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Tactics FundamentalsLand Warfare TacticsNaval Warfare TacticsAir Warfare Tactics
Tactics: Fundamentals Tactics are the art of using armed forces to fight battles. They include all actions taken in preparing for battle, including preliminary disposition, actual arrangement of forces and weapons systems, and combat actions. Tactics are the battlefield culmination of actions taken at the strategic and operational levels. They are both an art and a science, and writings on the subject have been in existence since the time of Sun Tzu, the unidentified Chinese author who wrote The Art of War (c. 500–320 B.C.). Tactics are executed by human beings who suffer fear, fatigue, hunger, exhilaration, and a multitude of other emotions. Psychological aspects are as important as physical ones.

At the basic level, tactics combine both offensive and defensive operations. Through history, tactics have been in a constant state of change, influenced by technology and leadership. Innovations and technology have had great impact throughout the ages: The stirrup allowed the mounted armored knight to dominate the battlefield for years. Gunpowder and the invention of reliable shoulder‐fired weapons, in turn, afforded significant tactical advantage to the dismounted soldier, enabling infantry to replace the armored horseman as the dominant force. Refinements such as rifled muskets and light field artillery changed tactics. Later technological innovations such as machine guns, rapid‐firing artillery, tanks, airplanes, submarines, and aircraft carriers have caused tactics to continue to evolve.

According to the great Prussian military writer Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831), and his book On War, tactics are the use of armed forces to win battles; strategy is the use of battles to win the war. Warfare can be considered at three levels, with inexact lines of distinction between those levels: strategic, operational, and tactical. Strategy is the concerted, coordinated use of all resources available to a nation in order to win a war. Operational art lies between strategy and tactics: it orchestrates battlefield tactical actions into major operations and campaigns that can achieve the strategic goals. The strategic level is normally the realm of politicians and their senior advisers. The tactical level is that of the military. The operational level is a combination of political and military influences.

Although tactics are at the micro‐level, the loss of a tactical battle can reverse well‐designed strategic and operational‐level plans. During the Civil War, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker devised an operational campaign in 1863 to outflank Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia entrenched around Fredericksburg. Although the Union had overwhelming numerical superiority and initial surprise, Confederate Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson's tactical attack against the open Union right flank caused Hooker to halt the campaign and retreat back to his original positions.

Similarly, tactical victory can be negated by failure at the operational and strategic levels. In World War I, for example, the German offensives of spring 1918, using new “infiltration tactics,” had great tactical success. However, the German Army could not follow up at the operational level because of an ultimate lack of mobility and reserves. In the Vietnam War, the United States never suffered a major tactical defeat, yet it lost the war at the strategic and political level.

At the beginning of the nuclear age, some futurists thought nuclear “super weapons” would bring an end to tactical operations. However, human ingenuity persevered, tactics were again modified, and battles at the tactical level continue to this day. The historical continuity of terrain, weather, “frictions” of war, and the indomitability of the human spirit cause tactics to change but still remain a critical element in warfare. Despite the advances of technology through the ages, tactical victory still goes to the force that is best able to combine technology with leadership, discipline, esprit, and moral force.
[See also Strategy; Victory; War: Levels of War.]


Carl von Clausewitz , On War, 1832;
Michael Howard and Peter Paret, eds., 1984.
C. E. Callwell , Small Wars: Their Principles & Practice, 3rd ed. 1906; Introduction by Douglas Porch, 1996.
Ardant Du Picq , Battle Studies: Ancient and Modern Battle, John Greely and Robert Cotton, trans., 1946.
Sun Tzu , The Art of War, Samuel B. Griffith, trans., 1984.
Hans Delbruck , History of the Art of War Within the Framework of Political History, 4 vols., Walter J. Renfroe, Jr., trans., 1990.
John A. English, and and Bruce I. Gudmundsson , On Infantry, 1994.

