Was Giulio Douhet Incorrect?

This essay tries to investigate in which areas the experience of the modern conflict proved Giulio Dauhet correct and where it disproved it predictions. It is written in essayistic style, rather than prudent analysis to make it more accessible to ordinary readers.

“Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur.“ (Giulio Douhet).

Anticipate change is important in any field of human activity but especially in warfare. If your enemy is more open towards changes, if he is just one step in front of you, you will be probably defeated. Giulio Douhet was aware of it. He was one of the innovators introducing the third dimension of war – war in air. However some scholars have not accepted Douhet as a theorist. Instead of a theorist he is often called prophet (eg. G. C. Segré). In his text, we cannot find any exact definition, described strategy or tactic, his results are not based on any research but it is full of visions and predictions. His texts are like dreaming about the future. For me, it is not important how acceptable his texts are in academic sphere, as much asthe truth that he introduced many innovative ideas that have changed (with the developing technology) the nature of war.In my essay, I will discuss this statement:

“Giulio Douhet was fundamentally incorrect in his central contentions on the future potential of airpower.”

This essay will be divided into five sections. In the first one I will focus on Douhet’s life and affairs that influenced him. The second section will examine which theses we can consider as the most important according to his texts. The third section will examine the concept of strategic bombing and historical experience with it (WW2). The fourth section will focus on changing principles of war caused by airpower. And, finally, the last section will discuss a question if command of the air guarantees a victory. I will sum up the result of my research in a conclusion.

The main goal of this essay is to compare Douhets’ ideas with historical experience and conflicts and search if the statement above is right or wrong.


Douhet was born in 1869 in a family of strong military and patriotic tradition. He graduated from the artillery academy of the Italian army and later entered Turin polytechnic Institute, where he studied science of engineering. In 1900 he was posted to the army’s general staff. Apart from professional soldier he was also amateur novelist, poet, painter and playwright. His field of interest was really broad. Douhet had been a leading advocate of the mechanization of armies well before turning his attention to the air (Gat 1998: 571-572).

In 1911, Italy went to war with the Ottoman Empire. Italy’s target was Libya, a Turkish province. The Italian Army saw this war as an opportunity to tryitsnew weapon – airpower. Italian air force consisted of a nine aircraft and Douhet got the command. This is recognised as the history’s first reconnaissance and bombing missions. In 1912, Douhet assumed command of Italy’s new air unit, based at Turin (Dudney 2011).

All these experiences shaped his view of airpower: “Aeronautics opened up to men a new field of action, the field of the air. In so doing it of necessity created a new battlefield.” (Douhet 1921: 3). He wrote some essays about airpower before publishing his principal treatise on the concept of strategic airpower – The Command of the Air, 1921. While in time it would become hugely influential, initial response was muted. Things were different in 1926 when he published a revised version. “The book drew harsh attack, especially from army and navy partisans. Small wonder, as it openly claimed their forces to be obsolete.” (Dudney 2011).


Because of the limited lenght of my essay I will concentrate on the Douhet’s most important contentions about the future potential of air power. As far as I can see those are:

·Using airpower mainly in strategic bombing – setting up principles of strategic bombing.

·Airpower should be independent and equal to navy and army.

·The nature of war will be changed since the emergence of airpower.

·To have command of the air means to have victory.


Douhet wrote (1921: 10-34): “The best way how to use airpower is to destroy the enemy’s airports, supply bases and centres of production not just fight against enemy’s aircraft in the air”. It is better to „destroying [the enemy’s] nests and eggs on the ground“ rather than having to „hunt his flying birds in the air.“ The offensive should be also directly against important buildings, private and public centres and areas of civilian population as well. It means bombing military and non-military objects. “There will be no distinction any longer between soldiers and civilians” (Douhet 1921: 10). The strategic bombing should have very serious moral and economic effects.

Did time prove the theory of strategic bombing as valid? Well known example and – apart from the Spanish Civil War – one of the first use of strategic bombing is the Second World War. According to Hallion (1992: 9) the whole strategic air power disappointed:“Basically, World War II Strategic air power – except for the very end of the war – could not fulfil the Douhet-Trenchard-Mitchell over-promises; it lacked the accuracy, sustainability, and precision of destruction to completely eliminate an enemy’s means of waging war, and it did not shatter an enemy’s morale. But although it may have disappointed, this is not the same as saying it failed.” In contrast John Buckley (in Dudney 1999) is not so critical to the effect of strategic bombing during WW2: „Clearly, bombing did not win World War II by itself. But it did contribute greatly to the economic collapse of the Axis powers.“

Strategic bombing worked well in injuring enemy’s industry and economy. On the other hand the moral effect of bombing cities wasn’t so huge to force a country to capitulate (as Douhet expected). Neither German, nor Japanese people buckled under the pressure of air raids and civilian morale did not decline notably. Still it contributed greatly to the quicker end of war. The term strategic bombing is still very important in modern warfare. It has a lot of weak points but in my opinion the WW2 proved Douhet’s emphasizing the strategic bombing as a meaningful. Nevertheless, thanks to improved technology we have now other possibilities of airpower use.


Douhet (1921: 5) was always promoting independence of airpower: “An air force should logically be accorded equal importance with the army and the navy and bare the same relations to them as they now bear to each other. (…) an air force should all the times cooperate with the army and the navy but it must be independent of them both.” This is another point he was right. The airpower became independent – the third brother of army and navy. E.g. in France, the air service became an official branch of the army, formally equal to traditional branches, cavalry, infantry, artillery and engineer corps in 1921. Air ministrz was created in France in 1928 (Vennesson 1995: 42 – 51). I can say that I agree with this idea – the airpower is at least as important as army and navy.


Douhet had foreseen that the form of war would be completely changed: “Still confining ourselves to the narrow limits of human foresight, we can nevertheless state, with complete certainty, that probable future wars will be radically different in character from those of the past.” (Douhet 1921: 6). Modern warfare[1] is based on an airpower action. It usually begins with an air strike. With airpower you can maximized the effect of “Clausewitz moment of surprise” as it happened in the Six Day War between Israel and Arabic states (1967). Israel used pre-emptive attack to Egypt as a defence against expected aggression. In one day the Israel air force destroyed almost whole Egyptian airpower. Then, having secured air supremacy, Israel went on to devastate their land forces with tactical air strikes and combined arms air-land warfare (Hallion 25). The airpower played a key role in this conflict. If Egyptian air force wouldn’t be destroyed by Israel pre-emptively, it could pose a real threat to Israeli land forces. A lesson for losers is always important, Egypt and Syria opted to reform and reshape their military structure. Six-day war is a good example of how efficient can an air force become and how important place it occupies in war. It is also interesting that this successful operation took place at the same time when the US were engaged in Vietnam quagmire (which I will mention it further).

The Gulf war is another example of how important the airpower is in a modern conflict. The decisive factor in the war with Iraq was the air campaign; it was successful in blinding the detection capability of the Iraqi military and eliminated its ability to detect movement and massing of coalition ground forces. Then the ground forces were necessary to eject the Iraqis from Kuwait. The US Army and Marine forces skilfully executed an ingenious ground campaign. During the initial phase of the war, the relentlessness, massiveness and precision of the attacks induced systemic shock and paralysis from which the Iraqi political and military leadership never recovered. The air campaign, at the war’s onset, had successfully stopped most of the Iraqi logistics support and ground movement in selected areas. Moral effect on Iraqi troops is also interesting. This time, they react in accordance with Douhets theory. „Iraqi ground forces were so devastated and demoralized by the time the ground war started that they lacked the conviction to fight for their own soil, much less Kuwait. “ (Sing 2001). However the Gulf war denied another Douhet’s theory – no distinction between combatants and non-combatants. Low civilian casualties are very important in modern warfare. If the conflict has many non-combatant casualties it may lose support of the public opinion. “In fact, military strategists for the Gulf War and the Kosovo conflicts had tried very hard to avert civilian casualties and collateral damage.” (Sing 2001).

Airpower became a necessity to win a war and it supports Douhet’s theory. We can see it also in the latest conflict – intervention to Libya (2011).

Airpower has also much more destructive potential than any other weapon. In some way, Douhet had foreseen bacteriological and chemical weapons, which are nowadays considered as a big threat: “Airpower makes it possible not only to make high-explosive bombing raids over any sector of the enemy’s territory, but also to ravage his whole by chemical and bacteriological warfare.” (Douhet 1921: 6-7). These weapons are even much more dangerous than Douhet expected.


