Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Age of Airpower - Martin van Creveld

The information presented was written by Chris Buckham; however, it was published in The Journal of the RCAF. Therefore, the material is reproduced here by the author with the permission of the journal. If you would like to republish this information or refer to excerpts please contact the Editor RCAF Journal ( Website for the Journal is:

Title: Age of Airpower 
Author: Martin van Creveld
ISBN:  158648981X
Publisher: Public Affairs

Martin van Creveld has a long history of scholarly writings that explore and challenge long-held beliefs and the ‘sacred elephants’ of the military. His latest book, The Age of Airpower, is no exception. Continuing his tradition of exceptionally detailed research and extrapolation/interpretation of data, he traces the evolution of airpower as an effective and relevant ‘third pillar’ in the commander’s arsenal. Commencing with the development of flight pre-WW1, he tracks its spectacular rise from rather obscure and simplistic beginnings, through its expansion and technological development at all doctrinal levels (strategic, operational and tactical) during the ensuing WW2 and Cold War years, culminating in its role in what has become the modern asymmetric battlefield of the post-Soviet era.

Of particular note is Van Creveld’s look at the impact of the nuclear and missile age upon airpower as a stand alone capability. Once considered to be the mainstay of the world’s air forces, the bomber arm ran into technological and doctrinal trouble with the advent of ballistic missiles, ICBM’s, cruise missile capability and nuclear warfare. Following WW2, the air force worked very hard to maintain a role for itself as the only arm capable of carrying out a nuclear strategic strike against an enemy force. However, with the advent of smaller nuclear warheads and an increase in missile range and accuracy, expensive bombers became redundant and gradually have disappeared off of the line of battle as a separate capability. In fact, ironically, increased accuracy of missiles has resulted in a diminishment of the strategic aspect of air ops. That is to say, all targets, regardless of range, may now be considered tactical in nature which constitutes a dramatic change in paradigm.

The canvas of this book is very broad, encompassing comments upon the diminishment of the naval air arm in the post WW2 era, areas of Cold War conflict such as the Middle east, the failure of airpower to be able to effectively come to grips with insurgents in non-traditional combat environments and the challenge of creating doctrine that establishes effective parameters of use for air forces. One of the strengths of this book is the fact that van Creveld makes use of historical examples to reinforce and clarify his observations. This makes it much easier to follow and to understand the applications he discusses.  

Van Creveld’s work outlines several key elements of the airpower story:
1.       Rapid Development: Its rise and capability development has been unprecedented in military history. It may be argued that no other element of military force has benefitted from the advent of both the industrial/technological revolution and the requirements of war;
2.       New View of Warfighting: The development of airpower and its doctrine has had a fundamental impact on the evolution in doctrine of the other branches of the military and the paradigm through which commanders and governments envision and prepare for conflict;
3.       Capability Outpacing Doctrine: The vision of the role, use and effectiveness of airpower has been challenging and controversial due to the fact that capabilities have evolved at a breath-taking rate, precluding the opportunity to draw upon historical precedents to evaluate future focus;
4.       R & D Prohibitively Expensive: Airpower is rapidly becoming a potential victim of its own success in that cost required for research and development is outpacing the national level capacity to fund. This results in fewer states being able to create and maintain cutting edge capability. This in turn results in diminishing markets for sale, higher per unit cost and a subsequent reluctance of national governments to assume risk in the utilization of these assets;
5.       Air Assets and Asymmetric Warfare: The rise of asymmetric style warfare with its emphasis on non-traditional style combat and lack of ‘hard targets’ revealed a series of limitations in the effective utilization of air assets as  an efficient counter to these threats; and
6.       New Technology: The traditional sense that air forces, due to what we may call their ‘individuality and youth’, have always challenged the more traditional aspects of military force now find the challenges coming full circle as they grapple with the concept that technology may be undermining the requirement for manned aircraft and what the role will be for the aircrew of the future.

          Overall, this book represents to the Air force professional and the general reader, a concise synopsis of issues that face not only Air Forces but also governments as they balance defence needs with budgetary constraints. There are some very uncomfortable questions raised by Van Creveld that challenge the very foundations upon which Air Forces are built and developed; questions that need to be asked and debated openly and frankly as we move into the future.

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