The RAF and Tribal Control
Airpower and Irregular Warfare between the World Wars
Richard D. Newton
University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 2019, 240 pages
Book Review published on: January 10, 2020
In my studies of airpower and, conversely, the creation of improvised antiaircraft weapons, I have often come across references to the post-World War I use of airpower by the British to maintain control over its empire. In discussing the employment of aircraft against the people of Africa and the Middle East, the sources I read mention very little about the use of the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) methodology other than giving the impression that the British simply bombed tribes into submission. As it turns out, there was more to it than that, and the process helped to shape many of the notable RAF airmen of World War II.
Richard D. Newton’s The RAF and Tribal Control looks at the doctrinal origins of using airpower for the policing of the British Empire as well as the political decisions and financial factors that led to employing airpower against indigenous peoples on the frontiers. Following the end of the Great War, the newly independent RAF had to make itself relevant to the needs of the empire, needs that did not necessarily require large numbers of fighters to prevent bombing attacks or great numbers of bombers to strike at ports or supply bases. The British Empire, with territories around the world (which now included recent League of Nations-mandated territories from the German and Ottoman Empires), required a solution to the problem of primitive tribesmen who lived beyond the easy reach of British ground troops and who defied the British and their colonial governments. Airpower seemed to hold the promise of policing such populations.
The guns had hardly gone silent on the western front when the RAF began touting the idea of air control. The doctrinal basis of this idea had barely been discussed before it was tried in Somaliland, Iraq, and India’s North-West Frontier. Backed up by British soldiers and colonial levies, and intelligence and guidance provided by RAF special service officers (SSOs) traveling in armored cars, airpower could be used to coerce natives into cooperation, if not submission.
Thanks to SSOs who moved among the indigenous population and communicated the desires of the colonial administrators in their native language, the desired outcome was communicated to the leaders of various tribes. If the tribesmen understood but continued to defy the government, then the intelligence gained by the SSOs would be used by the RAF to “buzz” the domiciles of the key “targets” that the government wished to influence. And if all else failed, the SSOs would provide warning to the group that the aircraft would be back to bomb and strafe. This resulted in what the British called a “reverse blockade,” a situation in which the locals evacuated their village and residences to travel out to the desert or nearby caves while British planes destroyed some homes, scattered livestock, and burned crops. After living under extremely uncomfortable conditions, the tribesmen would make the leader comply with British demands so life could go back to normal.
Many of the actions of the RAF echo twenty-first-century warfare: the need to communicate directly with “targets” prior to taking action could be described as a key leader engagement, the occasional use of airborne leaflets could be described as an information-related capability, the use of “buzzing” could be considered a nonlethal targeting method, and the use of strafing and bombing of raiders provides obvious lethal effects. Anyone who has spent time discussing targeting methodology would recognize many elements of the British Air Control Scheme.
This is not to say that policing the empire via airpower did not have its share of setbacks. First of all, the elimination of British ground troops was not possible. Garrisons were needed, but these were much smaller than if the British army had sole charge of policing. Another element of air control was the need to place the RAF in charge of the overall effort; in situations where the army was in charge, the effort to control indigents came down to “boots on the ground,” with the RAF doing close air support. Finally, the British were unable to use air control in Palestine, where conflicts happened in urban settings rather than in the wide-open spaces. Riots between Jewish and Arab settlers did not provide targets for the aircraft, at least not without creating large numbers of civilian casualties and collateral damage.
One thing that The RAF and Tribal Control makes clear is that the use of kinetic action—for example, bombing and strafing—was actually employed sparingly. The desire of the British was provided primarily through communication; the occasional demonstration of bombing and strafing lent credibility to British threats and the capability that the British maintained, not just in military hardware but also in civil and military targeting processes and permissions.
In the case of the British, air control was about maintaining the peace, not fighting a war. The British rapidly learned the benefits of using kinetic assets in nonkinetic ways to achieve peace as a desired outcome.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. James D. Crabtree, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas