Air Power: A Specific Proposal
ADMIRAL LORD FISHER
THIS fateful spring finds us, whether by the will of the people, or of the Government, or of some destiny still obscure, irrevocably set upon a course from which there is no retreat. Rhetoric that was the lullaby of yesterday is giving way before an imperative need for action as it becomes daily more apparent that our security can be preserved only by a colossal and violent national effort.
In this wild race with disaster, it is no use crying over spilt milk. The incredibly precious time that has already been wasted requires that our national effort be just so much greater; we must accept that as a necessity. What we dare not accept is any more waste of time, any more of these self-inflicted handicaps. We must use every weapon, every brain, to the utmost.
Of all the terrible lessons bought for us by the blood and tears of Europe the most inescapable, the most persistently recurrent, is the lesson that a future for any country without Air Power simply does not exist. Incredible as it must seem at this late hour, it is a fact that the United States, the country which invented and which so brilliantly exploited the airplane, is still without Air Power. We have reached a point where the anodyne of words can no longer disguise the truth that in this very month, May 1941, we still have no central air policy, no responsible Air Department, no adequate plan of production for what, by right, should be our mightiest reënforcement. We are using and planning to use only a part of what should be our deadliest weapon.
Implacable as Hitler is the factor of Time; instead of enlisting Time on our side, we have carelessly handed it — are still handing it — as a hostage to the foe. By this factor we must sink or swim. Not all our wealth, our good intentions, our frantic efforts, not any sacrifice, can substitute for Time.
No power on earth can launch the new two-ocean Navy inside the next four years. Two years is the fastest time in which we can mechanize the new army we are creating from scratch — and in any case we have no way of taking it anywhere. The only weapon that can conceivably be ready for us within a shorter time is airplanes, and these, if the unsentimental truth be known, we are turning out in insufficient quantity even to arm Great Britain, still less to assure our own protection should Britain lose the Battle of the Atlantic. Every month we delay, listening to palaver about rates of production that do not exist, every month we delay building vast plants that are needed, we are tossing away advantages as eventful for us as they were in 1940 for the conquered democracies. Had we to meet those same attacks today, no conceivable heroism could render our performance much more impressive than those of countries already ground beneath the Axis heel.
Our brave words, our defiant words, have been spoken. Irrevocably we have committed ourselves to the defense of the entire Western Hemisphere. Irrevocably we have pledged ourselves to the support of Britain, China, and the Dutch East Indies. We are united in the common cause of exterminating dictators, of wiping their blood lust from the face of civilization.
Can we honestly say that we are doing all we can to help? Can we honestly say that we are even today straining every effort to make good our patriotic words and pledges? Can we honestly assure our own people that their money is being spent to provide them with the greatest conceivable protection should foreign democracy collapse? This article is written in the belief that in this most vital issue of Air Power we cannot in all honesty give such assurances.
American Air Power this spring is represented by less than 500 up-to-date bombers. We do not possess as many good bombers in the Army and Navy combined as Germany produces in a single week. Nearly all our combat planes are going to Canada for transshipment, and as long as our own production is far below British needs we have insufficient planes available for our own air defense.
This, then, represents the sum of our national aviation policy to date. Dismaying as is this picture, however, such airplanes as we have or have not got on hand today are actually of far less importance than is our capacity to produce aircraft in the immediate future. In that capacity lies our main hope. We have hardly begun to use it. Nevertheless, this potential capacity is such that if we mobilize it now, this very month, along lines of common sense, we shall yet win the race.
Because of the confusion of our present policy and effort, all proposals set forth in this article have been authoritatively checked. They have been checked not by theorizers, the so-called ‘experts,5 but by the hard-headed practical men who have played so large a part in making the American airplane the finest in the world. These men, in the Army Air Corps, in the Navy, in the OPM, in aircraft plants, are performing almost incredible feats every day of the year, in spite of a fantastic administrative muddle, in spite of Government and public ignorance. Thanks to the efforts of these men we are turning out more planes now than we were turning out last year. Unfortunately, our present production is peanuts compared with the production we need if the Axis is to be defeated.
There is nothing wrong with our plants. There are just not nearly enough plants, either operating or in sight. To any professional, the existing air program conveys no picture of true Air Power, either in quantity or in quality. It is the purpose of this article to make clear the specifications of true Air Power, and to propose the specific steps by which it may be achieved in the brief time we have left.
The program will require the swift sweeping away of an inherited muddle. It will require radical steps taken on a radical scale. It will require, in the simplest words, that we give Aviation its head.
When time is so precious, any rational plan must possess the fundamental quality of being practicable. The first consideration, therefore, is: What is our policy, and what are the tools we have on hand to work with? This requirement swiftly rules out a whole raft of glib generalities. Mr. Henry Ford has proclaimed that his company can make 1000 planes a day; another man promised that Detroit could turn out 500 planes a day. Every aviation man knows that, in the sense in which they spoke, neither of these men knew what he was talking about. Both statements omitted the facts that we should have no machine tools and raw materials for such production, no engines, no mechanics, no pilots, and no airports to take care of such a fantastic output. Such statistics get us nowhere.
Our actual capacity to produce is as follows: —
|War Planes||Training Planes||Total|
Numbers by themselves, where airplane strength is concerned, are meaningless. Clamor for more and more numbers is equally meaningless. To be gratified by 1000 or 2000 planes a month is to walk on quicksand. The all-important factor is the type. In other words, if the planes are not of a type useful in our great emergency, they are useless. To lump all types of war planes together into one total is as sensible as counting battleships and ferryboats on an equal basis. No one has ever taken the trouble to make a breakdown for the public of the word ‘airplane’ in the manner in which naval power is defined as battleship, destroyer, submarine, and so forth. Yet the airplane is subdivided into as many different types, not one of which is truly interchangeable with another.
Countries in the present situation of England require a certain number of swift pursuit planes, to tackle enemy bombers that take off a bare hundred miles away. Owing to the first insistence of the British on such planes, our plants are loaded up with pursuit production. In the meantime, the British have greatly raised their own capacity as regards swift pursuit planes, and now they are asking for United States bombers. This is largely because pursuits, being defensive weapons, cannot strike the German bases, and partly because big bombers can be flown across the Atlantic while pursuits have to go over in ships. As sinkings increase, the pursuits begin to pile up on Canadian docks; this is already the case.
Countries in the situation of the United States have no present use for more than a nominal quantity of pursuits, since enemy bombers cannot reach us in large numbers unless brought in ships, or flown from Western Hemisphere bases established by ships. Our own specific need is for tremendous bombing power, at long distance, so that we can sink every hostile ship that approaches our shores or seeks to establish air bases. Wherever we turn, to the defense of the Panama Canal, to the protection of the West Coast, to the policing of our end of the convoy lanes, we find the need for striking great blows with heavy bombers in the Pacific, the Atlantic, or the Caribbean, far from the central homeland. The British are now in a parallel situation. Their pursuits can help to ward off enemy attacks, but only the heavy bombers, smashing at the heart of the Nazi industry in plants a thousand miles away from England, can win this war for them. The British Navy cannot reach the factories; the British Army cannot invade Germany against infinitely superior forces. But it is a stupid sophistry to cite this fact as a reason why the British cannot win the war; these obstacles can be overleaped by great air power applied at the vital sources of Nazi machine power.
Our present capacity in bombers of all types is as follows: —
1941 (balance). 2500
1942 (all) *. 9000
* About 75 per cent of these are long-range bombers. The figures naturally omit any plants still in the discussion stage.
We see at a glance a very serious situation. For aid to Britain, for the maintenance of sea power during the four years while our Navy is building, for the vital defense of our own country and of South America should Britain lose, we have need of a great force of planes adapted to these specific requirements. We have not got them. The planned capacity will not get them in time. This is the heart of the problem.
As long ago as January 1940, and again last October, the writer advocated in this magazine a program for the immediate construction of long-range heavy bombers in large numbers. The program is still unfilled, although today our need for it is even more desperate. The existing program, quoted above, is hopelessly inadequate. We need at least 15,000 additional heavy bombers per year, if we are to have the control of crushing hitting power either for supply to Britain, or, if she falls, to weld into an Air Striking Force for our own protection. To the layman our present aircraft factories may appear aweinspiring and vast; to the professional they are not nearly awe-inspiring or vast enough.
Even 10,000 long-range bombers in actual service would give us control of such hitting power as no other nation has ever possessed. It is improbable that any country but ours could produce it in time. With it, the United States could make the Western Hemisphere invulnerable; no enemy could ever reach our shores, and we should have offset our urgent need for greater floating sea power. With it, the British could grind German industry to pulp and terminate German sea and air power at the source. With it, this war can be won more rapidly, more economically in life and billions, than by any other means.
The first step of our program, then, is a clear-cut aviation policy, embodying the immediate construction of real striking power, as compared with a hodgepodge of little planes started in the first confusion of the war.
To do this means raising our 1942 bomber production from 9000 to at least 25,000 — a gigantic task. Mass production of airplanes, like that of other complicated machines, requires a long period of tooling up and construction before a single plane can be produced. It requires, further, a tremendous feat of organization, working constantly against time. To get mass production of the planes we need involves the determination of standardized types of long-range bombers, which in turn involves decisions on new factories, engine supply, parts supply, tools for mass production, and the organization of skilled labor to handle such tools. The program then moves on to include creating a Striking Force, training pilots and crews, establishing operating bases, and simultaneously devising greatly expanded arrangements for flying bombers to Britain.
It stands to reason that no body of men, however able, can be expected to assume responsibility for canying out such a program without full authority and full power. The difficulties are stupendous enough without bucking the fetters of red tape and departmental politics into the bargain. Aviation must be given a free rein, not crippled with checks imposed by the very forces that have landed us in our present tragic muddle. We must, in short, divorce our national aviation from the War Department.
Whatever its intentions, it is a fact that since the days of Kitty Hawk the War Department has never properly understood Air Power; there is little evidence that it ever will understand it. With the horrible object lessons of the past two years right before its nose, it is still under the delusion that the essential function of American Air Power is to back up land forces. It is still devoted to the principle that ‘air power cannot hold terrain.5 That Hitler, arming from scratch a bare six years ago, has conquered most of Europe on a directly opposite theory — that of a mechanized army exploiting a gigantic air offensive — has still to register with the War Department. With the finest designers and constructors in the world at its command, with time and money for the asking, it has yet succeeded in stranding us in this fateful spring with no real Air Power at all.
The second step of our program is therefore a separate Air Department, headed by a Cabinet officer ranking equally with the Secretaries for the Army and Navy. When each of the three services is run as an equal and self-contained unit, two grave hazards will have been eliminated at a single stroke: first, interference by the War Department in matters pertaining to true Air Power; second, and equally important, the danger of any interference by the Air Department in regard to the combat planes that are integral parts of the Army and Navy units. (In the particular case of the Navy, it would be insane to permit any Air Department interference with the design, construction, and operation of naval aircraft. The Navy is our outer bastion of defense. The Air Striking Force wall become such; the two must work intimately — but they will never be wholly the same. The Navy has special needs, special methods in which officers undergo a lifetime of training. Naval commanders are the best judges of what they want in naval aircraft. Nothing must interfere with these men, afloat this very month in ships which represent all we have in sea power, which may actually be fighting long before our Air Striking Force is ready. The British did irreparable harm to their naval and land air forces by consolidation. It is a lesson from which we may profit.)
It is also true that upon the actual day of battle there must be unity of command. It is a cardinal principle of war that a commander must be able to exert the greatest possible strength at a chosen point. This means that in a great sea battle the commanding admiral must have complete tactical control of all forces used against the enemy; and in a land battle the commanding general must have similar control, so that every tactical force can be utilized in one great scheme.
The first and mandatory task of the new Air Department must be that of getting the necessary bombers into actual service.
With so little time left, we can no longer afford the luxury of experimenting with different types, of which we now have over fifty in actual production. We must standardize the most modern type of bomber, the performance of which is reliably known to us, the military usefulness of which is the best that can now be established, and which, above all, can be secured in time. The next thing to be done is to ‘freeze’ the design to permit of mass production at the earliest possible moment.
Before proceeding with the program, it is as well to clarify what we mean by ‘standardizing a type’ in its relationship to Air Striking Power. The first question that arises in standardizing anything, be it factory, warship, or bomber, is: What is this thing expected to do? Only when we have decided that are we able to decide on something that fits the specific bill.
