Assigned to the General Staff in the early 1900s Douhet published lectures on military mechanization. With the arrival of dirigibles and then fixed-wing aircraft in Italy he quickly recognized the military potential of the new technology. Douhet saw the pitfalls of allowing air power to be fettered by ground commanders and began to advocate the creation of a separate air arm, commanded by airmen. He teamed up with the young aircraft engineer Gianni Caproni to extol the virtues of air power in the years ahead.
In 1911 Italy went to war against Turkey for control of Libya -- a war that saw aircraft used for the first time in reconnaissance, transport, artillery spotting and bombing roles. Douhet was tasked with writing a report on the aviation lessons learned in which he suggested high altitude bombing should be the primary role of aircraft. In 1912 Douhet assumed command of the Italian aviation battalion at Turin, where he wrote a set of Rules for the Use of Airplanes in War -- one of the first doctrine manuals of its kind. However, Douhet's preaching on air power marked him as a 'radical'. After an incident in which he ordered construction of Caproni bombers without authorization, he was exiled to the infantry.
When World War I began, Douhet began to call for Italy to launch a massive military buildup -- particularly in aircraft. "To gain command of the air," he said, was to render an enemy "harmless". He proposed a force of 500 bombers that could drop 125 tons of bombs daily, but was ignored. When Italy entered the war in 1915 Douhet was shocked by the army's incompetence and unpreparedness. He corresponded with his superiors and government officials, criticising the conduct of the war and advocating an air power solution. One particularly scathing letter resulted in Douhet's arrest and courts-martial for spreading false news and agitation. He was sentenced to a year in a military jail.
Douhet continued to write about air power from his cell, finishing a novel on air power and proposing a massive Allied fleet of aircraft in communications to ministers. He was released and returned to duty shortly after the disastrous battle of Caporetto in 1917. Because calamity breeds change he soon became the central director of aviation at the General Air Commisariat where he worked to improve Italy's air arm.
In June 1918 Douhet left the Army, disgusted with his superiors. After the armistice he was able to have his courts-martial overturned and was promoted to General. But rather than return to active duty Douhet continued writing. In 1921 he completed a hugely influential treatise on strategic bombing titled The Command of the Air.
In his book Douhet argued that air power was revolutionary because it operated in the third dimension. Aircraft could fly over surface forces, relegating them to secondary importance. The vastness of the sky made defense almost impossible, so the essence of air power was the offensive. The only defense was a good offense. The air force that could achieve command of the air by bombing the enemy air arm into extinction would doom its enemy to perpetual bombardment. Command of the air meant victory.
Douhet believed in the morale effects of bombing. Air power could break a people's will by destroying a country's "vital centers". Armies became superfluous because aircraft could overfly them and attack these centers of the government, military and industry with impunity. Targeting was central to this strategy and he believed that air commanders would prove themselves by their choice of targets. These would vary from situation to situation, but Douhet identified the five basic target types as: industry, transport infrastructure, communications, government and "the will of the people".
The last category was particularly important to Douhet, who believed in the principle of Total War. The entire population was in the front line of an air war and they could be terrorized with urban bombing. In his book The War of 19-- he described a fictional war between Germany and a Franco-Belgian alliance in which the Germans launched massive terror bombing raids on the populace, reducing their cities to ashes before their armies could mobilize. Because bombing would be so terrible, Douhet believed that wars would be short. As soon as one side lost command of the air it would capitulate rather than face the terrors of air attack. In other words, the enemy air force was the primary target. A decisive victory here would hasten the end of the war.
This emphasis on the strategic offensive would blind Douhet to the possibilities of air defense or tactical support of armies. In his second edition of The Command of the Air he maintained such aviation was "useless, superfluous and harmful". He proposed an independent air force composed primarily of long-range load-carrying bombers. He believed interception of these bombers was unlikely, but allowed for a force of escort aircraft to ward off interceptors. Attacks would not require great accuracy. A mix of explosive, incendiary and poison gas bombs would be enough to flatten cities when dropped from massed formations.
Though the initial response to The Command of the Air was muted, the second edition generated virulent attacks from his military peers -- particularly those in the navy and army. Douhet's was an apocalyptic vision that gripped the popular imagination. But his theories would be unproven -- and therefore unchallenged -- for another 20 years. In many cases he had exaggerated the effects of bombing. His calculations for the amount of bombs and poison gas required to destroy a city were ludicrously optimistic. World War II would prove many of his predictions to be wrong -- particularly on the vulnerability of public morale to bombing.
Outside of Italy, Douhet's reception was mixed. In Britain he remained a curio -- The Command of the Air was not required reading at the RAF Staff College. However, France, Germany and America were far more receptive and his theories were discussed and disseminated there.
A supporter of Benito Mussolini, Douhet was appointed commissioner of aviation when the Fascists assumed power but he soon gave up this bureaucrat's job to continue writing, which he did up to his death from a heart attack in 1930. More then 70 years on, many of his predictions have failed to come true, but some of his concepts -- gaining command of the air and attacking vital centers -- continue to underpin air power theory to this day.