Indivisible Airpower

March 1, 1984

The Strategic Air Command’s overriding objective has always been and always will be to provide the cornerstone for our nation’s nuclear deterrent capability. Our continuing deterrent strength — maintained today through a strategic triad of long-range bombers, land-based ICBMs, and the Navy’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles — has been of incalculable benefit to the nation in maintaining nuclear peace for nearly forty years. Besides contributing to nuclear deterrence, one of these triad components constitutes an enduring national asset: our force of long-range, penetrating bomber aircraft.

In terms of numbers, our force of long-range combat aircraft, as well as most other combat systems, has declined steadily since the early 1960s. Today, although we face a much more powerful adversary, we have far fewer long-range aircraft. This combination of declining assets and an increasing threat has forced a reexamination of traditional concepts of airpower employment and a search for doctrinal concepts that increase flexibility and promote optimum use of limited air-power assets.

Indivisible airpower is not a new concept. In combat, the need to get the most from each airpower asset has regularly forced us to set aside artificial restrictions on how we employ our weapons. Until recently, however, in peacetime we have tended to disregard valuable wartime lessons about the optimum application of airpower. In our efforts to accommodate new technology — most notably nuclear weapons — the words “strategic” and “tactical” came to be associated not only with missions but with aircraft types as well. This latter association can inhibit the kind of innovative planning needed to get the maximum benefits from our limited airpower assets.

Where do we go from here The obvious starting point for answering that question is an examination of past experience and of how we arrived at where we are today.

World War II

In 1943, the only way the Allies could take the war to Nazi Germany was through long-range aerial bombardment. The first massive US raids against German industrial targets in late 1943 were not totally successful. B-17 and B-24 daylight precision bombing attacks against Schweinfurt and Ploesti achieved fairly high levels of damage, but were very costly in terms of aircraft losses. As a result, massive, long-range air attacks were largely suspended until the introduction of the P-47 and, later, the P-51 escort fighters. Daylight bombing was simply not practical or effective until the bomber’s long-range offensive capability was combined with protection from fighter escort aircraft. This combined, cooperating force of bombers and fighters exemplified the concept of indivisible airpower.

Another example of this concept is target selection during World War II. Only about forty-five percent of the total tonnage dropped by long-range bombers during the war was directed against targets that we normally classify as strategic: industrial areas, aircraft plants, and miscellaneous manufacturing, oil chemical, and rubber factories. Although they directed less than half their total effort to the strategic task, our-long-range bombers had a significant impact on the industrial base and war-making capability of the Axis powers.

We learned two lessons from our World War II combat experience: No industrial power can withstand a relentless and well-coordinated offensive aerial campaign, and a successful campaign requires that all our airpowers assets work in harmony to capitalize on individual strengths and the overcome individual weaknesses.


The application of airpower as an indivisible asset also played an important role during the Korean conflict, although it took on a different form. As the US and South Korean forces were being pushed back into the Pusan perimeter during the first two months of the conflict, the B-29s divided their efforts between strategic and “close support tactical” targets.

By late September 1959 — three months after the initial North Korean invasion — the strategic bombardment offensive was finished. Air Force bombers had destroyed all significant strategic targets and enemy airfields in North Korea. However, the end of the strategic bombardment offensive did not mark the end of the long-range bombers’ contribution to the war effort; rather, it allowed these aircraft to focus their efforts on a successful campaign of direct support of our forces in the field.

B-29s — augmented by Air Force and Navy fighter-bombers — provided friendly ground troops with much close air support during numerous engagements. The massive Chinese ground offensive failed largely because our airpower assets cut the lines of logistical support. During the period from November 1950 through June 1951, continued air assaults against the enemy’s ground forces killed an estimated 91,000 enemy troops and destroyed 250 gun positions, 296 tanks, and more than 60,000 buildings used as troop and supply centers. The enemy’s transportation system was crippled by air strikes that destroyed more than 6,000 vehicles, 1,400 freight cars, and 250 locomotives.

In February 1951, USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg coauthored (with Stanley Frank) an article titled “The Truth About Our Airpower” that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post and informed the American people on how airpower should be used to bring the Korean conflict to a successful conclusion. He wrote that airpower was “indivisible” and could not properly be characterized as “strategic, tactical, or defensive.” He went on to say: “The overriding purpose of every plane, whether it is a bomber or a fighter, is to win the air battle on which final victory on land or sea is predicated.”


The Vietnam conflict provides the most recent illustration of the indivisible airpower concept. Despite the clear doctrinal division between “strategic” and “tactical” aircraft that existed at the time, the Vietnam conflict shows how successful an air campaign can be when all airpower assets are applied as an integrated whole.

From March 1965 to October 1968, F-105s and F-4s participated in the “Rolling Thunder” campaign against a limited set of targets in North Vietnam. During the same period, B-52s were used in all the main battles in the south and performed interdiction strikes in Laos, Cambodia, and just inside the southern portions of North Vietnam.

This division of labor may seem peculiar at first glance, but in the context of indivisible airpower, it made sense. The limited number of permissible targets in the north could b handled by F-4s and F-105s, with aerial refueling providing the necessary range enhancement. The south, by contrast, had area targets. A single B-52D could haul more than 100 500- and 750-pound bombs — more than five times the load of a tactical fighter-bomber. Moreover, bombing from above 30,000 feet, the B-52s were neither seen nor heard by the enemy, thus adversely affecting the morale of the enemy’s forces while frustrating their attempts to sustain massive ground assaults.

At the time, Army Brig. Gen. John R. McGiffert, then MACV’s Chief of Surface Operations (now a retired lieutenant general), described the B-52 force as “the most effective weapon we have been able to muster…. The threat of heavy bomber strikes forces the enemy to break up his ground elements…. If he does mass his forces, he takes terrible casualties.”

The Linebacker Missions

The April 1972 North Vietnamese invasion of South Vietnam and Communist intransigence at the bargaining table prompted President Nixon to reinitiate strategic bombing against targets in the north. These campaigns, known as “Linebacker I and II,” had an entirely different scope and focus than did their Rolling Thunder predecessor. As a result of a combination of improved weapons (e.g., “smart” munitions), tactics, and rules of engagement, the three months of air strikes carried out by “tactical” and “strategic” aircraft during Linebacker I had a greater impact on North Vietnam’s ability to wage war than did the three and a half years of strikes during Rolling Thunder.

The eleven nights of B-52 strikes against Hanoi and Haiphong during Linebacker II was the climax of the war for US airpower and demonstrated once again the leverage available through the optimum application of air assets. B-52s attacked in waves against various targets, including railyards, power plants, munitions dumps, and POL storage areas. Support was provided by other airpower elements: EB-66s transmitted ECM, F-4s dispensed chaff, and escort fighters guarded against MiGs. At lower altitudes, Wild Weasels hit SAM sits and solo F-111s attacked airfields.

Although a total of eleven B-52s was lost to several hundred SAMs during the first four nights — an attrition rate of two percent — a shift to more flexible tactics and continued concentrated assault eventually overwhelmed the enemy’s air defense. One hundred and sixty-four SAMs were fired the first night, but an average of only twenty SAMs a night was fired after the fifth night. On the final two nights, no B-52s were damaged and the enemy’s defenses were broken.

The effect on the political will of the North Vietnamese was described by Ambassador George H. Aldrich, one of Dr. Henry Kissinger’s principal assistants at the Paris negotiations: “Prior to Linebacker II, the North Vietnamese were intransigent, buying time, refusing even to discuss a formal meeting schedule,” Ambassador Aldrich said. “After Linebacker II, they were shaken, demoralized, anxious to talk about anything. They finally realize that they were at war with a superpower. If there was ay bewilderment, it was with our reluctance to use that power earlier.”

Potential of Long-Range Air

The historical cases outlined above demonstrate that we learn in combat through trial and error how best to make use of our airpower assets. Which command owns an aircraft, and what its traditional role has been, become strictly secondary considerations. Capability to perform specific missions must be the fundamental criterion for deciding how we employ airpower and how we allocate resources for future forces.

Our current doctrine (AFM 1I-I) recognizes that the threat we face is too great, and our opportunities for recovery too limited, to learn these lessons again in the school of combat. In any future conflict, we must immediately field the most effective warfighting force possible by making full use of all available assets. Whether the combat job at hand is theater-conventional or global-nuclear, the airpower asset most capable of doing the job should be employed. This theme should also guide our selection of new technologies for our delivery platforms and our munitions development and procurement programs.

Since its inception, Strategic Ai Command’s overriding responsibility has been to deter nuclear war. However, as the conventional wars in Korea and Vietnam — both in the nuclear age — have demonstrated, we should not allow the nuclear peacetime deterrent posture of long-range air forces to restrict our thinking about the optimum employment of all airpower assets in a conflict.

Since its inception, Strategic air Command’s overriding responsibility has been to deter nuclear war. However, as the conventional wars in Korea and Vietnam — both in the nuclear age — have demonstrated, we should not allow the nuclear peacetime deterrent posture of long-range air forces to restrict our thinking about the optimum employment of all airpower assets in a conflict.

Long-range airpower, in particular, has great utility as an integral element of a worldwide, conventional, power-projection force. Several factor contribute to the need for a flexible, responsive, day/night, all-weather force capable of delivering effective firepower to any point on the globe in a matter of hours: the increasing number of actual and potential conflicts and around the world, the disposition of US and Soviet forces (with the Soviets generally being closer to the potential point of conflict), and an increasingly capable, blue-water Soviet Navy.

Long-range air can provide global non-nuclear responses — in a matter of hours — before and after US and allied reinforcements are deployed forward. It can provide conventional firepower to remote areas to support elements of a rapid deployment force before they gain a foothold, or it can complement in-place forces.

In terms of support for maritime missions, long-range air can contribute to minelaying, sea surveillance, and anti-ship warfare. It is superbly suited for a show of force short of actual conflict, as illustrated in the Indian Ocean on several occasions. Long-range airpower also has a demonstrated capability to interdict shipping in sea areas beyond the immediate range of other elements.

Importance of Strategic Reach

Of increasing value is the ability of long-rang air to use relatively secure rear basing, which reduces air base defense and logistics problems. The Soviets and their allies and surrogates are increasingly capable of attacking forward operating bases, particularly in Central Europe but also in Southwest Asia and other locations. Long-range airpower, by operating with or without refueling from secure rear bases, is relatively unaffected by this threat. Forward and intermediate bases will always be required to sustain high-tempo operations. But when these airfields come under attack — as they inevitably will — long-range bombers can surge and keep the pressure on the enemy until forward bases are secured.

Recent crises highlight the continuing importance of strategic reach and indivisible airpower. The Falkland Islands conflict challenged Great Britain’s ability to protect its citizens in a remote location. Be cause of budgetary considerations, the British government had consciously accepted a limited reach in its ability to project power. Heroic efforts by the royal Navy and RAF resulted in reconstitution of a long-range capability in a matter of weeks. The contribution this capability made to the overall British effort indicates that the type of glob-spanning firepower provided by our long-range aircraft must be maintained and improved.

Our own recent experience in Grenada again demonstrated this point. Although this island lies relatively close to the United States, reach was still an important dimension in the success of the rescue operation. We had to marshal forces carefully that either had, or could be provided, the range capabilities needed. The diversion of vessels and troops already at sea was a part of this. Another part was the 123 Strategic Air Command air refueling missions required to support fighter and other aircraft operations in Grenada. Had the conflict been more distant, or had large amounts of firepower been needed quickly, use of long-range airpower would have been essential.

Modern Munitions

Technological advances are offering unprecedented opportunities to improve our overall warfighting effectiveness. Long-range aircraft, combined with modern technology provide the National Command authorities with responsive platforms able to deliver large, versatile payloads in support of worldwide conventional power projection — on land or at sea — and able to be launched from CONUS bases if required. We need to exploit more fully the latent capabilities of long-range airpower for conventional operations. The technology to do so — improved target situational information, improved deliver accuracy, “smart” munitions, and standoff weaponry — and to reduce attrition rates across the board is currently available.

What is needed is a family of conventional weaponry — direct-attack, short-range, and long-range standoff — from which a cost-effective mix can be selected for the full spectrum of global targets. Direct-attack weapons are already in the inventory, although some improvements are needed. Weapons with very limited standoff range have received adequate support and are being procured in increasing quantities in the near term. Our most pressing need is for a long-range standoff delivery capability. The technology is at hand — the critical submunitions, the propulsion system, the guidance technology, and the sensors are all well within our grasp.

Properly equipped and employing effective tactics, long-range airpower can put critical pressure on the enemy for the first few days of a conflict and keep attrition at an acceptable level. The offensive counter-air mission is a good example. Long-range airpower, with appropriate long-range standoff conventional weapons, could conduct sustained attacks on airfields, destroy aircraft and facilities, decrease enemy sortie-generation capability, and free fighter forces to conduct the air-to-air role for which they are best suited. Once enemy defenses are suppressed, long-range airpower could revert to more conventional direct-attack operations or sustain standoff attacks, depending on the requirements of the air commander. The mere existence of an integrated and effective warfighting capability will go far toward convincing any potential adversary that it is simply not in his best interest to resort to military force to achieve his objectives.

Working Together

Our perspective on future national security needs is often a function of personal experience. This is not always bad: the experience of military planners provides an invaluable input to weapon systems decisions. However, in the technology-intensive, cost-constrained environment of the future, the nation with the most imagination and best conception of optimum force integration will have a significant advantage. This advantage must not fall to our potential adversaries.

For example, space will become an increasingly important arena over the next two decades. The President has already directed a comprehensive and intensive effort to define a long-term research and development program to explore strategic defensive technologies. The ultimate goal is to achieve a viable defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles. Space-based systems may play a crucial role in this effort to increase stability. As our space capability grows, it is important that we remind ourselves that space is a place — not a mission. Artificial barriers between space-based and terrestrial forces and their functions will only hamper our efforts to achieve an integrated and effective military capability.

Current Air Force doctrine is the clearest peacetime statement to date of the unity of airpower. We owe it to ourselves and the nation to work toward turning that statement into operational reality configuring our aircraft and training our crews to get the most combat capability from each airframe. We have the talent, the foresight, and, I am convinced, the will to make the concept of indivisible airpower work for the benefit of the American people and free people everywhere.

Overcoming the Barriers

As we move into the future, our first steps should include a clear recognition of the full potential of one of our most valuable existing national assets — long-range airpower.

Long-range air provides a heavy-payload, all-weather, day/night, firepower-delivery capability that no other US weapon system can match. This capability is relatively unconstrained by reliance on politically or militarily vulnerable for ward basing. Long-range aircraft can operate from locations removed from the direct conflict area – or even, if absolutely necessary, from bases in CONUS — to provide a rapid response within hours anywhere in the world. Long-range air provides us the flexibility to respond effectively and quickly to any type of conflict thrust upon us.

This flexibility is considerable today, but will become even more impressive in the future if it is enhanced through development and deployment of the proper conventional standoff weapons. By allowing accurate and effective fire from outside the range of the most threatening enemy defenses, these weapons will greatly enhance flexibility and significantly reduce the danger of attrition.

SAC assets are ready today to aid the Navy in meeting the challenges posed by an increasingly powerful Soviet Navy. Full deployment of the Harpoon missile will significantly increase our potential contribution to the defeat of enemy surface fleets far from shore through the rapid concentration of firepower.

The Soviet threat is real and growing. To maintain stability in the face of an improved Soviet ability to project power beyond their borders, we must improve our worldwide power-projection capabilities utility — that is, development of an existing asset (in combination with modern munitions technology — will provide an excellent return in capability for every dollar invested. Such cost-effectiveness makes a great deal of sense in today’s world of limited resources

We have the capacity to apply our limited airpower assets in ways that overcome the barriers of range, logistics vulnerability, and a growing threat. Only a force that provides a visible, vital capability to defeat the enemy can provide the deterrence on which the free world relies. The key to this effective combat force is realizing the full potential of every available asset based on the concept of indivisible airpower.

Gen. Bennie L. Davis is Commander in Chief, SAC, and Director of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff, Offutt AFB, Neb. A 1950 graduate of the US Military Academy, General Davis has spent most of his service career with SAC in operational and staff posts, although he has also held key assignments in recruiting, personnel, and at the Pentagon. A veteran of 142 combat missions 1979 and has been CINCSAC since August 1981.