Friday, 9 November 2012


 The Age of Airpower
Martin Van Creveld (Author)
Published by Public Affairs, c2011
498 pages with 16 pages of illustrations

 Martin Van Crevald’s book is an enlightening and masterful prĂ©cis of the use of air power in war. He has found new things to say and has new insights in a field which would have seemed to have been well covered already. 

Amazon describes it as:

“Airpower, more than any other factor, has shaped war in the twentieth century. In this fascinating narrative history, Martin van Creveld vividly portrays the rise of the plane as a tool of war and the evolution of both technology and strategy. He documents seminal battles and turning points, and relates stories of individual daring and collective mastery of the skies.

However, the end of airpower's glorious age is drawing near. The conventional wisdom to the contrary, modern precision guided munitions have not made fighter bombers more effective against many kinds of targets than their predecessors in World War II. U.S. ground troops calling for air support in Iraq in 2003 did not receive it any faster than Allied forces did in France in 1944. And from its origins on, airpower has never been very effective against terrorists, guerrillas, and insurgents. As the warfare waged by these kinds of people grow in importance, and as ballistic missiles, satellites, cruise missiles and drones increasingly take the place of quarter-billion-dollar manned combat aircraft and their multi-million-dollar pilots, airpower is losing utility almost day by day.”

It is a cautionary tale. Van Crevald uses this book to highlight the limits of air power. In some ways he goes too far in his warnings. Reading this book one could easily come to the conclusion that he believes that only massed armadas of B-17s flown by people belonging to a designated Air Force constitutes air power. Any other use apparently just takes away from air power.

His basic thesis is that airpower had reached its country-wrecking peak by 1945, after which it declined.  He makes the point that airpower has not been effective in counter insurgency but, as has been pointed out, neither have armoured divisions or nuclear submarines been of much use in “wars among the people” as he call them.

Van Creveld is right to be aware of the limits of airpower used on its own, but no commanders would wish to fight any war without air superiority if they could have it. Drones and helicopters and transport aircraft and satellites operated by services other then the Air Force do not detract from air power, they are an integral part of it.

The Author ends his book on a bizarre note, using the last few pages to rail against the horrors of political correctness. Apparently the perceived inability of pilots (male one would assume) to do whatever they want, whenever they want has lead to a situation in which the usefulness of  air power must inevitably decline.

Van Crevald is a justly celebrated author and theorist. This book is fascinating and it is an important contribution to the understanding of the limits to the uses of air power. This reviewer can not, however, agree with his main thesis that air power is declining in usefulness. Air power, in all its forms, is still one of the most important and determining factors in armed conflict.