In the case of our bomber we have seen that the main thing it must be able to do, in Europe, is to smash munition and industrial plants that are located far from England. If our aid to Britain comes too late, it is vitally necessary that our main Air Power be suitable for our own defense, which is not the case in our present program. The new bombers, operating in our own defense, must therefore be able to strike decisively against oncoming ships, or against bases already established by ships.
Now the bombing of ships is radically different from any other type of bombing. In the first place, the largest ship seen from the air is a mere pinpoint upon the surface of the sea. It changes course as rapidly as it can to confuse the bomber, and, if it is a warship, it will be heavily armed and perhaps armored. No secret Army bombsight yet devised is so accurate that it can guarantee to hit a ship from high altitude. Moreover, unlimited ceilings can rarely be depended upon; a thousand feet or so is a common winter ceiling at sea, and such medium-altitude bombing invites heavy shellfire. First, therefore, we must plan on a bomber that can deliver its bombs or torpedoes very accurately from a distance of a few hundred feet, by means of glide bombing, underneath the antiaircraft shellfire and at the highest possible speed to reduce casualties from machine-gun fire.
Secondly, we must consider the kind of bombs our standard model will have to carry, since different targets demand different bombs. Troops, for instance, are best attacked by quantities of small bombs to produce the same ‘scatter’ as a shotgun. Small factories, houses, airports, and so forth, require medium bombs. A merchant ship can be sunk with 500-pound bombs. For our problem — against an objective of armored warships or of concrete bases — there is only one answer: heavy bombs. It is a deeply important and fundamental truth of Air Power that a battleship can be peppered all day with 500-pound bombs and still escape vital damage. To sink or damage a battleship vitally, she must be hit repeatedly by the explosive equivalent of a great many broadsides from other battleships.
A 15-inch bombardment shell weighs about 2000 pounds, of which 1850 pounds is steel and 152 pounds is explosive. A full-size torpedo contains 500 pounds of high explosive and 1500 pounds of mechanism. A 2000-pound bomb contains 55 per cent explosive — 1100 pounds. This enormous step-up in explosives is at the expense of piercing power. Thus we see that, to be disabled, a powerful ship must be attacked by large numbers of heavy bombs, each weighing at least 2000 pounds, dropped directly on her decks or close enough alongside to open her plates, as by a torpedo. The bigger the individual bomb, the greater the damage. It is hard to overstate the tremendous importance of big bombs.
The second requirement of our standard bomber, therefore, must be an ability to carry at least two 2000-pound bombs, the explosive equivalent of 11/2 times a battleship’s entire broadsides of ten 15inch guns. Already we have reduced our ‘standard type’ to a weight-carrying bomber that can deliver a deadly blow from the height of a few hundred feet.
The third and final requirement is range. In bad weather it is difficult to locate from the air even a substantial number of ships, and, since bad weather provides no immunity from surface attack, it stands to reason that the farther away we can intercept such attack, the better for us it will be. If a bomber has a working radius of 1000 miles (about three hours’ flying) that is the equivalent of three days and nights of steaming by surface warships, and that in turn would mean that for seventy-two hours any oncoming enemy fleet could be subjected to a pitiless and devastating aerial pounding before it could reach our shores. Were it to turn back, say, at 750 miles, it would mean that for ten hours, even at emergency speed, it would have to retreat through a similar barrage before it could escape the bomber range. During this fateful ten hours, a 10,000plane Striking Force could deliver the explosive equivalent of 1000 broadsides from each of our fifteen battleships.
Our standard type has now roughly crystallized in the three main essentials, type, weight, and range. The type is equally adaptable for use over Europe or the sea. We must freeze the design for a weight-carrying bomber that can operate at low altitude and be able to strike at distances up to 1000 miles without cutting down on bomb load. This automatically eliminates all the little planes. They cannot carry two tons and they cannot fly anything like a thousand miles from their bases. It eliminates the 10,000-mile-range superbombers like the four-engined Douglas B-19, for these lake nearly a year apiece to build. Because of present shortage of pilots and engines, our standard type cannot afford a crew of more than three men; nor can it afford more than two 2000-2500 horsepower air-cooled engines. These engines are sufficient to maintain a cruising speed of over 300 miles per hour at economical transit altitude of 20,000 feet.
