The Cabinet Papers banner

Imperial defence and inter-service rivalries

Imperial defence

With no need to plan for a major global or European conflict for ten years, the armed forces concentrated on imperial policing roles. For the Royal Navy, cruisers were vital for this role, as well as for the defence of trade; for the army, imperial policing was a reversion to a pre-war posture, although the Army made concerted efforts (within tight financial constraints) to develop the tanks and mechanisation of the infantry and artillery. It had mixed success.

The newly formed Royal Air Force (RAF) also embarked on securing an imperial defence role in order to help secure its own future. Of all the services, the RAF was the most vulnerable during the cuts - except from France and the Low Countries, bomber aircraft in the 1920s were too short-ranged to threaten Britain. The idea of France, Holland or Belgium becoming the next European aggressor was not realistic, and without a European enemy the arguments for strategic bombing were unconvincing.

The RAF embarked on an aggressive imperial policing role using fighters and light bombers to carry out punitive raids against rebellious tribes and local populations in Palestine, the Middle East and the North West Frontier of India. The central premise of the RAF's involvement was that policing by bomber was cheaper than a retaliatory army operation. The RAF's air control operations were also used as the basis for some of the planks of strategic bombing - the 'morale' effect of air warfare. Air control often included strikes against non-combatants, and although it faced comments from the other services on moral grounds, they were ignored.

Inter-service rivalry

During the 1920s the limited funds for defence, coupled with the resentment felt by the Army and the Royal Navy in thinking the Royal Air Force had more than its fair share of funds, caused inter-service bureaucratic infighting. The Navy in particular took the loss of its own air service very badly and continually attempted to regain control of naval aviation.

The deep cuts in defence spending and the resulting contraction of defence industries had a long-term effect on rearmament. The legacy of limited finance and concentration on the barest of essentials in material and defence thinking would reverberate through the 1930s and into the Second World War.

Content