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Sunday Book Review: Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy

[ 33 ] April 6, 2014 |

Why, in the wake of World War I, did the relationship between the US Army Air Service and the US Navy go so bad so quickly? Thomas Wildenberg’s Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy: The Interwar Rivalry Over Air Power chronicles the conflict between aviation enthusiasts (personified and led by William Mitchell) and the establishment Navy during the interwar period. With control over aviation assets at stake, the sides argued over the effectiveness of airpower against warships and shipping. Mitchell and his acolytes took a maximalist position, holding the air forces had effectively rendered surface navies obsolete, and that the United States government should redirect money away from battleships and aircraft carriers and towards heavy bombers. Fighting the Navy couldn’t win Mitchell organizational independence, but it did hold the opportunity for gaining control of the immense resources that an independent air force would require.

The Navy and the Air Service fought for high stakes.  In the United Kingdom, the Royal Air Force was stitched together from the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service, putting all military aviation assets under one banner.  The USN wanted to avoid this outcome at all costs, while Billy Mitchell wanted to create a similar arrangement in the US. In context of severe defense cuts at the end of the World War I, everything seemed to be on the table.

Wildenberg devotes considerable attention to the exercises that led to the sinking of the SMS Ostfriesland and several other old warships. With respect to the sinking of Ostfriesland, both sides had legitimate points to score.  Ostfriesland was older than most of the American battleships of the day, but not all, and not much older.  If bombers could sink her, then they could likely sink all but the most modern of the American standard type battleships. Three other issues made the exercise problematic, however.  First, Ostfriesland was stationary, considerably simplifying the problem of bombing.  In one of his more absurd moments, Mitchell explained this away in a passage that likely sets some sort of record for military dishonesty:

It does not make very much difference because we employ a massed attack.  A ship on the surface of the water in motion is much easier to hit than an object at rest because the relative speed between the airplane and the object being fired at is the thing that makes it difficult to secure hits.  If a water vessel could be moving at the same rate as an airplane there would be absolutely no trouble whatever hitting it because all you would have to do would be to get over the object and drop the bomb and as both the airplane and its taget would be going at the same speed you would be certain to get a hit.  Therefore the faster that a water vessel goes the easier it is to hit from the air.  This is not understood at all by people unfamiliar with bombing.  As to turning and zigzagging, the turns of surface vessels of any kind are so slow as to be almost negligible from the air.

Second, Ostfriesland was in poor shape, and lacked a crew. German battleships were well-known for their thorough compartmentalization and their watertight integrity, but looters and poor maintenance had made sealing Ostfriesland impossible.  The battleship was already taking on water before the bombing began. More importantly, with no damage control teams on board, even relatively minor damage could prove lethal. Finally (and in the only point that supports Mitchell) Ostfriesland had no munitions aboard.  This rendered the battleship effectively immune to loss through catastrophic explosion, although the ability of the bombs used by the Army Air Service to penetrate Ostfriesland’s magazines is in considerable question.

Mitchell did violate the rules of the exercise, but not to the extent that it made much of a difference to the outcome. The Army Air Service sank Ostfriesland and a variety of other old American and German vessels, helping both services to learn a great deal about targeting and bomb damage.  Mitchell’s interest was in propaganda, however; he used the sinking of the old battleship to argue that surface vessels of any kind were effectively obsolete in the face of determined air attack.  It bears note that Mitchell was not predicting that surface ships would become vulnerable at some point in the future; he made clear his belief that the USN was already obsolete as of the early 1920s.

It’s fair to say that Wildenberg is not impressed by Billy Mitchell, and that he generally tilts towards the Navy’s side of the conflict. Wildenberg lands clear punches, demonstrating that while Mitchell was an effective organizational commander and an excellent propagandist, he had severe shortcomings as a strategist.  The subject is complicated, because while planes can’t sink battleships as easily as Mitchell suggested, they surely can sink them. Mitchell’s claims for the capacity of aircraft to sink warships were wildly overstated, and were wrong in many of the particulars. But it’s less clear that they were so wrong as to be unproductive. The extent to which the battleship was obsolete prior to 1939 has been (in part because of Mitchell and his partisans) strongly overstated, but then most major powers either curtailed battleship construction or ended it entirely once World War II began.  It also bears note that Mitchell was quite right about the pointlessness of lighter-than-air aviation, and about many aspects of the interwar military aviation complex.

