Victory through airpower! We always believe the promise, despite the past.

Summary: We gear up for another round of wars, repeating the same methods that failed repeatedly since WWII, with pregame performances more predictable than a Superbowl’s halftime festival. Today we look at the grand claims of certain easy victory through airpower. Like Charlie Brown listening to Lucy, each time we believe — ignoring past disappointments.

“There are no innocent civilians. It is their government and you are fighting a people, you are not trying to fight an armed force anymore. So it doesn’t bother me so much to be killing the so-called innocent bystanders.”

— Curtis LeMay, interviewed by Michael Sherry after WWII, in his book The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon, Yale University Press (1989).

Victory Thru Airpower

Today’s propaganda: “How America’s Drones Can Defeat ISIS“, Arthur Herman (senior fellow at Hudson Institute, created as cheerleaders to the USAF ), Defense One, 15 March 2015. None dare call it warmongering, although that’s what it is. The money paragraph:

“Fortunately, Carter will have at hand the perfect tool for delivering a series of mortal blows against ISIS without putting a single American soldier on the ground: America’s fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAV’s.”

These performances before our wars are as predictable as a waltz. Each round of air power advocacy makes bold predictions of easy certain victory buttressed by grandiose but false claims about previous air wars.

Something similar happened more recently, almost by accident, in Kosovo in 1999, when persistent NATO air strikes so cleared away Serbian resistance that Kosovar militias were able to come down from surrounding hills and retake lost ground.

If we lift our habitual fog of amnesia to remember that war, even RAND, loyal servant of the USAF that created it), added a realistic note amidst its ritualistic accolades about the awesome Kosovo air war:


Disney's Victory Thru Airpower

Allied air attacks against dispersed and hidden enemy forces were largely ineffective, in considerable part because of the decision made by NATO’s leaders at the outset to forgo even the threat of a ground invasion. Hence, Serb atrocities against the Kosovar Albanians increased even as NATO air operations intensified.

… Although these and other operational and tactical achievements were notable in and of themselves and offered ample grist for the Kosovo “lessons learned” mill, the most important accomplishments of Allied Force occurred at the strategic level and had to do with the performance of the alliance as a combat collective.

… There is no denying that the Serb ethnic cleansing push accelerated after Operation Allied Force began. It is even likely that the air effort was a major, if not determining, factor behind that acceleration.  … NATO’s air strikes were unable to halt Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing campaign before it had been essentially completed … the bombing effort was clearly a suboptimal application of air power. …

This is another chapter in the long series of big promises and weak performance of air power since the early days of WWII. Studies follow each round, such as the Strategic Bombing Survey. Each time the reports’ headlines proclaim awesome success, but the details say otherwise.

The role of airpower in our failed expeditions to Iraq and Afghanistan has been effectively hidden. Massive use of bombing by manned and unmanned aircraft played a large role in both wars; the results contract the boosters’ claims of success.

Flying Terminator
Why do they hate us?


These episodes of performance art, such as that above by Herman of the Hudson Institute, serve a valuable function. The promise of easy victory over evil entices Americans into these wars: fast, cheap, few dead and crippled Americans and civilians. The long messy expensive ground war develops more slowly, after our elites have firmly planted the hook in our minds. Imagine if Bush and Cheney promised us 14 years of war after 9/11, after which the Middle East would be aflame — and increased millions of Muslims (at home and abroad) would consider us the enemy based on our actions.  How would we have reacted?

But now we happily go into war after war, excited by a thousand episodes of NCIS and its clones — raghead terrorist sleeper cells everywhere — and tales about dozens of terrorists lovingly manufactured at great cost by the FBI — and dreams of victory.

Let’s hope Robert Louis Stevenson was wrong:

“Sooner or later, everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.”

For More Information

You might find these two posts of interest: What is a warmonger? Who are the warmongers? and After 13 years of failed wars, do we know our warmongers? Also, if you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

See all posts about drones here. To understand these claims about airpower in a realistic context, I highly recommend reading Martin van Creveld’s The Age of Airpower (2012).

Charlie Bown and Lucy: football madness



31 thoughts on “Victory through airpower! We always believe the promise, despite the past.”

  1. The WW2 experience was the supposed proof that war was won through control of the air. But I’m not alone in being skeptical of this claim. Air forces were just one part of a mosaic of force all sides employed and did so in different ways. The USSBS in no way proved that strategic bombing ‘won’ the war. And a close read of the military campaigns shows that the Germans (not so much the economically hamstrung Japanese) found myriad ways to cope with enemy tactical airpower the same way the Soviets had learnt to cope with the Luftwaffe’s early dominance.

