Claire Lee Chennault – Theorist and Campaign Planner (CBI)


Maj John M. Kelley : this monograph examines Claire Lee Chennault as a military theorist and campaign planner. It inquires whether Chennault’s evolution of a theory of war assisted his planning the China-Burma-India Campaign during World War II. The monograph is divided into four sections. The first section focuses the historical background of Chennault and the war in Southeast Asia, emphasizing the war in China as this is where Chennault preponderantly fought from. In addition, it identifies the aims of the major belligerents of the Sino-Japanese War and why the Chinese actions were important to the Allied cause. The second section explores Chennault’s theory of war. This section explores how he developed his theory of war and the theory itself. The third section analyzes how Chennault’s theory met the Chinese and American ends (desired end state), means (application of the available resources), and ways (resource employment to achieve the ends). The fourth section concludes that Chennault’s theory of war assisted him in planning the China-Burma-India campaign during the Second World War.

Gen Claire Lee Chennault

Two functions precipitated from Chennault’s theory of war. First, his theory clarified the past and the present; notably the Great War and the airpower’s technological evolution. Second, it assisted Chennault to foresee the future. The future was realized because Chennault transcended the theorist role to that of an operational commander. His theory fostered an operational concept, the war of mobility, which developed into a fighting doctrine. With these resources and the invaluable contributions of the Chinese peasants, Chennault devised a method of employment that maximized the contributions frem all the means. Chennault rationally created a campaign plan designed according to his theory.

Chiang Kai-shek, Madam Chiang and Claire Lee Chennault

At every crossing on the road that leads to the future each progressive spirit is opposed by a thousand men appointed to guard the past.
(Maurice Maeterlinck)


Between 1937 and 1945 the world’s attention was riveted to the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific. Yet, there was a theater of war in China and Southeast Asia that was a fight for survival for the Chinese and Japanese. While other nations such as Italy, Germany, France, and the Soviet Union eventually departed the theater for other battlefields, the United States and the British stayed the course for the duration of the war. Yet, the United States and the United Kingdom scarcely agreed on a common goal while campaigning in the theater. Whatever the sensibility of the divergent execution of the United States / United Kingdom Southeast Asian strategy, the China-Burma-India Theater contributed to the ultimate defeat of Japan. The allied successes in the China-India-Burma were all out of proportion to their meager costs. The addition of the allies to the theater prevented Japanese expansion into the Indian Ocean and, more importantly, kept China in the war.

A large portion of the credit for the allied success in frustrating Japan’s designs in the CBI Theater rest with Claire Lee Chennault, The Flying Tiger. Chennault is renowned as a practitioner of aerial warfare in China. He did not command the theater – the Chinese, Russians, British and Americans had their own command structures. Yet, he was largely responsible for the campaign through his advice to Chiang Kai-shek, and the precedent established for the allies when the US and UK entered the theater at “half-time.” His Fourteenth Air Force, really no larger than a composite wing, had an impact against the Japanese disproportionate to its modest size. His 308th Bombardment Group had the highest accuracy of any B-24 group. His 23rd Fighter Group had the greatest number of aerial victories of any US fighter group. His early warning net saved countless American and Chinese lives by giving them time to reach air raid shelters.

His fliers held the record for the number of repatriations after a shoot-down or ditching. Chennault’s intelligence net (precursor to the OSS Asian Operations) continued to aid the Nationalist Chinese against Mao’s communists. One of Chennault’s Civil Air Transport planes was the last aircraft to deliver relief supplies to the besieged garrison at Dien Bien Phu. The CIA eventually purchased his fleet and incorporated the clandestine air service into its operations.

Back in the dark days of December 1941, his Flying Tigers were one slender thread of Allied hope. Chennaults public legacy is that of the Flying Tiger, but there was much more to the man. From 1937 until recalled to the Army in April of 1942, Chennault was Chief of Staff of the Chinese Air Force and subordinate to Chiang Kai-shek. From his observations of the German, Italian, British, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese methods, Chennault deduced their fighting strengths and weaknesses. He was responsible for assisting Chiang in achieving Chinese strategic goals and, after recall and promotion to Brigadier General, he was responsible for assisting the US in achieving its strategic aims. While he remained true to his President and country, Chennault’s wisdom, foresight, and insatiable desire for achievement eventually collided with the Army leadership. This conflict drove him to his third retirement from the Army and he departed China on August 8 1945. By this date Chennault had long proven and vindicated all his theories of war.

While his mastery of aerial warfare is legend, Chennault’s scholarly excellence is lesser known. As a boy he became well versed in ancient history and the American Civil War. He received a formal education of the times, but his best education was first self-taught from the experience of self reliance, and later, from diligent study of his beloved profession. As a lieutenant in Eddie Rickenbacher’s old Hat in the Ring Squadron, he quietly learned dog fighting in 1920 from World War I aces Maj Carl Spaatz and Maj Frank Hunter (later, CoS US Army Air Force and Commander of the Eighth Fighter Command, respectively).

Chennault quickly realized that the dog fighting tactics of the Great War were relics of the past. He called it superb sport, but not war. Dog fighting had too much of an air of medieval jousting … and not enough of the calculated massing of overwhelming force so necessary in the cold, cruel business of war. Dog fighting dispersed force and firepower. In 1933 he predicted that the next war would open with a vigorous, concentrated air offensive. Chennault was rapidly formulating a mental compendium of tactics, doctrine, and operations to exploit this new weapon.

Chennault’s numerous articles, his school text, his testimony dating from his instructing at the Air Tactical School (ATS), and his memoirs, Way of a Fighter, reveal a great military theorist. Since the publication of his first articles while department head of the Pursuit Section in the ATS and his criticism of the Douhet bomber advocates, his critics were out to destroy him. Several writers tried to disavow both Chennault and his war record. He was accused of disloyalty to country, insubordination, black marketing, profiteering, sexual impropriety, lying, sloppy staff work and undisciplined units, and even of fighting under an assumed name. Leaving the myths and his detractors behind, we shall concentrate upon the man’s words and actions. It clearly becomes evident that Chennault was a genius in aerial warfare and a superb military theorist, doctrinaire, and a joint and combined operational artist.

This monograph analyzes Chennault as a theorist and campaign planner. It will explore the development of Chennault’s theory of war. The paper will resolve the question : Did Chennault’s development of a theory of war assist him in planning the China-Burma-India campaign during World War II? The monograph has four sections. The background section establishes the historical framework for Chennault’s professional development, his understanding of war, and the CBI theater. The war in China is emphasized in this section as this is where Chennault primarily fought. The theory section establishes the relevant Army theory of war at the US entry into the war. The evidence for this section relies heavily on Chennault’s pre-war writings and testimony. These writings introduce Chennault’s theory of war and its evolution. The third section describes and then analyzes Chennault’s desired end state (defeat of Japan), his means (his requested, projected, and use of actual theater resources), and his ways (application of his resources toward achieving his desired end state). The final section answers the research question and offers implications for military theorists, operational artists, and doctrinaires.

In time of war the rebel against accepted doctrine who wins is decorated, promoted, and hailed as a great military captain, but in time of peace the nonconformist is looked upon as a troublemaker. He is seldom marked for promotion to higher rank and is generally retired or induced to resign.
(General George C. Kenney)


Like the Phoenix, Chennault rose from the ashes of rejection and his second forced retirement to become Old Leatherface of the Flying Tigers, but his accomplishments were not only based upon his flying skills. Chennault fostered the myth that he was unprepared for the war in China. Madame Chiang asked him to organize a combat mission when he had been in China less than two months. Chennault wrote that he started planning for the war with only the vaguest knowledge of the two opposing forces. The facts are different. No one was better prepared to fight the Japanese from such an austere theater, to project intellectual capital into aerial warfare, and to see the mission through with a titanium constitution regardless of the setbacks.

Chennault was a consummate, open minded, professional educator with the right balance between theory and practice. He was in his element when he worked independently. Alone, he would quickly estimate a situation and take action. He became defensive when asked to explain his thoughts or actions. It is this trait which eventually caused him difficulty with superiors. At six years of age he spent nights alone in Louisiana’s wild Tensas River country gaining self-confidence and the ability to make his own decisions.

Chennault recalls that he pored over history books in my grandfather Lee’s library reading about Peloponnesian and Punic wars. He also read his father’s books on Plutarch, Hannibal, Sam Houston, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee. His early and sustained interest in history, geography, and mathematics allowed him to complete three grades in one year. Even his first interest in the Bible was not based upon faith but an interest in Biblical history. His earliest military training occurred as a cadet at Louisiana State University, although he graduated from Louisiana State Normal School to qualify for the teaching profession. He mastered several teaching jobs.

In April, 1917, he enlisted, and soon was a ninety day wonder Infantry Lieutenant dourly drilling aviation cadets. After four rejections, Chennault was accepted into flight school and earned his coveted pursuit pilot wings. His unit was en route to France when the Great War ended. Eventually, Chennault was assigned to the Hat in the Ring Squadron at Brooks Field, Texas. Here he quickly experimented with his new tactics. Chennault later reflected that the happiest days of his Army career were from 1923 to 1926 while stationed at Luke Field, (Ford Island, Pearl Harbor) Hawaii.

Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker and 94th Aero Squadron – Hat in the Ring

Chennault’s familiarity with the Pacific theater and the Japanese threat matured during his three years as commander of the 19th Pursuit Squadron at Luke Field. There. Chennault’s embryonic concepts of an early warning net, fighter squadron doctrine and tactics, the geopolitics of the Pacific basin, and his criticism of the Army Air Corps canned exercises developed. In hindsight it is odd that the US military’s use of an early warning net should arise from a lieutenant’s placing two observers with binoculars atop the Pearl Harbor water tower during exercises and alerts in the mid-1920’s. Japan’s reaction to America’s passage of the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924 motivated Chennault to put his squadron, without higher directives, on alert and conduct armed patrols for six weeks – sixteen years too early.

Chennault carefully trained his squadron in the mass attacks he had visualized in 1919. During wargames, the 19th Squadron’s attacks were so successful that the Navy sent representatives to copy the tactics while the Army commended Chennault for authoring a tactical manual. Sadly, the air arms did not adapt the tactics until well into World War II. This solid tactical foundation, matured by time as an instructor back at Brooks Field, added to Chennault’s intellectual capital.

Lt Col (later Maj Gen) John F Curry recognized Chennault as the Air Corps’ best pilot and chose him to lead the Army’s precision flying team : the Three Men on a Flying Trapeze. Curry saw the team as an Army promotion. Chennault used the team as an opportunity to practice and promote the fighter theory he developed independently. Chennault later learned that many of his tactics were pioneered earlier by Oswald von Boelcke, the German World War I ace and father of fighter tactics. Chennault summarized the tactics using the military truism that the difference between the firepower of two opposing forces – all other factors being equal – is not the difference in number of fire units, but the square of the difference of the number of fire units.

This meant that two fighters attacking one enemy had odds not of 2 to 1, but of 4 to 1. Chennault perfected the tactics of aerial mass and teamwork by connecting his three planes together with ten foot strands of rope. Chennault, William MacDonald and John Williamson then amazed crowds by flying their attached planes as one through violent maneuvers without cutting the ropes. In addition to teamwork and formation tactics against bombers, Chennault was analyzing how to solve the extremely time sensitive intelligence problem of bomber detection and interception.

Tactical formation of nine attack aircraft Curtiss-A3s Kelly Field Texas taken June-6-1930. Image US Army Air Corps (Source

Over the next seven years, Chennault refined his theory and doctrine while a student, instructor, and department head at the ATS. In addition to these duties and leading the Flying Trapeze, he immersed himself in the study of warfare. At the ATS, faculty and students debated theories of war, air power’s merit, the Billy Mitchell affair, and the theories of Guilio Douhet. He studied the failings and the promises of the World War and there he discovered von Boelcke and Richtofen. He learned that upon Richtofen’s death, a pedantic airman named Herman Goering undid his predecessor’s teamwork. Chennault was surprised to find that the ATS taught the newest and most theoretical precepts of massive bombardment but was teaching fighter doctrine of 1918.

Never one to pale from expressing his opinions, Chennault quickly immersed himself into a two-front theoretical battle. First he locked arms with his Air Corps brothers arguing for a decisive role for air power in the heated debate between air and ground commanders. In this debate his actions were short, but decisive in ruining a normal career. He first irritated Army Chief of Staff Maj Gen Summerall and then Maj Gen C. E. Kilbourne. His testimony to the Howell committee of the Federal Aviation Commission criticized restrictions placed upon the maneuvers of 1934 and the maneuver’s author, Maj Gen Kilbourne. Weeks after the testimony Chennault’s name was removed from the Command and General Staff College list for the class of 1934-35.

