Why Air Forces Fail

Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat

Robin Higham
Stephen J. Harris
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 416
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Why Air Forces Fail
    Book Description:

    According to Robin Higham and Stephen J. Harris, "Flight has been part of the human dream for aeons, and its military application has likely been the dark side of that dream for almost as long." In the twentieth century, this dream and its dark side unfolded as the air forces of the world went to war, bringing destruction and reassessment with each failure. Why Air Forces Fail examines the complex, often deep-seated, reasons for the catastrophic failures of the air forces of various nations. Higham and Harris divide the air forces into three categories of defeat: forces that never had a chance to win, such as Poland and France; forces that started out victorious but were ultimately defeated, such as Germany and Japan; and finally, those that were defeated in their early efforts yet rose to victory, such as the air forces of Britain and the United States. The contributing authors examine the complex causes of defeats of the Russian, Polish, French, Arab, British, Italian, German, Argentine, and American air services. In all cases, the failures stemmed from deep, usually prewar factors that were shaped by the political, economic, military, and social circumstances in the countries. Defeat also stemmed from the anticipation of future wars, early wartime actions, and the precarious relationship between the doctrine of the military leadership and its execution in the field. Anthony Christopher Cain's chapter on France's air force, l'Armée de l'Air, attributes France's loss to Germany in June 1940 to a lack of preparation and investment in the air force. One major problem was the failure to centralize planning or coordinate a strategy between land and air forces, which was compounded by aborted alliances between France and countries in eastern Europe, especially Poland and Czechoslovakia. In addition, the lack of incentives for design innovation in air technologies led to clashes between airplane manufacturers, laborers, and the government, a struggle that resulted in France's airplanes' being outnumbered by Germany's more than three to one by 1940. Complemented by reading lists and suggestions for further research, Why Air Forces Fail provides groundbreaking studies of the causes of air force defeats.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7174-6
    Subjects: History, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)
    Robin Higham

    Rather than being an exhaustive effort to examine the fall or defeat of every air force, this is a limited study in which we asked experts in the field to examine archetypal examples from which worthwhile conclusions could be drawn. This means, of course, that we had some ideas about what contributed to such failures before any of the authors put pen to paper. Admittedly, the notions of “defeat” and “fall” are applied very loosely here, and some might suggest that it would have been more useful to address the reasons why air forces failed to accomplish what their national...

  5. CHAPTER ONE Poland’s Military Aviation, September 1939: It Never Had a Chance
    (pp. 13-40)
    Michael Alfred Peszke

    The short interwar (1918–1939) history of Poland’s Military Aviation (Lotnictwo Wojskowe) is a paradigm for the history of Poland’s efforts to ensure its security. The problems that confronted the Poles were two disgruntled neighbors, Germany and the Soviet Union, unhappy with territorial losses and seeking revindication; close to indefensible boundaries, particularly those with Germany; and a disastrous economic situation.

    Poland embarked on independence in 1918 with industrial output at 20 percent of its 1913 production. This was primarily due to the fact that partitioned Poland had been the battleground of World War I military operations between the Russians and...

  6. CHAPTER TWO L’Armée de l’Air, 1933–1940: Drifting toward Defeat
    (pp. 41-70)
    Anthony Christopher Cain

    Between 10 May and 25 June 1940, Germany overran France. The Armée de l’Air, the French air force, fought ineffectively against Germany’s Luftwaffe. Pierre Cot, two-time air minister under the Third Republic, declared, “The easy conquest of France by the Wehrmacht in May and June 1940, was largely due to the perfect collaboration of armored divisions and aerial forces. . . . Such excellent co-ordination of effort and movement cannot be improvised on the battlefield; it is the result of minute preparation, long training of soldiers, and especially of the adaptation of the military organization and machinery.” One of the...

  7. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  8. CHAPTER THREE The Arab Air Forces
    (pp. 71-98)
    Robin Higham

    The modern Arab Middle East is difficult to analyze because one umbrella term covers a variety of nations, states, religions, economies, developments, and political goals. Trying to do so is no more productive than trying to analyze the West, but at least the West is better understood in Europe and America.

    The differences among the Arab states’ inherited legacies and their cultures, and the question of how “backward” they are, may be puzzling to a nonspecialist. Nevertheless, it is necessary from a diplomatic and a military viewpoint to assess the Arab capability for modern war. One of the tools for...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Defeat of the German and Austro-Hungarian Air Forces in the Great War, 1909–1918
    (pp. 99-134)
    John H. Morrow Jr.

    The First World War witnessed the rise of airpower and the clash of embryonic air forces in the first struggle for aerial supremacy in the skies above battlefields and even over enemy homelands. Before the earliest days of the conflict, military establishments and pundits envisioned both the tactical and the strategic employment of aerial vehicles.

