Monday, September 12, 2016

Strategic Bombing and Imperial Policing

In the 1920s and 1930s, the people most excite by the idea that long-range bombers would revolutionize warfare, and that future wars would be won by air power alone, were in the British and American air forces. In the British case, part of the reason was their recent experience:
Instead of drawing lessons from the Spanish Civil War about the advantages of close-support aviation and air superiority, which was the conclusion drawn by most other air forces, RAF doctrine was mainly informed by the experience of what was called air policing in the empire or Afghanistan. The use of aircraft to enforce local control against rebel tribes and tribesmen (described in the RAF War Manual as "war against semi-civilized peoples") was taken as a paradigm to explain what might happen if a civilized state was subjected to a heavier level of bombing. Even tribal communities, it was argued, had vital centers that governed their existence; target intelligence on those centers would allow the small light bombers allocated to the operation to destroy them and, in doing so, to compel compliance from unruly subjects. John Slessor, director of plans in the Air Ministry in the late 1930s, gave a brutally frank description in his memoirs of why air policing worked: "Whether the offender concerned was an Indian Frontier tribesman, a nomad Arab of the northern deserts, a Morelli slaver on the border of Kenya, or a web-footed savage of the swamps of the southern Sudan, there are almost always some essentials without which he cannot obtain his livelihood." A model example for the RAF was the bombing undertaken in Ovamboland in southern Africa in 1938, in which rebel chieftain Ipumbu of the Ukuambi tribe was brought to heel by three aircraft that destroyed his kraal (camp) and drove off his cattle. In this case, and others, emphasis was put on the "moral effect" of coercive bombing, as well as its material impact. . . . In September, 1941, Charles Portal, chief of the air staff, used the analogy to explain to Churchill the nature of the assault on the "general activity of a community" in Germany: "In short, it is an adaptation, though on a greatly magnified scale, of the policy of air control which has proved so outstandingly successful in recent years in the small wars in which the Air Force has been continuously engaged."
Hey, we put down the chief of the Ukuambi, so we won't have any trouble with Hitler and those pesky Germans. Trust us.

The mind boggles.

From Richard Overy, The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War over Europe, 1940-1945 (2014), pp. 20-21.


G. Verloren said...

The underlying concept is sound, but the problem is one of scope, complexity, and circumstance.

In the case of a tribal community or a petty kingdom, there are relatively few vital holdings you need to disrupt. If you can blow up a chieftain's personal holdings, you undermine his position and invite others to step in to replace him, potentially individuals who are more willing to work with your Imperial system rather than oppose it. Or even in the case of a small modern nation, if you can seize the capital and control the primary transportation systems, you can effectively paralyze any efforts at local rule.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the British favored the idea of surgical strikes to knock out key objectives to win their wars, because their history is full of them doing exactly that. Their vast empire was in large part built through many small, relatively bloodless wars where they sailed in their ships, bombarded a few key forts, blockaded a few key harbors, perhaps seized a few key islands with minimal numbers of troops, and then offered terms for surrender to their now largely crippled foes. The British loved relying on their bombardment and, where absolutely necessary, a light smattering of marines.

They could, of course, have conducted full scale invasions with larger armies, fought pitched battles in the field, and enforced harsher peaces and demanded greater concessions - but that would have been far costlier for them on both the immediate and longterm scales. And at the same time, offering comparatively light terms of surrender to the enemy (backed up by threat of further force if necessary) was a good way of getting people to capitulate for fear that refusing would simply see things go from bad to worse for them.

In fact, this sort of war philosophy ended up directly influencing the German doctrine of Blitzkrieg - strike suddenly, capture the capital and key infrastructure, and then compel them to capitulate under threat of force, to spare themselves further suffering and get off "easy". The major difference, of course, is the Germans knew the important of boots on the ground, in large part because they had never had the sort of naval focus the British relied upon.

G. Verloren said...

One last thing I neglected to say above, is that the present day problem of trying to win with strategic bombing alone is one of sheer numbers of targets.

Scaring off a tribal chieftain's cattle is one thing - blowing up every military factory, every airfield, every vital bridge or railway, every port and dock, every command bunker, every radar system, every munitions dump, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, is quite another thing.

First, you have to find all your targets. This can prove incredibly tricky, as people are crafty buggers and will do their best to conceal things they don't want to get bombed. And of course, terrain can be a major hindrance as well - just look at the Vietnam War.

Second, you have to get to your targets. This, too, can prove incredibly tricky, as people are tenacious buggers and will do their best to defend things they don't want to get bombed. You can have all the strategic bombers you want, but if they get blown out of the sky before they reach their targets, you accomplish very little.

Third, you have to hit your targets. This, like finding and reaching them, can prove incredibly tricky, as unguided bombs have very poor accuracy, and guided ones (assuming time periods where they even exist) are prohibitively expensive to use against large numbers of targets - particularly so if they're also having trouble reaching them in the first place, and large numbers are destroyed without ever arriving to blow things up.

But of course, the British were far more used to the practice of sailing their ships into enemy waters, blowing any resistance out of the water, shelling unopposed, and sailing home with treaty in hand. So when it came to air power, their extant experience influenced their thinking. If they could just "sail" a plane halfway around the world and "bombard" key enemy positions, surely things would work out the way they always did?

John said...

To me this misunderstanding speaks to the whole problem with the British military in 1939, which is that they had no clue what was coming. When they faced the Blitzkrieg for the first time, they collapsed. When they faced the Japanese version in 1941-42, they collapsed. They were utterly unprepared for the speed and violence of modern warfare. They had spent too much time sparring with tribal chiefs and not nearly enough working out how to fight against tanks crewed by men bent on victory. They were working from the wrong template, and it took their ground commanders three years to sort that out. Bomber command never did.