A recent University Press of Kentucky edited volume, The Influence of Airpower Upon History, attempts to evaluate to impact of airpower since the beginning of manned, powered flight. The book largely avoids theorizing about airpower and instead examines how statesmen have used airpower as a policy instrument, and what the effects of this instrument have been. Although the book includes a chapter (by Andrew Erickson) on the development of Chinese airpower, it concentrates mostly on airpower’s impact on European and American great power politics. Given the role that airpower is playing in America’s Pacific pivot, it’s worth taking a moment to evaluate what transformative influences airpower has wrought on Asian politics since the beginning of flight.
The first serious uses of airpower in Asia involved efforts to hold together the great European colonial empires. Early British efforts at counter-insurgency in the hills of Pakistan resulted, as much as anything else, from the desire of the Royal Air Force to retain its independence from the Army and the Navy. Although the British Army was quick to point out that tribesmen pacified through bombing rarely remained pacified after the aircraft left, the project was more or less successful from an organizational point of view, and helped spur an overestimation of airpower’s potential to knit together the colonial holdings. Perhaps ironically, the failure of airpower at Dien Bien Phu heralded the end of France’s Asian empire, and help close the door on the European colonial project.
Airpower played an important but not decisive role in the wars that would determine the rulers of China. The Imperial Japanese Army Air Service could burn Shanghai, but it could not guarantee victory over Nationalist China, or bring the primitive People’s Liberation Army to heel. But then the PRC itself has struggled to use airpower to good effect. The PLAAF played an important defensive role in the Korean War, but was embarrassingly absent in both the Sino-Indian and the Sino-Vietnamese Wars. Nor has China’s growing commitment to airpower yet brought Taiwan into the fold.
The United States has been the Pacific Rim’s most successful practitioner of airpower. The U.S. Navy’s carriers, in conjunction with the Army Air Force and the Marine Corps, successfully cut off Japan’s access to resources in World War II, and provided a platform for U.S. intervention in Korea and Vietnam. The brutal strategic bombing campaigns undertaken by the United States against Japan, Korea, and Vietnam had more ambiguous effects. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the air certainly helped precipitate the Japanese surrender, even as the destruction of Tokyo did not. The incineration of Pyongyang had, by most accounts, relatively little impact on the Korean War, while the attacks on Hanoi did not, in the end, prevent the loss of South Vietnam.
The most important influence of powered, manned flight on Asian history has probably come less in the military effect of airpower than in its ability to tie the vast region together. Before air travel, the economic and political centers of Asia were separated by oceans, mountains, great distance, and poor infrastructure. Today Tokyo to Beijing takes roughly 3.5 hours; from Beijing to Delhi perhaps 7; from Delhi to Jakarta another 7.
In effect, civilian airpower has enabled the development of a transnational business and political elite that can speak the same language of money and power. DC-3s and 747s have likely wrought a far greater transformation in Asia than B-29s, B-52s, and their successors ever will.