Military & Aerospace

Military Aviation and the Indian Air Force
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Issue Vol. 31.3 Jul-Sep 2016 | Date : 09 Sep , 2016

The invention of the aircraft in 1903 added a new element to warfare. Now to maintain the balance of military power, the states needed air power also. India was introduced to the aeroplane in 1910. Subsequently, RAF Squadrons came to India for operations in North West Frontiers as also to ensure internal security. The public pressure ultimately led to the creation of an Indian air arm in 1932. However the expansion was very slow until the Second World War (1939-1945). The pressure of War led to the rapid development of the IAF and it became a nine-squadron force by the end of World War II.

Great Britain ruled one fourth of the world because of its strong Navy…

In the nineteenth century, the general belief was that a nation which commands the sea, rules the world. Indeed the Army could fight the battle on land but for overseas conquest, the Navy was vital. Great Britain ruled one fourth of the world because of its strong Navy. The invention of aircraft in the early twentieth century broke this belief when the aircraft crossed the English Channel. The British Navy could no longer hold on the offensive from the other side of the Channel. Consequently, the countries began to develop air arm for their defence. Flying machines were also being added to the Naval inventory as well. Initially, hardly anyone realised that flying machines would also be used for transportation. Civil aviation indeed came in much later. Meanwhile, World War I broke out in 1914 and this necessitated the vast expansion of military aviation.

The aircraft entered India seven years after its invention. Exhibition flights were organised not only to display adventurism; but also to generate funds. In 1915, an Indian Flying School was established. Royal Air Force squadrons also set up their bases in India for internal and external security. The Indian Air Force took birth some years later.

Genesis of Military Aviation

The history of air power for military purpose can be traced back to eighteenth century when balloons were used by some armies for reconnaissance. Tony Mason dates the birth of air power in 1893, when one Major Fullerton of the British Army presented a paper at a meeting of army engineers in Chicago stating that the impact of aeronautics in future would be ‘as great a revolution in the art of war as the discovery of gun powder’.1 However, the use of the expression ‘air power’ was first recorded in H.G Wells’ novel ‘The War in the Air’ in 1908, when he chronicled a fictional worldwide conflict in which threat represented by the invention of airships and airplanes triggered a war.2

Military Aviation is indeed a twentieth century development, related to the invention of power-driven flight…

Military Aviation is indeed a twentieth century development, related to the invention of power-driven flight by Wright brothers (Wilber and Orville Wright) in December 1903. The invention of the aircraft (flight heavier-than-air) brought world closer by reducing the travel time and transformed the pattern of war. The Brothers considered the military as a prospective buyer of their machine and undertook a successful test flight in 1909 before the US military officials. Britain was already tracking the development of a flying machine of their own but it was not until February 1911, that an Air Battalion under Royal Engineers was created. Italy, however invited the Wrights to help in opening an aircraft factory. Meanwhile, France was also making efforts to manufacture flying machines for military use and therefore, requested the Wrights to stage a demonstration as well.

The Wrights, however, did not enjoy the mantle of aviation leaders for long. Attraction of government contracts as well as prize money offered by newspapers brought around many prospective aviators. In July 1909, Frenchman Louis Blériot flew across the English Channel posing a new challenge to British security. Britain, the world’s greatest naval power, now realised that its navy alone may no longer be enough to secure the nation. Something needed to be done. Meanwhile, Ferdinand von Zeppelin of Germany developed an aircraft capable of even more impressive feats.

Flying machines were first used in war by Italy during the Turko-Italian War in 1911 when Captain Piazza made a reconnaissance flight near Tripoli in a Blériot aircraft. The flying machines were also engaged in the Balkan Wars in 1912 by both the Ottoman and the Balkan countries. There were also some other sporadic cases involving primitive air support in some other world clashes. Indeed at this stage, the flying machines were considered as an eye to the army. Incidentally, air power was first used by France in the Battle of Fleurus (in 1794) when ‘lighter-than-air’, balloon was flown for reconnaissance purpose. It directed the artillery fire of Napoleon’s army against the Austrians. This led to the raising of balloon sections by many armies in succeeding years.

