Aircraft, Bombs, and Guidance Systems Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Aircraft possess great mobility and firepower, which enable them to affect tactical or strategic situations decisively.

Nature and Use

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.Guidance systemsBombsAircraftAir forcesGuidance systemsBombsAircraftAir forces

Types of Aircraft

Airships, Airshipsalso called Dirigiblesdirigibles, existed at the beginning of the twentieth century. These large, specially built balloons had propeller engines and small wings at their stern that allowed controlled flight. In 1900 Germany’s Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, Ferdinand vonZeppelin, Ferdinand vonZeppelin (1838-1917) introduced cigar-shaped, metal-framed versions called rigid dirigibles or, after the builder himself, Zeppelinszeppelins. Already in operation were more sausage-shaped airships with less rigid frames, later nicknamed Blimpsblimps. Since airships could remain airborne for long periods, they served best in observational roles. However, their expense, large size, support demands, slow speed, clumsy handling, and hydrogen interiors combined to make them unsuitable for direct combat.

The Aircraft;earlyairplane first flew in 1903, and by 1911 primitive models were flying in combat. Airplanes have been the most prevalent and successful type of military aircraft, reaping the windfall of successive technological advances and serving in a wide variety of roles. Improvements in thrust allowed for the evolution of piston engines and propellers to jet engines with afterburners. Aerodynamic design advanced from fabric biplanes to titanium and composite-alloy swept-wing planes. The exigencies of World War World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];airplanesI (1914-1918) determined the basic airplane types and design philosophies for air combat: fighter, attack, and bomber.

Fighters, Attack Planes, and Bombers

Fighters Fighter planesenabled an air arm to meet its most important mission, air superiority, by shooting down aircraft and thus defeating the enemy’s air effort. As daytime fighters evolved from World War I, the best designs possessed an optimum compromise of speed, climbing ability, acceleration, and maneuverability. Further, they required the best air-to-air weaponry, whether that was powerful machine guns or guided missiles. Thus, sheer performance and hitting power enabled fighters to outperform and shoot other planes, especially in the maneuvering duels against other fighters known asDogfightsdogfights. Expanding requirements and technological developments bred variations. RadarRadar drove the creation of night fighters, which, during World War II (1939-1945), were often planes lacking optimum fighter performance but possessing room for electronic gear and the extra crew to operate it.

The Cold Cold War (1945-1991);fighter planesWar’s technology developments and military conditions bred more fighter variants. Interceptors such as the U.S. F-106 fighter plane[F 106 fighter plane]F-106 and the Soviet MiG fighter planesMiG-25 stressed speed and climb over maneuverability because they required the potential to attack incoming nuclear-armed bombers quickly. Anticipating the effect of higher speeds, onboard radars, and guided air-to-air missiles upon aerial warfare, the leading air arms reduced emphasis upon traditional air fighting skills such as dogfighting and gunnery. Further, because fighters had during previous wars performed well in other missions, such as ground attack, air leaders pursued a more versatile, cost-effective force by building multipurpose fighters,Fighter-bombers[fighter bombers]“fighter-bombers,” or fighters adapted to other missions. Although planes such as the U.S. F-4 achieved some success in this regard, they were still not the best at all missions. Indeed, conflicting mission requirements, jet performance extremes, and radar-guided missiles’ space and cockpit task demands rendered impossible the optimization of traditional day fighter, interceptor, and attack plane needs in one design. Further, this produced very expensive planes. The United States, which most assiduously pursued this aim, built cheaper planes with more traditional air combat strengths, such as the F-16 fighter plane[F 016 fighter plane]F-16, to supplement its forces. Even so, the U.S. Navy and Air Force also expanded these planes’ roles.

The German Zeppelin airship LZ-3 in 1909.

(Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Attack Attack planesplanes required similar characteristics, but not at the expense of extra range, ruggedness, and bomb delivery prowess. Beyond these specifications, attack plane designers faced choices in meeting a variety of force application missions. Attack planes supported the fighters’ air control mission by flying offensive counterattacks against enemy airfields. They conducted interdiction campaigns against enemy ground forces by attacking reserve units, supply lines, and command or communications facilities. They flew close air support missions against enemy troops at or near the battle front, and they supported naval actions by attacking ships and dropping mines. Finally, attack planes hit strategic targets such as cities, command centers, and industries if their range allowed it. Specific targets were widely varied and included runways, buildings, ships, troops, bridges, fortifications, and tanks. Target variety and diverse attack environments created different carriage specifications for bombs, torpedoes, missiles, guns, and nuclear weapons. Day, night, bad weather, and low- or high-altitude attacks also required design changes and different onboard equipment.

