Air Power: 21st Century Evolution – Russia Left Behind

“The battlefield can no longer be limited; it now extends to all the lands and seas of all the nations in the war.”[1] General Giulio Douhet

As an Air Force veteran this post topic is especially interesting. I will start by committing what some of my airmen colleagues might consider heresy – conventional strategic air power has never won a war on its own and is not likely to do so in the future. I recall discussing the subject with my late grandfather, who served a total of 20 years as a USAAF pilot during WWII and in the USAF Reserve. He was schooled in the doctrines of Billy Mitchell and firmly believed that Strategic Air Power could bring just about any enemy to its knees. I recall him telling me in 2003 that we should have leveled every city in Iraq including all major infrastructure before a single U.S. soldier set foot in the country. He also pointed to the fact that it was the Operation Linebacker I and II bombing campaigns during Vietnam that brought the communists to the negotiating table.

A look at history, however, is enough to dispel the myth of a quick and decisive victory won by air power, as proposed by Italian General Douhet.[2] The Allies attempted it during the Second World War, and it failed to produce the outcome that he envisioned. To give an example, during a period of only a few months in 1945, the U.S. strategic bombing campaign rendered most of Japan’s major cities into charred wasteland. The civilian dead numbered in the tens of thousands. Japanese government records placed the number of dead at nearly 84,000 with over 40,000 injured and over one million people left homeless in just the FIRST firebombing of Tokyo.[3] Eventually over eight and a half million city-dwelling Japanese civilians were left homeless, and twenty percent of civilian dwellings had been destroyed (in comparison, fifteen percent of German dwellings were destroyed during four years of bombing).[4] The raids depleted already dwindling clothing, medical, and other supplies as they went up in flames in large wooden warehouses. Transportation came to a standstill in many cities and food became scarce. Unemployment skyrocketed to over fifty percent in some areas.[5]

Colorized U.S. Army Air Force photograph of Tokyo, 1945.

After the war, the U.S. Strategic Bombing survey determined that in Tokyo alone over 25,000 small factories were either destroyed or badly damaged.[6] The attacks were fatal to whole industries, Japanese aircraft manufacturing never recovered.[7] Regardless, the Japanese government refused to capitulate and planned to continue fighting to the bitter end. Similarly, the USAAF and RAF pulverized Nazi Germany from the air – the Brits by night and the Yanks by day so there was no respite. In both cases the ability of the enemy to wage war was diminished, in some areas significantly, and likely shortened the war. However, conventional air power alone could not have forced either country to agree to “unconditional surrender.” In like fashion, the Ukrainians today appear equally determined to fight it out, regardless of how hard the Russians senselessly pummel their cities.

Where Douhet got it correct was in his assumption that aerial superiority or “command of the air” would be a decisive factor in future conflicts. One need look no further than the 1940 Battle of France, the Allied 1944 Normandy campaign and breakout, or more recently Operation Desert Storm, to illustrate the critical importance of air power and tactical/strategic aerial superiority on the modern battlefield. Conversely, Russia’s inability to control the airspace over Ukraine has hampered the ability of its ground forces to make significant headway without incurring potentially catastrophic losses. The Russian Air Force’s lack of flexibility, and dependence on air power doctrine that belongs in the last century will be the death knell of the current Russian campaign.

The “outside of the box” thinking of American air power theorists Colonels John Boyd and John Warden represent the future in air power strategy. I recall learning about Boyd’s OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) loop concept on active duty, and his theory that the side that does this more quickly and effectively will be victorious.[8] His idea that the Air Force should not hitch itself to any single doctrine or “doctrinal path” to victory, rather that it should be prepared to use any number of solutions, a “quiver full options” to disrupt an enemy’s ability to command and control, essentially cutting the head off the snake, is the type of thought that will help the U.S. Air Force prepare to fight and win a 21st century war.[9] With each passing day in the Ukraine-Russia conflict, it is painfully evident that Russia is bereft of innovative, forward thinking strategists and continues to rely on antiquated doctrines; for example Russia is currently using its fixed wing aviation as an extension of ground artillery. On paper the Russian Air Force dwarfs the Ukraine Air Force and air defense assets, yet they are unable to gain control of the aerial battlespace. The primitive tactics and strategy on display in Ukraine may have worked for the Russians in Chechnya and Syria, however by now it should be obvious to them that they will not work against NATO.

[1] Giulio Douhet, Command of the Air, trans. Dino Ferrari (Tannenberg Publishing. Kindle Edition, 2014), 179.

[2] Ibid. 349-394.

[3] E. Bartlett Kerr, Flames Over Tokyo: The U.S. Army Air Forces’ Incendiary Campaign Against Japan 1944-1945 (New York, NY: Donald I. Fine Inc, 1991), 207.

[4] Ibid. 281.

[5] Ibid. 280.

[6] Ibid. 279.

[7] Ibid. 278-279.

[8] United States Air Force, The School of Advanced Airpower Studies, The Paths of Heaven the Evolution of Airpower Theory, ed. Phillip S. Meilinger, by I. B. Holley, Jr., Chapter 15, “Reflections on the Search for Airpower Theory” (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 1997), 592.

[9] Ibid. 593.