The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

The Advocate and Air Power Doctrine

The transformation case study of the US Army Air Corps in the interwar years focused largely on the personality of BG William “Billy” Mitchell.  He has since then been considered one of the “fathers” of the modern US Air Force.  Was he really a positive  force for the transformation of the Air Force?  Could his efforts have been more effective if he had worked inside the structure of the military as did his superior, Major General Mason Patrick, the Chief of the Air Service?

Air power doctrine as advocated by Italian theorist Giulio Douhet, Hugh Trenchard, and Billy Mitchell predicted essentially that decisive strategic effects could be achieved from air.  In other words, air power was capable of winning wars without the assistance of the other services.  This theory has been echoed by modern US Air Force leaders such as Air Force Chiefs of Staffs Michael J. Dugan and Merrill A. McPeak.  These ideas have been detailed in such popular discussions of air strategy as The Air Campaign and Shock and Awe.  Can air power win wars decisively and at low cost in some cases?  If it can not, what capability justifies a separate Air Force?  If it can, does that argue against jointness as central component of US military doctrine?


December 14, 2011 - Posted by | H200, military history | , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. One cannot question that airpower provides a distinct capability and advantage to the U.S. military. However, the greatest disservice that airpower advocates do to the Air Force is by overstating the benefits it can provide. Rather than recognizing kinetic airpower as an extension of the U.S. military’s overwhelming firepower, advocates (or zealots) try to distinguish it as an independent capability. Douhet did this by using questionable and simplified math to overstate the effectiveness of “strategic” bombing, rather than apply artillery calculations of the era and adapting them to air-delivered munitions. He further overstated the impact of the bombing on the morale of enemy civilian populations. John Warden, author of The Air Campaign, continues to oversell his 5-rings model by stating in his 2011 Air & Space Power Journal article, “we should at least begin with the presumption that airpower can carry out any military task.” The article attempted to make a case for airpower dominance in the current COIN environment, rather than accept shifting relevance across campaign phases. Just as in the interwar years when defense funding was minimal, contemporary advocates overstate the capability in an effort to legitimatize the service in across the entire spectrum of conflict. The fact remains that each service provides a distinct capability, but it may not be as relevant across the entire spectrum.

    Comment by Todd Larsen | December 15, 2011

  2. I agree with MAJ Larsen, ” one cannot question that airpower provides a distinct capability and advantage to the U.S. military”. I believe that each military service provides a distinctly different capability to the fight and that’s what helps the U.S. military successfully win against its adversaries. Yes, air power can win wars decisively at a high cost. I don’t believe that wars can be won at a low cost, in order to win, sacrifices are made a high cost.

    Comment by MAJ LaShaunda Jackson 17A | December 26, 2011

  3. There is no question that the US Air Force can decisively win wars and achieve our nation’s strategic goals, IF our government is willing to wage total war. The vision provided by Douhet, Trenchard, and Mitchell is one with a nation’s Air Force using WMDs and massive carpet bombing techniques to break opposing nation’s wills. But for several obvious reasons our government will not utilize the US Air Force in this manner.

    While the Allies and Axis powers both used massive carpet bombings in Europe, ground forces were still used to seize and hold terrain in order to win the European Theater. Yes, the Allies’ air campaign played a huge role in deciding the eventual outcome, but it did not win it by itself. Why, because even the most stalwart generals had limits to how much of Europe’s civilian population they would bomb indiscriminately from the air.

    As for the Pacific Theater, the argument can be made that it was the Naval Air and Surface bombardments in combination with the two Atom Bombs dropped on Japan that ended the hostilities there. Either with or without the Navy’s participation, without the use of Atom Bombs I do not believe that an air campaign by itself would have decisively defeated Japan. In my opinion, the use of the two Atom bombs was the closest that our government came to committing “total war” with our air power in Douhet’s sense. Even then it was only used on two cities and each time the Japanese were given a chance to surrender immediately after each bomb’s usage instead of continuing bombing until Japan sued for peace…

    Now, flash forward to the Korean Conflict and the USG’s reluctance to use our air power to decisively destroy China’s industrial base as GEN MacArthur heavily suggested to. The US Air Force could have dominated the Chinese but our government’s refusal to fully utilize its full potential limited its effectiveness against an opponent’s industrial base. This totally flies in the face to Douhet’s vision.

