Mitchell, Winged Defense (1925)

Author background: Winged Defense represents a middle period in Mitchell’s thinking on air power. In World War I, Mitchell largely supported air power’s role as an enabler of ground operations via reconnaissance, close air support, etc. After the war, Mitchell began to advocate for an independent air force with greater emphasis on strategic bombing and the inherent flexibility of air power as outlined below. Following his court martial, Mitchell adopted an almost Douhetian faith in the ability of strategic bombing to be the sole decisive factor in future wars.

Context: Maritime nation, drawdown, isolationism – need air power for defense. Effects of WWI: Global finance center shifts from London to NY. Crescendo: Bombing of battleships…ID threat, Repudiate the navy, Develop airmindedness.

Thesis: Winged Defense makes the case for the primacy of air power in national defense and lays out the policy steps necessary to develop the promise of air power.


- America and the world are at the dawn of an “aeronautical era” where success demands social/cultural and economic/industrial investment (echoes of Mahan’s concept of sea power)

- - Elite culture of “air-going people” (legacy of Wells and lionization of WWI aces)

- - Government support of civil aviation until it can become economically self-sufficient

- - Dual use of military aviation for aerial photography, mapping, mail delivery, forest fire patrol, crop dusting

- - Context: Mitchell recognized (but underestimated) apathy of public and politicians toward defense spending; tried to keep air economically/culturally viable

- Air power’s role in national defense

- - Four phases for U.S.: maintaining domestic tranquility; protecting coasts/frontiers; control sea lines of communications; prosecute war overseas

- - Air power excels through all four phases, being more effective and efficient than navy battleships (Mitchell’s primary competitor for budget dollars)

- - Air superiority is essential

- - Air power makes war more humane by either deterring nations from war or ending it more quickly and decisively (legacy of trench warfare)

- - Three roles: pursuit (air superiority), bombardment (strategic), and attack (CAS), but success depends on taking the strategic fight to the enemy

- - Air defense requires pursuit (fighter) and ground (spotting, reporting, AAA) coordination

- Defense organization

- - Independent Air Force coequal with Army and Navy

- - National Defense Department with service sub-depts overseen by General Command staff

Implications for Strategy

- Sometimes sound strategy is overridden by institutional imperatives: Mitchell’s goal to preserve air power capability in a tough fiscal environment encouraged him to promise more than air power could deliver

- - What matters more in interwar period — sustaining any investment in air power, or being intellectually honest about air power limitations?

- - Ex: despite scripted sinking of the Ostfriesland, B-17s accounted for no kills on shipping in WWII, which was accomplished through tactical dive and torpedo bombers

- Problems with Mitchell’s status as a prophet: by pushing an extreme position, became a polarizing figure in interservice dialogue; Mitchell had bigger impact on Navy (via reaction) than on Air Corps

- Commonalities with other air power theorists

- - Believes in decisiveness of air power in future wars

- - Tensions between the ideal and the real: air power has no real test until WWII

- - Simplistic understanding of adversary “will”—complex, adaptive phenomenon

- Broadly scientific approach to problem-solving

- Coastal defense included island possessions

- Airpower defined as “doing something in the air”

- Mitchell was a forward thinker--air power had no history, but he grounded concepts in WWI

- Pilots were knights; Douhet – pilots were the normal man.

- Provisional Wing: convergent aircraft, concentrate, execute

- Three missions: Pursuit, Bombardment, Attack plus Observation

- Force enemy aircraft to meet you by attacking vital targets

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