How did airplanes change war?

Airplanes changed the face of war during the Great War.

At the beginning of that war, in 1914, aircraft were in their infancy, and were quite fragile, in their construction, and unpredictable in their performance. By the end of that war, in 1918, they had been transformed into much more reliable and durable fighting machines.

The original use of aircraft in war was as observation platforms, that could fly over enemy territory and see what was going on down below. Soon cameras were being carried to take photos of the enemy's positions and rear supply areas, so that artillery fire could be directed on to them. This required a second man to operate the camera, and he sat behind the pilot's position.

The next innovation was to arm the pilots with hand guns, or rifles, so they could attack the observation planes of the enemy, to prevent them from seeing and photographing the trench systems below. It wasn't long before machine guns appeared and the age of the " Fighter Plane " was born. The fighters from one side would go up looking for the fighters from the other side, and intense air combat would take place, with many planes involved.

The designs of the aircraft evolved very quickly, to meet the new type of air fighting tactics that had come about thru trial and error. Faster and more agile, with longer range and higher speed, the newest fighter types were rushed into service as soon as they were built and tested at the factory. Made of mostly wood and with canvas covered wings and fuselages, they were still fragile, and many a pilot was killed simply trying to land his crate. The fact the the gas tank was directly under the pilot's seat didn't help either.

Originally, there were few qualified pilots who were also military officers, so training units were organized by both sides, to teach flying skills to junior officers, who had volunteered for flying duties. The training courses were short and dangerous, with many deaths due to the fickle nature of the planes and the rush to get thru the courses, and onto active service at the front.

For the first time, soldiers on the ground had to be aware of the need to camouflage their positions to be less noticeable from the air, and in particular artillery units had to try to "cover up" so they wouldn't be subjected to counter battery fire, based on air photographs of their positions behind the lines. By moving in the dark, units could get into the trench lines without being seen, and lots of work was done in the dark, to avoid being detected from the air. Water, food and more ammunition were man-carried up to the front lines, each night, by working parties of 100 to 200 men, each carrying a load of 80 pounds on his back. Two or three trips a night was normal, more before an attack was to go in.

Generals had to take into account the new source of intelligence that they now had to work with, and they also had to learn to use that information quickly, as things could change quickly. No longer would they have the luxury of massing their attack forces a few miles behind the lines, because now they knew that their enemy could now see up to 30 miles to the rear, from the airbourne observer planes.

Many different roles were found for aircraft during the First World War, from observers, to fighters to bombers, and even maritime patrols were used to look for submarines, or surface ships along the coasts.

By the time the end of the war came in 1918, the aircraft had evolved from flimsy awkward and slow contraptions, to fast and deadly killers, that changed the whole face of warfare, forever.

The above, while a good description of the evolution of the use of airplanes in WW1, overvalues their use in that war. Aircraft in WW1 were a minor sideshow, at best. The provided some limited tactical reconnaissance ability, but their range and speed severely limited the amount of information they could gather. Aerial combat was a joke - while glamorous fodder for newspapers, it had no relevance to the actual war effort. Likewise, bombing was trivially insignificant, and the use of naval aircraft still in its infancy. WW1 aircraft were notable not for their affect on WW1 itself, but as demonstrations of their potential.

Many of the ideas created during WW1 had to wait until the late 1920s and early 1930s before technology caught up enough to produce aircraft actually able to execute effectively these radical new ideas. The Spanish Civil War of the 1930s is generally considered the first effective use of aircraft in war. And, of course, WW2 became a showcase of how aircraft could effectively change the course of combat.

In terms of how sufficiently advanced aircraft changed (conventional) warfare, here's a short list:

  • Strategic bombers provided means to attack an enemy's production facilities. This is an important part of the Total War concept - as an enemy's entire national output is now directed towards fighting the war, it is important to have the means to attack this industrial output. Strategic bombers now extend the combat zone to the entire globe, not just to where armies are fighting.
  • Tactical attack planes now are a serious threat to any ground force. Indeed, those ground forces which do not have sufficient means to defend themselves from aerial attack are soon defeated, even if the opposition has weak ground forces.
  • Long-range recon aircraft gave unprecedented information to their owners, greatly improving (and changing) commander's ability to make tactical movement decisions. The advent of the aerial observer concept radically changed the effectiveness of artillery.
  • Aircraft enable long-distance supply, allowing ground forces out of contact with friendly forces to continue fighting for long periods of time.
  • Similarly, aircraft added the dimension of the aerial assault force (paratroopers or airmobile forces). It is now possible to place a significant ground force far away from any other friendly force, requiring the enemy to consider the possibility of such an attack in any defense plan. Conversely, it is now possible to evacuate forces that would otherwise have had to surrender.
  • Aircraft radically changed naval warfare. The range of aircraft (and their deadly attack potential against ships) led directly to the obsolescence of the large gun as a naval weapon. Thus, they lead directly to the rise of the aircraft carrier and the fall of the battleship.
  • Aircraft has also helped and hindered submarine warfare. The extensive range of recon aircraft greatly improved the effectiveness of submarines; on the other side of the coin, the submarine's most feared (and deadly) opponent is the anti-submarine aircraft.
  • The mating of advanced sensors (radar, FLIR, etc.), complex communications system, and the aircraft has led to a revolution in battle-management tactics, particularly post-1990.
  • In a lesser-appreciated impact, aircraft also significantly increased the cost of warfare. Aircraft are radically more expensive than land-based forces, and require a significant support system. In addition, they require land and naval forces to pay for expensive anti-aircraft weapons systems.