Air Power and a Liberal Way in War: The West’s Quest to Remove Battle from War

I recently put in a proposal for a conference at the University of Reading on the Liberal Way in War. While the paper was not accepted for the main conference I was asked to deliver my paper at the Postgraduate Symposium being held the day before. The conference itself will see more than 40 papers delivered on this subject and includes keynote lectures by Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman and Professor Richard Overy. The conference is part of the university’s Levehulme funded project on the Liberal Way in War and it should be an interesting experience. Given Colin Gray future book on Airpower and Strategic Effect it will be interesting to see how my paper is received. I just need to sit down and write it now as there may be the possibility of publishing it. Here is the abstract:

Martin Van Creveld has recently suggested that due to the changing character of war in the twenty-first century independent air power has a less sure place in the pantheon of military assets and that it is integrated assets that will have the biggest impact in future war. However, as Joel Hayward has shown air power lies at the heart of the west’s attempt to remove battle from war. Indeed, as the west has become ever more sensitive to the impact of the so-called ‘body bag syndrome’, independent air power has become seen as a viable means of achieving victory in war. The recent conflict in Libya has illustrated the impact that air power can have on the character of a conflict. The apparent advantages of air power over land, and even naval, power has seen its application in various campaigns over the past one-hundred years.

This paper will, through a series of historical case studies, illustrate the enduring legacy and relevance of independently-controlled air power. It will show that the development of air power theory has had at its core the application of force to reduce or shorten war, and that for both political and moral reasons this has become the preferred form of warfare for liberal governments. However, it will illustrate that in its independent form air power has not always achieved the results the rhetoric has suggested it will, and that integrated but independently-controlled air power has been just as effective in removing battle from war.

In examining the development of independently-controlled air power this paper considers how both governments and air power theorists have justified the use of air power rather than deploying boots on the ground. It will argue that independently-controlled air power, with a mix of independent and integrated assets, remains the ideal method of projecting power for liberal democracies that are ideological opposed to large casualty lists and that, therefore, it must be maintained to support the ability of west to continue to trade-off between its key concerns of security and liberty.

Comments and thoughts always welcomed.

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6 responses to “Air Power and a Liberal Way in War: The West’s Quest to Remove Battle from War

  1. “Air Power and a Liberal Way in War: The West’s Quest to Remove Battle from War”

    It seems like there a rather large tautology, or maybe a begging-the-question, embedded at the centre of this concept.

  2. I would not say that Western democracies are necessarily ideologically opposed to casualties, at least not from my point of view here in Washington. I think the real issue is that casualties are politically unpalatable. That said, sounds like it will be an interesting paper. Will you be including the increasing use of drones by the US?

  3. Jon there are certainly several question begging to be asked. Most notably why and how effective. Hopefully I will provide some answers to those.

  4. Mark I think there is a element of truth there but I think that as we have moved into the 21st Century casualties have become unpalatable to society as well as politicans but I take your point. I may well be concluding with some comments on the use of drones in the fortcoming century. So far I am in the thinking stage and my planned framework has already changed.

  5. Hi Ross,
    Yeah, that too, although I was more thinking of whether it’s /just/ the West, and more fundamentally whether it’s /even/ the West. Both the US and the UK, to take the most obvious example, have committed the majority of their available ground forces to sustained operations over the last decade. In fact, the US has been raising ground forces in order to sustain those ops.

    The battles those forces have fought in the last decade are different in nature to WWI, WWII, or even the Falklands, due partly to airpower. But then those three were different to each other too, at least in part for the same reason.

    I happily agree that many (most? all?) nations aren’t too keen to see a return to WWII-like casualty lists, but I’m not sure that’s unique to the West. And even allowing for some useful hyperbole, ‘removing battle from war’ just seems to me like a bit too much of a stretch. Yet both of those propositions appear to have simply been accepted as true.

    Regards
    Jon

  6. I agree that Western Democracies are not afraid to inflict casualties on their enemies but I do think we are more casualty conscious than non-western countries. Yes, I would agree that it is a case of context, and it would appear in some respects that the US has been willing to suffer relatively high-casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan but I do think that where it has been possible then air power, and increasing Special Forces, has become the weapon of choice for western governments. However, air power, and the increasing use of drones, is seen as the means to achieve victory without having to commit large ground forces. Of course, there is a lot of hyperbole in the use of air power but the reality is that when applied effectively it has a level of strategic effect that far outweigh the application of ground forces.

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