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Airpower in Small Wars: Fighting Insurgents and Terrorists.


We hear plenty about conventional airpower execution both past and present--daylight precision bombing, Rolling Thunder, Linebacker I & II, and current conventional methods applied to the global war on terrorism. Less well known are airpower contributions to small wars, on which this book employs a broad strategic view to take a deeper look.

Throughout the book, the authors, in exquisite detail, present the context and conditions of more than 20 conflicts. Rather than focus on tactical airpower application, Airpower in Small Wars presents the overall context of insurgent and counterinsurgent efforts. After describing each conflict, the authors provide a strategic view of how airpower influenced strategy and affected operations, or failed to do so.

The book begins by discussing U.S. Army fixed-wing airpower during its 1916 expedition against Pancho Villa in Mexico. After describing the fledging debut of U.S. airpower, the chapter moves on to U.S. Marine Corps air operations in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Nicaragua between 1919 and 1926. The chapter closes with lessons learned from the first deployments of U.S. airpower in small war situations.

The second chapter is a broader historical discussion of air control, as invented and further developed by the British, Spanish, and French in places like Morocco and Syria. They discovered "a couple of aircraft could provide the same level of support as a cavalry battalion," and be cheaper and more flexible than ground forces. The chapter concludes with an assessment of using aircraft to control insurgent areas and the misuse of history to support ideas of decisive airpower in small war contexts.


Chapters three through nine follow a similar format, providing a thorough background and strategic context of both insurgent and counterinsurgency efforts. The writers explore the origins of each conflict, along with the conditions that prevailed when the situations reached open conflict. The authors then discuss the introduction of airpower to these efforts. Airpower's role is discussed at the strategic and sometimes the operational level, but the intent is not to document its tactical use.

One of the book's strengths is that the evolution of airpower is readily apparent, and the chapters facilitate an integrated understanding through chronological presentation. While the timeline is beneficial, the book's organization with respect to the evolution of airpower is also informative. Some of the chapters address multiple counterinsurgency efforts by a single nation or several conflicts that are related by nature. For example, chapter five addresses British colonial wars in Malaya, South Arabia, and Oman from 1945-1975, and chapter nine discusses protracted Latin American insurgencies lasting from the 1960s through the 1990s. Other chapters, such as one and six, do a good job of educating the reader about a single case insurgency. Chapter six is particularly compelling, as it covers South Vietnam from 1954-1965, before the U.S. turned the counterinsurgency into a conventional war, at least in terms of approach.


After the presentation of conflicts and related airpower components, the authors provide a conclusion comprised of assessment, summary, general comments, or lessons learned elements. These sections identify similarities and differences among airpower applications with respect to the small wars presented in that chapter. Mr. Corum and Mr. Johnson enhance the airpower perspective in the context of the insurgency addressed, and many have specific applicability to current situations around the globe.

In the closing chapter, the book draws together the threads of airpower lessons as they evolved from the book's array of counterinsurgency operations. The authors present eleven lessons in their historical compilation that can guide the strategy of airpower in the small wars of today and in the future. They express the hope that this history will inform doctrine, technology, and organization.

As with other books I have reviewed, please do not be deterred by the number of pages. While I encourage reading the entire book, the chapters stand well on their own. The only downside of reading excerpted chapters is the slight break in progressive conclusions concerning airpower applications. Without the complete background, the concluding chapter loses much of its context. However, this small disconnect will not detract from the valuable insights each chapter offers regarding airpower in non-conventional warfare roles.

The book is not an easy, leisurely read, but the reward for the dedicated small wars student is a greatly expanded view of the roles and applicability of airpower. I encourage those interested in the subject to read this history, especially given the current climate in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other global hot spots. As Airmen, it is important to understand and be able to articulate the potential uses of airpower in the small wars environment.

Corum, James S. and Johnson, Wray R. Airpower in Small Wars: Fighting Insurgents and Terrorists. University Press of Kansas: Lawrence, Kansas, 2003.
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Author:Peeler, David, Jr.
Publication:Air Force Comptroller
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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