USAF Doctrine and National Policy

Air Force doctrine is a much-maligned topic. The air Force has so recently achieved its full stature as to be something of a doctrinal mystery in comparison with the older, more familiar services. As a result, there is insufficient public knowledge of the facts to support casual analysis of bedrock Air Force doctrine.

This produces such handy—but inaccurate—tags for the Air Force as being “believers in obliteration”—having no finesse for local war, should one be thrust upon us—lacking appreciation of likely political constraints—and a host of others, in similar vein.

Let me make on thing crystal clear. Air Force doctrine is not a thing apart nor a code sufficient unto itself. The Air Force is a national instrument and evolves no doctrine, makes no plans, and makes no preparations other than those clearly and unmistakable called for or anticipated by the national policy.

Despite this fact, bits and pieces of studies, guesses, and, most of all capabilities get tagged as doctrine.

There are a lot of things the Air Force could do – but these capabilities are not Air Force doctrine.

We are sometimes asked what we could do – and a complete answer includes the capability to destroy the Soviet Union. But this does not mean that the destruction of the Soviet Union is the basis of Air Force doctrine and the answer to all the evils of this troubled age.

Air Force Doctrine

So much for what Air Force doctrine is not. Let us look briefly at what Air Force doctrine is. I believe this doctrine is wholly responsive to the primary aim of serving the national policy.

• The Air Force must serve to advance the national policy.

• Victory in military operations is not an end in itself but a means to an end. Success is measured only by achieving specific military objectives in support of national policy.

• Military force can deter, persuade, neutralize, deny, destroy, or capture.

• The greatest service military forces can perform, in peace or war, is to provide a deterrent atmosphere in which the US, working in close teamwork with its Free World allies, can exercise a compelling initiative for peace and justice in world affairs.

• Air forces can directly affect all components of the enemy’s strength, from individual forces to whole populations.

• The basic determinant of success I air operations is not the weight of effort or the amount of destruction – it is the degree of contribution to the desired national objectives.

• Air operations have no geographical limit.

• Air operations achieve preeminence in national defense because their versatility, with or without armed conflict, and immediate worldwide capability can produce a wide variety of desired results.

Key Issue: Air Force Doctrine in Local War

There is general agreement that this doctrine is responsive to the national policy when the issue under discussion is general war. The key deterrent role of nuclear airpower is recognized by the US government, by the American people, and abroad.

It is in the local conflict area that the Air Force is suspect. We believe, however, that Air Force doctrine is ideally suited to the military implementation of national policy in local war as well as in general war.

The Air Force believes that much of what has been written and said about local war lacks only critical measurement against political, economic, and military reality to make the kind of lasting sense that permits unified progress in solving problems.

National Policy

Simply stated, the national policy in local war is, first, to deter conflict, and second, failing that deterrence, to cope with it successfully. The degree of “success” to be achieved involves a wide range of possibilities. We here, can assume that this “success” ranges from diplomatic protest and moral condemnation at the most moderate end of the scale, upwards through destruction of the attacking forces, to actual punishment of the basic strengths of the aggressor. In actual practice, the punishment would be made to order to fit the crime.

To complete the policy picture we must add a qualifier.

I believe we agree that the policy of any nation, especially in the nuclear age, demands that, if conflict must be waged, it be done so as to invoke the least risk of aggravating the conflict into general war.

In the successful resolution of conflict this requirement ranks second only to the preservation of national security.

The basic principles, which guide planning for local conflict, so as to invoke the least risk of general war, are there:

• The rapid application of force – in hours, or days, not weeks, months, or years.

• The resolute application of force – enough, neither too little nor too much.

These principles call for a military capability, within and not separate from or in addition to total US forces, which is instantly ready, flexible, and selective, including nuclear firepower.

The essentials of the national local war strategy in no way present either a conceptual or practical problem within the Air Force. We believe in this strategy. We do not believe it requires change to assure US security.

As a corporate body, the military establishment wholly agrees with this national strategy.

So, with the tasks of, first, deterrence and second, favorable resolution in mind, let us now examine the essential elements of each task in an effort to visualize the specific types of forces required to perform these tasks.

Elements of Deterrence

As examination of the first task – that is, the military contribution to deterrence – hinges on these generally agreed essentials:

First, adequate armed force.

