Allies in Air Power edited by Steven Paget; Educating Air Forces edited by Randall Wakelam, David Varey, & Emanuele Sica

Four editors working for the Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies have developed a spellbinding format for evaluating the past, present, and future value of military air power. They have put together two books that resemble think tanks of facts and opinions from twenty-two authorities about the worldwide efficacy of airpower. In essence, the two books bond practical and educational approaches to air war.

In Allies in Air Power: A History of Multinational Air Operations (University Press of Kentucky, 314 pp. $70, hardcover; $52.99, Kindle), editor Steven Paget ties together case studies written by ten scholars and himself about coalition performances of air forces around the world. The essays, he says, “predominant[ly] focus on the experience of Western forces, not least because of the frequency with which they have engaged in multinational endeavors.”

Paget is the University of Portsmouth’s director of academic support services at Royal Air Force College Cranwell in the UK, and a member of the editorial board of Air and Space Power Review. In dissecting coalition operations, he follows a historical course that differed from what I expected. His subject matter often parallels the fringes of major events, which opened my mind to situations of which I had no knowledge. All of the entries definitely held my attention.         

The most pragmatic essay in Allies in Air Power is Paget’s detailed analysis of the Royal Australian Air Force Canberra bombers in the Vietnam War which illustrates the pros and cons of coalition operations, in this case with the U.S. Air Force.

Both the Australians and Americans made drastic changes to facilitate cohesion, Paget explains. The Canberra’s drawbacks—an inability to dive bomb, a complicated level bombing pattern, and restrictions against bombing Laos or Cambodia—were offset by its four hours of on-target loiter time and its ability to drop a stick of bombs singly and in pairs at extremely low levels with pinpoint accuracy.

Extensive tactical changes by RAAF Canberra crews and USAF FACs made the bombers highly desired close support aircraft. From 1967-71, the RAAF also used squadrons of Iroquois helicopters and Caribou transports in Vietnam. Although they depended on the USAF for their basic needs, the Aussies nevertheless maintained independence by paying their own way for everything, particularly for rations, fuel, and bombs. Mutual respect sealed the partnership.

Allies in Air Power also includes an essay on the ill-fated coalition between the Royal Air Force and the French Air Force (l’Armee de l’Air) in 1940 and the drastically one-sided pact between the Royal Hungarian Air Force and the Luftwaffe during World War II. These examples confirm that even at high levels personalities have an impact on relationships.  

Paget’s selection of articles about the first Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War could serve as a training manual for coalition operations. Basically, all participants in the operations had a voice and contributed the most they could. The value of combined air power was virtually incalculable. However, the main point is that “the widely differing social, cultural, and religious perspectives of various partners that colored and influenced day-to-day operations and relations” are always a challenge in coalition warfare.

In Educating Air Forces: Global Perspectives on Airpower Learning (University Press of Kentucky, 254 pp. $70, hardcover; $52.99, Kindle), three editors—Randall Wakelam, David Varey, and Emanuele Sica—present the writings of a dozen eminent international military leaders and scholars. Their thesis is that “an understanding of air power education would enhance aviators’ abilities to develop the intellectual capability and capacity of their particular service.”

The three editors possess a wealth of university teaching experience. They present concise histories of past and present “education philosophy and practice” predicated on events from the interwar years, the Cold War, and post-Cold War. By citing experts, they solidify the “logical link between education programs and the development and transmission of air power concepts and practices to members of the profession among European and English-speaking nations.”

Educating Air Forces also offers lessons that broadened my knowledge. From the traditional thinking of in “Giulio Douhet and the Influence of Air Power Education in Interwar Italy” to the near-revolutionary theories of “Square Pegs in a Round Hole: John Boyd, John Warden, and Airpower in Small Wars,” I enjoyed reading everything the book offered. New wars and new types of warfare demand rethinking about what the military too frequently accepts without question.

The experts in Educating Air Forces begin by examining the early development of military-run schools in the United Kingdom, Italy, and France. They go on to note that secret German Luftwaffe programs and training that stressed joint operations were the best approach—one that led to the overwhelmingly successful 1941-45 Stuka-Panzer blitzkrieg. English, Canadian, and Australian military historians describe their services’ approaches to education over the years.  

The book emphasizes the United States’ delays in forging air education schools because of struggles between generals and differences of opinions among politicians. Today, the U.S. Air Force has an array of sophisticated schools for officers of all ranks. The book makes a good case for civilian-run schools that teach graduate-level military history courses to investigate “war and society.”

