#ResearchResources – Recent Articles and Books

#ResearchResources – Recent Articles and Books

Editorial note: In this new series of posts, From Balloons to Drones plans to highlight research resources available to researchers. Contributions will range from discussions of research at various archival repositories through to highlighting new publications. As part of this series, we plan to bring 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.

Articles

Kwong Chi Man, “Debating ‘Douhetism’: Competing Airpower Theories in Republican China, 1928–1945,’ War in History 28, no. 1 (2021).

This article sheds lights on the difficulty faced by the minor powers when they were trying to build an effective air force during the interwar period (1919–1939) and the Second World War, using the experience of Chinese military aviation as an example. It argues that the Chinese were heavily influenced by the ideas of decisive action and strategic bombing, as well as similar ideas that were attributed (sometimes incorrectly) to the Italian General and air proponent Giulio Douhet. Only the harsh lessons of the war gradually persuaded the Chinese to adopt a more realistic approach to using air power.

Dan Ellin, ‘A ‘Lack of Moral Fibre’ in Royal Air Force Bomber Command and Popular Culture,’ British Journal for Military History 6, no. 3 (2020).

Royal Air Force aircrew endured mental and physical stresses during bombing operations. Their chances of completing a tour of operations unscathed were around one in four, and many were aware the chances were slim. Some who refused to fly were accused of ‘lacking moral fibre’ (LMF). Although this was not a medical diagnosis it is frequently viewed through the lens of mental health and reactions to trauma and it has become a powerful and important cultural phenomenon. This article re-examines LMF in the culture of the wartime Royal Air Force, before considering how and why LMF is remembered by veterans and in popular histories since the war.

James Halstead, ‘Air Power and Allenby’s Army: Arms in Palestine 1917–1918,’ War in History, (2020).

Historians have overlooked the important role played by airpower in combined arms during the Palestine Campaign, 1917–1918. This article argues the Egyptian Expeditionary Force adopted Western Front command structures, successfully integrating airpower within their command and control systems. Tactical and strategic airpower provided intelligence which allowed Corps and Army Headquarters to control the tempo of operations, while ground attack operations disrupted Ottoman command and control arrangements. This integration made a clear contribution to the success of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force at the crucial battles of Third Gaza and Megiddo.

William Head, ‘The Triangle of Iron and Rubber: Ground Actions and Airpower during Operation Attleboro,’ Air Power History 67, no. 4 (2020).

No abstract provided.

Christian Moldjord, Paal Frederiksen, and Larry Browning, ‘Fear and Pride Among Fighter Pilots: Combat Emotions During a Bombing Campaign,’ Armed Forces & Society, (2021), doi:10.1177/0095327X20986925.

This article analyzes the combat emotions of Royal Norwegian Air Force Fighter pilots (hereafter RNoAF) during their bombing campaign over Libya in 2011. Using grounded theory in our interviews with them, we identified 12 categories of their emotions and behaviors, with variations in pride and fear emerging as the two key themes. We show how those two emotions thread through the literature of emotions in combat, and show further how our data, and the resulting matrix from an analysis of it, both apply to and extend that literature. We also show how the high and low variations of pride and fear interact to both support and counter each other. Our findings thus make an important contribution to the combat emotions literature on the action and behavior of fighter pilots.

Samuel Oyewole, ‘Struck and killed in Nigerian Air Force’s campaigns: Assessment of airstrike locations, targets and impacts in internal security operations,’ African Security Review, (2021) DOI: 10.1080/10246029.2020.1859394

The involvement of the air force in a series of Joint Task Force (JTF) arrangements, which were initiated to neutralise various security threats, accounted for a growing record of air campaigns in Nigeria. Although there is growing public attention for airpower in Nigeria, its operational relevance and associated concerns have received inadequate academic attention. Accordingly, the understanding of recent developments in Nigeria’s air campaigns to neutralise targeted threats against security across the country remains largely limited and incoherent. This study, therefore, seeks to examine trends in air campaigns, with emphasis on cases, locations, targets and impacts of airstrike, in Nigeria. For this purpose, 241 cases of airstrike with 3,210 fatalities and 273 cases of air/land operations with 2,186 fatalities that were recorded across Nigeria in the last two decades were assessed. This is expected to contribute to a growing body of knowledge on air campaigns of the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) as well as their relevance to neutralise targeted threats and associated human rights concerns in internal security operations.

Matthew Powell, ‘Debate, Discussion, and Disagreement: A Reassessment of the Development of British Tactical Air Power Doctrine, 1919–1940,’ War in History 28, no. 1 (2021).

This article investigates the work conducted by the Royal Air Force (RAF) in the development of tactical air power in the interwar period. It analyses the RAF’s theoretical doctrinal thinking during the period along with exercises conducted on a joint Service basis to further develop these ideas in practice. It will argue that, rather than neglecting tactical air power during this period as is the accepted view, much good theoretical work was done that formed a theoretical and intellectual basis for the further development of tactical air power in the light of operational experience during the Second World War.

Theo Van Geffen, ‘The Air War against North Vietnam: the Thanh Hoa Railroad and Highway Bridge (Part 6, Conclusion),’ Air Power History 67, no. 4 (2020).

No abstract provided.

Darrel Whitcomb, ‘1972 – US Army Air Cavalry to the Rescue in Vietnam,’ Air Power History 67, no. 4 (2020).

No abstract provided.

James Young, ‘The U.S. Air Force’s Long Range Detection Program and Project MOGUL,’ Air Power History 67, no. 4 (2020).

No abstract provided.

Books

Frank Blazich, “An Honorable Place in American Air Power” Civil Air Patrol Coastal Patrol Operations, 1942–1943 (Maxwell, AL: Air University Press, 2020).

Author Frank Blazich has spent years researching and compiling disparate records of Civil Air Patrol’s short-lived–but influential–coastal patrol operations of World War II, which he synthesizes into the first scholarly monograph that cements the legacy of this unique and vital wartime civil-military cooperative effort.

Benjamin Lambeth, Airpower in the War against ISIS (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2020).

Airpower in the War against ISIS chronicles the planning and conduct of Operation Inherent Resolve by U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) from August 2014 to mid-2018, with a principal focus on the contributions of U.S. Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT). Benjamin S. Lambeth contends that the war’s costly and excessive duration resulted from CENTCOM’s inaccurate assessment of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), determining it was simply a resurrected Iraqi insurgency rather than recognizing it as the emerging proto-state that it actually was. This erroneous decision, Lambeth argues, saw the application of an inappropriate counterinsurgency strategy and use of rules of engagement that imposed needless restrictions on the most effective use of the precision air assets at CENTCOM’s disposal. The author, through expert analysis of recent history, forcefully argues that CENTCOM erred badly by not using its ample air assets at the outset not merely for supporting Iraq’s initially noncombat-ready ground troops but also in an independent and uncompromising strategic interdiction campaign against ISIS’s most vital center-of-gravity targets in Syria from the effort’s first moments onward.

Richard Mead, Dambuster-in-chief: The Life of Air Chief Marshal Sir Ralph Cochrane (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2020).

Ralph Cochrane was born in 1895 into a distinguished naval family. After joining the Royal Navy, he volunteered in 1915 to serve with the RNAS in airships and was an early winner of the Air Force Cross. In 1918 he transferred to the fledgling RAF and learnt to fly, serving in Iraq as a flight commander under ‘Bomber’ Harris. His inter-war career saw him as a squadron commander in Aden before he became the first Chief of Air Staff of the Royal New Zealand Air Force. During the Second World War he served mainly in Bomber Command and commanded 5 Group from early 1943. He formed 617 Squadron and was instrumental in planning the legendary Dambuster Raid, the most spectacular of the War, as well as the sinking of the battleship Tirpitz. An inspirational leader, he trained 5 Group in low level target marking skills. Post war Cochrane held a string of senior appointments commanding Transport Command, Flying Training Command and finally as Vice Chief of Air Staff, retiring in 1952. He died in 1977.

Steven Paget (ed.), Allies in Air Power: A History of Multinational Air Operations (Lexington, KT: The University Press of Kentucky, 2020).

In the past century, multinational military operations have become the norm; but while contributions from different nations provide many benefits — from expanded capability to political credibility — they also present a number of challenges. Issues such as command and control, communications, equipment standardization, intelligence, logistics, planning, tactics, and training all require consideration. Cultural factors present challenges as well, particularly when language barriers are involved.

In Allies in Air Power, experts from around the world survey these operations from the birth of aviation to the present day. Chapters cover conflicts including World War I, multiple theaters of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, Kosovo, the Iraq War, and various United Nations peacekeeping missions. Contributors also analyze the role of organizations such as the UN, NATO, and so-called “coalitions of the willing” in laying the groundwork for multinational air operations.

While multinational military action has become commonplace, there have been few detailed studies of air power cooperation over a prolonged period or across multiple conflicts. The case studies in this volume not only assess the effectiveness of multinational operations over time, but also provide vital insights into how they may be improved in the future.

Randall Wakelam, David Varey, and Emanuele Sica (eds.), Educating Air Forces: Global Perspectives on Airpower Learning (Lexington, KT: The University Press of Kentucky, 2020).

Compared to armies and navies, which have existed as professional fighting services for centuries, the technology that makes air forces possible is much newer. As a result, these services have had to quickly develop methods of preparing aviators to operate in conditions ranging from peace or routine security to full-scale war. The first book to address the history and scope of air power professionalization through learning programs, Educating Air Forces offers valuable new insight into strategy and tactics worldwide.

