Royal Air Force


The Royal Air Force (often abbreviated to RAF) is the air force branch of the UK Armed Forces.

The RAF is the oldest independent air force in the world, first formed on April 1, 1918. The RAF has taken a significant role in British military history since its formation, playing a large part in World War II, and more recently in conflicts in Iraq. With a fleet of 942 aircraft and a manpower of 53,400, the RAF is one of the largest air forces in the world. It is also one of the most technologically advanced air forces after the United States Air Force.



Formation and Early History (1918–1939)

Missing image
Royal Air Force badge. Motto "Through adversity to the stars"

The RAF was founded in April 1, 1918 by the amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. The Royal Flying Corps was a division of the Royal Engineers, under the control of the British Army. The Royal Naval Air Service was its naval equivalent. The decision to merge the two units and create an independent air force was a response to the events of World War I which was the first war in which air power proved to be decisive. The newly created RAF was the most powerful airforce in the world on its creation, with over 20,000 aircraft.

The inter-war years were relatively peaceful for the RAF, with only minor actions in the British Empire. The RAF saw service in Afghanistan where the first evacuation of civilians occurred in 1928. In 1936, a reorganisation of RAF command saw the creation of Fighter Command, Bomber Command and Coastal Command. The Naval Air Branch was also de-merged and renamed the Fleet Air Arm under the control of the Royal Navy.

World War II (1939–1945)

The RAF underwent rapid expansion following the outbreak of war against Nazi Germany in 1939. This included the training of British aircrews in Commonwealth countries under the Commonwealth Air Training Plan, and the secondment of many whole squadrons, and tens of thousands of individual personnel, from Commonwealth air forces. To these were later added thousands of personnel from other countries, including many who had fled from European countries conquered by the Nazis.

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 German plans for an 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 such as the Bombing of Dresden in World War II.

Cold War (1945–1990)

After victory in World War II, the RAF was to be further re-organised, as technological advances in air warfare saw the arrival of jet fighters and bombers. After the British development of nuclear weapons, the RAF's V bomber squadrons also took sole responsibility of carrying the UK's nuclear deterrent until the development of the Royal Navy's Polaris submarines. Following the introduction of Polaris in 1968 the RAF's strategic nuclear role was reduced to a tactical one, using the WE177 gravity bombs. This tactical role was continued by the V bombers into the 1980s and until 1998 by Tornado GR1s.

The primary role of the RAF in the Cold War years was the defence of Europe against potential attack by the Soviet Union. With the decline of the British Empire, global operations were scaled back, and RAF Far East Air Force was disbanded on October 31, 1971.

Despite this, the RAF fought in many battles in the Cold War period. The RAF played a minor role in the Korean War, with 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.

The Falklands War in 1982 was mainly fought by the Navy and Army due to the distance of the battlefield from friendly airfields. However RAF aircraft were deployed on Ascension Island and on board the Navy's aircraft carriers. The 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. Later the Kosovo War in 1999 saw the RAF deployed in Europe for the first time since World War II. The 2001 invasion of Afghanistan saw the RAF provide support to the United States by the provision of tankers and reconnaissance aircraft.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq saw a large RAF deployment in support of the United States Air Force. The only RAF losses were due to accidents and friendly fire when an RAF Tornado jet was shot down by a US patriot missile.

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 high ranking Officers.


Operational command is delegated from the AFB to formations known as Commands. While there were once individual Commands responsible for bombers, fighters, training, etc, only two Commands exist currently:


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 — the Air Combat Group, responsible for all offensive and defensive fast jet forces, including Joint Force Harrier
  • 2 Group — the 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 — the Battle Management Group, commanding all ISTAR assests such as the reconnaissance aircraft, 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.

See also List of Royal Air Force groups.

Missing image
The RAF's roundel was adopted during the First World War. It is a reversal of the French roundel. The roundel has been adopted by Commonwealth air forces, replacing the red circle with a national symbol.


A Wing is a sub-division of a Group, and a grouping of two or more squadrons, either flying squadrons or ground support squadrons. In former times, numbered flying Wings have existed, but today they are created only as needed, for example during Op. Telic, Tornado Wings were formed to operate from Ali al Salem and Al Udeid airbases; each of these were made up of aircraft and crews from several squadrons.

In addition, RAF Stations are administratively sub-divided into Wings. 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.

See also List of Royal Air Force wings.


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 are commanded by a Wing Commander and, for a fast-jet squadron, have an establishment of around 100 personnel and 12 aircraft.

See also List of Royal Air Force aircraft 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.

