Innovation Determinants of the World’s First Integrated Air Defense System

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The prospect of air power dominated the outlook of future war at the dawn of the interwar period. Many theorized offensive air power would soon prove the decisive force of war, and the battlefield would never be the same thanks to the unprecedented destructiveness of aerial bombing attacks.[1] Despite having the strongest air force in the world at the conclusion of the First World War, Britain faced a prominent strategic threat posed by a sizable French bomber force and the creation of the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force. To counter the threat, the British created the world’s first integrated air defense system—a synchronized nexus comprised of radar to detect enemy aircraft, a command and control network to relay warnings, and fighter aircraft to challenge threats.

In doing so, Britain innovated a critical advantage which proved victorious in the Battle of Britain against the numerical and technological superior Luftwaffe force, thus altering warfare in the air domain by challenging the premise that air power is intrinsically offensive.[2] The revolutionary innovation of British air defense emerged from the confluence of the Royal Air Force reorganization, a revision of strategic assumptions and national strategy, and a small group of pivotal civil-military advocates who championed the integration of emerging technology.[3]

Despite mounting air threats from the French and Germans, coupled with insufficient air defenses, it took the Royal Air Force nearly two decades to create a dedicated organization responsible for air defense innovation. Finally, in 1936, it reorganized to form a Fighter Command and thus set in motion the genesis of what would become a formidable air defense system. It is no surprise why it took Britain so long to recognize the criticality of air defense—nascent air power theory was inherently offensive due to the difficulty of identifying, intercepting, and engaging air threats. During the Britain campaign of the First World War, British air defenses were responsible for less than a third of all German bomber losses despite employing considerable resources totaling 200 fighters and 450 anti-air guns.[4] Simply stated, air defense was inefficient and costly. Moreover, fears of insufficient air defense subsided with the conclusion of the war.

Throughout the 1920s, the British Air Ministry and Cabinet acknowledged deficiencies in air defense on multiple occasions. In 1921, Arthur Balfour, a member of the Cabinet, concluded the “RAF was too weak to withstand a French aerial invasion, Britain was more defenseless than it has ever been before.”[5] Four years later, in 1925, Britain formed the Air Defense of Great Britain, an RAF command dedicated to defend British airspace from an attack across the Channel.[6] Once again, fears dissipated when the British and French signed the Treaty of Locarno at the end of 1925. Without the presence of a prominent threat, there was no impetus for air defense innovation.

Britain never truly re-invigorated counter-air concerns until 1934 when Hitler rejected Part V of the Treaty of Versailles and formed the Luftwaffe.[7] Following Germany’s declaration, Parliament quickly approved the reorganization of the Royal Air Force to form Bomber, Fighter, Coastal, and Training Commands in 1936.[8] The Royal Air Force reorganization, specifically the creation of the Fighter Command, recognized fighter aircraft as a critical component of the force, laying the groundwork for air defense innovation. Although the operationalization of Fighter Command provided the foundation for British air defense innovation, acquiring funding and prioritization for development was an entirely separate feat. 

British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (Bain News Service/Wikimedia)

Throughout much of the interwar period, Britain’s national strategy centered on maintaining parity with potential enemies, primarily by maintaining a substantial bomber force as a deterrent capable of delivering a knockout blow.[9] Stanley Baldwin, a prominent conservative leader, best summarized the strategy by noting, “the only defense is an offense…the bomber will always get through.”[10] Although Baldwin was advocating disarmament at the time, the essence of the strategy prevailed—the best deterrent was a dominant bomber force. As such, for decades the Royal Air Force funneled resources to enhance the bomber force while air defense shortfalls remained unaddressed.

In the late 1930s, the offensive air strategy emphasizing the bomber force pivoted to a defensive strategy prioritizing fighter aircraft. The pace of Luftwaffe growth and the exorbitant costs required to maintain parity challenged strategic assumptions. Following a government defense expenditure review in 1937, the Minister for Co-Ordination of Defence, Sir Thomas Inskip, concluded “the role of the RAF had never been to launch a knockout blow…Britain must instead confront the Germans with the risk of a long war.”[11] Opposed to prioritizing Bomber Command, Inskip suggested the Royal Air Force should emphasize the production of fighters.[12] The new strategy was largely the result of economics; fighters cost less than bombers and required less manufacturing time.[13] 

PRIORITIZING FIGHTER COMMAND AND A CONCEPT OF AIR DEFENSE OVER BOMBER COMMAND AND A STRATEGY OF OFFENSIVE PARITY WAS A COLOSSAL SHIFT...

The revised strategy did not go over well in the Royal Air Force. As one aviator noted, “Since its very earliest days the belief in the offensive role of the service had possessed religious force, with Bomber Command as the priesthood.”[14] Nonetheless, Inskip remained resolute and prioritized Fighter Command to develop a “system of pure defense against air attack.”[15] In 1938, the British government made good on the new national strategy by decreasing the production of bombers and increasing production of fighter planes.[16] Whereas the operationalization of Fighter Command laid the foundation for improved air defense, the change in national strategy initiated momentum for innovation. Prioritizing Fighter Command and a concept of air defense over Bomber Command and a strategy of offensive parity was a colossal shift, and it commenced air defense innovation in earnest.

East Coast Chain Home Radar Station (RAF Official Photographer/Imperial War Museum/Wikimedia)

Following the creation of Fighter Command and prioritized resource allocation, the air defense system required a means to detect threats and quickly dispatch fighters to intercept incoming bombers. Britain needed radar paired with a communications network to facilitate command and control of Fighter Command. Although forms of such technology already existed and were developing rapidly, it was the work of two critical personalities that proved pivotal: Henry Tizard and Hugh C.T. Dowding. Henry Tizard, a renowned chemist serving as a civilian adviser to the Air Ministry, is best known for his leadership of the Tizard Committee. His small committee included two bureaucrats and some outside experts obscure enough to be free from political in-fighting over budgets and doctrine yet close enough to be influential.[17] Touting extraordinary intellect and commitment, the Tizard Committee preached the “cult of the imperfect,” and the men were continually seeking innovative means to integrate emerging technology and solve problems.[18]

THE TIZARD COMMITTEE SERVES AS A TESTIMONY TO THE POWER OF CIVIL-MILITARY COLLABORATION.

Over the course of several years in the mid-1930s, Henry Tizard’s committee staged multiple experiments and proved instrumental in the refinement of radar, development of a filtering process for cross-referencing, and the integration of radar within a communications network capable of relaying threat reports to Fighter Command.[19] The Tizard Committee serves as a testimony to the power of civil-military collaboration. Such collaboration compensates for intraservice friction yet maximizes the knowledge and creativity of experts and academics with innovative approaches. Arguably, Henry Tizard and his committee are responsible for not only the technical innovation of the British air defense system but also the diffusion of radar innovation as a whole.

Interior of RAF Fighter Command's Sector 'G' Operations Room at Duxford, Cambridgeshire, September 1940. (S.A. Devon, RAF Official Photographer/Imperial War Museum/Wikimedia)

Hugh Dowding, the first commanding officer of the Royal Air Force’s Fighter Command, gets the credit for operational innovation of the air defense system. While the Tizard Committee was responsible for the technical innovation, Dowding shared the same goals but understood how to apply the system in combat. Best described as an unorthodox thinker, he was a product of his experience. In 1931, Dowding became the head of research and development for the Royal Air Force, notably creating the specifications for the Hurricane and Spitfire aircraft, significant future airframes.[20] As an exception to the norm, he foresaw the impact of technology and the implications of future warfighting. However, many Royal Air Force officers considered research and development a dead end. Thus, in 1936, the service passed Dowding for selection to fill the senior post in the Royal Air Force.[21] Luckily for Britain, he became the commander of Fighter Command, the newly minted command viewed as a supporting cast of Bomber Command.

Concurrent with his appointment, the political context changed. When the government modified the national strategy from offensive deterrence to strategic defense through the subsequent funding of Fighter Command, the Royal Air Force had the right person, in the right billet, at the right time.[22] Dowding was desperate to make an impact, and the Tizard Committee was waiting in the wings to provide innovative approaches. He took a keen interest in radar research, insisted military personnel remain closely aligned with the Committee, and oversaw the implementation of emerging technology to enable mission success.[23] Simply stated, Hugh Dowding bridged the gap between the technical innovation of radar technology to successful employment in an operational setting. For his epic achievement, the so-called Dowding System serves as the first integrated air defense system.

British Aircraft During the Battle of Britain (PA)

It did not take long for the British air defense system to prove decisive and make an impact on the history of war. In the Battle of Britain, the Royal Air Force successfully repelled a large-scale attack from the Luftwaffe, marking the first significant defeat of Hitler. Moreover, the Battle of Britain serves as a quintessential case study for students of military history, specifically in the context of air superiority.

