By Dr Ross Mahoney
With an abiding interest in how air power has been presented and written about, I, like many others, am an inveterate buyer of second-hand books. I recently added to my library a volume entitled Air Power: An Overview of Roles by R.A. ‘Tony’ Mason, published in 1987. Mason is arguably the key British air power thinker of the late-20th Century. He was appointed the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) first Director of Defence Studies (DDefS) in 1977. Since then, he has widely commented on, lectured, and written about air power. When he wrote this book, Mason, an Air Vice-Marshal, served as Air Secretary.
The book formed part of a series published by Brassey’s Defence Publishers, consisting of 11 titles – see the list below. I have read several of these during my career, including Mason’s title. However, I had not realised several interesting aspects of this series until now. Namely, these volumes were written for a specific audience and authored by serving RAF officers.
Dealing with the first issue, the series outline in the book’s frontmatter noted that ‘[t]his new series […] is aimed at the international officer cadet or junior officer level.’ Thus, the series had a specific pedagogical aim in mind. The series was designed to provide the knowledge that new officers joining an air force needed regarding the use and development of air power. In the case of the RAF, it was clearly aimed at those attending the RAF College at Cranwell and junior officers undertaking staff education. It would be interesting to find out whether the books ended up on the reading lists for these institutions and whether they were used as part of the curriculum. More research…
This leads to the second interesting aspect of this series, namely that they were all written by serving RAF officers. Indeed, many, such as Mason, Armitage, Knight, and Walker, were officers holding Air Rank. As noted, Mason was an Air Vice-Marshal when writing this book – he retired at this rank. Sir Michael Armitage was an Air Chief Marshal, and at the time his book was published, he had been appointed Commandant of the Royal College of Defence Studies. Knight was an Air Chief Marshal at the time of publication, while John Walker was an Air Vice-Marshal – he retired as an Air Marshal. Moreover, many of these officers were regular writers on air power at the time. Aside from Mason’s own outputs, which included editing Air Power in the Next Generation (1979) and War in the Third Dimension (1986), Armitage had, by this time, co-written Air Power in the Nuclear Age (1983) with Mason. Similarly, Walker had edited a collection for the Royal United Services Institute entitled The Future of Air Power (1986), to which Armitage also contributed.
What is interesting about the choice of officers is that the views presented in these books constitute an RAF view of air power and its employment in the late-1980s and early-1990s despite the series being ostensibly aimed at an international market. More interesting is that, taken as a whole, these books can be considered a source of informal or implicit doctrine. In essence, this is a form of doctrine not codified in formal manuals and helps explore the changing debates surrounding the use of military force, in this case, air power. This is especially important given that when the first volumes of this series were published, the RAF did not have its own formal, explicit environmental capstone doctrine – it was using NATO doctrine to guide operations. Furthermore, the final edition of AP1300 was declared obsolete in the 1970s, and the first edition of AP3000 would not be published until 1990. As such, this series should not be separated from the broader context of the RAF’s re-engagement with formal doctrine.
Finally, the publication of this series, through its choice of authors, shows that despite operating in a doctrinal lacuna, the RAF of the 1980s was still a thinking organisation that thought about the role of air power in war. Critical in that process was the establishment of the DDefS position in 1977. Mason, both as DDefS and in subsequent roles, published works on air power that can be seen as informal doctrine. This started with Air Power and the Next Generation and continued through the 1980s and 1990s. Moreover, this form of publishing informal doctrine would be formalised in the 1990s when the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon, established the CAS Air Power Workshop, led by DDefS. Over time, the Air Power Workshop has published several significant edited volumes on air power that can be viewed as informal doctrine. The first publication from the Air Power Workshop was The Dynamics of Air Power (1996), edited by DDefS, Group Captain Andrew Lambert and Arthur Williamson. These publications were an essential adjunct to the RAF’s formal doctrine, AP3000. Indeed, the volumes published in the late-1990s under the auspicious of the Air Power Workshop were significant because of the time taken to publish the various editions of AP3000. Put simply, informal doctrine could discuss and debate issues that took time to filter into formal codified doctrine.
Given this, the various DDefS’ have invariably played an essential role in developing British air power thinking, both formal and informal, since the establishment of the post. Moreover, the personalities who have held this role have been influential in that process. While Mason is a prominent name to cite to highlight the role’s importance, it is possible to note several other officers who held the post of DDefS and have played a role in developing British air power thinking inside the RAF and externally within academia and the broader public. These have included Air Marshal (ret’d) Timothy Garden, Air Vice-Marshal (ret’d) Andrew Vallance, Air Commodore (ret’d) Andrew Lambert, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, Air Commodore (ret’d) Professor Peter Gray and Air Commodore (ret’d) Neville Parton.
Brassey’s Air Power: Aircraft, Weapons Systems and Technology Series
- Mason, R.A., Air Power: An Overview of Roles (London: Brassey’s Defence Publishers, 1987).
- Walker, J.R., Air-to-ground Operations (London: Brassey’s Defence Publishers, 1987).
- Armitage, M.J., Unmanned Aircraft (London: Brassey’s Defence Publishers, 1988).
- Browne, J.P.R, and Thurbon, M. T., Electronic Warfare (London: Brassey’s Defence Publishers, 1998).
- Walker, J.R., Air Superiority Operations (London: Brassey’s Defence Publishers, 1989).
- Chapman, K., Military Air Transport Operations (London: Brassey’s Defence Publishers, 1989).
- Elsam, M.B., Air Defence (London: Brassey’s Defence Publishers, 1989).
- Knight, M., Strategic Offensive Air Operations (London: Brassey’s Defence Publishers, 1989).
- Oxlee, G.J., Aerospace Reconnaissance (London: Brassey’s, 1997).
- Dutton, L. et al., Military Space (London: Brassey’s Defence Publishers, 1990).
- Laite, B.C., Maritime Air Operations (London: Brassey’s Defence Publishers, 1991).
Dr Ross Mahoney is an independent scholar specialising in the history of war with particular reference to the use of air power and the history of air warfare. He is currently the Senior Historian within the City Architecture and Heritage Team at Brisbane City Council in Australia. He has over 15 years of experience in the heritage and education sectors in Australia and the United Kingdom. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the inaugural Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum in the UK. In Australia, he has worked as a Historian for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and taught at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at The Australian National University based at the Australian War College. His research interests are focused on the history of war, specifically on the history of air warfare, transport history, and urban history. He has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. His website is here, and he can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.
Header image: A Royal Air Force SEPECAT Jaguar GR1 of No. 2 Squadron RAF parked on the flight line during Tactical Air Meet ’78 at RAF Wildenrath, 15 May 1978. (Source: Wikimedia)