Aviation’s Role, Properly Understood

reviewed by William S. Lind

AIR POWER AND MANEUVER WARFARE. By Martin van Creveld, with Steven L. Canby and Kenneth S. Brower. Air University Press, Maxwell AFB, AL, 1994, 268 pp.,(Available for active duty personnel through Air University Press.)

For at least a decade, Marines have awaited a book that would provide a solid basis for understanding how to employ air power in maneuver warfare. Air Power and Maneuver Warfare meets that longstanding need. At the same time, it must be said that this book-one of Martin van Creveld’s lighter works-begins but does not complete the process of developing a thorough historical understanding of the role of aviation in the maneuver battle and campaign.

Martin van Creveld is undoubtedly the most thought-provoking military historian writing today. His book, The Transformation of War (The Free Press, New York, 1991), is the most important book on war written in the last quarter-century. Here he is joined by two other eminent authorities, Steven L. Canby, who is probably the best American ground-force analyst, and Kenneth S. Brower, a noted naval architect and specialist on the Israeli Defense Forces. Regrettably, as is often the case in such collaborative efforts, the whole is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. (Note: in the authors’ biographies on page ix of the book, the photos of Brower and Canby are inverted.)

Air Power and Maneuver Warfare’s most important point is that in maneuver warfare, air power is focused neither at the tactical level, in close air support, nor at the strategic level, in what was called strategic bombing and is now known as deep interdiction. Rather, it is focused at the operational level. What that means and how historically it was done, by the Germans, the Soviets, and the Israelis, is in turn the logical focus of the book.

The first chapter lays out the nature of maneuver warfare. Appropriately, the bulk of the chapter is about ground warfare, since air power in maneuver warfare is closely integrated with action on the ground. Since all three authors have a well-developed understanding of maneuver warfare, the chapter offers little to criticize. Marines will find it not only an accurate summary of well-known maneuver warfare concepts but also an intelligent discourse on some of the less well-known aspects of maneuver warfare such as logistics.

The second and third chapters deal with the German experience beginning with World War I and look in some detail at the lessons the Germans drew from the Spanish Civil War. Then, the use of air power in the blitzkrieg in Poland, France and, in chapter 3, Russia, is reviewed in depth. Usually, the Luftwaffe’s role in these campaigns is presented largely in terms of close air support, such as that provided to Guderian in his crossing of the Meuse on 13 May 1940. But the book notes that this was the exception, not the rule. The Germans lacked the command and control measures necessary for close support where ground forces were intermixed, and in any case the Luftwaffe strongly resisted attempts to make it subordinate to the army. Rather, the Luftwaffe focused on operational tasks, which “required an understanding by air commanders of the situation on the ground but not close cooperation.” These tasks included destroying the enemy’s air force to prevent it from interfering with German operational movements, attacking enemy operational reserves (often the air Schwerpunkt-focal effort at the center of gravity), protecting the open flanks of German operational spearheads, and providing emergency resupply of ammunition, and petroleum, oils, and lubricants to fast-moving German ground units. In Russia, another key role for air power emerged, though it was one the Luftwaffe did not much like: serving as a “fire brigade” to deal with Russian counterattacks until ground forces could be repositioned to defeat them. The difficulty of closing the pockets in the vast Kesselschlachten on the eastern front also left the Luftwaffe performing that task, although with mixed results.

Looking at the work of the Luftwaffe in Russia, Air Power and Maneuver Warfare offers an excellent summary of the roles aircraft can play in maneuver warfare with potentially decisive effect:

. . . the contribution that the Luftwaffe made to the campaign was enormous. It was able to secure air superiority and protect friendly forces against attack, although its ability to carry out the latter mission diminished as rime passed. Next, its forces used every means at its (sic) disposal to help the army move forward. Luftwaffe units reconnoitered the enemy ahead of the army and often helped the latter’s commanders decide on the best direction in which to mount their operativ thrusts. They flew supplies to army units that could not he reached in any other way. They protected the long, exposed flanks that naturally resulted from the blitzkrieg style of war, forming Schwerpunkt wherever and whenever the enemy showed signs of preparing a counterattack. They helped prevent the withdrawal of trapped Soviet forces and launched punishing attacks on those that had been cut off inside the pockets created by the army’s operativ thrusts. Whenever a river was to be crossed or an important city to be captured, the Luftwaffe was certain to be found flying close-support missions even to the point where it literally dropped its bombs at the German infantryman’s feet.

