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BOMBING. By the end of World War I, aerial bombing remained in the primitive stages. There were German raids on London and American pilots saw action, but the conflict ended before bombing reached its full potential. However, the seeds had been sown for decades of postwar controversy over the role of air power. Central figures were the Italian Air Force officer Giulio Douhet, author of The Command of the Air (1921); Sir Hugh Trenchard, the commander of the first independent air service, Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF) from 1919 to 1929; and the American brigadier general Billy Mitchell, whose unbridled advocacy of air power, although it led to a court-martial, would be tragically vindicated at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.

Great advances in aircraft design occurred in the 1930s, with increases in speed, range, ceiling, and load-carrying capacity. By 1939, both the U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC) and the U.S. Navy had conceptualized the means by which they would employ aircraft in future bombing roles. The USAAC's principal emphasis was on long-range strategic bombing—bombing of an enemy's industry, transportation, fuel, and power as opposed to its military. They also recognized the need for tactical bombing—close-in support of ground forces on the battlefield. The U.S. Navy's interest lay primarily in dive-bombing in support of landing operations, striking targets protected by terrain from the low trajectory of naval artillery.

The shocking success of the German Luftwaffe early in World War II caught the world's attention, as did the daring Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Becoming the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) in February 1942, the former USAAC rapidly grew to unprecedented size. The U.S. and British Combined Chiefs of Staff recognized that several years would pass before Adolf Hitler's vaunted "Fortress Europe" could be struck by any other means than through the air. Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously commented that Fortress Europe lacked a roof, so it could be bombed by the Allies "around the clock." Beginning in August 1942 the USAAF joined RAF Bomber Command in attacks on Germany and occupied Europe almost until V-E Day (8 May 1945). Controversy surrounds these campaigns concerning their military effectiveness and moral appropriateness.

In the Pacific theater, USAAF and U.S. Navy bombing prior to late 1944 focused on supporting landing operations and destroying Japanese shipping. Continual bombing of mainland Japan began in November 1944 from bases in the Mariana Islands. These greatly intensified after March 1945 and culminated in the dropping of two atomic bombs on 6 and 9 August 1945, by B-29 Superfortresses. The lasting controversy of this event was exemplified by the National Air and Space Museum "Enola Gay" exhibit fiasco of 1995, in which revisionist historians attempting to politicize and criticize the bombings, minimizing Japan's guilt in World War II, met a firestorm of criticism from the general public and veterans. Japan's surrender prior to the planned invasion proved the effectiveness of these attacks, occurring, as they did, concurrently with a tight naval blockade.

With the National Security Act of 1947, the wartime USAAF finally became the independent service that air prophets like Billy Mitchell had long fought for. The U.S. Air Force (USAF) exemplified the then widely-held assumption that wars of the future would be won by nations capable of conducting atomic (later nuclear) warfare most efficiently on short notice. This assumption lay behind the subsequent buildup of the USAF's Strategic Air Command (SAC) into the most powerful air striking force in the world, armed with both bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM's). SAC and its B-52 Stratofortresses would epitomize the Cold War for decades.

These assumptions about future conflicts also caused the tendency to look on the Korean War (1950–1953) as an aberration, not to be taken seriously as a portent of things to come. During the Vietnam War, the bombing in Indochina was conducted under a series of tactical and strategic restrictions that frustrated the airmen assigned to the task but that they nonetheless honored, often to their considerable peril.

With the rise of terrorism as an instrument of state policy, bombing proved adaptable to smaller conflicts. In April 1986, President Ronald Reagan ordered England-based F-111 bombers to attack Libya in response to a terrorist bombing tied to Libyan intelligence. The raid subdued Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, deterring him from further attacks on U.S. interests and servicemen.

The remarkable F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter was first flown in 1981, in total secrecy, and became operational in 1983. Its existence was not confirmed by the American government until 1988. First used operation-ally in the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989, by the Persian Gulf War of 1991, dramatic television footage appeared of F-117s dropping laser-guided bombs on Iraqi targets with pinpoint accuracy. The success of the Northrop B-2 Spirit "Stealth Bomber"—the most expensive warplane in history—remains to be seen in future operations.

Developments in the 1990s and After

In the Persian Gulf War (1991), bombing was aided by electronic suppression systems and airborne radar. These not only gave the United States extensive knowledge of the enemy opposition, but denied the Iraqis knowledge of, and communication with, their own forces, resulting in a remarkable victory for air power. While the state-of-the-art F-117 was the darling of the American media, the old Cold War and Vietnam-era warhorse, the B-52 Stratofortress, also performed very well. On January 16, 1991, B-52G bombers flying from Barksdale AFB, Louisiana to the Persian Gulf and back completed the longest bombing mission in history—a fifteen-hour flight. They attacked high-priority Iraqi targets in Iraq and Kuwait with air-launched cruise missiles packing a 1,000-pound conventional warhead. The next day, air strikes using B-52–launched cruise missiles and F-117s, attacking deep in Iraq, achieved total air superiority before the beginning of the coalition ground campaign.

The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 heralded a remarkable American victory in the Cold War. In September 1991, the U.S. Air Force's Strategic Air Command, long a symbol of superpower tension, stood down from its decades-long, around-the-clock vigil. But the B-52, an abiding symbol of the Cold War, would soldier on, modified and updated. Although they were to be replaced by the Rockwell B-1 Lancer, which has become the mainstay of the U.S. long-range bomber fleet, B-52s continued to be used as of the early 2000s, bombing terrorist targets in Afghanistan.

August 1995 saw a NATO bombing campaign against Bosnian Serbs. Far more dramatic was the 1999 NATO aerial bombing campaign in Kosovo, in the former Yugoslavia. Initially, to supporters of air power, this appeared to be, at last, the long-prophesied decisive military campaign won entirely by air power, without the insertion of major ground troops. But enforcing the 1995 Dayton peace accords required American troops on the ground. After the terrorist attack on the United States on 11 September 2001, American bombers struck military targets of the Al Qaeda network in Afghanistan. The results there, like those in Kosovo, were unusually successful, but it remains to be seen whether the victory of American and NATO air power was a result of unique circumstances—third-rate powers (Serbia and Afghanistan) versus the state-of-the-art precision bombing technology of most of the Free World—or the total victory of air power long prophesied by Douhet, Trenchard, Mitchell, and their supporters.


Atkinson, Rick. Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993.

Boyne, Walter J. Beyond the Wild Blue: A History of the United States Air Force, 1947–1997. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.

Cate, James L. and Wesley F. Craven, eds., The Army Air Forces in World War II. Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1983.

Leyden, Andrew. Gulf War Debriefing Book. Grants Pass, Oreg.: Hellgate Press, 1997.

Sherry, Michael. The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987.

Christian MarkDe John


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