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Air Commanders

Air Commanders, edited by John Andreas Olsen. Potomac Books, 2012, 542 pp..

Air Commanders essentially delivers the US Air Force's combat history through the prism of selected air commanders. Despite being different in style and approach, the book is reminiscent of Benjamin Lambeth's seminal study The Transformation of American Air Power (2000). It is divided into three parts, each dealing with a crucial time period: World War II, the Cold War, and the period from Operation Desert Storm to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Using short biographies, each part portrays four outstanding Airmen whose individual characters and life experiences shaped major air campaigns. While some may disagree with Olsen's selection of air commanders, his choices not only allow scrutiny of the full spectrum of major USAF air campaigns but also portray very different personalities.

The interested reader recognizes a number of themes of perennial character. The most eminent is the constant fight "for a single point of contact for air management against opposition" (p. 25). In January 1944 Gen Carl A. Spaatz, the first of the commanders portrayed, met skepticism when he established a unified command in Europe, the US Strategic Air Forces headquarters. Six decades later, Gen T. Michael Moseley was convinced centralized command by an Airman was a prerequisite for effective and efficient employment of airpower.

While there are similarities over time, there are also striking differences. Fighting a war for Germany's unconditional surrender, Spaatz's biography exhibits the Airman's virtues, including a killer instinct. Quite in contrast, six decades later, Gen Michael E. Ryan's insistence to avoid collateral damage was a fulcrum of Operation Deliberate Force. Examining Lt Gen William H. Tunner's conduct of airlift operations in the China-Burma-India theater and later in the Berlin airlift, James S. Corum underscores airlift's vital role to operational success. His chapter also exhibits Tunner's foresight when it came to vital Cold War issues. In April 1960 Tunner formally advocated a flexible response doctrine supported by strategic airlift——a policy the Eisenhower administration adamantly resisted. In contrast, Gen Curtis E. LeMay was a strident proponent of massive retaliation, leaving his air force less prepared to fight a conventional war. In this regard, the biographies implicitly retrace the Cold War's fundamental strategic debates from the Airmen's perspective. Olsen's book is also corrective to the view that the USAF relationship with politics is an uneasy one. While this might have been the case in LeMay's later career, Gen John W. Vogt, architect of the Linebacker air campaigns in 1972, and General Ryan displayed subtle senses for the intricacies of politics.

The various biographies also display stark differences in leadership styles. Lt Gen George E. Stratemeyer, Gen Douglas MacArthur's air commander in the early phase of the Korean War, readily delegated tasks to capable subordinates. In the words of the editor, this "sets him apart from several other air commanders scrutinized in this book" (p. 17). While Stratemeyer was able to develop good relations with MacArthur, frictions between their staffs persisted——a recurring theme in military command and control.

Case Cunningham aptly describes Gen William W. Momyer's talent as a tactical Airman and his effective running of centralized air operations during the battle of Khe Sanh in early 1968. His tenure as Seventh Air Force commander, from mid-1966 to mid-1968, coincided with the infamous Rolling Thunder air campaign. In contrast, General Vogt conducted the successful Linebacker air campaigns in 1972. Vogt was a highly educated officer who had gained the trust of his political superiors but was suspicious to those in theater. The chapters on Seventh Air Force commanders during the Vietnam War are symptomatic for many accounts on the air war over Vietnam. While there is undoubtedly much to say about frustrating political micromanagement, many scholars and officers alike relate the reasons for failure or success almost exclusively to US strategy and conduct of the war. Though Robert Pape remains controversial for his polarizing thesis put forward in his book Bombing to Win (pp. 209–10), he convincingly argues Hanoi's strategy was at least equally important as the US conduct of the war. The communists' guerrilla strategy during the Johnson years was hardly susceptible to bombing, quite in contrast to Hanoi's conventional strategy in 1972.

