Air University Review, September-October 1984

Doctrine: Mere Words, or a Key 
to War-Fighting Competence?

Lieutenant Colonel Barry D. Watts
Major James O. Hale

WHAT could have prompted a leading air power historian like Dr. Robert Futrell to conclude that the Air Force's doctrinal quest went stale during the 1950s and, worse, that even by the early 1970s, the young service had failed to perfect "semantic thought patterns" encompassing the totality of its rationale?1 Insofar as Dr. Futrell's 1971 assessment remains valid today, part of the answer seems to lie in his awareness that the Air Force's basic doctrinal beliefs have remained essentially unchanged since World War II (and can trace strong roots back even further). All too often since 1947, the keepers of U.S. air power doctrine have viewed their inheritance as holy writ more in need of protection than of evolution or change.

Of course, this lack of change in our basic doctrine is not, in itself, proof that the doctrinal quest has gone stale. Those who defend this lack of evolution tend to argue that by 1943, if not earlier, American army aviators had developed a good idea of what usually worked best and thereafter wisely struck with that.2

On reflection, though, this explanation raises more questions than it answers. First, is it self-evident that what did the job in World War II (or in Southeast Asia) will do today? One of the most fundamental air power ideas developed at the Air Corps Tactical School3 during the 1930s was that precision bombardment alone could swiftly destroy the means or will of an enemy society to wage war.4 But today, against a nuclear-armed adversary like the Soviet Union, is a conventional bombardment campaign of the sort envisaged by Tactical School theorists feasible at all? How, in particular, could we prevent such an operation from simply provoking the very thing we dread most, an all-out nuclear exchange?

Equally important questions can be asked about documents alike Air Force Manual 1-1. Are the basic concepts and principles in the more recent versions of this manual discussed or debated by those in operational units? Do Air Force professionals genuinely believe that officially sanctioned doctrine would promote, rather than hinder, successful combat performance in a future conflict? Indeed, is there even much consensus within the Air Force about what our core war-fighting principles are or our basic doctrinal concepts mean?

At the heart of the present authors' misgivings about the health of Air Force doctrine is the suspicion that our service's doctrinal quest has become entangled in abstract questions of definition that lead nowhere, while the practical problems of actual warfighting have been neglected. Is doctrine preeminently a peacetime tool for developing force structure? Or does it also have an important, perhaps even crucial role to play in battle? These are questions that every generation of American aviators has raised. But truly final answers have not been forthcoming.

Consider the problem of defining doctrine's essence. In his pioneering 1955 book U.S. Military Doctrine, Brigadier General Dale O. Smith accepted the proposition that Air Force thought progresses from the nebulous ideas of individuals, to unofficial concepts (or hypotheses), to doctrines taught at service schools and sanctioned at the highest military staff levels, to enduring principles.5 And while General Smith admitted that the exact point at which an idea becomes a concept (or a concept, a doctrine) may not always be clear, his formulation of basic doctrine as the fundamental beliefs of Air Force people about "the development, deployment, and employment of aerospace power in peace or war" seemed at the time to settle once and for all what doctrine is.6 But as the title of General I.B. Holley's recent article "Concepts, Doctrines, Principles: Are You Sure You Understand These Terms?" implies, serious definitional problems persist.7 General Holley insists that the official definition of doctrine long promulgated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff is confusing, if not erroneous. Evidently, despite three decades of effort, we have still not progressed beyond the definition of basic terms. And if so, then one cannot help but wonder whether we have been working on the right questions.

Yet if we have been asking the wrong questions about doctrine, what questions should we be raising? Perhaps it would be helpful at this stage to stand the problem on its head and consider what doctrine is not. If we could first ascertain some of the things that doctrine cannot be, we might have a better basis for making some sense of this elusive concept.

The Problems of Defining Doctrine

How can a man understand the name of anything, when he does not know the nature of it?

Plato, Theaetetus

The truth lurks in the metaphor.

Anthony Athos, quoted in
In Search of Excellence, 1982

One thing that doctrine is not is a concept that can be exactly defined in a natural human language such as English or German. While it is customary to assume that a notion like doctrine must be unambiguously defined before it can be intelligently discussed, no general theory of definition capable of providing unassailable answers to a question like "What is basic doctrine?" exists. Consequently, efforts to ground doctrinal development on an exact account of what doctrine is are doomed from the start.

(Authors' Warning: The next half dozen paragraphs or so contain a rigorous substantiation of our skepticism about the utility of precise definitions as the point of departure for doctrine. Those readers who do not need further convincing, who regularly fly warplanes for a living, or whose eyes glaze over at the mere mention of JCS Publication 1, Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, may wish to skip ahead.)

The problems encountered in trying to define general concepts have been with us since Plato's early dialogues.8 The structure and outcome of these early works are monotonously similar. First, the participants begin to discuss some broad ethical question, such as "What is the nature of courage?"9 Next, they make a number of attempts to define (in the abstract, not in particular cases) the idea or concept at issue. But after intense Socratic questioning, the participants find that the proposed definitions always turn out to be faulty.10 Hence, the upshot of Plato's early dialogues is that the abstract essence of courage, piety, virtue, and other general concepts is never explicitly determined."11

It has been some centuries since Plato walked the streets of Athens, and the reader may be inclined to assume that these problems of definition were solved long ago. Indeed, as a practical matter, need we look any farther than a good dictionary?

