BY BRIGADIER-GENERAL P. R. C. GROVES
SINCE the Armistice Europe has experienced a period of unparalleled turmoil. The kaleidoscope of international affairs has shown us ultimatums, wars, revolts, revolutions, and dictatorships. Diplomacy has frequently connoted the point of the bayonet. Vilna, the Ruhr, and Corfu are typical of the spirit which prevails. On the other hand the pact arrived at after the recent convulsion has proved to be no settlement: the Treaty of Versailles is in danger of crumbling, and the League of Nations which it created is far from being that greater barrier to conflict which its promoters intended.
A survey of these sombre facts and of the developments in European armaments results in the conclusion that the post-war chapter of history bears the same heading as all previous chapters — namely, ‘Armed Force is the dominant factor in human affairs.’
To appreciate the increasingly sinister significance of air power in Europe it is necessary to note an inevitable corollary to this axiom. This corollary, which is often overlooked, is that the ‘diplomatic value’ of force is proportional not merely to the size of that force but also to its readiness for action. Witness the crises which in the past have been solved by the threat of a British naval demonstration; or the diplomatic value of the German Army before the war. Or, as an example of the obverse, witness the discounting by Germany of the enormous potential power of the United States. That Germany miscalculated is beside the point. The value of force as a diplomatic counter is also proportional to its nature — that is, to its war value in terms of speed, range, and potentials for destruction.
Clearly the nature of air power renders it the perfect instrument for diplomatic pressure. It is also the key weapon in war; for, owing to its development, war has altered in character. Hitherto primarily an affair of ‘fronts’ it will henceforth be primarily an affair of ‘areas.’ The increase in the range, carrying capacity, speed, and general efficiency of aircraft, together with the actual growth in their numbers and the potentialities of production, implies that on the outbreak of war between any of the principal European Powers whole fleets of aircraft will be available for offensive purposes. Each side will at once strike at the heart and nerve centres of its opponent: at his dockyards, arsenals, munition factories, mobilization centres, and at those nerve ganglia of national morale — the great cities.
In the opinion of Marshal Foch, contained in a statement given to the writer in January 1921, air force alone may be decisive at the outset in any future European conflict: —
‘The potentialities of aircraft attack on a large scale are almost incalculable, but it is clear that such attack, owing to its crushing moral effect on a nation, may impress public opinion to the point of disarming the Government and thus become decisive.’
The protagonists of the older forms of force are inclined to discount the new arm and contend that its claims are based upon prophecy, not upon accomplishment. It might as well be claimed that the armament programmes of all States are based on prophecy!
The predominance of air power is warranted by an array of facts the mere enumeration of which would All a volume. Salient among these are: —
(1)That the strategic aerial weapon, namely the long-distance weight-carrying aeroplane, has undergone great technical development since the Armistice. At a moderate estimate its general efficiency as a weapon of war has doubled. This is due to improvements in the designs of the aircraft themselves, to the increasing use of steel and lightweight metal alloys in their construction, and to more powerful and more efficient engines. In 1918 the most reliable aircraft of this type carried two engines giving a total of between 700 and 800 horsepower. The giants of to-day are driven by several engines of which the total horsepower may be as much as 2700. A 4000horsepower machine will soon be in the air. The significance of these figures will be seen if they be compared with the horsepower of the railway locomotive, which, in Europe, averages 1000.
The armament of the bomber has also developed, both in regard to the number of small-calibre guns it carries for its own protection, — now as many as eight, — and to the size and efficiency of its bombs. The largest bomb yet manufactured was made by the Aircraft Armament Division of the United States Ordnance Department. The following account of a recent test illustrates the immense potentials for destruction of aerial bombardment: —
This 4000-lb. demolition bomb is of much the same design as the 2000-lb. bomb used so effectively against the ex-German battleship Oestfriedland, destroyed last year in aviation tests. The bomb actually weighs about 4300 lbs. complete with nose and tail fuses, loaded with approximated 2000 lbs. of TNT.
The bomb, when dropped in a recent test, was fitted with time fuses and fell in a firm sandy soil from 4000 feet altitude. The fuses functioned perfectly, delaying the detonation of the charge until the bomb was well buried, and the explosion threw a dense cloud of earth to a height of over 1000 feet. The crater averaged 64 feet in diameter with a depth of 19 feet below the original level and a rim about 5 feet high. The volume displaced was over 1000 cubic yards.
