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[[Image:RAF logotype| ]]


The Royal Air Force (RAF) is the air force branch of the British Armed Forces. The RAF was formed on 1 April 1918 and has taken a significant role in British military history since then, playing a large part in World War II and in conflicts such as the recent war in Iraq. The RAF has 998 aircraft and, as of 2006, 48,700 personnel.


The RAF's mission is to "Produce a battle-winning agile air force: fit for the challenges of today; ready for the tasks of tomorrow; capable of building for the future; working within Defence to achieve shared purpose."[1] This is to support the objectives of the UK's 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."[2]


Main article: History of the Royal Air Force

The RAF is the oldest independent air force in the world. It was founded on 1 April 1918, during the First World War, by the amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. After the war, the service was cut drastically and its inter-war years were relatively quiet, with only minor actions being undertaken in some parts of the British Empire.

The RAF Memorial on the Victoria Embankment, London, commemorating RAF personnel killed in the two World Wars

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 other members of the British Commonwealth trained and formed squadrons for service with RAF formations. Many individual personnel from these countries and from continental Europe also served with RAF squadrons.

During the Second World War's Battle of Britain in 1940, the RAF's valiant defence of the skies over Britain against the German Luftwaffe foiled Hitler's plans for an invasion of the British Isles, prompting Prime Minister Winston Churchill to say in the House of Commons on August 20, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few".[3]

The largest and most controversial RAF effort during the war was the strategic bombing campaign against Germany by Bomber Command. Under the leadership of Air Chief Marshal Harris, RAF forces conducted an area bombing campaign against Dresden and other German cities.

During the Cold War years the main role of the RAF was the defence of the continent of Europe against potential attack by the Soviet Union, including holding the UK's nuclear deterrent for a number of years. Since the end of the Cold War, several large scale operations have been undertaken by the RAF, including the Kosovo War, the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Structure of the RAF[]

Template:Command structure

The professional head of the RAF is the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), currently Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy. 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 Commander-in-Chief of RAF Air Command, together with several other high ranking officers. The CAS also has a deputy known as the Assistant Chief of the Air Staff (ACAS); currently this post is held by Air Vice-Marshal Chris Moran.


Main article: List of Royal Air Force commands

Authority is delegated from the AFB to the RAF's commands. While there were once individual commands responsible for bombers, fighters, training, etc, only one command now exists:

  • Air Command — HQ at RAF High Wycombe — responsible for all of the operations of the RAF and for recruitment, initial, trade training, including flying training.


Main article: List of Royal Air Force groups

Groups are the subdivisions of operational Commands, these are responsible for certain types of operation or for operations in limited geographical areas. As from 1 April 2007, three Groups exist:

  • 1 Group — the Air Combat Group, controls the RAF's combat fast jet aircraft, including Joint Force Harrier, and has seven airfields in the UK plus RAF Unit Goose Bay in Canada, which is used extensively as an operational training base.
  • 2 Group — the Air Combat Support Group, controls the Strategic and Tactical air transport aircraft, the RAF Regiment, the RAF's Air to Air Refuelling aircraft as well as ISTAR and Search & Rescue assets.
  • 22 Group - responsible for personnel management, selection and training.


Main article: RAF station

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.


Main article: List of Royal Air Force Wings

A Wing is either a sub-division of a Group acting independently or a sub-division of an RAF Station.

Independent Wings are a grouping of two or more squadrons, either flying squadrons or ground support squadrons. In former times, numbered flying Wings have existed, but more recently they have only been created when required, for example during Operation Telic, Tornado Wings were formed to operate from Ali Al Salem and Al Udeid Air Bases; each of these were made up of aircraft and crews from several squadrons.

On 31 March 2006, the RAF formed nine Expeditionary Air Wings (EAW). The Expeditionary Air Wings have been established to support operations. They have been formed 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. These units will be commanded by a Group Captain who is also the Station Commander. The EAW is comprised of 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 dependent upon what task it has been assigned to do. [4]

On RAF Stations, a Wing is an administrative sub-division. For a flying station these will normally be Engineering Wing, Operations Wing and Administration Wing. Aside from these, 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 operationally deployed units.


Main article: List of Royal Air Force aircraft squadrons

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

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 flying squadrons are commanded by a Wing Commander and, for a fast-jet squadron, have an establishment of around 100 personnel and 12 aircraft, but 16 aircraft for Tornado F3 Squadrons.


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.


RAF Personnel[]

In 2006 the RAF employed 48,700 active duty personnel and more than 12,000 reservists, including the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, RAF Volunteer Reserve and Sponsored Reserve. At its height during the Second World War, in excess of 1,000,000 personnel were serving at any one time. The only founding member of the RAF still living is Henry Allingham at age 110. [5]



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 is granted after successfully completing the 32-week-long Initial Officer Training course at the RAF College, Cranwell.

The titles and insignia of RAF Officers were 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 enlisted 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 was based on that of the Army, with some alterations in terminology. Over the years, this structure has seen significant changes, for example there was once a separate system for those in technical trades and the rank of Chief Technician continues to be held only by personnel in technical trades. RAF other ranks fall into four categories: warrant officers, senior non-commissioned officers

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 have infantry and light armoured units to protect against ground attack and until recently they operated Rapier surface-to-air missiles to defend against air attack - this role was given to the Royal Artillery in 2005 and was taken against the wishes of the RAF, which wanted to retain and maintain its organic ground-to-air defence capability.
  • The RAF Police are the military police of the RAF and are located wherever the RAF is located. Unlike the UK Civil Police, the RAF Police are armed as needed. Since 2003 the RAF Police have stop and search, arrest, and search and seizure powers outside RAF Stations.
  • Intelligence Officers and Analysts of the RAF Intelligence Branch support all operational activities by providing timely and accurate Indicators and Warnings. They conduct military intelligence fusion and analysis by conducting imagery and communications analysis, targeting, and assessment of the enemies' capabilities and intent.
  • 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,ground support equipment(GSE), etc.
  • Fighter Controllers (FC) and Air Traffic Controllers (ATC) control RAF and NATO aircraft from the ground. The FC control the interception of enemy aircraft while the ATC provide air traffic services at RAF stations and to the majority of en-route military aircraft in UK airspace.
  • Administrative Officers and associated trades perform a range of secretarial tasks as well as fulfilling training management, physical education and catering roles.
  • Royal Air Force Chaplains are trained by the Armed Forces Chaplaincy Centre at Amport House.
  • The Royal Air Force Medical Branch provides healthcare at home and on deployed operations, including aeromedical evacuation services. Medical officers are the doctors of the RAF and have specialist expertise in aviation medicine to support aircrew and their protective equipment. Medical Officers can go on aeromedical evacuations, providing vital assistance on search-and-rescue missions or emergency relief flights worldwide.
  • The RAF Legal Branch provides legal advice on discipline / criminal law and operations law.



Sea King HAR3A


Chinook HC2


Hercules C3


Tornado F3


Typhoon F2

Template:See Template:See

The code which follows each aircraft's name describes the role of the variant. For example, the Tornado F3 is designated as a fighter by the 'F', and is the third variant of the type to be produced.

Strike, attack and offensive support aircraft[]

The mainstay of the Offensive Support fleet is the Tornado GR4. This supersonic aircraft can carry a wide range of weaponry, including Storm Shadow cruise missiles, laser-guided bombs and the ALARM anti-radar missile.

The Tornado is supplemented by the Harrier GR7 & GR7A and Jaguar GR3 & GR3A, which are used in the strike and close air support roles, and to counter enemy air defences. The Harrier is being upgraded to GR9 standard with newer systems and more powerful engines. The Harrier GR9 was formally accepted into RAF service in late September 2006.

Air defence and Airborne Early Warning Aircraft[]

The Tornado F3 is the RAF's air defence fighter aircraft, based at RAF Leuchars and RAF Leeming to defend the UK’s airspace.

The Sentry AEW1 provides airborne early warning to detect incoming enemy aircraft and to co-ordinate the aerial battlefield. Both the Sentry and the F.3 have been involved in recent operations including over Iraq and the Balkans.

The Tornado, in service in the air defence role since the late 1980s, is due to be replaced by the state-of-the-art, Eurofighter Typhoon F2 which is based at RAF Coningsby. The UK's second operational Typhoon unit, 11 Sq, reformed on 29 March 2007, joining 3 Sq, also based at RAF Coningsby.

Reconnaissance Aircraft[]

Variants of attack aircraft, the Jaguar GR3/GR3A and Tornado GR4A are fitted with specialist reconnaissance pods and squadrons exist with both types in the reconnaissance role. All three types are/were equipped with a range of cameras and sensors in the visual, infra-red and radar ranges of the spectrum.

Providing electronic and signals intelligence is the Nimrod R1.

The new Sentinel R1 provides an ASTOR ground radar-surveillance platform based on the Bombardier Global Express long range business jet.

Also used in a classified surveillance role, is a pair of Britten-Norman Islander CC2 aircraft. They form the Station Flight of RAF Northolt in London.

A pair of MQ-9 Reaper Unmanned aerial vehicles have been purchased to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are operated by No. 39 Squadron RAF

Search and Rescue Aircraft[]

Three squadrons of helicopters exist with the primary role of military search and rescue; the rescuing of aircrew who have ejected or crash-landed their aircraft. These are 22 Sqn and 202 Sqn with the Sea King HAR.3/HAR3A in the UK and 84 Sqn with the Griffin HAR2 in Cyprus.

Although established with a primary role of military search and rescue, most of their operational missions are spent in their secondary role of conducting civil search and rescue; that is, the rescue of civilians from at sea, on mountains and other locations.

Both rescue roles are shared with the Sea King helicopters of the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm, while the civil search and rescue role is also shared with the helicopters of HM Coastguard.

The Operational Conversion Unit is 203(Reserve) Sqn RAF based at RAF St. Mawgan, equipped with the Sea King HAR3.

The related Royal Air Force Mountan Rescue Service comprises four teams of trained mountaineers stationed in the mainland United Kingdom, first established in 1943.

Maritime Patrol[]

The Nimrod MR2's primary role is that of Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and Anti-Surface Unit Warfare (ASUW). The Nimrod MR2 is additionally used in a Search and Rescue (SAR) role, where its long-range and extensive communications facilities allow it to co-ordinate rescues by acting as a link between rescue helicopters, ships and shore bases. It can also drop pods containing life rafts and survival supplies to people in the sea.

The Nimrod MR2 will be replaced from 2009 by 12 Nimrod MRA4 aircraft.

Support helicopters[]

An important part of the work of the RAF is to support the British Army and Royal Marines 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. The support helicopters are organised into the tri-service Joint Helicopter Command (JHC), along with helicopters of the British Army and Royal Navy.

The large twin-rotor Chinook HC2/HC2A, based at RAF Odiham provides heavy-lift support and is supported by the Merlin HC3 and the smaller Puma HC1 medium-lift helicopters, based at RAF Benson and RAF Aldergrove.

It was announced in March 2007 that the RAF will take delivery of six additonal Merlins. The aircraft were originally ordered by Denmark, six new aircraft will be built for Denmark. Also announced that eight Chinook HC3s, that are in storage, will be modifed for the battlefield support role.

Transport and Air-to-Air Refuelling aircraft[]

Having replaced the former Queen's Flight in 1995, 32 (The Royal) Squadron uses the BAe 125 CC3, Agusta A109 and BAe 146 CC2 in the VIP transport role, based at RAF Northolt in west London.

More routine air transport tasks are carried out by the Tristars and VC10s based at RAF Brize Norton, both used to transport passengers and cargo, and for air-to-air refuelling of other aircraft.

Shorter-range tactical-airlift transport is provided by the C-130 Hercules, the fleet including both older K-model and new J-model aircraft.

The RAF has leased 4 C-17 Globemaster IIIs from Boeing to provide a strategic airlift capability; it was announced in 2004 that these will be purchased, together with a further example, .The fifth C-17 is due to be delivered in 2008. The MOD has expressed a wish to buy a further 3 C-17s, which could be delivered before mid-2009,when the C-17 production line may be closed.This would leave the RAF with a total of 8 C-17 aircraft,providing a significantly enhanced strategic airlift.

Training aircraft[]

A wide range of aircraft types are used for training aircrew in their duties. At the more advanced stage in training, variants of front-line aircraft have been adapted for operational conversion of trained pilots; these include the Harrier T10, Jaguar T4 and Typhoon T1. Advanced flying training for fast-jet, helicopter and multi-engine pilots is provided using the Hawk T1, Griffin HT1 and Super King Air respectively.

Basic pilot training for fixed-wing and helicopter pilots is provided on the Tucano T1 and Squirrel HT1, while navigator training is conducted in the Dominie T1.

Elementary flying training is conducted on the Tutor T1, depending on the new pilot's route of entry to the service. The Tutor is also used, along with the Viking T1 and Vigilant T1 gliders, to provide air experience training and basic pilot training for Air Cadets.

Future aircraft[]

Aircraft in development, or soon to be deployed, include the Airbus A400M, of which 25 are to be used to replace the remaining Hercules C-130Ks.

A new version of the Chinook, the HC3, with improved avionics and increased range, was developed mainly for special forces missions. Service entry has been delayed due to software problems and legal issues.In late Mar/07,the MOD confirmed the intention of making the 8 HC 3,Chinook,aircraft operational. The Eurofighter Typhoon is entering service and the RAF will be the largest operator of the type.

The Typhoon will replace the Tornado F3 interceptor and the Jaguar GR3A ground attack aircraft by 2010. The Hawk 128 will replace the existing Hawks in service; the newer model being more similar in equipment and performance to modern front line aircraft. The ageing aerial refuelling fleet of VC10s and Tristars should be replaced with the Airbus A330 MRTT 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.

The Joint Combat Aircraft (the British designation for the F-35 Lightning II) will replace the Harrier GR7 and GR9. Studies have begun regarding the long term replacement for the Tornado GR4 (Although the Future Offensive Air System project was cancelled in 2005). 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.

