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Limiting Risk in America’s Wars: Airpower, Asymmetrics, and a New Strategic Paradigm

Limiting Risk in America’s Wars: Airpower, Asymmetrics, and a New Strategic Paradigm by Phillip S Meilinger. Naval Institute Press, 2017, 304 pp. 

Limiting Risk in America’s Wars: Airpower, Asymmetrics, and a New Strategic Paradigm is Phillip Meilinger’s argument for an airpower-oriented strategy in modern conflicts. In this book, Meilinger effectively presents a history of limited warfare and the requirement for a deliberate strategy to optimize airpower employment and refine America’s approach to military operations. The author employs his background as a 30-year career officer and pilot in the US Air Force alongside his considerable education as the former dean of the School of Advanced Airpower Studies at Air University and his doctorate from the University of Michigan. In this book, Meilinger presents the history of limited warfare through the lenses of various military theorists advocating for a new military strategy oriented around airpower capabilities. 

Meilinger’s main argument rests upon Liddell Hart’s warfare theory of the indirect approach in bypassing an enemy’s strengths and striking the enemy’s vulnerabilities. Meilinger conducts a thorough analysis of historic, as well as modern, conflicts and effectively frames the relationship between employing the indirect approach and succeeding in limited warfare. Case studies span ancient to modern history including the Peloponnesian War, Napoleon’s Wars, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, and modern military operations. Meilinger argues that the twentieth-century phenomenon of airpower provides a unique means to wage warfare by limiting risk, bypassing an enemy’s strengths, and achieving political objectives. As he analyzes the conflicts in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Meilinger asserts that the misuse of airpower alongside the overreliance of ground forces directly translated into operational failure as the military means were misaligned with political ends. Meilinger argues that the limited nature of America’s conflicts mandates a novel operational approach with airpower as the main effort alongside a limited ground echelon composed of Special Forces to achieve American interests abroad. 

While he effectively presents an argument for an airpower-oriented military strategy, the author relies heavily on a false dichotomy for military options. Rather than presenting a scalable joint force leveraging US multidomain capabilities, instead Meilinger argues that America’s current terrestrial-oriented strategy is antiquated and requires an airpower solution. This overestimation of airpower capabilities reveals the author’s bias in scoping military options to Air Force capabilities. While US airpower provides many opportunities in limited warfare, optimizing operations and balancing risk requires a comprehensive and joint solution. Despite this false dichotomy, Meilinger delivers an honest assessment of military strategy and the requirement for airpower to serve political objectives in limited warfare. 

Limiting Risk in America’s Wars is an excellent read for military professionals. The author effectively blends ancient and modern warfare history with various military theories to galvanize the argument for an airpower-oriented military strategy. While the author argues for an overreliance on airpower, this book frames the importance of disturbing established ways of warfare to gain asymmetric advantages. By challenging the preconceived paradigm of military capabilities, Meilinger links the concepts of limited risk, indirect approach, and aviation technology to increase America’s military effectiveness in future conflicts. 

Maj Matthew C. Wunderlich, USAF 

"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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