(2) Experiments carried out on both sides of the Atlantic have proved that battleships can be sunk by aircraft attack on a scale which is quite small compared with that which is now possible. This aspect will be considered more fully later.
(3) There has also been a marked development both in the performance and in the armaments of that class of aircraft, heavier than air, known as ‘Fighters.’ But it should be noted that, on the whole, the offensive has gained on the defensive in the sphere of aerial armaments. This is due principally to the above-mentioned development in the strategic aerial weapon.
In the future war of areas the only effective defense against aircraft attack will be the aerial counter-offensive, and the only effective safeguard against aerial aggression will be the threat of reprisals in kind. The truth of this postulate will be apparent from the following considerations: —
At the Armistice the air defenses of London consisted of 11 specially trained night-fighting squadrons of aeroplanes, 180 guns on the ground, 10 balloon aprons, and a large number of searchlights. The number of aircraft was nearly 300, and the total number of men employed was some 30,000 — that is, the equivalent of two divisions of infantry. In addition there were a number of specially prepared nightlanding grounds, extensive telephone installations, and a large headquarters staff to coördinate and direct the whole defensive organization. These defenses were found to be inadequate to protect London against the Lilliputian air raids of that period, the largest of which was carried out by only 36 aeroplanes.
It would obviously be impracticable in peace time for any European State to maintain air defenses, even on this totally inadequate scale, not merely for the defense of its capital but for every city, town, dockyard, arsenal, munition factory and other nerve centre within its frontiers.
The experience of all the belligerents during the Great War proved that ground defenses are of little value against aircraft. Balloon aprons cannot reach high enough. Anti-aircraft guns may or may not help to reassure the population and demoralize the invaders, but their material effect is negligible. Very frequently weather conditions preclude the gunners from seeing their targets, and even under good conditions of visibility the percentage of hits of the total number of rounds fired lurks in the depths of decimal notation. Early in the late conflict the British Ministry of Munitions estimated that in order to score a direct hit upon an aeroplane flying at 8000 feet and capable of a speed of 100 miles per hour no less than 162,000 guns would have to fire simultaneously! The experience of the war bore out that estimate. There is a difference of opinion as to the number of aeroplanes brought down by anti-aircraft fire over Great Britain in the course of the recent conflict, but the total can be placed fairly safely at under six.
If, in the full light of our present knowledge of the battle values of aircraft, we apply to navies the lessons of the war in regard to aerial defense, we are driven inexorably to the conclusion that the efficiency of sea power in European waters is dependent primarily upon command of the air. Naval bases cannot be defended adequately except by aircraft. Surface craft of every description are liable to be destroyed by torpedo-carrying aircraft, by the direct hit or near miss of colossal bombs, and by mines laid by aircraft. Admiral Sir Percy Scott, one of Britain’s leading experts on ships’ armor, has stated that it is impossible to protect battleships against subsurface attack, on the scale which may now be anticipated, without so reducing their speed as to render them useless. Cruisers are even more vulnerable than battleships because their higher speed involves weaker armor. Picture an attack by even one thousand up-todate aircraft upon any naval squadron lacking adequate air defense.
The use of smoke clouds and smoke screens — the latter made by smoke buoys dropped in large numbers — would render the attackers intermittently invisible. The ships would soon be manœuvring in a mist, and shortly would themselves be moving clouds of dense smoke caused by the impact of phosphorous bombs. But the attackers owing to their great mobility would still be able to see their objectives. Innumerable opportunities would occur for close-range attack. The partially or completely blinded ships would be subjected to continuous smashing from above and below the water line. Their only defense would be their anti-aircraft armaments. Owing to the necessarily unstable platforms afforded by surface craft the anti-aircraft gunner is even more handicapped at sea than he is on land, and his chances of hitting targets moving at speeds ranging up to 200 miles per hour are indeed small.
Certain it is that a squadron attacked by 100 modern aircraft, and itself inadequately defended from the air, would be in extreme jeopardy. At sea the manœuvres of the surface craft would handicap the attackers to some extent, but could serve only to prolong an unequal contest. In port, annihilation would come more quickly.
The results of the bombing tests carried out against the battleships Virginia and New Jersey this year, of the tests carried out off the Virginia capes last year, of similar tests carried out in European waters, and of the ascertained efficiency of torpedo-carrying aircraft, afford ample warrant for taking a recent statement by General Patrick as a decisive ruling in regard to the vulnerability of surface craft to aerial attack: —
The air service does not for a moment assume to say that battleships, or any other component parts of a naval establishment, are obsolete. We merely rest on the conclusions of the Joint Board, that, under proper conditions, we can put out of commission or sink any naval craft that floats.
