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Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat

Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat, edited by Robin Higham and Stephen J. Harris. University Press of Kentucky, 2006, 382 pp.

As an Airman, I initially approached Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat with some trepidation based solely on the title. Unaware of any historical conflicts in which any air force acted in total isolation from other forces—a necessary but impossible prerequisite to assign it sole responsibility for any success or defeat—I assumed that either the editors were being deliberately provocative with their title or that I was about to embark on a dangerous attempt to isolate airpower’s contributions from the totality of conflict.

After reading the book, it seems that the former conclusion was the correct one. Why Air Forces Fail is indeed an appropriate title with its deliberate choice of “air forces” rather than “airpower”—this work is geared more directly toward the reasons individual air forces fail as organizations rather than whether or not airpower theories have historically failed or succeeded. While the impact of faulty doctrine and unfeasible theories certainly are discussed as factors contributing to the failure and defeat of some air forces (and also how corrections enabled some “Phoenix” air forces to rise from the ashes), the intent of this work is not to propose prescriptions for the successful employment of airpower in inverse nor to rehash doctrinal debates that are well covered in other works. Rather, it provides detailed research that puts such discussions into better context by focusing on factors that have either prevented airpower from realizing its potential, highlighted its limitations at specific moments in time, or both. Those who seek to use this book to prove or disprove airpower theories would do well to consider that there are no actual or theoretical “vacuums” in which air forces (or any other kind of forces) can be isolated and studied apart from other contributing factors to predict future outcomes with scientific certainty—either in favor of airpower or against. That said, the case studies in this book provide very useful information for those on both sides of airpower debates and also demonstrate some common themes spanning airpower’s relatively short but incredibly significant history. Rather than instruct, this book should lead the reader to ask the right questions about what airpower can do, cannot do, and might possibly do in the future if it is used wisely as part of a comprehensive approach to modern security challenges.

Why Air Forces Fail is a compilation of case studies rather than a singular work advocating unified positions on why specific air forces failed and sometimes reemerged, including:

  • the German and Austro-Hungarian air force defeats in WWI,
  • the Polish, French, Italian, Japanese, and German air force defeats in WWII,
  • the initial defeats and recoveries of Russian, British, and American air forces in WWII,
  • Arab air forces defeats in the latter twentieth century to the present, and
  • the Argentinean air force’s defeat in the Falklands/Malvinas conflict.

Some reviewers have criticized this work’s lack of consistency between the various authors, and not without some justification. The essays vary in their levels and depth of analysis in technical, strategic, and geopolitical analysis, making simple comparisons of the different case studies more difficult. That said, the freedom the editors allow the contributors provides additional benefits to those who can look at the larger picture beyond the dispositions of the air forces themselves. For example, René De La Pedraja’s analysis of the Argentinean air force in the Falklands/Malvinas conflict with Great Britain in 1982 provides many useful insights for those looking to study the larger context of the conflict—ones that should be equally as valuable to students of the Naval War College Joint Maritime Operations Course as they are to their compatriots at the Air University. All of the essays conform in one very useful aspect—they all include detailed bibliographies for further study of the air force just discussed, inviting readers to form their own conclusions rather than simply accept the author’s thesis. The conclusion by editors Harris and Higham seeks to unify the work by proposing several themes common to air force failures throughout the case studies. These include:

  • The false axiom that “once present, even in penny packets, airpower would make a critical difference to any military engagement” often resulting in tactically or operationally unsound deployments or dispersals of airpower.
  • First strikes can be effective if “certain essentials are gotten right,” but “early success does not guarantee ultimate success” if momentum and superiority cannot be maintained.
  • Air forces without a balance of tactical and strategic forces and capabilities (including early warning and air defenses) seldom succeed in the long run. Service doctrine that is not in harmony with government policy is likely to produce circumstances in which air forces fail; government policy made in isolation of service capabilities tends to do the same.
  • The book’s main lesson is “the ends must be matched to the means in the short term. . . . the means must be matched to the ends in the long term, when there is time to think and plan. . . . failure to do the math beforehand has left air forces in the precarious position of having to fight the wrong battle at the wrong time, given their equipment, training, and resources.” “Underestimating the need, time, or industrial competence or capability required to keep pace with adversaries is a common component of defeat and fall.”
  • Air forces “cannot live off the land” and are “materiel organizations utterly dependent on complex understructures. When these are degraded, airpower cannot be effectively projected.” (pp 344–54)

In addition to the editors’ conclusions, the case studies suggest several additional factors that may or may not be obviously stated:

  • Force structures based on untested doctrines and tactics seldom succeed or have the necessary support to fulfill the original employment concept, usually leading to costly failures.
  • Air forces divided into piecemeal segments fall easily to air forces that are able to mass and attack them at their moments of weakness or become irrelevant when they are not released to act at critical times and places in order to stay “on call” for a local priority of lesser operational or strategic significance.
  • Stove piping, incompatibility of systems, and doctrinal disconnects due to interservice rivalry tend to lead to piecemeal defeats of all of the forces involved, not just the air force.
  • Technological and industrial superiority, once ceded to an adversary (which almost always happens after an underestimation of the potential adversary’s capabilities), can seldom be regained unless sufficient strategic depth in geography, industry, resources, and manpower exists to create the time needed to forestall defeat and either rebuild those capabilities or adapt new ones.
  • Just as airpower is extremely effective when directed toward the right ends, it is also extremely vulnerable to the negative repercussions of misidentifying the correct centers of gravity at the operational and strategic levels, in terms of attrition, loss of operational effectiveness, and loss of credibility.

Why Air Forces Fail may provide as many questions as answers to those seeking conclusive axioms, but it certainly reinforces perhaps the most important point of all: airpower is just part of the overall equation—albeit an extremely important one—and its numerous advantages can easily be squandered if not understood or included in a comprehensive plan to balance both its strengths and weaknesses as well as its requirements for support against those of the other forces involved.

Maj Dave Lyle, USAF

Student, US Army Command and General Staff College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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