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‘Bombing to Win’ at 25

Commentary by Heather Venable and Sebastian Lukasik via War on the Rocks

U.S. Air Force (Pideo by Staff. Sgt. Jason Allred)

The Air Force sometimes has a bad reputation due to its preference for independent, strategic bombardment operations. Before joining the faculty of Air Command and Staff College as historians of the Marine Corps and the Army, respectively, we both believed it deserved this reputation. The curriculum, we assumed, would be fixated on its preferred mode of operations. We anticipated that we would need to add discussions of close air support to the classroom.

In fact, the opposite was true. Colleagues and students at the college were not, as we assumed, married to the doctrine of strategic bombardment, and were instead exceptionally well-versed in other types of air operations. And this should not be entirely surprising. The last chief of staff of the Air Force, Gen. David Goldfein, in particular worked hard to insist the Air Force realizes it must act jointly, noting that he himself had “never been in a fight in my entire career and done it with airpower only.” In fact, in the era of the “Global War on Terror,” Air Force culture has undergone a fundamental shift away from strategic attack and toward supporting surface forces during the wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. The joint mission has become so important that it has assumed a central place in many an airman’s sense of identity and purpose.

Nevertheless, this misconception of inflexible Air Force thinking persists. Indeed, numerous scholars still argue that these pathologies remain the defining element  of the Air Force’s doctrinal DNA. This is especially the case with what is, arguably, the most explicit and prominent articulation of this view, the primary book on airpower often assigned to graduate students. First published in 1996, Robert Pape’s Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War drew on approximately 80 years of airpower history to argue for an optimal way of harnessing kinetic airpower to broader strategic outcomes. The quarter of a century that has elapsed since its publication has witnessed the appearance of important scholarly interpretations of the airpower case studies that underpin Pape’s arguments. In addition, the same period has furnished new empirical evidence of airpower’s capabilities and limitations. Importantly, the book’s most significant legacy may be that it advanced a problematic narrative about strategic attack forceful enough to potentially mislead policymakers and some scholars alike about the full range of what airpower can and should do in a peer conflict.

Air Force strategists should ensure adequate consideration of the potential of strategic attack, in addition to more familiar battlefield support, in waging joint operations. This emphasis is in keeping with the Defense Department’s increasing focus on great-power competition as the overarching framework for thinking about the use of military force as an instrument of national policy. Recent scholarship on historical uses of airpower in World War II highlights the utility of strategic airpower not as a war-winning instrument in its own right, but as a highly effective enabler of other services in joint operations.

Reaction and Counterreaction: The Publication of ‘Bombing to Win’

Scholars produced the most trenchant and compelling critiques of Pape within less than a decade of the book’s 1996 publication. They often found fault with his four categories of strategic attack — punishment, risk, denial, and decapitation — for being too mechanistic. Punishment targets civilians to convince their government to stop fighting. Risk is similar, except that it advocates ratcheting up attacks to give the opposition time to respond rather than initially overwhelming the enemy. By contrast, decapitation focuses on leadership and communication to paralyze decision making, as epitomized by retired Col. John Warden’s arguments. Finally, denial — which Pape claims is the most effective use of airpower — concentrates on fielded forces (the tactical level of war), the means to re-equip and reinforce materiel and people (the tactical or operational level of war), or the sources that equip fielded forces such as factories (some consider this to be the strategic level of war). In 1997, Warden took Pape to task for shortchanging decapitation and for his excessive focus on defeating the enemy’s fielded forces, pointing out that many conflicts stem from more than just a desire for controlling territory.

Other critics have argued for applying more nuance beyond the four categories or for updating his argument in light of more recent history. Barry Watts, for example, faulted Pape for grounding his arguments in an overly linear understanding of war, one that discounted the Clausewitzian emphasis on the impact of chance, uncertainty, and friction on military operations. Adding the case study of Operation Allied Force in 1999, three years after Bombing to Win’s publication, Daniel Byman and Matthew Waxman suggested that Pape failed to give strategic bombardment credit for reinforcing other defeat mechanisms.

