Giulio Douhet and „air supremacy"

Eberhard Birk


In 1921 Giulio Douhet expressed his new vision of the war of future in his work “Air Supremacy” (ital.: “Il dominio dell’aria”) - the war for space based on a service of its own, the air force. This system of thought, which was based on Douhet’s strategic philosophy, was revolutionary, but it was not unique. Vast parts of his considerations had been set down anticipatingly in Smut’s memorandum on 17th August 1917 during the First World War. In front of this background, reproaching Douhet posthumously time and again for miscalculations and the inferiority assigned to the traditional services, appears dishonest at least. With the „argument of History“ and his false “prophecies” in the Second World War he was “torn to shreds” by (military) historians, war and strategy scientists as well. As a matter of fact Douhet and all military minds and pragmatists before and after him, were children of their era: On the one hand, they were determined by a political-social, social-cultural, strategic and technological general set-up which limited their horizons of experience, on the other hand they were anxious to “overcome” them for the future in their respective present time. If one, however, has a “strategic” goal, like Douhet, he will have to degrade the previous “main theatres of war”, the dominance of army and navy, to “secondary theatres of war”, in order to be able to place the relevance of the new ideas medially comprehensibly and effectively. In front of the experienced background of the preceding First World War Douhet wanted to pay for his hope for a rapid military victory in the war of future with a nation’s permanent mobilization of its military potential, a nation which was to be „toujours en vedette“ with a strong air force in times of peace. By breaking away from Italy’s genuinely military strategic perspective the theory-immanent one-sidedness of his doctrine explains itself - thus only it could become “Douhetism”. Its adaptation for other powers with different security and military political general set-ups, however, could only be realized with lowered sights. Thus, the USA, for instance, had to make two transoceanic wars during the Second World War. For this reason, they depended on a strong maritime component which made making war possible in the first place. Even if his prophecies had proved to be false in the Second World War, they were en vogue in the course of the plannings of aerial warfare in the beginning of the nuclear age. How a new approach is developed was, is and will be decisive. The targets of his strategic bombardments were those which were of vital interest for the war-making nations. Objectives, means and methods, however, are subject to change - but they could have been summarized with the term „centre of gravity“ at that time already. Prevention of the multiple dimensions of realizing the adversary’s potential still is the - „negative“ - objective of “air power”. Douhet could not imagine that the political and terrorist actors of the Near and Middle East of today consciously take casualties in the own population by enemy air attacks into consideration, although he had the basic question already at hand: “The study of the political influence of this new weapon alone would be interesting.”