Gods in Flight
Martin van Creveld, The Age of Airpower (New York: PublicAffairs, 2011), 512 pp., $35.00.
[amazon 158648981X full]ALMOST EXACTLY a hundred years ago, a young Italian airman dropped a couple of grenades from a small biplane on Turkish soldiers in the war between Italy and the Ottoman Empire for control of the largely desert territory. The grenades were difficult to use, and the crew had to pull out the pins with their teeth. But according to most accounts of the history of aerial warfare, this launched the bombing age. Now, a century later, expensive high-tech fighter-bombers are patrolling over the same desert areas, this time destroying the ground units of Colonel Qaddafi’s discredited army (and occasionally civilians). The power of the weapons and how they are delivered has been transformed. The questions that first arose in 1912 about the effectiveness and morality of air attacks remain.
Martin van Creveld completed his new history of the airpower century just before NATO provided a neat top-and-tail to the story. But he would no doubt argue that the effectiveness of the new strikes on Libya is questionable. His thesis is broadly that the importance of modern air forces has been greatly exaggerated: they can neither hold land nor deploy over long distances; their accuracy is not a great deal better than the German Ju-87 “Stuka” dive-bomber of World War II; modern aircraft are expensive to maintain in the field and too few in number to confer a formidable advantage. In this case he might well add that the strategic confidence that air strikes would make the difference in the Libyan civil war has, like so much airpower extrapolation, proved to be misplaced. Qaddafi’s forces are taking evasive precautions, the ebb and flow of the conflict is difficult to gauge, and NATO has never really spelled out its aims. Invasion and occupation might do the trick, but as the legacy of Afghanistan and Iraq has shown, this is a much riskier business than it might once have looked.
On issues of morality, van Creveld plays his cards close to his chest. His real beef is not about the ethical questionability of using aircraft in the knowledge that they will also kill civilians, but about the waste of resources and the unredeemed promises which result from the wrong choice of strategy and weapons. It is not perhaps bad faith on the part of the century’s air-force generals—who seem to have sincerely believed in the power of their armaments—but misplaced optimism and blind disregard of the facts. From Libya in 1912 to Iraq in 2003, van Creveld argues that it is really armies that matter (and occasionally navies). Airpower has been a misnomer.
This is a deliberate polemic. Ever since it was clear that aircraft could carry bombs and machine guns to inflict damage on enemy aircraft and troops, nations have wanted to have them. The suggestion that they actually achieve very little on their own would scarcely have stopped the stampede for larger, faster and more destructive air platforms. When nation-states had the chance to stop the rush—in 1922–23 at the Hague conference or the disarmament conference of 1932–34—they balked at the idea. Even the antiwar lobby of the 1930s thought that an international air-police force would be sufficient to ensure a permanent state of world peace, without ever thinking how this might work. Van Creveld focuses on one of the key reasons for the failure of air disarmament—the strong desire of the imperial powers to be able to use aircraft to quell the rising tide of anticolonial protest. The Royal Air Force War Manual called these colonial peoples “semi-civilised” and assumed that they would be cowed when they saw the bombing plane, symbol as it was of civilization.
Very soon came World War II, and civilized people became the target of air attacks on a scale unprecedented, before or since. Van Creveld sees this as the high point of airpower, when its claims were less spurious than throughout the rest of the century. But the real success story, he argues, comes with combined operations: the German air force powering forward with the armored fist of the army to protect its advance from enemy aircraft while destroying ground obstacles in the way; or American naval aircraft supporting the thrust across the Pacific by obliterating the Japanese air force and sinking ship after ship of the Japanese navy. Even here it is still necessary to temper the argument. Bombing an enemy tank or ship was difficult and often wasteful; building and sustaining large air forces diverted resources from possible alternatives. The best that can be said is that without airpower in World War II, it was difficult to win (though the disorganized Russian army held out against the German air force through to 1943, when the Red air force at last became a half-serious threat). This is not a wholly negative conclusion. The current fashion for “jointery” between the three armed services reflects a long learning curve in which arguments that aircraft would replace armies and navies have been swallowed back in favor of the idea that each arm supports the others.
It is nevertheless the case that from 1945 onward, airpower has been seen as the god in the machine over and over again, from the bombing of North Korea, the Rolling Thunder operation against Vietnamese Communists and the Soviet battle against the mujahideen (in which an estimated 456 aircraft were lost against a guerrilla enemy with none), to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, still going on today. Van Creveld is critical of all the claims made for airpower during this long half century; the sheer cost and complexity of modern aviation has reduced even the richest air forces to a few hundred fighter-bomber aircraft. And however high the lethality of these planes, they cannot be risked too much because of the replacement cost. In the end, this means they merely serve to create conditions in which ground forces have to do the real work of holding ground and fighting insurgency. Van Creveld points out that the landmark manual on counterinsurgency produced under U.S. General David Petraeus in 2006 has just five pages on the exercise of airpower, in an appendix. Even in the 1950s and 1960s, when “old-fashioned” aircraft were still in use, the major air powers were defeated, despite having overwhelming air support. From Malaya to Algeria to Vietnam, it was the insurgents who won out and the great power that had to withdraw. This is a lesson, van Creveld insists, that has never really been learned despite the many examples. This might well explain why NATO planes are being forced to crank up their activity; in almost all cases where the efficacy of airpower has not been proven, it has led to escalation. The result has usually been a lot more dead civilians.
IT MIGHT well be asked why airpower has in general not delivered on its promise. The one thing that van Creveld credits aircraft with is reconnaissance, which cannot easily be carried out any other way. This, of course, was what armed forces thought military aviation was for when they first started using it a century ago. But the combat effectiveness of aircraft has been compromised throughout its history by the development of effective countermeasures of a variety of kinds—fast fighters to intercept bombers, ground antiaircraft artillery, concealment, dispersal, ground-to-air missiles, air-to-air missiles—so that a constant seesaw results, aircraft move on a stage, antiair measures develop in tandem. The Soviet use of this weaponry (principally helicopters) in Afghanistan was undermined by mountain-based guerrillas armed with Stinger missiles (which could be operated by just one or two insurgents), or by infiltration of Soviet air bases, where aircraft could be disabled as they landed or took off. The whole point of asymmetric warfare is that the weaker side needs to find ways of restoring some kind of operational symmetry, and they usually do.
The second enemy of airpower has been technological advance. That may seem to contradict the one thing airmen always claimed for their service—that aviation was the threshold technology. But, antiair efforts have also been a major source of technical development (radar is perhaps the most critical one to recall), while the evolution of new weapons—from nuclear missiles to drones to satellites—has superseded that of simple planes. It is this fact that has rendered airpower increasingly redundant. Van Creveld speculates that the real danger to the Western world might now be a sudden “space Pearl Harbor” in which a malign but technically advanced enemy disables key satellites and brings about the financial and social collapse just avoided in the recent economic crisis. This is as tantalizing as H. G. Wells’s prophetic vision in his 1908 War in the Air that German bombers would annihilate cities in minutes and destroy the fragile crust of modern civilization. Of course, it is worth noting that much of the world’s economic and social life managed to function without PCs, mobile phones, eBay or cash machines just twenty short years ago.
That still leaves nuclear weapons, the true successors to airpower. They are capable, in the wrong hands, of obliterating an entire city or, in the right numbers, the globe. They are also the epitome of how and why airpower has been a disappointment—they are both too destructive to use and irrelevant to winning battles, that is, unless you were willing to incinerate continents of people. The logical end point of airpower development ever since the Italians used small grenades in the Libyan Desert has been the search for the perfect delivery system and the perfect armament. During World War II, the Royal Air Force thought it had found the solution with the Lancaster bomber, which could carry thousands of incendiaries and proved itself capable of doing to Hamburg something not very different from an atomic bomb. But the firestorm could not easily be reproduced, since it depended on certain meteorological conditions and a highly inflammable target, while its strategic effects were negligible, since Hamburg was producing 80 percent of its pre-raid output within three months. The answer to these shortfalls was the Manhattan Project, and by 1945 only the United States was rich enough and free enough of war damage to see it through. Even today there are thousands of nuclear warheads and hundreds of missiles waiting to deliver an awful apotheosis from the Pandora’s box opened a century ago. That still begs the question of whether Hiroshima and Nagasaki were actually necessary, or made the difference in 1945; much more emphasis is put by today’s historians on the conventional firebombing and the Soviet destruction of the Japanese Kwantung army in Manchuria in ten days. Van Creveld hedges his bets on this one, though it is surely a classic case of airpower overkill—huge expense to deliver a weapon whose effects could be reproduced as easily by conventional incendiaries on inflammable Japanese cities, if it could be justified.
