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Airpower’s Century

June 2024
15min read

Powered flight was born exactly one hundred years ago. It changed everything, of course—but most of all, it changed how we wage war.

Walter Boyne’s résumé makes for unusual reading. He is the author of 42 books and one of the few people to have had bestsellers on both the fiction and the nonfiction lists of The New York Times. A career Air Force officer who won his wings in 1951, he has flown over 5,000 hours in a score of different aircraft, from a Piper Cub to a B-IB bomber, and he is a command pilot. Boyne retired as a colonel in 1974 after 23 years of service (in 1989 he returned for a brief tour of duty to fly the B-IB). He joined the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, becoming acting director in 1982 and director one year later. Upon his retirement in 1986, he took upwriting and consulting; his fourth career, in television, began five years ago.

He is also an inventor (he has been awarded a patent on an advanced information retrieval system), he founded Air & Space, the nation’s best-selling aviation magazine, and he is a member of almost every major aeronautical association and a fellow of the French Académie Nationale de l’Air et de l’Espace. American Heritage readers who have not yet read Colonel Boyne may well have already seen him; he is a familiar figure on television,appearing as a commentator on aviation and military events on all the major networks.

In the wake of a war that has shown the astonishing effect of American air power, and during the centenary of heavier-than-air flight, it seemed appropriate to commemorate the Wright brothers with a look at the effect their invention has had on the military history of this momentous century, through a discussion with so accomplished a historian of that invention’s career. Colonel Boyne has published four books this year: Dawn Over Kitty Hawk: The Novel of the Wright Brothers; Chronicle of Flight; Operation Iraqi Freedom: What Went Right and Why; and The Influence of Air Power Upon History. I spoke with him mostly about the last of these.

Your book argues that the two great achievements of air power’s first century were to help ensure the Allied victory in World War II and to stop the Cold War from turning hot. Most people would agree with this, I think, but you also make a truly surprising claim: that air power played a decisive role in World War I.

Yes, and right from the very beginning. In fact, it saved France in 1914. This is not well remembered, even though the generals at the time acknowledged it. The French and British had only very small and very amateur flying forces, but they already believed in what they could do. Again and again in the history of air power, the crucial thing is that the leaders have to be open to the possibilities of a new technology.

To understand air power’s dramatic early effect on the war, you have to understand the strategic situation. Germany assumed that it had to knock out France right away and then turn east to deal with Russia. The Germans planned to hold the French in the south and wheel through Belgium in the north, executing a vast flanking movement. French planners unknowingly cooperated with this plan by attacking in the south, in effect thrusting their head into a sack. So the German strategy was working: They swept through Belgium and pushed back the French and British armies in the north.

British and French reconnaissance aircraft turned the situation around. Their greatest coup came on the last day of August, when a British plane noticed that the Germans had stopped moving east—in effect, abandoning their strategy —and had turned to envelop Paris. Two more British aircraft confirmed this, and acouple of days later French planes saw the same thing. The first French aircraft relayed the news directly to the military governor of Paris, and he persuaded the French and British high command to make a stand at the Marne. They held, and at that point the Germans lost the war. They’d planned on knocking out France in six weeks, and now it wasn’t going to happen. But what is amazing about all this is not that pilots realized what was happening; what is amazing is that field marshals believed them, and acted on the intelligence.

You point out that, strangely enough, the same thing happened on the Eastern Front, but there air power saved Germany.

That’s right. In the east, Germany planned to hold the Russians with weak forces while they were busy crushing France. They thought they had six weeks to deal with France, but Russia mobilized much faster than the Germans thought possible, and in a matter of days the Russians were poised to destroy the German armies they faced. The parallel to the Marne is uncanny. German reconnaissance aircraft spotted the Russian buildup, confirming intelligence gathered from radio intercepts, and thisallowed the German commander, Paul von Hindenburg, to win the Battle of Tannenberg, which cost the Russians 140,000 men. It was the Marne of the East, and it saved Germany. As Hindenburg said, “With-out airmen, no Tannenberg!” Again, what is surprising is that Hindenburg, who was 67 years old, had the insight to exploit this new technology.

Most of the historians I’ve read simply don’t mention air power in the early days of the war, but they do think it eventually became very important indeed. How?

