October 1, 2006  

Air power’s lost lessons

The period between the first and second world wars served as the formative years for the development of American military aviation and air power theory. The practical application of air power during this interwar period revealed a dichotomy between the experience of small wars at the time and the big-war air-power theory that Army Air Corps planners were developing in preparation for what would become World War II. Consequently, the important lessons that may have been learned during two particular armed conflicts — the Spanish Civil War and U.S. intervention in Nicaragua — were lost in preparations for a large, conventional war with the growing powers of Germany and Japan.

The resulting big-war paradigm and the air doctrine that accompanied it lay at the foundation of modern air power theory. America is embroiled in a war on terrorism and a war in Iraq that is very different from this mind-set of a large, conventional war. A closer look at the historical lessons of Nicaragua and Spain during the interwar period may inform the development of air power theory for the changed strategic landscape of the 21st century.

World War I provided limited practical lessons for the application of air power in future wars. As a result, initial air-power concepts following that war were based almost exclusively on theory. While the interwar years would offer opportunities to test and refine those nascent theories, the trend in U.S. air power circles of subordinating practice to theory would continue throughout the period between the wars. Accordingly, Williamson Murray observed that “the lack of clarity over the lessons of World War I, unfortunately, led many interwar theorists to emphasize the theoretical and to ignore the practical realities of air power.”

In fact, Army Air Corps officers did not need to look far to find real, practical military aviation experience. In an effort to support the Monroe Doctrine and secure an alternate route for what would become the Panama Canal, the U.S. had been involved in Nicaragua since the early 1900s. John Tierney explained that “U.S. interest in construction of a canal between the seas focused early attention on a possible route through Nicaragua.” Consequently, the Marine Corps intervened in 1909, when the militant government of Jose Santos Zelaya and his overtures toward the formulation of a Central American confederation threatened U.S. interests in this backyard region. The Marines remained until 1925. Armed U.S. intervention returned in 1927 in the midst of a civil war that sparked a popular guerrilla insurgency under the leadership of Augusto Cesar Sandino.

The Marine Corps used air power extensively in this small war. Airmen in the Marine Corps clearly recognized the importance of the lessons in this Central American conflict. In a 1929 Marine Corps Gazette article, Marine aviator Maj. Russ Rowell hypothesized that “probably no broader experience has been gained, or greater success achieved through the employment of aircraft in minor warfare, than that which attended the operations of our own Marines during the Nicaraguan campaign of 1927 and 1928.” Their Army Air Corps counterparts, on the contrary, showed little interest in this small war. Lee Kennett observed that the experience in Nicaragua is rarely mentioned in the surviving texts of the Air Corps Tactical School in the late 1920s and ’30s. “Why it should have been largely ignored is not completely clear, but most likely it was because the campaign was considered similar to air-control operations and too different from conventional warfare to hold any valuable lessons.”

This small war conflict, seemingly insignificant to some, revealed three key lessons about the political dimension of this different kind of war. First, Rowell fully grasped the overriding importance of public support: “Public opinion, always to be respected, is sensitive to bloodshed and the newspapers are prone to publish rumors of scandals or abuses.” Writing about the same campaign many years later, Air Force Capt. Kenneth Jennings echoed the same basic message in a 1986 Air Chronicles article: “Air power must be used selectively to avoid generating support for the insurgents.”

Second, Rowell foresaw the political restraint commonplace in today’s small wars: “We may not bomb towns because it would not be consistent with a policy advocated at some international convention. … The safety of noncombatants becomes a matter of prime importance.”

Third, and largely as a result of this restraint, Rowell found that the only vital center in Nicaragua was the enemy’s fielded forces: “The primary objective in bush warfare is the enemy personnel. The secondary objectives are his supplies and animal transport.” Regrettably, these pertinent potential lessons of the Marine Corps campaign in Central America fell on deaf ears in the Army Air Corps.

After the American experience in one small, unconventional war during the interwar period, Germany, a future U.S. adversary, intervened in a strikingly similar conflict across the Atlantic — the Spanish Civil War. While American military planners studied the Spanish Civil War to learn about German tactics, Army Air Corps strategists failed to heed the practical warning signs once again and missed what Spain revealed about its own plans for the ensuing war.

The Germans, on the other hand, took away many valuable lessons from their involvement in this small war. As Murray documented, the officers in the Luftwaffe “recognized that theoretical musings on strategic bombing and the political and military realities of the Spanish Civil War had little in common.” Pure air-power theory was moving the Americans toward the promise of strategic bombing. Practical German experience in Spain took the Luftwaffe down a different path: “Spain had shown that air support for ground operations was more important than any effects gained by strategic bombing.”

In fact, as the Germans’ aerial doctrine began to surface in the years preceding World War II, it became clear that their approach to the air war was decidedly different from the Army Air Corps’. The German Air Force regulation on aerial warfare established that “the mission of the armed forces in war is to break down the will of the enemy. The will of the nation finds its greatest embodiment in its armed forces. Thus, the enemy armed forces is the primary goal in war.” Luftwaffe planners found that the Spanish experience largely validated this approach. U.S. air doctrine, on the contrary, remained uninfluenced. As such, American and German air-power theory developed along sharply divergent paths. The Army Air Corps championed strategic bombing of political and economic targets and subordinated the tactical task of attacking the enemy’s fielded forces. In contrast, the German military’s practical approach focused its air assets on a strategy of targeting an adversary’s military strength.

The writings of Lt. Gen. Walter Wever, the Luftwaffe’s first chief of staff, revealed the divergence between these two views. His words may be as applicable in modern times as they were during the 1930s. Starting with the assertion that Clausewitz applied as much to the contemporary air war as he did to the battlefields of the past, Wever made three important observations about air warfare that differed significantly from the thinking of Germany’s future adversaries.

First, Wever echoed his Luftwaffe manuals, stating that to destroy the enemy’s morale, “the destruction of the armed forces will be of primary importance.”

Second, Wever included the enemy’s air forces as an integral part of the enemy’s armed forces: “This can mean the destruction of the enemy air force, army and navy, and the source of supply of the enemy’s forces, the armament industry.”

Third, Wever preferred concentrating his aerial forces on attacking military targets rather than diluting the air-power effort on too many disparate objectives: “Striking the enemy homeland’s industries and civil population,” suggested Wever, “might actually prolong a war past that propitious moment for attaining quick victory because it would involve the use of those precious air resources needed to affect the land battle.” Most military historians agree that if Adolf Hitler had stuck with Wever’s approach, rather than switching midstream to strategic air attacks on London, Germany may very well have won the Battle of Britain.

Migrating to tactical air power

Authors writing about World War II often suggest that the experience of the small, unconventional war in Spain led Germany to the wrong conclusions, which ultimately resulted in its defeat in the large, conventional war that followed. The Soviets, however, who were ultimately victorious in World War II, took away many similar lessons from their involvement in the same war in Spain. In his study of Soviet air-ground operations, Kenneth Whiting found that “both the Germans and the Russians extracted the lesson from Spain that air power was most effective when used in close support of ground forces, rather than independently.” Joseph Stalin, “having been disillusioned with the efficacy of bombers during the Soviet intervention in Spain, opted for a predominantly tactical air force in which even the bombers were used mostly for missions not far beyond the front lines.”

After the Spanish Civil War, the Soviet Air Force was not only more tactically minded but also far less focused on strategic targets than before. Whiting observed that “unsatisfactory Soviet experience with bombers in Spain from 1936 to 1938 lowered enthusiasm for strategic bombing and reinforced the tactical concept for the role of aviation.” Consequently, as the Soviet Union entered World War II, its air-power concepts were far closer to its German adversary than its Western allies. Mark Conversino explains that, “unlike many of their counterparts in the United States and Britain, Soviet airmen did not speak longingly of winning wars from the air by destroying an enemy’s industrial infrastructure or will to resist.” When Germany turned its fury toward the Soviet Union during World War II, both sides used their air forces primarily in a tactical role. Interestingly, this approach first propelled Germany to a quick victory during its immensely successful Barbarosa campaign and later secured a more complete Soviet success on the Eastern Front.

This migration from strategic to tactical air power did not occur in the U.S. In fact, in a 1938 U.S. Air Services article, Brig. Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold found that, because strategic bombing had not played a larger role, the limited war in Spain was largely irrelevant to a future war with Germany. It seems that Arnold may have missed the point. Similarly, a November 1939 memorandum by the Army Air Staff went so far as to assert that it was “very dangerous” to extract any lessons from the small wars of the interwar period, reducing them to “almost guerrilla affairs in which the air forces were relatively insignificant.”

As indicated by a 1940 Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS) lecture by Maj. Muir S. Fairchild, however, students and instructors at the Army Air Corps school did have limited exposure to the Spanish Civil War. Interestingly, however, although the German and Soviet participants found strategic bombardment to be largely ineffective, the American airmen did not learn — or teach — any such lesson. There was no concession in ACTS circles that Spain might suggest some weaknesses in the Air Corps concept of attacking urban, economic targets known as the industrial web theory. Instead, the school’s instructors taught that the bombing of Spanish cities showed the U.S. model to be superior to the approach espoused by Italian theorist Guilio Douhet, who advocated wholesale attacks on civilian populations. Accordingly, Fairchild explained that “the adaptability of man is very great and observers have commented upon the fact that in the bombing of Madrid and Barcelona, for example, the population eventually became accustomed to the attacks to the point that the fear, which they had at first caused, ceased to be apparent.”

Army officers not associated with ACTS took away very different lessons from the Spanish Civil War. Contrary to Air Corps reasoning, the Army War College taught that “high-altitude bombing was ineffectual, that the Flying Fortress concept had ‘died in Spain,’ and that small bombers and fighters, which could operate from cow-pasture facilities, were of the utmost utility.” While airmen in the Army Air Corps took a divergent path, the findings of the institutional Army ran parallel to the lessons drawn by those who participated in the war. Whether the corporate Army’s assessment was accurate in the context of World War II is debatable; whether it was appropriate to the small wars that preceded and followed it would be more difficult to refute.

Experience over theory

It should be clear, then, that the big-war mind-set of the ACTS interwar theorists led to far more interest in theories espousing attacks of a strategic nature than in the practical application of air power during this period. Kennett accurately assessed that “the United States learned no clear and indisputable lessons on air support from the limited wars of the late thirties.” To be fair, however, some airmen in the Army Air Corps were skeptical, choosing to err on the side of experience. For example, Gen. Orvel Cook explained that, as a student at ACTS in 1937-38, “some of us had more experience than some of the instructors and, consequently, we took a lot of this instruction with a large grain of salt, and we more or less made up our minds, … no matter how dogmatic the instructor might be.” In a 1936 letter, Lt. Col. M.F. Harmon and Maj. Oliver Gothlin expressed concern about an ACTS theory that lacked supporting evidence: “This has never been done. … A note of caution should be sounded against the too ardent adoption of peace time [sic] theories and hypothesis when they are not supported by actually demonstrated facts nor by the experiences of war in the only war in which aviation was employed.” In making one good observation, however, these two officers missed another point that is arguably more important: Air power had, in fact, been employed many times since World War I, the “only war” they chose to recognize. It was this type of omission that led to an interwar theory, uninformed by interwar experience, that would ultimately dictate the U.S. approach during World War II and lay the foundation for air doctrine in the decades that followed.

It could be said that the interwar period served as the formative years for U.S. air-power advocates. If so, yesterday’s airmen were strongly influenced in their intellectual adolescence by pure theory on one hand and a big-war assumption on the other. Close scrutiny of these approaches will allow today’s mature Air Force to develop air-power concepts that are appropriate to the practical realities and widening spectrum of modern conflict. Rowell’s observation about one interwar experience, then, is as pertinent today as when it was written in 1929: “Aviation has already demonstrated its great value in minor warfare, and the future offers unbounded opportunities for further development.” It is imperative that these lessons, largely lost during the interwar period, are learned and applied when appropriate today.

From Nicaragua to Iraq

The Defense Department is in the midst of a transformation crafted in response to the 21st-century strategic landscape. While some view this environment as novel and fundamentally changed, historical reflection suggests the existence of previous conflicts not unlike current and anticipated military operations. Accordingly, the initial stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom could be viewed as a large, conventional war. The U.S. and its coalition partners achieved overwhelming success during the phase that came to be called “major combat operations.” Since that time, however, the war in Iraq, now a smaller, unconventional conflict, has proved to be a far more formidable challenge. As suggestions of civil war in Iraq become more prevalent, the lessons of two civil wars of the past century — in Nicaragua and Spain — may gain increased relevance.

The ongoing Defense Department transformation is, at its core, based on the concept of a revolution in military affairs (RMA). Most define an RMA as the confluence of new technologies, new organizations and new ideas. Each of the services and many of the combatant commands have embarked on aggressive plans that feature many transformational technologies accompanied by new organizational constructs. In essence, the Defense Department-mandated transformation has arguably directed a shift from big-war technologies and Cold War organizations to more flexible, adaptable capabilities and constructs that are also more compatible with small wars. The services and combatant commands are moving in this direction.

For the revolution in military affairs to be complete, the same transformation must take place in the area of ideas. Big-war ideas rooted in World War II and the Cold War that followed must be joined with new, transformational concepts for fighting small wars and other military operations beyond the legacy, conventional-war paradigm. The U.S. remains fully prepared to fight and win large, conventional wars. This threat is still real today, and the nation must be ready. But past emphasis on this form of war has arguably limited development in other areas.

Strategic thinkers are now awakening to the threat of other kinds of war. Armed with transformational ideas that accompany new technology and changed organizations, America will be equally ready for the small wars of the new millennium.

Lt. Col. Skip Hinman is an Air Force command pilot and a student at the Marine Corps War College in Quantico, Va. The views in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Air Force or Defense Department.