Rise of the War Machines: The Birth of Precision Bombing in World War II

  • Published

Rise of the War Machines: The Birth of Precision Bombing in World War II by Raymond O’Mara. Naval Institute Press, 2022, 336 pp. 

Raymond O’Mara’s Rise of the War Machines: The Birth of Precision Bombing in World War II covers the development of air warfare doctrine and the human-machine evolution for conducting aerial bombing until the end of World War II.

O’Mara retired from the US Air Force in 2016 as a colonel, having flown the F-15 in operations and operational test assignments. After his retirement, he worked in commercial aerospace and advanced technology startup companies and is an independent defense and technology consultant. He earned his doctorate in technology, policy, and engineering systems from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The author focuses on the development of aerial bombing and the systems required to execute the mission. The systems are analyzed to begin with the relationship between the pilot and aircraft and work upward to doctrinal employment. O’Mara covers in-depth the inner workings of crew relationships and how each member contributed to the systems of bomber employment. Each compartment is covered in depth and expands upon the specific relationship of their role and the equipment necessary to achieve bombs on target.

The book opens with the coverage of early bombing and explores the integration of machine-driven automation into flying. The early attempts at producing machine integration were difficult due to technological limitations. Because of the pilot aircraft system limitation, the role of bombing expanded into dedicated crew positions that became experts in aerial bombing. These crewmembers became known as bombardiers. The early methods of bombing required a system of the bombardier directing the pilot to actuate the aircraft to achieve the desired results. This laid the foundational relationship between doctrinal bombing and crew interdependency.

During World War II, the relationship between the bomber and aircrew changed from the start to the end of the war. In the early portions of the war, the bombardier had independent control of the aircraft with the Norden bomb site. This allowed the bombardier to control the aircraft during the most critical phase of the mission, the bombing run. The pilot and other crewmembers existed to get the bombardier to the mission objective. This system inside the aircraft of having everyone work toward the bombardiers’ goals provided a unique dynamic not seen in other aircraft.

The opening of World War II bombing began with each aircrew having the bombardier as a specialist but was changed due to a doctrinal shift. Wings would now fly in combat formations and required only one lead crew to get the entire formation to the target. This changed the dynamic for the whole US Army Air Force. The new system required only one group of individuals to be experts in their machinery while the other bombers followed along. The new system created an environment where the specialists were selected to lead a mass group of people instead of each crew acting individually during the bomb run.

This doctoral shift was created out of a limitation of accuracy due to technological limitations. The combat box and lead crews allowed massed airpower to deliver weapons on strategic targets and to work together to increase the entire systems’ effectiveness. By the war’s end, the system’s entirety rested on a few individuals working in sync with their machine. Most of the aircrew were “toggle pushers,” meaning they simply performed a switch when ordered.

The profound and intriguing parts of the book are the manner systems evolved. As a need arose, the system itself changed to fulfill the needs of the operator and war fighter. The system evolved from using a human-human operator to a human-machine operator relationship. This relationship required a specialist and a crew of specialized operators. Finally, doctrine shaped the system on a macro level where a single specialized crew fulfilled the role of an individual specialist. This well-done historical evaluation provided insight into the development of aerial bombing.

The author demonstrated the evolution of the relationship between the aircrew members and their machines. The argument fell short with the analysis of the pilot’s employment capabilities, highlighting the remotely piloted aircraft, the F-111, and F-117. None of these aircraft are categorized as bombers or are required to fulfill a strategic role akin to World War II bombers. Their mission sets fall within the tactical realm and are not designed to affect the operational level of warfare.

The B-52 is a relevant comparison of the system’s evolution and employment practices. The long-range, all-weather bomber has been the backbone of US strategic operations since the early 1960s. The B-52 crew complement has remained consistent since its inception with a pilot, copilot, radar navigator (bombardier), navigator, and electronic warfare officer. Only the gunner has been removed from the original crew compliment.

The author postulates that the autopilot from an F-117 can replace the bombardier’s job. This is incorrect because the other airframes must strike few tactical targets for an operation and fly a limited range for only a few hours. The bombardier must be capable of striking large operational-level targets across great ranges. Typical bomber sorties require 20-plus hours of mission employment, and the F-117 is capable of only a few hours due to fuel and system limitations. The comparison is not fully developed. Also, the increased automation the auto suggests does not account for the dynamic and degraded environment operations must employ in today’s warfare and the future.

This book is worth reading for readers who would appreciate a thorough historical breakdown of early bombing practices through World War II. The bombing practices and problems go beyond dropping a weapon off an aircraft. O’Mara does a great job exploring the intricate workings of the systems required to accomplish the bombing mission. This exploration includes the aircraft, bomb sight, crew members, and doctrinal practices. The social dynamics of the crewed bomber have not changed much since World War II, and this work highlights the uniqueness of bomber airframes.  

Captain Thomas J. Urbanek, USAF

"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."