Royal Air Force

This article is about the air force of the United Kingdom. For other uses, see Royal Air Force (disambiguation) and RAF (disambiguation).
Royal Air Force

Royal Air Force emblem
Founded 1 April 1918 (98 years)
Country  United Kingdom
Allegiance Elizabeth II
Type Air force
Role Aerial warfare
Size 34,200 Regular
1,940 RAuxAF
2,220 Air Force Reserve[lower-alpha 1]
Air Staff Offices Whitehall, London
Motto(s) Latin: Per Ardua ad Astra
"Through Adversity to the Stars"[1]
March Royal Air Force March Past
Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier KCB CBE DFC
Lord Trenchard
Lord Portal
Fin flashes
Pilot's Brevet
Aircraft flown
Attack Panavia Tornado
Eurofighter Typhoon
Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II (Testing)
General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper
Boeing E-3 Sentry (AEW)
Fighter Eurofighter Typhoon
Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II (Testing)
Helicopter Boeing Chinook
Aérospatiale SA 330 Puma
Agusta A109E Power
Westland Sea King
Multirole helicopter Bell 412 Griffin HAR2
Trainer helicopter Eurocopter AS350 Squirrel HT1
Bell 412 Griffin HT1
Reconnaissance Britten-Norman Islander CC2A
Beechcraft Super King Air R1
Raytheon Sentinel R1
General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper
Panavia Tornado GR4A
Boeing RC-135W Rivet Joint
Trainer BAE Hawk
Beechcraft Super King Air R1
Short Tucano T1
Grob G 115 Tutor T.1
Grob G 109 Vigilant T.1
Grob G103a Twin II Viking TX1
Transport Boeing C-17 Globemaster III C-17ER
Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules
Airbus A330 MRTT Voyager
Airbus A400M
BAe 146 CC.2/C.3

The Royal Air Force (RAF) is the United Kingdom's aerial warfare force. Formed towards the end of the First World War on 1 April 1918,[2] it is the oldest independent air force in the world.[3] Following victory over the Central Powers in 1918 the RAF emerged as, at the time, the largest air force in the world.[4] Since its formation, the RAF has taken a significant role in British military history, in particular, playing a large part in the Second World War where it fought its most famous campaign, the Battle of Britain.[5]

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."[1] The RAF describe 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."[6] 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."[7]

Today the Royal Air Force maintains an operational fleet of various types of aircraft,[8] described by the RAF as being "leading-edge" in terms of technology.[9] This largely consists of fixed-wing aircraft, including: fighter and strike aircraft, airborne early warning and control aircraft, ISTAR and SIGINT aircraft, aerial refueling aircraft and strategic and tactical transport aircraft. 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 operations (principally Afghanistan) 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 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.[3] It was founded on 1 April 1918, with headquarters located in the former Hotel Cecil, during the First World War, by the amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). At that time it was the largest air force in the world. 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's naval aviation branch, the Fleet Air Arm, was founded in 1924 but handed over to Admiralty control on 24 May 1939.

The RAF developed 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.[10]

Second World War

A later version of the Spitfires which played a major part in the Battle of Britain.
Further information: Air warfare of World War II

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. 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.[11] Additionally, the Royal Australian Air Force represented around nine percent of all RAF personnel who served in the European and Mediterranean theaters.[12]

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

In the Battle of Britain in 1940, the RAF (supplemented by 2 Fleet Air Arm Squadrons, Polish, Czecho-Slovak and other multinational pilots and ground personnel) defended the skies over Britain against the numerically superior German Luftwaffe. In what is perhaps the most prolonged and complicated air campaign in history, the Battle of Britain contributed significantly to the delay and subsequent indefinite postponement of Hitler's plans for an invasion of the United Kingdom (Operation Sealion). In the House of Commons on 20 August, prompted by the ongoing efforts of the RAF, Prime Minister Winston Churchill eloquently made a speech to the nation, where he said "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few".[13]

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,[14] or the Amiens prison raid known as Operation Jericho.