We have to admit, however, that Douhet’s theory is not perfect. As far as I can see, the biggest weakness is in overestimation of airpower. Because of it Douhet is sometimes regarded as “airpower extremist”[2]. Of course, it is very important part of modern warfare but many wars proved that there is need of close cooperation with land forces. In case of a successful cooperation the effect of such an operation is much more destructive. Douhet proclaimed that you can win a war just with airpower and it won’t be necessary to have army and navy. We can find similar statements in many of his texts: “The air force is destined to predominate over both land and sea forces. This is because the radius of offensive action is limited in comparison to the vastly greater radius of the air force.” (Douhet 1921: 29). Douhet made very straight conclusion that: “To have command of the air is to have victory.”This is very disputable proclamation.

Did US have command of the air in Vietnam War? Yes. Did they win the war? No. USA was clearly superior in the air. Of 21 000 laser-guided bombs dropped in Vietnam, 17 000 scored direct hits on their targets, generating an impressive 80-percent success rate for this innovative weapon (Hallion 1992: 21). There was a great volume of aerial firepower present in Vietnam. Virtually every spot in South Vietnam was within a fifteen-minute jet flight by aircraft, contained a number of jet bases. US were definitely better in the military aspect but they lost public support in their own country.

According to Loren Barits – “Over and over again we have to learn the lesson that air power cannot win wars. Once having learned it we immediately forget it.” (Loren Baritz in Hallion: 26). There may be war that is won just by air power but we can’t say that to have a command of the air is enough to have a victory. It is not applicable in every situation. It seems like this concept differs according to conditions.

I think that Douhet made this conclusion because he didn’t see any effective defence against airpower. According to him, the best defence is attack. Once you lost air-dominance, you lost the war because you can’t defend. “Douhets inability to foresee radar let him to underestimate the possibilities for defence against air attack.” (MacIsac 1986: 630 in Paret).


To sum up the result of my research: Giulio Douhet established principles and goals of strategic bombing that were used in WW2. WW2 proved his theory as valid, however, he overestimated the moral effect on bombarded population.He also didn’t see another way of using airpower we have now. Douhet foresaw the change in nature of war. In this point, he was right. The airpower is a key to victory. But the potential of airpower depends on conditions, not every time the predominant airpower means victory.

In my opinion, Douhet wasn’t fundamentally wrong. In a big picture, Douhet’s theory seems correct. But Italian theorist was wrong in many important details that undermined his theory in the course of history.

„He proclaimed the new faith – the faith of air power – that would sweep them all away, render them obsolete. Reform or be destroyed, he decreed.“ (Serge 1992: 360).



·Douhet G. (first published in Italian in 1921): The Command of the Air on-line texthttp://www.airforcehistory.hq.af.mil/Publications/fulltext/command_of_the_air.pdf.

·Gat, A. (2001): ‘The Sources of Douhetism’, in Gat, A. (ed), A History of Military Thought. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

·Hallion, R. P. (1992): Storm over Iraq. Air Power and Gulf War. Smithsonian Institution, London.

·MacIsaac, D. (1986): ‘Voices from the Central Blue: the Air Power Theorists’, in Paret, P. (ed.), Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age.Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

·Vennesson P. (1995): Institution and Airpower: The Making of the French Air Force, in Gooch, J. (ed.), Airpower: Theory and Practice. Frank Cass, London.


·Claudio G. Serge, ‘Giulio Douhet: Strategist, Theorist, Prophet?’. Journal of Strategic Studies, 15/3 (September 1992),

·Dudney, R. S. (2011): Douhet. The legendary and controversial airpower theorist is debated to this day. Air force magazine. Vol. 94,No. 4. On-line text, accessed 29. 3. 2011, http://www.airforce-magazine.com/MagazineArchive/Pages/2011/April%202011/0411douhet.aspx.

·Sing, L. T. (2001): Air Power in the Gulf War and Kosovo Conflict. On-line text, accessed 29. 3. 2011



Autor: Alena Hrušková, studentka Bezpečnostnostních a strategických studií, FSS MU.

[1]I am using term „modern warfare/conflict“ in meaning fighting terrorism, insurgency and other new threaties (according to Buzan, Weaver, de Vilde) and classical conventional war after the Cold war.

[2] His book, to critics, stands as the last word on airpower extremism—the idea that airpower alone could win wars. DUDNEY 2011



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