Martin van Creveld. The Age of Airpower. PublicAffairs. 512 Pages. $35.00.
Once in a while a book confers prophet status on its author: This was the case with the Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld’s The Transformation of War, which back in 1991 predicted that a proliferation of nonstate actors, militias, and terrorist groups would cause a revolution in warfare, and came eerily close to describing Osama bin Laden when speaking of the emergence of an “Old Man of the Mountains” sort of leader, inspiring blind loyalty from his fanatic followers. Thus van Creveld discarded traditional Clausewitzian doctrine according to which wars are won when a state destroys a rival nation’s army on the battlefield. As proved by the experiences of his own country with terrorist organizations like Hamas in the Gaza strip or Hezbollah in Lebanon, such notions had become useless against outfits whose whole strategy was one of avoiding open battle. Another van Creveld classic is Supplying War from 1977, in which the author takes up the essential but unheroic topic of logistics and shows how commanders neglect it at their peril. Both books became required reading for American officers.
Van Creveld is also known for his unpredictability and for his penchant for controversy: He created a stir in the 1980s by calling for a wall between the Israelis and the Palestinians, a security fence that has since been built and has been highly successful in keeping suicide bombers out. But oddly enough, he is not overly alarmed at the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, apparently regarding the Iranians as rational enough for deterrence to work. Lately, he has been on the rampage against feminists who are all gung ho about equality except when it came to sharing the dangers of war. In interviews, he at times comes off like an enfant terrible, throwing squibs under the skirts of elderly ladies. Various idiosyncrasies aside, he is one of the most stimulating military writers around, with a keen sense of the telling detail.
His new book, The Age of Airpower, traces the history and development of air war, the doctrines guiding it, where it has worked and where it hasn’t, the moral issues involved, and its future. Unlike the work of some of his colleagues, the book does not read like an f-15 repair manual: Rather than allowing himself to be sidetracked by all the technological wizardry of the subject, he focuses single-mindedly on effectiveness and costs. The result will no doubt cause heartburn among airpower lobbyists.
What he describes is an evolution in which the airplane has become so complicated and costly as to have priced itself out of existence. Instead of being churned out around the clock like their mass-produced World War II predecessors, van Creveld writes, today’s airplanes are “virtually hand crafted,” which increases costs and makes them impossible to replace in a hurry. Maintenance and storage have become equally problematic: The b-2 bomber, he notes, requires air-conditioned hangars big enough to handle its 172-foot wingspan. High costs in turn mean fewer airplanes and stretched out production times.
Historically, he sees the combination of overly complex technology, high costs, and small numbers as a sign of degeneration: Thus Athenian warships that originally had three rows of oars over time grew into ten-row monsters, which proved too hard to maneuver, and there were not enough of them. In medieval times, not many knights could afford the full suit of armor from the 1525 spring collection, and those who could had to be protected by an infantryman who van Creveld neatly compares to today’s air force “strike package” — i.e., the assistance offered by electronic warfare aircraft. In World War II, battleships proved all too vulnerable to air attack and were relegated to the unglamorous task of acting as gun platforms in support of U.S. amphibious landings. “Weapons or weapon systems that are too expensive and too few in number to be lost cannot be used in war,” van Creveld writes.
Today, he notes, alone among the world’s nations, the U.S. employs airpower in all its variety. But with a price tag of some $137.5 million per plane, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates decided the U.S. Air Force would receive only 187 f-22s, the f-15’s designated replacement, or less than 25 percent of the planned number. With combat aircraft “heading towards extinction,” they will be gradually replaced by cruise missiles, killer satellites, and unmanned aerial vehicles (uavs ), and he cites Afghanistan and Pakistan as having provided a glimpse of tomorrow’s automated battlefield, where the role of “the fighter jock will be taken over by the console operator.” At this point, the crashing sound you hear is said fighter pilot’s coffee pot hitting the wall.
Recognized as the weapon of the future, the airplane got its baptism by fire in World War I. Still in the early stages of development, its contribution was limited: It proved valuable in reconnaissance and artillery spotting, whereas the size of its bomb loads and the accuracy of its bombing left much to be desired. Used strategically in raids over Germany, it was useless: “Even in 1917, a bomb dropped from 10,000 feet, might easily miss by 3,000 feet,” writes van Creveld. “The result was harassment, not serious operation of war.”
On the front lines, it was equally ineffective against soldiers in their trenches. Thus air superiority did not help the Brits in their great push at the Somme in 1916, he notes. Only towards the end of the war, when the situation became a little more fluid, did it demonstrate its potential against troops caught out in the open.
From the start, van Creveld says, airpower was oversold by its advocates. Chief among the great theorists of the early interwar years was the Italian Giulio Douhet, whose The Command of the Air in 1921 stressed the need first to obtain air superiority, a job for the fighters, after which the bombers would take over, hammering enemy population centers: “Within a few minutes some 20 tons of high explosive, incendiary and gas bombs would rain down. By the following day, the life of the city would be suspended.” Convinced that no defense was possible against bomber attacks, Douhet believed future wars would be settled in the air alone.
In the U.S., Billy Mitchell staged his famous demonstration of the sinking of captured battleship Ostfriesland from the air, and the book quotes his testimony before Congress that navies would be unable to “resist attack from even an insignificant flock of airplanes.” In Winged Defense, he claimed that “the surface ship as a means of making war will gradually disappear,” and that “the mere threat of bombing a town by an air force will cause it to be evacuated and all work in munitions and supply factories will be stopped.”
Britain’s Hugh Trenchard, who commanded the Royal Flying Corps in France and became the first commander of the Royal Air Force, van Creveld describes as a “a practitioner rather than a theoretician” who shared his colleagues’ belief in bombing’s devastating impact on morale and who became the leading advocate for a beefed up bomber force. He differed from Douhet, though, by not believing that airpower could manage everything by itself: The navy and the army would still have roles to play.
As van Creveld notes, based on the work of these early prophets, each country would go on to develop its own doctrine or game plan.
The general public, for its part, was alarmed by Stanley Baldwin’s 1932 speech in the British Parliament, in which he informed the British voter that “there was no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed, whatever people may tell him. The bomber will always get through.” The mood was further darkened by the photos from the Spanish Civil War, showing the destruction wrought by the German Condor Legion and its Stuka dive bombers. Chamberlain’s appeasement policy was the end result.
World war II was the heyday of airpower, when the priorities set by the warring nations became observable in action. In Europe, the Germans, aware of their limited resources, needed the war to be over almost before it had begun and before its adversaries could muster their full strength. To pull off a quick and decisive battlefield win, their doctrine called for the Luftwaffe to act as close support for their ground forces, and in Poland their planes delivered a frighteningly effective demonstration of Blitzkrieg. As a result of their emphasis on the airplane as a tactical rather than a strategic weapon, “the Germans never developed a good heavy bomber,” writes van Creveld.
The Allies had chosen differently. Up through the 1930s, the Brits had favored the bomber, but with war all but certain, the imminent need was for fighters. Having survived the Battle of Britain, they switched back to bombers, and in 1941 introduced their most efficient strategic bomber, the Lancaster, that served for the duration. At the war’s beginning, their intent had been to hit only military targets, but the gloves were off after the German attack on Coventry. As their bombers could not get through during the day, the Brits switched to nighttime attacks and so-called area bombing — i.e., the bombing of cities. Only cities afforded them a target big enough to hit in the dark. Their aim was to create disillusion with the war among German civilians.
The U.S. likewise had emphasized bombers, but Douhet’s notion of targeting civilians was deemed un-American. Instead, the doctrine of daylight precision bombing was developed, which relied on being able to pinpoint key links and chokepoints in the enemy’s war production. Here the U.S. faced several problems: One was deciding what these crucial targets were, another was the German knack for industry dispersal. And the lack of accuracy entailed that American precision bombing came to look suspiciously like Brit area attacks. In fact, van Creveld notes, the Official History of the Army Air Forces in World War II admits as much.
Unlike its Western allies, and like the Germans but even more so, the Soviets focused almost exclusively on close air support of its ground forces, “remaining the most tactically oriented of all.” Only one heavy bomber in very small numbers was produced, carrying a limited bomb load, and used for symbolic effect over Berlin. Instead, they concentrated on fighters and ground attack support aircraft, and proved extremely aggressive in their close air tactics, the most risky of all operations. “Given the fact that three out of four Germans killed in WWII met their fate at the hands of the Red Army, perhaps Stalin’s choice was not so bad after all,” van Creveld writes.
Weighing it all up, “Bombing did not prove decisive in the sense of forcing Hitler and his government to surrender,” says van Creveld, nor did it cause the population to rebel. The same applied to Curtis le May’s fire bombings of Japan, where it took the atomic bomb to end the show. Controversy has ruled ever since about the ethics of bombing cities, with moral indignation seeming to increase the further away the objectors got from the actual events. For a long time, it should be remembered, this represented the only means the Brits had of striking back.
What bombing did achieve in Germany was to create major disruption and dislocation as ten percent of the population lost their homes, tying up some 1.2 million men in damage repair of roads and buildings, while 900,000 served in air defense itself. As important, van Creveld notes, from mid-1943, the daily and nightly American and British raids meant that the Luftwaffe’s main task now became the defense of the homeland, which greatly deprived Hitler’s troops of air cover on both fronts.
Allied airpower, involving fighters, fighter bombers, and even heavy bombers, thus proved crucial in the invasion of Normandy, where the allies owned the air. In facing an invasion, a defender would normally keep his tank reserves well back and only commit when it became clear where the opponent’s main thrust would fall; but Field Marshal Rommel wanted a defense at the water’s edge, arguing that the lack of aircover meant that the panzers would never make it through. Hitler, however, chose a muddled compromise, and Rommel’s fears came true. “By 1945, a situation had been established, both on land and sea, that no major military operation could take place in the face of hostile air power,” van Creveld writes.
The atomic bomb changed the rules of the game: “While nuclear power revolutionized airpower, it also put it into shackles.” The realization that this was a different kind of weapon ensured that only the president could authorize its use, reducing “the generals and admirals, those in charge of airpower more than anybody else, to jacks in gold-braided uniforms.” The bomb also meant that from 1945 onwards, “not once did two countries armed with nuclear weapons, or believed to be so armed, engage in more than border skirmishes.” This applied, he notes, even when one side enjoyed a massive nuclear advantage, as in the cases of Soviet Union over China and India over Pakistan.
However, there were quite a number of what van Creveld calls “little wars.” Of these, van Creveld cites the Six Day War as the most successful use of airpower in the post-World War II era: With her enemies in the final stages of war preparation, Israel beat them to the punch by launching a surprise attack on Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian airfields, cratering runways and destroying aircraft on the ground. Air superiority thus assured, the Israeli pilots could concentrate on assisting the ground forces in obtaining a crushing victory on all three fronts.
But as van Creveld notes, the nature of air combat was about to change: The technology behind the aircraft’s air-to-ground missile could also work the other way. In the ensuing War of Attrition, where the Egyptians would fire constant artillery barrages across the Suez Canal, their beefed up air defenses caused great headaches for the Israelis. “The Israelis were not defeated . . . [but] in sharp contrast to 1967, what many now saw as the world’s best air force failed to overcome the most powerful anti-aircraft defenses,” he writes, and quotes the former head of the Israeli air force Ezer Weizman: “The missile had bent the aircraft’s wing.”
In the Yom Kippur War, the Israeli air force did not match its 1967 performance. Promises extracted from Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir by the Nixon administration had ruled out preemption, and for a while, things looked hairy. The air force was used in panicky and haphazard fashion against enemy ground forces and air defenses. It managed to stop the Syrians on the Golan Heights, but Syrian missile defenses took a heavy toll. On the Egyptian front, it was Ariel Sharon’s tanks that saved the day, says van Creveld, rather than the Israeli air force.
The lesson derived from the war by the U.S. was that tactical air power was not to be best used at the front into the teeth of enemy aircraft defenses, but in deep strikes against enemy lines of communication, all of which found expression in the early 1980s doctrine known as AirLand Battle. A further refinement of U.S. doctrine was John Warden’s 1988 book The Air Campaign, which military analyst Edward Luttwak saw as having “revived the art of strategically intelligent targeting.”
In the Yom Kippur War, the Israeli air force did not match its 1967 performance. Promises extracted from Golda Meir by the Nixon administration had ruled out preemption, and things looked hairy.
Van Creveld outlines Colonel Warden’s Five Rings theory, according to which the center holds the enemy commander and his communications, then comes his power generation system followed by his infrastructure and his population, until you reach the outer ring consisting of his front-line troops. Instead of having to work from the outside in, having first to slog your way through his army, you start at the center, rendering him deaf and blind, whereby you paralyze the rest. The point, writes van Creveld, is “always thinking in terms not of individual targets, but of the effect that destroying them might have on the enemy as a whole.”
Thus new technology made possible parallel attacks, i.e., striking a number of vital targets simultaneously rather than attacking in serial fashion as in the past, where only one or two enemy targets could be addressed at a time. Writes Warden in his essay “The Enemy as a System”: “Parallel attacks deprive him of the ability to respond effectively, and the greater the percentage of targets hit in a single blow, the more nearly impossible his response, ” as their interaction sets off destructive dynamics of their own. Precision-guided munitions also mean you do not have to reduce the enemy’s cities to rubble.
Originally, the AirLand Battle and Warden’s book were directed against the Soviets and were meant to counter a blitzkrieg, Warsaw Pact-style offensive in Europe (though, as van Creveld notes, they did not address the intriguing question of what would prevent the conflict from going nuclear). What we got to fight instead was Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait. Iraq was an ideal adversary: It had the targets, and it had a conventional army.
Regarded as a maverick, as clever people often are, Warden was ordered back to the Pentagon by the Gulf War air commander Charles Horner, who resented Pentagon interference. But Warden’s was the conceptual basis used in the opening air campaign: command and control centers were hit in Bagdad while the Iraqi forces in Kuwait were ignored. “They appeared close to realizing Douhet’s vision concerning a victory won almost entirely from the air,” says van Creveld.
Van Creveld is a lot less impressed by the campaign against Serbia. “In so far as no nato ground forces or sea forces saw action, airpower was indeed decisive,” he writes, but the early bombings did little damage to the Serbian army, which had sought refuge in the forests, and did not prevent the ethnic cleansing units from going about their business. What made Milosevic finally give in is hard to tell. Van Creveld speculates it was a combination of the threat of ground forces combined with the end of Russian support.
Among what he calls “spurious” air force victories, he also counts the 2003 rematch against Saddam. In its conventional phase, proclaimed “a revolution in military affairs,” U.S. air and ground operations occurred simultaneously from the start, but the Iraqi air force had long ceased to represent a threat: Symbolic of its state was the fact that the Iraqis had taken some of their aircraft apart and buried them in the sand. Once the insurgency phase took over, U.S. airpower all but stopped playing a role.
Where airpower has decidedly not worked has been in low intensity conflicts, “wars among the people,” where the record has been one of “almost uninterrupted failure.” After World War I, fighting to keep his service independent, Hugh Trenchard launched the idea of air policing the British empire rather than using ground troops, waxing poetic about the air as “the greatest civilizing experience these countries have ever known.” Field Marshal Henry Wilson was less sanguine: “Aircraft appear from God knows where, drop their bombs on God knows what, and [go] off again God knows where.” In Palestine, T.E. Lawrence was equally skeptical: Airpower works fine in open countryside, but it is useless in villages and cities, he believed.
As van Creveld notes, the main problems of airpower are that it cannot hold ground and defend it, and it has trouble telling combatant from noncombatant.
The shortcomings of air war became painfully obvious in Vietnam, as the American involvement deepened. As van Creveld reminds us, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk initially stressed the political aspect of the conflict and warned against the civilian casualties resulting from large-scale air war, but they were overruled. Instead, President Johnson launched Rolling Thunder, “the longest operation in the history of the U.S. Air Force,” lasting for over three years.
By gradually ratcheting up the pressure, the idea was to convince the North Vietnamese to stop interfering in Southern affairs. Van Creveld defines such gradualism as an “attempt to influence the enemy’s behavior rather than break his will as traditional U.S. Air Force doctrine would dictate.” But the North Vietnamese were not ones for influencing, especially since Hanoi and the port city of Haiphong were considered off limits by the Johnson administration. Running out of fixed targets, American pilots were reduced to chasing tiny targets of opportunity: “a less effective use of airpower is hard to imagine.” In November 1968, a beaten Johnson called off Rolling Thunder.
The Nixon agenda was different: Peace with honor meant turning over the war effort to the South Vietnamese without being seen as abandoning an ally. Accordingly, Haiphong harbor was mined, and intensified U.S. bombing campaigns called Linebacker I and II prevented General Giap from launching a full-scale conventional assault on the south. Yet the North Vietnamese still proved unyielding .The Christmas bombing finally managed to make them sign the Paris Accords, which turned out to be a worthless piece of paper. “It showed that airpower used on its own and on an unprecedented scale could achieve political results . . . [but] only in a war . . . that had already been lost years before and was going to be lost anyhow.”
A standard complaint among Vietnam pilots is that the politicians lacked the required ruthlessness, and did not permit them to go for all-out victory. But as van Creveld points out, the French and Spanish were not exactly squeamish against the Riff rebels in Morocco, and neither was the Luftwaffe against Tito’s partisans in World War II Yugoslavia. In post-World War II Algeria, the French practiced the idea of collective responsibility, and in Afghanistan, the Soviets dropped anti-personnel mines to their hearts content; all this accomplished was to stiffen popular resistance.
As for the recent American efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, in the initial phases of both conflicts airpower had a role, but when they switched to insurgency it became “almost irrelevant.” Accordingly, van Creveld notes, under America’s new counterinsurgency doctrine, General Petraeus devoted only a small appendix to the subject and General Stanley McChrystal, in 2009, pretty much ruled out the use of fighter bombers in Afghanistan as defeating the purpose of the war.
Certain reservations remain: In some of his arguments, van Creveld seems to be charging an already open door. While it is true that in the past, resorting to airpower has often tempted politicians as a way of winning on the cheap, the whole point behind today’s notion of joint fighting is the realization that no service can win on its own, but that they should be used together, each contributing something vital to the mix.
The other is the tendency towards cavalier statements. The Libya campaign did not make it into the book, but in an article in Infinity Journal, van Creveld predicted that the air war against Qadaffi’s regime would prove no more successful than had the Italian use of aerial bombing, the first such use in wartime, against the Ottoman forces in Libya in the 1911–1912 Italo-Turkish war. Though deficient in some ways, the nato air campaign did in fact succeed in helping the ragtag Libyan rebel forces oust Qadaffi from power, though one may well share van Creveld’s doubts about democracy’s prospects in a tribal society.
On the quality versus quantity argument, one needs to tread carefully. One of the key Western advantages has been technical superiority, but van Creveld is surely right when worrying about the steadily shrinking numbers. Some argue that large numbers are irrelevant since today’s airplanes can address multiple threats simultaneously. Van Creveld does not buy this argument, as in a one-on-one contest, the technological advances of today’s planes are as likely to cancel each other out as their World War II predecessors. Thus unlike Iraq or Serbia, an advanced enemy will posses planes of similar capability. Focusing solely on one’s own capabilities and ignoring the countermeasures an adversary would employ “is an error to which the air forces of advanced Western nations, few of which have fought an equal enemy during the last decades, are especially prone,” he writes.
Equally worrisome are van Creveld’s points about the vulnerability of carriers and how, routinely, naval exercises are rigged so as to cloak this unpleasant truth. He cites the then U.S. chief of naval operation, Admiral James Holloway, who back in 1978 predicted that 30 to 40 percent of U.S. carriers would be wiped out in a war with the Soviets; here, the admiral was speaking only in terms of conventional war. Today, a new Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile is in the early stages of deployment, which, combined with the expansion of their submarine force, threatens the U.S. ability to support its Pacific allies.
One thing is certain: The cost-cutters will love van Creveld’s arguments. Therefore, the flyboys had better be prepared to come up with some arguments of their own.