Air University Review, January-February 1986

Reflections on Douhet
the classic approach

Colonel John F. Shiner

AS military professionals responsible for protecting the nation and its vital interests, we know that the conduct of war is our business. Should an adversary seek to harm the United States, we must carry out effective combat operations and defeat his forces. Our fellow Americans rely on us to do this; they have placed their trust in our capabilities and professional competence.

Professional Air Force officers and enlisted personnel have dedicated themselves to preserving American security but have not spent nearly enough time learning all they can about war--knowledge that is crucial to serving the nation with optimum effectiveness. To remedy this deficiency, Air Force leaders have instituted Project Warrior, an ongoing program that seeks to instill in all service members a deeper understanding of the theory and conduct of war. Study of the military classics can help provide this understanding, for it enables us to benefit from the thinking and experiences of others. This allows us to build on their ideas and alerts us to past mistakes.

Giulio Douhet's The Command of the Air is such a classic. It was the first detailed analysis of the offensive and defensive employment of the air weapon. Published in 1921, The Command of the Air asserted the decisiveness of strategic bombardment before Billy Mitchell and other air leaders had given that subject any detailed thought. The 1927 edition, which is still in print, contains Douhet's fully developed thesis on how to use the air weapon to achieve victory. Subsequently translated into English, French, German, and Russian, it stimulated the thinking of aviators in various countries prior to World War II.

Giulio Douhet was born in 1869 and served for many years as a career officer in the Italian Army before the onset of World War I. He was first assigned to aviation duty in 1911 and, by the time Italy entered the war in 1915, had already done considerable thinking about how air power should be used. A tireless, blunt, impatient, and very self-confident individual, Douhet openly criticized the military leaders who were directing the Italian war effort, asserting that they lacked innovative ideas and approaches. As a result, he was court-martialed and spent a year in prison. He was vindicated by the military disasters that soon beset the Italian Army and was recalled to active duty during the last year of the war.

Douhet was promoted to brigadier general in 1921, the same year that the Ministry of War published the early version of The Command of the Air. He served as Commissioner of Aviation after Mussolini came to power in 1922, but soon resigned from that position and the Army, devoting full time until his death in 1930 to spreading his message about air power. He firmly believed that the only effective way for Italy to defend itself in future conflicts was to establish an independent air force and use it properly. He spelled out all of this in the 1927 edition of The Command of the Air.

This classic contains a number of Douhet's "basic truths" about military aviation. First, Douhet believed that the airplane had revolutionized warfare. Basing his conclusions on the experience of World War I, which had been a long war of attrition, Douhet was convinced that land warfare now overwhelmingly favored the defensive. A clear decision over an enemy's field forces would take years to achieve. Only after a prolonged and costly struggle could the attacking army hope to penetrate into the interior of a hostile country, dominate the land area, and bring the war to an end. In Douhet's mind, the airplane, with "complete freedom of action and direction," provided the means to attain quick victory without first defeating enemy surface forces.

Second, Douhet believed, aircraft are instruments of incomparable offensive potential. The airplane is "the offensive weapon par excellence." It can make devastating, mass attacks virtually anywhere.

Third, command of the air is essential to attaining victory in war. With command of the air, one's own air force is free to operate whenever and wherever it desires, while the enemy's air arm is rendered permanently helpless. The enemy then has no effective defense against the ensuing air attacks.

Fourth, all future conflicts would be unrestrained, total wars. No longer should there be a distinction between belligerents and nonbelligerents: when a nation is at war, everyone takes part. Wars are won by crushing the resistance of the enemy--an action that can be accomplished more easily, faster, more economically, and with less bloodshed by attacking the weakest points in that resistance, namely, the vital centers (cities) and civilian morale.

In accordance with these "basic tenets," Douhet explains what he views as the proper conduct of aerial warfare. The first priority in air operations is to gain command of the air, for this makes all else possible. This objective is achieved by destroying the enemy air force on the ground through attacks on airfields and aircraft factories. The only type of airplane needed for this and other aerial missions is the battle plane, an armed and armored bomber that can fight its way to and from the target. The attacking force will take some losses, but by using surprise and flying in formation, these losses will not be excessive. The air force must be a standing force ready to fight at the onset of hostilities. It should take the initiative and strike first. It must hit hard and often, until command of the air is achieved.

