Three Dimension War

by James L H Peck

A new and unpredictable year is at hand and, uncertain as it may prove to be elsewhere, it certainly promises to be an air year both at home and abroad. Although airpower has proved itself in a most conclusive fashion during hectic 1940, no generally accepted doctrine — such as has been propounded for land and sea forces — has been prescribed for the air arm. This all seems rather strange in view of the fact that all air forces are employed in accordance with more or less standard strategy and tactics this troubled world over.

Such vague and varied terms as "command of the air," "air control," "air mastery" and "air superiority" with which correspondents' dispatches and official communiques are filled, do not make for clear conception of the aerial goings on. Nor do the indefinite references to "offense" and "defense" in the air. The basic principles of this new war remain the same — even as the considerations of objective, offensive, mass, surprise, movement, etc, were observed in one way or another by ancient warriors — but fearful modern weapons have greatly influenced the application of these fundamentals. This, then, is the big picture into which airpower must fit. It influences the application of the basic war principles by carrying conflict into the third dimension; and three-dimensiona1 warfare is not particularly a series of offensives and counter-offensives against "fronts" but is, rather, a "war of areas." The so-called fronts are of little avail, indeed, once the enemy's back areas and communications have been ravaged. Sufficiently undermined, they become top-heavy and collapse of their own dead weight, however valiantly defended. Because airpower possesses far greater range, power of evasion, penetration, and strategic concentration — the military essentials of offensive operations — than any ground or sea force, it is the most suitable agency with which to conduct this war of areas.

Land and sea power must have the support of aviation to win a decision in today's war. Deprived of it, they cannot be furnished the necessary security and freedom of action. This is not to say, however, that the airplane can win wars by itself, although this may conceivably come to pass some day. Today's airpower contributes to victory only insofar as it affects the situation on the surface. Complete destruction of the Luftwaffe by the RAF, for example, would not in itself defeat Germany, but would make it possible for the British Expeditionary Force and the Royal Navy to do so by affording them a security and freedom of action these surface forces will not enjoy so long as the German Air Force remains awing.

In a strategical sense, "complete destruction" is much too inclusive a term as is the widely used phrase "command of the air." All that is required for the security of land and naval units is what is more properly called "air superiority." This happy state exists when one's air arm can operate with only occasional enemy interference; while, contrariwise, enemy aircraft must generally fight — and lose men and machines — in order to complete a mission. Because such superiority is relative — and may shift with the enemy's accretion of a new-type plane. armament, or tactics — there is no such thing as absolute command of the air. Imponderables such as morale, changes in national policy and attitude and increasing — or decreasing — vulnerability of the enemy's factories, airdromes and communications further affect the aerial balance. There are most interesting examples of this shift of balance.

After the German air force had enjoyed unchallenged superiority in Poland, Norway and the Low Countries — an advantage concurring from quantity as well as quality of aircraft, airmen and ground organization — the tables turned, temporarily, in favor of the RAF during the Dunkirk evacuation. In a very limited theater of operations, and for just sufficient time to support the withdrawal of Allied troops, the RAF gained local air superiority, largely through the accrument of a number of Boulton-Paul Defiant "destroyers." This afforded the British an edge in quality which more than compensated for the Nazi numerical superiority — but only within the Dover Strait area. German quantity, of course, immediately shifted the balance to a more even keel; at this writing it's nip and tuck. The change of British policy, shortly after the Battle of France, is more than indirectly responsible for the near parity of the air forces. Prior to the more aggressive stand, the Luftwaffe met only sporadic resistance.

The third factor — vulnerability of factories, airdromes, and communications — is one resulting chiefly from the geographical location of the belligerents. In the British Isles, Hitler has the most vulnerable target in Europe to operate against. The great Midlands industrial area which lies, roughly, within a quadrangle drawn between Bristol, Liverpool, Leeds and Norwich, has little depth in which to provide warning of and defense against attack launched from French and Lowlands airdromes. Conversely, Germany's highly industrialized Ruhr Valley lies about 150 miles from the North Sea, thus affording depth of defenses — prerequisite of successful anti-aircraft measures Britain's location, unfortunately, does not make possible. Before and since the launching of the air plague, the RAF has traded blow for blow, raid for raid. In order to accomplish this, however, they must fly much farther, face deeper and more complete defenses — ground and aerial — spend the greater part of their flying time over hostile territory. Berlin and northern Italy, recipients of many a British bomb these days, are still farther away from the Isles.

How, then, is air superiority gained when so many ponderables and imponderables govern the aerial balance? It is dependent upon the employment and the interaction of the air force branches. Long-range bombers and reconnaissance bombers carry on deep in the hostile rear and flanks. Patrol bombers keep watch over the sealines. Medium bombers are assigned less advanced objectives. Attack bombers and dive bombers are given the job of grounding the enemy air force by the destruction of airdromes; they operate against troops, tanks, guns, fortifications and other obstacles immediately confronting friendly ground units. Transport planes haul the 'chute detachments and aerial infantry into the enemy rear: these daring young men become roving bands of saboteurs who do all possible damage to communications and make contact with fifth columnists. Pursuits and interceptors keep the air clear of hostile planes of all types; thus, preponderant strength in pursuit aviation is particularly necessary for air superiority. Strangely enough, fighters, pursuits and interceptors are called "indirect action" types, even though they constitute the fighting force of airpower. The reason for this is that these combat craft influence the military operations only insofar as they protect friendly "direct action" planes — bombers — or interfere with planes of the enemy force. Bombardment is the mission of airpower, the fist of the air arm, and is "direct action" because it directly affects the situation on the ground, where the decision of battle rests.

Reconnaissance aviation, meanwhile, is employed to maintain security and guard against strategic surprise by the acquisition of enemy information by observation and photography. Reconnaissance is charged with four types of missions: liaison, to keep the divisional command informed of advance ground units' location, progress, and supply requirements; contact, to keep these advanced units informed as to the strength and position of enemy advance units and to "warn" the friendly units of danger; artillery, discovery of targets in enemy territory and range-correction during the subsequent shelling of these targets; miscellaneous missions, to carry out impromptu command reconnaissance (verification of certain information received from Intelligence or fifth columnists), laying of smoke screens, dropping of flares for night guidance or attacks by air or ground units, and contact with friendly bombardment, attack, or pursuit.

Naval aviation, contrary to the popular impression, does not operate independently, but as a part of the fleet. There are, for example, the battle force, cruiser force, scouting force and the air force — and teamwork is the watchword. Sea communications are maintained by the "train" (supply ships, tankers, tenders and perhaps a floating drydock), in the same manner as logistical establishments provide the ground forces with material and munitions.

We are too prone, these days, to think of airpower in terms of aircraft alone, perhaps because cause is subordinated to effect in the war communiques. Planes do not constitute an air force. Pilots must be trained to fly these hot-to-handle fighters and bombers. Combat crews —gunners, bombardiers, navigators and radiomen — must be trained to assist the pilots in flight and fight. Airdromes must be constructed and outfitted to carry on maintenance of planes, personnel and equipment. Mechanics, armorers, meteorologists, radio operators and repairmen, electricians and other technicians must be immediately available to effect this maintenance. Administration demands its quota of staff officers, engineering officers and clerks. Medical and supply departments must administer to all this personnel. All this is required to make an air force.

By the same token, an air force does not constitute airpower. The elements of airpower are such that one must have the air force — and all that goes to comprise it — to build from. The first essential is reserve strength in planes, pilots and other personnel. Then there is the consideration of quality; a second-best warplane is, to say the least, at a disadvantage. Production, which is to be evaluated in terms of both rate and capacity, of planes, engines, accessories and armament, is an essential. These factors are largely dependent upon the degree of industrial mobilization that may be attained and the morale in, and out of the air arm. This is airpower, the greatest of modern weapons.

But like all weapons, it has certain limitations — few it is true. Without cognizance of these limitations we should not have a true picture of airpower. First and greatest is the "time of flight." Warplanes must land after a few hours for fuel and ammunition; planes on the ground are the most useless of weapons. This brings about another limitation: the inability to sustain operations, which, in turn, results in great loss of time. Another limitation lies in the extreme vulnerability of aircraft, as compared with other weapons such as the tank and warship. No other war instrument can be so easily rendered hors de combat. Through the near perfection of the parachute troops' tactics and the employment of air-borne infantry, the high commands have partially overcome what was once a definite limitation — the inability of airpower to capture and occupy territory.

These shortcomings do not alter the fact that airpower is the greatest military agency man has as yet devised to obliterate himself. This is particularly true in light of the fact that all air operations are fundamentally offensive. Aviation may be included in defensive strategy — as is the case in the Battle of Britain — but pursuit planes pursue and shoot at enemy craft, bombers bomb, and attack ships attack. An interceptor cannot "defend" an area against assault except by fighting that bomber and destroying it.

More than 20 years ago, our late esteemed General William Mitchell — as you well know if you've been reading Flying and Popular Aviation lately — visualized the advent of airpower. Italy's General Giulio Douhet propounded the first official doctrine for aerial warfare. He was a little bit wrong — but only a little. His aerialism has yet to be accepted, even with modification. Every one of Billy Mitchell's convictions — "prophesies" does not seem to be the correct word — have been demonstrated in a manner too conclusive for question. Who, we wonder, will become the Alfred Thayer Mahan of airpower?

This article was originally published in the January, 1941, issue of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 28, no 1, pp 32-34, 66.
The original article includes 5 photos.
Photos credited to US Army, Acme, Charles E Brown, British Combine.