Our Air Defense



Delivered before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, January 23, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 241-242.

I UNDERSTAND that I have been asked to appear before this committee, to discuss the effect of aviation upon America's position in time of war. I believe that this effect can be summed up briefly by saying that our position is greatly strengthened for defense and greatly weakened for attack.

I base this statement upon two facts. First, that an invading army and its supplies must still be transported by sea. Second, that aviation makes it more difficult than ever before for a navy to approach a hostile shore.

In support of these facts, I cite, for the first, the minute carrying capacity of aircraft in relation to the weight of equipment and supplies required for a major expeditionary force; and for the second, the experience of the British Navy off the Norwegian coast and in the North Sea.

I do not believe there is any danger of an invasion of this continent, either by sea or by air, as long as we maintain an army, navy and air force of reasonable size and in modern condition, and provided we establish the bases essential for defense.

How large our air force should be in actual numbers depends, of course, upon conditions in other parts of the world. Because of the existing European crisis, I should say that we would be wise to construct as rapidly as possible a total air force of about 10,000 thoroughly modern fighting planes plus reserves.

Urges Protective Bases

This number would, I believe, be adequate to insure American security regardless of the outcome of the present European war. Whether our air force should be increased or decreased in the more distant future will be decided by circumstances which we cannot now foresee. But an industry capable of building and maintaining a 10,000 plane force would, I believe, have adequate flexibility to meet any emergency with which we might be confronted in this hemisphere.

Accompanying this expansion of our air force should be the construction of aviation bases in Newfoundland, Canada, the West Indies, parts of South America, Central America, the Galapagos Islands, the Hawaiian Islands and Alaska. Secondary bases might be placed in parts of Greenland, but in my opinion Greenland is not of primary importance from the standpoint of aviation bases.

Sees No Invasion by Air Alone

Since many people are discussing the possibility of an air invasion of America, I would like permission to bring a few points to your attention in this connection. It is first necessary to establish clearly the difference between an air invasion where troops are landed and a bombing raid where there is no attempt to establish a base on enemy territory. I will treat these two problems separately, for they are entirely different.

There has never been an invasion of enemy territory by air alone. The two outstanding examples of what might be called a partial air invasion were furnished by the German occupations of Norway and Holland. But in each of these instances the landing of troops by air was carried on simultaneously with a ground army invasion on a major scale. The maximum number of troops that could have been transported and supplied by air would have been ineffective without the immediate support of a ground army. If air invasion alone could be successful, it would have been used by the Germans against England many months ago.

It is important to note that the transport of troops by air in Europe has been over a distance of a few hundred miles at most. An air invasion across the ocean is, I believe, absolutely impossible at this time, or in any predictable future. To be effective in America, enemy aircraft would have to operate from bases in America, and those bases would have to be established and supplied by sea. Aircraft alone are not capable of carrying a sufficient quantity of material.

Claims have been made that America might be subject to air invasion by way of Alaska or Greenland, where the distance between land is short. But such claims overlook the difficulties of climate and terrain in these semi-arctic areas. If air routes to Asia and Europe through the North were preferable to the greater over-water distances farther south, they would have been used years ago by commercial airlines.

Discounts Greenland Route It is, of course, essential for us to maintain defense bases in Alaska. I believe that we should wage war with all of our resources if an invasion of Alaska or any other portion of America were attempted. But a sudden air invasion of this country by way of Alaska is out of the question. The conquest of Alaska would necessitate the movement of troops and supplies by ground and sea, the defeat of our own forces and the establishment of enemy bases. Even if that could be accomplished, there is little likelihood that the wilds of Canada could be crossed and the United States invaded by an army based upon remote Alaskan outposts of Asiatic or European powers.

If an enemy were planning on an invasion of America, I believe that the route over Greenland is one of the last he would consider. I spent several weeks in Greenland in the Summer of 1933, surveying the coasts for air bases, and studying the conditions that would be encountered in operating a northern air route. I came to the conclusion that of all the possible air routes between America and Europe the one over Greenland would be the most difficult to establish and operate. Except for a rugged and mountainous strip around the coast, Greenland is covered with ice. The climate is uncertain and severe, the Summer season is short, and the seas are filled with ice during the entire year.

Considers Air Bombing Attacks The question of transoceanic bombing is, as I have said, entirely different from that of air invasion. It is, of course, perfectly possible today to build bombing planes that could cross the ocean, drop several tons of bombs, and return to their starting point. Transoceanic bombing raids could do considerable damage on peacetime standards, but they would have very little effectiveness on wartime standards. The cost of transoceanic bombing would be extremely high, enemy losses would be large, and the effect on our military position negligible.

Such bombing could not begin to prepare the way for an invasion of this continent. If England is able to live at all with bases of the German air force less than an hour's flight away, the United States is not in great danger across the Atlantic Ocean. Not only is such bombing ineffective theoretically, but from a practical standpoint it is interesting to note that not a single squadron of transoceanic bombing planes exists anywhere in the world today.

I have, up to this point, attempted to show that aviation strengthens the defensive position of America. First, because it is impossible for an enemy to invade this continent by means of aircraft alone; second, because transoceanic bombing is indecisive; third, because our own air force makes it more difficult than ever before for an enemy to approach our shores.

However, I believe we are faced with the reverse situation when we contemplate sending our military forces abroad. Almost every advantage we have in defense would be a disadvantage to us in attack. It would then be our problem to cross the sea in ships and force a landing against the established air bases of our enemy.

Japan's Aviation Held Lacking If one studies the situation objectively, it becomes obvious that there are three great centers of air strength in the world today: the United States, Germany and Japan. Up to the present time we have led in the development of commercial aviation. Germany has led in the development of military aviation and Japan has led in the development of aviation in the Orient.

Since Oriental aviation is far behind that of Western nations, one might say that there are two great aviation powers: one in America and one in Europe. Personally, I do not believe it is possible for either America or Europe to invade the other successfully by air, or even by a combination of air, land and sea, unless an internal collapse precedes invasion.

In this sense aviation has added to America's security against Europe, and to Europe's security against America. One might sum the matter up by saying that aviation decreases the security of nations within a continent against each other, but increases the security of the continent as a whole against foreign invasion.

That aviation will have a great effect on the future relationship of nations is beyond question. But we in America are possibly the most fortunate of all peoples in this respect We have a country and climate well suited to the development of aircraft. We have natural resources, great industries and a national psychology ideally adapted to the tempo of the air.

In conclusion, I would like to say that aviation is to us unquestionably an asset. It greatly strengthens our position and increases the security of this entire hemisphere from foreign attack.