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Fourth International, July 1941


James Cadman

The Development of Air Power


From Fourth International, Vol.2 No.6, July 1941, pp.173-177.
Transcribed, edited & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


As the Roosevelt Administration gears gigantic forces of manpower and machinery to its goal of producing and operating 56,000 planes annually, it is ironical to recall that not the least factor in the revolutionary development of air power since 1918 was the hope of the general staffs to limit warfare to a small army. Air power and mechanized divisions, they dreamed, would make possible a small and “safe” military force, manned by professionals instead of draftees, and immune from the mutinies and revolutions which “infect” mass armies. What has actually happened is that air power, like mechanized divisions, depends on the masses now even more than warfare depended on them in 1914-19.

The significance of air power today can best be understood by sketchily tracing its development since 1914.

The machines in use in the World War were restricted almost entirely to aerial observation, scouting and reconnaissance, and individual combats. The first machines in use were cumbersome and slow, rarely surpassing 80 mph. Aerial enthusiasts in the high commands on both sides are few in number and their ideas were frowned upon by the “brass hats” (as they frowned upon the ancestor of today’s mechanized division, the original tank). That air bombing had a future began to be understood generally toward the close of the war. Although bombing attacks over London and Paris were costly to the Germans, they succeeded to a slight degree in hampering war production, as did Allied attacks over the industrial Rhine Valley in 1918. This was because air defenses and air-raid shelters were still unknown and the bombers had little trouble in reaching their targets (although hitting them was another matter).

Only a fraction of the fighting forces were either in the flying or ground personnel of the air arm.

The place of aircraft in the total productive capacity of the nation was also limited. At the Armistice less than 10 per cent of America’s war production and less than seven per cent of the workers in war industries were engaged in the production of aircraft. The statistics for the other great powers in this respect show a similar situation.

With the end of the war in November 1918, while diplomats and spokesmen talked about unending peace, the military men in every land began to critically examine the campaign of 1914-18 in order to plan ahead for the next conflagration.

The four desperate years of struggle in which the entrenched mass armies had incurred ghastly casualties in attempts to end the deadlock had ended in revolutions and mutinies in the armed forces of victor and vanquished alike. The attempts of military men to search for new theories and new weapons were motivated by the desire to prevent the repetition of types of warfare in which the entire nation was involved and which could end only in the danger of revolution by a war-weary proletariat. The theory of “limited warfare” and the “professional army” propounded by Liddell Hart in England, De Gaulle in France, Von Seeckt in Germany, were aimed at avoiding the dangers of mass armies. Many military experts eventually came to believe that the air power, with its great range and its potential striking power, was the answer to their problem.

The Theory of General Douhet

Probably the greatest champion of this mode of warfare was the Italian General Guilio Douhet, whose theories were propounded between 1921 and his death in 1930. Filled with revulsion at the disaster at Caporetto, which he attributed to Bolshevik propaganda, and at the meager successes of the Italian armies in the war, Douhet decided that only air power could bring wars to a speedy conclusion and avoid stalemate. The independent air arm would be the principal weapon, the army and the navy being subordinated to it. A strong air power by striking without warning could disrupt and demolish the entire industrial structure of its foe. Douhet spoke in glowing terms of entire industrial areas and cities being wiped out, of entire enemy air forces being caught and destroyed on the ground.

After several weeks of such pounding any foe would be rendered helpless and all this could be accomplished merely by building and maintaining a huge air force. He expressed a wholehearted contempt for anti-aircraft defenses and even a greater contempt for civilian morale which he believed could be cracked in a very short time. He figured out mathematically the destructive power of bombs and poison gas and how under sustained bombardment not even large cities could survive. While taking into account large losses to the attackers he believed that each Succeeding assault would see a diminished loss as the opposition became weaker and more sporadic.

The writings of Douhet aroused discussion and thought in air-minded circles everywhere. The British General Golovine attempted to refute Douhet by altogether underestimating air power. He stated that civilian morale, if high, could hold out indefinitely and, indeed, that air attacks alone could never bring about the defeat of a great power. A strong anti-aircraft defense, he believed, would make the success of an air assault highly doubtful. On this point he certainly showed far more perspective than did Douhet. He was less proficient in his discussion of the technical aspect of air power, for example claiming that planes must be built to specialize in certain fields rather than combine several different abilities. Recent events in air war in Europe have shown him to be entirely wrong.

In this country Douhet had his counterparts in General William Mitchell and, more recently, Major Al Williams. These two, although not so extreme in their opinions as Douhet, placed unbounded faith in air power and championed an independent air force which was to be the main weapon of the state. Williams actually argued that the Abyssinian Campaign in 1936 was a vindication of Douhet’s theory – completely overlooking the fact that Ethiopia lacked every modern weapon of war and was completely devoid of any air defenses or airplanes.

The Battle of Military Experts

In every country between 1918 and recent times, the potentialities of air warfare were the subject of heated discussion among military authorities. In America General Mitchell was court-martialed as a result of his lack of tact and discretion in criticizing the “brass hats.” In Germany the Marine Rundschau as late as May 1928 opposed large heavily armored bombers or fighters preferring small and fast machines with small armament. Cannons mounted in planes were ridiculed by this famous German military publication. In Britain the Royal Air Force Quarterly and the Journal of the Royal United Service Institution couldn’t as yet conceive of a war of movement. They thought that although air power must be coordinated with ground units, the air force, even in the heat of battle, must concentrate more on accuracy of fire (on trenches or similarly fixed objectives) rather than large scale air bombardment.

Speculation concerning air power versus sea power was no less rife. The destruction in 1921 of the obsolete German battleship Ostfriesland by American bombers led by Mitchell in practice maneuvers off the Jersey coast, raised the hopes of the champions of air power, nor could their joy be lessened in any way even when it was pointed out to them that the Ostfriesland was antiquated and not being manned, offered no resistance nor attempted to flee.

From all this maze of discussion and argument, some conclusions were generally agreed upon. That air power could no longer be relegated to an insignificant position in the war machine was undeniable. Everyone agreed that air power had, to a certain degree, diminished the chances for a static war, that it could reach over and beyond the fighting front, that the home front was rendered more vulnerable than ever. On the sea, the dispute between sea and air power remained bitter and undecided, although some naval enthusiasts conceded a certain threat in torpedo planes and bombs and acknowledged the value of planes in scouting, reconnaissance and patrolling. On land, proponents of the small “professional army” such as De Gaulle in France and Von Seeckt in Germany, supported coordination between mechanized and aerial units and conceived of air power crippling the home front and strafing and harassing enemy infantry while the mechanized divisions attacked. During all this time the technical development of military aircraft was forging ahead at a great rate. Bombers and fighters became larger, faster, more heavily armed and armored and their flying range increased tremendously.

The pace of bomber development was more rapid than that of any other craft. Experts in 1918 couldn’t visualize many changes in the huge, clumsy, craft of that year, with their all too short range and their slow speed. It didn’t seem that planes having to carry great bomb loads could be changed to any great measure. Yet within a decade after the war, bomber speed was rapidly overhauling that of fighters. The growth of their speed, armament, and bomb-carrying capacity soon made the bomber the principal unit in aerial strategy. Air defense was not lagging behind, however, and anti-aircraft guns were making great strides in caliber, mobility, and range. It was in Germany that the greatest technical progress was being made. Even during the period prior to Hitler’s accession to power, the great Heinkel, Henschel, Junkers, Dornier and Messerschmitt factories were being retooled and overhauled for mass production. Study and research in German scientific laboratories were being carried on to a greater extent than anywhere else.

In America, emphasis was rather on quality. American factories prided themselves in turning out models of unequaled workmanship. The American naval air arm under the command of Rear-Admiral Moffet first developed the art of dive-bombing, and in accuracy of fire and quality of machines and pilots the American naval air force was (and still is) unrivaled anywhere. The GHQ (army) air force, however encumbered as it was with obsolete machines and too many different types of craft (making standardization and efficiency impossible) never came up to the standards of the navy during this period.