Stephen Bowman

Tactics: Land Warfare Tactics Tactics are the specific techniques used by military forces to win battles and engagements. Though the term is sometimes associated with the entire art of fighting, military theorists usually associate land warfare tactics with the organization and disposition of troops, use of weapons and equipment, and execution of movements in offense or defense. For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, theorists distinguished between minor and grand tactics, and today they continue that distinction by associating grand tactics (or strategy) with the operational art of war and minor tactics with the tactical level. Such a distinction leaves the tactician concerned primarily with the employment of small units in combat and focused on leading soldiers and solving problems amid the uncertainty and unpredictability of battle.

The first conclusive evidence of the use of ground warfare tactics comes from the Neolithic Age. Primitive warfare consisted of ambushes, raids, and skirmishes and relied on techniques and weapons closely associated with hunting. Although primitive warriors understood the importance of numbers, they knew little about tactical formations and less about command and control. These warriors nonetheless adopted the bow, sling, dagger, and mace between 12,000 and 8,000 B.C. and began deploying troops in column and line, firing arrows in volleys, and enveloping the flanks of an enemy line. Rough paintings of such actions from the Neolithic Age clearly indicate the existence of tactics in this early period.

By the fourth millennium B.C., tactics had advanced considerably. As the extraction and smelting of metals improved, bronze weapons became common, and battleaxes and metal arrowheads influenced many battles. The introduction of the wheel also permitted the invention of the war chariot, a vehicle that improved considerably in succeeding centuries. In the third millennium B.C., the Sumerians in the Euphrates Valley left written evidence of formally organized troop formations, with infantry equipped with body armor, spears, and shields and chariots occupied by soldiers carrying javelins. By 1468 B.C., the Egyptians had mastered the weapons of the Bronze Age and demonstrated the value of superior tactics in the Battle of Megiddo against the armies of Syria and Palestine.

The Greeks and Romans brought tactics to new levels of sophistication. The Greeks relied on the phalanx, which consisted of infantrymen carrying long spears, short swords, and heavy shields. By advancing shoulder to shoulder and presenting a massive array of overlapping shields and spear points, the Greeks could rupture an opponent's front and crush him. Philip of Macedonia and Alexander the Great achieved great success by skillfully employing the phalanx with cavalry, archers, and other lightly armed troops. To obtain greater flexibility, the Romans modified the phalanx and used the maniple and the cohort in their legions; but they did not abandon the idea of placing highly trained troops in carefully organized and equipped formations. Superior tactical methods and organizations proved essential for the establishment of the Greek and Roman empires.

Numerous changes occurred in tactics during the next 1,000 years, but none had a greater effect than the introduction of gunpowder. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, commanders adapted their tactics and made significant advances with formations such as the tercio, which combined hand‐powered weapons with chemically powered ones. During the Thirty Years' War (1618–48), the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus armed his infantry with muskets and pikes, his cavalry with wheellock pistols and sabers, and his artillery with mobile guns. Gustavus then created innovative tactics that relied on close cooperation between infantry, artillery, and cavalry, exploited firepower and shock, and performed well on the offense or defense. His methods demonstrated how the flexible adaptation of technology could profoundly affect battlefield tactics.

In the era of the French Revolution at the turn of the eighteenth century, the French developed tactics that enabled them to capitalize on the initiative and commitment of their highly motivated soldiers. Though some historians have dismissed these as “horde tactics,” French commanders learned through trial and error how to change their formations quickly from column to line and from line to column; they also learned to precede their infantry with swarms of skirmishers and support their advance with concentrated artillery. The result was not an army prepared for the parade ground but one prepared to fight against Europe's best professional armies and defeat them. When Napoleon came to power, he made few changes in French tactics and relied on many of the innovations achieved in previous years, although he received credit for so‐called Napoleonic warfare. His eventual defeat came from his failed strategy and his inflated ego, not from the aggressive tactics he inherited from his predecessors.

