An air force, also known in some countries as an aerospace force or air army, is in the broadest sense, the national military branch 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 a marine corps. Typically, air forces are responsible for air supremacy, carrying out strategic and tactical bombing missions, and providing support to land forces and naval forces.
The term "air force" may also refer to a tactical air force or numbered air force, which is an operational formation either within a national air force or comprising several air components from allied nations. Air forces typically consist of a combination of fighter aircraft, , helicopters, transport planes and other aircraft.
Many air forces are also responsible for operations of the military space, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), and communications equipment. Some air forces may command and control other air defence assets such as anti-aircraft artillery, surface-to-air missiles, or anti-ballistic missile warning networks and defensive systems. Some nations, principally Russia, the former Soviet Union and countries who modelled their militaries along Soviet lines, have or had an air defence force which is organizationally separate from their air force.
Air forces are not just composed of pilots, but also rely on a significant amount of support from other personnel to operate. Logistics, security, intelligence, special operations, cyber space support, maintenance, weapons loaders, and many other specialties are required by all air forces.
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. In 1911, during the Italo-Turkish War, Italy employed aircraft for the first time ever in the world for reconnaissance and bombing missions against Turkish positions on Libyan Territory. The Italian–Turkish war of 1911–1912 was the first in history that featured air attacks by airplanes and airship.Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare, pg.19 During World War I France, Germany, Italy, the British Empire and the Ottoman Empire all possessed significant forces of and fighter aircraft. World War I also saw the appearance of senior commanders who directed aerial warfare and numerous flying aces.
The British Royal Air Force was the first independent air force in the world. Royal Air Force 90th Anniversary History of the RAF The RAF was founded on 1 April 1918 by amalgamation the British Army's Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval 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).
Arguably, the Finnish Air Force was the first independent air Force in the world, formed on 6 March 1918, when th Swedish count, Eric von Rosen gave Finland the second aircraft, a AB Thulinverken Typ D.A photograph of this plane can be found in the book by Shores 1969, p. 4. Some considered that the Finnish Air Force did not officially exist during the Finnish Civil War, and the Red Guards had its own air force. Keskinen, Partonen, Stenman 2005.
Over the following decades most countries with any substantial military capability established their own independent air forces. The South African Air Force was formed on 1 February 1920 and the Royal Australian Air Force was formed shortly afterwards 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 Canadian Air Force was formed at the end of World War I, and was abolished and reorganized several times between 1918 and 1924. It became the permanent Royal Canadian Air Force when it received the "Royal" title by royal proclamation on 1 April 1924. It did not however become independent of the Canadian Army until 1938 when its head was also designated as Chief of the Air Staff. Similarly, the Royal New Zealand Air Force was established in 1923 as the New Zealand Permanent Air Force but did not become independent of the New Zealand Army until 1937. Other British-influenced countries also established their own independent air forces. For example, the Royal Egyptian Air Force was created in 1937 when Egyptian military aviation was separated from Army command.
Outside of the British Empire, the Finnish Air Force was established as a separate service on 4 May 1928 and the Brazilian Air Force was created in 1941. Both the United States Air Force80 P.L. 253, 61 Stat. 495 (1947); Air Force Link, (2006) "Factsheets: The U.S. Air Force". U.S. Air Force, December 2008. Retrieved on 9 May 2009. and the Philippine Air Force were formed as a separate branches of their respective armed forces in 1947. The Israeli Air Force came into being with the State of Israel on 18 May 1948, but evolved from the pre-existing Sherut Avir (Air Service) of the Haganah paramilitary. The Japan Air Self-Defense Force was not established until 1954; in World War II Japanese military aviation had been carried out by the Army and Navy. Unlike all these countries, the Mexican Air Force remains an integral part of the Mexican Army.
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 venture, and relatively unreliable machines and limited training resulted in stupendously low life expectancies for early military aviators.
In 1954 the Japan Air Self-Defense Force was founded as a separate service. Previously Japan had delivered its service aviation from within its Army and Navy.
During the 1960s, Canada merged the Royal Canadian Air Force with the army and the navy to form the unified Canadian Forces, with air assets divided between several commands and a green uniform for everyone. This proved very unpopular, and in 1975 Canadian aviation units were reorganized under a single organization (Air Command) with a single commander. In 2011 the Canadian Forces Air Command reverted to its pre-1960s name, the Royal Canadian Air Force.
|XXXXXX +||Air Force/ Russian Air army||Entire air force||Entire air force||All Major Commands / Commands||GAF / General or MRAF / Air Chf Mshl|
|XXXXX||Major Command / Command or Tactical Air Force / Russian aviation corps||Varies||Varies||By Region or Duty (subordinate units varies)||General / Air Chf Mshl or Lt Gen / Air Marshal|
|XX||Numbered Air Force / No RAF Equivalent / Aviation Division /Air Division / Air Brigade||By Region (subordinate units varies)||Varies||2+ Wing / Groups||Lt Gen / Maj Gen|
|X||Wing / Group / Russian aviation regiments||1,000–5000||48–100||2+ Groups / Wings||Air Vice-Marshal or Brig Gen / Air Commodore or Col|
|III||Group / Wing or RAF station||300–1,000||17–48||3–10 Squadrons / 3–4 Squadrons||Col / Group Captain or Wg Cdr|
|II||Squadron||100–300||7–16||3–4 Flights||Col or Lt Col / Wg Cdr or Maj / Squadron Leader|
|•••||Flight||20–100||4–6||2 Sections plus maintenance and support crew||Squadron Leader or Capt / Flt Lt|
|••||Element or Section||5–20||n/a||Junior Officer or Senior NCO|