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Aviation and the Conduct of Warfare

Aviation was arguably the most significant technological development of the 20th century. At the beginning of that century it was only a dream. By the end, aviation was all but routine. The development of aviation has had profound effects on the American society and economy. The most significant impact has been on the conduct of warfare. War was the primary factor behind the incredibly rapid advancement of aviation technology. The introduction of aviation, in fact, changed the very nature of war. The technology developed for purposes of war then went on to benefit American society as a whole.

War, for all its terrible effects, was the driving force behind a technology we all take for granted today. Without the brutal reality of war in the 20th century, Americans might still be waiting for the advent of routine passenger travel by air or for the first manned mission to the moon. In this sense, the history of aviation shows the duality of war. The military and early aviation Military use of aviation in America came in to play as early as the Civil War (1861-1865). Manned stationary balloons were used to determine enemy positions and troop strength.

The balloons would seem to be an obvious target for enemy fire, but often flew unmolested (Gross, 2002). Commanders were hesitant to use ammunition on what they saw as a low-value target. A few forward-thinking officers continued to promote the development of air technology between wars. Fifty years later, aviation would begin to change war itself. Nineteenth and early twentieth century wars were typically battles of attrition. Troops would be massed slowly for a series of brutal frontal assaults. World War One (1914-1918) unfolded in much the same way, with one major exception – the emergence of air power.

Only a decade after the Wright Brothers made their historic, if modest, first flight; the military was already adopting mechanized aircraft into their strategic plans. In the early part of the First World War planes and balloons commonly flew scouting and reconnaissance missions (Chant, 2002). When the balloons were shot down, the two sides raced to find a way to arm the aircraft. This started a process of improved aircraft, armament and defenses that continued throughout the war. Gradually, the airplane began to emerge as an offensive force.

The skill of dog fighting was developed and integrated into larger strategic schemes. The first bombers were also developed. War was destined to change from a slow, grinding battle of attrition to a lightning fast blitz in which no one anywhere was safe. In World War One the capability of aircraft to change the face of war was not yet fully realized. The potential was clear to the military, however. In the postwar years the continued development of aviation could have lagged. Because of military interests, it did not. As a result, a new terrifying form of conflict would emerge in World War Two.

World War Two and Beyond Aviation played the single most important part in changing the nature of war in the mid-20th century. If World War One could be characterized as a slow, grinding battle of attrition, World War Two was lightning fast. The war began when German Luftwaffe launched a highly coordinated overwhelming attack on Poland. Planes were used to maximum effect in softening up targets, reconnaissance and cutting off reinforcements. World War Two was also notable for the variety of aviation types that were developed.

Planes such as the B-24 Liberator could carry out missions involving great distances and were effective in neutralizing the German submarine threat. Transport planes that could carry huge amounts of cargo and personnel came into production. Fighter planes and early helicopters underwent continual improvement during the war. By the end of the war, the first jet aircraft flew. In subsequent years, all of these technologies would be adapted for civilian use. By the 1950s, the first jet passenger planes served American customers. Unquestionably, the war had sped development of the American airline industry.

Somewhat fittingly, an airplane ended the war. The Enola Gay flew high above enemy ground fire and dropped the first of two nuclear bombs on Japan, forcing it to capitulate. From this point on the concept of “air superiority” would be the first goal of American war planners. In the latter half of the 20th century wars would be fought against smaller forces in far-flung places. The Korean War, Vietnam and the two gulf wars against Iraq featured air assets prominently. In all these wars, air action preceded and accompanied ground action. It also could be argued that the development of air power actually prevented war.

The United States was able to launch limited strikes against specific targets numerous times in the late 20th century. In past centuries, this was not possible. Terrorist actions such as the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 and the Marine barracks in Lebanon prompted surgical air strikes. In the past, attacking perpetrators such as these would have involved a much more deadly land assault that probably would have triggered declarations of war. Rapidly advancing aircraft technology would allow the U. S. to engage enemies all around the world, often with fewer numbers of ground troops. Conclusion

Aviation has affected the American economy and culture in profound ways. In these cases, it may be difficult to determine just how much effect aviation had in any one area. It clearly allowed for the much more rapid movement of goods and services. It was a key element in establishing the global economy we have today (Gunston, 2002). It also had more subtle effects. Fliers like Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and the first Astronauts inspired generations of Americans to success in a wide variety of pursuits. Aviation has had the most starkly obvious effect in the realm of warfare.

At the beginning of the 20th century war was a slow-paced, high casualty, trial and error exercise. None the less, large civilian centers often were not viable targets. By the end of the century, war had often become a precision bombing exercise. Throughout the century the distance between the killers and the killed grew from feet or yards to hundreds of miles. For better or worse, the development of aviation made anyone on the globe a potential target. Did aviation change war; or did war change aviation? Both are true. War caused aviation to develop at a much more rapid pace than it would have otherwise.

Even the manned mission to the moon was essentially a battle in the Cold War. Aviation’s impact on war was only slightly slower to emerge. New technology has always preceded commander’s ability to use it effectively. In the Civil War and World War One, aviation played a minor, but increasing, role. In World War Two, it played an equal role with land and sea forces. In Korea and Vietnam it was essential to U. S. military efforts. Today, aircraft is a military force in and of itself. Aviation has not only changed warfare it has changed the public perception of warfare. In this way aviation has been a victim of its own success.

The American public has come to expect, unrealistically, that warfare can be conducted with a minimal loss of life. This is one of the many legacies created by the development of aviation. Its effects are all around us. The clearest vision of aviation’s effect on America can be seen when studying the changes in warfare.


Chant, Christopher. (2002). A Century of Triumph: the history of aviation. New York: Free Press. Gross, Charles Joseph. (2002). American Military Aviation: the indispensable arm. College Station, TX: Texas A & M University Press. Gunston, Bill. (2002). Aviation: the first 100 years. Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s.

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