How Good Is the RAF

Oct. 1, 1984

The Russians were underestimating the resource and resolution of the Western Allies and the Western Sector Germans. Hugh McManus, the little Scottish platoon sergeant, had told his German wife, Irmgard, that whatever the Russians did the British would do something better, and he was right.

—Robert Rodrigo, Berlin Airlift

The author of the above quotation was more right than his Sergeant Hugh McManus. The British certainly outperformed the Russians during the Berlin Airlift, but only as a component of a mighty force that involved the Western allies and the Germans in the Western Sector of the city. Today, that interdependence is more vital than ever, and must be borne in mind when studying any national military service in isolation.

Eight years have gone by since the Royal Air Force was last studied in detail Air Force Magazine (February 1976). At that time, the RAF still retained six first line squadrons of Vulcan four-engine strategic nuclear bombers. Now that force has gone to the scrapyard, after playing a small but significant role in a totally unexpected non-nuclear war that had to be fought 8,000 miles from home bases.

The Falklands campaign of 1982 required closely integrated operations by Britain’s naval, land, and air forces. None could have succeeded alone. The same is true when we consider the broader scene of NATO forces in Europe, East vs. West worldwide, or any other scenario of the “unthinkable” that military leaders spend their lives thinking about.

Quality of the Force

In 1945, the 9,200 aircraft of the Royal Air Force could simultaneously defend the UK from attack, hammer German cities with 1,000 heavy bombers at a time, harry retreating enemy troops in theaters of war from Germany to Southeast Asia, hunt submarines and surface raiders at sea, help to feed and supply an entire army by air in Burma, and perform countless other tasks.

Today, all the NATO air forces combined have fewer than 3,000 combat aircraft in Europe, confronting an estimated 7,430 Warsaw Pact fighter-bombers, ground attack aircraft, interceptors, reconnaissance aircraft, and bombers (US Department of Defense statistics). Four out of five of those NATO aircraft are provided by America’s European allies. Of these, several hundred wear the national insignia of Britain. How good are they, and the men who fly, service, and command them

The importance of the answer was emphasized by the US multistar general who commented that a good feature of international participation in TAC’s Red Flag exercises is that it reveals the quality of America’s allies in the air. “And who needs an ally who cannot do his job effectively?” The RAF’s impressive results in Red Flag, reflecting years of emphasis on combat flying at minimum altitude and maximum speed, are matched by its day-to-day operations in Europe.

This does not mean there are no weak points in its armor. Until the Nimrod AEW.3 enters service, its tactical squadrons will lack modern AWACS support in some areas. AS we know, the Falklands fighting would have been less costly in terms of ships and lives if either the RAF or the Royal Navy had been able to deploy early warning cover. On the credit side, the same campaign confirmed the unique capabilities of the Harriers and Sea Harriers that had always been claimed by their protagonists.

When a US brigadier general says, “VTOL fighters simply do not have the performance, speed, range, and load-carrying capability to do most tac air missions” (see Air Force Magazine, June ’84, p. 57), the layman must respect his views. But everything in aviation is a compromise. It is worth remembering that some Harriers were ferried all the way from the UK to a carrier off the Falklands, with the help of flight refueling. Others are stationed permanently in Belize, Central America, after crossing the Atlantic to get there.

If, as seems possible, a high proportion of all front-line runways were taken out by air or missile attack in the opening minutes of a conflict in Europe, only aircraft able to dispense with airstrips might be able to operate. As for performance and load-carrying capability, it is worth noting that weapon loads for the Harrier can be increased by simple devices like the British carriers’ ski jump ramp and by using STOL rather than VTOL take off – retaining the all-important VTOL capability for landing among craters at a damaged air base. Also, there were few, if any, genuine air-to-air combats over the Falklands. An alert harrier pilot can ensure, by thrust vectoring, that he never remains in front of the missiles or guns of an enemy fighter.

The Harrier’s load-carrying potential is good enough for the US Marine Corps to have selected it – in modified AV-8B form – as that service’s next “bomb truck.” The Navy’s new jet advanced trainer will be a version of the British Hawk, mount of the RAF’s Red Arrows aerobatic display team. Thousands of American lives have been saved by Martin-Baker ejection seats developed originally for the Royal Air Force. All of this should be sufficient to testify to the quality of British aerospace products.

It would be good to add that such purchases by the US reflect much improved standardization of NATO arms and equipment since 1976, but it would be untrue. In contrast, virtually all combat aircraft operated by Warsaw Pact air forces are of Soviet origin, a policy that ensures standardization at a price.

$19 Billion Reequipment Program

There has been some progress within NATO since 1976. Instead of single-nation Vulcans, the RAF’s primary attack squadrons now fly Tornados – designed, built, and flown by Germany, Italy, and the UK in partnership. The Jaguar, too, represented an international collaborative program, and the RAF is one of many air forces operating US Phantom fighters, Hercules transports, and Chinook helicopters. It will also equip from 1987 with sixty Harrier GR.5s, basically similar to the Marines’ A-8Bs and built by McDonnell Douglas/British Aerospace team effort.

Such reequipment will maintain the RAF’s effectiveness through the next decade in terms of quality. Quantity is a different matte and something that must cause great concern to any NATO commander who thinks in terms of a war lasting longer than a few minutes, hours, or days. Economics affect more than numbers of aircraft purchased. This becomes clear when we study the proportion of NATO front-line aircraft that would be capable of fighting day and night, throughout the year, in the kind of weather that afflicts central Europe. The RAF’s Tornados and Buccaneers are equipped for all-weather operations, but its Harriers and Jaguars are no better in this respect than US A-10s and current F-16s.

Maybe the current opposition is equally restricted, but the next generation of Soviet fighters, spearheaded by the Su-27 and MiG-29, has pulse-Doppler look-down/shoot-down fire control and navigation radar from the start. Even if this is inferior to its Western equivalents, a reasonably good radar in the nose of an air-superiority fighter is better than a very good one considered too costly to install.

The need for “enough” as well as “good enough” is apparent when we consider the enormity of the RAF’s responsibilities outside the central front area in Europe.

Its air defense cover has to extend over the entire United Kingdom Air Defense Region (UKADR), one of four such regions under the direction of SACEUR. It shields the western flanks of NATO’s Northern and Central Regions and includes the UK itself (vitally important as a base for the flow of US reinforcements bound for Europe), UK home waters, the North Sea, and an area of the eastern Atlantic measuring 1,000 miles from north to south. In this airspace, Phantoms and Lightnings intercept and shadow marauding Soviet reconnaissance aircraft several times in an average week. Others, supported by tankers, provide cover from shore bases for naval forces.

Within NATO’s EASTLANT and Channel areas, RAF Nimrods keep watch on Soviet fleet movements. Some Phantoms are assigned specifically to protect shipping from air attack. In war, also, the Nimrods’ antisubmarine potential would be matched by the ability of RAF strike/attack aircraft, dedicated to SACLANT, to strike at hostile missile-armed surface ships that were beyond the range of naval weapons.

Flight refueling plays an increasing part in all such long-range missions, as it did during the Falklands campaign. For this reasons, the RAF’s air tanker fleet is being renewed and expanded by conversion of ex-airline VC10s and TriStars. Air defenses are being strengthened further by adapting seventy-two Hawk trainers to carry AIM-9L Sidewinder missiles, with introduction of the Tornado F.2 scheduled for 1987-88.

On the ground, aircraft shelters and key buildings at air bases have been hardened and camouflaged. Surface-to-air defenses have been improved by supplementing long-range Bloodhound missiles with battle-proven Rapier close-range missiles manned by the RAF Regiment.

New airborne weapons include laser-guided bombs, JP233 cratering and area-denial weapons, BL755 cluster bombs, Harpoon antiship missiles, Sky Flash air-to-air missiles, and Stingray acoustic homing torpedoes – claimed to be the world’s most advanced antisubmarine torpedoes – as well as Skyshadow ECM pods. Soon to follow are Sea Eagle antiship missiles and ALARM antiradiation missiles.

All of this adds up to the most extensive modernization program for twenty years, involving the expenditure of some $19 billion on major projects over a decade. The result will leave the RAF far stronger and better armed than it has been for a long time.

Deployment and Organization

The Royal Air Force has, in 1984, an official total of 86,100 trained personnel, of whom 5,300 are women. A map published last spring by the British journal Aviation News identified seventy-three RAF stations and units in the UK. Overseas, there are fourteen squadrons at Bruggen, Gutersloh, Laarbruch, and Wildenrath in Germany and assigned to the Second Allied Tactical Air Force in NATO’s Central Region; detachments of Wessex helicopters in Cyprus and Hong Kong; Harriers, Puma helicopters and Rapier fire units in Belize; and a small RAF presence in Gibraltar to operate the airfield. As a component of the Falklands garrison, Harriers, Phantoms, Hercules transports, Chinook and Sea King helicopters, and Rapier missiles are deployed on the islands, with Victor and Hercules tankers at Wide-awake Airfield on Ascension Island to support the air-bridge from the UK.

In 1977, the former RAF Training Command was merged into Support Command. Thus, the Royal Air Force is now divided into just three main operational commands – Strike, RAF Germany, and Support. It has fifty-two front-line operational squadrons of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, a photo-reconnaissance unit of Canberras, and two squadrons of Bloodhound missiles, plus two RAF Regiment squadrons of Rapier missiles in the UK and four in Germany.

Consolidation of the service was continued in 1983, when No. 38 Group (formerly responsible for providing air support for land forces) was merged into No. 1 Group of Strike Command. On January 2, 1985, Britain’s central organization for defense will itself be streamlined with the creation of a new unified Defense Staff. This will not only assume the functions f the existing military central staffs but also the majority of those now assigned to the single service staffs which report to their respective Vice Chiefs of Staff. The post of Vice Chief of the Air Staff will, therefore, disappear, together with the equivalents in the Royal Navy and Army.

Although overall responsibility for directing the work of the Defense Staff will rest with the Chief of the Defense Staff (CDS), day-to-day direction will be the responsibility of a Vice Chief of the Defense Staff (VCDS) at four-star level. The Defense Staff will consist of four groupings, covering respectively Strategy and Policy, Programs and Personnel, Systems, and Commitments. Except for the first, which will be headed by a Deputy Secretary, each will be headed by a service Deputy Chief of the Defense Staff (DCDS) at three-star level.

The service Chiefs of Staff will remain fully responsible for the fighting effectiveness, management, overall efficiency, and morale of their services and will retain their right of direct access to the Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Defense.

The current RAF command structure is as follows:

Strike Command. AOCINC: Air Chief Marshal Sir David Craig, GCB, OBE, MA. NATO CINC United Kingdom Air Forces (CINC UKAIR). Hq.: RAF High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Operates 850 aircraft, mostly committed to Allied Command Europe (ACE) and SACLANT.

No. 1 Group. Provides Tornado GR.1s and Jaguars for strike/attack; Harriers and Jaguars for offensive support; Jaguars for reconnaissance; VC10s and Hercules, Chinook, Wessex, and Puma helicopters for transport; and Victor and VC10 tankers for flight refueling.

No. 11 Group. Responsible for all-weather air defense of the UK and within its assigned NATO area, in association with air defense radar and control and reporting systems. Equipped with Phantom and Lightning interceptors, Shackleton early warning aircraft, Bloodhound missiles, and Rapier missiles manned by the RAF Regiment.

No. 18 Group. Responsible for the safety of sea communications in the Atlantic, North Sea, and home waters, in association with the Royal Navy and other NATO forces. Equipped with Nimrod long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft, Buccaneers for maritime strike/attack, and Canberras for reconnaissance and target duties. It also provides the RAF contribution to the UK SAR force, using Sea King and Wessex helicopters. Although established primarily for military duty, most peacetime calls on the nine SAR flights involve civilians, with more than 700 rescues in a typical year.

Royal Air Force Germany. CINC: Air Marshal Sir Patrick Hine, KCB, FBIM. Hq.: RAF Rheindahlen, BFPO 40.

CINC RAF Germany is also Commander, Second Allied Tactical Air Force (2d ATAF), of which RAF units constitute a major part. They provide conventional and nuclear attack/strike, reconnaissance, and air defense forces for immediate support of NATO land operations or peacetime exercises. To help ensure access to Berlin in the three air corridors, they also police the northern half of the Air Defense Identification Zone running the length of the East German border. Equipment comprises Tornado GR.1s, Harriers, Jaguars, Phantoms, Chinook and Puma helicopters, Pembroke communications aircraft, and Blindfire Rapier surface-to-air missiles manned by the RAF Regiment.

Support Command. AOCINC: Air Marshal Sir David Harcourt-Smith, KCB, DFC. Hq.: RAF Brampton, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire PE18 8QL. Two main functional groups are embodied in Command Hq., for training and maintenance, as well as the RAF College Cranwell and RAF Staff College Bracknell. Support Command has nearly 500 aircraft and 48,000 personnel, including 12,500 civilians and 9,000 trainees, in 212 units. These include five flying training schools, seven maintenance units, three hospitals, sixteen University Air Squadrons (UAS), thirteen air experience flights, twenty-seven gliding schools, and seventy-one career information offices. It is responsible for administration of thirteen US bases in the UK.

