AGITATION for the creation of a separate air force as an in-dependent arm of the defense forces of the United States, divorced from the Army and Navy, is again coming to a boil under the pressure of current events. No less than three bills have been introduced in Congress seeking in one way or another to effect this change, and it is probable that public hearings will soon begin on one or more of them -- may, indeed, have begun by the time these words are in print. The subject is of such importance to the public security that there ought to be wide and sober public discussion of it. Otherwise our citizens may be led astray by emotional appeals or plausible special pleading. The purpose of this article is to enumerate the advantages claimed for a separate air force for this country, and as far as possible to examine them in the light of actual experience in this war. War is the final test of all military policies. Against its verdict no mere theory, however ardently presented, can stand.

The proposal for a separate air force takes two general forms. One suggests the formation of a Department of National Defense, headed by a Secretary of National Defense, with under-secretaries for Army, Navy and Air. The other suggests the formation of a separate Department of Air, co-equal with the existing Departments of War and Navy, and like them responsible directly to the President.

Boiled down, the essential difference between the proposals is merely that the first would interpose an additional echelon of authority between the Commander-in-Chief and the fighting services, while the second would not. Both would create a separate fighting service, the Air Force. There is some confusion of thought amongst proponents of these ideas as to how this Air Force is to be organized; some would have it include all military and naval aviation; others would leave the naval air arm as it is now, and also allow the Army a certain amount of aviation, while creating the separate Air Force for independent air missions -- the so-called "true missions of air power." Of which more hereafter.

As to the respective merits of these two proposals, it may be said at once that nothing can detract from or weaken the constitutional authority and responsibility of the President as the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the United States. They cannot be shared with any subordinate. Coördination is of course essential. We do not require a Secretary of National Defense for that purpose, however, but rather a joint General Staff directly responsible to the Commander-in-Chief, whose need in the discharge of his responsibilities as such is not an additional civilian collaborator but well-digested military advice and information. The plan for a War Cabinet discussed in my article in the last issue of FOREIGN AFFAIRS, "Planning for Victory," would provide such a General Staff as an adjunct to the War Cabinet.

Under war conditions, the task of coördinating two services is difficult enough for the President without increasing the difficulties three hundred percent by adding a third service. A simple diagram will illustrate what I mean. Draw on a piece of paper two equal-sized circles whose perimeters overlap about one-fourth. Label one "Army," the other "Navy." The area of overlap is the area of coöperation, in which coördination by higher authority is required. Now add a third circle, whose center is equidistant from the centers of the other two; let this represent the proposed separate Air Force. You will see that there are now four areas in which coördination is required: Army-Navy, Army-Air Force, Navy-Air Force, and Army-Navy-Air Force. Far from simplifying the problem of command and coördination, you have enormously complicated it. Complications of this sort are dangerous in war, and may contain the seeds of disaster. They should be foreseen and solved in advance by simple and adequate organization, based on the lessons of experience. It has been urged by supporters of the separate Air Force that the experience of this war shows the need for such separation. Actually, the record shows the contrary.


Germany has a separate Air Force -- yes, and one which has proven highly efficient. But the whole German organization is different from ours, is essentially military. The present German state is a single vast military organ, in every department of which military ideas are dominant. Germany has no Navy, in the sense in which we have a Navy. Her naval problems are secondary, her surface fleet insignificant; only her submarine arm represents a formidable sea-going weapon. Her access to the sea is restricted and her chief military problems are continental. The German Navy's task is an auxiliary one -- to aid in the solution of those continental problems, under the direction of the Führer and the Supreme General Staff. Its position in the German military organization as a whole, and its responsibilities, are about what the position and responsibilities of our Navy would be if we had no ocean-going fleet and no overseas possessions and if our naval activities were confined chiefly to the operation of local defense flotillas off our own coasts and of submarines which preyed, as opportunity offered, on enemy commerce. Every state must create military instrumentalities adapted to its peculiar geographical situation. Germany created an air force with two main missions: (1) to support the German armies in offensive operations; (2) to carry out independent air missions, both in offense against the vital centers of Germany's enemies and in defense of Germany's vital centers against enemy air attack. Such air support as might be required for purely naval operations was, in the circumstances, a decidedly secondary matter.

