#ResearchNote – Wither Air Power Studies?

#ResearchNote – Wither Air Power Studies?

By Dr Ross Mahoney

I started writing this post several months ago, but for various reasons, it lay dormant until a recent Twitter exchange began with Brian Laslie. Brian suggested that Mark Clodfelter’s The Limits of Air Power was the ‘foundation of modern air power studies.’ This immediately got my attention, and I queried this, which led to a fruitful exchange of views on the subject between several participants.

The original source for this post came from comments I provided to the Second Sir James Rowland Seminar at the Australian Defence Force Academy, which is an initiative between UNSW Canberra and the Royal Australian Air Force’s Air Power Development Centre. Another source was a post by Nicholas Sarantakes with an update on the ongoing debate on the ‘decline’ of military history in academia. These sources originally got me thinking about the state of air power studies in the English-speaking worlds and the recent Twitter exchange brought that process to the fore again.

In my reply to Brian, I made the argument that in the UK, the mantle of ‘father’ of air power studies, in my opinion, belongs to Air Vice-Marshal Tony Mason who was the RAF’s first Director of Defence Studies (DDefS). To my mind, Tony generated the space for the subject both within the RAF and with external partners. There are, of course, other names we could put into this mix including Dr Noble Frankland, J.M. Spaight, Professor Phil Sabin and Professor Richard Overy, but I am unsure whether these writers ever created enough mass for the field to evolve. For example, while Overy wrote on air power issues early in his career, he then moved onto other subjects, though has more recently returned to the field. Conversely, through the creation of the DDefS post, the RAF has provided a platform for the development of air power studies in the UK. The position still exists, and there have been several notable holders of the post including Dr Peter Gray, who is now Senior Research Fellow in Air Power Studies at the University of Birmingham, and the current Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stu Peach. Indeed, since moving to the University of Birmingham, Grey has helped generate a mass of air power scholars in the UK and beyond.

Despite my views on the origins of air power studies in the UK, some important issues came out of the discussion on Twitter. One is that while we might identify Clodfelter or Mason as defining the field in the US and UK respectively, this does not answer the question of whether there is someone who crosses national boundaries. One name that did spring to mind was John Andreas Olsen. However, as Travis Hallen, one of the editors over at The Central Blue, reflected, Olsen has been more productive in bringing together people to produce worthwhile edited volumes. Furthermore, as David Benson, a Professor at the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Power Studies, noted these writers may have defined the field but should they define it today? David provided an interesting reflection on this issue in a number of Tweets, and while I do not agree with all of his points, his views on how we define the field are critical.

Knowledge is not static and as such how we define the field of air power studies should not be fixed either. Indeed, David suggested that this might be the case with it being argued that the study of air power might not be keeping up with changes in the field of social science. Here lies one problem as this essentially suggests a social science view of the study of air power and raises the question of where the subject fits as a discipline? Is the study of air power a social science or is it interdisciplinary? Moreover, are we looking at air power from the perspective of how it is defined in doctrine or do we need to take a broader view that encompasses a wider remit and brings in other fields including history? I would suggest the latter.

Take, for example, myself, I am an air power specialist, but first and foremost I am a historian, though I admittedly make use of interdisciplinary methodologies. My views on air power, even when looking forward, is essentially historical in outlook. I believe that we cannot understand the future without first considering past challenges, but does this lead to a ‘classical’ analysis of air power? I do not think so. I would argue that my broader perspective allows me, hopefully, to push the field forward. In this, I agree with David’s view that is up to those of us currently working in the field to ‘push it from its origins into modernity as a scholarly field’. Another advantage of broadening the scope of air power studies is that by encompassing a more comprehensive approach that includes aspects such as the history of air warfare and the social and cultural analysis of the armed forces, then we can further understand how we develop the knowledge that defines the field. We should also add other disciplines into this comprehensive mix including ethics and law.

Despite much of this rambling and reflection the crux of the issue remains how we develop air power studies as a scholarly field? What are the mechanisms that can be used to develop and disseminate knowledge? For me, one of the key issues here is the insular character of the field. As John Ferris reflected in 1998, those studying air power are either:

[t]he children of airmen, have been military personnel themselves, and have been employed at a historical office or service school in Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, or the United States.[1]

My reading of the situation is that not much has changed and broadly speaking those of us writing on air power are a homogenous group who come from similar backgrounds. Again, using myself as an example, I am the child of a soldier, my PhD supervisor was a retired one-star officer, and I work for an institution devoted to preserving the history of an air force. Therefore, I accept there will always be a degree of subjectivity in my work. As such, how do we break free from that mould to further develop our field?

Part of the answer, of course, lies in establishing networks beyond our traditional insular boundaries. How do we, for example, encourage the study of air power beyond military academies? How do we work with colleagues who might ask difficult questions that do not fit our subjective paradigms? We need to be willing to accept these challenges and be prepared to discuss these issues freely and openly rather than dismissing them.

Further to a conceptual and personal willingness to engage, which I suspect most of us are happy to do, there is the question of the mechanism for discussion. While online platforms, such as From Balloons to Drones, The Central Blue, The Strategy Bridge and War on the Rocks are useful for generating discussion, are there other ways of pushing and developing knowledge? Has the time come, for example, to establish an academic journal devoted to air power that moves us beyond the service sponsored journals?

I have no silver bullet to these questions and what I have written here is part of an ongoing reflection on the subject, and I welcome any further thoughts people have. Nevertheless, I do think the time has come for us to reflect on the field and start ‘push it from its origins’.

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

Header Image: An RAF Atlas (A400-M) at night during Operation Mobility Guardian. (Source: MoD Defence Imagery)

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

#Commentary – A Rose by Any Other Name…

#Commentary – A Rose by Any Other Name…

By Dr Ross Mahoney

In a recent piece for The Central Blue, the blog of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation in Australia, Robbin Laird has suggested that rather than describing the F-35 Lightning II as a 5th Generation aircraft, we must think of it as ‘a first generation information and decision making superiority “flying combat system”.’[1] (Emphasis in original)

Arguably, this is an important shift in how we think about the capabilities of this new platform and the implications this has regarding how we think about air power. However, this labelling of platforms and capabilities raises several interesting observations and what follows are some personal opinions on the issue of ‘labels.’

First, and while we should always be careful of generating faulty parallels, as a historian, I am quite certain I have heard similar phrases before namely Giulio Douhet’s ‘battleplane’ concept. In short, in the second edition of his seminal work Command of the Air, written in 1926, Douhet argued that the roles of combat and bombing should be combined with a single type of aircraft, the ‘battleplane.’ This was a move away from his thinking outlined in the 1921 edition of Command of the Air, but as Thomas Hippler has noted, at a conceptual level, the ‘battleplane’ was important because it allowed Douhet to reconcile the ideas of war in the air and war from the air.[2] For Douhet, both were synonymous and one, though whether this proposed platform would have solved that challenge remains debatable. This was clearly a lesson derived from Douhet’s views of the First World War. Nevertheless, the problem with the ‘battleplane’ idea is that it was a solution to one set of circumstances and would not have applied to all situations where the use of air power might have been called upon. Could we end up in the same situation if we think of the F-35 in a similar vein?

Second, a broader issue with Laird’s description is that of buzzwords or phrases. Buzzwords tend to be created to support someone’s vision of the future, and they are unhelpful if not grounded in some form of intellectual rigour. Indeed, buzzwords and phrases are certainly not something limited to air forces but pervade the military more broadly. For example, in the last few days, it has been reported that the US Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations has decided to shelve the use of Anti-Access/Area-Denial as a ‘stand-alone acronym’ primarily because it ‘can mean all things to all people or anything to anyone.’[3] This is an important point, and the same can be said of effects-based operations, which was fashionable in the late 1990s and early 2000s.[4] Both of these strategies are ideas that have history, and we should be careful about trying to re-invent the wheel. As I recently heard from one colleague, if you want a new idea, read an old book. As such, is the description being applied to the F-35 helpful when thinking about the application of air power? It is indeed being linked to the idea of 5th generation strategy, but we must continually ask the question within the question and seek to understand what is underpinning such statements. For example, is the platform important or the ideas about their use? Also, should we be careful about linking platforms to strategy?

