The DNA of Airpower

Sixteen Royal Air Force & Royal Navy Harriers Marking the Aircraft's Retirement(UK MoD Photo by Jamie Hunter, used via Creative Commons License)

Sixteen Royal Air Force & Royal Navy Harriers Marking the Aircraft’s Retirement
(UK MoD Photo by Jamie Hunter, Creative Commons License)

Sharing a rich history and close friendship, the French Air Force, Royal Air Force and United States Air Force signed a Tri-Lateral Strategic Initiative Charter in 2013. The Charter was intended to aggregate the world’s pre-eminent airpowers into “three air forces capable of rapid, cohesive and effective coalition operations across the full spectrum of conflict.”[1] To better integrate their capabilities, build mutual trust, and advocate for airpower, the three air forces rotate hosting an annual tri-lateral strategic steering group which draws on the brightest academic minds from each country to collaborate on shared and vexing issues.

This year, the Royal Air Force and the French Air Force joined with the United States Air Force to examine an endemic challenge. Attended by the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force (CSAF) General Mark Welsh III and facilitated by The Mitchell Institute,[2] retired generals (including former CSAFs Generals Fogleman and Moseley), renowned academics, historians and strategists gathered to analyze the intrinsic value of airpower. This short paper aims to provide an executive summary of that discussion.

Three Enduring Themes of Airpower

Following the formation of the Royal Air Force, the world’s first independent air force, nearly a century ago, the ascendancy of airpower has been characterized by three enduring themes. Firstly, that whilst there has been a remarkable technological and operational revolution across the entire spectrum of military arms, the relative tempo at which airpower has adapted and evolved has, even by the standards of the electronic revolution of the same century, been astonishing. Much like the advent of the computer and the information age, command of air and space has created impacts that few predicted.[3]

Secondly, since its inception, three nations have played a predominant role in employing airpower as an arm of national security and acting as intellectual catalysts for this exponential growth:  the United States, France, and Great Britain. Sharing cultural values and a core belief in the innate value that airpower can offer a nation, each conceived and adopted the principle of an air force and has deftly advanced the art of warfare in the third dimension. By doing so, the members of this trinity have each derived a successful legacy and proud reputation for pioneering this new frontier.

Clément Ader's Avion III at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris(Photo by PHGCOM, used via Creative Commons license)

Clément Ader’s Avion III at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris
(Photo by PHGCOM, Creative Commons License)

Thirdly, despite the dramatic evolution in airpower on both sides of the Atlantic and a plethora of noteworthy airpower-centric successes (not least Operation ALLIED FORCE in 1999), air forces have continually faced varying degrees of skepticism. In the 1890’s, valiant attempts from France (Clément Ader’s Avion III) and the US (Samuel Langley’s Great Aerodrome) served to reinforce what most already believed – that the sky was intended “solely for the use of butterflies and bats.”[4] Similarly, when asked to join the newly established Royal Aeronautical Society in Great Britain, the scientist Lord Kelvin crushingly replied “I have not the smallest molecule of faith in aerial navigation…or of expectation of good results from any trials we hear of.”[5] The cynics have all been proved wrong.

If not as omnipresent and omnipotent as some adherents would wish it, the employment of airpower has proved more effective than ever predicted. Following the first manned flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, the Wright Brothers irrefutable achievements triggered a revolution in air and space, exponential growth in the fields of aerodynamics, and a bewildering array of technical innovations. Indeed, within just 35 years of the Wright Flyer, Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle of the Royal Air Force had designed and patented the turbojet engine which, when co-joined with air-to-air refueling in 1949, afforded airpower nations the ability to reach across the globe within hours.

The Character of Airpower

The first and most distinctive characteristic of airpower is all too often understated. Although the combination of height, speed, and reach have long been cited as critical requirements to act across air and space with relative impunity (and continue to feature in French, US and Royal Air Force conceptual documents), airpower’s central nervous system sine qua non is vantage: the ability to break from the surface of the earth and provide “a position giving a strategic advantage, commanding perspective, or comprehensive view.”[6]  Comparatively unconstrained, free of the complications of terrain, clear of obstructions and high above the world’s oceans, previously inaccessible areas are now “within instant touching distance.”[7] Capable, too, of being multi-tasked across more than one mission, emergent platforms offer the ability to constantly observe and permanently scrutinize huge swathes of the earth, while also being primed for “fleeting moments of targeted opportunity.”[8] Successful warfare is first and foremost about – and has always been about – acquiring and exploiting information,[9] so the victor will always place a premium on information superiority. Combined with “a more complex, congested, contested, and connected environment”[10] where access will be disputed and where ground forces will have to fight for the freedom to maneuver, the opportunity for decisive action is momentary. To assist in this task, advances in sensor technology afford greater resolution, longer loiter time, and infinitely more lethality.  In an increasingly demanding environment, the application of simultaneity and ubiquity have proliferated at the same rate that airpower has flourished to meet them.

Two Tornado GR4 aircraft from No 31 Squadron Royal Air Force streak across the skies over RAF Marham. The Tornado GR4 is a variable geometry, two-seat, day or night, all-weather attack aircraft, capable of delivering a wide variety of weapons. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------- Photographer: Jamie Hunter/Aviacom Ltd Image 45152780.jpg from

Two Tornado GR4 Over RAF Marham
(UK MoD Photo by Jamie Hunter, Creative Commons License)

Since height also allows airpower to be less vulnerable to hostility when compared with land and maritime forces, it seems bizarre then, that airpower is criticized for being too “clinical” and ridiculed as “risk-averse.” It is an especially curious logic that to avoid becoming embroiled in physical contact demonstrates a lack of moral resolve. For airmen, the chaos of “contact” is to be avoided at almost any cost. To compromise the very advantages that airpower offers solves one problem: the adversary’s. Relinquishing the initiative to inconveniently place one’s own forces in harm’s way is a mindset that reflects a disturbing trend that seeks to not only make a necessity, but also a virtue of the punishing and bloody close fight. Against an enemy that is likely to be seeking “martyrdom,” such mindless yearning for the “Middle Ages” is not only regressive, it is immoral.

Agility and flexibility (a functional relationship between time and adaptability) have also been consistent verities of airpower but for various reasons. The comparative timescale on which airpower can act is powerful: response is dictated to airmen in hours and minutes, not in days or months. This has a number of benefits; not least, that airpower can swiftly employ global lethality.

However, agility also refers to the multiplicity of effects and roles that airpower can achieve, to include strategic deterrence: “holding global targets at risk through the physical projection of power, from airlift and resupply through restricted access to punishment through aggression.”[11] Airpower employment is also less vulnerable than surface forces, making it more politically acceptable to a government. Airpower allows leaders to obtain “gratification without commitment”[12]  because the visual absence of airpower doesn’t make it any less discriminative or persuasive. To control conditions on the surface of the earth, airpower does not necessarily have to be a physical phenomenon – it can be a psychological one, where its pervasiveness alone can influence perceptions and in turn coerce behavior.  This “rheostat effect,” one that diplomatically scales airpower effects according to socio-political context, is becoming an increasingly powerful tool for decision-makers.

Finally, airpower’s agility enables strategic decision-making. By providing political and military senior leaders with a unique set of options, whether to focus influence and apply precise power, or to “directly attain desired goals of national policy,”[13] the speed at which airpower alliances can coalesce (and purposefully fragment) offers leadership “breathing space” to gather political support. But notably, the converse is also true; airpower can extract, distance itself, de-escalate and detach as quickly as it can overwhelm. This is crucial to avoid becoming politically entangled in complex indigenous populations.


Regardless of the strength in airpower’s individual characteristics, it is their effective combination that has fundamentally changed how world powers can now think. Any air campaign that emphasizes temporally compressed and nodal power projection is likely to succeed. [14] The point is that to optimize airpower, actions should be simultaneous, not sequential, parallel, nor linear “to saturate the adversary to such an extent that structural or functional failure is the only option.[15]

USAF X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle(USAF Photo)

USAF X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle
(USAF Photo)

Dependent on technology to keep pace with the progressive nature of evolving threats, airpower also places significant demands on scientific and research and development sectors. Inextricably linked to both military and civilian technology, the aerospace enterprise remains a barometer of international status and prestige, technological prowess, and military capability. Global Positioning System (GPS), international communications, earth observation techniques, meteorological monitoring systems, and networking systems have all become generic airpower functions that serve humanity.  So while the aerospace industry may seem expensive, time-consuming, and focused on the long-term future, investment here generates exponential value to the wider community and should only be neglected at significant national peril, as it is immensely difficult to regenerate.

