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Air warfare has had the greatest effect over the shortest period of time in military history. From hot air balloons and dirigibles to bombers, fighter jets, and unmanned spy planes, the nature of war changed because of aircraft. But the goal of air warfare has remained basically the same: to supply reconnaissance and support to ground troops.
Air warfare refers to military operations above the ground, including tactical support of land forces, transport of troops and materiel, and enemy observation through reconnaissance. In military history, air warfare has had the most profound impact over the shortest time. Early beginnings may be traced to late eighteenth-century France, where paperhangers Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier launched the first hot air balloon. The French Revolutionary army incorporated a corps of balloonists, and the concept of air warfare was born. It was utilized exclusively for observation purposes for a century. By 1900 all major armies included balloon sections and experimented with dropping some form of bombs.
David Schwarz, a German, built and flew the first dirigible in 1886. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin perfected the new technology and demanded that his design specifically be applied in warfare. Another German, Otto Lilienthal, was the first to scientifically study wing structures and mathematical formulas explaining lift, but it was the American brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright who brought about the instrument that became the primary weapon for air warfare. Their airplane hit the world stage with the first flight on 17 December 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
Formal military use dates from 10 February 1908, when the U.S. Army Signal Corps ordered the first airplane and hired the Wright brothers to instruct two officers. The Frenchmen Henry Farman and Louis Bleriot proved the airplane’s long-range capability by flying across the English Channel in 1909. They established the first flight schools in France, which took the initiative among all nations in the promotion of aviation. Germany pursued the development of airships, but in 1911 the government contracted with Albatros to build airplanes for military use. The same year England created the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers. All European nations followed suit with some form of aviation.
Italy claims a series of firsts in the use of aircraft in military situations, all achieved when it used an airplane for observation on 23 October 1911. An Italian aircraft dropped the first bombs, had the first aviator wounded in combat, and developed the first use of radio communications in flight. As the experimental stage of aviation ended, the organizational structure was in place for the sky to become the next battlefield.
Several small European wars in 1911 and 1912 provided the testing ground for the airplane as a war machine. These included Italians and Turks fighting in Libya, the Mexican Revolution in 1910, a 1912 uprising in Morocco that was put down by France, and incidents in the Balkans between 1912 and 1913.
World War I (1914–1918)
Air warfare came into its own with the first major war of the twentieth century. In 1914, one thousand airplanes were in the service of the major powers; five years earlier there had been none. Observation balloons marked Allied and German fronts. Their purpose was to direct artillery fire. Once the war bogged down in trench warfare, stationary balloons became easy targets of enemy aircraft. The mobility of the airplane came to the forefront, in areas that ranged from intelligence gathering to directing artillery fire. Two-thirds of the French resources were used for artillery spotting.
Air power had no precedent in military history. Two-thirds of the French resources went to artillery spotting use. Aircraft was something new, and while commanders understood some of its functions, full recognition of its strategic value came slowly. The French formed the first bomber group in late 1914, but both they and the British concentrated on developing slow and stable observation craft like the BE2 and Voisin for photography and artillery spotting, while the Germans developed bombers to attack Allied trenches. Even before the war, military strategists recognized the psychological and material damage that could result from bombing. Targets were supply and communication lines, transportation, and troops. Bombers became an extension of the artillery, because with aerial observation, enemy troops could no longer shelter from artillery fire.
The first frontline use of the airplane occurred in August 1914, when the British Royal Flying Corps used two-seater Avro observation planes to cover their lines when Germans attacked their infantry near Amiens. The pilots observed German infantry encircling British infantry and promptly reported this, allowing commanders to redeploy troops and avert a disaster, proving the vital and efficient use of aircraft for intelligence. This simple observation and report would have taken two days to receive from ground patrols.
In July 1913 Captain Alessandro Guidoni of Italy successfully dropped a 100-kilogram bomb. The Russian Igor Sikorsky developed the first four-engine plane in 1914 and flew it more than 2,250 kilometers. By October 1914, the Royal Flying Corps called for all observation pilots to carry bombs. German airships struck at the heart of Britain, bombing London with some 270 kilograms of high explosives and incendiary bombs. Reprisals were carried out on towns, and for the first time, civilians and prominent personalities were targeted—Kaiser Wilhelm on 1 November 1914 by the British and later Czar Nicholas II by the Germans.
The year 1916 was a critical one for the technology of air warfare. Zeppelins became easy victims of British and French antiaircraft guns and bombers. Germany developed the Gotha, a long-range bomber capable of flying at nearly 5,000 meters. The first Gotha raid on 25 May 1917, in a tight formation, heralded a major advance in air warfare and forced profound changes in the concept. By the end of 1917, attacks on major cities were common. Better bombs were developed that were not subject to things like wind drift, and bombsights were perfected to account for factors such as aircraft speed and altitude.
