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.

The Role of History in Educating Air Power Strategists

The Role of History in Educating Air Power Strategists

By Dr Ross Mahoney

Editorial Note: On 19 September 2018, our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney delivered a paper on the subject of ‘The Role of History in Educating Air Power Strategists’ at a seminar organised by the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) Air Power Development Centre in Canberra. A precis of this paper was published in the Pathfinder bulletin issued by APDC, which can be found here. The Pathfinder series covers a range of issue from strategy, historical analyses, operations, administration, logistics, education and training, people, command and control, technology to name a few. Irrespective of the subject though, Pathfinders will always be focused on the relevance to air power; they are not intended to be just a narrative but deliver a measure of analysis. Apart from the addition of some minor changes to make this precis applicable to From Balloons to Drones as well as the inclusion of footnotes and further reading suggestions, this article appears as published in Pathfinder. We are grateful to APDC for permission to re-publish the piece, and the views in this article and the associated Pathfinder are not necessarily those of the RAAF.

‘[t]he study of military history lies at the foundation of all sound military conclusions and practice.’

Rear-Admiral A.T. Mahan, ‘The Naval War College,’ The North American Review, (1912)[1]

‘The word history carries two meanings […] It refers both to what actually happened in the past and to the representation of that past in the work of historians.’

John Tosh, The Pursuit of History, Third Edition, (1999)[2]

What is history? What is its relevance to an air power strategist? These are important questions; however, as Richard Muller, a senior member of the faculty at the US Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, reflected in 2016, ‘as a rule air forces have not embraced historical study to the same extent as have their army or navy counterparts.’[3] Nevertheless, in 1912, a year after an Italian aeroplane dropped the first ‘bomb’ over Libya, noted US naval historian and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan reflected on the link between military history and ‘sound military conclusions.’ However, history does not provide clear lessons. Nevertheless, the study of the past does offer a lens through which to analyse, understand and reflect on the challenges currently faced by modern air forces.

Air Corps Tactical School
The Air Corps Tactical School (created as the Air Service Field Officers School in 1920) went beyond its mandate of training officers to also become an engine for air power theory development in the interwar period. (Source: US Air Force Air University)

This article considers some of the issues related to applied military history beginning with an outline of the purpose of history and the challenges of applying the past to the present. It also considers how air forces have used the study of the past as a tool for education while concluding with some tentative thoughts on how history can be used to educate strategists in the continuing challenge to achieve professional mastery.[4]

To start with, the term ‘education’ is used in this narrative in a broad context and incorporates both formal and informal learning. Similarly, the term ‘strategist’ is used in a collegiate manner and assumes that modern air forces seek personnel who are professional masters, well-versed in the core knowledge that underpins the application of air power.

As the British historian John Tosh reflected, the term history is ambiguous at best. Is history a collection of facts related to what has happened or is it the scholarly discussion and representation of the past? If the latter statement is accepted as being correct, then it can also be assumed that the interpretation of the past is an argument without an end. While a hackneyed observation, history is a dynamic field of study, one where historians continually re-examine evidence and reinterpret the past. Linked to this is the extent of historical information available to historians and, by default, strategists who seek to apply lessons from the past to the present. The archival records and evidence that underpin the interpretation of the past are normally incomplete. For example, the National Archives of Australia only preserves a small amount of the material generated by the Australian Government.

Moving beyond the above understanding of history, the field of military history can be split into three subfields: popular, academic, and applied history.[5] There is a degree of overlap between the latter two. The main criticism of applied military history is that it is a form of weaponising the past to cater for the present.[6] Underpinning this criticism is a view that those writing such history do so without sufficient understanding of the context in seeking to deduce lessons learnt. Unfortunately, this criticism is currently directed at academics working at institutions delivering professional military education. These institutions use history to illuminate and provide context to the ambiguous challenges that officers attending them are likely to confront in the future.

Historically, the criticism of weaponising the past does carry some weight, and therefore air power strategists could be criticised for the poor use of history to support their arguments. Indeed, as Sir Michael Howard, a distinguished military historian, noted in his 1961 lecture on ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History’:

[W]hen great [interwar] pioneers of air war…advocated striking at the homeland and at the morale of the enemy people…they were basing their conclusions on their interpretation of past wars’. (emphasis added)[7]

Warden

More recently, Colonel (retired) John Warden III’s book, The Air Campaign, has been criticised for his use of a selective reading of history to fit the theory being propounded in it.[8] Admittedly, Warden is not a historian. However, such selective use of history becomes problematic to the broader task of delivering professional education when such texts appear in, for example, Staff College reading lists where they can reinforce a narrow, and at times wrong, understanding of some of the officers they are meant to educate. Despite this criticism, it is clear that many air power thinkers have recognised the value of a broad reading of history. For example, in a 1921 article on ‘Strategy and Air Strategy,’ Group Captain John Chamier of the Royal Air Force reflected on the challenge of deducing appropriate principles for the use of air power given the brief history of air warfare till then. Nevertheless, Chamier recognised that ‘strategic principles are derived from the study of history’, and he recognised that examples from ‘naval and military strategy’ could provide the necessary framework for a discussion of ‘air strategy.’[9]

While history and the application of its lessons by air forces is fraught with challenges, its importance as a didactic tool for the military cannot be underestimated. Indeed, the study of history has been, and remains, an element of the curricula at educational establishments of most air forces. However, considered in a broad manner, the study of history has been unbalanced. For example, in the late-1940s and 1950s, history and related subjects featured little on the curriculum at the RAAF College. As Alan Stephens has noted, the RAAF of this period identified itself as a ‘narrow technocracy’ with knowledge of the Air Force’s core business to be deduced from its ‘technical components’ rather than a ‘study of its history and ideas.’[10]

To conclude, there are several areas where the contemporary study of history plays a key role in the education of air power theorists and strategists. Perhaps most important is that a deep and contextual study of history provides an important understanding for military personnel seeking to gain professional mastery of the profession of arms. Indeed, if it is accepted that the aim of learning is to develop the cognitive ability to understand and deal with ambiguity, rather than to provide clear-cut answers to current problems, then the study of history has a role to play.

