Strategic bombing – from Douhet to drones


Gulio Douhet and bomber mafia

Italian general Gulio Douhet was, along with UK politician Stanley Baldwin (who said that “bomber will always get through”), German general Walther Wever, US general Billy Mitchell and UK marshal Hugh Trenchard, one of main advocates of idea that strategic bombing can win war.

Ideas were as following:

  1. war can be won entirely by destruction of enemy military and industrial capability from air
  2. fighters cannot effectively counter bombers – vastness of skies made defense impossible
  3. strategic bombardment can force enemy to surrender by breaking civilain morale

While point #2 was correct until World War 2 (bombers had speed advantage over fighters and lack of means of detection other than visual observation meant that fighters will be unable to scramble in time), introduction in radar and improvements in fighter performance meant that, by 1945, bombers:

  1. could be spotted from long before reaching targets
  2. were slower, lower flying and less heavily armed than fighters

enabling fighters to effectively counter bombers. While fighters, and especially anti-air artillery, did not manage to stop bombers from coming throught, they inflicted unsustainable casualties on bomber formations until escort fighters became avaliable.

Advances in missiles, both AAMs and SAMs, however, made large, heavy, non-maneuverable bombers even easier targets; with each missile being able to destroy bomber in one hit, and heavy bombers lacking maneuverability to evade missiles, any area covered with fighters or SAMs would be closed to them.

Moreover, strategic bombardment failed to break enemy’s will to fight in all instances of its use, thus negating a major point of proponents of the theory. It’s proponents – specifically Gulio Douhet – tended to ignore Close Air Support mission as “useless, superfluous and harmful”.

However, World War II decisively proved him wrong. Despite intense strategic bombardment by both Axis and Western Allies, and heavy civilian casualties, strategic bombardment failed to force enemy to surrender. Same situation repeated itself in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. In all of these conflicts, strategic bombardment did exactly opposite – it galvanized people in resistance against agressor; and every war in which strategic bombardment was used, was lenghtened due to it.

Walther Weawever, on the other hand, believed that heavy bombers can:

  1. destroy enemy air force by bombing its bases and aircraft factories
  2. prevent movement of large enemy forces by destroying railways and roads
  3. support operations of army formations
  4. support naval operations by participating in naval battles and attacking enemy naval bases
  5. paralayze enemy armed forces by stoppong production in armaments factories

Heavy bombers, however, proved inadequate for most of these missions.

“Industrial Web Theory” also came into being. Idea was that industrialized nations had certain points that were vulnerable to attack, and that these points could cripple entire industry. Unlike Mitchell, Douhet believed that attacks on enemy air force are futile.

One of main reasons why strategic bombing was, and is, popular, is that it provides justification for independent air forces in age of joint military operations. For the same reason, CAS mission is hated by USAF despite its effectiveness, because it makes them feel like part of Army artillery.

History of strategic bombing

World War I


While tactical bombing from aircraft was carried out from early in the war, the first ever aerial bombardment of civilians was carried out on January 19, 1915 – two German Zeppelins dropped 24 fifty-kilogram incendinaries in Great Yarmouth, Sheringham, Kings Lynn and the surrounding villages, killing four people. Public and media reaction was, however, out of proportion.

But main use of airpower was in scouting, and preventing enemy scouting, which led to development of fighter aircraft. Also, UK Royal Navy’s fighter aircraft were used to prevent German Zeppelin bombardments.

Decision to take offensive against German Zeppelin facilities led to development of first British strategic bomber, Handley Page 0/100.

German Zeppelin bombardment, meanwhile, killed 500 people through 1915 and 1916, forcing RAF to allocate 17 000 officers and men to home air defense. While Zeppelins were initially thought of as invincible – they were almost as fast as aircraft, carried a greater bomb load and multiple machine guns, and had great range and endurance; while it was not easy to ignite hydrogen using standard bullets – and had great pschologycal impact (although their strategical impact was unimportant), development of incideary ammo led to the loss of SL.11, ending Army’s interest in strategic bombardment of Britain for a while. German Navy (Kasierliche Marine), however, continued raids.

12-Zeppelin raid was launched on 23-24 September 1916, in which two Zeppelins were lost. 11-Zeppelin raid was launched on 1. October 1916., although only one arrived to targets due to bad weather and was destroyed.

In 27-28 November raid, by unknown number of Zeppelins, two were lost.

In 1917, new Zeppelins were introduced, with increased operating altitude. First raid by these Zeppelins was in 16-17 March, when none of Zeppelins reached targets, as happened to next raid on 23-24 May. Two days later, raid by Gotha bombers was halted by clouds.

In 16-17 June raid, two out of six Zeppelins reached England, and one was destroyed when it was forced to drop to 4 000 meters due to engine and compass problems.

All later raids through 1917 were ineffective. In 1918, there were four raids, with one Zeppelin lost.


Strategic bombing in World War One never had a chance to either prove or disprove Douhet’s theory, due to small scope of bombardment. However, interesting to note are high casualty rates among Zeppelins carrying out bombardment, in spite of original assumptions, and technological advancements which rendered pre-war assumptions invalid, such as incidientary ammo. Same story will repeat itself in World War II.