But dictionaries, disappointingly, offer less help than might be supposed. The problem is that dictionary definitions are circular in that, sooner or later, they define every word in terms of itself. This circularity holds even for concepts drawn from that most rigorous of all branches of human knowledge, mathematics. Take the intuitive notion of a set as it has been used in mathematics since Georg Cantor originally characterized it, around 1895, as "any collection into a whole (Zusammenfassung zueinem Ganzen) M of definite and separate objects m of our intuition or our thought."12 Webster's Third New International Dictionary defines this particular sense of "set" as "a collection of things and esp[ecially] mathematical elements (as numbers or points)."13 But in this context the explicit synonym for "collection" turns out to be "aggregate," and when we look up "aggregate " we find it defined, in turn, as "a set of mathematical elements."14 So all the dictionary can ultimately do is lead us around closed loops of synonymous terms and phrases.

Regardless of how vicious or benign we deem this sort of circularity, cannot mathematicians themselves specify unambiguously what a set is--at least for mathematical purposes? Certainly Cantor's notion of a set as any collection into a whole of definite and separate elements of our thought or intuition seems straightforward enough. However, as Bertrand Russell discovered in 1901, Cantor's definition of "set" is not merely unclear but permits outright contradiction. The difficulty, now known as Russell's paradox, arises from noticing that many sets do not contain themselves. Then, when we ask whether the set of all sets not containing themselves contains itself, the answer that logically follows is that it both does and does not.15

What this paradox demonstrates is that the general problems of pinning down in words the precise meanings of abstract concepts were not discernibly closer to solution in 1901-02 than they had been at the time of Plato's early dialogues. Moreover, we see no signs of major progress toward their solution in the decades since the discovery of syntactic paradoxes like Russell's. As the philosopher Raziel Abelson summarized the situation in 1967:

The problems of definition are constantly recurring in philosophical discussions, although there is a widespread tendency to assume that they have been solved. Practically every book on logic has a section on definitions in which rules are set down and exercises prescribed for applying the rules, as if the problems were all settled. And yet, paradoxically, no problems of knowledge are less settled than those of definition, and no subject is more in need of a fresh approach.16

Lastly, note that the successful development since 1901 of formal or axiomatic approaches to set theory that avoid the known paradoxes reinforce, rather than undercut, Abelson's conclusion that a general solution to the problems of definition continues to elude us.17

For those who may feel inclined to dismiss this entire problem as only of relevance to ivory-tower academicians, we would offer two cases that strike somewhat closer to home. Consider, first, the notion of battlefield air interdiction (BAI). As a term, BAI seems to have been introduced in an attempt to explain better air power's contribution to the ground battle, especially in what had come to be seen as an ill-defined gray area between close air support (CAS) and air interdiction (AI). But despite literally years of effort to nail down a notion introduced to explain two others, we see little evidence of a definition of BAI's abstract essence that the various interested parties in this country and among our allies could all unequivocably accept.18

More substantive disagreement about the essence of doctrine can be seen in the fundamental difference between American and Soviet usages of the term. Since 1947, the notion of military doctrine generally accepted within the Department of Defense has centered around the allocation of roles and missions among the various services. Air Force basic doctrine, in particular, has focused on defining Air Force missions, describing air power's special characteristics, and explaining the need for an independent air force.19 The view of military doctrine (voyennaya doktrina)that has held sway in the Soviet Union since the 1960s, by contrast, deals with a level of military thought far above the missions or characteristics of individual services. As reiterated in 1982 by then-Chief of the General Staff Marshal Nikolay Ogarkov, Soviet military doctrine is "a system of guiding principles and scientifically substantiated views of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] and the Soviet government on the essence, character and mode of fighting a war which may be forced by the imperialists on the Soviet Union."20 Superficial differences in nomenclature notwithstanding, there is very little common ground between American and Soviet views of military doctrine's essence. Among other reasons, the highest echelon at which the Soviets do permit service-specific doctrine, the operational level of fronts and armies (operativnoye ishusstvo), has not been seriously discussed by U.S. airmen.21 Indeed, we have yet to recognize it as militarily important.

Returning to what doctrine is not, should Air Force doctrinal discussions begin by trying to define in the abstract what doctrine is? Our answer must be: definitely not! General Holley has written that the search for sound military practice is certain to be seriously flawed without uniform, clearly understood definitions of terms like doctrine.22 But in the absence of a solution to the long-standing problems of definition, we would answer that the only outcome this insistence seems certain to ensure is that the Air Force's quest for sound military practice will continue to flounder. At the outset of any doctrinal foray, our best efforts at formal, abstract definitions are seldom much more than hunches; and even after long study, no one has been able to offer much more than metaphors. Thus, to insist that doctrinal thinking begin with formal, once-and-for-all definitions seems roughly akin to demanding that mathematics proceed from the solution to problems, such as exactly trisecting an angle with straightedge and compass alone, that are known to be impossible.

Yet if we cannot explicitly nail down the abstract essence of concepts like BAI and doctrine, how can doctrinal development ever be given an adequate foundation? How, indeed, can we even communicate? The dilemma is not insoluble. Combat experience appears to offer a practical way out that is "good enough" for purposes of warfighting.

Combat Experience

We have identified danger, physical exertion, intelligence, and friction as the elements that coalesce to form the atmosphere of war, and turn it into a medium that impedes activity. In their restrictive effects they can be grouped into a single concept of general friction. Is there any lubricant that will reduce this abrasion? Only one combat experience.

