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Command of the Air

Command of the Air

by Giulio Douhet, Charles a. Gabriel

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The Italian General Giulio Douhet reigns as one of the twentieth century’s foremost strategic air power theorists. As such scholars as Raymond Flugel have pointed out, Douhet’s theories were crucial at a pivotal pre-World War II Army Air Force institution, the Air Corps Tactical School.


The Italian General Giulio Douhet reigns as one of the twentieth century’s foremost strategic air power theorists. As such scholars as Raymond Flugel have pointed out, Douhet’s theories were crucial at a pivotal pre-World War II Army Air Force institution, the Air Corps Tactical School.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“The Italian General Giulio Douhet reigns as one of the twentieth century’s foremost strategic air power theorists. Along with William ‘Billy’ Mitchell, Douhet understood that the technological advances in weaponry made during World War I were not fully utilized by Allied commanders. Douhet thus spent the decade after the war constructing a theory that would facilitate the strategic use of what he conceived to be the biggest technological breakthrough of all, the airplane. As such scholars as Raymond Flugel have pointed out, Douhet’s theories were crucial at a pivotal pre-World War II Army Air Force institution, the Air Corps Tactical School.”

— Michael J. Eula, Air University Review

“Giulio Douhet’s The Command of the Air is a military classic. It was the first detailed analysis of the offensive and defensive employment of the air weapon. Published in
1921, The Command of the Air asserted the decisiveness of strategic bombardment before Billy Mitchell and other air leaders had given that subject any detailed thought.
The 1927 edition . . . contains Douhet’s fully developed thesis on how to use the air weapon to achieve victory. Subsequently translated into English, French, German,
and Russian, it stimulated the thinking of aviators in various countries prior to World War II.”
—Col. John F. Shiner, Air University Review

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Books Express Publishing
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6.69(w) x 9.61(h) x 0.94(d)

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The Command of the Air

By Giulio Douhet, Joseph Patrick Harahan, Richard H. Kohn, Dino Ferrari

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2009 University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8325-1


The New Form of War


Aeronautics opened up to men a new field of action, the field of the air. In so doing it of necessity created a new battlefield; for wherever two men meet, conflict is inevitable. In actual fact, aeronautics was widely employed in warfare long before any civilian use was made of it. Still in its infancy at the outbreak of the World War, this new science received then a powerful impetus to military development.

The practical use of the air arm was at first only vaguely understood. This new arm had sprung suddenly into the field of war; and its characteristics, radically different from those of any other arm employed up to that time, were still undefined. Very few possibilities of this new instrument of war were recognized when it first appeared. Many people took the extreme position that it was impossible to fight in the air; others admitted only that it might prove a useful auxiliary to already existing means of war.

At first the speed and freedom of action of the airplane—the air arm chiefly used in the beginning—caused it to be considered primarily an instrument of exploration and reconnaissance. Then gradually the idea of using it as a range-finder for the artillery grew up. Next, its obvious advantages over surface means led to its being used to attack the enemy on and behind his own lines, but no great importance was attached to this function because it was thought that the airplane was incapable of transporting any heavy load of offensive matériel. Then, as the need of counteracting enemy aerial operations was felt, antiaircraft guns and the so-called pursuit planes came into being.

Thus, in order to meet the demands of aerial warfare, it became necessary step by step to increase aerial power. But because the needs which had to be met manifested themselves during a war of large scope, the resulting increase was rapid and hectic, not sound and orderly. And so the illogical concept of utilizing the new aerial weapon solely as an auxiliary to the army and navy prevailed for almost the entire period of the World War. It was only toward the end of the war that the idea emerged, in some of the belligerent nations, that it might be not only feasible but wise to entrust the air force with independent offensive missions. None of the belligerents fully worked out this idea, however—perhaps because the war ended before the right means for actuating the idea became available.

Now, however, this idea has emerged again and seems to be impressing itself strongly on the national authorities most concerned with these matters. It is, in fact, the only logical answer to the imperative need of defense against these new weapons of warfare. Essentially man lives close to the earth's surface, and no doubt he began his battling there. We do not know whether, when he first began to navigate the seas, he regarded naval warfare as a mere auxiliary to land operations; but we do know that from time immemorial we have been fighting on the sea independently of, though in co-operation with, land forces. Today, however, the sky is of far greater interest to man, living on the surface of the earth, than is the sea; and nothing, therefore, can a priori prevent him from reaching the conclusion that the air constitutes a battlefield of equal importance.

Though an army is primarily a land force, it possesses navigable means of warfare which it can use to help integrate its land operations; and that fact does not preclude the navy's accomplishing, solely with its own naval means, war missions from which the army is completely excluded. Similarly, while a navy is primarily a sea force, it possesses land means of warfare which it may use to assist and integrate its naval operations; and that fact does not preclude the army's carrying out war missions solely with its own land means, entirely independent of any naval means. In like manner, both the army and navy may well possess aerial means to aid and integrate their respective military and naval operations; but that does not preclude the possibility, the practicability, even the necessity, of having an air force capable of accomplishing war missions solely with its own means, to the complete exclusion of both army and navy.

