A Brief History of Air Warfare

Even before the invention of powered flight humans have sought to take to the air to gain an advantage in war. Initially the military uses of flight were focused on reconnaissance, in particular gaining a bird’s eye view of the battle field. Early attempts saw the use of manned kites in China and Japan and later the use of hot air balloons as seen in the American Civil war, Napoleonic wars and by the French in the siege of Paris in 1870. Although useful the true potential had yet to be realised.

The First World War

The First World War saw the real birth of military airpower and a rapid advance of the technology involved. At the start of the war aircraft were primitive having only been in existence for a decade and were used almost exclusively for recon and static balloons continued to be used throughout the war.  Airship technology saw the development of balloons into an offensive weapon with the famous Zeppelin raids. On 31st May 1915 German Zeppelins bombed London for the first time which caused 7 deaths and 35 injured, on the 8th September one Zeppelin raid caused more than half a million pounds of damage and was the most successful raid of the war. Ultimately such slow big machines proved too vulnerable and as the British aircraft started to be armed with a mix of explosive and incendiary bullets the big airships became death traps - a German airship with the potential to bomb New York was shot down on 5th August 1918 by a British fighter crewed by Egbert Cadbury, a member of the famous Chocolate making family.

Pre-war Zeppelin over German City
Pre-war Zeppelin
over German City

Aircraft technology developed rapidly especially in the area of weaponry. Early aircraft were at first unarmed then later defended by crew with pistols or rifles or even thrown darts or small hand bombs. The development of smaller lighter machine guns offered the perfect weapon for aircraft but it wasn’t until the development of a method to synchronise firing with the propeller to allow forward firing guns that the first true fighter aircraft was born. This was the age of the fighter ace, larger than life characters that captured the public’s hearts with their dashing tales of heroism. In contrast to the mud and dirt of the trenches this was the cavalry ethos reborn in these early knights of the sky.  This view of the military pilot, in particular the fighter pilot has never really gone away and is still with us today, sustained by cinema images such as top gun and recruitment by the world’s air forces.

The First World War also saw the development of early bombers such as the Gotha although pay load was small it was a hint of what was to come. The Gotha bombers were designed to cross the channel and bomb the UK travelling at 15,000ft far above the max ceiling of any contemporary fighter with a bomb load of 500kg. Raids took place at night but eventually day time raids took place. From September 1917 the Gotha bombers were joined by a much larger ‘Giant’ bomber a four engined monster with a wing span 138ft which was wider than many Second World War bombers. The German use of large bombers forced developments in anti aircraft guns and the use of barrage balloons

Fighter tactics also developed and towards the end of the war large scale air battles were seen, many of the surviving aces were to go on to senior command in the Second World war and influence tactics during that conflict.  The aircraft at the end of the war were far more advanced than their early versions, faster, stronger with far more powerful weaponry but the designs were still mostly bi planes with open cockpits.

The Second World War

The Second World War saw the military use of air power come of age. The development during the war saw the most rapid and drastic changes in military aircraft technology and airborne weaponry. Whereas aircraft development in the First World War had been evolutionary although rapid, the Second World War saw truly revolutionary development. The monoplane quickly became the dominant design and speed and fire power rapidly increased, resulting in a propeller driven fighter that could possibly break the sound barrier in a dive , the British Typhoon. Aces were still important but the sheer scale of air combat made personalities less important and technology more so. The first jet fighters came into front line service by the end of the war with the British Meteor and German Me 262 although propeller driven combat aircraft would remain in military service for many years to come. Air to Air weaponry was still based on machine guns and cannon with some unguided rockets in use against large bombers.

The Second World War saw the bomber come of age, with a massive increase in bomb load and range compared to their First World War counterparts. The concept of strategic bombing brought destruction to cities on a scale never seen before although the effectiveness of large scale bombing of cities is highly debatable. Bombers became massive multi gunned, multi engined machines with such aircraft as the British Lancaster and American Flying Fortress and Super Fortress being deployed in vast numbers. The power of strategic bombing reached new levels with the first use of nuclear weapons in 1945.

Radar became important and a new breed of aircraft the Night Fighter developed, to hunt the night time bombing raids. Photographic reconnaissance became increasingly important to commanders on the ground. Depth charge armed sub hunting aircraft ranged far over the world’s oceans. The Second World War also saw the development of close air support, the use of attack aircraft in direct support of ground troops often making attacks very close to the forward edge of battle. New aircraft types developed to take on this role such as the Stuka Dive bomber and the British Typhoon and Tempest. Aircraft now took on tank hunting as a specific role, using large calibre guns in the case of modified German Stuka aircraft or unguided rockets as in the case of aircraft of many other countries. At sea the aircraft career became the dominant weapon end the battleship's supremacy, as shown at the Battle of Midway.  Air power now showed the vulnerability of large warships to air launched torpedoes and bombs although the big fleets had considerable defences against air attack.

Air craft also impacted on warfare in another area - that of transport and supply. Paratroopers were used on a large scale for the first time with the German airborne invasion of Crete in 1941 and the nearly disastrous Allied operation Market Garden in 1944.  Transport planes such as the Ju-52 and DC-3 made large scale operations possible and allowed the rapid resupply of forces in environments where the transport networks were poor or non existent.  Helicopters started to be developed during the Second World War but failed to have a significant affect.

Air power in the Second World War was a vital part of the conflict. Unlike the First World War where air power was a useful addition to forces or a propaganda weapon, Second World War airpower helped decide the fate of whole campaign areas if not the course of the war as in the Battle of Britain. Further more it became integrated into warfare as never before, with the use of airborne troops, close air support and Naval Aviation.

Post War / Cold War

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the superpowers became locked into the rivalry of the Cold War. This lead to an Arms Race which was a great driving force to military aircraft development. The Jet aircraft became dominant with a focus in the 1950s and 1960s on fast high flying strategic bombers to delivery nuclear weapons and fast big interceptors to counter them. Interceptors became bigger, faster and heavier such as the Russian MiG-25 Foxbat. Bomber development in the Soviet Union produced some big bombers which surprisingly had a tendency to be propeller driven such as the Tu 142 ‘Bear’.  In air to air weaponry the guided missile became dominant with infra red and radar guided systems although this took some time as the Korean war air battles in the 1950s were still fought using machine gun and cannon armed jet fighters. Following American fighter experience in Vietnam the USA looked again at the requirement to teach its fighter pilots dog fighting skills rather than just relying on missile intercepts and the famous ‘Top Gun’ fighter school was created. Counter measures such as Chaff and Flare became standard on military aircraft.

Close air support aircraft developed as well during the Cold War as the West needed a way to counter the massive Soviet tank advantage. The US A-10 Warthog was designed as a tank buster carrying a massive rotary cannon, one of the largest aircraft mounted guns and specifically designed anti tank weapons, the Russian SU-25 Frogfoot aircraft also took on this role.

Korean and Vietnam wars brought the helicopter to the forefront, Korea showed the importance of the helicopter as a transport, and medi-vac platform while Vietnam was often called a helicopter war as the US helicopters were so common and vital to the conflict. A new breed of helicopter also appeared, Gunship carrying guided and unguided rockets and cannon and machine guns, taking on the role of close air support and later tank hunting. Helicopters also proved to be the ideal Anti submarine warfare (ASW) platforms - as the Soviets developed a huge submarine fleet so the West produced counter measures. The Soviets developed a vast array of military helicopters such as the famous Mi-24 Hind gunship as well as some truly enormous transport helicopters.

As well as Air to Air weapon systems and Air delivered nuclear weapons, air to ground weapons rapidly developed. The Vietnam War lead to the development of napalm and fuel air explosives as well as the first laser guided bombs although they were fairly primitive at this point. Anti tank missiles were developed such as the Maverick and Hellfire which were designed to attack armoured vehicle's weak top armour. Air field denial weapons appeared designed to produce a mass of craters in an enemy runway and leave small mines behind to hinder any repairs. At sea air launched anti ship missiles replaced air launched torpedoes and proved highly destructive as seen in the Falklands war.

The requirements for good photographic reconnaissance lead to the development of US spy planes from Lockheed’s famous ‘Skunk Works’. This pushed aircraft technology higher and in some cases faster with the U-2 spy plane and the famous SR-71 Blackbird which is still the world’s fastest military aircraft. Transport requirements also increased as the Superpowers wanted the ability to move large pieces of military equipment and troops large distances. Bigger jet engined transports capable of carrying a 70 ton main battle tank appeared.  The Cold War focus on planned destruction of enemy airfields lead to the development of vertical or short take off aircraft such as the British Harrier jump jet and several countries produced Swing wing jet aircraft in the search for greater performance versatility.  Also for the first time large radars were mounted on specifically designed aircraft for airborne early warning radar such as the AWACS system and the innovation of in flight refuelling was perfected to give aircraft almost unlimited range. Fly by wire control systems have made aircraft more manoeuvrable with powered controlled surfaces and computer assistance. 

Beyond the Cold War.

With the end of the Cold war the requirements of the world’s military aviation have changed. The need for large nuclear bombers, and big fast interceptors has gone, instead systems need to be simple and versatile. Towards the end of the Cold War stealth technologies developed to make aircraft difficult to detect with radar and other sensors. This lead to some expensive aircraft (such as the B-2 Stealth Bomber) designed for a threat that no longer exists to a large extent. For the Western powers the focus is on reducing the number of different airframes in service. Due to the need to reduce the cost of military expenditure many western powers are going for hi tech low man power, low number systems like the US F-22 Raptor and the Euro fighter in Europe. The JAST strike aircraft project will replace many types of aircraft in US and British service. Most modern combat aircraft are moving towards a single pilot with more computer automated systems rather than pilot plus navigator / weapon officer. Fly by light, fibre optic control system also offers increase agility for combat aircraft and tilt rotor aircraft which have long been experimented with since the 1960s are finally seeing a real application with the American Osprey , offering the flexibility of a helicopter with the greater range and speed of  a fixed wing aircraft. Western militaries in particular the US and UK are committed in the long term to pilotless combat aircraft. Drone technology has steadily developed since the 1990s and armed remote drones are now a realistic combat system. Such pilotless planes are likely to be decades away but are clearly the future of the combat aircraft where the most expensive component is the human pilot. It is also clear that although the fire power and accuracy of air power has increased, it along cannot win wars and this was illustrated by the Gulf War of 1991 where air superiority was quickly achieved but despite a massive bombing offensive ground operations were still required.

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How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, T., (30 March 2007), A Brief History of Air Warfare, 27 April 1296, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/wars_airwar.html

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