Michael Napier, Korean Air War: Sabres, Migs and Meteors, 1950-53. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2021. Images. Notes. Bibliography. Glossary. Appendices. Index. Hbk. 320pp.
Reviewed by Dr Ross Mahoney
In the western world, the Korean War is often thought of as the forgotten war of the early Cold War. This was, at least from an American perspective, because ‘[l]ike the proverbial shrimp caught between two whales, the Korean War [was] trapped between World War II and the Vietnam War.’ Furthermore, from a British and French perspective, the war does not easily fit into national narratives surrounding their ‘retreat’ from empires in Southeast Asia, namely the Malayan Emergency and the French-Indochina War. The Korean War did, however, significantly impact the Cold War’s early course, particularly strengthening the recently established North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
From the perspective of the application and development of air power, the Korean War was also significant. Specifically, it was the first time jet fighters met in combat. Furthermore, the war also saw a wide range of air power capabilities deployed over Korea, including discussions throughout the conflict about the potential delivery of nuclear weapons. This has meant that, despite the unfortunate epithet of being a forgotten war, several important works, such as Conrad Crane’s American Airpower Strategy in Korea (2000), have appeared and examined the use of air power over the Korean peninsula.
Michael Napier, a retired Royal Air Force fast-jet pilot and author, comes into this mix with his 2021 volume, Korean Air War. In just over 300 pages, Napier systematically describes the course of the air war over Korea. The book, chronologically laid out, deals with the air war in seven chapters plus a retrospective to finish the volume. There are also two appendices included. The chapters follow the broad course of the main phases of the Korean War. For example, Chapter Three deals with the period of the offensive by United Nations (UN) forces between August and October 1950 (pp. 72-113). This is then followed up by a chapter that looks at the period of the Chinese offensives (pp. 114-55) against UN forces that forced them back to roughly the 38th Parallel. Within these chapters, Napier details the various uses of air power by both sides during the war. This includes the use of tactical and strategic air power as well as naval air power. Napier also does a good job of describing the coalition character of the air war for both sides. However, his attempt to highlight the British contribution can sometimes be overstated.
While the book comprehensively deals with the air war over Korea, readers should not expect an academic examination of the use of air power between 1950 and 1953. That is not what this book is. However, this is not a criticism per se. Instead, the book has been written with a specific audience in mind – the general reader looking for an introduction to the subject. This is highlighted by Napier’s choice to examine the war chronologically (p. 6). This is a choice that makes it easier for the lay reader to understand what was a complex and contested operating environment. Ultimately, therefore, we end up with a very useful narrative of the course of the air war that introduces readers to the subject matter.
One area, however, where the book does fall down is in its use of sources. Regarding primary sources, Napier has overwhelmingly relied on files in British archival institutions, notably The National Archives and the Royal Air Force Museum. While perhaps a pragmatic decision given the author’s location and the character of this book as a popular account of the air war, it does, nonetheless, skew the author’s interpretation. Furthermore, at least from the perspective of UN forces deployed, most of the air power deployed in support of the war effort came from the US. As such, one would expect more attention to be given to the records produced by those forces involved. Finally, given the above issue, Napier relies on secondary sources to fill in the gaps despite arguing that published accounts of the air war over Korea were less than ‘objective’ (p. 6) in their analysis. However, it appears from the notes and bibliography that Napier did not consult important, more ‘objective’ works such as Crane’s noted above and others. The use of such works would have further enriched Napier’s narrative
Overall, despite the above criticism, Napier has done an excellent job of writing a comprehensive introductory narrative to the air war over Korea. In particular, Napier does a good job of weaving together a narrative that tells the story of both sides of the air war over Korea. The book is lavishly supported by high-quality imagery and maps that help support the text.
Dr Ross Mahoney is the Editor-in-Chief of From Balloons to Drones and is an independent scholar specialising in air power and the history of air warfare. He is currently the Senior Historian within the City Architecture and Heritage Team at Brisbane City Council in Australia. He has over 15 years of experience within the heritage and education sectors in Australia and the United Kingdom. He was the inaugural Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum in the UK. In Australia, he has worked as a Historian for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and taught at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at The Australian National University based at the Australian War College. His research interests are focused on military history, with a specific focus on the history of air warfare, transport history, and urban history. He has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He has a website here and can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.
Header image: Four US Air Force North American F-86E Sabre fighters over Korea in November 1952. (Source: Wikimedia)
 Allan Millett, The War for Korea, 1945-1950: A House Burning (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2005), p. 1.
 Daniel Calingaert, ‘Nuclear weapons and the Korean War,’ Journal of Strategic Studies 11, no. 2 (1988), pp. 177-202.
 Other works of note not cited include: Eduard Mark, Aerial Interdiction: Air Power and the Land Battle in Three American Wars (Washington DC: Office of Air Force History, 1994); John Sherwood, Officers in Flight Suits: The Story of American Air Force Fighter Pilots in the Korean War (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1998); Jacob Neufeld, Coalition Air Warfare in the Korean War 1950–1953 (Washington DC: U.S. Air Force History and Museums Program, 2005); Roger Horky, ‘Clipping the Eagle’s Wings: The Limiting of the Korean Air War, 1950-1953’ (PhD Thesis, Texas A&M University, 2013).
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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: 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 email@example.com or via our contact page here.
The Koźle Basin in Poland was radically transformed by aerial bombardment during the Second World War. Today, the region has approximately 6000 well-preserved bomb craters with diameters ranging from 5–15m and depths often exceeding 2m. Combining remote-sensing data and fieldwork with historical accounts, this article analyses these craters, demonstrating that their varied morphologies derive from the weight of the bombs that created them, and on the type and moisture content of the soil on which the bombs fell. Based on their results, the authors issue a call for the official protection of the Koźle landscape, which has particular historical, educational and ecological value.
On 30 October 1961, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR/Soviet Union) conducted a live test of the most powerful nuclear weapon ever created. Codenamed ‘Ivan’, and known in the West as the ‘Tsar Bomba’, the RDS-202 hydrogen bomb was detonated at the Sukhoy Nos cape of Severny Island, Novaya Zemla archipelago, in the Barents Sea.
The Tsar Bomba unleashed about 58 megatons of TNT, creating a 8-kilometre/5-mile-wide fireball and then a mushroom that peaked at an altitude of 95 kilometres (59 miles). The shockwave created by the RDS-202 eradicated a village 55 kilometres (34 miles) from ground zero, caused widespread damage to nature to a radius of dozens of kilometres further away, and created a heat wave felt as far as 270 kilometres (170 miles) distant. And still, this was just one of 45 tests of nuclear weapons conducted in the USSR in October 1961 alone.
Between 1949 and 1962, the Soviets set off 214 nuclear bombs in the open air. Dozens of these were released from aircraft operated by specialised test units. Equipped with the full range of bombers – from the Tupolev Tu-4, Tupolev Tu-16, to the gigantic Tu-95 – the units in question were staffed by men colloquially known as the ‘deaf-and-dumb’: people sworn to utmost secrecy, living and serving in isolation from the rest of the world. Frequently operating at the edge of the envelope of their specially modified machines while test-releasing weapons with unimaginable destructive potential, several of them only narrowly avoided catastrophe.
Richly illustrated with authentic photographs and custom-drawn colour profiles, Tsar Bomba is the story of the aircrews involved and their aircraft, all of which were carefully hidden not only by the Iron Curtain, but by a thick veil of secrecy for more than half a century.
“The Luftwaffe had to be used in a decisive way in the Battle of Britain as a means of conducting total air war. Its size, technical equipment and the means at its disposal precluded the Luftwaffe from fulfilling this mission.” Adolf Galland
How did the RAF beat the Luftwaffe during the Second World War? Was it actually the fact that they did not lose which later enabled them to claim victory – a victory that would have been impossible without the participation of the Americans from early 1943?
This groundbreaking study looks at the main campaigns in which the RAF – and later the Allies – faced the Luftwaffe. Critically acclaimed writer Ken Delve argues that by the latter part of 1942 the Luftwaffe was no longer a decisive strategic or even tactical weapon.
The Luftwaffe was remarkably resilient, but it was on a continual slide to ultimate destruction. Its demise is deconstructed according to defective strategic planning from the inception of the Luftwaffe; its failure to provide decisive results over Britain in 1940 and over the Mediterranean and Desert in 1941–1942; and its failure to defend the Reich and the occupied countries against the RAF and, later, combined Allied bomber offensive.
Delve studies numerous aspects to these failures, from equipment (aircraft and weapons) to tactics, leadership (political and military), logistics, morale and others.
Operation Deliberate Force describes the air war fought over the former Yugoslav Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992-1995.
Based on extensive research and with the help of participants, the first part of this book provides a detailed reconstruction of the emergence of three local air forces in 1992; the emergence of the air force of the self-proclaimed Serbian Krajina in Croatia, the Croat Air Force, the Bosnian Muslim air force, and their combat operations in 1992-1995.
In reaction to the resulting air war, in 1992 the United Nations declared a no-fly zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina. Codenamed Operation Deny Flight, the resulting military operations culminated in the summer of 1995, when NATO launched Operation Deliberate Force against the Serbian forces – and which forms the centrepiece of this story.
Operation Deliberate Force was NATO’s first active military operation, yet to date it has only been covered from the Western point of view: this volume is the first authoritative account providing details and analysis from both sides – that of NATO and of the Serbs. For example, it remains essentially unknown that the local Serbian air force continued flying strikes almost a month after Operation Deliberate Force was over, as late as of mid-October 1995.
Untangling an exceptionally complex conflict, Operation Deliberate Force is illustrated with a blend of exclusive photography from local sources and from official sources in the West. As such it is a unique source of reference about the air war fought in the centre of Europe during the mid-1990s.
Air Battles over Hungary 1944-45 is dedicated to the fighting over Hungary during the course of the Debrecen (6 October – 27 October 1944) and Budapest (29 October 1944 – 13 February 1945) offensives, as well as the Balaton Defensive Operation (6 – 15 March 1945), which the Red Army carried out from autumn 1944 until the spring of 1945. The conduct of these operations preceded an attempt by the Regent of Budapest, Miklos Horthy, to pull his country out of the war. This attempt however was unsuccessful – Vice Admiral Horthy was replaced under Hitler’s orders by the pro-Nazi henchman Szalasi, after which fierce and desperate battles broke out both on the ground and in the air.
The Red Army Air Force enjoying numerical superiority, the quality of Soviet aircraft and high level of aircrew training having improved signifcantly by the time of the fighting. Conversely, it appeared there were almost no air aces left in the ranks of the Luftwaffe. Thus it appeared Soviet airmen would have no difficulty securing a victory. This, however, was not the case. Erich Hartmann, Hans-Ulrich Rudel, Gerhard Barkhorn, and many others fought here. Amongst the Hungarians the highest scoring ace, Dezso Szentgyorgyi, stood out, as did the outstanding Aladar de Heppes. Amongst their Soviet opponents were Kirill Yevstigneyev, Grigoriy Sivkov, Aleksandr Koldunov, Nikolai Skomorokhov, and Georgiy Beregovoy.
The fact that from time to time the aerial combat took place directly over Budapest – one of the most beautiful cities in Europe – could be considered a distinguishing feature of this fighting. Bristling with anti-aircraft artillery, Budapest was frequently subjected to bombing raids, and from the end of December to the beginning of January, certain areas in the Hungarian capital were transformed into improvised airfields and landing strips for German and Hungarian transport aircraft and gliders. Despite all the efforts to set up an air bridge, the German high command never succeeded in achieving this. This forced the besieged to attempt a breakout, after which the remaining garrison surrendered. The subsequent long drawn out battle near Lake Balaton ended in the ultimate defeat of the German troops, and their allies.
Often overlooked, the time is now right for a new account of the Korean War (1950-53) given recent political events and, in particular, the aerial aspect. With a paucity of major accounts that go beyond one side or aspect of the conflict, Michael Napier has written this meticulously-researched new volume. The war proved a technological watershed as the piston-engined aircraft of WW2 seceded to the jet aircraft of modern times, establishing tactics and doctrine that are still valid today.
This wide-ranging study covers the parts played by the forces of North Korea, China, the former Soviet Union, the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and South Africa in a volume rich with combat reports and first-person accounts. This lavishly illustrated hardback will appeal to aviation enthusiasts and those with a fascination for the Korean War as we enter the 70th anniversary of the conflict.
The series of sharp clashes between Ecuador and Peru of 1981 left the dispute between the two countries unresolved as there was still no definitive delimitation of the border. During the following years, both parties had to deal with a series of internal and external issues and, ultimately, these affected the planning and operational capabilities of their respective armed forces. While Peru underwent a severe economic crisis including hyperinflation caused by poor management of its economy, and a leftist insurgency, Ecuador underwent a transition from a centrally-controlled economy to a free market: in turn, it was one of countries in Latin America least affected by the precipitous fall in regional economic indices of the 1990s. These factors had an immediate impact upon the armed forces of both countries: they proved decisive for the development of their defensive and offensive planning, and would exercise direct influence upon the decisions taken by field commanders of both countries during the final, third war between Ecuador and Peru in 1995.
Drawing upon extensive research in the official archives from both the Fuerza Aérea del Ecuador and Fuerza Aérea del Perú (FAP), with documentation from multiple private sources in both countries, Air Wars Between Ecuador and Peru Volume 3 completes the history of the aerial operations launched by the forces of both nations in the brief – but also the most violent – engagement between these two countries.
By accessing details from both parties to the conflict, this volume avoids biased and one-sided coverage of the conflict, while providing detail of the military build-up, capabilities and intentions of both of the air forces involved, their training, planning, and the conduct of combat operations.
Illustrated by nearly 200 exclusive photographs, maps and 15 authentic colour profiles, Air Wars Between Ecuador and Peru Volume 3 provides the first authoritative account of the air warfare between Ecuador and Peru in early 1995.
Wolfgang W. E. Samuel, Colonel, US Air Force (Ret.), interweaves his story and that of his family with the larger history of World War II and the postwar world through a moving recollection and exploration of Fassberg, a small town in Germany few have heard of and fewer remember. Created in 1933 by the Hitler regime to train German aircrews, Fassberg hosted Samuel’s father in 1944–45 as an officer in the German air force. As fate and Germany’s collapse chased young Wolfgang, Fassberg later became his home as a postwar refugee, frightened, traumatized, hungry, and cold.
Built for war, Fassberg made its next mark as a harbinger of the new Cold War, serving as one of the operating bases for Allied aircraft during the Berlin Airlift in 1948. With the end of the Berlin Crisis, the airbase and town faced a dire future. When the Royal Air Force declared the airbase surplus to its needs, it also signed the place’s death warrant, yet increasing Cold War tensions salvaged both base and town. Fassberg transformed again, this time into a forward operating base for NATO aircraft, including a fighter flown by Samuel’s son.
Both personal revelation and world history, replete with tales from pilots, mechanics, and all those whose lives intersected there, Flights from Fassberg provides context to the Berlin Airlift and its strategic impact, the development of NATO, and the establishment of the West German nation. The little town built for war survived to serve as a refuge for a lasting peace.
Eagle pilot Rick “Kluso” Tollini’s life has embodied childhood dreams and the reality of what the American experience could produce. In his memoir, Call Sign KLUSO, Rick puts the fraught minutes above the Iraqi desert that made him an ace into the context of a full life; exploring how he came to be flying a F-15C in Desert Storm, and how that day became a pivotal moment in his life.
Rick’s first experience of flying was in a Piper PA-18 over 1960s’ California as a small boy, and his love of flying through his teenage years was fostered by his pilot father, eventually blossoming into a decision to join the Air Force as a pilot in his late twenties. Having trained to fly jets he was assigned to fly the F-15 Eagle with the “Dirty Dozen,” the 12th Tactical Fighter Squadron, at Kadena AB, Japan before returning Stateside to the 58th Tactical Fighter Squadron “The Gorillas.” Throughout training, Reagan’s fighter pilots expected to face the Soviet Union, but Rick’s first combat deployment was Desert Storm. He recounts the planning, the preparation, and the missions, the life of a fighter pilot in a combat zone and the reality of combat. Rick’s aerial victory was one of 16 accumulated by the Gorillas, the most by any squadron during Desert Storm.
Returning from the combat skies of Iraq, Rick continued a successful fulfilling Air Force career until, struggling to make sense of his life, he turned to Buddhism. His practice led him to leave the Air Force, to find a new vocation, and to finally come to terms with shooting down that MiG-25 Foxbat in the desert all those years before. Most importantly, he came to a deeper understanding of the importance of our shared humanity.
Editorial Note: 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of Operation DESERT STORM. To mark this anniversary, during 2021, From Balloons to Drones will be publishing a series of articles that examine various aspects of DESERT STORM’s air campaign. We will be publishing pieces throughout 2021, and 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. The official call for submissions can be found here.
Over the coming weeks, From Balloons to Drones is pleased to be working in conjunction with the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies to publish a series of articles on various aspects of the DESERT STORM air campaign. These articles were initially published as part of a Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies special report, Desert Storm: 30 Years Later – Lessons from the 1991 Air Campaign in the Persian Gulf War. You can download the report here.
