Airpower in the Age of Primacy: Air Warfare Since the Cold War

  • Published

Airpower in the Age of Primacy: Air Warfare Since the Cold War edited by Phil M. Haun, Colin F. Jackson, and Timothy P. Schultz. Cambridge University Press, 2022, 305 pp. 

Since the end of the Cold War, air wars have largely been fought by disproportionately strong nations versus disproportionately weak ones. This power disparity has been a hallmark of the past three decades of war. Air Power in the Age of Primacy seeks to fill a literature gap by exploring the lessons learned through this new epoch of warfare. By shifting their focus to the mission and political objectives and the long-term national security, Phil M. Haun, Colin F. Jackson, and Timothy P. Schultz effectively analyze the relative effectiveness of various air wars during the last three decades.

This book is broken up into 12 chapters written by a collection of authors. The three main editors—the Naval War College’s Haun, Jackson, and Schultz— put together a team of eight other authors, seven from the Department of Defense and one foreign contributor, giving the work a primarily western perspective. Each contributor delivered a stand-alone essay that adds to the complete work.

The book begins with a forward chapter by Haun  that admits that limited air campaigns have become the go-to strategy for wealthy nations in their quest to project power and protect national interests. Airpower provides the alluring combination of being a lower cost and lower risk of loss of life. Still, Air Power in the Age of Primacy contends that while wars fought from the sky can be a powerful tool, particularly in terms of achieving mission and sometimes political objectives, it rarely is successful at translating those successes into long-term peace and stability.

Most of the subsequent chapters tackle a different air war, beginning with the Bosnian civil war, and culminating with the battle to retake Mosul. Different themes and takeaways can be gleaned from each chapter, but read as a whole, some themes start to become evident. The first is that airpower has lowered the threshold required for a powerful nation to use kinetic means to influence its foreign policy. The authors contend that before the age of primacy, policy makers had a scarcity of choices to enact foreign policy goals, which necessitated a high degree of planning and then once a strategy had been carefully chosen, it was fully pursued to a logical end. Conversely because the physical cost of war, both in blood and treasure, has been lessened, policy makers have an abundance of choices and rather than choosing one carefully planned strategy, they pursue multiple ones simultaneously with less focus on long-term consequences.

Beginning with the chapter about the Bosnian Civil War, and subsequently reinforced in almost every other chapter, the authors demonstrate that airpower is most effective when combined with a competent ground force. The authors most aptly demonstrate this in their commentary on Operation Enduring Freedom by describing the key relationship between the US special operators directing airstrikes, and the Northern Alliance providing the manpower to take advantage of the chaos and damage the airpower delivered.

This book also tackles the notion of what constitutes mission success. Each chapter details what the stated objectives of the operations were, and then throughout the chapter analyzes the degree to which those objectives were accomplished.  The analysis of the Battle of Mosul gives a prime example of a clear goal to defeat ISIS as a military force, to kill their fighters and destroy their equipment. But the authors are careful to point out that achieving mission and political objectives does not always lead to long-term mission success as the examples of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom demonstrate.

The biggest weakness of this book, which the authors fully understood and acknowledged, is that the lessons learned in the age of primacy may not fully translate into wars fought with a contested airspace. As nations such as the United States begin to transition into an age of great-power rivalry, some of these key points may still hold true. But those wars will have to be fought differently, and so many of the alleged benefits of limited air campaigns—the limited usage of blood and treasure—will no longer be possible if close air support is challenged, or unmanned aerial vehicles cannot provide 24/7 intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Even with those limitations, however, there will likely be small conflicts where these lessons can provide insight into how to pursue a more successful campaign.

Overall, Air Power in the Age of Primacy fills the gap in literature between the end of the Cold War to today. The authors created a comprehensive book that can easily be digested a chapter at a time without overwhelming readers. This book will be an important contribution for those interested in understanding the key advantages and disadvantages of airpower in asymmetric warfare.

Second Lieutenant Benjamin Hutchins, 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."