When World War I began in 1914, little thought had been given by the military of Britain, France, or the United States to an air offensive. Most airplane bombs weighed about 20 pounds and were hand‐held. German airships, however, were equipped with racks that carried bombs of 110 pounds, and both Russia and Italy had built large aircraft capable of carrying total loads of over 1,000 pounds of bombs. From 1915 on, the first strategic bombing offensive was conducted by Germany against Britain, using airships and later large aircraft carrying bombs of up to 2,200 pounds. The material damage suffered was random and relatively slight, but the morale of the civil population was badly affected. As a result, assumptions were made about the drastic effects of strategic bombing on civilian morale, which proved unjustified in World War II.
At the tactical level, both on the battlefield and immediately behind it, aircraft carrying bombs typically of 112 or 230 pounds were, by 1918, providing effective support to the Allied armies. The U.S. Air Service became heavily involved in the air offensive after 1917, but lacked American equipment and had to rely upon aircraft and weapons of British or French design.
Between the wars, minimal defense budgets precluded significant weapons development, but the impetus of World War II produced remarkable advances. By 1945, the U.S. services were using bombs ranging from 100 to 4,000 pounds. (An experimental bomb weighing 42,000 pounds existed.) Also in the inventory were fragmentation, incendiary, and chemical bombs, some equipped with retarding parachutes for low‐level delivery. Armor‐piercing bombs were available, particularly for use against warships, and work had been done on fuel/air explosive weapons, which produced catastrophic blast effects by scattering and then detonating large clouds of combustible material. Dramatic demonstrations of the destructive capacity of conventional bombs were given by the Allied air forces in such cities as Hamburg (45,000 dead, 40,000 wounded), Dresden (approximately 60,000 dead), and Tokyo (over 80,000 dead), where firestorms were started by the combined effects of high explosive and incendiaries, killing people by the tens of thousands and effectively destroying the area bombed. Contrary to the interwar predictions, such destruction did not, by itself, bring about the collapse of the attacked state.
High degrees of accuracy were seldom achieved, despite the use of advanced bombsights, radar, and radio bombing aids, and a host of target‐marking techniques. Even the U.S. Army Air Force, which was committed to a policy of “precision” bombing, needed to drop very large numbers of bombs to ensure the destruction of a target. This was not true of bombs delivered at low level from a dive. The destruction of the Japanese carrier force at the Battle of Midway, for example, was accomplished by a relatively small number of bombs dropped by U.S. Navy dive‐bombers.
In August 1945, World War II was brought to an end when USAAF B‐29 bombers dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. The first (“Little Boy,” Uranium 235) fell on Hiroshima, and the second (“Fat Man,” Plutonium 239) on Nagasaki. Each target city was destroyed by a release of nuclear energy that was the equivalent of 20 kilotons of TNT. With this vast increase in the destructive capacity of single bombs, strategic bombing finally reached a point that matched the dire predictions of the interwar strategists. Subsequently, new theories of deterrence evolved to take account of the awesome power of nuclear weapons and to portray war at the highest level as an unacceptable risk for any nation.
Since World War II, high‐yield nuclear bombs have diminished in size while rising in destructive capacity into the multimegaton range, and smaller yield “tactical” nuclear weapons have been introduced. The range of conventional bombs now includes containers filled with napalm (petroleum jelly) and others carrying numerous small bomblets that can be used against vehicles and personnel, or to deny an area like an airfield to enemy use. Technological advances, including lasers, television, and radar guidance, allow guided—or “smart”—bombs to be delivered at a distance from the target and with great accuracy, hugely magnifying the effectiveness of conventional bombs. During the Persian Gulf War between the United Nations' forces and Iraq in 1991, the U.S. forces and their allies used guided bombs to great effect in crippling Iraqi command and control systems, one bomb often achieving the same damage as hundreds would have done in World War II.
[See also Air Force Combat Organizations: Strategic Air Forces; Air Force Combat Organizations: Tactical Air Forces; Bomber Aircraft; Bombing of Civilians; Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Bombings of; Korean War, U.S. Operations in the; Kosovo Crisis (1999); Nuclear Weapons; Persian Gulf War; Strategy: Air Warfare Strategy; Vietnam War, U.S. Air Operations in the; World War II, U.S. Air Operations in.]
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