#BookReview – The Royal Flying Corps, the Western Front and the Control of the Air, 1914-1918

#BookReview – The Royal Flying Corps, the Western Front and the Control of the Air, 1914-1918

James Pugh, The Royal Flying Corps, the Western Front and the Control of the Air, 1914-1918. Abingdon: Routledge, 2017. Figures. Charts. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. xviii + 190 pp.

Reviewed by Dr Heather Venable


The so-called Father of the Royal Air Force Lord Hugh Trenchard looms large in the historiography of air power, perhaps most infamously for his assertion – seemingly wrought out of thin air – that the moral effect of air power outweighed the material by a factor of twenty to one. To many students of air power, this statement epitomises how much the interwar pursuit of strategic bombardment rested on flights of fancy more than carefully reasoned analysis of the lessons of the First World War because airmen like Trenchard intended to have a moral effect on civilian populations in future wars.

By contrast, James Pugh’s The Royal Flying Corps, the Western Front and the Control of the Air, 1914-1918 pushes back at a significant portion of the historiography of First World War air power concerning the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Unlike many other scholars, Pugh insists that before the First World War, British airmen anticipated how to use air power effectively and demonstrated creativity and flexibility in applying it during the war. Pugh’s revisionist approach depends on the compelling claim that historians have teleologically read aspects of the interwar period into the First World War experience. Pugh thus wants to rescue some airmen from unfair and overwrought reputations for dogmatism (p. 52). Perhaps most importantly, Pugh seeks to validate the RFC’s overwhelmingly offensive approach as fundamentally sound while showing change over time during the war concerning offensive air strategy. Pugh argues that the offensive approach taken by airmen primarily echoed that of the ground war. Moreover, airmen shifted from seeking decisiveness to pursuing attrition and pursued more sophisticated approaches to achieving control of the air during the First World War.

Q 4192
Prime Minister Herbert Asquith watches a squadron of aeroplanes returning to RFC Headquarters at Frevillers. With him is Major-General Hugh Trenchard, commander of the Royal Flying Corps. (Source: © IWM Q 4192)

Pugh’s first chapter establishes convincingly that airmen properly appreciated the importance of air superiority before the First World War. He also shows how vital missions, such as fostering battlefield communication and observing artillery fire, were anticipated before the First World War. However, limited technology and other factors impeded greater experimentation with these roles before the war (p. 33). These roles, moreover, reflected how aviators considered themselves to be part of the British Army. Their embrace of offensive thinking particularly reflected the powerful influence of British Army culture on the RFC. Pugh offers this helpful corrective in response to his belief that historians have traced the origins of airmen’s offensive proclivities too unilaterally to Trenchard (p. 14). Indeed, Pugh generally stresses the extent to which other airmen deserve more credit for developing air power thinking, continually deemphasising Trenchard (p. 51). In a similar vein, Pugh not only challenges widely held views on Trenchard’s emphasis on morale but also offers competing explanations for why the RFC stressed it so much. According to the author, the emphasis on diminishing an opponent’s morale owes much to the ‘fragility of aircraft’ (p. 24, 52). This point is not entirely convincing.

Still, Pugh argues that the RFC did not acquire ‘effective’ fighters until 1916, which were increasingly sent to the Western Front organised in squadrons responsible for different roles (p. 49). While awaiting improved aircraft, the RFC revised doctrine and improved organisational practices. When updated in 1915, RFC doctrine denoted reconnaissance as air power’s primary purpose, although it also increasingly recognised the requirement for ‘fight[ing]’ to obtain that information (p. 46), thereby placing more emphasis on controlling the air. Still, the RFC Training Manual diminished its emphasis on reconnaissance from 75 to 36% of the manual while increasing its coverage of artillery support most dramatically (p. 47).

‘Rules of the air – meeting another machine’. An air technical diagram of a Sopwith Dolphin and two Sopwith Camel biplanes meeting in the air and turn to the right. (Source: © IWM Q 67829)

The RFC’s views on how to control the air grew increasingly expansive, especially after learning valuable lessons about airpower employment at Verdun. Thus, the British now stressed seeking control of the air ‘far away’ from those aircraft providing direct support to the battlefield (p. 52) as well as reaffirming the importance of ‘maintaining an offensive posture’ (p. 56), which resulted in a theatre-wide emphasis as airmen sought to control the air in ‘breadth and depth’ (p. 81).

Pugh’s revisionist account largely depends on assuming the best about many of the airmen he describes, resulting in a somewhat Whiggish and rosy account of the RFC’s achievements in the First World War. Pugh valuably attempts to explode accepted thought in multiple areas. This approach is the work’s greatest benefit and failing. Regarding the extent to which airmen embraced an attrition-based strategy over the course of the war, for example, Pugh never fully makes an argument. Describing the phrase ‘relentless and incessant offensive’ as the ‘most profound evidence’ of this strategic shift ultimately falls short of proving one of the work’s key themes (p. 62). In a related vein, Pugh’s argument depends on separating out the rhetoric of airmen like Trenchard, who he claims made much of offensive air power for political reasons, meanwhile arguing that in actuality, airmen pursued an ‘increasingly nuanced and sophisticated approach to controlling the air’ (p. 71), such as using ‘concentrated and coordinated’ groups of fighters (p. 82). These contrasting interpretations cause the reader to wonder how Pugh determines when to accept evidence as rhetoric and when to accept it as representing airmen’s authentic thinking. These potential problems epitomise how Pugh is trying to do too much, such as when he mentions studies of First World War land power being importantly focused more systematically on ‘learning, transformation, or adaption’ yet preserves that approach for future airpower researchers (p. 91, 71). Using the methodology from some studies more systematically to explore British thinking about air control could offer more value.

Despite these critiques, all students of air power should read Pugh’s work for its argument-driven and revisionist analysis of the Royal Flying Corps. While adding significant complexity to widely accepted views of First World War airpower, Pugh ultimately concludes that the RFC’s offensive mindset represented the ‘most sensible course of action’ to pursue (p. 163). Even for those not necessarily interested in the RFC, his discussion of how to best employ air power will provide much of value to ponder for readers interested in any era of air power.

Dr Heather Venable is an Associate Professor in the Department of Airpower at the United States Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College. She received her PhD in Military History from Duke University. Venable’s first book, How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique, 1874-1918, was published by Naval Institute Press in 2019.

Header image: A group of pilots of No. 32 Squadron RFC at Beauval in 1916. Behind them is an Airco DH.2 biplane. (Source: Wikimedia)

Putting the Enemy Back in CAS: An Argument for Flexible Tactics in Close Proximity

Putting the Enemy Back in CAS: An Argument for Flexible Tactics in Close Proximity

By Major E. Aaron Brady

Boar 81, we’ve got approval to strike the convoy you found. This will be Type 2 control, single GBU-38s, 30-second spacing, attack from the north. Your target is a column of vehicles near coordinates 123 456. Nearest friendlies are 40 kilometres east. Expect weapons clearance on final…


The situation described above is becoming increasingly common in US and NATO air operations. Aircrew found a legitimate target in an area in which risk of fratricide is nil, yet the strike is being closely controlled by ground personnel hundreds of kilometres away via satellite radio and using Close Air Support (CAS) procedures. The trouble with this example – based on an actual occurrence during Operation INHERENT RESOLVE – Is that it illustrates the US military’s misapplication of CAS procedures to situations for which those procedures were not designed. This issue largely stems from two factors: a continued inability to resolve tensions inherent in operational frameworks (how we divide battlespaces up for command and control purposes) and weaknesses within United States and European doctrine that cleaves all air-to-surface operations against enemy military capabilities into either Air Interdiction (AI) or Close Air Support (CAS) categories.

The framework issue is discussed often, and therefore largely ignored in this article.[1] However, the doctrine issue remains mostly unaddressed. The main notable exception is a 2005 RAND study entitled Beyond Close Air Support.[2] More importantly, the flaws in the doctrinal models reflect deeper issues with the theoretical foundation western militaries use to understand air-to-surface operations. This article attempts to resolve this issue by presenting a more nuanced theory of counterland operations by examining the differences between the CAS mission and CAS procedures as well as addressing why this difference matters.

Understanding the purpose of CAS and the intent of CAS tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) as codified in US Joint Publication (JP) 3-09.3 Close Air Support helps one recognise that CAS TTPs are intended to mitigate the risk of fratricide. However, the CAS mission is focused entirely on affecting an enemy in close support of a friendly land force. This, in turn, suggests that while many air actions may fall under the purview of the CAS mission, only a subset of these missions require the level of control typically used. The current poor understanding will create significant issues if the US or NATO fights a peer adversary. Ground commanders, Tactical Air Control Parties (TACP), and aircrew should foster a culture of flexible TTP application based on risk assessment to enable a more effective tempo depending on the specific operational environment.

Nicknamed the ‘Hun,’ the F-100 Super Sabre was possibly the best-known USAF close air support aircraft in the Southeast Asia War. Here, a forward air controller in an OV-10 directs these two F-100s in accurately delivering firepower in support of the ground forces. (Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force)

Examining Definitions of CAS

Determining what defines CAS as a mission begins with JP 3-09.3 Close Air Support, which views CAS as an action by fixed-wing or rotary-wing aircraft against targets in close proximity to friendly forces which require detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces.[3] The two key phrases most often keyed upon by CAS-focused communities like the TACP and A-10 tribes in the US Air Force are ‘close proximity’ and ‘detailed integration.’

Interestingly, the NATO definition of CAS includes the same definition almost word for word but adds that TTPs are executed ‘for fratricide avoidance and targeting guidance performed by a […] Forward Air Controller.’[4] British air and space power doctrine does not include detailed integration in its most basic definition but notes that ‘intensive air-land integration and coordination’ is necessary for fratricide prevention and target identification.[5]  Most other American allies match either the NATO or US definition. The US and its allies, therefore, agree that the mission of CAS is airstrikes in close proximity to ground forces and that detailed integration is needed. However, most allied doctrine notes explicitly that the purpose of detailed integration is to either mitigate fratricide risk or enable target correlation.

Close proximity is clearly a subjective term. Close means one thing to an infantry unit defending urban terrain and something entirely different to an armoured formation attacking through a desert. Doctrine even describes close as situational.[6] Likewise, detailed integration may encompass entirely different issues depending on the situation. So, even though these two clauses are the cited hallmarks of CAS, one cannot easily list out the explicit characteristics required to meet the conditions because they are too situationally dependent. JP 3-09.3 even states that when deciding if a mission should be considered CAS or not, ‘the word ‘close’ does not imply a specific distance […] The requirement for detailed integration because of proximity, fires, or movement is the determining factor.’[7] Therefore, even though proximity is considered one of the two main factors, the emphasis for describing CAS is detailed integration.