Tactics continued to change in the nineteenth century. In the United States, Gen. Emory Upton emerged as the most notable American thinker on the subject. A much decorated and wounded veteran of the Civil War, Upton searched during that war for an alternative to the close order, linear tactics practiced by most units with resulting high casualties. In 1867, the U.S. Army adopted Upton's system of tactics, which included commands and formations enabling infantry, artillery, and cavalry to work together more closely. Recognizing the accuracy of the rifled musket and the rapid fire of the breechloader, Upton proposed organizing the infantry in a single line, rather than two or three lines, and taking advantage of their breechloader's greater firepower. He also proposed making groups of four soldiers the basis of all infantry formations and training infantry to march in columns composed of “fours” and move quickly into line. Such an organization could face in any direction after receiving simple orders. Additionally, Upton emphasized the use of skirmishers to precede and protect the main body of the infantry. These tactics placed a premium on the initiative of individual soldiers and made infantry formations more flexible, but they were only a small step forward in the effort to develop new tactics for a battlefield increasingly dominated by firepower.

Numerous important innovations in tactics occurred during World War I. Many of these changes came from the changing relationship between artillery and infantry. As the artillery changed from a direct‐fire to an indirect‐fire role, and as the volume of fire increased dramatically, the coordination of infantry and artillery proved to be one of the most complex and enduring problems of the war. In essence, artillery support dictated the movement of the infantry and created conditions that made maneuver extremely difficult. The Germans became the most tactically innovative of the belligerents and eventually devised an elastic defense‐in‐depth and infiltration tactics. In both the offensive and defense, the Germans achieved excellent coordination of infantry and artillery, and relied on the maneuver of small units and the initiative of lower‐level commanders. When the Americans entered the war in 1917, Gen. John J. Pershing resolved to abandon trench warfare and restore mobility to the battlefield; but the exhaustion of the belligerents and the tactical innovations of the Germans did more to restore mobility than the vast resources and new energy of the Americans in the brief period of major U.S. involvement.

Tactics continued to evolve prior to and during World War II. The most notable advances again came from the Germans, this time with the integration of tanks and aircraft into the battle. During the May–June 1940 campaign against the French, the Germans combined their infantry, artillery, tanks, and aircraft into a highly mobile, combined‐arms team and drove quickly through Poland's and France's linear defenses. Ironically, the tanks and aircraft received most of the publicity, particularly after the invention of the term Blitzkrieg (lightning war) to describe the operation; but infantry and artillery proved vital to the Germans' success in many of the campaigns' key encounters. The 1940 defeat of France nonetheless marked the flourishing of mechanized tactics and provided a long‐lived model of three‐dimensional mobile warfare. Other innovations during World War II came with the development of airborne warfare and amphibious warfare; but once landed, the forces involved in such operations used tactics similar to those employed by standard infantry units.

In the decades following 1945, commanders faced many new questions about tactics. With the introduction of nuclear weapons, the superpowers developed new methods for fighting on nuclear battlefields. In the United States, the army developed the “Pentomic” division and “checkerboard tactics,” which permitted the dispersal and rapid concentration of units on a nuclear battlefield, but the transition from the doctrine of massive retaliation to that of flexible response eventually resulted in the abandonment of methods appropriate only for a nuclear environment. The outbreak of revolutionary wars around the globe resulted in the development of tactics for guerrilla warfare and counterinsurgency, both of which relied on the initiative of small‐unit commanders and the mobility of all units. In this environment, air–mobile operations proved useful, but neither the Americans in Vietnam nor the Russians in Afghanistan achieved strategic success, even though they won numerous tactical victories. By the end of the Cold War, advances in technology had produced sophisticated weapons and equipment that promised many future modifications in tactics.

Through thousands of years, land warfare tactics have evolved as commanders have modified their methods, developed different organizations, and adopted new weapons. Though tactics remained subservient to strategy, the greatest tacticians have been those who recognized the constantly changing nature of tactics—and the unpredictability of battle.
[See also Strategy: Land Warfare Strategy.]


Mao Tse‐tung , Guerrilla Warfare, 1962.
John R. Galvin , Air Assault: The Development of Airmobile Warfare, 1969.
Robert A. Doughty , The Evolution of U.S. Army Tactical Doctrine, 1946–1976, 1979.
Steven T. Ross , From Flintlock to Rifle: Infantry Tactics, 1740–1866, 1979.
Timothy T. Lupfer , The Dynamics of Doctrine: The Changes in German Tactical Doctrine During the First World War, 1981.
Paul H. Herbert , Deciding What Has to be Done: General William E. DePuy and the 1976 Edition of FM 100‐5, Operations, 1988.
James S. Corum , The Roots of Blitzkrieg: Hans von Seeckt and Germany Military Reform, 1992.
Perry D. Jamieson , Crossing the Deadly Ground: United States Army Tactics, 1865–1899, 1994.

Robert A. Doughty

Tactics: Naval Warfare Tactics Tactics are the handling of forces in battle. Maneuver, meaning movement, was once a near synonym for tactics, but over the past half century naval “maneuvers” have come to mean any set of tactical actions intended to gain a combat advantage. Currently encompassed in the term naval tactics are effective search and detection (or scouting), the command and control of forces, and countermeasures that neutralize or degrade enemy actions, all of which have become as important as formations and firepower.

For roughly 400 years, guns were a fighting fleet's decisive weapon and a tightly spaced column was its advantageous formation. The tactical aim was to bring the maximum number of guns to bear on the enemy; massed forces was the tactical means. Then, in the twentieth century, aircraft introduced the possibility of massing the striking power without physically concentrating the aircraft carriers that launched the planes. To that end, in World War II the Imperial Japanese Navy developed tactics based on separated carrier formations, sometimes supplemented with strikes from island airfields.

Nevertheless, by 1944, both sides in the Pacific War saw that concentration was still the superior tactic, principally for purposes of antiaircraft defense based on counterfire from air and sea rather than primary reliance on protective armor plate. American ship defenses became so formidable that the Japanese resorted to kamikazes: manned aircraft acting as missiles on suicidal one‐way missions.

At the end of World War II, defense through counterfire ended abruptly with the threat of air‐dropped nuclear bombs. Dispersed formations were designed to conceal warships amid merchant shipping long enough for them to launch their own nuclear strikes. By the 1960s, this desperate tactic that was modified as counterfire was resumed through surface‐to‐air missiles of the Terrier, Talos, and Tarter programs, and air‐to‐air missiles such as those of jet fighters like the F‐14 “Tomcat.” Tactics were further altered as the likelihood of nuclear war at sea waned and the principal threat to ships became conventional warheads in air‐to‐surface missiles instead of aerial gravity bombs.

By the 1960s, Soviet submarines were armed with ASCMs of such great range (some more than 300 miles) that American fleet defenses developed many layers, beginning with aerial surveillance and protection. But survival depended on adequate warning, plenty of sea room, depth of fire, and the absence of neutral aircraft and shipping.

As the reach and lethality of firepower increased, so did the need to detect the enemy at longer and longer ranges. In fact, the threat of large pulsed attacks from torpedoes, aircraft, and missiles made apparent the enormous advantage of finding the enemy first and attacking before he could respond. In World War II, nothing but aerial scouts could hope to reach far enough to find the enemy, target him, and strike first. Submarines off enemy ports and straits gave strategic warning of enemy movements (and attacked if they could), but tactical detection and tracking were achieved by an unstinting aerial search. After World War II, aircraft continued their crucial scouting role, but concurrently highly sophisticated earth‐orbiting satellites grew in significance, as did electronic search, both active and passive, conducted by ships, submarines, and land sites. Some sensors are able to detect ships and aircraft far over the horizon at ranges of thousands of miles. The moves and countermoves across the electromagnetic spectrum have become so intricate that the tactics of nonlethal “information warfare” have become as important as the missiles themselves in determining who will attack effectively first.

All naval warfare since World War II has been closely connected with conflict ashore. Thus, joint littoral operations have consistently defined modern naval warfare. Land‐sea missile attacks such as a 1982 attack during the Falklands/Malvinas War on British warships by an Exocet missile launched from a land site in Argentina have added to the already prevalent strikes by aircraft to blur the tactical distinction between sea and land combat. More such littoral engagements seem certain, for the U.S. Navy's most important contribution to future war overseas will be, as in the past, the safe delivery and sustainment of army, air force, and Marine elements that will engage the enemy on the land.

Because missiles are swift, accurate, lethal, and long‐ranged, naval battle maneuvering has shifted from warship to weapon. Survivability is now largely dependent on quick defeat of attacking missiles. Counterfire with defensive missiles has had an insignificant effect, but chaff, jamming, and other defensive countermeasures have been highly successful when a defender was alerted. Thus, a scouting advantage and application of superior electronic tactics and technology has become vitally important as an advantage.

Over 400 guided missiles have been fired at merchant vessels and warships since 1967, when an Egyptian patrol craft launched 4 Soviet‐made Styx missiles and sank the Israeli destroyer Eilat. Since 1967, torpedoes, mines, aerial bombs, or shellfire have had considerable consequences, but ASCMs have inflicted by far the most damage and are the central weapon of naval tactics today.

Many in American policy circles believe that naval operations have changed radically since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Contemporary operations as disparate as the Persian Gulf War, the interdiction of shipping in the Adriatic, and efforts to intercept both drugs and illegal immigrants in the Caribbean have all taken place in littoral waters. Consequently, a new concept called joint littoral warfare has developed, in which army, navy, air force, and Marine forces are concerted by joint commanders who conduct wide‐ranging operations in the coastal regions of the world. The focus of U.S. naval operations has returned to its roots because throughout history most naval battles have been fought within 100 miles of land. Furthermore, during the Cold War, a dichotomy existed between U.S. Navy war plans and actual force deployment. War plans were drawn to gain sea control, support a major NATO war in Europe, and attack the Soviet homeland directly, with or without nuclear weapons. The plans envisioned battles fought against Soviet submarines, long‐range aircraft, and surface warships over the vastness of the ocean. Simultaneously, and paradoxically, the actual profitable deployment of American naval forces took place close inshore in a wide variety of circumstances and locales, involving air strikes, amphibious landings, and sustainment of forces fighting on land. The “new” littoral warfare tasks of the U.S. Navy at the end of the twentieth century are no different from those actually carried out in coastal waters by naval forces for the past fifty years, such as air strikes against North Vietnam and Libya, amphibious landings in Korea, Lebanon, and Grenada, coastal blockades, and naval gunfire support.

Changes in tactics wrought by missiles are as far‐reaching tactically as the shift from sail to steam or from battleship to aircraft carrier. Moreover, the great range of missiles coupled with the proximity to land creates a combat environment of intensified tactical interaction between the sea and the land in which force on force is no longer exclusively, or even primarily, fleet against fleet.

Starting in World War I, mines, torpedo boats, and coastal submarines forced surface fleets to back away from close coastal blockade. In World War II, aircraft extended the air‐land interaction, as ships used planes to attack land targets and land‐based planes attacked ships. In the missile age, while ships become targets of land‐based missiles, ship‐based missiles are used against land sites. Since the 1950s, submarines armed with nuclear ballistic missiles have been capable of striking deep inland. In the Persian Gulf War of 1991, nearly 300 American sea‐launched cruise missiles struck military targets in Iraq with conventional warheads.

