Can Air Power Alone Win a War?

Many pundits are criticizing the NATO airstrikes. An argument you often hear is that “Air strikes alone never work.” Is this really true?

Most military historians (at least those not employed by the U.S. Air Force) agree that it’s true. No country has ever won a war or achieved its stated political objectives without committing ground troops or at least using warships. Moreover, some historians make the even stronger claim that air power has never been a decisive factor in a military conflict. To take one example, scholars think Japan surrendered in 1945 because of the Allied naval blockade and Russia’s invasion of Manchuria, rather than because of atomic and conventional bombings.

Of course, deciding what factor was decisive and which were merely contributing is a tricky business. As Richard III’s famous cry–“A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!”–illustrates, a number of factors, some quite trivial, dictate a battle’s outcome. But the important point is that there is not one example of a war being won with air power alone. That is, the historical record argues against President Clinton ordering airstrikes while ruling out the use of ground troops.

But some believe that when it comes to air warfare, history is bunk. After all, everyone agrees that an ideal air strike, if perfectly precise, could completely destroy an enemy’s entire military and civil infrastructure, thereby forcing surrender. And everyone agrees that bombs are getting more and more sophisticated over time.

The dispute is whether they are sophisticated enough right now to have broken the historical pattern whereby bombing alone is insufficient. There are some within the Air Force–such as Col. John Warden, the architect of the Gulf War bombing raids–who believe we have reached such a point. Warden even argues, and this is controversial to say the least, that air power was the decisive factor in the Gulf War.

Naturally, the debate over whether technology has broken a historical military pattern is technical, arcane, and beyond the scope of this column. But it is worth noting that over the ages, theoreticians, often employed by various national air forces, have consistently overestimated the efficacy of air power. Just after World War I–the first major conflict to involve air power–Giulio Douhet, the head of the Italian air corps and the father of modern air warfare theory, famously argued that future wars would be found exclusively in the air. Douhet thought sustained bombing of enemy territory would force surrender and even estimated the number of mustard gas bombs required for each square mile of enemy territory. And in World War II, the British were so frightened by the threat of German bombing attacks that they ordered 250,000 caskets for immediate use, when in fact only 50,000 civilians died during the entire Battle of Britain. Finally, many post WWII theoreticians wrote that the atom bomb meant the end of ground warfare, since the threat of nuclear attack would ensure universal peace.

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Explainer thanks John Hillen of the Center for Strategy and International Studies, Robert Pape of Dartmouth College, and Earl Tilford, Jr. of the Army War College.