The Role of History in Educating Air Power Strategists

The Role of History in Educating Air Power Strategists

By Dr Ross Mahoney

Editorial Note: On 19 September 2018, our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney delivered a paper on the subject of ‘The Role of History in Educating Air Power Strategists’ at a seminar organised by the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) Air Power Development Centre in Canberra. A precis of this paper was published in the Pathfinder bulletin issued by APDC, which can be found here. The Pathfinder series covers a range of issue from strategy, historical analyses, operations, administration, logistics, education and training, people, command and control, technology to name a few. Irrespective of the subject though, Pathfinders will always be focused on the relevance to air power; they are not intended to be just a narrative but deliver a measure of analysis. Apart from the addition of some minor changes to make this precis applicable to From Balloons to Drones as well as the inclusion of footnotes and further reading suggestions, this article appears as published in Pathfinder. We are grateful to APDC for permission to re-publish the piece, and the views in this article and the associated Pathfinder are not necessarily those of the RAAF.

‘[t]he study of military history lies at the foundation of all sound military conclusions and practice.’

Rear-Admiral A.T. Mahan, ‘The Naval War College,’ The North American Review, (1912)[1]

‘The word history carries two meanings […] It refers both to what actually happened in the past and to the representation of that past in the work of historians.’

John Tosh, The Pursuit of History, Third Edition, (1999)[2]

What is history? What is its relevance to an air power strategist? These are important questions; however, as Richard Muller, a senior member of the faculty at the US Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, reflected in 2016, ‘as a rule air forces have not embraced historical study to the same extent as have their army or navy counterparts.’[3] Nevertheless, in 1912, a year after an Italian aeroplane dropped the first ‘bomb’ over Libya, noted US naval historian and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan reflected on the link between military history and ‘sound military conclusions.’ However, history does not provide clear lessons. Nevertheless, the study of the past does offer a lens through which to analyse, understand and reflect on the challenges currently faced by modern air forces.

Air Corps Tactical School
The Air Corps Tactical School (created as the Air Service Field Officers School in 1920) went beyond its mandate of training officers to also become an engine for air power theory development in the interwar period. (Source: US Air Force Air University)

This article considers some of the issues related to applied military history beginning with an outline of the purpose of history and the challenges of applying the past to the present. It also considers how air forces have used the study of the past as a tool for education while concluding with some tentative thoughts on how history can be used to educate strategists in the continuing challenge to achieve professional mastery.[4]

To start with, the term ‘education’ is used in this narrative in a broad context and incorporates both formal and informal learning. Similarly, the term ‘strategist’ is used in a collegiate manner and assumes that modern air forces seek personnel who are professional masters, well-versed in the core knowledge that underpins the application of air power.

As the British historian John Tosh reflected, the term history is ambiguous at best. Is history a collection of facts related to what has happened or is it the scholarly discussion and representation of the past? If the latter statement is accepted as being correct, then it can also be assumed that the interpretation of the past is an argument without an end. While a hackneyed observation, history is a dynamic field of study, one where historians continually re-examine evidence and reinterpret the past. Linked to this is the extent of historical information available to historians and, by default, strategists who seek to apply lessons from the past to the present. The archival records and evidence that underpin the interpretation of the past are normally incomplete. For example, the National Archives of Australia only preserves a small amount of the material generated by the Australian Government.

Moving beyond the above understanding of history, the field of military history can be split into three subfields: popular, academic, and applied history.[5] There is a degree of overlap between the latter two. The main criticism of applied military history is that it is a form of weaponising the past to cater for the present.[6] Underpinning this criticism is a view that those writing such history do so without sufficient understanding of the context in seeking to deduce lessons learnt. Unfortunately, this criticism is currently directed at academics working at institutions delivering professional military education. These institutions use history to illuminate and provide context to the ambiguous challenges that officers attending them are likely to confront in the future.

Historically, the criticism of weaponising the past does carry some weight, and therefore air power strategists could be criticised for the poor use of history to support their arguments. Indeed, as Sir Michael Howard, a distinguished military historian, noted in his 1961 lecture on ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History’:

[W]hen great [interwar] pioneers of air war…advocated striking at the homeland and at the morale of the enemy people…they were basing their conclusions on their interpretation of past wars’. (emphasis added)[7]

Warden

More recently, Colonel (retired) John Warden III’s book, The Air Campaign, has been criticised for his use of a selective reading of history to fit the theory being propounded in it.[8] Admittedly, Warden is not a historian. However, such selective use of history becomes problematic to the broader task of delivering professional education when such texts appear in, for example, Staff College reading lists where they can reinforce a narrow, and at times wrong, understanding of some of the officers they are meant to educate. Despite this criticism, it is clear that many air power thinkers have recognised the value of a broad reading of history. For example, in a 1921 article on ‘Strategy and Air Strategy,’ Group Captain John Chamier of the Royal Air Force reflected on the challenge of deducing appropriate principles for the use of air power given the brief history of air warfare till then. Nevertheless, Chamier recognised that ‘strategic principles are derived from the study of history’, and he recognised that examples from ‘naval and military strategy’ could provide the necessary framework for a discussion of ‘air strategy.’[9]

While history and the application of its lessons by air forces is fraught with challenges, its importance as a didactic tool for the military cannot be underestimated. Indeed, the study of history has been, and remains, an element of the curricula at educational establishments of most air forces. However, considered in a broad manner, the study of history has been unbalanced. For example, in the late-1940s and 1950s, history and related subjects featured little on the curriculum at the RAAF College. As Alan Stephens has noted, the RAAF of this period identified itself as a ‘narrow technocracy’ with knowledge of the Air Force’s core business to be deduced from its ‘technical components’ rather than a ‘study of its history and ideas.’[10]

To conclude, there are several areas where the contemporary study of history plays a key role in the education of air power theorists and strategists. Perhaps most important is that a deep and contextual study of history provides an important understanding for military personnel seeking to gain professional mastery of the profession of arms. Indeed, if it is accepted that the aim of learning is to develop the cognitive ability to understand and deal with ambiguity, rather than to provide clear-cut answers to current problems, then the study of history has a role to play.

The skills associated with historical analysis refines human cognitive areas such as the ability to make considered judgements. An important contributor to the effectiveness of this learning process has been the increasing civilianisation of the academic delivery at institutions catering to professional military education. At a practical level, the use of Staff Rides as a learning tool could also ensure that history could be used as a means to explore ideas outside of the confines of the traditional education environment. However, this process also has its own challenges.[11] In the final analysis, Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely’s remark that the study of history needs to form an essential part of a ‘balanced diet’ of education for the military professional in order for them to develop the knowledge to be effective, rings completely true.[12]

Key Points

  1. Even though history may not provide clear lessons, the study of the past offers a lens through which to analyse, understand and reflect on the challenges currently faced by modern air forces;
  2. History could be considered a rather dynamic field of study, one where historians continually re-examine evidence and re-interpret the past;
  3. It is recognised that ‘strategic principles are derived from the study of history.’

Further Reading

  • Gray, Peter, ‘Why Study Military History?,’ Defence Studies, 5:1 (2005), pp. 151-64.
  • Muller, Richard R., ‘The Airpower Historian and the Education of Strategists’ in Bailey Jr., Richard J., Forsyth Jr., James W., and Yeisley, Mark O., (eds.), Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016).
  • Murray, Williamson, and Sinnreich, Richard Hart (eds.), The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Dr Ross Mahoney is the editor and owner of From Balloons to Drones as well as being an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. He is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.

Header Image: An Architect’s perspective drawing of the proposed RAF (Cadet) College at Cranwell. (Source: © IWM ((MOW) C 1081))

[1] Rear-Admiral A.T. Mahan, ‘The Naval War College,’ The North American Review, 196:680 (1912), p. 78.

[2] John Tosh, The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and New Directions in the Study of Modern History, Third Edition (Harlow: Pearson Education, 1999), p. viii.

[3] Richard R. Muller, ‘The Airpower Historian and the Education of Strategists’ in Richard J. Bailey Jr., James W. Forsyth Jr., and Mark O. Yeisley (eds.), Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016), p. 113.

[4] On professional mastery in air forces, see: Sanu Kainikara, ‘Professional Mastery and Air Power Education,’ Working Paper, 33 (Canberra: RAAF Air Power Development Centre, 2011).

