Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2020-080
2 Sept. 2020
Review by Frank Ledwidge, Royal Air Force College
The RAF and Tribal Control: Airpower and Irregular Warfare between the World Wars
By Richard D. Newton
Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas, 2019. Pp. xiv, 250. ISBN 978–0–7006–2871–1.
Descriptors: Volume 2020, 20th Century, Royal Air Force Print Version

Historian Richard Newton (Joint Special Operations Univ.) has packed a great deal into this book's pages. Beginning with a survey of the theories of coercion, he proceeds to a sound, useful history of the Royal Air Force's early bureaucratic struggles to survive. The heart of the volume concerns the RAF's attempts to bring order to certain areas of the British Empire. After the First World War, an essentially bankrupt Britain faced the prospect of governing its huge imperial possessions, many of which were either rebelling or about to do so. Faced with strong pressures from the Army and Navy to have the fledgling air service reabsorbed, the RAF shrewdly leveraged the prospect of running imperial policing more cheaply than the army.


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The RAF succeeded in Somaliland, playing the starring role in ending a twenty-year insurrection by Abdullah Hassan, the so-called "Mad Mullah." It was then offered the chance to run a stabilization campaign in Iraq, a larger and more challenging task. It achieved its goal by innovating and adapting along the way. What most mattered to the government was that they managed to do it cheaply. As Newton rightly says, "after the tactical success in Somaliland and the theatre-level success in Iraq, the future of an independent RAF was never really in doubt" (106–7). The author goes on to a detailed, but not tiresome, discussion of operations on the North West Frontier of the British Empire in India and in Palestine.

The RAF confronted more than the usual difficulties of quelling an insurgency, for

The Army … had no intention of allowing the RAF any chance of assuming responsibility for imperial policing because success, if it did happen, would add credence to the Air Force's claim for independence. The War Office's parting shot in the debate was noteworthy. In a September 1921 memorandum, the secretary of state for war [went] … so far as to accuse the RAF of being an instrument of terrorism and warning that public opinion would not abide by a service that was only able to police the empire by "bombing women and children." (59)

Newton dispells such attitudes to the RAF, which still persist in some quarters. He shows that, while the RAF did in fact conduct bombing and strafing operations, it was, as senior air commander Sir John Salmon put it, "quicker and less damaging and … accompanied by infinitely less suffering than the older methods of waging war" (108). Newton's account of the RAF's targeting procedures show that they were, with few exceptions, based on an awareness of the situation on the ground and the damage their attacks might inflict.

The book contains a fascinating analysis of precisely how the RAF gained its local knowledge (126–42). While others have studied "air control" or "air policing," Newton is the first to treat in detail the activities and contributions of the RAF's Special Service Officers (SSOs), who advised the air force regarding the goals they were trying to achieve on the ground. Their job was to get to know the peoples in their areas of responsibility and accordingly counsel local senior air commanders, who often doubled as General Officers Commanding. The most notable such officer, John Bagot Glubb (a.k.a "Glubb Pasha"), achieved legendary status in Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East. The author provides impressively researched new details on matters like the selection, qualifications, and operational techniques of SSOs.

One question predominates throughout: to what extent did methods the RAF developed in the interwar period to cope with tribesmen influence so-called "morale-bombing"? Newton maintains that "The RAF's collective air control experience, using air attack to shape the moral will of the population, was a major influence on British offensive theory" (105). This is not surprising, since most major RAF figures had served in the operations dealt with here. Newton identifies the drawbacks of applying lessons learned in undeveloped frontier lands to the targeting of highly sophisticated urban societies such as Germany

The author, himself a former US Air Force Special Forces pilot, has written extensively on the aviation dimension of special operations. This shows in his ability to relate events and ideas described in his book to present-day operations, while conceding that much has changed. For example, today's operational exigencies make the effective deployment of SSOs almost impossible.

Although one might quibble that its overlong treatment of coercion theory (19–34) reads like a dissertation chapter, The RAF and Tribal Control should be required reading for air-power practitioners and students of air warfare and military history more broadly. Though much has changed in conflicts conducted in politically unstable zones, much remains conceptually the same. Indeed, interwar RAF pioneers often controlled the ground and the "message" more effectively than their great-grandchildren have.

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