Book Reviews

Book Cover: ‘The Air Force Way of War: US Tactics and Training after Vietnam’

The Air Force Way of War: US Tactics and Training after Vietnam

by Dr. Brian D. Laslie
Lexington: University Press of Kentucky (2015)
260 Pages, $67.54
ISBN: 978-0813160597

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Reviewed by Richard Shimooka

Written by the deputy command historian for NORAD and US Northern Command, who is also an adjunct professor at the US Air Force Academy, The Air Force Way of War is a critical piece of literature for understanding the US Air Force (USAF) in the post-Vietnam Era. As a mark of its significance, it was placed on the US Air Force Chief of Staff’s reading list for 2016.

The book provides a new narrative on the nature of American airpower since the Vietnam War. Works like Benjamin Lambeth’s The Transformation of American Air Power tend to focus upon the technical superiority achieved by the United States. Instead Laslie argues that “…it has been training, not technology, that has separated American pilots from their enemies during aerial combat.” While a provocative and compelling thesis, it highlights a number of issues.

The first quarter of the author’s work covers the problems encountered during the Vietnam War. This is somewhat well-worn ground, with several books, such as Lon Nordeen’s Air Warfare in the Missile Age, or Wayne Thompson’s To Hanoi and Back, covering the same issues. Laslie’s treatment, however, focuses more upon the personnel and training issues that affected the USAF fighter effort, rather than the technical failings and political limitations placed upon their operations. A quote by a USAF major in Vietnam best encapsulates the author’s focus:

Most missiles were fired outside of their intended envelope or at the edges where performance would be low. Pilots entering into combat needed better preparation. No ground troop would be allowed to enter battle without first firing his weapon, and yet, that is exactly what was happening to air force pilots in Vietnam.

Following his dissection of the Vietnam War, the author turns to the nub of his book – Exercise Red Flag and USAF training efforts in the post-conflict period. For the uninitiated, Red Flag is a large air-warfare exercise simulation conducted in Nevada, primarily for United States Air Force, but with other services and allied nations participating. It may involve hundreds of aircraft over a realistic training environment with simulated weapons that reflect contemporary threats. The author provides a background of the politics and personalities that led to its creation and development. Overall it is a fascinating insight into a rarely-examined event.

While this section is convincing, it also exposes a flaw in the author’s central argument. The training provided by Red Flag can only be effective if it accurately replicates potential threats pilots may face. To this end, Laslie spends a number of pages discussing the Constant Peg program. This was a top-secret aggressor unit largely made up of covertly-acquired Soviet aircraft, against which select pilots were able to train. While perhaps the most tangible component of the US intelligence community’s contribution to Red Flag, it is unfortunately the only area the author discusses in any depth. He glosses over the vast effort to obtain data that could improve Red Flag as an exercise. One glimpse was recently evident in David Hoffman’s work, The Billion Dollar Spy, which detailed the extent of Adolf Tolkachev’s spying upon advanced Soviet radar systems in the 1970s and 1980s. The fruits of his work clearly had an influence upon the USAF’s tactics and training, which improved their operational efficacy. While much of this area remains classified, its omission diminishes the critical component of explaining how Red Flag remains relevant to present circumstances.

The final half of the book covers many of the major interventions that have occurred since 1975, including Operation El Dorado Canyon (Libya 1985), Desert Sword (Iraq/Kuwait 1991), and Allied Force (Serbia/Kosovo 1999). They are somewhat re-conceptualized around the author’s focus upon training and personnel. These chapters also illustrate the issues with the author’s view on the importance of technological development in developing the USAF’s capabilities. He acknowledges the importance new technologies played in improving the USAF’s capabilities, such as the F-117 Nighthawk stealth bomber, and the so-called “teen” series of fighters that emerged after Vietnam. As the author notes:

These new systems… presented Tactical Air Command with a modern and technologically advanced fleet. However, the most important contribution to the air force’s preparation for combat was that each new aircraft was tested in various realistic training exercises. Having new systems and technologies would not in itself lead to success on the battlefield. More than anything, the air force needed a way to train the pilots of these aircraft in a realistic manner to ensure that, when they faced combat, they would be prepared. This training was found in the Red Flag exercises.

Few serious people would disagree with such a characterization. However, the author’s argumentation goes further in several instances, suggesting that advanced training could supplant purchasing ‘cutting edge’ technologies. This is problematic in a number of ways, especially when one considers the scant attention paid to precision-guided munitions (PGMs) in the book. PGMs have played a critical role in the organization and application of air power since Vietnam. They have enabled greater economy of force by requiring fewer aircraft to prosecute targets and flexibility in target selection. No amount of training will offer the same level of capability as guided munitions.

In sum, The Air Force Way of War provides an excellent new perspective into the development of US airpower since the Vietnam War. The development of a realistic training environment certainly has provided a lopsided advantage for the USAF and partner militaries. Moreover, considering the development cyberwarfare, autonomous vehicles, and high-bandwidth networks, the commitment to provide a realistic training environment is essential to maintaining this edge in the future.

Unfortunately, the book’s potential influence has been diminished somewhat by downplaying the significance of other factors. The nexus of training, intelligence and technology is the core component in assuring American military dominance in the air, but this book prioritizes the first over the other two. As such it almost needs to be read alongside other works, to obtain a more fulsome appreciation of American airpower’s character since the Vietnam War.

Richard Shimooka, M Sc., an experienced independent consultant and analyst, is currently a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute.