Eagles and Air Power

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

JRR Tolkien had an intuitive feel for air power, Dr Kenneth Payne suggests, in the RAF’s latest Air Power Review:

When it comes to air power roles, then, Tolkien and his eagles do a magnificent job of anticipating our modern RAF doctrine and of tracking real developments in aerial warfare then underway in Europe. There are time tested precepts of air power aplenty in Lord of the Rings — the importance of persistence, speed, reach and height should be readily apparent to readers. There is emphasis on precision, and shock; on improvisation and multirole capabilities; on centres of gravity and the constraints of terrain and climate. There is Defensive Counter Air (DCA), via ground based air defences (GBAD) on the ramparts of Gondor. There is passive DCA in the elvish cloaks adopted by Frodo and Sam to foil overflying Ring Wraiths.

There are, of course, many air power features that Tolkien overlooks, in part because he is as much a creature of his times as we all are, in part because of the nature of the wars of the Rings. There is, for example, not much inter-theatre mobility on offer, with air forces in Middle Earth and mid-twentieth century Europe alike having only a limited capacity to transport materiel. And with all the sustained land warfare going on in Middle Earth, air maritime integration doesn’t get much of a look in in LOTR — plus ça change, you might think. Stand off weapons too are in short supply too: Smaug excepted, the aerial creatures of Middle Earth cannot bring much weight of firepower to bear from the air. Accordingly, the attack role of Eagle and Nazgûl alike is limited to precision strike and the psychological effect of shock action.

But in his writings on autonomous ISTAR, long-range networked sensors (via the Palantir), and stealth, Tolkien was not just describing air power, he and the eagles were truly at the cutting edge. The fundamentals of air power, it seems, apply equally to this earth as to others.

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