St. Billy Mitchell
Fri Aug 15 10:19:21 2008
Billy Mitchell gets wide acclaim for having the foresight that led to our modern independent US Air Force. However, I think these arguments are misleading. They are based on projecting our current strategic and technological situation onto the 1920’s. William Moffett’s careful and detailed approach may have had a far greater impact in the success that eventually led to the creation of an independent US Air Force. His independent Air Force was built, not in the 1920’s when it was premature but in 1947, at the beginning of the Cold War, a far more appropriate time and situation.
Mitchell argues for an independent Air Force “judged by results in the European War.” (“Our Army’s Air Service” The American Review of Reviews, Sept. 1920) He was influenced by his reading of Giulio Douhet’s Command of the Air, a book that advocated strategic aerial bombing, written by a European about potential conflicts in Europe. The situation of any European nation in the 1920’s was dramatically different from that of the United States. The distances between the major cities of potential belligerents was very small and well within the range of contemporary military aircraft. Strategic bombing within Europe was possible with available technology and could have been an important part of any war in the period.
While Douhet clearly overestimated the effects of strategic bombing, Mitchell’s estimates take exaggeration to whole new levels. “It is believed that a single 1000-pound bomb, striking in the water within thirty feet of a battleship, will greatly injure it or put it out of line so that it will become an easy object for attack.” “The maximum distance over water from Europe to the United States is only about three hundred miles … The distance across the Behring Strait from Siberia to Alaska is only twenty one miles. In the future air forces coming by those routes may be supplied completely by airships.” He even states that the Army has recently tested an airplane “with a flying capacity of about 800 miles.” This is more than twice the range of most military aircraft of the period which barely reached numbers in this range a decade later. This type of warfare may have been possible in Europe, but the complications of supply and logistics would have rendered his recommendations extremely difficult for the US even during peace time.
If Mitchell wanted to validate his theories about the efficacy of Air power instead of promoting his personal position he would not have manipulated the joint Army-Navy Project B, a series of aerial bombardment tests performed in June and July 1921. Mitchell violated the previously agreed upon standards and procedures for the test which prevented engineers from fully examining the progressive effects of the damage and discredited the results which have remained in question ever since. Unsatisfied with the slow and careful process of military protocol, Mitchell took his manipulated results and exaggerated claims directly to the news media.