Chapter 4, which discusses the Soviets’ use of air power in their version of maneuver warfare, offers the book’s most surprising observations. Usually, the Soviet air force is dismissed in contempt as perhaps the least effective air force of any of the major belligerents in World War II. This book sees it otherwise. It argues that because the Soviet air force was focused at the operational level, it was highly effective-perhaps more effective than the tactically far superior air forces of the Western powers-in terms of the actual utility of the results it obtained.

What did it mean from the Soviet standpoint to focus air power at the operational level? The key was disrupting the movement of German operational reserves, which were the main threat to attacking Soviet forces.

Thus, operationally speaking, disruption translated into compartmentalizing enemy reserves to prevent their mutual support. This resulted in Soviet air power sometimes being used in bridge attacks (normally planned missions) and, much more commonly, large-scale “free hunt” search-and-destroy missions against moving tank columns as well as their supporting artillery, infantry, and antitank units. Therefore, disruption was the priority within the priority missions for Soviet tactical aviation.

More broadly,

Aviation enters the Soviet scheme primarily because the operations of ground forces will cause the enemy to move and expose himself to air. Conversely, the task of air is to disrupt his tempo and even bring his movements to a halt, thus enabling friendly ground forces to pin, envelop, and destroy him.

Here again we see the high level of sophistication the Soviet armed forces achieved at the operational level, during and after World War II. Focused as it was through the Cold War (and largely remains) at the tactical level, the U.S. military had difficulty seeing this. It appears this may have been even more true in regard to air power than it was in respect to ground warfare.

These initial chapters of the book are very good, although they sometimes leave the reader longing for more detail, especially with regard to the design, command, and control of air operations. Just how did the Germans and the Soviets get their air forces to work at the operational level? How did they create in them the willingness to do this, and how did they get them to understand the ground situation so that they could do it? It is in answering questions such as these that much more remains to be written on the subject of air power and maneuver warfare.

With Chapter 5, on the Israel’s use of air power, the book gets somewhat weaker. The chapter is an excellent and insightful discourse on Israeli’s wars in the Sinai, but it deals only peripherally with air power. It does make the point that, once again, the Israelis’ focus for air power was the operational level. But here the source material should offer a wealth of information on how they made it happen, yet little is said.

Chapter 6, “Maneuver Warfare and Air Power in the 1990s,” is devoted mostly to a discussion of what air power could do in Europe in the event of a revival of a Russian threat. But this case is so unlikely-even if the Russians sought to become a threat again, their internal condition and the changed geographic relationships make it almost impossible, at least at the conventional level-that the discussion has a strong air of unreality. The chapter’s final section, “Differences in Styles of War for Air Power,” is a thoughtful summary of how the employment of air power changes-quite radically-in maneuver warfare.

While Chapter 6 ends the book proper, it does not stop there. It includes two addenda, one brilliant, the other bizarre. The brilliant addendum is an appendix on DESERT STORM that offers the best published debunking to date of that “great victory.” It argues conclusively that DESERT STORM was not maneuver warfare and that the envelopment by VII Corps was poorly conceived and executed. As in Chapter 5, not much is said about air power, but the dissection of DESERT STORM from a maneuverist perspective is easily worth the diversion.

The bizarre addendum is, in effect, an Air Force disavowal of everything else in the book. Written by the staff at Maxwell, it twists and turns and wiggles to try to get the book to justify Douhet-style “strategic” use of air power, which of course the book in fact undercuts.

It is easy to see what happened. The Air Force, having inadvertently created a thoughtful, honest appraisal of how air power can best be employed, was appalled at the conclusion. It was about to put out a product that brought its own “aerospace power” propaganda into question. So instead of taking its medicine like a man and thereby earning for itself some moral and intellectual credit, it ordered its “think tank” at Maxwell to write a weasel piece. The result is an appendix that reads as if written by lawyers, not soldiers. In terms of the impression of the Air Force it will create with any serious reader, it leaves that Service where, in Chapter 1 of the book, the French commander at Sedan in 1870 reported himself: “Nous sommes dans un pot de chambre et nous y serrons emerdees.”