Daily Items

 

Topic AIR: The Test Postponed
Date 01-Oct-2014

 

From Time Magazine, 08-Feb-1943

The outstanding military lesson of this campaign was the continuous, calculated application of air power . . . employed in the most intimate tactical and logistical connection with ground troops.

This summary by General Douglas MacArthur of the successful Papuan campaign last week won the Army's only four-star field commander editorial plaudits as a new and forceful advocate of air power. But it made many an airman sad.

They were not sad because General MacArthur, not always an enthusiast for air operations, had recognized and proved air power as an adjunct of vast potency to the ground and naval forces. The Germans had proved that in Poland, in the Lowlands and many times since. So, with great virtuosity, had the U.S. Navy.

Doctrine. What made airmen sad was that that was the only recognition made by the Hero of Bataan of war's newest mode of fighting. Douglas MacArthur's conclusion was that with the help of air transport, reconnaissance and bombardment the advance of U.S. fighting men up through the island bases to Japan could be vastly speeded.

Most men of the Army Air Forces, and probably many in the naval air arm, still believe in independent air power. They believe that Japan can be beaten by bombardment from China, that Germany can be struck down if enough air power is amassed in Britain.

They know that Germany failed in the first great application of independent air power (against Britain). But they argue that Germany came with too little and that its little was stopped, perilously close to success, by independent air power from British soil, i.e., the R.A.F. Fighter Command. Yet by events and the utterances of Army ground generals they see only waning hope that an all-out air theater will be established in this war.

Many an influential general is against it, prefers the old reliable way, still contends that "infantry is the queen of battle," that air force is just a new handmaiden. Beyond that, the development of World War II to date is against concentrating air strength anywhere. It is needed all over.

Possibility. World War II has the beginnings of an air theater envisioned by Billy Mitchell in Britain, where Sir Arthur Harris' Bomber Command and Ira Eaker's Eighth Air Force have more than the nucleus of the kind of organization airmen want, to prove or disprove their doctrine for all time. But the force is not yet prepared to hit Germany day & night with full strength. And even if it is built to that strength, the proof will not be conclusive. Men on the ground in Russia and in North Africa have weakened Germany too much for air power to fly in at this late date and claim credit for victory.

For air power's failure to be ready for the test, airmen can blame themselves as much as the officers they accuse of having old-fashioned views. Even Göring, with the resources of his country behind him, overestimated the potency of his new weapon and therefore underestimated the needs of his air armada. In the U.S., where economy, not battle, was the goal, the U.S. Air Corps as late as 1937 asked for only 108 of the new Flying Fortresses (and got 19).[1] Even Britain, with an independent air force, had too few aircraft when war came. Only in fighters was the R.A.F. strong enough.

Promise. Today, with 49,000 new aircraft delivered last year and production soaring far above 5,000 a month, the U.S. Air Forces have power in abundance. Yet the fast-growing pattern of global war has put a drain on this air power that no airman ever conceived, has postponed, if not canceled, the day for the Great Test.

For ten U.S. theaters of war alone drain off aircraft almost as fast as they roll out the hangar doors: the Aleutians, Solomons, New Guinea, Australia, China, India, Egypt, North Africa, British Isles and Iceland. Back of them the defensive areas (e.g., the Canal Zone, continental U.S. and Hawaii) call constantly for more.

Frustration. There are other drains, even greater than these. Lend-Lease takes hundreds of fighting aircraft each month, largely to be used in cooperation with ground troops. Operational losses (by crash and enemy action) whittle down the apparent meaning of overall production figures. Training of new airmen takes thousands of craft, and many of them must be combat types. The Navy takes hundreds more.

Also lost to independent air power in the wide-flung war that few foresaw are hundreds of bombers used for coastal patrol work at home and abroad. Many more have been turned over by war's necessity to another unforeseen demand—transport work. And new productive space that could have been used to. turn out more bombers has had to be used for the production of freight carriers.

It will take still another war to show whether Billy Mitchell and all his followers are hopeless visionaries or sound theorists of battle.

[1]  After the fall of Poland the Air Corps asked for only 490 new aircraft, including trainers. Congress cut it to 66.


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