#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)

#Commentary – A Rose by Any Other Name…

#Commentary – A Rose by Any Other Name…

By Dr Ross Mahoney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post can also be found at The Central Blue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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