Le’ Notes #8: The theory of airpower

This post discusses the evolution of airpower theory from Giulio Douhet to the age of drones and precision weapons.

Ah, don’t you just love the smell of aviation fuel in the morning? Or would you prefer the “Tennouheika banzai!” of Zero pilots crashing into warships? Or the sound of lamenting cries because a kid died in a drone strike, while the guys over at the Pentagon are cheering because they thought they killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? Either way, that’s the power of airplanes and their payload. To command the air, to dominate the ground. Above all.

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Not an accurate depiction of a Zero pilot.

Despite the progress of airpower, we’ve only been fighting from and in the air for more or less a century now. From the frightening Luftwaffe to the controversial drone, airpower has been an essential part of any military campaign. Let me walk you through the older theories of airpower, from Giulio Douhet to more contemporary thinkers such as John Warden. Along the way, we’ll see how airpower has evolved from being all about aerial supremacy to precision killing.

Let’s start with Giulio Douhet, the granddaddy of airpower theory. In his seminal work, The Command of the Air [PDF], outlined the earliest essentials for achieving aerial supremacy. Foremost, the air force should be an independent entity. It is worth noting that during Douhet’s time, there was no such thing as an Air Force. Rather, there were two different air forces for the Navy and Army respectively. Douhet then said, “Look guys, I think it’s better if us airmen fly solo. Can ah?” The other guys laughed at him, so he took to writing an entire treatise on airpower to convince them otherwise.

Giulio Douhet and his impressive mustache.

More importantly, Douhet believed that air power was decisive. Command of the air can impact operations on the ground. Here, Douhet was emphasized on the ability of aircraft to be unshackled by geography. They could strike first, take out enemy airplanes and then bomb the crap out of the cities. This swift attack would crush the morale of the other guy, and the boys on the ground can continue to occupy the cities. Or not. Douhet thought that once the cities were on fire, the enemy would give up instantly, negating the need for boots on the ground.

Oh, by the way, there was no ius in bello at that time. Civilians were legit targets, thus raining hell on houses were completely okay.

To convince his higher-ups, Douhet also wrote of airpower’s benefits, i.e. airpower required relatively fewer means and resources. Remember, Douhet was an Italian. Italy was not a large power at that time and was also strapped for cash. Instead of building one big ship, Douhet argued that the money would be better used for making a squadron of airplanes. Airplanes are indeed relatively cheaper than battleships.

Now, let’s move to an American. Our American of the century is William ‘Billy’ Mitchell, also known as the daddy of the USAF. Mitchell had the same way of thinking as Douhet. He also believed that the Air Force should be independent and that air power can be decisive. However, unlike Douhet, Mitchell believed in the power of bombers to destroy surface forces and nodes of production. This is the essence of Mitchell’s thinking: nodes of production. This would include factories, ports and harbors, transportation, and great cities (capital cities). As far as surface targets were concerned, anyone wearing a different uniform, in a different tank, or hoisting a different flag were legit targets.

Why destroy nodes of production and target cities specifically though? Mitchell thought that the mere howling of air sirens would force citizens to vacate cities to avoid an imminent air strike. A vacated city means nobody around to man production lines. The subsequent destruction of those same nodes of production would also cripple the enemy. Then, the boys on the ground can move in and occupy Stalingrad.

Thus, to fulfill these two different types of objectives, Mitchell advocated for a variety of bombers. Large flying fortresses like the B-52 would be used to rain napalm on people and cities, while smaller bombers like the A-26 Invader, would be more suited to destroy tanks and infantry.

But what’s the theory of war without a British guy in it? Don’t worry there’s Hugh Trenchard. Trenchard’s thoughts on airpower were similar to Mitchell. Trenchard viewed the aircraft as a weapon to shatter the will of the enemy. How would they do that? By destroying industries and paving the way for ground troops to occupy cities. Once their cities are destroyed, morale would be degraded to an all-time low, usually following in a surrender.

Thus, the classical school of strategic bombing focused on these three things:

  1. Aerial supremacy is a must.
  2. Bombers will always get through.
  3. Populations will almost always lose their will to fight.

Now, let’s move on to the more contemporary era. There are only several cases in which airpower would prove to be effective. Let’s revisit Vietnam for now. Oh no…

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I’ve seen some shit man

In The Limits of Airpower and Bombing to Win,  Clodfelter and Pape respectively describe the failure of airpower in the Vietnam war. It wasn’t that the Americans had mediocre bombs or technology; it was the fact that the technology was not the right weapon against the North and Charlies. Driven by classical doctrine, the USAF tried to cripple the Charlies by targeting their industrial bases. But they had none. So, they tried to set the Ho Chi Minh trail ablaze. It did not work either. Moreover, the napalm bombs which set ablaze hectares of farmland and forests was not winning the hearts of the population at all, which made life for the ground troops very difficult. Pape also added that America’s coercion strategy was misplaced. It did not raise the risks high enough for the Vietnamese to concede. The Vietnamese morale was just that high, so high that millions of dead civilians was nothing to them.

Moving on to a more contemporary example, let’s revisit the war in Kosovo. Since the Americans were keen to avoid another Vietnam and with newer and better precision-guided munitions, it was time for the Coalition Air Force to shine in Kosovo. Sadly, there’s still a great debate (see Byman and Waxman [PDF]) on whether or not airpower was the decisive factor in ousting Milosevic. Pape, in The true worth of air power [paywall], argued that despite having precision weapons, airpower was only effective when coupled with boots on the ground.

From Kosovo thereon, we see a new trend in the use of airpower. Airpower is no longer about having squadrons of planes bombing the crap out of cities; it is more about precision and economy of force. In the grand scheme of coercion, precision weapons promise to directly attack the center of leadership and crippling the entire enemy while at it. Such were the thoughts of John Warden. Warden viewed the enemy as a system, and leadership was the core of that system. Precision weapons could target the leader directly and bring down the entire system.

However, the entire promise of precision weapons now seems to falter. How effective are precision strikes in achieving strategic objectives? Precision weapons are surely high in terms of combat effectiveness, but do they always solve problems on the ground? Or do they actually add more problems?

Which now brings me to drones, UAVs, Predators… pick your fancy. The Obama administration’s drone policy was raised significant issues. The most important one is whether or not drones are achieving any strategic objectives (see Boyle [paywall]). Of course, drones played a huge part in dismantling Al-Qaeda and the Taliban by killing off important leaders. However, as far as we’ve seen, the death of a leader gives way for another one to assume the throne. Furthermore, drones are not winning the hearts of the population, thus paradoxically breeding more hatred towards America. It’s a slim tightrope. Obama is indeed squished between popular opinion and strategic objectives.

The bells ring…

Whew that’s a lot of airpower. Anyway, here’s a quick recap and questions to consider:

  • Classical airpower theory focuses predominantly on achieving aerial supremacy and shattering the enemy’s will by bombing their cities and industries.
  • Contemporary airpower, with the help of precision weapons, are now all about doing the job with minimum boots on the ground. Decapitation is the new norm. Killing off the leader will make the entire organization crumble.
  • With the cost of war now beign reduced to unmanned drones, what does that spell for the future of airpower theory? Would airpower need to be revised in its usage against amorphous enemies?

Le’ Notes is a collection of my lecture and reading notes, summarized, revised, and ready-to-go. Think of it as a bag of chips; it’s easy to eat, but don’t expect a lot of nutrition. Or, you can think of it as a starting point to learning more about other things that might interest you.

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