Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Military aviation
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Military aviation

Military aviation is the use of aircraft for the purposes of warfare.

Before World War I

Although some minor use was made of balloons in the 19th Century, military aviation did not play a significant part in warfare until World War I. The armies of many countries evaluated the use of aircraft for observation. Several tests were made in which floatplanes were launched from ships at sea by catapault, and recovered by crane later. In 1910 an airplane was taken off and landed on a platform attached to the American cruiser USS Pennsylvania (ACR-4) in San Francisco harbour.

World War I

Initially during that war both sides made use of tethered balloons and airplanes for observation purposes, both for information gathering and directing of artillery fire. A desire to prevent enemy observation led to airplane pilots attacking other airplanes and balloons, initially with small arms carried in the cockpit, and later with machine guns mounted on the aircraft. Both sides also made use of aircraft for bombing, strafing and dropping of propaganda. The German military made use of Zeppelins to drop bombs on Great Britain.

By the end of the war airplanes had become specialised into bombers, fighters and observation aircraft.

Between the Wars

Between 1918 and 1939 aircraft technology developed very rapidly. In 1918 most aircraft were biplanes with wooden frames, canvas skins, wire rigging and air-cooled engines. By 1939 most military aircraft were metal framed monoplanes, often with stressed skins and liquid cooled engines. Top speeds had tripled; altitudes doubled (and oxygen masks become commonplace); ranges and payloads of bombers increased enormously. Most industrial countries also created air forces separate from the army and navy.

Some theorists, especially in Britain, considered that aircraft would become the dominant military arm in the future. They imagined that a future war would be won entirely by the destruction of the enemy's military and industrial capability from the air.

Germany was banned from possessing a significant air force by the terms of the WWI armistice. The German military continued to train its soldiers as pilots clandestinely until Hitler was ready to openy defy the ban.

World War II

By contrast with the British strategists, the primary purpose of the German Luftwaffe was to support the ground army. This accounted for the presence of large numbers of dive bombers in the make-up, and the scarcity of long-range heavy bombers.

The aircraft carrier first became important in World War II, particularly in the Battle of Midway, where American aircraft sunk four Japanese carriers (at a cost to the Americans of one carrier sunk and one disabled, plus some other ships). In this battle, neither force was in visual contact with the other, and all fighting was carried out by aircraft--a military first.

Post War

Military aviation in the post-war years was dominated by the needs of the Cold War. The post-war years saw the almost total conversion of combat aircraft to jet power, which resulted in enormous increases in speeds and altitudes of aircraft. Until the advent of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile major powers relied on high-altitude bombers to deliver their newly-developed nuclear deterrent; each country strived to develop the technology of bombers and the high-altitude fighters that could intercept them.

The Americans developed and made extensive use of the high-altitude observation aircraft for intelligence-gathering. The U-2, and later the SR-71 Blackbird were developed in great secrecy. The U-2 at its time was supposed to be invulnerable to defensive measures, due to its extreme altitude. It therefore came as a great shcok when the Soviets downed one piloted by Gary Powers with a ground-to-air missile.

In the 70s and 80s it became clear that speed and altitude was not enough to protect a bomber against air defences. The emphasis shifted therefore to manouverable attack aircraft that could fly 'under the radar', at altitudes of a few hundred feet.

The development of the helicopter revolutionised the aerial support of ground forces. A helicopter could deliver troops quickly to areas inaccessible to fixed-wing aircraft - and, unlike paratroops, they could be recovered again. This led to an entirely new class of airmobile troops (which the US referred to as Air Cavalry), able to land unexpectedly, strike, and leave again. Such tactics played a major part in the Vietnam War.

See also