Carpet Bombing: A Brief History

 

Ted Cruz locked onto the phrase “carpet bombing” on the campaign trail and repeated it in the most recent Republican debate. He presumably means heavy, concentrated, tactical airstrikes such as those used in the First Gulf War. In popular imagination, these were also decisive in the Second Gulf War, the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the 1995 NATO bombing campaign in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the 1999 campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In other words, he probably means a massive concentration of tactical airstrikes against all C3 targets (command, control, communication) and against enemy logistics and operational forces.

It’s true that the air rate of sorties (one craft, one mission) against ISIS has been very low compared to those campaigns. It seems that Cruz envisions using air power alone to destroy ISIS by accelerating the tempo of strikes. For some reason, he’s confused the phrase “carpet bombing” with this idea. Perhaps he saw it on a documentary somewhere.

In the last debate, Wolf Blitzer immediately assumed he was talking about area bombing — the use of heavy bombers during the Second World War to smash enemy cities. The technique was first used by the Germans, based on the theories of 1920s air warfare advocates such as the Italian general Guilio Douhet and the American general William “Billy” Mitchell. Anyone who wants a grim laugh should read Douhet’s book, The Command of the Air. (He vastly overestimated the amount of damage a ton of bombs could do, among many other mistakes.) But at the time, air force generals really thought he was onto something, and the idea that wars may be won through airpower alone has long gripped military planners and still grips popular imagination.

Area bombing like that conducted during the Second World War would be truly impossible to conduct in this day and age. Short of using nuclear weapons, it’s hard to imagine how bombing assets could be sufficiently concentrated enough to permit such a heavy strike. And it would be a clear war crime under the 1977 amendment protocol to the Geneva Conventions.

I’m certainly among those who believe the area bombing campaigns were not a complete waste of lives, in that they significantly shortened the course of the Second World War. But that’s another discussion, and that wasn’t really “carpet bombing,” either.

Wikepedia’s definition of carpet bombing appeals to the Medimex dictionary:

Carpet bombing, also known as saturation bombing, is a large aerial bombing done in a progressive manner to inflict damage in every part of a selected area of land. The phrase evokes the image of explosions completely covering an area, in the same way that a carpet covers a floor.

I don’t think that’s quite the correct definition, either, so I’ll clarify. Carpet bombing is the use of heavy bombers and a strategic or operational-level weapon — the type needed for area bombing — to support tactical operations. For example, the Strategic Air Command’s B-52s, originally designed to deliver nuclear weapons, were modified to carry conventional high explosive bombs for use against Viet Cong sanctuaries.

Let’s define some terms: tactical, operational, and strategic. “Tactical” refers to achieving limited, short-term goals. We need to take that town tomorrow. We need to bomb this artillery unit. We need to achieve a breakthrough. Tactical airpower.

“Strategic” planning is the way wars are won, from the planning of a campaign to deployment, and even in the design of weapons over the course of a war.

“Operational” describes all the plans that derive from these — plans that bridge the gap between the tactical and the strategic.

The first successful use of carpet bombing — that’s to say, massive bombing, concentrated in a narrow and shallow area of the front, and closely coordinated with advance of friendly troops — came at the end of the Tunisia campaign in 1943. The best examples of its successful use come during Operation Totalize at Caen during the Normandy battles. This was spearheaded by the Canadian Army, using the newly-built Armored Personnel Carriers that were later to dominate the battlefield. The Germans had been stubbornly preventing a northern breakout. Hundreds of British tanks had been destroyed trying to punch out of Caen. German 88 mm anti-tank guns had clear lines of fire over great wide fields, holding off all daylight attacks. Under the cover of night, using a carpet-bombing force, the Canadians were able to break out and cover the ground.

The RAF had spent years developing effective techniques for night combat, but were not very proficient in attacking during the light of day. Using the same carpet-bombing techniques during the day proved ineffective. After a short drop that killed Allied troops, the use of carpet bombing was suspended for the duration of the war. The bomber barons were happy to return to what they thought was the real mission: area bombing cities.

The Korean war was the heyday of carpet bombing. The United States quickly gained control of the skies and began bombing anything that moved. Curtis Lemay, commander of the Strategic Air Command, later claimed that the US killed at least 20 percent of the North’s population during the conflict. The truth is they bombed everything they could: rails, roads, and supply centers. Despite all of this, the North Koreans adapted and managed to keep their armies supplied along the 38th parallel.

