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John Warden and the Renaissance of American Air Power

by John Andreas Olsen, Potomac Books, Inc., Washington, D.C., 2007, $32.95.

Colonel John A. Warden III is regarded by many as one of the most important air power philosophers of the modern era, a man whose vision established the pattern for victory in the 1991 Gulf War, and whose ideas were subsequently adopted and improved upon. He is regarded by others as a lightweight purveyor of obvious ideas, a man whose proposed strategy was rejected on the spot by the on-scene commanders during the Gulf War. Many of his supporters are high-ranking general officers; so are many of his detractors. Author John Andreas Olsen, a lieutenant colonel in the Royal Norwegian Air Force, has provided us with an even-handed treatment that leaves you convinced Olsen believes in Warden’s achievements, but also recognizes his personality and performance problems that have stoked controversy.

Born into a military family, Warden began his career as an air power philosopher while he was attending the U.S. Air Force Academy. A successful fighter pilot, Warden decided early on that the Air Force should be focusing on air superiority and not close air support. Like some other air power mavericks—Claire Chennault, Moody Sueter and John Boyd come to mind—Warden was so convinced of the worth of his own ideas that he foreswore the schmoozing and politicking that are essential to get radical ideas through any bureaucracy.

Warden established his credentials in 1986 while he was a student at the National War College, publishing his ideas in a book, The Air Campaign: Planning for Combat. His clear expression of the importance of superiority over interdiction was immediately challenged at the highest levels.

Though clearly on the fast track to general officer status, Warden was not a typical fighter pilot, as he was more interested in serious pursuits than in socializing. And Warden did not connect on a personal level with some people. As a result, his coveted role as a fighter wing commander in Germany turned out badly for him, despite the generally good showing of his wing in operational readiness inspections.

Ironically, that failure led him two years later to a vitally important role, one that would permit him to influence the conduct of the Gulf War even after his ideas had been formally dismissed. Relegated to the Pentagon as leader of the Warfighting Concepts Development directorate, popularly known as Checkmate, Warden developed a brilliant, devoted team. After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Warden’s team was given the task of preparing the strategy for an air campaign.

It seemed as if Warden’s moment had come, but the plan he took to the Middle East to brief Generals Norman Schwarzkopf and Chuck Horner was rejected, and Warden was sent home. He left behind members of his team, however, including his deputy, Lt. Col. David A. Deptula, now a lieutenant general. Deptula worked with Warden and his Checkmate team to produce the stunning air war plan that destroyed Iraq’s capacity to resist before the first coalition armored column went forward in the so-called 100-hour war.

This is an extremely readable as well as a revelatory book. Olsen avoids sensationalizing the fact that the coalition forces were bereft of a comprehensive plan for conducting the air war, and he presents both sides of the Warden argument with skill and sensitivity. John Warden and the Renaissance of American Air Power is a model not only for those writing about air power philosophy but for biographers in general. The book is highly recommended, and indispensable for any serious aviation library.


Originally published in the January 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here