#BookReview – Lavi: The United States, Israel and the Controversial Fighter Jet

#BookReview – Lavi: The United States, Israel and the Controversial Fighter Jet

John W. Golan, Lavi: The United States, Israel and the Controversial Fighter Jet. Lincoln NE: Potomac Books, 2016. Index. Maps. Figures. Tables. Images. Appendices. HBK. 416 pp.

Reviewed by Richard Shimooka

lavi

John Golan’s Lavi is a unique and welcome contribution to the field as the history of defence procurement, in general, remains a somewhat esoteric research area. Golan’s work focuses on the Israeli designed Lavi, a purpose-built close air support aircraft designed to replace the venerable Douglas A-4 Skyhawk in the Israeli Armed Forces (IAF) service. It had a short, bright life before the project reached an ignominious conclusion with a high stakes Israeli government cabinet meeting. Golan’s book chronicles the project’s history, drawing from a wide variety of primary sources, including documentation, interviews, and secondary sources. He effectively conveys Israel’s unique security environment and the need for a strong indigenous industrial base, which helped guide the programme’s development.

Golan’s unique background as an aviation engineer infuses his work with a different perspective than other accounts. He sews together many of the programme’s technical aspects with the project’s political, diplomatic, programme management, and doctrinal dimensions. That synthesis is rare in many accounts, which examine one or two areas and only make perfunctory acknowledgements of other areas. Lavi avoids that trap and is one of the most comprehensive treatments of a recent procurement project. The book starts by exploring the strategic and doctrinal history of the IAF that led to the project and the development of the country’s aviation industry that enabled its creation. A crucial part of these sections is how Golan highlights the experiences of various personnel, such as Benjamin Peled (p. 24) and Ezer Weizman (p. 37), who both played important roles during the Lavi’s gestation. The book then moves onto the programme’s project management, political, and technical dimensions, tracing its development until its demise. The book’s last third covers some of the post-cancellation fallout and effects.

One part of the book bears special mention: the appendixes. While most authors use them to elucidate topics not adequately addressed in the text, Golan adds nearly 100 pages covering various aspects of fighter design, performance, construction, and industrial considerations. No such comparable study exists that collects all these considerations in one place. It is the icing on top of the author’s already excellent book.

However, the account has a few shortcomings. The most apparent is how Golan addresses the factors and decision-making that led to the programme’s collapse. The book catalogues the wide array of factors that led to its cancellation, such as the desperate state of Israeli public finances in the late 1980s. However, the book largely relegates them as contributing factors throughout its narrative. Golan reserves much of the blame surrounding the programme’s collapse to US Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger. In particular, the secretary’s anti-Israeli perspective and dogged bureaucratic approach are noted as being particularly effective at convincing already reticent Israeli authorities to cancel the programme.  Golan prioritises Weinberger’s agency over all other actors and seems to give his role the preponderance of blame for the outcome.

While Weinberger undoubtedly played an obstructionist role, the Israeli government was not the only one to encounter his department’s intransigence towards multinational fighter projects. For example, the development of the Japanese Mitsubishi F-2 programme experienced similar levels of strife. Thus, any multinational programme would encounter political hurdles within the United States.

Nevertheless, Golan’s focus on the political and diplomatic aspects of the programme’s cancellation slightly underplays some of the other dynamics that affected the outcome. One is the economic and industrial trends that affected all western fighter development programmes during the latter half of the Cold War. The number of Western fighter manufacturers started to decline between the 1960s to 1980s, largely due to the rising cost of developing and producing fighters, which far outpaced normal inflation.

In isolation, Israel might have been able to absorb these cost increases. However, the fiscal realities of the state were dire, as Golan described:

At the time that Israel’s National Unity Government took office, the nation was undergoing an economic earthquake. Decades of extended defense budgets had taken their toll. Defense expenditures had always been a leading element in Israel’s national budget. In the aftermath of the 1973 war, however, Israeli defense expenditures had skyrocketed – consuming an average of 24 percent of Israel’s gross domestic product during the decade that followed. In comparison, the United States – even at the height of the war in Vietnam – devoted less than 10 percent of its GDP toward defense. The burden on Israel’s economy was unbearable, driving budget deficits and inflation to unprecedented levels. (p. 101)

Golan’s characterises the factors pertaining to the Lavi’s demise as chess pieces employed by Weinberger and his staff to cancel the fighter. However, given these desperate economic realities, it is difficult to see how the programme would continue even after the fateful cancellation of the fighter on August 31, 1987. Already there was significant support for either cancelling or curtailing Lavi purchases within the Israeli cabinet. If purchases were reduced, this would create a phenomenon known as a death spiral, where decreasing lot purchases result in higher unit costs, often leading to further reductions.