The revolution in naval tactics wrought by missiles, however, is far more extensive than a change in the principal weapon. Until World War II, fleet maneuvers were designed to achieve a positional advantage relative to the enemy. In the age of fighting sail, the weather gauge (upwind of the opposing fleet) was such a crucial advantage. In the battleship era, crossing the “T” (alignment of one's column across the head of the enemy's column) was the relative position sought. Then, in World War II, maneuvers by ships in formation were supplanted by the swifter movement of raids by aircraft carrying bombs and torpedoes or salvos of torpedoes launched from destroyers and light cruisers. These outperformed gunfire from heavy cruisers and battleships. Today, small maneuverable missile craft have the capacity to put much larger warships out of action, especially in confined coastal waters; large salvos of fifty or more missiles can be rapidly and accurately launched against land targets from a comparatively small warship, as they were in the U.S. retaliatory attacks on purported terrorist sites in the Sudan and Afghanistan in August 1998. Aircraft carriers—so fragile and frequently sunk in World War II—now use their mobility to position themselves out of danger, yet where their aircraft can deliver telling, repeated attacks.
[See also Strategy: Naval Warfare Strategy.]


Sir Julian S. Corbett , Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, 1911; reissued 1988.
Wayne P. Hughes , Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice, 1986.
Eric Grove , The Future of Sea Power, 1990.
Brian Tunstall , Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail: The Evolution of Fighting Tactics 1650–1815, 1990.
John C. Schulte , An Analysis of the Historical Effectiveness of Antiship Cruise Missiles in Littoral Warfare, 1994.
Wayne P. Hughes, Jr. , A Salvo Model of Warships in Missile Combat Used to Evaluate Their Staying Power, Naval Research Logistics, 1995.
Craig Symonds , Historical Atlas of the U.S. Navy, 1995.
Martin S. Navias and and E. R. Hooton , Tanker Wars: The Assault on Merchant Shipping During the Iran‐Iraq Conflict, 1980–1988, 1996.

Wayne P. Hughes, Jr.

Tactics: Air Warfare Tactics Tactics in air warfare consist of fundamental methods, skills, and techniques designed to lead to success in aerial combat. Subject to change as the result of the rapid and continuing improvements in aircraft, weapons, and support technology over the last eighty years, air warfare tactics nevertheless remain a natural outgrowth of the earliest use of military aircraft by the major belligerents during World War I.

The classic goal of air warfare is to deny an enemy the use of airspace and to exploit that airspace for victory. Typically, this mandates the destruction of enemy aircraft—either in the air or on the ground—and winning and maintaining air superiority. Success in the battle for air superiority permits one's aircraft to attack enemy ground or naval forces, deny the enemy logistic support, resupply friendly forces, collect photographic intelligence, and bring an enemy's country under long‐range strategic bombardment. Scores of other missions exist as well, and are not confined to the atmosphere immediately surrounding the Earth. Space is a new arena for air warfare. At a fundamental level, military aviators create and modify air warfare tactics to maximize the impact and effectiveness of aircraft or aerospace vehicles—manned or unmanned—whatever the objective.

At the beginning of World War I, Germany and Britain used aircraft largely for straightforward reconnaissance, observation, and artillery‐spotting purposes. In its earliest forms, air combat developed as an outgrowth of these missions. It was not long before airmen who had greeted each other with smiles and waves began shooting at each other with rifles and pistols. These weapons quickly gave way to machine guns synchronized to fire through propellers. The German fighter pilot Max Immelmann is generally credited with developing in 1915 the first aerial maneuver designed to give an attacking aircraft a relative advantage over another. The 180‐degree climbing turn that soon bore his name might accurately be thought of as the genesis of aerial tactical development. Another German aviator, Oswald Boelcke, developed seven fundamental rules of air combat, several of which survive to this day. The most enduring admonitions were to surprise the enemy and to maintain the offensive advantage. Boelcke was also among the earliest proponents of formation flying. Eschewing “lone‐eagle” patrols, he believed aircraft attacking in pairs offered mutual support and enjoyed a greater chance of success against the enemy.

