Behind the Light Switch: Toward a Theory of Air Mobility

  • Published

Behind the Light Switch: Toward a Theory of Air Mobility by Derek Salmi. Air University Press, 2020, 197 pp. 

Air mobility is rarely discussed or understood in depth by anyone except its practitioners despite air mobility’s outsized role supporting operations ranging from special warfare to nuclear deterrence. The lack of knowledge by outsiders is likely attributable to Air Mobility Command’s (AMC) incredible success record since World War II. As such, it is forgivable for AMC’s customers to simply accept air mobility mission success as a given and overlook the complexity required for a superior and successful air mobility campaign.

In Behind the Light Switch: Toward a Theory of Air Mobility, Colonel Derek Salmi—a command pilot and air refueling wing commander with more than 3,000 flight hours on multiple air mobility aircraft—analyzes the “efficacy of air mobility operations” (ix) to build a comprehensive theory. To do so, Salmi draws heavily on the format of Admiral William McRaven’s 1996 book Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice.

Following the Spec Ops template, Salmi creates an Air Mobility Utility Model based on the logistical goals of attainability (the customer’s initial supply requirements), sustainability (continuing supply requirements), and velocity and capacity (combined as throughput). Within the model, Salmi identifies the five principles of air mobility: freedom of movement, command and control, integrated logistics, technology, and training.

He then tests these factors as potential variables to qualitatively determine an air mobility campaign’s success. The utility model and the five factors are then applied to eight air mobility case studies. Salmi argues that either all five factors were met, and the mission succeeded or that one or more factors were not met, and the mission was unable to attain or sustain its logistical requirements and was thus, a failure.

The book’s eight case studies range from the failed German resupply efforts at Stalingrad in the early days of World War II to the successful air refueling campaign that proved vital in the defeat of ISIS. The case studies notably all deal with unique aspects of air mobility including combat sustainment (Dien Bien Phu), humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (Berlin Airlift, Haiti), and aerial refueling (Young Tigers). Avoiding a pitfall of McRaven’s Spec Ops, Salmi is careful to test his theory against examples of both success and failure.

Notably differing from many other books focused on military aviation, Salmi places as much emphasis on the crucial role played by ground support personnel, such as aerial port or air operation centers, as he does on the aircrews. Falling under his “integrated logistics” factor, Salmi illustrates that poor ground support was a major reason why Stalingrad (1942–43) and Dien Bien Phu (1954) were failures, but the Berlin Airlift (1948–49) was a huge success. This holistic approach to his analysis successfully illustrates the complexity of air mobility and underscores the requirement for high-functioning ground operations for a campaign to be successful.

The book’s lone flaw is its overemphasis on AMC case studies. This is understandable given the variety of notable AMC campaigns and the availability of data for research. However, the lack of examples from other modern states with a sizeable airlift capability leaves the reader wanting more for comparison purposes.

Behind the Light Switch does not offer any groundbreaking new information about well-known air mobility campaigns, but it does offer a standardized method of examining these campaigns in detail. That method, in the form of the Air Mobility Utility Model, can serve as a guide to maximize the chance of success for future air mobility campaigns.

Colonel Salmi states that Behind the Light Switch was written for an audience of “practitioners and policy makers” (ix). Practitioners of the air mobility mission will likely find this book useful despite already understanding the nuances of the mission set to a large degree. Behind the Light Switch would also benefit any military leader whose mission is even tangentially reliant upon air mobility as it pulls back the curtain on a process that appears straightforward but is in fact complicated. Additionally, any individual whose mission includes logistical support to the war fighter, such as the Navy’s Military Sealift Command, would benefit as the principles can be broadly applied to any movement of materiel in large quantities.

Lieutenant Andrew Dicksey, USN

"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."