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An air force, also known in some countries as an air army or historically an army air corps, is in the broadest sense, the national military that primarily conducts aerial warfare. More specifically, it is the branch of a nation's armed services that is responsible for aerial warfare as distinct from an army, navy or other branch.

The term "air force" may also refer to a tactical air force or numbered air force, which is an operational formation within a national air force. Air forces typically consist of a combination of fighters, bombers, helicopters, transport planes and other aircraft.

Many air forces are also responsible for operations of military space, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), and communications equipment. Some air forces may command and control other air-defence assets such as antiaircraft artillery, surface-to-air missiles, or anti-ballistic missile warning networks and defensive systems.

As an organization, the air forces have "ground support" to support the pilots and aircrew. Similar to any civilian organization, there are supporting employees who assist and/or support other employees. Pilots cannot fly the aircraft without the assistance of other personnel such as civil engineers, loadmasters, fuels, and mechanics, and additional support-oriented career field.

History

Heavier-than-air military aircraft

Balloon or flying animal corps are not generally regarded as examples of an air force. However, with the invention of heavier-than-air craft in the early twentieth century, armies and navies began to take interest in this new form of aviation as a means to wage war.

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. During World War I France, Germany, Italy and the British Empire all possessed significant forces of bombers and fighter, the latter produced numerous flying ace.

Independent air forces

An independent air force is one which is a separate branch of a nation's armed forces and is, at least nominally, treated as a military service on par with that of traditional services like navies or armies.

The Britishmarker Royal Air Force was the first independent air force in the world. The RAF was founded on 1 April 1918 by merging the British Army's Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy's Air Service. On establishment the RAF comprised over 20,000 aircraft, was commanded by a Chief of the Air Staff who held the rank of Major General and was governed by its own government ministry (the Air Ministry).

Over the following decades most countries adopted the same model. The Australian Air Force was formed on 31 March 1921, although it was not until 1922 that the head of the Service was titled as Chief of the Air Staff, placing him on a par with his Australian Army and Navy counterparts. The Finnish Air Force was established as a separate service on 4 May 1928 and the United States Air Force was formed as a separate branch of the American military on 18 September 1947.

The World Wars

Germanymarker was the first country to organize regular air attacks on enemy infrastructure. In World War I it used its zeppelins (airships) to drop bombs on British cities. At that time, Britain did have aircraft, though her airships were less advanced than the zeppelins and were very rarely used for attacking; instead they were usually used to spy on German U-boats (submarines).

Fixed wing aircraft at the time were quite primitive, being able to achieve velocities comparable to that of modern automobiles and mounting minimal weaponry and equipment. Aerial services were still largely a new animal, and relatively unreliable machines and limited training resulted in stupendously low life expectancies for early military aviators.

By the time World War II began, planes had become much safer, faster and more reliable. They were adopted as standard for bombing raids and taking out other aircraft because they were much faster than airships. The World's largest military Air Force by the start of the Second World War in 1939 was the Red Air Force, and although much depleted, it would stage the largest air operations of WWII over the four years of combat with the German Luftwaffe.

The war's most important air operation, known as the Battle of Britain, took place during 1940 over Britain and the English Channelmarker between Britain's Royal Air Force and Germany's Luftwaffe over a period of several months. In the end Britain emerged victorious and this caused Adolf Hitler to give up his plan to invade Britain. Other prominent operations during the Second World War include the bombing of Pearl Harbormarker by the Japanesemarker in 1941, the Allied bombing of Germany during 1942–1944, and the Red Air Force operations in support of strategic ground offensives on the Eastern Front.

Strategic bombing

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, during Allied "Thousand Bomber Raid" operations. The need to intercept these bombers, both during the day and at night, accelerated fighter aircraft developments. The war ended when United States Army Air Force Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers dropped two atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in August 1945.

Post World War II

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 inflight refueling.

Communist China has also developed a large air force (which, contrary to popular belief, is in fact not independent from the ground force), initially with aid from the Soviet Union, and later on its own. Both the US and the USSR supplied large numbers of aircraft, technical advice and training to their allied nations.

During the 1960s, Canada took the unusual step of merging the Royal Canadian Air Force with the army and the navy to form the unified Canadian 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.

Air Armies

Several countries title their military aviation Air Army, notably France. In such countries the army is officially called the Land Army, although in common usage "army" retains its meaning of a land force.

However, in the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation the Air Army also refers to a military formation, and during WWII eighteen Air Armies operated as part of the Red Army Order of Battle as the Soviet Air Forces in World War II. The Air Armies were divided into the air forces of the military district PVO, the Frontal Aviation Air Armies assigned one to each Front, and the Anti-Air Defence Armies that included anti-aircraft guns and interceptors.

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