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Royal Air Force

The Royal Air Force (often abbreviated to RAF) is the air force of the United Kingdom.

According to the Ministry of Defence, the purpose of the Armed Forces, including the RAF is to:

In the 21st century the RAF remains one of the worlds foremost air forces; although a smaller force than before, current UK government policy is the adoption of new technology to maintain military effectiveness rather than pure numbers.

Two major conflicts have been fought so far in this century, with the RAF taking very much a supporting role to the USA in the 2001 conquest of Afghanistan, but centre stage in the 2003 Gulf War II. The latter conflict again saw over 100 fixed wing aircraft deployed, with all offensive aircraft being capable of dropping smart munitions for the first time.


Structure of the RAF

The head of the RAF is known as the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), currently Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup. The CAS heads the Air Force Board, which is a committee of the Defence Council. The Air Force Board (AFB) is the management board of the RAF and consists of the Commanders-in-Chief of the Commands, together with several other high ranking Officers.


Operational command is delegated from the AFB to formations known as Commands. While there were once invidual Commands responsible for bombers, fighters, training, etc, only two Commands exist currently:

  • Strike Command - HQ at RAF High Wycombe - responsible for all of the operational operations of the RAF.
  • Personnel & Training Command - HQ at RAF Innsworth - responsible for recruitment, initial and trade training, including flying training.


Groups are the subdivisions of operational Commands, responsible for certain types of operation or for operations in limited geographical areas. Since 2000, three Groups have existed within Strike Command:

  • 1 Group - the Air Combat Group, responsible for all offensive and defensive fast jet forces, including Joint Force Harrier
  • 2 Group - the Air Combat Support Group. This manages all transport and air-to-air refuelling aircraft and Air Combat Service Support units such as the deployable Tactical Support Wing and Tactical Communications Wing. It also commands the Force Protection assets of the RAF Regiment.
  • 3 Group - the Battle Management Group, commanding all ISTAR assests such as the reconaissance aricraft, Nimrod R1, etc, and also the Maritime and Search and Rescue assets. 3 Group also coordinates with the Joint Helicopter Command at HQ Land, which controls the support helicopter fleet.

See also List of Royal Air Force groups.


A Wing is a sub-division of a Group, and a grouping of two or more squadrons, either flying squadrons or ground support squadrons. In former times, numbered flying Wings have existed, but today they are created as needed, for example during Op. Telic, Tornado Wings operated from Ali al Salem and Al Udeid; each of these were made up of aircraft and crews from several squadrons.

In addition, RAF Stations are administratively sub-divided into Wings. For a flying station these will normally be Engineering Wing, Operations Wing and Administration Wing.

The only Wings currently in permanent existence are the Air Combat Service Support wings of 2 Group which provide support services such as communications, supply and policing to deployments.

See also List of Royal Air Force wings.


The term squadron (sqn) can be used to refer to an administrative sub-unit of a station, eg Air Traffic Control sqn, Personnel Management sqn; there are also ground support squadrons, eg 2 (MT) Sqn.

However, the primary use for the term is as the name of the flying squadrons which carry 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 currently based, which aircraft they are operating, etc. They can be awarded standards and battle honours for meritorious service.

Whilst every squadron is different, most are commanded by a Wing Commander and, for a fast-jet squadron, have an establishment of around 100 personnel and 12 aircraft.

See also List of Royal Air Force aircraft squadrons


A Flight is a sub-division of a squadron. Flying squadrons are often divided into two flights, under the command of a Squadron Leader; administrative squadrons on a station are also divided into flights.

There are several flying units formed as Flights rather than Squadrons due to their small size.

See also List of Royal Air Force independent flights

RAF Personnel

As of 2004, the RAF employed 48,500 people; this will reduce to 41,000 by 2008 [1]. The various ranks of personnel within the RAF are listed in descending order below.

See Comparative military ranks to compare RAF ranks with those of other services.


The names and insignia of RAF Officers were based on those in use by the Royal Navy, specifically the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) during World War I. For example, the RAF rank of Flying Officer was derived from the RNAS rank of Flight Sub-Lieutenant. Similarly, that of Flight Lieutenant was based on the RNAS rank of the same name. The rank of Squadron Leader derived its name from the RNAS rank of Squadron Commander. However, these ranks do not in anyway imply the actual position held by an officer; a Flying Officer may or may not be qualified to fly and a Squadron Leader does not necessarily command a squadron. The insignia for equivalent ranks are the same apart from the colour (light blue stripe on a black background rather than gold) and the absence of the Navy's loop.

Officers hold a commission from the Sovereign, which provides the legal authority for them to issue orders to subordinates. The commission is granted after successfully completing the 26 week long Initial Officer Training course at the RAF College, Cranwell.

Other Ranks

The rank structure for Other Ranks was based on that of the Army, with some alterations in terminology. Over the years, this structure has seen significant chages, for example there was once a separate system for those in technical trades. Other Ranks attend the Recruit Training Squadron at RAF Halton for basic training, with the exception of the RAF Regiment, who train their recruits at RAF Honington.

