Giulio Douhet (1869-1930) is regarded as one of the first military strategists to recognize the predominant role aerial warfare would play in twentieth-century battle. Known as the father of airpower, Douhet's theories are still popular among modern military aviators.
Douhet's service in the Italian Army before and during World War I provided him with the experiences he would use to develop his theories of the function of aerial combat in subsequent warfare. Among the revolutionary ideas put forth by Douhet in his most famous work, Il domino dell'aria (The Command of the Air), was the necessity of a warring nation to possess first-strike capabilities via aircraft. Douhet argued that these capabilities should be used before an official declaration of war to ensure a swift, decisive, and demoralizing victory that would shorten any potentially drawn-out naval or land campaign. Believing the airplane to be "the offensive weapon par excellence," he also established the air warfare strategy of the bombing of an opponent's industrial centers and metropolitan infrastructures, reasoning that, even if the attacked nation had advance warning of imminent air strikes, they could never be certain of the specific targets.
Douhet predicted that the future of war would abandon distinctions between civilian and military personnel and justify the bombing of civilian targets by declaring total war in the modern world as an uncivilized pursuit unbound by previous notions of civilized warfare conduct. To support his theory that wars are won by eliminating the will of an opposing country to fight back, which occurs most effectively by attacking the enemy's cities, Douhet wrote: "Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur." Ultimately, Douhet believed that such a strategy would shorten any war effort significantly, thus resulting in a minimum of casualties because the enemy would be forced to surrender more quickly. He further argued that governments should establish air forces separate from other military branches and appropriate the majority of defense budgets to the development of fighter planes. Douhet also believed that, because most land and naval combat were primarily defensive in nature, they were prone to stalemates. He predicted incorrectly that neither would possess significant value in future warfare.
Despite his forecasts for the inherent primacy of aerial warfare and the shortcomings of his forecasts for aerial technology, Douhet's theories and strategies were employed extensively by both Allied and Axis forces during World War II—most notably against Dresden, Germany, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, by the Allies; and against London, England, by the Axis Luftwaffe. His theories continued to be employed in such campaigns as Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s, the Balkans in the 1990s, and Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002.
Pioneered Aerial Combat
Born in Capreta, Italy, in 1869, Douhet belonged to a family with a long history of military service to the House of Savoy. While dabbling in writing poetry and dramatic pieces, Douhet was also found to be adept in military matters. He expressed his views on the increasing mechanization of warfare in several works prior to World War I, including a journal article in which he wrote: "It must seem that the sky, too, is to become another battlefield no less important than the battlefields on land and at sea. For if there are nations that exist untouched by the sea, there are none that exist without the breath of air." He concluded that, "[t]he army and the navy must recognize in the air force the birth of a third brother—younger, but nonetheless important—in the great military family."
Douhet, who had never flown an aircraft, became involved with the aerial unit of the Italian Army in 1909. By 1911, he was commanding a contingent of nine airplanes in Italy's campaign against the Turkish Empire on the Libyan front. The conflict marked many firsts in aerial combat reconnaissance. It marked the first aerial photo reconnaissance, the first aerial bombing mission, and the first aircraft shot down. Douhet's successes led his superiors to appoint him commander of the entire Italian Army aviation battalion. However, he became frustrated with military protocol and bureaucracy and proceeded to commission the building of a three-engine military aircraft with a combined horsepower of 300. He also sent very impatient and caustic memos to his military superiors. These memos became public and resulted in his being court-martialed and imprisoned for more than a year. Upon his release near the end of World War I, Douhet resumed his responsibilities and was promoted to brigadier general in 1921. That same year, he published the first edition of Il domino dell'aria, which he revised for its definitive version in 1927. In 1922, he was named Commissioner of Aviation, serving under Fascist ruler Benito Mussolini. He resigned later that year to dedicate his time to writing.
If the beliefs espoused by Douhet during World War I served to anger his superiors, they were to prove prophetic following the publication of Il domino dell'aria. Expressing the need for a more updated model of modern warfare, he argued for the creation of an independent air force. Air warfare, he predicted, would become the decisive factor in future wars. Douhet advocated the use of incendiary bombs, chemicals, gasoline, and high explosives on population centers, reasoning that the "time would soon come when, to put an end to horror and suffering, the people themselves, driven by the instinct of self-preservation, would rise up and demand an end to the war." He recommended that initial attacks employ explosives to frighten the population on the ground; incendiaries to set massive and wide-spread fires; and chemical weapons to deter fire fighters. At first, these theories shocked military strategists who remembered the long-term debilitating effects of the use of mustard gas in the World War I trenches, but Douhet argued that war is already amoral, and that any method used to shorten a war is therefore justifiable. He also defended the establishment of an air force that was completely separate from all other military divisions. He discounted notions that an army or navy might require their own fleet of aircraft that could, at the very least, defend the air force's bombers, believing that an aerial bomber would be able to defend itself from ground and air retaliation.
