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).