Adrian Phillips, Rearming the RAF for the Second World War: Poor Strategy and Miscalculation. Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2022. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. xxvi + 350 pp.
Reviewed by Dr Matthew Powell
The history of the rearmament of the Royal Air Force (RAF), and the British aircraft industry in the inter-war period, more generally, has undergone a degree of revision over recent decades, mainly through the works of Sebastian Ritchie and David Edgerton. In this work, Adrian Phillips looks to challenge this new orthodoxy. Phillips seeks to show that the RAF adopted an incorrect way of conceptualising air warfare in the mid-to late-1930s. Phillips claims that the Air Ministry and the wider RAF incorrectly prioritised bombers over fighters when rearmament began in the 1930s. Phillips further contends that this prioritisation can be traced back to the theorising of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Trenchard, the RAF’s Chief of the Air Staff in the 1920s. Despite dispelling several myths about RAF expansion in the inter-war period, Phillips does not provide an overly convincing case for several reasons.
The critical issue with Phillips’ book is that it suffers from a general lack of understanding of the wider historical context of the RAF’s development in this period. Despite a relatively extensive bibliography, it appears that many more recent works in this area have not been consulted. This illustrates a broader bias inherent in Phillips’ work, namely that the RAF was wrong in its thinking.
Several examples sufficiently highlight the problem of understanding present in this work. For instance, in seeking to rehabilitate the argument that the RAF took no interest in supporting the British army or developing its capabilities in this area, this has long been questioned by more recent studies showing the case to be far more complex and nuanced than Phillips is willing to give them credit for. Indeed, Phillips’ would have benefitted from a reading of the work of David Ian Hall or this author’s own research. The lack of engagement with such works suggests a wider lack of contextual knowledge of the inter-war period and the pressures the RAF faced regarding their survival as an independent Service.
Concerning issues related to aircraft development, an examination of the various works of Edgerton, would have aided in providing the wider context of the development of the British aircraft industry. This would allow for a greater understanding of the relationship between the Air Ministry and the aircraft industry to be explored within the book. This lack of understanding is a concern in a work of this length. For instance, the Air Ministry is criticised for its decision to continue authorising the production of obsolescent aircraft such as the Fairey Battle (p. 42). Phillips’ argument, however, does not consider the industrial problems of the British aircraft industry in enough depth to demonstrate the difficulties faced by the Air Ministry. For example, officials at the Air Ministry faced the difficult decision of whether to order aircraft from firms to retain labour and gain large-scale production experience or reduce the potential for losing skilled labour. If the latter option were chosen, the teething problems of ramping up production that had been experienced at the start of the rearmament drive would be experienced again.
Moreover, there also appears to be a further lack of specific understanding of the wider aircraft industry and the challenges the Air Ministry faced in getting aircraft through the design and development programme. This is used, again, as a stick with which to hit the Air Ministry, without taking the time to develop a more nuanced argument by considering the lead times from specifications being issued to the first production batch being delivered (p. 107). Aircraft that emerged from aircraft firms and went on to be household names during the Second World War were going through the design and development process at the time decisions were being made to expand the RAF and fall into the quantity versus quality argument that was had by those in the Air Ministry responsible for this area. Phillips is, however, correct in highlighting that this left Bomber Command with a significant capability gap from the start of the war in 1939 until the introduction of the four-engined Lancaster heavy bomber in 1941.
Combined with the issue of contextual understanding, Phillips’ work suffers from a degree of hindsight bias. Again, this bias is used to illustrate that the RAF were wrong. For example, the RAF and the wider Air Ministry are criticised for not realising the importance of the experiments being conducted by Robert Watson-Watt in developing a basic air defence system (pp. 30, 130-1). This feels like an overly harsh criticism given that the technology was being developed as decisions on arming the RAF were being made. Furthermore, a potential failure in this technology meant facing a similar problem to that of the First World War regarding advanced warning of incoming enemy aircraft.
Despite these criticisms, the chapters analysing the relationship between the wider government and the Air Ministry are the most engaging. They provide a real depth of understanding of the dynamics at play between the two. However, even here, there is a degree of reading history backwards and criticising the RAF on decisions where those looking after the event know what happened, but the protagonists do not.
As well as the areas identified above, several stylistic issues exist with the book’s structure and form. This makes gaining any momentum in the argument and analysis challenging to sustain. The book comprises 38 chapters, which, given the size of the work, means most are relatively short and jump around the topic area, thus making the overall argument and analysis challenging to follow. There is also a lack of analytical consistency tying each chapter together and a tendency to move around chronologically without setting the ideas being discussed in context, especially if they had been mentioned in previous chapters. This truncated style leaves an impression that a tighter structure would have helped with the flow of the argument and would have aided in making the links between developments clearer. In addition, a clearer statement of intent at the beginning of each chapter would have aided readers in understanding what the author wanted them to take away in terms of argument and viewpoint.
Critically, one of the significant issues with this work’s presentation is the lack of references within each chapter. Many statements lack supporting evidence (either primary or secondary), and quotes are also left unsupported. For example, chapter 2, which looks at the period when Sir Hugh Trenchard becomes Chief of the Air Staff for the second time, has only one reference, despite plentiful sources. Additionally, the primary evidence cited has been chosen to suit a particular pre-formed argument rather than the argument formed by the available evidence (of which the files in The National Archives alone are plentiful).
Overall, this attempt at post-revisionism largely fails in presenting a depth of analysis through the poor use of references and available evidence. It feels as if the author had their argument in mind before the research. The traditional bashing of the RAF of the inter-war period has yet to disappear from the annals of history.
Dr Matthew Powell is a Teaching Fellow at Portsmouth Business School at the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell. He holds a PhD in Modern History from the University of Birmingham. His first book The Development of British Tactical Air Power, 1940 1943: A History of Army Co-operation Command, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016. He has published in War in History, The Journal of the Royal United Services Institute, Air and Space Power Review and the British Journal of Military History. His current research investigates the relationship between the Air Ministry and the British aircraft industry in the inter-war period.
Header image: The prototype Supermarine Spitfire, K5054, c. 1936. (Source: Wikimedia)
Editorial note: In this series, From Balloons to Drones highlights research resources available to researchers. Contributions range from discussions of research at various archival repositories to highlighting new publications. As part of this series, we are bringing you a monthly precis of recent articles and books published in air power history. This precis will not be exhaustive but will highlight new works published in the preceding month. Publication dates may vary around the globe and are based on those provided on the publisher’s websites. If you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at firstname.lastname@example.org or via our contact page here.
Kristen Alexander and Kate Ariotti, ‘Mourning the Dead of the Great Escape: POWs, Grief, and the Memorial Vault of Stalag Luft III,’ Journal of War & Culture Studies (2022), DOI: 10.1080/17526272.2022.2097774.
In March 1944 seventy-six Allied prisoners of war escaped from Stalag Luft III. Nearly all were recaptured; fifty were later shot. This article examines what happened in the period between recapture and the interment of the dead prisoners’ cremated remains at Stalag Luft III. It positions what came to be known as ‘the Great Escape’ as an event of deep emotional resonance for those who grieved and reveals the dual narrative they constructed to make sense of their comrades’ deaths. In discussing the iconography of the vault constructed by the camp community to house the dead POWs’ ashes, this article also suggests a dissonance in meaning between that arising from personal, familial grief and the Imperial War Graves Commission’s standardised memorial practice. Focusing on the Great Escape’s immediate aftermath from the perspective of the POWs themselves provides a more nuanced understanding of the emotional impact of this infamous event.
Susan Allen, Sam Bell and Carla Machain, ‘Air Power, International Organizations, and Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan,’ Armed Forces & Society (2022), doi:10.1177/0095327X221100780.
Can the presence of international organizations reduce civilian deaths caused by aerial bombing? This commentary examines this question in the specific context of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. We evaluate this based on interviews conducted with members of international organizations that were present in Afghanistan during the conflict, existing intergovernmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and government reports, and with quantitative data on civilian casualties between 2008 and 2013. We conclude that there is tentative evidence from Afghanistan that international organizations can in fact reduce the severity of civilian killings that result from the use of air power. However, there is much need for greater data sharing to more fully answer this important question.
Derek Lutterbeck, ‘Airpower and Migration Control,’ Geopolitics (2022), DOI: 10.1080/14650045.2022.2094776.
Migration scholarship has thus far largely neglected the role of aircraft in both (irregular) migration and state policies aimed at controlling migration. Drawing inspiration from the field of strategic studies, where ‘airpower’ has been a key theoretical concept, this article explores the role of aerial assets in states’ migration control efforts. The article discusses three main dimensions of the use of airpower in controlling migration: the increasing resort to aircraft for border enforcement purposes – or what can be referred to as ‘vertical border policing’ –, states’ tight monitoring of the aerial migration infrastructure, and the use of aircraft in migrant return operations. As a core element of state power, it is airpower’s key features of reach, speed and height which have made it a particularly useful migration control instrument.
Priya Mirza “Sovereignty of the air’: The Indian princely states, the British Empire and carving out of air-space (1911–1933),’ History and Technology (2022), DOI: 10.1080/07341512.2022.2079370.
Who owns the skies? Under British colonialism, the ownership of the skies of India was a contested matter. The onset of aviation presented a challenge to the territorial understanding between the British and semi-sovereign Indian princes, Paramountcy (1858–1947). Technology itself was a tricky area: roadways, railways, telegraphs, and the wireless were nibbling away at the sovereign spheres which Paramountcy had put in place. This paper looks at the history of aviation in princely India, from aviation enthusiasts such as the rulers of Kapurthala, Jodhpur and Bikaner to subversive princes like the Maharaja of Patiala who worked towards a military air force. The paper tracks the three stages of the journey of aviation in princely India, from individual consumption, to the historical context of World War One which aided its access and usage, and finally, the collective princely legal assertion over the vertical air above them in the position, ‘sovereignty of air’. The government’s civil aviation policy in India remained ambiguous about the princes’ rights over the air till 1931 when their sovereignty of the sky was finally recognised. The paper focuses on the Indian princes varied engagement with aviation, modernity and their space in the world.
Ayodeji Olukoju ‘Creating ‘an air sense:’ Governor Hugh Clifford and the beginnings of civil aviation in Nigeria, 1919-1920,’ African Identities (2022), DOI: 10.1080/14725843.2022.2096566.
This paper focuses on the neglected subject of the beginnings of civil aviation in Nigeria in the aftermath of World War I. Until now, the literature on civil aviation in British colonial Africa had focused largely on Kenya, Central and South Africa and on post-World War II West Africa. This paper, relying on previously unexploited archival material, examines policy debates and options considered by the Colonial Office, the Air Ministry and the Nigerian colonial government. The unique, pioneering aviation drive of Nigeria’s Governor Hugh Clifford took place in the context of immediate post-World War I dynamics: economic vicissitudes, Anglo-French rivalry in West Africa and the policy interface between London and the colonies. This paper demonstrates that aviation development in Nigeria had roots in the early 1920s, and that the initiative was not a metropolitan monopoly, thereby illustrating the extent of colonial gubernatorial autonomy vis-à-vis London.
S. Seyer, ‘An Industry Worth Protecting? The Manufacturers Aircraft Association’s Struggle against the British Surplus, 1919–1922,’ Journal of Policy History 34, no. 3 (2022), pp. 403-39.