Following the nineteenth-century theories of military strategists Albert Thayer Mahan and Henri Jomini, Douhet also believed that military targets were of secondary importance, asserting that industrial centers and supply lines were the more decisive targets. He wrote that the country that possessed the strongest air power would achieve military primacy and that total command of the air would render land and sea forces comparatively insignificant because they could not achieve such swift, economical, or effective results as an aerial bombing. Douhet wrote that since the advent of aerial warfare capabilities, the entire history of warfare had been rendered irrelevant, including the concept of differentiating between civilian and military populations. Since World War I, Douhet reasoned, all wars in the future would be total wars between entire nations that involve every man, woman, and child. Knowing that all of a nation's population was subject to casualties would serve to abbreviate prolonged hostilities.
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General Giulio Douhet, Italian military theorist, was born in Caserta in 1869 and died in Rome in 1930. While he was a young career officer he studied the application of physics—especially electricity and low-temperature physics—to military problems. He wrote essays on these subjects, on the problems arising from the motorization of the army, and on the tactical lessons to be drawn from the Russo-Japanese War.
From 1908 on, he devoted himself, as a student of strategy, to the study of the military implications of developments in aeronautics. As an active officer in the Italian army, he hoped to make his influence felt in the arming of the Italian forces, and after his appointment as commanding officer of the air battalion in Turin, it seemed that Douhet might have an opportunity to put his ideas into practice. He was convinced by his studies and by his experience in the Italo-Turkish War of 1911–1912 that the airplane was far superior to the dirigible as an offensive weapon. This idea was reinforced by his work with Gianni Caproni, the aeronautical engineer who designed and built the first biplane.
Douhet’s vigorously expressed views led to disagreement with the military establishment and with the Italian general staff. He was removed from his command and received an assignment unrelated to his professional specialization. He was even subjected to two official investigations, which concluded quite favorably for him, but he was so embittered that he thought of resigning from active service. He retracted this decision only because of the outbreak of World War i.
During the war he frequently criticized the Italian high command and the Allied direction of the war. His dissent was mainly centered upon the value of offensive actions, and he continued to advocate use of the airplane. The nucleus of his criticism (which he put in writing at the time, but which was not, of course, printed until after the war) was that the strategy of the Western Allies was basically wrong because it insisted on partial offensives, which are exceedingly costly in men and weapons and cannot produce a strategic success. He maintained that in land warfare the defensive side is in a far stronger position than the attacking side because of the progress in defensive weapons and ground defense systems. Thus, the Allied powers should conduct the war defensively, with a minimal consumption of men, and should launch an offensive only after having built up the overwhelming armed strength that their superior industrial capacity permitted them. This offensive action should be carried out by airplanes, and Douhet insisted again and again that a powerful fleet of bombers be built and used autonomously. This air force should have as its targets not the enemy forces but the supply centers and the lines of communication in order to paralyze the enemy military system.
On the demand of a member of the Italian Cabinet he summarized his criticism of the Italian high command in a memorandum. The document was discovered by the military authorities, and Douhet was court-martialed and condemned to a year of confinement. After he served the sentence, the new Italian commander in chief, General Armando Diaz, appointed him director of aeronautics in the defense ministry. In this capacity he was, toward the end of the war, again able to devote himself to his chosen field of action. After his full rehabilitation, which did not take place until 1920, Douhet tried to find employment again, even in a subordinate capacity, in the air force. He was unsuccessful and felt doomed to uselessness.
Douhet’s theories, although to a degree based on his experiences in World War i, had already been outlined in some of his prewar writings (e.g., 1910). In these articles Douhet insisted on the autonomous role of the air force, then considered as a mere auxiliary of the army and the navy.
The main argument of Douhet’s theory is that the offensive power of an air fleet of bombers is the most formidable instrument of war a country can have; that against such a force fighters are ineffectual, so that it is preferable to build bombers, which also have fighting capability; and that the very first aim of a fleet of bombers is to destroy the enemy air force on the ground in order to achieve air supremacy. Once this has been achieved, a country has to make every effort to strike the severest possible blow against the enemy and to inflict upon him the greatest possible damage. Road junctions, supply and production centers, indeed the cities of the enemy, should be the targets, so that the people will be panic-stricken and ask for an end to the war. Therefore it is more important to inflict destruction on the enemy than to try to avoid devastation of one’s own territory.
Douhet’s thinking was original and bore no relationship to any previous strategic conception. Indeed, it very often contradicted well-established doctrines; this fact and the zeal of Douhet—a man of great intellectual and moral probity—repeatedly led him into trouble.
Douhet made a major contribution to the theory of air warfare. In the United States, his ideas undoubtedly influenced General “Billy” Mitchell. It has been remarked that during World War ii, the very war envisaged in one of Douhet’s works, “The War of 19—” (1930), some of his assumptions were proved wrong. Bombers had no decisive effect, fighters proved to be a very effective war instrument, especially in the Battle of Britain, and land forces were able to penetrate deeply into the enemy’s territory and possessed a very real offensive capability. This criticism is certainly justified as far as World War ii is concerned. In particular, it has been correctly observed that Douhet exaggerated the power of conventional explosives. On the other hand, there is no doubt that many of his ideas seem to be more applicable to our nuclear age: one may detect a first outline, in his theories, of the counter-force and counter-city strategy. It may be of some interest to add that, in a passage in his main work, The Command of the Air (1921), Douhet envisaged the possibility that such a formidable instrument of war as an air force might serve an international authority in enforcing the observance of existing treaties.
1910 La possibilità dell’aereonavigazione. Rivista delle communicazioni : 1303–1319.
(1921) 1942 The Command of the Air. New York: Coward McCann. → First published as II dominio dell’aria.
1921–1922 Diario critico di guerra. 2 vols. Turin (Italy): Paravia.
1951 Scritti inediti. Edited by Antonio Monti. Florence (Italy): Scuola di Guerro Aerea. → Published posthumously.
Brodie, Bernard 1959 The Heritage of Douhet. Pages 71–106 in Bernard Brodie, Strategy in the Missile Age. Princeton Univ. Press.
Earle, Edward M. 1943Douhet, Mitchell, Seversky: Theories of Air Warfare. Pages 485–503 in Edward M. Earle, Makers of Modern Strategy: Military Thought From Machiavelli to Hitler. Princeton Univ. Press.
Sigaud, Louis A. 1941 Douhet and Aerial Warfare. New York: Putnam.
Vauthier, ArsÈne Marie Paul 1935 La doctrine de guerre du Général Douhet. Paris: Berger-Levrault.
Like American airpower adherent Billy Mitchell (1879–1936), Douhet began his army career at an early age and during a period of national transition. In addition, both men were moved by their advocacy of aviation to dissent vigorously, at times even recklessly, from military orthodoxy. This course eventually led to court‐martial, suspension from active duty, and in Douhet's case im prisonment for one year. Unlike Mitchell, however, World War I resurrected Douhet's career. In 1918, he was made chief of the Italian Army's Central Aeronautical Board, a post he held until retiring from service as a general in 1921. Also in 1921, his seminal work on aerial warfare, The Command of the Air, was published. In 1922, the Fascist leader Benito Mussolini appointed him head of Italy's aviation program.
Douhet's central argument that future conflicts would be decided by the nation most able to destroy an opponent's means and will to resist through airpower still engenders much debate. Moreover, the ongoing struggle to validate or refute the concepts set forth in The Command of the Air suggests a transcendent quality unmatched by other air war theorists. For airmen, in particular, his views gave rise to a tenacious search for the enemy's “vital center”—the perfect target set.
Giulio Douhet , The Command of the Air, 1942; rept. 1938.
Michael L. Grumelli
Giulio Douhet (jōō´lyō dōōā´), 1869–1930, Italian military officer and early advocate of airpower. He was an early supporter of strategic bombing and the military superiority of air forces. He served in World War I, organizing Italy's bombing campaign, but was court-martialed for criticizing the Italian high command by publicly declaiming Italy's aerial weakness. He was released when his theories were proven true by the defeat of Italian arms by the Austrian Air Force at Caporetto. He was later recalled and was promoted (1921) to general. In 1922 he was appointed head of Italy's aviation program by Benito Mussolini. His book Command of the Air (1921) was very influential, especially in Great Britain and the United States and was regarded as a classic by early airpower theorists. He argued that command of an enemy's air space and subsequent bombing of industrialized centers would be so disruptive and destructive that the pressure for peace would be overwhelming. He maintained that control of the air could win a war regardless of land or sea power. Douhet's theories remain very popular, especially among military aviators. He is known as the father of airpower.