Royal Air Force
Royal Air Force badge. Motto "Through adversity to the stars"
The Royal Air Force (often abbreviated to RAF) is the air force of the United Kingdom.
Formation and Early History
Royal Air Force Ensign
The Royal Flying Corps was formed by Royal Warrant on May 13, 1912 superseding the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers. The Royal Naval Air Service was formed shortly after the outbreak of World War I. Both services saw heavy action during the war. The two services were amalgamated on April 1, 1918 to form the Royal Air Force. The RAF was under the supervision of the Air Ministry and was the world's second independent air force, after the German Luftwaffe, though because of the Luftwaffe was disbanded after the end of World War I, the RAF is technically the current oldest.
Between the World Wars the RAF was responsible for mail and armed forces services, but saw little military action. It was, however, used as an aerial police force to patrol the British Empire's borders. Of particular note was 1928's air evacuation of civilians from Afghanistan, the first operation of its kind. This period also saw the formation of the major flying schools that still provide its service personnel.
An important event during that time period was a reorganisation of the RAF's major commands. In 1936, the familiar Coastal Command, Fighter Command and Bomber Command were formed from the RAF's home squadrons. This mission-based organisation was unique at the time, and was to stand the RAF in good stead. In 1937 the Naval Air Branch was returned to the Royal Navy, and was soon renamed the Fleet Air Arm.
World War Two
A defining period of the RAF's existence came during the Battle of Britain. Over the summer of 1940 the RAF held off the Luftwaffe in perhaps the most prolonged and complicated air campaign in history. This contributed immensely to the delay and cancellation of Germany's planned invasion of England (Operation Sea Lion) and helped to turn the tide of World War II. (See also British military history of World War II.)
The largest RAF effort during the war was the strategic bombing campaign against Germany. From May 31 1942 RAF Bomber Command was able to mount large scale night raids involving up to 1000 aircraft, many of which were the new heavy four-engined bombers. There exists considerable historical controversy about the ethics of such large attacks against German cities during the last few months of the war (see Bombing of Dresden in World War II).
Cold War Years
The RAF did not have a prominent role in the Korean War, with only a few flying boats taking part. However, the Suez Crisis in 1956 saw a large RAF role, with aircraft mainly flying from Cyprus and Malta. The Konfrontasi against Indonesia in the early 1960s did see use of RAF aircraft, but due to a combination of deft diplomacy and selective ignoring of certain events by both sides, it never developed into a full scale war.
In 1968 the RAF experienced its largest change in administrative structure since 1936 when Fighter Command, Bomber Command and Coastal Command were combined into the new Strike Command which exists today.
The end of the RAF presence in the east of Asia came in 1971 when the Far East Air Force was disbanded on October 31.
Recent Major Operations
The next large conflict involving the RAF was the Falklands War in 1982. Its most high profile missions in this conflict were the famous Black Buck raids using Avro Vulcans flying from Ascension Island. However, the service did many other things during the conflict, with its helicopters in the Falklands themselves, its Harrier GR3s flying from HMS Hermes, its fighter aircraft protecting Ascension, maritime patrol aircraft scanning the South Atlantic, and tanker and transport fleet helping in the enormous logistical effort required for the war.
In 1991 over 100 RAF aircraft took part in the Gulf War, in virtually every conceivable role. It marked an important turning point in the RAF's history as it was the first time the service had used precision guided munitions in significant amounts. It was initially thought that the RAF would not need to use them, as most of its bombing missions would be at low level. After heavy losses, bombing was switched to medium level, and the venerable Blackburn Buccaneer was rushed to the theatre to provide laser designation for the RAF's Tornados.
The end of the decade saw the much smaller Kosovo War in 1999, which confirmed the shift towards precision guided munitions. The Kosovo conflict was remarkable in that it was the first time a war of such size had been fought with no loss of life on one side. Although smaller than the Gulf War, it was still a medium sized war.
In the 21st century the RAF is trying to keep up with the technological lead of the United States Air Force. Two conflicts have been fought so far, with the RAF taking very much a supporting role in the 2001 conquest of Afghanistan, but centre stage in the 2003 Gulf War II. The latter conflict again saw over 100 fixed wing aircraft deployed, with all weapon firing aircraft capable of dropping smart munitions for the first time.
Provided adequate funding is provided for the RAF over upcoming years it should continue to be one of the most potent air forces in the world. It has a proud record and heritage, and it has powerful aircraft coming on stream in the near future.
Structure of the RAF
The head of the RAF is known as the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), currently Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup. The CAS heads the Air Force Board, which is a committee of the Defence Council. The Air Force Board (AFB) is the management board of the RAF and consists of the Commanders-in-Chief of the Commands, together with several other Air Officers.
Operational command is delegated from the AFB to formations known as Commands. While there were once invidual Commands responsible for bombers, fighters, training, etc, only two Commands exist currently:
- Strike Command - HQ at RAF High Wycombe - responsible for all of the operational operations of the RAF.
- Personnel and Training Command - HQ at RAF Innsworth - responsible for recruitment, initial and trade training, including flying training.
Groups are the subdivisions of operational Commands, responsible for certain types of operation or for operations in limited geographical areas. Since 2000, three Groups have existed within Strike Command:
- 1 Group - an Air Combat Group, responsible for all offensive and defensive fast jet forces, including Joint Force Harrier
- 2 Group - an Air Combat Support Group. This manages all transport and air-to-air refuelling aircraft and Air Combat Service Support units such as the deployable Tactical Support Wing and Tactical Communications Wing. It also commands the Force Protection assets of the RAF Regiment.
- 3 Group - a Battle Management Group, commanding all ISTAR assests such as the reconaissance aricraft, Nimrod R1, etc, and also the Maritime and Search and Rescue assets. 3 Group also coordinates with the Joint Helicopter Command at HQ Land, which controls the support helicopter fleet.
Current RAF Aircraft
The RAF's roundel was adopted during the First World War. IT is a reversal of the French roundel. The roundel has found its way into British culture, where it is often described as a "target".
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:
Strike, Attack and Offensive Support Aircraft
Air Defence and Airborne Early Warning Aircraft
Maritime Patrol / Search and Rescue Aircraft
Transport and Air-to-Air Refuelling Aircraft
Operational Conversion Aircraft
- Dominie T1
- Firefly II
- Firefly 260
- Gazelle AH1
- Griffin HT1
- Hawk T1 / T1A / T1W
- Super King Air T1
- Tucano T1
- Tutor T1
- Viking T1
- Vigilant T1
This list includes aircraft soon to be deployed or in development for the RAF.
The Sentinel R1 will provide the RAF and British Army with battlefield surveillance in a similar role to the E-8 JSTARS. The Tornado F3 and SEPECAT Jaguar fleets will be replaced by the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Harrier GR7s and GR9s will be replaced by the F-35 JSF. The service received 25 next generation C-130J Hercules in 1999 and is committed to 25 Airbus A400Ms to replace the remaining C-130Hs while maintaining a small fleet of C-17s. The ageing aerial refueling fleet of VC10s and Tristars should be replaced with the Airbus A330, although problems with contract negotiations have led to unsolicited proposals for the conversion of civil Tristars or DC-10s. 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. In the longer term the Tornado GR4 will be replaced by the Future Offensive Air System, although this project is at an early stage.
The codes for what an aircraft does are relatively straightforward, and often similar to the equivalent American ones. The letters after the main alphanumeric code identify minor variants of a particular aircraft. For example, Tornado GR4A's are ground attack aircraft with a tactical reconnaissance capability, whilst Tornado GR4's are purely ground attack aircraft. The UK's C-17s as yet do not carry a RAF designation due to their leased status, referred to simply as C-17s.
For historical aircraft see List of aircraft of the RAF.
RAF on the Ground
The RAF Regiment was created during World War II to defend RAF airfields from attack. They operate surface-to-air missiles to defend against air attack, and have infantry and light armoured units to protect against ground attack.
In the early days, machine guns were potent enough to severely damage most aircraft. As more advanced aircraft were able to fly higher, they could only be shot down through the use of high-powered anti-aircraft artillery. With the advent of supersonic aircraft, guided surface-to-air missiles were needed. These are either heat-seeking or radar guided.
Both types of guided missile may be "spoofed" or "decoyed" away from the target aircraft. Radar guided missiles are spoofed by chaff, which is a small "cloud" of short strips of metal which produce false radar returns. Heat-seeking missiles are spoofed by flares, which are produce false heat sources.
Modern military aircraft carry both systems, and also warning receivers that inform the pilot if the aircraft is "locked on" by a radar, or targeted by a heat seeking missile. The RAF developed the Rapier missile system, comparable to the American Chapparal missile system. Missiles are automatically launched by a ground control system that can recognize, prioritise and target up to 80 aircraft at once.
The RAF Police are the military police of the RAF and are located wherever the RAF is located. Unlike other British Police, the RAF Police are armed as needed.
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