Friday, October 3, 2014

Review: Middle East Airpower in the 21st Century

Full disclosure: Pen and Sword has asked that I take a look at their range of military history books and provide a few reviews here and there, so I will be integrating these into my usual review section.

As an academic type person of the Middle East studies persuasion, I am always on the look out for new and interesting tomes to sink my teeth into. While I currently work on the more sociological side of things, my roots are in guns and bombs, and so anything that provides good raw data to that effect in the radius of the Arabian Peninsula is always a welcome sight. Traditionally, I have extracted these types of figures from dedicated think tanks and their associates: your IISSes, your Janes and your Cordesmans. While these groups often give a general overview of capabilities, they rarely produce material dedicated to a single theme. Iran's Military Forces and Warfighting capabilities may provide a good general overview of the overall hard power capabilities of the Iranian state, but such a picture is painted in reasonably broadbrush strokes, especially when it comes to indepth analysis.

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Thus it was that as I picked up Middle East Airpower in the 21st Century I was pleasantly surprised to find a 459 page brick filled to the brim with raw data and analysis of this one important facet of the region's military balance. Tim Ripley, a Jane's consultant and writer on all things airpower clearly knows his stuff when it comes to the subject. While the titles of some of his other work seem a bit hyperbolic(please note I have zero experience with his other work so I can't comment as to its actual quality), this particular beast is a serious effort at working out a very complex conundrum, with little in the way sensationalism. As an academic I can appreciate the sheer scale of figures and datasets he has compiled.

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Although apart from the introduction the book is officially split into two sections, by my estimations it is really three. The first is an overview of the indigenous air forces of all the Middle Eastern states(and some questionably peripheral ones like Turkey!) as of 2010. This includes a background for each dealing with history, culture, structure and future procurement plans of the individual forces. From here we enter into a more empirical overview, with a breakdown of airframes, weapon types and distribution. One great element here is the actual detailing of individual airbases and their dedicated roles, I feel this really goes above and beyond the usual types of reporting found in reports like those from IISS. Another awesome element that really got my supervisor and I's inner nerds excited was the attributed coordinates of all the major bases and anti air installations of the various countries. We probably spent half an hour on google maps just plugging in coordinates to see the sattelite imagery of bases like Taqba in Syria - very cool!

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The next section deals with external airpower assets in the region, mainly dealing with the US and the UK, although there is a bit of data on France. These sections are largely subjected to the previous methodological approach by the author and are arguably more in-depth, likely due to the amount of access available for Westerners.

The final section is an overview of major airpower operations in the region since 2000. This cluster of chapter begins with the enforced no fly zones over Iraq and moves through the second Intifada to the 2003 Iraq invasion, Lebanon 2006, the Iraq insurgency, Afghanistan, Israel-Syria, finally finishing with targeted strikes in Somalia. Interestingly, despite having rather extensive discussions on drones, there is little said about their extensive use in areas like Yemen and Pakistan, although in the latter's case this may simply be due to the geographical limits of the case studies.

The conclusion is a brief overview of the possible future of ME airpower, however, its extremely scant, at only three pages.

Another element worth mentioning about the book is its overall excellent presentation. This is a very high quality tome, printed on nice, tough, glossy paper in full color. Pictures are reproduced in vivid detail and maps are fantastic.

Overall, Middle East Airpower in the 21st century is a rigorous piece of work on a very specific, useful topic. As someone who typically focuses on armor and has little idea what an intake is, it provides a nice accessible level, whilst at the same time providing high levels of detail and data, useful for anyone doing research on the topic, or anyone just looking to learn more. I hope that Mr Ripley sees fit to apply his same expertise to the armor of the Middle East in a future edition!

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