#80 - Bombs Away

Blinded by Love

Hi 👋 - I’ve spent most of my career analyzing tech companies or working for them. The internet enables lots of great stuff: unparalleled scale, fantastic business models, Google Maps, memes. But technology isn’t inherently good. It’s neutral. The same product used to organize a charity fundraiser can be used to organize an insurrection. This week, strategic bombing and the limitations of techno-optimism.

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Bigger, Faster, Stronger

Airplanes entered combat during World War I, mostly in artillery spotting and reconnaissance. Initially, the US Air Force wasn’t its own service branch. It was a wing of the Army called the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) tasked with supporting ground troops. It remained a part of the Army until September 1947. 

Between the World Wars, airplanes improved. They got bigger, faster, and deadlier. New technology opened up new tactics and strategies. One was strategic bombing. Bombers had long ranges and could deliver large payloads behind enemy lines. While the infantry ground it out on the front lines, bombers could attack communications lines, manufacturing facilities, supply depots, and other infrastructure critical to waging war. For Curtis LeMay, then a rising officer in the USAAC, it was love at first sight.

Source: B-17 photo by Airwolfhound - commons file, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70277974 and RAF Scout plane By unknown - Scanned from inside front cover of Windsock Datafile No.44 by Albatros Publications, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24075273

In the 1930s, a group of officers at the Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS), a training ground for pilots, believed that strategic bombing could transform war. Like calvary men and their horses a few generations before, these officers were in love with their planes1. The motto of the ACTS was Proficimus More Irretenti, “We Make Progress Unhindered by Custom.”2 In other words, disrupt, disrupt, disrupt. They believed that bombers would change the complexion of war. Instead of supporting ground forces, long-range heavy bombers in large numbers could win wars on their own by knocking out the enemy’s industrial capacity. The group became known as the Bomber Mafia.    

Targeted Campaigns

Precision bombing was a seductive idea. Aided by the newly-developed Norden bombsight3, officers believed that a few well placed bombs could win a war. Deeply influenced by the meat-grinder of trench warfare in World War I, the Bomber Mafia saw precision bombing as a way to avoid deadly stalemates and score quick, decisive knockouts, making ground forces obsolete. One influential study found that seventeen well-calibrated bombs targeting New York City’s power plants, water supply, and bridges could knock the city offline4. New technology created seductive scenarios. Though tested only under optimal conditions, precision bombing was the United States’s main air strategy at the start of World War II5.

Theory versus Practice

During the war, LeMay was stationed in England where he flew bombing missions over Germany, often in the lead plane, and continued to rise through the ranks. But plans, as boxer and pigeon enthusiasts6 Mike Tyson pointed out, only last until you get punched in the face. As the US entered the war in Europe, punches mounted. Western Europe's skies were overcast and gloomy, in contrast to the bright blue of Arizona, where the raids had been tested. Whack. Precision bombing required daylight, making bombers vulnerable. German Luftwaffe fighters proved adept at harassing large bomber formations, which initially flew without fighter escorts. Pow. And the bombs weren’t precise. Real world conditions of clouds, enemy fighters, and anti-aircraft fire made targeting difficult. Swarms of bombers could attack a factory, with their bombs landing everywhere but. So much for only needing seventeen bombs. Bam. No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Wikipedia puts it bluntly: 

In World War II, the Bomber Mafia's theory of the primacy of unescorted daylight strategic bombing was proved wrong.7

Changing Tactics

As evidence accumulated about the ineffectiveness of precision bombing, LeMay led a USAAC U-turn from precision bombing to area bombing. Instead of trying to hit a needle in a haystack from 20,000 feet, just drop tons of bombs all over the haystack. Then come back again tomorrow and do it again. LeMay loved his bombers and wanted to clobber the enemy. 

