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Can Airpower Win‘Hearts and Minds’? Lessons from the Malayan Emergency

By Hadiza Santali Saeed.

Winning, or at least not losing ‘hearts and minds’ is an essential difficulty in counterinsurgency warfare. If destructive force used against insurgents results in civilian casualties and other negative effects for the lives of the local population, counterinsurgency efforts can quickly exacerbate the situation and strengthen the insurgents’ support. Within this context, the use of airpower in counterinsurgency campaigns has been seen as particularly problematic. How can you win hearts and minds by dropping bombs from 15,000 feet? British operations during the Malayan Emergency are often hailed as an example for a successful counterinsurgency campaign. Partially responsible for the success was the ability to suppress popular support for the insurgency – the winning of hearts and minds. This was in spite of the fact that airpower played an important role in the campaign. Can lessons be learned from the Malayan experience today?

In 1948, the British Colonial Government declared a nationwide State of Emergency in response to escalating political tensions and to violent attacks and assassinations by members of the Malayan Communist Party. This Emergency would last for twelve years. The asymmetric nature of the conflict required adaptations of the rules of engagement and the tactical use of airpower so the strategic objectives of the British government could be achieved. With the insurgents receiving moral support from the ‘Min Yuen’, the People’s movement, it quickly became obvious that a purely military offensive or conventional strategic bombing campaign would be ineffective. The insurgency needed to be contained, but at the same time the ‘hearts and minds’ of the population had to be won. This meant that airpower had to perform expanded and multidimensional roles in the shape of direct and indirect air operations. From this point of view, the Emergencyhighlighted the need for a blend of military and political solutions in counterinsurgency (COIN) operations.

In order to establish and retain the legitimacy of the campaign, offensive operations had to be planned with consideration of the broader and specific political context. The strategic deployment of airpower went ‘from search and destroy’ to winning‘hearts and minds’. This change became necessary as an understanding of the Emergency as a ‘war amongst the people’ developed and the limited utility of more conventional airpower roles, like air superiority and strategic attack, became apparent. Kinetic airpower was used, both independently and especially in support of the ground forces. However, it was clear that the utility of airpower as an offensive military instrument in this instance was greatly limited. The extent and proportionality of kinetic airpower use in Malaya was determined not only by the desire to lower insurgent potential, but also by the need to reduce civilian casualties.The use of an effects based approach to air operations and an economy of effort at the tactical level was key to retaining the support of the civilian population for the COIN operations.  Under a central command, counterinsurgency operations used military force to serve clear political and strategic objectives aimed at retaining legitimacy and winning the battle for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the civilian population.

The Malayan Emergency may be considered a classic example of how to conduct a ‘war of ideas’. Of course, it must be acknowledged that given today’s much more complex political, legal and social structures, not all elements of the strategy employed in the Malayan Emergency can be replicated in present day conflicts. Nonetheless, several lessons may be gleaned from the experience.

Taking into account the difficulty of identifying and pinpointing insurgents, their centre of operations and their transience, air power in COIN operations can only perform optimally where there is up-to-date intelligence, which is consistently collated, analysed and disseminated. Although the strategic and tactical operations of the Malayan Emergency were essentially population-centric, there was a continuous calibration of tactics to match the operations of the insurgents. The COIN forces had to become ‘learning institutions’ and utilise the information about the insurgents and their tactics to their advantage. This is a lesson that can be applied to many ongoing and future COIN efforts.

In addition, it is always crucial to understand what exact kind of war is being fought. As the Malayan Emergency illustrated, insurgencies tend to be protracted and actual fighting represents just the tip of the iceberg. If the root issues are not addressed the application of military force, including airpower, is likely to be futile. Since the aims of insurgents are often as much ideological as military, the use of force—land, air, or some combination thereof—will not itself bring the adversary to its knees. Rather, the use of force has to be integrated within a broader political strategy designed to collapse popular support for the adversary. Although this may indicate a severe limitation of the utility of independent airpower against asymmetric adversaries, it does not negate itseffectiveness when utilised as part of a holistic strategy involving political and military components.

Likewise, the Malayan emergency showed that airpower in COIN operations is used against a very specific type of adversary and in a setting that is dramatically different from more conventional wars and military engagements. Terrorist or insurgent groups seldom have tangible centres of gravity and rarely present lucrative targets for aerial attack. To add to the complexity, any bombing campaign or interdiction on a large scale will most likely result in collateral damage. This would only invigorate a resistance that is founded more on an ideology than on the material power fuelling conventional militaries. Moreover, it will possibly lead to an increase in the recruitment of sympathizers to the insurgents cause.

In sum, if we are to offer a verdict on the ability of airpower to ‘win hearts and minds’ it would be this: airpower cannot be used as an ‘antiseptic elixir’ providing a quick and painless fix to an insurgency and it certainly has the potential to ‘lose hearts and minds’ if used imprudently. However, airpower capabilities can still give an advantage when the strategy is matched to the adversary.

Hadiza Santali Saeed is a 2013/14 Chevening Scholar studying for an MA in International Law, Security and Terrorism. She is a lawyer by training and was granted leave for the duration of the programme from being a Senior Studies Fellow at the National Judicial Institute in Nigeria. 

Published inConflict & Security


  1. Mohammed Santali Mohammed Santali

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