[5] John A. Lynn III, ‘Breaching the Walls of Academe: The Purposes, Problems, and Prospects of Military History,’ Academic Questions, 21:1 (2008), p. 20.

[6] Kim Wagner, ‘Seeing Like a Soldier: The Amritsar Massacre and the Politics of Military History,’ in Martin Thomas and Gareth Curless (eds), Decolonization and Conflict: Colonial Comparisons and Conflicts (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), pp. 25-7.

[7] Michael Howard, ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History (lecture),’ Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, 107:625 (1962), p. 10.

[8] John Andreas Olsen, John Warden and the Renaissance of American Air Power (Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2007), pp. 78-9. In a similar vein to Warden, Colonel John Boyd’s work ‘cherry-picked’ history ‘to provide illustrations and empirical validation for patterns he observed in combat.’ However, it should be recognised that Boyd was an airman who was a general strategist rather than an air power thinker per se, though his ideas do have applicability to the air domain. See: Frans Osinga, ‘The Enemy as a Complex Adaptive System: John Boyd and Airpower in the Postmodern Era’ in John Andreas Olsen (ed.), Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015), pp. 53-4.

[9] Group Captain J.A. Chamier, ‘Strategy and Air Strategy,’ Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, 66 (1921), p. 641.

[10] Alan Stephens, The Australian Centenary History of Defence: Volume II – The Royal Australian Air Force (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 188.

[11] On the challenges associated with staff rides, see: Brigadier R.A.M.S. Melvin British Army, ‘Contemporary Battlefield Tours and Staff Rides: A Military Practitioner’s View,’ Defence Studies, 5:1 (2005), pp. 59-80,Nick Lloyd, ‘Battlefield Tours and Staff Rides: A Useful Learning Experience?,’ Teaching in Higher Education, 14:2 (2009), pp. 175-84.

[12] John P. Kiszely, ‘The Relevance of History to the Military Profession: A British View’ in Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich (eds.), The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 32.

#AirWarBooks – Dr Ross Mahoney

#AirWarBooks – Dr Ross Mahoney

By Dr Ross Mahoney

Editorial Note: In the second instalment of ‘Air War Books,’ the editor of From Balloons to Drones, Dr Ross Mahoney discusses the ten books that have influenced and shaped his writing as an air power historian.

As editor of From Balloons to Drones, I thought I should reflect on what are probably the ten key books that have influenced me in my study of air power. However, I make three provisos. First, I attacked this from the perspective of key authors rather than the books themselves per se. As such, I have selected titles that I have enjoyed to illustrate the importance of these writers. Second, I have left out official histories and narratives though these have been just as influential on my writing as other works. Finally, I have included some non-air power texts in here. At the end of the day, I am a historian and an interdisciplinary one at that, and it is only natural that non-air power specific books have influenced how I approach what and how I write.

John Buckley, Air Power in the Age of Total War (London: UCL Press, 1999). Ok, this, and Peter Gray’s book below has as much to do with these individuals real influence on me as well as the importance of their books. John was my undergraduate tutor many years ago, and his influence was to start me on the track to where I am today. However, added to that, Air Power in the Age of Total War is an excellent examination of the rise of air power in the first half of the twentieth century and vital reading for anyone wanting an introduction to the subject.

Peter Gray, The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945 (London: Continuum, 2012). Peter’s influence was as my PhD supervisor, and I will forever be grateful for his guidance. In my opinion, Peter is currently the leading air power specialist in the UK and one of the foremost experts in the world. That expertise is clearly evident in this book. The strategic air offensive against Germany is well-trodden ground, but Peter found a fresh way to assess its conduct. It is required reading not just for people wanting to understand the bombing offensive during the Second World War but also issues such as the challenge of senior leadership and matters such as legitimacy and international law.

Tony Mason, History of the Royal Air Force Staff College, 1922-1972 (Bracknell, RAF Staff College, 1972). I could have chosen any of Mason’s work, but this one has specific resonance for my research. This was written before Mason became the RAF’s first Director of Defence Studies (DDefS) in 1977 and is not widely available as the RAF Staff College published it. Nevertheless, Mason was not wide of the mark with many of his comments about the Staff College, though it does need to be brought up to date.