Nevertheless, while I would advocate the need to critique statements, such as Laird’s, there is certainly always a case to build new language and ideas to explain future challenges. This is particularly important for air power because, since the end of the Cold War, it has become, arguably, the West’s preferred way of war.[5] Nevertheless, as Tony Mason reflected, ‘while our technology is lifting us into the 21st century, our formative concepts remain rooted in a bygone age.[6] This comment remains as relevant today as it did in 1998. While today’s core air power roles can be identified in the activities of the First World War, it is perhaps an axiom that as with any field of human endeavour, the language and ideas about the use of military aviation should and must evolve as time goes by and situations change.

This, however, raises my third point of how we improve and encourage the conceptual thinking that underpins many of the statements made by commentators and practitioners. It is ok to have opinions and advocate them; however, they must be derived from the intellectual study of the field. Indeed, while advocacy can create friction, that friction, in turn, can generate innovation, which is important if organisations are to adapt to changing strategic, operational and organisational shifts. However, it should also be recognised and understood that such friction needs to be managed so that it does not become divisive as it arguably did at the strategic level between the RAF and Royal Navy in the inter-service debates of the 1920s. This is clearly an issue of education, and how that process is utilised and retained by air forces. This is difficult for western air forces primarily because they have been involved in sustained operations for at least the past decade. This has not given air forces significant time to think and reflect on their craft as their focus has been elsewhere. Nevertheless, air forces have, where possible promoted thinking. For example, the modern RAF runs a fellowship to encourage study and expand the Service’s ‘intellectual capacity.’[7] However, this intellectualising of air power needs to filter back into the development of thinking, policy and doctrine and refresh the lexicon while providing the necessary foundations to attempts to redraw conceptual boundaries.

Just to conclude, this is clearly a thought piece and does not propose any solutions to the challenges of today; however, we should be very careful about the labels we apply to platforms, capabilities and concepts. Terminology, as the discussion section of Laird’s piece, illustrated, matters and has a tendency to carry cultural baggage. In developing effective thinking about the application of air power as part of the solution to strategic challenges, air forces need to think about their place in the pantheon of options open to policy makers. I would argue that in an age of austerity and uncertainty, this requires air forces an investment in the organisation’s human element to generate the capacity to think effectively about the conceptual component.

This post can also be found at The Central Blue.

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

Header Image: An F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter test aircraft banks over the flight line at Eglin Air Force Base, 23 April 2009. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Robin Laird, ‘The F-35 and the Transformation of Power Projection Forces,’ The Central Blue, 19 September 2016.

[2] Thomas Hippler, Bombing the People: Giulio Douhet and the Foundation of Air-Power Strategy, 1884-1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 147. There is a question over the correct date for Douhet’s second edition. Hippler consistently refers to it being produced in 1926 while the most recent imprint of Dino Ferrari’s 1942 translation describes it as the 1927 edition, see: Hippler, Bombing the People, p. 144; Thomas Hippler, ‘Democracy and War in the Strategic Thought of Guilio Douhet’ in Hew Strachan and Sibylle Scheipers (eds.),  The Changing Character of War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 181, fn. 13; Guilio Douhet, Command of the Air, translated by Dino Ferrari (Washington DC: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1998), p. x. It is clear, however, from the original Italian that while published in 1927, the second edition was written in 1926.

[3] Sam LaGrone, ‘CNO Richardson: Navy Shelving A2/AD Acronym,’ USNI News, 3 October 2016. Also, see: B.J. Armstrong, ‘The Shadow of Air-Sea Battle and the Sinking of A2AD,’ War on the Rocks, 5 October 2016.

[4] For a useful discussion of effects-based warfare that takes account of historical and contemporary views as well as a multi-domain approach, see: Christopher Finn (ed.) Effects Based Warfare (London: The Stationary Office, 2002).

[5] For useful views on future air power thinking, see: John Andreas Olsen (ed.), Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015).

[6] Air Vice-Marshal Professor Tony Mason, ‘The Future of Air Power,’ RAF Air Power Review, 1(1) (1998), p. 42.

[7] CAS Fellowships – http://www.raf.mod.uk/raflearningforces/usefulinfo/casfellowships.cfm