The Changing Nature of Airpower, Seapower And Strategic Theory
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The Changing Nature of Airpower, Seapower And Strategic Theory


The ongoing debates over airpower theory, seapower theory, and strategic theory more generally have glided over three issues: the division between domains of action, the division between military and civilian contributions, and the increasingly transnational nature of the modern strategic community. Until we grapple with these three factors, we’re missing a big part of the process of how we grow and groom specialists in strategic affairs.

First, should we be worried about making “airpower” and “seapower” theorists, as opposed to “strategic” theorists? Are the air and sea sufficiently distinct in strategic terms merit separation? Colin Gray has argued that airpower is sometime seapower, sometimes ground power, and sometimes just airpower; is this sufficient to justify different fields of strategic training? A century ago, when the implications of airpower were not yet well understood, and when we were still searching for ways to describe the problems of managing the commons, it perhaps made sense to distinguish conceptually between airpower theory and maritime theory (or between airpower and seapower). Now, especially given that the most important problems associated with either involve joint action, this distinction is less defensible.

Second, airpower, seapower, and strategic theorists more generally are trained at places other than the venues of professional military education. My employer, the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, is part of an archipelago of civilian-focused foreign policy schools in the United States.  All of these schools, to greater or lesser extent, train students in the theory and practice of diplomacy and strategy. Virtually all of them offer extensive coursework in military and strategic issues.  This is unsurprising; the Pentagon and the universe of security-oriented think tanks that orbits the Pentagon have a voracious appetite for people with strategic expertise and with the tools for concrete analysis.

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Finally, and most importantly for the readers of The Diplomat, the training of strategic thinkers is becoming more of a transnational than a national endeavor. This is the case on both the military and the civilian side; the Army War College, for example, hosts (and even wargames with) an extensive collection of international students. At the Patterson School, as with many similar institutions, international students have tended to focus on diplomatic, economic, and development work.  Over the past few years this has begun to change, however.  My Defense Statecraft courses have hosted Korean, Chinese, German, and Russian students, all of whom planned to return to their home countries in order to work in government. Beginning next year the Patterson School will have an Indian diplomat-in-residence; the year after, we may be joined by a Chinese diplomatic professional. In effect, at the Patterson School (and many schools like it), we’re creating a transnational community of seapower and airpower theorists who will, in some senses, approach strategic questions with the same background and training.

There’s little question that expanding the zone of expertise on maritime, aerospace, and “strategic” affairs will both elevate and broaden the conversation.  However, we need to take care in specifying what sort of expertise we’re developing, and from which communities we’re cultivating experts.

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