Strategic air power is one of the means by which a military strategy employs aerial platforms to bypass the battlefield to achieve decisive political results in conflict. Most obviously, this has involved the coercion of an enemy nation-state by seeking to destroy its economic ability to wage war (as opposed to eliminating its armed forces). In Clauzwitzian terms, this represents a fundamental shift in identifying the enemy’s “center of gravity.” Debates over whether air power can achieve strategic goals date from the very first applications of it. The use of strategic air power requires systematic organization (e.g., RAF Bomber Command; the US Strategic Air Command) and, in addition to the use of strategic bomber aircraft, can be used in conjunction with missiles or tactical aircraft against targets selected to diminish the war-making capacity of the enemy. One of the aims for using strategic air power is enemy demoralization—that is, the racking up of punishment to the extent that the will of the enemy to resist is broken. The theory of strategic heavy bombing began to be developed during the aftermath of World War I. By the time of World War II, opponents of strategic air power made frequent reference to “terror bombing” as shorthand for its use. Of course, this term is dismissed by proponents of the use of strategic air power for the manner in which it delineates between other aspects of war (often equally unpleasant) and the targeting of civilians/war-making capacity. The use of strategic air power has been limited since World War II for a number of reasons. Not least among these is the relative scarcity of major wars as well as the inability of the vast majority of modern nation-states to devote sufficient resources to seek any decision in conflict via strategic air power. The United States is a notable exception here and it employed strategic air power in Vietnam in 1972, against Iraq in 1991 and 2003, and in Kosovo in 1999.
Boyne 2003 seeks to do for air power what Mahan did for sea power in his The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783. Buckley 1999 demonstrates how the peculiarities of individual nations—especially the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and the former Soviet Union—and their “strategic cultures” had a radical effect on the evolution of their use of strategic air power. Olsen 2010 provides an excellent range of views on the evolution of air warfare in all its aspects and is particularly strong on strategic bombing. Gentile 2001 adopts a near-scientific method to extrapolate the danger of treating bombing surveys as purveyors of strategic and military truth. Similar conclusions were advanced in Kennett 1982, a passionate and highly readable work—albeit with less data and rather more emotion than Gentile 2001. Pape 1996 seeks to place the debates on the possibilities afforded by strategic air power in historical context. Meilinger 1997 is a fantastic companion volume for anyone seeking to study strategic bombing, containing, as it does, chapters on all of the elements central to the understanding of the evolution of strategic air thought. Werrell 2009 provides an excellent overview of the possibilities and limitations of air power after nearly one hundred years of development.
Boyne, Walter J. The Influence of Air Power upon History. Gretna, LA: Pelican, 2003.
Tries to do for air power what Mahan did for sea power in his 1890 classic The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783. Mahan had six prerequisites for success at sea. For the air, Boyne has five: first, a big budget; second, a recognized security threat; third, high technology; fourth, supportive political leadership; and, fifth, good air strategists and practitioners (Douhet and LeMay, respectively, are singled out here).
Buckley, John. Air Power in the Age of Total War. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
A systematic treatment of each country while discussing the development of universal theories of strategic air power. Buckley argues that, in the interwar period, it was the geostrategic “global” positions of the United States and Britain that advanced the cause of strategic bombing for, respectively, defense of the Western Hemisphere and empire. He demonstrates how only the superpowers could make real use of strategic air power after 1945.
Gentile, Gian P. How Effective Is Strategic Bombing? Lessons Learned from World War II to Kosovo. New York: New York University Press, 2001.
Uses a large number of primary sources, especially from World War II and the US campaigns against Iraq. Very good in discussing the effects of bombing on morale, and the political and military factors relevant to leaders seeking to end wars.
Kennett, Lee. A History of Strategic Bombing: From the First Hot-Air Balloons to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. New York: Scribner’s, 1982.
A passionate and strongly argued history of strategic bombing that is very strong on demonstrating that strategic bombing is far more likely to be limited by a lack of material resources rather than any moral scruples. Warns that generals and politicians are often prone to self-deception when seeking to analyze the effectiveness of strategic bombing.
Olsen, John Andreas. A History of Air Warfare. Washington, DC: Potomac, 2010.
This one-volume anthology comprises sixteen essays by military experts and examines the utility of and evolution of air power from 1914 until 2006. It exposes air power’s strengths and weaknesses, and tackles problems such as joint operations and coalition warfare.
Meilinger, Phillip S., ed. The Paths of Heaven: The Evolution of Airpower Theory. Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 1997.
A very useful compendium produced by the US Air Force School of Advanced Airpower Studies (SAAS). This volume has a huge amount if information and analysis (including chapters on Giulio Douhet, Hugh Trenchard, Billy Mitchell, various European thinkers prior to World War II, Alexander de Seversky, the nuclear theorists of the postwar era).
Pape, Robert A. Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.
A wide-ranging and in-depth analysis of a number of attempts to use air power to coerce adversaries in a variety of historical scenarios—for some, the book could be viewed as an investigation into repeated attempts to vindicate Douhet’s theories. This volume examines the US use of air power against Germany and Japan in World War II, Korea (1950–1953), Vietnam (1964–1973), and Iraq (1991) as well as Israel’s use of the same versus Egypt (especially, 1967); it considers the course of the bombing campaigns and political decision making. Very well-sourced.
Werrell, Kenneth P. Death from the Heavens: A History of Strategic Bombing. Washington, DC: Naval Institute Press, 2009.
A thoughtful work that seeks to point out the significant compromises made by the adherent of strategic air power at various junctures due to the limitations imposed by technology, economics, morality, or politics. Lauds the possibilities of strategic air power while recognizing the limitations—although insisting that the future has bright opportunities for those who continue to invest in this area.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
Purchase an Ebook Version of This Article
Ebooks of the Oxford Bibliographies Online subject articles are available in North America via a number of retailers including Amazon, vitalsource, and more. Simply search on their sites for Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guides and your desired subject article.
