Strategic Attack Is No Myth

By Gene Myers

These early visionaries may not have been correct in all aspects of their theory as it was applied during its first great test in World War II-we required fighter escort, targeting was faulty and inconsistent, and the enemy was more resilient than anticipated-but suppose that the European strategic air campaign had not been conducted and that the Eighth Air Force had not existed. What might have been the result? The destruction of the Luftwaffe's fighter force by the massed bombers and their fighter escorts literally allowed the Normandy invasion. And even the late attention the oil industry received (after several changes in targeting emphasis from ball bearings, to aircraft production, and finally to oil in 1944) served eventually to slow the German ground armies to a crawl. And what if the many thousands of soldiers and the resources to support the thousands of artillery pieces and scores of fighter squadrons that were dedicated to defense of the Fatherland instead had been put into bombers, tanks, and infantry divisions? Would the war have lasted longer? Almost certainly. Would the Soviet Union's armies eventually have secured more than just East Germany, Hungary, Poland, inter alia? Without the second front and the strategic air campaign, the prospects would have been grim.

The destruction of the Luftwaffe, the elimination of German oil production, and the diversion of resources from offense to defense are all strategic "effects" produced by history's greatest air campaign. Without it there would have been no victory, at least not on our terms. The campaign was not the single determinant of victory that some prewar enthusiasts hoped it would be, but when combined with the Battle of the Atlantic, the Normandy invasion, and the carnage of the Eastern Front, it was a major contributor perhaps the single most important factor. The much debated Strategic Bombing Survey, after declaring that air power was "decisive" in Europe, reported that "even a first-class military power . . . cannot live longer under full scale and free exploitation of air weapons over the heart of its territory."

But the air campaign of World War II is not the real subject here; it is the all too common perception that strategic bombardment is still mired in the lexicon of the Second World War, that hundreds of B-17s flying at 200 miles an hour through flak and fighters from one target one day to another the next is still the standard of measure for today's forces. Those who hold this view seem to see using bombers for anything other than strategic attack of the homeland as both an aberration and positively stunning when successful. Colonel Everest Riccioni, for example, is correct in his assertions that bombers were successful in tactical- and operational-level applications in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam; their massive firepower was very effective in attacking area targets such as massed divisions and on a few occasions even in providing close air support to ground forces.

But in their attempt to dismiss the concept of strategic attack (not strategic bombardment), commentaries such as Colonel Riccioni's completely miss the central themes of modern aerospace power application. First, aerospace forces are immensely versatile and can be applied to numerous tasks. Simply put, aerospace doctrine no longer identifies a particular system as strategic or tactical; it is the effects a system achieves that are important-aerospace forces are indivisible. In particular, "strategic" is defined in terms of its effects in directly addressing "our national, multinational, or theater strategic-level objectives without first having to engage the adversary's military forces at the operational and tactical levels" in attrition warfare.

Strategic attack, close air support, or interdiction all can be accomplished by a wide range of weapons-bombers, fighter-bombers, attack helicopters, cruise or ballistic missiles, and very possibly future space systems. It all depends on their availability and their ability to accomplish the specific task at hand. The more hidebound opponents of decisive aerospace power application seem surprised at that-and likely would be stunned to learn that it is an article of faith in current Air Force doctrine. As with most things, the service's view has changed with experience and the advance of technology.

Second, the concept of massed attacks by scores of aircraft on a single target at a time is a thing of the past. The operative term now is "massed effects," not massed formations. The combination of highly precise smart weapons and improved near-real-time sensor-to-shooter intelligence and communications systems with stealth aircraft has fostered an unprecedented level of lethality, responsiveness, and survivability in today's Air Force systems. It has improved dramatically the ability of World War II's "failed strategic bomber fleet" to accomplish tactical and operational as well as strategic tasks. They are no longer strategic bombers, and haven't been since World War II. They are long-range combat aircraft capable of strategic attacks on enemy leadership and command and control, interdiction of armored columns, attack of airfields, and even some close support of ground forces when required.

Third, a global strategic perspective is-or should be the legacy of almost 100 years of air power evolution and 50 years of Air Force history as a separate service. The U.S. Air Force is the only service specifically prescribed by law to provide the nation's air power-to "organize, train, equip, and provide forces for the conduct of prompt and sustained operations in the air"-for its own sake. It operates from a global rather than a theater perspective, in that its systems can consistently bring power and resources to bear anywhere on earth in a matter of hours.

This is where the Air Force differs from the other services. The Army, Navy, and Marine Corps all have as part of their structures substantial air arms dedicated primarily to the support of their operational- and tactical-level operations; they exist primarily to provide direct support to their land-control, sea-control, and amphibious missions in combined arms operations. As the Air Force's Chief of Staff said, "We don't do this part time.... It is not part of our larger service; it is all we do."

The Air Force specializes, or-according to its heritage and legal charter-is supposed to specialize in operations at the strategic and operational levels of war. Its ability to project global power on short notice should be its sole reason for being. That power is more than mere bombs on target; it is personnel, food, and equipment airlifted when and wherever it is needed and the provision of vital intelligence and reconnaissance information by space and air systems from any place on earth.

Technological advances, global mobility, and inherent flexibility have combined to create air and space forces able to conduct what is now known as parallel war. Because most weapons can accomplish more than one task, and because we now have the technology to allow far fewer systems to accomplish a particular task such as taking a petroleum plant off line, we can conduct operations at various levels of war simultaneously. Thus, an F-16 or a B-2 wing, for example, can in the same day launch numerous sorties that have strategic, operational, and tactical targets. One F-16 flight can attack a column of tanks while another strikes a national-level command center; a single B-2 can strike up to 16 different targets (or aim points) on one sortie.

A particular advantage of parallel strategic attack operations is the ability to attack numerous strategic targets simultaneously, or nearly simultaneously. The result of such operations during the Persian Gulf War against the central power grid, transportation, air defense, and command-and-control networks was not the complete destruction of each but the introduction of massive uncertainty and confusion among the leadership and people as services and communications began to fail. Colonel Phillip Meilinger in his Ten Propositions Regarding Airpower described the effects of parallel strategic attack this way: "These attacks occurred so quickly and so powerfully against several of Iraq's centers of gravity that to a great extent the country was immobilized and the war decided in those first few hours."

So strategic bombardment, now called strategic attack in recognition of the tremendous advances in both technology and doctrine, is alive and well. "It is a function of effects achieved not forces employed." It is not accomplished just by bombers or by ballistic missiles; it is a measure of effects that can be attained by just about any Air Force system-or Navy, Marine Corps, or Army system, in some cases. Where strategic attack is generally considered a weapons-on-target function, strategic effects can be accomplished by airlifters carrying vital troops, supplies, or weapons in direct support of national objectives or by satellite surveillance systems that provide vital information directly to national political or military leaders. Strategic attack is conducted by ship-based aircraft and missiles and potentially by Army attack helicopters and missiles. Strategic effects can be derived from the operations of just about any military system. The only difference is that it is an Air Force specialty.

A fly in the ointment for the Air Force, however, is a shrinking forward base structure. In 1960, we had 90 major overseas Air Force bases; today, we have 17. Until we can truly dominate the third dimension from space as well as or more effectively than from the air, we are constrained by the need for bases. Solving that problem for an Air Force currently dominated by shorter-range combat aircraft is essential to accomplish every function from counter air to strategic attack. One author described the potential consequences of a short-range Air Force unable to accomplish long-range tasks as comprising a:

plausible alternative future in which the Air Force no longer exists as an independent service. Engaged primarily in the supporting roles of air escort and transport, and lacking the robust long-range strike capability that was the Air Force birthright, the offensive Air Force of 2025 may bring very little to a battle fought at long range.

Opening more overseas bases is unlikely for both economic and political reasons, and the bomber fleet is rapidly declining, so what are the options? Actually, there are several-and some combination of them is essential to the service's ability to continue to provide its functions, especially that of global strategic attack.

  • More bombers. A better name might be long-range combat aircraft, since bombing will not be their only mission. This option provides the most immediate near-term returns on investment in terms of true long-range precision capability to accomplish a large variety of combat tasks on short notice. Retired Air Force General Charles Horner, commander of allied air forces during Desert Storm, noting the lack of forward bases and the need to halt an enemy's aggression promptly before major U.S. surface forces can be deployed, wrote that "B-2s could well be our only practical option for projecting truly decisive power in future regional crises. The planned force is far too small to underwrite a large-scale air campaign."
  • Long-range cruise missile carriers. This is the Air Force version of the arsenal ship, but more responsive and could be used as a stand-alone system or in concert with naval systems. This option was discussed in the 1970s as a substitute for the B-1 (modified C-10, 747, etc.). At the time, the long-range precision cruise-missile-type weapons required were not available; this clearly has changed. This aircraft would not penetrate hostile airspace but could be in place anywhere on earth in a few hours to launch precision weapons with ranges of hundreds of miles.
  • Weapons in/from space, including the transatmospheric vehicle. This option provides the potential for multiple missions in and from space and offers the promise of precision global-range attack that approaches instantaneous response. At the present time, the only legal prohibition to space-based weaponry is that, by treaty, weapons of mass destruction and antiballistic missile weaponry cannot be placed in space. However, unilateral political prohibitions continue to be a hindrance that will have to be addressed in the near future, especially as potential adversaries develop more sophisticated surface and spacebased offensive capabilities.
  • Long-range unmanned aerial vehicles with ranges of hundreds or thousands of miles and many hours endurance that conceivably eventually could be launched from the continental United States on intercontinental missions. These systems could be configured for multiple missions, from precision attack to reconnaissance or navigation. Such extremely long-range unmanned weapons currently do not exist, but they are not far off and have the potential to attack multiple targets.
  • Offensive information warfare capabilities against strategic targets. Emerging capabilities for accomplishing strategic-, operational-, or tactical-level effects at the speed of light through the information or cyberspace environment (computers, command, control, and communications systems, etc.) are providing options for deception, the direct attack of vital data, or the jamming of crucial communications unheard of until the last half decade. These capabilities are an increasingly vital part of U.S. military technological superiority.

In the concluding statements of his article on strategic bombardment, Colonel Riccioni says, "Only after some rogue aggressor nations are reduced effectively and humanely to near-subsistence farming may other rogue leaders learn their lessons; only then will deterrence be achieved." I'm not sure how an air force would achieve such a goal "humanely," but that is not the point. The point is that strategic attack carried out by highly precise air weapons would not have to reduce a nation to a state of subsistence to achieve its objectives. Desert Storm proved this. During that conflict the Iraqi leadership literally was disconnected from its military establishment; the air defense, national command, electrical power distribution, and transportation systems all were disrupted with few losses to civilians and without throwing them out of their homes. Simply put, while the evident capability to do so to emerging "peer competitors" is necessary, the U.S. military establishment is not in the business of bombing anybody back to the stone-age or to subsistence farming. We-the entire joint force of all services can now accomplish our objectives with far more finesse.

 

More by this Author

None found for this author.

Events and Conferences

None found for this author.


 
 

Conferences and Events

2014 U.S. Naval Institute History Conference

Wed, 2014-10-01

The 2014 Naval History Conference is hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute and the U.S. Naval Academywith support from The William M...

2015 WEST Conference

View All

From the Press

Meet the Author & Guest Lecturer

Sat, 2014-08-09

CDR Youssef H. Aboul-Enein, USN

Meet the Author & Book Signing

Tue, 2014-08-12

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership