Tuesday, April 7, 2015


I received the following comment from loyal reader Jim Dubbs on my recent post: American Conventional Wisdom About Strategic Bombing Isn't Very Wise. Below I include his comment and then my response.

Let me first say that I really appreciate Jim's critical response to my post.  It's what we hoped to elicit when we launched Phronesis.  Unfortunately few readers have commented, positive or negative, on our posts.  Please feel free to chime in on what we write.  Though we try to be factual, we don't claim to have a license on truth.  We relish your feedback.


I don't entirely agree with your argument about air power. In one basic sense, it undervalues the role strategic bombing had in past, large conventional wars, where the ultimate decider of the outcome was not military at all, but ultimately the size of a combatant nation's industrial capacity and civilian population needed to sustain and win traditional wars of the past, the first example of which was the U.S. Civil War. (Indeed, the notion of "unconditional surrender" originated with the need to rally the home population's participation in the war effort. No such concept would have been tolerated in the earlier dynastic wars.) It could easily be argued that WWII was decided in Dec. 1941 when the US, with its invulnerable industrial base, entered that war. (Side note: Stalin may have decimated the Soviet high command, but he did recognize that he had to use time achieved by the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact to move much of his war production industry behind the Urals.) Thus, I'd have to say that to the extent that strategic bombing diminished the enemy's industrial base, it played a significant role in expediting the war's end.

 But that's the past. Today's problem is an unrealistic belief in the effectiveness of military solutions in general, whether on land, sea or air. 60,000 dead Americans in Viet Nam should have taught us that. Not just B52s failed, the conventional army failed (I know, the hawks argue that we held back...Really? Again, 60,000 dead.) I think it boils down to fighting for the wrong reason (falling dominoes, oil) in countries with populations that don't see us as a desired model (yet, anyway) or maybe just think that their thousand-year struggles are none of our business. What we sometimes overestimate is our appeal; sometime the devil you know, is far superior to the (unreliable) devil you don't. Bay of Pigs anyone?


Admittedly there remains today much controversy over the value of strategic bombing in World War II. While I don’t claim to have a depth of knowledge on bombing operations during the war, I did read the 1946 Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS) and other informed analyses of our use of air power. From these sources, I find it reasonable to conclude that the U.S. strategic bombing of Germany, as well as other war theaters, did not come anyway near to fulfilling the grand predictions of Douhet, Trenchard, Mitchell, and other theorists who believed air power alone would win wars.  On balance, it is reasonable to agree with the USSBS that strategic bombing in World War II was a failure.

Among the factors contributing to the USSBS conclusion was that American bombing operations against Germany weren’t unleashed in earnest until July of 1944. Up to that time we had dropped only about one-quarter of the total tonnage of bombs we dropped on Germany during the entire war. The Survey states that when we stepped up our bombing operations, Germany had enough slack industrial capacity to withstand the pounding with only a negligible interruption in their capacity to produce weapons and war-related infrastructure.

While the fabled Norden bombsight had worked quite well when tested over the sunny skies of Texas (the Air Force claimed a B-17 could "drop a bomb in a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet"), when put to the real test over Germany we found accuracy to be greatly compromised by poor visibility from bad weather, especially  in winter, strong unpredicted winds, and enemy fighter disruptions. In addition, the 500-pound bombs we dropped proved insufficient to damage targets that were buried or reinforced with concrete. These factors, along with the fact that other war obligations kept us from concentrating bombing operations on Germany’s war infrastructure until late in the war, left many key war industries undamaged or only partially damaged.

The Norden Bombsight

Strategic bombing theory predicts that such bombing would sap not only the wherewithal, but also the will of an enemy to continue fighting.  There is no evidence that our bombing caused German worker or soldier morale to collapse. On the contrary, workers continued to churn out weapons and German soldiers continued to fight almost to the very last.

This doesn’t mean that the combined bombing offensive was worthless. Our air operations effectively destroyed the German Luftwaffe (praise to the P-51s), provided valuable ground support, and the American and British bombing of the German mainland forced Hitler to divert resources from his  army to home defense.

All in all, given that the U.S. Air force lost 8,237 bombers and 73,000 crew members in the European theater (and the RAF a similar number), it would seem that when subjected to a cost-benefit analysis it is reasonable to conclude that strategic bombing fell far short on the benefit side. Although strategic bombing singularly did not win the war, as many air power advocates claimed and continue to claim, it’s fair to say it was a factor in Germany’s defeat.


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