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Canada’s place in the age of air power

The Age of Airpower
Martin van Creveld
Public Affairs, 2011, $40.00

The process to procure sixty-five F-35 aircraft has provoked debate about Canada’s aerospace defence needs. Martin van Creveld’s latest book, The Age of Airpower, provides a welcome historical context for arguments both pro and con about acquiring the Joint Strike Fighter or its equivalent.

At minimum, its conclusion demands consideration: “There are historical grounds for suspecting that the combination of very high quality and very small numbers is a typical sign of military degeneration.”

A quick scan of some of the chapter titles will give you an indication of van Creveld’s thought provoking analysis: “The Twilight of Naval Aviation,” “Spurious Victories,” “Lose and Leave,” “Paper Wars.” However, as a Canadian well aware of our own unique aerospace heritage, I can’t help but feel that the context he uses to support his conclusions falls short.

For example, in his four-chapter coverage of World War II, labeled the “Greatest War of All,” the portrait of an independent Canada, which produced more four engine bombers during that war than any other belligerent except the United States and Great Britain, is lost in a big picture labeled “British Empire.”

Indeed, 6 Group of RAF Bomber Command had more Canadian four engine bomber squadrons on ops except for those of our English speaking allies. Moreover, to lump Canadian aircraft production within the “British Empire” frame is misleading given that Canada manufactured a thousand dive-bombers, none of which saw combat with British or Canadian services. More useful would have been an exploration of how these Canadian air power achievements added to Canada’s status in the immediate postwar international environment.

There is also little discussion of air power requirements to maintain sovereignty of “national airspace” and thus the unique bi-national mechanism that is NORAD is overlooked.

Van Creveld fails to address the level of national technical education or training required to support the development and maintenance of air power, or technical level of personnel to operate radar systems. Five thousand RCAF radar technicians were recruited and hastily posted, as individuals, into the RAF, to make good the shortfall of British recruits with the necessary radio background.

Soviet Russia did produce masses of aircraft, far out-producing Canada in sheer numbers. However, van Creveld suggests that over 50 percent were tasked for Close Air Support (CAS). If, as many historians now suggest, the war against the Nazi was won by the Soviet armies, the effectiveness of this allocation of airpower assets deserves more consideration. Van Creveld cites in his conclusions a recent American general noting that CAS could only be expected within 25 minutes, “a marginal improvement on what the RAF in Egypt had achieved in the Western Desert.” He does acknowledge that the Israeli Air Force had response times, during Operation Cast Lead in 2006, of between 60-90 seconds using Apache helicopters already in the air to provide CAS. However, this loitering by manned aviation or aircraft assets comes with a cost. Unfortunately, van Creveld does not delve into the role of unmanned aerial vehicles in the CAS role.

While he concludes that manned tactical/strategic aircraft will be replaced by UAVs, I would have appreciated more of his thoughts on the use of “drones” in other roles of future air forces.

The most controversial issue van Creveld raises is who should own airpower assets, the user or the air force? Again, Canadian experience is perhaps instructive. Our Chinook helicopters, it appears, were sold to the Dutch in the early 1990s when cuts came, because our air force was paying to man and operate a helicopter that was primarily used by the army, which of course refused to pay for equipment it didn’t own or operate. Van Creveld notes that the U.S. army and the marines operate their own extensive fleets.

As a text to place the F-35 procurement within context of the development of airpower, van Creveld’s tome serves Canadians very well, even if some specific Canadian context is ignored. It can only be hoped that some of his conclusions are premature and that a revised edition will include more on UAVs as an element of airpower.

Tea Time with Terrorists
Mark Stephen Meadows
Soft Skull Press, 2010, $14.06

Our foreign minister has threatened a boycott of the next Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka if that country does not deal with human rights abuses. Most allegations suggest that the Sinhalese majority is perpetuating violations of the defeated Tamil militants and their supporters. A large Tamil Diaspora in Toronto has created an “ethnic” voting bloc that cannot be ignored by any Canadian political party. Author Mark Meadows puts a human face to the tragedy that played out in Sri Lanka with these anecdotal accounts of sipping tea with some of the leading “actors.”

 

Reviewed by Roy Thomas, MSC, CD, MA (RMC)

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