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.