Royal Air Force
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Royal Air Force

Royal Air Force
Founded1 April 1918; 102 years ago (1918-04-01)
Country United Kingdom
TypeAir force
RoleAerial warfare
Size32,940 active personnel[1]
1,940 RAuxAF
3,200 reserve personnel[1][a]
832 operational aircraft[2]
Part ofBritish Armed Forces
Air Staff OfficesWhitehall, London
Motto(s)Latin: Per Ardua ad Astra
"Through Adversity to the Stars"[3]
MarchRoyal Air Force March Past Edit this at Wikidata
Chief of the Air StaffAir Chief Marshal Mike Wigston
Lord Trenchard
Lord Portal
Lord Dowding
Air Force Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg
Logo of the Royal Air Force.svg
Roundel Low visibility roundel
Fin flashes
Fin flash Low visibility fin flash
Pilot's Flying BadgeRAF pilot brevet (Queen's Crown).jpg
Aircraft flown
Trainer helicopter
Utility helicopter

The Royal Air Force (RAF) is the United Kingdom's aerial warfare force. It was formed towards the end of the First World War on 1 April 1918.[4] Following the Allied victory over the Central Powers in 1918, the RAF emerged as the largest air force in the world at the time.[5] Since its formation, the RAF has taken a significant role in British military history. In particular, it played a large part in the Second World War where it fought its most famous campaign, the Battle of Britain.[6]

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".[3] The RAF describes its mission statement as "... [to provide] an agile, adaptable and capable Air Force that, person for person, is second to none, and that makes a decisive air power contribution in support of the UK Defence Mission".[7] 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".[8]

Today the Royal Air Force maintains an operational fleet of various types of aircraft,[9] described by the RAF as being "leading-edge" in terms of technology.[10] 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 over Iraq and Syria) 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.[11] Following publication of the "Smuts report" prepared by Jan Smuts[12] the RAF 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.[13]

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.[14]

Second World War

A late-war version of the Spitfire, which played a major role in the Battle of Britain

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.[15] Additionally, the Royal Australian Air Force represented around nine percent of all RAF personnel who served in the European and Mediterranean theatres.[16]

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

In the Battle of Britain in 1940, the RAF 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 Sea Lion). 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".[17]

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,[18] or the Amiens prison raid known as Operation Jericho.[19]

Cold War era

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.[20]

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.[21] 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.[22][23]

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. The main RAF bases in RAF(G) were RAF Bruggen, RAF Gutersloh, RAF Laarbruch and RAF Wildenrath - the only air defence base in RAF(G). With the decline of the British Empire, global operations were scaled back, and RAF Far East Air Force was disbanded on 31 October 1971.[24] 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.[25] 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.[26] From 1953 to 1956 the RAF Avro Lincoln squadrons carried out anti-Mau Mau operations in Kenya using its base at RAF Eastleigh.[27] 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.[28]

RAF Shackleton flying in formation in 1957 during Jebel Akhdar War in Oman

In 1957, the RAF participated heavily during Jebel Akhdar War in Oman with both Venom and Shackleton jet aircraft. The RAF made 1,635 raids, dropping 1,094 tons and firing 900 rockets at the interior of Oman between July and December 1958 targeting insurgents, mountain top villages and water channels in a war that remained under low profile.[29][30] 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.[31]

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.[32][33] RAF pilots also flew missions using the Royal Navy's Sea Harriers in the air-to-air combat role, in particular Flt Lt Dave Morgan the highest scoring pilot of the war.[34] 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).[35]

Recent history

With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the RAF's focus has returned to expeditionary air power.[36] Since 1990 the RAF has been involved in several large-scale operations, including: the 1991 Gulf War,[37] the 1999 Kosovo War,[38] the 2001 War in Afghanistan,[39] the 2003 invasion and war in Iraq[40] and the 2011 intervention in Libya.[41]

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.[42][43][44]

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 (SDSR). 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.[45] 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.[46]

A Typhoon on QRA intercepts a Russian Tupolev Tu-95 bomber approaching UK airspace[47]