This performance represents the extreme of present two-engined practicability, but it is entirely feasible. It is, in fact, only an extension of the existing Martin B-26. The proposed performance of this standard type is so good that the design can be frozen in series of thousands of planes, without waiting for Tomorrow. It is true that, even as they are built, planes become obsolete, but it is equally true that the surface ships we may have to repel are not going to steam any faster.
The third step of our program, then, is the standardizing of types of airplanes specifically adapted to our actual needs, whether in Europe or in the Western Hemisphere.
With a policy, an Air Department, and standard types, the next move is to let contracts immediately for the building of our Striking Force bombers. The building of the plants alone will require a minimum of six to nine months from the date of the decision. The bottlenecks are going to be procurement, of skilled labor and procurement of machine tools. In order to specify the machine tools and to erect enough buildings to house them, the Air Department must know exactly how many Striking Force bombers it must construct per year. It is no use being overambitious. We can only build the number of bombers for which we have labor, crews, airports, mechanics, spares, and, above all, proven engines.
If our main Air Power were set at 10,000 of the new Striking Force standard bombers, plus reserves, such a number would be within the realm of practical achievement. We have seen that we should possess a hitting power of 20,000 tons of bombs per twelve daylight hours at extreme range, while for shorter range, where our bombers could undertake more than one round trip a day, the hitting power would go up to 30,000 or 40,000 tons a day. Again, the maximum number of Axis warships that can be assembled at any time in 1941, 1942, and 1943 cannot exceed 100 powerful vessels. Even at extreme range, the hitting power suggested would be the explosive equal of 145 battleship broadsides delivered against each enemy ship. This would give us an enormous margin on the day of battle. Thus we see the crushing effect with which this striking power could be used, either by the British or by ourselves. Deriving our figures from the facts, then, the ultimate Air Striking Force might be set at a figure of 10,000 planes, with reserves.
In view of the everlasting urgency to get even a substantial part of this Striking Force ready in time, and to maintain the 10,000 constant strength, the new plants must be able to produce not less than 15,000 of our standard bombers per year. By mid-1942 we should have at least 5000 of them available for the British or for ourselves; by the end of 1942 we should be at full strength, we should be able to maintain it, and Great Britain as well as the United States would be safe.
The fourth step of our program is therefore the immediate erection of plants to produce not less than 15,000 Striking Force bombers per year, beginning six to nine months hence.
This entire scheme for American Air Power, for an Air Department, for a Striking Force, for a Standard Type, for huge new factories, will bog down and be a dismal failure unless the fundamental policy is laid out and adhered to with unswerving resolution. The policy is the main prop of the whole effort.
For proof, we have only to glance at the immediate past and at the present. We have seen that we have less than 500 modern bombers on hand; during 1940 we exported about 1000 bombers to Britain; therefore, even if we had given no aid to Britain, we should still have no effective Air Power worthy of the name!
No one department of government has had a monopoly of this unrealistic attitude. The Congress has voted expenditures which already total nearly double our outlay in the previous World War. These expenditures include very large sums for aviation, made without any real understanding of the necessities. In March 1940, the Air Corps asked for 1000 combat planes. The House cut this down to 57, the Senate raised it to 166. In September of the same year, the Congress voted 18,000!
In Air Power, the Nazis have shown the big conception. To follow moderately in their footsteps is to ensure the endless miseries of a long war. To annihilate them as quickly as possible, and as cheaply as possible in life and treasure, requires a much larger conception of Air Power than anything of which the Nazis and their friends are capable. That should suit us. No other country in the world is more in its element than the United States when face to face with the stupendous. It is apathetic in small objectives, wasteful and casual to a degree incomprehensible to other nations, but nothing captures American imagination more completely than to challenge it with the impossible. We lag in little things, but show us a Panama Canal, a Boulder or Grand Coulee Dam, a Ship a Day, Five Million Cars a Year, and no other nation in the world can touch us. Air Power is our present challenge.
There is nothing here that is in any way beyond our capability, but we have to do it, not talk it!
We might recall the watchword of the stern old Admiral who beat the Germans in the last war: ‘Hit first! Hit hard!! Keep on hitting!!!’