A nation's fleet of fighting aircraft and the organization that maintains them.
History The emergence of the aeroplane at first brought only limited recognition of its potential value as a means of waging war. Like the balloon, used since the American Civil War, it was considered a way of extending the vision of ground forces.
A unified air force was established in the UK 1918, Italy 1923, France 1928, Germany 1935 (after repudiating the arms limitations of the Versailles treaty), and the USA 1947 (it began as the Aeronautical Division of the Army Signal Corps 1907, and evolved into the Army's Air Service Division by 1918; by 1926 it was the Air Corps and in World War II the Army Air Force). The main specialized groupings formed during World War I – such as combat, bombing (see bomb), reconnaissance, and transport – were adapted and modified in World War II; activity was extended, with self-contained tactical air forces to meet the needs of ground commanders in the main theatres of land operations and for the attack on and defence of shipping over narrow seas.
From 1945 to 1960 piston-engine aircraft were superseded by jet aircraft. Computerized guidance systems lessened the difference between missile and aircraft, and flights of unlimited duration became possible with air-to-air refuelling.
The US Strategic Air Command's bombers, for example, were capable of patrolling 24 hours a day armed with thermonuclear weapons. For some years it was anticipated that the pilot might become obsolete, but the continuation of conventional warfare and the evolution of tactical nuclear weapons led in the 1970s and 1980s to the development of advanced combat aircraft able to fly supersonically beneath an enemy's radar on strike and reconnaissance missions, as well as stealth aircraft that are difficult to detect by radar. The recent advances and success of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) has prompted speculation over the future of piloted vehicles. See also services, armed; Royal Air Force; Royal Flying Corps; Royal Naval Air Service.
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