Air power

The Battle of the Somme: The First Proving Ground for British Air Power?

By Dr David Jordan

100 years after the conclusion of the Battle of the Somme, there is still a tendency – a quite understandable one – within the wider public discourse on the First World War to concentrate upon the first day of the Battle, on 1 July 1916 because of its appalling casualties, and to overlook the fact it was part of a broader campaign which concluded on 18 November 1916, with the ending of the Battle of the Ancre. The long casualty lists dominate our perspective, and when historians look at the wider swathe of the Somme campaign, they tend to focus upon aspects such as strategy and tactics and innovations such as the first use of the tank at Flers in September. Yet there were other innovative uses of weapons seen on a large scale during the Somme campaign, notably in the use of British air power. The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) had demonstrated the utility of aircraft from almost the start of the war, particularly in the realms of reconnaissance and artillery observation. The RNAS’s early attempts to bomb German targets (notably Zeppelin sheds) hinted at the future potential use of aircraft in the long-range attack role, and the RFC took the first steps to what would become an extensive part of aerial activity in 1917 and 1918 through what we would now term interdiction and close air support. All of this was underpinned by a firm recognition that fighting for control of the air was a vital element, since it was impossible to enable the other activities to take place without significant interference from German aircraft if this were not obtained.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the role of fighter aircraft became central to accounts of the use of aircraft during the war, because of the supposed glamour associated with aerial combat, embellished by newspaper accounts and overwrought rhetoric from the likes of Prime Minister Lloyd George, waxing lyrical about the ‘cavalry of the clouds,’ since this has obscured the fact that the critical business of the Flying Corps was that of gaining information and correcting the fire of the artillery pieces which dominated the war of static lines that had evolved after the initial war of manoeuvre in 1914, and which predominated until 1918 when mobility would return to the battlefield. As a growing canon of historiography of air power demonstrates, this awareness of the inter-relationship of air combat and the less-well known aspects of air operations has become more widespread, but is perhaps not as widely appreciated as might be the case.

When planning the Somme campaign, the RFC held an integral part, since the BEF would place heavy reliance upon artillery to prosecute the offensive, and would require information about enemy dispositions behind the front line – something which could only be obtained from the use of aerial reconnaissance. The challenge facing the RFC was that the Somme battle would be on a much grander scale than anything that it had done before, and the rate of expansion of the air service between late 1915 and spring and summer 1916 had been such that many of the new squadrons to be found in France were dominated by pilots and observers who had received relatively little training, and whose experience levels were notably lower than those who had fought in the battles of 1915. The Germans’ qualitative advantage in fighter aircraft during the so-called ‘Fokker Scourge’ had increased RFC losses, and only the appearance of new fighter aircraft such as the DH2, a ‘pusher’ fighter which looks odd to our eyes today, had redressed the balance. While the chances of operating with reduced levels of interference from the German air services had grown, failings in training and thus the observation that resulted were to prove a problem throughout the Somme campaign. To make matters worse, as the battles of Autumn 1916 demonstrated, the German air service had begun to introduce new fighter types which would tilt the balance in their favour, reaching to a nadir in the losses of ‘Bloody April’ in 1917. Nevertheless, the commander of the RFC in France, Brigadier-General Hugh Trenchard, pursued a policy of a constant offensive over German lines, seeking to dominate the airspace in the battle area by the expedient of keeping enemy aircraft as far away from it as possible – preferably over their own lines – allowing the observation aircraft to go about their work relatively unmolested (RAF Museum, Trenchard Papers MFC 73 ‘Future Policy in the Air’, 22 September 1916.). That this policy is open to legitimate criticism because of its blunt, often inflexible, nature and the casualties which resulted is beyond doubt – but so is the fact that it broadly achieved its aim on many occasions. This was particularly true for the Somme offensives, which has been described as a ‘golden period for the RFC’ (See James Pugh’s excellent PhD thesis ‘The conceptual origins of the control of the air: British military and naval aviation, 1911 – 1918’ (University of Birmingham, 2013) for a detailed consideration).

Confidence in the ability of artillery to destroy the German front line positions, and particularly the barbed wire before them, proved to be sadly misplaced on 1 July 1916, but the work of the RFC was not the critical factor – as historians such as Shelford Bidwell, Toby Graham and Sanders Marble have demonstrated, the failings in the artillery scheme for 1 July went far deeper than the quality of aerial observation. And even though the cooperation with the guns did not reach the levels hoped for it, the after-action reports from Fourth Army as it sought to learn the lessons from the Somme offensives demonstrate that senior commanders still placed great importance on the use of the RFC’s army cooperation squadrons. It was noted that in poor weather, when the RFC had been unable to fly, artillery commanders, anxious to prepare the battlefield, had compensated for the lack of aerial observation by the expedient of firing twice as many shells in the general direction of the target (based on knowledge usually derived from air reconnaissance) in the hope that the greater weight of fire would increase the chances of hitting the target (National Archives, WO 95/431, ‘Lessons of the Somme’, Fourth Army War Diary 1916). This had been nothing more than optimism and a waste of ammunition. Generals Rawlinson (Fourth Army) and Horne (First Army), both made clear their view that aerial observation would be a vital component in any future offensive and that the quality of information gained and the skill with which artillery fire was directed needed to be improved. This had, in fact, been appreciated by the senior commanders of the RFC, notably Generals Henderson (Director General of Military Aeronautics and GOC of the RFC) and Trenchard (GOC of the RFC in France), with the latter making strenuous – and sometimes slightly over-optimistic – efforts to demonstrate that the quality of the pilots and observers reaching the front line was improving as better training regimes were applied (National Archives, Air 1/524/16/12/26, ‘Cooperation between aeroplanes and artillery’, notes by Trenchard on observations by Generals Rawlinson and Horne).

