Collections: Strategic Airpower 101

This week, I’m going to offer a fairly basic overview of the concept of strategic airpower, akin to our discussions of protracted war and nuclear deterrence. While the immediate impetus for this post has been Russian efforts to use airpower coercively in Ukraine, we’re going to focus more broadly on the topic: what is strategic airpower, where did the idea come from, how has it been used and does it actually work? As with nuclear deterrence, this is a much debated topic, so what I am going to present here is an overview of the sort I’d provide for an introductory class on the topic and then at the end we’ll cover some of the implications for the current conflict in Ukraine. That said, this is also an issue where I think most historians of the topic tend to part ways with both some things the public think they know about the topic and some of the things that occasionally the relevant branches of the military want to know about the topic; in any case I am going to try to present a fairly ‘down the middle’ historian’s view of the question.1

Before we dive in, we need to define what makes certain uses of airpower strategic because strategic airpower isn’t the only kind. The reason for the definition will emerge pretty quickly when we talk about origins, but let’s get it out of the way here: strategic airpower is the use of attack by air (read: bombing) to achieve ‘strategic effects.’ Now that formal definition is a bit tautological, but it becomes clarifying when we talk about what we mean by strategic effects; these are effects that aim to alter enemy policy or win the war on their own.

Put another way, if you use aircraft to attack enemy units in support of a ground operation (like an invasion), that would be tactical airpower; the airpower is a tactic that aims to win a battle which is still primarily a ground (or naval) battle. We often call this kind of airpower ‘close air support’ but not all tactical airpower is CAS. If you instead use airpower to shape ground operations – for instance by attacking infrastructure (like bridges or railroads) or by bombing enemy units to force them to stay put (often by forcing them to move only at night) – that’s operational airpower. The most common form of this kind of airpower is ‘interdiction’ bombing, which aims to slow down enemy ground movements so that friendly units can out-maneuver them in larger-scale sweeping movements.

By contrast strategic airpower aims to produce effects at the strategic (that is, top-most) level on its own. Sometimes that is quite blunt: strategic airpower aims to win the war on its own without reference to ground forces, or at least advance the ball on winning a conflict or achieving a desired end-state (that is, the airpower may not be the only thing producing strategic effects). Of course strategic effects can go beyond ‘winning the war’ – coercing or deterring another power are both strategic effects as well, forcing the enemy to redefine their strategy. That said, as we’ll see, this initially very expansive definition of strategic airpower really narrows quite quickly. Aircraft cannot generally hold ground, administer territory, build trust, establish institutions, or consolidate gains, so using airpower rapidly becomes a question of ‘what to bomb’ because delivering firepower is what those aircraft can do.

As an aside, this sort of cabined definition of airpower and thus strategic airpower has always been frustrating to me. It is how airpower is often discussed, so it’s how I am going to discuss it, but of course aircraft can move more than bombs. Aircraft might move troops – that’s an operational use of airpower – but they can also move goods and supplies. Arguably the most successful example of strategic airpower use anywhere, ever is the Berlin Airlift, which was a pure airpower operation that comprehensively defeated a major Soviet strategic aim, and yet the U.S. Air Force is far more built around strategic bombing than it is around strategic humanitarian airlift (it does the latter, but the Army and the Navy, rather than the Air Force, tend to take the lead in long-distance humanitarian operations). Nevertheless that definition – excessively narrow, I would argue – is a clear product of the history of strategic airpower, so let’s start there.

And once again before we get started, a reminder that the conflict in Ukraine is not notional or theoretical but very real and is causing very real suffering, including displacing large numbers of Ukrainians as refugees, both within Ukraine and beyond its borders. If you want to help, consider donating to Ukrainian aid organizations like Razom for Ukraine or to the Ukrainian Red Cross. As we’re going to see here, airpower offers no quick solution for the War in Ukraine for either party, but the recent Russian shift to air attacks on civilian centers sadly promises more suffering and more pressing need for humanitarian assistance for Putin’s many victims.

Finally, a content warning: what we’re discussing today is largely (though not entirely) the application of airpower against civilian targets because it turns usually what ‘strategic’ airpower ends up being. This is a discussion of the theory, which means its going to be pretty bloodless, but nevertheless this topic ought to be uncomfortable.

On with our topic, starting with the question of where the idea of strategic airpower comes from.

That Damned Trench Stalemate Again!

In my warfare survey, I have a visual gag where for a week and a half after our WWI lecture, every lecture begins with the same slide showing an aerial photograph (below) of the parallel trenches of the First World War because so much of the apparatus of modern warfare exists as a response, a desperate need to never, ever do the trench stalemate again. And that’s where our story starts.

Via Wikipedia, an aerial view of trenchlines around Loos and Hulluch in 1917.

Fighting aircraft, as a technology in WWI, were only in their very infancy. On the one hand the difference between the flimsy, unarmed artillery scout planes of the war’s early days and the purpose-built bombers and fighters of the war’s end was dramatic. On the other hand the platforms available at the end of the war remained very limited. Once again we can use a late-war bomber like the Farman F.50 – introduced too late to actually do much fighting in WWI – as an example of the best that could be done. It has a range of 260 miles – too short to reach deep into enemy country – and a bomb load of just 704lbs. Worse yet it was slow and couldn’t fly very high, making it quite vulnerable. It is no surprise that bombers like this didn’t break the trench stalemate in WWI or win the war.

Via Wikipedia, a Farman F.50 in the United States Army Air Service (though the Farman was a French design). Introduced in 1918, this was one of the most advanced allied bombers in the war.

However, anyone paying attention could already see that these key characteristics – range, speed, ceiling and the all-important bomb-load – were increasingly rapidly. And while the politicians of the 1920s often embraced the assumption that the War to End All Wars had in fact banished the scourge of war from the Earth – or at the very least, from the corner of it they inhabited such that war would now merely be a thing they inflicted on other, poorer, less technologically advanced peoples – the military establishment did not. European peace had always been temporary; the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and the Congress of Vienna (1815) had not ended war in Europe, so why would the Treaty of Versailles (1919)? There had always been another war and they were going to plan for it! And they were going to plan in the sure knowledge that the bombers the next war would be fought with would be much larger, faster, longer ranged and more powerful than the bombers they knew.

One of those interwar theorists was Giulio Douhet (1869-1930), an Italian who had served during the First World War. Douhet wasn’t the only bomber advocate or even the most influential at the time – in part because Italy was singularly unprepared to actually capitalize on the bomber as a machine, given that it was woefully under-industrialized and bomber-warfare was perhaps the most industrial sort of warfare on offer at the time (short of naval warfare) – but his writings exemplify a lot of the thinking at the time, particularly his The Command of the Air (1921).2 But figures like Hugh Trenchard in Britain or Billy Mitchell in the United States were driving similar arguments, with similar technological and institutional implications. But first, we need to get the ideas.

Via Wikipedia, Giulio Douhet (1869-1930). Douhet was so exceptionally irritating that he was court-martialed for it, his career surviving only because Italy was short of officers during the First World War. That seems oddly common among the early airpower/bombing advocates: they tended to be persistent, but quite caustic men.

Like many theorists at the time, Douhet was thinking about how to avoid a repeat of the trench stalemate, which as you may recall was particularly bad for Italy. For Douhet, there was a geometry to this problem; land warfare was two dimensional and thus it was possible to simply block armies. But aircraft – specifically bombers – could move in three dimensions; the sky was not merely larger than the land but massively so as a product of the square-cube law. To stop a bomber, the enemy must find the bomber and in such an enormous space finding the bomber would be next to impossible, especially as flight ceilings increased. In Britain, Stanley Baldwin summed up this vision by famously quipping, “no power on earth can protect the man in the street from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through.” And technology seemed to be moving this way as the possibility for long-range aircraft carrying heavy loads and high altitudes became more and more a reality in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Consequently, Douhet assumed there could be no effective defense against fleets of bombers (and thus little point in investing in air defenses or fighters to stop them). Rather than wasting time on the heavily entrenched front lines, stuck in the stalemate, they could fly over the stalemate to attack the enemy directly. In this case, Douhet imagined these bombers would target – with a mix of explosive, incendiary and poison gas munitions) the “peacetime industrial and commercial establishment; important buildings, private and public; transportation arteries and centers; and certain designated areas of civilian population.” This onslaught would in turn be so severe that the populace would force its government to make peace to make the bombing stop. Douhet went so far to predict (in 1928) that just 300 tons of bombs dropped on civilian centers could end a war in a month; in The War of 19– he offered a scenario where in a renewed war between Germany and France where the latter surrendered under bombing pressure before it could even mobilize. Douhet imagined this, somewhat counterintuitively, as a more humane form of war: while the entire effort would be aimed at butchering as many civilians as possible, he thought doing so would end wars quickly and thus result in less death.

Clever ideas to save lives by killing more people are surprisingly common and unsurprisingly rarely turn out to work.

Assumptions and Institutions

Now before we move forward, I think we want to unpack that vision just a bit, because there are actually quite a few assumptions there. First, Douhet is assuming that there will be no way to locate or intercept the bombers in the vastness of the sky, that they will be able to accurately navigate to and strike their targets (which are, in the event, major cities) and be able to carry sufficient explosive payloads to destroy those targets. But the largest assumption of all is that the application of explosives to cities would lead to collapsing civilian morale and peace; it was a wholly untested assumption, which was about to become an extremely well-tested assumption. But for Douhet’s theory to work, all of those assumptions in the chain – lack of interception, effective delivery of munitions, sufficient munitions to deliver and bombing triggering morale collapse – needed to be true. In the event, none of them were.

What Douhet couldn’t have known was that one of those assumptions would already be in the process of collapsing before the next major war. The British Tizard Commission tested the first Radio Detection and Finding device successfully in 1935, what we tend to now call radar (for RAdio Detection And Ranging). Douhet had assumed the only way to actually find those bombers would be the venerable Mk. 1 Eyeball and indeed they made doing so a formidable task (the Mk. 1 Ear was actually a more useful device in many cases). But radar changed the game, allowing the detection of flying objects at much greater range and with a fair degree of precision. The British started planning and building a complete network of radar stations covering the coastline in 1936, what would become the ‘Chain Home’ system. The bomber was no longer untrackable.

Via Wikipedia, a Chain Home radar installation near Poling, Sussex in 1945. These radar stations were built in a network to provide overlapping coverage. They were paired with observation posts on the coast using binoculars and listening for engine sounds to spot low-flying planes that might evade radar detection. That information was then processed through the Dowding system to vector in intercepts.

That was in turn matched by changes in the design of the bomber’s great enemy, fighters. Douhet had assumed big, powerful bombers could not only be undetected, but would fly at altitudes and speeds which would render them difficult to intercept. Fighter designs, however, advanced just as fast. First flown in 1935, the Hawker Hurricane could fly at 340mph and up to 36,000 feet, plenty fast and high enough to catch the bombers of the day. The German Bf 109, deployed in 1937 (the same year the Hurricane saw widespread deployment) was actually a touch faster and could make it to 39,000 feet. If the bomber could be found, it could absolutely be engaged by such planes and those fighters, being faster and more maneuverable could absolutely shoot the bomber down. Indeed, when it came to it over Britain and Germany, bombers proved to be horribly vulnerable to fighters if they weren’t well escorted by their own long-range fighters.

Cracks were thus already appearing in Douhet’s vision of wars won entirely through the air. But the question had already become tied up in institutional rivalries in quite a few countries, particularly Britain and the United States. After all, if future wars would be won by the air, that implied that military spending – a scarce and shrinking commodity in the interwar years – ought to be channeled away from ground or naval forces and towards fledgling air forces like the Royal Air Force (RAF) or the US Army Air Corps (soon to be the US Army Air Forces, then to be the US Air Force), either to fund massive fleets of bombers or fancy new fighters to intercept massive fleets of bombers or, ideally both. Just as importantly, if airpower could achieve independent strategic effects, it made no sense to tie the air arm to the ground by making it a subordinate part of a country’s army; the generals would always prioritize the ground war. Consequently, strategic airpower, as distinct from any other kind of airpower, became the crucial argument for both the funding and independence of a country’s air arm. That matters of course because, while we are discussing strategic airpower here, it is not – as you will recall from above – the only kind. But it was the only kind which could justify a fully independent Air Force.

Upton Sinclair once quipped that, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on him not understanding it.” Increasingly the salaries of airmen in the United States and Britain depended on understanding that strategic bombing – again, distinct from other forms of airpower – could work, would work and would be a war winner.

The Theory Is Tested

The Second World War provided the ‘opportunity’ for the theory to be tested, frankly to destruction. To the destruction of quite a lot of things, the theory included. Nazi Germany conducted the first terror bombings3 – that is, bombing attacks on civilian targets designed to sow fear and demoralize the enemy – against Poland in the opening hours of the war, though in the event the collapse of the badly outnumbered and outgunned Polish army on the ground made the Nazi terror bombings (like most of what the Nazis did) an exercise in pointless, excessive cruelty.

Instead the first real test of the theory came in an odd form: the Battle of Britain (July-October, 1940). The oddity here is that the ostensible initial goal of German air operations against Britain was not to compel surrender by demoralizing the populace, but rather to open Britain to the credible threat of invasion by destroying the Royal Air Force and prohibiting the Royal Navy from operating within range of German airbases. In this sense it would have been the threat of a land invasion which would have achieved the strategic effect, with airpower merely enabling that operation.

That of course isn’t how it turned out. While the Luftwaffe initially began with attacks against shipping, progressing to attacks on airbases and air production, beginning in August 1940 the Luftwaffe began escalating attacks on civilian areas (the degree to which that was intentional remains contested). The British responded with bombing raids against Berlin, at which point Hitler and Göring retaliated with an intensive campaign of urban bombing which would become known as the ‘blitz.’ Hitler would claim these attacks were reprisals (Vergeltungsangriffen, ‘revenge attacks’) for the British bombing Berlin, which was frankly pretty rich hypocrisy coming from the fellow who had terror-bombed the Poles in 1939.4 But that progression brings an interesting distinction here between intentional strategies of using bombing to collapse morale and the reversion to civilian bombing as pure punishment. As we’ll see, it is a predictable human response when an effort is failing to attempt to punish the opponent for the temerity of not losing; this behavior is especially pronounced in personalistic dictatorships but certainly not restricted to them. Naturally bombing against civilian targets, since its introduction, has often been the means of this sort of punishment response; more broadly this kind of thing fits into the error of ‘emotive strategy,’ which we’ve discussed before.

Via Wikipedia, a German He 111 bomber flying over London’s East End on September 7, 1940.

Nazi strategic incoherence aside, the Blitz was revealing in quite a few ways. First, it demonstrated quite effectively that the bomber would not in fact always get through – or more correctly that a defender could inflict meaningful attrition on bombers through ground-based anti-air and (even more importantly) fighter intercept. Radar (in the form of the Chain Home system) was particularly important for allowing interceptors to be concentrated on incoming bomber formations rather than having to disperse to search the sky. Second, German efforts to put bombs on specific industrial targets were, if you will pardon the pun, decidedly hit-or-miss. Moreover it turned out that destroying a city required a lot more bombs than anyone had anticipated; the Luftwaffe dropped about 40,000 tons of bombs on London during the Blitz – 133 times5 the quantity Douhet thought would compel a country to surrender – and didn’t manage to permanently destroy or even substantially hinder the city. British production rose over the period, albeit more slowly than it might otherwise have.

But perhaps most ominously for the theory, the Blitz didn’t seem to have meaningfully dampened British morale. Indeed, to the contrary – and get ready to hear this phrase a lot – being bombed hardened civilian will to resist. This hardly discredited the theory though, least of all among the British (or the soon-to-be-in-the-war Americans) who promptly decided to test it themselves.

The Theory Is Tested…Again

The Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) both conducted strategic bombing campaigns against Germany during WWII, though along ostensibly different principles. In the United States, an air campaign expressly aimed at killing German civilians to compel surrender was politically unpalatable (there were fewer such compunctions against doing this to Japan, due in no small part to racism), so the theory the USAAF went with was aimed at production rather than morale, which had emerged in the then U.S. Army Air Corps during the 1930s. The idea, informally called ‘Industrial Web Theory,’ was that an enemy’s industrial capacity was a fairly fragile web which could be disrupted by striking key nodes and that these disruptions would cause military production – ammunition, weapons, fuel and all of the other necessary things for ground warfare – to come to a near-halt, depriving the enemy of the ability to field a modern army and thus forcing them to surrender. Doing this would require being able to accurately deliver bombs to smaller targets (factories and railyards, not cities) but the USAAF was confident that such accuracy was possible, particularly with the Norden bomb sight, if bombing was done by day.

The British, meanwhile, were in a different situation. Unlike the USA, with its near infinite capabilities to build bombers and train air crews, Britain was limited in both; daylight bombing promised unsustainable casualty rates and so the RAF would have to bomb at night. That in turn meant accuracy was out of the question; cities went dark at night leaving bombers at high altitudes with no visible landmarks to navigate by.6 Meanwhile, the experience of the Blitz had left British politicians and the public with far fewer qualms about ‘morale bombing’ (an Allied euphemism for terror bombing) in return. So the RAF settled on ‘area bombing’ as a strategy, which was essentially strategic bombing along the lines suggested by Douhet: bomb until civilian morale cracked.

Via Wikipedia, Sir Arthur Harris, Commander in Chief of the RAF Bomber Command and an advocate of ‘area bombing.’ Harris organized Britain’s area-bombing campaign over Germany and occupied France. He wrote that, “the aim of the Combined Bomber offensive…should be unambiguously stated: the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers and the disruption of civilised life throughout Germany…these are not by-products of attempts to hit factories.”

These strategies and their applications remain deeply controversial, as you might imagine. I find one of the better arguments for the value of bombing to be Richard Overy’s chapter in Why The Allies Won (1995); the degree to which his case is muted and partial speaks volumes. In practice while strategic bombing may have achieved positive outcomes for the Allies, they were mostly unintended outcomes, though to be fair to Allied leadership in many cases it couldn’t have been clear ahead of time how poorly the theory would perform.7 Instead, just about every key assumption that formed the foundation of morale bombing and industrial web theory and Douhet’s whole apparatus itself turned out to be wrong.

First, the accuracy to enable pin-point targeting of industrial facilities simply wasn’t there. By way of example (drawn from the chapter on strategic bombing in Lee, Waging War (2016)), in 1944 the allies attempted from May to November in a series of raids to destroy an oil plant in Leuna, Germany. The plant was 1.2 square miles in total size and yet 84% of all bombs missed. In the USAAF, the problem of accuracy led to a shift in tactics, from aiming for factories to area bombing intended to ‘de-house workers,’ which is an incredibly bloodless euphemism for daylight bombing raids against dense urban housing. Consequently, industrial damage was far less than was hoped. Instead of falling, German production continued to rise – indeed, it tripled – until territorial losses to the advancing Soviet and Allied armies finally curtailed production. Overy argues, persuasively, I think, that bombing did serve to stunt German production growth, but the strategic effect of disabling German industry to the point that the war couldn’t be continued was wildly, overwhelmingly out of reach. The opponent could, after all, react, dispersing and protecting industry, limiting the impact of bombing campaigns. Industrial bombing thus achieved something, but it is unclear if it achieved anything to be worth the tremendous investment in vast fleets of bombers necessary to do it.

Meanwhile it rapidly become apparent that the unescorted bomber would most certainly not always get through. The Allies lost some 37,000 aircraft in the strategic bombing campaign. Now as Overy notes this actually led to one of the unintended successes of the effort: American and British bombers diverted massive amounts of German aircraft and anti-aircraft artillery away from the Eastern Front where the Germans badly needed it. By the end of 1943, there were 55,000 AA guns (including 75% of the 88mm guns, which were very effective anti-tank guns as well), while German aircraft production shifted over to primarily producing fighters, with bomber production falling from 50% of the total in 1942 to just 18% in 1944. And even then, Germany simply could not match American production potential, especially as long-range escorts became available. In practice one of the most important contributions of the strategic bombing effort was, ironically, luring the Luftwaffe into the air where it could be destroyed; the effort of trying to stop the bombers essentially wore the Luftwaffe down to a nub, greatly easing the path of ground operations (including the D-Day invasion). This was very much not the intended outcome of operations, but perhaps the most useful thing strategic bombing accomplished in the war.

Via Wikipedia, a photograph of the 1943 US Army Air Force raid on the Schweinfurt ball bearing factory. Note that despite the relatively clear conditions, the destruction is spread over dozens of city blocks around the factory. While the Norden bomb-sight was better than what had come before, in combat conditions it simply was not up to the task of putting bombs on factories from high altitude.

Finally, in the aftermath of the war, efforts to survey the morale impact of the bombing largely concluded thatwait for itbeing bombed hardened civilian will to resist. Together the allies had dropped some 2,500,000 tons of bombs – eight thousand times8 the quantity Douhet predicted would induce surrender – and the net effect of this was to increase German resolve to resist. You would be forgiven for assuming that this would put to rest Douhet’s notion that with enough conventional bombs, one could collapse civilian will and end a conflict from the air.

We’re Still Testing This Theory!?

Despite this, industrial web theory promptly became the doctrinal core of the newly independent United States Air Force in 1947. Part of the reason was the apparently different course that strategic bombing had produced against Japan. To the newly independent air force, nuclear weapons were simply a logical extension of strategic bombing and nuclear weapons had, in their view, worked to compel Japanese surrender. Now I want to note again we’re not going to dive down the nuclear rabbit-hole here, we’ve done that before. I do want to note that current scholarship on the factors that led to Japanese surrender is very complex; whatever simple summary of it you have heard – either that the atomic bombs definitely did or definitely did not lead directly to Japanese surrender – is almost certainly wrong given the complexity of the question. But that complexity was a hard-won product of years of scholarship, based on documents which weren’t translated or available in the 1940s, had the new Air Force wanted to read them. To many in the new Air Force the lesson was simple (and, again, wrong in it simplicity): strategic bombing worked, as it had compelled Japanese surrender without an invasion. Few modern historians, I think, would agree with so simple a lesson.

Consequently the new Air Force oriented itself primarily around this strategic bombing mission, focused heavily on the use of nuclear weapons against civilian targets to compel surrender; the nuclear innovation would at last have the explosive power to deliver Douhet’s prophecy. There is, of course, also a degree of institutional interest here: strategic bombing with nuclear weapons provided a ready justification for the creation of and continued funding of an independent Air Force, because it envisaged that Air Force would itself engage in independent combat operations, rather than merely engage in combat operations in support of ground forces. Ironically, as I hinted at earlier, it is in this formative period that strategic airpower achieved what, as far as I can tell, is its only clear, unqualified success at producing strategic outcomes in the absence of ground force: the Berlin Airlift (1948-9) and to be fair some Air Force doctrine does recognize this, though it seems to me more often that definitions of airpower are oriented around kinetic effects (bombing) to the degree that other modes of non-kinetic airpower are marginalized. Nevertheless strategic airpower in the Cold War Air Force largely meant strategic bombing, either to crush enemy will or disable enemy industry.

Industry bombing and industrial web theory was thus the framework the Air Force had going into both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Both wars presented a major problem: the industry actually sustaining the war effort wasn’t in the combat zone and couldn’t be attacked due to political concerns. During the Korean War, North Korean forces were largely supplied by China and the USSR; attacking either might trigger a nuclear retaliation and so was rejected. Instead, the United States used a campaign of ‘air pressure’ to try to compel a favorable peace, essentially resorting – as they had in WWII – to a Douhet-style bombing attack on the will to continue the fight when industrial bombing failed. This campaign was escalated to attacks on key dams, which could in turn damage not only power generation but also cause flooding and famine. In practice these efforts do not seem to have been a major factor in the eventual success of armistice negotiations.

In Vietnam, the same problem complicated any effort at industrial bombing: the factories that supplied the North Vietnamese forces (both the regular PAVN and irregular NLF) were in China and especially the USSR. Moreover the population was not broadly dependent on centralized utilities (like electricity) which could be bombed. Nevertheless, the United States embarked upon ‘Operation Rolling Thunder,’ (1965-1968) a bombing campaign over parts of North Vietnam which aimed to steady increase ‘pressure’ by bombing North Vietnamese industrial and transportation targets, as well as degrading North Vietnam’s air defenses. Supporters of the campaign at the time and subsequently have long claimed that the effort was hindered by political constraints which set certain targets and areas as off-limits, but it is hard not to also note that pulling the People’s Republic of China directly into the war would have been a pretty catastrophic failure and presented dangerous escalation scenarios given that the PRC had become a nuclear power in 1964. The political constraints were real and as we’ve discussed, political (that is, strategic) realities must dictate operational and tactical decisions, not the other way around.

Via Wikipedia, an aerial photograph from an A-4E Skyhawk attacking the Phuong Dinh bridge in 1967.

Nevertheless over the course of the operation the United States dropped some 643,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam, a fraction of the even larger total used during the entire war (though the great majority of that larger total, around 8,000,000 tons, were dropped on targets outside of North Vietnam). The net effect on the industrial basis of the war effort was not significant. Meanwhile, Mark Clodfelter has argued (inter alia), in The Limits of Air Power (2006) that the campaign actually harmed US political objectives and helped North Vietnamese goals, securing North Vietnam’s firm support from both its populace and its international sponsors while at the same time dividing the American public and thus sapping support for the war. Once again – wait for it – being bombed hardened civilian will to resist.

But Maybe It Could Work For Us?

Subsequent efforts in Vietnam may have been more successful. “Linebacker” – a bombing campaign in 1972 aimed primarily at interdicting the transportation of supplies from North Vietnam to the fighting in South Vietnam – helped to force North Vietnam to peace talks. A second operation, creatively named Linebacker II (also 1972) was also used when talks stalled to try to compel North Vietnamese leadership to compromise. What I find particularly striking about both efforts here – and keep a pin in this for a moment because we’ll come back to it – is that they achieved their goals, but their goals were limited and focused on political leadership rather than popular support for the war. That is already a major revision from Douhet’s vision of producing strategically significant popular morale collapse. They didn’t convince North Vietnam to completely abandon its goal of reunification through military force – that would happen just three years later in 1975 – but rather merely convinced North Vietnamese leaders to essentially make fairly minor modifications to short-term goals and timetables, mostly a mere delay.

Strategic airpower was supposed to be the lever that could move mountains and yet by end of the 1970s the best it had managed to do was shift a falling stone a few feet to the right (though it ended up falling in the same place in the end).

However, in the push to effectively target North Vietnamese logistics, the United States had begun developing increasingly precise delivery systems for its bombs as well as progressively more sophisticated observation and targeting technology (though, as we’ll see, these don’t always develop in the order one would like). More accurate systems made it possible to contemplate engaging a wider range of targets. Consequently by the time the first Gulf War (1991) rolled around, it was possible to contemplate a new kind of strategic airpower. Tasked with creating a plan for the initial air campaign over Iraq for Operation Desert Storm, Col. John A. Warden III presented a model, called the ‘Five-Ring’ model, of a modern state and its capacity.

Via Wikipedia a visual chart of Warden’s five-ring model.

The idea in application was that by striking the inner rings – consisting of national leadership, communications and key industrial infrastructure (not all of the industry, but a few key components of it) – it would be possible to paralyze a country, causing it to collapse and thus – as is always the promise of strategic airpower – winning the war from the air. It’s hard not to see this as some ways a strategic extrapolation of the sort of operational-tactical paralysis envisaged by Air Land Battle, but raised to the strategic level and applied from the air. This model was created for a very specific air campaign and so was immediately tested in that air campaign.

On the one hand, the air campaign over Kuwait and Iraq in 1991 was clearly effective; Coalition forces achieved victory in the Gulf War far faster and at far less cost than had generally been anticipated. On the other hand, air operations in both the first Gulf War and then more than a decade later during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it was not clear that any kind of strategic paralysis was achieved. The DoD’s own report, issued in 1993 (Cohen and Keaney, Gulf War Air Power Survey (1993)) noted first that only some 15% of strikes were against ‘strategic’ targets, while strikes against Iraqi ground forces consumed 56% of strikes; as Coalition air forces exhausted their list of strategic targets, they switched over to strikes against ground forces.

Figure 12 from Keaney and Cohen, op. cit. showing the distribution of air strikes during the First Gulf War. The low percentage of Core Strategic Air Attacks is a consequence of Coalition air forces essentially running out their list of strategic targets without achieving a strategic effect, then shifting to interdiction and close air support missions (the Air Attack of Surface Forces percentage) for the rest of the conflict. Airpower had worked, but strategic airpower had failed. Again.

Despite effectively running out the entire list of strategic targets, Cohen and Keaney nevertheless conclude that strategic effects were broadly not achieved. Despite striking the Iraqi communications network with more than 580 strikes, “the Iraqi government had been able to continue launching Scuds” and “sufficient ‘connectivity’ persisted for Baghdad to order a withdrawal from the theater [Kuwait] that included some redeployments aimed at screening the retreat.” Consequently, “these attacks clearly fell short of fulling the ambitious hope” to “put enough pressure on the regime to bring about its overthrow and completely sever communications between Baghdad and their military forces.” Instead airpower continued to show its greatest impact through non-strategic effects: destroying or disorienting enemy ground forces in order to make the advance of friendly ground forces quicker and easier. That pattern would, by the by, functionally repeat in the 2003 invasion of Iraq as well. Good old interdiction and close air support helped to achieve what strategic bombing, after more than a half century of attempts, still could not.

The other common examples of the strategic use of airpower are the two NATO interventions against Serbia, first over Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995 and then in response to Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1999. But a distinction here has to be made: in Bosnia, NATO intervention in the air was in support of a significant ground force tasked with implementing UN resolutions establishing no-fly zones and maritime embargoes. When NATO escalated to direct bombing with Operation Deliberate Force, it was primarily close air support, supporting ground operations by the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Croatian Army, not as an independent strategic operation. So we may safely set that aside.

That leaves Operation Allied Force in response to Serbian ethnic cleansing of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in 1999. As Mary Elizabeth Walters – an expert in this particular conflict – noted recently on Twitter, the air campaign was initially aimed at degrading the Serbian military’s ability to function but rapidly switched to bombing ‘dual use’ infrastructure in an effort to coerce Slobodan Milošević. While civilian casualties absolutely happened and there were a series of serious mistakes in targeting or timing, this was not an effort at Douhet-style morale bombing. Instead the aim was to shift Milošević’s strategic calculus both by raising the cost of further ethnic cleansing but also to undermine his support among the key elites who owned all of the infrastructure that was getting blown up. And it worked in altering Milošević’s political calculus (though his lack of international support was also a factor) but it did not succeed in immediately causing the collapse of his regime (though that did happen in late 2000 as as consequence of international sanctions damaging the economy). At the same time, while the bombing campaign was happening, Serbian forces accelerated the ethnic cleansing campaign; efforts to slow down that process with strikes from the air largely failed due to difficulty in targeting the Serbian ground forces in the absence of a ground presence.9

Via Wikipedia, a post-strike damage assessment of a car plant at Zastava bombed during the 1999 NATO intervention against Serbia. Precision munitions greatly reduced the civilian casualties involved in this sort of operation, but – and this must be stressed – not to zero.

Implications Today

Literally everyone who has ever tried strategic bombing.
This joke kindly borrowed from B.A. Friedman.

Overall then, the promise of strategic airpower, that it could win wars entirely or primarily from the skies, turns out so far to have been largely a mirage; in about 80 years of testing the theory, strategic bombing has yet to produce a clear example where it worked as intended. Instead, strategic airpower must be one of the most thoroughly tested doctrines in modern warfare and it has failed nearly every test. In particular, Douhet’s supposition that strategic bombing of civilian centers could force a favorable end to a conflict without the need to occupy territory or engage in significant ground warfare appears to be entirely unsupportable.10 Nuclear weapons do not seem, so far, to have actually changed this; nuclear deterrence does not aim at ‘will’ in the Clausewitzian sense (drink!) but rather on altering the calculus of leaders and politicians through the threat of annihilation. In the event of an actual conflict, the public’s desire not to be nuked – which would be the key target in a Douhet-style morale bombing campaign – appears to factor very little into actual decision-making. No one checks the polls before intentionally embarking on nuclear war or in the minutes a leader might have to deliberate on ordering a second-strike.

Instead, efforts to use strategic bombing to coerce surrender have repeatedly shown that being bombed hardens civilian resolve to continue resisting. By contrast, bombing can have some effect on industrial production, but only in wars where that production matters and is available to be bombed; at the same time the impact of that industrial bombing is also likely to be sharply reduced by enemy efforts to shield industrial capacity from bombing and at the same time to prioritize military production with what industrial capacity remains. Inducing full strategic paralysis has never been successfully demonstrated, although causing disorientation, making ground operations easier, by striking communications does seem to work but of course that isn’t quite a strategic use of airpower anymore, since it is in support of ground operations (which then achieve the strategic objectives).

That isn’t to say that independent airpower has no coercive effect. However the coercive effect seems to be substantially more limited than the coercion available to ground forces (or naval forces for island nations), which makes sense given the greater ability of ground forces to remove resources from the enemy state. After all, a bombed city has its production cut by some percentage, but a captured city provides no support for its former regime. That limited coercive effect is fairly clearly displayed in the Linebacker operations, which convinced North Vietnam to delay, but not abandon, its plans for the conquest of the South. Crucially, the coercive effect of these bombing efforts is not only limited, but it is also not delivered via popular will but rather through the political calculus of the leadership (again, politics not will, in the Clausewitzian sense; drink!), balancing the costs of sustaining aerial bombardment against the benefits of holding out. Since those costs tend to be limited compared to ground conquest, the concessions these leaders are willing to make are also limited. The use of strategic airpower to coerce can deflect but not reverse policy, but under conditions where a stronger power aims only to produce limited concessions from a weaker power, there is some promise in the use of airpower to create that deflection. However, the repeated mistake militaries have made is attempting to use airpower as the lever to force major concessions or even total capitulation; the leverage for this appears to be nowhere near good enough.

So why does strategic bombing, especially terror or ‘morale’ bombing seem so resilient as an idea in so many militaries? Well, the first answer goes back to institutional incentives and how the salaries of a great many aviators depend on not understanding just how weak a strategy strategic airpower is. “The purpose of our air forces is to win wars” is a much better argument to take to political leaders for funding than “the purpose of our air forces is to support our ground forces.” The latter implies that the ground forces should set priorities and that the air forces ought to, for the most part, subordinate their efforts to those priorities. And of course given the choice of priorities, ground forces will tend to prioritize…ground forces, with deleterious career and prestige outcomes for everyone else. Combine this with the fact that the sort of folks who join a military’s air branch – any military’s air branch – are going to tend to be the sort of people who already believe in airpower and it isn’t hard to see how strategic airpower (as distinct from other forms of airpower) rapidly becomes a solution in search of a problem.

The second answer seems to be that strategic airpower is both intuitive and tempting. It is intuitive in that it makes a certain immediate sense, even though like many intuitive things it is not really true. Nevertheless it feels like it should work and moreover – and this is the tempting bit – it would be really nice (for some decision-makers) if it did work, since it would offer the promise of exerting a lot of strategic leverage without risking the casualties and unpredictable messiness of ground operations. It might shorten horrible wars, or even bring and end to war itself (of course in practice it appears capable of neither of those things)! And so the answer of ‘we can bomb the problem away’ is always going to have an essential appeal even though it isn’t true, while the institutional incentives above practically guarantee that there will always be someone in the room who has an interest in believing and advocating for that ‘solution.’

Finally – and this is where I think we come back to the War in Ukraine – strategic bombing is emotionally satisfying even as it doesn’t work. It is a human instinct, when another human is doing something you don’t like – like refusing to lose on the battlefield – to retaliate, to punish that person. Strikes on civilian centers are perhaps the purest expression of this instinct, inflicting maximum pain (because civilian centers, unlike actual military targets, are not hardened against attack) at a minimum of risk and cost. We’ve discussed this ‘strategic sin’ before, terming it emotive strategy, but humans are emotional beings and so the temptation to ‘punish’ rather than pursue interests in a rational way will always exist.

Russian forces in Ukraine appear to follow this pattern of ‘behavior ’emotive strategy’ quite clearly, responding to setbacks with intensified long-range attacks on civilian centers. After the Kharkiv offensive stalled out, Russian forces began pounding the city with artillery in strikes that did more damage to civilians than the defenders of the city. Likewise, Russian airstrikes against explicitly humanitarian or civilian buildings escalated in Mariupol as the difficulty of taking the city escalated. Most recently, Russian forces have responded to setbacks the Kharkiv, Luhansk and Kherson oblasts, as well as a Ukrainian strike on the Kerch Bridge11 with strikes into Ukrainian civilian centers like Kyiv, increasingly using Iranian-manufactured loitering munitions (also called ‘suicide drones’ or in the case of the Shahed, I suppose we’d say a ‘martyr’ drone as that’s what ‘Shahed’ means) like the Shahed 136. This may in part be a response by Putin to domestic political conditions, a way of assuring his own hardliner supporters that he is ‘striking back’ in an emotionally satisfying, if strategically useless way (a fairly good example of ‘emotional choice theory‘ we discussed a few weeks back!).

Via Wikipedia, a Shahed 136, an Iranian made loitering munition in use by Russian forces in Ukraine. A loitering munition like this is a really cheap way to take out an armored vehicle, but an extremely expensive way to bomb a city.

At the same time, industrial bombing – which also has, at best, a somewhat mixed track record – isn’t an option for Russia for the same reasons it wasn’t an option for the United States in Vietnam or Korea: the industrial production which sustains the Ukrainian war effort is largely happening outside of Ukraine. Ukraine’s entire GDP pre-war was $189bn nominal. As of October 3rd, 2022, Ukraine has commitments of over $93bn in aid; $52.3bn of that is from the United States, a country against which Putin has very little leverage and which he most certainly cannot safely bomb. Assuming the United States’ European partners can tough it through the difficult economic headwinds of this winter, it is entirely within NATO resources to supply and fund Ukraine’s war effort indefinitely; in fact in terms of United States military spending it is an absolute steal, neutralizing a major competitor for a tiny fraction of the overall military budget. That aid (financial, military and humanitarian) moves through transit routes in NATO countries which are also effectively inviolate into western Ukraine where Russia has struggled to exert any serious airpower. Consequently, even interdicting these supplies – an effort akin to attacks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Linebacker operations – is largely out of reach for Russia. That leaves just the morale bombing that Russia is doing now.

Edit: Some of the comments have argued that the recent Russian strikes are instead focused on electrical infrastructure and thus either valid logistical military targets or that their primary effect would be to cause Ukrainian civilians to freeze to death in winter (somewhat contradictory points). First, this is an excessively charitable reading of the pattern of Russian strikes; the power grid has been targeted, but hardly exclusively. The October 10 flurry of strikes included a residential apartment building in Zaporizhzhia, heavy civilian traffic in Taras Shevchenko Park, and some 35 private residential buildings. Which of course is consistent with a pattern of strikes that included, as noted here, a children’s hospital in Mariupol, a civilian shelter in a theater, the use of cluster munitions fired into apartment blocks in Kharkiv and so on. Which, of course, is consistent with Russian air operations earlier in Syria, which infamously used used U.N. lists of hospitals and other humanitarian facilities – designed to keep them out of the fightingas a target list in order to force civilians to flee, in violation of the Laws of Armed Conflict. Which, of course, is consistent with Russian operations against the city of Grozny in 1999-2000, where failure to take the city by assault led to it being “the most destroyed city on Earth” as Russian forces resorted to bombing and artillery to demolish it. The pattern here, where Russian forces resort to whatever available means to destroy civilian infrastructure and kills civilians when facing battlefield failure is well established and at least two decades old; I see no reason to play pretend that this pattern isn’t clear. To the contrary, such consistency suggests doctrine – formal or informal – is at work here. If the Russian strikes here are anemic now, it seems only to be because Ukraine still has a functioning air defense system; Russia has not hesitated to engage in terror-bombing against parts of Ukraine (and Syria and Chechnya) that didn’t. Consequently, at best, Russia might claim to be waging an incompetent and woefully insufficient ‘industrial web’ style bombing campaign; if so this seems doomed to fail too for the same reason such efforts in Vietnam failed: the industrial capacity which sustains Ukraine is not located in Ukraine. But the pattern of Russian strikes and the history of Russian strategy in this regard leaves me disinclined to read these attacks very charitably and to instead read them as ‘punishment’ bombings, which of course is exactly what Putin said they were.

How likely is this Russian effort to succeed? Well, what we’ve seen so far is that air campaigns dropping millions of tons of high explosives have generally failed to compel a civilian population to seek peace. By contrast, a Shahed 136 drone carries a 40kg explosive payload. For comparison that means it would take ninety Shahed 136 drones to equal the payload of a single B-17 Flying Fortress and eight-eight thousand to equal the explosive power of the February, 1945 raids against Dresden. Those are efforts which, I feel the need to stress, didn’t work to collapse German civilian morale. Meanwhile the Shahed 136, while very cheap as a drone is very expensive as a bomb; at c. $20,000 a pop, matching the Dresden raids would require almost $2bn assuming the production capacity for that many drones existed (and it doesn’t). As Russia’s distance from Ukraine’s key civilian centers grows, the cost of delivering explosives to them increases,12 reducing Russia to demonstration attacks that, while horrible, have little chance of inflicting harm on Ukraine at a level that is remotely meaningful in this sort of war.

Consequently these ‘punishment’ strikes seem likely to merely harden Ukrainian will to resist and sustain international support for Ukraine; they are expensive and almost entirely counter-productive for Russia’s actual war aims. Such attacks won’t degrade Ukrainian will to continue a fight that most Ukrainians believe they are winning, but it will generate headlines and images which will reinforce public opinion among Ukraine’s supporters that Putin’s war effort has to be defeated. Crucially it strengthens arguments that NATO’s European members should tough it out through a difficult winter in response to manifest Russian inhumanity, the exact opposite of the outcome Putin needs. At the same time, Russian resources are finite; every rocket, missile or drone lobbed into Kyiv (or other Ukrainian cities) is a valuable munition no longer ready for use on the front lines. In many cases the munitions Putin is firing in these ‘revenge’ strikes are fairly expensive, fairly scarce precision munitions. The Shahed 136 is a lot cheaper than other long-range precision munitions, but one has to imagine that Russian troops would prefer Russian loitering munitions to try to target Ukrainian ground forces; longer-range precision platforms are very expensive. As with much ’emotive strategy,’ the things that make Putin ‘feel better’ push victory further away – or in this case, hasten defeat.

Which also explains neatly why Ukraine, despite being in a position to potentially lob munitions indiscriminately into cities like Belgorod, has mostly avoided doing that; Ukrainian forces having restricted themselves largely to clear logistics targets like ammunition and fuel depots or trainyards when striking beyond the front lines. Strategically, Ukraine needs to degrade Russian will (keep drinking!) – both political and civilian – while sustaining the international support that enables it to continue fighting and upon which Ukraine must pin its hopes for post-war rebuilding. Striking civilian targets, while perhaps emotionally satisfying to some after the brutality of Russian actions in Ukraine, would run counter to these goals: it would fragment Ukraine’s international support and potentially harden Russian public opinion in support of Putin and his war. Instead, Ukraine remains focused on winning the war in the field, degrading Russian morale by demonstrating that the war is unwinnable.

In conclusion then, the Russian escalation of air attacks on civilian targets seems unlikely to significantly alter the trajectory of the war beyond increasing the sum of human misery it inflicts. ‘Morale bombing’ of this sort, while coming with a long history, has an extremely low – arguably zero – success rate at achieving major political concessions. The promise of achieving in the air what cannot be done on the ground continues to suffer from the simple fact that as humans do not live in the air, conditions on the ground have greater coercive power; aircraft can only raid, they cannot occupy and humans can tolerate a stunning amount of raiding if they believe victory is still possible on the other side of it. The promise of strategic airpower remains just that: a promise, more frequently broken than kept.

The War in Ukraine seems set to prove once again that strategic bombing is no substitute for battlefield success.

  1. For a longer and more sustained discussion of the topic still pitched at a general readership, W.E. Lee, Waging War (2016), chapter 13 is focused on this topic, along with the related topics of nuclear deterrence and the emergence of precision-guided munitions. That’s the textbook I use when I teach the intro-level global history of warfare, so as you might imagine what follows here follows it fairly closely.
  2. Il dominio dell-aria. If that title sounds like it is echoing A.T. Mahan’s concept of ‘command of the sea’ that’s because it is.
  3. Of the war in Europe, not in general. Terror bombing itself was not new at this point, having been done all the way back in WWI with zeppelins.
  4. I think it is really worth stressing: both the Germany and Japan were using terror-bombing well before they were targeted by it, the Germans against Poland and the Japanese in China. One can argue that bombing civilians is nevertheless immoral in all cases, just as one might argue that no one should ever stab someone with a knife in a bar. However, if a fellow draws a knife in a bar and begins stabbing the patrons, it is hardly reasonable for that same fellow to cry foul play when the other patrons draw their knives and just so happen to have much bigger knives. It is, at that point, too late for the first fellow to opine on the fundamental incivility of knifing people.
  5. This figure is going to keep going up to increasingly incredible degrees.
  6. You could try dead reckoning, but that struggled to put bombs on the right city, much less the right building.
  7. I must admit I do not generally extend this charity to fellows like Arthur Harris or Curtis LeMay who were fairly explicit that their goal was to simply kill as many civilians as possible in order to end the war. At the same time, I thank heavens I have never been and presumably never will be in a position to be forced to weigh ending a war more quickly and thus saving some of the soldiers under my command against grievous civilian casualties.
  8. I told you it would keep going up.
  9. Poor weather also played a role.
  10. And again, before someone shouts ‘Japan in WWII,’ it seems necessary to note that Japan did not consider surrender until the Allies had effectively destroyed the Imperial Japanese Navy, dismembered much of the Japanese overseas empire, comprehensively cut Japanese shipping leading to critical shortages on the Japanese mainland and were clearly prepared to invade the Japanese homeland and a final Japanese offensive in their land war in China had clearly failed and the USSR had declared war and invaded Japanese Manchuria, leaving the Japanese army on mainland Asia in a position where it was sure to be destroyed. The promise of strategic airpower is not, ‘if you are in a position to decisively end the war by annihilating the enemy’s ground forces – at great cost – in the foreseeable future, strategic bombing may shorten the conflict.’ It was ‘win the war chiefly from the air.’ The Pacific War was not chiefly won from the air.
  11. Which, while we’re here, as the primary logistics link between the Kherson front and Russia (the East-West running railroads from Donetsk to Kherson are all either cut by Ukraine or too close to the front lines to use effectively), was an obviously valid military target. The strike against it also disabled a train moving what looked to be large amounts of fuel, which was also an obviously valid military target. The goal of the strike seems quite clearly to have been to interdict Russian logistics in support of the offensive in Kherson, which is completely legal under the Law of Armed Conflict. Unlike basically all of the Russian strikes into densely populated civilian areas.
  12. Tube artillery is cheaper but shorter range than rocket artillery is cheaper but shorter range than cruise missiles and jets and so on. The ratio of explosive to ‘expensive things delivering the explosive’ shifts in favor of the latter as distance rises.

316 thoughts on “Collections: Strategic Airpower 101

  1. I read the recent twitter thread on maps in the middle ages and antiquity. I thought we has legends from a couple thousand years ago in China that portray maps being used in a military context. While fictional the depiction is suggestive of their real world use. Also, we have some surviving apparently military maps from that time ( Not exactly the same as moving wooden pieces around a board, but it does show maps were used much further back than Napoleon.

    1. Maps have been in use for a very long time; but the specific use of maps as a tool of tactical or even strategic planning is a relatively new innovation.
      Nice and accurate maps are a Really Nice Thing for maritime navigators who want to come home again, even before the chronometer.
      But on land, “you can always ask a local” or “navigate by landmarks and signs”

  2. Having written several volumes on aviation history, I agree completely with nearly every point you make. The history of air warfare proves that strategic bombing is essentially useless, as was shown in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Where airpower shines is in what you have termed “tactical” and “operational” air power. The Chair Farce doesn’t like to admit that, since it means they’re being of some use to the Army, which is against the law in Shade 84 Blue Land. And the biggest myth they ever got the rest of the world to believe was the BS that the A-bombs ended the war with Japan. The Japanese lost more people to the terror bombing of the fire raids (for which Curt LeMay once remarked to his command statistician LCOL Robert S. McNamara that “if the shoe was on the other foot, we’d be the ones in the dock as war criminals”) and that didn’t make them think of surrendering. The day Nagasaki was bombed, the event wasn’t even mentioned in the Supreme War Council. They were busy worrying about the fact the USSR had just entered the war that day and they had no defenses, since they had stripped all their forces to set up the defenses on Kyushu to the coming US invasion. The Russians would have hit Hokkaido by late September and faced no opposition, would have been in Tokyo before the US invaded. THAT was what made them surrender to us, since they knew what the Soviets had done in Germany. And of course they told us it was the A-bombs, which let them off the hook for Nanking and the comfort women and the Railroad of Death and the Bataan Death March, since they have been able to be the ultimate “victim” for the past 77 years. And we bought it, and have spent the past 77 years trying to dominate the world with the threat of using a weapon no one will ever use.

    1. “we bought it, and have spent the past 77 years trying to dominate the world with the threat of using a weapon no one will ever use.”

      You certainly seem confident in that. I hope you are right, but I don’t see how you know that.

  3. Regarding the Allied bombing campaign, the records seem to show that the Oil Campaign was the most effective strategic(?) objective – which is not surprising, because the Axis was chronically short of fuel from 1942 onwards, so any reduction in supply would hurt. The problem was the amount of resistance encountered from the ‘Area bombing’ advocates like Harris who saw it as a distraction from their task of levelling German cities.

    I’m not sure if it’s ever been definitively found that the effects of British bombing on the German war effort exceeded the costs of putting the bomber fleet in the air, not to mention the giving away of technology through crashes, and the diversion of 4 engined aircraft from the battle of the Atlantic.

  4. > the only way to actually find those bombers would be the venerable Mk. 1 Eyeball and indeed they made doing so a formidable task (the Mk. 1 Ear was actually a more useful device in many cases)

    I have actually sat in a WW1 acoustic bomber/zeppelin detection device on the east coast of England. Basically big concrete hearing trumpets that amplify sound coming in from over the sea. I was told by locals that they work well enough that you don’t want to be sitting in one when jets on exercise over the North Sea go supersonic.

    1. The Dowding System also made even the eyeball fairly effective – enough eyes and a good communication system can do pretty well!

      1. Of course, those who predicted that the bomber would always get through did not foresee the more effective communications, either.

  5. Wouldn’t a smarter Putin be able to do something akin to the bombing of Serbia? Target the industries owned by the biggest Ukrainian oligarchs to get them to influence the government.

    1. Doubtful, since to my knowledge it’s not what worked against Milosevic either. AFAIK, what brought him to the negotiations table again was the threat of imminent ground invasion as well as being informed in fairly clear terms by Russia that he won’t be able to count on their support.

      In fact, this is the first time I hear this information that the bombing shifted against key infrastructure to influence its “owners”, and I find it very questionable. To my knowledge, the vast majority of the infrastructure that was bombed was in fact state-owned – like the Zastava plant in the example above, which is (and to my knowledge, has all the time been) state-owned. Of course, this does not entirely eliminate the possibility of the existence of “oligarchs” with vested interests in such infrastructure, but the power dynamics are completely different. So I’d really be interested in further sources for this argument.

      1. Agreed (I was there at the time, as it were.) Most of the bombing campaign was directed against military targets in the widest sense, including the Ministry of Defence building, but some also against power supplies and similar systems. The air campaign actually proved ineffective, and NATO, which had expected the crisis to be resolved by threats, or if not that a couple of days of symbolic bombing, was facing the choice of backing down, which was politically unthinkable, or carrying out a land invasion via Hungary. Whether the latter was ever remotely likely is impossible to know, because planning never got very far, since the Russians stepped in and told Milosevic they would not support him further. The Russians were seeking better relations with the West, and hoped this would help. Sigh.

    2. Putin’s aim is to annex Ukraine into Russia; the oligarchs would only push for peace if they thought they’d be able to continue to control those industries once they were in Russian territory or if they control significant industries in the western part of the country and are worried about them coming under long-range attack.

      It’s unlikely that any Ukrainian oligarchs will continue to have their positions in the event of a Russian victory, since Putin needs to reward the oligarchs that he relies on and the easiest way is how dictators have rewarded their supporters since antiquity — land. In this case industrial land and factories and raw resources. And the best way to make sure Putin can’t carry out attacks against western Ukraine is to push the Russian army out of the country entierly and force an end to the conflict.

      1. Yeah, the real failure of the Russian land grabs of 2014 was convincing Ukrainian oligarchs that they had no future if Putin won, and that even a democratizing Ukraine under EU pressure to crack down on corruption was preferable.

        cf. Kolomoisky’s organization of militias in his stomping grounds in Dnipro, followed by his eventual consent to their being subordinated to the National Guard as part of the rebuilt Ukrainian military. (He ended up in exile and lost his citizenship after taking Israeli and Cypriot citizenship – no dual citizenship allowed in Ukraine – but still has most of his property and power and personal safety.)

    3. Well, at this point Russia’s objectives appear to be too total to negotiate a surrender short of battlefield victory; a sustained air campaign would not be worse than the massacres and kidnapping of children they’ve carried out in occupied territory and there’s no real reason to think they’d stop doing that if they conquered the whole country.

    4. The anti-oligarch law passed in 2021 was ostensibly passed to prevent this sort of thing from happening (critics allege that it also centralises power in the presidency’s hands). I think for the oligarchs to try to influence the government in favour of Russia at this point would be political (if not literal) suicide.

    5. The thing about trying to terrorise people into an act X, is that an essential requirement for success is that the terror applied be more terrifying than X.

      The act X the Putin wishes to terrorise Ukraine’s political leadership into committing, is surrendering to mass executions of themselves and their families, with concentration camps for everybody else. What can he possibly terrify them with that is more terrifying than that?

  6. There’s a part of me that wonders about the notion of ‘the hero bomber crew’ as opposed to ‘hero fighter pilot’, in a world where the Berlin Airlift becomes the focal point of AirPower, instead of the notion of bombing the opponent into submission.
    I also find myself wondering at the notion that eliminating the limitations on air power might be part of what keeps the idea of the airship or the sky island alive- a way for air power to actually be able to administrate or hold ground instead of being stuck as raiding forces…
    Another part of me is mulling somewhat morosely over the idea that much of modern comforts and living is based upon military technologies utilized for civilian purposes…

    1. Plenty of movies have heroic fighter pilots, but the only movie I can think of that features a bomber crew is Dr. Strangelove.

      1. a terrible movie, but the pearl harbor movie with ben afleck has a “hero bomber crew”, when they go on the doolittle raid

    2. “Hero airline pilot”?
      Most members of a bomber crew (such as navigator, flight engineer, radio operator, loadmaster) are unlikely to be hailed as heroes, because their task doesn’t require unusually good body coordination (often called “hand-eye coordination”, but the latter name ignores balance, proprioception, etc.).

      Airships and flying islands: my suggestion would be that part of their coolness is the general mapping of up/down to some form of goodness/badness (purity/pollution, etc.).
      * The shining city is always on the hill, never in the valley.
      * As far as I know, several cultures independently came up with various supernatural concepts aligning up/down. E.g. there are many differences between the Chinese and European versions of Heaven and Hell, but they are surprisingly comparable for independent ideas.
      * Being tall is a desirable trait — the English “your Highness” is unusually specific (afaik it is more common to honor people by calling them large, including in the English “X the great”).
      * Even in rhetorical contests and moral disagreements we often speak of one party having “the high ground”.

      This is about as loose as the association that furniture is power. You see, in a modern country, power is held by “the Cabinet”, “the Bureau of X”, or at lower levels, “the Chair of the Board”.

      1. Now I’m envisioning distant future historians arguing that we were ruled by sapient furniture, given how we always refer to those things.

      2. OTOH, the city on a hill and the “high ground” in argument probably have more to do with ease of defense than an abstract notion of “good=high” except as a possible contribution.

        1. Exactly. Real healthiness advantages (before well-developed states building aqueducts and sewers, upslope locations were literally less polluted — in Rome, the valley between the hills was sort of a swamp and had to be drained before they could build the Forum), military advantages, the effects of childhood malnutrition, and a number of other things were mashed up into “higher is morally better, not just usually practically better”.

  7. Eh, this seems a little too “I’m going to disprove Douhet EXACTLY”, while even a lot of air power advocates would argue there’s more than that. Good article, but not sure I’d agree this far. The problem is that legit critiques of what air power alone can do are used by the Pierre Sprey crowd to argue against anything that can fly and strike deep.

    1. ahhh yes the aerogavin.

      Some of Bret’s comments do remind me oddly of sentiments held by the reformer crowd on the Bradly and F-35.

  8. I’m sensing a bit of a pattern of Russell’s conjugation: Germans inflicted “needless, excessive cruelty”, Dresden simply “didn’t work”. And why was the first needless and excessive? Because we know, with 20/20 after-the-fact vision, that it wasn’t needed for Poland to collapse. But the other happened years later, after the inefficience of bombing civilian targets became known to the Allies as both the bombed and the bomber.

    I’d be on board with the “reap the whirlwind” payback argument, I’d be on board with “a military target is a target that a military deems worthy of bombing” post-hoc argument, I’d be on board with “lmao fuck g*rmans” argument. But this kind of asymetric appeal to morality truly rubs me the wrong way.

    Also, are loitering munitions really used for indiscriminate civlian bombings in Ukraine, and if so, how much? Per the NYT, 30% of Ukrainians power plants (aka, if we follow the doctrine of Serbia’s bombing campaign, “dual purpose targets”. How convenient). I don’t know if knocking them out was worth the ammunition expended, but destroying critical infrastructure don’t sounds like emotively lashing out to me.

    1. The difference is that, contrary to the legend (popularized by Vonnegut) of an inoffensive city rubbled by the Allies just for the eevuls, Dresden and especially its railyard were valuable military targets; serving as the primary logistical hub for the entire Russian Front.

      1. > Dresden […] were valuable military targets

        Well, if that’s your justification for Dresden, London, Southampton, Portsmouth and many others British cities were just as valid as military targets.

        1. Did Germany actually achieve any military value by bombing London, Southampton, Portsmouth and other British cities?
          There’s a difference between “valid” and “valuable”, though. Just because the rail station in Dresden is “valuable” at a certain amount of inconvenience to the Wehrmacht from a military standpoint, that does not mean that extracting that value by engaging in an extremely costly and ineffective bombing campaign was a good use of the Allies’ vast, yet still limited resources. There were “more” valid applications of the US’s and UK’s military resources – ones that would be less morally objectionable as well. Ditto with Germany’s terror bombings of British cities.

    2. no idea about bret, but my philosphy is “if you didn’t want a dresden, you shouldn’t have done a coventry”

    3. So the thing about Dresden is that firestorms are incredibly unpredictable, and the results (in the metric of dead civilians) are very lumpy. To get a firestorm you need the weather, the city, the defenders, and the attackers to all be at just the right conditions (for the attackers). If you miss on one of the conditions, no firestorm and very limited numbers of dead. This is most obvious from reading the USSBS on Japan: their estimates are that ~100,000 died in Meetinghouse (Tokyo Firebombing), and another 200k combined in the two atomic bombings… and 100,000 in all other bombing raids combined for the entire war. XX Air Force was definitely trying to get a firestorm every time out, but most of the time something was slightly off and there was no firestorm and not many people died.

      This is what atomic weapons changed. They meant that you could have firestorm level casualties [it appears that Nagasaki did not create a firestorm, though Hiroshima did, regardless you had that level of dead] on a much more predictable basis. It’s just that even the mass death of a firestorm doesn’t actually seem to produce much strategic effect- as witnessed by London-40, Hamburg-43, etc.

    4. I’d be on board with the “reap the whirlwind” payback argument, I’d be on board with “a military target is a target that a military deems worthy of bombing” post-hoc argument, I’d be on board with “lmao fuck g*rmans” argument. But this kind of asymetric appeal to morality truly rubs me the wrong way.

      I’m sorry that I can’t help myself but be extremely uncharitable, but I really can’t read this paragraph in any other way than:

      I’d be on board with [argument that justifies strategic bombing], I’d be on board with [argument that justifies strategic bombing], I’d be on board with [argument that justifies strategic bombing]. But this kind of [argument that opposes strategic bombing] truly rubs me the wrong way.

  9. Two books worth reading if you have an interest in strategic bombing are Richard Overy’s more recent work, The Bombing War, and Adam Tooze’s Wages of Destruction.
    A couple of other points.
    Strategic bombing was adopted in Britain mainly (though not exclusively) as a way of avoiding a repetition of the terrible slaughter of WW1. In that War, a conscript army had been deployed for the first time in history, and casualties had been such that every community, and almost every family, in Britain was touched. It was not obvious that the British people would agree to do the same thing again in a next war which was widely believed to be inevitable. Moreover, the ruling class in Britain had, for the first time in history, gone off to war or sent its sons there, and the slaughter had been terrible. (We should perhaps hesitate before we smugly condemn the pacifist mood in Britain–and France–in the 1930s). Strategic bombing represented a way out of that conundrum: the war could be ended quickly, at far less human cost, and without the need for an expensive expeditionary force.
    Part of the rationale, implicit and never really stated, was the existence of what I call a “transmission mechanism” to turn, crudely, bomb damage into surrender. British propaganda leaflets dropped in the war claimed that the German people “could insist on surrender act any time,” which was silly, but apparently genuinely believed. The best argument the British could come up with was that “de-housing” German industrial workers would cause them to be discouraged and not go to work. But this was always doubtful: the RAF was pretty random but the Gestapo knew exactly where to go. This is, perhaps, the fundamental weakness of strategic bombing theory. Likewise, the theory has always assumed a fundamental division between the evil rulers of a country and the virtuous citizens. Western liberalism, with its pretension to universality, simply assumes that any leader to whom we might take a dislike is “oppressing” a population which, given the chance, would be just like us. So bombing them will turn them not against us, but against their own political leaders. Yet this has never happened. In the case of Kosovo, where I was somewhat involved, it turned out that the Serb people actually *minded* being bombed, and the effect of the bombing was to solidify public opinion against NATO. Ironically, when Milosevic was eventually overthrow after losing the 2000 election (which was the western intention all along) he was ejected not by pro-western crowds waving NATO flags, but by young nationalists waving Serb flags and chanting “Serbia, Serbia” and accusing him of selling out the Kosovo Serbs.: I remember watching this live on TV. And of course the nationalist tide saw him being replaced by an extreme nationalist, Vojislav Kostunica, as President. Strategic bombing can be a tricky thing.

    1. > Moreover, the ruling class in Britain had, for the first time in history, gone off to war or sent its sons there, and the slaughter had been terrible.

      The British aristocracy have always been military officers.

      1. The aristocracy is not (was not) the same as the ruling class. The Army (which was small anyway in 1914) certainly got many of its officers from the aristocracy, but this was dwarfed by the need for officers as the Army rapidly expanded. Hundreds of thousands of young men from the minor and county aristocracy, from upper-middle class professional families, from political families and legal families and artistic families, who would never have considered a military career in peacetime, served as officers. Some joined direct from University. The consequences were, among others, those I have described.

          1. And against the Habsburgs and in the Crusades, and at Hastings and Edington. Basically as far back as we have records and something you might conceivably call “Britain”. Heck, considering how the cursus honorum works, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s true back into Roman Britain.

        1. What Bullseye said. What may have made WWI different from what went before was the death rate: not that young aristocratic men went off to war, but that so many of them didn’t come home.

          1. No, there is a huge difference between 1815 and 1915: scale. A large army in Napoleon’s day was 200,000 men, and the British Army maxed out at about 100,000 men in a single battle during the war. The BEF from 1916-1918 never had fewer than 2 million soldiers in France at one time, and a total of 5.5 million men served just in the BEF in France over the coure of the war. So even though the population of the UK as a whole went from 8 million to 32 million, they were mobilizing and shipping out a much greater percentage of the country. And that’s the difference from “rough day for those who were present” to “our civilization is a wreck.”

        2. The ruling class – the gentry and aristocracy – had always sent a good many of its sons into the militaries (Britain had a small home army, a large navy and a large colonial and imperial empire – administered and officered by this class). Interestingly, Britain mobilised a larger proportion of its population in the Napoleonic Wars than in World War I (sources David Andress: The Savage Storm and Roger Knight: Britain Against Napoleon). What was different about WWI was that lots of middle-class people saw industrial war close up and were appalled. Their forebears would not have been, and many working class people did not find it too terrible – hard, but better food and pay.

    2. “Ironically, when Milosevic was eventually overthrow after losing the 2000 election (which was the western intention all along) he was ejected not by pro-western crowds waving NATO flags, but by young nationalists waving Serb flags and chanting “Serbia, Serbia” and accusing him of selling out the Kosovo Serbs.: I remember watching this live on TV. And of course the nationalist tide saw him being replaced by an extreme nationalist, Vojislav Kostunica, as President. ”

      This is not entirely correct – he was ousted by a broad coalition of pro-western pro-democracy and “patriotic” forces, including but not limited to centre-right moderate nationalists (around Kostunica, who took a turn to the farther right only later), but also including various liberals such as Zoran Djindjic. The extreme nationalists (ie the radicals) were on his side. The nationalists came into power only a few years later, after former-Milosevic-special-forces-members-turned-criminals shot Djindjic and the remainder of the pro-western pro-democracy forces’ political ineptitude or outright corruption managed to f*ck up pretty much everything they lay their hands on.

      That said, I agree that the bombing certainly didn’t help the ousting much, if at all. While Milosevic enjoyed support of a significant part of the populace, there were not much less significant forces in the country who were against him from early nineties. Granted, not all of them were pro-western, but some of them were.

      1. Thanks for the clarifications.
        I was focusing on what I thought then (and still think) were the wholly unrealistic expectations of NATO nations on what air power could accomplish. NATO nations believed that the mere threat of bombing (and not even strategic bombing) would cause Milosevic’s government to back down and hand over Kosovo. This would then so humiliate him that he would lose the Presidential election, and be replaced by one of the famous “pro-western moderates” that NATO Embassies were always hoping to find. Milosevic was seen at the time as single-handedly holding up western plans to bring peace and economic liberalism to the Balkans, and Kosovo was only ever a pretext, after other ways of marginalising him failed.
        The more cautious members of NATO thought that perhaps it might be necessary to have a couple of days of token bombing to give Milosevic “an excuse to climb down” as was frequently said in Brussels. Nobody among the great and the good in Brussels remotely thought of a campaign lasting months, which almost tore NATO apart. Which all goes to my point about a transmission mechanism.

    3. “The ruling class in Britian had for the first time gone to war”

      I’m sorry but you do know that Wellington was a duke right?

      1. Wellington was made a Duke for his success in the army. He entered the army as a younger son of the 1st Earl of Mornington (who was had been Baron Mornington until a few years before Arthur was born- he was made Earl because of his musical skills as a composer, not for military prowess) , but you can’t point to Wellington being a duke as a sign that he was elite- other than in winning battles.

        1. Though you can point out that the very word “cadet” means “younger son” to show how typical his career was.

    4. “Moreover, the ruling class in Britain had, for the first time in history, gone off to war or sent its sons there, and the slaughter had been terrible. ”

      There is literally no country in Europe, and probably not many anywhere in the world, in which this is true.

      I suppose Vladimir Putin could be said to be trying to recruit his army on the lines you suggest to be common in the past. Just look at the quality of the army that has produced.

  10. I remember reading Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas where a character philosophically dismisses their failure to make an aircraft because it would expose civilians to such attacks

  11. Great article, as usual. But concerning this statement:

    “Now as Overy notes this actually led to one of the unintended successes of the effort: American and British bombers diverted massive amounts of German aircraft and anti-aircraft artillery away from the Eastern Front where the Germans badly needed it.”

    I’m not so sure it diverted all that much. To be sure, Germany deployed massive amounts of flak and intercepting fighters over Germany to deflect Allied air raids. But the main bottleneck on the Eastern Front was logistical, not the overall level of force existing in Germany. German ration counts remain remarkably stable throughout 1941-1943, despite the attrition they were suffering. And while done more by longer ranged raiding parties on the ground, there was a constant destruction of railroad track and armies of engineers repairing it in the war in the USSR.

    Consequently, it was much easier for Germany to project (very logistically footprint heavy) fighter wings and anti aircraft artillery batteries over/in Germany than over/in the Eastern Front. I’m not sure how many of them could have been redirected to the Soviet Union even if Hitler had a magic wand to make all the Allied bombing stop and those bombers magically disappear; at least not without withdrawing other forces competing with those flak and fighters for railroad throughput in terms of food, fuel, munitions, spare parts, etc.

    1. I think it’s more accurate to say that the bombing campaign forced the Germans to divert ever-increasing amounts of diminishing resources (military manpower, production manpower, raw materials, factory capacity and above all fuel) to the aerial defense of Germany rather than to other things, whether Jagdgeschwader on the Russian front or gasoline to power the Ardennes Offensive. We accidentally tricked them into fighting an industrial war of attrition where they were utterly overmatched.

      In a more direct aspect, the effect of the bomber war, or at least the daylight USAAF part of it, was to have the Luftwaffe squander those expensively allocated resources, as increasingly the fighter escorts proceeded to shoot down their resource-intensive fighters and, especially, their pilots.

      1. Adam Tooze argues in Wages of Destruction that Hitler, believing in strategic air power, already foresaw the impossibility of winning against the combined aircraft production capacity of Britain and the US and invaded the Soviet Union so he could quickly and easily get the resources needed to match American production.

        1. The same book argues – on the basis of detailed examination of German industrial statistics – that the bombing did have significant effect – on steel production when the Ruhr was bombed nightly (he thinks the shift to Berlin was a major mistake), on production in Hamburg from the firestorm and, as industry dispersed to avoid bombing, on ability to upgrade weapons – much of the increase in German production in 43/44 was of obsolete systems, with the new ones produced in very small quantities. And often the production went nowhere for lack of oil or transport.

    2. To a point, yes. Then again, if nothing else, all those shells fired into the air at Allied bombers could have been stockpiled to fire at the Allied armies as they entered Germany proper in 1945. The Germans’ effort might have been limited by logistics in Russia proper, but Germany was engaged on many fronts and in many capacities, and to some extent the resources used to do so were fungible- people serving with an AA battery were not people doing something else somewhere else, including support and upgrade of the logistics lines

      1. In one or another of the the Raj Whitehall followup books, either David Drake or SM Stirling points out that, even if only 1 in 20 of the Nazi-equivalent’s trains are attacked by bombers, they still had to run every train with a full set of AA systems, putting the AA crews as much out of the war when they weren’t under attack as if they had been combat casualties.
        The logic is kinda shaky, but it’s not completely illogical either

    3. The AA guns and fighters were also diverted away from the *Western* front, in particular they weren’t present to defend against the massive Allied operational / tactical air support for the Normandy landings. German commanders on the western front complained, a lot, about the problems allied air support was causing them.

    4. Reading a WW2 pilot’s memoirs, I realized the RAF was also targeting specifically trains and train equipment, which would have hampered the logistical capacities of Germany. But in this I am not sure if targeting logistic capacity would be qualified as strategic or operational.

      1. Yeah, the line between operational and strategic air attacks is fuzzy. You could also point at the campaing to eleminate the Japanese merchant marine and the mining of Japanese habours (fittingly called “Operation Starvation”).

        But I think the central argument still stands: attacking the enemies ability to move troops, and material from the air works. Anihilating the enemies ability and will to wage war from the air, doesn’t.

        Thus the folks trying to argue that the attacks on Ukraininan power plants, are somehow attacks on military (dual use) targets. Strategic bombardment is shown to be killing civilians for the sake of killing civilians. To have any way to justify it, you MUST argue that it’s not strategic bombardment.

    5. Presumably in the absence of the bombing raids, some of the resources used to defend against the bombing raids could have been used to improve the logistics on the Eastern Front and the rest to increase the overall force on the Eastern Front.

  12. > “Douhet had assumed the only way to actually find those bombers would be the venerable Mk. 1 Eyeball and indeed they made doing so a formidable task…”
    The obligatory reference here is that there used to be quite a few mid-air collisions of airliners before the introduction of a radio-based collision-avoidance system — and unfortunately, to this day there continue to be mid-air collisions between smaller civilian aircraft (which are not equipped with such). This was and is the case despite, in many of these accidents, air traffic control alerting the pilots on radio to each other’s presence, and generally the aircraft not being painted in a purposefully stealthy manner.
    > “…the Mk. 1 Ear was actually a more useful device in many cases.”
    At the time. As the speed of the bombers kept increasing further, becoming appreciable fractions of (and eventually exceeding) the speed of sound, acoustics became increasingly useless as a method for finding/tracking aircraft. (I also expected an image of a mobile listening station, just because they look hilarious.)

    > “the impact of that industrial bombing is also likely to be sharply reduced by enemy efforts to shield industrial capacity from bombing”; “in practice one of the most important contributions of the strategic bombing effort was […] the effort of trying to stop the bombers essentially wore the Luftwaffe down to a nub”
    As written, the first is a failure of counterfactual reasoning. If the target builds its economic structure dispersed/concealed even in the absence of (the threat of) bombing (e.g. because they are mostly preindustrial farmers) and does not put much effort against strategic bombing, then it is fair to count only the observed effect of bombing. However, just as it is correct to attribute the cost of the AA system the target builds to the impact of the (threat of) bombing, and conclude that in the target’s opinion the AA force was worth building because it would prevent more damage than it cost, to the extent it is the (threat of) bombing that makes the target (re)build its factories, infrastructure, etc. in a dispersed/concealed fashion, then the loss of productivity from this is both a credit to the (threat of) bombing and shows that, counterfactually, bombing would be capable of causing a larger effect in the absence of such dispersal.

    1. “As written, the first is a failure of counterfactual reasoning.”

      I disagree. The point of that remark is precisely that countermeasures are cheap and effective, so strategic bombing underperforms its expectations of degrading industrial capacity.

      Of course it imposes some direct degradation, plus some indirect degradation (through the cost of countermeasures, as you note) but these together sum to much less than the hoped-for degradation based on the idea that strategic air power can destroy most of the industrial plant.

      1. Also, the attrition comparison is whether the loss of efficiency and industry is outweighed by the cost of the bombing campaign. Increased air defenses both raise the cost of the campaign and reduce the damage done.

        1. Yes, counterfactuals work for the other side, too. Putting so much effort into deterrence that the attack never comes is sort of the key concept of game theory. This is relevant to all branches of the military. Our host’s Middle-Earth series goes over the land army version (“detail a strong enough force to X where it will predictably not see combat, but if it were not there or were too weak, the enemy could move via X to […]”), navies call it “fleet in being”, and this is how nukes ensure peace. The Romans call it “si vis pacem, para bellum”. That doesn’t make the costs of such intensive preparation any less.

  13. Ukraine war has its own kind of bombing irony. The Ukrainian army tried to defend each town and village and create mini-Stalingrads. Yet Ukrainian forces were most effective in the field where they could use drones and communications to deliver accurate artillery fire. The Russian were expecting to win these field engagements easily yet they suffered heavy casualties in front of Kiev, Nikolaiev, Bakhmut. City fighting usually went in favor of Russians (Mariupol, Severodonetsk). If Russian infantry can enter the area with dense buildings they can evade observation.

    1. Is that true? Mi impression is that the Ukrainians in Mariupol held out a surprisingly long time for being surrounded and outnumbered.

      1. Cosign re: Mariupol; I specifically remember a month plus where each day the ISW analysis was “Mariupol is likely to fall in the coming days” and a week later, still there. As far as I can tell we haven’t seen a battle yet where the Russians are attacking a city, the Ukrainians have opted to defend it to the hilt, and the Ukrainian forces still have land-based resupply available—the Stalingrad formulation.

        1. Maripol was expected to hold for severa month, especially the Azovstal buildings. Severodonetsk and Lysichiansk were captured while still having a confecționate to Ukrainian teritory.

  14. I figured this would be stated at some point: That leaves just the morale bombing that Russia is doing now.”

    That is not (or not primarily) what the Russian Federation is doing right now. They are clearly trying for _operational_ gains by interdicting the Ukrainian rail transport system, which is almost entirely electrified. Logistics in this war (on both sides) largely relies on rail transport, so the electrical power grid is an attack on a military (albeit dual-use) technology. You make that point yourself about the attack on the Kerch Bridge.

    1. That seems likely to be one of the goals. Other possible goals:

      * As a result of the strikes on electrical infrastructure Ukraine has stopped exporting electricity to Europe. This might make the effects of the gas shortage in Europe worse, and deprives the Ukrainian government of one source of revenue.
      * Diverting Ukrainian air defense resources to places like Kyiv and away from the front, similar to the point about bombing German cities in WW2 diverting AA guns and fighter planes away from the Eastern Front.
      * Increasing the attrition of Ukrainian air defense resources, particularly ex-Soviet missiles and launchers that Ukraine has a hard time replacing. Shahed-136s are relatively inexpensive for this purpose, and by necessity they already have a sanctions-proof production chain.

      1. It looks like Ukraine is using cheaper gun-based AAA systems that are now coming online from NATO supplies to defend against drones.
        Wasting one drone to shoot down a cheaper drone only works if you can afford a lot of expensive drones (for this comparison, a SAM is a specific sort of drone). But a belt of 30mm VT is cheaper and easier to replace than the drone it shoots down…

        1. I assume you’re referring to the Flakpanzer Gepard? So far Germany has donated 30, supplementing Ukraine’s pre-war stock of 300 ZSU-23-4 Shilka self-propelled AA guns. There’s been a lot of talk recently about getting more air defense to Ukraine, so maybe they’ll donate more, or some other country might donate more AA guns, but at the time of this writing Google News doesn’t turn up any recent reports to that effect.

          Both of these systems use radar, and the Shaheds have anti-radiation capabilities, so Geparks and Shilkas may end up being subject to attrition if they are heavily used to shoot down Shaheds. Or maybe not. We’ll see.

      2. Attempting to cut Ukraine’s energy exports to Europe as a way of exerting pressure on Europe seems unlikely to have much effect. Weakening Ukrainian rail transport by reducing electrical power output MIGHT.

        Diverting Ukrainian air defenses away from the front seems very unlikely to do much for the Russian cause, because the Russians have been largely ineffective at using their own air force for the duration of the conflict. This has been attributed to a variety of factors, but suffice to say that as long as the Ukrainians have even light air defense over their own front lines, it is unlikely that “thinning out” those defenses will do the Russians much good.

        1. On the front both sides have used drones for various purposes, including general observation and artillery spotting as well as for direct attacks – Bayraktars and Switchblade 40km range suicide drones on the Ukrainian side, Orions and Lancet 40km race suicide drones on the Russian side.

          The relevant numbers aren’t publicly available, but significant effects of the availability of anti-drone air defenses on the margins aren’t hard to imagine.

    2. Blocking train supply may require utter destruction.

      I expect that Ukrainians will prefer blackouts in Kiev over stopping military logistics.

    3. I don’t see the Kerch Bridge as “dual-use” infrastructure. It has seen a lot of civilian use; but it was built to resupply a key military installation: the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol. In that sense, it is and always was a military installation. Once war spread through southern Ukraine, the threat to Russian GLOCs made the bridge vital to the Russian effort.

      So I’m surprised Ukraine hasn’t hit the bridge more timesespecially given that it’s very existence is offensive to Ukrainians.

      I believe there was a missile strike on the Crimea end of the bridge early on – like, in February.

      1. The interstate highway system was built for military purposes. I think it would be inaccurate to say that it’s not dual use — if not more civilian.

      2. It was also heavily used by civilians (though that happened due to political reasons, it was needed before Russian invaded this part of Ukraine)

  15. “That seems oddly common among the early airpower/bombing advocates: they tended to be persistent, but quite caustic men.”

    Fanatical advocates for a single tactic are irritating. They are also almost always wrong.

    A lot of the air bombing advocates would have been cavalry back in the day – the idea of dashing in and inflicting casualties, then dashing out again (never mind that cavalry never really did that, mostly they killed people running away, after the formation had been broken) has a hold on minds. I guess “something for nothing” is attractive.

    The idea that a tactic or weapon is a “game-changer” assumes that the enemy are idiots, incapable of thinking up defensive measures. It’s why most powerful platforms end up big and heavy – they need defensive measures to counteract the obvious defensive tactics. Yes you can produce cheap things in quantity, but they will be expensive in terms of your people which is disastrous if the thing requires any training.

  16. Re: Industrial Web Theory:
    Hasn’t Covid demonstrated the substantial brittleness of modern industrial supply chains? A disruption probably less than a major power war has sent global supply chains into a tailspin which they have yet to fully recover from.

    And as a hypothetical, if the US and China went to war (god forbid), could China cripple our computing (on which pretty much everything, including the military, relies) by destroying the semiconductor factories in Taiwan? (which are very expensive to build and also quite sensitive- they have to be operated in cleanrooms) Or am I missing something here?

    1. They might opt to just blockade the factories so they can be seized intact because China also needs semiconductors, but yes, it’d be pretty drastic. The US has been trying to encourage opening more US chip factories for that reason, plus hardware security* for military equipment, retaining technological secrets, and to create jobs.

      In the event it actually happened, the US would probably jump to reserve remaining usable chip production for military use, and maybe try to repurpose existing chips.

      *As far as I know there’s no confirmed cases of this actually happening, but you could in theory ship someone a chip modified to do things like remotely shut off if a certain signal is detected.

        1. I remember that story because it was close enough to my day job to be worth following up on. As did a lot of other IT professionals at the time. TL;DR: it did not happen.

          Despite the supposedly wide ranging nature of the attack, nobody ever actually produced one of these Trojan Horse chips. (And computer security researchers are not all shy retiring people who shun limelight and publicity.) High ranking company executives, who would have been personally liable for stock market fraud if they weren’t accurate, repeatedly denied that any such chips had been found. Any “cover up” would have required too much cooperation from too many people with competing agendas, personality clashes, and competing financial motivations to be plausible.

      1. The general problem with modifying chips and other forms of hidden “Trojan Horse” computer equipment is that *everyone* ends up using the good stuff so your own forces are going to end up just as vulnerable. If say a Chinese secret service agent in Taiwan has inserted a remote shut off command into a common brand of CPU chip, how do you ensure that the Chinese military aren’t using it? A regulation “No PLA military or military support equipment is to use brand X model Y chip. Because we say so.” is going to attract interest.

        Not to say that it could not happen, but it wouldn’t be as easy to arrange as in fiction. And given the horrendous state of general IT security it hardly seems necessary.

      2. > remotely shut off if a certain signal is detected.

        This is part of what modern Intel CPUs do. The Intel Management Engine is a mechanism that gives a remote user complete control of the computer in which it’s installed, even if it’s “switched off”.

    2. The disruptive economic effects of the pandemic are way below what would be necessary to stop an industrial war machine- we can tell because Russia and Ukraine are fighting a war in the middle of it. There’s a pretty wild gulf between the type of economic crisis that might make an incumbent party lose an election and the type that might make a state collapse entirely, and so far covid has only produced the former.

    3. Could China cripple our computing? Global supply chains are so complicated that it’s hard to predict the effects of a war in the western Pacific. Certainly both countries would face supply problems, and I don’t think anyone knows who would suffer worse. “Starting a war is like opening the door to a dark room: you have no idea what is inside.”

    4. People who theorise about industrial fragility have mostly never worked at the base level of industry. Things crash all the time – trucks crash, railcars get lost or broken, containers get lost or fall off ships, transformers blow, storms happen, floods happen….It’s routine and mostly fixed rapidly. Hurricane Ian knocks out power to 4 million in Florida; a week later 90% have the power back on. The industrial web is enormously resilient.

  17. This blog post tries too hard to squeeze the Russian air campaign in Ukraine into the framework of strategic bombing, and it fails because the facts simply don’t support the thesis.

    If bombing civilian targets was truly a goal, then Russia has already passed up many opportunities to do so, and it would be using a much larger volume of bombs than it has.

    In fact, Russia appears to be targeting power infrastructure in Ukraine, which is as valid a military target as the Kerch bridge.

    1. No, targeting power infrastructure isn’t a military target. Why would you possibly think that? And weren’t you one of those pro-Russia commentators who was calling 2014 a “coup” before?

      1. Targeting power infrastructure (as well as other dual use infrastructure such as civilian and bridges, railroads, oil plants etc) was totally deemed by NATO as a valid military target in Operation Allied Force, Gulf wars (and, I imagine, other conflicts) though.

    2. > If bombing civilian targets was truly
      >a goal, then Russia has already passed
      > up many opportunities to do so…

      On the contrary, they have seized many opportunities to do so, which they did not have to take. Many many strikes hitting apartment buildings, parks, malls, maternity hospitals, and so on.

      >and it would be using a much
      >larger volume of bombs than it has.

      It seems likely that Russian airstrikes are restricted more by capacity and fear of losing expensive, difficult-to-replace manned jets. The Russian Air Force hasn’t been using its presumed mighty bombing capacity anywhere else in the campaign; I don’t think they have much more capacity for sustained bombing attacks than they have already demonstrated… And most of that bombing has been effectively random and pointed at cities.

    3. Bret carefully states that it is the Russian air attacks on civilian population far behind the front lines that are the problem, not all the Russian efforts. He specifically calls the Russian attacks an “emotive” response so not even really “strategic”.

      The YouTube channel Perun has good videos on the economics / logistics of the Ukraine conflict. One point he made about the recent Russian drone attacks is that if you’re a Russian field commander trying to fight off the Ukrainians attacks around Kherson, how happy are you going to be that your government is using an advanced drone to blow up a pedestrian footbridge in Khyiv instead of a Ukrainian tank shooting at your soldiers?

      1. > The YouTube channel Perun has good videos on the economics / logistics of the Ukraine conflict. One point he made about the recent Russian drone attacks is that if you’re a Russian field commander trying to fight off the Ukrainians attacks around Kherson, how happy are you going to be that your government is using an advanced drone to blow up a pedestrian footbridge in Khyiv instead of a Ukrainian tank shooting at your soldiers?

        If the tank is close enough to shoot at Russian soldiers, then it’s almost certainly within range of artillery fire guided by spotter drones, or failing that most definitely within range of Russia’s own short range (max range of ~40km) Lancet suicide drones. If local Ukrainian air defenses are good enough to render spotter drones and Lancets ineffective, then they’re almost certainly good enough to shoot down Shahed-136s.

        The Shaheds do have an advantage over some other types of drones against electronic warfare because their backup inertial navigation modules allow them to keep going if their control and/or GLONASS signal is jammed…but only against fixed targets, which a tank isn’t. And Russia has plenty of other much cheaper options for attacking fixed targets at short-medium range.

        The above is why I wonder if part of the motivation for these strikes may be to divert Ukrainian air defense resources away from the front, with the intention of increasing the effectiveness of the aforementioned Russian short range observation/spotting/suicide drones.

    4. Glaringly absent from the Ukraine conflict is Russia establishing the air superiority needed to routinely fly strategic and operational bombing missions. One would almost think nearly the entire Russian Air Force turned out to be empty chassis.

  18. “Which also explains neatly why Ukraine, despite being in a position to potentially lob munitions indiscriminately into cities like Belgorod, has mostly avoided doing that; Ukrainian forces having restricted themselves largely to clear logistics targets like ammunition and fuel depots or trainyards when striking beyond the front lines.”

    Actually, the reason why Ukraine hasn’t lobbed munitions indiscriminately into cities like Belgorod is simply because the US told the Ukrainians explicitly not to do so.

    1. This statement also only holds under the very narrow criteria of cities behind the front lines *in Russia* (within Russia’s internationally recognized territory, anyway, leaving aside the recent annexations). Evidence of indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas in Donetsk, and before February 2022 Luhansk as well, by Ukrainian armed forces is overwhelming. The shelling since February 2022 can perhaps be explained by diverting Russian resources away from other parts of the frontline (including artillery being used for counter-battery purposes in Donetsk instead of to assist offensives, but also diverting ground forces to attacks on heavily fortified and strategically not particularly important places like Peski), but the 2014-2022, and especially 2015-2022 shelling looks more like a clear-cut case of morale/terror bombing.

      Though even Russia doesn’t seem to be that eager to publicize this, likely because their largest non-Western purchasers of oil and gas, China and India, have both had their own troubles with separatist movements. Crimea is likely a different story, with Russian arguments for a claim to Crimea not relying solely on “secession by referendum” and at least superficially having a lot closer resemblance to Indian arguments re:Kashmir and Chinese arguments re:islands in the South China Sea and so on.

    2. But the reason they listen to the US in this is because they need the US support, which was a significant part of Bret’s point

  19. I thought Russia was trying to knock out Ukraine’s power supply to cause mass death by freezing and people fleeing the country? People can’t fight if they freeze to death

    1. This is something I was wondering about too.

      I suppose in a literal sense a bombing campaign with the intention of killing all of the enemy populace is “strategic bombing” because it could accomplish a strategy, but that is only if the strategy is genocide. And the strategy is generally selected by the politicians, who I think generally more interested in capitulation than total genocide (I hope so at least!).

      I guess the point is that you might intuitively think threatening people with freezing to death might break their morale, but it generally just hardens it, and the ones that don’t freeze will just keep fighting you. So generally this does not actually help your “strategy”.

    2. People don’t freze to death if they have a shelter, proper clothing and sufficient food. A sleeping bag is enough on a mountain trip if you ate enough.
      The bombing of the power plants seems to me a political act to dissuade further attacks on the Kerch Bridge or other russian assets. The Ukrainian population will not surrender and the Ukrainian army can fight without the power plants just as well.
      The Ukrainian government is affected as it can not mantain the image about russian defeat. Ukraine can search for complete victory only if Russia no longer has capacities for deep strikes.

    3. Electric power grids have existed for about a hundred and fifty years. Ukraine has been continuously inhabited, even in winter, for about thirty-four thousand years. Nobody who is healthy enough to even consider fighting against the Russians, is going to literally freeze to death because they don’t have electricity. That’s gross hyperbole.

      They are going to be very angry at the people responsible for destroying their electric power grid. And if one of them has a frail, elderly grandmother who can only barely survive winter with the full support of moderrn civilization and who instead dies, that grandmother wasn’t going to be fighting the Russians but her grandkids are going to be *even more* angry.

  20. You have a mistake on the specs for the Farman. 88 lb is the weight of one bomb out of the 8 the plane carried. Total bombload was 704 lb.

    1. I was wondering about this too! It sounded like a weird situation where if you could take one guy off the crew you could more than double the bomb-load.

    1. A few reasons, I think.

      First, martyrs are POWERFUL. They become rallying cries–the Alamo, Pearl Harbor, and the like demonstrate this. You can maintain the will to fight (as a culture) for a long time if you have a unifying cause, and martyrs are ready-made causes. Remember, you’re trying to convince people to send a tremendous amount of resources to an area where they will be destroyed, and to send their children to die. This takes some convincing.

      Second, it allows propagandists on your side to paint the other side as evil. (Please note I’m using the term “propaganda” as value-neutral here; it’s a weapon of war.) After all, only an evil person would even consider harming women and children! We MUST defeat such evil!! Manufactured atrocities can work for this, but real ones work even better and have the advantage that the facts are on your side.

      Third, they can spur people who were on the fence into joining the war effort. The movie “Starship Troopers” presents a dramatic example of this–Rico was going to leave until his home city got wiped out, at which point he decided to tough it out. (The book presents a very different view of that–and as an aside, I would LOVE to see a review of this book/movie, along the lines of the LOTR reviews!!) You can also see this play out on a smaller scale in any playground. If a bully punches a kid’s little sister to get the kid to comply with some order, that kid is going to go after the bully with everything he’s got.

      In war there’s another factor: Strategic bombing lessens the divide between “soldier” and “civilian”. If I’m being shot at and potentially killed by the enemy anyway, I’d rather be able to shoot him as well. In other words, the inherent risks of combat–which would deter certain people from joining the military–are present in civilian life, making the risk/reward calculations for individuals much different. There’s also the fact that many people will become convinced this is a situation where it’s victory or death, and even a rat will fight when put into such a situation.

      Strategically, it makes certain ways out of the war harder. If you’re attacking my military I can offer more concessions to end the violence. It’ll be annoying, but I can spin it as “We had to do it to make peace”. If you start killing my civilians and I offer concessions they’re going to want my head. If a Ukrainian politician even suggested offering, say, Crimea to Russia as part of a peace agreement there’s a very real possibility the population would kill that politician.

      1. The book takes note that there *wasn’t* a Single Point In Time When The Bug War Started; there were cap troopers fighting bugs while Juan was at Camp Curry, possibly before he signed up. Buenos Aires happened off-screen, possibly AFTER the drop the book opens with.
        (I should re-read if I want to get into more details, it’s been a while since the last time I read it).
        I forget whether the Bug War was allegorizing Korea or Vietnam right now; the protagonist/hero of Glory Road was a veteran of Vietnam for sure, but I *think* Starship Troopers was too early for that.

        1. If we are talking about “Starship Troopers”, note in the book that Juan Rico was Filipino, he was not from Buenos Aires, his mother was visiting there when the Bugs destroyed it. His father was not on the trip, which is why he survived, as did the family business.

          But you are right about the Bug War not having a clear starting date.

          It was published in 1959, so it wasn’t influenced by the US involvement in Vietnam. I believe it was influenced by the Korean War, particularly the issue of unreleased POWs and how you never ever give up on them, regardless of the cost.

          1. Yes, I am aware that Juan Rico’s family spoke tagalog at home and was therefore unlikely to be Argentinian. It went without saying to me; but I can see how it might be confusing.
            Obviously, it couldn’t be influenced by vietnam if published in 1959, which leaves Korea.

          2. Also, I do realize it’s pretentious as heck to refer to the main character as Juan, when he calls himself Johnny. I do it to make a particular point of my own about the book and the character.

        2. That’s why I specified the movie. In the book the event had much less emotional weight. I think that was intentional–the author makes repeated offhand references to death in “Starship Troopers” and seems to downplay the emotional weight of death in general, something that’s not a universal theme in his books. It’s hard to reconcile “Starship Troopers” with “Stranger in a Strange Land”, for example. For my part, I think Heinlein liked playing with ideas, and doubt he deeply believed many of the ideas he was writing about. I’m certainly no expert, though.

          Regardless, the movie at least presents it as a motivational event to some degree. Rico was already in Basic at the time, so it wasn’t the initial push (that was his culture and his friends), but it solidified his resolve. Since the attack on BA was an example of strategic bombing, the scene serves as a good dramatization of the process we were discussing.

          1. RAH claimed in several places that Starship Troopers was a passion project. Stranger was very obviously one as well (the publication of the Author’s Preferred Edition demonstrates that quite well).

            I haven’t seen the movie, myself – i was replying to the parenthetical about how the book and the movie differ.

      2. I note that there was a period during the Battle of Britain where civilians were more likely to die than soldiers.

    2. “Why does strategic bombing harden civilian will to fight?”

      How can you tell if it has? If the civilians are not fighting their “will to fight” in any meaningful sense is immeasurable, meaningless, and irrelevant. If they are fighting, they are not civilians.

      This suggests that you are mostly measuring their willingness to SAY they are willing to fight. But they are still civilians years into a war, so you may wish to take that claim with some caution.

      1. Most of the population, in any era, CANNOT fight because they’re too young, too old, have children to look after, etc, etc. In industrial era warfare they “fight” even though they’re not on the battlefield. They work in the factories that produce munitions and don’t do a shoddy job or deliberately sabotage components. They put up with shortages and donate materials for the war effort instead of becoming conscientious objectors, protestors, hoarders. Most of all, they support and encourage the actual battlefield fighters (“We’re proud of you son”).

        So when civilians after a war SAY that they were willing to fight, and for the most part their actions also supported the war, I don’t see a good reason to doubt them. Was there 100% support for the war from civilians in all the countries that were bombed? Of course not. But the strategic bombing enthusiasts predicted that civilian morale would collapse, and it didn’t.

        1. For instance, civilians can, instead, stage a Russian Revolution or a German Revolution. The “stab in the back” theory understated how bad the battlefield had gotten, but the home front was important.

          One notes that the Germans particularly overestimated it for that reason. And were at pains to minimize the impact of the war on German civilians even at the cost of literally starving Europe.

        2. “So when civilians after a war SAY that they were willing to fight, and for the most part their actions also supported the war, I don’t see a good reason to doubt them.”

          Most Russians right now tell pollsters that they support the war in Ukraine. But when the Russian government declared a mobilization a few weeks ago, a million Russians fled the country in a matter of days. Talk is cheap.

      2. Also, civilians get to vote in many countries. If Americans had elected Democratic congresses in 1862 or1864, or a Democratic president in 1864, or avowed pacifists had won most of the UK by-elections from 1939 to 1945, the US or the UK would have had to cease fighting.

  21. Would be interested to see some discussion of how modern precision weapons change the calculus on industry bombing- WWII bombers were too inaccurate for it to be very effective, but that might be different today. On the other hand that would require a war where at least one side A) has no nuclear weapons of their own, B) isn’t being propped up by external material support, and yet C) can successfully resist long-term against an enemy with significant precision strike capability.

      1. Not really? Seems to me they fail on C given how quickly the Coalition rolled them over. Bombing factories doesn’t make much difference in a war that’s over in a matter of weeks.

        1. The 1991 Gulf War was basically Iraq vs the entire Western military alliance. Russia and China supported the UN, so no help for Iraq from them.

          As Bret writes, the USAF under Wheeler planned the air campaign starting in Jan 1991. And it was following the strategic airpower doctrine, with precision strikes from Tomahawks and stealth bombers against all kinds of ‘important’ targets deep inside Iraq. Hundreds of aircraft and missiles, complete air superiority after the first couple of days. As usual there were predictions from the air power crowd that this strategic bombing campaign would be all that was needed to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait.

          And once again this strategic air campaign completely failed. The precision bombs and missiles hit every strategic target in Baghdad and other places, repeatedly. After more than thirty days, the Iraqi government hadn’t collapsed, the Iraqi people hadn’t risen up against Hussein, none of the Iraqi forces in Kuwait had retreated.

          Fortunately – at least for everyone not Iraqi – the Coalition commander in chief wasn’t air force, and ordered air attacks on the actual Iraqi army in and near Kuwait. Operational and tactical air support, not strategic. And these were successful and played a big part in the collapse of the Iraqi army when the ground troops went in. Four days of ground combat achieved what air power couldn’t in a month.

          The point Bret is making is not that air power doesn’t work or is over-rated, it is that the particular doctrine / goal of ‘strategic’ air power has never worked.

          1. Either I’m missing your point or you’re missing mine. I’m aware of all the facts you’re mentioning in this comment but I don’t see how they address my question which was specifically about whether modern precision weapons could allow air power to destroy a country’s industrial capacity enough to substantially impede their ability to make war.

            As far as I know that’s not what the Coalition was trying to do in Iraq in the Gulf War, and even if it was I’m not sure how much evidence we could get there since the war was over before it could possibly have made a difference.

    1. OK, second try which I hope will be less confusing.

      Precision guided munitions, PGMs, are not new in 2022. The reason I bring up Iraq in 1991, and others bring up Serbia and Iraq again 2003, is that all those featured strategic bombing campaigns by western air forces with large numbers of PGMs. (And the USAF had stealth bombers as well in all three.) As others have pointed out, successful use of laser guided bombs goes back even further.

      In 1991 the strategic bombing wasn’t trying to destroy Iraq’s industrial production capacity, because there really wasn’t any to destroy. It was trying to do the other things strategic air power advocates claim, eg decapitation strikes on leadership and disrupting command and control. That had never worked before, and it didn’t work this time either despite the availability of precision strike capability.

      In Serbia and Iraq again in 2003 the precision strike wasn’t aimed at industrial production, but again the “strategic” air bombing campaign didn’t achieve the other goals that had been proposed.

      As others have pointed out elsewhere, all WW2 attempts at shutting down industry by bombing alone failed, the best that could be achieved was slowing the increase. Blockading was possible against Japan and had a much greater impact on their production.

      So we’ve seen that the list of things strategic air power can’t do without precision strike is quite long, including not shutting down industrial production. We’ve also seen that everything else on that list still can’t be done *with* precision strike (and/or stealth). Given the long list of failure, and that “yes but this time we have PGMs” didn’t help any other time, I see no reason to think it would be any different.

      1. That makes some sense. The reason I wonder, though, is that both Bret’s post above and other discussions of the topic I remember specifically call out the inaccuracy of WWII bombing as a reason why it wasn’t very effective. Given that, it seems like an oversight not to at least mention the possibility that more accurate modern weapons could change the equation, if only to explain why it probably doesn’t bear out.

        1. EDIT: second sentence should end with “wasn’t very effective at crippling industry” specifically.

  22. Some of the most effective bombing against Japan was the Operation Starvation minelaying — aimed at disrupting what was left of Japanese shipping; an operational goal. However some of that success was due to the minimal resources and effort Japan had put into their minesweeping capabilities. (OTOH, the US, by that point, had some very hard to sweep mines)

    But the Navy had to convince the Army Air Force to even bother to assign any forces to minelaying. (That operation also causes some post-war issues for the US as we had to then sweep our own mines lest they overly restrict our ability to supply Japan and the occupation forces there)

    1. Shipping interdiction against Japan in WWII – by surface ship, submarine or minelaying – ended up being tremendously effective. In part because, as you say, Japan didn’t assign many resources to counter these efforts and of course because Japan, being an island, was tremendously vulnerable to them.

    2. The USAAF didn’t play well with others. During the “second happy time” in 1941-42 when U-boats were devastating US coastal shipping, Admiral King begged Arnold for the use of some of his (idle) bombers for anti-sub patrols; Arnold told him to go pound sand. His bombers were for bombing German cities (which, at the time, they couldn’t reach).

  23. I once saw someone say that “Strategic bombing is almost literally a matter of setting your GDP on fire and throwing it at your enemy in the hopes of reducing his GDP”. No idea where they got it from, but I suspect it matches your thoughts on the matter.

  24. In Ken Burns’s “The Vietnam War” documentary, John Negroponte of all people (the GWB admin’s UN rep) was quite contemptuous of Linebacker II, saying “we bombed them into accepting our concessions.” That said, there may have been something to it as a political aim: not for the North Vietnamese leadership, but the American public. Withdrawing from Vietnam would be unpopular if portrayed (accurately) as a defeat. Doing a pointless and cruel bombing allowed Nixon to pretend that the exact same deal was a great victory forced by American air might, and the reason the troops are coming home is because we won. Why people were stupid enough to buy this, I don’t know, but it apparently worked, since the bombing was popular, and it did lead to US disengagement. Sadly, I don’t think the pointless and cruel shelling of Kyiv is a prelude to Putin withdrawing to allow him to portray the withdrawal as somehow a great victory, although some face-saving way for Russia to lose would certainly be handy…

  25. Also, I would be curious to see a possible defense of strategic bombing due to the experience in Iraq… Iraq in the 1920s, that is. The somewhat shaky British administration in 1920, as well as King Faisal’s government in 21-24, would use aircraft to strafe rural tribes in areas the state couldn’t really reach – Kurds & Shiites out in the middle of nowhere, basically. If you don’t pay your taxes, biplanes come strafe your encampment to murder you. They also used “carrots” and incentives to encourage the elites to work with the government, but air power did seem to be an important and effective “stick” to punish hold-outs to my understanding, so maybe one of the more effective uses of strategic bombing? Albeit of your own country?

    1. Air control in this sense is essentially a matter of using aircraft as airmobile punitive columns. You could probably use it to discourage village A from raiding village B, but not to get them to pay taxes. If you have enough local administration to tell what taxes they should pay, you are no longer depending on government-by-punitive column.

    2. The strategic bombing advocates were arguing that air power *alone* would be sufficient to force an enemy to submit. In Iraq there was always the option to send in ground troops, and the rural tribes knew it.

    3. The same tactic was used in Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier – but it was a aerial variant of the punitive expedition. The recalcitrant tribe is given the requirement (pay compensation, withdraw from this area, release the hostages…), then notified of a designated safe area – anyone outside this will be bombed/strafed. The hope was that either the tribe would pressure the leaders into complying or fear of losing relative to other tribes would work on them. Mostly worked – but it happened within a defined bargaining framework, constant communication and limited aims.

  26. I feel this article is slightly conspiratorial, that we only have a seperate air branch to keep generals in a job.
    I think Bret is overplaying the requirement for strategic air power to be a sole means by which a war is one to be meaningful. It’s like saying Trebuchets were useless because they couldn’t collapse walls, or that archers don’t kill enough to be worth it.

    It seems to me, an armchair general, that airpower exists to degrade enemy capabilities. Either to encourage desired behaviour, to weaken ground capabilities, or gain uncontested airpsace in the first place.

    Russia’s inability to dismantle Ukrainian IADS has prevented any warheads on foreheads really, so they have resorted to an old tactic so as to show the glorious leader progress. It’s not as if Russia isn’t trying to support it’s ground elements with airpower, but that Ukrainian IADS makes it incredibly risky to do so. This puts the Ukrainians and Russians on an even field and allows for Ukraine to win this war conventionally.

    1. I think his point here is that strategic air operations just aren’t a large enough drain on capacity to make it worthwhile. The exact thing here in the history of strategic bombing was that the great strategic bombing campaigns of history had most of their capacity degrading effect on the tactical or operational level. Most advocates of strategic air power portrayed it as something that could alone change the course of a war when it mostly worked by supporting other elements of the war, degrading capacities as you said.

    2. After the introduction of nuclear weapons, there was a huge “turf battle” between the USAF, more specifically the Strategic Air Command, and the US Navy which pushed for launching nukes from naval-based platforms. Until nuclear subs and the SLBM, the Navy championed some frankly desperate ideas to remain strategically relevant.

    3. The Q is, why have separate command systems – nearly all the way to the top, right up to the Joint Chiefs – for armed forces that are supposedly all on the same team. We have had endless turf wars between these bureaucracies, and that is indeed to a significant extent because of the “my job depends on it” so I have to also have an ideology of warfare that supports that.

  27. What’re your thoughts on Philips Payson O’Brien’s take on Second World War strategic bombing, in How The War Was Won? I’ve always found it quite persuasive, if overstating the case a bit, in arguing that the strategic air war was crucial to Allied success, if not for the reasons the Allies thought it was.

    1. Oddly enough, _sound_ seems to have been an element in increasing civilian dread of bombing. The Stuka dive bomber had deliberate noise makers that the people on the ground could hear. And the V-1 “buzz” bomb had a distinctive engine noise whose sudden cut-out meant the warhead was now falling.

    2. Martha Gellhorn was one of the first foreign journalists to reach Guernica after the bombing. She reports asking a Francoist officer, ‘Why did you do it?’ In her telling, he replied, with a laugh, ‘Because we could.’

  28. Re your footnote 7, Quartered Safe Out Here (the very very slightly fictionalized memoir of George McDonald Fraser’s time in the infantry in Burma in WWII) has the author’s thoughts on the atom bomb and the invasion of Japan.

    His view (in short) is that his life (and those of his children and grandchildren) was worth more than that of civilians of the nation that started the war, especially given that he was a conscript, as were those around him. THAT point gets glossed over a lot in a way it probably shouldn’t – the US and colonial forces were volunteers, but the UK itself’s were not. It also needs to be remembered that the Japanese and Germans both had a nasty tendency to do horrible things to prisoners and conquered populations – so if you lost, it was a real threat. The degree to which WWII genuinely was an existential fight against evil enemies is sometimes underappreciated, for a variety of good and bad reasons. I’m not sure exactly what the acceptable enemy civilian casualty rates are in such a circumstance, but I suspect they are high. Extremely high, honestly.

    But he says he also suspects that if you showed all the consequences of the atom bomb to his squad (he was writing back when “the a-bomb ended the war” was still very much the prevailing mindset), they’d have sat silently, then gotten up bitching as they always did and marched off to fight the hard way all the way to Tokyo.

    The narrative appeal of the atom bomb ending the war shouldn’t be underestimated, either. I mean, what’s more climactic – the war ending with a dramatic demonstration of technological hubris bringing us into a new era of unparalleled risk and unpredictability, or the Japanese surrendering because the Russians showed up?

      1. I believe that in WWII, Americans were required to wait until they were drafted. At first volunteers were accepted, but the Army complained that their lack of glamor was drawing off the men they needed to other branches.

  29. An interesting subject for a follow-up post might be whether this conclusion can be extended to artillery—including nuclear artillery and even ICBMs. The latter are somewhat sui generis, arguably being best thought of as spacecraft, but they at least seem more like artillery than like bombers.

    1. Rocket artillery, even at intercontinental ranges, is still artillery.
      The main difference between artillery and aircraft is whether you want to recover the transport vehicle or not. Artillery is on a one-way trip, aircraft are coming back home.


    2. But the Air Force claimed this super-long-range “artillery” as within their turf (which was not on the ground, bad pun).

    3. Artillery, generally, doesn’t claim to win the war on its own. Strategic bombing, or at least strategic bombing enthusiasts, claim that it can win a war without any other aid. Artillery exists and works in concert with infantry and other forces; it does not seek to supplant or replace them the same way strategic bombing does.

  30. Wonderful article, thank you!
    I’d love at some point a coda on the related over-promising of tactical airpower. I’m particularly thinking of C.L. Chennault’s claims that tactical strikes could halt the IJA’s advances in southern China with functionally no ground presence. I’m not certain if there’s a larger pattern there, or if something similar has been attempted since. Does modern airpower allow complete paralysis on the ground this way, as opposed to just slowing movement, forcing logistics to harden/move at night/through difficult terrain, etc?

    1. Tactical airpower, as well as artillery (tube, rocket, ect), has a largely point-in-time effect on the enemy. What is hit by the bombs, shells, etc. is either destroyed or damaged (killed or wounded). In the vicinity there is a period of time when movement is stopped or slowed. But after a while, movement (and other military operations) resume and continue until if, or when, the next strike arrives. That is the weakness of airpower (and indirect fire from artillery, etc.). Without ground troops taking the space that was targeted, that space can resume being used by the enemy. If observation and targeting can be done continuously on a given geographic space, then perhaps airpower alone could win. Currently, that continuous observation and targeting is rather expensive to achieve.

      1. I broadly agree. What I was thinking of was Chennault’s claim that effectively fear of possible tactical strikes would paralyze the IJA, so that they would stop their advance even without significant opposition by the Chinese Army. It strikes me as an analogous claim to the promises of strategic air strikes, but I don’t know if Chennault was completely idiosyncratic, or if others have made or continue to make similar claims–just as strategic air proponents claim air forces can win wars without an army, Chennault and other tactical air proponents might claim air forces can win battles without an army.

        1. I don’t know whether Chennault thought in these terms, but…
          The Chinese Army may have been ineffective at fighting the IJA, but they were boots on the ground next door ready to move in once TacAir wiped out the IJA.
          (That TacAir couldn’t do that is neither here nor there for the theory)

  31. I know you mention precision-guided weapons, but I think they deserve more attention in this story. They were a very important technology, almost as important to the military as flight itself.

    Those ludicrously low early estimates of “300 tons of bombs will end the war” were prusumably based on the bombs actually *hitting their targets*. But they didn’t. A bomb that detonates *inside* a building will destroy it, but one that detonates outside doesn’t do much against a stone or cement walled building. The army’s official estimate was that a bomber had only a 1.2% chance of hitting a 100 sq foot target. The allies dropped about 1.3 million tons of bombs on Germany in WW2, but if you account for the terrible accuracy, only about 13,000 of them were actually hitting anything. They were more effective in Japan, but only if “effective” means “bombing random civilians living in cities made of wood and paper.”

    The famous example for precision-guided bombs is the Dragon’s Jaw bridge over North Vietnam. The US bombed it repeatedly over the course of the war, but never managed to significantly damaged it. Not until the very end, in Linebacker, when they had laser guided precision bombs available. 26 laser-guided bombs did more than all the thousands of conventional bombs dropped in previous attempts, and the bridge was finally destroyed.

    Fortunately, we have never seen a large scale terror bombing with precision-guided weapons. The devastation would be more like a nuclear war than the blitz of WW2.

  32. To quote Potential History, paraphrasing George Picket, “Why did Japan surrender? I think the Allies had something to do with it.”

  33. I continue to be puzzled by the strictures adopted by Bret and many others, almost without question as if self-evident, against killing civilians. It makes sense in a medieval society in which the military participants and the political decision-makers are the same people, and the civilians are peasants who expect to work for whoever won the most recent war. Killing the peasants would be both stupid and wrong. And even in the 19th century, one might consider that many soldiers were volunteers, and many civilians were women or propertyless men barred from political participation.

    But in modern war, that logic no longer applies. The German and Japanese soldiers were conscripts drafted by an autocratic (or even totalitarian) government, and had no more political power or free will than their civilian fellows.

    Now in practice, to the extent that strategic bombing doesn’t work (and I agree with Bret’s analysis on that point), it is clearly wrong. Inflicting harm on others for no reason or to no other purpose is always wrong, and harm to soldiers will rarely have no military benefit, while inflicting harm on civilians will often be in that category. But that is not a blanket moral principle, just an application of principles to a particular set of facts.

    1. > Killing the peasants would be both stupid and wrong.

      Killing peasants in a area that a) belongs to the enemy b) you don’t intent to conquer makes sense as it will directly impact the revenues of your enemies, which might force them to negotiate (even if the peasants still don’t have their say in the matter).
      Doesn’t make it right, though.

      > And even in the 19th century, one might consider that many soldiers were volunteers

      Were they really? Going back, the US Civil War and 1870 Franco-Prussian War used conscription, Napoleonic armies used conscription, the French Revolution saw the “Levée en Masse” and previous (European) powers used some forms of conscriptions already, even if less centralized than the system we see after 1800.

  34. The bar analogy would be more accurate if the other patrons, themselves unharmed, drew their own knives and started stabbing the original assailant’s unarmed friends. “This’ll teach him!”

    1. As far as I know “I was totally not Nazi and was unaware of anything bad done by Nazis” done by Germans is almost 100% pure revisionism – let me know if that was incorrect and bombed Dresden was populated in large part by people not supporting Hitler, not supporting mass murder or at least willing to end war by surrender that would be costly to Germany.

      Dresden bombings targeted city important to war efforts (railway yards) and filled with people who had no problem with oppressing and murdering “subhumans”.

      This does not really excuse Harris or makes it a more effective choice but…

      > The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw, and half a dozen other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.

      was right.

      Nevertheless maybe allocating resources differently would destroy Germany and stop their genocide faster.

      Dresden bombing resulted in deaths of about 25 000 people.

      Wola massacre alone involved murder of 40 000 people within a week ( )

      How many people were murdered by Germans every single day? Is it plausible that Dresden bombings overall reduced death toll of WW II by causing it to end earlier and give Germans less time for mass murder?

      1. BTW, on topic “terror bombing does not work”:

        > killing of between 40,000 and 50,000 Poles in the Wola neighbourhood of the Polish capital city, Warsaw
        > The massacre was ordered by Adolf Hitler, who directed to kill “anything that moves” to stop the Warsaw Uprising soon after it began.
        > The Germans anticipated that these atrocities would crush the insurrectionists’ will to fight and put the uprising to a swift end.
        > However, the ruthless pacification of Wola only stiffened Polish resistance, and it took another two months of heavy fighting for the Germans to regain control of the city.

      2. You are of course correct that the ‘we didn’t know’ defense is not the facts. But at Dresden – also the women? the children??

        1. > But at Dresden – also the women? the children??

          It would depend on whether it was

          – deliberate attempt to murder as many children as possible
          – sad side-effect of actual military goal

          Just “but children will die” is not a blocker – otherwise it encourages enemy to use as many human shields as possible.

          But again: is it maybe plausible that Dresden bombings overall reduced count of children murdered in WW II by causing it to end earlier and give Germans less time for mass murder?

          1. One thing surely is clear: The Germans had not placed civilians in Dresden in locations that could be described as human shields.
            As for ‘ending the war earlier,’ the only thing that brought the war to a halt was the Soviet (ground) capture of Berlin.
            Just as an aside, there was a small but significant air attack that perhaps prolonged the war. In mid-1944, Rommel’s staff car – en route to Paris from his headquarters near Giverny in a cave along the Seine – was strafed by an RAF fighter (who didn’t know who was in it). Rommel was injured and therefore in hospital in Paris at the time of the ‘Generals Plot’ of July. When the bomb left by von Stauffenburg failed to kill Hitler, the plotters still intended to contact the Allied forces anyway, offering a surrender in the West. But their emissaries in the West went to Rommel’s headquarters, and found only his second in command. This officer said he was sympathetic but could not break his oath of loyalty. And so an RAF plot may have prolonged the war in the West.

          2. It doesn’t matter whether any given civilian is a human shield. Your enemy will use human shields in the future if you refrain from attacking military target because of civilians

          3. I believe it has been estimated that the raid on Dresden killed ~ 25000 people, and that the war killed ~ 30000 people per day.

            So if the raid shortened the war by one day, it saved more lives than it took.

  35. Your talk about inaccuracy reminded me of a point Alex Wellerstein brought up in a blog post about nuclear weapons:

    ICBMs and nuclear (especially fusion) weapons are a match made in heaven. ICBMs and even early-Cold-War strategic bombers are very inaccurate delivery systems; but close counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and nukes. Missing the Leuna plant with 84% probability is fine if most of the “misses” are close enough to destroy it anyway, and you throw three or four missiles at the thing to be sure.

    Of course, this strategy of “can’t hit the railyard/bridge/plant for sure, so let’s just nuke the whole zip code” produces such enormous casualties, and leads inevitably to (emotive and not necessarily rational!) retaliation, that it isn’t really useful either.

  36. > I must admit I do not generally extend this charity to fellows like Arthur Harris or Curtis LeMay who were fairly explicit that their goal was to simply kill as many civilians as possible in order to end the war. At the same time, I thank heavens I have never been and presumably never will be in a position to be forced to weigh ending a war more quickly and thus saving some of the soldiers under my command against grievous civilian casualties.

    I suspect that Harris was not really caring about it, but given that Germans were obsessed with murdering civilians it further makes position “win at any cost” more defensible.

    Note that just Wola massacre[1]) was murder of 40 000 civilians, more than entire London bombing campaign. And was done in a week at far lesser effort.


    And maybe I am too bitter about the entire thing over 80 years, later but I agree

    > The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw, and half a dozen other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.

    and my main problem with terror bombing done by allies was that it was not effective. Not that Nazi civilians and people supporting Hitler were killed.

    As far as I know “I was totally not Nazi and was unaware of anything bad done by Nazis” done by Germans is almost 100% pure revisionism – let me know if that was incorrect and bombed Dresden was populated in large part by people not supporting Hitler, not supporting mass murder or at least willing to end war by surrender that would be costly to Germany.

  37. That matters of course because, while we are discussing strategic airpower here, it is not – as you will recall from above – the only kind. But it was the only kind which could justify a fully independent Air Force.

    Increasingly the salaries of airmen in the United States and Britain depended on understanding that strategic bombing – again, distinct from other forms of airpower – could work, would work and would be a war winner.

    “The purpose of our air forces is to win wars” is a much better argument to take to political leaders for funding than “the purpose of our air forces is to support our ground forces.” The latter implies that the ground forces should set priorities and that the air forces ought to, for the most part, subordinate their efforts to those priorities.

    If these quotes, and this essay, have created in people a great skepticism in independent air arms with broad strategic ambits and the commensurate resource cost being poured into them for little gain, I would like to recommend my friend Robert Farley’sGrounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force if you want to know more!

    (It should be noted that Robert doesn’t mean “abolish” in the sense “there will be no airpower,” but “abolish” in the sense of “the institution known as the USAF should be ended and its capabilities parceled out to, and made subordinate to, the other service branches.”)

  38. Maybe the Arthur Harrises of the world were not thinking in enough detail about how morale and defeat work on the ground. Members of a demoralised force will retreat or fail to attack because they are not convinced that the personal risks they would take by fighting effectively is worth it. It’s a bunch of individual and squad-scale decisions at discrete points in time that add up to a wider effect.
    But in a city that is being bombed indiscriminately, you’re no less likely to be bombed at home than at the factory so you are not disincentivised from contributing to the war effort. You could call on your government to capitulate but you might as well free-ride on other people doing that until the situation is truly dire.
    Tl;Dr: You have to look at how material conditions affect the individual and not just the group. When both sets of incentives line up, it can be hard to see which one is doing the work.

    1. A lot of things in wars, and in politics more generally, get me wanting to ask people how they are trying to get who to do what. So many plans seem to be worked out by the Underpants Gnomes.

      1. People are stupid.

        Worse, malicious and stupid are frequently presented as opposites when there is no mutual exclusion

  39. Douhet had assumed big, powerful bombers could not only be undetected, but would fly at altitudes and speeds which would render them difficult to intercept. Fighter designs, however, advanced just as fast.

    In retrospect, that’s so obvious that it’s surprising Douhet and his contemporaries could have missed it.

    One can argue that bombing civilians is nevertheless immoral in all cases, just as one might argue that no one should ever stab someone with a knife in a bar. However, if a fellow draws a knife in a bar and begins stabbing the patrons, it is hardly reasonable for that same fellow to cry foul play when the other patrons draw their knives and just so happen to have much bigger knives. It is, at that point, too late for the first fellow to opine on the fundamental incivility of knifing people.

    On one hand, I’d like to argue that it’s still immoral to bring out your knife to stop the knifer if the knife does not actually end the barfight faster, but just inflicts additional suffering on the people involved (especially when you remember that for terror bombing campaigns, unlike knife-fights, there rarely meaningful overlap between the people bombed and the people who decided to start the war).

    I’ll give the Allies the benefit of the doubt for most of the war; it wasn’t clear how much the metaphorical knives would do to end the war. That benefit fades towards the tail end of the war, especially for a couple of bombings which were intended less to end an unendable war and more to reduce the influence an (admittedly atrocious) ally would have in the defeated country, with arguments and estimates that it killed less people than an invasion not being made until after the war ended.

    And to be crystal clear: I criticize the Allies on an absolute basis, not a relative one. Generals who bomb civilians to fight fascism are worthy of criticism, but they are almost saintly when compared to generals who bomb civilians to spread fascism.

    I have strong opinions on this topic, but they’re not opinions that fit into a single tweet. Lots of caveats that I also feel strongly about.

  40. “By contrast strategic airpower aims to produce effects at the strategic (that is, top-most) level on its own.”

    On the face of it, the principle of unity of effort suggests that each of the services would be most effective when working in harmony with the others. So the strategic use of airpower, remote from the other services by definition, would seem to be defined as that use of airpower which is least effective.

    It occurs to me that if you think of RAF Coastal Command as being subordinate to the Admiralty, and the Tactical Air Forces as subordinate to Army commanders, Bomber Command spent most of the war subordinate to the Ministry of Economic Warfare.

  41. Tizard Committee, not Mission. Same guy, but the /mission/ specifically was to America in WW2. Missions don’t develop new technology.

  42. I think it is worth considering if in a bombing campaign where the strategic situation is similar to WWII but access to plenty of PGM’s is a given could make a difference. Do modern air defenses and other mitigating factors more or less cancel out, or could, if nothing else, mass deployment of precision munitions degrade industrial and logistical networks to the point where output is affected enough to degrade the ability of ground, naval, and air forces? The closest we got was the Gulf Wars, and those weren’t the protracted industrial conflict that WWII was. Hopefully we’ll never find out the answer to this question. If nothing else, I think it’s worth considering given how much PGM’s have changed other aspects of warfare.

    1. The coolest PGMs have avoidance manouvres built-in to their terminal guidance systems, and arrive faster than most aniti-air missiles. As I understand it, hypersonic missiles create a wall of plasma in front of the missile, which doesn’t reflect radar signals.

      So a single PGM with 15m accuracy is worth several dozen unguided or approximately-guided missiles. Of course, the problem with PGMs (apart from their expense) is that *somebody* has to have eyes on the target, to designate it, whether they are a reconnaisance unit on the ground with a laser designator, or a drone operator, or some dude with a surveillance satellite terminal. I understand the Russians have been using these expensive systems as long-range demolition charges, without bothering to designate a target carefully.

  43. What about the Dutch surrender in May 1940, immediately after the carpet-bombing of Rotterdam? It would seem that terror bombing was decisive on that one occasion.

    1. Well the bombing was backed up by the military advances the Germans had made including cutting off the Netherlands from the rest of the allies through land and had ground forces close to Rotterdam.

  44. Upon further discussion in the above comments, it seems like the question of the possible diversion of air defense resources in Ukraine, similar to the unintended effect of WW2 bombing of German cities diverting German fighter planes and AA guns away from the Eastern front, might be worth looking into more. Let’s leave aside the discussion of intent and just look at the possible effects.

    First, a few words about the use of drones by both sides at the front in the current war. The use of drones in this context has been extensive. Both Ukraine and Russia have observation drones that can be used for general observation and artillery spotting as well as strike drones (TB2s for Ukraine, Orions for Russia) and short-range (maximum 40km) suicide drones (Switchblades for Ukraine, Lancets for Russia). As a result, both sides have deployed countermeasures to the front, including jammers, AA guns, missiles, the works.

    I further note that in this context, I don’t see much opportunity cost for Russia from not using Shaheds at the front. In an environment where drones can operate, either drone-guided artillery or a direct drone strike from Orions or Lancets would seem to work at least as well at a lower cost. In the context a contested air environment where Russia needed a precise hit beyond gun artillery range, Lancets would almost certainly be more likely to get through due to being smaller and presumably harder to shoot down.

    My understanding is that the major advantages that the Shahed-136 has besides low cost are range and an advantage in attacking static targets due to backup inertial navigation systems that allow it to continue along a preset flight path even if it is jammed. Which is just what you would expect from a weapon system designed to attack Saudi oil fields defended by American air defense systems. But Russia has numerous alternative options for attacking static targets at short/medium range.

    What happens when Russia starts picking static targets deep in the rear that Ukraine can’t afford to not defend and sending Shaheds their way? I’m talking as a total amateur here, but off of the top of my head I’m not sure if Ukraine has any great options to respond.

    Shooting down the Shaheds with missiles would almost certainly use up missiles that are more expensive per-unit than the drones are, and could use up ex-Soviet missiles that it is difficult for NATO to find replacements for. Ukraine doesn’t have all that many AA guns, and there are a lot of potential targets to defend spread over a wide area, so using AA guns for defense likely means diverting some from the front. I’ve seen videos on social media of Ukrainian police officers attempting to shoot down Shaheds with rifles – I’m not sure about the efficacy of that particular technique, but regardless an obvious drawback is that the vast majority of the time this only becomes an option once the drones are already over a populated area.

    If anyone reading this knows of any options that I missed, feel free to point them out.

    In addition, there are reports that the Shahed-136 has some anti-radiation capabilities, in which case they may be able to inflict some attrition on air defense systems, with some drones acting as bait to get the air defense systems to turn on the radars so that the other drones can home in. I don’t know nearly enough about that subject to say how effective this potential use might be.

    By the way, if you’re wondering why NATO doesn’t have any long-range suicide drones at least as good as the Shahed-136 if not better to send to Ukraine, the answer is pretty simple. Israel designed and built long-range suicide drones (Harops and Harpies) that in 2020 were used to good effect by Azerbaijan in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabach War. It seems that no one else in the broader “Western Coalition” saw the need to make their own given that Israel was already handling this particular category of weapons. Then at some point Russia cut a deal with Israel where Israel would not give advanced weapons to Ukraine and in return Russia would let Israel bomb Syria sometimes and would also limit weapons sales to Iran (Saudi Arabia was almost certainly part of the same deal, hence their repeated refusals of US requests to increase oil production since February). The US did not cut a deal with Iran, and here we are.

    1. First, I think you overestimate the point that’s being made about Allied “strategic bombing” inadvertently tying up (and grinding down) the Luftwaffe. Forcing Germany to divert resources to air defense wasn’t a hidden stroke of genius that turned the tide of war. It is a point to be made for the sake of pedantry, that technically the Allied bombing raids weren’t entirely ineffective. And even that only worked because the Allies were already industrially dominating Germany (so even trading an Allied bomber for a German fighter was a relative win for the Allies, as Germany would have a harder time replacing the fighter than the Allies would have for the bomber), something that cannot be said about Russia vis-a-vis the coalition of countries supplying weapons to Ukraine (even apart from the obvious Juggernaut of the US, there’s Germany, France, UK, Italy and Canada who each have a larger GDP than Russia. Shooting down a $20’000 drone with a $100’000 Stinger is, in relative terms, an absolute steal for the US, especially considering the warfare they are used to consists of firing the proverbial $2M Tomahawk at a $20 tent).

      Second, there are no targets that Ukraine “cannot afford to not defend”. War is no game of chess where the king, by virtue of the rules defining him as sole victory condition, must be protected at all cost. In warfare, the two components of victory are materiel and will, and while the former is being produced where Russia dare not strike, the latter is – as history has shown again and again – impervious to explosives. Germany was in a slightly different situation as their materiel was being produced in the very factories threatened by Allied bombs.

      Third, I’d question your assumption that using the Shaheds for terror bombing has no opportunity cost at all. Even if they don’t eat up any Russian industrial capacity and don’t have any other use, there’s still the question whether the political cost of getting Iran to supply them could have been leveraged more profitably.

      But fourth and last, that third point is entirely moot as even at zero opportunity cost for the drones/bombs/shells, terror bombing by itself presents a negative utility to the perpetrator, as it will increase the will to fight (or to support the fight). This is especially important for Putin as his officially stated war goals are already out of reach (so he can’t “win”). The best he can hope for in a peace agreement is staying in power, an immediate end to Western sanctions, and possibly getting to keep Crimea. A hope that is getting slimmer with every atrocity for which the people of Ukraine (and of the countries on whose support Ukraine depends) will be clamoring for punishment.

      In short, Russia has made a serious miscalculation and their hopes to get out as unscathed as possible are not being improved by killing Ukrainian civilians, nor by forcing Ukraine to spend resources on protecting their civilians. To claim otherwise is wishful thinking, or, as the kids call it these days, a hearty dose of copium.

      1. > And even that only worked because the Allies were already industrially dominating Germany (so even trading an Allied bomber for a German fighter was a relative win for the Allies, as Germany would have a harder time replacing the fighter than the Allies would have for the bomber), something that cannot be said about Russia vis-a-vis the coalition of countries supplying weapons to Ukraine (even apart from the obvious Juggernaut of the US, there’s Germany, France, UK, Italy and Canada who each have a larger GDP than Russia. Shooting down a $20’000 drone with a $100’000 Stinger is, in relative terms, an absolute steal for the US, especially considering the warfare they are used to consists of firing the proverbial $2M Tomahawk at a $20 tent).

        It’s informative in this context to look at the actual military aid numbers. Here’s a PDF describing the total military aid given to Ukraine from the US since February:

        And it says that the total has been “Over 1,400 Stinger anti-aircraft systems.” Even assuming that none of those Stinger systems have been destroyed or lost since February, I highly doubt that that leaves enough to divert to rear protection without thinning out air defenses at the front, especially if you want to avoid the problem given with the “have police try to shoot the drones down with rifles” approach where by the time the drone is within range and line of sight it’s already over a populated area.

        In theory the industrial capacity of the West far exceeds that of Russia. In practice when you look up the actual military aid figures the numbers for many categories are not actually that large. Perhaps that will change in the future, but that’s the picture right now.

        > Second, there are no targets that Ukraine “cannot afford to not defend”.

        In practice, Ukraine has been using fighter jets to shoot down Shaheds, so clearly they aren’t willing to just let the Shaheds go through.

        > But fourth and last, that third point is entirely moot as even at zero opportunity cost for the drones/bombs/shells, terror bombing by itself presents a negative utility to the perpetrator, as it will increase the will to fight (or to support the fight). This is especially important for Putin as his officially stated war goals are already out of reach (so he can’t “win”).

        In the short term Putin’s biggest priority is halting or at least slowing further Ukrainian advances until the newly mobilized troops can arrive (if it turns out that the mobiks provide zero net added combat power, then he’s lost anyway). In that context, diverting Ukrainian resources away from the frontlines might well help.

        Long-term, if the current tactics using the Shaheds become no longer useful, they can always change their tactics. Whether they actually will is, of course, another question.

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