The Germans, however, realized the basic principle that unity of purpose and effort is the key to all military success, and that such unity of purpose and effort can be secured only by unity of command, by unified coördination and control of every agency necessary for achieving victory. They therefore created a High Command of the armed forces, or Wehrmacht, directly responsible to the Commander-in-Chief, Hitler, and they recognized the fact that their problems were primarily army problems by placing at the head of this organization an army officer, Field Marshal Keitel. Under Keitel there is a combined General Staff of army, navy and air force officers, and this staff coördinates the work of the three Commanders of the three fighting services, each of whom in turn has his own staff. Keitel sits in on all conferences of the Nazi War Council, or Cabinet, of which he is a member, the other members being Göring, for production; Goebbels, for propaganda; Ribbentrop, for foreign affairs; Funk, for economics; Himmler, for police; Ley, for labor; and Todt, for munitions.

Thus Hitler has an organization for controlling every resource of the German state, and for welding them all into one single instrument with the single object of waging total war. The military phase of total war is but one phase. In the highest councils of the German state it has a single representative, who in turn controls an organization adequate to every military responsibility which may be laid upon it. It is an admirable system for Germany, all this; but we had better recognize that it is not a system which can be transplanted in its entirety to democratic soil. And while learning such lessons as it may have to teach us, we should remember that armies and navies are living organisms, part of our national growth, and can serve us well only when national characteristics and traditions, as well as national necessities, are kept in mind in their organization and command.

Perhaps the best part of the German system, and the part which we may most easily adopt, is the "task force" system for the execution of military plans. When any operation is to be undertaken, the first responsibility of the Chief of the Supreme General Staff is to select a commander-in-chief for the particular campaign to be taken in hand. He does this in consultation with his staff and with the three commanders of the three branches of the armed forces, and with Hitler's approval. The best man is picked for the job, regardless of rank, regardless of anything except efficiency, experience and ability. The "task force" commander then selects his own staff, enjoying wide latitude in so doing, and, having been given his general directive, prepares the plans for the operation and decides what forces he will require of the three branches of the Wehrmacht. In the meanwhile, through the medium of the Supreme Council, coördinate plans involving every other department of government are being made with the aim of furthering the success of the campaign. When the plans thus made have been given final approval by Hitler, a time is selected for the beginning of the campaign, munitions are assembled, troops moved to concentration areas, and, at the prescribed moment, the operation begins.

The system is as well adapted to defensive as to offensive operations. Thus, a task force might be chosen for the mission of defending a given area against air attack. It would include fighter squadrons, a balloon barrage unit, anti-aircraft artillery (including guns, machine guns, searchlights and fire-control units), a signal corps warning net with a civilian organization supporting it, engineers for the quick repair of bombed air-fields, and probably infantry, light artillery and tanks for the defense of air-fields against attack by parachutists or air-borne troops. A coastal frontier might require also defense against attack from the sea, including fixed and mobile artillery, mine-fields, reconnaissance planes, and a local defense flotilla of small naval craft (torpedo boats, submarines, mine-layers, mine-sweepers, patrol boats, net-layers, boom-defense vessels and other types). There is nothing in any of this which requires a separate air force; indeed, what is required is close coördination of air with surface activities, and this a separate air force would tend only to impede. We can have such advantages of the German system as are adapted to our use without blindly accepting features which are either not suited to our system of government or not fitted to our needs.

It may, however, be asked: What of the independent air missions for which the German air force is trained in addition to being trained to coöperate with surface forces? These missions, as already pointed out, consist of attacking vital centers of the enemy and defending one's own vital centers from air attack. Both -- but more particularly the former -- are tasks which the independent air force enthusiasts call the "true missions of air power."

The distinction between an independent air offensive and other air force missions is the fact that it undertakes direct action against the sources of enemy power rather than against his armed forces. Air power, properly so called, strikes directly at the enemy's means of production, distribution and communication, and at the "will to fight" of his civil population. In former days the enemy's armed forces were the immediate objective of all military operations, as a means to the ultimate objective, his defeat and surrender. Air power strikes directly toward the ultimate objective, without preliminaries. This is what is meant by air power, as something distinct from land power or sea power. But in actual test, it has been shown that air power is not capable of achieving a quick decision by itself over a strong and resolute people. Its shattering effect on morale and on the total economy of states has not measured up to prewar expectations. It plays a part, but only a part, in the general operations of war. Its actual effect seems to be an extension of blockade to interior communications and means of distribution and manufacture, and in this field it has achieved its most marked results. Its effect on civilian morale has not been impressive. For the best results, it requires close coördination with other forms of warfare -- with the work of surface and especially naval forces, economic warfare and even propaganda.

