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Routledge Handbook of Air Power: A Review – Peter Layton

Olsen, John Andreas (ed.) 2018, Routledge Handbook of Air Power, 1st edition, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, London; New York.

Air power is a big topic and this is a big book. The Routledge Handbook of Air Power features some thirty well-researched, cutting-edge essays written by highly-regarded experts in their particular specialist areas within the broader air power field.  Before delving deeper however, lets address the ‘elephant in the room’, the big price: A$304.10 in hardback.  While that might be affordable only by major aircraft manufacturers and some wealthy libraries, don’t write the book off prematurely. The e-book version is priced at a much more reasonable A$56. This is fortunate as the Handbook is well-worth acquiring for reading now and reference later.

The Handbook is divided into five sections, six essays in each. Part One presents the essentials of air power including theory, history and international law. Part Two focuses on air power roles and functions, most usefully including command and control and logistics. Part Three addresses applying air power cross-domain and moves beyond simply traditional joint service aspects into cyber, space and interagency. Part Four generically examines the broad strategic context featuring diverse aspects such as industry, media and popular culture, and cost. Part Five completes the book by looking at air power in its national context through six country-based case studies.

Section Five in itself shows the care taken in the book’s design. A potential criticism is that the Handbook takes a rather American/ Western European centred view of air power but Part Five adroitly surmounts this. Rather than focusing on ‘the usual suspects’ such as the US and larger NATO air forces, this part features case studies that insightfully examine air power in Russia, China, Japan, India, Pakistan and Brazil. For this reviewer, the later was particularly interesting, in concerning an emerging great power in what the country’s strategic documents consider a ‘relatively pacific’ region. For Brazil, this means its development of air power must be ‘directly connected to a strategy for [national] development.’ (p.352)

The book’s editing is particularly noteworthy. Being a book editor is roughly akin to ‘herding cats’, and this is a book with thirty cats. John Andreas Olsen is well known as an editor of air power books and in the Handbook he admirably displays his excellence in this demanding task. The thirty essays have been melded together into a coherent whole, each is readily understandable including by readers not expert in this field, and the written style across the entire book is wonderfully consistent. The editing has most definitely value-added and made the book more than the sum of its parts.

In looking across the essays there is a perhaps surprising level of confidence in air power and what it brings. This seems to be because many of the essays discuss concepts based on practical examples from the post-Cold War era whereas most other air power books accent air power in the first half of the 20th Century. In the post-Cold War era air power came of age initially with precision attack and then later with persistence. While much air power writing on the bookshelves is then mainly historical, the Handbook breaks fresh ground in concentrating on contemporary air power and its capabilities.

The Handbook asserts that in the present era air power has generally been able to do what was asked of it whether in the 1991 Gulf War (p.14), the 1995 Bosnian campaign (p.233), the 1991-2003 No Fly Zones (p.90), the 1999 Kosovo War (p.98-99), the 2001-2002 Afghanistan intervention (p.100), the 2003 Iraq invasion (p.101) or the 2011 Libya operation (p.268). Without air power these wars would have been very different in terms of strategies, forces used, tactics employed and outcomes. Indeed the arguments and evidence presented in the various essays suggests that air power is significantly shaping the character of war in the modern era. Olsen cautions however that ‘although air power is now strategically essential, it is not a panacea and it is not risk free.’ (p.373)

Not all have such confidence in air power. There have been disappointments during land operations in Afghanistan and Iraq that some seek to attribute to air power. For example, some British Army officers in Afghanistan in 2006 considered the then target identification capabilities of the RAF’s Harriers inadequate.(p.161) While Alan Stephens writes (p.33) that General H.R. McMaster ascribes the US Army’s counter-insurgency shortcomings during the 2000s to the 1921 strategic bombing writings of the Italian air power thinker Giulio Douhet. As Stephens points out, such an eminent soldier-scholar as McMaster making such a ‘bizarre assertion’ (Podcast 28:22-28:40) highlights that educating all involved in the business of making war about air power remains an ongoing challenge. Air power may have come of age but not all have noticed or understand the implications. With modern air power strategically essential, the Handbook has a real warfighting purpose in that regard.

With that acknowledgment though the Handbook perhaps unintentionally reveals some blind spots present-day air power thinkers may have. This is noticeable in three specific areas. Firstly, there is almost a complete absence of electronic warfare, a crucial element of air power in the modern era even if it has waxed and waned in some air forces. This absence is even more surprising as the Handbook most innovatively includes an excellent chapter on air power and cyber.

Secondly, surface-to-surface missiles are entirely ignored. Since the V-2s of World War Two this technology has become increasingly important especially to non-Western militaries who see it as a way to offset shortcomings in their air force’s aircraft-based attack capabilities. While surface-to-surface missiles have long played an outsized role in the strike forces of the nuclear weapon powers, such weapon systems fitted with conventional warheads have been used in the 1980s War of the Cities, the 1991 Gulf War and today in Yemen. They are also an important element in today’s Chinese military force structure.

Lastly, surface-to-air missiles (SAM) are rarely noted, even in the Control of the Air chapter that nevertheless includes two pages on ballistic missile defence. SAMs form an important element in non-Western militaries and can have a strategic as well as tactical impact. Indeed, the development of modern air power has been significantly influenced by the progressive development of SAM systems. To a considerable degree, the two are interdependent.

The Routledge Handbook of Air Power is a most impressive work that astutely examines contemporary air power. The book’s overall breadth of coverage is noteworthy while each essay concisely and insightfully discuses its own specific carefully-chosen subject area.  The book offers much for defence policymakers, military professionals, academics and all concerned with deeply understanding air power in the modern era. Highly recommended.

Dr. Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. His PhD is in grand strategy and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. He is the author of the book ‘Grand Strategy’.


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