Monday, August 29, 2011

Shock and Awe and Daylight Precision Bull Roar

30 Aug. 2011

by Jeff Huber

Parts I and II of “Post-Clasuwitzean Bebop in the New American Century” outlined the pathetic state of today’s American military intellect.  Part III describes how Shock and Awe and Network-Centric Warfare evolved from fundamentally flawed air power theory.   

COIN (aka counterinsurgency) is the latest in a panorama of war dogmas that promise a new and better way to fight armed conflicts.  But COIN is actually a degenerative development in warfare philosophies, a return to manpower-intensive operations that high-dollar gizmos of destruction were supposed to have made obsolete. 

The collision between soldier-centric and gadget-driven conflicts began in the American Civil War and reached critical mass during World War I.  Napoleonic infantry tactics designed to break through lines of sword and musket defenders withered in the face of machine gun fire.  More than 10 million military personnel were killed in World War I and total military casualties topped 38 million, an unimaginable horror to Europeans who thought their races were far to civilized to ever allow such carnage to occur.  Little did they know at the time that they’d only seen a preliminary bout—total World War II deaths alone exceeded 60 million.    

The birth of air power theory.
World War I was combat airpower’s debutante ball.  Much ado was made (and still is) of the magnificent men in their flying machines derring that do that they did so well in the skies above the pathetic mud knockers slogging it out below.  But as a a senior U.S. Air Force officer once confessed to his airpower elective seminar at the U.S. Naval War College, “World War I did more for air power than air power did for World War I.”  What ended the trench war of attrition stalemate in that conflict was the late influx of American bodies that ensured the Central Powers would bleed white before Allied Powers did.  The flying circuses were sideshow performers. 

Interwar air power advocates like Billy Mitchell, Giulio Duhet and Hugh Trenchard pandered the “strategic bombing” doctrine that advocated use of bomber aircraft to defeat enemy states by destroying their economic infrastructure and their publics’ will to wage war rather than battling their armies and navies.  To this day the goal of air power psychopathy is to make all other forms of warfare obsolete and to redirect the budgets of armies and navies into air services’ coffers. 

Strategic bombing theory suffered from a number of famously flawed assumptions.  First among them is the dictum that “the bomber will always get through,” a maniacal mantra first mouthed by Sir Stanley Baldwin in the late 1920s that promised bombers would always be able to defeat air defenses and destroy enemy cities.  That philosophy alone had sufficient holes to guarantee that air power would never live up to its hype.  

Let's make that, "The bomber will sometimes
get through."
The 8th Air Force bombing campaigns in Europe gave us a veritable entertainment franchise chronicling the adventures of bomber crews shot down over Nazi Germany who spent the duration of the war trying to escape from a Luft Stalag.  What would post-modern life be without our fond memories of Steve McQueen bouncing his baseball against the wall of the “cooler,” or of William Holden organizing mouse races, or of Bob Crane threatening to pull some stunt that would get Werner Klemperer transferred to the Russian front? 

The preponderance of Allied air casualties came about as a result of the daylight precision bombing concept, which was itself flawed in multiple respects.  The most incongruous of these flaws was the assumption that heavily armed B-17 flying fortresses would be as able to defend themselves against enemy fighters during the day as well as they could at night, a notion spawned in an era when fighter aircraft were strictly visual combatants and did not fly at night.  Daylight precision bombing also assumed that the B-17s’ super-duper Norden bombsights could consistently put bombs on their assigned targets.  That assumption blithely ignored easily anticipated probabilities like changes in wind direction between the bomber and the target, clouds and fog and haze obscuring the targets, bombardiers not recognizing the target, and so on. 

The public's will to wage war.
“Conventional” strategic bombing did manage to destroy cities in World War II, Dresden and Tokyo being two of the most horrifying examples.  But this type of bombing—also called “terror bombing”—failed to destroy the publics’ will to wage war.  In fact, the publics’ will is seldom a factor in totalitarian nations like Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, or even in so-called liberal democracies like today’s America where state-of-the-art propaganda distributed through the mass media has seduced the public into a state of bovine torpor.  The only known instances of successful terror bombing were the 9/11 attacks that goaded malleable Americans into going along with ill-advised invasions of countries that had nothing to do with the attacks. 

Asserting that nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki won the war in the Pacific is like saying that Julius Caesar died from a massive injection of tetanus bacteria.  The Japanese had already been defeated through a years-long series of horrible land and naval campaigns.  A very good argument, and one that I subscribe to, says that Hirohito would have forced his government to surrender without the need for atomic operations if we had communicated to him via back channels that he could stick around as emperor, which was what we apparently planned to do all along.  (Please note that the argument over whether the nuclear option was necessary with Japan is a separate issue from whether or not nuking the two Japanese cities was moral or legal.  If I'd been in President Truman’s shoes and thought that dropping the nukes would save a single G.I.'s life, I would have dropped them too.)

Air power made its greatest contribution to the war in Europe when General Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower, supreme commander of the European Theater of Operations, ordered the 8th Air Force to switch its priorities from strategic bombing to operational support of the Normandy Invasion and the subsequent land offensives that led to the defeat of the Wehrmacht, which Ike correctly identified as the German’s center of gravity.   

In instance after instance since World War II, airpower’s useful contributions have consisted not of independent, strategic bombing but of strikes in support of ground and naval operations.  We’ve seen that as recently as our Libyan lark; strikes against infrastructure and regime “target sets” had little impact.  It was only when air power was used in support of rebel offensives that balls started dropping into pockets.

Shock and Awe and Network-Centric Warfare are little more than a 21st century take on strategic bombing theory.  GPS guided munitions replace the Norden bombsight and computers replace the bombardiers, but the strategic effect remains nil. 

Next: A COINfederacy of Dunces

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) is author of the critically lauded novel Bathtub Admirals, a lampoon on America’s rise to global dominance. 


  1. Great point on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There's also a book on the subject, "Racing the Enemy" by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, that argues a greater factor in Japan's surrender than the atomic bomb was the USSR's 1945 invasion of Manchuria.

  2. Yes, better to be occupied by the Americans than by the Russians. Shudder.

    I don't think we'll ever know the whole story on why the Japanese decided to finally surrender. I think the bombs were factors, but they hardly "won" the war in the Pacific.