The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

H203: The Advocate and Airpower

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, 2015 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. Billy Mitchell was a positive force for the transformation of the Air Force. He was a visionary in understanding the necessity of an independent Air Force and also an innovator in proving airpower’s capabilities to the world. Mitchell also possessed the social awareness and entrepreneurial know-how to capture America’s fascination with air capabilities in order to establish the foundation for the modern Air Force. While Mitchell’s unconventional approach to transformation violated military regulations therein resulting in Mitchell’s court martial, his work ultimately ensured the success of today’s Air Force.

    I do not think that Mitchell’s efforts would have been as effective if he worked in the same fashion of MG Patrick. This was because of American complacency in accepting military status quo during the interwar period. The United States required a visionary and advocate to identify the impending crisis and ensure the voice of airpower was heard. Patrick was not effective whereas Mitchell’s legacy lives on.

    Airpower cannot win modern wars decisively without joint support. While the nuclear option changed the nature of warfare, the indiscriminate nature of nuclear warfare is not a viable option in the predominance of operating environments. Instead, the future of airpower must be focused on joint integration. Conversely, land and maritime forces must relinquish antiquated single service operational approaches to warfare. In the current fight, airpower seems to be a politically approved military option short of risking American soldiers. Time will show the effects of an air-only campaign. The critical understanding for politicians and military professionals alike is the alignment of strategic ends, ways, and military means.

    Comment by Matt Wunderlich, 19A | December 15, 2015

  2. Billy Mitchell’s charisma and willingness to shock and awe won him a lasting place in history, but I do not believe he was the type of person needed to transform the Army Air Corps into a modern stand-alone Air Force. His ideas were important, but it takes a good “politician” to affect change at the strategic level. Visionaries are often unappreciated in their own time.
    Like Matt, I do not believe that any service can win a war; however, I do believe there is utility in maintaining separate Air, Land and Sea forces. (My biggest problem is with the Marine Corps as they aren’t specialists in a battlefield domain.) Although the Air Force cannot win a war, they can conduct operations without assistance from Navy or Army. Those missions should be conducted under the control of a Joint Commander of some type, but does not require a joint military force. Eliminating the separate services hinders our ability to be superior in that domain.

    Comment by Laura Proffit, 19C | January 5, 2016

  3. The creation of the Air Force as a separate service in 1947 was necessary due to the diverging mission of the Army and the Army Air Corps. Mitchell did demonstrate the great importance of air planes but his efforts did not singularly lead to a separate air service. Had he worked within the structure of the system, his results would not have been as effective and he knew this, thus his over the top sinking of the Osfriesland.

    To answer the second part you must first define what the ends are. The Air Force is very effective given the right objectives it can in fact win wars decisively, but this type of war is not likely. A war with the utter destruction of the belligerent and their COGs as Warden details with his concentric rings. The Air Force could literally bomb just about any county into the stone age stopping whatever action they did. However, this type of war is no longer probable and today’s conflicts of occupation and rebuilding require air, land and sea forces combined in joint operations to be the most successful and effective. Like Laura stated, each component brings something unique to the table and the synergistic effect of the combined operation is far greater than the individual pieces

    Comment by Greg Moulton 19C | January 5, 2016

  4. Billy Mitchell was a positive force for the transformation of the Air Force. Given that air power was a new capability, it would have been challenging to effect transformation by working within the structure of the military. Working within the existing structure would have met with significant inertia to remain with the status quo. It would also have been impeded by interested parties protecting parochial interests. Billy Mitchell’s approach of promoting air power, including obtaining public and media support, was a means to overcoming this inertia and effecting change.

    I believe that air power cannot win wars decisively. There needs to be boots on the ground to secure terrain and effect control for stabilization to occur and this is necessary before a conflict can be terminated. Air power is not able to achieve these objectives. However, air power provides capabilities that the other services do not possess and this justifies it as a separate service.

    Comment by Luke Goh, SG19B | January 20, 2016

  5. The problem with the idea that air power alone can decisively win wars, and in some cases at low costs, is that the enemy has a vote. Any contemporary adversary to the United States, whether a conventional, state run military, or a non-state actor recognizes the technological overmatch of US Air Power and will take steps to counter that overmatch. Adversaries understand that the US is constrained by its own values and the international system it created. Part of that system is the require to actively prevent the targeting of civilian and protected infrastructure. US air power cannot win a war quickly and decisively, because adversaries will use population centers to protect their strategic and operational centers of gravity, or use proxy forces to prevent attribution and the deliberate targeting of their forces.

