Editorial Note: Led by our Editor Dr Mike Hankins, From Balloons to Drones produces a monthly podcast that provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here. You can also find our podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.
In our latest podcast, we are joined by General Larry O. Spencer, former Vice Chief of Staff of the U. S. Air Force. He recounts his journey from being raised in Southeast Washington, D. C. to enlisting in the U. S. Air Force and eventually rising through the ranks to become one of only nine African Americans to wear four stars. General Spencer’s background as a support officer in an organization that tends to favour pilots and aircrews brings a different lens through which to look at the USAF and the use of air power.
General (ret’d) Larry O. Spencer served as Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force until his retirement in 2015. As VCSAF, he presided over the Air Staff and served as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Requirements Oversight Council and Deputy Advisory Working Group. He assisted the Chief of Staff with organising, training, and equipping 664,000 active-duty, Guard, Reserve, and civilian forces serving in the United States and overseas. Spencer was born in Washington, D.C. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in industrial engineering technology from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, and was commissioned through Officer Training School in 1980 as a distinguished graduate. Spencer has commanded a squadron, group and wing and was Vice Commander of the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center. He was also the first Air Force officer to serve as Assistant Chief of Staff in the White House Military Office. In addition, he served as the Comptroller and then Director of Mission Support (A7) at a major command; and held positions within the Air Staff and Secretary of the Air Force. Before becoming VCSAF, Spencer was Director, Force Structure, Resources and Assessment, Joint Staff, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C.
Header image: General Larry O Spencer outside his family home in Washington DC, 30 July 2015 (Source: United States Air Force)
Air superiority needs to be conceived as a political condition that begins in peacetime, not merely a wartime operational pursuit. Perceiving air superiority in this way will make connections to the ordinary peacetime conditions political actors like the United States seek, resulting in military strategy, targeting, and weapons acquisition more in tune with national policy. This commentary piece is an essay based on a comprehensive study on the relationship between military means and political ends. Typically, examinations of air superiority start with discussing airframes, basing, technology, and tactics. This proposal, however, begins with the issues of legitimacy and norms and suggests ways of achieving air superiority rooted in peacetime operations. It concludes that a mix of manned and unmanned fighter aircraft is the best means of achieving this national policy.
An Essential Condition
Airliners require airspace free of the threat of missiles, drones, and gunfire before they even consider flight. Conversely, military pilots prefer unimpeded airspace in which whatever fire an enemy can send their way is insufficient to cause more than an occasional loss through which they can fly their missions without substantial interference and complete their missions. If the stakes are high enough, aircrews will press forward despite losses to hostile fire. Those can increase to the point that only the most necessary missions will justify prohibitive losses.
Air superiority is the general term used to describe these varying grades of airspace control. The condition is normally conceived in operational and physical terms: is a sector of airspace permissive enough for operations to be completed without too many losses? How many aircraft can one lose before it becomes too difficult to dominate a sector of airspace? Can a military actor achieve air superiority by shooting down a number or a percentage of aircraft?
More abstractly, one can relate air superiority to achieving a military strategy. For instance, Great Britain did not achieve air superiority over south-eastern England in September 1940 when its shoot-downs of Luftwaffe aircraft reached an arbitrary threshold. Instead, Britain gained air superiority when Germany could no longer proceed with its agenda of invading the United Kingdom; inflicting losses was just an intermediate step for the Royal Air Force. As a result, the British achieved a favourable outcome even though losses to enemy aircraft continued.
A Function of Governance
One can best perceive of air superiority as a political act and consequence. Since the ultimate goal of politics is to decide who governs where, how, and under what terms, the most helpful way to conceive of air superiority is as a political act. A state should ask whether its norms, rules, power, and assumptions govern what happens in the air when determining the safety within the airspace in which its national interests lay. These concepts take us into the realm of sovereignty: who or what has ultimate authority. For example, the Soviet Union was not completely sovereign over its airspace in 1983 when it shot down the Korean airliner flight 007 because of standards of international behaviour. It had the capacity to shoot down intruding airliners, and it could have continued to shoot down airliners for some time without much exertion. Instead, Moscow found itself condemned for shooting down an aircraft that should not have been where it was in the first place because international norms had already labelled what the Soviets did as illegitimate. The Soviets had violated a norm that really did not need to be codified: you just do not shoot down civilian airliners full of people. Because international discourse had long since settled that issue, the Soviet Union was condemned for its action. Arguments such as, ‘It’s over our territory,’ or, ‘warnings are all over air navigational charts; they simply should not have been flying there,’ carried insufficient weight. Furthermore, the issue had already been decided years before the incident through international law and had nothing to do with aircraft capabilities or weapons loads. The Soviets did not recognise that air superiority was ultimately a political issue, not an issue of military power, and they did not have ultimate authority over the concept.
Norms, discourse, legitimacy, and governance, should be the starting points for understanding air superiority; machines such as aircraft, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), drones, or satellites are tools that may or may not ultimately determine the legitimacy or reality of airspace control. Furthermore, since military force is a subset of information warfare, political actors can largely determine the legitimacy of airspace control before a shooting war is even contemplated, thus predetermining a significant portion of the consequences of hostile actions before they are initiated. States already pursue these conditions by flying between China and Taiwan or over the Sea of Okhotsk. Because airforces – and more ideally, civilian airliners – normalise these flights by making them regularly, they have become legitimate. Because international rules are related to air superiority, both should be considered cohabitants on the same continuum, like radio waves and light waves on the electromagnetic spectrum.
The achievement of air superiority thus begins in peacetime with the establishment of what is legitimate behaviour. Therefore, China understands this and is trying to construct airspace sovereignty over the western Pacific Ocean with manufactured islands, agitation over centuries-old, discredited maps, and military power: air sovereignty constructivism, if you will. Of course, nearby actors such as Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines, cannot give in lest they normalise China’s aggression, but they do not have sufficient power to resist militarily.
Although it forms a critical component of the response, resisting China’s aggression and preserving airspace freedom does not begin with building powerful air forces. Regional powers must perpetuate an ongoing narrative about what is legitimate in the airspace off the coasts of Asia. When they make violations of their airspace by Chinese military aircraft actions that are automatically condemned; for example, they will have contributed to a powerful foundation for air superiority. Grassroots rhetoric condemning Chinese production of runway cratering missiles, not to mention artificial islands, would further contribute to the discourse of air superiority. So, the first component of air superiority operations would be to create a norm of, ‘this is simply the way things are; this is what is appropriate.’ For instance, international airspace is accepted, and air defence identification zones extend only as far as radar coverage from one’s mainland (generally around 200 miles). When no one, or at most, only China, questions that assertion, those states will have added to the legitimacy of their own defensive military aggression if it is ever necessary. Nurturing this narrative does not carry prohibitive costs, but it requires constant attention and never ends.
This endeavour’s more deliberate components include international agreements, international organisations, multinational military exercises, and air sovereignty flights. Conducted as a diplomatic-information campaign, these activities can predetermine who will be the victim and who will be the aggressor if armed conflict erupts. Indeed, ensuring that one’s state achieves victim status and is not labelled the aggressor is the most critical goal in the discourse of air superiority. Victims have very liberal rights to self-defence during war, while aggressors may not have any rights. Therefore, possessing the legitimate right of self-defence when protecting airspace is critical and begins in peacetime. States should make maintaining that status an ongoing component of their grand strategy and ensure that illegitimate power is the only means available to actors like China and Russia.
Ultimately a determined aggressor will not care. International opprobrium, condemnation, and even new enemies who wage war against the aggressor state may not be enough to dissuade a political actor from taking what he wants by force. However, if the revisionist power wins that battle over airspace, it will find itself in a weakened condition for resisting the international opprobrium that would follow. Ideally, regional actors will possess enough military power to persuade an aggressor to not go to war in the first place or fight him to a standstill if war comes. The question of what the best hardware is for accomplishing that goal is one that states must answer the first time correctly.
