Giulio Douhet and Air Power Theory

Posted on October 19, 2012

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Giulio Douhet was an Italian General and one of the first and foremost aerial warfare theorists of his time.  In The Command of the Air (1921) he claimed that the introduction of aeronautics to armed conflict had created a new battlefield, beyond those of the land and sea. He argued that an air force should be independent from land operations, yet it should work in coordination with them. For this reason, armies and navies should be allowed to acquire the aerial means to ‘aid and integrate’ their land and sea operations.

Douhet came to realise that aerial warfare would make war more total than ever:

The battlefield will be limited only by the boundaries of the nations at war, and all of their citisens will become combatants, since all of them will be exposed to the aerial offensives of the enemy.

He predicted that civilians would be exposed to war like never before:

There will be no distinction any longer between soldiers and civilians.

Finally, he made a case for heavy investment into aerial weaponry:

In face of the technical developement of aviation today, in case of war the strongest army we can deploy in the alps and the strongest navy we can dispose on our seas will prove no effective defence against determined efforts of the enemy to bomb our cities.

Although Douhet’s absolutist predictions have been made reduntant -at times- by the many conflicts since the publication of his 1921 book, one must give the General credit for predicting the slaughter of civilians by aerial bombing that characterised WWII. Indeed, up until 1945, Douhet’s grim prophecies had been proven accurate. Perhaps it is that very conflict that convinced later theorists and practicioners that the indiscriminate bombing of civilians must be avoided.

In Reflections on the Search for Air Power Theory Holley defined Douhet a ‘visionary’ as “With only the scantiest empirical evidence to go on, he visualised the concept of strategic air war. By sheer imagination, he also recognised the necessity of air supremacy or what he called ‘command of the air’.”

The concept of ‘command of the air’ was indeed central to Douhet’s air power theory; in 1914 he wrote: “Only by gaining the command of the air shall we be able to derive the fullest benefit from the advantage which can only be fully exploited when the enemy is compelled to be earth bound.

Italian airmen in Libya (1911-12)

 With only the Italo-Turkish war of 1911-1912 as practical evidence for his theories (it was in fact the first conflict which saw the deployment of aircraft for the purpose of war) he concluded that “To gain command of the air is to be able to attack with impunity any point of the enemy’s body.”

It is a principle that seems to be timeless, even at a century’s distance. Even last year’s Western intervention in Libya’s civil war was built on Douhet’s principle of air supremacy: the first phase of the operation was the annihilation of Libya’s air defences which, once achieved, gave Nato’s airforces the power to support the insurgency without punishment.

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Posted in: Africa, Europe, History, Italy