In such a case, an air force should logically be accorded equal importance with the army and navy and bear the same relation to them as they now bear to each other. Obviously, both the army and the navy, each in its own field, must operate toward the same objective—i.e., to win the war. They must act accordingly, but independently of each other. To make one dependent on the other would restrict the freedom of action of the one or the other, and thus diminish their total effectiveness. Similarly, an air force should at all times cooperate with the army and the navy; but it must be independent of them both.

At this point I should like to outline the general aspects of the problem which faces us today and to emphasize the great importance of it. Now that we are released from the pressure of the World War, with its trial-and-error methods, it behooves us to work toward the solution of this problem by an entirely different method, one calculated to obtain for us the maximum return with the minimum of effort.

The state must make such disposition of its defenses as will put it in the best possible condition to sustain any future war. But in order to be effective, these dispositions for defense must provide means of warfare suited to the character and form future wars may assume. In other words, the character and form assumed by the war of the future is the fundamental basis upon which depends what dispositions of the means of war will provide a really effective defense of the state.

The prevailing forms of social organization have given war a character of national totality—that is, the entire population and all the resources of a nation are sucked into the maw of war. And, since society is now definitely evolving along this line, it is within the power of human foresight to see now that future wars will be total in character and scope. Still confining ourselves to the narrow limits of human foresight, we can nevertheless state, with complete certainty, that probable future wars will be radically different in character from those of the past.

The form of any war—and it is the form which is of primary interest to men of war—depends upon the technical means of war available. It is well known, for instance, that the introduction of firearms was a powerful influence in changing the forms of war in the past. Yet firearms were only a gradual development, an improvement upon ancient engines of war—such as the bow and arrow, the ballista, the catapult, et cetera—utilizing the elasticity of solid materials. In our own lifetime we have seen how great an influence the introduction of small-caliber, rapid-fire guns—together with barbed wire—has had on land warfare, and how the submarine changed the nature of sea warfare. We have also assisted in the introduction of two new weapons, the air arm and poison gas. But they are still in their infancy, and are entirely different from all others in character; and we cannot yet estimate exactly their potential influence on the form of future wars. No doubt that influence will be great, and I have no hesitation in asserting that it will completely upset all forms of war so far known.

These two weapons complement each other. Chemistry, which has already provided us with the most powerful of explosives, will now furnish us with poison gases even more potent, and bacteriology may give us even more formidable ones. To get an idea of the nature of future wars, one need only imagine what power of destruction that nation would possess whose bacteriologists should discover the means of spreading epidemics in the enemy's country and at the same time immunize its own people. Air power makes it possible not only to make high-explosive bombing raids over any sector of the enemy's territory, but also to ravage his whole country by chemical and bacteriological warfare.

If, then, we pause to take stock of the potentialities of these new weapons—which will no doubt be improved and developed in the future—we must be convinced that the experience of the World War can serve only as a point of departure—a point already left far behind us. It cannot serve as a basis for the preparation of national defense, a preparation which must be undertaken with an eye to the necessities of the future.

We must also bear in mind this fact: we are faced today with conditions which favor intensive study and wide application of these new weapons, the potentialities of which are unknown; and these conditions are the very ones to which Germany has been relegated. The Allies compelled Germany to disarm and to scrap her standing army. Will she accept patiently this inferior status? Or will she, forced by necessity, look for new weapons to replace the old ones now forbidden to her, and with them wreak her revenge? The fact that Germany leads the world in both fields, chemico-bacteriological and mechanical, must not be lost sight of. Already we can see signs that she is thinking along those lines, that she will apply the intensity, the unswerving purpose which have always distinguished her people, to the development of those new weapons of war. She can do so in the secrecy of her laboratories, where all foreign disarmament control—if any such control was ever effective—is bound to be futile.

Quite apart from what Germany may or may not do, however, it is impossible to ignore the value of these new weapons or to deny their vital role in any preparation for national defense. But in order to make an accurate estimate of the importance of these weapons, we must know exactly what their value is, both in themselves and in relation to the army and navy. Such an estimate is the primary object of this study.


As long as man remained tied to the surface of the earth, his activities had to be adapted to the conditions imposed by that surface. War being an activity which necessitates wide movements of forces, the terrain upon which it was fought determined its essential features. The uneven configuration of the land surface presents all kinds of obstacles which hinder movements of solid bodies over it. Hence man has had either to move along the lines of least resistance, or by long and arduous labor surmount the obstacles encountered in the more difficult zones. Thus the surface of the earth gradually became covered with lines of easy transit intersecting at various points, at others separated by zones less easy of access, sometimes impassable.