Carl von Clausewitz, On War


. . . with increasing frequency, I'm seeing combat needs being contaminated by a lot of theoretical hogwash.

Brigadier General Eugene Lynch, USA (Ret), 1983

The second thing that doctrine is not is something that can be safely cut off from the uncompromising evidence of the battlefield. Any attempt to develop concepts, doctrines, or principles for the actual practice of war that fails to ground itself squarely in concrete battle experience risks outright disaster.

To insist that there is little to be gained from trying to nail down a notion like doctrine in words does not mean that one is unable either to produce obvious examples of doctrinal statements or to subject these statements to the test of experience. For example, consider Brigadier General Kenneth N. Walker's famous maxim that a well-planned and well-conducted bombardment attack, once launched, cannot be stopped.23 In the hands of Air Corps Tactical School bombardment advocates, this assertion was eventually construed to mean that bombers like the B-17 Flying Fortress could be sufficiently self-defending to penetrate enemy defenses and bomb the target without unacceptable or uneconomic losses.24

What we would emphasize here is the historical lack of support in actual combat experience for this bomber penetration doctrine. The first missions of the American daylight bomber offensive from the United Kingdom were flown in August 1942. By October of that year, the senior leaders of the U.S. Eighth Air Force were "absolutely convinced," based on the command's experiences against targets in France and the Low Countries, that a force of 300 or more unescorted heavy bombers could "attack any target in Germany with less than 4 percent losses."25

It took time, though, to build up the force structure in England necessary to raise Eighth's dispatchable bomber strength to the 300-plus level. For a variety of reasons, it was not until the summer of 1943 that Eighth Air Force's Commander, General Ira C. Eaker, managed to accumulate enough B-24s and B-17s to begin putting the idea of self-defending bomber formations to the test.

The bitter dénouement of this grand doctrinal experiment in early October 1943 is well known. Without fighter protection all the way to the target, the bombers proved far more vulnerable than had been calculated. Over the period 8-14 October 1943, Eighth Air Force mounted four all-out efforts to break through the German fighter defenses unescorted. Since a total of 1410 heavy bombers were dispatched, losses should not have exceeded fifty-six B-17s and B-24s, according to doctrine.26 However, Eighth lost 148 bombers and crews outright, mostly as a result of determined opposition from Luftwaffe fighters.27 Adding in the fifteen additional heavies that returned damaged beyond economical repair, these four missions cost Eighth Air Force 21 percent of bombers on hand in its tactical units and at least 31 percent of its heavy-bomber crews.28 As General Holley justifiably said in his 1974 Harmon Memorial Lecture, "The vigor with which Luftwaffe pilots subsequently pressed . . . attacks on 8th . . . formations over Festung Europa provides all the commentary that is necessary for this particular bit of doctrinal myopia."29 Although Eighth's bombers had not been turned away from their targets, General Walker's penetration doctrine had failed the test of World War II battle experience in the specific sense that German fighter defenses had shown themselves able to impose unsupportable losses on the American bomber formations.30

Even more significantly, the Army Air Corps' prewar penetration doctrine also lacked justification in prior combat experience from World War I. During the early years of the Air Officers School at Langley Field, Virginia, when the experience of the Great War was still heavily relied on, the prevailing view among the instructors had been that pursuit (fighter) aviation dedicated to gaining and holding control of the air was a necessary prerequisite for successful bombardment operations. The school's texts up to 1927 made this point clear:

Pursuit in its relationship to the Air Service . . . may be compared to the infantry in its relationship to the other branches of the Army. Without Pursuit, the successful employment of the other branches is impossible.

Pursuit aviation will provide the main protection for Bombardment aircraft.31

So to suggest that the main reason for the doctrinal myopia regarding bomber penetration that came to dominate Air Corps Tactical School thinking during the 1930s was insufficient experience seems dubious history at best. Admittedly, from the standpoint of tactical detail, bombardment enthusiasts such as General Walker (and later, General Eaker himself) did make their theoretical extrapolations from "a virtually clean slate."32 Also, in the context of their heartfelt desire for autonomy from the U.S. Army, it is easy to understand why these same air power crusaders tended to be overly optimistic where the emerging technology of the B-17 was concerned.33 But in a more fundamental sense, they were the ones who chose to erase the slate of experience.

This conclusion may seem harsh. Certainly, the various American airmen who advocated daylight, precision bombardment during the 1930s and early 1940s would be on firm ground in pointing out that World War I produced precious little empirical data on large-scale, sustained bombardment operations against the industrial heart of an enemy nation. Yet to accept this explanation as an adequate defense of bomber invincibility is to interpret the word experience in a dangerously narrow way. The seminal flaw in the doctrine of bomber invincibility was not a lack of empirical data either about large-scale bombardment operations or the aircraft technologies that had emerged by the outset of World War II. Rather, it was the refusal of American airmen, as a matter of basic doctrine, to recognize that in real war, as opposed to war on paper, one must interact with an animate adversary who is motivated, literally on pain of death, to respond in surprising and unpredictable ways.34 In their headlong rush to prove that strategic bombardment could be decisive, Eighth's bomber leaders were tempted to act as if, contrary to all past experience, they had forged an offensive weapon against which no enemy could defend successfully.31

Is it reasonable to suggest that American bomber enthusiasts might have read the record of past wars less narrowly, less parochially? All we can say is that during the 1920s and 1930s there were those who clearly did. As a case in point, we would offer the following excerpt from a 1936 U.S. Army translation of the introduction of the German army's field service regulations (or Truppenfuehrung) of 1933:

Situations in war are of unlimited variety. They change often and suddenly and only rarely are from the first discernible. Incalculable elements are often of great influence. The independent will of the enemy is pitted against ours. Friction and mistakes are of everyday occurrence.36

It is difficult to overstate the profound difference between the Clausewitzian image of war so vividly articulated in this brief passage from the 1933 German Truppenfuehrung and a notion like the Army Air Corps' dictum about bomber invincibility.

In any event, the lesson concerning doctrine's intimate relationship with combat experience should, by now, be apparent. As episodes like Eighth Air Force's costly failure in October 1943 to penetrate German air defenses unescorted demonstrate, flawed doctrine can cost lives. And the shortest road to flawed doctrine is to develop it in the abstract, that is, without sufficient attention to the uncompromising realities of battle.

Doctrine as Fingerspitzengefuehl

To win, you've got to take risks. How does a commander tell which risks are worth taking? He has a lot of conflicting inputs. But computers don't give the answer. Nor does intelligence. None of them gives the answer. In Israel, it's the combat experienced commander who's qualified to tell which risks are worth taking.

General Ben-Nun, Israeli Air Force, 1984

Those who start in the company's mainline jobs, the making or selling parts of the business, are unlikely to be subsequently fooled by the abstractions of planning, market research, or management systems as they are promoted. Moreover, their instincts for the business develop. They learn to manage not only bv the numbers but also, and perhaps more importantly, by a real feel for the business. They have been there. Their instincts are good. [Emphasis added.]

Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman
In Search of Excellence, 1982

To this point we have concentrated on what doctrine is not, arguing that it can be neither exactly defined nor safely cut off from battle experience. Having done so, are we finally in a position to say something useful about what doctrine might be?

By making the abstract definition of roles and missions the touchstone of their thinking, U.S. airmen have turned the doctrinal enterprise into a sterile scholasticism too little related to the concrete activities of war itself. Presumably, then, what we need to do in the future is to tie doctrine more directly to combat experience.

How does combat experience provide a practical alternative to first trying to nail down in words exactly what doctrine is? Michael Polanyi, physical chemist turned philosopher, has argued that human beings have a capacity to know more than they can tell.37 Skillful feats, like air combat maneuvering or manual dive bombing, illustrate this sort of tacit knowledge (or implicit understanding38). Such acts are tacit (or implicit), according to Polanyi, because the dissection of a skill into its constituent parts is always incomplete. But skills also represent knowledge (or understanding) insofar as they can be mastered and reliably repeated on demand.

To be stressed is Polanyi's realization that if the constituents of a given skill cannot be exhaustively and explicitly specified, then each individual must discover for himself "the right feel" for any particular skill.39 A striking illustration is provided by the George Air Force Base F-4 instructor pilot who, in the early 1970s, developed such a flair for dive bombing that he could turn off his gunsight and still, more often than not, drop the best bombs in the flight. Asked how he did it, he would reply: "I pickle when it feels right."40 If common experience about skillful feats is any guide, no other reply is possible (although one presumes that the pilot in question must have dropped quite a few bombs before he was able to function this well without the aid of a gunsight).

It may seem a long step from particular tactical skills like dive bombing to warfighting in general. In reality, however, the two have more in common than what first meets the eye. The stresses of actual war may not always test the bodily strength, intellect, and character of a high commander in precisely the same ways as they test those of a young pilot, but test them they do. And the nub of that test, as the World War II fighter ace Donald S. Gentile (19.83 victories air-to-air) so poignantly stated, is the life or death imperative to act. Air-to-air combat, Gentile recounted while still flying missions with the Eighth Air Force's 4th Fighter Group in 1944,

goes in a series of whooshes. There is no time to think. If you take time to think you will not have time to act. There are a number of things your mind is doing while you are fighting--seeing, measuring, guessing, remembering, adding up this and that and worrying about one thing and another and taking this into account and that into account and rejecting this notion and accepting that notion . . . . But while the fight is on, your mind feels empty . . . as if the flesh of it is sitting in your head, bunched up like muscle and quivering there.41

What is Gentile saying? For the most part, he is describing the implicit but interactive cross-referencing process by which combatants continually orient and reorient themselves in the unfolding circumstances of battle.42 Only his final sentence in the cited passage--where Gentile ostensibly says that in the heat of battle his mind feels empty--requires explanation. Those of us who have been exposed to combat would suggest that he really means something other than what his words literally say. If the mind is constantly seeing, measuring, guessing, and weighing this or that during battle, then it cannot be literally empty of activity. But it may be empty in a less obvious sense: namely, that while directly engaged in fighting, combatants are seldom fully conscious of their mental processes. In other words, thinking during battle is mostly a matter of skilled responses so deeply internalized or nearly autonomous that the combatants themselves are no more than partially aware of all that they are doing.43

The point is that in real war there is almost never enough time, unambiguous information, or relief from the dreadful pressures of combat to think though any situation in the step-by-step, fully conscious manner possible at home, in the office, or in the classroom. For better or worse, war compels combatants of every rank to lean heavily upon whatever Fingerspitzengefuehl (or implicit feel for battle) they may possess.44 Yes, everyone who engages in combat strives to plan in advance as systematically as he can, to use every available scrap of information, and to leave as little to chance as possible. But despite one's best efforts, real war has a ruthless way of forcing combatants to respond first and foremost on the basis of their implicit appreciation for what is likely to work in specific combat situations.45

A Warfighter's View of Doctrine

As warfighters, what can we ultimately say about what doctrine is? Clausewitz stated, early in On War, that theory can never fully define the general concept of friction.46 But realizing that useful metaphors could be given, he variously characterized friction as (a) "the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper," (b) "the force that makes the apparently easy [in war] so difficult," and (c) "the elements that coalesce to form the atmosphere of war."47 Following Clausewitz's lead, we would insist that a formal definition of doctrine that explicitly captures all its particulars and nothing more cannot be given. But, we would likewise go on to characterize doctrine--at least in the sense of offering a baseline metaphor--as the implicit orientation with which a military culture collectively responds to the unfolding circumstances of war.

What is this metaphor intended to convey? It implies first of all that doctrine can be an overriding determinant of combat outtomes. In Attack and Die, Grady McWhiney and Perry Jamieson have argued that in the first three years of the American Civil War, the Confederacy "simply bled itself to death . . . by taking the tactical offensive in nearly 70 percent of the major actions"--even though, by 1861, advances in infantry weapon technology had begun to give the upper hand to the defense.48 While McWhiney and Jamieson undoubtedly rely overmuch on crude statistical comparisons, they are right to draw attention to the pivotal role of doctrinal orientation in the South's eventual defeat. The plain fact seems to be that the Confederates were never able to transcend a tactical mindset that saw offensive action as the only honorable approach to war.

Second, doctrine-as-implicit-orientation highlights the tacit nature of the assumptions and beliefs by which combatants fail or succeed. Regardless of how much we do or do not write down in our doctrine manuals, the precepts that count most in the heat of battle are those that have become more or less second nature. This reality obviously places a heavy burden on everyone in military uniform to master the craft of warfighting. But if we are to go by the evidence, the shoulders of warriors and "operators" are precisely where this burden should lie. As one veteran Israeli pilot said after the June 1982 air campaign over Lebanon in response to American questions about how much doctrine the Israeli Air Force had written down, "Yes, we have books. But they are very thin."49 Or, to offer a more concrete metaphor, the doctrine that really wins or loses wars is the collection of internalized values, rules of thumb, and elemental images of war on which a military group instinctively relies in battle.

The foremost observation that we would make about our metaphorical characterizations of doctrine is that they do appear more likely to be useful to combatants than the abstract definitions of terms so typical of mainstream Air Force doctrine to date. After all, construed as the implicit orientation or collective instincts of battle-wise veterans, doctrine can be seen as a working synthesis of the Fingerspitzengefuehl of successful warfighters. And because the mature Fingerspitzengefuehl of a George Patton, a Heinz Guderian, or an Erich Hartmann has so often produced amazing battle results, doctrine then boils down to what is known to work where it counts--in combat.50

Why might this view of doctrine work better than an approach grounded on definitional abstractions? Consider the sorts of insights that skilled practitioners of military art have distilled from battle experience in the past:

To those skilled in war, these statements are concrete and easily understood. They reflect the face of battle as it is, not as pure theoreticians and force planners so often wish or assume it to be. Above all else, they provide a clear basis for action. It is the down-to-earth, battle-tested Fingerspitzengefuehl embodied in propositions like these that should be the warp and weave of Air Force doctrine.

This last thought suggests another observation regarding doctrine-as-implicit-orientation. The pressures of the annual Pentagon budget process neither excuse nor justify the historical concentration of Air Force doctrinal thought on abstract definitions. Admittedly, budgets cannot be ignored, and careful definitions may even have a certain utility vis-à-vis allocations within and between the various services. We would suggest, however, that for the most part the Air Force at large would be better advised to concentrate more on questions like: Does war remain fundamentally a contest between independent wills dominated by friction? For not only has there been ample-to-overwhelming evidence in favor of this essentially Clausewitzian view of war's nature for decades (if not centuries), but an implicit orientation that is shared, unifying, and easy to implement has also been one of the keys to overcoming friction.

FINALLY, however one elects to think about basic air power doctrine, it must be firmly grounded on hard evidence. To view Air Force doctrine primarily in terms of abstract roles and missions requiring zealous protection tends to equate past success with historical validity. True, the United States and its allies won World War II; and after that war, American airmen won service autonomy. But neither of these victories can be said to have validated the Air Force's basic doctrine to any great degree. The unpleasant reality is that, beyond clearly foreseeing the future importance of air power at a time when most men did not, the majority of American air commanders, as late as the fall of 1943, "failed completely to grasp the essential meaning of air superiority," and every salient prewar belief of American air strategists "was either overthrown or drastically modified by the experience of war."58 Our air doctrine, in short, has not always enjoyed the firmest basis in empirical fact. And if we hope to do better in the future, then we must never forget that the ultimate arbiter of doctrinal beliefs is whether they help us to prevail in the air. "Anything else," as Baron Manfred von Richthofen once said, "is absurd."59

Washington, D.C.


1. Robert Frank Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine: A History of Basic Thinking in the United States Air Force, 1907-1964 (Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Air University Press, 1971), pp. 6-7.

2. Air Force Manual 1-1: Basic Aerospace Doctrine of the United States Air Force (Washington: Headquarters U.S. Air Force, 5 January 1984), pp. v, A-1, A-2, and A-4.

3. The Air Service Field Officers School that began at Langley Field, Virginia, in October 1920 changed its name to the Air Service Tactical School in 1922. In the wake of the 1926 Air Corps Act, the school became the Air Corps Tactical School, and in 1931 it moved to Maxwell Field outside Montgomery, Alabama. See I. B. Holley, Jr., An Enduring Challenge: The Problem of Air Force Doctrine (Colorado Springs: U.S. Air Force Academy, 1974), Harmon Memorial Lectures in Military History, Number Sixteen, pp. 3 and 15.

4. David MacIsaac, Strategic Bombing in World War II: The Story of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (New York: Garland, 1976), p. 7; Haywood S. Hansell, Jr., The Air Plan That Defeated Hitler (Atlanta, Georgia: Higgins-McArthur/Longino and Porter, 1972), pp. 4, 8, and 75-76; Thomas A. Fabyanic, "The Development of Airpower between the Wars," video taped lecture to the Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, 3 February 1983, transcription by Barry D. Watts, pp. 16-18.

5. Futrell, p. 5; also Brigadier General Dale O. Smith, U.S. Military Doctrine: A Study and Appraisal (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1955), pp. 4-6.

6. Futrell, pp. 5 and 7.

7. I. B. Holley, Jr., "Concepts, Doctrines, Principles: Are You Sure You Understand These Terms?" Air University Review, July-August 1984, pp. 90-93

8. The dialectical dialogues of Plato's earliest period are considered to include, among other works, the Laches, Protagoras, Euthyphro, and Meno. See Gilbert Byte, "Plato," The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan and the Free Press, 1967), Vol. 6, p. 319.

9. Plato, Laches, translated by Benjamin Jowett in The Great Books of the Western World, edited by Robert M. Hutchins (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952), Vol. 7, p. 32.

10. Illusive of the substantive difficulties that arise is the objection in the Euthyphro that to define piety as being what is loved by the gods merely gives an attribute of piety, not its essence. Plato, Euthyphro, in Great Books, p. 196.

11. At the end of the Euthyphro, for example, the most positive statement that the participants can make is that they "must begin again and ask, What is piety?" Ibid., p. 198.

12. Georg Cantor, Contributions to the Founding of the Theory of Transfinite Numbers, translated by Philip E. B. Jourdain (New York: Dover, 1955), p. 85.

13. Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language: Unabridged, definition 44b, p. 2078.

14. Ibid., definition 6, and definition 5. Emphasis added.

15. In full, Rusell's paradox goes as follows. "One notes that many sets do not contain themselves. Examples are the set of all books (which is not itself a book), the set of all primes less than ten, the set of all things which am not themselves sets, etc. We may call such sets normal. Abnormal sets are those sets which do contain themselves. Examples are the set of all sets, the set of all sets describable in fewer than 20 English words, the set of all sets which contain more than three members, etc. Now consider the set of all normal sets and ask whether it is normal or abnormal. If it is normal, then it doesn't contain itself, by definition of normal. However, if it doesn't contain itself, it is does contain itself, since it is the set of all normal sets. If, on the other hand, it is abnormal, then it contains itself, by definition of abnormal. However, if it contains itself, it is excluded from itself, since it is the set of only normal sets. In short, we again have a contradiction." See Howard DeLong, A Profile of Mathematical Logic (Menlo Park, California: Addison-Wesley, 1970), p. 82.

16. Raziel Abelson, "Definition," The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 2, p. 314.

17. There are at least two reasons why formulations of set theory that avoid the known paradoxes do not undercut Abelson's view that no general theory of definition exists.

First, even though formal axiomatizations of set theory, such as that associated with the work of Ernst Zermelo, Abraham Fraenkel, and Thoralf Skolem, equate the word "set" with the primitive variables (or terms) occurring in the Zermelo-Fraenkel-Skolem axioms, the mathematical system deduced from them is formally "independent of any meanings which may be associated with the primitive terms" employed in those axioms. See Howard Eves and Carroll V. Newson, An Introduction to the Foundations and Fundamental Concepts of Mathematics, rev. ed. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965), p. 117.

Second, the fact that two of the Zermelo-Fraenkel-Skolem axioms (the axiom of choice and the continuum hypothesis) are now known to be independent of the others demonstrates "the intuitive incompleteness of the standard axioms of set theory--incompleteness to a degree hardly expected. To a certain extent the situation is comparable to that in geometry after the independence of the parallel postulate was established. We now have many geometries and presumably we may expect many set theories." See Patrick Suppes, Axiomatic Set Theory, rev. ed. (New York: Dover, 1972), pp. 252-53. In other words, because alternative set theories would, like non-Euclidean geometries, be based on embracing at least one axiom that is logically inconsistent with the "standard" ones, existing means of avoiding the known set-theoretic paradoxes fail to furnish a unique understanding of what a set is.

18. The definitional difficulties that have been encountered by various NATO agencies and groups dealing with BAI have led the Tactical Air Command (TAC) staff recently to recommend that BAI be subsumed into air interdiction. TAC's view is that BAI and AI are so functionally similar that they would be best directed and controlled as a single "mission area." We would note, however, that working definitions of BAI adequate for practical purposes are less troublesome. In the Israeli Air Force (IAF), for example, a sortie or mission either participates in the ground battle or not. If it does participate in the ground battle, then the sortie or mission is either coordinated (i.e., targets are generated by the ground forces or else decided on jointly) or not coordinated (i.e., targets are specified by the IAF alone and do not require army support, input, or control).