    That being said, a separate Air Force with strategic effects that can quickly achieve air superiority in a land conflict is both an essential deterrent, and a critical requirement for both combined arms maneuver and wide area security. The strategic bombing capabilities of the United States Air Force serve as a global force for international security and prosperity, much like the maritime security and protection of commercial maritime sea lanes provided of the United States Navy create immeasurable economic benefits for the entire globe. Additionally, the freedom of maneuver and logistical support provided to ground forces during all five phases of the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan would not have been possible without the air superiority gained in the initial phases of conflict by the Air Force.

    With this in mind, the Air Force is most effective working as part of the joint force. The fiscal constraints of the past several years have driven the Air Force to prioritize its mission, capabilities, and airframes, resulting in the announcement to retire the A-10, a weapon system used primarily in the joint fight to support the land components. This announcement seems to articulate the belief that the Air Force does not view air to ground integration and close air support to ground forces as a primary mission. The conditions in the current fight in Iraq and Syria seem to be changing the narrative, however, and the Air Force may be delaying the retirement of this legendary aircraft. This is perhaps a tacit acknowledgement that the Air Force’s future lays in the joint fight, and that air power alone cannot win wars.

    Comment by Kyle Johnston | January 25, 2016

  6. BG Mitchell was a positive force in the transformation of the Air Force. First and foremost, he did not agree with the presumption that World War I was the war to end wars. Mitchell saw and advocated for a larger role in the sky. He pushed for development of bombsights, ski-equipped aircraft, more powerful engines, and aerial torpedoes. He encouraged pilots to challenge speed and endurance records. By doing so, it would help to continue innovation by developing better capabilities within the air domain. His approach left something to be desired, he often was at odds with the Army and Navy.

    Billy Mitchell would have been less prominent if he would have worked within the structure of the military. It is too easy to become a “yes-man” within the structure of the military. One finds themselves following the orders of those appointed over them. Billy Mitchell was not a “yes-man.” By being antagonizing with many people he was pushing them into uncomfortable positions, outside of their comfort zones. Unfortunately, this approach led to his courts-martial. Mitchell’s persistence led the Navy to agree to his demonstration tests of sinking a captured German ship.

    Air power will not win wars decisively. Although air power can win the battle by dropping bombs within economic centers causing the will of the people to wave the proverbial white flag, the war is not won. It takes a ground presence to help meet the strategic objectives of waging war. Force alone does not win the war. It takes the stability effort to enable the strategic goals of waging and winning a war.

    The air power capability of being able to strike strategic targets with little ground effort is a capability that helps justify the air force as a separate force. It can provide quick strike capability without having to mobilize a large force to cause similar effects. Additionally, the transportability the air force provides in other than war objectives is paramount to none. The air force can quickly deliver humanitarian supplies anywhere in the world in a short period.

    Comment by Neil Hogie, SG 19B | February 5, 2016

  7. Theoretically, yes I believe through the use of Air power, in some cases, can decisively win wars. If air power is used in unrestricted means, ie with nukes or targeting civilian populations, then they can decisively win, as with WWII and Japan. If Air is used to continually destroy and break the will of the people and the enemy governments, then it can succeed. However, will it ever be used in a unrestricted way? Probably not, therefore with all the constraints politics places on wars, then Air Power alone cannot win alone. A separate air force is necessary to continue to be used as force of a separate domain. This allows the Army to concentrate on ground warfare, while the Air Force can focus on the Air/Space. However with jointness both Ground and Air must mutually support each other in making desired effects.

    Comment by James Stall | February 11, 2016

  8. Billy Mitchell was absolutely a positive force for the transformation of the Air Force. I don’t think he would have been more effective had he worked inside the structure of the military, where there is a culture (and a necessity) to have people do what they are told to do (i.e. follow orders). It is still possible to affect change in an area of the military where a particular member is passionate and knowledgeable about, over time. However, to make a massive sweeping change (like suggesting we need to have an entirely separate Air Force) was such a huge, different (and often unpopular) idea that Mitchell had no choice but to go outside the structure of the military to get his point across, even speaking out when it got him court-martialed.

    One of the reasons Mitchell had so much impact is that he wrote and spoke so much that many people became devotees to his views and helped him spread his message. If he had kept within his military channels, he would have had a hard time continuing to get promoted had he still been accusing Army and Navy senior leadership of treason.

    Comment by Christine Zens | February 13, 2018

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