BOOK REVIEW: 'The Age of Airpower' Explores Advantages -- and Limitations -- of Aerial Warfare

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'The Age of Airpower' Explores Advantages -- and Limitations -- of Aerial Warfare
Perhaps more than any other branch of any nation's armed forces, air forces seem to get all the glory and publicity. And the other fighting forces --  Army, Navy and Marines -- are so blinded by the glamour of airpower that they've managed to create their own aerial branches.
 It doesn't make any sense, except perhaps in the case of the Coast Guard and the Navy, but, with the exception of a few unified military forces -- like the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) --  there is no arguing with those afflicted with aircraft envy.

Renowned military historian Martin van Creveld examines in readable detail the rise and fall of airpower in  "The Age of Airpower" (PublicAffairs Books, 512 pages, 16 pages of glossy black and white photos, index, notes, $35.00). It's particularly important in this deja vu all over again era to discover that the first use of airpower in warfare occurred in a familiar place, Libya, where the deputy commander of NATO's operations in the Libyan civil war last week said that NATO planes may have "mistakenly" hit rebel forces near Brega. He offers no apology, although   NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said: "

This is a very unfortunate incident. I strongly regret the loss of life. I can assure you that we do our utmost to avoid civilian casualties."

Yes, a century ago,  in 1911 and 1912, Italian military airplanes were dropping grenades on the armed forces of the Ottoman Empire, which then controlled the huge nation of Libya. The occupying Ottomans -- Turks -- were soon joined by the country's indigenous people, including Arabs, and they put up a stiff resistance to the Italians who were flying planes of "the French type." Only after the Ottomans were diverted to the Balkans in 1912  did the Italians gain ground and began their occupation of Libya, which lasted until they were driven out during World War II. 

Van Creveld notes that guerilla warfare continued at least until the mid 1930s, when the Italians attacked Ethiopia in another one of Mussolini's misguided  attempts to secure African colonies and re-create a new Roman Empire.

Van Creveld,  whose books are required reading for officers attending the U.S. Naval War College and other strategic institutes, tells us in this very accessible book (for example, he cites Stanley Kubrick's 1964 black comedy film "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" in his section on the threat nuclear warfare)  how airpower, more than any other factor, has shaped war in the twentieth century. He shows the rise of the plane as a tool of war and the evolution of both technology and strategy. He documents seminal battles and turning points, and relates stories of individual daring and collective mastery of the skies.

Van Creveld writes that the end of airpower's glorious age is drawing near, a message the flyboys don't want to hear. While van Creveld is squarely on the side of the modernizers and economists who say we can no longer afford the absurdly expensive aircraft of today, they are opposed by those who say you can't win a war without airpower. Conventional wisdom to the contrary, modern precision guided munitions have not made fighter bombers more effective against many kinds of targets than their predecessors in World War II. U.S. ground troops calling for air support in Iraq in 2003 did not receive it any faster than Allied forces did in France in 1944. 

And from its origins to the present, airpower has never been very effective against terrorists, guerrillas, and insurgents. As the warfare waged by these kinds of people grow in importance, and as ballistic missiles, satellites, cruise missiles and drones -- UAV or unmanned aerial vehicles --  increasingly take the place of quarter-billion-dollar manned combat aircraft and their multi-million-dollar pilots, airpower is losing utility almost day by day.

Not long after the first Wright Brothers flight on Dec. 17, 1903, the entrepreneurial high-school dropouts were traveling the world looking for countries that wanted to buy planes made in their Ohio factory. Van Creveld writes that Orville and Wilbur Wright at first saw no other use for their flying machines than warfare. Initially they met with little success, but in 1909, the British established the Aerial Navigation Committee, the first ever government body specifically charged with military-aeronautical research. By 1910, the author says, "Germany had five military aircraft, England four, and Russia three."  Italy, Austria, Japan, Belgium and the U.S. had two each.

By the time of the 1914-18 war, aerial warfare developed to a remarkable degree, along with Zeppelins that the Germans used to bomb London. One of the advantages of aircraft, including airships, was their literal "eye in the sky" intelligence gathering capabilities. Aviators provided strategic information to ground forces and soon wireless communication made this capability a vital part of warfare.

Van Creveld discusses aeronautical warfare from the beginnings to the present day, by all the major players, including the tiny nation of Israel which demonstrated its aerial prowess for all the world to see in June 1967 when it destroyed the aerial power of its Arab neighbors. Still, the author notes, as he does throughout the book, aerial warfare was not then and is not now a replacement for boots on the ground fighting.
  About the Author Martin Levi van Creveld  is an Israeli military historian and theorist.

Van Creveld was born in the Netherlands in 1946 in the city of Rotterdam, and has lived in Israel since shortly after his birth. He holds degrees from the London School of Economics and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he has been on the faculty since 1971. He is the author of 22 books translated into 20 laguages on military history and strategy, of which Command in War (1985), Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton (1977, 2nd edition 2004), The Transformation of War (1991), The Sword and the Olive (1998) and The Rise and Decline of the State (1999) are among the best known. Van Creveld has lectured or taught at many strategic institutes in the Western world, including the U.S. Naval War College.