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date: 20 November 2017

Summary and Keywords

Since the inception of air power as a technological innovation, both scholars and military practitioners have given much thought to the use of aircraft during conflict settings and how it might influence both outcomes and the way states fight. Air power can greatly expand the targets that are available to an attacker, making it so that it is not necessary to get through the opponent’s military defenses in order to target their population centers or other centers of gravity. At the same time, air power can reduce the costs of the attacker, allowing them to potentially achieve their coercive aims without necessarily incurring the costs, both financial and in terms of casualties, that a ground invasion can entail.

Though the writing on air power from the theoretical and military strategic perspectives is vast and informative, there is also a relatively new research agenda focused on empirical work on air power within the field of international relations. This work has expanded in the last 20 years but still has much room for growth. Traditionally, air power has been thought of as a tool used by major powers, the states with the largest militaries and also the most economic resources. Work on air power has found that particularly major powers that are sensitive to incurring costs through military interventions, such as democratic powers, are prone to using air power. The reason for this is that these states perceive air power as a low-cost and low-commitment way to engage in international coercion. More recent work on air power supports some of these expectations, but challenges others.

As scholars collect new data on coercive episodes of aerial bombing, evidence shows that air power is also used by powerful autocracies, and that as technologies develop, minor powers may also become involved in the use of coercive air power, particularly when it comes to the use of remotely piloted aircraft (drones). New research has also engaged the question of how different aerial strategies can affect the duration and outcomes of aerial campaigns. Recent work moves beyond traditional distinctions between punishment and denial strategies and considers cases in which mixed strategies are used, as well as distinguishing between how discriminate the cases of bombing either civilian or military targets are. In addition, new research shows that the use of air power during intrastate conflict and against non-state actors such as insurgent groups or terrorist organizations is prevalent and a topic that should be studied by political scientists.

Keywords: air power, drones, bombing, coercion, military strategy, empirical international relations theory

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