The skills associated with historical analysis refines human cognitive areas such as the ability to make considered judgements. An important contributor to the effectiveness of this learning process has been the increasing civilianisation of the academic delivery at institutions catering to professional military education. At a practical level, the use of Staff Rides as a learning tool could also ensure that history could be used as a means to explore ideas outside of the confines of the traditional education environment. However, this process also has its own challenges.[11] In the final analysis, Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely’s remark that the study of history needs to form an essential part of a ‘balanced diet’ of education for the military professional in order for them to develop the knowledge to be effective, rings completely true.[12]

Key Points

  1. Even though history may not provide clear lessons, the study of the past offers a lens through which to analyse, understand and reflect on the challenges currently faced by modern air forces;
  2. History could be considered a rather dynamic field of study, one where historians continually re-examine evidence and re-interpret the past;
  3. It is recognised that ‘strategic principles are derived from the study of history.’

Further Reading

  • Gray, Peter, ‘Why Study Military History?,’ Defence Studies, 5:1 (2005), pp. 151-64.
  • Muller, Richard R., ‘The Airpower Historian and the Education of Strategists’ in Bailey Jr., Richard J., Forsyth Jr., James W., and Yeisley, Mark O., (eds.), Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016).
  • Murray, Williamson, and Sinnreich, Richard Hart (eds.), The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

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

Header Image: An Architect’s perspective drawing of the proposed RAF (Cadet) College at Cranwell. (Source: © IWM ((MOW) C 1081))

[1] Rear-Admiral A.T. Mahan, ‘The Naval War College,’ The North American Review, 196:680 (1912), p. 78.

[2] John Tosh, The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and New Directions in the Study of Modern History, Third Edition (Harlow: Pearson Education, 1999), p. viii.

[3] Richard R. Muller, ‘The Airpower Historian and the Education of Strategists’ in Richard J. Bailey Jr., James W. Forsyth Jr., and Mark O. Yeisley (eds.), Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016), p. 113.

[4] On professional mastery in air forces, see: Sanu Kainikara, ‘Professional Mastery and Air Power Education,’ Working Paper, 33 (Canberra: RAAF Air Power Development Centre, 2011).

[5] John A. Lynn III, ‘Breaching the Walls of Academe: The Purposes, Problems, and Prospects of Military History,’ Academic Questions, 21:1 (2008), p. 20.

[6] Kim Wagner, ‘Seeing Like a Soldier: The Amritsar Massacre and the Politics of Military History,’ in Martin Thomas and Gareth Curless (eds), Decolonization and Conflict: Colonial Comparisons and Conflicts (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), pp. 25-7.

[7] Michael Howard, ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History (lecture),’ Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, 107:625 (1962), p. 10.

[8] John Andreas Olsen, John Warden and the Renaissance of American Air Power (Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2007), pp. 78-9. In a similar vein to Warden, Colonel John Boyd’s work ‘cherry-picked’ history ‘to provide illustrations and empirical validation for patterns he observed in combat.’ However, it should be recognised that Boyd was an airman who was a general strategist rather than an air power thinker per se, though his ideas do have applicability to the air domain. See: Frans Osinga, ‘The Enemy as a Complex Adaptive System: John Boyd and Airpower in the Postmodern Era’ in John Andreas Olsen (ed.), Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015), pp. 53-4.

[9] Group Captain J.A. Chamier, ‘Strategy and Air Strategy,’ Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, 66 (1921), p. 641.

[10] Alan Stephens, The Australian Centenary History of Defence: Volume II – The Royal Australian Air Force (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 188.

[11] On the challenges associated with staff rides, see: Brigadier R.A.M.S. Melvin British Army, ‘Contemporary Battlefield Tours and Staff Rides: A Military Practitioner’s View,’ Defence Studies, 5:1 (2005), pp. 59-80,Nick Lloyd, ‘Battlefield Tours and Staff Rides: A Useful Learning Experience?,’ Teaching in Higher Education, 14:2 (2009), pp. 175-84.

[12] John P. Kiszely, ‘The Relevance of History to the Military Profession: A British View’ in Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich (eds.), The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 32.

#BookReview – Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower

#BookReview – Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower

By Dr Peter Layton

Richard J. Bailey, James W. Forsyth Jr. and Mark O. Yeisley (eds), Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. xii + 279 pp.

Strategy

It may seem somewhat odd to be reviewing a book about thinking strategically on a website concerning air power and history. But not so. This book is written by past and present faculty members of the US Air Force’s (USAF) School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS) located within the Air University at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Air power thus permeates the book, running in parallel with the notion that history is a particularly useful discipline when educating future strategists.

For From Balloons and Drones readers though there is a deeper interest. With all the hubris of a fast jet aviator Richard Bailey tells us that SAASS is the ‘premier strategy school in the US Department of Defense (if not the country at large)’ (p. 1).[1] Arguably, make that ‘the world at large’, at least regarding influence on air power thinking. The USAF dominates modern air power theory and practice. This book nicely illuminates the culture that underpins such dominance.

Strategy: Context and Adaptation comprises 11 main chapters each written by a different faculty member. Academics are notoriously averse to standardisation, delighting in holding differing opinions and employing diverse writing techniques. This book accepts this and seeks to make it a virtue, with each chapter entirely different regarding structure, content, style, and tone. Coherence and unity of purpose are then meant to be achieved not at the chapter level but in the book overall. The book’s design is meant to take the reader along an ‘optimal arc’ so that they complete ‘an intentional full circle academic journey’ (p. 3). Does it work? For me, not quite. The book seems more a compilation of disparate articles – all insightful, many outstanding, most cutting-edge – that is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

StrategyBook

The book’s subtitle is ‘context and adaptation,’ both good threads to discuss its contents. There is much made of the need for individual strategies to be developed appropriate to the context within which they are to be implemented. Understanding context, getting ‘to know the key actors, relationships, factors and challenges’ is seen as the first step in ‘doing strategy’ (p. 241).

