Strategy and Use of Military Power: WWI to Cold War


The paper explains that technological advances during the First World War had convinced the experts, of the superiority of defense over offense. However, after WW I, technology yet again improved the weapons and tools of war-making it possible for strategists to employ them effectively for offensive action. The advancement in tanks, ships, aircraft, rockets, communications, sensors and atomic technology changed the nature of war from slow-moving defensive warfare to high tempo mobile warfare.

Airpower was initially used as aerial observation posts for the army and for very rudimentary applications in close air support in WW I. The theories Douhet and Mitchell changed that early perception and were put to practice by the British and American air forces during WW II. The paper also explains how the Germans successfully adopted airpower at the operational level through their Blitzkrieg operations and how they later switched to strategic bombing in retaliation to bombing of their cities by the allies.

Lastly, the paper examines the causes of German defeat in WW I and WW II, stemming primarily due to mismatch between the politico-military interface, shifting and expanding war aims, principle of overstretching and poor choices of alliance members.

How did technological advances change the nature of warfare in the 20th century? At the end of the First World War, most strategists had opined that technological changes in military hardware had made defense superior to offense. However, as technology evolved and weapons of war that had just been introduced in WWI such as the tank became more capable, military thinkers began evolving their strategies. The introduction of the tank, better-designed airplanes, submarines, post-Dreadnought battleships, cruisers, destroyers and frigates shifted the focus away from defense to offensive strategies. The Germans were quicker to learn from the British tank trials in the interwar period and adopted British manuals1 to develop the famous Blitzkrieg doctrine, in which rapidly moving armored formations, supported by airpower quickly overwhelmed the adversary, still trying to fight a defensive war with static defenses such as the French Maginot line. At sea, the success of the Aircraft Carriers rang the death knell for the big battleship era. Airpower rose to prominence with the production of a variety of aircraft types to carry out wide-ranging tasks such as strategic bombing, interception, interdiction, close air support2 etc, all aimed at achieving overall air superiority. The invention of the jet engine changed the tempo of air warfare both in spatial as well as temporal terms. Rocket technology added new dimensions to stand-off capability. The invention of the atomic bomb brought a new level to the known spectrum of conflict. On the whole, technology has acted as a force multiplier that transformed warfare in the 20th century from slow-moving, static defense-oriented warfare to fast-moving offensive mobile warfare networked across surface, sub-surface, air, space and electromagnetic spectrums with a global reach.

The theories of the use of air power in WWI and how did they evolve in WWII

During World War I, aircraft, because of their rudimentary capabilities were only used as spotters for the army3 and later during the course of the war, as interceptors against an adversary’s spotter planes that then evolved into rudimentary close air support carrying a bomb or two. However, after WWI, strategists began seeing airpower in more offensive terms. In 1921, Giulio Douhet espoused that command of the air was essential in winning the war stressing that strategic bombing of the enemy’s vital centers would result in a loss of morale and the will to fight4 by the enemy. Strategic bombing according to Douhet would cause the people to rise against their government and sue for peace5. Douhet’s theory was complemented by American General William Mitchell in 1925 who argued that “bombing attacks on enemy’s civilian population at the beginning of a war would effectively destroy the enemy’s will to resist”6 obviating the need for an army assault. Royal Air force Commander from 1919 to 1929, Hugh Trenchard too believed in the mass employment of airpower as a strategic weapon to break the enemy’s will7. During WWII, both the American and British air forces put Douhet and Mitchell’s theories in practice by carrying out strategic bombing of German industrial centers and cities. The German Luftwaffe initially employed airpower at the operational level with telling effect through their successful Blitzkrieg operations but later switched to strategic bombing in retaliation to the allied bombing of their cities. As the war progressed, subsets of strategic bombing such as strategic interdiction of enemy air and ground forces such as the large scale bombing on German troops at Normandy8, close air support and interceptions were evolved and refined.

The most important strategic and operational factors that led to German defeat in World War I and World War II

The principal reason for German defeat in World War I lay in not heeding the Clausewitzian precept that “the successful prosecution of war depends upon the proper coordination of political leadership, armed forces and the passions of the people”9. During the War, the Chancellor of Germany, Hollweg had never been an enthusiastic supporter of the war and had prevented the German Admirals’ demand for unrestricted submarine warfare, expansion of the war front and concepts of total victory that the German general staff propounded. This mismatch between the politico-military interfaces was in a large measure responsible for the defeat of Germany. The German war aims were disproportionately ambitious and the principle of overstretching soon caught up. By mid-1918, the Germans had been exhausted and the alliance of Central powers began crumbling10 while the Entente gathered strength with America providing the money, the French with the biggest army and the British, the biggest navy11


  1. Craig, Gordon A. “The Political Leader as a Strategist.” In Makers of Modern Strategy, by Peter Paret, Gordon Alexandar Craig and Gilbert Felix, 481-509. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
  2. Douhet, Giulio. The Command of the Air. NY: Arno Press, 1972.
  3. Luttwak, Edward M. Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
  4. MacIsaac, David. “Voices from the Central Blue: The Air Power Theorists.” In Makers of Modern Strategy, by Peter, Paret, 648-676. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
  5. Meilinger, Philip S. “Trenchard and ‘Morale Bombing’: The Evolution of Royal Air Force Doctrine before World War II.” In Air War, by Philip S Meilinger, 36-63. NY: Taylor & Francis, 2003.
  6. Murray, Williamson, and Allan R Millet. Military Innovations in the Interwar Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  7. Pape, Robert A. Bombing to Win. NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.
  8. Strachan, Hew. The First World War. NY: Penguin, 2003.


  1. Williamson Murray and Allan R Millet, Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 41.
  2. David MacIsaac, “Voices from the Central Blue: The Air Power Theorists”, in Makers of Modern Strategy by Paret, Craig and Gilbert,(Oxford;Oxford University Press, 1986), 628.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air, (NY: Arno Press, 1972), 24-30.
  5. Ibid, MacIsaac, 630.
  6. Robert A Pape, Bombing to Win, (NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), 65.
  7. Philip S Meilinger, “ Trenchard and ‘Morale Bombing’: The Evolution of Royal Air Force Doctrine before World War I” in Airwar: Theory and Practice by Meilinger, (NY: Taylor & Francis, 2003), 37.
  8. Edward Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2001), 192.
  9. Gordon A Craig, “The Political Leader as Strategist”, in Makers of Modern Strategy by Paret, Craig and Gilbert,(Oxford;Oxford University Press, 1986), 485.
  10. Hew Strachan, The First World War, (NY: Penguin, 2003), 299.
  11. Ibid, 304.
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