The swiftly changing nature of the war ramped up aircraft technology and played a major role in the evolution of tactics using aircraft, virtually overnight. To protect bomber formations, the fighter was born—pursuit aircraft, or “scouts,” such as the French Nieuport and German Fokker. The “age of aces” dawned. Fighter pilots became public heroes and celebrities. Their role not only stirred the public imagination, their individual skill perfected the art of air combat tactics. The fighter pilot became an interceptor and escort to protect the slower and more vulnerable bombers and reconnaissance craft. They claimed the highest attrition rate of any arm of the service.
Early on, pilots armed themselves with revolvers or infantry rifles, until the invention of the Lewis gun by the American Isaac N. Lewis in 1911. Weighing only 11 kilograms it was quickly adapted to aerial combat. The French Hotchkiss and British Vickers came later. The Allied concept of aerial warfare changed from bombing or reconnaissance missions to actually fighting enemy aircraft. In 1915 the Dutchman Anthony Fokker developed interrupter gear fitting the machine gun to a German airplane’s Mercedes engine and allowing it to fire on the axis of the fuselage, a major leap in the efficiency of air warfare. In 1916, the fighter arm of the air services evolved from single daring pilots targeting the enemy in a dueling fashion to formations of long-range fighters escorting bombers deeper into German-held territory. The French Air Service implemented this formation concept at Verdun in 1916. In early 1917 Germany created Flying Circuses, which were several squadrons bound together into as many as fifty machines to conduct offensive operations at points along the British sector. From 23 to 29 March 1918, the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service carried out the first large-scale use of air power impacting the outcome of a battle when seventy aircraft led low-level attacks that caused the German offensive to falter.
The physical battlefield of the air spawned doctrinal guidelines and tactical principles that were published and distributed throughout the air services, especially with the introduction of formation flying. No radio communications existed between pilots and ground forces. Speed was hard to regulate. Pilots were dependent on their commanders’ signals, while still vulnerable to attack from enemy aircraft overhead. Since two out of three air battles took place behind German lines, going down meant certain capture.
By 1918, an air force existed as a separate entity in the defense forces of every major power. Airplanes revolutionized warfare forever, by removing the element of surprise from the battlefield. Technology had gone from flimsy, linen-covered machines armed with rifles or revolvers, capable only of 100-kilometerper- hour speeds and 3,000-meter ceilings, to powerful tools of war carrying over 450-kilogram bombs. Duel-like “dogfights” gave way to killing machines like the German DVII, French Spad, and British SE5 and Sopwith Camel, armed with two machine guns firing eight hundred rounds per minute, and flying up to 250 kilometers per hour at 6,700 feet in formation. Aviators were a new breed of soldier, signifying a relationship between man and machine that characterized all future wars. The legacy of innovative pilots like Oswald Boelcke, Albert Ball, Edward Mannock, Billy Mitchell, and Eddie Rickenbacker essentially remained at the core of aerial warfare for sixty years. Also, the Women’s Royal Air Force was organized in April 1918, incorporating women into the military for the first time.
Between the Wars
The golden age of flight advanced military aircraft little. By the late 1930s, Germany and Japan led the world with the most modern air force, having more than fifty thousand planes each, while the United States and its allies had fewer than ten thousand mostly outdated machines. Hermann Goering pioneered the next phase in air warfare with the German Luftwaffe. The Spanish Civil War in 1936 provided an opportunity to develop dive-bombing tactics, and monoplanes replaced biplane design, producing such fighters as the Messerschmitt Me-109 in Germany. But tactics in the Second World War began virtually where they had left off twenty-two years earlier, except the machines were far more advanced. The British Spitfire fighter, introduced in 1938, could go more than 550 kilometers per hour and had a ceiling of over 12,000 meters. Sir Hugh Trenchard of the Royal Flying Corps and the Italian army officer Giulio Douhet were the chief European proponents of strategic bombing to destroy enemy centers.
World War II (1939–1945)
World War II began with land and sea campaigns. Airpower played a subordinate role, supporting land forces. Germany invaded Poland in 1939, bombing its major cities and destroying its air force. Germany’s blitzkreig attack on London in 1940 was the first battle fought exclusively in the air. British fighter pilots recognized the same tactics applied that their forebears had perfected in 1917 and 1918: the fighter going one on one with the enemy bomber. England developed strategic bombing capability while Germany concentrated on more cooperation between ground attack aircraft. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, using precision reconnaissance and fighters armed with torpedoes, destroyed most American combat aircraft in the Pacific, and proved that aircraft would be a premier tactic in modern warfare.
