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The Air Campaign in Prospect

Thinking about war and how to fight it is an immensely difficult undertaking, because war is the most complex of human endeavors. Because it is so complex, it must be broken into component parts that can be examined, studied, and used. Clearly, war can be broken down in a number of ways.

Wars are big and small, limited or unlimited, nuclear or nonnuclear, geographically confined or worldwide. Although these divisions are useful, they do not give a very good basis for planning or directing operations, because they are still too encompassing. From this standpoint, it becomes more useful to break war down into parts that are related to decreasing levels of responsibility.

The Levels of War

The four levels of war discussed here include grand strategic, strategic, operational, and tactical.

Many books have been written on the strategic level of war; indeed, one of the most famous and most useful is On War, written a century and a half ago by the Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz. Likewise, numerous books are available on the tactical level; in fact, the majority of war books are really at this level. Most works on submarine warfare for example, or aerial combat, naval engagements, and infantry attack are concerned with the tactics of man again man.

Surprisingly -- or perhaps not -- almost nothing has been written since the immediate post-World War II period that deals with theory and practice at the operational level, especially for air warfare.1

What reasons can explain the absence of works on the art of conducting an operational level campaign?

First, it is a difficult area to address. One can discuss strategy with broad gestures across a map of the world, and tactics are something with which many have had direct experience either in war or in training.

Second, after World War II, nuclear weapons created a certain feeling that they had made the massing of armies, navies, and air forces obsolete. The near simultaneous rejection of history (especially in the United States) as the peacetime soldier's only window on war further pushed the operational level of war into the category of the arcane. When the last of the officers with high command or staff experience from World War II and Korea retired from active duty, a whole body of hard-won knowledge was lost.

Lack of Coherent Operational Doctrine

Though eclipsed, operational thinking remained essential, and genuine understanding of it remained vital. Many of our current problems over the uses of the various Armed Services stem from a lack of coherent doctrine on how they should be used individually and collectively in an operational campaign to secure some strategic end. This book is an attempt to fill that gap and to provide a framework for planning and executing air campaigns at the operational level.

In the belief that history is the only laboratory that we have in peacetime to develop and try theories of war, this book draws heavily on the last half century of air warfare. It uses examples from victor and vanquished alike -- frequently, the better lessons are those learned in the aftermath of defeat. It tries to distill the lessons that can be drawn from many campaigns and many cultures. It does not suggest that a particular stratagem can be repeated in the future -- although some can, given our short memories. Merely knowing that something worked once in the past may give a commander or planner an idea or the confidence to try a similar approach. How many victories -- and defeats -- are about because a commander had studied Hannibal's double envelopment at Cannae?2

Our focus will be on the employment of air forces at the operational level in a theater of war. Depending on the goals of the war, the theater may extend from the front to the enemy's heartland, as it did for the Western Allies after the Normandy invasion in World War II. Conversely, the theater may be a relatively isolated area, as in the desert war between Britain and the Axis in North Africa prior to November 1942.

In the former case, "strategic" air attacks on the enemy homeland affected operations throughout the theater and were of great interest to the operational commander. On the other hand, in the confined and isolated theater of North Africa, "strategic" attacks on German industry had little immediate local effect and were not of significant interest to the operational commanders on either side.

Two Levels Nearly Merged in Western Europe

In Western Europe, the strategic and operational levels nearly merged. The grand strategic goal was the unconditional surrender of Germany, and the military strategy chosen to realize the goal was ground penetration and occupation of the enemy state. Given that strategy,

The operational commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, could not establish a bridgehead at Normandy and wait for the Germans to bleed themselves white trying to dislodge it. On the contrary, he had to move forward. Necessarily, he had to use all available means to reduce the German capability to resist. Although not under his control, for a variety of reasons, air attacks on petroleum facilities, transportation networks, and power plants hundreds of miles behind the lines had at least as much to do with eventual success as did the movement of armies on the ground.
Calling air attacks on the enemy heartland "strategic," as though they were on some special plane of their own, unrelated to the rest of the war, can easily confuse us.

In World War II, the Allied "strategic" bombing campaign had emasculated the Luftwaffe and forced its concentration in the defense of the homeland. Thus, the skies above Normandy during the Allied invasion in June 1944 were almost completely clear of German planes and the German army had the most extraordinary difficulties in moving forces to the front because Allied air forces made movement by day virtually impossible.
No doubt the German operational commanders would have liked nothing more than to have the Allied air forces fighting desperately over Britain against a German "strategic" bombing campaign.

The key point in this example is that the strategic and operational levels merged. Operations from the lowest level to the highest are on a continuum and it serves us poorly to compartment them in such a way that we lose sight of their interrelations.

In North Africa, on the other hand, limited men and materiel and the general situation (Vichy France nominally controlling and thus protecting the Axis rear) made the concept of Allied operations relatively simple, at least until American entry into the theater in November 1942. Both sides wanted to destroy the other's ground forces; for the most part, they could only work against targets fairly close to the lines. (The exception was British interdiction of Axis shipping across the Mediterranean.) For the commanders on the ground, air attacks on Germany or Britain were of little immediate consequence, as they were unlikely to have any timely impact on their campaigns. Therefore, unlike General Eisenhower or German Field Marshal Karl von Rundstedt at Normandy, the North African commanders did not have to concern themselves with "strategic" air operations.

The theater commander should consider all kinds of operations that might have an influence on the campaign. If the will of the enemy people is vulnerable, the theater commander may want to concentrate efforts against that target. If the enemy is dependent on external supply, then some point in the supply chain may be the key to success. If the enemy is dependent on petroleum, then destroying petroleum networks may be the smartest move. In many cases, however, and, especially against a modern, highly resilient industrial power, there may be no single key; thus, attacking a number of targets may be necessary -- but targets carefully chosen to affect the enemy's center of gravity.

"Center of Gravity" Useful in Planning

The term "center of gravity" is quite useful in planning war operations, for it describes that point where the enemy is most vulnerable and the point where an attack will have the best chance of being decisive. The term is borrowed from mechanics, indicating a point against which a level of effort, such as a push, will accomplish more than that same level of effort could accomplish if applied elsewhere. Clausewitz called it the "hub of all power and movement."3

Every level of warfare has a center, or centers, of gravity. If several centers of gravity are involved, force must be applied to all if the object is to be moved. Perhaps the most important responsibility of a commander is to identify correctly and strike appropriately enemy centers of gravity. In some cases, the commander must identify specific reachable centers of gravity, if he has neither the resources nor the authorization to act against the ultimate centers. In any event, theater operations must be planned, coordinated, and executed with the idea of defeating the enemy by striking decisive blows.

The theater commander normally will have at his disposal air, sea, and land forces. After identifying the enemy center of gravity, the theater commander must decide which, or which combination, of available forces to use. If he decides to use more than one, he must assign missions to each participant. In the process, he must keep an open mind. He must avoid making an automatic decision that all his available services must participate equally (or conceivably at all), that one is a priori supreme and must be supported by the others, that all must be about the same business at the same time, or that an enemy action demands a reaction in kind.

Instead, he must realize that the nature and objective of the war, and the nature of the enemy will suggest the forces needed for success. On some occasions, one arm will suffice, while at other times all three must be used in any of a wide combination of ways. Sometimes, a particular arm may be the only one capable of carrying out a mission normally associated with another. We will deal with this concept in detail in chapter 10, but let us introduce the idea now by considering two examples, separated by two millennia, which illustrate the theoretical viability of the idea.

When Alexander the Great embarked on his campaign against Persia, the success of his operation depended on securing control of the Mediterranean Sea. Normally, one would assign naval forces to this chore, but Alexander's fleet was too weak to overcome the Persian fleet and had no prospect of becoming significantly stronger. Alexander noted that the center of gravity of the Persian fleet was its shore bases. The center identified, his campaign plan was obvious -- before plunging into Persia, he would use his army to seize Persian bases around the Mediterranean littoral (coastal region). He executed the plan and destroyed Persian sea power without ever winning a battle at sea.4
More or less the opposite occurred in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Spain and England vied for world dominance.

The Spanish opted for a land invasion of England that depended on avoiding or overcoming English sea power. The defeat of the Spanish Armada, when it tried to cross the English Channel, wrecked hopes for an invasion. On the English side, the options were either to invade Spain or destroy her economy by using sea power to isolate her from the source of her wealth in the Americas. England opted for the latter and succeeded.5

Single Arms Can Prevail

Historically, then, single arms can at times prevail, and that response -- or attack -- in kind is not always the right thing to do.

Assuming that in a particular theater the best or only way to defeat the enemy is through destruction (or disarming through maneuver) of his forces, the question arises as to which forces must be destroyed and in what order. If equipment, doctrine, or will suggest that the enemy will never use, or effectively use, his air forces, then it would be pointless to expend great effort to destroy them merely because of one own doctrine. In this case, the air arm could immediately find use in some form of interdiction or close air support.

Conversely, if the enemy believed that either his air force was key to success or that his ability to provide a specified degree of protection against air attack was a prerequisite to continuing the war, then the prime objective might well be the attainment of air superiority. As we will see, Japan surrendered after she lost her ability to defend herself against American air power, and the North Vietnamese accepted a truce under similar circumstances.

In the next several chapters, we will examine air superiority in great detail. We will see the benefits that flow from attaining it -- and the penalties exacted for losing it. These chapters, in turn, will lay the base for planning and executing a successful air campaign.