Initially, France became the leading country in the field of military aviation…

Meanwhile, Britain formed the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) on April 13, 1912, amalgamating the existing Air Battalions. The RFC included a Military Wing, a Naval Wing and a Central Flying School with overall strength of 20 aircrew. The Naval Wing was soon separated and handed over to the Royal Navy. During this period, Germany, France and USA also developed their Air Corps as a part of their land forces.

Initially, France became the leading country in the field of military aviation. Russia, Serbia, Sweden, Rumania, Greece and Mexico bought flying machines from France and sent aspiring aircrew to receive training in French flying schools.3 A wider use of aircraft for military purpose, however, started during the First World War.

Use of Aircraft in Military Operations

To begin with, aircraft were used to seek information about the enemy movement behind the battle lines. In 1914, these consisted of light wooden bi/tri planes, with a maximum speed well below 100 mph. It carried a pilot and an observer, who sometimes made pencil sketches of enemy trenches and positions. The planes were unarmed, except for a revolver or a rifle carried by the observer, who occasionally took a shot at something below, or even at an enemy observation plane, which he seldom hit. The pilots of German and British planes sometimes waved at each other as they passed by while on their missions. The emergence of airplanes opened new possibilities in warfare; but closed some others. The cavalry began losing its relevance for reconnaissance. Surprise, which was a key factor in war tactics, now became difficult to achieve.

The emergence of airplanes opened new possibilities in warfare; but closed some others…

In the initial stages of military aviation, people and even some military officers believed that aircraft would merely frighten horses. They considered its value not more than looking over the hills in front of troops. But there were also officers who were more than ready to integrate this new technology as an arm. Though the small size of bombs initially could not frighten enemy troops, its psychological impact could not be denied. A new weapon indeed had emerged and the sky had now turned into a battlefield.

As World War I progressed, better planes were produced for artillery observation, long range reconnaissance, bombing and strafing. Communication from the aircraft to the ground evolved leading to ground control of airplanes. The observation planes started flying at treetop level, in adverse weather conditions and could even keep pace with the advancing infantry. Development was rapid. The planes grew in numbers and size as well as improved in load-carrying capacity and operating range. With the use of increasing numbers of aircraft in the War, the inevitable happened. They started encountering and shooting at each other in the air to prevent the adversary from taking military advantage. It led to the birth of fighter aircraft whose numbers increased drastically in the years that followed. The battle for ‘control of the air’ had begun and air power doctrine started to formulate gradually. The fighters started patrolling the assigned areas in groups in low-flying-pursuits. The bombers started carrying heavier bombs and flocked in formations, escorted by fighters to bomb enemy positions. To counteract the airplanes, anti-aircraft guns were also developed.

Air Power Strategy

The vital importance of the air machine was revealed when the German Zeppelins and Gathos (aircrafts) began long night-time journey from North Sea to drop bombs on military and industrial targets in Britain in 1915. This was termed as first strategic air campaign (strategic bombing) in the history of military aviation.4 Learning from this, the rival countries started raising bomber units. The role of these units was different from support to the land army. Here lay the seeds of an independent air service (Air Force). The military aviation started acquiring new terms such as ‘dogfight’ and ‘ace pilot’. The new strategic theories also began to evolve. Douhet, an Italian General, tuned the theory of total war built around the air power. He saw the aeroplane as a weapon which could pass over the defences of sea and land forces. The concept of ‘command of air’, also termed as ‘air blockade’ gradually came into being by World War II.5

The First World War necessitated the rapid expansion of military aviation…

The aircraft used during World War I could be classified in two categories – those designed to perform a designated mission and those designed to prevent the enemy from carrying a similar task. The bomber’s mission was to drop bombs on enemy positions while fighters took the offensive in the air to shoot down enemy bombers and fighters.

Military Aviation Towards Maturity

The First World War necessitated the rapid expansion of military aviation. The USA, which had 131 officers and 1,087 men when it entered in War in April 1917, enlisted over one hundred thousand personnel and added several thousands of aircraft during the War.6 The Royal Air Force added 240,000 men and 22,000 aircraft.7 These aircraft were indeed manufactured during the War. Britain produced over 54,000 aircraft, Germany 44,000, France 52,000 and Italy 11,000 between 1914 and 1918. Military Aviation also suffered heavy losses. British RFC lost 16,623 personnel and the German air arm suffered 15,906 casualties during the War, although a portion of these losses were not due to enemy action.

By the end of World War-I military aviation had specialised in many combat roles such as artillery spotting, aerial photography, bombing, ground attack, anti-submarine patrols and scouting the ships. Further, the doctrine of command of the skies and support to land forces had been firmly established. Using aerial observers long range artillery could now hit targets accurately, considered impossible earlier. Air Power also provided the ability to see the impact of long range artillery fire on enemy positions. Aviation thus became an integral part of all armies and a vital component of military success. World War I thus played a crucial role in the development of military aviation. Among the men who shaped the contours of air power included General Giulio Douchet of Italy, General Hugh Trenchard of England, Hermann Goering of Germany, Brigadier General William Mitchell and Admiral WE Sims of the United States.

While World War I was a period of developing military aviation, World War-II became a testing ground…

While World War I was a period of developing military aviation, World War-II became a testing ground. The German air attacks on Poland and Great Britain, the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbour, the day-and-night bombing of Germany by the US and the British Air Force, and dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki convincingly demonstrated the destructive potential of air power. No country could now afford to overlook the need of military aviation for the defence of their territory.

Military Aviation in India

The history of military aviation in India is associated with the birth of Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in 1912 and later, the creation of the Royal Air Force (first Independent Air Service of the world) on April 01, 1918. Meanwhile, a detachment of RFC was deputed to India in 1915. Later, some RAF squadrons were also attached with Army in India. But the real Indian combat aviation was born on October 08, 1932, when the Indian Air Force came into existence.

The history of aviation in India, however goes back to early 1910 when Colonel H.S Massy of Aerial League of British Empire delivered a lecture on aerial navigation in Allahabad. During the lecture he spoke about evolution of aviation and that India could be a new area for the enterprise. Further, a Committee of Exhibition was also planned.8 Consequently, in November 1910, two Bleriot monoplanes were transported by sea to Bombay. These planes were taken to Allahabad by train and assembled there. The first flight was undertaken from the Polo Ground by an Englishman Keith Davies on December 10, who circled the ground at a height of 30 feet. Meanwhile, the Maharaja of Patiala also procured three aeroplanes in December. During the same month, a Belgian air pioneer also organised an air display at Calcutta.

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Meanwhile, a British party brought two Bristol Boxkites to Aurangabad. They demonstrated the military application of the aeroplane by participating in military exercises alongside the cavalry and infantry units. On January 16, 1911, the pilot of one Boxkite took an artillery officer as an observer and carried out an aerial reconnaissance. Captain Norman Macmillan considers it the first ever army manoeuver of an aeroplane.9 The event was followed by a Frenchman Henri Pequeit who carried out the world’s first air mail service, flying Sommer biplane from Allahabad to Naini in February 1911. These flights were followed by a number of air demonstrations conducted by air pioneers in different parts of India. Many curious Indians rushed to see the flying show by paying as much amount as Rs 5 and some of them taking joyride with lordly sum of Rs 25. During an exhibition at Hakimpet (near Secunderbad), one could even touch and inspect the aircraft by paying Rs 1.10 In the meantime, the British Indian Government enacted the Indian Aircraft Act, 1911 with the intention to regulate the manufacture, possession, use, sale, import and export of airplanes,11 such activities though commenced decades later in India.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Narender Yadav

PhD in Military History, working as an Assistant Director in History Division, Ministry of Defence.

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