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Royal Air Force

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Royal Air Force
RAF logo.svg
Founded 1 April 1918
Country United Kingdom United Kingdom
Allegiance Queen Elizabeth II
Size 827 aircraft
41,900 regular and RAuxAF
33,380 regular reserve
Part of British Armed Forces
Air Staff Offices MOD Main Building, Whitehall
Motto Latin: Per Ardua ad Astra
"Through Adversity to the Stars"
March Royal Air Force March Past
Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton GCB
Lord Trenchard
Lord Portal
RAF Badge
Royal Airforce Badge.png
RAF Roundel / low visibility
RAF roundel.svg RAF Lowvis Army roundel.svg
RAF Fin flash / low visibility
RAF-Finflash-Noncombat.svg Fin flash of the United Kingdom Low Visibility.svg
Aircraft flown
Attack Tornado GR4
Typhoon FGR4
Fighter Typhoon F2
Helicopter Chinook
Sea King
Griffin HAR2
Interceptor Typhoon
Reconnaissance Islander
Shadow R1
Sentinel R1
Tornado GR4A
Trainer Hawk
King Air
Transport C-17
Hercules C3
Hercules C4 & C5

The Royal Air Force (RAF) is the aerial warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Formed on 1 April 1918, it is the oldest independent air force in the world. The RAF has taken a significant role in British military history, playing a large part in the Second World War as well as in more recent conflicts.

As of January 2012 the Royal Air Force has a reported strength of approximately 827 aircraft, making it the largest air force in the European Union, and the second largest in terms of aircraft in NATO (after the USAF). Most of the RAF's aircraft and personnel are based in the UK, with many others serving on operations (principally Afghanistan) 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.

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 mission statement is "... [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." 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."



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. It 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. Naval aviation in the form of the RAF's Fleet Air Arm was returned to Admiralty control on 24 May 1939.

The RAF developed its doctrine of strategic bombing which led to the construction of long-range bombers and became the basic philosophy in the Second World War.

Second World War

Distinctive shape of the Spitfire which played a major part 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.

In the Battle of Britain in 1940, the RAF (supplemented by 2 Fleet Air Arm Squadrons, Polish, Czechoslovakian and other multinational pilots and ground personnel) defended the skies over Britain against the numerically superior 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.


The Royal Air Force was involved in the 1948 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.


The Handley Page Victor bomber was a strategic bomber of the RAF's V bomber force used to carry both conventional and nuclear bombs.

The British Government elected on 16 February 1960 to share the country's nuclear deterrent between the RAF and submarines of the Royal Navy, 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 UGM-27 Polaris, the strategic nuclear deterrent passed to the navy's submarines on 30 June 1969.

Later years

After the Cold War, the RAF was involved in several large-scale operations, including the Gulf War, the Kosovo War, operations in Afghanistan, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the subsequent war and the Libyan civil war.

The RAF celebrated the 90th anniversary of its formation on 1 April 2008 with a flypast of the Red Arrows and four Typhoons over many RAF Stations and Central London.

As part of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the BAE Systems Nimrod MRA4 aircraft was cancelled due to over spending and missing deadlines. It was due to have replaced the Nimrod MR2 from late 2011, which fulfilled the Anti-Submarine Warfare and Anti-Surface Unit Warfare roles. It also saw use in a Search and Rescue role, where its long range and communications facilities allowed it to co-ordinate rescues by acting as a link between rescue helicopters, ships and shore bases. It could also drop pods containing life rafts and survival supplies to people in the sea. After the MR2's withdrawal, the search and rescue role was adopted by the C-130 Hercules force, and the Royal Navy took full responsibility for anti-submarine warfare.


The professional head of the RAF is the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton. 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 several high-ranking officers.


Authority is delegated from the Air Force Board to the RAF's command. While there were once individual commands responsible for bombers, fighters, training, etc., now only the Air Command exists, headquartered at RAF High Wycombe.


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:

  • 1 Group (the Air Combat Group): controls the RAF's combat fast jet aircraft and the following stations: RAF Odiham, RAF Benson, RAF Leeming, RAF Coningsby, RAF Leuchars, RAF Wittering, RAF Cottesmore, RAF Marham and RAF Lossiemouth in the UK in addition to RAF Unit Goose Bay in Canada, which is used extensively as an operational training base. The RAF's electronic warfare tactics range at RAF Spadeadam in Cumbria, is also within its sphere of responsibility.
  • 2 Group (the Air Combat Support Group): controls the strategic and tactical air transport aircraft, the RAF Regiment, the RAF's air-to-air refuelling aircraft as well as Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) and search and rescue assets.
  • 22 Group: responsible for recruiting, personnel management and training.

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.


Phased Array Ballistic Missile Early Warning System at RAF Fylingdales.

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 recently they have been created only when required. For example during Operation Telic, Tornado GR4 wings were formed to operate from Ali Al Salem and Al Udeid air bases and the Tornado F3 equipped Leuchars Fighter Wing at Prince Sultan Air Base; 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 were 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. Early in the 21st century, the model changed, with Engineering Wing typically being split into Forward Support Wing and Depth Support Wing, while Administration Wing was redesignated Base Support Wing.


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.

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, 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.


At its height (1944) during the Second World War, more than 1,100,000 personnel were serving. The longest-lived founding member of the RAF was Henry Allingham, who died on 18 July 2009 aged 113. As of July 2012, the Royal Air Force has a total manpower strength of 39,440 regular and 2,460 volunteer reserve personnel (such as the Royal Auxiliary Air Force). This gives a combined component strength of 41,900 personnel. In addition, there were 33,380 regular reserves of the Royal Air Force.

Flying hours

Figures from 2010 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 fast jet pilots achieve 210 flying hours per year, while RAF transport and aerial refuelling pilots achieve 290 flying hours per year. In addition, RAF pilots on transport and support helicopters achieve 240 flying hours per year. (French and German Air Force pilots achieved only 180 and 150 flying hours across their fleets respectively.).


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 those for 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.

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 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.

Branches and trades

A Tornado WSO of No. 12 Squadron
  • RAF Pilots and Weapon Systems Officers (WSO) (formerly known as Navigators) are commissioned officers of the Flying Branch. i.e. Fg(P) or Fg(WSO). Formerly in the General Duties branch, which is now reserved for Wing Commanders and above from any previous branch.
  • Non-commissioned (NCO) Aircrew known as Weapons System Operators (WSOp), fulfil the specialist roles of air engineer (E), air electronics operator (AEOp), air loadmaster (ALM) and air signaller (S). Though they are now known collectively as weapon systems operators, individual trade specialisations remain. Commissioned officer specialists are promoted from within branch to become Fg(WSO).

The majority of the members of the RAF serve in support roles on the ground.

  • 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, arming aircraft with weapons, as well as deeper level repair work on aircraft systems, IT systems, ground based radar, vehicles, ground support equipment, etc.
  • RAF Flight Operations Officers are involved with the planning and co-ordination of all Flying Operations. Flight Operations Officers can be found in every RAF Flying Station and Squadron.
  • The RAF Regiment is the RAF's infantry unit, its officers and gunners defend RAF airfields from attack. The RAF Regiment is also responsible for CBRN defence and training the rest of the RAF in ground defence.
  • Aerospace Battle Managers (formally Fighter Controllers/FC) and Air Traffic Controllers (ATC), control RAF and NATO aircraft from the ground. The FC control the interception of enemy aircraft while the ATC provide air traffic services at RAF stations and to the majority of en-route military aircraft in UK airspace.
  • RAF Intelligence Officers and Intelligence Analysts support all operational activities by providing timely and accurate indicators and warnings. They conduct detailed all source military intelligence fusion and analysis by utilising classified and open source information including imagery, human and communications (signals) intelligence. Intelligence is used to inform commanders of the assessed capabilities and intentions of the enemy for strategic / operational planning and targeting. They also tailor the information to brief aircrews for mission planning and other tactical units (such as RAF Regiment) for Force Protection.
  • RAF Medical Branch provides healthcare at home and on deployed operations, including aeromedical evacuation services. Medical officers are the doctors of the RAF and have specialist expertise in aviation medicine to support aircrew and their protective equipment. Medical officers can go on aeromedical evacuations, providing vital assistance on search-and-rescue missions or emergency relief flights worldwide. RAF Medical Officers are either based in primary care on operations or on RAF stations in the UK or in one of six Ministry of Defence Hospital Units (MDHU's) around the UK as specialist practitioners.
  • Administrative Officers and associated Pers Admin trades are involved with human resources management, training management, physical education, catering, infrastructure management, accounts, dress and discipline, personnel and recruitment.
  • RAF Chaplains Branch provides spiritual and moral support for RAF personnel and their families.
  • RAF Legal Branch provides legal advice on discipline / criminal law and operations law.
  • RAF Police are the military police of the RAF.