In this latest instalment, we are pleased to present a piece by Colonel John Warden, USAF (Ret.) on the lessons learnt from the conduct of the air campaign during DESERT STORM. Warden is widely acknowledged as the main architect of the theory that underpinned the planning and conduct of the DESERT STORM air campaign.
The first Gulf War, also known as Desert Storm, reversed the successful Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, left Iraq functional but incapable of invading any of its neighbors, lasted 43 days, of which 38 were almost exclusively air operations, saw fewer than 150 American die of which about a half were as a result of enemy action, and cost the US taxpayer about 80 billion dollars. Other American wars since 1950 have been dramatically less satisfactory from the standpoint of results, time, and costs.
For many years prior to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990, Central Command and its air component, 9th Air Force, had been developing plans and logistical capability for a contingency in the Persian Gulf area. As a result, by 1990 the United States had a network of air bases and logistics available in the region. The planning to this point, however, had assumed that the enemy would be the Soviets or perhaps the Iranians and the combat plans were almost entirely designed as defensive reactions to stop an incursion. Immediately after the Iraqi attack, however, President Bush declared, “This invasion will not stand.” The problem then became one of offense, as a successful defense of Saudi Arabia would not have fulfilled the President’s declaration.
On the 6th of August 1990, a small group of Air Staff officers assembled in the ‘Checkmate’ offices in the basement of the Pentagon to develop a plan to win a likely war against Iraq, which would ensure that ‘the aggression would not stand.’ The intention was to use airpower to achieve war success. Two days later, General Schwarzkopf telephoned the Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, General Mike Loh, to ask for help in building what he called a ‘strategic air campaign.’ The Vice Chief told him work was already underway and that the planners would visit him two days later to present the concept. General Schwarzkopf told the planners on 10 August that he was most pleased with the plan and that they should take it to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs the following day, which they did. General Powell was generally supportive but directed that the other services be brought into the planning. That afternoon, Navy and Marine aviators came to Checkmate where they worked with Air Force officers to develop a full air campaign plan, which was to be presented to General Schwarzkopf the following Friday. After the Friday presentation, General Schwarzkopf asked the planners to take the plan to General Horner, who was the Joint Force Air Component Commander in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The plan delivered to General Horner became the basis of subsequent air operations and the underlying architecture for the war itself, to include the very brief ground attack at the end of the conflict. To the best of our knowledge, this became the first example of a war built around an air campaign as opposed to one built around a land or sea campaign.
The first Gulf War was successful by almost every measure and thus is worth emulating. To do so, however, planners, commanders, and political leaders should consider the lessons of this war for application to those of the future.
Recognize what can and cannot be achieved with military force. President Bush said, “This aggression will not stand,” which framed the problem in a way suitable for military force. Military force can prevent an opponent from doing something such as invading, occupying, governing, or even surviving, but it cannot change fundamental philosophical, religious, or political views. In the case of the Gulf War, the objectives suggested to Generals Schwarzkopf and Powell and shortly thereafter presented to the President were straightforward and susceptible to achievement with military force: Iraq out of Kuwait; Iraq weapons of mass destruction programs broken; Iraq incapable of another strategic invasion for the foreseeable future, Iraq capable of defending itself against its neighbor, and Iraq not a basket case. Fortunately, the President did not allow these objectives to morph into political conversions, nation building, or any of the other non-military objectives that are difficult or impossible to realize.
Think about war as against an enemy as a system, not as a clash of military forces. In the weeks—and months—after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, many in the United States argued that the effort should be against the Iraqi army in Kuwait and that there should be no attack on Iraq itself. Doubtless, we could have defeated and perhaps even destroyed the army in Iraq without crossing into Iraq, but the cost would have been dramatically higher, and at the conclusion we would still have faced a potent and dangerous Iraq that could have quickly rebuilt its lost army. As it was, by attacking Iraq as a system to include attacks on its strategic centers of gravity, we were able to achieve long-lasting objectives at a very low cost. A force-on-force war in the Clausewitzian tradition would have been pointless.
Keep wars short. Many years ago, Sun Tzu wrote that ‘no country has ever benefitted from prolonged warfare’ and his words remain true today. The longer a war, the more expensive it is in terms of blood and treasure—for all the participants. In addition, the longer a war lasts, the more opportunity there is for things to go awry: enemies find new allies; enemies develop new weapons or tactics; domestic and world opinion shifts; and political support fades. In a 43-day war, there is little opportunity for adverse events. Wars can and must be planned to be short.
Attack the enemy in parallel. To keep wars short, it is almost imperative to attack relevant centers of gravity in parallel, which simply means bringing key parts of the enemy system under attack in very compressed time frames. A parallel attack that leads to strategic paralysis—and to operational paralysis—as it did in the Gulf War is almost impossible to withstand and precludes effective reaction. The idea is not to deal with a ‘thinking, reactive’ enemy, but to put the enemy into a position where reaction is simply not possible.
Develop coherent war options. In today’s American military world, planning is done by a joint committee composed of people from all the services with a mélange of experiences, biases, and agendas. One might think this was good, but it almost certainly precludes the examination of plans based on a unique set of capabilities. In the Gulf War, the architecture of the war flowed from a plan developed by airmen with the express idea that it was possible and desirable to fight and win the war with airpower. The theater commander had the opportunity to see an uncontaminated option that he could accept, reject, or modify. In this case, he chose to make minor modifications. With the current practice, however, he would never have heard the unadulterated option.