Through World War World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];attack planesII, attack planes usually carried two crew members, a pilot and gunner, and they were powered by either one or two engines. Many possessed the structural strength and aerodynamic stability necessary to conduct Dive-bombers[Dive bombers]dive-bombing attacks, which offered greater bombing accuracy. Others carried torpedoes. During both world wars, fighter planes also flew attack missions; and in World War II, several types, such as the U.S. P-47, excelled in this role.

However, the ever-widening performance spectrum often necessitated greater specialization to handle different nations’ specific power projection needs. Jet Jet fightersfighters were also adapted to fly attack missions, including defense suppression raids against surface-to-air Surface-to-air missiles[surface to air missiles]Missiles;surface-to-air[surface to air]missile (SAM) and antiaircraft artillery (AAA) sites. Strike planes such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO’s) Panavia Tornado emphasized speed and bomb carriage for deep interdiction attacks. Also, they often carried two crew members to handle the increasingly complex array of radars, computers, infrared sights, and guided bombs required for day, night, and all-weather attacks. Other attack planes such as the U.S. A-7 also carried more sophisticated avionics but were single-seat, jet-age Dive-bombers[Dive bombers]dive-bombers. Finally, army air support demands generated propeller and jet planes that flew more slowly, carried special armament, remained airborne longer, or operated from austere surroundings. The United States even modified cargo planes to serve as orbiting attack gunships.

Because bombers Bomberscarried more weapons and flew farther than attack planes, they delivered a bigger punch at longer distances when flying conventional interdiction missions or strategic raids against targets within an enemy nation. Thus, they usually had at least two crew members and two or more engines. For protection, bomber designers wanted speed, but only if it did not sacrifice the other needs. Because they were usually slower than fighters, most bombers through World War II carried many defensive guns. The greater aircraft speeds and long-range, air-to-air missiles seen afterward dictated that bombers carry fewer guns, if any at all. Later designs relied upon speed, electronic countermeasures, or “stealth” antiradar design for protection.

Early Uses of Military Aircraft

Although World War I produced basic air combat designs, the airplane’s earliest and most obvious military missions were observation and Reconnaissance planesreconnaissance. World War I observation planes carried weapons and usually did not differ from attack or fighter types, though the Germans specially designed their Rumpler planes to fly at high attitudes. World War II air arms modified fighters and fast bombers such as England’s Mosquito to carry camera gear and use performance to evade defenders. This practice continued afterward, but the Cold War’s explosive improvements in jet fighter and SAM performance forced the creation of special models. The U.S. U-2 and SR-71 were capable of either or both great speed and ultra-high altitude.

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 Transport planesplane advances opened military air supply opportunities. Cargo Cargo planesplanes obviously required long-range and load carriage ability to support aerial logistic and army paratroop operations. The subvariants split between those with exceptional capacity and range, such as the U.S. C-5, and smaller, rugged types able to operate from short, unimproved airfields, such as the U.S. C-130. The U.S. Air Air forces;U.S.Force led other air arms in modifying large planes, usually transports, to accomplish various electronic support missions. These included airborne early Radarwarning–radar at high altitude allowed greater surveillance coverage–and electronic intelligence-gathering. Later models tracked ground vehicular traffic. Also, the leading national air arms modified transports and other types to fly airborne tanker missions. These tankers had a decisive effect upon airplane endurance and striking distance. Finally, the Vietnam War Vietnam War (1961-1975)(1961-1975) and later conflicts witnessed the use of remotely piloted planes, or Drone planes“drones,” for surveillance and decoy purposes.


After Helicopterstheir first appearance in World War II, helicopters made great strides. Initially, piston engines’ limited thrust restricted helicopter missions to small-scale logistics. Jet-powered helicopters appearing from the 1950’s onward enjoyed expanded opportunities. Big cargo helicopters conducted large-scale airmobile troop transfers, and smaller, faster, and more agile attack helicopters flew traditional scouting missions as well as immediate firepower support for either airmobile or antiarmor activities. Attack helicopters’ navigation and fire control avionics nearly matched those of jet planes.

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.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Aircraft Weapons

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.

The machine Machine guns;airborneGuns;airbornegun has been an aircraft weapon since World War I, though early airplane designs limited its impact. Most fighters were too small to carry many guns or much ammunition. The thin wings of these aircraft meant that one or two fuselage-mounted, forward-firing guns shot either above the propeller or through it via a synchronization mechanism. Other planes fired guns toward the rear against attackers or, in early rear-engine planes, from the very front. World War II fighters’ more substantial wings mounted up to eight machine guns or fewer guns of high 20-millimeter caliber. A few planes carried small cannon for use against hardened targets.