See also List of Royal Air Force independent flights

RAF Personnel

As of 2004, the RAF employed 48,500 people; this will reduce to 41,000 by 2008 [1] ( At its height during the Second World War, in excess of 1,000,000 personnel were serving at any one time. A small proportion of these RAF personnel have risen to prominence either by their actions whilst serving, or subsequently; these are detailed at List of famous Royal Air Force members. The various ranks of personnel within the RAF are listed in descending order below.

See Comparative military ranks to compare RAF ranks with those of other services.


The names and insignia of RAF Officers were based on those in use by the Royal Navy, specifically the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) during World War I. For example, the RAF rank of Flying Officer was derived from the RNAS rank of Flight Sub-Lieutenant. Similarly, that of Flight Lieutenant was based on the RNAS rank of the same name. The rank of Squadron Leader derived its name from the RNAS rank of Squadron Commander. However, these ranks do not in anyway imply the actual position held by an officer; a Flying Officer may or may not be qualified to fly and a Squadron Leader does not necessarily command a squadron. The insignia for equivalent ranks are the same apart from the colour (light blue stripe on a black background rather than gold) and the absence of the Navy's loop.

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.

Other Ranks

The rank structure for Other Ranks 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. Other Ranks attend the Recruit Training Squadron at RAF Halton for basic training, with the exception of the RAF Regiment, who train their recruits at RAF Honington.

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 operate surface-to-air missiles to defend against air attack, and have infantry and light armoured units to protect against ground attack.
  • 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.
  • 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.

RAF Aircraft

A list including historical aircraft is at List of aircraft of the RAF. 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 codes which suffix the each aircraft's name describe the role of the particular 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

Tornado GR4
Tornado GR4
Missing image
Typhoon T1
Missing image

The mainstay of the 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 in the process of being upgraded to GR.9 standard with newer systems and more powerful engines. The Jaguar is being withdrawn from service by 2008, to be replaced by the Typhoon.

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 more agile 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 is also used in this role for its ability to fly at high altitude for long duration sorties. All three types are equipped with a range of cameras and sensors in the visual, infra-red and radar ranges of the spectrum. Providing electronic and signals intelligence are the Nimrod R.1 and the new Sentinel R.1.

Maritime Patrol / 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.

The Nimrod MR.2 is also used in a search and rescue role, where its long range and extensive communications facilities allows it to co-ordinate rescues by acting as a link between rescue helicopters, ships and shore bases. It can also drop pods containing lift rafts and survival supplies to people in the sea. However, the primary role of the Nimrod is Maritime Patrol, specifically anti-submarine and surface ship warfare.

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 the smaller Merlin HC.3 and Puma HC.1, based at RAF Benson and RAF Aldergrove.

Transport and Air-to-Air Refuelling Aircraft

Formerly known as The Queen's Flight, 32 (The Royal) Squadron uses the BAe 125 CC.3, Squirrel HCC.1 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.

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 pilots 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

F-35 joint Strike Fighter
F-35 joint Strike Fighter

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 developed mainly for special forces missions. Service entry delayed due to software problems and legal issues. The Hawk 128 will replace the existing Hawks in service; the newer model being more similar in terms of 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 Joint Strike Fighter) will replace the Harrier GR.7 and GR.9. In the long term the Tornado GR.4 will be replaced by the Future Offensive Air System, although this project is at an early stage. 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


Afganistan 2001– Operation Veritas Chinooks provided airlift support to coalition forces. Since late 2004 6 Harriers have provided reconnaissance and close air support to 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 RAF Ascension Island 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 at CFB Goose Bay, an air force base of the Canadian Forces Air Command.
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 detachement of RAF Regiment provides anti-aircraft support.
Gibraltar 1940s– RAF Gibraltar No permanently stationed aircraft. RAF aircraft do make regular visits, e.g. Hercules transports.
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 occupation of Southern Iraq by British Forces, the RAF is deployed at Basra.

Symbols, Flags and Emblems

Missing image
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 [2] (

The RAF Ensign is flown from the flagstaff on every RAF station during daylight hours. It is hoisted and hauled down by station duty staff daily. The design was approved by King George V in 1921, after much opposition by 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 surrounded by a white and finally a blue ring. The relative sizes of the rings has changed over the years and when camouflage patterns on aircraft were introduced an outer yellow ring was added. Aircraft serving in the Far East during the second world war had the red ring removed to prevent confusion with Japanese aircraft. Modern day aircraft carry low-visibility, washed out, pink and light blue roundels; the exception being training and VIP transport aircraft who 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 JS Yule, in response to a request from the first Commander of the RFC, Colonel Sykes for suggestions.

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.

See also

External links


Template:British Militaryda:Royal Air Force de:Royal Air Force fr:Royal Air Force it:Royal Air Force nl:Royal Air Force pl:Royal Air Force fi:Royal Air Force sv:Royal Air Force


  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools