Review: The Age of Airpower

Normally I do not write reviews of books I do not like, for I don’t wish to hurt the author’s feelings, and after all, it is only my opinion.

In this case, however, I will write a critical review, because the author, Martin Van Creveld is so established and well thought of that he won’t be bothered opinions from someone like me and because I think he is so wrong in many of his conclusions. Further, the book is filled with small errors that indicate to me that he did not take this book as seriously as he may have taken his others.

Regarded as a distinguished historian, Van Creveld presents an inclusive summary of air power from its earliest days to the present. The author covers all aspects of air power, including its naval and space-age contexts, writing with his usual flair. Sadly for advocates of airpower, he finds that the age of airpower is ending much as the age of the knight in armor, the battleship and in his opinion, the aircraft carrier ended, a victim of its own excess and expense. He notes that aircraft carriers of the post-World War II era “tyrannized” the seas. And he states that “airpower has been in decline for six decades and more.”  He does not emphasize that air power has been fettered by political restraints in all its wars, and with increasing rigor in recent years.

If one reads the author’s’ words closely, the future of air power will be sanitized by the elimination of “cocky fighter pilots” for “once a pilot is in the air, there is little to prevent him or her from doing whatever he or she pleases.” This is possible because “Much of the time, losing sight of the external world, they depend solely on the instruments and have not the slightest idea of where they are.”  This tone of condescending superiority pervades the book, and is my principal objection to it.

In Van Creveld’s view, the proponents of air power over the years have been wedded to the ideas of Douhet. To them, air power is the be-all, end-all expression of warfare, one that promised to conclusively defeat any enemy, without regard to surface or naval forces. This is patently wrong as reading the memoirs of both Allied and Axis air and ground commanders will reveal and as the writings of General Charles A. Horner show. The idea that a leader such as Curtis LeMay was wedded to Douhet’s ideas is absolutely incorrect. The future bomber leaders who attended the Air Corps Tactical School were not enamored of Douhet, they were enamored of the possibilities inherent in the new all metal monoplane bombers equipped with Norden bombsights.

The author is particularly critical of those who wielded airpower during World War II and the subsequent Cold War. One would gather that men like Hap Arnold, Sir Arthur Harris and LeMay were completely duped by Douhet and were determined to prove his theory to be correct. Curiously, Van Creveld clings as tenaciously to the ideas of John Boyd and John Warden as he claims the air generals clung to the ideas of Douhet. And he does this from relative comfort of half-a century distance from the swift moving events, and, of course, with none of the pressing responsibilities of the time. His implicit sense of academic superiority emerges as he laces his assessments with hindsight as to how things should have been done. He does not recognize that the individuals he condemns were making decisions in real time under the pressure of a war being waged against them by powerful, effective and evil enemies. Arthur Harris might not have found the perfect tool for defeating Germany, but for many long months he wielded the only tool available to Great Britain, one that contributed mightily if not definitively to Germany’s defeat. And while tactical air power did not defeat the German Army, it made that Army’s defeat swifter and far less costly than it would have been.

In a similar way, he asserts that air power did not “win” the Cold War in combat when in fact it did far more. It “won” the Cold War the best way possible by preventing its occurrence. Had the Strategic Air Command not existed with all its rapidly responsive overwhelming power, the Cold War might well have erupted into a hot war many times over the years.

He is dismissive of air power in the later wars, citing its ineffectiveness in dealing with insurgencies, and complaining that close air support took as long to respond in Iraq as it had in France in 1944.  It is true that airpower is not as effective against terrorist or insurgents as it is against fielded forces, but in many cases it is the only weapon. None of the many recent wars in the Middle East could have been conducted without airpower, which in simpler terms means that the declared interests of the United States and often many other countries could not have been protected or effected. However, the author states that “the Gulf (war) was not so much a triumph for airpower as the case of an elephant stamping on the worm that provoked it.” I wonder how the rulers of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia would assess this statement.

It is Van Creveld’s contention that future wars will be best conducted by UAVs. These will certainly be less expensive, but it is difficult to make the leap to his implied conclusion that they will be equally effective to an air force also equipped with manned vehicles. He overlooks the fact that even if his assumption is theoretically correct, there is no guarantee that all nations, including China and India, will subscribe to them.

Earlier I mentioned small errors. Some are nit-picks, I’ll concede, but they are off-putting. He refers more than once to the U.S. Army Air Corps as the USAC. He further states that Israel used a converted Douglas C-54 Stratocruiser as an aerial tanker in 1969; that Italy never developed torpedo planes; that the Polikarpov I-17 was the first cannon-armed fighter, that the Focke Wulf Ta 152 used a 37-mm cannon; that the Finns used the Fokker D.XXXI fighter; that the Il-2 was built in greater numbers than any other military aircraft in history, ignoring the Polikarpov Po-2; that the B-24 bomber, which went from contract to first flight in less than a year was “delayed in production:; that merchant aircraft carriers (MAC) fished returning Swordfish aircraft from the sea by a crane; that Col. Tibbett’s crews practiced “toss-bombing” of the atom bomb to evade the bomb’s blast; that the Soviet Union kept its operational nuclear forces under tight control, something shockingly disproven during the Cuban Missile Crisis; that the MiG-15 lacked an ejection seat; that it was “Linebacker I” rather than simply “Linebacker”; and that neither “Linebacker I” or Linebacker II could have been conduced before 1972 because precision guided munitions were not available earlier. There are many other such errors.

The concluding paragraph of his book is insulting to all airmen of all nations, regardless of for whom they fought, and underlines his academic disdain for the generations of men and women about whom he writes. I quote it here in full: “By one story Admiral Ernest King, who commanded the U.S. Navy during the greatest and most ferocious war of all times, once said that whenever the enemy stands at the gates, the sons-of-bitches are sent for. It now begins to look as if, for good or ill, in most of the world’s air forces, the sons-of-bitches are going home.”

There you have it in a nutshell. Those who have practiced or advocated airpower, past, present or future, are deluded advocates of Douhet, and sons-of-bitches to boot.

One response to “Review: The Age of Airpower

  1. Hear, hear!

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