The Fathers of Air Power Doctrine

Michael G. Stroud

3 Sons from 3 Nations=Air Power Doctrine

Giulio Doughet, William Mitchell, and Hugh Montague Trenchard, an Italian, an American and a Brit, could all be said to be the fathers of air power doctrine. Within their respective doctrines all shared similarities and numerous differences, but in narrowing the focus down to Douhet and Mitchell in particular (Trenchard was in many respects an amalgamation of the two) we can carefully delineate the two. The lynchpin and most prominent similarity between Douhet and Mitchell (and Trenchard as previously referred to) was the matter of an independent Air Service. Having experienced the land-locked slugfest and stalemate that typified the moon-cratered battlefields of WWI, both men were deeply impacted by their experiences. Douhet in particular recognized the seismic potential of the impact that airpower would have on warfare after witnessing Italy’s first airplane flight when he commented that 'the skies are about to become a battlefield as important as the land or the sea…Only by gaining the command of the air shall we be able to derive the fullest benefit from the advantage which can only be fully exploited when the enemy is compelled to be earth bound.' This prophecy of fully realized multi-dimensional warfare would quickly accelerate by the end of WWI, seeing squadrons and wings of combat aircraft come into existence by the end of the war in 1918. Such technological growth and the role that air services played in the belligerent powers in support of (mostly) army and navy forces, was an epiphany for Douhet, a top military academy graduate (and ironically, not a pilot) who felt that air services and their application of power was not being realized. Douhet realized that an air service ‘should at all times cooperate with the army and navy; bit it must be independent of them both.’ The warplanes’ ability to traverse great distances and strike behind enemy lines was an ability that to Douhet should not be impeded by chaining it to the whims of other services.
The Fathers of Air Power Doctrine
Italian air power theorist, General Giulio Doubt (1869-1930)

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The Fathers of Air Power Doctrine
American Col. William 'Billy' Mitchel (1879-1936)

William ‘Billy’ Mitchell, a contemporary of both Douhet and Trenchard, was a hard-charging airpower acolyte...

…who was extremely strong-willed in his belief of airpower requiring its own service arm separate from the others and connecting it directly to matters of in national defence. Mitchell first laid out what was obvious to him and his contemporaries that ‘Only when complete dominion of the air has been established can a war of invasion across the seas be prosecuted’ and by employing air power ‘as a major instrument of war, no matter whether a land force or a sea force is acting on the surface of the earth’ can the U.S. both protect its coastline and invade enemy territories across vast distances. Mitchell in his arguments for an independent air service in the U.S. methodically linked its importance in its rapid creation and growth in WWI to a matter of national defence and by default, a necessity. He would go on to state that ‘future contests will depend primarily on the amount of air power that a nation could produce and apply’ thereby equating a strong, organized, and trained air service to that of national security thereby playing to the notions of deterrence through strength. Conversely, both Douhet and Mitchell had their philosophical differences as to their airpower doctrines with the application of how airpower should be applied chief among them. Put another way, Douhet was strategic in his philosophy while Mitchell was more tactical. Breaking this down further, Douhet envisioned huge fleets of bombers that would fly over and past fixed, static defences on the ground and take the war directly to the enemy and its population centres. It was here in the strategic bombing of population centres that Douhet saw total war where ‘citizens will become combatants, since all of them will be exposed to the aerial offensives of the enemy.’ In Douhet’s mind, airpower was the future of warfare, effectively negating or at the least, greatly mitigating the necessity of the army and navy, as airpower alone could cross untold distances faster than ever before possible, rain deadly bombs on enemy positions and population centres and destroy the will of the enemy and thereby securing victory.
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Mitchell for his part, saw air power as a means to an end, with a much more diverse and tactical application of it.

Unlike Douhet, Mitchell envisioned a separate air service that could serve in diverse roles from air-to-air engagements, and targeted bombing runs, coastal protection. Mitchell speaks to the air service as ‘the only agency that is able to defend the country from hostile air attack and is the principal defence against hostile sea attack along a coast.’ This was a vastly different perspective from Douhet and his narrowly focused strategic bombing function of an air force. Mitchell saw an independent air service as being able to do more than what Douhet proposed but failed to grasp the bigger picture and implications of a unified air services branch on a grand strategic level. Ironically, it was Douhet who was short-sighted as to the full potential of aircraft in various roles beyond just that of the bomber (the fact that he expected bombers to fly past one another as they travelled to bomb each other’s cities was an outmoded sense of martial chivalry in the least), therefore, underplaying and undervaluing the airplanes full potential.
The Fathers of Air Power Doctrine
Air power diversity, such as this B-2 Bomber and its F-15 escorts, represent a projection of power that Mitchell envisioned.
The Fathers of Air Power Doctrine

Michael G. Stroud

Michael G. Stroud is a U.S. based Military Historian that has published many military history articles in various mediums from print magazines to academic journals, and military history websites in both the UK and the U.S. He completed his undergrad degree from American Military University, Summa Cum Laude in Military History and is currently pursuing his master’s degree in Military History with a concentration on the American Civil War with the same university. Michael has been an invited guest on various history themed podcasts from the UK and the US and maintains a strong presence on LinkedIn.
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