Revitalizing Operational Air Warfare Thinking

  • Published
  • By Heather Venable

In 1986, a then-unknown colonel attending the National War College wrote a thesis entitled “The Air Campaign,” focused on the optimal employment of operational airpower. The author, John Warden, subsequently and ironically became well known for his theory of strategic attack. His most enduring contribution to airpower, though, is his thesis. “The Air Campaign” provided a much-needed corrective to Air Force thinking regarding operational air warfare’s importance. For the most part, Warden’s operational focus in 1986 reemphasized Clausewitz’s notion that “the destruction of the enemy forces is the overriding principle of war, and so far as positive action is concerned, the principal way to achieve our object.”1 Warden believed the US military had forgotten how to mass forces in the domains of land, sea, and air.2 Revisiting how previous Airmen sought to revitalize the employment of operational air warfare is equally important today given the US Air Force’s intensifying interest in teaching operational art in its professional military education institutions.

Conceptualizing operational air warfare, however, can be challenging. Most military professionals are fluent in the three levels of war, namely strategy, operations, and tactics. From that perspective, the operational level of war can be considered synonymous with a campaign—a series of battles envisioned as a way to ultimately defeat an enemy’s army. But for a less land-centric way of thinking, it is more accurate to think of the operational level of war as focused on achieving war’s strategic “ends” with the “forces allotted,” or the tactical level’s means.3

Ultimately, operational-level air warfare is Joint-minded airpower because it seeks to have its greatest effect in support of the other domains. Operational air warfare provides a range of possible effects from direct battlefield support, such as close air support, to battlefield air interdiction to far more distant effects that may seem to be independent from the Joint campaign but in reality create better conditions for the land domain to succeed. As such, operational air warfare may contribute the most to other domains even when it cannot be seen over the battlefield.

Revitalizating operational air warfare not only benefits the Air Force. As the Army begins to acquire further-ranging capabilites analogous to what the Air Force has had for decades, for example, it has much to learn from the air domain’s historical experience. So, too, does the Marine Corps given its possible role doing maritime interdiction in Force Design 2030.

This article first explores how the US Air Force finally and appropriately lost its focus on winning through strategic attack after the Vietnam War. Subsequently, however, the service became too focused on tactical airpower before finding its correct focus at the operational level of war.

To further determine what the Air Force can contribute in terms of operational effects, it is necessary to explore strategic divergences between the Army, the Air Force, and the Navy regarding sequential versus cumulative strategies. In future operations, the Air Force and the Navy may be pursuing more cumulative strategies of attriting the enemy’s fielded forces, while the Army employs a more sequential one as part of a larger Joint strategy. The Army’s emphasis on longer-range weapons, however, may increasingly also require it to think about cumulative approaches.

From a Strategic- to a Tactical- to an Operational-Level Air Force

Toward the end of the Vietnam War, the US Air Force underwent a theoretical crisis that, after some twists and turns, left the service ultimately better equipped to support Joint operations. Strategic bombing, or the notion that an enemy’s fielded forces could be bypassed in directly going after a center of gravity, had captivated Airmen since World War I. The Vietnam War helped undercut this theory for multiple reasons, including that Air Force leadership did not like risking vulnerable bombers against well-defended targets in North Vietnam.

As a result, the so-called fighter generals acquired credibility and, ultimately, leadership of the Air Force at the expense of the bomber generals. But the fighter generals pushed the Air Force too far in the opposite direction, causing the force to become overly land-centric and tactical in focus; fighter generals argued the Air Force should focus exclusively on how it could directly support the Army.4 Warden’s 1986 thesis helped the Air Force return to its proper focus: employing airpower primarily at the operational level of war, which includes a broader range of missions than just close air support.

Since writing a thesis centered most intensely on operational air warfare, Warden has become far better known, ironically, for crafting a strategic air campaign. During planning for Operation Desert Storm, Warden and his team of air planners at the Pentagon brainstormed a strategic air campaign to decapitate key Iraqi leadership. Army General Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of US Central Command during the operation, largely embraced this plan.