By the early 1960s, a U.S. nuclear strike could have killed an estimated 80 million Soviet citizens; by the late 1960s, perhaps 300 million. These were figures too grotesque even for the modern discourse of “total war.” Airpower had reached a paradox. Either airmen gave up and relied on nuclear weapons, or they carried on developing sophisticated weaponry knowing that nuclear warheads could not be used. The result has been massive military spending by the richest states on technologies that can never be fully exploited. The effort bankrupted the Soviet system both literally and metaphorically; it threatens to bankrupt America, which spends as much on defense as the rest of the world put together.
THERE WILL be complaints van Creveld is too critical of the airpower age, and that there is a remorselessness to his pursuit of the ill-judged strategy or misplaced technological confidence which he sees as characteristic of so much of this narrative. But there are two questions that he does not really answer: Why were aircraft such sources of fascination to the generations that lived through the world wars and the early Cold War? And why did the great powers engage in bombing campaigns that resulted, often deliberately, in the death of over one million civilians, most of them killed by America and Britain, two states dedicated in the 1930s to searching for peace and outlawing city bombing?
Part of the answer lies in the crude democratization of war making after 1914. The world wars involved huge numbers of civilians in home-front activities. There was soon a sense that modern war, in some awful Darwinist sense, was always going to be about survival in a contemporary jungle of competing nation-states or social systems. Aircraft were an obvious product of that age, requiring a vast tail of ground crews, factory hands, designers and technicians before they even reached the battlefield. There was also something supremely, if ironically, democratic about bombing, which was regarded as a uniter of all social classes and both sexes. George Orwell’s claim in 1944 that there was no reason why young men in uniform should be the only ones made to suffer expressed the logic of democratic war. Though the modern age thinks that bombing cities in World War II was ethically unacceptable, the surprising thing is that German and British citizens expected it to happen and did not see it as a war crime. Bombing was the open manifestation of a new age of conflict, something to be coped with but not something to be outlawed. The one curious exception was the mutual restraint shown in not using biological and chemical weapons, the most egalitarian armaments of all.
This raises an important point. All sides saw biological and chemical weapons as unethical and waited to use them only if the other side started it. Moreover, no Allied commander would have sent his troops into Hamburg with orders to machine-gun thirty-seven thousand of its inhabitants. It would unquestionably have been a war crime. But Allied aircraft killed just that number in July 1943, and there has never been even the merest suggestion that those who ordered the raid ought to have stood trial after 1945 (though there is now a widely held view that this was a war crime). Indeed, bombing killed hundreds of thousands in horrible ways. What made this kind of airpower different? It can partly be explained by the fiction that only military targets were being hit, a policy which the Royal Air Force in practice abandoned in 1941. Or it can be explained as an unfortunate escalation provoked by the desperate struggle for victory and the relative morality that all such discourses generate—the war on terror as much as the war against Hitler.
In the end it happened because no one stopped it from happening. Enthusiasm for airpower as a new way of waging war, perhaps the real war winner, infected Allied and German politicians as it infected popular enthusiasm. It is striking that in the UK the key moments immortalized in modern memory are the Battle of Britain, the Blitz and the Dambuster Raid. The Lancaster bomber and the Spitfire fighter plane are universal symbols, embedded in popular culture. Where are the submarines, tanks, artillery pieces or handguns to rival this imagery? There have been films made of B-17s and modern fighters, of the Red Baron and the designer of the Spitfire. But who would make a film about the man or men or women who pioneered centimetric radar or designed the T-34 tank or built the first drone? In a way, we have only ourselves to blame for the airpower age, for its sense of urgent modernity, for its sheer excitement, for its daring defiance of the rules of engagement first laid down in the late nineteenth century. A Geneva convention on bombing was possible in the 1930s, it just was not wanted enough.
Perhaps the message at the heart of van Creveld’s book is simply that it is time for the modern world to grow up and accept the mistakes that the airpower age has made. Aviation has to be put into perspective and the claims of its enthusiasts set aside. Airpower has inherent limitations and they are growing more evident year by year. The cost of civilian damage, in violation of the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention that protects victims of armed conflicts (finally signed by some countries only in 1977, though not ratified by all), is no longer justifiable in the name of exporting “democracy.” The strategy of “shock and awe,” exploited against Baghdad in 2003, is not only ethically unacceptable but evidently achieved almost nothing. Coalition troops are still in Iraq eight years later; insurgents were neither shocked nor awed and have taken a huge toll on the occupying ground forces. In Afghanistan, it is the NATO soldiers that see a mounting number of losses; and the high casualties from aircraft strikes have promoted insurgency rather than limiting it. With Libya now, the same mistakes are being made: Qaddafi’s fall from power will not be enough to claim that airpower did the trick. It is surely time to close Pandora’s box.