The [Drone] Bomber Will Always Get Through
Changing the game, again and again and again and
Giulio Douhet, the Italian father of air power theory, wanted to avoid a repeat of World War I. Echoed throughout the interwar period, his idea was that by destroying the centers of enemy cities with bombers, even using poison gas weapons to slaughter the civilian workforce, the next war could be made much shorter, killing fewer people than the attrition and starvation of 1914-1918. Rapid technological development seemed to validate the idea. In 1932, Conservative MP Stanley Baldwin told Parliament that long-range bombers made British cities unsafe, for no matter how much was invested in air defense, “the bomber will always get through.” The phrase became an article of faith among air power advocates: Bomb the cities and the war will be short, they said. Bomb the factories, and the workers, instead of fighting the enemy on the ground or at sea, and the war will kill fewer people. Because the bomber will always get through.
They said that it would work because industrialized economies are too fragile, and sedentary societies too pampered, to withstand such punishment. They were wrong. Nor was their thinking really original. Some version of his heuristic has always existed in military thinking and it is still actively driving Russian strategy today despite a perfect historical record of total failure.
Strategic bombing got started during World War I, first with Zeppelins and then with long-range airplanes. None of it broke the enemy’s will or halted his production of armaments, yet Douhet dismissed these failures. Just add more money and willpower and technology and it will definitely work next time, he said.
Things did not go like that. The Luftwaffe failed to break their enemy population’s will in the Battle of Britain. As destructive as the allied bombing campaign of Germany was, in real terms it was not decisive in the conflict. Its real achievement was the appeasement of Joseph Stalin, who demanded an invasion of Europe from the west in 1943, before the allies were ready. Then as destructive as the atomic bombs were, it was the Russian invasion of Manchuria days later that finally made Japan sue for peace in 1945.
American air power failed to bring North Vietnam to terms. Despite 42 days of intense bombardment from the air, some Iraqis still put up some stiff resistance during the 1991 Gulf War. All that American airpower did not bring ultimate victory in Afghanistan or Iraq, either.
Air power has an unblemished record of failing to break the will of enemies, and this is hardly surprising. Having surveyed the entire history of bombardment since the advent of ancient artillery, it is apparent to this writer that in the very few instances where a garrison has ever surrendered to a bombardment, it was either after one or two demonstrative salvoes, or a prolonged siege.
The terror that Douhet and Baldwin et al projected on the future simply does not last very long in actual practice. The supposed logic of bombardment breaking the will of an enemy society to fight just does not work out that way in the real world.
Ukraine has not submitted to Russian bombardment of cities, dams, or electric facilities. If Kyiv did crumble and sue for peace, it would be the first time in history that such a bombardment actually worked. Nevertheless, amateur historian Vladimir Putin is determined to try, and Iran is happy to provide the means for him to keep trying.
Teheran will reportedly begin providing long-range rockets soon, as Russia seems to be running short of them. Recent investigative work by Bellingcat revealed the identities of several Russians who pre-program the flight paths of weapons such as the Kaliber cruise missile. They are running out of work to do, yet they have failed to break Ukrainian resistance.
Iran has also supplied “loitering munitions.” Conceptually, they are an update of Hitler’s V-1 “buzz bomb.” Able to circle an area, locate a specific target, even attack a target of opportunity by diving onto it and exploding, they do not require the same precision guidance programming as Russia’s rocket fleet. Hundreds have already been launched at Ukraine, which has gotten absurdly good at shooting them down.
From the first flight, men and machines were never fit to make the dreams of air power philosophers into reality. Because the planes are more replaceable than the people, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or “drones”) greatly increase the cost efficiency of strategic bombardment. However, the technology for shooting them down is also better than ever. Ukraine is arming drones to loiter over their cities with air-to-air missiles, intercepting the suicide drones. Loitering munitions are already being used to intercept loitering munitions.
Rather than a technological revolution, this is the same battle as before, but with drones. As always, the objective is a terrified and broken enemy population, and as always, it fails to achieve that end all by itself.
Aerial bombardment of enemy cities began as an explicit terror tactic. The Zeppelin raids ended up costing the kaiser far more in men, money, and materials than the damage they inflicted on the British nation. Rather, that German expenditure succeeded in tying down British resources — soldiers, planes, guns, field telephones, etc. used to defend England were not available to fight in France.
Seeing this as proof of concept, Germany built a new fleet of Gothas by 1918, when everyone was beginning to get serious about long-range bombers. Air power advocates from Douhet to Robert MacNamara have made similar arguments for “bombing around the clock,” or “bombing them back to the Stone Age,” or just bombing to “send a message,” and politicians have listened.
Russia’s war with Ukraine is exposing both the limits and the possibilities of drone technology to reshape conflict, and not just in the sky. A swarm of modified jet skis with GoPro cameras forms a serious threat to an expensive naval surface fleet in harbor.
That was also true of the first motorized torpedo. Admirals were so worried, they put huge nets around their battleships; these were suspended from booms that annoy scale ship modelers like this writer. By the time it mattered, torpedo motors could punch right through the nets, making them obsolete, and the battleship was transforming again to meet the new threats of air-delivered bombs and torpedoes. Decks and superstructures bloomed in antiaircraft guns. Guided by radar, American battleships could intercept two-thirds or more of an attacking Japanese swarm in 1942. Loss rates of 90 percent were a key motivator behind the late kamikaze campaign: it made rational, though horrible, sense as an attrition strategy when the same number of pilots were already going to die.
Anti-ship missiles made both the massed carrier strike and the battleship obsolete, so naturally, now there are drone versions. Ukraine has a loitering munition that floats. Able to putter great distances at high fuel efficiency over mission times that would exhaust a human pilot, it is also a good example of the mirroring effect of military technological development.
Iran pioneered this approach. Unable to present the United States and its Persian Gulf allies with a symmetric threat, Teheran reportedly began developing something like this Ukrainian weapon after the USS Cole bombing by Al Qaeda in 2000. Never a nation to waste an innovation, the Ukrainian Navy has run with the idea, and so today Iranian specialists are surely analyzing any examples recovered from Sunday morning’s attack on Sevastopol harbor. The US Navy is also watching. Taiwan and China are both also watching. All these actors will respond, one way or another, to the emerging threat.
It is unclear just how much actual damage the attack did, or to which ships. Cloud cover is reportedly limiting damage assessments at the time of this writing. Some observers are skeptical that the Ukrainian Navy’s new weapon can deliver a payload large enough to seriously damage a Russian frigate. Nevertheless, lessons can already be drawn from the attack.
In one video released from the attack, a Russian harbor patrol boat captain seems to interpose his vessel in a rather courageous effort to save lives. It doesn’t matter, however, because the pilot cannot maneuver his boat with the same speed or agility as a jet ski, which can cut across his wake without effort.
The lesson: future harbor pilots will need their own floating, loitering munitions to intercept and destroy such munitions.
In another, quite dramatic video, a helicopter fires on a drone that seems to be approaching a Russian warship. It is unclear whether this drone is the one that got close to what appears to be the Admiral Makarov. However, just getting that close demonstrates the threat convincingly, and the failure to intercept shows that manned patrols can be overwhelmed, like air defenses.
The lesson: more drones and loitering munitions will be necessary to patrol and protect harbors.
A third lesson has been sighted at periscope depth in the fleeting report of a subsurface drone being used at Sevastopol. Such a weapon does not need a torpedo to work — it is the torpedo — and it can potentially loiter for weeks at a time. I have been speculating about such a development for months, and it could explain recent cautious behavior by the Black Sea Fleet, especially the submarines.
Despite Russia renouncing the grain export deal in retaliation for the Sevastopol attack, the interruption to dry cargo traffic lasted just a day. Grain ships are reportedly passing through the Bophorus today and more are leaving Odesa. Yet the Black Sea Fleet remains at anchor. If they are undamaged, but staying home, then it suggests they are afraid to go out into the water for some reason.
For example, maybe they cannot leave the harbor these days without a swarm of drones attacking over, under, and on the surface.
Going back decades before Douhet, we find French Jeune École naval theorists like Adm. Théophile Aube supposing that all surface vessels might be rendered obsolete by the development of the torpedo boat and the submarine. He was wrong — future navies will simply need their own drones over, on, and under the surface — but his theoretical outline rather resembles the kind of close-in blockade of Sevastopol that Ukraine seems to be conducting with drones right now.
Russia has no answer to it, at least not yet. If they come up with something, don’t be surprised, for that would be completely normal.
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