The Indictment of Airpower

Jan. 1, 1991

The Air Force, a separate service since 1947, is still answering basic questions about its legitimacy and effectiveness. In the past year, the indictment of airpower has been strident.

The military reform analyst Dr. Jeffrey Record ticked off a whole laundry list of accusations in “Into the Wild Blue Yonder: Should We Abolish the Air Force?” in the Spring 1990 issue of the Heritage Foundation Policy Review. Since then, other critics have picked up the theme.

Surveying Persian Gulf strategy options in the National Journal, David C. Morrison sneers at the Air Force’s performance in three wars and wonders why “this history of costly failure does not deter airpower advocates.” In a September column, strategist Harry G. Summers warns against “the fanciful notion that a war can be won quickly and decisively by the use of airpower alone.”

Summing up for the prosecution in the Baltimore Sun October 5, Dr. Record charges that “the history of Air Force claims for what airpower can do has been one of inflated expectations followed by postwar alibis.”

This might be shrugged off as media speculation except that it corresponds with a certain chariness about airpower that seems to be developing among some in Congress and elsewhere in government. Ignoring it would be a mistake.

The main allegation is that airpower is not decisive. What exactly is this supposed to mean? That the Air Force did not win all by itself in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, or merely that its contribution was marginal

If the criterion is single-handed victory, then no arm of service is decisive in modern warfare. If the definition is something else, the commentator critics have not made a convincing case. In support of their point, whatever it is, they dig up again the tired old theory that the strategic bombardment of Germany in World War II was irrelevant.

Among those who repudiated that notion was Albert Speer, Hitler’s Minister of War Production. He said the bombing was tantamount to an additional front, destroying nine percent of his total production capacity and tying up 900,000 troops, 10,000 pieces of artillery, a third of the optics industry, and half of the electronics industry. To that add damage done directly to German forces, logistics, and railroads.

Dr. Record tells us that “Germany’s decision to capitulate came only with its conquest on the ground.” Well, yes, but it took a combined arms effort to put Allied armies on the Oder and the Elbe. The Normandy invasion for example, would have gone much harder had not a three-month air campaign almost completely neutralized the Luftwaffe before D-Day.

It is outrageous to claim, as Dr. Record and others do, that subsequent wars, especially Vietnam, demonstrated a failure of airpower. Vietnam did not prove much of anything about war except that politicians make poor generals.

In measuring decisiveness, the commentators might ask themselves two questions: Would the absence of airpower tend to make a difference in modern warfare, and would they prefer to fight an enemy on the ground before or after the Air Force hits him from the air

The second allegation is that airpower has been oversold. There is some truth to that, particularly if one uses seventy years of hindsight to punch holes in Giulio Douhet’s Command of the Air, published in 1921. Douhet and other early thinkers did promise too much, but their vision was closer to reality than that of their traditionalist contemporaries who said military airpower was no more than a novelty.

Some advocates of airpower overstate their case on occasion, but the same is true of those promoting seapower, land power, and any other social, political, economic, or military concept you can name. Even analysts and newspaper columnists have been known to push a point to excess.

The real issues are whether today’s Air Force leaders claim airpower can win alone and if they promise more than they can deliver. In the estimation of this magazine, which has followed the subject more closely than most, the Air Force has not made such claims.

Dr. Record, analyzing the Persian Gulf problem in August, found airpower “the single most important comparative military advantage we have over Iraq.” In a later epistle, he describes airpower as “absolutely indispensable to military power as a whole. Airpower may not be able to win wars by itself, but try winning one without it.” That is approximately what the US Air Force has been saying all along.

No one seriously questions the value of airlift or the advantage of air superiority over a battlefield. The importance of speed, range, and flexibility in military strategy should be obvious. These qualities are intensified in airpower. Projecting force over long distances is useful not only in fighting wars but also in deterring them.

The other combat arms have important qualities, too. Talking with this magazine in August, for example Gen. Michael J. Dugan, former Air Force Chief of Staff, cited persistence as a special strength of armies and recognized the mobility of naval forces but added that nothing beats airpower when you need to “deliver a big punch between the eyes.”

It is pointless to argue about single dimension strategies or whether individual services are “decisive” in isolation. Wars are not fought that way. The longer you look at the rambling indictment of airpower, the less sense it makes.