The Laboratory of Spain

The Spanish Civil War provided the first real testing ground and experimental laboratory for all the different theories, ideas, and types of aircraft which had come into being since the termination of World War I.

Almost all the great powers were represented in the air forces of Fascist and Loyalist Spain, some to a greater and some to a lesser degree. If the Spanish Civil War proved nothing else, it certainly proved that Douhet was wrong in belittling civilian morale. The baseless poundings which heroic Madrid and Barcelona, both sadly deficient in anti-aircraft protection, underwent for three years without being either destroyed or forced to capitulate, relegated at least some of Douhet’s theories to the scrapheap. The Spanish war, however, confirmed the value of air power on the battlefront. The unending punishment which Loyalist troops were forced to endure from Franco’s fighters and bombers played no little role in weakening their defenses. Countless Loyalist attacks on the Ebro were halted and turned back by Fascist warcraft which strafed Loyalist troops, bombed munitions depots, bridges and railroads, and scattered supply columns. The vulnerability to air attack of unprotected ground units was also ably demonstrated by the Loyalists in March, 1937, when Russian planes routed Italian motorized columns at Guadalajara. Every other type of aerial operation was tested and developed during the course of the war. Thus, for the first time, aerial transport was introduced into warfare when Axis transport planes flew regiments of Franco’s Moors from Morocco.

In scouting, reconnaissance and artillery spotting aircraft confirmed the already high reputation which they had gained even in the last war in the performance of these duties. Anti-aircraft fire on the Loyalist side, meager as it was, was nevertheless effective enough to prove the fallaciousness of Douhet’s contempt for anti-aircraft defense. Low caliber rapid-fire guns, such as the German 37mm and the 20mm Swiss Oerlikon were extremely valuable against low-flying planes while the Swedish Bofors 88mm and the German Flak 88mm proved effective up to 20,000 feet.

Many of the ideas concerning aerial and ground coordination which had been taught in American staff schools even before the Spanish war were confirmed, as was the value of the new high-powered bombers with fighter protection. American military men were interested chiefly in what manner the Germans would put to use the knowledge they had gained. The Americans were not yet certain that the Spanish Civil War, which they considered a minor war on a small scale, could provide an indication of what the next war would be like.

They reasoned that Franco, even with air superiority, was unable to achieve a breakthrough for more than three years, a fact which puzzles them to this day. Bourgeois military critics can not conceive that the morale of the Spanish workers and peasants was the only factor to which Loyalist resistance must be attributed. Knowing as they do that Franco’s material superiority was proportionately far greater than was that of the Nazis in the battle of France, the resistance of the Loyalists has constantly dumbfounded them. Nor do they understand how the counter-revolutionary repressions of the Stalino-bourgeois regimes of Caballero and Negrin finally undermined Loyalist morale.

Air Power in World War II

The German victory over France saw aerial power at its apex. The success of the Luftwaffe can not, however, be said to vindicate Douhet. It proved that overwhelming airpower combined with overwhelming land power can win a total victory. Airpower disrupted the French war effort by bombing factories, destroying communications and playing havoc with the French troop concentrations by bombing and strafing them. As to whether or not overwhelming air power can by itself win wars, the great “Battle of Britain” in the fall of 1940, in which Nazi air armadas sustained severe losses in vain attempts to smash Britain, proved that air power by itself is not the deciding factor in military operations. Air power is a vital factor in the war effort and plays an important role but only in conjunction with the other parts of the war machine.

The value of air power is that its destructive range is far greater than that of any other arm. It can surmount the fighting front; it cannot be checked by any fortification or coast defense guns; it alone can bring the war to the enemy’s home front. However, the air force is not necessarily an offensive arm. The RAF over Britain played a defensive role in the Fall of 1940 and over Dunkerque. An air force can aid defending ground units in disrupting an advancing foe by harassing him in the same way that the French were harassed in the Battle of Flanders and so bringing their advance to a halt.

