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Sunday Book Review: The Influence of Airpower Upon History

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The last five years have seen a wealth of good material on the history of military aviation. The latest from the University Press of Kentucky is The Influence of Airpower Upon History: Statesmanship, Diplomacy, and Foreign Policy Since 1903 The motivating concept behind the volume is less to revisit airpower theory and practice than to examine how statemen have used airpower, and how airpower has affected the development of international history since the beginning of the twentieth century.

The collection includes individual country case studies of Germany, France, Russia, China, and the United States, with concentration less on the equipment and campaigns and more on the linking of airpower with military institutions, the aviation industry, and national grand strategy. I found the chapter on Russia the most interesting, perhaps because the organization of Russian aviation, and the strategic orientation of Russia’s leaders, has changed so often since 1905.  Stalin was nearly as captivated by the concept of strategic airpower (especially large, self-defending bombers) as the airpower theorists of the US and the UK, but the limits on the capacity of Soviet industry and the need to use airpower for tactical purposes meant that the USSR would never develop as extensive a strategic bombing arm as either Britain or the United States. The chapter on the United States (which focuses on Cold War intervention, especially with aircraft carriers), also provided an interesting, if brief, study of how the U.S. executive has understood the utility of airpower.

I discussed some of what’s missing from the volume in last week’s Diplomat column; beyond a chapter on Chinese airpower, the book pays relatively little attention to developments in Asia (though it does include a chapter on Latin America). The book could also have used a chapter on how airpower has affected the character of the Arab-Israeli wars, and especially how Israeli air superiority has structured regional politics.  Some attention to the symbolic value of airpower in the Cold War (perhaps supplementing the Latin America chapter with studies of Africa or the subcontinent) would also have supported the book’s concentration on political and economic factors.  Finally, the book could have used a serious chapter on the political, social, and economic implications of the global development of civil aviation.  Given the explicit parallel to Mahanian theory, this would have fit in well with the volume’s focus.

Overall, the book represents a useful contribution. Specialists will already be familiar with much of the included material, but it does a good job of painting, with broad brush, pictures of how various nations manage the relationship between airpower, industry, and politics. This sets it apart from many of the more technical, hardware and combat oriented volumes that have recently emerged.

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