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Imperial Japanese Army Air Force

The Japanese military acquired their first aircraft in 1910 and followed the development of air combat during World War I with great interest. Imperial Japanese Army Air Service, or more traditionally called the Japanese Army Air Force (Rikugun Koku Hombu), was Imperial Japan's land-based aviation force. Imperial Japan did not maintain a separate and independent air force so both the Imperial Japanese Army and the Imperial Japanese Navy maintained their own air services. The Imperial Japanese Army Air Service was equal in function to the German Luftwaffe, the American USAAF, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Italian Regia Aeronautica.

The IJA's Army Air Service was responsible for the strategic bombing of main Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Chongqing. The violent bombing of Nanjing and Guangzhou in 1937 led to a resolution of protest by the Far Eastern Committee of the League of Nations. The Air service also provided tactical air support for ground troops while maintaining a limited air-to-air capability. The Army Aeronautical Department (Kogun Koku Hombu) of the Ministry of War of Japan was responsible for the technical aeronautical development, aircraft manufacturing and training of the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service.

When the war started, Japan had two separate air forces, the Japanese Naval Air Force (JNAF) and the Japanese Army Air Force (JAAF). They were created and developed to meet the separate needs of the Army and the Navy. The JAAF was committed to support ground operations and the JNAF to provide surface fleet and convoy protection, coastal defense, and sea and anti-submarine patrols. France, in 1919, helped in the development of the JAAF, while JNAF was the recipient of expert training from Britain, France and US. The Japanese learned air fighting tactics and gunnery from RAF mission in 1930, which proved effective against Commonwealth forces over Malaya and Singapore 11 years later. The IJN and the Japanese Army were deadly rivals in the power struggles that characterised Japanese politcs of the 20's, 30's and 40's its unlikley they would ever co-operate on anything. the requirements of shipborne aircraft tend to vary from those of land based aircraft and the USN and USAAF used different aircraft too as did the RAF and FAA.

In May 1937, the Japanese Imperial Army initiated a six-year program to expand its air units. It was to establish 142 squadrons, but because of the Sino-Japanese War, the program was extended. Upon the implementation of the Program, the Army invigorated its training program for flight crews, establishing the Army Air Academy and the Army Juvenile Flying School.

From the arid plains of the Mongolian border region to the lush jungles of New Guinea, the JAAF was more than a match for the many opponents it fought against for control of the skies. Indeed, even when the mighty Allied war machine proved almost overwhelming from early 1944 onwards, the elite fighter pilots of the various sentais within the JAAF fought on with near-fanatical loyalty in defence of the Home Islands. No less than 150 of them achieved ace status during eight years of near-constant war.

Both the Army and Navy formed "special attack corps" to carry out suicide attacks, and these included planes to crash dive into ships, kaiten manned torpedoes, explosive motorboats, and other weapons. The Army formed "special attack" units with the purpose to make suicidal ramming attacks against the B-29s.

The American B-29 Superfortress bombing campaign against the Japanese mainland devastated the cities. The incendiary bombs destroyed not only military targets but also over two million homes. The Japanese Army Air Force (JAAF) used its planes to try to defend the home islands against B-29 attacks. Americans lost 360 B-29s during their bombing raids - many of the 360 went down due to conventional aerial attacks, antiaircraft fire, and mechanical problems.

As with the other combatants in World War II, Japan had two major military organizations - the Army and the Navy - each with its own air force. The antagonism between the IJN and the IJAAF was much greater than that between the USN and the USAAF. As with the US Army and Navy, these two air forces did not share a common designation system. While the USN and USAAF at least used common weapons and even used the same aircraft, radar, and some radio equipment, the Japanese air services had completely separate weapons, equipment, and aircraft, and made little effort to cooperate in the field.

Allied pilots knew little about the planes they were meeting in the air, and even less about the Japanese Army Air Force units opposing them. The situation improved only slightly in the years after the War. JAAF records of the air war in the Pacific are sketchy, since some units [and their records] were destroyed during the terrible retreats of 1944 and 1945.

The basic Japanese air combat unit was the sentai, equivalent to a USAAF group, though with only half the aircraft. With an effective strength of between 30 and 40 aircraft, the sentai was commanded by a major or lieutenant colonel who was himself a flying officer. The sentai in turn was divided into three chutai, or squadrons, usually commanded by a captain. two or more sentais -- often a fighter group, a heavy-bomber group, and a light-bomber or ground-support group -- made up a hikodan, equivalent to a USAAF wing and usually commanded by a colonel. Two or more hikodans made up a hikoshidan, equivalent to a geographical air force and commanded by a general officer.

At the outbreak of the Pacific War, the JAAF consisted of five hikoshidans with a total of about 1,500 aircraft.

An air group was roughly the equivalent of a U.S. numbered air force, and was the largest tactical unit in the Japanese Army Air Force at that time. An air regiment was generally composed of three squadrons and was the basic operational unit in the Japanese Army Air Force.

The Army Air Service was organized into 5 Air Armies, "koku-gun", with each maintaining a clear area of operations (ie, one per theater of war). These were:

  • 1st - Home or General Air Army :HQ Tokyo, General Defense Command consisting of the Japan Defence Army, Formosa Army, and Chosen Army of Japanese occupied Korea.
  • 2d - Manchuria Air Army: HQ Hsinking, Kwangtung Army
  • 3rd - Southern Air Army: HQ Singapore, Southern Army
  • 4th - New Guinea Air Army, formed in 1943, HQ Rabaul and Wewak, 8th Area Army
  • 5th - China Air Army, formed in 1944, HQ Nanking, China Expeditionary Army
World War II Imperial Japanese Army air doctrine stated that the Army Air Force would make the "greatest contribution to general operations," presumably by reducing the fighting strength of the opposing Air Force. After destroying the main strength of the enemy air, Japanese air would seek a favorable chance to destroy the remainder of the enemy's air power. If the conditions of the battle permitted, the Army Air Force would provide strategic and tactical reconnaissance for the ground forces. The keynote was "Air Superiority: A Must Over the Battlefield."

An air division was sometimes assigned to support an infantry division, if air superiority had been achieved. To provide liaison, a wireless platoon (two air-ground radios, one truck) was attached to division head quarters. Air units could only support ground troops in the initial stages of an engagement because, as the Japanese troops moved forward, the air squadron commanders had absolutely no idea where they were. The ground forces wanted CAS support at critical points, but this was not available.




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