Published Aerospace Power Journal - Fall  2001

Approved for public release; distribution is unlimited.


Jointly Published with the Royal Air Force Air Power Review

The Myths of Air Control and the
Realities of Imperial Policing

Group Captain Peter W. Gray, RAF

Editorial Abstract: The RAF’s concept of air control appeals to airmen because it involves airpower “doing it alone.” Keeping one eye on the many myths that have magnified the supremacy of airpower, Group Captain Gray offers insights into wider geostrategic issues and the realities of air policing. He concludes that no military force, including an air force, can expeditiously resolve conflicts alone.

The concept of "air control" has long had considerable appeal to advocates of airpower from its inception in the cash-starved days immediately after the Great War to present times, when the more extreme exponents of our art cite it as an early example of airpower "doing it alone."1 The term air control is almost invariably used to refer generically to the activities undertaken by the Royal Air Force (RAF) in the far-flung corners of the empire in the interwar years. Notwithstanding the existence of several worthwhile studies on the role of airpower in these areas, many myths have arisen over the intervening years. Some of these myths were deliberately generated at the time, either to inflate the omnipotence of airpower or to denigrate it. It has been the subject of academic research in its own right and has long been a popular subject for journal articles and staff-college papers, as suggested by the notes to this article.2 Part of the debate has been healthy, but some is less so as some parties have often made generalizations in order to draw modern parallels where none exist. The use of Iraq as a common venue, for example, can be decidedly unhelpful. The distaste or embarrassment felt by some authors over the imperial aspects of the subject and the period does little to aid understanding.

This article outlines the wider geostrategic issues extant when air policing was in vogue, with appropriate reference to the political priorities and niceties of the time. These latter factors will inevitably acknowledge the interservice rivalries—particularly for funding. The article also examines the various facets and the realities of air policing. As Sir John Slessor makes abundantly clear in The Central Blue, these roles extended far beyond the traditional concept of air control, encompassing a wide variety of tasks and missions more in tune with modern concepts of the utility of airpower;3 these included routine patrolling, delivery of men and supplies, reconnaissance, medical evacuation, and famine relief. The article does not go into huge detail on the actual process or the tactics used in air control. Nor does it cover all areas of the empire. Finally, the article looks at what, if any, lessons one can draw from these operations and the often acrimonious debate that surrounded them.

The Geostrategic Environment
and the Role of Airpower

As already suggested, the continuing struggle against Saddam Hussein tends to focus the mind of the modern analyst towards Mesopotamia as the central example of air policing in general and air control in particular. The reality is that the wider issues implicit in air policing were applicable from Great Britain and Ireland through Palestine and Africa to India. The political situation was different in each region, as were the strategic imperatives. It should therefore go without saying that the missions facing imperial forces (not just the British troops) were different, as were the threats.

Key to an understanding of the environment of those lean years is an overview of the economic situation. Midway through the First World War, it became evident that the material costs would be unprecedented. The countries on whose territory the war was fought clearly endured the costs of the physical destruction of hundreds of thousands of homes and farms. The fighting wrought similar havoc on miles of roads, railways, and telegraph lines. Livestock was slaughtered, and vast tracts of land were rendered unusable for agriculture. The actual monetary value of the munitions expended was greatly exacerbated by the hidden costs involved in refiguring industry onto a wartime footing and then returning it to peace—turning ploughshares into swords and then back again does not come cheap. These costs escalated rapidly with the unprecedented application of science and technology into areas such as shipbuilding, tanks, and the aircraft industry. Shipping losses were huge. The human costs were horrendous, with 8 million servicemen killed, 7 million permanently disabled, and a further 15 million wounded in some way. Civilian casualties amounted to at least 5 million, with many times that in Russia. The monetary cost has been estimated at $260 billion, which equalled 6.5 times the world national debt accrued from the end of the eighteenth century to the outbreak of the war.4

Britain lost 6.3 percent of its male population (723,000), a significant proportion of whom were from the social elite (28 percent of those going up to Oxbridge in 1910–14 died in the war).5 Manpower requirements had caused Britain to draw deeply from the resources of the empire as well as from home—nearly one-third of British manpower came from abroad. Not only were India and the dominions galvanized by the need to provide troops, but also the pace of industrialization in these countries was considerably accelerated. Inevitably, one paid a price, with food shortages, inflation, and consumption of raw materials resulting in a concomitant need for closer British control. These factors in turn fuelled discontent.

The macropolitical costs of the conflict, therefore, were significant. Labor disputes contributed to the growth of nationalist movements, accelerating moves towards self-determination. Clamor for democracy found voice in the mass parties being formed. A rather bizarre combination of German anticolonial propaganda, American idealism, and Oxbridge-educated lawyers (preaching the virtues of self-determination back in their own countries)6 fanned the flames of revolution from Mesopotamia to Egypt and beyond to India.7

Thoughts in Whitehall in 1919 would have been largely shared between domestic matters and concern over the empire—Europe was by no means as central as it would become in later years. A combination of wishful thinking, economic necessity, and opportunism gave rise to a defense policy based on the absence of war in Europe for the foreseeable future—10 years or more. All planning, therefore, was based on this premise. The army would have as its primary function imperial policing and maintenance of law and order at home for the next decade.8

By 1916 it was evident that the Great War would see an end to the Ottoman Empire. Britain and France, therefore, completed a secret agreement partitioning the former Turkish provinces. The resulting Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916 set up planned zones of influence with either independent Arab states or confederations thereof "under the suzerainty of an Arab chief." In their respective areas of influence, Britain and France would have "priority of right of enterprise and local loans" and would be the sole suppliers of advisers or "foreign functionaries at the request of the Arab State or Confederation of Arab States."9 Britain was absolutely determined that its routes to India would not be jeopar-dized by instability, misrule, or foreign intervention (by Turkey or Russia). Furthermore, increasing dependence on oil reserves with the wane of the age of steam meant that the region, even then, was taking on its own strategic importance. But it is evident that the chosen modus operandi was not just a simple acquisition of territory—economic activity and strategic stability did not require such a blunt approach. The League of Nations mandate resulted in Syria and Lebanon going to France; Mesopotamia and Palestine went to Britain. The theory was that Britain or France would act as if they were guardian (to a child) while the League acted as a board of trustees.10 Under international law, however, the mandate was not merely annexation.11 Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations expressed the degree of responsibility of the mandatory power as "the well-being and development of such peoples form a sacred trust of civilisation."12 The mandated territories were effectively self-governing even though they received considerable "political support" from the mandatory authority.13 In practical terms, as is evident from Sir John Salmond’s description below, this was how business was conducted. In the case of Iraq, this method of self-governance provided a transition from the days of the Ottoman Empire to Britain relinquishing its mandate in 1930 on formal independence—albeit as a formal signatory to the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty. Inevitably, this treaty in Iraq and its companion six years later with Egypt did little to meet the more extreme demands of Arab nationalism.

Stability in the Middle East was inevitably complicated by the Jewish question. The Balfour Declaration of November 1917, which pledged a future Jewish homeland, was plainly incompatible with the rising demands of Arab nationalists. Nor was the situation eased by President Woodrow Wilson’s utterances on self-determination. Neither these fine sentiments nor the Treaty of Versailles brought concrete gains or wider stability for Arab nationalists. Repatriation of thousands of British troops at the end of the war meant that the region would remain volatile at best.

Great Britain and Ireland

It may seem questionable to start a consideration of imperial air policing with the home front. But the reality has always been that events at home have considerable priority, and solutions devised will have some primacy. The popular perception of a loyal and motivated domestic population wholeheartedly supporting the war effort as the Great War drew to its successful conclusion tells, at best, only part of the story. Coal and rail strikes were almost commonplace. Conditions in the munitions factories were such that strikes were frequent, with tank production grinding to a halt on one occasion.14 Contributory factors included allegations of profiteering, seemingly arbitrary transfers of personnel between factories, and the ever-increasing demands of the draft. Support for the small but active Communist Party was evident. Notwithstanding the rather dubious sympathies of some of its members, the armed forces were used to uphold a political and social order that was no longer immutable. As early as December 1917, aircraft were used to drop leaflets to aeroengine workers, urging them to end their strikes.15

Euphoria following victory was short-lived in the economic conditions of the time. After the war, a major rail strike threatened to disrupt totally the postal system in Britain. Aircraft were used to fly urgent dispatches to 76 administrative centers, thereby ensuring that contact was maintained between the police and central government. In an early example of the use of airpower in information operations (or psychological operations), copies of The Times were distributed to administrators in the provinces. This exercise was repeated during the general strike of 1926. Bombers from 9 and 58 Squadrons delivered 1,377,000 copies of the British Gazette.16 In some areas, hostility to the middle classes and their reading proclivities was so great that bundles of newspapers had to be dropped from the air.

By the summer of 1920, two squadrons of aircraft had been deployed to Ireland. Mail drops were carried out along with regular patrolling duties. The presence of aircraft had something of a deterrent effect on the Irish Republican Army. Frustration over the flexibility of the terrorists was such that there were frequent calls for armed aerial intervention—Winston Churchill had demanded the use of aircraft against Sinn Fein members involved in drill in order to "scatter and stampede them."17 Such requirements were strongly resisted, not the least by Hugh Trenchard himself.18 This may have been because he could see that a successful outcome was unlikely, and he was unwilling to attract the criticism for his air arm that would inevitably follow. In any event, armed patrols were eventually sanctioned, albeit under strict regulation, and few hours were actually flown.19


The fall of the Ottoman Empire and the widespread rise of nationalism that followed threatened Britain’s trade routes to and from India. Stability, however, could not be guaranteed by diplomatic means alone, and garrison forces were required in many critical locations. Notwithstanding the evident potential for trouble, Churchill, as secretary of state for war and air, warned that the garrison in Mesopotamia20 would have to be cut from its existing level (25,000 British and 80,000 Indian troops).21 His attempts to find novel, cheap solutions fell on ground as stony as the desert. Even after the first round of cuts, the garrison was still costing over £18 million per year. In mid-February 1920, Churchill asked Trenchard if he would be prepared "to take Mesopotamia on." The deal would involve the reduction of the standing garrison to 4,000 British and 10,000 Indian troops but with an air officer as commander in chief and an extra £5 million on the air estimates. The Air Staff plan envisaged 10 squadrons, mainly based around Baghdad.

Arab nationalism spread during 1920, with a revolt in Syria followed by public protests in Mesopotamia. Reinforcements had to be brought from India at considerable cost. Order was subsequently restored by methods that probably made the activities of the paramilitary Black and Tans in Ireland seem rather tame. The efficacy of airpower was hotly contested, with army accusations that the use of aircraft had been instrumental in provoking the crisis. Trenchard countermanded that deployment of sufficient airpower would have had the necessary "morale effect" to prevent the rebellious outbreak.22 Admittedly with the benefit of hindsight, Lt Gen Sir Aylmer Haldane, who had been commander in chief in Mesopotamia at the time of the rising, stated, "I must not omit to state that I had a few aeroplanes, which during the insurrection were increased by a squadron. Those available did invaluable work and, had I had sufficient [aeroplanes] at the outbreak of the rising I am inclined to think that it might have been possible to stifle or perhaps localise it." It is worthy of note that Haldane had agreed to speak at the Royal United Services Institute because he had "been struck by the almost complete ignorance regarding the occurrences" in Mesopotamia after the Armistice.23 That lack of knowledge had not been reflected by an absence of rhetoric!

The air-control method was very much a joint operation involving considerable cooperation between air and land assets, often with the RAF ferrying troops, dropping supplies, and evacuating the wounded—as well as bombing targets.

With doctrinal and practical disputes running continuously between army and air force, it appeared as if compromise would be impossible. Churchill, however, still needed to reduce costs. He held a conference in Cairo in March 1921, at which a system of air control was proposed. After the inevitable round of bickering, his proposals went before the Cabinet in August 1921, with the suggestion that eight squadrons take over the policing duties in October 1922. They would be supported by two British and two Indian battalions, three companies of armored cars, and various ancillary units. (On the due take-over date, there were actually nine battalions.)

Air Vice Marshal Sir John Salmond took over as air officer commanding (AOC) in less than auspicious circumstances. The Turks were threatening the northern province of Mosul, and the Kurds were fighting a guerrilla war in Sulaymaniyah. A small-scale bombing attack on Turkish positions achieved striking success that Iraqi levies quickly capitalized on.24 The air-control method was very much a joint operation involving considerable cooperation between air and land assets, often with the RAF ferrying troops, dropping supplies, and evacuating the wounded—as well as bombing targets. By May 1923, Salmond had achieved what Maurice Dean has described as a "tremendous victory."25 For readers unfamiliar with the "finer points" of air control, a part of Salmond’s dispatch to Trenchard gives the details:

No action is ever taken except at the request of the British civilian adviser on the spot, and only after this request has been duly weighed by the [Iraqi] Minister of the Interior and by the British Adviser and by the High Commissioner [in Baghdad]. Even after a request has passed this three-fold scrutiny, I have on more than one occasion, as the High Commissioner’s chief Military Adviser, opposed it on the military grounds that I did not consider that the offensive action which I had been asked to take would lead to the result desired; and His Excellency has always acceded to such advice on the acknowledged basis that I am more perfectly acquainted with the effects it may be expected to achieve.

It is a commonplace here that aircraft achieve their results by their effect on morale, and by the material damage they do, and by the interference they cause to the daily routine of life, and not through the infliction of casualties. The casualties inflicted have been most remarkably small. A tribe that is out for trouble is well aware when the patience of Government has reached breaking point; and negotiations inevitably end in what is in effect an ultimatum in some form or other. Complete surprise is impossible and the real weight of air action lies in the daily interruption of normal life which it can effect, if necessary for an indefinite period, while offering negligible chances of looting or of hitting back.

It [air action] can knock the roofs of huts about and prevent their repair, a considerable inconvenience in winter time. It can seriously interfere with ploughing or harvesting—a vital matter—or burn up the stores laboriously piled up and garnered for the winter. By attacks on livestock, which is the main form of capital and source of wealth to the less settled tribes, it can impose in effect a considerable fine or seriously interfere with the actual sources of the tribe—and in the end the tribesman finds it is much the best to obey the Government.

Occasionally the house or fort of a rebel leader like Sheikh Mahmud would be selected as a target of individual attack and this called for a high degree of bombing accuracy. Otherwise it was unnecessary, and indeed undesirable, to inflict serious or extensive damage. The object was really the air blockade of the recalcitrant village by means of intermittent light attacks, which were never delivered without due warning to the villagers so that they could leave their dwellings. After they had surrendered, troops or police would be flown in, with medical staff, to restore order, stop looting, treat the sick and the injured, distribute food and rehabilitate the area generally.26

Success in Mesopotamia was influential in convincing the Salisbury Committee that the fledgling service should remain in being. The acrimony between army and air force remained bitter at the highest of levels, with inevitable comments on the primacy of the bayonet (from Edward Stanley, Earl of Derby, the secretary of state for war) as well as accusations of brutality. Marshal of the RAF Sir John Slessor cites Sir John Salmond with approval in pointing out that casualties on both sides were considerably lower under air control.27 The relative impunity with which aircraft could operate was a constant feature in the lists of virtues—particularly in comparison with cumbersome land operations.28 By 1925 air control had effectively maintained the British influence in Mesopotamia—at a significantly reduced cost. It had also contributed considerably to the survival of the RAF. The euphoria surrounding these two rather momentous statements should not detract from the reality that it was the broader concept of air policing—allied with conventional diplomacy at ground level—that had stabilized a potentially disastrous situation. We pretend at our peril that air did it alone!


The situation in the second mandate—Palestine—was somewhat less emotive on the military front because the War Office did not consider the region as strategically important as Mesopotamia. There was, therefore, less resistance to Churchill’s proposal to extend air control into this area. Furthermore, the actions of the single squadron that Churchill proposed to send would not guarantee the survival of the new service. During the Jaffa riots of 1921, some bombs were dropped to protect Jewish settlements from Arab raids. An AOC took command in May 1922, but by the mid-1920s, patrolling borders had become the main occupation.29 Again, political influences and economic factors played their parts. Article 4 of the 1922 Mandate for Palestine established a "Jewish agency" as the appropriate "public body for the purpose of advising and co-operating with the Administration of Palestine in such economic, social and other matters as may affect the establishment of the Jewish national home and the interests of the Jewish population."30 Over the period of the interwar years, Jewish immigration increased, with the population growing from 11 percent in 1922 to 30 percent in 1940.31 The authorities had the task of balancing Arab nationalist aspirations with this influx from Europe and Asia.

Increased Jewish immigration in 1928 caused tension in Arab circles, which was followed by attacks on Jewish settlements. The garrison at that stage had been reduced to aircraft, armored cars, and police. Inevitably, they were unable to police the urban rioting adequately. Airpower was used for patrolling outlying areas, defending convoys, attacking looters, and flying reinforcements. Further riots in the mid-1930s again had to be suppressed on the ground, and control (and command) passed to the army. Airpower continued to be used until the end of the mandate, albeit largely in a support role.