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.[48] 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.[49]

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".[50]

On 4 October 2015, a final stand-down saw the end of more than 70 years of RAF Search and Rescue provision in the UK. The RAF and Royal Navy's Westland Sea King fleets, after over 30 years of service, were retired. A civilian contractor, Bristow Helicopters, took over responsibility for UK Search and Rescue, under a Private Finance Initiative with newly purchased Sikorsky S-92 and AgustaWestland AW189 aircraft. The new contract means that all UK SAR coverage is now provided by Bristow aircraft.[51]

In 2018 the RAF's vision of a future constellation of imagery satellites was initiated through the launch of the Carbonite-2 technology demonstrator. The 100 kg Carbonite-2 uses commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components to deliver high-quality imagery and 3D video footage from space.[52][53]


Senior management

The professional head and highest-ranking officer of the Royal Air Force is the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS). He reports to the Chief of the Defence Staff, who is the professional head of the British Armed Forces.[54] The incumbent Chief of the Air Staff is Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston, who was appointed in July 2019.[55]

The management of the RAF is the responsibility the Air Force Board, a sub-committee of the Defence Council which is part of the Ministry of Defence and body legally responsible for the defence of the United Kingdom and its overseas territories. The Chief of the Air Staff chairs the Air Force Board Standing Committee (AFBSC) which decides on the policy and actions required for the RAF to meet the requirements of the Defence Council and Her Majesty's Government.[56]

The Chief of the Air Staff is supported by several other senior commanders; the main positions are shown in the following table.[57]

Royal Air Force senior management positions
Title Rank NATO Rank
Chief of the Air staff Air Chief Marshal OF-9
Deputy Commander Capability Air Marshal OF-8
Deputy Commander of Operations Air Marshal OF-8
Air Member for Materiel and Chief of Materiel Air Marshal OF-8
Assistant Chief of the Air Staff Air Vice-Marshal OF-7
Chief of Staff Personnel and Air Secretary Air Vice-Marshal OF-7
Commandant General Royal Auxiliary Air Force Air Vice-Marshal OF-7
Director of Legal Services Air Vice-Marshal OF-7
Chaplain-in-Chief Air Vice-Marshal OF-7
Director of Resources N/A (Civilian) N/A
Chief of the Air Staff's Warrant Officer Warrant Officer OR-9

Air Command

Administrative and operational command of the RAF is delegated by the Air Force Board to Headquarters Air Command, based at RAF High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. Air Command was formed on 1 April 2007 by combining RAF Strike Command and RAF Personnel and Training Command, resulting in a single command covering the whole RAF, led by the Chief of the Air Staff.[58] Through its subordinate groups, Air Command oversees the whole spectrum of RAF aircraft and operations.[59]


Groups are the subdivisions of operational commands and are responsible for certain types of capabilities or for operations in limited geographical areas. There are six groups subordinate to Air Command, of which five are functional and one is geographically focused:

No. 1 Group (Air Combat)

No. 1 Group is responsible for combat aircraft (comprising the Lightning Force & Typhoon Force) and the RAF's intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) capabilities. It oversees stations at RAF Coningsby and RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, RAF Lossiemouth in Moray and RAF Marham in Norfolk. The group's Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 aircraft protect UK and NATO airspace by providing a continuous Quick Reaction Alert capability.[60]

No. 2 Group (Air Combat Support)

No. 2 Group controls the Air Mobility Force which provides strategic and tactical airlift, air-to-air refuelling and Command Support Air Transport. The group is also responsible for the RAF's Force Protection assets comprising the RAF Regiment and RAF Police. It oversees stations at RAF Benson and RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, RAF Henlow in Bedfordshire, RAF Honington in Suffolk, RAF Odiham in Hampshire and RAF Northolt in West London.[61]

No. 11 Group (Multi-domain operations)

No. 11 Group is responsible for integrating operations across the air, cyber and space domains whilst responding to new and evolving threats. It includes the RAF's Battlespace Management Force which controls the UK Air Surveillance and Control System (ASACS). The group oversees stations at RAF Boulmer in Northumberland, RAF Fylingdales in North Yorkshire, RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire and RAF Spadeadam in Cumbria.[62]

No. 22 Group (Training)

No. 22 Group is responsible for the supply of qualified and skilled personnel to the RAF and provides flying and non-flying training to all three British armed services. It is the end-user of the UK Military Flying Training System which is provided by civilian contractor Ascent Flight Training. The group oversees stations at RAF College Cranwell in Lincolnshire, RAF Cosford and RAF Shawbury in Shropshire, RAF Halton in Buckinghamshire, MOD St Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan, RAF St Mawgan in Cornwall and RAF Valley on Angelsey.[63]

No. 38 Group (Air Combat Service Support)

No. 38 Group is responsible for RAF capabilities relating to engineering and logistics (known as the A4 Force, in accordance with the continental staff system), communications, medical operations and RAF Music services. It is responsible for UK-based US Visiting Forces and for RAF personnel detached within foreign armed forces around the globe. The group oversees stations at RAF High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire and RAF Wittering in Cambridgeshire.[64]

No. 83 Expeditionary Air Group

No. 83 Expeditionary Air Group (No. 83 EAG) is the RAF's operational headquarters in the Middle East, based at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. It is responsible for UK air operations in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean (Operation Kipion), the military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Operation Shader) and wider UK defence objectives in the Middle East. Operations are delivered through four Expeditionary Air Wings (No. 901 EAW, No. 902 EAW, No. 903 EAW and No. 904 EAW).[65]


Royal Air Force is located in the United Kingdom
Cranwell & Barkston Heath
Cranwell & Barkston Heath
Brize Norton
Brize Norton
Royal Air Force
St. Mawgan
St. Mawgan
Map of the Royal Air Force's main stations.
Location dot red.svg Front-line flying station Location dot orange.svg Training station Location dot blue.svg Battlespace management
Location dot green.svg Support station

An RAF station is ordinarily subordinate to a group and is commanded by a group captain. Each station typically hosts several flying and non-flying squadrons or units which are supported by administrative and support wings.[66]

United Kingdom

Front-line flying operations are focussed at eight stations:[67]

Flying training takes places at RAF Barkston Heath, RAF College Cranwell, RAF Shawbury and RAF Valley, each forming part of the UK Military Flying Training System which is dedicated to training aircrew for all three UK armed services. Specialist ground crew training is focused at RAF Cosford, RAF St Mawgan and MOD St. Athan.

Operations are supported by numerous other flying and non-flying stations, with activity focussed at RAF Honington which coordinates Force Protection and RAF Leeming & RAF Wittering which have a support enabler role.

A Control and Reporting Centre (CRC) at RAF Boulmer is tasked with compiling a Recognised Air Picture of UK air space and providing tactical control of the Quick Reaction Alert Force. In order to achieve this Boulmer is supported by a network of eight Remote Radar Heads (RRHs) spread the length of the UK.[68]


The UK operates permanent military airfields (known as Permanent Joint Operating Bases) in four British Overseas Territories. These bases contribute to the physical defence and maintenance of sovereignty of the British Overseas Territories and enable the UK to conduct expeditionary military operations.[69] Although command and oversight of the bases is provided by Strategic Command, the airfield elements are known as RAF stations.[70]

Two RAF squadrons are located within the United States to support close cooperation with the US Air Force in the operation of the MQ-9A Reaper (Creech Air Force Base, Nevada) and development of the F-35A Lighting II (Edwards Air Force Base, California).[71]


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 12 aircraft.[72]

Support wings and units

Support capabilities are provided by several specialist wings and other units.

Expeditionary Air Wings

Command & control and support for overseas operations is typically provided through Expeditionary Air Wings (EAWs). Each wing is brought together as and when required and comprises the deployable elements of its home station as well as other support elements from throughout the RAF.[73]

Several Expeditionary Air Wings are based overseas:[65]

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, and is a reservist.

