Aircraft possess great mobility and firepower, which enable them to affect tactical or strategic situations decisively.
Aircraft possess great mobility and firepower, which enable them to affect tactical or strategic situations decisively. They can circumvent both enemy and environmental obstructions to army and naval movement. Their speed and range can render any enemy position vulnerable to surveillance or attack. Even slower aircraft such as helicopters move with a speed and agility that ground vehicles cannot match. Technological progress and military developments have created or eliminated various aircraft types. These factors made it necessary that some aircraft design features be optimized in order to produce the best machines to fly specific air missions. Furthermore, although aircraft have grown increasingly important to any military endeavor, like all weapons they are tools whose effectiveness depends on the situation and combat objective.
The German Zeppelin airship LZ-3 in 1909.
Through World War
However, the ever-widening performance spectrum often necessitated greater specialization to handle different nations’ specific power projection needs. Jet
Although World War I produced basic air combat designs, the airplane’s earliest and most obvious military missions were observation and
Post-World War I military needs and technological innovations created more airplane types to meet force enhancement and support requirements. Although primitive resupply operations occurred in World War I, postwar transport
World War I “ace” Eddie Rickenbacker, standing beside one of the fighter planes he piloted. Fighter action was the best-known action of World War I air combat.
From almost their first appearance in battle, aircraft have used these basic weapons types: guns, missiles, and bombs. Although each weapon’s fortunes fluctuated throughout the twentieth century, by the century’s end, all three remained in active use, meeting specific combat demands served by each weapon’s individual strengths.
During World War I, airplanes used
However, the best air-to-ground guided missiles were long-range, or cruise,
The most significant development in bomb technology came with the widespread use, at least by the United States, of precision-guided
War and technological progress created fluctuations in the fortunes of general aircraft types. In World War I, airships and airplanes both executed war missions, but by World War II, the airship’s combat use had faded, as the airplane became the preeminent combat air machine. By the 1960’s the helicopter had joined the airplane as part of the modern air arsenal.
At the beginning of the twentieth century military balloons already existed, having been used in previous wars for observation. At this time dirigibles offered the best hope for more aggressive combat airpower projection, because they possessed the controlled mobility that balloons lacked. Indeed, some military observers feared airship attacks in future wars. However, despite the better range and load capacity of airships compared to those of the earliest airplanes, airships’ weaknesses limited enthusiasm for their combat use even among the Germans, who were their strongest proponents.
On October 11, 1911, during the Italo-Turkish
World War I effected a swap in the dirigible and airplane’s combat fortunes. Early in the war, a few nations used airships for scouting and army attack missions. The latter soon ended due to losses to the armies’ guns. In 1915, as other nations ceased airship attacks, German
The airplane replaced the airship in various roles. In early battles at the Marne
Airplanes offered more flexibility and striking power in naval operations, despite the initial promise of airships as observer craft. British naval
However, ships’ mobility made air-to-ship communications unreliable. Further,
Airplanes also surpassed zeppelins in attack and strategic bombing, though bomb load limitations and poor accuracy also hindered their effect. By 1915 all western front air arms had attempted interdiction missions. The aggressive flying policy England’s Royal Flying Corps commander General Hugh
Early in the war, the Russians and Italians produced large bombers for long-range attacks, but they lacked the resources to sustain deep bombing operations. In 1917 the Germans fielded huge multi-engine planes that continued the attack that zeppelins had started against England. Like airships, they were inaccurate and failed to cause significant damage. Although British defenses soon forced them to attack only at night, German planes still mounted a bombing campaign that caused public outcry and forced the British to divert fighters from the front.
Fighter action was the best-known aspect of World War I air combat. The top pilots received national adulation, and those who downed at least five planes (actually, the number varied by country) were dubbed “aces.” Fighters helped end the zeppelin threat and forced attack and bomber planes to fly at night or in formations escorted by their own fighters. Boelcke’s air fighting principles remained valid through the century’s end.