World War II

Allied campaign

First use of air power in World War II was by Germany. While German generals believed Douhet, they also saw value of precision bombing of tactical targets via dive bombers. These bombers proved important part of Blitzkrieg. Yet, Germany performed strategic bombing from early in the war – such as destruction of Warshaw.

In following Battle of Britain, Douhet’s ideas were to be put on a thorough test after Hitler switched targets to be attacked from military – airfields, radar station, depots – to targeting of the civilian poplation centres. That was a classic Douhet-esque move, aimed at winning a war by breaking civilian morale.

One part of Douhet’s theory was immediately proven wrong by fact of German attack alone – entire UKs heavy bomber fleet did not prevent Germany from bombing British islands. Nor did British retaliation make them withdraw attacks.

However, by switching targets from military to civilian ones, Hitler had allowed by-then badly mauled RAF time to regroup and lick its wounds. Meanwhile, RAFs bombing of German cities – made in retaliation to German bombing – did not stop German attacks on UK cities. Moreover, RAF was forced to change strategy to indiscriminate, and ineffective, night bombing after unescorted day bombing raids failed to come through. Thus came to rest second part of Douhet’s theory.

As matter of fact, there is evidence that Churchill used accidental bombing of London on the night of August 24 to launch counter raid on Berlin; next day Hitler ordered Luftwaffe to switch to bombing cities – which cost it victory in the Battle of Britain.

USAAC also started daylight bombing from heavy bombers, but this time attemoting to destroy Germany’s industrial might. They believed that heavily-armored, heavily-armed B17 will be able to escort itself to and from the target; however, Luftwaffe used light bombs and rockets to bring down unescorted bombers, and no amount of armor proved adequate.

Priorities were described as following:

  • submarine pens and construction yards
  • German fighter aircraft production plants
  • rail network in France and Germany
  • Germany’s fuel supply
  • generalized targets in Germany’s war industry

Aim was to weaken or destroy Germany’s military, industrial and economic system as well as will of German people to fight.

First target were ball bearing plants. However, bombing was halted until early 1944 after losses of 10-35 % per sortie through 1943. It also failed to have any effect – not only there is no evidence that attacks had any lasting effect on ball-bearing industry, but Germany also had large surplus of ball bearings, plus supply from Sweden and Switzerland. Only thing it did was to provide Luftwaffe with opportunity for turkey hunt. Only between 10 and 35 % bombs fell within 5 miles radius of target during each raid; moreover, only 66 % of aircraft actually attacked targets.

Attacking submarine pens also proved useless, since pens were protected by 6 to 8 meters of steel-reinforced concrete. Albert Speer also dispersed submarine production facilities and moved assembly to invulnerable factories, which made further attacks useless.

Attacking rail system at France also failed to stop flow of supplies due to imprecision of bombing and great number of rails avaliable. It was nearly stopped, however, by P-47s and other fighters flying bombing missions, destroying vehicles and lines of communication in precision attacks, slowing German economy.

Attack on Ploesti oil fields had cost Allies half the aircraft. Yet despite oil industry’s importance and vulnerability, it was fourth on the list, and attacks only recommenced in 1944, where oil production was already droppong due to Russian pressure.

Attack on fighter aircraft industry, meanwhile, had opposite effect – Germany increased its fighter production, from 8 295 in 1939 and 15 596 in 1942 to 39 807 aircraft in 1944. However, bombing was success in a sense that bombers drew German fighters where they could be shot down by superior numbers of Allied fighter aircraft – it was P51 that won air superiority over Europe. In fact, by D-Day, Luftwaffe could only launch 200 sorties a day, as opposed to 15 000 sorties a day for Allies. Heavy bombers, meanwhile, failed to destroy German fortifications at Omaha beach. Meanwhile, 1500 P-47s badly mauled 23 German divisions, delaying them for as much as six weeks – whereas original travel time predicted was 3 days; in short, P-47s in CAS role saved invasion from becoming disaster.

All attacks against manufacturing industry had same effect: while production would suffer temporary setback after the raid, it would recover in matter of few weeks. While German industry suffered badly during latter 1944, there is no evidence that bombing was the cause; Soviet pressure, lack of raw resources and many other factors were making for its collapse. Galbraight’s report also indicates that strategic bombing actually helped to streamline, rather than injure, war production, forcing them to bypass usual bureocratic obstacles.

Moreover, RAFs indiscriminate attacks on German cities had the same effect as German attacks on British cities – instead of breaking enemy’s will to fight, they strenghtened it. In Germany, 570 000 people were killed by bombings – yet despite all this, German will remained strong, and German military and overall economic production rose until August 1944 – whereas in beginning of 1940, monthly production figure for Me-109 was 125, it reached peak with monthly production of 2 500 by autumn of 1944 – after year and half of massive bombardment of production plants. If Germany had been producing 2 500 fighters and dive bombers per month since 1939, it could have well won the Battle for Britain.

Heavy bombers only proved effective once they started being used in direct attacks on German military units – that is, Close Air Support. But that is not what heavy bombers are made to do, and is opposite of Douhet’s theories. Not only did bomber loss rate drop by 75%, but they also succeded in disrupting communications – particularly road and rail network.

