In early September, NATO forces operating near the town of Tarin Kowt in Afghanistan came under sudden insurgent attack. On-scene controllers called in USAF A-10 Warthogs—and Royal Air Force GR-9 Harriers. The Harriers dropped general-purpose and precision guided bombs on a building used as a mortar firing position. Another Harrier bombed enemy fighters in a nearby town, then launched rockets against enemy forces hiding in a tree line. In the wake of these RAF strikes, the insurgent attacks ceased.
Read any daily operational summary of airpower in Afghanistan or Iraq and chances are Britain’s RAF rates at least a mention. American airmen have no closer allies than those in the Royal Air Force. “Fast jets,” as their RAF pilots call them, conduct the full range of operations from shows of force to weapons employment to support of ground forces.
Looking for airborne refueling? The tanker may well bear markings of the RAF. The same goes for intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance work, intratheater airlift, or defense of allied airfields. In all of these areas, the RAF can be found in the thick of the action.
Since its establishment in 1918 as an independent British military service, the RAF has amassed an operational record few can match. RAF deployments span the globe. Operations now are under way from the Falklands in the South Atlantic and Cyprus in the Mediterranean to Afghanistan in Central Asia and the Republic of Georgia in the trans-Caucasus region.
With 45,000 airmen in the force, today’s RAF is roughly on a par in size and equipment with France’s Armee de l’Air, Germany’s Luftwaffe, and Italy’s Aeronautica Militare. Still, among close allies, the RAF stands out for its tenacious commitment to a balanced, deployed force—and to a risk-taking level of excellence that has made RAF officers trusted partners in operations of all types.
Twice in RAF history, top leaders have given essential advice to US airmen. The first RAF leader was Hugh M. Trenchard, the World War I commander who later became the first head of the RAF. Trenchard took US Army Signal Corps Lt. Col. Billy Mitchell under his wing for a three-day course in how to train, organize, and employ airpower forces when American airmen first began to show up on the Western Front in 1917. Trenchard remained a close advisor as Mitchell took command of First Army’s Air Service to lead major air battles of St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne in fall 1918.
World War II formed a bond of mutual survival, leading to the second instance of RAF advice. In 1942, then-Brig. Gen. Ira C. Eaker of the US Army Air Forces was welcomed by RAF Air Marshal Arthur T. Harris. Eaker arrived in England with a mere handful of staff and no long-range bombers. He moved into Harris’ home and understudied the British bomber baron for several months, until all-US raids began later that year.
There’s a legacy of respect from past conflicts, but the bonds don’t rest on history alone. The special relationship that exists between the RAF and USAF also draws strength from their sharing the burden of day-to-day operations.
According to Air Chief Marshal Glenn Torpy, today’s RAF Chief of the Air Staff, the RAF has always had a tradition of expeditionary operations, although few were apparent during the Cold War. Now, RAF officers have held senior positions in coalition air operations centers, serving as directors of combined air operations centers and in other posts normally reserved for US officers.
The modern-day RAF solidified its reputation in Operation Desert Storm by doing whatever was asked of it, regardless of the risks. Indeed, two British fast jet squadrons were deployed to the Gulf by the end of August 1990, within weeks of dictator Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
During Operation Desert Storm—known as Operation Granby in Britain—the RAF took on some of the toughest targets handed to the coalition. RAF Tornado pilots dropped cluster munitions to crater runways in low-altitude attacks on Iraqi airfields. These airfields outside Baghdad “bristled with defenses,” in the words of then-Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner of the US Air Force, who was the coalition’s air component commander.
The RAF lost a total of seven Tornados, mainly because of the extreme danger inherent in conducting very low level attacks.
Ready and Willing to Roll
The RAF also employed precision guided bombs. The total of 1,126 guided munitions expended was double that dropped by the US Navy in that conflict.
The RAF stayed on as a partner with USAF between the two Iraq Wars. In Operation Southern Watch and Operation Northern Watch, the RAF was a key player in enforcing the no-fly zones that hobbled Iraq’s military ambitions from 1991 to 2003. RAF Tornados also took part in the Operation Desert Fox strikes on Iraqi targets in December 1998.
The RAF was deeply involved, too, in the various 1990s Balkans operations. These began with enforcing no-fly zones but escalated to active defense of safe areas in Bosnia-Herzegovina. British E-3 AWACS aircraft assisted, as did RAF controllers and fast jets. The RAF participated in Operation Deliberate Force in 1995, which brought warring parties to the negotiating table and produced the 1995 Dayton peace accord.
In 1999, the RAF again supplied fast jets, tankers, airlift, and airborne command and control for Operation Allied Force’s 78-day air war. RAF bases hosted US bombers. Tornados and Harriers fanned out to bases from Italy and Germany to Corsica as the air campaign to subdue Slobodan Milosevic’s forces intensified. Additional RAF tankers moved forward to Italy.
As the end drew near, an RAF activation and protection team helped secure the Pristina airfield in the face of Russian maneuvering in June 1999.
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 found the RAF ready to respond to the new threat of global terrorism. In Afghanistan, the RAF was an early coalition member, signing on to fly air refueling and reconnaissance missions.
Soon the RAF contribution expanded as NATO took command of international operations. Under Operation Herrick, the RAF has maintained a contingent of about 850 personnel providing close air support and interdiction attacks with Harriers based in Afghanistan.
The RAF also contributes intratheater lift, ISR sorties, and air refueling. RAF C-47 Chinooks assist with joint mobility, and specialized airfield security and air controllers have seen much action in southern Afghanistan in particular.
In 2003, the RAF was back in Iraq, having committed 112 fixed-wing aircraft—including 66 fast jets—to the second Gulf War. Twelve tankers and 14 special forces and rescue aircraft, plus ISR and refueling assets, rounded out the force.
The British fighters logged 1,726 sorties in the major combat operations phase, while tankers added 359 sorties. All told the early RAF total was 2,481 sorties, according to the count by US Central Command’s air component.
Then there is the achievement of the RAF Regiment, one of the more distinctive features of Britain’s air arm. It’s a force of airmen who fight on the ground. The RAF Regiment found itself responsible for Basra airfield.
In this area, the RAF is well ahead of USAF in embracing the fight for air bases. Gen. John P. Jumper, former Chief of Staff, and current Chief Gen. T. Michael Moseley have both spoken about the need to create more of this capability.
The Regiment’s force of officers and gunners—known as “the Rock Apes”—traces its organizational history back to 1942. After losing key bases on Crete to a 1941 German airborne invasion, the RAF formed highly trained forces with the specific mission of defending all RAF operations.
Members of the RAF Regiment train as mobile, heavy infantry units optimized for active defense of air units. One of the six squadrons is trained for airborne insertion to secure airfields. They also instruct other RAF members in elements of base defense and force protection.
Tactical air control parties reside in the RAF Regiment. In Iraq, they’ve seen plenty of action.
“We called in close air support from fast air and attack helicopter, managed the airspace and integrating indirect fires whilst jumping over walls and diving in ditches fighting alongside fellow paratroopers and royal horse artillery gunners,” recounted Flight Lt. Matt Carter, an RAF TACP officer who last year deployed to Helmand Province in Afghanistan.
In recent deployments, the RAF Regiment has taken responsibility for protecting coalition operations at airfields near Basra in Iraq and Kandahar in Afghanistan. Bases are “no longer safe areas,” said Torpy. The RAF philosophy, he added, is airmen “need to look after themselves and after their mates.”
For decades, the RAF Regiment has taken on “outside the wire” missions. It sees a need to patrol well outside the air base perimeter as part of its mission. The practice of air base ground defense has changed, too. According to Torpy, the emphasis now is on very sophisticated, layered approaches. It all takes “air-mindedness” to deconflict the target environment and determine priorities.
Air Force Business
The threat to air bases is such that the RAF Regiment plans to re-evaluate a 2004 Ministry of Defense policy decision to transfer short-range air defense capability to the British Army. Changing threats and experiences from Iraq and Afghanistan are the cause.
“The whole protection of rear bases needs to be re-addressed,” said Torpy. “Defense of air bases is air force business.”
For all that, the RAF faces severe fiscal challenges. In July 2004, a British white paper outlined a course for future capabilities. The paper committed British forces to preparing for effects-based operations and a spectrum of contingencies. However, it also ordered new cuts in force structure and an RAF manpower reduction to 41,000 by April 2008.
Deep fiscal cuts already have caused a reduction and reconfiguration of the RAF. Several major bases have been closed. All of the GR3 Jaguars were eliminated. Headquarters staffs were merged, bringing about a one-third cut in manning.
Torpy also cited efforts to trim maintenance costs. Through innovative partnerships with industrial firms working at RAF locations, the RAF cut flying hour costs for the Tornado by 50 percent and for the Harrier by 40 percent.
That said, the RAF is adamantly committed to maintaining a fully balanced force. It has an ambitious schedule for bringing in modern weapon systems.