Boelcke's notions and techniques found widespread acceptance on both sides of the lines during World War I. At its most basic tactical level, fighter air combat consisted largely of seeing the enemy, deciding whether or not an attack was possible, closing by maneuver, firing, and escaping. If the original attack was unsuccessful, further maneuver was necessary either to reengage or to avoid further attack and survive. With allowances for vast increases in speed, target acquisition, and accuracy of weapons, these tenets are just as valid today as they were between 1914 and 1918.

By the end of World War I, air warfare tactics were remarkably sophisticated, and included concepts for the employment of large numbers of bombing and reconnaissance aircraft. All sides employed mass formations; aircraft attacked targets both on the immediate battlefield and deep within enemy country. Using lighter‐than‐air Zeppelins and large, specially designed long‐range airplanes, the Germans undertook the first sustained strategic bombing campaign in history against London. Although it caused only minimal physical damage, its psychological impact was important. Moreover, the campaign spurred many of the doctrinal and tactical developments during the interior period.

The 1920s and 1930s were a fertile time for those thinking about the potential use of airpower. Airpower advocates in Britain and the United States, like Sir Hugh Trenchard and Gen. Billy Mitchell, and Giulio Douhet in Italy, suggested that large independent air forces, built around long‐range bombers, could have a winning impact. At a tactical level, they assumed that bombers were fast enough, well enough defended, and could fly high enough to avoid or defeat enemy interceptors. In their minds, this reduced or virtually eliminated the need for armed escort of fighter planes. Moreover, the most optimistic zealots confidently predicted that bombers would be able to obliterate their targets and terrorize civilian populations with little difficulty. Americans, less comfortable than their British counterparts with the notion of bombing of civilians in cities, believed accurate U.S. bombsights and well‐protected aircraft such as the B‐24 and B‐17 were capable of precision against industrial targets. A few, such as Claire Chennault, advocated increased emphasis on fighter aircraft.

The Germans developed their own views on the uses of airpower during this period. They were particularly impressed with the concept of terror bombing. Their success in the Spanish Civil War convinced them that bombers might play a significant role in reducing an enemy's morale and willingness to resist. Nevertheless, the Germans' principal contribution here related to the importance of ground support aviation. In the earliest campaigns of World War II, the Luftwaffe became a true extension of the German Army, and in many ways operated like mobile artillery. German fighters, flying in flexible and mutually supporting formations, attacked first to sweep an enemy air force from the ground and sky. Subsequent waves of high‐ and low‐altitude bombers attacked enemy airfields, transportation centers, fuel storage areas, and troop installations. Finally, highly accurate dive‐bombers assisted the swift‐moving columns of German tanks as they swept through enemy defenses in deep, encircling penetrations. The rapid German victories in 1939 and 1940 astonished the world.

The Allies were also able to put the principal tactical elements of their air warfare doctrine to the test. Beginning in 1942, British and American bombers undertook an offensive against German‐occupied Europe and the Nazi homeland. In an attempt to reduce casualty rates, the British bombed area targets largely by night. The Americans, convinced that high‐altitude, daylight formation bombing was possible, attacked a succession of more precise industrial and military targets. Unfortunately, both air forces suffered huge casualties, while German armament production rates actually increased. Employing radar and an increasingly effective nighttime air and ground defense network, the Luftwaffe battled the British over the largest German cities. In the daytime, German fighters used heavier armament and increasingly sophisticated tactics to blast hundreds of U.S. bombers out of the sky. It was not until early 1944 and the employment of sizable numbers of new, long‐range escort fighters like the P‐51, that the American bomber formations became truly effective. Given the attritional nature of the air war in the proceeding months, it took an amazingly short time for the Luftwaffe to suffer the effects. In just six months American fighters largely swept the Germans from the skies, while Allied bombers finally concentrated on the target arrays that would bring the German military machine to a virtual halt—oil and transportation.

