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Reader's Companion to Military History

Air Strategy

The emergence of air power theory came as a direct result of World War I; the horrifying casualties of that conflict resulted in a search for a means to avoid the costly stalemate in the trenches. Although the experiences with air war in the Great War were ambiguous, German attacks on London and British attacks on the Rhineland did suggest a promising avenue of approach.

The first theorist to emerge as an advocate of "air strategy" was the Italian soldier Giulio Douhet. His central, single-minded argument was that the decisive mission of air power must be "strategic bombing"—a direct attack on the enemy's population. According to him, all other missions (such as interdiction, reconnaissance, air superiority, sea control, and close air support) represented fundamental misuses of air power. At the heart of his argument lay a belief that the bombardment of population centers would shatter an enemy nation's morale and lead directly to the rapid collapse of its war effort.

Douhet exercised relatively little influence on developments in Britain and the United States until a commercial translation of his work became available in 1943; his position as a prophet of air power largely reflects the fact that the Anglo-American experience with air power before and during World War II was largely dominated by doers rather than theorists. Sir Hugh "Boom" Trenchard, the first chief of Air Staff in Britain in the interwar period, molded his service within an intellectual framework similar to Douhet's. In a 1923 conference dealing with a conjectural air war against the French, Trenchard underscored his faith in strategic bombing and his belief that "the French in a bombing duel would probably squeal before we did."

American theories of air strategy moved in a different direction. The first and most controversial American theorist was General Billy Mitchell, whose intemperate attacks on senior American military leaders eventually resulted in his richly deserved court-martial. Like Douhet and Trenchard, Mitchell was a true believer in air power and argued that armies and navies would play little role in future conflicts; but unlike other air theorists, Mitchell believed that air superiority was an essential element in any future air war. Unfortunately, Mitchell's successors within the U.S. Army Air Forces developed an air strategy that virtually eliminated the fighter as a major factor in future air war.

By the end of the 1930s, American air power theorists had evolved a theory of air war that represented a precisely articulated body of interconnected assumptions. They based their strategy on the belief that well-led, disciplined bomber formations could fight their way through enemy-controlled airspace unaided by fighter escorts and suffer relatively low levels of casualties. Once these formations had made their high-altitude, deep penetrations, they would be able to hit precise targets that would ensure the destruction not only of major weapons-producing factories, but also a significant sector of the enemy's economy. This would lead to widespread dislocations and difficulties throughout the enemy's economic structure. The full impact of such bombing would eventually destroy the means and will of the enemy to resist.

Significant thinking about air power occurred in the German military during the interwar period as well. With Adolf Hitler's appointment as chancellor in January 1933, the Nazis set out to create a massive air force to further their megalomaniacal goals. From the first, the Germans were interested in strategic bombing, but the fact that they had conducted a thorough and honest study of air power's impact on World War I provided them with a more realistic conception of the future role of air power in war. Moreover, Germany's position in the center of Europe forced German airmen to recognize that air strategy must include a substantial supporting element of ground forces, while the Spanish civil war provided salient lessons on the difficulties involved in strategic bombing. The Luftwaffe, therefore, developed a broader and more thorough conception of air power—one that included air superiority, interdiction, reconnaissance, and close air support as well as strategic bombing.

Although it ran into substantial problems—many of which were of its own making—in developing a long-range strategic bomber, the Luftwaffe did develop navigational and all-weather bombing aids that would allow it to hit targets under any conditions—capabilities that the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) would not possess until the midpoint of the war. But, like the Americans and the British, the Germans failed to understand the enormous complexities that strategic bombing would involve.

In the first years of World War II, German air strategy allowed the Luftwaffe to support the lightning campaigns of the German army in conquering most of Europe. The RAF did possess radar and well-equipped Fighter Command—both of which the British government had forced on a most unwilling Air Staff—and on a very slim margin it was able to win the Battle of Britain. But its bomber offensive against the Third Reich floundered through to 1943, doing minimal damage to the Germans at great cost to its aircraft and crews. The American effort began against German targets in 1943 and, like the British effort, achieved rather little at first, also at great cost.

But in 1944 the huge resources that the British and American governments lavished on the RAF and USAAF began to pay large dividends. Supported by long-range escort fighters, the P-51 Mustang in particular, the U.S. Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces broke the Luftwaffe fighter force and established general air superiority over the European continent. By midyear they were in the process of destroying the Reich's petroleum industry. American and British aircraft also interdicted the German army's logistical support structure in France before and after D-Day; over the winter of 1944-1945, strategic bombing then destroyed the German transportation network. By 1944, over half a million soldiers and fifteen thousand flak pieces were defending the Reich from Allied air attacks. But both British and American air commanders persisted in costly and less effective attacks that raised the cost of the air campaigns—the British Bomber Command lost over 50 percent of its air crews over the course of the war.

The terrible cost of the Combined Bomber Offensive, as well as the ambiguity of its results, should have raised serious questions about prewar strategies, but the appearance of the atomic bomb at the end of the war, especially given its decisive results at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, seemed to provide a new legitimacy to those strategies. That was certainly how the newly created U.S. Air Force felt in the immediate years after World War II. But America's new opponent in the Cold War, the Soviet Union, soon acquired its own atomic bomb. Moreover, shortly after the Korean War had ended, scientists developed thermonuclear weapons with almost unlimited destructive potential—weapons that threatened not only to obliterate one's opponents, but the entire world as well.

The strategic question then centered on whether weapons, whose use would most probably result in the destruction of both sides, actually possessed any utility. From the mid-1950s, air strategy bifurcated into strategic theories of nuclear power and its deterrent value and those concerning the conventional use of air power. In the first case (led by two prominent thinkers, Bernard Brodie and Herman Kahn), nuclear strategy became the preserve of the academic world, which worried about issues such as the first use of nuclear weapons, "counterforce" strategies aimed at attacking the enemy's military structure, and "countervalue" strategies aimed at attacking the enemy's population centers. The final iteration of the latter resulted in the strategy of "mutually assured destruction" (MAD). There is little evidence that these theoretical musings by academics had any substantial influence on those charged with the actual planning of nuclear war in the United States and the Soviet Union. The American plan, the Single Integrated Operating Plan (SIOP), appears to have involved a massive laydown of nuclear weapons that equated nuclear strategy and target selection with the number of weapons available. But at least the academic writings may have worried the politicians on both sides.

The United States and the Soviet Union also expended enormous resources on the creation of conventional air forces. Soviet air strategy tied air power to the support of Soviet ground forces. American conventional air strategy, however, became a battleground between academics and the military. In particular, American political scientists became enthralled with ideas of graduated escalation and signal sending—theories that exercised a disastrous impact on the conduct of the air campaign against North Vietnam, when American political leaders skewed the planning process in favor of such strategies. But no evidence suggests that U.S. Air Force leadership had anything more to offer than the absolute destruction of North Vietnam by conventional weapons. In the Gulf War, allied air planners showed considerably greater sophistication in developing an air strategy that sought to gain wide effects with minimal collateral damage through the use of conventional precision munitions, cruise missiles, and stealth aircraft. But in the end, the coalition had to wage a ground war to gain the full fruits from the successes of the air campaign—not exactly what the early air theorists had hoped for.

Williamson Murray, Luftwaffe (1985); Sir Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany (1961).



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