Thinking “air power”…


A5CA6 Frank Sturges c.1980s - Handley Page 'Heracles' over Croydon Airpirt, Watercolour, Sutton Museum Collection

Is contemporary air power doctrine still influenced by the classical air power theorists?First up we should probably drop ‘air power’ in favour of ‘military’: it is just too simplistic to persist in describing warfare in terms of one environment or another, especially air power which owes as much to Clausewitz and Mahan as it does Douhet. Whether this is because air power operates over sea and land, or simply as the most recently developed ‘environment’ it builds upon those who have gone before is up for discussion. The list of classical military theorists i.e. those whose theories have endured is not exhaustive and nor it is restricted solely to the Big Three of Clausewitz, Mahan and Douhet however the concepts and truisms developed by these three are certainly among the most enduring and popularly accepted. 

Noting how the nature of warfare has changed since 1989 (DESERT STORM being almost an aberration), the use of ‘contemporary’ is interesting especially since we would assume and would like that ‘environmental’ capstone doctrine remain relatively stable. We now operate in an era of the ‘non-contiguous operating environment’ and ‘war amongst the people’, environments so different than the backdrops of conventional conflict against which they were developed. In this environment, rather than perhaps being outdated or irrelevant, the works of the classic military theorists remain as applicable as they ever were on the battlefields of Europe, the oceans of the Pacific and the air over Europe, Vietnam or Libya.

It is not really correct to refer to them as theories or their works as theories: theories, by definition, are unproven works. Once proven, theories become laws, rules or principles: noting the unpredictable nature of war, the works of Clausewitz, Mahan and Douhet, among others, are best considered principles, principles to be applied with judgement. I do not believe that the works of Warden, Mitchell, Trenchard et al have yet been validated to the same extent and thus they remain as theories. As such, any influence they may have on contemporary doctrine should be considered carefully.

Clausewitz argues ‘…war is not a mere act of policy, but a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means…war is not an act of senseless passion’. Do you think Douhet takes into account the ‘end state’ which Clausewitz implies is the object of war?

Absolutely.Douhet’s work is scientific, almost clinical, in its detachment and lack of emotion (as distinguished from the passion he clearly has for the subject). The ultimate objective of Douhet’s war is national victory which might expect to a natural and logical endstate for war as a politcasl entity as described by Clausewitz.

What do you think is the difference between theory and doctrine, if any?

Theory is something that remains unproven…”…a tentative insight…a concept that is not yet verified but that if true would explain certain facts or phenomena…” Doctrine, on the other hand, is defined as “…fundamental principles by which the military forces guide their actions in support of objectives. It is authoritative but requires judgement in application…” Doctrine, in essence, is the considered best practice for a given force in a given situation: it is far more than mere theory. here, we have taken the definition of doctrine further as “…that which is taught, validated against a context, delivered in individual training, developed under supervision on the job and in collective training, and applied with judgement…

If you had been a British defence planner in the 1920s, how far would you have been guided by the theories of Douhet and Mitchell?

Not much at all. As I covered in Seminar 2, WW1 did little to demonstrate the potential of air power as a decisive (as opposed to a supporting) arm, unlike other new technologies like the tank and the submarine. Mitchell had demonstrated the sinking of a warship under very controlled and static conditions that bore little resemblance to a ship underway (and returning fire); Douhet would have been interesting reading in the 1920s but, really, his work was not validated until the end of WW2. The general theme of the 1920s was of the War to end all Wars, with the League of Nations (not discredited until the 30s) to limit the development of arms races like those that had contributed to the beginning of WW1. The big fear of the time would have been chemical attack at the strategic level however even then, an early MAD policy seems to have been accepted by the ‘chemical’ powers. After WW1, Britain’s focus had returned to maintaining the Empire and it was here that air power appeared most applicable and useful: an application of air power in COIN…

Clausewitz argued war is a trilogy of ‘reason, passion and chance’. Do you think Warden would agree?

Probably not but then that is why Clausewitz endures after 180 years and Warden is already becoming a footnote in history: his theory only appears to have worked (debatedly) in DESERT STORM and was less than effective in Kosovo, and Iraq – it must be noted that all three of those campaigns were only resolved conclusively through occupation by ground forces.

There has been over the last couple of weeks there has been a discussion at Small Wars Journal on the validity of Warden’s work. I’ve avoided as best I can any observation of that discussion to avoid colouring my own consideration of these questions but the one comment I did read seems to sum up Warden’s theory. It pointed out the lack of science in the DESERT STORM air campaign in the shotgun approach to targeting, essentially hitting everything til something might snap – which it didn’t.

Just as in COIN, it is fundamentally false to assume let alone rely on the hope that a population, sufficiently provoked, will rise up and topple its leadership in response to targeting by an adversary. The number of times across history that this has actually occurred is limited at best. Due to the greater influence of public opinion in the western world, perhaps this may be a strategy that we are more susceptible to today than our adversaries may be.

Warden’s belief in ‘friction-free’ warfare is another manifestation of the ‘victory disease’ that seized parts of the US military after the collapse of the Iron Curtain and new ‘surgically clean’ victories like Panama and DESERT STORM and that culminated( in all senses of the word) in its misplaced confidence in the ‘shock and awe’ of OIF in March 2003. I have yet to find any account of OEF or OIF that does anything to indicate that Clausewitzian friction is anything but alive and well in the contemporary operating environment.

Afterthought: WRT Libya…I’m not sure what all the fuss is about…the Libyans seemed to be doing all right on their own using air power to suppress a land-based internal insurgency…

WRT John’s comment about about ‘strike being strike’…true but in WW1, there was no concept of strike as it know it from WW2 or today…it was more a case of ‘lob in the general direction and see what happens’…just because WW1 was the first major conflict in which aircraft were used, it does not necessarily follow that this was the birth of air power as we know it any more than the meeting between Monitor and Virginia in Hampton Roads could be considered the birth of modern naval warfare, or the use of the tank in WW1 could be considered the birth of modern manouevre warfare. I would suggest that a lot more water needed to go under the bridge before any of these could be considered actual capabilities than could be employed effectively in combat…

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