Clausewitz and Airpower

Editor's Note: This post was originally posted at Lawyers, Guns, & Money.

Can the contributions of a general who died seventy years before the first powered flight lend us some tools for thinking about airpower? Apropos of another recent LGM conversation, it may be that time has passed the old soldier by, and that Carl von Clausewitz no longer represents an important touchstone for discussions of military strategy and history. But if this is the case, then Bill Sweetman should inform the United States Air Force. Arguing that zombie Clausewitz was re-animated in the wake of the Vietnam War by “boot-centric warfare zealots,” Sweetman contends that the Napoleonic era theorist has little place in modern strategic theory. By contrast, let me suggest airpower theorist have long been engaged in a conversation with Clausewitz.

Identifying a central theorist of airpower, or group of theorists, invariably generates controversy. Most agree that the Italian general Giulio Douhet was important, but few grant that he lends much direct insight into modern warfare. William “Billy” Mitchell is a critical figure in the institutional history of the USAF, but his influence of airpower thought was much less important. Trenchard and Arnold were more organizational pioneers than airpower theorists.

That said, almost everyone who’s studied post-war American airpower agrees that John Boyd and John Warden were important influences, even if they disagree as to whether than influence was good or bad. Although both Boyd and Warden struggled at times with Air Force bureaucracy, they both reached the rank of colonel before retirement. Warden served as Commandant of the Air Command and Staff College.

And both Warden and Boyd engaged deeply with Clausewitz. A conversation with Clausewitz animates Warden’s entire approach to the influence of airpower on war. Warden uses the term “center of gravity” thirty-three times in his seminal work “Air Campaign,” directly citing Clausewitz on nine separate occasions. To be sure, Warden uses Clausewitz as a jumping off point to make his own argument about the relationship of force to political outcomes, but he nevertheless saw value in engaging with the old Prussian.

Similarly, Clausewitz deeply influenced John Boyd. The center of gravity, friction, and fog of war concepts all contributed to Boyd’s understanding of how organizations function, and of how airmen could use military force to prevent them from properly functioning. Again, Boyd hardly agreed with everything in On War, and didn’t believe Carl von Clausewitz could (or should) be imported directly into modern warfare, but he still understood and appreciated the contribution Clausewitz had made.

It’s fair enough to say that Warden and Boyd do not constitute the entirety of Air Force thought, but it would be absurd to suggest that they aren’t important, influential figures in the history of American airpower thought.Indeed, Warden famously argued that airpower alone, with only a residual ground presence, could quickly defeat Saddam Hussein and overturn the Baathist regime in 1990. In case you’re wondering, 1990 is 24 years ago, not 90 years ago.

But if you’re not convinced, a quick search of Air and Space Power Journal, the Air Force’s peer-reviewed scholarly journal, turned up eighty-two articles referencing Clausewitz since 1966. With (about) 250 issues of the journal, this means roughly one out of every three issues includes an article referencing Clausewitz. By comparison, Alfred Thayer Mahan was referenced twenty-five times, Giulio Douhet thirty-nine, Antoine-Henri Jomini twelve, and Billy Mitchell about sixty.

In short, I use Clausewitz to engage with the Air Force because the Air Force has seen fit to engage with Clausewitz. I suspect that airmen have found value in Clausewitz for the same reasons that every other warfighter finds value in the Prussian. As Sweetman has helpfully shown, it is easy to disastrously misread Clausewitz, but productive readings of Clausewitz can apparently generate insights even for people who aren’t “boot-centric warfare zealots.”

This is because Clausewitz provides a useful vocabulary for describing many of the most complex problems in military strategy, including the relationship between politics and force, the meaning of victory, and the power of uncertainty. This, rather than his helpful tips for Napoleonic logistics, is why people still read Clausewitz today. Clausewitz isn’t the end of strategic theory, but for a great many people he’s an excellent beginning.

The easiest critique of Grounded might be that none of the connections between Clausewitz and the history and practice of airpower are particularly novel. Many analysts have criticized the Air Force for a desire to bypass the gritty work of destroying fielded enemy military forces, for a fetishism that puts technology ahead of politics, and for a failure to appreciate the critical role of friction in military affairs. The (modest) contribution of Grounded is to bring these three critiques together, identify the institutional sources of the problems, and propose a bureaucratic solution.

And so while Bill may stress about the specter of “boot-centric warfare zealots,” clutching copies of On War while villainously slipping 1763 F-35s into the pocket of an unsuspecting Air Force, I would advise him to relax. A working knowledge of Clausewitz doesn’t spell doom for the Air Force, even if it should generate some difficult questions about what we want for our military forces, and how we want to organize them in order to further our ends.

Robert Farley is a professor at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky and the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force.

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