Well, the Germans had overextended themselves on two fronts, and they had to depend upon superior artillery on the Western Front to hold their line. Long-range artillery has to be precise to be effective; you have to hit what you’re aiming at, and to do this, you have to know where your shots fall. It didn’t take long for both sides to figure out that with an airplane you could bringyour guns on target very quickly. So observation planes became critical, and that meant you needed fighter planes to shoot them down. Then you needed fighters to fight those fighters, so an entirely new generation of aircraft, the fighter airplane, grew out of it. They got all the glory, but they were an afterthought. They were necessary only because airborne observation had changed the nature of war.

By the same token, photo-reconnaissance accounted for a massive percentage of World War I air power use, and photo-reconnaissance is still one of the great strategic uses of air power, except now we do a lot of it with satellites. Itwasn’t like today, of course, when we can calculate the trajectory of incoming fire and fire on its source. But photo-reconnaissance let leaders see troop buildups, let them attack railheads, let them predict enemy action. It allowed strategic warfare.


Did World War I have any other important effect on how the next war would be fought in the air?

Indeed it did, one that was enormous. The odd thing is that while the First World War saw almost every sort of air power that would be used in the Second—even the cruise missile— the only things we remember are the dogfights and the aces. We think of strategic bombing—striking targets designed to destroy a whole nation’s will to fight, as opposed to simply winning a battle—as a development of World War II. But it wasn’t. The German bomber and Zeppelin raids on London during World War I were an immense campaign. It’s been almost entirely forgotten, butit made a lasting impression on both belligerents. The Zeppelins dropped more than 200 tons of bombs and killed over 500 people, while the bombers killed another 800 and wounded over 2,000. The Germans thought that this was a very small return for a large investment, so German planners stayed away from strategic bombing when they prepared for the next war. But the British, who, after all, had had the bombs fall on them, thought the campaign was a success. They believedstrategic bombing would be vastly more destructive in the next war, and as a result, the British—and we Americans—eventually developed devastating strategic bombingforces. Germany never did. Moreover, Britain had a pretty good air defense system in place in time for the 1940 Blitz.

But the experience with tactical air power—that is, planes helping troops win specific battles—was the opposite. The Germans drew the right lesson, and the British the wrong one. The Germans had developed specialized aircraft for offensive and defensive ground support and had achieved excellent results. So Germany went into thenext war with its air forces well designed for close support of troops on the ground, and that made their blitzkrieg campaigns possible. However, in World War I the British had tried to do close air support with less specialized aircraft, and they took awful losses—as much as 30 percent each day they flew. They didn’t want any more to do with this kind of fighting. As a result, they had no good tactical aircraft and no close air support doctrine in 1939, and they paid a stiff price. It’s one of the reasons they got pushed out ofFrance.

Did the Germans do so well with close air support in World War I because they had better airplanes?

There’s a true irony of history at work here. The British suffered from having developed better, more powerful engines than the Germans. These engines were so good they thought they could use them in any role at all, and so they never developed specialized aircraft design. But the Germanengineers had to work around the weaknesses in their engines and thus were forced to design aircraft fitted for the task.










Many historians today believe that the Allies were wrong to focus on building strategic bombers. They say that the Allied bombing campaigns of the Second World War were a total failure, because German output rose right through 1944. In short, the Allies waged a criminal terror campaign that achieved nothing. What do you think?

The story is a lot more complicated than that. When the war broke out, none of the things happened that almost everybody believed were going to happen: There was no big strategic bombing attack on Great Britain, and no big attack on Paris or Germany. Nobody wanted to do it because they were afraid of what would happen in reprisal. When Great Britain started strategic bombing, she eased into it—and began because it was all that was possible. The British had beenthrown off the Continent, so they turned to strategic bombing, and people really believed in it, even though they had just been through the German strategicbombing campaign—theBlitz—and knew it hadn’t come anywhere close to bringing their nation to itsknees. They thought somehow the Germans would be different. Well, the Germans were just as tough as the British were. But remember, Britain really had no alternative.


And when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, and Russia demanded a second front, Britain had to do something, because Stalin could have turned around and tried for a compromise peace with Hitler and then Britain would have had to fight a vastly more powerful Germany. So the British dedicated immense resources to strategic bombing, and the Royal Air Force believed it was doing well. Ultimately it found out that it hadn’t been, that only a small percentage of the bombs were getting anywhere near the targets, and the only thing that it could be sure of hitting was a city. So the British opted to bomb cities, what we would today rightly call terror bombing, because the idea was to terrorize the population into quitting.

The RAF eventually had a fleet of a thousand bombers over Germany. They did a huge amount of damage and established what Albert Speer called a second front in the air. It wasn’t as good as invading, but it was the best the British could do, and it probably kept Russia in the war, which meant that Britain ultimately won the war.

