WASHINGTON — The showdown in the Persian Gulf has catalyzed the debate over the role of air power in warfare. The United States cannot match the Iraqi army man-for-man, let alone obtain the 3-1 odds military theory deems necessary for offensive success. Instead, U.S. military leaders hope to mass enough high-tech weaponry in the gulf to destroy Saddam Hussein's favorite police instrument--his military--in a short air campaign. Pundits in the media and on the Hill echo assertions made until last week by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael J. Dugan, that "air power is the only answer."
Such claims are the current version of an argument first voiced by the post-World War I "air-power" theorists. While the United States has amassed an impressive aerial arsenal in the gulf region, the assertion that air power alone could "win" a war against Iraq demands an evaluation of the theories and the evidence that gave birth to that idea.
The contentiousness that surrounds the air-power debate stems largely from the empirical evidence these arguments rely on: the campaigns of World War II, where air power's performance was uneven. But the theoretical basis for an air-power doctrine goes back to immediately after World War I. The infant air arms of the Great War had no real influence on the outcome. But the ability of bombers to overfly land and seas to drop high explosives on cities and industrial centers had a powerful impact on the thinking of the inter-war air power theorists.
The high-flying bomber appeared to many as the optimal weapon for "total war." In what had become a predominantly economic-industrial contest, the bomber offered optimistic strategists a weapon to destroy the vital industries that churned out the instruments of war. Thus, the bloody and protracted stalemate of World War I trench warfare could be avoided. Air-power theorists on both sides of the Atlantic were convinced strategic bombing could bring a nation to its knees by targeting material and moral resources.
From the first screams of dive-bombing Stukas, World War II offered a proving ground for the various air-power theories. Yet after an offensive by 3,000 German Luftwaffe aircraft against Britain, four years of night bombing by the RAF Bomber Command and daylight raids by the U.S. Air Force across Germany and the relentless U.S. bombardment of Japan, the debate over the effectiveness of strategic air power is unresolved.
Air-power theorists had grossly mistaken the impact that raining tons of high-explosives on civilians would have on a nation's determination to defeat those responsible for the bombing. Instead of demoralizing England's will for resistance, Germany's indiscriminate bombing of population centers bolstered the British nation's will for victory. The German error in misjudging British national resolve was surpassed only by the RAF Bomber Command's failure to anticipate that British bombing of Germany would prove equally counterproductive.
If strategic bombing was unsuccessful in demoralizing a nation's will to fight, its effectiveness in destroying the war effort of either Germany or Japan was even less impressive. Instead of passively accepting annihilation, targeted industries dispersed and decentralized.
One need not read the 321 reports published by the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey after World War II to realize that the Allied bombing offensive was far from decisive. That is illustrated by German industry production figures. Output doubled from 1942 to 1944 and reached its highest figure in late 1944--at the height of the bombing campaign. The effects of strategic bombing on Japan's centralized industrial base was equally unimpressive.
The strategic employment of air power since 1945 has only reinforced the conclusions drawn from World War II. The primary achievement of the massive aerial bombardment unleashed against North Vietnam, intended to pressure Hanoi, only stiffened the North's resolve. Despite dropping thousands of B-52 loads on dense jungle and repeated bombing attacks on roadways in the North, air power was never able to seal off South Vietnam from the infiltration of men and materiel.
The bombing campaign carried out by both sides in the Iran-Iraq War also failed to produce a decisive victory. The employment of missiles targeted against cities had little more impact than German V-1 and V-2 attacks on Britain.
Despite the desultory effects of strategic bombing, air power used in coordination with ground forces exerts a considerable influence. Luftwaffe operations against Poland and France in 1940, and Russia in 1941, were successful when employed with attacking ground forces. During the Allied offensive in France, air power supported the drive on Berlin.