Ruling from the Skies: Aerial Policing

Reading Time: 5 minutes

“Surely the morale effect of aircraft on the Arab mind supplies the means of achieving economy without loss of efficiency on the land frontiers of the Empire … no matter how many fighting men he puts in the field he is powerless to protect his villages, his cattle and his corn.”

                     — Flight-Lieutenant C. J. MacKay, 1921

Four years fighting the Kaiser transformed British finances. Once a major creditor – indeed, once the wealthiest state on the planet – the Empire became a net debtor that had to costs and count pennies at every turn. Yet ruling over a quarter of the Earth’s surface remained an extremely costly endeavour. Before the First World War, Britain had suppressed colonial rebellions by dispatching punitive expeditions to force recalcitrant subjects back into line. Assembling, equipping and employing such forces now, however, was economically unfeasible. Accordingly, Britain was forced to search for a new way to defend its holdings, and somehow control more people in its newly enlarged empire with less money and fewer men. 

The Foreign Office found its solution in Hugh Trenchard, today known as the ‘Father of the Royal Air Force’. He successfully argued for substituting ground forces in the Middle East and Africa with bomber aircraft – an efficient middle ground between doing nothing (allowing rebels to continue their activities unimpeded) and dispatching a full invasion (which often amounted to smashing a fly with a billion dollar sledgehammer). The government, desperate to find a silver bullet for its colonial woes, went along with Trenchard’s advice almost immediately. 

Since 1900, Sayid ‘Mad Mullah’ Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan had been campaigning with Somali tribesmen, known as the Dervishes, to rid the British from their homeland. Between 1900 and 1905, no fewer than four punitive expeditions had been sent to drive him from Somalia. All were tactically successful, but none were strategically decisive. After every setback, the Mad Mullah merely escaped Somalia, raised a new army abroad and returned to continue the struggle. After five years and £3 million, the British were no closer to pacifying the region. 

In 1919, another British expedition arrived in Somalia, this time with air support. On 21 January 1920, six aircraft attacked the Mullah’s bases at the Jid Ali and Medishi fortresses. Mullah’s career was almost ended during the first assault; one near bomber miss left his clothing badly singed. For two days the bombing continued, until reconnaissance aircraft saw that the bases had been abandoned. The British immediately pursued the Mullah as he dashed for the fort at Tale. Before he could reach his citadel, however, the aircraft began pounding down its defences. Mullah’s convoy was caught by the British Camel Corps, and their victory in the ensuing engagement forced him once again to flee south to Imi – where he died soon after of influenza. It was the first victory for aerial policing.

The fact that air power alone had forced the Mullah to abandon Jid Ali and Medishi so quickly demonstrated that aircraft could deliver devastating attacks with virtually no cost and no casualties. Buoyed by his successes, Trenchard argued at the 1921 Cairo Conference that the duty of imperial policing should pass from the British Army to the RAF. Churchill, then serving as Secretary of State for War and Air, was persuaded; in no small part since suppressing the 1920 Iraq Revolt had cost Britain more than £40 million – more than had been spent bankrolling the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans during the First World War. From October 1922, Air Vice-Marshal Sir John Salmond was awarded control over all British forces in Iraq.

In the same year, the Turks invaded the region of Mosul, which had been assigned to Iraq in the Treaty of Sèvres. Imperial troops were defending the area, but they had a tough time repelling the Turks until Salmond used a combined bomber-ground force to eject them from Mosul in February 1923. He then turned his attention Sheikh Mahmud, a Kurdish revolutionary fighting for the establishment of a Kurdish state. In 1922, a combined bomber-ground force had forced him to flee to Persia, and in 1924 the same effect was achieved when he returned to Sulaimaniya in Iraq and his house was bombed. One last expedition in 1931 captured him and imprisoned him in Baghdad. 
Finally, the mere threat of aerial policing was used to pressure Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, into ordering the Nejd tribes he ruled over to cease their attacks on British agents,

