Blogs > HNN > Richard B. Speed: Review of Stephen Budiansky's Air Power: The Men, Machines, and Ideas that Revolutionized War, from Kitty Hawk to Iraq (Penquin, 2004)

Jun 28, 2005 2:31 am


Richard B. Speed: Review of Stephen Budiansky's Air Power: The Men, Machines, and Ideas that Revolutionized War, from Kitty Hawk to Iraq (Penquin, 2004)



Carried on a wave of enthusiasm by the innovations of the industrial revolution, Europeans and Americans entered the twentieth century with a sense of tremendous optimism. Things could only get better. As one writer explained, “Laws are becoming more just, rulers humane; music is becoming sweeter and books wiser; homes are happier, and the individual heart [is] becoming at once more just and more gentle.” But not everyone agreed. Winston Churchill, a young Member of Parliament in 1901 who would play a central role in the new century warned that industrial technology was changing the nature of war. In 1898 he commented that “. . . we now have entire populations, including even women and children, pitted against one another in brutish mutual extermination.” Meanwhile, the popular novelist H.G. Wells predicted that once aircraft were invented the new technology would be applied to warfare immediately. This would lead to aerial combat for control of the skies and the victor would devastate his enemy with “incredible disasters of shot and shell.” During the course of a fictional war between the United States and Germany, Wells described an armada of airships as it swept across Manhattan inflicting upon the people below “one of the most cold blooded slaughters in the world’s history . . . .” The historical unfolding during the twentieth century of this prescient science fiction nightmare is the subject of Stephen Budiansky’s most recent book, Air Power: The Men, Machines and Ideas that Revolutionized War, from Kitty Hawk to Iraq.


Stephen Budiansky is a journalist with a background in mathematics and a flair for explaining the impact of technology upon warfare. His first book,Battle of Wits, was an excellent account of the cryptanalytic struggle among the belligerents carried on behind the scenes during the Second World War. Written for the layman, it clarified much of the immense complexity of signals intelligence and such machine ciphers as Germany’s Enigma, employed by nations at war. Air Power has the same great virtue of taking the complex and making it clear.

On one level it is a history of technology. Accordingly, the author describes all sorts of fascinating details about aircraft engine and airframe development. He explains for example that what enabled the Wrights to succeed where so many others had failed was, at least in part, their recognition that the problem of flight was not so much one of power as one of control. “Wing-warping,” was the innovative solution to this problem that launched them and their “flyer” far ahead of European competitors and such American aviation pioneers as Samuel Langley and Hiram Maxim, the man who had invented the machine gun. A French aviator named Henri Farman replaced the Wright’s wing-warping system with a device used on all modern airplanes today—the aileron—a system of flaps designed to control roll and improve aircraft maneuverability. When it came to propulsion the Wright brothers again took the lead. Where experimenters like Langley used huge flat bladed propellers modeled upon maritime screws in order to power their craft, Wilbur realized that a propeller was merely an airfoil rotating through space. This recognition led to the emergence of the standard theory of aircraft propeller design.

Budiansky takes the reader through a fascinating narrative account of the transition from the old fabric covered biplane to the modern monocaque airframe with its streamlined cowlings and stressed-skin construction. He discusses at length the emergence of the field of aerodynamics and the role played in that process by the Jewish émigré Theodore von Karman, who like so many of the great physicists who contributed to the Manhattan project, fled Nazi persecution in the 1930s and landed in the United States.

Despite perceptions to the contrary, progress in aircraft design was beset with bureaucratic obstacles. The development of the jet engine is a case in point. The fundamental principle of a jet engine was first patented by Frank Whittle, a young Royal Air Force officer in 1930. But the British Air Ministry was so unimpressed that it allowed the patent to expire a few years later because it objected to paying the trifling renewal fee! Meanwhile, Whittle reacquired the patents and formed a business in order to commercialize his invention. But he found that even with the approach of war and the intervention of both Winston Churchill and the government’s scientific advisor Henry Tizard, who characterized the jet fighter as a potential “war winning gamble,” he still ran into a bureaucratic nightmare. In the end Britain’s first operational jet the Gloster Meteor was built based upon Whittle’s concept but too late and in too few numbers to influence the outcome of the war.

