Key point: Air warfare changed combat forever.
Armies and navies began taking advantage of lighter-than-air craft during the nineteenth century. In the Italo-Turkish War of 1911, the first heavier-than-air craft began dropping bombs on enemy positions. Only a few years later, massive bombers could take off from German-controlled airfields and drop their bombs on London, even as swarms of fighters and attack planes tangled over the Western Front.
Today, airpower plays a constitutive role in almost every conceivable military action. Military aviation, thus, has a short but consequential history. This article examines five organizations that have most effectively wielded airpower as tools of national strategy and survival.
On April 1, 1918, the British government combined the Royal Flying Corps (part of the British Army) and the Royal Naval Air Service (a component of the Royal Navy) into a single organization, the Royal Air Force. The RAF became the world’s first organizationally independent air force, untethered to the concerns of either land or sea commanders.
The Royal Air Force struggled for most of the 1920s and 1930s with its sister services for funding and relevance. These struggles left almost everyone worse off; British naval aviation in particular suffered, but the need to demonstrate political relevance left all of the services unprepared for the war that came in 1939. Nevertheless, the Fighter Command of the RAF performed brilliantly during the war, helping to defeat the German air campaign in the Battle of Britain, then supporting efforts to retake Nazi-held territory. Coastal Command devastated German coastal shipping while also helping to defeat the German submarine offensive in the Atlantic.
Since the end of the war the RAF has remained an important global force, supporting British and coalition military operations around the world. Although it no longer plays a meaningful strategic role (the last bombers retired decades ago), the fighter-bombers of the RAF continue to contribute to the defense of NATO.