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.
Read it all here. Holmes ends his post with the suggestion that it high time for an aviator or scholar to set down the principles of air combat at the theoretical level.
As an answer in part to Holmes, I would suggest that the real challenge has been that the rapid technological progress in aviation has required a similarly rapid change in how air power is viewed and thought about. I would argue that even a great work of air power written in 1945 would have only limited application today because of such advances as precision munitions, stealth, and the capabilities provided by space.