Royal Air Force

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Military History and War

Royal Air Force

Royal Air Force
Royal Auxiliary Air Force
RAF Regiment
RAF Police
History of the Royal Air Force
Timeline of the Royal Air Force
List of RAF aircraft
Strike Command
No. 1 Group
No. 2 Group
Personnel and Training Command
No. 22 Group
List of stations
Officer ranks
Other ranks

The Royal Air Force (RAF) is the air force branch of the British Armed Forces. The RAF was formed on April 1, 1918 and has taken a significant role in British military history since then, playing a large part in World War II, and more recently in conflicts such as the recent war in Iraq. With some 998 aircraft and in 2006, 46,880 personnel, the RAF is the fifth largest air force in the world. It is also one of the most technologically advanced, a position that is being enhanced significantly with the purchase of 232 Eurofighter Typhoons. The only founding member of the RAF still living today is Henry Allingham at age 110.


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." This is to support the MOD's objectives, 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."


Although the UK's "junior service" the RAF is the oldest independent air force in the world. It was founded on April 1, 1918, during the First World War, by Viscount Trenchard when he amalgamated 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 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.

A defining period of the RAF's existence came during the Battle of Britain when it held off the Luftwaffe and helped to turn the tide of the war.

The largest and most controversial RAF effort during the war was the strategic bombing campaign against Germany by RAF Bomber Command. Under the leadership of Air Chief Harris, RAF forces fire-bombed Dresden, causing the death of ca. 35,000 civilians. On 3 May 1945, in the last days of the war, three ships ( Cap Arcona, Thielbek, and Deutschland) were sunk in the Bay of Lübeck, after four separate attacks by RAF planes. Around 7,000 civilians of many nations were killed, most of them concentration camp prisoners from the Neuengamme, Stutthof and Mittelbau-Dora camps. The RAF has sealed all documents pertaining to these attacks until 2045.

Royal Air Force badge. The RAF Motto is Per Ardua ad Astra (Latin), which translates as Through Struggle to the Stars
Royal Air Force badge. The RAF Motto is Per Ardua ad Astra (Latin), which translates as Through Struggle to the Stars

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

The professional head of the RAF is known as 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 Commanders-in-Chief of the Commands, 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.


Authority is delegated from the AFB to the RAF's commands. While there were once individual commands responsible for bombers, fighters, training, etc, only two commands exist currently:

  • Strike Command — HQ at RAF High Wycombe — responsible for all of the operations of the RAF.
  • Personnel and Training Command — HQ now also at RAF High Wycombe — responsible for recruitment, initial, 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. As from 1 April 2006, Strike Command is made-up of two Groups following the disbandment of No.3 Group:

  • 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.

Only one group exists within Personnel and Training Command, namely 22 Group.


The RAF's roundel was adopted during the First World War. The roundel has been adopted and modified by Commonwealth air forces, often replacing the red circle with a national symbol.
The RAF's roundel was adopted during the First World War. The roundel has been adopted and modified by Commonwealth air forces, often replacing the red circle with a national symbol.

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.


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 31st 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 unit is formed around the squadrons based at the stations housing the wing, however, they are flexible and can be quickly adapted for operations and deployment.

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.


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.

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 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 52,804 active duty personnel and more than 12,000 reservists.At its height during the Second World War, in excess of 1,000,000 personnel were serving at any one time.


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 30-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

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, junior non-commissioned officers and airmen.

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 surface-to-air missiles [ Rapiers ] 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, 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 HAR3
Sea King HAR3
Chinook HC2
Chinook HC2
Hercules C-130K (C3)
Hercules C-130K (C3)
Tornado F3
Tornado F3
Eurofighter Typhoon
Eurofighter Typhoon

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 listed below.

The code which follows each aircraft's name describe the role of the variant. For example, the Tornado F.3 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 what the RAF calls its Offensive Support fleet is the Tornado GR.4. 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 GR.7 & GR.7A and Jaguar GR.3 & GR.3A, which are used in the close air support role and to counter enemy air defences. The Harrier is being upgraded to GR.9 standard with newer systems and more powerful engines. The Harrier GR9 was formally accepted into RAF service in late September 06.

Air defence and Airborne Early Warning Aircraft

The Tornado F.3 is the RAF's air defence fighter aircraft, based at RAF Leuchars and RAF Leeming to defend the UK’s airspace. The Sentry AEW.1 provides airborne radar 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, Typhoon F.2.