The argument is though considerably more sophisticated than it may first appear. The notion is developed that strategy and context interact, continually changing each other and simultaneously evolving together. Everett Dolman writes ‘so now we are all constructivists, of course’ (p. 33). A somewhat surprising statement given that the American armed forces strategic culture overall is often seen as being realist, so privileging relative material power rather than ideas.

For air power thinkers and historians there is some importance to this reflectivist notion as made clear in Jeffrey Smith’s excellent chapter. Smith develops the idea that the USAF has generally been tardy in adapting its strategy, force structure and training in the context of the times.

Air Corps Tactical School
The Air Corps Tactical School (created as the Air Service Field Officers School in 1920) went beyond its mandate of training officers to also become an engine for air power theory development in the interwar period. (Source: US Air Force Air University)

The interwar Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS) devised the strategy of precision daylight bombing of vital industrial targets, but this was found wanting when employed in the context of a capable air defence system and needed adaptation. In the nuclear age post-Second World War, the strategy of large-scale nuclear strikes using long-range bombers dominated but was again found wanting in the context of the Vietnam conflict, a limited war fought with conventional munitions. In the post-9/11 era of small wars and insurgencies, the strategy of short-range fighters delivering precision-guided weapons was again found wanting in a context where population security was deemed key and the enemy elusive. Smith argues that in each case ‘translating the theory into a feasible strategy [was] flawed because it failed to consider, understand, or incorporate the full context in which it would be applied’ (p. 139). Adaptation then became necessary to achieve success, but this was often too slow, proving costly in blood and treasure.

Smith then extends this insight from history to the future of air power. He argues that contemporary air power theories, strategies, force structures and training may prove inadequate in the future context in which they are applied. It seems adaptation will be required again albeit with nuance.

Dolman considers (p. 32) that it is not perfect adaptation to the context that is key but rather having a diverse range of force capabilities available that become progressively useful however the context changes. As Smith notes, fast jets were perfect for 1991’s Desert Storm but inadequate for the different operational contexts later encountered. The importance of Dolman’s conceptual call for diversity is nicely illustrated by Smith’s outline of post 9/11 air operations that required ‘tactical airlift, special operations, ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance], close air support and tightly integrated action with ground forces’ (p. 145) not high-flying strike packages comprising mainly supersonic fighters.

SAASS

This step from historical analysis to tomorrow’s battles reflects the SAASS motto of From the Past, the Future (p. 129). When one considers that the ACTS’ motto of the 1920s was Proficimus More Irretenti (We Progress Unhindered by Tradition) (p. 115) you can get a sense of how modern USAF strategic education has evolved, or as airmen might say, of its current vector.

Richard Muller’s chapter on using history to educate strategists explores this aspect further. The USAF, born after the Second World War straight into the revolutionary new nuclear age determined that military history be mostly irrelevant; technology studies and current affairs accordingly dominated the Air University’s curricula. In the wake of the Vietnam War though doubts arose and the study of history crept in. After some travails, this inclination became institutionalised following some vigorous prodding from the US Congress and the activism of the remarkable Ike Skelton (D-MO). SAASS was one of the results albeit it should be highlighted that the use of history at this school has a decidedly utilitarian flavour.

When this book was written in 2015, only two out of 11 SAASS courses were ‘explicitly historical in orientation’ (p. 129) with emphasis placed instead on the curriculum being interdisciplinary. Muller usefully sets out four ways history should be used to educate airmen (pp. 123-5). Firstly ‘to instil corporate spirit and foster awareness of airpower’s rich heritage’; secondly ‘to illustrate or even legitimise current doctrine, operational concepts, organisational reforms or weapon systems’; thirdly as part of the ‘systematic attempt to extract useful insights from a thorough examination of previous wars, campaigns or other historical events’; and lastly ‘to inculcate the ability to think in terms of cause and effect or to work through complex interactions of personalities, contextual factors, friction and so on’. As Muller himself notes, professional historians would be aghast about the first two somewhat proselytising functions.

The last function, however, that of developing critical thinking skills, is particularly noteworthy given that air forces are culturally inherently technocratic organisations. This essential characteristic needs some balancing when conflict erupts and the need for successful strategising arises. Steven Wright (pp. 234-6) considers most air force personnel are linear thinkers that excel at getting things done correctly but that this is not enough. Air forces also need abstract thinkers that excel at understanding what the correct things are that need to be done. Studying history can help improve people’s abstract thinking skills by giving them an understanding of how to think about context and its relationship to strategy. History then helps people understand what the correct things are to be doing and is accordingly an indispensable element in a strategist’s education.

Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower is a snapshot of SAASS at a specific time in history, after the 9/11 wars and before the emerging era of contested skies. The book is excellent in guiding the reader to think more thoughtfully about strategy, what it is and how it should be made while providing an interesting window into contemporary USAF senior staff college education. Eclectic by design, the book offers much for military professionals, academics and all concerned with deeply understanding the business of strategising and its teaching.

Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. His PhD is in grand strategy, and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. He is the author of the book ‘Grand Strategy’.

Header Image: Austin Hall at Maxwell AFB. Austin Hall was the home of the Air Corps Tactical School before the Second World War. (Source: Wikimedia)

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[1] While Bailey is not a fast-jet aviator, this reviewer used to be one and so feels able to use such an analogy shamelessly.

#BookReview – Limiting Risk in America’s Wars: Airpower, Asymmetrics, and a New Strategic Paradigm

#BookReview – Limiting Risk in America’s Wars: Airpower, Asymmetrics, and a New Strategic Paradigm

By Wing Commander Alec Tattersall

Phillip S. Meilinger, Limiting Risk in America’s Wars: Airpower, Asymmetrics, and a New Strategic Paradigm. Annapolis: MD, Naval Institute Press, 2017. Illustrations, Notes, Bibliography, Hbk. xx + 277 pp.

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The US possesses the pre-eminent military force in the world today. The record of the US in conflict since the Second World War does not, however, reflect this capability pre-eminence. In a recent online article, Harlan Ullman noted that:

President John F. Kennedy tartly observed that there is no school for presidents [but] there needs to be a way to bring knowledge and understanding to bear on presidents’ decisions.[1]

Ullman’s concern is that President’s, and those that advise them, are ill prepared for determining political strategy in the context of using military force.

