Macfarlane on Haun and Jackson and Schultz, 'Air Power in the Age of Primacy: Air Warfare since the Cold War'

Phil M. Haun, Colin Jackson, Timothy Paul Schultz, eds. Air Power in the Age of Primacy: Air Warfare since the Cold War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022. 336 pp. $34.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-108-98475-1.

Reviewed by Bryant Macfarlane (Kansas State University)
Published on H-War (May, 2023)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

In 2016, Phil M. Haun, Colin F. Jackson, and Timothy P. Schultz, all of the United States Naval War College, encountered a dearth in quality and quantity of the historiography of air power in conflict since the end of the Cold War, prompting the collection of essays in Air Power in the Age of Primacy: Air Warfare since the Cold War. The editors selected nine authors from a diverse array of advanced professional military education institutions and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose personal experience with air power operations provides an intimacy with the subject not often found in academic publications. Ten case study essays were delivered at a Contemporary Air Wars Workshop at the United States Naval Warfare College in 2019. Feedback from technical experts and historians allowed these essays to be finely honed for publication. Collectively, the authors effectively argue that in the age of primacy, air power, “an instrument billed as an independent means of achieving inexpensive, political victories[,] remained maddeningly shackled to events and complexities on the ground” (p. 297).

Air Power in the Age of Primacy is presented as ten case study essays sandwiched between a primer on air power theory and a synthesized recapitulation of lessons learned across the ten case studies. Collectively these two essays reflect some of the same critiques of military strategy and planning offered by Kevin Benson, Anthony Schinella, Brian D. Vlaun, and Brian Laslie.[1] This seeming continuity of the demonstrated limits of air power to achieve its military and political effectiveness only helps to reinforce the inferred argument that asymmetry of air power in the age of primacy has afforded dominant powers the ability to go to war without a cohesive strategy, over non-vital interests, and with a promise of low cost and risk. This, according to Haun, “may influence short-sighted leaders to discount the long-term costs of occupation or the externalities associated with failed states” (pp. 19-20).

The rest of the work is effectively divided into three noncontiguous thematic groupings. Each of the studies presented is fully capable of standing alone. However, a more universal understanding of the limitations of air power in the modern era is undoubtedly made through the totality of the studies presented. Case studies on technology—including discussions of unmanned or remotely piloted aerial vehicles (UAV/RPAs); precision targeting and delivery; and networked intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR)—are presented in chapters 2, 4, and 7. These case studies examine operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, the Balkans, and Israel. Collectively these case studies demonstrate that due to increased domestic pressure within states to keep costs and risks low, massive technological investments have been made to allow air forces to operate at altitudes of between ten thousand and thirty thousand feet. While operations at such altitudes reduce the threats to aircraft from small arms, light antiaircraft, and infrared man-portable air defense systems, the safety of such operations has allowed for increased levels of military and political oversight, which results in more efforts to create artificial limits on offensive, suppression of enemy air defense, and close air support operations, limiting the potential effectiveness of air power operations.

Chapters 3, 5, and 6 delve into the discontinuity between air and land operations to produce the desired military and political effects. These case studies examine air operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq. These case studies effectively argue that air power success largely depends on a capable ground force. Without such a ground force, the enemy can focus solely on the air threat. Even if an enemy force can be effectively destroyed through an air offensive, the lack of a complementary ground force significantly reduces the stability and order of a postwar state. The final chapters—8, 9, 10, and 11—focus on the political effectiveness of air power as a coercive element in achieving political effectiveness through case studies in Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. While arguing that air power effectively achieved limited strategic objectives in these studies, they also demonstrate that enemy governments or non-state actors were resilient and capable of quickly replacing losses.

While these excellent chapters communicate the intent behind the volume, the arguments are best understood when the reader is familiar with the doctrinal and technical realms of air power practices. The editors have provided a list of abbreviations, but these are presented without definition, making the volume less accessible to the general reader. However, to those specialist readers, the case studies within are certainly stimulating and worthy of contemplation and discussion. Thus, Air Power in the Age of Primacy fittingly offers new perspectives for specialists by writers experienced with the leading edge of air power operations in the modern post-Cold War era.


[1]. Kevin Benson, “Goodbye, OODA Loop,” Armed Forces Journal (October 2011): 26-30; Anthony Schinella, Bombs without Boots: The Limits of Airpower (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2019); Brian D. Vlaun, Selling Schweinfurt: Targeting Assessment and Marketing in the Air Campaign against German Industry (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2020); and Brian Laslie, Air Power’s Lost Cause: The American Air Wars of Vietnam (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).

Citation: Bryant Macfarlane. Review of Haun, Phil M.; Jackson, Colin; Schultz, Timothy Paul, eds., Air Power in the Age of Primacy: Air Warfare since the Cold War. H-War, H-Net Reviews. May, 2023.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.


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(Not sure this new format works but attempting to post a query here.) Here, day to day now, all talk is about impacts of technology through new efforts of artificial intelligence -- AI.

Wonder, and is likely true, if this revolution is every bit as important as the Manhattan Project proved to introduce the new nuclear age in military history.

Have historians started working on the marriage of AI to nuclear weapons, military history, and strategy in thinking about AI and nuclear weapons? Would expect others are doing so already.

Regarding:  "Have historians started working on the marriage of AI to nuclear weapons, military history, and strategy in thinking about AI and nuclear weapons?"

I assume by this you mean nuclear weapons controlled and/or launched by AI?  I don't see that happening anytime in the foreseeable future.  Currently, US law requires two commissioned officers to make the decision to launch / release nuclear weapons.  I can't imagine Congress changing this to permit AI.  

Mike Taint Lt Colonel, USAF (Ret)