The Failure of Strategic Bombing and the Emergence of the Fighter as the Preiminent Weapon in Aerial Warfare
by Jeff L. Patton
The aircraft family tree began to split into specialties at the beginning of the Great War in 1914. From the Wright Brothers first flight in 1903, the airplane developed into single and twin engine variants carrying one or two crewmembers whose primary duty was observation and reconnaissance. Immediately before the advent of hostilities, the need for specialized aircraft became apparent and the combatant powers followed similar lines of development of fighter, bomber, and reconnaissance aircraft. Fighter aircraft were generally lighter, smaller, faster and more maneuverable in keeping with their mission to shoot down other aircraft while bombers were larger, longer ranged, carried multiple crew members and a heavier payload in keeping with their mission of being bomb haulers. When man first dropped explosives from an aircraft is unknown. However, the concept of using aircraft as bombers predates fighters by several years. Prior to the Great War, the Germans, Russians, French, and Austro-Hungarians were developing aircraft that were specifically designed to carry and release bombs. However, the honors of the first bombing raid in history goes to the French who used a “Voisin” twin engine bomber to drop 132 pounds of bombs on the Zeppelin hangers at Metz-Frascaty on August 14, 1914. From this humble beginning, the bomb carrying capability of aircraft rapidly increased. The tiny 132 pound bomb load of the “Voisin” of 1914 was surpassed one year later by the four engine Russian Ilya Mourometz with a bomb load of 1543 pounds, which, in turn, was surpassed by the British Handley Page bomber of 1916 that could carry a 1750 pound bomb load from England to the Saar region of Germany and return.
The Birth of Strategic Bombing
The combatants held diverse views on how to employ their bombers. The British emphasized tactical bombing in support of ground forces. These missions either directly targeted troops opposite friendly forces or their support forces to their rear much like ultra long range artillery. Likewise, the French concentrated on tactical support of their ground forces, in part, so as to avoid retaliatory bombing of their civilian population. The Germans not only used bombers in support of ground forces but also used their bombers for attacking an enemy’s war industry and population. The first such bombing mission in history can be dated to the Zeppelin attack on London in October 1915. The Germans grasped the psychological impact that bombing would have on civilians. The Zeppelin raids against London and southern England instilled fear and panic among the population and caused disruptions in daily life and diversion of resources to air defense all out of proportion to the actual damage their bombs caused. The British learned quickly from the Germans and emulated their strategy of strategic bombing of military targets. These military targets were not always located away from population concentrations and civilian casualties resulted from these raids. Both sides accused the other of targeting civilians and the deliberate bombing of cities remained a moral problem throughout the war. While no country declared they were deliberately bombing cities, the fact that there were so many armament factories, government offices, railroad yards, and other targets in and around cities that they became natural targets of bombing raids. The psychological effect of the power of an enemy to reach deep into your heartland and deliver death and destruction while your own government and army seemed impotent to stop it magnified the effectiveness of this type of warfare. On May 23, 1917, a fleet of 23 German Gotha bombers, each carrying a half ton payload appeared over the English seaside city of Folkstone. Ninety five people were killed and England was sent into a panic. By June, Gothas were staging daily and nightly raids over London and the Royal Air Force was, initially, powerless to stop them. By the time the Gotha raids ended, 835 British civilians had been killed and damage totaled £ 3,000,000. Although the amount of damage was minor, the loss of production time from workers having to seek shelter in the middle of the day or suffering from loss of sleep at night had a far greater impact on Britain’s war effort. Strategic bombing had entered its infancy.
The Prophets of Strategic Bombardment
Despite the limited damage the Zeppelins and Gothas inflicted upon the British, these early strategic bombing raids formed the basis of the work of theorists who addressed airpower employment theory during the inter war years and established a basis for the massive scale of strategic bombing in the coming world war.
The impetus for air power theorists was two fold. One, they wanted to avoid the carnage of the First World War that degenerated into a static meat grinder on the western front and two, they wanted to ensure the demands of the Army and Navy would not constrain the growth of air power as a future war winning weapon.
One of the best known proponents of strategic bombing after the Great War was Giulio Douhet who became known as the “father of air power”. He was chief of his country’s air service from 1913-1914 and his thinking was a product of his World War I experiences. He witnessed the carnage that resulted when outdated tactics and strategy collided with high-technology weapons. He was convinced high technology—machine guns, poison gas, and aircraft—made warfare between large land armies obsolete. Douhet believed with the advent of technology, the army and navy had become “organs of indirect attrition of national resistance.” The air arm, on the other hand, could act directly to break national resistance at the very source. He believed that a fleet of massive, self-defending bombers would dominate the enemy in a future conflict. The army and navy would continue to exist but would no longer be significant factors in winning a war. In his vision, Douhet advocated using bombers against counter value targets: population centers, transportation nodes, manufacturing sites, and important buildings, both public and private. Due to the primitive nature of bombsights at the time, he recognized that an enormous amount of bombs would need to be dropped over a large area on the premise that one bomb might hit the actual target. Civilian casualties would be the unavoidable collateral damage resulting from this tactic. The attendant devastation would cause the people (as opposed to the military) to lose the will to fight and the war would end quickly.
Sir Hugh Trenchard was also one of the “prophets” of strategic bombing between the wars. As chief of the Royal Flying Corps and later Royal Air Force, he was instrumental in introducing the Hanley-Page heavy bomber into the RAF inventory. His bombers ranged over most cities in northern Germany and by August 1918 were dropping 1000 tons of bombs a month on military targets. Realizing that he did not possess sufficient forces to collapse German industry, he nonetheless attempted to hit as many different factories as possible so that no one felt secure anywhere within the range of his bombers. The object of bombing factories was not so much as their destruction as to affect the morale of the people. Using a subjective and unprovable statistic that earned him much ridicule, Trenchard stated that the psychological effects of bombing outweighed the material at a ratio of twenty to one. Trenchard, however, had a great influence on Billy Mitchell and the RAF. His emphasis on the criticality of bombing enemy centers of military production won a great audience among airmen such as Billy Mitchell and the RAF staff college.
Billy Mitchell was a contemporary of Douhet and Trenchard and shared many of their views. As chief of the US Air Service in World War I, Mitchell had seen first hand the potential of aircraft as bombers. Unfortunately, for Mitchell, the war ended before the US played much of a role in the air. In fact, US aircraft dropped only 138 tons of bombs on Germany by wars end. Due to the lack of strategic bombing capability and his experience during the war, Mitchell originally advocated using aircraft to defeat enemy forces in the field. Between 1920 and 1930 however, his viewpoint changed and he became an advocate of using aircraft to defeat the will of the people. By 1933, he considered industry to be the target most vulnerable to airpower and its destruction would, by inference, cause the will of the people to collapse. This was almost the identical view of the RAF at the time. In 1928, the RAF produced “Royal Air Force War Manual” called AP1300 which stated victory in war was a result of the collapse of civilian morale. How the will of the people could be broken without bombing them was not addressed but it was assumed that the destruction of industrial centers of the enemy would have a shattering effect on the work force—presumably due to the loss of wages and the dislocation involved—that would have a cascading effect through society. During the interwar years, there were no formal exchange programs between the US and British military and each service developed their strategic bombing theories in vacuo. It’s remarkable to see how they developed in parallel and both nations air forces came to the conclusion that the key to winning a future war lay in destroying the enemy’s population will to fight by targeting their war making industries.
Between the Wars
In the 20 years of peace between the wars saw only minor colonial uprisings, the Spanish Civil War and Japanese incursions into China. None of these conflicts provided a testing ground sufficient to validate the theories of airpower advocates. Yet these conflicts had given them enough evidence that to believe that to end a future conflict with minimum loss of life, a bombing campaign was necessary, directed not at the troops but at the cities of the enemy. The idea of bombing to deprive the enemy of the means and will to continue to fight became known as “strategic bombing”. The concept of strategic bombing also neatly fit into the second goal of airpower supporters, namely to ensure the growth of an independent air arm not influenced by the Army and Navy. Strategic bombing, by its nature, did not depend on partnership with ground or naval forces and could best be accomplished by an independent air force free from being tied to supporting surface forces. This rationale led to the establishment of an independent RAF in 1918 and independent air forces in Germany, Italy, and France during the 1920’s. Only the US and Japan still had air forces subordinate to overall Army command when World War II commenced.
For all the development in strategic bombing theory and doctrine, the development of the tool to implement the doctrine lagged far behind. A major limiting factor was the desire of most civilized nations to disarm and demilitarize their societies after the carnage of the Great War. Prussian militarism was widely thought of as a prime causative agent for the war and demilitarism was seen as the cure by removing the breeding ground of a future conflict. Especially unpopular were weapons that were deemed to be offensive in nature such as capital ships, tanks, and aircraft. A second limiting factor was the on set of a great depression in 1929 which continued to the beginning of the Second World War. In short, people out of work do not contribute to the tax roles that governments need to finance their militaries. Great Britain, for instance, wished to increase its heavy bomber force to several thousand aircraft in the 1930’s but Britain’s resources would not permit it. Strategic bombing then, turned out to be a rich country’s game. Finally, the development of bombers during the interwar years suffered from technological problems. While the development of the aircraft was astoundingly rapid during the First World War, the progress after the war was almost glacial in comparison. The ability of bombers to find their targets in any kind of weather showed almost no improvement from 1919 to 1939. While bombers became increasingly metal skinned monoplanes in the 1930s, their bomb carrying capability and range increased arithmetically as opposed to the logarithmic increases seen in the 1914-1918 period. The first real breakthrough in building an aircraft that could truly be called a strategic bomber was the introduction of the US B-17 in 1937 and the B-24 in 1938. Both aircraft could carry an 8000 pound bomb load to a range of almost 1000 miles at speeds that outclassed contemporary fighters of the early 1930’s. Britain also developed a strategic bomber, the two engine Wellington, that could carry a 4000 pound bomb load to a range of 500 miles. No other countries had a long range heavy bomber by the start of the war. The reason can be explained that those countries that directly bordered potential foes put more emphasis on land forces and those that had the luxury of distance from their potential adversaries concentrated on naval and air forces to take their fight to the enemy.
Strategic Bombing Put to the Test 1939-1945
Both Great Britain and the United States entered the war with plans to conduct a strategic bombing campaign against Germany. For the British, their guidance was AP 1300, first written under the direction of Hugh Trenchard in the late 1920s and updated (slightly) for 1939. The US had developed AWDP-1 which was remarkably similar to the goals of AP1300 (i.e. daylight precision bombardment of German war industry was the most efficient way to end the war). The US doctrine differed primarily in that it was based on unescorted, heavily armed bombers that flew in formation at high altitude. The crux of the American theory was bombing specific targets in daylight, most especially “bottleneck” targets, which destroyed, would cause the enemy’s economy to collapse. Both countries recognized that it would take time to build up resources for an invasion of Europe and the only prospect they had to strike initially at Germany was via a bombing campaign.
The British were shocked at the appalling attrition their bombers suffered in daylight strikes. Without long range fighter escorts, the bombers suffered unsustainable losses to Luftwaffe fighters and anti-aircraft artillery fire (AAA). By 1940, the British had switched to night operations for survivability reasons. Both their losses and effectiveness went down. Their types of targets had not changed but their means of navigating and finding precise targets had changed little since 1918. The end result was a Douhet like scattering of bombs over a wide area in hopes of one bomb finding the target. Due to the difficulty in flying close formation at night, the British tactics were for individual aircraft to navigate to their target and bomb individually. Due to appalling weather for most of the year, inexperienced flight crews, and primitive navigation aids, their bombing effectiveness was minimal. Until well into the war, the only targets Bomber Command could locate and bomb effectively were sizeable German towns. Bombing accuracy was so abominable that a 1941 British report stated that there was only a 22% chance of a bomber crew finding its way to within 5 miles of its target and for heavily defended targets in the Ruhr, the percentage dropped to 7%. Even late in the war, when radar use became widespread the specially modified “pathfinder” aircraft were used to mark targets with incendiaries; bombing accuracy had increased to a 50% chance of a bomb falling within a mile of its target. While the RAF bombing campaign had limited usefulness against the sinews of the German war machine, it was decided at the Casablanca conference in 1942 that the RAF would continue to bomb at night and the Americans during the day to create a “round the clock” bombing campaign against the Germans. This “Casablanca Directive” tasked allied bombers in England with the “progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial, and economic system and the undermining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.” Subtly, the emphasis of the British strategic bombing campaign shifted from a counter industry campaign to a counter morale campaign. This shift to directly targeting cities was rationalized as an effort to “de-house” the workers in the armaments industry and destroy their morale.
The United States took a different tact. Equipped with more heavily armed defensive weapons, the B-17 “Flying Fortress” and B-24 “Liberator”, the Americans were convinced that their strategy of daylight precision attacks was valid. Equipped with the fabled Norden bombsight, it was claimed that a B-17 could “drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet”. The results told a different story. Hitting targets in the middle of concentric white circles in sunny Texas was not quite the same as bombing German industry. With bad weather obscuring the target area 60% of the time in winter, strong unforecasted winds aloft, persistent enemy fighters, inadequate targeting intelligence, and lack of long range escort fighters until 1944; the US strategic bombing campaign was limited in its effectiveness. The US Army Air Force calculated that under fire, bombing accuracy declined 10-20%. As a result, the British measured their bombing accuracy in miles and the US in thousands of feet. Another factor limiting the effectiveness of the allied combined bomber offensive was the ordnance employed. Free fall bombs had changed shape somewhat from the Great War but their fuses and explosive mixtures were essentially unchanged. While the US started the war with 2000 pound bombs in its inventory, the vast majority of bombs dropped by the USAAF and the British were of the 500 pound category. The reason is simple. Assuming a nominal 5000 pound bomb load, one bomber could drop
ten 500 pound bombs but only two 2,000 pound weapons. It was equivalent to using shotgun pellets versus rifle bullets. The destructive effect of a 500 pound bomb was not sufficient to cause a great deal of collateral damage and proved insufficient to damage buried or concrete reinforced structures. None the less, the allies used the less than optimum weapon due to the need to saturate the target area with explosives in hoping that one bomb might strike a vital point.
How did the theory of strategic bombing hold up in practice? The amount of resources dedicated to the combined bomber offensive was immense. As much as 40 to 50 per cent of the British war effort went into the RAF and the USAAF consumed as much as 25-35 per cent of US industrial output. The USAAF grew to 2.4 million men in June 1944, or over a third the size of the US Army. The operational costs were steep. RAF Bomber Command lost 8,325 bombers and 64,000 casualties among their aircrew. The USAAF lost 8,237 bombers and 73,000 crew members which exceeded total USN and USMC casualties in the Pacific. Additionally, an estimated 600,000 German civilians died in the bombings. The effectiveness of the bombing is still being debated. The United States commissioned a study titled “The United States Strategic Bombing Survey Report” (USSBS) after the war. The USSBS report looked at both sides of the combined bomber offensive and came to the conclusion that strategic bombing was a failure. Among the many factors contributing to the conclusion was the fact that Germany had a great deal of slack industrial capacity so that even at the height of the bomber offensive in 1944, armaments production actually increased. Another critical factor was the strategic air offensive against Germany was not a constantly pursued, single-minded affair in its execution. Bombers were diverted to the battle of the Atlantic, to operations in North Africa, to prepare for the Normandy invasion and to support breakout of the allied armies in Northern France in 1944. In fact, the USSB report noted “It is of vital significance that of all the tonnage of bombs dropped on Germany, only 17 percent fell prior to January 1, 1944 and only 28 percent prior to July 1, 1944”. The Combined Bomber Offensive did have successes however. The most important accomplishments were the destruction of the Luftwaffe in aerial combat by the introduction of long range fighters such as the P-51 that could escort bombers on deep penetration missions into Germany. Secondly, the strategic bombing campaign diverted resources from the German army to home defense. The draining of one million men to operate the air defense network of the Reich was the equivalent of opening another front. The bombing also absorbed not only manpower but industrial production to include scarce petroleum that could have been used elsewhere. The bombing’s impact on morale was the least understood and definable aspect of the campaign. Certainly, there was widespread hardship and misery inflicted by the bombing but German worker morale did not collapse as Douhet, Trenchard and Mitchell had predicted. German workers continued to produce weapons and German soldiers continued to fight almost to the very last. Did strategic bombing win the war? By itself, no but it was certainly a factor in Germany’s defeat.
By the time the United States recovered from the shock of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had conquered so many Pacific islands that there was no friendly territory from which to base B-17 and B-24 bombers to threaten the Japanese home islands. The B-29 under development offered the promise of longer range (up to 4000 miles) and greater bomb load (up to 20,000 pounds) than either bomber but it was rushed into production and suffered numerous teething problems. By the time of its introduction into combat service in 1944, it could only strike Japan from bases in China. To support the strikes, fuel had to be flown “Over the Hump” of the Himalayas from India. It took 11 gallons of gas to provide one gallon for a B-29. As a result, there were not many strategic bombing sorties flown against Japan until the fall of 1944 with the capture of bases in the Marianas and Saipan. In true Billy Mitchell form, the chief of the USAAF, General Hap Arnold, refused to let the B-29s be subordinate to theater commanders in the Pacific and assigned all of them to the 20th Air Force which was subordinate only to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He felt it was only by freeing his bombers from the influence of Army and Navy demands, could they be used exclusively for decisive strategic bombing of Japan.
The B-29s attempted to destroy high-priority industrial targets in Japan with high-altitude, daylight precision bombing just as B-17s and B-24s had attempted in Europe. By mid-January 1945 however, not a single target had been destroyed in Japan. The reason for the lack of success was primarily weather over Japan, specifically persistent heavy cloud cover and unforeseen high altitude winds of over 200 knots. The Norden bombsight could not compensate for crosswinds of such magnitude and attacking downwind resulted in ground speeds of 500 miles an hour which greatly lengthened the bomb string (i.e. the distance between each bomb upon impact) or upwind attacks made the bombers near motionless over the target and kept them in range of AAA for extended periods of time. The situation so distressed General Arnold that his aide felt it caused his massive heart attack in January 1945. Upon recovery from the heart attack, General Arnold replaced the commander of B-29 forces in the Pacific with Lt General Curt LeMay with orders to make the B-29 succeed; or else. LeMay knew that he had to switch from strategic bombing to area bombing.
As early as 1943, the Intelligence Section of the USAAF staff in Washington had prepared a study on the vulnerability of Japanese cities to incendiary attack. The report stated that Japanese cities were better targets than German cities for incendiaries. This was due to their flammable building materials, the greater density of Japanese urban structures, and the concentration of Japanese industry in a handful of cities. Additionally, it was erroneously believed that a significant part of the Japanese war industry was handled by small cottage industries located in vicinity or in the homes of the workers. On 25 February 1945, LeMay experimented with incendiary attack on Tokyo. Four hundred tons of incendiaries fell on Tokyo from high altitude which burned out one square mile of the city. Buoyed by this success, LeMay changed tactics and ordered his bombers stripped of defensive armament in order to carry more incendiaries and ordered the bombers to fly at low altitude at night in their attacks. The low altitude meant no jet stream to contend with and caused the bomb string to be much shorter resulting in greater concentration of incendiaries. The result was the most devastating air attack in history. On 9 March 1945, 300 B-29s dropped half a million small incendiary bombs on the Japanese capital. The ensuing firestorm consumed 13 square miles of the city and killed an estimated 100,000 people. From this raid forward, American strategic bombing effort shifted from a Trenchard-Mitchell counter industry focus to a Douhet strategy based upon inflicting maximum damage on population centers (i.e. morale bombing). Between May and June 1945, Japan’s six largest cities fell to the torch of 20th Air Force B-29’s. By the end of the war in August, 58 of 62 Japanese cities with populations over 100,000 had been burned. In all, 178 square miles of urban area were razed amounting to 40 per cent of Japan’s total urban area. Twenty two million people, 30 per cent of the population, were rendered homeless. 2,200,000 civilian casualties were reported and over 900,000 fatalities were suffered, more than Japan’s combat casualties in the Pacific of 780,000.
Much has been written about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the devastation unleashed by atomic weapons. While revolutionary in nature, they added comparatively little damage in comparison to the amount of total damage inflicted on Japanese urban areas by the B-29 firebombing campaign.
Did strategic bombing win the war against Japan? According to the USSB report for the bombing campaign against Japan, the answer was yes. The report stated that the effects of conventional bombing (non atomic) contributed to low morale and had a profound effect on Japan’s political leadership. “At the time surrender was announced, low morale was rapidly becoming of greater importance as a pressure on the political and military decisions of the rulers of the country.” This statement appears to be at odds with the facts however. Japan’s civilian population did not abandon their jobs or riot in the streets or rebel against their rulers. On the contrary, civilians, like the military appeared to accept a fight to the last man woman or child to defend their homeland and the emperor. A more reasonable explanation, and one authored by the US Navy, was the naval interdiction campaign was the decisive stroke. By strangling Japan of the raw materials for war, it made it physically impossible for the Japanese to continue militarily against the allies. While the strategic/area bombing of Japanese cities and industries was certainly devastating, it contributed but did not singularly cause the surrender of Japan.
Post War Operations
Even though the effectiveness of strategic bombing in bringing about the surrender of Germany and Japan was, and is, open for debate, the US wholeheartedly embraced its doctrine. With the rapid demobilization following the war and the emergence of the Soviet Union as a global challenger to US interests, it was only natural that US defense strategists looked at nuclear weapons delivered by long range bombers as the nations preeminent strategy. An added advantage of this strategy is that it was based on the US monopoly (until 1949) on nuclear weapons and the possession of a unique long range bomber force in the form of the B-29, B-50 (an up engined B-29), and the B-36. Here at last the strategic bombing proponents possessed the technical means to carry out Trenchard’s, Mitchell and Douhet’s vision of the dominance of the long range heavy bomber as the ultimate weapon in warfare. The image of hundreds of nuclear armed heavy bombers with many sitting 24 hour quick alert status was designed to deter the Russians from initiating hostilities. No longer were just an enemy’s war making industries and population centers subject to attack but the very existence of the enemy as a functioning society was put at risk by the threat of a massive nuclear strike. In recognition of the importance of the bomber’s role, the newly formed Strategic Air Command (SAC) enjoyed the lion’s share of defense expenditures as befitting a force that had emerged as the nation’s first line of defense.
When North Korean communist forces poured south of the 38th parallel in 1950, the newly independent USAF found itself without a rewritten basic doctrine to accommodate the introduction of nuclear weapons into war fighting. Additionally, the air force found itself in the midst of simultaneous technological revolutions that included: transitioning from reciprocating engines to jets, adjusting to and perfecting nuclear weapons and delivery methods, developing aerial refueling techniques to permit the use of jets on long range bombers, and developing missile technology. These revolutions were taking place in the wake of an almost explosive demobilization demanded by the political leaders following World War II. The prevailing notion was the United Nations would prevent future conflicts and if they did break out, our nuclear hegemony would end them in an instant. As a result, there was practically no thought to fighting another conventional war in the future. When President Truman committed forces to the Korean conflict, he did so realizing that the Soviets now possessed nuclear weapons and use of the weapons by the US might lead to an unacceptable exchange with the Soviets. The destructive, war winning capability of nuclear weapons was rendered impotent by the likelihood that their use would invite retaliation in kind. The result was the US fought the war in Korea with the tactics, weapons, and many of the aircraft left over from World War II.
