Strategic Bombing

By transforming air power into a primary weapon, the long-range bomber permits us to blockade the enemy internally.

Most of us have been astonished and puzzled by the controversy which has raged over air power. What is its scope, its importance, and its true function? What are its weaknesses?

What is air power?

Reasoning and logic will have to help us answer. Examples must depend upon logic for their proof. Why? Because air power, whatever its composition and scope, is still an infant. Its real effectiveness lies in the future.

Air power today is little more advanced than was sea power when Phoenician traders were arming their galleys for naval warfare. We are nearing an air concept analogous to the British proof that real sea power united armed fleets and commercial shipping. Sea force was necessary to clear the way for the shipping which was vital to her existence. In any event, Britain proved the soundness of this thesis for an island nation in a world consisting mostly of water.

Today every nation is an island in a sea of air.

The real subject of this discussion, however, is not air power but air force. The two terms are not the same.

Air power involves the entire air problem of civilian air activities as well as the military aspects. It includes factories, airlines and private flyers. Air force is only that part of the national air power which is devoted to military operations — strategic, logistic and tactical. This, of course, is of paramount interest in war.

Air force, like sea force, is not simple, and it is all the more difficult because of its comparatively recent birth. Earlier peoples must have had similar difficulties in trying to define sea force. They must have been rather hazy in allocating functions to ships of various kinds and sizes.

Early naval men often made the same mistake as a few air power advocates, claiming that the new weapon eliminated the older arms. But the natural forces of evolution maintained a balance within the sea forces as well as between the sea and land.

Air power does not completely revolutionize or outmode older concepts of warfare. It lengthens our reach, increases our striking distance and speeds our blows, but it does not change the basic principles of warfare.

In surface warfare we always attempt to crush resistance by hitting enemy forces directly and by attacking the flow of forces and supplies to the battlefields. Killing armed men is one means of attaining victory. Strangling his supply channels is another.

Air force merely increases the scope. It enables us to assist our front line forces by hitting the enemy in the immediate forefront and just behind his lines, attacking his supply dumps, his roads and his strong points in much the same manner as ground artillery. But it is not as limited in range as is artillery. The airplane can strike deep inside the enemy territory beyond the range of the most powerful ground gun.

When the enemy occupies territory which is self-sustaining, the destructive power of air force is dominant. Air power now permits the siege of a relatively self-sufficient nation — an internal siege that prevents the supply flow from inside sources to the fighting fronts. This internal blockade equals the possibilities of an encircling blockade which eventually so weakens an enemy that his circumference of defense can not withstand frontal assault. Disintegration of defense, such as occurred in Tunisia, results.

This is the real force in "air force."

It singles out the long-range bomber as the weapon which enables air power to serve as a primary instead of an auxiliary arm. The enemy must still be held and hit on his front lines by every means at our disposal but the internal blockade made possible by the long-range bomber can be used independently to hasten the weakening of enemy resistance and to reduce the ultimate cost of the final assault.

This theory has long been vaguely understood, and sometimes followed, in the use of air force. Yet ground support capabilities often have monopolized air operations.

One can not exaggerate the importance of' the ground support effect of air force. This has often been demonstrated. The North African campaigns — from the east as well as from the west — which finally merged into the combined battle for Tunisia were classic examples of the use of fighters and bombers in direct support of ground forces.

Rommel's long line of communications and his ports became a shambles through which supplies passed only at great cost. In Tunisia our fighters and light bombers raised havoc with tanks, trucks and marching troops. Supply dumps and troop concentrations never had moment of safety.

Air superiority in the battle area was spectacular and complete, but it was not an end in itself. Air superiority gave our fighter-bombers and other planes almost free reign over the battle area. This is not always enough, however. The previous spring and summer, for example, the RAF maintained superiority over the German Air Force in Libya and Egypt but failed to prevent the German advance almost to the edge of Alexandria.

Something was missing.

The missing piece was strategic bombing, the air action which prevented the delivery of enemy essentials to the African area.

Back in March, 1942, there occurred an air action which, beyond doubt, greatly contributed to the disintegration of German defenses. In that month the RAF attacked the French Renault plant, robbing the German army of the equivalent of the heavy transport needed for more than two and one-half divisions. To do the same on the battlefields would have cost untold hundreds in casualties. The RAF lost only a few planes.

Bombing of steel mills, refineries and other industrial units in Europe by the American Eighth Air Force and the RAF further weakened the flow in support of the German force in Africa as well as elsewhere, while other British and American attacks rendered Axis Mediterranean ports almost useless.

Allied fighter interceptions of huge Axis air transport fleets contributed directly to the blockade. Meanwhile Axis needs for air protection against Allied raids over the continent cost many fighters and prevented adequate reinforcement of the dying Axis air power in Africa.

All in all, the Tunisian action was a beautiful example of coordination of all forces to attain final victory. Each served in its proper place. Yet the great historic fact is that this success proved the effects of independent strategic bombing.

Frontal assaults upon such a powerful enemy could succeed only in causing him to withdraw, except where a breakthrough might permit encirclement of certain forces. This has happened to both sides in Russia. Instead, the German defense disintegrated spectacularly, as from interior decay. Individual units, still intact, wandered around looking for Allied forces to whom to surrender. They could no longer fight as a complete army.

Many who argue against the value of air power cite the Battle of Britain as proof of the futility of strategic bombing. One might as well discredit land and naval power because British forces failed to quell the American Revolution.

The German failure in the Battle of Britain resulted from earlier misconceptions of the possibilities and limitations of air power.

German blitz technique in Poland, Norway, Holland and France allowed no place for the slower process of internal decay which results from real strategic bombing. The classic one-two-three cadence was in Germany's crushing blows directly against the enemy defenses. She designed her airplanes with that in mind and her initial success speaks for itself.

But the German concept of air force was too limited. It contemplated the use of airplanes for only three basic purposes:

  1. To attack enemy surface forces at and near the line of contact.
  2. To transport men and equipment, sometimes well behind enemy lines.
  3. To defend German forces and territory from similar air operations of the enemy.

This worked beautifully until Germany tried to use this weapon — designed and trained for tactical use — in an all-out strategic attack upon a major nation. She visualized strategic bombing of Britain as being the same as the helter-skelter bombing and strafing of front line forces. She thought that she would smother England under a rain of bombs so solidly that the traditional English will would be broken along with British industrial might. The idea was there but the method was wrong.

Nothing that we know about warfare, Mr. Churchill said of air power in 1917, can lead us to believe that bombing for terror alone can cause such a morale collapse as to force a major nation to sue for peace. He said that air power must single out and attack transportation, factories and other enemy installations upon which the enemy war-making ability depends.

England of 1943 is living proof that bombing for terror is futile.

The Allies are now demonstrating the effect of bombing with purpose. But Germany did not visualize the singling out of industrial units as being a refined process. If they had been using super long-range cannon to deliver the projectiles, German tacticians would have aimed their guns at specific factories, docks and other vitals. Why did they suppose their bomber-artillery could cover England with a solid blanket of unaimed fire and explosive so dense as to insure hitting industrial vitals by blind luck and brute force?

Even in the relatively small area of Britain, industry is not concentrated when we measure distance in terms of bombs relatively unaimed, required for solid coverage.

This is said without any desire to detract from the magnificent defense put up by the out-numbered RAF. But this much is clear: When strategy and efficiency called for precision, Germany bombed for terror with unaimed bombs and hoped in vain that chance would aid in hitting vital points.

The American Air Forces have long championed strategic bombing as a basis for their planning of equipment and technique. Efficiency expressed in the military maxim "economy of effort" is an epitome of the air concept upon which we have based all of our efforts and this is best attained in strategic bombing by scientific target selection and precise placement of bombs where they will do the most real damage.

We must analyze enemy industry to determine the relative importance of each type of production. Then we must study the relative importance and vulnerability of each unit of the selected industries. Cities, as such, are not considered, though many units of industry within a particular city may be singled out for destruction.

Such analysis surprisingly shows that a relatively small percentage of hundreds of industrial units need be destroyed to ruin the enemy's ability to wage modern war.

Even then we cannot be prodigal with our forces. If we were using cannon we certainly would aim carefully, yet a bomb is essentially the same as a shell fired horizontally at the speed of the airplane. Whatever our potential wealth may be we still must measure it in finite terms. Our weapons will always be counted in finite figures.

The enemy war machine — and it is a machine — is like an automobile which we want to prevent from running. It is parked at the curb and entirely within our reach. Would we take an axe and start chopping and pounding until we beat it to a pulp? Or would we merely take out and keep the rotating contact in the ignition distributor?

An ancient fable said, "for want of a nail, the battle was lost." We take away the nail.

Though we can stop a tank by killing its occupants, meanwhile suffering casualties of our own, would it not be more economical to destroy the potential tank by taking away the lathe used in its construction? Strategic bombing is aimed at the lathe.

Air power, like sea power, must always be composed of separate types for various functions. Each is necessary to fulfill its purpose.

Fighters are necessary for defense and for attaining air superiority.

Medium and light bombers as well as fighters are vital factors in direct support of surface forces, while longer-range medium bombers also serve in the strategic effort farther to the rear.

Air force, however, reaches its peak expression in heavy, long-range bombers which are the only weapons capable of hitting the real sources of mechanized military power.

Properly employed, a well integrated air force serves to decrease the time as well as the cost of final victory in life and wealth. To determine the proper sequence of operations let us diagram our ground force requirements and potential losses involved in the invasion and final subjugation of the enemy.

The height of the vertical scale in the accompanying diagram represents the total strength of the ground forces required for invasion before any strategic bombing is done. Requirements and losses are plotted against this scale. The horizontal scale will be divided into four time-phases whose lengths are inversely proportional to the strength of our heavy bomber force.

With no strategic bombing, it is readily apparent that the initial point on the ground-force requirements curve is very high, while World War I statistics show that casualties will also be very high. Killed, wounded and missing should be near the 50 per cent mark.

Instead of invading, however, we start a scientific program of strategic bombing of enemy industry.

At first we will make shallow penetrations, striking primarily at targets which will reduce the air defense power of the enemy — hitting aircraft factories, flying fields and knocking down fighters.

Other targets on our schedule also will be hit, but there will be nothing spectacular about the process. Little or no effect will be seen in the front lines. An invasion started during this period would require the same strength and experience the same losses as if no strategic bombing had been done.

The second phase starts when we have gained the edge over the enemy's production of airplanes for defense, when he is no longer able to increase his defenses and when we can stand the losses of deeper penetrations. Our bomber force must be steadily increased throughout this period which will end when the effectiveness of the enemy defenses is definitely on the down grade.

Again there generally will be little evidence in the front lines of the real effect of strategic bombing. The inner decay will be well under way — but production is normally so far ahead of war use that only isolated evidences of shortages will appear. Still, there will be but slight lowering of the curves of ground force requirements and losses.

Now we start the third phase in which we get down to the business of knocking out the heart of enemy production capacity. It is still not spectacular. A chemical plant shattered here, an airplane factory flattened there, a synthetic oil plant in flames. That is the sort of thing you see in the daily communiques.

Even if you looked down on the whole face of Europe as a map you would see little to attract attention. Tiny puffs of smoke and flame would show where precision bombing was pin-pointing the enemy's vitals like a skillful surgeon removing a tumor from a vital organ.

In this case, however, the work is to create the cancer in the enemy vitals — to cause the internal decay — eventually leaving only a shell, like a pie crust which crumbles away when touched even gently.

During this third phase we really begin to realize dividends. The effects of previous bombing will begin to be felt by front-line forces, so that an invasion started late in this period will require much less force and will experience considerably less loss. If time permits, invasion still should not be attempted while the two curves continue to drop.

The fourth and last phase starts when we have completed the initial destruction oi the selected vitals and have started the cleaning-up process on items overlooked. We will also have to destroy a few units which have been built from the ruins of earlier destruction, keeping a sharp watch to see that new sources are not left untouched.

During this phase the two curves drop very sharply until they reach points below which they will never drop. No matter how long this finite bombing continues, it can not completely eliminate the necessity for occupation and final subjugation. There is a minimum force which must be used even if there is no opposition. Also, since it is not possible to take away all of the arms which may be on hand, there will always be casualties in an invasion force. Therefore this. period ends when the two curves level off.

Now is the time invasion should begin.

To delay longer would waste effort. To invade sooner would cost more than actually necessary. This, of course, does not follow a precise time table. Yet measured in months it is almost so. Faith and understanding are essential: We must believe in the theory behind strategic bombing. We must understand its limitations and uses,

The Russian front is an excellent example of the costliness of land operations started before strategic bombing was allowed to do its job. From the German angle they had no faith in the idea or they could not conceive of its possibilities, and they have paid in countless dead.

The Russian defense, on the other hand, is being directly aided by strategic bombing. An acute shortage of supplies held up the German offensive and has cramped their operations there as in Tunisia. In both places, for example, Allied air superiority is directly attributable to the results of the bomber offensive over France and Germany, the first phase of which was designed to cut down the German Air Force in the air and at the factories.

We can credit the tank and truck shortage to the same strategic bombing. Similarly, the enemy submarine offensive is being scuttled to a large extent by the attacks on operating bases and construction yards.

Hand in hand with the military aim, the American concept of air force, particularly our idea of strategic bombing, lifts air power from the depths of Axis brutality.

In the first place, the AAF expects to prevent most of the enormous losses which would be suffered on our side without this bombing, a saving beside which the most severe air losses will be infinitesimal.

Second, the result of precision is efficiency measured to economy of effort, allowing available forces to accomplish the task with minimum waste and in the shortest possible time.

Third, we cannot ignore the postwar attitude of the nations toward each other. Bombing at its best causes some extraneous destruction and makes the war and its hates very real to victim populations. Carelessness on our part would intensify and spread those hates which would be stumbling blocks to international amity for years after the actual fighting is over. Precision will hasten the time of new understanding.

Finally, postwar economy is intimately related to the manner in which bombing targets are selected and attacked. Since modern communications have joined all peoples of the world, the standard of living of one nation affects all others. To maintain our own standard as nearly as possible we must assist in rebuilding every other nation, enemy or ally. We have a potent reason — our own well-being — for defeating the enemy with a minimum destruction of his potential peacetime industry.

These are the basic principles of the AAF's war doctrine. Naturally, they are ideals which are diluted by chance and human frailties. But without ideals even mediocre accomplishments are not attainable. It is pointless to argue about what air power can't do. We know we can't do without air power. With air power we hold the key to victory.

This article was originally published in the October, 1943, "Special Issue US Air Forces At War" of Flying magazine, vol 33, no 4, pp 83-86, 344-345.
The PDF of this article includes a photo of B-17s over Lorient, a series of photos — "Strategic Attack — showing a bombing attack on Milo airfield in Sicily, an aerial photo of a bombing attack on a Japanese convoy, and a graph showing the idealized effects of strategic bombing.
Photos credited to Army Air Forces.