Tradition Versus Progress

Nov. 1, 1955
It appears that Field Marshal Montgomery, one of the most respected commanders of ground armies in modern times, will be making an annual appearance in this magazine. It was only last December that we printed his views as set forth in an address to the Royal United Services Institution, at Whitehall in London. The following pages are devoted to a condensation of a similar appearance before the same audience in mid-October of this year. There is a certain amount of irony in the fact that some of the most pungent prose concerning the proper role of airpower in today’s military world should come from a man whose prime background has been that of an infantry commander. Yet it was Montgomery, working with his air commander, Sir Arthur Coningham of the RAF, who hammered out the doctrines of air-ground cooperation in the North African desert—doctrines which essentially still guide the air forces and armies of the Free World. The Field Marshal is a thoughtful student of warfare in its broadest implications, unfettered by parochial bounds imposed by his own service background. Product of a nation which places a high premium on tradition for tradition’s sake, he is able to say with equanimity that when tradition clashes with profess, it is tradition which should give away. We do not attempt to insist that all who read his views should agree with all of them. But we do insist that what he has to say must be of intense interest to those who wish to understand modern war and the reasons why airpower has become the prime instrument with which was is to be waged if, God forbid, it should come upon us. —The Editors

The earth consists of large masses of land and great areas of water. Man is primarily a land animal, and control of the land masses has always been for him a priority objective in war. Many centuries ago he found that a skillful use of the water areas of the world opened up the land masses to him, and enabled him to pursue his objectives the more easily.

Man then learned to fly, and he soon found that unless he could dominate the skies above the land and the water, he could not carry out satisfactorily the land and sea tasks necessary for his purposes. Against this background we reach the conclusion that in global war today an in the foreseeable future, airpower is the dominant factor. Therefore, the first object in our strategy in the Western Alliance must be to win command of the air.

Secondly, it will be essential in the East-West war that we should control the seas. That is, we must be able to use the seas ourselves and deny their use to the enemy.

Next, while the air battle is raging and the struggle for control of the seas is in progress, it will be vital to prevent enemy land forces from occupying the territories of the Western peoples, disrupting our way of life, and using our industrial and production organization for their own purposes. If these things were to happen we would lose—no matter what successes we gained in the air and at sea.

The armed forces necessary for this strategy must be organized in such a way that they are geared to a nuclear capability, with all that this entails in the use of firepower and in the saving of time and manpower.

These forces must be suitably organized for the conditions of peace time activities, which may at any time include small or limited wars in which nuclear weapons are unlikely to be used, and also for the conditions of world war in which nuclear weapons would certainly be used by both sides.

The problem will then be to get a right balance between air, sea, and land forces, and one that will suite the needs of the national problem and also enable the nation to play its full part in the alliance.

In addition, a sound civil defense organization is vital to each national territory and this must be under military direction and control.

All these requirements must be provided within the financial limits laid down by governments. The economics of defense are becoming a vital problem today.

The Revolution in Weapons

We are in the midst of a revolution in military affairs, brought about by scientific advances in the development of nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them. As a result, the capability to destroy is reaching unprecedented proportions. Certain changes in warfare will follow, because of this revolution in weapons. I will name two which are very important and will have an impact on future defense organization.

First will come a change in the tempo of war. Stockpiles of high-yield weapons will create such destruction early in a war that the phase of decisive operation will begin almost at once. It is clear, therefore, that the forces which are essential for the conduct of operations during the first phase must be “in being” in peace, and be immediately available on mobilization. There will be no time in which to train these forces after the outbreak of war.

The second point is that, because of the increased tempo of war, we must be able to execute our plans with speed and efficiency at once. The side that can execute its plans the most effectively from the very beginning, will gain the advantage. We must also be able to sustain our operations in the face of continuing destruction of a magnitude previously unknown. . . .

Command of the Air

We must master the air only if we destroy the enemy air forces. We should never be able to do this unless we organize and control the air forces of the western alliance as one single mighty weapon of airpower.

The first task in global war is to win command of the air. Victory in this operation will go to the side that is superior in executing sustained operations in the face of unprecedented destruction.

The blows that are launched against the enemy in the global air war must be timed and directed as part of a single great campaign. The Western alliance must have the means of centrally controlling all moves in the global struggle for command of the air. . . .

Tactical Air Forces

It [is] my opinion that the development of guided missiles and short-rang rockets will force us to recast completely our present organization of tactical air forces. These are highly vulnerable so long as they are tied to long, easily distinguishable concrete runways in forward areas.

By increasing the number of airfields in order to get greater dispersion, we are solving only part of the problem. We must also change the nature of the problem for an enemy, so that he will not be able in one surprise nuclear blow to eliminate a high proportion of our offensive capacity.

The solution lies in so dispersing our means of delivering blows against an enemy, that these could not be located easily and would not be a fruitful target for nuclear attack. We must, in fact, evolve equipment, weapons, and techniques whereby our aircraft, our vehicles of delivery, can be launched without the use of large airfields. We must develop zero-length launchers and rocker-assisted take-offs, using pierced steel planking airstrips in fields through the countryside; possibly a flight of six aircraft could operate from each airstrip. . . .


We shall be fighting the air war at 700 knots or more. But we still have a logistic system that moves at fifteen knots.

I consider there is a requirement for air transport on a gigantic scale. We should start now to build a world-wide air transportation capability to meet our deficiency. If we are to sustain air operations in the great air battle, the weapons and the men and the supplies need by the air forces must move at hundreds of knots, not fifteen. Air transport is the only way to do this.

This opens a wide range of thought. For the Western air forces, air supply is essential. But would it not help to solve other problems?

An expert once said: “Air transport is the best means to get supplies to most places, it is the only way to get supplies to some places, and it is the fastest way to get supplies to any place.”

I agree with him.

I do not suggest for a moment that we can move everything by air, or that air transport could replace our sea life line in any foreseeable future. Until we have great nuclear-powered air freighters, or something of that sort, we shall always need our ships and navies to protect them. Indeed, as things stand today, if the navies lose control of the seas the Western alliances would have to go out of business.

But we need air transport on a far larger scale than we have today, to move men and essential munitions of war quickly. These must be moved at the same speed as the battle, particularly the air battle.

The Economics of Defense

The nations of the Western alliance are strained under defense budgets which are heavy and painful. Ahead lies a vista of ever-increasing government expenditure and wage claims. In this country the battle against inflation is on. All nations are looking for ways and means of reducing defense budgets and, in the case of the bigger nations, the problem is rendered the more difficult in that they have to be prepared to fight two kinds of war, conventional and nuclear. In general, limited or small wars call for conventional weapons. But once war becomes unlimited and global, nuclear weapons would be used from the outset by both sides.

In war, offense and defense alternate. The attempt to create an adequate organization for both becomes increasingly expensive. Where is the money to come from to provide all that is needed in this nuclear age?

I consider that we shall build up an adequate defense within the definite limits of economic possibilities only by making a completely new approach to the problem, and by working on the principle of economy of force.

The Problem of Three Fighting Services

Before airpower became a weapon of war, it was reasonably clear in which direction the responsibilities of the armies and navies lay. The navies were concerned with the war at sea, and the armies with the war on land. Even then, navies considered they needed their own soldiers for certain functions, and marines became a part of navies— and still are.

The advent of airpower changed the whole scene. Armies and navies saw, and still see, in airpower a way of concentrating great firepower for their particular tasks, a way of distant reconnaissance and of striking the enemy beyond the range of guns. The cry went up for air forces to support armies, and for air forces to support navies. They each got what they wanted, and some more than others.

This surely is not the way to use the decisive instrument of warfare. We want to release the air forces from bondage and forge them into one mighty weapon.

What has gone wrong is that today each service tries to be self-contained and in a large measure it succeeds. In this struggle between the services there is duplication, and naturally wastage. On the other hand, so long as we have three fighting services, there is a need for each service efficiently, and this principle must be accepted. Let us examine this problem for a moment.

Navies require aircraft for locating and destroying submarines and for the defense of fleets at sea. So far as we can see at present, aircraft cannot be operated economically or efficiently in mid-ocean against submarines, or indeed against raiding cruisers, unless some form of floating airfield can be provided there. For these reasons there may always be a need for vessels from which to operate aircraft. But with progress in vertical take-off and landings, we should aim to design something smaller and cheaper than the present aircraft carrier. We could then dispense with the present form of aircraft carrier, which is very expensive.

There is also a definite role for navies in the offensive use of short-range ballistic missiles fired from submarines, or from ships specially designed for the purpose.

Armies need their own limited facilities for intercommunication, for artillery spotting, and possibly for short-lift air transport in forward areas. Armies also need long-lift air transport on a vast scale; but this must be provided by air forces, since it involves the whole realm of command of the air.

Air forces need air-sea rescue services, and units of ground airmen to defend their own bases.

Once we go beyond these broad limits, there is no restraint. The service “empires” expand; overlapping and duplication begins; we run into grave financial problems.

If there is an apparent need to go beyond the broad limits I have outlined, then I consider there are three things wrong:

  1. The services do not trust each other.
  2. Service chiefs are compelled, possibly against their will, to be protagonists of their own service.
  3. Wrong policy or plans have been made.

The above are my views, in outline, on the way we should approach the problem, having in view the definite need to balance expenditure on defense with economic possibilities and practical realities.

What it amounts to is that there must be a new approach to the whole problem. But again we run head-on into a difficult problem.

The keyword of the old world is tradition; the keyword of the modern world is progress. These two guiding principles are in direct opposition to each other. I hold the view that when the two meet, if a compromise cannot be found it is tradition that must give way. Only by so acting will the new approach be successful.

One Fighting Service?

I am quite certain about one thing. The more we mess about with old organizations designed for conditions that will not recur, the further we shall get from the right answer. . . .

Looking into the distant future, we must take as our objective bringing the three services more closely together—even to the extent of combining them into one. Until this is done we limit ourselves to approaching, but not achieving, an ultimate goal of economy of force in the real sense of the word.

Progress and development in the modern world have outmoded the old conceptions of the organization of military forces. But we cannot see this, so strong are our habits and traditions. All the great nations today have three services—sea, land, and air. This separate existence of the three services results, in every nation, in waste of money, waste of manpower, and waste of time.

If the world were static, and present conditions could be projected indefinitely in the future, there would not be the same urgent reasons for change that exist today, except of course the permanent need for economy of force in manpower, materials, and finance.

But the greatest fact of modern times is that change is inevitable—change in politics, in economics, in techniques, in fact in every field. Progress is not inevitable. Progress depends on courage to make decisions to meet the needs of the times.

The impact of scientific progress makes it essential that we shall be able and ready to adapt ourselves to changes. But the present organization of military forces is incapable of adaptation of changes, neither quickly, nor economically, nor efficiently.

A factor which influences the problem is the intermingling of functions in modern war. ….