The American aircraft industry’s important role in the economic, military, and cultural expansion of the United States over the past one hundred years has been well documented by historians. But America’s twentieth century aerial dominance was not preordained. After World War I, the nascent American aircraft industry faced a concerted British effort to dump thousands of war surplus machines on the U.S. market. With aircraft outside of the nation’s tariff regime, members of the Manufacturers Aircraft Association turned to Congress for emergency protections in the face of what they considered an existential threat. Despite efforts to equate a strong industrial base for aviation with the national defense, aircraft antidumping legislation became mired in partisan debates over tariff policy and accusations of wartime corruption. In the absence of relief from Congress, the Wright patent served as a barrier against the importation of foreign surplus machines.
Ameya Tripathi, ‘Bombing Cultural Heritage: Nancy Cunard, Art Humanitarianism, and Primitivist Wars in Morocco, Ethiopia, and Spain,’ Modernist Cultures 17, no. 2 (2022), pp. 191-220.
This article examines Nancy Cunard’s later writing on Spain as a direct legacy of her previous projects as a modernist poet, publisher and black rights activist. Cunard was a rare analyst of the links between total war, colonial counter-insurgency, and cultural destruction. Noting the desire of both the air power theorist and art collector to stereotype peoples, from Morocco to Ethiopia to Spain, as ‘primitive’, the article brings original archival materials from Cunard’s notes into dialogue with her journalism, and published and unpublished poetry, to examine how she reclaimed and repurposed primitivism. Her poems devise a metonymic and palimpsestic literary geopolitics, juxtaposing fragments from ancient cultures atop one another to argue, simultaneously, for Spain’s essential dignity as both a primitive and a civilised nation. Cunard reconciles Spain’s liminal status, between Africa and Europe, to argue for Spain’s art, and people, as part of a syncretic, universal human cultural heritage, anticipating the art humanitarianism of organisations such as UNESCO.
Stephen Bourque, D-Day 1944: The Deadly Failure of Allied Heavy Bombing on June 6 (Osprey: Osprey Publishing, 2022).
D-Day is one of the most written-about events in military history. One aspect of the invasion, however, continues to be ignored: the massive pre-assault bombardment by the Allied Expeditionary Air Force (AEAF), reinforced by RAF Bomber Command and the US Eighth Air Force on June 6 which sought to neutralize the German defenses along the Atlantic Wall. Unfortunately, this failed series of attacks resulted in death or injury to hundreds of soldiers, and killed many French civilians.
Despite an initial successful attack performed by the Allied forces, the most crucial phase of the operation, which was the assault from the Eighth Air Force against the defenses along the Calvados coast, was disastrous. The bombers missed almost all of their targets, inflicting little damage to the German defenses, which resulted in a high number of casualties among the Allied infantry. The primary cause of this failure was that planners at Eighth Air Force Headquarters had changed aircraft drop times at the last moment, to prevent casualties amongst the landing forces, without notifying either Eisenhower or Doolittle.
This book examines this generally overlooked event in detail, answering several fundamental questions: What was the AEAF supposed to accomplish along the Atlantic Wall on D-Day and why did it not achieve its bombardment objectives? Offering a new perspective on a little-known air campaign, it is packed with illustrations, maps and diagrams exploring in detail the features and ramifications of this mission.
Laurence Burke II, At the Dawn of Airpower: The U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps’ Approach to the Airplane 1907–1917 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2022).
At the Dawn of Airpower: The U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps’ Approach to the Airplane, 1907-1917 examines the development of aviation in the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps from their first official steps into aviation up to the United States’ declaration of war against Germany in April, 1917. Burke explains why each of the services wanted airplanes and show how they developed their respective air arms and the doctrine that guided them. His narrative follows aviation developments closely, delving deep into the official and personal papers of those involved and teasing out the ideas and intents of the early pioneers who drove military aviation Burke also closely examines the consequences of both accidental and conscious decisions on the development of the nascent aviation arms.
Certainly, the slow advancement of the technology of the airplane itself in the United States (compared to Europe) in this period affected the creation of doctrine in this period. Likewise, notions that the war that broke out in 1914 was strictly a European concern, reinforced by President Woodrow Wilson’s intentions to keep the United States out of that war, meant that the U.S. military had no incentive to “keep up” with European military aviation. Ultimately, however, he concludes that it was the respective services’ inability to create a strong, durable network connecting those flying the airplanes regularly (technology advocates) with the senior officers exercising control over their budget and organization (technology patrons) that hindered military aviation during this period.
Jim Leeke, Turtle and the Dreamboat: The Cold War Flights That Forever Changed the Course of Global Aviation (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2022).
The Turtle and the Dreamboat is the first detailed account of the race for long-distance flight records between the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy less than fourteen months after World War II. The flights were risky and unprecedented. Each service intended to demonstrate its offensive capabilities during the new nuclear age, a time when America was realigning its military structure and preparing to create a new armed service – the United States Air Force.
The first week of October 1946 saw the conclusion of both record-breaking, nonstop flights by the military fliers. The first aircraft, a two-engine U.S. Navy P2V Neptune patrol plane nicknamed the Truculent Turtle, flew more than eleven thousand miles from Perth, Western Australia, to Columbus, Ohio. The Turtle carried four war-honed pilots and a young kangaroo as a passenger. The second plane, a four-engine U.S. Army B-29 Superfortress bomber dubbed the Pacusan Dreamboat, flew nearly ten thousand miles from Honolulu to Cairo via the Arctic. Although presented as a friendly rivalry, the two flights were anything but collegial. These military missions were meant to capture public opinion and establish aviation leadership within the coming Department of Defense.
Both audacious flights above oceans, deserts, mountains, and icecaps helped to shape the future of worldwide commercial aviation, greatly reducing the length and costs of international routes. Jim Leeke provides an account of the remarkable and record-breaking flights that forever changed aviation.
Micheal Napier, Flashpoints: Air Warfare in the Cold War (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2022).
The Cold War years were a period of unprecedented peace in Europe, yet they also saw a number of localised but nonetheless very intense wars throughout the wider world in which air power played a vital role. Flashpoints describes eight of these Cold War conflicts: the Suez Crisis of 1956, the Congo Crisis of 1960-65, the Indo-Pakistan Wars of 1965 and 1971, the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1967 and 1973, the Falklands War of 1982 and the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88. In all of them both sides had a credible air force equipped with modern types, and air power shaped the final outcome.
Acclaimed aviation historian Michael Napier details the wide range of aircraft types used and the development of tactics over the period. The postwar years saw a revolution in aviation technology and design, particularly in the fields of missile development and electronic warfare, and these conflicts saw some of the most modern technology that the NATO and Warsaw Pact forces deployed, alongside some relatively obscure aircraft types such as the Westland Wyvern and the Folland Gnat.
Highly illustrated, with over 240 images and maps, Flashpoints is an authoritative account of the most important air wars of the Cold War.
David Nicolle and Gabr Ali Gabr, Air Power and the Arab World – Volume 6: World in Crisis, 1936-March 1941 (Warwick: Helion and Company, 2022).
Volume 6 of the Air Power and the Arab World mini-series continues the story of the men and machines of the first half century of military aviation in the Arab world. These years saw the Arab countries and their military forces caught up in the events of the Second World War.
For those Arab nations which had some degree of independence, the resulting political, cultural and economic strains had a profound impact upon their military forces. In Egypt the Army generally remained quiet, continuing with its often unglamorous and little appreciated duties. Within the Royal Egyptian Air Force (REAF), however, there were a significant number of men who wanted to take action in expectation of what they, and many around the world, expected to be the defeat of the British Empire.
The result was division, widespread mistrust, humiliation, and for a while the grounding of the entire REAF. In Iraq the strains of the early war years sowed the seeds of a yet to come direct armed confrontation with the British.
Volume 6 of Air Power and the Arab World then looks at the first efforts to revive both the REAF and the Royal Iraqi Air Force (RIrAF), along with events in the air and on the ground elsewhere in the Arab world from 1939 until March 1941.
This volume is illustrated throughout with photographs of the REAF, RIrAF and RAF and a selection of specially commissioned colour artworks.
Adrian Phillips, Rearming the RAF for the Second World War: Poor Strategy and Miscalculation (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2022).
When the RAF rearmed to meet the growing threat from Nazi Germany’s remorseless expansion in the late 1930s, it faced immense challenges. It had to manage a huge increase in size as well as mastering rapid advances in aviation technology. To protect Britain from attack, the RAF’s commanders had to choose the right strategy and the right balance in its forces. The choices had to be made in peacetime with no guidance from combat experience. These visions then had to be translated into practical reality. A shifting cast of government ministers, civil servants and industrialists with their own financial, political and military agendas brought further dynamics into play. The RAF’s readiness for war was crucial to Britain’s ability to respond to Nazi aggression before war broke out and when it did, the RAF’s rearmament was put to the acid test of battle. Adrian Phillips uses the penetrating grasp of how top level decisions are made that he honed in his inside accounts of the abdication crisis and appeasement, to dissect the process which shaped the RAF of 1940. He looks beyond the familiar legends of the Battle of Britain and explores in depth the successes and failures of a vital element in British preparations for war.
John Quaife, Battle of the Atlantic: Royal Australian Air Force in Coastal Command 1939-1945 (Newport, NSW: Big Sky Publishing, 2022).
At the outbreak of World War II, somewhat by accident — and just as the first shots of the war were fired — young Australian airmen from the Royal Australian Air Force were engaged in operations that would become known collectively as the Battle of the Atlantic. Arguably lesser-known than air campaigns in other theatres, large numbers of Australians who volunteered for service with Royal Australian Air Force, found themselves fighting in this battle. Australians were there at the outbreak and many would go on to fly some of the final missions of the war in Europe.
This book captures some of the experiences of the Royal Australian Air Force members who served with Coastal Command and, through the weight of numbers alone, stories of the Sunderland squadrons and the Battle of the Atlantic dominate the narrative. Being critical to Britain’s survival, the battle also dominated Coastal Command throughout the war but Australians served in a surprising variety of other roles. The nature of many of those tasks demanded persistence that could only be achieved by large numbers of young men and women being prepared to ‘do what it took’ to get a tedious and unrewarding job done. Over 400 did not come home.
Steven Zaloga, The Oil Campaign 1944–45: Draining the Wehrmacht’s Lifeblood (Oxford: OIsprey Publishing, 2022).
With retreating German forces losing their oilfields on the Eastern Front, Germany was reliant on its own facilities, particularly for producing synthetic oil from coal. However, these were within range of the increasingly mighty Allied air forces. In 1944 the head of the US Strategic Air Forces, General Carl Spaatz was intent on a new campaign that aimed to cripple the German war machine by depriving it of fuel.
The USAAF’s Oil Campaign built up momentum during the summer of 1944 and targeted these refineries and plants with its daylight heavy bombers. Decrypted German communications made it clear that the Oil Campaign was having an effect against the Wehrmacht. Fuel shortages in the autumn of 1944 forced the Luftwaffe to ground most of its combat units except for fighters involved in the defense of the Reich. Fuel shortages also forced the Kriegsmarine to place most of its warships in harbor except for the U-boats and greatly hampered German army campaigns such as the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944-45.
This fascinating book packed with key photos and illustrations examines the controversies and debates over the focus of the US bombing campaign in the final year of the war, and the impact it had on the war effort overall.
Alex M. Spencer, British Imperial Air Power: The Royal Air Forces and the Defense of Australia and New Zealand Between the World Wars. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2020. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Pbk. 307 pp.
Reviewed by Ashleigh Brown
The First World War was a catalyst for the development of aviation. At the outbreak of war in 1914, the British Army and Royal Navy air arms, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), acted purely as auxiliaries to the British Army and Royal Navy. By 1918, although still predominantly considered a support function for the other services, aviation had taken on an increased level of importance, as illustrated by establishing the independent Royal Air Force (RAF) on 1 April 1918. The importance of aviation and air power was not lost on the self-governing Dominions of the British Empire. Inspired by the experience of the Australian Flying Corps and the creation of the RAF, Australia began looking toward an independent air force during the closing stages of the First World War. This vision was soon realised with the creation of the Australian Air Force (RAAF) on 31 March 1921 (the ‘Royal’ prefix was added in May). New Zealand, the smaller dominion, was understandably slower during the interwar period. The New Zealand Permanent Air Force came into being on 14 June 1923 and grew slowly, much to the frustration of the United Kingdom (pp. 70-1). It is the experience of these two forces that Alex Spencer, a Curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in the United States, discusses in his new book, British Imperial Air Power.
Focussing on the Australian and New Zealand experience, British Imperial Air Power, derived from Spencer’s 2009 PhD thesis from Auburn University, offers one of the few contributions about military aviation developments in the Pacific dominions during the interwar period. Although the Australian and New Zealand experience of air power during has been examined, the interwar period is decidedly less studied. This is unfortunate; a far more comprehensive understanding of the air war during the Second World War can be gained by understanding the many steps taken between the wars. The immense technological, tactical, and organisational developments made during this period, as a direct result of First World War experiences, undeniably affected how air power was used in the next war. As such, as well as being an essential contribution to the discussion over the development of air power in Australia and New Zealand specifically, Spencer’s work is more generally a vital contribution to air power history of the interwar period. Spencer takes a thematic approach to the topic, beginning with the imperial air defence schemes of 1918 and 1919, which leveraged the progress made in military aviation during the war (pp. 11-36). Other themes investigated include the Empire’s air defence, post-war air transport, airships, disarmament and eventual rearmament, and the final preparations for war.
Looking at the development of the air forces of Australia and New Zealand through the imperial lens, Spencer places the dominions within the context of the British Empire. This includes a discussion of the RAF’s own struggles, namely, its fight to remain an independent service and its battle for resources throughout the interwar period. Wider economic and political issues are also discussed, including the Great Depression and the Geneva disarmament discussions, which had the potential to make building and modernising air forces more difficult (pp. 173-94). Spencer’s analysis of the broader economic, political, and imperial context is valuable. The dominions’ air forces were not created and developed in a vacuum; external factors inevitably influenced them. Additionally, Australia and New Zealand faced problems in developing their air forces – including interservice rivalry, difficulty obtaining resources, and economic restrictions – which were not unique to these dominions. Rather, they were problems faced worldwide, not least in Britain itself. Therefore, the RAF’s imperial context and experience are valuable inclusions in Spencer’s work.
In addition to these broader considerations, Spencer discusses the emergence of a more immediate threat to Australia and New Zealand: Japan (p. 38). Given the dislocation of the Pacific dominions from Britain, it is not surprising that fears of attacks by Japan influenced their plans for local air defence (p. 149). Spencer also discusses the renewal of Britain’s alliance with Japan (the Anglo-Japanese Alliance), which occurred to the consternation of Australia and New Zealand (p. 52). This demonstrated some cracks that were beginning to form between Britain and the Pacific dominions. Britain appeared less interested in the Japanese threat, in some instances appearing to completely disregard it as a threat despite the concerns of the dominions. Spencer adds to this issue by discussing the movement away from complete dependence on Britain and forging a closer relationship with the United States as an ally. Under the assumption that the United States had a greater interest in the Pacific area than Britain, Australia increasingly aligned itself with America. Additionally, with supply issues in Britain inhibiting the RAAF’s ability to acquire aircraft, Australia turned to the United States for new aircraft (p. 207). Spencer’s discussion of this provides essential context for the close relationship between the United States and Australia, which was apparent from the Second World War.
Spencer takes his work a step further by incorporating civil aviation’s development in Britain and the dominions, albeit on a much smaller scale. Importantly, he links this to the concurrent development of military aviation (p. 86). This is rare; military and civil aviation are usually treated quite separately. As Spencer points out, however, they were not entirely separate efforts. In addition to proving the value of aircraft in a military capacity, the First World War also opened the door for the possibility of civil aviation. For Australia, both veterans of the air war propelled spheres of aviation. While some Australians – such as Richard Williams and Stanley Goble – continued in the military and were instrumental in the RAAF’s early years, others – including Hudson Fysh, Paul McGinness, and Charles Kingsford Smith – pursued careers in civil aviation upon returning home. Fysh and McGinness, along with Fergus McMaster, founded the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services (QANTAS), while Smith completed a series of daring long-distance flights. With developments in military and civil aviation taking place parallel to one another during the interwar period, it is entirely appropriate to discuss the latter in Spencer’s work. Spencer explains that civil aviation of the era included mapping routes to connect Britain and the dominions, which was undoubtedly an important effort in terms of aerial defence (p. 249-50).
Spencer’s work is not without its problems. On a surface level, an unfortunate typographical error (Jan Smuts is incorrectly referred to as ‘Ian Smuts’) within the first 15 pages leaps out at the reader (p. 15). Additionally, large block quotes are frequently used, often becoming a distraction from the main text. In many cases, the author could have effectively summarised these and added little to no value by being quoted in full. More significantly, there is an uneven focus throughout the book: the bulk of Spencer’s analysis is dedicated to Australia, with New Zealand’s experience receiving less attention. This is understandable given the disparity in the size of the air forces and the advancements each made. However, Spencer should have explained this in the introduction to avoid the reader expecting to see an even comparative study of the two.
With these minor issues aside, Spencer presents a thoroughly researched and well-reasoned account of the formation of Australia and New Zealand’s air forces and the developments and challenges they faced during the lead-up to the Second World War. This includes archival research in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, focusing on air ministry and air department records and political decisions. Importantly, this is placed within the context of the Empire and international events, providing a broader view of the various difficulties faced during the interwar period. As such, Spencer’s work is an important contribution to this underserved period in military history.
N.B. You can listen to an interview with Dr Alex Spencer about his book here.
Ashleigh Brown is a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales, Canberra. Her thesis focuses on the creation and interwar development of the Royal Australian Air Force. Ashleigh is a researcher for the Official History of Australian Operations in Iraq & Afghanistan and Australian Peacekeeping Operations in East Timor, where her focus is Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan between 2005 and 2010. She is also an editor at From Balloons to Drones. Her research interests include the First World War, the interwar period, recent conflicts, air power, and military command. Ashleigh can be found on Twitter at @ash__brown.
Header Image: A Line up of two Vickers Vildebeests of the Royal New Zealand Air Force at RNZAF Station Wigram in the late-1930s. Vildebeest NZ108 is in the foreground. The flashes on the fuselage and wheel spats are blue. (Source: Air Force Museum of New Zealand)
From the First World War onwards, the use of air power in naval and maritime spheres has become an essential element of military operations. Indeed, even by 1918, many of the roles associated with naval air power, such as carrier airstrikes, had emerged. Similarly, the development of maritime air power was well-developed by 1918. Moreover, as the world’s major navies recognised the importance of naval air power and commissioned aircraft carriers between the First and Second World Wars, further developments and debates emerged.
2022 marks several significant anniversaries in naval and maritime air power history. In 1922, the US Navy, which became the world’s major user of carrier-based air power, launched its first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley. 2022 also marks the 80th and 40th anniversaries of two significant examples of the effective application of naval and maritime air power, the Battle of Midway and the Falklands War, respectively. As such, From Balloons to Drones is seeking submissions for a series of articles that examine the varied use of air power in the maritime sphere, broadly defined. Articles might, for example, explore the development of carrier-based air power, the use of land-based air power in support of naval and maritime operations, or the use of air power in support of amphibious operations. Possible themes to be explored might include, but are not limited to:
Strategy, Theory and Doctrine| Organisation and Policy | Roles
Operations – Kinetic and Non-Kinetic | Tactics, Training and Procedures
Strategic and Operational Effect | Technological Developments | Ethical and Moral Issues
National, International and Transnational Experiences | Personal Experiences
Memory and Memorialisation
We are looking for articles of between 500 to 4,000 words, though we will accept larger pieces, and we reserve the right to publish them in parts. Please visit our submissions page for more information on the types of articles published by From Balloons to Drones
We plan to begin running the series in February 2022, and it will continue for as long as we receive potential contributions. We welcome and encourage submissions from academics, policymakers, service personnel, and relevant professionals. We also welcome submissions written from diverse academic disciplines.
Submissions should be submitted in Word format and emailed to the email address below with ‘SUBMISSION – Naval and Maritime Air Power Revisited’ in the subject line. Also, please include a 50-100-word biography with your submission. Footnotes can be used, and please be careful to explain any jargon. If you are not sure if your idea fits our requirements, then please email us with ‘POTENTIAL SUBMISSION – Naval and Maritime Air Power Revisited’ in the subject line to discuss.
If you are interested in contributing, please email our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at email@example.com or contact us via our contact page here.
Header image: The Japanese aircraft carrier IJS Hiryu maneuvers to avoid bombs dropped by USAAF Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress bombers during the Battle of Midway on 4 June 1942. (Source: Wikimedia)
Editorial Note: Led by our Editor Dr Mike Hankins, From Balloons to Drones produces a monthly podcast that provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here. You can also find our podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.
The years between the First and Second World War was a very important time for the development of air power, and this was especially true in Australia and New Zealand. Dr Alex Spencer, curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, joins us to talk about these developments, which he discusses in his new book: British Imperial Air Power: The Royal Air Forces and the Defense of Australia and New Zealand Between the World Wars.
Dr Alex Spencer is a Curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum where he curates two collections. Together these collections include the Supermarine Spitfire, Hawker Hurricane, de Havilland Mosquito, Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Me 262, Heinkel He 219, Arado Ar 234, and over sixteen thousand artifacts of personal items, including uniforms, flight clothing, memorabilia, ribbons, and medals. He received his PhD in Modern European History from Auburn University. His research focuses on British and Commonwealth military aviation during the 20th Century. He was the coeditor of Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum: An Autobiography.
Header Image: A Line up of two Vickers Vildebeests of the Royal New Zealand Air Force at RNZAF Station Wigram in the late-1930s. Vildebeest NZ108 is in the foreground. The flashes on the fuselage and wheel spats are blue. (Source: Air Force Museum of New Zealand)
Editorial note: In this series, From Balloons to Drones highlights research resources available to researchers. Contributions range from discussions of research at various archival repositories to highlighting new publications. As part of this series, we are bringing you a monthly precis of recent articles and books published in air power history. This precis will not be exhaustive but will highlight new works published in the preceding month. Publication dates may vary around the globe and are based on those provided on the publisher’s websites. If you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at firstname.lastname@example.org or via our contact page here.
