#BookReview – Airpower in the War against ISIS

#BookReview – Airpower in the War against ISIS

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.

Refueling the Fight Against ISIS
Two F-22 Raptors fly in formation behind a KC-135 Stratotanker from the 340th Expeditionary Air Refuelling Squadron during a Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve mission over Iraq, 11 April 2017. (Source: Wikimedia)

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.

A Sukhoi Su-24 of the Russian Air Force taking off from Khmeimim air base in Syria during Russia’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War. (Source: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation)

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)

#ResearchResources – Recent Articles and Books (February 2021)

#ResearchResources – Recent Articles and Books (February 2021)

Editorial note: In this series, From Balloons to Drones highlights research resources available to researchers. Contributions range from discussions of research at various archival repositories to highlighting new publications. As part of this series, are bringing you a monthly precis of new articles and books published in the field of air power history. This precis will not be exhaustive but will highlight key new works published in the preceding month. If you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here.


Kenneth W. Allen, Brendan S. Mulvaney and James Char, ‘Ongoing organizational reforms of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force,’ Journal of Strategic Studies 44, no. 2 (2021)

Since the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Central Military Commission launched a major reorganization of the entire People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in early 2016, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has followed up with its own reforms at all levels. In February 2016, the changes entailed ‘above the neck’ reforms at PLAAF Headquarters and reduced the number of Military Region Air Force Headquarters from 7 to 5, renaming them Theatre Command Air Forces. Changes in 2017 focused on ‘below the neck’ reforms by creating a ‘base-brigade’ structure by reforming several command posts into bases; abolishing fighter, fighter-bomber, and ground attack aircraft air divisions; replacing air regiments with brigades; as well as changing the name of its former 15th Airborne Corps to Airborne Corps. Whilst the PLA leadership has moved ahead with pushing the PLAAF towards becoming a modern air force with enhanced aerial power alongside greater interoperability with the other PLA services, the reconstitution of its organizations has nevertheless led to a fallout due to policy changes concerning its rank-and-file.

David Devereux, ‘Jets across the Atlantic?: Britain and its civil aviation industry, 1945–63,’ Journal of Transatlantic Studies (2021). https://doi.org/10.1057/s42738-020-00065-8

Britain emerged from the Second World War with a huge aviation industry dedicated primarily to military production. During the war, in agreement with the USA, Britain used US transport aircraft, thereby giving the USA a huge potential advantage in post-war civil aviation. Nevertheless, during the war Britain charted a course of aircraft development that would allow new, competitive civil aircraft to be in place by 1950. Under the Labour government of 1945–51, Britain imposed a “Fly British” policy to encourage production of civil aircraft and required the national airlines to buy British aircraft. However, American competition, the demands of rearmament and the tightly controlled ordering process for civil and military aircraft made the production of British civil aircraft costly and uncompetitive. Faced with changing technology, rising costs and the development of US jet aircraft, the British aviation industry was forced into a radical consolidation by the Macmillan government.

Liam Kane, ‘Allied air intelligence in the South West Pacific Area, 1942-1945,’ Journal of Intelligence History, (2021). DOI: 10.1080/16161262.2021.1884793

This article provides the first account of air intelligence in the South West Pacific Area during the Second World War. Centring on the organisational aspects of intelligence-gathering, analysis, and dissemination, it brings the Directorate of Intelligence within the combined Royal Australian Air Force-US Army Air Force Allied Air Forces into sharp focus. This article argues that Australian-American cooperation in air intelligence was shaped by strategic circumstances, the balance of Allied air forces in the theatre, and personal relations between intelligence personnel. Though cooperation in air intelligence largely ended on a sour note in late 1944 when the Australians were largely excluded from the US-led second Philippines campaign and the Directorate of Intelligence was essentially dissolved, this article demonstrates that the Directorate became a sophisticated, if under-appreciated, intelligence organisation by mid-1943.

Andrew Williams, ‘French airmen and the challenges of post-war order: francophone literary figures during the second world war,’ Journal of Transatlantic Studies (2021). https://doi.org/10.1057/s42738-020-00062-x

This paper will examine the political thought of a selection of literary figures who fought in the Free French air forces during the Second World War: Romain Gary, Joseph Kessel and Antoine de St Exupery, all of whom fought under the Free French colours in the Royal Air Force. I intend to show how the literary output of these writers all, in their different ways, reflected the feelings of humiliation felt by the French in exile about the defeat of 1940, and how they suggested ways for France to recover in the post-war era. Their thinking about French domestic politics, their Allies (especially the British) and the future of Europe are all dominant themes. The writings of all of these personalities also reflect a strong belief in a future European détente in which the British and Americans have a lesser role than the one they often envisaged for themselves in the Washington-based ‘post-war planning’ process.


Jan Forsgren, The Fieseler Fi 156 Storch: The First STOL Aircraft (Stroud: Fonthill Media, 2021). 

First flown in May 1936, the Fieseler Fi 156, or Storch (Stork) as it was better known, was designed in answer to a request from the Luftwaffe for a short-range reconnaissance aircraft.

For its time, the Fi 156 had amazing performance and flight characteristics for what today is known as STOL (Short Take-Off and Landing). It could take-off from a lawn considerably smaller than a football field.

During the Second World War, the ubiquitous Storch was the airborne eyes of the German Wehrmacht (Army) and was also used on daring missions, including the rescue of Mussolini, the Italian dictator.

One of the last flights into Berlin was made in a Storch. Many were sold to Germany’s allies while one was used by Churchill after D-Day to observe the progress of the invasion. Others were used by the RAF as squadron ‘hacks’ with one being flown off an aircraft carrier.

The STOL concept was copied by many countries, including France, Japan and the USSR. Post-war, production continued in Czechoslovakia, France and Romania with more than 3,000 built. Some are still today flying.

Mark Lardas, Battle of the Atlantic 1942-45: The climax of World War II’s greatest naval campaign (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2021).

As 1942 opened, both Nazi Germany and the Allies were ready for the climactic battles of the Atlantic to begin. Germany had 91 operational U-boats, and over 150 in training or trials. Production for 1942-44 was planned to exceed 200 boats annually. Karl Dönitz, running the Kriegsmarine’s U-boat arm, would finally have the numbers needed to run the tonnage war he wanted against the Allies.

Meanwhile, the British had, at last, assembled the solution to the U-boat peril. Its weapons and detection systems had improved to the stage that maritime patrol aircraft could launch deadly attacks on U-boats day and night. Airborne radar, Leigh lights, Magnetic Anomaly Detection (MAD) and the Fido homing torpedo all turned the anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft into a submarine-killer, while shore and ship-based technologies such as high-frequency direction finding and signals intelligence could now help aircraft find enemy U-boats. Following its entry into the war in 1941, the United States had also thrown its industrial muscle behind the campaign, supplying VLR Liberator bombers to the RAF and escort carriers to the Royal Navy. The US Navy also operated anti-submarine patrol blimps and VLR aircraft in the southern and western Atlantic, and sent its own escort carriers to guard convoys.

This book, the second of two volumes, explores the climactic events of the Battle of the Atlantic, and reveals how air power – both maritime patrol aircraft and carrier aircraft – ultimately proved to be the Allies’ most important weapon in one of the most bitterly fought naval campaigns of World War II.

Colin Pateman, Arming for Accuracy: RAF Bomb Aimers of the Second World War (Stroud: Fonthill Media, 2021).

During the Second World War, Bomber Command witnessed the large four-engine ‘heavy bombers’, namely the Handley Page Halifax, Short Stirling and Avro Lancaster develop into significant bomb-carrying platforms.

Arming for Accuracy: RAF Bomb Aimers During the Second World War studies the origin of bomb aimers, their training and the complexity of dropping many types of ordinance. Technical and scientific developments are examined to provide an understanding that enabled the bomb-aimers wing to be awarded to the men who volunteered.

Accounts of dangerous operational flying will be revealed by bomb aimers in numerous aircraft. This book will examine true accounts that took place, and many are based upon personal flying logbooks and other unique material originating from the aircrew.

David Stumpf, Minuteman: A Technical History of the Missile that Defined American Nuclear Warfare (Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 2020).       

In Minuteman: A Technical History of the Missile That Defined American Nuclear Warfare, David K. Stumpf demystifies the intercontinental ballistic missile program that was conceived at the end of the Eisenhower administration as a key component of the US nuclear strategy of massive retaliation. Although its nuclear warhead may have lacked power relative to that of the Titan II, the Minuteman more than made up for this in terms of numbers and readiness to launch—making it the ultimate ICBM.

Minuteman offers a fascinating look at the technological breakthroughs necessary to field this weapon system that has served as a powerful component of the strategic nuclear triad for more than half a century. With exacting detail, Stumpf examines the construction of launch and launch control facilities; innovations in solid propellant, lightweight inertial guidance systems, and lightweight reentry vehicle development; and key flight tests and operational flight programs—all while situating the Minuteman program in the context of world events. In doing so, the author reveals how the historic missile has adapted to changing defense strategies—from counterforce to mutually assured destruction to sufficiency.

Becca Wasser, Stacie L. Pettyjohn, Jeffrey Martini, Alexandra T. Evans, Karl P. Mueller, Nathaniel Edenfield, Gabrielle Tarini, Ryan Haberman, and Jalen Zeman, The Air War Against The Islamic State: The Role of Airpower in Operation Inherent Resolve (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2021).

Airpower played a pivotal role in the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from 2014 to 2019 and contributed to the success of Operation Inherent Resolve. This report sheds light on the impact of the air operations in Operation Inherent Resolve and whether airpower could have been applied differently to achieve faster, more-sustainable outcomes. The authors incorporate interviews with U.S. and coalition personnel, primary-source documents, and U.S. and coalition strike and sortie data to document the operational history of the air war, assess the relationship between airpower effects, and analyze the strategic and operational impact of airpower in Operation Inherent Resolve.

The authors find that, although airpower played an essential role in combating ISIS, airpower alone would not have been likely to defeat the militant organization. Instead, the combination of airpower and ground forces—led by Iraqi and Syrian partners—was needed to destroy the Islamic State as a territorial entity. The overarching strategy of Operation Inherent Resolve, which put ground-force partners in the lead, created several challenges and innovations in the application of airpower, which have implications for future air wars. To be prepared to meet future demands against nonstate and near-peer adversaries, the U.S. Air Force and the joint force should apply lessons learned from Operation Inherent Resolve.

Brent Ziarnick, To Rule the Skies: General Thomas S. Power and the Rise of Strategic Air Command in the Cold War (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2021).

To Rule the Skies: General Thomas S. Power and the Rise of Strategic Air Command in the Cold War fills a critical gap in Cold War and Air Force history by telling the story of General Thomas S. Power for the first time. Thomas Power was second only to Curtis LeMay in forming the Strategic Air Command (SAC), one of the premier combat organizations of the twentieth century, but he is rarely mentioned today. What little is written about Power describes him as LeMay’s willing hatchet man—uneducated, unimaginative, autocratic, and sadistic. Based on extensive archival research, General Power seeks to overturn this appraisal.Brent D. Ziarnick covers the span of both Power’s personal and professional life and challenges many of the myths of conventional knowledge about him. Denied college because his middle-class immigrant family imploded while he was still in school, Power worked in New York City construction while studying for the Flying Cadet examination at night in the New York Public Library. As a young pilot, Power participated in some of the Army Air Corps’ most storied operations. In the interwar years, his family connections allowed Power to interact with American Wall Street millionaires and the British aristocracy. Confined to training combat aircrews in the United States for most of World War II, Power proved his combat leadership as a bombing wing commander by planning and leading the firebombing of Tokyo for Gen. Curtis LeMay. After the war, Power helped LeMay transform the Air Force into the aerospace force America needed during the Cold War. A master of strategic air warfare, he aided in establishing SAC as the Free World’s “Big Stick” against Soviet aggression. Far from being unimaginative, Power led the incorporation of the nuclear weapon, the intercontinental ballistic missile, the airborne alert, and the Single Integrated Operational Plan into America’s deterrent posture as Air Research and Development Command commander and both the vice commander and commander-in-chief of SAC. Most importantly, Power led SAC through the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Even after retirement, Power as a New York Times bestselling author brought his message of deterrence through strength to the nation.

