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William Mitchell: An Amazing, Yet Flawed Air Theorist

  • Published
  • By LCDR Todd Moulton

Lieutenant Colonel William Mitchell was a visionary air theorist in the early twentieth century whose ideas established the foundational aspects of American military airpower, especially during wartime. Many of his postulations guided the conduct of air campaigns during the conventional wars of last century. Derivative air warfare theories and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) stemming from Lt Col Mitchell’s hypotheses affect the most rudimentary ways the American military manages its day-to-day air operations. However, some of his estimates on the utilization of airpower were incorrect and did not consider the evolution of technology and the refinement of aerial and counter-air TTPs. Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell’s accurate and mistaken airpower concepts bore themselves out during the various American wars of the twentieth and twenty-first century through the US military services’ employment of TTPs predicated on these notions. The refinement of Mitchell’s correct hypotheses and rejection of his inaccurate predictions shaped the employment of American airpower over the last 100 years and will continue to influence the use of American aerial forces positively and negatively into the near future. Without continuing to analyze the merits and pitfalls of Lt Col Mitchell’s suppositions, military theorists, planners, and practitioners risk taking Mitchell’s theories and the resulting TTPs as cannon and missing opportunities to enhance TTPs or conversely making faulty assumptions and employing dangerous actions.

Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell’s theory on the decisiveness of airpower was simultaneously right and wrong. This theory’s dichotomy lends itself to perpetual and more thorough examination to ensure military personnel expound upon Lt Col Mitchell’s accurate airpower assessments and critique his faulty predictions. Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell was correct in stating that the decimation of an enemy’s air force would enable its adversary to fly uncontested over the enemy’s territory and strike freely at its centers of production and infrastructure.1 Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell’s notion fell in line with other contemporary air theorists including British Major General Hugh Trenchard, General Officer Commanding the Royal Flying Corps in the field, who posited to Mitchell in June 1917 on the need to aggressively incapacitate an enemy’s air force.2 Mitchell’s dictum proved correct during World War II when General “Hap” Arnold declared that the German Luftwaffe’s destruction was of the utmost importance to decrease the catastrophic loss of American and British bombers and increase the Allies’ capacity to destroy Germany’s war-making potential.3 Commanders in the Pacific theater came to the same conclusion and agreed that the United States needed to focus on obliterating the Japanese air force. Their rationale was that an impotent Japanese air threat would enable successful American bombing endeavors to debilitate Japan’s ability to produce war material and end the war.4 However, Mitchell’s subsequent assumption that air superiority would be the pivotal factor in a conflict and quickly compel the enemy to capitulate proved mostly inaccurate across America’s wars during the past 80 years.

Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell and Major Edgar Gorrell’s miscalculated belief in the overwhelming nature of airpower rested on an air service’s capabilities to attack and destroy its enemy’s commercial centers and other wartime industries.5 Mitchell and Gorrell overestimated the effect that bombing an enemy’s war-making capacity would have on the length and outcome of a war. They did not anticipate the possibility of a country’s ability to endure continuous bombing, maintain its military-industrial complex, and continue production. Additionally, they did not account for the evolution of warfare away from conventional force-on-force conflicts to limited wars with countries that possessed little to no industrial base. The aforementioned reasons further undercut Mitchell’s argument on airpower’s decisiveness during wartime. During World War II, German production tripled from 1941–44 amid a concerted Allied bombing campaign against Berlin’s industrial capacity.6 Additionally, the daily air attacks did little to weaken German citizens’ morale and foment a revolution against the Nazi regime.7 In Japan, the decimation of the country’s cities and businesses did little to convince its military rulers to sue for peace. General Curtis LeMay went so far as to state that the XXI Bomber Command had not “really accomplished a hell of a lot of bombing results.”8 By the summer of 1945, American bombing activities either completely or partially destroyed 68 Japanese cities and left almost three million people killed or wounded.9 Regardless of the devastation wrought by American bombers, Japan prepared for an American land invasion in hopes of negotiating more favorable terms of surrender.10 The Soviet Union’s declaration of war on Japan was likely the deciding factor that drove the Japanese leadership to the negotiation table, rather than US bombing efforts.11  

Mitchell and Goerrell’s postulations on the need to attack commercial centers were even less applicable as the “total war” paradigm shifted to the US prosecution of limited and counter-insurgency campaigns. The miscalculation demonstrated even further Mitchell’s lack of foresight of ways a potential adversary could adapt and overcome seemingly overwhelming air power. In many of the countries where the US engaged an enemy force, there was a minuscule industrial and commercial base to attack, thus further restraining airpower effects. President Lyndon Johnson followed Mitchell’s abovementioned rationale and bombed North Vietnam’s industrial capacity, believing this would lead to the country’s leaders capitulating and curtailing attacks on American soldiers. This reasoning proved incorrect as US airstrikes decimated North Vietnam’s industrial production base, yet its irregular forces carried out increasingly successful attacks against the American Army.12 Mitchell and Goerrell’s theories were further invalided during Operation Enduring Freedom when military planners concluded that the enemy center of gravity was the Taliban itself and prioritized its strikes accordingly.13 US senior leaders expressively avoided striking civilian commercial centers and infrastructure such as bridges, electrical power, and water supplies to avoid inflaming Afghan public resentment against the American-led coalition.14 This decision directly contradicted what Mitchell and Goerrell advanced nearly 80 years before. 

