War in the Air

A true conception of the grand strategy of war in the air is possible only when we consider the earth as one gigantic air base where operations can be carried on wholly eliminating the old concept of sea bases or terrain. We must learn to see an earth where everything topographical has been removed, except for the actual location of cities, centers of industry, and national resources; and, as shown in the gatefold facing, an earth where all transportation routes are straight flight paths between strategic points, eliminating any consideration whether these flight paths lie over land, sea, jungle or polar ice. Once this picture is clear, we see the use of air power to destroy an enemy's capacity to make war as a problem involving only the production and tactical employment of the tool of air warfare.


THE Army Air Forces at war are responsible for four clearly-defined missions. Two are related to objectives of the ground forces; the third involves a new concept of war; and carrying out the fourth makes it possible to complete the other three. Here, without any thought of ranking their importance, are the four missions:

First, the Army Air Forces must protect our factories, railroads, stores, homes — the whole national economic structure — and they must also protect all of our military establishments, at home and abroad, against attack from the air. This is Air Defense.

Second, they must support the ground forces by machine-gunning, bombing and strafing the enemy's communications, troop concentrations, ammunition dumps, motor transport pools and airdromes. They must carry parachute troops and infantry to be landed at advanced points. They must deliver food, supplies, ammunition and even transport facilities for those troops. They must lay an aerial barrage in front of an attack, and delay the enemy when it is necessary for our soldiers to retire. They must photograph everything the enemy does and has, thus becoming the eyes of the Army. This is Air Support.

Third, they must operate an independent force of long-range bombers to strike, without the aid of surface arms, far behind the enemy's lines, directly at his capacity to make war. This is Air Power.

Fourth, they must supply the equipment, the spare parts and the personnel required to keep the complex machinery of air defense, air support and air power functioning. This is Air Service.

When military airplanes are used for defense or support, their function is that of "artillery on wings." They fight other aircraft, or they attack enemy installations and forces on the ground; but they are essentially a weapon — comparatively new and appallingly lethal, but still just a weapon — with which armed force opposes armed force in a two-dimensional war.

When military airplanes are used to destroy enemy resources beyond the reach of ground power — food reserves, materiel, transportation centers, industry — then the airplane is being used as an independent arm and it becomes air power in its own right. It gives us a new, third-dimensional concept of war, and we have what is meant by "War in the Air."

This distinction between military, or auxiliary aviation, and air power as an independent means of waging a new kind of war, is important to an overall understanding of the main problems which face the Air Forces, and to an understanding of the reasons why they must be used both as a separate striking force and in coordination with the ground forces.

Coldly practical considerations dictated the development of this strategy by General Arnold and his air commanders. They were unalterably convinced that air power eventually could stop the production and flow of key war materials — machines, weapons, ammunition and fuel — which are the lifeblood of the Axis war effort. They also knew that to do this they must set and maintain a schedule of smashing all of the enemy's crucial sources of production. Destroying a few sources, or parts of many sources, would be useless.

The strategy of air power is to select certain basic things which are vital to the enemy's entire economic structure, then by continuous, accurate pounding, with sufficient weight, completely destroy both his supply of those things and his capacity to produce them. Here, over-simplified but basically sound enough, is an example of how this doctrine could be applied: While propellers may be assembled in a number of widely scattered places, they are highly complicated mechanisms which, for practical purposes, cannot be manufactured in more than a comparatively few plants at any one time. In attempting to break down enemy air power, the objective might be to single out and totally destroy all propeller factories. This strategy is based on the doctrine that no one thing will win a war but the lack of some one thing may lose it.

Taking this strategy out of the planning stage and putting it into the air demanded thousands of long-range bombers, and building those bombers presented problems for which even American industry had no precedent. It also demanded the crews to operate those bombers — pilots, navigators, bombardiers, gunners, engineers and highly skilled mechanics. These men had to be trained; first as individuals, then through long arduous months in the technique of working together as combat teams.

While the basic policy of America's Air Forces is to build air power, and through strategic precision bombing to strike directly and overwhelmingly at the Axis' means to resist, it has also been vitally essential to develop a superlative air defense and air support. In the process of getting ready to fight our war in the air, the Air Forces have been compelled to take an exceedingly active part in fighting an all-out war on the ground. Paradoxically, our existing weapons of air power, our Boeing Flying Fortresses and Consolidated Liberators, have been used more in support of ground and Naval operations than as a part of the independent striking force for which they were designed.

To use air power as a conclusive force against the Axis, we must have the necessary fleet of bombers, plus everything it takes to maintain them in operation, including the bases from which they can operate. Bombers do not yet take off from the factory, fly across the top of the world, climb above effective antiaircraft fire, drop 10 or 12 tons of high explosives squarely into the vulnerable entrance to a submarine nest, fight off two or three hundred enemy interceptors, then return home and repeat the chore in the late afternoon. In practice, combat conditions limit the striking radius of even our longest-range bombers to substantially less than we might expect, even in shuttling, non-stop operations,

The facts are that, until the present, 500 miles out and 500 miles back is close to the practical operating limit for a plane carrying three or four, or more tons of bombs fast enough, and high enough, and with armament and armor enough to stand a reasonable chance of getting back. An airplane which could safely be flown 3,000 miles at its economical cruising speed might be forced down after 1,800 if much of the trip was made at full throttle. It is true that many bombardment missions are flown against targets 750 and more miles away, but when this is done, the load of bombs carried or reserve gasoline for "detours" around enemy fighters, bad weather, or anti-aircraft, have to be sacrificed.

There is every reason to believe this operating radius may be increased during the next year or two — certainly to 1,000 miles and possibly more. But no air strategist builds his plans for today's war in the air on what next year's equipment may do — and today air power must have bases within 500 to 750 miles of the enemy resources it expects to destroy.

Winning and holding bases for air power is one of the major missions of ground power, and to carry out that mission ground power must have the right kind and amount of support in the air. This completes the circle.

Oddly enough, the factors which have slowed the development rate and the actual tactical use of United States air power as an independent striking force — the limited range of bombers now in service and their dependence on comparatively advanced bases — have worked more for than against us. Had the striking range of air power been 2,000 miles instead of 500, certainly Germany and probably Japan would have built bombers instead of putting their emphasis on lighter attack aircraft designed for use in conjunction with their ground forces. Had they done that, we might easily have been hit with a dozen Pearl Harbors instead of one— but the striking range was 500 miles, and Germany and Japan did turn to the less expensive and easier and quicker-to-build bombers and fighters.

In World War I, 50 miles out and 50 miles back was a long trip for the most advanced airplane of its day. Yet it carried only a few hundred pounds of bombs. Today, what General Arnold has called the "last of. the small bombers" are carrying from 20 to 40 times the bomb load of 1917's "big" planes, and doing it at three to four times the speed for 10 to 15 times the distance. If we look beyond the service bombers in actual combat operation and compare the planes which are now being readied for production with their forerunners of 25 years ago, the progress is phenomenal. It is not too imaginative to say that military aircraft of late 1943 and 1944 will resemble what the Army Air Forces had in December, 1941, to just about the same extent that an early B-17 resembles the old DeHavilland 9.

The geographical position of the United States will no longer give this country protection from enemy air power operating from any part of the world now under Axis control. Five or 10 years ago, that statement would have been a prediction; today it is simply a conservative projection into the future of about half the present rate of air power progress, done to give us a realistic picture of what we may expect two to five years hence. Actually, to see that picture it is only necessary to look at the world as men who fly see it today.

Consider this time table recently published by one of the airplane manufacturers:

FromToAirline
Miles
Hours
New YorkBerlin3,96020
ChicagoSingapore9,36547
New YorkCapetown7,80139
San FranciscoWellington6,75934
WashingtonMoscow4,88324
LondonRome8874.5
New YorkLondon3,46017
LondonBerlin5743

The Army Air Forces map which accompanies this article is worth a lot of study. Each of the color bands of orange and white on the flight paths from Washington represents five hours of flying time at only 200 mph.

Today the Atlantic is only 400 minutes wide for transport loads flown at transport speeds. Tomorrow it will be less than 400 minutes wide for bomb loads flown with combat gasoline reserves!

From North Cape, Norway, a German-held air base, it is no farther to Seattle, WA, or Des Moines, IA, than it is to Washington, DC.

Washington is nearer to Berlin than to Rio de Janeiro. There is no such thing as "hemisphere security" based on the geography of the past. Detroit and all of our other great war production centers are nearer Russia than are any. of our seaports, excepting Seattle.

Australia and San Francisco are a mere 35 hours apart. Our bombers hop from the US, touch Brazil and sit down in Africa ready for combat service, in 27 hours flying time.

This new global concept of time and space must dictate all future strategy, both for war and for the preservation of peace, just as it has dictated the overall strategy which guides the use of our Air Forces today.

Allied air power based in Russia, Africa and England is gradually closing in to the point where it can hammer, selectively, mercilessly and continuously at every critical Axis resources from the rim of a huge wheel of. which Germany is the hub.

England is an important base, well within present bombing range limits, for the all-out use of air power against Germany proper. It has important resources, a large army for defense and eventual invasion of the European continent, and the supply line from the United States is comparatively short. England's main weakness as a base for air power is its limited size. Long-range bombers require large fields, well dispersed. The number of bombers which can be based in England is less than will be required for the final blows to German power. This fact, combined with the encirclement it makes possible, was largely responsible for our strategy aimed at developing Africa into a base comparable to Britain.

In North Africa there is ample space for dispersion. Because of its position between the Mediterranean and the desert it is relatively free from any threat of attack by ground forces. The supply route from the United States is only about one-sixth longer than from the US to Britain.

The second phase of our overall strategy concerns Japan. The main problem will be the same as that presented by Germany: To so base our air power that we can strike directly at the heart of the octopus and thus paralyze its enveloping tentacles. How this strategy will be worked out — exactly where our bases will be established, and just when they will be established — are questions which must be answered by the higher command of the Army Air Forces. That they will be answered is assured by the magnificently executed approach to the tremendous task the command has already carried to a point where Germany's defeat is a matter of time and no longer one of conjecture.

World War II has taught us four principal object lessons:

  1. Air power is not a panacea. It is not a force which by itself can defeat an army or capture an enemy's territory. It is no more independent of land power than land power can be of air power. Both forces must be used, and used to the full extent possible, before victory can be achieved and a lasting peace assured.
  2. Air power must not be developed at the expense of land power, nor must air support of land power be neglected. Each supplements the other.
  3. Air power has added a third dimension to statesmanship as well as to war. No concept of military or economic security is safe which ignores the changed global relationships brought about by air power.
  4. We will never again be given the opportunity — still ours today — to build air power after it is needed. We can make it this time; we'll win our war, and we' ll win it in the air — but we must not risk another.

    This article was originally published as part of the "Special Issue US Air Forces At War" October, 1943, issue of Flying magazine, vol 33, no 4, pp 71-75.
    The PDF of this article includes photos of B-25s and Baltimores over the Mediterranean, A-20 strafing at Lae, aft portion of a B-24 being bombed up, C-47 dropping paratroops, P-70 in flight, along with an organization chart of an air force Task Force and the two-page world map above.
    Photos credited to Army Air Forces.