The early days

It’s been almost a hundred years and it’s unlikely that we will ever really know just what effect WW1 really did have on the development of air power. For me, it was really a bit of a sideshow in a larger conflict and the real developments occurred in the 20s and 30s.

With reference to the second reading, I’ve read Mahan a number of times (how sad is that?) and don’t agree with the  way the author has tried to use it as a yardstick to measure air power in WW1 – I’d be hard pressed to draw the same conclusions. The big takeaway (to use a current buzzword) from The Influence of Seapower Upon History is that is a nation should only get into the sea power game if it can actually control the seas. Examples of that have would be the United Kingdom to the mid-20th Century and the United States from the same point on; those who tried but didn’t make the grade? France, Spain, Germany (twice), and Japan. The same applies to air power…

What might defence planners have learnt from the use of air power in the First World War?

There is a lot that might have been learned from any major activity but that’s largely a speculator question because we will never know what might have happened. The best articulator of the air lessons of WW1 was Douhet and his 1923 writings give a very good idea of what defence planners might have been learned. In the end, the one lesson that defence planners did take from WW1 and generally apply across the board was that “…this air power all seems a bit up in the air – let’s toss it back in its box and seen what happens in a few years…” And that is exactly what they did, especially in the UK where the RAF of 1939 bore a remarkable resemblance in terms of doctrine and capability to that of 1919: twin-engined bombers with small payloads and only defenced by single small calibre machine guns and (excluding the Hurricane and  Spitfire that were spurred by Germany’s rearmament in the 30s) biplane fighters with no radios and only two small calibre machine guns…

Could valid generalisations have been made for the future use of air power from the experience of the 1914 – 1918 war?

Not really, for the simple reason that air power did not really have any great effect in WW1: there was no air Cambrai, let alone a Taranto, Dams Raid or Pearl Harbor to learn from. Had air power not been employed in WW1, it is likely that WW2 would have started with the same level of air capability that it actually did: the major driver for the development of air technologies between the wars was not the military (by choice or treaty) but the commercial arena especially in the UK (Shorts), Germany (Junkers and Dornier) and the US (Boeing, Bell and Curtiss) and with the development and exploration of long-range travel routes  It would probably be more correct to say that modern air power owes more to the Dornier X and the HP.42 that it does to anything that struggled into the air in WW1.

Was the assertion made by some that air power would soon become the principal mode of warfare justified by experience?

Not then and not now…the number of instances where air power has had a decisive strategic effect on the outcome of a conflict is so low as to be insignificant statistically or in any other form of comparison. 93 years on, air power has still not taken up the mantle of ‘principal mode of warfare’ and is unlikely to anytime soon.

Would you agree that there have been no significant developments in the employment of air power since 1918?

Not ever. A statement like that can only be made with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight and some incredible leaps of logical faith. Air Power (such as it was) til the mid-30s bears no resemblance to the applied tactical, operational and strategic forces developed and applied during WW2 and since to the current day. Flying around shooting guns and dropping ad hoc bombs ≠ air power: there are far more components of air power that mere flying as I alluded to in my response to last week’s questions. WW1’s biggest contribution to air power was probably the misperception that populations can be controlled from the air alone as was attempted across the Empire in the 1920s – although, COL Gaddafi may prove me wrong on this one next week…


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