Air Power: A Global History

  • Published

Air Power: A Global History by Jeremy Black. Rowan and Littlefield Publishers, 386 pp.

To call Jeremy Black a prolific writer is an understatement. In the same year that he published Air Power, he also wrote a comprehensive history of counterinsurgency (COIN) operations entitled Insurgency and Counterinsurgency: A Global History. Both texts attempt to offer the total history of the subject matter without insinuating that the future of either type of warfare is stable; as with COIN doctrine, airpower doctrine is constantly evolving with new elements, including the use of drones in warfare.

For a history, Air Power is rapidly paced; in just the last century, the aircraft has evolved from a single-man reconnaissance craft to a global power projection platform. The author relates the humble beginnings of travel by air, from the Zeppelin to the Wright Brothers, through propeller-based fighters and bombers, to the B-2, F-35, and drones of the modern battlefield. Black reminds the reader that, in addition to consisting of a country’s collected aircraft and missile systems, an air force is a visible reminder of a nation-state’s power and prestige.

Black grants equal discussion to naval aviation and missile programs. He points out that some combatants grouped all air assets together under one service regardless of their projection platform. Just as an air force possesses the long-range aircraft and weapons to wreak devastation on a global scale, carrier groups and submarines carry the fighters and missiles capable of equal devastation. Rotary wing aviation, airborne, and air assault operations are also given attention.

The author clearly demonstrates that air doctrine continues to evolve due to countermeasures and advancement in technology. Fighters function as escorts to bombers, which began to carry guns due to attacks from fighters, etc. Radar evolved as a means of tracking aircraft but resulted in stealth technology. This evolution of measures and countermeasures also extends to the domains of cyber and space; to maintain space and cyber superiority on the hybrid battlefield, the warfighter must employ defensive measures in both domains.

Black poses some ethical dilemmas that result from the use of airpower as combatant commanders and the civilian leaders who maintain control of the military face situations of mass casualties and the possibility of the destruction of entire areas of countries. The author refers to the appearance that the proponents of air doctrine seem less concerned with the societal impacts of the use of airpower than in the past. In discussing the future, Black considers the efficiency of the A-10 for close air support, contrasting it with the US Air Force’s desire to use bigger, more modern platforms like the B-1B for that role. Even this idea raises further ethical considerations of proportionality.

The book concludes with more questions pertaining to the use of airpower on the modern battlefield. How should airpower be utilized in COIN operations? Is the use of drones to eliminate enemy command and control cells ethical? In the larger scheme of air operations, should force be deployed from space? The final questions posed by the author pertain to the cost of maintaining the edge in airpower—while the United States and its NATO allies increasingly face calls for lower military budgets, rising powers like India and China “continue to invest in cutting edge aircraft.”(p. 321)

Like Insurgency and Counterinsurgency, Black’s Air Power is essential reading for anyone interested in joint doctrine and the evolution of the armed forces. Concise, light, and fast-paced, yet thoroughly dense with research and understanding of the subject matter, Black’s work deserves a place on the bookshelf of the air leader or the joint warfighter.


SFC Brian Christopher Darling, Army National Guard
Joint Base McGuire–Dix–Lakehurst, New Jersey

"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."