The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

H203: The Advocate and Air Power

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 16, 2016 - Posted by | H200, military history, Professional Military Education | , , , , ,


  1. Having worked closely with the USAF in the past, it is clear that they still hold to the writings of Douhet and the early work of Mitchell. The Air Force wants to believe that they can win any major conflict and by their doctrine it is easy to see why this is the case. Modeled closely after Douhet, USAF doctrine ultimately attacks the population and infrastructure of a threat nation until the will of the people is broken and they persuade the government to capitulate. This works well when engaging in Clausewitz’s idea of total war but in a contemporary battlefield this may not be the case. Additionally, it can be attractive to conduct an air campaign because that limits the involvement of ground personnel but this does not necessarily mean that it will cost less. Consider the air strikes conducted against ISIS over the last 2+years. With the number of sorties completed, is ISIS any less powerful or influential? What does anyone else think?

    Comment by Justin Reddick | January 4, 2017

  2. Justin, I agree with you. The amount of air strikes, national treasure, and blood invested in Iraq against ISIS have no provided the tactical or strategic gains once envision by the Air Force. Which goes to the heart of the first question asked in the blog. Air power is critical to seize the initiative over the enemy and to balance the combat ratios to our benefit. However, the air component by itself cannot win wars because of its inability to secure terrain and deny the enemy’s freedom of movement on the ground. Again, their contribution to the war efforts are important but building a unified effort with the ground component synergizes overwhelming power. Furthermore, keeping the Air Force as an independent service justifies a greater capacity. Both the Army and the Air Force move at different speeds in time and space whether in combat operations and in peacetime. During the initial years of the GWOT the Army increase the number of personnel with the intention to increase combat power in the battle field. The Air Force also added personnel but it took much longer to build combat power as it takes longer to train pilots. It is this specialized training and air power culture that justifies their service a separate entity.

    Comment by Diego Alvarado | January 25, 2017

  3. Giulio Douhet, Hugh Trenchard, and Billy Mitchell are great theorists who believed in the idea of airpower predicted that the air power is capable of winning wars without the assistance of the other services. I also believe as them with the same idea, but to make these ideas successful you have first to detect the enemy COG and his it very strong with your maximum power. The air power can absolutely win wars decisively and at low cost in some cases but if it is used with the appropriate way in the appropriate time and location over the enemy COG. I disagree with you Justin, about your judgment of using the air power against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The air power is considered very successful, however, it is not used in the appropriate way. The air power limited te extension of the ISIS. Justin, just thinks if there were no air power in that theater, or if the army was working there instead. We can imagine the amount of loss or KIA during that kind of operation. The amount of the expected loss will be huge if there were no air power superiority.that argue does not work against jointness as a central component of US military doctrine. Thar kind of argue will improve the air power capability because it will make all know how important is the air power.

    Comment by mohamed ibrahim | January 27, 2017

  4. Justin, I agree with your premise. However, I think in this day and age with 24 news coverage and blogging daily it’s much more difficult to engage in long drawn out bloody battles of WWI and WWII (in the pacific). If you can send a bomber on a mission and it is not successful the only cost was financial. If that same mission was to be attempted by members of ground forces and it takes on casualties (heavy or not) the media will have the story on every news station. So whether or not the writing of Douhet and Mitchell are correct on winning a war solely with the air I think the Air fight is a good place to start to limit the casualties in war. Thoughts?

    Comment by Jeffery Hoover | January 27, 2017

  5. Billy Mitchell’s efforts to innovate the US Air Force provide an example of one of the most vexing obstacles to innovation in the interwar period: innovators (like Billy Mitchell) struggled to correctly place the applications of new technology within service component contexts largely devoid of guiding doctrine to accommodate the suggested innovation. Consequently, during the interwar period, innovative ideas (however appropriate history has proven them to be) often met resistance within even their own military communities as senior leaders argued over the specific applications of innovation. That is, the problem generally wasn’t that senior leaders failed to recognize the applications of innovations, but that they often disagreed on HOW to implement them.

    Billy Mitchell would have had more success introducing his innovations as improvements to current doctrine, like the Navy did with its aviation development, and trusting that the full-scale impacts of his ideas would be borne out over time and operational experience.

    Change is best introduced slow. By framing his innovations for the US Air Force as revolutionary (rather than evolutionary), Billy Mitchell invited dissent and ensured his suggested new capabilities for the Air Force encountered delays amongst his own service leaders.

    Comment by Scott Harr | January 28, 2017

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