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Sunday Book Review: Age of Airpower

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Martin Van Creveld’s Age of Airpower is a survey of airpower theory and practice since the 19th century. Van Creveld ranges widely in his discussion, from the military employment of balloons prior to the advent of aircraft through World War II and the jet age.   His approach is more or less chronological, although a long section on airpower in counter-insurgency follows the main historical discussion (it’s possible that this was added in the course of revisions).Van Creveld doesn’t exactly have a paragraph long argument,  but a sense of skepticism of airpower pervades the work. From my point of view this puts Van Creveld solidly on the side of the angels, but it would have been more helpful from a policy standpoint if he had clarified his argument.

I’m most interested in the institutional implications of the observation that airpower advocates habitually overestimate the decisiveness of their tool, and Van Creveld does have some thoughts on this point. He traces the early history of the US air forces and the RAF, and surveys institutional structures across the major states in the interwar and post-war periods.   Of most interest are the discussions of German and Russian air power, where the doctrinal and force structure decisions varied greatly from the US and the UK.  The Royal Air Force won its independence earliest, and talked vigorously about strategic bombing for pretty much its entire interwar existence.  The need to maintain relevance and independence during the war, however, pushed the RAF into colonial policing missions that detracted from either air defense or strategic bombing, leaving the service unprepared (especially for the latter) when war came.  The Luftwaffe won independence  in 1935, but never displayed much interest in strategic bombing of the kind popularized in the Anglophone countries, concentrating instead on tactical tasks.  The Russian story is much the same, except that the Soviet air forces remained part of the Red Army. The USAAF was extremely well prepared to undertake a strategic campaign in 1942, largely because airpower advocates in the interwar period had obsessed about independence and saw strategic bombing as the easiest way to achieve it.  In short, the story isn’t as simple as “institutions dictate,” but rather “institutional decisions play out against a complex political background.”

Van Creveld’s delineation of airpower tasks is useful.  He notes the omnipresence of reconnaissance duties since the 19th century, then discusses the other missions as they became technically feasible. Van Creveld includes air superiority, anti-submarine warfare (perhaps putting too much emphasis on World War I and not enough on World War II), close air support, interdiction, countersea operations, strategic bombing, and air mobility.  Van Creveld supplies the strategic logic for all these missions, although the relegation of counter-insurgency ops to a late section makes the timeline less coherent.  Counter-insurgency isn’t just a “lesser included” mission for airpower; the great colonial powers all envisioned airpower as a way of managing their holdings, with colonial ops playing a major role in the early history of the RAF. Van Creveld seems to believe that the genuinely useful missions for airpower involve establishing air superiority and undertaking the interdiction of enemy movement and logistics, with close air support playing a less important role.

Van Creveld covers most of the major airpower debates of the twentieth century, lingering on the bomber vs. missile competition in the USAF in the 1950s, the use and utility of airpower in the Vietnam War, and the Boyd and Warden driven debates of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.  Unfortunately, he seems frustratingly reluctant to take a clear stand on some of these arguments.  For example, Van Creveld expresses some skepticism about the  “Combined Bomber Offensive defeated the Luftwaffe” story, when he could and should have simply destroyed it. The story, oft told by frustrated airpower advocates who can’t point to any other concrete effects of the Combined Bomber Offensive, runs like this: British and American bombers drew German tactical fighters away from the Russian front and from the Western front, effectively granting the Russians and the Western Allies air supremacy over the battlefield.  This story sounds reasonable, until you start thinking about it.  First, sending four engine bombers deep into Germany as a lure for German fighters was a startlingly inefficient way of bringing the Luftwaffe to battle.  Allied aircraft and crew damaged or shot down over Germany remained in Germany, just as damaged German aircraft and crew remained in Germany.  This got better as the Allies adopted long range escorts, but even then the Luftwaffe could easily seize the tactical initiative,  choosing where and when to fight,  concentrating on some bomber formations while ignoring others.  The second and larger issue is that Germany was incapable of seriously contesting the air on any front past 1943. The Allied tactical and air superiority advantages would have been even larger if Britain and the United States hadn’t concentrated on 4 engine bombers. Unfortunately, Van Creveld passed up the opportunity to drive a stake through this particular myth.

In one area Van Creveld takes a stand that I found clearly unwarranted; his chapter “The Twilight of Naval Aviation” certainly sells naval aviation short. He observes, unhelpfully, that aircraft carriers have played an insignificant role in peer naval conflict between great powers since 1945, and instead has been relegated only to “limited wars.” He does extensively discuss the Falklands War, but lets his conclusion get in the way of the evidence he presents; the discussion of the role of the British carriers clearly indicates that they played a decisive role, but Van Creveld struggles to avoid openly coming to that conclusion, concentrating instead on the length of the campaign, the importance of the sinking of the General Belgrano, and the technical insufficiency of the British Harriers.  It may well be true that the United States and other countries have wasted time and money on naval aviation, but Van Creveld declares this more emphatically than he demonstrates it.

There are a few unnecessary errors. For example, Van Creveld misstates the timing of Hugh Trenchard’s shift to strategic bombing advocacy; while Trenchard eventually became an enthusiastic supporter of strategic bombing (largely in service of RAF institutional aims), he was distinctly lukewarm regarding prospects for strategic bombing during World War I.   Van Creveld’s section on interwar carrier aviation is misleading, and seems to misunderstand the impact of the naval limitation treaties on carrier design and construction.

And so Age of Airpower is a good book, but not a great book.  Van Creveld passes up a number of opportunities to make  fresh arguments about airpower, instead just hinting at a variety of interesting potential cases.  The only area in which he really grapples with controversy is the question of naval aviation, which I think he gets essentially wrong. However, his general stance on airpower seems to me largely indisputable; airpower is more limited than its military advocates have historically claimed, and civilians in Western democracies tend to habitually overestimate the effectiveness of air campaigns.  General readers new to the subject will quite likely enjoy this book, and it has points for specialists to wrestle with, although the latter will often find the volume frustrating.

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