The Role of Air Power in Modern Warfare

NATO Air Commander (NAC) is a new solitaire game by Hollandspiele, set during a hypothetical World War III between NATO and the Warsaw Pact in Germany that focuses on the air war. Players slip into the role of the air component commander and have to allocate air assets in order to facilitate NATO winning the war.

This is the third post in a multi-post series on NATO Air Commander and the relationship between air- and land power. For the other posts see:

  1. NATO Air Commander – The Wargame
  2. Unboxing NATO Air Commander
  3. The Role of Air Power in Warfare (the post you are reading now)
  4. Rules Overview of NATO Air Commander
  5. First Game AAR of NATO Air Commander

The post is a review of John A. Warden III book The Air Campaign and the role of airpower in the planning and conduct of operations.

The Air Campaign Cover
(Image Courtesy of Amazon)

Who is John A. Warden III, and why should you know about him?

John A. Warden III was a US Air Force Colonel who very early in his career started researching operational design and decision making on a strategic level. His focus was on operational design and the theory of air war. He emphasized that operational thinking should focus on concepts, not on technology. He was the chief designer of the air campaign during the 1990s US war with Iraq.

What is the book about?

The Air Campaign is a theoretical treatise on the conduct of the air war. The focus here was again, on concepts, not on specific tactics tailored to certain weapons systems or the like. Col. Warden writes in the preface:

This book is not about tactics and does not adress how to bomb a target. It is not technical and does not address specific weapon systems. It is not specific to any particular air force and thus does not address directly any of the various disputes over doctrine that are common in many air forces. Likewise, it avoids using terms that recently have come into vogue but are still too esoteric to be widely understood or usable.

The Air Campaign is concerned with the design of air campaigns, i.e. The air component in war. Col. Warden implies that technology, and tactics based on that technology, change. However, the principles of air war stay the same.

Content Overview

The Air Campaign starts by giving the air war the proper context in the greater conduct of the war. What is the role of air forces? How do they fit into the overall war plan? What are the different levels (tactical, operational, strategic) of war and how do they fit together? How do air forces contribute at each level? It goes on describing the concept of “centers of gravity”, which are an opponent’s vital elements and structures, the destruction of which would strongly jeopardize his conduct of the war.

The first chapter goes on to explain the concept of air superiority and why it is necessary. It explains why air supremacy, the highest level of air superiority, is crucial for the conduct of any type of war. The nucleus of this chapter is Table 1 “Air Superiority Cases” which lists the different initial conditions in a war in regards to the air war. For example Case I, where blue airfields and rear areas, as well as red air fields and rear areas, are vulnerable and front lines are reachable. Throughout The Air Campaign, Col. Warden reaches back to this table to explain the best-case scenario and campaign design for each case.

Chapter two describes the interplay of offensive and defensive operations. It describes the conditions under which an air force would decide to solely focus on one and what drawbacks this decision may entail. Col. Warden makes a strong case for why a focus on offensive operations and concentration of forces on key missions and targets is the best possible scenario. According to him, it is a lot cheaper to destroy enemy aircraft on the ground (via offensive operations) than in the air (via defensive operations), making the offensive therefore preferable.

The third chapter then focuses on offensive operations. The chapter describes how offensive operations can be conducted in each air superiority case. Col. Warden further describes different types of targets (logistics, personnel, command, and control, etc.) and how targeting them can affect the air war.

Chapter four does the same for defensive operations. It describes how one can make the best of it if forced into a defensive position and what one can do to turn that situation around.

Chapter five describes the unusual case of limited operations, where the enemy’s air bases cannot be reached, but air superiority/supremacy still has to be attained in order to enable own ground operations. Chapters six and seven go on to describe air interdiction and close air support operations. Col. Warden is of the opinion that the main goal of air forces is to defeat enemy air forces and defenses and that a direct (CAS) or indirect (air interdiction) contribution to the ground battle can only be made after air supremacy has been firmly secured.

Chapter eight is the second most important chapter after chapter three. It is all about reserves. Col. Warden goes on to describe the importance of operational reserves for air operations and how many air commanders have fallen prey to the wrong belief that “a sortie not flown is a sortie lost.” Col. Warden describes how this is far from the truth and how operational reserves are the most important tool in decisively influencing air operations. No matter how thorough the preparation, operations are always planned with uncertainty and a set of assumptions. Only through the use of reserves can commanders influence the outcome of operations after they have started and many of the uncertainties have been lifted and initial assumptions proved wrong.

Chapter nine describes how all the aforementioned components fit together and how the relationship between different political and operational goals helps influence each other. Chapter ten goes on to describe key points in the planning of the air campaign.

The book ends with a summary of the main ideas of the book and an epilogue which describes how those ideas were applied in the 1990s war with Iraq.

Main Concepts

The main ideas of The Air Campaign are as follows:

  1. Winning and holding air supremacy is crucial and the most important step in an air campaign
  2. This is done by focusing on offensive air operations and destroying the enemy’s means of air war
  3. Concentration is key, air efforts should not be divided but focused on concept and target
  4. Operational reserves are crucial in providing flexibility


The Air Campaign was an eye-opening read for me. As a ground pounder, the lofty heights of air war were always a mystery. The Air Campaign is an operational theory and gives a holistic overview of all components and their interplay. Col. Warden did a splendid job in introducing the main concepts and putting together the puzzle pieces into a coherent picture of air war. I will have to contrast his writings and conclusions with Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations and historical examples, I am sure they will hold up just fine.

Col. Warden wrote a masterpiece of war theory and it is a shame that his book is not more widely known.

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