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International Relations Strategic Air Power
by
Robert Gerald Hughes

Introduction

Strategic air power is one of the means by which a military strategy employs aerial platforms to bypass the battlefield to achieve decisive political results in conflict. Most obviously, this has involved the coercion of an enemy nation-state by seeking to destroy its economic ability to wage war (as opposed to eliminating its armed forces). In Clauzwitzian terms, this represents a fundamental shift in identifying the enemy’s “center of gravity.” Debates over whether air power can achieve strategic goals date from the very first applications of it. The use of strategic air power requires systematic organization (e.g., RAF Bomber Command; the US Strategic Air Command) and, in addition to the use of strategic bomber aircraft, can be used in conjunction with missiles or tactical aircraft against targets selected to diminish the war-making capacity of the enemy. One of the aims for using strategic air power is enemy demoralization—that is, the racking up of punishment to the extent that the will of the enemy to resist is broken. The theory of strategic heavy bombing began to be developed during the aftermath of World War I. By the time of World War II, opponents of strategic air power made frequent reference to “terror bombing” as shorthand for its use. Of course, this term is dismissed by proponents of the use of strategic air power for the manner in which it delineates between other aspects of war (often equally unpleasant) and the targeting of civilians/war-making capacity. The use of strategic air power has been limited since World War II for a number of reasons. Not least among these is the relative scarcity of major wars as well as the inability of the vast majority of modern nation-states to devote sufficient resources to seek any decision in conflict via strategic air power. The United States is a notable exception here and it employed strategic air power in Vietnam in 1972, against Iraq in 1991 and 2003, and in Kosovo in 1999.

General Overviews

Boyne 2003 seeks to do for air power what Mahan did for sea power in his The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783. Buckley 1999 demonstrates how the peculiarities of individual nations—especially the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and the former Soviet Union—and their “strategic cultures” had a radical effect on the evolution of their use of strategic air power. Olsen 2010 provides an excellent range of views on the evolution of air warfare in all its aspects and is particularly strong on strategic bombing. Gentile 2001 adopts a near-scientific method to extrapolate the danger of treating bombing surveys as purveyors of strategic and military truth. Similar conclusions were advanced in Kennett 1982, a passionate and highly readable work—albeit with less data and rather more emotion than Gentile 2001. Pape 1996 seeks to place the debates on the possibilities afforded by strategic air power in historical context. Meilinger 1997 is a fantastic companion volume for anyone seeking to study strategic bombing, containing, as it does, chapters on all of the elements central to the understanding of the evolution of strategic air thought. Werrell 2009 provides an excellent overview of the possibilities and limitations of air power after nearly one hundred years of development.

  • Boyne, Walter J. The Influence of Air Power upon History. Gretna, LA: Pelican, 2003.

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    Tries to do for air power what Mahan did for sea power in his 1890 classic The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783. Mahan had six prerequisites for success at sea. For the air, Boyne has five: first, a big budget; second, a recognized security threat; third, high technology; fourth, supportive political leadership; and, fifth, good air strategists and practitioners (Douhet and LeMay, respectively, are singled out here).

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  • Buckley, John. Air Power in the Age of Total War. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

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    A systematic treatment of each country while discussing the development of universal theories of strategic air power. Buckley argues that, in the interwar period, it was the geostrategic “global” positions of the United States and Britain that advanced the cause of strategic bombing for, respectively, defense of the Western Hemisphere and empire. He demonstrates how only the superpowers could make real use of strategic air power after 1945.

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  • Gentile, Gian P. How Effective Is Strategic Bombing? Lessons Learned from World War II to Kosovo. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

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    Uses a large number of primary sources, especially from World War II and the US campaigns against Iraq. Very good in discussing the effects of bombing on morale, and the political and military factors relevant to leaders seeking to end wars.

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  • Kennett, Lee. A History of Strategic Bombing: From the First Hot-Air Balloons to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. New York: Scribner’s, 1982.

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    A passionate and strongly argued history of strategic bombing that is very strong on demonstrating that strategic bombing is far more likely to be limited by a lack of material resources rather than any moral scruples. Warns that generals and politicians are often prone to self-deception when seeking to analyze the effectiveness of strategic bombing.

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  • Olsen, John Andreas. A History of Air Warfare. Washington, DC: Potomac, 2010.

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    This one-volume anthology comprises sixteen essays by military experts and examines the utility of and evolution of air power from 1914 until 2006. It exposes air power’s strengths and weaknesses, and tackles problems such as joint operations and coalition warfare.

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  • Meilinger, Phillip S., ed. The Paths of Heaven: The Evolution of Airpower Theory. Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 1997.

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    A very useful compendium produced by the US Air Force School of Advanced Airpower Studies (SAAS). This volume has a huge amount if information and analysis (including chapters on Giulio Douhet, Hugh Trenchard, Billy Mitchell, various European thinkers prior to World War II, Alexander de Seversky, the nuclear theorists of the postwar era).

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  • Pape, Robert A. Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

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    A wide-ranging and in-depth analysis of a number of attempts to use air power to coerce adversaries in a variety of historical scenarios—for some, the book could be viewed as an investigation into repeated attempts to vindicate Douhet’s theories. This volume examines the US use of air power against Germany and Japan in World War II, Korea (1950–1953), Vietnam (1964–1973), and Iraq (1991) as well as Israel’s use of the same versus Egypt (especially, 1967); it considers the course of the bombing campaigns and political decision making. Very well-sourced.

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  • Werrell, Kenneth P. Death from the Heavens: A History of Strategic Bombing. Washington, DC: Naval Institute Press, 2009.

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    A thoughtful work that seeks to point out the significant compromises made by the adherent of strategic air power at various junctures due to the limitations imposed by technology, economics, morality, or politics. Lauds the possibilities of strategic air power while recognizing the limitations—although insisting that the future has bright opportunities for those who continue to invest in this area.

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Reference works

The magisterial Oxford University Press series on Germany in World War II includes one volume of real significance: Volume 7 (Boog, et al. 2006). This volume examines the air war in the West in superb detail. The Oxford Companion series is well established across global history and national military history lines. Dear and Foot 1995 is a multiauthored reference comprising entries ranging from short paragraphs to lengthy topical essays. It is biased toward Britain’s war, but still contains many excellent essays as well as maps, charts, and statistical graphs. Holmes 2003 maintains high scholarly standards and aspires to be universal, but in fact concentrates most heavily on modern military history. Its real strength is presenting “new military history” that goes beyond battle to social and institutional concerns. For those seeking a historiographical path thorough the literature on strategic air power, one need look no further than Meilinger 2000. Parker 1995 is a masterpiece of clear narrative writing and thoughtful, well-chosen illustrations. The continued relevance of the US Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS) (a summary version appears in Bobbitt, et al. 1989) and the official British history of the bomber offensive against Germany (Cox 1998) is clear as soon as one inspects these sources. Webster and Frankland 1961, the four-volume official history of the British strategic bombing campaign against Germany in World War II, remains definitive. Readers will profit from the insightful commentaries on the debates between the various Allied air commanders—very illuminating when set against the predictions of the interwar air power theorists. The report of the British Bombing Survey Unit (Cox 1998), with added editorial analysis of its strengths and weaknesses, makes an important contribution to the debates over strategic bombing in World War II.

  • Boog, Horst, Gerhard Krebs, and Detlef Vogel. Germany and the Second World War. Vol. 7, The Strategic Air War in Europe and the War in the West and East Asia, 1943–1944/5. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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    Part of the definitive Oxford series on Germany between 1939 and 1945. A superb volume—brilliantly researched and meticulously compiled with outstanding charts, graphs, and maps.

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  • Cox, Sebastian, ed. The Strategic Air War Against Germany, 1939–1945: The Official Report of the British Bombing Survey Unit. London: Frank Cass, 1998.

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    A postwar British effort, produced in tandem with the US Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS). The volume of full of fascinating details that provides a useful companion to the four volumes of Webster and Frankland 1961.

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  • Dear, I. C. B., and M. R. D. Foot, eds. The Oxford Companion to World War II. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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    Major reference work on World War II, compiled by many military, political, and diplomatic historians. Outstanding charts, maps, statistical summations. Not without factual error; heavy British and Commonwealth focus exaggerates this role at the expense of the former Soviet Union, especially.

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  • Holmes, Richard, ed. The Oxford Companion to Military History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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    A clear and very readable volume that spans the ancient world to the end of the 20th century, with more emphasis on modern wars from the 18th to 20th centuries than the volume’s title would suggest. Its real strength is range of topics beyond battles or campaigns to include social and class issues, pay, food, disease, soldiers’ lives, and state finance. First-rate scholarship. Excellent maps.

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  • Meilinger, Phillip S. “The Historiography of Airpower: Theory and Doctrine.” Journal of Military History 64.2 (2000): 467–501.

