#ResearchNote – Wither Air Power Studies?

#ResearchNote – Wither Air Power Studies?

By Dr Ross Mahoney

I started writing this post several months ago, but for various reasons, it lay dormant until a recent Twitter exchange began with Brian Laslie. Brian suggested that Mark Clodfelter’s The Limits of Air Power was the ‘foundation of modern air power studies.’ This immediately got my attention, and I queried this, which led to a fruitful exchange of views on the subject between several participants.

The original source for this post came from comments I provided to the Second Sir James Rowland Seminar at the Australian Defence Force Academy, which is an initiative between UNSW Canberra and the Royal Australian Air Force’s Air Power Development Centre. Another source was a post by Nicholas Sarantakes with an update on the ongoing debate on the ‘decline’ of military history in academia. These sources originally got me thinking about the state of air power studies in the English-speaking worlds and the recent Twitter exchange brought that process to the fore again.

In my reply to Brian, I made the argument that in the UK, the mantle of ‘father’ of air power studies, in my opinion, belongs to Air Vice-Marshal Tony Mason who was the RAF’s first Director of Defence Studies (DDefS). To my mind, Tony generated the space for the subject both within the RAF and with external partners. There are, of course, other names we could put into this mix including Dr Noble Frankland, J.M. Spaight, Professor Phil Sabin and Professor Richard Overy, but I am unsure whether these writers ever created enough mass for the field to evolve. For example, while Overy wrote on air power issues early in his career, he then moved onto other subjects, though has more recently returned to the field. Conversely, through the creation of the DDefS post, the RAF has provided a platform for the development of air power studies in the UK. The position still exists, and there have been several notable holders of the post including Dr Peter Gray, who is now Senior Research Fellow in Air Power Studies at the University of Birmingham, and the current Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stu Peach. Indeed, since moving to the University of Birmingham, Grey has helped generate a mass of air power scholars in the UK and beyond.

Despite my views on the origins of air power studies in the UK, some important issues came out of the discussion on Twitter. One is that while we might identify Clodfelter or Mason as defining the field in the US and UK respectively, this does not answer the question of whether there is someone who crosses national boundaries. One name that did spring to mind was John Andreas Olsen. However, as Travis Hallen, one of the editors over at The Central Blue, reflected, Olsen has been more productive in bringing together people to produce worthwhile edited volumes. Furthermore, as David Benson, a Professor at the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Power Studies, noted these writers may have defined the field but should they define it today? David provided an interesting reflection on this issue in a number of Tweets, and while I do not agree with all of his points, his views on how we define the field are critical.

Knowledge is not static and as such how we define the field of air power studies should not be fixed either. Indeed, David suggested that this might be the case with it being argued that the study of air power might not be keeping up with changes in the field of social science. Here lies one problem as this essentially suggests a social science view of the study of air power and raises the question of where the subject fits as a discipline? Is the study of air power a social science or is it interdisciplinary? Moreover, are we looking at air power from the perspective of how it is defined in doctrine or do we need to take a broader view that encompasses a wider remit and brings in other fields including history? I would suggest the latter.

Take, for example, myself, I am an air power specialist, but first and foremost I am a historian, though I admittedly make use of interdisciplinary methodologies. My views on air power, even when looking forward, is essentially historical in outlook. I believe that we cannot understand the future without first considering past challenges, but does this lead to a ‘classical’ analysis of air power? I do not think so. I would argue that my broader perspective allows me, hopefully, to push the field forward. In this, I agree with David’s view that is up to those of us currently working in the field to ‘push it from its origins into modernity as a scholarly field’. Another advantage of broadening the scope of air power studies is that by encompassing a more comprehensive approach that includes aspects such as the history of air warfare and the social and cultural analysis of the armed forces, then we can further understand how we develop the knowledge that defines the field. We should also add other disciplines into this comprehensive mix including ethics and law.

Despite much of this rambling and reflection the crux of the issue remains how we develop air power studies as a scholarly field? What are the mechanisms that can be used to develop and disseminate knowledge? For me, one of the key issues here is the insular character of the field. As John Ferris reflected in 1998, those studying air power are either:

[t]he children of airmen, have been military personnel themselves, and have been employed at a historical office or service school in Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, or the United States.[1]

My reading of the situation is that not much has changed and broadly speaking those of us writing on air power are a homogenous group who come from similar backgrounds. Again, using myself as an example, I am the child of a soldier, my PhD supervisor was a retired one-star officer, and I work for an institution devoted to preserving the history of an air force. Therefore, I accept there will always be a degree of subjectivity in my work. As such, how do we break free from that mould to further develop our field?

Part of the answer, of course, lies in establishing networks beyond our traditional insular boundaries. How do we, for example, encourage the study of air power beyond military academies? How do we work with colleagues who might ask difficult questions that do not fit our subjective paradigms? We need to be willing to accept these challenges and be prepared to discuss these issues freely and openly rather than dismissing them.

Further to a conceptual and personal willingness to engage, which I suspect most of us are happy to do, there is the question of the mechanism for discussion. While online platforms, such as From Balloons to Drones, The Central Blue, The Strategy Bridge and War on the Rocks are useful for generating discussion, are there other ways of pushing and developing knowledge? Has the time come, for example, to establish an academic journal devoted to air power that moves us beyond the service sponsored journals?

I have no silver bullet to these questions and what I have written here is part of an ongoing reflection on the subject, and I welcome any further thoughts people have. Nevertheless, I do think the time has come for us to reflect on the field and start ‘push it from its origins’.

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

Header Image: An RAF Atlas (A400-M) at night during Operation Mobility Guardian. (Source: MoD Defence Imagery)

[1] John R. Ferris, ‘Review Article – The Air Force Brats’ View of History: Recent Writing and the Royal Air Force, 1918–1960,’ The International History Review, 20:1 (1998), p. 119.

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

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

By Dr Ross Mahoney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So far I have identified the following articles:

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

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

This post first appeared at Thoughts on Military History.

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

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

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

[2] Ibid, p. 357.

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

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

[5] Gray, Leadership, p. 56.

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

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