The last true use of carpet bombing was in Vietnam. A group of 28 B-52 bombers were retrofitted to support tactical strikes. Their heavy bombs would fall on the jungle, clearing out large areas upon which helicopter forces could land.

They were also used in a tactical role, but were much less effective. It took them several hours to fly from Guam to get on station. Often they would bomb targets only to find the enemy had already left the area. This happened so often it caused the National Security Agency to investigate.

The Soviet Union didn’t often have as many bases as the United States from which to monitor communications, so they had set up a fleet of “fishing trawlers.” Outside, they looked like commercial craft. Inside, these were packed to the rivets with intelligence gear. The NSA worried that the Air Force’s sophisticated communications gear had been cracked by the Soviets, meaning the SAC’s bombers were in danger of being intercepted, or worse, sent conflicting orders.

The NSA team arrived on Guam and quickly determined that they needn’t fear the worst: The problem was much simpler. Since the airmen in Guam knew they were in a rear area, they didn’t bother to use operational security, and they broadcast all information in the clear. The Soviet trawlers took that information fed it back to Moscow; from there, the Viet Cong were tipped off about when the bombers would arrive, their fuel loads, and other insights that helped them to pinpoint where the B-52s would strike.

Suffice to say, no, Ted Cruz doesn’t want to nuke Raqqa. He seems to want to use heavier air strikes to win. But that won’t defeat ISIS. It’s a classic air power delusion. Militarily speaking, the only way to defeat them is with ground forces supported by airstrikes.

If the North Koreans could supply their armies even as Curtis Lemay bombed everything that moved for two years, it should be obvious that bumping up the pace of sorties won’t remove ISIS.

Until this president or the next grasps this — and speaks the truth to the American people and their allies — you may assume he or she has no serious plan to dislodge them.

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  1. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    I wouldn’t be opposed to deploying a MOAB against Raqqa.  Does it count as “Carpet-Bombing” if you only deploy a single weapon?

    • #1
  2. ToryWarWriter Thatcher
    ToryWarWriter
    @ToryWarWriter

    Probably not, though the outrage of the media to using such a weapon would likely be high.

    Using a daisy cutter in a city is probably not worthwhile.  Using one of those on the Tank Park in Mosul after ISIS captured it would have been a good time.

    There might be targets worthy of such a weapon just not likely to see one for a while.

    • #2
  3. Pilgrim Coolidge
    Pilgrim
    @Pilgrim

    A picture is worth a whole bunch of words

    • #3
  4. Giantkiller Member
    Giantkiller
    @Giantkiller

    Nice, concise piece – very accurate, too.  A couple of comments, if I may:

    The Germans did not follow Douhet’s main theories on strategic bombing/terror bombing.  They concentrated on tactical use of their light bomber force to support directly troops on the ground.  Even in Spain, in the infamous Guernica bombing, the Luftwaffe was trying to isolate pockets of the city, hitting bridges and roads.  They were inaccurate enough to generate significant civilian casualties (although exact or even order of magnitude numbers are highly debated).

    The British and the US really bought into strategic bombing.  The Brits did not want to expose their bomber force to Luftwaffe defenses, so they bombed at night, using more or less accurate means to designate their bombing areas.  Ultimately, the Brits were terror bombing – of course, the Germans tried to follow suit – even anticipated them a bit during the Battle of Britain – but did not have the assets.  The US bomber force was designed for daylight “precision” bombing, intended to avoid civilian “area” targets and hit strategic industries and transportation systems.  There is still a pretty good historical debate on the effectiveness of the campaign.

    • #4
  5. Jamal Rudert Member
    Jamal Rudert
    @JasonRudert

    Fascinating post. But I think it kind of misses the point. What these Repiblican candidates are looking for is a way to signal how tough they are and how brutal they would be to IS. This is one of those occasions when a neologism really is called for, and I’m going to suggest that it’s time we separate the men from the boys with the question: “[Candidate], as President, would you be prepared to order [CoC]bombing?” Doesn’t matter whether [CoC]bombing is strategic or tactical, precise or indiscriminate, the important thing is it sounds manly and it’s obviously something that pussy Obama wouldn’t do. Once this comes into common usage, all we have to do is vote for the first candidate to call for around-the-clock [CoC]bombing.

    • #5
  6. James Madison Member
    James Madison
    @JamesMadison

    Jamal is right. Cruz was not sure what he was saying. It sounded great, but was tactically silly, if not illegal. Carpet bombing is any bombing that bombs large swaths of target zone. It kills everything, including babies. This baby killing problem did not occur to Cruz until later when his staff figured out a way to explain it as tactical bombing. Carpet bombing is almost always part of strategic ops.: cutting supply, production, food, logistics. Infrequently has it been used on scattered enemy forces. Cruz needs to learn a bit more about foriegn policy and military strategy. But that is not his goal. His goal is to say anything to get elected.

    • #6
  7. captainpower Member
    captainpower
    @captainpower

    I vaguely recall US President Richard Nixon calling for some more serious carpet bombing of vietnam prior to Watergate. Are you familiar with the timeline of carpet bombings and their magnitude and effectiveness in vietnam?

    I vaguely recall something about non-stop bombing for over 24 hours? And proposals for more?

    A quick google for: nixon bombing won’t stop didn’t seem to turn up anything useful.

    • #7
  8. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Thank’s for this.

    Nothing makes me feel less safe than candidates promising to “keep me safe” while at the same time suggesting a plan for it that’s patently nonsensical.

    I’ve been feeling sick since watching the last GOP debate, followed by the Democrats’ debate. Clearly the current C-o-C’s out of his mind or lying. But not one of the candidates — in either party — seems to pass the most basic tests of awareness of what’s going on or willingness to speak the truth. Some sounded as if they’d never looked at an atlas. Others, I’m sure, know all of this — but I guess they’re figuring they can’t get elected if they tell anyone.

    • #8
  9. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England
    @JamesOfEngland

    ToryWarWriter: Militarily speaking, the only way to defeat them is with ground forces supported by airstrikes.

    Until this president or the next grasps this — and speaks the truth to the American people and their allies — you may be assume he or she has no serious plan to dislodge them.

    There are ground forces in Syria and Iraq. In Iraq, even with pathetic levels of US involvement, the Iraqi army is currently beating ISIS. Massive bombing would make that a lot easier (so would economic aid). In Syria, the FSA and Kurds were beating ISIS until the Russians intervened. If we intervene on their side harder than the Russians intervene for ISIS, we should return them to a path to victory.

    Defeat in Iraq should be helpful in achieving victory in Syria, too, since it’s not going to make recruitment easier (once beaten by the Iraqi army, it’ll be a lot harder to make promises about eventually getting round to invading Europe and all the other grand claims they use to make themselves look glamorous).

    I don’t think that Cruz is interested in forming policy that works here, but by coincidence the policy that panders happens to be the right one, so I think his flip flop from non-intervention is a positive move. While his specific language isn’t super reassuring, heavy airstrikes really would be  helpful.

    • #9
  10. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    James Of England: There are ground forces in Syria and Iraq. In Iraq, even with pathetic levels of US involvement, the Iraqi army is currently beating ISIS.

    I keep seeing photos of Shia militias in Ramadi and Badr corps “Ya Hussein” selfies posted on Twitter. Whether it means they’re there, that news agencies have no idea when these photos were taken or what they show, or that ISIS is impersonating them, I don’t know.

    We need to be putting a different kind of pressure on Russia. Not going to sound good on the campaign trail, but if we sub­si­dized Euro­pe’s energy, they could embargo Russ­ian energy exports.

    • #10
  11. John Hendrix Thatcher
    John Hendrix
    @JohnHendrix

    ToryWarWriter: Area bombing like that conducted during the Second World War would be truly impossible to conduct in this day and age. Short of using nuclear weapons, it’s hard to imagine how bombing assets could be sufficiently concentrated enough to permit such a heavy strike. And it would be a clear war crime under the 1977 amendment protocol to the Geneva Conventions.

    The U.S. is not a signatory of Protocol I (the 1977 amendment protocol to the Geneva Conventions.)  That  said, this data point doesn’t affect your overall point that area bombing is a very poor idea.

    • #11
  12. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    John Hendrix: The U.S. is not a signatory of Protocol I (the 1977 amendment protocol to the Geneva Conventions.)

    We’re signatories, but we haven’t ratified it.

    • #12
  13. John Hendrix Thatcher
    John Hendrix
    @JohnHendrix

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    John Hendrix: The U.S. is not a signatory of Protocol I (the 1977 amendment protocol to the Geneva Conventions.)

    We’re signatories, but we haven’t ratified it.

    Ouch. I misread that.

    Update: Even so, I don’t believe it changes my point that the U.S. is not committed to Protocol I. Am I wrong?

    • #13
  14. OkieSailor Member
    OkieSailor
    @OkieSailor

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: We need to be putting a different kind of pressure on Russia. Not going to sound good on the campaign trail, but if we sub­si­dized Euro­pe’s energy, they could embargo Russ­ian energy exports.

    How would subsidizing Europe’s energy allow them to embargo Russian energy exports? Wouldn’t they need to have good access to an alternative source? Where would that come from? (Honest questions.) It seems to me the bill ending our ban on exporting oil and gas is more likely to help Europe end it’s dependence on Russian gas but only in the long run after production here is ramped up in a big way. That could be done in a few years if Federal restrictions are eased.

    • #14
  15. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    John Hendrix:

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    John Hendrix: The U.S. is not a signatory of Protocol I (the 1977 amendment protocol to the Geneva Conventions.)

    We’re signatories, but we haven’t ratified it.

    Ouch. I misread that.

    The main point stands.

    Thing that gets me down is that this is now such a partisan fight that common sense has gone down the drain. People found it deeply troubling — and rightly so — that Obama had no idea how to pronounce “corpsman,” remember that? They correctly concluded that he’d never familiarized himself with the military he was commanding, and correctly sensed this could only be a disaster. It seems to me they were right to think this.

    But the same logic applies now — and it applies so much more, because our position is now so much worse.

    • #15
  16. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    OkieSailor: Where would that come from? (Honest questions.)

    From us. How quickly it could be done, I don’t know: It would involve rapidly building more LNG terminals in Europe. But the energy weapon is what’s making it impossible for Europe to choke Putin off financially.

    • #16
  17. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    I think carpet bombing has really only been used twice, both times in the Normandy campaign.  They used thousands of bombers.  The first try was unsuccessful; the bomb line kept moving back because of the dust, and allied troops were killed.  The second time destroyed Panzer Lehr.

    • #17
  18. Scott Wilmot Member
    Scott Wilmot
    @ScottWilmot

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: But the energy weapon is what’s making it impossible for Europe to choke Putin off financially.

    Interesting article here on LNG and geopolitics. I worked in Qatar with RasGas from 2004-2009 when we developed the North Field. LNG import terminals were built in Italy and the US to take that gas. With the fracking boom we don’t need to import that gas but we do have an abundance of cheap gas now and need to turn those import terminals into export terminals.

    • #18
  19. BrentB67 Inactive
    BrentB67
    @BrentB67

    Scott Wilmot:

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: But the energy weapon is what’s making it impossible for Europe to choke Putin off financially.

    Interesting article here on LNG and geopolitics. I worked in Qatar with RasGas from 2004-2009 when we developed the North Field. LNG import terminals were built in Italy and the US to take that gas. With the fracking boom we don’t need to import that gas but we do have an abundance of cheap gas now and need to turn those import terminals into export terminals.

    That is happening in earnest along the gulf coast. Cheniere Energy is the early leader.

    The economics of exporting LNG from the Gulf Coast were sketchy considering the competition from where you worked in Qatar with almost negligible raw material cost, Australia with its proximity to Asia, and west Canada with better ocean route to Asia.

    The collapse in natural gas lately may have widened the spread to where U.S. LNG exports are viable.

    • #19
  20. BrentB67 Inactive
    BrentB67
    @BrentB67

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    OkieSailor: Where would that come from? (Honest questions.)

    From us. How quickly it could be done, I don’t know: It would involve rapidly building more LNG terminals in Europe. But the energy weapon is what’s making it impossible for Europe to choke Putin off financially.

    All of the infrastructure exists.

    The issue is the transportation. Cooling natural gas to -160 (not sure if it that is F or C) to liquefy it and keeping it there for week(s) transporting across the ocean will always be challenged to compete with a pipeline over land transporting the methane in its gaseous state.

    For it to be feasible the spread between what the gas is purchased for and what it is sold has to be enormous, perhaps $10 or more.

    Russia loves to hold a hammer over Europe, but it also loves selling natural gas for many Euros in the winter time.

    • #20
  21. Scott Wilmot Member
    Scott Wilmot
    @ScottWilmot

    BrentB67: The collapse in natural gas lately may have widened the spread to where U.S. LNG exports are viable.

    Yep – you need LOTS of gas and it has to be cheap. We have that now here. I know my former company ExxonMobil was trying to go this route back in 2012 but I’ve been retired for a year and a half now so don’t keep up with this anymore.

