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Bombing to Win: Pape’s Denial in the Nuclear Age and the Russia-Ukraine Context

  • Published
  • By Major Simon K. Mace

In his book Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War, Robert Pape argued how airpower could be used most effectively in war. Pape concluded that: “Denial can work, but strategic bombing is not the best way to achieve it. No strategic bombing campaign has ever yielded decisive results.”[1] Denial is a form of coercion that uses “military means to prevent the adversary from achieving its political objectives or territorial goals.”[2] Coercion, in turn, is defined as “efforts to change the behavior of a state by manipulating costs and benefits,” preferably before a decisive victory.[3] Given these definitions, Pape’s conclusion could be rephrased as: “Use military stuff to stop the enemy, but do not use bombers to do it.” This is an underwhelming conclusion for a 350-page book, particularly because it does not provide decision-makers structures or options for developing strategies, campaigns, or operations.

Robert Pape’s book served a clear purpose – to silence the strategic bombing zealots whose voices had promoted serious acquisition and funding missteps.  Now, as the airpower text most widely read by national security practitioners, Pape’s book is clearly a literary success.[4] To bring Bombing to Win back to reality, this article summarizes and critiques Pape’s argument. Specifically, the article analyzes Pape’s argument relative to World War II and the Korean War.  Then the author assesses Pape’s argument in the modern Russia-Ukraine-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) context.  The author concludes that while strategic bombing can be effective, denial is difficult to achieve – especially in the nuclear age or with independent airpower – so planners and decision-makers should seek more meaningful conclusions than Pape’s.

Pape’s Argument

Pape’s entire book rests on the idea of denial as an effective tool to coerce. Denial only “works” if it effectively coerces. Denial’s effectiveness is often measured relative to the timing of an adversary’s capitulation. Surrender long before a decisive victory should be viewed as a major success, and surrender shortly before a decisive victory should be considered a minor success. By this logic, a surrender only after a decisive victory should be viewed as a coercive failure.[5] Denial is a form of coercion that uses “military means to prevent the adversary from achieving its political objectives or territorial goals.”[6] In contrast to denial’s military focus, punishment is a form of coercion that imposes costs on the civilian population to a level that forces national concession. In WWII, denial was ineffective in both the European and Pacific theaters because surrender only occurred after decisive victories. In the Korean and Vietnam Wars, denial worked sometimes. However, the resounding message from history was that the cumulative effects of synchronized air, land, and sea campaigns led to decisive victories.

Pape’s bias against strategic bombers created tunnel vision which drove him to evaluate air operations in isolation from other related operations. As a result, Pape’s conclusions have little practical value. Pape’s strategic argument is that airpower has four possible strategies for achieving coercion: decapitation, punishment, risk, and denial.[7] He explains how decapitation and risk do not work, and punishment is immoral and ineffective, so only denial can succeed in conventional wars.[8] As an unintentional critique, military strategist Mark Clodfelter explains that positive goals are military goals that can be “achieved only by applying military force.” Negative goals are military goals that are “achievable only by limiting military force”[9] Pape’s conclusion – that denial can work, but strategic bombing is not the best way to achieve denial – can be interpreted as two negative goals: 1) do not use decapitation, punishment, or risk, and 2) do not use strategic bombing to achieve denial. In the same way that negative goals restrict military operations, Pape’s double-negative provides a narrow concept of what not to do and communicates very little about what militaries should do.

Analyzing Pape’s Argument

Even without negative goals, the cumulative effects of joint operations proved decisive in the European theater in WWII, but denial still did not work. The Anglo-American Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO) pursued both denial and punishment campaigns. The US Army Air Force conducted a strategic bombing denial campaign against the German military-industrial base.[10] Simultaneously, the British Royal Air Force conducted a strategic bombing punishment campaign against Germany’s 58 largest population centers.[11] Most historians agree that, when analyzed in isolation, the CBO failed to effectively degrade German production or coerce the German government to capitulate. Both people and buildings proved more resilient than punishment and industrial web theories suggested. However, by attacking both cities and industrial centers, the CBO forced the German Luftwaffe to focus on national defense and hold aircraft in reserve, away from the front.[12] Holding aircraft back to defend the homeland decreased German capacity to repel the Allied invasion of Normandy and drastically reduced air support to the Germans fighting on the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union.[13] As a result, the American, British, and Canadian ground forces gained a strategic foothold in mainland Europe, and the Russians completed their march to Berlin.[14] Strategic bombing as a form of independent airpower was not decisive. Still, while not effectively coercive, lethal airpower supported a strategic land objective, and the cumulative effects of independent air and land operations resulted in decisive military victory.

The Germans had many opportunities to surrender before the first week of May in 1945, but they did not surrender until the Red Army held the German capital of Berlin. This provides the primary argument against the effectiveness of denial in the European Theater in WWII. Denial is a form of coercion, and coercion seeks surrender before decisive victory.[15] The German military's total defeat before its surrender meant Pape’s conceptualization of denial did not work, and arguably, both denial and coercion failed in the European Theater in WWII. After analyzing a single theater of a single war, Pape’s conclusions about both denial strategy and strategic bombing are on shaky ground.

In the Pacific Theater in WWII, much like in the European Theater, strategic bombing was effective, but punishment rather than denial brought about the end of the war. Specific strategic bombing efforts included the American firebombing of Tokyo, which resulted in an estimated 100,000 civilian casualties.[16] While there are conflicting accounts of whether firebombing was a denial strategy focused on the Japanese cottage industry or a punishment strategy focused on the Japanese people, the bombing was effective enough to drive one-seventh of Tokyo’s population out of the city.[17] Another strategic bombing effort involved B-29s conducting aerial mining of Japan’s major ports and waterways. Because Japan’s people were so dependent on imports for survival, the sea mines had surprisingly devastating effects.[18] Ultimately, in the Pacific Theater, strategic bombing was effective.

The combination of firebombing and mining decimated the Japanese economy to the extent that LeMay thought the Japanese would have surrendered in two weeks even without using the atomic bombs. Despite numerous opportunities to surrender, the Japanese did not capitulate until the US dropped the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.[19] The Japanese people experienced incredible hardship and devastation. In the end, the civilian-focused punishment strategy rather than a denial strategy brought the Japanese to surrender.

In 1946, Bernard Brodie stated somewhat prophetically, “Thus far, the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on, its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.”[20] In the 30 years following WWII, the fear of another world war coupled with the unprecedented destructive power of nuclear weapons ushered in wars with new limits – negative goals. These negative goals had significant implications for denial strategy, coercion, and the effectiveness of airpower. As explained by ethicist Lawrence Freedman, “The UN forces had prohibited using nuclear weapons and respected Chinese and Soviet territories as sanctuaries – which proved a problematic set of conditions for achieving victory.”[21]

In the Korean War, air-based denial efforts could not bring the Chinese and North Koreans to the peace table. The US strategic bombing efforts in North Korea failed at first because the US insisted on applying the industrial web theory to a non-industrialized nation.[22] The US bombed major North Korean cities and carefully selected strategic targets, including rail yards, chemical plants, and oil refineries. Still, the North Koreans persisted in combat, supported by Chinese ground forces and Chinese airmen flying Russian-provided MiG-15s. Strategic bombing could not have done more than it did in North Korea. Even when no significant structures remained standing in North Korea, airpower was still perceived as inadequate because it had not ended the war.[23] Despite the physical devastation, the Chinese and the North Koreans only came to the peace table after a two-year United Nations-backed punishment campaign.[24]  

The analysis of WWII and the Korean War already demonstrated the issues with the quality and consistency of Pape’s conclusions about the effectiveness of strategic bombing. Pape was right that strategic bombing was not the best way to achieve denial, and Pape was wrong about the general ineffectiveness of strategic bombing. However, Pape’s observations about strategic bombing are superfluous to the more critical arguments about whether denial is effective and whether military-based coercion is a realistic option against nuclear powers.

At the beginning of the Korean War, the international perception of the destructive capability of nuclear weapons instigated the introduction of negative goals. As the nuclear age progressed, mutually assured destruction and adversaries’ ability to retaliate with nuclear weapons perpetuated the normalization of negative goals. Reality, including Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, indicates the nuclear age fundamentally changed how the US engages (or rather does not engage) adversaries, especially nuclear powers like Russia.

Pape’s Argument in the Russia-Ukraine-NATO Context

In the geopolitical context of 2022, Russia has actively defied US and NATO deterrence efforts.[25] In 2015, after Russia annexed Crimea, war scholar Hugo Spaulding predicted that Russian President Vladimir Putin would likely seek to overthrow the Ukrainian government or blur the geographic boundaries between Russia and Ukraine to buffer the perceived threat posed by NATO.[26] As if in fulfillment of Spaulding’s prophecy, on 24 February 2022, Russia again invaded Ukraine. In a globally broadcasted speech announcing the Russian “special military operation,” President Putin’s stated goals were to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine.[27] It is difficult to tell whether Putin’s stated goals are transparent or whether other agendas are at play, so Putin’s perceived goals vary amongst scholars and theorists. What does not vary is that the absolute destruction the Russians imposed on Ukrainian cities and people appears most synonymous with a punishment strategy.

Putin attacking Ukraine just as the Ukrainian government sought NATO membership is simultaneously a deterrence success and deterrence failure. As articulated by Benjamin Jensen, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Russia’s invasion is a NATO success because the NATO alliance deterred Putin from direct aggression toward NATO member states. For the time being, the conflict is limited to Ukraine, a non-NATO state. However, the invasion is also a failure because the NATO alliance did not deter Putin from attempting territorial conquest in Europe.[28] Since deterrence failed, the US and its NATO allies now face a strategic problem – how to coerce Putin to stop territorial conquests in Europe.

US and NATO responses to Russia’s attack on Ukraine provide evidence to further dismantle Pape’s argument for the separation of conventional and nuclear deterrence and coercion. To date, US and NATO nations’ support for Ukraine consisted of sanctions on Russia and weapon shipments to Ukraine.[29] Despite Ukrainian President Zelensky’s repeated requests for a NATO-enforced no-fly-zone over Ukraine, no NATO nation, including the US, has attacked Russian military assets.[30] US and NATO hesitation is rooted in the perceived risk of escalation.[31] The prevailing concern is that Russia and three NATO member-states – the US, the UK, and France – are nuclear states, and that any intervention risks escalation that might result in nuclear retaliation.[32] Benjamin Jensen explains that “When nuclear states compete, the rungs of the escalation ladder quickly bring states to a point of no return beyond which nuclear weapons lose their deterrent value and become a means of inflicting pain to force capitulation.”[33] NATO’s nuclear concerns gain some substance because Putin has already demonstrated a willingness to inflict significant pain to force Ukraine’s capitulation. Ultimately, the perceived Russian nuclear threat has had a tangible effect on NATO and US decisions to employ even conventional forces.

If the US and its NATO allies cannot engage in conventional kinetic combat to coerce Russia, Pape's academically-focused attempts to divorce politics and nuclear weapons from conventional coercion theory failed.[34] Using conventional denial strategies to coerce nuclear powers was unrealistic or dishonest. Nuclear and conventional coercion and deterrence are undeniably linked, and adversaries’ nuclear capabilities can negate the military instrument of power (including conventional airpower). While Pape may be right that strategic bombing is not the best way to achieve denial, analysis of his argument as well as changes in the character of war before and after the nuclear age indicate Pape’s conclusions about denial and strategic bombing have little practical value.[35]

Nuclear weapons changed the character of war between nuclear powers. Now, rather than risk nuclear retaliation or mutual destruction, nuclear powers (and alliances like NATO with nuclear-armed states) avoid direct force-on-force combat, especially within the national boundaries of nuclear powers, thus blunting the usefulness of denial strategies in major conflicts. When coercing a nuclear-capable adversary, the cumulative effects of all the instruments of power – particularly the economic and information instruments – result in better outcomes than the independent use of the military instrument. This also applies to independent airpower and denial-focused coercion efforts.


Pape’s work was an essential nail in the coffin of the US Air Force bomber myths; however, the usefulness of Pape’s argument ends there.[36] WWII provided one example of denial failing to coerce an enemy and one example of punishment succeeding in coercing the enemy; the Korean War provided an instance of strategic bombing being deemed ineffective even when no buildings remained intact in an entire country. Of these outcomes, only the Korean War supports Pape’s argument about the ineffectiveness of strategic bombing. While strategic bombing can be effective, denial is difficult to achieve, especially in the nuclear age or when employing independent airpower. Although denial is inconsistently effective at achieving coercion, denial is the right thing to do, especially when contrasted with punishment and risk strategies. As Carl von Clausewitz postulated, using military forces to stop political objectives is the most fundamental purpose of war.[37]

Planners and decision-makers need more practical tools than Pape’s conclusions about denial and strategic bombing and Pape’s pair of negative goals. Bombing to Win demonstrated denial about the relationship between nuclear and conventional coercion and deterrence. Still, US leaders and theorists can reframe coercion, deterrence, and competition to acknowledge the relationship between nuclear and conventional war.[38] Hopefully, such a reframing effort is driving the more comprehensive application of US instruments of power and the whole-of-government approaches the US is taking to address threat actors like Russia in the post-nuclear era.[39]

Major Simon Mace
Maj Simon “Boomer” Mace is a career Air Force intelligence officer (14N). He recently completed Air Command and Staff College (ACSC) and is now a student at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS). When he isn’t leading the US Air Force’s greatest Airmen, Simon enjoys hiking, playing guitar, and spending time with his wife and sons.



[1.]. Robert A. Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996) 316.

[2.]. Ibid., 13.

[3.]. Ibid., 4.

[4.]. Heather Venable and Sebastian Lukasik, “‘Bombing to Win’ at 25,” War on the Rocks (15 June 2021). Accessed 19 March 2022,

[5.]. Ibid., 15.

[6.]. Ibid., 13.

[7.]. Pape, Bombing to Win, 18-19.

[8.]. Pape, Bombing to Win, 20-35.

[9.]. Mark Clodfelter, “The Limits of Airpower or the Limits of Strategy: The Air Wars in Vietnam and Their Legacies,” Joint Forces Quarterly 78 (3rd Quarter, July 2015) 116.

[10.]. Phillips Payson O’Brien, How the War Was Won (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2015) 275.

[11.]. Ibid., 273.

[12.]. Ibid., 287-9.

[13.]. Ibid., 309, 367-369.

[14.]. Ibid., 359-363.

[15.]. O’Brien, How the War Was Won, 4, 13.

[16.]. Conrad Crane, American Airpower Strategy in World War II: Bombs, Cities, Civilians, and Oil (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2016) 175-176.

[17.]. Ibid., 177; Ralph Nutter, With the Possum and the Eagle (Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 2002) 236-237.

[18.]. Nutter, With the Possum and the Eagle, 249-252.

[19.]. Ibid., 283-4.

[20.]. Bernard Brodie “Implications for Military Policy,” The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and the World Order (New Haven, CT: Yale Institute of International Studies, 15 February 1946), 62.

[21.]. Lawrence Freedman, “The First Two Generations of Nuclear Strategists,” Makers of Modern Strategy, ed. Paret, (Princeton, NJ: Prince.ton University Press, 1986), 739.

[22.]. Crane, American Airpower Strategy in World War II, 116-117.

[23.]. Ibid., 75.

[24.]. Ibid., 172.

[25.]. Benjamin Jensen, "The Two Sides of Deterrence in Ukraine,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (30 March 2022). Accessed 19 March 2022,

[26.]. Hugo Spalding, “Putin’s Next Objectives in the Ukraine Crisis,” Institute for the Study of War (3 February 2015). Accessed 19 March 2022,

[27.]. Frank Ledwidge, “Ukraine War: What Are Russia’s Strategic Aims and How Effectively Are They Achieving Them?” The Conversation (2 March 2022). Accessed 19 March 2022,

[28.]. Ibid.

[29.]. The White House, “Fact Sheet on U.S. Security Assistance for Ukraine,” (16 March 2022). Accessed 19 March 2022,

[30.]. Simon Lewis and Ingrid Melander, “NATO rejects Ukraine no-fly zone, unhappy Zelenskiy says this means more bombing,” Reuters (4 March 2022). Accessed 19 March 2022,; Christopher Michael Faulkner and Andrew Stigler, “Ukraine Wants a No-Fly Zone. What Does this Mean, and Would One Make Any Sense in This War?” The Conversation (2 March 2022). Accessed 19 March 2022,; Catie Edmonson. “Meeting with Congress, Zelensky Asked for More Jets and a No-Fly Zone,” The New York Times (5 March 2022). Accessed 19 March 2022,

[31.]. Faulkner and Stigler, “Ukraine Wants a No-Fly Zone.”

[32.]. North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), “NATO’s Nuclear Deterrence Policy and Forces” (23 February 2022). Accessed 19 March 2022,

[33.]. Jensen, "The Two Sides of Deterrence in Ukraine.”

[34]. Pape, Bombing to Win, 9.

[35.]. Clodfelter, “The Limits of Airpower or the Limits of Strategy,” 116.

[36.]. Venable and Lukasik, “‘Bombing to Win’ at 25.”

[37.]. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 87.

[38.]. Jensen, "The Two Sides of Deterrence in Ukraine.”

[39.]. President of the United States, Interim National Security Strategic Guidance (Washington D.C.: White House, March 2021) 8.

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