Cold War era

Further information: Cold War

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 Royal Air Force was in 1948 and the Berlin Airlift, codenamed Operation Plainfire. Between 26 June and the lifting of the Russian blockade of the city on 2 May, the RAF provided 17% of the total supplies delivered during the event, using Avro Yorks, Douglas Dakotas flying to Gatow Airport and Short Sunderlands flying to Lake Havel.[15]

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 on 13 April 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.[16] 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 Tornado GR1s.

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 Western Europe against potential attack by the Soviet Union, with many squadrons based in West Germany. With the decline of the British Empire, global operations were scaled back, and RAF Far East Air Force was disbanded on 31 October 1971. Despite this, the RAF fought in many battles in the Cold War period. In June 1948 the RAF commenced Operation Firedog against Malayan terrorists during the Malayan Emergency. Operations continued for the next 12 years until 1960 with aircraft flying out of RAF Tengah and RAF Butterworth. The RAF played a minor role in the Korean War, with flying boats taking part. From 1953 to 1956 the RAF Avro Lincoln squadrons carried out anti-Mau Mau operations in Kenya using its base at RAF Eastleigh. The Suez Crisis in 1956 saw a large RAF role, with aircraft operating from RAF Akrotiri and RAF Nicosia on Cyprus and RAF Luqa and RAF Hal Far on Malta as part of Operation Musketeer. 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.

One of the largest actions undertaken by the RAF during the cold war was the air campaign during the 1982 Falklands War, in which the RAF operated alongside the Fleet Air Arm. During the war, RAF aircraft were deployed in the mid-Atlantic at RAF Ascension Island and a detachment from No. 1 Squadron was deployed with the Royal Navy, operating from the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes.[17][18] RAF pilots also flew missions using the Royal Navy's Sea Harriers in the air-to-air combat role.[19] Following a British victory, the RAF remained in the South Atlantic to provide air defence to the Falkland Islands, based at RAF Mount Pleasant (built 1984).

Recent history

With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the RAF's focus has returned to delivering expeditionary air power.[20] Since 1990 the RAF has been involved in several large-scale operations, including: the 1991 Gulf War, the 1999 Kosovo War, the 2001 War in Afghanistan, the 2003 invasion and war in Iraq and the 2011 intervention in Libya.

Typhoons and Red Arrows flypast for the 90th Anniversary of the RAF, 2008

The RAF's 90th anniversary was commemorated on 1 April 2008 by a flypast of 9 Red Arrows and four Typhoons along the Thames, in a straight line from just south of London City Airport Tower Bridge, the London Eye, the RAF Memorial and (at 13.00) the Ministry of Defence building.[21][22][23]

Four major defence reviews have been conducted since the end of the Cold War: the 1990 Options for Change, the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, the 2003 Delivering Security in a Changing World and the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. All four defence reviews have resulted in steady reductions in manpower and numbers of aircraft, especially combat aircraft such as fast-jets. As part of the latest 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the BAE Systems Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft was cancelled due to over spending and missing deadlines.[24] Other reductions saw total RAF manpower reduced by 5,000 personnel to a trained strength of 33,000 and the early retirement of the Joint Force Harrier aircraft, the Harrier GR7/GR9.

A Typhoon on QRA intercepts a Russian Tupolev Tu-95 bomber approaching UK airspace.[25]

In recent years fighter aircraft on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) have been increasingly required to scramble in response to efforts made by the Russian Air Force to approach British airspace.[26] On 24 January 2014 in the Houses of Parliament, Conservative MP and Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Andrew Robathan, announced that the RAF's QRA force had been scrambled almost thirty times in the last three years: eleven times during 2010, ten times during 2011 and eight times during 2012.[27]

RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire and RAF Lossiemouth in Moray both provide Quick Reaction Alert, or QRA, and scramble their fighter jets within minutes to meet or intercept aircraft which give cause for concern. Lossiemouth generally covers the northern sector, while Coningsby provides QRA in the south. 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."[28]

On the 4th of October 2015, a final stand-down saw the end of more than 70 years of RAF Search and Rescue provision in the UK.[29] The RAF and Royal Navy's Westland Sea King fleets, after over 30 years of service, were retired. A civilian contractor, Bristow Helicopters, has taken over responsibility for UK Search and Rescue, under a Private Finance Initiative with newly purchased Sikorsky S-92 and AgustaWestland AW189 aircraft. While the Royal Navy's SAR force will continue to operate until the end of the year, the new contract means that by 2016, all UK SAR coverage will be provided by Bristow's.