It would not be inappropriate to suggest that Phillip S. Meilinger’s new book is one way of addressing this knowledge deficit. In simple terms, this is a book about US strategy, or rather re-thinking US strategy in the context of protecting national interests subject to the usual pressures of representative democracy. Pressures that require amongst other things maintenance of public support, which is increasingly sensitive to the costs of war in both people and money. As such Meilinger advocates for a reorientation of US military policy to focus on its asymmetric strengths in areas such as air and naval power, special forces (SOF), increasingly pervasive intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and intelligence analysis, against enemy vulnerabilities, and at the same time limit the States exposure to the risk of ‘casualties and cost’. While a simple concept, it is a shift away from current US strategic policy that follows Clausewitzian notions of using conventional ground forces against enemy strengths.

Meilinger starts by reminding us of the main problem to be addressed – designing military strategy to achieve political goals with the highest chance of decisive military victory but at the least cost. Railing against the Clausewitzian model of seeking decisive victory by attacking an enemy’s strength head-on, and its attendant higher cost and risk of failure, Meilinger reviews the work of several renowned strategists including Basil Liddell Hart, J.F.C. Fuller, Antoine Jomini and Sun Tzu to identify an alternative strategic direction. The common thread he draws from such strategists is of using an asymmetric advantage to strike at an enemy’s weakness while protecting your own. He draws upon the example of indirect second-front operations that he defines as:

[g]rand strategic flanking manoeuvres involving a major military force that strikes the enemy unexpectedly somewhere other than the main theatre of action (the source of the enemy’s strength) and is directed to achieving clear political objectives. (p.31)

Within the concept of second-fronts, Meilinger sees a basis to provide the US with an asymmetric advantage over enemies, with the promise of limiting the America’s exposure to casualties and cost.

Meilinger then examines both successful and unsuccessful historical incidences of second-fronts from the Peloponnesian war through to the Second World War to determine whether they are conceptually relevant today. This examination identifies that the reasons for opening a second-front exist today. These reasons are to avoid enemy strongpoints, increased morale, gaining an economic advantage, splitting an alliance, denying or gaining access to resources, the base for further operations, taking advantage of a unique strength. Importantly, the contemporary need for states to limit risk and preserve resources makes the most fundamental reason for adopting second-fronts. Also, the use and creation of asymmetry against an enemy by avoiding their strengths and attacking their vulnerabilities to limit risk and cost are of significant relevance to the American public. Similarly, those factors prominent in success or failure of second-fronts such as valid strategy, competent planning, competent leadership, accurate and timely intelligence, friendly or neutralised local population, secure lines of communication, maritime and air superiority, are also still current.

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F-35A Lightning II joint strike fighters land at RAF Lakenheath, 15 April 2017. The arrival of these aircraft marked the first F-35A fighter training deployment to the US European Command area of responsibility or any overseas location. The aircraft is assigned to the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. (Source: US Department of Defense Images)

While many of these factors are commonly addressed, Meilinger raises a couple of issues that are perhaps core to the application of an appropriate alternative strategy to the achievement of desired political objectives. Success requires both sound policy and strategy, the setting of which requires the military leadership to provide appropriate advice and guidance to the government. Political objectives must be achievable through an aligned strategy that military planners design to maximise the chance of success while simultaneously minimising risk and costs. As such strategy and the forces to implement it should not be adversely affected by service culture or other factors incongruent with the development of optimal outcomes. Should the government not accept appropriate advice, but instead adopts policy or strategy that inappropriately increases the risk to lives and/or of failure then the military leadership should have the moral courage to seek to positively influence political decision-making or be prepared to resign.

Meilinger highlights the asymmetric advantage provided to the US by its air power capabilities that most, if not all, nations would struggle to contain. Through its reach, speed, ubiquity, flexibility and lethal precision it provides the US direct access to all the strengths and vulnerabilities (centres of gravity) of an enemy, allowing it the ability to undertake direct or indirect attack against them, with drastically reduced risk to its forces and civilians, and a significantly reduced footprint. Concerns over its reputation (psychological, graphic violence, and morality of distance) and risk shifting to civilians, arguably are offset using precision weapons, targeting tools and detailed planning resulting in reduced risk to civilians. In other words, Meilinger claims it is ‘the US asymmetric advantage that limits [US] risk.’ (p. 190)

Since the Second World War, wars have generally been fought with limited means to achieve limited objectives, whether due to avoiding nuclear peers, concerns with maintaining public support, legal restrictions, media, geography, culture or concerns over managing scarce resources. Meilinger’s review of post-Second World War wars undertaken by the US from Korea to Iraq highlights a somewhat chequered record of success premised on US strategy of employing massive conventional ground forces. While air power was used during these wars, it was either used poorly, or when used successfully, the maintenance of an overall Clausewitzian conventional ground force strategy ultimately led to strategic failure.

Meilinger notes that perhaps another model should have been used; one presaged by historical second-front operations that used unique strategies and tactics to solve equally unique problems, with the goal of achieving measurable political results at minimal risk. As such Meilinger suggests that the US should ‘use [its] asymmetric strengths against enemy weaknesses while screening their own vulnerabilities’. In addition to air power, existing asymmetric strengths include SOF and ubiquitous ISR. Combining these three capabilities with ‘determined’ indigenous forces provide a force structure that provides an asymmetric advantage against conventional and unconventional enemy forces, and which when compared to conventional ground force options offers an opportunity for measurable results while saving lives and money.

There is, however, a paradox in Limiting Risk in America’s Wars that is hard to reconcile. The engaging, forthright simplicity of the book is achieved by avoiding overly complex analysis and justification of strategic concepts and their technical detail. Consequently, what makes the book easy to read and understand, also makes it appear shallow in specific areas. While the knowledge of the author is unquestionable, and the notes provide an extra depth of information, there are times when the reader is left to accept the statements of the author as fact, rather than follow an articulated analysis resulting in verifiable deductions or inductions.

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US Army 1st Sergeant Henning Jensen of Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, leads a foot patrol with the National Police Transition Team in eastern Baghdad in 2008 while assigned to a military transition team. Transition teams have been replaced by the 1st SFAB to help combatant commanders accomplish theatre security objectives by training, advising, assisting, accompanying and enabling allied and partnered indigenous security forces. (Source: US Department of Defense Images)

For instance, a critical position taken by the author is that the US should adopt the asymmetric advantage provided by the ‘combination of air power, SOF, indigenous forces, and ISR.’ (p. 194) There is a succinct analysis of the air power capability resulting in a deduction that air power provides an asymmetric advantage, but there is no such deductive analysis of the asymmetric advantage of SOF and ISR and only a limited prescription for indigenous troops. While there seems to be a dearth of material on the anti-Clausewitzian aspects of these elements, examples exist. The work of retired General Robert Scales, for instance, on mobile land forces in replication of air power capability would seem to offer the prospect of more detailed analysis of corresponding ground force elements, to aid in fleshing out the elements of Meilinger’s overall strategy. The lack of detailed insight into each of the non-air power elements, by consequence results in the absence of explanation or analysis into how the four nominated forces fit together to deliver an overall asymmetric advantage in contemporary conflict. Admittedly, a core thread of the book is about raising the importance of air power in the overall force composition and strategy mix, but the failure to address the other elements and their combination can lead to questions, which undermines the overall premise of the book and could have been quickly addressed.

One such example is the a priori claim that the use of conventional forces increases the risk of casualties (civilians and own forces) – whether from the dangers of ground combat or the application of air power in support of troops in conflict. If you replace conventional forces with indigenous troops, the same risks still seem to exist. In fact, the risk may increase if the indigenous troops are not as professional or well-equipped as the conventional forces they are replacing. The logical conclusion that can be drawn thus appears to be that the only benefit that exists is a movement of risk from US forces (as no conventional troops are committed) to the indigenous forces and civilians.

Meilinger tellingly notes that if:

US leaders determine that our vital interests be indeed at stake and US involvement is essential the case studies reveal timeless truths regarding the most effective and efficient methods of achieving success at low risk. (p. 205)

Conceptually, after reading this book, it is hard to disagree with this statement. There is something powerful in the simple argument that strategy, and force composition, should be built around the use of asymmetrical advantages against enemy vulnerabilities to reduce risk and cost. However, by attempting to advance this concept one step further and identify, without full supporting analysis, a specific contemporary US strategy with a focus on air power and the other elements of SOF, ISR and indigenous ground forces, it strikes me that Meilinger not only comes to a logically weakened position. As such, Meilinger, unfortunately, misses the opportunity to articulate a more robust and appropriate strategy for the conduct of warfare generally.

Wing Commander Alec Tattersall has been a permanent member of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) since 1996. He is a graduate of the University of Tasmania (Bcom & LLB), the University of Melbourne (Grad. Dip. Military Law), the Australian National University (GDLP and LLM), and is currently undertaking postgraduate research into the philosophical aspects of autonomous weapon systems at the University of New South Wales. His recent postings include; Headquarters Joint Operations Command, Air Force Headquarters, the Directorate of Operations and Security Law, and the Air Power Development Centre. Threaded through these postings are a number of operational deployments to the Middle East and domestically for counter-terrorism.  He is the currently seconded to Special Counsel in the Australian Signals Directorate and is the Defence Legal representative to the 2017/18 meetings of the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the RAAF, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.

Header Image: An MQ-9 Reaper equipped with an extended range modification sits on the ramp on Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan before a sortie on 6 December 2015. (Source: US Department of Defense Images)

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[1] Harlan Ullam, ‘Why America Loses Every War,’ Defense One, 17 November 2017.

#BookReview – Space Warfare in the 21st Century: Arming the Heavens

#BookReview – Space Warfare in the 21st Century: Arming the Heavens

By Squadron Leader Michael Spencer

Joan Johnson-Freese, Space Warfare in the 21st Century: Arming the Heavens. Abingdon: Routledge, 2017. Notes. Index. xx + 202 pp.

9781138693883

In this book, Joan Johnson-Freese, Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College, has written a comprehensive history of the development of US national policy for space security. In the preface, Johnson-Freese cited General John Hyten, the then Commander, US Air Force Space Command, as stating that, ‘if the United States is “threatened in space, we have the right of self-defence, and will make sure we execute that right.”’ (p. ix) The underlying driver that persists in twenty-first century US policy developments on space security, up to the publication of this book in 2017, is to be able to access and securely use space for its purposes independently and at the time of its choosing. The US also seeks to keep pace with the increasing number of space-faring nations and developments in space power projection.

The book’s title invokes visions of nations in the twenty-first-century posturing to exploit niche combat capabilities to project their influence into future confrontations into the common grounds located above the Earth that is the shared orbital domain. However, this book is a well-constructed guide that walks the reader through the process of US national policy development for space security. More specifically, the book logically describes to the reader the policy determinants for US national security and space security. It also considers the drivers adopted by the US government that has steered its space security interests and shaped attitudes and organisational responses to assert those interests in the shared space orbital domain in the early period of the twenty-first century. The book concludes with suggesting that US space security policy take the lead in providing a secure space domain.

Space is one of the domains used as a common ground to globally connect actors in activities that either permeates across the globe or are discrete interconnected nodes remote located around the world. Moreover, individual state actors wish to exploit that common ground to build compartments within it for their exclusive purposes. State actors will then seek to build systems to protect these compartments that inadvertently increase the congested, contested, and competitive character of the space domain. This also has implications for dependent capabilities, for example, the use of the electromagnetic spectrum for assured access to space systems that support state interests. The challenge for US policy development is to adopt mechanisms that can discriminate between a hostile act and an accidental on-orbit event and provide options for appropriate responses that will not further exacerbate the problems of congestion and inadvertently escalate the competition into an uncontrolled contest.

Chapter one provides a rolling history of the US government’s inaugural efforts in developing policy statements that injected space interests into national security policy. These were then elaborated further in the first dedicated national space policy and space security strategy. US policy-makers, along with many space-savvy actors, have accepted that in a globalised world, economic and national security have become critically dependent on space. However, space is increasingly complex, not regulated, and serves as a global common, which is a challenge for the security policy of individual nations.

