Victory through Air Power


February 27, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- If Maj. Alexander P. de Seversky were here today, I would gladly apologize. In his absence, I take more pleasure in writing this ''I was wrong'' column than in any such mea culpa of the past.

Though there will be more casualties, it appears that our side has won the Persian Gulf war -- and what did it, more than anything else, was air power. Not that the massive Allied ground force was unnecessary; not that we can now disband our armored divisions and Marine expeditionary brigades. But this time, more than in any previous war, the air arm broke the enemy before the ground troops moved in.

Forty-nine years ago, Seversky said we could do it this way. His book, ''Victory Through Air Power,'' was a best-seller in 1942, when Roosevelt was urging U.S. industry to turn out 50,000 planes a year. It became the Bible of the bomber boys, those who believed B-17s, B-24s and later B-29s could win World War II and all the infantry would have to do was march in and clean up.

Seversky was Russian, born in Tbilisi. He served in the Imperial navy's air wing, losing a leg when he was shot down in the Baltic in 1915. By special dispensation from Tsar Nicholas II, he kept flying, and as a pursuit pilot shot down 13 German planes.

He came to this country after the Russian Revolution, founding Seversky Aircraft in 1922. In the '30s, it was one of the major developers of fighter aircraft. Its successor, Republic Aviation, produced the superb P-47 Thunderbolt.

Along the way, Seversky invented the first fully automatic bombsight and the first turbo-supercharged air-cooled engine for high-altitude flight. He set a transcontinental speed record in 1938. Because he was so deeply involved, by today's standards we would have accused him of conflict of interest when he wrote ''Victory Through Air Power'' and its 1950 sequel, ''Air Power -- Key to Survival.''

But by Seversky's standards, air power was the national interest. He updated the arguments of Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell, who had written ''Winged Defense'' in 1925 and demonstrated the potential of bombers by sinking a series of ships in the Chesapeake. Mitchell was court-martialed for his outspokenness, and vindicated only by World War II.

Yet even in World War II, air power did not do all its most zealous advocates predicted. It softened up the enemy, and without air superiority there would have been many more casualties in Allied ground forces. The B-29s that toted the atomic bomb to Japan saved tens of thousands of American lives. But at Stalingrad, Normandy, Okinawa and elsewhere, men with rifles won the war.

Close air support for infantry came into its own in Korea, and was perfected in Vietnam. But even absolute air supremacy, as our side had over South Vietnam, could not win that war. What we learned there, however, helped mightily in winning the current one.

In Vietnam we first tried smart bombs, which have worked so well in targeting strictly military facilities in Iraq and Kuwait. We used radar suppression and anti-radar missiles. During that period, we started drastically improving the guidance systems of cruise missiles, one of the most impressive triumphs of the gulf war.

We went into this war with the most advanced technology in history, expecting to fight a powerful enemy equipped with modern Soviet weaponry. On that basis, and remembering how bloody the fight was against a relatively primitive opponent in Vietnam, I scoffed in print at the idea that this war would be quick and relatively painless to our side.

I was wrong. Unless there is a sudden reversal of what is happening as I write, the Allies have won the Gulf war in about six weeks. It has not been bloodless; there were thousands of Iraqi casualties, and each of the dozens of Americans who died was one too many. There will be more. But about the big picture, I was wrong, and I couldn't be more delighted to admit it.

Still, there were special circumstances: Our side had six months to move planes, troops and supplies into place and to map enemy targets. The Iraqi air force's front-line aircraft prudently migrated to Iran. There was little naval, air or missile resistance, except for scattershot Scuds. The war was fought over open desert, ideal for air strikes.

There is every reason for American soldiers to be proud, and for all of us to be happy. But there is no reason to assume from this success that every future venture will turn out so well. This victory through air power does not prove that such victories are inevitable. If we are going to police the much-heralded New World Order, our grunts had better keep their powder dry.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

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