#BookReview – The Bombing War: Europe, 1939-1945

#BookReview – The Bombing War: Europe, 1939-1945

By Toby Dickinson

Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe, 1939-1945. London: Penguin, 2013. Illustrations. Maps. Bibliography. Notes. Index. xxvii + 852 pp.

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Between 1939 and 1945 over 600,000 civilians were killed across Europe in aerial attacks. Over a million more were injured. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, claims had been made in both fiction and theory as to the devastating consequences and strategic utility of bombing against an enemy’s ‘vital centres’ and the ‘will of the people’. While the human consequences were indeed devastating, there is room to question and doubt the strategic utility of the bombing campaigns waged by both sides in the European theatre in the Second World War.

In a work that revises and challenges our existing understanding and analysis of the bombing campaign of the Second World War – including Overy’s prior work on the subject – Richard Overy goes beyond the traditional study of the planning and execution of the Blitz and the Allied bomber offensive to provide fresh insights into this controversial topic.[1] In aiming to provide a narrative of the bombing war in Europe, Overy sought three new treatments of the subject (p. xxv); first, an account that covered the experience of the whole of Europe – Allied, Axis, occupied, and neutral. Second, Overy placed the bombing operations of both sides in their strategic military context alongside other operations and identified the essential supporting, rather than the decisive, character of these operations. Sweeping across Europe, Overy assessed the strategic bombing performance of the Luftwaffe over the UK and the USSR, and the Royal Air Force (RAF) and United States Army Air Force over Germany, Italy and Axis-occupied Europe. Third, he contrasted the experiences of both the bombers and the bombed, and it is Overy’s treatment of the subject of the bombed that makes this work original and essential.[2] Overy drew on local archives of bombed cities and reexamined existing archives. By using this ‘double narrative’ of what bombing campaigns were designed to achieve and the reality of their impact on populations, Overy has sought to provide a fresh look at the issues of the campaign’s effectiveness and ethical ambiguity. Indeed, the ethical dimensions of the bombing of German targets in occupied Europe was the subject of political debate in the UK, Overy noting that ‘the erosion of ethical restraints’ and the subsequent escalation of bombing efforts against German cities was ‘a simpler issue than the moral dilemma of causing civilian casualties’ in occupied Europe (p. 549).

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Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial taken over Dresden, Germany, following the two devastating attacks on the city by aircraft of Bomber Command on the night of 13/14 February 1945. A large number of fires still burn fiercely in the vicinity of the central goods depot and marshalling yards south of the River Elbe. (Source: © IWM (C 4973))

Overy’s analysis is influenced by his adoption of a classical division of bombing actions into ‘strategic’ and ‘tactical’, where ‘strategic’ is taken to mean bombing conducted at long range, against economic (or at least non-military) targets, and ‘tactical’ is taken to mean attacks against enemy airfields and interdiction of enemy ground forces. This taxonomy can obscure more than it reveals. If air action against an enemy’s airfields is ‘tactical’ in character as it was by the Allies in 1944-1945, then so were the attacks by the Luftwaffe against RAF airfields in the summer of 1940. Moreover, when discussing the events of 1940, Overy contended that the separation in time of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz into discrete activities is inaccurate and ascribes this narrative to, in part, the Battle of Britain being fought by Fighter Command, and ‘the Blitz by the civil defence forces, anti-aircraft units and small numbers of night fighters.’ While it may be legitimate to see the Battle of Britain and the Blitz as part of a common continuum – as the Luftwaffe did – Overy’s use of force elements and their command states to explain this difference between narratives is problematical. Anti-aircraft units were under the command of Fighter Command during both periods, as were night fighters. The Blitz was not fought by civil defence forces, because their role is not to fight, their role is to manage some of the consequences of some of the enemy’s actions (pp. 73-4). Further, it is legitimate for historians to regard the Battle of Britain and the Blitz as distinct: while the Luftwaffe regarded itself as having fought a single campaign against the UK from July 1940 to June 1941, it clearly has two distinct elements: ‘tactical’ operations against the RAF’s air defences to gain control of the air prior to an invasion, and ‘strategic’ operations against industrial and civilian targets.

A similar ambiguity between ‘tactical’ and ‘strategic’ operations exists in any analysis of the German bombing campaign on the Eastern Front. Overy noted that aerial attacks on Leningrad were part of the German siege of that city, rather than any independent ‘strategic’ action against industrial targets. More successful were attacks against Soviet lines of communication, in particular, railway infrastructure: stations and supply centres, rather than more easily repaired tracks and bridges (p. 207). Nonetheless, both Overy and several reviewers have noted that there were occasions where Allied or Axis’ bombing was bearing fruit: denying their enemy’s air defences, reducing the production and distribution of key materials. However, the effectiveness of these strikes were reduced as targets were switched: either because of poor intelligence analysis, as with the Luftwaffe’s move away from attacking the RAF’s airfields in 1940 to bombing British cities, or because bomber aircraft were reapportioned from industrial and military targets to political ones as with the switch in effort by RAF Bomber Command to target Berlin in the autumn of 1943.[3]

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 A luminous gas mask case on sale at Selfridge’s department store in London. These gas mask covers were on sale for 2/11. (Source: © IWM (D 76))

Overy also covered in great detail the civilian preparations for an experience of the bombing: the establishment of air raid warning systems, civil defence organisations, and individual preparations by citizens. He recorded systems of compensation for civilian loss of earnings, noting too that as early as December 1940 the German Government banned Jews from receiving compensation for loss of earnings (p. 422). Effective civil defence in Germany is contrasted with almost the total lack of preparation in Italy, which lacked an air defence network and – unlike the other totalitarian regimes fighting in the war – ‘failed to mobilize a large mass movement for voluntary civil defence’ (p. 517). It is new perspectives like these that have led to the book being described as: ‘the standard work on the bombing war…probably the most important book published on the history of the second world war this century.’[4]

