What’s the point of the RAF?

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, prior to a...

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve just listened to a thought-provoking programme on BBC Radio looking at the future of the RAF. It was presented by Quentin Letts, and entitled ‘What is the point of the RAF?’ – somewhat provocative, but a worthwhile question none the less. I’ll summarise some of the main points, and add in my two penneth here and there.

Whilst the Battle of Britain and the Dambusters have given the RAF a lasting legacy in British culture, it is increasingly plausible that future aerial combat will be fought in unmanned aircraft. Therefore, if the RAF in its present state a sustainable entity? The current Defence Review – the most deep-searching and comprehensive for many a year – raises the possibility of a number of ‘sacred cows’ being cut. Quentin Letts describes the current process as ‘scramble time’ for the RAF, in a political dogfight with the other armed forces for funds.

The RAF is the youngest service, formed only in 1918 with the merger of the Royal Flying Corps (Army) and the Royal Naval Air Service (Navy). This youthful existence has given the RAF something of an inferiority complex, and a desire to prove itself and protect its existence, something it has had to do frequently throughout its 92 year history.

Several options have been advanced that might see the end of the RAF. The first – admittedly unlikely – option is that of merging all three services into a defence force. The second option is that of disbanding the RAF and dividing its roles and aircraft between the Army and Navy. The argument is that the RAF was only formed from the Army and the Navy in the first place, so in purely military terms would its disbandment really be such a big issue?

The RAF’s history since 1945 has been anything but smooth. With the loss of the nuclear deterrent role to the Navy in the 1960’s, since then the RAF has placed great store in its fast jet interceptors – Tornados and then Eurofighters – primarily to counter the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact in the North Atlantic and over the North Sea. But the Cold War ended over 20 years ago now, and the RAF as an institution – and in particular its commanders – does not seem to have adapted to the new world, simply because it is not one that fits in with their pre-conceived ideas.

There have been frequent complaints from the other armed forces – and the Army, in particular – over the lack of support they have received from the RAF in joint operations. This has led to accusations that the RAF places far too much emphasis on its fast-jet operations, while its ground attack and transport roles are neglected. Yet somehow the RAF has managed to defend itself, mainly through sentiment and warnings of ‘you never know’. But will an unsentimental defence review be so kind?

Tim Collins, the commanding officer of the Royal Irish Regiment in the 2003 Iraq War, is of the opinion that the RAF’s transport fleet is not effective, and that charter airlines could do the job of transporting men and material in all non-combat areas. RAF rotary wing aviation is in the main to support the Army, so why should this not come under the Army’s control? And, Collins suggests, future strike aircraft are likely to be unmanned.

If Tim Collins thoughts are to be believed, the RAF’s existence as a separate entity does sound illogical, and was described by one commentator as a ‘muddle’. But aside from equipment and organisation, the real problem does seem to be cultural. The Cold War did not happen, so why are we still planning to fight it all over again? In any case, history has shown that to fight the last war is folly.

The Eurofighter is symptomatic of this Cold War syndrome. No doubt a fantastic platform – one of the best in the world, surely – it was designed to fit the Cold War. However, thanks to the long lead time needed to develop and order fighter aircraft, we are stuck with an aircraft that costs huge amounts to operate, which no-one can accurately pinpoint what it is actually for. There are mentions of how adaptable it is, how it can be modified, but these sound like clutching at straws. It has been suggested that the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, would not mind the prospect of selling some of our Eurofighters off.

Senior Officers in particular are most partisan about defending their service. Whilst this loyalty is inspiring, is this based on mere tribalism of British defence considerations? While Wing Commanders and Group Captains are full of pride about the RAF, primary loyalties among the bulk of men and women in the forces seem to be based on those with their immediate colleagues. Men and women from all kinds of capbadges serve together regularly, and form bonds that transcend uniforms and old divisions. RAF servicemen on the front line in Afghanistan wear the same desert combats as their Army colleagues – apart from rank slides and other identification, they are the same.

The RAF’s loyalty and sensitivity about protecting its independence has been described as a ‘historical paranoia’. It would be hard to argue with this statement. The Air Force figures whom Quentin Letts interviewed for this programme sounded insular and parochial, and more concerned with defending the RAF than anything else.

Max Hastings may not be quite the military expert that he promotes himself as – even though he did liberate Port Stanley all on his own. But his thoughts about RAF leadership are none the less pertinent. Traditionally the post of Chief of Defence Staff is rotated amongst the armed forces. As the previous Chief was General Sir Mike Walker, and his predecessor was Admiral Sir Mike Boyce, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup was appointed. During the past few years, Hastings argues, it has been all too clear that an airman is out of touch in supreme command of the armed forces. A former jet pilot, so the argument goes, is not the best person to have in command while the armed forces are fighting what is largely a ground based, counter-insurgency campaign. RAF figures might argue that Afghanistan is a joint operation, but it is nonsensical to argue that ground forces do not have primacy – that would be like arguing that the Navy was not the major player in the Falklands.

Another argument doing the rounds is that the RAF’s traditional role has changed – traditionally based on manned flight, and the principle of gallant airmen piloting machines, is it possible that this phase in history has passed? With unmanned aerial vehicles being used more and more in Afghanistan and even Pakistan, at what point does the RAF let go of its images as the Douglas Baders and the Guy Gibsons, and moves more towards operating vehicles from offices thousands of miles away? Change is something that military bodies tend to be apprehensive about, but it happens whether we like it or not, and if we do not then we are hamstrung by those who do – evidenced by the horses/tanks arguments of the inter-war period.

Another interesting argument, made by Tim Collins in the programme, is that the traditional three dimensional force areas, based on sea, air and land, now also include the airwaves and cyberspace. Witness how Gary Mckinnion managed to access so many of the US military’s internal systems – imagine if a terorist organisation managed to access, say, the City of London’s trading networks and bring them down? There could be all kinds of political, economic, social, environmental risks. This, Collins argues, is something that the RAF could specialise in. Especially with its reputation as the most technological service and the one that works ‘in the air’. The problem comes if the RAF insists on clinging to its historical image.

Disbandment would have very grave risks for politicians – look at the furore that emerges any time any merger of a regiment is muted – to listen to commentators you would think that the end of the world is night. But the 2006 Army restructuring is a great example of how, while change can be difficult, in the long-run people adapt and move on. We live in a time where difficult choices have to be made, and difficult choices in hard times cannot afford to be based on sentiment. The choice does seem to be, for the RAF, to adapt or die.


Filed under debate, defence, News, politics, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

60 responses to “What’s the point of the RAF?

  1. x

    I listened too and thought it was tripe.

    Air power and the RAF are not synonymous. Yet most of the program seemed to do this. Understandably troops may liked to be ferried by Chinook; they may not care about the uniform colour of the pilot. It is the safety they like not the RAF. But it seemed to “the program” to be a case for the RAF. Cap badge politics and loyalty is real!!!!! Again when it suited the program it was used as reason to keep the RAF….

    Did a vice air marshal really give an impassioned speech the thrust of which was “they already to split us up in the 20’s”? Really?

    I have heard both good and bad reports of RAF CAS in A-stan.

    Are the RAF really roughing it in Camp Bastion and the major US bases? With their cinemas and American PX’s. Yes some of the RAF personnel go out to remote places. But is it really like spending a month in a patrol base. HAVE YOU SEEN THE CONDITIONS OUR POOR BLOODY INFANTRY LIVE IN??????????????

    The Battle of Britain myth was trotted out again. It was the RAF that saved us; not as I mentioned above air power. Not the Polish or commonwealth pilots. Not the FAA pilots and even RM(!) pilots that saved us. It was British sea control that saved us too. As well as Sea Lion not having Hitlers full attention (for a variety of reasons.) And poor Luftwaffe strategy. But there it was again the BoB myth.

    I was amused by the RAF based place to meet the CyberWar threat. Really? I am computer geek; I have been around computers now 30 years. One of the reasons I never went into the forces as teenager as I wouldn’t last in a uniformed service. The RN is a nice place to visit, but I couldn’t live there!!! And not being suitable for uniformed service would go for about 80% or more of all the talented IT people I know. You don’t need to wear a blue uniform to fight a CyberWar. JUST ASK ALL THE IT EXPERTS AT GCHQ who ARE THE COUNTRY’S IT SECURITY EXPERTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    No mention of the carriers. No mention of the restrictions of air power. Firstly political; you just can’t go from A to B, airspace isn’t a global common. Secondly modern aircraft are tremendously restricted in range; 2000 miles isn’t a long way (especially when you taken into account my first point.)

    The Falklands was mentioned briefly by Collins as an unexpected war. Shame the RAF’s poor performance in that conflict couldn’t have been made into point. Though as accounts of the time (and my own memories) suggest the RAF did all they could to be seen to be as winners and major contributors to that war. How many millions of gallons of AVCAT was wasted for all those near misses? How many apron spots were given over to RAF ‘planes for those wasteful ventures? How much of that waste could have been pushed to front line need?

    The Battle of Britain memorial flight was mentioned. It is shame the RN doesn’t have a major exhibition unit like that to bring home the UK’s utter dependence on the SEA. I know the Red Arrows have a commercial sponsor; but again could you see the RN or Army getting away with running a vanity unit like that.

    Lastly in contrast tonight’s One Show showed a feature on HMS Gannet SAR flight. Not only did it show the RN in positive light, that the RAF isn’t the only “air power”, it also showed the importance of shore side drafts for front line training (and by inference that interesting shore drafts aid in retention too.)

    PS: I promise I will stop polluting your web page with my rants…….

  2. James Daly

    Hi x, dont worry about ranting! In fact I welcome it, theres nothing at all wrong with debate… history tells us that when the forces stifle debate and poke their heads in the sand, thats when things go awry.

    As for air power, I might be wrong but I’ve always had the impression that Naval aviation has a fine track record… my feeling is that the RAF’s decision to withdraw the Harrier was definitely an effort to undermine the RN and the Fleet Air Arm. What occurs to me is, can we really afford to have these kind of squabbles going on? And the Army already flies its own helicopters in any case, and JHC is a tri-service organisation as well.

    If you look back through history, most of the acrimony in defence leadership and policy seems to emanate from the RAF – Tedder trying to smear Monty in 1944, moving Australia on the map to make a point, putting on Black Buck to prove a point…

  3. James Daly

    Also I’ve just been reading Sir Peter de la Billiere’s Storm Command, and apparently during the Gulf War an anonymous senior RAF Commander wrote to DLB’s deputy (an airman) and accused that if he did not give the Tornado GR’s a prominent role in the air war, then he would be compromising the RAF’s future… never mind the operational considerations.

    …mind you, DLB did use the SAS in a similar way, but thats another story…

  4. x

    Whoops! I went on and on about BlackBuck and never mentioned it by name…

    Anyway postwar the FAA does have a good record; Suez (bad politics, good war!), Indonesia, withdrawal from Aden, Falklands, Balkans, etc. etc. etc. and etc.

    If anything the RAF has always been the Cinderella air power. For example it shared the Northern Ireland troubles, arguably the nation’s longest “post-war conflict” rotary, with RN and Army rotary. Only war air-to-air kill and that was blue-on-blue. Failure to significantly contribute to the Falklands; Britain’s last major inter state war. I hate to agree with Lewis Page but everything he says about the RAF is true. The sad fact that the RAF’s bread and butter is supporting the army, so why shouldn’t it be part of the Army? The USMC is the ideal model; CAS will take on a whole new dimension if you actually had significant infantry training. And it should be remembered that the world’s second biggest airforce is the US Army. If 16AAB was a US formation it would have army helicopters; as it is is to have borrow Chinnooks from another service. While the army itself supplies the balance of the other cabs especially the technically advanced Apache. But if you were a casual observer or a member of the general public it is Typhoon, Typhoon, all the way!!!

    And I agree with you about Joint Force Harrier. I saw it as move for RAF control of the carriers too. I would have had more faith if the FAA squadrons had there GR7s retrofitted with APG65 (or any RADAR) to bring them up to a similar spec’ to USMC, Italian, and Spanish AV8b. What always gets me with aircraft is that when it suits major mod’s can be performed; when it doesn’t suit things have to be trialled and tested to death.

    As for squabbles that is humanity. We are tribal, that is what binds us together. And defining the other is what we do. The only thing the RAF has been successful postwar was is portraying itself as the key service. As I said I don’t think that soldiers do care who flies the helicopter per se as long as they themselves are safe. But surely that is as much an argument for not having the RAF as retaining it? The USMC model has much to recommend it. Imagine how much an knowledge of ground warfare would adds to the “corporate knowledge” of tactical helicopter flying.

    The programme mentioned “people join the RAF.” And that is true. RAF bods don’t join that service to go to sea. Yet going to sea can’t people put off or nobody would join the RN. On another forum once somebody said to me that I was being unrealistic about the FAA being able to (re)build a fast jet community. That the FAA had always depended on RAF crew. I pointed out the only reason why the FAA runs short of jet pilots is that RAF engineered the end of our large carriers; not because young people don’t want to FLY NAVY. He also ignored the simple fact that pilot exchanges happen all the time. Not just between our services,but between other countries too. Remember Top Gun is Navy………….:)

    I note also that the BBC programme didn’t mention the RAF Regiment. It seems that it wrong for other services to fly aircraft, but it isn’t wrong for the RAF to do ground warfare. One of the things that I hope doesn’t happen with this defence review is that RM loses out and is brought into the Army. Or worse merged with the Parachute Regiment. Both organisations are as different as they are similar. It is rather like saying RU and lacrosse are played with a ball on a field lets bring the two sports together. But all the RAF Regiment does is basic, basic, light infantry work. I think getting rid of the arms plot was a mistake. What the Army should have done is retained the plot for the guards and infantry; consolidating all Warriors into 2 heavy well armed armoured brigades. But the rifles should have brought up to RM/Para levels of proficiency, re-equipped with light equipment (including arty’ with M77 howitzer and two FRR regiments) and used as two rapid reaction brigades. I would have disband 16AAB as it is useless formation without its own helicopter. I would have moved all the para’ assets to Special Forces support.

    I shall stop now. I have forgotten what I wanted to say.

  5. “As for air power, I might be wrong but I’ve always had the impression that Naval aviation has a fine track record… my feeling is that the RAF’s decision to withdraw the Harrier was definitely an effort to undermine the RN and the Fleet Air Arm. What occurs to me is, can we really afford to have these kind of squabbles going on? And the Army already flies its own helicopters in any case, and JHC is a tri-service organisation as well.

    If you look back through history, most of the acrimony in defence leadership and policy seems to emanate from the RAF – Tedder trying to smear Monty in 1944, moving Australia on the map to make a point, putting on Black Buck to prove a point…”


    The RAF are thought to have had a hand in the demise of the Sea Harrier, in the same way that ACM Torpy wanted to axe the Harrier so that the UK had no carrier capable aircraft – next move no carriers – next move axe the new carriers.

    In 2001/2002 the UK operated five types of fast jets, Tornado F3, Tornado GR4, Jaguar, Harrier GR7, and the Navy’s Sea Harrier. Whn the Treasury demanded that one type be selected for axing, guess what – it was the Navy’s one. As discussed extensively below:



    I would take issue with claims that either fast jet aircraft are not needed for future operations, or that the future will involve only unmanned vehicles – something which poses HUGE technical and political problems. I would also point out the the electromagnetic dimension has been part of RAF (and RN) operations and activities for 70+ years.

    • James Daly

      I don’t think we would ever want to get rid of all fast air, and – even if its in the present to medium term future – we need a number of jets, even if its just for intercepting bears over the North Sea – would be a bit embarassing if we had to let Russian bombers fly over our airspace at will. But do we need as many of them as we are getting, especially if we can’t afford to run them?

    • x

      Yes I should have pointed out in my original rant that the RN is just as tech’ savy as the RAF; if not more so.

      One of the reasons why modern British escorts are so bereft of hard kill capability is because of the RN’s investment in electronic warfare.

      As one USN commander touring a T42 supposedly one said “Gee you guys know exactly when you are going to die.”

      (I have read that the Batch 2 T22s only came about because the RN wanted a system US called Outboard. This was also one of the reasons why the hull was stretched…)

      • James Daly

        and then we flogged off most of the T22’s less than halfway through their service lives anyway!

        Thats also my concern if we are left with the T45s and a much-reduced Frigate fleet – the Destroyers have, at present, little suface weaponry. OK Harpoon can be fitted, but there seems to be an orthodoxy that DD = Air Defence and FF = ASW/anti-surface.

  6. x

    Oh yes! Go and look who pays for JHC (that is who’s budget it comes out of)……….

    It won’t surprise you……

  7. x

    Oh yes!!! The RAF said carriers were/are vulnerable and that air fields are safer. Yet was the RAF’s main mission within NATO during the Cold War? Runway busting!! Only because the USAAF thought low level attacks against well defended Soviet airfields was suicide and didn’t want the mission.

    That is all. I promise.

  8. James Daly

    The Harrier issue has always bugged me. I get the feeling that the RAF has never been keen on tactical battlefield support – its a historical thing going back to WW2. The Typhoons in NW Europe and the Hurri-bomber ‘can-openers’ in the Desert gave sterling service, but are largely forgotten by history. Because, in the main, they’re overshadowed by the classic Fighters and Bombers. One gets the impression that the RAF has tried to steer clear of tactical operations in support of the Army, because it worries that by being pulled in that direction it will lose its independence.

    The Army are crying out for close air support, yet the RAF are happy to withdraw the Harrier and drag their heels about replacing it in the GR role. It’s very sad that a proven British aircraft, the envy of the world, ends its days like this.

    • x

      Really McDonnell Douglas should be credited with the modern Harrier; there isn’t much Britsh tech in there.

      Large scale British interest in the platform ended with the SHAR.

      • James Daly

        purely on a sentimental value, its a crying shame that the UK cannot offer up VSTOL replacement, not even in a european consortium. You would have thought that the Spanish and Italians might have been interested, with their Harrier Carriers.

  9. Sadly, that has a huge amount of truth in it – see my link.

  10. Ex-Military Monkey

    Having worked alongside all branches on Ops (Im ex-RAF), I find it worrying that the uninititated out there think (from a groundcrew perspective anyway) that the RN and Army can maintain an aircraft to the same level as the RAF. Bias aside, I was actually shocked when working alongside the RN!! I was surprised they managed to get any airframes airborne! The Army however were significantly better, I think for them its just lack of training, or lack of interest in some cases. The debate should be whats the point in the RN, but its the “senior” service so no chance that white elephant will go anytime soon. Maybe an amalgmam between the Air Corps and the RAF could be a way forward, would save money and provide a more coherant/centralised branch of the “operational” armed forces.

    • x

      Not ex-military. But I have spent a lot of time with Army and Navy people and they same much the same about the RAF!!!

      I think what we have discovered here is that all our three services are all about as good and as bad each other…..

      ….which is about at least as 10 times better than anybody else!

      (You are allowed to be biased Monkey Man!!! I won’t hold it against you. )

  11. James Daly

    It sounds like theres a very real prospect of us being unable to get many airframes airworthy in any case. During the programme one source – I can’t recall who – suggested that as we won’t be able to afford the running costs of such a large number of Typhoons in any case, then we’d might as well sell them.

    As for the RN, I think there are white elphant aspects to the force structure that our fleet is heading towards – CVF, and be default T45 – but sea power is absolutely essential. I think the argument will be that sea power can do air power, but not the other way round.

    • x

      If it were up to me I would cancel T26 today and use the money to give the T45s all the stuff they are missing; Harpoon, CIWS, and a ASM capable Merlin. I would put in place long orders for Daring 7 & 8 with Mk 41 VLS.

      If we need frigates buy FREMM. I even think there is life in T23 if the upper super structure, uptake housing, and hanger were redesigned for more “stealth.” T23 is still quite, big hanger, known design and therefore no major development costs. I think with some more automation even some numbers could be shaved of crew numbers.

      • James Daly

        I think the T45’s will get Harpoon at some point – theres space for the launchers and theres a desk in the ops room for the computer. Its like too much effort has gone into it to not fit it!

        As for Frigates, you look at some of the escort vessels out there – Absalon, Zeven Provincien, de Bazan – and its tragic that we’ve got a concept on the drawing board that could well be cut. And then what? Even if we buy off-the-shelf, I can already hear the cries of the shipbuilding-constituency MP’s.

        • x

          When I say buy FREMM I mean the plans.

          Zeven Provincien and de Bazan are AAW we already have Daring.

          I know another blog is obsessed with Abaslon but I am not so sure. (When I walked around at FoS2005 the only thing that impressed me was a cute blond Danish sailor; she was most disarming…….)

          • James Daly

            Buying the plans would work. Plus that way we could fit them out with British engines, electronics etc. And avoid the lengthy and costly development phase.

            (seconded about the Danish Navy’s female sailors :P)

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  14. Mike Burleson

    James, the same problem that the RAF has with being out of touch, happening here in the States. The USAF spent the better part of the decade procuring less than 200 Raptor fighters, while the bulk of its legacy forces wear out in counter-insurgency conflicts. Really, the F-15s, and F-16s are too good for these operations, but better than nothing. The A-10 is more relevant to our times, but even something slower like prop-planes are good enough for the likes of the Taliban.

    I agree the Raptor is a great plane and we are lucky to have it. But for the kind of enemies we face, including the Chinese, an extreme practice of last-war-itis, at the expense of the pilots flying ancient warplanes. Time to scrap the lot, and I mean the air generals.

    • James Daly

      Mike that sounds like exactly the same scenario we have here in Blighty. They would happily scrap our purchase of the F35, which would leave us with an inventory of Typhoons that we cannot afford to fly or mantain all of, and are – despite some of the apologist arguments you hear – pretty limited.

      I know the F35 has had a lot of flak on both sides of the Atlantic, but its an airframe that can operate well from land in CAS and off the carriers (like the Harrier), not as advanced aerobatically as the Typhoon or Raptor but perfectly fine for 95% of what we want it to do… but somehow its not flashy enough for their Air’ships!

      • Mike Burleson

        I am a fan of the “B” version which the RN wants. It is a very flexible plane, able to operate from very spartan decks or primitive landing fields, unlike every other fast jet on earth. I agree it will be pricey, but you don’t need very many. If the Lightning is to be the “last manned fighter”, we might as well get one with flexibility.

        I don’t think this era needs superfighters so much, just planes which are relevant for the times and available when you need them.

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  16. Lester May - Camden Town

    Someone here has said that the RN is a white elephant. Consider this:

    In 1980, 70% of the earth’s surface was sea, the UK had more than a dozen overseas territories and some 95% of UK trade went by sea; there were over 71,000 personnel in the Royal Navy and Royal Marines, with 170 HM ships and 25 Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels.

    Today, we still have 14 overseas territories and still a surprising 92% of trade goes by sea, but the Royal Navy now has fewer than half the number of ships and people; however, one ship can be in only one place at one time.

    The Naval Service today has much the same everyday responsibilities that sailors and politicians from centuries past would recognise, namely policing of the sea-lanes and maritime law enforcement, such as anti-piracy and anti-narcotics, fishery protection, offshore protection, humanitarian assistance, hydrographic surveying and promoting partnerships overseas. Little has changed in the two hundred years since Nelson wrote, in 1804, “I consider the protection of our Trade the most essential service that can be performed.”

    Of course, all arms of the Royal Navy are ready to defend, deter and defeat and that is best achieved by a Royal Navy that is deployed wherever British interests require.

    The Royal Navy, with the Fleet Air Arm and Royal Marines, really is rather different a service to the Army and RAF; the sea is demanding and all powerful, requiring a mastery that is true for all those who do their business in great waters, whether sailor, naval aviator or marine. The Navy is not only part of the Ministry of Defence but every day works for other government departments. Only those who are sea-blind would ever ask “What’s the point of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines?”.

    We Britons are islanders and we – and the Coalition Government – must open our eyes to the sea and reflect that the English word ‘overseas’ is as important to us today as it has been since its first recorded use in the 1580s. The Royal Navy is much more than an armed service and that must be borne in mind in this Defence Review.

  17. James Daly

    I think a quick look at a map of the world tells us how important sea power is. Island nation, majority of our trade comes by sea, 90% of the worlds population lives near the sea.

    Also, in my mind is how the RN is better at doing land and air than the RAF is at doing either. Rather than painting itself into a corner like the RAF has, the RN has always embraced aviation and amphibiosity.

    The real problem, for me, is how the Royal Navy has been singularly inept at telling people about what it does and how important it is.

  18. Lester May - Camden Town

    The Royal Navy’s sobriquet is the “Silent Service” and that was something to be proud of.

    The RN has arguably the world record for an armed force that has never been on the losing side in war, although it has lost a battle or two and lost in single ship actions, to be sure. But, since the Anglo-Dutch wars of the 1650s-1670s, the Royal Navy has been the victor, or an important part of the victory, in every war fought. This is an unrivalled success story in world history. And, the “Pax Britannica” of 1815-1914 was also owing to the Royal Navy’s policing of the world’s seas and oceans.

    Thus, even into the modern era, the Royal Navy has never had to work at telling its story. It was the pride of Britain and the Empire and the envy of the world. Shouting about how good it is or was was not good form and gauche. The Royal Navy just went about its business quietly, courteously, efficiently – and modestly. It is difficult to change that character but needs must today, I agree.

    Thus we need more people to fly the flag for the Royal Navy and Royal Marines and that is best done by those no longer serving. Hence my piece earlier.

    Were the RAF’s maritime operations under the control of the Fleet Air Arm I have no doubt it would be more efficiently run, and it would be properly a 24/7 operation – it would save the nation some £3bn pa. As mentioned on BBC2’s Newsnight last night, all aircraft shot down since 1945 have been targets of the FAA and not the RAF. The RAF has done well at implanting in the nation’s collective mind its great work of 1940 (even then, 2% of the pilots in the Battle of Britain were Fleet Air Arm). But what has the RAF done since? It was the Royal Navy in the Korean War, the Royal Marines in Malaya and Northern Ireland and the Royal Navy in the Falklands War.

    Ask any military pilot what the most testing flying is and many will say its flying from a carrier deck. Naval aviators are seamen too and no less an aviator because of that background; indeed, they are multi-taskers and thus far better strategists as a rule.

  19. Indeed. On that basis is the Navy a White Elephant?

  20. Lester May - Camden Town

    “White elephant”: an idiom for a valuable possession of which its owner cannot dispose and whose cost (particularly cost of upkeep) is out of proportion to its usefulness or worth.

    The Royal Navy is not a white elephant. It is not cheap, to be sure, but it is good value and the country will need the services now undertaken by the Royal Navy, however it might be re-organised. Better to keep the current model, where its collective learning is based on centuries of experience.

  21. The curse of my keyboard dyslexia strikes again. I was asking EMM to justifying calling the Navy a White Elephant – but missed out the word “how”.


    If the RN did nothing, then I could understand this comment. but it is rather busy. I’m also intrigued by his comment that he thinks only the RAF can maintain aircraft to the right level. Is it because of the smaller number of personnel?

    • James Daly

      I guess it depends what is meant by maintenance. I think if the AAC and FAA airframes weren’t airworthy somehow then there might have been some kind of scandal about it. Or is it more that the RAF is extravagant?

      I don’t think the RN as a whole can ever be called a white elephant – the history books do not bear that one out. True, some aspect of it could be argues as such, and some of its procurement could be presented as white-elephantish, but as an institution its invaluable. As Cunningham said, it takes 200 years to build a tradition, but half a day to lose a battle.

    • x

      I think the RAF has something in order of 200 bods per every aircraft in its orbat. Of course not all of these are engaged supporting aircraft directly, but it a a large number. I think the Israelis have about 100 per aircraft.

      Evidence suggests AAC and FAA ‘plane maintenance crews are much smaller than their RAF equivalent.

  22. John Chambers

    When the use of Air power was first visited back in history, the Army and the Navy,politicians, the general public and the bloke down the pub all thought it was a crazy idea. Now there is thoughts of disbanding the Royal Air Force, an equally crazy idea by mostly those who dont have a clue.

  23. Reg Beint

    Have followed with interest the foregoing debate on the merits/demerits of our Navy, Army and Airforce.
    But think on this. What stopped Hitler invading us in WW2. He did not have air superiority. Who denied him that?. The Royal Air Force.

    • James Daly

      Hi Reg, its an interesting point. Air superiority IS still crucial of course – witness the use of the Sea Harriers in 1982, and the impotence we find ourselves in now without carrier based aircraft.But I would argue that air warfare has changed much since 1940, with very different aircraft and air-defence weapons and systems. It’s a much more complicated picture I feel.

      I would also argue that the threat of the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet did much to prevent Hitler from giving Operation Sealion the go-ahead. Even though the Luftwaffe might have inflicted very heavy losses, even a few Battleships getting into the Dover Straits could have done enough to blow the Germans out of the water. I reviewed a very good book on this not long ago.

      Also it’s not just the RAF that is capable of providing air superiority in terms of flying aircraft – naval aviation performed incredibly well since the end of WW2, for example.

      • Worth quoting from “Finest Years” by Max Hastings (2009; page 595): “Britain produced few outstanding military commanders in the Second World War, a reflection of the institutional debility of the British Army which also afflicted its tactics, choice of weapons and battlefield performance. The Royal Navy was Britain’s finest fighting service of the war, its performance tarnished only by the limitations of the Fleet Air Arm. The Royal Air Force also made an outstanding contribution, but like the USAAF it suffered from the obsessive reluctance of its higher commanders to subordinate their independent strategic ambitions to the interests of naval and ground operations.” The last sentence has a resonance even in 2011.

        The limitations of the FAA were caused by the RAF’s hopeless mis-management during its tenure: the FAA was fully part of the RAF from 1 Apr 1924 until 24 May 1939 and, of course, the FAA was still flying the Swordfish biplane until after VE Day. The last Swordfish squadron paid off on 21 May 1945; the aircraft had accounted for sinking some 300,000+ tons of enemy shipping, more than any other Allied aircraft type in the Second World War.

        The Battle of Britain was a great episode in the history of the RAF but, because there is no other comparable episode in its 93-year history, it talks of little else. Make no mistake, though: the RAF did not win the war and the bulwark of our island and empire’s success was the Royal Navy, whether the Battle of the Atlantic (1939-45) ensuring that sufficient convoys arrived home, Dunkirk 1940 or D-Day 1944, or its manifold operations in the North Sea and English Channel, off Norway and in the Mediterranean, or the East Indies and the Pacific.

        Today there is no strategic air threat. But there is a threat to our imports of energy and to sea trade, from pirates; our sea lanes are long and over 90% of our trade is done by sea – it is easily interrupted. A strong Royal Navy is essential to this island trading nation. A small air force is essential, but we don’t need 160 Typhoon aircraft at £70m an airframe; and our land forces would prefer air support from Harrier aircraft rather than the increasingly old and unreliable Tornado.

  24. Reg Beint

    Another thing. This talk about combining our Navy. our Air Force and our Army into one Defence Force. Which of those three military forces would supply it’s overall Commander. As it stands at present,each Force has a Chief who has been brought up in it’s own particular traditions and strategies.We all know about the petty rivalries that existed between the respective heads of those forces during the last war, particularly against Dowding and Park of the RAF.Those two brilliant Commanders were not served particularly well by their colleagues or subordinates, or even the Government of their day. Would it not degenerate into a “Buggins turn” fiasco.

    • James Daly

      It could be argued that it already has descended into Buggins turn, with each Chief of Defence Staff being selected from each of the three services in turn. Some Chiefs have been more open-minded than others, while some have definitely shown their lack of knowledge of anything apart from a cockpit. This could work if the services were not in effect closed shops only interested in fighting their own corner. Joined up ‘UK Defence’ has been neglected for a long long time.

      I for one do not advocate a combined Defence Force, simply for the devestating effect it would have on morale. I do however think that some elements within the services need their heads banging together when it comes to ignoring anything apart from their own interests and shafting the other services with lobbying and undermining tactics. Sadly recent history suggests to me that much of these antics come from the light blue, which admittedly has never really shrugged off its ‘chip-on-shoulder’ as the junior service.

  25. Reg Beint

    It is not surprising I suppose that each individual interprets history in different ways. For example, I had always held to the belief that on the contrary, it was the khaki and the dark blue combining to shaft the light blue. Simply because of their jealousy of their junior service, of it’s achievments in the short period of it’s existence, and the national and worldwide esteem in which it is held.
    If my ancient memory is correct, the question, ‘What is the point of the RAF’ was asked many years ago, to which someone unkindly suggested that ‘it was there to protect the navy while it evacuated our army’

    • James Daly

      Inter-service relations are indeed an interesting conundrum – its hard to know where the shafting begins and where the counter-shafting ends!

      I think the legacy of Trenchard is important – it seems that during the 1920’s and 30’s he and the other ‘their Airships’ were fighting a running battle to maintain the RAF’s existence, when the Army and RN were keen to have the RAF disbanded. I wonder to what extent the culture of the RAF has been shaped by that.

      I also wonder to what extent during its history the RAF has been slightly paranoid about the other services being ‘out to get them’ and over-compensating as a result?

      • Part of the problem, and Max Hastings attested to this happening in the Second World War too, is that the RAF’s senior commanders have generally been more concerned about the RAF as an entity than they have about the relevance of aircraft to the British armed forces.

        As an island trading nation, the Royal Navy does a lot more than fight ships; it is busy every day of the year, in peace or war. The Royal Marines are an integral part of this machine, as is the Fleet Air Arm.

        The Army is not engaged on fruitful activity in peacetime, as a rule, but it is training for war and is available to HMG for aid to the civil power and so on.

        The RAF has a part to play in the nation’s SAR but is otherwise in peacetime not engaged on fruitful activity, in the main – it is mainly training for war, of course.

        Whereas it is nonsense to talk of abolishing the RN and RM, given the tasks they undertake day in day out, it would be possible to have all the RAF’s operations under the wing of the RN and Army. Not desirable, perhaps, but possible. It would save £3.5bn were we to do so and the RAF’s current 40,000 personnel would be halved as a result. Cutting out the RAF’s insufferable bureaucracy would be a blessing for its airmen and airwomen too.

  26. I don’t think that those in the Royal Navy, Royal Marines or the Army are at jealous of the RAF.

    The Royal Navy’s senior commanders tend to have a rather wide view of defence given that they have, under their command, ships, submarines, aircraft and marines. The Army has a small air corps and the RAF a small regiment but none has the breadth of military than covers sea, land and air.

    I am not sure that, with the Battle of Britain the only achievement of any note in the RAF’s history, that there is much for the RAF to shout about. All ‘kills’ of enemy aircraft since 1946 have been made by naval aircraft; the RAF can claim none.

    There might be some jealousy about the RAF’s ‘harmony rules’, for they are rather soft compared to those of the Army and the even tougher rules employed by the Royal Navy and Royal Marines. An airman deployed to Afghanistan does so for four months, that’s less time than the other services, but still gets a medal; he gets more time at home between deployments too. Were the RAF to conform to the ‘harmony rules’ of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines, there would be a need for 11,000 fewer in the RAF; were the Army to do so as well, then that’s 24,000 fewer soldiers needed.

    In the Royal Navy everyone serves at sea, some for nearly all their career, and some less often. The Royal Marines are one of the most deployed corps/regiments of all British land and amphibious forces. Most soldiers serve overseas and many serve at the front line. In the RAF, very few serve actually in the air – 10% at most – and the vast majority of RAF personnel actually serve in the UK and rarely leave these islands for operations overseas. Combat in the RAF is almost solely the business of aircrew; it is very different in the other armed services. Yet an airman is paid the same! The RAF is on to a good thing and needs much closer scrutiny than has so far been undertaken.

  27. Reg Beint

    I whole heartily agree that a closer scrutiny of the RAF is needed. Perhaps a closer and greater in depth research of it’s history would then show up more of it’s achievments, since it’s formation in 1918.

    • Why don’t you have a go at listing the RAF’s achievements? It won’t take long, particularly post-1945.

      My South Atlantic medal has a rosette on the ribbon. Why? So that the RAF personnel ashore in Ascension Island would get a medal (with no rosette). The island was an important staging post, but was under no threat from the enemy. One might as well have offered the medal to those supplying the Task Force from the UK. I would care less had the Vulcan force actually achieved anything, but the airfield at Stanley was hardly damaged and never out of use. The RAF can be quite pathetic.

      • Gary Smith

        It’s about time you faced the reality that the Fleet Air Arm have had it. Most of the fixed wing pilots got the chop when they came to fly the GR9 – poor skills flying a multi roll aircraft. As for Naval Strike Wing, they were held together by RAF pilots and RAF engineers right up until the Harriers demise. The Navy has lost its skills to both pilot and maintain new generation aircraft – one could argue they never have it You need to look facts in the eye and stop dwelling in the past. The RN have no current fixed wing fleet or enabled platforms to fly them from. They are best suited to just manning future QEC ship operations and leaving the complex job of fixed wing flying and maintenance to the RAF specialists. Should we ever need to attack one of our own ships by air – perhaps mistaking a small town-class cruiser for a major battleship, then the Fleet Air Arm might make a revival. PS RAF Bomb Disposal teams as well Heli support crews did a great job in the Falklands earning their rosettes with deserved pride. Had the Navy been able to defend the Atlantic Conveyor, more vital Harriers and Helicopters would have made it ashore resulting in a speedier end to the conflict.

        • Lester May

          Just like the RAF – rather late! Two and a half years late – what fun to receive a reply!

          Poor skills, the FAA, you say. Well, all kills of aircraft of the Queen’s enemies since 1950 have been by naval aircraft flown by naval aviators. The RAF have not one kill to call their own, except for one of their own in the 1950s! All pilots makes mistakes, especially in a fight – your example from 1941 hardly makes an argument, though. Few RAF pilots have experienced war (the new CAS has done so – but with the Navy!).

          Flying from ships at sea is widely respected as one of the most difficult flying skills. I don’t criticise RAF pilots like you do naval aviators but the RAF is a suffocating, over-staffed bureaucracy, widely the joke of the other services. You should buy a copy of “Laugh with the Air Force” (just published)!

          My argument is not about the past. The RAF has a role but it’s small compared to the other services, yet it has 37,000 people and a £7bn budget – countless air marshals too (even their top lawyer and top vicar are two-star on £100k plus). This country is broke – debts of £1.25 trillion all told. We needs to make cuts everywhere and yet avoid civil disorder. Flying is done by all three services and it’s the only operational common area – the RAF ‘owns’ about 80% of military aircraft currently. So, abolishing the RAF is possible and, operationally, would mean no loss of capability but a saving of over £3bn a year (and 20,000 fewer people). The same 20,000+ people flying the same aircraft but in a different uniform and under different, probably better, naval and army management.

          I don’t deny, either, that a few RAF personnel did a great job in the Falklands War but those in Ascension Island (of any service) should not have been awarded a medal.

          It was inevitable that, in the first naval computer war, losses would occur. Better the loss of “Atlantic Conveyor” than a carrier.

          The trouble is that there is something about our £7bn a year RAF that gives the impression that it is run for its own benefit. It spends far too much time being concerned about itself and over does the PR – too much of a show over substance. Hence my suggesting that a list of RAF achievements would be interesting.

  28. Pingback: A maritime-centered defence strategy for Britain makes sense | Save The Royal Navy

  29. Dave Wolfy

    The RAF was , to a significant degree , given something to do after WW2.
    Strategic communications were taken from the Army and given to the RAF. If the Royal Signals had retained this role we would also have had more “nearly” soldiers as a result. Do we need someone air associated to do sat-comms? The Army still does it when the going gets wet and dirty .
    Battlefield support by rotary wing machines should have stayed with the interested party – would we realistically consider RAF pilots flying helicopters off frigates today? Why have another level of bureaucracy when it is needed least ?
    When Polaris came about , the solitary significance of the RAF disappeared – Strategic Deterrence . I believe that was the original argument for the creation of the RAF.
    Most of the SAR role is over water , it is what the RN does best.

  30. Pingback: A maritime-centered defence strategy for Britain makes sense | Save The Royal Navy

  31. John

    The only real question is what will a merged Air Force be called because we have a large number of RAF guys on board ships, particularly supporting aircraft, and this will continue. The reality is this merge is already happening in everything but name. To me having grown up with the army, having a wife from a navy family and serving in the RAF I always thought it was more logical for both the army and navy to loose their air assets to us and for us to loose more of our ground assets to the army (RAF reg anyone?).

    As for cyber, we the RAF presently dominate this area as the other two services don’t place as much emphasis on cyber currently although this is changing from a signals perspective but not the navy. The USAF and Israel airforce both dominate their cyber fields aswell.

    Most warfare now will now likely be shorter campaigns like Libya with few boots on the ground. In that scenario there’s less need for an army and more emphasis on the navy and raf.

  32. Lord Trenchard

    The Fleet Air Arm was originally called The Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Air Force

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