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Strategy and Air Power Part 2: The Forgotten Other Side – Peter Layton

In the second post of a four-part series on air power and strategy, Peter Layton discusses a frequently overlooked element of air power: the competition.

The aviation business is a very complicated one where inattention to detail or shortcomings in expertise can quickly lead to catastrophe. Reflecting this, air forces are inherently rather technocratic organisations. This necessity can lead to a strong inward focus, onto the operation of aircraft rather than onto the reason for having an air force in the first place.

In contrast, the air power business requires an outward focus. It is not how good your air force is in terms of having new equipment, flying abilities, serviceability or sustainability. Instead, it is whether your air force’s strategy is better than others.

The second fundamental characteristic of strategy (discussed in Part One) is that it involves interacting with intelligent and adaptive others, whether friends, neutrals or adversaries. This social interaction is of a particular kind. Each party involved continuously modifies their position, intent and actions based on the perceptions and actions of the others participating. As the old saw declares, the enemy gets a vote.

This attribute reveals the difference between a strategy and a plan. The objects of a strategy actively try to implement their own strategies, changing and evolving as necessary to thwart efforts made to obstruct them. In a strategy all involved are actively seeking their own ends.  In contrast, in a plan all involved are working towards the same objective, they do not have their own countervailing goals.

Two air forces might be evenly matched but in combat the one with the relatively better strategy generally succeeds. And making a better strategy depends on taking the adversary into account. A good example is that most famous of air battles: the Battle of Britain (August-September 1940). The very name highlights why the German Luftwaffe failed.

Germany sought to change the balance of power between it and the UK, thereby forcing Britain to move from adversary to at least being neutral. This strategic objective could be achieved by various ways but in each the key was to gain air superiority. The Luftwaffe accordingly devised a plan that sought to destroy the British Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Fighter Command in southern England in four days, then eliminate the rest of the RAF across the rest of the United Kingdom in four weeks. This was effectively a strategy of a single decisive ‘battle’ and yet the adversary was a peer great power – a fact that the Luftwaffe overlooked.

The Luftwaffe’s  strategy was not devised based on a clear-eyed understanding of the RAF’s combat capabilities. Instead the Luftwaffe  rolled out their standard way of war with few allowances made for the particular adversary they faced. Historian Tony Mason nicely summed up the result. The Luftwaffe  “did not identify Fighter Command as the RAF’s and indeed Britain’s centre of gravity; then was slow to identify the critical contribution of the radar and sector bases; then underestimated the vulnerability of the radar units; failed to appreciate the strategic significance of shifting the attack to London and even then failed to identify a strategic target array on which to concentrate.”

The reconstructed Second World War RAF Sector Operations Room at the Imperial War Museum Duxford [Image credit: Imperial War Museum]

Unsurprisingly, the formal post-war RAF analysis based on captured German documents considered the major factor in the Luftwaffe’s  defeat was that their strategy took too little account of their adversary. The report partially excused this as reflecting Luftwaffe hubris, for after their remarkable victories against European continental air forces: “opinion in the Luftwaffe…ignored the mere possibility of any serious opposition to the great and victorious Luftwaffe.”

This was a case of not treating the adversary as intelligent and adaptive but rather almost one of overlooking them completely. There are other ways to ignore the adversary though, and for this the French Armée de l’Air’s experience in the 1930s may offer some sage advice for peacetime air forces.

The defeat of Germany in World War One was greatly due to French military efforts and particularly of the French Army. Unity of command was seen as the crucial factor in achieving this victory. Accordingly, the concept was institutionalised in the post-war years in the form of a unified joint command structure that amongst its functions determined the French armed force’s force structure.

The air force’s air combat capabilities were then principally shaped by the need to reach a compromise between the various unified command’s elements. The air force consequently acquired aircraft with a strong joint force flavour. The demands of the internal bureaucratic battles were more important than the external threats from the rebuilding Luftwaffe.

The result was the Bombardement Combat Reconnaissance (BCR) program, which fielded a large fleet of strike/fighter/reconnaissance aircraft (in modern parlance). This design pleased all groups within the unified command structure through being multi-role. Such a platform addressed the concerns of those worried about the air force becoming too independent as the BCR tied the air force to the land battle.

By the late 1930s it was evident that the multi-role battleplane concept was technologically obsolete with single-role higher performance aircraft designs now prevailing. However, there was little time left and less money available to remake the air force. Anthony Cain writes the BCR program “saddled the air service with useless materiel…[however] the Armée de l’Air had created an entire organisation and training system based on employing formations of BCR-type battle planes. … The airmen became caught in a trap that forced them to try to perfect a flawed system in the face of increasing evidence that their technological gamble was bankrupt. To recast the air service into one that was better able to meet the Luftwaffe on more or less equal terms would have required great courage and large amounts of political capital.”

The Armée de l’Air was not shaped by the threat, instead becoming in Pascal Vennesson’s words simply “an administrative rationalisation”. Harsh words but defeat was harsher still. The failures of the German and French air forces nicely illustrate that strategy is all about the adversary. It seems a statement of the bleeding obvious and yet two very experienced air forces missed it in both war and peace. Let us not repeat their mistake.

Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. His PhD is in grand strategy and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. He is the author of the book ‘Grand Strategy’.


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