'The Bomber Will Always Get Through' - 80 Years Later, A Prophecy

The following article is reprinted with permission of Lexington Institute. The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of DomesticPreparedness.com, but should be shared with DomPrep readers.

This November marks the 80th anniversary of one of the most disturbing military assessments ever uttered by a western leader. On 10 November 1932, Britain’s de facto prime minister Stanley Baldwin said the following in a parliamentary debate about military policy:

I think it is well also for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through. The only defence is an offence, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves.

On the eve of Armistice Day, and just before the latest futile European disarmament conference, Baldwin’s remarks created quite a stir. They captured the widespread fear of how the emerging air weapon might be used in future wars – a fear that led thousands of people to evacuate Paris and other continental cities during the Czech crisis in 1938.

As it turned out, Baldwin was only half right. The invention of radar in the late 1930s greatly reduced the danger of not knowing the direction from which an air attack might originate. But the advent of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons at the end of World War II, and since then, has restored the power of Baldwin’s prophecy, because even with radar it is not possible today for any nation to prevent a well-armed adversary from causing untold damage. Western societies spent the second half of the 20th century protected against nuclear attack mainly by the threat of retaliation.

There is not much discussion today about Baldwin’s bleak vision, even though mankind continues to live with the threat of nuclear attack. But, as time goes by, more of the security threats the nation faces seem to have the same character of inevitability that the British leader attributed to strategic bombing. For example, in Iraq, costly U.S. military vehicles were destroyed by inexpensive IEDs (improvised explosive devices). The Pentagon then had to spend billions of dollars fielding trucks that could withstand the danger.

There are many other arenas in which disruptive technologies and tactics are now posing an inexorable challenge to U.S. security. It did not take much time and money for Osama bin Laden’s ragtag band to mount the 9/11 attacks in 2001 that cost the United States thousands of lives and, in the years that have passed since then, trillions of dollars. Much additional money will be spent over the next decade trying to defend U.S. computer networks against increasingly ubiquitous cyber threats that cost very little to launch but could turn off the lights across the country, or shut down the nation’s financial system, or cause any number of other perhaps unsolvable problems. And when a major biological attack is launched against the U.S. homeland, the nation will find out how well it will cope with a real, rather than metaphorical, virus that has been engineered to evade containment and treatment.

Will Americans Be Strong Enough? 

The current U.S. military, healthcare, and homeland-security establishments are not much better equipped for dealing with these kinds of emerging threats than the Royal Air Force was in 1932, when Baldwin made his tragically accurate prediction, at coping with German bombers. It is not that defenses against emerging threats are unimaginable but, rather, that those defenses are so expensive, relative to the effort made by attackers, that in the end it may bankrupt the nation trying to keep up.

It is not just money that will be lost trying to keep these latter-day “bombers” from reaching domestic shores. Many cherished rights may also have to be forfeited. Most, if not all, Americans are today unprepared to make that sacrifice – because the consequences of what disciplined and innovative adversaries can accomplish through the use of emerging technologies is yet to be seen. When that day arrives, the question that must be asked is this: “Will Americans struggle with the same despair Britons felt as war clouds gathered in the 1930s, or will they be strong enough to make sacrifices in defense of the nation’s homeland, and its values?”

Copyright 2012 Lexington Institute

Loren B. Thompson

Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D., is the Chief Operating Officer of the non-profit Lexington Institute and Chief Executive Officer of Source Associates. Prior to assuming those posts, he was Deputy Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and taught graduate-level courses in strategy, technology and media affairs at Georgetown. Disclosure: The Lexington Institute receives funding from many of the nation’s leading defense contractors.



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