It must be sharply emphasized that all of the victories of air power till now have been won in the face of inferior air power. German air power in France met insignificant resistance in flying to and from its targets. If, however, two powers evenly matched on land and air clash, land and air war would probably degenerate as in World War I into a deadlock with both sides depending on their economic and industrial capacity to gain victory. Air fighting would be expensive both in men and machines; long range bombing is ineffective in the teeth of adequate air defenses (long range German attacks on Scapa Flow and the Shetlands failed badly).

As to the technical developments in aircraft, it suffices to say that they have been prodigious but that they will probably move at a slower rate now than before due to the terrific strain that modern war places on the industrial machine of each country.

The greatest controversy in military circles at present is “air power vs. sea power.” Since it is generally conceded that bombers can sink almost any but the heaviest ships, the issue comes down to “bombers vs. battleships.” In summing up all the arguments pro and con, it can rightfully be said that air power has not rendered sea power obsolete and the question of whether or not planes can sink battleships is still a moot one. Each country will continue to strain its industrial resources to build as large a navy as possible.

The Norwegian campaign, Dunkerque, the Mediterranean battles, and Greece, where sea power and air power hate been pitted against one another, indicate that warships with adequate aerial escort, or warships without adequate aerial escort but on the open sea where they can use their maneuverability and speed to the fullest extent, can repel air assault. On the other hand, warships without aerial support, located in narrow bodies of water, cannot successfully resist air attacks: off Norway, and around Crete and Greece, British sea power was defeated. Yet in the narrow Mediterranean and in the narrower channel off Dunkerque, British sea power, when supplemented adequately by air power, successfully withstood the Luftwaffe. What this proves is that air power constitutes a grave threat to the naval arm, but that both the naval and air arms supplementing one another make a powerful team. it proves also that no single weapon can win a war but only a total effort comprising the entire economy of the state in one coordinated machine-totalitarian war.

Roosevelt’s Air Power Program

By 1943 Roosevelt plans to produce 56,000 planes annually. When we observe that after seven years of total industrial organization, Germany is now producing only 36,000-48,000 planes annually, we can see just how gigantic is Roosevelt’s program. It will require not only total production of all of America’s present aircraft capacity (including auto facilities) but at least 30 new plants and three new engine plants.

Washington expects to produce 12,000 pilots annually till 1945.The position of pilot (Second Lieutenant) is confined to those with two years of college. Physical and mental requirements are stiffer than in any other air force but will certainly be lowered as the need becomes greater.

The War Department expects to train 36,000 radio operators, 3,600 navigators and 40,000 ground crew men annually by 1942. At least two-thirds of the total air force personnel are members of the maintenance and ground staffs and here, as everywhere else in modern warfare, the industrialized nature of the modern war economy is evident.

What strategical problems face the American air force? in his “timetable speech” of some months ago Roosevelt gave it as his opinion that America was wide open to air bombardment because San Francisco was 18 hours from Manila, Brazil nine hours from Dakar, New York seven hours from the Azores, etc. Aerial experts guffawed in the privacy of the War and Navy Departments.

What are the facts? Sporadic long distance bombing attacks are wholly ineffective. Aircraft having to carry enough fuel to make a long return trip have to carry a diminished bomb load and thus their capacity to do damage is lessened. Such attacks at most would have only a nuisance value and would constitute no threat. Also, long distance bombing planes, coming over a great expanse of water, must cope with weather conditions (which are usually bad on the open sea). The military experts are correct in saying that only planes operating from bases on the Western Hemisphere itself could do any real damage.

As far as defense against invasion is concerned, the consensus of American aerial opinion is that any invasion attempt could be prevented by America’s high-powered long distance bombers based on islands in both oceans and in South America. Such aircraft, ranging out to sea, could disorganize invading transport convoys and inflict heavy casualties on an attacking fleet. Ostensibly in order to facilitate this bases have been secured from Great Britain in the West Indies and in Newfoundland and are being constructed on Greenland, in South America and in the Hawaiian and Philippine Islands. Contracts for such types of planes have already been awarded to several aircraft factories and are already in the process of production.

However, take this official account with a grain of salt. The British bases are being taken over not merely for this purpose but also as the first partitioning of the British Empire and to be used to dominate South America. The planes can be used for other purposes as well.

The point is that American participation in the war is not a whit retarded by proof, no matter how overwhelming, that Roosevelt’s “timetable” is false. American imperialism is being “attacked” already wherever German imperialism advances anywhere in the world. The strategical problems of America air power are world-wide in scope.

The active naval air force, spearhead of an American expeditionary force, will by 1945 consist of 72 squadrons (15-20 planes each) based on 18 aircraft carriers. In view of the great menace of undersea warfare and in order to aid in convoying, the navy is also considering using merchant vessels as auxiliary aircraft carriers, each carrying several planes. Such vessels would be of immense value in escorting convoys and in hunting German sea raiders. The army air force is also being expanded and standardized rapidly and is following the German example by being trained to operate in coordination with ground forces.

The air force is at present divided into two units, the army and the navy. Both are under the command of their respective high commands and function independently of one another. The practicability of this system has been questioned because of alleged inefficiency. An independent air force, such as the Nazi and Soviet, it is claimed, avoids disputes as to jurisdiction which are so common between the American army and navy. It must be pointed out, however, that both German and Soviet war power is built around their great armies, for neither has a navy of any significance in nations with both land and sea power such as Japan, England and the United States, some division in the air force is required. There will probably be a compromise like the British system: an independent air ministry supervising both a military and a naval air arm.

The Role of the Industrial Proletariat

The role that the industrial proletariat plays in the modern air force corresponds to the central role it plays in modern war in general.

The problem of “civilian morale” is largely the problem of the industrial proletariat. There has been much written about the high morale of the British workers, who are now rounding out a year under bombardment. The morale of the Spanish workers and peasants remains, however, the most significant example of what can be endured – if the masses have utter faith in their cause. Can democratic capitalism provide such a faith? The lessons of France indicate otherwise.

Morale is the negative aspect of the central role of the industrial proletariat in air warfare. Its positive role is even more impressive. Production is the most important factor during active air force operations, when losses in machines are bound to be grave losses, together with the terrific strain on each machine, make the average life of aircraft during active fighting hardly more than several weeks. Consequently machines and air force personnel must be replaced at a great rate, more factories and airdromes must be built, etc., etc.

More than two-thirds of the actual flying personnel will be gunners, bombardiers, navigators and radiomen – the most skilled sections of the industrial proletariat. Each plane requires a ground crew of three to five workers – tractormen, bomb racking experts, fuel pump men, armorers, engine mechanics, map men, radio operators, meteorologists, teletype operators, telephone operators, etc. Here again the industrial proletariat plays the outstanding role. And this does not yet account for the skilled and unskilled workers required to build and operate the plane and engine factories, provide the fuel, the airdromes, the munitions and the armament which each plane carries, etc.

It is estimated by the experts that the production and maintenance of 56,000 planes annually will require almost one million workers engaged in every type of industry.

Thus we see that a military arm which was conceived originally as a means of fighting a “limited” and a “quick” war carried on by professional soldiers and pilots; has actually developed into the opposite – a military arm which demands total war. Aerial warfare, independent of the will of the ruling class, has made necessary the most complete integration of the entire economy with the war machine. That means that the “Bolshevik propaganda” which Douhet hoped to render impotent can play an even more decisive role now than in 1918.

(This is the second of comrade Cadman’s articles on the status of warfare today. The first, The New American Army, dealing with the changes made necessary by “Blitzkrieg” methods, appeared in the June 1941 Fourth International.)

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