But as often happens, the intent of the plan morphed into something different. What some Airmen had envisioned as a strategic air war actually morphed into a highly successful operational war. The US Air Force contributed its greatest strategic effectiveness—helping one’s own strategy by undercutting an enemy’s—at the operational-level of war. After it achieved enough air superiority to carry out operations without prohibitive interference from the enemy, it then devastated the enemy’s fielded forces in the Kuwaiti theater of operations.

It is important to note these actions did not result in a victory for airpower independent of other forces. Airpower, however, did function as a key force multiplier that enabled the Army to defeat the enemy’s fielded forces in 48 hours once the ground invasion began. In the case of Kuwait, the greatest support the Air Force provided to the Army occurred before ground operations rather than in close air support during ground operations.

Sequential vs. Cumulative Strategies in Operational-Level Effects

The Army has an easier time conceptualizing the operational level of war than either the Navy or the Air Force. Naval officer J.C. Wylie helpfully explains why by distinguishing between sequential and cumulative strategies. Sequential strategies often guide Army planning because operations are akin to campaigns, which depend on tactical progression across space to meet political objectives. Especially on nonlinear battlefields, one can see progress on a map.

By contrast, airpower and seapower can be better understood in reference to cumulative strategies, which cannot be depicted on a map. Rather, progress consists of “minute accumulations” of progress that rarely succeed independent of other domains.5

Wylie advises militaries can best meet their political objectives when they strike the correct balance between sequential and cumulative strategies.6 For Joint planners, Wylie offers the further consideration that any overarching strategy broken into domain-specific strategies must be an artificial one.7 As such, a strategy should not center on any particular domain with that domain driving requirements. Joint planning requires far more adept operational planning to draw on the sine qua non of US military operations—combined arms. Given that, by definition, combined arms requires each arm to be employed to best compensate for the weaknesses of the others; at the planning level, sound strategy requires truly Joint plans with no one service dominating the others.8

Strategic- vs. Operational-Level Effects

Just as the Army uses tactical actions to achieve the operational objectives of setting the conditions to defeat an enemy’s fielded forces, so, too, the ultimate goal of Air Force operational-level objectives most often focuses on defeating the enemy’s fielded forces.9 It is important to distinguish this operational-level focus from the intent of strategic attack, which seeks to bypass operational-level effects against an enemy’s fielded forces by going more directly to an enemy’s vital centers to strike nonmilitary targets, such as a nation’s ruler or state-controlled media.

Unfortunately, Joint doctrine unnecessarily muddies the waters and causes cognitive confusion by arguing strategic attack can be used against both military and nonmilitary targets.10 This point is important for planners, especially those who might have to envision how to seek both operational- and strategic-level effects in a conventional conflict against a peer. The desired effect determines whether an attack against an enemy’s electric grid, for example, is really operational or strategic. The desired effect of a strategic attack would be to change a government’s ability to control the state or to cause the population to rise up in response. By contrast, the desired operational effect might be to cut off power to an enemy’s integrated air defense system. Or, planners might envision having both operational- and strategic-level effects.

Historical examples of airpower having both operational- and strategic-level effects are particularly evident in World War II. For example, the Combined Bomber Offensive attacked transportation targets in Germany. At the strategic level, these attacks slowed down the German economy, making it more difficult to transport and produce necessary goods. Their direct connection to the war’s outcome, however, is harder to establish. What is clearer is how attacks on the transportation system greatly hindered Germany’s resupply of men and material to its front.

Military professionals, however, often fail to appreciate the operational-level effects because they measure the Combined Bomber Offensive’s success by whether or not it lived up to the bomber barons’ assertion that airpower could win wars on its own. The Combined Bomber Offensive did not win the war on its own; furthermore, the offensive arguably contributed far more to meeting national security objectives by virtue of its operational-effects than its strategic-level effects. Most importantly, the offensive achieved air superiority against Germany that enabled a jointi campaign against the Germans with the launch of Operation Overlord. The offensive also contributed to ground operations on the Eastern Front, with Germany withdrawing 80 percent of its aircraft from the Eastern Front to protect its homeland in 1944.11

Thinking about Germany’s operational center of gravity helps to further appreciate the Combined Bomber Offensive’s effects. Air Force doctrine incorrectly identifies the operational center of gravity as German industry in accordance with the pre-war thinking of Allied airmen who believed destroying carefully selected economic targets would render the German war machine incapable of fighting. In reality, the German air force was the initial operational center of gravity for the Allies, and its oil supply was its critical vulnerability. On days with good weather in 1944, bombers achieved enough precise effect against oil targets to harm the German military. These operational-level effects not only helped Allied airmen flying against Germans who were trying to get enough oil to get aircraft in the air, but they also had operational-level effects for the Allied army, which faced a German army struggling to fuel its tanks and other mechanized capabilities.