The British military operate a number of joint training organisations with Air Command leading the provision of technical training through the Defence College of Technical Training[85] - Several different specialist areas: aeronautical engineering, electro and mechanical engineering, and communication and information systems.[86]


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.[90]


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.[91]

As of 1 January 2015, the Royal Air Force numbered some 34,200 Regular[92] and 1,940 Royal Auxiliary Air Force[93] 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.[94] 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.[95] They had a strength of 7,120 personnel in 2014.[96]

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.[97] French and German Air Force pilots achieved only 180 and 150 flying hours across their fleets respectively.[98]


Officers hold a commission from the Sovereign, which provides the legal authority for them to issue orders to subordinates. The commission of a regular officer is granted after successfully completing the 24-week-long Initial Officer Training course at the RAF College, Cranwell, Lincolnshire.[99]

To emphasize the merger of both military and naval aviation when the RAF was formed, many of the titles of officers were deliberately chosen to be of a naval character, such as flight lieutenant, wing commander, group captain, and air commodore.[100]

Other ranks

Other ranks attend the Recruit Training Squadron at RAF Halton for basic training.[101] 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.[102]

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,[103] and the Air Warfare Centre, based at RAF Waddington and RAF Cranwell.[104] NCO training and developmental courses occur at RAF Halton and officer courses occur at the Joint Services Command and Staff College at Shrivenham.[105]


Combat Air


The Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 is the RAF's primary multi role air defence and ground attack fighter aircraft,[106][107] following the retirement of the Panavia Tornado F3 in late March 2011.[108] With the completion of 'Project Centurion' upgrades, the Typhoon FGR4 took over ground attack duties from the Panavia Tornado GR4, which was retired on 1 April 2019.[109][110][111] The Typhoon is tasked to defend UK airspace, while also frequently deploying in support of NATO air defence missions in the Baltic (Operation Azotize), Black Sea and Iceland.[106][112]

The RAF has seven front-line Typhoon units, plus an Operational Conversion Unit and Operational Evaluation Unit; No. 3 (Fighter) Squadron, No. XI (F) Squadron, No. 12 Squadron (joint RAF/Qatar Air Force squadron), No. 29 Squadron (OCU) and No. 41 Test and Evaluation Squadron (OEU) based at RAF Coningsby, with No. 1 (F) Squadron, No. II (Army Cooperation) Squadron, No. 6 Squadron and No. IX (Bomber) Squadron based at RAF Lossiemouth.[106][113] Four Typhoons (Faith, Hope, Charity and Desperation) are also based at RAF Mount Pleasant on the Falkland Islands as part of No. 1435 Flight where they provide air defence.[114] As of 2020, the option of an eighth front-line squadron is being studied.[115]

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.[116] The Typhoon made its combat debut in support of Operation Ellamy in 2011 and has been supporting Operation Shader since December 2015.[106]


The Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II (known only as Lightning in British service) is a single-seat, single-engine, all-weather stealth multirole combat aircraft. It is intended to perform both air superiority and strike missions while also providing electronic warfare and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. It will be jointly operated by the RAF and the Royal Navy and with its ability to perform short take-offs and vertical-landings (STOVL), can operate from the Royal Navy's Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.[117]

A total of 138 Lightnings are expected to be ordered.[118][119][120] The first RAF squadron to operate the F-35 was No. 17 Test and Evaluation Squadron at Edwards AFB, California, accepting its first F-35B in 2014.[121]No. 617 (The Dambusters) Squadron officially reformed on 18 April 2018 as the first operational RAF Lightning Squadron.[122] The first four aircraft arrived at RAF Marham from the United States in June 2018,[123] with a further five arriving in August 2018.[124] The Lightning was declared combat ready in January 2019.[125] The second UK based F-35 squadron to be formed was No. 207 Squadron on 1 August 2019 as the Operational Conversion Unit for both RAF and Royal Navy pilots.[126][127]

Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance (ISTAR)

The Boeing E-3D Sentry AEW1, based at RAF Waddington and operated by No. 8 Squadron,[128] provides airborne early warning to detect incoming enemy aircraft and to co-ordinate the aerial battlefield.[129] Six E-3 aircraft were originally procured in February 1987, with an additional Sentry ordered later that year.[130] Deliveries to the RAF were completed in 1992, when ZH107 was handed over in May.[131] The 2015 SDSR planned for six Sentry AEW1s to remain in service until 2035.[132] However, the UK Government's announcement of the procurement of five Boeing E-7 Wedgetails in March 2019 led to the withdrawal of two Sentry AEW1s in preparation for the future transition to the new type, bringing the fleet down to four aircraft.[133] In February 2020, it was announced that another E-3D had been retired in January, with the OSD (out of service date) for the Sentry being brought forward to December 2022 - before the E-7 Wedgetail will enter service.[134]

The Raytheon Sentinel R1 (formally known as ASTOR - Airborne STand-Off Radar) provides a ground radar-surveillance platform based on the Bombardier Global Express long range business jet, and is flown by No. V (AC) Squadron from RAF Waddington.[135] Originally ordered in 1999,[136] the Sentinel entered into RAF service in 2008.[137] The fifth and final Sentinel R1 ZJ694 was delivered in February 2009 to RAF Waddington.[138] In the 2010 SDSR, it was announced that the Sentinel would be withdrawn once operations in Afghanistan had been concluded.[139] In July 2014, these plans were reversed to keep the Sentinel in service until 2018.[140] In July 2017, ZJ693 was withdrawn from service while the rest of the Sentinel fleet was given an OSD of 2021.[141]

Six Hawker Beechcraft Shadow R1s (with two more to be converted) are operated by No. 14 Squadron from RAF Waddington, these aircraft are King Air 350CERs that have been specially converted for the ISTAR role.[142] Four Shadow R1s were originally ordered in 2007 due to an Urgent Operational Requirement,[143] and began the conversion process to the ISTAR role in 2009.[144]ZZ416 was the first Shadow R1 to be delivered in May 2009 to No. V (AC) Squadron.[145] A further Shadow was procured and delivered in December 2011.[146] The Shadow fleet was transferred over to the newly reformed No. 14 Squadron in October 2011.[147] Following the 2015 SDSR, three more Shadows were ordered and the fleet was given an OSD of 2030.[148]

Ten General Atomics MQ-9A Reaper Unmanned aerial vehicles have been purchased to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are operated by No. 39 Squadron based at Creech Air Force Base and No. XIII Squadron at RAF Waddington.[149]

Three Boeing RC-135W Rivet Joints replaced the Nimrod R1 fleet in the signals intelligence role under the AIRSEEKER Programme and are flown by No. 51 Squadron.[150] The Nimrod fleet was retired in 2011, the RAF co-manned aircraft of the US Air Force until the three RC-135s entered service between 2014 and 2017.[151] The aircraft were Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker tankers converted to RC-135W standard in the most complex combined Foreign Military Sales case and co-operative support arrangement that the UK had undertaken with the United States Air Force since the Second World War.[152] 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.[153]

Based at RAF Waddington, No. 54 Squadron and No. 56 Squadron act as the OCU and OEU for the ISTAR fleet respectively.[154][155]


An important part of the work of the RAF is to support the British Army by moving troops and equipment to and around the battlefield. RAF helicopters are also used in a variety of other roles, including in 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 from the British Army and Royal Navy.[156]No. 22 Squadron, based at RAF Benson, re-formed in May 2020 as the OEU for the JHC.[157]

The large twin-rotor Boeing Chinook is the RAF's heavy-lift support helicopter.[158] Originally ordered in 1978,[159] with subsequent orders in 1995,[160] 2011,[161] and 2018 (yet to be finalised),[162] the Chinook is operated by Nos. 7, 18(B) and 27 Squadrons at RAF Odiham and No. 28 Squadron (Support Helicopter OCU) at RAF Benson.[163] Since being first delivered in 1981, the Chinook has been involved in numerous operations: the Falklands War (1982); Operation Granby (1991); Operation Engadine (1999); Operation Barras (2000); Operation Herrick (2002-2014); Operation Telic (2003-2011); Operation Ruman (2017); and Operation Newcombe (2018-present).[163][164][165][166] The 60-strong fleet of Chinooks currently has an OSD in the 2040s.[167][168]

The Westland Puma HC2 is the RAF's Medium-lift support helicopter. It is operated by No. 33 Squadron and No. 230 Squadron (the RAF's Tiger Squadron)[169], as well as by No. 28 Squadron (Support Helicopter OCU), all of which are based at RAF Benson.[170] The first two Puma HC1s (XW198 and XW199), of an eventual 48, were delivered in January 1971,[171] which were supplemented by a captured Argentine Army SA 330J in 2001 and six ex-South African Air Force SA 330Ls in 2002.[172][173] 24 of the Puma HC1s underwent upgrades to HC Mk.2 standard between 2012 and 2014.[174] The Puma HC2 OSD is currently set to be March 2025.[175]

Three Bell Griffin HAR.2s of No. 84 Squadron are based at RAF Akrotiri in the Cyprus Sovereign Base Areas.[176] They are the RAF's only dedicated helicopter Search and Rescue force since the disbandment of the RAF Search and Rescue Force in February 2016.[177] However, all UK military helicopter aircrew routinely train and practice the skills necessary for Search and Rescue, 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.[178]

The AgustaWestland AW109 Grand New aircraft of No. 32 (The Royal) Squadron also provide VIP transport and military helicopter capabilities.[179]


Nine Boeing Poseidon MRA1s[180] were ordered by the Government in November 2015 in its Strategic Defence and Security Review for surveillance, anti-submarine and anti-surface ship warfare, filling a capability gap in maritime patrol that had been left since the cancellation of the BAE Systems Nimrod MRA4 programme in the 2010 SDSR.[181] On 13 July 2017, it was announced that No. 120 Squadron and No. 201 Squadron, both former Nimrod MR2 squadrons, would be the two units to operate the P-8A Poseidon, based at RAF Lossiemouth.[182] No. 120 Squadron stood up on 1 April 2018, with No. 201 Squadron set to form sometime in 2021.[182] The first production Poseidon MRA1 ZP801 made its initial flight on 13 July 2019.[183]ZP801 arrived at Kinloss Barracks, the former home of the Nimrod, on 4 February 2020, filling a decade long gap in maritime capability.[184]

Air Mobility

The RAF operate the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III in the heavy strategic airlift role, originally leasing four from Boeing. These four were subsequently purchased outright, followed by a fifth delivered on 7 April 2008 and a sixth delivered on 11 June 2008. The new aircraft entered frontline use within days. 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.[185] In February 2012 the purchase of an eighth C-17 was confirmed;[186] the aircraft arrived at RAF Brize Norton in May 2012.[187]

Air transport tasks are also 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,[188] and entered service in April 2012.[189] 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.[190] A total of 14 Voyagers form the fleet, with nine allocated to sole RAF use (three KC2s and six KC3s).[191] 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.[192]

Shorter range, tactical-airlift transport is provided by the Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules, known as the Hercules C4 (C-130J-30) and Hercules C5 (C-130J) in RAF service, based at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. The draw-down of the Hercules C5 fleet has begun with the final aircraft planned to retire in 2019. The fourteen C4 extended variants are scheduled to retire on 31 March 2035. However, due to the crash of Hercules C4 ZH873 in August 2017,[193] one Hercules C5 will be retained to keep the fleet at 14 aircraft.[194] The Airbus Atlas C1 (A400M) replaced the RAF's fleet of Hercules C1/C3 (C-130K) transport aircraft which were withdrawn from service on 31 December 2012. The A400M is also expected to replace the C4/C5 variants. Originally, 25 A400Ms were ordered; the total purchase has now dropped to 22.[195][196]

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.[197][198] The aircraft, designated as the BAe 146 C Mk 3, arrived in Afghanistan in April 2013.[199]

Training aircraft

Elementary Flying Training (EFT), as well as Multi-Engine Lead-In training, is conducted on the Grob Prefect T1.[200] Basic fast jet training is provided on the Beechcraft Texan T1, replacing the Short Tucano T1 in November 2019, and initial helicopter training on the Squirrel HT1. Multi-Engine aircrew, weapon systems officer (WSO) and weapon systems operator (WSOp) students are trained on the Embraer Phenom T1. On completion of these stages of training, aircrew are awarded their 'wings' badge to wear on their uniforms, and multi-engine aircrew then go to their Operational Conversion Unit. Fast jet aircrew proceed to Advanced training on BAe Hawk T2, while helicopter aircrew complete a course on the Bell Griffin HT1, before going on to an Operational Conversion Unit (OCU). Each OCU trains aircrew on a specific aircraft type in preparation for service with a front-line squadron. The OCUs mainly use operational aircraft, though some training variants exists, such as the Typhoon T3, as well as sophisticated simulators and ground training.[201]

The Tutor equips the fourteen University Air Squadrons, which provide University students an opportunity to undertake an RAF training syllabus based loosely on EFT, which includes first solo, as well as air navigation, aerobatics and formation flying. 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 Grob Viking T1 conventional glider. Due to an airworthiness issue in April 2014, the Viking fleet and the Grob Vigilant T1 aircraft were grounded for a two-year period, although Viking operations have subsequently resumed.[202] The Vigilant was unexpectedly withdrawn from service in May 2018, a year earlier than planned. A contract tender was initiated in February 2018 to replace this capability from 2022 onwards.[203]

Two of the ten T-6 Texan II trainers due as part of the UK Military Flight Training System were delivered in February 2018, forming the nucleus of the unit to be operated at RAF Valley. The aircraft are jointly operated by the Royal Air Force and Ascent Flight Training to provide lead-in training for RAF and Royal Navy fighter pilots prior to advanced training on the Hawk.[204]

The BAe Hawk T1, as well as being flown by the Red Arrows, is also flown by No. 100 Squadron to support other fast jet and ground unit training, as an aggressor aircraft. The Squadron fulfills the role of enemy aircraft in air combat training or to provide additional air assets in joint exercises.[205]

Future aircraft

The F-35B Lightning II is intended to enter service around 2020 under the Joint Combat Aircraft programme.[206] On 19 July 2012, the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, in a speech in the US, 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". The first four of 14 production aircraft were ordered in November 2014.[207] Six further aircraft were ordered on 3 November 2015,[207] with expected delivery in 2016. In November 2015, the government committed to ordering 48 F-35B aircraft by 2023,[208] 24 of which will be available for carrier duties.[148] 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.[148] The first F-35 aircraft arrived at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire on 29 June 2016 after a transatlantic crossing involving air-to-air refuelling.[209]

On 5 October 2015, it was announced that the Scavenger programme had been replaced by "Protector", a new requirement for at least 20 systems.[210] On 7 October 2015, it was revealed that Protector will be a Certifiable derivative of the MQ-9B SkyGuardian with enhanced range and endurance.[211] In 2016 it was indicated that at least 16 UAVs would be purchased with a maximum of up to 26.[212] In July 2018, a General Atomics US Civil registered MQ-9B SkyGuardian was flown from North Dakota to RAF Fairford for the Royal International Air Tattoo where it was given RAF markings. It was formally announced by the Chief of Air Staff that No. 31 Squadron would become the first squadron to operate the Protector RG1.[213][214][215]

In July 2014, the House of Commons Defence Select Committee released a report on the RAF future force structure that envisaged a mixture of unmanned and manned platforms, including further F-35, Protector RG1, a service life extension for the Typhoon (which would otherwise end its service in 2030) or a possible new manned aircraft.[216]

In July 2018, at the Farnborough Airshow, the Defence Secretary announced a £2bn investment for BAe Systems, MBDA and Leonardo to develop a new British 6th Generation Fighter to replace Typhoon in 2035 under Project TEMPEST.[217]

On 22 March 2019, the Defence Secretary announced the United Kingdom had signed a $1.98 billion deal to procure five Boeing E-7 Wedgetails to replace the ageing E-3D Sentry AEW1 fleet in the Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) role.[133] As of May 2020, the first E-7 is expected to enter RAF service in 2023 with the final aircraft arriving in late 2025 or early 2026.[218]

UK Military Flying Training System

The UK's military flying training has been civilianised through a public-private partnership, which puts training output in the hands of a civilian contractor, known as Ascent Flight Training, a consortium of Lockheed Martin and Babcock International. The main elements of the system are fixed- and rotary-wing training from ab-initio all the way to Operational Conversion Units, which prepare aircrew for a specific frontline platform.[219]

Fixed wing

The new process uses three new fixed wing aircraft, the Grob Prefect T1 elementary trainer, the Beechcraft Texan T1 basic fast jet trainer, and the Embraer Phenom T1 multi-engine trainer. The aircraft have been procured to reduce the training gap between the older generation Tutor T1, Tucano T1 and King Air T1 aircraft, and the RAF's modern frontline aircraft, including advanced systems and glass cockpits. MFTS also relies far more on synthetic training to prepare aircrew for the front line, where advanced synthetic training is commonplace. Basic Fast Jet training is undertaken on the Texan, and advanced training is done on the BAE Systems Hawk T2, the contract for which had been separated from the rest of the UK MFTS contract, under the auspices of the Advanced Fast Jet Trainer programme.[220]


In May 2016, it was announced that the RAF would see delivery of 29 Airbus H135 (Juno HT.1) and 3 Airbus H145 (Jupiter HT.1) helicopters for use as training aircraft. 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".[221] A further four Jupiter HT.1s were ordered on 21 January 2020.[222]

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. 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.[223] 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.[224] 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.[224]

The Latin motto of the RAF, "Per ardua ad astra", is usually translated as "Through Adversity to the Stars",[225] but the RAF's official translation is "Through Struggle to the Stars".[3] 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.[226]

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".[225] 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.[227]

Ceremonial functions and display

Red Arrows

The Red Arrows in formation with an F-35B and a pair of Typhoons at the Royal International Air Tattoo in 2016

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.[228] The Red Arrows badge shows the aircraft in their trademark Diamond Nine formation, with the motto Éclat, a French word meaning "brilliance" or "excellence".[228]

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.[229]

Royal Air Force Music

Headquarters Royal Air Force Music Services, located at RAF Northolt, supports professional musicians who attend events around the globe in support of the RAF. The Central Band of the Royal Air Force was established in 1920.[230] Other bands include the Band of the Royal Air Force College, the Band of the Royal Air Force Regiment and the Band of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force.[231]

Current deployments

Country Dates Deployment Details
Gibraltar 1940s-present RAF Gibraltar Although there are no permanently stationed aircraft, RAF aircraft (e.g. transports) make regular visits.[232]
Cyprus 1940-present RAF Akrotiri As part of British Forces Cyprus, the RAF have aircraft which can be deployed from Cyprus as part of the intervention against ISIL.[233]
Qatar 2005-present RAF Al Udeid An RAF RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft is based at Al Udeid which is currently in use as a Middle Eastern base for the RAF as well as being the headquarters for the RAF contribution to Operation Shader.[234]
Afghanistan 2001-present Operation Toral The UK continues to contribute to NATO's Resolute Support Mission with the RAF providing Puma HC2s.[235]
Norway 1960s-present Bardufoss Air Station RAF fighter and/or helicopter squadrons undergo winter training in Norway.[236]
Ascension Island 1982-present RAF Ascension Island The island is used as an air bridge between the UK and the Falkland Islands.[237]
Falkland Islands 1982-present RAF Mount Pleasant As part of British Forces South Atlantic Islands, the RAF has two Chinook helicopters based at Mount Pleasant,[238] and four Typhoon aircraft in an air defence role.[239]

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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