Jayson Altieri, ‘Minutemen and Roentgens: A History of Civil Air Patrol’s Aerial Radiolomcal Monitoring Program,’ Air Power History 68, no. 1 (Spring, 2021).
When one thinks of U.S. Air Force Cold War era aircraft, images of the Strategic Air Command’s B–52 Stratofortress, B–58 Hustler, and B–36 Peacemaker, made famous by classic Hollywood films like Dr. Strangelove, Fail Safe, and Strategic Bomber Command, usually come quickly to mind. What is less well known are the roles that smaller aircraft like the Cessna L-19/0-1 Bird Dog, Cessna 172/T-41 Mescalero, and Stinson L-5 Sentinel played in helping prepare and respond to a possible nuclear attack on the American homeland by actively measuring radioactivity levels in roentgens, mostly through the efforts of the volunteers of the U.S. Air Force’s Auxiliary, known as the Civil Air Patrol (CAP). While today, CAPs primary operational missions concentrate on inland air search and rescue, aerial disaster assessment, and flight training for the organization’s Cadet program, CAP’s earlier roles following the Second World War involved supporting the nation’s Civil Defense through Aerial Radiological Monitoring (ARM) and post-attack damage assessments of cities and key economic infrastructures. Founded on December 1,1941, with the help of American airpower proponent Gill Rob Wilson, Texas Oilman David Harold Byrd, and New York Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia, the latter in his capacity as the Director of the Office of Civilian Defense, the CAP was originally formed to help supplement American military operations as an Auxiliary of the United States Army Air Forces in the early stages of the Second World War. Early in the war, as part of America’s Civil Defense coordinated by the Council of National Defense, civilian non-combatant volunteers were asked to help supplement local governments and military commands based across the country with Air Raid Wardens, Auxiliary Firemen, Road Repair Crews, and Civil Air Patrols along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Initially using privately owned aircraft and equipment and operating from local private and publicly owned airfields, CAP volunteers became known as the Flying Minutemen, performing a number of wartime missions include Antisubmarine patrols, border patrols, target towing, and messenger services. By the end of the war and with the formation of an independent U.S. Air Force, President Harry Truman, signed in 1946 the congressionally approved Public Law 79-476 establishing the CAP as both a Federally charted corporation and later in 1948, Public Law 557 making CAP the U.S. Air Force’s Auxiliary. By this time, both the United States and CAP were now engaged in another war, though involving less actual conflict, none-the-less still presented an existential threat to the nation-The Cold War.
Troy Hallsell, ‘Building Malstrom’s Minuteman Missile Fields in Central Montana. 1960-1963,’ Air Power History 68, no. 1 (Spring, 2021).
In September of 1960, the Air Force Association held its 14th annual convention at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, California. This grand event demonstrated to the American public (and the world) the best aerial hardware the Air Force had to offer. On display was a Bell X-1B rocket plane, North American Aviation’s Hound Dog air-launched standoff missile, a Titan intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and the Thor-Able missile that promised to reach the moon. While this display of weaponry sought to allay Americans’ fears about a supposed missile gap in favor of the Soviet Union (USSR), the Air Force’s unveiling of the Minuteman ICBM was the main attraction. On September 22, at 7:00 PM Gen Thomas D. White, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, San Francisco mayor George Christopher, and NBC producer Roy Neal took to the podium to introduce the United States’ newest weapon system. As General White pushed a button, the “gleaming dummy missile rose to a vertical static display, where it would remain through the weekend.” Never underestimating the power of an image, White understood that the Air Force had to convince the American public to embrace the Minuteman as the “ultimate deterrent force.” The future of missiles depended on their good graces.
This study explores why the Air Force deployed the Minuteman to Malmstrom AFB in central Montana, how the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and Air Force built the weapon system’s infrastructure, and their experience bringing the first flight of missiles to alert during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cold War was an international political contest that pitted the west, led by the United States, against the east as represented by the USSR. The ICBM emerged as an integral weapon system in waging the Cold War. While the Air Force trotted out the Atlas and Titan ICBMs, the Minuteman became the weapon system of the future. The Air Force selected Malmstrom AFB in central Montana as home for the first Minuteman strategic missile wing. Shortly after construction began in 1962, the U.S. and USSR engaged in the Cuban Missile Crisis following the Soviet Union’s installation of intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. During this confrontation Strategic Air Command (SAC) ordered the 341st Strategic Missile Wing (341 SMW) to bring its first flight of Minuteman ICBMs to alert and entered into an unprecedented state of readiness. In the nuclear posturing that followed, the USSR agreed to remove its missiles from Cuba as long as the U.S. made some concessions of its own.
Phil Haun, ‘Foundation Bias: The Impact of the Air Corps Tactical School on United States Air Force Doctrine,’ Journal of Military History 85, no. 2 (April 2021).
For over seventy years, the continued belief in the efficacy of strategic bombing has dominated United States Air Force thinking in times of war and peace. In addition, the core principles of air power articulated by the Air Corps Tactical School continue to reside in USAF doctrine. Despite the outcomes of the Korean, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars, which have all demonstrated the effectiveness of joint operations and the limitations of strategic bombing, the ACTS tenets remain embedded in the very DNA of airmen and continue to influence how the United States Air Force views the modern air, space, and cyber domains.
Bryan Hunt, ‘Lost in Space: The Defeat of the V-2 and Post- War British Exploitation of German Long-Range Rocket Technology,’ Air Power History 68, no. 1 (Spring, 2021).
Battle of London is over … sort of
On the evening of September 7, 1944, Duncan Sandys MP (1908-1987), chair of the government rocket and flying bomb countermeasures ‘CROSSBOW committee, confidently announced that the Battle of London, comprising the V-l flying bomb attacks, was now over and that the public could now relax, and because of Allied advances through northern France, discounted the apocalyptic predictions of ‘rocket’ (ballistic missile) attacks. The fear of these attacks had caused the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison (1888-1965), grave concern because of alarmist intelligence assessments of the size of warheads and predicted scale of attacks. Starting in August 1943, Bomber Command and the U.S. Eighth Air Force had bombed research sites in Poland and dropped 120,000 tons of bombs on the monumentally large reinforced-concrete ‘large sites’ and ‘rocket projector’ sites on the Cherbourg Peninsula in northern France and in Belgium that were believed to be crucial to the operational deployment of long-range rockets. Allied forces had now overrun the distinctive, curved assembly and launch ‘ski site’ buildings where V-l flying bombs had been launched at Britain. The Chiefs of Staff Committee also believed that all potential rocket launch sites were now in Allied hands.
However, a scant 24 hours later on September 8, 1944, a mysterious explosion occurred in Chiswick, west London, killing three people and injuring a further 20. A second similar explosion occurred a few seconds later in Epping, though with no casualties. Described officially as ‘gas leaks’, these explosions heralded the first ballistic missile attack on the United Kingdom. The weapon was the A4, a 46 ft/14 m high single-stage liquid-fuelled rocket carrying a one ton high-explosive warhead. The A4 – Aggregat (experimental) Bombardment Rocket and later renamed by the Nazi Propaganda Ministry and universally known as the V-2 (Vergeltungswaffen – vengeance or retaliatory weapon) – had been launched from a mobile position in The Hague, in the occupied Netherlands. It took just under five minutes to travel the 200-odd nautical miles to southern England. Although the British Government maintained the story of gas leaks for two months on security grounds, it was recognised across Whitehall that this was the commencement of a ballistic missile (code word: ‘BIGBEN) bombardment that had been expected – and feared – from late 1943s.
David Messenger, ‘Local Government, Passive Defense and Aerial Bombardment in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, 1936–9,’ Journal of Contemporary History, (April 2021). doi:10.1177/0022009421997898
The bombardment of civilians from the air was a regular feature of the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939. It is estimated some 15,000 Spaniards died as a result of air bombings during the Civil War, most civilians, and 11,000 were victims of bombing from the Francoist side that rebelled against the Republican government, supported by German and Italian aviation that joined the rebellion against the Republic. In Catalonia alone, some 1062 municipalities experienced aerial bombardments by the Francoist side of the civil war. In cities across Spain, municipal and regional authorities developed detailed plans for civilian defense in response to these air campaigns. In Barcelona, the municipality created the Junta Local de Defensa Passiva de Barcelona, to build bomb shelters, warn the public of bombings, and educate them on how to protect themselves against aerial bombardment. They mobilized civilians around the concept of ‘passive defense.’ This proactive response by civilians and local government to what they recognized as a war targeting them is an important and under-studied aspect of the Spanish Civil War.
Cole Resnik, ‘Silent Saviors: Gliders for American Resupply Operations in Normandy, June 1944,’ Air Power History 68, no. 1 (Spring, 2021).
Historians devote much attention to the glider assault missions on D-Day morning, but resupply missions thereafter contributed more to the success of the airborne divisions and require a closer evaluation. While awaiting the construction of airstrips or the arrival of armored reinforcements following the initial invasion of Normandy, the artillery pieces and ammunition delivered by combat gliders helped outgunned paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division hold the surrounding area of Sainte-Mere-Eglise. Airborne commanders trusted gliders more than airdrops in the aftermath of D-Day because of their ability to deliver heavier equipment behind enemy lines in a precise, cohesive, and timely manner. In the morning hours of June 6, the 82nd dropped in and around Sainte-Mere-Eglise. The average paratrooper landed with an M1 Garand, an M1911 pistol, a knife, extra ammunition, three days of rations, a few explosives, and other personal gear if their leg bag remained attached after the jump. Some dropped with mortar tubes and bazookas, but these soldiers lacked the firepower necessary to compete with an armored enemy on a consistent basis. The British glider could fly with 7,380 pounds stuffed in its fuselage. That equaled twenty-five infantrymen with gear, four motorcycles complete with eight troops and equipment, or a one-ton supply trailer attached to a quarter-ton Jeep. The resupply mission, nicknamed “Elmira,” was simple: the 176 gliders hooked to C-47s would depart England, fly to the coast of France, and disconnect from their tow planes near the beaches at Normandy.
What is air power? How do we study it? How do we use it? Do previous characterisations sufficiently capture the concept? Perhaps. This article contends that prior attempts to put meat on the bone towards a framework to study air power scholarship are insufficient.
Moreover, we must appreciate the richness of our inquiries if we – scholars and professionals, such as political scientists, historians, policymakers, practitioners and users – want to understand better the concept of air power to help answer important questions. These questions may be: how do civilian airline pilots and training schools contribute to a nation’s ‘air power?’ Can peacetime control of airspace access constitute a form of air power? To what extent does air information, such as weather, the electromagnetic environment, knowledge of space weather, constitute a form of air power? Furthermore, more, importantly, how do these questions and related concepts orient to each other. As such, this article argues that air power is the domain-agnostic admixture of personalities, outcomes, organisations, technologies, ideas and events to do or, that do, something in or for, the air.