No effective air defense is possible, for only the attacking force knows its objective. To stop an adversary, defenders will need as many fighters covering every possible target as the attacker has battle planes, even if the entire attacking force is going after only one target. If there are 100 battle planes involved in an attack and 100 potential targets that may be hit, defenders will need 10,000 fighter-interceptors--a purely defensive force that is far too costly. Antiaircraft guns, which had proved generally ineffective in the First World War, also will have to be dispersed to cover the multitude of potential targets, further weakening their usefulness. Since no effective air defense is possible, no resources should be wasted on fighters and antiaircraft artillery (AAA). Likewise, since land forces had proved incapable of carrying out truly decisive action during the Great War even when aided by tactical aviation, all money earmarked for military aircraft and AAA should be used to build the largest possible force of battle planes.

Writing at a time when radar did not exist, Douhet asserts:

There is no practical way to prevent the enemy from attacking us with his air force except to destroy his air power before he has a chance to strike us . . . . We must therefore resign ourselves to the offensives the enemy inflicts upon us, while striving to use all our resources to inflict even heavier ones upon him.

Through effective attacks on enemy airfields and aircraft factories, command of the air will be achieved quickly.

Having achieved command of the air, the aviators then will use their battle plane fleet to destroy the enemy's will and capacity to resist by bombing his cities.

A complete breakdown of the social structure cannot but take place in a country subjected to this kind of merciless pounding from the air. The time will soon come when, to put an end to the horror and suffering, the people themselves, driven by the instinct of self-preservation, would rise up and demand an end to the war--this before their Army and Navy had time to mobilize.

One's own army and navy, lacking the ability to sustain effective offensive operations in modern war, need only be small defensive forces, thereby making additional resources available to build a more powerful air force for mass employment.

Douhet firmly believed that strategic air power was an instrument capable of delivering quick victory. The Command of the Air convinced other aviators of this idea, and in the United States the book served to reinforce the views of Air Corps officers who had come independently to the same conclusion.

THIS first systematic examination of aerial warfare is still of value to us today. However, for this classic to be of greatest worth, we must use it in conjunction with the study of combat air operations that have taken place since Douhet's death. World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Arab-Israeli wars, and other conflicts reinforce Douhet's assertion about the value of centralized control and massed employment of an air force. Those wars also indicate the importance of destroying the enemy air force while it is still on the ground, along with its bases and supporting industries. However, Douhet was far too optimistic about how quickly and easily this destruction could be accomplished. The Italian thinker's war-winning mission for the air arm, strategic bombardment, remains a very effective way to undercut an enemy's combat capability, even in a conventional conflict, although he greatly overstated the ease with which morale can be undermined and victory achieved. Further, he was wrong in his belief that land and naval warfare would be of little value in future conflicts and that TACAIR and joint operations were a waste of resources.

The Command of the Air contains additional errors, as well as additional grains of truth about effective air employment, which can be of benefit to us as we work to improve our professional expertise through the study of military aviation history. Air Force base libraries and unit Project Warrior coordinators have copies of The Command of the Air and other valuable books. As guardians of American security, we should read these works, for if we learn the lessons of the past--what worked, what did not, and why--we will be better prepared to meet the challenges of the future.

Office of Air Force History
Washington, D.C.


Colonel John F. Shiner (Ph.D., Ohio State University) is Deputy Chief, Office of Air Force History, Bolling AFB, D.C. He has served as assistant chief, Doctrine and Concepts Division, Hq USAF; acting head, Department of History, U.S. Air Foce Academy; an instructor pilot and flight commander in Vietnam; and a KC-135 aircraft commander in Strategic Air Command. Colonel Shiner is a Distinguished Graduate of Squadron Officer School and a graduate of Air Command and Staff College, Air War College, and Industrial College of the Armed Forces.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor