James Holmes

Air Power Meets Alfred Thayer Mahan

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James Holmes

Air Power Meets Alfred Thayer Mahan

Why studying maritime history can help aviators understand their own profession.

AirSea Battle came to my office last week when one of my colleagues, a U.S. Air Force colonel, reported undergoing a come-to-Mahan moment. He now pronounces sea-power evangelist Alfred Thayer Mahan the natural strategic theorist of air power. Hallelujah, brother!

Such conversion experiences should be more common than they are. Practitioners of air power labor at a disadvantage. Armies and navies have been around throughout recorded history. From antiquity on, soldiers’ and sailors’ deeds left behind troves of military history—the fundamental research for strategy—for historians to read, theorize about, and debate. And many generations of scribes did the debating. Rich theories of land and sea warfare resulted, but only after centuries of study, argument, and refinement.

By contrast, powered flight is only a century old. The Wright Brothers took to the North Carolina sky in 1903. Aerial combat came soon after. The U.S. Navy celebrated its centennial of naval aviation last year. U.S. Marines are doing so this year. Air power made its battlefield debut in the Balkans in 1912. Warplanes first slung bullets at one another over France during World War I.

Unsurprisingly, given the rush of events, technology outran ideas about how to use it. Italian theorist Giulio Douhet published his landmark work Command of the Air in 1921, when the ink was still drying on the Versailles Treaty. Whereas Clausewitz could ruminate about Frederick the Great and Mahan had Lord Nelson, Douhet had to start virtually from scratch.

Nine decades hence, airmen still investigate other domains for insight into their profession. Good for them. But why sea-power theory, and why Mahan in particular? Well, he likened the sea to a “wide common,” a thoroughfare for commercial and military endeavors. Airspace is an even wider common, enveloping the entire earth’s surface rather than the seventy percent covered by water.

In wartime, wrote Mahan, navies should amass “overbearing power” to sweep enemy fleets from the nautical common. Having done so, the victor could put those waters to whatever use he pleased. Pilots likewise think in terms of ridding the skies of opposing fleets. Give ‘em the gun! goes one bloodthirsty line in the U.S. Air Force fight song. (We are gentle folk in the U.S. Navy. Our fight song is about beer.)

For Mahan, imposing a blockade on an adversary’s shores—and thereby cutting him off from the seaborne trade that constitutes the lifeblood of industrial economies—was the usual culminating act of naval warfare. But the comparison starts to break down here. What’s the airborne equivalent of sealing off an opponent’s harbors?

Blockade duty means prowling offshore for long intervals—years for the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars—in order to interdict merchantmen and warships that try to exit or enter port. Is there an aerial counterpart to a blockading squadron? I’m not so sure. One imagines gunships levitating overhead in the old Flash Gordon films or John Carter of Mars books.

And whereas blockading fleets can regulate the flow of trade rather than sink enemy vessels, bombarding economic centers from aloft looks like the closest equivalent for air power. As AdmiralJ. C. Wylie (another of the greats of sea power, natch) observes, air-power theory does tend to conflate controlling something with destroying it. This may be less true today than it was during Wylie’s lifetime. In this age of precision weaponry and unmanned aerial vehicles, it could be that air forces can loiter around key sites the way fleets used to squelch fugitive enemy shipping. The analogy may work to a degree.

There are some basic differences between navies that ride the waves and “airynavies”—to borrow a lyric from Tennyson—that do battle in the heavens. Mahan’s writings may not map from sea to sky in every detail, but he does provide a platform from which to think through the similarities and differences. Not bad for a specialist on the age of sail.