What is perhaps significant in considering the Somme as the proving ground for a notable air contribution to a campaign is, therefore, the extent to which air and land elements interacted and then thought about what had worked and what had not was considerable; there was no technophobia at work with aircraft seen as peculiar items that, as the stereotype later had it, simply frightened the horses. The fact that it was necessary to use air power to help win battles was now something which the BEF and its commanders took as read, rather than as something open to doubt and mistrust. The failings and disappointments of 1916 would and could not be overcome immediately – it took time before the training regime was reorganised to the point where it began to deliver aircrew with appropriate skills to the front line; the loss of control of the air in early 1917 cost more lives and aircraft and was not overcome until the early summer of that year, and yet more work was required to ensure that air and land units, particularly the artillery, cooperated in the most effective and efficient manner possible. Yet for all of this, the Somme was the first large-scale battle in which it could be said that Britain began the full application of its air power capabilities. While attempting to mark the Somme offensive as the exact point at which Britain ‘got’ air-land integration and made it work is to stretch the evidence too far, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that it was the first proper proving ground upon which the formidably effective air-land co-operation seen in the final battles of 1918 would be built.

Image: Air mechanics dismantling an Albatros C.III two-seat biplane (J7) brought down during the Battle of the Somme at the 9th Wing RFC HQ at Fienvillers. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Degrade and Destroy: Winning the War against DAESH

Dr. Andrew R. Hom

In late June 2016 the ESRC-funded Moral Victories project and KCL’s Department of Defence Studies convened a workshop, entitled ‘Degrade and Destroy: Winning the War against Daesh?‘, which brought together leading experts from the academic, military, policy, and NGO communities to consider the problem of confronting DAESH (ISIS) – both in terms of the results and consequences of extant approaches and of possible alternatives. This day-long meeting was designed to foster knowledge exchange and impact by bringing multiple sectors together for a sustained dialogue. It featured spirited discussions about the use of air power in counterterrorism operations, the linkages between DAESH and the greater Syrian conflict, the humanitarian toll of that conflict as well as regional counterterrorism operations, and the intriguing but largely overlooked question of whether Daesh is an enemy or a threat to the UK and its allies. This latter point in particular prompted some interesting discussions amongst the diverse group who attended.

One of these debates focused on whether DAESH should be seen as primarily a political rather than a military or strategic problem. Is DAESH a properly apocalyptic organisation bent on ‘hastening’ a global cataclysm or is it actually pursuing a territorial caliphate as an alternative to the Western states system? Although elements of both intermingle in DAESH propaganda, they are two distinct objectives with very different implications. If thoroughly apocalyptic, DAESH would likely present a genuinely existential problem, although even here a military response plays directly into its apocalyptic vision. Viewed as more traditionally political in the sense of governing territory, DAESH looks like an adaptable, goal-driven organisation availing itself of various means and messages.

After the fall of Mosul and its initial declaration of a caliphate, DAESH first tried to establish administrators in its territories and to project power to the rest of the world. While the specific means of accomplishing these were no doubt repugnant (e.g. brutal Sharia governance at home and hostage executions turned into spectacles), at issue here is their links to DAESH’s ultimate ends. Indeed, DAESH proved inept at public administration and management – it could not distribute public goods effectively and Sharia law did not enable a viable alternative to a social welfare platform. However, it was only after coalition airstrikes began to reduce DAESH’s territorial gains that its rhetoric shifted toward international terrorism as a religious duty. This supports a trend long known to terrorism experts, which is that attacks abroad signal the weakening of an organisation at home and its pending failure as a political programme. Once again this highlights the fundamental importance of a clear vision of what winning a confrontation with DAESH actually means. Air strikes have been successful at checking DAESH’s territorial ambitions, yet they have also driven DAESH toward a strategy of international terror. These paradoxes of military superiority highlight a parallel question: should we respond to violent non-state actors as if they were states themselves, or do asymmetric problems require novel and perhaps asymmetric responses?

Conventional military power has little effect on the ‘caliphate of the mind’, which DAESH spreads with remarkable effectiveness using social and traditional media. Regardless of the material situation on the ground, such propaganda will continue to appeal to young, marginalised, and misogynistic young men who seek a combination of thrill-seeking and meaning-making. One way for the UK and allied governments to resist the organic diffusion of the Jihadi’s claim to fame is to: 1) resist the urge to invoke overblown, national security rhetoric in the wake of localised or small scale attacks, as this valorises the actions of individuals and small groups; and 2) adapt Cold War programmes of ‘civil defence’ or preparedness protocols to train citizenries to employ standard response procedures in active shooter and rudimentary assault situations. The aim here is to reduce rather than magnify the material and political effects of terrorists’ actions and to focus on societal resilience rather than on large-scale transformations of regional and international political, legal, and strategic orders. It is also a shift that would likely deliver significant cost savings.

Going further, Western governments might even consider an ‘asymmetric’ means of engaging the ‘global Muslim subject’ by issuing a blanket apology for the War on Terror – not as an admission of defeat or sole guilt but as an unexpected step that requires dialogue while also recognising the global importance of Islam as a faith and Muslims as a people who have been disproportionately affected by powerful states’ response to the actions of a razor thin minority of their co-religionists. A public apology flies in the face of the accepted logics and conventional wisdom about the war on terror, a fact viewed by many at the meeting as its strongest endorsement.

Thinking about the politics of confronting DAESH returns us to a central question: Does DAESH represent an actual material and existential threat to the UK and its allies? DAESH is clearly an enemy of the systems, values, and politics enshrined in Western, liberal democratic states. Yet this is not the same as a threat. There was a consensus in our meeting that distinguishing more carefully between enemies and threats would help clarify the menu of political and strategic options for dealing with DAESH and similar actors. Terror attacks abroad and territorial gains within the Levant – especially within two struggling states such as Syria and Iraq, whose issues the UK and its allies helped create and have displayed little facility in resolving – do not rise to the level of a national or international security threat, except for when Western governments treat them as such and act accordingly. Threats require urgent security responses, enemies do not – as was ably demonstrated by the UK and its allies throughout much of the Cold War.

In addition to reframing thinking and discourse in a way that provides greater room for manoeuvre, distinguishing DAESH along these lines offers the opportunity to focus on the sorts of long-term conditions that enable terrorist organisations to emerge in the first place, conditions that are often closely linked to state failure, economic inequalities, and large-scale humanitarian disasters. It would also allow states that are party to the UN Refugee Convention, as the UK is, to begin think about how to meet their obligations to the international community’s most vulnerable peoples without framing this issue as a matter solely of terrorism and security. In general, it would allow the UK and its allies much greater freedom to deliberate how to meet emerging adversaries and issues like DAESH with a full set of political tools rather than only the pointy tips.

Although particular groups will rise and fall, regional and international terrorism are likely here to stay. Yet while specific tactics and dispositions will surely evolve, at root terrorism represents a remarkably narrow and indeed brittle approach to territorial control, political power, and international recognition. Facing a problem that is both sticky and limited, and combined with the underwhelming record of the post-9/11 years, it makes sense for leading states like the UK and its allies to explore more supple forms of response. One way to do this is to re-inject politics, understood in the most expansive sense, into counterterrorism.


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Keeping the Genie in the Bottle: RNAS Anti-Submarine Warfare, 1912-1916


Throughout its long history, the Royal Navy has been both an innovator of, and adapter to, technological change. By the end of the 19th century, the sailing warship of Nelson’s day had been transformed into the all steel construction, reciprocating engine, electric powered and radio equipped, battleship. As formidable an implement of sea power as the modern battleship, Robert Whitehead’s 1866 invention of the self-propelled torpedo, despite its diminutive stature, threatened to undermine the relevance of the big-gun warship. Britain’s traditional naval strategy- close blockade and combined maritime operations- built on a foundation, according to Admiral Mahan, of sea power generated by the line-of-battle-ship, now seemed increasingly risky when faced against the meek, but deadly, coastal torpedo boat. The modern submarine, actualized by John Holland in 1900, effectively hid the otherwise vulnerable torpedo boat and thus brought the danger of torpedo attack to a new degree of immediacy.

Submarines, despite the critiques of skeptics, were soon added to the inventories of the naval powers, yet, the battleships only continued to grow in size, complexity and cost. To some radical naval thinkers, it seemed only a matter of time before the extinction of the old ways. It was at this point, at the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century, when the disruptive asymmetry between super-heavy warships and ultra-light flotilla craft was reaching a crescendo, that another transformative technology began to enter the armouries of the naval powers, a technology that promised to transform naval warfare more profoundly than all preceding developments, and perhaps, countering the submarine along the way.

Although it is little known, the Royal Navy laid surprisingly strong foundations for the use of aircraft in anti-submarine warfare before the start of the First World War. The role of aircraft in ASW was proposed, demonstrated and operationalized between 1912 and 1914. During 1915 and 1916, however, this developing ability was placed on the backburner as wartime priorities shifted. Nevertheless, the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) had been primed to play a critical role in the submarine crisis, helping to contain and defeat the submarines at sea in 1917-1918. What were the roots of this wartime transformation?

Within the ranks of Royal Navy, and the nascent naval air service, there were several far-sighted officers, submariners, and undersea warfare specialists, who believed aircraft could play a vital role in ASW. Late in 1909, as his first tenure as First Sea Lord was coming to an end, Sir John Fisher established what soon became the Admiralty Submarine Committee, responsible for, amongst other trials, using aircraft to search for, and bomb, submarines. The first chairman of the Fisher committee was Admiral Cecil Burney, and it was his son, Lt. Charles Burney, who was one of the first to examine the possibility of using aircraft against submarines, a possibility he discussed in a 1913 Naval Review article (volume I, issue two). Burney then went to work for the Bristol Company, where he contributed to the development of seaplanes, specifically engineered for ASW, when the war broke out. After the disaster of 22 September 1914, when U-9 sank HMS Cressy, Hogue, and Aboukir, Burney was re-assigned to the RN’s torpedo school, HMS Vernon, to develop an anti-submarine explosive, the result of which was the towed paravane explosive, like the depth charge, both introduced in January 1916.

Another important pre-war practitioner was a submariner, Lt. Hugh Williamson. In early 1912, he published a paper that was circulated by Captain Murray Sueter, the Director of the Navy’s Air Department. Williamson’s paper identified and explored the significant role he believed aircraft could play in ASW: by traveling aboard a parent carrier ship, the airplanes could be delivered to the submarine’s operational area, and deployed in flights to patrol. Once detected, an enemy submarine would be forced to dive, thus shortly exhausting its battery power.

Williamson was supported by Sueter, who envisioned ASW as one of the essential duties of the Naval Wing. In the event, Williamson, following injuries sustained in a disastrous seaplane crash in March 1915, while acting as a gunfire observer at the Dardanelles, was appointed as an assistant to Rear Admiral Charles Vaughan-Lee, the Director Air Services (Sueter’s replacement). Williamson later became an influential staff officer, head of the Naval Staff’s Section 11 (Air) at the Operations Division.

The usefulness of airplanes operating in the anti-submarine role was actually demonstrated during the 1913 naval maneuvers. Commander Vivian, the captain of HMS Hermes, the Navy’s first seaplane carrier, wrote an encouraging report, emphasizing the success of ship- and shore- launched aircraft for spotting submarines. In December 1913, Vivian followed up with a lecture for the Royal Navy College at Plymouth, in which he endorsed aircraft for the anti-submarine role. Another proponent, Lt. Boothby, had made the same case in the RUSI Journal in 1912, although he favoured airships.

All told, Sueter, Boothby, Burney, Williamson, and Vivian provided a solid theoretical foundation for the use of aircraft in ASW. By 1913, as Arthur Marder pointed out, it was “not an uncommon belief” that the airplanes of the future would be used to attack, and indeed bomb, submarines. The RNAS had gone some way towards operationalizing these theories by July 1914.

However, at the beginning of the war, the RNAS still possessed no specialized equipment for ASW, and the implementation of theory now confronted a dramatic wartime reality. Hermes was torpedoed by U-27 in the Dover Straits on 31 October- Vivian had been reassigned- and Williamson was dispatched to the Dardanelles. Burney’s work at Bristol was interrupted, and Sueter soon had his hands full, controlling the air defence of London during the Zeppelin raids of spring 1915.

Fisher returned to the Admiralty as First Sea Lord in October 1914, and, the following February, urged the development of an aerial stopgap measure for ASW. Taking a page from Lt. Boothby, Fisher looked to non-rigid airships (blimps) to fill the role. The resulting Sea Scout, perhaps the direct antecedent of the helicopter in terms of its ASW function, was soon put into production by the airship section of the Air Department. Likewise, other kit was being perfected: J. C. Porte, of Felixstowe fame, was at work improving the American Curtiss flying boats, which, of all types of naval aircraft, were the most highly anticipated for their potential range of capabilities, including ASW.

These were bold developments. However, as the land war ground to a stalemate, and the attractiveness of using submarines against merchant shipping led to the February 1915 War Zone declaration by Germany, the inability of the Navy and its Air Department to respond decisively was exposed. Deliveries of flying boats and Sea Scouts proved far short of requirements, and the machines themselves were short on horse-power, striking power, and crew comforts. Compounding these technical limitations, in May 1915, the air-minded Churchill-Fisher regime collapsed over the prosecution of the Dardanelles campaign. The RNAS, under the following Balfour-Jackson administration, was restructured and placed in a subordinate position to the Navy’s district commanders, not always harmoniously, and thus lacked coordination and central control. Resources were stretched thin, not least because the RNAS had to compete for aircraft with the Royal Flying Corps, from competing priorities within the Air Department itself. RNAS squadrons were sent to France to supplement the RFC, and an increasing number of units were engaged in the defence of British airspace from Germany’s Zeppelin raiders. The ASW campaign was only beginning, and diplomacy had so far prevented the threat from becoming critical.

When this state of affairs changed in 1917, the RNAS had three years of experience to fall back on. The pre-war theorists were soon vindicated: the aircraft would play an integral role, hunting submarines at sea, and flying protection for merchant convoys, while also striking out against the submarine bases, and thus contributing to the failure of the desperate effort to knock Britain out of the war.

This history of theory and adaptation, hesitant development and ad-hoc innovation, all under wartime pressure, is crucial, not only for the historiography of the World Wars (as many of the lessons learnt in 1914-1916 had to be relearned after 1939), but because it was a case where an ounce of prevention truly was worth a pound of cure. Although the airplane did not defeat the submarine threat, airplanes and airships did dramatically restrict U-boat areas of operation, and could have functioned (as the pre-war theory and experiments demonstrated) as part of a synergistic combined arms approach to combating the submarines right from the outset, rather than three years into the conflict. Admittedly, such an enticing possibility remained unlikely due to limitations of kit, manpower and doctrine, however, developing these capabilities before 1914 would have cost relatively little compared to the expense of the super-dreadnought arms race and lives ultimately lost during the long submarine campaign against merchant shipping.

Image: Felixstowe F.2A in flight during an anti-submarine patrol, via the Imperial War Museum.

Air Power: Strength and Weaknesses

This is the first in a series of occasional posts from scholars outside of the Defence Studies Department. If you would be interested to contribute to this series please contact the editors: Dr Amir Kamel and Dr David Morgan-Owen

Prof. Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black studied at studied at Queens’ College Cambridge, St John’s College Oxford, and Merton College Oxford before joining the University of Durham as a lecturer in 1980. There he gained his PhD and ultimately his professorship in 1994. He joined Exeter University as Established Chair in History in 1996. His recent publications include War in Europe: 1450 to the Present, Geopolitics and the Quest for Dominance and A Century of Conflict: War, 1914-2014.  

Air power, the subject of my Air Power: A Global History (Rowman and Littlefield) has played a key role in the military history of the last century, both independently and affecting land and sea conflict. Air power has been particularly important at the tactical and operational levels. It has also been seen as a strategic tool, even if bringing this element to fruition has proved very difficult; and difficult, moreover, for the range of states that have sought to pursue this means. The debates about what air power can provide have taken considerably different directions based on whether the army was the dominant service and the degree to which the air force was independent.

These issues raise questions not only about how best to present the history of air power, but also concerning its past and continuing rationale and relevance. Air power, especially if missiles are included, has always appealed to those who are looking for “the modern,” the “latest and the greatest,” and for a strategic “magic bullet.” However, the accounts of contemporaries about effectiveness, and the hopes of the advocates of air power, have frequently proved misplaced, and often seriously so. This is the case both for the military outcomes of its use and for their political consequences.

Nevertheless, despite the problems confronted in adapting circumstances, learning lessons, coping with the pressures of commitments, and responding to fiscal exigencies, air power has dramatically changed equations for firepower and mobility. More specifically, both in its own right, and as part of combined air operations, air power has made manoeuvre warfare a more central part of conflict. As a result, air power has greatly increased the tempo of war as well as its potential deadliness.

As with armoured warfare when it was introduced in the 1910s, the perception of the capability of air power and its reality were very different. This was also true for fears of what it might mean for warfare. There is generally a poor understanding of the reliability of aircraft systems. In practice, the more complex a system, the less reliable it is. And there is the issue of appropriate use. Thus, air power is not a panacea. However, in one particular respect, air power fulfilled the hopes of some early advocates. Thanks to the successful integration of reconnaissance information with artillery, aircraft helped overcome the relative stasis of First World War land operations. In doing so, aircraft helped restore mobility and, at least, a sense of results to ground operations, although this achievement was heavily qualified in terms of outcomes. In the 1918 Allied victory on the Western Front, more was due to the effective use of artillery incorporating the advantages of air-derived information than to new weapons, whether tanks or aircraft, operating in ground support roles, let alone to long-range bombing. Nevertheless, air power indeed proved part of the equation in translating advantages into the ability to defeat opposing forces on the ground, as it also did in 1918 with the British success against the Turks in Palestine.

This factor remained important in the understanding, presentation and use of air power. All of the combatants in the Second World War believed in the value of air dominance or supremacy and in its impact on operations on the ground, even if not all pursued the latter with the immediacy understood by the term ground support. Indeed, the stress on the war-winning dimension of air power encouraged Britain and the United States, neither of which saw their army as war-winning, to focus not on ground support but on gaining an air dominance that could be used for strategic bombing campaigns against their opponents’ home countries, rather than, at least as primarily intended, to affect operations on the ground. However, the latter was also an objective, even if the relationship between strategic bombing and theatre dominance was frequently somewhat unclear in practice.

These goals and priorities were not static. They were affected by resources, opportunities, doctrine and the ability to respond. Thus, the American ability to demonstrate flexibility and rethink the situation, and to plan and produce accordingly, led to the development and use of a long-range escort fighter capability. Similarly, in large part in response to Japanese advances in China and Japanese advances in the Pacific, the Americans moved their focus for air attacks on Japan from China-based aircraft to those operating from Pacific bases, and this had significant strategic and operational consequences. Ground-support proved more significant from the outset for militaries that were reliant on their armies for war-winning, rather than on strategic bombing. This was the case in the Second World War for Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union and China.

The demonstration of air power in the 1940s challenged the traditional geopolitical dichotomy of land and sea. Contemporaries, such as Carl Schmidt in Land and Sea (1942), argued that this would revolutionize geopolitics. The range and tempo of geopolitical rivalry was certainly different. During the Cold War, contrasting national legacies, priorities and opportunities very much affected the protagonists. The United States and Britain continued to place an emphasis on strategic bombing, one greatly enhanced by the availability of nuclear weapons. In contrast, although the Soviet Union had effective long-range bombers, as it had not done during the Second World War, the stress there was on ground-support.

As of the present, air power has confirmed, not challenged, the overall ranking of military strength, even if it has not enabled that strength to operate as effectively as had been proclaimed and as might have been anticipated. At the higher level, air power, like space power, has greatly changed global-reach capabilities, but has not changed the way the global system operates politically nor radically altered the concentration of military capabilities. Britain and the United States, successively, the leaders in sea power, became (so far), successively, the leading air powers (especially, as it should be, if naval air power is also part of the equation); albeit their being subject to short-term intense challenges as well as to more lasting questions about their successive effectiveness as the leading state and about the effectiveness of air power. These leading powers have been technological leaders and, like other states with cutting-edge technology, have tended to rely, at least in part, on air power as a function of their economic and technological advantages, whether or not the results have encouraged the process. Moreover, the arrival, and, even more, diffusion, of new technologies suggested that air power in the shape of unmanned aircraft has a great potential. Air power therefore very much continues to be part of the military agenda.

Image: A U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III from Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina, leads a formation Jan. 12, 2000, via wikimedia commons.

Back to the Future? British Air Power and Two Defence Reviews 2010-15

Dr David Jordan

When the Prime Minister sat down in the House of Commons after concluding his presentation of the 2015 SDSR, he may have allowed himself a smile of satisfaction at the largely positive response it received, and not just from his own back-benchers. This may have become a grin by the time the positive media reaction became clear, with much of that based upon the news that substantial investment is to be made in British air capabilities.

For once, the headlines did not revolve around fast jets, with the decision to purchase nine Boeing P-8 Poseidon multi-mission aircraft (MMA) taking centre stage. Often seen as a reversal of the 2010 decision to cancel the Nimrod MRA4, more astute commentators noted that it was actually a logical conclusion to the process where experienced aircrew from the old Nimrod fleet became part of a ‘seedcorn’ programme, which saw them posted on exchange tours to allied maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) fleets to ensure that it would be possible to regenerate an MPA force in due course. The decision to procure the P-8 was an entirely logical consequence of this. While some of the seedcorn aircrew served with the Australian, Canadian and New Zealand air forces on the P-3 Orion, this is an aging (yet still effective) type, which was not going to be the replacement MPA for the RAF. Those who served on the US Navy’s P-8 force, on the other hand, can bring expertise of the type to bear as the MPA force regenerates at RAF Lossiemouth. While the stated plan is for a third of the overall purchase to be in service by 2019, the Secretary of State for Defence is reported to have been negotiating for the loan of a small number of US Navy P-8 airframes to expedite the process of returning an MPA to British service. It is not unfair to say that the government deserves some credit here with the seedcorn initiative, and the recognition that a decision needed to be made in this review. Had there been further delays, there would have been a considerable risk that significant number seedcorn aircrew might have left the RAF, wasting a relatively small and sensible investment.

While SDSR presents the P-8 as an MPA (Section 4.49), this should not obscure the possibility of the aircraft being used as an MMA with the procurement of additional airframes and the Airborne Ground Surveillance system. This aircraft might provide a replacement for the Sentinel R1 in the battlefield surveillance role in the early to mid-2020s. The Sentinel has become something of a serial survivor of reviews now, avoiding rumoured cancellation in the early 2000s, then having its life extended beyond its original retirement date, now to the early part of the 2020s. It would not be entirely surprising to see a further life extension, since the Sentinel has played a valuable role in a number of recent operations. If the type is not extended further, there will be a need to replace its capabilities, and the P-8 seems to offer the most sensible base for achieving this.

The fact that the P-8 is based upon the Boeing 737 offers another possibility, namely in the field of airborne warning and control. This is currently undertaken by of six Boeing E-3D Sentries (aka ‘AWACS’, from Airborne Warning and Control), which entered RAF service more than 20 years ago. Although the type has been upgraded, the question will arise as to how long it can remain effective in service, and whether or not it would be more cost- effective to procure the 737-based E-7 Wedgetail as a replacement. Since the E-3D appears just once in SDSR15, the question of what happens in this important – and often misunderstood – realm of air power seems to have gone unanswered.

Although SDSR is equally vague about the Beechcraft Shadow R1 operated by 14 Squadron RAF, this has more to do with its sensitive operational role and the concomitant lack of publicity. What we do know is that the aircraft will remain in service until at least 2030, after beginning life as an Urgent Operational Requirement which has been ‘taken into core’. In addition to upgrades, the current fleet of five operational aircraft and a trainer will be increased to eight operational airframes. Whether this means that the Army Air Corps’ equally mysterious Islander and Defender aircraft are to be retired or will run on unencumbered by the attention of the press and military commentators is unclear.

These were not the only developments worthy of comment, since the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) fleet will be boosted with the procurement of a new remotely piloted air system (RPAS), the Protector. The RAF currently operates ten of the (in)famous MQ-9 Reaper ‘drone’, while there will be at least 20 Protectors. The Prime Minister announced this procurement some weeks before the SDSR, amid much confusion as to what Protector was. It transpired that it was a renaming of the extant ‘Scavenger’ RPAS programme, and will involve an upgraded Reaper variant. This means that the RAF’s RPAS capability will be double what it is now; what is not so clear, though, is what the imprecise ‘more than 20’ (section 4.49 of SDSR) means. 21? 30? We could, in fact, have seen a commitment to an even greater level of RPAS use by the UK over the next decade or so, which has potentially interesting implications in terms of force structure – as the current ten RPAS are operated by two squadrons, will this mean an expansion in the number of RAF flying units? And if so, will the scheme to recruit RPAS-only pilots and systems operators increase?

Even allowing for certain areas where clarity is lacking SDSR15’s handling of airborne ISR assets seems encouraging, with the restoration of an MPA capability which offers interesting potential developments in terms of surveillance and AWACS replacements from the mid-2020s onwards, and an expansion in capabilities in the ISR field overall, even though there are some questions to be answered as to how that capability will be fully realised when the RAF’s personnel numbers are not apparently going to increase on the sort of scale that might be anticipated.

This was not the only ‘good news’. The C-130J Hercules transport, meant to be retired in 2022 was given a reprieve. There has been much debate as to whether the A400M Atlas was a suitable replacement, since it appeared to be too large to perform the Special Forces support role effectively. Although there was a belief that a small force of C-130s might be retained for this role, the decision to keep 14 airframes was perhaps unexpected. This effectively means that the reduction in transport capability presaged by SDSR10 has almost been reversed, although it must be noted that the extension of the Hercules is only until 2030. Coupled with the introduction of the Voyager and the growth of the Atlas fleet, SDSR15 appears to have set about reversing the decline of the fixed wing transport force. The policy for the support helicopter force, subject of much attention in the past decade, might be said to have been set as ‘steady as she goes’. The decision to introduce two Strike Brigades in addition to 16 Air Assault Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade suggests that the RAF and Commando Helicopter forces will be kept busy.

The same is almost certainly true of the RAF’s fast jet force. The venerable Tornado GR4, despite some bitter – and often wildly inaccurate – criticism from certain defence bloggers remains a critical part of the RAF’s forces. The review, though, makes clear that the Tornado’s time is drawing to a close (even though a further life extension would not be a surprise) as the Typhoon finally gains the ability to use Storm Shadow and Brimstone missiles. That the Typhoon, always intended to be a multi-role aircraft in RAF service, has been hobbled by a multi-national MOU which caused years of delay to the introduction of its full range of capabilities is a lesson worth learning for those involved in future procurement. Until the three remaining squadrons disband in 2018 and 2019, the GR4 will remain at the forefront of operations, potentially completing almost 30 years of continuous operational deployments. The extension of the Tornado force reflects an issue dating back to 1991. Then, the RAF had 30 fast jet squadrons. SDSR10 would have reduced that to six by 2020, a reduction of 80% – yet the tasking for the RAF’s combat aircraft had not diminished by anything like as much. There is a case for saying that the end of the Cold War saw an increase in RAF fast jet deployments against a backdrop of continuing cuts, with little or no ‘peace dividend’. While the increase of the future force to nine squadrons from the planned six addresses some of the problems, it may well be the case that more units are required in due course, and it will be interesting to see how this is addressed.

In this context, the decision to retain two additional Typhoon squadrons and extending their service life until 2040, is welcome. The decision means that the RAF will end up with seven Typhoon squadrons, which was the originally-planned force structure for the type; a true ‘back to the future’ aspect of the review, albeit one which reverses a number of decisions made over the course of the last 15 years or so, not just the last 5. The ability to use the Typhoon in concert with so-called ‘5th generation’ aircraft has already been explored in exercises with the USAF’s F-22 fighters, and this has applicability for work with Britain’s purchase of the F-35B Lighting (or Lightning FG1 in British service).

The F-35 joint strike fighter programme has been beset with problems and vitriolic criticism; indeed, a number of commentators have called for it to be cancelled and for the UK to purchase F/A-18E or F/A-18F Super Hornets, to equip ‘cat and trap’ carriers. This rather misses the point. As well as the defence industrial implications of abandoning the F-35 and the likely diminution of British influence in coalitions without its ‘first night’ capability, it represents a misreading of what the F-35 will deliver, even in the F-35B short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) version. The actual position is perhaps reflected in SDSR15’s increasing the number of aircraft to be purchased by the mid-2020s, thus allowing one carrier to be at sea all year round with F-35Bs as part of the air wing if required. If the intention for a purchase of 138 F-35s is realised, this will further transform the capability of British air power, offering the ability to base 5th-generation aircraft both aboard the carriers and on land bases, making the aircraft not just a step on from the Harrier and Tornado, but a possible ‘game-changer’ in terms of the UK’s ability to project power. There are some potential pitfalls which need to be noted, though. The first is that the pace at which the F-35 is bought may well create a situation where the number of aircraft available to support embarkation aboard a carrier is, at least initially, insufficient. Although the importance of the Queen Elizabeth class to the projection of British air power has been obvious for years (as I suggested here 14 years ago), there is a risk that adopting a concept of use which sees most of the F-35 force tied to carrier operations for at least the first few years of the aircraft’s use might represent a reduction in the flexibility and potential capabilities that the F-35 offers.

The US Navy, for instance, demonstrated this with the deployment of around a third of a an F-14 squadron (VF-154) to a shore base during Iraqi Freedom, and although arguments that the F-35B simply cannot expect to be fully effective if the aircraft ‘hop and hop off’ the QE carriers are entirely valid, the risk of tying a valuable aircraft type to the carrier deck (or, if not embarked, back at base regenerating capabilities after a cruise) needs to be considered very carefully. As the number of F-35s increases, this risk will reduce. It does, though present a second problem, which is the risk of the question of ‘ownership’ being revisited, perhaps more by commentators than by practitioners.

This raises the risk of rejuvenating counter-productive inter-service which achieves little beyond getting in the way. Although not perfect, the Joint Force Harrier experience, with the emphasis very much on ‘joint’ was a valid model which can be built upon. Notions that the FAA should undergo considerable expansion so as to operate the majority of the F-35B force may appear attractive, but the likelihood – given the lack of any significant uplift in personnel numbers for either the RAF or the RN means that such a debate is largely nugatory. The key will be in ensuring that a balance is struck using the joint force, rather than getting becalmed in a circular debate over whether the F-35B is owned by the RAF or the RN; attempting ‘regime change’ at this stage is likely to cause more problems than it solves. The key issue here is one of balance, and as Viscount Templer’s committee which looked at the future of British air power in 1965 (concluding that arrangements were ‘broadly right’) observed, this was often lacking in considerations of air power. It is to be hoped, 50 years on, that this can at last be overcome.

A further consideration will have to be the amount of synthetic training that is projected for the F-35. It is entirely possible that as much as 50% of the training will be conducted in simulators, using encrypted networking capabilities to maximise benefits. SDSR15 did not discuss the burgeoning revolution in synthetic training, and this has obscured just how important a part of F-35 operations this is likely to be. Unless there is a mechanism for placing a significant networked simulator architecture aboard a QE class carrier, then there would be a real risk that the ‘traditional’ model of embarkation would reduce the efficacy of the F-35B force as a result of skills fade. Focusing on past debates between the RN and RAF over aviation is not going to be a helpful course of action when dealing with the F-35B. Whilst there is a risk of overstating just how significant the leap from 4th to 5th generation aircraft is – if only because much of this is based upon manufacturers’ brochures rather than hard experience – it is not unfair to observe that the latent capabilities of the F-35B mean that innovative thought and application of effort is going to matter far more than the imposition of traditional operating and training regimes.

And it is in the arena of training that concern must also arise. Although the RAF and FAA are to receive new aircraft and retain others for longer than planned, these aircraft are – obviously – useless without the personnel to fly and maintain them. It is not entirely clear how a nine-squadron strong fast jet force (vice a planned six), coupled with the purchase of the P-8, an increase in RPAS numbers (and potentially the number of simultaneous RPAS orbits) and the retention of C-130s, Sentinels and Shadows means that the RAF, in particular, is at risk of continuing to ‘run hot’. Given that the RAF ‘returned to contingency’ in 1991, carrying out more than three dozen contingent operations years before the drawdown from Afghanistan supposedly enabled a return to this form of operation, this is an issue which is notable by its absence in the discussion of air power in the SDSR15 document.

Overall, then, there was much to cheer from the perspective of British air power, as key capabilities are to be restored and/or enhanced. There are challenges, though: the risk of returning to outdated thinking about air power (perhaps a greater risk in this sort of format than in actual planning documents) could hamper developments if allowed to flourish, while the question of how a notable increase in aircraft numbers can be allied to ensuring that there are enough people to fly and maintain them remains a nagging concern. Yet SDSR15 should be welcomed from an air power perspective – recognising the importance of the environment to the prosecution of the UK’s military operations in a way which previous reviews have not and laying the foundations for the full potential contribution of air power in a properly ‘joint’ context to be achieved. If, by so doing, it marks the point at which snide comments about 100 year experiments (based upon a gross misreading of a remark by Viscount Trenchard in 1925) can be retired and replaced with mature consideration of what air power can most efficaciously deliver to campaigns, this may be its most significant achievement of all.

Image: A ground crew member with the Royal Air Force preparing a RAF Tornado GR4 ready for take off as it prepares to depart Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan for the final time.

Taranto Revisited: 75 Years On


As with many of the historically themed posts on this blog, this one relates to an anniversary. November 2015 marks 75 years since the Fleet Air Arm’s famous raid on the Italian Navy at Taranto. For the loss of just two aircraft, a small force of British biplanes heavily damaged three battleships, one of which was still undergoing repair work by the time of the Italian armistice. The Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Cunningham, wrote that ‘As an example of economy of force, it is probably unsurpassed.’ It is hard to disagree with him on this point.

