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Biplanes at War: US Marine Corps Aviation in the Small Wars Era, 1915–1934

Biplanes at War: US Marine Corps Aviation in the Small Wars Era, 1915–1934 by Wray R. Johnson. University Press of Kentucky, 2019, 420 pp.   

Biplanes at War is a study that captures the advent of Marine Corps aviation through the support of small wars across the Caribbean and China. This history offers critical lessons in the changing character of warfare with the introduction of airplanes in the early twentieth century. Wray Johnson frames this almost forgotten era of innovation and perseverance by Marines supporting conflicts in Haiti, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and China. Johnson contextualizes these conflicts while deriving critical lessons inherent to small wars and the role of aviation. Leveraging his expertise as an Air Force officer and an instructor at the Marine Corps’ School of Advanced Warfighting, Johnson effectively presents the early history of Marine Corps aviation while synthesizing the early advantages and limitations of airpower. 

Johnson’s main argument in Biplanes at War is that the development of Marine Corps aviation throughout the early twentieth century provided tools to aid ground forces in defeating increasingly complex insurgencies. To support this argument, Johnson analyzes various case studies across the Caribbean and Asia while providing strategic considerations, operational challenges, and tactical vignettes. With thorough research and a seamless ability to transition between case studies with insightful commentary, Johnson defends his argument while extrapolating the consequences for modern conflicts. The origin story of Marine Corps aviation focused on air-land integration as a single team. The conflicts in the Caribbean and Asia saw Marines establishing mission sets to include aeromedical evacuation and aerial delivery. These capabilities pioneered by the Marines would evolve into fundamental capabilities for today’s military. Marines on the ground encountered numerous challenges with insurgent warfare but worked alongside aviation experts to exploit asymmetric advantages and achieve political objectives through air-land integration. Johnson’s core conclusion is that Marine Corps aviation provided an adaptive and innovative approach to supporting ground forces and executing irregular warfare. 

With this history of the early expeditionary actions of Marine Corps aviation, Johnson oriented his analysis to the Marines and their efforts in small wars. This scoped approach limits the contextualization of simultaneous efforts within the sister services as well as foreign air forces in developing airpower. While focusing the material and timespan to this snapshot of American history helps clarify early Marine Corps aviation, Johnson’s conclusions on the limitations of airpower and the role of aviation in irregular warfare are inherently incomplete. Despite this scoped approach, Johnson successfully presents the origin story of Marine Corps aviation with a compelling argument for joint integration.  

Biplanes at War is an essential read for aviation enthusiasts and scholars. This chapter of America’s early involvement in irregular warfare and the limits of aviation against complex enemies offers essential insights for modern strategy. This book is highly recommended for strategists, historians, and airpower practitioners alike. 

Lt Col Matthew C. Wunderlich, USAF 

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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