The professional head of the RAF is the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS). 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 several high-ranking officers.


Authority is delegated from the Air Force Board to the RAF's command. While there were once individual commands responsible for bombers, fighters, training, etc., now only the Air Command exists, headquartered at RAF High Wycombe.[30]


Groups are the subdivisions of operational commands; these are responsible for certain types of operation or for operations in limited geographical areas. As from July 2014, four groups exist. Additionally there is an expeditionary air group.


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.

As the Air Force has reduced in size and modernised, the squadrons and aircraft types have tended towards groupings at fewer, larger bases. Examples include the ISTAR fleet at RAF Waddington and the Support Helicopter fleet of Puma and Chinook aircraft split between RAF Odiham and RAF Benson. Nearly the entire transport fleet now resides at the hub of RAF Brize Norton, following the closure of RAF Lyneham. The continuous reduction in aircraft numbers since the end of the Cold War made it uneconomical to support operations at multiple bases.

The RAF still operates a number of overseas bases to support global operations. RAF Akrotiri is a key staging post for operations in the Middle East, and RAF Mount Pleasant enables a vital air bridge between the United Kingdom and the Falkland Islands, as well as providing a base for Typhoon air defence aircraft.


Primary RAF Flying Stations Fast Jet: Red, ISTAR: Blue, Transport: Orange, Support Helicopter: Green Training: Yellow

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 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) to support operations. They were 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.[32]

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. Early in the 21st century, the model changed, with Engineering Wing typically being split into Forward Support Wing and Depth Support Wing, while Administration Wing was redesignated Base Support Wing.


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.

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.

Training Schools

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 3 FTS, 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. 2 FTS and 6 FTS do not have a front-line training responsibility - their job is to group the University Air Squadrons and the Volunteer Gliding Squadrons together. 2 FTS's commanding officer holds the only full-time flying appointment for a Group Captain in the RAF, although he is a reservist.

The British military operate a number of joint training organisations based at RAF Stations:


RAF Mount Pleasant, home to No. 1435 Flight providing air defence for the Falkland Islands

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.


Members of the RAF Regiment on parade, 2013

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.[34]

As of 1 January 2015, the Royal Air Force numbered some 34,200 Regular[35] and 1,940 Royal Auxiliary Air Force[36] personnel, giving a combined component strength of 36,140 personnel. In addition to the active elements of the Royal Air Force, (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 Regular Reserves of the Royal Air Force, of which 7,950 served under a fixed-term reserve contract.[37] 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.[38] They had a strength of 7,120 personnel in 2014.[39] All personnel figures exclude the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and its associated University Air Squadron.

The Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve is another reserve element of the RAF, however unlike the ones described above, they have no call-up liability. Instead, they are responsible for the management and operation of the Air Training Corps, Combined Cadet Force RAF Sections (CCF(RAF)), Volunteer Gliding Squadrons, Air Experience Flights, University Air Squadron and the Defence Technical Undergraduate Scheme.

Figures provided by the International Institute for Strategic Studies from 2012 showed that Royal Air Force 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.[40] French and German Air Force pilots achieved only 180 and 150 flying hours across their fleets respectively.[41]


Main article: RAF officer ranks

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[42] 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.

Other ranks

Main article: RAF other ranks

Other ranks attend the Recruit Training Squadron at RAF Halton for basic training, with the exception of the RAF Regiment, which trains its recruits at RAF Honington.

