A History of Air Warfare

  • Published

A History of Air Warfare edited by John Andreas Olsen. Potomac Books, 2010, 522 pp.

John Olsen’s A History of Air Warfare is a must-read. The editor has brought together a stellar group of 15 leading airpower historians, at least half of whom are among the top 12 to 15 scholars in the field. The editor’s stated goal is to produce an introductory text that provides an overview of air warfare. He delivers much more in this outstanding collection of high-quality essays that concisely cover airpower from World War I into the future.

The book is divided into five parts, the first four chronological (1914–45, 1945–90, 1990–2000, and 2000–06) and the last entitled “Perspectives.” The final part takes a different tack insofar as one chapter offers an interesting discussion of small wars from 1913 to the present while the other two present overviews of the history of airpower and then forecast different futures for the Air Force.

Despite the understandable pressure of space restrictions, most of the chapters convey surprising detail, broad insights, and very useful endnotes. Not rehashes, these essays employ the most recent scholarship and will enlighten even the “experts.” Unlike most collections written by a number of authors, the quality is uniformly high; one finds no weak chapters. The book also features a very valuable bibliography of over 300 entries.

The last two essays, the most controversial in the collection, deserve at least a brief, albeit oversimplified, summary. Martin van Creveld argues in “The Rise and Fall of Air Power” that since the dropping of the atomic bomb, airpower has been in decline. Aircraft inventories have shrunk, and aircraft have been increasingly displaced by missiles and remotely piloted vehicles (RPV). He further observes that airpower has performed “very badly” in wars against guerrillas. Van Creveld concludes by noting that because wars of the twenty-first century will mainly consist of low intensity conflicts, “there probably is no compelling case for independent air power” (p. 370). Richard Hallion, however, literally has the last word in his essay “Air and Space Power: Climbing and Accelerating,” emphatically writing that “It is premature to bury the manned military airplane, air forces, or air power” (emphasis in original, p. 389). He acknowledges that RPVs will supplant manned aircraft in many high-risk operations and that fewer rated pilot officers will operate them. But he insists that air forces won’t disappear since they are “full service air power providers” (p. 391). However, airpower “may well be subsumed into a larger category of three-dimensional power in which space predominates” (p. 392). History will determine which writer is closer to the mark.

Criticisms of this volume are few and insignificant. Readers will notice some minor errors but none of any consequence. However, one whopper slipped through—a statement that Billy Mitchell, like Douhet, was imprisoned (p. 354). The photo section seems curiously disconnected from the text; indeed, instead of images depicting the conflicts in World War I or II, Korea, or Vietnam (conflicts that saw the bulk of air warfare), one mostly finds photos of Royal Air Force jet aircraft. As to content, some readers may question what is not here, an issue that frequently emerges regarding collections and studies that cover so much territory. Certainly, this volume favors the present and perhaps pays less attention to Navy and Marine aviation than merited. Only the Indo-Pakistani and the Iran-Iraq wars receive no coverage, but one questions the absence of a chapter on the Cold War. This issue of balance very much depends on the interest and intent of the reader; for this reviewer, the overall balance is reasonable, with the possible exception of the absence of a Cold War essay.

In brief, then, this collection of excellent essays covers very well the history of air warfare. The book does more than achieve the editor’s goals—it provokes thinking about the advantages and limitations, the successes and failures of airpower. Because of its high quality and broad coverage, A History of Air Warfare is a very important book. I firmly believe that all students of airpower and all individuals who practice airpower should read it. I can think of no higher praise.

Kenneth P. Werrell

Christiansburg, Virginia

"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."