Here, a group of international experts examine the philosophies, policies, and practices of air service educational efforts in the United States, France, Italy, Germany, Australia, Canada, and the UK. The contributors discuss the founding, successes, and failures of European air force learning programs between the Great War and World War II and explore how the tense Cold War political climate influenced the creation, curriculum, and results of various programs. They also consider how educational programs are adapting to soldiers’ needs and the demands of modern warfare.

Featuring contributions from eminent scholars in the field, this volume surveys the learning approaches globally employed by air forces in the past century and evaluates their effectiveness. Educating Air Forces reveals how experiential learning and formal education are not only inextricably intertwined, but also necessary to cope with advances in modern warfare.

Darrel Whitcomb, Moral Imperative: 1972, Combat Rescue, and the End of America’s War in Vietnam (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2021).

In 1972, America was completing its withdrawal from the long and divisive war in Vietnam. Air power covered the departure of ground forces, and search and rescue teams from all services and Air America covered the airmen and soldiers still in the fight. Day and night these military and civilian aircrews stood alert to respond to “Mayday” calls. The rescue forces were the answer to every mans prayer, and those forces brought home airmen, sailors, marines, and soldiers downed or trapped across the breadth and depth of the entire Southeast Asia theater. Moral Imperative relies on a trove of declassified documents and unit histories to tell their tales.

Focusing on 1972, Darrel Whitcomb combines stories of soldiers cut off from their units, advisors trapped with allied forces, and airmen downed deep in enemy territory, with the narratives of the US Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines, contract pilots, and special operations teams ready to conduct rescues in Laos, Cambodia, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam. All of these missions occur against the backdrop of our withdrawal from the war and our diplomatic efforts to achieve a lasting peace. In detail, Whitcomb shows how American rescue forces supported the military response to the North Vietnamese’s massive three-pronged invasion of South Vietnam, America’s subsequent interdiction operations against North Vietnam, and ultimately the strategic bombing of Linebacker II.

#BookReview – Selling Schweinfurt: Targeting, Assessment, and Marketing in the Air Campaign Against German Industry

#BookReview – Selling Schweinfurt: Targeting, Assessment, and Marketing in the Air Campaign Against German Industry

Brian D. Vlaun, Selling Schweinfurt: Targeting, Assessment, and Marketing in the Air Campaign Against German Industry. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2020. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. xiii + 320 pp.

Reviewed by Bryant Macfarlane

With Selling Schweinfurt Brian D. Vlaun, a Colonel and command pilot in the United States Air Force offers readers a history of air intelligence development of the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) with two mutually supporting goals. First, the American conception of a strategically-minded independent air power arm that ‘was well suited to the limitations of the political will, manpower pool, and military-industrial complex of the United States’ (pp. 5-6) required unquestionable battlefield impacts from bombing offensives to be politically viable. Second, providing such indisputable effects required an intellectual cadre (p. 6) of ‘academics, industrialists, lawyers, and wartime-civilian-turned-military officers who shaped the targeting decisions and air campaign assessments.’ Vlaun centres his analysis around Major General Ira C. Eaker’s US Eighth Air Force and the 1943 Allied Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO) that was intended to cripple German industrial and economic systems and establish air superiority over Europe. Leveraging thousands of declassified American and British documents, Vlaun draws upon nearly forty primary and over one hundred secondary sources to present a well-researched and highly accessible work. Vlaun pulls back the curtain on how doctrine writers or a commander’s staff profoundly impact the conception of problems and possible solutions available to a commander – especially when those organisations are vying for influence.

Selling Schweinfurt is organised chronologically along five chapters. Chapter one focuses on the development of strategic air power doctrine and requirements in the interwar years. Here, Vlaun provides the backstory on how and why US air intelligence (A2) and doctrine developed organically before sending liaisons to Britain in 1941 to observe and shape American efforts to establish a robust and capable air intelligence capacity. With the realisation that the USAAF was the most mobilised portion of the American Army, and with aviation’s ability to operate from friendly territory while actively contributing to the war in Europe, the chapter concludes with the establishment of the Eighth Air Force and the initial combat development of ‘effective’ American bombing.

Chapter two begins with acknowledging USAAF leaders that the A2 enterprise they created was too young to provide the type of in-depth strategic analysis required to ensure that the bombing efforts of the Eighth Air Force were contributing effectively to the demise of the German war-industry. In Washington and Britain, USAAF leaders turned to lawyers, bankers, economists, and industrialists to serve as a bulwark for their intelligence gaps. However, as these groups worked independently of one another and mainly without oversight, their analysis focused on gaining influence in targeting decisions and building analyses that dovetailed the specific leaders’ perspective for whom they were working. While civilian analysts argued for industrial targets, the USAAF continued to bombard U-boat pens and provide coastal patrols in what would prove to be a very futile effort to stave off German anti-shipping capacity. The chapter concludes with the January 1943 Casablanca conference that maintained a parallel but independent USAAF command and shifted more responsibility for targeting decisions onto American A2.

A formation of Boeing B-17Fs over Schweinfurt, Germany, on 17 August 1943. (Source: National Museum of the USAF)

Chapter three examines the targeting choices and the Eighth Air Forces’ demonstrated results supporting Operation POINTBLANK – the Allied campaign against the German industrial base – during the first trimester of 1943. Arguably, this period was essential to the foundational honing of aircrew skillsets; however, the period uncovered USAAF leaders’ inability to quantify results in attacking industrial targets in Germany. By the May 1943 Trident Conference, the CBO’s limited successes were doubled down upon by the Allied leadership as military and civil leaders concurred that Western European ‘air superiority was to be a joint problem and a necessary precondition for success.’ (p. 103) Trident approved a reallocation of the CBO towards German war-industries with a secondary focus on single-engine aircraft production. Air superiority was a way of preparing Western Europe for the upcoming OVERLORD invasion and pulling German air power away from the Eastern front to ease pressure on the Soviets.

Chapter four addresses the understanding that both the Americans and Germans were realising the limitations of manpower in their ability to mobilise continually, train, and deploy forces while maintaining industrial capacity. By mid-August 1943, the Americans had successfully targeted ball-bearing factories in Schweinfurt and V-weapons at Peenemünde. Despite the successful raid into Schweinfurt, scientists and political entities shifted Allied CBO priorities towards a continued focus on V-Weapons. Despite their distributed nature that limited their susceptibility to aerial bombardment, the ‘political objectives, public outrage, intelligence prestige, and strategic interaction’ colluded to darken ‘Allied airman’s hopes for victory through airpower alone.’ (p. 162)

Chapter five focuses on the successful recognition of an air-minded specialist intelligence organisation within the American War Department. While industrial raids such as Schweinfurt had proven the need for an independent A2 and G2, the Eighth Air Force’s lack of demonstratable progress led to questioning the capability of the commander of the Eighth. While the Allied CBO losses had proven the necessity of fighter escorts to the most devout adherents of the bomber’s supremacy, the intelligence analysts pinned their hopes to continued pressure on the German industry regardless of the operational realities of the CBO. In assessing the outcomes of 1943, the USAAF’s leadership chose to articulate the failure of the Eighth Air Force commander’s ‘lack of creativity and flexibility as he had underutilised and underperformed the forces he commanded’ (p. 198) instead of accepting an under-resourced and doctrinally unsound conception of the CBO from the outset.

Vlaun concludes with a compelling argument that ‘the growth of airpower cannot be thoroughly comprehended without an understanding of the maturation of its air intelligence component.’ (p. 207) While it is clear that air power proponents doggedly pursued a course to demonstrate the suasive power of strategic bombing, it is also clear that no conclusive evidence exists in the post-war analysis that industrial attacks created or exacerbated materiel bottlenecks. This is not to say that air power is without operative function.

As just one element of military power, airpower offers a means to fight at a lower cost to friendly forces along with potential for less political entanglement [however] the promise of airpower brings along with it a robust air intelligence requirement – one that starts well before bombing and continues after hostilities cease. (p. 210)

Vlaun cautions the reader against assuming that modernisation or technology is a panacea to creating an intelligence capacity for identifying the ‘perfect target.’ If Selling Schweinfurt has anything to convey, decisions are influenced by organisational determination of which data to impart. Vlaun is clear that commanders must retain perspective in targeting decisions and align intelligence roles and responsibilities with operational and strategic imperatives.

If Vlaun’s effort is to be found wanting, it is only that the narrative does not extend into the Allied CBO’s successes and the maturation of the A2 in 1944 and 1945. Selling Schweinfurt is the very best effort this reader has found to insight the staff work required of any useful command. Selling Schweinfurt’s truly accessible presentation alone is worthy of inclusion in every air power enthusiast’s bookshelf. While certainly not a biography, Vlaun presents a critique of key leaders in American air power development that fills a critical gap in the existing historiography. Specialists will particularly welcome Vlaun’s depiction of Eighth Air Force raids to Ploesti, Hüls, St. Nazaire, Regensburg, and Schweinfurt for their operational and tactical significance to the development of strategic air power. Generalist readers will appreciate Vlaun’s easy tone and accessible style in presenting the development of doctrine and intelligence organisation as the USAAF struggled to define itself as a critical element of American military power. However, Vlaun’s study’s real power is in the representation of the importance of a staff in the decision-making process of every commander. As Vlaun concludes:

It is clearly possible to launch aircraft and bomb something without solid intelligence, but without a refined sense of what to target or how to measure bombing effectiveness, airpower will be inefficient if not all together ineffective. (p. 208)

As such, Selling Schweinfurt is highly deserving of inclusion in the discussion of air power during the Second World War and beyond by specialists and generalists alike.

Bryant Macfarlane served in the United States Army from 1997 to 2019 and is a PhD student at Kansas State University studying the technological momentum of vertical flight and its effect on military culture. He can be found on Twitter @rotary_research.

Header image: On 13 May 1943, the B-17F ‘Hell’s Angels’ of the 303rd Bomb Group became the first heavy bomber to complete 25 combat missions over Europe, four days before the crew of the ‘Memphis Belle’s’. After flying 48 combat missions, ‘Hells Angels’ returned to the US for a war bond tour in 1944. (Source: National Museum of the USAF)

#Podcast – An Interview with Katherine Sharp Landdeck

#Podcast – An Interview with Katherine Sharp Landdeck

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 Katherine Sharp Landdeck, who is here to tell us all about the WASPs, the Women Airforce Service Pilots in the United States during the Second World War. She is the author of The Women with Silver Wings: The Inspiring True Story of the Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II. She goes beyond some of the familiar figures like Jackie Cochran and Nancy Love to tell us about other, lesser-known women in the program. Furthermore, of course, we will talk about Walt Disney because Brian Laslie always finds a way!

Dr Katherine Sharp Landdeck is an associate professor of history at Texas Woman’s University, the home of the WASP archives. A Guggenheim Fellow at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and a graduate of the University of Tennessee, where she earned her PhD, Landdeck has received numerous awards for her work on the WASP and has appeared as an expert on NPR’s Morning Edition, PBS, and the History channel. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and HuffPost, as well as in numerous academic and aviation publications. Landdeck is a licensed pilot who flies whenever she can.

Header Image: WASPs on the flight line at Laredo AAF, Texas, 22 January 1944. (Source: Wikimedia)

#BookReview – Taking Flight: The Nadine Ramsey Story

#BookReview – Taking Flight: The Nadine Ramsey Story

Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie

Raquel Ramsey and Tricia Aurand, Taking Flight: The Nadine Ramsey Story. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2020. Images. Notes. Bibliography. Hbk. 320 pp.

As an air power historian, I sometimes wonder what histories and stories have been over told and which have not been told enough. There are times where I feel like certain aspects of air force or air power history which have been given enough treatment, and then there are those stories that are clearly due more attention. This book falls decidedly into the latter category.

Not every member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) has had their story told, but every one of them is worthy of a telling. Nadine Ramsay was one of over 1,000 women who answered America’s call to serve their country as pilots during the Second World War, whose history was virtually ignored until the early 2000s when memoirs, biographies and original research into their story began to appear more heavily in print. It took from the end of the war until the 1970s for these women to even be accorded the status of a veteran. Taking Flight is the story of Nadine Ramsey and, more broadly, her family during the Second World War.

In general, women who learned to fly before America entered into the Second World War had certain advantages. Most were middle or upper-middle-class with access to enough spare funds in the 1930s to learn how to fly. These women were lucky enough to stand on the shoulders of the giants of women in aviation, including Amelia Earhart and Jackie Cochran. Thus, when America entered the war, and it became apparent that more pilots were needed, it was not entirely out of the question that women could be called upon to serve and fly. It took likes of Jackie Cochran and Nancy Love to turn this dream into a reality.

Still, the programs created to bring women into their countries service was not met with enthusiastic support, ‘The public had mixed reaction to women pilots.  From the beginning they were under intense scrutiny’ (p. 84). The women who chose to fly faced sexism and discrimination, but through every adversity, they proved beyond a conclusive doubt that they were not only capable of delivering aircraft but that often the ‘women pilots could do the job, usually faster and more safely than the men’ (p. 83).

President Barack Obama signed S.614 in the Oval Office on 1 July 2009. The bill awarded a Congressional Gold Medal to Women Airforce Service Pilots. Source: Wikimedia)

However, this is Nadine’s story rather than that of the WASPs more generally. It becomes clear throughout these pages that Ramsey was a ‘bright, glamorous comet’ (p. 178) and not just during her time in service. Of course, her time as a WASP serves as the linchpin of the book. Ramsey, like so many others of her generation, was inexplicably drawn towards aviation. Hers was not the most direct route to becoming a pilot, but Ramsey’s ‘ready for anything personality’ found her learning to fly in the sky of Wichita, Kansas, in the mid-1030s (p. 28). By the start of the war, she was a reasonably well-known aviatrix and, although again not through a direct route; she joined the women flyers of the Second World War. During her training, Ramsey lost a close friend, Helen Jo Severson, which is deftly demonstrated in these pages and is an incredibly moving passage as Ramsey struggles with this loss. Severson became one of 38 WASPs to lose their lives in service to their country (p. 87, 92).

Ramsey ferried aircraft, learned to fly fighters, and moved these aircraft, including P-51s and P-38s from their factories to their ports of embarkation. After the war, Ramsey, unlike so many of the other WASPs did not give up on flying, going so far as to purchase her own P-38, but I will leave those details for the reader to enjoy.

Taking Flight is an incredibly personal and poignant account of one family’s successes and sacrifices during the Second World War. This book should find a home on the shelves of air power scholars, but a much wider audience will also enjoy it. Ramsey’s story might be hers alone, but it is indicative of all the women whose service to the US and broader Allied war effort should not be overlooked. Instead, it should be embraced by a grateful nation. While writing a book review, I try to attempt to convey what makes the subject matter appealing or why the reader might want to purchase this book. In reading Taking Flight, I was continually struck by one thought, I wish I had known Ramsey.

If you are interested in further reading about the WASPs after reading Ramsey’s story, then the following books are a great place to start. The most recent being Katherine Sharp Landdeck’s superb The Women with Silver Wings (2020) (you can also catch Lanndeck in a future From Balloons to Drones podcast). There is also Molly Merryman’s Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS) of World War II (1998). Everything by Sarah Byrn Rickman is worth reading, but perhaps the best is WASP of the Ferry Command: Women Pilots, Uncommon Deeds, The Originals: The Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron of World War II (2016), and Nancy Love and the WASP Ferry Pilots of World War II (2019). The University of Florida Press also has an excellent (and balanced) biography of the famous aviatrix Jackie Cochran: Pilot in the Fastest Lane by Doris Rich (2007). For a more general history, there is Deborah G. Douglas’ American Women and Flight since 1940 (2004).

Dr Brian Laslie is an Editor at From Balloons to Drones and an US Air Force Historian. He is 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 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 and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. He is also the author of Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force.  He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie and at www.brianlaslie.com.

Header Image: WASPs on the flight line at Laredo AAF, Texas, 22 January 1944. (Source: Wikimedia)

#BookReview – Through Adversity: Britain and the Commonwealth’s War in the Air 1939-1945 – Volume 1

#BookReview – Through Adversity: Britain and the Commonwealth’s War in the Air 1939-1945 – Volume 1

Reviewed by Alexander Fitzgerald-Black 

Ben Kite, Through Adversity: Britain and the Commonwealth’s War in the Air 1939-1945 – Volume 1. Warwick: Helion & Company Limited, 2019. Maps. Figures. Photographs. Annexes. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. 492 pp.

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Most military historians take a narrative approach in their works. Even when they seek to prove a specific thesis, they offer the evidence to the reader in chronological order. There are, of course, exceptions – and Ben Kite is a notable one. In 2014, he produced Stout Hearts: The British and Canadians in Normandy 1944, a work that focused not on the narrative of the battles in Normandy, but rather how British and Canadian armies (and air forces) operated there. The result was an outstanding reference work for historians, history buffs, and especially those seeking to understand what it was like for their Commonwealth ancestors who fought there.

In Through Adversity: Britain and the Commonwealth’s War in the Air 1939-1945 Kite has turned his focus to the skies. His primary aim is ‘to capture the main themes and strands of the war in the air as fought by the British Commonwealth’ (p. xiii). Volume 1 includes 20 chapters spread over four parts, each containing one of these themes or strands. These are usually mission types performed by the air force. In each part, Kite takes particular care to explain changes in the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) tactics and operational techniques along with the advancement of technology. He is more interested in how airmen planned and executed missions than in the role of senior commanders and overarching narratives. As such, this book is not a repeat of John Terraine’s The Right of the Line. Consequently, the experiences of aircrew fighting a deadly war in skies across the globe stand out.

In part one, Kite offers readers a background on pre-war RAF policy and preparations for war. He notes that although the 1920s were lean years, the RAF did receive significant investments in the late 1930s due to fears of the growing Luftwaffe in Nazi Germany. Ironically, although RAF doctrine focused on the bomber, the British bomber fleet was ill-prepared to strike at the German war industry. Much would have to change if the force were to have a chance of inflicting the knock-out blow advocated by influential interwar air power theorists Giulio Douhet and the RAF’s own Hugh Trenchard.

The second chapter of part one examines how the RAF mobilized and trained its manpower. Some readers will find this section a little disappointing since it offers a pretty standard focus on the path of pilots (and observers) through the Empire Air Training Scheme. There is comparatively little about the training regimes of other aircrew positions or the ground crew.

As the prerequisite for successful air operations of all types, Kite begins his examination of air combat with air superiority. The author takes a campaign-centric approach after beginning with the pre-war development of RAF Fighter Command. In northwest Europe, he examines the Battle of Britain, the uneconomical Fighter Command air offensive over Fortress Europe, and defence against German night raiders and V-weapons. Kite samples the battles for air superiority in the Mediterranean through the siege of Malta. Finally, he concludes the section with a pair of chapters featuring the rapid loss of air superiority in the Far East and the effort to turn the tide.