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 Chief of the Air Staff's Warrant Officer.[43]

Branches and trades

A Tornado WSO of No. 12 Squadron
An RAF Regiment Gunner

The majority of the members of the RAF serve in support roles on the ground:

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 Typhoon F2 is designated as a fighter by the 'F', and the second variant of the type to be produced.

Air defence and strike aircraft

The Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 is the RAF's only air defence fighter aircraft, with a total of six squadrons based across RAF Coningsby and RAF Lossiemouth,[58][59] following the retirement of the Panavia Tornado F3 in late March 2011.[60] Their task is to defend UK airspace. In October 2007 it was announced that MoD Boscombe Down, RNAS Culdrose and RAF Marham would also be used as Quick Reaction Alert bases 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.[61] The RAF has five front-line and one reserve Typhoon units; 3 Squadron, 11 Squadron and 29 Squadron (Operational Conversion Unit) based at RAF Coningsby, with 1 Squadron, 2 Squadron and 6 Squadron based at RAF Lossiemouth. On 23 November 2015 it was announced that two additional front-line Typhoon squadrons will be formed consisting of Tranche 1 versions.[58][62]

The mainstay of the strike fleet are the four squadrons of Tornado GR4s.[63] These supersonic aircraft can carry a wide range of weaponry, including Storm Shadow cruise missiles, laser-guided bombs and the ASRAAM missile.[64] Since June 2008, the Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 has also been capable of being deployed operationally in the air-to-ground role.[65] The RAF has three operational Tornado units, with [66] 9 Squadron, 12 Squadron and 31 Squadron based at RAF Marham. RAF Lossiemouth is home to the reserve 15 Squadron.[67]

The Tornado was previously supplemented by the Harrier GR7/GR9 in the strike and close air support roles, and to counter enemy air defences. The Harrier fleet was withdrawn in December 2010 following the Strategic Defence and Security Review; the Tornado GR4 is due to retire in March 2019 and be replaced by the Eurofighter Typhoon and F-35 Lightning II. On 23 November 2015 it was announced that a total of 138 F-35Bs will be ordered.[68][69]

Airborne early warning and reconnaissance aircraft

The Sentry AEW1, based at RAF Waddington, provides airborne early warning to detect incoming enemy aircraft and to co-ordinate the aerial battlefield. The 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 ( a fifth was added later) Beechcraft Shadow R1 aircraft equipped for the ISTAR role over Afghanistan.[70] Three more Shadow aircraft will be procured as per the 2015 Defence Review. The Tornado GR4A is fitted with cameras and sensors in the visual, infra-red and radar ranges of the spectrum.[71]

Ten MQ-9 Reaper Unmanned aerial vehicles have been purchased to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are operated by No. 39 Squadron RAF based at Creech Air Force Base and 13 Squadron at RAF Waddington.[72] Three Britten-Norman Islanders are operated by the Station Flight of RAF Northolt, involved in "photographic mapping and light communications roles".[73]

Three Boeing RC-135W Rivet Joint replaced the Nimrod R1 fleet in the signals intelligence role. The Nimrod fleet was retired in 2011, and the RAF will share signals aircraft of the US Air Force until the three RC-135s enter service between 2014 and 2017.[74] The aircraft will be Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker tankers converted to RC-135W standard in the most complex combined Foreign Military Sales case and co-operative support arrangement that the UK has undertaken with the United States Air Force since the Second World War. In RAF service, they will be known as the Airseeker.[75] Airseeker received its first operational deployment in August 2014, when it was deployed to the Middle East to fly missions over Iraq and Syria as part of Operation Shader.[76]


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 those RN helicopters that are normally based on board a ship such as a destroyer or frigate, RAF Search & Rescue, and training helicopter fleets.

The large twin-rotor Chinook, based at RAF Odiham provides heavy-lift support and is supported by the Puma HC2 medium-lift helicopter based at RAF Benson. The Griffin HAR.2s based at RAF Akrotiri in the Cyprus Sovereign Base Areas, the only remaining dedicated helicopter Search and Rescue force in the RAF. However, all UK military helicopter aircrew routinely train and practice the skills necessary for SAR, and the support helicopters based in the UK are available to the Government under Military Aid to the Civil Authorities in case they are needed. The A-109 Power Elite aircraft of 32 (the Royal) Squadron also provide VIP transport and military helicopter capabilities.

Transport and air-to-air refuelling aircraft

Further information: AirTanker Services

The RAF operate the C-17 Globemaster III in the heavy strategic airlift role, originally leasing four from Boeing. These were purchased, followed by a fifth delivered on 7 April 2008 and a sixth delivered on 8 June 2008. The new aircraft entered frontline use within days rather than weeks. 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.[77] In February 2012 the purchase of an eighth C-17 was confirmed;[78] the aircraft arrived at RAF Brize Norton in May 2012.[79]

More routine strategic airlift transport tasks are carried out by the Airbus A330 MRTT, known as the Voyager in RAF service. The first Voyager arrived in the UK for testing at MoD Boscombe Down in April 2011,[80] and entered service in April 2012.[81] 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.[82] A total of 14 Voyagers are due to form the fleet, with 9 allocated to sole RAF use. As the Voyagers lack a refueling boom, the RAF has requested a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the USAF allowing the UK access to tankers equipped with refueling booms for its Boeing RC-135W Airseeker SIGINT aircraft.[83]

Shorter range, tactical-airlift transport is provided by the Hercules, Specifically the C-130J (Hercules C4/C5) variant, based at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. The 14 C-130J-30 extended variants operated by the RAF will remain in service until 2030 at least.[84] The Airbus A400M Atlas will replace the RAF's now retired fleet of Hercules C1/C3 (C-130K) transport aircraft.[85][86] Originally, 25 aircraft were ordered, although the total is now 22. The A400M will be known as the Atlas in RAF service.[87]

No. 32 (The Royal) Squadron replaced the Queen's Flight in 1995 and operate the Agusta A109 and BAe 146 CC2 in the general air transport and VIP transport roles. The squadron is based at RAF Northolt in west London. Aircraft operate with a priority for military needs over VIP transport. Two additional BAe 146s were purchased in March 2012 from TNT Airways and were refitted by Hawker Beechcraft on behalf of BAE Systems for tactical freight and personnel transport use.[88][89] The aircraft, designated as the BAe 146 C Mk 3, arrived in Afghanistan in April 2013.[90]

Training aircraft

Elementary Flying Training, as well as Multi-Engine Lead-In training, is conducted on the Tutor T1. Basic fast jet training is provided on the Tucano T1 and initial helicopter training on the Squirrel HT1, at which stage aircrew gain their 'wings'. Multi-Engine aircrew, Weapon Systems Officer (WSO) and Weapon Systems Operator (WSOp) students are trained on the King Air to gain their wings before a posting to an Operational Conversion Unit. Advanced jet flying training is now provided on Hawk T2 for fast jet aircrew and helicopter pilots complete a course on the Griffin HT1, before they are sent to their OCU, which trains them on a specific aircraft type in preparation for service with a front-line squadron. The OCUs use modified operational aircraft, such as the Typhoon T3, as well as sophisticated simulators and ground training.

The Tutor equips the fourteen University Air Squadrons, which provide University students an opportunity to undertake an RAF training syllabus based loosely on EFT to get them to and beyond solo standard. These units are co-located with Air Experience Flights, which share the same aircraft and facilities and provide air experience flying to the Air Training Corps and CCF. The Volunteer Gliding Squadrons also provide air experience flying to cadets using the Vigilant T1 motor-glider or the Viking TX1 conventional glider. Since April 2014, the Vigilant and Viking fleets have been grounded due to air-worthiness issues. As of March 2016, a 'recovery plan' is in place which will see Viking schools merged and expanded and significant reduction of the Vigilant fleet, which is to be retired by 2019.[91]

Future aircraft

The F-35B Lightning II is intended to enter service around 2020 under the Joint Combat Aircraft programme.[92] On 19 July 2012 the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, in a speech in the USA, indicated that the UK would initially receive 48 F-35B to equip the Navy's carrier fleet and would announce at a later date what the final numbers would be. Jon Thompson, MOD Permanent Secretary, told the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, in late 2012: "Our commitment over the first 10 years is for 48 F-35B". An order for the first 14 aircraft on top of the four already procured for operational test and evaluation is expected later in 2013. The first four of 14 production aircraft were ordered in November 2014.[93] On 24 May 2015 there was a further order for four aircraft,[93] while further contracts will be placed for the remaining six aircraft. The remaining six aircraft were ordered on 3 November 2015,[93] with expected delivery in 2016. In November 2015, the government commitment to order 48 F35B aircraft by 2023,[94] 24 of which will be available for carrier duties.[95] The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review stated the intent for the UK to purchase 138 F-35 aircraft over the life of the programme.[95] The first F-35 aircraft arrived at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire on 29 June 2016 after a Transatlantic crossing involving air to air refuelling.[96]

Project Taranis is a technology demonstrator programme, possibly leading to a future Strategic Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) for both ground attack and reconnaissance roles.[97]

The BAE Mantis is another UCAV under development, with an autonomous capability, allowing it to fly itself through an entire mission. This is a potential candidate to fulfill a requirement for an ISTAR UAV to enter service after 2015 as part of the RAF's Scavenger programme.[98] On 5 October 2015, it was announced that the Scavenger programme had been replaced by "Protector", a new requirement for at least 20 systems.[99] On 7 October 2015, it was revealed that Protector will be a derivative of the MQ-9 Reaper with enhanced range and endurance.[100]

In July 2014 the House of Common Defence Select Committee released a report on the RAF future force structure that envisaged a mixture of unmanned and manned platforms, including a UCAV such as Taranis and further orders of F-35s, a service life extension for the Eurofighter (which would otherwise end its service in 2030) or a possible new manned aircraft.[101]

The Tutor, Tucano and King Air training aircraft are due to be replaced in the next few years through the implentation of the UK Military Flying Training System, a public-private partnership which has seen flying training for the Royal Air Force privatised and handed over to a civilian contractor, although military instructors remain. This will see the introduction of the Grob 'Prefect', the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II and the Embraer Phenom 100 into RAF service.

In November 2015, the Government confirmed in its latest Strategic Defence and Security Review that nine Boeing P-8 Poseidon aircraft will be purchased for surveillance, anti-submarine and anti-surface ship warfare, filling a capability gap in maritime patrol that had been left since the unexpected cancellation of the Nimrod MRA4 programme in the 2010 SDSR.[102] These aircraft were formally ordered on 11 July 2016.[103]

In May 2016, it was announced that the RAF would see delivery of 29 Airbus H135 and 3 Airbus H145 helicopters for use as training aircraft as part of a £2.8 billion defence investment. It was announced by Air Marshal Sean Reynolds, the Senior Responsible Owner for UKMFTS, that "Aircrew across the three Services will continue to conduct their basic and advanced rotary training at RAF Shawbury and Army Air Corps Middle Wallop. Aircrew selected for training in mountain and maritime helicopter operations will receive instruction at RAF Valley."[104]

A BAE Taranis prototype's test flight 

Increase of fast jet squadrons

On 20 September 2015, The Sunday Times reported that the number of fast jet squadrons would increase due to threats posed by Islamic State and Russia.[105] This was later officially confirmed by the government in its 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) which outlined the government's commitment to 138 F-35 Lightning IIs and two additional Typhoon squadrons. On 4 December 2015, Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford announced his plans for one more combat squadron, in addition to the three outlined in the SDSR, to bring the total number of combat squadrons to ten.[106]

Symbols, flags, emblems and uniform

Following the tradition of the other British fighting services, the RAF has adopted symbols to represent it, use as rallying devices for members and promote esprit de corps.

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 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 World War II an outer yellow ring was added to the fuselage roundel. 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",[107] but the RAF's official translation is "Through Struggle to the Stars".[1] 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 affronte Head lowered and to the sinister."[107] 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.[108]

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 recognisable brand identity.

Ceremonial functions and display

Red Arrows

The Red Arrows in formation with an F35B and a pair of Typhoons at the Royal International Air Tattoo in 2016.
Main article: Red Arrows

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 under-review plans to move 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 65 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 56 countries worldwide.[109]

Royal Air Force music

Headquarters Royal Air Force Music Services, located at RAF Northolt, supports 177 professional musicians who attend events around the globe in support of the RAF. RAF Music Services were established in 1921, although the first RAF Director of Music was appointed in 1918. The Music Services were expanded for World War II and in the post war years there were ten established bands. Since then, Music Services has gradually been reduced in size and today comprises:

Overseas deployments

The current or regular overseas deployments of the Royal Air Force are as follows:

Country Dates Deployment Details
Gibraltar 1940s–present RAF Gibraltar No permanently stationed aircraft. RAF aircraft (e.g., Hercules transports) make regular visits.
Cyprus 1940–present RAF Akrotiri
RAF Nicosia
During the Suez Crisis, Operation Musketeer involved RAF aircraft based on Cyprus. Today, RAF aircraft are stationed at RAF Akrotiri on Cyprus as part of British Forces Cyprus, from where, in 2014, aircraft were deployed in the intervention against ISIS.
Norway 1960s–present Bardufoss Air Station RAF fighter and/or helicopter squadrons undergo winter-training here most years.
Ascension Island 1982–present RAF Ascension Island Used as an air bridge between the UK and the Falkland Islands. United States Air Force personnel are also stationed at this base.
Falkland Islands 1982–present 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). BFFI now replaced by BFSAI (British Forces South Atlantic Islands).
United States 2009–present Creech AFB, Nevada Operation of MQ-9 Reaper UAVs by No. 39 Squadron RAF.[110]
Qatar 2005–present RAF Al Udeid, Al Udeid Air Base Previously used in support of British operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (Op. Telic and Op. Herrick respectively), Al Udeid is currently in use as a Middle Eastern base for the RAF as well as being the headquarters for the RAF contribution against ISIL on Op. Shader. Currently an RAF RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft is based there.

The following is an incomplete list of previous deployments:

Country Dates Deployment Details
Canada 1940s–2005 RAF Unit Goose Bay, Canada RAF aircraft trained in low-level tactical flying at CFB Goose Bay, a NATO air force base of the Royal Canadian Air Force.[111]
Holy Land 1940s RAF Gaza
Bosnia 1995–2007 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 remained to provide support to the United Nations.
Afghanistan and Persian Gulf 2001–2014 Operation Veritas
Operation Herrick
Chinooks provided airlift support to coalition forces. Additionally Merlin helicopters began tasking in late 2009 following the end of Operation Telic (Iraq). Since late 2004 six BAe Harriers provided reconnaissance and close air support to the ISAF. The Harriers were replaced by an equivalent force of Tornado GR4 in mid-2009. In August 2010, the Tornado force was uplifted to 10 aircraft. Other support units are deployed to Muscat International Airport in Oman, and air bases in the UAE and the Kingdom of Bahrain.[112] Combat operations within Helmand Province ended on 26 October 2014.
Iraq 2003–2011 Operation Telic
Operation Kipion
During the initial invasion, British strike fighters were used. Support aircraft such as the Hercules C130, Puma helicopter and Merlin helicopter stayed in Iraq until the withdrawal in 2009. The Merlin helicopters were the last RAF aircraft to leave Iraq.[113]
Kenya 2008–2012 Kenya Air Force Laikipia Air Base Semi permanent detachment which involved helicopters giving support to the British Army
Libya 2011 Operation Ellamy Enforcement of no fly zone in Libya according to United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973.[114]
Malta 1940–1979 RAF Luqa During the Suez Crisis, Operation Musketeer involved RAF aircraft based on Malta.

See also


  1. 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 RAuxAF.


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