Prior to Weapons Acquisition
The most important question surrounding the hardware of air superiority is not which machine will shoot down the most enemy aeroplanes or missiles. Instead, one should ask political questions addressing legitimacy, deterrence, which governs where and how, and gaining victim status. Covering those bases will function as force multipliers to the combat capabilities of one’s air and space forces. States should opt for a mix of capabilities—not for operational reasons or the ability to achieve high kill rates of invading aircraft and missiles, although necessary. Instead, the capabilities must further political goals. Air capabilities need to be able to deter, reaffirm legitimacy, confer aggressor status on the state that is attacking, and wreck the aggressor’s strategy. From there, one should construct a system of sufficient lethality to preserve or regain air superiority. Furthermore, an air force should pursue air superiority as a component of governance, not merely as a military operation.
Surface-to-air missiles may be the best starting point because they are inherently defensive. A PAC-III missile cannot attack China from South Korea or anywhere else, for that matter. SAMs are legitimate because they operate from within a country or one of its warships. They are not aggressive since they are defensive weapons. An enemy must attack them, often as the first step in an airstrike; thus, SAMs force the enemy into labelling himself the aggressor and your state the victim, giving the attacked country the power that comes to a victim in today’s discourse. But an air force can use up its SAMs quickly. Suppose the enemy still has offensive power after the defender fires off its last missiles. In that case, the defender will be in a precarious state, and victim status and the legitimacy of his cause may be so much rhetoric.
The SAM’s stablemate, antiaircraft artillery, can cause great destruction to an attacker. As inherently defensive weapons, they are legitimate and not a weapon of aggression. They need to be able to detect and hit enemy missiles and aircraft; however. Otherwise, their use conveys the image of mindless firing and panic. Since the geographic coverage of each piece is quite small, they are tertiary weapons.
Cyber weapons should be a component of air superiority hardware. Few things could be better than somehow switching off or wrecking enemy hardware from within, for instance, but to my knowledge, computer viruses do not yet cause circuit boards to melt themselves. A force struck down with computer viruses can clean out the malicious software, and even examine and exploit it for a counterattack. For that reason, cyber weapons are one-shot pieces of software. They can help defeat an enemy onslaught, but they can also help an enemy strengthen his network defence because the attack exposes a weakness.
Space-based weapons have the potential to dominate the airspace below, but they have problems when it comes to legitimacy, deterrence, and labelling. If a country flies a space laser over its enemy to protect international airspace, it does so intrusively, confusing the world audience as to who the aggressor is. Placing a satellite armed with defensive weapons could give the appearance of a constant offensive threat overhead. Damocles would not be a politically helpful label for an armed satellite.
Weapons Have Differing Meanings
There is currently a rush to build unmanned aircraft that either function as remotely piloted vehicles or as autonomous aircraft flown by artificial intelligence. They are less expensive, there is no pilot to be killed or captured, and their swarms can overwhelm defences or attacking strike packages. Drones, however, can only extend firepower, not legitimacy. Squadrons of drones either convey the seriousness of large groups of appliances or the sinister capability of robots; fiction writing has already determined many of the meanings we attach to drones. It will be challenging for drones to be perceived solely as defensive and fully legitimate, and their deterrent effect may be less. One of the components of deterrence is forcing the enemy to attack and kill your people and your territory if they wish to attack. Thus, an enemy is less likely to attack an ICBM in a silo, for example, than a ballistic missile submarine; land-based ICBMs enhance deterrence. Furthermore, people, not machines, need to govern airspace. People are more legitimate than machines, and people, not machines, can be victimised. Drones can threaten, but unlike manned aircraft, they cannot coerce in a way that is seen as legitimate. Drones will be most effective in furthering a political narrative when retained as adjuncts – extra shooters – to manned aircraft.
Because of the politics of air superiority, its optics, the issue of legitimacy, the need to convey political will and commitment, and the different meanings attached to manned aircraft and autonomous aircraft, a great need remains for men and women to fly the aircraft and man the SAM sites that achieve air superiority. Skin in the game is necessary because an aggressor will be less inclined to shoot down a manned aircraft than a drone. The people of a country will be up in arms if one of their piloted aircraft is shot down during a crisis, but if one of their drones is shot down, how should they react when an armed appliance has been destroyed? Drones will provoke, but fighters with a human at the controls can deter, signal, provoke, defend, escort, and assert international norms. While drones can provide more tactical firepower, only manned fighters can function as political weapons. Indeed, fighter aircraft that cannot be used against surface targets unless they spend six months in a depot undergoing conversions may be in the national interest to a far greater degree than a multi-role aircraft. It may even be in the national interest to produce a follow-on to the F-22 that can only be used as an air-to-air weapon.
Air Superiority without Bombing China
A capability to achieve air superiority over eastern Europe or the western Pacific without needing to carry out bombardment missions against Chinese or Russian SAM sites or airbases is most attractive politically as well as militarily; an ability to dominate airspace with a mix of manned and unmanned fighter aircraft without the assistance of aircraft attacking targets on enemy territory gives several advantages to political leaders. First, such a capability remains a defensive, legitimate political act of governing airspace and defending airspace. Such aircraft cannot attack their adversaries and thus are less escalatory. They can complete the mission of air sovereignty over their own territory or within international airspace. Proposals of bombing Chinese or Russian airbases in defence of Taiwan or the Baltic states are asinine. When one is bombing Russian airbases, one is attacking Russia, a Russia with a nuclear arsenal. Airfield and SAM site attack strategies, operations, and capabilities were essential when deterring the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War. They may be a requirement against peer states when a geopolitical relationship is going down the tubes, but bombing Chinese or Russian airfields constitutes poor politics for the United States and its allies except in the most extreme circumstances. An offensive capability and strategy in defending friends along the Asian periphery will lead to a war that worsens conditions, rather than a settlement in which those areas are governed in ways that respect the sovereignty of smaller states and international law. An offensive-defensive strategy will erode the victim status regional actors can easily retain if they emphasise an airspace politics of live and let live.
Developing the best new aircraft, SAMS, and directed energy weapons for shooting down enemy aircraft and missiles must not be procurement’s starting point for maintaining air superiority over the western Pacific. Again, air superiority is a political act, a contest of who governs the western Pacific in this instance, and how. What characteristics will the machines employed to carry out that task needs with that goal in mind? Because of the lethality of SAMs, air-to-air missiles, cyber weapons, and guided ballistic missiles, aircraft must be excellent technologically, but not for the sake of fielding the most advanced technology. Because of the political goals of the United States and its allies, the weapons should be defensive. An F-22, for example, is ideal for this mission because it does not possess much of an air-to-ground bombardment capability. That trait is a political advantage because the capability, intentions, and rhetoric are all congruent with a policy goal of governance and air defence. Since F-22-type aircraft do not support a ground attack strategy well, they are politically ideal for preserving air superiority. Several wings of American and allied F-22s and Next Generation Air Dominance Fighters (NGADs) would have the ability to defeat Chinese assets. Since they do not have the range to penetrate deep into Chinese territory, they threaten China less and match the political rhetoric of the United States and its friends more. Most importantly, highly-capable fighter aircraft can achieve air superiority solely in international airspace – the ideal location for exerting air sovereignty.
Because of the political goals behind its existence, the NGAD should be designed as a single-purpose, air-to-air combat-only fighter with a person in the cockpit. It does not need the capability to penetrate deep into Chinese or Russian airspace to destroy surface targets because that capability will not match up with any of the United States’ political goals. Why should the United States and her friends must have the capability to destroy SAM sites and airfields on Russian or Chinese territory? For that reason, the NGADs should be forward deployed, not F-35s. Keep the offensive capabilities of F-35s away from our adversaries. That will support American rhetoric and strategy, and their transfer forward in a crisis will help diplomatic efforts if it ever comes to that.
Air defence NGADs should be the forward-deployed aircraft because they can survive airspace infested with long-range Chinese SAMs fired from warships and long-range fighter aircraft far better than variants of the F-15 or F/A-18. The most advanced legacy airframes – including those not yet manufactured like the F-15EX – would only function as SAM sponges in the western Pacific and have no business flying in this theatre unless Chinese air capabilities have significantly been diminished. Even though it is more survivable against SAMs than legacy aircraft, the F-35 is not ideal for this mission because its offensive capabilities run counter to the policy and narrative desirable for governing the airspace over the western Pacific. Furthermore, it is too slow to run down and destroy the fastest Chinese fighters; it cannot engage and disengage at will like an air superiority fighter needs to do. However, given the low numbers of extant F-22s, F-35s must participate in the air-to-air battle in this scenario for the next several years. Finally, the NGAD should be designed as an aircraft carrier-launched aircraft and then equip both the US Navy and the US Air Force. Aircraft designed for carrier operations can be flown from land bases, but aircraft designed for runway operations cannot stand the stresses of carrier catapult launches and arrested landings. The NGAD should not be multi-role, but it will be multi-service. Furthermore, if it does its job well, it will not need to carry bombs because peer adversaries will not continue offensive warfare if they have lost command of the air.
Policy Goals, Grand Strategy, Narratives, Military Strategy, then Weapons Acquisition
The way to determine what kind of new technology to acquire for deterrence and war is not to first pursue the most advanced technology conceivable. However, the military strategy that results from a defence review may require just that. States need first to decide what they want. What political world do they want to live in? How can they use force, diplomacy, acquisitions, deterrence, legitimacy, and narratives to reach that world without stumbling into a major war – or winning if war breaks out? Air superiority starts with political goals, not technology, doctrine, or operations. Such an approach will significantly improve the United States’ opportunities for maintaining an international order conducive to the ideals and interests of itself and its friends. The capabilities of its military hardware will then be congruent with its peaceful rhetoric.
Dr Michael E. Weaver is an Associate Professor of History at the USAF Air Command and Staff College. He has authored five air power articles and a book on the 28th Infantry Division. His second book, The Air War in Vietnam, is due out in the fall of 2022. Weaver received his doctorate from Temple University in 2002, where he studied under Russell Weigley.
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed herein are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense, the U. Air Force, or Air University.
Header image: An F-15EX Eagle II from the 40th Flight Test Squadron, 96th Test Wing out of Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, flies in formation during an aerial refuelling operation above the skies of Northern California, 14 May 2021. The Eagle II participated in the Northern Edge 21 exercise in Alaska earlier in May. (Source: Wikimedia)
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: Led by our Editor Dr Mike Hankins, From Balloons to Drones produces a monthly podcast that provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here. You can also find our podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or more commonly, Drones, have become increasingly key to contemporary warfare, even iconic. But are they really as revolutionary as they appear? Dr Michael Boyle joins us to discuss his recent book, The Drone Age: How Drone Technology Will Change War and Peace. He examines the drone phenomenon as it has currently affected global conflict, and how drones might shape the future.
Dr Michael J. Boyle is an Associate Professor and Chair of Political Science at La Salle University. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia. His previous books include Violence after War: Explaining Instability in Post-Conflict States, Legal and Ethical Implications of Drone Warfare, and Non-Western Responses to Terrorism.
Header image: A USAF MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft flies above the smoky San Gabriel Mountains of southern California on its way to a fire mission in the northern part of the state, August 2020. (Source: US Department of Defense)
Benjamin S. Lambeth, Airpower in the War against ISIS. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2021. Maps. Tables. Images. Notes. Bibliography. Hbk. 305 pp.
Reviewed by Richard Shimooka
In the study of contemporary air power operations, Benjamin Lambeth has primarily led the field for over 40 years. A long-time RAND Corporation political scientist and now a non-resident fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Lambeth has written numerous books that have provided deep insight into modern operations and issues. A key example of Lambeth’s work was his in-depth dissection of the 1999 effort to liberate Kosovo from Serbian control, NATO’s Air War for Kosovo (2001).
Continuing in the comprehensive manner of his previous work, in Airpower in the War against ISIS, Lambeth reflects on the five-year campaign against Daesh in Syria and Western Iraq between 2014 and 2019. This book joins recent works that have examined this subject area, including the recent RAND study The Air War Against the Islamic State: The Role of Airpower in Operation Inherent Resolve (2021). Although Lambeth covers the same subject matter, he provides a more argumentative perspective on the conduct of the air war against ISIS. In addition, Lambeth’s book includes a deep level of detail surrounding the issues faced by the allied planners and practitioners, based on interviews with many personnel directly responsible for the strategy, planning and execution of the campaign. However, while Lambeth uses these interviews in conjunction with a variety of published works, the analysis in this book, which is derived from the aforementioned sources, fails to live up to the standards of his previous work. Indeed, blurs the debate on this topic rather than illuminate it.
Lambeth’s scope complicates the book’s analysis. He frequently questions the political and strategic decision-making emanating from the White House, Pentagon and U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). Lambeth then draws a straight line from these strategic decisions to air power practitioners’ operational and tactical issues in the field. A core theme, for example, is that President Barack Obama was too hesitant to intervene in the initial phase of ISIS’s growth. In Lambeth’s view early intervention could have forestalled the growth of the nascent movement. He identifies this ‘unproductive gradualism’ as a misuse of air power that greatly hindered its use and utility until the late stages of the campaign. In making this argument, Lambeth compares the application of air power in the war against ISIS to the equally unsuccessful Rolling Thunder campaign during the Vietnam War in the 1960s (p. 11). Moreover, Lambeth argues that the U.S. administration’s approach to military operations was too restrictive in its employment of air power and too beholden to the requirement to prevent civilian casualties, so much so that military operations became paralysed.
The persuasiveness of Lambeth’s argument is weakened, however, by the book’s superficial treatment of the political and strategic decision-making process. Rather than considering how and why U.S. leaders made their decisions, Lambeth depicts them as simple orders, without examining the trade-offs inherent in the policy-making process that guide their creation. As a result, the book is more comfortable critiquing the policy without examining its connection to the broader grand strategy objectives of the United States. This is unfortunate, as there is no shortage of material available on the Obama administration’s political decision-making surrounding ISIS. That administration did not believe that ISIS was an existential threat, and the White House sought to limit the U.S.’ involvement in the conflict. The book could have benefitted from a richer discussion about managing engagement in this case as part of a proper critique of Obama’s grand strategy approach, thereby providing a better understanding of the strengths and shortcomings of limited engagement in a conflict.
A key component of Lambeth’s argument concerns the proper role of air power in modern conflicts. Chapter Two presents a review of air power’s employment and theory in the post-Cold War period, critically analysing the operational usage and broader political and strategic dynamics. This is one of the book’s best sections, and a useful reference work on modern air power thinking. Based on this chapter, Lambeth advises against the subordination of air power to ground forces when it comes to counterinsurgency operations, arguing that such an approach corroded the institutional knowledge and capacity to fully exploit the capabilities of air power between 2001 and 2011 (p. 39). Moreover, the book emphasises how institutional set-up and broader policy decisions made by then U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates diminished the U.S. Air Force’s stature and influence in military operations over Syria and Iraq (p. 32).