Since then, most scholarship has focused on applying Pape to various operations rather than challenging his argument. Simultaneously, the United States has employed airpower primarily at a tactical level since 9/11, perhaps leading some to underestimate what strategic airpower can accomplish. Excessive emphasis on applying airpower directly on the battlefield risks shortchanging airpower capabilities and maximizing the efficiencies inherent in precision weapons and sensors when used in strategic attacks. Moreover, potential enemies have studied how the United States applied airpower on the battlefield, especially during Operation Desert Storm, which is the gold standard for Pape. To be clear, we are not arguing that strategic airpower proved decisive in Desert Storm, as the majority of airpower targets were related to air superiority early in the war followed by direct attacks on Iraqi troops in the Kuwait theater of operations. Since Desert Storm, the United States has struggled to replicate this unequivocally successful application of airpower. America’s actual and potential adversaries have scrutinized Desert Storm as a source of insights into how best to dull the edge of American airpower, raising the question of whether Desert Storm was the beginning of an era or the end of one.

Still, in more conventional conflict with a military peer, strategic airpower can prove highly effective in all but the shortest wars by bringing the cost of war home to decision-makers. While some might object to this kind of strategic attack on the grounds that it might require a protracted length of time to have any effect on the course of a conflict, few wars are as short as most expect them to be at the outset.

Pape is correct that punishment — or an air strategy seeking to incite civilians to revolt against their leadership — is unlikely to work, especially against totalitarian states. Still, a conventional peer conflict would require the United States to make the most careful allocation of airpower since early in World War II in North Africa. The United States would need to decide how much to dedicate to air superiority, how much to use against more traditional battlefield targets, and how much to devote to objectives off the more traditional battlefield. One may envision a conflict with China, for example, neatly confined to the South China Sea. But the reality may look very different and require a different set of targets than the United States has used in many years. Strategic attack might focus on internal sources of an adversary regime’s power base, political credibility, or logistical support and transportation systems in conjunction with other more battlefield-centric targets.

From Strategic to Tactical Airpower: The Air Force’s Historical Transformation During and After the Vietnam War

Until the Vietnam War, U.S. air strategists traditionally favored strategic bombardment. Then, airpower roles underwent a fundamental reversal. “Tactical” fighters completed “strategic” missions over North Vietnam. Although these attacks largely targeted military facilities and supply routes, airmen viewed them as strategic because they were more directly striking the enemy. Bombers viewed as strategic assets (i.e., aircraft designed to drop nuclear bombs over the Soviet Union) flew carpet bombing runs over South VietnamLaos, and Cambodia, seeking to hit fielded forces and supply routes. Only in the war’s final weeks during Operation Linebacker II did bombers fly over Hanoi in what may traditionally be considered “strategic” missions. Even then, they largely hit military rather than civilian targets, or what might be coded as largely denial targets with only incidental punishment.

Since the Vietnam War’s end, the once-dominant bomber barons have fallen from prominence. Today, the Air Force’s small cadre of bomber pilots find themselves flying some of the same B-52 bombers their fathers flew, along with a handful of the newer B-1s and B-2s, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the B-21. The so-called fighter generals replaced the bomber barons, and some scholars suggest they adopted a narrow view of warfare, one that sacrificed the pursuit of airpower to the cause of reconciliation with the Army decades after a seemingly amicable divorce eventually broke down over the issue of close air support during the Korean and Vietnam wars. The magnitude of this transition can be seen in the words of a prominent Air Force leader who stated: “everything that tactical air does directly supports Army operations.”

Since post-Vietnam reforms and the Global War on Terror, however, the Air Force largely has emphasized battlefield support. The one notable exception occurred during the debate over possible strategic targets against Operation Inherent Resolve. Battlefield support is essential and the Air Force should not neglect it. However, in direct peer conflict, airpower may need to broaden its repertoire beyond direct support, or even air superiority, into strategic attack to operate more efficiently and effectively in support of joint operations.

