BOLIVIAN STRATEGIC BOMBING IN THE GRAN CHACO WAR.  Paraguay. Gran Chaco War. 1932-1935.  During the period 1932 to 1935 Paraguay and Bolivia fought a desperate war over the ownership of the Gran Chaco, an arid, unsettled area occupied by Paraguay.  Both Paraguay and Bolivia had small, efficient Air Forces that during the war performed gallantly under difficult operational conditions, flying reconnaissance, close air support, interdiction, aeromedical evacuation, command liaison and communications, and troop transport and resupply missions.  The range of the taskings air power met during this war, and the impact it had directly on the battlefield, was a clear precursor of the role of tactical aviation in World War II.

Of particular interest, however, was the argument within the Bolivian high command over the use of strategic airpower and the subsequent developments.  The Bolivian Air Corps entered the war with a comparatively substantial bomber force including Airco DH-9, Breuget 19A2, and Junkers K43h bombers.  Bolivian officers were trained to European standards and had available current European and United States doctrine and technical manuals.  Lieutenant Colonel Bilbao Riojo assumed command of the Bolivian aviation resources committed to the Chaco, and established a main airbase at Villa Montes.  He advocated a two part strategic thrust to the air war: (1) bombing the Paraguayan logistics center at Puerto Casada, the choke point for forces moving up the Paraguay River, and (2) attacks on the Paraguayan capital, Asuncion, to break Paraguayan morale.  The Bolivian theater commander, Colonel Enrique Penaranda, did not approve attacks on Asuncion, as the Bolivian high command believed that this would result in international disapproval.  However, attacks on Puerto Casada were authorized.

The bombing of Puerto Casada provoked a strong reaction from Argentina.  Argentinian citizens lived and worked in Puerto Casada and operated the railroad that ran from the port into the Gran Chaco, the key logistics route for Paraguay.  Argentina, although technically neutral, provided extensive support to Paraguay, and clearly communicated to the Bolivians that casualties among Argentinian civilians and continued aerial bombardment of Puerto Casada could bring Argentina into the war on the side of Paraguay.  As a result the Bolivian strategic air campaign was halted, and further Bolivian operations were restricted to the Chaco theater of war.

However, in 1934, following a series of defeats in the Chaco, Bolivia attempted to obtain 4 Curtis Condor biplane bombers, each capable of carrying a 1 ton bomb load.  Through a series of transfers of ownership, these aircraft were able to travel as far as Peru before the United States government could convince the Peruvians to enforce the League of Nations embargo on the combatants.  Although they never entered service, the Bolivian interest in acquiring what would have been heavy bombers in the context of the war suggests that Bolivia may have reassessed the potential outcomes and seriously considered attacks on Asuncion.

Although Lieutenant Colonel Bilbao Riojo's strategic bombing efforts did not contribute materially to the war, they are interesting for several reasons.  First, Riojo clearly was following the dominant aerial warfare doctrine of the day, and viewed strategic bombing of logistics and population centers as a war winner, although it is doubtful that the 3 Breuget 19 bombers at his command in the Chaco would have proved decisive.  Second, we see adherence to the doctrine that attacks on cities would break morale and cause collapse of an opposing nation.  This is consistent with what both military and civilian leaders in European nations were thinking at the time.  And third, this is probably the only historical case of city attacks being halted by international pressure - in this case by a not very subtle warning that the balance of the combatants would change if they continued.

Sources: Corum, James B., "Airpower in the Chaco War," The Latin American Aviation Historical Society, location, accessed 19 January 2004.  "Bolivian Bombers in the Gran Chaco War," Insignia Magazine, location, 1998.

Entry 04115 - posted 20 January 2004