Opposition to this view in naval circles throughout the world is perhaps inevitable. But the view is justified by hard facts; its truth will therefore prevail despite the opposition of great vested interests and the bias of naval traditions; for, sooner or later, facts must be faced, however unpalatable or however incredible they may appear.
The actual position of air power in the sphere of armaments has been summed up by Admiral Sims in a single sentence, ‘The command of the air means the command of the surface, whether it be sea or land.’
It follows from the various considerations reviewed above that any great European Power which possesses air supremacy is, ipso facto, in a position to dictate to Europe. But Europe has never yet tolerated a dictatorship. She has always sought to check aspirants to such authority by means of a counterpoise of force; when this method of maintaining the ‘balance of power’ has failed, the result has invariably been war — as examples, the wars ending 1815 and 1918.
A review of the rise of air power in Europe will show that the danger which a dictatorship connotes has again appeared, and that international suspicions are once more seething.
At the Armistice the aerial strengths of the principal European belligerents were approximately as follows: —
Aeroplanes and seaplanes
The first three figures quoted above were supplied to the Supreme Council at the Peace Conference by the Governments concerned. The remaining two are estimates made by the aeronautical authorities of the Allied Powers. In each case only about one seventh of the total numbers of aircraft was actually in service at the Armistice; the remainder consisted of reserves and training machines.
The Peace treaties forbade the Central Powers to possess any military or naval aviation. Interallied Aeronautical Commissions of Control were appointed to give effect to this ruling, and during the three years which followed the Armistice most of the aircraft of the Central Powers were destroyed, removed, or otherwise accounted for and a clean sweep was made of most of their aeronautical installations.
On the side of the Allies, Great Britain and Italy rapidly reduced their air services to mere skeleton organizations. France also reduced her air force, but simultaneously inaugurated a thorough and far-reaching policy of rearmament and reorganization.
By the end of 1921 the Central Powers possessed no military or naval aviation, although Germany possessed a few ‘commercial’ aeroplanes of negligible military value.
In October of the same year the actual strengths of the principal Allied Powers in all categories of aircraft heavier than air were stated at the Washington Conference to be: —
At home Abroad Total
The publication of these figures — which, it should be noted, included aircraft allotted to training establishments — caused uneasiness in Great Britain, where it was pointed out that they implied that France held an aerial supremacy over Britain of three to one so far as Europe was concerned; because the bulk of the French aircraft ‘abroad’ were merely across the Mediterranean; whereas British aircraft under the same heading were principally in Mesopotamia and India, too far afield to count for purposes of home defense.
In December 1922, a little over a year later, a statement issued by the British Air Ministry caused something of a sensation: —
The strength of the Royal Air Force at present stationed in Europe, including units temporarily in the Constantinople area, is approximately fifteen squadrons; that of the French Air Service one hundred squadrons. The average establishment of the British squadron is, however, twelve machines, while that of the French is nine. The total number of British active service squadrons is thirty-two; of the French active service squadrons one hundred and twenty-eight.
By the following May the aerial strengths of the two Powers were stated in the House of Commons to be: France 140 squadrons, Great Britain 35 squadrons — of which 7 were available for home defense.
This implied that in service aviation alone the aerial strengths of France and Great Britain were in the proportion of 15 to 1 if measured in terms of ‘firstline’ aircraft available in Europe. But even that comparison does not show the full extent of Britain’s inferiority, for it is not by service aviation only that air power must be measured. France has developed her Civil aviation in a very remarkable manner: her subsidies to Civil flying in the current year are eight times as great as those of Great Britain. The result is that France possesses a Civil air fleet of some 800 machines which, together with their personnel, form a valuable reserve to her service organization. Britain on the other hand has approximately 150 commercial machines. The disparity in aircraft industries, which are in effect the foundations of air power, is equally illuminating: in 1922 the total output of the British Aircraft Industry was 200 machines, while that of the French was 3300.
In addition to the great disparity in air force is the fact that, owing to the new provisions of military geography, Great Britain is probably the most vulnerable nation in Europe. From the point of view of aerial defense her insular position is a disadvantage, for the seas which surround her favor surprise attack by aircraft and render it difficult to observe their lines of retreat. The bulk of her population is crowded together in great cities within a comparatively small area. London, her most vital nerve centre, has an area of 700 square miles, making it the largest aircraft target in the world. At the same time, owing to its geographical situation, it is Britain’s most exposed great city. There is no harbor in the country which is not within aircraft range of France and, in the event of war with that country, Britain’s seaborne supplies of food and raw material, upon which she is absolutely dependent, would be liable to be sunk by aircraft attack both in harbor and in home waters.
