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Giulio Douhet and Hugh Trenchard's Visions of Military Airpower

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Military
Wordcount: 2904 words Published: 18th May 2020

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Former Italian Army General Giulio Douhet and the First Marshal of the Royal Air Force Hugh Trenchard are regarded as two early advocates and visionaries of air power. Since the early 1900s, where the use of aircraft in the military arena was still in its infancy, the theories that both Douhet and Trenchard articulated focussed on the impact and utilisation of air power in the ever-changing theatre of war. While large elements of these theories show remarkable parallels for comparison, some dissimilarities can be identified. The objectives of this essay are to firstly discuss the differences in the guiding principle that both Douhet and Trenchard advocated; that control of the air must be established to see success in any military campaign. Secondly, it is widely acknowledged that these theorists were huge proponents of strategic bombing, however, they had a different stance concerning target priority and the ethical consequences, which will be analysed further. Finally, both Douhet and Trenchard recognised the changing nature of war and the necessity to forge an independent air force to exact their preferred policies. There are subtle dissimilarities in their theories of independence, which represents another point that will be analysed.

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Douhet’s central vision regarding the future use of air power was to inhibit the freedom of the enemy to fly and thereby provide the freedom to one’s forces. In his book, titled ‘The Command of the Air’, Douhet surmised that obtaining command of the air would be key to victory, and conversely, to lose command of the air would lead to a complete inability to defend oneself and defeat.[1] Douhet advocated that the first consideration in war was to strike early and gain complete air supremacy.[2] During World War 1 (WW1) and beyond, Douhet had realised that air power was the new dimension of warfare. With fewer limitations than conventional land forces, he considered that aircraft would always get through any enemy defence.[3] To understand this, the inadequacy and lack of air defence systems employed at the time should be appreciated. His offensive logic was to strike early and destroy targets that would prevent the enemy’s ability to utilise aircraft in retaliation, such as airfields and factories. Douhet’s book stated the following basic principle ‘Inflict the greatest damage in the shortest possible time’.[4]Douhet intended to destroy the enemy’s means of production, resources, supply lines, reinforcements, and then any front-line assets.[5] This intent has subsequently been used to some success in more recent campaigns, such as the ‘shock and awe’ strategy implemented at the beginning of the 1991 Gulf War, where rapid air power dominance was used to swiftly neutralise the fighting power of the enemy.

Having been a practitioner of air power during WW1, Trenchard formed the opinion that winning the battle of the skies was key to success, and that air superiority should be a prerequisite in any campaign.[6] Trenchard’s policy to gain air superiority extended beyond WW1 during the inter-war period.[7] However, in contrast to Douhet, Trenchard recognised air superiority as a means to deliver a combined military effort and provide the freedom for land forces to maintain the battle. He realised the value of close air support, interdiction, intelligence and surveillance in support of the land forces. It is Trenchard’s appreciation that total air dominance is not possible but should be continually fought for using air power that contrasts Douhet ‘s theory.[8] Trenchard had recognised the potency of air attack, again at a time where this type of offensive was seen as nearly impossible to defend. Like Douhet, Trenchard’s principle use of air power to gain control of the air included the effective use of a strategic bombing force ‘To destroy the enemy’s means of production and his communications in his own country’.[9] It is this shared belief in the offensive use of air power to gain control of the air and then to win the conflict, that is strikingly comparable.

Douhet is famed for advocating the use of strategic bombing, his policy of targeting civilian population centres and open disregard of international law. He prophesised with certainty that chemical, biological and incendiary type weapons would feature in future warfare, and that future conflicts should not separate combatants from non-combatants. In short, he embraced ‘total war’.[10] Douhet’s strategic bombing concept included two main objectives; the material resistance, and the morale of the enemy population. Although he appreciated the need to handicap the enemy forces and destroy legitimate targets, such as factories or transportation routes, he ultimately believed in targeting civilians to harness the psychological effect. Douhet’s objective was to bomb cities and the ‘vital centres’, to create terror and break the will of the enemy.[11] He believed that the result of this indiscriminate offensive would rapidly dismantle the morale of the people, to a point where a psychological surrender would emanate to a political level, known as the morale effect.[12] Although Douhet’s motives were ethically questionable, it should be remembered that this was an era where humanitarian law was poorly enforced, against a background where WW1 and the futile stalemate that ensued were still vivid in memory.[13] Recognising the relevant efficiency of such a contentious strategy and the potential to save more lives overall, Douhet advocated a knock-out blow objective, surmising that with a rapid and powerful indiscriminate bombing offensive against the aggressor, the result would be to end any war swiftly and ultimately reduce the overall loss of human life.[14]