RAF deployments[]

Country Dates Deployment Details
Indonesia 2005 Support and transport RAF dispatched to South East Asia following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake disaster to provide aid relief support
Lithuania 2004 Baltic Air Policing 4 Tornado F3 for a 3 months rotation under NATO monitoring mission
Afghanistan 2001– Operation Veritas Chinooks provided airlift support to coalition forces. Since late 2004 six Harriers have provided reconnaissance and close air support to the ISAF.
Bosnia 1995– Various helicopters RAF enforced no-fly zones over the Balkans in the late 1990s and participated in the NATO interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. Today, RAF helicopters remain to provide support to the United Nations.
Middle East 1990– Various RAF fighters based in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait prior to and during the 1990 Gulf War, and later to enforce no-fly zones over Iraq. Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the occupation of southern Iraq by British Forces, the RAF is deployed at Basra. SH is provided in Iraq by Merlin, Puma and Chinook
Falkland Islands 1984– RAF Mount Pleasant Built after the Falklands War to allow a fighter and transport facility on the islands, and to strengthen the defence capacity of the British Forces. A detachment of RAF Regiment provides anti-aircraft support.
Ascension Island 1981 Ascension Island Base Used as an air bridge between the UK and the Falkland Islands. United States Air Force also stationed at this base.
Norway 1960s– Bardufoss Air Station RAF fighter and/or helicopter squadrons undergo winter-training here most years.
Cyprus 1956– RAF Akrotiri Located in the British Sovereign Base Area on Cyprus, the airfield acts a forward base for deployment of UK forces in the Middle East
Canada 1940s– RAF Unit Goose Bay, Canada RAF aircraft train in low-level tactical flying at CFB Goose Bay, a NATO air force base of the Canadian Air Force.
Gibraltar 1940s– RAF Gibraltar No permanently stationed aircraft. RAF aircraft, e.g. Hercules transports, make regular visits.


Symbols, flags and emblems[]

File:Ensign of the Royal Air Force.svg

Royal Air Force Ensign

Template:See Following the tradition of the other British fighting services, the RAF has adopted symbols to represent it and act as a rallying point for its members.

The RAF Ensign is flown from the flagstaff on every RAF station during daylight hours. The design was approved by King George V in 1921, after much opposition from the Admiralty, who have the right to approve or veto any flag flown ashore or on board ship.

British aircraft in the early stages of the First World War carried the Union Flag as an identifying feature, however this was easy to confuse with the German Iron Cross motif. Therefore in October 1914 the French system of three concentric rings was adopted, with the colours reversed to a red disc surrounded by a white ring and an outer blue ring. The relative sizes of the rings have changed over the years and during World War II an outer yellow ring was added. Aircraft serving in the Far East during World War II had the red disc removed to prevent confusion with Japanese aircraft. Since the 1970s, camouflaged aircraft carry low-visibility roundels, either red and blue on dark camouflage, or washed-out pink and light blue on light colours. Most uncamouflaged training and transport aircraft retain the traditional red-white-blue roundel.

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


Badge of the Royal Air Force

The Badge of the Royal Air Force, shown to the right, 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, although the original had an albatross rather than the eagle and was surrounded by a garter belt rather than the plain circle.

In 2006 a flash was designed and issued to personnel with the same design as the fin flash for wear on combat clothing. It is 45mm squared. There is also a badge to go over the right chest pocket with the text ROYAL AIR FORCE in black capitals on a green background. There is no desert pattern available.

The RAF also has its own tartan. Designed in 1988, it was only officially recognised by the Ministry of Defence in 2001. It is used by the RAF Pipes Band and may be worn by Officers serving at Scottish units with their No.5 HD Mess Dress.

Since 2006 the RAF has adopted a new official logotype, 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.


In 2006, Colonel Tim Collins, the former Army officer described as a hero during the Iraq war, prompted controversy by calling for the RAF to be disbanded as a separate arm; allowing the Fleet Air Arm and Army Air Corps to absorb aircrew and aircraft dedicated to specific sea and ground roles. However, a Ministry of Defence spokesman responded saying, "There is no question of the RAF being disbanded. The skills and challenges in the air environment are totally different to those faced in maritime or land environments. We need specialists in all three. The RAF does a fantastic job."[7]

Additionally, Nick Cook who edits the aviation section of Jane's Defence Weekly, voiced his disagreement with Tim Collins' idea saying:

"In an era when money is tight there is a lot of introspection about where scant resources should go, but this doesn't make any sense. You can't do without air power. It's totally unrealistic."[7]

  1. The Royal Air Force Mission
  2. Defence Analytical Services Agency The MOD Mission
  3. The Churchill Centre - Speeches & Quotes
  4. 31st March 2006. Command Structure.
  5. BBC News Fly-past for Britain's oldest man
  6. Deployments
  7. 7.0 7.1 Disband the RAF, says Iraq war's inspirational colonel, The Daily Telegraph, 13 May 2006.