This definition is unique in that it explicitly and parsimoniously joins together the breadth of military and civilian endeavours. It highlights the ‘stickiness’ of related topics and contends that air power is not an inherently military pursuit, though its application almost always manifests as such. The definition provides more form to the general, varied ideas of military thinkers about essential elements of air power. This article begins the discussion on the topic of how we structure air power studies across various academic fields and cordons a more robust dissection of the topic in future publications. Furthermore, this article details the constituent components of air power to clarify meaning. Then, it uses this perception of air power to explain its evolution throughout history. Finally, briefly, it discusses our current air power disposition to make sense of what component will drive innovation in the coming decades — organisations. So, how have we come to envisage this elusive thing we call air power?
Definition and Components of Air Power
In the Age of Airpower, Martin Van Creveld explored about 250 years of the concept. Among others, he highlighted the work of people with simple, yet elegant definitions of air power, such as that of Brigadier General William ‘Billy’ Mitchell who viewed it as doing ‘something in the air.’ Other writers such as Mark Clodfelter provided more angles: breaking the concept of air power into direct and indirect applications. For Clodfelter, direct air power generally involves kinetic outcomes such as bombing and indirect presumes more non-kinetic capabilities, such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).
Meanwhile, organisations such as the US Air Force (USAF) define air power based on its organisational experience and conceptual refinement. The latest iteration of USAF Basic Doctrine defines the concept as ‘the ability to project military power or influence through the control and exploitation of air, space, and cyberspace to achieve strategic, operational, or tactical objectives.’ So, how do we break air power down for study?
While Mitchell’s definition is more parsimonious, adding a little complexity provides the explanatory muscle to how we think about air power and thus how we can consider the concept’s change over time. Foundationally, one should recognise that to do something in the air does not necessarily mean that the activity must originate in or from the air. For instance, a ballistic missile launch originates from the land, traverses through the air and maybe space, and then strikes somewhere on land. This example demonstrates the potential of the agnosticism of the air domain. Furthermore, a more robust definition allows for careful, coordinated forecasting of future air power applications using clear and structured links within and across the subject’s elements. For instance, air power researchers studying C-17 humanitarian assistance capabilities may be linked to those studying procedurally based command and control organisations as well as those studying the political effects of humanitarian assistance to optimise future disaster response towards national priorities.
Conceiving of air power as an admixture of component concepts: each noteworthy, though not equal, in characterising the ability to do something in the air is vital for several reasons. One benefit is to have more structured research programs that allow thinkers to situate their contribution to the subject area. Another is to generalise debates on air power concepts that link military and civilian theory and application. A generalisation can help guard against what seems to be a tendency to overly militarise air power thought, evoking the coercive and persuasive elements of the concept. The benefits are similar to those of academic fields like history or political science though air power studies can best be described as an interdisciplinary subfield or topical field.
Importantly, to be useful, the components must be defined. First, personalities may be individuals or groups that have a profound impact on the development of the notion. For instance, Mitchell vocally and publicly advanced the idea of a separate US military service despite the misgivings of more senior leaders, including President Calvin Coolidge. In part, the general’s 1925 court-martial resulted from agitation for a separate US air service. However, the spectacle thrust air power into America’s national dialogue. He challenged the US Army – then overseeing land-based air forces – stating that their leaders were negligent for not building an air service capable of national defence. Mitchell is credited by many as being the original maverick in pursuing an idea of independent military air power that was largely sidelined at the time. Mitchell’s persona, in part, catalysed the existence of organisations critical to the development of air power.
Mitchell’s calls for an independent air service bring us to the second component — organisations, which are administrative and operational systems that foster ideas, leverage people and exploit technologies towards some outcome. An exemplar is the USAF’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) under Major-General Curtis LeMay’s tutelage. SAC pursued the idea of ‘strategic’ air power, discussed later, towards its outcome of long-range conventional and nuclear bombing. SAC oversaw most of the US nuclear deterrent and development of bomber capabilities for the USAF. The organisation came to personify air power in the US and for much of the world during the Cold War. Albeit an unfair approximation, civilians and military personnel alike were lent the idea of air power’s ability to render an outcome of total enemy devastation embodied by SAC’s long-range bombers and, later, ballistic missiles.
In our context, outcomes are the effects, assessments and results by which military and civilian leaders come to associate air power. For instance, after the Second World War, both military and civilian leaders came to associate air power with the unconditional surrender of the enemy evoked by the use of nuclear weapons. This idea created problems during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, where expectations outpaced the new reality of limited, non-nuclear warfare. Limited warfare lends itself to more technical means — leaving technology to be the more tangible, driving component of air power.
As a component, technology includes all the capabilities, research, design, development and testing that allow practitioners to do things in the air. For instance, a significant component of the US’ advancements in stealth technology originated with the Skunk Works team under Kelly Johnson’s orchestration, among others. The team’s research and design techniques led to advances like the SR-71 Blackbird and the F-117 Nighthawk. These technologies, along with other capabilities-related advances, influenced expectations such as those discussed above: enabling the limited, non-nuclear warfare that became characteristic of vast swaths of America’s recent history. However, while technology is sometimes the easiest to translate as an air power component, though not always easy to grasp, it is ideas that sometimes generate change.
Doctrine, strategy, theories, policies and politics combine to form air power’s conceptual component. These ideas embody how personalities can use other components. Reciprocally, all the other components can help thinkers conceive of new ways to conceptualise air power. To demonstrate, during Operation EL DORADO CANYON, President Reagan and his national security team viewed air power as a punitive instrument of national security policy. Existent technologies in the 1980s allowed Reagan’s response to state-sponsored terrorism with a long-range, airstrike on targets tailored to the perceived offence. Reagan’s team shepherded the technology component in a way that had not yet been explored to its fullest. They updated strategic attack doctrine; tested theories of international relations; set new international policies; and ignited the politics of air-driven limited, military interventions.
Events like Op EL DORADO CANYON also constitutes the last element of air power. Our understanding of past campaigns, battles and historical milestones enables a fuller appreciation of air power and the possibility of modifying its future use. Unfortunately, these so-called understandings can sometimes lead to misapplications of history and, ultimately, to disaster. For instance, the counterinsurgency in Iraq that began almost immediately after the invasion in 2003 required a different application of air power than previously practised, but it would take multiple Secretaries of Defense to enforce this understanding upon the military, as evidenced by the explosion of unmanned technologies among others. The components of air power – personalities, organisations, outcomes, technologies, ideas and events – provide the critical infrastructure for the study of air power. We can use this infrastructure to help us understand various aspects of the topic, like what elements may be more important at various times in history. This understanding can help us orient ourselves in history relative to the seemingly dominant feature of our time so that those who study, and practice air power can best allocate resources, whether academically or practically.
Epochs of Air Power
In this section, this article now considers the prominence of the above elements as determinants of historical periods in air power’s evolution. A short walkthrough of air power’s epochal changes rooted in the above-defined elements illuminates current and the future application of air power. Geoffrey Barraclough, in An Introduction to Contemporary History, provided an idea about ‘spots and jumps’ that define historical periods and transitions. He used the timeframe 1880-1960 to discuss the shift between modern and contemporary history based primarily on economic and geopolitical factors. Using a similar conception of eras punctuated by ‘spots and jumps,’ rooted in the components of air power to characterise the shifts, this section divides the evolution of air power into five timeframes. Importantly, during shifts between the timeframes, changes in predominant component concepts of air power led to changes in our concept of air power.
Before 1783 – The Age of Imagination
Air power before 1783 can be viewed as an ‘Age of Imagination’ or ideas. There were no bounds except those imposed by humanity’s evolving understanding of terrestrial physics. Some of the earliest human records depict mystical flying or lobbing objects through the air as weapons. In their way, our ancestors from around the world gave us our first concept of air power. They conceived of divinity by drawing and storytelling of gods that could defy gravity unassisted, a fruitless pursuit for mere mortals that dates to Greek, Roman and Chinese mythology. While ancient and pre-industrial humans did not themselves defy gravity, humankind created things to help defend themselves, such as arrows and trebuchet missiles. These weapons are essential to the study of air power because the idea of projectiles travelling large distances to destroy an enemy finds its roots here. These weapons emerged over thousands of years, sometimes a crowning achievement of empires such as Persia and the Mongols. Nonetheless, the wild-eyed dreams of fantasy came to a relatively abrupt end in 1783 when the Montgolfiers floated their first balloon. The brothers’ flights began the period of the ‘Origins of Air Power.’
1783 to 1903 – The Origins of Air Power
Between 1783 and 1903, changes in the concept of air power resulted from slow changes in technologies. For instance, a new class of ‘aeronauts’ proliferated workable ballooning technologies that ended up in the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte, though his use is not the first use on the battlefield. He used available technologies when and where he could to enhance reconnaissance and direct artillery strikes. In 1798 Bonaparte used balloons to try to overawe the Egyptians in a campaign to subdue the Middle East and North Africa. After an unsuccessful display, Napoleon ordered the balloon unit’s disbandment. Undoubtedly a balloon would have come in handy in 1815 when Napoleon looked for Grouchy to spot and crush Blucher’s flanking movement at Waterloo. Nearly a half-century later, professionals continued to struggle with the concept of air power: conceiving of it as an unproven, unpredictable and unusable conglomeration of technologies and techniques, such as gas-producing machines for balloons, telegraphs and airborne mapmaking. Such was Thaddeus Lowe’s disposition in bringing air power to fruition during the American Civil War. Thus, it would be until the turn of the twentieth century.
1903 to 1945 – The Douhetian Epoch
From 1903 to 1945, ‘strategic’ air power and its offshoots was the idea that drove changes in the conception of air power as something more than an observational or auxiliary tool for ground forces. The idea of independent air power came to full fruition in August 1945 with the dropping of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan. To begin, in December 1903 the Wright Brothers brought heavier-than-air flight to reality. Driving the science of aeronautics were ideas like those refined by Giulio Douhet in the early part of the 20th century. Theorists like Douhet opined that wars could be won by striking at city centres from the air to break the will of a people, forcing them to surrender. Douhet’s original Italian publication in 1921 would not get immediately translated into English; however, people like Hugh Trenchard, the first Royal Air Force commander, articulated similar thoughts and organised, trained and equipped his military forces towards those ends. Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris would make use of Trenchard’s advancements during the Second World War over German cities such as Hamburg, Dresden and Berlin. Though it would take the American military time to adopt the British model of indiscriminate bombing, this idea came to epitomise air power for the period.
Importantly, this was also the timeframe during which commercial air travel in lighter- and heavier-than-air vessels took root. Though the ‘golden’ age of commercial air travel would come later, concepts like air routes, navigating via beacons, airports and other ideas began to solidify. These concepts had both military and civilian applications and technologies that enabled further development of the idea of air assets used over long distances. However, the military would continue to dominate ideas about air power as a ‘strategic’ concept even as these ideas came into contact with a significant theoretical challenge: limited warfare in an age of potentially unlimited destruction from thermonuclear weapons.
