Air University Review, September-October 1986


Giulio Douhet and Strategic Air Force Operations

a study in the limitations of theoretical warfare

Michael J. Eula

The Italian General Giulio Douhet reigns as one of the twentieth century's foremost strategic air power theorists. Along with William "Billy" Mitchell, Douhet understood that the technological advances in weaponry made during World War I were not fully utilized by Allied commanders. Douhet thus spent the decade after the war constructing a theory that would facilitate the strategic use of what he conceived to be the biggest technological breakthrough of all, the airplane. As such scholars as Raymond Flugel have pointed out, Douhet's theories were crucial at a pivotal pre-World War II Army Air Force institution, the Air Corps Tactical School.1 Over time, these theories became institutionalized to the point that they were rarely questioned. Their influence was subsequently evident in strategic Air Force operations.

From the perspective of past missions, we can now assess the applicability of Douhetism to actual operations. If his theories have been generally invalidated, then how much importance can we attach to Douhet's writings? All too often, strategists tend to skirt the evidence in favor of the model.2 But as eminent social theorists outside of history per se will be the first to say, models are, at least ideally, heuristic devices.3 They provide ports of entry, but they do not replace vigorous empirical analysis. Even such eminent measurement-error sociologists as R. W. Hodge and P. M. Siegel have been moved to write:

Any measure is subject to both errors incurred through definition of a less than completely valid measure [of] a theoretical construct and error incurred through an operational measure which is not perfectly reliable.4

Scholars have the privilege of living with "operational measures" not "perfectly reliable." Military strategists, however, do not.

Before testing the central concepts of Douhet's arguments against actual developments under combat conditions, it is first imperative to reconstruct Douhet's model. Probably its most striking feature is its essential simplicity. Accordingly, some of its most renowned phrases are also its most enticing––"the new form of war" and "the aerial field as the decisive field" are crucial here.5 The effect of such slogans is almost magical. Douhet manages to reduce complex entities, i.e., "war," into easily mastered concepts. While doing so might serve the purpose of inducing militaristic zeal, it does little to address the serious, rational concerns of planning military objectives.

Thus war itself––with its enormously complicated industrial, political, and logistical problems––is reduced to the relatively clear issues emanating from Douhet's consideration of the offensive use of aircraft.6 In this regard, the offensive capabilities of aircraft seem to erase completely the analogous reality of defensive measures.7 Douhet thus argued that "such offensive actions cannot only cut off an opponent's army and navy from their bases of operations, but can also bomb the interior of the enemy's country so devastatingly that the physical and moral resistance of the people would also collapse."8

What did Douhet propose to do with this offensive power? Quite clearly, his most pressing goal was twofold. On the one hand, he argued that air power should be directed toward the utter obliteration of the enemy's industrial base. Typically, Douhet minced no words when he argued that a strike force "should always operate in mass" to "crush the material ... resistance of the enemy."9 Second, Douhet was convinced that the effect of this was to, without doubt, demoralize the enemy population. He thus wrote:

In terms of military results, it is much more important to destroy a railroad station, a bakery, a war plant, or to machine-gun a supply column, moving trains, or any other behind-the-lines objective, than to strafe or bomb a trench. The results are immeasurably greater in breaking morale ... in spreading terror and panic...10

Such offensive striking power precluded the need for a large number of fighter aircraft. What would be the use of tactical weaponry in an era of massive strategic bombing? Douhet's war was swift and sure, decisive beyond question. He did not call for the abolition of tactical aircraft in the way that such scholars as Edward Warner have implied.11 In light of twentieth-century developments, however, it might be said that Douhet put it in its proper perspective. It is crucial to remember, nevertheless, that this balance was not conceived of in an overly theoretical way. Accordingly, Douhet pointed out:

There must be both combat planes and bombers in an Independent Air Force.... As for bombers, it is obviously desirable to have the greatest possible number, because, whatever the circumstances, it is always opportune to launch major offensives. Therefore, there can be no set proportion of combat planes and bombers since both depend upon diverse independent circumstances.12

The phrase "independent circumstances" is crucial, for it suggests Douhet's almost intuitive grasp of the very essence of war. I refer here to the quality of instability and vagueness inherent in the process of fighting––at least at certain historical moments.13 The problem with Douhet's position, though, is that it was formulated during the prenuclear age in general and the ICBM era in particular. The ICBM is not the long-range bomber or even the V-I rocket, as Bernard Brodie made clear in a passage noteworthy for its brilliant simplicity:

Nuclear weapons also made defense against strategic bombing enormously more difficult and disheartening to the defender. The defense of London against the V-I was considered effective, and yet in eight days, 2,300 hit the city. The record bag was that of August 28, 1944, when out of 101 bombs approaching London 97 were shot down and only four got through. But if those four had been atomic bombs the record of defense would not have been considered good.14

Another surface appeal of Douhet's argument lies in its mathematical "certainty." In a discussion of bombing patterns, Douhet conveys the impression that such tactics could be worked out in advance––to the letter.15 This sort of thinking, in certain quarters, has worked to the disadvantage of strategic operations.16 Indeed, such a posture assumes that air strikes can be directed at the industrial base of the enemy.

Combat experiences during the Korean conflict are a stark example of Douhet's utter inability to grasp the intricacies of international relations. I am not suggesting that he should have foreseen the quagmire of mainland Asia. My point, rather, is that the Fifteenth Air Force, in spite of overwhelming superiority, was unable to strike a final blow at the material base of the communist war effort because that base was located in Mainland China and the Soviet Union.17 Strategic bombing thus came to a screeching halt on 26 September 1950.18 International political concerns, in this instance, overrode purely strategic necessities. It was not simply a matter, as Douhet put it, of maintaining "violent, uninterrupted action against surface objectives to the end that it may crush the material and moral resistance of the enemy."19

"Uninterrupted" operations suggests a vital element in Douhet's scheme. This perspective held grave implications for army and naval strategists, as it implied the obsolescence of their forces. Certainly, Douhet discussed the role of fixed fortifications on land.20 He also paid attention to the defensive functions of naval forces.21 But clearly, sea and land-power would, inevitably, be rendered pointless in a massive attack swiftly carried out.22 The demoralization of the enemy population would be crucial at this point, as would a suitable lack of enemy defenses.

For Douhet, one fundamental way of sustaining the potential for massive, uninterrupted strikes was to employ all of a society's available aircraft. This could best be accomplished, he argued, through a reliance on civil aviation. The state thus maintains civil aircraft "in active service . . . [so] that the planes [can] be easily and rapidly converted into warplanes."23 Douhet thus assumed that the typical civil airplane could be easily converted into a heavy bomber, a premise that was highly questionable even in his own day.24 This is a point which such scholars as Warner have failed to fully grasp. Just because Douhet later modified his position, relegating civil aircraft to "secondary functions," does not mean that he regarded those subsidiary capacities as inconsequential.25

More on that subject later. At this juncture, let me complete the outline of Douhet's main points. Two aspects stand paramount here. The first of these was his apathetic attitude toward defensive strategy. The second was his notion of total war.

I have already implied that Douhet largely ignored the possibilities inherent in defensive measures. His assumptions concerning, say, bombing patterns, certainly illustrate this. So does his embryonic conception of the blitzkrieg. Throughout, the potential for resistance is overlooked. Accordingly, he asserted that "the decision will be quick in this kind of war . . .."26 Bombing patterns, however, do not mean as much when the enemy knows that you are coming. He thus manifested an acutely ahistorical frame of mind––one that was unable to transcend the experiences of the First World War. In short, he failed to understand that technology tends to develop in a multilinear way that is very seldom predictable. An even cursory examination of the medieval longbow and its relationship to the armored, mounted knight, for instance, would have raised doubts about the assumption that defensive strategies remain dormant in the face of offensive threats.

Douhet's view of total war also presumes too much. For one thing, the centralization of command has seldom proved to be an easily attainable goal. Indeed, given such realities as interservice rivalries (as well as intraservice ones) and vague, contradictory national political goals, one might conclude that such command efficiency is a hopelessly utopian ideal." Further, to assert the idea of a national "will"––indeed, to assume the existence of a civic spirit with theoretical roots in continental liberalism––is to thoughtlessly project European models onto fundamentally different societies––such as the United States. Strategists in America cannot assume the viability of this approach, particularly within the seamless web of American culture.

This, then, is the basic outline of Douhet's argument as it appears in The Command of the Air. The task now is to illustrate its basic theoretical weaknesses in light of actual Air Force operations. Only then can its use as a heuristic guide be questioned.

I have already pointed, in an admittedly cursory way, to the inappropriateness of some of Douhet's arguments, given actual Air Force sorties. Korea and the assumptions surrounding bombing offensives is one stark case in point. There are four issues that need to be discussed within the context of the Air Force's institutionalization of Douhetism. These are Douhet's deemphasis of defensive measures, the assumed demoralization of the enemy population, the alleged mathematical certainty of uninterrupted bombing, and the reliance on civil aviation.

In the matter of defensive measures versus offensive potential, it is indeed surprising that Douhet failed to grasp the historical reality of defensive technological development and its necessary correlation with offensive innovations. Early on in his career, Douhet built a reputation as an electronic technician at Turin Polytechnic.28 As early as 1904, he was studying the "Calculations of Rotating Field Engines."29 His "Outlines of Electrotechnics" was later published as a pamphlet while, simultaneously, he delivered a lecture at the Sorbonne on the separation of hydrogen and oxygen from air.30

Despite such impressive credentials, Douhet's argument concerning the inevitability of offensive superiority points to a profoundly distorted view of air warfare. Given the technical aspects of actual operations, it does not have much credibility. Look, for example, at a relatively effective attack on 2 November 1943. Three hundred twelve tons of bombs were dropped on the Wiener Neustadt Messerschmitt Me-109 airframe works in Austria.31 Despite Douhet's claims that the "only really effective aerial defense cannot but be indirect..." the Fifteenth lost ten B-17s on that one day alone.32 But this was only the beginning. During the February bombing runs on aircraft plants in Austria and Germany, approximately eighty-nine Fifteenth bombers were lost.33 As one analyst put it, bomber "losses per sortie were nearly five times as great as those of the escorts."34 Axis defensive measures, such as radar, flak, and large numbers of tactical aircraft, were thus far more effective than Douhet had anticipated. For the 340th, this fact was painfully learned. As James Cate and Wesley Craven tell us, there were about "ten of twelve planes holed by AA fire on a mission against Venafro." During the October runs over Leghorn-Pontedera, the loss of Liberators on loan from the Eighth Air Force was also heavy. Cate and Craven tell us that the Liberator force

... met heavy flak and around sixty fighters, some with a 37-mm cannon in their wings and others which lobbed rocket-type shells into the bomber formation with considerable accuracy. Fourteen of the bombers were shot down and fifty-two damaged. Enemy losses were undetermined, but apparently did not equal the Liberator losses.35

This was also, in the same sort of scenario, apparent in Vietnam. During the Linebacker II missions of December 1972, B-52s carried on an offensive against Haiphong and Hanoi that made runs on Fortress Europe look paltry indeed. The losses suffered due to SAMS, MiGs, and antiaircraft batteries were very heavy. SAMs in particular were quite effective, as the Fifteenth lost five bombers during this period.36 Fifteen bombers were lost in all.37 Richard Nixon was forced to admit that his "major concern during the first week of bombing was not the sharp wave of domestic and international criticism, which I had expected, but the high losses of B-52s."38

Linebacker II is a particularly good example of Douhet's underestimation of the enemy's morale. Despite intensive bombing at unprecedented rates, the will of the North Vietnamese was not broken. Here, the key to understanding lies in the realm of culture. Douhet and his Air Force adherents operated from a certain level of rationality concerning "acceptable" levels of death. What is acceptable to one people, particularly from the West, is not, however, necessarily applicable somewhere else. Technology does not necessarily overcome anger and a sense of nationalist zeal. Conversely, technocrats are not necessarily fighters.

Vietnam is also a useful laboratory to consider Douhet's belief in the mathematical certainty of uninterrupted bombing operations. Of course, "uninterrupted" is itself quite an assumption. Most attempts to predict accurately the probable effect of precise bombing patterns failed in Southeast Asia. I have already pointed to the inability of B-52s to undercut North Vietnamese morale. But I have in mind even more than that. Douhet, in chapter 3 of The Command of the Air, offers very precise equations, i.e., 50 bombing units = the destruction of 500 surface meters.39 The luxury of such sureness has not been proved in reality. Consistent pounding of North Vietnamese targets, all based on often intricate quantitative models, failed to yield the desired result––the complete and utter halting of the enemy's logistical efforts. Ironically, the efforts involved in planning pinpoint bombings were themselves perceived by some as signs of weakness, not power. High-ranking officials, such as George Ball, were thus moved to argue that dropping "bombs was a pain-killing exercise that saved my colleagues from having to face the hard decision to withdraw."40 This was not the sort of decisiveness that Douhet had argued would result from awesome offensive striking power.

There is, finally, Douhet's point concerning the use of civil aviation. Nowhere in Air Force strategic history has this measure been even remotely relevant. Complex bombing operations, even as early as 1943, have precluded the possibility of using aircraft designed for civilian use. To go into the technical reasons for my position is redundant, given the general knowledge of rigorous strategic requirements. Within the context of this knowledge, it is silly to take seriously Douhet's assertion that as

... for the planes themselves, even in military aviation circles, the misconception is held that civilian planes cannot be used for war purposes because the two types of planes must have different characteristics. I call this opinion a misconception.... Such compromise would be of advantage to military aviation for this reason: by basing itself upon civil aviation, which is constantly active, it would always have at its disposal the latest types of plane; whereas, if it relied upon its own means, it would often find itself armed with antiquated models.41

Douhet then went on to make the incredible argument:

This misconception also results from the fact that military aviation today uses almost entirely planes of extreme characteristics; whereas civil aviation uses planes of moderate characteristics. And, I repeat, aerial war is not fought with planes of extreme characteristics, in spite of occasional air battles.42

More than anything else, the theoretical irrelevance of The Command of the Air is rooted in Douhet's insensitivity to historical development and cultural diversity. Even a nodding acquaintance with the history of warfare would have alerted him to the correlation between offensive capabilities and developments in defensive technology.43 His failure to grasp the complex cultural history of peoples, regarding death, for instance, translated into false assumptions concerning the enemy population's tolerance of intensive bombing. Such oversights proved disastrous by the time of Vietnam. For social scientists, our Vietnam experience has added credibility to Max Weber's warnings concerning bureaucratic inertia. For Air Force commanders, it illustrated the clear weaknesses of Douhet's model.

University of California at Irvine

Author's note: I wish to thank my colleagues (Doctors Dennis Casey and James Davis) in the History Office at Hq Fifteenth Air Force, for their comments on this article.


1. See Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air, Joseph P. Harahan and Richard H. Kohn, editors (Washington, D.C., 1983), and Raymond Flugel, "The Air Service Tactical School and Its Doctrine, 1921-22," in "United States Air Power Doctrine: A Study of the Influence of William Mitchell arid Giulio Douhet at the Air Corps Tactical School" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Oklahoma, 1965). p. 96.

2. This is the whole point of a movement such as the Annales School in France. In Fernand Braudel's Structures of Everyday Life, for instance, the immersion in "mundane" daily activities is in direct opposition to the often lofty models brought to bear in historical analysis. It is, more than anything else, a reaction against the abuses of a philosophical idealism dating back to the nineteenth century.

3. I have in mind here the analysis of Sarajevo offered by Georg Henrick von Wright, the so-called quasicasual approach that combines intentionalist and casual explanations. See von Wright's Explanation and Understanding (Ithaca, New York, 1971).

4. R. W. Hodge and P. M. Siegel, "A Casual Approach to the Study of Measurement Error," in Methodology in Social Research, edited by A. Blalock and H. M. Blalock, Jr. (New York, 1968), p. 55.

5. In "Contents," The Command of the Air, p. xiii.

6. An often overlooked aspect of waging war is in the area of national culture. On this level alone, the complexity inherent in even small-scale skirmishes (i.e., Vietnam as opposed to World War II) is staggering. See Loran Baritz's Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did (New York, 1985).

7. A somewhat dated but certainly useful overview of defensive measures in a major war is found in Gordon Wright, The Broadening Scope of War: The Scientific Dimension," in The Ordeal of Total War: 1939-1945 (New York, 1968), pp. 79-106. Also refer to Bernard and Fawn M. Brodie, "Radar" and "Operations and Systems Analysis: The Science of Strategic Choice," in From Crossbow to H-Bomb (London, 1973), pp. 207-13, 268-78.

8. Douhet, p. 25.

9. Douhet, pp. 49 and 103.

10. Douhet, p. 126.

11. Edward Warner, "Douhet, Mitchell, Seversky: Theories of Air Warfare," in Makers of Modern Strategy: Military Thought from Machiavelli to Hitler (Princeton, 1973), p. 490.

12. Douhet, pp. 106-07.

13. R. J. Rummel has provided a graphic representation of the process of conflict, which is, at least on some levels, applicable to strategic nuclear concerns. See R. J. Rummel, "Levels of Conflict," in Understanding Conflict and War: The Conflict Helix, volume 2 (London, 1976), p. 240.