    DOI: 10.2307/120248Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A very useful article that provides a critical discussion of all the most useful and important texts produced since Douhet’s Command of the Air. Essential reading.

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  • Parker, Geoffrey, ed. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

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    Western military history from Greece and Rome to the end of the 20th century; essays by seven prominent historians on strategy, tactics, logistics, finance, military culture, fortification, industrialization, war at sea, civil wars, world wars, post-1945 conflicts. Maps, diagrams, pictures, and rich illustrations. Excellent work.

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  • “US Strategic Bombing Survey: Summary Report.” In US Nuclear Strategy: A Reader. Edited by Philip Bobbitt, Lawrence Freedman, and Gregory F. Treverton, 22–30. Ithaca, NY: New York University Press, 1989.

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    A fascinating primary source; much of it is now available online and therefore far more manageable for scholars and researchers. Remains definitive. The summary reproduced in Bobbitt, Freedman, and Treverton is a useful primer for those wishing to read more (either in book form or online).

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  • Webster, Charles, and Noble Frankland. The Strategic Air Offensive against Germany. 4 vols. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1961.

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    These four volumes represent a comprehensive and highly informative official history. It remains definitive. Particularly interesting sections on debates between the various Allied commanders such as Arnold, Tedder, Harris, and Spaatz. These are very illuminating when viewed against the predictions of the interwar air power theorists.

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Textbooks

For an essential overview integrating strategic air thinking. one need look no further than Colin Gray’s excellent book on strategy (Gray 1999). There are three very useful chapters on strategic air power in McInnes and Sheffield 1988, and Mahnken and Maiolo 2008. Broader courses on war may wish to place strategic air power in context by employing a text like Black 1998, which surveys military history over the past five hundred years. Keegan 1993 provides an excellent overview of many relevant debates on war and puts strategic bombing in the proper historical and intellectual context. Freedman 1994 is a well-chosen, blended anthology of primary source readings, commentary, and analysis. Murray, et al. 1994, a collection of essays, is most appropriate for advanced courses. Townshend 2000 is an anthology useful as a supplemental text at all levels.

  • Black, Jeremy. War and the World: Military Power and the Fate of Continents, 1450–2000. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.

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    Compact yet sweeping survey of five hundred years of world military history by a preeminent, prolific military historian. Discusses all aspects of modern war, on air, land, and sea. Written as a course text, but can be read as general history.

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  • Gray, Colin S. Modern Strategy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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    A superb book from one of the best living strategists—the book has much to say about the timelessness of certain strategic concepts and thinkers. Seminal.

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  • Freedman, Lawrence, ed. War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

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    A very useful anthology that deals with everything from the experience of war to the ruminations of grand strategy: thus, we hear from Douhet and bomber pilots alike. Selected readings on the experience of war, from the Napoleonic period through the Falklands War; causes of war; the military establishment; ethics and war; strategy.

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  • Keegan, John. A History of Warfare. New York: Vintage, 1993.

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    An ambitious overview of 4,000 years of warfare, from the ancient world through the 20th century—its thematic organization and insistent generalization and universalism are often critiqued. Studies the ethos of warriors whom Keegan admires, more than any theory or history of war.

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  • Mahnken, Thomas, and Joseph A. Maiolo, eds. Strategic Studies: A Reader. London: Routledge, 2008.

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    A very valuable collection of seminal essays. Of particular—and direct—relevance here are “Air Power and the Origins of Deterrence Theory Before 1939” by Richard J. Overy and “Kosovo and the Great Air Power Debate” by Daniel L. Byman and Matthew C. Waxman.

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  • McInnes, Colin, and Gary Sheffield, eds. Warfare in the Twentieth Century. London: Unwin Hyman, 1988.

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    A very useful introductory chapter here: John Pimlott’s “The Theory and Practice of Strategic Bombing.” Pimlott deals with basic concepts, debates, and thinkers in a rigorous fashion. The volume also puts strategic bombing in excellent overall context by virtue of the overlapping nature of many of the high-quality entries (e.g., Gary D. Sheffield’s “Blitzkrieg and Attrition: Land Operations Europe, 1914–45”).

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  • Murray, Williamson, MacGregor Knox, and Alvin Bernstein, eds. The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States, and Wars. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

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    Nineteen essays by prominent scholars on the making of military strategy, not speculation about which strategy is theoretically optimal. Covers discrete topics in the history of strategy, from classical Greece and Rome, and early modern China and Europe. The volume provides comprehensive coverage of major military powers of the 19th and 20th centuries.

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  • Townshend, Charles, ed. The Oxford History of Modern War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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    Eighteen short essays on war, from the mid-17th century to the end of the 20th century. Narrative comprises first half, through World War II. Thematic second half: technology; battle; air, land, sea warfare; social impacts; women and war; pacifist arguments. This volume contains an excellent introductory chapter on air power by Richard Overy. Concise bibliography. No illustrations or maps; companion piece, not main text.

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Bibliographies

The reference works listed in previous sections all contain useful bibliographies or suggested readings on specific topics. More specialized bibliographies are listed here. An obvious real strength of online works is that they can be kept up-to-date after initial publication. However, an attending weakness is that some are not maintained or updated, as they should be, while active links fall out of service. A very useful bibliography on air strategy is maintained by the Muir S. Fairchild Research Information Center at the Air Force University. The same organization also maintains excellent bibliographies on air power and Air Force official histories (mostly in pamphlet form), and two sections on Vietnam: “Rolling Thunder: Air Strategy” and “Linebacker I and II: Air Strategy.” Edwin E. Moïse maintains the excellent Vietnam War Bibliography: The Air War. There are two particularly excellent sections (“Strategic Bombing: Doctrine” and “Strategic Bombing: Planes and Targets”) in the World War II, Air War Bibliography at the Citizendium web page. The Air Historical Branch’s Bibliography of RAF History is an excellent online resource. The Journal of Military History is essential for tracking down articles published elsewhere, in addition to its own papers. Tennessee Tech University’s Military History bibliography is useful and even comprehensive on the American military but contains too many inoperable links. The US Army Command and General Staff College. publishes several useful bibliographies; others can be accessed at the Combined Arms Research Library. H-WAR Discussion Network is an interactive bulletin board where bibliographic queries may be posted and answered, or archives searched. The World Wide Web Virtual Library site offers a plethora of links.

Journals

Research on strategic air power is published in a plethora of journals. Air & Space Power Journal is the US Air University’s online journal, published at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. It has been published since 1947 and offers free online access. Also of real utility are the following military-oriented US journals: Strategic Studies Quarterly, Armed Forces Journal, and Joint Forces Quarterly. The US Air Force Historical Foundation publishes its own journal, Air Power History. The British publish the Air Power Review, the RAF’s flagship journal. The Journal of Military History is especially helpful in locating such articles, as it publishes lists of all papers on war that appear elsewhere. In addition, there are several specialized journals that regularly or exclusively address strategic air power in both a historical and contemporary context. One major source is the Journal of Strategic Studies, of real usefulness in considering all aspects of strategic debates. The Journal of Military & Strategic Studies only appears online. Its relentless focus is current military and security policy debate.

The Origins of Strategic Air Power Thought

Strategic air power obviously lacks the lineage of works on land and sea power. However, in the 20th century the advent of air power provided another, and most striking, dimension to the concept of “total war.” The father of strategic air power thinking is the Italian general Giulio Douhet (b. 1869–d. 1930). Douhet had few qualms about expressing his belief that air fleets should target civilian and industrial centers so as to avoid a repetition of the slaughter of armies that had characterized World War I. Douhet was a key proponent of strategic bombing and believed that air power alone would be able to achieve decisive success in war. He outlined these ideas in The Command of the Air (Douhet 2010). Now regarded as a landmark text, Douhet’s book was relatively neglected for some years after its publication (it was not translated into English until 1942). But Douhet was not alone in his enthusiasm for air power, and his peer enthusiasts included Lord Trenchard (b. 1873–d. 1956) in Britain and Billy Mitchell (b. 1879–d. 1936) in the United States. In Britain, Hugh Trenchard thought along similar lines, although he was more likely to stress the necessity of the need for the operation of independent air arms as essential for great powers. William “Billy” Mitchell, having commanded American air combat units during the Great War, became a vocal public advocate of air power. Although Mitchell initially was an advocate of tactical air power, his thinking evolved to a point where he advocated the strategically decisive employment of air power. His highly successful, if insubordinate, campaign eventually led to his court-martial and demotion. In World War II, the United States and the United Kingdom sought to implement many of the measures advocated by Douhet, Trenchard, and Mitchell. But, although the intensity of the “bomber offensive” increased year after year, Germany did not collapse until occupation in 1945. In the Pacific War, the results were better and Japan was virtually finished even before the final shock of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. It has long been fashionable to mock Douhet’s predictions and for critics to highlight the bombing of Germany between 1939 and 1945 as the ultimate folly in pointless destruction for indecisive ends. But, in truth, air power was one of the key factors in the Allied victory in World War II.

Classic Works

To the adherents of strategic air power, Douhet 2010 is sometimes seen as providing the equivalent of Clausewitz’s On War. But, while Douhet’s work has been heavily criticized, it is worth remembering that he published his book in 1921, only eighteen years after the Wright brothers first flew; in contrast, Clausewitz drew on many thousands of years of warring societies. In The Command of the Air, Douhet came closest of the three thinkers—Douhet, Trenchard, and Mitchell—to drawing up a blueprint for total war by air. Douhet was motivated not least by the horrendous stalemate of land war between 1914 and 1918. He believed that modern whole peoples sustained “total war” and it was they, therefore, that should be targeted by strategic means so as to achieve a decision in war. Michael D. Pixley’s excellent article dispels many of the myths surrounding Douhet and demonstrates his continued relevance in the early 21st century (Pixley 2005). Boyle 1962 shows that Trenchard was more cautious than Douhet in advocating war against civilian, but he exploited the interwar austerity in Britain by identifying the possible military and economic utility of aircraft in imperial counterinsurgency. Boyle’s book is of real utility because of his very extensive use of Trenchard’s private papers in order to reconstruct the evolution of his strategic thinking. Trenchard’s arguments proved seductive and, given Britain’s changing role, even meant that he had a successor in the nuclear age in the RAF’s Sir John Slessor (b. 1897–d. 1979), as one can see in Dyndal 2007, a book of eight previously unpublished articles. In Winged Defense (Mitchell 2006), Mitchell sets out his ideas with great simplicity and force—especially on the vulnerability of warships to air power. MacIsaac 1986 still provides the best summary of the evolution of thought among the major thinkers on air power in the 20th century.

  • Boyle, Andrew. Trenchard, Man of Vision. London: Collins, 1962.

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    A very comprehensive biography whose narrative weaves together the notion of Trenchard the idealistic visionary with Trenchard the pragmatic, bureaucratic in-fighter. Makes excellent use of Trenchard’s extensive private (and very largely still unpublished) papers.

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  • Douhet, Giulio. The Command of the Air. Translated by Dino Ferrari. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010.

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    Douhet was a formidable thinker, but the doctrines advanced in this book, although often startlingly original, are rigid, rather dogmatic, and (by his own admission) often specifically tailored for interwar Italy. Nevertheless, Douhet’s book fails to appreciate the potential of tactical air power by his obsessive focus on its strategic dimensions. Originally published in 1921 (Rome: L’Amministrazione Della Guerra); first English translation, 1942 (New York: Coward-McCann).

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  • Dyndal, G. L., ed. Trenchard and Slessor: On the Supremacy of Air Power over Sea Power. Trondheim, Norway: Tapir Academic Press, 2007.

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    Eight articles by Trenchard and Slessor—all previously classified and published here for the first time. Both men argue strongly for the supremacy of air power over sea power (aircraft over warships, land-based aviation over carrier aviation; and for an independent air force).

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  • MacIsaac, David. “Voices from the Central Blue: The Air Power Theorists.” In Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. Edited by Peter Paret, 624–647. Oxford: Clarendon, 1986.

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    An indispensable article that deals with air power theory from the biplane to precision-guided nuclear bombing and the exploration of space. Also addresses a huge range of other topics—including the impact of deterrence theory and the advent of the missile.

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  • Mitchell, William. Winged Defense: The Development and Possibilities of Modern Air Power—Economic and Military. New York: Dover, 2006.

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    Mitchell was particularly keen on highlighting the vulnerability of large warships to air power and foretold the ascendancy of the aircraft in the next war (i.e., the Pacific War from 1941 to 1945). As he predicted in Winged Defense, “From a national defense standpoint” as well as “a civil, commercial and economic one . . . air power has not only come to stay but is, and will be, a dominating factor in the world’s development” (p. 6). Originally published in 1925 (New York and London: Putnam).

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  • Pixley, Michael D. “False Gospel for Airpower Strategy? A Fresh Look at Giulio Douhet’s ‘Command of the Air.’” Air & Space Power Journal (2005).

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    Pixley argues that many of the air power enthusiasts who have embraced Douhet have either got him wrong or misrepresented him. This is a superb revisitation of Douhet in the light of history and recent experience—very well-informed and thought-provoking.

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World War I

Strategic air power was born during World War I when the Germans dropped bombs on a station in Paris in August 1914. (The first use of air power had only come three years earlier when the Italians dropped bombs by hand during their war with Turkey in 1911 and 1912.) One year later, both sides had dedicated bombers that eventually turned their eyes toward the possibility of attacking the rear areas of the enemy. (The French began matters by attacking the German town of Karlsruhe on 15 June 1915, killing twenty-nine civilians.) This led to raids on cities, industries, and civilians and great leaps forward in technology and strategic thinking. Yet, the process of developing strategic air power was a complex one, and Cooper 1986 shows how confused the beginnings of this path of discovery were in Britain. And, how this impacted the thinking on strategic air power is indicated in Jones 1973. Morrow 1982 on German air power illustrates how that nation embraced innovation from the outset. Much of this is evident in Fegan 2002, which provides a well-informed narrative of the first strategic bombing campaign in Britain. Morrow’s excellent The Great War in the Air (Morrow 1993) demonstrates how the protagonists dealt with the new challenge of air warfare and how the sinews of war were adopted to new circumstances. Barros 2009 shows that one can still challenge lazy orthodoxy, demonstrating the manner in which the French air force shied away from implementing “total war” solutions in its use of strategic bombing against Germany between 1914 and 1918.

  • Barros, Andrew. “Strategic Bombing and Restraint in ‘Total War,’ 1915–1918.” Historical Journal 52.2 (2009): 413–431.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0018246X09007523Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Barros argues that the French, in contrast to the British, did not view strategic bombing as an integral part of “total war” and actually placed limitations of French operations against “civilian” targets. An important article as it demonstrates that strategic bombing need not always proceed to the “logical” extreme, as is often believed.

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  • Cooper, Malcolm. The Birth of Independent Air Power: British Air Policy in the First World War. London and Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1986.

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    Cooper demonstrates that the evolution of the air arms that led to the creation of the RAF in 1918 was a chaotic process. He also demonstrates that Trenchard and his adherents, in contrast to their interwar guise, were far too focused on land warfare and the stalemate in the trenches to be true “air prophets.”

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  • Fegan, Thomas. The “Baby Killers”: German Air Raids on Britain in the First World War. Barnsley, UK: Pen and Sword Books, 2002.

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    The German Zeppelin (airship) and aircraft raids on Britain represented the first strategic bombing campaign. The British home front was brought into the front line and into the era of “total war.” The raiders, denounced as “baby killers,” interrupted war production and diverted resources from the front. The raids may not have destroyed civilian morale, but they caused panic and, like September 11, destroyed a great power’s sense of security.

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  • Jones, Neville. The Origins of Strategic Bombing. London: William Kimber, 1973.

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    A very useful work that examines the history of the RFC (Royal Flying Corps) and (from 1918) the RAF, and that includes an extended discussion of air theory and doctrine.

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  • Morrow, John H. German Air Power in World War I. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.

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    A very useful text that contains a myriad of design and production figures; also details the relationship between the evolution of German air power and the over-stretched German war economy.

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  • Morrow, John H. The Great War in the Air: Military Aviation from 1909 to 1921. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.

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    Morrow’s detailed and scholarly history of the development and significance of air power during World War I is a superior volume. In this accessible work, the authors compares the military, technological, and industrial aspects of the major powers’ air forces. Taking each power in turn (France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the United States), he demonstrates that superior resources and, ultimately aircraft production, allowed the Allies to win the air war.

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The Interwar Period

The interwar period saw wide belief in the air power advocates’ prediction that cities would be destroyed in hours in any future war. This outlook—often summed up in the maxim “The bomber will always get through”—contributed to the widespread defeatism in the face of the challenge from Hitler, Mussolini, and Imperial Japan. The manner in which such debates dominated certain portions of British political discourse is clear from the influential Bialer 1980. The strategists and politicians constantly overestimated the bomber’s capabilities, not least due to the success achieved by the RAF in Iraq (on this, see Omissi 1990) and the German Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War. The evolution of debates that have raged about the use of strategic air power since the outset of World War I is brought vividly to life by Biddle 2004, an excellent—and exceptionally scholarly—monograph. Johnson 1998 shows that an inherent conservatism hampered the development of air power in the United States. English 1993 demonstrates just how important the academic study of strategic air power was to its development in Britain (although the lesson is clear for all states—now as much as then). Smith 1984 establishes Trenchard’s proper place in the evolution of British strategy, while Robertson 1995 and Ferris 1999 show how the obsession with the notion of the bomber “always” getting through actually caused Britain to develop a fine defensive capability potential against air attack in 1939. Despite the successes achieved by the German Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) and the enormous tactical successes in the first two years of World War II, the Luftwaffe was, in strategic terms, a failure. This was neither preordained nor inevitable, and Corum and Muller 1998 provide real insights into the brilliance and confusion that characterized much of German air power thinking (and execution) in the two world wars.