Another significant dynamic unexplored in the book is the major, ongoing doctrinal shift in the close-air support mission. Golan’s work is effusive in its praise for the Israeli fighter, often pointing out its ability to undertake this mission. However, the book fails to cover the changing threat landscape, which would pose significant challenges for the aircraft’s viability in its assigned mission.

It should be noted that these are relatively minor issues in an otherwise excellent book. Very few accounts have synthesised such a disparate but relevant array of facts to create an authoritative account of the programme. Golan’s weighting of these factors may invite some critique and debate, but that should by no means discourage anyone from reading this outstanding work.

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: IAI Lavi B-2 prototype at Muzeyon Heyl ha-Avir, Hatzerim, Israel. 2006. (Source: Wikimedia)

#HistoricBookReview – The Air War, 1930-1945

#HistoricBookReview – The Air War, 1930-1945

Richard J. Overy, The Air War, 1930-1945. Potomac Edition. Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2005. Appendices. Tables. Photographs. Notes. Bibliographic Note. Bibliography. Index. vii + 267 pp.

Reviewed by Ryan Clauser

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Few historical works have altered the course of a field of study in the way Richard Overy’s The Air War, 1939-1945 did when it was first published in 1980. When the book was published initially, air power history, as a field of academic study, was in its infancy and had been mainly regarded as the ‘Cinderella’ of military history (p. 240). However, Overy’s work transformed the historiography of air power history with his comparative study of the most important air forces of the Second World War.

The importance of Overy’s The Air War is hard to overstate, especially as the book has been reprinted twice in 1987 and 2005. In the most recent edition, that under reviewe here, Overy, now an Honorary Professor at the University of Exeter in the UK, provided the reader with new additions in the form of new statistical figures, updated research, and notes from the author. These new additions illustrate Overy’s dedication to his work and has helped keep The Air War an essential source for historians and remains one of the premier air power history texts. Since the publication of the first edition of The Air War, Overy has continued to write extensively about air power history and the history of the Second World War, including works such as Why the Allies Won (1995), The Battle of Britain: Myth and the Reality (2001), Interrogations: The Nazi Elite in the Allied Hands, 1945 (2001), The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (2013) and most recently Blood and Ruins: The Great Imperial War, 1931-1945 (2021). Potomac Books published the latest edition of The Air War as part of their Cornerstones of Military History collection.

Overy starts his work by proclaiming that ‘this is not a ‘blood and guts’ book about the air war’ (p. xiii), but rather a study that aims to compare and contrast the air forces of the warring nations along with their preparations, strategies, leadership, economics, and development. The Air War sought to provide a greater overview and understanding of the discrepancies between Allied and Axis air forces and fully explain air power’s role throughout the war.

Lancaster_B_MkI_44_Sqn_RAF_in_flight_1942
Three Avro Lancaster BMkIs of No. 44 Squadron, Royal Air Force based at Waddington in Lincolnshire, flying above the clouds, 29 September 1942. Left to right: W4125, ‘KM-W,’ being flown by Sergeant Colin Watt, Royal Australian Air Force; W4162, ‘KM-Y,’ flown by Pilot Officer T.G. Hackney (later killed while serving with No. 83 Squadron); and W4187, ‘KM-S,’ flown by Pilot Officer J.D.V.S. Stephens DFM, who was killed with his crew two nights later during a raid on Wismar. (Source: © IWM TR 197)

The Air War begins with an overview of each combatant nation’s preparations for war and their overall use of air power. Overy wrote that air power theory and doctrine had matured in the years leading up to and throughout the Second World War. These new ideas stated that air power could be used in many ways, such as: protecting naval power, close air support, strategic bombing, and air defence. For example, naval aviation was invaluable for Japan as the Imperial Japanese Navy used it to develop carrier strike forces. The development of Japanese naval air power sought to offset the advantages that western navies, such as the United States and Great Britain, held over Japan. However, for other Axis nations, naval air power was non-existent as Germany and Italy saw no merit in committing resources to build aircraft carriers. Instead, Germany and Italy subscribed to the theory that air power was best suited for a role in supporting their armies. However, the Allies crafted their air power doctrine more holistically to encompass all aspects of military aviation, including naval support, support of armies, strategic bombing, and aerial defence, all of which played critical roles in the Allied air war.