In Air forces;U.S.the 1950’s some U.S. fighters lacked guns, because air leaders believed that high aircraft speeds and guided missiles rendered these weapons useless. However, guns reestablished their worth during close-in dogfight combats of various 1960’s wars, and later U.S. fighters carried guns. Gun caliber, muzzle velocity, and rate of fire also dramatically improved during this time, reaching its zenith when the Americans introduced the Gatling rotary cannon technology featuring phenomenal firing rates–thousands of rounds per minute. The U.S. A-10 was built around a car-sized, 30-millimeter Gatling gun designed for antiarmor attack missions. The U.S. Air Force’s transports-turned-gunships carried small artillery. Helicopters carried guns for both antipersonnel and antiarmor operations.

During World War I, airplanes used Rockets;World War I[World War 01]rockets to attack observation balloons. World War II featured more widespread rocket use. The Americans and especially the British used rockets against both ships and tanks. German fighters fired rockets against Allied bomber formations. As the war ended, the Germans used radio-controlled missiles against ships and bridges. They were also developing a wire-guided air-to-air missile.

Guided Missile Systems

After Missiles;guidedGuided weaponsWorld War II, air-launched missile performance greatly improved. Guided missiles affected air-to-air combat tactics, especially regarding firing positions against a target. Heat-seeking missiles such as the U.S. Sidewinder tracked strong heat contrast and allowed greater firing distance and less precise aiming than did guns. Early heat-seeking Heat-seeking missiles[Heat seeking missiles]missiles tracked aircraft exhaust, requiring that a fighter pilot maneuver toward an opponent’s tail to shoot. Later versions even sensed an airplane’s engine section, which allowed all-aspect shots. Radar Radar;radar missilesmissiles could also shoot a target from any direction and even from beyond visual Beyond visual rangerange (BVR). However, both early and later radar-guided missiles required the pilot to fly forward, illuminating the target with radar so the missile could hit it. Late-twentieth century radar missiles did not even require this action, but their target identification and launch procedures remained more cumbersome than those of heat-seeking missiles. Thus, in spite of their intimidating air-control potential, BVR shots were often prohibited during combat to prevent accidentally shooting one’s own planes. Even so, radar missiles became so effective that the United States developed the F-22 stealth fighter in the 1990’s to counter them.

Air-to-ground Air-to-ground missiles[air to ground missiles]Missiles;air-to-ground[air to ground]missile capability also increased in the 1990’s. Attack planes and helicopters continued to use rockets either as weapons or as target markers for other aircraft. As for guided air-to-ground missiles, initial designs such as the U.S. Bullpup required that the pilot continually guide the missile toward the target. Indeed, the laser-guided, antitank Laser-guided missiles[Laser guided missiles]missiles used by helicopters through the twentieth century’s end also required continual laser illumination. However, more lethal air defenses made self-guided missiles ever more attractive. In the 1970’s, the United States introduced Maverick tactical Maverick missilesmissiles that tracked video or infrared image contrast. Additionally, considering radar-guided SAMs and AAA, the United States and other nations built missiles that were guided by radar transmissions.

However, the best air-to-ground guided missiles were long-range, or cruise, Cruise missilesmissiles. The primary worth of these jet- or rocket-powered weapons was standoff capability: hitting targets while avoiding air defenses. As early as the 1960’s, both U.S. and Soviet bombers carried cruise missiles for standoff strategic attacks. In the 1980’s efficient engines, along with vastly improved navigation and targeting gear, gave these weapons remarkable speed, range, and accuracy. Navies equipped attack planes with antiship cruise missiles, and these achieved spectacular success in the 1982 Falkland Islands War. In the 1990’s, U.S. bombers used cruise missiles in various wars and punitive air strikes. These achieved the desired politico-military impact with little threat to the attackers.


However, Bombsbombs were the most common method for achieving the airpower payoff. Although the earliest bombs were Grenadesgrenades and modified shells, from World War I through the twentieth century’s end their outward appearance remained essentially the same: that of a cigar-shaped metal cylinder with tail fins. They achieved explosive destruction of ground targets, and even by World War I’s end, aircraft carried bombs of more than 1,000 pounds in weight. Additionally, the war introduced bomb variants designed for specific destructive effects. Some achieved basic blast impact, others inflicted fragmentation damage upon people and thinly protected facilities, and still others featured incendiary effects. In World War II, bomb size increased to over 20,000 pounds, and different variations continued. Hardened bombs pierced armor, air-dropped mines blocked shipping lanes, and still others intensified incendiary damage by carrying jellied gasoline (napalm) or phosphorus. Most significant not only for airpower but also for warfare overall were atomic Atomic bombbombs, which achieved cataclysmic destructive effects.

The Cold Cold War (1945-1991);bombsWar witnessed the rise of other bomb types, such as the conventional cluster bomb and the nuclear hydrogen bomb. Cluster bombs used a bomb-shaped shell that opened while airborne and released many smaller bombs designed for either antipersonnel or antiarmor effects. Hydrogen Hydrogen bombbombs’ nuclear fusion achieved unlimited blast and radioactive impact.

