Hankins on Black, 'Air Power: A Global History'

Jeremy Black
Mike Hankins

Jeremy Black. Air Power: A Global History. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016. 386 pp. $38.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4422-5096-3.

Reviewed by Mike Hankins (Kansas State University) Published on H-War (August, 2017) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

The field of air power history, much like the airplanes it studies, is in a state of fast evolution. Older works that focus almost entirely on the efficacy of air power have given way to a more diverse analysis, placing air power in a variety of broader contexts. These recent works tend to focus on narrow aspects of air power. For example, Mark Clodfelter’s Beneficial Bombing: The Progressive Foundations of American Air Power, 1917-1945 (2013) examines the relationship between bombing theory and the progressive era, while Brian D. Laslie’s The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam (2016) explores changing conceptions of warfighting in the US Air Force in the post-Vietnam period. Other scholars have attempted to create broader overviews of the history of air power, such as Robin Higham and John Andreas Olsen. The prolific Jeremy Black has added to this growing discussion with Air Power: A Global History. The book is an attempt to examine how air power has been used by minor powers; explore air power’s political dimension; and incorporate the roles of naval air power, ground and logistical support, transport, and air mobility into an overall conception of air power.

Black’s central argument seems to be that “air power has confirmed, not challenged, the overall ranking of military strength, even if it has not enabled that strength to operate as effectively as had been proclaimed and as might have been anticipated.” Furthermore, air power “has greatly changed global reach capabilities, but it has not changed the way the global system operates politically nor radically altered the concentration of military capabilities” (p. 319). This idea—that air power has caused drastic changes, but not revolutionary ones, and that air power is now an essential part of conflict, but that it has not changed how we conceptualize or engage in conflict—is hardly novel. Benjamin S. Lambeth came to similar conclusions in The Transformation of American Air Power (2000), as did Charles J. Gross in American Military Aviation: The Indispensable Arm (2002), neither of which are cited. Although Black is not necessarily treading new ground, the book is valuable mostly for its broad pool of wide-ranging examples that make the book feel more global, as well as its summation of the existing literature. Thus, the work is best presented as an introduction for nonspecialists.

Black approaches air power with a few framing devices. First, he employs an action-reaction dialectic for understanding the progression of air power doctrine and technology. This observation is a common theme among numerous air power historians. A variety of air power historians, including Kenneth Werrell, Marshall Michel, Craig Hannah, and me, have all employed, if not explicitly named, an action-reaction model. Black also emphasizes changing goals and conceptions of air power over time. As he asks, “Is an enemy a network of systems that can be bombed, or is war primarily a matter of imposing will on the enemy through very human elements of combat that can only be brought to bear on the ground? In short, is it about pure physical destruction or, psychologically, about subjugating the enemy’s will?” (p. 5).

Black stresses that air power was global almost from its origins, and his early chapters are most useful when they explore air power as an extension (and instrument) of imperialism. After noting the first military use of aircraft in the Italian-Turkish War of 1911, Black explores how imperial powers in the early twentieth century employed air power as a means of pacification, such as in French Morocco, first in 1911 and later in 1913, which was the first use of incendiary bombs. In 1912, the British had already begun combining air and naval power. Most world powers at that time conceived of air power as a reconnaissance tool, but clearly as part of a combined-arms approach. Even before the outbreak of the First World War, global discussions of air power included modern-seeming concepts, such as air superiority and the strategic effects of bombing.

Most chapters are organized around specific large conflicts. Understandably, the longest is on the Second World War. Black considers the war from multiple angles, including a somewhat typical operational overview of major battles, but he does not neglect discussing the ethics involved in strategic bombing as well as the development of atomic weapons. Some readers may find his survey approach too brief, although his citations prove a useful guide to more in-depth reading. His discussion of the Japanese surrender is especially thin, failing to mention the Russian invasion of Manchuria as a possible influence on the decision. The strength of this section, however, is Black’s emphasis on how the war introduced air power into many allied nations and thus became the backbone (or at least an important element) of militaries around the world, regardless of their size. Black is right to point out that the ability of a nation to field air weapons is limited because of the high cost, wide logistical support, and extensive training necessary to maintain them. This theme carries over into the remainder of the book and becomes more prevalent as time moves forward.

Black divides the Cold War into three periods, the first dividing point being the Cuban Missile Crisis. Black argues that after this crisis, nations poured more resources into nuclear missiles as opposed to bomber aircraft, and the United States shifted toward the doctrine of “flexible response” as an alternative to President Dwight Eisenhower’s “tripwire” approach. This encouraged a more diverse array of aircraft than the early Cold War period. The second breaking point for Black is 1976, after which, he argues, détente broke down as both the United States and the Soviet Union began significant rearmament in the Leonid Brezhnev and Ronald Reagan eras. Although clearly these are logical points of periodization regarding the superpowers of the time, it is less clear that these are “global” breaking points in conceptualizing air power. For example, other countries, such as Israel and Pakistan, seem to have embraced a more tactical-centered approach to air power earlier than the United States did, as seen in the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War and the 1967 Six-Day War.

Any broad discussion of the history of air power should spend considerable time on the Vietnam War, and Black certainly does. Most of his analysis repeats points made well by Earl H. Tilford Jr.’s Crosswinds: The Air Force’s Setup in Vietnam (2009) and Mark Clodfelter’s The Limits of Airpower: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (2006); strangely he only cites the former in its unpublished dissertation form, and the latter is surprisingly absent from the citations in this chapter. Black emphasizes that the United States was not prepared for the type of warfare it encountered in Vietnam and proceeded with an air force of interceptors and bombers designed for war against the Soviet Union. Despite efforts at “flexible response,” the United States was ill-equipped for close air support (CAS), interdiction, and air-to-air missions. Outside of these arguments, Black’s interpretations might seem controversial to some historians. Black criticizes the USAF for only using fighter-bombers instead of larger dedicated bombers to attack Hanoi. This is a strange argument, as bombing of targets in Hanoi (which began as early as 1965) were against specific military targets, which called for the increased precision of the smaller craft. Larger “morale” bombing against Hanoi did not begin until 1972, and in that case, by massive B-52 bombers. It is unclear if Black is suggesting that more massive bombing earlier could have ended the war sooner. If so, that conclusion is problematic given the worry of Soviet and/or Chinese intervention before 1972. Black also insists that late in the war, “air power acted as a substitute for troops [and] made up the difference as the Americans reduced their force numbers in South Vietnam, and provided a key context in which a compromise peace could be negotiated. Air power had not led to American victory, but it played a major role in preventing defeat” (p. 201). Many scholars might take issue with this interpretation, as the degree to which air power can “substitute” for troops is highly debatable, and many find it difficult to see Vietnam as anything but an American defeat.

Black’s Cold War discussion is most useful when discussing the period in a broader international context. He correctly points out that air power technology itself became a sort of currency for both superpowers to attempt to win over third world countries or strengthen allies around the globe. Thus, many nations could build air forces, but by doing so, were implicitly (or explicitly) taking sides in the Cold War and also became attached to their chosen side’s system of armament, logistics, and doctrine. Black does a commendable job of going beyond the nations that are more familiar and frequently discussed in the literature (such as Israel, Egypt, and Vietnam) and broadening his examples to include often ignored national air forces of such countries as Singapore, India, and Malaysia.

One of the most dominant topics in any broad survey of air power revolves around the 1991 Gulf War and the concept of the alleged “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA). Black has addressed this issue before, most notably in War and Technology (2013). RMA is a hypothesis that certain moments in history have seen technological and doctrinal changes that fundamentally alter the conduct of war, requiring others to adopt certain technologies or doctrines. The discussion of RMA usually centers around the 1991 Gulf War but has grown to include other topics.[1] Black agrees with the concept of RMA; he believes that an RMA did occur, but he is careful to place strict limits on how “revolutionary” it was. He argues that John Warden’s theory of bombing the “five rings” of an enemy to strategically incapacitate them (sometimes cited as a key element of RMA) was only partially used in 1991 but more fully implemented in the 1999 bombings in Yugoslavia. Yet Black emphasizes that it is easy to overstate or exaggerate the ability to achieve strategic goals, even when applying Warden’s theories and using such advanced technologies as stealth. In subsequent chapters, Black further clarifies the limits of RMA by correctly pointing out that in post-9/11 conflicts, air power struggled to find an application in counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare, and that in many ways, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 refuted, if not invalidated, the very idea of RMA.

Black is ultimately successful and convincing in his argument that “the hopes of its advocates were frequently misplaced, notably in terms of outcomes or political consequences, but air power has become both the key means of power projection and the most deadly and rapid form of delivering force at a distance” (p. 316). Indeed, although Air Power offers new insights about the global reaches and dynamics of air power, many of its arguments are quite familiar to specialists. One reason for this is that Black keeps to secondary sources, citing few primary documents. Nevertheless, Black offers readers a concise historical context to understand air power scholarship. Air Power serves as a helpful entry point for students, young scholars, or general readers. Despite some minor flaws, it is a fine addition to Black’s large and growing oeuvre.


[1]. The literature on RMA is extensive, and many air power historians address it in some form. Two useful overviews and critiques of the concept include Stephen Biddle, Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006); and Thomas G. Mahnken, Technology and the American Way of War since 1945 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

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In his review Mr. Hankins "follows the crowd" in discussing the role of airpower in the Vietnam War. He takes issue with the author, Jeremy Black's, assertion that “air power acted as a substitute for troops [and] made up the difference as the Americans reduced their force numbers in South Vietnam, and provided a key context in which a compromise peace could be negotiated. Air power had not led to American victory, but it played a major role in preventing defeat.” I believe, however, that Black was essentially correct in this judgment.

While Mr. Hankins is also correct that Vietnam was undoubtedly an American defeat, it was not a defeat inflicted in 1972, when US airpower was decisive in defeating the "Easter Offensive" and forcing Hanoi to the table to accept a cease fire under the Paris Accords. When this offensive was launched early in 1972, all US combat troops had been withdrawn from South Vietnam, with the exception of a single brigade deployed around Da Nang airfield. Helicopters and advisors remained, supporting the ARVN. President Nixon reinforced US airpower with additional tactical fighter wings, Marine air groups, and aircraft carriers, all providing extensive close air support for the ARVN defenders, who held on to every major city. He also launched the Linebacker air campaign against North Vietnam and aerial mining of the approaches to Haiphong. After several months and mounting casualties Hanoi agreed to serious peace negotiations, realizing (as noted by historian Ronald Spector in his book _After Tet_, that they "had to get the US out of the war at any cost."

Shortly after the Paris Accords were signed and a cease fire went into effect, the US Congress began its investigation into the Watergate affair. The North Vietnamese leadership clearly heeded that old Sicilian proverb, "never stand in the way of your enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself." Only after President Nixon, the "mad bomber" of Linebacker II, was driven from office did Hanoi resume its march of conquest, and the US -- having slashed military aid to South Vietnam and passed the War Powers Act -- declined to honor Nixon's much-publicized "secret promise" to President Thieu of South Vietnam to reengage with US airpower if and when North Vietnam violated the Paris Accords. That was when we were defeated -- in 1975, when we remained on the sidelines as Hanoi conquered the South. When the Paris Accords were signed in January 1973 we were not defeated. I see no reason to change my belief that the Watergate affair was the decisive factor in the US losing the Vietnam War.

Ralph, am going to second, that air power was indeed a sub for ground forces; deliberately meant to cover troop withdrawal. A rough estimate is at least 3 divisions of US forces were able to leave behind its steel curtin as part of the overall Nixon withdrawal.

