Airpower for Strategic Effect

  • Published

Airpower for Strategic Effect by Colin S. Gray. Air University Press, Air Force Research Institute, 2012, 367 pp. 

In this expansive assessment of airpower’s steady rise in salience from its fledgling days to today’s combat involvements, Colin Gray, a prolific strategist of long-standing scholarly repute, has produced an outstanding tutorial for airmen by addressing the air weapon in the context of what he calls its abiding “strategic narrative” (p. 1). His book is not about the tangibles of airpower—the platforms, munitions, and associated support systems—that make up its hardware ingredients. Rather, it is about how one should think about airpower’s larger meaning and significance.

This important new book begs to be read by airpower’s doers as well as thinkers—and at all rank and command levels. In explaining why, Gray notes that his intent in writing it was “to contribute to a better strategic understanding of airpower to improve the practice of airpower” (emphasis added, p. 2). Toward that end, he stresses that his purpose was not to indulge in debate over air doctrine but “to help sharpen the ability of readers themselves to engage in such debate” (p. 4)—most notably in the all-important policy arena in which the most intractable cross-service disagreements over roles and resources get adjudicated.

Gray’s central theme is that airpower generates strategic effect. More to the point, he maintains, it is a tactical equity that operates—ideally—with strategic consequences. To him, “strategic” does not inhere in the equity’s physical characteristics, such as an aircraft’s range or payload, but in what it can do by way of producing desired results. From his perspective, a strategic effect is, first and foremost, that which enables outcome-determining results. And producing such results is quintessentially the stock in trade of American airpower as it has progressively evolved since Vietnam.

With this unifying principle as his point of departure, Gray improves on Brig Gen William “Billy” Mitchell’s definition of airpower by characterizing it more helpfully as “the ability to do something [strategically useful] in the air” (emphasis in original, p. 9). He further stresses—as his book’s title well reflects—that only by producing desired effects can airpower’s use in warfare be deemed successful.

In addressing the predominance of today’s low-intensity insurgent challenges, in which kinetic air attacks have largely been overshadowed by ground forces in the starring role, Gray takes a long view of airpower’s relevance and potential by appraising the air weapon in the broader context in which its payoff will ultimately be registered. His survey of airpower’s combat use over time shows convincingly how the relative importance of the air weapon is neither universal nor unchanging but totally dependent on the circumstances of a confrontation.

More to the point here, when viewed operationally, airpower can be everything from single-handedly decisive to wholly supportive of a combatant commander’s needs. Because its relative import, like that of all other force elements, hinges directly on how its comparative advantages relate to a commander’s most immediate concerns, Gray reminds us that airpower need not disappoint when it is not the main producer of desired outcomes. Indeed, he rightly notes, the notion that airpower should be able to perform effectively in all forms of combat unaided by other force elements is both an absurd measure of its value and a baseless arguing point. By misguidedly espousing this point over many decades, airpower’s most outspoken advocates have done their cause a major disservice.

It naturally follows from this, Gray adds, that whenever airpower has been said to have “failed,” it has only been because more was expected of it than it could deliver. After all, any tool can appear deficient if used unwisely or irresponsibly. In this regard, Gray notes how a long history of overpromising on the part of airpower’s most vocal proponents has needlessly sold the air weapon short for what it is actually able to deliver to joint force commanders today—and not just in high-intensity combat but in all forms of operations across the conflict spectrum.

To be sure, airmen of action may find it trying at times to remain patient with Gray’s always purposeful but also often discursive walk through the intellectual thickets of airpower theory. In a frank admission of his own appreciation of those readers who will be all too eager for him to get to his point, Gray freely concedes how “theory and theorists often are regarded with disdain by the people ‘out there, doing it,’ when in truth the purpose of the theory enterprise is both to reduce the risks to the warriors and to help make their efforts more useful vis-à-vis the operational goals that are set” (p. 41).

Yet were there ever an instance in which patience should have its rewards for mission-oriented airmen of action, it is plainly here, for Airpower for Strategic Effect offers an uncommonly thoughtful application of informed intellect to an explanation of how modern air warfare capabilities should be understood. In his last chapter, Gray underscores in this regard the important truth that “airpower theory helps educate airpower strategists,” rightly calling it “theory for practice” (p. 275). Furthermore, he instructively adds, it “educates those who write airpower doctrine and serves as a filter against dangerous viruses” (p. 276).

At bottom, the purpose of Gray’s treatise is not to extol airpower but to make coherent sense of it by providing informed insights into it and about it that are timeless. For airmen of all ranks, the greatest value that its appreciation of the air weapon can offer is to help them think more reflectively about their calling and to articulate its foundational principles more effectively in the councils of war planning. For woven throughout the book is a compelling explication of what modern airpower entails in its most inner strategic essence. The ultimate aim of that explication is to improve the real-world practice of airpower by operators at all levels most responsible for its effective use.

Benjamin S. Lambeth, PhD

Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments

"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."