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Airpower in the 21st Century

By Bettina Renz.

Over the course of only a century airpower has developed into an indispensable instrument of warfare. It has caught the imagination of writers since the early days of manned flight and there is certainly not a shortage of books on the subject. Yet the scope and breadth of existing works remains fairly restricted, especially when it comes to assessing the role played by airpower in the 21st century. This is because the bulk of the literature has been shaped by two opposing views, representing different sides in what has now become known as the ‘Great Airpower Debate’. The first can be termed the ‘technocentric’ view, which holds that airpower is on a continuous journey to perfection. In other words, this view is based on the belief that ever more sophisticated tactics and technology will continue to strengthen airpower’s utility as a military instrument, shaping it ever more into a silver bullet. Ultimately, the early airpower theorists’ dreams will come to fruition as airpower will be able to win wars on its own. In contrast, the second view of airpower can be described as ‘strategic’. This view holds that the utility or suitability of airpower is always context-dependent. For example, strategic airpower is effective in ‘traditional’ and conventional interstate wars, such as the Second World War or the Gulf War in 1991. But its utility in in today’s era of irregular wars is limited. In the contemporary security environment characterised by ‘new’ wars and asymmetric conflicts, the core missions of independent air forces are increasingly being eroded, inevitably relegating airpower’s usefulness to a supporting role at best.

Both views have some merits, but also limitations for our understanding of airpower’s role in the 21st century. It is hard to argue, on the one hand, with the ‘technocentric’ view’s conviction that airpower works. It has proven its utility in warfare and it is unarguably a great advantage to those that have it in their military arsenal. But at the same time airpower clearly does not always work, as explained by proponents of the ‘strategic view’. Advanced tactics and technology per se are not a panacea and judgments about airpower cannot be disengaged from broader strategic questions.

Preoccupation with the merits of strategic airpower has meant that the same historic air campaigns, namely the Second World War, Vietnam, Kosovo and the 1991 Gulf War, tend to be chosen repeatedly as case studies for analysis. Although these wars were indisputably significant milestones in airpower history, they cannot in and of themselves exemplify all that is pertinent about airpower in the 21st century. They can also tell us very little about the global dimension of airpower. At present the United States alone has significant long-range strategic bombing capabilities. Yet, the majority of modern states maintain air forces as part of their military arsenals. Clearly, therefore, the utility of airpower in the 21st century is seen to extend beyond traditional understandings of independent strategic airpower capabilities. The predominant focus by airpower scholars on arguments either in favour of or against strategic airpower has left the subject misaligned with contemporary debates on war and strategy. These are far more complex than a straightforward dichotomy between ‘new’ wars and an ideal-type of now defunct ‘old’, conventional interstate warfare. It is beyond doubt that something about the security environment has been changing. But the exact nature of these changes and their implications for the role and utility of airpower in the 21st century remain far from clear.

Airpower is about more than the prospects and limits of strategic air campaigns. Yet, the preoccupation with taking sides in the ‘Great Airpower Debate’ has meant that other important dimensions of contemporary airpower have been neglected. Over the next few days, a number of blog posts written by current postgraduate students in the School of Politics & International Relations seek to break the bounds of the ‘Great Airpower Debate’ and engage with a range of subjects more suited to reflect the complex reality of airpower in the 21st century. Amongst the questions they will ask are the following: what has austerity meant for the utility of airpower as a military instrument? Was the Soviet experience of using airpower in Afghanistan instructive but neglected by the United States’ and ISAF in their fight against the Taliban? Does airpower have a role to play in irregular warfare, such as counterinsurgency campaigns? Can terrorism be defeated with airpower? And what is the utility of airpower in dealing with ‘emerging security challenges’, such as the fight against the international drug trade?

Bettina Renz is a Lecturer in International Security at the University of Nottingham’s School of Politics and International Relations.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force

Published inConflict & Security

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