Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd. John Andreas Olsen, ed. Naval Institute Press, 2015.
Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd is a compilation of strategic thought by six well-respected airpower thinkers. Through its examination of airpower theory and theorists, the book navigates a maze of contentious but important topics regarding the relationship between airpower and military strategy. In this five-chapter anthology, the authors dissect airpower’s historical successes and failures while engaging the theorists, advocates, and zealots who have attempted to communicate its value to a sometimes apathetic if not outright hostile audience. But more important than the book’s examination of airpower theory is its exploration of military strategy in general.
Anyone who enjoys challenging the status quo will find the attempt to reboot modern strategic thought refreshing, if not overdue.
Airpower Reborn is a book for many audiences. Airpower thinkers will enjoy the balanced discussion of their field. Airpower critics will find contentious claims to explore, discuss, and dispute. Strategists of all types will find an engaging, contemporary look at military strategy through the lens of those who believe airpower has fundamentally changed the character of war. Plus, anyone who enjoys challenging the status quo will find the attempt to reboot modern strategic thought refreshing, if not overdue.
The editor, John Andreas Olsen, is one of the most globally respected authors on the subject of contemporary airpower. He is a Colonel in the Royal Norwegian Air Force currently serving in the Norwegian Ministry of Defence. His excellent bibliography includes A History of Air Warfare, Air Commanders,and John Warden and the Renaissance of American Airpower.
In his introduction, Olsen offers a modern and balanced approach to the history of airpower thought. He pokes at the zealots who oversold airpower in its infancy and who dug an intellectual hole out of which today’s airpower thinkers are still trying to climb. However, Olsen also takes aim at some of airpower’s staunchest critics as he introduces the central and controversial thesis of the book: the ground-centric paradigm of strategy which equates taking and holding territory with winning a war is not only outdated, but has been the root cause of repeated strategic failure by Western nations over the past fifty years.
He then steps through a brief introduction of each chapter on his way to his recommendation for all countries to establish a “dynamic and vibrant environment for mastering aerospace history, theory, strategy, and doctrine.” Coincidentally, the Chief of Staff of the US Air Force recently brought together a cadre of influential and respected airpower thinkers from the US, the UK, and France, including some of this book’s contributors, in order to foster exactly the intellectual environment Olsen recommends. Great minds think alike, I suppose…
He pokes at the zealots who oversold airpower in its infancy and who dug an intellectual hole out of which today’s airpower thinkers are still trying to climb.
As the book is an edited compilation of independent but related essays, it suffers from a few gaps and overlaps common to such works. Yet, individually, each chapter presents a cohesive argument.
In Peter Faber’s chapter, “Paradigm Lost: Airpower Theory and its Historical Struggles,” he argues that before the mid-1980s, airpower theorists and advocates tried to overthrow the existing, land-centered paradigm of war — and failed. Faber explains the bases of this paradigm, from Machiavelli to Clausewitz and beyond, then describes and fairly critiques the efforts of early airpower advocates who often oversold or misunderstood the role of airpower.
“The Enemy as a Complex Adaptive System: John Boyd and Airpower in the Postmodern Era,” is Frans Osinga’s introduction to John Boyd in a mere 44 pages — a feat any Boyd acolyte will find unimaginable. Be prepared, however. This heady discussion of Boyd and his work is not for the faint-hearted (or the intellectually distracted) as it explores complex adaptive systems, philosophy, cognitive sciences, and of course, Boyd’s famous OODA loop. According to Osinga’s thesis, Boyd contributed to more than just airpower theory; his work has had a fundamental impact on theories of war, conflict, and even business strategy.
“Smart Strategy, Smart Airpower” is a readable discussion by the brilliant and controversial John Warden, who argues airpower has been limited by an outdated paradigm of war. Warden also claims the old paradigm (essentially the same land-centric paradigm Faber described) is the cause of the West’s modern war troubles. Instead, he advocates influencing leadership, processes, and infrastructure before attacking fielded forces — his Five Rings Model. To answer the critics who tritely simplify this model to: “decapitate (bomb) enemy leadership to win the war,” Warden’s well-written chapter clarifies a number of misconceptions by explaining the nuances of his model in contemporary and historical contexts.
Alan Stephens’ “Fifth Generation Strategy” claims that for fifty years, the West has failed to achieve strategic success in expeditionary wars because it clings to first generation strategy — a Napoleonic view of warfare which bases strategic success on taking and occupying territory with large armies in foreign countries.
In response, Stephens presents a modern alternative he calls fifth generation strategy — a combination of Boyd and Warden’s thought that 1) sees tempo and strategic paralysis as levers of strategic success and 2) argues achieving military objectives does not always lead to the desired strategic outcome. Unfortunately, Stephens undermines his own work with a number of political and parochial jabs which may draw the ire of some readers, regardless of their merit
Achieving military objectives does not always lead to the desired outcome.
The book closes abruptly with “Airpower Theory” by Colin Gray in which he offers an airpower theory in the form of twenty-seven dicta — formal pronouncements — somewhat disappointingly plucked directly from Chapter Nine of his book Airpower for Strategic Effect. That this list of dicta was essentially copied-and-pasted into Airpower Reborn left me wanting, if not disappointed. Gray’s prolific and thoughtful airpower bibliography indicates he could have put forth a more tailored contribution to the book. For the interested reader, I recommend exploring his other works including Understanding Airpower: Bonfire of the Fallacies.
Still, it has been decades since the last significant contribution to airpower theory. Given the shifting character of war and rapid technological change, a solid modern airpower theory will be required for the West to achieve strategic success in future conflicts. But Airpower Reborn is not a work of airpower theory; it is a work about airpower theory and its relationship to military strategy. This book will fuel a much-needed and overdue discourse on airpower theory and military strategy.
This persistent (and mistaken) belief that modern airpower theory rests solely on century-old airpower prophecy says more about our failure as airpower advocates than it does about airpower critics.
Airpower Reborn is both an anthology of airpower thought and a call to action. Today, there is a great need for contemporary airpower thought. This book is a commendable attempt to spark discussion about airpower theory and strategy. Also, Olsen’s call to action is both timely and relevant, since the words “Douhet was wrong” still ring from people’s mouths. This persistent (and mistaken) belief that modern airpower thought rests solely on century-old airpower prophecy says more about our failure as airpower advocates than it does about airpower critics. It is our job to effectively develop and communicate modern strategic airpower thought to our interested brethren. In this, we seem to have failed. Luckily, Olsen’s Airpower Reborn is a great step toward reinvigorating and improving the critically important field of airpower theory.
For a more in-depth review of Airpower Reborn, click here.
JP “Spear” Mintz is an airpower strategist currently working on the Air Staff. The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not imply or reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the DoD, or the U.S. government.
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