Defense against this form of attack requires -- as shown above -- many other elements in addition to air forces. The Germans have sought to reduce complications by making their anti-aircraft artillery, searchlights, and air raid warning system a part of their Air Force instead of a part of the Army. We could do the same, if there were any necessity for it, though it would mean a tremendous amount of change, confusion and discontent. But the fact is, that the possibility of large scale air attacks on our home territory does not form a major part of our present military anxieties. There is no reason for making drastic changes in our organization to meet a danger which does not now exist, and which will not exist within any period for which we can now make practical preparation, provided we take the essential precautions to prevent an enemy from establishing air bases within reach of our homeland.

Likewise, large scale air attacks by our air units on the vital centers of any other large Power can only be possible when and if we have established bases from which our airplanes can reach those vital centers. Independent offensive operations by American air units must therefore be predicated on the success of other operations designed to obtain, develop and defend such advance bases. In the nature of things, these must be combined operations in which the mission of our aircraft will be to support and assist our naval and land forces, and perhaps even to transport or supply certain elements thereof; but they will hardly be independent missions in the sense of applying "air power" directly against an enemy's vital centers. The same thing applies to preventing hostile bases from being established near our shores. It is very rarely that an enemy can be bombed out of a position by air power alone. Otherwise, Malta would no longer be a British possession, nor would the Italians have been able to hold the Dodecanese Islands; even Crete, where both fighter and anti-aircraft defense were sadly lacking, was taken not by bombing, but by air-borne infantry and artillery, in hard fighting on dry land, supported by bombing.

Thus we see that the primary missions of American air forces must almost always be combined missions, and rarely or never independent missions. Before independent missions become possible many other things must first happen. It is primarily for these coöperative tasks that our air units must be trained. And let this be noted well -- they need a great deal of training to perform such tasks properly, training and indoctrination and team-spirit and service loyalty. All of this can best be obtained if our air forces are part of the surface forces which our airmen are to assist, with which they are to work, and whose methods they must know to perfection. Air forces so trained can, when occasion arises, perform independent "air power" missions perfectly well; but air forces trained only for independent missions cannot perform coöperative missions because they have not been trained for them.

Here we discover one of the chief fallacies in the idea that we need an independent air force as well as a Navy air force and an Army air force: it is a waste of effort, an uneconomical use of power, for it sets aside a certain part of our air effort for one type of mission only, a type of mission which we may never need to execute, and which we can execute only after other and combined missions have been accomplished; or, conversely, which shall need to execute only after other and combined missions have failed. On the offensive, this weakening of the ability of our air force to coöperate with surface forces might result in the defeat of our efforts; or on the defensive might enable enemies to get within reach of vital centers where otherwise a hostile bomb would never fall.

The defense of our overseas possessions and of such additional outlying bases as we may acquire raises a rather different set of problems. Such bases, considered as advance bases, exist for the purpose of giving a wider radius of action to the mobile sea and air forces operating from them. Their defense must be the responsibility of specially assigned "task forces" adequate to deal with an attack on the scale which may be anticipated and capable of assuring the safety of the base until it can be relieved. Such defensive "task forces" must include land, sea and flying elements in due proportion, under a single commander; and the defense of a group of bases in a single strategical area such as the Caribbean may be placed under a single higher commander -- as the defense of the Caribbean has in fact been placed under Lieutenant General Andrews.

From all this, one single fact stands out with a clarity which hardly requires emphasis. The United States cannot direct a serious attack against any other great Power, nor be attacked by any such Power, save by operations which are primarily naval in character. Only by sea can we send armaments forth from this country to attack others, or to support our advanced bases -- which are chiefly insular. Only by sea can any other Great Power send armaments to seize and occupy bases from which attack can be directed against us. Thus the very first element in our security, and the primary aim of our military policy, must be the command of the sea. Having it, we have also freedom of action to use our enormous resources as our national interest may dictate; lacking it, we are subject to every sort of harassment and interference, and may in the end become open to attack by forces with which we are not prepared to deal.

This situation is very different from Germany's and calls for very different instruments, a very different distribution of military resources, a different organization and a different system of command. For, unlike Germany's, it makes our Navy our primary military consideration. This is by no means to say that ships alone are today adequate to command the sea. Airplanes are so essential, indeed, to any modern naval force that without them it is almost helpless against an enemy not similarly deficient. But naval aviation must be a part of the Navy itself, a living member of a living organism, not an auxiliary or an adjunct. It is an essential part without which the whole could not function or indeed exist. This the British have had to learn from bitter experience, and we may well profit thereby.


Great Britain has a true separate air force. It is administered by a separate government department, the Air Ministry, which is coëqual with the Admiralty and the War Office. The Chief of the Air Staff bears the same relation to the Air Minister that the First Sea Lord (Chief of the Naval Staff) and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (that is, the Army General Staff) bear respectively to the First Lord of the Admiralty and the Secretary of State for War. The three Chiefs of Staff have also a joint and several responsibility for giving military advice to the War Cabinet, of which their Ministers are members as is the Minister of Defense (who is also the Prime Minister). The three officers form what is called the Chiefs of Staff Sub-Committee of the War Cabinet, and they have a small staff of selected officers who form at least the germ of a combined General Staff. In practice, this system is hampered by a long history of inter-service jealousies and bickerings. Of late years these have centered around the separate air force and the problems arising therefrom. Moreover, there has been so little actual coöperation among the three services in time of peace and so little attempt at any combined direction of military policy that many improvisations and adaptations have had to be made under the inexorable pressure of wartime events, with consequent loss of opportunities and with unnecessary defeats and unnecessary casualties.

The British have tried to obtain unity of purpose and effort, not by coördination and control, as have the Germans, but by cooperation and agreement. This may produce reasonably satisfactory administration in time of peace, but it is not a method suited to waging war. It results in compromise instead of forthright decision, in half-measures rather than a bold and determined use of all available resources toward a common end. Against an enemy possessing true unity of command it loses time and fails to exploit opportunities; it promotes a defensive rather than an offensive attitude; and it permits a fatal division of responsibility. Thus in the disaster of Crete, the blame has never been correctly placed. Probably, indeed, it attaches to no one individual. Responsibility was divided between the Army, the Navy, and the R.A.F.; there was no unified command. General Freyberg, the commander of the garrison, was dependent for air support on squadrons controlled by the Air Officer Commanding the Middle East Command of the R.A.F., far away in Cairo, and for naval coöperation on the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet, who was in turn dependent for air support very largely on the R.A.F. (save for such limited aid as he could get from the meager forces of his own Fleet Air Arm). In such a case, divided responsibility protects all, covers defeat, furnishes excuses -- but it will not produce victories. If inescapable personal responsibility had attached to one commander in this case, either Crete would have been adequately defended -- as it certainly was not -- or the decision would have been taken to withdraw while withdrawal without heavy losses was still possible.

This is not, of course, to say that General Freyberg should have commanded the fleet, or Sir Andrew Cunningham the garrison of Crete; but it is to say that (1) each of these officers should have had adequate air support under his own control; (2) upon one or the other of them, or upon some higher authority immediately present, should have been laid the full responsibility for deciding whether or not it was possible to carry out a successful defense of the island.

Crete, however, by no means completes the tale of the disasters which British arms have suffered because of divided responsibility and lack of unity of command, and because of the system which, in giving rise to these conditions, fatally handicaps surface forces by depriving them of a properly trained and controlled air support.

The fact must be faced, and clearly kept in mind, that every operation of war of any consequence requires the coöperation and participation of air forces. No surface force, by land or by sea, can hope for much success unless it has air support; even against an enemy wholly unprovided with air units himself, air support is of immense assistance, while the lack of it against an enemy which does have an air force is likely, if not certain, to be fatal. It therefore may be justly remarked that whereas under existing conditions many operations are purely an Army responsibility, or purely a Navy responsibility, so that the need for coördinated action of the two services in joint operations is only occasional, the placing of all aviation under a separate air force would make such coördination essential in every little skirmish and minor affray.

The decision, however, is almost always had on the surface of the earth; and in all operations where surface forces are working with air support, the surface commander -- charged with the responsibility for obtaining the decision -- must have full control of his air support. The latter must in turn be led and manned by officers and men who are accustomed to act with surface forces, who are a part thereof, who understand the tactics and technique of the units they are supporting, and who know what to do without being told each time, in the enormously variant exigencies that may confront them.