  • Bialer, Uri. The Shadow of the Bomber: The Fear of Air Attack and British Politics, 1932–1939. London: Royal Historical Society, 1980.

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    The only scholarly book to actually focus on the fear of air attack, as opposed to the air attacks themselves. Bialer shows that policy makers shared these fears themselves and, after 1935, the military, too, believed that Germany could launch a “knockout” blow against Britain in a future war. This is an important text for aiding our understanding of the rationale for “appeasement” as well as strategic air power.

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  • Biddle, Tami Davis. Rhetoric and Reality in Strategic Air Warfare: The Evolution and Reality of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914–1945. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.

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    Highly original and very scholarly and comprehensive; indispensable for understanding the genesis of strategic air power thought. Biddle discusses how strategies of air power originate, develop. and are executed. She also looks at the various points of disjuncture between theory and practice as well as the inherent conservatism of militaries.

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  • Corum, James L., and Richard R. Muller. The Luftwaffe’s Way of War: German Air Force Doctrine, 1911–1945. Baltimore: Nautical & Aviation Publishing, 1998.

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    This is a collection of real value to the scholar, consisting, as it does, of translated Luftwaffe manuals on doctrine and other official documents; excellent commentary and analysis are provided by Corum and Muller.

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  • English, Allan D. “The RAF Staff College and the Evolution of British Strategic Bombing Policy, 1922–1929.” Journal of Strategic Studies 16.3 (1993): 408–431.

    DOI: 10.1080/01402399308437524Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A very scholarly article that, on the specific level, tells us much about the military-academic infrastructure that facilitated British thinking on strategic air power; on the macro level, it demonstrates the necessity of scholarly enquiry for the proper evaluation and evolution of military doctrine.

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  • Ferris, John. “Fighter Defence before Fighter Command: The Rise of Strategic Air Defence in Great Britain, 1917–1934.” Journal of Military History 63.4 (1999): 845–884.

    DOI: 10.2307/120554Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Very well-researched piece that demonstrates how the obsession with the supposed omnipotence of the bomber shaped attitudes toward all aspects of air war thinking. As it turns out, such “worst-case” thinking—however misplaced at one level—served Britain well (as opposed to Germany).

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  • Johnson, David E. Fast Tanks, Heavy Bombers: Innovation in the U.S. Army, 1917–1945. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.

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    Johnson argues that the United States failed to adopt a “combined arms” approach akin to that adopted by the Germans because of failings in the military and political institutions of America. Johnson critiques the US Army’s failures (the air force was then a branch of the army) and argues that air power advocates were focused mainly on proving the decisiveness of strategic bombing.

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  • Omissi, David. Air Power and Colonial Control: The Royal Air Force 1919–1939. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1990.

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    Omissi demonstrates that advances in air power technology allowed the RAF to solve what had seemed like a number of intractable problems in British Imperial security. In short, the RAF was cheaper and more efficient at policing the British Empire than was the army.

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  • Robertson, Scot. The Development of RAF Strategic Bombing Doctrine, 1919–1939. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995.

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    Robertson’s book addresses RAF doctrine between 1919 and 1939, its preparations for strategic bombing, and the relationship between the two. It examines in detail the nature of the RAF’s theory of air warfare and demonstrates that although Britain was very well prepared for strategic defense by 1939, the exact opposite was the case in offensive terms.

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  • Smith, Malcolm. British Air Strategy between the Wars. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.

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    A classic work that is scholarly, forthright, and still very useful. Smith demolishes the myth that Trenchard was ever a “British Douhet.” The book is controversial and Smith defends Neville Chamberlain and “appeasement” before concluding that Trenchard was, indeed, a visionary.

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World War II

World War II (1939–1945) saw the most widespread and sustained employment of strategic air power. The proponents of strategic bombing believed that their hour had come and, indeed, the aircraft dominated many facets of the war. Any moral qualms about the bombing of civilians were soon discarded: a British Air Staff memo of 14 February 1942 ordered that operations “be focussed on the morale of the enemy civilian population.” The war ended with the dropping—by US aircraft—of two atomic bombs on two Japanese cities. Schaffer 1985 demonstrates how US policy became more ruthless as the war went on. In the era of “total war,” brutality and efficiency were now synonymous. Yet, the debates on strategic air power that emanated from World War II remain unresolved to this day and form the basis of much of the modern battle lines between scholars and strategists alike. Boog 1992 offers a plethora of perspectives from all of the main protagonists on World War II in a seminal edited volume. On a micro level, in perhaps the best historical case study, MacIsaac 1976 puts the United States Strategic Bombing Survey under analytical scrutiny. Levine 1992 is a useful introductory text that is neatly written and succinct. Rather more focused is Werrell 1986. A sophisticated treatment of the air war is provided by Overy 1980, whereas those seeking an introduction to the debates surrounding strategic bombing since World War II should consult the landmark Smith 1977. Crane 1993 deals in an engaging manner with the controversies that have been traditionally associated with the United States in World War II, while Tillman 2010 provides the best up-to-date history of the American bombing of Japan.

  • Boog, Horst, ed. The Conduct of the Air War in the Second World War: An International Comparison. New York and Oxford: Berg, 1992.

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    Very weighty tome consisting of thirty-six essays from the world’s leading experts. The book is divided into eight self-contained sections: arranged to cover air warfare and modernity; national air forces and their doctrine; air forces and the armaments industry; military research and technology; tactical and strategic air warfare; air policy and high command; air power and intelligence; and air warfare and humanity. Each section concludes with a very useful “critical commentary” essay.

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  • Crane, Conrad C. Bombs, Cities and Civilians: American Airpower Strategy in World War II. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993.

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    Crane’s book is a response to two works on American strategic bombardment in World War II: Ronald Schaffer’s Wings of Judgment (1985) and Michael Sherry’s The Rise of American Air Power (1987). Crane attacks the proposition—advanced by Schaffer and Sherry—that the United States abandoned precision strategic bombing in favor of indiscriminate destruction. Indeed, he argues that the air force deliberately avoided any “terror” bombing specifically aimed at breaking German civilian morale.

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  • Levine, Alan J. The Strategic Bombing of Germany, 1940–1945. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992.

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    A very useful introductory text—clearly written and concise; provides a good review of secondary works. The references and bibliography are, however, rather limited for the specialist reader.

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  • MacIsaac, David. Strategic Bombing in World War Two: The Story of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey. New York: Garland, 1976.

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    MacIsaac, a former officer in the US Air Force and an instructor at the Air Force Academy, produced this work—the most thorough and complete account of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS). Authoritative.

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  • Overy, Richard J. The Air War 1939–1945. New York: Stein and Day, 1980.

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    Remains perhaps the best single-volume history of World War II in the air—as good on strategic air power as it is on every other aspect of the air war. Relatively short, it remains the best introductory text.

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  • Schaffer, Ronald. Wings of Judgment: American Bombing in World War II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

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    In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt stated that America “wholeheartedly condemn[ed] . . . the unprovoked bombing . . . of civilian populations from the air.” In 1945 a United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) colonel asserted: “We intend to seek out and destroy the enemy . . . in the greatest possible numbers, in the shortest possible time. For us, there are no civilians in Japan.” This book tells how the United States—embracing Douhet and Mitchell—came to the latter position.

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  • Smith, Melden E. “The Strategic Bombing Debate: The Second World War and Vietnam.” Journal of Contemporary History 12.1 (1977): 175–191.

    DOI: 10.1177/002200947701200108Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Seminal article that draws theoretical lessons from across the decades—Smith argues the belief that strategic air power failed in World War II and Vietnam is mistaken. In World War II, it succeeded eventually; in Vietnam, the US Air Force was hamstrung by political mistakes and restrictions on strategic options.

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  • Tillman, Barrett. Whirlwind: The Air War Against Japan, 1942–1945. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.

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    Tillman charts the assault on Japan, from the Doolittle Raid of April 1942 until the obliteration of large parts of Japan’s cities in 1944–1945. Tillman focuses on the B-29 Superfortress as the war-winning weapon—although the plane’s effectiveness was limited by the doctrine of high-altitude precision bombing. But once based in the Marianas and under the direction of General Curtis LeMay, low-level firebombing proved ruinous to Japan.

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  • Werrell, Kenneth P. “The Strategic Bombing of Germany in World War II: Costs and Accomplishments.” Journal of American History 73.3 (1986): 702–713.