In the other theoretical battle he disputed Douhet’s theories with the bomber advocates who dominated the Air Corps. The great questions were; what type of an air arm should a nation have; wholly offensive type (bombardment), balanced (airplanes of several types in ratio to each other), or mostly defensive (fighters)? What was the role of ground defenses? Can fighters intercept and defeat bombardment with any certainty? Chennault debated the merits of early warning, observation, bomber interception, and destruction in the ATS, through testimony, and in numerous articles published in the professional periodicals of the 1930s.

Nevertheless, the Douhet supporters won the debate of the decade. The pursuit tactics class was irrelevant for three years and fighters drifted into the doldrums. Championing a balanced approach to a theory of war, Chennault used the principles of former great battle captains to advocate roles for ground and air observation, pursuit, and bombardment. Chennault argued himself into exhaustion and into a corner, finding himself persona non grata in both the Army and its air arm. He was dejected that the only sympathetic ear for his theories were the Russians and the Nationalist Chinese. He had seen the writing on the wall regarding his career and was bitterly disappointed.

With his ideas rejected by the Army, Chennault accepted early medical retirement on April 30, 1937 and the next day he departed to complete a three-month survey of Chiang Kai-shek’s air force. Chennault foresaw the coming US conflict with the Japanese and thought that he could contribute to his country’s cause through the Chinese. He had paved his way into China by exchanging letters with Billy MacDonald, his old Flying Trapeze wing man. MacDonald and Williamson were working for a company which trained a small part of the China Air Force Chennault would fight the Japanese from China for the next eight years, prove his theories, help the US adopt his doctrines, and support US strategy.

(War before the War) - Chinese General Chiang Kai-shek, head of the Nanking government at Canton with General Lung Yun, chairman of the Yunan provincial government Nanking, June 27, 1936.
(War before the War) – Chinese General Chiang Kai-shek, head of the Nanking government at Canton with General Lung Yun, chairman of the Yunan provincial government Nanking, June 27, 1936.
Young Chinese women undergo military training as Nationalist Chinese soldiers during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Hankou (Wuhan), Hubei, Republic of China. March 1938. (Robert Capa)
Young Chinese women undergo military training as Nationalist Chinese soldiers during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Hankou (Wuhan), Hubei, Republic of China. March 1938. (Robert Capa)
China, Hankow, 1938 - A teenage Chinese soldier : In July 1937 Japan ordered an attack on China. The Japanese rapidly conquered all northern China, up to the Yangze river. Chiang Kai-Shek, President of China, and head of the Nationalist Party, moved the capital to Chongqing (Chungking), while Japan established a puppet government in Nanjing. In July 1945 China, helped by the 14th US Air Force, staged a national counter-offensive against the Japanese, who surrendered in September 1945.
China, Hankow, 1938 – A teenage Chinese soldier : In July 1937 Japan ordered an attack on China. The Japanese rapidly conquered all northern China, up to the Yangze river. Chiang Kai-Shek, President of China, and head of the Nationalist Party, moved the capital to Chongqing (Chungking), while Japan established a puppet government in Nanjing. In July 1945 China, helped by the 14th US Air Force, staged a national counter-offensive against the Japanese, who surrendered in September 1945.

China is a nation of the lower strata of life with no vital spot whose capture would end the will or capacity to resist.
(Tokyo newspaper complaint!)

Chiang’s intent and action were to maintain the delicate balancing act among China’s warlords, Chinese communists, Russians, Germans, Italians, and Americans to use the resulting confederation to expel the Japanese. In 1927, with China and Japan as enemies, Chiang identified the communists as the mortal threat. The fledgling Nationalist Chinese Army elicited assistance from the German advisers and sent the communists on their long march. The German and Italian advisers, and Russian advisers with hundreds of pilots and over 400 aircraft, allied with Nationalists to equip and train Chiang’s air arm. Nationalists, warlords, and communists agreed to disagree for the time being and to fight the common Japanese foe.

The Japanese soon took exception to the German involvement in China and convinced the Germans to leave by July, 1938. The Russians remained to fight the common Japanese enemy until Russia was imperiled by the Germans on their western front in 1942. The peak Russian advisory effort included over 1000 planes and over 2000 pilots, in rotation. The feuding Chinese factions were temporarily unified by Japan’s 1931 occupation of Manchuria, gnawing invasion of China’s northern provinces, and the incident at the Marco Polo Bridge on July 7 1937. Prior to the invasion triggered by the customs incident at the Marco Polo bridge, Japan [had] increased her position on the Asian mainland by every possible means short of war. By December 7 1941, Japan controlled 95 percent of China’s industry, one-fourth of her area, and ruled half her population.

Even though united under the Nationalists, China remained a confederation of rival warlords who were responsible to raise and equip their own armies. Chiang was a powerful individual, but his power came from balancing the opposite, distrustful poles of the confederation and a common enemy, not from national referendum. Chiang could not forget that after defeating the disease of the skin, the Japanese; he would have to defeat the disease of the heart, the communists. Yet, for the first time in modern history, China was united. Chennault sailed from the US aboard the President Garfield and debarked at Kobe, Japan, where he was met by McDonald. They toured Japan for several days in late May of 1937.

Their sightseeing, note taking, and photography focused on ports, harbors, shipping bottlenecks, military posts, airfields, and war industries. The two tourists arrived in Shanghai in early June 1937. Years later, Chennault was surprised that his notes and photos contained more information on Japanese targets than the War Department’s intelligence files. The department’s files were so void that in the spring of 1942 LTC James Doolittle canvassed American firms with Japanese ties to secure intelligence prior to his famous raid. The plight facing Chennault in China was pathetic. In Shanghai, he immediately met William H. Donald and Madame Chiang Kai-shek who both would help him. Donald, an Australian, knew the power politics of Asia as few men ever will.

Chiang Kai-Shek and Madame Chiang of China<br>Gen Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stillwell, US Army, Maymyo, Burma 1942
Chiang Kai-Shek and Madame Chiang of China, Gen Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell, US Army, Maymyo, Burma 1942
Eleanor Roosevelt in front of the White House with Soong Meiling (a.k.a. Madame Chiang Kai-shek) in February 1943. Soong came to the US to rally support for China in World War II. The daughter of a prominent Shanghai businessman, Soong was educated at Wellesley, spoke fluent English, and often served as de facto ambassador for her husband. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images photo)
Eleanor Roosevelt in front of the White House with Soong Meiling (a.k.a. Madame Chiang Kai-shek) in February 1943. Soong came to the US to rally support for China in World War II. The daughter of a prominent Shanghai businessman, Soong was educated at Wellesley, spoke fluent English, and often served as de facto ambassador for her husband. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images photo)

Madame Chiang was in charge of the Chinese Air Force (CAF). Nanking, in the summer of 1937, was a political hotbed with student protests against the Japanese. Reports flowed in from the north about Japanese soldiers abusing the Chinese. The invader’s army also demanded to train and garrison their troops on Chinese soil. Chennault began his survey of the CAF weeks before the Japanese invasion. The CAF was a danger to itself. The Italians, under Gen Scaroni, had the largest training contract that cost the Italians nothing and simultaneously funded expansion of the Italian’s aircraft industry. The organization was corrupt. Every pilot who survived the Italian flying school earned his wings, regardless of ability.

This Italian method saved the Generalissimo embarrassment from politically reliable parents of cadets, but ruined the air force. Chennault found that on paper the air force had over 500 planes, but only 91 were ready for combat. Chennault saw that the Italian trained pilots were a menace to aviation. Pilots crashed doing basic maneuvers and had up to five accidents per day. Madame Chiang and Chennault stood and watched as five Italian-trained pilots crashed while returning from a mission in the summer of 1937. The Italians were far more interested in making money than in raising and training an air force.

With the notable exception of a small German trained force of 300.000, China’s Army was conscript, without adequate equipment and training. Chiang’s German advisers, led by Gen von Faulkenhausen, did outstanding work. They overcame some of the same astonishing difficulties that Chennault faced, such as incomplete cooperation, widespread illiteracy, and outdated industry. The Germans successfully created a strong Central army and China’s general staff. As the Japanese invasion rolled south from 1937 to the end of 1938, Chennault witnessed the largest mass exodus in history. People moved banks, 400 factories, libraries, and their society, including 40.000 university students, into the interior of China to flee the Japanese aggressor.

In one year the capital of Chungking grew from 200.000 to over one million as the province grew from 50 million to over 200 million. The 1940 fall of France and the Low Countries, including the Netherlands, provided Japan with new fields for easy conquest in Indo-china. After Thailand’s surrender on December 8 1941, Hong Kong capitulated on December 25 1941. The Japanese moved into British Malaya, producers of half the world’s rubber and a quarter of the tin. In April 1941, Chennault and Arthur N. Young, financial adviser to China, studied probable Japanese lines of operation into Burma. When Young presented the project to the Allies they scoffed that an invasion through the impenetrable jungles would be too hard.

Dating from the 1900’s, the US policy toward China had been commercial and not political, but the Japanese expansion began changing the old political realities. American attitudes did not change until the Japanese expanded into the European colonies of Southeast Asia and culminated with the raid on Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt, planned to treat China like a great power. In China he saw an emerging major political power. He viewed Chiang Kai-shek as his counterpart and the vital, major leader who eventually unified China. America would give Chiang all the aid America could spare to defeat the Japanese aggressor. Roosevelt knew that aid would be meager as the US vital interest lay in Europe and in the Central Pacific. Chiang had 3.8 million men in his army but they only had a million rifles. In July, 1941, Roosevelt approved the clandestine creation of three American Volunteer Groups (AVGs) and a bomber force totaling 500 airplanes and other military aid for China. Shortages of planes and pilots meant that Chiang only received 99 planes before December 7 1941. This postponed the allies plans to bomb Japan from late 1941 until the spring of 1942.

DAYTON, Ohio – Boeing P-26A at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The Boeing Model 281 was the export version of the first P-26C. It had the same carburetor engine used in the first “C” versions, new high headrest and wing flaps. The 281 was actually on the assembly line before the “C” and was used to develop the wing flaps needed to reduce the landing speed. The Model 281 made its maiden flight in December 1934. The Chinese Air Force aircraft were ordered in 1934 but because of funding problems didn’t arrive until 1936. In 1934 the Chinese Air Force ordered 11 Model 281 aircraft, the export version of the Boeing P-26. The Peashooters were assigned to the 17th Pursuit Squadron of the 3rd Pursuit Group based at Chuyung Airfield near Nanking. The aircraft were delivered with an overall light grey with large black letters. In mid August 1937 the 17th Pursuit Squadron began defending Nanking from Japanese G-3M attacks. Due to losses from the new Japanese A-5M and a lack of spare parts the Model 281 was out of service when Nanking fell on December 13 1937.

Chennault was the great advocate of pursuit aviation. He carried the ball, almost boringly so. He was a pain in the ass to a lot of people. He did turn out to be quite right, as many people who are pains in the ass do.
(Lt Gen Pete Quesada)

In 1940 and 1942, Chennault authored his strategy to defeat the Japanese. In both cases the Army decried it while the politicians embraced it. His plan was to attack the Japanese with a small air force based in China. Japan, void of any natural resources, was dependent upon sea power to sustain herself, her industries, and to then project her domination over the Pacific and Asia. Chennault’s plan was to maintain the tactical defense while taking the strategic offensive through projecting air power and, later, sea power against the belligerent’s sea lines of communication and vital industries. He vigorously advocated the use of incendiaries against Japanese cities – not in tacit approval of Douhet’s theory, but rather in a real appreciation gained from incendiaries’ offensive destructive power observed first-hand as the Japanese burned the Chinese paper cities.

Six years later the Army arrived at the same conclusion and initiated the fire bombing of Japanese cities and industries using the 20th and 21st Army Air Forces. Chennault’s strategy threatened the Japanese lines of communication using a larger scale of the same type of operation that Capt Chennault criticized Maj Gen Kilbourne for not allowing in the 1934 wargames. Kilbourne prevented the air arm from attacking the enemy when they were most vulnerable, on the ships. He also prevented the air arm from attacking the enemy while they disembarked their landing craft on the beach, when they were also very vulnerable. Further, he and many ground commanders of the time prevented the air arm from attacking the lines of communication and operation from the ships, to the beachhead, to the front lines. The 1923 Field Service Regulations, which stated, the ultimate objective is the destruction of enemy forces by battle, went largely unchallenged by the War Department until well into World War II. The Army view of the air arm’s role was limited to the immediate support of ground forces at the point of contact.

Chiang’s and Chennault’s thoughts were in concert because Chennault was a meticulous observer and fought in China years before the American entry into the war. Chennault realized that Chiang faced a greater battle after the war with Japan in continuing to unite China under the Nationalist flag. Chiang likewise became a great believer in air power for two reasons. First, he saw what it could accomplish even in small numbers when skillfully handled both by Chennault with the China Air Force of 1937-38 and the Russian squadrons aiding the Nationalists. Secondly, Chiang became a believer largely by being victimized by its effects almost daily from 1937 through 1941. His interior wartime capital of Chungking became the most bombed city in the world from 1937 until well into the war when London and Malta stole the infamy.

Chennault saw no value in routing the Japanese from Burma, Siam, and French Indo-china. The Japanese, in essence, had become prisoners of war in the Southeast Asian jungles much like the conquering Turks in an earlier war on another continent became prisoners within their conquests of Mecca and Medina to T. E. Lawrence and the Arabs. Chennault advocated letting the Japanese Army swelter in the jungle by cutting their sea lines of communication with allied air and sea power. Gen MacArthur came to the same conclusion regarding frontal jungle assaults against the Japanese after his experience at Bougainville where his losses exceeded those sustained earlier at Guadalcanal.

Chennault had the ends and the ways, he merely needed the means to prove his theories and to defeat Japan. Acquiring and husbanding the means to conduct war were hallmarks of Chennault’s war fighting. A casual observer can retort that it is obvious that every commander needs the means to conduct war, but being the smallest air force in the largest geographical theater of war, Chennault’s command became masters of improvisation. Chennault was assured. Chennault had a penchant for letting experience be his teacher of choice. He was not beyond learning from others as long as their conclusions were grounded in experience and logic. He had long come to terms with the differences in World War historical facts, post-war exercise results, logic, theory, and the conclusions which the military authorities drew in the 1930’s. On many issues he agreed with their conclusions while on others he took issue.

What makes Chennault’s theories cogent is that he published them long before the war provided a unique opportunity to prove them on the battlefield and during the campaign. Afterward, he was able to synthesize them in his memoirs and articles. With his history and military theory foundation, he keyed in on two ideas. The first idea was the destructive potential of the bomber in trained hands and second was the theoretical imperative for a balanced air arm. Regarding the bomber, he wrote that it is strictly an offensive weapon and that the greatest danger, lies in the possible failure of military authorities to appreciate its power. Regarding the balanced air arm, he used his historical and theoretical background to attack the precept of bomber invincibility that had led the air arm to propose an unbalanced, bomber-heavy force.

Chennault noted that Douhet’s bombardment theory made two serious assumption errors. The first error was that a nation would plan for a war of bombing terrorism, directing strikes against civilians while utterly neglecting all active defense against the same weapon in the hands of the enemy. Chennault stressed that it is the population of a state which wages war and that it is inconceivable that their government would only prepare for offensive war. The second serious assumption error of the Douhet theory is that the defense will culminate in its effort against the leading attacks of the enemy bombardment. Conservation of force is one of the fundamental principles governing the employment of military forces.

The defense’s ability to conserve resources is its great advantage. Planning to sacrifice this advantage by committing all defensive forces available against the leading offensive bombardment forces would be nonsensical. When he penned The Role of Defensive Pursuit in 1933, Chennault noted the paradigm of warfare had changed markedly from previous wars. The stereotyped war formula had been in five phases. The first phase was distrust, breaking diplomatic relations, and declaring war. In the second phase armed forces would invade, and, third. armies and navies would fight. Fourth, after victory, armies would occupy the capital and industrial centers of the vanquished. Fifth, the peace treaty was signed. Chennault noted that prior to and in the early years of the World War, individual citizens had little impact upon the war or peace but merely contributed taxes and men for the draft. The World War’s stalemate and next Great War changed this equation to where the militaries alone could not win the war and millions of people of the warring nations would become involved.

The closing phases of the World War witnessed a war of populations. This was coined the National Resistance or The Will of the People to Resist. Chennault realized this was not wholly new, but that the coming great war would integrate all the means of the combatants. People throughout the depth of the country would be subject to combat effects as never before. At the macro-level he predicted that ground engagements would follow the general outline of the World War with long, laborious conflict, ending only when the resources of one nation have been exhausted. He concluded that there could not be a quick blow to destroy the enemy’s means or will to resist since technology greatly increased the powers of defense. Chennault noted that the air arm is personal and affects the morale of an entire nation more directly than other weapons. He cited the success of the British Royal Air Force in enforcing the political mandate over Mesopotamia as an example of the

effect of aerial action upon the morale or will-to-resist of a people. Operating against tribes with a widely scattered population living in caves; with no centers of industry, wealth or population; with no established routes of communication or lines of transport; it is a matter of record that every rebellious tribe voluntarily capitulated within a very short time. It has been generally accepted that the subjugation of a scattered population devoted to pastoral pursuits and inhabiting a rough, mountainous country with numerous natural caves offers the most difficult objective for an air force.

The Royal Air Force’s freedom of maneuver negated all of the tribes’ advantages. While Chennault reasoned that he was unsure if the air arm alone could be decisive, he also noted its historical power. Chennault argued that the next great war would begin with aerial bombardment operations and that an attack was most likely at a remote installation such as Oahu or the Panama Canal, far removed from large concentrations of land-based aircraft. Chennault notes that many theorists agreed that the air arm would be employed early and vigorously in the next conflict and that practically all experts appreciate the value of the aerial offensive but added that very few have any real conception of the defensive. Chennault organized his thoughts into separate strategies and tactical considerations. First he framed his thoughts around the broad framework of offense and defense. He wrote that the bomber was an offensive weapon and strengthened the offense more than any other weapon since the World War, but noted that in the defense it fights in its own element. Chennault argued that the offense was not limitless noting that the bomber will not always get through regardless of hostile opposition. Chennault noted, that if true, bombardment’s invincibility was the first exception to the ancient principle that for every new weapon there is an effective counter weapon. Paraphrasing Clausewitz, Chennault wrote :

Obviously, this lack of regard for hostile opposition is a theory which has no foundation inexperience. Centuries of military experience on both land and sea indicate that the tactical range of any offensive effort penetrating hostile areas is limited by the amount and effectiveness of the defensive efforts that are opposed to it. Experience likewise indicates that the strength of the defense increases rapidly in proportion to the depth of penetration.

