Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat

  • Published

Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat, revised and expanded edition, edited by Robin Higham and Stephen J. Harris. University Press of Kentucky, 2016, 450 pp.

Far too much is written about the winning team. There is no shortage of books, articles, and documentaries that epitomize narratives of the armies, navies, and air forces that emerged victors ex post facto. Particularly in armed conflict, where the stakes could not be higher, it is enticing to focus on studying the victorious force in hope of learning how its actions, technology, and people outlasted those of the adversary. Although analyzing successful wartime players has merit, a more holistic and proper analysis will take even greater account of those forces that did not survive the conflict—the losers. It may seem counterintuitive at first, but in doing so we mitigate the effects of survivorship bias—the logical fallacy of fixating on the people or things that survived a process or event instead of on all the participants. If one wishes to spot truly meaningful trends and draw statistically consistent conclusions, then the sample must be inclusive and not skewed in favor of those who happened to win in the end. Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat is a vital addition to the body of airpower literature because it tackles the difficult task of providing in-depth analysis of understudied air forces that suffered defeat.

The text is a collection of essays edited by Robin Higham, a professor emeritus of military history at Kansas State University, and Stephen J. Harris, chief historian at Defense Headquarters in Ottawa, Canada. The essayists hail from diverse academic and professional backgrounds, all having published numerous works on airpower and military history. Despite the fact that some essays are stylistically better than others, all are backed by extensive research, offering useful end sections that suggest future reading. Furthermore, the contributors stay on task in providing thoughtful investigation of the facts, shying away from opinionated commentary. One recent highlight is that 10 years after the book’s publication, the editors have added two chapters and revised previous ones (e.g., by including new reference sources). The new chapters are “American Air Forces in Vietnam” and “RAF Bomber Command” (which features particularly useful illustrations).

Organizationally, each essay illustrates one of three categories of defeat identified by the editors. The “dead ducks,” those that never had a chance, emphasize certain countries’ lack of infrastructure and national resource levels that are necessary to sustain aerial warfare. The “hares” enjoy early success but are ultimately defeated (e.g., the Luftwaffe and Japanese air force in World War II). Finally, the phoenixes suffer early losses but are eventually successful. These categories supply useful signposting for the reader; however, there is little explanation of specific case study selection or any chapter grouping past the initial explanation that all of the featured air forces fall into one of these categories of defeat. Nevertheless, the introduction does explain these categories in greater detail and tells the reader which essays fall into each category.

An overall strength of this study is that the essayists emphasize the deep interconnectedness among a nation’s government, industry, and populace necessary to sustain an effective air force during wartime. This stance runs counter to that of a significantly large portion of airpower literature that myopically concentrates on operations and tactics. One of the major themes of Why Air Forces Fail is that air forces demand a high level of technological sophistication (both in industry and in trained personnel), logistical support, and physical space for airfields and flying operations. In many of the book’s case studies, an air force could be easily defeated because it did not have the national industry needed to sustain operations after initial shocks, despite having modern and well-equipped aircraft. Another recurring theme is the consequence of timing. Naturally, we seek a causal explanation of historical outcomes by pointing to one or a series of factors. However, far too often the value of luck and timing is wrongfully neglected—an omission that this book makes great efforts to avoid.

Because the individual essays are well organized, analytically driven, and relatively short, this text is ideal for enriching academic or professional group engagement and discussion. Although it still comes recommended for more casual airpower enthusiasts, I believe that this collection would truly come into its own in a group setting. The points and arguments presented in specifically targeted cases can be dissected as part of a larger discussion. For the academic instructor, this book could easily complement a case-based syllabus. Even more broadly, because of its focus on airpower’s inextricable relationship with national politics, industry, and technology, the essays could add variety to courses in public policy, business administration, or engineering management, among others. Tactically trained airpower professionals could also find this book a great resource for expanding their familiarity with the strategic environment that enables—or hinders—operational effectiveness. In all, Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat is a meaningful work that contributes to the understanding of successful airpower by examining critical elements of defeated air forces.


2d Lt Scott T. Seidenberger, USAF
Tyndall AFB, Florida

"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."