Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, December 2, 2021

The Roots of Air Superiority Doctrine in World War I

Pentagon Collection (Click on Image to Enlarge)

By Leonard Baker and B. F. Cooling

The origins of air superiority doctrine lay not in theory but in experience gained over the Western Front in France. Air superiority doctrine derived from the crucible of World War I. Yet, even then, ground action largely shaped its early concepts. The realities of the battlefield lay on the ground where infantry, artillery, machine guns, barbed wire, poison gas, and later, tanks, dominated tactics. The Western Front became stabilized by Christmas 1914, and the war became a protracted fight in which manpower and industrial mobilization, logistics, organization, and psychological adjustment to life in the trenches became as important to operations as the tactics of infantry or cavalry. This kind of conflict became a backdrop for airmen to consider their own role in modern warfare. They began to formulate doctrine for defining this role. However, the process took place only over time—those drawn-out months of stalemate when total war of mass dictated procurement of large quantities of men and materiel to be poured onto a rather limited section of terrain. In such an environment, doctrine became inevitably linked to the actual experience of combat.

Observation aviators soon began contesting air space with one another. Ground commanders demanded that enemy observation be kept away from friendly lines. At first, the observation airmen merely shot at one another with handguns or used other weapons of opportunity. Later, they introduced machine guns, until finally, lessons from this inconclusive sparring led to an inevitable spiral of newer aircraft and armament designed to wrest control of the air from the prying eyes of enemy reconnaissance. Before long, this escalation continued on yet a second plane as airmen began bombing targets on the ground. As Maj. Gen. Hugh Trenchard, General Officer Commanding the Royal Flying Corps in the field for the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), explained to Lt. Col. William Mitchell, an American observer in June 1917: “When the airplanes began to attack each other and drop bombs, the troops on the ground yelled for protection and brought the air forces to task for not keeping all enemy airplanes out of the air near them.” Thus began the contest for air superiority.

Historians have observed that the side in the conflict that possessed the best aircraft momentarily commanded the sky. Indeed, part of the story of air superiority was that of technological superiority. While the story of individual aircraft types and designs, or the generational sequence from Fokkers to Spads to Nieuports and Sopwith aircraft lies beyond the scope of this essay, the technical edge remains important to understanding this gestation period for air superiority doctrine. For example, the last part of 1915 and the first months of 1916 were dominated by what Allied pilots termed the “Fokker scourge.” German aircraft manufacturer Anthony Fokker (actually a transplanted Dutchman) produced his famous Eindecker monoplanes, which mounted a novel synchronized machinegun mechanism for firing through the propeller, thus affording flyers a relatively stable aerial gun platform. This aircraft dominated the air for a time. Then, Allied aviators recaptured technological superiority with their Bristol, Sopwith Camel, Salamander, and Spad fighters, only to lose it once more when the Germans came up with their Albatros and Halberstadt airplanes in 1917.

Such was the ebb and flow of aviation technology; the advantage became as much a factor of superior aircraft designers and manufacturers by the middle of the war as tactics and individual flying skill. At the time of Verdun and the Somme in 1916, air superiority depended on factors all the way from industry through ministries of defense, right to the frontline aviators at aerodromes in France.

Of course, aviators concerned with the air battle focused primarily upon air fighting techniques, formation flying, increased training, and proper command, control and coordination arrangements, as these factored into the air superiority equation. Everyone worked to send the best prepared flyers into battle, although the heavy attrition rate of men and machines for both sides often lowered qualitative and quantitative levels below the satisfactory point. Individual squadron commanders like Capt. Oswald Boelcke of the German Military Aviation Service particularly recognized the virtue of vigorously training pilots in fighter techniques before taking them into combat. Boelcke’s pupils, such as Baron Manfred von Richthofen, proved the value of such pre-combat training by combining superior aircraft with superior pilot skills to win many air battles over the Western Front. Here was the true cutting edge of air superiority in actual combat—the wedding of man and machine. As one student of the air war has concluded, the large number of inexperienced replacements, combined with curtailment of training due to shortages of materiel, lubricants, gasoline, and other supplies, resulted in a marked decline of German frontline pilot proficiency by 1918. This downturn contrasted with a rejuvenated Allied pilot training program and superior fourth-generation fighter aircraft at a particularly pivotal moment in the war.

Air superiority for the Allies, at least, also depended upon how well air leaders used their combat strength. Early on, Trenchard and his French counterpart, Commandant Jean du Peuty, learned the merits of Allied command cooperation. In moments of crisis when German offensives threatened one or the other’s sector, they exchanged men and aircraft freely. Entry of American aviators into the war in 1917 extended this strong inte-rallied cooperation. Both the Royal Flying Corps and the Aviation Militaire trained and supplied the American Air Service of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), thereby enhancing the overall air superiority edge for the Allies. In a sense, the Americans both on land and in the air provided additional manpower, while the Allies provided material aid and standardized procedures, training, and weapons. Of nearly 1,500 American Air Service combat pilots, about one-half trained in French, British, and Italian schools, while more than 20,000 ground support personnel did likewise. American training programs usually copied or modified European guidelines, and the manual of pursuit aviation given to all American flyers was a translation of the French air ace Albert Deullin’s notes. Such methods minimized normal interoperability problems for this Allied force.

The interchange of ideas and experience led naturally to some early efforts at codifying airpower doctrine. Both German and Allied combatants learned over the course of the conflict that there were two abiding principles—concentration of force and the priority of counter-air operations.

However, the daily demands of combat prevented emergence of a single architect of doctrine at this time. Achievement of air superiority over the battlefield was obviously an extension of superiority on the battlefield. Senior leaders saw attainment of both through offensive massing of firepower, weaponry, and men at the principal point of engagement. Aviators, like their ground superiors, therefore favored concentration of military striking power, rather than parceling out assets among smaller organizational elements.  Trenchard, for example, mirrored Field Marshal Douglas Haig’s principle of the massed offensive; only in Trenchard’s case, the mass would be of aircraft in the air. Consequently, both generals earned the label of “butcher” by those subordinate to them. Yet, Haig and Trenchard represented a generation of military leaders who remained disciples of the offensive and sought to use any new tool such as the airplane to underpin this faith.

Source: "Developments and Lessons Before World War I1" from Case Studies in the Achievement of Air Superiority, USAF History & Museum Program, 1994

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