From this foundation Chennault proposed four planks for fighting the next war. First, protection of warring nations demands the use of integrated passive defense measures for both civil and military populations. Second, enemy detection must be achieved with a ground information or intelligence net. Third, enemy interception occurs when coordinated with the first two planks and the proper numbers and types of pursuit and bombardment weapons are used. The fourth plank was destruction of the enemy’s bombardment, establishing air superiority, and destroying the enemy’s means to wage war. Protection through passive defensive measures, base and LOC defense, and mobility to neutralize the effects of hostile bombardment, was the first plank in Chennault’s theory. He called for extensive protection taken by both civilian and military authorities. Chennault cited passive defense measures taken by some of the same European nations that professed the theory of the bomber. Passive defense in Italy included sandbagging and using sanitary and anti-chemical squads, and the operation of an ambulance service all regulated and rehearsed. Detailed passive defense in France included piecemeal removal of essential factories, and their rebuilding. Base and LOC defense was an amalgamation of Chennault’s tactical doctrine and Sun Tzu’s deception and finesse. Theodore White termed Chennault’s genius for mobility as flick and back, flick and back, as Chennault flicks his bomber force around like you’d flick a whiplash. Chennault often used Scipio Africanus’s
defense of Rome to portray the protection afforded by mobility.

Suifu, China, there were some old hangars of wooden poles with bamboo mats with some obsolete airplanes in them like this Curtiss Hawk with a Wright Cyclone engine. Curtiss sold a number of them to China in the 1930’s. The airplane was intact, looked good and had even had air in the tires.
Suifu, China, there were some old hangars of wooden poles with bamboo mats with some obsolete airplanes in them like this Curtiss Hawk with a Wright Cyclone engine. Curtiss sold a number of them to China in the 1930’s. The airplane was intact, looked good and had even had air in the tires. (Source :
Another old airplane in the pole-and-bamboo hangars at Suifu, China<br>This is a Russian Tupelov SB-2, obsolete by World War II<br>With more modern engines and propellers it was widely and successfully used in World War II. When it first appeared it was faster than most fighters. I looked it over carefully from an engineering point of view, and concluded that it was well designed and well built. The CNAC mechanic who showed me the hangars wanted his picture taken, so here he is.<br>(Source : <a href=""></a>)
Another old airplane in the pole-and-bamboo hangars at Suifu, China. This is a Russian Tupolev SB-2, obsolete by World War II. With more modern engines and propellers it was widely and successfully used in World War II. When it first appeared it was faster than most fighters. I looked it over carefully from an engineering point of view, and concluded that it was well designed and well built. The CNAC mechanic who showed me the hangars wanted his picture taken, so here he is.
(Source :

Detection and intelligence were the cornerstone of Chennault’s theory. He extensively studied the defensive record of the World War. He wrote in Figbing for Observation, that before the World War the European powers did not think aerial observation was worth spending considerable money on. There was no appreciation of the necessity for denying aerial observation to the enemy. Presumably, the enemy was welcome to all the information that his unreliable air service could obtain. Pursuit was born of the requirements to maintain observation and to deny freedom of action to the enemy’s aviation. Ground force success became more reliant upon aerial observation, often finding that it was vital for success. The fight for it intensified. Like the ground force’s need for aerial observation, Chennault argued that the air arm is dependent upon the formation of an effective ground information or an intelligence net. He envisioned a sprawling, spider web like net with numerous ground observers and a central command post. Airborne pursuit alone would not suffice due to the limitless nature of airspace and the eye’s difficulty with 3-dimensional viewing. It would result in the exhaustion of the defending force with no commensurate return. Conversely, pursuit planes on the ground near the defended point are unable to intercept hostile bombers.

Effective defense occurs when the pursuit force meets and engages the airborne enemy well before the enemy reaches its target. Paramount importance is preventing the enemy from striking his target, of secondary importance is destroying the withdrawing enemy. The net must centralize its information for evaluation and to direct interception because the attacking bombers may change course, split or join flights from one reporting station to the next. Therefore reporting must occur at frequent intervals. Finally, evaluating the information occurs by trained experienced personnel at a central command post. This single authority command post directs the interception, during daytime or at night using searchlights, all based upon the flight route and competent assessment of the probable target. Island or coast defense necessitates marine listening posts using submarines and boats of all types. He wrote that from the studies of the World War the general average of experience … indicates that Douhet’s doctrine of bombardment invincibility is sound. But his study of active and passive actions which some Europeans were writing about were different. Alone, the British decided that the pursuit plane had a role in defense of her islands.

Chennault always argued that the Douhet theory was fatally flawed in that the bombers could be detected and once detected, their target could be ascertained, and then the bombers could be intercepted. He proved his theory for his own benefit in the 19th Pursuit Squadron, in his correct interpretation of the war games of the 1930’s, and now he would be able to prove the detect-ability fallibility of the unescorted bomber in combat. Apparently, the Japanese had read and believed the Douhet theory for they used unescorted bombers almost exclusively from the 1931 occupation of Manchuria until August of 1937. It remained to be seen if the early warning net would work in combat. Interception of the enemy bombers was the third tier of Chennault’s theory. Once the enemy bomber fleet was detected, the fleet had to be intercepted. Chennault found that World War interception was due to luck or accident. Regardless, this left the pursuit with one method of attack, to close with one machine gun versus the bombers six or eight machine guns. Chennault recorded from the Antiaircraft-Air Corps exercise at Fort Knox in 1933 that interceptions were made from information from the ground and air observers and from each source separately. Vectoring pursuit to intercept bombers by a direct route conserves the defensive effort. Placing the pursuit between the enemy’s probable objectives and his invading force allows the pursuit to maneuver on shorter, interior lines.

