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Flight Plan Africa: Portuguese Airpower in Counterinsurgency, 1961-1974

Flight Plan Africa: Portuguese Airpower in Counterinsurgency, 1961-1974, Wolverhampton Military Studies Series No. 7, by John P. Cann. Helion and Company Limited, 2015, 480 pp.

In Flight Plan Africa, Dr. John Cann captures an often overlooked front in the anticolonial period of history as the Portuguese attempted to maintain their African possessions in the face of disparate insurgent efforts in Guinea, Angola, and Mozambique. The book chronicles the successes and failures of the counterinsurgency experimentation and captures the strain on the Força Aérea Portuguesa (Portuguese air force) as it grappled with wartime demands and the operational tempo of counterinsurgency.

Cann has written prolifically about the Portuguese war experience in Africa, his titles including Counterinsurgency in Africa: The Portuguese Way of War, 1961-74 (Greenwood Press, 1997); The Flechas: Insurgent Hunting in Eastern Angola, 1965-1974 (Helion and Company, 2013); and Brown Waters of Africa: Portuguese Riverine Warfare, 1961-1974 (Helion and Company, 2013). Flight Plan Africa's focal point makes it unique--specifically, airpower's utility as a force multiplier in a counterinsurgency environment. The author does a great service by adding his work to airpower studies since little has been written about the use of airpower in counterinsurgencies; the ground campaign receives most of the attention, with little emphasis on or exploration of the use/effectiveness of airpower in the campaign itself.

Cann arrives at this task well armed by years of experience in the US military and academia. He served in the US Navy from June 1963 to September 1993, primarily as an aviator specializing in open-ocean reconnaissance aviation, working in two squadrons and a variety of aviation assignments. He also had key assignments to the staff of the chief of naval operations and the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. A member of the faculties of the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and the Department of History at the University of Virginia, Cann was also an adjunct research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses. His interest in the Portuguese insurgency stems from his doctorate work at King's College London.

Flight Plan Africa is extraordinarily well researched albeit almost entirely based on Portuguese sources rather than the viewpoints or recollections of the insurgents. Nonetheless, Cann's extensive aviation experience balances this approach. He explores the anticolonial political undercurrents of Africa and Portugal's desire to retain its colonial possessions as the country witnessed the fall of other European colonies. The author shows the reader how the Portuguese learned from the French experience in Indochina and provides an excellent summation of France's airpower and counterinsurgency approach in Algeria (pp. 86-108). Cann offers an exposé of airpower's adaptability to the problem of insurgency and a detailed overview of the Portuguese development of tactics, techniques, and procedures; aircraft modifications; and logistics solutions, which collectively improved the utility and lethality of airpower in the conflict. He details the introduction of advanced weaponry by both the Portuguese and the insurgents, including helicopter gunships and shoulder-launched missiles supplied by the Soviet Union. Ultimately, the author argues that Portuguese airpower enabled ground forces to harass the enemy "relentlessly" and helped corner insurgent forces, thus compelling them to mass and be destroyed. He contends that airpower "robbed the insurgent of his initiative and foreclosed the normal insurgent advantage of surprise" (p. 447).

Furthermore, the book proves useful by addressing the aviation effort from the strategic to the tactical level, highlighting decisions with personal reflections and the experiences of those involved: the rescue at Mucaba, Angola (pp. 164-68); "delivering the mail" (pp. 273-74); and the doctor at Zala, Angola (pp. 413-14), are but three examples among many. These interwoven vignettes make the book highly readable and help to connect the several levels of war. For readers interested in air base defense, Cann recounts several insurgent base attacks that used indirect fire and ground strikes against Portuguese airfields in the 1960s and 1970s, the example of Mueda in Mozambique being the most detailed (pp. 333-43). In the closing paragraph, he observes that "long wars are frustrating to airmen because of the highly complex and technical nature of aviation and the expertise needed to manage even routine operations. It takes many years to develop an effective air force and long periods to adapt to fighting insurgents" (p. 447). For any air force, 13 years of constant fighting on 3 fronts is a long time, and Portugal, as well as any other nation, must have a plan to conclude the fight before reaching a national culminating point.

Finally, Flight Plan Africa is a significant contribution to the study of counterinsurgency, irregular warfare, airpower, and military leadership. It is a wonderful bookend to the few but important works about airpower in counterinsurgencies such as James Corum's Airpower in Small Wars: Fighting Insurgents and Terrorists (University Press of Kansas, 2003); William Arkin's Divining Victory: Airpower in the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War (Air University Press, 2007); and Warren Trest's Air Commando One: Heinie Aderholt and America's Secret Air Wars (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000). Airmen and leaders of all stripes and backgrounds would do well to read this book and ponder the often undocumented and unheralded contributions of airpower to counterinsurgency campaigns.

Col Shannon W. Caudill, USAF
Maxwell AFB, Alabama


"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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