Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Airpower Turns 100

by Micah Zenko
November 2, 2011

A replica of the Taube airplane that Lieutenant Gavotti piloted in 1911.

A replica of the Taube airplane similar to the model that Lieutenant Gavotti piloted in 1911.

Before humans were capable of heavier-than-air-powered flight, thinkers were already conceiving of ways that airpower could be used in warfare. Two years before the Wright Brothers conducted their first successful flights in December 1903, H.G. Wells published his bestselling work of futurology, Anticipations: Of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life. In chapter six, entitled, “War in the Twentieth Century,” Wells presciently forecasted a number of near-term inventions that would be applied to the battlefield:

“A factor of primary importance in this warfare, because of the importance of seeing the board, a factor which will be enormously stimulated to develop in the future, will be the aerial factor…In the warfare that will go on in the highly-organized European States of the opening century, the special military balloon used in conjunction with guns, conceivably of small calibre but of enormous length and range, will play a part of quite primary importance. These guns will be carried on vast mechanical carriages, possibly with wheels of such a size as will enable them to traverse almost all sorts of ground. The aeronauts, provided with large scale maps of the hostile country, will mark down to the gunners below the precise point upon which to direct their fire, and over hill and dale the shell will fly—ten miles it may be—to its billet, camp, massing night attack, or advancing gun.”

Initially, Wells conceptualized that “great multitudes of balloons will be the Argus eyes of the entire military organism, stalked eyes with a telephonic nerve in each stalk.” Eventually, however, airplanes would take their place:

“Few people, I fancy, who know the work of Langley, Lilienthal, Pilcher, Maxim, and Chanute, but will be inclined to believe that long before the year a.d. 2000, and very probably before 1950, a successful aeroplane will have soared and come home safe and sound. Directly that is accomplished the new invention will be most assuredly applied to war.”

While H.G. Wells was off the mark by four decades on when the first airplanes would take flight, he correctly predicted that the machines would soon be equipped to kill people from above.

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the first use of an aircraft as an instrument of warfare. In a morbid symmetry with this year’s NATO-led intervention into the Libyan conflict, back in 1911, the pilots were Italian and the targets were Libyan.

The first instance of airpower was a tactic employed in the Italo-Turkish War, fought between Italy and the Ottoman Empire. In 1911, Italy moved toward its longstanding goal of establishing a colony in North Africa when Germany deployed its Panther gunboat to Agadir, Morocco, to protect German firms that were seen as threatened by regional instability. Other European powers (particularly Britain and France) were perturbed by Germany’s gunboat diplomacy, because the port at Agadir had previously been closed to European warships. In the midst of the crisis, Rome capitalized on the uncertainty and announced that Italian interests were also threatened, specifically in the Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica (two regions that now comprise modern Libya). On September 29, 1911, Italy declared war on the Ottoman Empire.

That same day, Italy deployed a military force with a small aeronautical section named the First Aeroplane Flotilla to Derna and Tobruk and another air unit was deployed to Benghazi.  The First Aeroplane Flotilla was made up of nine primitive machines, most of which were monoplanes, and eleven pilots under the command of Captain Carlos Piazza. On October 25, 1911, the Flotilla launched the first air reconnaissance mission of the war. Italian air patrols discovered advancing Turkish troops, enabling Captain Piazza to deploy ground forces that defeated the unsuspecting enemy. Over the next several days, Italian pilots continued to conduct surveillance missions, although they grew increasingly creative; on several occasions, pilots dropped messages on Italian warship decks with enemy locations to correct the gunners’ aim.

On November 1, 1911, a young Italian pilot named Lieutenant Guilio Gavotti was ordered to throw Cipelli grenades from his aircraft to strike enemy encampments in the oases of Ain Zara and Taguira. On the morning of November 1, Lieutenant Gavotti took off on his own from the Italian base in a Taube aircraft, heading towards the Turkish encampments. Flying three to four hundred feet above the ground, he circled the Turkish base two times. On the third run, Gavotti dropped four, five pound Cipelli grenades. According to reports, he pulled the security pins off the grenades with his teeth and tossed them out the window, all the while trying to avoid the wings of the aircraft. Most of the grenades exploded in the open desert, although others hit noncombatants.

Despite the fact that Lieutenant Gavotti’s attack had few casualties, it marked a turning point in the war. Although the Turkish claimed that a military hospital outside the contested area had been bombed, Italian air forces bombed Ain Zara several more times in the following days. The Ottoman government condemned the attacks as violations of the Geneva Convention. On November 6, Italian General Staff issued the first communiqué on the success of aerial bombing, declaring “bombing had wonderful moral effect upon the Arabs.” By early 1912, Italian aircraft conducted a wide variety of missions: bombing Turkish positions; locating, photographing, and filming enemy encampments; intercepting camel trains; and dropping pro-Italian propaganda leaflets, which offered Tripolitanian citizens a gold coin and a sack of wheat if they surrendered.

The Italian bombings elicited the first uses of air-defense guns, as well. Though the resistance originally only had small arms that were no match against superior Italian aircraft, in the spring of 1912, Turkish forces in Azzizia mounted a 90 millimeter Krupps gun on a high-elevation carriage to deter enemy attacks. Although the Krupps gun did not hit any aircraft initially, in subsequent battles it successfully hit several airplanes and wounded two pilots. In response, Italian pilots increased their standard height of operations from 2,000 to 4,500 feet in a nascent example of anti-aircraft warfare.

Ultimately, however, the Italian use of airpower had little impact on the Italo-Turkish War. Reportedly, the First Aeroplane Flotilla and their associated air units flew a total of 712 sorties and dropped a few hundred bombs. The British War Office estimated that between March and June 1912, the total Turkish loses from aerial bombing was twenty-six killed and seventy wounded. The Italians succeeded in forcing the Ottoman forces to surrender with the Treaty of Lausanne in October 1912, largely because the Italian military deployed 100,000 troops to North Africa, which were far better trained and equipped than their opponents.

Over the last century, airpower has witnessed two parallel developments. The first, accurately predicted by Wells, relates to the farreaching capabilities of airpower in terms of the scope of combat operations, real-time target acquisition, destructive capabilities, and remarkable precision. The second development is mental, namely an increasing faith in the ability of airpower to achieve a set of discrete military and political missions, which once also required boots on the ground. To quote Lieutenant General David Deptula, the Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveilance, and Reconnaissance in 2009: “We’ve spent about the last hundred years as airmen trying to figure out how to hit any target, anywhere on the surface of the Earth, all weather, day, night, rapidly and with precision. We can do that today.”

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  • Posted by Mike Fithian

    You might want to clarify that the Taube used was the Austrian built Etrich Taube, with Italian Military markings, not the German D-Etri illustrated. My Grandfather was one of the first Austrian pilots to fly the Taube, the 1912 military F version, of which I am currently in the process of building a full scale flying replica.

  • Posted by Alex Poliakoff

    My father, born in Moscow Russia in 1890, claimed to have learned to fly at a French school of aeronautics in 1909. He also told me of having flown forward observation missions during the Balkan Wars. And, he described dropping bricks and other weighty objects. He described in great detail the view of the lines of battle and how he would bring the details back for the field commanders to use. He described flying Taube’s Du-per-dusines (sp?, Bleriot’s. I’ve often wondered how I might find out if there is any documentation that might have his name mentioned.

  • Posted by Frank Vargas

    It is absurd to keep saying that the Wright brothers “invented flight” as your article states. Totally wrong, as is the licence place from NC saying “First in Flight”. Man had been flying a quite a while when the Wright brotyhers flew. They were the first in “powered flight”. Even that is still contested. Because of the short distance of that first flight it is not cvertain whether the plane flew that much because of the engine or because of the weighted catapult. Neverthelss, they did succeed and improved the distance in subsequent flights.

  • Posted by Jack Thompson

    To Frank Vargas comments – while others had been aloft on wings prior to the Wrights, the Wrights were the first to have control of their machines in all circumstances, a distinction that makes all the difference. In 1903 that control was marginal and incredibly touchy (to the extent that modern pilots are in awe of the feats the Wrights achieved) but it was positive, as opposed to previous methods like shifting CG. Their “aeroplane” patent is actually on the 1902 glider, and the claims are related to details of the control system. The controls they invented are the control system we use today. The year between 1902 and 1903 they invented and tested high efficiency propellers and a good enough engine and transmission. Their propeller design theory was not surpassed until 1930.

    Between 1908 and 1914 the european powers spent an unbelievable amount of money(France Germany and the UK spent in excess of $70M) turning the airplane into a uasable weapon.

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