There were two strategic bombing campaigns. The American one targeted German industry and in the long run badly hurt it, and in the second campaign both the British and American forces devastated Germanhighways and railroads and a number of other targets. So in the end the strategic bombers were a success, and for a number of reasons. First of all, you want to measure 1944 German production not against 1941 production, which was low because the Germans organized it badly, but against what it would have been in the absence of strategic attack, which would have been much higher.

Also, didn’t this bombing draw in German fighter planes that could have kept making trouble elsewhere?

Americans and the British both had the wrong idea about fighter planes. They thought: We’ll send fighters over to Germany, and the Germans will come up, and we’ll shoot them down. But the Germans would just sit on the ground, because the Allied fighter planes weren’t doing any harm. The only way you could get the Germans in the air was to attack a target sufficiently valuable that they had to come up and defend it. The irony is that both sides more or less believed that the bombers would win the war, but as it turned out, the air war was won by fighters, which then permitted the bombers to win. It hurts me to say that, because I’m a bomber pilot, but the fighter pilots won the war in 1944, when they were able to exhaust the Luftwaffe to the point that Allied bombers could move with impunity. So there’s a circle: Even those massive portions of the strategic bombing campaign against targets that didn’t matter, or couldn’t be destroyed—the cities, or the will of the Germans to fight—nonetheless forced the relocation of the Luftwaffe’s fighters to Germany, away from the fronts, which allowed them to be destroyed, and hugely contributed to the Allied victories on the ground.

Didn’t Germany’s defense against strategic bombing suck up all sorts of other resources?

Hitler would probably have been better advised to say, “We’ll accept the damage. We won’t make the choice for anti-aircraft guns instead of anti-tank guns, because the air campaign isn’t gaining any territory and the tanks are.” The thousands of gunners, the tens of thousands of shells they required, and the 88-millimeter guns taken away from the front: All these had an immense effect, and in the west, possibly a decisive one.

One of your main arguments about air power is that it not only kept the Cold War mostly cold but also let us do as well as we did when it heated up. You’ve written that air power didn’t win the Korean War, but it kept us from losing it.

We were vastly outnumbered in Korea, and on three different occasions the only thing that saved us was air power. It slowed North Korean momentum during the first attacks, and it stopped us from being pushed into the sea when we were holding the Pusan perimeter. But the greatest contribution was through interdiction; air power cut off the flow of supplies to North Korean front-line forces. When the Chinese made their tremendous attack and almost pushed us into the sea again, the same thing happened. Once things settled down, we hit their supply lines, and they couldn’t mount another massive attack against us.

Isn’t that interdiction campaign still criticized for not fulfilling the claims its supporters made?

Sure, the predictions exceeded the achievements, but the achievements were absolutely crucial. We didn’t choke them so that they died in place, but we choked them so that they couldn’t push any further. The North Koreans admitted that the strikes against their supply lines were all that prevented a communist victory. With interdiction you never get it all, but if you don’t stop as much as you can, a committed and reasonably effective enemy that greatly outnumbers you will win. Historically, the Air Force has argued that close air support of fighting troops is always less effective in the long run than interdicting supplies. And I think the Air Force was right, especially in Korea. Because the communist forces were so well dug in and were such able soldiers, close air support was not the most effective use of our air power. I mean, we have to take our hats off to our enemies in that war. They were able to fight all day on a handful of rice, and they were willing to die when the time came.

And you believe that air power provided the strategic stability that kept the Cold War from turning into open war?

It did, and in a number of ways. Our unprecedented air transport capabilities let us keep Berlin supplied, which was the first Cold War crisis. We achieved something there that dwarfed the task the Luftwaffe had set for itself at Stalingrad, and at which it had failed. We succeeded. While conventional air power let smaller American forces hold their own in open war under what would otherwise have been impossible conditions, as in Korea, strategic air power let outnumbered U.S. forces face down huge communist armies by backing the deterrent of our conventional forces with the threat of nuclear attack. Our nuclear capability kept the peace. We now know that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was the closest we came to war, it was the 20 percent of our nuclear arsenal that was circling Russian airspace in our bombers that made the Soviets back down.

The Vietnam War is often cited as the worst example of inflated claims made on air power’s behalf. You see it differently, don’t you?

Vietnam was a case of the misuse of air power, but it is important to understand that despite that misuse, air power was finally the key to victory, a victory that was then thrown away. Until the very end the United States applied its air power in incremental doses, under foolish self-imposed constraints. For instance, Haiphong Harbor was off-limits. Instead of attacking ships there containing hundreds of trucks, we tried to destroy the trucks later, one at a time, in the jungle. We didn’t even go after the handful of dredges that kept the harbor operational.