The most significant development in bomb technology came with the widespread use, at least by the United States, of precision-guided Guided weaponsbombs. These weapons first appeared in World War II, but conventional war demands, particularly in Vietnam, accelerated development of bombs with laser or television seekers, along with controllable fins for steerage. Most required that a crew member guide them to the target. Their most significant impact was a virtual revolution in precision, in which fewer planes were needed to destroy a given target.


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 Italo-Turkish War (1911)[Italo Turkish War]War, an Italian pilot flew the first combat mission, using his plane for reconnaissance. Afterward, Italy used airplanes and dirigibles for bombing attacks. The Turks protested but, foreshadowing future aerial arms races, then procured their own aircraft.

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 Zeppelinszeppelins flew night raids on England to disrupt morale and military industry. These raids disturbed the British, but they neither induced a morale collapse nor destroyed industrial or military targets. Airships were too inaccurate, too susceptible to adverse winds, and, as England’s defenses improved, too vulnerable. Although zeppelin raids continued through 1918, they became ever more sporadic after 1916 as losses mounted.

The Increasing Role of Airplanes

The airplane replaced the airship in various roles. In early battles at the Marne Marne, Battle of the (1914);airplanes(1914) and Tannenberg Tannenberg, Battle of (1914);airplanes(1914), observation planes’ information helped the winning armies make decisive moves. Indeed, the airplane’s most visible impact in the war came via spotting activities that made western front army surprise attacks and breakthroughs extremely difficult. Wireless radios were too primitive and insecure to allow easy air-to-ground communication, but spotter crews eventually combined rudimentary radio use with other signaling means to direct artillery fire and report enemy dispositions.

Airplanes offered more flexibility and striking power in naval operations, despite the initial promise of airships as observer craft. British naval Naval power;planesplanes conducted one of the first offensive counterattacks when they bombed German zeppelin hangars in late 1914. Their sustained attacks cost the Germans more zeppelins and sparked a small-scale air superiority struggle between British and German seaplanes. By 1915 airplanes had helped direct naval gunfire against ships and shore targets. Although planes’ small bomb loads and inaccuracy usually prevented their sinking capital ships, a British plane sank a Turkish transport with a torpedo in August, 1915. Later, German bombers also sank ships with torpedoes. By 1918 Allied long-range seaplanes patrolled so well that German submarines used sky-search periscopes.

However, ships’ mobility made air-to-ship communications unreliable. Further, Seaplanesseaplanes required that ships stop for launch and recovery. These problems surfaced in the 1916 Battle of Jutland, Battle of (1916)Jutland, when scout aircraft for both sides delivered only belated reports. In 1917 the British converted a cruiser, the HMS Furious, HMS Furious, into an aircraft carrier that launched and recovered airplanes while under way. Carrier-based fighters better enabled the Royal Navy to defeat German seaplanes and zeppelins.

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 Trenchard, HughTrenchard, HughTrenchard (1873-1956) included striking airfields and supply lines. However, its impact was reduced by dispersed attacks, limited destructive capacity, inaccuracy, and German repair efforts. Trenchard’s close air support missions involving trench attacks achieved some morale effect, but these uncoordinated raids by fighters and attack planes suffered high losses and forever soured the British on the mission. The British achieved better army air support results in the Middle East against the Turks than on the western front, thanks to arid terrain and dispersed ground forces. These conditions better allowed British planes to disrupt enemy ground efforts, and in September, 1918, they trapped and destroyed two Turkish divisions in a narrow pass. In the Germans’ 1918 western front offensive, dedicated air support units in purpose-built Halberstadt attack planes flew concentrated strikes against Allied troops at or near the front. They enjoyed better success than that seen in previous British efforts, though British planes materially assisted their army’s counterattack via interdiction and attacks upon antitank defenses.

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.

The Evolution of the Fighter Plane

The Fighter planesfighter plane was created to stop the enemy from flying these emerging missions, as well as to protect friendly missions from enemy fighters. Fighter designs evolved especially quickly, in part because of their fiercely competitive purpose. Initially, rear-engine “pusher” planes with forward-mounted guns represented the fighter ideal. However, the appearance of Germany’s Fokker Fokker E-III fighter planeE-III’s in the summer of 1915 heralded the first major fighter technology advance. The E-III fighter plane[E three fighter plane]E-III synchronized machine-gun fire through its front-mounted propeller and, flown by a great aerial tactician such as the German ace Oswald Boelcke, OswaldBoelcke, OswaldBoelcke (1891-1916), it became an aerial scourge. Escalations in technology encouraged disciplined formation flying for protection. Improved Allied fighters such as France’s Nieuport countered the E-III, until Germany introduced the Albatross Albatross fighter planesseries in 1917. This development and massed German fighter sweeps inflicted high air losses. The Allies permanently regained the technological and numerical edge later that year with such planes as England’s Sopwith Sopwith Camel fighter planeCamel and France’s SPAD fighter planeSPAD.

