Aircraft and Warfare

Few technologies have so dramatically transformed the nature of human warfare as aircraft. As early as the late eighteenth century, aviation technologies have been used with a high degree of success in military operations. Being airborne allows a significant strategic advantage over land-bound and sea-bound armed forces. The use of aviation technologies such as balloons and later, fixed-wing metal aircraft was used for a wide range of strategic purposes from reconnaissance to bombardment. In fact, the use of aircraft for bombardment and artillery combat did not become common until late in the Great War. The early aerial technologies were significantly limited in their scope: balloons could only carry a certain weight load and thus were rarely effective as bombardment squadrons. Moreover, early military aircraft were relatively slow and lightweight. However, balloons and early planes served strategic needs from the distribution of supplies to the dissemination of propaganda from the air. Even tethered balloons were used for surveillance and observation purposes by the military. During the American Civil War, tethered balloons were used by both sides for observation purposes only. The American military lagged behind their European counterparts in the years immediately before and during the First World War. However, all industrialized nations soon caught on to the immense potential and power inherent in military uses for aircraft. Whether for reconnaissance purposes only or for bombardment, military aircraft has progressed at amazing rates since its inception in the eighteenth-century. The stealth bombers of today resemble little the hot air balloons used in pre-Napoleonic France; however, the concept of military aircraft remains one of the most significant warfare developments in human history.

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In 1783 in Lyon, France, the Montgolfer brothers designed the first hot air balloon. Not initially designed for warfare purposes, the balloon nevertheless quickly made an impact on the French military and the ambitions of the government in demonstrating French military dominance, especially over their British enemies. Ten years after the Montgolfer brothers designed theirs, “L’Entrapremant” was launched, the first balloon used for military purposes. L’Entrapremant was initially used for observation only, but fascination with the new technology led to the eventual development of what was probably the world’s first air force: the Compagnie d’Aeronautiers (French Aerostatic Corps) in March of 1794. The balloon corps proved to be far more than just an attractive, futuristic novelty. French victory at the Battle of Fleurus set the stage for what would become an all-out battle for aerial supremacy more than a century later. Before that, though, the Grand Armee of France used balloons to traverse the English Channel and intimidate their rivals using increasingly sophisticated military balloons named Celeste, Hercule, and Intrepide. Napoleon was for some reason not enamored with aviation technology and elected to dismantle the budding French air force, which would remain dormant for decades (Martin).

Military aircraft in France or elsewhere did not develop significantly from the first balloons until the late nineteenth century. Primitive ballooning technology was used in the United States during its Civil War in the 1860s. A few balloons were employed by both the Confederate and Union armies for use in observation. However, they were tethered and did not even serve needs for material distribution. In France, balloons regained popularity around 1871 and during the siege of Paris balloon craft were flown into the city to transport essential supplies, military equipment, food, and mail. Balloons were still not being used actively for bombardment. During the nineteenth century aircraft were used mostly for military intelligence and logistical purposes (Martin). Closer to the turn of the century, the industrialized nations began exploring the use of aviation for bombardment and artillery direction. Germany and Britain led the world in aviate military technologies; the United States also intended to develop a strong air force but its plans did not come to fruition entirely until the Second World War. In spite of advancements in aviation technologies, the American armed forces were ill-equipped for air combat during World War One and did not have a competitive air fighter training program (Glines). Britain, France, and Germany, on the other hand, funneled much energy and resources into the development and implementation of military aircraft and related technologies. The United States’ late entry into the Great War might be partially responsible for the lagging air force development in that country.

German developments in military aircraft were significant in promoting aviation as a military force. In 1900, Count Ferdinand Zeppelin developed the craft named for him: the LZ-1 Zeppelin. By 1914, Zeppelin craft could fly as fast as 85 miles per hour and carry several tons of artillery and bombs (Martin). Zeppelins were instrumental for the Germany military: two zeppelins dropped bombs over England, killing several hundred civilians. The craft did not earn a German victory during the First World War, but pilots were secretly trained in Germany in spite of armistice agreements that banned Germany from promoting its military aircraft programs. Hitler and the Nazi party relied heavily on German pilots during World War Two.

Military aviation also impacted the way the American Navy operated at the beginning of the twentieth century. Naval interest in air technologies led to the investigation of the potential use of float planes and carrier-based aircraft in military operations. Some major developments in aircraft carrier technologies and strategies include the experiments conducted by Eugene Ely in 1910. Aircraft were launched to and from aircraft carriers off shore. Their success proved promising for the United States Navy, which was a key to the future of the American armed forces.

Such interest in aviation by the end of World War One had a dramatic impact on the future of warfare. Whereas the first balloons and primitive planes were used mainly for observation and reconnaissance, by the end of the Great War small arms were stored on board for use by pilots in combat, and before long aircraft were regularly carrying bombs, machine guns, and propaganda materials. Bomber aircraft and fighter planes were commonplace by 1918 and an integral part of worldwide military operations after that. Aircraft that had once been used only as observation equipment would soon become primary means of launching attacks on the enemy. From their in-flight positioning, military pilots had a strategic advantage over land armies. All industrialized nations had created air forces by 1918, and competition for sky-bound military dominance proved instrumental in the outcome of the Second World War.

The end of World War One markedly fueled military interest in aircraft technologies; military aviation blossomed after 1918. Wood and canvas biplanes evolved into metal-bodied fighting machines in the Second World War. Aircraft after 1918 increased in speed and altitude capability as well as their bomb-carrying load capacities. The air forces became as important as their land and sea-based counterparts, as most industrialized nations saw the inevitable future power of aircraft. Military victory demanded the development of en effective air force. Therefore, one of the main ways aircraft technologies influenced military history was in the ways aviation changed the landscape of Europe and of the entire world in the early twentieth century.

The use of aerial armed forces was one of the most important developments in military history for more general and strategic reasons. From their vantage points, military pilots have an advantage over land-bound officers. They can drop bombs on large predefined areas. Aircraft are useful not only in bombardment activities and active combat, but also as navigation and surveillance. Their use in mapping and military planning is a key, as is their use as observation technologies and for military photography. Aircraft move much faster than any other mode of transportation and therefore, aircraft are required for transporting medical and military supplies to troops.

The use of aircraft in warfare has also altered the structure, organization, and financing of military powers. The creation of air forces after World War One was the first major restructuring of the militaries of the world powers. Air forces are now requisite for any relevant military. Pilots must be trained effectively; many commercial pilots are still militarily trained because of the superiority of military training services, staffing, and equipment. Many advances in civilian and commercial aviation technology are based on observations and advancements made in military sectors.

Therefore, the use of aircraft in warfare has far-reaching consequences. Aviation technology gives the nations who use it a significant strategic advantage in bombardment or reconnaissance missions. Aviation technology altered the outcome and development of both the first and second World Wars. New developments in aviation technologies have bolstered the military power of developed nations, notably the United States. The creation of specialized air forces, and specialized groups within the air forces, has caused important political, social, and economic changes in the military. In light of the remarkable advancements in aviation technology today, which becomes increasingly more sophisticated and powerful, the use of simple hot air balloons seems even more fantastic.

Works Cited

Aerial Warfare.”

Glines, C.V. “Review: Wingless Eagle: U.S. Army Aviation Through World War One.” Aviation History. Reproduced on

Martin, Robert W. “The Dawn of Military Aviation.”