Chapter two characterises the priority problems posed by the utility of the orbital space domain to security policy-makers. The characteristics of space activities in the global common fundamentally challenges the management of national security by individual nations. Space cannot be a physical extension to sovereign airspace. Additionally, space is increasingly more affordable and accessible to more state and non-state actors, and increasingly more critical to designs for public infrastructure and daily lifestyles. Although it is accepted that space is a globally shared common, it has become increasingly congested, contested, and competitive in the absence of robust regulation. The space domain is difficult to control, and this is a driver for significant space-faring nations to consider structuring military force options to help assure space access from adverse environmental effects, on-orbit accidents, potential future adversary actions.

Chapter three discusses the reasons why the US should make strategies for space security. The fundamental assumption made is that conflict in the common grounds is inevitable and that concern over the future capabilities of potential adversary nations in the space domain is an acceptable driver for the development of US space security strategy irrespective of the publicly announced intentions of other nations. Johnson-Freese postulates potential strategy developments in the US along the four separate themes. First, space dominance is essential to assuring US military/civilian capabilities. Second, the weaponisation of space is inevitable. Third, while space is essential to military capabilities, the government should seek to limit the militarisation of space, and finally, the US should promote the use of space as a sanctuary, in a similar analogy to the international cooperation for managing Antarctica. Irrespective of the strategic theme, all discussions conclude that space is the Achilles heel for military power.

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The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access program is developing a much-less expensive way to routinely launch small satellites, with a goal of at least a threefold reduction in costs compared to current military and U.S. commercial launch costs. (Source: US Department of Defense)

In chapter four, Johnson-Freese discusses options for military roles that can be performed in and with space to assure space security with a focus on the separate roles and potential technologies for the military to deter, defend, and defeat an adversary in space. The challenge for military commanders is that space is not a logical extension of the air domain. This requires strategists and capability developers to recognise the need to understand the differences in science, technology, and costs. The conduct of warfare in the orbital space domain will be challenged by the definition and ethics of military endstates involving any on-orbit military actions. This is especially true of those legacy effects, such as orbital space debris and disruption to critical public infrastructure, which may endure, potentially, for many generations after a conflict has ended.

Whereas chapters one to four steps the reader through a logical process of understanding the outcomes for a space security strategy and deriving the necessary outputs, chapter five discusses the critical national stakeholders who are essential in putting space strategy into effect, and the support necessary to make it useful. The observation made is that the issue of space security has generated an industry for the pondering, pursuit, and procurement of new space applications by military, industry, aerospace think tanks, academia, and support research organisations. Thus, it is good to define a threat that can be used to justify the significant and long-term investments into space security.

Chapter six is a discussion on the impact of the newest space actors and their behaviours and attitudes towards space. Space access is no longer considered to be exclusive to government-run organisations in space-faring nations. Technology miniaturisation and reduced launch costs have democratised space access to allow non-state actors. Moreover, entrepreneurial investors have triggered a need for strategists to reconsider space as ‘New Space’ to be shared with new additional actors and an increased level of unexpected and complexity in space behaviours. Johnson-Freese refines the book’s premise to consider that access to is space is inevitable but that space warfare is not necessarily inevitable.

Chapter seven concludes the Johnson-Freese’s discussion on strategy development for US space security by highlighting the challenges of democratisation of space access and the globalisation of interdependent space users, both military and non-military. While it is difficult to define a policy for space warfare when a definition for ‘space weapon’ has not yet been universally agreed, space security is complex and might be better achieved under a multi-lateral cooperative arrangement between space-faring nations. While space warfare might serve to achieve a short-term goal, it may be better to appreciate that the more prolonged effects of destabilising the space domain will be detrimental to all space users. A continuously growing number of space users want evermore space-derived services driven by ever-evolving technological improvements that allow more space missions to be conducted near each other. However, this uncontrolled approach by separate nations to individually access the common grounds of the Earth space orbital domain must logically converge at a point where the risks of accidents or deliberate action on orbit must be considered as a likely determinant for future space security policy, and not necessarily a space warfare policy.

In conclusion, this book is well-referenced, and presented in a logical flow of clearly articulated thoughts, making it a useful study reference for strategic thinkers. Johnson-Freese, herself a noted specialist on the space domain, has consulted with subject matter experts from appropriate military and space industry organisations and think-tanks, and is supported by critical individuals typified by the international recognised experts such as Dr David Finkleman, who has served on numerous technical and scientific advisory and study boards for industry and the federal government and is a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Squadron Leader Michael Spencer is currently a serving officer in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). He serves at the Air Power Development Centre in Canberra where he is involved in the analysis of potential risks and opportunities posed by technology change drivers and disruptions to future air and space power. His RAAF career has provided operational experiences in long-range maritime patrol, aircrew training, and weaponeering, and management experiences in international relations, project management in air and space systems acquisitions, space concepts development, and joint force capability integration. He is also an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the RAAF, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.

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Header Image: An Atlas V rocket carrying a Space Based Infrared System Geosynchronous Earth Orbit satellite for a US Air Force mission lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, 19 January 2018. (Source: US Department of Defense)

The Air Defence of the UK: Defence on a Shoestring in an Age of Uncertainty

The Air Defence of the UK: Defence on a Shoestring in an Age of Uncertainty

By Dr Kenton White

Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Dr Kenton White examines Britain’s defence policy with regards to the air defence of the United Kingdom. He compares Britain’s commitment to air defence during the Cold War period with that of the present. With regards to the present, White concludes that given certain factors, the Royal Air Force (RAF) will struggle to regenerate if faced with a high-intensity conflict with a near-peer enemy.

Preamble

This article talks broadly about strategy, planning and its practice. It uses examples from Britain’s defence policy, and hard numbers from the Cold War experience, to illustrate some of the problems the RAF faces today. It looks at Britain’s commitment to the air defence of its islands during the Cold War – an age of certainty – and compares it directly to the current defence policy and practice in the age of uncertainty.