‘Bombing to Win’: What It Got Wrong Methodologically

Bombing to Win provides a sweeping assessment of airpower, having presciently highlighted how costly it is to win on the cheap when nations employ only airpower. The work examines airpower employment through five case studies of U.S. airpower efforts against Germany and Japan in World War II, as well as against Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq.

Problematically, though, Pape relies on a straw man. He suggests that the Air Force bought wholesale into strategic bombardment, claiming Secretary of the Air Force Donald B. Rice offered the “clearest call” for a “reliance” on strategic bombing. In fact, a white paper written by Rice runs the gamut of airpower and stresses, among other capabilities, the “fundamental need” to support U.S. and coalition ground forces and the ability of both tactical airpower and airlift to meet “strategic objectives.”

Except for notable exceptions against Japan and Korea, U.S. airmen have rarely advocated punishing civilians. Most strategic bombardment that occurred in Vietnam, for example, can be considered denial, with a small element of punishment sought in Linebacker II as a second-order effect. Again, in Desert Storm, advocates of strategic bombardment did not demure at targeting electricity in seeking second-order effects on civilians. However, they primarily sought to target electricity to affect air defense and communications to make the Iraqi leadership incapable of responding. And as military leadership is a type of fielded force, the distinction between decapitation and denial can be a flimsy one.

Another problem centers on anyone seeking to use Pape’s historical case studies to apply airpower more effectively rather than to evaluate the concept of coercion from an academic perspective. Of his four categories, Pape concludes that denial is the only effective approach to strategic bombardment. But then he insists that “strategic bombing is rarely the best way to achieve denial.” He subsequently takes this logic to a more extreme conclusion, stating that “[t]heater air power is a much stronger coercive tool” as long as ground operations accompany it, at which point he is no longer discussing strategic bombardment. For Pape, theater airpower has the goal of “starving” opponents on the battlefield by either keeping them from receiving necessary logistics or directly attacking them, a natural explanation for his Desert Storm case study. In effect, Pape advocated the Army’s vision of how to employ airpower in air-land battle, but even in 1996 he was a decade or so too late to the party, as changing geopolitical realities made this approach a case of wanting to refight the last war, instead of preparing for the next one.

Importantly, by Pape’s own admission, theater airpower did not end the war in Germany or Korea, because he bound airpower’s success with getting one’s opponent to surrender “long before complete military defeat.” In short, for airpower to be coded a success, a land army must not be required to fully conquer another nation. Thus, the Allied bombing campaign against Germany in 1945 failed because ground forces fought all the way to Berlin, even if airpower made that fight significantly easier. In this way, Pape’s book concerns itself more with how the tool of airpower coerces rather than with how to use airpower. In his defense, Pape never set out to prescribe how to use airpower. Nevertheless, the work tempts policymakers to interpret his book as a how-to manual that recommends theater-level denial as the optimal solution regardless of context.

‘Bombing to Win’What History Proved Wrong

In the quarter of a century since the publication of Pape’s book, airpower has been called upon repeatedly to deliver meaningful strategic outcomes in contexts where few, if any, enemy fielded forces are present in large numbers. Potential enemies have learned many valuable lessons from America’s application of airpower in recent conflicts. By doing so, they have developed a host of asymmetric countermeasures aiming at blunting, and at times rendering irrelevant, America’s “full-spectrum dominance” in the air domain. Chief lessons include the imperative to resist the temptation to meet U.S. airpower head-on, but instead to rely on concealment, dispersion, and deception, such as in Operation Allied Force in Serbia. In other words, few potential opponents will foolishly mass what fielded forces they possess in ways that play to U.S. airpower strengths. Those still willing to do so quickly learn the error of their ways. This was evident in 2014 when ISIL briefly transitioned to a quasi-conventional phase of its campaign against Iraqi government forces, only to be beaten back by U.S. and coalition airpower.

