The Royal Air Force (RAF) is the United Kingdom's air force, the oldest independent air force in the world. Formed on 1 April 1918, the RAF has taken a significant role in British military history ever since, playing a large part in World War II and in more recent conflicts.
The RAF operates 1,114 aircraft (2010) and, as of late 2009, had a total manpower strength of 44,300 regular, and 2,500 volunteers. The RAF is the largest air force in the European Union, the second largest in NATO and fifth largest in the world. The majority of the RAF's aircraft and personnel are based in the UK with many others serving on operations (principally Afghanistan, the Middle East or at long-established overseas bases (Ascension Island, Canada, Cyprus, Diego Garcia, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands and Germany).
The RAF's mission is to support the objectives of the British Ministry of Defence (MoD), which are to "provide the capabilities needed: to ensure the security and defence of the United Kingdom and overseas territories, including against terrorism; to support the Government’s foreign policy objectives particularly in promoting international peace and security."
The RAF's own mission statement reads as thus, to provide (paraphrase) "An agile, adaptable and capable Air Force that, person for person, is second to none, and that makes a decisive air power contribution in support of the UK Defence Mission."
The above statement goes hand in hand with the RAF's definition of air power, the concept that guides the RAF strategy. Air Power is defined as: "The ability to project military force in air or space by or from a platform or missile operating above the surface of the earth. Air platforms are defined as any aircraft, helicopter or unmanned air vehicle." Although the RAF is the principal British air power arm, the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm and the British Army's Army Air Corps also deliver air power which is integrated into the maritime, littoral and land environments.
While the British were not the first to make use of heavier-than-air military aircraft, the RAF is the world's oldest independent air force: that is, the first air force to become independent of army or navy control. It was founded on 1 April 1918, during the First World War, by the amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. After the war, the service was drastically cut and its inter-war years were relatively quiet, with the RAF taking responsibility for the control of Iraq and executing a number of minor actions in other parts of the British Empire.
The RAF underwent rapid expansion prior to and during the Second World War. Under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan of December 1939, the air forces of British Commonwealth countries trained and formed "Article XV squadrons" for service with RAF formations. Many individual personnel from these countries, and exiles from occupied Europe, also served with RAF squadrons.
In the Battle of Britain, in the late summer of 1940, the RAF (supplemented by Polish, Czechoslovakian and other multinational pilots and ground personnel) defended the skies over Britain against the German Luftwaffe, helping foil Hitler's plans for an invasion of the United Kingdom, and prompting Prime Minister Winston Churchill to say in the House of Commons on 20 August, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few".
The largest RAF effort during the war was the strategic bombing campaign against Germany by Bomber Command. While RAF bombing of Germany began almost immediately upon the outbreak of war, under the leadership of Air Chief Marshal Harris, these attacks became increasingly devastating from 1942 onward as new technology and greater numbers of superior aircraft became available. The RAF adopted night-time area bombing on German cities such as Hamburg and Dresden, and developed precision bombing techniques for specific operations, such as the "Dambusters" raid by No. 617 Squadron, or the Amiens prison raid known as Operation Jericho.
During the Cold War years the main role of the RAF was the defence of the continent of Europe against potential attack by the Soviet Union, including holding the United Kingdom's nuclear deterrent for a number of years. After the Cold War, the RAF was involved in several large scale operations, including the Gulf War, the Kosovo War, operations in Afghanistan, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the subsequent war.
|Kenya||2008s–||Kenya Air Force Laikipia Air Base||Semi permanent detachment involving helicopters giving support to the British Army|
|Gibraltar||1940s–||RAF Gibraltar||No permanently stationed aircraft. RAF aircraft, e.g. Hercules transports, make regular visits.|
|Canada||1940s–||RAF Unit Goose Bay, Canada||RAF aircraft train in low-level tactical flying at CFB Goose Bay, a NATO air force base of the Canadian Air Force.|
|Operation Musketeer also known as the Suez crisis involved RAF aircraft based on Malta and Cyprus. Although no RAF bases remain on Malta, RAF aircraft continue to be stationed at RAF Akrotiri on Cyprus.|
|Norway||1960s–||Bardufoss Air Station||RAF fighter and/or helicopter squadrons undergo winter-training here most years.|
|Ascension Island||1982–||RAF Ascension Island||Used as an air bridge between the UK and the Falkland Islands. United States Air Force also stationed at this base.|
|Falkland Islands||1982–||RAF Stanley
RAF Mount Pleasant
|After initial use of the Airport at Stanley, the airbase/airport at Mount Pleasant was built to allow a fighter and transport facility on the islands, and to strengthen the defence capacity of BFFI (British Forces Falkland Islands).|
|Bosnia||1995–||Various helicopters||RAF enforced no-fly zones over the Balkans in the late 1990s and participated in the NATO interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. RAF helicopters until recently remained to provide support to the United Nations.|
|Chinooks provided airlift support to coalition forces. Additionally Merlin helicopters began tasking in late 2009 following the end of Op Telic (Iraq). Since late 2004 six Harriers provided reconnaissance and close air support to the ISAF. The Harriers were replaced by an equivalent force of Tornados GR4 in mid 2009. Other support units are deployed to Seeb Airport in Oman, and air bases in the UAE and the Kingdom of Bahrain.|
|United States||2009–||Creech AFB, Nevada||Operation of MQ-9 Reaper UAVs|
The professional head of the RAF is the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton. The CAS heads the Air Force Board, which is a committee of the Defence Council. The Air Force Board is the management board of the RAF and consists of the Commander-in-Chief of Air Command (Air Chief Marshal Simon Bryant), together with several other high-ranking officers. The CAS also has a deputy known as the Assistant Chief of the Air Staff (ACAS); this post is held by Air Vice-Marshal B M North.
Authority is delegated from the Air Force Board to the RAF's commands. While there were once individual commands responsible for bombers, fighters, training, etc., only one command now exists:
Groups are the subdivisions of operational commands; these are responsible for certain types of operation or for operations in limited geographical areas. As from 1 April 2007, three groups exist:
- 1 Group (the Air Combat Group): controls the RAF's combat fast jet aircraft, including Joint Force Harrier, and has seven airfields in the UK in addition to RAF Unit Goose Bay in Canada, which is used extensively as an operational training base.
- 2 Group (the Air Combat Support Group): controls the strategic and tactical air transport aircraft, the RAF Regiment, the RAF's air-to-air refuelling aircraft as well as ISTAR and search and rescue assets.
- 22 Group: responsible for recruiting, personnel management and training.
An RAF station is ordinarily subordinate to a group and it is administratively sub-divided into wings. Since the mid to late 1930s RAF stations have controlled a number of flying squadrons or other units at one location by means of a station headquarters.
A wing is either an operational sub-division of a group or an administrative sub-division of an RAF station.
Independent Wings are a grouping of two or more squadrons, either flying squadrons or ground support squadrons. In former times, numbered flying wings have existed, but more recently they have been created only when required. For example during Operation Telic, Tornado GR4 wings were formed to operate from Ali Al Salem and Al Udeid air bases and the Tornado F3 equipped Leuchars Fighter Wing at Prince Sultan Air Base; each of these were made up of aircraft and crews from several squadrons.
On 31 March 2006, the RAF formed nine Expeditionary Air Wings (EAWs) in order to support operations. They have been established at the nine main operating bases; RAF Coningsby, RAF Cottesmore, RAF Kinloss, RAF Leeming, RAF Leuchars, RAF Lossiemouth, RAF Lyneham, RAF Marham and RAF Waddington numbered Nos 121, 122, 325, 135, 125, 140, 38, 138 and 34 EAWs respectively. These units are commanded by a group captain who is also the parent unit's Station Commander. The EAW comprises the non-formed unit elements of the station that are required to support a deployed operating base, i.e. the command and control, logistics and administration functions amongst others. They are designed to be flexible and quickly adaptable for differing operations. They are independent of flying squadrons, Air Combat Support Units (ACSU) and Air Combat Service Support Units (ACSSU) who are attached to the EAW depending on the task it has been assigned.
