Air University Review, May-June 1986

Some Thoughts on
Clausewitz and Airplanes

Major James B. Smith

The current fascination for Clausewitz among American military writers intrigues me. Consider for a moment the resurgence in the study of Clausewitz and the proliferation of ideas in Clausewitz's name. Dozens of articles have appeared in professional journals over the last decade dealing with everything from nuclear weapons to electronic combat and using Clausewitz as their guiding prophet. For example, Clausewitz has been quoted more than forty times in Air University Review alone in the last five years.

I must confess, however, that in my ten years plus of flying, Clausetitz's name has not once come up in a squadron briefing room. Further, he never helped me write a staff summary or develop an OPlan in an entire tour on a MAJCOM staff. Thus, the inevitable question for this aviator became: What has Clausewitz got to do with airplanes?

While Clausewitz has little apparent day-to-day applicability at squadron or wing level, his ideas have influenced profoundly what U.S. Air Force squadrons and wings do. It is worthwhile examining how and why this came to be. This article explores two aspects of Clausewitz and airplanes: the role of the ideas of Clausewitz in the development of doctrine at the Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS) and the importance of Clausewitz's concepts in modern air warfare.

Students of Clausewitz will find that ACTS instructors drew several key ideas from Clausewitz. The relation of war to politics played an important theoretical role in establishing aviation as a wartime instrument of policy. Further, the concepts of the defeat of the "will" of the enemy and the "center of gravity" bridged the gap between existing Army doctrine and developing air power doctrine. Moreover, the ACTS experience suggests an enduring applicability of Clausewitz for today's planners. Clausewitz's concept of friction in war has particular relevance and value for a modern air force.

Clausewitz at the Air
Corps Tactical School

A study of the ideas exchanged—and ultimately codified into doctrine—at the Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field in the 1930s provides a basis for comparing the U.S. airman's view of war with that of Clausewitz. It was, after all, at this school that Air Force views of war were germinated.

The work of the Air Corps Tactical School was not entirely original: the basic idea behind strategic bombardment predated World War I. Nevertheless, the school was important because it was the intellectual center of the fledgling air arm and because its faculty systematically developed a specific theory of strategic bombardment and taught it to other air officers. Still, the work of the Air Corps Tactical School might well have received little attention had not some of the school's key faculty members (Harold George, Laurence Kuter, Kenneth Walker, and Haywood Hansell) later formed the nucleus of General Henry H. Arnold's staff in the development of AWPD-1, the basic document for the conduct of the strategic air offensive by U.S. forces against Germany. For the most part, the work of these men has been studied solely in terms of the unique contribution made by the Air Corps Tactical School to the teaching of the theory of strategic bombardment. But their work in establishing a coherent air doctrine for the United States suggests a remarkable understanding of the nature of war and its relationship to national policy.

Clausewitz's clearest contribution to American air power doctrine of the 1930s was his discussion of war as an instrument of policy. Clausewitz began his study with an attempt to answer two basic questions: What is the nature of war, and how does it relate to national policy? On the other hand, the ACTS instructors, convinced that they stood at the threshold of a true revolution in warfare, began by attempting to identify maxims applicable to that revolution. Their underlying grasp of the realities of military operations led them into the same avenues of analysis that Clausewitz had pursued. They started with the same questions.

P>With respect to the relationship of war to national policy, one can find specific references to Clausewitz in the works of ACTS leaders. Haywood S. "Possum" Hansell, for example, while a lieutenant and instructor at the school, quoted Clausewitz in the school's 1935-36 introductory course, defining war as "the furtherance of national policy by other means."1 Hansell went on to explain the Clausewitzian viewpoint:

Von Clausewitz realized that there are normal means for furthering national policy in time of peace. Von Clausewitz had in mind diplomatic, economic, and financial stratagems by which nations seek to further their own policies in time of peace. It is only when all other means have failed that the conflict is continued by violence.2

Like Clausewitz, then, Hansell attempted, in the beginning, to analyze the nature of war. Both men realized that countries can employ peaceful methods to achieve national goals while maintaining political stability between nations. When these peaceful methods fail, the countries may resort to war as an instrument to attain their respective national objectives.

The officers at the Air Corps Tactical School also echoed Clausewitz in analyzing the object of war. Hansell, again referring to Clausewitz, argued that the "real object of war is not a continuance of violence, but the establishment of a satisfactory peace."3 He expanded on this point in postulating that "war is unsuccessful unless it brings about a lasting peace, on terms that are favorable to national policy. "4

The primary proponent of the Clausewitzian argument of war as an instrument of policy was Muir S. "Santy" Fairchild, who had studied the work of the nineteenth-century philosopher. The injection of Clausewitz's writing in the ACTS environment appears to have been his initiative.5 Fairchild "explored the field of national policy and the role of air power as an instrument of national policy for the furtherance of national objectives ... and to ... distill the nature of military requirements from the muddied waters of national policy."6

Beyond this theoretical introduction to warfare, the direct connection between Clausewitz and the Air Corps Tactical School is less clear. Indeed, the origin of ACTS reasoning is, at best, vague. Douhet, Mitchell, and Clausewitz are all possibilities. Douhet is credited with first establishing a theory of strategic bombardment, but his actual influence on ACTS thought seems destined to remain a matter of conjecture.7 Certainly, Douhet's theory of strategic bombing was radically different from that developed at Maxwell, so "it appears that whatever influence he had was inspirational rather than anything else."8 Similarly obscure is the influence of Mitchell, despite the fact that his "aim was to stimulate the development of all aspects of the military air potential" and he is generally recognized as the rallying point for a separate service.9 Mitchell's direct contribution to the air power doctrine developed at the Air Corps Tactical School is simply not defined well.

Clausewitz, on the other hand, is quoted directly in the ACTS lectures, indicating that members of the ACTS faculty had at least a basic familiarity with his work. The degree to which his writings influenced bombing doctrine is strictly speculative, however, since beyond a general discussion on the nature of war, direct reference to Clausewitz (or any other theorist) is not evident in the lectures. In fact, it appears that the aviators at the tactical school may have selectively applied whatever theories made the argument for a strategic bombardment theory more convincing and palatable to Army superiors. Nonetheless, distinct parallels exist between Clausewitz's writings and the school's theory of strategic bombardment.


In addition to influencing the ACTS aviators' basic views of war and of how air power related to war, the ideas of Clausewitz seem to have provided ACTS thinkers with a conceptual link to bridge the gap between existing Army doctrine and the air power doctrine being formulated at Maxwell. These aviation pioneers faced at least two concrete problems: internally, they had to come to grips with the capabilities and limitations of the airplane; externally, they faced the challenge of gaining recognition for the unique capabilities of the airplane. As Army officers, they must have addressed these two problems in terms they understood, based on a knowledge of existing Army doctrine. Moreover, in the face of impending interservice rivalry and economic austerity, they had to address these two problems in terms that could be understood by nonaviators.

Army doctrine of the day was set forth in the Field Service Regulations of 1923 and was written in Clausewitzian terms. For example, we read in one regulation: "The ultimate objective of all military operations is the destruction of the enemy forces by battle. Decisive defeat in battle breaks the enemy’s will to war and forces him to sue for peace."10 Similarly, the Air Corps Tactical School grasped the idea of defeating the will of the enemy as the foundation for air power doctrine. War as defined by Hansell in his lecture "The Aim in War" was:

... essentially and fundamentally a conflict of the wills—the will to obtain is opposed to the will to retain. The will to progress is in conflict with the will to resist that progression.... Hence it is, in the viewpoint of the aggressor, an effort to overcome the will to resist.11

Further, Major Harold L. George, an instructor at the Maxwell school, contended that "the real object in war is to overcome the hostile will.... The basic purpose, the fundamental object in war is to force the will of one nation upon another nation, to overcome the hostile will."12 Thus, Clausewitz's dictum that war is "an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfill our will" seems to have been a vital link between existing Army doctrine and emerging air doctrine.13 <

The stumbling block for these aviation enthusiasts lay in the traditional belief, as suggested by Army doctrine, that defeat of the enemy ground forces in battle must precede (and will result in) overcoming the enemy government's will to resist. ACTS faculty members rejected the viewpoint then prevalent in the Army that only armies on the battlefield could bring about decisive victory. They argued that defeating the enemy's army was merely a means to an end, not an end in itself. According to Major George, "the destruction of the military forces of the enemy is not and never has been the objective of war; it has been merely a means to an end—merely the removal of an obstacle which lay in the path of overcoming the will to resist."14 With the coming of aviation, air power enthusiasts saw a unique way of defeating the will of the enemy and all the while avoiding the expensive, bloody confrontation they remembered so vividly from World War I: "The object of war can be obtained with less destruction and lasting effects than has heretofore been the case. At present, the Air Force provides the only means for such an accomplishment."15

Rather than concentrating their focus solely on the enemy's army, air power theorists contended there might be other, more direct ways of defeating the enemy's will to resist. They couched this argument in Clausewitzian terms, adopting the idea of a nation's center of gravity for use in their doctrine. Clausewitz realized the importance of choosing a key element of the adversary's structure and concentrating military effort against that element. He wrote:

All that theory can say here is as follows: That the great point is to keep the overruling relations of both parties in view. Out of them a certain centre of gravity, a centre of power and movement, will form itself, on which everything depends; and against this centre of gravity of the enemy, the concentrated blow of all the forces must be employed.16

The ACTS theorists agreed that, in an earlier time, the center of gravity had often been the enemy's army. Such had been the case not only in the wars of the Napoleonic era but also in those of Alexander, Gustavus Adolphus, Charles XII, and Frederick the Great. But the aviators also argued, as did Clausewitz, that the center of gravity could be other than the enemy's army. In states torn by civil strife, for example, the center of gravity might well be the seat of government, normally the capital city. In coalition warfare, the center might lie in the army of the strongest ally.17The general's unique task was to find the central point of the enemy's power and then to concentrate forces at that point.

Air power enthusiasts contended that with the coming of the industrial revolution, the center of gravity for a nation had become its industrial war-making capacity. Moreover, an air attack against an industrial nation would break the enemy's will to resist. Major George explained:

Modern industrial nations are much more vulnerable, because of the existence of the economic structure which our present civilization has created, than were the nations of a century ago when the dependence of one section upon many others did not exist. It appears that nations are susceptible to defeat by the interruption of this economic web. It is possible that the moral collapse brought about by the break-up of this closely knit web would be sufficient; but connected therewith is the industrial fabric which is absolutely essential for modern war. To continue a war which is hopeless is worse than an undesirable peace, because the latter comes soon or late anyway; but to continue a modern war without machinery is impossible.18

Donald Wilson, another ACTS instructor, argued similarly that "a modern industrial nation's most vulnerable spot is its industrial system" and that "a determined air attack against the industrial area can cause its collapse in a remarkably short period of time."19 Destroying the enemy's industrial base would weaken the will of the enemy's people to support the war, causing the development of compelling and decisive pressure on the enemy's political leaders to end the war. At the same time, destroying the enemy's industrial base would leave the army without supplies or the means to fight.

By targeting the enemy's industry, the heart of the concept of strategic bombardment, American air power theorists homed in on a target entirely different from the enemy's army. At the same time, the aim was the same as that argued by Clausewitz, the defeat of the enemy's will and capacity to resist.

Understandably, the aviators' interpretation of Clausewitz marked a break with the Army's

traditional view of Clausewitz. The Army's view, expounded as it was by writers whose experience was with ground armies, emphasized defeat of the enemy's army as a prelude to overcoming the will of the enemy to resist. However, the industrial revolution and the advent of the airplane opened possibilities for an entirely new view of war which was still based on the ideas of Clausewitz, and the Air Corps Tactical School seized these opportunities.


In adapting Clausewitz to their needs, Fairchild and his associates appear to have seen air power as a logical extension of Clausewitzian theory. Like Clausewitz, they addressed the nature of war before attempting to solve the problem of how to fight a battle. Clausewitz formed the basis of the airmen's discussion of the nature of war and the relationship of air power to national policy. Further, the Air Corps Tactical School, after defining the objectives in war, set about to establish the means to achieve these ends, based on the unique military capabilities of the airplane. In Clausewitz, the airmen found a link between existing Army doctrine and developing air power doctrine that could give credence to their arguments with ground-oriented Army officers.

The irony of the airmen's use of Clausewitz is that they were using old, pre-aviation ideas to argue that theirs was a new dimension in war. In other words, the theorists at the Air Corps Tactical School considered themselves revolutionaries. One might have expected that they would discard theories that did not have their foundation in aviation's past. However, such was not the case, for in Clausewitz they found much common sense and logic on which to build their formula for air power doctrine. In Hansell's words, "a great deal of von Clausewitz's writing had to do with the fundamental forces of human nature which are relatively constant and unchanging."20 In this regard, much of Clausewitz's writing still applies to warfare today.

Clausewitz and Today's Airman

The application of air power is headed for revolutionary change in our lifetime; the frontier of space and the development of electronic combat, pilotless drones, and other technical advances suggest a continuing reevaluation of air warfare. One can easily imagine that the cadre at the 1st Space Wing at Peterson AFB, Colorado, will attempt to look to the future and address the problems of war in a new (fourth?) dimension in a manner akin to that of the faculty members at the Air Corps Tactical School who addressed the third dimension in the 1930s. It is appropriate, then, while contemplating the future, to remember the challenge laid down by Major George in his lecture, "An Inquiry into the Subject War":

From today on, much that we shall study will require us to start with nothing more than an acknowledged truth and then attempt, by the utilization of common sense and logic, to evolve a formula which we believe will stand up under the crucial test of actual conditions. We shall attempt to develop logically the role of air power in the future, in the next war.21

Planners today are looking for new formulas, and, like the Air Corps Tactical School, they require common sense and logic to develop new concepts that will guide the use of new weapons. Clausewitz's ideas will be important in these efforts because Clausewitz understood the relationship of war to politics as well as the fundamental human dimensions of combat. The advent of innovative technology may affect radically the conduct of war but not the basic relationships of war and national policy objectives.

At the same time, through his concept of friction in war, Clausewitz also provides a key idea to guide the planning process. He introduced this most important concept to distinguish real war from war on paper. From this concept, Clausewitz derived the often-quoted aphorism that "everything is very simple in War, but the simplest thing is difficult."22 War moves in an atmosphere of uncertainty, danger, and chance.

While much of Clausewitz's discussion of friction centers on actual combat operations, it applies to the planning stage also. The very existence of friction begs the planner to ask hundreds of questions—one example being: What if my basic assumptions are wrong? The concept also applies where the peacetime development of doctrine is concerned. Those who plan and develop doctrine in the vacuum of peace, when friction can be discounted by the stroke of a pen, must be especially aware of the concept of friction and its implications for their work. While extensive planning may prevent everything from going wrong, the inability to rule out friction in war ensures that everything most certainly will not go right.

A comparison of the ACTS aviators' peacetime planning with actual events in World War II provides abundant examples of the effects of friction. The American strategic bombardment theory, developed in peacetime, reflected many assumptions on which the bombing plan was based; some of these assumptions proved invalid.23 Hansell addressed some of these assumptions in a lecture to the Air War College in 1951:

The fanatical belief of the bombers in their own defensive fire power was not so much a choice and election to operate unescorted as it was a conclusion that fighters could not be built with sufficient range to accompany them.... We had a tendency to build our doctrine around the drawing-board designs and the expected performance of aircraft still in the design stage. On this basis we unquestionably magnified our expected capabilities and minimized our limitations.... Our doctrine held that bombers in proper formation could conduct a running fire fight and preserve themselves against fighter attacks. Unquestionably this was based on hope and not on existing fact… In the period before the war, our lack of experience led us to be too optimistic in gauging the number of bombs and the number of trials it would take to destroy a target.24

These assumptions neglected the possibility that technology would eventually provide fighters with the necessary range to perform the escort role. More important, they overlooked the possibility that improvements in air defense, particularly radar, would provide enemy air defense fighter units with the means to locate and intercept bomber formations.

The single item that distinguished the theory evolved at the Air Corps Tactical School from other bombardment theories was the emphasis placed on target selection (and the nature of the targets themselves). 25 This planning, too, was plagued by friction. Reflecting the belief that the destruction of carefully chosen targets would cripple the enemy's war-making capacity, the tactical school went to great pains in analyzing the most appropriate targets during their map problems. The process continued during the war planning effort, where extensive evaluation and selection of priority targets took place at headquarters.26

In spite of this extensive planning effort, friction took its toll when the plans were implemented through the directives issued during wartime. These directives "were often little more than formal memoranda for the record.... Air Force commanders actually enjoyed great latitude in waging the air war and sometimes paid scant attention to the official priority lists drafted with such care in higher echelons. And the weather was the final arbiter in any case."27 Interestingly, Clausewitz's first example of friction was the weather: "Fog can prevent the enemy from being seen in time.... Rain can prevent a battalion from arriving."28

It would be presumptuous, of course, to suggest that a more detailed knowledge of Clausewitz would have changed bombardment doctrine or the work of the ACTS theorists. Nevertheless, the development of strategic bombing doctrine and its implementation in World War II reinforce Clausewitz's convincing argument that real war will not be as the planner envisions it. The recognition of friction is a necessity in developing flexible doctrine and strategy that can be adapted to changing requirements.

Clausewitz's concept of friction in war has direct application in a multitude of undertakings today: the AirLand Battle, C3I design, space doctrine, nuclear employment concepts, and joint doctrine. Planning in these areas requires innovative minds that recognize the existence of friction in war. Because at least some friction is inevitable in war, the planner not only must challenge what he thinks is right but must seek out what is flawed in his basic assumptions or missing from the factors that he has considered. Thus, planners must cultivate dissent rather than gather disciples. If we fail in this task, our service doctrines may become no more than individual sets of dogmas intended to vindicate unique service beliefs.

Clausewitz provides us with the tools to understand the nature of war, to guide the application of military force as an appropriate instrument of power, and to examine our doctrine introspectively to ensure that we remain prepared for the future. While he does not provide a checklist of easy answers, he does enhance intellectual perspective.


1. Lieutenant Haywood S. Hansell, "The Aim in War," a lecture to the Air Corps Tactical School (available in Hansell Collection, USAF Academy Library, Colorado Springs, Colorado), p, 2. Cf. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, translated by Colonel J. J. Graham, with introduction and notes by Colonel F. N. Maude (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Truber and Company, 1940), vol. I, p. 23. Also see Michael Howard and Peter Paret, On War (Princeton, New Jersey; Princeton University Press, 1966), p. 87. The Graham/Maude translation was the only version of On War available for use by the Air Corps Tactical School. The 1976 edition of On War is the standard for today's student of Clausewitz. Recognizing the need to maintain historical perspective while simultaneously providing references for contemporary readers, all references to Clausewitz will be taken from the Graham/Maude edition, followed parenthetically by the corresponding reference in the Howard/Paret edition.

2. Hansell, p. 2.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Interview with Major General Hansell in Atlanta, Georgia, 27 March 1973. Lieutenant Hansell joined the Air Corps Tactical School faculty as an instructor in the Air Force section in 1935. Major Fairchild served in the section from 1937 to 1940.

6. Major General Haywood S. Hansell, The Air Plan that Defeated Hitler (Atlanta: Higgins-MacArthur/Longino and Porter, 1972). p. 23.

7. Dr. David MacIsaac, Strategic Bombing in World War II: The Story of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (New York: Garland, 1976). p. 8.

8. Ibid. Assertion taken from an interview between Dr. MacIsaac and General Carl A. Spaatz, USAF (Ret).

9. Ibid.

10. Field Service Regulations, United States Army (Washington; Government Printing Office, 1923), p. 77. Also quoted, in part, in Robert T. Finney, History of the Air Corps Tactical School, 1920-1940, USAF Historical Series, No. 100 (Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Air University). p. 30.

11. Hansell, "The Aim in War," p. 2.

12. Harold L. George, "Inquiry into the Subject War," lecture at Air Corps Tactical School (in Hansell Collection, USAF Academy Library), pp. 3-4. Major George served as an instructor during 1932-34 and as Director of Air Tactics and Strategy until that post was taken over by Donald Wilson in 1936.

13. Clausewitz, vol. I, p. 2 (Howard/Paret edition, p. 75).

14. Major Harold L. George, "An Inquiry into the Subject War,"

lecture at the Air Corps Tactical School, Aerospace Historian, December 1978, p. 208.

15. Ibid. Quotation cited from 1st indorsement, Office Chief of Air Corps, to Commandant, ACTS, 1 September 1928; letter to Lieutenant Colonel C. C. Culver, Commandant ACTS, to C/AC, 30 April 1928.

16. Clausewitz, vol. III, p. 106 (Howard/Paret edition, p. 94).

17. Major Muir S. Fairchild, "The Aim in War," lecture at the Air Corps Tactical School (available in Simpson Historical Research Center, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, file 248.201 A-.3), pp. 9-10. Cf. Clausewitz, vol. III, p. 106 (Howard/Paret edition, p. 596).

18. George, "An Inquiry into the Subject War," Aerospace Historian, p. 209.

19. Donald Wilson, "The Origin of a Theory for Air Strategy," Aerospace Historian, March 1971, p. 21. As a captain, Wilson served as an instructor from 1929 to 1930 and later as a student in the 1930-31 session. Major Wilson remained as an instructor during 1931-34 and, after promotion to lieutenant colonel, returned to the Air Corps Tactical School in 1936 to serve as Director of Air Tactics and Strategy until January 1940.

20. Major General Haywood S. Hansell, American Airpower in

World War II, unpublished manuscript (available in Simpson Historical Research Center, file K112.3-2), pp. 17-18.

21. George, "Inquiry into the Subject War," p. 3.

22. Clausewitz, vol. I, p. 77 (Howard/Paret edition, p. 119).

23. Maclsaac, p. 9.

24. Major General Haywood S. Hansell, "The Development of the United States Concept of Bombardment Operations," a lecture presented at the Air War College, 19 September 1951 (available in Simpson Historical Research Center, file K239.766251-76), p. 13.

25. MacIsaac, p. 8.

26. Elmer Bendiner, The Fall of Fortresses (New York: Putnam, 1980).'The author details the level of effort in deciding on Schweinfurt-Regensburg as the ultimate target for the now-fabled August 1943 raid.

27. Wesley Frank Craven and James Lea Cate, editors, The Army Air Forces in World War II, Vol. 3, Europe: Argument to V-E Day, January 1944 to May 1945 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 721.

28. Clausewitz (Howard/Paret edition), p. 120.


Major James B. Smith (USAFA; M.A., Indiana University) is Chief, Standardization Evaluation, 49th Tactical Fighter Wing (TAC), Holloman AFB, New Mexico. He has earlier held assignments as a staff officer, Hq USAFE; F-15 pilot at Camp New Amsterdam; and T-38 instructor pilot at Laughlin AFB, Texas. Major Smith (lieutenant colonel selectee) is a Distinguished Graduate of Squadron Officer School and Air Command and Staff College. He has contributed previously to the Review.


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.

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