Earth & Conservation

When Did Airplanes Revolutionize War Strategy?

In 1903, man took to the skies. 11 years later, planes were used in World War I. So how did airplanes change military conflicts?

The airplane is, of course, one the great inventions of the 20th century. In reflections on the era, it's regularity ranked right up there with the television, the automobile and the Internet.

The airplane also changed the nature of warfare forever. As Jules Suzdaltsev reports in today's Seeker Daily dispatch, airplanes have fundamentally shifted the methods by which modern war is waged.

The first true military airplanes were deployed in the early days of World War I. Small reconnaissance aircraft were used to scout forward positions and keep an eye on the enemy. The intelligence provided by these scout planes gave ground commanders a new kind of tactical advantage.

These early scout planes weren't outfitted with weapons at all, although the pilot would often carry a pistol or rifle. By the second year of the war, scout planes were outfitted with mounted machine guns, initiating the era of the fighter plane.

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By the time World War II heated up, fighter planes were much faster and deadlier, with lightweight frames and modernized weapons. New technologies such as radar were developed primarily as a way to improve air combat readiness.

These new machines in the sky prompted fundamental changes to ground warfare, as well. Troops began camouflaging their equipment and moving at night, to avoid overhead detection. Airplanes fueled further weaponry innovations as engineers assembled enormous anti-aircraft guns to provide ground-to-air defense.

Most crucially, aerial bombing tactics changed the very fundamentals of ground warfare. Troops and equipment staged behind the front the lines were no longer safe. Supply lines were suddenly vulnerable to attack. The bombing of civilian targets, even entire cities, introduced a new and terrible form of war.

Prior to the advent of the airplane, the nation who fielded the largest ground army typically had the advantage. Airplanes effectively negated that advantage and ended futile tactics like trench warfare.

For good or ill, the airplane has made the waging of war much more efficient. In recent years, military drone weapons have even eliminated the need for a human pilot. Surely, there's nothing to worry about there, right?

-- Glenn McDonald

Read More:

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum: Inventing a Flying Machine

NASA: Quest for Performance: The Evolution of the Modern Aircraft

Military Factory: WW1 Scout, Fighting Scout and Reconnaissance Aircraft

PBS: Timeline of World War II