Identify the key force. Related to the idea of developing coherent war options is the concept of the ‘key force.’ In very broad terms, a war can be fought with air, land, or sea forces or some combination thereof. In a particular situation, however, it is quite likely that one of these forces will either be able to do the job on its own, or will be the most important force. It is also possible that each one will have a dominant role in a phase of the war or, in some cases, there will be separate air, land, and sea wars going on simultaneously in different geographic areas or realms. It is important to think carefully about the key force question and avoid the ‘jointness’ trap of thinking that all components must share equally in planning or participation.
Involve many people from across the government in the planning and in the execution. Starting immediately after General Schwarzkopf’s call to General Loh, there were far more people involved in the planning than would normally have been the case. It started with many Air Force people, expanded rapidly to include Navy, Marine, CIA, and DIA officers, and later included people from the White House, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the State Department, most of the other national defense agencies, and civilian contractors. Having all of these agencies and people visiting Checkmate and participating at various points helped ensure that everyone knew what was going on and it also helped to avoid mistakes. As an example, Ambassador April Glaspie on a fall visit to Checkmate was able to tell us that a key Iraqi agency had recently changed locations—something that was not part of any database. Too often, we allow an obsession with security to interfere with smart planning. If our planning is not smart because we have prevented participation by the right people, security leaks become the least of our concerns.
Redesign the relations between the President and the Chiefs of Staff. Before the advent of the Goldwater–Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, all of the Chiefs of Staff were considered to be military advisors to the President and had access to him. In World War II, four senior officers had direct access to the President and gave him distinct options based on their expertise. The President then made the decisions that were his responsibility under the Constitution. Following Goldwater–Nichols, the Chairman became the chief advisor who was supposed to represent the views of the other Chiefs. Although this is theoretically possible, in reality it becomes extremely unlikely that a Chairman will adequately represent the views of a Chief he doesn’t like or with whom he disagrees. In the fall before the Gulf War, the President learned that there was disagreement among the Chiefs so he called a special meeting at Camp David to hear directly from each. This kind of a meeting should not depend on happenstance but should be institutionalized.
Technology is the real asymmetric advantage of the United States. Our ability to control the 3rd dimension and to do so with relative invulnerability allows us to control almost any opponent to an adequate degree. In the first Gulf War, our technological advantages in this realm were so overwhelming that they helped us to win quickly and inexpensively and without destroying Iraq in the process. Although we still have an advantage, it has eroded over the last quarter-century and no longer gives us the margin we previously enjoyed. Reversing this trend should have the highest national priority.
Plan to win. Planning to win means having a very clear, desirable objective that is attainable through military operations at an acceptable cost in an appropriately brief time period. It does not permit engaging in desultory operations that have little chance of being decisive or ending satisfactorily. A clear plan to win should be part of every war decision. Without such a plan, there should be no war.
In the first Gulf War, we were able to use lessons from the previous half-century of air warfare and to take advantage of technology translated into raw capability in that same time period. Using a new approach and new weapons, we won convincingly. For a variety of reasons, however, in most of our subsequent wars, we reverted to models that had failed us in Korea and in Vietnam. It is time to rethink and to put us back on the right strategic course.
Colonel John Warden, USAF (Ret.) is widely acknowledged as the main architect of the theory that underpinned the air campaign’s conduct during DESERT STORM. Warden graduated from the USAF Academy in 1965 with a BSc in National Security. He subsequently served as a pilot during the Vietnam War where he flew 266 combat missions. Warden graduated from Texas Tech University in 1975 with an MA in Political Science. Between 1985 and 1986, Warden attended the US National War College where he wrote The Air Campaign, which has been translated into at least seven languages. His command appointments included time as both Vice Commander and Commander, 36th Tactical Fighter Wing in Germany during the 1980s. After Bitburg, and at the time of DESERT STORM, Warden served as Deputy Director for Strategy, Doctrine, and Warfighting, Headquarters USAF. Warden retired from the USAF in 1995 after serving as Commandant of the Air Command and Staff College from 1992 to his retirement. Since retirement, he has been Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Venturist, Inc.
Header Image: USAF F-16A, F-15C, F-15E aircraft flying over burning oil wells during DESERT STORM in 1991. (Source: Wikimedia)
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.
In March 2018, Air University Press released a new edition of Colonel John Boyd’s A Discourse on Winning and Losing with a new introduction by Grant Hammond. On top of his heavy influence in designing the F-15 and F-16 fighters, Boyd was one of the most influential and often cited officers in the history of the US Air Force (USAF), but unlike most famous strategic thinkers, he published almost nothing. Thus, this new edition promises to be possibly the most widely disseminated and studied edition of Boyd’s intellectual output.
Boyd is, however, a controversial figure. Among USAF officers, Boyd is either loved or hated. Hammond’s introduction refers to him as ‘legendary,’ ‘a great original thinker,’ and ‘a paragon of virtue – loved by many […] for his character and integrity.’ On the other hand, former fighter pilot and USAF Chief of Staff General Merrill McPeak summarised the opposing view: ‘Boyd is highly overrated […] In many respects he was a failed officer and even a failed human being.’ Boyd was the type of person who challenged authority and fought for what he believed. He was also the kind of person that was so profoundly insecure that he stalked food courts to hunt down and physically assault people whom he perceived had not shown him proper respect. However, many younger officers have never even heard of Boyd nor are they familiar with his ideas or character. With the recent release of the new edition of his work, it is worth taking time to briefly summarise Boyd’s significant contributions and provide some context as to why he is both so praised and so controversial.
First, we must deal with the notion of Boyd as – according to Hammond – ‘a premier fighter pilot.’ Some have referred to Boyd as the greatest fighter pilot who ever lived, and many press outlets mistakenly refer to him as an ace. Although Boyd did fly F-86 Sabres during a brief tour in the Korean War, he does not have a single air-to-air kill to his credit. He never fired his gun in a combat situation. This is not necessarily an indictment of his skills. The reason is that in those years, the USAF tended to fly in formations in which only the lead element was cleared to fire, while the wingmen provided protection. Boyd only ever flew in a wingman position, and never got in an opportunity to fire at enemy MiG-15s. Later, Boyd became a flight instructor at the USAF Fighter Weapons School, and he wrote a manual on dogfighting tactics. His reputation as a fighter pilot was built on his time as an instructor, during which he displayed a penchant for defeating incoming students in simulated dogfights (developing his claim that he could always do so within forty seconds). Fans of Boyd laud him for this, although his detractors often wonder why an instructor defeating his students using an oft-repeated manoeuvre is noteworthy, much less a point worth bragging about.
Boyd’s first significant contribution to USAF thinking was ‘Energy Maneuverability Theory’ (EMT) in the early-to-mid 1960s. This was an application of the principles of thermodynamics to aircraft metrics. Up until that point, the most important metrics for evaluating fighter planes tended to be wing loading ratios, top speed, and acceleration. Many fighter pilots tried to argue that agility and manoeuvrability were more important in a dogfight, but although wing loading could provide a rough idea of how well a craft could turn, it fell far short of an accurate description of a plane’s manoeuvrability. Boyd’s EMT instead analysed how well an aircraft could change energy states – involving speed, acceleration, kinetic and potential energy – essentially giving a numerical value to how well a plane could manoeuvre under various conditions. Charting this value on a graph corresponding to speed and altitude will give a curve of the aircraft’s manoeuvring capability. This method gave fighter pilots a way to talk to engineers in their ‘language,’ and describe dogfighting in mathematical terms, which had a significant influence on aircraft design. Beginning in the late 1960s, EMT became a significant factor in designing and evaluating American aircraft.
Although Boyd appears to have come up with these ideas independently, he was not the first to do so. A decade earlier, in 1954, an aerodynamics engineer working for Douglas named Edward Rutowski had the same concept. Rutowski’s work did not apply to dogfighting, but to calculating fuel ranges of various types of aircraft. However, the equations – and the charts – are almost the same as Boyd’s, who later admitted to copying the charts after denying it for years. One element that Boyd did add, however, was overlaying the EMT curve for one aircraft on top of another, to show where one aircraft had an advantage in manoeuvrability. These comparisons, first done in the late 1960s, showed that Soviet aircraft of that time might have a distinct advantage in dogfighting compared to the American fighters of the day (which, in that period, were mostly interceptors, not traditional fighters). Thus, while not necessarily completely original, Boyd did more to popularise the EMT concept and apply it to fighter design and tactics training, which then became part of a push within the USAF to design aircraft that were more specialised for air-to-air combat.
Boyd had a hand in the design of those planes. The first major USAF project to design a dedicated air superiority fighter was the F-X program, which eventually resulted in the F-15 Eagle. Boyd was brought in partway through this project and attempted to influence the design toward being more dedicated for dogfighting. To Boyd, this meant making it as small as possible and gutting it of sophisticated technologies, especially radar. The more massive the radar dome in a fighter’s nose, the larger the entire plane needed to be. Making the radar as small as possible (or, as Boyd advocated, eliminating it), could make the plane smaller and lighter. Boyd managed to have a significant influence on the design of the F-15, but he did not get everything he wanted. The plane was significantly more extensive and more sophisticated than he advocated, so in disgust, he turned to another project.
Using a combination of subterfuge, connections with high-level decision-makers, stealing unauthorised time on USAF computers, and meeting with aircraft manufacturers in secret using coded language, Boyd pressured the Air Force to procure a smaller lightweight fighter. Boyd wrote the requirements for that plane, which happened to match almost identically the characteristics of a plane he had been secretly designing with General Dynamics’ Chief of Preliminary Design, Harry Hillaker. That plane eventually became the F-16 Fighting Falcon—his ideal true dedicated air-to-air dogfighter. However, Boyd was also disappointed by the modifications made to that aircraft. The USAF made it heavier and more sophisticated than he wanted, and so Boyd denounced it in disgust. Indeed, although his vision for the F-16 was a pure dogfighter, the plane has rarely been used in air superiority missions by the USAF and has achieved zero air-to-air kills for the US.
After his retirement in 1975, Boyd went back to work in the Pentagon as an analyst, and it was during this time that he completed most of the intellectual output in the recently released new volume. This began with a short essay entitled ‘Destruction and Creation,’ which argued that societies and systems only really change when they are destroyed and recreated, rather than reformed from within. In 1976, Boyd received a NASA grant to study the differences in pilot behaviour between simulators and reality. Instead of focusing on that, Boyd produced a study titled ‘Fast Transients Brief,’ which consisted of carefully picked historical examples with which Boyd argued that victory in war was the result of being quick, unpredictable, and agile, with the goal of producing confusing in the enemy. This brief was essentially the first draft of what became a larger briefing called ‘Patterns of Conflict,’ which Boyd continually expanded to include more historical examples of his point. This briefing continued to grow, including more examples, until it became the final form under the new title ‘A Discourse on Winning and Losing.’ In this form, it was a fourteen-hour briefing split into two days. Boyd refused to shorten his briefings or to distribute summaries or slides to those who did not attend, insisting on being given the full amount of time, or nothing.
Also embedded in these briefings was his evolving idea of the OODA loop, which stands for ‘observe, orient, decide, act.’ This was Boyd’s description of the process by which decisions are made at all levels from the tactical to the strategic. Boyd argued that all combatants in a conflict are going through that cycle, and whoever can complete repetitive OODA cycles more quickly will always be the victor. Fans of this theory tend to argue that this insight is revolutionary and secures Boyd’s place alongside thinkers such as Clausewitz or Sun Tzu. Others claim that this idea is very simplistic and offers very little in the way of insight or practical application. Interpreting and applying Boyd’s theory to subjects ranging from warfare to business has become something of a cottage industry. The OODA loop is still taught at US professional military education institutions. Love him, hate him, or merely indifferent, one cannot deny that Boyd has left a legacy and influence.
One final component of Boyd’s life that one must be aware of is his involvement in ‘The Reform Movement.’ During his time in the USAF, he and his followers who pushed for lightweight, dedicated air-to-air combat planes began referring to themselves as the ‘Fighter Mafia,’ and saw themselves at odds with the US government – to the point of depicting themselves as participating in a guerilla war against a government that they deemed as corrupt and ineffective. After Boyd’s retirement, this group morphed into what became known as ‘The Reform Movement’ and moved away from just fighter planes to becoming politically active on broader defence issues. This effort included a litany of journalists, military officers, and politicians who went as far as to form their congressional caucus, as well as non-governmental organisations with the goal of lobbying for particular policies.
The group wanted all US military hardware to be cheap and ‘simple.’ Simple in this context meant technologically unsophisticated relative to the mid-1970s. They argued for cancelling expensive ‘complex’ weapons such as the F-15 and the M-1 Abrams tank and replacing them with cheaper, ‘simple’ alternatives, such as relying on the older M-60 Patton tank or replacing F-15s and F-16s with swarms of F-5 Tigers. ‘The Reform Movement’ was more political than the ‘Fighter Mafia,’ and although the movement attracted some moderates and left-leaning individuals such as James Fallows (journalist for The Atlantic) and Senator Gary Hart (D-CO), it tended to skew conservative. Over time, it grew more conservative with the addition of politicians such as Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS), Newt Gingrich (R-GA), Dick Cheney (R-WY), and possibly its most prominent and active member (who coined the term ‘the Reformers’): self-proclaimed monarchist and white supremacist William Lind. For this group, Boyd was seen as a messiah, and he was often discussed in religious terminology as a saviour preaching a new gospel.
Although this movement had an influential voice in the early 1980s, it had begun to stagnate by the end of that decade, and the 1991 Gulf War discredited many of their arguments. However, despite that war demonstrating the effectiveness of all the weapons systems that the Reformers (and Boyd) had argued against, Boyd himself took sole credit for the success of that war. Boyd claimed he had been the actual author of the ground attack plan, which was not true, and that it would have been even more successful if his ideas had been implemented further.
Boyd is a complex figure, and his influence on the US military, especially the USAF, is impossible to deny. Although the bulk of his work has been floating around the internet for years, having a new edition of his work in an easily accessible and well-produced print edition is extremely useful and quite welcome.
For more information on Boyd, the best place to start is most likely John Andreas Olsen’s 2016 article, ‘Boyd Revisited: A Great Mind with a Touch of Madness’ in Air Power History while the best examination of Boyd’s intellectual output is Frans Osinga’s Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (2007). Several authors further explore Boyd in Olsen’s edited work Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd (2015). A genuinely scholarly biography on Boyd’s life has yet to be written. Hammond’s brief biography, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (2012) is a useful starting point but leans into praise for Boyd to a level that some readers might be uncomfortable with. Robert Coram’s popular biography Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (2002) has its uses but is little more than hagiography and should be read with a sceptical eye.
Dr Michael Hankins is Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and and Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones. He is also a former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018 with his dissertation, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled “The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War.” He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.
Header Image: A USAF F-16 Fighting Falcon Block 40 aircraft after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft during a mission over Iraq on 10 June 2008. (Source: Wikimedia)
 Grant Hammond, ‘Introduction to “A Discourse on Winning and Losing” in Colonel John Boyd, A Discourse on Winning and Losing, edited and compiled by Grant Hammond (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2018), pp. 1-2.
 See, for example, a story of Boyd seeking out a former colleague who had expressed doubt in Boyd’s ideas years before. Boyd put out his cigar on the man’s clothing, then began shoving him and shouting obscenities at him, all in public. Told in more detail in Robert Coram, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2002), pp. 179-80.
 Edward S. Rutowski, ‘Energy Approach to the General Aircraft Performance Problem,’ Journal of the Aeronautical Sciences, 21 (1954), pp. 187-95.
 USAF Historical Research Agency, K239.0512-1066, John Boyd, Corona Ace Oral History Interview, 22 January 1977.
 For details on the development of the F-15, see Jacob Neufeld, The F-15 Eagle: Origins and Development, 1964-1972 (Washington DC: Office of Air Force History, 1974).
 On this issue, see: Grant Hammond, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (Washington DC: Smithsonian Books, 2012).
 These briefings are most thoroughly explored in Frans Osinga, Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (New York: Routledge, 2007).
 For a brief summary of Lind’s extremism (he was known for keeping a portrait of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in his office), see Bill Berkowitz, “Cultural Marxism’ Catching On,’Southern Poverty Law Center, 15 August 15, 2003. Lind’s radical right-wing viewpoints are evident from his voluminous writing as the former Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism, and his many columns in a variety of conservative websites and magazines. His 2014 novel Victoria not only celebrates a violent militia movement overthrowing the American government but glorifies deportations and executions of non-whites and other minorities he deems undesirable, including Jews, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and it favorably depicts the use of nuclear weapons against African-American populations.
 For a summary of ‘The Reform Movement,’ see: John Correll, ‘The Reformers,’ Air Force Magazine (February 2008), pp. 40-4. To see them discuss their ideas in their own words, see: James Fallows, National Defense (New York: Vintage, 1984) and James Burton, The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1993).
Editorial Note: From February to April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Rex Harrison discusses the challenge of attrition during high-intensity conflicts and its implications for fifth-generation air forces.
Technology has continued to advance in both disruptive and surprising ways. It is consequently difficult to forecast the exact way fifth-generation air power will be applied in 2035, nor the precise character of future high-intensity conflict. With the benefit of hindsight, however, history proposes broad themes and continuities in the nature of war. One such example is the persistence of attrition of the force once committed to battle.
