The NEXT WAR in the AIR (Feb, 1935)

It’s interesting to read articles like this one, where the revolutionary aspects of one particular piece of technology are considered in near isolation. The author correctly assumes that bombers will get much bigger, fly higher, faster and become much more destructive. But this leads him to the following conclusion:
“In all probability, we shall not see the great numbers of airplanes we had in the last war (WWI).”
Why? Because, “It is so difficult to find aircraft in heavy clouds and in the dark, that the menace of opposing aircraft will be almost negligible.”

People predicting the future often forget that the change they are focusing on is not the only change occurring. In the case of WWII you had radar, acoustic detectors, air patrols, intelligence, radio listening posts and flack among others. All of these combined to require an exponential increase in the number of aircraft, not the great reduction predicted.

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The NEXT WAR in the AIR

By GENERAL WILLIAM MITCHELL
Former Commander Air Forces, A.E.F.

AIRCRAFT can now be built that will go around the world at the equator on one charge of fuel.

Lighter-than-air craft now can be made to carry fifty or sixty tons of useful load besides crew and fuel; they can ascend to 30,000 feet or more, and their radius of action is greater than that of any other known means of transportation.

Heavier-than-air craft now can be made to go from 6,000 to 8,000 miles, carrying 4,000 pounds of bombs, to operate at an altitude of 35,000 feet, and at a speed between 300 and 400 miles an hour.

But at present we are in a period of arrested development in air power plants because we cannot easily get away from the internal-combustion engine. We are making these bigger and more powerful continually, at present up to about 4,000 horsepower, while our engine fuel is being made safer and more economical. Steam engines and rocket engines are being experimented with, but our greatest aerial development will come with the development of an entirely new type of engine, lighter, stronger, safer and less complicated. The modern gasoline engine has from 2,000 to 5,000 different parts, one of the most complicated mechanisms ever made, not excepting the mechanical toys of the middle ages.

What can air power actually do? We have proved that it is impossible by any known means to prevent aircraft from flying over any point, such as a city or manufacturing area. Therefore aircraft can go anywhere we wish to put them.

Suppose an enemy air force occupied Kuskokwim Valley, Alaska, and established an air fortress there consisting of a subterranean series of hangars protected against gas attacks.

Auxiliary air fortresses could be placed in two or three other locations. With dominance of the air, all shipping will be destroyed by the attacker and it will be impossible to move troops across water areas and probably also across land areas, on account of heavy concentrations of gas. Now suppose the enemy launches air attacks from his subterranean bases against the triangle New York – Chicago – Washington. Seven transcontinental railroads are put out of business by heavy bombs and concentrations of gas, by the destruction of tunnels, bridges, yards and roadways. Suppose the aqueducts of ten reservoirs feeding the great cities with water are destroyed, and the-water supply itself is gassed. Suppose twenty great power plants in this area are smashed or rendered incapable of working. What could the population do? It would not have electric power or water, it would be so curtailed in its transportation as to make it impossible for the people to subsist.

In addition, suppose that the cities themselves are attacked directly by high explosive bombs and gas. We learned in the last war that it requires comparatively little aerial activity to cause the evacuation of a city. People become terrified even at the sound or appearance of airplanes. In the future they will neither hear nor see them; the first indication of their presence will be the explosion of enormous projectiles and the sprinkling of gas.

Should this occur in a city such as New York, one of the greatest disasters in history would result. High explosive bombs are extremely incendiary. A few well placed would put the city in flames which could not be controlled. A little gas mixed with the high explosive would spread terror and panic among the population. Two or three modern airplanes, attacking each of seven cities in this area nightly, would drive at least 20,000,000 people from their homes.

In all probability, we shall not see the great numbers of airplanes we had in the last war. Now, aerial power will be exerted by air cruisers. They will set out on their missions alone. Their crews will be equipped with high-altitude suits, which carry oxygen on the belts, and chemical means of heating them. Automatic pilots will guide the ships. The course will be checked by radio in a manner which cannot be interfered with by the enemy. It is so difficult to find aircraft in heavy clouds and in the dark, that the menace of opposing aircraft will be almost negligible.

The simplest form of weapon will be the dropped bomb, containing chemical explosive, gas or incendiary compounds. Modern bomb sights are stabilized with gyroscopes and so arranged that the altitude, drift and speed are auto-matically taken care of on the instrument itself. Aircraft may “stand off” miles from a city and send projectiles into it by air torpedoes, which are really small airplanes guided by gyros and radio, or by gliding bombs which, when dropped, will attain a speed through force of gravity sufficient to fly them. Gyroscopic control then puts them on their course and they speed straight to their target.

Of the ninety-six aeronautical records held in the world, the United States holds about six. During the last month or so, a Russian has flown 7,700 miles without landing or refueling. An Italian has flown at a speed of 440 miles an hour. An English plane has flown from England to Australia, 11,300 miles, in less than three days, while Kingsford-Smith flies the Pacific, with one jump of well over 3,000 miles, and finds little specks of islands on which he lands and comes right through on perfect schedule time.

The Graf Zeppelin airship has flown over 600,000 miles, has crossed the Atlantic over seventy times, and has flown around the world. These are only the beginnings. What are we Americans doing?

Ten years ago our experimental program under the direction of airmen was the most advanced in the world. We held practically every record. We were flying around the world. Our ships were the fastest and went the longest distances. Now we are in the discard as far as active organized air power is concerned.

Every other great nation has concentrated its air activities under one head. Its personnel, dedicated for life to the development of aeronautics, is removed as far as possible from the incentives of profit, politics and influences inimical to the development of aeronautics. The American people must take up the matter and demand that our aeronautics be developed as a great national asset.

Nations are now searching for air bases instead of naval bases. They are diagramming and planning their air routes not only around the world along parallels of latitude but over the poles and in remote places where transportation heretofore could not go. If the United States were equipped with a properly organized air power, it would, in the event of war, probably never have to bring its army or navy into play at all. The issue would be determined in the air. Moreover, great air strength might avert hostilities, as the menace a great air force holds is sufficient to overawe most foes.

History and destiny unmistakably point to the next contest being for the possession of the Pacific. Alaska is the key point. Get your globes and trace the shortest distances between our great centers of population and those in eastern Asia and you will quickly see why.

We have the most self-contained country the world has ever seen, the most mechanically minded, the most inventive and ablest people. Whether the culture of the white race is to continue as the world’s greatest force, or whether Asiatic culture will dominate, will be determined from the American continent, by air power.

1 comment
  1. Stannous says: September 5, 200611:32 pm

    General Mitchell was the only ranking advocate for air power in the years between the World Wars. He showed how bombers could, in minutes, sink the biggest battleships while staying out of range.
    He does miss the mark in a couple of places here (like the still held belief that a war (ala Iraq/Afghanistan) can be won from the air) and did not seem to realize how quickly the competing air forces would adapt during war but was correct in predicting the war for the control of the Pacific.

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