Strategic bombing, however, was effective in two ways: first, it drew out Luftwaffe and enabled its destruction by Allied fighters. Second way was actually German blunder: instead of producing fighters and training pilots, Germany had more than 55 000 anti-aircraft guns, which used up 20 percent of all ammunition produced, to almost no effect.

Strategic bombing campaign also caused great deal of losses amongst Allied air crews: RAF lost 1404 four-engine bombers through 1942, around 300% of its heavy bomber strength at any point of time during that year. During “Battle of Berlin” between August 1943 and March 1944, RAF bomber command lost its entire fleet every three months – between January 1943 and March 1944, losses totalled 5881 bombers with almost 29 500 airmen (all losses were over Axis-controlled terriroty). In three to four years of bombing, between 1942 and 1945, RAF bomber command suffered over 70 000 casualties and made absolutely no impression on German war production.

On island of Pantelleria and Pelagian atoll, near Sicily, 5 600 tons of bombs dropped by bombers failed to “convince” Italians to surrender.

On US side, half of US’ WW2 budget went to air power, and 65% of that went to multi-engined bombers. Strategic bombing failed to affect German war production, and as result, from March 1944 onwards, 65% of bomber sorties were directed against German positions as opposed to war production. While fighters suffered loss rate of 1,1% at most, bomber loss rate was around 4,5%, with 6 to 10 crew members lost per aircraft, as opposed to 1 crew member lost in fighter.

Out of eight strategic bombing campaigns – against ball bearing, aircraft, steel, armored vehicle production, electrical power, truck production, fuel production and submarine pens – all except oil production campaign were deemed unsuccessfull by USSBS. However, dire German fuel shortages can be attributed to Soviet capture of Ploesti oil fields, although oil fields are vulnerable to bombardment.

Pacific War also proved the same; US indiscriminate bombing of population centres failed to force Japanese surrender, and even atomic bombs – opposite to general opinion – were ineffective. Despite “precise bombing” campaign, B29 force destroyed none of designated high-priority targets, but firestorms created by napalm bombs killed 120 000 people in Tokyo alone, and all 68 major cities, except Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were burned to the floor by incidientary bombs. Yet Japanese did not accept US terms of surrender, and even after usage of atomic bombs, they surrendered only after US accepted their single term; namely, that Hirohito remains Emperor.

Moreover, Japanese have been trying to surrender since defeat at Midway, since they knew they could not win after that setback. Peace feelers continued through ’42, ’43 and ’44, yet US continued to demand unconditional surrender and that Hirohito be tried for his crimes, and possibly executed – neither of which happened anyway, but US knew these terms were unacceptable to the Japanese. Despite general opinion that atomic bombs ended the war in the Pacific, truth is different – they lenghtened it; main purpose of bombs was to scare Soviet Union.

Axis campaign

From 1930s onwards, Axis airpower spending was focused on bombers. In Germany, Col. Gen. Ernst Udest was only opponent of strategic bombing, and was responsible for development of Stuka, which received only 2% of spending – and fact that Udest was close friend of Hermann Goering was probably only thing keeping Stuka from being cancelled – as soon as Udest died in 1943, Stuka’s procurement ended.

Until 1943, production of bombers was 5 bombers for one Stuka – which translated into 25 crewmen for bombers for every two crewmen for Stukas (on average, heavy bombers had 5 crewmen per aircraft while Stukas had two) and 25:1 cost ratio. Out of 114 000 aircraft produced by Germany in World War II, 25 000 were bombers, and only 4 900 Stukas; only 1 000 bombers less would have resulted in doubling number of Stukas, and cancellation in bomber procurement could have resulted in 125 000 more fighters, dive bombers and/or tanks – although crew requirements for last would have reduced the number substantially.

During attack on countries of Benelux, Luftwaffe lost 67 bombers and 16 Stukas. Stukas, meanwhile, excelled in Close Air Support, allowing Wehrmacht to easily cross Meuse river by using pontoon bridges, which British bombers failed to eliminate. During battle of Dunkirk, RAF lost 60 fighters shot down and 117 damaged; Luftwaffe lost 240 aircraft, most of them multi-engined strategic bombers. Per-aircraft, average loss was 0,5 crewmen for fighters, and 0,8 – 0,85 for strategic bombers. While Luftwaffe managed to destroy 6 destroyers and 230 lesser ships, most of casualties were inflicted by dive bombers.

In Battle of Britain, Luftwaffe had 1 109 fighters (809 Me-109s), 316 Stukas and 1134 strategic bombers against 741 fighters (279 Spitfires) on British side.

During first phase of battle, Stukas managed to sink one of every three British ships using English Channel; within three weeks, British ships were forced to abandon the Channel.

During second phase, Luftwaffe strategic bombers started bombing RAF fighter bases in hopes of achieving air superiority. They failed, loosing 621 bombers (45 % initial strength) and 88 Stukas (21 % of initial strength). Moreover, Stukas flew sorties at three times bomber’s rate.

After these crushing losses, Germany switched to night attacks, fuelling British desire for revenge – and their war production.

