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Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers: Innovation in the U.S. Army, 1917-1945

Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers: Innovation in the U.S. Army, 1917–1945 by David E. Johnson. Cornell University Press, 1998, 304 pp.

Between World War I and World War II, Congress and the public largely ignored the US Army, starving it for funds and attention. Conventional wisdom holds that a small corps of professionals struggled mightily during those dark days to create modern doctrines for armored and air warfare. Although partially successful, these dedicated officers could not overcome the paucity of funding, and the Army entered World War II deficient in key weapons, such as heavy tanks that could challenge German Panthers and Tigers head-on as well as long-range escort fighters that could protect the Flying Fortresses and Liberators on their way to Berlin and back. Most importantly, the Army lacked a combined-arms doctrine that could integrate tanks and tactical aviation to best advantage.

David Johnson, a retired Army field artillery colonel and senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, assails the conventional wisdom in Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers. Yes, the Army was neglected and underfunded between the wars, but the intellectual blind spots of the men who developed Army doctrine prior to World War II had more to do with the Army’s shortcomings than any funding shortfall. Armor and airplanes, the two technologies that offered the most promise for changing the face of battle after World War I, had both advocates and detractors during the interwar period. Visionaries could foresee hordes of tanks sweeping the battlefield or fleets of bombers flattening strategic targets in the enemy homeland, but the Army hierarchy remained wedded to the idea of a mass army with infantry at its core, using tanks and airplanes as supporting elements, albeit valuable ones.

The doctrines developed by the Army for using tanks and airplanes reflected this core understanding. Tank development was split between the infantry and the cavalry. The infantry wanted tanks to punch holes in enemy lines for foot soldiers. Modernizers in the cavalry saw tanks as mechanical horses, primed for exploitation of a breakthrough and raiding enemy rear areas, while traditionalists desperately defended the horse as a weapon of war. Neither foot nor horse soldiers envisioned tanks fighting tanks, instead seeing the new weapons in terms of their traditional missions (e.g., fast tanks with lighter cannons optimized for antipersonnel or antiobstacle attacks). Airmen saw bombardment aviation as the way to bypass the morass of the battlefield. Bombing could win the war by battering enemy industry and morale and, not incidentally, prove that airpower deserved a separate military service. Attack aviation on the battlefield realized neither goal and became neglected. Thus, long-range bombers with heavy defensive armament attacked precision targets by daylight. In short, fast tanks and heavy bombers.

By placing airpower and armor side by side, Johnson deftly illustrates the organizational, intellectual, and bureaucratic influences that went into the formulation of doctrine. The Army developed fast tanks and heavy bombers because it wanted to—not because of external constraints. As the present Department of Defense enters a period of fiscal austerity, it should keep Johnson’s conclusions firmly in mind.

The author’s research is thorough, plumbing multiple archives, service journals, memoirs, interviews, and official publications. His writing style is fluid and enjoyable to read. I highly recommend Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers.

Lt Col Grant T. Weller, USAF, PhD
Headquarters US Air Force Pentagon,
Washington, DC

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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