First on Torpy’s list is the integration of the Eurofighter Typhoon. This four-nation project has been long in the making and had been beset by contract and program issues. However, the RAF is poised to make Typhoon the centerpiece of its tactical aviation fleet. Torpy said he has “every confidence” that Typhoon will emerge as a capable ground attack and close air support platform in addition to its air superiority role.
Next up will be acquisition of the short takeoff and vertical landing variant of the F-35 Lightning II. The STOVL F-35 is known to the RAF as the Joint Combat Aircraft, as it will also see service on Royal Navy aircraft carriers.
Mobility is another high priority. Britain hopes to operate a few more C-17s in addition to those it bought after a six-year lease. A400 transports will gradually enter the RAF’s fleet. Torpy expects the air transport force will top out at 25 C-130Js, 25 A400Ms, and ideally, eight C-17s.
The RAF, like the US Air Force, gives high priority to acquisition of a new aerial refueling aircraft. British tankers scored big points in missions supporting combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. US Navy pilots were especially big fans of the “mega-tankers,” as they described the RAF VC-10s and Tristars. “They were awesome, because they were very accommodating. They always had their lights on full bright and we could see them real easy,” said one US Navy F/A-18C pilot who flew missions over Afghanistan early in the 2001 campaign.
Unmanned aircraft are part of the RAF roster, too. For the past few years, the RAF has been operating the Predator UAV alongside USAF. Ultimately the RAF plans to buy and field the Reaper variant of Predator, optimized for strike missions.
Equipment is only part of the answer. The RAF is increasingly attuned to cyberspace as a warfighting capability. “We recognize that cyber underpins all that we do,” Torpy said, although it isn’t exclusively the domain of the RAF. In Torpy’s view, “We’ve got to approach this in a joint manner.”
Britain remains in “the first division” of world powers because it keeps up its military forces “and the will to use them,” as Torpy said. “We don’t want to give up that capability.”
Remaining a robust force over the long term will depend in part on the RAF’s ability to explain its mission. It’s a problem well known to US airmen, too: explaining airpower. British airmen are sensitive to the challenges of explaining the leap-ahead increases in airpower’s technological might and its central role in operations all across the spectrum.
Torpy acknowledged the problems in getting the airpower message across. Iraq and Afghanistan have “demonstrated the utility of airpower across every strand of activity,” as Torpy put it. “That’s given us complete freedom of maneuver.”
Like USAF, the RAF makes a point of the fact that British surface warriors haven’t been under air attack in a long while—in their case, since the 1982 Falklands war where the Argentine air forces had advantages in both proximity and numbers, with deadly consequences for British troops.
RAF leaders see a disturbing trend in the demand for what Torpy termed “organic” capabilities, particularly by the land forces. He said that an ill-informed focus on collateral damage was leading to pressures for these organic capabilities. Most with experience in Afghanistan and Iraq are seeing new demands for unit ownership of ISR and fire support resources.
Torpy drew an analogy with the Apache helicopter. “It’s a great platform, but it’s got a range of 150 km,” he pointed out. Overinvestment in so-called organic fires runs a risk of shorting capabilities needed across the joint force. “If you skew resources to those capabilities to the detriment of CAS,” said Torpy, “you haven’t got the capability for rapid effect.”
According to Torpy, part of the solution is to do a better job at detailing what airpower can and can’t do. A recent British Army-RAF conference focused on air and land operations, giving participants at the O-5 level and above a chance to understand mutual dependencies. “None of this is rocket science, but we need to do better if we want to maintain what we all believe is a very important capability,” said Torpy.
How can airmen explain airpower and clarify perceptions among service colleagues? “By arguing the case,” Torpy said bluntly. Better understanding of airpower’s role will strengthen the 21st century RAF, he said, noting that British defense policy puts “a clear emphasis on offensive effect” as an RAF mission.
Where operations may occur is anyone’s guess.
“If you look back over the past 25 years, the character of our major operations—the Falklands, Gulf War 1, Bosnia, Kosovo, Gulf War 2—were all very different,” Torpy told Aerospace International in September. “The conclusion I draw from this is that we need to be prepared for the unexpected.”
Rebecca Grant is a contributing editor of Air Force Magazine. She is president of IRIS Independent Research in Washington, D.C., and has worked for RAND, the Secretary of the Air Force, and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Grant is a fellow of the Eaker Institute for Aerospace Concepts, the public policy and research arm of the Air Force Association. Her most recent article, “When Bombers Will Be Decisive,” appeared in the November issue.