Training. All potential officers undergo initial training at RAF College Cranwell, side by side with students from foreign air forces. Those who are RAF university cadets then receive basic flying training in Bulldog aircraft at a University Air Squadron. Most other potential pilots go to the Flying Selection Squadron at RAF Swindeby for fourteen hours of assessment flying on Chipmunks before proceeding, with UAS cadets, to basic training on Jet Provosts at one of three FTSs. Those selected as fast-et pilots for air defense and ground attack squadrons then go to RAF Valley to fly Hawks; multiengine training is given on Jetstreams at RAF Finningley; helicopter training, on Wessex and Gazelles, is centered at RAF Shawbury. Operational conversion to particular squadron aircraft is undertaken by Strike Command. Navigators, air engineers, and air electronics operators fly in Dominies and Jet Provosts during training at RAF Finningley.

The RAF also provides elementary flying training for Royal Navy helicopter pilots; many aircrew of foreign air forces pass through its training system. The schools for training engineering and supply officers, as well as the RAF College of Air Warfare, are at Cranwell. Other officer training centers specialize in air traffic control, education, secretarial duties, catering, and RAF Police duties.

Recruits for noncommissioned service are accepted from the age of 16½ (17½ for women) for training in 150 separate trades. After recruit training at Swinderby, many go to specialized technical training schools at Halton, Cosford, and St. Athan, or the radio school at Locking.

Many training courses are held for experienced personnel. Best known are those at the Central Flying School, RAF Scampton, which is responsible for training all flying instructors for the RAF, Royal Navy, and Army Air Corps, as well as for other air forces. The rotary-wing element, bases at RAF Shawbury, also houses the RAF Helicopter Flying Training School. Examining Wing of the CFS is responsible for quality control of flying training throughout the RAF, and on behalf of overseas air forces. Also part of CFS is the Royal Air Force aerobatic team, the Red Arrows.

Support. This second major function of Support Command involves performance of those electrical and mechanical engineering operations that are beyond the capacity of stations, communications, storage and supply facilities, medical services, and administrative services throughout the RAF.

Manpower and Budget

The UK continues to spend more on defense than any other European member of NATO, both in absolute terms and per capita (on the basis of average market exchange rates). It also spends a higher proportion of its GDP on defense than does any European ally except Greece. Its 1984/85 defense budget amounts to L17,033 million, of which twenty percent goes to air force general-purpose forces, compared with 15.4 percent to European theater ground forces, 1.2 percent to other army combat forces, and 14.6 percent to naval general-purpose combat forces. Some forty-six percent of all expenditures goes on equipment, nineteen percent on forces pay and allowances.

Paragraph 222 of the 1984 Statement of the Defense Estimates, presented to Parliament in the spring of this year, states: “the royal Air Force is implementing recommendations of its Support Area Economy Review Team, set up in 1981/82 to identify less costly ways of supporting the front line. The aim is to release engineering and other manpower from training and support units for service on operational stations and to achieve reductions in establishments. Follow-on studies are being conducted into ways of reducing manpower establishments in headquarters by improving the management of training, supply and engineering. Our aim will be to hold RAF manpower steady as the number of front-line aircraft increases by fifteen percent over the decade.”

Bearing in mind the greatly increased technological complexity of aircraft like the Tornado F.2 and Nimrod AEW.3 that will be introduced in that decade, the achievement of such an aim will not be easy. Perhaps we should remember that RAF’s motto is Per Ardua ad Astra (Through difficulties to the starts). The late King George VI certainly did so in a letter to the then Secretary of State for Air in 1943, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the RAF’s formation. Commenting on a long record of achievement, he wrote: “Its prime cause, beyond question, is the spirit which inspires each and every member of the force – the spirit that attains the stars, however hard the way may be.”

John W. R. Taylor celebrates his twenty-fifth anniversary this year as editor of the world-renowned Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft and is a regular contributor to Air Force Magazine through his bimonthly “Jane’s Supplements and other feature articles (see also “All the World’s Source.” September ’84 issue, p. 191). In addition, he compiles or edits the galleries of aerospace weapons for both the USAF Almanac and Soviet Aerospace Almanac issues of this magazine. Mr. Taylor was trained as an architect and later worked as an aircraft designer under Hawker’s legendary Sydney Camm. He has written more than 200 books and thousands of articles on aviation subjects and is a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, the Royal Historical Society, and the Society of Licensed Aircraft Engineers and Technologists.