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 Royal Air Force (Britain)Force (RAF) in 1918. Although airplanes were relatively primitive, good production required dedicated organization and advanced industrial capacity. Russia and Italy’s internal problems stifled bombing’s promise. The United States lacked the time to produce competitive designs. Industrial strength and desperate wartime struggle made the western front combatants air warfare leaders. The Allies partially owed their final air superiority to their two-to-one airplane production lead over the Germans. Finally, air fighting required skill, and at times the British and Germans experienced training difficulties that incurred even higher losses.

Early Airpower Advocates

World War I inspired postwar airpower advocacy in certain countries. Its bloody ground stalemate appalled Italian air officer Giulio Douhet, GiulioDouhet, GiulioDouhet (1869-1930), who believed that airplanes could surmount traditional obstacles and break this condition. Douhet asserted that bombers could use poison gas bombs, if necessary, to strike an enemy nation and induce an internal collapse similar to Germany’s downfall in 1918. Although Douhet overestimated the bomber’s destructive power and underestimated air defenses and national will, he affected thinking in other areas through his writings.

Royal Air Force commander Hugh Trenchard, HughTrenchard, HughTrenchard did not publish his ideas as Douhet did, but his policies reflected similar thinking. Trenchard wanted bombers that could strike any nation that attacked Britain, and he also aimed to justify his newly independent service’s existence. Ironically, it already had done so as it executed the government’s postwar desire to police its colonies by air.

U.S. Army Air Service general William “Billy” Mitchell, William “Billy”Mitchell, William “Billy”Mitchell (1879-1936) reacted not only to trench slaughter but also to drastic postwar budget cuts. His unsuccessful but outspoken advocacy of a separate air force including naval and land-based air units stemmed from his opinion that only experienced aviators understood airpower. Influenced somewhat by Douhet, he also believed that bombers could induce a national collapse.

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 Boeing B-9B-9 introduced variable-pitch propellers, which helped acceleration and climb. In 1932 the MartinMartin B-10[Martin B 10]B-10 featured enclosed cockpits and improved bomb capacity. The 1920’s Schneider and Thompson Trophy air race winners were streamlined monoplanes that influenced later fighter designs, such as England’s Spitfire fighterSpitfire.

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.

(Army Times Publishing Co.)

Despite relatively slow advancement, aircraft improvements between the two world wars were significant. World War I’s fabric biplane Biplane fightersfighters with 250-horsepower engines flying at 100 knots changed to metal Monoplanesmonoplanes with 1,000-horsepower engines and 300-knot speeds. New monoplane bombers were smaller but faster and carried more bombs. Modified airliners such as the U.S. C-47 transformed logistical considerations.

Airpower in World War II

At World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];airplanesthe beginning of World War II, the most advanced and determined nations again had the best air arms, though technological complexity and organizational demands vexed some of them. The now independent German Air Force Luftwaffe (German air force)Air forces;German(Luftwaffe) appeared to be the strongest, with standout planes such as the Messerschmitt-109 fighter plane[Messerschmitt 109]Messerschmitt-109 fighter and the Junkers-87 Junkers-87 dive-bomber[Junkers 87]dive-bomber. However, bombsight and aircraft developmental problems combined with leadership changes to stifle the production of heavy bombers, producing a more tactical orientation. Bombers such as the Heinkel-111 seemed adequate for strategic bombing against European targets, but Luftwaffe leaders ruined other bomber designs by demanding Dive-bombers[Dive bombers]dive-bomb capability for even big planes. The Luftwaffe’s Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) experience apparently supported its air policy choices.

Motivated by American bomber technology advances, the U.S. Army Air Corps–later renamed the Army Air Air forces;U.S.Force, anticipating its future independent status–emphasized strategic bombing. The British upgraded their fighter defenses in response to heavy bomber development problems, the rising German air threat, and their own radar advances. Rapid industrialization formed the foundation for a large Soviet air force, which produced some promising designs, but the 1930’s purges of Joseph Stalin, JosephStalin, JosephStalin (1879-1953) hindered development. France and Italy lagged behind because of incoherent national defense policy and lack of resources.

Aircraft carriers demanded even more resources and intent, and only three powers used them: the United States, Japan, and England. Under Admiral William Moffett, WilliamMoffett, WilliamMoffett’s (1869-1933) leadership, American naval air resisted Billy Mitchell’s threats to its own status and, exploiting arms treaty conditions, built new aircraft carriers. Admiral Joseph Mason Reeves, Joseph MasonReeves, Joseph MasonReeves (1872-1948) led tactical innovations that gave the carrier force an aggressive fighting style. Japan developed a similar carrier doctrine, and both navies fielded planes that delivered a knockout blow or defeated air threats, such as the U.S. Dauntless Dauntless dive-bomberdive-bomber and Japan’s Zero Zero fightersfighter. England’s navy anticipated facing many European land-based planes and built smaller, more rugged carriers. Small carrier size and the RAF’s control and neglect of naval aircraft development meant that British carriers lacked the aerial punch of other navies’ carriers.

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 BlitzkriegBlitzkrieg warfare. It simultaneously stifled enemy air defense and attacked any direct or resupply effort impeding rapid tank advances. On May 10, 1940, it conducted the first combat parachute and glider troop landings to open Germany’s western front attack.

The Luftwaffe embarked upon more independent action in the summer, 1940, Battle of Britain, Battle of (1940)Britain, the first air-dominated major battle in history. The Germans’ pre-invasion daylight air campaign failed for many reasons. Their leaders established an unrealistic campaign timetable, their attacks did not destroy the radar sites that gave British fighters a decisive edge, and they ceased attacking airfields just when these missions began hurting the RAF. Downed German fliers fighting over the RAF’s homeland could not fly again as could their British opponents. Meanwhile, British industry recouped fighter losses. On September 15, 1940, the Germans suffered a mauling that convinced them of their campaign’s failure.

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 Taranto Harbor, Battle of (1940)Harbor, Italy, on November 10, 1940. Carrier-based Swordfish Swordfish biplanesbiplanes crippled the anchored Italian fleet through nighttime bomb and torpedo attacks. Apart from eliminating a Mediterranean naval threat, the Taranto raid impressed Japanese naval leaders, whose carriers launched a morning surprise air raid against the U.S. fleet at Pearl Pearl Harbor attack (1941)Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. The Japanese sank or damaged several U.S. battleships, indelibly affirming airpower’s military importance.

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 Shturmovik attack planeplane, that provided army air support. The United States, however, produced abundant outstanding planes for all missions.

U.S. airpower first established itself in two decisive Pacific theater naval victories. The spring, 1942, Battles of Coral Coral Sea, Battle of the (1942)Sea and Midway, Battle of (1942)Midway featured no surface engagements, as carrier planes decided the outcome. Both sides launched massed raids to sink the enemy’s carriers and eliminate the primary naval threat. Vast distances and ships’ mobility still made reconnaissance and communications difficult. Thus, carrier battle victory could be terrifyingly random.

Pacific air fighting up through the Solomon Islands campaign Solomon Islands campaign (1942-1944)(1942-1944) ensured further U.S. success through attrition of Japanese warships and, most important, experienced Japanese pilots. Japan’s pilot training setup failed to produce the abundant replacements that the Americans enjoyed. In the Atlantic, the U.S. Navy increasingly used aircraft carriers and long-range patrol planes to avert the German U-boat threat.

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 B-17 bomber[B 17 bomber]B-17 and B-24 B-24 bomber[B 24 bomber]bombers possessed ample defensive armament and bombing accuracy to withstand defenses and win the war by inducing Germany’s internal collapse. In the meantime, England would continue night attacks with its new heavy bombers.

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 Hellcat fighterHellcat and the Corsair fighterCorsair. The Japanese carrier threat disappeared, and amphibious assaults enjoyed lavish air support. The Japanese introduced one late-war air menace when they launched a morbid form of guided weapon, land-based kamikazeSuicide;Japansuicide Kamikaze suicide missionsmissions, against American ships. On August 6, 1945, in the first nuclear air strike, an American B-29 B-29 bomber[B 29 bomber]bomber dropped an atomic Atomic bombbomb on Hiroshima, Hiroshima, JapanJapan. Another bomb hit Nagasaki, JapanNagasaki three days later. These raids hastened Japan’s surrender.

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.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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.

Lessons of World War II

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.

(Army Times Publishing Co.)

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 Messerschmitt-262 fighter plane[Messerschmitt 262]fighters at war’s end. The Soviet air force suffered frightful losses but possessed ample resources and people with which to overcome them.

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.

Post-World War II Airpower

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 Deterrencedeterrence. Indeed, throughout the 1950’s, the newly independent Air forces;U.S.U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Strategic Air CommandCommand, with its B-52 B-52 bomber[B 52 bomber]bombers and KC-135 KC-135 tanker[KC one thirty five]tankers, received most of the U.S. defense budget. However, nuclear weapons were otherwise militarily ineffective, because their actual use was unthinkable.

