Evolution of Air Power

Air Commodore (Retd) JAMAL HUSSAIN discusses the development of air power as a force.

The Beginning

The use of the expression ‘air power’ was first recorded in H.G. Wells’ novel ‘The War in the Air’ in 1908.1 However, according to Professor Tony Mason the official birthday of air power has arbitrarily been selected as 1893, when a Major Fullerton of the British Army had presented a paper to a meeting of army engineers in Chicago in which he prophesied that the impact of aeronautics foreshadowed ‘as great a revolution in the art of war as the discovery of gun power’, that ‘future wars may well start with a great air battle’, that ‘the arrival over the enemy capital will probably conclude the campaign’ and that, ‘command of the air would be an essential prerequisite for all land and air warfare.’2 This date has been selected in preference to 1803 when the first airship company was formed in France; or 1883 when Albert Robida envisaged a sudden crushing air strike in his War of the Twentieth Century,3 or 1903 that marked the first heavier than air machine flight by the Wright Brothers.

While the 19th century may well be credited with the conceptual visualization of air power, it was the epic heavier than air machine flight by the Wright Brothers in 1903, which was the first concrete step in the fulfilment of the vision. By 1909, aircraft had been inducted in military service. The first official record of the use of aircraft in actual combat was made in 1911 by the Italians in the Libyan campaign when Captain Moizo and De Rada flying in a military bi-plane Forman spotted an Arab encampment and proceeded to drop hand carried bombs on them.

Britain was amongst the pioneers in developing its air power. Royal Flying Corps with its military and naval wings was established in 1912. Inter-Service rivalry soon surfaced and by 1914, despite opposition by Churchill, Royal Navy unilaterally broke away from RFC and established its own Royal Naval Air Service, under the direct control of the British admiralty. At the outbreak of WWI, RFC and RNAS thus formed two separate bodies under the aegis of British Army and Navy respectively. In the meanwhile, Germany, France and USA had also developed their air corps as a part of their land forces.

The First World War

At the outbreak of WWI in 1914, military aviation consisted of light wooden bi/tri planes with maximum speeds of under 100 mph and very limited load carrying capacity. Their roles were initially restricted to reconnaissance and artillery observations. While there may not have been any air power doctrine on the eve of WWI, there was no shortage of alarming speculations about strikes from the sky.5  Within seven weeks of WWI Sopwith Tabloid of RNAS conducted an air raid on the Zeppelin sheds in Germany. A year later Germany retaliated when Zeppelins (airships) in turn bombed the English cities. The actual damage in all these raids may have been minimal but the psychological impact on civilians and populations was profound.6 With both sides using increasing number of aircraft for reconnaissance, artillery observations and occasional bombing raids, the inevitable happened and aircraft started to shoot at each other to prevent the adversary from taking military advantage of the new medium. It marked the birth of fighter aircraft whose numbers proliferated and their performance took a quantum leap. The battle for ‘control of the air’ had truly begun. The first air power doctrine of gaining control of the air had been established.

July 1917 marked a watershed in air power’s history when German Gotha bombers raided London. The damage again was more psychological than real as the images of HG Wells’ destruction from the skies appeared to become a reality. As a direct result of these attacks, Britain had established what amounted to a strategic bombing unit in France, known as the Independent Force, to conduct reprisal raids against the German homeland.7 The concept of strategic bombing whose mission was made independent of support to surface forces was born. This action laid down the seeds of a new service. Royal Air Force, independent of the Royal Army and Royal Navy was established in 1918.8

WWI ended in 1918.  During the war, all subsequent roles of air power had either been established or attempted,9 and the doctrines of command of air and support to surface forces had been firmly established. For the surface forces, roles such as close air support, transport support, reconnaissance, interdiction, artillery spotting, anti-submarine warfare, convoy escort, search and rescue and maritime strikes become vital contributors to the existing land and maritime strategies.10 Historian Lee Kennett aptly summed the progress made by air power during WWI when he wrote, “While the role of air weapon in the Great War was a modest one, the role of the Great War in the rise of air power was anything but modest”.

