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air forces,those portions of a nation's military organization employing heavier-than-air aircraft for reconnaissance, support of ground troops, aerial combat, and bombing of enemy lines of communication and targets of industrial and military importance.
Early Military Use of Aircraft
The history of air forces begins with the use of balloons by French forces in Italy in 1859 and by Union forces in the U.S. Civil War. Balloons thereafter proved useful as a means of observation, but air forces in the modern sense date from World War I, when the offensive capabilities of the airplane were first demonstrated. The somewhat tentative use of scout planes at the beginning of the war was followed by the creation of small forces of fighter planes that engaged in aerial combat and bombing raids. Although Germany took the lead in air strategy, the Allies soon closed the gap. Indeed, throughout World War I, such development and counterdevelopment accounted for the rapid advance of military aeronautics. The use of aircraft for reconnaissance, which made control of the skies important to military operations, resulted in the development of aerial combat, which led to formation flying, dogfights, and the bombing of enemy lines of communication and munitions depots.
Evolution of the Modern Air Force
As the effectiveness of aircraft as a tactical weapon increased, consideration was given to the establishment of air forces independent of a nation's ground forces. After the war a few allied strategists, including Giulio DouhetDouhet, Giulio
, 1869–1930, Italian military officer and early advocate of airpower. He was an early supporter of strategic bombing and the military superiority of air forces.
..... Click the link for more information. and others, such as Gen. William MitchellMitchell, William
(Billy Mitchell), 1879–1936, American army officer and pilot, b. Nice, France. He enlisted (1898) in the U.S. army in the Spanish-American War and received a commission in the regular army in 1901, serving with the signal corps.
..... Click the link for more information. of the United States, fought for the intensive development of airpower and pleaded for large air forces, arguing that future wars would be won by strategic bombardment of an enemy's industrial centers, thereby destroying the economic means of conducting a war. In the 1920s and 1930s the French, British, and Italians used airplanes for reconnaissance and strategic bombing in colonial wars in Africa, the Middle East, and India. These experiences, combined with the rapid and extensive advances in aeronautical technique that followed World War I, resulted in a much broader application of airpower in World War II.
During World War II
During the 1930s, Germany devoted great efforts to air armament and the early days of World War II seemed to uphold Hitler's boasts of the effectiveness of the Luftwaffe (air force) under Hermann Goering. This was especially true of tactical air support for the ground troops, which was a crucial part of Germany's successful form of mechanized warfaremechanized warfare,
employment of modern mobile attack and defense tactics that depend upon machines, more particularly upon vehicles powered by gasoline and diesel engines.
..... Click the link for more information. , the blitzkrieg. The first great air battle in history was the Battle of BritainBattle of Britain,
in World War II, series of air battles between Great Britain and Germany, fought over Britain from Aug. to Oct., 1940. As a prelude to a planned invasion of England, the German Luftwaffe attacked British coastal defenses, radar stations, and shipping. On Aug.
..... Click the link for more information. , in which the British Royal Air Force defeated the German Luftwaffe (1940) over Britain. In the Pacific, Japan entered the war with a stunning air attack launched from aircraft carriersaircraft carrier,
ship designed to carry aircraft and to permit takeoff and landing of planes. The carrier's distinctive features are a upper deck (flight deck) that is flat and sometimes sloped to function as a takeoff and landing field, and a main deck (hangar deck) beneath
..... Click the link for more information. on Pearl HarborPearl Harbor,
land-locked harbor, on the southern coast of Oahu island, Hawaii, W of Honolulu; one of the largest and best natural harbors in the E Pacific Ocean. In the vicinity are many U.S. military installations, including the chief U.S.
..... Click the link for more information. .
The subsequent development of airpower greatly altered the nature of warfare, and the use of aircraft over both land and sea played a major role in nearly all of the important engagements of World War II. Airplanes were used for strategic and tactical bombing, attacking of naval and merchant ships, transportation of personnel and cargo, mining of harbors and shipping lanes, antisubmarine patrols, photographic reconnaissance, and support of ground, naval, and amphibious operations. Throughout the war, the British and U.S. air forces conducted massive strategic bombing of Germany, but postwar bombing surveys showed it was not decisive in the Allied victory. In the Pacific, U.S. carrier-based aircraft by the end of 1944 had destroyed the Japanese fleet and air force. In the last months of the war, Japan itself was subjected to intense strategic bombardment, ending with the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Other major developments of World War II included improved techniques of flying and aircraft design and an accumulation of geographical and technological knowledge essential to modern aviation. By the end of the war, the importance of airpower was accepted by all.
Postwar Use of Airpower
Since World War II, the increased role of helicoptershelicopter,
type of aircraft in which lift is obtained by means of one or more power-driven horizontal propellers called rotors. When the rotor of a helicopter turns it produces reaction torque which tends to make the craft spin also.
..... Click the link for more information. has been a major development, allowing for increased air support of ground troops. In the Korean WarKorean War,
conflict between Communist and non-Communist forces in Korea from June 25, 1950, to July 27, 1953. At the end of World War II, Korea was divided at the 38th parallel into Soviet (North Korean) and U.S. (South Korean) zones of occupation.
..... Click the link for more information. air forces of the United Nations Command effectively enveloped the North Korean army and later cut supply arteries to Chinese Communist troops so that an armistice could be negotiated. Similar ground-air tactics were employed by the United States in Vietnam, while the North Vietnamese made effective use of Soviet-built ground-to-air missiles and tactical air support. The Persian Gulf WarPersian Gulf Wars,
two conflicts involving Iraq and U.S.-led coalitions in the late 20th and early 21st cent.
The First Persian Gulf War, also known as the Gulf War, Jan.–Feb.
..... Click the link for more information. , which saw the introduction of stealth fighter planes (see stealth technologystealth technology,
designs and materials engineered for the military purpose of avoiding detection by radar or any other electronic system. Stealth, or antidetection, technology is applied to vehicles (e.g.
..... Click the link for more information. ), was the first unambiguously decisive airpower victory in warfare, but even there the conflict was only ended after the ground forces attacked. Airpower was also used fairly effectively, although with less than immediate results, by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to force the capitulation of the Yugoslavia during the KosovoKosovo
, Albanian Kosova, Serbian Kosovo i Metohija and Kosmet, officially Republic of Kosovo, republic (2011 est. pop. 1,826,000), 4,126 sq mi (10,686 sq km), SE Europe, a former province of Serbia that unilaterally declared its independence in 2008.
..... Click the link for more information. crisis in 1999. Fighting in Afghanistan (2001) saw precision-guided smart weaponssmart weapon,
missile or steerable bomb equipped with a laser, television, or satellite guidance system. Smart weapons, which use guidance systems that rely on external assistance, are distinguished from brilliant weapons, which are totally self-guided.
..... Click the link for more information. become the predominant ordnance, but these were often targeted most effectively when the air forces worked in conjunction with spotters on the ground.
The development of nuclear weapons, jet propulsion, the guided missileguided missile,
self-propelled, unmanned space or air vehicle carrying an explosive warhead. Its path can be adjusted during flight, either by automatic self-contained controls or remote human control. Guided missiles are powered either by rocket engines or by jet propulsion.
..... Click the link for more information. , and satellitessatellite, artificial,
object constructed by humans and placed in orbit around the earth or other celestial body (see also space probe). The satellite is lifted from the earth's surface by a rocket and, once placed in orbit, maintains its motion without further rocket propulsion.
..... Click the link for more information. has widened the concept of airpower and the role of air forces. The U.S. Air Force (see Air Force, United States Department of theAir Force, United States Department of the,
military department within the U.S. Dept. of Defense (see Defense, United States Department of). The Air Force traces its roots to the founding of the Aeronautical Division of the Army Signal Corps (1907), variously renamed before
..... Click the link for more information. ) now refers to aerospace power (instead of airpower) and considers space a crucial military theater. Air forces also have come to assume a primary strategic role in deterring war by employing in readiness a second-strike retaliatory force (see nuclear strategynuclear strategy,
a policy for the use of nuclear weapons. The first atomic bombs were used in the context of the Allies' World War II policy of strategic bombing. Early in the cold war, U.S.
..... Click the link for more information. ) consisting of both aircraft and missiles. In the United States this mission was carried by the Strategic Air CommandStrategic Air Command
(SAC), former command of the U.S. air force (see Air Force, United States Department of the) charged with organizing, training, equipping, administering, and preparing strategic air forces for combat; it was headquartered at Offutt Air Force Base.
..... Click the link for more information. , which has been replaced by the interservice Strategic Command.
See R. Higham, Airpower (1972); L. Kennett, A History of Strategic Bombing (1982); R. J. Overy, The Air War, 1939–1945 (1984); M. Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power (1987).