De Seversky’s Definition

Aug. 1, 2009

“What is Airpower?”

Alexander P. de Seversky

Air Force Magazine

Arlington, VA

August 1955


“Most everyone is for airpower these days, yet the term means different things to different people.” So said the editors of Air Force Magazine in introducing a piece by Alexander de Seversky, the airpower theorist. His title—“What Is Airpower”—made things seem simple. Even de Seversky, however, had to take a few swings at it. In July 1954, he wrote a version for the American People’s Encyclopedia. The version in the August 1955 issue of Air Force Magazine added two long notes. De Seversky wrote three more notes before, having completed his work, he rested.

Airpower is the ability of a nation to assert its will via the air medium. The military instrument by which a nation applies its airpower is an air force. In time of peace, the existence of an air force of proper size and capabilities—what is termed an air force in being—can be used by a country to implement its national policy. In time of hostilities, the primary use of airpower is for the establishment of command of the air, the condition in which one side retains its freedom of air navigation and has the ability to deny that freedom to the enemy. Freedom of air navigation when maintained by one side through successful, sustained combat is known as air superiority.

Because the aim of war is to impose the will of one side upon the other, the enemy must be disarmed; his industrial power to make war and the stockpiles of his armed forces must be neutralized. For that reason, the offensive air force must carry the threat of a lethal dose of destruction.

Though the main objective of war is to disarm the adversary, it must be assumed from the outset that the belligerents’ industrial vitals and other sinews of war will be properly shielded by a defensive air force and that access to the decisive targets will be challenged. It is for this reason, as well as to deprive the enemy of his retaliatory capacity, that the primary mission of the air force must be the elimination of the opposing air forces, through (1) the destruction of its operational facilities and equipment on the ground and (2) combat in the air. This is termed air battle.

In the past, when the range of aircraft was limited, it was possible to maintain local command of the air. Global command of the air could be achieved only after the establishment of a worldwide complex of air bases so located, that in terms of a given practical range of aircraft, their air peripheries would interlock to form an uninterrupted air canopy over the theaters of operation. This arrangement was not unlike the system maintained in the 19th century for sea power, which, for the exercise of its global functions, required the establishment of bastions of naval strength on foreign soil throughout the world.

There are emerging among the major powers, however, aircraft, that for all practical purposes, possess global range. They can rise directly from their respective home bases, strike at any target in the northern hemisphere, and return nonstop. At the current rate of advance in aeronautical science, it is only a matter of a short time before aircraft of a truly global range (25,000 miles) will be a reality. In the meantime, global range is being achieved through the perfection of in-flight refueling.

Because of this global range, airpower can be applied directly from the continental base of its industrial origin without intermediary bases and the international complications attendant upon their establishment and maintenance on foreign soil. … With the development of the global range of aircraft and the advent of nuclear weapons, local control of the air anywhere on the face of the Earth, except over the continental base of airpower containing the source of its industrial origin, can no longer be maintained. …

It follows, also, that because local control of the air cannot be maintained, airpower can no longer be applied on a sustained basis against a continent from intermediary bases located on its periphery, whether those bases are fixed on land or are floating, as aircraft carriers. If, for example, a floating base ventures beyond the protective canopy of a friendly continental air force, it becomes untenable. It stands to reason that, like an intermediary base, a floating base can never contain enough airpower to challenge or ward off the entire air force of a hostile continent. Further, with the development of nuclear weapons of a size conveyable by small, supersonic aircraft, the floating base, like any other intermediary base, becomes extremely vulnerable and once destroyed, has no powers of recuperation.

From the above assumptions, it becomes clear that command of the air means a global command, exercised directly from the continent of its industrial origin. Either one controls the entire air ocean clear around the globe or one controls nothing. …

In order to acquire maximum airpower, a nation must adhere to these principles of military art: singleness of purpose, unity of command, and concentration and economy of force. This means that the entire airpower potential of a country must be unified, under a single air command, into a single force—an air force in being that can go anywhere and do the necessary.