PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Wargaming, bomber escorts, and the P-51 Mustang

P51.jpeg

War is Boring has just published an excellent piece by James Perry Stevenson and Pierre Sprey on the P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft, highlighting the many doctrinal and bureaucratic battles that shaped its development during WWII. Among the points that are made: many early US army aviation wargames and exercises were designed to validate the flawed concept that fast bombers required no fighter escort, while later wargames and exercises that pointed to the vulnerabilities of unescorted bombers were ignored or reinterpreted.

Between World War I and World War II, bombers began flying higher and faster than existing obsolete biplane fighters. Still, the U.S. Army Air Corps’ bomber generals refused to foresee that enemy fighters might prevent the lumbering aircraft from always getting through to the target.

These officers even ran field exercises designed to support their premises of bomber invincibility. U.S. Army Lt. Col. Henry “Hap” Arnold, a leading bomber advocate who would eventually become chief of the service’s Air Corps, was particularly determined to prove this point.

“Exercises held in 1931 seem to reinforce the idea that fast bombers could fare well on their own,” military historian Dr. Tami Davis Biddle wrote in Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare. “Arnold reached this conclusion, as did the umpires, one of whom proclaimed: ‘[I]t is impossible for fighters to intercept bombers and therefore it is inconsistent with the employment of air force to develop fighters.’”

This rigid mindset became embedded in the Army’s air power strategy, its budget battles and its endless barrages of air power propaganda.
Within just a few years, however, fighter war games and actual air combat abroad provided ample evidence the Army Air Corps brass was committed to the wrong conclusion.

“[I]n 1933, … squadrons intercepted 55 percent of enemy day-formations as they flew toward the target, … another 26 percent as they left it; [and] 67 percent of individual night raiders were intercepted,” Biddle noted. “But what might have seemed clear defensive victories were not perceived as such: proponents of strategic bombing refused to grasp the devastating bomber attrition forecast by these exercise outcomes.”

“When assessing results, the bomber advocates created both formal rules and cognitive filters [to insure] they would see what they expected to see: the primacy of the aerial offensive waged by determined bombers,” she added. “The rules under which the exercise were run gave advantages to bombers, and umpire rulings explained away unexpected, [inconvenient] results.”

The piece highlights that wargames themselves take place in a broader institutional and doctrinal context, in which sponsors and participants may be anxious to have them serve other agendas. Of course, good wargame design can reduce some of these problems of bias and cognitive filtering. However, the design alone is not enough: serious gamers also need to think to about the broader processes within which their games are embedded.

One response to “Wargaming, bomber escorts, and the P-51 Mustang

  1. Peter Perla 02/12/2016 at 5:07 pm

    Rex,

    Those poor beknighted airman of the 1930s. Thank heaven we see no such shenanigans today. (Is there an emoji for sarcasm?)

    PPP

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