Three main elements drive a need for detailed integration: proximity, fires, or movement. These elements are multifaceted in the ways they influence air-ground integration. Proximity presents the most obvious issue in CAS: risk of fratricide. There is also a risk to the aircraft due to their proximity to surface-based fires which requires mitigation. Proximity further mixes with fires and movement to suggest another theme not mentioned in any of the definitions. Airstrikes occurring within a land commander’s area of operations (AO) may have a considerable impact on future actions by the effect those strikes may have on the enemy, the terrain, or civilians. These effects might be long-term, such as the destruction of crucial infrastructure or critical damage to military equipment, or short-term like the psychological effect of a large airstrike on an enemy unit. In either case, the land commander must both approve the strikes – in a sense ‘buying’ the effects of the attack – and ensure that the effects facilitate the overall operation. Considering fires and movement, the intent of CAS is to strike targets that directly enable the land scheme of maneuver. Doctrine hints at some of these points. This discussion highlights a weakness prevalent in all the doctrinal definitions of CAS that feeds into the misunderstandings throughout the US and allied forces: the definitions describe what CAS is, not the purpose of CAS. This is due in no small part to the way that most doctrine organises the various missions of air power.

The Counterland Doctrinal Framework

Once again, there is a large degree of consensus between the US and its allies over air power’s mission structure. US JP 3-0 Joint Operations simply classifies most air power missions within the various joint functions; most of the subjects discussed in this essay naturally fall under fires. In contrast, NATO doctrine creates a hierarchy of air missions. Air attack encompasses most missions which directly influence an enemy. One subset of attack is counter-surface force operations, under which falls air power contribution to counterland operations, which in turn incorporates two missions: AI and CAS.

UK doctrine closely aligns with NATO thinking. The US Air Force theory lies between the US joint doctrine and European concepts. It describes all-action intended to influence an enemy’s land forces as counterland which includes just two sub-missions: AI and CAS. The US Marine Corps presents a slightly different perspective. Marine thinking classifies six functions of Marine aviation, one of which is offensive air support (OAS). OAS incorporates CAS and deep air support (DAS), which includes AI, armed reconnaissance, and strike coordination and reconnaissance (SCAR). Of note, Marine doctrine states explicitly that ‘detailed integration is accomplished using positive control’ and that ‘positive control is provided by terminal controllers [JTACs].’[8] This listing shows that, except for US joint and Marine Corps doctrine, militaries tend to organise CAS and AI under a broader counterland concept (see Figure 1). Therefore, most US and NATO service members view CAS as a subset of a counterland concept.

Doctrine Models (JPG)
Figure One

CAS, as shown earlier, occurs close enough to friendly land forces that strikes require detailed integration. AI – the other half of counterland operations – occurs far enough away that this level of integration is unnecessary. Adopting a more conceptual view, the larger counterland mission set is enemy-centric – any counterland mission focuses on affecting an enemy’s combat system. AI and CAS, though, are friendly-centric – the doctrinal difference between the two lies in the level of integration mandated by the proximity of friendly land forces. Harkening back to the earlier identification of fratricide risk as to the primary reason demanding detailed integration with target nomination as a close second, we arrive at the crux of the issue.

To solve these two problems, CAS is differentiated from AI in that while executing CAS, aircrew does not have weapons release authority. By mandating that the land force commander must approve target nomination and weapons release and because the land commander is the authority for expenditure of weapons in the assigned area of operations, the various systems seek to resolve the two critical issues associated with airstrikes near friendly land forces. This clarification enables one to define the purpose of the CAS mission while still acknowledging the characteristics that separate it from AI.

The Purpose of CAS: A Mission-Based Definition

CAS is an air mission flown in close support of land forces to disrupt, degrade, or destroy enemy forces. These enemy forces are in close enough proximity to friendly land forces that risk mitigation mandates detailed coordination between the air and land forces. This definition does not roll off the tongue as easily as the current definition in JP 3-09.3 but does address both what the CAS mission is in addition to its characteristics and requirements. By creating a definition that addresses the purpose of CAS, we introduced the key elements that form the basis for CAS procedures.

Evaluating CAS Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures

CAS TTPs intend to mitigate the risk of fratricide and integrate air effects into a larger fire support plan by efficiently nominating, correlating, and approving weapons release against targets. A process termed Terminal Attack Control accomplishes this goal, hence the name for the person that controls CAS strikes, the JTAC. Standardised communication – most notably the CAS Briefing, referred to as the 9-Line – and specific weapons release authorities and parameters combine to achieve the overall intent. Compared to defining the purpose of CAS, deducing what CAS TTPs intend to do is simple. However, two major presumptions within the CAS TTPs are not readily plain and may cause issues in a large-scale conflict. These concerns drive the overall conclusion that there is a disconnect between the intent of CAS and the procedures laid out in current doctrine.

First, CAS procedures are almost entirely reactive. One can argue that planned CAS is an exception to this, but two factors reduce the strength of this claim. In this author’s decade of experience practising CAS, preplanned missions were far and away the exception rather than the norm. Mike Benitez’s article ‘How Afghanistan Distorted CAS’ shows that my experience is typical. Further, unless the plan includes detailed restrictions and weapons release authority, TACP and aircrew must still resort to using the entirety of CAS TTPs even during a planned mission. Nevertheless, in my experience reactive TTPs are so ingrained that even when strikes are planned in detail, both the controllers and aircrew have difficulty merely executing the plan. Decades of experience in the Middle East created a sense within the minds of both parties that 9-Lines need to be passed and confirmed on the radio even if there are no changes to the plan.

In stark contrast to aircrew performing AI, there is a limited ability within this paradigm for CAS aircrew to exercise initiative during battle. Since CAS is doctrinally a form of fire support, at first, this seems reasonable. However, on closer inspection, it should cause concern for several reasons. None of the doctrinal models with the notable exception of JP 3-0 specifies CAS as a form of fire support – it is air attack against land forces near friendly forces. This suggests that either the doctrinal models are flawed or that CAS is a distinct mission that happens to provide fire support, not a fire support mission that happens to be conducted by aircraft. Putting that point aside, ground-based fire support may conduct any number of missions with some level of internal initiative. Artillery raids or counter-battery fire are two examples. Further, harkening back to the doctrinal model point, CAS is quite different from other forms of fire support.

If lethal fire support for land maneuver is broadly divided into the categories of CAS and artillery, note that virtually all forms of artillery employ indirectly. That is, the artillery crew aimed at a location derived and passed from another source. CAS aircrew, on the other hand, receives target information from the JTAC and aim or guide the munitions themselves. Apart from bombing on coordinates, a technique not commonly used, CAS aircrew perform the aerial equivalent of aiming a rifle at the assigned target. Thus, even though they might be dropping a bomb from several miles distant, the aircrew is employing a direct-fire system as compared to other, indirect forms of fire support.

This distinction is significant because it shows that in many cases aircrew, unlike artillery operators, have the capability to find their own targets independent of specific target nominations from a controller. In recent years, CAS practitioners even added guidance to the doctrine explaining how CAS aircrew could nominate a target to a JTAC then receive a nomination and weapons release authority for the same target.

Going back to the concept of reactivity, one should now see the first issue clearly. CAS procedures, as an adjunct of fire support procedures, are inherently reactive. However, aircrew, unlike artillery operators, can identify targets independently. Therefore, the possibility exists that CAS can be performed proactively, given the right circumstances and presuming risk to friendly forces is mitigated. This suggests that the doctrinal models are correct: CAS is a distinct counterland mission that has fire support characteristics but is not inherently a fire support mission that happens to be performed by aircraft. If one accepts this notion, then we necessarily come to the second presumption behind extant CAS doctrine.

The reactive nature of CAS rests on the idea that detailed integration and risk mitigation are best accomplished through the close control of individual targets and, in most cases, individual attacks. This may be proper in many cases. In some cases, though, a single target or target set may require multiple attacks. This notion is part of the rationale behind Type 3 control in current doctrine, in which the land force commander approves multiple strikes on the same target. This type of control is still inherently reactive. However, with enough planning and an appropriate command and control capability, forces may be able to conduct CAS with a level of initiative unheard of today. Therein lies the problem with the mindset prevalent in the US military today.

A-10 Aerial Refueling
A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft conduct a combat air patrol mission over an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, 21 September 2019. (Source: US Department of Defense)

The Grey Area between AI and CAS

While the earlier discussion showed that all counterland missions are inherently enemy-centric, but the difference between CAS and AI revolves around friendly land dispositions. AI is performed in areas in which the risk to friendly land forces is nil and therefore, only minimal integration is required. CAS, on the other hand, is performed in areas where the risk of fratricide exists and detailed integration into the land fires scheme is required. In practice, this means that battlespaces are cleanly divided into AI and CAS areas by the Fire Support Coordination Line (FSCL). Virtually any US doctrinal manual that discusses the FSCL conveys that the FSCL is not a dividing line between AI and CAS TTPs, but instead ‘delineates coordination requirements for the joint attack of surface targets.’[9] The line is closer to a command and control border than anything else. However, for all intents and purposes the mindset discussed at length that aircraft operating within a land component area of operations are conducting CAS, the FSCL becomes a border between AI and CAS areas. While joint doctrine attempts to negate this thinking.

Accepting the argument regarding CAS TTPs are inherently reactive, one sees how the FSCL creates a zone where aircraft can operate proactively and a second zone in which aircraft must function entirely reactively. The problem is the size of the second zone. During the major combat phase of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, the US Army often placed the FSCL more than 100 kilometres from friendly troops.[10] Obviously, friendly forces were at basically zero risks of fratricide if aircraft struck targets that far away. Additionally, most surface-to-surface fires were shot at targets well short of that distance.

Recent Warfighter exercises indicate that FSCLs today are often placed about thirty to 40 kilometres from the friendly lines.[11] Even in this battlefield geometry, there is still a sizeable portion of the battlespace between the friendly front and the FSCL in which the risk of aircraft causing fratricide is minimal. This article does not address the operational framework concerns raised by this example, i.e., where should the line be, or should there be other coordination lines? Instead, this author posits that regardless of how a force organises a battlespace there will be a grey area.

This grey area is entirely subjective and based on the context of each individual battlespace. When analysing a battlefield, one can usually clearly lay out the areas near friendly troops where CAS procedures must be used to mitigate risk to friendly forces and integrate air strikes into the larger fires plan. One can also clearly see the areas in which no risk is present to friendly troops and the need for detailed integration into the fires plan is nil – the AI area. However, there will be many areas on the map that do not fit neatly into either category. These areas might be far enough away from friendly troops that fratricide risk is low but still close enough that detailed integration is required to deconflict aircraft with surface-to-surface fires.

Alternatively, there might be areas that, due to the nature of the terrain or the friendly scheme of maneuver, are relatively close on the map (say within a few kilometres) but the risk of fratricide is nevertheless quite low. These two simple examples illustrate the notion that between CAS and AI is a nebulous area that can be found in many battlespaces. The pressing concern for US and NATO CAS practitioners is to learn to conduct proactive CAS in these grey areas to achieve the purpose of CAS while retaining enough control to accomplish the intent of current CAS TTPs.

Finding Solutions to Enable Proactive CAS

The extant CAS paradigm relies on the idea that CAS fires must be reactive. A reactive mindset, however, is not conducive to success in a modern battlespace in which the speed of decision-making is paramount. The paradigm should allow for aircrew to proactively achieve the purpose of CAS – disrupting, degrading, and destroying enemy forces per a land maneuver commander’s intent and with minimal risk to friendly forces. The 2019 US JP 3-09 Joint Fire Support identifies the criticality of fast-paced decision-making in modern combat, emphasising that joint fire effects are best achieved through ‘decentralized execution based on mission-type orders.’[12] A myriad of options to do this is already within US doctrine.

The joint force could incorporate the US Marine Corps concept of the Battlefield Coordination Line into joint doctrine. This line allows land commanders to simply denote where the risk to friendly forces is low enough to justify AI TTPs. Whether land commanders and TACP utilise preplanned 9-Lines with Type 3 control, engagement areas with specific restrictions attached, or even restricted fire areas, the possibilities for enabling initiative to abound. If targets appear outside those areas, or the ground situation changes, then switch to close control of individual attacks. Nonetheless, in large conflicts, allow CAS aircrew to achieve the intent of CAS by providing enough freedom of action to enable initiative. US forces should foster a mindset that emphasises the concepts of mission command and decentralised execution – delegate decision-making authority to the lowest appropriate level. The simple fact is that US forces in all domains must make decisions faster than the enemy. A reactive CAS mindset virtually ensures a slow decision cycle. A proactive perspective, with proper risk mitigation, allows for thinking aircrew to engage the enemy faster with commensurate effects on the enemy’s tempo.


In summary, let’s review the key takeaways. First, counterland missions affect an enemy’s land military capabilities and consist of AI and CAS subsets. The only difference between these two is that CAS is executed in close proximity to friendly forces while AI is distant enough that detailed integration is not needed. Second, the purpose of CAS TTPs is to facilitate target nomination and mitigate risk to friendly ground troops. Third, the current US mindset is that a CAS mission must be controlled using individual 9-Lines for every target regardless of actual risk to friendly forces. The disconnect between the first two points and the third point creates a potentially dangerous concoction for CAS effectiveness during future major conflicts.

Land commanders, TACP, and CAS aircrew should train now to using various control methods to enable initiative on the part of aircrew. Whether that means more sophisticated uses of fire support coordination measures or learning to transition between CAS and AI TTP control methods flexibly is irrelevant. The point is to learn now, on bloodless training grounds, how to delegate initiative to the lowest levels to make decisions as rapidly as possible. The lessons learned today at Combat Training Centers and countless air-to-surface ranges around North American and Europe concerning how to conduct proactive CAS missions will pay dividends in a potential future conflict.

Major E. Aaron ‘Nooner’ Brady is a student at the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies. He graduated from the US Air Force Academy with a BS in History in 2006. He is a graduate of the US Air Force Weapons School A-10 course and is a senior pilot with more than 1,800 hours including more than 360 combat hours.

Header Image: A US Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II maneuvers through the air during Red Flag-Alaska 19-2 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, June 17, 2019. The exercise provides counter-air, interdiction and close air support training in a simulated combat environment. (Source: US Department of Defense)

[1] Mike Benitez, ‘How Afghanistan Distorted Close Air Support and Why it Matters,’ War on the Rocks, 29 June 2016; Clay Bartels, Tim Tormey, Jon Hendrickson, ‘Multidomain Operations and Close Air Support: A Fresh Perspective,’ Military Review, 97:2 (2017), pp. 70-9.

[2] Bruce R. Pirnie, Alan Vick, Adam Grissom, Karl P. Mueller, David T. Orletsky, Beyond Close Air Support: Forging a New Air-Ground Partnership (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2005).

[3] Joint Publication (JP) 3-09.3 – Close Air Support (Washington DC, US Joint Staff: Department of Defense, 2019), p. I-1.

[4] Allied Joint Publication 3.3(B) – Allied Joint Doctrine for Air and Space Operations (North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Standardization Office, 2017), p. 1-11.

[5] Joint Doctrine Publication (JDP) 0-30 – UK Air and Space Power, Second Edition (Shrivenham: Defence Concepts and Doctrine Centre, 2017) p. 34

[6] JP 3-09.3, p. I-2.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Marine Corps Reference Publication 1-10.1 – Organization of the United States Marine Corps (Washington DC:, Department of the Navy, 2016), p. 6-1.

[9] JP 3-09, Joint Fire Support (Washington DC: Department of Defense, 2019), p. A-5.

[10] Pirnie et al, Beyond Close Air Support, p. 68.

[11] Travis Robison and Alex Moen, ‘Reinventing the Wheel: Operational Lessons Learned by the 101st Division Artillery during Two Warfighter Exercises,’ Military Review, 96:4 (July-August 2016), p. 75.

[12] JP 3-09, Joint Fire Support, p. IV-1.

The Strategic Triangle: The Air Corps Tactical School and Its Vision of Future Warfare

The Strategic Triangle: The Air Corps Tactical School and Its Vision of Future Warfare

By Dr Heather Venable

It is evil to approach war with fixed ideas; that is, without an open and flexible mind, but it is certain to lead to disaster to approach it with the inapplicable formulas of the past.[1]

To the U.S. Army’s Air Corps Tactical School’s (ACTS) Class of 1936, Major Harold George proclaimed, ‘[W]e are not concerned in fighting the past war;–that was done 18 years ago.’[2] Having dismissed much of the value of studying the First World War for insights into air power, George emphatically returned to this theme a few minutes later, reminding his students that they sought to ‘peer down the path of future warfare. We are not discussing the past.’[3] Similarly, Major Muir Fairchild emphasised the problems caused by the ‘lack of well established principles, developed from past experience, to guide the air force commander.’[4] Suggesting that little of value could be derived from a study of the First World War, it is no wonder that one monograph focusing on the impetus for the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Forces’ strategic bombardment campaign of the Second World War highlighted the inter-war period as a source of problematic thinking. Tami Davis Biddle’s Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare has stressed the ACTS motto as fittingly emblematic of its institutional culture: ‘we progress unhindered by tradition.’[5]

Austin Hall at Maxwell AFB. Austin Hall was the home of the Air Corps Tactical School before the Second World War. (Source: Wikimedia)

Paradoxically, however, ACTS instructors struggled not to mine the First World War for historical lessons. Fairchild spent almost one-tenth of his lecture reading from the British official history of the First World War in the air, The War in the Air.[6] Similarly, George identified one historical lesson as central to future warfare: Germany had been defeated in the First World War not because its army had surrendered but because its people had crumbled.[7] As Lieutenant Colonel Donald Wilson explained, it was the ‘collapse of the German nation as a unit’ – largely because the people constituted the ‘weak link’ – that explained the war’s end (emphasis in original). As a result, ACTS ought to focus primarily on targeting civilian morale, albeit indirectly.[8]

Their vision can be modelled in order to depict how ACTS conceived of strategic bombardment and how these ideas changed as they began contemplating how to apply these ideas against Germany in the Second World War. Air War Plans Division (AWPD)-1 and AWPD-42, drafted in July of 1941 and August 1942, respectively, demonstrated important shifts in thinking about air power’s application. Moreover, they presaged a far more tactically minded employment of American air power in the Combined Bomber Offensive than has been recognised generally.[9]

This model draws on a modern interpretation of Carl von Clausewitz’s famous triangle, which is often thought of today as consisting of the following three legs: the government, the people’s passions, and the military.[10] The ACTS model could be depicted as follows: air power is best used at the strategic level to bend the enemy’s will; thus it should focus on affecting an opponent’s government and people because this approach provides the most direct path to achieving one’s desired political ends. A tactical focus on fielded forces, by contrast, is far less desirable because it is fundamentally inefficient. On occasion, however, a focus on the military might have a significant strategic effect. In other cases, an effect on electricity, for example, might have a strategic effect on the government and people as well as a more tactical effect on the military.

Diagram 1 Venable

This thinking went beyond ideas of an ‘industrial web,’ which continue to dominate many scholars’ discussions of ACTS thinking.[11] By zeroing in on the concept of a national structure, ACTS worked to link kinetic effects on industrial targets to the military as well as to the population, thus helping to refresh some aspects of strategic thinking in the wake of the Industrial Revolution – albeit with critical flaws. This thinking can be seen in ten recently published lectures of ACTS edited by and commented upon by Phil Haun. Of the more than 60 lectures presented at ACTS, Haun has identified these ten as representing the school’s ‘most mature thinking’ while reaching the greatest number of officers.[12]

A kind of national structure potentially could make room for a wider array of effects than an industrial web theory could, even if it struggled to make causal links between effects and political ends. By 1936, for example, ACTS envisioned a strategy that targeted the ‘vulnerabilities’ of ‘modern industrial nations’ aimed primarily at one point of the triangle: the people, as reflected in two lectures by George and Captain Haywood Hansell.[13] These lecturers advocated the destruction of carefully selected points in societies to cause ‘moral collapse’ – or effects on the population – as the immediate effect of strategic bombardment. The nation’s ‘will to resist’ was ‘centered in the mass of the people,’ as Hansell explained. Attacks on ‘vital elements upon which modern social life is dependent’ allowed for a focus on an opponent’s will rather than the more circuitous and inefficient focus on its means.[14] Hansell struggled to connect the effect on the people to any ‘express[ion] through political government.’[15] In effect, he wished away the government leg of the triangle. George further reasoned that even if strategic bombardment failed to have the desired effect on the population, it could have a positive effect on the military leg of the triangle due to the abundant material requirements of industrialised warfare.[16]

As such, George’s lecture anticipated a more mature 1939 lecture by Fairchild, which better integrated the effects of selected industrial attacks on two legs: people and the military, with the hope of simultaneously:

[r]educing the capacity for war of the hostile nation, and of applying pressure to the population both at the same time and with equal efficiency and effectiveness.[17]

Fairchild’s carefully parsed assumption about equal effect is dubious; after all, airpower thinkers have been infamous for their promises to be able to quantify the effect. Moreover, again, the government leg of the triangle remains absent. His point that the enablers of industry such as electricity and oil are ‘joined at many vital points’ places these critical aspects within the triangle, thereby potentially affecting each point, at least in theory.[18] Fairchild reasoned regarding the importance of preventing one’s opponent from acquiring key materials, such as petroleum, as well as the transportation system and electricity.[19] Today it is common to describe ACTS as efficiently identifying key industrial bottlenecks, but such a characterisation falls short of Fairchild’s greater vision. He did not seek to attack industry so much as ‘national structure,’ as he described it.[20]

For Fairchild, this vision appealingly provided a convenient shortcut to waging war so common to advocates of strategic attack. The ‘resulting shock effect’ and the ‘degree of facility with which these installations may be destroyed’ lured airmen with the perennial promise of being home by Christmas.[21] In doing so, Fairchild made assumptions emblematic of ACTS thinking by envisioning a kind of paralysis complemented by efficient destruction.[22] These effects allowed the ‘maximum contribution toward the Allied aim in the war at that time,’ unlike what he regarded as a more ineffective and tactical focus on the fielded forces, which airmen viewed as synonymous with slow attrition.[23]

This theory came to life in AWPD-1, hurriedly envisioned over nine days in July of 1941 by former ACTS instructors such as Lieutenant Colonel Harold George, Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Walker, Lieutenant Colonel Orvil Anderson, Major Haywood Hansell, Major Laurence Kuter, Major Hoyt Vandenberg, and Major Samuel Anderson. All but one of these officers had attended and/or taught at ACTS. The plan posited 154 targets of strategic attack to be destroyed in six months in the following priority:

  1. Electricity;
  2. Transportation;
  3. Oil;
  4. Aircraft factories;
  5. Aluminium sources;
  6. Magnesium
  7. Air support in joint operations.

In compiling this list, air planners claimed to adhere to the strategic vision of the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy’s War Plans ABC-1 and Rainbow 5, which in Europe required an air offensive designed to reduce German air and naval assets and material while preparing for a ground offensive. However, the planners did not set out a traditional air superiority campaign with an array of targets, including airdromes, aeroplanes, and factories. Rather, they adhered to Fairchild’s emphasis on national structure, relegating aeroplane assembly plants – the first hint of an air superiority campaign – to the fourth priority.[24]

The emphasis of ACTS continuing into AWPD-1 is modelled below, showing the split emphasis on the military and the people as two legs of the triangle, with the people receiving the primacy of focus. A plan focused on enablers such as electricity and oil doctrinally targeting national structure represented the most matured form of ACTS thinking, albeit with a problematic hope in the efficacy of strategic attack.

Diagram 2 VenableBy September of 1942, however, this vision underwent a substantial change in focus, as the emphasis shifted down the spectrum toward more tactical means. AWPD-42 prioritised the destruction of the Luftwaffe, albeit still attained primarily through industrial means in the form of attacks against aeroplane and engine factories. Regardless, such a change represented a significant change in thinking away from more general enablers such as electricity to war material itself that had a less immediate effect on society as a whole. Second, the US Army Air Forces needed to concentrate on submarine building yards, before finally turning its attention to transportation in order to sever the ‘vital link in the Germany military and industrial structure.’[25] Electricity, the epitome of a structural target, had dropped from first to fourth place.[26] In effect, AWPD-42 represented a more traditional and tactical focus, designed as it was to interdict material, though admittedly at its source, before seeking to paralyse the economy.[27] The model below reflects this distribution with more emphasis placed on the military rather than the people, as the general trend in thinking shifted toward destroying a military’s ability to meet its material requirements. Production to strike at the enemy’s fielded forces – rather than the dual enablers of the people’s will and military means – received the greatest focus in AWPD-42.

Diagram 3 Venable

The notion of a quick and easy path to victory through strategic attack proved a chimaera, as it has so often in history. Germany responded to attacks against its aircraft factories, for example, by dispersing them.[28] It also fully mobilised its economy in 1944, although it could do only so much to make up for poor strategic choices. Germany had a price to pay in reduced efficiency; but so too did the Allies in terms of the very kind of attrition that they sought to avoid in the first place. It was not enough to wage an air superiority campaign against factories. German fighters and American fighters and bombers battled each other well into 1945, especially during the Battle of the Bulge.[29]

Modelling and parsing out how ACTS envisioned strategic bombardment provides a historical case study in conceptualising strategic attack and changes in thinking over time. Doctrinally, the US Air Force continues to insist that air power used in strategic attack has the ‘potential to achieve decisive effects more directly without the need to engage enemy fielded forces.’ It cited several operations over the last 50 years in which the Air Force denied its opponents

[a]ccess to critical resources and infrastructure, defeat[ed] enemy strategies, and decisively influence[d] the enemy to end hostilities on terms favorable to US interests.[30]

Amidst the U.S. military’s reemphasis on great power conflict, it is useful to return to the fundamentals to consider how, exactly, a strategic attack might help to achieve its desired ends through a focus on the military, the people, and the government.

Dr Heather Venable is an Assistant Professor of Military and Security Studies at the U.S. Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College and teaches in the Department of Airpower. She has written a forthcoming book entitled How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique, 1874-1918.

Header Image: A Boeing Y1B-17A in flight near Mount Rainier in Washington state, c. 1938. (Wikimedia)

[1] Quoted in Lieutenant Colonel Donald Wilson, ‘Principles of War’ in Phil Haun (ed. and commentator), Lectures of the Air Corps Tactical School and American Strategic Bombing in World War II (Lexington, KT: University Press of Kentucky, 2019), p. 71.

[2] Major Harold George, ‘An Inquiry into the Subject ‘War” in Haun, Lectures, p. 35.

[3] George, ‘Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 37.

[4] Fairchild, ‘Air Power and Air Warfare’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 48. For another similar lecture opening, see Captain Haywood Hansell, ‘The Aim in War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 73. This same tension between rejecting history yet almost immediately jumping to a discussion of historical examples can be seen in Major Frederick Hopkins, ‘Tactical Offense and Tactical Defense’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 100-8. Hopkins also sought relevant lessons from the Spanish Civil War, for which Biddle has argued some airmen were too dogmatic to do. See Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 171.

[5] Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare, p. 138.

[6] Fairchild, ‘Air Power and Air Warfare’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 52-4.

[7] George, ‘Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 40-1. George even concluded his lecture by returning to this theme. Ibid., p. 44. Also see Lieutenant Colonel Donald Wilson, ‘Principles of War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 62 and Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 144. Also see Haun, ‘Introduction’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 8.

[8] Major Muir Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 140. Of course, one’s intent can differ from one’s effects, as occurred in the Second World War due to bad weather and the challenges of precision bombing. For this ethical discussion, see Douglas P. Lackey, ‘The Bombing Campaign: The USAAF’ in Igor Primoratz (ed.), The Bombing of German Cities in World War II (New York: Berghan Books, 2010), pp. 39-59.  Even with precision, indirect effects on civilians can be highly problematic. See Daniel T. Kuehl, ‘Airpower vs. Electricity: Electric Power as a Target for Strategic Air Operations,’ Journal of Strategic Studies, 18:1 (1995), pp. 237-266.  

[9] See, for example, Heather Venable, ‘The Strategic Bombardment Campaign that Wasn’t? The Army Air Forces in the European Theater of Operations, 1942-1945,’ The Strategy Bridge, 6 May 2019.

[10] For background on how those ideas are improperly attributed to Clausewitz, see Christopher Bassford and Edward J. Villacres, ‘Reclaiming the Clausewitzian Trinity.’ By contrast, Clausewitz himself set out elements of emotion, chance, and reason. See Christopher Bassford, ‘Teaching the Clausewitzian Trinity.’

[11] For this characterisation of an ‘industrial web theory,’ for example, see Scott D. West, ‘Warden and the Air Corps Tactical School: Déjà Vu’ (Thesis, School of Advanced Airpower Studies, 1999), p. v and 1.

[12] Haun, Lectures, p. xv.

[13] George, ‘An Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 43.

[14] Hansell, ‘Aim in War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 78, 81 and 84. Even as Hansell insisted this was the ‘primary strategic objective’ of Air Forces, he did not make this link for navies’ ability to blockade, instead taking the more Mahanian view that the primary role of the Navy was to destroy other navies. In this way, he highlighted his bias for air power as offering unique shortcuts. Ibid., p. 84.

[15] Hansell, ‘Aim in War’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 77.

[16] George, ‘An Inquiry’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 43. Fairchild similarly highlighted the importance of this military capacity. See Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 188-9.

[17] Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 143.

[18] Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 189.

[19] Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 152-7.

[20] Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 182.

[21] Ibid., p. 185.

[22] Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 166.

[23] Fairchild, ‘National Economic Structure’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 166. For the very rare recognition that ground operations occasionally could be decisive, see Fairchild, ‘Primary Strategic Objectives of Air Forces,’ p. 186.

[24] ‘Appendix 2: AWPD-1’ in Haun, Lectures, pp. 232-3.

[25] ‘Appendix 3: AWPD-42’ in Haun, Lectures, p. 258.

[26] ‘Appendix 1 – Trenchard Memo,’ p. 232 and ‘Appendix 3: AWPD-42,’ p. 258 in Haun, Lectures.

[27] While highlighting the more overt focus on supporting an invasion, Robert Futrell argued that the ‘strategic philosophy of the two studies was virtually the same.’ See Robert Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine: Basic Thinking in the United States Air Force (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 1989), p. 131. For a discussion of strategic interdiction as compared to operational interdiction, see Robert Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), p. 75.

[28] Haun, Lectures, p. 3.

[29] See Danny S. Parker, To Win the Winter Sky: The Air War over the Ardennes, 1944-1945 (Conshohocken, PA: Combined Books, 1994), pp. 248-305.

[30] Curtis E. LeMay Center for Doctrine Development and Education, Annex 3-70 Strategic Attack, ‘Fundamentals of Strategic Attack,’ last reviewed 25 May 2017.