Brian D. Laslie. The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam. Lawrence: University Press of Kentucky, 2015. 260 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8131-6059-7.
Reviewed by Christopher Rein (ACSC/DEL)
Published on H-War (December, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Historian Brian Laslie’s The Air Force Way of War does as much to explain the remarkable rehabilitation of American airpower in the period between the Vietnam and First Gulf Wars as any book, with the possible exception of John Andreas Olsen’s John Warden and the Renaissance of American Airpower. While Olsen focuses on the theoretical and doctrinal constructs that enabled the US Air Force to refocus on campaign planning and operational execution, Laslie explores the specific training exercises that translated these ideas into battlefield capabilities with strategic effects. Focusing on the series of “colored flag” exercises the service developed and hosted during the interwar decades, Laslie conclusively demonstrates that realistic training must be accounted for alongside the tremendous technological and intellectual progress of the period. Most significantly, the book finally consolidates parts of a story told in a variety of sources into an easily accessible, readable, and digestible volume that will well serve both airpower historians and future practitioners for years to come.
Laslie’s focus is chronological, beginning with the shortcomings of the Vietnam War that saw the air force struggle to achieve tactical effects without suffering serious losses and to devise and effectively support a strategy that might lead to a favorable resolution of the conflict. While military historians might argue that the latter objective lay beyond the service’s power, the former lay well within the service’s prerogatives, and efforts to improve battlefield performance began while the conflict was still underway. Instead of an inept and unrealistic training regimen that focused on preserving scarce assets for a potential nuclear war, Vietnam veterans insisted on more realistic training exercises that would better prepare the assembly line of pilots headed to Vietnam for the conditions they would encounter there. While previous histories have emphasized the “bottom-up” aspect of this movement, suggesting that the entire “Red Flag” concept came from a cabal of frustrated low-ranking officers, Laslie sees more institutional support, befitting a highly hierarchical military organization. Without the support of Tactical Air Command’s (TAC) senior leadership, it is unlikely that Nellis Air Force Base and the Nevada Test and Training Ranges (NTTR) would have evolved into the massive air exercises that became known as Red Flag.
After tracing the exercise’s origins and early growth in the first five chapters of the book, Laslie extends his argument to the last wars of the twentieth century, devoting two of the nine total chapters to the Desert Storm air campaign and another two to the 1990s, including the air campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo. Though he does use the latter conflicts to support his argument (“TAC placed such emphasis on training its pilots for the kinds of wars America engaged in after Vietnam … and the changes in training that occurred during this shift led directly to the successes in combat during the 1990s,” p. xi), Laslie does not rely on results against arguably overmatched enemies to demonstrate the “new” way of war the air force established and perfected in the preceding two decades. The new model of employing airpower, emphasizing fighter aircraft armed with precision weapons rather than bombers loaded with nukes could now be used either alongside conventional forces, as in Iraq in 2003, or as a “crisis management” tool, as in Libya and Syria in recent years. In either case, it is easy to see how the current air force evolved out of the capabilities and training the service developed in the 1970s and 1980s. For better or worse, this new capability would find the service adapting to a new role as the weapon of choice for political leaders, with far-reaching consequences for both air force airmen and the American taxpayer.
While Laslie, a former air force officer, current US Northern Command (NORTHCOM) deputy historian, and former Air Combat Command (ACC) historian at Langley Air Force Base (home to the former Tactical Air Command archives, which Laslie exploits successfully), could be accused of a service bias in his conclusions, he is not shy about taking the service to task when required. For example, he rightly points out that “after Desert Storm, there were those who saw the air force as the only service that mattered, believing it could attain results without the other military branches,” a charge the air force has been guilty of since the days of Billy Mitchell and one that has often retarded success in war, as demonstrated in the cleavage between air and conventional ground forces manifested in Afghanistan in 2001-2002. Laslie asserts that “trying to act on the basis of this assumption would prove to be folly,” and alleges that this “hubris” negatively impacted operations in the Balkans (p. 164). He is also critical of the “official histories” of the most recent conflicts that the Air Force has commissioned, most frequently through its association with RAND that, not unlike the World War II-era Strategic Bombing Surveys, often paint the service’s contributions in an almost uniformly positive light (p. 177). The book grew out of Laslie’s doctoral dissertation at Kansas State University, one of the last remaining bastions of military history in civilian academia, and was skillfully advised by Dr. Don Mrozek, an acknowledged expert and balanced airpower analyst.
Laslie’s celebration of Red Flag’s success also leads to uncomfortable questions about how effective the exercise remains, pointing out that it is easy to marshal resources to fix failures but far more difficult to tinker with perceived success. To his credit, Laslie addresses these concerns in his conclusion, arguing that even the incorporation of new service capabilities, such as “electronic warfare, space and cyberspace operations and ‘non-kinetic’ operations” could not save the exercise from participants’ charges that it had “lost its luster and utility” (pp. 182-183). This too-brief observation sheds much light on how military organizations learn from war but also demonstrates the incredible inertia that can accompany successful innovation, potentially stifling future attempts. In exploring this dynamic, Laslie extends the utility of his study beyond the narrow realm of airpower history and provides insight into institutional and organizational change that will be of use across the field of military history.
. John Andreas Olsen, John Warden and the Renaissance of American Airpower (Washington, DC: Potomac, 2007).
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Christopher Rein. Review of Laslie, Brian D., The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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