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At the Dawn of Airpower #BookReview

#BookReview: “Why all this fuss about airplanes for the Army? I thought we already had one!” In this piece, Carl Rhodes reviews the new book ‘At the Dawn of Airpower’ and explores what it was like to integrate an entirely new class of technology into military operations and thinking – and how we might learn from it in this century. With questions around where to place new capabilities in existing organisations, to dealing with the political fallout from test failures, the initial coming of age of airpower was not straightforward and, as Rhodes points out, was highly reliant on how people worked together to bring about a wholesale revolution in the way military force was composed.

Laurence M. Burke II’s At the Dawn of Airpower conveys the complex history associated with the integration of airplanes into the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps. The book covers the decade between the Wright brothers’ first manned flight and the U.S. entry into World War I. The work heavily leverages Burke’s doctoral thesis and fills an apparent gap in academic research about U.S. military airpower prior to the First World War.

Before proceeding further with this review, I need to make a confession. I am an engineer by training with two and a half decades of experience in defence policy. In a recent New York Times review of naval history, Ian W. Toll states that working as a historian is “like a spinach-eating competition in which the only possible prize is another helping of fresh, steaming vegetables.” In this context, I am clearly not a vegetarian, nor do I habitually eat a great deal of spinach. However, as someone who has read extensively on technology and airpower, this book provides a detailed history and is thoroughly referenced (unlike another recent popular book on airpower in World War II which shall not be named). It was also a fascinating and enjoyable read.

While the book focuses on military innovation, Burke chooses to forego innovation frameworks as its methodological foundation. He instead leverages Actor/Network Theory (ANT), a method often used in the history of technology. This theory assumes that change results from the interactions of a variety of actors, which might include decision makers, advocates, converts to new ideas or even the hardware needed to demonstrate new concepts. The interactions of these actors form a network, which together may advance or hold back incorporation of new technology or, in a similar fashion, concepts for using that technology. This ANT methodology is useful in understanding the complex story of how three services approached the initial incorporation of aircraft into their force structure.

There is enough content for at least two books here, one focused on Army history and a second on the Navy and Marines. Chapters in Burke’s work alternate between the story of the Army and that of the Navy and Marines, with each chapter covering two to four years of the decade. A pair of additional chapters examine interservice linkages at the beginning and second half of the decade. Such linkages were especially important at the individual aviator level in the early years but became more important at higher levels over time when coordination on issues around science and technology increased in importance.

The short Prologue does a good job setting the stage prior to 1907, describing key events associated with modern U.S. flight research in the late 1800s. Ideas around how future aircraft might be employed in warfare were also being developed prior to 1900. In 1898, five years before the Wright brothers’ famous flight at Kitty Hawk, a Joint board examined the feasibility of flying machines in conflict. Guidance for the board’s work came from Theodore Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy at the time. The board judged that Samuel Langley’s Aerodrome, a leading technology advancing towards manned flight, could eventually carry a man and might be useful as a limited means for reconnaissance, communications or dropping high explosives from a great height.

Early on, many in the Navy didn’t see much utility in airplanes. As a result, it was the Army who invested in early development and construction of Langley’s manned flying machine. The investment failed to pay off in spectacular fashion, with two crashes of the manned Aerodrome prior to flight in public events a couple of months apart. After these failures, sentiment in the public and in Congress turned against funding additional work. Because of this backlash, the Army required a flying test as part of its first aircraft acquisition requirements. This and other events delayed delivery of its first aircraft, a Wright Military Flyer, to 1909. This interaction, described in much greater detail in the book, is an early case study that highlights how complex interactions between individuals in various military organisations, aircraft developers, Congress and the successes and failures of various aircraft designs lead to delays in incorporating new technology. An unnamed congressman in 1911, capturing the attitude of the time, was supposedly overheard saying about funding “Why all this fuss about airplanes for the Army? I thought we already had one!”

Organisationally, the Army and Navy both struggled with where to place these aircraft in their respective organisations. The Army eventually placed aircraft under the Signal Corps, a good initial match given the Corps’ responsibilities for collection and dissemination of information. While this allowed aircraft to quickly advance their abilities in reconnaissance and communications, growth in other mission areas (including bombing and other offensive missions) proved challenging. The Navy, with its more decentralised structure, didn’t have an obvious initial home for aviation and initially placed airplanes under its Bureau of Navigation. Naval airpower grew more slowly as it never found a logical home in the Navy’s organisation of the time, even after being moved under the newly founded Chief of Naval Operations in 1915.

Technology associated with airplanes advanced quickly during the decade. In 1910 and 1911, naval airpower firsts included flying an aircraft off a modified ship deck using a catapult, landing an aircraft on a modified ship deck and landing a “hydroaeroplane” on the water near a ship and later hoisting it onboard. Another key development involved the transition from rear-engined aircraft (pushers), where the engine had the disastrous side effect of crushing the crew during a crash, to safer aircraft with an engine in front of the crew. Other advances included aeronautical compasses (that wouldn’t be affected by an engine’s electrical system or vibrations), radios for communications (initially limited to sending information, due to the size and weight of receivers) and bombsights for both hand-dropped and mechanically released explosives. Demonstrations were also conducted around firing machine guns and other weapons from the air.

As the technology advanced, the U.S. military struggled to incorporate these new technologies into operations. Training of military aviators was a critical early need and was initially conducted onsite at the aircraft builders of the day: Wright and Curtiss. Early disputes over intellectual property meant that the control schemes for aircraft from the two manufacturers were quite different for many years. This meant that pilots trained on one company’s controls couldn’t learn to fly the other company’s aircraft. Specific qualifications for being a “military aviator” also had to be developed and, later, military training centres were built to qualify pilots in each of the services.

In terms of doctrine, very little was done to examine how U.S. airpower might be best employed and integrated with other forces. Flying at this time was a dangerous endeavour. As a result, most aviators were more focused on survival as compared to developing airpower employment concepts. As Burke notes, new officers assigned to training during this decade only slightly outpaced losses due to death, reassignment, and withdrawal for personal reasons. While aircraft conducted limited tests with bombs and machine guns, tactics and doctrine for such operations were never developed. Neither the Army nor the Navy leadership had interest in the offensive uses of aircraft at the time. The limited payloads associated with early aircraft meant that they simply couldn’t deliver much firepower and, organisationally, both services were more interested in reconnaissance roles for airpower.

The military learned valuable lessons about airpower in U.S. operations against Mexico in 1914-1916. The Navy deployed two planes, by ship, to the Mexican port of Veracruz in 1914 in support of its landing force. This led to the realisation that the Curtiss seaplanes (also known as “flying boats”) couldn’t take off or land in heavy seas. As a result, it was recommended that future naval aircraft be designed to operate off a ship’s deck rather than taking off and landing on the water.

Army aviation assets, deployed as part of the 1916 Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa’s forces, quickly discovered that its Curtiss JN-3 aircraft weren’t operationally useful in the Chihuahuan Desert. The desert is roughly 5,000 feet above sea level, near the JN-3 operational ceiling, limiting their ability to effectively perform reconnaissance in and around the nearby mountains. The requirements for future Army aircraft would need to account for such environments.

The U.S. was also able to take advantage of valuable lessons from the European experience at the start of World War I. George Owen Squier, military attaché to London, sent back detailed reports about how the British were training, organising and equipping their Royal Flying Corps. Navy attachés in London, Paris and Berlin sent similar reports based on their observations. While such reports were circulated widely to the General Staff and strongly influenced leadership thinking about the utility of aircraft in bombing and artillery spotting, this same information never made it to aviation schools where it could have influenced training and doctrine development.

By April 1917, when the United States formally entered World War I, each of the services had an established and growing aviation force and had started to learn to integrate aircraft with other forces. This is less than 8 years after the U.S. received its first military aircraft, quite an achievement when thinking about today’s development, acquisition and force integration timelines. However, in 1917 the U.S. also found itself woefully behind other European powers in aviation technology, doctrine, and training. As Burke notes, “Neither the services nor the manufacturers in the United States had an aircraft even on the drawing board that could hold its own in aerial combat as it existed on the Western Front.” Because of this fact, the U.S. found itself “flat footed” when entering the war in Europe.

Some who become closely associated with airpower later in their careers make interesting cameos in this book. In 1913, prior to having any flight experience, Capt. William “Billy” Mitchell testified to a House Committee that aircraft would be of most use for reconnaissance against large units and that aircraft should remain under the Army Signal Corps as “The offensive value of [the airplane] has not been proved.” When Mitchell eventually takes up flying in 1916, we learn that several sources describe his student flying as “erratic.” We also learn about Second Lieutenant Henry “Hap” Arnold’s aviation training in 1911 with Orville and Wilbur Wright and his continued involvement with airpower during this time.

In summary, I found this “serving of spinach” to be fascinating and delightful and look forward to consuming more vegetables in the future. Reading this book also reminded me that many challenges which delay the integration of new military technology persist even today. My personal research over the past two decades has included a range of issues around remote and autonomous systems. Questions about where such systems should reside on the organisational charts, what level of funding new systems should receive, how to doctrinally employ new technology and what training operators of these systems should receive endure to this day and answers aren’t being developed quickly. Let’s all hope that we can do more than just “observe” the historic lessons captured in Burke’s history to help better incorporate new technologies like space, cyber and autonomous systems. Should major conflict erupt in the Indo-Pacific over the coming years, we simply can’t afford to find ourselves flat footed.

Carl Rhodes is founder of Robust Policy, a Canberra firm providing high-quality analysis and policy solutions. Previously, he served 25 years with RAND Corporation including a term as director of RAND Australia.


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