Further economies of the defense are achieved by sending the minimum necessary force to disrupt each hostile attack. Airplanes required to patrol areas where the enemy does not appear are conserved and available for other missions. Pursuit operations using a line of flight scheme of maneuver possess all the advantages inherent to the defensive attitude of any military force by minimizing defensive effort while forcing the enemy to greatly increase his effort expenditure. Interception before the fleet reached their intended target area was greatly preferable as it disrupted the attack. Chennault wrote;

    Defending pursuit could make interception of attacking bombardment before the bombers reached their target if furnished timely information and if the interception area had sufficient depth to allow for necessary time factors. Bombardment flying deep into enemy territory required friendly fighter protection to prevent heavy losses if not utter failure of the mission.

The main objective is the destruction of hostile bombers before bombs are dropped on their targets. The subsequent objective is the destruction of the enemy while attacking withdrawing, or on the ground at their own airfields.

Destruction of the enemy air force key industries, and ability to wage war was the fourth element of Chennault’s theory. Chennault used three precepts to show that defense against and destruction of enemy bombardment was possible. First, he used the weapon counter-weapon argument; second, he employed the concept of mass; and third, he used interior lines to argue that the bomber was not invincible. Using the weapon counter-weapon argument, Chennault showed that pursuit planes armed with .50 caliber machine guns had adequate standoff to destroy bombers.

Using the theory of mass through teamwork, he advocated that three fighters attacking from three directions should concentrate their total volume of fire while defensive fire from the bombardment formation must be dispersed in at least three directions. He added to his earlier use of interior lines for interception by writing that the leverage gained from fighting over friendly territory imposed little penalty in the downing of a friendly plane while the enemy plane and crew are removed from the enemy’s order of battle. With this argument, Chennault established for aerial warfare the well known principle that the defense is more economical than the offense.

Chennault did not discount the bomber’s offensive utility. He wrote that the bomber’s offensive effectiveness is maximized when it is used against, industrial establishments, and lines of communication and supply which contribute to the enemy’s ability and will to resist. He argued that the nation’s ability to wage war can be crippled and perhaps destroyed by an enemy employing a vast number of bombers against factories, lines of communication, mobilization centers, centers of wealth and population, and harbors. Chennault argued that the bomber was not immune from attacks from pursuit aircraft. In the 1930’s it was a difficult position to take since the faster multi-engine bombers easily outpaced the pursuit aircraft of the era. Chennault urged development of a pursuit which could out climb, outpace, and equal the range of the bombers so that it could be used first to destroy the enemy bombers and second to escort and protect friendly bombers. More than just a pursuit-bomber fleet, Chennault argued for a balanced air arm which included an early warning net and an observation fleet.

Chennault had no argument with bomber usage, for he used bombers with great skill in China, but he surgically attacked Douhet’s apostles who claimed the bomber was an end to itself. In building his case for defensive pursuit, Chennault readily acknowledged that whether an entire nation can be conquered by bombardment is a debatable question. Yet, he balanced his argument adding a nation deprived of the means for waging war will not maintain the desire to fight very long. His argument for defensive pursuit used the military method of understanding a weapon’s capabilities and limitations before constructing a defense against the weapon. During the process of advocating a balanced force he noted the bomber’s limitations : airdromes, large supplies of armaments and fuel, corps of highly trained operators and mechanics, altitude, and visibility restrictions. Chennault also added some immediate challenges for pursuit :

the use of emergency fields for war operations and the camouflage, defense and supply of those fields should be studied more thoroughly; communications should be studied with a view to reducing the time required for taking off on interception missions; point interceptions should be practiced; an information net controlled by the air force commander should be developed; marine observation-listening posts for use in defending seacoasts points should be developed

Army Ground Forces and the War Department rated the destruction of the enemy army as above the other concerns, as recorded in 1923’s and subsequent editions of Field Service Regulations. Chennault agreed with other theorists of the interwar years that the most efficient role for an air arm is not to be tied to the immediate ground battle. They argued that attacking enemy ground forces usually constituted the least remunerative method for employing bombers. The enemy ground forces disperse, use shelter, and maintain their morale during and after attacks. Even though the air arm can decisively contribute to the tactical ground battle, the greatest utility of the air arm comes from its inherent flexibility and ability to mass.

As he noted after the 1934 maneuvers, the enemy ground force can be reinforced ad infinitum until the friendly combatants cut off the enemy lines of communication or, preferably, the enemy ability to wage war. Chennault authored his theory from 1933 to 1936. He outlined his strategy for the theater in 1937. He authored his operations and tactics for the China theater in 1940. He refined these ideas with his observations of the Japanese, the capabilities of the Chinese and with the means at hand and those to become available in 1941. In hindsight Chennault’s theory appears almost simplistic for its logical construction. For years the best military minds argued over the merits of air power and its exploitation. Protagonists from the extremes of both camps staked out positions and defended them beyond the pale of evidence and logic. Chennault emerged from the debris of the debate with an intact theory of air power and with a theory for the prosecution of a war in the Chinese theater. He clearly synthesized and recorded his theory years before the conflict and then had the unique opportunity to test his theories.

Chennault’s theories were developed from his thorough knowledge of military theory and from historical precedents. The principles of mass, speed, surprise, mobility, and shock action that he used extensively to argue for the formation of the American Volunteer Group prompted presidential adviser Thomas Corcoran to tell President Roosevelt : Chennault has strong opinions – mostly about mobility – but so did Stonewall Jackson and Hannibal he’s always talking about. These arguments were critical to the establishment of the AVG and other aid for China. Chennault distilled his theory through his practical experience at the 19th Pursuit Squadron, war games, the ATS, and as the supervisor of the Chinese Aviation Command from 1937 to 1941. These events forged Chennault’s final tactics, doctrines, and theories. The use of these practical experiences for refining his theory were more important than the actual combat during the first stage of China’s war. Chennault studied the combat answer to several bitter arguments that occurred at ATS : offensive bombers did need fighter protection; with warning, defensive pursuit could offer effective opposition; bombardment did not bring an immediate end to resistance. Chennault’s theory allowed the Allies, with the least resources of any theater or sub-theater, to hamstring from one-half to one-third of the entire Japanese Army within the confines of China and Southeast Asia.