Amphibious island‐hopping actions and naval aviation dominated the Pacific War. Naval air warfare tactics were largely built around carrier‐borne aircraft whose main mission was to attack enemy ships. The primary targets in most engagements were enemy aircraft carriers, and the best way to attack them was with coordinated formations of dive‐bombers and torpedo planes. Navy fighter aircraft, in a way similar to their land‐based counterparts, supported offensive air operations or flew in air defense roles. Long‐range strategic bombing by the army air forces in the Pacific fell mainly to the American B‐29. This aircraft, which eventually carried out the first atomic bomb attacks, was capable of large bomb loads and inflicted huge damage on Japanese cities in a series of incendiary raids between 1944 and 1945.

The development of nuclear weapons appeared to fulfill the most visionary projections of the air power advocates. During many of the years of the Cold War, the potential use of atom bomb–laden aircraft dominated the thinking of many leaders in the military and government. According to various airpower historians, the focus on strategic nuclear warfare in the U.S. Air Force caused a corresponding atrophy in developments with regard to ground support or tactical aviation. High‐altitude, long‐range bombers like the Boeing B‐52 and the medium‐range, supersonic Convair B‐58 came to symbolize the Cold War. Soviet air defense improvements predictably forced U.S. Air Force planners to develop increasingly sophisticated penetration tactics. At the same time, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) gradually took the place of the great masses of bombers at U.S. Cold War air bases. But the events of the Korean War and the Vietnam War also demonstrated that an air force organized and equipped mainly for a strategic nuclear mission was ill‐suited for the demands of low‐intensity conflict.

Vietnam validated the need for a well‐balanced air force as well as principles that encompassed a broader base of air warfare tactics. The young U.S. Air Force aviators who had witnessed American defeat in Vietnam, and later rose to high rank, concentrated on doctrinal, organizational, technological, and tactical developments that would make their air force the most effective in the world. Both the air force and the navy established fighter weapon schools where classic air‐to‐air combat training with gun and missile could be conducted by experts. American aircraft industry produced a new generation of highly maneuverable and sophisticated jet aircraft, such as the Grumman F‐14, the McDonnell‐Douglas F‐15, and the General Dynamics F‐16. Precision‐guided munitions, the use of artificial intelligence, and the full exploitation of the electromagnetic and space environments all became part and parcel of the modern air battlefield. The air force devoted significant resources to data and intelligence collection as it became increasingly apparent that accurate targeting was the key to airpower's effectiveness. At intellectual resource centers like the U.S. Air Force Academy, Air Command and Staff College, the Air War College, and the National War College, officers began to think more critically about airpower. These myriad elements came together in the Persian Gulf War of 1991, affording the world a powerful demonstration of the impact of modern airpower.

Despite the apparent technological domination of contemporary war, air warfare tactics show an unbroken human thread back to 1914–18. At its most fundamental level, air warfare continues to require a human being to shoot down an enemy aircraft or put munitions on target. As long as nations threaten each other, military airmen will ponder the requirements for seizing control of the air and subsequently exploiting that control, much as they did during World War I.
[See also Strategy: Air Warfare Strategy.]


Keith Ayling , Combat Aviation, 1943.
Barry D. Watts , The Foundation of U.S. Air Doctrine: The Problem of Friction in War, 1984.
Richard P. Hallion , Rise of Fighter Aircraft: 1914–1918, 1984.
Robert L. Shaw , Fighter Combat: The Air and Science of Air‐to‐Air Warfare, 1985.
Michael S. Sherry , The Rise of American Air Power, 1987.
R. A. Mark Clodfelter , The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam, 1989.
John Warden , The Air Campaign: Planning for Combat, 1989.
John Gooch, ed., Airpower: Theory and Practice, 1995.

Mark K. Wells


views updated May 23 2018

tactics XVII. repr. modL. tactica — Gr. tà taktiká, n. pl. of taktikós, f. taktós ordered, arranged, f. base of tássein set in order.
So tactical XVI. f. Gr. taktikós. Hence tactician XVIII.

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