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Airpower Reborn: A Review – Travis Hallen

‘Anyone writing airpower theory today has a great deal of rewriting to do, because some large conceptual weeds have been allowed to prosper in airpower’s intellectual garden.’  

Colin Gray, Airpower Reborn, 179.

Giulio Douhet coined the concept of 'the 'battleplane' [Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons]

Giulio Douhet [Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons]

When Giulio Douhet wrote and published Command in the Air in 1921 he did so based on the limited experience gained by airmen during the First World War and used concepts derived from a battle-focused view of military operations. His theory of airpower suffered as a result. By portraying airpower as a revolutionary technology but framing it’s potential employment within an existing Western, essentially Napoleonic, view of war, Douhet and his contemporaries could not create the paradigm-shift in strategic thought that the ability to operate in the third-dimension demanded. Instead, their works became a millstone around the necks of future airpower theorists and practitioners who have wasted considerable time and intellectual effort seeking to reconcile the experience of airpower with the unrealistic expectations created by the early theorists.

In Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd, Norwegian Air Force Colonel and prolific airpower scholar, John Andreas Olsen has assembled five essays from five leading airpower and strategy scholars for the purpose of recaging the discussion on airpower. Olsen’s introduction clearly and succinctly lays out the issues that the book seeks to address. Since the First World War airpower professionals and theorists have had to overcome an ‘entrenched force-on-force and battlefield-oriented war-fighting paradigm,’ and ‘have had to justify accomplishments against unrealistic expectations rather than against actual results.’ Faced with these obstacles to creating a viable and influential theory to guide and inform strategy and operations, airpower practitioners have been unable to fully realise the potential of air operations. The aim of Airpower Reborn is to break with airpower’s conceptual past and establish a new basis for airpower theory, one divorced from the land-centric obsession with the battle and built instead upon the concept of strategic paralysis. Establishing a new concept of airpower, however, cannot be achieved simply by writing a book, a fact that is tacitly acknowledged in Olsen’s introductory chapter. Instead it requires airpower professionals to think, understand, explain, and advocate for a new paradigm.

Well structured and well argued, the five core chapters of Airpower Reborn guide the reader skillfully through the book’s central argument. Each chapter builds on the previous to provide a logical development of the case for a shift in the way airpower is understood, explained, developed and employed. As a result, the book hits its mark.

Peter Faber begins by providing a plausible explanation for the failures of earlier airpower theories. Using Thomas Kuhn’s idea of the paradigm shift, Faber asserts that earlier theorists were seeking to force a conceptual revolution, but were frustrated by their inability to overcome the entrenched land-centric vision of war, their continued use of land-centric terminology, and by linking the conceptual shift with a threat of massive organisational upheaval. The result was that the theorist could not effect the revolution in strategic thinking that the advent of airpower required. This had to wait for the arrival of John Boyd and John Warden, the subjects of the next two chapters of the book.

John Boyd’s contribution to strategic theory is often seen as limited to the OODA loop; a model of decision making that is more used than understood. But there is more to Boyd than the OODA loop, and it is Boyd’s ideas that provide the purpose of strategic paralysis: overwhelming an adversary’s ability to adapt while improving your own. Addressing this in his chapter outlining Boyd’s thoughts, Frans Osinga does an excellent job of simplifying the complexity of Boyd. By taking the reader beyond the overly simplistic strategic concept of out-OODAing the enemy, describing Boyd’s characterisation of the modes of conflict (attrition, manoeuvre, and moral) and their relationship to the strategy of ‘disintegration and collapse’, and identifying war as the confrontation between complex adaptive systems, Osinga succeeds in introducing the uninitiated reader to the complexity of Boyd’s thought in a way that is relatively easy to understand.

Diagrammatic representation of Boyd's OODA Loop. [Image Credit: Patrick Moran via]

Diagrammatic representation of Boyd’s OODA Loop. [Image Credit: Patrick Moran via]

Whereas Boyd provides the purpose of strategic paralysis, John Warden provides the form. The architect of the Instant Thunder air campaign plan that provided the basis for air aspects of Operation Desert Storm, Warden is most noted for his system-approach to strategy through what has become known as his Five-Ring Model. In his chapter ‘Smart Strategy, Smart Airpower’, Warden updates this model and applies it to the modern employment of airpower. One of the strengths of Warden’s chapter is the straight forward explanation of his concepts; the reader can easily follow Warden’s logic. Identifying the four key questions that are the basic building blocks of an effective strategy (where, what, how, and exit), Warden links each part of his theory with basic strategic logic. Despite the clarity of his thought and writing, however, Warden remains a divisive figure both inside and outside of the airpower community, and the reason for this is clearly evident in this chapter. His call for airpower practitioners to become committed and vocal advocates for airpower to government and the public can be seen as validation for the charge of zealotry often directed at Warden. While this advocacy may put some readers offside, as the book’s early chapters have made clear, it is the absence of informed advocacy that has been the cause of the many false starts in airpower’s operational history, so maybe Warden has a point.

Drawing together the related by dissimilar theories of Boyd and Warden, Alan Stephens proposes a ‘Fifth-Generation Strategy’ as the basis for modern airpower theory. Stephens also emphasises the importance of airpower practitioners engaging in deep thinking about the role their capabilities can and should play in modern strategy. Using examples of where innovative airpower theory has floundered when confronted by entrenched land-centric schools of strategy, Stephens illustrates how the inability of airpower strategists to be competitive in the contest of ideas has been detrimental to the ongoing development of the airpower. He argues that airpower theory and strategy must not only be innovative and effective, it must be widely understood by more than just the airpower practitioner. Integrating Boyd’s purpose and Warden’s form of strategic paralysis, and supported by a new set of terms (knowledge dominance, fleeting footprint, rapid halt) that enable the shift away from the Napoleonic concepts of the battle, Stephens’s chapter addresses the failures in previous theories outlined by Faber in an early chapter. In so doing, he provides a clear and coherent starting point from which the long-delayed but much-needed paradigm shift in strategic thought that airpower requires can commence.

The book concludes with Colin Gray’s presentation of a 27 ‘dicta’ (Gray’s preferred term) general theory of airpower. Gray’s 27 dicta are clear, concise, well explained, and are generally supportive of the concepts raised in the preceding chapter. The dicta vary from the logical and well-accepted ‘Airpower has persisting characteristic strengths and weaknesses’; to the more nuanced ‘airpower has strategic effect, but is not inherently strategic’; to the abrupt ‘strategy for airpower is not all about targeting; Douhet was wrong’. Just as important as the clarity of the dicta is Gray’s warning not to use them as a replacement for independent thought. Wary that readers may have a preference to quote rather than comprehend, Gray concludes his chapter, and the book, with a statement that is worth quoting at length as it captures the book’s underlying theme:

‘Airpower theory should be permitted to educate only in how to approach the actual challenges of ever-changing airpower. The theory ought not to be raided for direct value as added authority in aid of some contestable preference today. If airpower’s general theory is deployed to do battle on the issue of the day, it is nearly certain that it will be abused, misused, and, as a result, suffer loss of authority. Airpower theory can only guide us in how to think, not what to think.’

Although well written, Airpower Reborn is challenging, as should be expected from a book that seeks to spark a paradigm-shift in military thought. Accordingly, it is not a book that can simply be read, absorbed and quoted; rather, it requires the reader to engage with the ideas, question their own assumptions and those of the authors, and debate the concepts that the authors advocate. For this reason, this book is a must read for any Air Force officer attending Command and Staff College as it will provide a strong foundation from which to understand, debate, and further develop a working knowledge of airpower theory and strategy. It also has much to offer a broader readership wishing to deepen their understanding of airpower’s history and future. Although some readers may not be swayed by the case the book presents, the quality of the chapters will challenge the engaged reader to think deeply about the points that are raised.

Squadron Leader Travis Hallen is an Air Combat Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. He is also a Sir Richard Williams Foundation Scholar and editor at The Central Blue. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.


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