In his early years serving with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) during WW1, Trenchard was not initially a supporter of strategic bombing, having typically used aircraft extensively in tactical air/land integration type roles, as previously discussed. However, he reluctantly took command of the new Independent Air Force (IAF) to counter the German bombing raids of London.[15] Trenchard and the IAF found it difficult to destroy key targets effectively due to the lack of precision, yet he was under both public scrutiny and political pressure to achieve results. He recognised that bombs were often missing the target, but began to see value in damaging the German morale.[16] Due to this, Trenchard went on to advocate the morale effect of strategic bombing highly, and even more so when placed against the materiel damage.[17] Trenchard’s newly formed policy was to wear away the will of the people using a high intensity of raids and a careful selection of targets, such as infrastructure and communication lines, rather than indirect attacks against areas of population.[18] Douhet and Trenchard both rated highly the morale effect of strategic bombing, but it is the target selection and the subsequent morality where their theories can be contrasted. Trenchard recognised humanitarian law; but saw legitimacy in strategic bombing and the inevitable human collateral damage, as long as consideration was taken to prioritise the destruction of military targets.[19] Trenchard had realised the consequences and the loss of civilian life caused by such bombing tactics. However, his position in the RAF and his political obligations meant he had to duly maintain the moral component of air power we recognise today.[20] In contrast, Douhet’s opinions were uninhibited and advocated the necessity to target civilians. When considering the morale effect of strategic bombing; the theories of Douhet and Trenchard are almost identical, with their dual aim to bring about enemy capitulation through intense bombing and thereby the medium of fear. Despite the nuanced differences, both Douhet and Trenchard promoted strategic bombing as the most effective form of attack and realised that to maintain such an air power posture, it was necessary to organise air forces independently.

Douhet believed that a separate and independent air force would be required in future warfare. At a time where air assets had previously been controlled as army and naval auxiliary forces, he argued that an air force should conduct operations independently. Reflecting upon the long attrition of WW1 and the developing use of air power throughout, Douhet realised that air assets would be operate more effectively under a separate organisation.[21] Douhet only recognised the part that both the land and sea forces played as defence and inferior to the offensive power of an air force. Here, Douhet was perceptive enough to foresee the progression in aircraft and the rapidly developing technology in terms of speed, reach, freedom of movement and potential payload. He prophesied that the use of air power as an independent and offensive force would dominate any campaign and key to overall success.[22]

Trenchard had a similar view for the future of how air power should be organised. Beyond his tenure as commander of the IAF he pushed and promoted fully the use of the RAF as an independent force, and for many years became embroiled in a power struggle with other British forces in opposition to this policy.[23] The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) under the control of Trenchard, carried out several successful remote air campaigns during colonial policing efforts utilising swift offensive air operations.[24] Here, Trenchard had showcased the efficacy of air power and crucially helped establish the political leverage needed to justify the new independent air force. Unlike Douhet, Trenchard was able to put his theories into practice and prove that the RAF, and indeed air power itself, could conduct expeditionary air operations with minimal assistance from land or sea-based counterparts.[25] In contrast to Douhet’s almost complete dismissal of land and sea forces in offensive operations, Trenchard appreciated the combined power of the army and navy in the latter part of his campaigns, using air/land integration at a tactical level.[26]

Despite the air systems available during the inter-war years lacking many key attributes that modern forces are accustomed to today and their different tactical approaches, both Douhet and Trenchard had the vision to recognise air power as the force-multiplier appreciated today. They had the foresight to push ‘control of the air’ as a key air power role. However, Douhet placed an imperative on swift and complete air dominance using offensive air power, with minimal merely defensive assistance from other forces. Trenchard, in contrast, recognised that complete dominance was not possible and saw the principle of air superiority as a continuous quest that should incorporate a combined force effort. Douhet and Trenchard had almost parallel theories regarding strategic bombing. However, there were nuanced differences concerning target selection and the just war concept that we can more easily decide upon today. Despite these differences or at least their ethical candidness concerning the targeting of civilians; their primary theory that an offensive bombing campaign was the ultimate key to defence and the inevitable morale effect is mostly comparable. Douhet’s opinion on the formation of an independent air force was dogmatic and saw an independent air force as the primary fighting force over and above any land or naval elements. Although Trenchard was a late convert to this thinking, he helped forge the path for RAF independence and yet maintained an appreciation for the role of the army and naval forces and indeed joint operations. Having never met or perhaps not even aware of each other; the main ideas that Douhet and Trenchard advocated were remarkably comparable. But upon deeper analysis, it can be seen here that there are some subtle contrasts in their theories.


  • Berkland, David (2011), ‘Douhet, Trenchard, Mitchell, and the Future of Airpower’: Defense & Security Analysis, 27:4, 389-393.
  • Boyle, Andrew (1962), Trenchard: Man of Vision (London: Collins).
  • Coady, C (2009), ‘Bombing and the Morality of War’, in Yuki Tanaka & Marilyn Young, ed., Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History (New York: The New Press).
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  • Gat, Azar (2001), A History of Military Thought: From the Enlightenment to the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press Inc.).
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  • Trenchard, Hugh (1946), Three Papers on Air Power: Air Power and National Security. (Air Ministry Publication 229).

[1] Douhet (1927), p.23.

[2] Haslam (2012), pp.753-773.

[3] Douhet (1927), p.9.

[4] Douhet (1927), p.51.

[5] Haslam (2012), pp.753-773.

[6] Mets (1999), p.29.

[7] Trenchard (1946), p.6.

[8] Berkland, (2011), pp.389-393.

[9] Trenchard (1946), p.6.

[10] Lindqvist (2001), para.104.

[11] Gentile (2001), p.10-11.

[12] Ledwidge (2018), p.47.

[13] Gat (2001), p.577.

[14] Tanaka & Young (2009), pp.199-200.

[15] Olsen (2010), p23.

[16] Miller (2016), p.225.

[17] Ledwidge (2018), pp.48-49.

[18] Mets (1999), p.28.

[19] Miller (2016), pp.289-290.

[20] Tanaka & Young (2009), p.24.

[21] Douhet (1927), pp.4-5.

[22] Mets (1999), p.20.

[23] Mets (1999), p.29.

[24] Ledwidge (2018), p.41.

[25] Miller (2016), p.290.

[26] Berkland, (2011), pp.389-393.


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