Monday, March 26, 2012

Running Away to the Air, 6: Brick Walls Always Stand Their Ground

Edit: Oops, forgot to justify last night.

A long time ago, I wrote a juvenile article about the RAF and Britain’s war effort. I called it an industrial history of strategy because it took issue with R. J. Overy’s “production history of strategy" (the which he did not call it ) The Air War, 1939—45. As I conceived it, Corelli Barnett was already in the business of writing industrial histories of strategy. It’s just that his were terrible. There you have it: a neat little thesis. As you might guess from this blog, it turned into a  72 page screed, and bless the Journal of Military History for nursing it into print.

I had my reasons for prolixity. There were just so many people saying such silly, wrong things in print about the air war. I wanted to make an impression. Apparently, I might as well have been butting a brick wall. 

Why care? Let's, by all means, ramp up the stakes. The idea of an Air Ministry was laid out in 1911, and it was created in 1918, on the basis of what British politicians, civil servants, industrialists, and trade unionists thought was the solid model of the Royal Navy. While the Ministry wasn't swimming in either money or manpower, it was the largest and best funded air force of the interwar years. (You'll have to take  my word for it; the numbers are laid out in my article, but they're just collated from the British state papers on the one hand, and a life of Admiral Moffat on the other.)  When I got my anorak on, I counted some sixteen thousand aircraft delivered by the British industry during the interwar. That's a lot more than anyone else ordered, even taking the German surge of the late 30s into account. If policy failed in the face of this relative generosity of resources and thought about the problems of policy, we have reason to be pessimistic about the possibilities for public policy in general.

And, no, I don't think that the RAF got it wrong. 

So how silly and wrong? John Terraine, (here, somewhere) tried to make Trafford Leigh-Mallory a marginal figure in the pre-war RAF by asserting that he specialised in the marginal area of army-air cooperation. The Air Ministry actually extracted the capsule biographies of the RAF Air officers at the outbreak of war, published in the London Gazette and released them to the press at the outbreak of war, so you would have to neglect Flight, (here perhaps; the Flight archives don't seem to be showing for me),  but no doubt also Times of London, and for all I know the News on Sunday as well as the Gazette to be unaware that 3 of the 5 Fighter Command Group commanders had, just like Leigh-Mallory, command the School of Army-Air Cooperation.
This wasn’t just an indictment of popular historians, though. Technology  & Culture published an article in 1983  based on a Sikorsky advertisement (me, down in the comments). This embarrassment might have been inspired by a 1970s Economic History Review exchange on the aerodynamics of a theoretical Douglas DC-2  bomber conversion between  two fine British economic historians who were apparently unaware that the plane actually existed

Somehow, though, you get the idea that the Internet has brought us into a new age. With all this expertise to be had, at least the lions of the Web aren’t going to embarrass themselves in public by repeating ancient arguments. Especially self-appointed experts on websites with a billion times more viewers than mine, who actually get to drive debate about multi-billion dollar projects that, if I’m right about the social impact of major procurement programmes in my period, can shape the global economy over decades.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that Robert Farley is getting it wrong all over the Interwebs in this review of Martin Van Creveld's Age of Airpower again.

Let’s begin with something that I’ve previously argued in a lapidary way, with allusive references  and links. I'm sorry, I can't help it. If you give something a title like "Ten Propositions About Air Power, you're asking to be handled in a donnish way --even by a grocery clerk. 

So. Enough with that crap. Why do we use the word "strategy" when we talk about air power? Because this: two countries, Big Red and Big Blue are neighbours. In the north, they share the industrial region of Big River Through Coalfields, in the south, the border runs through Flat Region With Farms. Between these regions, the border runs through the Avalon Hills, which are impassible. This makes them two strategic theatre. Big Red allocates Army Group Dunnigan to the northern front, Army Group Roberts to the southern. Now it assigns divisions to each army group, based on the Staff’s strategic decision about how it will conduct the war. It does not assign air units to either army group. Air units can fly a long way, quite quickly. They can bomb in the north. They can bomb in the south. They can be assigned missions in each strategic theatre day by day, strategically
That’s it. That’s all “strategic air power” needs to be about. Is there a logical issue here? I don't see one. Now, you could go on and point out that bombers can also drop bombs on factories and battleships in port and convoys at see and railway lines and have a marvelous argument about whether or not that's an effective use of resources, but that's just adding more strategic options to the possible targets of an inherently strategic arm.
Having echoed Creveld castigating the RAF for thinking about “strategic air power” too much, Farley goes on to suggest that the Germans didn’t. Oh, those clever Nazis, recognising that the point of air planes is to  blow up tanks. And, again, that’s not true, as you can learn from old books or (relatively) new books. Or don't waste your time on that at all. There's a literature that lets you get your anorak on and follow every air mission in a given theatre on a day-by-day basis. The literature includes the Battle of France, so you can get a feel for German air planning by learning what every German sortie of the day was tasked to do. air mission of 10 May 1940. Not to spoil anything, but considerably less than 10% of the German Air Force was tasked to army cooperation missions, and amongst the key strategic missions flown that crucial "surge" day were attacks on Dutch and Belgian aircraft factories. Because the Battle of France would be going just swimmingly if the Dutch and Belgian air forces were still flying in a month's time. (I suppose that I could offer the German Air Staff some fragment of a fig leaf by suggesting that they got some aircraft held back for factory-level repair, but seriously, guys.)
Then he says that the Germans made a very different choice from the British in emphasising army cooperation over strategic bombing. You know what? It helps to actually know what the RAF thought. Here, here, and, in case study guise, here, vol. 4, cf. "Battle of Amiens".) The issue  is very simple. It's not some profound insight that only a solitary genius could have up in a tower amidst the cerulean clouds ("Hey! Why not drop bombs on enemy troops?"). It's how many aircraft can be controlled tactically with a given radio. There's only so many frequencies available for a given radio. Both the Germans and the RAF had liaison teams at the front, equipped with big, fat radios that allowed them to control air strikes. (Although since the RAF teams spent most of the Battle of France relocating, you hear less about them.) The radios were big, because they were High Frequency. Very High Frequency was just coming in. VHF radios made air support  more effective and flexible in the later years of the war. 

Radio engineering is a tough subject. I can appreciate not wanting to pay attention to it; but promulgating grand historical theses on the basis that "I don't understand it, and it probably isn't that important, anyway" ought not be on. Again, if you're going to write the military history of a national industrial sector, you need to make some kind of a commitment to understanding the basics of that industry. 

Then Farley trots out the one about how the Allies could have had more planes, thus more air superiority, thus even more fighter-bombers out beating the weeds for tanks, if they hadn’t build all those big, wasteful four-engined bombers. This sounds like a pretty technical detail, but it's not. Actually, it gets at the heart of things.

And, no, they couldn’t. Bombers are built to carry bombs and drop them on things, and you want to hit some kind of sweet spot in terms of having the most efficient bomb-carrying things in terms of force, training and production. People spent their own sweet time deciding on the ideal power plant choice for late-internal combustion engine military aircraft, and the call was for four engines. That would be why the Allies built four-engined bombers, and it's not like the Germans didn't try to do the same. It's inferred that four-engined aircraft were wasteful land inaccurate and couldn't do close air support. Now, it's true that  four-engined bombers didn't dive bomb tanks, but it's not like those missions weren't on the horizon when the RAF's heavies were in development, and it is certainly not the case that they didn't carry out daring low-level precision strikes. It's that air forces were swimming in excess fighters by the mid-war, and fighter pilots are cheaper than bomber pilots.

Which is kind of my point. What does that mean to say that fighter pilots are cheaper than bomber pilots? It's that fighter pilots didn't have to do a multi-engined aircraft course. On multi-engined trainers. With trainers who have done the training course. With mechanics to overhaul four-engined bombers. From hangars and air fields built for four-engined bombers. There's a book about this that would-be experts on air power need to read on this subject, at least, if they're not going to look at the entire chapters of the USAAF official history on the subject.  A study of bombing accuracy rates shows, unsurprisingly, that bombers with bombardiers are much less wasteful than fighters without. A heavy bomber hits the target three times more often than a fighter (a medium bomber, attacking from lower altitudes, does even better), and carries more bombs in the bargain. It was unusual for a WWII fighter-bomber to carry as much as 2000lbs of bombs, and quite common for a heavy bomber to deliver more than 8000lbs. That makes a heavy bomber about four times as efficient, per pilot sortie, as a fighter bomber.*

This is the point about industry and trade unions again. You have to think of air forces as industrial outputs, and figure out how you maximise bombs delivered. Comparing bombers with fighters in my rather generous comparison, bombers are more efficient pilot-wise, and a wash, engine mechanic-wise. However, most of an air force's life is spent in peacetime, and its peacetime relationship with the industry and research community that supports it will determine the support it gets in wartime. All other things being equal, your air force wants to produce mechanics over against fighter drivers. Mechanics can go work in  industry, and turn their experience to developing spin off goods. Pilots probably go into middle management, which isn't the most  ignoble of pursuits, but certainly don't find much peacetime use for their plane-driving skills, at least before the number of passenger planes rose above the number of military ones.  It's not just that four-engined bombers make sense as bomb-carriers. They make sense as industrial drivers. Hopefully, you even find some way of passing the profits of new technologies on to the mechanics, and that pushes up aggregate demand.

Then Farley allows that the authority he is following, Martin Van Creveld, could be a lot more critical of the Combined Bomber Offensive than he is. Isn’t it obvious that the CBO was a great fat failure? Now, I have nothing against Martin Van Creveld, who has done an awesome job of pioneering novel fields of military historical inquiry over the years, and who is, like Christopher Duffy, Paddy Griffith, John Keegan and the late John Terraine, capable of extracting genuine insight from his opening coup d’oeil. It’s just that the claim that drenching Germany’s industrial sector with bombs for four long years had no effect on the scope of the German war effort has always seemed counter-intuitive. One of those things you want to look up on Snopes before you give up and concede the point. 

After all, as we know, most of the German soldiers who fought in World War II were killed on the Eastern Front, so it sure is lucky that the Russians stayed in the war. The Red Army stayed in the war because the Germans didn't kill enough of them. There's exactly one reason for that; the Germans didn't shoot enough ammunition at the Russians. All other things being equal, less ammunition means more Russians, fewer Germans. Victory!  (Unless we’re doing this whole “war” thing wrong, and I’ve got to say that I have huge confidence in my species’ accumulated experience in the area.)

It is certainly true that that the old USSBS said that all those bombs dropped on Germany somehow didn't affect their war effort. The problem is that the USSBS was clearly an attempt to whitewash the Eighth Air Force's decision not to stand down in the fall of 1943 for retraining and re-equipping as a  night bombing force. (Again, mechanics, training time, aircraft modification. This stuff isn't magic. It's industrial.)

On the one hand, this turned out to be the right decision in the long run. On the other, it doesn't necessarily meant that the USSBS was wrong. Many years ago, you could be bemused by the somewhat specious USSBS special pleading about how American precision bombing in Europe actually was precision bombing (it wasn't), and that it worked and was awesome, while British night area bombing didn't, and that American area bombing against Japan worked and was awesome.  Now that Adam Tooze has laid out, in detail, just exactly how the CBO did severely impact the German war effort, we can be more than bemused. We can move on. I hope. Some day.

*The post-mortem of the bombardment of Pantelleria showed that " mediums had averaged only 6.4 per cent, heavies 3.3 per cent, and fighter-bombers 2.6 per cent [bombs dropped within 100 yards of the target]."

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