Long before the Wright brothers and Kitty Hawk, man has tried to gain a bird’s eye advantage during battle. Some of the first attempts to gain an aerial advantage in reconnaissance include the use of kites in Japan and China and later hot air balloons during the Napoleonic wars and in France during the siege of Paris in 1870. The success with these early attempts at aerial reconnaissance proved that it was possible to use such equipment and weapons for an advantage.
World War I
During World War I, early aircraft for the use of reconnaissance saw some improvements thanks to rapid advances in technology. With war aircraft in existence for a decade, there was still limited use outside of recon and static operations. Emerging technology of that time lead to the use of hot air balloons used as offensive weapons. The Zeppelin raids against London in 1915 inflicted huge amounts of damage. Still, the balloons were slow and large giving them a big disadvantage. As forces in Britain began using explosives and incendiary bullets, the huge German airships became easy targets. On August 5, 1918, a British fighter brought down a German airship carrying enough explosives to bomb New York.
Aircraft designs and technology progressed rapidly to include a wider range of weapons. Early reconnaissance aircraft were unarmed though sometimes defended by crew with rifles, pistols, or small hand thrown bombs. A small light machine gun was designed but effective use was stalled until the method for synchronizing the firing of the machine gun with the propeller allowed its use as a forward firing gun. With this, the first fighter aircraft came into use and with it, the fighter pilots, or flying aces that soon became looked upon as heroes.
It was also during The First World War that early bombers were first developed. Early Gotha bombers were designed to fly at approximately 15,000 feet, well above the ceiling for contemporary fighters. These Gotha bombers could cross the channel and bomb the UK at night, though as the war progressed, day raids also took place. Later the Germans added a ‘Giant’ bomber with an amazing 138ft wingspan. This forced the use of barrage balloons and anti-aircraft guns later during the First World War.
World War II
World War II saw heavy use of war aircraft with rapid advances in airborne weaponry and aircraft technology. While aircraft development occurred rapidly during the First World War, it became revolutionary during Second World War. With the use of the monoplane design, both speed and weaponry power increased leading to a propeller driven fighter with the potential to break the sound barrier, this aircraft was known as the British Typhoon. While still considered heroes, fighter pilots became less important than the technology and weapons that the aircraft carried. Propeller driven war craft remained in use for several years and by the end of the Second World War, the first jet fighters were introduced with the German Me 262 and the British Meteor.
It was during the Second World War that the bombers really began to come of age. Compared to the earlier bombers of the First World War, these bombers had massive bomb loads and extended flight range. Mass destruction of cities occurred with strategic bombings as massive multi-engine, multi-gun machines such as the American Flying Fortress, Super Fortress, and the British Lancaster were deployed in large numbers. Strategic bombing reached unheard of levels with the use of the atomic bomb in 1945.
It was also during the Second World War that radar began to find an important use. New aircraft known as the Night Fighter were used to locate night bombers. Ground command began relying on radar and photographic reconnaissance to develop their battle plans. Also during the Second World War, the increased flight range allowed aircraft with depth charged bombs to attack submarines. During this same time, newly designed aircraft such as the Tempest, Stuka Dive Bomber, and the British Typhoon carried out close air support of ground troops. Even tanks came under attack from aircraft armed unguided rockets or with large caliber guns such as those used by the German Stuka aircraft. During battles such as the Battle of Midway, aircraft soon became the dominant force to end the battleship’s supremacy. This revealed how vulnerable large warships were to air launched bombs and torpedoes.
Another area in which war aircraft affected battle was that of supply transport. The airborne invasion of Crete in 1941 by the Germans and the Market Garden invasion in 1944 by the Allied operations were the first times paratroopers were used in force. Transport planes made large-scale invasions possible and were used for rapid resupply in areas where ground transport was poor. Though helicopters were developed during the Second World War, they failed to have any significant use. There is no doubt that the use of air force in the Second World War decided the fate of campaigns such as the Battle of Britain and others. It was during the Second World War that close air support, airborne troops, and naval support came into strength.
Post War, Cold War and Beyond
Following the Second World War, the superpowers became involved in the Cold War and an Arms Race that would prove to be a driving force in military aircraft design, development, and technology. During the 1950s and 1960s, the focus was on jet aircraft that would be strategic bombers armed with nuclear weapons and jet interceptors to defend against such attacks. The famous Top Gun fighter schools came following American fighters in Vietnam when the US decided to once again to teach their fighter pilots required dog-fighting skills instead of relying only on missile interception.
It was also during the Cold War that close air support advanced to counter Soviet tank advantages. The Korean and Vietnam wars led to rapid use of the helicopter for transport and medi-vac operations. During this time helicopter gunships carrying guided and unguided rockets were used against tank troops and submarines. Air-to Air systems, air-to-ground weaponry, and airfield denial weapons were all developed throughout the Cold War period. Air launched anti-ship missiles were developed and shown to be highly effective during the Falklands war. With the call for good photographic reconnaissance, the US developed spy planes such as the Lockheed ‘Skunk Works’. This technology then rocketed in the technology for designing aircraft such as the SR-71 Blackbird that remains the world’s fastest war aircraft today. Larger transport planes, vertical takeoff aircraft, and airborne radar all came from the Cold War.
Post Cold War
After the Cold War, huge expensive aircraft such as the Stealth Bomber were unnecessary. With a decrease in military spending most major powers are pushing low manpower operated automated systems such as the Euro fighter and the US F-22 Raptor. The JAST aircraft project and others like it will replace many of the fighter aircraft in the US and Britain. The use of advanced technology and fiber optic control systems such as seen in the American Osprey and drone systems make these real possibilities for future combat situations. While aircraft technology and designs may change, history shows air fire may support ground operations, but cannot win wars alone.
Written by Ronnie Hooten
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