Ten Air Power Lessons for America

by Maj Alexander P de Seversky

Military America must abandon war's traditional patterns and adapt itself to an Air Power age if the US is to survive.

Throughout history, new weapons have imposed new tactical principles upon the science of war-making. Throughout history, too, some nations have been quicker than others to recognize and apply those principles. Because they were more alert, or simply more desperate, they have utilized the new weapon for the conquest of neighbors — if those neighbors remained musclebound by traditional thinking.

This familiar pattern of behavior was illustrated perfectly and with tragic results in the years preceding the present world conflict. In Germany the new weapon — Air Power — was being forged with great energy for all the world to see. Yet, on the other side of its frontier, France continued to live complacently in its fool's paradise of military delusions. It remained comfortable and self-satisfied behind its useless Maginot Line. France had put up a dam, and actually expected it to keep out the torrential rains of air attack from overhead.

I was there just before the outbreak of the war and made a futile effort to sell to France the kind of warplanes which might have added a roof to the dam and possibly saved the country. I can therefore attest that France was in the grip of a species of self-hypnosis. Its military men shut their eyes and their minds against the obvious, preferring illusions to realities. They refused to recognize that war had been lifted into a new dimension. Their strategic conceptions remained stubbornly earthbound at a time when the major strategies of warfare were being transferred to the skies.

But before we Americans speak too harshly of the blindness and inertia of France, let us take a good look at ourselves. The sad fact is that even today, with the Second World War nearing the end of its second year, the United States has not yet fully recognized the new weapon and its implications for America's defense program. We build two-ocean navies in about the same spirit that France built its frontier fortifications, without reference to the new dimension of modern warfare. Not only do our air defenses remain inadequate and technically backward, but we continue to divide them between the Army and the Navy — each of which, naturally, treats aviation as a mere adjunct or extension of its own organization.

American military aeronautics, to put the matter bluntly, is still in a primitive condition — this in the country where modern aviation was born! Those of us who have grasped the meaning of genuine Air Power therefore have a clear duty. It is to hammer away, day and night — and even at the risk of making ourselves a nuisance — at the mind and conscience of our nation, to awaken it somehow to the realities of the new situation.

It is with this purpose in view that I wish in this article to sum up, however briefly and baldly, the chief aviation lessons of the war to date. The truth is that all of them were foreseen and foretold with startling clarity by the advocates of true Air Power. But it has taken the experience of actual warfare on a tragic scale to demonstrate them for the skeptics, many of whom continue obdurate in their adherence to outmoded thoughts notwithstanding the demonstration.

I have boiled down the lengthening experience into 10 "lessons," which I propose to state as succinctly and simply as possible. Not until all these lessons have registered upon the popular as well as the military intelligence of America shall we be able to meet the challenge of the new age, the age of aviation.


The first and most fundamental of the new principles of warfare clarified beyond possibility of doubt in the present conflict is this: that neither land nor sea operations are any longer possible against an adversary possessing Air Power, without first assuming control of the skies.

The magnificent French army never had a chance to show its mettle. The Nazis having captured domination of the air, the ground forces were defeated before they could ever go into action. France and the Low Countries were defeated as soon as Hitler's Stuka dive bombers and other aircraft took command of the skies; everything that followed was little more than a mopping-up process.

The British Navy compared with the Germany Navy is a giant against a pygmy. Yet the British fleet was helpless to prevent the transfer of Nazi forces and supplies across the Skagarrak into Norway or across the Mediterranean into Africa. For all its superiority and valor and skill, the British fleet could not maintain control of the Norwegian coastal points or even operate in the North Sea. The reason for this virtual elimination of British sea power from a vital theater of war at a critical juncture in Hitler's campaign was too clear to be missed. It was German air supremacy in that area.

Because of its shortness of range, the British pursuit command could not contest the air over the Skagarrak, wherefore naval operations became impossible. Neither could British aviation dispute effectively the skies over the Norway coast or the North Sea — except by carrier-based aviation, which could not do the job, wherefore the proud British fleet could only retreat from the scene. On the other hand, the same British pursuits were able to establish their authority over the English Channel, which was fully within their range. That, and that alone, explains the "miracle of Dunkirk." Prime Minister Churchill acknowledged soon after the historic evacuation across the Channel that British air supremacy at that point made the operation possible.

In the Mediterranean, the British fleet has succeeded in holding its old dominance only because of the startling inferiority of Italian aviation. Whether the same fleet can continue to be mistress of that great sea, now that German Air Power has been brought into play, depends first of all upon the size and quality of the British air force in that area. Once again it will be emphasized that surface operations are possible only as long as the air above is kept out of the adversary's hands.


No less obvious is another tactical reality, though a good many self-styled experts have failed to admit it out of misguided "loyalty" to the past. It is that navies have lost their former function of the strategic offensive. In the past, battleships carried war to the shores of the enemy nation. Today that can no longer be done, if the enemy nation possesses anything resembling Air Power. Defensive aircraft make it impossible for warships to approach or to land armies. Navies still exercise important defensive strength, but they have definitely lost their ancient initiative in the matter of offensive action.

When the British Navy landed expeditionary forces at several points in Norway, it was perhaps the last such offensive action. The undertaking proved so futile and so costly that it merely served to drive this particular lesson home. Hereafter the strategic offensive rests with Air Power. Only after aviation has established control can fleets attempt to follow it up with any real hope of success.


As a consequence of this second "lesson," we have the third. Sea power no longer can exercise a function which was in the past regarded as its chief reason for existence; it can no longer destroy harbors, docks, shoreline fortifications. That function has been taken over completely by Air Power.

The current British offensive against the so-called invasion ports on the French and Danish coasts is being made exclusively by the Royal Air Force. In the same way the Nazi attacks on England's harbors and coastal fortifications are being made exclusively by Germany's air arm. The days when battleships steamed boldly within striking distance of enemy shores and proceeded to pound them into submission are now definitely past. Today they can approach only under the protection of a powerful "umbrella" of Air Power and can remain only if that umbrella is strong enough to resist the enemy's aviation.

True, there have been isolated exploits of sea power in the old-fashioned style. such as the naval bombardments in the Straits of Otranto and of Genoa in the Mediterranean, or the bombardment of Brest. Those exploits, however, merely emphasized the truth of the new situation. In every case they were surprise attacks, made on a hit-and-run basis. They took place at points where the defensive aviation was either unprepared or nonexistent — and the naval units beat hasty retreats before the adversary's aircraft could be mobilized.


Another vital principle which has been underlined by the course of the war is that — other things being equal — military aviation based on land is superior to aviation based on ships. The airplane taking off from land in the nature of the matter must outpoint its equivalent type on an aircraft carrier or other "floating base."

The reason for this is purely mechanical. The ship-based planes must be able to take off and to land on the extremely limited deck space. To enable them to do so, they must be especially designed and equipped with a set of mechanical prerequisites, at a cost in reduced performance. The most impressive proof of this principle was provided off Norway, when British carriers attempted to engage Hitler's land-based planes. The results were so disastrous for the British that they did not repeat the attempt. As against Italy. it is true, ship-borne aviation sufficed. That, however, is proof of the qualitative inferiority of Mussolini's air arm rather than refutation of this basic lesson. Just as soon as German aircraft took the field, carrier-based planes were out of the fight; the aircraft carrier Illustrious was lucky to escape with its life.

Because of the fact that the range of aviation is still limited, there are areas on the oceans beyond the reach of land-based planes. In those areas naval aircraft have their logical sphere of operation — as against the enemy's naval aircraft. But with every expansion of the "reach" of Air Power, those oceanic margins are being reduced. Ultimately, when aviation can span oceans as easily as it now spans smaller bodies of water, those margins will be erased entirely. Carrier-based aircraft then will be ruled out except for secondary auxiliary purposes.


Only Air Power can fight and defeat Air Power. The hope that anti-aircraft artillery on land or on ships could meet the threat from the air has by this time been abandoned. Such artillery can keep the enemy planes at a higher altitude, thus reducing their accuracy of aim. The actual elimination, or even stalemating, of an attacking air force, however, can be achieved only by a superior air force. This principle is especially recommended to the attention of those who still like to fool themselves with theories of "defensive" equipment. The only defense against the menace of attack from the skies — are planes in the skies!


Great Britain now is learning the hard way that blockade — heretofore preeminently the task of sea power — also has been taken on by Air Power. Though practically devoid of a navy, Germany is able seriously to hamper the flow of supplies to England. Already Nazi aviation can intercept British shipping hundreds of miles to the west of Ireland. As Hitler's bombardment and pursuit aircraft extend their range, this threat to British commerce will grow.

The fact that must be recognized and dealt with is that blockade from the air is not only possible but inevitable. Given enough aircraft of sufficient range, an enemy country's lines of supply can be wrecked. The countermeasure, of course, is Air Power capable of meeting and overcoming the blockading force in the skies.


The war to date also has brought into clear focus the principle of specialization as applied to Air Power. It has left little doubt that the layman's blind reliance on mere numbers in the matter of aviation is unjustified. Strength in the air, we now know, is the product of quantity and quality. What is more, "just planes," or "clouds of planes," as the French phrased it in the tragic hour of their collapse, are not enough. They must be aircraft designed and equipped for specific tactical purposes. For Americans this principle needs particular emphasis because we are inclined to yield to the delusion of numbers and therefore always are in danger of sacrificing performance for mass output.

Germany's failure to conquer the skies over the British Isles provided the complete proof of the decisive importance of quality. The clean-edged fact is that Hitler's impressive numerical advantage did him no good in the tussle with the RAF, because the British pursuits happened to have a distinct qualitative edge on the invading pursuits. Elsewhere I have stated that a mere 25 mph superiority in speed of the British over the Nazi planes saved the British Isles, That statement has stood the test of time. Naturally, the quality of the personnel — its skill and fighting morale — must be figured into the equation along with quality of equipment.

Germany evidently had not planned to use its Air Power for all-out air warfare against Britain. Either it counted on a peace by negotiation after conquering the continent, or it underestimated the difficulties of invading the British Isles. In any event, its Air Power was clearly unsuited for the job of all-out air conflict. Nazi aviation, especially its Stukas, proved itself perfect for synchronized action with ground forces. But when faced with an all-air task, its equipment was revealed as too slow, too short in range and too limited in explosive load. Thus we had a powerful demonstration that "just planes" do not suffice; they must be appropriate for specific purposes.

More and more, we may be sure, aircraft will be planned and constructed in relation to definite tactical tasks. There will be long-distance craft to carry the battle to the enemy's territory. There will be planes designed for fast climbing and effective firepower, at a sacrifice in range, for purposes of local defense. Similarly, dozens of types will be developed to meet dozens of specialized situations. Above all, there will be less tendency to "freeze" production for the sake of numbers, since the most significant fact about aviation is its rapid rate of improvement and, therefore, its rapid tempo of obsolescence.

The Germans learned this to the bitter end. In freezing their pursuit designs for mass output they seem to have made the mistake we in America are likely to duplicate. The British, on the other hand, starting production somewhat later were able to incorporate in their designs the latest results of their rapidly progressing aeronautical science. This gave their aircraft a small, but significant qualitative edge to which we have referred above.


Passenger transport under war conditions has been proven safest by air. If we had enough transoceanic clippers to take care of all such traffic, surface transport would be canceled out altogether. The same is true, of course, of freight transport — except that it cannot as yet be applied to shipment in bulk. Even now certain types of goods, if they are valuable and not too bulky, are entrusted to air shipment in preference to surface shipment through war zones. In time, therefore, when armadas of air transports will be available, wartime transfer of men and goods is destined to become a function of Air Power. Aviation thus will develop its own channels of supply, dispensing increasingly with dependence on the supply lines of older means of transportation. Since these lifelines through the air will also be protected by air strength, it will make Air Power wholly self-contained.


Another vital lesson, one that has taken even air specialists by surprise, relates to the behavior of civilian population under air assault. It had been generally assumed that air bombardment would quickly shatter popular morale, causing deep civilian reactions, possibly even nervous collapse on a disastrous scale. The actual progress of the war has indicated that this expectation was unfounded.

On the contrary, it now is apparent that despite large casualties and impressive destruction, civilians can "take it." Provided they have the essential patriotism and the will to victory, they can adjust themselves to the threats and the sacrifices much better than had been foreseen. On the whole, indeed, armed forces have been more quickly demoralized by Air Power than the unarmed city dwellers. (Of course, if populations are wiped out substantially or entirely, the game is up. We are dealing with large-scale destruction short of such extremes.)

These facts are significant beyond their psychological interest. They mean that haphazard destruction of cities — sheer blows at morale — are costly and wasteful in relation to the tactical results. Attacks will increasingly be concentrated on military targets rather than on random human targets. Unplanned destruction of life and property will, more and more, give way to planned, predetermined destruction. That, in turn, emphasizes once more the lesson of "specialization." It implies the building of aircraft for specific tactical tasks — for day bombing, night bombing, patrol duty, local defense, etc — rather than undifferentiated mass output.


This, though I place it last in the list, is really first in importance. In a hundred ways the war has shown that all activities of military aviation must be concentrated into a single department or ministry, autonomous in its own field and directed by aviation experts. We need only think of an infantryman, or an admiral, in command of the all-air battle of Britain to see the absurdity of keeping the new weapon tethered to the older services.

Both Germany and Britain have separate Air Power, on a par with their respective navies and armies. With every passing week both belligerents have come to regard this independence and equality as essential. Proposals to put their air force under command of the army or the navy would sound to them as insane. Now that the primacy of air control as the condition for any other type of fighting is apparent, it seems actually ludicrous that we should in our country still be obliged to argue the matter. With battles under way overhead, in which ground troops and naval contingents are little more than helpless onlookers, it is truly tragic that we should continue to keep American aviation subordinated to the elder services.

These 10 "lessons" do not, of course, exhaust the subject. But they may suffice to indicate the paramount role of Air Power in modern warfare. That role, unavoidably, will expand with every expansion of the range and striking power of aviation. The scope for army and navy operations, by the same token, will be narrowed down and made increasingly dependent on air supremacy.

Those responsible for America's national security must break through the psychological restraints of inherited ideas and tackle the new realities. The American people must bring the leverage of their opinion to bear on the situation. The problem is too important to be ignored or slurred over. Let's build for genuine Air Power, in line with the lessons and the warnings written big as life on the skies over this war.

This article was originally published in the July, 1941, issue of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 28, no 7, pp 14-15, 62, 78, 80.
The original article includes 3 photos.
Photos are not credited.