In analysing the contribution of strategic bombing to combatant’s overall aims, Overy made it clear that whatever the desires or claims of bomber leaders from Wolfram von Richthofen to Arthur Harris, neither Allied nor Axis strategic bombing efforts were ever more than supporting. Overy noted J.K. Galbraith’s conclusion that the bombing campaign did not win the war, and that the bombing campaigns were all ‘relative failures in their own terms’ (p. 609). Overy also noted that strategic bombing was ‘in the end inadequate in its own terms for carrying out its principal assignment and was morally compromised by deliberate escalation against civilian populations’ (p. 633). This has led to at least one reviewer noting that this represents a shift from Overy’s previous works, which took a far more positive view of the strategic contribution of Allied bombing efforts.[5]

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 A locomotive and its tender, upended by an explosion during heavy raids by Bomber Command, is inspected by an RAF officer in the railway yards at Munster, Germany. (Source: © IWM (CL 2372))

Scored against their aims, the allied bombing efforts were indeed ‘relative failures’, but it is legitimate to ask whether they had utility as an instrument of strategy in delivering a net positive effect. Viewed through the lens of an indirect strategic approach, one cannot, as Gary Sheffield observed, ignore the fact that Germany was forced to apportion resources to the air defence of the home front that could otherwise have been used to other ends: ‘the Germans were forced to commit resources to home defence – anti-aircraft guns, aircraft, optical sights, manpower – that could not be put to other uses.’[6] It is also important to assess the bombing campaigns not against the fiction of H.G. Wells and others, nor the equally far-fetched prophecies of Giulio Douhet, but in the longue durée of strategic thinking. In an unacknowledged nod to Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum that ‘the defensive form of warfare is intrinsically stronger than the offensive’, Overy noted that the failure of German and Axis bombing operations in the Battle of Britain, and against both the USSR and Malta ‘highlighted the extent to which the balance between air defence and air offence was moving in the defender’s favour’ (p. 626).[7] The same challenge faced the Allies in late 1943: if the Allied bombing campaign drew more resources away from the Eastern Front, at some point, those resources would threaten to impose unsustainable costs on the Allied bomber forces (p. 343). The response to this developing stalemate was an escalation of bombing effort.

In conclusion, commenting on the ‘balance sheet of bombing’, Overy noted that not even the known weaknesses of bomber capability and performance ‘prevented the escalation of all the major offensives’, and that (p. 628) ‘the issue of escalation is central to any judgement about the broader ethical implications of the bomber offensives.’ At its most destructive, the Allied bomber offensive perhaps came closer than any warfare before or since to Clausewitz’s description of war divorced from its political object: ‘a complete, untrammelled, absolute manifestation of violence.’[8]

Toby Dickinson served in the RAF from 2002-2018. He is currently a student on the War and Strategy MA programme at the University of Leeds.

Header Image: The personnel of No. 75 (New Zealand) Squadron RAF assembled in front of, and on, an Avro Lancaster at Mepal, Cambridgeshire. (Source: © IWM (HU 94991))

[1] In America, Overy’s book has been published under the title, The Bombers and The Bombed: Allied Air War over Europe, 1940-1945 (2014). This version misses out significant elements of the early period covered in the UK edition of Overy’s book.

[2] On this theme, see: Tami Davis Biddle, ‘Book Review – The Bombing War: Europe, 1939–1945 by Richard Overy,’ War in History, 21:4 (2014), pp. 553-5.

[3] Adam Tooze, ‘To Break an Enemy’s Will,’ Wall Street Journal, 12 July 2014.

[4] Richard J. Evans, ‘The Bombing War: Europe 1939‑1945 by Richard Overy – Review,’ The Guardian, 27 September 2013.

[5] Biddle, ‘Book Review,’ pp. 553-5

[6] Gary Sheffield, ‘Death from the Skies,’ New Statesman, 142:5179 (2013), pp. 42-3.

[7] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 358.

[8] Ibid., p. 87.

Christmas #Airpower Reading List

Christmas #Airpower Reading List

By the From Balloons to Drones team

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from the team at From Balloons to Drones. It has been an excellent year for the advancement and study of air power, and it has been a remarkable year for the website as well. We added three co-editors to the site and surpassed our 50,000-hit mark!

As we enter the holiday season, we know that our readers either have some time off coming up or are looking for some recommendations to add to their holiday shopping lists. So, we thought it would be a good idea to have our editors put together a short list of their favourite books from our year of reading and reviewing. However, before we get onto the list here are the top five articles published by From Balloons to Drones during 2018:

  1. Michael Hankins, ‘Inventing the Enemy: Colonel Toon and the Memory of Fighter Combat in Vietnam’;
  2. Wing Commander André Adamson and Colonel Matthew Snyder, ‘The Challenges of Fifth-Generation Transformation’;
  3. Michael Hankins, ‘A Discourse on John Boyd: A Brief Summary of the US Air Force’s Most Controversial Pilot and Thinker’;
  4. Lieutenant Colonel Tyson Wetzel, ‘#HistoricBookReview – Sierra Hotel: Flying Fighters in the Decade After Vietnam’;
  5. Thomas Withington, ‘Bringing It All Back Home: How one sortie by the No. 1474 Flight RAF in December 1942 helped save the lives of countless aircrew.’

Now onto our Christmas air power reading list…

Dr Ross Mahoney

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James Pugh, The Royal Flying Corps, the Western Front and the Control of the Air, 1914-1918 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017). I must admit it has been a slow year for me reading wise and the titles here will be reviewed in the new year. However, onto my list and first up we have James Pugh’s excellent study of the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War and its understanding of the concept of control of the air. Control of the air remains a central tenant of modern air power thinking; however, the ideas surrounding this concept go back much further. In this study, Pugh provides an excellent analysis of the development of British thinking about control of the air with specific reference to the RFC and the war over the Western Front. It is a much-needed addition to the literature and worth a read.