These considerations, together with the immense preponderance of French air power, resulted in an increasing agitation for larger air defenses in the British Parliament and Press. In response to this popular pressure the Prime Minister announced on June 27, 1923, that the Government had decided to adopt a one-power standard in the air, and that, as a first step toward the attainment of that standard, the Royal Air Force would be expanded to a total of 82 squadrons, of which 52 would be allocated definitely to home defense. Thirty-four of these squadrons were to be raised by the end of 1925. The conclusion of his speech is noteworthy: —
‘The question of further addition to this force will depend upon the character of the programmes of foreign Powers. France has plans for increasing the military air force to 220 squadrons, and the naval force to 50 squadrons, within the next few years, and this country is obviously interested in knowing what proportion of the increase will be bombing squadrons. If any substantial addition is made to that particular arm, the home-defense programme of the Government may have to be considered.’
This speech and the announcement it contained met with a hostile reception in several prominent organs of the French Press; one of these printed its comments under the headline, ‘England builds up a formidable air force against us while Germany rearms’ — an example of the enmity which this sinister contest has fomented between two allies who, only a few years ago, were fighting side by side in the cause of liberty and justice.
On June 29 the Chamber of Deputies voted an increase of the Military Air Vote by 36,920,000 francs in order to add 68 squadrons to the French Air Force and bring it to 208 squadrons.
Meanwhile Italy had also embarked on a new air programme the details of which have not been published; but a statement made by Signor Mussolini at Rome on November 4, 1923, is significant: —
‘If others arm in the air Italy also must arm in the air. The other day 300 aeroplanes flew over Rome without mishap. Next year their number will be three times that figure. We are forced to embark on this aviation policy.'
These facts speak for themselves.
With the best will in the world it is no longer possible to support the claim that French air policy, which is the driving force behind this new and fervid competition in armaments, is dictated by the danger of a camouflaged development of air power in Germany. It is true that, during the three years immediately following the Armistice, Germany’s constant attempts to evade the execution of the Air clauses of the Treaty and to build up commercial aviation on a convertible basis gave the Allies cause for uneasiness. But by the end of 1921, if not earlier, France was amply ensured against that potential danger. Although the danger has not materialized, French air power has increased to an extent which has caused her neighbors misgivings and has obliged them to embark on policies of aerial expansion.
The Interallied Aeronautical Commission of Control, appointed by the Supreme Council to ensure the execution of the Air clauses of the Peace Treaty, completed its task in May 1921, and withdrew from Germany. It was replaced by an Interallied Aeronautical Commission of Guaranty which was charged with the duty of ensuring that Germany should not build up air power in any form. That Commission is still in Germany; if France is in a position to state that, despite its efforts, and despite the intelligence to the contrary received in Great Britain from various sources, Germany, although she is apparently in a state of chaos, is actually building up air power, the publication of such a statement, supported by a few concrete facts, would go far to allay the growing uneasiness in Great Britain and in Italy.
It is often hinted in the French Press nowadays that the real air menace to France lies not so much in Germany herself as in German cooperation with Bolshevist Russia. If this is the case, let the facts be stated. If it can be shown that there exists, anywhere in Europe, an air menace which justifies French air policy, not only will goodwill toward France be reëstablished, but her old allies will immediately rally beside her in order to meet what would amount to a common danger.
But in the absence of some such justification it is, unfortunately, no longer possible for France’s most ardent supporters in Great Britain to refute the contention that French air policy, for some time past, has been dictated, to a decreasing extent, by the fear of German aggression, and, to an increasing extent, by a desire to ensure that none shall be in a position to query her mandates in Europe.
In Great Britain the need for immediately embarking on a large air programme has given rise to considerable bitterness, not only because that necessity has unpleasant implications, but also on account of the great expenditure it must involve. Aviation calls for the services of personnel from fifty different trades. In France these men are obtained under conscription at a nominal wage. In Great Britain, where there is no conscription, they must be paid a market wage. Herein lies the answer to the oft-repeated indictment that Great Britain has spent more on aviation than has France. It has been estimated that the French air policy will force British air estimates, which total £23,000,000 for 1923, to £100,000,000 per annum within a decade — an irritating prospect for a country which is struggling with unparalleled economic depression. Great Britain has at present only 70 per cent of her pre-war trade; her people are the most highly taxed in the world; she has nearly one and one-half millions of unemployed to support; and she has undertaken to repay to the United States a sum of £40,000,000 annually. In these circumstances it is, perhaps, not unnatural that the average Britisher should argue as follows: —
‘France is by far the greatest military power in Europe. Even without the assistance of her Continental allies, Poland and Belgium, her military domination on the Continent is absolute. We recognize her need for military insurance and we therefore do not venture to criticize her military hegemony.
‘But she has also spent many milliards in building up a great air fleet, a fleet to which she is still adding although it is already far in excess of the requirements of her army and out of all proportion to any aerial danger which threatens her. She explains that her air policy is dictated by fear of aerial attack from beyond the Rhine. Obviously, if such a danger exists, it threatens us equally; yet, when we decide to increase our nominal air defenses by 34 squadrons, France immediately votes to increase her air fleet by 68 squadrons, in spite of the fact that her aerial strength in Europe is already at least fifteen times as great as our own. What does this mean?’
In view of the short period which elapsed between the British Premier’s speech and the announcement of the new French programme, it is highly probable that the latter had already been decided upon when the speech was made. Nevertheless, coupled with the remarks in the French Press already referred to, it had the effect of increasing public misgiving in Great Britain. This in turn reacted upon the British Government’s decision to develop a one-power standard in the air, and the decision was widely acclaimed. Britain’s new programme includes the raising of a number of squadrons on a territorial basis with a view to overcoming the handicap due to her lack of conscription.
There is no doubt whatever that Britain will now rapidly make up leeway. At the end of the war she possessed the largest air force in the world, and, if need be, her greater industrial resources and better credit will enable her again to outstrip European rivals.
Certain it is that Italy also will come to the front. Signor Mussolini has sounded the alarm and has added the post of Air Minister to his numerous duties. His energy and the new temper of his people will ensure the rapid execution of his new programme.
But, to those who realize fully the present and future potentials of air power, this new competition in armaments, accompanied as it must be by ever growing enmity, is of the most ominous portent. The science of aviation is still in its infancy. Its ally, chemical science, stands merely on the threshold of its possible application to explosives and poisons. The air weapon which these sciences have created is already the paramount form of force, and is developing; indeed the whole apparatus of air warfare is constantly changing in a swift and stupendous progress toward perfection. Meanwhile tensions are growing between the leading European Powers. Unless these processes can be curbed it is highly probable that they will culminate in a ‘war of areas.’ In such a contest each of the belligerents would be in a position to inflict upon its opponent destruction on a super-cyclonic scale. If they were fairly equally matched, devastation might continue until the collapse of the entire social and industrial system of both combatants. The victor would probably suffer almost as much as the vanquished. The struggle could hardly be confined to the original combatants, for aerial bombardment precludes discrimination. The loss of life and property amongst neutrals residing in the theatres of war would be so great that their Governments would find it difficult to refrain from intervention. But, even if the conflagration did not spread, its baneful effects would be world wide, for, as the recent conflict proved, all States are now in some degree economically interdependent. It follows that a ‘war of areas’ between two or more of the leading European nations would involve incalculable damage to the common fabric of civilization.
Certain it is that a danger of such a war is growing; the explosion may be delayed for a decade or more, or it may flare up earlier; but it is clearly inevitable unless the Great Powers make a concerted effort to prevent it.
Despite the skeptics, the Washington Conference succeeded in effecting a general limitation of naval armaments and banished competitive naval construction for a period of fifteen years. A general limitation of aerial armaments to a reasonable scale — that is, to a scale based on the defensive requirements and national responsibilities of each State — is equally practicable. Such limitation would be more difficult to arrange owing to the spirit which prevails in Europe, and because of the many technical difficulties to which the Air committee of the Washington Conference drew attention. But nevertheless there is no doubt that a compromise could be arrived at.
There is urgent need for a conference of the Great Powers to consider this cardinal issue; the air problem is central to the whole complexity of Europe’s problems to-day, and until it is solved no measures for stabilizing the European situation can be other than palliative. And if Europe is not stabilized soon, the result may prove to be that recently predicted to an American audience by Mr. Lloyd George: ‘Civilization is doomed within this generation to a catastrophe such as the world has never seen.’