The defense of India and, more importantly, its borders was a matter of critical importance to imperial Britain. Although internal unrest was of considerable concern and aircraft were used briefly in this role, the Air Ministry was at its most active in defense of the frontier. There was no real attempt to coerce the indigenous tribes into accepting Indian administration; the priority was maintenance of stability—in effect, an early form of peacekeeping. Airpower was used in force in operations in 1925, with more than 2,000 hours flown and over 150 tons of bombs dropped.32 Trenchard immediately proposed that the existing six squadrons be increased to 10, with a corresponding reduction in battalions. This was not accepted, and sporadic action continued. Further proposals in 1929 met similar results. Beyond the usual army resistance, the nature of imperial life in India ensured that little progress would occur. The government of India was loath to embark on the risky course of entrusting vital frontier defense to new-fangled aeroplanes—particularly if the quid pro quo was widespread unemployment among Indian army officers and a reduction in their treasured policy of road building. Although Trenchard had negotiated direct access for the AOC to the viceroy, the RAF was a lowly 23d in the rigidly adhered to order of precedence.33 As one of the squadron commanders, Arthur "Bomber" Harris, wryly made the point, having to follow the army’s pack-mule transport made the going rather heavy! Furthermore, the local air staff comprised 15 officers, in marked contrast to the hundreds in the army headquarters in Delhi. Harris’s frustration over lack of resources and poor tactics so disillusioned him that he resigned from the service; only Salmond’s intervention stopped him from settling in Rhodesia as a farmer.34

There was, therefore, little prospect of Trenchard’s achieving air-control primacy on the frontier. Individuals actively involved in operations were consistently frustrated by the overly prescriptive rules imposed by conservative (i.e., out of date) army headquarters staff. Slessor was also adamant that closer cooperation was essential between the squadrons and the troops they were supporting.35 Again, air operations went far beyond mere bombing raids against mountain tribesmen. The efficiency of their operations, however, was often hindered by the age, condition, and obsolescence of the equipment.

The Realities of Imperial
Air-Policing Operations

The first point that one must reemphasize is that Britain, its empire, and the majority of its allies were in relatively dire economic straits at the end of the Great War. The war itself had wrought considerable financial and physical damage. Technology and the rising cost of mobilizing manpower had made armed conflict, and the prevention thereof, expensive propositions. The Great War had also encouraged the spread of nationalism and had increased social expectations. The era of imperialism was ever more rapidly coming to its close. The negotiations leading up to Versailles, coming as they did on top of fine promises made or imagined in the heat of war, raised expectations that could not be met. Self-determination would remain a source of hope for nationalists and a bane for those charged with administering empires on decreasing budgets. The requirements for imperial defense, as well as for policing operations, were, therefore, increasing rather than decreasing. Government defense policy centered on this role in the absence of a credible European threat; as neither a resurgent Germany nor a return to animosity with France seemed likely, national affinity for matters of the empire could take priority.

Imperial policing was a major, if not the most significant, defense task for all three ser-vices. The army, along with imperial forces and locally raised levies, was constantly involved. The Royal Navy was charged with protection of the sea and trade routes. It was only natural that the fledgling RAF would seek a role in the work at hand. The centrality of these tasks to the raison d’Ítre of the armed forces is hard to grasp now with our later focus on home defense and then the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But it is evident from the biographies of the RAF’s senior leadership that such postings were regular occurrences.36

The services’ struggle for their due share of the defense expenditure has always been high on the military list of priorities. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that both the navy and the army would resent every penny spent on the third arm. It is equally unsurprising that Trenchard and his senior colleagues would employ all means to ensure its survival. Although this is well-trammelled ground, it is important to note that the immediate use of airpower was not in dispute. The point of contention was that the RAF needed to exist as a separate service in order to provide that capability at the front line. At the time, it appeared that this could be justified only if airpower could claim outright primacy with its own person as the commander in chief—or with independent access to the political authority of the country or mandate concerned. Anything less would have undermined the chances of survival. This is not the same as more recent arguments advocating that "airpower can do it alone." Nor do many of the air-control arguments rest on the use of the bomber acting against strategic targets—although this was suggested from time to time (for example, over Kabul). Ironically, the real debate was not about airpower doing it alone—it was more about air in the lead. One can best illustrate this point by using air control to mean air as supported commander (i.e., in control of the whole operation).37

To the modern reader, who has almost certainly joined his or her own service and remained largely within its "stovepipe" of influence—or at least within its "comfort zone," the prospect of an airman taking direct control of all operations may seem strange. This, in part, reflects a noticeable tendency on the part of airmen to feel uncomfortable at the prospect of disposing of the other services’ assets.38 The senior RAF officers of the interwar years would have had less compunction in such matters. The vast majority started their military careers in the army and would have been trained accordingly. Trenchard, for example, served in India in the Royal Scots Fusiliers, where he proved himself an excellent horseman.39 Similarly, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding joined the army as an artilleryman, and Salmond served in the West African Frontier Force.40 Slessor’s four years at the Army Staff College at Camberley would have given him more than a mere insight into operations. Taking responsibility for the joint force would present few problems to such men.

Familiarity with the modus operandi of the other services is much easier to achieve—especially at the operational or tactical level. Firsthand accounts from the likes of Slessor illustrate the extent to which the services could act in harmony when there is a willingness to make full use of the potential of air. Harris’s experiences show the dangers of relegating air to an underresourced and dormant support role. This has a clear resonance with many operations today.

Much of the contemporary debate on the efficacy of air control was at the military-strategic level—rather than at the tactical, where problems, theoretically, could be relatively easily resolved. Part of the acrimony stemmed purely from airmen’s need to secure command positions in the scramble for the survival of the service. Relinquishing these positions of power was anathema to the army, both for reasons of pride and to prevent the new arm from gaining a toehold. Modern controversy over "star counts" again has some resonance. The debate went far beyond the confines of these issues even though they almost certainly underlay much of the controversy. Nor did the discussion solely concern the military efficiency of a given arm in any one situation—although this was contested on many occasions. The ethical and moral aspects of the situation were frequently mobilized, often with little attempt at veiling the underlying hypocrisy.

The air method was often criticized as brutal, causing resentment on the part of the victims. There were frequent accusations of "indiscriminate bombing." Sir Henry Wilson, chief of the Imperial General Staff, spoke in rather contemptuous terms of "the bomb that falls from God knows where and lands on God knows what."41 This is another line of rhetoric that holds some resonance in the aftermath of Kosovo! Slessor goes to some lengths to convince his reader that the attacks were neither indiscriminate nor brutal. He also points out that the rules extant in one theater of operations allowed the shelling of villages—presumably rather brutal and fairly indiscriminate—but did not countenance air attack. No one would pretend, however, that accidents did not occur or that many bombs missed their targets. The environment in which the operations took place was comparatively Hobbesian: life was brutal, uncomfortable, and relatively short.

Modern Lessons?

If one attempts to draw modern lessons from the British military’s (not just the RAF’s) experiences of imperial policing, it is important to strip away the rhetoric and look beyond the internecine bickering. Many of the lessons at the grand strategic level merely reflect the economic and political realities of an empire in terminal decline that must continue to meet commitments and responsibilities with declining resources. To suggest that any military force, let alone airpower, can instantly resolve the problems of self-determination is either naÔve or demonstrative of wishful thinking.

One must also view lessons drawn in the context of their times, when the empire was central to British foreign and domestic policy. This may not have universal appeal in these days of political correctness, but they were the reality of the day. At the military-strategic level, what could have been a healthy doctrinal debate over the best use of military force in a vast range of potential scenarios rapidly degenerated into a morass of dogma. If one can draw a modern lesson from the period of imperial policing and air control, it is the avoidance of such a futile debate.

To a lesser extent, this applies at the operational level, where there was, in modern parlance, the distinct risk of spending more energy in deciding who was to be the "supported" and who was the "supporting" commander than in concentrating on the military task at hand. The second significant, and related, lesson at the operational level also involves the avoidance of dogma—particularly at the extremes of the spectrum, where advocates either suggest that "airpower can do it alone" or that only the bayonet can triumph. Commanders and their teams, of whatever cloth, need to be aware of each other’s doctrine and must be comfortable with capabilities and limitations. From airmen’s perspective, there is more to modern airpower than just precision weaponry. This may sound like a truism, but so much of the debate on the interwar role of the RAF has centered on air control—to the exclusion of other tasks—that it is worth reiterating. Slessor stressed the point that aircraft were used extensively in direct cooperation with land forces, in reconnaissance duties, patrolling convoys, photographic survey and mapmaking, civilian evacuation, medical resupply and evacuation, antislavery patrols, famine relief, fishery protection, troop transport, and the development of air routes. The lesson that advocates of airpower should draw from this list is that the ubiquity and flexibility of airpower render it a key asset to any commander. Many of the tasks facing us today chime with the roles enumerated by Slessor, reminding us that the missions in the core capability now termed combat-support air operations are underresourced at our peril.42

Any discussion on lessons learned—or as has become more fashionable, lessons identified— must be tempered with the acknowledgement that lessons are more often forgotten. Those that are remembered must be applied with the precision of a legal precedent—only in directly equivalent circumstances. Trenchard was well aware at the time that what was good in Mesopotamia may not be directly transferable to, say, an urban environment in Ireland or Palestine.43 What is often more important than expecting lessons to be transferred from theater to theater is the accumulation of experience based on credible analysis of events. If the aftermath of an incident is dominated by rhetoric and recriminations, the emotion of the moment is more likely to lodge in the memory than the analysis. Rhetoric, therefore, is best left to journalists and armchair pundits.

The spectrum of conflict is as wide today as it was in the interwar years. There was an implicit danger at the time that the rhetoric necessary to ensure the survival of the fledgling service would be internalized during the formulation of the strategy needed to counter emergent Nazi Germany. Notwithstanding the personal experiences of officers who subsequently joined the Air Staff, the linkage between air control and emerging strategy has not been proven.44 The range of works covering British interwar strategy tends to emphasize the role of the bomber in relation to cities and industry rather than tribesmen.

Finally, the advocate of the "airpower can do it alone" school would be well advised to read "The War Object of an Air Force," Trenchard’s paper to the Imperial Defence College. In this seminal work, Trenchard expressed his belief that aerial bombardment in the war of the future was inevitable, that this was likely to be done without scruple, and that it would not be restricted to the zones of opposing armed forces. In language that is a far cry from the lessons of the colonial wilds, Trenchard went on to state that

attacks will be directed against any objectives which will contribute effectively towards the destruction of the enemy’s means of resistance and the lowering of his determination to fight. These objectives will be military objectives. Among these will be comprised the enemy’s great centres of production to every kind of war material, from battleships to boots, his essential munitions factories, the centres of all of his systems of communication and transportation, his docks and shipyards, railway workshops, wireless stations, and postal and telegraph systems.45

Trenchard does not rule out air-to-air combat, nor does he preclude attacks on air bases; he just points out that these will not necessarily be the vital areas. Most importantly, Trenchard states that he has no wish to imply that "air by itself can finish the war."


1. Whilst not necessarily extreme, see the views expressed in Carl H. Builder, "Doctrinal Frontiers," Airpower Journal 9, no. 4 (Winter 1995): 6–13; and Maj Marc K. Dippold, "Air Occupation: Asking the Right Questions," Airpower Journal 11, no. 4 (Winter 1997): 69–84. The role of airpower in general and in the far-flung corners of the empire was a regular subject in the Royal United Services Institute. In addition to the notes below, see also Wing Comdr J. A. Chamier, "The Use of the Air Force for Replacing Military Garrisons," Journal of the Royal United Services Institute (JRUSI) 66 (1921): 205; Group Capt J. A. Chamier, "Strategy and Air Strategy" and Flight Lt C. J. McKay, "The Influences of the Future of Aircraft on Problems of Imperial Policing," JRUSI 67 (1923): 274.

2. For serious works on the subject, the reader should start with either David E. Omissi, Air Power and Colonial Control: The Royal Air Force, 1919–1939 (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1990); or the relevant chapters in Philip Anthony Towle, Pilots and Rebels: The Use of Aircraft in Unconventional Warfare, 1918–1988 (London: Brassey’s Defence Publishers, 1989).

3. Sir John Cotesworth Slessor, The Central Blue: Recollections and Reflections (London: Cassell, 1956), 53ff.

4. All figures come from Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York: Random House, 1987), 360.

5. David Reynolds, Britannia Overruled: British Policy and World Power in the Twentieth Century (New York: Longman, 2000), 105.

6. Self-determination is a dangerous term, with connotations of breaking down or reforming supposed nation-states. A plethora of textbooks on international law deals with the subject, as does the author’s unpublished MPhil thesis "The Impact of the Dissolution of Yugoslavia on the International Law of Self-Determination" (University of Cambridge, 1995).

7. Kennedy, 369.

8. See, for example, John Charmley, Churchill: The End of Glory (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993), 163.

9. Sykes-Picot Agreement, May 1916, on-line, Internet, 8 June 2001, available from 187b/sykespicotdoc.htm.

10. Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), 399.

11. See Malcolm N. Shaw, International Law, 3d ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 156; and Ian Brownlie, Principles of Public International Law, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

12. The Covenant of the League of Nations, on-line, Internet, 8 June 2001, available from leagcov.htm#art22.

13. See, for example, the King-Crane Commission Report, 28 August 1919, in Harry N. Howard, The King-Crane Commission: An American Inquiry into the Middle East (Beirut: Khayat, 1963).

14. Described in Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life (New York: Holt, 1991), 392–93.

15. Omissi, 40.

16. Ibid., 41.

17. Gilbert, 422.

18. Andrew Boyle, Trenchard (London: Collins, 1962), 370.

19. Omissi (p. 43) quotes 10 out of 338 hours in April 1921.

20. In the hope of detaching events in the interwar years from those of today, I have used Mesopotamia rather than Iraq.

21. Omissi, 21.

22. Ibid., 24.

23. Lt Gen Sir Aylmer Haldane, "The Arab Rising in Mesopotamia," JRUSI 68 (1923): 68.

24. Omissi, 32.

25. Sir Maurice Dean, The Royal Air Force and Two World Wars (London: Cassell, 1979), 37.

26. Salmond to Trenchard, letter, subject: Air Control, 29 September 1923, Trenchard Papers, C11/27/143/2.

27. Slessor, 67.

28. Group Capt A. E. Borton, "The Use of Aircraft in Small Wars," JRUSI 65 (1921), 310.

29. Omissi, 44.

30. The Mandate for Palestine, July 24, 1922, on-line, Internet, 8 June 2001, available from mod/1922mandate.html.

31. Martin Gilbert, Israel: A History (New York: William Morrow, 1998), 50.

32. Omissi, 48.

33. Ibid., 49.

34. Dudley Saward, "Bomber" Harris: The Story of Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Sir Arthur Harris (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984), 32.

35. Slessor, 122.

36. For a brief survey, the reader could do worse than glance through Air Commodore Henry Probert’s High Commanders of the Royal Air Force (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1991).

37. For military readers unfamiliar with this concept, it is laid down in some detail in Joint Warfare Publication 0-10, United Kingdom Doctrine for Joint and Multinational Operations, September 1999, par. 538.

38. See Lt Col Howard D. Belote, Once in a Blue Moon: Airmen in Theatre Command: Lauris Norstad, Albrecht Kesselring, and their Relevance to the Twenty-First Century Air Force, Cadre Paper no. 7 (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, July 2000).

39. Boyle, 35ff. Whatever the shortcomings of Boyle’s biography, some of the anecdotes make entertaining reading. These include a clash over polo with the young Winston Churchill, whose gamesmanship did not endear the future prime minister to the future chief of the Air Staff. Trenchard also had a knack of subsidizing his own polo through the judicious buying and selling of ponies.

40. Probert provides details on most senior leaders.

41. Slessor, 66.

42. British Air Power Doctrine, AP 3000, 3d ed. (Great Britain: Directorate of Air Staff, Ministry of Defence, 1999), chap. 8. In "Kosovo Victory: A Commander’s Perspective," Royal Air Force Airpower Review 2, no. 4 (Winter 1999): 2, Gen John Jumper, USAF, expressed his concern that these operations are downplayed in the aftermath of Operation Allied Force.

43. Boyle, 371. See also Malcolm Smith, British Air Strategy between the Wars (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 30.

44. Smith, 43; H. Montgomery Hyde, British Air Policy between the Wars, 1918–1939 (London: Heinemann, 1976), 167, 224; and Phillip S. Meilinger, "Trenchard and ‘Morale Bombing’: The Evolution of Royal Air Force Doctrine before World War II," The Journal of Military History 60, no. 2 (April 1996): 265. These references tend to be "negative," in that each provides an opportunity to prove the case that is not taken.

45. Reproduced in full in Sir Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive against Germany, 1939–1945, vol. 4 (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1961), 71–83.


Group Captain Peter W. Gray (BSc, University of Dundee; LLB, University of London; MPhil, Cambridge Univesity) is director of Defence Studies for the Royal Air Force. He has previously served in the Cabinet Office in London and as a squadron commander. Group Captain Gray, who has operational experience in the F-4 aircraft, has published widely on airpower issues and is the editor of Air Power 21: Challenges for the New Century (2000).


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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