In this connection, the remarkable success attained by the British in General Wavell's offensive campaign from Sidi Barrani to Benghazi, where the participating air squadrons were placed (by agreement, it is true) wholly under the control of the commanding general, should be contrasted with the failure of operations in Greece and Crete where this was not the case. One high-ranking officer who served in Greece is reported to have said that he would never accept another command in which he did not have full and undivided control of his supporting air force. Moreover, a most distressing lack of confidence arises in such cases between the personnel of the services in question, with serious resulting injury to morale. Thus after Crete it was necessary to keep apart the returning troops and the personnel of the Royal Air Force, and the resulting lowered morale all round is still one of the considerations which operates against a renewal of the British offensive against Axis forces in Libya.

Examining the whole of the British war record, we see that the Royal Navy has probably been the chief sufferer from the independent air force system. Until 1937, naval aviation as such did not exist in the British service. Royal Air Force planes and personnel were embarked in aircraft carriers and in ships carrying catapulted planes, and when so embarked came under the operational direction of the naval commanders. The Admiralty furnished liaison officers to the Air Ministry to consult on the design and procurement of planes to be so embarked. But the Admiralty had no real control over the fleet's aviation, over the training and selection of personnel, or in procurement matters. The inevitable consequence was that naval aviation suffered, almost expired. While R.A.F. fighter squadrons were being equipped with the best planes in the world for the defense of the British Isles, British carrier-borne aviation was years behind our own in both equipment and training. After a long struggle the Admiralty succeeded in 1937 in getting greater control of the Fleet Air Arm -- that is, ship-borne planes and flying personnel -- but even then was not able to obtain control for its own agencies over the design and procurement of naval aircraft.

What happened when this hybrid system was put to the test of war?

In Norway, the R.A.F. planes of the Coastal Command, patrolling the Norwegian coast, failed to give proper and accurate information of the movement of German ships -- because they did not have navy-trained personnel who knew what to look for and the significance of what they saw. Long-range naval flying boats were not available for reconnaissance and as patrol-bombers, to strike swiftly at the very small and initially vulnerable German forces which seized the principal Norwegian ports, some of them in positions fatally exposed to the attack of really efficient naval aviation. When attempts were made to use carrier-borne planes to cover landings and support landed troops, the planes were insufficient in number and hopelessly outmoded in design.

Of the Blackburn Skuas which at that time were the fighter planes of the Fleet Air Arm, competent observers say: "Too slow, unmaneuverable, bad landing characteristics." The Skua is a two-seater. The use of two-seat fighters was thought necessary because of the need for carrying a naval officer as observer and commander, since the Fleet Air Arm pilots were insufficiently trained in naval duties. From the sorry performance of these Skuas in Norway arose the current myth that carrier-borne fighters cannot hope to compete qualitatively with shore-based fighters.

Even today, though the Fleet Air Arm has made marked advances, it is still suffering from faulty design and especially from an insufficiency of proper aircraft; it is still the step-child of the Air Ministry in this respect. Thus in the Battle of Cape Matapan, where the British Mediterranean Fleet struck such a telling blow against Italian sea-power, the aircraft carrier Formidable, with a rated capacity of 70 aircraft, had but 27 (14 scout-bombers and 13 fighters). In the famous air attack on the Italian fleet in Taranto harbor, a desired force of 21 torpedo-bombers for the carrier Illustrious, likewise rated as carrying 70 aircraft, had to be made up by drawing 8 planes from the Eagle. In the search for the Bismarck, the carrier Victorious, with a rated capacity similar to the others mentioned, had only 9 scout-bombers and 6 fighters; the carrier Ark Royal, rated at 60 aircraft, had only 20 bombers and 12 fighters in the same operation. Incidentally, the Ark Royal had only 3 pilots aboard who had ever participated in naval operations previously, and actually had to use 3 others who had never before taken off from, or landed on, a carrier. These are handicaps which might easily have led to disaster against a naval foe more formidable in quality than the Italians or in strength than the Germans. For example, had the striking force from the Ark Royal not found the Bismarck when they did -- and with the conditions of visibility obtaining, they might quite easily have missed her -- she would have been but 230 miles from Brest on the morning of May 27, presuming she had been able to continue at the speed of 21 knots which she was making up to the time of the Ark Royal's air attack. That is, she would probably have escaped, and British sea-power and prestige, the Hood thus unavenged, would have suffered a disastrous blow. The pursuing battleships had already been compelled to reduce speed because of shortage of fuel, and would have had to return to port on the 27th.

It is all very well to say indignantly that the responsibility for this state of affairs rests squarely on the shoulders of the Air Ministry. It does, of course; but it rests even more heavily on the shoulders of those who are responsible for the system which deprives the British Navy of the full control of its own aviation. As long as human beings are human beings, they are going to give first place and all preference to their own needs and responsibilities. The Air Ministry, responsible for the defense of the British Isles against air attack, have successfully and indeed magnificently discharged that responsibility. They are not too strongly to be blamed if, in doing so, they have neglected the needs of others whose responsibilities lie outside their field of action.

Coöperation between shore-based aircraft of the R.A.F. and the Navy has likewise proven unsatisfactory. From the very beginning, R.A.F. fliers proved unable to identify shipping observed, whether merchant or naval, friendly or hostile. In Sir James Somerville's brush with the Italian fleet to the southward of Sardinia on November 27, 1940, an indecisive action might have been turned into a victory which would have disposed of what remained of the Italian battleship force after Taranto, had it not been for faulty reconnaissance and incomplete reports by "coöperating" R.A.F. planes from Malta. In the actions off Crete, much of the very heavy British naval loss is probably attributable to repeated failures of the R.A.F. to identify the ships they were sent to support. There have been occasions when British aircraft have attacked British ships by mistake.

Probably the chief area of failure, however, is the coöperation with the Navy of the Coastal Command of the R.A.F. in the British Isles. The Coastal Command at the outbreak of the war was directly and wholly under the Air Ministry; its relation to the Navy was purely coöperative. Its duties were chiefly reconnaissance, and it had a few flying boats and a somewhat larger number of land-based scout-bombers. When it found an enemy target at sea which had to be attacked, it usually had to appeal to the Bomber Command, with the result that, under changing conditions of visibility, the target frequently escaped. When it was necessary to defend a British convoy against hostile bombing attack, the Fighter Command had to be called upon, usually with somewhat better results, but still with inevitable delays. But upon the Admiralty lay the responsibility for the protection of British shipping, and the Admiralty had no control at all over even the Coastal Command, let alone the others. It was an impossible situation, as the development of the German submarine-air warfare against British shipping soon proved; and the Coastal Command has now been placed, for operations only, under Admiralty control. To it have been added long and medium-range bombers, more flying boats, and long-range fighters. Thus a compromise, an expedient, has been forced upon Britain in place of a smooth-working and efficient organization which ought to have been operating at the outbreak of the war.

It is difficult to understand how a naturally sea-minded people like the British could have supposed that their Navy could adequately discharge its primary duty, the protection of sea-communications, without control over the aircraft essential to its work. They had to learn that lesson by experience, and at a cruel price.

In one field the R.A.F. has done its duty in a manner beyond all praise -- in the defense of the British Isles against German air attack. This, indeed, was its primary task, and its Fighter Command had been organized with this mission chiefly in view. All anti-aircraft artillery and the warning system came under the Fighter Command for operations. There was in this instance unity of purpose and effort implemented by unity of command, and the result has been a job well done. But it would be a mistake to argue from this that the United States, with no such problem to face, requires a separate air force because Britain has found that it meets this particular problem satisfactorily even though it meets others unsatisfactorily. Like Britain, we have vitally important naval responsibilities; unlike Britain, we cannot be directly attacked by air unless our naval responsibilities are improperly discharged.


We must cut our military coat to fit our needs. We have, in fact, done so. The best answer to those who claim that the older services tend to hamper and delay the development of aviation is the United States Navy's splendid air service, which is acknowledged almost universally to be the finest, as it is certainly the largest, naval aviation in the world. It is purely a naval service, developed within, by and as an integral part of the Navy. It includes carrier-borne aircraft in considerable numbers (and our carriers have full complements of planes), scouting and spotting aircraft on board every battleship and cruiser of the fleet, and the long-range patrol aircraft which are rapidly increasing in numbers and which operate either from established shore bases or from temporary bases by the use of seaplane tenders. The personnel of this service, like all Navy personnel, are Navy men first and foremost; they think Navy thoughts, speak Navy language, act on Navy principles, Navy doctrine, Navy customs. They form an increasingly large proportion of the Navy's officer corps and of its enlisted personnel; and because of the close association of aviation with the other components of the fleet, all Navy personnel is more or less familiar with the qualities and operation of naval aircraft, so that from top to bottom we have a thoroughly air-minded Navy. Should the day ever come -- it is far distant -- when surface ships will cease to be the chief fighting weapon of naval power, and the control of the sea passes wholly into the hands of flying seamen, our Navy will be ready to assume these new responsibilities, and to command from the air the sea routes which it now commands from air and surface together.

To tear asunder this smooth-working, efficient, prideful organization, with its long traditions of service, its deep-seated loyalties, its fine comradeship in arms, would be an act of folly unequalled in our military history. But what then? Assuming that we have made an unanswerable case for letting the Navy handle its own aviation clear back to the blueprint stage, clear back to the selection and training of its pilots and mechanics, what of the rest of our air forces?

Obviously, as we have already shown, true independent air-power missions do not represent the first call upon our air forces. Even if some day the range of aviation is so extended that enemy bombing missions across our guardian oceans become possible, with ample margin for the return of the enemy aircraft to their European or Asiatic bases, we must still ask ourselves whether they are likely to prove worth-while in the view of those who could send them forth. The enormous increase in the size of the individual airplane which is necessary for such missions is well demonstrated by the colossal B-19 Douglas bomber -- colossal in cost as well as size -- which we have recently finished. Is any Power going to build a fleet of such monsters to attack us? Remember that one lesson of this war has been that continuity of effort, of fire effect, is just as essential in air bombing as it is in an artillery bombardment; and it is far harder to obtain. It is not enough to hit one tip-and-run blow. Repeated blows are necessary. But the factor of distance is the greatest check upon bombing operations; experience has shown that the effort required to produce a given effect increases not in proportion to the distance flown, nor even as the square of the distance flown, but as at least the third or fourth power of the distance from airfield to target. In this war the bombers that so far have been available have not been effective beyond 500 miles. This radius is slowly increasing, as larger types come into service, to something like 750 miles. But it is 3,000 miles across the Atlantic, from European bases to our nearest vital centers. Which means that something like 64 times the available "useful load" capacity would be required to bomb (with a given effect) New York from London than is required to bomb Berlin from London. To build, man and service an air fleet capable of direct trans-Atlantic bombing operations under existing conditions would probably be beyond the capacity of any European Power, even a Germany triumphant over all Europe; certainly it would be beyond the capacity of any Power which had any other considerable military responsibilities. It would be one of the most tremendous gambles in history, a putting of all eggs into one basket, in the face of the unchallengeable lesson of experience that air efforts alone have never yet proven decisive in war, not even against so favorable a target as the island of Great Britain at a range of 50 miles.

Plainly, however, with possible future air developments in mind, we cannot view with equanimity the establishment in Europe of any one Power with military supremacy and a free hand to concentrate all its military preparations against us. We cannot afford to allow such a power to gain unhampered access to the sea, and to establish itself in outlying bases from which to threaten our vital communications, our own outlying bases, and still less our home territory. This becomes a fundamental principle of our strategy and of our military and foreign policy, now and forever. The oft-heard theory of continental spheres of control -- "Let us keep America. Let Japan have Asia. Let Germany have Europe and Africa" -- defines the route to new and dreadful wars which would outclass in horror and strain anything ever known before.

For the present, however, and for the future as far as our poor vision permits us to peer, our immediate needs do not call for trans-Atlantic bombing fleets of our own, or for defense against trans-Atlantic bombing fleets of other Powers. Our primary dependence must rather be in our Navy, complete with its splendid naval aviation, as it now exists. And the rest of our air forces ought to have as a primary mission the support of our land forces, and be therefore a part thereof, while not neglecting training for such independent missions as they may be called on to perform, either together with naval aviation or alone.

Our Army air organization is now well adapted for these purposes. Our Air Force Combat Command is commanded by a lieutenant general, and operates directly under the Chief of the Air Corps, who has no military superior save the Chief of Staff. This is not unlike, though not wholly identical with, the relation of the German Air Force to the Supreme General Staff and to the German Army. The Combat Command is divided into four Air Forces, each under a major general, and each including a Bombing Command, an Interceptor Command (fighters and balloon barrages, with anti-aircraft artillery and warning services attached for operations), and a Support Command for close coöperation with ground troops. A fifth Support Command has been organized to work directly with the Armored Force. Separate Air Commands exist in the principal overseas possessions, organized as part of the task forces which are charged with the defense of those possessions. All this forms an organization which takes into account those qualities of strategical concentration and flexibility which are the keys to efficient conduct of air operations. Combined with a properly distributed system of bases, including outlying bases, it enables the bulk of our land-based air force to be concentrated swiftly on either coast, wherever it is needed to defend our shores, to support the Navy, or to bring help to a threatened neighbor. It provides adequate, trained, competent air support for any expeditionary force which we may have to send out from our shores. It provides adequate air support for the task forces charged with the defense of our coasts against raids, which are always possible. And by keeping the bulk of our military aircraft under a single command, it insures adherence to the eternally right principles of concentration and economy of force.

