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 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". 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".
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. 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. At that time it was the largest air force in the world. Its headquarters was located in the former Hotel Cecil.
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 MarshalHarris, that these attacks became increasingly devastating, from early 1943 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. 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, or the Amiens prison raid known as Operation Jericho.
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.
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. 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.
In 1957, the RAF participated heavily during the Jebel Akhdar War in Oman, operating both de Havilland Venom and Avro Shackleton aircraft. The RAF made 1,635 raids, dropping 1,094 tons and firing 900 rockets at the interior of Oman between July and December 1958, targeting insurgents, mountain top villages and water channels in a war that remained under low profile. The Konfrontasi against Indonesia in the early 1960s did see use of RAF aircraft, but due to a combination of deft diplomacy and selective ignoring of certain events by both sides, it never developed into a full-scale war.
RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire and RAF Lossiemouth in Moray both provide QRA aircraft, and scramble their Typhoons within minutes to meet or intercept aircraft which give cause for concern. Lossiemouth generally covers the northern sector of UK airspace, while Coningsby covers the southern sector. Typhoon pilot Flight Lieutenant Noel Rees describes how QRA duty works. "At the start of the scaled QRA response, civilian air traffic controllers might see on their screens an aircraft behaving erratically, not responding to their radio calls, or note that it's transmitting a distress signal through its transponder. Rather than scramble Typhoons at the first hint of something abnormal, a controller has the option to put them on a higher level of alert, 'a call to cockpit'. In this scenario the pilot races to the hardened aircraft shelter and does everything short of starting his engines".
In 2018, the RAF's vision of a future constellation of imagery satellites was initiated through the launch of the Carbonite-2 technology demonstrator. The 100 kg Carbonite-2 uses commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components to deliver high-quality imagery and 3D video footage from space.
From March 2020, as part of Operation Rescript, the RAF has been assisting with the response efforts to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom. This has seen the service provide repatriation flights and aeromedical evacuations of COVID-19 patients, drivers and call-handlers to support ambulance services and medics to assist with the staffing of hospitals, testing units and vaccination centres. Under Operation Broadshare, the RAF has also been involved with COVID-19 relief operations overseas, repatriating stranded nationals and delivering medical supplies and vaccines to British Overseas Territories and military installations.
United Kingdom Space Command (UKSC), established 1 April 2021 under the command of Air Vice-Marshal Paul Godfrey is a joint command, but sits "under the Royal Air Force." Godfrey is of equal rank to the commanders of 1, 2, 11, and 22 Groups. The new command has "responsibility for not just operations, but also generating, training and growing the force, and also owning the money and putting all the programmatic rigour into delivering new ..capabilities." UKSC headquarters is at RAF High Wycombe co-located with Air Command.
Groups are the subdivisions of operational commands and are responsible for certain types of capabilities or for operations in limited geographical areas. There are five groups subordinate to Air Command, of which four are functional and one is geographically focused:
No. 11 Group is responsible for integrating operations across the air, cyber and space domains whilst responding to new and evolving threats. It includes the RAF's Battlespace Management Force which controls the UK Air Surveillance and Control System (ASACS). The group oversees stations at RAF Boulmer in Northumberland, RAF Fylingdales in North Yorkshire, RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire and RAF Spadeadam in Cumbria.
An RAF station is ordinarily subordinate to a group and is commanded by a group captain. Each station typically hosts several flying and non-flying squadrons or units which are supported by administrative and support wings.
Front-line flying operations are focussed at eight stations:
The UK operates permanent military airfields (known as Permanent Joint Operating Bases) in four British Overseas Territories. These bases contribute to the physical defence and maintenance of sovereignty of the British Overseas Territories and enable the UK to conduct expeditionary military operations. Although command and oversight of the bases is provided by Strategic Command, the airfield elements are known as RAF stations.
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 or which aircraft they are operating. They can be awarded standards and battle honours for meritorious service. Most flying squadrons are commanded by a wing commander and, for a fast-jet squadron, have an establishment of around twelve aircraft.
Independent flights are so designated because they are explicitly smaller in size than a squadron. Many independent flights are, or have been, front-line flying units. For example, No. 1435 Flight carries out air defence duties for the Falkland Islands, with four Eurofighter Typhoon fighters based at RAF Mount Pleasant.
Command, control, and support for overseas operations is typically provided through Expeditionary Air Wings (EAWs). Each wing is brought together as and when required and comprises the deployable elements of its home station as well as other support elements from throughout the RAF.
The RAF Schools consist of the squadrons and support apparatus that train new aircrew to join front-line squadrons. The schools separate individual streams, but group together units with similar responsibility or that operate the same aircraft type. Some schools operate with only one squadron, and have an overall training throughput which is relatively small; some, like No. 3 Flying Training School, have responsibility for all Elementary Flying Training (EFT) in the RAF, and all RAF aircrew will pass through its squadrons when they start their flying careers. No. 2 Flying Training School and No. 6 Flying Training School do not have a front-line training responsibility – their job is to group the University Air Squadrons and the Volunteer Gliding Squadrons together. The commanding officer of No. 2 FTS holds the only full-time flying appointment for a Group Captain in the RAF, and is a reservist.
Central Flying School (RAF Cranwell) – standardises flying training across the air force and ensures standards and safety are maintained.
The British military operate a number of joint training organisations, with Air Command leading the provision of technical training through the Defence College of Technical Training (DCTT). It provides training in aeronautical engineering, electro and mechanical engineering, and communication and information systems.
No. 1 School of Technical Training is based at RAF Cosford and provides RAF personnel with mechanical, avionics, weapons and survival equipment training. Also based at Cosford is the Aerosystems Engineer and Management Training School. Both are part of the Defence School of Aeronautical Engineering.
No. 4 School of Technical Training is part of the Defence School of Electronic and Mechanical Engineering (DSEME) and is based at MOD St Athan. It provides training to non-aircraft ground engineering technicians.
At its height in 1944 during the Second World War, more than 1,100,000 personnel were serving in the RAF. The longest-lived founding member of the RAF was Henry Allingham, who died on 18 July 2009 aged 113.
As of 1 January 2015, the RAF numbered some 34,200 Regular and 1,940 Royal Auxiliary Air Force personnel, giving a combined component strength of 36,140 personnel. In addition to the active elements of the RAF, (Regular and Royal Auxiliary Air Force), all ex-Regular personnel remain liable to be recalled for duty in a time of need, this is known as the Regular Reserve. In 2007, there were 33,980 RAF Regular Reserves, of which 7,950 served under a fixed-term reserve contract. Publications since April 2013 no-longer report the entire strength of the Regular Reserve, instead they only give a figure for Regular Reserves who serve under a fixed-term reserve contract. They had a strength of 7,120 personnel in 2014.
Figures provided by the International Institute for Strategic Studies from 2012 showed that RAF pilots achieve a relatively high number of flying hours per year when compared with other major NATO allies such as France and Germany. RAF pilots achieve 210 to 290 flying hours per year. French and German Air Force pilots achieved 180 and 150 flying hours across their fleets respectively.
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 24-week-long Initial Officer Training course at the RAF College, Cranwell, Lincolnshire.
Other ranks attend the Recruit Training Squadron at RAF Halton for basic training. The titles and insignia of other ranks in the RAF were 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. All Warrant Officers in the RAF are equal in terms of rank, but the most senior Non-Commissioned appointment is known as the Warrant Officer of the Royal Air Force.
The Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 is the RAF's primary multi-role air defence and ground attack fighter aircraft, following the retirement of the Panavia Tornado F3 in late March 2011. With the completion of 'Project Centurion' upgrades, the Typhoon FGR4 took over ground attack duties from the Panavia Tornado GR4, which was retired on 1 April 2019. The Typhoon is tasked to defend UK airspace, while also frequently deploying in support of NATO air defence missions in the Baltic (Operation Azotize), Black Sea (Operation Biloxi), and Iceland.
Intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR)
Six Hawker Beechcraft Shadow R1s (with two more to be converted) are operated by No. 14 Squadron from RAF Waddington, these aircraft are King Air 350CERs that have been specially converted for the ISTAR role. Four Shadow R1s were originally ordered in 2007 due to an Urgent Operational Requirement, and began the conversion process to the ISTAR role in 2009.ZZ416 was the first Shadow R1 to be delivered in May 2009 to No. V (AC) Squadron. A further Shadow was procured and delivered in December 2011. The Shadow fleet was transferred over to the newly reformed No. 14 Squadron in October 2011. Following the 2015 SDSR, three more Shadows were ordered and the fleet was given an OSD of 2030.
The first production Poseidon MRA1 ZP801 made its initial flight on 13 July 2019.ZP801 arrived at Kinloss Barracks, the former home of the Nimrod, on 4 February 2020, filling a decade long gap in maritime capability. The Poseidon was declared combat ready in April 2020. The Poseidon carried out its first operational mission on 3 August 2020, when the Russian warship Vasily Bykov was tracked. A Poseidon MRA1 arrived at RAF Lossiemouth for the first time in October 2020. The ninth, and final Poseidon arrived at RAF Lossiemouth on 11 January 2022.
No. 99 Squadron operate eight Boeing C-17A Globemaster III in the heavy strategic airlift role from RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire. Four C-17A were originally leased from Boeing in 2000, These four were subsequently purchased outright, followed by a fifth delivered on 7 April 2008 and a sixth delivered on 11 June 2008. The MOD said there was "a stated departmental requirement for eight" C-17s and a seventh was subsequently ordered, to be delivered in December 2010. In February 2012 the purchase of an eighth C-17 was confirmed; the aircraft arrived at RAF Brize Norton in May 2012.
Shorter range, tactical-airlift transport is provided by the Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules, known as the Hercules C4 (C-130J-30) and Hercules C5 (C-130J) in RAF service, based at RAF Brize Norton and flown by No. 47 Squadron. Twenty-five C-130Js were originally ordered in December 1994 (15 C4s and ten C5s), the first Hercules C4 to be delivered was ZH865 in August 1998, with the first Hercules C5 (ZH881) in May 1999. The 2010 SDSR called for the retirement of the Hercules fleet by 2022, with the 2015 SDSR amending this to maintaining the fourteen Hercules C4s until 2030. The draw-down of the Hercules C5 fleet began in 2016, with two left in service by December 2020. The fourteen C4 extended variants were scheduled to retire on 31 March 2035. However, due to the crash of Hercules C4 ZH873 in August 2017, one Hercules C5 was retained to keep the fleet at 14 aircraft. The 2021 Defence Command Paper brought forward the retirement of the Hercules fleet to 2023.
The Airbus Atlas C1 (A400M) replaced the RAF's fleet of Hercules C1/C3 (C-130K) which were withdrawn from use on 28 October 2013, having originally entered service in 1967. Based at RAF Brize Norton, the Atlas fleet is operated by No. 30 Squadron and No. LXX Squadron. The first Atlas C1 (ZM400) was delivered to the RAF in November 2014. The A400M is also expected to replace the C4/C5 variants. Originally, twenty-five A400Ms were ordered; the total purchase has now dropped to twenty-two.
Air transport tasks are also carried out by the Airbus Voyager KC2/3, flown by No. 10 Squadron and No. 101 Squadron. The first Voyager (ZZ330) arrived in the UK for testing at MOD Boscombe Down in April 2011, and entered service in April 2012. The Voyager received approval from the MOD on 16 May 2013 to begin air-to-air refuelling flights and made its first operational tanker flight on 20 May 2013 as part of a training sortie with Tornado GR4s. By 21 May 2013, the Voyager fleet had carried over 50,000 passengers and carried over 3,000 tons of cargo. A total of fourteen Voyagers form the fleet, with nine allocated to sole RAF use (three KC2s and six KC3s). As the Voyagers lack a refuelling boom, the RAF has requested a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the USAF allowing the UK access to tankers equipped with refuelling booms for its RC-135W Rivet Joint .
Volunteer Gliding Squadrons also provide air experience flying to cadets using the Grob Viking T1 conventional glider. Due to an airworthiness issue in April 2014, the Viking fleet and the Grob Vigilant T1 fleet were grounded for a two-year period, although Viking operations have subsequently resumed. The Vigilant was unexpectedly withdrawn from service in May 2018, a year earlier than planned. A contract tender was initiated in February 2018 to replace this capability from 2022 onwards.
The Grob Prefect T1 was introduced to RAF service in 2016 as its elementary trainer. The 23-strong fleet is based at RAF Cranwell and RAF Barkston Heath in Lincolnshire where they are operated by No. 57 Squadron. On completion of elementary training, aircrew are then streamed to either fast jet, multi-engine, or rotary training.
Basic fast jet training
Basic fast jet training is provided on the Beechcraft Texan T1, which replaced the Short Tucano T1 in November 2019. The Texan is a tandem-seat turboprop aircraft, featuring a digital glass cockpit. It is operated by No. 72 (F) Squadron based at RAF Valley in Anglesey which provides lead-in training for RAF and Royal Navy fighter pilots prior to advanced training on the BAE Hawk T2. The first two Texans were delivered in February 2018 and by December 2018 ten aircraft had arrived at RAF Valley. Four additional Texans were delivered on 3 November 2020.
Advanced fast jet training
The BAE Hawk T2 is flown by No. IV (AC) Squadron and No. XXV (F) Squadron based at RAF Valley. The latter provides initial Advanced Fast Jet Training (AFJT), while pilots who graduate on to the former squadron learn tactical and weapons training. After advanced training aircrew go on to an Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) where they are trained to fly either the Typhoon FGR4 (No. 29 Squadron at RAF Coningsby) or F-35B Lightning (No. 207 Squadron at RAF Marham) in preparation for service with a front-line squadron. The OCUs use operational aircraft alongside simulators and ground training, although in the case of the Typhoon a two-seater training variant exists which is designated the Typhoon T3.
On 15 October 2020, it was announced a joint RAF-Qatari Air Force Hawk squadron (similar to No. 12 Squadron) would be formed in the future. On 1 April 2021, it was further elaborated that this squadron would stand-up in September 2021 at RAF Leeming, North Yorkshire. The Joint Hawk Training Squadron received its first two Hawk Mk.167s at RAF Leeming on 1 September 2021. On 24 November 2021, the Joint Hawk Training Squadron became 11 Squadron QEAF when it reformed at RAF Leeming.
Multi-Engine aircrew, weapon systems officer (WSO) and weapon systems operator (WSOp) students are trained on the Embraer Phenom T1. It is operated by No. 45 Squadron based at RAF Cranwell. Multi-engine aircrew then go to their Operational Conversion Unit or front-line squadron.
On 5 October 2015, it was announced that the Scavenger programme had been replaced by "Protector", a new requirement for at least 20 unmanned aerial vehicles. On 7 October 2015, it was revealed that Protector will be a certifiable derivative of the MQ-9B SkyGuardian with enhanced range and endurance. In 2016, it was indicated that at least sixteen aircraft would be purchased with a maximum of up to twenty-six. In July 2018, a General Atomics US civil-registered SkyGuardian was flown from North Dakota to RAF Fairford for the Royal International Air Tattoo where it was given RAF markings. It was formally announced by the Chief of Air Staff that No. 31 Squadron would become the first squadron to operate the Protector RG1 as it will be known in RAF service. In July 2020, the Ministry of Defence signed a contract for three Protectors with an option on an additional thirteen aircraft. The 2021 Defence Command Paper confirmed the order for 16 Protectors, despite the fact that the 2015 SDSR originally laid out plans for more than 20.
In July 2014, the House of Commons Defence Select Committee released a report on the RAF future force structure that envisaged a mixture of unmanned and manned platforms, including further F-35, Protector RG1, a service life extension for the Typhoon (which would otherwise end its service in 2030) or a possible new manned aircraft. In July 2018, at the Farnborough Airshow, the Defence Secretary announced a £2bn investment for BAE Systems, MBDA and Leonardo to develop a new British 6th Generation Fighter to replace Typhoon in 2035 under Project Tempest.
On 22 March 2019, the Defence Secretary announced the UK had signed a $1.98 billion deal to procure five Boeing E-7 Wedgetails to replace the ageing Boeing E-3D Sentry AEW1 fleet in the Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) role. As of May 2020, the first E-7 is expected to enter RAF service in 2023 with the final aircraft arriving in late 2025 or early 2026. In December 2020, it was announced that the Wedgetail AEW1 will be based at RAF Lossiemouth. The 2021 Defence Command Paper cut the Wedgetail order down to three aircraft. The Sentry AEW1s were officially withdrawn on 28 September 2021.
Following the tradition of the other British armed services, the RAF has adopted symbols to represent it, use as rallying devices for members and promote esprit de corps. British aircraft in the early stages of the First World War carried the Union Flag as an identifying feature; however, this was easily confused with Germany's Iron Cross motif. In October 1914, therefore, 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 the Second World War an outer yellow ring was added to the fuselage roundel. Aircraft serving in the Far East during the Second World War 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 non-camouflaged training and transport aircraft retain the traditional red-white-blue roundel.
The RAF's motto is "Per ardua ad astra" and is usually translated from Latin 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 for suggestions from a commander of the Royal Flying Corps, Colonel Sykes.
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 affronte 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.
The Red Arrows, officially known as the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, is the aerobatics display team of the Royal Air Force based at RAF Scampton, with plans for the team to relocate to RAF Waddington. The team was formed in late 1964 as an all-RAF team, replacing a number of unofficial teams that had been sponsored by RAF commands. The Red Arrows badge shows the aircraft in their trademark Diamond Nine formation, with the motto Éclat, a French word meaning "brilliance" or "excellence".
Initially, they were equipped with seven Folland Gnat trainers inherited from the RAF Yellowjacks display team. This aircraft was chosen because it was less expensive to operate than front-line fighters. In their first season, they flew at sixty-five shows across Europe. In 1966, the team was increased to nine members, enabling them to develop their Diamond Nine formation. In late 1979, they switched to the BAE Hawk trainer. The Red Arrows have performed over 4,700 displays in fifty-six countries worldwide.
^Since April 2013, MoD publications no longer report the entire strength of the Regular Reserve, instead, only Regular Reserves serving under a fixed-term reserve contract are counted. These contracts are similar in nature to the Royal Auxiliary Air Force.
^Marshal of the Royal Air Force has become an honorary/posthumous rank, war time rank; ceremonial rank.
^Tami Davis Biddle, "British and American Approaches to Strategic Bombing: Their Origins and Implementation in the World War II Combined Bomber Offensive." Journal of Strategic Studies, March 1995, Vol. 18 Issue 1, pp 91–144; Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914–1945 (2002)
^"The Few". The Churchill Centre. March 2009. Archived from the original on 4 March 2012. Retrieved 29 April 2011. The gratitude of every home in our island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
^Overy, Richard (2013). The Bombing War. Penguin. p. 322.