The Age of Airpower

In This Review

The Age of Airpower
By Martin van Creveld
PublicAffairs, 2011
512 pp. $35.00

A new book from Van Creveld is always something to be savored. There have been many previous histories of airpower, but none so comprehensive and sensitive to context as this one. No recorded use of aircraft in war has been excluded, whether during the 1939-40 Russo-Finish War or the El Salvador insurgency in the early 1990s. Even fictional accounts of air war are included. In some ways, the book is a masterpiece of compression. Yet the result can be dense, and at times, Van Creveld's sources are not the best. The underlying argument, moreover, is unconvincing. The basic thesis is that airpower had reached its country-wrecking peak by 1945, after which it declined, as nuclear deterrence suppressed great-power war and as the arrival of missiles, satellites, and drones rendered increasingly expensive aircraft superfluous. As Van Creveld points out, airpower has not been effective in "wars among the people," and the air forces of the major powers have all shrunk since their glory days. But so, of course, have their navies and their armored divisions; the real argument to be made is about the declining utility of all types of military power. Van Creveld is right to be aware of the limits of airpower used on its own, but few commanders would wish to fight their land wars without air superiority.