Immediately, the Air Force was faced with problems with its strategic bombing doctrine. North Korea was essentially an agrarian society without a sizeable industrial base. It did not posses war critical industries such as power generation, armaments, ship yards, petroleum refineries or storage, or large munition or supply depots. The communist forces relied on rail and road connections with China to import its war making requirements. Its electrical power generation capability was based on Yalu river hydroelectric plants. These plants remained relatively immune from attack because President Truman placed a “no bomb” corridor of 5 and later 10 miles from the Chinese border to prevent inadvertent bombing of Chinese territory and possible triggering their overt involvement in the “police action” in Korea. Additional restrictions on bombing came from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Aware of the enormous numbers of civilian casualties from bombing German and Japanese cities, they ordered leaflet drops 24-48 hours in advance of a bombing mission near or on a North Korean city to allow the inhabitant’s time to evacuate. This left the B-29s with few “strategic” targets other than rail yards. As commander of Strategic Air Command, LeMay urged MacArthur to use the B-29s to firebomb the five major population centers in North Korea to drive the point home that further aggression by the North Koreans would result in incineration of their cities. MacArthur refused the offer and relegated the B-29 to the remaining “strategic” targets in North Korea. The B-29s had limited effect versus North Korea rail yards due to poor weather and most of their missions were tactical in nature. These tactical missions consisted of carpet bombing enemy troops. By the time UN forces crossed the 38th parallel northbound, the B-29s had run out of suitable targets. In fact, by October 1951, targets were so scarce that a B-29 chased a motorcycle rider by dropping single bombs until finally destroying him. With the entrance of China into the war, all that changed. Mig-15 jet fighter aircraft caused increasing losses of B-29s during daylight operations. The limited nature and objectives of the Korean War made the losses that bomber crews sustained in World War II untenable. The B-29s were forced into night operations against area targets such as cities with a corresponding decrease in accuracy and effectiveness. The bulk of damage done to the North Korean and Chinese forces from air power resulted from faster, more maneuverable, heavily armed fighter aircraft. The bomber, ideally suited for delivering atomic weapons over intercontinental distances, found itself too vulnerable and targets too lacking to fulfill its destiny as a war winner as envisioned by the prophets of airpower.
Many of the same restrictions that limited the effectiveness of strategic bombing in Korea were present in Viet Nam: lack of industrial targets, political restrictions, bad weather, capable enemy fighters, and World War II era weapons. The bombers had evolved into all jet powered B-52s. Designed to deliver nuclear weapons on the Soviet Union from bases in the States, the older “D” models were modified as “big belly” aircraft capable of carrying 108 Mk-82 500lb bombs. Each aircraft carried the payload equivalent of a dozen B-17s but the weapons they dropped were essentially unchanged from those dropped on the ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt in 1943. However, the means to deliver these weapons had changed dramatically. With improvements in airborne radar and inertial navigation systems, a B-52 could drop a bomb almost as accurately as a low altitude fighter if given precise coordinates. Due to political restrictions of using B-52s over North Viet Nam, the overwhelming number of bombs dropped by B-52s were dropped in South Viet Nam and Laos. The objective of these strikes was to interdict supplies flowing from North Viet Nam to communist forces in the south. Additional missions were flown to carpet bomb suspected enemy troop concentrations. Neither of these missions allowed the use of precise coordinates for bomb aiming and as a result B-52 bombing accuracy over South Viet Nam was measured on a World War II scale of thousands of feet. Fighter aircraft in Viet Nam had evolved into supersonic aircraft capable of carrying bomb loads exceeding B-17 capacities. However, their means for delivery of their World War II era bombs had changed little from those employed by Stukas in Poland in 1939. Nonetheless, despite the bombers potentially greater accuracy, fighters were the weapon of choice for use against small, concealable targets, moving targets and troops in contact. The decision to exclude bombers from the air campaign “Rolling Thunder” over the north was purely political. President Johnson and his advisors did not want the image of the US using its premier nuclear bomber versus an agrarian society in North Viet Nam. By 1972, the accuracy and payload advantage of using B-52s over the north was largely negated by the introduction of precision guided munitions (PGM). The introduction of laser guided bombs allowed fighter aircraft to achieve one hit with one bomb. A case in point was the destruction of the Paul Doumer railroad bridge near Hanoi. In 1972, one four ship formation of F-4s dropping laser guided bombs destroyed the bridge which had survived hundreds of sorties and thousands of bombs previously. The B-52 was finally unleashed over North Viet Nam for an eleven day period around Christmas of 1972 during Operation Linebacker II. President Nixon wanted to impress upon the North Vietnamese that he would use the full gamut of US weapons against the North to force them to return to the Paris Peace Conference. The limited use of the B-52 over North Vietnam showed that it was particularly effective against airfields, power plants and rail yards. While it was a case of too little, too late to effect the outcome of the war; the B-52 at last had a chance to prove their mettle in conventional strategic bombing.
