Desperately seeking strategic effects


Operation TIDAL WAVE (c) Nicholas Trudgian

How has the concept of precision attacks against key economic targets changed since WWII?

It has only been since the latter part of the Vietnam War that an actual precision attack capability has truly existed, although one might argue that the brief ascendancy of the dive bomber in Germany, Japan and the US provided a degree of precision against point targets. Even so, the key issue is not so much the method of attack but the target and the actual outcome and effect desired by striking it. If anything this was the true weakness in so-called strategic air campaigns: an over-focus on the targets and considerably less upon the desired outcomes. It is doubly a weakness in that it indicates a dogmatic approach to applying the thoughts of the accepted military theorists.

Why were civilians regarded as a legitimate target for the strategic bomber offensive?

Why not? The notion of ‘total war’ has been well-accepted across history from the Romans into the ‘peacekeeping’ campaigns of the colonial nations between the wars. But once again, the key element that is being overlooked is the OUTCOME. Targeting ‘the people’ on its own offers nothing to a campaign unless there is a clearly defined outcome that has some chance of success/achievability from that targeting. If a logical case can be made that targeting ‘the people’ will achieve a strategic effect, then probably they should be targeted. Certainly the targeting of ‘the people’ in Japan directly affected Hirohito’s decision to terminate hostilities; it is less certain that the targeting of ‘the people’ in Germany and Britain achieved much at all other than strengthening their resolve. Perhaps, in considering the Roman approach to ‘the people’, the critical factor in targeting is to employ sufficient shock effect and brutality to get the message through? Certainly this worked well for the Soviet Empire, Saddam’s Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Did the area attacks (punishment strategy) make a significant contribution to allied victory?

If the desired outcome was ‘punishment’ then probably not as there is no strategic effect to be gained from ‘punishment’. But if the actual outcome was that they diverted capacity and manpower from the land and maritime campaigns, which they did, then they most definitely made a significant contribution to not only the allid victory in WW2 but in later conflicts where strategic bombing effects were sought.

Or were the ‘precision attacks’ of the 8th Air Force more effective?

There was a difference? Any distinction between the night and day campaigns became largely not after the concerted city-busting attacks began.

Do targets now determine what is strategic or not?

No. Targets are simply the means to an end. If that end is poorly divined, then no matter how well the targets are struck, the long term effects may be minimal or activate the law of unintended consequences.

Should Douhet, Mitchell, and Trenchard now be forgotten?

First up, Mitchell and Trenchard are in a totally different class than Douhet, who rides alongside the likes of Mahan, Clausewitz and Napoleon. As covered in a previous seminar, Mitchell was more a tactical thinker and Trenchard a hopeful one who was influenced more by his passion for the emerging importance of air power as a military tool than any particularly deep thought. The names of the classic military thinkers come up again and again simply because their work is enduring and attempting to discount them purely because their works do not apply literally to modern times is rather short-sighted to say the least. And once written-off who might them replace them? Warden…?

There is risk in considerable the works of the classic thinking through too narrow a straw and failing to determine the underlying themes and insights in there works; or to consider their work against the literal context of today. Anyone who has been involved in a flight safety or air accident investigation will know the importance of considering events from the perspective of and context in which they occurred. Similarly, to be able to really consider these thinkers’ relevance one must really have read their works in some detail and there is also danger in taking them out of their broader context and attaching too much or too little importance to them.

The answer to the question is, of course, no…

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