Broken Wings

Stephen Renner, Broken Wings: The Hungarian Air Force, 1918-45 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2016). Ok, this one dates to 2016, but I have only just finished it after reading it on an off since it came out. However, this is an essential study for two reasons. First, small air forces tend to be overlooked in the literature concerning the early development of air power and secondly, there is little in English on-air forces from central and eastern Europe. As such, even for just these reasons, Renner’s book is a welcome addition to the literature. Furthermore, however, Renner provides an excellent study into the challenges faced by the Hungarians in this period, which makes for fascinating reading.

fearless_cvr4

Adam Claasen, Fearless: The Extraordinary Untold Story of New Zealand’s Great War Airmen (Auckland: Massey University Press, 2017). The First World War centenary has seen many books published of which some are good and some not so good. Many of the works on air power have remained firmly camped in the ‘Knights of the Air’ trope that has become so common. Thankfully, however, we have also seen works such as Claasen’s work on New Zealand airmen appear. In this book, Claasen’s firmly places the experience of the around 850 New Zealanders who served in Britain’s air services within their imperial context. In this respect, Claasen’s follows on from the work of S.F. Wise on the Canadians and Michael Molkentin’s more recent work on Australia and is a welcome addition to our understanding of the imperial composition of Britain’s air services in the early twentieth century.

Runner-up:

Hanbook of Air Power

John Andreas Olsen (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Air Power (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018).  I reviewed this one here, so I shall not say too much more apart from to reiterate that if you are looking for a good introductory overview about air power, then this is an excellent addition to the library. Olsen has, as usual, brought together an outstanding line-up of scholars to consider critical issues related to air power.

Alexander Fitzgerald-Black

One in a thousand

Graham Broad, One in A Thousand: The Life and Death of Captain Eddie McKay, Royal Flying Corps (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017). The First World War centenary is behind us, but it has left great historiographical additions for us to pour over. Graham Broad’s excellent microhistory of one of Canada’s first aces is three books in one. It is also a how-to book of best practices for historical research and analysis as well as an insightful commentary on the philosophy of history. You will enjoy the author’s engaging narrative as he traces Captain McKay’s life from the rugby pitch to the Wright Brothers School of Aviation, to his fleeting fame and eventual death in the contested and deadly skies above the Western Front. History teachers, especially at the senior undergraduate and graduate level, will also find the book an exceptional resource for training the minds of budding historians.

Beyond

Stephen Bourque, Beyond the Beach: The Allied War Against France (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018). I picked up this book for two reasons. First, I was recently hired at the Juno Beach Centre, Canada’s Second World War Museum on the D-Day beaches. Second, with the upcoming 75th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, it was about time that we had a detailed English-language study of the cost suffered by the French people in that great invasion. Readers will appreciate Bourque’s approach in dealing with General Dwight Eisenhower and his air commanders’ lines of action (effort). These targets included everything from airfields and ports to French towns or cities and the bridges, marshalling yards, and factories therein. As we move into this anniversary, it is important to remember that while the Allies were on the right side of history, 60,000 French civilians paid a dear price for their country’s freedom.

Gooderson

Ian Gooderson, Air Power at the Battlefront: Allied Close Air Support in Europe, 1943-1945 (London: Frank Cass, 1998). This one is not recent, but I was thrilled to discover that my university library owns a copy. I was struck by just how comprehensive Gooderson’s analysis is, and I found some of his evidence and conclusions comfortably surprising. For instance, although the Allied air forces assumed armed reconnaissance to be safer than close air support, the opposite was true. At the same time, air support was probably of greater value beyond the battlefront (greater opportunity comes with greater danger). The book also impressed upon me the importance of timing air strikes carefully and air power’s psychological effects, for better or worse.

Runner-up:

Why Air Forces Fail

Robin Higham and Stephen J. Harris (eds.), Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat, Revised and Expanded Edition (Lexington, KT: University Press of Kentucky, 2016). This was one of the first scholarly history books I ever read as a high school student. Its engaging chapters about how various air forces across the decades have failed to meet their objectives offer complex answers to a simple question: why did they fail? Although, as Randall Wakelam noted, he had hoped for more from the new edition, though newcomers will find the book a valuable addition to any aviation history library.

Dr Mike Hankins

AlwaysMelvin Deaile, Always at War: Organizational Culture in Strategic Air Command, 1946-62 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018). This book is not only an excellent summary of the formative years of Strategic Air Command during the early Cold War, but Deaile gives us a close look at what it felt like to be there. What was the culture like? What was the daily life like for these pilots? What made SAC so unique and such a key component of American defence during the Cold War? Moreover, why is General Curtis LeMay such a big deal? This book gives excellent, substantive answers to all these questions.

Problem

Timothy P. Schultz, The Problem with Pilots: How Physicians, Engineers, and Airpower Enthusiasts Redefined Flight (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). Flying is hard–much harder than we give it credit for today. The capabilities of modern aircraft all came with difficult times of dangerous experimentation in the fields of medicine, engineering, and technology. The human body was not made to fly, and the limiting factor on advanced aircraft designs has always been humans. How we solved those problems and made complicated, advanced aircraft possible is the fascinating story of this book about integrating man and machine in increasingly sophisticated ways.

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Steven A. Fino, Tiger Check: Automating the US Air Force Fighter Pilot in Air-To-Air Combat, 1950-1980 (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2017). Fighter pilots are a strange breed–they have a unique culture all their own. However, how does that culture evolve when it is faced with new technologies that threaten to automate tasks that fighter pilots hold dear? Former F-15 pilot Steve Fino explores just that in this incredible book. Examining the F-86 Sabre, the F-4 Phantom II, and the F-15 Eagle, Fino explores the evolving relationship between man and machine in the cockpit of jet-age fighter planes. You can find my review of this book here.

Runner-up:

Bloody

Peter Fey, Bloody Sixteen: The USS Oriskany and Air Wing 16 during the Vietnam War (Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books, 2018). The USS Oriskany had the highest loss rates of any navy air unit in the Vietnam War. In addition to two massive fires, it was the boat from which Jim Stockdale and John McCain (among many others) became POWs for years. Peter Fey’s accessible, exciting narrative traces the Oriskany throughout its multiple tours and gives a palpable sense of what it was like to be on board and in the cockpit of the A-4 Skyhawks, F-8 Crusaders, and other planes the ship carried. The book is not perfect, but it is an engaging read especially aimed at a general audience.

Dr Brian Laslie

Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory

Craig Morris, The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017). This book is ‘a twisting tale of individual efforts, organizational infighting, political priorities, and technological integration.’ It is also a book that places the development of American bombing theory firmly in the context of its time and rightly puts individuals into their proper place. Gone is the Billy Mitchell-centric view of air power development to be (rightly) replaced with an emphasis on Benjamin Foulois, Mason Patrick, William Sherman, Lord Tiverton, and others who worked tirelessly on the theories and doctrines of air power. In my opinion, the single best volume on American air power in the inter-war years.

aerial

Frank Ledwidge, Aerial Warfare: The Battle for the Skies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018). I wrote about this book earlier in the year for The Strategy Bridge and called it ‘the single finest primer on air power covering every aspect from if you’ll excuse me, balloons to drones.’ I stand by that statement. This is the perfect primer for the history of air power. I cannot imagine someone interested in our profession not owning this book. I wish I had copies to serve as stocking stuffers…

Phantom

David R. Honodel, The Phantom Vietnam War: An F-4 Pilot’s Combat over Laos (Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 2018). This is a ‘there I was’ and ‘shoot the watch’ book, but it is also an amazingly poignant and honest look about learning to survive in a war the American people were unaware was occurring. It is in the best of its class at conveying the transformation a person can take in the crucible of a forgotten war over the skies of Laos. ‘Buff’ Honodel passed away earlier this year, and as I count my blessings this year, one of them will be for a man like Buff.

Runner-up:

Brooke-Popham

Peter Dye, “The Man Who Took the Rap”: Sir Robert Brooke-Popham and the Fall of Singapore (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018). This one landed on my desk rather late in the year but intrigued me almost immediately. As someone who has recently written a biography of a relatively unknown figure myself, I was excited to dive into this one, and it does not disappoint. As air power scholarship continues to expand, it has become an enjoyable pastime of mine to read about lesser-known, but equally important contributors to air power development. This book also fills a void for me in expanding my knowledge and understanding of other nation’s air power efforts.

As well as providing you with our Christmas reading list, we would like to recognise the various presses and our social media friends who have been hard at work this year publishing the books above and some not strictly related to air power, but would make great gifts such as Redefining the Modern Military, edited by Tyrell Mayfield and Nathan Finney, and The Colour of Time: A New History of the World, 1850-1960 by Marina Amaral.

Our favourite military and air power related presses include Naval Institute Press and University Press of Kentucky who keeps on adding some excellent titles to their lists. Keep a lookout to the site in 2019 as we embark on expanding our writing on space power and space exploration a lot of which will be coming from the NASA Office of History and the University Press of Florida.

Finally, we would like to thank our contributors and readers. Without them, this site would not exist so thank you. If you want to write for us, then find out how to contribute here.

Header Image: A Royal Navy McDonnell Douglas Phantom FG.1 from 892 Naval Air Squadron aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal (R09). (Source: Wikimedia)

#BookReview – Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat

#BookReview – Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat

By Dr Randall Wakelam

Robin Higham and Stephen J. Harris (eds.), Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat, Revised and Expanded Edition. Lexington, KT: University Press of Kentucky, 2016. Images. Footnotes. Bibliography. Index. 454 pp.

Why Air Forces Fail

Editorial Note: In 2006, University Press of Kentucky published an edited volume that sought to examine the question of why air forces fail. Edited by the late Robin Higham and Stephen J. Harris, Why Air Forces Fail has become an essential volume as air power specialists seek to understand the reasons why some air forces are more successful than others. As one reviewer noted in the Journal of Military History regarding the first edition of this work, ‘one of the more interesting and better books on military aviation to appear in the last few years.’[1] As such, does this new edition add anything to the original volume?

When the first edition of Why Air Forces Fail was published in 2006, it immediately caught my attention. The title itself was intriguing for here was a work that was going to look not at why, or how, air forces succeed, but why air power at certain times and in certain places and circumstances has failed to deliver victory. Robin Higham was a greatly respected air power historian and had flown in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in the Second World War, and Stephen Harris was and is the Director of History and Heritage for the Canadian Forces and had authored the Bomber Command section of the official history of the RCAF. It seemed that there were many good reasons in this Canadian reviewer’s mind for looking at the collection they had assembled.

PL 8096
A shot down Dornier ‘flying pencil.’ Two members of the German crew were killed, and two others were taken, prisoner. (Source: © IWM (PL 8096))

Higham’s introduction was particularly thought-provoking. He (1st Ed., p. 1) posited that ‘other things being equal’ it seemed that the best technology generally won. These other things included a series of complex factors which could however greatly impact the effectiveness of air power. Higham looked at and where necessary modified all of the factors upon which A.T. Mahan had conducted his analysis of sea power: national borders, a nation’s physical conformation, aircraft industry, size of the population, characteristics of the population, and nature of government. To these, he added:  location and sufficiency of air bases, the terrain being overflown during operations, capabilities of the aircraft and air weapons, and management of war decisions – ends, ways and means. Once these factors were explained to readers, Higham (1st Ed., p. 5) asked two central questions:

Did the loss of air superiority, if it ever existed, cause the collapse of the nation’s defenses?  And was that the sole cause [of the nation’s defeat]?

Higham drew his introduction to a close with an attempt to identify lessons or trends but did not attempt to present precise deductions. One had to turn to the conclusion of the collection for a summation of the editors’ thinking. There Higham and Harris posited that the simple presence of air assets does not, in fact, guarantee a victory. The last sentence (1st Ed., p. 354) of the book seems both appropriate and applicable to all nations and military services:

These [observations] suggest that the fall of an air force is the result of long-term failings, not an immediate failure ‘on the day’ by an air arm that is essentially ready for its allotted role.

Such was the first edition but what of this volume? Harris has related to me that Higham had negotiated the second edition, but that much of what he intended passed with him and as such there is little for those returning to the work to note that differs from the original. What the returning reader will find is two additional chapters, one by Harris dealing with RAF Bomber Command’s strategic operations against Germany. Harris focuses on the electronic warfare campaigns, including electronic countermeasures and electronic counter-countermeasures, waged by Bomber Command and by the Luftwaffe’s air defenders. This chapter shows that the RAF could not produce enough technicians to offset German capabilities. The second new chapter by Kenneth Werrell deals with the US services application of air power in the Vietnam conflict and how a range of factors prevented the American flying services from achieving the results sought by military and civilian leaders, particularly in the face of effective opposition. Other than these there is nothing new in the second edition other than two short commentaries on Harris’ and Werrell’s chapters. These remarks are added to the original conclusion along with two additional paragraphs commenting on the growing complexity of aircraft design and procurement in one case and the other the implicit failure of those involved in air power decisions to learn from history. Also, there is a very short, easily missed, dedication to Higham in the front piece of the volume. Why the publishers have taken this very understated approach to acknowledge Higham on the one hand, and the changes to the new edition on the other is baffling.

All this to say, I had hoped for more in this new edition. However, for those who have not read the first edition, this expanded version remains a valuable study of air power and of how and why it cannot guarantee success in conflict.

Dr Randall Wakelam teaches military and air power history at the Royal Military College of Canada. After graduating from RMC in 1975 he flew helicopters for the Army, becoming CO of 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron in 1991. Along the way, he also had staff appointments in aircraft procurement and language training policy. Since 1993 he has been an educator, first in uniform at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto and now at RMC. His research and publishing focus on air power and military education.

Header Image: F-100Ds of the 481st Tactical Fighter Squadron over South Vietnam in February 1966. Early F-100s were unpainted when they arrived in Southeast Asia like the foreground aircraft, but all eventually received camouflage paint like the aircraft in the back. (Source: National Museum of the US Air Force)

[1] Kenneth P. Werrell, ‘Book Review – Why Air Forces Fail,’ The Journal of Military History, 70:3 (2006), pp. 887-8.

#BookReview – Reaper Force: Inside Britain’s Drone Wars

#BookReview – Reaper Force: Inside Britain’s Drone Wars

By Mark Russell

Peter Lee, Reaper Force: Inside Britain’s Drone Wars. London: John Blake Publishing London, 2018. Index. Hbk.

Reaper Force

In this book, Peter Lee sets out to describe the ‘unknown community’ that is the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Reaper Force. In doing so, Lee focuses on the aircrew in the ‘cockpit’ of these remotely piloted aerial vehicles (RPAS) and their partners, rather than all the other personnel needed to operate Reaper. Lee originally proposed the work to the RAF as an attempt to answer some of the questions that readers in one hundred years’ time might ask about these individuals, as a way of ensuring that those future enquirers would know more than we do about the RAF aircrew of 1918. Given this genesis, the limitation of scope is understandable and an outline of Lee’s research approach can  found in his submission to the UK All Party Parliamentary Group that was established in 2016 to ‘analyse the emerging technologies of drones [and] the ways in which the UK works with allies with regard to the use of armed drones.’ Moreover, this starting point is a pleasing historical touch as 2018 marks the centenary of the formation of the RAF. Indeed, it was during the First World War that we saw human-crewed flight come of age as a weapon of war, and one hundred years later, the success of the Reaper Force raises the question of what the future is for manned aviation in the RAF. However, Lee does not pursue this or many other intriguing avenues, for reasons of time and space. He does not engage in detail with the debate about whether drones are ‘fair’, quickly dismissing this by rightly arguing that war has always seen one side aiming to gain an ‘unfair’ advantage over another, and this is just another manifestation of this trend. So, this is not a book to read to understand more about the ethics of drones. A reader seeking this debate should look elsewhere, and indeed Lee has already little on this subject himself.[1]

Lee aimed to record how the Reaper Force feels about their ‘experiences and day-to-day lives’, and the book does an excellent job fulfilling this aim. His interview-based approach provides a distinct perspective from books written by those operating drones, which lack the reflection and perspective on experiences that Lee provides through the questions he puts to the aircrew. The bulk of the book is made up of content taken from interviews Lee conducted with members of both No. 39 Squadron based at Creech AFB in Nevada, and No. XIII Squadron based at RAF Waddington and these provide genuine insights into the aircrew’s (and their partners’) feelings about what they do. One comes away with a sense that this is a highly trained, highly dedicated group of men and women, with a culture that among other things is focused on ‘zero CIVCAS,’ that is a ‘policy direction’ of no civilian casualties (p. 279). Lee (p. 279) describes this focus as ‘almost an obsession […] that has had a significant impact on how they operate and make decisions.’ He recounts a mission where the aircrew believed the target was valid, as did the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) on the ground, but the Senior Mission Intelligence Coordinator, an acting sergeant outside the aircrew, objected to the strike. This was because they believed it was a child rather than a parcel on the back of the target and was proved right (pp. 284-8). This is an excellent illustration of the commitment to zero CIVCAS, given both the hesitation to launch the weapon and the freedom the most junior person in the process felt to halt it. This indicates a very healthy culture if one believes zero CIVCAS should be accorded that level of importance.

Reaper Remotely Piloted Air System
A Royal Air Force Reaper RPAS at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, c. 2014. (Source: Defence Imagery, UK Ministry of Defence)

Lee discussed further a 2011 ‘CIVCAS incident’ in Chapter Five when an RAF strike killed four civilians riding in lorries transporting explosives. This attack occasioned many levels of review, and it is clear that there is a huge determination in the Reaper Force that this should not happen again – even though as Lee (p. 113) notes, ‘the crew’s actions were in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict and their procedures and directives.’ This message is one the RAF’s Air Staff would presumably be no means averse to having more widely understood. However, Lee also makes the point through his interviews with several of the aircrew’s partners that this care and skill should be more widely appreciated, to counter all those who claim drones have killed thousands of innocent civilians, including the Reaper Force in this blanket condemnation. Indeed, one is left with the evident understanding from the interviews that the Reaper Force does not operate in this way; Eye in the Sky (2015) was a good film but what is depicted would never have happened under the RAF’s Rules of Engagement (RoE), and the Reaper Force is not guilty of causing wanton civilian deaths. There are, however, hints in the book that at times those looking for support from the Reaper Force are frustrated by these RoEs, for example, when a British Army JTAC is frustrated that a Reaper crew will not launch a missile and calls for assistance from an Army Air Corps Apache instead (p. 282). These RoEs can also frustrate those in the Reaper Force, as described in Chapter Nine when on Boxing Day 2014 permission to destroy a suspected IS-controlled ex-Iraqi armoured vehicle was denied, with the result that the Reaper crew had to watch then the aftermath of a successful IS attack using it.