    Even if our nation’s government is willing to utilize our Air Force IAW Douhet’s vision, its effects against nations with limited industries, dispersed populations, and difficult climate/terrain are limited at best. This does not even take into consideration of how effective are the US Air Force’s capabilities against terrorist organizations that place their safe houses in the middle of population centers full of innocent civilians. Imagine the international backlash if our Air Force dropped a thousand pound bomb in the middle of a European City…

    Flatly put, no, I do not believe that the US Air Force, or any of our services, can decisively win all of our nation’s wars/conflicts without a joint effort to combine the effectiveness of each of our services’ capabilities.

    Comment by MAJ Chris Moore, 17A | January 2, 2012

  4. Billy Mitchell certainly could have been a more effective transformational figure if he had worked within the system as did some of his counterparts. However, I believe that in some instances a polarizing figure is necessary to motivate others to change a culture as entrenched as the Air Corps at the time. Partially because of his efforts the Air Corps evolved into the modern Air Force. Although in some cases airpower can independently achieve strategic and operational success, such as in Libya, it is shortsighted to believe that any one capability is the answer for every military situation.

    Comment by Matthew Wilder 17D | January 5, 2012

  5. I agree with MAJ Larsen. No one can deny what airpower brings to the fight. As I think back over my multiple tours in Iraq air power gave us a huge advantage and what sets us apart from our enemies. I think BG Mitchell was a positive force in transformation. Budget was an issue as with the war period of today but I feel you have to spend money and advance with the period. The enemy always gets a vote and we have to evolved as they evolve and sometimes that comes with a huge price. You can go back and forth about can the airpower achieving strategic and operational success but we have to ensure that we do not lose our edge with by being shortsighted.

    Comment by MAJ Carl Mason, 17A | January 7, 2012

  6. Can air power win wars decisively and at low cost in some cases? No, no doubt that airpower can bring a significant amount of firepower to the fight, but it airpower cannot win wars decisively. In order to win a war, the will of the people must be eliminated and their will to continue to fight must be no existent. Airpower can destroy key infrastructure and kill numerous people; however, the airpower alone cannot end a war because it cannot occupy an area and as long as people survive, their will to continue to fight may become stronger. Furthermore, to operate aircraft is quite expensive never mind the munitions the aircraft drop. Some aircraft can carry numerous bombs and each bomb could cost upwards of 5 million dollars. During an air raid campaign, hundreds of bombs and munitions are dropped which on many strategic objectives costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Therefore, Airpower can inflict a significant amount of damage; however, airpower alone is not a cost effective way to win a war decisively.

    Comment by Ryan Hanrahan | January 17, 2012

  7. Billy Mitchell was initially a positive force for transformation of the early Air Force; however, he would have been even more effective if he had worked inside the structure of the military. The old cliché of “you can say whatever to your superiors as long as you do so respectfully and with tact” still holds true today. One will lose an argument by the manner in which we present it, especially if we are overly emotional, or worse yet, disrespectful in doing so. In Mitchell’s case, once he was court-martialed he lost the respect and the access required to be a successful advocate for air power.

    While air power can win wars decisively it cannot do so at low cost. The cost is exceedingly high in two respects. The weapons we develop for a decisive win are exceedingly expensive. How much do you think we have expended to use and employ Tomahawks, JDAMs, ISR assets, UAVs, etc to capture one or two individuals in a pickup truck? This is not to argue against them but to simply emphasize their costly nature. The other aspect to cost is in terms of international sentiment. The amount of damage required to win decisively through air power alone requires a degree of callousness incompatible with current international agreements on the treatment of war.

    With the birth of combined arms warfare, each service has been successful in proving what it brings to the table. The Air Force brings an element of power projection that the Army alone cannot equal. The Army still has to hold key terrain. It also has to operate in environments, where due to the hybrid threat, the air force cannot. As Maj Moore makes reference to, the backlash of dropping munitions in the middle of an urban environment will be quite significant.

    It seems that in times of limited financial resources, “Jointness” comes to the forefront of US military doctrine. Perhaps we need to make this a more perpetual state of US military affairs.

    Comment by MAJ Efrain Ramos | January 24, 2012

  8. The questions with Billy Mitchell’s actions revolve around their timing. Would the Air Force have adapted as quickly if Billy Mitchell acted within the military structure, as Major General Mason Patrick did? I do not believe it would have. Having two advocates, one within the system and one outside, benefited the Air Force during the inter-war period. MG Patrick (Chief of Air Service) worked inside the system to change the Air Force. Had BG Mitchell done the same, he would have only reinforced the same ideas and concepts of his boss. BG Mitchell’s actions outside the chain of command is what gained the Air Force is recognition and place on the international stage.
    As for the second series of questions: the Air Force cannot win wars by itself. I would argue that in today’s operational environment, our Military cannot win wars by itself. Dr. Sebastian L.v. Gorka wrote an article for the National Defense University titled “The Age of Irregular Warfare: So What?” In it, he depicts a new version of the Clausewitzian Trinity of War. He expands the trinity to include the age of Irregular warfare age. Today’s hybrid threats involve actions against non-state actors driven more by ideology than governmental regulations. How does the Air Force win the “Global War of Terror” alone? The Air Force can strike safe havens or training facility I concur, but it cannot change an individual’s beliefs or culture. All aspects of DIME (Diplomacy, Information, Military and Economic) must be employed through a unified coalition in order to win in today’s environment.

    Dr. Sebastian L.v. Gorka, “The Age of Irregular Warfare: So What?” National Defense University, (accessed January 24, 2012).

    Comment by MAJ Ryan Barnett, SG17D | January 25, 2012

  9. Shock and awe is definitely an incredible way to show that the US Air Force means business when it is showing its might. But we all have to remember, as numerous peers have stated above, that all of the US military departments (USMC, USN, USA, USAF) bring their own way of fighting to the table. The Air Force is all air/space power, the Navy provides air power along with missiles, the Marines contribute expeditionary and amphibious abilities and the Army provides a collection of assets: ground combat troops with mechanized support, aviation, and significant force enablers. We could argue that each department of the US military can singlehandedly win a war, but reality is that wars are won by the joint effort of all our military forces. That is what makes the US such a super power.

    Comment by MAJ Kim DeJesus, 17A | January 25, 2012

  10. Although Billy Mitchell’s actions might not have been labeled as positive by the War and Naval Departments, his overall impact on Air Force transformation was positive. As an original Signal Officer turned aviator in charge of training and operations for the Air Service during 1919, Billy Mitchell became the outspoken advocate for an independent Air Force and unified control of air power known today by airmen, seaman, and Soldier alike. During a time period where military culture and polictical factors openly supported naval battle ships and limited resources resulted in budgetary cuts, an assimilating, soft-spoken advocate for air power would have never been heard, and he would have been less effective “waiting his turn.” Billy Mitchell was exactly what was needed to bring attention to the capabilities of air power and the neccessity for increased resources to further innovations in air power. While the delivery of shock and awe through effective use of air power is essential and crucial to mission success, it is not the only thing that can win wars. We have separate services for the unique capabilities that each service brings. Naval ships provide quick projection platforms for aircraft and provide an awesome deterrance against aggression through show of force. Additionally, the navy affords mass transportation platforms for delivery of personnel and equipment into a number of areas of operations. The Army on the other hand wins our nation’s wars through the preponderance of ground forces, and combat aviation, and fire power it can provide from land. While air power can win wars decisively at low costs in some cases (Libya air strike campaign), its capabilities does not negate the need for “jointness,” as each service has something worthwhile to add to the success and accomplishment of the mission. As we move towards an era of budget cuts, doctrine revisions in an effort to adjust to hybrid threats, one thing will remain true, it will take a combination of success on the ground, in the air, and at sea to win the hearts and minds of the American people and those of the natives residing in the areas we are called to provide assistance.

    Comment by MAJ Thwana F. Johnson, SG 17D | January 25, 2012

  11. What made William “Billy” Mitchell so memberable was his tenacity to push extreme change concepts (for the time). I do not think that he would been a more effective “facilitator of change” had he worked within the system. Had he worked within the system, his ideas would have been muted, or at least minimized from their orginal message (Air Power deserves a separate service, Strategic Bombing is the key for quick future victory, and Air Power is the future). Some have even theorized that Mitchell wanted a court martial in order to make his message even more public. In the end, I believe that he did more to further the expanding role of Air Power versus downplaying it.

    Comment by Marcus Hay | January 26, 2012

  12. I have to disagree with some of the posts above that argue that Mitchell would have been better off advocating within his organization. I believe Mitchell felt his hands were tied within the current doctrine of his organization, and therefore his exit from the military allowed him to better publicly argue for and advocate the use of aircraft. Mitchell followed Douhet’s theory of using aircraft against strategic targets, but Mitchell knew that the US military was concerned with bombing enemy ships to defend its coasts. Mitchell proved the lethality of bombers against naval targets with his demonstrations and proved that the US doctrine of fighting naval targets was sound and could be augmented through the use of aircraft. The Navy capitalized on the demonstrations and was able to get funding for aircraft carriers and other aircraft; however, this didn’t leave much room for the Army to argue for further air power development and balance its interwar budget for ground forces. Mitchell would have had to fight resistance to using funds for air instead of funding ground forces in addition to trying to outshine the Navy’s achievements in airpower. Airpower augmented Navy doctrine, and did not require the large doctrinal change that was needed in the Army.

    Comment by MAJ Tim Hickman, SG 17C | January 30, 2012

  13. I agree with MAJ Hickman that Mitchell’s hands were tied. There is only so much “advocating” that you can do within your organization that you start to become a nuisance even if your intentions are for the betterment of the whole armed forces. Yes, air power can not on its own win the war. As we have read and seen in our classes, it takes a combined effort from all the forces to win a war. A separate Air Force is not necessarily required but air power is needed for supporting the ground troops. They need the air power to destroy strategic targets that lead to winning wars but you still have the other war fighting functions that must be defeated to end the war.

    Comment by MAJ Michele Torne | February 5, 2012

  14. Like MAJ Hickman, I believe that Mitchell’s outspoken efforts to champion the use of Air Power and Strategic bombing were not emmediately effective, but paid dividens for the success of the air corps and later air force since. His vision for the use of all types of aircraft and not just bombers proved vital to the success of the U.S. air campaign during WWII and has shaped air battle since. Mitchell could also be credited with providing the motivation for the U.S. Navy to jumpstart it’s development of carrier based aircraft, which was undoubtedly the operational center of gravity during the Pacific Campaign. His outspoken efforts to ensure the safety of his pilots and the security of the nation no matter the cost to his personal career, took an extreame amount of morale courage.

    Comment by MAJ Christopher Church, SG17B | February 17, 2012

  15. It appears that everyone has forgot that Japan had 2 million trained soldiers plus millions of civilians ready to fight to the death if U.S. ground forces invaded Japan. It also should be remembered that the Japanese were the most fanatical soldiers ever to take to the field. Around 200 were taken alive at Iwo Jima out of around 20,000! Naval bombardment did very little damage to Japan before the surrender. But General LeMay’s B-29s burned out 50 Japanese cities. The 2 Atom bombs only did 3% of the damage caused by air attack while B-29s fire bombing did 90% of the rest of the damage. The point is that Japan surrended without a single ground soldier landing on a hostile beach. (if that is not proof that air power can win a war by itself, then I do not know what would be!!!) The same result could have been done if B-36 aircraft would have been flown from Hawaii without the island hoping campaign that the Navy, Army and Marine corp did from late 1942 until June 1945. If the leaders would have had any forsight and made a separate air force equal to the Army and Navy in 1921 as Billy Mitchell wanted and gave the go-ahead to buil a strategic air force in 1938, as was requested, the U.S. Air Force would have had long range four engine bombers capable of delivering the Atom bomb from Hawaii in the mid 1940s. Only England and Germany had independent Air Forces between the world wars. The U.S.Navy was the 2nd largest Navy in the world in late 1941, Japan 3rd largest and Britain the largest. There were only 148 B-17s and 12 B-24s in existance in early December 1941 and only a few of these 4-engine bombers had trained crews ready for combat missions. So while the U.S. Navy was the 2nd largest in the world, there was no U.S.strategic air force! Yet within 3 1/2 years after Pearl Harbor was attacked the U.S. Army Air Corp was mounting 1000 B-29 air attacks against Japan. What Billy Mitchell wanted started in 1921, was not given the green light until December 1941. Without four engine bombers the U.S. would have had to invade Japan to end the war. One Japanese Army General said that he was willing to sacrafice 20,000,000 Japanese lives to get what he thought was an honorable peace, which meant the Japanese Army staying in control and no occupation by the allies. Both Admiral Nimitz and General LeMay said the Japan would have been forced to surrender before the end of 1945 with naval blockade and stratigic bombing. The Eighth Air Force transfered from Europe was getting ready to start operations from Okinawa when the war ended. Without the Atom bombs, air attacks mounted against Japan would have delivered up to 30,000 tons of bombs per mission by the fall of 1945.
    Only 2000 tons of bombs were used to burn out 16 square miles of Tokoyo on night of March 9th 1945, which killed more Japanese than did the atom bombs. No doubt that bombing on that scale can win a war by itself. Japan surrended without invasion which is positive proof.

    Comment by Gary Adams | March 5, 2013

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