    DOI: 10.2307/1902984Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article represents a good place to start any investigation into the effectiveness of the strategic bombing of Germany in World War II.

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Debates over the Bombing of German Cities in World War II

Even during World War II itself, there was severe disquiet over the bombing of German cities among certain elements in the West. A prominent, and public, critic of Allied bombing policy was George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, who asked the House of Lords in 1944: “How can the War Cabinet fail to see that this progressive devastation of cities is threatening the roots of civilization?” Recent years have seen an increasing number of books on the ethics of air power. In 1977 the American philosopher Michael Walzer argued that the Allied bombing of Germany was morally wrong (Walzer 2000), while more recently A. C. Grayling also denounced them as disproportionate in his Among the Dead Cities (Grayling 2006). In 2002 Jxörg Friedrich published Der Brand in Germany (which appeared in English as The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940–1945; Friedrich 2006). This best-selling book fiercely attacked the decision of Allies to keep bombing German cities well into 1945. Hansen 2008 takes a similar position—although it is far more willing to criticize the British rather than the Western Allies per se. Hansen’s book is provocative in that it pulls no punches in comparing the British unfavorably with the Americans. Lowe 2007 is rather more balanced and serves as a thorough and moving narrative that raises all of the relevant moral debates in an even-handed manner. In the most authoritative account of the destruction of Dresden yet produced, Taylor 2004 effectively offers a scholarly and (minimally) qualified defense of the Allied strategic bombing of Germany during World War II. On the Dresden raid itself, the work makes a convincing case for its justification on military grounds and demolishes the ides that the city was a defenseless and demilitarized “sitting duck.” The same subject—still at the very center of debates about the bombing of Germany and likely to remain so—is given extended critical treatment in Addison and Crang 2006, a highly stimulating edited volume. Nevertheless, as Addison himself notes, “The debate over Dresden is [always] likely to end in a stalemate” (p. 7).

  • Addison, Paul, and Jeremy A. Crang, eds. Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden. London: Pimlico, 2006.

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    An excellent collection on one of the most contentious debates on strategic bombing in World War II—the best chapters are Hew Strachan’s on strategic bombing and civilian casualties; Sebastian Cox’s on the rationale of the raids; Sönke Neitzel’s on the actual attack on the city; and David Bloxham’s on the notion that Dresden was actually a war crime. Signally, Bloxham notes that “from the side of the bombing powers, there was little unique about the Dresden attack within the renewed bombing campaign of 1944–5, and that the city was selected as one target among many for rather mundane military and political reasons” (p. 180).

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  • Friedrich, Jörg. The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940–1945. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

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    This work represents a robust denunciation of Allied policies; rather sensationalist—but deliberately so—publishing previously unpublished “atrocity” photographs. For the horrors he describes, Friedrich places the blame squarely on the shoulders of Winston Churchill (who, in 1943, reacted to a film of the bombing by asking, “Are we beasts?”). A best-seller when originally published in Germany in 2002.

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  • Grayling, A. C. Among the Dead Cities: Was the Allied Bombing of Civilians in WWII a Necessity or a Crime? London: Bloomsbury, 2006.

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    This is a very balanced book that condemns “area bombing” rather than the use of strategic air power per se. Grayling further argues that such methods were not militarily effective and points, instead, to the effective use of “precision bombing” over Germany in 1944. Grayling is impressive in his treatment of the moral dilemmas inherent in the retrospective judgments of the history of strategic bombing in World War II.

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  • Hansen, Randall. Fire and Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany, 1942–1945. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2008.

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    Hansen compares British “area bombing” with American “precision bombing”—and comes out in favor of the latter. Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris’s desire to target the German civilian workforce is contrasted with the American mission—advocated and implemented by USAAF Generals “Hap” Arnold, Carl Spaatz, and Jimmy Doolittle—involving the daylight targeting of industry, oil, and other critical sectors of the German war economy. Hansen concludes that there was no reason at all to continue area bombing after 1944 as, by this stage, the USAAF was even inflicting enormous losses on the Luftwaffe in the air.

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  • Lowe, Keith. Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg, 1943. London: Viking, 2007.

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    Lowe utilizes official documents and eyewitness testimonies, many for the first time, to reconstruct the destruction of Hamburg by the Allies in July and August 1943. Lowe raises interesting questions about the West and the latent guilt inherent in many accounts of the wartime bombing. This book is an impressive documentation of a tragic episode—executed in nonjudgmental fashion.

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  • Taylor, Frederick. Dresden: Tuesday 13 February 1945. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

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    This book makes a robust case for the military and strategic necessity in attacking Dresden and seeks to address the common perception that the city was destroyed on the whim of the commander of “Bomber” Harris. (Nor, Taylor observes, was Dresden by any means unprecedented.) Taylor makes it clear that Dresden was rather more than the beautiful city packed with refugees portrayed by writers quick to condemn the Allies out of hand.

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  • Walzer, Michael Walzer. Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. 3d ed. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

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    Deals in one section with the bombing of German cities in World War II. Links just war theory with the notion of the “supreme emergency” and the laws of war. Concludes that the Allies bombed German beyond the time of supreme emergency and then, ashamed, sought to scapegoat the commander of RAF Bomber Command, Arthur “Bomber” Harris. Originally published in 1977 (New York: Basic Books).

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Major Figures

Sir Arthur Harris presented a systematic, and dignified, defense of Bomber Command (and its personnel) in his memoirs, originally published in 1947 (Harris 2005), while Harris’s life and work are examined in detail by Probert 2006. Schwarzer, et al. 2003 provides an excellent short introduction to Mitchell and explains just why he was so prescient in much of his thinking. Mets 1988, a study of Mitchell’s disciple Carl Spaatz, argues forcefully that Spaatz’s innovative thinking was vital to the success of the bombing of Germany—and in the precision bombing of oil targets in 1944, in particular. George C. Kenney, one of the leading air power theorists of the Pacific War, wrote a fascinating memoir that reveals much about the tensions within the US armed forces as well as the Pacfiic War and the evolution of US air power doctrine (Kenney 1949). One of the figues with whom Kenney clashed was General “Hap” Arnold. Arnold was more committed to the use of strategic air power as a war-winner, and Wolk 2010 concentrates on the general role in creating the weapons and organization of the strategic bombing offensive against Japan. Wolk successfully makes the case for Arnold’s inclusion in the front rank of air power theorists. The controversial head of the postwar Strategic Air Command (SAC), Curtis LeMay, is the subject of an excellent biography by Warren Kozak (Kozak 2009). Kozak does not deny that LeMay had many personal failings—not least his bruising and abrasive manner. He does establish, however, that LeMay was a fine commander, both in World War II and as head of SAC during the nuclear standoff in the Cold War.

  • Harris, Sir Arthur. Bomber Offensive. Barnsley, UK: Pen and Sword, 2005.

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    Vilified Allied figure in World War II presents his side of the story in a broad narrative history. Makes a number of important points, including that Bomber Command suffered unnecessarily high casualties because of a lack of investment, not least in the defensive armament of its aircraft. Such factors—when combined with a lack of investment in precision bombing equipment—pushed the British toward night-time “area bombing.” Originally published in 1947 (London: Collins).

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  • Kenney, George C. General Kenney Reports: A Personal History of the Pacific War. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1949.

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    An excellent volume of memoirs. Kenney was a proponent of the necessity of winning, and maintaining, air superiority. He lectured MacArthur on the priority of destroying Japanese air power and establishing American air bases at the earliest opportunity in all offensive operations. Kenney discusses his technological and operational innovation in some detail. He sometimes placed priority on tactical air power, bringing him into conflict with advocates of strategic bombing, like General “Hap” Arnold.

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  • Kozak, Warren. LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay. New York: Regnery, 2009.

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    A well-researched biography of the controversial general who also played a significant role in World War II before proving an effective head of Strategic Air Command. Although the general was hardheaded, very right-wing, and hawkish, this book leaves little doubt that LeMay was a fine strategist and an inspirational leader.

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  • Mets, David R. Master of Airpower: General Carl A. Spaatz. Novato, CA: Presidio, 1988.

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    General Carl Spaatz, as commander of the US Eighth Air Force, was a strong advocate of daylight bombing raids against Germany. Spaatz developed a close relationship with Billy Mitchell during and after World War I. The Great War acquainted Spaatz with the ideas of strategic bombardment and convinced him of the necessity of an independent air arm. Spaatz became the first chief of staff of the (now independent) USAF in 1947.

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  • Probert, Henry. “Bomber” Harris: His Life and Times. London: Greenhill, 2006.

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    A detailed and useful narrative of the life of Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris—one of the most controversial figures in the history of strategic air power. Readers will not, however, find the discussion of the merits and demerits of area bombing particularly sophisticated.