On Eastern Front, Me-109s shot 179 Soviet strategic bombers they tried to use as early retaliation. Despite that, and despite heavy fuel shortages, Luftwaffe continued to use strategic bombers in campaigns of terror, increasing Soviet morale as well as worsening fuel shortages that were hampering its missions. Other than that, strategic bombardment achieved nothing.

Worse part was that only 300 Stukas were avaliable to cover entire 2 200 mile (3 500 kilometer) front, missing many opportunities for turkey shoot against disorganized Soviet units. Given great successes of Stukas against tactical targets (most successfull Stuka commander had 518 tank kills, second most successfull over 300), as well as possibility of usage of Stukas against Soviet lines of communication, bomber production probably cost Germany any possibility of success on the Eastern Front. In 1941, Luftwaffe had lost 1 798 bombers from beginning number of 1 339, while Stuka losses were 366 from beginning number of 456. That also translates into ~7 000 crewmen lost in heavy bombers for ~180 in Stukas. On a per sortie rate, bomber losses were 500% greater.

It also took one Stuka to sink Soviet battleship Marat – whose 25 million USD cost equalled the cost of entire Stuka production run. Meanwhile, in a similar situation, British sent 299 heavy bomber attacks against Gneiseau, Scharnhost and Prinz Eugen, loosing 43 bombers and 247 airmen; later, they lost 60 aircraft, mostly bombers, and 345 airmen trying to sink ships while they were escaping – out of 150 Me-109s providing cover, 17 fighters and 11 airmen were lost.

Despite all this, Stuka production was cancelled in 1943, with last Stuka being produced in July 1944. Meanwhile, a well-concieved A10-esque follow-on, Hs-129B, equipped with armored cockpit, two widely spaced engines and a 30 mm cannon, was never produced. Cannon itself held enough rounds for 18 tank-killing attacks, compared to 6 for Stuka. Russians, meanwhile, produced 36 000 of Sthrumovik IL-2 CAS aircraft, which allowed them to win first Battle of Kursk (at Prokhorovka, where I don’t know of any CAS aircraft participating, Germans permanently lost 7 AFVs and destroyed 134 Soviet AFVs).

Germany also produced specialized revenge weapons – V1, which was slow and easy to shoot down, and V2, which, while it could not be shot down, was imprecise). 6 000 V2s were produced and 3 000 were successfully launched; for the 6 000 V2s, 48 000 tanks or 24 000 fighters (and Stukas) could have been procured.

Impact of strategic bombing on economy of country undertaking it

(from John Fahey’s paper)

On example of Great Britain, we will analyze impact of strategic bombing campaign on a country using strategic bombing on the enemy.

Britain has expended 2,75 billion GBP on strategic bombing, or 2 911 GBP for every sortie flown, that is, 5 914 GBP per every civillian killed in the bombing.

For purposes of its air offensive during World War II, Great Britain increased domestic production from 893 aircraft in 1935 to 26 461 aircraft in 1944, whereas total mass of aircraft produced increased 11 times.

Moreover, in order to conduct war Britain had to recruit and train over million men and women to serve in RAF, 100 000 to 150 000 of which were required to operate Bomber Command, and uknown number in roles connected to Bomber Command. Moreover, large aircraft and numerous aircrews both required large bases to operate; bombs which were to be dropped on enemy cities also had to be manufactured, and fuel had to be imported. In February 1944, Sir Archibad Sinclair told the House of Commons that the Bomber Command received largest share of resources dedicated to war.

UKs post-war economy was in shambles, with UK being in as large danger of collapse as Germany was. Between 1939 and 1945, Britain lost 7 billion GBP of its wealth; during that period, total British government spending had amounted to 28.7 billion GBP of which 22.8 billion GBP (79.4 percent) was spent on defence, and at least 2,78 billion GBP on Bomber Command; British Government expenditure outside defense was 5,94 billion GBP.

Also, factories and airfields built for strategic bombers were single use assets.


Three years after World War II, fighter production was down from 2 000 per month to 11 per month. Meanwhile, force was approved that would consist from 112 heavy bomber groups – 10 000 heavy bombers; in 1947 that went down to 75 heavy bomber groups and 25 light bomber/fighter groups (latter ones grouped “light” two-engined bombers with fighters). Assuming 50/50 division, only 12 percent of force structure would have been fighters (situation is even worse today – at planned structure of 187 F22s and 2443 “F”35s, only 7% of USAF stealth aircraft would be fighters).

Heavy bombers were also used in quasi-cose support by attacking enemy troops. But their imprecision, low numbers and even lower sortie rate meant that they could not perform it successfully. Moreover, entire B29 force (eventually brought up to 150 aircraft) flew less than 1 000 sorties in three years. At average, USAF flew 13 CAS sorties a day during entire war.

After B29s were withdrawn from CAS, they were used in classic Douhet daydream – bombing civilian populace in effort to force enemy to surrender. In three years, they caused two million civilian deaths; yet North Korea did not surrender. North Korean mlitary production and military operations were unaffected. Following winter, 900 000 Chinese intervened, routing UN forces. Heavy bombers threw 4 000 bombs, achieveing 33 hits, to no meaningful effect.

In May 1952, Fighter Command shut down 90% of North Korean power plants. Meanwhile, North Korea received 500 MiG-15s, which failed to win air superiority against (performance-wise equal) F86s – of which 90 were in theatre. Later, they built up to 1300 MiGs, which failed to defeat 200 F86s. Bombers, meanwhile, suffered 10% loss rate, as opposed to Air Force wide 0,2% loss rate.


After Korean War, bombers again came to dominate Air Force funding. Most “fighters” developed were actually nuclear bombers; F111, tri-role (air to air, interdiction and CAS), tri-service fighter bomber turned out to be 35 000 kg nuclear bomber – which it actually was all along. It failed in everything. All of these (F4, F105, F111) were used in strategic bombing of North Vietnamese cities, where 1 “fighter” + 1 tanker = 1 strategic bomber equation was in effect.

Three times more bombs were dropped on North Vietnam than on Germany; US had complete air superiority. Yet, it lost the war. Bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong, as usual, only served to strenghten morale of North Vietnamese, and their will to win. USAF managed to destroy three unimportant bridges after five years of strikes and loss of 100 USAF and USN fighter-bombers (which were bombers first, fighters second). Strategic bombing also failed to stop the flow of supplies to insurgents in the South; total of 1737 combat aircraft were lost.

In South, B52s equipped with Hope Spot system were semi-successfully used in quasi-close support; however, they failed due to their size, vulnerability and low sortie rate. Bombing of Hanoi also failed to give US leverage in peace negotiations. On the other hand, 1944-designed A4 close support propeller aircraft were successfully used in Close Air Support, both at night and at day – they were slow, maneuverable and highly survivable.

First Gulf War

In operation Desert Storm, all strategic bomber was carried out by fighters and light bombers (F117), while heavy bombers carried out quasi-close air support. Strike fighters, using precision weapons – which were far less effective than claimed – still did heavy damage. 3 to 15 times more bombs than necessary was dropped at each target – without real success, although objective of preserving Kuwait’s oil for use by United States and its allies was a success. Kuwait, however, was liberated mostly by ground forces and destruction of Iraqi armor and artillery was mainly carried out by only aircraft USAF generals universally hate – A10.

It also failed to push Iraqi populace into removing Saddam Hussein, and failed to destroy Iraq’s Republician Guard – 60% of which escaped while Air Force was busy destroying facilities and killing civilians. While 39 days of strategic bombardment knocked out electric power and civilian communications, it had little effect on military activities.

F117 was a minor player in the war – it flew 1 300 sorties (3% of total), making 2 000 laser bomb attacks, most of which failed to knock out targets attacked. Strategic bombers (B29 and F16) failed to achieve significant effect against dug-in Republician Guard. A10s meanwhile mauled Iraqi Guard units sent to attack Khafji, while strategic bombardment ended after two weeks due to targeting blunder killing 300 civilians; militarily, it made no difference. In short, it was hated CAS mission that yielded results, not strategic bombing.


During Operation Allied Force, NATO aircraft flew 38 004 sorties, including 10 484 strike sorties. During sorties, 23 614 air munitions were released, for a total of 6 303 tons. 35 per cent of munition pieces were precision-guided. NATO also lost two aircraft – less than expected piecetime training losses – with one more being damaged and written off (some data put number of sorties flown at 36 000).

However, effects were not what were expected. Only three of 80 radar missile batteries were destroyed; Serbia suffered 387 military and 1 400 civilian casualties.

JNA also fired 845 radar-guided SAMs, accounting for three kills – one F16 and one F117 shot down, and another F117 mission-killed. Results of bombing campaign, meanwhile, were minimal.

Afghanistan and Pakistan

During Obama’s presidency, drone strikes went up from 5 a year during Bush regime, to 90 per year. In 2002, there were 167 drones in US inventory. In August 2010, United States had some 7 000 drones; in 2012, number is 7 500, while there are 10 800 manned aircraft. 161 of them are bombers.

As a Cathecism of Catholic Church says about use of force:

“The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain… All other means of putting an end to it [confl ict] must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; There must be serious prospects of success [of the use of force]… and the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated”

Some other religions, to my knowledge, have similar views about use of violence – Islam in particular, and possibly Hinduism as well, while Buddhism forbids killing (interesting to note about Christianity and Judaism is that, in Old Testament, there are 10 Commandments. Sixth Commandment is often mistranslated as “Do not kill”, whereas correct translation would be “Do not murder”. In short, killing is acceptable, but only in self-defense, and only when all other options have been exhausted – everything else is murder; Christianity also encourages passive resistance against oppression (Mahatma Ghandi, anyone?), but that is outside of scope of this analysis).

Strategic bombing, including “precision strikes” by drones, fails at every single criterion. Drones are even worse, however, in a sense that they dehumanize war – drone operators are basically playing war games, except in these war games, real people are getting killed (the effect is called “Playstation mentality”). Moreover, they are out of harm’s way – which may be viewed as a good thing, but in reality is not; as public at home becomes increasingly less aware of real cost of war, war becomes less and less of a last resort. Drones may save lives of aviators, but they are likely to increase casualties in the long run.