If you would like to purchase an eBook article and live outside North America please email firstname.lastname@example.org to express your interest.
- Academic Theories of International Relations Since 1945
- Arab-Israeli Wars, 1967-1973, The
- Arab-Israeli Wars, The
- Arms Control
- Arms Races
- Asylum Policies
- Authoritarian Regimes
- Balance of Power Theory
- Bargaining Theory of War
- Challenge of Communism, The
- China and Japan
- China's Defense Policy
- China's Foreign Policy
- Civil Resistance
- Civil Society in the European Union
- Cold War, The
- Conflict Behavior and the Prevention of War
- Conflict Management
- Countermeasures in International Law
- Criminal Law, International
- Critical Theory of International Relations
- Cuban Missile Crisis, The
- Cultural Diplomacy
- Cyber Security
- Cyber Warfare
- Demobilization, Post World War I
- Democracies and World Order
- Democracy and Conflict
- Democracy in World Politics
- Deterrence Theory
- Diplomacy, History of
- Diplomacy, Public
- Disaster Diplomacy
- Eastern Front (World War I)
- Economics, International
- Embedded Liberalism
- Emerging Powers and BRICS
- Empirical Testing of Formal Models
- Energy and International Security
- Epidemic Diseases and their Effects on History
- Ethics and Morality in International Relations
- Ethnicity in International Relations
- European Migration Policy
- European Security and Defense Policy, The
- European Union as an International Actor
- European Union, International Relations of the
- Fascism, The Challenge of
- Feminist Security Studies
- Food Security
- Forecasting in International Relations
- Foreign Policy, Theories of
- French Empire, 20th-Century
- From Club to Network Diplomacy
- Future of NATO
- Game Theory and Interstate Conflict
- Genocide, Politicide, and Mass Atrocities Against Civilian...
- Genocides, 20th Century
- Geopolitics and Geostrategy
- Germany in World War II
- Global Citizenship
- Global Civil Society
- Global Constitutionalism
- Global Environmental Politics
- Global Ethic of Care
- Global Governance
- Global Justice, Western Perspectives
- Greater Middle East, The
- Hague Conferences (1899, 1907)
- History and International Relations
- Human Rights
- Human Rights and Humanitarian Diplomacy
- Human Rights Law
- Intelligence Oversight
- Internal Displacement
- International Conflict Settlements, The Durability of
- International Criminal Court, The
- International Economic Organizations (IMF and World Bank)
- International Health Governance
- International Justice, Theories of
- International Law
- International Monetary Relations, History of
- International Negotiation and Conflict Resolution
- International Nongovernmental Organizations
- International Organizations
- International Relations as a Social Science
- International Relations Theory
- International Security
- International Society
- International Society, Theorizing
- International Support For Nonstate Armed Groups
- Internet Law
- Interstate Cooperation Theory and International Institutio...
- Intervention and Use of Force
- Iran, Politics and Foreign Policy
- Iraq: Past and Present
- Just War Theory
- Kurdistan and Kurdish Politics
- Law of the Sea
- Laws of War
- Leadership in International Affairs
- League of Nations
- Lean Forward and Pull Back Options for US Grand Strategy
- Mediation and Civil Wars
- Mediation in International Conflicts
- Mediation via International Organizations
- Middle East, The Contemporary
- Military Science
- Minority Rights
- Multilateralism (1992–), Return to
- National Liberation, International Law and Wars of
- National Security Act of 1947, The
- Nations and Nationalism
- NATO, Europe, and Russia: Security Issues and the Border R...
- New Multilateralism in the Early 21st Century
- Nonproliferation and Counterproliferation
- Nonviolent Resistance Datasets
- Peace of Utrecht
- Peacebuilding, Post-Conflict
- Political Demography
- Political Economy of National Security
- Political Learning and Socialization
- Political Psychology
- Politics and Islam in Turkey
- Popular Culture and International Relations
- Post-Civil War State
- Post-Conflict and Transitional Justice
- Power Transition Theory
- Preventive War and Preemption
- Prisoners, Treatment of
- Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs)
- Pro-Government Militias
- Prospect Theory in International Relations
- Public Opinion and the European Union
- Quantum Social Science
- Race and International Relations
- Religion and International Relations
- Religiously Motivated Violence
- Reputation in International Relations
- Responsibility to Protect
- Rising Powers in World Politics
- Russian Revolutions and Civil War, 1917-1921
- Sanctions in International Law
- Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), The
- Shining Path
- Social Scientific Theories of Imperialism
- Soviet Union in World War II
- Space Strategy, Policy, and Power
- Spatial Dependencies and International Mediation
- State Theory in International Relations
- Strategic Air Power
- Strategic and Net Assessments
- Sustainable Development
- Teaching International Relations
- Territorial Disputes
- Terrorist Financing
- Terrorist Group Strategies
- The Changing Nature of Diplomacy
- The Queer in/of International Relations
- Theories of International Relations, Feminist
- Theory, Chinese International Relations
- Trade Law
- Transnational Actors
- Transnational Social Movements
- Trust and International Relations
- UN Security Council
- United Nations, The
- US and Africa
- US–UK Special Relationship
- Vienna Conventions on Diplomacy and Consular Relations
- Voluntary International Migration
- War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714)
- Western Balkans
- Western Front (World War I)
- Westphalia, Peace of (1648)
- Women and Peacemaking Peacekeeping
- World Economy 1919-1939
- World Polity School
- World War II Diplomacy and Political Relations