    In the historical analysis of the defeat of the German and Austro-Hungarian air services at the hands of the Entente powers in the Great War, the historian must not allow twenty-twenty hindsight to occasion unduly harsh judgments or to deny what appeared to be viable...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE Downfall of the Regia Aeronautica, 1933–1943
    (pp. 135-176)
    Brian R. Sullivan

    It is only a slight exaggeration to state that the defeat of the Regia Aeronautica (Royal [Italian] Air Force) actually took place when Italy entered World War II. When Mussolini announced that he was leading his country into conflict alongside Germany against Britain and France on 10 June 1940, he unwittingly placed his air force in a hopeless situation. Clearly, the French were already beaten. But Il Duce’s belief that the British would also collapse before the might of the Germans over the next weeks or months would prove as mistaken as his recently abandoned conviction that war between the...

  11. CHAPTER SIX The Imperial Japanese Air Forces
    (pp. 177-202)
    Osamu Tagaya

    Following Japan’s defeat in World War II, former vice admiral Torao Kuwabara, one of the leading pioneers of aviation in the old imperial navy, declared that Japan’s mistake had been starting the Pacific war too soon. By this, he meant that Japan had initiated armed conflict with the Western powers before its technological and industrial capabilities had matured sufficiently to allow it to confront them successfully in a major war.

    Certainly, by any measure of economic activity, the disparity in industrial strength between Japan and its Allied opponents, particularly the United States, was of such magnitude that, in retrospect, it...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN Defeat of the Luftwaffe, 1935–1945
    (pp. 203-226)
    James S. Corum

    By almost any measure, the Luftwaffe was superior to its enemies in 1939–1941. The Me 109 fighter was superior to most opponents, and only Britain’s Spitfire could match it in combat. The Ju 88, He 111, and Do 17 medium bombers were some of the best machines of their day. In Poland, Norway, France, North Africa, and Russia, the Ju 87 Stukas proved to be fearsomely effective as close support aircraft. In addition to combat machines, the Luftwaffe could field 500 transport planes, the largest air transport force in the world, and one that played a decisive role in...

  13. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  14. CHAPTER EIGHT The Argentine Air Force versus Britain in the Falkland Islands, 1982
    (pp. 227-260)
    René De La Pedraja

    The defeat Argentina suffered in the 1982 war over the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) was so disastrous that there is a widespread perception that it never stood a chance against Britain. An image of overwhelming British superiority emerges whether reading British authors praising their own forces or Argentine writers trying to account for the inevitable defeat.

    The efficiency, audacity, and, in particular, determination of the British forces are beyond question. But if British victory was such a foregone conclusion, the student of military history has little to learn from this war. A detached examination of the operations, however, reveals that...

  15. CHAPTER NINE From Disaster to Recovery: Russia’s Air Forces in the Two World Wars
    (pp. 261-286)
    David R. Jones

    Although Russia and the successor Soviet Union remained a Great Power, many, including scholars, have regarded it as a curious mix of backwardness and modernity. The bear has often been judged by its apparent military potential.

    In the nineteenth century, military demands led to the creation of a small industrial base and railways, yet Russia was still overwhelmingly a peasant farmer state. After the revolution of 1905, the intelligentsia increasingly interested themselves in technology, especially aviation, where precedents had been set in the 1880s. An Aeronautical Commission was established in 1904; flying clubs followed, and after Blériot’s 1909 cross-Channel flight,...

  16. CHAPTER TEN The United States in the Pacific
    (pp. 287-314)
    Mark Parillo

    On 7 and 8 December 1941, aircraft of the Japanese navy and army conducted a series of devastating assaults on U.S. military targets in Hawaii and the Philippines as part of imperial Japan’s first phase of operations against Allied forces in the Pacific. The Japanese onslaught dealt decisive defeats to American airpower in both locales, but there was a notable difference in the objectives of the two attacks.

    The Pearl Harbor operation was a massive naval air raid designed to cripple the U.S. capacity to interfere with the Japanese seizure of economically and strategically vital territories all over East Asia...

  17. CHAPTER ELEVEN Defeats of the Royal Air Force: Norway, France, Greece, and Malaya, 1940–1942
    (pp. 315-340)
    Robin Higham and Stephen J. Harris

    During the Second World War, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) suffered four resounding defeats—the air campaigns in Norway, France, Greece, and Malaya—and achieved one decisive victory—the Battle of Britain—before the U.S. Army Air Forces began to make a significant contribution. One other campaign, the fighter offensive over France in 1941–1942, was neither a victory nor a defeat, although it cost Fighter Command dearly.

    The roots of these defeats, as well as the one victory, lay in the interwar years and reflected a combination of political, economic, military, technical, and psychological factors. The political and...

  18. Conclusion
    (pp. 341-356)
    Stephen J. Harris and Robin Higham

    One plane, one sortie, one bomb, and one high-value target destroyed; or, given technological advances, perhaps one plane, one sortie,Xbombs, andXtargets destroyed—with no friendly losses. Could any thoroughly modern major general (or air vice-marshal) ask for anything more?

    Obviously, things are not that simple. Although stealth, global positioning systems, and increasingly sophisticated (and purpose-directed) hardware such as carbon filament bombs have made weaponeering more scientific, the precision is not absolute, and desired effects are not perfectly and predictably easy to achieve. What is the size or nature of the target? Will its destruction have any...

  19. List of Contributors
    (pp. 357-360)
  20. Index
    (pp. 361-382)