Summary: As we increasingly rely on projecting power from the air, it’s become more important to understand the history and future of airpower. As with any aspect of the military arts, we first turn to Martin van Creveld, who has written 22 books about almost every significant aspect of war — technology, logistics, air power and maneuver warfare, the training of officers, the role of women in combat, military history (several books), nuclear proliferation, and strategy (several books). Today we republish a review from the Marine Corps Gazette of his latest book.
- Review of The Age of Air Power by Martin van Creveld
- About the reviewer
- Other posts about the work of Martin van Creveld
- Other posts about airpower
(1) The review
The Age Of Air Power by Martin van Creveld (2011), reviewed by Scott J. Kinner (Major, USMC, Retired), originally published in the Marine Corps Gazette of November 2011. Republished here with their generous permission.
When Martin van Creveld speaks, people listen. His thoughtful works on military theory and history continually seek to challenge conventional wisdom. His insights and arguments are profound and substantial enough that even if one does not agree, they cannot be dismissed; they must be countered.
Van Creveld’s latest book, The Age of Airpower, is another such work. Arguably the most in-depth treatment of the subject available, Van Creveld not only addresses airpower in terms of both land- and seabased aviation, but also includes the space domain with its proliferation of ballistic missiles and satellites. Is so doing, he covers the role of airpower in conflicts from pre-World War I to Afghanistan.
Van Creveld seeks to demonstrate that airpower reached its high point in World War II and, relative to the promises of its proponents, is in a period of decline and increasing ineffectiveness. He argues that due to nuclear deterrence, conventional warfare amongst superpower competitors is extremely unlikely. But he points out that it is the anticipation of this type of conflict that drives airpower strategy and procurement in developed nations, resulting in dwindling airpower assets that are too expensive to maintain, that are too expensive to risk or lose in combat, and that are wholly ineffective against the types of actual conflicts encountered by today’s militaries.
Van Creveld is very effective in building a foundation for his central argument. It is hard not to sympathize with his questioning the utility of trying to locate handfuls of insurgents with a few hundred dollars of explosives using manned aircraft costing hundreds of millions of dollars in price, personnel, maintenance, and facilities. He points out that World War II fighter-bombers and dive-bombers were functionally as effective in destroying tanks, locomotives, and bridges as their modern counterparts, and at a fraction of the cost.
Despite a solid foundation, Van Creveld’s overarching argument regarding the overall decline of airpower is not convincing. Conventional deterrence, not just nuclear deterrence, is also important in giving peer states pause before launching proxy wars or limited operations. It is a critical component in reassuring allies and in dissuading hostile actions by nonnuclear states. While drones, satellites, and missiles have certainly altered the landscape and calculus of some types of manned flight, their presence and capabilities indicate that the role of airpower itself remains crucial. While the ability of precision munitions to be effective is beholden to properly finding and identifying the threat, the employment of tactical air at the small unit level remains a significant force multiplier regardless of the operational environment. Even Van Creveld admits that it would be foolish for a commander to undertake any operation of meaningful size without at least local command of the air.
The Age of Airpower does not necessarily convince one that the days of airpower are vanishing, but it expertly and effectively continues Van Creveld’s work of championing transformation, challenging militaries to think about what they are designed to do vice what they are actually doing — the threats they prepare for versus the threats they are actually facing and/or are likely to face. Certainly in this age of shrinking defense dollars, the role of airpower should be analyzed to ensure that it is providing the most efficiency in the most cost-effective manner. In this context, The Age of Airpower constitutes a must-read.
(2) About the reviewer
Scott J. Kinner (Major, USMC, Retired) is an operations analyst/doctrine writer for the Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group (MCTOG).
MCTOG provides advanced and standardized training in Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Operations, Combined Arms Training and Unit Readiness Planning at the Battalion and Regiment levels, and synchronizes doctrine and training standards in order to enhance combat preparation and performance of ground combat element units in MAGTF operations. See their website for details.
(3) Other posts about the work of Martin van Creveld
- The Essential 4GW reading list: chapter One, Martin van Creveld
- Valuable new insights about the culture of war… a preview – The Culture of War by Martin Van Creveld
- A history book to help us better understand our rapidly changing world — The Culture of War by Martin Van Creveld
- The Changing Face of War: Lessons of Combat, From the Marne to Iraq, by Martin van Creveld — one of the major books about 4GW
- Click here to see all posts about his work
To see links to other book reviews go to the FM Reference Page Books about geopolitics
(4) Other posts about Airpower
- “Filling the skies with Assassins” by Tom Engelhardt, 12 April 2009
- America’s dominance of the sky slowly erodes – inevitable or avoidable?, 22 September 2009
- The march of technology brings “The Forty-Year Drone War”, 26 January 2010
- James Bond is not just our hero, but the model for our geopolitical strategy, on the FM website, 18 May 2010
- America plays the Apollo Option: killing from the sky, Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired), 26 August 2010
- Killing Machines: Promises and Limits, 17 February 2011
- Cyberwar: a Whole New Quagmire – When the Drones Come To Roost, 8 October 2011