Over time, Allied airmen attained enough air supremacy, and the center of gravity shifted toward the German army. In some ways, the Allies’ initial, more air-centric focus shifted to a more  land-centric center of gravity to fulfill political objectives in 1944. John Shields helpfully stresses this change in the case of the Falklands War in his excellent work on operational air warfare. 12

The Pacific Theater, 1942–1945

Moving past the interservice bickering, one can find an even more seamlessly interwoven joint strategy in the Pacific theater. As the war progressed, officers recognized they did not need to complete a fully sequential operation in which air provided support to the land. Rather, air best supported land and sea when the pursuit of air bases drove strategy. Ultimately, in true combined arms fashion, land operations compensated for airpower’s inability to range far enough into the vast Pacific. The land domain’s ability to seize and hold territory enabled gaining new bases for the air while the air provided more security for the land in doing so through air superiority. 

US Army Air Forces General George C. Kenney successfully executed his cumulative strategy to achieve air superiority while supporting the sequential strategy of his commander, US Army General Douglas MacArthur, by carefully apportioning his aircraft, prioritizing air superiority, and engaging in maritime interdiction and other missions when appropriate.13 A cumulative strategy of attrition of Japanese forces waged by airmen and seamen complimented this leapfrogging sequential strategy. The wearing away of Japanese airpower by land- and sea-based Allied airpower began over the skies of Papua New Guinea, Guadalcanal, and Rabaul, eventually leading to the defeat of Japan’s initial operational center of gravity—its fighter aircraft—at the Battle of the Marianas.

Subsequent joint operations by land, air, and sea further moved the Allied position closer to bringing long-range bombing to bear against the Japanese homeland. This was carried out in conjunction with key naval capabilities, especially submarines, that successfully prevented most resources from being shipped to Japan. All of this, however, was not enough to break Japan’s will to continue fighting. Bases in the Marianas finally allowed land-based aircraft to target Japan’s strategic center of gravity—the emperor—which it did with the atomic bombings.

Breaking Japan’s will to continue fighting directly affected the strategic level of war by bypassing the requirement to directly defeat the Japanese army. This is not to say that airpower did this alone. The cumulative effect of air, sea, and landpower over the course of the entire Pacific campaign was required to first defeat the operational center of gravity and, subsequently, to allow airpower to work on the strategic center of gravity.

Operational-Level Effects in Future Joint Warfare

Historically, the reach and speed of airpower has meant that airpower’s battlefield has often been much larger than that of the land domain.14 In North Africa, for example, the US Army fought its way from current-day Morocco to Tunisia. Air assets also fought directly overhead, but they also simultaneously fought much further afield, striking as far away as the Italian mainland as Allies pursued air superiority and air interdiction. The operational-level effects, given incredibly successful maritime interdiction from the sea and from the air, played a critical role in enabling the US Army, alongside the British, to defeat Rommel in Tunisia. In fact, what airpower provided off the battlefield in terms of operational-level effects may have been more important than the more direct support it provided over the Army’s battlefield in terms of close air support, given the limits of airpower at that time.15

This argument has important implications for the entire Joint force, especially given that the trend for the Army’s battlefield to range further afield, in particular the top priority it has placed on developing long-range capabilities, is now progressing spatially toward the Army having long-range capabilities akin to those the Air Force has possessed for decades.16 As one scholar has recently argued regarding the HIMARS missile system, it is “not a stretch to consider each HIMARS missile battery . . . as having the air-to-ground combat power and effectiveness of several F-16 aircraft.”17

Phillips O’Brien has conceptualized a vast air-sea operational-level “battlefield” as the decisive operating space for World War II, and this concept has increasing utility for the Army. As such, the Air Force’s long-standing operational mindset is a useful corrective to some of the doctrinal problems of Army thinking. In 2018, for example, the Fires Center of Excellence stressed the requirement to “penetrate peer adversary defensive capabilities to engage key targets at strategic ranges.”18 Substitute “long-range” for “strategic” and one has a correct statement. Yet the desired effect against “adversary defensive capabilities” is actually a desired operational-level objective because the effect is on the enemy’s fielded forces rather than on bypassing fielded forces to have a strategic-level effect.

In shifting to more operational-level thinking, the Army can learn from the Air Force’s history—especially the challenges the institution faced after World War II as it struggled to adapt to waging warfare under a nuclear umbrella, which often necessitated focusing more on operational than “strategic airpower.” With the onset of limited war in the Korean War, civilian leadership correctly imposed restrictions on Air Force leaders chafing to go after what they believed, incorrectly, to be the strategic center of gravity in the Korean War—the industrial supplies of Manchuria.19 The Air Force sought to expand its battlefield horizontally and vertically while civilian leadership reined it in.

In a future conflict with China, the operational center of gravity— China’s rocket forces—arguably will be similarly off-limits. Nonkinetic means of employment may be the only way to target the critical vulnerabilities planners identify in those rocket forces.

Over the course of the Global War on Terror, the Air Force provided vast amounts of direct support on the battlefield. The extent to which it will be able to provide similar quantities in a peer fight is doubtful, a fight in which it will have to apportion carefully in conducting operational warfare. It also should be recognized that unseen airpower is not the same thing as nonsupporting airpower. Tremendous operational-level effects can accrue to the land domain from what airpower can do both on and off the battlefield. An understanding of these effects is key to appreciating what unleashing operational air warfare can accomplish in the planning process.

1 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, indexed ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1984), 258.

2 John Warden, “The Air Campaign: Planning for Combat” (master’s thesis, National Defense University, 1988), 5.

3 Warden, “Air Campaign,” 4.

4 Harold Winton, “An Ambivalent Partnership: US Army and Air Force Perspectives on Air-Ground Operations, 1973-1990,” in The Paths of Heaven: The Evolution of Airpower Theory, ed. Phillip Meilinger (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 1997), 426.

5 J.C. Wylie, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2014), 24–25.

6 Wylie, Military Strategy, 26.

7 Wylie, xxvi.

8 Jonathan M. House, Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001), 4.

9 Steven Metz and Lieutenant Colonel Frederick M. Downey, “Centers of Gravity and Strategic Planning,” Military Review (April 1998), https://www.armyupress.army.mil/.

10 US Air Force, Strategic Attack: Air Force Doctrine Publication 3-70, (Maxwell AFB, AL: Curtis LeMay Center for Doctrine Development and Education, last updated November 22, 2021), https://www.doctrine.af.mil/; and James S. Corum, “The Old Eagle as Phoenix: The Luftstreitkräfte Creates an Operational Air War Doctrine, 1919–1920,” Air Power History 39, no. 1 (Spring 1992): 14.

11 Richard R. Mueller, “The Air War in Europe, 1939-1945,” in History of Air Warfare, ed. John Andreas Olsen (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2010), 38.

12 John Shields, Air Power in the Falklands Conflict: An Operational Level Insight into Air Warfare in the South Atlantic (Philadelphia, PA: Air World, 2021), 13–14.

13 Thomas Griffith, MacArthur's Airman: General George C. Kenney and the War in the Southwest Pacific (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998).

14 Phillips Payson O’Brien, How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 5; and Warden, Air Campaign, 6.

15 Christopher Rein, The North African Air Campaign: US Army Air Forces from El Alamein to Salerno (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2012).

16 Fires Center of Excellence, “Long-Range Precision Fires,” Stand To!, January 17, 2018, https://www.army.mil/.

17 Robert A. Pape, “Bombing to Lose: Why Airpower Cannot Salvage Russia’s Doomed War in Ukraine,” Foreign Affairs, October 20, 2022, https://reader.foreignaffairs.com/.

18 Fires Center of Excellence, “Precision Fires.”

The views and opinions expressed or implied herein are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government.


The views and opinions expressed or implied herein are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government. See our Publication Ethics Statement.