1945 to 2001 – The Era of Immaculate Effects
The next era, roughly spanning 1945 to 2001 is the maturation of strategic bombing extremes enabled by high technology. Militarily, the era is marked by the rise of a more immaculate, precise warfare with limited aims to mitigate aircrew losses, fulfil more specific international obligations and for operational efficiency among other goals. There was a change in the concept of air power because of what it was perceived to have achieved during the Second World War and the idea that the same outcome could be realised even in the face of more limited warfare. By the beginning of this timeframe, the USAF sidelined more tactically-minded airmen like Pete Quesada to ensure adoption of strategic bombing as a vehicle to solidify the association with air power. In part because of his prestige as a tactical aviation adherent, the ‘bomber generals’ defanged Quesada and the organisation he led, Tactical Air Command, after WWII. There was no room for anyone but true believers in the strategic attack mindset, but this would change after the experiences of Korea and Vietnam in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Only later in the period would Quesada’s tactical aviation and more precise attack legacy permeate military circles.
In civilian aviation, technology-fueled huge leaps in air power. National airspace, global navigation capabilities and air-containerised freight were concepts that would hold vast military and civilian applications. It is during this time that military and civilian aircraft started to compete for airspace for things like training, exercises and navigating various corridors. Another critical advance was the widespread implementation of the instrument landing system that allowed commercial aircraft to land in increasing levels of degraded atmospheric conditions. Again, precision enabled by technology characterised this era.
2000 and Beyond – Flexible Niche
The most recent period begins at around the turn of the millennium. This is the epoch as ‘Flexible Niche’ because it involved the use of existing or new technologies for a variety of activities dependent on how organisations are positioned to leverage them. Beginning in the late 1980s, formalisation of the contemporary Air Operations Center (AOC) is an early indicator of the present epoch. This organisation enabled the focused air campaign during Operations INSTANT THUNDER and DESERT STORM that, in part, led to ultimate victory for coalition forces in 1991. It was no longer enough to think of air power as just a capability or bringing about the strategic defeat of an enemy via the limits of destructive power or achieving national objectives with as few civilian casualties as possible. The organisation became the template for how to leverage air power across a wide area and from multiple sources. A contemporary view of air power considers the construct of how and which organisations best leverage technologies, ideas and people towards a given outcome, which may be a military one. There are a variety of concepts that the United States military is exploring, including the Multi-Domain Operations Center and Defense Innovation Unit, in addition to the standup of a Space Force among other initiatives.
Civil aviation is undergoing a similar bout with organisations, especially in the United States, as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grapples with how best to control airspace with the rise of unmanned technologies, especially in congested metropolitan areas. Should the FAA continue to hold all the cards or is the organisation in need of decentralisation of authorities to states and localities? Technologies may forestall the organisational decision, but this era’s solutions seem to be organisationally related rather than technically.
For the new century and beyond, it will not necessarily be which countries and industries have the best technologies or smartest people or best ideas that define the development of air power: it will be the organisations that can best leverage the other components that will determine how we conceive of air power. To summarise, again, air power is the domain-agnostic ability to do something in the air resulting from an admixture of personalities, outcomes, organisations, technologies, ideas and events. These components, at various times, represent reasons why our concept of air power changes over time.
The use of epochs allows us to generally discuss how components of air power drive thinking and successful pursuits of the concept over time, which is why it is useful to develop a unified framework for their study. Moreover, as opposed to the more traditional commentary of air power, linking military and civilian advancements in the same epoch demonstrates that air power is not an inherently military concept. This article serves as an overview of the start of a more robust discussion about the development of air power and a characterisation of what will likely temper that development for the 21st century — organisations. Future topics will involve civilian efforts to deal with drones and swarms, the importance of civil aviation and commercial space efforts in air power development, and the exploration of the idea that organisations will be the defining issue of this era.
Given all of this, air power is the domain-agnostic admixture of personalities, outcomes, organisations, technologies, ideas and events to do or, that do, something in or for, the air. Moreover, these components at various times have influenced significant shifts in our conception of air power over at least five critical epochs. Scholars and professionals must acknowledge the military and civilian dimensions of air power to live up to the concept’s full potential. Hence, to conclude, there is a need for a unified framework for the study of air power to promote the integration of military and civilian issues with the field.
Major Jaylan M. Haley is a career USAF Intelligence Officer. Currently, he is a student at the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Power Studies at Air University. Over 14 years, he served in a variety of intelligence-related positions from the strategic to the tactical levels. During Operations ENDURING FREEDOM and INHERENT RESOLVE, he served as an Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Liaison Officer to multiple US Army Divisions and US Marine Expeditionary Forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Most recently he was an Air University Fellow, serving as an Instructor in the Department of International Security at the USAF Air Command and Staff College. He is a PhD Candidate in the Kansas State University Security Studies program with research focused on leverage air power as a tool of national policy.
Header Image: A US Navy Grumman F-14A Tomcat intercepts a Soviet Tupolev Tu-95 ‘Bear D’ reconnaissance-bomber over the Pacific Ocean on 21 November 1984. The F-14 was assigned to fighter squadron VF-51 aboard the USS Carl Vinson and was deployed to the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean from 18 October 1984 to 24 May 1985. (Source: Wikimedia)
 Domains include air, space, cyberspace (or electromagnetic), land and sea. Domain agnosticism disregards a specific domain towards the application of a specific concept. For instance, intelligence collection is domain agnostic. This means that intelligence collection can come from any of the domains-air, space, cyberspace, land or sea.
 ‘Strategic Implications for the Aerospace Nation’ in Philip Meilinger (ed.), Air War: Essays on Its Theory and Practice (Abingdon: Franck Cass, 2003), pp. 217-30.
 Martin Van Creveld, Martin, The Age of Airpower (New York: PublicAffairs, 2011), p. 71; William Mitchell, Winged Defense: The Development and Possibilities of Modern Air Power (New York: Dover Publications, 1988), p. xii.
 Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), p. 213.
 United States Air Force, Core Doctrine, Volume 1 – Basic Doctrine (Maxwell AFB, LeMay Doctrine Center, 2015).
 Robert Smith, ‘Maneuver at Lightspeed: Electromagnetic Spectrum as a Domain,’Over the Horizon: Multi-Domain Operations & Strategy, 5 November 2018. Importantly, the so-called warfighting domains of air, space, land, navy and now cyber – or perhaps more aptly electromagnetic – all interface with the air domain and provide a medium through which something can happen in the air.
 Douglas Waller, A Question of Loyalty (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004), pp. 21-2.
 Donald Mrozek, Air Power & the Ground War in Vietnam (Virginia, VA: Pergamon-Brassey’s International Defense Publishers, 1989), pp. 14-5.
 Conrad Crane, American Airpower Strategy in Korea: 1950-1953 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2000), pp. 16-22.
Hindsight tends to make the contingent seem predestined. This is why reading history is essential for those responsible for planning for the future. When military professionals engage with history to try and understand how decisions, events, and circumstances – many of which lie beyond their control – shaped the present, they better appreciate that future planning is not about prediction; it is about preparing for adaptation. This is the lesson I took from Lieutenant Colonel Dr Tyler Morton’s book From Kites to Cold War, published by the United States Naval Institute Press in 2019.
This may not have been the insight that Morton intended for his readers. The book is the published version of Morton’s 2016 USAF Air University PhD thesis, which aimed to educate airmen on how airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) evolved rapidly from novelty to necessity. Although Morton claimed that the book ‘is a unique account spanning two millennia of manned airborne reconnaissance history’ (p. 9), the book’s six chapters cover less than 200 years: from the Montgolfier brothers’ hot-air-balloon demonstration in 1783 to the Linebacker air campaign over North Vietnam in 1972. This is not a criticism of Morton; his treatment of those 200 years is detailed and engaging and lives up to the promise of providing a unique insight into the development of a capability that is now a cornerstone of modern military operations. Morton’s 200-year story of airborne reconnaissance is one of vision, innovation, hype, misstep, and adaptation. This is a story whose beginning and early evolution has interesting parallels to what is occurring today with a range of emerging technologies.
Most histories of air power begin at the turn of the 20th century with the development of dirigibles and heavier-than-air flight. Those seeking to establish a longer pedigree for military aviation may refer to the French use of balloons at the Battle of Fleurus in 1794. Morton’s first chapter covering the Montgolfier’s 1783 balloon demonstration through to the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, therefore, fills a gap in air power’s historical narrative.
As Morton describes it, the 19th century was a period of civilian-led experimentation that enjoyed ambivalent support from militaries in Europe and the United States. Though contemporary militaries saw the potential for balloons to contribute to their armies’ situational awareness, many believed resources were better spent on more established capabilities. Using examples from the French Revolutionary period and the American Civil War, Morton shows how the tension between inventors, scientists, and entrepreneurs who demonstrated, but also oversold, the possibilities of airborne reconnaissance, and military leaders who needed to balance innovation with operational necessities shaped initial development efforts. The opportunity cost of an experimental technology versus tried-and-tested during a time of war hindered the military employment of balloons until the end of the 19th century.
It was during the first 15 years of the 20th century, the focus of chapter two, that the perceived benefits of military air power began to exceed the cost. Practical and operational demonstrations of airships and heavier-than-air machines sparked interest in militaries in Europe and the United States, leading to a growing acceptance of aviation’s future military role. Morton’s analysis of this period draws attention to the increasingly important role of empowered officers who drove progress in airborne reconnaissance. Officers such as then-Lieutenant Benjamin Foulois who envisaged the development of airborne reconnaissance as a system requiring the development of new technology and skill-sets beyond those associated with the aircraft itself, and who were empowered to drive the capability forward. Foulois’ career – on operations, as a member of the critical aeronautical boards before and after the First World War, and as Chief of the Air Corps – provided him with the opportunities within the military establishment to translate his vision into reality. His demonstrations of air-to-ground communications and aerial photography in support of US operations during the Mexican Revolution established the utility of airborne reconnaissance for key US Army leadership. In Foulois’ own words (p. 67), the Mexican operations ‘had proven beyond dispute […] that aviation was no longer experimental or freakish.’
Growing awareness in Europe and the United States of the military utility of airborne reconnaissance opened the door for the capability advocates when war came. It would not take long for the capability to prove its worth. Airborne reconnaissance enabled operational success on both sides of the First World War from the earliest stages of the war. It provided Allied commanders with intelligence on German manoeuvres that enabled the so-called ‘Miracle of the Marne.’ On the Eastern Front, German air reconnaissance of Russian force dispositions played a vital role in the German victory at Tannenberg; according to Field Marshal Hindenburg (p. 85): ‘Without the airplane there is no Tannenberg.’ Morton’s discussion of developments during the war in chapter three provides the reader with an appreciation of how the capability developed as a system comprising the air platform, cameras, communications, and the processing, exploitation, and dissemination (PED) of information. This was a logical progression of the pre-war developments, but, as Morton highlights, it was the character of First World War trench warfare (p. 86) that ‘gave aviation the chance it needed to solidify further its value as a force enhancer.’ The reduced mobility of ground forces created an intelligence gap which air power advocates and innovators ably filled. It was the development under real-world operational conditions that made airborne reconnaissance effective as it ensured the system evolved to meet requirements. This also had the effect of removing any lingering doubt about whether the capability had a place in future force structure. With its future assured, the next challenge was determining the exact form and function of that future capability. As the final three chapters highlight, this was not easy.
