Friday, May 17, 2013

Strategic Bombing


The rapid development of airborne machines following the end of the First World War soon enabled a military force to circumvent its enemy’s ground defenses in order to destroy industrial targets critical to any modern army’s success.  The concept of strategic bombing was developed during the course of the Second World War, first over the skies of Britain and, later by bombers of the Western Allies, whose strikes on German industrial choke-points attempted to strangle that nation’s war effort.  Success required knowing the economic vulnerabilities of one’s opponent and the optimal order of attack.  Obtaining sensitive information about an enemy’s infrastructure proved nearly impossible during wartime.  Sketchy data obtained by Allied intelligence sometimes led to targets like the ball-bearing factor at Schweinfurt, a costly effort with dubious results.

The strategic role of air power to force the defeat of an enemy, without having to gain a decisive victory in battle, requires understanding the economic basis of military power.  The easy questions seem obvious.  What industries have military importance?  Where are they?  Are they well defended?  In other words, is the cost worth the effort?  Strategic targets must be prioritized to achieve meaningful and timely results using the limited resources at hand.  There is no point in bombing a factory that is part of a surplus of industrial capacity for that commodity.  Even if the factory is critical to production the question that must be asked is, “How easy will it be to repair or replace?”   Another question important to planners of strategic bombing has to do with how quickly results affect battlefield performance.  The reward for destroying a manufacturing facility may be negligible if there is already available a sizable inventory of its product.  The Allied bombing of the Ploiesti oil refinery in Romania was delayed until August, 1943 due to the mistaken belief that Germany sat on an oil inventory of several months.

Successful strategic decision-making requires accurate and timely information that is often unavailable.  Even intelligence breakthroughs such as the British Ultra project, which tapped into German military communications, proved of little value because it contained almost no references to German economics.  Information related to targeting is only part of the equation.  You also need information to evaluate the effectiveness of your operations in relation to your overall strategic objectives.  Are your efforts providing the needed results?  If not, what alternative options should you be considering?

German documents made available to the Allies following the conclusion of the Second World War revealed the limited effectiveness of a campaign whose design relied on scarce information and often incorrect assumptions.  Mistakes in planning are understandable given the fog of war and the use of disinformation by one’s enemy.  What is less forgiving is to distort fundamental principles of military planning in order to adhere to preconceived assumptions based on ideological agendas or untested political goals that often result from wishful thinking.  An easy example that comes quickly to mind is the air campaign waged over North Vietnam by then Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara.  He was considered a hard data man, someone who believed decisions should be based on objective cost-benefit analysis.  With this in mind it is hard to comprehend McNamara’s contribution in the air war over the heavily defended North.  
Operation Rolling Thunder had little to do with achieving military objectives and more to do with bringing leaders of the Communist North to the negotiating table through political pressure.  Had US goals for the air war been otherwise it would have been difficult to justify risking pilots and jets in order to place bomb craters in dirt roads or to destroy the occasional, pesky truck rambling along, kicking up dust.  Even highly sophisticated jets are vulnerable to withering ground fire coming from all directions when they make their close to earth bombing run.  The US dispersed its effort in the air beyond the 17th parallel in order to gain marginal results militarily in the South.  An appropriate alternative to this strategy might have been to focus one’s military weight on shutting down the North’s distribution channel to its forces in South Vietnam – the various jungle highways through Laos known collectively as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  Shutting off the supply spigot south would have made political considerations by Northern leaders irrelevant to the hard fact that military impotence would prevent them from working their will.

The military argument over whether the US had the capacity to cut the North’s supply channel south seems preferable to the political task of justifying waging war on civilian targets in the North.  Warfare is never clean and neat, no matter how one may choose to cook the numbers.  The choice to achieve one’s political goals by way of coercive military force requires decision makers to make an honest attempt at scrubbing clear the ideological tint in which they normally view issues and adopt the hard, unsentimental stare required of anyone attempting to analyze and unravel the competing scenarios to find the most truthful version possible of the real world.

Related Topics:

Early Industrial Warfare

Confronting Nuclear War 

21st Century Air Force

Pacific Theater:  1941

No comments:

Post a Comment