Comment April 2002

The Air-Power Revolution

Historians and military analysts have long stressed the limitations of air power. Their arguments are no longer tenable
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In the war against terrorism, George W. Bush has said, the United States will, if deemed necessary, strike militarily against regimes considered threatening by reason of their nature, their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, or their support of anti-American terrorist groups. In Iraq, it seems clear, the Bush Administration intends a full-fledged military effort to depose Saddam Hussein. A core objection to this new approach to the war is that it will failthat the United States, largely acting alone, cannot wage and win such military campaigns as will be required without incurring expenses in life and money that the American public will not accept. This would have been true once, but it is no longer. The reason is the fruition of one of the great revolutions in military history: the revolution of air power.

The ideal war is one in which the other side quits after a minimum of actual fighting. Accomplishing this comes down to scaring or starving—demoralizing the enemy, through displays of might or destruction, to the point where fighting seems useless, or destroying the enemy's supplies to the point where further fighting is effectively impossible. "Frightening your enemy is the fundamental and presumably the oldest weapon of war," Peter Calvocoressi, Guy Wint, and John Pritchard wrote in Total War (now The Penguin History of the Second World War).

Starving him—hitting him where it hurts most—cannot be much less old ... Where earlier warriors rushed upon their foes with painted bodies and hideous screams, or poisoned wells and beleaguered towns, their more sophisticated though hardly more civilized successors rain high explosives on factories and homes and set fire to whole cities. Only the techniques and the scale are new.

For the first several decades of the twentieth century the most important tool in scaring and starving remained the warship, able to destroy coastal cities, deliver armies, and blockade nations. A powerful navy was vastly more powerful than a powerful army, and ultimately the only effective defense against a powerful navy was another powerful navy. When Theodore Roosevelt wished to announce that America had come of imperial age, he sent neither ambassadors nor armies around the world but the Great White Fleet. In dealing with the smaller and weaker nations, the visit of a single warship might quell trouble.

From the archives:

"Victory at Sea" (March 1999)
The story of the American war is incomplete without the sweep and strategic stakes of the war at sea, in which 104,985 American sailors and Marines were wounded, 56,683 were killed, and more than 500 U.S. naval vessels were sunk. By David M. Kennedy

As World War II opened, naval power was still thought paramount, and the buildup to war had been also a buildup of navies. "At the end of 1938, the warship builders of the world were busier than at any date since the World War concluded," reported the 1939 Britannica Book of the Year. "Every state of importance is taking measures to increase its naval strength." At the opening of the war Britain, which had destroyed Napoleon's empire and built its own on the strength of its might at sea, had a navy more than equal to the navies of France, Germany, and Italy put together: eighteen battleships and pocket cruisers, ten aircraft carriers, fifteen heavy cruisers, sixty-two light cruisers, 205 destroyers, 121 lesser surface ships, and seventy submarines.

But in Britain, and in all advanced nations, naval power was already passing as the generals' great hope. In 1921 Giulio Douhet, who had recently retired as chief of the aviation arm of the Italian army, published a book titled The Command of the Air. Douhet argued that air power was the secret to winning wars purely through fear and destruction of the enemy's assets. Through bombardment of the enemy's factories, infrastructure, and cities, he argued, a powerful and independent air force might by itself break the enemy's will to the point of forcing surrender.

This struck most experts as dubious. In 1917 Britain's Minister of Munitions, Winston Churchill, had rejected the air-power argument: "It is improbable that any terrorization of the civil population which could be achieved by air attack would compel ... surrender." But the extraordinary advances in aviation of the 1920s and 1930s increasingly won others to Douhet's side—notably General William Mitchell, of the U.S. Army, and Sir Hugh Trenchard, of the Royal Air Force. By the opening of World War II the advocates of air power had convinced themselves and others (including Churchill) that the new air power would prove not only a decisive development in war-making but an epochal one.

From Total War:

The advent of air power had brought with it a school of theorists who alleged that this new weapon could contribute to war-making by doing something that had never been done before, and could do this independently and without the help of the older sea and land forces ... The prime aim of assailing industry, communications and morale was to compel the surrender of the enemy even though his armed forces had suffered no irreversible defeat in the field. Defeat in workshop and homestead was to take the place of defeat in the field as the first aim of strategy. This had been the aim of naval blockade, but no navy had ever succeeded in making a blockade more than an ancillary element in war-making ... If air power could succeed in these tasks, then the bomber aircraft would prove a truly revolutionary weapon.

But air power did not succeed in these tasks. Germany rested its (always doubtful) hopes for a successful invasion of Britain entirely on an air offensive (the Battle of Britain) that was intended to reduce a demoralized British people to surrender, or at least to destroy Britain's defenses against invasion. The Luftwaffe's campaign (including the Blitz) killed about 43,000 people but unified and strengthened British will rather than crushing it, and never came close to wrecking Britain's air defenses.

In air power's second great test failure was less absolute but more consequential in terms of future war-making. Britain's Bomber Command believed not only that bombing could win the war but that precision bombing could win the war. The heavy bombers of the Royal Air Force would pulverize Germany's manufacturing, transportation, and communication networks—thereby forcing Germany's surrender without resorting to "area bombing," the saturation bombing of civilians and their homes. Thus bombing would win the war without the mass slaughter of noncombatants—a civilized victory, even a humanitarian victory.

Precision bombing proved markedly imprecise. In the first year of British bombing more than two thirds of the sorties failed to hit their targets. Even large targets, such as rail yards, could be hit only on moonlit nights. By the end of the first year the Bomber Command had admitted that precision bombing alone could not do the job (although later in the war inventions such as the British Pathfinder force and the American Norden bombsights made precision bombing much more precise), and Allied bombers turned increasingly to area bombing, which was to culminate in the horrors of Hamburg (45,400 dead), Dresden (50,000), Hiroshima (118,661), and Nagasaki (73,884). (Tallies are from The Oxford Companion to World War II.) Bombing could not produce victory except through civilian slaughter—unpalatable to people who wished to think of themselves as civilized.

Indeed, it seemed, bombing could not produce victory even at that price. The mass bombing of Germany did not crush the German will or destroy (although it certainly crippled) Germany's industrial capacity. And worse: bombing proved to be lethal not only to the bombed but to the bombers. Britain's Bomber Command lost almost 56,000 men in the war; American air forces, which engaged in high-risk daylight bombing, also lost almost that number.

So the verdict on air power at the end of World War II was this: (1) Precision bombing did not work; bombing necessarily was a brute and indiscriminate instrument, and the degree of bombing necessary to make a difference required the barbaric slaughter of civilians on a mass scale. (2) Not even bombing on the barbaric level could in itself suffice to horrify an enemy into surrender. (3) Even if such bombing could compel surrender, it still failed to deliver on the revolutionary promise of victory without the price of combat; bombing was just another form of combat—indeed, one with unusually high mortality rates. (4) Atomic bombing could deliver on air power's promise of victory through terror without combat, but it was so awful that no one ever wanted to use it again. War remained fundamentally a contest to be decided between fighters on the ground, and the generals' dream remained a dream.

Next month: Vietnam, the Gulf War, the Balkans, and Afghanistan—the revolution arrives

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