Ziarnick points out how Power’s impact may continue in the future. Power’s peerless, but suppressed, vision of the Air Force and the nation in space is recounted in detail, placing Power firmly as a forgotten space visionary and role model for both the Air Force and the new Space Force. To Rule the Skies is an important contribution to the history of the Cold War and beyond.

#BookReview – Routledge Handbook of Air Power

#BookReview – Routledge Handbook of Air Power

By Dr Ross Mahoney

John Andreas Olsen (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Air Power. Abingdon: Routledge, 2018. References. Index. xix + 405 pp. Hbk.

Hanbook of Air Power

It is often challenging to name a single person who is a critical figure within any discipline, and as I reflected here, this is also the case with air power studies if such a discipline exists. Despite this, one individual who has made an indelible impact on air power studies over the past couple of decades is Colonel Professor John Andreas Olsen. As well as publishing several studies on Operation DESERT STORM and Colonel John Warden III, Olsen has successfully published a series of edited works that have focused on several aspects of air power. The importance of these works is that Olsen has been able to bring together leading scholars to write about critical themes concerning the use and development of air power. In this latest edited volume, Olsen has, once again, brought together a line-up of prominent scholars and military practitioners who are at the forefront of researching air power.

This book seeks to ‘improve knowledge of and insight into the phenomena of aerospace power.’ (p. 8) Indeed, as Olsen reflects, air power is more than just ‘aircraft, weapons systems and bombing.’ (p. 5) Recognising this, Olsen further notes that any analysis of air power must also encompass, though not limited to, issues such as ‘training, education, values, rules of engagement, leadership, adaptability, boldness in execution, and a range of other factors, tangible and non-tangible, that influence a military operation.’ (p. 5) It is around this broad definition that this book is designed. The book’s design reflects Sir Michael Howard’s sage words that military history, and by default military affairs in general, should be studied in breadth, depth, and context. As such, the book is split into five sections that in turn deal with themes related to Howard’s advice. In providing a coherent pedagogical purpose to the book, Olsen has at least tried to provide some form and flow to the volume, which can often be a challenging prospect with any edited book.

The first section deals with the essence of air power and provides the breadth aspect for this volume. The section consists of six chapters dealing with air power anatomy, theory, history, high command, science and technology and ethics and international law. Each author is well placed to write their respective chapters, and each provides a useful overview of his subject. For example, Peter Gray provides an excellent strategic overview of the critical trajectory of air power history (pp. 70-80) while Philip Meilinger (pp. 35-45) discusses some of the essential themes evident in one hundred years or so of air power theory.

The second and third sections provide the depth to this volume by exploring critical aspects related to the delivery and application of air power. It is in these sections where we see the greatest mix between academics and military practitioners in the volume. Of the 12 contributors to these sections, seven are currently serving officers ranging from a two-star officer, Air Vice-Marshal Richard Knighton of the Royal Air Force (RAF) through to two Wing Commanders from the Royal Australian Air Force, Travis Hallen and Chris McInnes.  The first section on delivering air power focuses on issues such as control of the air, command and control and logistics. It is good to see the latter included as it is clear, as Knighton concludes, that the logistical requirements of air power are not ‘well understood.’ (p. 151) The section on applying air power deals with the integration of air power with the other domains including space and cyber and each provides a good overview of the issues related to these topics.

Exercise Pitch Black 18
A Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18F Super Hornet from No. 1 Squadron (top) in formation with a SU-30MKI Flanker aircraft from the Indian Air Force during Exercise Pitch Black 18.(Source: Australian Department of Defence)

The final two sections provide the context to this volume by exploring issues related to the political-social-economic environment in which air power operates as well as a section on national case studies. The latter section includes some interesting selections including chapters on Indian, Pakistani, Brazilian and Japanese air power. Some might argue that chapters should have been included that dealt with, for example, the US, UK, and other European nations. However, this book needs to be read in conjunction with other edited volumes by Olsen, such as Global Air Power (2011) and European Air Power (2014) where you will find chapters dealing with these nations. As such, it makes a refreshing change to see other examples included in this volume. The section on the political-social-economic environment includes some exciting chapters dealing with the political effect of air power and coercive diplomacy. As Michael Clarke (p. 237) argues, air power is a potent weapon but needs to be used carefully to help achieve a political effect. This view is mirrored by Karl Mueller who notes that ‘aerial bombing was not a panacea for preventing wars.’ (p. 252) Indeed, perhaps the critical criticism of air power thinkers has been their overestimation of the capability available to them as well as the place of military aviation within the toolbox of national power.

While there is much to praise in this work, there are no doubt some gaps that require some reflection. The first is a comment on authors, and this is not so much a direct criticism of the book but rather a comment on the state of the discipline at this moment in time. The book has been authored entirely by male academics or serving officers who, as already noted, are eminently qualified to write their various contributions. However, the lack of female contributors is disappointing especially as there are female academics and serving personnel writing about air power. Indeed, the issue of male dominance of the discipline is one we are well aware of here at From Balloons to Drones – all the editors and assistant editors are men. Indeed, at From Balloons to Drones we hope to continue to offer opportunities for all to contribute to the discussion about air power. Building on the above reflection is also the fact that each of the authors in this volume has some form of relationship with the military. They are either serving or retired officers, teach, or have taught within the professional military education (PME) ecosystem, or work for a think-tank associated with the military, such as RAND. If this sample of authors in this volume is indicative of the discipline, then the study of air power still struggles from the problem identified 20 years ago by John Ferris who wrote that:

[those studying air power are either] the children of airmen, have been military personnel themselves, and have been employed at a historical office or service school in Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, or the United States.[1]If this remains the case, there remains an open question as to how we broaden out the discipline to avoid accusations such as the weaponisation of the past. Linked to this, of course, is the question of what a broader and more diverse perspective on air power would bring to the discipline.

Regarding content, several areas could have further strengthened this volume. For example, it is curious that the quote above concerning what encompasses the study of air power begins with training and education; however, neither subject is present in this volume. Concerning education, its omission is even more curious given the focus on the so-called conceptual component in programmes such as the RAF’s Thinking to Win, Plan Jericho in Australia, and the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Airpower in Formation. Interestingly, and perhaps indicative of the perceived importance of this volume, there is a paperback version of this book that has been produced in conjunction with the RAF’s Centre for Air and Space Power Studies and includes the Thinking to Win logo. However, as Meilinger reflected in his chapter, ‘[N]eeded are airmen well grounded in all aspects of air warfare, including the theoretical.’ (p. 44) If this is the case, then it follows that the provision of high-quality air power education is critical, and a chapter on this subject would have been valuable. Other chapters that could have been included include the culture of air forces and leadership as opposed to Stephens’ (pp. 24-34) focus on high-command. Indeed, it is often remarked that air forces are somehow different to army and navies in their outlook. If this is the case, then an examination of the culture of air forces and issues such as leadership would have further enriched this volume.

Overall, despite my criticisms above, this is an excellent and essential contribution to our understanding of air power. As noted, the pedagogic layout of the book helps give the volume purpose that leads the reader through many critical issues related to air power. As such, while the book’s primary market will undoubtedly be serving air force personnel involved in PME and training activities, there is enough in this volume that other interested readers will gain much from this collection.

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

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

Header Image: An RAF F-35B Lightning from No. 617 Squadron stationed at RAF Marham. This aircraft is performing a hover manoeuvre during the Royal International Air Tattoo in 2018. (Source: UK MoD Defence Imagery)