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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.
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On November 1, 1911, Italian aviator Second Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti dropped four bombs on two Turkish-held oases in Libya, carrying out the world's first air strike as part of the Italo-Turkish War. The use of air strikes was extended in World War I. For example, at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in 1915, the British dropped bombs on German rail communications. However, it was not until World War II that the Oxford English Dictionary first records usage of the term "air strike," which remained two separate words for some time thereafter. The Second World War also saw the first development of precision-guided munitions, which were fielded successfully by the Germans, and contributed to the modern sense of air "strike," a precision targeted attack as opposed to a strafing run or area bombing. The importance of precision targeting cannot be overstated: by some statistics, over a hundred raids were necessary to destroy a point target in World War 2; by the Persian Gulf War, the U.S. Air Force was able to release to media precise footage of television- or radar-guided bombs directly hitting the target without significant collateral damage (using, for example, the LANTIRN pod). Paul Fussell noted in his seminal work The Great War and Modern Memory the popular 20th century tendency to assume an errant bomb hitting a church, for example, was completely deliberate and reflective of the inherent evil of the enemy; over time, expectations for reduced collateral damage have increased to the point that developed countries engaging in war against less technologically advanced countries approach near-zero in terms of such damage and to a large degree, they have done so.
In the 1950s "Malayan Emergency", British Avro Lincoln heavy bombers, De Havilland Vampire fighter jets, Supermarine Spitfires, Bristol Brigands, De Havilland Mosquitos, and a host of other British aircraft were used in Malay as COIN aircraft. However, the humid climate played havoc with the Mosquito's wooden airframe, and they were soon deployed elsewhere. This period also marked the last combat deployment of British Spitfires.
Today, airstrike terminology has extended to the concept of the strike aircraft, what earlier generations of military aviators referred to as light bombers or attack aircraft. With the near-complete air supremacy enjoyed by developed nations in undeveloped regions, fighter jets can often be modified to add strike capability in a manner less practicable in earlier generations, e.g. Strike Eagle.
Airstrikes can be carried out for strategic purposes outside of general warfare. Operation Opera was a single eight-ship Israeli airstrike against the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor, criticized by world opinion but not leading to a general outbreak of war. Such an example of the preventive strike has created new questions for international law.
Airstrike campaigns often cause the deaths of non-combatants, including civilians. International law apply the principles of military necessity, distinction, and proportionality. These principles emphasizes that an attack must be directed towards a legitimate military target and the harm caused to non-combatant targets must be proportional to the advantage gained by such attack.
- air strike- DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms Archived June 4, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
- U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission: Aviation at the Start of the First World War
- "air, n.1". oed.com.
- "Pentagon in Denial About Civilian Casualties of U.S. Airstrikes in Iraq and Syria". Foreign Policy.
- "Airstrikes launched amid intelligence gaps". PBS NewsHour.
- "Customary IHL - Practice Relating to Rule 14. Proportionality in Attack". icrc.org.
- "Air Force Law Review". Jefferson D. Reynolds. Winter 2005.