Reconnaissance Aircraft

Variants of attack aircraft, the Jaguar GR.3/GR.3A and Tornado GR.4A are fitted with specialist reconnaissance pods and squadrons exist with both types in the reconnaissance role. The elderly Canberra PR.9 was also used in this role for its ability to fly at high altitude for long duration sorties, however was recently retired from service. 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 R.1. The new Sentinel R.1 provides ASTOR ground radar surveillance platform based on the Bombardier Global Express long range business jet.

Search and Rescue Aircraft

Three squadrons of helicopters exist with the primary role of rescuing aircrew who have ejected or crash-landed their aircraft. These are 22 Sqn and 202 Sqn with the Sea King HAR.3/HAR.3A in the UK and 84 Sqn with the Griffin HAR.2 in Cyprus. Although established in a military role, most of their operational missions are to rescue civilians from ships at sea, mountains and other locations.

Maritime Patrol

The Nimrod MR2 primary role is that of Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and Anti-Surface Unit Warfare (ASUW). The Nimrod MR2 is additionaly 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 already very capable MR2,will begin to be replaced by 12 NIMROD MRA4 aircraft in the next few years.The NIMROD MRA4 is described by BAE Systems as a world leader in terms of maritime patrol platforms.

Support helicopters

An important part of the work of the RAF is to support the Army by ferrying troops and equipment to and across the battlefield. The support helicopters are organised into the tri-service Joint Helicopter Command with Army and Navy aircraft. The large twin- rotor Chinook HC.2/HC.2A, based at RAF Odiham provides heavy lift and is supported by Merlin HC.3 and the smaller Puma HC.1, based at RAF Benson and RAF Aldergrove.

Transport and Air-to-Air Refuelling aircraft

Having refuled the former Queen's Flight in 1995, 32 (The Royal) Squadron uses the BAe 125 CC.3, Agusta A109 and BAe 146 CC.2 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 troops and cargo, and for air-to-air refuelling. Shorter range tactical 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 heavy airlift capability; it was announced in 2004 that these will be purchased, together with a further example, once the lease expires. The MOD as expressed a wish to buy a further 3 C-17's, but due to budget constraints the MOD can only afford to buy one each year, running the risk that the production line may be shut down before the RAF gets the aircraft it needs.

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 Canberra T.4, Harrier T.10, Jaguar T.4 and Typhoon T.1. Advanced flying training for fast-jet, helicopter and multi-engine pilots is provided using the Hawk T.1, Griffin HT.1 and Super King Air T.1 respectively.

Basic pilot training is provided on the Tucano T.1 and Eurocopter Squirrel HT.1, while navigator training is in the Dominie T.1. Elementary flying training is conducted on either the Slingsby Firefly or Tutor T.1, depending on the new pilot's route of entry to the service. The Tutor is also used, along with the Viking T.1 and Vigilant T.1 gliders, to provide air experience for Air Cadets.

Future aircraft

The aircraft operated by the RAF continue to be upgraded and improved throughout their service life. In addition, new aircraft to replace existing fleets or fill new roles come into service every so often.

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. (Some of the C-130K fleet was replaced by 25 new C-130J Hercules in 1999, 5 C-17s will be retained). A new version of the Chinook, the HC.3, 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. 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 GR.7 and GR.9. Studies have begun regarding the long term replacement for the Tornado GR.4 (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
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– Merlin 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.
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.
Canada 1940s– RAF Unit Goose Bay, Canada RAF aircraft train in low-level tactical flying at CFB Goose Bay, an air force base of the Canadian Air Force.
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
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.
Gibraltar 1940s– RAF Gibraltar No permanently stationed aircraft. RAF aircraft, e.g. Hercules transports, make regular visits.
Indonesia 2005 Support and transport RAF dispatched to South East Asia following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake disaster to provide aid relief support
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
Norway 1960s– Bardufoss Air Station RAF fighter and/or helicopter squadrons undergo winter-training here most years.

Symbols, flags and emblems

Royal Air Force Ensign
Royal Air Force Ensign

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 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 the first Commander of the RFC, Colonel Sykes, for suggestions.

Royal Air Force fin flash (non combat version)
Royal Air Force fin flash (non combat version)

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, 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 tail panel 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.


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

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