In chapter four, Morton covers the interwar period and the Second World War – a 26-year period during which there were significant advances in technology, concepts, and operational experience – in one page more than he covers the five years of the First World War. Surprisingly, this does not reduce the quality of the insights he provides. Morton focuses on two main areas during this period: the relative neglect of airborne reconnaissance into the 1930s as air power’s advocates struggled to define its role; and the wartime expansion of the reconnaissance role from imagery intelligence (IMINT) into signals intelligence (SIGINT). Opportunity cost remerged as a significant factor driving air power development during the interwar period. Ironically, as militaries and air power advocates struggled to clarify the role of air power, the tried-and-tested capability of airborne reconnaissance was neglected as investment flowed into more experimental and conceptual areas such as strategic bombing, a reversal of situation Morton describes in chapter one. However, new technologies and the character of operations during the Second World War created opportunities for innovative airmen and their adaptable organisations to consolidate and expand the role of airborne reconnaissance. The ubiquity of radar and radios increased the opportunities and requirement for collection against new sources; Morton does an excellent job describing the resulting emergence of SIGINT across all theatres. By 1945 the major disciplines of modern airborne reconnaissance were firmly established, but the challenge of prioritisation would continue to shape its development well into the Cold War.
Morton takes a different approach to deal with the Cold War. Rather than dividing the period arbitrarily into different time periods, he opts for a thematic approach. Chapter five explores ‘airborne reconnaissance as a strategic political instrument’. While chapter six, the book’s final chapter, examines airborne reconnaissance in the ‘hot wars’ in Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam. Of note, unlike previous chapters that have examined the developments internationally, the final two chapters focus solely on airborne reconnaissance in the United States. The unstated premise is that whereas previously the ideas and experiences of the other great powers had exerted an influence on the evolution of the capability this ceased to be the case after the end of the Second World War. Whether or not this is true is open for debate, but Morton’s discussion of the period does make a compelling, though implied, case.
In chapter five, Morton describes a period of consistent investment in and development of ‘strategic aerial reconnaissance’. The need to maintain awareness of Soviet capabilities to strike the United States and develop intelligence for targeting of US strategic strikes against the Soviet Union drove these developments. Soviet responses also played a role. As superpower competition grew and the Soviet’s began actively targeting US collection assets, political concerns began to impact the requirement for US reconnaissance capabilities directly. Morton describes how this interplay between collection requirements and political considerations drove improvements to sensor capabilities, giving rise to the Big Safari program, and the survivability of the collection platforms, leading to the A-12 Oxcart/SR-71 Blackbird, and the U-2. These were strategically significant capability improvements that were vital to the success of the US deterrence strategy.
While the United States focused its reconnaissance efforts on strategic requirements, the ability to meet tactical the demands for reconnaissance was neglected. In the book’s final chapter Morton describes how the United States adapted its strategic reconnaissance capabilities, and rapidly developed and implemented new tactical systems to meet the requirements of Korea, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War. The most interesting aspect of this final chapter is not the technology, but the processes that were developed. In Korea, Colonel Karl Polifka implemented a tactical reconnaissance management system that deconflicted the multitude of requests coming into the 5th Air Force and tracked the status of the product; a process that sounds remarkably similar to today’s collection management process. During Vietnam, the integration of technology and process as part of the Teaball project – a system that enabled highly-classified SIGINT to provide near-real-time intelligence into USAF fighter cockpits over North Vietnam – contributed to an increase in the USAF’s kill ratio from 0.47:1 to 4:1. In the words of General John Vogt, then-Commander of the 7th Air Force (p. 204):
During Linebacker we were shooting down the enemy at a rate of four to one […] Same airplane, same environment, same tactics; largely [the] difference [was] Teaball.
Teaball is an appropriate way for Morton to end his history of airborne reconnaissance. The progress made technologically, organizationally, and procedurally from 1783 to 1972 is impressive; when you shift timescale from 1914 to 1972, that progress is even more spectacular. As Morton reflects when discussing the 1965 introduction of the communication-intelligence-equipped EC-121D Warning Star into the Vietnam conflict (p. 200):
In scarcely fifty years, airmen went from using smoke signals and dropped messages to a fully integrated communications capability delivering near-real-time SIGINT data directly to air and ground warfighters.
This progress was not smooth, nor was it predestined, it was the result of the creativity, vision, and perseverance of inventors, engineers, airmen, and military commanders who were able to adapt emerging capabilities to meet operational and strategic requirements.
From Kites to Cold War is an essential read for anyone involved in the present or future of airborne ISR. Morton’s well-written history of the first 200 years of airborne reconnaissance provides an appreciation of how the capability evolved into its modern form, particularly how the vision and adaptability of airborne reconnaissance advocates were crucial to progress. For the same reason, this book is also a useful read for those in the innovation game or involved in future force design. Although Morton’s aim was not to write a book on military innovation, this is essentially what it is. It is an instructive tale of vision, hype, experimentation, and adaptation that provides useful points of discussion and debate for those charged with integrating experimental technologies and ideas into future force structure.
Wing Commander Travis Hallen is a Royal Australian Air Force officer with a background in maritime patrol operations, and a co-editor of The Central Blue. He has had a long-term interest in the development and improvement of airborne ISR having conducted multiple operational deployments in that role. He is a graduate of the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. Wing Commander Hallen is currently in Washington, DC.
Header Image: After Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union during a CIA spy flight on May 1. 1960, NASA issued a press release with a cover story about a U-2 conducting weather research that may have strayed off course after the pilot reported difficulties with his oxygen equipment. To bolster the cover-up, a U-2 was quickly painted in NASA markings, with a fictitious NASA serial number, and put on display for the news media at the NASA Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base on May 6, 1960. The U-2 cover story in 1956 was that it was a NASA plane to conduct high-altitude weather research. But various observers doubted this story from the beginning. Certainly the Soviets did not believe it once the aircraft began overflying their territory. The NASA cover story quickly blew up in the agency’s face when both Gary Powers and aircraft wreckage were displayed by the Soviet Union, proving that it was a reconnaissance aircraft. This caused embarrassment for several top NASA officials. (Source: Wikimedia)
The advent of flying craft was, without doubt, a threat to the long-established roles of ground forces. Most historians are familiar with the intra- and inter-service battles that raged during the early days of aviation, but rare are the works that dive into specific details within the various army branches. Seeking to fill that historiographical gap, Lori Henning’s meticulously researched book does just that.
Harnessing the Airplane tells the story of how cavalrymen in the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) dealt with the integration of aircraft – and to a lesser degree, the tank – into their branch. Analysing the first four decades following the aircraft’s invention, Henning shows that cavalrymen generally accepted the new technology, but were cautious about relinquishing the cavalry’s reconnaissance mission too hastily. Instead, the cavalry sought to experiment with aircraft to find ways to improve the reconnaissance service they provided to ground commanders.
Chapter one, ‘State of Affairs,’ sets the stage for the following analysis. In this chapter, Henning provides brief histories of the US and British cavalries. This baseline helps explain why both services saw the integration of the aircraft differently. The US cavalry embraced a wide range of missions and used the horse primarily for mobility purposes. This view of how to use horses led to strong resistance against aircraft as the US Cavalry viewed ground reconnaissance as one of its most essential functions. The British used the cavalry primarily for mounted combat and the pursuit of retreating enemy forces and this view allowed the British cavalry to be somewhat more accepting of aircraft.
Chapter two, ‘Early Response to Heavier-Than-Air-Flight,’ highlights the natural connection between aircraft and the cavalry. With reconnaissance being the first purpose of aircraft, cavalry reconnaissance was not surprisingly one of the first missions the aircraft sought to assume. In the earliest days, both nations’ cavalries acknowledged the potential of aircraft, but concluded that the technology was not sufficient; as Henning stated (p. 32):
The general consensus was that aviation would support the cavalry in the field as an auxiliary service and not replace mounted forces.
Chapter three, ‘Developing a Relationship in the 1920s,’ explores how both nations’ evaluated the First World War and the effectiveness of the new technologies that were introduced in that conflict. In the First World War, aircraft played a significant role while both cavalries were effectively absent. The public sentiment that the cavalry had become obsolete increased and cavalrymen in both nations had to defend their branch and find ways to justify its continued existence.
Chapter four, ‘National Economy,’ looks at the factor that may have been more damning to the cavalry than its poor performance in the First World War. In examining the financial arguments favouring aircraft over the cavalry, Henning provides a glimpse into reality. This was that the US and UK sought ways to decrease military expenditures and the aircraft’s proponents were more vociferous and persuasive in making this case than the proponents of cavalry.
Chapter five, ‘Autogiros and Mechanization,’ examines how cavalrymen continued to seek ways to work with the air forces to maximise both services’ effectiveness. By the 1930s, the relationship between air forces and cavalry had stabilised, but as time passed, airmen sought independence and increasingly focused on the strategic vice tactical use of aircraft. Both the British and American cavalry branches realised the need for its own air support, and as such, they turned to a new type of aircraft – the autogiro – to provide the airborne reconnaissance they needed.
Henning’s concluding chapter reminds us of the folly of abandoning functioning capabilities without first providing suitable replacements. Cavalrymen instantly recognised the potential of aircraft and tanks but approached their integration into the army from a cautious view. Despite being labelled as ‘backwards,’ the cavalrymen prudently sought ways to integrate the aircraft as its capabilities increased slowly. In telling this story, Harnessing the Airplane captures the essence of how organisations incorporate new technologies. Henning’s expert analysis highlights the challenge leaders face when presented with the next ‘game-changing technology.’ As she demonstrates, often, many are eager to go all-in without first ensuring that the ‘new’ can replace the ‘old.’ As we now stand at another technological crossroads with continual talk of replacing soldiers with robots, manned aircraft with drones, and analysts with artificial intelligence, this work highlights the rational approach of the early 20th century cavalrymen and provides a case study for today’s military thinkers to consider.
It is evil to approach war with fixed ideas; that is, without an open and flexible mind, but it is certain to lead to disaster to approach it with the inapplicable formulas of the past.
To the U.S. Army’s Air Corps Tactical School’s (ACTS) Class of 1936, Major Harold George proclaimed, ‘[W]e are not concerned in fighting the past war;–that was done 18 years ago.’ Having dismissed much of the value of studying the First World War for insights into air power, George emphatically returned to this theme a few minutes later, reminding his students that they sought to ‘peer down the path of future warfare. We are not discussing the past.’ Similarly, Major Muir Fairchild emphasised the problems caused by the ‘lack of well established principles, developed from past experience, to guide the air force commander.’ Suggesting that little of value could be derived from a study of the First World War, it is no wonder that one monograph focusing on the impetus for the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Forces’ strategic bombardment campaign of the Second World War highlighted the inter-war period as a source of problematic thinking. Tami Davis Biddle’s Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare has stressed the ACTS motto as fittingly emblematic of its institutional culture: ‘we progress unhindered by tradition.’
Paradoxically, however, ACTS instructors struggled not to mine the First World War for historical lessons. Fairchild spent almost one-tenth of his lecture reading from the British official history of the First World War in the air, The War in the Air. Similarly, George identified one historical lesson as central to future warfare: Germany had been defeated in the First World War not because its army had surrendered but because its people had crumbled. As Lieutenant Colonel Donald Wilson explained, it was the ‘collapse of the German nation as a unit’ – largely because the people constituted the ‘weak link’ – that explained the war’s end (emphasis in original). As a result, ACTS ought to focus primarily on targeting civilian morale, albeit indirectly.