Second, manifest determination to use that force.

And last, the aggressor’s belief that the force and the determination exist.

The first of these, adequate armed force, is an immediate temptation for discussion of size, shape, and capability. Let us postpone that for the moment. I will return to it later.


This, then, brings us to the requirement for determination.

The determination I refer to, in the local war context, is not that which would emerge, spontaneously, as a result of surprise attack on the United States. It is the governmental determination to risk American Lives, in resolution of a conflict which may not attract unanimous US or international public approval in advance.

The United States is determined to halt aggression. This determination must be manifest if we are to deter the aggression in the first place.

What foundation is there for this statement?

The foundation for American Determination to deter or halt local aggression is awareness that small conflicts, unresolved, can provoke larger conflicts and increasing dangers. Additionally, appreciation of the possibility of piecemeal defeat, or defeat by default, is a growing concern in the official consciousness to a degree which call for the measurement of any aggression against United States security.

The global coverage of news, the wide awareness of political, economic, and psychological factors, the diminishing credence given the isolationist – all of these combine to spotlight distant, seeming remote, aggression and cause its immediate examination in the light of ultimate, as well as immediate, US security interests.

Add to these factors our commitments by treaties and agreements the world over and there is a firm foundation for real determination to resist aggression.

It is said that the enemy will seek out instances where our determination is at its weakest, where the issues are too small or too vague, where conditions will mask the real issue and handcuff our will to resist.

This is most likely and, at the same time, increasingly difficult for the enemy. The US is now aware of, or interested in, or Involved in, the affairs of the nations of the globe, to an unprecedented degree. The enemy will be increasingly hard put to mount overt aggression without provoking US response.

These circumstances spell a determination to resist remote aggression, which is new in American History.

There are many factors alleged to be sapping this determination.

It is said, for example, that the very prospect of having to use nuclear firepower against aggression will inhibit US determination to act with resolution.

I believe that the prospect of sending American manpower, armed only with TNT weapons, against remote aggression would most seriously inhibit US determination. It is apparent that dependence on outmoded elements of force, to the exclusion of nuclear firepower where this capability is needed, would be suicidal in this day and age.


The third requirement (that the probable enemy be convinced of the existence of adequate US force and determination) amounts to the degree of “belief” we can achieve.

The belief we must establish in the enemy’s consciousness is not that a military commander would fight to preserve an advanced position, but that the US government would order the use of sufficient armed force, quickly, in the case of overt aggression.

I believe that there is firm and growing US determination to resist aggression, and that this determination is credible to the potential aggressor.

This state of affairs is relative and not fixed. Determination and the resulting credibility will not automatically grow stronger, but must be nourished.

The USAF believes there is a clear obligation to assist in the nourishment of this determination. We must do so by providing, within the resources given us, a key element of the armed force needed for the quick and resolute application of the required national effort.

Adequate Armed Force

You will recall that I named the three requirements of deterrence as being adequate armed force, determination, and belief. I have discussed the last two of these first, and now return to the subject of armed force.

This I will discuss from two standpoints:

First, adequate armed force in deterrence; and

Second, adequate armed force in successfully resolving local conflict.

I do so, because there may be a decided difference between adequate deterrent forces and adequate fighting forces, in local conflicts, depending primarily on the political objectives established.

Adequate Deterrent Force

I previously indicated that the Air Force considers that offensive nuclear force deters local conflict. This does not mean that there never has been nor ever will be local conflict in spite of the nuclear deterrent.

There has been local conflict through all of recorded history.

But how much more local conflict, how much more serious local conflict, would there be were there no nuclear deterrent?

The real deterrent to significant local conflict is nuclear firepower. The whole of this firepower is our general war deterrent. That portion of this firepower, up to the total necessary to achieve resolution, is the adequate force for local warfare.

It is the Air Force view that, just as nuclear delivery capability constitutes an agreed deterrent to general war, so can this total firepower deters local war. The right measure of this total firepower can, in turn, resolve local conflict if we fail to deter the aggression.

Adequate Force for Conflict

What, then, is the right measure of force for local conflict

Too often the assumption is made that the Air Force considers total nuclear force as the sole and proper instrument for successfully resolving all local conflict.

We have no doubt that total nuclear force would resolve local conflict, were the need solely one of guaranteed delivery of overwhelming force. But this is not always the issue in local conflict, as it is in general war.

The Air Force does not propose that SAC be unleashed in response to a minor emergency.

On the other hand, if there is significant local conflict, requiring the rapid, sure, all-weather delivery of calculated force to warn, repulse, or destroy, then one aircraft or two or ten could strike.

Tactical aircraft could strike alone or in concert with SAC.

Navy aircraft could strike; Army or Marine troops could be required to separate the combatants; Air Force or Marine aircraft could support these troops – in short, the full range of US capabilities will be available, and must be used–promptly and effectively–as needed.

Minor conflicts are possible in which no airpower would be required. Certainly such conflicts could be resolved with the minimum diversion of essential general war strength.

This is precisely the difference between adequate armed force in deterrence and in use. We deter with our total capability, including all lesser facets thereof. We will elect to use that portion required and best suited to the resolution of the particular conflict.

Examples of Adequate Forces

There are specific examples to document the deterrent aspect of the total offensive nuclear force – and to illustrate the selective use of armed force, from within the general war capability, to actually resolve aggression.

In NATO, where an attack on one is an attack on all, the total nuclear offensive force is a deterrent to local aggression. There are many factors at play in this circumstance, but the fact is that this is an area where aggression involves more than just risk of general war. General war forces, characterized by elements both in place and behind the scenes, are in deterrent posture against local aggression. The North Atlantic Alliance is a concrete expression of the determination, which instills belief and is, in essence, deterrence.

Look now to the situation in the Far East, and ponder whether aggression there involves identical circumstances. Clearly, there is less risk of general war in some underdeveloped areas. But there is risk, and to the degree that there is risk then so do general war forces deter conflict.

For another example of adequate armed force in deterrence, look to Korea. It is clear that the Communists intend to possess the Korean peninsula. This they tried to do and failed. We have rebuilt the South Korean armed forces into a relatively large military establishment.

The United States has also declared that in the event of renewed aggression the conflict might not be confined to those on hand in Korea and certainly less than those required to cope with general war.

From this examination we conclude that serious conflict inspired by the USSR cannot be deterred without adequate general war force. We also see that the total deterrent force need not be the force used in local conflict.

Local War Concepts

For some time now there has been discussion on the use of nuclear weapons in local conflict. Opinions vary but these sentiments have dominated, not necessarily in this order nor in these exact measures, but along these lines:

First, local war could spread into general war. (I believe this is a reasonable statement. It is dangerous when it becomes an axiom, to the effect that all local wars will spread into general war.)

Second, nuclear weapons could promote the spread of local war. (This too is a possibility – but is does not mean that nuclear weapons will automatically promote the spread of local war. TNT weapons could also promote the spread of local war. In both cases it depends on how, where, and when they are used.)

Third, some local wars can be fought without using nuclear weapons. (We agree that there could be local wars not requiring nuclear weapons. If the conflict is so small as to obviate the need for the balancing power of nuclear weapons, then the US certainly has the capability to handle the conflict. But this in not the same as saying that all local wars can, must or should be fought without nuclear weapons.)

What does the national policy have to say of this?

In a recent expression Secretary Dulles went into some detail to explain the difference between massive retaliation and the use of nuclear weapons. He indicated that the use of nuclear weapons in local conflict “need not involve vast destruction and widespread harm to humanity…” Hence, “… it may be possible to defend countries by nuclear weapons so mobile, or so placed, as to make military invasion with conventional forces a hazardous attempt.”

This is precisely the view the Air Force holds and has made careful preparations to implement. The military establishment as a whole has done likewise. It is axiomatic that the delivery system best suited to the nuclear delivery problem should be used in local war.

Mr. Dulles, in the same context, turned the problem around, as the Air Force in fact sees it to be, when he said: “Thus the tables may be turned, in the sense that all-out nuclear retaliatory power for their protection, would-be aggressors will be unable to count on conventional aggression, but must themselves weigh the consequences of invoking nuclear war.”

Lest there be any lingering doubt as to what the Air Force considers to be the “mobile nuclear weapon” to which the Secretary of State referred, let me say that nuclear weapon delivery by aircraft is the best delivery system now available. Missile delivery systems will not achieve equal mobility in the immediate future – now other delivery system has it today nor has it in the offing. When missiles have this mobility, as a practical matter, or achieve the needed flexibility, you can be sure they will be in the military inventory.

