THERE is an old military axiom that the weapons of war change but the great principles of war remain unchanged. Up to a point that is still true; but it must be supplemented, if we are to think realistically about world strategy today, by recognition of a fact of enormous significance--the fact of the revolution in human affairs which has been brought about by the rise of air power and the development of the atomic and thermonuclear weapon. Hitherto the weapons of war have been used and the principles of war have been applied upon the battlefield. Quite recently--within the lifetime of our children not yet of university age--we have seen the battlefield begin to lose its significance; or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we have seen whole countries become a battlefield. We have actually seen in the green fields of England and the industrial cities of Germany and Japan that "ghastly dew from the nations' airy navies battling in the central blue" that Tennyson imagined in Queen Victoria's reign. We have felt the impact of a new portent, the robot pilotless aircraft or guided missile, the V1 and V2 that fell upon England ten years ago. And now we have reached the consummation of the new revolution, in the atomic and the hydrogen bombs.

This great turning point in history has been reached surprisingly quickly, as history is measured. It is only just over 50 years since a man first hoisted himself off the ground in a powered machine. Like most revolutionary inventions, this one had a rough passage to begin with. The British Admiralty was offered Wright's patents in 1907: "I regret to have to tell you," wrote the First Lord, "after the careful consideration of my Board, that the Admiralty while thanking you for so kindly bringing the proposals to their notice, are of opinion that they would not be of any practical value to the Naval Service." Said a well-known American general less than 40 years ago, "I see no reason why the range of a military aeroplane should ever exceed three days' march by the infantry." This attitude of skepticism persisted, though in diminishing degree, over many years. It was nourished by the extent to which some early airmen went to the other extreme and overcalled their hands--though of that it was also to some extent the cause. In the closing years of World War II the achievements of air power surpassed the claims of all but the few extreme protagonists in earlier days. Today, paradoxically enough, only 50 years after Wright's first venture in controlled flight, the popular tendency against which we should be on our guard is to expect too much of air power--to regard it as a panacea, a short cut to world peace and security. But another paradox is that its terrible ultimate development need not lead to the destruction of civilization, but holds out a message of hope--the hope that, in President Eisenhower's words, "the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death but consecrated to his life." Sir Winston Churchill has said "it is to the universality of potential destruction that we may look with hope and even with confidence."


To speak of the ultimate development of air power is not to make the absurd claim that aircraft, with or without human crews, have reached the peak of their performance. The modern jet-propelled bombers may perhaps be the last of their line; but they will be replaced by the pilotless bomber--the long-range controlled missile of tomorrow. No doubt bigger and more destructive weapons could be designed than the hydrogen bombs we now have. But it seems doubtful that they need be made. That which we have is big enough and its effect on the issues of war and peace decisive. We have in fact reached the practical ultimate instrument of mutual destruction. We have at last arrived at the point when war--in the sense of total world war as we have known it in our generation--has abolished itself as a practical instrument of policy.

There is nothing new about total war--it was not new in the days of Jenghiz Khan or Attila. But in our day we have seen science and technology reduce the world to the size of a Hellenic city state. And where in the dawn of history the innocent victims of total war were numbered in hundreds, in the late war they were numbered in millions. Another time they might be numbered in hundreds of millions--and everybody knows it, the men in the Kremlin as well as anybody else.

This is on the assumption--which must surely be accepted--that the weapon of mass destruction would certainly be used in any great war between major Powers. That assumption will scarcely be questioned in the United States--indeed it forms the basis of its military policy. The British Government in its "Statement of Defence" of last February says that "it must be assumed that atomic weapons would be employed by both sides" in another global war. The Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Attlee, said in a broadcast this June, "The fact is that once there is war, absolute war, in the modern age, and if the existence of a nation is at stake, any weapon will be used in the last resort." It is hardly necessary to say that this issue is far from simple or straightforward, particularly for Great Britain in her exposed position, with her teeming cities and the great ports through which her life blood is pumped. If ever we came to the brink of total war, the statesmen of the free world would be faced with an appalling decision. Mr. Attlee's words quoted above pose the problem and may well provide the answer. When is the last resort? It is beyond doubt that ultimately the bomb would be used--no nation would admit defeat with this terrible weapon of retaliation lying unused in its armory. Are we to wait to use it as a rat's dying bite? Are we to hold back and watch our enemy overrun Europe and set up his V-weapon sites again on the Channel coast, and do nothing to stop him except with weapons of his own choosing, against the massed tanks and guns and the hardy, expendable millions of militant Communism? We cannot rely on him solving our problem for us by using the bomb first; it would suit him admirably to fight a war with the weapons in which he would have a decisive advantage--what General Gruenther has called a "war of flesh."

