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The Royal Air Force (RAF) is the United Kingdom's air force, the oldest independent air force in the world. Formed on 1 April 1918, the RAF has taken a significant role in British military history ever since, playing a large part in World War II and in more recent conflicts. The RAF operates almost 1,100 aircraft and, as of 31 March 2008, had a projected trained strength of 41,440 regular personnel. The majority of the RAF's aircraft and personnel are based in the UK with many others serving on operations (principally Iraq, Afghanistan, Middle East, Balkans, and South Atlantic) or at long-established overseas bases (notably the Falkland Islands, Qatar, Germany, Cyprus, and Gibraltar).
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."
The RAF's own mission statement reads as thus, to provide (paraphrase) "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."
The above statement goes hand in hand with the RAF's definition of air power, the concept that guides the RAF strategy. Air Power is defined as thus "The ability to project military force in air or space by or from a platform or missile operating above the surface of the earth. Air platforms are defined as any aircraft, helicopter or unmanned air vehicle." 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 and land environments respectively.
History of the RAF
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 of any significant size and the first air force to become independent of army or navy control.
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 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 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.
In the Battle of Britain, in the late summer of 1940, the RAF (consisting greatly of multinational i.e. Polish, Czechoslovakian pilots and ground personnel) defended the skies over Britain against the German Luftwaffe, helping foil Hitler's plans for an invasion of the United Kingdom, and prompting Prime Minister Winston Churchill to say in the House of Commons on 20 August, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few"
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, or the Amiens prison raid known as Operation Jericho.
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 United Kingdom's nuclear deterrent for a number of years. After the Cold War, the RAF was involved in several large scale operations, including the Kosovo War, the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The RAF celebrated its 90th birthday with a flypast of the Red Arrows and four Typhoons over many RAF Stations and Central London on 1 April 2008
The professional head of the RAF is the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), 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 is the management board of the RAF and consists of the Commander-in-Chief of 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); this post is held by Air Vice-Marshal T M Anderson
Authority is delegated from the Air Force Board to the RAF's commands. While there were once individual commands responsible for bombers, fighters, training, etc, only one command now exists:
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:
In addition, No. 83 Group RAF, under the command of the Permanent Joint Headquarters, is active in the Middle East, supporting operations over Iraq and Afghanistan
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 an operational sub-division of a group or an administrative 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 (EAWs) in order to support operations. They have been established 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 numbered Nos 121, 122, 325, 135, 125, 140, 38, 138 and 34 EAWs respectively. These units are commanded by a group captain who is also the parent unit's Station Commander. The EAW comprises 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 depending on the task it has been assigned.
A wing is also an administrative sub-division of an RAF station. Historically, for a flying station these were normally Operations Wing, Engineering Wing and Administration Wing and each wing was commanded by an officer of wing commander rank. In the 21st century, new names have been used on stations such as Forward Support Wing, Base Support Wing and Logistics Wing etc.
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 100 personnel and 12 aircraft, but 16 aircraft for Tornado F3 Squadrons.
The term squadron can be used to refer to a sub-unit of an administrative wing or small RAF station, e.g. Air Traffic Control Squadron, Personnel Management Squadron etc. There are also Ground Support Squadrons, e.g.No 2 (Mechanical Transport) Squadron which is located at RAF Wittering. Administrative squadrons are normally commanded by a squadron leader.
A flight is a sub-division of a squadron. Flying squadrons are often divided into two flights, eg "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.
Due to 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 4 Panavia Tornado F3 aircraft.
In 2007 the RAF employed 40,370 active duty personnel , 1,450 RAF Volunteer Reserves and 3,400 regular reservists. At its height (1944) during the Second World War, in excess of 1,100,000 personnel were serving at any one time. The only founding member of the RAF still living is Henry Allingham at age 112.
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 32-week-long Initial Officer Training course at the RAF College, Cranwell, Lincolnshire. Other officers also train at RAF Cranwell, but on different courses, such as professionally qualified officers.
The titles and insignia of RAF officers were chiefly 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.
RAF: 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 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.
RAF: branches and trades
The majority of the members of the RAF serve in support roles on the ground.
RAF: Specialist Training and Education
The Royal Air Force operates several units and centers 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, and the Air Warfare Centre, based at RAF Waddington and RAF Cranwell. NCO training and developmental courses occur at RAF Halton and officer courses occur at the Joint Services Command and Staff College at Shrivenham.
British military aircraft designations generally comprise a type name followed by a mark number which includes an alphabetical rôle prefix. 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 which is used in the strike and close air support roles, and to counter enemy air defences. The Harrier is being upgraded to GR9/GR9A standard with newer systems and more powerful Rolls Royce Pegasus engines. The Harrier GR9 was formally accepted into RAF service in late September 2006.
The Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4, has from June 2008 achieved the required standard for multi-role operational deployment.
RAF: Air defence and airborne early warning aircraft
The Tornado F3 and Eurofighter Typhoon F2 are the RAF's air defence fighter aircraft, based at RAF Leuchars and RAF Coningsby respectively. Their task is to defend the UK’s airspace. In October 2007 it was announced that RAF Boscombe Down will become a quick reaction alert airbase from early 2008, offering around the clock fighter coverage for the South and South West of UK airspace.
The Tornado, in service in the air defence role since the late 1980s, is being replaced by the Eurofighter Typhoon F2, based at RAF Coningsby. The RAF's second operational Typhoon unit, 11 Sqn, reformed on 29 March 2007, joining 3 Sqn, also based at RAF Coningsby.
The Sentry AEW1, based at RAF Waddington , provides airborne early warning to detect incoming enemy aircraft and to co-ordinate the aerial battlefield. Both the Sentry and the Tornado F3 have been involved in recent operations including over Iraq and the Balkans.
RAF: Reconnaissance aircraft
The Tornado GR4A is fitted with cameras and sensors in the visual, infra-red and radar ranges of the spectrum.
The Nimrod R1 provides electronic and signals intelligence.
The new Sentinel R1 (also know as ASTOR - Airborne STand-Off Radar) provides a ground radar-surveillance platform based on the Bombardier Global Express long range business jet. These will be supplemented in 2009 by four Beechcraft Shadow R1 aircraft equipped for the ISTAR role over Afganistan.
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. A third MQ-9 is in the process of being purchased.
RAF: Support helicopters
An important part of the work of the RAF is to support the British Army 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 and heavy-lift support for the Royal Marines. 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 additional Merlins. The aircraft were originally ordered by Denmark and six new aircraft will be built for Denmark. It was also announced that eight Chinook HC3s, that are in storage, will be modified for the battlefield support role.
RAF: Maritime patrol
The Nimrod MR2's primary role is that of Anti-Submarine Warfare and Anti-Surface Unit Warfare. The Nimrod MR2 is additionally used in a Search and Rescue role, where its long range and 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.
RAF: 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, just west of London.
More routine, strategic airlift transport tasks are carried out by the Tristars and VC10s based at RAF Brize Norton, for passengers and cargo, and for air-to-air refuelling of other aircraft.
Shorter range, tactical-airlift transport is provided by the Hercules, the fleet including both older C-130K (Hercules C1/C3) and newer C-130J (Hercules C4/C5) variants, based at RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire.
The RAF has leased four C-17 Globemaster IIIs from Boeing to provide a heavy, strategic airlift capability. These will be purchased, as well a fifth C-17 delivered on 7 April 2008. A sixth aircraft, which the MoD announced would bolster operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, was delivered on 8 June 2008. The new aircraft have entered frontline use within days rather than weeks. The MoD has said "there is a stated departmental requirement for eight" C-17s which means the next two would be delivered before mid-2009 when the Globemaster production line may be closed.
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) Squadron RAF based at RAF Valley equipped with the Sea King HAR3.
The related Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Service comprises four teams of trained mountaineers stationed in the mainland United Kingdom, first established in 1943.
RAF: Training aircraft
Elementary flying training is conducted on the Tutor T1. 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.
Basic pilot training for fixed-wing and helicopter pilots is provided on the Tucano T1 and Squirrel HT1, while weapon systems officer and weapon systems operator training is conducted in the Dominie T1.
Advanced flying training for fast-jet, helicopter and multi-engine pilots is provided using the Hawk T1, Griffin HT1 and B200 King Air respectively. 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 and Typhoon T1.
RAF: Future aircraft
The RAF is planning for the introduction of new aircraft. These include:
RAF: Post-war RAF deployments
RAF: Symbols, flags, emblems and uniform
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 Germany's 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", but the RAF's official translation is "Through Struggle to the Stars". 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.
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 affronty Head lowered and to the sinister." It was registered at the College of Arms on 26 January 1923. It was based on a design by a tailor at Gieves Ltd of Savile Row. 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.
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-recognizable brand identity.
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