Desert Storm and Kosovo
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the diminution of the threat of a nuclear war between super powers, the reason for keeping a long range strategic bomber force has diminished as well. American combat experiences since World War II have been characterized as conflicts with third world nations that utilize ex-Soviet tactics and equipment. The idea of the primacy of strategic bombing as a war winner still lives on albeit in a modified form. The architect of the US air campaign against Iraq was a fighter pilot named Colonel John Worden. Colonel Worden worked for the commander of allied air forces in Central Command as General Buster Glosson’s “Checkmate” campaign planner. In the “Checkmate” offices in the Pentagon, some of the Air Force’s best and brightest formulated an air campaign plan against potential adversaries, including Iraq. Worden modified the Trenchard/Mitchell philosophy of attacking an enemy’s industrial potential to a strategy of viewing the enemy as a system and attacking the five component parts of his power structure. These five parts can be visualized as five concentric rings with enemy leadership at its center. Progressing outward, the next ring is infrastructure, communication, population, and fielded forces. Attacks should be focused against leadership targets first to ensure collapse of the rest of the structure. Excess attack sorties would be directed at targets at inner rings and expanding outward as inner ring targets are destroyed. In essence it’s similar but updated ideas of Trenchard and Mitchell. To implement this strategy, the weapon of choice has been the fighter, armed with PGMs. The long range heavy bomb carrying capability of a B-52 has been not been needed. During Desert Storm, the public was captivated by the images of F-117s dropping 2000 pound laser guided bombs down airshafts of Iraqi Defense Ministry buildings. Nightly, TV footage showed one PGM after another striking targets in day or night conditions. While only 10 per cent of the bombs dropped in Desert Storm were precision guided, they were responsible for 40 per cent of the targets destroyed. General Buster Glosson stated that “Two raids of 300 B-17 bombers could not achieve with 3,000 bombs what two F-117s can do with only four. Precision weapons have truly given a new meaning to the term ‘mass.’” The B-52 had only a limited role in Desert Storm. They were used primarily as a platform for launching cruise missiles at the beginning of the war and were used in a limited role to bomb Republican Guard forces that were dug in opposite allied troops prior to hostilities. Aside from million dollar cruise missiles, the B-52 did not have a PGM capability which limited its usefulness. Its successor, the B-1, was not used at all because it was, at that time, able to carry only nuclear weapons or a limited load of iron bombs that could only be dropped from a level low altitude delivery.
Kosovo saw the first use in combat of the all weather Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) that allowed a “dumb” bomb to become a PGM by installing an inexpensive ($20,000) tail assembly that received GPS guidance signals. The JDAM removed the last enemy sanctuary of bad weather and threatened him with 24/7 attack regardless of environmental conditions. By the mid 1990’s the B-52 gave up its position as the premier US strategic bomber to the B-2. The B-2, armed with JDAM, flew several dozen missions over Kosovo and Serbia from its base in central Missouri. However, its small numbers (only 20 built) and 24-36 hour round trip missions meant that it could only generate a few sorties a week and was a peripheral player when it came to delivering ordnance. During the campaign in the Balkans, 80 per cent of munitions expended were precision guided and coalition forces lost only two fighters to enemy air defenses.
Was strategic bombing a failure? Aside from the bombing campaign against Germany and Japan, the opportunity for implementing a strategic bombing strategy has been limited. We have a brief glimpse into an early campaign in the Great War, two limited wars in Asia that politically limited the employment of bombers, and two short conflicts in the Middle East and the Balkans that saw limited use of heavy bombers. As a result, the assessment of the success of strategic bombing must be focused on World War II. If one looks at the effects of the bombing campaign against Germany and Japan, the results are mixed. There was undoubtedly significant damage inflicted upon the enemy’s war making potential. Over one million civilians died in the attacks and millions were left homeless but in the end, neither the German or Japanese governments sued for peace solely due to the effect of the bombardment from the air. If you measure the effectiveness of strategic bombing by the goals established by Trenchard, Mitchell, and Douhet; then the conclusion is strategic bombing was a failure. The theory and promise of strategic bombing, bringing about the defeat of an enemy by destroying his ability to wage war or collapse his morale through bombing, was stymied by the tools available to the practitioners. The heavy bombers of World War II lacked the proper ordnance, accuracy, intelligence support for targeting, and single minded dedication to strategic attack to fully implement the airpower theories of the early strategic bombing advocates. It was not until almost three decades after the war that strategic bombing, as a decisive strategy, showed its full potential and the vehicle that would pick up the role of strategic attack was the fighter armed with PGMs.
Precision weapons were ideally suited to the post Viet Nam era wars America finds itself fighting. Precision weapons mean less politically dangerous collateral damage, fewer sorties to accomplish the mission, and with increased stand off ranges, fewer losses. PGMs, especially those that use GPS guidance, are less dependent upon the platform that releases them for their effectiveness. To boil it down to its basics, one needs only to bring the weapon within range of its target and release it to have it function. It does not matter if that platform is a fighter or bomber aircraft. Increasingly, we have seen the aircraft dropping the weapon will be a fighter. Returning to the first paragraph of this paper, the fighter of 1914 and 2013 retain some similar characteristics. They are both, relative to other contemporary aircraft, fast, maneuverable, and designed to destroy other aircraft. The B-2 bomber and the Handley-Page bomber of the Great War likewise share characteristics of long range and higher load carrying capability. The fighter of World War I was primarily an air to air weapon but possessed a limited capability for ground attack by means of strafing or dropping small bombs. The bombers, conversely, were single mission aircraft. Neither the Handley-Page or the B-2 have any other mission than hauling a large bomb load within range of its target. The primary advantage of the bomber over the fighter as a weapon was its range and payload. With the advent of aerial refueling, the range of fighter aircraft is limited only by the fatigue of its pilot. The relative advantage of the bomber in carrying heavy bomb loads had been negated by the advent of precision weapons. No longer do we have to drop hundreds of bombs with the hope that one of them may strike the target. We have entered the era of one bomb, one target. With the thousands of single and two seat fighter aircraft at its disposal, the United States does not need to risk a two billion dollar B-2 or four man B-52 aircraft in future conflicts. The fighter aircraft, by its multi-mission capability, flexibility, and precision weapons capability has demonstrated that it is the weapon of the future for the wars we expect to fight.
. Feltus, Pamela Centennialofflight.gov/essay/Air_Power/WW1_bombing
. Fussell, Paul, Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), p57-58
. Meilinger, Phillip, Trenchard and Morale Bombing, The Journal of Military History, Vol 60, No 2 (April 1996) p 250
. Kennett, Lee, Strategic Bombardment: A Retrospective. Air Force History and Museum Program, 1998 p.627.
. Werrell, Kenneth P, The Strategic Bombing of Germany in World War II: Costs and Accomplishments. The Journal of American History, Vol. 73 No. 3. (Dec 1986) p 704
. Beagle, T.W. Effects Based Targeting: Another Empty Promise. Air University Press, Dec 2001, p24
. Werrell, Kenneth P. The Strategic Bombing of Germany in World War II: Costs and Accomplishments. p 706
. Mets, David R. Long Search for Surgical Strike: Precision munitions and the Revolution in Military Affairs. Air University Press. October 2001 p5
. Werrell, Kenneth P. The Strategic Bombing of Germany in World War II: Costs and Accomplishments. p 708
. Smith, Melden E. Jr. The Strategic Bombing Debate: The Second World War to Viet Nam. Journal of Contemporary History, 12 (1977) p 181
. Searle, Thomas R. It Made a Lot of Sense to Kill Skilled Workers: The Firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945, The Journal of Military History 66 (January 2002) p 112
. Pape, Robert A. Why Japan Surrendered, International Security, Vol.18, No. 2 (Fall 1993) p 165
. Ibid p 155
. Crane, Conrad C. Raiding the Beggars Pantry: The Search for Airpower Strategy in the Korean War. The Journal of Military History 63 (October 1999) p891
. Ibid p.893
. Mets, David R. Long Search for Surgical Strike: Precision munitions and the Revolution in Military Affairs. p 36
Copyright © 2013 Jeff L. Patton
Written by Jeff L. Patton. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Jeff Patton at:
About the author:
Mr. Patton graduated Texas A&M University in 1974 and was commissioned in the USAF. He holds a Master's
Degree in Military History from Norwich University, 2008.
While in the USAF, he flew the F-4 Phantom, OV-10 Bronco, and for the last
20 years of service, he flew the F-15 -- including combat in Desert Storm. He retired
from active duty after 30 years of service as a Colonel. His last assignment
was the Air Attache to the Republic of Italy. Currently, he is a civil service
employee working as a civilian flight simulator instructor in the F-15
supporting the Air Force's Air Battle Manager training course at Tyndall
Published online: 06/30/2013.