The Royal Air Force
The Royal Air Force (RAF ) considers itself the oldest ‘independent’ air service in the world and can trace its formal origins back to World War I. Bearing in mind that powered aviation, as opposed to lighter-than-air technology such as balloons, is a relatively new phenomenon in world affairs, just over 100 years old, it is unsurprising that the Royal Air Force is the youngest of Britain’s three armed services by several hundred years. Notwithstanding its junior service status, the amount of investment in the RAF and its aircraft and associated technologies in the twenty-first century dwarfs the other two services by a very long margin. For example, at the height of the Global War on Terror, it enjoyed a budget allocation of £6.8 billion in 2006,1 and its latest aircraft, the long overdue Eurofighter or, as it is designated by the RAF, the Typhoon, is estimated to cost the British taxpayer around £37 billion,2 which makes it without question the most expensive aircraft in the history of the United Kingdom. Remarkably, this investment will provide the nation with only 107 aircraft by 2019.3 This demonstrates that the sheer level of investment required to maintain and equip a premier-league air force and to develop modern aircraft is extraordinarily expensive to a nation-state. In terms of its total force structure, the Royal Air Force has 40,390 personnel4 that operate, service, support and maintain 334 combat-capable aircraft.5 The RAF has tried to maintain a balanced force structure over the decades, but in the twenty-first century this aspiration has become more and more difficult to sustain. It has just one dedicated fighter aircraft, in the form of the controversial Typhoon, and one dedicated strike/ground attack aircraft – an aging platform called the Tornado GR4, though the RAF is rapidly converting different tranches or production runs of the Typhoon, originally purchased as a single role fighter, into a multi-role ground attack aircraft as well. However, converting an aircraft tightly designed for one type of combat into another is always a sub-optimal compromise. It has two reconnaissance platforms in its inventory, the Tornado GR4A version and also the new Sentinel R1 aircraft. With regard to support aircraft, it has one electronic/early warning and control aircraft, the E-3D Sentry, and numerous tankers such as the aging Tristar/ VC-10 (though the new A330 Voyager Aerial Refuelling Aircraft should come into service from 2012 onwards), and transport aircraft C-17A and the ubiquitous Hercules C-130 series.6 It also operates the bulk of the rotary winged
aircraft in support of the British armed services, especially for the army, and these include Chinooks, Pumas, Sea Kings, Griffin and the new Merlin. Other major assets include the Royal Air Force Regiment, which serves to protect air bases, and a limited number of MQ-9 Reaper reconnaissance drones.7 It is without question one of the most capable air forces in the world, albeit relatively small, and is determined to maintain all of its core capabilities in these diverse aspects of air power.