In August 1944, LeMay was transferred from Europe to the Pacific theater. By the end of World War II, he was in charge of all strategic air operations against Japan. Here, two technological advances would influence the way he fought. The first was napalm, an incendiary gel used in bombs that caused uncontrollable fires. The second was the B-29 Superfortress, a state-of-the-art heavy bomber that cost more to develop than the Manhattan Project8. The B-29 had a range of 3,200 miles, compared to 2,000 miles for its predecessor, the B-17. Longer range coupled with US victories in Guam and the Mariana Islands put Japan’s main island within LeMay’s range.

The B-29’s first targets in Japan were aircraft factories. Disrupting Japan’s ability to build fighters would mean less resistance for future raids. Similar to Europe, targeted bombing campaigns failed. Cloudy skies and a fierce jet stream over Japan made high-altitude precision bombing near impossible. 

Still enamored by the bomber and pining to win the war, LeMay pushed a new tactic: low-altitude, nighttime firebombing attacks. Unlike urban Western homes made of brick, concrete, and steel, Japanese homes were made of wood and rice-paper and densely packed. Japanese cities had narrow streets and few natural fire breaks. Eighty percent of Osaka was combustible, compared to fifteen percent of London9.

LeMay commanded grisly firebombing attacks against 67 Japanese cities, including a massive raid against Tokyo in March 1945 that is estimated to have killed 100,000 civilians and destroyed 250,000 buildings. Aircrews report seeing the blaze from 150 miles away. The carnage was so intense that upon returning to base, bombers had to be fumigated to remove the smell of burning flesh. The attacks were so devastating that LeMay wondered aloud if he’d be tried as a war criminal if the US lost the war10.  

Clouded Vision

Firebombing was deployed by the US in the Korean War. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, LeMay argued with President Kennedy for permission to bomb Soviet military installations on the island. During the Vietnam War, he argued for more aggressively bombing strategic targets in North Vietnam. He’s believed to have inspired General Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kurbrick’s film Dr. Strangelove. During the Cold War, he advocated maintaining strategic bombing capabilities, even as technological advances like intercontinental ballistic missiles brought new ways to wreck havoc. He only had eyes for bombers.  

The Bomber Mafia and Curtis LeMay point out the dangers of unbridled techno-optimism. Envisioned as a platform to end a war quickly with surgical precision, bombers ended up devastating entire cities. Today, despite continuous advances in aircraft and precision munitions, ground forces remain a staple of warfare. History has repeatedly shown that air power alone can’t win wars.

Replace bombers with data and replace winning the war with any number of business objectives, and you can see tech’s seduction all over the business world today. Of course, there’s plenty of good tech and plenty of useful applications of data, but there’s no cure-all. If new technology can give LeMay and the Bomber Mafia, men accustomed to a birds-eye view of the world, tunnel vision, then it’s a risk to those who work on the ground as well. 

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More Good Reads

Most research for this post came from Malcolm Gladwell’s four-part podcast on the Bomber Mafia, Curtis LeMay, and strategic bombing. If you want to go deeper on this topic, here’s the first episode. Folly is an inextricable piece of the human experience and an inextricable part of war. Below the Line on brainstorming, Liz Lemon, and the attack on Pearl Harbor. 


Wikipedia contributors, "Air Corps Tactical School," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Air_Corps_Tactical_School&oldid=1001945973 (accessed June 12, 2021).


Wikipedia contributors, "Norden bombsight," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Norden_bombsight&oldid=1022504505 (accessed June 12, 2021).


Wikipedia contributors, "Bomber Mafia," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Bomber_Mafia&oldid=1028121606 (accessed June 12, 2021).


Wikipedia contributors, "Bomber Mafia," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Bomber_Mafia&oldid=1028121606 (accessed June 12, 2021).


Wikipedia contributors, "Boeing B-29 Superfortress," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Boeing_B-29_Superfortress&oldid=1026817656 (accessed June 12, 2021).


Wikipedia contributors, "Curtis LeMay," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Curtis_LeMay&oldid=1026955605 (accessed June 12, 2021).