Does Air Power Still Win Wars?

November 9, 2023 Topic: Air Force Region: Eurasia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Air ForceMilitaryNATOKosovoAfghanistanWar

Does Air Power Still Win Wars?

While air power has its place, relying on it exclusively or predominantly—especially when it results in high civilian casualties—can erode the legitimacy of military operations and jeopardize strategic objectives.

In the wake of the brutal attacks carried out by Hamas against Israel, it became imperative for Israel to employ its air forces to strike at defenses and capabilities in Gaza, setting the stage for a crucial ground operation aimed at dismantling Hamas. However, as the air campaign has stretched beyond three weeks, there is growing concern globally over its lack of precision and strategy, raising questions about its effectiveness and humanitarian implications.

It is imperative to underline that for air power to be effective, there must be a direct and well-articulated connection between aerial military operations and defined political objectives. Absence of such linkage drastically compromises the utility of air power, regardless of its capabilities. With the emergence of the airplane, there has been a debate in military circles on whether air power can secure victory independently or if it should be employed alongside land and, depending on the situation, naval forces.

Thomas C. Schelling defined coercion as using force to compel an adversary to yield, even when they have the means to resist. It is a subtle form of violence used in negotiations, operating under the principle that less force can be more effective. In contrast, brute force seeks complete domination and, in extreme cases, can result in the total annihilation of the adversary. When it comes to achieving air coercion, opinions have varied, particularly in terms of target selection. This ranges from direct attacks on civilian populations to more strategic approaches focused on infrastructure.

After World War I, air power theorists passionately believed that this emerging form of military capability was a game-changer, capable of preventing the stalemates and massive loss of life witnessed during the war. They saw air power as providing a more direct approach to conflict, circumventing the brutal trench warfare that characterized the war. Hugh Trenchard, Marshall of the Royal Air Force, was a strong advocate of this perspective, suggesting that air forces would be able to subdue an enemy nation without first having to defeat their armed forces.

In his writings, H.G. Wells popularized air power as capable of single-handedly winning wars by depicting its ability to deliver devastating blows and break the enemy’s morale. This imagery emerged with the abrupt end to the British sense of invulnerability, previously rooted in the natural defense offered by the sea. The German aerial bombing of Britain from 1914 to 1918 had led to the view of the airplane as supremely powerful —a notion that later came to be associated with nuclear weapons. This in turn led to the psychological impact of bombing, seen as capable of securing victory, and persisted into the late 20th century, emphasizing the strategic importance of air power.

The emerging potential of air power led to its institutional separation from other military branches, evident in the formation of the Royal Air Force and later the United States Air Force. These new military branches came to champion the idea of strategic bombing and offensive roles over support roles for ground or naval forces, which were seen as secondary or even obsolete. They saw air power as providing a more efficient and cost-effective means of national defense compared to traditional ground forces.

During World War I, many had felt that in ground combat, the defensive side usually held the upper hand due to the cost of offensive operations. However, this perspective was somewhat simplified, because innovations in tactics and technology, including the emergence of aviation, and the experience of the Ludendorff and Hundred Days Offensives, had begun to tip the balance in favor of offensive strategies by the end of the war.

In fact, before 1939, the offensive side in aerial combat had a significant advantage, given the lack of operational radar technology, which made intercepting an attack almost impossible. Bombers, in this context, were a significant threat, comparable to the fears that would later emerge around intercontinental ballistic missiles and their ability to deliver strikes directly to the political and societal heart of a nation.

Following this line of thought, the advantage in aerial combat was seen to lie with a first strike. Italian General Giulio Douhet was a key proponent of this principle, emphasizing the need for rapid and decisive action to establish air control, primarily through targeted attacks on enemy air bases—a strategy that would find application in later conflicts such as World War II and the Six-Day War.

Giulio Douhet was a notable advocate for targeting civilian populations, even supporting the use of chemical weapons to induce surrender through terror. Basil Liddell Hart and John C. Fuller also leaned towards this approach but aimed to minimize its destructiveness. Hart, for example, proposed using non-lethal gases to subdue cities without causing mass casualties or property damage. These diverse perspectives and discussions highlight the range of views held by early air power theorists on the capabilities and potential of air warfare, setting the stage for the development and application of air power strategies in the decades that followed.

But Douhet, in particular, developed the idea that urban centers should be primary targets, though not the sole focus of an air campaign. First, air supremacy needed to be established with a balanced force of bombers and fighters, targeting the enemy’s airstrips and aviation factories. In these initial stages, air interdiction attacks should also disrupt the enemy’s military mobilization. However, the key element in Douhet’s strategy was the bombing of major urban areas to undermine the enemy’s physical and moral strength.

Douhet was establishing what was to be a philosophical guiding principle in undermining the importance of supporting ground forces with air power, deeming it an inefficient use of resources. Similarly, William Mitchell, profoundly influenced by the experience of trench warfare during WWI, also relegated ground forces to a secondary role, placing even less emphasis on naval power. Both American and British strategic approaches during this time predominantly valued strategic bombing as an autonomous means of exerting pressure on the enemy.

Contrastingly, John Slessor, who would become the Chief of the Air Staff of the RAF after WWII, was among the few British voices advocating for the integration of air power with ground forces. Yet, as even he cautioned in his book "Air Power and Armies", about the excessive reliance on close air support, noting its reactive nature and the intricate coordination it required with ground units. Slessor did not view air power as being subservient to ground forces; instead, he emphasized the need for ground operation plans to seamlessly integrate air power as a crucial component.

Despite Slessor's unconventional stance, it is crucial to acknowledge that, in practical terms, both the RAF and the USAAF eventually offered support to ground forces during the North African and European campaigns of World War II. This collaboration came about despite initial challenges in integrating combined arms tactics, which were partly due to the financial strains the Great Depression placed on the U.S. military and a lack of doctrinal support.

Operation Cobra started with a potent aerial assault, strategically targeting German defenses and communication routes to facilitate the advance of armored divisions and infantry. Fighter-bombers, in coordination with ground observers, efficiently delayed German reinforcements, maintaining the Allies' tactical advantage. Following the aerial strikes, armored forces, notably the M4 Sherman tanks, exploited the weakened German defenses, navigating Normandy’s challenging bocage terrain with ease. Reconnaissance planes provided real-time updates, guiding tanks to avoid strongholds and target the German rear.

Supporting the armored push, infantry secured areas and maintained communication between the armored units and aerial forces. A key innovation was the inclusion of Forward Air Controllers within infantry ranks, enabling precise air strikes and timely aerial support. This integrated approach proved effective on July 27, when reconnaissance identified a major German armor assembly preparing for a counterattack. Information was swiftly relayed, leading to a coordinated air and ground assault that decimated the German forces.

Operation Cobra exemplifies the effective integration of air power, armored strength, and infantry capabilities, crucial in accelerating the liberation of France. But the Germans had preceded this approach in military thinking, as General von Seeckt, who had led the army between 1920 and 1926, viewed air power as a supplementary tool for future ground operations.

von Seekt envisioned a strategy where achieving air supremacy at the outset of conflict was crucial, followed by targeting the enemy’s mobilization and transportation systems. Concurrently, ground forces were expected to break through and encircle the adversary, now crippled by aerial assaults. This integrated approach to combat, emphasizing combined arms, had deep roots in German military doctrine, dating back to the strategies of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder.

However, the German stance on air power was speculative to an extent, given that the Treaty of Versailles prohibited Germany from having an air force. Under von Seeckt’s leadership, Germany began collaborating with the USSR to circumvent these restrictions. Once the Luftwaffe was reestablished under Nazi rule, there were considerations for strategic bombing of cities. Nonetheless, this strategy did not gain much traction, with the belief that it could potentially fortify, rather than weaken, the enemy’s resolve.