These observations tie into a broader critique of the flawed initial perceptions of ISIS as primarily a counterinsurgency threat rather than an embryonic state entity. This improper framing of the organisation, according to Lambeth, contributed to a far less effective employment of air power against the Islamic State (p. 199). This is an interesting observation made by several interviewees within the book, which can be viewed as part of the ongoing debate concerning whether air power has unique capabilities and how to utilise it in a battlefield properly. While Lambeth does not directly engage in this area of theoretical discussion, the book’s essential thrust suggests that air power’s unique characteristics have been constantly misapplied over the past two decades. This argument may have increasing relevance as the United States disengages from stability operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan to counter near-peer threats such as China and Russia.
It is within this context that Lambeth provides detailed critiques regarding excessive civilian casualties. For example, at one point Lambeth quotes an article by David French in support of his views. An Iraq War veteran and practising attorney, French details what he believes are the consequences of the civilian casualties:
It’s time to consider the true cost of America’s self-imposed constraints [American combatants] don’t just comply with the law of war. They go beyond the requirement of the LOAC [Law of Armed Combat] to impose additional and legally unnecessary restrictions on the use of military force. Rules of engagement [in their most suffocating form] represent true war-by-wonk, in which a deadly brew of lawyers, politicians, soldiers, and social scientists endeavor to fine-tune the use of military force to somehow kill the enemy while ‘winning over’ the local population, even as the local population is in the direct line of fire. (p. 190)
This quote lays bare the disconnect between Lambeth’s analysis and the Obama administration’s perspectives, the latter of whom were focused on winning over the population and preserving domestic support. Consequently, Lambeth presents a caricature of their views and arguments to push forward his preferred approach that would loosen up the rules of engagement to permit greater civilian casualties. Ironically, this resembles the type of military thinking of which the Obama administration seemed most wary of when responding to the challenge of ISIS and led them to seek an alternative strategy.
Nowhere are the book’s contradictions more evident than in its treatment of Russia’s role in the conflict. Moscow’s 2015 intervention was one of the turning points in the war and helped to reverse the declining fortunes of Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad government in its fight against ISIS. Russia’s application of air power played a critical role in halting ISIS’s advances into government-held terrain, and then supported a counter push that crippled the nascent state’s war-making capability. Yet, at the same time, the effort was highly controversial in its use of indiscriminate aerial bombing over civilian targets.
Despite its important role in bringing the conflict to its conclusion, Lambeth’s book is largely devoid of any discussion of Moscow’s actual contribution to the outcome. Instead, it offers a highly questionable account of its motivations for intervening:
Eyeing the lucrative opportunity that must have seemed all but irresistible for such a brazen move enabled by President Obama’s failure to honor his ostentatiously declared “red line” after Assad ignored it and used chemical weapons against his own people, Russia’s President Putin no doubt saw a ripe occasion for the first time since 1972 to establish a new, and this time potentially enduring, Russian foothold in the Middle East after the Soviet Union had been rudely ejected from the region by a brilliant stroke of diplomatic force majeure orchestrated behind the scenes by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and executed by Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat. (p.151)
This account is inaccurate, and Lambeth even cites sources that refute it, such as Sanu Kainikara’s excellent overview, In the Bear’s Shadow: Russian Intervention in Syria (2018). Syria has remained Moscow’s closest Arab state since the 1970s, as evidenced by the large Russian naval base at Tartus on its northern coast. Moreover, ISIS and its affiliates also posed a direct terrorist threat towards Russian security, such as in the Caucasus region, which provided additional motivation for an intervention. The rest of the chapter includes almost no mention of Russia’s actual military role in the conflict but rather is devoted to detailing its indiscriminate attacks that caused civilian casualties and how Russia’s presence was a nuisance for the Allied prosecution of the conflict. The chapter reinforces the overall problem of the book’s one-sided portrayal of the political and military strategy surrounding the effort, which brings into question many of the book’s other observations and conclusions.
Overall, Airpower against ISIS is a mixed effort. It offers an extremely detailed portrait of the operational and tactical issues surrounding contemporary western air power operations. It provides critical insight into the challenges of undertaking a campaign of this type, that should be read by anyone with a professional or private interest in the field. However, its flawed treatment of the political and strategic considerations limits its value overall and thus needs to be read critically and in conjunction with other works to extract its full value.
Richard Shimooka is a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, Canada. He was a Senior Fellow at the Defence Management Studies Programme at Queen’s University from 2007–2012, and a Research Fellow at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute from 2012-2017. Richard works’ cover a diverse array of topics, including Canadian and American foreign and defence policy, modern air power and defence procurement.
Header image: Two United States Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet aircraft fly over Iraq, 3 March 2016 as part of Operation INHERENT RESOLVE. (Source: Wikimedia)
Armageddon and OKRA is the first in a planned series about the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) air campaigns being compiled as part of the RAAF’s 100th-anniversary celebrations. The RAAF’s Chief of Air Force (CAF) intends for the series’ works to be ‘readable, well-illustrated, educative and enduring’ (p. 3). In the main, Armageddon and OKRA ably meets these ambitions.
The book though carries additional burdens in aiming not just to market the RAAF to the Australian public but also to contribute to the Air Force’s professional military education and be of interest to serious academic researchers. It would be difficult for any work to satisfy such a diverse audience completely. Given this split, this review discusses Armageddon and OKRA from both a reader’s viewpoint and a military organisational perspective.
Armageddon and OKRA is split into two main parts. Part one examines Australian air power during the First World War in the Middle East between 1915 and 1919. The principal focus is on the operations of No.1 Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) during the British capture of Palestine and Syria from the Ottoman Turks in 1917-1918. ‘Armageddon’ in the title refers to the Battle of Megiddo in late September 1918 in which the No. 1 Squadron fought. This English language word comes from the Ancient Greek name for Mount Megiddo, subsequently used in the Christian Bible’s Old Testament.
Part two then moves forward a hundred years to 2014-2018 and the US-led coalition operations to support the Iraqi Government to defeat Islamic State (ISIS). Part two’s principal focus is the small RAAF Air Task Group deployed for this task as part of the larger Australian Defence Force’s Operation OKRA, and which involved (amongst others) No.1 Squadron again. This is a rather elegant symmetry that perhaps was not made as much use of as could have been.
The involvement of the RAAF and its predecessor, the AFC in these two periods was at the tactical level of war and accordingly, the book’s main focus centres around squadron operations. Part one provides a comprehensive overview that nicely relates the tactical to the strategic level, the air activities undertaken, the various aircraft Australian’s were trained on and flew in operations, maintenance aspects and the air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons used. In this part, No.1 Squadron’s use of the Bristol F.2b Fighter in 1918 features prominently, including the destruction of a large Turkish ground force that the unit trapped in the Wadi Fara gorge. Also notable is the attention paid to including the opposing German squadrons, particularly FA300, and how they impacted No.1 Squadron. Wars involve two sides, however; many histories overlook this interdependence.
Part two is somewhat different. Early on, there is a detailed examination of the command-and-control arrangements for OKRA. The naming protocols are quite arcane for the casual reader, not unsurprisingly as their origin lies in the demands of automated messaging systems not in easy human comprehension. This then moves into several short chapters that discuss the daily air operations as seen at the squadron-level by OKRA’s deployed air units. These units flew the F/A-18 ‘Classic’ Hornet fighter/bomber, the F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter/bomber, the E-7A Wedgetail airborne warning and control aircraft and the KC-30A air-to-air refuelling tanker.
By the time the reader reaches these final chapters, it is apparent that CAF’s aims to be ‘readable, well-illustrated, educative and enduring’ has been achieved. In Australia, the book is keenly priced while its excellent line drawings of aircraft and numerous photographs add to the overall appeal. Some may argue over ‘enduring,’ however, the second part of the book offers a level of detail of the RAAF’s part in OKRA that is presently unequalled. In particular, future historians of these air operations will value this book because it gives the reader an insight into the rhythm and grind of daily squadron life during operations.
On the other hand, in meeting CAF’s other dictum, the book falls a bit short for the professional or academic reader. It is not – nor was intended to be – a critical analysis of the RAAF’s air operations in these two periods. The book dwells on the positives and only rarely and rather briefly notes any possible negatives. There are also reoccurring lapses into hagiography. Of the two parts of the book, the second is the most impacted. There is room left for a definitive, comprehensive history of the RAAF during OKRA.
In thinking about future works, the elegant symmetry of parts one and two was noted earlier. In reading the book, the more critical reader might like to assess the similarities and differences between No.1 Squadron operating as part of the British Empire and then 100 years operating as part of the American ‘empire’. In the First World War, No. 1 Squadron and Australians were more broadly considered part of the British Empire; they were simply English people born offshore. It is unsurprising the future Air Marshal Sir Richard Williams, later the ‘father of the RAAF,’ ended the war commanding in battle the Royal Air Force’s 40 Wing, which was overwhelming a British entity.
During OKRA, there is a much greater separation between the Americans and their foreign air force partners; the later provide tactical level forces to use as the US determines. However, through its astute alliance management process, the American empire has shaped foreign air forces to be fully and immediately interoperable with US forces regarding doctrine, equipment, support, and training. In contrast, in the British Empire’s war, Australia provided people to Britain who needed to be trained, equipped and, later in battle, logistically supported. For Australian’s, the British Empire was more collegiate, but the modern-day American one is arguably shrewder. Armageddon and Okra’s author, Lewis Frederickson, has written a fine, relevant analysis on Australia’s First World War experience for those wishing to explore such issues further.
Finally, it is worth discussing the book from a military organisational perspective. The book’s forward sets out CAF’s intentions for the series. These are not just laudable but noteworthy in breaking from the last 20 years of RAAF development. In these earlier periods, RAAF and other Australian Service chiefs stressed teamwork, and especially loyalty, over critical thinking. This is a recognised problem for small professional military forces which lack the scale to be able to be ‘broad churches’ that can include disruptors. In this series, and in his new Air Force Strategy, CAF now appears interested in setting off down this path. If so, later books will need to be more analytical, including engaging in constructive criticism. It is uncertain if this will be possible or acceptable.
Armageddon and Okra is an excellent value read that makes a useful contribution to RAAF history. It is particularly important and valuable in breaking new ground on the RAAF’s participation in OKRA against ISIS. Overall Armageddon and Okra will be of interest to the general public, military enthusiasts and undergraduates undertaking strategic studies courses.
Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University and a RUSI (UK) Associate Fellow. His PhD is in grand strategy, and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. Author of the book Grand Strategy, his posts, articles and papers may be read here. He was also once a navigator on No.1 Squadron RAAF flying F-111Cs.
Header Image: Centenary tail art on a F/A-18F Super Hornet of No. 1 Squadron RAAF at the main air operating base in the Middle East Region during Operatyion OKRA. (Source: ADF)
 Lewis Frederickson, ‘The Development of Australian Infantry on the Western Front 1916-1918: An Imperial model of training, tactics and technology’ (PhD Thesis, UNSW Canberra, 2015)
One cannot venture very far in the field of contemporary air power studies without encountering remotely piloted air systems, which have become a central feature of western military operations. Their use has raised many questions regarding their ethical status, and the effects they may have both on the battlefield and in the control cabin. Kyle Grayson, Senior Lecturer in International Politics at Newcastle University, has taken a slightly different approach in this volume, looking more widely at the interaction between culture, technology, the economy, government, and geostrategic elements. The book is part of the ‘Interventions’ series, which aims to examine international issues through a range of disciplines including critical, post-structural, and postcolonial approaches; this is not simply a primer on the rights and wrongs of conducting war with remotely piloted aerial systems (RPAS) – or drones. Grayson’s focus is on what he describes as ‘targeted killing’, which he sees as a form of modern-day assassination from the air, an activity which has often been debated on the fringes of the western ethical tradition (p. 4). In writing the volume, he seeks to demonstrate how modern liberal societies have come to terms with targeted killing through culture, emphasising ‘the incorporation of disparate elements including the non-human, power-relations, plasticity and the importance of discourse’ (p. 199).
In his first chapter, Grayson’s approach is to examine the use of RPAS for targeted killing as primarily a cultural phenomenon, trying to understand how culture interacts with such practices in such a way that they can become ‘part of the common sense of security thinking’ (p. 200). His second chapter looks at the legal frameworks which maintain a distinction between assassination and targeted killing while expanding the legal scope of such operations. Chapter three looks at the ‘moral problematics and gender relations’ of assassination and targeted killing, arguing that the use of RPAS systems can help overcome some of the ‘narrative ambivalence’ that these relations involve (p. 201). Chapter four examines how technology alone does not explain the increased usage of RPAS. Rather, a much broader scope of ‘chaoplexic thinking, network centric imaginaries, and preferences for speed, maximising information flows, flexibility, delayered organisational forms, and automation’ help explain current trends to use such systems (p. 201). The fifth chapter focuses on what Grayson describes as the ‘aesthetic’ of killing, examining how those who authorise and those who participate in RPAS warfare experience what is taking place on their screens. In the last chapter, the author emphasises the effect that missile strikes have on the homes of those targeted, arguing that this ‘colonises places and seeks to disrupt their temporalities’ (p. 202).
Grayson concludes his work by elucidating six factors that arise from liberal political culture; issues involving the legitimacy of assassination/targeted killing, the influence of modern camera technology, the role of information technology networks, politics of gender, the use of the law, and representation of the other (pp. 202-6). In his final comments, he urges the need for modern liberal societies to continually evaluate their relationship with RPAS usage, and to critically reflect upon their political culture.
There is much in this book that is of great interest. For instance, Grayson very helpfully notices the importance of the contemporary market economy in world affairs, emphasising how much the private sector engages with defence. In Grayson’s analysis, ‘the continuing growth of the RPA industry is benefiting from a favourable constellation of politico-economic elements’ (p. 125). Alternatively, to put it another way, the unmanned aerial vehicle is an ideal fit for the current economic climate and the political ecosystem. It would have been fascinating to see even more of an interaction with current thinking on neoliberalism, such as the writing of Wendy Brown, on how the market economy has effects far beyond the market. Grayson’s observations on the ‘complex social assemblage of war’ are thought-provoking and could arguably have been pressed even further, on such subjects such as deskilling and delayering of the economy. Similarly, Grayson’s interaction with Guy Debord and the role of spectacle in society merited further attention (pp. 93-135).
Grayson’s book has the potential to ask real and meaningful questions about the use of RPAS in contemporary warfare. By offering an approach that goes beyond a basic ethical analysis, considering the wider role of culture and warfare, his work could offer real insights into the interface of weapons and worldviews. Thus, for example, his comment that ‘a disproportionate amount of applied innovation in forms of governmentality under liberalism has been directed at the margins within territory, or oriented towards its periphery […] [liberalism] has shown great brutality to those it identifies as being beyond reclamation’ (p. 206). Such considerations are worthy of serious debate and analysis, whether one agrees with Grayson’s premises or not. Many commentators such as Nicholas Carr and Neil Postman have commented on the highly visual nature of contemporary culture – Grayson’s focus on the ‘aesthetics’ of RPAS warfare has the potential to offer real insights in this field. However, a great deal of his writing is delivered in a style which, in generous terms, one would describe as technical. The general reader who wishes to avail of Grayson’s insights is obliged to hack, word by word, through a lexical jungle overgrown with the bon mots of social theory. Many of the terms such as ‘problematisation’ and ‘biopolitics’ are inadequately defined for the non-specialist, which means that reading the book can be a profoundly frustrating experience. This is unfortunate, as Grayson shows an ability to express himself clearly in portions of the book where social theory assumes a lesser role, such as when describing the interaction between the global market and the armed forces of western nations. In short, Grayson raises many useful questions, but this is a book for only the most determined reader.
