Re-envisioning the strategic bombardment campaign as far more tactical helps us to view the Army Air Forces’ efforts as a holistic theater air war requiring mutually supporting and simultaneous missions of air superiority, bombardment, and close air support, among others, to defeat Germany.
Most wars are limited wars, with significant political restraints on military force. Such restraints create conundrums for military strategists. “The less intense the motives,” wrote Carl von Clausewitz, “the less will the military element’s natural tendency to violence coincide with political directives.” Yet, as Allied Force illustrates, the savvy strategist can maximize the effectiveness of the air weapon even when political will is weaker.
The politically successful no-fly zones over Iraq from 1991-2003, Bosnia from 1993-1995, and Libya in 2011 illustrate not only the utility of employing limited airpower for limited-yet-strategic political effect, but also the need to evolve coercive airpower theory to embrace risk strategies as viable and effective.
Analyzing the development of the German and British air forces between the world wars reveals the importance of crafting strategy, identifying associated requirements, and marshaling the required resources to turn requirements into capabilities. Factors beyond the state’s control often drive technological requirements. Structural factors demanding innovative responses include the technological progress of potential enemies and of civil society, as well as shifts in the state’s own geopolitical circumstances. Yet the task of responding to these structural factors—of translating the state’s desired security ends into military technological means—requires an intentional, collaborative, human effort. The development of specific airpower capabilities in Germany and Britain during the interwar years illustrates the role of strategic innovators as “system builders” and doctrine entrepreneurs who brave the gauntlets of government bureaucracy, industry, and academia to turn theory into capabilities.
Technology and military organizations exist in a paradoxical relationship. The relentless march of science creates pressure on strategists and their organizations to adopt novel technology and adapt their doctrine. This pressure can derive from technological innovation by one’s own scientists as well as the fear of what a potential enemy is developing on its side. Yet, as political scientist Stephen Rosen points out, organizations, and especially military organizations, have difficulty changing because “they are designed not to change.” A bureaucracy is organized to perform established tasks with uniformity and regularity. This inherent attribute presents the strategic innovator with a dilemma; a military organization must innovate to survive, but it resists innovation by its very nature. This problem is exacerbated by the reality that the direction and timing of optimal innovation is often ambiguous in the moment and only clear in hindsight.
Since 1947, the U.S. Air Force has relied on the personnel like those pictured here to enable the unmatched air power demonstrated every day in the U.S Central Command area of responsibility. Paraphrasing General George Patton, wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men and women. These are the men and women who make air power possible.
As the Islamic State advance was brought to a stop, coalition aircraft were free to attack the enemy from their front line positions to deep behind into the territory they held. The uncontested hold of the air provides us the ability to target and destroy the support network that keeps the self-declared caliphate fully functioning. From Mosul to Raqqa, the destruction of logistic depots, training camps, communication facilities and financial complexes, in addition to the destruction of their fighting units in direct contact with friendly forces, applies pressure on every aspect of the organization.
When I look at our presence in the Middle East, the word that comes to mind is “persistent.” It is this persistent presence that has led to the development of the sprawling bases you see in Jason Koxvold’s photographs. These photographs will give a unique look into the locations and lives of Airmen who are the foundation beneath the operations of Airmen like me as we conduct missions in support of America’s national interest.
Whether trading speed for altitude or cost for capability, military aviation requires compromise. The current trend in United States airpower has been to acquire fewer aircraft with an emphasis on the ability to complete a wide variety of missions. Fifth generation aircraft such as the F-22 and F-35 further blur the lines of traditionally distinct roles such as air superiority and strike capability. The ability to succeed in this wide variety of missions comes at a very real price.This trade off between multiple missions and operating cost has come sharply into focus as coalition forces have launched repeated airstrikes against the Islamic State. This increased operational pace comes at a time that the number of planes available to the USAF is at an all-time low. This is not just an issue of budget sequestration and maintenance, but of acquisition. The USAF acquired more aircraft in the early 1950s than it did from 1956 to 2011.[i] The repeated delays in acquisition of the F-35 has left the United States in a tenuous position with regard to airpower readiness – a shrinking number of aging planes are required to conduct more strikes in a permissive environment at a high operating cost.
Japanese efforts to wrest control of the airfield on Guadalcanal from the Americans failed due to their miscalculation of the preeminence of airpower and their refusal to understand that food was more important than soldiers or weapons. Although American victory was announced on February 9, 1943, in reality the Japanese Army had been starved from the air four months earlier. Airpower had come to legislate the movement of supplies by sea.
The alternative to a good theory of causality is not the lack of a theory of causality, but a poor or ill-considered theory of causality. Unfortunately, such a theory of causality has made it remarkably difficult for airmen to explain and advance what air, space, and cyberspace do for the joint community and national objectives. We’ve spent the last decade disrupting threat networks from the air, but without the language of causality, we’ve analytically relegated these actions to the realm of support instead of claiming the mantle of airpower. A water-thin theory of causality leaves us all scrambling for the prize real estate on the “tip of the spear,” while a better theories of causality allows us to appreciate how the diversity of airmen’s contributions actually complement each other.
"“The four-ship of F-15C Eagles raced across the sky at thirty thousand feet. The flight lead, call sign Death-1, focused on his radar, looking for enemy aircraft in the vicinity. He also knew those enemy aircraft were looking for him.”Brian Laslie’s pulse-racing preface to his new book, The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training After Vietnam, grips the reader’s attention right away, bringing this reader back to the excitement and youthful nervousness of flying over the Nellis ranges..."
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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Swiping at other forms of warfare is still not a positive argument for land power, what it does, and why it is important. To suggest land power as the pinnacle of military force discards joint complement, which empirical examination of warfare does not confirm. Ultimately, the contribution of land power to net strategic effect is just as subject to friction as every other blunt instrument of military might — to suggest otherwise is dangerous.
Identifying a central theorist of airpower, or group of theorists, invariably generates controversy. Most agree that the Italian general Giulio Douhet was important, but few grant that he lends much direct insight into modern warfare. William “Billy” Mitchell is a critical figure in the institutional history of the USAF, but his influence of airpower thought was much less important. Trenchard and Arnold were more organizational pioneers than airpower theorists.That said, almost everyone who’s studied post-war American airpower agrees that John Boyd and John Warden were important influences, even if they disagree as to whether than influence was good or bad.
While there are few truly unique aspects of domain-specific forms of power, each form has advantages that make it exceptional from others. For air power, that is speed, reach, height, ubiquity, agility, and concentration, which combine to provide it exceptional flexibility and versatility. While air power has demonstrably contributed to strategic effect via the strategies of annihilation and attrition, it has also done so via temporal paralysis.