Hello to all that – Syria, Sudan, and his Lordship

OK, so the Syrian air force drops these things – large, light alloy containers stuffed with shrapnel and low explosive, with a canister of much higher explosive in the middle, probably delivered from a helicopter or a tactical airlifter. Here’s an odd historical point.

a two gallon drum with a cylinder containing about two pounds of an explosive called ammonal that looked like salmon paste, smelled like marzipan, and when it went off, sounded like the Day of Judgement. The hollow around the cylinder contained scrap metal, apparently collected by French villagers behind the lines…the canister could easily be heard approaching and looked harmless in the air, but its shock was as shattering as the very heaviest shell. It would blow in any but the deepest dugouts; and the false teeth, rusty nails, cogwheels and so on went all over the place

That’s Robert Graves speaking. The Germans were lobbing them at him from a sort of wooden mortar. I’ll leave speculating about how two pounds of high explosive and very low velocity (one of his brother-officers shot at them with his rifle and regularly exploded them in the air) dug into the earth that much to Erik Lund.

But a more recent war used a very similar weapon. During the 2000s version of the Sudanese civil war, itself an episode in a much longer conflict, the Sudanese air force was in the habit of dropping similar improvised weapons in bulk quantities from its Antonov-12 tactical transports over villages in Darfur. The tactics were to drop the bombs, relying on the SLA either not being on the spot or not having any air defence, and hope that the blast, shrapnel, and fire would force the civil population to flee. Once fleeing, they would be a target for light cavalry (the janjaweed), and anyway they would probably flee to a refugee camp, which meant that they would be somewhere else and their land could be given to somebody else.

C.J. Chivers, who is on the scene and knows more than I do, thinks that this weapon is a sign of desperation – the Syrian air force is struggling to keep up serviceability rates on its attack helicopters and fighter-bombers, he thinks, and therefore it’s losing.

Lord Trenchard, the creator of the RAF as an institution, apparently said that his two pillars were Cranwell and Halton. One to create an officer corps and a strategic doctrine (and to train flying instructors), one to train craftsmen who would eventually finish their terms of service, stop maintaining the RAF’s planes, and instead build them in the aircraft industry.

So, we can unpack Chivers’ report a bit. If they can’t maintain the aircraft, even though the types in question enjoy a huge supply of parts, this implies that people aren’t turning up to work. Specifically, the skilled working class/lower middle class created by the great technologies of the mid-century. They’re on strike, or on the run, or on the other side, and without them an air force lasts about 40 hours between overhauls.

In that case, it would indeed make a lot of sense to use the An-12, the donkey of the sky, as much as possible. But then, it always makes sense to use the An-12.

I’m not so optimistic, although the logic does make sense. Jamie Kenny makes an interesting point that the world’s air arsenals have been designed for many years, since the Soviet thinkers’ late-70s notion of the scientific-technical revolution that Andrew Marshall nicked for the Pentagon, to wage war through improved guidance and control. Even the 5,000lber is GPS guided.

But what if what you want is the airpower theory of, well, Trenchard’s heirs? Destroy their houses, and their version of the city. (Class is really deeply inherent in airpower thinking since Douhet.) That way, either they’ll give up, or they’ll be forced out to fight, or at least they’ll be driven into the refugee world, which is a way of creating a de-facto partition. And this is precisely what the Sudanese air force specialised in. Separating the guerrillas from the people through air terror on a class basis.

What do I mean by that? It’s been well pointed out that the supposedly racial distinction in Sudan was no such. Rather, it was one of religion, of place, of class, and of self-identification. Further, if you decide to bomb out a rebel district, some of the people will flee to the rebels and some the other way. Legibility is often thought to facilitate violence, but violence is also a way to force people to take sides and therefore to define identity.

The Sudanese leaders found out, though, that separating the guerrillas from the people cuts both ways. It could also mean that the refugee cities became a new organising base. In Syria, they are close to the borders with Lebanon and Turkey, close, in another sense, to the world. The whole story is well reported in this NYT piece. So, perhaps C.J. Chivers is right, or perhaps Assad is heading for a long, but losing fight.

Of course, if he’s right on another score, and the rebels are getting anti-aircraft weapons, it might not be so short.

4 Comments on "Hello to all that – Syria, Sudan, and his Lordship"

  1. I’ll leave speculating about how two pounds of high explosive and very low velocity (one of his brother-officers shot at them with his rifle and regularly exploded them in the air) dug into the earth that much to Erik Lund.

    Dugouts weren’t that deep in 1915, at least not on the British side; the Allies were still rubbish at field fortification. A kilo of explosive might well be enough to cave them in if it hit them right on top.

    Or Graves was just exaggerating. He did make stuff up in Goodbye to All That from time to time, like removing bullets from the ammo belts so that the machineguns would tap out recognisable rhythms. (Wouldn’t work, I am pretty sure, because you need the gas or recoil from one shot to load the next round in. If you have a dud round, the gun just stops firing.) And playing clay-pigeons with a rifle at 200m sounds similarly dubious.


  2. Re Jamie’s tweet – didn’t the Russians use fuel-air explosives in Chechnya as weapons of general destruction? Though that may well be an outlier.

    I wonder who’s manufacturing the Syrian bombs; if you’re going to drop them from aircraft you’d want someone reasonably skilled doing it so that you didn’t down your own air force. Which might suggest that the supply problems are in the munitions chain rather than in the maintenance personnel area.


  3. Air America used to drop home-made bombs as air support for the royalists in Cambodia. Improvised napalm made out of aviation fuel and Tide, with white phos grenades as triggers. As well as ammo and so on.

    I spoke to an old AA pilot who knew of the drops but didn’t actually do them himself. Legally, you see, AA was only supposed to be doing civilian passengers and humanitarian cargo. “We used to drop a lot of rice,” he told me. “And that was regular rice, or it was what we called hard rice, which is rice that comes in 5.56 or 7.62 or 105.”


  4. The Graves brings to mind this bit:

    “I have heard it ruled that the minenwerfer was unimportant, and its effect principally (to use the obtuse English of this subject) moral. But in stationary war it seemed to me to make large holes not only in the nervous but also in the trench system. My first glimpse of what I likened to a small black cask wabbling over and over in the air at a great height above us produced from me the remark: What a large rifle-grenade! The cask pounced down with speed and a corner of the brickstack flew in a violence of dust and smoke; but meanwhile other ‘airy devils hovered,’ and Corporal Rowland, who had smilingly corrected my error about rifle-grenades, watched with as keen an eye as ever faced fast bowler, and scuttled one way or the other There was nothing for it but to copy experience, and experience was nothing but a casual protection, for one of our soundest officers was killed at the entrance to the brickstacks. I still hear the voices of his friends, sharing this news, shocked and sad. A problem also recurs to me, which became for a time a bad dream; in the narrow slit, already knocked nearly shapeless, and sloppy with rain, which led from our company headquarters towards the rear, a large ‘minny’ fell but did not explode. Something must be done about it, quickly — for traffic must pass, day and night. I suppose that this dud was presently set off by an electrical charge, but it had an awkward effect on a person expecting to pass that way — the only way.”

    -Edmund Blunden, Undertones of War


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