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Contemporary Airpower in the Great War

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Contemporary Airpower


26 MAR 2017

         The invention of the airplane quickly became a weapon of war in the early 1900s. The Great War ended with aircraft generating grandiose vision amongst a new generation of military leaders.  The dawning of the military aircraft swiftly became the magnificent focal point of future war fighting potential.  Early airpower theorists passionately advocated for institutionalizing airpower independently of land and sea forces and to secure government funding to establish an unwavering force of power.  It is my opinion that early airpower theorists aggressively touted unproved concepts, which led to claims that airpower theory overpromised effects and under-delivered in execution.  However, I believe overtime lessons learned were incorporated into airpower theory and doctrine. In this paper, I will examine airpower theory advancements from the early 1900s to 2000s to show how lessons learned were integrate, after reflection on experiences of airpower employment.

        Early airpower theorists experienced airpower in the Great War (1914-1918), which allowed them to envision scenarios of an all-conquering military air force during the inter war years.  The first lesson and basic doctrine of airpower was the importance of air superiority, in order to conduct observation, pursuit aviation, close air support, and strategic bombardment [1].  However, air superiority was overshadowed during the interwar years by early airpower theorists and advocates.

During the interwar years (1918-1939), we look to writings of Douhet, Trenchard and Mitchell for airpower theory. Giulio Douhet and Hugh Trenchard both theorized that targeting industrialized and civilian population centers with bombs would bring a war to a swift end by defeating the enemy’s will to fight [2].   However, in implementing such a theory, governments and military leaders confronted questions and concerns regarding the morality and inhumanity of targeting innocent civilians.  Trenchard further believed that targeting the enemy’s war making abilities, such as: material, transportation, communications and industry, would weaken not only the morale but also the ability of the enemy to continue fighting [3].  Billy Mitchell is another early theorist who believed strategic bombardment would allow an independent air force to end a war single-handedly by targeting vital centers, but he also understood the need for air superiority, pursuit and attack aviation [4]. These passionate theorists used their experiences to predict and envision the use of air power to its fullest.  They set the foundation of air power doctrine, focused on strategic bombardment, and pushed for an independent air force service.

        Strategic bombardment theory was fascinating; however, it was very much unproven and left uncertainty amongst political and military leaders in its use [5]. The Battle of Britain shows that strategic bombing was still in its infancy at the beginning of, and during, World War II (1939-1945).  As the war began, British Air Staff was still ‘wedded to the doctrine of bombardment’, but was faced with defending its borders rather than pursuing an offensive bombing attack against Germany [5].  Britain’s priority was air defense of its land and sea territories in the face of the German air offensive, and had to buy time to produce the levels of airpower needed to defeat the Germans. When Allies pursued the bombing of Germany, they faced many challenges with their visionary doctrine. Both the British and Americans failed at daylight bombing and High Altitude Precision Daylight Bombing, but they kept attempting it. Eventually, the Allies were successful after adapting and overcoming technological challenges and adjusting their theories according to failed execution. The key lessons learned, regarding strategic bombardment, during WWII were: 1) the establishment of air superiority, 2) the need for long-range escort fighters, 3) the need for precision bombing, and 4) better intelligence on targets and desired effects.

        It is important to note that other lessons were learned during WWII that were integrated into airpower theory.  The African air and land campaigns provided critical inputs into the integration of military forces.  Kasserine Pass is example of the tension between army and air minded leaders. The Army Air Corps’ air assets were distributed to various army formations and deployed in “penny packets’ under the individual army commanders [6].  However, the Allies were able to overcome challenges in tactical aviation through centralized command and decentralized execution. Lessons incorporated into doctrine were unity of command, concentration of airpower resources, balance, priority, flexibility, and versatility; which are all key principles of war and airpower tenets today.

        With the end of WWII, airpower theorists and military leaders had many things to reflect on and incorporate into doctrine. Besides reflecting on history, theory, doctrine, and strategy, they had to analyze and understand new capabilities.  Precision guided munitions allowed for better bombing effects, and the a-bomb brought a new reign of terror.  The “nuclear age” allowed for coercive air strategy, such as max punishment, and acted as a great deterrence strategy [3].  Within a few years after the war in 1948, global airlift and transport emerged as yet another airpower capability. And another few years later (1950s-1960s), space capabilities shaped airpower by providing further reach and technological abilities. With these new capabilities and technological advancements, there were still lessons to be learned to advance airpower theory.



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