John Andreas Olsen’s A History of Air Warfare is the companion volume to his Global Air Power, and is by far the stronger of the two volumes. The collection includes chapters on air warfare in World War I, the European and Pacific theaters of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Arab-Israeli wars, the Falklands, Desert Storm, Bosnia and Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, and Lebanon, as well as a conclusion of three “Perspectives” chapters. Most of these chapters are quite good, and even the disagreeable ones are useful. As a volume, it represents a useful contribution that can be enjoyed by audiences with various levels of expertise.
Richard Overy and Richard Mueller turn in workmanlike accounts of the air wars in Europe and the Pacific in World War II; the pieces are well-written and don’t miss much, but won’t surprise specialists in the field. The Stephens and Thompson chapters on Korea and Vietnam strike similar notes. Lawrence Freedman’s chapter on the Falklands War strikes the appropriate balance between the air contributions of the RAF and the Royal Navy, while also discussing the problems and opportunities faced by Argentine air power.
Perhaps most importantly, the essays include a variety of different, often antagonistic perspectives on the history and future of airpower. Martin Van Creveld, for example, contributes “The Rise and Fall of Air Power,” which is notably negative with respect to the impact that airpower has had on twentieth century warfare. Richard Hallion’s “Air and Space Power: Climbing and Accelerating,” has an unsurprisingly different take on the relation between airpower and the future of warfare. Williamson Murray’s chapter on air employment in Operation Iraqi Freedom is altogether hostile to the Air Force as an institution and airpower as an intellectual construct, while John Andreas Olsen’s appraisal of airpower in the Gulf War is optimistic to the point of being apologetic. These differences of opinion on some of the foundational disputes over the history of airpower are a strength; they give a strong sense of intellectual vibrancy, rather than of cheerleading.
Moreover, many of the essays leave the reader something to engage with. Itai Brun’s detailed discussion of Operation Cast Lead leaves much to be desired, completely missing the point of how tactical operations targeting dual-use national infrastructure have, in effect, become strategic bombing. Brun details the strategic effects that the IDF Air Force sought to accomplish, but seems to think that because it tried to achieve those aims through the use of tactical assets, and in combination with a ground offensive, that no strategic campaign occurred. As Brun himself notes, this would be very surprising to the people who lived near the vast array of infrastructure, political, and communications targets that the IDF struck in Lebanon. Brun also lays the blame for the war squarely on Israeli civilian policymakers, which is, in fairness, about half right. On a related subject, Shmuel Gordon’s essay on the history of IDF air superiority operations against Syria and Egypt is genuinely outstanding.
This is an exceptionally useful work, and I suspect that I will assign it again to my graduate Airpower course, although I doubt I’ll bother with the companion volume. For specialists it’s a convenient “go to” for a number of well-known, important conflicts. For less committed audiences, it provides interesting, readable accounts of most of the major air wars of the twentieth century, delivered with just enough grit to generate a degree of disagreement and debate. As one other review notes, the volume falls short primarily in terms of discussion of the intellectual history of air power, but this is a flaw that’s easily remediable with a bit of supplementary reading; I might recommend Philip Meilinger’s edited volume Paths of Heaven (free here) as a suitable companion, if you have the time.