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The Age of Airpower
By Martin van Creveld. 512 pp.
PublicAffairs, 2011. $35.

Martin van Creveld’s work is always worth reading. Some of his books, most notably Supplying War and Hitler’s Strategy: the Balkan Clue, are benchmarks that will stand the test of time. Others, like Fighting Power and The Transformation of Warfare, ignited debates that still rage. Here he turns his powerful analytical skills and sometimes-sharp pen to a consideration of “the airpower century.” It will most likely join his books in the controversial category.

The Age of Airpower is equal parts historical survey, idiosyncratic editorializing, and bold prediction. Inevitably, the Second World War looms large. In van Creveld’s view, air power reached its peak during the 1939–1945 years. The great powers applied it across a wide spectrum—strategic bombing, maneuver warfare in Western Europe and Russia, the war at sea in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, and large-scale use of airborne forces in “vertical envelopment” of the battlefield. Among many valuable insights, van Creveld notes the underappreciated contributions of aerial interdiction to both the early Axis successes and the subsequent Allied counteroffensives. But he also argues this was but air power’s brief moment in the sun. The advent of nuclear weapons, as well as the escalating cost of aviation technology, has sounded taps for crewed bomber aircraft, the use of airborne forces, aircraft carriers, and even most categories of tactical aviation. He further argues that the emerging “wars amongst the peoples” are ill suited for aviation to take a leading role. This precipitous rush to toss air power into the historical dustbin, along with the armored knight and the battleship, merits—and will no doubt get—a spirited response.

Unfortunately, this thoughtfully provocative work is marred by persistent factual errors. The June 1944 Normandy invasion was not the last time gliders were used in combat. Van Creveld confuses the British merchant aircraft carrier (an improvised flattop) with the catapult aircraft merchantman (a true stopgap with a non-recoverable fighter plane). He speaks of the “RAF High Command,” but there neither was nor is such an entity. His mastery of technical details is sometimes spotty (the Spitfire was not particularly easy to manufacture, the MiG-15 had an ejection seat, and the Italians did develop and employ torpedo planes), as is his grasp of some of the theoretical literature (Billy Mitchell did indeed mention aircraft carriers in Winged Defense, if only to dismiss their effectiveness). Individually, such missteps are minor; collectively they cast doubt upon the robustness of the evidence supporting the author’s far-reaching claims.

Nonetheless, although van Creveld’s insights may be speculative, they offer stimulating guides for considering contemporary issues about the uses of airpower. Airpower advocates and critics alike need to engage with this book.