

However, what else was written? Before the Second World War, Spaight had contributed to journals such as The Royal Air Force Quarterly and the Journal of the Royal United Services Institution. Both are important sources as they were read by officers who emerged into senior positions and thus they would, possibly, have been one influence on their thinking and leadership development. Simply put, after the Second World War, Spaight continued publishing in these journals. This reinforces the idea that Spaight’s writings were not only important in a general sense that he was still writing but, given where these articles were published, they, potentially, helped shape the discourse of air power in the early-Cold War years. However, while Spaight published, what is needed is an examination of the content of these articles so that we can bridge the narrative between his pre-Second World War writings and those produced after. Only by doing this can we consider how, or if, Spaight’s views changed. Broadly speaking the post-war articles are a cross-section of comments on the role of air power in the Second World War, air power’s future role in the nuclear age and the international affairs.

So far I have identified the following articles:

  1. ‘The Covenant of 1919 and the Charter of 1945,’ The Royal Air Force Quarterly, 17 (1945-46);
  2. ‘Strategic Air Bombardment, 1943-45,’ The Royal Air Force Quarterly and Empire Air Force Journal, 18 (3) (1947);
  3. ‘Strategic Air Bombardment (continued),’ The Royal Air Force Quarterly and Empire Air Force Journal, 18 (4) (1947);
  4. ‘Strategic Air Bombardment (continued),’ The Royal Air Force Quarterly and Empire Air Force Journal, 19 (1) (1948);
  5. ‘The Rio and Brussels Treaties,’ Journal of the Royal United Services Institution, 93 (570) (1948);
  6. ‘Sea and Air Power,’ Journal of the Royal United Services Institution, 93 (572) (1948);
  7. ‘That Next War,’ The RAF Quarterly and Commonwealth Air Forces Journal, 1 (1) (1949);
  8. ‘Target for To-morrow,’ Journal of the Royal United Services Institution, 94 (576) (1949);
  9. ‘The Ghost of Douhet,’ The RAF Quarterly and Commonwealth Air Forces Journal, 2 (2) (1950);
  10. ‘Trans-Polar War,’ The RAF Quarterly and Commonwealth Air Forces Journal, 2 (3) (1950);
  11. ‘Korea and Aggression,’ The RAF Quarterly and Commonwealth Air Forces Journal, 2 (4) (1950);
  12. ‘Korea and the Atom Bomb,’ Journal of the Royal United Services Institution, (95) (580) (1950);
  13. ‘The End of a Dream,’ The RAF Quarterly and Commonwealth Air Forces Journal, 3 (2) (1951);
  14. ‘Morale as Objective,’ The RAF Quarterly and Commonwealth Air Forces Journal, 3 (4) (1951);
  15. ‘Pax Atlantica,’ Journal of the Royal United Services Institution, 96 (583) (1951);
  16. ‘Limited and Unlimted War,’ The RAF Quarterly and Commonwealth Air Forces Journal, 4 (1) (1952)
  17. ‘Why Stalin Waits,’ The RAF Quarterly and Commonwealth Air Forces Journal, 4 (3) (1952);
  18. ‘Napalm,’ Journal of the Royal United Services Institution, 98 (589) (1953);
  19. ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction,’ Journal of the Royal United Services Institution, 99 (593) (1954);
  20. ‘Cities as Battlefields,’ Air Power: Incorporating The RAF Quarterly and Commonwealth Air Forces Journal, 2 (3) (1955).

I would be keen to know of anymore articles by Spaight in this period.

This post first appeared at Thoughts on Military History.

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.

Header Image: The aftermath of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. (Source: © IWM (MH 29447))

[1] Alaric Searle, ‘Was there a ‘Boney’ Fuller after the Second World War? Major-General J.F.C. Fuller as Military Theorist and Commentator, 1945-1966’, War in History, 11 (3) (2004), pp. 327-57.

[2] Ibid, p. 357.

[3] Robin Higham, The Military Intellectuals in Britain, 1918-1939 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1966), p. 230.

[4] Ibid; Peter Gray, The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945 (London: Continuum, 2012), pp. 54-7.

[5] Gray, Leadership, p. 56.

[6] Phillip S. Meilinger, ‘Spaight, James Molony (1877–1968)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/58055, accessed 5 Jan 2016].

[7] Ibid; Higham, Military Intellectuals, p. 233.