19. Air Force Manual 1-1, Functions and Basic Doctrine of the United States Air Force (Washington: Headquarters U.S. Air Force, 14 February 1979), p. vii; Air Force Manual 1-1, Basic Aerospace Doctrine of the United States Air Force, pp. v and vii.

20. Marshal of the Soviet Union Nikolay Vasil'yevich Ogarkov, Always in Readiness to Defend the Homeland, translated by Foreign Broadcast Information Service (JPRS L/10412) (Moscow: Voenizdat, 1982), p. 41. This characterization of Soviet military doctrine was revived in the 1960s and can be traced back to Mikhail V. Frunze. See, for example, A. A. Grechko, The Armed Forces of the Soviet Union, translated by Yuri Sviridov (Moscow: Progress, 1977), p. 270; V. D. Sokolovskiy, Soviet Military Strategy, edited and translated by Harriet Fast Scott (New York: Crane, Russak and Company, 1968), pp. 38-40; and The Soviet Art of War: Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics, edited by Harriet Fast Scott and William F. Scott (Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1982), pp. 27-30.

21. Stephen M. Meyer, Soviet Theater Nuclear Forces (Part I: Development of Doctrine and Objectives), Adelphi Papers Number 187 (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, Winter 1983/4), pp. 3-5; John Hemsley, Soviet Troop Control: The Role of Command Technology in the Soviet Military System (New York: Brassey's, 1982), p. 261; Harriet Fast Scott and William F. Scott, pp. 92-93 and 140.

22. Holley, "Concepts, Doctrines, Principles," p. 90.

23. Hansell, p. 15.

24. Fabyanic, pp. 11 and 16.

25. Williamson Murray, Strategy for Defeat: The Luftwaffe 1933-945 (Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama: Air University Press, 1983), p. 170.

26. Roger A. Freeman with Alan Crouchman and Vic Maslen, Mighty Eighth War Diary (London: Jane's, 1981), pp. 123-26.

27. Alfred B. Ferguson, "POINTBLANK" in The Army Air Forces in World War II, edited by Wesley F. Craven and James L. Cate, Vol. 2, Europe: TORCH to POINTBLANK, August 1942 to December 1943 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), p. 705.

28. Murray, Tables XXXIII and XXXIV on pp. 175-76; Freeman, pp. 123-26.

29. Holley, An Enduring Challenge, p. 5.

30. William R. Emerson, OPERATION POINTBLANK: A Tale of Bombers and Fighters (Colorado Springs: U.S. Air Force Academy, 1962), Harmon Memorial Lectures in Military History, Number Four, p. 24. During World War II, Emerson flew a combat tour in the P-47 in the Mediterranean theater of operations.

31. Fabyanic, p. 2. The statements cited were taken from Air Corps Tactical School documents.

32. Holley, An Enduring Challenge, p. 7.

33. Fabyanic, p. 13.

34. Von Clausewitz, pp. 139 and 149. As Williamson Murray has recently observed, the unpardonable aspect of Eighth Air Force's staggering bomber losses in October 1943 stemmed from the refusal of American airmen to alter their prewar doctrine in the face of battle experience. Thus, while the sixty bombers lost on the Schweinfurt/Regensburg raid of 17 August 1943 can be defended, "the second great disaster over Schweinfurt in October 1943 (where another sixty bombers were lost) raises the most serious doubts about the willingness of Eighth's leadership to adapt doctrine to reality." See Williamson Murray, "A Tale of Two Doctrines: The Luftwaffe's Conduct of the Air War' and the USAF's Manual 1-1," Journal of Strategic Studies, December 1983, p. 85.

35. Elmer Bendiner, who flew as a B-17 navigator on both the 17 August and 14 October 1943 missions to Schweinfurt, has concluded that on both occasions Eighth's crews "were sent on a hazardous mission to destroy in a single day an objective that was vulnerable only to repeated assaults for which we [Eighth's bomber groups] had not the strength. Those objectives could not wait for the arrival of more bombers, of the promised Mustangs, of belly tanks and wing ranks, because we had to dramatize the importance of air power in the European Theater for the benefit of the public and the Navy." Emphasis added. See Elmer Bendiner, The Fall of Fortresses: A Personal Account of the Most Daring--and Deadly--American Air Battles of World War II (New York: G. P. Putnam's Son, 1980), p. 234. Eaker, as Bendiner notes, largely confirmed this assessment in 1977 during an interview with Albert Speer. See Ira C. Eaker and Arthur G. B. Metcalf, "Conversations with Albert Speer," Air Force Magazine, April 1977, p. 56.

36. German Field Service Regulations, Truppenfuehrung (Troop Leading), Part I, translated by U.S. Army, Report No. 14,507, 18 March 1936, p. 1. For a fuller discussion of traditional German versus recent American air doctrine, see Murray, "A Tale of Two Doctrines."

37. Michael Polanyi, Knowing and Being: Essays by Michael Polanyi, edited by Marjorie Grene (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), p. 133.

38. John R. Boyd, Organic Design for Command and Control (Washington: Xerox reproduction of briefing slides, March 1984), p. 8.