IWM K 1117
A Consolidated Catalina MkI of No. 205 Squadron RAF taxies past another aircraft of the Squadron moored in the Strait of Johore off Seletar, Singapore (Source: © IWM K 1117).

The chapter that stands out in part two takes the reader through a Fighter Command mission during the Battle of Britain. Kite takes an end-to-end approach here. He begins with how pilots began their mornings at airfields across Britain and finishes with sortie debriefings by intelligence officers. It was their job to understand what had happened in the air, including the difficult task of sorting victory claims. Kite affords the relatively unsung role of the fighter controller prominent attention, reminding readers the might of the many backed ‘the Few’ at the sharp end. This effectively illustrates the importance of ‘a good early warning capability and an efficient command and control system’ (p. 193) for effective air defence.

From air superiority, the book moves on to discuss Bomber Command’s role in striking back at Nazi Germany. Kite organizes this section into four chapters. The first offers the reader a general overview of how the offensive developed from unescorted, anti-shipping raids suffering unsustainable losses to night bomber raids of growing strength and sophistication. The chapter focuses on Bomber Command strategy and policy, including the creation of No. 6 Group Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in early 1943.

No. 6 Group owed its existence to a desire for a highly visible Canadian air effort in the war. Kite outlines the many unintended disadvantages of forming a separate national group within Bomber Command. Unfortunately, this is where Kite ends the story of 6 Group. Although the group faltered in 1943, 1944 was a much better year. New leadership, the shift from targets deep inside Germany to support the Normandy landings, and the arrival of better aircraft ‘enabled No. 6 Group to exceed the performance of comparable bomber groups in the air and on the ground.’ In fact, according to the RCAF official history, from September 1944 until May 1945 ‘the Canadian group could claim as good an operational record as any.’[1]

Despite Kite’s treatment of No. 6 Group, he does well by Bomber Command as a whole. Kite takes the reader through an end-to-end Bomber Command mission in two chapters. The first chapter covers the route to the target, beginning with the role of armourers in loading the aircraft while the aircrew underwent specialized and team briefings. Crew roles, navigation equipment, the aircraft, and German defences all receive attention. The second chapter takes the reader from the run into the target and through the return leg. Except for memoirists explaining their personal slide of the air war, few resources so comprehensively relate the bomber crew experience.

The concluding strike chapter outlines the development of a precision bombing capability within Bomber Command and No. 2 Group, which operated light and medium bombers over Nazi-occupied Europe.

The final part of volume one covers the war at sea fought by RAF Coastal Command and the Royal Navy’s (RN) Fleet Air Arm (FAA). The first two chapters examine anti-submarine operations during the Battle of the Atlantic. Kite highlights the importance of cooperation between the RN and Coastal Command in intelligence sharing and winning the battle of improving tactics and technology. He concludes that while the Allies heavily reduced the U-boat threat by 1943, the RAF senior leadership’s failure to afford a greater priority to Coastal Command ‘nearly cost the Allies the war.’ (p. 321) This criticism mainly revolves around the delay in giving Coastal Command priority for Very Long-Range aircraft. These aircraft could patrol the mid-Atlantic gap, where U-boats operated beyond the range of most land-based aircraft.

Kite concludes the RAF’s role in the volume with two chapters on anti-shipping operations. He begins with early operations from the United Kingdom, especially those focused on the Dutch and Norwegian coasts. In the war’s early years, strikes were effective against enemy merchant shipping. Coastal Command needed better aircraft, tactics, and armour-piercing bombs to achieve success against the German surface fleet. RAF anti-shipping operations matured over time and in parallel with developments in the Mediterranean and the Far East. Missing from Kite’s history of the RAF’s war at sea are the anti-submarine and anti-shipping efforts that went into supporting the Normandy landings in June 1944. It is unclear whether these elements will appear in Volume 2, which promises to cover air support for the army in detail.

Many readers will be pleased that Kite wrote two chapters on the Fleet Air Arm. Some authors would have left the role of naval aviation out of scope, and it is commendable that Kite has included their experiences.

One general critique is the author’s tendency to rely on lengthy quotations from memoirs and diaries. Letting the veterans speak for themselves is a noble effort, but it also means relying on the quality of another’s writing to tell the story. Kite’s retelling of a harrowing anti-submarine patrol by a Sunderland flying boat crew over the Bay of Biscay was outstanding (p. 309-314). I sometimes found myself wishing that Kite had taken this approach more often rather than relying on lengthy and raw veteran’s accounts.

Through Adversity is a treasure trove of information for its readers. Twenty-five appendices or annexes (with source attributions) offer the reader great quick-reference material. The book is exceptionally well illustrated with thoughtful captions. These captions often include the identity and fate of both the aircraft and its crew, closing an otherwise open loop. Finally, Kite’s use of squadron mottos for most of the chapter titles is a nice touch that adds character to the book.

Overall, Volume 1 of Ben Kite’s work on the British Commonwealth’s war in the air is a great achievement. In the 1980s, John Terraine’s The Right of the Line afforded readers an excellent top-down narrative study of the RAF in the Second World War. Kite’s contribution is to capture the airman’s experience within that broader context. Through Adversity is the first half of an excellent reference work for historians, history buffs, and especially those seeking to understand what the air war was like for their Commonwealth ancestors in skies and at airfields across the world. The military aviation community anxiously awaits the publication of Undaunted: Britain and the Commonwealth’s War in the Air – Volume 2.

Alex Fitzgerald-Black has a Master of Arts in Military History from the University of New Brunswick and a Master of Arts in Public History from the University of Western Ontario. Alex’s research interests include air power in the Second World War, with a particular focus on the Mediterranean, and Canadian military history. He is the author of Eagles over Husky: The Allied Air Forces and the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943. Alex operates his blog at alexfitzblack.wordpress.com and can be reached on Twitter @AlexFitzBlack.

Header Image: In the shadow of their Handley Page Halifax, ‘Pride of the Porcupines’ aircrew and groundcrew members of No. 433 ‘Porcupine’ Squadron, No. 6 Group RCAF gang up on the miniature English automobile owned by one of the aircrew members. (Source: DND / LAC / PL-29380)

[1] Greenhous et al., The Crucible of War, 1939-1945: The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force Volume III (University of Toronto Press, 1994), pp. 526-7.

#Podcast – Interview with Dr Tyler Morton

#Podcast – Interview with Dr Tyler Morton

Editorial Note: From Balloons to Drones is pleased to announce our new podcast series. Led by Assistant Editor Dr Mike Hankins, the series builds on the success of From Balloons to Drones, and it 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 our latest podcast, we interview Dr Tyler Morton to discuss his new book From Kites to Cold War: The Evolution of Manned Airborne Reconnaissance. Not only do we get some incredible stories about aerial surveillance (especially from the WW2-era), but we have a blast talking about our biggest “nerd moments” from the archives, and why that type of work is so powerful and exciting!

You can find a review of Tyler’s new book here.

811-jEbGabLDr Tyler Morton is currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He is an active duty US Air Force officer who holds a PhD in Military Strategy from the Air University. He is the author of From Kites to Cold War: The Evolution of Manned Airborne Reconnaissance (2019). He can be found on Twitter at @ty_morto.

Header Image: A U-2C painted in a gray camouflage pattern called the ‘Sabre’ scheme in 1975. The camouflage replaced the usual black finish to ease British concerns about ‘spy planes’ operating from the UK. In Europe, this U-2 tested equipment to locate and suppress enemy surface-to-air missiles. (Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force)

A Unified Framework for Air Power Studies

A Unified Framework for Air Power Studies

By Major Jaylan Haley

What is air power? How do we study it? How do we use it? Do previous characterisations sufficiently capture the concept? Perhaps. This article contends that prior attempts to put meat on the bone towards a framework to study air power scholarship are insufficient.

Moreover, we must appreciate the richness of our inquiries if we – scholars and professionals, such as political scientists, historians, policymakers, practitioners and users – want to understand better the concept of air power to help answer important questions. These questions may be:  how do civilian airline pilots and training schools contribute to a nation’s ‘air power?’ Can peacetime control of airspace access constitute a form of air power? To what extent does air information, such as weather, the electromagnetic environment, knowledge of space weather, constitute a form of air power? Furthermore, more, importantly, how do these questions and related concepts orient to each other.  As such, this article argues that air power is the domain-agnostic admixture of personalities, outcomes, organisations, technologies, ideas and events to do or, that do, something in or for, the air.[1]

This definition is unique in that it explicitly and parsimoniously joins together the breadth of military and civilian endeavours. It highlights the ‘stickiness’ of related topics and contends that air power is not an inherently military pursuit, though its application almost always manifests as such. The definition provides more form to the general, varied ideas of military thinkers about essential elements of air power.[2] This article begins the discussion on the topic of how we structure air power studies across various academic fields and cordons a more robust dissection of the topic in future publications. Furthermore, this article details the constituent components of air power to clarify meaning. Then, it uses this perception of air power to explain its evolution throughout history. Finally, briefly, it discusses our current air power disposition to make sense of what component will drive innovation in the coming decades — organisations.  So, how have we come to envisage this elusive thing we call air power?

Definition and Components of Air Power

In the Age of Airpower, Martin Van Creveld explored about 250 years of the concept. Among others, he highlighted the work of people with simple, yet elegant definitions of air power, such as that of Brigadier General William ‘Billy’ Mitchell who viewed it as doing ‘something in the air.’[3] Other writers such as Mark Clodfelter provided more angles: breaking the concept of air power into direct and indirect applications.[4]  For Clodfelter, direct air power generally involves kinetic outcomes such as bombing and indirect presumes more non-kinetic capabilities, such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).

Billy_Mitchell_at_his_court-martial
A scene from William ‘Billy’ Mitchell’s court-martial in 1925. (Wikimedia)

Meanwhile, organisations such as the US Air Force (USAF) define air power based on its organisational experience and conceptual refinement. The latest iteration of USAF Basic Doctrine defines the concept as ‘the ability to project military power or influence through the control and exploitation of air, space, and cyberspace to achieve strategic, operational, or tactical objectives.’[5] So, how do we break air power down for study?

While Mitchell’s definition is more parsimonious, adding a little complexity provides the explanatory muscle to how we think about air power and thus how we can consider the concept’s change over time. Foundationally, one should recognise that to do something in the air does not necessarily mean that the activity must originate in or from the air.[6] For instance, a ballistic missile launch originates from the land, traverses through the air and maybe space, and then strikes somewhere on land. This example demonstrates the potential of the agnosticism of the air domain. Furthermore, a more robust definition allows for careful, coordinated forecasting of future air power applications using clear and structured links within and across the subject’s elements.  For instance, air power researchers studying C-17 humanitarian assistance capabilities may be linked to those studying procedurally based command and control organisations as well as those studying the political effects of humanitarian assistance to optimise future disaster response towards national priorities.

Conceiving of air power as an admixture of component concepts: each noteworthy, though not equal, in characterising the ability to do something in the air is vital for several reasons. One benefit is to have more structured research programs that allow thinkers to situate their contribution to the subject area. Another is to generalise debates on air power concepts that link military and civilian theory and application. A generalisation can help guard against what seems to be a tendency to overly militarise air power thought, evoking the coercive and persuasive elements of the concept. The benefits are similar to those of academic fields like history or political science though air power studies can best be described as an interdisciplinary subfield or topical field.

Importantly, to be useful, the components must be defined. First, personalities may be individuals or groups that have a profound impact on the development of the notion. For instance, Mitchell vocally and publicly advanced the idea of a separate US military service despite the misgivings of more senior leaders, including President Calvin Coolidge.[7] In part, the general’s 1925 court-martial resulted from agitation for a separate US air service. However, the spectacle thrust air power into America’s national dialogue. He challenged the US Army – then overseeing land-based air forces – stating that their leaders were negligent for not building an air service capable of national defence. Mitchell is credited by many as being the original maverick in pursuing an idea of independent military air power that was largely sidelined at the time.  Mitchell’s persona, in part, catalysed the existence of organisations critical to the development of air power.

Mitchell’s calls for an independent air service bring us to the second component — organisations, which are administrative and operational systems that foster ideas, leverage people and exploit technologies towards some outcome. An exemplar is the USAF’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) under Major-General Curtis LeMay’s tutelage. SAC pursued the idea of ‘strategic’ air power, discussed later, towards its outcome of long-range conventional and nuclear bombing. SAC oversaw most of the US nuclear deterrent and development of bomber capabilities for the USAF. The organisation came to personify air power in the US and for much of the world during the Cold War.[8] Albeit an unfair approximation, civilians and military personnel alike were lent the idea of air power’s ability to render an outcome of total enemy devastation embodied by SAC’s long-range bombers and, later, ballistic missiles.[9]

In our context, outcomes are the effects, assessments and results by which military and civilian leaders come to associate air power. For instance, after the Second World War, both military and civilian leaders came to associate air power with the unconditional surrender of the enemy evoked by the use of nuclear weapons.[10] This idea created problems during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, where expectations outpaced the new reality of limited, non-nuclear warfare.[11]  Limited warfare lends itself to more technical means — leaving technology to be the more tangible, driving component of air power.

As a component, technology includes all the capabilities, research, design, development and testing that allow practitioners to do things in the air. For instance, a significant component of the US’ advancements in stealth technology originated with the Skunk Works team under Kelly Johnson’s orchestration, among others.[12] The team’s research and design techniques led to advances like the SR-71 Blackbird and the F-117 Nighthawk.[13] These technologies, along with other capabilities-related advances, influenced expectations such as those discussed above: enabling the limited, non-nuclear warfare that became characteristic of vast swaths of America’s recent history.[14] However, while technology is sometimes the easiest to translate as an air power component, though not always easy to grasp, it is ideas that sometimes generate change.

SR-71_taxi_on_ramp_with_engines_powered_up
An SR-71 taxing on the ramp with engines powered up, c. 1995. (Source: Wikimedia)

Doctrine, strategy, theories, policies and politics combine to form air power’s conceptual component. These ideas embody how personalities can use other components. Reciprocally, all the other components can help thinkers conceive of new ways to conceptualise air power. To demonstrate, during Operation EL DORADO CANYON, President Reagan and his national security team viewed air power as a punitive instrument of national security policy.[15] Existent technologies in the 1980s allowed Reagan’s response to state-sponsored terrorism with a long-range, airstrike on targets tailored to the perceived offence.[16] Reagan’s team shepherded the technology component in a way that had not yet been explored to its fullest. They updated strategic attack doctrine; tested theories of international relations; set new international policies; and ignited the politics of air-driven limited, military interventions.

Events like Op EL DORADO CANYON also constitutes the last element of air power. Our understanding of past campaigns, battles and historical milestones enables a fuller appreciation of air power and the possibility of modifying its future use. Unfortunately, these so-called understandings can sometimes lead to misapplications of history and, ultimately, to disaster.[17] For instance, the counterinsurgency in Iraq that began almost immediately after the invasion in 2003 required a different application of air power than previously practised, but it would take multiple Secretaries of Defense to enforce this understanding upon the military, as evidenced by the explosion of unmanned technologies among others.[18]  The components of air power – personalities, organisations, outcomes, technologies, ideas and events – provide the critical infrastructure for the study of air power.  We can use this infrastructure to help us understand various aspects of the topic, like what elements may be more important at various times in history.  This understanding can help us orient ourselves in history relative to the seemingly dominant feature of our time so that those who study, and practice air power can best allocate resources, whether academically or practically.

Epochs of Air Power

In this section, this article now considers the prominence of the above elements as determinants of historical periods in air power’s evolution.  A short walkthrough of air power’s epochal changes rooted in the above-defined elements illuminates current and the future application of air power. Geoffrey Barraclough, in An Introduction to Contemporary History, provided an idea about ‘spots and jumps’ that define historical periods and transitions.[19] He used the timeframe 1880-1960 to discuss the shift between modern and contemporary history based primarily on economic and geopolitical factors.[20] Using a similar conception of eras punctuated by ‘spots and jumps,’ rooted in the components of air power to characterise the shifts, this section divides the evolution of air power into five timeframes. Importantly, during shifts between the timeframes, changes in predominant component concepts of air power led to changes in our concept of air power.

Before 1783 – The Age of Imagination

Air power before 1783 can be viewed as an ‘Age of Imagination’ or ideas. There were no bounds except those imposed by humanity’s evolving understanding of terrestrial physics. Some of the earliest human records depict mystical flying or lobbing objects through the air as weapons. In their way, our ancestors from around the world gave us our first concept of air power. They conceived of divinity by drawing and storytelling of gods that could defy gravity unassisted, a fruitless pursuit for mere mortals that dates to Greek, Roman and Chinese mythology. While ancient and pre-industrial humans did not themselves defy gravity, humankind created things to help defend themselves, such as arrows and trebuchet missiles. These weapons are essential to the study of air power because the idea of projectiles travelling large distances to destroy an enemy finds its roots here.  These weapons emerged over thousands of years, sometimes a crowning achievement of empires such as Persia and the Mongols. Nonetheless, the wild-eyed dreams of fantasy came to a relatively abrupt end in 1783 when the Montgolfiers floated their first balloon. The brothers’ flights began the period of the ‘Origins of Air Power.’

1783 to 1903 – The Origins of Air Power

Between 1783 and 1903, changes in the concept of air power resulted from slow changes in technologies. For instance, a new class of ‘aeronauts’ proliferated workable ballooning technologies that ended up in the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte, though his use is not the first use on the battlefield. He used available technologies when and where he could to enhance reconnaissance and direct artillery strikes. In 1798 Bonaparte used balloons to try to overawe the Egyptians in a campaign to subdue the Middle East and North Africa.  After an unsuccessful display, Napoleon ordered the balloon unit’s disbandment. Undoubtedly a balloon would have come in handy in 1815 when Napoleon looked for Grouchy to spot and crush Blucher’s flanking movement at Waterloo.[21] Nearly a half-century later, professionals continued to struggle with the concept of air power: conceiving of it as an unproven, unpredictable and unusable conglomeration of technologies and techniques, such as gas-producing machines for balloons, telegraphs and airborne mapmaking. Such was Thaddeus Lowe’s disposition in bringing air power to fruition during the American Civil War.[22]  Thus, it would be until the turn of the twentieth century.

1903 to 1945 – The Douhetian Epoch

From 1903 to 1945, ‘strategic’ air power and its offshoots was the idea that drove changes in the conception of air power as something more than an observational or auxiliary tool for ground forces. The idea of independent air power came to full fruition in August 1945 with the dropping of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan. To begin, in December 1903 the Wright Brothers brought heavier-than-air flight to reality. Driving the science of aeronautics were ideas like those refined by Giulio Douhet in the early part of the 20th century. Theorists like Douhet opined that wars could be won by striking at city centres from the air to break the will of a people, forcing them to surrender.[23] Douhet’s original Italian publication in 1921 would not get immediately translated into English; however, people like Hugh Trenchard, the first Royal Air Force commander, articulated similar thoughts and organised, trained and equipped his military forces towards those ends.[24] Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris would make use of Trenchard’s advancements during the Second World War over German cities such as Hamburg, Dresden and Berlin.[25] Though it would take the American military time to adopt the British model of indiscriminate bombing, this idea came to epitomise air power for the period.

Importantly, this was also the timeframe during which commercial air travel in lighter- and heavier-than-air vessels took root. Though the ‘golden’ age of commercial air travel would come later, concepts like air routes, navigating via beacons, airports and other ideas began to solidify. These concepts had both military and civilian applications and technologies that enabled further development of the idea of air assets used over long distances. However, the military would continue to dominate ideas about air power as a ‘strategic’ concept even as these ideas came into contact with a significant theoretical challenge:  limited warfare in an age of potentially unlimited destruction from thermonuclear weapons.

F-80Cs_8th_FBS_over_Korea_c1950
US Air Force Lockheed F-80C Shooting Star fighter-bombers from the 8th Fighter-Bomber Squadron during the Korean War in 1950-51. The aircraft are equipped with ‘Misawa’ long-range tanks. (Wikimedia)

1945 to 2001 – The Era of Immaculate Effects

The next era, roughly spanning 1945 to 2001 is the maturation of strategic bombing extremes enabled by high technology. Militarily, the era is marked by the rise of a more immaculate, precise warfare with limited aims to mitigate aircrew losses, fulfil more specific international obligations and for operational efficiency among other goals. There was a change in the concept of air power because of what it was perceived to have achieved during the Second World War and the idea that the same outcome could be realised even in the face of more limited warfare.[26] By the beginning of this timeframe, the USAF sidelined more tactically-minded airmen like Pete Quesada to ensure adoption of strategic bombing as a vehicle to solidify the association with air power.[27] In part because of his prestige as a tactical aviation adherent, the ‘bomber generals’ defanged Quesada and the organisation he led, Tactical Air Command, after WWII.[28] There was no room for anyone but true believers in the strategic attack mindset, but this would change after the experiences of Korea and Vietnam in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Only later in the period would Quesada’s tactical aviation and more precise attack legacy permeate military circles.[29]

 

In civilian aviation, technology-fueled huge leaps in air power. National airspace, global navigation capabilities and air-containerised freight were concepts that would hold vast military and civilian applications. It is during this time that military and civilian aircraft started to compete for airspace for things like training, exercises and navigating various corridors. Another critical advance was the widespread implementation of the instrument landing system that allowed commercial aircraft to land in increasing levels of degraded atmospheric conditions. Again, precision enabled by technology characterised this era.

2000 and Beyond – Flexible Niche

The most recent period begins at around the turn of the millennium. This is the epoch as ‘Flexible Niche’ because it involved the use of existing or new technologies for a variety of activities dependent on how organisations are positioned to leverage them. Beginning in the late 1980s, formalisation of the contemporary Air Operations Center (AOC) is an early indicator of the present epoch. This organisation enabled the focused air campaign during Operations INSTANT THUNDER and DESERT STORM that, in part, led to ultimate victory for coalition forces in 1991. It was no longer enough to think of air power as just a capability or bringing about the strategic defeat of an enemy via the limits of destructive power or achieving national objectives with as few civilian casualties as possible. The organisation became the template for how to leverage air power across a wide area and from multiple sources. A contemporary view of air power considers the construct of how and which organisations best leverage technologies, ideas and people towards a given outcome, which may be a military one. There are a variety of concepts that the United States military is exploring, including the Multi-Domain Operations Center and Defense Innovation Unit, in addition to the standup of a Space Force among other initiatives.

Civil aviation is undergoing a similar bout with organisations, especially in the United States, as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grapples with how best to control airspace with the rise of unmanned technologies, especially in congested metropolitan areas.  Should the FAA continue to hold all the cards or is the organisation in need of decentralisation of authorities to states and localities?  Technologies may forestall the organisational decision, but this era’s solutions seem to be organisationally related rather than technically.

For the new century and beyond, it will not necessarily be which countries and industries have the best technologies or smartest people or best ideas that define the development of air power: it will be the organisations that can best leverage the other components that will determine how we conceive of air power.  To summarise, again, air power is the domain-agnostic ability to do something in the air resulting from an admixture of personalities, outcomes, organisations, technologies, ideas and events. These components, at various times, represent reasons why our concept of air power changes over time.

Conclusion

The use of epochs allows us to generally discuss how components of air power drive thinking and successful pursuits of the concept over time, which is why it is useful to develop a unified framework for their study. Moreover, as opposed to the more traditional commentary of air power, linking military and civilian advancements in the same epoch demonstrates that air power is not an inherently military concept. This article serves as an overview of the start of a more robust discussion about the development of air power and a characterisation of what will likely temper that development for the 21st century — organisations. Future topics will involve civilian efforts to deal with drones and swarms, the importance of civil aviation and commercial space efforts in air power development, and the exploration of the idea that organisations will be the defining issue of this era.

Given all of this, air power is the domain-agnostic admixture of personalities, outcomes, organisations, technologies, ideas and events to do or, that do, something in or for, the air. Moreover, these components at various times have influenced significant shifts in our conception of air power over at least five critical epochs. Scholars and professionals must acknowledge the military and civilian dimensions of air power to live up to the concept’s full potential. Hence, to conclude, there is a need for a unified framework for the study of air power to promote the integration of military and civilian issues with the field.

Major Jaylan M. Haley is a career USAF Intelligence Officer. Currently, he is a student at the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Power Studies at Air University. Over 14 years, he served in a variety of intelligence-related positions from the strategic to the tactical levels.  During Operations ENDURING FREEDOM and INHERENT RESOLVE, he served as an Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Liaison Officer to multiple US Army Divisions and US Marine Expeditionary Forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Most recently he was an Air University Fellow, serving as an Instructor in the Department of International Security at the USAF Air Command and Staff College. He is a PhD Candidate in the Kansas State University Security Studies program with research focused on leverage air power as a tool of national policy.

Header Image: A US Navy Grumman F-14A Tomcat intercepts a Soviet Tupolev Tu-95 ‘Bear D’ reconnaissance-bomber over the Pacific Ocean on 21 November 1984. The F-14 was assigned to fighter squadron VF-51 aboard the USS Carl Vinson and was deployed to the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean from 18 October 1984 to 24 May 1985. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Domains include air, space, cyberspace (or electromagnetic), land and sea. Domain agnosticism disregards a specific domain towards the application of a specific concept. For instance, intelligence collection is domain agnostic. This means that intelligence collection can come from any of the domains-air, space, cyberspace, land or sea.

[2] ‘Strategic Implications for the Aerospace Nation’ in Philip Meilinger (ed.), Air War: Essays on Its Theory and Practice (Abingdon: Franck Cass, 2003), pp. 217-30.

[3] Martin Van Creveld, Martin, The Age of Airpower (New York: PublicAffairs, 2011), p. 71; William Mitchell, Winged Defense: The Development and Possibilities of Modern Air Power (New York: Dover Publications, 1988), p. xii.

[4] Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), p. 213.

[5] United States Air Force, Core Doctrine, Volume 1 – Basic Doctrine (Maxwell AFB, LeMay Doctrine Center, 2015).

[6] Robert Smith, ‘Maneuver at Lightspeed: Electromagnetic Spectrum as a Domain,’ Over the Horizon: Multi-Domain Operations & Strategy, 5 November 2018. Importantly, the so-called warfighting domains of air, space, land, navy and now cyber – or perhaps more aptly electromagnetic – all interface with the air domain and provide a medium through which something can happen in the air.

[7] Douglas Waller, A Question of Loyalty (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004), pp. 21-2.

[8] Donald Mrozek, Air Power & the Ground War in Vietnam (Virginia, VA: Pergamon-Brassey’s International Defense Publishers, 1989), pp. 14-5.

[9] Conrad Crane, American Airpower Strategy in Korea: 1950-1953 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2000), pp. 16-22.

[10] Ibid, p. 23, 27.

[11] Ibid, pp. 175-9.

[12] Ben Rick and Leo Janos, Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed (Boston, MS: Little, Brown and Company, 1994), p. 7, 39.

[13] David Robarge, Archangel: CIA’s Supersonic A-12 Reconnaissance Aircraft (Washington, D.C., Center for the Study of Intelligence, 2012), p. 1.

[14] Reuben Brigety II, Ethics, Technology and the American Way of War (London: Routledge, 2007).

[15] Joseph Stanik, El Dorado Canyon: Reagan’s Undeclared War with Qaddafi (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2003), p. ix.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers (New York: The Free Press, 1986), p. xv, 233-4.

[18] Robert Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2014), pp. 128-9; Donald Rumsfeld, Known and Unknown: A Memoir (New York, Penguin Group, 2011), p. 648.

[19] Barraclough’s ideas about history are not universally accepted in the field of history.

[20] Geoffrey Barraclough, An Introduction to Contemporary History (Baltimore, Penguin Books, 1964), p. 11.

[21] Van Creveld, The Age of Airpower, p. 6.

[22] Stephen Poleski, The Balloonist: The Story of T.S.C. Lowe: Inventor, Scientist, Magician and Father of the U.S. Air Force, (Savannah, GA: Frederic Beil, 2007).

[23] Guido Douhet, Command of the Air (Pickle Partners Publishing, 2014), p. 21.

[24] Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas About Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), pp. 73-4, 79.

