In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Strategic Air Power

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference works
  • Textbooks
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Major Figures
  • Strategic Air Power and Technology
  • Strategic Air Power after the Cold War
  • Debates Over the Future of Strategic Air Power

International Relations Strategic Air Power
Robert Gerald Hughes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 September 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0066


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.

    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).

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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).

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

    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.

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

    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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