With specifically focusing on the operational level of war, Olsen's ambition is to fill the void between the strategic narrative on airpower and the tactical and technical debates on aerospace issues (p. 2). While clear-cut definitions of the operational level of war are wanting, common sense suggests that operational art essentially is about orchestrating and synchronizing classical lines of operations in the various domains of warfare: land, sea, and air. This primarily is the realm of overall theater commanders, the joint force commander (JFC) in modern military parlance. Nevertheless, examining air component commanders offers specific insights into operational-level decision making. History provides ample evidence that theater commanders——mostly coming from land-centric backgrounds——devote a considerable amount of attention to the scheme of land maneuvers and neglect more effectively orchestrating the effects delivered in and out of the other domains of warfare. Since land-centric JFCs often lack a deep understanding of airpower, one of the air commanders' most eminent tasks is to develop good relationships and to provide sound advice. The dynamics between overall theater commanders and their air commanders have become perennial themes. In World War II, Maj Gen George C. Kenney and Brig Gen Otto P. Weyland had to gain the trust of their superiors——General MacArthur in the Southwest Pacific and Gen George S. Patton in the European theater, respectively. Almost six decades later, Lt Gen Chuck Horner convinced his joint force commander, Gen H. Norman Schwarzkopf, of the appropriate use of airpower. As Richard P. Hallion writes, Horner considered his superior to be “extremely intelligent” but lacking an appreciation of air and space power given his land-centric background.

To understand the US way of air warfare, a thorough grasp of its history is a prerequisite. Yet for those interested in modern military conflicts, part three of the volume is the most rewarding. The following paragraphs examine in more detail the accounts of the post–Cold War era air commanders, using the editor's ambition to provide insight into the operational level of warfare as a primary judgment criterion.

Richard P. Hallion, author of Storm over Iraq: Air Power and the Gulf War (1992), is undoubtedly one of the most competent airpower scholars to portray Lt Gen Charles A. "Chuck" Horner, who ushered in a new era of precision airpower. Hallion's account exhibits Horner's pragmatic approach to orchestrating the air campaign, including a sound view of the air tasking order (ATO) concept or putting forward innovative approaches such as "push close air support." Regarding the latter, Horner devised the concept anticipating the corps commanders' penchant for trying to tie up available air assets and sorties. Related to this issue is the joint force air component commander (JFACC) concept, which Desert Storm put to the test. Hallion also provides interesting insights into Col John A. Warden's actual role during planning and the Army's view on airpower and its corollaries for the conduct of the campaign. For instance, lack of understanding of modern airpower severely hampered Army efforts at effective battle damage assessment.

From an operational-level vantage point, however, the author could have strengthened the chapter by shedding light on the air-land interface during the ground offensive. Placement of the so-called fire support coordination line (FSCL) became a bone of contention between the Army and the Air Force. In essence, the ownership of the battlespace lay at its heart. Though this might not seem an overarching issue, it was identified as a point of friction by seminal studies on the Gulf War such as Thomas A. Keaney and Eliot A. Cohen's Gulf War Air Power Survey: Summary Report (p. 157) and The Generals' War by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor (pp. 412–13). In the aftermath of Desert Storm, it remained a sore point for the Air Force, according to a 2007 RAND report by David E. Johnson.

The author of Responsibility of Command: How UN and NATO Commanders Influenced Airpower over Bosnia (2003), Mark A. Bucknam, is perfectly poised to portray Gen Michael E. Ryan, air component commander of Operation Deliberate Force. Bucknam's chapter excels by providing a plethora of operational details linked to the overall strategic setting. As such, the author provides valuable insights into one of the less-commonly known air campaigns of the post–Cold War era.

Prior to the campaign, Deliberate Force planners identified 56 target sites containing a total of just 338 aim points. Ryan identified certain elements of the Bosnian Serb army as the center of gravity. Yet preserving the United Nation's (UN) backing for the air campaign and establishing a basis for a negotiated end to the war, he avoided excessive and deliberate killing of Bosnian Serb soldiers and went after heavy weapons, logistics, command and control, and mobility targets. At the same time, Ryan's goal was to destroy as many of the Bosnian Serb army's combat capabilities as possible before North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) political leaders called for a halt or the Bosnian Serbs stopped the campaign by yielding to UN demands.

Bucknam exhibits Ryan's virtues and cognitive abilities to comprehensively embrace the air campaign and to control almost every aspect of targeting to avoid collateral damage. Yet he less adequately addresses the shortcomings of Ryan's leadership style. In the John C. Orndorff study Deliberate Force: A Case Study in Effective Air Campaigning (pp. 355, 372–73), the author suggests that——given Deliberate Force's limited scope——Ryan was able to exercise a centralized Napoleonic command style. Though this approach had its merits in the particular context of Deliberate Force, Orndorff identifies potential drawbacks, most notably a tremendous amount of work placed upon a few key individuals.