Their vision can be modelled in order to depict how ACTS conceived of strategic bombardment and how these ideas changed as they began contemplating how to apply these ideas against Germany in the Second World War. Air War Plans Division (AWPD)-1 and AWPD-42, drafted in July of 1941 and August 1942, respectively, demonstrated important shifts in thinking about air power’s application. Moreover, they presaged a far more tactically minded employment of American air power in the Combined Bomber Offensive than has been recognised generally.
This model draws on a modern interpretation of Carl von Clausewitz’s famous triangle, which is often thought of today as consisting of the following three legs: the government, the people’s passions, and the military. The ACTS model could be depicted as follows: air power is best used at the strategic level to bend the enemy’s will; thus it should focus on affecting an opponent’s government and people because this approach provides the most direct path to achieving one’s desired political ends. A tactical focus on fielded forces, by contrast, is far less desirable because it is fundamentally inefficient. On occasion, however, a focus on the military might have a significant strategic effect. In other cases, an effect on electricity, for example, might have a strategic effect on the government and people as well as a more tactical effect on the military.
This thinking went beyond ideas of an ‘industrial web,’ which continue to dominate many scholars’ discussions of ACTS thinking. By zeroing in on the concept of a national structure, ACTS worked to link kinetic effects on industrial targets to the military as well as to the population, thus helping to refresh some aspects of strategic thinking in the wake of the Industrial Revolution – albeit with critical flaws. This thinking can be seen in ten recently published lectures of ACTS edited by and commented upon by Phil Haun. Of the more than 60 lectures presented at ACTS, Haun has identified these ten as representing the school’s ‘most mature thinking’ while reaching the greatest number of officers.
A kind of national structure potentially could make room for a wider array of effects than an industrial web theory could, even if it struggled to make causal links between effects and political ends. By 1936, for example, ACTS envisioned a strategy that targeted the ‘vulnerabilities’ of ‘modern industrial nations’ aimed primarily at one point of the triangle: the people, as reflected in two lectures by George and Captain Haywood Hansell. These lecturers advocated the destruction of carefully selected points in societies to cause ‘moral collapse’ – or effects on the population – as the immediate effect of strategic bombardment. The nation’s ‘will to resist’ was ‘centered in the mass of the people,’ as Hansell explained. Attacks on ‘vital elements upon which modern social life is dependent’ allowed for a focus on an opponent’s will rather than the more circuitous and inefficient focus on its means. Hansell struggled to connect the effect on the people to any ‘express[ion] through political government.’ In effect, he wished away the government leg of the triangle. George further reasoned that even if strategic bombardment failed to have the desired effect on the population, it could have a positive effect on the military leg of the triangle due to the abundant material requirements of industrialised warfare.
As such, George’s lecture anticipated a more mature 1939 lecture by Fairchild, which better integrated the effects of selected industrial attacks on two legs: people and the military, with the hope of simultaneously:
[r]educing the capacity for war of the hostile nation, and of applying pressure to the population both at the same time and with equal efficiency and effectiveness.
Fairchild’s carefully parsed assumption about equal effect is dubious; after all, airpower thinkers have been infamous for their promises to be able to quantify the effect. Moreover, again, the government leg of the triangle remains absent. His point that the enablers of industry such as electricity and oil are ‘joined at many vital points’ places these critical aspects within the triangle, thereby potentially affecting each point, at least in theory. Fairchild reasoned regarding the importance of preventing one’s opponent from acquiring key materials, such as petroleum, as well as the transportation system and electricity. Today it is common to describe ACTS as efficiently identifying key industrial bottlenecks, but such a characterisation falls short of Fairchild’s greater vision. He did not seek to attack industry so much as ‘national structure,’ as he described it.
For Fairchild, this vision appealingly provided a convenient shortcut to waging war so common to advocates of strategic attack. The ‘resulting shock effect’ and the ‘degree of facility with which these installations may be destroyed’ lured airmen with the perennial promise of being home by Christmas. In doing so, Fairchild made assumptions emblematic of ACTS thinking by envisioning a kind of paralysis complemented by efficient destruction. These effects allowed the ‘maximum contribution toward the Allied aim in the war at that time,’ unlike what he regarded as a more ineffective and tactical focus on the fielded forces, which airmen viewed as synonymous with slow attrition.
This theory came to life in AWPD-1, hurriedly envisioned over nine days in July of 1941 by former ACTS instructors such as Lieutenant Colonel Harold George, Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Walker, Lieutenant Colonel Orvil Anderson, Major Haywood Hansell, Major Laurence Kuter, Major Hoyt Vandenberg, and Major Samuel Anderson. All but one of these officers had attended and/or taught at ACTS. The plan posited 154 targets of strategic attack to be destroyed in six months in the following priority:
Air support in joint operations.
In compiling this list, air planners claimed to adhere to the strategic vision of the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy’s War Plans ABC-1 and Rainbow 5, which in Europe required an air offensive designed to reduce German air and naval assets and material while preparing for a ground offensive. However, the planners did not set out a traditional air superiority campaign with an array of targets, including airdromes, aeroplanes, and factories. Rather, they adhered to Fairchild’s emphasis on national structure, relegating aeroplane assembly plants – the first hint of an air superiority campaign – to the fourth priority.
The emphasis of ACTS continuing into AWPD-1 is modelled below, showing the split emphasis on the military and the people as two legs of the triangle, with the people receiving the primacy of focus. A plan focused on enablers such as electricity and oil doctrinally targeting national structure represented the most matured form of ACTS thinking, albeit with a problematic hope in the efficacy of strategic attack.
By September of 1942, however, this vision underwent a substantial change in focus, as the emphasis shifted down the spectrum toward more tactical means. AWPD-42 prioritised the destruction of the Luftwaffe, albeit still attained primarily through industrial means in the form of attacks against aeroplane and engine factories. Regardless, such a change represented a significant change in thinking away from more general enablers such as electricity to war material itself that had a less immediate effect on society as a whole. Second, the US Army Air Forces needed to concentrate on submarine building yards, before finally turning its attention to transportation in order to sever the ‘vital link in the Germany military and industrial structure.’ Electricity, the epitome of a structural target, had dropped from first to fourth place. In effect, AWPD-42 represented a more traditional and tactical focus, designed as it was to interdict material, though admittedly at its source, before seeking to paralyse the economy. The model below reflects this distribution with more emphasis placed on the military rather than the people, as the general trend in thinking shifted toward destroying a military’s ability to meet its material requirements. Production to strike at the enemy’s fielded forces – rather than the dual enablers of the people’s will and military means – received the greatest focus in AWPD-42.
The notion of a quick and easy path to victory through strategic attack proved a chimaera, as it has so often in history. Germany responded to attacks against its aircraft factories, for example, by dispersing them. It also fully mobilised its economy in 1944, although it could do only so much to make up for poor strategic choices. Germany had a price to pay in reduced efficiency; but so too did the Allies in terms of the very kind of attrition that they sought to avoid in the first place. It was not enough to wage an air superiority campaign against factories. German fighters and American fighters and bombers battled each other well into 1945, especially during the Battle of the Bulge.
Modelling and parsing out how ACTS envisioned strategic bombardment provides a historical case study in conceptualising strategic attack and changes in thinking over time. Doctrinally, the US Air Force continues to insist that air power used in strategic attack has the ‘potential to achieve decisive effects more directly without the need to engage enemy fielded forces.’ It cited several operations over the last 50 years in which the Air Force denied its opponents
[a]ccess to critical resources and infrastructure, defeat[ed] enemy strategies, and decisively influence[d] the enemy to end hostilities on terms favorable to US interests.
Amidst the U.S. military’s reemphasis on great power conflict, it is useful to return to the fundamentals to consider how, exactly, a strategic attack might help to achieve its desired ends through a focus on the military, the people, and the government.
Header Image: A Boeing Y1B-17A in flight near Mount Rainier in Washington state, c. 1938. (Wikimedia)
 Quoted in Lieutenant Colonel Donald Wilson, ‘Principles of War’ in Phil Haun (ed. and commentator), Lectures of the Air Corps Tactical School and American Strategic Bombing in World War II (Lexington, KT: University Press of Kentucky, 2019), p. 71.
 Major Harold George, ‘An Inquiry into the Subject ‘War” in Haun, Lectures, p. 35.
 Fairchild, ‘Air Power and Air Warfare’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 48. For another similar lecture opening, see Captain Haywood Hansell, ‘The Aim in War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 73. This same tension between rejecting history yet almost immediately jumping to a discussion of historical examples can be seen in Major Frederick Hopkins, ‘Tactical Offense and Tactical Defense’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 100-8. Hopkins also sought relevant lessons from the Spanish Civil War, for which Biddle has argued some airmen were too dogmatic to do. See Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 171.
 Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare, p. 138.
 Fairchild, ‘Air Power and Air Warfare’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 52-4.
 George, ‘Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 40-1. George even concluded his lecture by returning to this theme. Ibid., p. 44. Also see Lieutenant Colonel Donald Wilson, ‘Principles of War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 62 and Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 144. Also see Haun, ‘Introduction’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 8.
 Major Muir Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 140. Of course, one’s intent can differ from one’s effects, as occurred in the Second World War due to bad weather and the challenges of precision bombing. For this ethical discussion, see Douglas P. Lackey, ‘The Bombing Campaign: The USAAF’ in Igor Primoratz (ed.), The Bombing of German Cities in World War II (New York: Berghan Books, 2010), pp. 39-59. Even with precision, indirect effects on civilians can be highly problematic. See Daniel T. Kuehl, ‘Airpower vs. Electricity: Electric Power as a Target for Strategic Air Operations,’ Journal of Strategic Studies, 18:1 (1995), pp. 237-266.
 For this characterisation of an ‘industrial web theory,’ for example, see Scott D. West, ‘Warden and the Air Corps Tactical School: Déjà Vu’ (Thesis, School of Advanced Airpower Studies, 1999), p. v and 1.
 George, ‘An Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 43.
 Hansell, ‘Aim in War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 78, 81 and 84. Even as Hansell insisted this was the ‘primary strategic objective’ of Air Forces, he did not make this link for navies’ ability to blockade, instead taking the more Mahanian view that the primary role of the Navy was to destroy other navies. In this way, he highlighted his bias for air power as offering unique shortcuts. Ibid., p. 84.
 Hansell, ‘Aim in War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 77.
 George, ‘An Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 43. Fairchild similarly highlighted the importance of this military capacity. See Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 188-9.
 Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 143.
 Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 189.
 Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 152-7.
 Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 182.
 Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 166.
 Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 166. For the very rare recognition that ground operations occasionally could be decisive, see Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces,’ p. 186.
 ‘Appendix 2: AWPD-1’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 232-3.
 ‘Appendix 3: AWPD-42’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 258.
 ‘Appendix 1 – Trenchard Memo,’ p. 232 and ‘Appendix 3: AWPD-42,’ p. 258 in Haun, Lectures.
 While highlighting the more overt focus on supporting an invasion, Robert Futrell argued that the ‘strategic philosophy of the two studies was virtually the same.’ See Robert Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine: Basic Thinking in the United States Air Force (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 1989), p. 131. For a discussion of strategic interdiction as compared to operational interdiction, see Robert Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), p. 75.