100 Years of the Royal Air Force
And its Influence on Air Power Development
By Lieutenant Colonel Ed Wijninga, NLD AF, JAPCC
The Royal Air Force (RAF) was founded on 1 April 1918 during the final year of the First World War. Prior to this, however, a number of British Generals advocated the need for a separate air force able to conduct air operations in concert with the Royal Navy and the British Army, but also capable of carrying out air operations independently. One of the biggest advocates for this was South-African-born general Jan Smuts, who wrote two reports advocating the establishment of an independent air arm. It was Smuts’ second report, which spoke of an air service ‘as an independent means of war operations’ and painted a vision in which aerial operations ‘may become the principal operations of war’, that led directly to the creation of the Royal Air Force. He stated, ‘The necessity for an Air Ministry and Air Staff has become urgent.’ Smuts submitted this second report on 17 August 1917, and the War Cabinet considered it on 24 August. Despite some opposition from the Navy and Army representatives, it was approved in principle. The War Cabinet still needed to develop many of the details, but the Air Force Constitution Act was passed on 23 November 1917, and given Royal Assent, it passed into law on 29 November 1917. His Majesty King George V issued a Royal decree at St James’ Palace on 7 March 1918, stating he had named the new Service the ‘Royal Air Force’. The already existing Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) were amalgamated to form the Royal Air Force on 1 April 19181.
The RAF’s Influence on Air Power Development
The foundation of the Royal Air Force started the era of Air Power development. Many of the World’s Air Forces were established and through experience, in both peacetime and war, together with the discussion about how to best employ this new phenomenon; Air Power doctrine was developed. Examining experiences, evaluating new technology, and discussing Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs) to develop Air Power doctrine is an evolutionary process that continues to this day. On 26 June 2018, NATO adopted it’s first-ever Air Power Strategy. Many concepts, procedures, and doctrine we use today as part of the way NATO employs Air Power have their roots in the history of the Royal Air Force. The RAF we see today is built around the United Kingdom’s four core Roles of Air Power; Control of the Air, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISTAR), Attack, and Air Mobility. All four of these Roles of Air Power have endured since the earliest days of military aviation. This article will highlight a few of the historical events or inventions that triggered the development of these concepts or professionalized them to the point where we still employ them.
Ubiquity, Agility, Concentration
After the First World War, the British government was in a position where it needed to quickly reduce its defence spending to keep the overall budget under control. Therefore, as with the other components, the government reduced the size of the Air Force drastically. By the end of the war, the RAF had 95 squadrons on the continent together with 55 operational and 199 training squadrons in the United Kingdom, and another 34 squadrons in the Middle East and India. Just five months later, the number of squadrons on the continent was reduced to 44, and half a year later there was only one left. The personnel strength of the RAF had been reduced from 304,000 at the end of 1918, to 29,730 by January 1920.
However, the end of the war had not brought the eagerly awaited peace that Britain was expecting. The post-war period came with numerous questions: the effects of the Russian Civil War, the fall of the Great Ottoman Empire, boundary disputes along the Eastern European boundaries, and the unrest in Afghanistan, Somaliland and Mesopotamia. The British Army was struggling to control these uprisings and conducted several campaigns to maintain order amongst the various populations. Although these campaigns were largely effective, in the case of the Afghan invasion of India on 6 May 1919, the British Forces could not make the Afghans withdraw until 24 May 1919, when the RAF conducted a bombardment of King Amanullah’s palace in Kabul. This was done with only one Handley Page V.1500 bomber with four 112-pound bombs on under-wing racks and sixteen 20-pound, hand-thrown bombs. The psychological impact of this attack on the population was unprecedented, causing the Afghans to sue for peace. This was the first time in history that air power had proved to be decisive in ending a conflict. Hugh Trenchard, the Chief of the RAF at that time, would use this event repeatedly as proof of the capability of independent air power. Trenchard also argued that he could solve problems through the use of the Royal Air Force as an independent fighting force. He demonstrated this once more with the conflict in Somaliland. Air power proved to be the crucial factor in defeating the Somaliland Dervishes, a feat that the British Army had been trying to accomplish for years, without being able to strike the decisive blow.
These events in Afghanistan and Somaliland clearly showed that air power could quickly respond to an emerging crisis; aircraft could deploy swiftly over vast distances; and commanders could effectively and decisively employ the RAF at a fraction of the cost of the British Army. The next year, the British government gave the RAF complete control of all British forces in Mesopotamia to control the tribal unrest in the area. Trenchard firmly believed in his concept of ‘Air Control’, which ‘asserted that relatively light air attacks supported by armoured car ground units could achieve the objective with far fewer people than would be needed by the Army, and thus it would be much cheaper’ to maintain order in Britain’s Colonial Empire. It would shape the RAF’s thinking process – and hence its whole organization – for years to come. The RAF demonstrated the combination of the three core characteristics of air power: speed, reach, and height, for the first time during the campaigns in Afghanistan, Somaliland and Mesopotamia, and their synergetic use led to the conceptualization of additional strengths of air power. Ubiquity allows aircraft to counter or pose simultaneous threats across a far wider geographical area than is possible with surface systems. Agility permits air assets to move quickly and decisively between the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of warfare. Concentration, speed, reach, and flexibility let air power assets concentrate military force in time and space, when and where it is required.2
Control of the Air
By the mid-1930s the discussion on how to defend Britain in case of war was gaining a foothold. It became widely accepted, due to the emergence of the new modern German Luftwaffe, that any future attack would be primarily through the air. Until then, the RAF had adhered to the policy of standing air patrols to defend against any attacking aircraft. This was very costly in terms of wear and tear on aircraft, fuel, pilots and ground crews. The recently appointed Air Officer Commanding (AOC) Fighter Command, Air Vice Marshal Hugh Dowding, attended a few experiments in 1935 with concrete sound-mirrors, at first, which proved unsuccessful, and later with a system that used electromagnetic radiation. This experiment with Radio Detection And Ranging (RADAR) using electromagnetic radiation was very successful, and Dowding secured funding for further tests and the set-up of a number of experimental stations along the coast. One of the scientists wrote, ‘We now have a new and potent means of detecting the approach of hostile aircraft, one which will be independent of mist, cloud, fog or nightfall’. In the years preceding the Second World War, scientists would develop this technology further to the Chain Home and Chain Home Low Radar systems along the British South and East coasts. Dowding, however, wanted to go further. He considered that without a system connecting all the information coming from the radars, correlated with inputs from the Observer Corps and coastal air defence batteries, he would still not be able to direct his fighters to any attacker without potentially overtasking aircraft or wasting fuel. If his radar system worked, there would be no need for standing patrols, wearing out engines, wasting fuel, and tiring crews. Some experiments to use the radar information for ‘forward interception’ as it was called then, were carried out at RAF Biggin Hill in 1937. The conclusion was as follows: ‘Provided that the sector operations room could be supplied with the positions of bombers at one-minute intervals, correct to within two miles, it should be possible to direct fighter aircraft to within three miles of them. This was sufficient to ensure interception in average conditions of visibility’ according to an official signals history3. The new system was now introduced throughout Fighter Command. Every Sector Operations Room had telephone connections to subordinate airfields, Observer Corps posts, searchlight units, anti-aircraft gun units, and higher headquarters, such as Group Operations Rooms and to Headquarters RAF Fighter Command at Bentley Priory in Northwest London. The integration of all these capabilities through a well-functioning command & control system provided Dowding and his sector commanders with ample early warning and the possibility to position his fighters in the required numbers, at the right time and at the correct location where the enemy was approaching. This system, to a large extent, saved Britain from invasion during the Battle of Britain and served as a blueprint for future air defence operations.
Close Air Support
During the First World War, the British military began to employ Close Air Support, in a rudimentary form. Theorists like Sir Basil Henry (B. H.) Liddell Hart, considered air support to ground troops as a form of mobile artillery, and he also argued, ‘For this purpose the close cooperation of low-flying aircraft is essential.’4 As a result, the RAF began theorizing about air support to ground operations during the interwar years. In August 1940, RAF Group Captain A.H. Wann and British Army Colonel J. D. Woodall issued a report that recommended creating the position of an air liaison officer for Army Divisions and Brigades. These officers were called ‘Tentacles’. As a result, the RAF created the RAF Army Cooperation Command, which started to develop the necessary structures. Trained Tentacle teams joined operational units for the first time in the Western Desert in 1942, where they were immediately integrated into RAF-Army Air Support Control staffs at corps level and below. They used a system called Forward Air Support Links (FASL), which was a set of vehicle-borne equipment that included radios for immediate control of aircraft and for communication with higher formations. As a result, the response times for close air support, which had been around three hours, were reduced to 30 minutes. Another procedure the RAF developed in the Western Desert was the ‘Cab-Rank’ system, consisting of three aircraft. One aircraft was in direct support of the ground troops; the second was transiting to the battle area; and the third aircraft conducted refuelling and rearmament. Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Coningham, the commander of the Desert Air Force, perfected this whole system. He created joint RAF-Army Air Support staffs at corps level and at armoured division headquarters. He placed links at subordinate levels down to brigade and sometimes battalion level. The Desert Air Force introduced this system of close coordination, and other RAF units further refined the system, demonstrating tremendous success during the campaigns in Italy, Normandy, and northwestern Europe.
Starting in earnest early in 1942, the Battle of the Atlantic, in which the German Kriegsmarine sunk an enormous number of merchant ships providing logistic support from the United States to the Allies, was a call by the British and American governments for drastic measures to put a stop to this onslaught. The Royal Navy was not able to counter the U-boat threat and was overwhelmed by the number of German submarines patrolling the Atlantic Ocean, and beyond, in the so-called ‘Wolf Packs’. RAF Coastal Command was tasked with supporting the Royal Navy in finding, fixing and destroying U-boats, but this was easier said than done. Early on in the war, RAF aircraft lacked the technical capabilities to detect U-boats, and when detected, it proved quite difficult to destroy them. Technical inventions such as SONAR,5 Air-to-Surface Vessel (ASV) radar, and the Leigh light followed each other in quick succession and were implemented on aircraft. Moreover, after the Americans joined the war, the RAF was able to obtain American Very-Long-Range (VLR) aircraft, such as the Consolidated B-24 Liberator, which were equipped with the latest technical capabilities for the specific task of anti-submarine warfare, and were able to close the ‘Atlantic Gap’6 through their very long range. Many of the technologies and accompanying tactics the RAF (with some support from the Americans) developed during this period are still in use today. One of the most important inventions that helped to find U-boats was the ASV radar. This was initially a quite simple system, which the Germans could easily detect through their Metox system, but this was again soon outclassed by the latest ASV Mk III system, which the Germans could not detect by Metox. The ASV MK III system proved to be the technological breakthrough in the Battle of the Atlantic, resulting in a sharp rise in sunken German U-boats, which led to Admiral Dönitz calling-off all U-boat operations in the North-Atlantic in May 1943. After an aircraft detected a U-boat, one of the problems in conditions of reduced visibility or at night was that the submarine still could not be seen sufficiently by the aircrew to allow them to attack. To overcome this, Wing Commander Humphrey de Verd Leigh invented a light with a very high output, and mounted it initially in a turret or nacelle position, but later outboard on one of the aircraft’s wings. Once detected, the U-boat had insufficient time to dive, and it provided a clear view for the bombardier to release his depth charges or torpedoes. The Leigh light, as it was soon called, produced a very intense light of up to 90 million candelas. It proved to decrease the chances of survivability for the U-boats, which now preferred to surface when they had greater early warning of incoming aircraft and a chance to fight back.
The Royal Air Force has seen many conflicts and battles in its first century. In these 100 years, the military use of aircraft has matured from simple artillery spotting and balloon busting operations over enemy lines in the First World War to War in the Air leading the most complex military campaigns. The RAF developed many of the ideas, concepts, tactics and procedures that are now firmly embedded in national air power doctrines during times of crisis and conflict. Some of the most significant include close air support and electronic warfare in support of defensive counter-air and anti-submarine warfare. The rapid, decisive, and efficient use of air power we can employ today is largely the result of the work of men and women of the Royal Air Force, who sometimes, against all odds, persevered in their thinking towards creating ways and systems to fight battles with greater success and at less cost. The advent of air power, in which the Royal Air Force played a crucial role, transformed warfare to a point where commanders widely accept that without adequate air power, employed both independently and in support of joint operations, achieving victory in a conflict is far more challenging, and against peer adversaries, almost impossible.
1. www.gov.uk, The birth of the Royal Air Force, Sebastian Cox, 1 Apr. 2018.
2. AP3000, British Air and Space Power Doctrine, fourth edition.
3. Dowding of Fighter Command, Victor of the Battle of Britain, Vincent Orange, Grub Street Publishing London 2008.
4. Liddell Hart and the Weight of History, John Mearsheimer, Cornell University Press 2010.
5. SONAR: Sound Navigation and Ranging.
6. Atlantic Gap: The Atlantic Gap was the undefended area in the Mid-Atlantic Ocean beyond the reach of land-based RAF Coastal Command antisubmarine aircraft during the Battle of the Atlantic.
Lieutenant Colonel Ed Wijninga
is currently employed as Section Head of the Education, Training, Exercises & Lessons Learned section of the Joint Air Power Competence Centre.
Prior to this position he worked as Branch Head Offensive and Support Operations at the Combined Air Operations Centre in Uedem, Germany. Other positions include Staff Officer Close Air Support in the Netherlands Maritime Force at Naval Base Den Helder. He also served two years as Operations Planner at the J5 section in the Directorate of Operations of the Ministry of Defence in The Hague.
In 2004/5 Lieutenant Colonel Wijninga attended the Senior Staff College in The Hague in the first Joint Advanced Staff Officers Course and graduated with an Executive Master degree in Security and Defence (EMSD).