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

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.

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