The Art of Air Power: Sun Tzu Revisited

  • Published

The Art of Air Power: Sun Tzu Revisited by Sanu Kainikara. Air Power Development Centre, 2010, 461 pp.

Composed some 2,400 years ago, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is recognized as the oldest surviving treatise on military strategy—the starting point for all that has since been written on the subject. Always of great influence on Chinese military thought, this work received less attention in the West until the 1960s when growing interest in irregular warfare inspired the seminal English-language translation of the late Brig Gen Samuel B. Griffith III, USMC. Today, English-speaking readers may choose from among some 200 translations of this ancient text.

The Art of War is a model of concision. Barely 40 pages long in English translation, it is written aphoristically, consisting of 13 short chapters in which Sun Tzu offers maxims about how to prevail in war, preferably without fighting. In many ways a virtue, the extreme brevity of The Art of War is also a hindrance to understanding. That is because Sun Tzu confines himself to offering conclusions and does not share the thought process upon which they are based. The result is a series of terse prescriptions for victory that are timeless but unexplained.

Here is where Sanu Kainikara’s The Art of Air Power comes in. Where Sun Tzu is succinct, Kainikara is prolix; where Sun Tzu offers unexplained conclusions, Kainikara elucidates—frequently at length—on the probable reasoning behind them. In a word, The Art of Air Power is not simply another addition to the existing shelf load of translations of The Art of War. Instead, it is an extended exegesis that seeks to explain the meaning of Sun Tzu’s precepts within a contemporary military context, with special emphasis on their implications for airmen. The author’s credentials suggest that he is up to this ambitious task. A former fighter pilot and a retired major general who served in the Indian Air Force, Sanu Kainikara is the author of seven books on airpower and a long-time student of Sun Tzu. Holder of a PhD in international politics from the University of Adelaide, he serves as deputy director for strategy at the Royal Australian Air Force’s highly regarded Air Power Development Centre.

Kainikara’s thesis asserts a strong congruence between Sun Tzu’s prescriptions for victory and the capabilities of modern airpower. In support of that contention, he offers a chapter-by-chapter analysis of The Art of War, explaining how the ancient wisdom of Sun Tzu can be tapped to usefully inform employment of the air weapon. Emphasizing airpower’s flexibility and adaptability, the author argues that whether used independently or in concert with other arms, airpower is the instrument nonpareil for fulfilling Sun Tzu’s exhortations about achieving speedy victory at the least possible cost, overcoming the enemy by wisdom and not by force alone, avoiding strength and attacking weakness, and shifting rapidly between direct and indirect approaches.

At more than 400 pages of text, The Art of Airpower is a long read and closely argued. But it will amply reward airmen and others willing to persevere. Some occasional discursiveness notwithstanding, the book offers a thorough, thoughtful, and compelling analysis of the affinities between airpower and the timeless injunctions of Sun Tzu. Readers will also appreciate Kainikara’s subtitles, which employ the terminology of contemporary conflict to identify the focus and importance of what follows. The same may be said of the author’s “one-liners.” Interspersed throughout the text, these doctrine-like assertions encapsulate in a few well-crafted words what the preceding pages have argued at length.

Two critical observations: the unfortunate lack of an index reduces this book’s value as a reference tool, and although Dr. Kainikara does provide a bibliography of his sources (all of them of good repute), scholars may wince at the absence of footnotes. That said, this reviewer commends The Art of Air Power to students and practitioners of airpower alike—especially those who teach it or write airpower doctrine.

James Titus, PhD

US Air Force Academy

"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."