The sea, on the contrary, being everywhere uniform in character, is equally navigable over all parts of its surface. But because the sea is bound by coast lines, freedom of navigation is often precluded except between points of contact situated on the same coastline or along arbitrary routes under foreign control, to avoid which long journeys around the coasts themselves must be undertaken.

War is a conflict between two wills basically opposed one to the other. On one side is the party who wants to occupy a certain portion of the earth; over against him stands his adversary, the party who intends to oppose that occupation, if necessary by force of arms. The result is war.

The attacking force tries to advance along the lines of least resistance, or easiest accessibility, toward the region he intends to occupy. The defender naturally deploys his forces along the line of the enemy's advance in an effort to bar his way. The better to oppose the advance of the enemy, he tries to deploy his forces where the terrain is in his favor or along lines of obstacles most difficult to pass. Because these natural obstacles are permanent and unchanging, just as are the rich and fertile—hence most coveted—regions of the earth, certain portions of the earth's surface seem singled out by destiny to be humanity's battle grounds for all time.

Since war had to be fought on the surface of the earth, it could be waged only in movements and clashes of forces along lines drawn on its surface. Hence, to win, to gain control of the coveted area, one side had to break through the fortified defensive lines of the other and occupy the area. As making war increasingly required the entire resources of nations, in order to protect themselves from enemy invasion warring nations have been forced to spread out their forces along battle lines constantly extended as the fighting went on, to a point where, as in the last war, the lines extended over practically the whole battlefield, thus barring all troop passage either way.

Behind those lines, or beyond certain distances determined by the maximum range of surface weapons, the civilian populations of the warring nations did not directly feel the war. No enemy offensive could menace them beyond that predetermined distance, so civilian life could be carried on in safety and comparative tranquillity. The battlefield was strictly defined; the armed forces were in a category distinct from civilians, who in their turn were more or less organized to fill the needs of a nation at war. There was even a legal distinction made between combatants and noncombatants. And so, though the World War sharply affected whole nations, it is nonetheless true that only a minority of the peoples involved actually fought and died. The majority went on working in safety and comparative peace to furnish the minority with the sinews of war. This state of affairs arose from the fact that it was impossible to invade the enemy's territory without first breaking through his defensive lines.

But that situation is a thing of the past; for now it is possible to go far behind the fortified lines of defense without first breaking through them. It is air power which makes this possible.

The airplane has complete freedom of action and direction; it can fly to and from any point of the compass in the shortest time—in a straight line—by any route deemed expedient. Nothing man can do on the surface of the earth can interfere with a plane in flight, moving freely in the third dimension. All the influences which have conditioned and characterized warfare from the beginning are powerless to affect aerial action.

By virtue of this new weapon, the repercussions of war are no longer limited by the farthest artillery range of surface guns, but can be directly felt for hundreds and hundreds of miles over all the lands and seas of nations at war. No longer can areas exist in which life can be lived in safety and tranquillity, nor can the battlefield any longer be limited to actual combatants. On the contrary, the battlefield will be limited only by the boundaries of the nations at war, and all of their citizens will become combatants, since all of them will be exposed to the aerial offensives of the enemy. There will be no distinction any longer between soldiers and civilians. The defenses on land and sea will no longer serve to protect the country behind them; nor can victory on land or sea protect the people from enemy aerial attacks unless that victory insures the destruction, by actual occupation of the enemy's territory, of all that gives life to his aerial forces.

All of this must inevitably effect a profound change in the form of future wars, because the essential characteristics of those wars will be radically different from those of any previous ones. We may thus be able to understand intuitively how the continuing development of air power, whether in its technical or in its practical aspects, will conversely make for a relative decrease in the effectiveness of surface weapons, in the extent to which these weapons can defend one's country from the enemy.

The brutal but inescapable conclusion we must draw is this: in face of the technical development of aviation today, in case of war the strongest army we can deploy in the Alps and the strongest navy we can dispose on our seas will prove no effective defense against determined efforts of the enemy to bomb our cities.


The World War was a long-drawn-out war which almost completely exhausted both victor and vanquished. This was owing to the technical aspects of the conflict more than to anything else—that is, to new developments in firearms which strongly favored the defensive over the offensive; and, to a lesser degree, to a psychology which could not grasp immediately the advantage conferred on the defensive by the improvement in firearms. Advocates of the offensive were in the saddle everywhere extolling the advantages of the offensive war, but at the same time forgetting that one must have the means to back it up in order to take the offensive successfully. Of the defensive attitude, on the other hand, there was hardly any talk at all, only occasional casual mentions, as though it were a painful subject not to be discussed. This attitude encouraged the belief, held quite generally by military men, that the increased power of firearms favored the offensive rather than the defensive. This belief proved to be an error; the truth was the exact opposite, and clear thinking could have foreseen it, as subsequent war experiences plainly showed.


Excerpted from The Command of the Air by Giulio Douhet, Joseph Patrick Harahan, Richard H. Kohn, Dino Ferrari. Copyright © 2009 University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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