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'A Fundamental Weapon': The Transatlantic Air Power Controversy of the Early 1920s and the US Navy as a Learning Organisation

Horwood, Ian and Price, Christopher (2021) 'A Fundamental Weapon': The Transatlantic Air Power Controversy of the Early 1920s and the US Navy as a Learning Organisation. Journal of Transatlantic Studies, 19 (1). pp. 4-26.

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In the period following the First World War, air power theorists argued a future war would be decided from the air. Bombing aircraft would fly with impunity over an enemy’s territory and so disrupt the means of sustaining war and economy that popular revolt would force surrender on its government. Britain was at the forefront of developments in this area and the creation of the Royal Air Force, the world’s first, stimulated demand for a similar unified air service in the United States. This debate was played out with particular drama in the US public life, and transatlantic intellectual currents had an important bearing on the outcome. The campaign for a US Air Force on the British model was led by the flamboyant General William ‘Billy’ Mitchell of the US Army Air Service. In Britain, the RAF had absorbed the Royal Navy’s air arm and the US Navy was determined to avoid a similar fate, creating a predictable and bitter struggle between the Navy, Mitchell and his followers. Mitchell was unsuccessful in his campaign, though later revered as the “father” of the US Air Force, while the Navy retained control of its air arm but struggled to shake off its opponents’ caricature of the organisation as resistant to innovation as represented by air power and obsessed with the retention of the outmoded battleship as the principal capital unit. We argue, by contrast, that the US Navy was an exemplary learning organisation closely interested in the development and application of technology, and mindful of the impact of technological innovation on doctrine. We argue that debates played out at the Naval War College, literally in the case of wargames, in the years of the Mitchell controversy laid the foundations for the success of US Naval aviation in World War Two.

Item Type: Article
Status: Published
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/s42738-020-00061-y
Subjects: E History America > E151 United States (General)
School/Department: School of Humanities
URI: https://ray.yorksj.ac.uk/id/eprint/4248

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