Air Power, Strategic

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AIR POWER, STRATEGIC. Strategic air power employs aerial weapons to bypass the surface battlefield and to strike at key wartime industries. Typical targets are the transportation network, including railroads, bridges, marshaling yards, and harbors; the petroleum industry, including refineries and tank farms; the electrical generating system; and the aerospace industry. Intensive strategic bombardment campaigns, such as those conducted against Germany and Japan in World War II, embrace many target systems and compare to traditional sieges, in which all elements of a nation's economy and military strength—including its means of sustenance and its civilian labor force—come under attack.

Because the industrial strength of a nation lies principally in its cities, cities themselves are targets in an all-out strategic bombardment campaign. Heavy air attacks such as those in World War II against London, Hamburg, and Tokyo caused much criticism because of the great loss of life among civilians. Opponents claimed that bombardments strengthened opponents' will to resist and were inconclusive militarily; proponents argued that they shortened wars and obviated land invasions.

Strategic bombardment, first attempted by Germany in World War I with zeppelin and Gotha raids on London, did little more than terrify the population. However, the British people visualized the future development of air power and in 1917 established an air force independent of the army and navy, with a section under Gen. Hugh Trenchard charged with bombing industrial and rail targets far behind the enemy lines.

Seeking answers to the riddle of the stabilized western front in France that had taken such a heavy toll of lives, the then Maj. William (Billy) Mitchell, an aviator with the advance echelon of the U.S. Army, visited Trenchard and became an exponent of the new doctrine. But American air power developed slowly and achieved no significant bombing capability before the war's end.

Despite Mitchell's advocacy, after World War I the concept of strategic air power all but vanished in the United States, with American military aviation confined to an observation role. A small group of Billy Mitchell disciples maintained his enthusiasm through the 1930s, however, and by extending the theory and strategy of air power later became the American air leaders of World War II.

The early years of World War II shocked traditionalists who had disparaged the wartime role of air power. The Battle of Britain demonstrated the possibility of losing a war through air action alone, and Japanese air attacks in 1941 sank or immobilized most of America's Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor and, two hours later, sank Britain's battleship Prince of Wales and battle cruiser Repulse in the western Pacific. The age of the battleship ended, giving place to air power.

After winning the Battle of Britain, the only force the British could bring to bear against the Axis powers on the continent was through strategic bombardment. At first merely diversionary, the RAF Bomber Command grew in size and its raids began to cripple the German economy. When the RAF turned to night operations to minimize losses, with a consequent degradation of bombing accuracy, it adopted "area" bombing to destroy civilian morale.

In January 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Prime Minister Winston Churchill at Casablanca and agreed to the round-the-clock Combined Bomber Offensive against Germany. Although the tempo of the offensive increased steadily, Germany held out—despite an economy in complete collapse. The results of strategic air power seemed more conclusive in the Pacific war, where the Japanese were seeking channels for surrender even before the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

With the advent of nuclear weapons and rocket missiles, many believed that air power alone would win total wars of the future. While rocketry was being developed, the United States organized the Strategic Air Command (SAC) with aircraft of intercontinental capabilities. Gen. Curtis E. Le May is credited with creating the global nuclear force of SAC. By 1973 SAC was composed primarily of B-52 jet bombers and Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Although Russia forged ahead of the United States in numbers of ICBMs and warhead yield, the United States still held a slight lead in missile-launching submarines (see Air Defense).

The end of the Cold War brought an end to the arm's race, and with it the apparent likeliness of nuclear war. The creation of Air Combat Command (ACC) in 1992 grew out of the need to reevaluate the role of strategic air power in the post–Cold War world, unifying SAC, which had become identified almost entirely with nuclear deterrence, and the Tactical Air Command (TAC), which had overseen cooperative missions between the Air Force and ground and naval forces. The end of the Cold War also sparked the old debate about the ability of strategic air power alone to win wars, with an increasing number of analysts suggesting that aerial bombardment campaigns—from those in Korea and Vietnam to those in Iraq and Serbia—had increasingly become a panacea for politicians unwilling to commit the ground troops that appeared to be necessary to achieve their objectives. Incontestibly a cornerstone of the American military's tactical repertoire, strategic air power came under attack in the 1990s for being given too central a place in the country's strategic thinking.


Borowski, Harry R. A Hollow Threat: Strategic Air Power and Containment before Korea. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982.

Fredette, R. H. The Sky on Fire. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966.

LeMay, Curtis E. America Is in Danger. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1968.

Eric J.Morser

Dale O.Smith

See alsoWorld War II, Air War against Germany ; World War II, Air War against Japan .