Surely the fact is that the existence of the nation, and indeed of the free world, would be at stake from the moment the men of the Kremlin decided to risk everything on the desperate gamble of total war. They will not do so if we continue to make it unmistakably clear that any major aggression will call down our massive retaliatory power upon their heads. Hitler might have launched the bomb in the final frenzy of the Götterdämmerung; he would not have done so in 1939 had he known the result would be instant retaliation in kind. There have been occasions in history on which tyrants have sought to distract their peoples' attention from internal dissensions by creating an external emergency; that stratagem may have had its advantages in the past; it is hardly likely to prove attractive--even if it proved practicable--in an atomic age. The gangster does not shoot to kill if he knows the inevitable result is a policeman's bullet in his brain--except in the last resort when he also knows that the alternative is the electric chair.

For us there might be some reason, which no one can define with precision in advance, for allowing the situation to develop before striking the blow. A reason against doing so would be that it would rob us of the last-minute chance--and a real chance--of bringing the enemy to his senses and preventing war at the last moment; a definite and unmistakable warning that we should answer aggression with the bomb might well have that effect. But we need never reach that point--shall never do so if we do not waver in our purpose. Here is a case surely where "Fear and be slain" is the only motto for free men. Russia could not survive the onslaught of Anglo-American air power with the atomic and the hydrogen bombs, and the hardheaded materialists in Moscow know it. We might not survive it either; but that would be cool comfort for the Kremlin. We certainly should not survive a "war of flesh" in which we were precluded for any reason from using the one arm in which we can compete at least on equal, and more than equal, terms with them.

It is true that Russia, with her subservient but unreliable satellites, might not be our only enemy in another world war. Russia and China would be an immensely formidable combination. China is at present less susceptible to atomic power than is the Soviet Union; and her long-suffering people are hardened by centuries of experience to catastrophic disaster by flood and famine. That situation will progressively change as China becomes more industrialized. In spite of her vast potential, moreover, China by the accidents of geography can never be a direct and mortal threat to the free world in the same way or to the same degree as Russia. She can be a grave menace to Southeast Asia and the great Indian Peninsula, and we must be prepared to sustain and support the free nations of Asia against minor military aggression, as we had to in Korea. But Chinese Communism has most to gain from the tactics of the termite; and it is primarily in the political and economic field that we must combine to resist its advances. It is wishful thinking to see in Mao Tse-tung an Asiatic Tito; but neither is China indissolubly bound to the Soviet Union. There are many potential points of friction,[i] and the time may come when China is more Russia's problem than that of the free world. Whether that time will come--and, if so, when--will depend largely upon our own vision, statesmanship and readiness to adapt our traditional policies to the new realities of Asiatic nationalism. Meanwhile it is the Communist slave drivers of Moscow who are our most deadly actual adversaries in the cold war and potential enemies in a hot one. And until the patient peoples of the U.S.S.R. can free themselves from their yoke, our ultimate goal of universal peace and world government depends for its attainment primarily upon our ability to contain and neutralize the menace of Soviet Communism.


For that purpose we must and can rely upon the great deterrent of Anglo-American atomic air power; and the first charge upon our military resources should be the maintenance of our strategic bomber fleets at the highest pitch of efficiency and readiness. The Pax Atlantica must rest as surely upon this modern version of the Battle Fleet as did the Pax Britannica (and, incidentally, the validity of the Monroe Doctrine) upon the Royal Navy for 100 years after Napoleon. We in Great Britain must assume our necessarily smaller but nonetheless immensely valuable share in the Allied air striking force. One may note with amusement that those sections of political opinion in England which are most vocal about the dangers of American domination are also those which are readiest to suggest that we should leave the whole burden and responsibility of atomic air power to the United States.

It would no doubt have been more comfortable and less expensive for us in the West if we could have retained the monopoly of the terrible secrets of nuclear and thermonuclear power. But that we were never entitled to expect, and the possession of those secrets by our potential enemy does not invalidate the deterrent, though it raises many other problems for us. Nor does it mean that Allied air power must be in vastly superior strength. The size of any force depends on the job it may have to do in war; and that of our air striking force must be determined by a professional military appreciation of what would be required if it became necessary to eliminate Russia's capacity to be any longer a menace to her neighbors. What is vital is that we should not fall behind--indeed it should be well within our capacity to retain the lead--not only in the training and aptitude of our crews (about which we need have no anxiety) but in the technical efficiency of our aircraft and equipment. The prime object of our scientific endeavor in the field of military research and development must be to ensure that we can continue to put down the bomb where we want to, if we have to, and without an unacceptable rate of loss. And nothing could be more important than to make quite certain that if the time comes, as well it may, when the manned bomber even at trans-sonic speeds is effectively neutralized by scientific means of defense, we have ready to take its place the unmanned bomber against which it is impossible to visualize any practical defense. Nothing could be more fraught with peril than an interlude in which the manned bomber had met its match and we had nothing to replace it.

There are critics of this policy who have found in it the difficulty that air forces, armed at great cost with atomic bombers, may find themselves excluded even from relatively small local wars on the Korean model. That perhaps is not impossible--though the great bomber can use weapons other than the hydrogen bomb, just as the policeman can discard his pistol for the truncheon; and they may be of great value in small wars, as their forerunners were in Korea. But in any event, that criticism is not a reason for having no atomic bombers--indeed it is the reverse. Between Trafalgar and Jutland the British Battle Fleet was excluded from the "Korea-type" wars of that age, but it kept world peace for 100 years nonetheless. And for generations past we have spent millions on heavy coast artillery guns; the fact that hardly any of them ever fired a shot in anger was no cause for criticism. It was their justification.

Meanwhile, perhaps for a generation or more, the prospect before us is the "long haul"--which, with all respect to Mr. Dulles,[ii] was not altogether a new concept when the United States submitted it to the NATO Council in April 1953. Under that concept it will obviously be essential "to hold a careful balance between the demands of defense and other sectors of the economy"--in the words of Her Majesty's Government's "Statement on Defence 1954." But we must guard against a tendency that has already revealed itself to imagine that what has been loosely described as the "New Look" in strategy holds out great possibilities of economy in defense expenditure. This so-called New Look is in fact merely a rationalization of tendencies, themselves originating in economic factors, which it had become increasingly obvious since the Lisbon meeting of NATO at the beginning of 1952 would have to be faced sooner than later. It accepts the fact that a concept based on a modernized version of World War I, with vast armies permanently arrayed in Europe and with atomic air power superimposed upon it, is neither economically practicable nor strategically essential. To that extent it represents a saving, in that it gives us a deterrent to aggression and a real measure of security otherwise unattainable except at astronomic cost.

But the existence of the shield and cover of air power will not give us peace on the cheap. NATO remains as essential as ever, though all its members should adjust their minds to the inevitable reality that the essential covering forces on European soil must ultimately become the responsibility of the Europeans--including the Germans. Primary reliance on the power of the counteroffensive does not mean we can ignore the defensive, on land, at sea or in the air. And we dangerously delude ourselves if we imagine that we can safely afford in the long haul to accept substantial reductions in the present fighting strength of our "conventional" forces, particularly of the armies. Savings there must be and can be, particularly in those components of our armed strength which would only be required to sustain a long war--which surely is not a serious possibility in an atomic age. We should review the organization of our military establishments with an unsentimental and ruthlessly critical eye to eliminate nonessentials, and should reconsider the distribution of our defense resources among the different arms to make sure that it accords with the new realities. But our concern should be more with the quite attainable aim of getting more real fighting value out of our existing allocations of manpower and material, before we seek relief from the present burdens of defense expenditure. We are committed to a policy of peace through strength; and if we now cut our real fighting strength, then we shall not have peace--and, in the long run, we shall certainly not have "economy."

We are, alas, all too unlikely during the long haul to enjoy real peace as we knew it before 1914. Experience at Berlin and Geneva should have convinced us, if proof was needed, that the Communist aim of world domination has undergone no change. If it be true that the Communists can no longer hope to achieve that aim by the direct assault upon the citadels of Western democracy, they will surely seek to do so by undermining our defenses and picking off our isolated outposts. The existence of the great deterrent to total war means, in effect, not that minor aggressions are less likely than hitherto, but more likely. Our enemies will surely seek to overtax our strength by tactics in which they have the advantage of us, but to which it would clearly not be in our interest to retaliate by "turning every local war into another world war," in Mr. Dulles's words. Only people like Hitler can allow their patience to become exhausted--and it didn't do him much good in the long run. We must in fact expect to be faced with other "Koreas" which it will be in our interest to localize and insulate as unquestionably it was in the real Korea. As the Secretary of State has said, "Massive atomic and thermonuclear retaliation is not the kind of power which could most usefully be evoked in all circumstances . . . the free world must have the means for responding effectively on a selective basis when it chooses."

No one can draw a blueprint in advance to suit every possible hypothesis, and there is a good deal to be said for keeping our enemy guessing. But he must know as well as anybody that we cannot hope to deal with these minor aggressions on the cheap, by air power and sea power alone. These other Koreas, if they occur, will require the participation of land forces, perhaps on a substantial scale, with air cover and support as they had in Korea. It is no doubt an unpleasant thought that in these circumstances our enemy has the advantage of vast masses of expendable manpower, and no qualms about expending it. But in the areas where we may have to meet these local aggressions that is not a decisive advantage; he can be met and held by well-trained professional armies with the support that science can give them. Moreover, we must not assume that American and European armies will always have to bear the main brunt of aggression in Asia. That must be primarily an affair for the free nations of Asia; and our endeavor should be to help them to arrive at a state of political and economic stability and military efficiency, in which they can take their due share in a free defensive partnership. Nevertheless, at least for some time to come, we must be prepared to deploy British and American forces to meet aggression against the frontiers of freedom in Asia. That is only one reason why such a large proportion of our best land forces and associated air forces should not be permanently contained on the European front where others could take their place and where, as long as the West has adequate strength and we retain our unity and steadfastness of purpose, aggression is least likely. We must regain freedom of action for our strategic reserves which should be centrally located, endowed with the highest degree of air mobility, and with subsidiary base facilities and training areas where they may be needed.


The hydrogen bomb will have no share in these localized wars, any more than a battle-cruiser squadron had in a scuffle with Yangtse pirates in the 1900's. But this is not to say that the Bomber Force will have no part to play. The atomic weapon may well be used to do what thousands of high explosive bombs were formerly required to do; and the striking force need not necessarily again be restricted by another Yalu. Both will depend upon whether they are to our tactical and strategic advantage rather than to that of the enemy. It has been suggested that all air action at any distance behind an enemy's front line may be ruled out by fear of precipitating massive retaliatory action by the hydrogen bomb. That is perhaps not inconceivable; and, if it means that war of any sort may not be carried by either side far into a neighbor's country, may not be without its advantages; it would certainly make aggression unprofitable. Actually, however, the suggestion appears somewhat farfetched. It might have some force on the European front, but there it is difficult to imagine anything between a relatively trivial frontier incident and the outbreak of total war. Elsewhere it seems hardly likely to be applicable.

Let us imagine--purely for the sake of illustration--that we have to meet a local aggression against northern Persia. Is it the idea that a bomber formation making for, say, a marshalling yard at Grozny or an airfield at Astrakhan would be assumed to be carrying a hydrogen bomb to Moscow, with the result that Soviet hydrogen bombs would instantly be dispatched to London and Washington? It surely requires somewhat of an effort of will to believe anything of the kind. It is worth considering whether in this connection a useful precedent might not be found in the system known as Air Control as practised by the R.A.F. against primitive tribal enemies between the wars; it was common practice to notify a clearly-defined geographical area as a "prescribed area" within which any hostile activity was liable to air attack without further warning--it being understood that targets outside the prescribed area would not be attacked without further specific notice.

The idea that superior air power can in some way be a substitute for hard slogging and professional skill on the ground in this sort of war is beguiling but illusory. Air support can be of immense value to an army; it may sometimes be its salvation; Korea was not needed to prove that. But we must have a care not to misread the lessons of Korea, or of the closing years of World War II. The truth that we should take to heart is that armies can fight--and not only defensively--in the face of almost total air superiority. We should have learned that from the Germans--in Italy, in France and on the soil of Germany itself from 1943 to the end. The Chinese proved it again in Korea; and the fact that the Viet Minh had no aircraft did not prevent the fall of Dien Bien Phu. We should take advantage of every aid that science and technology can give us, and they are great, especially in defense. Unlike at sea and in the air, modern scientific developments have favored the defensive on land rather than the attack. But in these minor though gruelling wars nothing can be a substitute for tough, self-reliant infantry and, above all, for the highest degree of battle discipline under war-seasoned officers of high quality.

Oddly enough, the truth is that these small wars call for even higher qualities of leadership than when whole populations are ranged against each other in arms. Unfortunately in such wars a Western army is at a disadvantage as compared to the troops of a totalitarian state--particularly if they are Asians--because we think that maintenance of a relatively high standard of living is indispensable even in war. Our enemies can live and fight on a basis of extreme austerity, and are prepared to live largely on the country, regardless of the welfare of the inhabitants whom they will not hesitate to use as beasts of burden on their line of supply. They are therefore far less dependent than we upon all the paraphernalia of logistic support, on dumps and depots, rest camps and hospitals and great truck convoys on the roads leading to the front--and are consequently less vulnerable than we to air action against their lines of communications and back areas. It was fortunate in Korea that we did not have to maintain our forces in the field in the face of enemy air interdiction. We could do it, and we may have to do it; and our training and organization must be such that if necessary we can fight as stubbornly with our supply lines constantly subject to attack as did our enemies in Korea.

All this is cold comfort for anyone who hopes that air power will provide some cheap short cut to victory. We are in World War III now, and war is an expensive business. We cannot carry our reliance upon the counteroffensive to the possibly logical but actually ludicrous extreme of ignoring the defensive at home or at sea. The first requirement for a successful offensive is a secure base, and we cannot leave ourselves wide open. At the same time, we should only cripple ourselves if we aimed at anything like complete over-all protection. If we try to be strong everywhere, we shall be strong enough nowhere. A reasonable measure of protection (including civil defense) against air attack at home, and a sensible insurance against the mine, the submarine and the raider at sea are all part of the deterrent and must be provided. The object is to strike the happy mean between too little and too much. And the one certainty is that it will be expensive--but not so expensive as defeat in the war of the long haul.

We must face the future with acceptance and resolution, and with steady nerves. There is no need for despondency. Our combined organization and equipment for security are incomparably superior to anything we have known before. If there had been anything like it 20 years ago, there would have been no World War II. The one essential, lacking which we are all of us ultimately doomed, is to preserve the unity of the free world, and, above all, of the United States and the British Commonwealth. That unity is as vital, in the long run, to the United States as to its partners.

[i] See, for instance, "The Soviet Grip on Sinkiang," by Li Chang, Foreign Affairs, April 1954.

[ii] "Policy for Security and Peace," by John Foster Dulles, Foreign Affairs, April 1954.

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  • MARSHAL OF THE ROYAL AIR FORCE SIR JOHN SLESSOR, Commander in Chief, British Coastal Command, 1943; Commandant, Imperial Defense College, 1948-49; Chief of the Air Staff, 1950-52; author of "Air Power and Armies" and "Strategy for the West"
  • More By Air Marshal Sir John Slessor