This organization of our Army air forces is a new one, especially the feature of it which makes those forces semi-autonomous within the framework of the Army, much as is the Marine Corps within the framework of the Navy. Like all new things, it will take a little time to develop, to rid itself of minor defects, to adjust itself to its task. The Army is rapidly becoming as air minded as the Navy. Many general officers of the line now are former flyers (General Andrews, for example), and the old-type general who thought of aircraft as a mere auxiliary is fast passing from the active scene into the shadows of the Retired List.

The great bugaboo of the air enthusiast -- retardation and stifling of air development by the brass "hats" of the Army and Navy -- is out of date. The lessons of the European war have been digested and are being applied by both services. Those lessons, as we have tried to show, call for two things: the closest possible coöperation between air and surface forces, and unity of purpose and effort brought about by unity of command. Both these objects would be defeated, as regards American military institutions, by the creation of a separate air force, whether or not the existing services were allowed to retain their own aviation.

In any event, if, as some claim, the development of independent air operations, of air power properly so called, might be retarded by keeping our air forces attached to Army and Navy, then the answer is not to create unnecessary complications by forming a separate air force, but to set up a joint Research Bureau, manned by selected Army, Navy and civilian experts, and provided with ample facilities for keeping the technical development of our aviation well out in front. Organization can then be kept in step with technical progress, and new types of air power will be ours when, as and if we need them.

At the moment, time is precious, is indeed the most valuable of all commodities. To set up a new Cabinet department, with all its bureaus and administrative ramifications, and a new fighting service, with all its supply, administrative and medical branches, would at any time be a task of immense magnitude. Endless delays and endless confusion would result. We cannot afford them now.

Both British and French experience show that when a separate air force is created, a new set of vested interests are thereby created also. The desperate struggle which the British Air Ministry made to retain control of the Fleet Air Arm, the bitter political strife by which the French Air Ministry at one time gradually acquired all authority over French service aviation, shows what to expect. Once created, a separate air force would never rest until it had gained control over whatever aviation might have been apportioned to the Army and Navy. The resulting inter-service quarrels might well wreck all efficiency, as they wrecked the naval aviation of Britain, as they wrecked the whole French air force so that it was almost useless when the hour of trial came. The French had a "Department of National Defense"; they had a separate air force. Obviously, these are not the panaceas for all ills. Italy also had a separate air force, with a geographical position seemingly ideal for its employment. It also failed, especially in the field of naval coöperation -- time and again Italian planes have bombed their own ships, or led them into British traps as a result of faulty identifications. On the other hand, the Russian air force, which is a part of the Red Army, did well in Finland and is giving an excellent account of itself against the Luftwaffe, particularly as regards efficient coöperation with ground troops. Against this experience, this record, is set only theorizing, predictions, and the "formula of the three elements" -- army for land, navy for sea, air force for air -- which sounds so plausible to the lay mind.

One final point must be emphasized: the whole problem is bound up inescapably with the question of unity of command. Without unity of command a separate air force is impossible; with it, unnecessary. Unity of command must however be carefully planned and implemented. Unity of administration through control of the Army and Navy by a single department is not the answer. This has never worked where it has been tried, unless, as in Germany, one service was distinctly secondary and subordinate; even then it tends to the misuse of that service, as in the case of the German Navy in the Norwegian campaign. The failures of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Navies in the last war, too, were not unconnected with the fact that they were under army control. But the air covers all, and air forces are required for every surface operation. Some means of joint planning, some means of securing coördination in the execution of plans -- the assurance of unity of purpose and effort by means of unified command in the field -- is essential. A joint General Staff, working with a well organized War Cabinet and directly responsible to the President as Commander-in-Chief, with the "task force" system for all operations, seems the best possible answer. Leave the control of our air forces as now established. It accords with the teachings of experience, before which all theory must bow.

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  • GEORGE FIELDING ELIOT, military and naval correspondent of the New York Herald Tribune; author of "The Ramparts We Watch" and "Bombs Bursting in Air"
  • More By George Fielding Eliot