What else did we do wrong?

The whole tempo of operations was disastrous. We applied our air power so gradually, and with so many pauses, that we taught the North Vietnamese how to adjust to it, and we gave them plenty of time to do it. When we started Rolling Thunder, the campaign that began in 1965 and lasted three years, the North had very few anti-aircraft guns and no missiles, but each year it became increasingly difficult for us, because they had more and more, and the tragic thing was that we trained them. It was as if a champion boxer had taken a young up-and-coming fighter and shown him just how to beat him. That’s ultimately what happened to us. We trained them so well that we couldn’t take them.


They slowly built up the most effective air defense system in the world, a mix of anti-aircraft guns, missiles, radars, and fighters. We were using air power as a form of communication in a negotiating process, and that was crazy for a number of reasons; but giving our enemy the time to counter our air power was the worst of it. RollingThunder was a terrible misuse of resources. Most of the bombing was directed at targets in South Vietnam. If we’d been permitted to hit North Vietnamese targets in a well-conceived and unrestricted campaign, I think we would have won before 1968.

What about the argument that although we could have destroyed the North Vietnamese economy very quickly, they did not need their own economy to make war, that they were fighting with the output of the Russian and Chinese economies?

That’s true for military equipment, but they had to get that equipment to their troops, and they had a limited supply of soldiers. We could have targeted their transport and their troops much more effectively. Remember that the Vietnamese communists did not win any battles in Vietnam until the end, and then only by introducing North Vietnamese regulars. If we had taken those out, as we could have, I think that we would have stopped them in their tracks.





But how can you be so sure air power could have won, given that it didn’t?

It did. Despite all the earlier mistakes, when air power was applied without constraints, it worked. In March of 1972 the North Vietnamese Army launched an offensive against the South Vietnamese Army, and it failed. Why? Because U.S. air power was recalled to the region, interdicted North Vietnamese Army supplies, and hit vital targets in North Vietnam—transportation, petroleum storage, ports—and we also mined harbors and rivers. That was the first of the Linebacker operations, and it routed the North Vietnamese Army. Even then, our heavy bombers were not allowed to hit Hanoi and Haiphong. But there was a foretaste of new weapons that would vastly increase the effectiveness of air power: Precision-guided munitions destroyed the previously invulnerable Paul Doumer Bridge.

Then, in December, the Paris peace talks broke down, and President Nixon ordered Linebacker II. This time U.S. air power was used with even fewer constraints, and we defeated the North Vietnamese; by the end of the year they had run out of missiles and were more or less defenseless. They agreed to all of President Nixon’s requirements for renewing negotiations. Had the North Vietnamese refused, we could have gone on to attack the dikes, which were still off-limits, and the South Vietnamese could have invaded with the support of U.S. air power. We had won.


So why did the North Vietnamese keep at it and eventually win?

Because they realized that they wouldn’t have to face the force that had smashed them in 1972. In 1975, when U.S. air power had been withdrawn from the fighting, the North Vietnamese attacked in the South and took Saigon. One can argue that the South Vietnamese had become addicted to our air power and just wouldn’t fight without it.

How would you describe the effect of air power on history since the Vietnam War and into the future?

Since Vietnam, American air power has only grown in power. If you look at the Gulf War of 1991 and then the Iraq War, you see that the use of American combined arms allows incredibly one-sided victories by the United States, that American air power has completely transformed the effectiveness of our conventional forces. The revolution in air power is in part new technologies—precision-guided weapons plus stealth— but we are also seeing the applied results of a new generation of air power theorists who have worked out how to employ the new weapons.

Most of them are hardly household names, even among many specialists, but they are good people, and I’d like to mention a few: John Boyd, David Deptula, Benjamin Lambeth, Philip Meilinger, Karl Mueller, and John Warden. Warden is the one some people have heard of; he worked out much of the strategy and some of the tactics for Desert Storm.

So the increase in the effectiveness of air power, in a world where we are so far the only ones who can afford it and are willing to pay for it, means a fantastic increase in the relative military power of the United States; we may be a couple of generations ahead of any current adversary. The Russians know this, and I suspect that the Chinese know it too. Our new military prowess can deter states. Whether it will deter non-state terrorists is another question, but as we have seen, our air power does give us the ability to avenge the terror attacks of independent actors by destroying any state that shelters them. I only hope that this deters our enemies in the years to come.

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