The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Strategic bombing

Strategic bombing is a military strategem used in a total war style campaign that attempts to destroy the economic ability of a nation-state to wage war. It is a systematically organized and executed attack from the air. It is different from the tactical event of strategic bombing, which involves strategic bomber aircraft, cruise missiles, or fighter-bomber aircraft attacking targets determined during the organization of the strategic bombing campaign.

The distinction between tactical and strategic bombing can be easily blurred. Strategic bombing missions usually attack targets such as factories, railroads, oil refineries and cities, while tactical bombing missions attack targets such as troop concentrations, command and control facilities, airfields, and ammunition dumps. The act of traveling to the target and dropping bombs, even if part of a strategic bombing campaign, is a tactical event. Strategic bombers tend to be large, long-range aircraft; tactical bombers are mostly relatively small. However, the distinction does not lie in the aircraft type used or the assigned target, it lies in the purpose of the attack. Tactical bombing aims to defeat individual enemy military forces. Strategic bombing aims to undermine a nation-state's ability to wage war, historically as a part of a total war strategy.


Methods used to deliver ordnance

There are three basic methods used to deliver ordnance onto targets in a strategic bombing campaign. The first is carpet bombing using strategic bombers. The second is the use of more precise ordnance, precision-guided munitions such as so called smart bombs, delivered from cruise missiles or aircraft. The third method involves the use of large nuclear weapons, used in a method similar to carpet bombing. Although the use of nuclear weapons falls into the category of strategic bombing, perhaps as the ultimate form thereof, the term is usually used in reference to conventional bombing from aircraft or cruise missiles.

Carpet bombing by multiple modern strategic bombers like the B-52 can be likened to an hour during the Somme bottled into a thirty second time period. Even with smaller bombers in World War II, this form of attack is terrible to behold. In general, this delivery method has not proved very effective, due to the imprecise nature of the attack, and the attention garnered to the almost inevitable civilian casualities.

The use of smart weapons is generally preferred for two reasons. First, it is more humane. Due to the greater accuracy (the smaller CEP) of precision weapons, there is less risk of civilian casualities. The second reason is the increased damage associated with the precision weapons. Carpet bombing can destroy an entire block, but miss the vital components of a factory. Precision weapons can attack the precise components of designated targets, increasing the likelihood of a successful attack.

History and origins

World War One

Strategic bombing was first used in World War I, though it was not understood in its present form. From quite early in World War I, aircraft were used to drop improvised explosive packages on the enemy. Within a year or so, specialized aircraft and dedicated bomber squadrons were in service on both sides. This was tactical bombing: it had the aim of directly harming enemy troops, strongpoints, or equipment, usually within a relatively small distance of the front line. Eventually, during World War I, attention turned to the possibility of causing indirect harm to the enemy by systematically attacking vital rear-area resources.

The first ever aerial bombardment of civilians was on January 19, 1915, in which two German Zeppelins dropped 24 fifty-kilogram high-explosive bombs and ineffective three-kilogram incendiaries on Great Yarmouth, Sheringham, Kings Lynn, and the surrounding villages. In all, four people were killed, sixteen injured, and monetary damage was estimated at 7,740, although the public and media reaction were out of proportion to the death toll.

There were a further nineteen raids in 1915, in which 37 tons of bombs were dropped, killing 181 people and injuring 455. Raids continued in 1916. London was accidentally bombed in May, and, in July, the Kaiser allowed directed raids against urban centres. There were 23 airship raids in 1916 in which 125 tons of ordnance were dropped, killing 293 people and injuring 691. Gradually British air defences improved. In 1917 and 1918 there were only eleven Zeppelin raids against England, and the final raid occurred on August 5, 1918, which resulted in the death of KK Peter Strasser, commander of the German Naval Airship Department. By the end of the war, 51 raids had been undertaken, in which 5,806 bombs were dropped, killing 557 people and injuring 1,358. The Zeplin raids were complemented by the Gothaer bomber, which was the fist heavier than air bomber to be used for strategic bombing. It has been argued that the raids were effective far beyond material damage in diverting and hampering wartime production, and diverting twelve squadrons and over 10,000 men to air defences.

Following the war, the concept of stategic bombing developed. The calculations which were preformed on the number of dead to the weight of bombs dropped would have a profound effect on the attitudes of the British authorities and population in the interwar years, because as bombers became larger it was fully expected that deaths from aerial bombardment would approach those anticipated in the Cold War from the use of nuclear weapons. The fear of aerial attack on such a scale was one of the fundamental driving forces of British appeasement in the 1930s.

Period Between World Wars

In the period between the two world wars, military thinkers from several nations advocated strategic bombing as the logical and obvious way to employ aircraft. Domestic political considerations saw to it that the British worked harder on the concept than most. The British Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service of the Great War had been merged in 1917 to create a separate air force, which spent much of the following two decades fighting for survival in an environment of severe government spending constraints. Royal Air Force leaders, in particular Air Chief Marshal Hugh Trenchard, believed that the key to retaining their independence from the senior services was to lay stress on what they saw as the unique ability of a modern air force to win wars by unaided strategic bombing. As the speed and altitude of bombers increased in proportion to fighter aircraft, the prevailing strategic understanding became "the bomber will always get through". Although anti-aircraft guns and fighter aircraft had proved effective in the Great War, it was accepted that there was little warring nations could do to prevent massive civilian casualties from strategic bombing. High civilian morale and retaliation in kind were seen as the only answers.

In Europe, the air power prophet General Giulio Douhet asserted that the basic principle of strategic bombing was the offensive and that there was no defense against carpet bombing and poison gas attacks. Douhet's apocalyptic predictions found fertile soil in France, Germany and the United States, where excerpts from his book The Command of the Air (1921) were published. These visions of cities laid waste by bombing also gripped the popular imagination and found expression in novels such as Douhet's The War of 19-- (1930) and H.G. Wells's The Shape of Things to Come (1929) (filmed by Alex Korda as Things to Come (1936)).

Pre-war planners, on the whole, vastly over-estimated the damage that a handful of bombers could do, and underestimated the resilience of civilian populations. The speed and altitude of modern bombers, and the difficulty of hitting a target while under attack from improved ground fire and fighters was not understood. Jingoistic national pride played a major role: for example, at a time when Germany was still disarmed and France was England's only European rival, RAF chief Trenchard boasted that "the French in a bombing duel would probably squeal before we did." Partly because a repeat of the bloody stalemate of trench warfare was rendered impossible with the advent of modern armor, the expectation was that any new war would be brief and very savage. A British Cabinet planning document in 1938 predicted that, if war with Germany broke out, 35% of British homes would be hit by bombs in the first three weeks. (This type of expectation should be kept in mind when considering the conduct of the European leaders who appeased Hitler in the late 1930s)

World War II

Strategic bombing during World War II was unlike anything the world has seen before or since. The campaigns conducted in Europe, and at the end of the war over Japan, could involve thousands of aircraft dropping tens of thousands of tonnes of munitions over a single city.

The campaigns were conducted in Europe, China and Japan. The Germans and Japanese made use of small twin-engine bombers with a payload of approximately one tonne. The British and Americans used larger four-engine bombers for their strategic campaigns. The payload carried by these planes ranged from 2.7 tonnes for the B-17 Flying Fortress through to 9 tonnes for the B-29 Superfortress and the 'Special B' Avro Lancaster carrying a Grand Slam bomb of 22,000 lb (9,979 kg).

During the first year of the war in Europe, strategic bombing was developed through trial and error. The German Luftwaffe bombed England initially in the daylight, but moved towards night bombing as losses become unsustainable. The British Royal Air Force also bombed Germany at night. The United States Army Air Force adopted a policy of daylight bombing for greater accuracy, such as in the Schweinfurt raids, but American losses were much higher.

Strategic bombing in Europe never reached the decisive conclusion that the American bombing campaign in Japan would enjoy. The destruction of German infrastructure was noticeable, but the Allied campaign against the Germans only became successful when the Allies began targeting oil refineries towards the end of the war.

In the Pacific theatre, organized strategic bombing of China on a large scale by the Japanese did not often take place. The Japanese army in most places advanced quickly enough that a long and laborious strategic bombing campaign was unnecessary. In those places where it was required, the smaller Japanese bombers (in comparison to the ones the British and Americans were using) did not carry a bomb load sufficient to inflict the sort of damage that was occurring by that point in the war on a daily basis in Europe, or would take place in Japan.

The development of the B-29 by the Americans gave the United States a bomber with sufficient endurance to reach the Japanese main islands. The capture of the Japanese island of Okinawa further aided the Americans in their strategic bombing campaign. Conventional bombs and firebombs were used against Japan. Ultimately atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Cold War

Nuclear weapons defined the tactics of strategic bombing during the Cold War. The age of the massive strategic bombing campaign had come to an end. It was replaced with more precise attacks using improved sighting and weapon arming technology. Strategic bombing by the great powers also became politically unfeasible. The political fallout resulting from the destruction broadcast on the evening news ended more than one strategic bombing campaign.

In the Vietnam war, strategic bombing in Operation Rolling Thunder was supposed to be non-stop, but the lack of political will by the Johnson Administration meant that the campaign was never as effective as it could have been. The Nixon Administration continued its lack of long-term bombing during the two Operation Linebacker campaigns. Images such as Kim Phuc Phan Thi disturbed the American public enough to demand a stop to the bombardments.

Due to this, and the ineffectiveness of carpet bombing, new precision weapons were developed. The new weapons allowed for more effective and more efficient bombing with reduced civilian casualities. High civilian casualities had always been the hallmark of strategic bombing, but later in the Cold War, this began to change.

The Israeli Air Force used strategic bombing during its brief but intense wars with its neighbors during the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars. Strategic bombing was entering a new phase of high intensity, specifically targeting factories which took years and millions of dollars to build.

Eventually, a single mission could be considered to constitute a strategic bombing. The Israeli bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak was one such event. The single mission put an end to Iraqi ability to produce nuclear weapons for at least seven years. The fusing of the tactical, strategic, and grand strategic in strategic bombing was becoming complete.

Post Cold War

Strategic bombing in the post Cold War era was defined by American advances in and use of smart munitions. Beginning in the First Gulf War, and then more markedly in the Kosovo War and the initial phases of the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, strategic bombing campaigns were marked by the heavy use of precision weaponry. This led to fewer civilian casualties associated with previous conflicts, though not a complete end to civilian death or injury.

Strategic bombing took on a more personal role, as strikes against individual leaders were considered, and approved, in the case of Saddam Hussein or disapproved, in the case of Slobodan Milosevic. The idea of destroying, or not destroying a high-value personal target was not new. In World War II, the United States chose to use nuclear bombs against cities where the Japanese emperor did not reside. There were even rumors during the Kosovo War that strikes against one of Milosevic's residences were held back due to a historical impressionist painting that was at the location.

Technological Advances

With the advent of precision-guided munitions, many feel that strategic bombing has become a viable military strategy. Exactly how precise so called precision munitions are, is also open to question. However, others predict that 21st century warfare will be often asymmetrical, and therefore valid strategic targets will not exist.

Strategic Bombing Events

Among the most controversial instances of strategic bombing are:

  • Strategic bombing of "uncivilized tribes" during the British mandate of Iraq
  • Spanish Civil War
    • The Bombing of Guernica: the first aerial bombardment in history in which a civilian population was attacked with the apparent intent of producing total destruction.
  • World War II
  • Vietnam war
  • Allied bombing of Iraq during the first Gulf War
    • Strategic bombing of civilian targets in Iraq
  • Kosovo War
    • NATO bombing of industry and other civilian infrastructure in Serbia. Despite intensive work in selecting targets, many errors (of fact and of judgment) were made, including the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the deliberate bombing of the main TV centre in Belgrade. The bombing appears to have achieved the desired results -- the capitulation of the Serbian forces without having to commit large numbers of NATO ground troops.
  • The 2003 invasion of Iraq
    • Precision laser and GPS guided bombs were used extensively, not only to damage and destroy Saddam Hussein's army but also to damage infrastructure such as communications, power and various government buildings. The campaign moved into the asymmetric warfare once strategic targets no longer existed or were not viable for targeting.

Pioneers of strategic bombing

Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04