Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare, (2002)

Author background: Chair of Military Strategy in Dept of National Security at U.S. Army War College; her research focus has been 20th century warfare, especially warfighting and diplomacy during WWI, WWII, and the early Cold War period. In particular, she has concentrated on the history of air warfare. She has written many journal articles and book chapters on these subjects, including, “Sifting Dresden’s Ashes” and Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare.

Thesis: The difference between what is said (rhetoric) and reality are often different. Often times, there is an agenda.


Aerial Bombing and Public Expectation (11)

o   Expected missions: observation and reconnaissance; fighters provided clearance for reconnaissance work (trench mapping and artillery spotting); contact patrols (tracking ground troops); close air support; battlefield interdiction bombing. (11)

o   Bombers were to produce physical destruction, psychological shock, and social disruption (12).

Developments on the Continent: 1914-18

o   French bombing theory had assumed a war effort as an integrated whole: air forces cooperated with ground forces (25). 120 French Voisin aircraft used to attack Germany in 1915 and the German fighters caused heavy losses (25). Trenchard (Mr. offensive) – take and maintain the offense to achieve moral and material dominance (27). “An aeroplane is an offensive and not a defensive weapon” Trenchard 1916 (27). Such offensive mentality led to heavy casualties 

The Gotha/Giant Raids and Their Impact

o   Gotha/Giant – 2 large German bombers started raids on Britain 25 May 1917 with continued hopes of physical and psychological damage (29). Raids produced fervent anger amongst populace who demanded raids on Germany and improved homeland defense (30-31).

Britain and the Beginnings of Strategic Bombing

o   October 1917, established a single-engine aircraft detachment in France (41st Wing) to bomb Germany led by BG Newall – shortage of a/c, inadequately trained crews, lack of navigational instruments, and poor weather (35).Actual strikes had limited results, though Newall tried to say morale of Germans affected (35). Independent Force (IF) established

The Independent Force in Action

o   IF started with only 5 of 40 envisioned squadrons (40). Trenchard in charge and upset by the earlier press uprisings to bring about separate air force and German reprisal attacks; therefore, he became highly attentive to the press in efforts to shape their opinion (41).

American Aerial Participation in World War I

o   US far behind Europeans in aircraft production, number of aircraft, pilots, etc (49). US made a deal with France to produce aircraft and engines – never followed through b/c the US industrial base could not rise to such unprecedented levels (50).

The Postwar Assessments

o   British Survey: Postwar assessment: material damage done to the German war economy generally had been small; the “moral effect” of bombing had been “considerable” (57). Official historian writes of 3 accomplishments: 1) weakening of national will, 2) decline in production of essential war materials, and 3) diversion of fighting squadrons, AAA guns, and searchlights (61). Institutional factors were at work in both these reports in such as they tried to make up for the lack of material damage by stressing the great moral effect of the war (62).

o   US Survey:  Gorell wrote the final report and focused mostly on British and French targets since the US had minimal operations in the area.  Because the US focused mainly on British and French targets, it enabled them to be more objective because they were not trying to defend any wartime claims for the US Air Service. (63)  They were impressed with indirect effects of strategic boming: loss of produciton, cost of establishing/maintaining defenses, and diversion of resources from offensive to defensive (64)  Regarding moral effect - "It is certain that air raids had a tremendous effect on the morale of the entire people (66).

Brief Summary:

-     In the interwar years, when the protagonists were trying to justify their air forces, they focused heavily on the air platform, when the key issue was perhaps the munitions (the atomic bomb is an especial example of this). It was not the delivery but the weapon which caused the effect.

-     This may be too simplistic, since a key strength of air power is strategic projection, to cause   effects directly and at the heart of the enemy.

-     Driven by men like Mitchell, looking for independence, ACTS developed and championed HAPDB, interpreted as un-escorted HAPDB.

-     Trenchard’s policy was offensive air power via strategic bombing of ‘vital centres’ as a means to win the war by breaking the enemy’s will. ATCS supported this, identifying those centers as being war making capabilities (e.g. ball bearings, oil, aircraft factories).

-     The dichotomy between the two ideas presented itself in what the British and US would target during WWII: the British (Harris) went after the German cities; the US (Spaatz) focused on German oil. However, unescorted daylight bombing proved to be too vulnerable to fighter attack. Moreover, the assumption that the “Bomber would always get through” proved false, and initial results were poor undermining the protagonists’ claims. As ever, air power was promising more than it could actually deliver.

-     Biddle claims that the development of longer-ranged fighter escorts ultimately turned the tide against the Luftwaffe. “Big Week” (Feb 44) and other efforts drew the Luftwaffe into the air and through attrition the won the Air Superiority with which strategic bombing proceeded.

-     Air superiority was achieved through targeting vital assets. This forced the Luftwaffe into the air, enabling their destruction in the air. Because this made attacks on German industry possible, it was the single most critical role of the air forces actions. Overy argues that while air power was being touted as being able to deliver a ‘knockout blow’, it was actually a crucial enabler not a decisive instrument in itself.

-     The Casablanca joint objective was correctly identified as the destruction of the Luftwaffe

-     CBO was actually conducted as 2 independent conceptual offensives, not a single combined one. Only targeting was dictated jointly, and Spaatz and Harris both slyly ignored it and continued their own programs.

-     Although the US thought that direct populace bombing was immoral (Guernica and Dresden), as time went on, the US forces more liberally interpreted ‘precision’ bombing. Biddle observes that Lemay would lay waste to several Japanese, cities killing thousands of woman and children, without any military qualms or public backlash.

-     Civilian morale proved not to be easily demolished by area bombing as had been promised.

-     In the end, Biddle claims the results of strategic bombing were inconclusive.

-     The allied air force losses were justified because the air superiority which they gained was essential for the success of Overlord.  Whether the means of achieving those ends was optimal is highly debatable though, and other means might have resulted in lower losses.  Overy is much more in favor of judging the war strategy by its outcome than Biddle, who focused on the gap between what was being claimed for airpower and what was achievable.

Relevance to Strategy

-     Even today we have proved unable to demonstrate airpower as an exclusive decisive instrument, only as a crucial enabler. Perhaps after 90 years we should review our position on this for once and for all.

-     Biddle points out how strategic bombing went on to influence US future engagements in Korea and Vietnam. Specifically, how ineffective strategic bombing was in these limited wars. She implies one must first understand the surrounding conditions (context) of why strategic bombing doctrine came to pass when attempting to understand its history or its subsequent use in the future.

-     To be a successful, a strategy must not only work, but work in the way in which it was intended.

-     Airplane’s appeal strong – bombers could win wars, enemy vulnerability and “vital centers”

-     American airmen increasingly attracted to claims about economic vulnerability of modern societies

-     1950s and 1960s – American airmen fought limited wars in Asia – little relevance for strategic bombing

-     Conclusion - Even with heavy pressure on enemy economy and society, they can prove resilient and robust

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