The book examines the classic issues of “strategic versus tactical employment of forces” and the differences between large and small wars. The arguments come full circle by emphasizing famed Gen. Billy Mitchell’s idea that “the airplane’s role in war is the product of decision-making peculiar to each state.” To be blunt, reading Educating Air Forces left me with the impression that after a century of military air operations, the best approach to teaching its history is still highly debatable.

Separating theory and practice has always been a formidable task. In the early 1960s, I was both a student and faculty member at squadron Officer School and Air Command and Staff College. Many times, I questioned exactly what we were teaching our students and why.

–Henry Zeybel

Night Hunters by William P. Head

William P. Head’s Night Hunters: The AC-130s and Their Role in U.S. Air Power (Texas A&M University Press, 440 pp., $60, hardcover; $23, paper)  is an excellent read for those unfamiliar with the history of Air Force gunships.

The book explains the evolutions of the AC-47 and AC-119, along with the history of the AC-130. Head, who runs the 78th Air Base Wing Office of History at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, emphasizes the efforts of ASD, WRAMA, and contractors to make the AC-130 a long-lived rather than stopgap weapon system. Consequently, AC-130 aficionados and war lovers might view Night Hunters as half of a book because of its long sections devoted to politics and economics rather than concentrating on AC-130 combat operations.

The chapters titled “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and “Recent Events, Modifications, and Policy Decisions” are the heart of the story because they examine the complicated pros and cons about the AC-130’s roles. Head’s account of the battle for Fallujah contains a depth of detail that forces the reader to reconsider the validity of the AC-130 as a close-air-support weapon.

His storytelling brings to life AC-130 crewmen and troops on the ground and dramatically emphasizes their interdependence. These two chapters make the reader question the AC-130’s future and its effectiveness in the past.

The book’s first half presents a fixed-wing gunship history through the Vietnam War; its second half deals with AC-130 history from the 1975 Mayaguez incident to the present. Rather than using background information from his own voluminous gunship writing, Head  frequently cites Jack S. Ballard’s Development and Employment of Fixed-Wing Gunships, 1962-1972. Along with Ballard’s work, Head relies heavily on the 78th Air Base Wing History Archives, as well as records from the base’s Air Logistics Center and the Air Material Area.

By telling the stories of the 1972 Battle of An Loc and post-Vietnam War operations such as Urgent Fury in Granada, Just Cause in Panama, Desert Storm, and Provide Relief in Somalia, Head shows how the AC-130 went from from truck-busting to primarily close-air-support missions. His description of the Granada invasion provides enough U.S. misadventures to qualify as a scenario for a Gilbert and Sullivan opera—and he delivers it straight faced.

William P. Head

To better fulfill the promise of the book’s subtitle, greater elaboration of aircrew experiences might have provided a clearer understanding of AC-130 combat strengths and weaknesses. Other than speaking with two generals who had once piloted gunships, Head did not interview any other AC-130 crewmen. I view this omission as the book’s biggest weakness.

Interviews of crewmen might have helped to calculate more accurately the AC-130’s role in U.S. air power. I also find it disconcerting that when discussing minor combat operations, Head simply says the AC-130 performed its usual roles without adding details.

For example, he mentions AC-130 deployment to South America to fight drug dealers but gives no factual support. Similarly, he lists sophisticated equipment such as the AN/AAQ-17 IDS/FLIR—which he describes as “one of the most accurate high-tech devices ever conceived”—but fails to explain the operational advantage it provides.

As a former Spectre fire control officer and sensor operator, I believe crewmen deserve more credit than Head gives them for their influence on the development of AC-130 systems and tactics, particularly during the Vietnam War.

In more ways than one, the AC-130 mission was a fly-by-night endeavor from 1966-71. Combat missions doubled as training missions. New equipment that even tech reps did not know how to operate was tested and perfected under fire. Crewmen originated tactics through trial and error and passed them on by word of mouth.

It wasn’t until 1971 that a self-appointed, ad hoc trio of navigators at Ubon Air Base in Thailand wrote the first AC-130 tactics manual. The haphazard approach worked because during those early years mainly lieutenant colonels and majors who had spent most of their careers in C-130s piloted Spectre gunships. Their skillful flying accounted for the high—yet often questioned—truck count.

They deserve interviews because they set the standard.

—Henry Zeybel