The emergence of air power strategy

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- Memorial Day is right around the corner, so I thought this would be a great opportunity to pause and reflect on our Air Force history. Relative to the other Services' pasts, ours is pretty short. I aim to summarize from our Air Force history those key "nuggets of knowledge" in an attempt to explain the emergence of our air power strategy. 

The development and execution of air power strategy is most significantly impacted by the Air Force's service culture, which is itself a product of individual leaders and institutional leadership. Institutional leadership is an important aspect of the manner in which service culture gains its unique identity. Institutional leaders set the tone for the entire service by promoting certain values, portraying the ideal Air Force image, deciding what to measure and control, deciding who to promote, and what capabilities to develop and acquire. In my opinion, Gens. Henry "Hap" Arnold and Curtis E. LeMay are the two most prominent leaders who have had the greatest effect on the Air Force's service culture, as well as the development and execution of air power strategy. While service culture is powerful, it does not ultimately trump the power of individual leadership. The most successful leaders are those able to appreciate the importance of service culture and demonstrate the courage to diverge from traditional thought when the situation required. I believe such leaders were Maj. Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell and Lt. Gen. Elwood "Pete" Quesada.

Today's Air Force service culture has roots dating back to World War I. Man first took flight in 1903 and just seven years later, in 1910, we would see Russia and Italy establish some sort of air power capacity. The United States began to develop its air arm in 1911, which is somewhat ironic considering manned flight originated in the United States. Clearly, the United States was slow to realize the game-changing nature of air power. This is understandable considering that the political environment within the United States favored a position of isolationism, convenient due to vast ocean masses requiring lengthy sail times to traverse. But World War I would mark a turning point.

It was during World War I that Mitchell spent time flying in Europe before the United States officially joined the Allies. During this time, Mitchell was influenced by Italian Gen. Giulio Douhet and British Maj. Gen. Sir Hugh M. Trenchard, and eventually commanded the largest flying force ever assembled. For the most part, air power was used in direct support of Gen. John J. "Black Jack" Pershing's ground forces, the concept of which we would see later in World War II and Korea. These experiences would shape Mitchell's view on how to use air power, which centered more on air superiority and strategic bombardment, rather than solely supporting ground forces. This is an important point because Mitchell believed firmly in establishing an independent air force. Mitchell returned from the war ready to engage Congress to develop an air force separate from Army control. Unfortunately, the courage of his convictions and his abrasive methods eventually led to his court-martial and dismissal. Despite the negative publicity, someone was paying attention.

While Mitchell was considered an idealist, Arnold was considered politically conservative -- someone who knew how to temper his convictions yet remain successful. To be sure, Arnold is considered the father of the Air Force for a reason. He was personally instrumental in putting mechanisms in place during the interwar years that enabled the United States to enter World War II as prepared as it did. Some may argue this point; however, one cannot deny Arnold's role in establishing the Science Advisory Board, Research and Development, and the Air Force Research Laboratory. These were crucial to the development of air power technologies and capabilities (the means) which is a key variable in the Ends-Ways-Means equation. Also believing air power should be a separate air force, Arnold gravitated toward strategic bombardment during the interwar years, favoring less the concept of air superiority. This behavior of favoring one air power strategy over another heavily influenced the American conception of air power to be employed during World War II.

When the United States entered World War II, leaders had to develop an air power strategy (the ways) to link their capabilities (the means) to achieve the political and military objectives (the ends). The American conception of air power at the time exclusively favored the concept of strategic bombardment; pursuit aircraft were relegated to protecting bombers, not establishing air superiority (which would later change). The resulting strategy, embodied as the Combined Bomber Offensive, was considered the main effort in Europe. Arnold believed firmly that this strategy had to be decisive; the argument for a separate air force depended on its success--or so he thought. Undoubtedly, Arnold made an indelible mark on our service culture, which arguably had the most profound effect on LeMay, whom we will discuss later.

It is very clear to me that our service culture at the time, fostered by our institutional leader (Arnold), shaped the development and execution of air power strategy in Europe. But it was the technical-minded Queseda, with his outstanding operational and organizational leadership skills, who favored a new concept of air power, as opposed to the widely accepted strategic bombardment concept. His incredibly diverse military experiences up to this point ultimately shaped his ability to perceive the concept of air power employment differently. Considered the father of tactical air power, Quesada was instrumental in developing the concepts of air superiority, air interdiction, and close air support tactics, techniques and procedures in the Mediterranean. All were critical to the successful invasion that eventually led to Germany's defeat. Many lessons were learned during the battles leading up to the invasion; however, they were ironically overshadowed by the service's belief that strategic bombardment would be decisive. Given that an invasion was indeed necessary, history proved otherwise.

The rhetoric of the strategic bombardment theory would later manifest itself in the Pacific. With no discernible boss in the Pacific, LeMay directed the devastating firebombing of Japan, and eventually garnered credit for ending the war after nuclear weapons were delivered. In his book, Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45, Max Hastings suggests that there was evidence that Japan was on the brink of surrender, and that the dropping of nuclear weapons was not necessary to end the war. However, our service culture proclaimed strategic bombardment was indeed decisive and necessary to end the war. On the surface one might easily believe this to be true considering the absence of an invasion of mainland Japan, an idea Tammie Davis Biddle posits in her book, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare. Unfortunately, the rhetoric was fostered by LeMay and would survive well into the Cold War.

The service culture that LeMay embodied in Strategic Air Command and the strict adherence to the strategic bombardment concept continued to heavily influence the American conception of air power following WWII. Influenced by LeMay's institutional leadership, our Air Force overwhelmingly favored the "decisive nature" of strategic bombardment, the utility of which was not politically appropriate--never mind tactically--during the Korean conflict. LeMay's insistence on using bombers to prosecute war in Korea, and later during the Cuban Missile Crisis, was not well received by our elected officials in Washington, where it matters most. It took the creative leadership of emerging leaders to adapt to the reality that operations in Korea did not resemble those of a Total War nature in Europe and the Pacific during WWII--the type of war our Airmen had grown accustomed to fighting. To be sure, the newly independent Air Force would demonstrate all the air power capabilities we still see today.

The nexus between brute strength and political context is where leadership is crucial. I believe today's service culture, instilled by more enlightened institutional leaders, allows us to more easily identify the nature of war and to differentiate the appropriate strategies for employing air power (ways) to achieve political objectives (ends). We have the responsibility to break free from the paralysis of service culture when it is necessary, as did Mitchell and Quesada. We simply cannot afford everything we want in today's fiscally constrained environment.
Our nation's future depends on emerging leaders who can cultivate a service culture that facilitates development of appropriate air power strategies within the political context. Toward that end, we not only need to know what our history is, but why. I encourage all to reflect on our Air Force history this Memorial Day.