A wing is also an administrative sub-division of an RAF station. Historically, for a flying station these were normally Operations Wing, Engineering Wing and Administration Wing and each wing was commanded by an officer of wing commander rank. In the 21st century, new names have been used on stations such as Forward Support Wing, Base Support Wing and Logistics Wing etc.
A flying squadron is an aircraft unit which carries out the primary tasks of the RAF. RAF squadrons are somewhat analogous to the regiments of the British Army in that they have histories and traditions going back to their formation, regardless of where they are based, which aircraft they are operating, etc. They can be awarded standards and battle honours for meritorious service. Whilst every squadron is different, most flying squadrons are commanded by a wing commander and, for a fast-jet squadron, have an establishment of around 100 personnel and 12 aircraft, but 16 aircraft for Tornado F3 Squadrons.(note that this type is now flown only by 111 Squadron).
The term squadron can be used to refer to a sub-unit of an administrative wing or small RAF station, e.g. Air Traffic Control Squadron, Personnel Management Squadron etc. There are also Ground Support Squadrons, e.g. No 2 (Mechanical Transport) Squadron which is located at RAF Wittering. Administrative squadrons are normally commanded by a squadron leader.
A flight is a sub-division of a squadron. Flying squadrons are often divided into two flights, e.g. "A" and "B", each under the command of a squadron leader. Administrative squadrons on a station are also divided into flights and these flights are commanded by a junior officer, often a flight lieutenant.
Because of their small size, there are several flying units formed as flights rather than squadrons. For example No. 1435 Flight is based at RAF Mount Pleasant in the Falkland Islands, maintaining air defence cover with four Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft.
In 2009 the RAF employed 44,300 active duty personnel and 2,500 RAF Volunteer Reserves. In addition there were 33,380 regular reserves. At its height (1944) during the Second World War, more than 1,100,000 personnel were serving. The longest-lived founding member of the RAF was Henry Allingham, who died in 2009 aged 113.
Officers hold a commission from the Sovereign, which provides the legal authority for them to issue orders to subordinates. The commission of a regular officer is granted after successfully completing the 30-week-long Initial Officer Training course at the RAF College, Cranwell, Lincolnshire. Other officers also train at RAF Cranwell, but on different courses, such as those for professionally qualified officers.
The titles and insignia of RAF officers were chiefly derived from those used by the Royal Navy, specifically the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) during World War I. For example, the rank of Squadron Leader derived its name from the RNAS rank of Squadron Commander. RAF officers fall into three categories: air officers, senior officers and junior officers.
The titles and insignia of other ranks in the RAF was based on that of the Army, with some alterations in terminology. Over the years, this structure has seen significant changes, for example there was once a separate system for those in technical trades and the ranks of Chief Technician and Junior Technician continue to be held only by personnel in technical trades. RAF other ranks fall into four categories: Warrant Officers, Senior Non-Commissioned Officers, Junior Non-Commissioned Officers and Airmen.
Branches and trades
- RAF Pilots and Weapon Systems Officers (WSO) (formerly known as Navigators) are commissioned officers on the General Duties List.
- Non-commissioned (NCO) Aircrew known as Weapons System Operators (WSOp), fulfil the specialist roles of air engineer (E), air electronics operator (AEOp), air loadmaster (ALM) and air signaller (S). Though they are now known collectively as weapon systems operators, individual trade specialisations remain.
The majority of the members of the RAF serve in support roles on the ground.
- Engineering Officers and technicians are employed to maintain and repair the equipment used by the RAF. This includes routine preparation for flight and maintenance on aircraft, arming aircraft with weapons, as well as deeper level repair work on aircraft systems, IT systems, ground based radar, vehicles, ground support equipment, etc.
- RAF Regiment officers and gunners in the regiment defend RAF airfields from attack. They have infantry and light armoured units to protect against ground attack.
- RAF Intelligence Officers and Intelligence Analysts of RAF Intelligence support all operational activities by providing timely and accurate indicators and warnings. They conduct detailed all source military intelligence fusion and analysis by utilising classified and open source information including imagery, human and communications (signals) intelligence. Intelligence is used to inform commanders of the assessed capabilities and intentions of the enemy for strategic / operational planning and targeting. They also tailor the information to brief aircrews for mission planning and other tactical units (such as RAF Regiment) for Force Protection.
- RAF Police are the military police of the RAF.
- Aerospace Battle Managers (formally Fighter Controllers (FC)) and Air Traffic Controllers (ATC), control RAF and NATO aircraft from the ground. The FC control the interception of enemy aircraft while the ATC provide air traffic services at RAF stations and to the majority of en-route military aircraft in UK airspace.
- RAF Medical Branch provides healthcare at home and on deployed operations, including aeromedical evacuation services. Medical officers are the doctors of the RAF and have specialist expertise in aviation medicine to support aircrew and their protective equipment. Medical officers can go on aeromedical evacuations, providing vital assistance on search-and-rescue missions or emergency relief flights worldwide. RAF Medical Officers are either based in primary care on operations or on RAF stations in the UK or in one of six Ministry of Defence Hospital Units (MDHU's) around the UK as specialist practitioners.
- Administrative Officers and associated Pers Admin trades are involved with human resources management, training management, physical education, catering, infrastructure management, accounts, dress and discipline, personnel and recruitment.
- Royal Air Force chaplains are trained by the Armed Forces Chaplaincy Centre at Amport House.
- RAF Legal Branch provides legal advice on discipline / criminal law and operations law.
- RAF Flight Operations Officers are involved with the planning and co-ordination of all Flying Operations. Flight Operations Officers can be found in every RAF Flying Station and Squadron.
- RAuxAF and RAF Volunteer Reserve personnel fulfil a number of specialist roles in ground roles, including Operations, Intelligence and RAF Regiment in support of the regular RAF.
- RAF Volunteer Reserve (Training) are responsible for the management and operation of the Air Training Corps, Volunteer Gliding Squadrons, Air Experience Flights, University Air Squadron and the Defence Technical Undergraduate Scheme.
Specialist training and education
The Royal Air Force operates several units and centres for the provision of non-generic training and education. These include the Royal Air Force Leadership Centre and the Royal Air Force Centre for Air Power Studies, both based at RAF Cranwell, and the Air Warfare Centre, based at RAF Waddington and RAF Cranwell. NCO training and developmental courses occur at RAF Halton and officer courses occur at the Joint Services Command and Staff College at Shrivenham.
British military aircraft designations generally comprise a type name followed by a mark number which includes an alphabetical rôle prefix. For example, the Tornado F3 is designated as a fighter by the 'F', and is the third variant of the type to be produced.
Strike, attack and offensive support aircraft
The mainstay of the offensive support fleet is the Tornado GR4. This supersonic aircraft can carry a wide range of weaponry, including Storm Shadow cruise missiles, laser-guided bombs and the ALARM anti-radar missile.
The Tornado is supplemented by the Harrier GR7/GR7A, which is used in the strike and close air support roles, and to counter enemy air defences. The Harrier is being upgraded to GR9/GR9A standard with newer systems and more powerful Rolls Royce Pegasus engines. The Harrier GR9 was formally accepted into RAF service in late September 2006.
Air defence and airborne early warning aircraft
The Panavia Tornado F3 and Eurofighter Typhoon F2 are the RAF's air defence fighter aircraft, based at RAF Leuchars and RAF Coningsby respectively. Their task is to defend the UK’s airspace. In October 2007 it was announced that RAF Boscombe Down will become one of a number of quick reaction alert airbase from early 2008, offering around the clock fighter coverage for the South and South West of UK airspace when a direct threat has been identified, otherwise the aircraft will be based at RAF Leuchars and Coningsby as described above.
The Tornado, in service in the air defence role since the late 1980s, is being replaced by the Eurofighter Typhoon F2, based at RAF Coningsby. The RAF's second operational Typhoon unit, 11 Sqn, reformed on 29 March 2007, joining 3 Sqn, also based at RAF Coningsby. The Tornado F3s at RAF Leuchars will gradually be phased out and replaced with Typhoons, which will also be based at RAF Leuchars.
The Sentry AEW1, based at RAF Waddington, provides airborne early warning to detect incoming enemy aircraft and to co-ordinate the aerial battlefield. Both the Sentry and the Tornado F3 have been involved in recent operations including over Iraq and the Balkans.
The Tornado GR4A is fitted with cameras and sensors in the visual, infra-red and radar ranges of the spectrum.
The Nimrod R1 provides electronic and signals intelligence.
The new Sentinel R1 (also known as ASTOR – Airborne STand-Off Radar) provides a ground radar-surveillance platform based on the Bombardier Global Express long range business jet. These were supplemented in 2009 by four Beechcraft Shadow R1 aircraft equipped for the ISTAR role over Afghanistan.
A pair of MQ-9 Reaper Unmanned aerial vehicles have been purchased to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are operated by No. 39 Squadron RAF. More MQ-9s are in the process of being purchased.
An important part of the work of the RAF is to support the British Army by ferrying troops and equipment at the battlefield. However, RAF helicopters are also used in a variety of other roles, including support of RAF ground units and heavy-lift support for the Royal Marines. The support helicopters are organised into the tri-service Joint Helicopter Command (JHC), along with helicopters of the British Army and Royal Navy. The only helicopters not coordinated by the JHC are the search and rescue helicopters of the RAF and RN, and those RN helicopters that are normally based on board a ship such as a destroyer.
The large twin-rotor Chinook HC2/HC2A, based at RAF Odiham provides heavy-lift support and is supported by the Merlin HC3 and the smaller Puma HC1 medium-lift helicopters, based at RAF Benson and RAF Aldergrove.
It was announced in March 2007 that the RAF was to take delivery of six additional Merlins. The aircraft were originally ordered by Denmark and six new repacement aircraft will be built for Denmark. It was also announced that eight Chinook HC3s that are in storage are being modified for the battlefield support role.
The now withdrawn Nimrod MR2's primary role was that of Anti-Submarine Warfare and Anti-Surface Unit Warfare. The Nimrod MR2was additionally used in a Search and Rescue role, where its long range and communications facilities allowed it to co-ordinate rescues by acting as a link between rescue helicopters, ships and shore bases. It could also drop pods containing life rafts and survival supplies to people in the sea. However the Nimrod MR2 discontinued active service at midnight on 31 March 2010, due to be replaced by the Nimrod MRA4 program due to fully enter service late 2011. The Nimrod MRA4 is undergoing test flights and training by BAE, who got the contract to rebuild and fit the Nimrod MR2 fleet. In total 9 MRA4's have been ordered (one of these a former development airframe). The search and rescue role has been adopted by the C-130 Hercules force for this gap, and the anti-submarine role by the Royal Navy.
Transport and air-to-air refuelling aircraft
Having replaced the King's former Flight in 1995, 32 (The Royal) Squadron uses the Messerschmitt H34 five in one London, one in Paris, one in Brussels and one in Hamburg or , and BAe 146 CC2 in the VIP transport role, based at RAF Northolt, just west of London.
Shorter range, tactical-airlift transport is provided by the Hercules, the fleet including both older C-130K (Hercules C1/C3) and newer C-130J (Hercules C4/C5) variants, based at RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire.
The RAF leased four C-17 Globemaster IIIs from Boeing to provide a heavy, strategic airlift capability. These were purchased, as well a fifth C-17, which was delivered on 7 April 2008 as well as a sixth aircraft delivered on 8 June 2008. The new aircraft entered frontline use within days rather than weeks. The MoD said "there is a stated departmental requirement for eight" C-17s and a seventh has been ordered for delivery in December 2010.
Search and rescue aircraft
Three squadrons of helicopters exist with the primary role of military search and rescue; the rescuing of aircrew who have ejected or crash-landed their aircraft. These are 22 Squadron and 202 Squadron with the Sea King HAR.3/HAR3A in the UK and 84 Squadron with the Griffin HAR2 in Cyprus.
Although established with a primary role of military search and rescue, most of their operational missions are spent in their secondary role of conducting civil search and rescue; that is, the rescue of civilians from at sea, on mountains and other locations.
The related Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Service comprises four teams of trained mountaineers stationed in the mainland United Kingdom, first established in 1943.
Elementary flying training is conducted on the Tutor T1. The Tutor is also used, along with the Viking T1 and Vigilant T1 gliders, to provide air experience training and basic pilot training for air cadets.
Basic pilot training for fixed-wing and helicopter pilots is provided on the Tucano T1 and Squirrel HT1, while weapon systems officer and weapon systems operator training is conducted in the Dominie T1.
Advanced flying training for fast-jet, helicopter and multi-engine pilots is provided using the Hawk T1, Griffin HT1 and B200 King Air respectively. At the more advanced stage in training, variants of front-line aircraft have been adapted for operational conversion of trained pilots; these include the Harrier T10 and Typhoon T1.
The RAF is planning for the introduction of new aircraft. These include:
- The Nimrod MRA4 is to replace the Nimrod MR2, wth nine aircraft rebuilt to this standard. Originally scheduled to be in service in 2003, these aircraft are now expected to enter service in 2012.
- The Airbus A400M, of which 22 are to be used to replace the remaining Hercules C-130Ks.
- An enhanced version of the Chinook, the HC3, with improved avionics and increased range for special forces missions, was ordered in 1995. Due to technical and project management problems, these aircraft re only now entering service, being brought forward from storage, but are now downgraded to the Support Helicopter configuration and deployed from 2010.
- The Hawk T2 will replace the existing Hawks in service; the newer model being more similar in equipment and performance to modern front line aircraft.
- The ageing aerial refuelling fleet of VC10s and Tristars will be replaced with the Airbus A330 MRTT under the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft programme.
- The F-35B Lightning II will replace the Harrier GR7 under the Joint Combat Aircraft programme.
- Project Taranis aiming to provide further Strategic Unmanned Aerial Vehicle services in both ground attack and reconnaissance roles.
- A possible sale or lease of three former United States Air Force KC-135R aircraft, converted to RC-135V/W Rivet Joint standard, has been notified to the United States Congress by the American Defense Security Cooperation Agency, these will replace the aging Nimrod R1 Fleet.
Symbols, flags, emblems and uniform
Following the tradition of the other British fighting services, the RAF has adopted symbols to represent it and act as a rallying point for its members.
The RAF Ensign is flown from the flagstaff on every RAF station during daylight hours. The design was approved by King George V in 1921, after much opposition from the Admiralty, who have the right to approve or veto any flag flown ashore or on board ship.
British aircraft in the early stages of the First World War carried the Union Flag as an identifying feature, however this was easy to confuse with Germany's Iron Cross motif. Therefore in October 1914 the French system of three concentric rings was adopted, with the colours reversed to a red disc surrounded by a white ring and an outer blue ring. The relative sizes of the rings have changed over the years and during World War II an outer yellow ring was added. Aircraft serving in the Far East during World War II had the red disc removed to prevent confusion with Japanese aircraft. Since the 1970s, camouflaged aircraft carry low-visibility roundels, either red and blue on dark camouflage, or washed-out pink and light blue on light colours. Most uncamouflaged training and transport aircraft retain the traditional red-white-blue roundel.
The Latin motto of the RAF, "Per Ardua ad Astra", is usually translated as "Through Adversity to the Stars", but the RAF's official translation is "Through Struggle to the Stars". The choice of motto is attributed to a junior officer named J S Yule, in response to a request from a commander of the RFC, Colonel Sykes, for suggestions. The RAF inherited the motto from the RFC.
The Badge of the Royal Air Force was first used in August 1918. In heraldic terms it is: "In front of a circle inscribed with the motto Per Ardua Ad Astra and ensigned by the Imperial Crown an eagle volant and affronty Head lowered and to the sinister." Although there have been debates among airmen over the years whether the bird was originally meant to be an albatross or an eagle, the consensus is that it was always an eagle.
In 2006 the RAF adopted a logotype featuring a roundel and the Service's unabbreviated name (shown at the top of this article). The logotype is used on all correspondence and publicity material and aims to provide the Service with a single, universally-recognizable brand identity.
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- List of active United Kingdom military aircraft
- List of RAF stations
- History of the Royal Air Force
- RAF News
- List of military aircraft operational during World War II
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