Ex Ypres Genesis JHC Battlefield Study Examining Aviation Capability Development
Thirteen JHC Cap personnel and three Army HQ desk officers participated in Ex YPRES GENESIS (Ex YG), a Battlefield Study (BS) conducted over two phases spanning Salisbury Plain and Belgium/Northern France.
The aim of Ex YG was to examine the earliest days of aviation capability development in order to engender fresh thinking in facing JHC capability challenges post disaggregation and the Return to Contingency.
BS is a proven and highly effective tool to reinforce and link all elements of Fighting Power* and a core function of professional military education. Examination of how aviation capability was planned and managed during WWI provides many relevant comparisons to the ‘new era’ of disaggregation and how the utility of aviation is exploited. Ex YG had three main functions, to:
• Engender fresh thinking in the Return to Contingency era.
• Enhance understanding of the wider historical lessons of planning and developing aviation capability.
• Foster closer working relationships with key Army HQ directorates.
The Ex was conducted at sites closely associated with WWI aviation capability development. Both phases were interlinked and provided the opportunity to integrate lessons in context:
Phase 1. Encompassed both Larkhill and Stonehenge airfields and considered the earliest days of aviation capability development and examined the competing thoughts on the utility of aviation and how it contributed.
Phase 2. Centred on the WWI airfields around Ypres, Phase 2 explored the key tenets of the evolving use of aviation capability and how doctrine/Tactics, Techniques and Procedures developed ‘in contact’ for both allied and opposition air forces overhead the trenches as technology advanced.
To reinforce the key questions and maximise the opportunity for professional development, personnel conducted detailed research on related subjects which complemented the focus of the BS and presented their findings during Phase 2.
Despite the obvious challenges of conducting an aviation-focused BS whilst viewing relevant sites from the ground (and horizontal rain throughout the time in Ypres), both Phases achieved their objectives and offered numerous findings, the ‘top 6’ being:
• With little appetite for new technology, aviation development during the period leading up to WWI was driven by private industry/enthusiasts; the Army exploited the resources of private industry to help develop their understanding of this new capability.
• Aviation development surged during WWI. From an embryonic capability in 1914, with 63 aircraft in the Royal Flying Corps orbat, by the end of hostilities over 20,000 aircraft were being operated by British forces. A phenomenal rate of growth and industrial production.
• Units had considerable freedom to innovate and develop capability “in house,” using an organic R&D cycle within their Squadron to deliver enhancements sometimes within two to three days from concept to fielding. Capability enhancements were a balance between a requirements based approach (what do we need?) and emerging technology (what’s available?).
• Communications between aircraft and ground forces were simple yet effective. A variety of techniques were developed to enable ground units to request aviation and for aircraft to report enemy positions and subsequently engage with artillery.
• As a proportion of the overall Army annual operating budget, the relative costs of aviation in WWI were comparable to those of today.
• The lessons learned and applied in developing TTPs “in contact,” technology, training and resources created the conditions for Allied air superiority in 1917-1918. Aviation capability contributed to the British Expeditionary Force all-arms manoeuvre capability that broke the deadlock of trench warfare and defeated a formidable enemy.
Lessons in Context
The findings from Ex YG have read across to current JHC activities, spanning operations, training and capability development, namely:
• Within the new Defence Operating Model and the delegation of responsibility to Top Level Budget holders, how can we engender a similar freedom to innovate as our predecessors enjoyed during WWI? For example, what development opportunities exist to integrate our requirements and/or technologies to maximise our investments? Equally, what are the opportunities to shorten the development cycle now we have more influence? (‘Fast capability’).
• The “simple yet effective” communications methods developed during WWI can also be read across to our current activities. With JHC aircraft now becoming BOWMAN equipped, how do we most effectively communicate across the battlespace? And to whom? (across the three key capabilities of LIFT, FIND and ATTACK?). In addition, how does the customer (ground force) want to communicate with us?
• Finally, as we return to contingency we must continue to educate Defence on the utility of aviation and the manoeuvre capability it unlocks.
In summary, Ex YG provided an excellent opportunity to examine and exploit the many relevant lessons and comparisons regarding aviation capability development during WWI and today. The output is HQ staff across both JHC and Army Directorates that are better equipped to face the aviation capability challenges which will undoubtedly be posed as Defence “Returns to Contingency.”
*‘A study of military history provides valuable perspectives for contemporary operations.’ – DOC Review of The Higher Command and Staff Course, April 2005.