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PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo SEPTEMBER  2005 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 1
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War in the Sky
By Justin Ewers

IN HIS NEW BOOK, STEPHEN BUDIANSKY ARGUES THAT ONLY RECENTLY HAS MILITARY AIR POWER LIVED UP TO EXPECTATIONS.

AIR POWER The Men, Machines, and Ideas That Revolutionized War, From Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II - By Stephen Budiansky - Penguin Group, 518 ppAIR POWER
The Men, Machines, and Ideas That Revolutionized War, From Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II
By Stephen Budiansky
Penguin Group, 518 pp.

Less than eight years after the Wright brothers first showed that manned flight was feasible—“introducing into the world,” Orville wrote, “an invention which would make further wars impossible”—an Italian pilot in a rickety machine became the first to wage war from the air. The four grenade-size bombs he dropped, in 1911, over Turkish troops in Libya, seem to have missed completely. But that didn’t stop Italian papers from whipping their headlines into a frenzy: “Terrorized Turks Scatter Upon Unexpected Celestial Assault.” And it didn’t stop the Turks from an equally iconic response: They insisted the bombs had landed on a hospital.

So it would go for much of the next hundred years of military aviation, writes Stephen Budiansky, a veteran defense journalist, in Air Power: The Men, Machines, and Ideas That Revolutionized War, From Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II. War in the sky would make mind-boggling technological leaps over the next few decades—from biplanes and grenades to Stealth fighters and laser-guided bombs in only a few generations. But for most of its existence, he argues, air power has been a dangerously overvalued blunt instrument. Dogmatic air generals through both World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam insisted that their new weapons could single-handedly change the face of warfare. (Carl Spaatz, commander of the U.S. Eighth Air Force in WWII, thought the D-Day invasion was a waste of time. “After it fails,” he said, “we can show them how we can win by bombing.”) It was only at the end of the century that air power reigned supreme at last in the two Gulf Wars—and even then, Budiansky writes, not the way its early acolytes foresaw.

For most of the airplane’s existence, the idea of war in the air always soared far ahead of air power’s actual capabilities. Visions of city-destroying superweapons began dancing in generals’ heads almost as soon as airplanes entered combat. “Nothing man can do on the surface of the Earth can interfere with a plane in flight,” declared Giulio Douhet, an Italian military officer who in the 1920s popularized the idea that the airplane would end wars before they started by bombing civilian “morale.”

First, though, air forces would need sturdier mounts, and the engineering sideshow first dominated by two bicycle mechanics quickly developed into a genuine scientific field all its own. Strut-and-string biplanes gave way to sleek monoplanes. In 1931, the first full-size wind tunnel was built to test aerodynamics, and by the end of World War II, the outer limits of prop-driven planes had been reached. Swept-wing jets soon took over. Supersonic flight was only a few years away, and in 1958, a RAND think-tank dreamed up the first laser-guided bombs.

In spite of this fantastic progress, Budiansky maintains, the airplane continued to come up short as a weapon. Bombing attacks on German factories in WWI seldom stopped production. The inaccuracy of massed air assaults in WWII was appalling: Less than half the bombs dropped by the Eighth Air Force came within even 2,000 feet of their targets. In Korea and Vietnam, air power was hamstrung by politics. Curtis LeMay wasn’t the first air general to believe he could bomb his enemy “back into the Stone Age,” nor was he the only one who failed to do so.

Ultimately, Budiansky argues, air power has become truly transformative only recently. With the advancement of the computer chip and the ever-increasing availability of “smarter” bombs, aviation has found its place on the battlefield, not, as early advocates imagined, far beyond it. American combat aircraft now devote nearly all of their attention to enemy ground forces. In Gulf War II, 68 percent of air munitions were precision-guided, and 79 percent of Iraqi targets were enemy troops and vehicles. And aircraft have undeniably made their presence felt: In Gulf War I, the U.S. Army stockpiled 220,000 rounds of tank ammunition for the invasion of Kuwait, but after six weeks of air strikes, tank crews needed less than 2 percent of it. “Nothing like this had ever happened in a war before,” Budiansky writes. Air power reigns supreme, at last, if not quite the way its inventors had hoped.

Justin Ewers is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

 

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