    1. lazy cat,

      “The WW2 experience was the supposed proof that war was won through control of the air.”

      Agreed, that’s one of the great examples of successful propaganda. It’s not taken seriously by any military experts (not even in the USAF, I suspect, when truth serum is used). But by repetition it’s become believed.

  2. It depends on the situation. Airpower in close coordination with a capable ground force (like the Peshmerga) could be quite effective–this tactic was successful in sweeping the Taliban from power in the early days of Afghanistan. But a bad strategy ordinarily can’t be saved by good tactics.

    Airpower was exceptional in Desert Storm–it stopped Iraqi reinforcements cold at Kafji and rendered most of the Iraqi Army combat ineffective in six weeks, hastening their collapse in the face of advancing ground forces. Airpower was essential in the Battle of Britain to preventing a German invasion.

    After over a hundred years of experience and study, professional airmen have a pretty good idea of the conditions when airpower works and when it doesn’t. Those who make grandiose claims for airpower as a cure-all are not to be taken seriously.

    1. Arms Merchant,

      Yes, there are a few cases in which airpower was decisive. Usually against already doomed forces. But more relevantly to this case, the history of airpower against 4GW forces is one of total failure. To assert otherwise — as the Hudson Inst guy does here –after 60 years of failure is absurd, even for propaganda.

      “Airpower was essential in the Battle of Britain to preventing a German invasion.”

      The odds of a successful German invasion of Britain during WWII were effectively zero. See A Destiny of Failure – Germany’s plans to invade England during WWII.

  3. Since America has a 2GW military, obsessed with “putting fire on target,” and since air power excels at putting fire on target, the two are a match made in heaven. You’d expect America’s outdated 2GW military to praise and fund any military tactic that flattered and served the interests of the people in charge of perpetuating 2GW.

    If America’s military were based on the doctrine of hurling porcupines at the enemy, you’d get lots of glitzy Disney films showing wars being won by guys hurling porcupines.

    Baghdad Bob was just a cruder and more low-rent version of the Pentagon PR flacks who ply their propaganda inside the Beltway.

  4. I think the only successful use of strategic air power was in the battle of the Atlantic, used in a anti submarine role, hardly 4GW. Successful use of air power has always been in the close support role, such as Normandy, where the choice of landing sites was governed by the range of fighter bombers flying from England to provide air cover. Organized on a taxi rank system, they were able provide ground support on a moments notice.

    1. Winston,

      Air power in the Battle of the Atlantic was used mostly as close air support for convoys and warships.

      The big role for aircraft in the 1944 invasion of Europe was close air support and destruction of France’s transportation system — degrading Germany’s ability to reenforce and supply its troops.

      But unlike the past and current claims that airpower can win by itself, in all of these it functioned as a partner with land or sea focus — who provided the core capability.

  5. More broadly, America’s using airpower is an effort to exploit an apparent technological advantage.

    And this is precisely the problem. For as Winston Churchill, witnessing the gattling-gun slaughter of Dervish cavalry at Omdurman in 1898, noted, the industrial destruction of modern warfare fails to establish any sort of moral victory but rather is dehumanizing slaughter. Hence, the resulting victory is illegitimate.

    The offense of the West in the eyes of Muslim ( and other Third World ) countries is not merely that it came in with imperialism, etc., but that it exploited modern mechanized warfare to do so.

    And using drones, etc., is merely to continue on this line of using machines to defeat men – which is the original sin.

    1. Ducan,

      ” effort to exploit an apparent technological advantage.”

      I agree on all points. But that barbarism is the rule, not the exception in history. The oddity here is our inability or unwillingness to see that there is no actual advantage here. Repeating the same tactics that fail is the essence of dysfunctionality. That is the anomaly to be explained.

      I — and most in the military reform community — attribute this to a system running according to its internal goals (“own goals”). It’s all about the money. Actual victory in our foreign wars is a secondary consideration.

    2. Parenthetically note that this is not exclusively a recent or modern phenomenon. For example, according to Greek mythology, the Olympian gods used advance technology, such as Zeus’ lightning, to defeat the Titans. Aeschylus, in his Prometheus Bound, has the Titan, Prometheus, rage against Zeus’ tyranny for that very reason.

  6. FM

    Interesting article on Germany’s lack of an invasion capability in 1940. And that’s nice that the RAF said on its homepage that the Royal Navy could have defeated an invasion (although I couldn’t find the referenced remark, I’ll take the author’s word for it).

    But then that just then brings up the question, “What Royal Navy?” People forget that navies in 1940 seldom ventured into contested waters without air cover, either sea or land based. If the Luftwaffe had won air superiority over the Channel, the Royal Navy wouldn’t have been able to “simply [run] a Destroyer Squadron at full speed through [the invasion barge] ranks [causing] many to capsize in the wake from the ships,” because it wouldn’t be able to operate there.

    Contrarians like Derek Robinson are fun to read, but in this case the conventional wisdom is right: the RAF stopped Hitler and set him on the road to Russia and eventual defeat. It was a great strategic victory.

    1. Arms Merchant,

      “Contrarians like Derek Robinson”

      Not correct. It’s conventional wisdom that Hitler could not have successfully invaded Britain.

      • The German airforce had low odds of obtain the degree of air superiority needed to offset the massive inferiority of German’s surface naval forces. It was designed for close air support of ground forces, well suited neither for strategic bombing nor naval operations. The two forces were roughly equal in size (Churchill’s “the few” is poetry), and the Brits out-produced Germany in fighters.
      • The German navy lacked the ability to transport and supply a sufficiently large force to Britain.

      “set him on the road to Russia”

      Not correct. Hitler always intended to attach Russia. The NAZi attack on Britain began on 12 August 1940 with with Adlerangriff (operation Eagle Attack). The month before, on 21 July 1940, Hitler ordered the Commander in Chief of the Army, Walther von Brauchitsch, to develop a plan for conquest of the Soviet Union. General Erich Marcks was appointed to head this initial study, which produced the the plans for Operation Fritz (later renamed Operation Barbarossa).

      “It was a great strategic victory.”
      Nobody disagrees. But that’s not the question here.

      1. Arms M.

        Follow-up note: Wikipedia has a serviceable entry on the NAZI plan for invading Britain — Operation Sea Lion. Führer Directive #16 was dated July 16, five days before his order to begin work on the invasion of Russia. The entry notes the idea had little support from the Army and Air Force leadership, and was strongly opposed by the Navy (which had few surface warships afloat after the losses in Operation Weserübung (Norway).

      2. So all this made me wonder… did the Romans constantly refer back to the wars with Carthage? That was, I gather, their decisive moment. There was an existential threat to their whole real estate enterprise that they managed to turn around, achieving total primacy in the Mediterranean basin. Was every trumped up threat compared to Carthage?

    2. I’m a big fan of counterfactuals, but in this instance, using the ‘Battle of Britain’ as a proof for or against the primacy of air power generally is a tough one. Hitler was an anglophile and I’m not sure there’s a historian out there, from David Irving through to Ian Kershaw who would argue that Hitler was excited about the idea of invading Britain, even if he had had a bigger navy and purpose built landing craft. He certainly had convinced himself Russia would be easily beaten and had some good reason for thinking so beyond his well known personal prejudices. The RAF’s ability to contest the airspace over the Channel coast just confirmed Hitler’s preconceived ideas. That, and the weather over the channel, always iffy, is especially unfriendly to the kind of river barges the Germans had available to land troops (under heavy fire) made Sea Lion a little doubtful in 1940.

      For the discussion at hand (“Victory Through Airpower”), it’s the American experience that most poisoned the well for subsequent generations of US policy planners. Especially civilians. While the Germans could always play a card right through to the end, Japan was pretty much annihilated by air power. And the US seems to have learned the lesson that airpower is key to fighting against technically inferior entities, be they states or no.

      1. LazyCat,

        Yes, WWII is the big dog in the airpower booster’s bag of tricks. It is quite bogus, but then their other arguments are equally so.

        “Japan was pretty much annihilated by air power.”

        It was also crushed by sea power, cut off from the food and raw materials they needed to survive. It was also crushed by our ground forces, which annihilated their army. Using Japan as an example is a bit silly given the insane ratio of forces against it. It’s an example of dysfunctional decision-making more than anything in the military sciences.

    3. “It was also crushed by our ground forces, which annihilated their army.”

      I disagree on this very specific point.

      The Japanese ground forces were by and large destroyed in a harrowing war of attrition by the Chinese — some 2 million casualties, up to half of them fatalities. The annihilation of the Japanese army proper was carried out by the USSR in the last spectacular military act of WWII in August 1945, wiping out something like a 1 – 1.4 million strong Japanese army in about three weeks.

      No offense to the Aussies in New Guinea, the Brits in Malaysia or the Americans during island hopping, but we forget that the Chinese were the ones goring the Japanese army and paying the price for doing it basically alone — just as we forget that the Soviets were the ones goring the German army (and all the other axis allies) and paying the price for doing it almost on their own.

  7. Really we don’t see the victims of drone war that much. Except, I found this story here. Quite spooky really. This kid’s father was killed by drones and he too was eventually also killed by drones following the filming. I think, yeah, he didn’t like the USA so much — we killed his father. Is this why we killed him too? The surviving brother and siblings probably aren’t so fond of the USA either, that’s a pretty good guess.

    1. Cathryn,

      That’s an important point. The Islamic world sees the victims of our wars, while they remain invisible to Americans — since US journalists maintain a blackout. There are small articles about the women and children killed, along with denials by US authorities. But there’s no follow-up stories — and esp no pictures — when the US military eventually “studies” the incident and pays a few dollars in compensation.

      It’s not just those killed overseas that get little publicity. “Sleeping 7-year-old girl shot in head during no-knock police raid on the wrong home“:

      [caption id="attachment_80950" align="aligncenter" width="400"]Aiyana Stanley Jones Aiyana Stanley Jones, age 11 when killed by police while sleeping.[/caption]

  8. World War II was a momentous, triumphant, and defining event for the US and its military. No wonder that in times of uncertainty about the modern world, when we’re not sure how to proceed into the 21st century, we go back to our last great struggle to look for guidance.

    According to the common belief (whether or not it’s accurate), it was overwhelming airpower, massive navies, huge land armies, enormous spending on military R&D, and total-war mobilization that not only brought glorious victory against the ultimate evil, but also pulled us out of the Great Depression, catapulted science and technology to new heights, and launched an age of prosperity unprecedented in human history. Add to that the subsequent US occupations of Japan and West Germany, undeniable successes creating close alliances and allowing them to become some of the most productive nations on earth.
    Overwhelming firepower, military Keynesianism, occupying our enemies until they become our friends. These things worked fantastically for us in the past. Of course we should keep doing them in the present and future!

    For me, listening to these myths feels like listening to an old man constantly telling stories about his glory days, confidently proclaiming that kids today can’t get ahead because they’re just lazy, because they’re not doing enough of whatever he was doing at that time in his life (and not because times have changed).

    1. Todd,

      Good points! WWII provides some useful lessons for us, such as what we can accomplish working together, but those extraordinary events provide few useful insights about more normal times.

      We’re like a people in their 40’s trying to relive our high school days as cheerleader or quarterback. Sad.

  9. Nice touch about NCIS. I read somewhere that there are 18000 personnel assigned to ‘antiterrorist’ operations in Southern California. That is about half the size of ISIS. Grotesque mismatch of force.

    1. John,

      Good point about the mismatch of force. It’s not clear if there is any terrorist force of significance in Southern California. Hence the benefit of fighting dragons. Every day is a win against an imaginary enemy, with complete freedom from any performance criteria other than bureaucratic ones (e.g., memos and PowerPoints produced).

      Oddly enough, this is also true in our foreign wars. We were allegedly fighting AQ in Iraq and Afghanistan. If so, we outnumbered them hundreds or thousands to one. Even if broadly defining the number of armed opponents, we probably outnumbered them. Not to mention the fantastic advantages in training and equipment. But victory remained elusive.

  10. Great article/discussion. I concur with most every comment. My father flew 35 B-24 missions over Europe in 1944. I could tell you some stories. Yes on the effectiveness of close support of troops and destruction of military targets and transport (key bridges, etc.). Yes on oil infrastructure like the Ploesti oil fields.

    No on most of the other industrial targets; German weapon production increased until the end of the war. What they needed and couldn’t manufacture was more fighting men; we can thank the USSR for killing most of them.

  11. Yes the ‘strategic’ British and US air war were disasters. Only two sucessful outcomes came from them: the oil plant/refinary atacks and the final destruction of the Luftwaffe in the great aerial battles over Germany by the US, where the bomber’s real role was as bait.

    In the first case this was perfectly achievable by light fast bombers at a fraction of the terrible cost (as per the Mosquito) and in the second the numerical fighter superiority by the western allies would have meant a very quick end to the Luftwaffe over France, again at a fraction of the cost in men and materiel.

    The real victories were in the Battle of the Atlantic, supporting convoys and their escorts and in tactical air in North Africa, France and later Germany (Italy was a bit ‘iffy’ due to the terrain and great generalship by Kesselring and probably had little effect overall). Allied supremacy in photo recon has never been given enough credit. There was a ‘grey’ area effort over the Bay of Biscay, which was fairly sucessful but at a heavy cost until there was enough Mosquitos available to eliminate the Ju-88s which had caused quite severe losses to the other planes used (Sunderlands, B-24s, etc) earlier.

    As for Japan, not nearly enough credit has ever been given to the US submarine forces, which managed to do to Japan what the U-boats (just) failed to do to the UK.

    1. Lisa,

      It would be helpful if you would provide competent expert support for your assertions, which often look like just making stuff up.

      “the ‘strategic’ British and US air war were disasters.”

      Stalingrad was a disaster for the Germans. The Allies’ strategic bombing campaign was a bad allocation of resources, both material and human. (From another perspective war is a series of disasters.)

      War is a series of bad decisions, usually (not always) with the side winning who makes the fewest.

  12. Best source summary of the British bombing campaign is “The Bombing War: Europe 1939‑1945 by Richard Overy “. It also covers areas not touched on by other commentators, such as the Italian bombing capaign.

    Other Interesting facts: The RAF, USAAF and even the USN were dead set against more VLR B-24s being allocated to Iceland, essential for covering the Atlantic ‘gap’. It took Roosovelt’s personal intervention for more to be allocated.

    Portal, head of the RAF, was virulently opposed to long range day escort fighters. Even as late as Oct 1943 (just as the P-51B/C Mustangs were being introduced) he wrote to Arnold telling him how ‘impossible they were (source ‘The Right of the Line’). He also steadfastly told Churchill the same throughout the war. Because of this LR Spitfires (technically easy to create and available in prototype, experiments being started in 1940) were never introduced.

    Bomber Command opposed offensive night fighters being used to protect their bombers. Even as late as early ’44, when BC’s losses were horrific, there was only one squadron of old and very clapped out NF Mosquitos available (many sources, read Bob Braham’s biography for an example).

    The USAAF strategic bombing was a disaster, but Bomber Command’s was far worse.
    I use the term ‘a disaster’ because it became very quickly obvious that the stated aims were not being met and the costs were horrific. There is also the opportunity cost. The men and materiel and logistic requirements for the USAAF European bombing campaign meant that Army and Coastal Command (anti-Uboat) requirements were starved.

    Britain was in a worse situation, running out of men before Normandy (the US Army started running out later by about Oct ’44). Again the RAF BC requirements starved them of resources, particularly because their bombing campaign used up so many high quality (men, materiel, technical, etc) resources.

    Forgotten also is the fact that the Luftwaffe forced a strategic defeat on both the USAAF and BC in mid-late 43 (early ’44 for BC). With both forces pulling out of LR missions because of their losses. The arrival of the Mustang and increased P-47 range changed the USAAF fortunes and the oil campaign was largely responsible for the change in BC’s fortunes (because of German NFs lack of fuel plus a secondary factor of their misallocation to daytime fighting where they suffered terrible losses).

    The western airforces largely used failed fighters (inadequate, obsolete or obsolescent) for their TAC and CAS through the war (Hurricanes, Typhoons, P-47s, P-40s, etc) . After the crushing of the Luftwaffe high quality fighters (e.g. Spitfires and Mustangs) started being used in quantity as well. This compromised their performance in this role (eg neither the .P-47 or Typhoon could do the extreme dive angles with high G low level pull out necessary for very accurate bombing, interestingly all the Spitfire models and the early Mustang, the P-51A, could).

    Only the Germans and Soviets developed dedicated TAC/CAS planes.

  13. I defined that term disaster ” use the term ‘a disaster’ because it became very quickly obvious that the stated aims were not being met and the costs were horrific.”

    This was by the (honest) USAAF bomber crews themselves. Great book, “The Wrong Stuff”, by one who survived (out of 300 class mates 291 died) . And he was quite clear that he was told (as a co-pilot) that they were there in ’44 as ‘targets’ to get the Luftwaffe up so the escorts fighters would kill them. Though as he said ..where were the escorts? Being bait was wriggly.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: