Aerial warfare is the battlespace use of military aircraft and other flying machines in warfare. Aerial warfare includes bombers attacking enemy installations or a concentration of enemy troops or strategic targets; fighter aircraft battling for control of airspace; attack aircraft engaging in close air support against ground targets; naval aviation flying against sea and nearby land targets; gliders, helicopters and other aircraft to carry airborne forces such as paratroopers; aerial refueling tankers to extend operation time or range; and military transport aircraft to move cargo and personnel. Historically, military aircraft have included lighter-than-air balloons carrying artillery observers; lighter-than-air airships for bombing cities; various sorts of reconnaissance, surveillance and early warning aircraft carrying observers, cameras and radar equipment; torpedo bombers to attack enemy shipping; and military air-sea rescue aircraft for saving downed airmen. Modern aerial warfare includes missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles. Surface forces are likely to respond to enemy air activity with anti-aircraft warfare.
Airplanes were put to use for war starting in 1911, initially for aerial reconnaissance, and then for aerial combat to shoot down the recon planes. Aircraft continued to carry out these roles during World War I, but the use of planes and zeppelins for strategic bombing emerged in World War I.
During World War II, the use of strategic bombing increased. Also during World War II, Nazi Germany developed many missile and precision-guided munition systems, including the first cruise missile, the first short-range ballistic missile, the first guided surface-to-air missiles, and the first anti-ship missiles.
Ballistic missiles became of key importance during the Cold War, were armed with nuclear warheads, and were stockpiled by the superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union—to deter each other from using them. The first military satellites were used for reconnaissance in the 1950s, and their use has progressed to worldwide communication and information systems that support globally distributed military users with intelligence from orbit.
Aerial reconnaissance is reconnaissance for a military or strategic purpose that is conducted using reconnaissance aircraft. This role can fulfil a variety of requirements, including the collection of imagery intelligence, observation of enemy maneuvers and artillery spotting.
Air combat manoeuvring (also known as ACM or dogfighting) is the tactical art of moving, turning and situating a fighter aircraft in order to attain a position from which an attack can be made on another aircraft. It relies on offensive and defensive basic fighter manoeuvring (BFM) to gain an advantage over an aerial opponent.
Airborne forces are military units, usually light infantry, set up to be moved by aircraft and "dropped" into battle, typically by parachute. Thus, they can be placed behind enemy lines, and have the capability to deploy almost anywhere with little warning. The formations are limited only by the number and size of their aircraft, so given enough capacity a huge force can appear "out of nowhere" in minutes, an action referred to as vertical envelopment.
Conversely, airborne forces typically lack the supplies and equipment for prolonged combat operations, and are therefore more suited for airhead operations than for long-term occupation; furthermore, parachute operations are particularly sensitive to adverse weather conditions. Advances in helicopter technology since World War II have brought increased flexibility to the scope of airborne operations, and air assaults have largely replaced large-scale parachute operations, and (almost) completely replaced combat glider operations.
An airstrike or air strike is an offensive operation carried out by attack aircraft. Air strikes are commonly delivered from aircraft such as fighters, bombers, ground attack aircraft, and attack helicopters. The official definition includes all sorts of targets, including enemy air targets, but in popular use the term is usually narrowed to a tactical (small-scale) attack on a ground or naval objective. Weapons used in an airstrike can range from machine gun bullets and missiles to various types of bombs. It is also commonly referred to as an air raid.
Strategic bombing is a military strategy used in a total war with the goal of defeating the enemy by destroying their morale or their economic ability to produce and transport materiel to the theatres of military operations, or both. It is a systematically organized and executed attack from the air which can utilize strategic bombers, long- or medium-range missiles, or nuclear-armed fighter-bomber aircraft to attack targets deemed vital to the enemy's war-making capability.
Anti-aircraft warfare or counter-air defence is defined by NATO as "all measures designed to nullify or reduce the effectiveness of hostile air action." They include ground-and air-based weapon systems, associated sensor systems, command and control arrangements and passive measures (e.g. barrage balloons). It may be used to protect naval, ground, and air forces in any location. However, for most countries the main effort has tended to be 'homeland defence'. NATO refers to airborne air defence as counter-air and naval air defence as anti-aircraft warfare. Missile defence is an extension of air defence as are initiatives to adapt air defence to the task of intercepting any projectile in flight.
In modern usage, a missile is a self-propelled precision-guided munition system, as opposed to an unguided self-propelled munition, referred to as a rocket (although these too can also be guided). Missiles have four system components: targeting and/or missile guidance, flight system, engine, and warhead. Missiles come in types adapted for different purposes: surface-to-surface and air-to-surface missiles (ballistic, cruise, anti-ship, anti-tank, etc.), surface-to-air missiles (and anti-ballistic), air-to-air missiles, and anti-satellite weapons. All known existing missiles are designed to be propelled during powered flight by chemical reactions inside a rocket engine, jet engine, or other type of engine. Non-self-propelled airborne explosive devices are generally referred to as shells and usually have a shorter range than missiles.
The advent of the unmanned aerial vehicle has dramatically revolutionized aerial warfare with multiple nations developing and/or purchasing UAV fleets. Several benchmarks have already occurred, including a UAV-fighter jet dogfight, probes of adversary air defense with UAVs, replacement of an operational flight wing's aircraft with UAVs, control of UAVs qualifying the operator for 'combat' status, UAV-control from the other side of the world, jamming and/or data-hijacking of UAVs in flight, as well as proposals to transfer fire authority to AI aboard a UAV. UAVs have quickly evolved from surveillance to combat roles.
The growing capability of UAVs has thrown into question the survivability and capability of manned fighter jets.