    • #21
  22. BrentB67 Inactive
    BrentB67
    @BrentB67

    If Europe was concerned about Putin’s hammer they would silence all the environmental terrorists, end bans on hydraulic fracturing, and embrace nuclear power.

    Europe’s leadership wants cheap, abundant, non-radioactive waste producing energy, that comes from somewhere else without any strings attached.

    We would also like a fat free, high protein, 0 calorie chocolate chip cookie that cures cancer and makes wrinkles fade.

    I think we have  a better shot at the cookie than satisfying Europe’s bizarre energy expectations.

    • #22
  23. BrentB67 Inactive
    BrentB67
    @BrentB67

    Scott Wilmot:

    BrentB67: The collapse in natural gas lately may have widened the spread to where U.S. LNG exports are viable.

    Yep – you need LOTS of gas and it has to be cheap. We have that now here. I know my former company ExxonMobil was trying to go this route back in 2012 but I’ve been retired for a year and a half now so don’t keep up with this anymore.

    The spreads are finally interesting. I am still skeptical about LNG exports from the gulf coast and think it is more a product of financial engineering and chicanery at Cheniere.

    • #23
  24. BrentB67 Inactive
    BrentB67
    @BrentB67

    Apologies for hijacking the thread. TWR did a very nice post. I don’t share the same use of the term carpet bombing and learned about the 1977 Geneva amendment.

    • #24
  25. WI Con Member
    WI Con
    @WICon

    BrentB67:Apologies for hijacking the thread. TWR did a very nice post. I don’t share the same use of the term carpet bombing and learned about the 1977 Geneva amendment.

    Can we carpet bomb those terminals? :)

    • #25
  26. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    BrentB67:

    Scott Wilmot:

    BrentB67: The collapse in natural gas lately may have widened the spread to where U.S. LNG exports are viable.

    Yep – you need LOTS of gas and it has to be cheap. We have that now here. I know my former company ExxonMobil was trying to go this route back in 2012 but I’ve been retired for a year and a half now so don’t keep up with this anymore.

    The spreads are finally interesting. I am still skeptical about LNG exports from the gulf coast and think it is more a product of financial engineering and chicanery at Cheniere.

    Agreed. If there is money to be made exporting LNG, it will be a short-term score. I continue to believe that the fracking technologies will work everywhere in the world, and that the United States is not somehow unique in having our enormous, massive, huge, petroleum assets in the ground.

    Once the knowhow spreads (and is locally adapted), every nation that does not outlaw fracking will have a cheap supply of natural gas, rendering liquified imports uncompetitive.

    • #26
  27. Spin Inactive
    Spin
    @Spin

    Jamal Rudert: What these Repiblican candidates are looking for is a way to signal how tough they are and how brutal they would be to IS.

    It would have been better had Cruz said “We are going to bomb the (scatalogical reference) out of them.” Or: “We are going to grab him by the nose, and kick him in the ass.  We are going to go through him like (scatalogical reference) through a goose!”

    • #27
  28. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    This was a great post – I love military history, and this tied quite a few things together beautifully.

    Nevertheless: from a young age, I wondered what the carpets had ever done to deserve such treatment.

    • #28
  29. Spin Inactive
    Spin
    @Spin

    BrentB67: wants cheap, abundant, non-radioactive waste producing energy, that comes from somewhere else without any strings attached.

    You’ve just described every American environmentalist as well.

    • #29
  30. ToryWarWriter Thatcher
    ToryWarWriter
    @ToryWarWriter

    Cruz wants heavy airstrikes.  I understand one of the problems is much of the US Airpower is coming off the CVS or Ports. Securing a large airbase closer to the fighting would increase sortie rate and capabilities, but would also require enough troops to secure the base.

    “I think carpet bombing has really only been used twice, both times in the Normandy campaign.  They used thousands of bombers.  The first try was unsuccessful, the bomb line kept moving back because of the dust, and allied troops were killed.  The second time destroyed Panzer Lehr.”

    As I mentioned earlier the first such bombing is used in Tunis in 43. The two you are referring to are one of about half a dozen I think that happen after Tunis. I am pretty sure the two are you talking about are from the American carpet bombing operations during the St. Lo breakout. The ones I mentioned were part of Totalize that happened during the Caen operations.

    Im happy to have any conversation develop from my posts J. I want to do another post on how to win against ISIS, based on what happened in Mali with the French.

    • #30

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