Of course it was not just economy of force that Britain needed in late 1940, it was events that might change the course of a war that appeared to offer only disaster and defeat. Taranto seemed to offer such potential. Cunningham’s report of the action claimed that it had immediately become evident that freedom of movement was increased and sea control of the Mediterranean established, enabling British battleships to be freed for operations elsewhere. This brought broad agreement at the Admiralty and across the War Cabinet. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Winston Churchill went much further. He exclaimed to the House of Commons that ‘the result affects decisively the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean and also carries with it reactions upon the naval situation in every quarter of the globe.’ In conjunction with successes on land in North Africa over that winter, it formed a basis for hope that Italy might soon be knocked out of the war entirely, and preparations were made to pursue a separate negotiated peace. These assessments and ambitions were to prove less realistic. In fact, while a hugely impressive achievement, and an undoubtedly important contribution to Britain’s war in several ways, Taranto did not deliver such decisive outcomes.

It has been noted by Angelo Caravaggio that actually, even in the immediate aftermath of Taranto, sea control was not in place to the extent envisioned by Cunningham. The Italian Navy managed to put much of its available strength to sea just days afterwards, successfully deterring a smaller but significant RN force from delivering a full complement of urgently needed fighter aircraft to Malta. Indeed, the Admiralty itself questioned the notion of a decisive shift in the balance of naval power at the time. In April 1941, despite another naval victory at the Battle of Cape Matapan, the Director of Plans projected that by the following March, Italy would boast an operational strength of three fully modern and two re-modernized battleships, along with 14 cruisers of various types. This was greater than its operational strength of capital ships when it had declared war. The estimated British force required to handle this was placed at three battleships, a carrier and 10 cruisers of mixed types plus destroyers based at Alexandria, with a further two battleships, a carrier, two cruisers and attendant destroyers at Gibraltar. Far from representing an opportunity to free naval forces for deployment elsewhere, this would be a significant increase in the force in the Mediterranean at the time of Taranto.

Losses of RN capital ships to German U-boats and Italian Special Forces, along with commitments elsewhere and the entry of Japan to the war, meant that by late 1941 the Mediterranean was denuded of capital ships. Cunningham was forced to admit that major operations by the Italian Navy would have to go unopposed in the short term. The Italians managed to deploy practically their entire fleet to escort a series of vital convoys to North Africa over the winter of 1941-42. After the first, Cunningham warned the Admiralty that ‘The enemy has experienced freedom of movement and must enjoy the taste…he will become more venturesome’.

In spite of this troublesome situation, there was an increasingly pressing need to ferry more supplies to Malta by sea, in order to avoid such an important base being starved into submission. British solutions to the problem included trying to sneak major convoys through with only light escort at sea or to try and compensate with greatly increased aerial escort. Although the first attempt successfully reached the island in March, the next two were costly failures. The eastbound convoy of Operation ‘Harpoon’ met with a roughly equal Italian force, receiving significant damage and having several ships disabled. The surviving merchant ships were delayed sufficiently for the German air force to sink them. The commander of the RN escort admitted that ‘but for the enemy surface forces, these ships might have been brought in.’ A simultaneous convoy bound westward from Egypt attempted to compensate through increased air cover. This met with similar failure. After reports that the Italian fleet was at sea, and the subsequent inability of the RAF to deter it progress towards the convoy, the formation was turned back and the operation abandoned. Cunningham’s successor as Commander in Chief, Henry Harwood, acknowledged that it proved air power alone could not achieve such a task, and would have to work in conjunction with a powerful surface escort.

Harwood’s view brought consensus from London, including the First Sea Lord and Churchill. This led to the decision that the following, and most famous of the Malta convoys (Operation ‘Pedestal’) would include a vastly increased escort force, despite the pressing need for naval resources in other theatres of war. Three carriers, two battleships, seven cruisers and twenty four destroyers were ultimately employed, and the main Italian Fleet did not meaningfully interfere with the operation.

Evidently, Taranto had not released naval resources for operations elsewhere in the manner Churchill and Cunningham had hoped, nor had freedom of movement at sea been greatly expanded for the British. This was partly attributable to increases of German air power in the theatre in 1942, but also the continued presence and potential of the Italian Navy, as evidenced the wish for and transferral of precious battleships to the theatre. As a returning Cunningham noted in December 1942, ‘as long as the Italian fleet is in being and in a position to interfere a considerable force of capital ships and therefore cruisers is required.’ This influence even extended into 1943 and the planning for landings on Sicily (Operation ‘Husky’). The Joint Planning Staff had emphasised from an early stage the importance of knocking out the Italian Navy or driving it into the Adriatic where it could be ‘bottled up’ more easily by a concentrated covering force. As this was not achieved, a much larger force was required, with dedicated air and submarine resources taken from other roles to instead await a potential sortie. Its continued presence was also listed as one of the constituent factors as to why there was only a single set of landings on the southern point of the island, rather than a concurrent set taking place elsewhere.

Taranto is rightly remembered as an extraordinary achievement. It was not just a highly impressive tactical success, but also offered hope to Britain at a dark time, and damaged the capabilities of the Italian Navy. It did not knock it out of the war however, and certainly failed to decisively alter the naval balance in the Mediterranean and around the world, as Churchill claimed. Even in terms of increasing freedom of manoeuvre and releasing resources, the effects were limited. The Italians continued to operate, sometimes with success, even in the immediate aftermath. Perhaps more importantly, it retained the potential to operate with its fleet-in-being and subsequently continued to influence the British. Under-escorted convoys were more open to attack, and alternatives to significant escort proved unsuccessful. A sortie in defence of the Italian homeland never came in 1943, but it still had to be planned against. This all led to naval resources that had hoped to have been freed for work elsewhere soon returning to the theatre, and a constant need to reaffirm sea control.

It is in this manner that Taranto should be remembered, as an important but single event in a wider whole – namely war at sea that still raged three years later in the Mediterranean. In that sense Taranto was certainly not an end to the story, but in fact it was not a beginning either. As I argue in work that is currently underway, and will elaborate upon further in a future blog post, it represents one part of a story of continuity throughout the period of Anglo-Italian antagonism of 1935-1943.

Image: Fairey Swordfish, via wikimedia commons.