Air Power and the Modern World

Air Power Black

Jeremy Black
University of Exeter

“We were very young in those days” is the most weighty phrase near the beginning of The Case of the Constant Suicides, a novel by the Anglo-American detective writer John Dickson Carr. Published in 1941, this novel begins in London on September 1 1940, just before the heavy German air attacks on the city had started: “An air-raid alert meant merely inconvenience, with perhaps one lone raider droning somewhere.” By 1941, as today, the experience of bombing was very different, although not as different as it was to be by the end of the war in 1945. Bombing by 1945 had become a key experience of urban life, both in Europe and in East Asia. Refracted through the media and the arts, the civilian experience has to be remembered as a human backdrop to the discussions about effectiveness and practicality.

Air power has played a key role in the military history of the last century, both independently and within land and sea conflicts. Air power has been particularly important at the tactical and operational levels. It has also been seen as a strategic tool, even if bringing this element to fruition has proved very difficult; and difficult, moreover, for the range of states that have sought to pursue this means. The debates about what air power can provide have taken considerably different directions based on whether the army was the dominant service and the degree to which the air force was independent. These issues raise questions not only about how best to present the history of air power, but also concerning its past and present rationale and relevance.

Air power has always appealed to those who are looking for “the modern,” the “latest and the greatest,” and for a strategic “magic bullet.” However, the accounts of contemporaries about effectiveness, and the hopes of the advocates of air power, have frequently proved misplaced, and often seriously so. This is the case both for the military outcomes of its use and for their political consequences.

Nevertheless, despite the problems confronted in adapting circumstances, learning lessons, coping with the pressures of commitments, and responding to fiscal exigencies, air power has dramatically changed equations for firepower and mobility. More specifically, both in its own right and as part of combined air operations, air power has made manoeuvre warfare a more central part of global conflict. As a result, air power has greatly increased the tempo of war as well as its potential deadliness.

As with armoured warfare when it was introduced in the 1910s, the perception of the capability of air power and its reality were very different. This was also true for fears of what it might mean for warfare. There is generally a poor understanding of the reliability of aircraft systems. In practice, the more complex a system, the less reliable it is. And there is the issue of appropriate use. Thus, air power is not a panacea.


However, in one particular respect, air power fulfilled the hopes of some early advocates. Thanks to the successful integration of reconnaissance information with artillery, aircraft helped overcome the relative stasis of First World War land operations. In doing so, aircraft helped restore mobility and, at least, a sense of results to ground operations, although this achievement was heavily qualified in terms of outcomes. In the 1918 Allied victory on the Western Front, more was due to the effective use of artillery incorporating the advantages of air-derived information than to new weapons, whether tanks or aircraft, operating in ground support roles, let alone to long-range bombing. Nevertheless, air power indeed proved part of the equation in translating advantages into the ability to defeat opposing forces on the ground, as it also did in 1918 with the British success against the Turks in Palestine.

This factor remained important in the understanding, presentation and use of air power. All of the combatants in the Second World War believed in the value of air dominance or supremacy and in its impact on operations on the ground, even if not all pursued the latter with the immediacy understood by the term ground support. Indeed, the stress on the war-winning dimension of air power encouraged Britain and the United States, neither of which saw their army as war-winning, to focus not on ground support but on gaining an air dominance that could be used for strategic bombing campaigns against their opponents’ home countries, rather than, at least as primarily intended, to affect operations on the ground. However, the latter was also an objective, even if the relationship between strategic bombing and theatre dominance was frequently somewhat unclear in practice.

These goals and priorities were not static. They were affected by resources, opportunities, doctrine and the ability to respond. Thus, the American ability to demonstrate flexibility and rethink the situation, and to plan and produce accordingly, led to the development and use of a long-range escort fighter capability. Similarly, in large part in response to Japanese advances in China and Japanese advances in the Pacific, the Americans moved their focus for air attacks on Japan from China-based aircraft to those operating from Pacific bases, and this had significant strategic and operational consequences. Ground-support proved more significant from the outset for militaries that were reliant on their armies for war-winning, rather than on strategic bombing. This was the case in the Second World War for Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union and China.

Carl Schmitt (1888-1985)

The demonstration of air power in the 1940s challenged the traditional geopolitical dichotomy of land and sea. Contemporaries, such as Carl Schmitt in Land and Sea (1942), argued that this would revolutionize geopolitics. The range and tempo of geopolitical rivalry was certainly different. During the Cold War, contrasting national legacies, priorities and opportunities very much affected the protagonists. The United States and Britain continued to place an emphasis on strategic bombing, one greatly enhanced by the availability of nuclear weapons. In contrast, although the Soviet Union had effective long-range bombers, as it had not done during the Second World War, the stress there was on ground-support.

In China, the stress was also on ground-support. There, the legacy of the Second World War, when air operations in China against Japan had been handled by the Americans, was compounded by the revolutionary character of Maoist military thought. In particular, Mao Zedong, in his emphasis on guerrilla warfare, took further the anti-technological/weaponry emphasis of early Communist ideas and their conviction of the value of the revolutionary mass. This emphasis remained central to Chinese Communist military thought until the 1990s, even though, under Mao, there was a commitment to new weaponry, certainly in the forms of jet aircraft and of missiles with atomic warheads.

Mao’s ideas did not bring victory over the American-led UN forces in the Korean War (1950-3), but an emphasis on will, mass and the negating of the technological advantages of the other side all proved significant across the world in the anti-Western insurrectionary struggles of the late 1940s to the mid-1970s. In practice, success or failure for the insurrections proved more complex in its causes and contexts, both militarily and politically, as the Vietnam wars, among others, showed.

Moreover, when applied, in part or whole, later, these ideas met with mixed success, as in the case of Saddam Hussein’s plans in 2003 for resistance against American attack. The more recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq served to demonstrate anew the value of air power alongside the difficulty of translating power-projection and force-delivery into a successful military and political outcome. Ideas of the obsolescence of manned aircraft were queried anew during the crises of 2011-16 from the East China Sea to Mali. Each crisis underlined the significance of manned aircraft. Repeatedly, indeed, arguments from operational experience have fuelled the optimism that many had regarding air power.

To date, air power has only 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. At the higher level, air power, like space power, has greatly changed global-reach capabilities, but has not changed the way the global system operates politically nor radically altered the concentration of military capabilities.

Britain and the United States, successively, the leaders in sea power, became (so far), successively, the leading air powers (especially, as it should be, if naval air power is also part of the equation); albeit their being subject to short-term intense challenges as well as to more lasting questions about their successive effectiveness as the leading state and about the effectiveness of air power. These leading powers have been technological leaders and, like other states with cutting-edge technology, have tended to rely, at least in part, on air power as a function of their economic and technological advantages, whether or not the results have encouraged the process. Moreover, the arrival, and, even more, diffusion, of new technologies suggested that air power in the shape of unmanned aircraft has a great potential. Air power therefore very much continues to be part of the military agenda.

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