REVIEW – Aerial Warfare: the battle for the skies

2 mins read
Frank Ledwidge
Oxford University Press, £12.99 (hbk)

There is very little in this book – save from some statistical data – that is new, but the book brings together the story of war in the air from the days of balloons and kites to the F-35 and drones (UAVs) in a most interesting and comprehensive manner.

It is written rather in the style of an excellent set of lecture notes produced by a diligent tutor. Frank Ledwidge, a Fellow of Law and Strategy at the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell, leaves very few stones unturned as he leads the reader through the complete history of manned and unmanned flight, quoting liberally from a wide range of authoritative sources.

The book begins with a chapter entitled ‘Foundations’, which sets the scene for the seven chapters that follow, ranging from ‘Beginnings: the First World War 1914-1918’ to ‘Aerostats to Algorithms 2001-2018’, examining the major conflicts of the last century, the Cold War, and smaller conflicts right up to virtually the present-day.

Not only does Ledwidge draw our attention to the great influence that aircraft have had, and continue to have, on armed conflict, he also discusses the limitations of aircraft over the years and in the modern conflict environment, and draws the air arms of naval and army military forces into his story, as well, of course, as independent and embodied air forces.

His coverage of both the great international wars of the 20th century is all-embracing and quite superb, with his writing on the Pacific War detailed and thought-provoking. But he is equally at home writing of the major developments – both aeronautical and political – during the inter-war years.

When he moves on to the Cold War, he tells the reader not only of the major philosophical conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and their respective governments, but also of the proxy wars running alongside the main conflict, which the author classifies as ‘wars of national liberation’. He shows the influence – not always completely successful – of air power in conflicts such as the French Indo-China War of 1946-1954 and France’s war in Algeria in the years immediately following.

He writes in fascinating detail on the Vietnam War – reporting, for example, that 3,300 of the 7,013 Bell ‘Huey’ helicopters deployed were lost – and he recounts the air-war aspects of the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1947 to 1982 and the Indo-Pakistani Wars of 1947 to 1971. As well as providing great detail, he analyses the drawbacks of using air power as well as the many advantages, from both tactical and strategic points of view.

Ledwidge draws this chapter to a close by dealing with the effects of air power on the maritime domain, highlighting the role of the aircraft carrier, and also that of aircraft in the 1982 Falklands conflict, where he concludes by writing ‘air power had been a vital component in the successful retaking of the islands’.

Throughout the book, Ledwidge offers succinct opinions of the whole range of military aircraft.

In short, this concise book, which finishes by asking what form air power may take in the years ahead, brings together technology, strategic thinking, and battlefield tactics. It is well worth the read, maybe to refresh the reader’s memories of such a wide-ranging topic, or as the ideal primer for a prospective military-aviation candidate prior to presenting him or herself for interview.

Review by Colin Pomeroy

This article was published in the February 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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