Chennault Ends Means and Ways Analysis of the Desired End State

The way to get things done is not to mind who gets the credit of doing them.
(Benjamin Jowlett)

Chennault focused his end state and his theory became apparent. He wrote : My plan proposed to throw a small but well-equipped air force into China [protection]. Japan, like England, floated her lifeblood on the sea [detection] and could be defeated more easily by slashing her salty arteries [interception] than by stabbing for her heart. Air bases in Free China could put all of the vital Japanese supply lines and advanced staging areas under attack … The first phase … [was] pounding the airfields, ports, staging areas, and shipping lanes where the Japanese were accumulating their military strength … The second phase was … against the Japanese home islands [destruction], to burn out the industrial heart of the Empire with fire-bomb attacks on the teeming bamboo ant heaps of Honshu and Kyushu.

Chennault received four strategic directives which roughly coincided with his roles as adviser, commander of the American Volunteer Group, China Air Task Force, and the 14th US Army Air Force. He received the first two directives while reporting to Chiang Kai-Shek. The first three directives required protection of bases and lines of communication (adviser), the Burma Road (American Volunteer Group), and the Hump, the flight route over the Himalayans from India to China, (China Air Task Force). Additionally the directives ordered him to attack and destroy the Japanese and to support Chinese ground forces. Ultimately the directives changed little and aligned with a long-range plan made by Washington staff in which China figured as the base for an eventual aerial offensive or a possible invasion. Chennault’s plan fit this concept but offered the potential of quickly and significantly striking Japan with a small force. To attack Japanese war industries from China he would first have to achieve air superiority over the Japanese, then defeat the Japanese sea lines of communication which transported all natural resources and then enabled Japan to consolidate and project her war industry. Japan would cease to exist as a power without the sea lines of communication.

Chennault’s success was dependent upon three things. First, China had to stay in the war. This satisfied the negative aim of depriving Japan of the advantages of her assistance and the positive aim of providing a base on the enemy’s flank [on an extended line of communication] from which we could attack. Second, he needed a secure base to receive supplies and replacements for Chinese industry had little to exploit. Third, Chennault needed temporary safe havens in the Chinese interior from which to launch his attacks against the Japanese. The Chinese war aims were an insufficient basis for campaign development as Chennault was serving two to three sovereigns. While the Chinese had warlords, historically they were not an aggressive people and were not bent on conquering the world, or even Japan, but merely repelling the Japanese invasion. China presented essentially a passive defense against aggressors – preferring to absorb them rather than actively defeat them.

The US policy was unconditional surrender but the Allies’ end states were different The Allies faced the necessity of reconciling their conflicting objectives from the start. The Americans felt it key that the Japanese were strongly opposed from China. The British wanted to recover their lost colonies in Burma, Malaya, Borneo, and Singapore. China sought to evict the Japanese and then the communists. Therefore, it took two years to formulate the theater strategic goal that still remained unclear, divergent, and received lukewarm support from the US War Department. Chennault became more frustrated with his roles. Chennault’s chain of command was straight forward until his recall to the US Army in April 1942. Then it began to get very confusing. Some historical works use wiring diagrams with different colors of ink in solid, broken, and dotted lines to explain the chain of command Chennault had to work within and coordinate with for fighting, supplies, airspace, medical coverage, and other military necessities. Through it all, Chennault never lost focus on the enemy and what President Roosevelt wanted done to the Japanese through the Chinese theater.

Roosevelt’s specific request that from time to time Chennault write him to apprise the President of the status of the theater irked the War Department to no end. But this was vintage Roosevelt diplomacy which also often included sending special presidential envoys on fact finding missions. Thus, more clearly than probably any other subordinate, Chennault had a first hand view of the tremendous disjointedness in America’s policy as established by her commander in chief and by the uniformed military that tried to implement that policy. This disjointedness is most evident in the development and implementation of the theater strategy for southeast Asia. The Combined Chiefs of Staff established the Southeast Asia Command at the Quebec conference in August, 1943, with Lord Louis Mountbatten as Supreme Allied Commander. The integration of US and British air units in India-Burma was agreed to three months later at the Cairo conference. The British still held hopes of colonial grandeur while the Americans, at least in the form of the commander in chief, wanted to use the theater to strike at the Japanese heart.

After the fall of Rangoon, British and American interests diverged again. The British goal was to retake Singapore. The Americans wanted to explicit routes to China and assist in opening a seaport to the China coast. The Chinese were perhaps the most disjointed of any ally. While they should have been fighting for their lives, they often fought the Japanese in an economy of force mode while keeping a jaundiced eye on their communist foe. This resulted in a US policy which claimed to use China to strike directly at Japan and her sea lines of communication but which, in practice, became subservient to desires to attack through the Southeast Asian jungles to reestablish the Burma colony – long after the Japanese Army was cut off from its sea and air LOCs and long after the frail Burma Road was reopened. Chennault was forced to divert precious fighting resources to the jungle campaign, long after the fate of the Japanese Army was sealed and when he had far more lucrative targets in central and coastal China.

After the war the China Burma India Air Power Survey Board reported : At this point [the capture of Myitkyina, August, 1944] the conquest of Burma could have been terminated without affecting the outcome of the war – except possibly to speed up the Japanese collapse. The capture of Myitkyina afforded a low altitude Hump crossing, provided air transport staging bases and an oil head in Burma, halfway to China. Chennault realized the tremendous mal-utilization of resources and men that the jungle campaign entailed and more importantly, just what could be accomplished if the effort were thrown toward Japan. As a result, Chennault became identified with the Nationalist Chinese cause. The truth was that Chennault was using the Nationalist Chinese to fight the Japanese just as Chiang’s Nationalists used the Americans to fight the communists. Nevertheless, this symbiotic relationship furthered the destruction of the Japanese Army by tying down from one-third to one-half of their forces and enhancing the effectiveness of MacArthur’s and Halsey’s campaigns. Chennault’s challenge in campaign design was to : establish air superiority, attack Japan’s lines of communication and then to attack the Japanese mainland. Simultaneously he had to support the US strategic goals and the often divergent operational objectives the allies pursued when they decided to purge the Japanese from the Burmese mainland. He attempted this with a society that tried, with mixed results, to transition from the bronze age to the industrial age.

For all purposes :
European Center of Military History
Gunter ‘Doc Snafu’ Gillot
rue des Thiers 8
Francorchamps 4970
Email : gunter [at]

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(NB : Published for Good – March 2019)

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