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  • Schwarzer, William, Robert V. Drapala, and Debra D. Rezeli. The Lion Killers: Billy Mitchell and the Birth of Strategic Bombing. Mount Holly, NJ: Aerial Perspective, 2003.

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    Good introductory text—clearly written with good illustrations and key documents reproduced; only eighty-eight pages long but a very useful primer.

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  • Wolk, Herman S. Cataclysm: General Hap Arnold and the Defeat of Japan. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2010.

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    Wolk’s book examines Arnold’s role in crafting the strategic bombing campaign against Imperial Japan in 1944 and 1945. Arnold, like LeMay and Eisenhower, was of the opinion that the atomic bombs were not necessary. Wolk discusses why Arnold believed that this was so.

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Strategic Air Power and Technology

In plain terms, there are three primary means of delivering ordnance: “dumb” unguided munitions (which have existed from the start); “smart” precision-guided munitions; and nuclear weapons. Strategic air power is particularly associated with the technological change in society and, as such, the following sources are of real utility in placing its history and conduct in the proper context. Knox and Murray 2001, along with the classic McNeill 1982, provides an excellent analytical narrative. Boot 2006 represents an updated version of these books, taking account of many recent advances in air power technology. Neither Boot’s topic—nor, indeed, its analysis—is totally original, but the book is an important addition to modern military thought. Watts 1996 will be of interest to all those seeking a universal theory for understanding the relationship between doctrine, technology, and air power. For those interested in technical detail and equipment, Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft (Bushell 2010–2011) remains the first port of call (although there are a huge number of other publications dealing with air power hardware).

  • Boot, Max. War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History: 1500 to Today. New York: Gotham, 2006.

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    An impressively broad sweep that convinces the reader of the need for innovation and technology to be wedded to good training and doctrine—whatever the era and whatever the problem.

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  • Bushell, Susan, compiler. Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft. Edited by Paul Jackson, Kenneth Munson, and Lindsay Peacock. Coulsdon, UK: Jane’s Information Group, 2010–2011.

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    The definitive guide to aircraft types—military and civil—worldwide, published annually by Jane’s Information Group, with various authors and compilers. There are other publications and annual issues of interest: for example, Jane’s Air War; Jane’s Historic Military Aircraft; and Jane’s Strategic Weapons Systems. These are comprehensive, authoritative, richly illustrated, up-to-date, and expensive (£605 for the 2010–2011 edition).

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  • Knox, MacGregor, and Williamson Murray, eds. The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300–2050. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

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    Case studies of seven centuries of RMAs: Hundred Years’ War; 17th-century France; American Civil War; 19th-century Prussia; World War I; World War II. Does not cover 1945–2050, except in short conclusion. Differentiates between RMAs led by military institutions and “military revolutions” driven by social change.

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  • McNeill, William H. The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society Since A.D. 1000. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

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    Broad, interpretive essays address the puzzle of Chinese predominance followed by “great divergence” in world history attending the rise of Western military power. Complex interplay of technical, demographic, economic, and cultural changes as they affect evolution and the lethality of warfare. Especially recommended for the discussions of psychological shifts in the experience of soldiering and the sociology of modern armies, navies, and air forces.

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  • Murray, Williamson. “Thinking about Revolutions in Military Affairs.” Joint Force Quarterly 16 (1997): 69–76.

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    Technology is at the very heart of discussions about strategic air power and the notion of the “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA) cannot be divorced from it. This article is a very useful piece that demonstrates the straight line in RMA thinking, from the crossbow to the B2 stealth bomber.

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  • Watts, Barry D. “Doctrine, Technology, and War.” Chronicles Online Journal (1996).

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    This is a declassified paper from the Air & Space Doctrinal Symposium held at Maxwell Air Force Base (AFB), Montgomery, Alabama, on 30 April and 1 May 1996. This paper, using a number of historical illustrations, illuminates some of the basic theoretical relationships between doctrine, technology, and war.

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Strategic Air Power in the Cold War

After the role that strategic air power played in World War II and the Korean War (1950–1953), the superpowers believed that their near-monopoly in potentially war-winning air arms represented a major asset for enabling them to bring their military power to bear in coercing potential opponents. Nuclear weapons were by now, of course, part of the strategic air power picture, but it is in conventional terms that strategic air power has been involved in conflict since Hiroshima and Nagasaki (there were, however, bit players in Cold War strategic air power—not least the British and the Israelis). The major players in the strategic air power stakes in the Cold War were the superpowers and, to a lesser degree, the British. The United States led the way with the establishment of Strategic Air Command (SAC), and the evolution of SAC is the subject of Borgiasz 1996 and Mets and Head 2003. The whole history of SAC is covered in Alwyn T. Lloyd’s well-illustrated and detailed tome (Lloyd 1999). The importance of Britain to the United States as a Cold War partner is amply demonstrated in Finn and Berg 2004, while the British V nuclear bomber force receives a fitting tribute in Brookes 1982. The considerable achievements of the Cold War Soviet air force are belatedly recognized in Gordon 2009.

  • Borgiasz, William S. The Strategic Air Command: Evolution and Consolidation of Nuclear Forces, 1945–1955. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996.

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    This work analyzes the evolution of the US strategic air force under the command of Curtis LeMay. It examines the development of specializations in SAC and, in particular, analyzes the role and evolution of intelligence and targeting.

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  • Brookes, Andrew. V Force: The History of Britain’s Airborne Deterrent. London: Jane’s, 1982.

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    History of the British strategic nuclear bombing force that was eventually retired in favor of the Polaris submarine-based system. Argues that the V force gave Britain great flexibility.

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  • Finn, Christopher, and Paul D. Berg. “Anglo-American Strategic Air Power Co-operation in the Cold War and Beyond.” Air & Space Power Journal (2004).

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    This article demonstrates how the USAF and RAF built on their cooperation in World War II to construct a formidable working relationship during the Cold War: “Anglo-American air power co-operation serves as an excellent model of successful coalition relations and reflects the evolution of current concepts such as expeditionary air power and effects-based operations.”

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  • Gordon, Yefim. Soviet Strategic Aviation in the Cold War. Manchester, UK: Hikoki, 2009.

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    Shows how the Red air force’s order of battle changed from 1945 to 1991. Major operations, among them the Afghan War (1979–1988), Cold War exercises over international waters, and the shadowing of NATO warships, are covered together with the details of air armies, bomber divisions, and bomber regiments, including their aircraft.

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  • Lloyd, Alwyn T. A Cold War Legacy: A Tribute to Strategic Air Command, 1946–1992. Missoula, MT: Pictorial Histories, 1999.

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    Lengthy (over 700-page) narrative history that is rich with eyewitness accounts, reminisces, sources, and a large number of (often rare) illustrations. Highly detailed, it documents the role, missions, and capabilities of SAC very well.

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  • Mets, David R., and William P. Head, eds. Plotting a True Course: Reflections on USAF Strategic Attack Theory and Doctrine—The Post World War II Experience. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.

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    Assembling fascinating essays on the evolution of air power and technology, the editors of this volume seem content to conclude that fundamental debates about the role, impact, and influence of strategic air power may be beyond any one solution. Yet, several potential solutions are offered here.

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The Nuclear and Missile Revolutions

Nuclear weapons defined strategic air power during the Cold War; this “revolution” was accelerated by the startling advances in weapon technology—not least in the sphere of ballistic guided missiles (Berhow 2005 provides a useful starting guide to the latter). Reed and Stillman 2009 offers an excellent history of nuclear weapons, stressing their inherently political nature. In order to understand the evolution of nuclear strategy, one can choose no finer single-volume work than Freedman 2003. On the Soviet/Russian side, Podvig and Bukharin 2004 is revelatory on all aspects of strategic nuclear thinking to such a degree that the Russian government apparently sought to block the book’s publication. The need to rethink the whole institution of war was given an added impetus by virtue of the existence of nuclear weapons. In mainstream strategic thinking, mindsets came to be dominated by notions of “deterrence”—that is, dissuading not coercing opponents through psychological pressure. Booth 1991 notes that Bernard Brodie, for him the first and the greatest of all nuclear strategists, saw the logic of deterrence as follows: “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose” (p. 21). Kaplan 1983 and Freedman 1986 argue that, despite the widespread alarm that nuclear weapons generated, many politicians and strategists tried to make sense of them as weapons in Clausewitizian terms. The American strategist Herman Kahn belived that he was operating in the Clausewitzian tradition when he titled his book On Thermonuclear War (Kahn 1960). That same year, the economist and strategist Thomas Schelling recognized the revolution that had been wrought by nuclear weapons and missiles and pioneered the study of bargaining and strategic behavior (Schelling 1960). This was, at least, a partial recognition of the fact that while Clausewitz had seen war as a rational part of the business of the state: in reality, the aftermath of a nuclear war would mean that “there will be no winners and the living will envy the dead.”

  • Berhow, Mark. US Strategic and Defensive Missile Systems 1950–2004. London: Osprey, 2005.

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    The missile systems played both defensive and offensive roles (the two notions embraced by the term “deterrence”). This short book provides a detailed overview of the fixed-launch-site strategic missile systems of the United States; a very well-illustrated guide.

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  • Booth, Ken. “Bernard Brodie.” In Makers of Nuclear Strategy. Edited by John Baylis and John Garnett, 19-56. London: Pinter, 1991.

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    An excellent essay—in a very useful volume—that skillfully outlines the ideas and legacy of the first, and perhaps the very best, nuclear strategist.

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  • Freedman, Lawrence. “The First Two Generations of Nuclear Strategists.” In Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. Edited by Peter Paret. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.

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    An excellent chapter—in an indispensable volume—that clearly demonstrates the continuities and the breaks wrought by nuclear weapons and other technological innovations in strategic thinking after 1945.

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  • Freedman, Lawrence. The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy. 3d rev. ed. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

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    This book, first published in 1982, has long been regarded as the seminal work on the history of efforts to address the awesome destructive power of nuclear weapons. This edition takes the story beyond the end of the Cold War up to September 11, 2001. The demise of the USSR did not remove the question of how to use nuclear weapons for political ends (while stopping others from doing the same). In one volume the reader can trace the story of nuclear strategy, from its roots in thinking about air power in the early 20th century to the danger of nuclear terrorism in the 21st.

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  • Kahn, Herman. On Thermonuclear War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960.

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    Herman Kahn, a gifted military strategist at the American RAND Corporation, created a storm with this provocative book. Given that Kahn discussed the strategic doctrines of nuclear war, many accused him of advocating global destruction with his calm discussions of notions such as “escalation ladders,” while advocating methods whereby a state could seek to go about “winning” a nuclear war.

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  • Kaplan, Fred M. The Wizards of Armageddon. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983.

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    This is a fascinating and highly original book that outlines the evolution of nuclear strategy by focusing on the strategists; tells the story of the civilians who developed the field of nuclear strategy (men such as Bernard Brodie, William Kaufmann, Albert Wohlstetter, and Herman Kahn).

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  • Podvig, Pavel, Oleg Bukharin, et al., eds. Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.

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    A weighty tome—over 700 pages—that provides information on every aspect of Soviet and Russian strategic nuclear forces, past and present. Definitive.

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  • Reed, Thomas C., and Danny B. Stillman. The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and Its Proliferation. Minneapolis : Zenith, 2009.

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    A superb global political history of nuclear weapons, from the discovery of fission in 1938 to the very real threat that nuclear weapons seem to pose for the future. The contributors show how all of the nuclear powers acquired their weapons, how nuclear technology has—and continues to—spread, and who is likely to acquire nuclear weapons next and with what consequences.

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  • Schelling, Thomas. The Strategy of Conflict. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960.

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    Pioneered the study of bargaining and strategic behavior (or what Schelling terms “conflict behavior”). In 1995 this was named as one of “The Hundred Most Influential Books Since the War” by the Times Literary Supplement (TLS), introducing concepts like “game theory” and “risk dominance.” Schelling, at least, recognized the revolutionary nature of nuclear weapons and their attendant technology.

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The Vietnam War

Berger 1984 is to be much recommended as an unusually candid official history. When seeking other sources on Vietnam, the bibliography provided by Edwin E. Moïse cannot be recommended highly enough and readers are encouraged to make use of it (Vietnam War Bibliography: The Air War). In the Vietnam War, the strategic bombing of North Vietnam—undertaken as Operation Rolling Thunder (1965–1968)—was limited by a fear of provoking China or of causing too much death and destruction. Frankum 2005 well charts the evolution of Rolling Thunder and the US slide into “escalation.” The bombing campaign initiated by President Lyndon Johnson failed to coerce the North Vietnamese, and Clodfelter 1989 is very critical of it. Smith 1995 is a fine study of Rolling Thunder, in which the author concludes that excessive interference from Washington meant that the campaign was virtually doomed from its inception. Yet, its employment did great damage to the US cause internationally and at home, and General Curtis LeMay—a veteran of the bombing campaigns of World War II—seemed to personify US policy with his vow to bomb North Vietnam “back to the Stone Age.” The Pentagon Papers (Gravel 1971) reveal that the US government was well aware Rolling Thunder had failed long before its termination. The leaking of these Department of Defense materials did much to accelerate the disillusionment of the American public with both its government and the war in Vietnam. The Nixon administration (serving 1969–1974) resumed strategic bombing during the two Operation Linebacker campaigns in 1972. Jackson 1989 demonstrates the successes and failures of Linebacker II, but asks why such a strategy had not been employed much earlier. Although Linebacker II achieved some success, public disapproval and ineffectiveness prompted ever-greater investment in precision-guided munitions (as discussed by Smith 1998). Clodfelter 1989 is—once more—very critical of the United States, and this book is perhaps the best single-volume critique of American strategy.

  • Berger, Carl, ed. The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1961–1973. Rev. ed. Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History, 1984.

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    A very well-informed official history that is candid to the point of being disarming—exhaustive.

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  • Clodfelter, Mark. The Limits of Airpower: The American Bombing of Vietnam. New York: Free Press, 1989.

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    One of the very best books available on the air war in Vietnam, written by a former USAF officer. Clodfelter examines Rolling Thunder and Linebacker I and II, to make an insightful critique of US policy whereby the author invokes Clausewitz against air force planners.

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  • Frankum, Ronald B. Like Rolling Thunder: The Air War in Vietnam, 1964–1975. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.

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    A well-written and well-informed narrative of the place of air power in the US involvement in the Vietnam War—the book delineates between tactical and strategic air power in Vietnam and provides excellent military context.

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  • Gravel, Mike, ed. The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam. 5 vols. Boston: Beacon, 1971.

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    Highly revealing documents on the American involvement in Vietnam—leaked during the Nixon administration (with many documents regarding the hidden failures of Rolling Thunder).

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  • Jackson, George R. Linebacker II: An Examination of Strategic Use of Air Power. Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University, 1989.

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    This work asks why an operation like Linebacker II was not attempted until December 1972—despite its being advocated by LeMay in 1964. The strategic utility of the operation was greatly undermined by tactical and operational defects.

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  • Moïse, Edwin E. Vietnam War Bibliography: The Air War.

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    A section from the ultimate Vietnam bibliography—exhaustive and very well-organized.

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    • Smith, John T. Rolling Thunder: The Strategic Bombing Campaign, North Vietnam, 1965–1968. Manchester, UK: Crecy, 1995.

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      Considered and balanced account of the Rolling Thunder campaigns—shows the flaws inherent from the start of the operation. Demonstrates that the real problem lay with decision making and targeting in Washington, DC.

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    • Smith, John T. The Linebacker Raids: The Bombing of North Vietnam, 1972. London: Arms and Armour, 1998.

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      Slightly misleading title as the opening chapters of the book deal with the evolution of air power strategy. A useful discussion of the use of nascent precision-guided weapons (making some interesting comparisons with the 1991 Gulf War). A good introductory text.

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    Strategic Air Power after the Cold War

    The use of strategic air power in the post–Cold War era is primarily the tale of US technology and “smart” munitions. The First Gulf War of 1991, the Kosovo air campaign of 1999, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq saw widespread use of these. Smart munitions caused an end to “area” or “carpet” bombing, while allowing aircraft formally regarded as being “tactical” to contribute to operations such as Desert Storm (1991) and Iraqi Freedom (2003), which would have required large numbers of bomber aircraft during World War II. In the early 21st century it is in the realm of air power that we see advocates—such as those discussed by Pape 1996—of strategic air power opining that this is the key to the “decisive battle.” In reality, such enthusiasm for the rather more far-fetched of Douhet’s theories rests on a misreading of his work—allied to desperation to add philosophical weight to an enthusiasm for the dramatic advances in the technology of air power. The Gulf War Air Power Survey provides us with a rich seam for the study and analysis of modern strategic air power capabilities. An air power enthusiast, Richard G. Davis argues that strategic air power was the decisive factor in the coalition victory against Iraq in 1991 (Davis 2002). Olsen 2003 is similarly enthusiastic and identifies air power as the way forward for the United States in the 21st century. Byman and Waxman 2000 warns that the Kosovo campaign of 1999 should not blind us of the need for political considerations to take precedence in all attempts at military coercion. Cordesman 2001 goes so far as to state that success in the 1999 campaign was actually achieved in spite of huge weaknesses in NATO—both politically and militarily. Lambeth 2001 is more optimistic, but hopes that political leaders will use the now impressive abilities of air power with due caution in the future. (Lambeth 2005 indicates very much the same view of the use of air power in the war on terror.) McInnes 2001 notes—in an observation which still has relevance—that the debates about the use of air power for coercion remain unresolved.

