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Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd

Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd, edited by John Andreas Olsen. Naval Institute Press, 2015, 256 pp.

In Airpower Reborn, John Andreas Olsen brings together six leading airpower theorists and attempts to reshape the narrative regarding the modern application of airpower. Olsen, the editor and first of the six authors, introduces the book by highlighting a perceived disparity between the traditional, ground-centric view of airpower and its strategic potential before outlining the reader’s journey through airpower’s history and future. The remaining theorists then seek to expand and refine airpower theory through an analysis of its history, its main proponents, and role in the current conflict. By shifting the paradigm away from ground-focused, tactical fighting and toward strategic effects, these airpower advocates hope to destroy the old approach to airpower and ignite a renaissance of thought regarding its true capability.

Olsen successfully recruits a team of authors with a clear understanding of the foundations of airpower history and theory and an ardent desire for reinvigorating the concepts of John Boyd and John Warden. As the book progresses from airpower’s emergence out of the land-centric armies of the early twentieth century, it methodically and diligently outlines the struggle for a unique identity not entrenched in or limited by the view from the ground.

As a wholly air-focused approach to combat, Olsen’s book is effective at re-establishing and furthering the airpower discussion. However, as the title seems to suggest, the aim of Airpower Reborn is to accomplish more than just add to the narrative regarding airpower’s role in warfare. This aim seems justifiable, especially given the increasingly complex challenges modern militaries must face and the persistent need for a “powerful and flexible instrument for the pursuit of political objectives” (p.1).

The book is organized into three sections: the history of airpower theory and strategy, the ideas and principles of Boyd and Warden, and a commentary on the “current concepts of operations and enduring principles of airpower” (p. 5). The first section takes on the monumental task of distilling a century’s worth of airpower theory into 36 pages. The result is a dense, yet relevant, analysis of airpower’s history, albeit one that may require further study by those not familiar with the subject.

As part two examines the key tenets of strategy developed by Boyd and Warden and their relevance to modern theory, the reader gains critical insight into arguably the most significant shift in airpower thought in recent history. Admittedly, the authors of these chapters betray an affinity toward these two Air Force fighter pilots (with one author being Warden himself) in their writing. This does not, however, undermine the relevance and importance of their views, such as the need to see the enemy as a complex adaptive system or the value of effects-based operations.

The final piece of Olsen’s compilation endeavors to stand on the historic foundation of airpower theory and strategy to carry the conversation forward. The authors argue for a pivot away from a focus on large, terrestrial conflict that characterizes “first-generation strategy” toward the comparative advantage that airpower (and its associated general theory) brings to the modern fight (p. 130). While the authors end on solid ground on the merits of airpower, some of the arguments that lead them to these conclusions, such as the significance of Soviet pilots in World War II, do seem tenuous at best (p. 145). Yet despite these seemingly unsubstantiated assertions, they make a solid case for the need to rethink airpower strategy in light of the significant technological, cultural, and political changes that have reshaped modern policy.

Airpower Reborn is a valuable tool in the effort to bring airpower to the table of strategic thought and rebalance the power dynamic among the proponents of land, air, and sea. It neatly joins a significant number of authors, ideas, and opinions into a single, coherent case for airpower. Alas, despite its virtues, Olsen’s book may not be pioneering enough for those who already see the value of airpower while not compelling enough for those with their feet firmly planted on the ground. Nevertheless, it is most assuredly a worthwhile read for anyone seeking an air-centric perspective on contemporary warfare.

                                                           Capt Jason P. Rimmelin, USAF

Norwich University, Northfield, Vermont

"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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