Global Air Power, edited by John Andreas Olsen, is a collection of nine essays on the international development of military aviation. Six of these essays concentrate on nations (United Kingdom, United States, Israel, Russia, India, and China), and three on regions (Asia-Pacific, Latin America, and Continental Europe). The essays are primarily historical, although most conclude with description of the impact of that history on modern institutions and procurement decisions. Unfortunately, this is not a book about airpower, or even a book about military aviation. Rather, it is a book a air forces; where they came from, what they have done, and what they do today. This perspective puts significant, obvious limitations on how useful the volume is as an account of airpower history and of the contemporary role of airpower in military affairs.
The chapters on the U.S. and the U.K. are useful short histories of the RAF in the latter, and the USAAS/USAAC/USAAF/USAF in the former. Richard Hallion and Tony Mason are both excellent scholar/practitioners who have made significant contributions in the field, and they do a good job in a relatively short space. These are not, unfortunately, very helpful histories of military aviation in either the United States or the United Kingdom; in both cases naval (and in the U.S., Army) aviation is given short shrift. To be sure, the conflicts and debates that led to the independence of the RAF and the USAF are covered, but there’s relatively little about the contributions made by the RN, the USN, the USMC, and the U.S. Army in World War II and the Cold War.
The entire decision scheme with respect to the regional chapters is odd. One might think, for example, that the ability of the carrier fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy to spearhead the conquest of the better part of littoral East Asia would bear some consideration in a history of airpower in the Asia-Pacific. Unfortunately, the volume’s treatment of Japanese naval aviation, its political impact, and its destruction is minimal. The chapter also covers DRV airpower strategy in the Vietnam War, and the histories of Indonesian and Australian airpower. These latter three are all interesting subjects, but frankly they don’t fit in very well with the discussion of Japan.
Similarly, the decision to include single chapters on Latin America and Continental Europe is… interesting. On the one hand, the Latin American chapter is useful as a description of the development of airpower in “second tier” military powers, and in states which have historically faced only limited international threats. Unfortunately, much of the discussion actually relates a history of the use of U.S. airpower in Latin America, rather than describing how particularly Latin American conceptions of airpower may have affected military politics, relations with non-state actors, and procurement policies. On the upside, the Latin American chapter probably does the best job in the entire volume of describing the contributions made by the aviation arms of all the relevant military organizations, including the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Coast Guard.
And this discussion is particularly troubling given that Latin America is given the same space, in a volume about Global Air Power, as Continental Europe. Not to understate, but it turns out that France, Germany, and Italy are all extremely important players in the history and contemporary practice of airpower. France has long had one of the world’s most important aviation industries; the German Luftwaffe, for a time, held off the combined forces of the RAF, USAAF, and the Soviet air forces; Italian engineers and airpower theorists made critical early contributions to the development of aviation practice and theory. No volume can include everything, of course, but the decision to lump those three into a single chapter is, to say the least, curious. Christian Anrig, the author of the Europe chapter, makes the sensible-under-the-circumstances decision to deal only with contemporary European airpower, but this obviously sets the European chapter apart from the accounts in the rest of the book.
The national histories are useful, but suffer from the same blinkered approach to the history of airpower practice. For example, the chapter on Soviet aviation argues that the Soviet’s most significant problem was a failure to take account of the promise of strategic airpower. With due respect, the notion that the USSR should have invested more heavily than it did in strategic bombers at any time after 1935, or really at any time ever, is simply incredible; I can’t imagine a worse use of Soviet resources prior to World War II than the production of four engine bombers. Similarly, the USSR’s half-hearted commitment to the post-war strategic bomber looks, in hindsight, far more sensible than the USAF’s infatuation with whatever could fly fastest and highest, until it couldn’t. A more careful consideration of why the Soviets made a careful decision to set aside strategic airpower in favor, first, of tactical airpower and then of missiles would have been considerably more illuminating.
All that said, this volume’s biggest value is in providing manageable, coherent accounts of the development of several important air forces in one place. The accounts of Indian, Chinese, and Israeli airpower areall useful, particularly the last. I used the book as part of my graduate course on Airpower, and it was effective for this purpose, especially as the students had already had time to develop a sense of skepticism about the collection’s focus. Unfortunately, not many of the essays include much in terms of a structural analysis of how different institutions affected the development of airpower in the various nations, apart from a few canards about the need for independent airpower. Consequently, Global Air Power is an interesting, but flawed and limited, account of the development of international military aviation.