Posts Tagged 'University of Cambridge'

What does Time and Space mean for the Airman?

What follows is a precis of the presentation that Ian Shields gave at the recent Air Power Symposium at the University of Birmingham. Ian is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge and a retired RAF Group Captain. His primary interest lies in the field of strategic thinking and the employment of power at the national and multinational levels. This papers offers some  interesting and insightful comments on the issue of time and space as it relates to the employment of air power.



Time and Space bound all military operations. We are used to the idea of trading time for space, although that is primarily applicable to the Land campaign.

If you think about the time/space relationship in 2 campaigns separated by a significant amount of history associated concepts show a great deal of change:

  • The Peloponnesian wars – campaign duration, speed of manoeuvre, communication, size of battlefield/weapon ranges.
  • Gulf War 1 – campaign duration, speed of manoeuvre, communication, size of battlefield/weapon ranges.

I suggest that, while airmen too are constrained by time and space, we have a different perception and are better able to exploit both time and space.

Before going any further, what do airmen do?

Here’s what airmen do: we project innovative forms of power across traditional boundaries

Col Tim Schultz, Commandant Air University’s School of Advanced Air and Space power Studies (The Wright Stuff Feb 2010)

Again, with emphasis:

“Here’s what airmen do: we PROJECT innovative forms of power BEYOND TRADITIONAL BARRIERS”

I suggest that it is in these key words, “project”, “innovative” and “power” that lies the key to why we are different, which I will return to at the end.

I will address my question in 4 areas: the impact of air power; our cultural differences (compared with soldiers and sailors); the impact of technology; and decision-making before concluding.

The Impact of Air Power:

Look at the world at the beginning of the 20th C; well-ordered, firmly based on the ideal of the nation-state that was built on Westphalia/Congress of Vienna. Europe is relatively peaceful (by historic standards) with well-defined and respected boundaries.

To alter the balance of power would require armies crossing these boundaries which, as we saw in 1914, could have disastrous results.  Navies could control trade, impose blockades and prevent armies moving over stretches of open water (e.g. English Channel) but were themselves constrained by the availability of water; only 70% of the surface of the earth is covered by water.

The events of 17 Dec 1903 changed all that, although it was not appreciated in those terms at the time (or, arguably, ever since): with 100% of the earth covered by air, boundaries drawn on maps and the constraints of the ocean became far less relevant.  Again, let me stress: we project beyond traditional boundaries.

While technology did not permit air power to be fully exploited in WW 1, the omens were there.  Yes, there was an over-reaction in the 1920s and 1930s with, for example, H G Wells’ War in the Air and Stanley Baldwin’s pronouncement that “the bomber will always get through”, but the seeds for air power to exploit time and space in innovative ways began to be appreciated.

Cultural Differences:

When exploring my question of what time and space mean for airmen, it is worth reflecting also what they mean for the soldier and the sailor.  Both are far more bounded by time and space considerations than we are.

Take the soldier.  His horizon is limited in both spatial and temporal terms: he may be interested in what is going on over the next hill but rarely will he have to think much further.  The modern-day artilleryman may point out the range of his weapon systems, but compared with the airman they are puny.  All too often the soldier’s view is limited to the range of his vision, which is perhaps why he may not understand that airpower can protect him without necessarily being always in sight – or under command.

The sailor, by contrast, is far more used to the open horizons of the blue ocean.  His vision is bounded not by the trench system but by the curvature of the earth.  Away from the shore he enjoys a sense of freedom more familiar to the airman, and is used to thinking in large distances.  Culturally, we have more in common with the sailor than the soldier, I contend, and it is perhaps not surprising that we have adapted the nautical methods of navigation – speed in knots, distances in nm, latitude and longitude as our geographic reference system rather than units more familiar to a soldier.  The sailor, though, is also more bounded than the airman.  Not only does his domain stop at the shore-line or the river’s edge, but his speed across the oceans is, by our standards, slow while, with obvious acknowledgements to submariners, like the soldier he is largely constrained to operating in just 2 dimensions.

There is a further cultural divide, which is the way the pace of technology has shaped us.  For the sailor, he has progressed from sail, through steam to nuclear propulsion over many centuries.  For the soldier, the path from bows and arrows, via the musket to today’s weapon systems has been a journey of some half a millennium.  In contrast we have moved from the Wright brothers through the jet engine to Sputnik and then on to the Space Shuttle in just 74 years.  So our perception of time, driven by the technology that permits us to operate in the third dimension, is fundamentally different.

We even refer to it in our poetry – the definitive High Flight talking of slipping the surly bonds of earth, of wheeling, soaring and swinging high in the sunlit silence and, finally, of reaching out and touching the face of God – sentiments that speak loudly to we who exploit the third dimension and are less constrained by the fourth – time – than our earth- and water-bound brothers.

Less I be accused of too many flights of fancy, let me continue with something altogether more concrete, the impact of technology.

Impact of Technology:

Technology allows us to fly and we are inexorably wedded to it as a result.  We are at home not just with the advances, but the speed of change: we are adaptable. Technology allows us to constantly to challenge the constraints of time and space. We go ever faster, ever further, ever higher to the extent that now it is the human in the cockpit, or in the loop, that becomes the limiting factor with the demands on the human body in terms of g-force and life support becoming critical in aircraft such as Typhoon.  The very speed at which our platforms can operate bring new pressures on command, control and communications, and on the decision-making cycle (more of which shortly).  So we can shrink time and exploit it to an ever greater extent but are we reaching a new plateau with the human body the limiting factor?  If so, we turn again to technology and remove the man from the cockpit – the RPA – or help with decision-making by more automation.

However, is this shrinking or expanding of time?  It is both, depending on your viewpoint: it is shrinking because we need less time to undertake actions, or it is expanding because we can achieve more in the same time period.

In terms of space we see a similar dichotomy, the shrinking and expanding of the concept of space.  As we move further up – and even out of – the atmosphere, we seemingly shrink space – we have access everywhere from our lofty vantage point in orbit and it is less and less possible to hide from our gaze.  At the same time we are shrinking space as our targeting becomes ever more precise and our discrimination better.

Decision Making:

Perhaps nowhere is our different approach to time and space more starkly illustrated than in the realm of decision-making.  It was, after all, an airman – and a fighter pilot to boot – who came up with the OODA loop – a means of getting inside the enemy’s decision-making cycle – that is of exploiting time.

While Air  Power offers the politician some advantages – being able to posture from afar, being able to deploy (rapidly) a potent force but one with only a small footprint – the speed and reach of Air Power (or, to put it another way, our use and exploitation of time and space) offers him certain challenges too; the perils of the hasty decision or the too-long delayed choice.  For example, if there is verified intelligence of a hijacked 747 heading for Canary Wharf but presently over central France, when do you intercept it?

These challenges extend ever further down the decision-change to the commander and, increasingly, to the man or woman in the cockpit: that split-second decision facing the Harrier pilot, Tornado crew or UCAV operator – to drop or not to drop ordnance?

However, perhaps the ultimate tyranny (so far in human history at least) of decision-making in terms of time and space has been the advent of nuclear weapons.  The original employment of these weapons of mass destruction in 1945 came about as a result of long and careful decision-making, but with the range of ICBMs and the proliferation of weapons, both time and space have been shrunk as the decision-making cycle becomes ever more compressed with no chance of correcting mistakes.  And remember that for the first 40 years of the nuclear weapon age, it was airmen alone who were responsible for their delivery.


I have sought to illustrate that we can use time and space – and the relationship between the two – as tools with which to explore Airpower in a different way.  We can use it to identify differences and similarities with the other domains, and it offers a different means of analysing what it means to be an airman.

Time itself has constrained this presentation to no more than a cornucopia of ideas, and I have explored neither Space (as in outer space) nor cyberspace, both domains of increasing importance.

Let me offer you three conclusions:

  • First, as airmen we are more constrained by time and space as we lack permanence and rely on technology to fly at all.
  • Second, as airmen we are less constrained by time and space because we operate at high-speed, have great reach, are inherently responsive, and have a cultural appreciation of time and space that is unique.
  • Third, new and emerging technologies will continue to challenge our present perceptions of time, space and its relationship; the exploitation of both outer space and cyberspace are excellent illustrations of both.

Francis Fukyama famously talked about the “End of History”: perhaps what we are seeing is more an end of TIME and, if not an end then certainly a new appreciation of space.

By Ian Shields


Precis of the Air Power Symposium

After a successful symposium a couple of weeks back, we are hoping to post up some posts by the contributors based on the papers that were delivered.

The first will be a paper by Ian Shields, who is completing his PhD at the University of Cambridge. His paper was entitled ‘What does Time and Space Mean for the Airman?’

Watch this space to see what exciting research is ongoing in Air Power Studies in the UK.

Air Power Events at the University of Birmingham

I have just recieved the War Studies Semianr list fromt he Centre for First World War Studies and we have some interesting air power based seminars coming up in the next year.

16 November: Mr John Alexander (University of Birmingham), ‘Combined Action: RAF counter-insurgency operations during the Arab revolt

1 March: I. Shields (University of Cambridge), ‘Airpower and ethics’

15 March: Dr David Jordan (King’s College London), ‘New perspectives on the Battle of Britain

7 June: Dr Peter Gray (University of Birmingham), ‘Official squeamishness- the Bomber Command campaign medal saga’

Some very interesting topics.

The Seminar meets on TUESDAYS at 5.30 p.m. in Lecture Room 3, 1st Floor, Arts Building, University of Birmingham


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