Even though the United States attained early air superiority in its ensuing conflicts from Korea to Operation Iraqi Freedom, airpower was not nearly as vital as Mitchell prophesied. His theory that air forces could truncate the length of a war did not come true in the preponderance of US military actions except for Operation Desert Storm.15 Mitchell’s calculations were inaccurate because he did not take into account the potential of militaries to weather air attacks and advanced integrated air defense systems (IADS), nor did he foresee the germination of guerilla and irregular warfare tactics. The United States gained air superiority in Korea within the first year of the conflict, but this advantage did not cause a swift end to the war. Historians argue over the effects that three years of continuous Allied air pressure had on the North Korean’s decision to agree to an armistice. The North Koreans likely chose to end the conflict due to waning Soviet support rather than the US aerial bombardment.16

While the US gained air superiority during the Vietnam War in the south, the war offers another example of the limits on Mitchell’s airpower assertions. Over an eight-year period, American fighter jets and bombers dropped over nine million pounds of bombs onto its enemies in Southeast Asia, and yet within two years of the last warhead falling, South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos fell to Communist forces.17 Furthermore, the North Vietnamese adapted its warfighting tactics by employing infrequent guerilla style attacks against US ground forces to offset the US conventional aerial advantage, resulting in the Vietnamese capability to kill 25,000 US soldiers in a two-year period, thus turning the American public opinion against the war.18

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) ineffectual airstrikes during the initial months of Operation Allied Force demonstrated how multi-layered IADS could limit airpower’s decisiveness. Yugoslavia boasted a robust and redundant IADS, which contributed to NATO’s decision to prohibit its aircraft to fly below 10,000 feet.19 Although NATO directed 35 percent of its air sorties against IADS components, Operation Allied Force lasted for 78 days in comparison to initial estimates that the operation would last a few weeks.20  

Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell was far ahead of his time when he articulated his vision for the employment of airpower during conflicts. He made the United States and its military aware of how vital aircraft could be in determining the outcome of wars, thus laying the foundation for the formation of the United States Air Force. However, Mitchell’s ability to forecast the evolution of airpower was stunted and focused on the aerial tactics, techniques, and procedures utilized during World War I. He did not anticipate how advancements in technology would mitigate or counterbalance airpower’s effectiveness and decisiveness. Mitchell also overestimated the effect attacking an adversary’s commercial centers and infrastructure would have on the enemy. In most American military engagements, strikes on an enemy’s war-making capacity did little to shorten hostilities. Mitchell also could not predict changes in warfare tactics from the conventional battles he participated in to guerilla and irregular campaigns that limited the efficacy of aircraft. Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell was instrumental in conceiving the modern-day understanding of airpower, but his concepts and theories lasted only as long as the technology of his day.       

LCDR Todd Moulton
LCDR Todd Moulton is an Intelligence planner at US Second Fleet. LCDR Moulton is also a Warfare Tactics Instructor in information warfare who has published in the US Navy’s Proceedings magazine and the US Air Force OTH online journal.


1 William Mitchell, Winged Defense: The Development and Possibilities of Modern Air Power, Economic and Military (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2006), 16.
2 Leonard Baker and B. F. Cooling, “Developments and Lessons before World War II,” in Case Studies in the Achievement of Air Superiority, ed. Benjamin Franklin Cooling (Washington D.C.: Library of Congres, 1994), 20-21.
3 Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995), 123.
4 Robert F. Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine: Basic Thinking in the United States Air Force 1907-1960, Vol. 1 and 2 (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1989), 162-163.
5 Mitchell, Winged Defense, 126; and Maurer Maurer, ed. The U.S. Air Service in World War I: vol. 2 - Early Concepts of Military Aviation (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1978), 142.
6 Overy, Why the Allies Won, 128-129.
7 Overy, Why the Allies Won, 128.
8 Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine, 163.
9 Ward Wilson, “The Bomb Didn't Beat Japan… Stalin Did,” Foreign Policy, 29 May 2012, 7.
10 Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine, 167; and Wilson, “The Bomb Didn’t Beat Japan,” 11.
11 Wilson, “The Bomb Didn’t Beat Japan,” 17.
12 Clodfelter, “The Limits of Airpower or the Limits of Strategy,” 113.
13 Benjamin S. Lambeth, Air Power Against Terror, America’s Conduct of Operation Enduring Freedom (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2005), 56.
14 Lambeth, Air Power Against Terror, 56.  
15 Mitchell, Winged Defense, 16.
16 Conrad C. Crane, “The Air Campaign Over Korea: Pressuring the Enemy,” Joint Force Quarterly 28 (Spring-Summer 2001):84.
17 Mark Clodfelter, “The Limits of Airpower or the Limits of Strategy: The Air Wars in Vietnam and Their Legacies,” Joint Force Quarterly 78 (3rd Quarter 2015): 112.
18 Clodfelter, “The Limits of Airpower or the Limits of Strategy,” 113-114.
19 Benjamin S. Lambeth, NATO’s Air War for Kosovo, A Strategic and Operational Assessment (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2001), 17-21.
20 Crane, NATO’s Air War for Kosovo, 64-65.

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