The RAF and Tribal Control

Airpower and Irregular Warfare between the World Wars

Richard D. Newton

In light of technological advances and multiplying irregular conflicts, conventional wisdom suggests airpower as the ideal, low-cost means of conducting modern warfare—and the air control method adopted by the British between the two world wars seems to back this up. Swift and precise targeting from above was considered more humane, after all, sparing civilians as well as British soldiers during punitive expeditions in unruly colonial regions. But what conventional wisdom misses, and this book makes clear, is how the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) innovative approach actually worked—relying on British airmen on the ground at least as much as on airborne technology to control restive tribes and villages. The RAF and Tribal Control tells the story of these forgotten airmen, the RAF special service officers who, embedded among local populations and indigenous tribes, collected vital intelligence, developed targets, directed air strikes when necessary, and, perhaps most important, provided personal assessments of airpower’s qualitative effects against primarily guerrilla forces.

Airpower is a highly technological endeavor. But in wars where the human dimension takes primacy, Richard Newton reminds us that measuring the effectiveness of air actions requires a qualitative approach that is nearly impossible via overhead sensors. And this is where the RAF special service officers came in—airmen who understood the local cultures and peoples, they served as conduits for information and communication between the colonial administration and the tribes and villages. It was their ground-level contributions that made the integration of airpower into the civilian administration of colonies and mandates possible. This first in-depth account of the RAF special service officers’ role brings to light previously unpublished insights. The RAF and Tribal Control fills a significant gap in the history of air warfare. In doing so, the book dispels the notion that airpower alone is effective in small wars and irregular conflicts—and reveals the importance of the “boots-on-the-ground” human component in waging unconventional air warfare, both in the days of the RAF’s vaunted air control and in our own time.

“This is a unique and insightful study that cleverly illuminates the historical role of Royal Air Force special service officers: courageous, highly trained men posted to remote and out-of-the-way locations who acted as the conduits for communication and insight between the colonial administration and the tribesmen and who delivered appropriate and timely actionable intelligence. Newton uncovers the little-known nonlethal aspects of air control and its growing sophistication in understanding the nature of the environment. This is an excellent, well-timed, and authoritative book with clear contemporary utility.”

—Major General Doctor Andrew M. Roe, chief executive, Defence Academy, and commandant, Joint Services Command and Staff College, United Kingdom

“Rick Newton’s The RAF and Tribal Control is a meticulously researched, fresh analysis of RAF ‘air control’ operations in the Middle East during the interwar years. He ably shows that air control meant far more than bombing or strafing; indeed, the intent of the operations was to prevent conflict and assure law and order. The key to success was a thorough understanding of the needs and emotions of the local populace—a crucial factor that many of those calling for an ‘airpower solution’ to today’s conflicts against irregular forces often neglect. Newtons book is a must for anyone who wants to know how air power can best be used to persuade or coerce.”

—Mark Clodfelter, National War College professor of strategy and author of The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam

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About the Author

Richard D. Newton is a researcher and faculty member at the Joint Special Operations University, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. He is a retired US Air Force special operations and combat rescue helicopter pilot. His work has appeared in the RAF’s Air Power Review, Air and Space Power Journal, Special Operations Journal, and the Air Commando Journal. He is also the author of Special Operations Aviation in NATO: A Vector to the Future.