Finally, it would be remiss to consider Air Forces as purely platform-centric, technological organizations. Central to the pace of technological change has always been people, so air forces are people-centric, actively recruiting high-flyers but inclusive for those that can think intuitively and adopt a global view. Those serving across the air and space domains epitomize a cultural shift towards being connected, networked, and information thirsty:  thus it is innovation and strategic agility that is central to the premise of airmen. Closely linked is the truism that airmen have been inculcated to think in a different way, that a common understanding exists between airmen: “Airmindedness” is this prism through which airmen perceive the world, offering them an innately strategic perspective.


The proliferation of smart weapons, advanced sensors and automation are symptomatic of airpower’s ever-expanding portfolio. The modern advent of ‘fifth-generation’ aircraft, sensor-fusion, micro-satellites and swarming nanotechnology are also examples of this continuum. Dr. Peter Gray, Senior Research Fellow in Air Power Studies at the University of Birmingham, states that “air and space achievements have revolutionized humanity’s perspective of security and prosperity; for too long they have been considered separately, under-rated, unappreciated, and over-assumed.”[16] Recognition that airpower – the air medium and in a larger sense the three-dimensional medium – has achieved such significance reflects the nature of conflict: it is evolving and adapting faster than any futurist could have predicted.

Group Captain Christian Gleave is a Harrier GR9 pilot with a total of 3800 hours, a weapons instructor and served in The Red Arrows (RAF Aerobatic Team) and formerly a Battle Director in the CASOC. He is currently serving the US Chief of Staff Air Force as the Royal Air Force Exchange Officer in the USAF Strategic Studies Group, Pentagon.

[1] Tri-Lateral Strategic Initiative Charter, signed by each of the FRUKUS Air Chiefs, 2013 (Lead element falls to CSAF’s Strategic Studies Group, Air Force, Pentagon).

[2] The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies is an independent, non-profit research, studies, and analysis organization designed to educate on, advocate for, and cultivate understanding of the virtues and value of exploiting the domains of air, space, and cyberspace (

[3] Richard Hallion, Air and Space Power: Climbing and Accelerating, A History of Air Warfare, (Olsen, Potomac Books), Pages 371-393.

[4] Sir Michael Howard, The Causes of Wars (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1983), 215-217. See also John Keegan, The Face of Battle (London: Penguin Books, 1978), 20-35.

[5] Kelvin to Major B.F.S. Baden-Powell, December 8, 1896, letters files, folder 13, Library and Archives of the Royal Aeronautical Society, London. (Made available through Richard P. Hallion’s paper Air and Space Power: Climbing and Accelerating, A History of Air Warfare, Olsen, Potomac Books, Pages 371-393)

[6] Phillip B. Gove, ed., Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA: G. and C. Merriam Company, Publishers, 1971), 981.

[7] President George W. Bush, A Renewed Spirit of Discovery, The President’s Vision for U.S. Space Exploration (, January 2004.

[8] General T.M. Moseley, “Airpower – Council of the Wise,” Lecture, Tri-Lateral Strategic Steering Group, 26 March 2015, Washington DC.

[9] Richard Hallion, Air and Space Power: Climbing and Accelerating, A History of Air Warfare, (Olsen, Potomac Books), Pages 371-393.

[10] Rear Admiral John Kingwell, Royal Navy, Director, Concepts and Doctrine, Global Strategic Trends Out to 2045, Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, Ministry of Defence.

[11] General David Deptula, “Airmindedness,” (, 1 May 2015, Washington DC.

[12] Elliot A Cohen, The Mystique of U.S. Air Power, Foreign Affairs (1994).

[13] See Footnote 10.

[14] Richard Hallion, Air and Space Power: Climbing and Accelerating, A History of Air Warfare, (Olsen, Potomac Books), Pages 371-393.

[15] Etienne de Durand, Tri-Lateral Strategic Steering Group Workshop, 25 March 2015, Washington DC.

[16] Dr Peter Gray, Senior Research Fellow in Air Power Studies at the University of Birmingham, Delivering Weapon System Effects: The Contrast Between Piloted and Remotely-Piloted Platforms, 2 June 2015.


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