Operation Inherent Resolve also briefly signaled some tension between advocates of a kind of strategic attack against ISIL in opposition to sole battlefield support. A recent report concludes that “the deep fight in Operation Inherent Resolve affected ISIL’s finances, but it could not affect ISIL’s main center of gravity — territory — meaning that strategic attack did not play a decisive role in this operation.” First of all, whether strategic attack played a “decisive” role is irrelevant. Airpower should be evaluated solely on the extent to which it efficiently and effectively contributed to the operation’s overarching political objectives. Second, the identification of ISIL’s center of gravity as solely territorial is problematic, as the possession of territory required some semblance of government, which rests importantly on finances. In effect, the study’s authors engage in countering the Air Force’s purported tendency of “going it alone” even as most airmen — except for individual outliers — are fully committed to fighting jointly.

In addition, the strategic effectiveness of denial by targeting fielded forces is doubtful in situations where airpower’s purpose is to help avert or mitigate a humanitarian disaster. Airpower proved quite effective in ending the siege of Sarajevo in 1995. Allied air forces, along with ground troops, compelled Bosnian Serbs and their allies to the negotiating table by targeting their artillery positions, troop concentrations, and surface-to-air missile sites during Operation Deliberate Force. One Air Force officer thus concluded a few years after Desert Storm that a strategic bombing campaign offered no easy button to victory, arguing:

statements that the [United States] can win wars through the use of airpower, and then pointing to DESERT STORM … can be misleading. One needs to understand the context in which airpower is used. Ethnic animosities, politically acceptable solutions, and impartiality on the part of the international community are issues that demanded more fidelity than airpower could provide in Bosnia.

Unsurprisingly, then, this successful example of denial in the service of a humanitarian operation proved difficult to replicate four years later when, during Operation Allied Force, NATO airstrikes against Slobodan Milosevic’s security forces in Kosovo did little to halt or slow down the Serbian government’s ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians. In fact, such efforts accelerated once the air campaign began. It was only after NATO airpower turned its attention to “strategic” targets deep within Serbia that Milosevic inclined toward negotiating with the international coalition and acceding to its demands. Serbian perceptions of the bombing proved key to producing this outcome because they believed that NATO had deliberately directed air attacks against both civilian and military targets, thereby convincing Milosevic that NATO possessed both the ability and the will to destroy Serbia’s infrastructure. Importantly, however, this is not a claim for airpower succeeding by itself — rather it occurred along with other dynamics, including diplomatic and economic pressure.

In the future, the paucity of fielded forces may become a dominant reality in the context of great-power competition. The doctrinal concepts that China and Russia have been developing place a premium on dulling the edge of America’s kinetic air capabilities. They do so in a variety of ways. China’s anti-access/area denial construct seeks to prevent U.S. aircraft from targeting Chinese fielded forces without first running a gauntlet of integrated air defenses and their airborne enablers hundreds of miles from the Chinese mainland. Similarly, Russian military theory and practice, as showcased in the recent conflicts in Ukraine, increasingly eschews conventional, high-profile fielded forces in favor of low-visibility special operations units aided and abetted by pro-Russian paramilitaries. In addition, those forces operate as part of a wider “scheme of maneuver” that integrates kinetic action with cyber attacks and information warfare. Backing up this asymmetric warfighting paradigm is the mailed fist of Russia’s new generation of surface-to-air missiles, including the S-400/SA-21, capable of engaging hostile aircraft at operational ranges of up to 400 kilometers (250 miles). This paradigm leaves precious few opportunities for using airpower in the theater role that Pape envisioned, at least efficiently.

‘Bombing to Win’: What Recent Histories Reveal

Recent historical reinterpretations of some of the iconic air operations of World War II provide evidence of the potential of strategic airpower to meaningfully influence the joint fight through denial as opposed to independent power projection. Two works of historical scholarship in particular demonstrate this point in a compelling way. Adam Tooze, in his well-received work on the Nazi economyinsists that attacks against the German economy and transportation system after September 1944 had “devastating” and “immediate” effects on the country’s war machine.