A historically pessimistic view of international relations and strategy is taken. The reason for this pessimism is based on historical precedent. In 1914, Europe went from peace to war in less than two months. In the 1930s Britain’s rearmament began in mid-decade to replace bi-planes and other equipment, but the RAF still went to war in 1939 with obsolescent, vulnerable equipment, and suffered severe losses of personnel and machinery.

RAF-T 2151
A Gloster Javelin FAW.9R of No, 23 Squadron banking away from the camera clearly showing the missile complement of De Havilland Firestreak infra-red homing air-to-air missiles. (Source: © IWM (RAF-T 2151))

Introduction

I take it someone has worked out whether we can defend ourselves.

Jim Callaghan, Labour Prime Minister, 1978

This comment is written on the front page of a Joint Intelligence Committee report on the ability of the Soviet air force to attack targets in Britain.[1] The report showed Britain was poorly prepared to defend itself in times of war, despite the apparent threat from the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact.

Questions relating to Britain’s air defence capability are as relevant now as they were then; however, the circumstances are very different. The familiar bipolarity of the Cold War is missing, and the range of threats to the UK is much broader, including both state and non-state actors.

Deterrence

A vital role of the RAF is to deter attack, and ultimately the defence of UK airspace if that deterrent fails. Deterrent plans are aimed at a perceived threat: planning for the manifestation of that threat. These plans relate intimately to national strategy. The nation must appear to have a capable air force if it is to act as a deterrent. However, deterrence also requires the ability to sustain operations. Britain’s air defences protect around 1 million square miles of airspace, reaching out into the North Atlantic. This indicates how vital airborne maritime reconnaissance is in defence of the islands.

The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review read:

The Government’s most important duty is the defence of the UK and Overseas Territories, and protection of our people and sovereignty.[2]

In written testimony to the House of Commons Defence Committee (HCDC) in 2013, Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield told the committee that, in an ideal world, air defence of the UK should be the priority of UK defence policy.[3] The 2015 SDSR states ‘[T]he Royal Air Force protects our airspace and is ready at all times to intercept rogue aircraft.’[4] Concerted attack from the air by a peer adversary is not perceived as an imminent threat.

Threat Analysis

The conventional threat during the period of ‘Flexible Response,’ as the NATO Cold War strategy was called, was clear – direct attack from bombers equipped with gravity bombs or stand-off missiles aimed at denying the vital infrastructure needed for the reinforcement of Europe by UK and US forces. The UK was responsible for the air defence of the Eastern Atlantic and the UK itself, and the airspace over the UK was an Air Defence Region in its own right. However, the defensive response to the threat was never completely put into place, leaving UK airspace extremely vulnerable, and Britain’s ability to continue a fight very doubtful.

What is the threat analysis today? The HCDC identified several distant threats to the national interest, and while qualifying the analysis heavily, identified the Russian/Middle Eastern threat as being the greatest to the UK itself.[5] In 2015, the HCDC commented that:

[t]he resurgence of an expansionist Russia represents a significant change in the threat picture […] and has implications not only for the UK but also for our allies as well.[6]

The ability of the Russians to interfere with the sea and air communications into the UK is seen as a considerable problem, and the capability to use cyber-attacks to cripple the country has been recently in the news thanks to the Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson.[7] Unofficially at least in public, there is also the fear of the break-up of NATO, and the need for Britain to be able to defend itself alone, as in 1940.

What is being defended?

For us to understand the demands of the air defence of the UK, we must understand what is being defended. The knee-jerk response to this may be that the population is being defended. However, the official documents indicate otherwise. During the early Cold War, the first thing being defended against attack in the UK was the nuclear deterrent. Other targets such as other military installations, ports and airports were next on the list for air defence, with civilian installations such as power generating stations as poor runners-up.

TR 27162
A Royal Air Force Bristol Bloodhound Mark II surface to air guided missile. The missile was used as Britain’s main air defence weapon from 1958 – 1991. It initally protected Britain’s V bomber force but was later deployed in Germany and at RAF Seletar, Singapore. The Bloodhound Mk II was introduced in 1964. It used continuous wave radar guidance and had a capability against aircraft flying at normal operational heights. (Source: © Crown copyright: IWM (TR 27162))

Once the nuclear deterrent took to sea in submarine-launched missiles, the priority of defence changed. There is no longer the clear military imperative to defend the nuclear deterrent if it functions correctly with one boat always at sea, but neither is there the capability, nor the political will, to defend the vital military and civil installations in the country from attack from the air. Security documents speak in vague terms about ‘defence of the UK’.[8]

Self-defence of the RAF, in other words maintaining the RAF air defence and surveillance capability, seems the obvious next choice given that the resources available to the RAF are insufficient to defend the national infrastructure.

What are the vulnerabilities?

Internal Vulnerability

The ‘internal’ vulnerability comes from Government cuts and a drive for greater ‘efficiency’. This results in a lack of equipment, weapons, supplies and trained personnel. There are many examples of short-sighted ‘cost-savings’ which resulted in reduced air defence capability.[9] To many in the RAF and the other armed services, the greatest enemy is the Treasury.

Air defence of the UK suffered considerably during the early Cold War. Because the expectation was that any war would turn nuclear very quickly, the provision of expensive air defence systems was considered unnecessary.[10] The RAF finds itself in a comparable situation now, following a period of cuts, ‘refocusing’ or simple indifference by the government.

National air defence should be flexible and capable of responding to a multitude of threats. However, the historical lesson is that even in a period of certainty, the resources were not made available to the RAF to provide what it saw as the minimum level of defence for UK airspace. Flexibility comes at a cost. It relies on balance within the forces, and sufficient numbers to respond to different scenarios.[11]

There is a lack of a layered surface to air defence system. Other services rely on layered defence, while the RAF has been forced into a two-stage defence: overhead and arm’s length. Without the numbers, achieving flexibility becomes problematic. However, not all aircraft will be available all the time, so a simple count up of aircraft in service is misleading – battle damage, faults and maintenance will reduce the numbers available.

The armed forces are increasingly run by governments of all colours in the fashion of a business, with ‘outputs’ and ‘levels of cost-effectiveness’. The only real measure of an armed force is how it operates in its true environment, which is war. Which brings us to the second vulnerability.

