Royal Air Force

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Royal Air Force
Air Force Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg
Aircraft flown
Attack
Fighter
Multirole helicopter
Trainer helicopter
Reconnaissance
Trainer
Transport
Tanker

The Royal Air Force (RAF) is the United Kingdom's air and space force.[3] It was formed towards the end of the First World War on 1 April 1918, becoming the first independent air force in the world, by regrouping the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS).[4] Following the Allied victory over the Central Powers in 1918, the RAF emerged as the largest air force in the world at the time.[5] Since its formation, the RAF has taken a significant role in British military history. In particular, it played a large part in the Second World War where it fought its most famous campaign, the Battle of Britain.[6]

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".[7] The RAF describes its mission statement as "... [to provide] 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".[8] The mission statement is supported by the RAF's definition of air power, which guides its strategy. Air power is defined as "the ability to project power from the air and space to influence the behaviour of people or the course of events".[9]

Today, the Royal Air Force maintains an operational fleet of various types of aircraft,[10] described by the RAF as being "leading-edge" in terms of technology.[11] This largely consists of fixed-wing aircraft, including those in the following roles: fighter and strike, airborne early warning and control, intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR), signals intelligence (SIGINT), maritime patrol, air-to-air refuelling (AAR) and strategic & tactical transport. The majority of the RAF's rotary-wing aircraft form part of the tri-service Joint Helicopter Command in support of ground forces. Most of the RAF's aircraft and personnel are based in the UK, with many others serving on global operations (principally over Iraq and Syria) or at long-established overseas bases (Ascension Island, Cyprus, Gibraltar, and the Falkland Islands). 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 operate armed aircraft.

History

Origins

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.[12] The RAF was founded on 1 April 1918 (during World War I) by the amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), as recommended in a report prepared by Jan Smuts.[13] At that time it was the largest air force in the world.[13] Its headquarters was located in the former Hotel Cecil.[14]

After the war, the RAF was drastically cut and its inter-war years were relatively quiet. The RAF was put in charge of British military activity in Iraq, and carried out minor activities in other parts of the British Empire, including establishing bases to protect Singapore and Malaya.[15] The RAF's naval aviation branch, the Fleet Air Arm, was founded in 1924 but handed over to Admiralty control on 24 May 1939.[16]

The RAF adopted the doctrine of strategic bombing, which led to the construction of long-range bombers and became its main bombing strategy in the Second World War.[17]

Second World War

The Royal Air Force 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. By the end of the war the Royal Canadian Air Force had contributed more than 30 squadrons to serve in RAF formations, similarly, approximately a quarter of Bomber Command's personnel were Canadian.[18] Additionally, the Royal Australian Air Force represented around nine percent of all RAF personnel who served in the European and Mediterranean theatres.[19]

During the
The Avro Lancaster heavy bomber was extensively used during the strategic bombing of Germany.

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 at first it was ineffectual; it was only later, particularly under the leadership of Air Chief Marshal Harris, that these attacks became increasingly devastating, from early 1943 onward, as new technology and greater numbers of superior aircraft became available.[21] The RAF adopted night-time area bombing on German cities such as Hamburg and Dresden. Night time area bombing constituted the great bulk of the RAF's bombing campaign, mainly due to Harris, but it also developed precision bombing techniques for specific operations, such as the "Dambusters" raid by No. 617 Squadron,[22] or the Amiens prison raid known as Operation Jericho.[23]

Cold War era

Following victory in the Second World War, the RAF underwent significant re-organisation, as technological advances in air warfare saw the arrival of jet fighters and bombers. During the early stages of the Cold War, one of the first major operations undertaken by the RAF was the Berlin Airlift, codenamed Operation Plainfire. Between 26 June 1948 and the lifting of the Russian blockade of the city on 12 May 1949, the RAF provided 17% of the total supplies delivered, using Avro Yorks, Douglas Dakotas flying to Gatow Airport and Short Sunderlands flying to Lake Havel.[24]

The Handley Page Victor bomber was a strategic bomber of the RAF's V bomber force used to carry both conventional and nuclear bombs
.

Before Britain developed its own nuclear weapons, the RAF was provided with American nuclear weapons under Project E. However, following the development of its own arsenal, the British Government elected on 16 February 1960 to share the country's nuclear deterrent between the RAF and submarines of the Royal Navy, first deciding to concentrate solely on the air force's V bomber fleet. These were initially armed with nuclear gravity bombs, later being equipped with the Blue Steel missile. Following the development of the Royal Navy's Polaris submarines, the strategic nuclear deterrent passed to the navy's submarines on 30 June 1969.[25] With the introduction of Polaris, the RAF's strategic nuclear role was reduced to a tactical one, using WE.177 gravity bombs. This tactical role was continued by the V bombers into the 1980s and until 1998 by the Panavia Tornado GR1.[26][27]

The Avro Vulcan was a strategic bomber used during the Cold War to carry conventional and nuclear bombs
.

For much of the Cold War the primary role of the RAF was the defence of

RAF Shackleton flying in formation in 1957 during the Jebel Akhdar War in Oman