39. Polanyi, p. 126.

40. The pilot who could "bomb everybody's eyes out" with his sight reticle turned off was Bobby G. Williams. When then Lieutenant James Hale encountered him in 1971 at George Air Force Base, California, Williams was a major instructing in the F-4 replacement training unit. Williams's story is not unique. After the Korean War, Captain Cal Davey, while flying F-86s at Nellis AFB, Nevada, developed the same kind of eye-watering proficiency at dive bombing. Davey too explained his talent in terms of feel, often briefing other pilots that he simply pickled "when that guy taps me on the back of the shoulder."

41. Captain Don S. Gentile, as told to Ira Wolfert, One-Man Air Force (New York: American Book-Stratford Press, 1944), pp. 8-9.

42. Boyd, p. 15. "Orientation," Boyd says, "is an interactive process of many-sided implicit cross-referencing projections, empathies, correlations, and rejections that is shaped by and shapes the interplay of genetic heritage, cultural tradition, previous experiences, and unfolding circumstances."

43. As G. M. Stratton's work in the 1890s with vision-inverting glasses revealed, even perceptual feats as seemingly transparent as vision involve extensive information processing that is not accessible to the consciousness of the perceiver. See Polanyi, pp. 198-99.

More generally, large organizations and higher organisms exist effectively because of their ability to manage complexity through such techniques as delegating various subtasks to near-autonomous subsystems that are allowed "to go their own way and work on their own problems most of the time." See Paul K. Davis, "Rand's Experience in Applying Artificial Intelligence Techniques to Strategic-Level Military-Political War Gaming," Rand Corporation Paper P-6977, April 1984, p. 11.

44. Fingerspitungefuehl literally means fingertip feel but is more often translated as instinct, intuition, or flair. Like many German figures of speech, it tends to have metaphorical connotations that am difficult to capture in literal English translations.

45. Boyd, pp. 24-25 and 28.

46. Clausewitz, p. 120.

47. Clausewitz, pp. 119, 121, and 122.

48. Grady McWhiney and Perry D. Jamieson, Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1982), pp. 7, 40, 57, and 146.

49. The American to whom this reply was addressed was Major Hale, who was part of an Air Force team that visited Israel in May 1983.

50. The military achievements of General Patton are fairly well known to American readers. Generaloberst Heinz Wilhelm Guderian created the Panzertruppe that proved so pivotal to Germany's swift conquest of Poland and France in 1939and 1940. See Kenneth Macksey, Guderian: Creator of the Blitzkrieg (New York: Stein and Day, 1976), p. 63. Erich Hartmann is credited with 352 aerial victories on the eastern front during World War II, including seven against American-flown P-51s. See Edward H. Sims, The Aces Talk, formerly Fighter Tactics and Strategy 1914-1970 (New York: Ballantine, 1972), p. 232.

51. Lieutenant Colonel Watts first encountered the maxim "Survive first, kill bogies second" at the Navy 's Topgun Fighter Weapons School in 1975. The occasion was a syllabus lecture on "two-versus-many" by Alex Rucker.

52. S. L. A. Marshall, Swift Sword: The Historical Record of Israel's Victory, June 1967 (New York: American Heritage, 1967), p. 133.

53. General die Infantrie Guenther Blumentritt, as quoted by C. A. Leader, "The Kriegsakadamie: Synthesizer of Clausewitzian Theory and Practice," unpublished paper, 30 July 1982, p. 42.

54. Captain Albert C. Wedemeyer, The German General Staff School, Report Number 15,999 from the U.S. Military Attaché, Berlin, 11 July 1938, National Archives Record Group 407, p. 139.

55. George S. Patton, Jr., quoted in Martin Blumenson, The Patton Papers: 1940-1945 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 86.

56. Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings: The Classic Guide to Strategy, translated by Victor Harris (Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press, 1974), p. 49. Musashi, known to his fellow Japanese as Kensei (Sword Saint), was a Kendo master who lived from 1584 to 1645.

57. Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr., In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies (New York: Warner Books, 1982), pp. 63-67. As Peters and Waterman note, "Keep it simple, stupid!" is rooted in the psychological fact that humans are not good at processing large streams of new data and information; instead, they "reason with simple decision rules, which is a fancy way of saying that, in this complex world, they trust their gut."

58. Emerson, p. 40.

59. Manfred Freiheer von Richthofen, translated by Peter Kilduff, The Red Baron (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1969), p. 116. The quotation is part of the longer quotation: "The fighter pilots should have an allotted are a to cruise around in as it suits them, but when they see an opponent they must attack and shoot him down. Anything else is absurd .... The mastery of the air in war is won through nothing other than battle, that is, shooting down the enemy."


Lieutenant Colonel Barry D. Watts (USAFA; M.A., University of Pittsburgh) is Red Team Chief for Project Checkmate at Headquarters USAF. His recent assignments have been in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and instructor at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Prior to that he flew F-4s, including a combat tour at Ubon, Thailand. Colonel Watts is the author of other articles, which have been published in Topgun Journal, USAF Fighter Weapons Review, and Air Force Magazine.

Major James O. Hale (B.A., University of Utah; M.S., University of Southern California) is a Blue Team Air-to-Air Analyst assigned to Project Checkmate at Hq USAF. His flight assignments include F-15s (Nellis AFB, Nevada, and Langley AFB, Virginia); and F-4s (Kadena AB, Okinawa, Japan, and Ubon, Thailand).


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.

Air & Space Power Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor