View Full Version : A Long Way To Bombs Away

04-16-04, 05:54 AM
A Long Way
To Bombs Away
Europe once held the edge over American military aircraft.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004 12:01 a.m. EDT

The "smart bombs" that ripped into Baghdad last year, eviscerating Saddam Hussein's regime and mostly sparing the population, were accepted as routine by those who watched their trajectories on TV. Yet it took air-power advocates the better part of a century to achieve such astonishing accuracy.

Not that governments were slow to see the possibilities of air-delivered munitions. "At the start of 1909," writes Stephen Budiansky in "Air Power," "the number of airplanes in the world's armies was zero; by 1910 it was fifty; by 1911 airplanes had been used in combat." The innovator was an Italian pilot named Gavotti, who dropped four hand grenades on Turkish troops in Libya. Foreshadowing the propaganda wars to come, Italian newspapers boasted that the enemy scattered in terror while the Turks claimed that the grenades hit a hospital.

In truth, early warplanes were more dangerous to their occupants than to the enemy. Of the first 48 pilots trained by the U.S. Army, 12 had been killed by 1913--and that was without going into combat. Nevertheless, the Army expected great things of aviation when it went to war in 1917. It delivered little: a few thousand pilots, some engines and 1,400 copies of a British bomber so shaky that it could not be operated at full throttle. U.S. mass production just couldn't cope with the challenge of assembling aircraft from thousands of pieces designed to metric measure and meant to be finished by hand. As a result, Billy Mitchell and other American airmen flew mostly French aircraft during World War I. Not until the 1930s did an American company build a truly superior airplane: the Douglas DC-3 transport, which is still in service in back-country airlines and small-country air forces.

Mass production was vindicated in World War II, when the U.S. built 300,000 warplanes, almost as many as the rest of the world combined. One of the greatest was the quintessentially American B-17 Flying Fortress, designed to battle its way to such "strategic" targets as oil refineries and ball-bearing plants and to destroy them from high altitude. "Putting a bomb into a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet" was the goal and promise of the U.S. Army Air Corps when it entered the war.

Alas, weather and enemy countermeasures made precision a chimera. By 1945, American bombers were operating much like those from Britain, Germany and Japan, indiscriminately killing enemy civilians and destroying enemy cities. More than once, indeed, American bombers went so wide of the mark that they actually hit the wrong country. The vaunted "Fortress" also failed to ward off enemy fighters: In one sample, 63% of its crewmen were lost before completing the 25 missions that would have allowed them to go home for reassignment.

Mr. Budiansky does a splendid job of covering these developments in the U.S. and Britain, and Germany gets good if briefer coverage. (It was Germany that deployed the first smart bomb, destroying the Italian battleship Roma in 1943 with a radio-steered missile called "Fritz X.") Still, I wish that he had more to say about Japan, whose air forces gave the Americans a rather bad time in the winter and spring of 1941-42.
A more serious omission is the Soviet Union. After all, the U.S. Strategic Air Command wasn't developed as a hypothetical exercise but as a response to the menace that lasted a generation. Russian bombers may have looked like knock-offs of American designs, but they were good enough to pose a threat to North America. That's why George W. Bush once flew an F-102A interceptor in the Texas Air National Guard. (Bizarrely, Mr. Bush's aircraft could have knocked down incoming Russian bombers with air-burst nuclear missiles.) Absent that 40-year face-off between the U.S. and Russia, air power--and our lives--would be very different today.

Another weakness of the book: the more recent the subject matter, the less clear its presentation. This isn't Mr. Budiansky's fault. War-fighting concepts are more complex than they were in 1913. Aerial combat once required a pilot to get on the enemy's tail; today opponents may be miles apart and facing away from each other. Accordingly, modern fighter pilots rely as much on physics as on courage and sharp reflexes, which goes far to explain why our top guns can be twice the age of those we fielded in World War II. (In the next generation, of course, there may be no pilot at all in the cockpit.)

"Air Power" is illustrated by black-and-white photographs, which, like the text, favor the first half-century of aerial warfare. Each notable warplane--from the Royal Air Force BE-2 scout of 1914 to the bat-winged, radar-evading B-2 bomber of today--is granted a side-view sketch and its vital statistics. The scout carried a lone machine gun; the stealth bomber goes to war with 40,000 pounds of munitions. What a difference a century makes.

Mr. Ford's most recent book is "Michael's War: A Story of the Irish Republican Army" (ASJA Press). You can buy "Air Power" from the OpinionJournal bookstore.