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Afghan Air Wars by Michael Napier

Michael Napier has come up with a bit of a gem here.  This is a highly detailed and fascinating insight into how both Russian and coalition air power sought to influence the wars in Afghanistan over a period of over 30 years.  The entire period is one of under-resourced ground forces relying on air power to make up for their own deficiencies.  Some, not all, of the challenges were overcome; others remain perennial problems.  Proponents of air power will no doubt be keen to stress the role of technology, and whilst leaps and bounds were made in some areas, the role of politics and the difficulty of identifying and prosecuting a target in a timely manner never really went away.  

The book follows the history of the Soviet invasion through to the American and Coalition wars of the twentieth century.  What Napier delivers is an insight into the 10 years of Soviet and 20 years of American and NATO involvement – with the pendulum swings of the Taliban insurgency and the NATO surge being notable waypoints.  The book’s natural conclusion, the evacuation of allied forces and civilians from Kabul in 2021, forms an interesting bookend to the opening pages that recall the 1929 Royal Air Force airlift from Kabul. 

From a technological perspective, the book witnesses the transition from Cold War jets and dumb bombs to drone strikes and precision munitions.  The shift over this period is perhaps best summarised by the grainy black-and-white pictures of Soviet aircraft that dominate the first half of the book when set against the high-definition colour images of Western aircraft that flew over the skies of Afghanistan only a matter of decades later.  Both Soviet and US/NATO periods are populated by an almost constant conveyor of operations – for the Soviets, the Panjshir Valley looms large; for the US and NATO, it is the Afghan-Pakistan border and Helmand/Kandahar.  This can be overwhelming at times, especially with a single map on page 18 acting as the only reference, but it serves as a reminder as to the scale of the effort on the ground and in the air.

The US and NATO operations tended to be on a smaller scale to their Soviet predecessors and used air power in a far more precise manner.  Soviet troops on the ground were often without a forward air controller; their Western counterparts operated under an intelligence and situational awareness umbrella with access to real time full motion video.  The heavy bombers used by the Soviets conducted carpet bombing missions.  For NATO and the US, aircraft such as the B1B Lancer remained on station for hours at a time and were able to carry large amounts of precision weapons.  In Napier’s view, the greatest shift in the use of airpower was the move from pre-planned missions to those that received target updates once airborne.  Soviet pilots in 1986 may have argued that it was the introduction of the US STINGER missile that proved a game-changer.   

There are some interesting nuggets covering air to air fighting between the Soviet and Pakistani aircraft and the use of Soviet Tu22 BLINDER electronic support aircraft to jam Pakistani radars while their heavy bombers attacked targets near the Afghan-Pakistan border.  Napier’s view of the demise of the Afghan Air Force is an interesting vignette on the West’s inability to train and equip a force that operated with a degree of success under their Soviet umbrella.


Air Power on the edge - Soviet soldiers boarding a Mil 8 helicopter
Air Power on the edge – Soviet soldiers boarding a Mil-8 helicopter (Afghan Air Wars)


It is evident from Napier’s work that Soviet rules of engagement (ROE) gave little thought to civilian casualties – techniques such as aerial mine laying and carpet bombing appearing regularly in his descriptions of Soviet methods.  We should also remember, the bulk of Soviet ordnance consisted of unguided bombs and rockets.  The ROE used by the US and its allies have received considerable attention (remember ‘courageous restraint’?).  An interesting example of the Western approach can be found in the Dutch, Norwegian and Danish European Participating Air Forces detachment, where the ROE differed across the participating nations of this hybrid squadron.

The ability of a pilot to drop a bomb in the right place at the right time has proved a challenge ever since 1911 Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti dropped grenades onto a Turkish camp in Libya.  It is clear from reading this book that it was a technique the Soviets were still struggling 70 years later.  For the West, technology provided a lot of solutions but all air forces over the period faced austere conditions and had to operate at altitudes that placed significant performance restrictions on their aircraft.  The technological differences may be stark, but the end results for both campaigns were very similar.  Napier’s work reinforces the need for military planners and politicians alike to look twice before relying heavily on air power to provide the solution.  Highly recommended.

Afghan Air Wars – Soviet, US and NATO operations, 1979–2021 by Michael Napier (Osprey 2023)


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