Self-Delusion

This is primarily political self-delusion, but also some self-delusion within the Service. A strategic vulnerability has developed out of the policies which attributed success to the NATO strategies. However, lack of failure does not equal success.

This vision of success contributes to the self-delusion. According to the politicians of successive Governments, aircraft numbers could be cut, pilot training be restricted, and obsolete weapons retained, but the overall strategy was still successful. Behind this apparent success, the UK air defence capability had effectively been eviscerated.

This same self-delusion of success led to the cuts under the ‘Peace Dividend’ and led to very quickly forgetting how to face an adversary that has capable Air Power regarding credibility and numbers. To reinforce this misplaced belief, most recent RAF operations have been fought in more-or-less permissive air environments. They have not had to deter nor fight a peer state.

The political class, public, and even the other armed services have lost sight of the fact that ‘air superiority’ is not a given.  The memory of what it is like to have to operate against an adversary which has credible and numerically similar air power has been lost.  This extends to the protection of the supporting infrastructure, which in recent deployments has remained free from attack. The ground facilities suffer from vulnerability to air attack to blind the surveillance systems, which is why maritime reconnaissance, air surveillance and control systems and airborne warning and control systems are so very important. Indeed, a lack of maritime patrol aircraft has been an embarrassment to the British Government in the recent past.

Existential vulnerability

The third vulnerability is the physical existence of the RAF if it is faced with a peer enemy.

This vulnerability, a result of the combination of the first and second threats, is particularly applicable to Britain’s armed forces. If a relatively small force accomplishes military excellence, the effect of combat losses will be disproportionately devastating.[12] The RAF may be genuinely excellent, capable and agile in all its operations, but because of its reduced size, any combat losses, should it come to a peer-to-peer war, will be truly ruinous.

Difficulties, if not disasters, in the early stages of war, and the need for time to recover and re-arm, have been vital for the UK.  The British Expeditionary Force experienced this in the First World War, and nearly by the RAF in the Second World War. Had Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding not refused to send more fighters to defend France it was likely that the air defence of the home islands would not have been sufficient to survive the impending attack.

An ex-RAF officer commented that:

This threat poses the problem the RAF has faced for decades: condemning themselves to low capabilities for a while, and eventually getting better if they last long enough.

Conclusion

In this age of uncertainty, flexibility is the key to respond to threats from different areas. However, the RAF, along with the other armed forces, have been starved of the necessary resources for even the basic defence of the home nation.

It would appear that many of the limitations placed on UK air defence during a period of strategic certainty have continued into the current age of uncertainty.

Following the apparent success of the Cold War strategies, the idea the ‘teeth’ could be sharpened at the expense of the ‘tail’ persisted and has now grown to dangerous proportions. Pursuing the business model of ‘efficiency’, the Armed Forces have been cut to very low levels yet asked to do more. Moreover, with the increasing tensions in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific, the number of possible threats is increasing.

CT 68
The crew of a McDonnell Douglas Phantom FRG2 aircraft of No. 111 Squadron with their aircraft and weapons load at RAF Coningsby in 1975. The aircraft is fitted with tanks and Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles. Lying in front are four Sparrow radar guided missiles and a Gatling Pod. (Source: © Crown copyright. IWM (CT 68))

The overwhelming problem with a denuded air force is the time it will take to recover its capability if, and when, it is needed. Modern equipment is complicated to manufacture, and aircraft cannot be built in the numbers previously seen. Nor, frankly, is there the will to provide such facilities during peacetime for use in the event of war.

War has a habit of appearing without much announcement, and the diminished resources of the RAF would take years to bring up to the necessary levels to defend the UK against a determined enemy, and defending these islands is precisely what the RAF may be called upon to do, before too long.

Dr Kenton White is a Sessional Lecturer in Politics, International Relations and Strategic Studies at the University of Reading. He also works as a part-time Lecturer in Strategic Studies at Cranwell with the RAF. He has a PhD in Strategic Studies, researching British defence policy and practice during and after the Cold War. He studies military history and defence policy from the Napoleonic Wars to today. Before entering academia, he was the Managing Director of a computer animation company.

Header Image: A Russian Bear aircraft is escorted by a Royal Air Force Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) Typhoon during an intercept in September 2014. (Source: MoD Defence Imagery)

[1] The National Archives, PREM 16/1563, JIC (77)10, The Soviet Capability to Attack targets in the United Kingdom Base, 26th October 1977, ‘Defence against the Soviet Threat to the United Kingdom’, n.d.

[2] Cmd 9161, ‘National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015: A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom’ (The Cabinet Office, November 2015), chap. 4. Hereafter, SDSR 2015

[3] HC 197, ‘Towards the next Defence and Security Review: Part One’, (House of Commons, 7 January 2014), p. 58.

[4] ‘SDSR 2015’.

[5] ‘Memorandum submitted by the Strategy and Security Institute, University of Exeter,’ 7 October 2015.

[6] HC 493, ‘Flexible Response? An SDSR Checklist of Potential Threats and Vulnerabilities’ (House of Commons Defence Committee, 17 November 2015), para. 58.

[7] HC493, para. 50; Ben Farmer, ‘Russia says Britain’s Defence Secretary’s claim of attack threat ‘like something from Monty Python,” The Daily Telegraph, 26 January 2018.

[8] ‘SDSR 2015’, chap. 4.

[9] Kenton White, ‘“Effing” the Military: A Political Misunderstanding of Management’, Defence Studies, 17:4 (2017), pp. 346-58.

[10] A07783, Defence of the United Kingdom, DOP (78)12, Memorandum to the Prime Minister from John Hunt, 1st August 1978, ‘Defence against the Soviet Threat to the United Kingdom’, 2.

[11] Group Captain Paul O’Neill, ‘Developing a Flexible Royal Air Force for an Age of Uncertainty’, RAF Air Power Review, 18:1 (2015), pp. 46-65.

[12] Colin S. Gray, War, Peace, and Victory: Strategy and Statecraft for the Next Century (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), p. 171.