The Age of Airpower Review
The Age of Airpower, by Martin Van Creveld is a book primarily about the use of airpower throughout history. It is a bit rambly and disorganized, but it is full of interesting facts and insights. I enjoyed it from beginning to end.
There are four main uses for airpower:
Destroying enemy cities, industrial areas and other very large targets, strategic bombers are slow, lumbering beasts with massive bomb loads. The main goal is to end the enemies’ will to fight and destroy their capacity to produce weapons. Strategic bombing was popular with early aviation theorists. Even fiction writers like Orson Welles wrote of airships destroying cities from the skies.
Strategic bombers are large, expensive, and require large crews to operate. They are also fairly easy to shoot down, due to their slow speed and poor maneuverability. Historically, this was partially remedied by defensive gunners, but adding those adds to the weight and crew sizes as well, meaning that each bomber that got shot down represented an even greater loss of life and resources.
Fast, maneuverable and sleek, air superiority fighters rule the skies. This includes shooting down enemy bombers as well as covering your own bombers. Without air superiority, none of the other roles can be performed without stiff casualties.
Interdiction – Going after soft targets – fuel depots, radar arrays, railroads, bridges, etc. You aren’t killing enemy troops, or destroying their cities, but you are making it harder for them to continue fighting.
Close Air Support (CAS)
CAS aircraft take the role of artillery, attacking targets dictated to them by troops on the ground. CAS planes need to be tough, maneuverable and carry a lot of firepower. Speed is not important, and can be a disadvantage. Aircraft that excel in this role need to be able to get to the battlefield quickly and be able to deliver accurate firepower. Historically this means patrolling near the front and getting low to the ground.
The author argues that Strategic use of air power has never been very effective, especially compared to the amount of resources devoted to it. Neither Germany nor Japan were brought to their knees by strategic bombing alone, until the nuclear bomb was brought into play. Today, nuclear missiles fullfill this role far better than any cloud of B 17s ever could. The U.S. Air Force clung to the strategic role far longer than was reasonable, considering how obsolete that role was from the moment ICBMs were invented onward.
The Air Force also devotes a tremendous amount of effort to developing and maintaining a huge fleet of air superiority fighters. Considering America has not gone to war with a country with an air force since the Korean War (1950-1953), it seems like a strange focus. Given the extreme sophistication and complexity of a modern fighter, any country which can field a fighter capable of taking on a 1972 vintage F-15 (let alone a modern F-22), will certainly have access to nuclear weapons as well. Even a hundred Russias would not be capable of shooting down the Air Force’s current stock of fighters. That begs the question, what is the USAF preparing for? Alien invasion?
The naval use of airpower is likewise fading away. As the ranges of drones (which the author has a very lengthy discussion of) and other aircraft expands, there is less of a need for a mobile airfield. Aircraft carriers are insanely expensive. The lifetime cost of a modern carrier is over $20 billion dollars. Only a few countries’ military budgets are large enough to absorb such costs. Furthermore, a carrier without proper support can be taken out by a submarine or anti-ship missile. Because carriers are so expensive, and require such enormous crews (around 4,000 people), losing one is devastating.
Aircraft are still invaluable to naval warfare. They can defeat surface ships many times their size and cost, hunt submarines, scout, and defend navies from other surface ships. But who exactly is going to try to take on the US Navy? You’d need to find someone with dozens of modern aircraft carriers and support ships, but inexplicably no nuclear missiles.
Interdiction is, and has always been useful when fighting nation states. Bombing military bases, weapons stockpiles and other tactical targets aids ground troops immensely. It can be used against likely adversaries of the U.S. military – small, poor countries who do something U.S. politicians don’t like. Drones excel in this role. Losses are unimportant, since they don’t involve the loss of life. Drones can strike deep into enemy territory using precision guided munitions. They are also far cheaper than manned aircraft.
Close air support is also likely to be important to future conflicts. Wars in the future are likely to be primarily against guerrillas. That means you need to have boots on the ground, since there are no valuable targets to go after using Interdiction and Strategic tactics. Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam tried to use strategic bombing against guerrillas, but failed miserably. The A 10 Warthog (pictured above) and the C 130 gunship are likely the best CAS manned aircraft in the U.S. military.
The author is very pessimistic when it comes to airpower. On one end of the spectrum, nuclear weapons are the final answer to large scale conflict. At the other extreme, guerrilla war is about boots on the ground and winning hearts and minds. Air power is antagonistic to the latter, because of the large amount of “collateral damage” it creates.
I enjoyed the book immensely, but it was very long. I would not recommend it to someone with only a casual interest in air power. However, if a long arching overview of the history and future of air power with lots of details and anecdotes along the way, this may be the book for you.