Branches and Trades

  • All Pilots and Weapon Systems Officers (formerly known as Navigators) in the RAF are commissioned officers.
  • Non-commissioned aircrew fulfil roles such as Air Loadmasters (ALM), Air Signallers, Air Electronics Operators (AEO), etc, although they are now all known as Weapon Systems Operators.

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

  • Officers and Gunners in the RAF Regiment, which was created during World War II, defend RAF airfields from attack. They operate surface-to-air missiles to defend against air attack, and have infantry and light armoured units to protect against ground attack.
  • The RAF Police are the military police of the RAF and are located wherever the RAF is located. Unlike other British Police, the RAF Police are armed as needed.
  • 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, as well as deeper level repair work on aircraft systems, IT systems, ground based radar, MT vehicles, etc.


Main Article: History of the Royal Air Force

Formation and Early History

The Royal Flying Corps was formed by Royal Warrant on May 13, 1912 superseding the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers. The Royal Naval Air Service was formed shortly after the outbreak of World War I. Both services saw heavy action during the war. The two services were amalgamated on April 1, 1918 to form the Royal Air Force. The RAF was under the supervision of the Air Ministry and was the world's first independent air force, whereas the French and German military air services - the Imperial German Army Air Service (the Luftstreitkräfte) and the French Aviation Militaire, later the Armée de l'Air - were under the control of their respective armies. Having said that, the Luftstreitkräfte was ordered to be disbanded after the end of World War I under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, leaving the RAF as the oldest independent air force in the world as well as the most powerful at the time with over 22,000 aircraft said to be on charge. Hugh Trenchard had been instrumental in pressing for the formation of an independent air force, as his idea was to form a strategic bomber force to bomb targets in Germany that would be free from control by the army. He would lead the new force until his retirement in 1929.

Inter-War Years

Between the World Wars the RAF was responsible for mail and armed forces services, but saw little military action. It was, however, used as an aerial police force to patrol the British Empire's borders. Of particular note was 1928's air evacuation of civilians from Afghanistan, the first operation of its kind. This period also saw the formation of the major flying schools that still provide its service personnel.

An important event during that time period was a reorganisation of the RAF's major commands. In 1936, the familiar Coastal Command, Fighter Command and Bomber Command were formed from the RAF's home squadrons. This mission-based organisation was unique at the time, and was to stand the RAF in good stead. In 1937 the Naval Air Branch was returned to the Royal Navy, and was soon renamed the Fleet Air Arm.

World War Two

The RAF underwent rapid expansion following the outbreak of war against Nazi Germany in 1939. This included the training of British aircrews in Commonwealth countries under the Commonwealth Air Training Plan, and the secondment of many whole squadrons, and tens of thousands of individual personnel, from Commonwealth air forces. To these were later added thousands of personnel from other countries, including many who had fled from European countries conquered by the Nazis.

A defining period of the RAF's existence came during the Battle of Britain. Over the summer of 1940 the RAF held off the Luftwaffe in perhaps the most prolonged and complicated air campaign in history. This contributed immensely to the delay and cancellation of German plans for an invasion of England (Operation Sea Lion) and helped to turn the tide of World War II. (See also British military history of World War II.)

The largest RAF effort during the war was the strategic bombing campaign against Germany. From May 31 1942 RAF Bomber Command was able to mount large scale night raids involving up to 1000 aircraft, many of which were the new heavy four-engined bombers. There exists considerable historical controversy about the ethics of such large attacks against German cities during the last few months of the war (see Bombing of Dresden in World War II).

Cold War Years

The RAF did not have a prominent role in the Korean War, with only a few flying boats taking part. However, the Suez Crisis in 1956 saw a large RAF role, with aircraft mainly flying from Cyprus and Malta. 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.

From the late 1950s, until relieved by the Royal Navy's Polaris submarines in 1969, the RAF provided the UK's Nuclear deterent, in the form of the V Force.

The church of St Clement Danes, in London, was consecrated as the Central Church of the Royal Air Force in 1958. This Wren church had been destroyed by enemy action in 1941, and was restored following an appeal by the RAF.

In 1968 the RAF experienced its largest change in administrative structure since 1936 when Fighter Command, Bomber Command and Coastal Command were combined into the new Strike Command which exists today.

The permanent RAF presence in the east of Asia came to an end, with the expection of Hong Kong based units, in 1971 when the Far East Air Force was disbanded on October 31.

See Bomber Command during the Cold War

Recent Operations

The next large conflict involving the RAF was the Falklands War in 1982. Its most high profile missions in this conflict were the famous Black Buck raids using Avro Vulcans flying from Ascension Island. However, the service did many other things during the conflict, with its helicopters in the Falklands themselves, its Harrier GR3s flying from HMS Hermes, its fighter aircraft protecting Ascension, maritime patrol aircraft scanning the South Atlantic, and tanker and transport fleet helping in the enormous logistical effort required for the war.

In 1991 over 100 RAF aircraft took part in the Gulf War, in virtually every conceivable role. It marked an important turning point in the RAF's history as it was the first time the service had used precision guided munitions in significant amounts. It was initially thought that the RAF would not need to use them, as most of its bombing missions would be at low level. After heavy losses, bombing was switched to medium level, and the venerable Blackburn Buccaneer was rushed to the theatre to provide laser designation for the RAF's Tornados.

The end of the decade saw the much smaller Kosovo War in 1999, which confirmed the shift towards precision guided munitions. The Kosovo conflict was remarkable in that it was the first time a war of such size had been fought with no loss of life on one side. Although smaller than the Gulf War, it was still a medium sized war.

In 2002, RAF personnel undertook fire-fighting duties as part of Operation Fresco , due to a series of strikes by fire-fighters. This is an example of Military Aid to the Civil Community.

Symbols, Flags and Emblems

Following the tradition of the other British fighting services, the RAF has adopted various symbols to represent it and act as a rallying point for it's members [2].

The RAF Ensign, pictured above, is flown from the flagstaff on every RAF station during daylight hours. It is hoisted and hauled down by station duty staff daily. The design was approved by King George V in 1921, after much oposition by 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 the German Iron Cross motiff. Therefore in October 1914 the French system of three concentric rings was adopted, with the colours reversed to a red surrounded by a white and finally a blue ring. The relative sizes of the rings has changed over the years and when camoflage patterns on aircraft were introduced an outer yellow ring was added. Aircraft serving in the Far East during the second world war had the red ring removed to prevent confusion with Japanese aircraft. Modern day aircraft carry low-visibility, washed out, pink and light blue roundels; the exception benig training and VIP transport aircraft who retain the traditional red, white blue roundel.

The Latin motto of the RAF, "Per Ardua as Astra", is usually translated as "Through Adversity to the Stars". The choice of motto is attributed to a junior officer by the name JS Yule, in response to a request from the first Commander of the RFC, Colonel Sykes for suggestions.

The badge of the RAF, shown at the top of this article, is in heraldic terms: "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." It was approved in 1923 based on a design by a tailor at Gieves Ltd of Savile Row, altough the original had an albatros rather than the eagle and was surrounded by a garter belt rather than the plain circle.

RAF Aircraft

Many types of aircraft currently serve with the RAF, although there is less variety in the order of battle of the organisation than in previous decades due to the increasing cost of military systems. The types currently in the RAF inventory are:

For historical aircraft see List of aircraft of the RAF.

The codes which suffix the each aircraft's name describe the role of the particular variant. The system is often similar to the equivalent American one. The UK's C-17s as yet do not carry a RAF name or designation due to their leased status, referred to simply as C-17s.

Strike, Attack and Offensive Support Aircraft

Air Defence and Airborne Early Warning Aircraft

Reconnaissance Aircraft

Maritime Patrol / Search and Rescue Aircraft

Support Helicopters

Transport and Air-to-Air Refuelling Aircraft

Operational Conversion Aircraft

Training Aircraft

Future aircraft

The aircraft operated by the RAF continue to be upgraded and improved throughout their service. In addition, new aircraft to replace existing fleets or fill new roles come into service every so often. This list includes aircraft soon to be deployed or in development for the RAF.

  • Eurofighter Typhoon F.2
    Will replace the Tornado F.3 and Jaguar fleets.
  • Airbus A400M
    The service received 25 new C-130J Hercules in 1999 and is committed to 25 Airbus A400Ms to replace the remaining C-130Ks while maintaining a fleet of 5 C-17s.
  • Sentinel R.1/ASTOR
    The Sentinel R.1 will provide the RAF and British Army with battlefield surveillance in a similar role to the E-8 JSTARS.
  • Chinook HC.3s
    New version of the Chinook with improved avionics and increased range developled mainly for special forces missions. Service entry delayed due to software problems and legal issues.
  • Hawk 128
    These will replace the existing Hawks in service; the newer model being more similar in terms of equipment and performance to modern front line aircraft.
  • Airbus A330 MRTT
    The ageing aerial refueling fleet of VC10s and Tristars should be replaced with the Airbus A330 under the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft programme. Problems with contract negotiations have led to unsolicited proposals for the conversion of civil Tristars or DC-10s.
  • F-35 Joint Strike Fighter
    The F-35 will replace the Harrier GR.7 and GR.9.
  • Future Offensive Air System
    In the long term the Tornado GR.4 will be replaced by the Future Offensive Air System, although this project is at an early stage.
  • Harrier GR.9
    This is an upgrade of the existing GR.7 fleet.
  • The RAF transport helicopter force, the Puma and Sea Kings, are to be replaced by the Support Amphibious and Battlefield Rotorcraft (SABR) project, likely a mix of Merlins and Chinooks.

Famous members of the Royal Air Force

Famous RAF Leaders

Famous people who previously served in the RAF

See also

See Also


Last updated: 10-11-2005 17:49:03
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