#ResearchNote – Air Power in the Next Generation

#ResearchNote – Air Power in the Next Generation

By Dr Ross Mahoney


In 1979, The Macmillan Press published Air Power in the Next Generation that E.J. Feuchtwanger and Group Captain R.A. Mason edited. For me, and my current research trajectory on command and staff training in the RAF, what is remarkable about this book is that it was the first significant output from a newly established post for the Service, that of Director of Defence Studies (DDefS).

In 1977, Mason, who retired as an Air Vice-Marshal and was a professor at the University of Birmingham, became the first incumbent to the DDefS post at the RAF Staff College at Bracknell. The position of DDefS was established due to the perceived state of thinking on air power within the RAF as well as public awareness of the Service’s role. In a letter to AOC-in-C Support Command, Air Marshal Sir Reginald Harland, CAS, Air Chief Marshal Sir Neil Cameron, noted that the position was being established ‘to help provide a new stimulus to air power thinking’ throughout the RAF.[1] This point was also emphasised in the terms of reference for the DDefS post as was the need to ‘write on air power and defence issues,’ which was to be encouraged.[2]

While there was some controversy over the establishment of the DDefS position, Mason was well qualified for the job, and despite an initial lack of resources, he quickly got to work. In April 1977, a symposium was held at the University of Southampton, which formed the basis for Air Power in the Next Generation. Mason was undoubtedly supported in his early efforts by the degree of top cover he was afforded by CAS and other officers interested in the discussion of air power, such as the Director-General of Training, Air Vice-Marshal Frederick Sowrey.[3] Indeed, Cameron long had an interest in the study of air power and, as Group Captain J.A.G. Slessor, son of the former CAS, reflected, he was the only Chief to come to discuss the subject with his father.[4]

What of the book? It consists of 10 chapters based on the presentations delivered at the symposium. The opening chapter builds on Cameron’s opening presentation and reinforces the importance of protection by senior leaders. Had Cameron not been interested in both the subject matter and the importance of establishing a post to advocate for thinking about air power, it is hard to imagine that the position would have been created. Even if it had, it probably would have taken a very distinct direction to the one that it has. Other contributions came from a number senior serving or retired officers from not just the RAF but also the USAF, Luftwaffe and the Isreali Air Force. There were also contributions from academics such as John Erickson, who covered the expansion of Soviet Air Power. The conclusion from Major-General Lloyd R. Leavitt Jr. of the USAF on the ‘Lessons from South East Asia’ is particularly apropos for the current era as well as the 1970s. Leavitt, who retired as a Lieutenant-General, concluded that there was a need to enunciate and educate the body politic about the relevance of the system they were investing in noting that:

[…] in order to achieve the understanding and support of the people who have to pay the bills, the taxpayers and their elected representatives, we must go to the people and go through the press to the people with logical clear explanations about the involvements of air power – why the air force needs things, why this system is needed, and why that system is needed.[5]

Apart from the contents of the book, what is the significance of the establishment of the DDefS post? It is hard to assess, and hopefully, more answers will emerge as I continue to research the subject. However, a few tentative thoughts are warranted. First, the RAF at least recognised the challenge of its predicament in the 1970s and established a post to try and encourage the Service to discuss taxing questions over its role and employment. This was essential in the decade after the RAF handed over the strategic nuclear deterrent to the Royal Navy. This had been the RAF’s focal point during the early Cold War, and the Service needed to try and enunciate its relevance in a changing defence landscape. Whether it was successful in doing that is not to be discussed here. However, the post has offered a focal point for thinking about the RAF’s role, and individual DDefS’ have made a contribution to British air power thinking with publications similar to Air Power in the Next Generation being produced on important themes as well as the postholders numerous individual contributions on the subject of air power. These have become essential sources of informal doctrine, but they have, by dint of circumstances, varied regarding when they were produced and what they covered. Indeed, at the moment, I am trying to map the various outputs generated by DDefS’ both during their time in post and after to seek to contextualise what they wrote, when they wrote it and their impact. Some DDefS’ have produced more than others, in part, due to operational circumstances though there may be other factors at play. This latter aspect will be difficult to measure, but one thing that is already clear is that context is critical.

This post first appeared at Thoughts on Military History.

Dr Ross Mahoney is an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the resident Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum, and he is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and is an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He blogs at Thoughts on Military History, and can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.

Header Image: Panavia Tornado GR1 of No. 31 Squadron at RAF Fairford, c. 1990 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

[1] Author’s Personal Collection, Letter from the Chief of the Air Staff to AOC-in-C Support Command, 2 November 1976. I am grateful to Air Vice-Marshal Professor R.A. Mason for a copy of this and other documents linked to the establishment of the DDefS post.

[2] Author’s Personal Collection, Terms of Reference for Director of Defence Studies appended to a Letter from the Chief of the Air Staff to AOC-in-C Support Command, 2 November 1976, p. 1.

[3] Graham Pitchfork, The Sowreys: A Unique and Remarkable Record of One Family’s Sixty-Five Years of Distinguished RAF Service (London: Grub Street, 2012), p. 216.

[4] Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Cameron of Balhousie, In the Midst of Things (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1986), pp. 106-8, 194-5, p. 200, fn9.

[5] Major-General Lloyd R. Leavitt Jr., ‘Lessons from South East Asia,’ in E.J. Feuchtwanger and Group Captain R.A. Mason (eds.), Air Power in the Next Generation (London: The Macmillan Press, 1979), p. 85.