The above example affected the crew in question, and Lee uses this and other cases to explore the issue of how the high-tempo of Reaper operations, and how the nature of those operations, with the graphic and detailed images they see as part of launching strikes, may be impacting the mental health of the aircrew. His interviews provide illuminating examples, and those he interviewed have a range of ways of coping, dependent on the various ways what they do affects them. Some aircrew seems to be able to operate for several years without being adversely affected; others burn out much more quickly. This issue links to the RAF’s perception of bravery, and how this should be recognised. Historically, bravery has been defined by physical courage. Lee, however, makes a case for those who continually put their mental health at risk through flying Reaper operations as showing as much bravery as aircrew who get physically airborne. In reading this, about issue continuing to put oneself at risk, one is undoubtedly reminded in some ways of the courage Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris described seeing in his Bomber Command crews.

Chapter Eleven looks at the question of bravery in its most visible military form, namely the award of decorations to Reaper crews. This is a subject that has generated discussion more widely over recent years. Lee addresses it by reference to a particularly challenging strike, footage of which was used by the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) as part of the press release announcing the award of campaign medals to those involved in the campaign against IS. The irony was that since the Reaper crew executing the strike were not deemed to be ‘in theatre’, they did not qualify for the medal. However, as Lee points out both in the book and in his October 2017 lecture at the Royal Aeronautical Society, they were exposing themselves to not insignificant risks of mental injury, and certainly were knowingly taking greater risks with their health than those working in a mess at Akrotiri. This again reminds one of RAF Bomber Command, and Harris’ unsuccessful campaign to have his groundcrews awarded a campaign medal despite cooks and bottle-washers in other theatres being entitled to a campaign medal.

Lee, however, does note that the MoD announced on 18 July 2018 that the medal would be awarded to Reaper pilots (p. 249). There will always be those who wish to equate heroism with physical courage, and hence would never see Reaper crews as eligible for medals, but this decision feels appropriate given the increasing level of discussion in society around mental health and, in a military context, post-traumatic stress disorder in particular. To what extent these issues will impact Reaper Force aircrew in the future is a subject for a later book, but this volume makes it clear that they have seen sights, repeatedly, that no-one would ask to see given the choice.

This potential to see bravery redefined is one example of how Reaper and its successors could change the RAF, and this is an area where one feels the whole growth of the Reaper Force raises many interesting issues that Lee has probably rightly only touched on very briefly. What will it mean for the RAF’s culture when perhaps many attack missions do not require a human in the aircraft? Already aircrew are being trained solely to operate Reaper, and the RAF, while awarding them aircrew brevets, is making them subtly different from the ‘normal’ brevets given to those who get airborne – does this demonstrate a reluctance to admit that Reaper crews are as valuable as those who get airborne? Moreover, what will this mean for the RAF as RPAS aircrews undertake more missions? The Reaper Force from its inception was crewed mainly by aircrew who served on Harrier, Nimrod and Tornado aircraft who transferred to Reaper as these aircraft were taken out of service. The aircrews who operated on manned platforms brought with them the culture and attitude from those environments, and Lee describes several interesting stories from aircrew about the different operating styles. For example, Lee recounts how a former Tornado navigator said she could not get used to the amount of talking an ex-Nimrod pilot would do, which was a huge change from the fast jet where ‘a good cockpit’s a quiet cockpit’ ethos was one that she was used to (p. 132).

Reaper UAV Takes to the Skies of Southern Afghanistan
An RAF Reaper pictured airborne over Afghanistan during Operation HERRICK. (Source: Defence Imagery, UK Ministry of Defence)

As such, even within the Reaper Force, there are still vestiges of the culture that the members brought from their previous aircraft types, and the force will need to evolve its own culture over time. One suspects it will not be as extrovertly self-confident as the fast jet one it is partially replacing. Indeed, Lee recounts that his initial inquiry about when it would be time to ‘kick the tyres and light the fires’ on his first day watching an aircrew was met with a swift ‘very funny’, clearly meant to shut him up (p. 31). The RAF’s public image is very much built around the image of the fighter pilot, from the aces of the First World War, through the pilots of Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain to today’s Typhoons on QRA, intercepting Russian Bears out over the ocean. Indeed, it is interesting that the RAF’s historic flight is called the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight when far more aircrew served and died in Bomber Command during the Second World War. Reaper and other automated weapons (such as standoff missiles) can already deliver many of the classic roles of air power (reconnaissance, strategic attack, close air support, for example), but without a human to build a corporate (self) image around, how will the RAF’s own picture of itself change, and what image will it use to engage broader public support?

In summary, this is a valuable book for the insights it provides into the pressures of serving in a critical element within Britain’s armed forces. The Reaper Force is an element of the British military that will only grow in importance given both the capabilities it offers and the low risk it presents of unfavourable press. Indeed, between January and August 2018, Reaper has accounted for around 45 per cent of all RAF strike over Iraq and Syria during Operation SHADER. The only reservation that can, I think, be expressed is that this book leaves the reader feeling there were so many other avenues that could have been explored as well. Had Lee examined them, though, we would not have had this book now – we would have been waiting several years longer. What would be interesting would be to see a similar book in ten years’ time, to see how the Reaper Force (or Protector Force as it will likely be known by then) has evolved.

Mark Russell graduated with a degree in History in 1985 and has worked in professional services ever since. He returned to academia in 2015 and graduated with an MA in Air Power from the University of Birmingham in 2017. His dissertation looked at whether the RAF was a learning organisation in the period 1925 – 1935, with particular reference to how the Air Exercises helped the RAF develop and test tactics and technology. He continues to work in professional services, but his current research interest is the RAF in the interwar years and how the organisation managed technological change. Since graduating from Birmingham, he has had two books reviews published by the RAF’s Centre for Air and Space Power Studies and is currently working on articles for both RAF Air Power Review and The Aviation Historian.

Header Image: A Royal Air Force Reaper RPAS at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, c. 2014. (Source: Defence Imagery, UK Ministry of Defence)

[1] Peter Lee, ‘Rights, Wrongs and Drones: Remote Warfare, Ethics and the Challenges of Just War Reasoning,’ RAF Air Power Review, 16:3 (2013), pp 30-50.

#BookReview – Routledge Handbook of Air Power

#BookReview – Routledge Handbook of Air Power

By Dr Ross Mahoney

John Andreas Olsen (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Air Power. Abingdon: Routledge, 2018. References. Index. xix + 405 pp. Hbk.

Hanbook of Air Power

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.

Exercise Pitch Black 18
A Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18F Super Hornet from No. 1 Squadron (top) in formation with a SU-30MKI Flanker aircraft from the Indian Air Force during Exercise Pitch Black 18.(Source: Australian Department of Defence)

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.[1]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.

[1] 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)

#BookReview – Eagles Over Husky: The Allied Air Forces in the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943

#BookReview – Eagles Over Husky: The Allied Air Forces in the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943

By Dr Brian Laslie

Alexander Fitzgerald-Black, Eagles Over Husky: The Allied Air Forces in the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943. Solihull: Helion & Company, 2018. Images. Maps. Tables. Notes. Bibliography. Hbk. 192 pp.

Eagles

The Allied invasion of Sicily, Operation HUSKY, is often viewed as a logical progression from the North Africa campaign (TORCH) through Sicily and on into Italy. It is one of the ‘Big Four’ operations in the European and Mediterranean theatres of operations, which culminated in the invasion of Normandy. Sicily has often been either overlooked entirely or seen through a more ground-centric lens (think of the movie Patton). That being said, there has been some excellent historical work in recent years on the invasion and even some very good historical-fiction by, for example, Jeff Sharra. Perhaps overlooked is too strong a word. Overshadowed is perhaps apter and nowhere is the invasion of Sicily more overshadowed than in the realm of air power. True, there is Robert S. Ehlers excellent work The Mediterranean Air War (2015), which covers the entirety of the theatre, but a singular focus on the air war exclusively over Sicily has been missing.

Alexander Fitzgerald-Black seeks not only to bring HUSKY back into focus but seeks to delve into the often-overlooked role of air power in the Mediterranean theatre, particularly over the skies of Sicily and does so by linking the tactical to the strategic. Fitzgerald-Black (p. xxii) states that:

This work reconnects the role of the Allied air forces in the Battle for Sicily to the wider narrative of the air war and to the crucial Allied strategy for engaging Axis forces in the Mediterranean Theater during the Summer of 1943.

Air power itself has been viewed through various lenses, but the most notable narrative through HUSKY was that Allied air power did not live up to the promises it made – Fitzgerald-Black singles out Carlo D’Este for holding this interpretation. The author seeks to turn this traditional narrative on its head, and Fitzgerald-Black argues persuasively that some authors have focused too myopically on the tactical missteps and therefore, missed the greater strategic narrative. Fitzgerald-Black (p. xxiii) argues that ‘Allied strategic success in Sicily and the Mediterranean in mid-1943 mattered far more than the failure to prevent German forces on the island from escaping.’ Allied air power forced the Luftwaffe to pay a heavy toll for defending not an only island but the theatre writ large. Also, attacks against the Italian mainland helped drive Italy from the war entirely.

CNA 1352
Wrecked and damaged Italian fighters outside bomb-shattered hangars at Catania, Sicily, under the scrutiny of an airman, shortly after the occupation of the airfield by the RAF. (Source: © IWM (CNA 1352))

In the buildup to the landings, German and Italian air power was systematically, but not entirely, destroyed. Some authors have pointed this out as a failure of air power showing their preference for a Clausewitzian decisive battle that rarely appears. The Luftwaffe, under the direction Wolfram von Richthofen removed their bombers to the Italian mainland, believing Sicily to be untenable. Attacks on German and Italian bases gained enough air superiority that the invasion took place without prohibitive interference from the Luftwaffe or Regia Aeronautica. The simple fact was that Allied air power forced the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica to react in ways it did not want to. Some might say Allied leaders had got inside their enemy’s OODA loop (p. 54, 63).

Again, there exist critiques of Allied air power on the day of the landings, but as Fitzgerald-Black demonstrates, the Germans and the Italians seemed to be to some degree husbanding their resources. Even in doing so, it was difficult for the Luftwaffe to contest control of the skies seriously. Where engagements did occur, the author shows that ‘[E]ffectiveness cannot only be measured by casualties inflicted upon Axis aircraft.’ There were occasions (p. 83) where ‘USAAF and RAF fighters broke up enemy formations and/or forced the bombers to jettison their payloads prematurely […].’ Fitzgerald-Black does an excellent job of interweaving his analysis and engaging prose with numerous first-person accounts from both sides of the conflict. His use of Johannes Steinhoff’s remembrances adds a level of balance to the work, wherein the points and actions of both sides are brought forth. Looking at the battle in retrospect, ‘The success of the German tactical withdrawal pales in comparison to the strategic victory the Allies won in Sicily during the Summer of 1943.’ Italy was knocked out of the war and Germany was now forced to defend Europe on two fronts that soon turned into three with the invasion of Normandy in June of 1944 (p. 159).

CM 5290
A line of Martin Baltimore Mark IVs of No. 223 Squadron RAF at Luqa, Malta, being refuelled and loaded with bombs for a raid on enemy positions around Catania, Sicily. (Source: © IWM (CM 5290))

One final point worth mentioning, and this is more a press decision than a note on the author’s work, but the use footnotes versus endnotes is a welcome change making it significantly easier to check the author’s sources at a quick glance. In the end, Fitzgerald-Black has done an outstanding job of refocusing attention on the air war over Sicily and has contributed to the study of air power history. His work resides alongside Chris Rein and Robert Ehlers in broadening our understanding of the Mediterranean theatre during the Second World War. His expert linking of tactical, operational, and strategic in a clear narrative allows all readers to understand that while one area of a campaign might be deemed a tactical misstep, the overarching importance of the strategic victory cannot be taken for granted.

Dr Brian Laslie is an Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). He is also an Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones. A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. His recently published Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header Image: The first RAF Supermarine Spitfire lands at an airfield in Sicily during the drive on Messina. The airfield was converted from a wheat field and is watched by Sicilian farmers who are working on the harvested wheat. (Source: © IWM (CNA 1098))

#BookReview – Cultural Politics of Targeted Killing: On Drones, Counter-Insurgency, and Violence

#BookReview – Cultural Politics of Targeted Killing: On Drones, Counter-Insurgency, and Violence

By the Reverend Dr (Wing Commander) David Richardson

Kyle Grayson, Cultural Politics of Targeted Killing: On Drones, Counter-Insurgency, and Violence. Abingdon: Routledge, 2016. Tables. References. Index. Hbk. 218 pp.

Cultural-Politics-of-Targeted-Killing-cover

One cannot venture very far in the field of contemporary air power studies without encountering remotely piloted air systems, which have become a central feature of western military operations. Their use has raised many questions regarding their ethical status, and the effects they may have both on the battlefield and in the control cabin. Kyle Grayson, Senior Lecturer in International Politics at Newcastle University, has taken a slightly different approach in this volume, looking more widely at the interaction between culture, technology, the economy, government, and geostrategic elements. The book is part of the ‘Interventions’ series, which aims to examine international issues through a range of disciplines including critical, post-structural, and postcolonial approaches; this is not simply a primer on the rights and wrongs of conducting war with remotely piloted aerial systems (RPAS) – or drones. Grayson’s focus is on what he describes as ‘targeted killing’, which he sees as a form of modern-day assassination from the air, an activity which has often been debated on the fringes of the western ethical tradition (p. 4). In writing the volume, he seeks to demonstrate how modern liberal societies have come to terms with targeted killing through culture, emphasising ‘the incorporation of disparate elements including the non-human, power-relations, plasticity and the importance of discourse’ (p. 199).

In his first chapter, Grayson’s approach is to examine the use of RPAS for targeted killing as primarily a cultural phenomenon, trying to understand how culture interacts with such practices in such a way that they can become ‘part of the common sense of security thinking’ (p. 200). His second chapter looks at the legal frameworks which maintain a distinction between assassination and targeted killing while expanding the legal scope of such operations. Chapter three looks at the ‘moral problematics and gender relations’ of assassination and targeted killing, arguing that the use of RPAS systems can help overcome some of the ‘narrative ambivalence’ that these relations involve (p. 201). Chapter four examines how technology alone does not explain the increased usage of RPAS. Rather, a much broader scope of ‘chaoplexic thinking, network centric imaginaries, and preferences for speed, maximising information flows, flexibility, delayered organisational forms, and automation’ help explain current trends to use such systems (p. 201). The fifth chapter focuses on what Grayson describes as the ‘aesthetic’ of killing, examining how those who authorise and those who participate in RPAS warfare experience what is taking place on their screens. In the last chapter, the author emphasises the effect that missile strikes have on the homes of those targeted, arguing that this ‘colonises places and seeks to disrupt their temporalities’ (p. 202).

Grayson concludes his work by elucidating six factors that arise from liberal political culture; issues involving the legitimacy of assassination/targeted killing, the influence of modern camera technology, the role of information technology networks, politics of gender, the use of the law, and representation of the other (pp. 202-6). In his final comments, he urges the need for modern liberal societies to continually evaluate their relationship with RPAS usage, and to critically reflect upon their political culture.

Reaper Remotely Piloted Air System
A Royal Air Force Reaper RPAS at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, c. 2014. (Source: Defence Imagery, UK Ministry of Defence)

There is much in this book that is of great interest. For instance, Grayson very helpfully notices the importance of the contemporary market economy in world affairs, emphasising how much the private sector engages with defence. In Grayson’s analysis, ‘the continuing growth of the RPA industry is benefiting from a favourable constellation of politico-economic elements’ (p. 125). Alternatively, to put it another way, the unmanned aerial vehicle is an ideal fit for the current economic climate and the political ecosystem. It would have been fascinating to see even more of an interaction with current thinking on neoliberalism, such as the writing of Wendy Brown, on how the market economy has effects far beyond the market. Grayson’s observations on the ‘complex social assemblage of war’ are thought-provoking and could arguably have been pressed even further, on such subjects such as deskilling and delayering of the economy. Similarly, Grayson’s interaction with Guy Debord and the role of spectacle in society merited further attention (pp. 93-135).

Grayson’s book has the potential to ask real and meaningful questions about the use of RPAS in contemporary warfare. By offering an approach that goes beyond a basic ethical analysis, considering the wider role of culture and warfare, his work could offer real insights into the interface of weapons and worldviews. Thus, for example, his comment that ‘a disproportionate amount of applied innovation in forms of governmentality under liberalism has been directed at the margins within territory, or oriented towards its periphery […] [liberalism] has shown great brutality to those it identifies as being beyond reclamation’ (p. 206). Such considerations are worthy of serious debate and analysis, whether one agrees with Grayson’s premises or not. Many commentators such as Nicholas Carr and Neil Postman have commented on the highly visual nature of contemporary culture – Grayson’s focus on the ‘aesthetics’ of RPAS warfare has the potential to offer real insights in this field. However, a great deal of his writing is delivered in a style which, in generous terms, one would describe as technical. The general reader who wishes to avail of Grayson’s insights is obliged to hack, word by word, through a lexical jungle overgrown with the bon mots of social theory. Many of the terms such as ‘problematisation’ and ‘biopolitics’ are inadequately defined for the non-specialist, which means that reading the book can be a profoundly frustrating experience. This is unfortunate, as Grayson shows an ability to express himself clearly in portions of the book where social theory assumes a lesser role, such as when describing the interaction between the global market and the armed forces of western nations. In short, Grayson raises many useful questions, but this is a book for only the most determined reader.

The Reverend Dr (Wing Commander) David Richardson is a chaplain in the Royal Air Force, initially ordained into the Church of Ireland. A graduate of the universities of Edinburgh, Dublin, Belfast, and King’s College London, he has served on a variety of RAF stations. His operational experience includes tours across Afghanistan and Iraq.

Header Image: A Royal Air Force Reaper RPAS at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, c. 2014. (Source: Defence Imagery, UK Ministry of Defence)

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