Aside from being morally wrong, it is also illegal, as United States often extend bombing into Pakistan. It is also imprecise as any other bombing – and while it may be able to hit vehicles and relatively small areas relatively precisely (at least when compared to WW2 bombers), drones cannot reliably ID individual targets, particularly when targets are people who do not use uniform or vehicles. Moreover, drone strikes are, for all intents and purposes, assasinations – which was banned by Ronald Reagan under Executive Order 12333, issued on December 4, 1981.

From 2001 to 2003, as many as 3 600 civilians were killed in drone strikes. In 2005 – 2008, number was approximately 3 200 civilians. For every militant killed, as many as 50 civilians die. Drones are also known to target civilians who come to help victims of opening strikes.

In Pakistan, over 2 800 of the 3 000 people killed in 2005 – 2012 drone strikes were civilians; only 170 were militants.

Also, Obama has developed a creative way to count civilian casualties. All military-age men killed in a drone strike zone are considered to be combatants, “unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” Thus official US sources certainly severely underestimate civilian deaths.

And while drone strikes did short-term damage to Al Quaeda, long-term effects are same in all other applications of strategic bombing: strenghtening enemy’s will to fight, and, in this case, bringing more recruits to his cause. Which, having in view US’ dependance on continuous small wars, may have been exactly what US leadership wants. Also, above mentioned problem of decreasing awareness of costs of war at home also helps MICs cause of continuing wars. In similar way that representative democracy creates “democratic deficit”, by removing people away from decision making by layers of bureocracy, usage of drones creates “reality deficit”.

Moreover, drones are everything except safe, from every possible standpoint. Militarily, drones can be hacked; crash rates are also high, even when noone is shooting at them. Drones can also “go rogue” – that is, control is lost. In September 2009, USAF had to shoot down its own drone when it went rogue and threatened to leave Afghanistan with full payload of missiles. In 2008, there was incident when drone used by Irish peacekeepers in Chad decided to go home to Ireland after communications loss. It didn’t make it.

With regards to hacking, insurgents were already able to hack into drones’ live video feed.

Second Gulf War

Before Second Gulf War, USAF advertised that 40-day air campaign will topple regime without ground invasion; they settled for 10 days; during first two, only 1 500 precision bombs were delivered, out of 10 000 planned.

Both Air Force and Navy failed to assasinate Saddam Hussein, and General Tommy Franks launched an invasion which toppled regime in 21 days.


In Libya, Obama has violated aforementioned resolution signed by Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan, which forbids assasination, by targeting Moamer Quadaffi. Moreover, entire war was declared on illegitimate grounds.

Again, it has been proven that air power alone cannot achieve goals.

Libya was attacked not only because of its oil, but because Gadaffi attampted to refuse Dollar and Euro, and implement single African currency and EU-esque alliance of African states.

Civilians in Tripoli have died in large numbers due to bombardment, to no effect. Again, air power was only effective in air-to-ground assignments when used in direct support of troops on the ground. Right now, Libya is in transition towards constitutional corporatistic demoncracy; and that is result of Libyan rebels’ ground campaign, not EU’s and US’s strategic bombardment.

Conclusion: usefulness and consequences of bombing

Strategic bombing – any kind of it, but especially terror bombing carried out from World War II until today (drones!) – has neglible military impact. However, it helps motivate civilian populace to fight harder and longer against enemy carrying out bombing.

Precision bombing, itself, is overrated. Guidance systems can be jammed or disrupted by weather or by enemy; intelligence also must be avaliable beforehand to ensure that bombs hit right targets, and ones which enemy values most. And even when nothing of that happends, precision weapons’ precision is never up to the advertised level.

Moreover, precision weapons are expensive, and expended rapidly – in one (admittedly extreme) case, a F16 and B2 used several 500-pound (230 kg) bombs, several cluster munitions and sixteen 2000-pound (910 kg) bombs to destroy Toyota pick up truck with 15 suspected militants.

Also, even in modern times precision bombing from high altitude requires directions from ground to be effective – directions which may not be avaliable due to possible jamming, lack of communications capacity and so on.

Bombing on its own was never effective; it must be used in support of and concurrently with ground offensive. Bombing on its own cannot ensure fulfillment of either military and especially not fulfillment of political goals. War by precision firepower can easily become killing without purpose. It is important to always keep in mind nature of war as fulfillment of political goals by military means, as defined by von Clausewitz; in that sense, anything that does not further that goal is a waste of time and resources; and strategic bombing has never proven to be anything else. It can be used, however, to remove threat from SAMs before invasion, so as to allow other aircraft to carry out CAS mission.

More disturbingly, myth of “precision bombing” introduced idea of clinical, clean war, slowly removing concept of war as a last resort. Censorship ensures that consequences of bombs missing their targets are not shown; noone feels much compassion for a block of concrete shown on IR camera.

“Paralysis” or “Shock and Awe” theory claims that superior firepower can shock enemy to an extent that he will become incapable of retaliation. It is continuation of basic Douhet logic – and it failed, again.

Modern day USAF

While some will say that USAF has learned its lessons, it hasn’t. F15A, F15C and F22A are only dedicated fighters in US arsenal – and all of them made large sacrifices to BVR altar, while F22A was subsequently turned into faux-multirole aircraft. F15E and F16 are turned into bombers, although they do keep good air-to-air capability. F35, on the other hand, is pure bomber/ground attack aircraft, with capability to carry AAMs thrown in purely so as to allow USAF generals and PR staff to say “well, it CAN fight other aircraft”. It can fight, but it won’t win without good numerical edge – which is a problem, considering that F35 is second most expensive “fighter” out there, after F22.

Appendice: Myth of a nuclear deterrence

From Ward Wilson’s text

Nuclear deterrence works on a threat to devastate enemy’s cities. However, history shows that destroying cities rarely affects outcome of the war; attacks on civilians are not only indecisive, but counterproductive.

Argument holds that no exchange between nuclear-capable states is likely since loss of multiple cities is unacceptable price; and usage of even few nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-capable state would force it to immediately surrender.

Most of it is based on bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, evidence shows that Japanese have been trying to surrender since Battle of Midway in 1942.

Thus, main aspect of nuclear deterrence is not threat of destroying enemy’s cities, but rather threat of destroying enemy’s conventional forces with tactical nuclear missiles. However, possibility of nuclear attacks against cities exists in later stages of conflict. Yet, nuclear deterrence assumes that civillian lives matter to the politicians, and that they are influenced by deaths of noncombatants. There is, however, little evidence for that – as seen from above. All predictions of strategic bombing ending the war or hastening the end of the war have been proven wrong.

Evidence that destroying cities does not force enemy to surrender can be traced from Ancient and Middle Ages. Genghis Khan, during his campaign in the Central Asian empire of Khwarazm in 1220, made a practice of destroying cities and slaughtering their inhabitants. Yet none surrendered. During the Thirty Year War, slaughters were regular occurence, and the city of Magdeburg was destroyed in 1631 and its inhabitants slaughtered. War continued like nothing happened.

Despite burning of Atlanta in 1864 and capture of Southern capital of Richmond, Virginia, in 1865, US Civil War continued until armies of generals Robert Lee and Joseph Jonhston were defeated.

During siege of Alesia, both Gauls and Romans rather sentenced Gaulish civilians to death rather than to allow their own supplies be exhausted on non-combatants.

During World War II, 50 to 70 million people died – at least 47 million were civilians. During Thirty Years War, 20 percet of civilians in Germany lost their lives. Yet war went on. In the Paraguayan War, 58% of civilians in Paraguay were killed in five years; war went on.

Extermination attacks, meanwhile, are not credible, simply because there was single extermination attack against enemy in 3 000 years of warfare – Roman war against Carthage. Yet it only came after a series of massively harmful wars – in one of them, Second Punic War, Romans had lost 5 % of their population (France, which had lost 4,2 % of its population in First World War, is talked about as having been “bled white” and “lost entire generation”).

As can be seen, strategic bombing – both nuclear and non-nuclear – works on a threat to civilians; same as terrorism, and is accurately described as “terror bombing”. However, terrorism is ineffective when aimed towards civilian population (indeed, it only increases its will to fight, which US corporatists have masterfully used on 9/11 to shape public opinion). Terrorist groups were effective 7% of the time – economic sanctions, 34%. Moreover, all successful terrorist groups were not actual terrorist groups, but rather guerilla fighters – in short, they ignored civilian targets and focused on military ones.

As for nuclear deterrence being responsible for peace for last 67 years – that is false. Large wars are always followed by periods of relative peace, and these last 67 years were anything except peaceful; there only wasn’t a world-wide conflict.

Moreover, chemical weapons developed during and after World War I could be as deadly as nuclear weapons – yet they did not prevent World War II, and were not used in World War II with exception of Japanese usage – and even then, Japanese used them exclusively against enemies that could not use chemical weapons against them. While Germany had developed and sotockpiled chemical weapons, these were not used due to fear of Allied retaliation in kind. No historical books credit peace maintained from 1918 to 1925 to chemical weapons.

US nuclear monopoly for four years after World War 2 did not translate into greater diplomatic influence either, and nuclear weapons did not help either Soviets or US win any wars.

18 thoughts on “Strategic bombing – from Douhet to drones

  1. Oh my goodness! Incredible article dude! Many thanks, however
    I am encountering issues with your RSS. I don’t know the reason why I can’t join it.
    Is there anybody else having similar RSS problems?
    Anybody who knows the answer can you kindly respond?



  2. From all of this it seems:

    Strategic bombing is only useful when you have air superiority … or you get pretty terrible sortie attrition rates. That by nature limits its usefulness in a conventional war.
    Bombing may be somewhat useful for taking out fixed targets, but is ineffective against moving targets.
    Bombs tend to malfunction a lot. They should not be used near civilian targets and they should not be used for “terror bombing”, which has the opposite of intended effects. When they malfunction, they often hit civilians. Of course, another issue is if you bomb based on faulty intelligence (this has happened before).
    Strategic bombing is incredibly expensive. Bombers are very large, costly aircraft. You need massive bomb inventories (expensive), and much more so if some of your weapons are precision bombs.
    Precision bombing often needs command from the ground, which implies overwhelming ground superiority (such that someone could guide a bomber).
    Decoys are very effective against strategic bombing.
    Strategic bombing is not very effective against a dug-in enemy in static warfare.

    Not a very persuading case for bombing … sadly it will probably get the lion’s share of money for many air forces around the world.


    1. “Strategic bombing is only useful when you have air superiority”

      It never is useful… even if you do manage to destroy industrial base of a country it doesn’t win the war, and is more costly in terms of men and materiel than CAS.

      “Precision bombing often needs command from the ground, which implies overwhelming ground superiority”

      Or you can use the most precise of all precision weapons… cannon.


      1. Perhaps a better wording would be:

        Strategic bombing is only viable when you have air superiority … or you get pretty terrible sortie attrition rates. That by nature limits its usefulness in a conventional war.

        Viable – that is, you can do it if you choose to.

        To be honest, I think that if you consider how strategic bombing has been used, it can only be used against an incompetent enemy or an enemy that you have substantially more resources on.

        Bombers cannot survive without terrible losses over enemy air space unless you can assure air superiority
        Bombers are more vulnerable than fighters to AA and of course … to enemy fighters
        bombers by nature demand a huge resource investment as does bombing

        IF we think this over, 2 roughly equally matched powers cannot really use strategic bombing – at least not on the scale envisaged by Douhet.

        In that regard, it is only possible for larger nations beating up smaller nations and against unconventional forces. Of course it’s not effective for either case.

        Killing civilians in unconventional war … helps the enemy.


  3. I think that you present a false analogy when you compare Genghis Khan’s war in the middles ages, to the supposed ineffectiveness of strategic bombing…

    -Genghis Khan often offered cities (e.g. Chinese cities) chance to surrender to Mongols, some did surrender!

    -Even if some other cities did not surrender, it doesn’t matter towards the sake of the argument at all.

    -The fact of the matter is that Khwarezm Empire was defeated by the Mongols. And Khwarezm suffered the consequences… As the ancient Gallic chieftain said to the Romans after a battle “VAE VICTIS”.

    -Woe to the vanguished, the loser’s complaints don’t matter in warfare as much as the winner’s threat of force or actual usage of force.

    -Khwarezm cities NOT surrendering, still lead to the defeat of Khwarezm forces… it didn’t matter, Mongols still won the war.

    -Khwarezm country was utterly devastated by the war… Areas and cities were laid to waste… The country never recovered in its former glory…

    Strategic bombing with nuclear weapons is very much a real threat, I suppose. The potential for great destruction is there, still.

    Nuclear deterrence is real strategy even today. If nuclear deterrence was not real, I suspect US conservatives would already have successfully lobbied for the invasion of Russia.

    Why hasn’t USA invaded Russia? Why do US politicians keep warmongering about “war with Iran”?

    Are there differences between Iran and Russia, which do you think is more difficult to invade?

    Russia would be a richer country to invade for bountiful natural resources, it would be more profitable to invade than a place like Afghanistan or Iran, don’t you think?

    Do you still think that nuclear deterrence doesn’t exist, Picard578?


    1. Nuclear deterrence cannot prevent a war. At very most, it can prevent both sides from using nuclear weapons during the large-scale conventional war, but for that you don’t need a large number of nuclear weapons, and even then only ones required are of “tactical” variety.


  4. I agree with the main idea of the article that strategic bombing (especially terror bombing) is ineffective, but there is one statement that bothers me.

    “However, evidence shows that Japanese have been trying to surrender since Battle of Midway in 1942.”
    Do you have proof for that? That is quite a bold claim.



      Here is more about the issue:
      Basically, US were demanding unconditional surrender while Japanese wanted the guarantee that position of the Emperor would be retained. It was when that guarantee was given that they surrendered; without it, A-bombs, or Soviet invasion, or really anything, would have made no difference. With it, A-bombs were unnecessary.


      1. I agree that the war could have ended with an agreement for the emperor’s status retained as a figurehead without the need for atomic bombing.

        I highly doubt, however, that the Japanese would have surrendered unconditionally with the exception that the emperor remain a figurehead as early as Midway. A quick Wikipedia check shows..
        “Early that morning (August 10), the Foreign Ministry sent telegrams to the Allies (by way of the Swiss Federal Political Department and Max Grässli in particular) announcing that Japan would accept the Potsdam Declaration, but would not accept any peace conditions that would “prejudice the prerogatives” of the Emperor. That effectively meant no change in Japan’s form of government—that the Emperor of Japan would remain a position of real power.[94]”

        The Japanese may have been willing to accept some sort of conditional surrender, but without change in government, the victory would not change the Japanese psyche.


      2. “but without change in government, the victory would not change the Japanese psyche”

        That may be true, but just like with European empires in World War I, problem was not with the emperor. In fact, Hirohito was a pacifist. Problem was military junta.

        And what Wikipedia says is wrong. Even before (or during) World War II, Emperor was nothing more than a symbolic figurehead. It was Army and Navy leaders that held the real power, and of these, Navy leaders were rather… sceptical about the whole expansion thing, but they got overruled by the Army after latter’s successes in China. To be more specific, Navy did not believe that Japan could win in a war against either British Empire or United States, let alone both.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s