The history of air forces begins with the use of balloons by French forces in Italy in 1859 and by Union forces in the U.S. Civil War. Balloons thereafter proved useful as a means of observation, but air forces in the modern sense date from World War I, when the offensive capabilities of the airplane were first demonstrated. The somewhat tentative use of scout planes at the beginning of the war was followed by the creation of small forces of fighter planes that engaged in aerial combat and bombing raids. Although Germany took the lead in air strategy, the Allies soon closed the gap. Indeed, throughout World War I, such development and counterdevelopment accounted for the rapid advance of military aeronautics. The use of aircraft for reconnaissance, which made control of the skies important to military operations, resulted in the development of aerial combat, which led to formation flying, dogfights, and the bombing of enemy lines of communication and munitions depots.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.