  • Royal Auxiliary Air Force (RAuxAF) and RAF Volunteer Reserve personnel fulfil a number of specialist roles in ground roles, including Operations, Intelligence and RAF Regiment in support of the regular RAF.
  • RAF Volunteer Reserve (Training) are responsible for the management and operation of the Air Training Corps, Combined Cadet Force RAF Sections ( CCF(RAF)), Volunteer Gliding Squadrons, Air Experience Flights, University Air Squadron and the Defence Technical Undergraduate Scheme.

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, 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 are the six squadrons of Tornado GR4s. These supersonic aircraft can carry a wide range of weaponry, including Storm Shadow cruise missiles, laser-guided bombs and the ALARM anti-radar missile. Since June 2008, the Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 has also been capable of being deployed operationally in the air-to-ground role.

The RAF has five operational Tornado units, with 9 Squadron, 31 Squadron and 2 Squadron based at RAF Marham. RAF Lossiemouth is home to No. 12 Squadron RAF with 617 Squadron 'Dambusters' and the reserve 15 Squadron.

The Tornado was previously supplemented by the Harrier GR7/GR9 in the strike and close air support roles, and to counter enemy air defences. The Harrier fleet was withdrawn in December 2010 following the Strategic Defence and Security Review; the Tornado GR4 is due to retire in 2019 and be replaced by the Eurofighter Typhoon and F-35 Lightning II.

Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 
Tornado GR4 

Air defence and airborne early warning aircraft

The Eurofighter Typhoon F2/FGR4 is the RAF's only air defence fighter aircraft, with a total of six squadrons based across RAF Leuchars and RAF Coningsby, following the retirement of the Panavia Tornado F3 in late March 2011. Their task is to defend the UK’s airspace. 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.

The RAF has four front-line and two reserve Typhoon units; 3 Squadron, 11 Squadron, 17 Squadron ( Operational Evaluation Unit) and 29 Squadron ( Operational Conversion Unit) based at RAF Coningsby, with 6 Squadron and 1 Squadron based at RAF Leuchars.

The Sentry AEW1, based at RAF Waddington, provides airborne early warning to detect incoming enemy aircraft and to co-ordinate the aerial battlefield.

Eurofighter Typhoon F2 
Sentry AEW1 

Reconnaissance aircraft

The Tornado GR4A is fitted with cameras and sensors in the visual, infra-red and radar ranges of the spectrum.

The Sentinel R1 (also known as ASTOR – Airborne STand-Off Radar) provides a ground radar-surveillance platform based on the Bombardier Global Express long range business jet. These were supplemented in 2009 by four Beechcraft Shadow R1 aircraft equipped for the ISTAR role over Afghanistan.

The MQ-9 Reaper Unmanned aerial vehicle has been purchased to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are operated by No. 39 Squadron RAF based at Creech Air Force Base. More MQ-9s are in the process of being purchased.

Three Britten-Norman Islanders are operated by the Station Flight of RAF Northolt, involved in "photographic mapping and light communications roles".

Sentinel R1 
Beechcraft Shadow R1 
MQ-9 Reaper 
Britten-Norman Islander 

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 only helicopters not coordinated by the JHC are the search and rescue helicopters of the RAF and RN, and those RN helicopters that are normally based on board a ship such as a destroyer or frigate.

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.

Merlin HC3 
Chinook HC2 
Puma HC1 

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. Two further BAe 146 were purchased in March 2012 from TNT Airways, to be refitted by Hawker Beechcraft on behalf of BAE Systems for tactical freight and personnel transport. The aircraft are due to begin service between the UK and Afghanistan in March 2013.

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. These aircraft are due to be replaced by the Airbus A330 MRTT which will be known as the 'Voyager' in RAF service. The first Voyager arrived in the UK for testing at MoD Boscombe Down in April 2011, and is due to be delivered to RAF Brize Norton by the end of the year.

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 Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. All C-130's will be withdrawn by 2022.

The RAF leased four C-17 Globemaster IIIs from Boeing to provide a heavy, strategic airlift capability. These were purchased, as well a fifth C-17, which was delivered on 7 April 2008 followed by a sixth aircraft delivered on 8 June 2008. The new aircraft entered frontline use within days rather than weeks. The MoD said "there is a stated departmental requirement for eight" C-17s and a seventh has been ordered for delivery in December 2010. In February 2012 the purchase of an eighth C-17 was confirmed which is expected to enter service in July 2012. The eighth aircraft arrived at RAF Brize Norton in May 2012.

C-17 Globemaster III 
Hercules C5 (C-130J) 
TriStar KC1 
VC10 C1K 
BAe 146 CC2 
BAe 125 CC3 
AgustaWestland AW109E 
Airbus Voyager 

Search and rescue aircraft

Sea King HAR3A

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 Squadron and 202 Squadron with the Sea King HAR.3/HAR3A in the UK and 84 Squadron 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 the sea, on mountainsides 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 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.

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 for air cadets and elementary flying training for trainee RAF pilots.

Basic pilot training for fixed-wing and helicopter pilots is provided on the Tucano T1 and Squirrel HT1. Weapon systems officer and weapon systems operator training was conducted in the Dominie T1 until the decommissioning of the last six Dominie T1 in January 2011.

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.

Tutor T1 
Vigilant T1 
BAE Hawk T1 
Short Tucano 

Future aircraft

As of June 2011, the RAF is planning for the introduction of the following new aircraft:

The Airbus A400M, of which 22 are to be used to replace the remaining Hercules C1/C3 (C-130K) transport aircraft. Originally, 25 aircraft were ordered, and the A400M will be known as the Atlas in RAF service.

The ageing aerial refuelling fleet of VC10s and TriStars will be replaced with the Airbus A330 MRTT under the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft programme.

The F-35B Lightning II is intended to enter service around 2020 under the Joint Combat Aircraft programme. Although the Short Take Off Vertical Landing (STOVL) F-35B version had been selected initially, in October 2010, David Cameron announced that the UK would change their order to the F-35C CATOBAR carrier variant for both the RAF and Navy, citing greater range and the ability to carry a larger and more diverse payload than the F-35B. However, in May 2012, it was announced that the UK government had reverted to the previous government's plan to operate the F-35B STOVL variant, due to rising estimated shipbuilding costs associated with the F-35C, and an earlier estimated in-service date for the F-35B. On 19 July 2012 the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, in a speech in the USA, indicated that the UK would initially receive 48 F-35B 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 F-35 is expected to replace the Eurofighter and become Britain's only manned jet fighter from 2030.

Project Taranis is a technology demonstrator programme, possibly leading to a future Strategic Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) for both ground attack and reconnaissance roles.

The BAE Mantis is another UCAV under development, with an autonomous capability, allowing it to fly itself through an entire mission. This is a potential candidate to fulfil a requirement for an ISTAR UAV to enter service after 2015 as part of the RAF's Scavenger programme.

The Boeing RC-135W Rivet Joint, of which three have been ordered to replace the Nimrod R1 fleet (retired in 2011) in the signals intelligence role by 2014. Until the aircraft are delivered, the RAF will share signals aircraft of the US Air Force. The aircraft will be Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker tankers converted to RC-135W standard in the most complex combined Foreign Military Sales case and co-operative support arrangement that the UK has undertaken with the United States Air Force since the Second World War. In RAF service, they will be known as the Airseeker.

Airbus A400M 
Boeing RC-135W Rivet Joint 
Model of Taranis 

Symbols, flags, emblems and uniform

Royal Air Force Ensign
Queen's Colour

Following the tradition of the other British fighting services, the RAF has adopted symbols to represent it, act as a rallying point for its members and encourage esprit de corps.

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 RAF inherited the motto from the RFC.

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." 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.

In 2006 the RAF adopted a logotype featuring a roundel and the Service's unabbreviated name (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 recognisable brand identity.

Ceremonial functions and display

Red Arrows

Red Arrows flying in 2011

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.

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

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 4,000 displays worldwide in 53 countries.

Royal Air Force School of Music

Headquarters Royal Air Force Music Services, located at RAF Northolt, supports 177 professional musicians who attend events around the globe in support of the RAF. Squadron Leader Chris Weldon is Director of Music- HQMS, along with five RAF musicians and three civilians who make up his HQ staff.

The first Director of Music was Dr Walford Davies (later Master of the King's Music), who took up the role in 1918. Under his leadership, the new RAF School of Music began to train trumpet majors and band instructors. Although many musicians returned to civilian life following the armistice later that year, some were retained to form a band. Davies composed the Royal Air Force March Past and left the RAF in 1919.

Davies' successor, Major George Dyson, reorganised RAF Music Services on a proper footing in 1921. The School of Music was disestablished and the Central Band and the Band of the RAF College were formed at RAF Uxbridge and RAF Cranwell respectively.

During the 1930s RAF music became well established and in the lead up to World War II there was a large expansion of Music Services. Additional military bands were provided on a Command basis, with the RAF Symphony Orchestra and the famous ' Squadronaires' Dance Band being established. The Central Band included some of the country's finest musicians such as Dennis Brain, Norman Del Mar and Gareth Morris.

By 1950, under the direction of Wing Commander George Sims, the bands were reorganised on a geographical basis. By the time Sims retired in 1960, RAF Music Services boasted ten established bands, including the Central Band of the Women's Royal Air Force, numerous voluntary bands and a School of Music.

Since then, Music Services has gradually been reduced in size and today comprises:

  • Headquarters Music Services
  • Central Band of the Royal Air Force (including the RAF Salon Orchestra)
  • Band of the Royal Air Force College
  • Band of the Royal Air Force Regiment.

Relationships have been built with several civilian musical organisations including the BBC Concert Orchestra and the British and World Associations of Symphonic Bands and Wind Ensembles ( BASBWE and WASBWE).

In 1990 the RAF became the first Service to recruit women into mixed bands and today females are recruited on the same basis as their male colleagues. They form a significant proportion of the personnel with some bands being nearly half female. RAF musicians are also trained to provide medical support in times of war. During the Gulf conflict musicians were deployed to various locations in the Middle East, where they undertook a variety of tasks, ranging from being medical orderlies to guards at hospital sites.

Overseas deployments

The current or regular overseas deployments of the Royal Air Force are as follows:

Country Dates Deployment Details
Gibraltar 1940s– RAF Gibraltar No permanently stationed aircraft. RAF aircraft (e.g., Hercules transports) make regular visits.
Cyprus/Malta 1940– RAF Akrotiri
RAF Nicosia
RAF Luqa
During the Suez Crisis, Operation Musketeer involved RAF aircraft based on Malta and Cyprus. Although no RAF bases remain on Malta, RAF aircraft continue to be stationed at RAF Akrotiri on Cyprus.
Norway 1960s– Bardufoss Air Station RAF fighter and/or helicopter squadrons undergo winter-training here most years.
Ascension Island 1982– RAF Ascension Island Used as an air bridge between the UK and the Falkland Islands. United States Air Force personnel are also stationed at this base.
Falkland Islands 1982– RAF Stanley
RAF Mount Pleasant
After initial use of the Airport at Stanley, the airbase/airport at Mount Pleasant was built to allow a fighter and transport facility on the islands, and to strengthen the defence capacity of BFFI (British Forces Falkland Islands). BFFI now replaced by BFSAI ( British Forces South Atlantic Islands).
Afghanistan 2001– Operation Veritas
Operation Herrick
Chinooks provided airlift support to coalition forces. Additionally Merlin helicopters began tasking in late 2009 following the end of Operation Telic (Iraq). Since late 2004 six BAe Harriers provided reconnaissance and close air support to the ISAF. The Harriers were replaced by an equivalent force of Tornado GR4 in mid 2009. In August 2010, the Tornado force was uplifted to 10 aircraft. Other support units are deployed to Muscat International Airport in Oman, and air bases in the UAE and the Kingdom of Bahrain.
United States 2009– Creech AFB, Nevada Operation of MQ-9 Reaper UAVs by No. 39 Squadron RAF.

The following is an incomplete list of previous deployments:

Country Dates Deployment Details
Canada 1940s–2005 RAF Unit Goose Bay, Canada RAF aircraft trained in low-level tactical flying at CFB Goose Bay, a NATO air force base of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Bosnia 1995– 2007 Various helicopters RAF enforced no-fly zones over the Balkans in the late 1990s and participated in the NATO interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. RAF helicopters remained to provide support to the United Nations.
Iraq 2003-2011 Operation Telic
Operation Kipion
During the initial invasion, British strike fighters were used. Support aircraft such as the Hercules C130, Puma helicopter and Merlin helicopter stayed in Iraq till the withdrawal in 2009. The Merlin helicopters were the last RAF aircraft to leave Iraq.
Kenya 2008 – 2012 Kenya Air Force Laikipia Air Base Semi permanent detachment which involved helicopters giving support to the British Army
Libya 2011 Operation Ellamy Enforcement of no fly zone in Libya according to United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973.
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