The Inter-War Years

WWI had glamorized air warfare and in the public eye combat pilots became the modern substitute of the knights in shining armour with their acts of gallantry, chivalry and dare devil exploits. This hero-worship of aviators was to continue during the inter-war years. Newspapers and newsreels were filled with the exploits of Charles Lindbergh, Amy Johnson, Jimmy Doolittle, Amelia Earhart and many others like them. Aviation enjoyed a high public profile, which exerted a powerful psychological force.11 It also led to a continuous improvement in aircraft performance in all fields, making them much more effective war fighting platforms.

Giulio Dohet, an Italian military officer was one of the earliest advocates of air power. He had taken part in the air action in the Libyan campaign in Tripoli in 1911-12. An ardent supporter of strategic bombing concept and the military superiority of air power over other forms of warfare, he served in WWI organizing Italy’s bombing campaign. For publicly criticizing the Italian high command for being responsible for Italy’s aerial weaknesses, he was court-martialed and jailed. He was released, when his theories were proven correct by the defeat of the Italians by the Austrian Air Force at Caporetto. He was later recalled and promoted to Brigadier General’s rank in 1921. In 1922 he was appointed head of Italy’s aviation programme by Benito Mussolini.12 His book, ‘Command of the Air’ was first published in 1921 and a revised version came out in 1927. It was regarded as a classic by early airpower theorists and had a major impact in shaping and development of air power especially in USA and Britain. He argued that command of air should be the first objective during war and having achieved it, subsequent bombing of industrialized and population centres would be so disruptive and destructive that the enemy would be forced to sue for peace. He maintained that control of the air followed by strategic bombing could win a war independent of land and sea power. Douhet is regarded as the father of air power.13

While Douhet’s postulates have had a profound effect on air power development in the 20th century, it has also come under a fair degree of criticism for overstating the impact of air power, especially his assumption that air power alone could lead to enemy capitulation during war.

The next air power advocate to emerge during and after WWI was General Trenchard, the first commander of RAF. Trenchard believed in the offensive role of air power and was convinced that the primary mission of air power was to decimate the enemy through aerial bombardment. He strongly advocated the need to devote maximum resources to air development, for the main danger in future would come from the air. He argued that by denying the enemy the capability to conduct strategic bombing campaign against oneself and by conducting one against him, air power would lead to enemy’s capitulation. He was convinced that unless the control of air was established, armies and navies would become powerless and that the days of big ships were past; they could no longer operate in the face of air power. As the chief of staff of the world’s first independent air force, General Trenchard’s thinking was to have a major impact on RAF’s force composition and performance during WWII.

The third key air power advocate to emerge during the post WWI era was an American, Billy Mitchell. He is the most famous and controversial figure in American air power history. The son of a wealthy Wisconsin senator, he enlisted as a private during the Spanish American War and quickly gained a commission due to the intervention of his father.14   He had an outstanding war record and after challenging tours of Philippines and Alaska, Mitchell was assigned to the Army General Staff, at the time its youngest member. He became interested in aviation and its possibilities. In 1916 at the age of 38, he took private flying lessons. Arriving at France in 1917 as a part of the American contingent, he quickly took charge and began preparations for American air units that were to follow.15 By the end of WWI, Billy Mitchell was the top US airman. He returned to USA in 1919 and immediately became a very strong advocate of air power. Mitchell was greatly influenced by Douhet’s theories. He was appointed the deputy chief of the Air Service. In this capacity his relations with superiors continued to sour as he began to attack both the war and Navy Departments for being insufficiently farsighted regarding air power.15 When Mitchell suggested that US air power could better defend the nation’s coasts from attacks by warships than US sea power, a controversy developed as to whether an airplane could sink a battleship. Live tests were conducted in June/July 1921 and Sept 1921. Mitchell’s bombers sank three captured German vessels and an obsolete USS Alabama in the first trial and sent two more obsolete US vessels to the bottom in the next one.

The success of the bombing trials encouraged the advocates of air power to press for a separate air arm but the Army General Staff remained convinced that air power on its own could not win a war and at best it had an important but supporting role.  Mitchell became increasingly critical of his superiors and began to go public on his criticism of the high command. His actions could no longer be tolerated and in December 1925 he was found guilty before a court martial of violating the 96th articles of war and was suspended from duty for five years. Mitchell resigned in 1926.

In conformity with Douhet and Trenchard’s theories, Mitchell postulated the potency of air power in any future conflict and that air power would be the most decisive element in any future conflict. He too advocated that strategic bombing could on its own defeat the enemy.

Douhet, Trenchard and Mitchell were passionate advocates of air power, perhaps too passionate and all three seems to have overstated their case. While a majority of their theories and prophecies have come true, their claim that air power alone could win a war has yet to be proven. They seriously failed to visualize the defensive warfare against air threat in the form of fighter aircraft and ground defences, which could and did reduce the impact of air power especially in the strategic bombing role.  They also grossly underestimated the continued requirement of naval and land forces and the people’s will to resist aerial bombardment.

The Second World War


The next major milestone in the history of air power was the Second World War. The study of air campaign during WWII has to begin with the German Blitzkrieg.

Tanks and aeroplanes were the two new elements of warfare that had been introduced during WWI. During the inter-war years, the British, French and other European powers “had failed to grasp the inherent speed and range of the air weapon that had made the time and space factor which prevailed in WWI outdated and irrelevant. By contrast, the Germans’ innovative combination of aircraft, fast armour, infantry and modern communication in the form of ‘blitzkrieg’ demonstrated a battle winning understanding of what amounted to a revolution in military affairs.”18 These concepts were first tested and improved upon during the Spanish War of 1936. When the Germans finally unleashed the coordinated attacks by its Panzer (tank) divisions supported by the infantry with the Luftwaffe dominating the skies during WWII in what now the world knows as ‘blitzkrieg’ operations, it overran Poland and the rest of western continental Europe. According to the historians, at the eve of WWII, French aircraft and tanks were technically superior to their German counterparts yet France was steamrolled into submission by the fury of the German blitzkrieg. In the blitzkrieg operations, Luftwaffe demonstrated the doctrines of control of air and support to surface forces with such brutal efficiency that it stunned its opponents into submission. Blitzkrieg was a perfect example of air power acting in unison in support of the ground forces.

While the contribution of Luftwaffe in the defeat and submission of Western European nations was significant, it had been developed more as a tactical air force to be used in support of the surface forces. The three primary missions of Luftwaffe were ‘to combat enemy air forces’ (win command of the air), ‘intervene in ground or naval actions’ (close air support) and ‘combat the sources of the enemy’s strength and disrupt his logistics supplies to the front line’19 (interdiction). Conspicuously absent was the mission of strategic bombing which Douhet, Trenchard and Mitchell had so strongly advocated as the primary task of air power. General Max Wever, the German Air Force Commander who was unfortunately killed in an aircraft accident in 1936 was aware of this shortcoming and development of four engine heavy bombers was on the drawing board. However, after his death, this project was abandoned as the German high command believed that the available twin-engine bombers could be used both in the tactical and strategic role.20 While this assumption did not affect Germany’s war aims in its campaign against the neighbouring states, when Hitler decided to take the war westward over the North Sea and eastward into the Soviet heartland, he had no weapon to match his political objectives.21 Lack of long-range heavy bombers that could conduct sustained strategic bombing operations against UK and USSR was a serious shortcoming that was to cost Germany dearly.

Battle of Britain

Having subdued Western Europe, Hitler turned his attention to Britain. Operation ‘Sea-Lion’, which envisaged landing of troops in England through amphibious operations was planned. For the amphibious operation to succeed, control of air over England had to be established by Luftwaffe. This set the scene for the Battle of Britain which witnessed   sustained and massive offensive counter air operations by Luftwaffe in a bid to subdue and neutralize Britain’s RAF. RAF’s fighter bases, air defence network, command and control centres, logistic dumps were attacked on ground by German bombers while German fighters engaged British fighters over England in a do or die battle. Despite the lack of heavy bombers, by September 1940, Luftwaffe had the measure of RAF and was beginning to win the battle for command of the air. According to professor Mason, RAF’s fighter command had lost approximately one-third of its flight commanders and one-fifth of its squadron commanders. The survivors were flying upto four sorties a day and there were no reserve squadrons fit to replace the battered ones.22 The lone raid of Berlin by RAF bomber command during the battle so infuriated Hitler that a switch from counter air operations against RAF to attacks on London’s civilian population was ordered. This switch relieved the direct pressure on RAF Fighter Command and it was able to regroup and inflict such heavy casualties on the German bombers that eventually Hitler had to call off the air campaign. Inability of Luftwaffe to win the air superiority battle over England led to the abandonment of operation Sea Lion while Hitler turned his attention to USSR. The British nation paid a very heavy price in terms of civilian casualties during the attacks on London but the survival of RAF resulted in the even trial victory for Britain in repulsing the German assault. Historians agree that the decision by Goering, the German Air Commander to switch German bomber attacks from fighter command to London on 7 September 1946 was the turning point in the Battle of Britain.

Three key lessons emerged from the Battle. First, winning the control of air is an essential prerequisite to any modern land/sea offensive. Second, Luftwaffe’s lack of heavy long-range bombers, which could conduct sustained strategic bombing offensive, was an important factor in Germany’s inability to win the Battle. And finally the campaign disproved the assertion of Douhet and Mitchell that heavy aerial bombardment of civilian centres would result in rapid loss of morale and would lead to the nation’s capitulation. The early air power visionaries had seriously underestimated the will, determination and resolve of human beings to resist subjugation by force. 

African Campaign

The African campaign by the Americans is an important landmark in the context of air power because one of the lessons that came out of it had a profound effect on the development of air power as an independent service.

During the African campaign, American Air Corps had distributed its considerable assets to the various Army formations operating there. The German air assets in Africa by contrast were all under the command of Luftwaffe. While the American air assets in Africa were superior to the ones deployed by Luftwaffe both in quality and quantity, the latter by virtue of being under one command was able to concentrate superior numbers on individual American air formations and cause substantial damage. Although the allies eventually prevailed due to a host of other factors, the performance of American Air Corps was not compatible with its potential. On the instructions of General Eisenhower a committee was formed to conduct a thorough analysis of the air campaign. One of the principle findings of the committee was that deployment of American air assets in penny packets had resulted in their less than optimum utility. The principle of ‘unity of command’ had been violated. Since then, unity of command is considered as one of the air power doctrines. The findings of the committee eventually led to the independence of US Air Corps and USAF was established in 1947. With very few exceptions all new Air Forces that came into being after WWII have been created as independent services.

Strategic Bombing Campaign of Germany

Under the influence of General Trenchard, RAF had developed a sizeable bomber force for conducting strategic bombing on its adversaries. After surviving the Battle of Britain onslaught, this force was unleashed to attack Germany. The campaign commenced with large formations conducting daylight bombing missions but heavy casualties primarily due to Luftwaffe fighters reached a level where the high degree of attrition could no longer be sustained. Besides the heavy losses, the accuracy of the bombing campaign during actual combat was far lower than what had been achieved during peacetime trials. Daylight bombing was not having the desired results. RAF then switched to night bombing raids only. While night raids did lower the attrition rate to a manageable level, as Luftwaffe did not possess an adequate night fighter, it resulted in even lower bombing accuracy. The effect of strategic bombing campaign reduced further.

Trenchard had made two faulty assumptions in his advocacy of offensive operation through strategic bombing. He had erroneously believed that his bombers were armed and protected well enough to run the gauntlet of enemy fighters relatively unscathed and therefore did not need fighter escorts. Britain had not invested in long-range fighters, which could escort the bombers and protect them from enemy interceptors. Trenchard and his staff also made the mistake of basing their calculation of bombing accuracy on peacetime trials. During actual combat with enemy fighters lurking around and very heavy anti-aircraft ground fire, bombing accuracy was nowhere close to the peace time results. Much more, bombers were needed to take out a target than had been anticipated. When daylight bombing attrition reached an unacceptable level and because RAF had failed to develop long-range fighters capable of escorting the bombers up to their targets, it had no option but to discontinue day bombing sorties and resort to night bombing.

The Americans entered the fray later but they were able to deploy far larger assets than Britain. The Americans were also strong advocates of strategic bombing and they too commenced their operation with massive daylight raids over Germany. RAF’s experience was repeated and the American attrition rate was nearly double of what had been anticipated. Unlike RAF, however, the Americans did not abandon their daylight raids as they correctly assessed that night bombing would further lower the effectiveness of the campaign due to loss in accuracy, and will jeopardize the mission. The Americans were fortunate in that they had developed long-range fighters in the shape of P-51 Mustangs that could escort their bombers right upto their targets. Mustangs were deployed in the escort role with the bomber formations. This move brought a dramatic reduction in the attrition rate. The P-51s being superior to any of the contemporary German fighters began to take a heavy toll of German interceptors. P-51s managed to establish air superiority around their bombers over the German hinterland.

The strategic bombing campaign over Germany was a long drawn affair. While it did not result in quick capitulation of Germany, nor could it be solely credited with bringing about the defeat of Germany on its own, most critics agree that it played a very vital role in the eventual success of the allied victory in Europe.

The Pacific War

The Pacific War began with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941. As early as in 1924, Mitchell following a trip to Japan had submitted a report where he foretold of Japanese expansionist ambitions in the Pacific and presented what he considered would be the start of a Pacific War. According to Mitchell the Pacific War would start with a Japanese air and sea attack upon Pearl Harbour in Hawaii with an accompanying aerial attack on the Philippines, at 7:30 AM and 10:40 AM respectively. In actual event the attack on Pearl Harbour occurred at 7:55 AM and at Philippines at 12:45 PM on December 7, 1941. Mitchell was off by only 25 minutes for Hawaii and less than 2 hours for the Philippines.23

Pacific War was primarily a naval/air campaign with air power playing a decisive role. Air power deployed in the Pacific was both sea-based (carrier task forces) and land-based. It was a battle between the two opposing carrier groups attempting to wrest sea control and command of the air from each other. Eventually USA prevailed and the dropping of two nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki ultimately sealed the fate of Japan. Douhet and HG Wells’ prophesy of subjugation of the enemy through massive destruction of his civilian population and infrastructure through massive aerial bombardment appeared to become a reality. The bombing marked the dawn of the nuclear age, which has brought about its own dynamics, very different to all previous military strategies. Mercifully the world has not witnessed another use of nuclear bombs in all the subsequent conflicts since then but nuclear strategy has had a very profound effect on the way nations have approached conflicts when one or both the antagonists were in possession of nuclear weapons. Nuclear warfare is a completely new form of warfare and while it is linked to air power, it must be and is being treated differently than all forms of conventional warfare.

The impact of air power on naval warfare was comprehensively demonstrated in the Pacific War. To the credit of naval forces, rather than oppose the new medium of warfare, navy almost universally has absorbed it as one of its integral parts, just as it had adopted the submarine forces. Now a modern navy operates in all the three dimensions: Surface, sub-surface and above the surface.

Another interesting comment on the conduct of the Pacific War was that this was the first and perhaps only occasion to date when land forces operated in support of air power. Land forces in amphibious assaults were used to capture Pacific islands from the enemy where air bases were set up for attack on Japanese mainland in what is also referred to as the leapfrog strategy.

Role of Air Power During WWII

The role of air power during the Second World War can be summed up in two quotes, one by Winston Churchill and the other by Professor Tony Mason. While speaking at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1949, Churchill had commented: “For good or ill, air mastery is today the supreme expression of military power. And fleets and armies, however necessary and important, must accept subordinate rank. This is a memorable milestone in the march of man.”24 Professor Tony Mason in his book Air Power — A Centennial Appraisal, states: “Air power had been peripheral between 1914 and 1918. In the Second World War it dominated most theatres and in at least two was decisive.”25

The Korean Conflict

Flush from its victory in WWII, American forces, this time under the auspices of UNO were soon involved in the Korean peninsular. In 1950 when Communist forces in Korea militarily overran the entire Korean peninsular, American forces as a major part of UN forces decided to intervene.

Inchon landing led by Mc Arthur marked the counter-offensive by the UN forces. Following its successful landing at Inchon, UN forces pushed back the North Koreans to the 38th parallel before a truce was declared. US air power was crucial to the success of the Inchon landing and the subsequent counter-offensive. This phase of the war clearly demonstrated the crucial role air power could play in support of its surface forces.

Once truce was declared on the 38th parallel, an uneasy cease fire on the ground took effect. At that stage the American air strategists proposed that the war could be successfully prosecuted by an air interdiction campaign against the North Korean forces. Operation Strangle was formally launched.

Operation Strangle aimed at strangling the communist forces of their provisions and supplies through a sustained campaign of air interdiction behind the enemy lines. This, it was hoped, would prepare the way for the allied invasion of North Korea itself.25 The operation began in earnest but despite its best efforts, it failed to achieve its military objectives. Three factors can be identified for the failure of the campaign. First, UN air power was operating under political constraints: they were not allowed to attack the enemy air bases which were operating from within mainland China for fear of further escalation into WWIII. North Korean and Chinese air power operating from Chinese mainland did not permit a free run to the interdicting forces. UN forces were not able to establish total command of the air and resultantly, the overall effectiveness of the interdiction mission was reduced. Second, the technology available in 1950s was not advanced enough in terms of accuracy and lethality to inflict the kind of damage on the enemy that would paralyze its logistics support. And finally the manpower-intensive supply lines of the Chinese proved too resilient to interdiction. Coupled with the fact that with a truce in place and the front not being active, the total logistics needs of North Korean forces was comparatively much lesser. Interdiction campaign did slow down the North Korean supplies but failed to halt them.

The air power statistics used in the Korean conflict were formidable. The allied forces alone flew more than a million sorties; over 476,00 tons of explosives were dropped and more than 2000 aircraft were lost in the four years. Yet the aspiration that superior air power by itself would be sufficient to win a conflict was wide off the mark.

The Vietnam War

In the Vietnam War, over one million fixed-wing and 37 million helicopter sorties were flown; 3,700 fixed-wing and 4,900 helicopters were lost in the campaign.28 New concepts of close support using both ground and airborne forward air controllers were successfully developed. The conflict also witnessed widespread use of Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAM) and its counter through tactics, electronic countermeasures (ECM), and anti-radiation missiles. Precision-guided munitions were developed and deployed during the conflict with devastating effect but their introduction had come about at a fairly late stage, when the American public had appeared to lose the will to fight ‘someone else’s battle’. Air supremacy was established despite the restrictions due to political reasons of not attacking North Vietnamese aircraft on their bases. Yet airpower failed to determine the outcome of the war. American forces eventually withdrew from the conflict without achieving their military or political aim.

Unsuitable terrain, lack of public support for the campaign by the Americans, a very resilient enemy, excessive political interference and general backwardness of the enemy (no worthwhile counter- value targets) are some of the major factors that have been put forward for the failure of airpower to deliver victory. The oft-quoted assertion that since 1939, no state has lost a war while it maintained air superiority was once again disproved. As one USAF analyst has very aptly surmised: “Difficult to fathom is the air chiefs’ lingering conviction that their doctrine was right throughout Vietnam — and that it is right for the future ... For the Air Force, the guerrilla struggle during most of the Vietnam war was an acknowledged anomaly that may well reappear... Bombing doctrine remains geared to a fast paced conventional war, and the conviction that such doctrine is appropriate for any kind of war permeates the service....”

The Arab-Israeli Wars/1967-1973

If the Korean and Vietnam Wars had brought out the inadequacies of air power, the Arab/Israeli Wars of 1967 and 1973 again demonstrated its dominance in a conventional war. In both these conflicts, air power played a major role. In 1967, having won the command of the air on the very first day through a pre-emptive offensive counter-air operations, Israel Air Force  (IAF) brought to bear such effective bombardment on the Arab land forces that it became relatively simple for the Israeli Army to defeat them. Even in 1973, airpower was dominant. IAF’s inability to win the command of the air initially cost them dearly but in later stages through substantial technical and logistical support of USA, IAF succeeded in neutralizing the Arab Air Defence Network. From then onward, IAF’s support to their land forces helped turn a likely defeat into victory. By the time ceasefire was declared, Israel had gained the upper hand in the conflict.

Air power has been the chosen security instrument of Israel. Superior technology, better training, a topography and climate ideal for exploitation of air power and an air power doctrine in complete harmony with the strategic environment are some of the key factors that have given IAF a decisive edge over its Arab adversaries.30 To this list, one must also add the unqualified and unstinted support of USA that Israel has enjoyed since its very inception. Massive financial and technical support of USA has ensured the superiority of IAF over its neighbours. This support is not restricted to peace time only. During the 1973 War, besides logistics support, Israel benefited immensely from the satellite intelligence gathering of US spy satellites. This single factor had tilted the balance in favour of Israel.

Indo-Pak/Iraq-Iran Wars

Pakistan and India fought two wars in 1965 and 1971 with both the conflicts ending within three weeks. By contrast Iran-Iraq war lasted for nearly a decade. While air power was applied in all these conflicts, the historical verdict is that the role of air power was peripheral and it did not effectively influence the outcome of the conflicts. In the 1965 Pakistan-India conflict, Pakistan Air Force did enjoy the upper hand in air combat and had created a degree of favourable air situation over the battlefront, but neither side could establish total air superiority. Air power was largely restricted to ground support and the air war came to an early halt because of shortage of spares and weapons as a result of the imposition of international embargo. In 1971, India did achieve air supremacy in the Eastern Wing against an adversary whom it outnumbered by a ratio of over 12 to 1 and it took three days to achieve what a more efficient Air Force could have achieved in a single day. Given the disparity between Indian and Pakistani Forces in East Pakistan and the near hopeless political environment being faced by the latter, military defeat for them was inevitable, the contribution of Indian air power in the sector notwithstanding.

Iran-Iraq fought each other to a stalemate in 1980s. Initially, Iran had a technological edge over Iraq with F-14s, and F4s in its inventory. Iran did use its air assets to attack oil facilities and other counter-value targets in Iraq but in due course, cut off from US sources of weapons and spare parts, the effectiveness of Iranian Air Force diminished rapidly. Iraqi Air Force, too, did not possess sufficient offensive strike aircraft to make much impact. Iran-Iraq war was primarily fought by their ground forces. Air power had little influence in the final outcome of the war.31

The one obvious lesson that comes out very clearly from these conflicts is that nations who are heavily dependent on others for their air power inventory can rarely take full advantage of the potential of their air assets. Heavy dependence on other nations for key defence needs invariably leads to a loss of freedom and sovereignty during the conduct of war.

Bekka Valley Campaign

Essentially, a one-day campaign, Bekka Valley operation was planned by Israel to take out all the air defence units in the Valley in a single coordinated air assault. The presence of Syrian SA-6 units in the east of Bekka Valley was constraining IAF’s contribution when Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) had launched operation Peace in Galilee in 1982. These units had to be taken out.

IAF painstakingly plotted the position of every SA-6 unit in the valley. On 9th October 1982 Israeli long-range artillery and surface-to-surface missiles engaged the Syrian missile batteries. IAF aircraft followed up with aerial attacks using free fall bombs and anti-radiation missiles. When Syrian Air Force rose to defend the air defence complex, IAF’s F-15 and F16 fighters equipped with the most modern air-to-air missiles, airborne radars and electronic warfare package massacred them. This was the most one-sided air victory in the history of air power. In terms of the evolution of air power Bekka Valley campaign was a generation ahead.32 This campaign is relevant because it was a harbinger of how the next air battle would be fought. The Gulf War of 1990/91 was to demonstrate the same philosophy on a much larger scale.

The Gulf War

Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on 2nd August marked the beginning of the Gulf War that ended with a ceasefire on 28 February 1991. The actual fighting took place for only 43 days, from 17 January 1991. Upto 24 February, the war was prosecuted almost exclusively from air. In the ground offensive that lasted from 24th to 28th February, the Coalition Forces encountered little resistance and Iraqi army was expelled from Kuwait. All this was achieved at a paltry cost of only 340 coalition combat deaths and 776 injuries.33 According to the then American Defence Secretary Dick Cheney, the Iraqi forces collapsed as rapidly as they did because of the air campaign that was mounted against them.34 This has been the common theme explaining the overwhelming and speedy Coalition success. As Professor R.A. Mason has very rightly observed, ‘The Gulf War marked the apotheosis of twentieth century air power.

The phenomenal success of air power has given rise to a number of illusions, the most widespread being that air power alone had eventually forced the Iraqis to vacate Kuwait. While there is little doubt that air power was fundamental to the ultimate Coalition victory it was the ground campaign that finally led to Iraq’s capitulation in Kuwait.

Dr James A Mowbray has correctly concluded that ‘Technology helped to win the fastest, lowest casualty, almost devastatingly destructive one-sided war in recorded history. Air Force capabilities had come of age’. Col Warden, the architect of Desert Storm air campaign has elaborated the technological advancement made by air power further by saying, ‘To have a 90 percent probability of putting one bomb on a target of the size of a normal room in WWII it needed 9,000 bombs or over 1,000 B-17 sorties — which meant putting 10,000 men at risk over the target. A F-117 class aircraft will achieve the same probability in a single sortie’. Between the Second World War and the Gulf War, bombing accuracy had registered a 1000 percent increase.

In the Gulf War, air power demonstrated its ability to strike at the strategic heart of a country with maximum precision and minimum collateral damage and casualty. It proved beyond any shadow of doubt that air power has become an integral component of modern warfare.


Robin Higham has aptly summed up that “the history of air power has been confused by the bragging of its prophets and the derisions of its enemies. Too often, vision has outrun reality and resulted in disappointment and reaction. As newcomers forced to plead from a position of weakness, airmen carried arguments to their logical extremes and talked about what air power was going to be able to do, and their listeners tended to forget that these were prognostication, accepting them as imminent realities.’ He further concludes that ‘Air Power already has the capacity to determine the outcome of conflict. But not necessarily all conflicts.

The progress of air power so far has brought out that Douhet’s vision of destroying an enemy’s will to resist by air attack alone remains a vision, and that the attainment of air superiority alone has not yet brought a country to its knees. After 100 years there is still no incontrovertible evidence that strategic bombing has been decisive in breaking the determination of any opponent to carry on fighting.36 Even in Desert Storm, strategic air attacks on Iraq by itself did not lead to its withdrawal from Kuwait. A ground offensive was needed to achieve the Coalition’s military and political aims.

On the subject of air power, Col Szafranski of USAF has rightly observed that ‘Technology and air power are integrally and synergistically related’. Dr Allan Stephen has further elaborated that ‘air power includes not only military assets but an aerospace industry and commercial aviation’.

The equation between modern air power and the other components of military force has been very eloquently expressed by Col Warden where he ‘likened the relationship between armies, navies and air forces in war to a solo instrument in a concerto, where the composer having decided upon his objective selects the appropriate instrument which, translating the metaphor, becomes the key force in the music and in war. The instrument will vary from concerto to concerto; on some occasions it will be a soloist, on others it will harmonize, on others it will fall silent. Orchestration, not subordination or integration is the sine qua non of modern warfare’.

1. H.G. Wells, The War in the Air, 1908.
2. Tony Mason, Air Power, A Centennial Appraisal, Chapter-1
3. Ibid
4. Ibid
5.Alan Stephens, In Search of the Knock-Out Blow, page-3
6. Ibid
7. Ibid   page-5
8. Tony Mason, Air Power, A Centennial Appraisal, Chapter-1.
9. Ibid
10.Alan Stephens, In Search of the Knock-Out Blow, page-7
11. Ibid
12. Douhet, Giulio (article from the internet)
14. Billy Mitchell (article from the internet).
15. Ibid
16. The Mitchell Era (article from the internet).
17. Ibid
18. Alan Stephens, In Search of  the Knock-Out Blow, pages 37/38.
19. Tony Mason, Air Power, A Centennial Appraisal, Chapter-2
20. Ibid
21. Ibid
22. Ibid
23. The Mitchell Era
24. Tony Mason, Air Power, A Centennial Appraisal, Chapter-2
25. Ibid
26. Ibid
27. Ibid
28. Ibid
29. Ibid
30. Ibid
31. Ibid
32. Ibid
33. Ibid Chapter-5
34. Ibid
35. Ibid
36. Ibid Chapter-8
37. Ibid