The Reverend Dr (Wing Commander) David Richardson is a chaplain in the Royal Air Force, initially ordained into the Church of Ireland. A graduate of the universities of Edinburgh, Dublin, Belfast, and King’s College London, he has served on a variety of RAF stations. His operational experience includes tours across Afghanistan and Iraq.
Header Image: A Royal Air Force Reaper RPAS at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, c. 2014. (Source: Defence Imagery, UK Ministry of Defence)
Editorial Note: In the second part of a two-part article, Dr Peter Layton explores the evolution of the armed unmanned aircraft from its first use in the Second World War through to the First Gulf War. The first part of this article can be found here.
In retrospect, during the Cold War, the dice were stacked against armed unmanned aircraft. Improving aircrew survivability in a major war – the primary requirement – involved operating in a very hostile, sophisticated air environment in the presence of extensive jamming that could defeat the data links necessary to control unmanned aircraft. Furthermore, the computers, aircraft systems and onboard sensors needed to make such an aircraft work were all big, cumbersome, unreliable and costly. Even when cost was not an issue as in the case of Advanced Airborne Reconnaissance System project of the late Cold War, the unmanned aircraft designs ended up being very large, technically challenging, of doubtful effectiveness and somewhat inflexible in operation.
In the 1990s the stars radically realigned to favour armed unmanned aircraft. In the early 1990s, armed violence erupted in Yugoslavia. The conflict was slow paced with a need for protracted surveillance rather than episodic reconnaissance, but none of the existing systems seemed quite right. Manned aircraft lacked persistence while satellites had predictable orbits and known overhead times, could not easily be repositioned to survey new areas and were impacted by bad weather. Meeting the new requirements driven by the wars in the Balkans was however eased somewhat by the air environment now being permissive with little threat from air defences. In the winter of 1992, the US Joint Staffs and the Office of the Secretary of Defense initiated a quick reaction program for a long-endurance unmanned aircraft. First flight came within six months of contract award, and a year later the General Atomics Predator unmanned aircraft was in operations over Bosnia.
Seemingly quick, the Predator’s rapid entry into service exploited some 15 years of DARPA experiments, trials, partial successes and utter failures. The overall airframe design was point-optimised for the particular mission with a slender fuselage with pusher configuration, long sailplane-like wings, inverted V-tails and a ventral rudder. The engine was a horizontally-opposed, liquid-cooled, four-stroke, geared piston engine with a minimal frontal area that offered high power at a moderate rpm, very low fuel consumption and very low vibration. The Vietnam-era unmanned jet aircraft saved weight by not being fitted with an undercarriage but were difficult to launch and recover. Predator’s used a tall, lightweight fixed undercarriage that gave considerable ground clearance. This design meant that the Predator had a maximum speed of only some 120kts, but they could loiter for almost a day flying at 70kts at an altitude of 12-15,000 ft. This performance was adequate – if not sparkling – for the new requirement for long persistence albeit useless for the earlier Cold War type missions where survivability was critical.
In design terms, the airframe and engine were skillful but somewhat primitive having more in common with the 1944 TDR-1 unmanned aircraft (see Part One here) than a 1990s military aircraft. The real innovations that addressed the big technological challenge – how to fly and operate an unmanned aircraft in combat for 24 hours or more without on-board humans – lay in the electronics. Computer advances now allowed dramatic increases in computing power, speed and reliability while communication advances connected the Predator literally to the world, changing everything.
Controllability was addressed using a purpose-built flight control computer more powerful than that used in the F-16 fighters of the time. This made the Predator stable in flight in all weathers and easy to control remotely especially during the problematic take-off and landing phases. Navigation was addressed using the satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS). Earlier unmanned aircraft had significant navigation problems with Vietnam era aircraft often missing their planned target by some 10-12 kilometres. GPS was a real breakthrough that provided an off-board, ubiquitous, highly accurate navigation method. However, it was new communications technology that made armed unmanned aircraft practical.
Over its first few years of operational service, the Predator system took advantage of and was integrated into, the rapidly advancing online world. It broke away from being dependent on line of sight control with the fitment of high bandwidth satellite communication data links. This has made the armed unmanned aircraft both remarkably flexible and remarkably useful.
Remote Split Operations endowed remarkable flexibility. A small team at a forward airbase launched a Predator using a line-of-sight wireless link and then transferred control to operators located anywhere globally who used satellite communications links. These remote operators then flew the long-duration operational part of each sortie, changing crews throughout the mission as necessary. After the mission, the Predator was handed back to the small forward deployed team which landed the aircraft and turned it around for the next mission. This way of operating meant the forward team was small, requiring only very limited support and minimising the people and equipment needed to be deployed.
The second aspect – that of being remarkably useful – was made possible using modern communications technology that allowed data from the unmanned aircraft to be sent worldwide in near-real-time.
By the late 1990s, sensor technology had considerably advanced allowing relatively small high-quality daylight and night television systems to be made for an affordable cost. Moreover, these, when combined with a laser rangefinder and the onboard GPS navigation system, allowed an unmanned aircraft to now very accurately determine the location of the object being looked at. Such pictures and the position data though were of limited use if access to them had to wait for the aircraft’s return to base. Now with high-bandwidth satellite communication systems, full-motion video tagged with its accurate location could be sent to distant locations. Multiple users worldwide could access real-time imagery of events as they occurred.
The impact of this was that not just the aircrew controllers could see the video and make use of it. Now local land, sea and air commanders could have instant access to the imagery allowing more active command and control of assigned forces. High-level commanders and government ministers at home could also gain an appreciation of the tactical events unfolding. These live feeds from the world’s battlefield were compelling viewing; the term ‘Predator Porn’ was coined – you cannot take your eyes off it.
As importantly, imagery analysts and other exploitation specialists at locations worldwide could now bring their expert skills to bear to provide instantaneous advice on niche aspects to the complete command chain, including the operators controlling the Predator. The satellite communications links allowed many skilled people to be ‘onboard’ the unmanned aircraft flying in some distant theatre of operations, making its operations much more useful than a manned aircraft traditionally could be.
The final technological piece in the armed unmanned aircraft jigsaw came together with the fitment of air-to-ground weapons. On operations in the Balkans in the 1990s, Predator’s provided imagery that was used to cue manned aircraft to essential targets, so they could deliver weapons on them. This worked well but sometimes the manned aircraft were not readily available and hours might elapse before they were overhead. This delay meant that hostile forces could group and attack civilians or friendly forces before defensive measures could be taken. To overcome this, lightweight, small-warhead Hellfire missiles were fitted to the Predators that could be fired by the remote aircrew controllers against time-urgent targets. The range of weapons that could be fitted greatly expanded in later Predator developments but the fundamental constraint of needing to be lightweight to allow the unmanned aircraft to fly long-duration missions remained. Manned aircraft were still necessary for the battlefield situations and targets that required large warhead weapons.
In the early part of the 21st Century, armed unmanned aircraft finally came of age. This occurred with the coming together of several factors. Firstly, in the operational circumstances of the time, the air environment was much less hostile allowing simple aircraft to survive and potentially undertake meaningful roles. Secondly, there was now a pressing operational need for persistent surveillance; a task manned aircraft were unable to meet. Thirdly, aircraft technology has sufficiently mature to allow an unmanned aircraft to be controllable, navigate successfully, carry suitable sensors and incorporate satellite communications equipment. Lastly, in the internet age, once a video stream was received anywhere, it could be sent worldwide to allow anybody with an authorised computer terminal to access and use it.
After more than half-century of development, the aircraft was the easy bit. It was the electronics onboard and overboard, the ground controlling equipment, the complex support base and the large numbers of skilled staff involved at every level that made the whole operation work. It was not surprising then that defence forces pivoted to talk less of unmanned aircraft and towards terminology such as Unmanned Air Systems. Predators and their ilk were a system of systems, mostly ground-based but with one element that flew.
Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. His PhD is in grand strategy, and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. He is the author of the book Grand Strategy.
Header Image: An MQ-1 Predator, armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, on a combat mission over southern Afghanistan, c. 2008. (Source: Wikimedia)
In the most recent work to focus exclusively on air power combat operations, Colonel John Andreas Olsen of the Royal Norwegian Air Force and a visiting professor at the Swedish Defence University in Stockholm, presents a thoroughly researched, persuasive, and insightful work on the study of air power that ranges from large-scale state-on-state actions to the more abundant (some might say most likely) asymmetric fights of the late Twentieth and early Twenty-First Century. Olsen’s name should be more than familiar to anyone with a passing interest in the history of air power. He is the author/editor of numerous works including John Warden and the Renaissance of American Air Power, A History of Air Warfare, Airpower Reborn, Air Commanders, European Air Power, and Global Air Power. Aside from his prolific output, Olsen also has the ability to bring together the most respected names in air power studies to provide chapters in his edited works. The same is true for his latest book, Airpower Applied: U.S., NATO, and Israeli Combat Experience. The purpose of the book, as the title suggests, is to provide a valuation of the American, NATO, and Israeli combat experience from World War II to present campaigns. It is broken into five chapters that cover a total of twenty-nine separate air campaigns or operations. Olsen’s thesis is that ‘knowledge of operational history helps political leaders and military professionals to make better-informed decisions about the use of force.’ Thus, this work is not about ‘lessons learned’ as much as it is a learning tool used to provoke thought and create questions amongst professionals.
Richard Hallion provides the first chapter on ‘America as a Military Aerospace Nation: From Pearl Harbor to Desert Storm.’ Hallion admits that much of America’s advancement during the Cold War was owed to ‘emulation and innovation [rather] than to invention.’ That being said, American air power has moved to the forefront of technology, invention, innovation, and execution in the post-Vietnam era leading up to the dramatic successes of air power during the First Gulf War. Before this Hallion covers many previous aerial campaigns, whose success and failures led to the triumph of Operation DESERT STORM: The Second World War, the Berlin Airlift, Korea, Vietnam, ELDORADO CANYON and JUST CAUSE. Hallion’s contribution here is the best single chapter on the history of American air power from the Second World War to DESERT STORM. However, he, unfortunately, omits any discussion of the failings of Operation EAGLE CLAW, missing an opportunity to discuss the genesis of true air power jointness; this might be forgiven considering that most consider EAGLE CLAW a Special Forces operation with little to do with actual air power. Hallion also misses the mark on his discussion about the use of the F-117 in its combat debut during the operation in Panama. Hallion states ‘The F-117 strike at Rio Hato […] succeeded in stunning the PDF [Panamanian Defense Forces] defenders.’ This, however, is disputed by the Joint History Office’s report on operation JUST CAUSE which stated that ‘[D]espite radio broadcasts and the use of F-117As and other weapons to stun and intimidate them, most PDF units fought harder than expected before surrendering or fleeing.’
Hallion’s belief in the efficacy of air power is apparent when he states that ‘In the gulf it took one bomb or one missile’ to destroy a target (p. 93). This is an oversimplification and poses a danger to those who would believe it. This view of air power as scalpel needs to be tempered. Bombs and missiles miss and many targets in Iraq had to be repeatedly attacked. There is an oft-repeated axiom that they are called missiles and not hittles for a reason. That being said, Hallion’s chapter represents a concise and persuasive argument detailing just why America has become the eminent air power nation in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries and transitions nicely into the next chapter on air power since DESERT STORM.
Benjamin Lambeth provides the second chapter on ‘American and NATO Airpower Applied: From Deny Flight to Inherent Resolve.’ Lambeth demonstrates that air power in ALLIED FORCE was a ‘textbook illustration of airpower in action not to “win a war” but rather to achieve a discrete and important campaign goal short of full-fledged war’ (p. 133). However, when looked at through Hallion’s view of ROLLING THUNDER as a ‘naïve intent,’ there arises an internal inconsistency in the application of air power to achieve limited ends, something that all scholars of air power still struggle to contend with (p. 53). It seems that when air power is used for a limited goal and ‘works,’ air power scholars tend to use it as a good example and when it is used towards a limited end and fails, i.e. ROLLING THUNDER, we use that as an example of why air power should not be used towards limited ends.
Lambeth goes one bridge too far in his admittedly unfinished assessment, of the role of air power in attacking ISIS in Operation INHERENT RESOLVE. Readers in 2017 have something Lambeth did not have when he penned his chapter in 2014/2015, namely three more years of data, which seem to finally indicate that the tide against ISIS has turned and that coalition air power with the support of Iraqi and other forces on the ground have driven ISIS out of the sanctuary cities of Raqqa, Sirte, and Mosul. These campaigns, as part of the most precise air campaign in history, and while limiting civilian casualties, took time. Ironically, nearly precisely the amount of time called for by government officials in 2014 that Lambeth decried in his chapter.
The book shifts its focus here away from the NATO and American experience to two chapters on Israeli Air Force (IAF) combat operations. First, Alan Stephens writes ‘Modeling Airpower: The Arab-Israeli Wars of the Twentieth Century’ detailing the First Arab-Israeli War to the First Lebanon War in 1982. Stephens provides balance by indicating upfront that these conflicts were not only about survival for the country of Israel but the displaced Palestinians as well. Focusing more on the air power side of the conflict, Stephens asks upfront, ‘Why were the Israelis so good and the Arabs so bad?’ The answer soon becomes clear, ‘airpower is very expensive’ (p. 274). Israel exploited an ‘educated workforce, rigorous standards, advanced technology and […] exemplary training’ (p. 276). Arab air forces did not, as history, economics, and culture hindered them.
Raphael Rudnik’s and Ephraim Segoli’s next chapter, ‘The Israeli Air Force and Asymmetric Conflicts, 1982-2014,’ looks at the myriad of smaller conflicts Israel has fought since 1982. The chapter also provides linkages to conflicts Lambeth discussed, thus linking the American, NATO, and Israeli conflicts into an overarching air power learning environment. In other words, those who execute air power struggle with the same problems. Namely, as Rudnik and Segoli stated when discussing Israeli air strikes against Hezbollah, ‘[T]he large gap between its [the IAF] improved assault capabilities and its ability to identify viable targets’ in conflicts where an expressed desire of governments is minimising civilian casualties against increasingly urban enemies (p. 294). This highlights the difficulties faced by the IAF and the USAF, namely the need to prepare for ‘traditional’ air force missions versus the asymmetric conflicts of the 21st Century.
Colonel John Warden provides a final chapter that looks at ‘The Airpower Profession.’ From a certain point of view, Warden still seems to be litigating his arguments from the First Gulf War by focusing not on fielded forces, but rather on parallel warfare against the five rings, which can also be found in his work, The Air Campaign. Warden also decries the ‘cult of jointness’ (p. 343) and believes that ‘surface officers have far less motivation to concern themselves with direct strategic effects than do air professionals’ (p. 346). Warden’s real value is added when he describes the many areas needed to be understood truly by air power professionals, but more importantly, the attendant ability to articulate the importance of air power. So, what does the education of an air power professional look like? Warden casts a wide net of topics worthy of study including classical and modern military history and strategy but also includes more nuanced fields including economics, secular and religious philosophy, fiction, marketing, and advertising.
Any disagreements this author might have over omissions or discrepancies with this work are relatively minor to the overall importance and continued relevance of this well-written, eloquently argued, and nuanced study of air power operations. If one aspect of air power becomes clear, it is that the U.S., NATO, and Israel have proven their ability in large-scale state-on-state conflict, but the ability to use air power in the asymmetric fight is still being argued, some might say conceived. What is needed is more discussion and a better understanding by those in the military and national security communities on the merits and limits of air power operations in what will only become a more contested environment in the future. From the integration of unmanned aerial vehicles to peer-on-peer conflict, aerial operations will only increase, and a deep understanding of what air power can and cannot provide can only be accomplished through continued works like Airpower Applied.
Dr Brian Laslie is an Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his Masters’ from Auburn University Montgomery in 2006 and his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s 2016 professional reading list. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.
Header Image: A two-ship of Israeli Air Force F-16s from Ramon Air Base, Israel, head out to the Nevada Test and Training Range, July 17 during Red Flag Exercise 09-4, c. 2009. (Source: Wikimedia)
 Ronald H. Cole, Operation Just Cause: The Planning and Execution of Joint Operations in Panama, February 1988-January 1990 (Joint History Office, Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Washington, D.C., 1995), p. 41
On 8 June 2017, a United States Air Force (USAF) F-15E Strike Eagle shot down an Iranian-produced Shahed 129 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) over Syria, followed just twelve days later by a second identical event. Earlier this year an Israeli fighter aircraft shot down a Hamas drone, just the most recent of at least half a dozen Israeli UAV kills occurring since October 2012. The face of aerial combat has changed in this era of UAVs, or ‘drones’ as they are commonly called. Aircrew are now more likely to engage UAVs than manned fighters in current and future aerial combat.
The question of whether UAV kills should be counted as official aerial victories is unresolved and has recently been hotly debated on social media. In a small sampling of air power enthusiasts conducted by the author on Twitter, just 58% of respondents were in favour of counting UAVs as official kills that count towards ‘ace’ status (five aerial victories). Current USAF policy does not recognise UAV shoot downs as ‘kills,’ but it should. Aircrew should receive proper recognition for the destruction of an adversary’s air assets.
Based on the author’s discussion with current USAF pilots, operators, and air power historians and theorists, there are at least four clear arguments against counting UAV kills as official aerial victories that count towards ace status. First, shooting down a UAV does not require the skill associated with shooting down a manned aircraft. Second, UAVs cannot shoot back. Thus there is a limited risk in this type of engagement, a critical component of aerial combat. Third, and perhaps most importantly, there is not another pilot in the UAV, meaning the UAV cannot respond to adversary actions. Thus there is no ‘sport’ in the shoot down. Finally, there is a risk that allowing unmanned aircraft to count as official kills will open the floodgates to allow the destruction of all airborne objects to count as official aerial victories. I will provide counter-arguments to each of these points as part of my advocacy for modifying current USAF aerial victory criteria to include some classes of UAVs.
While UAVs may be relatively low and slow targets, shooting them down still requires skill and precise aerial employment. Detecting and engaging a UAV is not easy, its low altitude and speed can potentially cause problems for fighter pulsed-Doppler radars. The reduced radar cross section (RCS) of some UAVs also increases the difficulty of engagement. Shooting down a UAV requires detecting a small size and small RCS aircraft, positively identifying that aircraft (often difficult with small systems that do not emit many of the detectable signatures US aircraft typically use to identify adversary aircraft electronically), and guiding a weapon to kill the UAV. These functions; detecting, tracking, identifying, and guiding a weapon to the target are the same functions a fighter pilot would need to shoot down a MiG-29 FULCRUM or a Su-27 FLANKER. Based on my experience, most fighter pilots who have tried to engage a UAV in training or the real-world would agree that a significant amount of skill and tactical acumen is required to complete such a kill.
The third argument is that UAVs do not have a pilot in the cockpit, and thus should not be counted as an aerial victory. Virtually all UAVs, even micro UAVs and drones, have an operator who is controlling the system; few UAVs simply fly a pre-programmed route without operator input. Most UAVs, especially the larger and more capable systems, also include a crew on the ground, typically a pilot and a sensor operator, who can build situational awareness of the operational environment, react to, avoid, and attempt to counter adversary attempts to shoot it down. Additionally, this argument ignores the changing face of aerial combat. The preponderance of air assets in future conflicts are likely to be unmanned in the future.
The final argument is that inclusion of UAVs into official kill criteria will risk widening the aperture of official aerial victories to include any airborne objects. Taken to its extreme, one could imagine the destruction of a mini drone or quadcopter being counted as an official kill. The simple solution to this problem is to specifically delineate the types of UAVs that will be considered official kills.
Not all UAV or drone kills should count as official air-to-air kills; the USAF should modify its existing kill criteria to include some classes of UAVs based on size and function of the system. The Department of Defense (DOD) has defined Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) groups in their 2011 UAS Airspace Integration Plan. These groups are used to distinguish US classes of UAS’, but they also provide a useful method to make a distinction between adversary systems that should officially count as an air-to-air kill.
UAS Groups 1-3 are small airframes, have no or very limited ordnance, and are hand or catapult launched. These ‘micro UAVs’ and ‘drones’ should not officially count as a kill because of their limited ability to react or counter adversary actions, and to avoid the precedence of allowing all airborne assets to count for a kill (think about the ridiculousness of a silhouette of a remote-controlled quadcopter on the side of an F-15). UAS Groups 4 and 5, however, are UAVs that are typically operated by a pilot, are capable of medium-to-high altitude flight, longer range and endurance, beyond line-of-sight operations, and frequently carry propelled munitions that can conceivably be used for self-protection (as a frame of reference, the Shahed 129 would be classified as a Group 4 UAS). These capabilities mirror previous non-fighter aircraft which have been counted as official kills, such as heavily-armed but non-maneuverable balloons in World War I (5 of American ‘Ace of Aces’, Eddie Rickenbacker’s 26 WWI kills were balloons), cargo aircraft (IL-76 in DESERT STORM), and lightly armed helicopters (Bo-105 and Hughes 500 helicopters in DESERT STORM).
The US went 18 years between manned aircraft shoot downs, from the last MiG-29 kill of Operation ALLIED FORCE in 1999 to last week’s Su-22 FITTER kill. However, during this period UAVs have expanded exponentially in number and type, and recently have been targets for US aircrew flying over Syria defending coalition forces. It is time for the USAF, and DOD writ large, to recognise the changing character of aerial combat and designate kills on particular types of UAVs as official aerial victories. Such a decision would legitimately recognise tactical excellence in air combat and bring official aerial victory criteria up to date with changing character of 21st Century warfare.
Tyson Wetzel is a Major in the United States Air Force intelligence officer, a graduate of the United States Air Force Weapons School where he was also an instructor, and the US Marine Corps Command and Staff College. Tyson has deployed multiple times in support of Operations IRAQI FREEDOM, ENDURING FREEDOM, NEW DAWN, and NOBLE EAGLE. He is currently assigned to the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. He tweets @GetterWetzel.
Header Image: A pair of USAF F-15E Strike Eagles fly over northern Iraq early in the morning of 23 September 2014, after conducting airstrikes in Syria. These aircraft were part of a large coalition strike package that was the first to strike ISIL targets in Syria. (Source: Wikimedia)