Will have to part company only slightly concerning the cause of US so called 'loss'. It was the Ford decision not to honor the secret agreement which knocked So. Vietnam out of the war. Now, they might have well had same result had US air re-involved, but that is all hypothetic in a world that never happened. The other cause, US, American people war weary with Vietnam and just wanting an end. Sometimes politicians must answer the people and their views. Many politicos were tired of it too; in fact, badly divided in the US political arena. As to the Vietnamese getting out of the way, they could not have stopped withdrawal. Nixon's mad option may or may not have been a ploy but his calculation showed him the honorable exit desired by insisting Vietnam's price for getting the US out would be too high if they did not. Indeed, So. Vietnam demonstrated after US, it did not have self-sustaining capabilities.

Wyatt, all true but I have to wonder, in November 1972 President Nixon won reelection by a massive margin over an explicitly antiwar candidate -- I cast my absentee ballot from Thailand, voting the second and last time for a Republican candidate -- does this not represent a failure of the antiwar movement, and the willingness of the American people to stay the course for "peace with honor?" Absent Watergate (the discovery of the burglary was a freakishly random event, I maintain), would Nixon not have remained on the pinnacle of his prestige? Would military aid to South Vietnam have been cut by 2/3, as it was in 1974?

My speculation is that if the hired thugs of CREEP had done a professional job taping the door between the Watergate garage and the building, the security guard would most likely never have noticed it. So, no conspiracy coming to light in 1973-74, and no inclination on the part of the Hanoi Politburo to renew the war with the "mad bomber" still riding high on a tide of public approval. The conquest of South Vietnam delayed until at least 1977, depending on who would inherit the presidency.

OK, I sometimes lean toward the counterfactual, the whimsical, non-deterministic view of history. Things don't absolutely have to happen the way they did. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand? Ludicrously random. No "guns of August," no world war, no Russian revolution, no USSR. The fact that CIA knew in early 2000 the identities of two al-Qaeda terrorists enroute to the USA, but did not share that information with the FBI? Tracking their movements and phone records, the whole crew of 19 could have been quietly rounded up. No 9/11. No invasion of Iraq, perhaps.

Oh, well, back to the real world. I think eventually we would have lost the Vietnam War, failing to reengage when the time came for Hanoi's final push, and the "mad bomber" was in honorable retirement, planning his Presidential Library. Americans happy about "peace with honor" were still getting tired of the war, for sure. I was tired and a bit disillusioned when I came home.

Being in Siam[Thailand of course] there were events in DC which may not have made the news where you were. As we know events from anywhere can affect what might happen somewhere else.........witness Barcelona, Spain today and Charlotte, Virginia a few days ago now.

What did happen however, like so often, tells something about possible changes or historical events about to happen. Yes, the antiwar move failed in 72. Poor Sen. McGovern, distinguished a flyer from WW II, took it on the chin; part of the outcome of Democrats split over Vietnam which opened Nixon's door in 68. That antiwar movement was ahead of its time only briefly cause as you recall Nixon had a secret plan to end the war, so he said. It turned out to be propaganda to get him elected. By 72, his promise to withdraw however was policy. As early as 1969, plans were in the works for an
opening to China which would help to alleviate
Vietnam conflict and US politics. But that did not make the press even though it was known publicly in some places. What was not known until almost the last, Nixon would go himself!

Watergate pretty much sank Nixon's boat after China. He had possible making of a truly great Presidency and yes, was cashed out by his own domestic paranoia[what else?] over politics and electioneering. Already, there were rumblings in the Senate about Vietnam and deep division over remaining also.

As to cutting mil aid in 74, by 1970 cuts in Defense staffing were already taking place due to plans for phase out of Vietnam. This had been taking place that soon before the 72 elections. It probably would have continued until 77 and how anyone would have inherited after that..........well, Nixon wanted to be the peacemaker for his historical record. He did get that but threw his place in history away over politics at home[US]. Vietnam was lost cause Vietnamese never proved themselves able to stand up against North Vietnam without the US. Sovs and China continued to support the North.
Nixon got his stalemate to work his peace efforts.
But Democracy lost out in Vietnam as a free country not under Communist rule.

It wouldn't have made much difference once Nixon and US decided to withdraw and leave history to take its course without a US presence. That may be his most important service to America.