14. Brodie and Brodie, p. 263.

15. See, for example, his discussion of an attack force of fifty bombers in Douhet, p. 50.

16. Even something as simple as weather was often overlooked by Douhet when he discussed bombing patterns. His discussions more often resembled Weberian ideal types than heuristic devices designed to meet real strategic requirements. Such theoretical flaws soon become evident in real operations. Look, for instance, at the inability of the Fifteenth Air Force o select a target in central Italy due to the bad weather during autumn in 1943. Consult James L. Cate and Wesley F. Craven, editors, The Fifteenth Air Force," in The Army Air Forces in World War II (Washington, D.C., 1983). p. 557.

17. U.S. Directorate of Public Affairs, Hq Fifteenth Air Force, March AFB, California, "The Korean War Years, 1950-1953," in Fifteenth Air Force: The First 40 Years, 1943-1983(n.p., n.d.) p. 12.

18. Ibid.

19. Douhet, p. 129.

20. Indeed, he spoke of the "co-ordination of army, navy, and air force under a unified command." Refer to the Preface in Douhet p. xi; also see pp. 8-9.

21. For example, see Douhet, p. 53.

22. See the comments of Richard A. Preston and Sydney F. Wise, "The Modern War Lords," in A History of Warfare and Its Interrelationships with Western Society (New York, 1970), especially p. 285. Also refer to the analysis of Warner, op. cit. For a discussion of the early institutionalization of Douhet's thoughts on strategic planning in the U.S. Air Force at large, see Flugel, pp. 235-58.

23. Douhet, p, 83.

24. Look at the plight of Bréguet bombers during the first World War. There were numerous maintenance problems attendant to these specialized aircraft. Spare part availability plagued the model 14 B-2, and it could not be assumed that mechanics were able to use parts from other airplanes––or indeed, that those other craft could be fitted with such Bréguet devices as its bomb-dropping gear.

25. This is one of my major points of departure from Warner. On page 495 of his article, he argues that Douhet "displayed [a] caution in technical prophecy." Warner thus goes astray because he assumes that Douhet's linguistic usage is a clear indication of analytical emphasis. Douhet's language is, of course, decidedly nontechnical. But a closer reading of The Command of the Air reveals Douhet's strongly technocratic flavor. All the characteristics are there. In sum, attempts to systematize war from a theoretically rigid perspective––i.e., the attempt to bring a disinterested rigor into the management of operational elements such as bombing patterns––were all futile efforts to impose order on an area of human life that does not lend itself easily to rationalism. A failure to use the language of Taylorite technocracy does not mean that it is not there.

26. Douhet, p. 61.

27. Consider the recent debate about the Joint Chiefs of Staff. See U.S. Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate, Defense Organization: The Need for Change (Washington, D.C., 1985); and "Thinking Things Over," Wall Street Journal, 6 November 1985, p. 34.

28. Flugel. p. 74.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid.

31. Fifteenth Air Force: the first Forty Years, 1943-1983, p. 2. For a broader discussion, see Cate and Craven, "The Fifteenth Air Force," pp. 546-84.

32. Ibid.

33. lbid

34. Fifteenth Air Force: The First Forty Years, 1943-1983) p. 4.

35. Care and Craven, pp. 550-51.

36. Ibid., p. 28. On the effectiveness of SAMs during this period, see Baritz, pp. 223-24. The North Vietnamese claimed to have shot down a total of thirty-four B-52s, but that claim seems to be too high.

37. Fifteenth Air Force: The First Forty Years, 1943-1983, p. 28. Also see the discussion of "Air Defense" in James F. Dunnigan, How to Make War: All the World's Weapons, Armed Forces and Tactics (New York, 1983). p. 405.

38. In Baritz, p. 224.

39. Douhet, p. 50.

40. In Baritz, p. 155.

41. Douhet, pp. 83-84.

42. Ibid., p. 84.

43. An obvious example here is the crumbling of the medieval castle under the onslaught of bombards. There are many other cases that I could cite.


Michael J. Eula (B.A., Rutgers University; M.A., California State University, Fullerton; M.A., University of California, Irvine) is a Policy Analyst and currently a Teaching Associate at the University of California, where he is completing his Ph.D. dissertation in history. Eula has served in the U.S. Coast Guard and has been a historian at Hq Fifteenth Air Force, March AFB, California. He has written for such journals as Differentia and New Jersey History.


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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