Based on these experiences, Salmond refined and formalised the RAF’s applied doctrine in Note on the Method of Employment of the Air Arm in Iraq. The paper emphasised the role of air power – not only as a way of destroying an opponent’s army and fortresses, but their morale itself. The threat of being bombed prevented villagers from venturing into the open to plough or harvest their crops. At the same time, houses could be destroyed and livestock killed. Since colonial subjects had no way of fighting back “no matter how many fighting men [they] put in the field”, and since the economic damage of bombing could deliberately be made higher than the cost of paying taxes, recalcitrants would, the theory went, inevitably learn that the calculus of resistance made no sense. Bombing could therefore achieve the desired outcome while killing as few people as possible – though we should note that bombing was incredibly inaccurate, and always led to considerable casualties. 

The RAF received the opportunity to test its newly matured doctrine in the 1934 Aden Campaign. In 1929, the Subehis, a Yemenese tribe which had been attacking British caravans for half a century, had been brought to heel after a mere month of bombing. However, the Queteibis, another tribe living near the Subehis, had offered greater resistance and refused to surrender the robbers the British demanded they stop sheltering. The RAF began relying on what it termed an ‘inverted blockade’ – an attempt designed less to destroy the Queteibis themselves than their way of life.

Unexploded cluster bombs were dropped in fields, alongside paper posters helpfully explaining what unexploded bombs were and the dangers they posed. Other propaganda leaflets were dropped on Queteibi territory; in a constant effort to erode enemy morale, the locals were informed of developments of the war and the RAF’s seeming omniscience. One warned that the British had learned people were returning to their homes at night, and cautioned that such behaviour in the future would be met with force. Another warned that if the Queteibi feared for their animals or lives, they ought to simply abandon their villages. A third was more manipulative, informing the Queteibi that they alone were to blame for the conflict and for their casualties. Meanwhile, loud but largely nondestructive explosives fell from British aircraft – their shrieking terrifying those on the ground. With just a sole RAF squadron, the British persuaded the Queteibi that resistance was not worth the effort, and the robbers were soon handed over.

During the 1920s and 1930s, aerial policing was remarkably efficient in suppressing minor revolts. Yet its record was tarnished by the Second World War, when it was demonstrated that a major conflict could not be won by air power alone. The Nazis attempted to shatter British morale during the Blitz, but had little success in breaking the island’s will to resist. Indeed, endless aerial bombing had the opposite effect intended – whatever pro-German sympathies still lingered quickly vanished once bombs began raining down on London.

As the tide of war turned, the Allies were themselves drawn to using air power to gain ultimate victory. Since it was clear that Britain alone could not muster the troops needed to mount a liberation of Western Europe, Churchill flirted with aerial bombardment. The RAF, and later the USAAF, aimed to bring down Nazi Germany by assaulting “her war production, her power of resistance, her industries and her will to resist.” Again, however, bombing proved to be no true substitute for boots on the ground, and Germany was only brought down by Berlin’s fall. 

Despite its somewhat poor record in the Second World War, aerial policing is still used today. In the 1990s, NATO led a bombing campaign against Milošević in an attempt to compel him to end his genocide in Yugoslavia. Similarly, aerial policing has been used against states like Libya, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia, while modern drone warfare is – in many ways – little else but a more refined and precise version of the strategy developed in the 1920s. It is still a convenient middle ground between inaction and overreaction; while it can not bring into line a state with both the means to defend itself and the industrial power to repair any damage it is dealt, aerial bombardment can be used to great effect to exert pressure on more minor global actors.

The West has learned many lessons from its long history of policing from the skies. While cluster bombs are now outlawed, a similar effect is created today by spreading out air raids throughout the day, forcing people to constantly seek shelter instead of working. Whereas bombing was relatively inaccurate at its inception, the development of the laser guided missile to target dams, power plants and roads has made it possible to bring down a region’s economy in mere days. It was perhaps inevitable that the development of military aircraft would herald a new age of warfare, yet it is difficult to overestimate how radically aerial policing changed the very concept of conflict itself. The idea of a military front line, behind which civilians of both sides could continue their lives with some level of normality, now seems quite quaint; for those enduring aerial bombardment, every war is a total war, affecting all aspects of their normal existence.