Add to these statements such facts as these: the gradual revamping of traditional US military force since world War II, with emphasis on technology, not on manpower; the tremendous strides in all services toward nuclear capabilities; the conventional tag now placed on nuclear weapons themselves. Add these, and the many other signs, and it is apparent that, if we are engaged in conflict requiring nuclear force for resolution, even limited resolution, then nuclear force, adapted to the need, will be used. That force, in adequate measure for local conflict, is presently available. I trust that it will be maintained.

The following question now arises:

“But what about our allies; will they welcome defense by nuclear weapons?”

This is a valid question. But the overwhelming indication from our allies has been to the effect that they fear Communist domination more than they fear nuclear defense. In NATO, there has been a realistic appraisal of the role of nuclear weapons. True, the context is general rather than local war, but if paralyzing fear of nuclear defense were in the ascendancy it would be evident.

This is not to say that any ally or for that matter any individual wants to use nuclear weapons. It is to say that most allies and individuals want to self-determine rather than bow to Communist rule.

I have heard reference to an alleged fear by our allies of nuclear weapons. I sense, on the contrary, that our allies dread failure to use the required force, what ever it may be, in their defense.

The Secretary of State recently commented on this subject, saying, “However, as nuclear weapons become more tactical in character and thus more adaptable to area defense, there will inevitable by a desire on the part of those allies which are technically qualified to participate more directly in this defense and to have a greater assurance that this defensive power will in fact be used.”

Local War Conventional Forces

At this point, it is natural to wonder whether it would not be safer to maintain adequate armed force without reliance on nuclear weapons. The affirmative conclusion usually is that “if the US is not to court defeat in the process of upholding its rights, it must make available to the armed forces an ample measure of conventional as well as nuclear power.”

I hesitate to comment on this conclusion in less than full detail and yet it should not stand unexamined.

I would ask these questions:

• Has anyone accurately defined “ample conventional power,” counting the whole Free World, and measuring likely requirements, with such precision as to deny its existence in our present military establishment

• If “ample” is significantly more than what is on hand, does this mean we must match the Communist Bloc man for man, machine for machine, while we maintain the essential total nuclear offensive capability and simultaneously advance into the missile and the space era

• Assuming this or something similar to be the requirement, is such a force achievable in peacetime in the US – economically? Politically? Is it feasible in the United Kingdom? In other countries

• Assuming this requirement is intended and assuming it is feasible, is it really necessary? Would it alter the balance of power and bring the Communist Bloc to a more reasonable and less aggressive position

• For how long could we maintain this posture and preserve our institutions and way of life

• By “ample conventional” power are we holding to the past and ignoring the present-day conventional aspect of nuclear power? Are we attempting to deny progress? Progress in destructive firepower to be sure, but military progress nevertheless.

• Would not the existence of this so-called conventional power, evidently presumed to be comparatively “safe” to use, promote conflicts which nuclear power has deterred?

The answers to these and other questions do not convince me that it is necessary, wise, or feasible to have two tremendous capabilities to ensure survival in the nuclear-space age.

At least one last ghost requires examination.

I refer now to the fact that in the years since World War II there have been numerous small wars in which the Communists have been involved. From this fact is deduced the conclusion that nuclear strength did not prevent aggression in Korea, Greece, and Vietnam. The implication is left that nuclear strength cannot deter aggression.

These wars have occurred. But I would turn the implication inside out, and ask whether they would have occurred had the US established belief in our determination to use nuclear strength or even our determination to intervene militarily with conventional weapons? Would these wars have run their painful courses had nuclear strength been involved?

Examples of Adequate Local War Forces

It now follows that we delineate adequate armed force, not as a deterrent, but in terms of actual use, once the deterrent has failed.

With the knowledge that political objectives will dominate, that the least force required will be utilized, and that once the decision to engage is made, then adequate force, not inadequate force, will be selected, I believe we can roughly illustrate its composition and characteristics.

To do so we must look ahead, with our central purpose in mind. The ground rule is laid down for us – to deter conflict in the nuclear age; failing deterrence, to resolve it without provoking general war.

The Air Force has examined possible areas of conflict in minute detail in recent months. We have studied these areas in terms of conflict in 1958 or 1960. We applied limitations to the assumed US national objectives and assumed that these conflicts were to be conducted with the minimal aim of restoring the status quo ante bellum. That is, not to defeat or destroy the aggressor nation but to end the aggression. This assumption makes the military task more delicate, and this is precisely why it was made. This is not to say that such a minimal aim is or is not desirable.

We looked at enemy forces and the entire range of US capabilities. From those studies we derived conclusions in the local war area.

One conclusion emerged paramount.

Airpower is essential in rapid, selective, and effective response to significant aggression.

Rapid, effective response to aggression is needed or else the aggression will have succeeded, and the fait accompli will be impossible to undo.

There are related conclusions. The first is that air-delivered nuclear weapons are essential to give the allied response rapid and resolute strength where significant aggression is involved.

Were TNT weapons to be used it could be a matter of years before sufficient forces could be built, brought to bear, and take effect. All of this would be defense of an ally, not by limited nuclear means, but by full-scale attack in the face of determined air opposition over a period of years, after the aggression succeeded. The suffering involved would be indescribable. The American investment in lives, resource, and effort would be tremendous. Were this our only recourse I suspect the result would be early capitulation by our allies in the absence of any hope of relief before the fact.

Instead, in a matter of hours, without unacceptably straining our deterrent to general war, it should be possible to bring to bear land, sea, and airpower so as to immobilize or destroy the invasion forces. Such ground forces as are required in this effort should be largely available in the indigenous forces of the countries concerned. Not ground forces to defeat major Communist assault, but give coherence and unity to the legitimate governments seeking Free World assistance.

We derive these additional conclusions:

• Air Force requirements in any likely local war situation can be met with forces provided for general war purposes under existing conditions. Any further curtailment of Air Force resource may alter this conclusion.

• The almost infinite variety of possible local war contingencies require tailoring our effort in the light of the specific situation and the resultant national objective. No pre-tailored force, pre-conceived and prejudiced to a planned task, can give us the flexibility to help resolve minor disputes, assist in guerrilla warfare, intervene between contestants, or conclusively halt larger aggressions. Instead, we will have to select and perhaps even adapt a portion of our joint and allied general war capability and use it as the political requirements dictate at the time.

• The Air Force has in being varied forces to meet, in conjunction with US, indigenous, and allied forces as necessary, the national requirements for airpower participation in any likely local war situation. These forces include:

(1) The in-being forces now deployed overseas with both tactical and strategic capabilities. As time goes on these forces may diminish in number as their capability is improved, including missile firepower. For the present, the capability of these forces and their physical presence serves the national policy, makes the total deterrent more credible to friend and foe alike, and lends the vital nuclear authority to friend and foe alike, and lends the vital nuclear authority to deployed and otherwise unprotected conventional forces.

(2) Additionally there is the Tactical Air Command in the US, which can redeploy rapidly by air and is otherwise prepared to participate without prior notice in local war and to deliver the mobile selective firepower the Secretary of State referred to. Although all tactical forces are trained for rapid deployment, as reserves, backup, or as a strike force, a special segment of Tactical Air Command specializes in this business. This segment of tactical airpower is alert, mobile, and in constant maneuver to improve its worldwide deployment capability. We have flown this force across both oceans.

(3) Finally, there is the Strategic Air Command, in the US, overseas, and constantly on the move. SAC is prepared to participate in local war situations, from general war positions, to the extent and in the manner required by our national objectives.

These Air Force power elements at home and overseas are equipped to deliver minimal or maximum firepower with precision, day or night, in any weather, with a speed of response unparalleled heretofore. Missiles are being integrated into this force as a matter of priority.

I ask you to reflect on the national policy as I have described it and as I now review its characteristics briefly:

First, to deter all conflict, principally general war.

Second, to resolve local conflict, quickly and resolutely, so that it will have the least likelihood of developing into general war.

Third, to use nuclear firepower where needed and in a manner best suited to the objectives at the time.

We believe that Air Force doctrine is in accord with the national policy is in fact in anticipation of that policy, and has a force molded to its military implementation with full consideration of the political requirements that are involved.

The foregoing article was slightly condensed from an unclassified version of a speech by Gen. Thomas D. white, USAF Chief of Staff, before the meeting last month of the USAF Scientific Advisory Board. The meeting was held at Chandler, Ariz.