[25] Richard Overy, The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe, 1940-1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2013), 58.

[26] Crane, American Airpower Strategy in Korea, p. 184.

[27] Brian Laslie, The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training After Vietnam (Lexington, KY:, The University Press of Kentucky, 2015), p. 34.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., p. 131.

#BookReview – From Kites to Cold War: The Evolution of Manned Airborne Reconnaissance

#BookReview – From Kites to Cold War: The Evolution of Manned Airborne Reconnaissance

Reviewed by Wing Commander Travis Hallen

Tyler Morton, From Kites to Cold War: The Evolution of Manned Airborne Reconnaissance. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2019. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. 328 pp.

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Hindsight tends to make the contingent seem predestined. This is why reading history is essential for those responsible for planning for the future. When military professionals engage with history to try and understand how decisions, events, and circumstances – many of which lie beyond their control – shaped the present, they better appreciate that future planning is not about prediction; it is about preparing for adaptation. This is the lesson I took from Lieutenant Colonel Dr Tyler Morton’s book From Kites to Cold War, published by the United States Naval Institute Press in 2019.

This may not have been the insight that Morton intended for his readers. The book is the published version of Morton’s 2016 USAF Air University PhD thesis, which aimed to educate airmen on how airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) evolved rapidly from novelty to necessity. Although Morton claimed that the book ‘is a unique account spanning two millennia of manned airborne reconnaissance history’ (p. 9), the book’s six chapters cover less than 200 years: from the Montgolfier brothers’ hot-air-balloon demonstration in 1783 to the Linebacker air campaign over North Vietnam in 1972. This is not a criticism of Morton; his treatment of those 200 years is detailed and engaging and lives up to the promise of providing a unique insight into the development of a capability that is now a cornerstone of modern military operations. Morton’s 200-year story of airborne reconnaissance is one of vision, innovation, hype, misstep, and adaptation. This is a story whose beginning and early evolution has interesting parallels to what is occurring today with a range of emerging technologies.

Most histories of air power begin at the turn of the 20th century with the development of dirigibles and heavier-than-air flight. Those seeking to establish a longer pedigree for military aviation may refer to the French use of balloons at the Battle of Fleurus in 1794. Morton’s first chapter covering the Montgolfier’s 1783 balloon demonstration through to the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, therefore, fills a gap in air power’s historical narrative.

As Morton describes it, the 19th century was a period of civilian-led experimentation that enjoyed ambivalent support from militaries in Europe and the United States. Though contemporary militaries saw the potential for balloons to contribute to their armies’ situational awareness, many believed resources were better spent on more established capabilities. Using examples from the French Revolutionary period and the American Civil War, Morton shows how the tension between inventors, scientists, and entrepreneurs who demonstrated, but also oversold, the possibilities of airborne reconnaissance, and military leaders who needed to balance innovation with operational necessities shaped initial development efforts. The opportunity cost of an experimental technology versus tried-and-tested during a time of war hindered the military employment of balloons until the end of the 19th century.

It was during the first 15 years of the 20th century, the focus of chapter two, that the perceived benefits of military air power began to exceed the cost. Practical and operational demonstrations of airships and heavier-than-air machines sparked interest in militaries in Europe and the United States, leading to a growing acceptance of aviation’s future military role. Morton’s analysis of this period draws attention to the increasingly important role of empowered officers who drove progress in airborne reconnaissance. Officers such as then-Lieutenant Benjamin Foulois who envisaged the development of airborne reconnaissance as a system requiring the development of new technology and skill-sets beyond those associated with the aircraft itself, and who were empowered to drive the capability forward. Foulois’ career – on operations, as a member of the critical aeronautical boards before and after the First World War, and as Chief of the Air Corps – provided him with the opportunities within the military establishment to translate his vision into reality. His demonstrations of air-to-ground communications and aerial photography in support of US operations during the Mexican Revolution established the utility of airborne reconnaissance for key US Army leadership. In Foulois’ own words (p. 67), the Mexican operations ‘had proven beyond dispute […] that aviation was no longer experimental or freakish.’

Growing awareness in Europe and the United States of the military utility of airborne reconnaissance opened the door for the capability advocates when war came. It would not take long for the capability to prove its worth. Airborne reconnaissance enabled operational success on both sides of the First World War from the earliest stages of the war. It provided Allied commanders with intelligence on German manoeuvres that enabled the so-called ‘Miracle of the Marne.’ On the Eastern Front, German air reconnaissance of Russian force dispositions played a vital role in the German victory at Tannenberg; according to Field Marshal Hindenburg (p. 85): ‘Without the airplane there is no Tannenberg.’ Morton’s discussion of developments during the war in chapter three provides the reader with an appreciation of how the capability developed as a system comprising the air platform, cameras, communications, and the processing, exploitation, and dissemination (PED) of information. This was a logical progression of the pre-war developments, but, as Morton highlights, it was the character of First World War trench warfare (p. 86) that ‘gave aviation the chance it needed to solidify further its value as a force enhancer.’ The reduced mobility of ground forces created an intelligence gap which air power advocates and innovators ably filled. It was the development under real-world operational conditions that made airborne reconnaissance effective as it ensured the system evolved to meet requirements. This also had the effect of removing any lingering doubt about whether the capability had a place in future force structure. With its future assured, the next challenge was determining the exact form and function of that future capability. As the final three chapters highlight, this was not easy.

In chapter four, Morton covers the interwar period and the Second World War – a 26-year period during which there were significant advances in technology, concepts, and operational experience – in one page more than he covers the five years of the First World War. Surprisingly, this does not reduce the quality of the insights he provides. Morton focuses on two main areas during this period: the relative neglect of airborne reconnaissance into the 1930s as air power’s advocates struggled to define its role; and the wartime expansion of the reconnaissance role from imagery intelligence (IMINT) into signals intelligence (SIGINT). Opportunity cost remerged as a significant factor driving air power development during the interwar period. Ironically, as militaries and air power advocates struggled to clarify the role of air power, the tried-and-tested capability of airborne reconnaissance was neglected as investment flowed into more experimental and conceptual areas such as strategic bombing, a reversal of situation Morton describes in chapter one. However, new technologies and the character of operations during the Second World War created opportunities for innovative airmen and their adaptable organisations to consolidate and expand the role of airborne reconnaissance. The ubiquity of radar and radios increased the opportunities and requirement for collection against new sources; Morton does an excellent job describing the resulting emergence of SIGINT across all theatres. By 1945 the major disciplines of modern airborne reconnaissance were firmly established, but the challenge of prioritisation would continue to shape its development well into the Cold War.

Morton takes a different approach to deal with the Cold War. Rather than dividing the period arbitrarily into different time periods, he opts for a thematic approach. Chapter five explores ‘airborne reconnaissance as a strategic political instrument’. While chapter six, the book’s final chapter, examines airborne reconnaissance in the ‘hot wars’ in Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam. Of note, unlike previous chapters that have examined the developments internationally, the final two chapters focus solely on airborne reconnaissance in the United States. The unstated premise is that whereas previously the ideas and experiences of the other great powers had exerted an influence on the evolution of the capability this ceased to be the case after the end of the Second World War. Whether or not this is true is open for debate, but Morton’s discussion of the period does make a compelling, though implied, case.

In chapter five, Morton describes a period of consistent investment in and development of ‘strategic aerial reconnaissance’. The need to maintain awareness of Soviet capabilities to strike the United States and develop intelligence for targeting of US strategic strikes against the Soviet Union drove these developments. Soviet responses also played a role. As superpower competition grew and the Soviet’s began actively targeting US collection assets, political concerns began to impact the requirement for US reconnaissance capabilities directly. Morton describes how this interplay between collection requirements and political considerations drove improvements to sensor capabilities, giving rise to the Big Safari program, and the survivability of the collection platforms, leading to the A-12 Oxcart/SR-71 Blackbird, and the U-2. These were strategically significant capability improvements that were vital to the success of the US deterrence strategy.

While the United States focused its reconnaissance efforts on strategic requirements, the ability to meet tactical the demands for reconnaissance was neglected. In the book’s final chapter Morton describes how the United States adapted its strategic reconnaissance capabilities, and rapidly developed and implemented new tactical systems to meet the requirements of Korea, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War. The most interesting aspect of this final chapter is not the technology, but the processes that were developed. In Korea, Colonel Karl Polifka implemented a tactical reconnaissance management system that deconflicted the multitude of requests coming into the 5th Air Force and tracked the status of the product; a process that sounds remarkably similar to today’s collection management process. During Vietnam, the integration of technology and process as part of the Teaball project – a system that enabled highly-classified SIGINT to provide near-real-time intelligence into USAF fighter cockpits over North Vietnam – contributed to an increase in the USAF’s kill ratio from 0.47:1 to 4:1. In the words of General John Vogt, then-Commander of the 7th Air Force (p. 204):

During Linebacker we were shooting down the enemy at a rate of four to one […] Same airplane, same environment, same tactics; largely [the] difference [was] Teaball.

Teaball is an appropriate way for Morton to end his history of airborne reconnaissance. The progress made technologically, organizationally, and procedurally from 1783 to 1972 is impressive; when you shift timescale from 1914 to 1972, that progress is even more spectacular. As Morton reflects when discussing the 1965 introduction of the communication-intelligence-equipped EC-121D Warning Star into the Vietnam conflict (p. 200):

In scarcely fifty years, airmen went from using smoke signals and dropped messages to a fully integrated communications capability delivering near-real-time SIGINT data directly to air and ground warfighters.

This progress was not smooth, nor was it predestined, it was the result of the creativity, vision, and perseverance of inventors, engineers, airmen, and military commanders who were able to adapt emerging capabilities to meet operational and strategic requirements.

From Kites to Cold War is an essential read for anyone involved in the present or future of airborne ISR. Morton’s well-written history of the first 200 years of airborne reconnaissance provides an appreciation of how the capability evolved into its modern form, particularly how the vision and adaptability of airborne reconnaissance advocates were crucial to progress. For the same reason, this book is also a useful read for those in the innovation game or involved in future force design. Although Morton’s aim was not to write a book on military innovation, this is essentially what it is. It is an instructive tale of vision, hype, experimentation, and adaptation that provides useful points of discussion and debate for those charged with integrating experimental technologies and ideas into future force structure.

Wing Commander Travis Hallen is a Royal Australian Air Force officer with a background in maritime patrol operations, and a co-editor of The Central Blue. He has had a long-term interest in the development and improvement of airborne ISR having conducted multiple operational deployments in that role. He is a graduate of the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. Wing Commander Hallen is currently in Washington, DC.

Header Image: After Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union during a CIA spy flight on May 1. 1960, NASA issued a press release with a cover story about a U-2 conducting weather research that may have strayed off course after the pilot reported difficulties with his oxygen equipment. To bolster the cover-up, a U-2 was quickly painted in NASA markings, with a fictitious NASA serial number, and put on display for the news media at the NASA Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base on May 6, 1960. The U-2 cover story in 1956 was that it was a NASA plane to conduct high-altitude weather research. But various observers doubted this story from the beginning. Certainly the Soviets did not believe it once the aircraft began overflying their territory. The NASA cover story quickly blew up in the agency’s face when both Gary Powers and aircraft wreckage were displayed by the Soviet Union, proving that it was a reconnaissance aircraft. This caused embarrassment for several top NASA officials. (Source: Wikimedia)

#Podcast – Interview with Dr Stephen Bourque

#Podcast – Interview with Dr Stephen Bourque

Editorial Note: From Balloons to Drones is pleased to announce our new podcast series. Led by Assistant Editor Dr Mike Hankins, the series builds on the success of From Balloons to Drones, and it 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 our latest podcast, we interview Dr Stephen Bourque, author of Beyond the Beach: The Allied War Against France, to talk about the allied bombing of occupied France in 1944. Through a detailed look at local French sources, combined with official US sources, Bourque provides as thorough – and possibly controversial – assessment of General Dwight Eisenhower’s use of air power.

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Dr Stephen A. Bourque served in the US Army for 20 years after which he obtained his PhD at Georgia State University. He has taught history at several military and civilian schools and universities, including the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies, and Command and General Staff College, where he is professor emeritus.

Header Image: Interior of one of the E-boat pens at le Havre, showing the collapsed ferroconcrete roof, caused by 12,000-lb deep-penetration ‘Tallboy’ bombs dropped by No. 617 Squadron RAF in a daylight raid on 14 June 1944. (Source: © IWM (CL 1208))

#Commentary – Biplanes against Battleships: The Fairey Swordfish Biplane and Lessons for Today’s Air Power

#Commentary – Biplanes against Battleships: The Fairey Swordfish Biplane and Lessons for Today’s Air Power

By Dr Adam Leong Kok Wey

The Fairey Swordfish flew just above the sea waves at about 30 feet while anti-aircraft artillery shells exploded around it, the sea waters splashing high due to the impact. The pilot, Lieutenant M.R. Maund, struggled to keep his plane steady to release his torpedo at an Italian battleship.[1] Maund flew a Swordfish biplane: one of the 20 Swordfish aircraft from HMS Illustrious that took part in the air attack on the Italian Navy’s (Regia Marina) battleship fleet in the harbour of Taranto on the night of 11-12 November 1940. The Italians had six battleships, 14 cruisers and 27 destroyers at Taranto.[2] During this night attack, the Swordfish aircraft dropped torpedoes and bombs and managed to sink a battleship (Conte di Cavour) while severely damaging two more (Caio Duilio and Littorio). Only two Swordfish aircraft were shot down. As a result of the attack, half of the Regia Marina’s capital ship fleet was disabled, giving the Royal Navy (RN) some tactical space and time to conduct its maritime operations in the Mediterranean.[3]

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An aerial view showing the aftermath of the raid on Taranto in November 1940. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

More importantly, the Battle of Taranto signalled a change in naval power and the use of air power.  It demonstrated the value of using aircraft to destroy an enemy’s fleet. The lessons of the Battle of Taranto were not lost on those who observed the effects of the operation. The Japanese Assistant Naval Attaché in Berlin visited Taranto and studied the raid. His findings then fed into the planning process for the massive surprise air raid against the US Navy at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. The use of precision airstrikes against naval targets rendered the fleet-in-being strategy as a highly risky practice, and subsequent Second World War naval battles with air power serve to highlight this point.

The Swordfish aircraft, which was successfully used in the attack against Taranto, was an obsolete aircraft when the Second World War started. It was a fabric wire biplane first flown in 1934 and became operational in July 1936 with the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) of the Royal Air Force, which was later transferred to the control of the Royal Navy. It had a top speed of just 138 mph; a service ceiling of 10,890 feet; a range of 1,028 miles; and it could carry either a 1,600 lb torpedo or a 1,500 lb load of depth charges, mines or bombs.[4]  For self-defence, it was armed with a .303 Vickers machine gun above its engine and another .303 Vickers machine gun operated by the rear gunner. It had a crew of three – a pilot, a navigator-observer, and a radioman-rear gunner – flying in an open cockpit. Due to its fabric skin-cover holding the aircraft together, it was nicknamed the ‘Stringbag.’

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HMS Illustrious in 1940. (Source: © IWM (FL 2425))

By the time of the outbreak of the Second World War, the Swordfish was slow and vulnerable to faster and more agile monoplane fighters. Nevertheless, the FAA used it as its primary torpedo and reconnaissance aircraft on the RN’s aircraft carriers during the war. However, its slow speed and crude design allowed it to fly slow and manoeuvre at low altitude. These qualities were crucial to victory at Taranto, when the Swordfish aircraft flew low, almost at sea wave height, enabling them to avoid Italian anti-aircraft artillery. The slow speed also allowed the Swordfish aircraft to fly around some barrage balloons and unleash their ordnance with accuracy. The fabric skin construction of the Swordfish also saved it from light cannon shells armed with contact fuses as the shells shot through the soft fabric.

The anti-battleship feat of the Swordfish was repeated when they took part in the hunt for the German Navy’s (Kriegsmarine) battleship, Bismarck. Swordfish aircraft from HMS Ark Royal launched a torpedo attack against Bismarck on 26 May 1941 and managed to destroy its port-side rudder. This caused the Bismarck to turn in circles.[5] The RN’s surface fleet eventually caught up with the Bismarck and sank it the next day. Ironically, the HMS Prince of Wales, which took part in the sinking of Bismarck, was sunk by Japanese air power on 10 December 1941 off the coast of eastern Malaya.

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Close-up of a Fairey Swordfish MkII in flight as seen through the struts of another aircraft, probably while serving with No. 824 Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm, c. 1943-1944. (Source: © IWM (TR 1138))

The Swordfish continued to be manufactured (2,391 were built) and used by the FAA until the end of the Second World War.[6] Despite its obsolescence at the start of the war, it doggedly flew on and even outlived some of its more modern contemporary aircraft. The Swordfish gained a solid reputation as the most successful British naval aircraft with the highest score of Axis ships sunk during the Second World War.[7] The rugged biplane was finally retired from active service in 1946.

The tactical lessons drawn from the experience of the Swordfish in the Second World War should not be lost on modern observers. Many modern countries are looking to procure the latest technologically superior combat aircraft to equip their air forces, at very expensive prices. For example, there are continued debates today on the viability for some air forces to acquire either the F-35 Lightning II or modernised versions of the F/A-18 Super Hornet or the F-16V Viper. Perhaps it might be prudent to understand that sometimes older platforms if used smartly and asymmetrically to offset their disadvantages, can yield some strategic utility as the humble Fairey Swordfish did during the Second World War. After all, it is not the machines that count, but the tactical effects yielding strategic utility that matter.

Dr Adam Leong Kok Wey is an Associate Professor in Strategic Studies, and the Deputy Director of Research in the Centre for Defence and International Security Studies (CDiSS) at the National Defence University of Malaysia. He has a PhD in Strategic Studies from the University of Reading and is the author of two books on military strategy and history, including Killing the Enemy! Assassination operations during World War II published by I.B. Tauris.

Header Image: A Fairey Swordfish Mk.I from the Torpedo Training Unit at RAF Gosport drops a practice torpedo during training in the late-1930s. (Source: © IWM (MH 23))

[1] See David Wragg, Swordfish: The Story of the Taranto Raid (London: Cassell, 2003).

[2] Richard P. Hallion, ‘Dress Rehersal for Pearl Harbor?’, HistoryNet.com, August 2008.

[3] Bernard Ireland, Naval Airpower (London: HarperCollins, 2003), pp.117-8.

[4] Jim Winchester (ed.), Aircraft of World War II (Kent: Grange, 2007), p. 87.

[5] John Moffat, I Sank the Bismarck: Memoirs of a Second World War Navy Pilot (London: Bantam, 2009), pp. 226-7.

[6] Winchester (ed.), Aircraft, p. 87

[7] Justin D. Murphy and Matthew A. McNiece, Military Aircraft, 1919-1945 (Oxford: ABC Clio, 2009), p. 212.