Overy breaks down the Second World War by year and the theatre of operation beginning with the early War in Europe spanning from 1939 to 1941. This section discusses Germany’s and the Axis’ initial success with close air support and air interdiction. However, Germany’s victories were quickly halted following the fall of France and the beginning of the Battle of Britain. Left as the only attacking force capable of striking the United Kingdom from occupied France, the Luftwaffe found itself in a role for which it was wholly unprepared. In contrast, the British utilised a far more general strategy to successfully defend their nation and launch a strategic bombing campaign of their own. Overy stated that, ‘the German rejection of a more general air strategy coincided with shifts in the war itself that made such a strategy more rather than less necessary’ (p. 37). While the air war was still an essential facet of the Second World War in its first two years, it had yet to fully mature on the battlefield.

For the rest of the war in Europe, 1941 to 1945, Overy explains how the allies’ general air strategy put them at a far more significant advantage in the air war compared to their Axis counterparts. As described by Overy, this generalist strategy allowed the allies to combine the many facets of air power, including aerial defence, ground and naval support, and strategic bombing, into one encompassing approach to the war in the air. This perspective also helped mature the Allies use of air power throughout the war. Further, the economics of the air war is also stressed. As Overy pointed out, the United States alone had seen a steady increase in aircraft production every year since 1942, and by 1944 they were outproducing Germany at a rate of nearly three to one in aircraft. Additionally, the Americans suffered less than half the losses of the Germans in the air throughout the war. These factors combined led the allies to victory in the air war and the war in general.

Zero_Akagi_Dec1941
An Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi A6M2 ‘Zero’ fighter takes off from the aircraft carrier ‘Akagi,’ on its way to attack Pearl Harbor during the morning of 7 December 1941. The aircraft was flown by PO2c Sakae Mori, 1st koku kantai, 1st koku sentai, and flew with the second wave. (Source: Wikimedia)

The war in the Pacific was strategically a much different conflict than the one in Europe. Japan’s approach to air power was to use it mainly as a supporting arm of its navy to create a multi-faceted naval strike force. Japan used their war with China to hone this strategy and their aviation technology. This early period of war for Japan allowed them to create a superior fighter aircraft in the Mitsubishi A6M Zero and allowed them to hold the upper hand for a time in their war against the United States and Great Britain following the attack on Pearl Harbor. As the war in the Pacific persisted, the Allies again found multiple roles for airpower and again committed to a generalist strategy in the east. Continuously, like the war in Europe, economics played an essential role in the Pacific, as even by 1941, Japan had begun realising that their economy was in short supply of the raw materials needed to fight a war. This hampered the Japanese war effort and nearly crippled its ability to produce aircraft. By the end of the war, Japan’s aircraft industry could barely replace what was being lost in combat, while the Americans kept producing increasingly better aircraft at staggeringly higher rates. Again, Overy emphasises that the Allied generalist strategies and superior economies were able to win the air war in the east.

While strategy and economics are at the heart of Overy’s work, he also delved into other aspects of the air war, including leadership, training, organisation, science, and research of each nation’s air force, all of which played a crucial role in the air war at large. Each of these additional factors was eventually influenced at some juncture in the war by the strategy and economics of each nation and how they chose to operate their air forces. Nonetheless, each of these additional factors played a significant role in the air war of the Second World War.

Throughout the course of Overy’s research, he relied heavily on official documents, public records, and memoirs of pilots, military commanders, and government officials. Overy was also fortunate to have access to various German records housed with the Imperial War Museum in London while researching the book in the 1970s. That said, while access to some sources was abundant, others, specifically those dealing with the Soviet Air Force, were scant at best and were limited to what the Soviet government saw fit to publish. Another issue in researching this project was the state of air power scholarship, which was in its infancy. Due to this, Overy was forced to depend on more general studies of aircraft, economics, and World War II for secondary sources. A problem that the publication of the book itself began to rectify. Overy also admits that he utilised fictional and popular publications to get a well-rounded perspective of the air war but did not include these works among his cited sources.

In this new edition, Overy has added a new preface in which he claims to have changed very little of his original text, but instead focused his edits on updating the charts and statistics. These illustrations show how economics influenced the air war and exhibit the discrepancies in how Allied and Axis powers produced aircraft. Also, in this newest edition, Overy included a valuable bibliographic note in which he evaluated the development of the historiography of air power and provided the authors and titles of works that have extrapolated further on the ideas laid out in the original Air War text such as tactics and leaderships and economics. Notably, among these works are Richard Davis’s Carl A. Spaatz and the Air War in Europe (1992), John Gooch’s collection of essays Airpower: Theory and Practice (1995), and John Buckley’s Air Power in the Age of Total War (1999). This section was not meant for Overy to vaunt his own influence on the field, but rather to provide readers with a greater historiographic picture of Second World War air power scholarship and show how the field has grown since 1980.

To describe The Air War as notable would be an understatement, as Overy took on the monumental task of comparing and contrasting the primary air forces of the Axis and Allied powers of the Second World War. Even from the outset of this book Overy admitted that he only spent paragraphs on what could be volumes worth of work, yet he was still somehow able to distil mass amounts of information and statistics into only 211 pages of content. From these pages, Overy concluded that the allies were able to gain the upper hand and win the air war largely because of their generalist strategic approach and superior economies. In totality, Overy’s The Air War is still among the preeminent air power works and should continue to be heralded for ushering air power history into the mainstream of academic study.

Ryan Clauser is an Adjunct Professor of History at DeSales University. He received his MA from East Stroudsburg University where he wrote his master’s thesis on restored airworthy Second World War aircraft as important pieces of historical memory that should be preserved as living monuments. He specialises in air power history and memory of the Second World War.

Header image: The Boeing B-29 Superfortress was the long range strategic bomber used be the United Sates to bomb Japan. It was the largest aircraft to have a significant operational role in the war, and remains the only aircraft in history to have ever used a nuclear weapon in combat. (Source: Wikimedia)

#Podcast – Unforgotten in the Gulf of Tonkin: An Interview with Eileen A. Bjorkman

#Podcast – Unforgotten in the Gulf of Tonkin: An Interview with Eileen A. Bjorkman

Editorial Note: From Balloons to Drones is pleased to announce our new podcast series. Led by our Editor Dr Mike Hankins, the series builds on the success of From Balloons to Drones, and 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.

In this episode, we interview Eileen A. Bjorkman, a retired Colonel in the United States Air Force. In this interview, we talk about Eileen’s latest book Unforgotten in the Gulf of Tonkin: A Story of the U.S. Military’s Commitment to Leave No One Behind. In particular, we talk about combat search and rescue operations in the Vietnam War and F-8 pilot Willie Sharp’s harrowing story.

Eileen A. Bjorkman is a former flight test engineer in the USAF with more than thirty-five years of experience and over 700 hours in the cockpits of F-4s, F-16s, C-130s, and C-141s. She is the author of The Propeller under the Bed: A Personal History of Homebuilt Aircraft and has published articles in the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Magazine, Aviation History, Sport Aviation, the Everett Daily Herald, and the Herald Business Journal.

Header Image: A US Navy Vought F-8J Crusader of VF-191 is recovered aboard the attack aircraft carrier USS Oriskany (CVA-34) in November 1970. (Source: Wikimedia)

Happy New Year and a Look Ahead

Happy New Year and a Look Ahead

By the From Balloons to Drones team

Well, 2019 is finally upon us so here is to wish all our readers and contributors a Happy New Year. We hope to continue to deliver high-quality material throughout the next year, but we can only do this if we receive contributions. As such, if you are a postgraduate student, academic, policymaker, service personnel or a relevant professional involved in researching the subject of air power and you are interested in writing, then please get in contact.

Biplanes at War

Regarding forthcoming titles, it seems as if the early part of 2019 is going to be focused on the US experience with some exciting titles being published. First up, the University of Kentucky Press is releasing the first two titles in their new ‘Aviation and Air Power’ that is edited by our very own Brian Laslie. The first titles are Wray Johnson’s Biplanes at War: US Marine Corps Aviation in the Small Wars Era, 1915-1934 and Lectures of the Air Corps Tactical School and American Strategic Bombing in World War II, which has been edited by Phil Haun.

Winning Armagedden

Next up, Naval Institute Press has another number of exciting titles coming up including William Trimble’s Admiral John S. McCain and the Triumph of Naval Air Power. Last year Naval Institute Press published Melvin Deaile’s study of the organisational culture of the USAF’s Strategic Air Command and this year they will be releasing Trevor Albertson’s Winning Armageddon: Curtis LeMay and Strategic Air Command, 1948–1957. The final title from Naval Institute Press, James Libbey’s Foundations of Russian Military Flight, 1885-1925, should be a welcome addition to the literature given the paucity of work on Russian air power in the early years of the twentieth century.

Harnessing

Several other publishers have some exciting titles on the cards including Bold Venture: The American Bombing of Japanese-Occupied Hong Kong, 1942–1945 by Steven Bailey and published by Potomac Books. Perhaps the most interesting looking title is Lori Henning’s forthcoming Harnessing the Airplane: American and British Cavalry Responses to a New Technology, 1903–1939 from the University of Oklahoma Press. This looks to be a fascinating account of how one arm of the army dealt with the rise of an innovative technology that threatened its core role.

If these books are an indication of what is coming in 2019, then we should be in for a good year regarding publications. Hopefully, many of these titles will be reviewed here on From Balloons to Drones.

Header Image: A Convair B-36B Peacemaker of the United States Air Force. (Source: National Museum of the US Air Force)