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 B-2 bomber[B 02 bomber]Stealth bombersbomber cost nearly one billion dollars. Air combat’s evolution bred even more diverse types, which incurred great expense in electronic gear if not aircraft design: drones, early warning planes, special reconnaissance planes, and tankers. Cold War rivalry sustained a swift evolution cycle of aircraft design, as six fighter generations created more expense via increasingly exotic engines, airframes, and weapons. The late 1940’s saw straight-wing jets. The early 1950’s saw transonic swept-wingSwept-wing planes[swept wing planes]planes such as the U.S.F-86 figbter plane[F 086 fighter plane]F-86 and Soviet MiG fighter planesMiG-15 used in the Korean War (1950-1953); the mid-1950’s, afterburner-engine supersonic planes such as the U.S. F-100; and the late-1950’s, Mach-2 radar-equipped fighters, such as the U.S. F-4, the Soviet MiG fighter planesMiG-21, and France’s Mirage fighter planesMirage series, all of which fought in many wars. In the 1970’s superfighters such as the U.S. F-14 fighter plane[F 014 fighter plane]F-14 and F-15 fighter plane[F 015 fighter plane]F-15 combined speed, maneuverability, and sophisticated fire control. By century’s end stealth fighters had been developed.

Expense incurred great procurement risk and occasional embarrassing failures, as England’s TSR2 attack TSR2 attack planeplane and U.S. F-111 multipurpose F-111 fighter plane[F 111 fighter plane]fighter programs revealed. Unexpected threat advances and high program costs sometimes sparked controversy, as when U.S. leaders canceled the B-70 and debated procuring the B-1. The widening airpower performance and task spectrum forced hard choices about aircraft design strengths. Fighter-bombers such as the U.S. F-105 fighter-bomber plane[F 105 fighter bomber plane]F-105 lacked maneuverability for dogfighting as well as endurance and bomb carriage for close air support. Their cost and training demands also discouraged their use in diverse missions. Thus, air arms had to tailor designs for certain fighting styles and situations. The Soviet Union mass-produced relatively simple fighters capable of quick attacks and escapes. The United States fielded many attack planes, such as the A-4 and the A-10, for tactical support. The British and U.S. Marines chose the AV-8 Harrier attack AV-8 Harrier attack plane[AV eight]plane because its vertical takeoff-and-land performance promised deployment flexibility.

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 Korean War (1950-1953)War U.S. jet fighters outfought Soviet MiGs to maintain air superiority. Attack planes thus became critical factors in stopping two communist offensives and maintaining the lines until the 1953 cease-fire. The U.S. A-1 and other propeller-driven attack planes remained useful, given that they were more maneuverable, carried more weapons, or flew longer than the available jets. U.S. air arms ignored Korea’s results and emphasized nuclear warfare training through the 1950’s.

U.S. Airpower in the Vietnam War

However, Vietnam War (1961-1975);airpowerAir forces;U.S.similar conditions arose in the U.S. war in Vietnam. U.S. airpower was omnipresent, providing on-call fire support, transportation, and surveillance. Indeed, it significantly supported the defeat of the Communists’ 1968 Tet Offensive and was primarily responsible for thwarting North Vietnam’s 1972 offensive.

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.

Helicopters Helicopters;Vietnam Warconfirmed their worth during the ground war in Vietnam. They had first been used by the United States in 1944 for light logistics duties in Burma, and they performed similarly in subsequent small wars. Before Vietnam, U.S. Army generals and other officers developed helicopter organizational setups that, combined with the capabilities of jet-powered helicopters such as UH-1 UH-1 transports[UH 1 transports]transports and AH-1 AH-1 gunships[AH one gunships]gunships, gave unprecedented mobility and immediate firepower to Army troops in South Vietnam. Despite their utility, however, helicopters remained vulnerable to ground fire, as the Soviet Union’s helicopter misfortunes in its Soviet-Afghan War Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989)[Soviet Afghan War](1979-1989) also revealed.

Across the world, airpower proved more decisive when the Israeli Air Force’s (IAF) June 5, Six-Day War (1967)[Six Day War]1967, surprise counter-air raids crippled the Arab nations threatening Israel. After destroying their opponents’ air forces, Israeli jets spent the rest of the Six-Day War pummelling Arab army units, who could not hide in the desert. Despite its outstanding reputation, even the IAF suffered heavy losses against densely packed Arab SAMs and AAA in the Israeli-Arab October Yom Kippur War (1973)War’s first day, October 6, 1973.

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.

Airpower in the 1990’s

Refinements allowed Air forces;U.S.U.S. airpower to rebound in wars of the 1990’s. The Cold Cold War (1945-1991);endWar’s end removed Soviet sponsorship from other American enemies. These nations’ leaders lacked military expertise and valued their internal power more than military victory.

An F-22 Raptor, developed in the 1990’s and called the most sophisticated fighter plane ever, flies over California.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Throughout late 1990, Iraq;Gulf WarIraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, SaddamHussein, SaddamHussein let a U.S.-led U.N. coalition mass against him in their effort to oust his forces from Kuwait. On January 17, 1991, these forces opened the Gulf War Gulf War (1990-1991);airpower(1990-1991) with a well-orchestrated air attack that quickly immobilized the Iraqis. Surveillance planes reported all Iraqi ground and air movements. Fighter and defense suppression missions, including surveillance and decoy drones, stifled air defenses. Attack planes battered army positions. Stealth Stealth bombersplanes attacked deep interdiction targets, such as command and communications centers, with no losses. Precision-guided weapons destroyed targets with minimum risk and attack-force size. After several weeks of aerial bombardment, U.N. ground forces liberated Kuwait with limited Iraqi opposition.

In spring, 1999, U.S.-led NATO air forces compelled Serbia;Kosovo crisisSerbian dictator Slobodan Milošević, SlobodanMilošević, Slobodan[Milosevic, Slobodan]Milošević to remove troops from Kosovo province. Overwhelming U.S. air strength, including B-2’s, cowed Serb air defenses and delivered accurate deep strikes with precision weapons. Losses were minimal.

A B-2 Spirit bomber over the Pacific in 2006.

(U.S. Air Force)

Although air-only threats and actions had been made in the past, the Kosovo Kosovo crisis (1999)war was the first conflict in which airpower alone forced a nation to withdraw its troops from a contested area. Milošević‘s internal concerns and a threatened ground invasion apparently also influenced his decision. Kosovo proved that in warfare’s wide situational spectrum, cases exist where airpower alone can win wars.

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 Somalia;skirmishes (1993)Somalia skirmishes inhibited airpower’s full play. Different situations allowed more tactical airpower units, such as aircraft carriers, significant influence. In conflicts where conditions prevented nearby basing, such as the Falkland Islands Falkland Islands War (1982)War, the 1983 invasion of Grenada invasion (1983)Grenada, the 1988 U.S.-Iran naval fights, and 1999 Desert Operation Desert Fox (1999)Fox punitive raids against Iraq, carrier-based airplanes provided most if not all of the airpower’s punch.

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 Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988)[Iran Iraq War](1980-1988), and the Indo-Pakistani Indo-Pakistani Wars (1965-1971)[Indo Pakistani Wars]Wars were all limited by

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.Guidance systemsBombsAircraftAir forces

Books and Articles
  • Boyne, Walter J., ed. Air Warfare: An International Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2002.
  • Boyne, Walter J., and Philip Handleman, eds. Brassey’s Air Combat Reader. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 1999.
  • Buckley, John. Air Power in the Age of Total War. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
  • Cooling, Benjamin, ed. Case Studies in the Achievement of Air Superiority. Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1994.
  • _______. Case Studies in the Development of Close Air Support. Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1990.
  • Cox, Sebastian, and Peter Gray, eds. Air Power History: Turning Points from Kitty Hawk to Kosovo. Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 2002.
  • Everett-Heath, John. Helicopters in Combat. Poole, England: Arms and Armour, 1992.
  • Gates, David. Sky Wars: A History of Military Aerospace Power. London: Reaktion, 2003.
  • Hall, R. Cargill, ed. Case Studies in Strategic Bombardment. Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1998.
  • Higham, Robin. Air Power. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1972.
  • Hone, Thomas, Norman Friedman, and Mark Mandeles. British and American Aircraft Carrier Development. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1999.
  • Meilinger, Phillip, ed. The Paths of Heaven. Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.: Air University Press, 1997.
  • Musciano, Walter. Warbirds of the Sea. Altglen, Pa.: Schiffer, 1994.
  • Nordeen, Lon O. Air Warfare in the Missile Age. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002.
  • Olsen, John Andreas, ed. A History of Air Warfare. Dulles, Va.: Potomac Books, 2009.
  • Spick, Mike, ed. The Great Book of Modern Warplanes: Featuring Full Technical Descriptions and Battle Action from Baghdad to Belgrade. Osceola, Wis.: MBI, 2000.
  • Stephens, Alan, ed. The War in the Air, 1914-1994. American ed. Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.: Air University Press, 2001.
  • Yanushevsky, Rafael. Modern Missile Guidance. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 2008.
Films and Other Media
  • Black Hawk Down. Feature film. Columbia, 2001.
  • Bombs, Rockets, and Missiles. Documentary. History Channel, 1997.
  • Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Feature film. Columbia, 1964.
  • Enola Gay and the Bombing of Japan. Documentary. Brookside Media, 1995.
  • Fail Safe. Feature film. Columbia Pictures, 1964.
  • Memphis Belle. Feature film. Enigma, 1990.
  • Smart Bombs. Documentary. History Channel, 1998.

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