The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Air force

An air force is a military organization that primarily operates in air-based war. They typically use a combination of fighters, bombers, helicopters and other aircraft.


Most (but not all) armed forces have air forces that are independent - that is, it is neither part of the army nor the navy. This does not stop armies and especially navies from possessing air arms to support their land or sea operations.

Air Forces typically operate numerous types of aircraft. These may include:

Some air forces (auch as Britain's Royal Air Force) have their unique rank systems; other air forces (such as the United States Air Force and the Soviet Air Force) use army-style ranks. Most (but not all) wear blue-grey uniforms pioneered by the Royal Air Force. The organization structures of the air forces also vary: some air forces (such as the United States Air Force and the Royal Air Force) are divided into commands, groups and squadrons; others (such as the Soviet Air Force) have an army-syle organizational structure.

Contrary to popular belief, pilots often make up only a small portion of an air force's personnel; there are in fact numerous other types of flight crew, and many more who engage in the maintenance and communication of aircrafts and air bases. Some air forces also operate anti-aircraft artillery (now with radars and missiles), and a few air forces even have their own paratroopers. Given the pilots' special status, they often wear special insignia in the form of a vol or "wings". Other air crews might wear variations of such insignias.


The first aviation force in the world was the Aviation Militaire of the French Army formed in 1910, which eventually became L'Armée de l'Air. (Balloonist army detatchments of previous centuries, notably the French and American ones, do not really count.) During World War I France, Germany, Italy and the British Empire all possessed significant aviation forces of bombers and fighters, the latter produced numerous flying aces.

The first independent air force in the world, however, is the Royal Air Force (United Kingdom), which came into existence on April 1, 1918 by merging the Royal Naval Air Service and the Army's Royal Flying Corps. The RAF was the first to wear a blue-grey uniform significantly lighter in color than navy blue, and was the first to adopt a rank system significantly different from both the army's and the navy's.

After the war, Germany had been banned by the Versailles Treaty from having an air force, but the Luftwaffe was brought into existence in 1935. Italy's Regia Aeronautica became an independent force back in 1923, while France's L'Armée de l'Air gained independence only in the mid-1930s. The Soviet Air Force had been more or less autonomous since 1924, while the United States Army Air Corps gained semi-independent status only with the creation of the United States Army Air Force in 1941, a few months before Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japanese aircrafts.

The air force's role of strategic bombing against enemy infrastructures was developed during the 1930s by the Japanese in China and by the Germans during the Spanish Civil War. This role for the bomber was perfected during World War II, when "Thousand Bomber Raids" were not uncommon. The need to intercept these bombers, both on day and at night, accelerated fighter aircraft developments. The war ended when Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers dropped two atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in August 1945.

The United States Air Force finally became an independent service in 1947. As the Cold War began, both the USAF and the Soviet Air Force built up their nuclear-capable strategic bomber forces. Several technological advances were widely introduced during this time: the jet engine; the missile; the helicopter; and in-flight re-fuelling.

Communist China has also developed a large air force (which, contrary to popular belief, is in fact quite independent from the ground force), initially with aid from the Soviet Union, and later on its own. Both the US and the USSR supplied numerous aircrafts to their satellite states.

During the 1960s, Canada took the unusual step of merging the Royal Canadian Air Force with the army and the navy to form the Canadian Armed Forces, with a green uniform for everyone. This proved very unpopular, and recently the air force (and the navy) have re-adopted their distinct identities (although structurally they remained a unified force). Perhaps the latest air force to become "independent" is the Irish Air Corps, which changed its uniform from army green to blue in the 1990s.

See also: List of air forces, aerial warfare

Last updated: 04-29-2005 01:57:56
Last updated: 05-06-2005 01:27:49