THE PATH OF BRITISH AIR DEFENSE INNOVATION WAS LENGTHY IN DURATION AND NON-LINEAR.

At the dawn of the interwar period, the air theorist Giulio Douhet claimed, “No local defense can be very effective when confronted by an aerial offensive [of large magnitude]...viewed in its true light, aerial warfare admits of no defense, only offense."[24] The British proved Douhet incorrect, demonstrating air defense can be effective thwarting a significant aerial offensive. Following the First World War, there was plenty of contextual data to indicate British air defenses were inadequate, yet it still took nearly two decades to address the deficiency. The path of British air defense innovation was lengthy in duration and non-linear. Ultimately, the revolutionary innovation of the first integrated air defense system resulted from the convergence of reorganizing the Royal Air Force to form a Fighter Command, pivoting the national strategy from offensive deterrence to strategic defensive, and exploiting civil-military collaboration to inform experimentation. These factors proved instrumental for innovation and prepared the British for their finest hour.[25]

Winston Churchill (BBC)

Austin M. Duncan is an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps and the co-founder of Ender’s Galley. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


NOTES:

[1] John Buckley, Air Power in the Age of Total War (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999), 70-71; David MacIssac, “Voices from the Central Blue: The Air Power Theorists,” in Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. by Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 626; Williamson Murray, “Strategic Bombing: The British American, and German Experiences,” in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, ed. by Williamson Murray and Allan B. Millett (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 96-97; Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air, trans. Dino Ferrari and reprinted in The Command of the Air ed. by Joseph Patrick Harahan and Richard H. Kohn (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2010), 9-10, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com.

[2] Alan Beyerchen, “From Radio to Radar: Interwar military adaptation to technical change in  Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States,” in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, ed. by Williamson Murray and Allan B. Millett (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 287.

[3] These points are highlighted in more detail throughout Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, ed. by Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1996). Recommended chapters include: Williamson Murray, “Strategic Bombing: The British American, and German Experiences,” in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, ed. by Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 96-143; Richard B. Muller, “Close Air Support: The German, British, and American Experiences, 1918-1941,” in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, ed. by Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Allan R. Millet, “Patterns of Military Innovation in the Interwar Period,” in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, ed. by Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[4] Stephen Bungay, The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain (London, England: Aurum Press, 2000), 55.

[5] John Ferris, “The Theory of a ‘French Air Menace,’ Anglo-French Relations and the British Home Defence Air Force Programmes of 1921-25,” Journal of Strategic Studies 10, no. 1 (1987): 65.

[6] Neil Young, “British Home Air Defence Planning in the 1920s,” Journal of Strategic Studies 11, no. 4 (1988): 495.

[7] Malcolm Smith, British Air Strategy Between the Wars (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1984), 149.

[8] Bungay, The Most Dangerous Enemy, 58.

[9] Daniel Diehl, “Air Attack on America?: Vulnerabilities, Capabilities, and Implications of the Air Defense of the United States” (master’s thesis, School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, 2013), 25.

[10] John Terraine, The Right of the Line, The Royal Air Force in the European War, 1939-1945(London, 1985), 13.

[11] Smith, British Air Strategy Between the Wars, 183.

[12] Terraine, The Right of the Line, The Royal Air Force in the European War, 1939-1945, 51.

[13] Williamson Murray, Military Adaptation in War: With Fear of Change (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 158.

[14] Terraine, The Right of the Line, 77.

[15] Smith, British Air Strategy Between the Wars, 183.

[16] Murray, Military Adaptation in War: With Fear of Change, 158.

[17] Beyerchen, “From Radio to Radar,” 279.

[18] Ibid., 280.

[19] Ibid., 283.

[20] Murray, Military Adaptation in War: With Fear of Change, 156.

[21] Ibid., 157.

[22] Williamson Murray, “Innovation: Past and Future,” in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, ed. by Williamson Murray and Allan B. Millett (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 307.

[23] Beyerchen, “From Radio to Radar,” 282.

[24] Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air, trans. Dino Ferrari and reprinted in The Command of the Air ed. by Joseph Patrick Harahan and Richard H. Kohn (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2010), 55, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com.

[25] Winston Churchill, “Their Finest Hour” (speech, House of Commons, London, United Kingdom, June 18, 1940), https://www.winstonchurchill.org/resources/speeches/1940-the-finest-hour/their-finest-hour/



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