The war established more than fighter aces. Naval air war, attack, and strategic bombing concepts emerged. Germany’s bombing of England stirred a public uproar and spurred the creation of the Royal Air
World War I inspired postwar airpower advocacy in certain countries. Its bloody ground stalemate appalled Italian air officer Giulio
Royal Air Force commander Hugh
U.S. Army Air Service general William “Billy”
All these men experienced varying degrees of controversy expressing themselves, because even the victorious nations’ military budgets stifled rapid air development. Many advances came from civilian sources. Germany developed a metal attack monoplane at war’s end, but airline companies and other civilian organizations produced innovations that increased speed and bad weather capability: retractable landing gear, pressurized cockpits, voice radio, and instrument navigation. In 1931 the Boeing
The military contributed to aviation developments where possible, especially after the leading nations rearmed in the late 1930’s. Military pilots set distance and altitude records using boosted engines, another innovation. Americans improved high-altitude bombing accuracy with the Norden sight. The Soviet Union introduced paratroop operations.
A P-47 fighter plane, which during World War II also excelled as an attack plane, making bombing runs.
Despite relatively slow advancement, aircraft improvements between the two world wars were significant. World War I’s fabric biplane
Motivated by American bomber technology advances, the U.S. Army Air Corps–later renamed the Army Air
Aircraft carriers demanded even more resources and intent, and only three powers used them: the United States, Japan, and England. Under Admiral William
World War II began with Germany’s 1939 Poland invasion and 1940 Western Europe offensives. The Luftwaffe was an important part of what became known as
The Luftwaffe embarked upon more independent action in the summer, 1940, Battle of
Germany’s bombers also had insufficient defensive armament, and its fighters lacked sufficient range to escort them. However, these deficiencies also existed in other air forces. The British had earlier encountered similar problems when they lost many bombers during unescorted daylight raids. After the Battle of Britain, both sides reverted to nighttime bombing and daylight fighter sweeps. Bombing accuracy was atrocious, and both sides justified the raids as a way to destroy industrial workers’ morale, if not the workers themselves.
The European air war assumed an electronic character. German bombers used intersecting radio beams as an approximate bomb-release point, and the British tried to jam the beams. Both sides’ search radars guided radar-equipped night fighters against enemy bombers. Later, bombers dropped foil strips to muddle radar returns.
Given the western front aerial deadlock, the Royal Navy produced a decisive aerial victory at Taranto
The U.S. entry into World War II introduced a combatant with unlimited resources, organizational prowess, and aroused willpower. The Soviets, already at war, also mass-produced warplanes, but they concentrated upon designs, such as the Shturmovik attack
U.S. airpower first established itself in two decisive Pacific theater naval victories. The spring, 1942, Battles of Coral
Pacific air fighting up through the Solomon Islands campaign
North African fighting against the Germans in 1943 helped U.S. Army Air Force leaders establish doctrinal and command setups that endured through the century’s end. A single air leader controlling all of a war theater’s air assets would ensure unity of air command and a coherent air campaign, which followed the tactical mission priority of air superiority, interdiction, and then close air support.
From 1942 onward, the Army Air Force pursued a bigger goal with its daylight strategic bombing campaign against Germany. Its leaders believed that their
The Americans dismissed earlier British and German day bombing failures as irrelevant, but by autumn, 1943, their campaign staggered under heavy losses and targeting decisions that sometimes negated intended effects. The installation of drop tanks on the superb U.S. P-47 and P-51 fighters saved the campaign. This adjustment allowed long-range escort, which reduced losses and decimated German fighter forces. The latter effect helped guarantee air superiority for the 1944 Normandy landings. It also enabled paratroop assaults and ample air support for the Allied armies’ sweep across Europe.
The Pacific war’s concluding years witnessed complete U.S. air superiority, backed by such outstanding naval fighters as the
A “Fat Man” atomic bomb. The first such bombs, “Fat Man” and “Little Boy,” were dropped from B-29 bombers on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively ending World War II.
The atomic bombs’ effect upon Japan’s surrender did not completely vindicate visionaries such as Billy Mitchell. Although the bombs ended the war’s fighting sooner, they also struck a nation reeling from other military disasters. Debate over their necessity and impact continued through the century’s end and involved issues beyond airpower’s capabilities.
The European strategic bombing campaign failed to win the war single-handedly, as its proponents had hoped. However, more concentrated attacks in the war’s final year demolished Germany’s oil production and transportation facilities. Bombing crippled Germany’s war effort through overall damage, reduced worker output, and massive defense and industry diversions. It also facilitated the accomplishment of other air missions.
Western European air warfare involved the most advanced air combatants, but its conduct and lessons were not universally applicable. In some theaters, strategic bombing was not relevant and air arms did not follow tactical priorities that the U.S. Army Air Force confirmed while fighting the Germans. The Russian front was so vast, and Soviet resources were so abundant, that a strategic bombing campaign was neither possible nor desirable for either side. This situation existed in the Pacific war’s early years, when Japan was too distant for sustained bombing. In both theaters, tactical campaigns featuring tank battles, carrier battles, or amphibious landings were themselves decisive, and required that attack planes execute their missions even as fighters struggled for air superiority. In some amphibious landings, no air threat and no rear area existed to justify fighters or an interdiction campaign, but air support missions were very important.
Two F-4 Phantom IIs, often employed as multipurpose fighter-bombers, in flight over a coastline.
Other results echoed World War I’s lessons. As it evolved, airpower demanded tremendous resources, and the American war effort understandably overwhelmed its opponents. Under great pressure, given their many well-armed opponents, the Germans and Japanese made critical airplane procurement and pilot training errors that helped them to lose the air war. Indeed, insufficient resources and incoherent application hampered Germany’s introduction of Messerschmitt-262 jet
Above all, airpower demonstrated its decisive impact upon modern war. Strategic bombing accelerated national defeat. Airplanes were integral to the Blitzkrieg-style armored offensives that many armies came to favor. For example, Army Air Force planes literally provided flank security as U.S. armies raced across France. The aircraft carrier replaced the battleship as the most important naval unit. Transports enabled paratroop assaults and long-range supply.
The atomic bomb and jet technology seemed to guarantee airpower’s combat primacy in the postwar years, but troubling times lay ahead. Nuclear-armed bombers gave any nation possessing them a compelling military trump card, and superpower nuclear parity helped prevent a third world war through
Further, airpower’s expense skyrocketed with aviation technology progress, as only the superpowers could afford a full air arsenal and associated training and support costs. Jet-powered bombers were extremely expensive, and by century’s end, one American B-2 stealth
Expense incurred great procurement risk and occasional embarrassing failures, as England’s TSR2 attack
Above all, post-World War II combat revealed that a remarkably wide spectrum of conventional war situations remained possible, driving combat plane design variations. In the Korean
However, Vietnam warfare exposed problems in U.S. air strategy. U.S. planes could not completely disrupt North Vietnam’s war effort due to jungle concealment, political restrictions, and the Communists’ determination despite severe air-inflicted losses. Oriented toward bomber interception and nuclear strikes, U.S. fighters and attack planes and their crews performed less well than expected against North Vietnam’s Soviet-supplied fighters and SAMs. Indeed, these defenses forced the Americans to use special radar jamming and attack planes.
Vietnam’s ground war and relatively light air defenses brought forth special attack planes, some of which defied air progress notions. The AC-130 transport-turned-gunship and maneuverable, Korean War-vintage A-1 were two examples. Their weapons capacity and endurance made them excellent close air support machines.
Across the world, airpower proved more decisive when the Israeli Air Force’s (IAF) June 5,
The Israelis recovered and did well in that and later conflicts, but airpower difficulties in the Vietnam and October Wars sparked technological and tactical innovation. Stealth technology and standoff precision weapons promised better fortunes against SAMs. Western air arms conducted more realistic training, such as the U.S. Air Force’s Red Flag exercises.
An F-22 Raptor, developed in the 1990’s and called the most sophisticated fighter plane ever, flies over California.
Throughout late 1990,
In spring, 1999, U.S.-led NATO air forces compelled
A B-2 Spirit bomber over the Pacific in 2006.
Although air-only threats and actions had been made in the past, the Kosovo
Each war determines the types of weapons that will best serve one’s ends, and most late-twentieth century combat conditions did not favor strategic airpower as much as Kosovo’s did. U.S. political limitations in the 1993
Increasing air weapon expense meant that nearly all nations could not address all of the air warfare scenarios seen after World War II, or even the ones they would most likely encounter. The combatants in the Israel-Arab Wars, the Iran-Iraq War
their lack of airpower resources. By century’s end, economic constraints forced even the United States to review how much of the widening airpower spectrum–stealth fighters, close air support planes, attack helicopters, advanced drones, surveillance planes–it could afford.
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Swords, Daggers, and Bayonets
Gunpowder and Explosives
Small Arms and Machine Guns
Tanks and Armored Vehicles
Rockets, Missiles, and Nuclear Weapons
Chemical and Biological Weapons