Book Review - Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat (RCAF Journal - SUMMER 2016 - Volume 5, Issue 3)

Cover of Why Air Forces Fail

Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat

Edited by Robin Higham and Stephen J. Harris

Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006
382 pages
978-08-1312-374-5

Review by Major Jennifer Foote, CD, MPA

Learning lessons is key to the future success of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and is an integral part of all operations, exercises and daily activities. The ability to analyse a situation, identify its shortcomings and recommend remedial action provides the building blocks for improvement and the potential to add value to our collective air force knowledge. This edited anthology, Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat, is a valuable addition to an air power library, as it identifies numerous cause-and-effect dynamics that influenced the outcome of significant air battles. This well-researched historical study of the complexities which underpin the failure of air forces throughout the 20th century is a fairly broad overview of a few select air battles from which many lessons can be learned. The editors have grouped the failures into three categories: air forces that never had a chance to win, such as Poland and France; air forces that were victorious at the outset but were ultimately defeated, namely Germany and Japan; and the last group contains those air forces that struggled in the beginning, but ultimately triumphed, such as the American and British air forces. In all cases, the authors examined all possible contributing factors such as geography, politics, technology, training and timing.

Eleven cases are examined including Poland’s Military Aviation in 1939, the gradual defeat of the French Air Force between 1933 and 1940 as well as the limited success of the Arab air forces which, interestingly, are grouped together in this essay even though the air forces discussed were from different nations and were not all allies. Other cases include the failure of the German Air Force during both World Wars as well as the defeat of the Italian and Argentinian air forces. Japan’s surprising victory is explored, followed by more disasters by the Russian, American and British air forces. While not a complete examination of every failing air force, this collection captures what are certainly the most prominent battles and draws worthwhile conclusions.

This study of factors influencing the outcome of the application of air power cuts a wide swath, exploring not only the more obvious numerical or technological superiority of air power but also the doctrine upon which tactics were based and the geopolitical climate at the time. The effectiveness of command and leadership are challenged, while gaps in intelligence demonstrated the fatality of incorrect assumptions. The chapters examining each situation are dense, fact filled and generally assume that the reader has a certain level of familiarity with the history of military air power. Why Air Forces Fail is not the whole story, but it is an eye-opening introduction to a collection of complex military and political histories, culminating in each authors’ assessment of the reasons behind the outcome of the battle being studied. Each historical vignette is followed with suggestions for further research and a recommended reading list, encouraging the reader to examine the air battles more closely and delve more deeply into the lessons that were learned. I feel that I am left with more questions than answers about the true nature of an air force’s failure, but this collection provides a starting point and a roadmap to further discovery—a welcome redirect as I study air power and how it affects the Royal Canadian Air Force today and into the future.


Major Jennifer Foote, a Communications and Electronics Engineering (Air) officer, is employed as the technical lead for the Air Synthetic Environment at the Canadian Forces Aerospace Warfare Centre. Previous posts include Deputy Commanding Officer Canadian Forces Recruiting Centre Winnipeg, Air Staff Information Management Officer and RCAF planner for both the 2010 Olympics and the G8 Summit. She is a graduate of the Aerospace Systems Course at the Canadian Forces School of Aerospace Studies, holds a Master of Public Administration from the University of Manitoba and is currently enrolled in the Joint Command and Staff Programme at the Canadian Forces College.

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