Aerial power reigns over us

March 22, 1996

Enthusiasts for air power have tended to overstate their case ever since the Wright brothers first offered the prospect of taking warfare into the third dimension. Armies had always sought the advantage of the high ground and the power of long-range weapons. Aircraft could give both whenever required. Much has been written in this century that has helped develop ideas for future air warfare by anticipating new technology. Unfortunately the technologies rarely delivered the capabilities predicted by their advocates; and, as importantly, the cost of new air systems has been orders of magnitude greater than the land battle weapons.

Yet if the history of 20th-century warfare teaches anything, it is that control of the air is vital for success. Winston Churchill was aware of this from the earliest days, and summed it up in 1949: "For good or ill, air mastery is today the supreme expression of military power. And fleets and armies, however necessary and important, must accept subordinate rank. This is a memorable milestone in the march of man."

Given the changing balance in importance between the different arms of the military, the need for air forces to carve out an increasingly large slice of military spending, and the exaggeration of air capabilities, it is scarcely surprising that air forces throughout the world have had a difficult time with their sister services. John Gooch's collection of essays, predominantly by American military academics, deals with these interservice difficulties as much as with the theory and practice of air power. It is an unusual mix of pieces with some new ground covered in a well-trodden field. The chapter on Alexander de Seversky, who co-opted Disney to explain air power to the world, is a fascinating story about this obsessive proponent of the new method of warfare.

French, German and British air power development is all covered in the first half of the book. An analysis of the Allied bombing campaign in the second world war comes to the conclusion that the differences between the USAAF precision bombing and the RAF area bombing were more semantic than actual.

The final essay looks at a very specific question: how effective is the strategic targeting of electric power systems? After looking at examples from 1914 to 1991, it concludes that it will not achieve national collapse single-handedly, but is a viable and useful option for strategic air attack in the future. The more measured predictions of where air power fits into a nation's joint operations is a good sign that the theorists have learned some lessons from the past.

Air Marshal Sir Timothy Garden is former commandant, Royal College of Defence Studies, and a former assistant chief of the air staff.

Airpower: Theory and Practice

Editor - John Gooch
ISBN - 0 7146 4657 1 and 4186 3
Publisher - Frank Cass
Price - £30.00 and £16.00
Pages - 6

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