Allan English, Understanding Military Culture: A Canadian Perspective (Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004). English, a retired RCAF officer, is a noted historian of air power and has written an influential article on the RAF Staff College in the inter-war years. However, for me, his most important work is his study of Canadian military culture. As someone who specialises in the culture of air forces, this work is an essential primer on the subject of culture and its influence on the Canadian military.

John Slessor, Air Power and Armies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936). I think everyone needs to have a contemporary air power thinker on his or hers list and Slessor certainly fits that bill. He is, perhaps, the closest the RAF came to having their own Clausewitz, though I remain to be convinced that the Service wanted a singular air power thinker. Rather I think the RAF collegiately developed officers with a broad view of air power, but that is another discussion. The importance of Air Power and Armies is that it really should put to rest the argument that the RAF was solely focused on strategic bombing. Yes, Slessor used a strategic conception of air power to inform his work, but he sought to understand how military aviation could influence the land battle. An important piece of work and the recent 2009 edition by the University of Alabama Press contains an introduction by Philip Meilinger.

Arthur Gould Lee, No Parachute (London: Jarrolds, 1968). Everyone needs a memoir in his or hers top ten, and there are a number of good works by air force personnel. Most are written by pilots, which says much about the culture of air forces as much as anything else. Lee wrote several books dealing with various aspects of his service life and each could find their way into this list. No Parachute is particularly useful for its appendices though the one on parachutes does need to be revised.

John Andreas Olsen, John Warden and the Renaissance of American Air Power (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2007). As Brian Laslie mentioned in the first instalment of ‘Air War Books,’ I think we do need to include a work by Olsen. He is one of the key writers on air power currently, particularly about modern conflicts. His biography of Warden is fascinating and gives an excellent insight into this complex character. Perhaps what is more impressive, is that this was written while Warden is alive, which is never an easy task.

David French, Military Identities: The Regimental System, the British Army, and the British People c.1870-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). French is one Britain’s leading military historians, and I wonder how he would do if he turned his interests towards the RAF. However, for me, his analysis of the British Army’s regimental system is fascinating and one of those works that all should read to develop an understanding of how military organisations operate. There is much to take away from this study, and for me, it has raised significant questions about issues such as identity with regards to squadrons in air forces.

Richard Overy, The Air War, 1939-1945 (London: Europa Publications, 1980). Overy remains not only one of the leading air power historians in the UK but also globally. The Air War continues to be one of the most influential titles concerning the role of air power during the Second World War. I could have quite easily has listed The Bombing War here, which is Overy’s most recent air power work. However, The Air War continues to be important, and while Overy’s views have developed over the years – like those of all historians – this work was written when air power history was a ‘Cinderella’ discipline. Thankfully, this is no longer the case, and the new edition of The Air War is useful for Overy’s overview of the field of air power history up to 2003.

John James, The Paladins: The Story of the RAF up to the Outbreak of World War II (London: Macdonald and Company, 1990). Given my focus on the culture and ethos of air forces, this was again, one of those works that I could not ignore reading as it is one of the few social histories of the RAF before the Second World War. James worked in operational research sections in various RAF Commands and brought that experience to the writing of the book. It is good but does need bringing up to date, and I dispute some of his views on how the RAF branch system evolved. Nevertheless, a work to read.

Well, that is my top ten; however, it would be easy to add more to the list. As noted, when Overy wrote The Air War, and Mason served as DDefS, the academic study of air power, certainly in the UK, was a Cinderella subject. Thankfully, that is no longer the case and the last ten years have seen a number of significant studies published, which point the way forward for the subject but that will be a post for another time.

Dr Ross Mahoney is an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the resident Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum, and he is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and is an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He blogs at Thoughts on Military History, and can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.

Header Image: A Tornado GR.1 in flight banks away from the camera and displays its underwing stores during the First Gulf War. Top to bottom the stores are a BOZ 107 chaff/flare dispenser, 500 gal fuel tanks, AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile and Marconi Sky Shadow ECM pod. (Source: © Crown copyright. IWM (GLF 707))