Airpower’s Magna Carta

Jan. 1, 2009

Air Organization and the Direction of Aerial Operations

Gen. Jan Smuts


August 17, 1917


In summer 1917, London was rocked by German bomber attacks. The World War I British Cabinet appointed a committee—Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Gen. Jan C. Smuts—to find solutions. Smuts’ report came in two parts. The first focused on homeland defense. The second (excerpted here) called for an independent air force, saying air actions “may become the principal operations of war, to which older forms of military and naval operations may become secondary and subordinate.” Smuts said maintaining both a Royal Navy Air Service and a Royal Flying Corps caused dysfunction, and that the nation should create “one unified air service” out of the two existing services. The Cabinet accepted his report and passed the Air Force (Constitution) Act, leading to the creation, in April 1918, of the Royal Air Force. The Smuts Report today is viewed as a Magna Carta of airpower—and not only in Britain.

We proceed to deal in this report with … the air organization generally and the direction of air operations. For the considerations which will appear in the course of this report, we consider the early settlement of this matter of vital importance to the successful prosecution of the war. The three most important questions which press for an early answer are:

  • Shall there be instituted a real air ministry responsible for all air organization and operations
    • Shall there be constituted a unified air service embracing both the present RNAS and RFC? And if this second question is answered in the affirmative, the third question arises:
        How shall the relations of the new air service to the Navy and the Army be determined so that the functions at present discharged for them by the RNAS and RFC respectively shall continue to be efficiently performed by the new air service? …

      Under the present constitution and powers of the air board, the real directors of war policy are the Navy and Army, and to the air board is really allotted the minor role of fulfilling their requirements according to their ideas of war policy. Essentially the air service is as subordinated to military and naval direction and conceptions of policy as the artillery is, and, as long as that state of affairs lasts, it is useless for the air board to embark on a policy of its own, which it could neither originate nor execute under present conditions.

      The time is, however, rapidly approaching, when that subordination of the air board and the air service could no longer be justified. Essentially the position of an air service is quite different from that of the artillery arm. … It [artillery] is a weapon, an instrument ancillary to a service, but could not be an independent service itself. The air service on the contrary can be used as an independent means of air operations. Nobody that witnessed the attack on London on 11th July could have any doubt on that point.

      Unlike artillery, an air fleet can conduct extensive operations far from, and independently of, both Army and Navy. As far as can at present be foreseen, there is absolutely no limit to the scale of its future independent war use. And the day may not be far off when aerial operations with their devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industrial and populous centers on a vast scale may become the principal operations of war, to which the older forms of military and naval operations may become secondary and subordinate. …

      We must not only make unlimited use of mechanical genius and productive capacity of ourselves and our American allies. We must create the new directing organization—the new ministry and air staff which could properly handle this new instrument of offense, and equip it with the best brains at our disposal for the purpose. The task of planning the new air service organization and thinking out and preparing for schemes of aerial operations next summer must tax our experts to the utmost, and no time should be lost in setting the new ministry and staff going. Unless this is done, we shall not only lose the great advantages which the new form of warfare promises, but we shall end in chaos and confusion, as neither the Army nor Navy nor the air board in its present form could possibly cope with the vast developments involved in our new aircraft program.

      Hitherto the creation of an air ministry and an air service has been looked upon as an idea to be kept in view but not realized during this war. Events have, however, moved so rapidly … that the change will brook no further delay and will have to be carried through as soon as all the necessary arrangements for the purpose can be made.

      There remains the question of the new air service and the absorption on the RNAS and RFC into it. Should the Navy and the Army retain their own special air service in addition to the air forces which will be controlled by the air ministry? This will make the confusion hopeless and render the solution of the air problem impossible. The maintenance of three air services is out of the question. …

      The proper and, indeed, only possible arrangement is to establish one unified air service, which will absorb both the existing services under arrangements which will fully safeguard the efficiency and secure the closest intimacy between the Army and the Navy and the portions of the air service allotted or seconded to them. …

      It is important for the winning of the war that we should not only secure air predominance, but secure it on a very large scale; and having secured it in this war we should make every effort and sacrifice to maintain it for the future. Air supremacy may in the long run become as important a factor in the defense of the empire as sea supremacy.