The Second World War built on the lessons of the First, though many ideas had become obsolete. For the Allies, twelve-man fighter squadrons protected supply lines against the Japanese fleet in the Pacific. The development of radar by the British in 1939 changed the element of surprise. Radio communication advances allowed immediate contact with pilots and ground control to pinpoint enemy aircraft in flight. Long-range strategic bombing became the most effective way of destroying German capability, using the B-17 and B-25 bombers in formation, in such operations as the 1,000-plane raid over Cologne in May 1942 and the Regensburg-Schweinfurt mission in August, launched from bases in England. Since escort fighters did not have the range required, bombers carried their own defenses, like the B-17 with a ten-man crew armed with .50-caliber guns. Gliders were first used for silent troop drops, and P-51 Tankbusters were very effective against German panzer divisions.
Transport pilots played an important role. The Chinese army was resupplied by air—one of the greatest military achievements in history. Allied forces used C-47s to drop troops to penetrate enemy-occupied territory. On D-Day, 6 June 1944, paratrooper forces dropped from airplanes led the Allied advance on Berlin to end the war. Brave pilots in rugged machines proved that air warfare dominated the outcome on the ground. A leap in aviation history occurred with the first fighter jet, developed by Germany, the Messerschmitt ME 262. Other German developments indicating the future were the V-1 pilotless jet-propelled rocket carrying nearly 2,000 kilograms of explosives, and the V-2, the first guided missile capable of carrying 750 kilograms of explosives more than 300 kilometers. These were launched against England in the summer of 1944, but came too late to affect the final outcome of the war.
Aircraft carriers were used effectively in the Pacific during the Battle of Midway in June 1942, and B-29s overwhelmed any Japanese home air defense. On 6 August 1944, the B-29 Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, ending Japan’s war efforts without invasion, and epitomizing absolute air superiority.
Postwar and Vietnam
The development of the jet engine and surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles changed the complexion of air warfare, but the piloted fighter jet played the major role in the Korean War (1950–1953). U.S. single-seat jet fighters, the F-80 and F-86, fought Soviet-built MiG- 15s—both able to reach the speed and height required for air fighting, but their supersonic speed made formation flying near impossible. Once again, pilots fell back to the fighting unit introduced by Oswald Boelcke in 1916, the pair. The fighter was used for offensive and defensive day fighting, visual and photographic reconnaissance, and bombing and strafing ground targets.
The Vietnam War (1957–1975) was largely a guerrilla war fought in jungles. B-52 bombers were used for main air strikes against Communist targets, but helicopters became an important aerial warfare technique because they could easily strike targets in the jungles and mountains. Primarily the air war was between jet fighters, the Russian MiG-17 and MiG-21 jets against American F-105 and F-4 fighters. The surface-to-air missile (SAM) antiaircraft weapon, equipped with laser-guided bombs, missile detection, and radar-jamming devices, posed a new threat to aerial reconnaissance and bombing. Better aerial refueling techniques extended the range of combat aircraft.
Modern Air Warfare
With the advent of computer technology, weapons systems have become more and more sophisticated and “smart.” But the quest for height and the need to establish immediate air superiority remain primary battlefield objectives for air warfare. The Persian Gulf War (1991) and early twenty-first century operations in Afghanistan and Iraq employed the latest technology in the air to control the war on the ground. Stealth fighters like the F-117 Nighthawk, with a range of 1,200 kilometers and carrying two laser-guided bombs, and the B-2 Heavy Bomber deliver surgical strikes on pinpointed targets. By deflecting radar, the Stealth bomber appears invisible to enemy forces. Its four engines hidden in the fuselage enable it to evade heat-seeking missiles.
With such undetectable machines and computer technology, pilot skills and aircraft speed are not issues. Reconnaissance is still a predominant factor in air warfare. Unmanned predator spy planes are the ultimate reconnaissance aircraft, guided by remote control from ground stations and endangering no lives, to dispense real-time information for directing troops and warplanes. C-130 gunboats are essentially airborne artillery, echoing the early days when biplanes were used in conjunction with artillery batteries. The Apache attack helicopter can account for twenty tanks in one strike.
The latest U-2 spy plane flies at more than 25,000 meters, at the very edge of space. The Eurofighter is a state-of-the-art fighter plane. But the ultimate goal of air warfare remains the same as that original concept one hundred years ago—a continual battle for the air, through height and speed, to supply reconnaissance and support to ground forces.
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