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At the Dawn of Airpower

At the Dawn of Airpower Book Review

By David L. Veres

Date of Review January 2024 Title At the Dawn of Airpower
Author Laurence M. Burke II Publisher U.S. Naval Institute Press
Published 2022 ISBN 9781682477298
Format 384 pages, hardbound MSRP (USD) $49.95

Review

The subtitle, “The U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps' Approach to the Airplane, 1907-1917”, says it all.

Laurence M. Burke II charts the earliest days of American military aviation in At The Dawn of Airpower – part of the “History of Military Aviation” range from U.S. Naval Institute Press.

Burke methodically and masterfully explores formative factors and forces shaping nascent American airpower in 384 pages over nine admirably annotated chapters.

Coverage includes dramatis personae, technical issues, organizational schemes, political considerations, inter-service concerns, training factors, aerodynamic and propulsion matters, and more. And each chapter helpfully includes a summary “conclusion”.

Along the way, At The Dawn of Airpower explores a whole host of salient and strategic questions.

The first official flight of human-borne, heavier-than-air aircraft occurred 17 December 1903. Why did the first official U.S. military aircraft acquisition occur four long years later? What roles should these machines play? Scouting? Reconnaissance? Supply? Attack? And from what talent pool(s) might fledgling aviators come? Officers? Enlisted personnel? Both?

By 1914, the year WWI in Europe began, the U.S. Army had myopically decided against “developing airplane ordinance on the basis that airplanes were primarily for reconnaissance”.

Moreover, Burke reports, “none of the [U.S.] Navy’s [current] planes were [sic: was] suitable for war use in 1914”. Even during exercises two years later, USN aircraft couldn’t carry bombs at advantageous altitudes – or, owing to subpar cameras, conduct photographic reconnaissance.

Unfortunately, U.S. participation in WWI failed to resolve key doctrinal issues. And aviation’s optimal roles in, say, military power projection and surface forces cooperation remained factious and unresolved.

So perhaps Burke will pen an equally informative, successor study of interbellum U.S. strategy disputes. Let’s hope.

Recommended!

But in 1911, USS Pennsylvania – later renamed USS Pittsburgh – was an armored cruiser, not a battleship. And the U.S. Navy “first used” steam engines to power ships two decades before the American Civil War – not during that conflict.

With thanks to U.S Naval Institute Press for the review copy.