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As the eighteenth chief of staff of the United States Air Force, Gen. T. Michael Moseley has been a high-profile proponent of revolutionary technologies including unmanned aerial vehicles (“I love UAVs!” he once declared to a group of startled reporters, who were used to air force officers looking upon pilotless aircraft as a threat to their jobs) while always emphasizing the importance of a strong respect for the heritage of the past. Moseley was an F-15 pilot, an instructor at the U.S. Air Force Fighter Weapons School, a wing commander, and the air commander for the American operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has been chief of staff since September 2005.

So much has changed technologically since 1945. From where you sit, are there still lessons from World War II that apply to today’s air force?

Absolutely there are. Because the principles of dominance of the air domain are exactly the same—range, altitude, speed, payload. And these were the same for Korea, same for Southeast Asia, same for Desert Storm, same for Afghanistan and Iraq today.

I’ll tell you, as we planned the air campaign for the first phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom, as we planned the attack on the integrated air defense system of the Iraqi air force, it was no different in March 2003 than it was in February 1944 when the American air force and the Royal Air Force had to come to grips with the Luftwaffe: find the weaknesses of the system, directly attack airfields, directly attack fuel, directly attack their squadrons, break down their air force across all lines of operation.

You’re an avid reader of military history. But airmen have a bit of a reputation for being less interested in history than members of the other services—soldiers, sailors, marines.

Sometimes we get painted with that, but I would say most people in the air force are closet historians. Because you have to be. Technology for technology’s sake doesn’t get you anywhere.

It’s the ability to see the bigger problem, and if you are steeped in history then you don’t have to go make the same mistakes as you look at applying the technology. You have to understand where technology matters and where it doesn’t.

You’ve taken a number of initiatives to encourage the study of history within the air force.

I’ve expanded the chief of staff of the air force’s reading list. And I’ve put books on there that go back to the Revolution, the War between the States, books on grand national strategy as well as military strategy. And I’m OK putting controversial books on there. The Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell [Air Force Base] produced most of the leaders of the American air force in World War II. And one of the biggest lessons is what they missed. What they missed was that the bomber would not always get through. They were very overconfident in the ability of the bomber to defend itself. What they missed in the late ’30s and early ’40s was the need for the P-51, a fighter with the range to sup port the bombers all the way and then also have the fuel to go down and directly attack the Luftwaffe where it lives at the airfields. Without that, you would not have broke the Luftwaffe in February and March of ’44. So, controversial thinking is OK—because someone in that world should have identified this need sooner.

Are there other lessons of what not to do that come out of the experiences of our air force or other nations’ air forces in World War II?

There’s a great book called Why Air Forces Fail. Some of the constants are failing to understand technological change: high altitude, high speed, precision, 100-plus octane fuel, variable-pitch propellers, G-suits. Another is the need to train constantly. Look what happened to the Germans and Japanese. The Japanese after the first year or so had almost no way to replenish their crews. Look at the Germans as you get up to ’44. Most of their training bases were under attack. They could still gin out Me 110s, 109s, FW 190s, but they didn’t have anybody to fly them. They had to reduce the number of flying hours per guy before he went into combat to some thing that was suicide.

What about the French? Why did they fail in 1940?

The lesson there was that they had got themselves in a mindset of being so defense-oriented—the Maginot Line, alliances—they had learned such catastrophic lessons at Verdun [in World War I] that they drew themselves into a shell. Their airplanes—the Dewontine was a fine airplane. Their Renault tank was as good a tank as anyone had in 1940. And they had more of them than the German army had. They just did not get out offensively. The Germans with their blitzkrieg were able to stay ahead of them at the operational level of war and they could not catch up. Not because of the people, not because of the equipment, but because they had got themselves into a mindset they could not break out of.

One of the enduring controversies about air power in World War II is the effectiveness and morality of Allied strategic bombing.

Let me take the effectiveness first. From the fall of France up until the Normandy invasion, you have a Europe that the Germans control pretty much completely. There is no way to get at Germany but from the air.

So [RAF] Bomber Command and U.S. Strategic Air Forces carry the weight all the way till the late summer of ’44. They fly for three and a half years into the toughest environment, against the Luftwaffe, an amazingly capable, confident, and flexible combatant force.

If you could now look back and pick the targets differently, you would pick oil, transportation, electricity, and some of the Ruhr valley, because of specific factories— that’s what you would go after. And they were slowly coming to that.

Another way to ask this is,“What would have happened had you not conducted the combined bomber offensive?” I don’t think you would have got across the Channel in June 1944 without it, or the German sur render in May 1945. I think it would have been a couple of more years. And how many losses would that have been?

Now the morality is an interesting question. I would say it’s easy to look at this sixty, seventy years later and make a moral judgment, but when you go back to 1941, ’42—the [German] atrocities committed, the desire to end this as soon as you possibly can—I don’t know that it was a morality play where the airmen were the villains and the helpless German nation state was the victim. I think it’s easy to look at Hamburg and Dresden and say, “Why did you do this?” But at the time, they were military targets, war-sustaining industrial targets. Dresden, as a central node of lines of communication and troop movements, was certainly a legitimate military target.

When you read first-person accounts of World War II pilots, there’s always a sense that they viewed themselves as a special breed. In this day of smart weapons and pilotless aircraft, is that something gone forever?

Of course not. If you ask a marine regimental commander, “Are you an elite force?” he would say, “Of course I am.” Because his lineage is Chosin Reservoir and Tarawa and Gaudalcanal. If you ask a navy submariner,“Are you an elite force?” you’d get an immediate yes. If you ask an airman, you’re going to get the same answer. Because our lineage is the Lafayette Escadrille, the American Volunteer Group, the Tuskegee Airmen squadrons, the Doolittle Raiders, the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots. These pioneers have given us a proud combat heritage.


Originally published in the October 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.