Book review: Air Power


Air Power
The Men, Machines, and Ideas that Revolutionized War, From Kitty Hawk to Iraq
by Stephen Budiansky
Hardcover: New York: Viking, 2004. ISBN 0-670-03285-9
Paperback: New York: Penguin, 2005. ISBN 014303474X

This is a long book at 518 pages including notes and index, and it has a subtitle that's almost as long: "The Men, Machines, and Ideas that Revolutionized War, From Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II."  It is significant that the beginning and the end both refer to American developments.  Not only did two American brothers develop the first heavier-than-air craft, but American forces have enjoyed air superiority in every war since the First World War.  Budiansky presents most of the debates on air doctrine in an American or British context, and undoubtedly it helps that these records would be available in English.  But he clearly believes that they set the pace of world developments.  The role of other world powers was to react — for example, there is very little discussion of the Soviet air force.

The book focuses on the great debate between strategic and tactical air power.  Should airplanes be used to bring war to the enemy's homeland, or should they be used to win quickly and decisively on the battlefield?  It would simply overwhelm the reader if Budiansky had covered a century of flight from every nation's viewpoint.  But when important developments occur overseas, the book travels there — to Spain as the Luftwaffe tests out its doctrines in preparation for World War II, to the Japanese carrier fleet in the run-up to Pearl Harbor, and to Israel as American air power wins overwhelming victories against Soviet technologies through the Arab-Israeli proxy wars.

Technological developments

The book is more than a chronological account of military doctrine. It deftly interleaves technological developments — some spurred by military requirements, others organically invented in the civilian sector.  Budiansky has a knack for breaking events down into cause-and-effect, paying great attention to motivation and environment.  We feel as though we were standing right next to the Wright brothers as they tinker in their bicycle shop, write letters to the great engineer Octave Chanute, and take a train to North Carolina every few months to test out their handiwork.

Why did the Wright Brothers succeed where others failed?  Because they undertook a systematic series of experiments to better understand the behavior of airfoils. As a result, they knew that control was more important than power.  While others were brute-forcing the problem, the Wright Brothers were making do with a mere 12-horsepower engine — which was actually twice as powerful as needed.  After successfully making their first flight, the brothers run into difficulty dealing with the military establishment, and incur no small amount of suspicion from observers due to their secrecy during the patent process.  They have such difficulty reaping the just rewards of their breakthrough that the reader may be excused for letting out a great sigh and then soaring along as they triumphantly fly circles around the other craft at a flight exhibition in France.

Whole books have been written about the Wright Brothers, but Budiansky applies the same meticulous research and the same gift for animating history to dozens of other pioneering developments.  The NACA wind tunnel experiments that greatly improved understanding of aerodynamics, Frank Whittle's pursuit of jet propulsion, Bill Norden's bombsight, Robert Jones' research into swept wings — all are put into their personal and scientific context.  We observe, for example, the often-difficult dealings between innovators and the non-innovative government purchasers of their inventions.

Budiansky deftly explains scientific concepts both clearly and succinctly, and difficult concepts are also illustrated by simple and effective diagrams.  There's a sketch from Wilbur Wright of the bicycle wheel setup used for their experiments on lift; an explanation of the benefits of variable-pitch propellers; a vector chart showing why a swept wing undergoes less strain at high speeds; and of course, drawings of military aviation concepts.  Simple schematics of the military aircraft mentioned in the text are accompanied by basic statistics like speed and armament.

Military aviation

The military focus of the book leaves very little room for commercial aviation.  The landmark Boeing 247 and Douglas DC-3 are dispensed with in two paragraphs.  Budiansky focuses on the technology rather than the individual aircraft — the single wing and streamlining allowed military aircraft to fly faster, farther, heavier, and more durably. Of course, military doctrines are often affected by entrenched interests, bureaucracies, politics, and the makeup of the officer corps.  Budiansky does not hesitate to point fingers, starting with the bureaucracies which initially rebuffed the Wrights, tracing the stagnation of British aviation as the RAF promised to police the Empire on a budget, and ending with the "bomber generals" in the United States Air Force who all-too-often had no college education and (as he points out) a correspondingly narrow viewpoint arising from gut instincts. Granted, it is much easier to make a target of the bomber generals now that the Strategic Air Command no longer exists.

As his view of bomber generals suggests, Budiansky takes a dim view of strategic bombing.  The whole book can be described as an indictment of strategic bombing, with a chronological account of its failings, and the relevant politics and technology wrapped around the chronology.  World War I served as a proving ground for aviation, where strategic bombing was tried in the form of Zeppelins and bomber aircraft.  The hysteria induced by these bombing raids exceeded the actual amount of damage produced by the limited payloads of the bombers.

After the Great War, Giulio Douhet developed a visionary concept for the total reach of air power, from which Budiansky quotes stark sentences on "national totality," "the maw of war," "incendiaries, gas bombs," and "constant nightmare of imminent death and destruction." (p. 137)  But Douhet’s credentials are rather questionable; Budiansky seems rather bemused that the doctrine of strategic bombing would find its foremost proponent in an estranged Italian Army officer who never learned to fly.  Then we witness the devastating application of close air support by the German Luftwaffe in the Spanish Civil War, a dramatic depiction of the Finest Hour when the Few did So Much for So Many, a side trip to naval aviation for the carrier battles of the Pacific [related book review: The First Team], and an approving look at tactical aviation in the European theater. 

All of this leads up to the  classic strategic bombing campaign launched by the Eighth Air Force, seeking to obliterate Germany's war machine from 30,000 with Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses — the Western contribution to the war against Germany as Soviet troops were fighting and dying in the millions on the Eastern front.  To Budiansky, though, the great B-17 raids were largely futile exercises in doctrinal indulgence.  The staggering losses among the bombers turned the WWI-era knights of the sky into just more cannon fodder, while accuracy from the famed Norden bombsights turned out to be abysmal and resulted in only slight damage.  The attack on Axis oil supplies was one instance where strategic bombing did work, but it was not carried out enthusiastically enough to make a difference until the war had already been all-but-won on the ground.

Budiansky points to the almost complete destruction of Japan's cities as proof of the uselessness of strategic bombing.  Just as German civilians died in the thousands in British nighttime carpet-bombing campaigns and then returned to their nearly-undamaged factories to churn out war materiel in daytime, the Japanese martial spirit remained unbowed by the ghastly civilian casualties from firebombing.  The atomic bomb, in effect, provided a face-saving pretext to surrender — here was a weapon that was like a bolt from heaven, which nobody could defend against.  Indeed, it is interesting to read this book and compare it to Robert McNamara's appearance in The Fog of War - Eleven Lessons from the life of Robert S. McNamaraalt, where he rattles off the numbers of people killed and square miles destroyed as examples of the devastation caused by war. Devastating, perhaps, but as Budiansky recounts, not effective.

Post-World War II

The predominance of the Strategic Air Command after the War is just as distasteful to Budiansky.  The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction and the corruption of the fighter’s role left the USAF with terrible ground attack weapons in Vietnam.  Even the Navy F-4, initially designed without a cannon as a missile-only craft, was far superior to the Air Force jets, which were designed to intercept Soviet nuclear bombers over the skies of Alaska. The F-106, for example, could be flown automatically from the ground, and a whole complex of IBM computers was needed to support the video map display.

The development of Surface-to-Air Missiles then threatened air power of any kind, until the Israeli intervention in Lebanon proved that air superiority could be regained by using Wild Weasel raids to weed out missile sites in advance of the main engagement.  Then, of course, come the smart bombs and stealth aircraft, their prominent employment in the First Gulf War, and finally the GPS and communications technologies that made possible the rapid airpower response provided in Afghanistan and the Second Gulf War.  A particularly apropos quote refers to the rapid victory of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan: "They had horses and air power."  Surprising, the search engines turn up only this book as a source.  It ought to be more widely transmitted.

Analysis

Budiansky seems to relish challenging established wisdom.  In his view, for example, the rapid victory in the Second Gulf War proves the correctness of Secretary Rumsfeld's idea that a large field army would be unnecessary.  Lately there has been a storm of criticism over the folly of invading Iraq without a sufficiently large force.  But Budiansky tackles only the war itself, which was indeed won as planned with precision airstrikes.  The much messier occupation that followed does not merit a mention in this book on airpower.

Similarly, Budiansky repeats the famous Johnson quote about the Air Force not being able to bomb an outhouse in Vietnam without his permission.  A whole generation of writers have seized on Johnson’s micromanagement as an example of excessive civilian meddling, without which the military could've won the war had they been left to their own devices.  However, Budiansky believes that the Air Force doctrine in Vietnam was so flawed that it really made little difference.  Likewise, he comes down very hard on Hirohito, pointing to his encouragement of the fight-to-the-last mentality that cost Japan so many lives.  Certainly doesn't fit the comfortable Cold War thinking that Hirohito was just a figurehead who bore little to no responsibility for Japan's actions in the War.

The author’s willingness to dig past established wisdom makes this book a refreshing read for those already well-versed in military history.  There are, for example, amusing tidbits from the past seen in a modern light.  Post-WWI British colonial wars attempted decapitation strikes against rebel leaders, as "the RAF claimed it could single out the house of a particular sheikh for attack when bombing a village." (p. 145)  Likewise, some seemingly time-tested facts turn out to be wholly manufactured — Billy Mitchell's sinking of the battleship Ostfriesland is usually accompanied by stories of weeping admirals watching the ship go down, but Budiansky traces this particular claim to a biography of Mitchell written by his sister, and discounts it as just another boast from Mitchell's PR machine.

The bombing of Guernica has become immortal through the Picasso painting, and its symbolism as the site of the Holy Oak drew contemporary commentary about its being deliberately targeted as a ruthless warning to the Basque.  But Budiansky follows the air campaign that unfolded prior to Guernica, and notes that it was just another target — indeed, the German air commander von Richthofen was unaware of the symbolism until he was given a tour of the captured town.  Closer to the present day, he addresses the intercontinental attack missions of the B-2s that took off from Missouri to bomb Serbia half a world away.  This capability was greatly trumpeted at the time as an example of the global reach of American airpower, and much celebrated among Republicans as a vindication of the gigantic Reagan-era military budgets.  But to Budiansky the long-range use of B-2s is wholly beside the point — the B-2s took off from Missouri not because they could, but because their anti-radar coating was so fragile that they could not be based any closer to the action (hence the wasted time in transit).  That he attacks cherished historical truths left and right shows that political correctness is the last thing on Budiansky's mind.  Look at the actual effects, he seems to be saying, don't get caught up in triumphalism of doctrine.

At the same time, the book remains accessible to the layman.  Proceeding chronologically, Budiansky builds military doctrines from the ground up.  Given the historical context that he presents, it becomes easy to understand military terminology such as air superiority, interdiction, and helicopter gunship.  But the book does assume a fair amount of cultural, scientific, and technological awareness in its readers.  For example, he doesn't expand the acronym AWACS, he mentions Vannevar Bush but doesn't explain that he was President of MIT, and he talks about multi-hundred miles-per-hour tailwinds affecting the accuracy of B-29 high-level bombing without mentioning that these winds come from the jet stream.  Facts like the F-86 being the first fighter to break the sound barrier (albeit in a dive), or the Lake Denmark arsenal explosion in New Jersey affecting more explosive material than the power of the first atomic bomb (500 ktons of TNT vs 20), are presented as-is without explanation.  Dig deeper, he seems to be saying, in the same way that he dug behind other myths of military aviation.

Through the book, Budiansky builds up a persuasive argument about the primacy of tactical airpower over strategic. It does seem a little bit too neat and tied together, though. The NATO bombing of Serbia may have been precise in nature, but in the populace it instilled the same reaction as in the British population of World War II: defiance, as fashionable youngster began appearing in the streets with T-shirts silkscreened with a large red bull's-eye.

Air Power was cited, and its critique of strategic bombing adopted, in Malcolm Gladwell's article in the December 13, 2004 issue of The New Yorker.  Gladwell juxtaposed the difficulty of reading mammograms with the difficulty of high-altitude bombing, and quoted German production chief Albert Speer: "As it was, not a tank, plane, or other piece of weaponry failed to be produced because of lack of ball bearings."  Budiansky uses the same juicy quote, but subsequent New Yorker letters to the editor point out that the Speer letter continues by stating that, had the ball bearing plant bombing campaign been continued, German production would have run into serious problems.  Well, if ball bearings are like the oil that Budiansky points to as the only major success of strategic bombing, then perhaps the supply chain disruption theory was correct after all, and it was the dispersion of Allied bombing effort that prevented any one industry from being disrupted enough to stop the German war effort.  Undoubtedly Budiansky has a response; he already notes that much German industry was moved east to escape bombing. But if he were a bit less sure of himself, if he brought up and directly addressed some objections to his thesis, the book would be more convincing.

Correct or not in its thesis, the book is a fascinating read and a superb primer on the development of air power. It neatly ties together the military, technological, and political developments that affected the rise of air power.  This is a work from knowledgeable and well-read student of history, with meticulous notes (5-6 notes per page) and a lengthy bibliography.  It's written with such gusto that the pages fly by quickly.  Clearly Budiansky had fun writing the book, to the point of calling Army pilots "aviators" in Billy Mitchell's naval attack demonstrations.  The reader is left with both a thesis and some fascinating anecdotes, and a general appreciation for the trials and tribulations which made air power the dominant force in warfare that it occupies today.