But then Mitchell’s advocacy was surely unproductive in terms of the details of how aircraft could be used for coastal defense. Heavy, level bombers were nearly useless in World War II for attacks against naval vessels, as warships proved far too fast, maneuverable, and heavily armed to succumb to high altitude level bombing. In a prediction that didn’t pan out, Mitchell suggested:

If the same method of battleship construction is continued, in the future no crew will stay on a battleship when aircraft come in sight.  The captain will have to stick at his post and will probably send for a bottle of torpedo fluid to help him, and everyone else will immediately jump overboard.  When the alarm of airplanes in sight is given, the crew will immediately put on gas masks, kapok coats in order to float in the water, asbestos shoes and gloves so as to be able to touch the hot metal, and parachutes so that they will be able to open them and come down alright when blown into the air.

Hyperbole yes, but not particularly helpful hyperbole. Dedicated dive and torpedo bombers, usually (although not always) developed by navies, would sink the vast majority of warships during the war.  Level bombers did better against civilian shipping, but this was not envisioned to be a serious operational task  in the early inter-war period.  And Mitchell was egregiously wrong about the effectiveness of carriers and carrier aircraft, which he believed would always be at a disadvantage against land-based air.  Granting that Mitchell had a point with respect to aircraft sinking warships also requires appreciating that he got the details entirely wrong, and that he advocated policies that would have produced tactical and organizational disaster.

But Wildenberg probably goes too far when he draws Mitchell’s personal history into the dispute.  He illustrates his narrative with passages from Mitchell’s life, stories that generally do not reflect well on the aviator. These passages  add color to the account (he probably shot his first wife, for example), but also tend to obscure the argument by portraying Mitchell more cartoonishly than is strictly necessary. There were undoubtedly a significant number of officers on each side of the three way argument between the Army, the Air Service, and the Navy who suffered from alcoholism, who liked the ponies a bit overmuch, and who wildly overspent their means. Detailing these characteristics primarily for Mitchell and not for the other antagonists leaves a lopsided story that is, if anything, unfair to Mitchell.

Wildenberg doesn’t present much in the way of a general theory of inter-service conflict, but it’s not hard to develop one.  Essentially, inter-service tension in the interwar period precluded the development not only of good cooperative procedures in areas of common interest, but also of the development of knowledge.  Mitchell had a sincere interest in the bombing exercises, but his goals were mainly political, rather than the development of tactics, techniques, and technologies for using air and naval assets together.  Mitchell wanted to prove that aircraft could kill specific battleships in order to kill the idea of battleships. The Navy appreciated that someone would try to sink its ships with aircraft, and even if it believed that Mitchell overstated the air threat, it did need a technical understanding of how bomb damage affected warships. The question was under what conditions, and what factors could either enhance the ability of friendly aircraft to sink enemy ships, or prevent the sinking of friendly ships by enemy aircraft. But faced with the political threat posed by Mitchell and his enthusiasts,  the Navy grew understandably reluctant to put even its older ships at the service of the Army.

In the long run, this dynamic would hurt the Army Air Corps more than the Navy.  Navy exercises and planning in the 1930s demonstrated the potential effectiveness of dive and torpedo bombers, even if it took some time in practice to develop effective anti-aircraft techniques.  The Air Corps entered the war with an excess of optimism about the role that B-17s could play in coastal defense, while simultaneously lacking any understanding of how heavy bombers might support the anti-submarine effort (although obviously the Navy hardly covered itself with glory on this score in the first year of the war). Threatening the Navy forced it to circle the (battle) wagons, which limited the extent to which the Air Service could prepare for the next war.  Everybody likes aggressive, enthusiastic activism than threatens entrenched interests, but those interests may respond in generally unproductive ways.

This is an interesting book, and if it had come out earlier I would have found it useful in my own work.  The research appears sound, and the argument is largely correct.  I can’t help feel, however, that the case could have been made more carefully. The book could also have been organized more clearly, as some of the early chapter are much longer than their later counterparts (this may be my own pet peeve). Nevertheless, it’s a good one volume account of how bitterly the Navy and the Air Service fought for prominence in the interwar period.


[ 19 ] April 5, 2014 |

I graciously accept

your surrender.

Technical Problems

[ 1 ] April 5, 2014 |

We’re currently having a spam problem with the RSS feed and the mobile site.

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Thank you for your patience.

Airpower Over Asia

[ 9 ] April 4, 2014 |

This week at the Diplomat, I answer some questions about the implications of Air Force independence in Asia and in Asian history.

While you concentrate your book on the Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force, the argument would seem to hold for any independent air force. What do the major Asian air forces look like?

This is a very interesting question. Most post-colonial Asian states take the model of their former colonizer; Pakistan, India, and Malaysia all have independent air forces on the model of the RAF, for example. Revolutionary states tended to adopt the Soviet or Chinese models, in which the air force was subservient to the army. This includes China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Indonesia. The Japanese case is complicated, but the JASDF is more or less an independent service within the Japanese Self-Defense Force.

Next Divorce: Hello, Helsinki!

[ 16 ] April 2, 2014 |

Well, this explains it.

Almost a year after announcing their split in a stilted scene at the Grand Kremlin Palace, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his wife Lyudmila have finalized their divorce. The duo were married for 30 years and have two children together, though Putin’s official biography on the presidential website no longer makes any mention of Lyudmila.

The news marks perhaps the final chapter in the hushed but turbulent drama of Putin’s personal life. Rumors long circulated of a rift between the Russian strongman and his seldom-seen wife. The Kremlin regularly issued denials of such gossip, and Putin himself denied marital troubles, telling Italian reporters there was “not a single word of truth” in the speculation and that he had contempt for those whose “erotic fantasies prowl into others’



F-22s Are Magic Dragons Made Out of Unobtanium

[ 97 ] April 1, 2014 |

Colonel Robert Spalding III (USAF):

To buy time for Ukraine and to allow time for diplomatic measures to be effective, a military solution is called for. A purely defensive deployment of F-22 fighters (along with supporting aircraft) is just one possible solution. To be diplomatically effective these forces would have to come with an American promise to defend Ukrainian skies from attack.

Without firing a shot, such a deployment would immediately change Putin’s invasion calculus. Faced with F-22s, Russian aircraft would not survive, and thus could not support a Russian ground invasion. Ukrainians would feel more confident about their ability to defend their country, since any Russian invasion would be subject to attack by Ukrainian aircraft protected by F-22s.

I have a response at War is Boring.

This proposal would seem merely silly if it came from a civilian policymaker without the faintest notion of the finer points of air power. Instead, it comes from an Air Force colonel. But it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Air Force officers are pushing palpably absurd solutions to the Ukraine crisis.

People complain that my book Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force focuses too much on having “dead arguments with dead men,” and that modern air power advocates have given up on making extravagant, unsupportable claims about the effectiveness of aviation.


Spying Makes People Stupid

[ 33 ] March 31, 2014 |

This is dumb:

Ahead of a Swiss referendum on the country’s plan to buy 22 fighter jets from Sweden, a report raised concerns Sunday that a US-made communication system onboard could be used for spying.

According to a report in Swiss weekly Le Matin Dimanche, Swedish defense firm Saab last year brought in US company Rockwell Collins to replace Roschi Rohde & Schwartz of Switzerland, which had originally been contracted to build the communications system.

While the Swiss would still be making their own encryption keys, the physical box and the software inside would be American made, according to the report.

Several experts quoted by the paper cautioned that the US company could potentially build a “backdoor” into the system, making it possible for US intelligence to see the information gathered during reconnaissance flights.

In case you’re wondering, the Swiss Air Force currently flies (between 9am and 5pm on weekdays) Boeing F/A-18 Hornets, and Northrop F-5E Tiger IIs.

But more broadly, this is the kind of unpredictable second order effect that happens when national security establishments are allowed to expand their activities without sufficient forethought and monitoring by civilians and diplomats.  It’s dumb that NSA spying concerns might convince some Swiss citizens to vote against buying a Swedish fighter with American components to replace their American fighter with American components.  But it’s not exactly surprising that people around the world will resent the perception that US intelligence agencies are collecting massive amounts of data about their lives, and act (even in small ways) upon that resentment.

Airpower Makes People Stupid

[ 42 ] March 31, 2014 |

Oh, hell.

How can the U.S. add muscle in the present Ukraine crisis?

The boldest and riskiest course would be to dispatch 50 or 60 of the incredibly potent F-22s to Poland plus Patriot batteries and appropriate ground support and protection. Russian generals and even Putin surely know that the F-22s could smash the far inferior Russian air force and then punish Russian armies invading eastern Ukraine or elsewhere in the region.

There’s no sense at all in making this move unless Obama unambiguously resolves to use the F-22s. The worst thing to do is bluff. Nor would the dangers end there even if Obama were not bluffing; Putin might think he was bluffing anyway and start a war.  With all these complications and risks, the Obama team still should give this option a serious look—and let Russia and our NATO partners know this tough course is under serious consideration. Obama has sent a few F-15’s and F-16’s to Eastern Europe, some military aid to Ukraine and other states. But everyone knows this is tokenism.

I have prepared a short dialogue illustrating the history of airpower thought:

Sagredo: “We must do something!”
Salviati: “But what? The situation is complex.”
Simplicio: “I know!  Airpower!

Some additional thoughts:

  • The difference between the US commitments to Ukraine and to Estonia lies not with a particular technology, but rather in the nature of the political relationship. A commitment of US military power might well deter Russia (although it would likely have unpredictable second order effects) but this commitment does not depend on any specific technology.
  • Given what appears to be the balance of forces between Ukraine and Russia, and given especially the apparent political unreliability of the Ukrainian military, it is not at all certain that “50 or 60 of our incredibly potent F-22s” could actually prevent a Russian military victory. Russia could prevent the loss of its own air force by simply refusing to accept combat against the F-22s, and using its overwhelming ground superiority and short-range ballistic missile capabilities to overrun Ukrainian air bases. A much larger NATO commitment that included ground attack aircraft might make a difference, but this reinforces the point that the political commitment, not the technology, is what matters.
  • Washington punditry, Gelb included, remains drunk on the promise of “resolve” and “toughness.” The issue here has nothing to do with nebulous concerns about American toughness, and everything to do with the specific commitments that the United States has to Ukraine. Given that Ukraine was a Russian client state until two months ago, it’s hardly surprising that no one (including Putin) believes that the United States will fight to preserve our relationship with Kiev. The threat of force is a transparent bluff, impressive only to idiots besotted with Putin’s sense of machismo.


Storyline Pre-emption

[ 19 ] March 30, 2014 |

Let’s pre-empt: No one should refer to this Kentucky team as  ”The Miracle Cats.”  They are not “scrappy underdogs” in the sense that the term is normally used.  Kentucky and national press will, if the ‘Cats manage to win it all, undoubtedly refer to them as “the unlikeliest of champions.”  This is incorrect.   Calipari’s performance is not, in fact, “the greatest coaching job of an era.”  Rather, this Kentucky team was a pre-season #1 that managed to struggle its way into the tournament despite playing remarkable craptastic basketball for long stretches of the season. The ‘Cats are an eight seed only in the formal sense; I’m not sure how many would disagree with the proposition that they were one of the five most talented teams in the field of 68.

It is amusing, though, that three weeks ago Lexingtonians were assembling the tar, feathers, and rail for Calipari.  One popular theory held that the team was terrible because Cal was addicted to prescription painkillers.  A common joke ran “What’s the best thing about the Harrison twins?  They aren’t triplets.”

And yes, more than 2 out of 193 LGM brackets should have taken Kentucky to win.  And apparently more than 0 of 193 should have taken UConn.

LGM Baseball Challenge

[ 10 ] March 29, 2014 |

Almost forgot!  The LGM Baseball Challenge league has been reactivated (you’ll be given an option to rejoin if you activate a new team with the same ESPN account).  If you’re new to the League:

Group Name: LGM

Password:  zevon

As always with the prize for victory, etc.

Tourney Challenge Update

[ 4 ] March 29, 2014 |

Here’s the latest from the LGM Tourney Challenge:

War On Error SouthSideFan773
270 240 200 Wisconsin 640 710 99.8
The ed17 1 The ed17
270 220 200 Michigan St 880 690 99.5
davidrrutherford 1davidrrutherford
240 240 200 Michigan St 720 680 99.2
260 200 200 Florida 880 660 98
230 220 200 Iowa State 400 650 96.9
the PBOATMr.Madame Psychosis
230 220 200 Louisville 80 650 96.9
maybe this timesullivap
240 200 200 Florida 960 640 95.4
Karate Bearfighter 1Karate Bearfighter
210 180 240 Arizona 880 630 93.3
250 180 200 Kansas 400 630 93.3
Hugh Jassjwilloth
240 180 200 Florida 960 620 90.8
Lexington Bearded Ducks farls0
260 160 200 Kentucky 880 620 90.8
Vote SaxonFrinklin
260 200 160 Michigan St 720 620 90.8
Pass me a rolling rockstrauszm
220 200 200 Michigan St 640 620 90.8
dcheval 2dcheval
220 240 160 UCLA 400 620 90.8
260 200 160 Wichita State 400 620 90.8

Last night’s UK-Louisville game was… epic.  And strange.

“We never threaten anyone. We just explain the situation.”

[ 106 ] March 29, 2014 |

Meaningless vote, but it does suggest that international opinion views the annexation of Crimea differently than the Kosovo War or the South Ossetia War:

Russia threatened several Eastern European and Central Asian states with retaliation if they voted in favor of a United Nations General Assembly resolution this week declaring invalid Crimea’s referendum on seceding from Ukraine, U.N. diplomats said.

The disclosures about Russian threats came after Moscow accused Western countries of using “shameless pressure, up to the point of political blackmail and economic threats,” in an attempt to coerce the United Nations’ 193 member states to join it in supporting the non-binding resolution on the Ukraine crisis…

A spokesman for Russia’s Mission to the U.N. denied that Moscow threatened any country with retaliation if it supported the resolution, saying: “We never threaten anyone. We just explain the situation.”

In the end, the Ukrainian resolution declaring Crimea’s vote on March 16 in favor of seceding from Ukraine as having “no validity” passed with 100 votes in favor, 11 against and 58 abstentions. Another 24 U.N. member states did not cast votes.

Western diplomats called the result a diplomatic success for Ukraine. A similar General Assembly vote was held in 2008 after Russia went to war with Georgia over its breakaway enclave South Ossetia, which later declared independence and

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has unsuccessfully sought annexation to Russia. That resolution was adopted with a mere 14 votes in favor, 11 against and 105 abstentions.

This highlights some of the complexity with respect to understanding the role of precedent in international affairs. Even if the bulk of the world doesn’t find the Kosovo-Crimea parallel plausible, it seems that the Russians do, at least insofar that it serves as legal and moral cover for what Russia wants to do anyway. Moscow calls the shots, and gets to self-describe in the manner it sees fit. And speaking of calling shots, here’s what it’s like

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to be attacked by a Syrian MiG-29:

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