The Bridge to Airpower

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“Amateurs discuss tactics; professionals discuss logistics.”
—Napoleon[1]

For the military logistician, this quote is the equivalent of Nike’s “Just Do It.” It’s a brand name, a rallying cry, and a call to action rolled into one. The phrase raises the means of supply and transportation to war from the muck and mire of feeding battle, to the sublime pastures of theory and strategy. On this higher plane, the study of logistics has much to offer for a military strategist, planner, and even the tactical leader—logistics as the greatest form of study within the military profession.

But then it dawns on the reader, can the general who talked about the importance of logistics also be the same officer who yelled at his staff, “Don’t talk to me of rations!” The same general who ground down his army into a starved and frozen force by the time it reached the streets of Moscow?[2] In the more modern context, if logistics underpin the profession, why do war games, staff discussions, and planning exercises often begin with the assumption that all assets are in place? In addition, further investigation about Napoleon’s quote reveals dozens of possible authors who said similar things—Omar Bradley, Jean de Bloch, and even Thucydides.[3] In sum, highlighting the importance of logistics seems to be a timeless endeavor and more warning than motivation. Military leaders will forget the critical role of supply and transportation play in warfare.

More pertinent to the study of the military profession is to ask the question: What books stand out in the field of logistics? Ask any officer or senior enlisted leader who has graduated from a professional military education course and they can tell you two things: a book about strategy they liked and many they did not. Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, and even the much-maligned but desperately needed for his time Jomini, all fit the mold. Ask the same crowd to suggest the best book on military logistics and the answer is likely to be silence. Thus, in odd juxtaposition, logistics is so important in war that the most popular quotation about logistics is apocryphal and the vast majority of military leaders could not name one book on the subject.

Peter Dye steps into this confusion with his magisterial The Bridge to Airpower: Logistics Support for Royal Flying Corps Operations on the Western Front, 1914-1918, and provides much-needed clarity. Dye begins with the fundamentals. Apropos of the aforementioned confusion about logistics he states, ”There has always been a degree of vagueness about what logistics actually comprises…it has proved a convenient term to encapsulate the varied activities that control the ‘means of war’…we need a working definition that makes clear what activities are included and (just as importantly) what activities are not.”[4] To arrive at his definition of logistics, Dye winds his argument through the historiography, showing its paucity and progress and highlighting the key texts. To answer the earlier question about which books military professionals should read, Dye brings three to the forefront: Martin Van Creveld’s Supplying War, George Thorpe’s century-old Pure Logistics, and A.T. Mahan’s Influence of Sea Power Upon History. These books have stood the test of time and all military thinkers, planners, and doers should have them on their bookshelves.[5]

The Bridge to Airpower aptly describes the role of logistics in support of the Royal Flying Corps on the Western Front. Aircraft were, and continue to be, complex machines that required significant labor to produce, maintain, fuel, fly, and repair. The depth of operations required to support such machines comes forth in Dye’s telling of the story. For example, the initial fueling of the Hedley Page bomber required the use of 700 fuel tins, 20 men, and eight hours of labor to complete. From a modern aviation perspective,  that this much fuel can now be delivered in minutes via truck on the ground or from aircraft in the air baffles the mind. Given this onerous task, the logistics support services transformed the fuel delivery system, from moving the aviation fuel from England in the small 2 to 4 gallon tins to the more expansive railway and truck tanks carrying several thousand gallons of fuel each. In addition, logisticians created a tank storage delivery system to cut the fueling of the same bomber to under an hour. This one example illustrates how all of the elements of logistics supporting aviation evolved and rapidly transformed during the war, from the almost pre-industrial supply and transportation methods of 1914 to the height of industrial age warfare using factories, trains, and trucks by 1918.

Nowhere was the transformation of logistics more complete and more complex than in aircraft engine sustainment. Aircraft engines required months to produce and were in continual upgrade during the First World War. The attrition of engines on the Western Front gave new meaning to the term wastage used by the British Expeditionary Force during the First World War. For example, in August 1917 at the height of the Third Battle of Ypres, 471 aircraft and 417 engines were “struck off”—either destroyed in combat or replaced by newer models—while only 310 aircraft were delivered to the front.[6] In short, the Western Front chewed up all the engines and all the aircraft the Royal Flying Corps delivered. Since engines were in such high demand, salvaging them off wrecked aircraft became an important effort, “This job always fell to the poor old Technical Sergeant Major. More often than not, the machine turned out to be actually between the lines, in no man's land! We used to have to get a rope attached to the aircraft and then drag it into our trenches.”[7]

What is striking about Dye’s description of the significant effort to salvage and repair aircraft engines is that it presaged the same effort during the Second World War regarding tanks. Winning the ground in a tank battle in order to be able to repair and salvage tanks was almost as important as taking the territory. Complicated industrial machines could neither be built in haste nor delivered with sufficient speed and The Bridge to Airpower’s description of the effort to keep the Royal Flying Corps flying gives pause to those who might believe a war between great powers can be decided on the cheap. In a book dedicated to processes and results of an industrial supply chain, the inevitable cataloging of numbers and citation of statistics is necessary. However, Dye does not let the numbers overshadow larger points about the relationship between successful logistics and air power. Like any other military endeavor, logistics requires leadership.

Brooke-Popham, front row third from left, with British military aviation pioneers. (Wikimedia)

Dye illustrates how leaders like British Generals Popham and Trenchard understood the only way to succeed in the air was to have a responsive and flexible system of logistics on the ground. The author resurrects Popham’s legacy, later stained by the loss of Singapore in 1942, showing his penchant for detail and his ability to solve problems and distribute solutions to his units without the need for long staff studies or bureaucratic paperwork. Popham’s processes to determine the cause of engine failure and quickly fix a mechanical issue uncannily resembles the methods used in aviation accident boards today.

In Trenchard’s case, The Bridge to Airpower shows how well he understood the unique needs of the logistics, which would support his air force. This was especially true in motorized transportation, which Trenchard first downplayed and then later championed. The humble 2-ton Lorry gave the service the tactical flexibility to relocate many operations in the face of the German breakthroughs in the spring of 1918 and then follow the allied counterattack from August to November 1918. A minor critique of Dye’s analysis of transportation by truck is that he dismisses Sir Eric Geddes’s efforts to redesign the transportation system of the Western Front as only a minor factor in the success of the Royal Flying Corps. In fact, Geddes’ hard work, including the construction of more cranes at the ports to increase cargo capacity and throughput, paired with his insistence on command and control of supplies, allowed for more disciplined logistics moves, easing movement by truck and rail.

Dye’s work shines in the details, but his elevation of logistics as the creator of air power is what makes his book a masterpiece. His final chapter, titled “1918: Logistics on the Move,” represents a landmark study on the linkage between logistics and air power in combat. This chapter is why any professional military education course that wants to discuss logistics must include this book in the syllabus. As the services propose revamped systems of logistics which move away from large bases and mountains of cargo, this book gives a concrete historical example of how the Royal Flying Corps revamped their own system under threat of annihilation in the latter half of 1918.

Whether as Adaptive Basing for the United States Air Force or as a logistics system refashioned to support distributed forces for the Marine Corps or the United States Army, modern military leaders would do well to compare these concepts and their logistics support to the Royal Flying Corps in 1918. The Royal Flying Corps learned that distributing supplies and using transportation assets, as a backstop to re-vector logistics throughout the theater, underpinned success. While the technology was primitive by modern standards, many of the principles remain. Creative logisticians in the military should look to Dye to help orient their own support to combat in the future.

With this final chapter, Dye more than achieves his goal to prove that “logistics was the bridge between the nation’s economy and airpower.”[8] While Richard Overy and others have made broad points about how air power requires a large industrial base, Dye proves that air power requires a responsive network of logistics, which can adjust to the stresses and shocks of combat while also absorbing the output of national production.[9] In doing so, he stakes a unique claim in the broader discussions about the relationship between the teeth of airpower and its tail of support at the operational level of war.

Creative logisticians in the military should look to Dye to help orient their own support to combat in the future.

Beyond his overall argument, the structure of Dye’s work is a textbook example for any future thesis or dissertation writer. Dye succinctly defines the historiography and uses it to bolster his argument, focuses his discussion on well-defined cases that are straightforward to analyze, and then shows his work by selecting the right primary source data and presenting it in an easy to digest tabular format. The structure of the work begs any future researcher to prove him wrong. The Bridge to Airpower answers the question: what book about military logistics should be required reading?


Jobie Turner is a U.S. Air Force officer and has a Ph.D. in Military Strategy from Air University. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.

Notes:

[1] Alan Mckinnon, "Innovations in Global Logistics," In Breakthrough: From Innovation to Impact, edited by Henk Van den Breemen, Douglas Murray, Benjamin. Bilski and Maarten Verkerk  (Geldermalsen, The Netherlands: Owls Foundation, 2015), 21.

[2] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 339.

[3]Colin S. Gray, Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategy (Westport, Conn.: Praeger Security International, 2007), 115. Bradley stated, “Amateurs study strategy, professionals study logistics.”; Jean De Bloch, "The Future of War in its Technical, Economic, and Political Relations," (Boston: The World Peace Foundation, 1914), xi. De Bloch believed that “the dimensions of modern armaments and the organization of society have rendered its prosecution an economic impossibility.” Robert B. Strassler, ed. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War (New York: Free Press, 1996). Thucycides said, “war is a matter not so much of arms as of money.”

[4] Peter Dye, The Bridge to Airpower: Logistics Support for the Royal Flying Corps Operations on the Western Front, 1914-1918, ed. Paul J. Springer, The History of Military Aviation (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015), 1.

[5] For an extended primer on logistics the Australian Army has a comprehensive summary at their website The Cove https://cove.army.gov.au/sites/default/files/10-12/11/Break-In-Intro-Logistics.pdf

[6] Dye, Bridge to Airpower, 172.

[7]Dye, Bridge to Airpower, 69.

[8] Ibid.,163.

[9] Richard J. Overy, The Air War, 1939-1945 (Washington, D.C: Potomac Books, 2005), 210.



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