While Western air forces have been able to somewhat control their level of exposure to adversary action since the 1991 Gulf war, this may not always be the case. This level of control has been achieved through conducting operations beyond the engagement range of adversaries and behind a shield of (generally unchallenged) air defences. This technique has enabled air power to inflict significant losses without absorbing such losses themselves.
This happy circumstance has been the exception rather than the rule in human history. This is particularly the case when considering the history of air power, where few combatants have had the luxury of picking and choosing the intensity and duration of the conflict. No matter how successful fifth-generation air power is in enhancing its lethality and minimising risk to the force, it is doubtful that a combat exchange in high-intensity combat will result in a ‘0’ in the ledger of either side.
This being the case, I believe that success in high-intensity conflict will require a fifth-generation air force to ensure it can absorb and recover from the attrition of its forces. While it will be difficult to predict the outcomes of future air combat or the mix of technology and tactics that will provide the necessary advantage, history does provide a guide that may better inform our preparations for the future.
The significant impact of attrition is demonstrated by the experiences of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) in the Yom Kippur War of October 1973. In this example, Israel was surprised by the new-found technical prowess of the Arab armies led by Egypt and Syria. The IAF was required to expend a sizable portion of its fighting strength to provide time for mobilisation. Surprised by the technical mastery of their opponents, in a matter of days, 102 aircraft were lost (roughly 25% of available combat aircraft), along with 53 aircrew. The crisis was only resolved by the rapid shipment of replacement aircraft from the US inventory under Operation Nickel Grass.
While certainly an example of high-intensity conflict, the requirement for Australia to fight for its existence as Israel did is unlikely or would be, at the very least, preceded by warnings such that the nation could be mobilised and prepared for such a conflict. It is partially through Australia’s preferred method of warfare, the controlled commitment of forces in expeditionary wars, that such attrition has been avoided.
A more pertinent example for Australian forces is the experience of No. 77 Squadron during the Korean War (a perhaps timely example given ongoing tensions on the Peninsula). The deployment of a single fighter squadron in June 1950 would seem at face value to match the characteristics of more recent Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) commitments; the level of attrition, however, was not comparable. Over a three-year commitment, 41 pilots died, and six were captured. At the peak of fighting the squadron replaced 25% the pilot force over an eighteen-month period. Finding the Second World War era North American P-51 Mustang to be outmatched after losing 13 aircraft, No. 77 Squadron was re-equipped in May 1951 with the Gloster Meteor. Of the 94 Meteors acquired by Australia, 30 were subsequently lost to enemy action, delivering a significant portion of the 54-aircraft lost in total over Korea and Japan. The consequence of this action was that No. 77 Squadron, in effect, replaced all of its aircraft at least once, and in a handful of years, expending the bulk of the entire RAAF fleet.
One should hope that future deployments would avoid committing forces in obsolete aircraft. However, it should be noted that the Australian government maintained the force commitment in Korea despite these and other subsequent losses.
What Does This Mean?
In preparing for future conflict, any fifth-generation air force must ensure access to both the physical (hardware) and human resources required to replace those lost.
The procurement of aircraft and their associated supporting hardware may be the most straightforward requirement to meet, assuming access to global markets. While contemporary production rates are much lower than those of the Second World War, they are still significant for those aircraft in full production. While the Israeli losses in 1973 were substantial, production of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, the mainstay multi-role aircraft of the period, averaged 19 aircraft per month, over the life of production. Israel’s losses of this aircraft type (32 of the 102 total), while critical to the IAF, were only the equivalent of less than two months production out of the Fort Worth factory.
The replacement of human resources, specifically aircrew, will be determined by a combination of the resources allocated to training (rather than fighting), and the desired quality of the resulting product. Given our resource-constrained environment, it may well be that ‘great’ is the enemy of ‘good enough’. In this context, a fifth-generation air force will need to accept that its workforce may not have not quite mastered the full spectrum of fifth-generation fighting techniques; however, it will need to employ them regardless.
A fifth-generation air force will also need to incorporate these replacements within the chosen operational approach. Concerning hardware, it will be rare that the exact aircraft lost from the inventory will be in production. With platforms potentially being fielded for decades, it is to be expected that subsequent variants will be produced, or entirely new platforms created in the decades following acquisitions. As such, while a replacement platform may be found, the capabilities are unlikely to be identical to that it replaces.
More critically to the networked fifth-generation force, it is unlikely that replacement assets will be fitted with the exquisitely detailed set of combat data and information exchange systems specified as part of the fifth-generation force structure. This will particularly be the case if the preferred supplier of our platforms is otherwise occupied. Returning to the example of No. 77 Squadron, when the Mustang was determined to be unsuitable for the Korean conflict, the RAAF initially sought the North American F-86 Sabre from the United States, however, as production was already committed to US customers, the British Meteor was chosen instead. While this aircraft was first flown in 1944 and was far from the cutting edge of technology, the war marched on, and Australia could not wait until it was ready to fight on its terms.
While the aim of the technologically and professionally-advanced fifth-generation force is admirable, planning and foresight cannot overcome the uncertain nature of war, precisely the inevitability of loss. At its heart, a fifth-generation force requires flexibility to adapt to any environment. In this context, the squadron must become less of an exquisite implementation tool, and more a delivery mechanism through which aircraft and aircrew are ground against the enemy at the point of friction. In such a situation, ‘good enough’ may quickly become the new normal.
Rex Harrison is an Air Combat Officer in Royal Australian Air Force officer. He can be found on Twitter at @spacecadetrex. The views expressed are the author’s and do not reflect the official position of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Department of Defence, or the Australian Government.
Header Image: An Israeli Air Force F-4E Phantom II at Tel Nof, c. 2013. This type of aircraft was used by the IAF during the Yom Kippur War. (Source: Wikimedia)