Likewise, Phillips O’Brien’s How the War Was Won argues that strategic attack worked as a form of denial — although he does not use this specific term — because it disrupted the German fielded forces’ ability to maneuver. Moreover, air- and seapower proved more decisive than landpower “because they multiplied exponentially the physical space and conceptual possibilities of the area of battle.” In effect, Germany was not waging “modern” warfare, except in the Battle of the Atlantic, because it could not target “production in either its pre-production or its deployment phase.” This argument aligns well with Tooze’s suggestion that strategic bombardment constituted a far “bigger technological and material challenge than any of the antagonists originally realized.” According to Tooze, “As a result of resource limitations and decisions taken in the 1930s, the Germans never came close to building a war-winning air weapon.” In effect, then, from O’Brien’s perspective, the coalition needed to employ both theater air and strategic operations to facilitate the Allied landings in Normandy and subsequent advance through northwestern Europe. In this way, O’Brien makes a more holistic argument for airpower employment than Pape. A traditional view of the divide between tactical and strategic airpower in the European theater in World War II may be envisioned as follows:

Figure 1

Source: Map generated by the author.

A more holistic view, by contrast, incorporates the entirety of Allied air employment as follows:

Figure 2

Source: Map generated by author.

Punishment Is Dead: Long Live Strategic Attack in Support of a Joint Fight

Arguments for strategic bombardment being used decisively have lost their force since the 1970s. This development is a positive one given the outspoken and problematic advocacy that characterized airmen’s efforts during previous decades. The few voices advocating strategic bombardment since then, importantly, have stressed decapitation over punishment. Today, David Deptula is the most outspoken Air Force advocate. Still, in 2019 he  wrote that the Air Force must receive systems “capable of giving the entire military the requisite aerospace superiority needed to win against any threat,” which is why he has criticized the “geriatric’ state of the Air Force for the last decade, although he has also called for a greater investment in the Space Force as well. Strategic bombardment deserved much of the bad reputation its early advocates earned it, and some in the Air Force gladly admitted as much. Today, however, airmen recognize more than ever that they cannot win wars alone, as does much of the scholarship. Airpower advocates seek to support the joint fight more than they seek to be decisive in their own domain, although this concern continues to infuse recent scholarship.

A major war against a peer adversary requires a careful apportionment of forces. The United States has never really confronted this type of challenge since World War II’s early stages. Washington has long enjoyed an abundance of expensive airpower capabilities, but that plenitude is now over. Airpower will need to be applied more effectively and efficiently than ever. Thus, it is worth revisiting Bombing to Win, the most prominent airpower book read by many practitioners of national security, to identify key limitations so that bombing — along with other sources of military and non-military power — might win when America needs it most.

Pape is most likely correct that “punishment does not work,” and against totalitarian states it is especially likely to fail. But airpower practitioners and national security professionals need to look very closely at what strategic airpower might contribute beyond battlefield attack and battlefield air interdiction. The selection of specific target sets is beyond the purview of this article, but it is imperative to acknowledge that strategic airpower, Pape’s arguments notwithstanding, continues to offer policymakers options they would be unwise to downplay when thinking about a major conflict with a peer opponent. Impeding an opponent’s mobility is at the heart of modern warfare, and strategic airpower offers the best means of attack, especially when one must make difficult choices about allocating airpower.

Scenarios of great-power competition often seem to envision neat conflicts limited to the South China Sea as if one can dial up one’s own adventure against a peer competitor. This might not be the case in practice, and U.S. strategists should prepare for conflict that extends beyond a limited theater. In the early years of World War II, attacks against cities ratcheted up as fast as the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force could get bombers up in the air and over their desired target sets. One should apply theater airpower — an employment that meshes with the striking success of Desert Storm — rather than strategic airpower. This is problematic given that Pape’s own definition of denial as a form of strategic attack includes clear examples of tactical airpower, such as close air support.

Bombing to Win’s most important legacy may be creating a confusing or even false narrative about the Air Force’s pursuit of punishment as a desired form of strategic bombardment. Ultimately, this narrative runs the dangerous risk of misleading policymakers about the full range of what airpower can and should do in a conflict with a military peer in the support of joint operations.