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Airpower in Small Wars: Fighting Insurgents and Terrorists

Airpower in Small Wars: Fighting Insurgents and Terrorists by James S. Corum and Wray R. Johnson. University Press of Kansas, 2003, 522 pp.

Airpower in Small Wars by James Corum and Wray Johnson examines conflicts over the last century to draw out several lessons about the role airpower has played in small wars. Both authors are from Air University's School of Advanced Airpower Studies and have extensive knowledge of this topic. They recognized a lack of published information and set out to provide objective information about the use of airpower in such conflicts. As the book steps through the history of airpower in primarily counterinsurgency conflicts, it analyzes how airpower is merely one tool of what must be a comprehensive strategy. The effectiveness of airpower is realized only when it is used in conjunction with other military and political tools. Additionally, the book illustrates how many of the true benefits of airpower lie in indirect-support missions such as reconnaissance, transport, and close air support. Only when the battle becomes more conventional do direct-action, ground-attack capabilities become more important.

Corum and Johnson start with a thorough definition of a small war, noting how the term has changed over time. The book is organized by campaigns throughout the twentieth century and includes details about cultural aspects of insurgencies, political struggles, and military capacities before and during the period of conflict. Although some details are repeated as the authors move from one campaign to another, the information helps to elucidate the evolution of airpower in small wars. Consequently, the reader can learn the lessons of airpower in fighting insurgencies and the ways those lessons were applied or not applied in different theaters of war. Corum and Johnson conclude with 11 lessons regarding the use of airpower in small wars.

Although the third-dimensional point of view that an aircraft offers over the battlefield is a tremendous advantage, it proves to be a difficult tool to use. The authors discuss the development of many tactics, starting with the 1916 punitive expedition against Francisco "Pancho" Villa and then continue with counterinsurgency campaigns in the Mideast. They identify key milestones or tactics learned as aircraft evolve. Concepts such as precision bombing and dive bombing were quickly grasped in the Nicaragua campaigns of the 1920s, making close air support possible. Other game-changing capabilities such as paratroopers, supply transport, and helicopters are discussed as well.

Many of the small wars that Corum and Johnson treat in detail are rebellions that stem from revolutions, colonial control, or ideological grievances. The book covers a large spectrum of historical and technological changes but points to the fundamental applications of airpower against an unconventional enemy. The authors devote considerable time to discussing the controversial tactic of air control and its ineffectiveness. Because it has proven politically damaging and lacks a comprehensive civil-military strategy, air control has not been a decisive part of an effective counterinsurgency strategy. One example of the successful use of airpower in small wars is the British Colonial War in Malaya. British forces utilized airpower to overcome specific challenges, primarily employing aircraft for indirect action such as transporting supplies and troops as well as flying psychological and close air support sorties. To carry out these missions, the British used old technology, which was better suited for this type of action. The effectiveness of the strategy again showed the limits of air control and the importance of civil development as part of a comprehensive strategy. The authors argue that many of these lessons were not learned by the United States as it entered the early years of the Vietnam conflict.

Overall, Corum and Johnson give an informative and detailed description of the evolution of airpower in small wars. At times, they seem to place little emphasis on the use of aircraft during the account of a conflict; however, they do so to give a total picture of political, civil, and military perspectives. Perhaps the main conclusion of Airpower in Small Wars is the fact that the civil aspects of such a conflict are some of the most important and difficult factors to contend with. Airpower is not just about kinetic capabilities; rather, by focusing on the total picture of war, the reader can better understand how it is an integral piece of a conflict.

Maj Loren M. Coulter, 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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