    • Byman, Daniel, and Matthew Waxman. “Kosovo and the Great Air Power Debate.” International Security 24.4 (2000): 5–38.

      DOI: 10.1162/016228800560291Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      A thoughtful piece that warns against overestimating what air power can achieve as a “cheap” option for governments. Air power cannot overcome political shortcomings—however impressive its employment may be.

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    • Cordesman, Anthony. The Lessons and Non-Lessons of the Air and Missile Campaign in Kosovo. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001.

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      Cordesman concludes that the eventual success in this campaign actually masks deep divisions in the NATO alliance and some very grave shortcomings in the manner in which the West wages war.

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    • Davis, Richard G. On Target: Organizing and Executing the Strategic Air Campaign Against Iraq. Washington, DC: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2002.

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      Argues that the planning and implementation of the strategic air campaign were the key to the victory in Desert Storm in 1991. Very comprehensive and scholarly.

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    • Gulf War Air Power Survey.

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      The Gulf War Air Power Survey (GWAPS), directed by Eliot Cohen, was commissioned by the USAF in 1993 to analyze its performance during the First Gulf War (1991). Includes five sections totaling over 3,000 pages (as well as a 276-page summary). The survey concentrates on the operational level of the air war (which saw 52,788 coalition sorties and 41,309 coalition strikes).

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      • Lambeth, Benjamin S. NATO’s Air War for Kosovo: A Strategic and Operational Assessment. Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2001.

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        Argues for the very real accomplishments of air power in making Serbian president Milosevic capitulate, but concludes that it succeeded in spite of, rather than because, of the political leadership of NATO. “After years of false promises by its most outspoken prophets, air power has become an unprecedentedly capable instrument of force employment in joint warfare. Even in the best of circumstances, however, it can never be more effective than the strategy it is intended to support” (p. ix).

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      • Lambeth, Benjamin S. Air Power Against Terror: America’s Conduct of Operation Enduring Freedom. Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2005.

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        Demonstrates how the early phases of Enduring Freedom were facilitated by US air power, but is critical of how air power was deployed subsequently—on an ad hoc basis with little long-term planning.

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      • Mahnken, Thomas G., and Barry D. Watts. “What the Gulf War Can (and Cannot) Tell Us about the Future of Warfare.” International Security 22.2 (1997): 151–162.

        DOI: 10.2307/2539371Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        Instructive piece warning against deriving universal lessons from idiosyncratic situations.

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      • McInnes, Colin. “Fatal Attraction? The West and Air Power.” Contemporary Security Policy 22.3 (2001): 28–51.

        DOI: 10.1080/135232605123313911218Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        A salutary warning against the belief that air power offers a “cheap” way for the West to wage war. McInnes reviews the debates of how best to use air power for coercive purposes (if at all) in a stimulating and reflective piece.

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      • Olsen, John Andreas. Strategic Air Power in Desert Storm. London: Frank Cass, 2003.

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        Olsen sees the main value of the coalition’s strategic air campaign in 1991 as deriving from the manner in which it shaped the entire strategy of the war. Thus, instead of a massive ground assault, the war saw an air campaign that dictated the ground phase of the war would be far less prolonged. Such was the success of the 1991 strategic air plan, and Olsen argues that this paradigm has been followed by American military planners ever since.

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      Debates Over the Future of Strategic Air Power

      In recent years, debates over whether or not Douhet was right have been legion. Many air strategists now insist that Douhet was correct all along, given the advances in the technology of air power in recent years. (This is especially so given the rise of stealth technology.) Indeed, it is thus in the realm of air power that we now see the modern advocates of the equivalent of the “decisive battle.” In reality, such enthusiasm for Douhet rests on a misreading of his work, allied to the desperation to add philosophical weight to an enthusiasm for the dramatic advances in the technology of air power. Pape 1996 takes a number of case studies and seeks to apply a mathematical cost-benefit approach to assess the utility of air power from its use in World War I to the late 20th century. Pape certainly excited a great deal of debate, and Warden 1997–1998 is among the best informed of those who critique his work—and this piece pulls no punches in charging that Pape has forgotten his Clausewitz (and made a number of other basic errors). Pape 1997 forcefully argues that too many enthusiasts of air power ignore political considerations when considering the use of strategic air power and, instead, worship at the altar of high technology. That is not to say, however, that technology has not afforded new opportunities to military and political leaders alike (as made clear in Lambeth 1997). Gates 1997 concedes this, but is very cautious and warns that war remains as unpleasant a business as ever. McCabe 2003 offers a useful insight into the strategic culture and policy-making environment in the rising power of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in strategic air power terms. (And those seeking to try and gauge the status of the PRC’s air power capabilities are best advised to consult Gordon and Komisarrov 2010.) We can be sure that the PRC, or any other states that wish to make use of strategic air power, will do so successfully only by a careful reading of the lesson garnered over the last century.

      • Cohen, Eliot A. “The Mystique of US Air Power.” Foreign Affairs 73.1 (1994): 109–124.

        DOI: 10.2307/20045895Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        Cohen noted the success of air power in the First Gulf War of 1991, but decries the notion of a “revolution” in military technology having occurred. While air power achieved much, it did not—nor will it—alter the Clausewitzian “fog of war” or the killing of noncombatants, regardless of how much precision-guided munitions advance.

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      • Gates, David. “Air Power and the Theory and Practice of Coercion.” Defense & Security Analysis 13.3 (1997): 239–254.

        DOI: 10.1080/07430179708405735Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        Decries the idea that air power has made wars far easier to wage and to win as “seductive” but “fallacious.” Fears that some societies may still seek to believe the wilder claims of air power enthusiasts as a means of overcoming the aversion to taking causalities that is increasingly widespread (especially in the modern West).

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      • Gordon, Yefim, and Dmitri Komisarrov. Chinese Air Power: Current Organisation and Aircraft of All Chinese Air Forces. Hinckley, UK: Midland, 2010.

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        Very detailed and informative book on the evolution of the air forces of the People’s Republic of China (PRC); the PRC has invested heavily in this area: developing aircraft and technology as well as importing whatever is necessary. Gordon reveals the organization, capabilities, and aircraft of all Chinese air forces.

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      • Lambeth, Benjamin S. “The Technology Revolution in Air Power.” Survival 39.1 (1997): 65–83.

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        In the wake of the impressive performance of air power in the First Gulf War in 1991, this article argues that it was the developments in air power’s capability that made possible a whole new range of operational capabilities. Although air power is by no means a universal panacea, Lambeth concludes that “as a result of these new capabilities, air-power now offers the promise of being the determinant factor in an ever widening variety of circumstances if its future development and evolution are properly planned and underwritten” (p. 65).

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      • McCabe, Thomas R. “The Chinese Air Force and Air and Space Power.” Air & Space Power Journal (Fall 2003).

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        Anticipating that the People’s Republic of China will be the chief competitor to US power in the next century, McCabe posits that an understanding of the strategic culture, composition, and doctrine of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is essential. He believes that the PRC—involved in a number of disputes with rivals and neighbors—has a specific way of forming central ideas about doctrine. These are derived from what he sees as the idiosyncrasies of Chinese society and culture, which discourage the use of “historical war-fighting models as foundations for strategy.”

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      • Pape, Robert A. Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

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        Analyzes five central issues: first, the nature and utility of coercion by air power (both conventional and nonconventional); second, the relationship of coercion to war-fighting when pursuing victory; third, the efficacy of modern air power against military (i.e., tactical) targets as opposed to civilian/ industrial (i.e., strategic ones); fourth, how one might employ conventional air power against an enemy state to influence its decision-making process; and, fifth, what the arguments and influence of key strategists and thinkers of air power have been.

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      • Pape, Robert A. “The Limits of Precision-Guided Air Power.” Security Studies 72 (1997): 93–114.

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        Provocative restatement of the author’s position, but seeks to demonstrate the problem by decoupling the political from the military. Warns that “punishment” does not work—and illustrates this thesis with numerous examples. This is an important article that deserves a continued wide readership.

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      • Warden, John A. “Success in Modern War: A Response to Robert Pape’s Bombing to Win.” Security Studies 7.2 (1997–1998): 172–190.

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        Earnest and thoughtful critique of Pape 1996, which indicts Pape for using outmoded ideas. Warden argues that Pape forgets his Clausewitz while his “war categorizations of punishment, risk, denial, and decapitation merely put labels (and misleading labels at that) on tactical employment of war tools” (p. 172). Mainly describing the Iraq War of 1991 as exemplary, Warden states that the ultimate objective of any war leadership must be the “peace objectives” and not just “victory” in war.

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      LAST MODIFIED: 03/02/2011

      DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199743292-0066

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