But more than anything else, this book is a study of the grip that an idea exercised upon the minds of military air power enthusiasts in Europe and America from the beginnings of the century to the present day. When controlled flight was first demonstrated by the Wrights to be a practical reality, just as Wells had predicted, men immediately began to wonder how this new technology might be best applied to military conflict. Some like General Sir Douglas Haig claimed that “flying can never be of any use to the Army,” but others believed that it would soon render armies and navies obsolete. Many dreaded the approach of Wells’ “disasters of shot and shell,” and believed they were at hand when German Zeppelins raided London during the First World War. Although the bombs did little damage, screaming newspaper headlines, Budiansky argues, spread panic which in turn convinced many among the British upper classes that the civilian population of the cities could not take the mental strain of aerial bombardment; that the masses would riot and force the government to surrender in order to avoid the devastation of the nation’s cities. The overpowering impact of bombs on civilian morale was thought to be the decisive feature of war in the future. Among those converted to faith in the strength of air power was Major General Hugh Trenchard, the first Chief of Air Staff of the Royal Air Force which was created in late 1917. Although aircraft could carry out many tasks including tactical support of troops on the ground, to men like Trenchard air power meant only one thing: bombing.

The leading theorist of air power during the interwar period was the Italian officer Giulio Douhet whose The Command of the Air (1921) argued that bombers were all but invulnerable to defenses and were so potent that no city could survive a massive air raid. One or two raids at the beginning of hostilities and the war would be over even “before [the] army and navy had a chance to mobilize at all!” Dread of aerial attack reinforced pacifist sentiments in Britain during the 1920s and 1930s. The inability to defend against such attacks led Conservative Party leader Stanley Baldwin to comment before Parliament that “No power on earth can protect the man in the street from being bombed. . . . the bomber will always get through.” This fatalistic conviction caused Britain, in a potentially disasterous decision, to neglect its air defenses during the 1930s until it was almost too late.

Douhet and others argued that aircraft would restore to warfare the decisiveness which had disappeared in the mud of Flanders. Thanks to air power, war in the future would be mercifully short, sparing millions the horrors of the trenches. The bomber then was another in the long list of weapons which would, it was theorized, make war too terrible for mankind to fight. In addition to the humanistic arguments advanced in favor of air power, Douhet and other enthusiasts like Trenchard were shifting to the air the Napoleonic concept of the “great climactic battle,” which Bonaparte had pioneered on land and the American naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan had moved to sea. The outcome of the war would be decided in the first few days and it would be decided not by great fleets of battleships, but by great fleets of bombers.

The Second World War provided an opportunity to test these theories to which both British and American military air power enthusiasts were committed. But as so often happens, reality failed to conform to theory. As it turned out, British bombers couldn’t always get through and what’s more they couldn’t hit their targets. Facing German flak and fighters, it turned out British bombers couldn’t even consistently hit cities in broad daylight! Defense against bombers was not only possible but effective. Before long British losses led Air Chief Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris, head of Bomber Command to give up on daylight raids when it became clear that their aircraft were easy prey to German interceptors, and turn to night bombing instead. But target visibility was even worse at night and this led Harris to give up any pretense of “precision” and simply engage in indiscriminate “morale” bombing of German cities. Before long all inhibitions against the mass slaughter of civilians had been dropped and the British adopted a deliberate policy of burning German cities to the ground.

During the interwar period the Americans, as Budiansky explains, developed a variation on this theory. According to the Air Corps Tactical School, any modern economy is utterly dependent on the smooth functioning of certain key industries and the transportation and power networks which sustain them. Destroy key factories and economic “choke points” and the economy will collapse. The ability of the enemy to sustain its armies in the field and navies at sea will in turn collapse. The success of such a strategy depended upon the ability to hit and destroy all those railroad marshalling yards, electric power facilities, aircraft factories, chemical plants, and ball bearing factories identified as critical to the operation of the economy. As American B-17 bombers gathered in England during the summer of 1942 in order to begin the air war against Germany, Army Air Force commanders like Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, and Lt. Gen. Ira C. Eaker were convinced that the Norden bombsight gave the Flying Fortresses just the ability they needed to hit precise targets in Germany and avoid unnecessary civilian casualties. Not only that, but American officials were convinced that the B-17s were so heavily armed that they did not need fighter escorts. As it turned out, American bombardiers were little more accurate than their British comrades in arms had been and American theories about the invulnerability of the B-17s were shot down over the skies of Germany by swarms of Messerschmitts.

Ultimately British and American bombers dumped some two million tons of bombs on German cities and killed an estimated six hundred thousand civilians in the process. Wells’ vision of cold blooded slaughter had come true, but this did not bring Germany to its knees. The traditional army generals like George C. Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower, who had always been skeptical of the claims of the air power enthusiasts were proven right. It took vast armies supported by tanks and ironically, tactical fighters like the P-51 and fighter-bombers like the P-47 to crush the Wehrmacht. Indeed had the P-51s failed to sweep German fighters from the skies, few of the bombers would ever have gotten through. The lesson should have been clear. Air superiority seized by the long neglected fighters was a fundamental prerequisite of any bombing campaign, “precise” or otherwise. But according to Budiansky, American bomber generals drew the wrong conclusion after the war. As Gen. Carl Spaatz and others argued, strategic bombing had won the war. The Normandy invasion and the struggle across Europe had been unnecessary. If any one doubted that, all he had to do was look at the ruins of Germany’s cities. Yet, as Budiansky notes, “. . . total American bomber-crew casualties in the combat in Europe were73,000, including 29,000 killed. That was nearly twice the number of American soldiers killed in all of the Normandy campaign, more than the entire number of U.S. Marines killed in all of the brutal fighting in the pacific.” Bomber generals argued that the defeat of Japan had even more clearly demonstrated the overwhelming impact of air power. Atomic bombs, delivered by bombers, had defeated the Japanese and made invasion unnecessary. In the future they held that all wars would be nuclear, and the bombs would be delivered by Air Force bombers.

Under the circumstances the only possible reason to have navies would be to seize islands close enough to the heartland of the enemy to bring its cities within range of the Air Force’s bombers. The only reason to have armies would be to serve as a postwar occupation force. Anybody who didn’t see that was as wedded to the past as the admirals who clung to their battleships in the age of the aircraft carrier. Once again since the bombers would certainly get through there was little need for air defenses except perhaps to assuage the irrational fears of the public. There was little need for tactical air power because all wars would be nuclear and they would be over in a matter of days just as Douhet had predicted before the last war. Accordingly the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command which had been founded in 1946 entitled its post-war plan for war against the Soviet Union, “To Kill a Nation.” It was still another version of the “great climactic battle” all over again. With the combination of the bomber and the bomb, air power had finally come of age. Budiansky tellingly points out that between 1952 and 1960 the Air Force got an average of 46% of the nation’s defense budget and most of that went to SAC. Why spend money on armies and navies when they were obsolete? Why spend money on tactical air forces when the U.S. would never fight another ground war? One answer was Korea. Another was Vietnam.

The blind romanticism of the bomber had a profound impact upon American conduct of the two hot wars the U.S. fought during the Cold War. Since Air Force brass were convinced after World War Two that the next war would involve an all out assault on the Soviet Union they neglected to develop the tactical air power which soldiers on the ground in Korea needed. It was the obsession with air power that led the administration of Lyndon Johnson into its futile air war in Vietnam. It was frustration with that policy that led SAC commander General Curtis LeMay to recommend that the U.S.”bomb ‘em back to the stone age,” despite the fact Vietnam had barely emerged from the bronze age. Failure of air power to win either war led the bomber generals to complain that the civilians in Washington had placed too many restraints on the Air Force.

The American romance with the bomber only began to pass when, as Budiansky shows the old World War Two generation was replaced by officers humiliated by the experience of defeat in Vietnam and determined to carry out reforms. These reforms coupled with the new technologies of GPS and laser guidance have ushered in a new era of precision which had eluded previous generations. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, air power may finally be on the brink of realizing the promise envisioned by its prophets so long ago. But as the insurgency in Iraq demonstrates, air power is not yet omnipotent. Boots are still needed on the ground.

This is a beautifully written book which tells an important story. Almost every page presents some new revelation or insight. Air Power should be mandatory reading in twentieth century American military history courses, at the service academies, and particularly at the Air Force Academy.



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