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

Monday, March 13, 2023

Douhet: Airpower Theorist

An Early "Air "Armada"

By Robert S. Dudney

In 1911 Italy went to war with the fading Ottoman Empire. Rome’s target was Libya, a Turkish province. It was a forgettable war but for this fact: the Italian Army brought its fledgling force of nine aircraft, which flew history’s first reconnaissance and bombing missions. For military airpower, it was the Genesis 1:1 moment. This long-ago war also had a historic indirect effect: it helped to launch a new career for an obscure Italian officer, Maj. Giulio Douhet. In a 1910 essay, he had predicted, “The skies are about to become a battlefield as important as the land or the sea. ... Only by gaining the command of the air shall we be able to derive the fullest benefit” of combat in this realm. Douhet, long an artilleryman, had just gone on aviation duty. The Libyan war convinced the army to form a true aviation unit, and Douhet got the command.

Army officers were irritated by his nontraditional ideas. They were outraged when, in early 1914, he dispensed with budgeting formalities and ordered a three-engine bomber from his friend and fellow airpower enthusiast, industrialist Giovanni “Gianni” Caproni. For that the army exiled Douhet to an infantry division at Edolo, near the Austrian border. He was there in July 1914, serving as division chief of staff and pondering airpower, when the Great War erupted in Europe. Now a colonel, Douhet badgered the army with ideas about national preparedness. Italy should build an air force potent enough “to gain command of the air,” he declared in a December 1914 essay, so as to render the enemy “harmless.” He advocated production of 500 bombers capable of dropping 125 tons of ordnance per day on “the most vital, most vulnerable, and least protected points” of Austrian or German soil. In 1915, Italy finally entered the war. Douhet was shocked by the army’s poor condition and leadership. He wrote scathing letters, advocating the use of airpower. He was arrested in September 1916 and court-martialed for spreading false news and agitation. Military judges sentenced him to a year in prison.

Then, in October 1917, came Italy’s disastrous battle at Caporetto, with some 300,000 casualties. It more than vindicated Douhet’s acid remarks about the army. As a result, he was released from jail and returned to duty as director of aviation at the General Air Commissariat. Things did not go well, and in June 1918 he left military service. The army overturned Douhet’s conviction and promoted him to brigadier, yet he declined to return and focused on his writing about airpower. It is clear Douhet was profoundly affected by the carnage of World War I, appalled at the murderous result of years of stagnant trench warfare. More deeply, he saw what happened when a force using outdated tactics and illogical plans went up against modern weapons. In 1921, Douhet completed The Command of the Air, his principal treatise on the concept of strategic airpower. While in time it would become hugely influential, initial response was muted. 

Giulio Douhet (1869–1930)

Things were different in 1926 when he published a revised and more strident version. The book drew harsh attacks, especially from army and navy partisans. Small wonder, as it openly claimed their forces to be obsolete. Douhet devoted his final four years to intellectual combat with such foes. In this, as one historian put it, he proved to be “tireless, blunt, impatient, and very self-confident.” [But] what, exactly, did Douhet preach?
  •  Wars are no longer fought between armies but between whole peoples, he believed, and future wars would be total and unrestrained, with civilians as legitimate targets.
  •  Wars are won by destroying “the enemy’s will to resist”—and only this produces “decisive victory.” Defeat of enemy forces is a poor indirect route. It is far better to strike directly at “vital centers” of power inside an enemy nation.
  •  World War I was a turning point, showing armies and navies can no longer end wars; the power of the defense—poison gas, machine guns—makes offensive action futile.
  •  The airplane, though, is revolutionary, “the offensive weapon par excellence,” able to bypass surface defenses and carry out massive attacks on cities, destroying the enemy’s will to resist.
  •  For national defense, command of the air is necessary and sufficient. The army’s job is to mop up after air attacks. The navy is of even less use.
  •  The centerpiece of Douhet’s theory was what he saw as the airplane’s potential to devastate an enemy’s industrial heartland in relatively short order. However, he believed that an air force’s first task was to achieve command of the air, similar to today’s concept of air supremacy.

A 1918 (Pre-Douhet) Vision of Future War

It was a truly apocalyptic vision. Squeamish politicians and civilians were invited by Douhet to “avert their eyes.” He saw little use for “auxiliary aviation” (that is, fighters). In later years, he even maintained these forms of aviation were “worthless, superfluous, harmful,” as they were defensive. “Viewed in its true light, aerial warfare admits of no defense, only offense,” he said. The 1920s and 1930s were years of relative peace, so Douhet’s theories did not face the test of war for two decades. 

The true extent of his influence on actual military doctrine remains a subject of controversy. . . It appears, in the United States, Douhet’s work served to reinforce the views of Air Corps officers who had already come to the same conclusions by other routes. Douhet’s convictions, as Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold reported in his book, Global Mission, provided ideological ballast to U.S. Army Air Forces doctrine. “As regards strategic bombardment, the doctrines were still Douhet’s ideas modified by our own thinking in regard to pure defense,” said Arnold.

One of the most important consciousness-raising attempts by politicians about the terrible realities of air warfare came in the speech by the Conservative leader Sir Stanley Baldwin to the House of Commons in 1932. Baldwin pointed out that no town was safe: "The question is: whose morale will be shattered quickest by that preliminary bombing?" Baldwin was content to ram home his point that rapidly evolving aircraft technology was a threat in and of itself: "I think it is well also for the man in the street to realize that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed, whatever people may tell him. The bomber will always get through."

Sources: Air Force magazine, April 2011; The Blitz Companion

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