Rebecca L. Grant describes Lt Gen Michael C. Short's Air Force career, which culminated in his role as combined forces air component commander in Operation Allied Force. While the 1999 air campaign went down in history as an airpower success, Grant reminds the reader that a positive outcome was anything but clear throughout most of the campaign. In particular, she highlights the doctrinal tensions between the air component commander and NATO's supreme allied commander, Europe, Gen Wesley Clark, US Army. In essence, the debate between Clark and Short was over striking so-called strategic targets in Belgrade and elsewhere in Serbia or attacking fielded forces that immediately threatened the Muslim population in Kosovo. The author appropriately highlights Army generals' lack of understanding and sometimes mistrust of airpower throughout the 1990s. As such, her chapter delivers an unvarnished and necessary account of the obstacles an Airman possibly can face in a "cross-service" chain of command. Yet the author takes it for granted that Short's preference for fixed strategic targets was correct——without providing conclusive evidence save the fact that this target set was an Airman's choice. In a similar vein, she feels empathy with Short's frustrations over the various political constraints inhibiting a more forceful air campaign from the outset.

To both issues——target set selection and gradualism, that is, not striking swift and hard——Benjamin Lambeth offers convincing answers in his authoritative study NATO's Air War for Kosovo (2001). Lambeth shows understanding for the air planners' view that politically driven restrictions on key targets and excessive concern for collateral damage must have been a daily source of frustration. Yet taking the view of the recipient of airpower, it seemed as if the alliance was determined to follow the bombing campaign through and to even escalate it. "The almost universal belief among air warfare professionals that a more aggressive effort starting on opening night, in consonance with a more doctrinally pristine strategy, would have yielded the same result more quickly may have been correct as far as it went, . . . but that conviction was based solely on faith in the intrinsic power of the air weapon, not on any evidence directly related to the case at hand" Lambeth argues (p. 78).

In her chapter, Grant refers to General Clark's views on the preceding NATO air campaign over Bosnia and Herzegovina. In this regard, she could have significantly strengthened her argument by also elaborating on Short's experience as General Ryan's chief of staff in Naples in 1995. In particular, as the Orndorff's study on Deliberate Force points out, then major general Short had to absorb some of the higher responsibilities that naturally might have devolved on the air component commander who, in this particular case, became deeply involved in operational-level issues at the combined air operations center at Vicenza, Italy. Though Ryan and Short both shared the frustrations of Vietnam, Ryan's view on employing airpower in 1995 and Short's view in 1999 differed significantly. Of course, the circumstances in 1995 and 1999 were also different, and there was not a set answer for dealing with the internecine wars in the Balkans.

Among the four post–Cold War air commanders portrayed, General Moseley is the only one who did not share the "traumatizing" Vietnam experience. Given Moseley's controversial "retirement" as chief of staff of the Air Force, James D. Kiras focuses his chapter on the Airman's tenure as commander of US Central Command Air Forces (USCENTAF). The chapter provides interesting insights into US approaches to joint war fighting immediately after 9/11. It particularly sheds light on Moseley's achievements in three distinct phases——Operation Anaconda (March 2002), a controversial ground-centric operation that fell short of its objective to encircle remnants of Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in the mountainous border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan; Operation Iraqi Freedom; and Operation Enduring Freedom.

While the challenge of modern joint war fighting is commonly understood as an issue primarily related to interoperable command and control systems, Kiras's chapter highlights the crucial importance of human factors in modern operations. Moseley became USCENTAF commander in November 2001——one month into Operation Enduring Freedom. According to Kiras, Moseley's predecessor was unduly blamed by the combatant commander Gen Tommy Franks, US Army, for placing Air Force priorities above those of the joint team. Moseley——by virtue of his personality——gradually gained Frank's trust, mended the air-land team, and made airpower an integral part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Doing so, he straddled two worlds——advocating for the value of airpower while at the same time emphasizing the need to integrate it within the joint force. Kiras illustrates the latter by examining Moseley's role in making time-sensitive targeting more responsive against fleeting targets by enhancing integration between airpower and special forces. Yet the author only briefly touches on the problematic arrangements of fire support measures with conventional ground forces. As a RAND study notes: "Despite the significant improvements in ground-air effectiveness, some lingering issues remained. . . . Again, the Army deep attack concepts and the placement of the FSCL are at the heart of the matter" (David E. Johnson, Learning Large Lessons: The Evolving Roles of Ground Power and Air Power in the Post–Cold War Era, pp.130–31).

Olsen's edited volume impresses by the sheer number of prominent and distinguished authors that made the final product possible. The volume's unique angle on airpower combined with the input from some of the best airpower scholars adds to our understanding of the air service.

Dr. Christian F. Anrig
Deputy Director of Doctrine Research and Education
Swiss Air Force

"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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