James Holmes

Who is Air Power’s Alfred Thayer Mahan?

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James Holmes

Who is Air Power’s Alfred Thayer Mahan?

Air Power is unique in not having a grand theorist on par with Clausewitz or Mahan.

This is disturbing. Of late the Naval Diplomat has been praised by air-power groupies air-power-minded colleagues for growing in office. That is, some aviators consider me a convert from the true faith of sea power to their foul creed because I’ve written the occasional kind word about airplanes. Begone, fiends!

For all that, air power is an intriguing beast. It’s interesting in part because — with apologies to Giulio Douhet and Billy Mitchell — there’s no master theorist of aerial endeavors. Clausewitz and Sun Tzu are men for all seasons, supplying insights that span all domains — earth, sea, sky — where warriors vie for supremacy. Sea power has Corbett and Mahan. While there’s no shortage of treatises about aircraft, no thinker of that stature explains how air forces ought to prosecute operations and strategy. Tactics and gadgetry rule.

Absent a theorist of their own, airmen commonly look to sea-power theory for guidance. And for good reason. The two domains share certain traits. Away from land, oceans are a featureless plain where vector mechanics — course, speed — rather than topographic features govern movement. Aviators use similar methods to navigate from point A to point B, except that they add a z-axis. Altitude constitutes that third dimension. Nor must they obey terrain so long as they stay high enough not to clip a mountain. Mahan’s depiction of the sea as a “wide common” traversed by ships in all directions thus maps to the wild blue yonder.

So do his six determinants of sea power — to a point. A society and its government clearly must be predisposed to take to the skies, and amass the skills to do so. Industry must be capable of manufacturing aircraft or, at a minimum, keeping up those purchased abroad. But the relationship starts to fray even on this basic level. For instance, air-power proponents like to contend that air power renders geography moot. No geographic barriers block air forces the way shorelines block fleets. And yet discounting geography would be alien to Mahan, one of history’s foremost geopolitical thinkers. This is something for writers to sort out.

The likeness between air and sea power is even more inexact when you descend to the operational level. For example, Mahan believed concentrated fleets of capital ships were the arbiters of maritime command. Smaller craft were there to act as eyes of the fleet and perform miscellaneous support functions. But the line-of-battle ship was where the fleet’s combat punch, and thus its destiny, resided. What’s the capital ship of the skies? The bomber? Hardly. Can you imagine bombers fighting other bombers? Rather, the smaller craft — the fighters — strive for air superiority and supremacy. Once they’ve scoured important airspace of enemy fighters, then bombers can go in under relatively permissive conditions to project power.

(Incidentally, this seems to be one way sea power is coming to resemble air power, with the aircraft carrier playing the part of the bomber. Like fighters, smaller fleet platforms will win sea control, providing a safe zone close to shore for this mobile air base to launch and recover its air wing. Like the bomber, then, the carrier increasingly exploits rather than fights for command.)

In this sense the bomber is like the A-10 Warthog, the venerable close-air-support warplane that appears to be on the U.S. Air Force chopping block for budgetary reasons. Close air support means lingering overhead to answer calls for fire from ground troops below. It’s an adjunct to land warfare. With its slow speed, generous ammunition supply, and long loiter time over contested areas, the A-10 is the closest thing the U.S. Air Force has to Admiral Wylie’s man with a gun — the metaphorical armed soldier or policeman permanently on scene to control restive areas or populations. But the A-10 is worthless in air-to-air combat. It too depends on fighters to impose aerial command, hoisting an umbrella under which close-air-support pilots can concentrate on the battlefield beneath.

Where does this ramble leave us? Should air commanders ground their fleets until the definitive work of air-power theory appears? Well, no. Navies plied the seven seas long before the classics of sea-power theory appeared. Some commanders and naval officials excelled without help from the likes of Corbett or Mahan. Others fared less well. In fact, it was their deeds — deeds performed without the benefit of theory — that furnished the historical data from which the theorists inferred the principles underlying maritime commerce and conflict.

Still, combat aircraft have been around over a century now, roughly the same amount of time that elapsed between Nelson’s seminal victory at Trafalgar and the appearance of Corbett’s Some Principles of Maritime Strategy and Mahan’s Naval Strategy. A century of air combat is long enough for the principles of air power to become visible. Now some scholar or aviator with a sharp pen just needs to transcribe those principles onto paper.