This September, Admiral James Winnefeld, Jr. spoke to a sizeable audience of U.S. Air Force officers and airmen at the Air Force Association’s Air & Space Conference in National Harbor, MD, where he briefly talked about the challenges facing the United States Air Force in the near and distant future. As the current Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and former commander of NORAD, the Admiral could speak authoritatively about the role of modern American air power, and so he discussed some of the threats that could be expected from rival states and the need for American doctrines to evolve to assure U.S. air superiority well into the 21st century. Somewhat interestingly, the Admiral did not fail to mention – albeit only briefly – the importance of increasing U.S. airlift assets, though this was merely a passing reference, as might be expected when contrasted with topics such as combat airpower, terrorism, nuclear threats, so forth and so on.
It is doubtful if more than a few, if any, of the Admiral’s constituents in the audience gave much thought to his very fleeting reference to U.S. airlift capacity, but it should be mentioned that the subject was not framed with any historical context, and thus the Admiral’s words probably did not resonate with anyone (except, perhaps, a few cargo pilots that may have been in attendance at the conference.) For the military historian, though, there is the broader context of military history whenever discussing military science or contemporary military issues and events, of which laymen are otherwise unaware (woefully unaware, oftentimes.) Hence, unfortunately, the Admiral’s fleeting appeal for increased airlift probably had little impact among the rank and file at the conference, and it is unlikely that many of the attendees perceived his comments with any meaningful consideration at all.
Though airlift was only one of numerous topics broached by Admiral Winnefeld, we can imagine a completely different insight if the subject of airlift had been prefaced with an excerpt from military history. For example, it has been argued that the Luftwaffe’s airlift deficiencies during the Second World War very directly contributed to the Germans’ ultimate defeat. To wit, when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, there were only approximately two hundred transport aircraft available to all the services on all fronts! As a matter of fact, the ratio of German transports (only about 6% of the entire Luftwaffe’s inventory of serviceable aircraft) was so utterly inadequate that the Germans began to rely on significant quantities of bomber aircraft (mostly He-111 models) to supply the Stalingrad pocket the following year (though even this ad hoc measure proved to be far below the requirements of the beleaguered 6th Army, as history demonstrates.) It was probably actually beyond the means of German industry to provide the transports required to sufficiently supply the Stalingrad pocket at that time, but it is nevertheless an example of how military history can best articulate a premise. Anything less is little more than an unsubstantiated theory which can only be proven/disproven by the rigors of actual battle…a methodology that is thoroughly unsustainable in terms of lives and resources, to say the least (consider, for example, the unfortunate Commonwealth and French soldiers during the Battle of the Somme who paid an enormous price to learn that charging at enemy machinegun positions is not sound military strategy. This lesson had already been learned fifty years before, during the American Civil War, when the Confederates came up against General Thomas’ repeating rifles on Horseshoe Ridge during the Battle of Chickamauga, just to name one example).
But, it is the old maxim “Those that cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” that underlies the importance of history, especially with regards to national security. And though the topic of airlift capability is merely one example of this aphorism, there is a unique insight that military history provides that simply cannot be gleaned in any other way. Military history is more than a collection of heroic tales and exploits, but readily provides an insight to the overarching prospects of war and its campaigns. It can be argued that most wars throughout history would have never occurred if the participants had understood the implications that military history reiterates time and time again.