Strategic Bombing in the History of the USAF

  • Published
  • By Dr. Dwight W. Tuttle
  • History office
Among the 52 buildings that comprised Maxwell AFB during the 1930s were eight acres of land dotted with a school, hangars, warehouses, a headquarters, and an operation facility. Some of these buildings date back to World War I when Maxwell Field was known as Air Repair Depot for the Army Air Service. Housed within these buildings was the Air Corps Tactical School. The school was originally established in 1920 as the Air Service Field Officer's School at Langley Field. Two years later the school's name changed to the Air Service Tactical School. In 1931, the Army Air Tactical School, moved to Maxwell Field. This became imperative when old facilities at Langley became inadequate to accommodate both the Tactical School and prospective new units.

With the arrival of the first school cadre at Maxwell Field on June 27 1931, the Air Corps Tactical School became the center of activity in what became known as "The Pre-War Golden Age of Maxwell." It was here an entire generation of Air Force officers were indoctrinated on strategy, techniques and tactics of air power. Future Generals Carl Spaatz, Hoyt Vandenburg, Nathan Twining, Thomas White, Curtis Lemay as well as other prominent Air Force leaders such as Joseph McNarney, George Kenney, Ira Eaker, Haywood Hansel, George Stratemeyer, and Ennis Whitehead were some of the first students of the school. Within the confines of the Tactical School at Maxwell was the birthplace and the nurturing ground for using air power as a major offensive weapon, capable of defeating a determined enemy through precision bombardment of their homeland. For more than 50 years, this idea shaped Air Force doctrine on the employment of air power.

The genesis of strategic bombing arose in response to the lack of a military doctrine by the Army's new air arm following World War I. At a time when the employment of the airplane was still in its infancy, and no thought was given to the future role of aviation in the over-all framework of national defense. Traditional minded army officers viewed air power solely as a tactical weapon. As the Air Corps officers at Maxwell attempted to develop a coherent curriculum to govern its wartime use, they dissented from this view.

After much study, the Air Corps officers at Maxwell accepted Brig Gen Billy Mitchell's dictum that "an airplane is an offensive and not a defensive weapon" which could best be employed behind the line of battle under a unified air command. The controversial general had successfully demonstrated the concentration and deployment of air units at the battle of Chateau-Thierry in July 1918. Over time, the staff of the Air Corps Tactical School changed and refined this idea. From an initial emphasis on using aircraft in a tactical role, after 1926 an evolution occurred in the thinking of Air Force tacticians at Maxwell away from bombing troops, supplies, and lines of communication in a combat zone to attacking the enemy's industrial base. Adopting a naive belief in the invincibility of bombers flying at a high attitude to avoid pursuit aircraft and anti-aircraft artillery, the staff of the Tactical School also concluded that heavy bombers such as the B-17 Flying Fortress were so advanced that escort aircraft were unnecessary. However, air theorists at Maxwell deviated from the thinking of Mitchell in one important respect, namely, the ability of daylight, high-altitude precision bombers to pinpoint targets on the ground.

A central element in Mitchell's concept of air power was that victory could be achieved by a mass concentration of long-range bombers flying deep into enemy territory to attack its airfields, war-related industry, and transportation network. Strategists at the Air Corps Tactical School refined this idea. For example, one instructor who previously worked with American railroads prior to joining the Air Corps, postulated the thesis that an enemy war capacity could be disrupted by destroying a few vital links in its railroad system. They applied the same analogy to other key interdependent economic segments. Transportation, steel, iron, ore, and electric power complexes were singled out as desirable targets for strategic bombers, whose destruction would force a hostile power to sue for peace. The United States suffered more than 50,000 casualties over the skies of Europe in World War II attempting to validate this idea.

In retrospect, while America's bombing campaign proved to be extremely valuable in winning the second World War, German industrial production did not suffer appreciably from it until the waning days of the war. Air power's major contribution to winning the war was twofold. First, the destruction of the German Luftwaffe, lured into battled with escorts accompanying American bombers allowed America and her allies to achieve air supremacy during Operation Overlord.
Second, it contributed to Germany's defeat by destroying its oil and power industries and its transportation system. Despite General Hap Arnold's declaration that air strategy involved "all the methods by which a nation impresses its will though the use of air power," the dream of achieving victory solely through long-range bombardment of an enemy's vital infrastructure remained to be proved.

All of this changed on 17 January 1991 when Americans were treated to a month-long televised extravaganza of USAF and USN aircraft, and air contingents of 11 other western European and Arab countries systematically wreaking havoc on Iraqi's military support structure. Using laser- and electro-optically guided "smart" bombs, American military aircraft were able to smash individual tanks and destroy important command and communication facilities and defensive radar sites. The coupling of precision weapons and a space-based navigation system such as the Global Position System of 24 satellites as well a mature radio navigation assemblage like the ring-laser gyro enabled F-117 and F-15E pilots to routinely place laser-guided bombs less than ten feet away from their target. By contrast, during World War II only 7 percent of all bombs dropped by B-17 Flying Fortress fell with 1,000 feet of their target. In Operation Desert Storm, it was possible for small formations of strike aircraft to hit targets with unguided bombs that had taken hundreds or thousands of aircraft during World War II to hit. Out of the synergistic coupling of precision weapons and navigation systems emerged lethality, unknown in modern warfare, against specific targets by attack aircraft.

First expounded in the lecture halls at Maxwell AFB, the vision of a long-range strategic bombers striking deep into enemy territory destroying the means and the will to resist has now become an accepted Air Force doctrine.